The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Vickie N

 

 

From Mom, With Love

SERIES: Follows And Mother Made Three and Cold Shoulders, Hard Choices
RATING: PG
DISCLAIMERS: Standard disclaimers. Lancer and the characters are not mine, but the story is.
SUMMARY: A mother's visit threatens to destroy the Lancer family.

 

It was a sight that Murdoch had never expected to see. Maria had left him so long ago, abandoned him and stolen their child, never to be heard from again. Until now. With her head tilted slightly to the left, her lips slowly twisting to an odd angle, twitching ever so slightly as she contemplated Murdoch with a thoughtful stare.  Before he could think of something to say, though, her eyes lit up.

"There was a big oak tree," she said speculatively. "Yes, it was surrounded by several large boulders. One looked like a kneeling burro, I believe." The illusion of genuine interest instantly shattered when she smiled at him. It was a fake smile, the kind meant only to hurt.

To add to the already unnerving effect, Maria's voice took on an icy tone, successfully eliminating any expectation that she might actually care about her dead child or her estranged husband's feelings.  "Such scenery was unimportante and of no consecuencia. Just a place of convenience on the side of the road, near Cabo San Lucas, or maybe it was Mazatlan." A casual wave of her hand in Murdoch's direction only served as further evidence of her contempt.  "Whichever. That is where our son is, Murdoch; where he has been buried for twenty years. So much for those bumbling detectives you hired to find that which could not be found."

'Unimportant'? 'Of no consequence'? Those brutal words of disrespect in reference to the final resting place of the son they had brought into this world left Murdoch unable to respond, unable to fathom how he could have ever loved this woman, married her, longed to make a family with her. In that moment, he honestly wished that he had not remembered how much he had once cared; that he still held her memories at bay behind the wall of hatred he had fought to hard to tear down for the sake of their child.

"You don't seriously think we're just going to take your word for any of this?" Scott's icy cold voice challenged her from across the room.

Still speechless, Murdoch's gaze drifted over to where his older son was taking a stand against his stepmother. Scott was on his feet, using his body as a protective barrier between Maria and the bed. Behind him, Johnny lay in total stillness, as if in a daze.

Johnny. Their child. Only he was not. Murdoch could not look away from the son he had learned to love - the son who could not be his. His real son lay buried in an unmarked grave, mourned by no one, while this man lie a few short feet away, his young face looking old in the shadows of the same horrified disbelief that Murdoch felt twisting away inside his gut. Something, a sound maybe, made him look away from Johnny, and when he did, he saw that Maria had moved over to where Scott was standing.

His wife was sneering up at his son, her head tilted back due to Scott's superior height. This served to accentuate the defiant set of her jaw, which became in instant and unpleasant reminder of how things had become right before she left him all those years ago.

"Do you think I care what you believe, Gringo?" she spat at Scott with unveiled disgust.

Without giving Scott a chance to respond, she shifted to her right and took up a position at the foot of Johnny's bed. From there, she glared down at Johnny, her eyes filled with only contempt. After taking a deep breath like she was about to speak, all that came out was a condescending laugh. In the blink of an eye, Maria whirled around and headed for the door, but just as she reached the threshold, a firm hand grabbed her by the arm and spun her back around.

"You should care what I believe," Scott ground out through clenched teeth.  "You're not going anywhere. Not until you explain why you're here, and why you're lying about my brother."

Dangerous brown eyes unflinchingly met irate blue ones, neither giving the slightest indication that they would be willing to accept defeat in the duel for supremacy. "I believe it was your precious Juanito who first denied me," Maria challenged with brittle coldness. "It is his lies that are catching up with him; for that you can blame only him."

Although it hardly seemed possible, Scott's voice became even more menacing as he addressed the enemy. "My brother is not a liar."

"Then, by his own words, he is not your hermano." Pulling her arm free of Scott's grasp, Maria looked as if she might be considering striking him, but instead she turned to face Murdoch one more time. "I came here to only to see for myself if the rumors were true, if you were making a complete fool of yourself over this embustero. However, while I do find mucho amusement in your folly, as always, you bore me to quickly."

"How dare you-"

"I dare because I can," Maria interrupted with a raised voice. "Keep your pathetic lap dog, if you like. Maybe you should teach him to fetch your zapatos, or beg for some dignidad in return for stealing your name. You always did like to feel importante." Another hateful glare was sent in Scott's direction, and before anyone could react, she left the room. The sound of rustling skirts faded as she made her way down the hallway, and then there was nothing.

Surprisingly, Harlan was the first to respond. A firmly stated, "I will make certain she does not leave until you can question her more completely," preceded his hurried departure from the room.

No one spoke. No one moved. Maybe even, no one breathed. If the small black spider crawling out from behind the wardrobe had possessed the higher intellect to notice, it would have seen them all, still as statues, showing no outwards signs of the vast array of conflicting thoughts and emotions churning inside. The shock of Maria Lancer's unexpected visit and the chilling news that she had brought had touched each and every one of them.

 

 *** *** *** ***
 

The deafening silence came to and end when Catherine leaned in and kissed Johnny lightly on the temple. She gave a reassuring pat to his arm before slipping off the bed. "Mr. Barkley, would you care to join me in the kitchen for some coffee?" she suggested hopefully.

Her words broke his daze and Jarrod nodded hesitantly. He stood, wincing a little as the tension in his back protested the sudden movement. "Yes, thank you, Catherine." Furtive glances were given to each of the room's remaining occupants as the two left the family alone.

Scott watched his mother and Jarrod disappear through the open door, but his mind barely registered their actions as it relentlessly tried to process that which refused to be comprehended. He could not believe that he had just stood there and let Maria get away.  His only redemption was that his grandfather had possessed the foresight to cover for his grandson's lapse.

A shudder shook Scott's body. When she had looked at him and so coldly pointed out that it was Johnny that had denied her being his mother, Scott's iron-clad resolve to keep her there had faded. If this was true, if she was not Johnny's mother, then he had no use for her. His real brother was dead, and, to be honest, he was glad she was gone. Only now he would have to face a bitter truth that he did not want to accept. "What are we going to do?" he unconsciously said aloud.

"Soon as I'm able to set a horse, I'll be leaving."

 Although Scott would have thought it impossible after all he had already heard, Johnny's emotionless words actually succeeded in sending his mind through an even more startling emotional whirlpool.  "Leaving? Where will you go?"

"South."

That one-word answer made Scott's heart skip a beat. South could mean only one thing - Johnny intended to return to living by his gun again. Of all the insane responses to this situation, that one had to be the most ill-conceived one possible. Angry rejections of that possibility made his next words come out sounding harsher than the fear clenching at his gut would otherwise have allowed.  "You can't be serious. You've come too far to go back to being Johnny Madrid."

Snorting, Johnny responded just as harshly. "Ain't no goin' back, just bein' who I really am. Johnny Madrid is the only part of my life that ain't been a lie." Refusing to meet Scott's gaze, Johnny addressed Murdoch, but without meeting those stunned eyes, either. "I'll send you the money to cover Sam's charges, and for my room and board for the last year. It might take a little time, but I'll pay you back," Johnny stated evenly.

The room practically shook from the intensity of Murdoch's angry growl. "I don't want gun money at Lancer!"

To this Johnny shrugged, but continued staring at the wall in front of him. "Suit yourself, Old Man. I'll be sending it, anyway. Do with it what you want."

Scott chose to ignore what he knew to be a reflexive outburst on Murdoch's part. Instead, he chose to address the real issue at hand. In his mind, he saw no reason why anything had to change; not the way Johnny was planning, anyway. "There's absolutely no reason for you to go back to that life, Johnny. No reason for you to leave Lancer."

"No reason?!" Johnny's head whipped around, and he faced off Scott's concern with an icy glare. "Weren't you paying attention. I ain't your brother. I ain't even a Lancer. I don't belong here, and I never will!"

Johnny's words cut like a knife, and Scott had to call upon all his strength to rein in already tattered senses. Losing his temper would only make matters worse; that was, assuming that things could actually get any worse. Taking a deep breath, he stated calmly and surely, "I don't care about any of that, Johnny. Even if you're
not..." Scott's sureness faltered, and he had to swallow hard to get the lump out of his throat. "Even if it turns out that we aren't actually brothers, you are still my best friend. I don't want to lose you." The pain in Scott's stomach intensified, and his voice grew more haggard. "I don't want to see you dead."

Without responding, Johnny looked down, his fingers twisting at a loose thread on the quilt's design. Scott turned to Murdoch, fully intending to beseech his father to do something, anything, to make this nightmare end. However, one look at the older man's bleak expression put an end to that idea - Murdoch had no inkling of what to do, either. The only reassurance Scott found in those clouded blue eyes was the confirmation that his father did not want to lose the man he had come to love as a son.

Murdoch was the first to break eye contact. After a brief hesitation, he said firmly, "Johnny, I want to make it perfectly clear that I do not want any money from you, no matter what the source." More gently, he added, "You don't owe me anything."

When Johnny did not reply, Murdoch went on, his tone somewhere between the firmness of his rejection of payment, and the gentleness of the reproach over the offering of something so unnecessary. "Before any decisions are made, maybe we should try to sort out what we know for sure. I would like to have a better understanding of this whole situation before I confront Maria again." Pulling the chair closer to the bed, he sat down and stared over at Johnny. "Is there any possibility that you're mistaken about Maria not being your mother? Any possibility at all?"

Johnny's head came up very slowly, and Scott was surprised at the raw emotion he saw in the younger man's expression. Usually when things got this personal, Johnny closed himself off from everyone; but not this time. Unfortunately, any hopes that Murdoch's rational approach would prove fruitful were dashed even before Johnny spoke a single word. The hopeless despair in Johnny's face said it all.

"There any possibility that you're wrong about her being your wife?" Johnny asked Murdoch in an even tone, although the hint of question rang through loudly.

Murdoch hesitated for a long moment. His head bowed low and his answer was barely audible through the sound of his defeat. "No, John. I am not mistaken."

Instead of addressing Murdoch's original question, Johnny steered the conversation in an entirely different direction. "I never lied to you. I always believed that..."
 
"Exactly! That's the part of all this that just doesn't make any sense," Scott abruptly interjected. With a series of quick movements, he had the chair that Jarrod had been using pulled over next to Johnny's bed, across from where Murdoch was already seated. "I refuse to believe that you would ever lie about such a thing, so that means your mother told you that Murdoch Lancer was your father. Right?"

Johnny closed his eyes and swallowed hard, and Scott's sudden burst of hopeful enthusiasm waned. With his heart in his throat, he prodded nervously, "Johnny?"

Opening his eyes, Johnny shook his head. "My mother never told me anything. All I know is what I overheard, when she an' Carlos were talking. When I was supposed to be sleepin', only I wasn't."

A quick glance across the bed towards Murdoch told Scott more than he wanted to know. His father's despondent expression told that his was not the only heart being held in the grip of dismay. As impossible as it seemed, things were getting much worse with each new revelation. There was no point in trying to delude themselves; nothing was more effective at producing false or misleading information than overheard conversations.

Murdoch broke eye contact first, turning his attention back to the man lying in the bed between them. "Son, what exactly did you hear?"

"I...I ain't your son," Johnny's voice cracked harshly, and the word 'son' was almost unintelligible.

After drawing a ragged breath, Murdoch tried again. "Johnny, what did you overhear your mother say to Carlos?"

The lack of annoyance in his father's voice and expression took Scott by surprise. What was even more startling, though, was the presence of such clear patience and caring. He had no idea where the impatient man that usually dealt with Johnny had disappeared, but that he was gone was something for which Scott was extremely grateful.  If this miracle could happen, it almost gave him hope that everything Maria has said could be explained away, and they could forget she had ever intruded in their lives. Almost, anyway.

Johnny ended the silence, his voice tight, and his words forced. "Wasn't too long after she'd met Carlos. They'd gone to some festival, but came back earlier than I figured they would. I was in bed, but when I heard her crying, I snuck into a dark corner by the door. They were talkin' about Carlos being called a loser for carryin' on with some gringo's cast off whore."

Even with Johnny's head tilted forward, Scott could still see the unsettling pallor of his complexion. As difficult as this clearly was, Scott knew Murdoch was right. They had to know all the facts if there was to be any hope of separating the lies from the truth.

"That's when she told him about how you threw-" Johnny stopped abruptly.

When Johnny failed to continue on his own, Murdoch gently urged him on by finishing the thought for him. "About how I threw the two of you out."

"Yeah." Johnny took a deep breath. His voice was still shaky, but had taken on an eerily monotone quality, as if he were reading an excerpt from a book, instead of relating a villainous accounting of the man he had come to know as his father. "She said my father's name was Murdoch Lancer. That he'd been real charming at first, but when she'd refused his advances, he'd gotten real mean. For a long time I didn't know what that meant, but..." Johnny's voice trailed off, but no words were necessary to explain what he had come to understand later in life. The blanket that he had been twisting with his fingers was now clenched in a white knuckled grip.

"He used her whenever he wanted, then tossed her aside when he and his sheriff friend were done with their business. She'd been so happy that he'd gone, only to find out that he'd left her somethin' behind. Her father found out and drug her off to Texas. He threatened to kill Murdoch if he didn't marry her. Wasn't long after that that they left for his ranch in California. She had their baby. Then one day he came home, threw her stuff in a satchel and told her he was tired of her and her half-"

The abrupt end to the monotone dissertation broke Scott's heart. Johnny's hands were trembling in his lap, and his breathing was becoming labored and unsteady. "Johnny?" Scott said very softly.

When Johnny looked up, his face was twisted from the agony of a child who could not comprehend the cruelty of a parent's deception.  "Why'd she have to lie, Scott?"

With his own heart breaking, Scott desperately searched his mind for an answer to Johnny's disturbing question, but to no avail.  Again, he looked to his father for help, but across the bed, Murdoch appeared to be as unsettled as Scott felt. Who could blame him,  though? What could one say in the face of such pain, especially when you've just heard such harsh words about yourself? Lies or not, it still could not be easy.

Finally, Murdoch's strained voice ended Scott's dilemma of what to say.  "Johnny, did you ever ask your mother about me?"

Johnny gave a shaky nod. "Once. Carlos had whomped me real good for somethin'. Probably deserved it, but I was still mad at him. I asked her if being with someone mean like Carlos was really any better than being treated mean by Murdoch Lancer. At least he had a ranch."

Johnny paused and a deep shudder shook his body. "That was before I knew what she'd meant by Murdoch gettin' mean with her. No wonder she sank to her knees and started bawling." Head bowed in shame, Johnny completed his confession with a hoarsely whispered,  "I promised her I'd never mention him again, and I didn't. It was a few weeks later that she got sick. Then they was both gone."

An uneasy silence filled the room as the three men digested this new information. The tiny voice of reason in the back of his mind kept telling Scott that something was not right, that there had to be some reason why Johnny's mother would claim to be Murdoch's wife when she was not. Unless. "Murdoch, is it possible that..." Although this was the only alternative that seemed plausible, Scott wondered how could he tactfully phrase it without having things turn ugly.

"Is what possible, Scott?"

Unable to meet Murdoch's curious gaze, Scott fought for the words to ask the only question he could think of that could explain what could not be. "Is it possible that someone other than Maria could have, well, could have given birth to your son? To Johnny?"

"No!" Murdoch roared indignantly. "I was absolutely faithful during both of my marriages. I never once..." Slumping back in his chair, Murdoch finished his denial in a pain-filled voice. "I would actually give anything if this could all be explained away that easily, but it can't."

"I'm sorry, Sir. I wasn't meaning to imply that you were ever an unfaithful husband," Scott said in an attempt to soothe his father's understandably ruffled feathers over an insinuation that Scott had in no way intended. "I was thinking more of the time between your marriages. The time when something like that would have been considered an indiscretion, not adultery."

Murdoch shifted in his chair. His gaze remained glued to the floor as he put the final nail in the coffin of Scott's theory. "There were no women in my life between Catherine and Maria. Not for any reason. Maria was the first woman I had even looked at after Catherine..."

With a heavy sigh, Murdoch looked up at the wall, almost as if he expected to find some kind of answer on its rough surface. "It wasn't until much later. Johnny is too old for that possibility, not to mention," an abashed cough interrupted his explanation and he looked over at Johnny with sorrow etched in every line of his face, "She wasn't the least bit Mexican. I'm sorry."

Johnny answered Murdoch's mournful gaze with a sad shake of his head. His expression was as blank as Scott had ever seen it. "Don't be, Murdoch. It ain't your fault I was lied to." The monotone voice was back, sounding even more haunted than it had before. "Ain't your fault you was lied about, neither."

Leaning his head back against the pillows, Johnny sighed and closed his eyes. "Sam said something about stopping by in a few days.  I'll get him to take me back to town. Me staying here'll just make things harder than they need be."

Scott opened his mouth, ready to vehemently protest what he deemed to be yet another ludicrously ill-conceived plan. However, he stopped short when he saw the scowl on Murdoch's face, which was promptly punctuated by a curt shake of his head. "Try to get some rest, Johnny. We'll figure something out later, when we all can think more clearly."

"The truth's the truth. Ain't nothin' to think about," Johnny mumbled.

Standing, Murdoch placed his hand on Johnny's shoulder. "We'll see. You might feel differently later, Son...Johnny." Johnny did not attempt to respond, and after a few seconds Murdoch headed for the door.  The look he cast over his shoulder towards Scott was more effective than any spoken order to follow.

Once they were in the hallway, the door securely shut behind them, Scott's frustrations flared. Standing to his full height, he challenged his father's actions. "You can't seriously be considering letting Johnny just pack up and leave, like he doesn't mean anything to you."

"No, Scott, I'm not going to just let Johnny leave, but I do think we need to give him some room. He's had a lot thrown at him, not just today, but for most of this week. You know how he is when he feels cornered." Murdoch's hand settled on Scott's shoulder this time, and gave a comforting squeeze of assurance. "We've got time, Scott.  He won't be up and around for a few weeks, at best."

With his anger gone, Scott's shoulders sank in defeat. "That's not entirely true, Sir. You heard him. He plans to get Sam's help."

"Yes, I heard what he said, Scott. I'm betting Sam will stand with us, and even if he doesn't, Johnny is not going anywhere without more help than Sam can give by himself; help that will not be gotten from anyone here. I'll see to that."

Swallowing the lump in his throat, Scott nodded his agreement, though he felt little of his father's determination. Still, nothing that had been revealed made him think of Johnny as anything but less than his brother. If not by blood, they were brothers in spirit, and he would not, could not give that up.

"Why do I suddenly feel the urge to write that friend of Sam's a thank-you letter? He couldn't have sent that cast material at a better time," Scott said to his father's back as Murdoch began walking down the hall.

Pausing at top of the stairs, Murdoch glanced over at Scott. The sheepish look of guilt that flashed briefly over his weary features piqued Scott's curiosity. "Sir?"

A quick look back down the hallway towards Johnny's closed bedroom door was the prelude to a confession. "Sam was not entirely certain that Johnny's right leg was broken. We decided," Murdoch coughed and turned a slight shade of red. "Johnny would have never stayed off his feet long enough for the real break to heal properly-"

Easily deciphering what his father was leaving unsaid, Scott could not help his look of reproach, even as his mind was heaving a sigh of relief. "Sam was part of such a deception?"

With a satisfied smile on his face, Murdoch slipped an arm over Scott's shoulders. "I think Sam was more interested in trying out that plaster mess." As he guided them down the stairs towards the kitchen, Murdoch chuckled. "To be honest, Johnny is lucky he didn't end up with some cracked ribs when that barn fell on him. Otherwise, he might be covered from head to toe in one big cast."

The absurdity of that image brought on a light laugh, and a much needed relief to Scott's mind. Still, there was going to be hell to pay later. "Johnny will not be very happy when he finds out."

"No, I don't imagine so," Murdoch agreed soberly. All the previous humor was suddenly gone. "We'll just have to cross that bridge when we get to it. Right now those casts are the only things keeping Johnny from running away from here...and from us."

 

 *** *** *** ***

 

Father and son entered the kitchen to find Catherine and Jarrod seated at the table. Two pairs of eyes looked up at them when they entered. Springing from her seat, Catherine rushed to Murdoch's side. She looked from him, then to Scott, and then back towards Murdoch. "It's all a mistake, isn't it?" she all but pleaded.

Scott walked away, content to let his father break the bad news. He had no desire to even think about all that he had learned this afternoon, much less say the words. Instead, he blocked out the explanation taking place between his parents. Taking a seat at the table, he put an absurd amount of concentration into pouring a simple cup of coffee.

He closed his eyes as he took a sip of the hot liquid, and opened them only when his mother's hand touched his back. Thankfully, she left it at that, sitting down beside him without any effort to offer him useless platitudes. He took a deep breath. After making a somewhat successful attempt to collect his fragmented thoughts, he opened his eyes.

Jarrod had remained seated when they arrived, and was still sitting across from Scott. Murdoch was now in his usual seat at the head of the table. Scott's mother was next to him, in the chair separating him from Murdoch. She looked as miserable as he felt, but  before he could formulate something to say to her, it hit him that someone was missing. Frowning, he looked around the kitchen. "Where is Grandfather? And Maria?"

Murdoch lurched to his feet. "Maria! I totally forgot about her. She better come up with some very good answers for all this."

Before he could make another move, Catherine reached out and grabbed his forearm. She shared a cautious glance with Jarrod, and then said softly. "You won't be getting any answers, Murdoch. She's gone."

"Gone? Gone where? Harlan said he would-" Murdoch's eyes narrowed in anger. "Catherine, where is your father?"

"Please sit down, Murdoch."

Although Murdoch hesitated, he finally relented and sunk back down in his chair. He was clearly unhappy by the unsettling turn of events, and probably would not have reclaimed his seat had the request come from anyone but Catherine. "What happened?" he snapped.

After a brief hesitation, Catherine explained what she knew. "When Jarrod and I first came downstairs, Father told me that Maria had left." Murdoch's scowl deepened and Catherine looked away. "He said she had a driver waiting, and that the man was armed. There was nothing Father could do to stop her."

"So where is Harlan now?" Murdoch growled angrily.

Catherine sighed heavily. "We don't know that, either. He said he was going to lie down. He didn't want to go up stairs and risk disturbing you all, so I offered him my room."

"How very considerate," Murdoch lamented with a roll of his eyes. "I suppose it would have been too much to ask for him to put as much effort into preventing Maria's departure."

Scott could all but feel the tension radiation off his mother. There was more, that much he knew for certain, and for it to be worse than Maria having gotten away before they could get some answers from her made him very apprehensive. Still, Murdoch was coming on too strong, and Scott did not like it. None of this was his mother's fault. "Murdoch, if you would stop interrupting, I'm sure Mother will tell us all she knows."

For a moment their eyes met, father and son, their roles in reverse as the son chastised the father. Looking away, Murdoch acquiesced with a very slight nod. "Please continue, Catherine," he said softly.

His mother's fingers dug into his forearm, and Scott could not begin to imagine what could possibly have her so distressed.  Fortunately, the wait for enlightenment was not long in coming, although when it came, he was not sure that continued ignorance would not have been better.

Catherine's voice was full of despair as she explained. "That young man, Frank, came to the kitchen door with some supplies he had picked up in town. I asked him if he would bring in my father and Jarrod's bags. When he returned, he had only Jarrod's bags and said that was all there was. He found them on the veranda. The buggy Jarrod rented was gone, too."

In an instant, Murdoch angry bellow filled the room. "He followed her! I swear, if Harlan is behind any of this-"

"Murdoch, why would-" Scott interrupted, only to be interrupted in kind.

"Because your grandfather refuses to accept that you are a grown man and are capable of making your own decisions - especially the decision to remain here in California. He almost got you killed during his last visit, so what reason is there to believe he would stop at anything! And now he has the added bonus of your mother as further incentive!" Murdoch's face was blood red and his breathing came in short gasps.

Everyone jumped when a large fist landed on the table with a resounding thud. "As God as my witness, if that man had anything to do with any of this, he will not leave California alive!"

 

 *** *** *** ***

 

The sun had finally disappeared behind the distant mountain peaks, and the stars were sparkling overhead in the night sky. Dinner had been a tension-filled affair, with appetites being as sparse as the conversation. Catherine had retired to her room with a headache as soon as the table was cleared, and Scott disappeared to his own room a short time later, which had not been the least bit surprising.

Scott had tried to follow Maria and his grandfather, but his efforts were dashed by one of the sudden thundershowers that appeared with sporadic frequency this time of year. With all signs of the pair's departure washed away, Scott had made a hopeful trip to the nearest town, Green River, but that had proved fruitless, too. Any further attempts to locate either individual were ended by the arrival of nightfall. The young man's frustration had been evident from the moment he had returned to the hacienda, and had not lessened during dinner or by the time he had politely excused himself.

Feeling unsure and mostly out of place, Jarrod Barkley hesitantly joined the Lancer patriarch on the veranda. Inhaling deeply, he breathed in the familiar scents of a cattle ranch. While his house in San Francisco was comfortable and befit his status as one of the top attorneys in town, he had never considered it his home. Even at his most 'citified', as Heath liked to call him from time to time, nothing gave him the sense of belonging like the smells that could only be found at his one true home - the Barkley ranch.

Although Lancer was not home, either, it held many similarities, especially under the cover of darkness. The aroma of fresh-cut hay, of the warm bodies of both horses and cattle, and even the occasional whiff of things less savory, all came together to give him an overwhelming sense of peace. Usually he could think of nothing more comforting, only not tonight.

Tonight there would be no comfort for anyone in this house. Not for the young man lying in the bed upstairs, not for the man who was fighting to keep from losing a brother he had only recently found, not for the woman who wanted nothing more than to be a wife and mother, and especially not for the man standing next to him. Murdoch Lancer's life had taken a turn for the better with the return of his sons, but now that life was spiraling out of control. "Murdoch?"

A downtrodden face turned to greet him, and even the dimness of the starry light could not mask the deep lines and the weathered brow. This was the face of a man who had aged countless years in just a few short hours. "If there is anything I can do, Murdoch, please don't hesitate to ask."

"There is nothing anyone can do, Jarrod," the defeated voice said as the haunted face turned away. "From a legal standpoint, you brought the best news possible, given the facts you had to work with. For that I would like to thank you." A huge sigh echoed with the same haunting pain Jarrod had seen earlier in the older man's sad eyes. "If only it hadn't been for nothing."

Still uncertain of so many aspects of what had taken place that afternoon, Jarrod was not entirely confident Murdoch was saying what he thought. "You believe her claims, Murdoch? That Johnny is not your son? That your real son is dead?"

The glass in Murdoch's hand was raised to his lips and a large portion of the amber liquid disappeared in a single gulp. "Johnny stands behind his claim that she is not his mother. That pretty much says it all, doesn't it?" The remainder of the fine scotch became a chaser for the bitterness of those words. "As much as it shames me to admit it, Jarrod, that woman was...that woman is my wife."

For what had to be the hundredth time that day, Jarrod felt the grip of helplessness tighten around his chest. For all his efforts to spare this family a heart-wrenching agony, they had all been for nothing. He had arrived with such high spirits, only to have his good news trampled by brutal facts that even now he found difficult to believe.

"Actually, there is something you can do, Jarrod. If it's not in your field of practice, then maybe you could recommend the right person. I need a divorce. As expeditiously as possible."

It surprised Jarrod that he had not considered this on his own. With Murdoch still legally married to Maria, it would take a legal action before he and Catherine could be officially reunited. Even though nothing had specifically been said about the two wanting to resume their marriage, he had no doubt that this was the case. One look at them together told the story. Even under the strain of the day's startling revelations, all it had taken was a shared look to drive some of the pain from their haggard expressions. Jarrod could remember his own mother and father drawing strength from each other in a time of crisis, just as Catherine and Murdoch were doing now.

Catherine had surprised him with her fortitude, but he was not entirely sure why. She was a strong woman; she had to be to have survived all she had been through. Like his mother, Jarrod had no doubt that Catherine would at some point succumb to the pressure, but the storm would be brief and it would be seen only by her family. Then she would pick herself up and go on, because there was nothing else that could be done.

"I can handle filing for your divorce, Murdoch. Given the circumstances of the indisputable abandonment of the marriage by your wife, there should be no problem in expediting the matter." Jarrod found some measure of solace in that he could still be of some assistance to this old family friend. "I'll return to San Francisco tomorrow, get the paperwork in order, and be in Sacramento first thing Monday morning."

"How long do you think it will take?"

"Judge Oberist is a fair man. It shouldn't take more than a few days too get everything finalized."

"What about Maria? What if she tries to fight it?"

Given the level of animosity he had witnessed from Maria directed at Murdoch, Jarrod had not even considered this as a possibility.  "I doubt she will. She didn't seem interested in anything but tormenting you."

"Exactly," came the low grumble.

Taking a sip of his own drink, Jarrod shook his head at the painful cruelty of a woman towards the man she had once loved enough to marry. "You have nothing to worry about, Murdoch. Even if she does find some way to block the divorce, you still hold the winning hand. With Catherine alive, all you have to do is petition the court for a judgment of nullity. There is absolutely nothing Maria could do to block that."

Barely discernible in the darkness, Murdoch's head bobbed slightly. "Thank you, Jarrod."

Even the persistent chirping of the crickets could not drowned out the heavy sign of a man burdened with so much. "There is one other thing you might be able to help me with."

"And that would be?"

"It concerns the partnership agreement between me and my...with Scott and Johnny. It would like to have another one drawn up, but I'd don't want to involve the attorney who was involved with the original document." Looking out into the darkness, Murdoch sighed again. "I know it's inevitable that the news will get out, but I'd rather not do anything to unnecessarily speed things along."

The darkness of night could not disguise the finality of Murdoch Lancer's request, and its meaning hit Jarrod very hard. This man was losing his son, but it seemed that business still came first. However, as much as he hated to be a part of this, the lawyer in him knew that it was undeniably the most prudent course of action. "I can write up another agreement very easily, but you know it's not necessary."

"Yes, Jarrod, it is." Murdoch continued to stare out into the darkness. Suddenly Murdoch cleared his throat, and turned to face Jarrod. "Let's get started," he stated with suddenly firm conviction. "I know it is short notice, but I would like to have it ready to present to Scott and Johnny tomorrow, if at all possible."

Although he was slightly taken aback by the abrupt change in Murdoch's demeanor, Jarrod was not about to suggest that maybe this could wait. The lawyer in him knew that this legal matter should be addressed at some point, but he still found Murdoch's haste a little disconcerting. It was odd that the one thing that Murdoch Lancer found to take his mind off of losing the man he had considered his son for the past year was to concentrate on the technical aspects of cutting that very man out of his life.

 

 *** *** *** ***
 

 After spending a restless night formulating a series of arguments and counterarguments for any reasons Johnny could possibly come up with for leaving Lancer - especially any that entailed returning to his former profession - Scott entered Johnny's that morning with an air of confidence and determination. He had his strategy planned, and he did not intend to lose.

"Morning." Scott barely caught himself from adding the customary 'Brother' that would normally accompany such a greeting. Although his feelings had not changed, the last thing he wanted was to do was antagonize Johnny into becoming belligerent.

"Morning."

Johnny's response sounded casual enough, but there was none of the usual cheery playfulness in his voice that Scott had become accustomed to experiencing at the beginning of each day. Undaunted by the lackluster response, Scott grabbed the same chair in which he had been sitting the previous evening, and sat down beside Johnny's bed.

The most important element of his plan of attack was to get things out in the open as soon as possible. Draw the line in the sand and hope he could keep Johnny from crossing over it. "I'm not going to let you walk away."

The corner of Johnny's mouth twitched and the faintest hint of a smile tugged at his lips. Though still clouded with sorrow, there was a noticeable spark of a familiar teasing gleam in his eyes. "You ain't, huh?"

Despite his elation over catching a glimpse of the fun-loving man he knew from before this whole mess started, Scott refused to allow himself to become overconfident. There was too much at stake. Johnny would not capitulate this easily if it were in his power to walk away. No, he was biding his time until his plans could be implemented, and it was during that process that Scott intended to change those plans. "No, I'm not. I'll do whatever it takes to keep you from making a foolish mistake, even if that means hog-tying you to this bed until you can see things more clearly."

Having been prepared for a belligerent and possibly even angry response to this threat, Scott was thrown completely off guard when Johnny's face broke out in a broad smile, one that came very close to pushing away the shadows of his sorrow. "Johnny?" he asked through his confusion.

Johnny's smile faded, but did not disappear completely. "I was just thinking about how much like your mamma you are." A soft snort was followed the saddening of Johnny's expression. "You'll do just fine, Boston. So, how are them colts doing? Cain't tell me you ain't already been out checking on them." Johnny pointed in the direction of Scott's left shoulder. "Got a piece of hay on your collar."

Without thinking, Scott reached up and brushed at his shoulder. Before the first swipe was completed, he realized exactly what Johnny was doing. Sitting up straight, he gave Johnny his best 'don't try that again' look, while keeping his tone conversational. "The colts are just fine, and I've had worse on my collar than a bit of hay." Here he made his first counter to the real issue, using a more forceful tone. "And, no, I won't do just fine. Not without you." Allowing a confident smile to ease onto his face, Scott relaxed and leaned back in his chair. When he continued speaking, he easily slipped back into the previous casual voice.  "However, that is not something I'm worried about because you're not going anywhere."

"Scott, you know I can't-" Johnny was interrupted by a sharp knock at the door.

Scott twisted in his seat just as Murdoch entered. The older man paused for just for a moment, then walked into the room. "Good morning, Gentlemen," he greeted in a rather formally. He followed Scott's earlier lead by pulling another chair up to Johnny's bed.

After both men had returned his greeting, Murdoch looked over at Scott.  "I'm glad you're here, Scott." His gaze shifted towards Johnny, then back to Scott. "There is an important matter that the three of us need to discuss."

The scene was as it had been the day before - him on one side of the bed, and a Murdoch on the other, with Johnny lying in between.  It was the no-nonsense tone in his father's voice that had Scott's stomach tied in a knot this time. He shifted in his seat, and then noticed the folded paper in Murdoch's hand. "Is that what you want to discuss with us, Sir?" he asked with a nod in the direction of the paper.

One paper became two as Murdoch pulled them apart and handed the first one to Scott. "Yes. You'll recognize that as the partnership agreement we all signed last year. Last night I had Jarrod write up a different agreement. I'm here to present it to the two of you for your approval."

With his mouth gaping open, Scott unfolded the paper and looked down at the document that had changed his life so drastically, and so permanently, or so he had thought. It had only been a year ago, but most it was getting harder and harder to remember what life had been like before he came to Lancer. He could not believe Murdoch would bring this up. Not now. Not this soon.

"You ain't gotta worry about nothin', Murdoch. I won't fight what needs doin'," Johnny's flat voice ended the dazed silence with his unchallenged acceptance.

"Thank you, Johnny. That will make this easier for all of us."

The absurd civility of the other two men's exchange had Scott seeing red.  Surging to his feet, he stared down at his father, hoping that his eyes could in some way express the utter contempt he felt at that particular moment. "You actually believe that Johnny should want to make things easier? For us, or for you?"

Murdoch stood, too, more slowly, and instead of engaging in an argument, he merely held out the second piece of paper towards Scott.  "Son, before you go jumping to conclusions, maybe you should read this."

Snatching the second document away from his father, it took every ounce of Scott's self-control not to rip it to shreds. Instead, for reasons he would never fully understand, he opened the paper and quickly scanned its contents, stopping only when something very unexpected caught his eye. Something that sent him sinking back down into his seat, totally dumbfounded. Looking up, Scott saw that Murdoch had retaken his seat, too, and was looking on at him with an anxious expression on his face. Scott's voice came out as a hoarse whisper when he asked, "Are you really serious about this?"

"Yes," Murdoch said firmly, and without hesitation.

Even as he handed Johnny the document, Scott struggled to come to terms with the words that were a total contradiction to what he had come to accept as the truth. After all the arguments and the turmoil over that one particular topic, after all the attempts to brush it aside and ignore its existence, Murdoch had actually gone out of his way to accept it in to his life on a permanent basis.

While Scott was pondering his father's sudden change of heart, Johnny was studying the document with the same reflection of disbelief. When Johnny finally looked up, all he could say was, "Why?"

Unfazed by the incredulous reactions from both men, Murdoch answered Johnny's question with a calm, matter-of-factness that only served to accentuate the oddity of the whole scene. "It seemed the only logical thing to do. I think you'll both find the terms are more than fair. As before, all it will take to finalize this new agreement is our three signatures."

Johnny said nothing as he stared down at the document.

"Neither of you have to decide anything right now." Murdoch stood and headed for the door. "Jarrod left early this morning to handle another legal matter. He won't be back for several days, so you have at least until then to make your decisions." Murdoch stopped just before crossing the threshold, his back to them. "I honestly hope both of you decide this is what you want, too." Without turning around, Murdoch disappeared through the door.

Alone again, Scott watched Johnny closely. The younger man was staring down at the paper, but Scott knew that Johnny was not seeing anything more than the last two words - the name below the third signature line. John Madrid.

"I can't believe he'd ever agree to something like this." When he finally looked up, Johnny's eyes were clouded with confusion. He let the paper fall to his lap, and shook his head. "He ain't never made no bones about disliking everything about Madrid, but now he's willing to take him on as partner?"

With most of his initial disbelief gone, Scott gently reminded Johnny, "He was willing to change the original agreement to read  'John Madrid'. You were the one who decided to let it stand as Lancer."

A jerky shake of Johnny's head said he was not convinced. "That was different. Back then he thought Madrid was his son, not just another hired gun."

"Johnny, you are not and never will be just another hired gun," Scott stated boldly.

Holding up the new document, Johnny asked softly. "What if I decide not to sign this?"

Scott hesitated, momentarily thrown off by the abrupt change in the direction of Johnny's question. "I'm no lawyer, but I'm pretty sure the original agreement would stand, as is."

Johnny looked stunned. "It'd still be good? Even though I ain't who I said I was?"

Scott nodded. "Like I said, Johnny, I'm not a lawyer, but I did take a few basic law classes at Harvard. Since we all signed the agreement in good faith, just because you might not be John Lancer would not automatically invalidate the contract. We made agreements with each other, as individuals. The names we used are not an issue."

Furiously, Scott dug back into his memory, trying to recall more specifics, either from his college days or just from his grandfather's business dealings. "If I'm remembering the concepts correctly, the only reason the original agreement would be in jeopardy is if its validity was challenged in court, on the basis that the agreement was supposed to be between Murdoch Lancer and his two sons. With Murdoch willing to make Johnny Madrid an official partner, I can't see him raising that issue, and I have absolutely no intention of doing so, either." Scott looked pointedly at Johnny. "I guess that leaves it up to you."

"What would happen if I was to do that?"

"Johnny, you don't have-"

"Just answer my question, Scott," Johnny interrupted harshly. "What happens if I go to court and say I wanted out 'cause I wasn't who you and Murdoch thought I was?"

"Well, I'm pretty sure that the entire agreement would become invalid."

Johnny leaned back into the pillows. His eyes closed, and he was the picture of a man defeated. "If I stay, I'm living a lie. If I go, then you lose your share of the ranch, too," he said softly, without opening his eyes.

With clarity as real as if Murdoch had actually stated his intent, Scott suddenly realized exactly what had prompted his father to make up this new agreement. Under the original contract, Johnny would feel like he did now - facing two choices, neither being something he could live with. In this new contract, Murdoch was giving Johnny a choice; the only choice that would be acceptable.  Scott almost laughed.

"Checkmate," he said softly. Johnny would figure it out for himself, or his curiosity would override his sense of despair enough for him to ask. After a few moments, his patience was rewarded when Johnny looked over at him.

"If you sign the new agreement, you won't be living a lie." Scott purposely answered only part of the unasked question.

"If I don't sign it, then you're gonna lose..." Johnny's voice trailed off. It took only a few seconds for a whisper of a smile to curl up the corner of Johnny's mouth. "Bet the old man thinks he's pretty smart."

With renewed hope, Scott replied, "It's not what Murdoch thinks that counts."

"You know he'd never leave it like that," Johnny challenged.

"It's not what I think that counts, either."

"Why, Scott?"

And there they were; right back at the original question. Swallowing the lump that suddenly formed in his throat, Scott said the words that did not come easy for any of them. Still, they were words that needed to be said. "Don't you see, Johnny? What he's trying to say in his own indirect way is that, son or not, he loves you."

Johnny looked back down at the paper in his hand. Scott could practically feel the younger man's growing uncertainty, which prompted him to throw his own cards out on the table. "I know that you honestly believe that Murdoch would make me a partner again, anyway, but promise me you'll consider accepting his offer. It would save us all a lot of legal hassles, and..." The depth of his feelings threatened to overwhelm him, but nothing would keep Scott from telling Johnny this truth. "Brother or not, I love you, too."

At those words Johnny looked over at Scott. Two pairs of eyes met, speaking to each other in depths that words could never match. The best of friends, true compadres, two souls who had found a common path - would those things be enough without the brotherhood that had once tied them all together? Could those concepts alone be enough to withstand the loss of something so special? One was sure they could, the other not so sure; yet, in the face of such unflinching certainty, there could be no denial for such a selfless request.

With a nod, Johnny whispered softly, "I promise."
 

 *** *** *** ***
 

The warmth from the china cup held tightly in her hands did little to alleviate the chill that had taken a firm hold of Catherine's heart for most of the night, nor did its piping-hot contents. So many thoughts, so many fears, so many possibilities - they had all made for a very long night of sleepless contemplation.

It seemed like forever since Murdoch had revealed to her that he had remarried. At the time she had been disheartened, but not surprised. It would have been unrealistic for her to believe that Murdoch had spent all those years alone. Life had taught her to be dogmatically realistic, but all those lessons were abandoning her now that she needed them the most. The shock and anger of being face to face with Murdoch's real wife were still clinging to her, mocking her for ever daring to be happy that this woman was dead; which, to her shame, was exactly how she had felt when Murdoch first told her that his second wife was no longer alive.

Visions of those eyes seemed to appear on the wall over the fireplace and Catherine shuddered, nearly spilling the coffee in her hand as her body trembled. Such hatred. How could Murdoch have ever loved such a vile creature? She would never admit it, but she had not been the least bit unhappy to discover that her father had been unsuccessful in preventing that evil woman from leaving.

She still felt that way, too, even though her practical senses were telling her that this was not a good thing. There were other hearts involved; hearts that needed answers that could come only from that woman. As much as she loathed to admit it, her own heart ached for those same answers, even as it pounded away in fear of what those answers could mean for her and the man and son she loved.

Raising the cup to her lips she grimaced as she took a sip of the bitter brew. It had been purposely brewed exceptionally strong, not only as a remedy for the sleepless night just endured, but to put a taste to the bitterness of her thoughts. It was so much easier to push aside something when it was given a tangible quality. A very wise old nun who had visited the mission many years ago had taught her this lesson. She had used it frequently over the years, always with success, but as she sipped on her third cup of the bitter liquid, it was beginning to look like this would not be the case this time.

Maria Lancer. The name echoed in her mind, as it had from the moment she had realized the identity of the brazen stranger. Even though she had been in the room the whole time, it had felt as if she were on the outside, looking in through a window at a scene taking place in someone else's life. Her fears had banged mercilessly on her soul, like fists pounding on that window, but no one had heard her pain. Too many other souls were screaming so much more loudly, drowning out her petty feelings of jealousy by a wail of true agony.

Then, like a true coward, she had run away. If Jarrod had not been there, what excuse would she have used? Would she have aggravated an already difficult situation by fleeing the room in tears? The very tears that had fallen most of the night, despite her best efforts to keep them at bay?

Maybe it was for the best that Murdoch had stayed away from her last night. The last thing he needed was for her to become another burden for his already over-loaded shoulders. The knowledge that there was still a current Mrs. Lancer had made it impossible for her to return to Murdoch's bed, so she had stayed in the guest room, where she should have been all along. There she had spent the entire night hoping he would come to her, while at the same time, thankful that he had not.

She hated herself for having these feeling. Her family needed her strength, not her cowardice. Her strength? She snorted softly. Her strength was a joke. It had crumbled under the first challenge that had come her way. She had not only let Murdoch down, but Scott, too. And Johnny. She had failed them all, abandoned them to skulk off and lick the wounds caused by her own insecurities.

Angrily, she swiped away that stray tear sliding slowly down her cheek. She had no right to cry, no right to feel anything but shame over her thoughts and actions.
 

 *** *** *** ***
 

Murdoch descended the stairs with his stomach tied in knots. He had just presented Johnny with what he hoped would be an acceptable solution to no-win situation he knew Johnny would feel like he was facing. Johnny would not be able to stay if he couldn't do so as himself, but at the same time, he would be just as unable to snatch the rug out from under Scott, either. Murdoch desperately hoped that Johnny would not call his bluff.

As soon as he entered the great room, he saw Catherine sitting alone on the sofa. He stopped in his tracks when she looked up at him, fear written all over her face. Her eyes were puffy, and dark circles hung below them. She was the vision of abject misery and he shamefully realized that in his haste to prevent Johnny from doing something foolish, that he had foolishly ignored Catherine.

Throughout this entire ordeal, she had shown him only steadfast compassion and love, while he had done nothing to let her know how much he needed and loved her. Like he had failed their son all those years ago, now he had failed her, too. With a heavy heart, he went to her, sitting on the sofa next to her and taking her into his arms. "I wish I had some of your strength right now," he whispered as he nuzzled his cheek against her hair.

Catherine pulled away, and stared up at him, disbelief written all over her face. "I was a coward. I ran out on you and Scott and Johnny."

Murdoch felt like he had been slapped. How could she even consider such a foolish notion? "No, Catherine. You did not run out on anyone. We needed that time alone. I'm sure I can speak for Scott and Johnny in saying how much we appreciate your making that possible for us."

"I ran."

Arguing with her was the last thing he wanted, so Murdoch settled on another approach. "If you did, then you had every right to do so. I told you Maria was dead. Seeing her alive had to have been as shocking for you as it was for any of the rest of us. We each had different reasons for our reactions, and yours were no less significant. I should have realized you were hurting and been there for you. I'm the one who failed you, Sweetheart."

Despite his assurances, Catherine would not be dissuaded so easily. "I slept in the guest room last night. I purposely stayed away from you, and you still say I'm not a coward."

"Jarrod and I spent most of the night working. I didn't even realize you weren't in my room until I went in to shave and get changed this morning." Murdoch had been very disappointed to find his bed empty that morning, but he had expected as much. "I can't say that I was surprised. We all needed some time to think, not to mention that our being together has suddenly become a more complicated issue. I just wish I had taken the time to reassure you that I will make this right for us."

After taking several deep breaths, Catherine looked at him curiously. "What were you and Jarrod working on?"

Thankful that he no longer had to argue with her over something as absurd as her perceived shortcomings, Murdoch did not hesitate to answer her question. "I had Jarrod draw up a new partnership agreement. One that makes Johnny Madrid a partner in Lancer."

Catherine's jaw slacked open. "You mean you actually believed her when she said Johnny was not your son?"

A different voice answered for him. "I would hope not, but I would be interested in knowing your answer to that question."

Catherine and Murdoch looked up to see Scott standing just inside the archway.
 

 *** *** *** ***
 

"Scott?"

Walking over to the coffee table, Scott bent down and picked up the silver coffee decanter began pouring himself a cup of coffee.  "Part of me is extremely happy that you're doing all you can to prevent Johnny from leaving. Hopefully, I was able to plead an adequate case for Johnny to believe this is what you really want." Setting down the coffee pot, he picked up the cup and saucer.  "Another part of me is very disappointed that you would complacently accept that woman's word for anything." Scott took a sip from the cup and nearly gagged. "Who made this?" he gasped.

Catherine blushed. "I did. I'm sorry, Dear. I should have warned you that it was a little strong."

"A little strong compared to what, varnish?" Scott deadpanned. "Strong is one thing, but why does it taste so stale."

"I found nearly a full pot on the stove earlier this morning," Catherine explained in an apologetic tone.

"That must have been what was leftover from the last pot Jarrod and I made late last night," Murdoch mused.

"I used that with a little more water to brew a new pot."

"Mother!" Scott couldn't believe his ears, and actually shuddered at the thought.

"Scott, your mother has always liked her coffee strong and stale. The only time she preferred it otherwise was when she was carrying you. Then it had to be weak and stale." Murdoch chuckled softly. "Trust me, you'll learn to ask before you pour."

Scott set the cup down with a disgusted look and then took a seat in the chair next to the fireplace. He could only shake his head at his mother's bizarre taste. "Since coffee is out of the question, maybe you'd care to tell us why you believe what Maria said."

"Scott, the truth is, I don't know what I believe."

"Maria was lying."

Leaning forward, his elbows resting on his knees, Murdoch gave a frustrated sign that seemed to perfectly punctuate Scott's declaration. "I wish it was that easy, Son. I could discount Maria's story without a second thought if Johnny wasn't agreeing with her. Add to that the impossibility of what Johnny told us his real mother said, and things get even more confusing. I feel like I'm drowning in a sea of lies and half-truths, and I'm not sure which direction to swim."

While Scott could empathize with these feelings all too well, what he could not understand was the actions that were being blamed on those feelings. "Then why the new partnership agreement? I mean, I figured but why you did it, but why not try to convince Johnny that he is your son, first, before going to the legal extremes of starting a new partnership?"

There was no anger in Murdoch's response, only frustration. "Scott, how am I supposed to convince Johnny of something when I have next to nothing in the form of hard evidence to present to him? No matter what we believe or want to believe, Johnny is already convinced that he is not my son." Frustration gave way to nervousness. "Does Johnny know, too?"

"Yes. He asked me what would happen if he didn't sign the new agreement. We discussed how the original partnership has not been compromised by this new information, and that it would take legal action to set it aside." Scott smiled sadly at his father. If only Murdoch could fully see what was right in front of his face. "You made a mistake, though, Sir. You underestimated Johnny's faith in you. He does not believe that you would take advantage of the situation and not take me back as your partner."

Murdoch's face paled. "He decided not to sign it?"

"No, he's thinking about it," Scott corrected reassuring.

"What are you two talking about?" Catherine asked cautiously.

Scott shared a brief glance with Murdoch, and the permission he received in those weary eyes allowed him to summarize for his mother everything that had transpired between the three men since she and Jarrod left the room the prior afternoon. When he was finished, Murdoch nodded his approval, effectively affirming Scott's assumptions about the motivation behind the new contract.

That was when Catherine looked up at Murdoch, her face beaming with pride. "I knew when the time came that you would know what to do."

Although Scott was curious about this statement, he chose not to pursue the matter. What he was seeing was further proof that his mother was a very good influence on Murdoch, and that was enough for him. Sitting back in his chair, he relaxed and took a deep breath as a little more of the pressure eased from his shoulders. The future looked a little brighter just knowing that his mother would be there to help Murdoch see past his own blind spots. Love was definitely a wonderful thing.

"What about you, Scott?"

Scott looked up to see his father looking curiously, and hopefully in his direction. "It would have been nice if you had discussed this with me, first, Partner," he answered in all honestly. However, Murdoch's stricken expression prompted to Scott to verbalize the other thought that had been sitting in the back of his mind ever since having the new contract sprung on him. "Even after all this time, you can't do it, can you? You just can't accept that you're not the only one who loves this ranch."

The graying head nodded. "I'm sorry, Son. And, yes, you're right. It's very hard to believe, even though I see the proof of it everyday. I can't promise I'll be able to change how I feel, but in the future I will try to be more considerate of my partners." His smile faltered. "I can only hope that if I do overstep my bounds, there will be more than just you to put me back in my place."

Understanding his father's fear, Scott nodded. "He promised me he would think about it."

A hint of Murdoch's smile returned. "If Johnny promised you he would, then he will. You were the first person your brother really trusted here. He puts a lot of faith in you, and your ideals."

"My brother." Scott exhaled deeply as a wave of sadness washed over him. "I still think of his as that, too. I always will. No matter who his parents turn out to be."

A few more of the worry lines on Murdoch's face disappeared. "Good, because I'm not ready to give him up as my son, either. I only wish he shared our faith, but that doesn't appear to be the case. After what he said yesterday about moving on, I knew Johnny Madrid had to become a partner. Casts or no casts, Johnny is resourceful enough to find a way to leave. Maybe even hurt himself in the process."

"I feel like this is all my fault," Catherine sighed. "None of this would be happening if I hadn't sent for you; if Maria hadn't found out I was back."

Murdoch leaned back into the sofa and a burly arm wrapped around her weary shoulders. "Darling, I honestly don't think Maria's visit had anything to do with you. It has to be a coincidence because she didn't even notice you were there. As hateful as she was being, I can't see her passing on that opportunity. All she seemed interested in doing was making sure I knew that Johnny was not my son. You were right to send for me, if for no other reason than Scott deserved the chance to get to know you, and you him."

On this point, Scott could not agree more. However, before he could add his reassurances to his father's, another thought popped into his mind. One he knew would not make Murdoch happy, but one that he felt should be pointed out. "Which means that Grandfather could not have been involved. If he was, Maria would have known about Mother."

As expected, a deep frown appeared on Murdoch's face. "Maybe. Or maybe Harlan had already contacted Maria before he knew about your mother. He did arrive earlier than expected in San Francisco."

"Which he logically explained, too. He was already in Chicago on other business when your telegram was forwarded to him." Scott defense was heartfelt, but somewhat dampened by the fact that Murdoch's theory was equally as possible.

"So he said." The stubborn Scotsman's opinion could be very hard to sway, and on this subject, it could be nearly impossible. "There is still the possibility that Harlan was already on his way to California to witness this family being ripped apart. Your mother's sudden reappearance was not something he could have possibly foreseen."

This time Scott countered with a much firmer conviction. There was a major flaw in Murdoch's theory. "I don't think so, Sir. There was almost a full week between the time we last saw Grandfather in San Francisco and when he arrived here with Jarrod. That was more than enough time for him to contact Maria, yet, she gave no indication that she knew anything about my mother."

Catherine remained snuggled against Murdoch's side, but shared an uncertain look of hope with her son. "Father said he had been to Carterville. That he had found out some information about what happened to me."

"Which could be a lie, too. He never actually told us any of this supposed news."

While Scott could understand his father's doubt, he could not deny his own gut feeling that his grandfather was not involved in bringing Maria back to Lancer. Even now that Scott knew to what lengths his grandfather would go in the name of keeping his family away from Murdoch, something about this still did not ring true. "It could also be that he was telling the truth, but just never had the opportunity to reveal his findings. We don't even know for sure that he followed Maria, just that he left in a hurry."

An abrupt snort gave away that Murdoch had no such reservations. "He went after her, all right. I've seen Harlan Garrett in action."

Biting back the bitter response he could have shot at his father, Scott calmly presented his reasoning. "What, twice in twenty five years? I've seen Harlan Garrett in action, too, many times, and I can assure you that my grandfather is a much better strategist than that. If he were working with Maria to get to you, I can assure you that he would have found a way to utilize every bit of information at their disposal to-" Scott stopped short.

"Scott, what is it?" Catherine asked softly.

Feeling like the answer was almost within his reach, Scott searched his mind for some small clue that would unlock the mystery. "To do what, exactly?" he questioned. "Given the level of animosity that Maria exhibited towards Murdoch, why would she go out of her way to do him a favor by exposing the imposter who was posing as his son?"

"To hurt me by pointing out that I had been taken in by an imposter, would be more like it," Murdoch groused.

While there was little doubt that this was part of it, Scott could not accept that as the primary reason. "If that was all she wanted to do, then why now? After all these years? Surely there have been other things she could have used against you before now." Scott chewed his lower lip. There had to be something they were all overlooking. "I can't shake the feeling that hurting you was just an added bonus to what she was really after; adding insult to injury."

This time Murdoch actually looked like he was considering something beyond his preconceived notions. Slowly he nodded in agreement. "Maybe. But if rubbing my nose in the fact that I had been deceived was the insult, then what is supposed to be the injury?"

"You now know that she is still alive and that you are still married to her," Catherine suggested, then frowned in dismay. "No, she would have still have had to have known about me for that to make sense."

"Even if that was her intent, she would be the one ending up being had," Murdoch vowed. "I will not be married to her for much longer. Jarrod is on his way to Sacramento, where he will be filing my petition for divorce first thing Monday morning. Given the length of time since she abandoned our marriage to run off with another man," Murdoch explained bitterly, "Jarrod didn't think it would take more than a few days to get the judge's approval."

Sitting up, Catherine twisted around to look Murdoch in the face. "Do you really think that she is going to let you divorce her, just like that?" she asked skeptically.

"We will be divorced, whether she likes it or not," Murdoch growled. "Jarrod did mention that if she does try to block the divorce, I could fall back on having it nullified." Before either Scott or Catherine could voice their dismay, Murdoch expounded on this thought on his own. "If it turns out that Johnny really is mine and Maria's son, then the last thing I want is to have my marriage to Maria be declared invalid. I want it ended, but it would take more proof than I have now that Johnny is not my son for me to even consider going that route."

Catherine agreed. "Even if it takes a little longer to get the divorce, it will be worth it when you find the proof that Johnny is your son."

Scott said nothing to counter his mother's optimistic outlook, but silently he wondered if it would ever be possible for her and Murdoch to be together without taking that potentially drastic step. Something deep down in his gut told him Maria Lancer was not going to let Murdoch off the hook that easily. She wanted something specific, and until she got it, there would be no divorce.

 

 *** *** *** ***
 

It was nearly noon when Harlan approached the door to room #23. He quickly brushed a few stray bits of lint from his suit coat, give his lapel a slight adjustment, and then he was ready. Since the moment he had left the Lancer ranch house, he had planned and replanned each of his next moves, and was confident that he was ready to respond to any scenario.

Knocking on the door with sanguine confidence, the thought to himself, 'let the games begin'. The wait was short, and when the door opened, he came face to face with her again.

Recognition came quickly and her eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What do you want?" she demanded curtly.

Just as her recognition was obvious, so were the rest of her emotions. To him, anyway. This woman might not have been easy for most people to read, but Harlan Garrett was not most people. Many years spent dealing with some of the shrewdest businessmen on the East coast had made him one of the masters of negotiation. To his well-honed eye, she was as easy to read as a book. Maria Lancer was determined, unscrupulous, and more sure of herself than she should be - of these things, her overconfidence would be her downfall.

With a slight bow, he voiced his introduction with a fake sense of respect. "Allow me to properly introduce myself, Madame. My name is Harlan Garrett, of Boston."

A sly smirk twisted at her lips, but the suspicion remained in her dark brown eyes. "The former father-in-law?"

She was as cold as they came, and any further attempts to charm her would be futile. A straightforward approach was his best bet for obtaining his goal. "Yes, Madame, and I am here because I very much wish to keep the 'former' in that title. Your little visit to Murdoch has led me to believe that we may share a common desire."

Her smirk faded and she looked upon him with disgust. "What could I possibly have in common with you?"

He let a calculating smile settled on his face, one he knew would be as intriguing to her as his words, yet not too overbearing. He did not want to risk stoking the fires of her suspicion. This was his game; only, she just did not realize it yet. "I could be wrong, Madam, but I believe that we share a mutual love and admiration for Murdoch Lancer, along with the willingness to put those feelings into action."

The condescending sneer in his softly spoken words was the icing on the cake, and the proof came in the form of a hungry glare staring back at him. For a brief moment their eyes locked, then Maria Lancer returned his smug smile with one of her own. "Perhaps I was a bit hasty." Stepping to the side, she waved her arm in a gesture of admittance. "Come in, por favor, Señor Garrett."

 

 *** *** *** ***

Scott had long since departed for his day's work. Before leaving, Johnny had asked him to move the bed over by the window. Hence, Johnny was now enjoying the warmth of the midday sun as it slowly chased away the previous chill of the earlier breeze.

He was staring out the window, thinking of nothing in particular, when a couple of blue birds landed in the courtyard treetop. For a short time, they were content to sing their bird song, but eventually began cavorting in and around the uppermost branches. Their fluttering about and shrill chirps helped to keep at bay some of the more unpleasant thoughts Johnny had been deftly trying to avoid.

A brilliant smile spread over Johnny's face, but this time it was not the bird's antics that were behind his good humor. For some unknown reason his mind chose that moment to take him back to the scene of a few short hours ago. Closing his eyes, he could clearly see the goofy grin on Scott's face as he stood next to the recently moved bed. The tall blond was admiring his mother's handy work with an expression of prideful love. The wheeled contraptions she had built worked like a charm.

Besides just the simple contentment of seeing Scott so happy, Johnny also felt as if they now had something more tangible in common. Scott had never known his mother, any mother for that matter. Johnny had known the love of a mother, and had sometimes felt bad that he had had something so special, while Scott had done without. Money and material things were a poor substitute for the kind of love that only a mother could provide, and now, by the grace of God, his brother was learning that, first hand.

His brother. Johnny's throat tightened and he had difficulty catching his breath. After several ragged attempts, he managed to suck in a lung full of air, which further accentuated the growing tightness in his chest. Of all the hard knocks he had experienced in his life, losing his brother was by far the worst knock of them all. It was like having part of himself ripped away, a very good part of himself.

He smiled as he thought back on such a monumental moment in his life. It had only been a year ago, and to say that finding out about Scott had been a shock would be putting it mildly. At the time, he had tried to dismiss the Eastern dandy, but he could not, finding out very quickly that there was much more to Scott Lancer than a fancy suit and some funny-looking plaid pants.

Still, it had been too much too soon for him to confide in this new brother when it came to his plan for dealing with Pardee. There were moments when this bothered his conscience, but he had to accept that he had done what he thought best for them all at that time. However, he was not the only one who had displayed some reservations in trust.

Johnny had never brought it up and never would, but it had not gone unnoticed that Scott had been equally as hesitant in sharing the details of his plan with his newly discovered brother. While Scott said he realized the potential hazards of taking off after Pardee, he just kept on getting ready to do just that, without bothering to explain further what he had in mind. What would have been a fool's errand if Scott had not doubled back on Pardee, turned out to be very good plan. In spite of their different approaches and the subterfuge that went along with each of them, the two men had come together when it really counted; Lancer was saved, Pardee was dead, and the bullet Johnny had taken in the back had been a very small price to pay for the faith he had found in his new family.

All that was gone, now. In vain, Johnny tried to shut out the ache in his heart by concentrating on anything but his "brother". Closing his eyes, he inhaled deeply, taking in the smells of the land he had come to love and for a short time he could feel nothing but a refreshing joy as they assaulted his senses. The aroma of hay, horses, cattle and all that was Lancer slowly filled him with a calming sense of well-being. This calm was fleeting, though, and his peace short lived. Without warning, the reality of a love betrayed sapped away that peace, leaving him feeling nothing but the bitterness.

His mother. For as far back as he could remember, she had been his anchor in life, his best friend, his staunchest ally, and he had loved her with all his heart. They may not have ever had much, but they always had each other. When she had been in his life, he had experienced the same sense of pride and joy he had seen just in Scott awhile ago. She was his life, and wherever she was, life was good, no matter who tried to make it bad for him.

Then Carlos came into the picture. Johnny had not liked sharing his mother with anyone else, and had resented Carlos for the loss of his mother's attention. That had not lasted long, though, as having Carlos around brought a spark of warmth to her honey-brown eyes. At the time Johnny had not fully understood the implications of that look. He just knew that she was happier when Carlos was with her.

It was only later, when he could look back on things from a man's perspective, that he had come to understand that his mother and Carlos had loved each other  very much. Johnny had enjoyed being with Carlos, too, for the most part, and it was in these later years that he had come to appreciate just how much he had not been excluded from that love. It was the horrible experiences that had come after their deaths that would make Johnny forever grateful to the soft-spoken man who had treated someone else's half-breed child as his own.

All of these realizations made his mother's betrayal hurt even more. She had put so much effort into making him feel important and special, while lying to him about things that could have prevented so many hardships in his life after she was gone. His most private memories of those happy years were now tainted by the lies that had stolen his future. Had she ever really loved him at all, or had it all been an act put on for a stupid kid who would not know better?
 
Because of her lies - the father that did not want him, and the very identity of that man - he had nothing. All he had left from his past was a head full of questions, and no means to find any of the answers. He did not even know what his rightful name was, or the slightest idea of who had actually fathered him. His bitterness intensified, while his mind was flooded with the worst kind of possibilities.

"John?"

Murdoch's tentative voice put an end to his rancorous thoughts, but even the obvious concern in that same voice could not completely drive away his anger. "I'd like to be alone," Johnny snapped defensively.

Instead of leaving, though, Murdoch moved further into the room. "Johnny, I would like to help. If you'll let me."

"Help?" A sadly cynical laugh rumbled from deep in Johnny's chest, but he kept his gaze focused on the tree outside his window. Anything to keep from looking into the eyes of the man he wanted so desperately to make things all better again. "What can you do?"

The bed dipped as Murdoch sat down on the edge of the mattress. Johnny could not bring himself to look at him.

"Johnny, I can't begin to imagine what you're feeling, but I can tell you-"

"You can tell me what?!" The surge of conflicting emotions got the better of him. Johnny turned to face Murdoch, letting loose his mounting frustrations and anger on the nearest target, long before the sincerity in those blue eyes could register. "Can you tell me who I am? Who my real father is? Or how about just shedding some light on why my own mother hated me so much?" Hurt pushed the frustration aside, and Johnny turned away. "Or maybe you can just give me some reason why I should even care," he added in defeat.

Instead of leaving in a huff as Johnny fully expected, Murdoch remained. Not only that, he actually managed to maintain his calm. More contradictions to throw Johnny's already beleaguered mind even more off balance.

"Johnny, I know you're angry, and you have every right to be. I wish I had all the answers for you, but I don't. The one thing I can tell is who you are."

These gently-spoken words put a damper on Johnny's anger, but as he turned to face Murdoch, those same words stoked another fire that had been smoldering for a lot longer. This man had spent the last year refusing to see Johnny for who he really was, and now he was claiming the ability to do just that? "So now you're gonna tell me who I am?" He snorted in disbelief. "You didn't care enough to get to know me when you actually thought I was your kid. What could you possibly know about me, or even care to know, now that I ain't nothin' to you?"

Murdoch's response was not immediate, something else that stunned Johnny.  The expected raised hackles that typically appeared whenever Johnny became the least bit argumentative were conspicuously absent. This served to further unnerve Johnny, and if that was not bad enough, when Murdoch finally did respond, it was the complete opposite of the angry retort Johnny would have bet money would be forthcoming.

"As much as I hate to admit it, you're right about most of that, Johnny. In all this time, I never once made an effort to get to know the real you. I thought I already knew all there was to know, and that was my mistake."

Murdoch's offering came with genuine remorse, and then Murdoch did something even more surprising. He laughed. The sound was not humorous, by any means, but went a long way in drowning out Johnny's anger with curiosity. "Something funny?" Johnny asked cautiously.

"Not funny." Murdoch soberly sighed. After sharing a sad look with Johnny, Murdoch stood and walked across the room. Standing in front of the bureau on the far wall, he looked at himself in the mirror. With a jerky shake of his head, he turned and faced Johnny, but made no move to come any closer. "I've spent a lot of time over the past several weeks thinking about you, and trying to figure out why we seem to have such a hard time relating to each other."

"Manage to come up with anything?" Johnny asked hesitantly.

Murdoch crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against the bureau. As he looked across the room at Johnny, a sad smile tugged at his lips. "I looked at you and I saw Maria, only now I find out that I was seeing things that might not be possible."

The turn of the conversation was disturbing, but Johnny could not ignore his need to know. "What things?"

Shifting nervously, Murdoch's gaze fell to the floor. "That's not important right now." Murdoch met Johnny's stare and this time the smile that eased its way to his lips was genuine and real. "What is important is that I was wrong to see you as anything but you. I've spent a lot of time reevaluating everything I was so sure I knew, and all the judgments that I was so sure were correct. What I discovered was that I was very wrong about almost all of those things."

Looking away, Johnny stared out the window. His throat was closing up again, and he felt like he had been kicked in the gut. How many times in the last year had he longed for his father to see him instead of his mother? How many times had he wanted to be seen as the son he was, not the son he couldn't remember being? Now he was being told his wish had finally come true - now that it did not matter. Murdoch Lancer was not his father, and the woman he was supposed to be so much like was not even his mother. "Is that what you came to tell me?"

The clump of boot heels on wood flooring warned of Murdoch's approach, so it was no surprise when the bed dipped again under Murdoch's weight. "No, actually I came to see if you were ready for some lunch, but you looked upset when I came in. I want to help, Johnny. I know that a lot of what you're going through is my fault, too."

The concerned caring in those softly spoken words had Johnny fighting to swallow the lump in his throat. He did not want this. He could not deal with this. Not now that he knew he had no right to be here.

"Johnny, Scott told you he wouldn't let you leave, but I want you to know that I don't want you to leave. I..." Murdoch's voice cracked. "Johnny, I'm asking you to stay. Please."

That 'please' sounded heartfelt and sincere, but as much as Johnny wanted to believe it was he just could not go blindly down that road again. He needed to know why. Did Murdoch really want him to stay, or was he asking just to keep peace with Scott, and maybe even Catherine? "Why?" he asked softly.

Although he would not meet Murdoch's gaze, he could feel the older man's penetrating gaze, questioning him, maybe even judging him and his right to even raise such a question. He had just about decided he had his answer in the continued silence, when Murdoch cleared his throat.

"Johnny, I don't want to argue with you. In fact, I refuse to argue with you anymore, but I don't know what you want to hear. I don't understand what you're asking me."

Johnny looked up and saw the confusion in Murdoch's eyes. He saw something else, too; something that he recognized all too well, though he had never once seen it in this face - fear. "Why are you afraid of me?"

Blue eyes blinked in surprise. "I'm not afraid of you, Johnny."

"Don't lie to me, Murdoch. I know fear when I see it." Johnny's words were firm, but held no anger.

After a brief hesitation, Murdoch nodded slightly. "Yes, I am afraid, John. But I'm not afraid of you; I never have been and I never will be. I'm afraid for you. I'm afraid you're going to leave here and end up right back in front of another firing squad, or worse."

His disappointment was heartbreaking. Johnny knew that Scott had meant well and had no doubt believed every word that he had said, but what Scott was wrong. Murdoch did not love him, did not really want him at Lancer. The old man just did not want to have to face the alternative. "I can't stay here, Murdoch."

 

 *** *** *** ***

Murdoch's heart sank when Johnny seemed to change from possible agreement to flat denial so quickly. It was clear that he had said the wrong thing again. Usually, he knew exactly what those wrong words were even as he said them, but this time he had no idea.  Instincts fueled by his mounting frustrations had him on his feet and halfway to the door before he realized what he was doing.

Stopping, he forced his own anxieties aside, turned and returned to Johnny's bedside. Instead of retaking his previous spot on the edge of the mattress, he pulled the nearby chair closer and sat down in it. Nothing would be gained by making Johnny feel crowded and, given his own growing agitation, a bit of distance might do him some good, too.

Johnny had turned away and was looking out the window. He gave no indication that he would be willing to resume their discussion, which only strengthened Murdoch's determination to do so. Johnny very seldom said anything he did not mean, and if he had his mind set on leaving, he would. Only this time Murdoch was not going to let him go without knowing why. "Johnny, what did I say just now that made you decide to leave?" he asked with the most control he could muster.

There was no reaction from the dark-haired man lying on the bed. Anger flared and Murdoch rose to his feet. "Damn it, John, talk to me! What do you want?!"

Sapphire eyes flashing with outrage turned to him. "How about the truth for once, Old Man!"

"What truth?!"

"Why you really want me here?! Why it makes any difference to you!"

"Because I love you!"

"Why?!"

"Because I do!" Their shouted words faded into silence as Johnny stared up at Murdoch, his face a mixture of too many emotions to pinpoint all of them, but disbelief was definitely one of them. But why would hearing those words shock Johnny so much? The need to know the answer to that question chased away his outrage more effectively than anything else ever could. "Is that really so hard to believe, John?"

Johnny's head bowed forward and restless fingers fidgeted with blanket. Murdoch reached over and covered Johnny's hand with his, stilling those fingers, and just maybe, conveying his real feelings. The hand beneath his tensed, but did not jerk away. "But why?"

Caught flat-footed by what seemed to be an impossible question, Murdoch scrambled for a rational answer to explain a feeling. "Why does anybody love anyone, John?" he inquired in all seriousness. "Yes, I've spent the last year thinking of you as my son, and yes, I've done a very poor job of showing it, but I have always felt love for you. I've kept it pushed aside behind the wall of hate I had for your moth...for my wife. I can't just turn that off because someone says, 'oh, by the way, he's not your son, after all'."

"Scott said it wouldn't matter to you that I ain't your kid," Johnny said without looking up. "But Scott, well, he kinda likes to think the best, even when maybe it ain't so."

"Scott will give anyone the benefit of the doubt until he knows better, but he is no fool. After a year, though, any benefit of the doubt is long gone. Scott was exactly right," Murdoch stated firmly. "I wish I hadn't yelled it at you, but I do love you, Johnny." Why had those three words been so impossible for him to say, to both his sons? They hadn't always been.

Johnny's head bobbed in acceptance. "Sometimes a man needs to hear things direct from the horse's mouth."

"The horse's mouth, huh?" Murdoch chuckled. "I guess that's better than being compared to the other end." Johnny's head tilted slightly, and a pair of deep blue eyes could barely be seen as they peaked over at him. With a cocked eyebrow, Murdoch let Johnny know he had been caught. "I don't suppose you've ever come across someone who's called me that, now have you?"

"Reckon I might have, a time or two," Johnny said softly. "Pretty sure it was Teresa, the last time you complained about her biscuits bein' too hard."

The light teasing in Johnny's voice was music to Murdoch's ears. Not only that, they were both actually still in the same room when the yelling was over, which, to his recollection, had never happened before. It was a good feeling, a very good feeling.  Unfortunately, all the good feelings in the world could not solve his most worrisome problem. "Johnny, you were wrong when you said that you're nothing to me if you're not my son. You are. I can't just stop caring for you. If you'll agree to stay, I know we can work something out."

"Maybe." Johnny's head bobbed a few times before he looked up. "But things can't be like they was, Murdoch. You gotta understand that or there ain't no point in even talking about me staying on."

This was not exactly what Murdoch wanted to hear, but he could not honestly say that he was surprised by Johnny's attitude. He was willing to talk, and that was enough for now. "What ways won't work for you?"

"For one, I can't be staying here in your house."

'Your house'. Those two little words drove home just how deeply Johnny believed what Maria had said. "Where would you go?"

"No where," an icy voice answered from the doorway.
 

 

 *** *** *** ***
 

Scott was floored by what he was hearing. Here he was trying to make sure Johnny did not leave the family that loved him, while Murdoch was willing to discuss what he would do when he left like it was something of so little consequence. Murdoch sounded so casual, so accepting...it made Scott's blood boil.

"Johnny is not going to anywhere," he declared as he stalked into the room. Ignoring the dismayed look on both Murdoch and Johnny's faces, the tirade continued. "Just because you can't bring yourself to believe that Johnny is still your son, doesn't make it an impossibility."

"I don't believe it."

"Maria is a known liar and-" Scott stopped short. His eyes narrowed and he stared at his father suspiciously. "What did you say?"

"I said I don't believe that Johnny is not my son." Murdoch nervously fidgeted with his hands and would not look at Johnny. "I can't prove otherwise, but I can't just accept it as fact, either."

Scott studied Murdoch carefully. The man looked and sounded sincere enough, but a year of false hope had left Scott more leery than accepting. When he glanced over at Johnny to gauge his reaction to Murdoch's words, Scott saw an entirely different picture. Johnny looked like he was ready to explode. Then he did.

"So everything you just said was nothing but a big ol' pile of donkey manure! It ain't that you can love me without me bein' your son, it's just that you won't accept the truth. Tell me, old man, how long's it gonna be before you change your tune when there ain't no denying it anymore?"

Instead of adding more heated words to the angry fray, Murdoch looked up at Johnny and responded with a remarkable calmness, "I did not lie to you, John. I want you to stay, and I don't care if you're my son, or not. I am not, however, willing to give up on the idea that there have been more lies told than truths. To you. To me. To all of us."

"Your wife ain't my mother! What more truth do you need?" Johnny spat in anger, but his eyes could not hide the hurt those words caused him.

Again, Murdoch uncharacteristically held his temper. "Tell me something, John. Can you remember being born? Being pushed from your mother's womb and crying in your first breath of air? Being suckled at your mother's breast?"

Johnny's face turned red and he ducked his head low. Even Scott felt the burning glow of embarrassment spread across his cheeks. The blanket acceptance of certain required that they not be given deliberate thought. One of those things was for a grown man to consider that he had once used a woman's breast as a source of nourishment. Scott prayed he could erase these thoughts from his mind before he encountered his own mother again.

"Can you Johnny? Can you remember any of those things?" Murdoch pursued relentlessly, but with no hint of being upset.

This was not the case with Johnny, though. "No, I can't!" the younger man snapped defensively. "I bet you can't, neither, so what's your point?"

In the same understanding tone, Murdoch answered Johnny's heated question. "My point is that all you know with absolute certainty is that the woman who raised you was not Maria. You can't know for sure that she was the same woman who gave birth to you."

Johnny's voice started out as a low growl, "She told me she was my mother," but the last word came out as a cracked choke. Then he turned away.

If Murdoch was attempting what Scott thought he was, then this was a very risky move, one that could backfire as easily as it might succeed. It was too late to do anything to stop him, though, and Scott was left with only one choice - have faith that Murdoch knew what he was doing.

Without saying a word, Murdoch reached out his hand, stopping it in mid air almost directly in front of Johnny, not touching him, but within easy reach. There it remained while Murdoch spoke. "I know you believe her claim that she was your mother is the last opportunity for her to have been truthful to you, and that there will be nothing left of her to hold onto if you let go of that." There was no question in his gently spoken words, only acceptance and understanding. "But you're wrong, Son. You can still hold on to all the good things about her that you remember so well. Accept that she loved you, but hold on to me, Johnny. I won't let go. No matter what."

While the remarkable scene was played out in front of him, Scott unconsciously inhaled deeply, holding his breath as he waited anxiously for Johnny's response. Less than five feet in front of him, Murdoch's hand remained suspended in air, ready and waiting. The tension continued to mount. Scott could hear the roar of blood in his ears and the brutally loud beat of his own heart, but he could not take his eyes of the weathered hand just a few feet away.

His lungs began to burn from the lack of air, but Scott dared not take a breath. He dared not risk doing anything that could distract Johnny from the decision Murdoch was forcing him to make. Not even daring to blink, Scott could only watch. Then, very slowly, Johnny's hand began to rise from the bed.

It stopped just short of reaching Murdoch's hand, which was still frozen in place. Johnny was staring intently at Murdoch's hand, while in his eyes was the reflection of his struggle between a desperate want and equally debilitating fear. As if in a trance, Johnny kept looking at the hands in front of him without a single blink. For what seemed like forever, Johnny just stared at them, not moving, maybe not even breathing.

"I won't let go," Murdoch whispered gently.

Despite that reassurance, Johnny's hand remained where it was; so close and yet not quite able to put an end to their turmoil. His features were blanketed in fear and uncertainty, both of which were extremely readable, and very out of place on Johnny's face. Scott's heart skipped a beat when Johnny's eyes closed. Then his heart leapt into his throat when Johnny grabbed hold of Murdoch's hand with a grip so tight his knuckles turned white. To his credit, Murdoch did not even flinch under the handhold that had to be very painful, while Johnny's eyes remained tightly closed.

"If you're lying, Old Man..." Johnny's voice trembled, accentuating the promise in the part plea/part threat.

Instead of responding verbally, Murdoch simply reached up and placed his other hand over Johnny's, effectively trapping Johnny's trembling hand in between his two larger ones. A few seconds later, Johnny nodded, as if answering words that only he could hear. Then his eyes opened, and he blinked several times, before looking over at Murdoch.

What Scott saw in Johnny's eyes gave him the hope he had been praying for. The fear was gone, but while some of the uncertainty remained; mostly Johnny's entire expression spoke of an undying need to trust. That trust was not quite there, yet, but the need was burning so brightly that Scott had to look away. There he saw something that left him feeling even more confident.

Murdoch was looking directly at Johnny, everything about him revealing nothing but loving support and acceptance - his eyes that were bright with anticipation, his face that was relaxed as if he had not a care in the world, and his lips, turned up at the corners with the faintest hint of a smile. Never before had he looked so accepting when confronting Johnny. It was a terrible irony was that Murdoch had finally come to terms with his love for Johnny as his son, just in time to have it all yanked away from them.

It was with that realization that Scott was finally able to take a breath. He inhaled deeply several times, allowing the air to soothed his tortured lungs, while his eyes placated his frazzled soul with the glorious vision of his father and brother reaching what had all the earmarks of a lasting understanding.
 

 

 *** *** *** ***
 

In the dusky twilight, Harlan Garrett stood on the balcony, looking out over San Francisco harbor. Behind him was an opulent hotel room, one of the best San Francisco had to offer. In one hand he cradled a snifter of brandy, while a fat cigar sat between two fingers of the other. He took a long, satisfying drag on the cigar, then exhaled very slowly, letting the smoke drift off in the darkness at it's own pace. The spoils of victory would soon be his.

The day had gone according to plan, for the most part. While he had spent most of the afternoon with Maria Lancer, it had taken only a few of those hours to get his mind set on a definitive course of action. Murdoch's wife had been most informative, and was more than prepared to be a helpful ally. She was grinning like a Cheshire cat when he left, but by then he had already had his next move plotted. He would get a great deal of satisfaction from the outcome would surely come to pass.

Not one to rest on his laurels, he had made his way to the nearest telegraph station as soon as he departed her hotel. A message to his attorney had been sent. While those few well-chosen words would have meant nothing to an unenlightened mind, to one who knew him and his desires so well, they would mean everything.

After taking another puff of the Cuban delight, Harlan could not help but chuckle as he recalled the telegraph operator's incredulous response to his return only two hours later. The young man had actually worked very hard to convince him that answers to even the most urgent of telegrams took time, and that it would highly unlikely to receive an answer before the following day. The same young man was speechless when less than five minutes later the telegraph machine began clattering away, and the message he decoded was the very response that he had been so vehemently protesting would not be coming.

"Such incompetence," Harlan sighed as he looked out over the San Francisco skyline.

On the other hand, Randall Timsdale was anything but incompetent. He had been Harlan's attorney and most trusted confidant for nearly twenty years, and was to be an invaluable asset in the battles to come. A wicked smile tugged at his lips. The great state of California was in for a surprise. The wild West would be no match for the cunning mind that was, even now, preparing for the battle to come.

'Carpe diem.' Another smile twisted Harlan's lips, an entirely different smile. This one was fueled by his admiration for one, like himself, who saw those words as being words to live by. Those two were the first words Randall Timsdale ever said to Harlan Garrett, accompanied by a bottle of the finest Cognac and a box of the most sought after Cuban cigars. For an introduction that seemed to start out so well, within two minutes he would have gladly have seen Randall Timsdale fed to the sharks.

It had been the night Harlan was celebrating the recent departure of Murdoch Lancer from Boston, and hopefully, from his life, forever. Scotty was sleeping soundly in his bed in the Garrett home, blissfully clueless as to how close he had been to having his bright future stolen away by the same arrogant Scotsman that had coerced Scotty's mother away from the life to which she had been born. All so she could die a premature death in the forsaken wilderness of California.

Since the day Harlan had left California behind with his precious grandson in his arms, he had dreaded the day Murdoch would come to claim the boy. It was a day he knew would be coming - the foolish boor that sired Scotty had written letters to keep Harlan updated on his progress, as if he cared the least bit about what Murdoch did or did not do. The last letter, received almost a month prior, had been to inform Harlan that Murdoch was already on his way to Boston to claim Scott. That would happen over Harlan Garrett's dead body.

An upstart attorney from Connecticut had overheard this heated conversation with his personal attorney and seized it for the opportunity that it was. The man was new to Boston, with no clientele and no chance of ever getting a foot in the door of Boston's most elite circles. Boston was a Harvard town, full of Harvard lawyers who were sought after by the wealthiest clientele this side of the Atlantic. The young attorney from an obscure college no one had heard of had picked the wrong town to make a start. However, Randall Timsdale was not one to be deterred. He had formulated a plan and implemented it all on his own. Then he approached Harlan with the answer to his recent victory.

Harlan had been furious with the young attorney to learn that this stranger, this nobody, had dared take it upon himself to deal with Murdoch Lancer. Harlan had the management of the gentlemen's club throw Mr. Timsdale out on his ear, and then disposed of the cognac and cigars in the nearest garbage receptacle. Thankful that the impetuous interloper had not inadvertently opened the door for Murdoch to make a legitimate bid to claim Scotty, Harlan was certain he would never hear from the man again. The next day he was completely flabbergasted when the young man had his card sent to the Garrett house, along with an invitation to dinner the following week.

He had, of course, absolutely no intention of accepting, but in the days that followed, Harlan's curiosity got the best of him and he made a concerted effort to learn all he could about Mr. Randall Timsdale; what he found out surprised him greatly. Because of Randall's covert efforts, when Murdoch tried to hire an attorney to represent him in a custody battle for his son, the only ones even willing to discuss the matter were of such a caliber that they would have no chance against the might of the Garrett legal team.

By putting many seemingly inconsequential meetings together, Harlan soon discovered how Randall had brilliantly out maneuvered Murdoch Lancer's every attempt to mount a custody battle. While there was no proof, Harlan had no doubt that Randall was behind Murdoch's 'involvement' in a highly publicized drunken brawl, for which Murdoch had spent two days in jail.

Murdoch had also been seen numerous times with some of Boston's better-known ladies of the evening. Granted, a few dollars had led to the ladies' admissions that they had been paid rather well to innocently inquire for his help with directions or some other trivial manner, but always within sight of someone whose word would carry much weight on the witness stand. Randall's generosity had been such that all had been more than willing to make enough of a scene so that the incident would be memorable for those witnesses.
 
Left without a hope or a prayer without even setting foot in a courtroom, Murdoch was crushed. By the time he left Boston to return to California, he could no more have presented a believable claim that Scotty would be better off with him instead of his respectable and upstanding grandfather, than he could have convinced a Boston court that codfish could walk. All this had been accomplished without any resources or backing, while Harlan's own attorney had spent his time quietly preparing a court case that may or may not have been successful.

It was these findings, among others, that prompted Harlan to RSVP that dinner invitation. Randall had been at ease from the start, so sure enough of himself that Harlan almost considered walking away. However, by the time the main course arrived, there were no doubts that in Randall he had found an ally of incomparable worth. That had been the beginning of a very lucrative relationship for both of them.

A ship's bell sounded from the direction of the nearby harbor, drawing Harlan's attention back to the present. By now Randall would be on his way to California, and when he arrived, the wheels would already be set in motion for another crushing blow to be delivered in the name of Harlan Garrett.
 

 

 *** *** *** ***
 

Part 4 -

With repetitious ease, Scott fed Charlemagne and bedded him down for the night. After a quick check on Freya and the colts, he headed for the house, simultaneously looking forward to and dreading entering its stone walls. For the most part, he wanted nothing more than to spend a quiet evening talking with his mother. With all the commotion that had accompanied their arrival, followed by the last few days of anger, fear and uncertainty, his need to get to know her had gone unsatisfied. If only it was that simple.

He could not just abandon Johnny, who was not only dealing with the possibly of losing his identity, but was also physically unable to come down stairs and join the rest of them for dinner, or a drink, or anything else, for that matter. Johnny would tell him he should be with his mother, but Johnny would never admit to feeling abandoned, either. Halfway to the house and no closer to an acceptable solution to his dilemma, the sound of approaching hoof beats made Scott stop and turn towards the road.

A single rider passed under the arch, but was too far away for Scott to make out an identity in the fading light of dusk.  Considering the lateness of the hour, a social call was unlikely, which meant this had to be business. Scott remained where he was, and as the rider drew closer, he was able to recognize the evening caller; it was Evan Ingles, the telegraph operator from Green River.

Evan pulled his mount to a halt, and greeted Scott with a friendly, "Howdy, Scott. Just the man I was hopin' to find."

"Hello, Evan," Scott nodded politely. There could be only one reason that Evan would be looking specifically for him. "Did you get an answer to my telegram?"

"Sure did." Evan pulled a small envelope out of his pocket and handed it down to Scott. "The sheriff down in Cross Creek sent it a couple hours ago, but I couldn't get away until now. Since you and Murdoch were both interested, I figured it was probably important enough to bring out as soon as I shut down the office."

Scott began opening the envelope, but got distracted when Evan's horse tried to rub his sweaty face against Scott's sleeve. He gently pushed Buster's nose away with one hand, while holding the envelope against his stomach with the other, his fingers struggling to release the sealed flap. "Murdoch came to see you, too?" Scott asked as he absentmindedly rubbed the sorrel gelding's itchy forehead.

Evan shook his head. "Murdoch musta talked to Val, 'cause Val's the one who had me send out a bunch of inquiries, same as yours." Evan laughed and adjusted his hat. "Sheriff Bowman said your descriptions were a might better, though. They're the ones the man down at the train depot recognized."

"Oh, and how did Val describe them?" With a final pat to the now placated horse, Scott had both hands free to pull the telegram free. His eyes skimmed its contents, and he immediately shook his head.  "Don't answer that. I'm better off not knowing."

"Uh, Scott," Evan said a bit hesitantly, "how about letting Johnny in on what you an' Murdoch are up to this time, will ya?"

Scott had all but forgotten all Evan's recent experience at being persuaded to violate the sanctity of his position. Although he felt sorry for the poor man, there was no need to be overly informative about Johnny's current inability to repeat such an action. "I'm sorry about that, Evan, and don't worry about Johnny. He won't have any reason to come looking for you, again."

"Thanks, Scott." Most of the wariness receded from Evan's expression. "I don't ever wanna see him like that again. Was downright scary, if you know what I mean."

So Evan had actually met Johnny Madrid. Scott had hoped that this had not been the case, but given the nature of the offense, it was doubtful that Evan would have compromised his integrity for anything less.  "I know what you mean," Scott agreed sadly before his ingrained propriety took over. "How about joining us for dinner?"

"Much obliged, Scott, but the wife'd have my head. She's been simmerin' a stew all day. She'd have my head if I didn't show up."  Reining Buster around, Evan headed out, calling back over his shoulder, "Don't forget to share the news with that brother of yours."

Telegram in hand, Scott resumed his trek towards the house. His emotions were still mixed, but now even more unsettled. Evan's reference to his brother only added to his anxieties.

"Was that Evan Ingles riding out?" Murdoch called out from inside the great room when Scott entered the front door.

Before answering his father's question, Scott finished unbuckling his gun belt and hung it on the rack by the door, along with his hat. When he entered the great room, his mother was sitting in the chair in front of Murdoch's desk, coffee cup in hand, looking over her shoulder at him as expectantly as the burly man sitting behind the desk.

"Yes, Sir, it was." Scott leaned over and gave his mother a quick kiss on the cheek before sitting on the edge of Murdoch's desk. "I understand you had Val send out some inquiries about my grandfather and Maria."

Murdoch frowned and his gaze shifted towards Catherine. Out of the corner of his eye, Scott saw her offer an encouraging smile. If his heart were not so overburdened by other things, he would have found this all very amusing. "Your descriptions weren't very good," Scott continued before Murdoch could offer up a lame apology for something that needed none, lame or otherwise. "Thankfully, mine were much better."

The anxiety lifted from Murdoch's face, but his expression remained grim. "And exactly what was wrong with my descriptions?"

Scott winked at his mother. She looked down at her lap, but not before he caught a glimpse of her laughing smile. In that instant it hit him all over again - she was really there, she was really alive. He quickly pushed aside those intensely personal emotions, but when he turned back to Murdoch, his gaze was met by a very understanding smile from behind the big oak desk. He was willing to bet that Murdoch had experienced the same thing more than once over the past few weeks.

"Evan didn't say, Sir," Scott fudged a little, "however, he did mention that Sheriff Bowman indicated that my descriptions were the ones the man at the train station recognized. I got the distinct impression yours were of little help."

A flash of anger swept across Murdoch's features. "I would think that a demon-possessed Mexican witch accompanied by a manipulating Boston ogre would have attracted that clerk's attention."

The frivolity of the moment died. Scott looked down at the damning paper in his hands and his heart broke all over again.

"I'm sorry, Son. That was a very insensitive thing to say."

"No, Murdoch." Scott tossed the telegram onto the desk directly in front of his father. "You've been right all along. According to the clerk at the Cross Creek station, my grandfather and your wife were on this morning's train to San Francisco. I just..."  Disappointment and anger had him on his feet and over at the liquor cabinet pouring himself a drink before he even realized what he was doing.

"Scott?"

Without turning around, Scott answered, hoping that the true level of his dismay would not show. "I didn't want to believe it. I honestly thought..." Instead of finishing his thought, Scott downed the shot of scotch in one gulp, then turned to face two anxious expressions. "When I talked to Grandfather in San Francisco, I actually thought that he was trying to understand."

His hurt turned into a decisively ugly anger, and Scott knew that if he let it get loose that there would be no stopping himself from saying things he had no business saying. A tactical retreat was his best option. "I'm going to get cleaned up for dinner," he announced as abruptly as he headed for the archway. "I want to check in on Johnny, too."

"Johnny is sleeping."

Scott stopped and turned, eyeing his mother with concern. "This early?"

"His legs were beginning to hurt. Doctor Jenkins said they probably would at some point," she explained. "And his hips were aching from the added strain of trying to shift around with his legs weighted down. I gave him a dose of laudanum, and he was still sleeping when I checked on him," her gaze shifted beyond Scott towards the grandfather clock, "about twenty minutes ago."

"You got Johnny to take laudanum?" Scott did not know whether to be happy or concerned by this extraordinary event. "What did you do, sit on him?"

"Don't be absurd, Scott," Murdoch snapped tersely, while his mother stared at him with a wide-eyed look of shock on her face. "Your mother would never do anything so ridiculous."

"No, of course not," Scott agreed apologetically. Using his most polite face to shield his downtrodden feelings, he took a few steps closer to the desk. "I'll be down for dinner after I have a bath." He placed another light kiss to his mother's cheek, which she returned, but as he moved to head for his room, he was stopped when she reached out and grasped his hand.

He hated to see her expression full of such longing, but his own jumbled thoughts left him with no words of comfort to offer. "I won't be long," he assured her as best he could. She smiled up at him and gave his hand a gentle squeeze before letting her fingers slip away, allowing him to resume his retreat.
 

 

 *** *** *** ***
 

It broke Catherine's heart to see her son fighting emotions he should never be experiencing in the first place. What she hated more than anything, though, was that the cause of Scott's heartbreak was the very person who had raised him and professed to love him so much. "I can't believe Father would be party to this. He had to know how much Scott would be hurt by his actions."

"Believe it, Catherine." Across the desk from her, Murdoch glared in the direction in which Scott had departed, but there was not doubt that his anger was directed at someone who was nowhere near the Lancer ranch. "Harlan has gone too far this time."

"And just what do you think you can do about it, Murdoch?" Catherine challenged angrily. "If you respond in kind, do you think that will make Scott feel any better?" Surely, Murdoch could understand that two wrongs would never make a right. "Scott is already feeling betrayed by his grandfather. Do you really want him to feel that way about you, too?"

"No!" Murdoch snapped his frustration. "What would you have me do, Catherine? Nothing? Simply stand by and let Harlan destroy my family all over again." Standing, Murdoch turned away, staring out the window as he shook his head in dismay. "I just feel so damned helpless."

Going to her love, Catherine wrapped her arms around his waist and pressed herself close to him. She could feel his angry trembling and feared for what he might be considering. "I know it's hard, Darling, but suffering through feeling helpless is better than doing something that could turn your son against you."

It was a strain to keep up her calm veneer, but she knew she must make every effort to contain the turmoil churning inside her. Revealing her anger and hurt over her own father's deplorable actions would not help anyone, and would only serve to stoke the fire of Murdoch's ire, making matters even worse. Despite her almost overwhelming desire to cry and scream at the same time, she had to keep it inside. If only she could figure out why all of this was happening.

How could her father do this to Scott? To her? Did he really see her and her son as nothing more than tokens to be won or lost in a battle of wills with Murdoch Lancer? What had happened to the father she remembered? The father who had never been overly demonstrative with his affections, but who Catherine had never doubted loved her with all his heart? How could he possibly love her, and then do everything in his power to destroy the happiness she had finally regained? She would get answers to all these questions, of that, she was absolutely certain.

Scott was going to have company on his return trip to San Francisco. She would not allow her son face this nightmare alone. As deeply as she loved Murdoch and wanted nothing more than to remain at his side, in her heart she knew that this was something that she and Scott had to do together. They were the pawns in this game, and they would be the ones to confront Harlan Garrett; they would be the ones to make sure that Harlan Garrett never tried to hurt the people they loved again.

While thinking of her own father in such a detached manner was very disconcerting, she purposely kept her mind focused on the fact that the man who was capable of such mean-spirited treachery could not possibly be the same man she remembered as being so fair-minded and compassionate when she was growing up. She would need this detachment to face him again, to enable her to stick to her agenda. She would not be accepting any flowery declarations of love and devotion - she would demand the truth. Then she would decide how much, if any, he would be allowed to share in her new life.
 

 

 *** *** *** ***
 

After a soothing bath, Scott donned some clean clothes and felt more like himself, more alive, more settled, and most importantly, more in control. An hour ago, he had been forced to accept that his grandfather had betrayed him totally and completely. All that talk in San Francisco about wanting to understand was just that - talk. Scott sat down on the bed and snorted as he grabbed his boots and began pulling them on.

Talk? Lies would be more like it. He would never have believed that his grandfather, the man who had raised him and treated him with respect and affection, could have turned on him so completely. Disagree with him, yes; Scott had not lived under Harlan Garrett's roof for twenty-four years without experiencing a few rocky stretches in the road, but never would he have believed that his grandfather would out and out lie to him like he had less than a week ago. Just the thought of the finality of that betrayal ripped Scott's heart out. He thought he meant more to his grandfather than that.

And what about mother? After the hell she had survived, why was her own father less interested in sharing in her newly discovered happiness, than in seeing her as a means to continue this senseless campaign to destroy Murdoch Lancer? His mother could put on a good front, better than most Scott had to admit, but he also knew this had to be tearing her apart. Thankfully, he and Murdoch had been able to convince her that she was not the cause of what was happening, but how long would that last? How long could she continue to deny how much her father was hurting her?

Scott had no answers for any of these questions, but he refused to allow himself to bring any more hurt to her. The last thing he wanted was to disappoint her with behavior that was as reprehensible as her father's. She should not have to suffer anymore. He would keep his emotion under control until he could get her some answers, which would be his first order of business upon arriving in San Francisco on Wednesday. He would not faithfully listen to any more lies; this time his grandfather would be listening to him, and for once, Scott prayed that the older man would take his words to heart this time.

With his heart heavy and his emotions in turmoil, Scott exited his room and headed for the door across the hall. He did not like that he was risking waking Johnny, but could not pass up the opportunity to reassure himself. Johnny's window faced the East and deep shadows were already darkening the room as the sun was hidden on the other side of the massive house when Scott slipped in the door, without making a sound. Thankfully, there was enough light for him to assess the situation, which was exactly as his mother had said it would be; Johnny was sound asleep.

Scott stood just inside the doorway, his eyes closed. There he found a small measure of peace in the silence that was broken only by rhythmic sounds of Johnny's gentle snores. The tension in his shoulders and neck began to ease, and after a few moments, he opened his eyes and moved closer to the bed. Once there, he studied the sleeping man very carefully, and what he saw took away even more of his unease.

Although the laudanum had no doubt helped, Scott believed that Johnny's features were far too relaxed for it to be all from the drug. In the easiness of Johnny's sleep, Scott found a little more comfort, and the faith that Murdoch's acceptance of Johnny Madrid was a huge relief to Johnny Lancer's troubled mind.

Johnny Lancer. A lump formed in Scott's throat, one that refused to be swallowed, no matter how hard he tried. He still could not bring himself to accept that there were not facts still unrevealed about Johnny's identity. Too many things did not add up, too many questions remained unanswered. However, thanks to Murdoch's unusually perceptive behavior, he could take heart that Johnny would not be fighting them in his efforts to get away. Not immediately, anyway.

There were going to be questions that would have to be answered before Johnny could ever find a lasting peace, but those questions would have to wait until Johnny was physically able to go in search of them. By that time, Scott hoped that no search would be necessary.

What he wanted was to find proof positive that this entire nightmare was nothing but a cruel trick concocted by a woman more evil than anyone Scott had ever known. He could only pray that the truth was still out there, and that it could be found. Events of so long ago had a tendency to be beyond definitive proof, but Johnny would never have true peace as long as doubts remained.

In the end, though, he had to wonder if it would even matter. No matter what truth they found, or what the reason for Maria's vendetta against Murdoch, or whoever's son Johnny turned out to be, Johnny would have already paid a very high price for the lies that had been told throughout the years.

A stiff breeze blew through the nearby window. Scott shivered as the cold air rushed over him. With the sun nearly set, there was little warmth left in the air. In the bed, Johnny twisted in his sleep, trying to roll over onto his side. That, however, was not about to happen with his legs encased in the heavy plaster.

A frown of frustration creased Johnny's previously relaxed features, but he remained asleep and settled back onto his back without waking. His sleep once again deepened and the frown slowly faded. A few more wind gusts like that, though, and Johnny would be wide-awake.

Very gently, Scott eased the comforter back up over Johnny's shoulders. Then, using the utmost caution, he pushed the bed further away from the window. He had to stop with the bed positioned in the middle of the room, as it would be too much of a risk to try maneuvering it back into place by himself.

Loosening the heavy drapes from their tiebacks, he hoped that the bed would be far enough away to allow Johnny to continue resting. Sleep was what Johnny needed most - time for his body to heal, and a chance for his mind to step back and find a more objective view of what the future might hold.

"I hope that Maria Lancer gave birth to you, even if she is the sorriest excuse for a mother to ever live," Scott whispered as he stared down at Johnny's sleeping form. "I know that sounds selfish, but I can't help it, Brother. It's going to take a whole lot more than her word to convince me to give you up."

There was no response to his declaration, not that he even wanted one. Scott stood there for a little longer, just listening to Johnny's steady breathing, before slipping out the door as quietly as he had come in. The peacefulness of Johnny's sleep had been a soothing balm to Scott's heart, but it had also served to deepen his resolve to find the truth.
 

 

 *** *** *** ***
 

The clinking of forks against china was becoming nerve wracking. Even the occasional comment on the weather, or compliment on the food was delivered with a flat tone that highlighted their growing anxieties. Finally, unable to stand it anymore, Scott stated bluntly, "I'll be leaving for San Francisco in the morning."

Murdoch looked up. He did not say anything, but he did not look happy, either, so Scott continued his explanation. "We need some answers, and we are not going to get them sitting here doing nothing.  That's where Maria went, and she's the one with the answers." Steeling himself against the objections he knew would be forthcoming,
Scott added with even more conviction, "My grandfather has some explaining to do about his part in all of this, too."

"The next train doesn't leave until Tuesday morning." Murdoch's attention returned to his plate, where he casually speared another piece of steak with his fork. "Even if you left on tomorrow morning, on horseback you still wouldn't get to San Francisco before Wednesday afternoon."

Scott was well aware of this fact, but at least he would feel like he was doing something. It annoyed him that Murdoch did not seem to understand that it was the waiting, the not knowing, and mostly the not doing anything that was making him feel so helpless.

A warm hand settled on Scott's arm, and he looked down at the long, delicate fingers wrapped around his forearm. His tension began to ease as he once again was hit with the reality that he had a mother. He could not begin to count he number of times he had dreamed of experiencing just this - the little touches, the loving smiles, the motherly pampering he had watched his friends take for granted throughout the years. As those boys had grown into men, they complained incessantly about being Molly-coddled. Although Scott had never said anything to them, he had so coveted that which they so callously dismissed. Was he now acting like those friends he had silently berated all those years ago?

Placing his hand over his mothers, he looked at her and returned her grateful smile with an apologetic one of his own. "I guess spending those two days with my mother would be a much better use of the time."

"I sent Frank to Green River to hire on some extra hands," Murdoch said in between bites. "There is a lot of work to do before the round up begins. With Johnny off his feet, Jelly and Cipriano gone, and your mind understandably on more important matters, we're going to need some additional hands to keep things going."

Although Scott noted the lack of irritation in Murdoch's voice, his attention was focused on the mysterious loss of two of their top hands. "Where are Jelly and Cipriano?"

Murdoch gaze was firmly locked on the carrot he had at the mercy of his fork when he said hesitantly, "I sent them to Fort Bowie."

Lancer had no dealings with Fort Bowie; none that Scott knew about, anyway. "Why is that, Sir?"
 
Murdoch gave Scott his patented 'it is none of your concern' look, but the answering 'yes, it is' glare from Scott was more effective than it had ever been in the past year. "It's old business," Murdoch explained curtly. "From before you and Johnny came home last year."

Standing his ground, Scott refused to be intimidated. "Old business or not, if it affects Lancer now then it involves both Johnny and me."

Murdoch's face darkened at the perceived insolence, and Scott braced himself for the angry retort. His mother's grip tightened on his forearm, but she made no move to intervene on either man's behalf.  This surprised Scott, but not nearly as much as his father's response.

"All you need to know is that they are handling some personal business for me," Murdoch explained calmly. Without any further preamble, Murdoch left the table and crossed the room, where he sat down behind his desk and began working on some paperwork.

Although Murdoch's entire demeanor was less harsh and more informative than normal, it effectively put an end to the discussion. With no other options, Scott turned to his mother. She was the most outspoken woman he had ever met, yet she had chosen to remain silent during the entire exchange. "Do you know what he's up to?" Scott asked her point blank.

"No." Her eyes remained focused on the man across the room. "All he told me was that it was something he would have preferred to do himself, but that he could not leave his family." When she looked over at Scott, her eyes glistened with unshed tears. "He's hurting, too, Scott. He doesn't know what to do, or which way to turn, or how to even begin to make things right again."

Scott looked over at his father. He could understand all too well the frustrations the older man was feeling. "That's why I have to go to San Francisco, Mother. The answers we need may not be there, but it's the only place I know of to start." Turning towards her, he pleaded for understanding. "It's not that I want to leave you, I have
to."

"I understand, Son." Her sad eyes looked from Scott to Murdoch, then back at Scott. "Your father feels like he's failed you and Johnny, and even me to some extent. He understands your need for answers. It's his need, too."

Somewhere in her reassuring words, Scott found what he had overlooked before. Murdoch had not denied him the right to leave, he had only pointed out the futility of spending extra time on the trail when it would not get him to San Francisco any sooner than the Tuesday train. In his typical no-nonsense way, Murdoch was trying to make the best of an impossible situation.

Deciding to follow Murdoch's lead, Scott placed his napkin on the table beside his plate. Nothing further could be accomplished tonight, and with Johnny asleep, his earlier dilemma was solved. He planned to make the most of this opportunity. "I don't know about you, Mother, but I think this poor dinner has been tormented enough." Standing, he held out his arm for her. "Would you care to join me in antagonizing an after-dinner drink?"

Her face practically glowed as she stood and took hold of his offered arm. "I would love to, Sweetheart."

After escorting her to the sofa, Scott proceeded on to the liquor cabinet. "Sherry?" he asked over his shoulder.

"That would be fine, thank you."

Scott poured a glass of sherry, and then filled two glasses with brandy.  With the three glasses held firmly in both hands he headed for Murdoch's desk first. "Murdoch, would you care to join us?"

Murdoch looked up, his expression registering his surprise that Scott was so near. He looked even more perplexed when his gaze found Catherine sitting on the sofa. It was obvious that Murdoch had completely tuned them out after his abrupt departure from the table.

"We gave up on dinner," Scott explained in the face of his father's confusion. "It's resting in peace; the burial can wait until morning."

After accepting one of the glasses of brandy, Murdoch followed Scott into the sitting area. "At least I don't have to worry about ending up wearing this," Murdoch muttered a little too loudly.

The sudden flush on his mother's face piqued Scott's curiosity, while visions of Johnny's soup soaked room flashed through his mind. "You haven't been throwing drinks at my father, have you, Mother?" he asked as he handed her the glass of sherry.

Catherine laughed and shared a knowing glance with Murdoch, who shifted self-consciously on his feet. His face was as flushed as hers had been moments before. Scott moved to the chair by the fireplace and sat down. To his surprise, Murdoch remained standing.

"Don't you want to sit over here with your mother, Son?"

"No, I'm fine." Scott fingered the rim of his glass before looking up to find his parents staring at him. "I can't see her as well if I'm sitting beside her," he said self-consciously. "That and, well, I...," he stammered and looked back down at the glass in his hand. "It's nice to see you two together. It's something I never dreamed I would ever get to see."

To his relief, Murdoch sank down on the sofa next to his mother. Intent on diverting the conversation away from his own overwhelmed emotions, Scott put on his most charming grin. "Would either of you care to enlighten me on why Murdoch thought he might end up wearing a glass of brandy?"

Murdoch rolled his eyes and took a sip of his drink, but his lack of protest seemed to be permission enough for his mother to continue. "The night you arrived in San Francisco our dinner had gone about as well as this evenings, only it was a serving of peas that had endured the brunt of my frustrations. As we were leaving, your father collided with a waiter and ended up wearing a bowl of green pea soup. We joked about the loyalty of peas."

Scott could just imagine the sight. Even as he chuckled, he found some reassurance about something else. "That explains why Murdoch looked like he was getting dressed when I arrived." Recalling the way he had accused his father of being involved in a torrid indiscretion, Scott felt ashamed. "I'm sorry for jumping to such a disrespectful conclusion, Sir."

"It was an understandable assumption, Son," Murdoch assured him. "You were upset and...well, finding me alone in a hotel room with your mother was not exactly something you would have considered as a possible explanation."

To this Scott could not agree more. "No, it wasn't." Taking a deep breath, Scott took in the most wonderful sight he had never hoped to see - his parents, sitting side by side, looking like they had never been apart. Still, they were not really together, either.  "Murdoch, there is something I need to ask you."

"What is it, Son?"

"You mentioned that Mr. Barkley was looking into getting you a divorce, but," Scott sat up straight and gave Murdoch a stern glare, "What exactly are your intentions towards my mother?"

Catherine struggled to hold back a snicker, but Murdoch looked like a deer that had just realized he was caught in a hunter's sights. He recovered quickly enough, though, and gave both Catherine and Scott a disbelieving glance. "If you must know, I intend to ask your mother to become my wife, again, if that meets with your approval, Son."

The way Murdoch stressed the word 'son' only heightened Scott's amusement. It was a highly unusual occurrence for a son to be in the position to approve of his parents' marriage before hand. Scott considered himself very fortunate, but he could not resist giving his father a hard time. "I will consider granting my approval, providing you ask her properly. I will not stand for any liberties being taken just because she accepted your proposal the first time."

"Actually, I didn't," Catherine laughed.

A crimson coloring spread over Murdoch's face. Confused, Scott watched his mother become more amused, while his father shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "If you didn't accept then how did you end up married to him?"

"I did," Murdoch mumbled into his brandy.

"Excuse me, Sir."

With a huff, Murdoch frowned disapprovingly at Catherine. "Your mother proposed to me. I'm the one who accepted."

If anyone ever asked, Scott would have to admit to being completely stunned. Surely he had heard wrong; either that, or Murdoch had been hitting the scotch rather early this evening. Under absolutely no circumstances would a respectable young lady ever ask a gentleman to marry her; especially not a young lady who had been raised by Harlan Garrett.

"Don't look so shocked, Scott," his mother interrupted his thoughts. "It is a time-honored tradition in Scotland, dating all the way back to the 1200's."

"I can think of a few other adjectives for that particular tradition," Murdoch grumbled under his breath.

Catherine playfully slapped Murdoch's arm. "Don't be such a grouch."

Scott did not know what to think; should he be more shocked by his mother's brazenness of nearly three decades past, or sit back and enjoy the amusement of Murdoch's current discomfort? In the end, shock won out. "You're telling me that you actually proposed to my father?" he asked his mother.

"Yes she did," Murdoch answered for her. "I had a romantic dinner planned, a ring just waiting for the perfect moment to be placed on her finger, but your mother was too impatient to wait *one* *more* *day*."

While Murdoch shook his head in dismay, Catherine buried her face against his shoulder. "One more day would have been too late, Dearest. It is the law," she managed to say through her laughter.

Murdoch remained indignant. "In Scotland, not in the United States."

"You're from Scotland. That should count for something," she explained as she swiped the tears from her eyes. "Besides, how was I supposed to know you were planning anything?"

The tight frown on Murdoch's face deepened. "You weren't supposed to know, Catherine. It was going to be a surprise."

"And it was, wasn't it?" The brilliant smile that accompanied her observation lightened Murdoch's mood. The tense creases in his brow eased and he almost smiled back. Almost.

"Let me see if I'm understanding this correctly," Scott leaned forward in his chair as he tried to wrap his mind around the newly revealed concept. "In Scotland, there is actually a law that says women can ask men to marry them?" Although he had always considered himself to be rather liberal, Scott found this prospect extremely disconcerting.

"Only during a leap year, Dear," Catherine expounded.

"Thank goodness for small favors," Murdoch grumbled. "And if that isn't bad enough, Scott, if the man refuses he has to pay a fine."

Scott was dumbfounded. "A fine? For refusing a marriage proposal? That's absurd."

"A rather hefty fine, too." Murdoch was scowling at Catherine, who could only snicker in the face of his contempt for this part of his own heritage. "A pound back then would amount to a rather tidy sum today."

Leaning back in his chair, Scott took a stiff drink from his glass. "Murdoch, may I be the first to thank you for not deciding to raise cattle in Scotland," Scott expressed his heartfelt relief.

"Scott Lancer! Surely you don't think that only a man has the right to choose his marriage partner?" Catherine chastised.

"No, I do not." The humor was gone, and Scott addressed his mother in total candor. "Nor do I support the idea of arranged marriages; both parties should be willing participants in a decision that will affect the rest of their lives. What I do believe is that it is the man's place, and right, to do the proposing."

Catherine's sad eyes and resigned frown clearly reflected her dismay. "Of course you do, Sweetheart. You're a man. I'm sure you would have an entirely different outlook if you were the one dependant on someone else to determine your destiny."

Although Scott could see his mother's genuine despondency over the situation, he felt too strongly about this to give in, even in deference to his respect for her. "Yes, I probably would, but that does not change the fact that the natural order of things is that men should be in charge of their family, which includes the courtship and the proposal."

Catherine sighed in defeat. "One day things will be different."

"Maybe they will," Scott reluctantly agreed. Secretly, he did not see much hope for this, but if such a social upheaval were to take place, he sincerely hoped that it would not be during his lifetime. Especially if he were fortunate enough to have a daughter somewhere down the line.

"Until then, however, I suggest that we be content to address the issue at hand. As we are not in Scotland, thank goodness," Scott looked pointedly at his father, "I fully expect you to make an honest woman out of my mother, and in a timely fashion. This is not a leap year, but next year is, and the last thing the single men in this valley need is for that to become common knowledge."

This time it was Murdoch who laughed heartily. There was an expectant gleam in his eyes when he looked over at Scott and asked, "Are you worried about someone in particular, Son?"

"Not in the least, Sir. However, I would rather not spend an entire year avoiding contact with every eligible young lady around for fear that she might decide I'm marrying material." Scott's eyes narrowed as he scowled at Murdoch. "Because if they do, I can assure you that there will be a fine to be paid, and you will be the one paying it on my behalf."

"Rest easy, Son. Even if this story were to get around," Murdoch's lighthearted tone transformed into a warning growl as he stared squarely at Catherine, "which I see no reason why it should, there is only one day you will have to spend in hiding. It's only on February 29th that such foolishness is allowed."

Scott breathed a sigh of relief over the time limitation. At least Scotland's lawmakers had not been completely insane. "I still expect you to do something before next February," he stated pointedly to Murdoch. "Which means you will be doing the honors this time."

"Are you demanding that I propose to your mother?" Although Murdoch's tone was flat, the teasing sparkle in his eyes gave away his humor.

In keeping with the facade, Scott nodded curtly. "Yes, Sir, I am."

"And if I should choose not too?" Murdoch gamely challenged.

"Then I would be forced to seek retribution."

Murdoch's head bobbed several times. "Yes, I would expect nothing less than a noble defense of your mother's honor. A duel, perhaps?"

Scott casually took a sip of brandy. "Perhaps," he conceded with a thoughtful frown. "Then again, this isn't Boston. As we are in the West, I suggest a more locally acceptable means of settling the matter." Scott's voice sank into a deadly growl. "Marry my mother, or I'll be calling you out, Mister."

Catherine burst out laughing at the two men's absurd posturing. "I'm beginning to think that I don't have any say in this at all."

"Of course you do," Murdoch protested even as he chuckled at the absurdity of his and Scott's playful posturing. "You have to say 'yes'."

Catherine's laughter faded. With her expression full of both love and fear, she faced Murdoch and asked very softly, "Are you asking me to marry you, Murdoch?"

From his seat in the corner, Scott noticed Murdoch's expression become a mirror image of his mother's. He felt very uncomfortable being witness to such a private matter, but he did not dare move for fear that he would destroy the special moment that was playing out before his eyes.

"Yes, Catherine, that is exactly what I'm asking. Will you marry me? Will you allow me to spend the rest of my life making up for all we lost, for all I wish I could have prevented from happening to you."

Tears filled Catherine's eyes, then began falling down her cheeks. "I've waited for this day for so long, Ducky. So very long." Leaning forward, she melted into his embrace. "I want nothing more than to be your wife again, and as soon as possible."

"Darling, you know that I would marry you tomorrow if I could," Murdoch cooed softly as she cried against his shoulder. "As soon as Jarrod sends confirmation that I'm free, we'll start making the arrangements." Easing her away from him, Murdoch took her face in his hands and looked down at her with the most loving expression imaginable. "I lost you once, I don't intend on ever losing you again."

Scott quickly looked away when Murdoch's head bowed towards his mother's. On one hand, he was thrilled to know that very soon they would be the family he had always dreamed of, but on the other hand, he really had not intended for his teasing challenge to put him in the position to witness Murdoch's proposal.

Just the thought that his parents were kissing was bad enough, but a muffled moan had him ready to make a break for the door. His planned escape was thwarted when Murdoch began speaking softly. "I guess I should have waited until we were alone."

"We do have a habit of doing this the wrong way, don't we?" came the equally tender reply.

Daring a glance in the direction of the sofa, Scott found himself on the receiving end of two very sheepish expressions. If it had been anyone else looking like they had been caught doing something they shouldn't, he would never have been able to hold back the amused chuckle that was persistently tickling the back of his throat. However, they were not anyone else; they were his parents, and they looked perfect together, and he could not be happier.

"I'm sorry, Son," Murdoch said in a voice more recognizable as that of the man he had come to know during the last year. "I guess I got carried away by the moment," he glanced at Catherine, his face practically glowing with love and adoration, "and by your mother."

Clearing his throat, Scott nodded. "I doubt that there are any rules of convention for how to properly deal with this particular situation," he responded sympathetically. "It seems that this family is destined to remain a social oddity in nearly all aspects." Rising to his feet, Scott's whole body warmed with contentment as he lifted his glass in front of him. "May I be the first to congratulate you on your engagement, and the first to extend my sincere wishes for a long and happy marriage."

Two more glasses joined his in the air. "Thank you, Son."

Catherine took a sip of her sherry before laying her head on Murdoch's shoulder. She was barely able to stifle the yawn that Scott easily discerned. "Tired, Mother?"

"A bit. I didn't get much sleep last night."

"I don't think any of us did," Scott agreed sadly. "Maybe you should try a cup of that tea you gave Teresa."

His mother smiled, but shook her head. "I don't think I'll need it. I could fall asleep right here."

Scott raised his eyebrow and cast a mock look of disapproval at his mother as she snuggled even closer to Murdoch's side. "That would be highly inappropriate," he stated even as Murdoch chuckled.

Murdoch handed his glass to Scott, and then retrieved Catherine's, which he also passed to his son. "Maybe I should escort you to your room, Darling. You look exhausted."

Scott refrained from adding any additional comment about maintaining propriety as he watched his father help his mother to her feet.  Even though he refused to contemplate them being intimate, he was very pleased that it would soon be a reality for them. They really did make a very attractive couple, and the love they felt towards each other was beyond dispute.

"Good night, Sweetheart."

Shaking off those thoughts, Scott leaned down and gave his mother a kiss on the cheek. "Good night, Mother. And please make yourself some tea if you find you can't get to sleep. Murdoch's right, you do look exhausted."

She returned his kiss with a promise of, "I will."

"Good night, Son." With one arm around Catherine, Murdoch placed his other hand on Scott's shoulder. "Don't stay up too late, Scott.  You look like you could use some sleep, too."

"I'll turn in after little while," Scott promised. "I just want to finish my drink and relax for awhile."

As soon as his parents were out of site, Scott moved to Murdoch's desk and retrieved a few pages of blank paper from the top drawer.  As happy as he was for them, and himself, his joy was overshadowed by a puzzle that, so far, had refused to be solved. Reluctantly, he pushed aside the happiness over their impending nuptials, and began working on the source of his discontent. He was determined to find the answer to the dilemma of Johnny's identity.

With painstaking care, Scott wrote out all the facts they knew, along with a few of his suspicions that seemed more plausible than far-fetched. Then he began meticulously categorized them into several different scenarios. Sheet after sheet of paper was covered with his penciled deductions, until, after reviewing all he had written for what had to be the hundredth time, he tossed the pencil down on the desk in disgust. No matter how many ways he attempted to piece the facts together, he always came up with a big hole in the picture. Exhaustion finally had him admitting defeat.

The grandfather clock struck twelve, and he decided to give up and get some sleep. Maybe tomorrow he could find some time with Murdoch, and they could review the information he had compiled, together. It was possible that there was something Murdoch knew that would fill in the blanks, something that Murdoch had not considered as being important. It could be that the right question had not yet been asked; the question that would trigger this memory to reveal its importance.

After dousing the lamps and giving the dwindling fire one last poke, he headed for his room. As he reached his room, even his fatigue could not dampen his need to check in on Johnny on more time. He entered the darkened room and immediately heard a rustling sound coming from the direction of the bed.

"That you, Scott?"

"Did I wake you?"

"Nope. Been awake for a few minutes."

The room was warm enough with the heavy drapes cloaking the window, so Scott doubted the night air had been the culprit. "Are your legs hurting?"

"Ain't that, exactly."

Scott fumbled around on the table for the matches, and then lit the oil light. He grabbed the chamber pot from the washstand and handed it to Johnny, a sheepish grin confirming his suspicions. Scott walked over to the window and pushed the drapes aside. He stared out the window, taking in the silvery moonlit landscape while
Johnny took care of his personal needs.

When a slight cough indicated the job was finished, Scott deposited the pot by the door, where it could be emptied in the morning. "Thank you, Johnny."

A pair of eyebrows raised in surprise. "You thanking me for doin' that?"

"No," Scott grimaced at his own ill-timed gratuity. "I was thanking you for not arguing with my mother over taking the laudanum, like you do with the rest of us. It really meant a lot to her." He doused the light before adding, "And to me."

Johnny's chuckle echoed in the darkness. "Scott, your momma could convince a porkypine into givin' up his quills. Even get him to pull 'em out himself, too."

Although Scott wondered about the meaning of that statement, his interest was not enough to make him press the point. He pulled the nearby chair closer to the bed, and once he was seated, he toed off his boots and propping his feet up on Johnny's mattress, shifting around until his rear found a comfortable position on the seat cushion. It was amazing how good it felt to just lean back and close his eyes.

"Comfy?" Johnny teased.

"It'll do," Scott replied through his weary contentment. "You never did answer my question. Are your legs hurting?"

"No."

Even the flatness of Johnny's response could not coax Scott's eyes open, not that he would have been able to see anything in the darkness, anyway. "Does that mean 'no', as in they really don't hurt, or 'no', as in I don't stand a chance of getting you take any more medicine even if they did?"

"Both."

Scott sighed his acceptance of the normally unacceptable response. He was too tired to argue with Johnny, and since there was no trace of discomfort in Johnny's voice, he figured Johnny was being more ornery than taking any real stand against being medicated. As strange as it would seem to an outsider, he found genuine appeasement in the familiarity of Johnny's seemingly cantankerous reply.

Although Scott briefly considered that he would be much more comfortable in his own bed, his body refused to move. Within few short minutes he was sound asleep where he sat, while Johnny lay awake, staring into the darkness, finding contentment in just the presence of the man he both loved and respected.

Early the next morning, a truly heartwarming sight lifted Murdoch's heavy spirit. Johnny was lying in his bed, flat on his back, with his head turned towards Scott, who was slouched in the chair next to the bed, arms crossed over his chest.

Scott's head was lolled to the side, but it was resting on the edge of the chair back, which would prevent what otherwise would have been a very bad neck ache. His feet were propped up on the mattress, and Johnny's left hand had a loose grip on the socked toes of Scott's right foot. Without waking them from their peaceful slumber, Murdoch slipped back out the door and headed downstairs to share with Catherine the good news that Scott and Johnny were both getting the rest they needed.
 

 

 *** *** *** ***
 

Shortly after breakfast, Murdoch departed for town in the surrey, while Scott saddled Charlemagne and one of the more reliable saddle mares. He was going to take his mother on a too-long delayed tour of the ranch. As time went by, she would become more familiar with the massive property that was now her home, but for today, Scott's intention was to go at a leisurely pace and hit only the most impressive sites. He purposely saved the best for last.

When they reined their mounts to a halt on the hill overlooking the most spectacular site on the entire ranch, they were still laughing over the way his mother's horse had tried to nibble some grass, only to get kicked in the nose by a terrified rabbit. The mare had startled slightly, not nearly enough to unseat her rider, but her snorting at the fleeing hare had been rather comical. As he dismounted, Scott smiled at the sound of the gasp that was the norm from someone seeing the sight for the first time; or, in his mother's case, for the first time since the ranch had become so much more than dirt and crab grass.

Scott helped his mother to the ground, and they stood, arm in arm, looking out over the land that had been the source of it all - the joys and the sorrows. These rolling hills had been the inspiration for the dream shared by both his parents - a dream that had become lost to a nightmare that had lasted for almost a quarter of a century. When he looked down at his mother, he saw the enchantment in her expression, but he also noticed the less than joyful undercurrents that were also present. "What is it, Mother?"

She did not look up at him, but a surprised, if not appreciative, smile crinkled her lips. "Am I that transparent?"

"To me you are." Scott instantly felt self-conscious over such an assertive statement and had to look away. His eyes focused in on the tiny image of the hacienda in the distance, the house that had, in a year's time, become his one and only true home. He had lived his entire life without knowing his mother in any way, but he could not deny these feelings of familiarity that told him more than words ever could. Even through his own jumble emotions, he was certain that something was bothering his mother very much. "Tell me what's wrong, Mother."

Her arm tightened around his waist and tears sprang up in the gray-blue eyes that were fixated on the hacienda in the distance as she clung to him. "We had such dreams, your father and I." The tears began to fall, but she looked longingly at the rolling hills, almost as if she expected to find an answer in their lush greenery. "We lost it all. You lost so much..." A choked sob was the preamble to a subject they had both been avoiding all morning. "I just can't understand why he's doing this," her voice cracked with sorrow.

Scott did not have to ask who he was - this very thought had been plaguing his own mind with unrelenting vigor after the prior evening's discouraging confirmation. "I wish I could help you, Mother, but I can't. Grandfather's behavior has left me wanting the answer to that question, too."

Pulling away, she looked up at him with a loving, but still penetrating, stare. "Scott, I have to know something."

The desperate turn in her tone startled Scott. In her eyes he could see her love for him, but there was a pleading there, also. Almost a demand, but not as exacting. "I'll tell you anything I can, Mother."

"Did he love you? When you were growing up, did you know that you were loved?"

Scott took a deep breath, but turned away as her eyes stared intently at him. "I was loved." When he looked back at her, he was met with an expression full of skeptical reservation, prompting him to repeat more firmly. "I was loved, Mother." Only then did the dismay creep back into his voice. "If I had never known his love, all of this would be so much easier to accept. I could just turn my back on him, once and for all."

Her eyes closed and she leaned into him. Scott could easily imagine the silent prayer she was giving for this small measure of comfort, even though he was not sure he could share her relief. Silently, he watched her, noting how her features softened, but not enough to erase lines of worry that were painful reminders of the turmoil within.

After what seemed an eternity, she sighed softly. "I don't understand how he can be so very different from the man I remember. I didn't think for a moment that he would be exactly as he was when I knew him last, but this much of a change..." Her head shook in dismay as it lay against Scott's chest.

Scott knew exactly how she felt, not that it made the acceptance any easier. "I don't understand him anymore, either. He wasn't always like this; so calculating and unfeeling. There was a time, and not all that long ago, either, when I considered him my friend, not just my grandfather. If only..."

"If only what, Sweetheart."

In her gentle urging, Scott found what he had always longed to know - a mother's love and a mother's generosity that selflessly put her child's needs above her own. She had to realize that his hesitancy came from his desire to shield her from anymore pain, yet she had not flinched in her offer of support, her offer to take his burden and make it her own.

Could she know? Did she really understand that she was the only one to whom he could bare this particular part of his soul? There was no one else with whom he could ever truly share this pain - not Johnny, although his brother would want to and would do his very best to give Scott whatever was needed; and especially not Murdoch, who, no matter how hard he might try, would never be able to offer more than an grudging acceptance tainted by anger and resentment.

Johnny and Murdoch were his family. He had no regrets for allowing them into his heart and his life, and there was no one closer to him. Still, when it came to this, they were not family enough to give him what he needed. Their only connection to Harlan Garrett was through him. It was too much to expect them to unconditionally accept his relationship with the man who shared the other half of his blood and his heritage, and the man who had gone so far out of his way to bring them all harm.

He had shouldered this burden by himself for months, but things were different, now. His mother shared the same blood-bond that made Harlan Garrett family, no matter how damning his behavior might be. He did not have to stand alone anymore; he had an ally in his search for the truth, for some kind of explanation for that which defied logic. Someone who had a vested interest in there being a more concrete explanation than Harlan Garrett just wanting things his own way.

"I wish I could be sure he ever felt the same way about me." Although he was able to finish his thought, to finally put a voice to those heartrending words, there was no relief in their coming. There was only a tremendous sense of failure.

"I'm sure he did, Scott. You would have known if it were otherwise."

Her hand pressed gently against his chest, but did little to ease the pain in his heart. "You have more faith in me than I do, Mother. What I know is that his entire attitude reeks of a sense of ownership. Last year he all but demanded that I ignore Murdoch's request to see me. When I didn't, he followed me out here and pulled some very underhanded tricks to get me back to Boston. He didn't..." Scott's heart broke a little more, as did his voice. "Not once did he ask me what I wanted; if returning to Boston would make me happy." With those words came a deep sorrow that threatened to crush the love he still felt for the man who had raised him.

Taking a few steps forward, and away from the very comfort he had wanted for so long, Scott tried to come to terms with what he had lost. "I remember once, when I was six - no, I think I was seven. Grandfather took me on a business trip to Philadelphia. It was the first time he let me accompany him, and I was so excited. His business would only last for only a couple of days, so the rest of the week was going to be just him and me."

The warmth of this fond memory helped to ease some of Scott's pain. His mind wandered, taking him back in time to the wonderful trip, to a time before he felt any confusion about where he stood in his grandfather's heart. "One of Grandfather's clients, Mr. Carlisle, owned a dairy farm on the outskirts of town, and we spent the last few days visiting with him. There were horses and cows and," Scott laughed as the memory became even more vivid, "and a big white duck name Calbongos."

Scott's smile faded. Why was it that with the good always seemed to be accompanied by something bad? "Calbongos was owned by one of the farm workers, Ben - a Negro man who had once been a slave in South Carolina. He had been working on Mr. Carlisle's farm for about six years; ever since he escaped from his owner." Just the thought of how some of his fellow countrymen had felt they had the right to own another human being made Scott's stomach churn.

"I really wanted take that duck home with us, so I asked Grandfather if he would buy him for me. I was very disappointed when we left without that duck, but on the train, Grandfather explained to me why Calbongos was very important to Ben. He was the first thing Ben had ever had to call his own. Ben named him for the place in Africa where his father was born - as a reminder of the things his father had lost. The things that Ben had regained after his escape."

Scott shuddered at the thought of what so many like Ben had endured. "Grandfather told me that Ben's father was kidnapped when he was barely five years old by African slave traders. I had never heard of slavery, so Grandfather explained it to me. The words he said that day will, forever, be ingrained in my mind."

It was hard to even want to remember those times, but he refused to allow the bitterness of those memories to take away his pride at having stood up for those who could not stand up for themselves. "It was the depth of compassion and anger in Grandfather's explanation that motivated me to join in the fight against slavery."

She nodded and in her eyes he saw understanding, but of a man neither of them were sure existed anymore. "Tell me, Mother, how does a man go from being so impassioned against subjugation that he could leave me with such an indelible aversion to it, to being a man who acts like he has the right to own me just because I carry his blood in my veins?"

"I'm not sure ownership is what Father is feeling, as much as the need to maintain control of his life."

If her words had been meant to offer comfort, they did not achieve that goal. "It is not his life. It's mine. And yours."

A little of the understanding faded from her face, but the love never faltered. "I know that, Sweetheart. I'm not trying to make excuses for him. When you were a child, you were not only under his care, but you were under his rule. Then you got old enough to make up your own mind, your wants and needs were no longer centered solely on him. His response was to hold on to you with an iron fist." She sighed softly. "He reacted the same way when I chose to marry your father. I was hoping he would eventually accept my marriage, but..."

Although his initial instinct was to deny this assumption as too easy, too pat, Scott paused. He thought back over the events in his life and found that he could not totally discount her theory. "I think that might be part of it, but what I don't understand is why.  Didn't he trust us to love him, even if we weren't right there under his thumb?"

Her hand reached up and gently caressed his cheek. "I don't have an answer for you, Scott. Only Father can tell us why he felt it was his right to deny us our dreams, for the sake of his own."

Placing his hand over hers, Scott took a moment to bask in the joy of her touch. He needed this. He needed this so very badly. "I love you, Mother," he whispered softly before turning his head to place a tender kiss on her palm.

"I have always loved you, Scott." The tears returned. "Even when I thought you were dead, I loved you. So often I dreamed of who you could have been..." She leaned into him, wrapping her arms around him as she buried her face against his chest. "You are so much more than I ever imagined. I'm sorry. So very sorry."

Scott held her close, feeling the tremors in her shoulders as she held tightly to him, crying her tears over all their lost years.  "I'm sorry, too, Mother," he whispered gently. He looked over her head towards his home in the distance, and experienced a jolt of angry bitterness for all he had been denied. If only she had come looking for him sooner, back when she first remembered who she had been. If only she had not been so weak.

Weak? How could he even think such a thing? She was anything but weak, though he dared not think too hard on how she had gotten that way. The very nature of what she had endured during those first few years after her 'death' made him wonder how long it had taken for her to become the determined woman who could stand toe to toe with Harlan Garrett, who could conquer the mountain that was Murdoch Lancer, and who could so quickly win over the ever-cynical Johnny Lancer.

So why had his anger returned? Why was he suddenly feeling bitter instead of content? Was not everyone the product of their life experiences, ever changing, ever evolving as life taught it's harsher lessons? Was it fair to expect her to have the same strength she had now, back when the assaults to her body and soul were still so fresh? No, it was not.

In what had to be the easiest of her battles, she had won over his heart, too. "The past is gone, Mother."

A tear stained face looked up at him. "But if I hadn't been so-"

A finger to her lips silenced her before she could speak that foolish thought. She was not weak. "Don't, Mother. Give me today, and promise me tomorrow. That's all I need."

Two pairs of gray-blue eyes met, and two hearts forged an understanding. They would always feel the loss of the yesterdays that were forever gone, but those years would never be allowed to take away the joy of having each other for each today that was to come. For a moment her smile brightened, then she turned away.

"What are you thinking, Mother?"

"I'm not sure you would appreciate hearing it."

"Try me." When she looked back up at him, and he was overtaken by the depth of love he saw in her expression.

"Just then, you reminded me so much of your father, back when we first met - back when he was young, full of hopes and dreams, and driven by an undaunted spirit. He knew exactly what he wanted." A far away look appeared in her eyes, and a flush of excitement on her face. "He wanted me. He told me all about his dreams and they became mine. We were so young, so in love, and together we set out to conquer the world. There was only one time I ever felt more alive."

Caught up in the rapture of her memories, Scott wanted to know it all. "When was that, Mother?" His voice was hushed, reflecting his reverence for the shared moment.

She was practically glowing as she tenderly placed her hand on his cheek again. "The day I found out I was carrying you."

A warm flush washed over Scott as he savored those words. They were a soothing balm to his soul that had suffered so much from being unwanted by his father. Part of him knew this was not the truth, most of him knew this had never been the truth, but that did not make those old hurts any less real. Nor did it take anything away from how good he felt just by hearing his mother's declaration.

"I don't mind being compared to Murdoch." A bit of mischief took hold of his mouth, and before he could stop himself, he added a teasing, "Most of the time, anyway."

Her brilliant grin was accompanied by a playful slap to his shoulder.  "Your father could do that, too," she said with an exasperated pout. "All serious one minute, and teasing me mercilessly the next."

While a teasing Murdoch was not that hard to imagine, a mercilessly teasing one was a little more difficult. "And what would my father have to tease you about?" Even as the words were spoken, a memory from the prior evening returned with a vengeance. "Would it have anything to do with you calling him 'Ducky' last night."

Even before he finished speaking, her eyes became wide with shock. "Oh, dear," she gasped. "You shouldn't have heard that. I promised Murdoch. He's going to have a fit if he remembers that you overheard me."

Scott chuckled. "Why do I think you could easily handle any fit that Murdoch Lancer could throw?"

"But I promised him," came the mournful reply.

 "What exactly did you promise him?" Scott asked when he realized that she was genuinely upset by her lapse.

Her brow knitted, then she answered hesitantly. "He had just pointed out that this was one memory that could have remained lost as far as he was concerned, then he said..." She relaxed and grinned conspiratorially at Scott. "He made me promise to never call him that in front of 'the boys'," with specific emphasis on the last two words.

"Well, you didn't say it in front of 'the boys'," Scott repeated her stressed tone for those two words, "you said it in front of me. That makes it a half-break, at best."

"Somehow I doubt your father will see it that way." Catherine laughed, but then addressed Scott in a total sincerity. "Please, Son, don't tease him. That nickname has a very special meaning for us."

"I promise." Scott sighed. There just went a whole ration of plans out the window. "As long as you promise to tell me what it means, someday."

"Deal," she agreed. "I just hope Murdoch never realizes I said it."

"Surely you jest," Scott asked incredulously. "I can assure you that he will remember. It might take him awhile, but it will happen."

His warning was answered with a dramatic sigh. "I guess my goose is cooked. Or is it my duck?"

Scott rolled his eyes, then hugged her tightly. "I'm so happy you're here. I need you, Mother. I never realized how much until now. If things had only been different."

Her previous calm instantly transformed into a brutal bitterness. "Things could have been different, if my Father had not chosen to abandon me in Carterville."

Unsure of how to respond to her sudden change in demeanor, Scott hesitated. It was a delicate subject to say the least, but of all the things he felt he had a right to hold against his grandfather, this was not one of them. "Mother, you were dead. Grandfather didn't have a choice."

"He had every choice." Angry resentment permeated her every word. "We lost each other because he found something more important to do than seeing to it that I had a proper burial!

Scott tensed, unsure if he wanted to know what she meant, but knowing that he could not ignore the certainty of her claim. "I always knew that Grandfather was there when you died. I just assumed that he had been there when you were buried, too. I had no reason to believe otherwise." In his ignorance, Scott felt like he, too, was part of his grandfather's betrayal. "I didn't know."

"I'm so sorry, Son."

There had been so many lies in his life, so many half-truths. As hurtful as the truth could be, it was never more painful than when it was preceded by a large helping of deceit. "Don't ever be sorry for telling me the truth, Mother. It's a refreshing change."

"You haven't been able to put that behind you, yet, have you? Even though you chose to stay here with him."

Again, Scott did not have to ask which him she meant. This time, however, the love he felt in her distress was not enough. The unresolved issues with his father were not something he was ready to discuss; not with her, anyway. Only his father could put those issues behind them.

Murdoch's promise of that long-overdue conversation had not been forgotten, nor would it. Scott was more than willing to wait until the more pressing issues at hand were settled, though, because that talk would require an undivided attention that neither of them could give under the current circumstances.

"No, I haven't, Mother. But I will," he stated bluntly and without invitation for further discussion on the topic.

Thankfully, his mother's sense of his moods appeared to be as keen as his was for hers. She did not press him, even though it had to be hard for her to accept the conflict between the man she loved and the son she had born. Scott held little fear there would be a need for her to choose sides, but he could not completely dismiss the possibility. That being the case, it was highly likely that she would not be able to do so, either. It had to be a frightening prospect for someone who had so recently regained her life.

A movement in the direction of the road caught his eye, thankfully giving him something else to think about. A small cloud of dust was being stirred by a couple of horses, or maybe a wagon. He kept his eyes focused on the slowly approaching object, and relaxed when he recognized the hazy silhouette of his father behind the reins. Next to him was the smaller figure that could only be Teresa. He let the worries of what had been and what was to come fall away under the uncertainty of the more immediate future.

"This homecoming isn't going to be easy for Teresa."

His mother put a voice to his own thoughts, and Scott found more comfort in the understanding that was growing between them. "That has probably been the longest trip back from Morro Coyo, ever," Scott agreed.

At breakfast, Murdoch had informed them both that Johnny was insistent the he be the one to tell Teresa about the events of the past few days. On one hand, Scott could understand Johnny's need to take control of at least one thing in his shattered life, but on the other hand, he hated knowing the torture Johnny was purposely putting himself through. As for Teresa, there was no way she could be prepared for what was about to hit her.

Teresa was like a sister to both of them. From the very beginning, her loyalty to Murdoch was admirable, but since then, she had proved her loyalty to him and Johnny, as well. Scott grinned as he recalled his first, almost disastrous, shopping trip in Morro Coyo that was interrupted by a message from Day Pardee - a message that was delivered by a few gnarly fists.

Almost as soon as the punches began flying, Teresa had started throwing anything she could grab at Pardee's men. At the time, he had been too busy dispatching the thugs to appreciate Teresa's feisty actions, but since then, he had recalled that day several times, and always with affection and humor. The store's proprietor, Mr. Baldemero, had not been nearly as impressed by Teresa's contribution to the fracas.

An intense need suddenly overtook him - the need to be home with his family, to share in this latest turn of events. Being unable to satisfy Teresa's ever-persistent curiosity would have been an ordeal for Murdoch, and having Catherine around would be the only thing that would soothe away Murdoch's frustrations. Not to mention that Scott wanted to be close by for Johnny after that painful conversation was over. This whole situation was ripping Johnny apart inside, and having to explain it all to Teresa would only make the hurts that much more intense.

It was only when Scott went to take his mother's arm that he realized she was no longer standing beside him. Turning, he spied her a short distance away, under the huge oak tree, studying the freshly turned soil near its base. He walked over to her and put his arm around her shoulder. Her arm slipped around his waist and together they stood solemnly over the recently filled grave.

"Barranca," he said in answer to the question he could sense from her. "Some of the hands - Johnny's friends - took care of this while we were tending to his injuries."

"Does Johnny know about this?"

"Yes, I told him. He..." Scott stopped at the memory of Johnny's recent revelation. After living with so little for so long, this loss would be very difficult to get over, but it was going to be even more difficult given the personal nature of the loss. "Barranca was a gift from Murdoch - the first tangible connection Johnny had with a father he had always believed hated him. I never knew Johnny felt that way until he told me yesterday morning." To his surprise, a knowing look of approval slowly appeared on his mother's face. "What?" he asked curiously.

"That must be why your father sent, who was it, Cipriano and..."

"Jelly," Scott supplied, but he was already putting the pieces together for himself. "Murdoch couldn't leave, so he sent the two men he trusts the most - two men who would do anything for Johnny." Scott recalled the footsteps in the hallway and thought that they coincided with this particular part of his and Johnny's discussion. "He must have overheard what Johnny said and wanted to find a suitable replacement for Barranca."

"And for his connection with Johnny," Catherine added softly.

Scott nodded his agreement of her assessment, but his delight at their discovery was quickly obscured by the shadow of thoughtful deliberation. "But why send them all the way to Fort Bowie? The army buys horses, it doesn't sell them."

"We are only guessing that's what your father had in mind. He didn't say anything more to me," her expression softened. "But he had that determined look on his face, like he knew exactly what he wanted and he would do everything in his power to make it happen."

Although not fully satisfied he understood his father's actions, Scott could accept that Murdoch's actions were honorable and his intent was to help Johnny. That was more than enough to put to rest any reservations about having sent Jelly and Cipriano away when they were already short handed. It also went a long way in allowing him to overlook the secretive way in which the plans had been put into motion. Still, Scott could not help wondering what exactly it was that Murdoch hoped to find at that obscure army post.

 

 *** *** *** ***
 

With their leisurely morning at an end, Scott solemnly accompanied his mother back to the house and the painful reality that awaited them. The family's problems had not gone away during those few precious hours of respite, but the opportunity to leave them behind had been sorely needed. Now he felt like he had the stamina to face them again.

"How was your ride?" Murdoch asked as soon as they entered the great room through the French doors.

Catherine moved quickly to his side, slipping her arm around his waist even as his own arm wrapped itself possessively over her shoulders. "The ranch is beautiful, Murdoch. It's everything we wanted it to be when we first came here," she said softly. "I can't imagine ever wanting to be anywhere else."

Despite her reassuring words, there was a hint of worry in his mother's expression and Scott could only imagine that she was still concerned about the issues that had been brought out during their discussion on the hill. He was too, only his concerns were being overshadowed by a more pressing worry. He glanced in the direction of the archway leading to the stairs.

"Teresa is upstairs talking to Johnny," Murdoch informed them.

"I wish he hadn't insisted on doing this himself." Although Scott could understand why Johnny had done so, he still hated that it had to be this way. "It's hard to believe it's only been two days since Maria's...arrival." Scott settled on the more polite term for what he viewed as nothing less than a malicious attack on his family.

"Two days?" Murdoch's barely audible words reflected his own disbelief that it had not been longer ago than that. However, the shock was quickly replaced by a self-preserving determination to make things right. "Before I picked up Teresa at the Gladstones', I sent a wire to the Pinkerton office in San Francisco. Without going into details, I hired them to find out as much as they can about Maria. More detailed instructions can be delivered in person on Tuesday." With a disgusted snort, Murdoch added, "There's no sense in having the whole valley speculating on our personal problems any sooner than we have to."

Scott was instantly appalled that Murdoch was willing to believe his former...his wife's lies, but he allowed only a hint of dismay to come through in his curtly spoken, "That will be a complete waste of money, Sir."

Moving to the chair by the fireplace he sat down. He was reluctant to get into a heated debate with his father, but would not just meekly accept what he saw as Murdoch turning his back on Johnny.

Footsteps and the rustling of clothing came closer, then stopped, telling Scott that his parents were now seated on the sofa across from him. The irony of the situation did not escape him. Here they were, in the same positions as the previous night, only the lightheartedness that had been so enjoyable has been replaced by an oppressive sense of dismay.

Murdoch broke the strained silence with a feeble attempt to explain his reasoning. "Scott, I know you don't want to consider the possibility, but I have to. I can't just ignore the fact that I might still have a son out there. Maybe even thinking that I don't want him, or being forced to live like-" Murdoch choked on the name that would not be said. "I wish you would try to understand that this is something I have to do."

Still motivated by outrage, Scott protested harshly. "Murdoch, I've been over everything that happened, every word that was said, and I'm convinced that the real Johnny Lancer is either buried by a donkey-shaped rock in Mexico, or else he is upstairs talking to Teresa."

"Then that's what the detectives will find, and we can put the matter to rest once and for all."

Murdoch's calm words cut through the haze of Scott's anger, and he realized that he had been very unfair. "I'm sorry, Sir. I just assumed that you had decided that Maria was telling the truth."

"I won't lie to you, Son. I can't totally dismiss her claims, even though I would like to. If there is any chance at all that she might be telling the truth, I have to know. In the meantime, if we find some way to prove that Johnny is my son, I can tell them that I no longer need any information on Maria. It is as easy to take them off the case as it was to put them on it."

"Are you sure that's what you would want to do, Sir?"

"Of course, I'm sure. Once we find out about the truth about Johnny, I would no longer even care..." Murdoch's jaw slacked open as comprehension dawned. "Scott, you can't honestly believe I still have feelings for that woman."

Such a thought had taken Scott completely by surprise, and he, too, wondered how he could even consider such a thing; but he had.  "She is still your wife," Scott offered in feeble defense, but his head remained bowed in shame.
 

 

 *** *** *** ***
 

Murdoch was dumbstruck. The only time he had ever felt more off balance was when he arrived at the mission and saw Catherine again.  "I had no idea you felt that way."

Scott looked down at his clasped hands. "I didn't either," he admitted sheepishly.

It pained Murdoch to see his son so distraught, and he did not have to imagine why. He knew exactly how it felt to suddenly realize you had feelings that you were not aware of, not to mention discovering that those unrecognized feelings had been affecting both your thoughts and actions. It was how he had felt when he had finally seen how his hatred for Maria had been controlling the way he had treated their son. It could be a very humbling experience.

"Scott, I love your mother, but even if she wasn't here, I would not be the least bit interested in having Maria back in my life."

"Then why didn't you divorce her before now?"

Despite being a little taken aback by the blunt delivery, Murdoch considered Scott's words carefully before speaking. "At first, maybe I did have some hope that if she came back that we could make our marriage work. I meant those vows when I made them. Also, well, funds were tight back then. I..." He could question his inaction to death, but that was not what Scott needed to hear.  "Honestly, Son, I don't know why I never got around to getting a divorce. I just didn't, and now I wish I had. What I can tell you with absolute certainty is that I have no desire to have her back in my life in any way."

"Even if she wanted you back?"

Maria? Want him back? If the situation were not so serious, Murdoch would have laughed at such an absurd notion. "You don't have to worry about that happening, Son." Murdoch glanced over at Catherine, and was startled to see the shadow of doubt on her face.  "Catherine?"

She did not look away, but she did repeat her son's words of moments before. "She is still your wife."

For the second time in as many minutes, Murdoch found himself totally dumbfounded. After all Catherine and he had shared, all the talking, the reminiscing, her gentle reawakening of his heart and his soul, how could she doubt his commitment to her? How could she think him capable of putting any other woman before her? She did, though, and apparently so did their son.

His burly heart began to crack, aching as he felt what was left of his world being ripped away until a sudden surge of determination coursed through his body, driving his heartache away on the waves of a promise he had made to himself that very morning. Maria Lancer would never steal anything from him again. Removing his arm from around Catherine, he stood up and moved to the end of the coffee table, where he could see both of them.

"I will not deny that I once had feelings for Maria Lancer. Many years and many more heartaches ago, I did love her. Now, however, my feelings are limited to contempt." His gaze zeroed in on Catherine. "I'm sorry, but I can't regret marrying her. From that ill-fated marriage came a son that I loved. There is one reason and one reason only that I have not tracked her down and wrung her scrawny little neck with my bare hands, and that is because that devious snake is going to tell me the truth about my son. After that, I couldn't care less if she was trampled by every head of cattle in the state of California."

Returning to his seat, Murdoch looked directly at Catherine. "I love you, Darling. I want to marry you and spend the rest of our days together. But even if you were not going to be part of my future, Maria would not be, either. Call me a fool for not divorcing her before now if that's how you see it, but I will never be fool enough to want her back, under any circumstances."

Before anyone could respond, the older Maria entered with a tray of lemonade and coffee. Catherine thanked her and exchanged a few hushed words with the family cook, and then busied herself serving up the lunch.

Scott smiled appreciatively and thanked his mother as he accepted his plate. Sitting back in his chair, he took a bite of the roast beef sandwich. He had not realized he was so hungry, but the mouth-watering aromas of fresh-baked bread and warm beef changed all that.

Over on the sofa, he could tell that his mother was experiencing the same enjoyment, but Murdoch's expression remained gloomy. For a few minutes they ate in relative silence, until Murdoch set his barely-touched sandwich down on the coffee table.

Leaning forward, Scott placed his own plate down next his father's, and wiped his mouth with his napkin. Keeping his voice steady and calm, he asked, "Why do you think Maria chose to come back now?"

Murdoch looked up from his coffee, his eyes blazing with frustration. "For exactly the reason she said she came for, to take pleasure in my pain. To rub my nose in the fact that I had not found Johnny after all."

"Then why do you think that she told you your real son was dead?"

"To hurt me! What else could she possibly hope to achieve after all this time?"

"Consider what you just said, Murdoch. Maria claimed that she came here to gloat over you accepting an imposter as your son. You believe she came here to hurt you, and telling you that Johnny was an imposter succeeded in doing just that, didn't it?"

"Yes."

 Defiance rang clear in Murdoch's wary tone, but Scott's experience had taught him that this was just Murdoch's way. If he were not still willing to listen to Scott's reasoning, he would have declared the subject closed. "Then why didn't she stop there? Why would she purposely undo some of the agony she caused by telling you that your real son is dead?"

"She undid nothing!"

Catherine leaned forward and slipped her hand into Murdoch's. "Darling, I think I understand what Scott is trying to say." Her voice was soothing and gentle, reminiscent of the tone a good horseman would use to calm a frightened animal. "Why would Maria come all this way to gloat and hurt you, and then tell you the only thing that could put an end to your needless suffering?"

Murdoch's stare shifted between Catherine and Scott. "Put an end to my suffering? And just how is telling me my son is dead supposed to do that? Have both of you gone mad?" he asked incredulously.

"Yes, I am mad!" Scott's mounting frustrations surged to the surface. "I am mad that some sadistic woman from your past is making it necessary for me wait to tell everyone that my mother is alive. I am mad that instead of rejoicing over an impossible reunion come true and an upcoming wedding, the family I have always dreamed of having is being torn apart. I'm mad that my brother," his eyes narrowed as he glared at Murdoch, "and you can bet your life I still believe that Johnny is my brother, is upstairs telling Teresa that the one thing he ever wanted is being ripped away from him by his own mother! I..."

Scott stopped short, his jaw slack as he stared into the concerned faces of his parents. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath.  "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to yell at you." He opened his eyes but could not meet the expectant stares. "I just want this whole thing to be over."

"Son, why are you so sure that Maria was lying about Johnny?"

The gentleness and longing in Murdoch's voice surprised Scott. So much so, that he kept his gaze on the table long enough to spur Murdoch to continue.

"I know it's what you want to believe, it is what I want to believe, too, but what exactly has you so convinced?"

The longing was still there, but Scott heard that sound of hope, too. He looked over at his father and gave him a small smile. "There is no one thing, Sir. It's just a lot of little things that don't make sense unless she is lying."

Murdoch settled back on the sofa, wrapping his arm around Catherine's shoulders when she sat back and leaned against him. "What things, Son? Maybe two more viewpoints can help put the pieces you've already gathered together into that one bigger piece."

Scott retrieved his coffee and took a sip, trying to relax. His thought were so jumbled that if he didn't get them more organized before speaking, he was sure to have both his parents convinced he was mad, and not in the angry sense of the word, either.

"First off, she came all the way here, in person, when she could have just sent a letter," he began. "Not once, but twice, she said her reason for doing so was to point out that you were duped by an imposter, but why would she care? She left you, she never contacted you in all these years, and her contempt for you is undeniable, yet she claims she came all this way just to save you from further embarrassment?"

"She came here so she could personally rub my nose in it," Murdoch snapped. "She took great pleasure in belittling me, as I recall."

Not wanting the conversation to become another confrontation, Scott quickly agreed. "Yes, she did. She yanked the rug out from under you and had a good laugh, so why say anything about your real son being dead? If she was telling the truth, if your son really is dead, she could have kept that to herself as she has all these years and continued being amused by your search for a son that could not be found."

"Maybe she thought Murdoch wouldn't believe her claim that Johnny wasn't his son," Catherine suggested. "She didn't mention the death until after she had laughed about Murdoch being made a fool of by an imposter. I got the feeling she was using that to prove that Johnny couldn't possibly be Murdoch's son."

Scott nodded, but inside he was thrilled to have his opinion confirmed by another. "That was the impression I got, too, only there was no reason for her to be worried about Murdoch not believing her - Johnny himself had already stated rather adamantly that she was not his mother. She couldn't have asked for better corroboration."

"No, she couldn't." There was an unmistakable sadness in Murdoch's reluctant agreement. "And I wouldn't have given a second thought to Maria's claims if Johnny hadn't been so unyielding with his denial."

"With Johnny's corroboration, there was no need to mention your child's death, true or not, but she did," Scott could only hope that Murdoch would be more receptive to this point a second time around. "I know you don't want to hear this, Murdoch, but if she is telling the truth, if your son really is dead, then she did you a favor by finally telling you that fact. You would grieve, but you could also finally find peace. Can you really see her doing anything benevolent towards you?"

"What she did was take away my hope," Murdoch countered.

"If your son is dead, if he has been dead for twenty years, there is no hope, Murdoch. It's a delusion. The cruelty would be in allowing you to continue searching for something that cannot possibly happen, as you've done for all these years. You might as well take up chasing rainbows on the hope of finding a pot of gold."

Scott waited, unsure of what kind of reaction he would get, but knowing he was right. How many families of his fellow soldiers had waited years to learn of the demise of their loved ones? Had clung to their feeble hopes, because to do otherwise would have been unconscionable? Praying for the miracle of good news, but in the end,
desperate for any news, as long as it was the truth.

When the word had finally arrived, it was almost always a gut-wrenching confirmation of the finality of their loss. That kind of truth was never easy to hear or to live with, but Scott had observed that there was also a sense of relief that accompanied the pain, a release from the entirely different kind of agony caused by just not knowing anything.

"I don't know, Son," Murdoch answered honestly. "I never want to hear that either of my sons is dead. When Maria said that...she might as well have shoved a knife into my gut."

Scott opened his mouth to object, but fell silent when Murdoch raised his hand. "I'm not saying I fully believe her, but at that particular moment it felt like the truth. It was such a shock to see her, and then to hear her say that...to have all hope of ever having my son back ripped away from me. I don't want to grieve for my son, I want to find him."

"I understand, Sir." Scott accepted the impasse reluctantly, but with a greater sense of just how much Maria's statement had affected his father. Still, he could not shake the belief that Murdoch would be better off knowing the truth; even if that truth was that his son was dead.

The Bible says 'the truth shall set you free', so, if for no other reason than that, he found it hard to believe that Maria would willingly reveal any real truth to a man she so clearly despised. In compromise, Scott offered, "I did come up with another reason that would make it seem unlikely she would want to tell you that, if it were actually true."

"And that would be?"

"No matter how you felt, you would not be looking for Johnny anymore."

"No, I don't suppose I would."

"Then, with Johnny already backing her story, she gave away a perfectly good source of amusement for no reason." Scott felt like he should apologize for sounding so flippant, but changed his mind when he saw a slight smile on Murdoch's lips.

"I suppose that is a valid point. Maria never was one to willing give up anything that she enjoyed." Murdoch frowned. "But even if we were to agree that there is little reason to believe that she was telling the truth about my son being dead, that still does not give us any valid reason to dismiss her claim that Johnny is not my son, or Johnny's denial that she is not his mother."

More of Scott's bitterness slipped out. "If she is capable of lying about her own child's death, then she is capable of lying about anything." Catching himself, Scott forced those personal feelings aside. "As for Johnny's assertions, you argued that extremely well to Johnny. He may not remember her as being the mother who raised him, but
he cannot definitively state that she is not the mother who gave birth to him."

"What if...' Catherine began, only to stop, head bowed, as her fingers twisted at the skirt of her dress, while father and son looked at her expectantly.

"What is it, Darling?

Her head lifted and Scott saw the turmoil in her expression. "Go ahead, Mother," he prodded with an encouraging smile. "We've got to be willing to explore every possibility, even the ones that don't support what we want to be true."

"What if she is lying about Murdoch's son being dead, but is telling the truth about Johnny not being that son? Besides our desire for that not to be true, what else is there to say it is not?"

Scott glanced over at Murdoch, who looked a little pale. "I did consider that possibility, Mother. That was one of the things that I could not get to work out, in either direction. While it seems odd that Maria would be so willing to inform Murdoch that he is being duped to save him any further embarrassment to the extent of coming here in person, at the same time, it is perfectly believable that she would find the idea of seeing Murdoch's reaction too tempting to resist." Scott noticed his mother's thoughtful frown. "Do you have another theory, Mother?"

"If Johnny is alive, and he is not our Johnny, then how did the Pinkertons fail to find any trace of him in all these years, or at least pick up a hint of there being another Maria Lancer?"

"That does seem odd." Scott's curiosity was piqued, but it was the almost embarrassed look on his mother's face that told him she had more to say. "And what answer did you come up with, Mother?"

"Maria mentioned knowing about the detectives, so she knew they were looking. She could have left false clues to throw them off her trail, or..." Pain clouded her already bleak expression. "It could be that the real Johnny has been with her all along, even helping her with the deception."

The ticking of the grandfather clock was the only sound to be heard through the oppressive silence that had suddenly engulfed the room. Scott had not even considered this option, but he could not dismiss the possibility that anyone raised by such a vile woman could turn out just as cold an manipulative.

"Or she could have just thought that Johnny was dead all this time, when he really wasn't. Like Father believed that I was dead."

Scott's blood ran cold at the comparison. "Grandfather was not so cruel that he let Murdoch believe that you were alive all this time, when he was certain that you were dead. She's not that innocent, Mother, and if she was, why tell Murdoch anything now, when she has known it for twenty years?"

"Maybe she couldn't tell him before," Catherine suggested. "Maybe she was in jail."

Murdoch snorted. "If that was the case, I definitely would have heard from her long before now. At the very least, she would have blackmailed me into trying to get her out with promises of telling me where to look for Johnny. I'm sorry, Darling, but I have to agree with Scott. In twenty years, she would have found a way to get word to me if she had any amount of compassion in her heart."

Having recovered from his anger, Scott added, "Not to mention, that if she was not in a position to send Murdoch a letter telling him that his son was dead, then she would not have been in a position to know that the Pinkertons were looking for him, either. She knew too much information to have been anything but willfully silent all this time."

"This is pointless," Murdoch said with a resigned shake of his head. "We could debate all day what might be reasonable what might not seem to be, but there are too many possibilities."

Thankful for his father's intervention, Scott sighed in agreement. "Which is why I have to go to San Francisco. We need facts, and I don't think any Pinkerton detective is going to get them, either."

"Maybe not," Murdoch agreed. "But we will."

"We?"

"I'm going with you, Son. I will not let you face that woman alone."

His father's declaration set off a small war in Scott's mind. One voice was telling him that he should be insulted by the insinuation, while another was telling him that there was too much at stake, that the two of them might be successful, where individually, neither held the upper hand. "What about Johnny? Since you sent Jelly and Cipriano off to do who knows what, who is going to keep him from taking off once we are both out of the picture?"

"Johnny isn't going anywhere as long as those casts are on his legs, Scott. Besides that, Teresa is here. She knows his tricks, and how to avoid them." Murdoch cast a stern eye towards Catherine, even though his words continued to be for Scott. "And your mother seems to have a way of getting through to him, too."

With what he had guessed about what had taken place during the prior confrontation between his mother and Johnny, Scott was hardly enthused over the prospect of a repeat performance. Teresa's presence would probably negate anything like that from happening again, and there was no arguing that Teresa would not hesitate to call in anyone she thought necessary to force Johnny's compliance.

Murdoch was right - Johnny wasn't going anywhere on his own - which left Scott struggling with his feelings over Murdoch's lack of faith in his abilities. "Fine, I agree that Teresa and Mother can handle Johnny, and Frank can even handle the ranch for a few days, but I also think I'm quite capable of dealing with one vindictive woman."

A dark eyebrow raised on a furrowed brow. "Are you?" Murdoch asked pointedly. "I'm not even sure I could get the information out of her before succumbing to the desire to strangle her. She has kept these secrets to herself for all these years, so there is no reason to believe that she will give them up now, just because we asked."

"She will answer my questions. I can hold my temper long enough to get the truth out of her."

"Good. My knowledge of her might be old, but it is all we have. You know only what you've been told, and she could easily use that against you."

And the light dawned. "You were planning to go to San Francisco all along, weren't you? That's why you were so agreeable..." Scott's eyes narrowed, "and why you maneuvered me into waiting to take the Tuesday train."

"Yes, on both counts. I had intended on discussing the matter with you that night after dinner, but you brought it up first. But as for waiting for the train, whether I intended on accompanying you or not, you would not have reached San Francisco any sooner on horseback." At least Murdoch had the consideration to look slightly guilty over his deception. "I merely decided that it might be best to avoid this very dispute until it was closer to time to leave. Again, you beat me to it."

Scott could accept Murdoch's logic, but only to a point. "Fine. We will confront Maria together, but Grandfather is mine." His icy stare was met with a curt nod.

"Agreed."

Pounding footsteps and rustling sound coming from the foyer got everyone's attention. Murdoch and Scott stood, as all eyes turned towards the archway as Teresa came rushing into the room. There was no hesitation as she threw herself into Murdoch's waiting arms. "It can't be true!" she cried. "There has to be some mistake."

Murdoch looked helpless as he held Teresa tightly in his arms. "Don't worry, Honey. We'll find out the truth."

Content that Teresa was in capable hands, Scott's concerns turned to the man who could not run away. He was almost to the archway, when Teresa's voice stopped him. "Scott, Johnny said to tell you that he didn't want any company for awhile."

Turning on his heel, he saw Teresa wiping the tears from her face, and looking as if she felt the villain for relaying such a message. "Johnny said that?" Scott asked through his own feelings of denial.

Teresa nodded, but Murdoch said the words that eased Scott's mind. "Just give him a few minutes, Son. Let him get himself back under control, and then he'll want to see you. He'll need to see you."

"How am I supposed to know when that will be? It's not like he can come find me."

Murdoch's expression was sympathetic, but convinced. "He'll find a way to let you know, Son."

Scott looked through the archway towards the stairs, then nodded and returned to his seat. Murdoch and Teresa sat down on the sofa, with Teresa between Catherine and Murdoch. As if by some motherly instinct, Catherine reached over and tenderly brushed a stray lock of hair away from Teresa's eyes.

Teresa looked over at Catherine and smiled through her tears. "Johnny told me that he thinks you are very special. He told me about the way he acted the other night, and," tears spilled from Teresa's eyes, "it's tearing him up knowing that he hurt you so badly. He said Scott couldn't have a better mother, and that Murdoch couldn't find a better wife. I'm sorry for ever thinking that you would want hurt anyone here."

The two women embraced as tears streamed down both their faces. "Teresa, you never made me feel anything but welcome. There is nothing wrong with wanting to protect your family. Nothing at all."

"I don't want Johnny to leave," Teresa sobbed as Catherine tenderly brushed Teresa's hair with her hand.

Over Teresa's head, Catherine and Murdoch shared a sad but comforting glance. "Murdoch and Scott will do everything they can to make sure that doesn't happen. Johnny belongs here, where he is loved."

Scott watched as his mother comforted the young woman he thought of as his sister. It warmed his heart to see how easily she slipped into the roll of the family matriarch, and opened her arms and her heart to all that were part of Murdoch's family. She had done the same thing with Johnny, though Scott doubted that particular scene was anything like the one playing out in front of him now. His warm feelings were instantly replaced by a heart-stopping fear when a loud crash was heard from the direction of the stairs.

Before anyone else could move, Scott was on his feet and headed for the stairs. It had been hard for him to fight his intense need to go to Johnny when Teresa had first come downstairs, but now there was nothing that would keep him away from his brother's room, which was the only possible source of the crashing sound.

His footfalls were still resounding in the hallway when he slid to a halt and threw open the bedroom door. He burst into the room, and while he was not sure what he expected to find, seeing Johnny propped up in bed, staring out the window as if nothing had happened was not one of them. Scott quickly scanned the rest of the room, his eyes pausing to take in the shattered water pitcher in the corner behind the door.

Murdoch burst through the door next, but Scott cut off his expected demand for information with a curt shake of his head. "The water pitcher must have fallen," he said softly as he stepped aside so Murdoch could see the shattered porcelain in the pool of water on the floor behind him.

They shared a look that said neither of them believed the pitcher had simply fallen to the floor, and Murdoch backed away with a nod. "We'll be downstairs if he needs us." Then he turned and walked away.

Scott stood there for a moment, listening to the hollow sound of Murdoch's retreating footsteps. He had not missed the hurt in his father's eyes as he acknowledged that Scott was the better man for the job of dealing with whatever it was that had prompted Johnny to throw the pitcher across the room. He felt for both men, knowing that they each wanted things to be different.

Before Maria's startling return, father and son had made a start, had broken down some painful barriers, and managed to let go of the most painful parts of the past. Still, it would take time for them to become comfortable with each other. If that were allowed to happen, Scott thought ruefully.

Murdoch had already proven that he would be less of an obstacle to overlooking the lack of a blood relation between them than Johnny would be. Murdoch's acceptance would play the major role in Johnny's ability to remain at Lancer, should the unfathomable turn out to be true.

Scott sighed and stared at his brother lying motionless in the bed. Johnny had yet to acknowledge that he was aware of Scott's presence, though there was no doubt that Johnny knew he was there. The man would have had to be deaf to miss that arrival. Scott almost laughed when he realized that Johnny had found a way. Even frustrated to the level of such senseless destruction, Johnny would still have known the sound would bring Scott running. Since he did not seem ready to talk just yet, Scott grabbed a blanket from the quilt rack and began cleaning up the broken pitcher.

When he was finished, Scott placed the wet blanket containing the broken pitcher in the hallway just outside the door. Hating to leave the room, but with no other real options, Scott quickly walked across the hall to his own room, where he retrieved the water pitcher from his washstand, before returning to Johnny's room. Using the drinking glass from Johnny's washstand, and he poured it almost full of the fresh water and held it out to Johnny. "Drink this," he ordered gently to the back of Johnny's head.

Johnny's chest and shoulders rose and fell as he took a deep breath.  Without a word, he turned and accepted the glass of water. Even though Johnny drank only a little more than a third of its contents, Scott accepted the glass back when Johnny lowered it from his lips and held it back out to him.

There was an unmistakable aura of defeat in Johnny's actions and in his eyes. As Scott had feared, Johnny's insistence on telling Teresa the details and possible ramifications of Maria's visit had taxed his mind and emotions to the limit. Johnny looked totally worn out. There was no spark in his eyes, and his face was nothing but a canvas of bleakness. Moving around to the other side of the bed, Scott squeezed himself between the bed and the wall and pulled the heavy drapes over the window, casting the room into a shadow of near darkness.

"Scott." That single word was spoke as if it was the last word Johnny would ever say.

"I'm not going anywhere," Scott answered softly as he slipped back out from beside the bed. There was just enough of a glow of light coming from the other side of the drapes to allow Scott to see the chair, which had been moved back over by the table in the far corner of the room.

Grasping the solid oak arm, he began pulling it towards the bed, only to stop and wince at the shrill scraping sound as the wooden legs made scooted across the flooring. With a twist at the waist, he grasped the other arm, lifted the chair off the floor, and carried it the rest of the way.

"Sorry," he apologized as he sat down. "I thought the chair was on the rug."

"Better save that apology for Teresa." Johnny's warning sounded eerily monotonous in the darkness. "Better come up with a better excuse, too."

Scott smiled. Nothing could put Teresa on the warpath faster than finding scuff marks on the floor. Surprisingly, Scott had found himself incurring her wrath on that issue more often than Johnny, simply because the floors in his grandfather's house had all been heavily carpeted.

Fleeting memories of his old life came and went, taking with them the humor in Johnny's warning. Once again, Scott felt a deep concern for the man lying sullenly in the nearby bed. "Do you want to talk, Brother?" Scott purposely included the disputable kindred term to make it perfectly clear that he still held firm to his position.

"No."

The weariness in the one word said more than the word itself. In the darkness, Scott heard Johnny shifting in the bed. Johnny's shadowy figure leaned forward, a muffled thump was heard as the pillow was fluffed, and then there was nothing but the sound of their breathing and the occasional rustle of sheets as Johnny settled back against the pillows.

For a long time Scott sat quietly in the darkness, knowing that this was all he could do - be there. But, he wanted to do more. He wanted to go dig the answers out of Maria Lancer, or his grandfather, or whoever else might be involved in this conspiracy to destroy his family. He wanted to be in San Francisco doing something useful, not sitting there wishing for things that would take days to become a reality.

Still, he would be lying if he denied that it had been a glorious experience to spend the entire morning alone with his mother. He had patiently understood her need to be with Murdoch, and Murdoch's need to be with her, but he had needs, too. He felt a little selfish, but then reminded himself that she was his mother as much as she was Murdoch's wife; actually, more so, since in the eyes of the law she was not Murdoch's wife. Not yet, anyway.

Despite his worries about Johnny's fate, Scott allowed himself a few moments to enjoy the deep sense of peace brought on by just knowing that one day soon he would be part of a regular family; regular as in with a mother and a father. All his life he had felt like somewhat of an oddity whenever he visited his friends who had both parents around to raise them. His grandfather had always done right by him when he was growing up, something that Scott would never dispute, but as hard as he tried, Harlan Garrett had not been his father.

This thought brought back the discussion he and his mother had on the hill overlooking the ranch. What Scott could not understand was why his grandfather could not see, why he refused to accept, that it actually made a difference; that his father was his father, no matter what, and that he mattered to Scott.

Just as his twenty-four years with his grandfather could not be erased by his developing relationship with Murdoch and Johnny, neither could twenty-four years apart wipe away the ties between a child and his parent, or a brother and a brother. Why did his grandfather insist on making him choose between two families that were equally important to him?

A gruff snore broke the silence, tearing Scott away from his those heartbreaking thoughts and giving him a chance to regroup his feelings. On an intellectual level, he knew he could think himself insane and still not have any more of an answer than he had yesterday, or the day before. It was on the emotional level that he could not let the matter die. He needed some answers. He needed some peace in his life, and that peace would only come when he no longer felt torn between the two men.

Scott attempted to shift into a more comfortable position, but winced when a shooting pain coursed across his shoulders. As much as he hated to admit it, there was no way he was going to spend another night in that uncomfortable chair. It was beyond his comprehension why Johnny had insisted on discarding the one that had been in the room when they first arrived at the ranch; the one that Scott and Murdoch had spent several nights in while Johnny was fighting the infection caused by Pardee's bullet. Now that had been a comfortable chair.

Unfortunately, trying to get suitable replacement through the door at this time would be too noisy, and would be a risk to the sleep Johnny needed. From prior experience, Scott knew that it was the getting to sleep that was the main hurdle for Johnny. Once asleep, he usually stayed that way, baring any outside influences. This was not always the case, but it had been ever since Johnny began to feel secure within the walls of the hacienda.

Standing, Scott stretched out the knot that had already begun forming in his lower back. There was not even the slightest hitch in Johnny's breathing, so Scott tiptoed to the door, satisfied that his departure would go unnoticed. He carefully closed the door, pausing only briefly to make note of the missing blanket that he had placed there earlier, before heading back downstairs. Murdoch would want a report, as would his mother and Teresa. However, when he entered the great room, he found Murdoch was alone.

"Where are Mother and Teresa?" Scott asked as he crossed the room towards Murdoch's desk.

"They're in Teresa's room. Woman talk, or some such nonsense," Murdoch snorted, but his barely discernible smile gave away his joy, until the concerned parent returned. "How is Johnny?"

"Asleep," Scott stated as he plopped down in the chair in front of Murdoch's desk.

A furry eyebrow rose high on Murdoch's forehead. "And the water pitcher?"

"Frustration, anger, fear, maybe a combination of it all...who knows." Scott shot his father a wry grin. "And a way of getting my attention."

Murdoch took a deep puff on the pipe he had lit just as Scott walked in. "While you were upstairs, Teresa told your mother and I a  bit more about what Johnny said." A curly puff of smoke floated into the air when Murdoch exhaled. "Except when Johnny was talking about his behavior towards your mother, Teresa said he was very cold and distant, like none of it really mattered to him."

"It matters," Scott sighed and shook his head. "I can't say that I'm surprised he would react that way, though. He's feeling pretty hopeless - and helpless. I don't doubt that he is trying to convince himself that it doesn't matter as a means of self-preservation."

"That's one fight I wouldn't mind seeing him lose."

With a confidence he refused to let give way to uncertainty, Scott stated boldly. "He will lose it, Sir." Neither man responded, each knowing there was only so much either of them could do when it came to guiding Johnny's actions.

"Your mother isn't happy about being left behind."

Even through the nonchalant tone, Scott could hear the worry in Murdoch's voice. "I can understand that, Sir. If I were her, I'd want to know why my father was so hell-bent on destroying my life again, too."

Scott ignored the eyebrow that was cocked in his direction. "I hope you were able to explain to her how much she is needed here.  Grandfather isn't going anywhere that he can't be found. If nothing else, we can go to Boston, where he will have to show up, eventually. She will have her say with him, as will I," Scott vowed more to himself than to Murdoch, "but finding Maria has to take precedence. Even if Grandfather is helping Maria, he many not know where to find her. And for all we know, she tracked him down in the first place."

"I hadn't thought of that, Son, but you have a good point."

"Thank you, Sir, but I'm more worried about Maria getting away before we can get the truth out of her. She evaded those detectives for twenty years, and we have got to find her before she slithers away again. You need to know the truth about your son, and I want to know the truth about my brother."

"I explained all that to your mother."

"And?"

"She understood. She's just feeling hurt and betrayed by Harlan. I wish..." With a weary groan, Murdoch never finished his thought. Instead he sat back in his chair, staring at the ceiling as he puffed on his pipe.

Scott silently watched each billowy puff of smoke as it ascended towards the ceiling, expanding and changing, until it become nothing more than a light haze. While he continued watching, one of the smaller puffs took on the shape of a heart, and reminded Scott of something he had not thought about in years.

When he was very young, he would spend many hours during the cold winter months, just sitting quietly in his grandfather's office, fascinated by the smoke from his grandfather's cigars. At the time, it had seemed like he was watching the clouds outside, and he would try to see how many different shapes he could find in the billowy whiteness.

He remembered having to look sharp to see the images, because the smoke shifted and changed much faster than the clouds in the sky.  Like those smoky shapes, both then and now, Scott felt like his own life was changing just as quickly, and was just as beyond his ability to control.
 

 

 *** *** *** ***
 

Johnny awoke the next morning to find Catherine sitting by his bedside, reading a book. She did not seem to be aware that she was being observed, and as he watched her, Johnny noticed that something was out of place. It took him a moment of careful scrutiny before he realized exactly what was different. Annoyed, he eyed the chair in which she was sitting.

"Yes, I changed chairs. That other one was very uncomfortable to sit it for any length of time." Catherine looked up from her book and gave him a knowing smile. "Which, I'm sure, is exactly why you wanted it in here."

Guilty as charged, Johnny could offer no other response than a weak grin.  After that first week of being hovered over when he was laid up from Pardee's bullet, his first action when he was allowed out of bed was to get rid of that dang chair that everyone seemed to find so comfortable. They still hovered when he was hurt, but not nearly as much.

With a tactical change of subject, he asked, "Why are you sitting in here, anyway? Bet Murdoch or Scott'd be more than happy to have you around."

Catherine closed her book and placed it on her lap. "I can sit here and read as well as I can downstairs. I thought you might like some company when you woke up. As for Murdoch and Scott, they aren't here."

Johnny was surprised that both of them would take off and leave Catherine. "Where'd they go?"

"They both left very early this morning. Something about having to pull Mr. Perkins' cows out of some mud."

"Dang," Johnny cursed under his breath. "Scott and me was gonna check that fence out last week, before..." Even if the old man was not his father, it still mattered what he thought, and Johnny felt like he had let Murdoch down.

"Scott told Murdoch that you two never got around to it because of that telegram that Murdoch sent to Scott. Who is Mr. Perkins?"

Although he still felt like he had let Murdoch down, Johnny respectfully answered her question. "Elliot Perkins has got a small spread down around Lancer's southern border. Runs a few head of cattle, just enough to get by with. Anyway, his cows keep wondering off and getting themselves stuck in a bog just inside the boundaries of Lancer. He won't keep his range fenced, and we got no need to fence off that section 'cause it ain't good grazing. Last fall we fenced it off just to keep from having to hear him complain, but them cows of his still manage to break through every now and then, and then it's our fault."

"Sounds to me like this Mr. Perkins is a very unreasonable man," Catherine lamented.

"He can be a might ornery when he takes a notion," Johnny agreed, while at the same time, purposely toning down his usually more intense opinion of the man. "At least I ain't the one havin' to deal with him."

"Not this time." Catherine's voice was firm.

Johnny gave her a searching look and did not care for what he saw in her expectant gaze. "You know I can't stay." To his surprise, her expression turned stone cold.

"I know no such thing, Johnny. Why don't you explain it to me."

"If I'm not Murdoch's son, then I don't belong here. Not in this house, not as an owner of this ranch. That's all there is to it."

Catherine's expression remained icy, as did her voice. "There's a document downstairs, signed by all three of you, that says you do belong here. I've seen it, so I know it to be true."

"That partnership was never meant for Johnny Madrid."

She reached over to the bedside table and held up a piece of paper. "This one is. This one says that Johnny Madrid does belong here.  All you have to do is be willing to claim what is yours."

Frustrated, Johnny snapped more vehemently than he intended. "It ain't that easy, and you know it."

"What I know is that it is that easy. No one else has any power to make this decision for you, Johnny - not the woman who raised you, or Maria Lancer, or Murdoch, or Scott, or me, or anyone one else." Quickly leaning forward, Catherine grabbed Johnny by his wrist and forced the paper into his grasp. "The choice is all yours. You can accept that Murdoch and Scott are willingly offering to make Johnny Madrid their business partner, friend, and family, or you can reject them." Although it had not seemed possible, her expression got even colder. "Make no mistake, Johnny, if you walk away it will be you rejecting them, of your own free will."

Book in hand, she turned and left the room. Johnny knew she was angry, not only with him, but with the whole situation, and he could not blame her. Her man and her son were being hurt. She had every right to stand up for them. He had been nothing but foolheaded to think that she would understand, much less try to help Murdoch and Scott to understand, too. How could he explain to any of them that he had to find out who he was?
 

 

 *** *** *** ***

 

Around noon, Teresa brought him some lunch. She tried to make conversation, but he was not in the mood for talking. He finished his food in relative silence, and she left, lunch tray in hand, with a sad frown on her face. Since then, Johnny had been staring out the window, for a long while at nothing at all, then watching Scott and Catherine as they wandered around the grounds, laughing and talking, and enjoying the one thing they should never have been denied - each other.

Every now and then Johnny experienced an occasional pang of guilt for his intrusion, but it was not enough for him to turn away.  That was all he could have done, anyway. There was nothing he could do to block out the sounds of their joy, but even if he could, he was not the least bit sure that he would.

Catherine's higher-pitched tinkling laughter mixed with the sounds of Scott's deeper and more reserved sounds of delight had become a soothing balm to Johnny's disconcerted soul. Even when he did close his eyes, allowing mother and son a moment of unobserved privacy, his ears strained to pick up every sound from below. It did not matter that the words were not clear. He just needed to hear what they were feeling.

A long time ago, in one of the many border towns that littered his past, a kindly old woman had told Johnny that every dark cloud had a silver lining. He had scoffed at the time. He had been unable to see the truth in her words, but that had all changed when he had come home. For him, Scott Lancer would always be that silver lining - even if it were to become just the memories of a single year in his life.

A loud laugh from outside drew his attention back out the window, where he saw Catherine being playfully head butted by one of Freya's colts. A smile curved his lips and the pain of only moments ago faded as he watched Catherine accept the foal's affections with obvious delight. Scott was right there, standing just off to the side, appearing relaxed and contented. Most importantly, though, Scott looked downright happy.

"Enjoy yourself, Boston," he whispered softly. "You deserve it."

About then, a stiff breeze blew threw the window, bringing with it the strong scent of the blossoms of flowers and tress. A crinkling sound made him look away from the sight of Scott and Catherine, but at first, he could not decide what had made the sound. Then he noticed the paper on the bedside table where he had abruptly discarded it after his confrontation with Catherine.

Could it really be that simple?

He reached for the paper, but another gust of air whipped through the window, sending the document flying to the floor, and well out of Johnny's reach. For a long time he stared at the white crinkled form on the bare flooring, allowing himself to at least consider what it would be like to make it official. Did he dare even try to believe?

There was a part of him that needed to hold that paper in his hands, to feel its rough surface between fingers, to read the words that, according to Catherine, were his to accept or reject. As much as he needed these things, his need would have to wait. A moment of frustration was accompanied by a frown as he glanced down at the casts
that made it impossible for him to retrieve the paper. With a defeated sigh, he turned back to the window.

Down in the corral, the colts were frolicking together, while Freya took her turn getting some attention from Scott and Catherine. Mother and son, mare and foals; all were new to each other, but that did not seem to matter. It was who they were, and their love was unconditional. That was what blood bonds were about.

It was the blood bond they shared that had first drawn him and Scott together. Since then, so much more had developed between them - trust, respect, admiration, love - but that bond was where it had all started. The loss of that bond, more than pride, is what prevented Johnny back from signing the new partnership agreement.

He knew he could not bear to stay, only to find out that what he had with Scott, with Murdoch, was not going to be enough to withstand the loss of the blood they had once believed was shared between them. That, and he did not think they would understand that he would have to leave for awhile. He would have to find out who he was before he could commit himself to anything.

A movement off to the left caught his attention, and Johnny watched as Murdoch joined the group. Catherine slipped under his arm as if it were the most natural place for her to be, as if she had been there all this time. Scott was leaning against the fence and said something that Johnny could not hear, but Catherine smiled up at Murdoch, who leaned down and kissed her. Scott laughed, but Murdoch and Catherine just seemed to melt into each other's arms.

Leaning back against his pillow, Johnny stared up at the ceiling. Did a blood bond really have to exist for the love to be real? There was blood between Murdoch and Scott, and Catherine and Scott, but there was none between Murdoch and Catherine. Still, they loved each other with a love that had endured through all those years apart. Granted, it was a different kind of love, but was it any more or less real than what he still felt for Scott? For Murdoch? For Teresa?

The sounds of merriment from outside the window called to Johnny, forcing him to look in that direction. Murdoch was laughing as Catherine and Scott tried to catch the darker of the two foals. The colt wasn't really running from them, he was just playing, letting them get close, then turning and bolting away. Freya was standing quietly as Murdoch rubbed her forehead, while the second colt contentedly nursed at her side.

Murdoch Lancer. His father? Johnny almost laughed, but choked on the sharp pain that shot through his chest. After all the turmoil he had endured because of Murdoch's seeming indifference, who would have ever thought that losing that unbending, stubborn, old man would hurt so deeply. Why did this have to happen now? When they had finally talked, had finally begun to understand each other and were actually reaching out for a common goal, and leaving the past where it belonged?

And so he found himself, right back at the same agonizing thought that his mind could not seem to avoid - his past. Not his gunfighter past, but his past that he no longer had, the black void of nothingness that had haunted his every thought for the past few days.

Who was the woman who raised him? Was she even his mother? Why had she lied about Murdoch Lancer being his father, a man who swore he had never known her? How could she do so much to fill his childhood with love, and then tell such lies about his father?

Or was that just another lie? Had the love he remembered so clearly ever been real? There would be no asking her; she was dead. So was Carlos. So was most of the town they had lived in, too. He could barely remember the places they had lived before, so where would he even begin looking for answers? Was there anyone still around that could answer his questions even if he did find them? If not, could he handle discovering that there was nothing left to find? Could he face never knowing who he was?

Then there was the other alternative: he could just stay at Lancer. It would be better than spending the rest of his life in a fruitless search for who he had been at the expense of who he could be. He was afraid to leave, afraid that in doing so he would lose everything. He was afraid to stay, afraid that he would end up finding out that it could not work without the blood relationship.

In the end, he knew there would be no choice. The need to know who he really was would make it impossible for him to stay. No matter how unpromising the search might be, he had to look. He had to find out who the man was who looked back at him in the mirror. The trick would be to figure out how to leave without it being a rejection of Murdoch and Scott, like Catherine said it would be. He had to find a way that would not hurt them. They had endured enough because of him; he would not be the cause of any more.

Before he could even begin to sort out the myriad of conflicting thoughts and emotions, he heard the unmistakable sounds of carriage wheels rolling over the rocky road leading to the house. The view of the road was obstructed, and he could not see the visitor. His first thought was that the newcomer was Sam, but one look at the corral told him this was not the case.

The smiles were gone, as were the relaxed stances. It was a tense group of three that disappeared from his view, leaving Johnny once again frustrated by his inability to be part of the world.

 

 *** *** *** ***

 

"Father, where have you been?" Catherine demanded, as she pushed her way ahead of both Scott and Murdoch.

Harlan flinched at his daughter's accusatorial demeanor. He had thought himself prepared for this eventuality, but actually bearing the brunt of her anger once again made him realize that he could never be prepared for such a thing. "Actually, I've been to see Murdoch's wife."

"You admit it!" Murdoch growled angrily, and for a brief moment, it looked as if he might actually physically accost the older man.

The battle had begun, but for the first time that he could remember, Harlan Garrett was truly not looking forward to a confrontation with his old nemesis. "Yes, Murdoch, I admit it," he said solemnly. "And I can honestly say that I have never met a more revolting individual. Still, she had some things to say that I believe you will want to hear."

"The only thing I want to hear is that she lied about my son being dead."

Having lived the agony of the death of a child, Harlan found a common link with Murdoch that made it impossible for him to keep the sympathy out of his voice. "I am sorry, Murdoch. I wish I could tell you that was a lie, but it was not."
 

 *** *** *** ***
 

The three faces staring at him paled, and Harlan struggled to come up with the right way to break the rest of his news. All the words that had formed so easily in his mind during trip from San Francisco had deserted him. He had lost control of the conversation before it even started. "However, your son is also very much alive," he added hastily, and was not surprised when a murderous cloud overtook the huge Scotsman's face.

Scott stepped forward, placing himself between the two men. His expression spoke of betrayal and anger, and his voice carried a definitive air of warning. "Grandfather, you will explain yourself. Now."

"Murdoch's youngest child is dead and buried, while his middle son is lying inside the house with two broken legs." A sudden worry seized Harlan's heart, and he glanced uncertainly towards his grandson. "Johnny is still here, isn't he, Scotty?"

Before Scott could answer, Murdoch's control was lost. "Harlan, I don't know what kind of cruel trick you're playing-"

"She was with child," Catherine gasped as she clung tightly to Murdoch's arm, holding on and holding him back both at the same time. "When Maria ran out on you, she was carrying your child."

Scott's gaze remained steady, but turned more questioning than guarded. "Grandfather?"

"Catherine is correct. It was that child, not Johnny, that she truthfully told you was dead." Harlan pulled his handkerchief from his breast pocket and dabbed the perspiration from his forehead. "If we could retire into the house, I will tell you everything I know."

Over the past few days the unexpected surprise he had experienced over actually feeling sorry for Murdoch had dwindled, and now he could feel nothing but sympathy towards the man he had always scorned. "I am afraid, however, that you will find the rest of the news no less disturbing," he forewarned.
 

 *** *** *** ***

 

Scott knocked lightly on the door as he entered Johnny's room. Johnny was staring out into the courtyard, but turned to face Scott as he approached the bed. "Heard someone pull up. Guessin' it wasn't Sam, since he ain't with you."

"No, it wasn't Sam. It was my grandfather. He just got back." Scott paused, but his concerns could do nothing more than mask his enthusiasm. "Johnny, my grandfather found out some very good news."

"Just got back?" Johnny asked, seeming to ignore the rest of Scott's statement. "From where?"

Still very uncertain of his grandfather's exact role in this whole situation, Scott hesitated. He could not lie to Johnny.  "Grandfather left on Friday. Shortly after Maria's visit."

Brows furrowed in frustration as Johnny glared down at his legs, and Scott realized something that he had totally missed until now - Johnny did not know about his grandfather's sudden departure. Stuck up here in this room, Johnny was living at the mercy of the information provided by those who were not held prisoner between these four walls. In an effort to avoid crowding Johnny, he had let his brother slip away.

"I'm sorry, Johnny. I should have told you. We didn't know where he had gone until Saturday evening, when we got a telegram from the sheriff in Cross Creek confirming that he was on the train to San Francisco. The same train as Maria Lancer."

"He responsible for all this?"

"We...we thought so. Now, I'm not so sure."

"Why not?"

"Grandfather told us that he had a long talk with your mother. He found out that you are-"

"My mother's dead."

Inhaling sharply, Scott held on to the hope that his grandfather had been telling the truth; if not, this lie would not be forgiven. "Johnny, Grandfather swears that he spoke with your mother."

Johnny said nothing.

"Did you hear me, Johnny? Maria Lancer is your mother. That means that Murdoch is your father, and you are who you've believed yourself to be all these years." The days of turmoil seemed to fade away in that instant. "You are my brother, Johnny." That last proclamation was made with confidence and pride.

The happiness and pride in that final proclamation slowly faded when it got no response from Johnny, who continued staring down at his legs as if he had not heard a word Scott had said. Scott briefly considered mentioning the existence of their younger brother, but he could not quite bring himself to broach such a sensitive subject. Not yet.

As much as he hated to admit it, there was still the possibility that his grandfather was lying and was actually aiding and abetting Maria unleash another round of cruelty. "Johnny, Grandfather is going to explain what he found out, but Mother thought you should be part of the discussion, too."

Johnny leaned back against the pillow, and his eyelids slipped down. A wisp of a smile tugged at his lips. Although it warmed Scott's heart to know how deeply Johnny seemed to feel towards his mother, it hurt, too. Johnny own mother, the woman who had loved him for as long as she had been allowed, should be this special to him again. "Mother's right, Johnny. You need to hear what Grandfather has to say. Why don't I go get them?" he suggested hopefully.

"No. Anything I need to know, you can tell me later." Turning away, Johnny's voice was flat as he dismissed Scott with a weary, "I'm tired."
 

 *** *** *** ***
 

When Scott returned, the great room was veiled in a heavy cloak of strained silence. The young man met his mother's expectant gaze first, and answered her with a dismal shake of his head. To the rest of the room, he added, "He said he was tired."

Murdoch was seated on the arm of the sofa next to Catherine, stiff and tense, but his expression was unreadable. Scott took his place next to his mother. While more relaxed, his expression was as inscrutable as his father's. For the first time, Harlan could actually accept that father and son were alike in many ways, and it pained him to know that he had willfully blinded himself to something so important for so long.

Every eye in the room was focused in his direction. Daggers were coming from one pair, but it was the suspicion in the other two that weighed most heavily on his heart. Still, there was no one to blame but himself. His actions had led to this point, and all he could do was hope that once all the facts were in evidence, his good deeds would outweigh the bad. "I'm not sure where to begin," he offered humbly.

"I want to know the truth about my son," Murdoch demanded.

"Yes," Harlan nodded. "Yes, that would seem to be the best place. As Catherine already surmised, another child - a son - had been conceived before your wife left."

Without warning, the cold voice of the woman he found to be most despicable echoed through Harlan's mind. 'I had finally rid myself of that loathsome man, only to find that his stubborn seed would not be so easily left behind.' He still shuddered at the pure contempt Maria Lancer had held, not for the man she had married, but for her own children.

"It was a few weeks after her departure that she became aware of her condition." Harlan looked away, unwilling to stomach what he knew he would see when Murdoch learned the truth about his wife. "To say the least, she was not happy."

"She...she killed our child?" Murdoch choked.

"Yes." Harlan acknowledged with regret, but knowing that nothing but the whole truth would satisfy the stubborn Scotsman. No, that was not right. It had nothing to do with stubbornness, and everything to do with being a loving parent.

This newfound respect gave him the courage to look Murdoch in the eyes. "Her first attempt to abort the child failed. She tried again, a few weeks later. The second attempt was successful. The child was born dead. It is that child that is buried in Mexico."

"Why?" Murdoch choked, then his grief turned to anger. "Harlan, you've been conspiring with," Murdoch hesitated, but just for a moment, "with my estranged wife to destroy my family, so why should I believe anything you have to say?"

"I have conspired with no one," Harlan instinctively protested. "I never laid eyes on Maria Lancer until she appeared here three days ago."

"You followed her when she left," Murdoch dogmatically challenged. "You took the same train back to San Francisco, and you still expect us to believe that you never met her before?"

"I expect you to believe the truth!" Despite his best intentions, old habits were hard to break, and being at odds with Murdoch Lancer was one of his oldest habits. Reining in his own defenses, he said calmly, "Murdoch, I know you have no reason to trust me, but I am telling you the truth."

"Then tell me why I should believe anything you have to say!"

Leaning forward in his chair, Harlan struggled against everything in him that was screaming for him to stop, to maintain his dignity in the face of such emotional adversity, but for his precious Catherine and his beloved Scotty, he would do anything, including the unconscionable - baring his soul for Murdoch Lancer. However, before he could find the words to explain his change of heart, a muffled yell was heard from upstairs.

"That was Johnny!" Scott needlessly informed them even as he swiftly went into action.
 

 *** *** *** ***
 

"Scott!"

Johnny's voice boomed loudly as Scott rushed down the hallway. Upon entering the room, he found Johnny struggling to sit up. "Johnny, are you alright?"

"I'm fine. I changed my mind about sittin' outta that conversation," Johnny said as he strained to get his right leg over the edge of the mattress. "Get me my pants."

Scott's response was cut off by Murdoch's arrival, and a heavily concerned, "What's wrong?"

"Nothing that gettin' me some clothes won't fix," Johnny snapped.

"Johnny has decided he wants to hear what Grandfather has to say," Scott answered more reasonably. Instead of getting Johnny's pants from the wardrobe, though, he turned towards Murdoch. "If you'll bring in a couple more chairs, I'll go get Mother and Grandfather."

"I said get me my pants!" Johnny ground out. "I'm going downstairs."

"Son, it would be more practical-"

"I'm goin' downstairs, Old Man. With or without your approval." Father and son locked stares, but Johnny's clenched jaw and unyielding expression was all that mattered.

For days, Scott had been helpless to do anything as Johnny sank deeper and deeper into a pit of despair. Now that Johnny was attempting to claw his way back out of that pit, Scott was not about to be party to stopping him. "Actually, Murdoch, it won't be all that difficult for Johnny to join us. The chair by the fireplace would be perfect, using the ottoman to support his legs. Why don't you go downstairs and inform everyone that Johnny will be joining us, while I help him get dressed."

Murdoch hesitated, and briefly, Scott feared that he was going to object. However, with a concerned frown, the older man nodded and turned to go. "I'll be back in a few minutes."

Grateful for his father's unusual capitulation, sans even a token argument, Scott turned back to Johnny, only to find that the relief he had expected to see on Johnny's face was conspicuously absent. In fact, there was nothing but annoyed determination in Johnny's expression.

"Well?"

"Well, what?"

"You gonna get me my pants?" Johnny resumed his struggles, this time to divest himself of his nightshirt.

"I've got a better idea. You can borrow my robe. It will be-"

"I said I want my pants!" Johnny growled. With one last fierce tug, he freed stubborn fabric from under his hips.

With a steadily growing unease, Scott watched Johnny's depression transform into an unexpected hostility. A slight tearing noise was heard a split-second before Johnny wrenched the offending garment over his head and threw it across the room.

"Johnny, you won't be able to get your pants over your casts."

"Don't have to. They button up the sides, in case you ain't noticed."

"Yes, I have noticed." Scott bit back the bitter retort that was sitting on the tip of his tongue. Intellectually, he knew Johnny had been pushed to the breaking point and was instinctively pushing back, but that did not lessen the hurt of being treated like he was the enemy. "You will never get your drawers over those casts."

"So? Been without plenty of times," Johnny snapped back. "Just get me my pants and a shirt."

Scott sighed his frustration, but resigned himself to doing as Johnny asked. He just wished he had some idea of what it was that had set Johnny off. There was so much they still did not know, and his grandfather just might have a few of the answers, however, Scott was fairly certain that elderly man would not react well if Johnny were to continue down this belligerent path.

With all his heart, Scott hoped that there was some reasonable explanation for his grandfather's actions, but that was because the man who raised him still meant a great deal to him. Johnny, however, had absolutely no reason to harbor any such expectations. To Johnny, Harlan Garrett was someone who had proved that he could not be trusted, and would be treated accordingly. This did not bode well for an informative, civil, conversation, and Scott's stomach was already tied in knots.

"Here." Scott held out a clean pair of pants, which Johnny snatched out of his hand.

Over the next few minutes, the tension in the room grew to a fever pitch as Johnny struggled to get dressed, at first resisting Scott's efforts to help, then conceding, albeit reluctantly and with a definite air of resentment. By the time Murdoch returned, Scott's patience was beginning to wear, but Johnny was dressed and just as determined to make the trek to the downstairs.

 *** *** *** ***
 

 After announcing that Johnny would be joining them and discussing what needed to be done in preparation for his arrival, Murdoch headed back to Johnny's room to help Scott move the immobilized man.  Although a bit concerned, Catherine efficiently went about the necessary tasks, while Teresa, who had returned from her ride in time to hear Murdoch's announcement, hurried to her room to change.

"Catherine, I'm not so sure this is a good idea," Harlan ventured cautiously. "I was hoping to have a private conversation with just the four of us."

"And just why is that, Father?"

She did not halt her task, and there was an icy edge in his her voice; one that Harlan knew was not entirely unfounded. Not after the things that had been said in San Francisco. Determined to begin the task of setting things right with her, Harlan moved closer, stopping her with a firm but gentle hand on the pillow she was fluffing.

"I was wrong. About so many things, but you must believe me." An intense fear overtook him, and before he realized what he was doing, he had pulled her into a tight embrace. "I would never do anything to risk losing you again, my dear sweet Catherine. I promise you that am here only to help."

"I want to believe you, Father."

"You can, Daughter." Releasing her from his arms, he looked at her, really looked at her, and saw the longing in her eyes. There was hope!

Hope, yes, but there was a rocky road to travel between the present and what could be. "My only concern is that what I have to say is highly inappropriate for a young girl. It will be difficult enough for Murdoch to learn such things about his wife, but I cannot even begin to imagine how devastating it is going to be for Johnny to hear this about his mother."

"You actually care about Johnny's feelings?"

The hint of doubt in her query cut like a knife, but even that pain could not compare to the damnation that had been conceived in his own self-recriminating thoughts of the past few days. Even though he had lived it all, it was still hard to believe how so much had changed in so short a time. It was like a blindfold had been lifted, and now he could see all that his resentment had blinded him to for so many years.

Having recently been witness to what true hatred could drive a person to do, he could feel nothing but monumental relief that he had been spared such a fate. His time with Maria Lancer had been the last in a series of slaps across the face that had opened his mind and his heart to so very much. "Catherine, I could never find any pleasure what is about to take place in this room."

Her face crumbled and her eyes filled with tears. "Is it really that bad, Father?"

"Yes, My Dear, I'm afraid it is. I was hoping to give Murdoch and Scott a chance to decide on just how much was necessary to share with Johnny."

"Father, I appreciate your concern, but Johnny needs to know the whole truth. No matter how painful, he will never have peace until he does. And Teresa is part of this family. She may be young, but she is strong, and she has a right. Of all the things I learned during my exile in Mexico, I learned that being true to your family is the most important gift you can ever give."

Harlan's heart nearly skipped a beat as a sad smile, full of sympathy and understanding, graced his beautiful daughter's face. Pulling her close again, he held her in his arms, thankful to God that he was once again able to do so. "There is so much I want to say to you," he said softly as she cried on his shoulder. "Mostly I want you to know that I love you. I have always loved you."

"Thank you, Father. You don't know how much I needed to hear those words."

When she lifted her head from his shoulder, Harlan offered her his handkerchief to wipe her eyes. "All I ever wanted was for you to be happy, Catherine. My deepest regret will always be that I chose not to see that your happiness is here, with the family you chose as your own. If I had only realized this all those years ago, things could have been different."

"It never had to be a choice, Father. Not with me, and not with Scott." Sniffling, Catherine looked up at him, her eyes as pleading as her voice.  "You never told me what you found out in Carterville."

There was a trace of accusation in the unspoken 'before you ran off after Maria Lancer', but Harlan could not deny Catherine any amount of resentment. She was entitled to that, and so much more. He could only hope that she could forgive him those transgressions. "I would like to discuss that with you alone, Catherine."

"Father-"

A raised hand silenced her argument. "Not to deny Murdoch or Scott any information, but I feel that this needs to be between just us, first. It is all I ask."

Catherine nodded, and kissed him lightly on the cheek. "I love you, Father. We will survive this. I promise."

As Harlan watched her return to her task, his heart practically beating out of his chest at the promise of a bright future that only days before had been nothing but an impossible dream. Scuffling sounds were heard coming from beyond the archway, and Harlan's joy faded. The moment he had been dreading was about to arrive.
 

 *** *** *** ***
 

 With Johnny's arms draped over each of their shoulders, Scott and Murdoch eased him off the bed. The loose pants legs that could not be buttoned around the casts flapped between them. Johnny grunted slightly as they began to move and Murdoch stopped their progress.

"Son, are you sure you wouldn't rather-"

"I'm goin' downstairs," Johnny broke in. "If you don't want to help, then fine, I'll get there myself."

Scott shared a worried look with Murdoch. To his surprise, Murdoch had been the picture of patience, but that could not last. Even Scott was finding it difficult to remain civil. Pushed to the limit by Johnny's combative attitude, and the fear of what would happen when Murdoch reached that point, too, Scott did the only thing he knew to do - confront Johnny, head on. "We're not the enemy, Johnny," he said calmly and without any censure, but firm enough to get his point across.

Between them, Johnny stiffened. Scott braced himself for the next round of the verbal barrage, but instead, ended up tighten his hold around Johnny's waist when his brother seemed to deflate in their arms. This was the last thing Scott had wanted. "Don't stop fighting, Johnny, just know that you don't have to fight us. We're on your side, Brother."

Johnny stared at the open doorway. "I gotta get out of this room. I can't..." He never finished his thought.

Again, Scott glanced over at Murdoch, and received a barely discernible nod. Neither spoke as they tightened their hold on Johnny, and once again began their journey, making their what through the door and slowly down the hallway. Unlike when they had temporarily moved Johnny to Scott's room, this time he offered no unnecessary advice on which direction to take or what not to hit. A few times Johnny did try to take a 'step', but the weight of the casts made his efforts more of a hindrance than a help.

"Let us do the work, Son." Murdoch chastised gently when a plaster-encased leg impacted heavily against his shin for the second time.

Descending the stairs proved the most challenging obstacle. Three abreast was a tight fit. Johnny's frustration returned, and with it the snippy comments of minutes ago.

Although the words and tone were not nearly as hostile as before, Scott still had to admit that he never would have believed Murdoch Lancer could be so tolerant. It seemed that no matter where Johnny's leg swung, Murdoch's shin was in the way. Finally, they reached the landing, and even Johnny breathed a sigh of relief.

When they entered the great room, everything was ready and waiting. There was little he could do while supporting Johnny, but Scott did not miss the redness of his mother's eyes, or the forlorn look on his grandfather's face, which was more akin to someone who had been condemned to be executed, instead of a man who had just spent a few quiet moments alone with his daughter.

As they got Johnny settled, Scott kept one eye on his mother. Despite her red eyes, she showed no other signs of being distressed.  Maybe he had jumped to conclusions. However, if it turned out that his grandfather had dared to hurt her, the older man was going to find out exactly what it meant to be on Scott's bad side.

"Quit your fussin'," Johnny groused when Teresa suddenly appeared and draped a light blanket over his legs.

"Now, Johnny, you know you love every minute of it," Teresa replied with the firm sweetness she had acquired after many days of handling wounded Lancers. Johnny was just rebelling against being coddled, something they were all used to by now.

Scott let Murdoch and Teresa deal with Johnny and took this opportunity for a private talk with his mother. Taking her by the arm, he gently guided her away from the group. "Are you all right, Mother?"

She looked up at him in surprise. "I'm fine, Sweetheart. Why would you think I wasn't?"

Scott's gaze momentarily shifted towards his grandfather, who was standing by the French doors, looking uncomfortable as he attempted to stay out of the way. "You look like you've been crying. Did Grandfather say something to upset you while we were upstairs with Johnny?"

Tears filled her eyes, and she gently patted his arm. "No, Scott. Father and I talked, but it was a good talk." She turned away, wiping away her tears with a frustrated swipe of her hand. "I cried some, but not because I was upset."

Scott breathed a sigh of relief. After all that had transpired, he could not fully trust his grandfather, and this reassurance helped ease his mind. "I'm happy for you, Mother."

 *** *** *** ***
 

Harlan still had deep concerns over the wisdom of including Teresa and Johnny in the conversation to come, but remained silent as he stood by the French doors, out of the way. It would take them a few minutes to get Johnny settled in the chair by the fireplace, and as he watched proceedings, his misgivings intensified when he got a better look at the injured man.

The large bruise that had covered most Johnny's cheek only a few days ago was still noticeable, but did not seem nearly as pronounced. Time, as well as a growth of beard that had obviously not seen a razor in several days, were camouflaging that particular injury. However, Johnny appeared worn and haggard. Even when he glared annoying at those trying to help him, there was a dullness in his eyes. That, combined with the rest of his appearance, led him to believe that sleep had been as elusive as a normal morning regime.

Then, Harlan's surprise, Scotty left his brother's side to lead Catherine over to the far corner of the room. The cold glare Harlan received from his grandson a few moments later only increased his anxieties, but after a few hushed words, Scott's stance noticeably relaxed, and he and even looked away, nonplused, when Catherine gave him a kiss on the cheek.

"Why are you really here, Garrett?" Johnny's steely voice dashed the room into a deafening silence. "You ain't never been interested in anything but getting your family back to Boston, so it don't seem too reasonable that you'd just up and change your mind."

Scott uttered a reprimanding, "Johnny!" even as he and Catherine hurried back over to their family. Murdoch's expression reflected disapproval, too, while the girl, Teresa, actually took a step back, as if anticipating a much more serious reprimand from her 'father'.

"It's all right, Scotty. You brother's concerns are not entirely without merit," Harlan interceded on Johnny's behalf as he, too, returned to the cluster of the sitting area. "Maybe we should all be seated."

Murdoch's expression was still disapproving as he stared down at his son, but he turned and moved to Catherine's side, before seeing that she was comfortably seated in the middle of the sofa. He took the position on her right, while Scott, once again looking tense and concerned, took his place on her left. Teresa gave Johnny's shoulder a light pat before taking a seat on the settee at the opposite end of the fireplace.

With all eyes on him, Harlan sat down in the blue, wingback chair that he and Catherine had moved between the sofa and the settee in preparation for this meeting. Turning his attention squarely on Johnny, Harlan studied the young man very carefully. "What can I tell you that will convince you of my sincerity?"

"Why?" Johnny repeated.

Harlan shifted in his seat. Why? The question itself was not all that difficult; it was the answer that presented a dilemma. He had wanted to share this revelation with Catherine first, just the two of them. He needed to confess his sins to the one person they had hurt the most, but what Johnny was asking simply could not be answered without delving into that most personal issue. There was no other choice, though, as he was certain that to refuse would be to loose whatever credibility he had left with his daughter and grandson.

"I went Carterville in search of the truth," he answered softly. Turning to his daughter, he acknowledged her sadly quizzical expression. "I am sorry, Catherine. I did want to share this with you before anyone else, but the only way I can answer-"

"Enough, Garrett," Johnny interrupted.

Harlan stiffened. Not only was he unaccustomed to being so rudely interrupted, and he absolutely would not tolerate being addressed in such a disrespectful manner. "Do you want to know why you should trust me or not, Madrid?"

"Grandfather!"

Although Harlan clearly heard Scott's astonished outcry, he kept his gaze focused on Johnny. If it was a battle of wills the young man wanted, then he would soon learn that Harlan Garrett had not become one of the most successful businessmen in Boston by cowing down to anyone. Johnny Madrid had a reputation with a gun, but when it came to intimidation, Harlan a reputation of his own.

In total silence Johnny returned Harlan's steely gaze with one of his own - no emotion showing, no wavering, and he, too, giving no indication that there was anyone in the room but themselves. After a few moments of the silent battle, Harlan had to admit that the boy was good. If he were not so hopelessly unrefined, the young man would have the makings of a top-notch negotiator.

Without warning, Johnny spoke. "Did you know Catherine was still alive when you stole Scott?"

The smooth as silk, unhurried, and only slightly threatening quality of Johnny's voice was hardly enough to unnerve Harlan, but the unfathomable nature of the question was an entirely different matter. It cut way too close to home to be ignored. "I most certainly did not know Catherine was alive! I would never have left, had I known, and I not steal Scotty."

"You'd do the same thing, again, if you had the chance?"

Harlan was no fool, and he knew full well that he was being maneuvered. Regaining control of his ire, he began searching for whatever it was that Johnny was after, looking for the telling hint that would reveal what kind of trap the younger man was trying to spring. Rapid assessments were a necessity in the business world, and it took only a few seconds for him to determine that there was little Johnny could possibly hope to gain by such a line of questioning...except.

But could such a nondescript individual really be that cognizant? Or was Johnny simply trying to discover the truth? Either way, Harlan knew his answer would be the same. "That would depend on how much of what I discovered last week would be available for me to base my decision."

Johnny response came without hesitation. "Scott says you got something to tell me about my mother, Mr. Garrett."

Something had changed. It was subtle, but definitely there. Harlan studied Johnny, scrutinizing the younger man as he would any business rival. While Johnny's stare still did not falter...yes, there it was. A shift in attention, maybe?

Whatever it was, Harlan knew that it was this unknown element, and not his carefully worded answer, that had brought about lessening of enmities that was evident by the more respectful form of address casually inserted into the tense situation. There were times when concession was the most difficult part of valor. I would appear that he might have underestimated Scotty's half-brother.

"I have quite a few things to tell you, Johnny," Harlan returned the gesture, in kind. The magnitude of the situation returned and Harlan was the one who found himself unable to maintain eye contact. There would be no sense of victory here, today.

"Get 'em said."

Indignation flared, but was quickly doused by regret. The words may have been crude, but the flatness of the tone said so much more.  Johnny was preparing himself, hardening his emotions for the revelations to come. By his reaction, it was obvious that Johnny felt he knew what was coming, but he could not. A sick feeling turned Harlan's stomach.

"I might as well start at the beginning," Harlan said with a weary sigh. "I am not the least bit proud to admit that when I followed your mother, I did so with only one thought - getting Catherine and Scott back to Boston. I had hoped that she would be able to provide me with the means to achieve that goal." Looking back on that decision, Harlan could not imagine what had possessed him to act so foolishly. "My only excuse is that old habits die hard. Even before I boarded the train, I knew I would not go through with it."

"Then why did you leave? Why not return here, instead, if you were so innocent?" Murdoch asked suspiciously.

"I honestly don't know why I got on that train, Murdoch." Harlan knew he could stop there, go on with the rest of his story that would, no doubt, wipe this minor detail from every mind in the room. One look at Catherine's disappointment, though, and there was no turning back. Better to get it all out in the open now, as opposed to having something surface later, when it could do so much more harm. "I did not approach Maria during the trip, but by the time we reached San Francisco, I had once again convinced myself that she could provide some form of opportunity for getting my family back to Boston."

"Father, how could you?" Catherine whispered in despair.

Harlan met his daughter's stare, and regretted the betrayal he saw in her eyes. He was hurting her, very deeply, but he hoped that in doing so now, he would open the door for a future in which she could trust him again.

'How could he?' Wasn't what Catherine wanted to know? The truth was that it had not been easy.

 

 *** *** *** ***
 

 ~~~~ San Francisco: the previous Saturday ~~~~
 

With a slight bow, his introduction was made with a feigned sense of respect. "Allow me to properly introduce myself, Madame. My name is Harlan Garrett, of Boston."

A sly smirk twisted at her lips, but the suspicion remained in her dark brown eyes. "The former father-in-law?"

She was as cold as they came, and any further attempts to charm her would be futile. A straightforward approach was his best bet for obtaining his goal. "Yes, Madame, and I am here because I very much wish to keep the 'former' in that title. Your little visit to Murdoch has led me to believe that we may share a common desire."

Her smirk faded and she looked upon him with disgust. "What could I possibly have in common with you?"

A calculating smile settled on his face, one he knew would be as intriguing to her as his words, yet not too overbearing. There was too much at stake to risk stoking the fires of her suspicion. This was his game; she just did not realize it yet. "I could be wrong, Madam, but I believe that we share a mutual love and admiration for Murdoch Lancer, along with the willingness to put those feelings into action."

The condescending sneer in his softly spoken words was the icing on the cake, and the proof came in the form of a hungry glare staring back at him. For a brief moment their eyes locked, then Maria Lancer returned his smug smile with one of her own. "Perhaps I was a bit hasty." Stepping to the side, she waved her arm in a gesture of admittance. "Come in, por favor, Señor Garrett."

Harlan entered the opulent hotel suite, exuding a confidence that was more illusion than real. The nagging doubts that had come so close to preventing this meeting from ever occurring were once again assaulting his morals. Still, the thought of having Catherine and Scott back in Boston where they belonged was too much of a temptation.  "Thank you," he hesitated, unsure of her legal status to Murdoch, "Mrs. Lancer?"

"Sí, I am Murdoch Lancer's wife," Maria nodded. "Please join me."

Harlan followed the dark-haired woman into the sitting area, accepting the chair she indicated with a gracious nod. Experienced eyes scrutinized her very closely as she sat down in the chair farthest from his.

She had deep brown eyes, so deep that they looked as if they would be soft as velvet. There was something provocative about the way her lips remained in a subtly seductive pout, even when she was speaking. She was quite beautiful in her maturity, and he could only imagine how stunning she had been in her youth. Despite himself, he could not help but wonder how a rather plain man like Murdoch Lancer had ever attracted her attention.

A servant entered and was given hushed instructions, not that Harlan would have been able to understand any of the quickly spoken Spanish words if they had been spoken more loudly. Besides, he was already pondering why she would even want to keep Murdoch's name, given the obvious disdain she harbored for her husband. This new detail opened the door to the distinct possibility that there was more to Maria Lancer's sudden return than merely making Murdoch's life miserable. Now all he had to do was figure out a way to use this knowledge to his advantage.

"Manuel will bring us coffee in a moment," she said politely. With her hands folded in her lap, she sat straight, her chin held high. "Now, Señor Garrett, tell me why should I consider making any kind of an alliance with you?"

Direct and to the point. Harlan admired this aspect of her style. "As I indicated, Madam, my only objective is to remove my family from the unsavory influences of your husband, and retrieve them from this uncivilized land in which he has seen fit to live. I do not expect you to have any interest in helping me achieve that goal, so I offer my services to financially and emotionally destroy Murdoch Lancer for your troubles."

Maria's eyes grew dark with anger. Even the seductive pout all but disappeared. "In that case, Señor Garrett, we have nothing further to discuss."

Stunned, Harlan quickly regrouped his thoughts. Although his own words had left an unusually bitter taste in his mouth, relinquishing the possibilities that a partnership with the enigma glaring at him from across the table could bring was not yet an option. "I meant no offense, Mrs. Lancer," he offered humbly. "I was under the impression that hurting Murdoch was something you would find most entertaining."

"Hurting him, yes, but he is still my husband," Maria replied as she continued to watch him very closely.

Unable to fathom what could possibly motivate her to want to torment her husband, but to leave him otherwise unscathed, Harlan began his fishing expedition with the most obvious conclusion. "I suppose it is understandable to have a soft spot for the father of your child. However, I feel I should warn you that your status as his wife will soon be coming to an end."

Her answering laughter was most unnerving. "I can assure you that I have no soft spot for Murdoch Lancer." Then she turned the tables. "And, tell me, Señor, what makes you so certain that Murdoch will seek the divorce he has refused to obtain for twenty years?"

Although still bewildered by her seemingly blatant contradictions concerning Murdoch, Harlan viewed this query as an opportunity to gain some more information. There was no longer any doubt that there was a still undisclosed motive behind her actions, and information was the best leverage for unveiling those motives.

The Bostonian felt that he might actually have a slight advantage in this area. Nothing he was about to convey could not be discovered with a few well-placed inquiries, so he was not risking much by volunteering the information. However, it could be exactly what was needed to gain her cooperation, if not her trust.  Accepting her claim that she was Murdoch's legal wife made it very easy to predict his former son-in-law's impending actions. "During your rather dramatic visit, I'm sure you noticed the distinguished looking gentleman in the tan suit."

"Sí, I noticed him," she answered with a wary frown.

The Boston businessman kept his tone informative, but not too solicitous. "The gentleman was Mr. Jarrod Barkley. As well as being a close family friend, he is also a prominent attorney, with offices here in San Francisco and in Stockton."

The small talk on the buggy ride from Cross Creek to Lancer had provided him with this information. With Catherine in the picture, Murdoch's intents were as predictable as the sunrise, so the rest could be ad-libbed, and hopefully entice her into revealing at least part of her hand. "Murdoch may not have felt the need to obtain a divorce before now, but I can assure you that those circumstances have changed."

"The pretty gringa?" Maria mused in annoyance, then her eyes narrowed. "You mentioned wishing to keep the 'former' part of your father-in-law status. This gringa, she is another of your daughters?"

"Yes, she is my daughter." Harlan did not fully understand the term 'gringa', but felt confident enough to issue his agreement, if only to keep Maria interested. "She became reacquainted with Murdoch during a visit to California to see my grandson, Scott."

It was only a slight twist of the truth, and one that a concerned father could justify in the name of his daughter's safety. All his instincts were telling him that revealing Catherine's true identity could be a serious miscalculation, and he was not about to deny the instincts that had led him so well on so many different occasions. "Now, she has some absurd notion that she's in love with Murdoch."

"So, Murdoch thinks he will discard me so he can marry his precious Catherine's sister."

"Apparently." That was the first bite. Now, it was time to throw more bait to the shark, which is the way he was beginning to see her - hungry, but not yet in the feeding frenzy that would facilitate the mistakes that could benefit him. A mental note was made of her reference to 'his precious Catherine' as something to be explored when she might be more trusting of his intent. "Murdoch was about to make that announcement to his sons when you interrupted him with the news that he was the biggest fool in California." The disgruntled sigh was only half-faked. "Even in the face of such a disturbing revelation, my daughter has some foolish notion to nobly stand by his side through all adversity."

Maria laughed condescendingly. "She should have outgrown those stupid ideas years ago."

"Yes, but her first husband was as much of an oaf as yours. So far, I have tried every means at my disposal to dissuade her from marrying him, but like Catherine, she will do as she pleases." Harlan faked a sad frown. "Thankfully, in her case it was her husband who met with a premature demise."

"Leaving her free to marry her dead sister's husband. How very romantic." Sarcasm practically oozed from Maria.

"Yes, romantic," Harlan agreed in kind. "So you see can see my dilemma. I seized the opportunity to follow you here, despite the risk of alienating my daughter and grandson. Simply put, Mrs. Lancer, I need your help to discredit Murdoch in their eyes. In exchange, I am willing to help you inflict as much harm to him as you desire."

Manuel returned through the far door to the suite's sitting area, bearing a tray with coffee and tea. After seeing to their needs, the professional servant exited quietly. "And why should I trust you?" she asked as she sipped her tea.

"You should not," Harlan answered with confidence. She was playing right into his hands without even realizing it. "Trust would imply something far more honorable than what I have in mind. The more realistic view is the simple fact that we both have a common goal, and by combining our resources, we stand a much greater chance of reaping the benefits. Nothing more, nothing less."

"And your benefit would be to once again deprive Murdoch of his first born, along with the added benefit of depriving him of another wife."

Although Maria's words conjured up unpleasant memories of just how similar this situation was with what had happened in Carterville twenty-five years prior, Harlan covered his dismay by redirecting his plan back to it's original course - gaining her confidence. "That would be correct. Murdoch's life will be irrelevant once my family is free of his influences. As long you can fulfill your end of the bargain, I do not require any knowledge of the specific benefits you will reap."

Harlan's nonchalance was met with a raised eyebrow. The trap was baited, and the victim was showing signs of interest. Everything was progressing quite nicely.

"What exactly do you need from me?"

If this were a theatrical production, a maniacal cackle would be heard from off stage. "I honestly do not have any idea," Harlan answered without so much as a hint of victory in his tone. "You are the one with the ability to inflict the most hurt, I am merely offering myself as a tool for your plans. I have access to areas of Murdoch's life that you do not. You are aware of my expectations; the rest is up to you. My services are totally at your disposal, Madam."

"You are willing to do whatever I say?"

"I would be a fool not to." Victory was at hand. She was still being cautious, but the aura of her anticipation was palpable. "You have the ability to give me what I want most, or you would not be willing to even discuss the matter. I would not presume that you would do so without receiving some benefit of your own, but exactly what that benefit might be is not my concern."

Harlan waited patiently as Maria Lancer camouflaged her contemplation by going through the motions of refreshing her cup of tea.  This was a tactic he had used himself on numerous occasions, and it gave him a greater understanding of his accomplice-to-be. Controlling the tone and the timing of any confrontation was a great source of power, and she was clearly a master manipulator.

Calling on his vast experience at controlling a meeting, Harlan awkwardly shifted in his chair and purposely gave the clock on the far wall what was supposed to be an unobtrusive glance. Across the table, a victorious gleam appeared for just a moment in the dark pair of eyes watching his 'nervous' activity. The trap had been sprung; only the gloating victor did not yet realized that she was the real victim.

"Tell me, Señor Garrett," Maria sat back in her chair and casually sipped her tea. "What happened to my niño's legs?"

The word 'niño' was unfamiliar, and unlike her use of the word 'gringa' in reference to Catherine, Harlan was completely unable to follow her meaning. Johnny was the only one with any leg injuries, but her question seemed to imply a possessiveness that did not fit with a stranger. "Your niño?"

A devious smile flittered across her face. "My son. Juanito. Johnny."

Harlan's mind instantly began churning the possibilities, but to his surprise, he felt a tremendous sense of relief at this unexpected news. Being an astute adversary, he purposely allowed this surprise over his own feelings to show. There was nothing more revealing than genuine emotions. Her natural reaction would be to misinterpret this as shock over her most recent revelation, giving even more credence to his position. His duplicity would not be discovered until it was too late.

Tipping his head, he raised his cup in a mock salute. "There is something to be said for well-timed subterfuge, Mrs. Lancer."

Again, Maria laughed. "Although I appreciate your polite reluctance to call me a liar, Señor, I can assure that it is not necessary.  Nothing I told Murdoch was a lie. If he chooses to make incorrect assumptions, that is his stupidity."
 

 ~~~~ The Lancer great room: the present ~~~~
 

"That was when she told me of the existence of your second son, the one that is buried in Mexico."

Harlan looked up to see tears streaming from Catherine's eyes. She was staring at him, her face a canvas of betrayal, which hurt him more than anything. "I'm sorry, Catherine. I had to embellish my intents in order to gain her confidence. I can assure you that I did not mean any of it."

Looking to Scotty for support, Harlan noticed that his grandson was no longer paying attention to the rest of them, but was staring across the room at Johnny, whose gaze was still firmly fixed on the table between them, as it had been from the moment Harlan first began telling his tale.

"She killed my brother." Johnny's voice was barely above a whisper, but it carried more anger than the loudest bellow could ever hope to reveal. Still, he did not look up.

"Yes." As it had been with Murdoch, Harlan knew that nothing but the truth would be acceptable to Johnny. "She took," Harlan paused, uncomfortable with the prospect of addressing such delicacies in front of a young girl. Catherine was bad enough, but Teresa should not be hearing any of this. How he so wished someone in his family would heed his advice, just once. "She took the necessary measures to insure that the child's birth came too early."

"Why?" Murdoch asked that all damning question once again.

"She really does despise you, Murdoch," Harlan answered apologetically.

Murdoch paled, but regained some of his color as the fury began blazing in his eyes. "What exactly am I supposed to have done that turned the love we shared into contempt? That could justify her killing our child?!"

Harlan could not help but feel sorry for Murdoch. Even when his own animosities were at their height, he could not say that he had ever completely lost all respect for Murdoch. Not too long ago he would have approached this opportunity with enthusiasm, but on this day, he found it all to be very unsettling. "To put it quite simply, she married you for what you promised her, only to find that your ideals and hers were very different. She blamed you for stealing away her chances when you lied to her."

"I never lied to her!"

"No, I doubt that you did, not in any recognizable manner. However, what she expected your grand ranch to be and what she found when she got here were two different things." Harlan could not help but smile. "Your over zealous descriptions of your grand dream came across too well, Murdoch. Only she expected to instantly have all the benefits of wealth and power, without the work to go along with it."

It was an age-old story and one that has seen the ruin of many a good man. Harlan shook his head in disgust. "Women like her can never be satisfied, and the simple truth is that you were not ruthless or ambitious enough to satisfy her needs."

"That explains why she hates me so much, but what about Johnny? Why did she take him with her if she wanted no connections to me?" Murdoch seemed to find strength in deflecting the situation away from himself, but this redirection had been a mistake.

Even though he had been married to her, Murdoch obviously had no clue of just how cold-blooded his wife could be. If only there was some way to spare them all this, but that would not be, and Harlan knew it. "She took Johnny away from you for two reasons. Mostly, she wanted to hurt you, and denying you your son was the best way to do that."

"What other reason could she have had?" Scott asked cautiously.

"She hated me even more," Johnny answered for him.

Harlan wondered how one could respond to such a statement, especially when it was the truth. "Yes," was all he could say, and that one word was uttered with genuine regret.

"How could she?!" Catherine cried. "Johnny was just a baby, her baby. She should have..."

Although his daughter's anguished disbelief tore at Harlan's heartstrings, the ugly truth could not be denied. "She should have loved him simply because he was her child? I'm sorry, Catherine, but you are being naive. That woman has no such compulsions, and the only thing that separates those she hates from those she does not, is their ability to provide her with what she wants. I doubt she has the capacity to love anyone but herself."

"Grandfather!" Scott's attention returned to Johnny, his forehead creased with worry.

"I'm sorry to be so blunt, Scotty, but sugar-coating the truth will benefit no one. Over the years, I have dealt with many business associates who had no respect for anything but winning. I can assure you that, if Maria Lancer had been born male, she would have been one of the most ruthless adversaries to ever enter the business world. Heartlessness knows no gender."

"She never loved me."

Having expected anger or outrage, that despair was Murdoch's final reaction only served to strengthen Harlan's belief that he had judged his former son-in-law very unfairly over the years. "No, Murdoch, she did not. She saw you as the means to obtain the life she wanted. She went so far as to..." again, this was not something to be discussed in mixed company, but he supposed he had no choice. "She took certain measures to ensure that you would not return to California without her."

 

 ~~~~ San Francisco: the previous Sunday evening ~~~~

"I took a chance that Murdoch's sense of obligation would force him to marry me. It wasn't that much of a gamble, as at that point I had nothing to lose," Maria remarked as she cut her filet mignon into bite-size pieces. "But the stupid fool actually fell in love with me. Love!" she spat, her contorted expression reflecting her true contempt. "A useless emotion reserved for those too inept to make their own path in life."

The revelation that Murdoch had bedded Maria prior to marrying her had greatly angered Harlan, giving him pause to question the possibility that Murdoch had coerced his daughter into such unconscionable behavior before their marriage, too. However, the more Maria revealed, the more Harlan came to see that she was a predator, while Murdoch was the unsuspecting victim of things that Harlan knew Catherine would never have lowered herself to do. Maria had set out to 'trap' her prey, and even at such a young age, her manipulative skills had been quite formidable.

"Of course, I intended to rid myself of the child after we arrived at the 'grand estancia'," she continued in disgust. "Only, I discovered that I was the one who had been duped. All that Murdoch possessed was a not-so-grand wasteland he called a ranchero.  Then, to add insult to injury, five times I tried to rid myself of his annoying seed. All I succeeded in doing was making myself sick for weeks at a time, which only made my infernal husband more watchful of me." She chuckled, as if enjoying an extremely entertaining joke. "Murdoch's constant hovering annoyed me so much that I took to being sick on him whenever he came near me."

Their conversation came to a halt when the waiter arrived with the wine selection. A small amount was poured in Harlan's glass, which earned a nod of approval after a quick taste. Glasses were filled, and then the waiter disappeared. Maria took a sip and smiled. "Very nice, Señor Garrett. Too bad your daughters did not inherit your impeccable taste for the finer things in life."

"Yes, it is rather nice," Harlan agreed, and was somewhat surprised by the fine quality of the California cabernet sauvignon, which carried the label of a nearby vineyard. If this was an example of the wine that could be produced in what was called the Napa Valley, then there was definitely a bright future for the California wineries - a future which could very well play a key component in his own impending business plans.

 

 ~~~~ The Lancer great room: the present ~~~~

"Maria was so sick during most of her pregnancy." Murdoch's voice was hollow and distant, as if he were reliving that time in his mind. "I just assumed it was because that's the way some women are, but it wasn't. It was," Murdoch looked over at Johnny, though the dark head was bowed low. Murdoch's stricken expression said what his voice could not - that Johnny had fought for his survival even before he was born.

Harlan watched Catherine take Murdoch's hand in hers, kissing it gently as she tried to ease a hurt that could not be eased. He knew this to be true. He had lived this loss, only now he realized that his anger at Murdoch for taking his precious daughter away from Boston had been sorely misguided. Only now, when he could see what it really meant to have a child ripped away by a true act of malice, was he able to accept that Murdoch would never have been capable of doing such a thing.

For a long while, no one spoke. Catherine's hand remained tightly ensconced in Murdoch's much larger one, and Harlan could almost feel the strength they gave to one another in that simple contact. What they shared was a real love, and Harlan could finally be grateful his daughter had found this kind of marriage. If only things had not turned out so badly. If only he had not left her when his presence might have prevented so many things.

Harlan shifted in his seat. He almost wished he could have written a journal of his meeting with Maria and presented it to them. It would have been easier than having to face their heartbreak over and over again. As much as he hated this, though, a part of him relished it, too - he felt as if he were part of this family, his daughter's family, for the first time, and he had to admit that it was a comforting feeling, despite the agony in which it had been reborn.

"Finish it," Johnny demanded softly, breaking the eerie silence with a voice full of bitterness and doom.

Harlan hesitated. He found Johnny's ability to read him with such accuracy to be extremely unsettling. For reasons he could not explain, he was certain that this news would be the most damning of all. " She had only one real goal in mind when she came here - to force Johnny Madrid out of retirement."

Johnny's head snapped up, his shock in clear view, as was his fear. That Johnny would allow that emotion to show was indicative of just how sincere he was in leaving that past behind, and how much he did not wish to return there. This was a comfort to the older man, who had worried endlessly about how Scotty's brother might be a little less willing to give up his former life than Scotty would want to admit.

The crushed expressions of the three on the sofa revealed that this possibility had not once been considered. Catherine squeezed Scotty's arm, and that was all the approval he needed to send him to his brother's side. He said nothing - there was nothing that could be said - but took up a supportive position on the arm of Johnny's chair.

Although Johnny did not give any overt indication that he was appreciative of Scott's nearness, Harlan saw that he was. The tension in his taut frame lessened the tiniest bit, and when Scott's leg made contact with Johnny's arm, a seemingly inconsequential touch as he shifted to get more comfortable, Johnny's eyes closed and relief washed over his tight features. It was only for a moment, but long enough to know that it was a conscious reaction to Scotty's touch. Then he opened his eyes and stared down his legs.

"Why would it matter to her who I was?" Johnny asked without looking up.

"For several years she has used her status as Johnny Madrid's mother to intimidate anyone who crossed her. When rumors that Madrid had retired reached Mexico City, she sent someone in search of information." Harlan decided against revealing the fact that this individual had met with an unfortunate accident very soon after returning with his findings.

"Mexico City?"

Murdoch sounded both confused and relieved, and Harlan could not blame the man for finding some sense of satisfaction in knowing that she was normally very far away from him and his family. "Yes, that is where she has been living for many years. It is where she could find the status she was seeking. She has actually done quite well for herself."

Harlan did not mention the connection Murdoch's name had to that achievement. It was not necessary, and any interference from the understandably irate Scotsman could actually hinder the tentative plan Randall had wired that he already had in the works. While it could be considered woefully inadequate for any real sense of justice, it would ensure one very important thing - Maria Lancer would never endanger this family again.

"I don't understand," Catherine's frustrated voice broke the silence. "If she was actually admitting to being Johnny Madrid's mother, why didn't Johnny ever hear about it?"

How could he say this without sounding crass, especially in Johnny's presence? "Those at the top of society can easily obtain information about what goes on in the lower classes, but very little information seeps down from the top to the masses. I would venture to guess that she never brought up her relationship to Johnny Madrid, except to use his reputation as a threat against those who opposed her. Admitting openly that one had backed down to intimidation is not something most people would do, hence, it is highly unlikely that her maternal connection to a infamous gunfighter would ever became common knowledge."

"How could she get away with that?" Scott shared a thoughtful glance with his mother before turning to look directly at his grandfather. "You can't tell me that anyone in Mexico City was willing to take her word about something like Johnny Madrid being her son. Especially to the point of letting her intimidate them with it."

And to think that Maria Lancer had found her own child's inquiries to be only an annoyance. The ability to think was the best weapon a man could ever possess, and Harlan returned Scotty's gaze with an immense sense of pride. "I believe you wrote to me once about how Johnny had to not only worry about his own reputation, but also about those foolhardy souls who would use his name for their own ill-conceived plans."

Scott paled. "She hired someone to be Johnny Madrid!"

Like hatred, any intense emotion could interfere with rational thought. "No, Scotty, that deception would have been detected much too easily. Of all the things Maria Lancer is, she is not careless." Inside, Harlan reveled in the stubborn set of Scott's jaw. He would not be so easily convinced, yet, another sign of a man who was constantly thinking. "Actually, it was a rather effective scheme. She merely arranged for herself and some 'witnesses' to be in the same town when several men - I believe the term is 'called out' Johnny."

"Something she arranged to happen," Scott snipped bitterly.

"Yes. Of course she was careful to ensure that her chosen gunmen stood no chance against Johnny Madrid, but by paying them enough, their arrogance overruled their limited intellect. Afterwards, she even managed to be seen walking with Johnny down the boardwalk. It was the perfect opportunity for certain associates of hers to see Johnny Madrid escorting her into the hotel, which would not be unusual for a son to do for his mother."

"Johnny said he had never seen her before," Murdoch spoke up in what could have been in defense of his son, but came across more as questioning Johnny's word.

"And you really expect Johnny to remember something like that?" Scott asked, his irritation showing in both his voice and his cold stare. "A woman with whom he had one casual conversation and politely escorted to the hotel after a gunfight? She probably told him she was concerned about walking the streets alone, what with all the gunplay. I'm sure he met many women in many towns, but he can't be expected to remember them all."

Harlan let Scotty handle Murdoch, while he kept his eye on Johnny, as he had done through the entire exchange. The boy had to be hurting, but he was masking his pain with a false air of cold indifference that Harlan found both admirable and sad. He was truly beginning to understand the respect Scotty had for his brother. Suddenly, Harlan found himself staring into the sapphire depths of Johnny's eyes; unsure of exactly how long the younger man had been looking at him.

"Did she..." Johnny began, only to stop as the words refused to come.

The mask slipped, just briefly, but long enough for Harlan to get a feel for the young man's agony. He wished he had seen more, though; at least enough to tell him what it was Johnny needed to know. "Did she what, Johnny?" he asked as gently as he could.

The cold veneer was firmly back in place. "How long's she been making bank on Johnny Madrid's reputation?" he asked crisply.

Harlan was still at a loss, but then it dawned on him - Johnny was asking if his mother had somehow played a role in the path his life had taken; maybe given him a nudge in the direction of using a gun for a living. The elderly man was thankful that he had enough ammunition to destroy this particular fear.

"She is an opportunist, Johnny; a very clever and adept opportunist. She adapts to the circumstances around her, manipulating what already exists to her advantage." He glanced at Scotty, hoping to find some way to state the truth without it coming across as a condemnation, but found no answers in eyes that were looking at him with a concerned question.

Johnny's eyes closed and he leaned back. Actually, he leaned back and slightly to the side, bringing his shoulder to rest solidly against Scott. It was a subtle movement, and one that Harlan would have missed when he had blinded himself to the love and respect that had developed between the two brothers. Johnny seemed to find comfort in the insignificant contact, and Scott allowed it without hesitation. It pained Harlan to know that he had played such a major role in depriving Scotty of this bond for so many years.

"Johnny, I can assure you that she had no direct involvement in creating the circumstances that led to the emergence of Johnny Madrid." Harlan hoped his carefully selected words would give comfort, without offense.

"She told you that?"

"No," Harlan had to admit. "But in this case her lack of acknowledgement is just as revealing. I can assure you that she would have taken credit for such an accomplishment, if it had been any of her doing."

"But what about Johnny's real mother?" Catherine asked softly. "The woman who loved him as her son, no matter that she did not physically give birth to him."
 

 

 *** *** *** ***
 

 ~~~~ San Francisco: the previous afternoon ~~~~
 

The day had started out rainy, but the clouds had cleared away just before noon, and it was now clear and sunny. Harlan took a deep breath, a satisfied breath. In his mind, the moment of victory was always the sweetest part of a battle, while for others, like Randal Timsdale, it was the intrigue of the fight that was deemed most invigorating. Victory was at hand, but, in this case, the astute businessman knew full well that this war would be made up of more than one victory. Maria Lancer would not go down without a fight, and there was no one more capable of turning her resistance of the inevitable into an act of futility. Harlan smiled. It was going to be a wonderful year - for some people.

"I have sent for my personal attorney. I may encounter legal complications during my endeavors to fulfill my end of our bargain, and he is a man who can be quite devious. Randall, will no doubt find this assignment a particularly thrilling challenge."

The dark-haired woman who had been holding his arm as they walked came to an abrupt stop, her eyes narrowing as she stared up at him. "You trust this man?"

"Implicitly," Harlan stated with the greatest of confidence. "He has been my personal attorney since Scotty was five years old. Not once in all these years has he failed me."

With that, the unusual pair resumed their walk towards the train station as the citizens of San Francisco bustled about them. "It is difficult to find such loyalty. Especially in someone who is willing to do those things that are too unsavory to dirty one's own hands."

Harlan could have laughed; would have, if the victim of his own 'dirtied' hands were not walking alongside him. Without warning young woman cut them off, and Harlan reflexively held Maria back and away from being trampled. He gave a curt nod in response to the hasty apology, issued even as the young woman was being helped into the waiting handsome cab. Manners were obviously of little importance in the part of the country, but that would only make him appreciate his beloved Boston even more.

"As I was about to say, loyalty must be cultivated, Mrs. Lancer. I trust Mr. Timsdale without hesitation because I know that he is completely satisfied in my employ."

"You must pay your people extremely well," she mused.

"On the contrary. An outstanding salary alone does nothing more than instill greed in an individual. To achieve a business relationship that is impervious to outside enticements, monetary gain must be tempered with other things that are equally as important, but which cannot be so readily obtained from another."

"Such as?"

The depth of her curiosity cemented Harlan's confidence that she would play the part of the fool in the end. While he did not delude himself into believing that she trusted him, he knew for a fact that she did trust in him, and that would be her downfall. She was breaking the most fundamental rule of business - never give a temporary associate any more allegiance than is absolutely necessary. "I issue instructions and present the desired outcome for a particular situation, but the means of achieving that outcome are entirely at his discretion. The challenge is his to fulfill, which is what prevents anyone else from luring him away."

Under a knitted brow, brown eyes looked up at him in disapproved. "Surely you put constraints on him, limitations on how much his 'challenge' could cost you?"

This time Harlan did laugh. "No, Madam, I do not. It is simple economics. Over the past twenty years I have had at my disposal someone I could trust to get done whatever I needed - accurately, concisely, and with the results being exactly what I desired.  While there have been occasions when his actions would be viewed by some as being more costly than necessary, when weighed against the advantages of having such unquestioning expertise at my disposal for such a long period of time, it has been far more lucrative to resist tightening the reins in order to save a few dollars here and there."

They crossed the street, threaded their way through an assortment of boardwalk vendors, and were almost at the next block before either spoke again. Harlan, feeling relatively confident that he could take a liberty or two with his 'associate', expertly began plying her for additional information. "There is one detail that confuses me," he said as they waited for a pair of slow moving carriages to pass before crossing the street.

As soon as they were securely back on the boardwalk, Maria's curiosity came through for him. "And what is that, Señor Garrett?"

Although there was a hint of suspicion in her tone, Harlan was not the least bit worried. Even if he did not get this particular bit of information, he had already gleaned enough from her to ensure his daughter and grandson's happiness, and hopefully, their forgiveness. This would just be an extra bonus; something he knew they would want to know. "Who raised Johnny? The boy was quite adamant about not knowing you, yet you showed no signs of confusion as to his identity."

"Why do you wish to know such a thing?" Her fingers tightened around his arm as she tensed. "Is it not enough that Johnny denied me as his mother?"

"It was, indeed. I have no doubt that Johnny's denial carried more weight than any of your claims," Harlan agreed with a feigned air of aloofness. "My inquiry was merely prompted by curiosity as to how long you endured having such an albatross around your neck. During my thankfully brief time in Johnny Madrid's company, I found him to be boorish and rather irritating. I imagine he was always so. Too much of Murdoch in him, no doubt." To Harlan's relief, Maria's grip on his arm relaxed and the easy smile returned to her face.

"If that filthy niño had not been so much like Murdoch, I might have been able to make more use of him," she sighed. "Perhaps, if he had been born a niña, as I was led to believe he would, I could have made use of her. As it stands, the only practical thing that worthless child ever did was to become an exceptional pistolero. That, at least, made him useful - far too useful to let him walk away, and especially not for the purpose of return to his father. He owed me that much for resisting the urge to drown him when as an insufferable annoyance."

It was becoming increasing difficult for the older man to contain his contempt, but he called upon his extensive experience of dealing with those he found to be less than acceptable to his standards. He was able to maintain his facade, but was thankful that his previous encounters with such repugnant attitudes had been limited to strictly business. He could not imagine dealing with Maria Lancer on a permanent basis. She was an abomination to everything decent.

Still, he was not about to let his disdain prevent him for pursuing his quest for information. The sheer rapture of knowing she was digging her own grave, and providing him with the shovel to bury her in it was enough to make him give a second thought to appreciating the thrill Randall found in the hunt.

"I suppose I should thank you for finding his chosen 'profession' as such an asset. The resources Murdoch wasted trying to find the 'spared' son, which you both hid and dangled like a carrot in front of his nose, all but ensured that he would remain financially unable to challenge my guardianship of my grandson."

"You see why I left that oaf!" Maria shook her head in exasperation, and muttered a few Spanish words that did not sound the least bit complimentary. "What kind of fool knowingly chooses to waste his money in pursuit of the unknown? Those funds could have been used to build his ranchero into something more commanding, instead of sentimental folly. That is all Murdoch's money purchased, but it was always so. Even after admitting that you would take very good care of his precious Catherine's child, he still chose to spend his money in pursuits that gained him nothing."

Again with the 'precious Catherine'. With this outburst, Maria confirmed what Harlan already considered a very good possibility - Maria had resented Catherine, and probably still did. Although his confidence in his ability to out maneuver his opponent had not faltered, this confirmation that his instincts to keep secret the news of Catherine's return from the 'dead' had been not been wrong. It was also a very good indication that her feelings could be brought into play used against her, thereby strengthening his convictions that victory would be at his hand.

"I suppose it was only natural that Murdoch told you of his previous wife and the child he abandoned in my care." Even though they were straying from the targeted information, this was something that the father in him needed to know.

"Told me?" Maria laughed. "I heard so much about her that I would have gladly strangled her myself, had she not already been dead. You should have seen him on the day Johnny was born, stupidly crowing about how his sons would grow up together." She laughed again, only this time it came out as more of a snort. "Murdoch actually believed you would just hand over your grandson because he asked. How I could ever have been taken in by his simple-minded dreams, I will never know."

As any loving father, Harlan bristled at the way this woman so casually talked about murdering his daughter. The woman truly had no heart, not the slightest amount of love for her own child, and therefore, it was all to easy for her to assume that he would harbor no such feelings of his own. Still, to voice such contempt for Catherine to his face was an affront to humanity.

It pained him to realize that he his own act could be so convincing as to allow Maria to feel comfortable discussing his child with such malice. Thankfully, it would be over soon, and the eastbound train would take him away from this vile creature.

In the meantime, he used his anger to camouflage that which he was not yet ready to fully accept - that Murdoch had not been expecting a fight when he arrived in Boston to claim Scotty. Over the years, Harlan had convinced himself that it was not possible that the Scotsman could have been that trusting.

"Murdoch Lancer was a sentimental fool, and I took great joy in tormenting both him and his detectives," Maria continued on, unaware of her companion's disturbed thoughts. "A few well placed clues here and there, and those bumbling idiots were chasing their tails.  Every now and then I even allowed them to get close, just to see how fast Johnny could be spirited away in the middle of the night," she laughed, "and if Murdoch could actually drowned in his own drool. It was an interesting game."

"So you knew where Johnny was the entire time?" Harlan found this fact to be very surprising. "I would have thought you would want to have nothing to do with him, after finally being rid of his annoyances."

"It would have been easier, but the Fates conspired against me."

Their arrival at the train station allowed Harlan a few moments to digest what he had heard, as well as plan a new line of questioning. 'The Fates' interference was not something he was going to let go by without an explanation.

A quick check with the porter, and Harlan was grateful for what the man termed as an 'unfortunate delay'. The hour or so that it would take for the tracks to be cleared of a freight wagon accident, would allow ample time to extract the rest of the information he needed out of Maria. He was not sure that they would ever meet again, and if they did, she would then know him for the enemy that he was.

Guiding her to the farthest end of the platform, they sat down on the bench. "The Fates kept you in contact with Johnny?" he asked as a means to reopen the conversation that had been temporarily halted by their arrival.

"Sí," Maria answered, looking around at their surroundings in disgust. "Johnny's incessant whining was driving me insane. He questioned anything and everything. When he was small and cute he had been useful - a poor abandoned wife with her small child could garner much in the way of tangible sympathy from many fools - however, that did not last. 'Why?' and 'how?' became the two most despised words I knew. Eventually, even the back of my hand could not silence his annoying questions."

Outrage threatened to overtake the elderly man. How could anyone abuse a child for behaving like a child? All children asked questions. It was how they learned. Scotty had been exceptionally inquisitive all throughout his youth, but Harlan had reveled in his grandson's curiosity, viewing it as sign of his intellect. In spite of himself, a little more of the Bostonian's heart warmed towards the man his grandson called 'brother'.

"I was at the market one day and overheard some drunken miners rather unsuccessfully trying to find supplies. From what I could understand, they were attempting to mine copper and gold from the caves in the nearby hills. I seized the opportunity to rid myself of a pest, and make a profit. Johnny was nearly three and could be taught to fetch water and food, and when he got a little bigger, he would have been able to cart rock and dig for ore. They were quite eager to purchase him as a means of lessening their workload." A sour expression overtook her previously detached expression. "I had him sold, too, until the Fates intervened in the form of a meddlesome cousin I had all but forgotten existed."

Ever since Maria had revealed herself as Johnny's true mother, there had been a nagging thought in the back of Harlan's mind as to why Johnny did not notice that the pictures Murdoch had of his second wife were not his mother. With this bit of information, though, that began to make more sense. With a familial resemblance and the span of years between pictures of a new bride and the actual awareness of a little boy, it was understandable that Johnny would not have given much thought to the disparity between photograph and memory.

"So it was your cousin who raised Johnny?"

"Sí. Louisa had seen me at the market when I was haggling with the miners, but she did not seek me out because she was late for her duties at the mission. She had arrived with hopes of training to become a nun, only to find that the local mission did not have the facilities for such training. Instead, they offered her some kind of menial work to raise the travel money to go to the nearest mission with those capabilities."

Though not a particularly religious man, the practical businessman could respect the dedication and discipline that was necessary for such a vocation. "She must have had a very strong desire to take on such a tasking life."

"She was a fool! Doing God's work? God is God; he can take care of his own work." An evil smirk twisted at Maria's lips, even as her eyes danced with glee. "I sometimes wonder if she is rotting in Hell for stealing from her precious God's church?"

Harlan had to choke back the instantaneous thought that Maria was sure to find this out one day, when she arrived in Hell herself.  His next thought was to wonder if there had ever been anyone in Johnny's life that was not an abomination to everything decent.  "Your cousin stole money from the church?"

"How else was she going to purchase Johnny?" Maria shrugged.

Although it had been during his first meeting with Maria that he had come to the conclusion that the only real option was to accept Catherine and Scotty's decision to stay in California, the more Maria Lancer talked, the more grateful he became that she was not truly his accomplice. It took all his self-control to continue the solicitous act that would keep her talking. With any luck, he would be able to keep his repugnance under control until the train arrived. "Your cousin purchased Johnny," an uncomfortable cough was all he could allow to show of his disdain at even repeating such a thing, "instead of the miners?"

"Sí. With the money she stole from the church, she could make me a better offer." Maria yawned and fanned herself with her hand. "Louisa was indignant when she found out that I was 'selling my child'," Maria sarcastically mimicked the last three words, most likely an imitation of her cousin. "To silence her annoying outcries, I bared my soul," Maria's free hand moved dramatically to her chest, "revealing how I could no longer stand to look at my son, could no longer endure to be reminded of how his father had attacked me, ravaged me without my consent, married me only to avoid my father's ire, and dragged me away from my family only to throw me out with no means to support myself or the son he denounced."

"I'm sure you were very convincing, Madam." The compliment was issued through gritted teeth, but with a faked sincerity in his tone that made him ill.

A self-satisfied laugh emanated from the woman next to him. "For my grand finale, I burst into tears, and begged her to take Johnny away so I would not be tempted to hurt him for his father's sins. My shame was too great to ever return to my family. All I wanted was to ensure that my precious Juanito was no longer in danger."

Hers had been a very risky lie to tell to a family member, and Harlan was surprised that such an ill-conceived idea could come from someone who had demonstrated a much keener sense of the art of deception. "Weren't you worried about her contacting your father? Of finding out the truth about the circumstances surrounding your relationship with Murdoch?"

"No, a fire in Matamoros killed both my father and my mother. It was quite soon after my departure for California, so any ignorance on the rest of the family's part could be explained away as they had just not been told of my 'shame'."

Harlan shuddered. He could not help but wonder if Maria had something to do with that fire. There was no real basis for this suspicion, except the very nature of the woman herself. Anyone who could do all she had done to her own child could not be expected to feel anything more for her own parents. "As horrendous as your story was, it is hard to believe that a woman who had been so determined to be a nun could be persuaded to purchase a child, especially as the only way to obtain the necessary funds was to steal them from the church," he challenged before he could stop himself.

A raised eyebrow met his challenge, but her eyes danced with the merriment of her victory. "I made it clear that the money was necessary to get me far enough away from my son. Otherwise, who could foresee when I might lose the last vestiges of self-control, bringing physical harm down on Johnny in retaliation for the sins of his father."

"But you made sure that the church knew who had stolen their money?"

Maria's answering smile was chilling. "Anonymously, of course." The smile deepened into a boastful grin. "I had recently discovered that Murdoch's detectives were on my trail, and decided that they could actually be used to my advantage. I pointed them out to Louisa, and told her that the church had hired them. The only way she could protect Johnny was to take him away. As part of my penance for my feelings of hatred towards my child, I offered her my name so the church's detectives would never find her."

"Leaving clues for the detectives was rather audacious. Weren't you worried about your deception being discovered?"

"No. I found it all rather amusing. Louisa went to such lengths to protect her poor little Juanito, and it was very entertaining to watch her lead Murdoch's detectives on a merry chase. Even if they had managed to find her, which I made sure they did not, Murdoch would have instantly known that she was not me."

"True, but Murdoch would have recognized his own son, too," Harlan asserted.

"Would he? It had been almost two years since. His precious son was little more than a baby when I took him away. At that age all snot-nosed brats look alike, do they not?"
 

~~~~ The Lancer great room: the present ~~~~

Harlan's words faded and an eerie silence engulfed the room. No one spoke, each absorbing the impact of all that had been revealed in their own way.

"Johnny-"

Johnny did not let Murdoch finish his thought. "Leave it be, Old Man."

The young man's tone alone settled that issue - the subject was not open for discussion. Besides, what was there to say? Was there anything that could be said? From behind them the grandfather clock filled the room with the forlorn bong, as it chimed away the hour of midnight.

"Maybe we should call it a night," Murdoch suggested uncomfortably. Teresa and Catherine each unsuccessfully attempted to stifle a yawn, Harlan nodded his agreement, but Scott remained unmoving, his focus solely on his brother. "Harlan," Murdoch continued, "I had your baggage put in the upstairs guest room. It's just down the hall from Scott."

"I'm sure it will be fine, Murdoch." The elderly man stood, stretching the kinks out of his muscles that had spent way too much time traveling in the last two weeks.

Murdoch followed suit, looking even more drained than the man who had actually retold the harrowing story. "Catherine can show you the way while Scott and I get Johnny back up to his room."

"No."

All eyes turned towards the man in the chair. "Johnny, you won't be able to get any decent sleep down here," Scott suggested softly.

"I ain't going back up there."

Recognizing both the stubborn tone and defiant expression, Scott's opinion quickly adapted to the insurmountable obstacle that was his brother's determination. Trying to move Johnny tonight would be asking for a fight, which was the last thing any of them wanted.  "I'll stay up with Johnny," Scott offered as he stood and quickly took the few steps over to Murdoch. Taking his father's arm, he firmly ushered him towards the archway. Thankfully, his mother and grandfather followed, as did Teresa.

After they were all out into the foyer, Murdoch forced them to a stop. "Scott, you'll never get Johnny back to upstairs by yourself."

"He doesn't want to go back to his room."

"Well, he can't very well sleep in that chair all night."

"Why not?" Scott argued calmly. "You saw how frustrated he had become before we moved him downstairs. If he wants to say down here for the night, what harm will it be?"

"Darling, Scott is right," Catherine intervened with the stubborn Scotsman. "If sleeping in that chair gives Johnny any amount of comfort, then why deprive him of that when it is unnecessary?"

Frustration furrowed Murdoch's brow, but it was the hint of weary acceptance that kept Scott silent. His father would give in, even if he did not yet fully comprehend that Johnny had come to view his own bedroom as a prison. The wheels that allowed his bed to be moved around had merely prevented this from happening sooner, but they could no longer stave off the inevitable. How to deal with the issue of Johnny's immobility over the next several weeks was something that would have to be given some serious thought.

"Tomorrow will be soon enough, Murdoch," Scott offered in compromise. "There are too many things to consider and I don't think any of us can do that objectively at the moment." A grateful but weary smile was aimed at his grandfather. "We've been given most of the answers we needed, so tomorrow, when our minds are fresh, we can decide how best to proceed."

Murdoch frowned, but nodded his agreement. "That reminds me, Scott. Maybe you should trade rooms with your grandfather. At least for tonight."

"Is something wrong with the guest room, Sir?"

"No, nothing like that, it's just that it's next to Johnny's room."

"And what difference could that possibly make?" Scott replied icily.

Murdoch looked genuinely distraught by the insinuation, but answered with only understanding. "I didn't mean anything by that, Son. It's just that your grandfather has had a long day, and he isn't used to the hours we keep here at Lancer. I thought he would appreciate sleeping in, but it seems that our rooster gets a particularly early start on that side of the house, and is apparently much more boisterous about it, too."

Scott relaxed at his father's words. He was relieved that this was not the rejection he had feared. "Is that so, Sir?"

"After spending the other night in your room, your brother seems convinced of that."

Somewhat amused, Scott could not help asking the obvious question. "So, how long is it going to be before we need a new rooster?"

A soft snort accompanied the weak grin that spread across his father's haggard features. "Before your mother came up with the idea that Johnny's recovery would go much smoother if his bed could be moved over by the window, I would have said we had at least until he was on his feet again. However, now I'd have to say that it depends on how long we can keep a gun out of his hands."

Even Teresa chuckled at that thought. Exhausted good nights were quickly exchanged by all, and Scott led his grandfather to his room and went about getting him settled for the night.

"Thank you, Grandfather," he said as he retrieved another pillow from the cedar chest in the corner. When he turned around his grandfather was sitting on the edge of the bed, looking as exhausted and down trodden as Scott felt.

"Scotty, I have made some very poor decisions in my life," he said in a voice heavy with regret. "I can only hope that you and your mother can find someway to forgive me."

Scott sat down next to his grandfather. "We all make mistakes, Sir." He knew he needed to get back downstairs, but he could not just leave his grandfather alone to endure these feelings of dejection.

"Yes, we do, Scotty, but mine have hurt the very people I loved so very much," the older man admitted. "I hate to think that I could have turned into such a monster as Maria Lancer."

"You could never be like her, Grandfather," Scott asserted forcefully, and without any reservations. "Yes, there may have been times when you let your determination to have things follow your own chose path overrule your love for us, but you never lost sight of that love - for me or for my mother. That is what will always separate you from her - she is not capable of feeling love for anyone."

"A destructive love can be even more damning than no love at all."

Scott stared down at the pillow still sitting on his lap. "You didn't destroy anything, Grandfather. Saddened, wounded, weakened...maybe, but mother and I still love you. We always will."

A gentle hand grasped at his arm, and Scott felt a lump form in his throat as he thought of all the times that hand had been there for him, helping him up when he fell, giving support when he was uncertain, and teaching him right from wrong as he grew into a man.  "We just need to know that what we want matters, too."

"It matters, Scotty. I blinded myself to so much for so long, but I promise it will be different from now on."

Scott's heart clenched as the hope of those words was absorbed by his weary mind. "Can you accept that mother and Murdoch still love each other? That she won't be returning to Boston, and neither will I? Not on any permanent basis."

"Yes, Scotty. I can accept that, now."

Tears stung his eyes. How he had longed for this acceptance. How he had hoped to finally find peace between the two sides of his family. Not trusting his emotions to remain in check, Scott gripped the pillow and continued staring at its white surface. "Thank you, Grandfather. You don't know how much it means to me to hear you say that."

Those aged fingers squeezed his arm. "Yes, Scotty, I believe I do. I am grateful that you are willing to give an old fool a second chance."

"You're not a fool, Grandfather."

"Not anymore," was the only concession from the man who had taught him that remorse without dignity was a shallow gesture.

"Grandfather, I really need to talk to you, but you should get some sleep, and I should go-"

"Go see to your brother, Scotty. We will talk later."

Scott looked over at his grandfather and smiled. "Thank you for everything." His gratitude was waved off, and as he slipped out the door, Scott had no doubt that he was being pushed away out of love, and maybe even some genuine concern for Johnny. If only it had not taken something this traumatic to make his grandfather see the light.

 

 *** *** *** ***
 

With his heart in his throat, Scott rushed back to the great room. He had not intended to leave Johnny alone, and certainly not for the length of time that it had taken to get the rest of the family squared away. Rounding the corner, he approached the chair where his brother sat, looking pensively across the room, but giving the impression he was not seeing anything in particular.

"Johnny?"

Hooded blue eyes looked up at him, and the slightest hint of a grateful smile just barely twitched the corners of Johnny's mouth.  "Worried I was gonna run off while you was gone?"

But even the teasing of Johnny's words could not completely mask the heartache reflected in his eyes. However, there was also hope in those eyes, too - something that had been conspicuously missing during the previous days of heart-wrenching doubt. "Not worried about that at all, Brother."

Scott gave a gentle tug on Johnny's blanketed toe as he moved by on his way to the sideboard. His own nerves were in need of a stiff drink, and Johnny's had to be in even worse shape. His need became even more evident as his hands shook slightly while he poured the fiery liquid into two of the crystal glasses that were part of the set he and Johnny had given to Murdoch for Christmas only a few months before.

Had it only been half a year? It seemed like a lifetime since that first family Christmas. The Christmas carols, both in Mexican and English, Johnny's first taste of eggnog - and from his negative reaction, his last taste - all combined to give him the contented sense of belonging that had always been missing from his Christmases in Boston.

"Tequila don't get no better with age, Brother."

Scott's knees nearly buckled as he fought back the emotions that threatened to overtake him. It had been like this after he had returned to Boston after the war - the little things in his grandfather's house that made him realize the nightmare was over. That was what he heard in the soothing timbre of Johnny's voice - a promise of a tomorrow that would be much brighter than today.

Steeling himself, Scott turned to his brother, returning one desperate smile with another. "So very true, Little Brother," Scott teased back, "Unlike a good brandy or fine wine, which becomes more mellow with age."

Johnny accepted the proffered glass of tequila without further commentary, and Scott moved over to the sofa, toed off his boots, and sank into its welcoming embrace. A sip of the brandy he had poured for himself warmed him as it went down. "Thank you, Johnny," he whispered without looking up from the amber liquid.

"For what?"

There was genuine confusion in Johnny's voice, and Scott felt the corner of his mouth take a slight twist upward. He knew he was making what Johnny called his 'warm grin'; the one he used when he was feeling too good for it to all stay inside. "Thank you for giving Carterville back to my grandfather and mother until they are ready to share it with us." Scott looked up to see his brother staring intently into his own glass, just as Scott had been only moments before.

"Didn't see no reason to take that away from her," Johnny explained. "She was real hurt when Harlan started to tell us about it.  When he apologized to her for breaking his word that it would be between them, first, I couldn't let him go on." Johnny looked up and his eyes narrowed. "I didn't do it for him, Scott. It was for her."

Those brutal words cut Scott deeply. "After all Grandfather has done, gaining Maria's confidence and finding out the truth when he didn't have to, you still don't trust him?"

"Didn't say that," Johnny denied with a hint of regret and an apologetic frown. "Just said that was why I didn't let him go on. It was after he'd been talking for awhile that I got to seeing that he had changed his mind about a few things; about how he looks at Murdoch, at you and your mamma's decision to leave Boston, maybe even how he sees me, too. I still ain't too sure about that last part, but I backed off for your mamma." Johnny's head bowed and his next words were barely audible. "And for you."

"Me?"

Johnny looked over at him and frowned. "I was starting to feel like I did upstairs, you know, before you reminded me that you wasn't  my enemy. I was letting my feelings...I wasn't bein' fair to you, and I wasn't bein' fair to your grandfather. There wasn't a good reason not to give the old man a chance to have his say." Johnny's frown turned to a grin as he stared down into the clear liquid swishing around in his glass with each rhythmic twist of his wrist. "Worst he could'a done was tell us some more lies. Ain't like that would have been anything new."

Scott immediately recognized the distracting grin that Johnny always pulled out to cover his ill ease. It was a look Scott knew all too well, and one that he was not about to give into this time. "You're angry with her, aren't you? Your mother." Johnny's head immediately dropped and Scott knew he had guessed correctly.

"Don't, Scott." Johnny's head remained bowed, but the sloshing movement of the clear liquid in his glass told of the intense emotional struggle that its holder was enduring. "I ain't ready to go there, yet."

The intensity of Johnny's admission disturbed Scott. So much so, that he felt compelled to get one thing settled that night. "Okay. When you're ready, you know I'm here. In the meantime, though, I want you to promise me something, Johnny."

Johnny's head rose, but he did not meet Scott's intense gaze. Instead, he leaned backwards against the chair, his eyes closed.  Finally, he whispered, "I can't, Scott."

"Yes, you can. She's not worth it."

Johnny's eyes remained closed and he said nothing.

"Johnny?"

"Scott, I ain't never lied to you before, so don't ask me to make a promise I can't keep."

This was what had Scott worried the most; that Johnny would let his anger, no matter how justified it was, send him off to Mexico City to confront his mother. After all, his grandfather had uncovered, Scott held no hope that Johnny would accomplish anything with such a trip, except to bring more pain on himself. It was a terrible truth, but the truth it was - Johnny's mother never cared about him, and would take great pleasure in causing him more pain if given the chance. "At least promise me that, if you do decide to track her down, you'll discuss it with me, first."

"So you can talk me out of it?"

"So I can try."

"If I ever get my mind set on going after her, you ain't gonna talk me out of it."

Despite Johnny's stubborn assertion, Scott held quite a bit of faith in his powers of persuasion. "Promise me, anyway."

"Won't do no good, Scott."

"Promise me, Johnny. If my knowing won't do any good, then telling me won't do any harm, either."

There was a long silence, then a barely audible, "I promise."

Satisfied that he would at least have the chance to argue against such a foolish act, Scott figured that the worst thing that could happen would be that he would find himself making the long trip to Mexico City. Mother or not, there was no way he would ever stand by and let his brother face that evil woman alone. On that there would be no compromise.

"One other thing, Johnny?"

"Yeah?"

"Leave the rooster alone."

Johnny's eyes remained closed, but his lips curled up into a weak smile. "That I can promise you, Brother."
 

 *** *** *** ***

The sound of footfalls approaching from the foyer brought Johnny out of his light slumber. Throughout the very earliest hours of the morning, he had fought a lone battle both for and against his anger, bitterness, and down right heartbreak. In this fight no one could help him, so when Scott had finally fallen asleep on the sofa, it
had been a bittersweet relief.

It had been the soothing cadence of his brother's shallow breathing that had eventually eased Johnny's tattered nerves, until he, too, had managed a few moments of peaceful rest. Scott did not have to be awake to provide the only help he could - his just being there was enough to remind Johnny of all the good in his life. Now, his quiet solitude was gone due to the nocturnal stirring of another restless individual.

In silence, Johnny observed the shadowy figure take on the unmistakable silhouette against the moonlight shining through the French doors. Murdoch. His father. His papa. His padre. The man he had come to see was the one who had really loved him through it all, but who had been denied the object of that love.

Looking back, Johnny could see that even when it did not seem Murdoch felt that way about him, it had been because of her. As he had done for most of the night, Johnny replayed the revelations of the previous evening, and still he was haunted by the realization that his own birth mother could be so diabla. He shuddered hard at the thought that such evil had birthed him. Was it really any wonder he had taken up a gun and earned fame as a hired gun? What else was he good for?

A bitter-tasting bile rose in his throat, nearly gagging him with its burning sting. Above anything that Johnny had endured, his father had suffered. While Johnny had been oblivious to what she was, Murdoch had lived every moment of every day with the full knowledge that his wife, his companion, his helper in all that life had to offer and to throw out, was a nothing but a puta tu madre. He had to be kicking himself in the backside for ever once believing the whore actually loved him. She was a pinche grande. None of the border bitches he had ever come across could hold a candle to her.

Still, while her mean-spirited actions towards Murdoch grieved Johnny deeply, his hardest fight, the one he was not sure he would win, was against the pure hatred that was burning inside him over what that puta had done to his brother - his pequeño hermano, who had been denied the right to even be born. His little brother never had a chance because he was conceived by a mother that had no corazon, no almal. Johnny had both - heart and soul - and they were screaming for vengeance.

The growing hatred over the loss of the brother he would never know carried with it an undercurrent of an even worse nightmare. In his short lifetime, Johnny had become well acquainted with the dangers of this kind of hatred; it could poison a man's soul, making him no better than the one that was hated. Staring across the room at his father's shadow, he loathed himself as he recalled just how close he had once come to hating his own father that very way - and that was all her doing, too.

"Murdoch?" Johnny spoke hesitantly, but he knew he had to do this - for both of them.

The shadow turned. "Johnny, you should be sleeping."

"Can you come over here, so we don't wake up Scott."

Murdoch complied, and only when it drew nearer could Johnny tell that his father was wearing the robe that Teresa had given him for his birthday back in February. Teresa had sewed it all by herself, and when Murdoch had opened it that crisp winter morning, her love had practically lit up the entire room.

There was so much love in this house, a love that Johnny still questioned his right to share. It was because of him that all this had happened. Expecting some level of rejection, he was surprised when Murdoch immediately sat down on the arm of the chair, taking up the same supportive stance that had been Scott's the night before.

"Did you manage to get any sleep at all, Son?"

The concern in his father's voice brought a lump to Johnny's throat. This was the father he had always wanted, the father he had tried to find in the man who had kept him at arms length for the past year; this was the father he had discovered in one long-overdue conversation a few days before. "A little," he admitted honestly.

"Why am I thinking that would be very little?" Murdoch's response was not accusing, just full of sadness and regret.

"Murdoch, thanks for not interfering last night, you know, when I was feeling out Old Man Garr...uh, Scott's grandfather." Johnny glanced over at Scott, hearing more than seeing his brother's sleeping form.

"I figured that was what you were doing, Johnny," Murdoch spoke quietly. "I had no idea that what we were about to hear would be so..." Murdoch's body trembled and the rage behind the tremors did not have to be explained. "No matter, though, you still needed to have a sense of the man, a better sense than your only dealings with Harlan would have allowed."

"He ain't changed."

"Johnny?"

The tangible fear in Murdoch's voice took Johnny by surprise. "I ain't sayin' that he's still hell-bent on getting Scott back to Boston, but he's still the same man on the inside. He can't change the way he thinks, just what he uses them thoughts to do. How do you think he got all that information out of my," the word caught in Johnny's throat, "out of that woman?"

Murdoch's arm slipped around Johnny's shoulders. In that touch, Johnny found a little more peace. His father still loved him, even after all the trouble his mother had caused, even knowing that she had come back for Johnny Madrid. That had hurt most of all, but knowing Murdoch did not hold it against him helped a lot.

"Son, I know how I felt hearing those things about a woman I had once loved."

The arm around his shoulders pulled him closer, until Johnny's shoulder was pressed against his father's side. All it would take was a slight tilt, and his head would be resting against Murdoch's study frame. If only he could allow himself such comfort, but he could not.

"I can't begin to imagine what you were going through, Johnny. I should have done more to help you. I was angry and hurting, and I didn't-"

"Don't!" The sudden swell of fury subsided and Johnny took a deep breath. He tried to pull away, but the arm would not let him. He sank back against the cushion, not so much in defeat as in gratitude. "Don't, Murdoch. The truth needed to be told. There was nothing any of you could of done to make any of that easier to hear. I needed..." Johnny's voice trailed off as he approached the still-daunting prospect of really opening up to his father. "You let me be Madrid. I'll always be grateful to you for that. I couldn't have heard those things as Lancer."

"Don't thank me, John. I was being selfish."

"No-"

"Yes," Murdoch interrupted right back. Most of the defeat was no longer in his voice, just a firm conviction to tell the truth. "I didn't trust in myself enough to evaluate Harlan objectively, to judge his words without being prejudiced by the past. I've spent the last quarter of a century cursing that man. You know as well as anyone how hard it can be to overcome feeling something that you've known for so long."

A lump formed in Johnny's throat. Yes, he knew that better than anyone. His mother had made sure of that.

"And Scott." Murdoch paused and it was not hard to imagine that he was looking over at the sofa where his elder son was sleeping. "Scott loves his grandfather. It would have been impossible for him not to at least want to give Harlan the benefit of the doubt, and even harder for him to see that his benefit was misplaced."

"But you thought I could see right through the old man." For some reason Johnny felt hurt by this statement.

"I knew you could, Son."

Although the light was too dim to see much of anything, Murdoch's smile could be 'heard' in his voice, but it was the unwavering faith in his words that helped ease Johnny's hurt. For the first time Johnny honestly believed his father was proud of him for the talents that had kept him alive long enough to finally make it back home, the talents that, until now, had always been nothing but a bitter reminder of his past and the man his father could not accept.

"Johnny, your contact with Harlan was brief, and most of your animosity, second hand. You've spent all of your adult life, and too much of your childhood, living by your instincts. I've come to realize that those instincts are a part of you, and how grateful I am that you have them. I'm sorry it took me so long to tell you that." Murdoch cleared his throat. In the dim light, his head was held high as he stared across the room and out the large picture window behind his desk. "Can we believe what Harlan said?"

 There was a pleading quality to Murdoch's voice that Johnny could not ever recall having heard. A desperate tone. "Yeah, the old man was as..." Was as disgusted by Maria Lancer as he was? Johnny was still trying to come to terms with the hatred he felt for his own mother, but he knew things could have turned out entirely different if Scott's grandfather had followed his original course. His voice was flat, but firm when he answered, "Garrett was telling us the truth."

During the past year, Johnny had gotten to know the stubborn Scotsman very well, and by the way Murdoch was tensing up he knew that his father would try to press the issue of how he felt about his mother. As he had told his brother a few hours earlier, he was not ready to go there. The only avenue for escape was to change the subject.

"I can't go back up to my room, Murdoch."

Murdoch hesitated, no doubt taken off guard by both the sudden shift of the conversation, as well as the apparent futility of Johnny's statement. "It will be another four to five weeks before-"

"Murdoch, you ain't listening. I can't go back up there!" A strained silence filled the darkness, and Johnny was glad he could still hear Scott's soft breathing. His angry outburst had not woken his brother and for that he was relieved, but there had to be some way to get his father to understand that he could not go back to that prison, which was exactly what it had become to him.

Looking down at his legs, he cursed the plaster that encased his leg. The left one was not nearly as intimidating as lacked several inches to even reach his knee. With just it he could get around, a little, anyway, and that would be enough to shake the trapped feeling that had been gnawing at his insides for the past week.

It was the cast on the other leg, the one that extended well above his knee, that had him ready to chew nails from just looking at it. That was the one that was so heavy it made his hips ache from just trying to shift around in bed. It was also the one that made bringing him downstairs during the day an impossibility. Johnny hated to even imagine what Murdoch's shins looked like after just the one trip. He couldn't even bend that leg, which was pure hell when toes itched continually, as they had been for the past few days.

Without preamble, Murdoch stated evenly and with conviction. "I'll go to town and get Sam as soon as it gets light."

"Why?" Johnny snapped more harshly than he intended. In frustration from both his outburst and his situation, Johnny slapped his useless leg, but that only made matters worse - his only 'feeling' of the slap had been to his hand as it impacted against the plaster. "Unless Sam can change the meaning of four or five weeks, he ain't got no say in this. This is between you an me."

"Johnny, there's something I need to tell you. You're liable to be upset with me, but I only did what I thought was best."

Although still frustrated over his feelings of helplessness, the rarely heard apologetic tone in his father's voice ignited a fire of suspicion. "And what did you think was 'best'?" he asked warily.

"Son, your left leg is broken, there is no question of that. However...well, we just weren't sure about..."

A chill swept over Johnny. "Weren't sure about what?"

"Your right leg might not be broken."

The coldness that had overtaken him began to fade, but only because of the burning rage that was building in Johnny's gut. For how many days now had he been trapped, confined to the prison of his room like a...like an animal in a cage. This time his father's arm tightened around him even before he could try to pull away.
 

 

 *** *** *** ***
 

"You had no right!"

"Johnny, you were unconscious, Sam was not sure if there was a break or not, and I made the only conscionable decision any father could make," Murdoch stated his case firmly and with conviction.

"Bull! You just wanted to trap me!" Johnny hissed.

Murdoch fought back the urge to respond in kind to Johnny accusations. His son's anger was justified, and the best thing he could do was defend his own position in a calm and precise manner. "What I wanted was to prevent you from becoming crippled. If your leg was actually broken, then doing nothing could have resulted in permanent injury. The swelling prevented Sam from being able to tell with absolute certainty."

"And I guess it woulda been too much to wait for the swelling to go down?"

"Molly Fredrick is expecting twins any time. Sam might not have been available when the swelling went down." After all they had been through, the last thing he wanted was to be arguing with Johnny. "Son, I won't deny being relieved that there would be some way to ensure that you would stay off your feet until the leg we were sure was broken could heal properly, but even if you were a model patient, I would not have risked the use of your other leg on a chance."

Johnny did not respond, but the tremors coursing through his body left no doubt that the younger man was seething. This next move might be risky, but it was the only olive branch he had to offer. "I'll go into town and get Sam. He can remove the cast and see if there really is a break."

"If Sam takes it off, it ain't goin' back on."

Murdoch's initial instinct was to tell Johnny not to be stubborn, but somehow he managed to choke back that paternal ruling. If he ever expected Johnny to trust him he was going to have to start offering the same level of trust, too. "That will be your decision, Son."

There was a snort of disbelief. "Is that so, Old Man?"

"Yes, that is so, John."

Although it was too dark to see Johnny's face, Murdoch could feel the tension ever so slowly begin to ease from his son's stiff shoulders. Gradually, with each breath he took, there was a little less resistance against the hand that still held him close. Eventually, Johnny relaxed and Murdoch's heart nearly burst out of his chest when Johnny's head came to rest against his side.  That's when it all became so clear to the Lancer patriarch.

This was all he had ever had to do - allow Johnny to determine his own way and trust him to know what would be the best way for himself. If only he had not been so blind to this simple concept, then maybe the last year would not have been so strained, and  Johnny would not have felt so uncertain of his place in the family that he would even considered that he was not wanted anymore.

"Murdoch?"

"Yes, Johnny?"

"I can't go back up there," Johnny's voice was strained and tight.

"Let's wait and see what Sam has to say when he takes the cast off. In the meantime, try to get some sleep."

Murdoch felt Johnny's head nod in agreement, but neither man said anything more. He had no answers for his son, and that frustrated him to no end. It did not matter in what room Johnny chose to stay, if the leg had to be recast, Johnny would feel trapped. The only thing Murdoch knew to do was to heed his own advice, and not worry about what could be until it actually happened.
 

 

 *** *** *** ***
 

For the second time that morning, Johnny woke, only this time it was his nose, instead of his ears that was the culprit. He blinked away the sleep, and took another deep breath of the savory aroma of freshly brewed coffee.

Scott had been sitting at Murdoch's desk when Johnny's stirring caught his attention. "Ready for some breakfast, Brother?" he asked as he stood and walked over to Johnny.

"A sip of that coffee'll do for now." The cup was relinquished, but it was the bemused smile on Scott's face as he shook his head and looked away that got Johnny's attention. "What?" he asked as he gave the steaming liquid a cooling blow.

Scott looked back over at Johnny. "I do believe that I've fixed as many cups of coffee for you in the past year as I have for myself?"

Johnny ducked his head, the heat rising in his cheeks. He knew this was true, even if it had been a few months before he had noticed his own pattern of behavior. There was just something about taking...no, being given his brother's coffee that made him feel closer to Scott. "Tastes better when you fix it up," he offered lamely.

"It's called sugar, Little Brother," Scott laughed. Then, as if he had read Johnny's mind, he added more seriously. "I don't mind.  Never have, never will."

Johnny looked up, saw sincerity in Scott's face, and knew that this little ritual had come to mean as much to his brother as it did to him. They had been denied so many years, so many experiences that other brothers took for granted. In this seemingly insignificant action, Scott had found a way of taking care of his little brother, who no longer needed taking care of, just as Johnny had found a way to look up to his older brother, even though he was well beyond those innocent days of hero worship.

Scott's eyes suddenly sparkled with mischief "I hope you're hungry."

Even as Johnny was taking another sip of coffee, he hoped that Scott was insinuating what he thought he was. The truth was that Johnny felt like he hadn't eaten in weeks. "Why's that, Brother?"

"Well, when I was pouring your cup of coffee, I overheard Maria, Teresa, and my mother discussing who was going to be preparing what for you to eat." Light laughter interrupted his explanation. "I've never seen a seven course breakfast before, but that's about what it sounded like you will be served."

"Good, cause I'm staved." Even as his stomach growled in anticipation, another part of his body was making its needs known, as well as pointing out the miscalculation of his refusal to let Murdoch help Scott move him back upstairs. "Scott?"

A warm hand landed on his shoulder and gave it a firm squeeze, then slipped away. Scott left the room, and returned a few moments later, chamber pot in hand. A single nod from his brother, and Johnny knew that Scott had secured the area and there would be no embarrassing interruptions.

 

 *** *** *** ***
 

Returning to the kitchen, water basin in hand and the towel used to dry their hands draped over his shoulder, Scott nodded to his mother that the coast was clear and Johnny was ready for his breakfast. He almost laughed as the three women instantly went into action, each loading up the plates and bowls with their culinary contributions to Johnny's recovery. After discarding the basin and towel, Scott turned and stared over at the heavily laden serving tray. He had to wonder if it might not be easier to carry Johnny and those casts into the kitchen.

"When does the army arrive?" he teased.

"Scott!" Teresa slapped him on the arm, even as she added another bowl to the tray with the other hand.

"Now, Scott, you know that if the army was coming we would have informed you," his mother chastised with more dignity, but the gleam in her eyes gave her teasing away.

His mother placed a cup of coffee on the tray and a memory flashed through Scott's mind. She had no way of knowing that Johnny had already appropriated Scott's cup of coffee, so he assumed that she intended this cup for Johnny, even though it would be, in fact, Scott's. "You only poured that coffee, didn't you? Someone else actually made it?"

"Maria made it fresh just before you came back in." Although there was a small pout on her lips, she patted Scott's arm and kissed him lightly on the cheek. "I love you, too, Sweetheart."

From the way Teresa and Maria were grinning at them, Scott had the distinct impression that he had been one of the last to discover his mother's ghastly sense of taste in coffee. He shuddered at the thought, and then grabbed for the tray as Teresa tried to put yet another bowl on the already cramped surface. "I think that's enough, ladies. If Johnny eats even half of this we're going to need a block and tackle to get him out of that chair."

With that, he headed for the door, the mostly portable buffet in hand, when his mother's almost frantic 'wait!' made him stop in his tracks. "Mother, really, nothing else is going to fit..." His voice trailed off when he saw the small orange-red bottle in his mother's hand, which she somehow managed to wiggle into a spot between the bowl of fruit and the oatmeal.

Recognizing the bottle of Tabasco sauce from his first ever breakfast with his mother, Scott couldn't help but smile. "When did you have time to get that, Mother?"

"While you and Murdoch were loading our bags into the carriage. I stopped in the hotel restaurant on my way downstairs. The manager was kind enough to give me a bottle. He called it good public relations."

Scott leaned over and kissed his mother's cheek. "Thank you, Mother." In her teary-eyed smile he could see the understanding that he was referring to something other than just her consideration for Johnny's palate.

 

 *** *** *** ***
 

With his mouth gaping open, Johnny looked down at the tray of food that Scott had just deposited on his lap. Even as hungry as he was, there was no way he would be able to eat the exorbitant bounty before him. His hands automatically reached for the napkin, while his eyes surveyed the tray with growing concern. He had been around enough females to know that nothing got them riled up faster than a man not finishing off a meal they had cooked.

"A bit much, isn't it?" Scott's voice broke into his thoughts.

"A bit," Johnny agreed, but his thought was cut off when he unfolded the napkin to find two forks inside. He was still staring at the two utensils, unsure of how to react, when he felt Scott's leg press against his arm as his brother sat down on the arm of the chair. Before he could respond, a pale hand snagged away one of the forks.

"I do believe this is my invitation for me to join you, Little Brother." Scott promptly speared a piece of fruit from the bowl nearest the edge.

"Good, 'cause there ain't no way I'm gonna be able to eat all this by myself." Relieved that if there were trouble he would not have to face it alone, Johnny shifted the tray on his lap so it was more within Scott's reach. "Didn't you eat already?"

"Had some coffee and toast earlier," Scott explained between bites of cut up melon. "But, I had to get the crews out for Murdoch. He left almost before dawn."

Johnny nodded as he chewed on a piece of the breakfast steak. Since waking, he had been tempted to ask where Murdoch was; he had a few doubts as to whether or not his stubborn father would actually go through with his promise. Now, he felt a bit guilty for doubting his father's word. If there was anything he had learned in the last year, it was that when Murdoch Lancer gave his word, he kept it.

"What's that?" Johnny indicated the small bottle next to the fruit bowl with his fork.

"Tabasco sauce. The restaurant manager at the hotel in San Francisco recommended it to Mother. Murdoch and I told her how much you enjoy spicy foods, so she brought back a bottle for you. Try it on your eggs."

By now, Johnny had the bottle in hand and was reading the label. He nodded at the suggestion, and forced himself to ignore the rest of his brother's words. It simply hurt too much. He gave his eggs a liberal dose, and then took a bit. The spicy goodness of the Tabasco sauce teased his taste buds, but it also had his heart lodged in his throat.

"It's good," he said more softly than he intended. Next to his arm, Scott's leg stiffened and Johnny knew his voice had given away too much.

"Johnny?"

His brother wanted to know what was wrong and would want to do something to help, but there was nothing to be done. Johnny tensed when Scott's hand came to a rest on his shoulder. Sometimes he thrived on the way Scott could read him so easily, but at times like this, he wished his overly perceptive older brother was so darned perceptive.

"Johnny, what's wrong?"

The last thing Johnny wanted to do was talk about his feelings, but there would be no derailing his brother now that Scott had gone all-protective. His voice was as heavy as his heart under the weight of the betrayal he felt from the mother he had thought loved him so much. "I can't stop thinking about her, Scott. I'm trying to understand why she did it, but..." That was as far as he could go - his need to understand. After that, there just did not seem to be anymore.

"Louisa loved you, Johnny."

A smiled very briefly twitched the corner of Johnny's mouth. Leave it to Scott to know which 'she' he had been talking about. Still, no matter which mother he was thinking about, they both shared the same trait - they were liars. "How can you say that? She lied to me. She..." Johnny couldn't bring himself to say the words that really
tore out his heart.

The hand resting on his shoulder gave a firm squeeze. Scott took a deep breath, but the silence between them continued. Johnny toyed with his eggs, coating them in the Tabasco sauce that was so much more than just a spicy topping. How did he explain that some stupid pepper sauce made him feel more loved by Scott's mother than he did by the woman who had given birth to him, or the woman who had claimed him as her son, but repeated those awful lies she had been told by a woman willing to sell her own child.

"Did she, Johnny?" Scott asked. "Lie to you, I mean."

Scott's inquiry sent a bitter surge of resentment coursing through him. "I didn't dream up all them things she said about Murdoch!"

"No, I didn't think you did," Scott's agreement came in that soothing, non-argumentative tone that always said 'I understand, but maybe there is another way to look at this'. "However, you were the one who told us that Louisa told those things to Carlos, not you, and that you only knew about them because you overheard that discussion."

"So? She lied to Carlos about Murdoch. A lie is a lie, and the lies she told were about my father." The fork hit the plate with a resounding clatter as the rage he had been able to keep under wraps so far flared out of control. "Why are you defending her? She bought me, Scott! She bought me like I was some kind of pet!"

Scott said nothing, but Johnny knew he had not given up; he was just giving Johnny a chance to reevaluate his own statement. Sometimes this particular habit of his brother's annoyed the fire out of Johnny, and sometimes it felt like a show of respect from someone who trusted him to come up with the right answer on his own. This was the first time Johnny had ever felt both at the same time, and this time he could not think past his own preconceived conclusion. "She purchased me, Scott."
 

 *** *** *** ***
 

Scott stared down at the grape speared on the end of his fork, wishing with all his heart that he could take his brother's pain away. There was only one comfort he could offer, but, at the moment, he wasn't sure if Johnny would be able to comprehend what he was saying. Still, there was something in Johnny's voice, something that was begging Scott to make this right. Scott would never be able to ignore this need.

"Johnny, a few weeks ago, out on the veranda, you told me about how loving your mother was, how much she cared about you, and even gave up a lot of things that would have made her happy, just so you could have a decent life."

Johnny inhaled sharply, and Scott knew an angry outburst was about to be released. "Johnny, she saved you from a life that no child should endure. Yes, it cost her money to do that, but is what she did really so different than Murdoch's money saving your life from that firing squad?"

In the moments of silence that followed, Scott waited, hoping that Johnny's love for Louisa, the woman who was his mother in every real sense of the word, would win out over the hurt of how she had gone about saving his life. Finally, Johnny exhaled, slowly and deliberately, and Scott had his answer. Or so he thought.

"If she really loved me she would have told me the truth."

"Would she?" Scott challenged firmly, but with respect for the conflicting emotions that were tearing his brother apart. "Think about how you feel now, and imagine how much crueler it would have been to tell a child that his own mother was willing to sell him to the highest bidder."

"I wasn't no kid when she died."

Scott couldn't help but smile at his brother's unrealistic belligerence. "You were nine, Johnny." Having made his point, he quickly steered the conversation away from that no-win argument. "I would imagine it would be very difficult for a loving parent to ever find it to be the right time to tell their child something so evil. I think that she put it off as long as she could because her love was real. Not to mention the fact that you don't know for sure that she even lied to Carlos. She may have been simply relating what Maria had told her, only you missed overhearing that part of the conversation."  Suddenly, another thought came to mind. "Johnny, how long was it between the time you let it slip that you knew Murdoch Lancer was your father and when she got sick?"

Johnny didn't answer right away. Finally, he mumbled, "A few weeks."

"That really wasn't much time for her to think of a way to tell you the truth?"

"Or to think up a different lie."

Johnny was getting angry again, and that was the last thing Scott wanted. Still, he felt he owed it to his brother to lay the foundation for his being able to again see Louisa as the loving mother she had really been. "The bottom line is that she is dead, and the likelihood of your ever finding a definitive answer to that question is practically nonexistent. That leaves you with the choice of interpreting her actions in the negative or in the positive."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Now was the time to put a different type of personal spin on this argument. One that Johnny could relate to both emotionally and intellectually. "On our first morning at Lancer, do you remember telling me that if I insisted on being part of the fight against Pardee that I could end up lying in a ditch with ants crawling across my eyeballs?"

"Yeah, but what's that got to do with my mamma buyin' me?"

Scott ignored the question, knowing that Johnny would figure that one out on his own in just a few seconds. "I could very easily have interpreted that statement as you threatening me."

Johnny jerked away, and looked up at Scott, totally aghast. "I didn't mean it that way! I was telling you what Pardee woulda done if he'd caught up with you when you was alone."

Scott smiled. "And that's exactly how I took your warning, Brother. That morning, we had just shared a civil enough conversation, and not once had you come off as hating me or given me any indication that you wanted the ranch all to yourself. Also, your warning was given in direct response to my questioning your suggestion that the fight with Pardee was a one-man operation, with you being that one man. However, I could have very easily taken that comment as a personal threat, if I had been willing to let the possible negative connotations negate everything else I had seen and heard from you."

Raising the fork to his mouth, Scott pulled the grape from the tines with his lips and bit down with satisfaction. His intent was not to tell Johnny how he should feel about Louisa, but only to make sure Johnny realized that there was an alternative to interpreting her actions as all bad, especially in light of how that would contradict her, otherwise, loving motherly behavior.

Under normal circumstances Johnny would see that, too, but there was nothing normal about anything that had happened in the past few weeks. Scott could only hope that his gentle nudge in the direction of understanding would give Johnny some peace about the woman he had once loved so very much. In Scott's mind, there was no doubt that Louisa had loved Johnny as if he were her real son.

After taking a deep breath, Johnny slowly picked up his fork and began picking at the food, taking the occasional bite here and there, but not saying anything. He was thinking about it, which was all Scott had hoped to achieve. The final decision of how his brother would remember Louisa would have to be Johnny's.

 

 *** *** *** ***
 

"And why am I not surprised to find you anywhere but in bed where you belong?"

Startled, Johnny looked up to see Doc Jenkins and Murdoch standing just behind the sofa. He was thinking so hard on what Scott had said that he had not even heard them come in. Still, something about Sam's tone went right through Johnny, and his anger flared.  "And why am I not surprised that you would go along with the Old Man's ideas for trapping me in that bed?"

Scott tensed, but Johnny was beyond caring. The trapped feelings, the feelings of having no control over his own life, returned with a vengeance. Lifting the tray from his lap, he pushed it over at Scott. "Take this thing away," he ordered gruffly, then turned back to Sam. "And you, get this stuff off my leg!"

"Johnny! You will not use that tone with Sam!"

"Goin' back on your word, Old Man? Shoulda figured as much."

"Stop it! Both of you!" Scott ordered, and then turned to Doc Jenkins. "Sam, do you need anything in the way of supplies?"

"Uh, no, Scott," Sam seemed a bit startled by the vehement reaction his normally acceptable reprimand had invoked from Johnny, not to mention Murdoch's rather strong reprimand. "Actually, I could use a blanket, to catch any of the plaster that breaks loose while I'm cutting."

"Murdoch, will you get a blanket?" Although phrased as a question, Scott's commanding tone had even Murdoch obeying before he could realize what he was doing.

Johnny's anger waned somewhat, and he found himself regretting his outbursts, to both Sam and his father, but he could not bring himself to apologize. He could think of nothing but getting free of his plaster prison. He startled when he felt a hand on his shoulder. Looking up, he answered Scott's concerned frown with a nod, then closed his eyes and leaned his head back. He did not want to help, did not trust himself to remain civil; he just wanted it to be over.

"Scott, can you get me some water," Sam said as he began unpacking his bag. "The manual says that these clippers can become clogged with plaster when removing larger casts."

With his head leaned back, his eyes closed, and his arms crossed over his chest, Johnny waited. He heard Murdoch return, and could feel his father's eyes boring into him, but he did not look at him. He could not. To do so would be to lose what little control he had left. He had always trusted Sam, had believed the older man was actually his friend, but now he was doubting that, too. Why hadn't just plastered him from head to toe for the fun of it?

The familiar sound of Scott's boots returning kept him from voicing that question. After some rustling around and mumbled instructions between doctor and father which he did his best to ignore, Johnny relaxed a little when Scott retook his seat on the arm of the chair, but just a little. If it turned out his leg was actually broken, he was not absolutely sure that he would be able to accept having the cast put back on.

No, that was not exactly the truth, either. He knew he would allow Sam to put the damnable thing back on; he was not stupid enough to risk being crippled for the rest of his life. Whether or not he would lose his mind before his leg healed was an entirely different matter.

A sharp pinch sent a pain through his leg and his eyes popped open, but he refused to look down at the goings on his leg. "Sorry, Johnny," Sam's voice apologized.

For what seemed like forever Johnny felt the cold metal of whatever tool Sam was using to cut through the plaster pressing against his leg. He alternated between staring up at the ceiling, and keeping his eyes closed. Any curiosity he had over the proceeding taking place on his leg were overshadowed by his growing fears, and tempered by his faith in his brother.

Without warning, Scott moved away. Johnny felt his leg being lifted. The weight disappeared, and then came the joyous sensation of air flowing across his bare skin. He choked on the emotions, wondering at how something so simple could feel like the most blessed thing that could ever happen. The euphoria was short lived, though, as Sam's fingers began probing the area just below his knee.

The anxiety returned, and Johnny waited not even realizing he was holding his breath until Sam's fingers disappeared and the old doctor spoke. "Well, it looks like we made a mistake."
 

 

 *** *** *** ***
 

His mind was a whirlwind. The roaring in his ears was so loud there might as well have been a railroad trellis connecting his ears, with a freight train making the late evening pass. Memories of the night the last 'train', which flattened him on a mesa and cost him his friend and compadre, had his heart pounding so loudly that it almost drowned out the roaring in his ears. Amidst the chaos came the fears, fears of being trapped in the rubble of a fallen barn, trapped in the bed waiting for him upstairs.

Not the bed. He would not let them do it to him, not even if it meant...no, he could not face that, either. There was only one choice, but...Was that Scott? Over the roaring in his ears, he knew he was hearing Scott's voice calling to him.

"Take it easy, Brother. Can you hear me, Johnny?"

Johnny's shoulders began to shake, though he had no idea why, and he could only hope that he really wasn't caught up in another twister. Pushing his fears aside, he concentrated only on Scott's voice.

"Do you hear me, Johnny? Your leg is not broken."

Not broken? Johnny's eyes snapped open, and he discovered that he was no longer leaning back in the chair in the great room, staring up at the ceiling. Instead, he was leaning forward, his bared leg stretched out before him, but his vision seemed blurred. Slowly,  his breathing calmed and he looked over at Scott, who was kneeling beside the chair, both hands gripping his shoulders and his brow furrowed with worry.

"Are you okay?" Scott asked softly.

Johnny gave a jerky nod. "I couldn't...I couldn't breath too good."

After releasing his grip on Johnny's shoulders, Scott leaned over and grabbed a glass of water from the coffee table, which he pressed into Johnny's hand. "Drink this."

The first gulp of the cool water felt good going down. After a few more sips, Johnny lowered the glass and looked over at Scott. "I don't know what happened," he offered lamely. Johnny then noticed that they were alone in the great room. It was just he and Scott, for which he was extremely grateful.

Johnny tried his best to gather his thoughts, to explain what he did not yet understand himself, but one glimpse of Scott's expression, and all thoughts of needing to figure it out were pushed away. Scott was giving him that look; the one that said any further explanation was neither required nor expected. "Are you really okay?"

"Yeah." Johnny was pretty sure that they both heaved a sigh of relief. He knew he had, anyway.

"It's a good thing that Sam discovered your leg wasn't broken, Brother." A relieved smile broke out on Scott's face as he eased up off his knees and repositioned himself on the edge of the ottoman. "I'm afraid we'd be scraping you off the ceiling if the verdict had gone the other way."

The pure truth in those words left Johnny unable to respond, so he just grinned sheepishly at his brother's all-to-accurate assessment. For himself, though, he had never experienced anything like that before, and he was sure he never wanted to again -  whatever it was. Still a bit rattled, he drained the rest of the glass of water. "Where are Sam and Murdoch?"

"The kitchen," Scott paused, "getting some coffee."

Johnny flinched. "Scared 'em that bad, huh?"

"Yes."

Although Johnny had been a less than serious, Scott's answer was just that - totally serious. Johnny's next thought was of how he had treated them so badly, and over something that too stupid to make sense. Instead of turning his anger on his father and friend, he should have been thanking them. If his leg had been broken, their putting that cast on it could have saved him from a fate only slightly better than death.

"They understand, Johnny."

"Do they?"

"Yes."

This affirmation was just a serious as the last one, but Johnny still felt badly over how he had reacted to something that now seemed so simple. He casually looked down, actually seeing his leg clearly for the first time since the cast had come off. He was startled by its appearance. "What's wrong with my leg?" he asked as his fingers lightly skimmed over skin that no longer looked anything like it had before.

"Don't worry, Johnny, it's supposed to look that way," Sam assured him as the family doctor and Murdoch returned from the kitchen.  Their hands were conspicuously free of coffee cups, but Sam was carrying a washbasin and Murdoch was holding several towels. "Now that the skin is able to breath, the color will return to normal in a day or so, and the flaking will stop."

"You sure?" Johnny asked nervously, his gaze shifting between the family doctor and his leg.

Sam laughed, but his expression was sympathetic and understanding. "Yes, Johnny, I'm sure."
 

 

 *** *** *** ***
 

Scott watched the proceedings closely as Sam washed down Johnny's leg, carefully removing the dead flakes of skin and gently massaging the muscles that were at the beginning stages of atrophy. While he worked, Sam explained to Johnny what he could expect over the next few days; how the muscles had weakened from inactivity and would take some work before they were back to their previous strength.

The next half hour or so was dedicated to a brief session of muscle exercises, including an explanation of how lucky Johnny was that the left leg was broken closer to the ankle, which made it unnecessary to encase the knee in plaster like the right one had been.  That kept the cast at a manageable weight, and would allow Johnny to use crutches to get around. In a stern voice, Sam reiterated the point that crutches would not be an option until there was more strength in Johnny's right leg.

In typical fashion, Johnny's reaction was to rebel against that restriction, while Murdoch's was to be unyielding in his demand that Johnny follow Sam's instructions to the letter. Sam intervened by tactfully explained that Johnny's right leg would be bearing his entire body weight, and that in its current state it simply would not be able to hold up under that amount of pressure.

After a couple of near blow-ups between father and son, a truce was successfully negotiated by Lancer's resident diplomat - Johnny would do as Sam said, and when he was able, Murdoch would not hold him back from getting around. Again, Sam's word would be law when it came to exactly what 'getting around' would entail.

By the time things were settled, Scott felt like he had been through the wringer - first from Johnny's near panic, and then from his efforts to keep Murdoch and Johnny from verbally annihilating each. Still, he was alert enough to see the signs of exhaustion creeping up on his brother. The sagging shoulders, the eyelids that were blinking open too often, and most telling of all, the increased tension in Johnny's jaw as he fought back yawn after yawn, said that Johnny had finally had enough.

Scott knew for a fact that Johnny had gotten very little sleep the night before - considering the lateness of the hour before Scott fell asleep, and then the rather intense discussion that he had awoken to overhear in the earliest hours of the morning. That would have been bad enough, but Johnny had not been sleeping well for weeks
before that, either. With the added emotional upheavals on top of the plain physical stress, Scott had to admit that he had no idea how Johnny had made it this long without some decent sleep.

Murdoch and Sam disappeared into the kitchen to dispose of the remains of Johnny's cast and the water and towels from cleaning his leg, and Scott sat down next to Johnny. He really was beginning to hate that chair, with it's inadequately padded arms that made his backside ache. Too much more of this and he would have bruises in that most inconvenient of places.

"Tired, Brother?"

Johnny did not even bother to deny the assessment. He merely nodded once, then his eyes drifted closed. A few seconds later, a dark-haired head was resting against Scott's side. By the time Murdoch and Sam returned, Scott had a plan worked out for how the next few weeks could be handled to everyone's liking...well, as close to liking as he figured was possible.

"He's exhausted," Scott pointed out, more for Murdoch's benefit than Sam's. In this instance, he was not willing to count on his father's ability to assess the situation at first glance.

"While Johnny is sleeping, we can come up with a practical solution of how to deal with his recovery. For now, we'll move him into my room, that way we won't have to try to get him up the upstairs." He raised an eyebrow at Scott's startled expression. "I'm not nearly as blind as you would like to believe."

Scott had to bite back a snippy retort that this had not always been the case. Such a comment would be counterproductive, and, at the moment, Murdoch was trying. That was what really mattered. Scott did have to admit to being surprised that Murdoch had already taken into account Johnny's attitude and was willing to work towards a compromising resolution, instead of simply forcing his own views onto his son.

As they lifted Johnny from the chair, Murdoch on one side and Scott on the other, the younger man stirred awake. As both men were taller than the patient, they had no difficulty keeping Johnny's feet off the floor as they moved him towards Murdoch's room, and this time Johnny was apparently too tired to even think about trying to 'help'. Murdoch's shins were no doubt very grateful.

When they lowered Johnny onto Murdoch's bed, Johnny blinked a few times and looked around the room as if he had no idea where he was. Either he had not heard the plan to move him into Murdoch's room, or else he had been more asleep than awake during the move from the great room. Whatever the reason, all it took was a few soothing words from Scott had Johnny's eyes were closed once again.

By unspoken agreement, no attempt was made to undress Johnny. He was sleeping comfortably and there was no need to risk disturbing him. Scott did make sure the unbuttoned pants legs were stretched out away from Johnny's legs, so they wouldn't become annoying if Johnny were to move around a bit in his sleep. With hopes that Johnny would sleep trough the rest of the day, the drapes were drawn to help filter out the afternoon sun, and then the two men slipped out of the room, closing the door behind them.
 

 

 *** *** *** ***
 

With a huge sigh of relief, Scott sank down in the chair that Johnny had occupied ever since being brought downstairs. It was amazing how comfortable it was when one sat down properly. He eyed the discarded breakfast tray, but decided that it could wait until. Right now all he wanted was to relax after what had been several very trying and emotionally draining days.

"What about you, Scott? How are you holding?"

Sam's inquiry took Scott by surprise, and he looked over at the family doctor and friend with a raised eyebrow. "I'm fine, Sam."

The gray-haired man gave him a wry smile and nodded. "Just checking. I know that brother of yours can be a handful when he's injured."

The concerns of the last few days tried to return, but Scott firmly pushed them aside. That part of this nightmare was over, thank goodness, and now he could relax. "Actually, Sam, I'd rather fight Johnny all day, any day, than ever have him just not caring enough to fight."

Sam frowned, his brow knitted tightly and he looked like he was about to say something, but merely shook his head, then sighed as he sat down on the sofa. "During the ride in from town, Murdoch filled me in on the details of all that has been happening since my last visit. I've got to say it's a wonder that boy is still functioning at all; any of you, for that matter."

"Johnny's a lot stronger than you're giving him credit for, Sam." An appreciative smile was served up with that consolation. "He'll make it through this, but your diagnosis about his leg not being broken will make things easier on him."

"Yes, it would have been a fight to get that cast back on him," Murdoch mused.

Scott could not help wondering why it was always one step forward, two steps back? "No, Sir, you are wrong - there would have been no fight. Johnny may be stubborn, but he's not stupid. He would not risk crippling himself. No, he would not have liked it and yes, it would have made him crazy," Scott paused briefly, shuddering at the contemplation of that possibility, "...us along with him, but if Sam had found that Johnny's leg was actually broken, Johnny would have been the one to insisting that the cast be put back on."

Murdoch apparently was not convinced. "You can't honestly expect me to believe that Johnny would have quietly accepted a fate he has been viewing as being worse than death?"

"If I may be so bold, Sir, you are going to have to learn to distinguish between how Johnny vents his frustrations and how he issues an out-and-out rejection."

"You think I react too quickly?"

"Yes, Sir, you do. At the first hint of anything but meek acceptance, you start in on Johnny, accusing him of being irresponsible or impulsive." Murdoch's seemingly genuine interest to discover why things always seemed to go so wrong between himself and his younger son, renewed Scott's hope. "If you really want to make things better, Sir, try standing back and waiting until Johnny tells you what his final decision is, instead of you telling him what he has decided and why that decision is wrong."

Surprisingly, Murdoch accepted the advice, and criticism, without getting defensive. "It's just that when he goes off the way he does..."

"Johnny can be emotional and, at times, extremely hot-headed, but that is part of who he is. Just like those same characteristics are part of who you are." Murdoch raised an eyebrow, but that was all, so Scott continued. "Johnny makes mistakes, and sometimes even makes a wrong decision, but when it's Johnny in the wrong, you conveniently seem to forget that everyone else on this ranch makes mistakes, too."

"I've been holding him to a higher standard than everyone else."

"Yes."

"That's one mistake I will not be making again."

Murdoch's dogmatic denial was too much for Scott to overlook. "Yes, you will." Waving off his father's protest, Scott pressed his point home. "Murdoch, you've been doing precisely that for over a year, now. You're not going to be able to break a long-standing habit overnight, so spare yourself and the rest of us any unnecessary grief. Just be willing to apologize when you inevitably cross that line."

Though he had remained silent throughout their exchange, Sam nodded his agreement. "Listen to the boy, Murdoch. He's making a lot of sense and you know it. Besides, it won't kill you to apologize every once in awhile."

Although sorely tempted, Scott refrained from chiming in with a 'like you did earlier this morning'. He reasoned that now might not be the best time to reveal that he had overheard most of what Murdoch and Johnny had discussed when they thought Scott was asleep on the sofa. That thought was almost laughable - as if anyone could sleep through one of Johnny and Murdoch's 'discussions'.

After pacing over to the fireplace, Murdoch turned to face them. Even though he did not look upset, he did not look happy, either. "Since you both are in agreement, I guess I have no recourse but to accept your assessment of my behavior. I'll work on being more fair, but in the meantime, we've still got to come up with a way around Johnny's aversion to returning to his bedroom."

"Upstairs, Sir," Scott corrected. "Johnny does not want to go back upstairs, and, personally I don't see the point in arguing with him over something that can be easily accommodated. I believe I have come up with the most practical solution."

"You have the floor, Son."

"If we move Mother into the remaining upstairs guest room, then we can put Johnny in the room she is using now. A different set of four walls and maybe Johnny won't be reminded so much of his confinement in his own room. Also, in a couple of days when his right leg regains enough strength for him to start using the crutches, there won't be the added obstacle of getting up and down the stairs."

"That's a fine idea, Scott," Sam agreed wholeheartedly before addressing the man who just might try to broker an argument. "Murdoch, the last thing that boy needs is to take a fall down those stairs. He might really end up with another broken leg, or worse."

"I'll speak to..." Murdoch's eyes narrowed, and his gaze settled firmly on his elder son. "Where is your mother, Scott? I haven't seen her all morning."

The moment Scott had been dreading had finally arrived. He had hoped that his mother would be back before Murdoch could notice she was gone, but that was not to be the case. Taking a deep breath, he braced himself for what was bound to be a bad reaction. "Mother and Grandfather left in the surrey shortly before you and Sam arrived.  They needed to talk, and mother wanted them to have some privacy."

As expected, Murdoch's face instantly clouded over with disapproval.  "Catherine does not know her way around the ranch, and neither does Harlan. They could get lost and we wouldn't even know where to look."

Murdoch's reaction had been rather subdued - by Murdoch Lancer standards, anyway. "Sir, Frank harnessed Zanzibar and sent them down the east road. Zanzibar is the most reliable buggy horse in four states. During out ride the other day, Mother and I stopped at that grove along the east road - the one down by the fishing stream. I'm sure that's where she will take Grandfather."

Murdoch was not convinced. "And what if she misses the turnoff?"

"Then they will reach a dead end at the road that runs between the north mesa and the east line shack. Frank explained to Mother that if they made it that far, she should just turn around and come back the way they came. There is more than enough room to turn the buggy around at the crossroads."

Even though he sounded calm and assured, when Frank had informed him that Murdoch's lady friend and Mr. Garrett had taken the surrey out for a drive, Scott's initial reaction had been more in line with Murdoch's. After extensively questioning Frank, though, Scott had been convinced his mother very clearly remembered the route from their ride. "They'll be fine, Sir."

If there was one thing that could get Murdoch Lancer riled up, it was his being left out of a decision-making process. "If they're not back in two hours, I will go looking for them," he grumbled.

"I expect them back long before then, Sir. If they're not, though, we will go looking for them."

"Since you two seem to have this family under control - for the time being, anyway - I'll be heading out to the Fredrick's place." Sam began gathering his supplies and returning them to his black bag. "Those twins are due any time now, and their youngest boy got himself into a patch of ivy at the church picnic on Sunday. He's been scratching up a storm and giving his mother fits."

Scott held out his hand after Sam closed his bag. "Thanks for working Johnny into your schedule, Sam."

Sam accepted Scott's hand and gave it a shake. "Glad to do it, Scott, though it wasn't like I had much choice." Turning a wary eye towards Murdoch, he added. "I will be holding you to your end of our bargain."

"Sam, you would have come anyway, and you know it."

"That might be, Murdoch Lancer, but you offered first."

The two older men laughed and shook hands. "Yes, Sam, I did. Just send me the bill."

"Count on it." Sam headed for the door. "I'll show myself out. And, Scott, please do an old country doctor a big favor and stay out of trouble at least until I can get your brother back on his feet." The doctor waved goodbye, but was still muttering as he walked out the door. "I swear, sometimes I'm not sure if anyone in this family has the sense to get out of the way of a runaway train."

Crossing his arms across his chest, Scott gave his father a studious stare. "Exactly what did you promise Sam to get him to come out here so early, Sir?"

"Not all that much, Son. He was fussing around about how it would be a waste of plaster to take that cast off Johnny's leg if it had to be put right back on, so I told him to order another shipment and I would pick up the tab. I could have held out and he would have made time to come by, just the same."

"You sound very sure about that, Sir?"

"I am," Murdoch chuckled. "You should have seen Sam's eyes light up when he put those plaster cutters in his bag. He was just itching to try them out."

Scott grinned and let his arms fall back to his sides. "Well, if I were you, I would make the good doctor explain to your often hot-tempered younger son that his broken and not-so-broken bones were used as experiments for Sam's newest toys."

"Absolutely!" Murdoch agreed. Throwing his arm over Scott's shoulders, he ushered him towards the desk. "Since we've got some time before we need to get concerned about your mother, what do you say we go over that new army contract? We can discuss our conclusions with your brother after dinner. We also need to make sure that he doesn't have any objections to being moved into the downstairs guest room."

"Sounds like a plan, Sir." Scott just might start believing that miracles did still happen.
 

 

 *** *** *** ***
 

Harlan stood solemnly, looking out at the view from the small grove of trees, thinking how different it was from his beloved Boston.  The sounds of the nearby sparkling stream actually managed to calm his fraying nerves, and even though it was somewhat begrudged, he could not deny being captivated by the simplistic beauty of the land he had once hated as much as the man who had vowed to tame it.  Those people back in Boston who knew him best would consider his change of heart nothing but miraculous.

His daughter, Catherine, was standing beside him, and this truly was a miracle. At times he still had a hard time believing that she was actually alive. At least here he could see her, whereas for the past week he had sometimes wondered if his mind had been playing tricks on him that day in San Francisco. He could still feel the shock of seeing her for the first time in twenty-five years. She had looked so much like her mother, but mostly she had just been beautiful.

Glancing to his side, he watched her looking out at the land that would soon be hers again. She was wearing a white blouse and a simple green skirt that paled in comparison to the fine clothing she had worn before leaving Boston, but even in its simplicity, her outfit seemed to suit her. There was an air of strength about her, something that he could not remember being part of the little girl who had been the apple of his eye, and he wondered if that strength had always been there. A tender smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. She had never looked lovelier.

His smile faded. Beautiful she might be, but she was not happy. Not now, but had she been all those years ago, when she had followed her heart and chased down a dream that he was only just beginning to understand? Had blinded himself to her happiness, just as he had blinded himself to Scotty's happiness on that fateful visit that had nearly cost him his grandson's life? Harlan could not blind himself now; not to the distinctive signs of Catherine's distress; the pinched wrinkles near her eyes and lips, and the unrelenting stiffness of her carriage.

During the drive from the house she has seemed distant, but now she was almost cold. "Catherine, I do wish so many things had been different. So many years are forever lost to us."

"We all have regrets, Father."

Her words were delivered with a determined air, and the astute Bostonian realized that his biggest battle was yet to come - winning back his daughter's respect. He hoped that her willingness to talk to him indicated that she still held on to her love for him, but he was not certain of that, either. Their reunion in San Francisco had not ended well, and he would not be foolish enough to drive the wedge further between them by taking anything for granted. "I realize that you are upset with me, Catherine. I understand how you must feel."

"Do you, Father?" She turned to face him, her expression as weary as it was disbelieving. Bitterness put a hard edge to her words. "Can you even begin to understand what it feels like to know that you deserted me; that you left me to be buried by strangers? And why did you do that?! For no other reason than to deny my husband the very child that had been conceived in our love?"

"Catherine, you must listen-"

"No, Father, for once you are going to listen to me, and this time you had better hear me," Catherine interrupted. "You would have denied me the man I loved if I had let you, and all because you refused to accept that I had any right to have dreams of my own." A flash of contempt sparked in her eyes. "I was to be only your daughter, heiress to the Garrett legacy, someone to marry off to a fine and upstanding young man from one of the best families in Boston."

The basic truth in her words tore deeply at his heart. For too long he had denied that reality. His late-night talk with Scotty before leaving San Francisco had opened his eyes to more than just this one sad truth. "I only wanted the best for you, Catherine."

"The best for me, or the best for you, Father?"

"I was wrong, Catherine. Very wrong." It would not take both hands to count the number of times during his life that he had honestly felt that he was in the wrong, and even fewer to count the times that he had admitted to it. However, never before had he wanted so much to say those words, or have them be heard. "I did not want to lose you, Catherine. I would have done anything to keep you in Boston."

"No, you did do anything!" Tears welled in Catherine's eyes and she started to shake. "I loved Murdoch with all my heart, and Scott was born out of that love, but you destroyed my family." Her attempt to sound angry failed miserably, and all that could be heard was her heartbreak as her tears began to fall. "You had no right to deny Scott his father, or Murdoch his son."

Twenty-five years of damning thoughts on the subject would not be so easily set aside. "If Murdoch really cared, nothing, not even I, could have kept him away from Scotty."

"Then am I to assume that if you really cared, nothing, not even the chance to steal my son away from my husband, could have kept you from giving me a decent burial, complete with my loving father in attendance?" She glared up at him, arms crossed, and her eyes narrowed in reproach. "By your own logic, stealing Scott away from Murdoch must have meant more to you than doing right by me!"

"That is not so! Murdoch did not deserve Scotty!"

"Don't you dare disparage my husband's love for our child." Catherine took a step forward, closing the gap between them to mere inches, and formidably standing her. "Don't bother denying the truth. I know all about the custody fight to which you threatened to subject my son. You knew Murdoch would not back down to threats against himself - he never did when you tried to push him out of my life before we were married. You were banking that Murdoch's love for Scott was stronger than his need to hurt you. Admit it father!  You used Scott, you used my little boy, as pawn to get even with Murdoch Lancer!"

"Catherine!" Harlan took a step back, the intended denial lodged in his throat. Scotty had told him the same thing, but even then he had not been willing to accept it. However, Catherine's argument was based on information Scotty did not possess, and it could not be denied. He had tried everything to drive Murdoch away from Catherine, but nothing had worked. The stubborn Scotsman had not even flinched, not even when it had cost him both his job and his housing.

Yet, when Murdoch had come to Boston to claim Scott, only the feeblest of threats was made against Murdoch, and that was only to cost him everything in order wage the very custody battle that was the crux of Catherine's argument. If Murdoch had loved Scotty any less, that battle would have taken place and Scotty would have been the loser, no matter which adult had won in court. There was only one thing left to say - the truth as he now saw it.

"Catherine, I needed Scotty," he admitted with much misery. "I was all alone, and I needed my family. Can you understand, Catherine? Scotty was all I had left of you."

A tense silence engulfed father and daughter, broken only by the occasional sniffle as the tears flowed down Catherine's face. Reflexes honed by a lifetime of decorum, produced a handkerchief from Harlan's coat pocket. The pale fingers that accepted the folded piece of linen were shaking, and by the time the soft fabric reached her moist cheeks, Catherine's whole body was shaking.

As he had down when she was a child and the world had been particularly cruel, Harlan held her tightly against his chest. The storm lasted only a few heart-breaking minutes. Catherine pulled away from him and wiped the tears from her face. Harlan only wished that the pain in her eyes could be wiped away as easily.

"Father," she said softly. "Scott was all the family Murdoch had left, too."

"Murdoch could have-" The protest died on his lips, even as he realized the cruelty of such an assumption.

"Murdoch could have what, Father?"

Catherine's demand did not come in anger, but it was still a demand for the truth. As much as he wanted to deny the very thought had even crossed his mind, he would have to if he ever wanted the chance to regain his daughter's respect. "Murdoch could have found someone else, made another family to love. He did, for awhile." Harlan could not believe he had ever been so cruel. "Murdoch did not need Scotty."

Catherine's mouth slacked open as she looked up at him in shock. "You don't really believe that, do you?"

And the final nail was hammered into the coffin of his deceit. "I needed to believe that Murdoch could never love Scotty as dearly as I. It was the only way to justify my actions, and...and I wanted Murdoch Lancer to experience the same loss that had become my burden from the moment he took you away from me."

"Oh, Father," Catherine sighed loudly. "Murdoch did not take me, I went with him. If Murdoch did not love Scott as much as you loved me, then how would keeping his son hurt him like you had perceived that he had purposely hurt you? And what of Scott? You let him believe that his own father did not want him, did not love him. How could you do that my son?"

Like a bucket of cold water, Catherine's simple logic washed away the last vestiges of Harlan's doubt. How could he have been so blind? He had willfully hurt the very person he loved the most.

"Father, Murdoch loved me with all his heart and soul." The tears returned to her questioning eyes. "Would you really have denied me that special kind of marriage, just to keep me in Boston? I could have ended up married to someone who saw me as nothing more than a means to your money and prestige? Is that really what you wanted for me?  To be someone else's showpiece?"

"It did not have to be that way. There were plenty of decent..." Harlan gave up his protest, knowing that it would be in vain. "I'm sorry, Catherine, for every heartache I ever brought to you. I was worried that you were so young, so impressionable. How could I have known for sure that Murdoch would not be one of those men who were only after your inheritance?"

To his surprise, Catherine laughed. "You disinherited me, remember? A full three weeks before the wedding. If Murdoch had been after only your money, there was plenty of opportunities for him to slip away, but he didn't, did he?"

"No, he did not." Harlan looked directly at his daughter. "I suppose it is too much for you to forgive me for being such a blind fool?"

"No, I can forgive you, if you can forgive me for those awful things I said to you in San Francisco. I love you, Father. Even when I'm not happy with your actions, I will always love you. You are my father."

"Thank you, Catherine." As had been his way for all of her life, the Boston gentleman found it too difficult to show his true emotions, but even he could not totally contain his delight over her words. Nor could he hide his pain. "You were the light of my life, and it grieves my heart to know that I caused you so much pain."

 

 *** *** *** ***
 

A lump formed in Catherine's throat. There were so many emotions churning inside her. She wanted to believe he father had changed, that he now truly understood his past errors and would never repeat them. It still bothered her that he had actually followed Maria to join forces with her to hurt Murdoch, but she could not deny that it had worked out for the best.

Still, he could have just changed his mind and returned to Lancer in hopes of finding forgiveness since he did not actually go through with his plan. Instead, he used the opportunity to gain the information that had saved her family. As long as he truly meant the things he had just said, then she would back up his efforts at redemption with both Scott and Murdoch. However, before that could happen, there was one other matter that had to be settled. "Tell me what you found out in Carterville, Father."

Harlan nodded, but his gaze fixed somewhere in the distance. "After leaving San Francisco, I went directly to Carterville. The town, if you could call it that, had been barely more than a few businesses and a house or two twenty-five years ago. What I found was not much more." He sighed and the lines on his face seemed to get even more pronounced. "The proprietor of the hotel told me that Mrs. Andrews, the midwife who tried to help you after Scotty's birth, had moved away not too long after...afterwards. He had not heard from her after she left, and was not sure if she was even still alive."

Catherine could not hide her disappointment. "Surely there was someone else who knew where she went?"

"If there was, I could not find them." Harlan's frown deepened, his own disappointment clear. "However, I kept making inquiries until I finally found an old Negro man who worked in the stables. He remember Mrs. Andrews, but he, too, was unsure of where she had gone when she left Carterville. He did remember that she was a widower, and that she had a daughter named Sarah. The girl would have been about thirteen at the time. I hoped that even if Mrs. Andrews was no longer living, that her daughter might know something."

A renewed hope drove away a small bit of her disappointment. "Were you able to find her?"

Harlan shook his head. "No. The only other information I was able to obtain in Carterville was that there was a family, the Gentries, who had a daughter that was best friends with Sarah Andrews. The Gentries had moved away ten years ago, but it was believed that one of their daughters had married the sheriff in Bakersfield, though it was not for certain that this was the daughter who had been friends with Sarah."

Catherine was beginning to figure out why it had taken her father so long to arrive at Lancer. The answer seemed to be scattered all over the state. "So you went to Bakersfield." Even though her father turned towards her and nodded, the bleakness in his eyes said clearly that his trip had not been successful. "She wasn't there, was she?"

"No, she was not. While there, I found out that her name was Ruth, and that she was, indeed, the good friend of Sarah Andrews. Unfortunately her husband, Sheriff Rutland, had been killed during an attempted bank robbery in the fall of 1868. Mrs. Rutland had moved away the following spring, claiming that she could no longer stand the memories of her husband's murder. No one seemed to know exactly where she had gone."

A wave of hopelessness washed over Catherine. Wrapping her arms around herself, she turned away and walked over to the edge of the stream. She kicked a rock into the water and watched it sink to the bottom. Ironically, that was exactly how she felt - sunk. For so many years she had made herself believe that it did not matter. She honestly had not realized how much she had needed to find out what had really happened all those years ago, but now it was real - she would never know.

"Catherine?"

Her father's concerned hands came to rest on her shoulders, but she could not turn to face him. He had tried, that much was painfully clear. She did not want him to have to bear seeing the disappointment she knew would be in her eyes.

"Catherine. I did not leave Bakersfield completely empty handed. I told you I had found some information. I'm afraid it will not be as much as you are expecting."

Stealing herself, Catherine turned around and wiped her eyes. "I understand, Father. Please continue."

"I was unable to locate Mrs. Rutland, but I did speak to her sister, Josephine Gentry. She was living in Jacobstown. It was a quite a few miles away, but I decided to take one more chance. Miss Gentry was actually a very charming young woman. She had been a music teacher in San Francisco until her mother became ill and she had returned home to care for her. Anyway, she informed me that Ruth had moved to London to live with their mother's sister, and she had no idea what had become of Sarah Andrews. However, after I told her who I was, she did remember you, and Scotty, and..." Harlan looked away. "And my leaving with Scotty before you were buried. It seems Mrs. Andrews held a very low opinion of me for that, which she shared quite often."

"But did she know anything about what happened after you left?"

Harlan sighed heavily. "Not personally, but she did recall Ruth telling her about something Sarah had mentioned the last time they spoke. Apparently the young ladies were doing some reminiscing. They ended up talking about the four men that had arrived in town a couple of weeks after it was discovered that you were not dead. Everyone had been told that they had been sent by me to bring you home, but Sarah confided to Ruth that her mother swore no one knew how to contact me. Even if it had been you who told them about being from Boston, I was nowhere near home, as the trip from California took almost three months. I assure you, if I had been told you were alive, I would have come for you myself."

"Four men? Did you say there were four men?" Catherine suddenly felt very ill.

"Catherine?"

Unable to control her tears, she leaned against her father for support.  She felt his arms tighten around her shoulders as the truth sent her mind reeling. "They sold me," she sobbed.
 

 *** *** *** ***
 

"They're back!"

Murdoch's announcement sounded so triumphant that Scott almost laughed. He looked at the clock, and saw that it was not even noon. "I told you she would be fine, didn't I? And they're just in time for lunch."

Although still amused by his father's reaction, Scott stood and followed Murdoch's path towards the door. They were only halfway to the door when his mother and grandfather entered. It only took one look at their distraught faces to send his amusement packing.

"Murdoch!"

Being a few steps behind, Scott could only watch as his mother rushed into his father's arms. His anger flared, but when turned to demand an explanation from his grandfather, he saw only the older man's back as he walked away. Well, if he thought he was going to slink off this time, he had another thing coming. Scott moved passed his parents, but only his mother's hand reached out and grabbed him by sleeve.

"Scott," she choked back a sniffle. "Don't."

How could she defend that man? "What did he say to you, Mother?"

His mother took a deep breath, but her hand remained firmly planted on Murdoch's chest. She looked up at him and the anguish he saw in her face stoked his anger, but it was her words that kept it from raging out of control.

"He didn't say anything to me, Scott. Not like you're thinking. It was me. I'm the one who hurt him."

Surprisingly, it was Murdoch who kept his calm. "Catherine, come sit down and tell us exactly what happened?"

Her gray-blue eyes filled with tears continued staring at Scott. She still held his sleeve in her grasp, and when she gave it a gentle tug, Scott reluctantly followed. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt her, but he would not tolerate his grandfather doing so either. While Murdoch helped his mother get settled on the sofa, Scott poured her a glass of sherry. It was a little early for drinking, but she looked like she could use something to calm her nerves.

After Scott handed her the glass, he sat down on the coffee table, ignoring Murdoch's raised eyebrow. He did not want to get comfortable, and he did not expect this conversation to last very long before he resumed his mission to confront his grandfather. His mother's claim that she was the one who had hurt the older man was the only reason he was not already doing just that. "What happened, Mother?"

"Father told me what he found out in Carterville."

"What did he find, Darling?" Murdoch urged gently, but with interest.

Catherine took a sip of the sherry, and then took a deep breath. "The midwife who was there, Mrs. Andrews, had died and no one still there remembered anything about me. However, to make a long story short, he was able to get the name of a family whose daughter was of a friend of Mrs. Andrews' daughter, Sarah. Father tracked the friend to Bakersfield, but when he arrived, he was told that she had moved away. However, she had a sister - I'm sorry, but I seem to have forgotten her name. Anyway she was living in Jacobsville."

Murdoch looked confused. "Jacobstown, maybe?"

Catherine nodded. "Yes, that sounds better. It's near Bakersfield."

"Actually it's well past Bakersfield, and not on any stage route." Murdoch corrected. "Harlan must have been traveling non-stop since leaving San Francisco to have made it there and back in a week, not to mention his stops in Carterville and Bakersfield."

Scott was more interested in the outcome of his grandfather's journey than his itinerary, but he kept his frustration out of his voice as he tried to redirect the conversation back to the real issue. "What did this woman have to say, Mother?"

"Even though it was her sister that was Sarah Andrews' best friend, she was a few years older but still living with her family in Carterville at the time you were born. She remembered some men arriving a few weeks later. Everyone was told that they had been sent by Father to bring me home. Her sister told her that the last time she spoke to Sarah, that Sarah confided to her that her mother had swore that no one knew how to get in contact with my father." Suddenly, Catherine turned and buried her face against Murdoch's chest, nearly spilling the glass of sherry before Scott was able to retrieve it from her shaking hand.

Kneeling next to the sofa, glass in hand and feeling helpless as to what to do for his mother, Scott could barely make out her next words. After hearing them, he almost wished he hadn't.

"There were four of them, Murdoch. Four men."

His father held his mother as she trembled, and looked as sick as Scott felt. Now her previous admission made sense. "You told Grandfather everything?"

Her head nodded, but she remained pressed firmly to Murdoch's side. His arms were wrapped tightly around her shoulders, offering both support and strength. "I didn't mean to," her muffled words cried. "He had no idea that the number of men would be so relevant. He kept asking me what was wrong, and the words just started coming out. I don't remember what I said, but the next think I knew he was helping down out of the surrey and into the house. I could tell by his shattered expression that I told him everything."

Finally, she lifted her head. Murdoch's hold on her relaxed as she pulled away, twisting round to look at Scott. "He needs someone, Scott. Please help him."

Scott nodded and headed for the stairs. Murdoch would be the one his mother would want to lean on, but his grandfather had no one but Scott. It made sense now, why the Boston gentleman had rudely walked away without saying a word. He was feeling guilty, but not for the reasons Scott had first imagined.
 

 *** *** *** ***
 

"Grandfather." Scott knocked lightly on the closed door. When he did not get a reply, he reached for the handle. Propriety be damned; he would not let his grandfather face this alone.

Entering the room, he expected to be reprimanded for the uninvited intrusion, but none was forthcoming. Instead, he found his grandfather sitting on the edge of the bed, his shoulders slumped and his head hung low. He did not appear to be aware of Scott's presence.

"Grandfather?"

The older man remained still and silent. Worried, Scott moved to his side and sat down on the bed next to him. He was taken aback by the look of totally devastation etched in every cavernous line on the venerable man's face. "You know."

The words themselves were barely audible, but the torment behind them could be heard loud and clear. "Yes."

"She was...I never..." Unable to complete even a simple sentence, Harlan's mouth opened and closed, but no words came out. His eyes closed and the unheard of happened - a single tear slid down Harlan Garrett's cheek.

Scott was in shock. In twenty-five years he had never once seen his grandfather cry. Never. Not even when Scott had returned from the war, had the Boston gentleman let down his guard to this extent. "Grandfather, you couldn't have known."

Whether it was Scott's words or the understanding of just how much his shattered feelings had been revealed, Harlan seemed to come back alive. "I would have known if I had stayed. If I had not..." The gray head bowed low. "You were right, Scotty."

"About what, Grandfather?"

"About how my hatred for Murdoch had become bigger than my love for you," was the sad reply, but the old man's gaze settled on the wall in front of them. "Only now you know it was bigger than my love for your mother, too."

"No, Grandfather," Scott protested. "This is not the same thing. You can't compare a custody battle with...with what happened to my mother."

"I could have prevented it. I could have..." Harlan's eyes closed once again. His face was twisted in agony, and another tear slipped from his eye. "My actions allowed those animals to hurt my precious Catherine, to..."

"She doesn't remember any of it," Scott offered in desperation.

For the first time since Scott arrived, his grandfather looked at him. In his eyes was a mixture of relief and disgust. "They touched her! They hurt my little girl and..." the anger died as quickly as it had flared. "She remembers nothing?"

"No, Grandfather. The only things she knows is what the priest at the mission discovered. It was those things that prompted him to rescue her."

Harlan looked back at the wall, his head shaking. "That would be the priest from that mission in Mexico?"

"Yes."

"That man rescued my daughter from a hell that I left her to endure, gave her sanctuary and the means to rebuild her life, and I called him and his kind barbaric."

Scott considered his words very carefully. "Grandfather, in the past you have sometimes been more narrow-minded than you should, and I will admit to being very disappointed in you for leaving my mother before she was properly buried-"

"Scotty-"

"Please let me finish, Grandfather." Scott paused, wondering if he could find the words to explain now that he had the chance. "I'm not going to suggest that you have nothing to feel guilty about, because that would be a lie and, well, you would not listen to me, anyway. However, if Mother has the strength and the heart to forgive you, then don't you think you owe it to her to forgive yourself?"

"How can I possibly make this up to her?"

There was only one answer to that question. "You can't, Grandfather. That's what forgiveness is about. The only think you can do is be the best father you can be for as long as you remain on this Earth. The past is gone." Scott snorted lightly.

"Scotty?"

For some reason Scott found himself explaining his amusement. "That was one of the first things Murdoch said to Johnny and me - 'It's past; bad or good, right or wrong, it's past and gone'. In a way he was right, but he was also very wrong. The past can't be put away until it is properly laid to rest. Carterville was finally laid to rest today. Let it go, Grandfather, and grab onto the second chance we've all been given."

His grandfather turned to him. "Your father never tried to turn you against me after you came home, did he?"

Although he wished he had not said anything about Murdoch, Scott could not ignore his upbringing. His grandfather had asked him a question, and it would be answered. "No, Sir, he did not."

"And he never made any excuses for leaving you in Boston all those years."

"No." His grandfather's words finally registered. "You said after I came 'home'.

"Yes, yes, I did." Even Harlan sounded surprised.

"This is what I've been trying to say, Grandfather. You can never give me back the years I was denied my father, no matter who was at fault, but you can change the years I have left by doing what you just did - accepting my life as I choose to live it, Murdoch and Johnny and Lancer, included. That's what forgiveness is all about, and that's why you can't let your guilt over what happened in Carterville twenty-five years ago destroy what you and Mother have a chance to build today."

"How can she even bear to look at me now?"

"She can because she loves you. The question is, do you love her enough to let go of your pain and let her be happy."

"There is so much," Harlan sighed. "Catherine, you, the things I've done."

"Will you do them again?"

"NO!"

The pure horror in his grandfather's eyes spoke more loudly of his newly formed intentions than his verbal denial. "Then love us, and let us love you."

Harlan, however, was not ready to relent. Not totally. "Scotty, it is not that easy. One day, when you are a father, you will understand."

"One day, I'm sure I will. But right now I am a son and a grandson, and I know that, for me, the best way you can make up for the past is to give me a future where I can trust you again."

"Is that even possible, Scotty?"

Scott bowed his head, unused to being so open with this man. "Yes. You did that when you saved my brother. You don't know how much that means to me."

"I...I only wish that had been my intent from the beginning. During my travels to obtain the truth for Catherine, I had a lot of time to think. I knew I wanted to make amends with both of you, but when Johnny's mother arrived, it looked like I might still..."

"And old habits die hard."

"Yes. Even if Maria Lancer had not turned out to be the most despicable woman I had ever met, I don't think I would have been able to go through with our plans. I hope not, anyway."

"I hope not, too, Grandfather." Seeing the exhaustion in his grandfather's face, Scott decided he had done all he could do today. "You need to get some rest, Grandfather."

"Yes, I am feeling rather drained." Tired eyes turned towards Scott. "Your mother?"

"She's with Murdoch."

"Yes," Harlan nodded his head, and for once actually appeared pleased to hear his former son-in-law's name.

Scott could not help smiling, something that did not go unnoticed by the weary old gentleman.

"I am trying, Scotty."

"I know, Grandfather." Standing, Scott headed for the door. "Get some sleep, Sir. If you need anything, I'll be downstairs."

Harlan rose to his feet and stood by his bed. "Thank you, Scotty. What time should I be ready for dinner?"

Scott chuckled. "Come down when you're ready. We're not that formal around here."

The old man's eyes rolled, but his expression and tone lacked any really condescension. "Yes, I remember."

Scott left his room feeling better than he had in weeks. His grandfather had retreated to Scott's bedroom, as that was where he had slept the night before. It looked like Scott would be spending the night in his brother's room, but Scott did not mind. Giving up his bed for another night was a small price to pay for the family harmony that was waiting for them just over the horizon.
 

 

 *** *** *** **
 

The yawn always came first. Then, with eyes being uncooperative in their state of half-sleep, the first fully formed thought was to ensure that he was where he was supposed to be. This was not how it had always been, but now that his life was not nearly as dangerous, he could relax a little and react like normal people, though, some of the old instincts would never die.

On this morning, the ex-gunfighter's instincts told him right away that he was not in his bedroom, but they gave him no sense of impending danger. Shaking himself awake, blue eyes a little less clouded with sleep looked around the strange room. A soft smile washed over Johnny's face as recognition set in; strange was right - this was his father's bedroom, though he had no idea why he should be waking up there.

As he became more awake, brief snippets of conversation began coming back to him. He vaguely recalled hearing Scott and Murdoch discussing putting him to bed, but he could not remember anything like this particular bed being mentioned. Suddenly, parts of another conversation surfaced.

Instantly at full awareness, Johnny and threw back the covers. As he gazed down at his legs he heaved a sigh of relief - his left leg still bore the plaster cast, but the right one was free of all encumbrance, except for the tip of his unfastened pants leg that had become folded over itself. Those words had not been a dream, either, but there were some that he wished were, though he knew that was not the case.

While most of his anger at finding out about Murdoch and Sam's deception had waned, the small bit that remained was tenaciously refusing to listen to the voice of reason which was telling him that the only real choice had been to err on the side of caution. The same voice was also pointing out how Murdoch's decision to cast his leg should be viewed as proof that his father did care about him.

However, that last bit of anger would not be so easily silenced. It stood firmly behind the fact that when the need had been to get away, to do anything except lay helpless in his bed, the only thing holding him back had been that cast that Murdoch had Sam put on a leg that was not even broken. With that unnecessary cast, Murdoch had made him a prisoner, as surely as if he had chained him to his bedpost.

Even if he no longer considered that the cast was put on as the issue, Murdoch still should have said something sooner. Murdoch should have...what? Let him leave? Johnny would have left, too. Johnny Lancer would have disappeared, and when the truth finally came out, where would he have been? The destination was an unknown, but that it would have been some place where his family could never find him was not. Johnny Lancer would have been as good as dead.

Maybe he would have become Madrid again, and maybe not. What he did know was that he would have lost everything, and all because of a vicious lie that had been disguised as the truth. His...that damned pinche's lie had nearly cost him everything, but Murdoch's lie had given everything back to him.

But a lie was a lie! Wasn't it?

His mother...Louisa - damn, it was going to take a long time to stop thinking of her as anything but his mother - 'Louisa' had lied to him, as well, but she had loved him, didn't she?

All of the things Scott had said made good sense. Should one lie really be allowed to destroy all the good memories he had of her, or the love he had felt and knew in his heart was real? Had she really become a terrible mother just because she knew something really awful that she did not have the heart to tell him? If he had been in her place, could he have told a little boy something so bad?

Johnny laughed at this thought. It had been a long time since he had even recognized the fact that he had ever been anyone's chico. It seemed like he had been an 'adult' forever. Even now, when he had a family and a home again, it was difficult to remember the days before he had been forced to grow up overnight. Had it really been that long ago, or did it just seem that way?

He could remember how, when Louisa was alive, he had never worried about how to feed himself or clothe himself or where he would sleep each night. She had done all those things for him. Then Carlos had come along, and he helped, too. From that standpoint, could he really blame her for keeping quiet? For letting him have a childhood, even if it had been cut too short, and even if he couldn't see himself as that child anymore?

All he really knew at the moment was that he needed to quit thinking about this so much. It was making he head hurt.

Shifting to the side, Johnny slipped his right leg off the bed, letting it dangle, over the edge. As he gazed down at the swinging appendage, he felt good for the first time in weeks, and then he laughed at himself. "Yeah, Johnny Madrid gettin' all giddy over being able to hang his leg outta the bed. Good thing no one else is here to see this."

With the goofy grin still on his face, he tried to look out the window through the gap the wind had made in the curtains. He couldn't see much, but from the lack of any sun, he figured it had to be morning, he just didn't know how early.

He wondered if he should yell out or something, to let them know he was awake. Maybe he'd just wait for someone to come check on him. The quiet solitude was kind of nice, now that he knew he wasn't trapped by it. While he pondered his next move, he looked around his father's room. Even in the dim light he could see the personal items that made this room uniquely Murdoch Lancer's. That's when something on the dresser caught his eye.

He squinted, not being able to see too well in the curtain-shrouded light, when a wicked grin slowly spreading across his face. On Murdoch's dresser was the hair comb that he remembered seeing in Catherine's hair the day they had their little 'discussion'. There was only one reason for her hair comb to be in Murdoch's bedroom - the Old Man had already restaked his claim.

"And just what are you grinning about, Brother?"

Startled, Johnny coughed and looked away, purposely keeping his gaze away from the doorway where Scott was now standing. Their father's romantic dalliances had never been a prime topic of conversation between the brothers - not that there had been any to discuss; that Johnny knew of, anyway - so there was no knowing for sure how Scott would react to finding out that Murdoch was bedding his mother while he was still married to someone else.

"You must be feeling pretty good about getting that cast off," he continued when Johnny did not respond after a reasonable delay.

 True, that was another reason for Johnny's higher spirits, and he took advantage of Scott's inadvertent distraction. "Yeah, I guess I am. What time is it?"

"Almost seven." Scott came over and sat down on the bed next to Johnny, his smile as brilliant as Johnny's. "How about a trip to the table for breakfast, Brother?"

"Kinda late for a family breakfast, ain't it?"

Scott's expression turned rather sour. "Not considering that some of the family got to sleep in."

Johnny recognized his brother's tone immediately; Scott was a tad bit annoyed about something. Not totally peeved, just a might ticked off. "I'm guessin' you wasn't one of us who got to sleep in, were you?"

"No, I was not, thank you." Standing, Scott walked over to the window, pulled the drapes open, flooding the room with sunlight. He paused at the window for a moment, as if he were looking for something. Then, he turned around and launched his tirade in earnest.  "I'll have you know that while you, Teresa, my mother, my grandfather, and your father were sleeping in - during the middle of the week no less - I was up before the crack of dawn, making sure the men got their assignments and ensuring that this ranch continued to operate like a working ranch should!" Blue eyes narrowed. "Would you care to take a guess as to why I was up before the crack of dawn, Brother Dear?"

Johnny ducked his head and swiped his nose with his finger as he fought to contain his laughter. He had a pretty good idea of where this was headed, he just wasn't sure of how it had got headed in that direction. "I reckon I'm gonna hear it anyway, so shoot."

"Shoot?" Scott repeated with a raised eyebrow and a disturbingly soft tone. "Now that is a rather interesting choice of words."

Johnny could contain his laughter no longer. He looked over at Scott, took one look at the perturbed scowl, and laughed again. "So, why you were sleeping in my room last night?"

"Because my grandfather is using my room."

The laughter faded as Johnny's curiosity took over. "Why didn't you just stick him in the guest room next to mine?"

"Well, let's see." Scott's answer could only be classified as snippy. "That would be because your father suggested that he would sleep better in my room since your rooster is possessed by the devil!"

"Whoa, there, Scott. I won't argue a bit about that danged bird being possessed by something wicked, but he sure ain't my rooster," Johnny protested between snickers. "If he was, he'd a been fried up in Maria's skillet along time ago." Another thought occurred to Johnny, and he raised an eyebrow at his brother. "So, how is it that you knew enough about that crowing devil to make me promise to leave him alone the other night, but now all of a sudden he's a menace to everything decent?"

Scott took a deep breath and shook his head. "First hand experience. Murdoch told me about it, which is why we put Grandfather in my bedroom, but I ended up sleeping on the sofa."

"So you didn't get the full experience until last night, is that it?" Johnny grinned.

"Yes."

"And now you're wishing you hadn't told me to leave that bird alone, ain't you?" Johnny laughed when Scott's expression told him that he had hit the nail on the head.

Scott laughed and slapped Johnny on the leg. "Since you're awake now, are you ready for a trip to the breakfast table?" he asked with a big grin.

At first, Johnny was tempted to say yes - more precisely, 'hell, yes!' - but then he reconsidered. He did not think he was ready to face everyone; not all at once, and not just yet. His hateful behavior during the past week or so was still bothering him, not to mention that he still needed some time to get all the things Old Man Garrett had said last night sorted out in his mind.

Raising his hand to his face, his fingers burrowed into the days-old beard to scratch the skin that was beginning to itch. Actually, it probably had been itching for awhile, but he had been too uptight to notice. There was not doubt that he had to be pretty scruffy looking by now, and he really was not up to doing any serious primping. "How about we hold off until dinner?"

Scott paused for just a moment, but nodded his agreement. "I'll have Teresa prepare you a tray. Meanwhile, I'll get Murdoch to help get you moved across the hall into the guest room."

"Why?"

"I guess you really were tired yesterday morning," Scott explained with a sympathetic grin. "Murdoch and I thought that using the downstairs guest room would be the most practical solution to your problem?"

Johnny bristled a little. "My problem?"

The smile faded from Scott's face. "Johnny, you were extremely adamant about not going back up to your room, and Sam specifically said that it would be better if you could avoid having to go up and down stairs on those crutches. We're just trying to make things as easy for you as possible. You have to sleep somewhere."

Everything Scott said made sense, so why had he reacted like that? For that matter, why had he been reacting so badly to just about everything that had happened? Before he could come up with an answer, another thought occurred to him. "I thought your mother using that room?"

"She was, but she's going to be using the room next to Teresa's bedroom."

Johnny gave a furtive glance at the hair comb on Murdoch's dresser. Having Catherine upstairs instead of across the hall would make it difficult for her and Murdoch to get together. While Scott may or may not think it was right, Johnny had no objections to his father and the woman he loved being together like that, married or not. Maybe he should, but his father and Catherine were happy when they were together - happy and supportive.

Even with all that had been going through his mind while Old Man Garrett was having his say the other night, Johnny had not missed the way Murdoch and Catherine had leaned on each other for those very unnerving revelations. He hated to think that he would be the one to put a damper on their rediscovered romance.

"Johnny?"

The concerned expression on Scott's face told Johnny that he had been thinking a bit too long. "Look, Scott, there's no need to make Catherine move upstairs. I can go back to my own room," he offered with only a slight amount of reservation, but just enough to make Scott take notice. "Besides, I know you, and there ain't no way you're gonna make your grandfather put up with that noise, so you're stuck with the guest room next to mine. We can enjoy the..." Johnny's brow furrowed. "What's that word? The one you used when you was telling me about them opera houses being built special-like, so that the sounds sounded better?"

"Acoustics."

"Yeah, we can enjoy them 'acoustics' together." Johnny hoped his cheeky grin would cover up the anxiety of going back upstairs.

"Sorry to disappoint you, Brother, but I'll be enjoying," Scott said that word very dryly, "those acoustics all by myself." Scott studied Johnny speculatively for a long moment. "Why the sudden change of heart, Johnny? You weren't even willing to discuss it before."

Although the panicked feeling of yesterday did not return, Johnny found that he had to fight to resist an automatic agreement to the plan. As loco as it seemed, he knew that if he went back up those stairs, there would be no getting back down them. Loco? If he were being honest with himself, he felt downright foolish for even considering such a stupid notion, but the anxieties would not be banished from his mind so easily. "I guess just knowing I'm not gonna be trapped up there makes it different." It was not a total lie; knowing he wasn't trapped up there - trapped anywhere - did give him a huge sense of relief.

Scott hardly looked convinced, but thankfully, did not press the issue. "Regardless, Sam does not want you risking falling by using crutches on those stairs."

Johnny could not help but smile over his reprieve, even if it did mean he would be a nuisance to the lovebirds. "I'm stuck down here, huh?"

"Yes, Brother, that you are. However, you should be thrilled to know that you won't have to share a bed with Murdoch."

Choking back the 'good, because it would be a bit crowded in here' commentary, Johnny smiled and nodded. Experience had taught him that he would never be allowed to go against Sam's orders, but that did not mean he had to go making it too easy on them. They might start expecting it from him all the time. "Probably smells all woman-like in there," he groused playfully. "Be like trying to bed down in Teresa's flower garden."

Scott snorted and rolled his eyes. "I'm sure if it does, you'll have it smelling not so 'woman-like' in no time."

With feigned indignation, Johnny scowled, "You saying I stink?"

Taking the bait, Scott dramatically wrinkled his nose. "Well, it has been almost two weeks since you've had a regular bath."

The truth in that statement effectively sucked the life right out of Johnny's teasing mood. He looked down at his left leg, and the cast he saw there reminded him that he was anything but free. "Guess one cast is gonna be just as bad as having both of them."

"No, it's not, Johnny. It might take some creativity, but we'll get you in that tub if that's what you really want."

The teasing was gone from Scott's voice, too, but the commanding undercurrents of his pronouncement were even more soothing to Johnny's ears. Soothing enough to re-ignite Johnny's sense of mischief.  "Well, I reckon after breakfast I could ask your mother to give it some thought, seeing how she's such a good carpenteress, and all."

"Carpenteress?" Scott chuckled. "You know something, Little Brother, Murdoch and I just might be able to come up with a way to keep that cast dry and your head wet, without any help from the master 'carpenteress'."

The image of being upended over the wooden washtub, his head in the water and the wrong side poking up, was too much for Johnny. "That's what I'm afraid of, Brother," he laughed. "I don't want it to be my last bath, and I know your mamma wouldn't kill me."

An eyebrow rose high enough to become partially obscured by the blond bangs. "And exactly what makes you so sure she wouldn't?"

"Easy," Johnny replied with a smug confidence. "She brought me that hot sauce stuff all the way from San Francisco, didn't she? She wouldn't have gone to all that trouble if she was just gonna turn around and kill me for eatin' it."

Scott's eyes narrowed suggestively. "True, but my mother has become rather fond of that Tabasco sauce. She might even reconsider her 'gift' and begin seeing having you around as more competition than she's willing to endure."

Before Johnny could think of a response, Catherine appeared in the doorway. "Scott, are you and Johnny about ready for breakfast?"

"Johnny won't be joining us this morning, Mother," Scott answered promptly.

Catherine's smile faded. "Johnny, are you feeling alright?"

"I'm feeling fine, ma'am," Johnny ducked his head to hide his grin, "but Scott says you're gonna drown me if I use any more of your Tabasco sauce."

"Scott!"

"I said no such thing, Mother."

Johnny received a pointed glare that spoke of the retribution that would be forthcoming, but Catherine's face broke out in a knowing smile. Her eyes laughed for her as she looked from one man to the other. "I'll tell Teresa we need to fix Johnny a tray."

As soon as she was out of sight, Johnny burst out laughing. Damn, but he couldn't help it. It felt too good to be bantering with Scott like they used to do. He turned to his brother, expecting to see the usual look of mock reproach on his finely chiseled features, but instead, he was greeted with a half smile, mixed with sadness. "What?" he voiced his confusion.

"It's good to hear you laughing like that again," Scott said, and then looked away. "I've missed it, Johnny. I was...I was really afraid that we would never have this again."

Even from the side, Johnny could see the play of emotions dancing across Scott's face, and it began to sink in just how much all that had happened to him had effected Scott, too. Johnny realized that he had been so blinded by Scott's joy over having his mother alive to notice that Scott had been hurt by Maria Lancer's spiteful actions, too. "Lo siento."

"Don't be sorry, Johnny. You didn't do anything wrong. Besides, it's over now."

"Is it?"

Scott turned and looked him dead in the eye, his expression unyielding in its certainty. "It is if you'll let it be."

Johnny looked away this time. "I promised you, didn't I?"

"Yes, but I'd feel better if I didn't think that promise was all that was holding you back."

A huge part of Johnny genuinely understood how Scott felt, and why. That part of him knew there was nothing he could say or do that would make a difference to someone like Maria Lancer; someone who had no heart and no soul. In the early hours of the morning, Johnny had come to accept that she would hate him just as she always had, and that if he acted on his impulse to kill her, he would be the one to pay the price.

"I'm trying, Scott. It just ain't that easy. Not when..."

"I understand."

Johnny looked over at Scott, who was now staring down at the floor. "Do you? Really?"

"Yes." Scott swallowed hard, but did not look up. "Johnny, I have never wanted to hurt anyone like I want to hurt her. I'm not proud of the thoughts I'm having, of wanting to make her suffer for what she did to you and Murdoch, but..."

The seconds ticked by, but Johnny waited patiently for Scott to continue. He could sense Scott's internal struggle, and knew that it was mirroring his own. Finally, Scott turned to Johnny, his eyes now reflecting only certainty. "Johnny, I refuse to let my ache for vengeance cost me the very thing that would give her the greatest pleasure to take away from me."

Johnny understood the meaning in Scott's words and tried to forge them into his own sword for battling the demon of hate. Scott was right, not that this surprised Johnny. The best way to win was to make sure that she never had the power to take anything else away from him, and especially not the brother he could not imagine not having in his life. "Preocúpese no más, Hermano."

Through diligence born of both desire and necessity, Scott's knowledge of the Spanish language had become rather extensive. He easily translated the 'worry no more, Brother', and acknowledged this amendment to Johnny's earlier promise with a gracious, "Thank you, Brother."

 

 *** *** *** ***
 

Later that afternoon, Johnny was sitting in the chair by the window when he heard the door open behind him. After breakfast, Scott and Murdoch had moved Johnny into the guest room, which, to Johnny's unvoiced delight, actually did smell of lavender and perfume. Afterwards Scott had taken Harlan into town to tend to some kind of business, Teresa and Catherine had gone upstairs to Teresa's room to do some sewing, and Murdoch had been busy making sure things were going as planned for the impending round up and cattle drive.

After lunch, Johnny had valiantly tried to read book Scott had brought to him, but he just couldn't seem to get all worked up about such nonsense. Men building ships and flying to the moon? Like that was ever gonna happen! Finally, having had enough 'literary enlightenment', Johnny had taken a few rebellious steps to regaining some of his independence. A very few very strenuous steps that were just enough to make him feel like he had accomplished something.

Now, a couple of hours later, the stony silence coming from behind him told Johnny all he needed to know about what Murdoch thought of his achievement. "Yeah, Old Man, I got myself over here without any help."

Murdoch did not say anything, but a few seconds later, Johnny heard approaching footsteps, and then the scrapping of the chair legs against the hardwood flooring. "You best make sure Teresa knows it was you who put them marks on the floor," Johnny ordered crisply.

The intensity of the silence radiating from Murdoch's direction remained constant. Though Hell would freeze over before he would admit it, Johnny could not help but be a little impressed that the Old Man hadn't blown his top, yet.

A few more minutes of strained silence passed before Murdoch finally spoke. "I assume that you're still upset with me, John?"

"Never was upset with you."

"Then you're still angry with me."

Johnny sighed. Outside the window, two blue birds were going at it under a nearby tree, chattering and viciously flapping their wings, both intent on confiscating the same scrap of hay that had blown free from the barn.

"Johnny, I can't apologize for having Sam put on that second cast."

"I know."

"But you're still angry with me?"

"Yes." In the yard, the birds' fighting intensified. Now, they were hissing more than chirping, wings were being used as weapons, and a few feathers could be seen swirling around in the fracas. Suddenly, the smaller of the two birds snatched up the closest of the straws, and like a shot, was gone. The second bird gathered the remaining pieces of hay in a more casual manner before flying off in the other direction.

Each bird had only gotten a portion of the prize, yet they had chosen to fight each other instead of giving in to the inevitable in first place. Johnny knew that he and Murdoch had been guilty of the same thing on more than one occasion.

The sounds of chair legs scrapping against the hardwood floor told him that if he intended on breaking the cycle it was now or never. "Murdoch?"

After a moment, the chair creaked. "Yes, Johnny?"

"I'da left, if I'd been able to."

"I know."

Johnny laughed, a strangled laugh of one who could not understand any of it. "If we both know that, then would you mind telling me why I'm still mad at you?"

"Maybe because now you know I won't let you push me away."

Startled, Johnny looked over at his father for the first time since the older man had entered the room. As he studied Murdoch's face, he watched the lines of uncertainty appear on his forehead.

"Or maybe you needed to make sure that I would fight for you, even if it meant going against you, too?"

Johnny turned away, hating to think that he had been testing his old man, but since he really did not know exactly what was driving his anger, he could not flat out deny it, either. The problem was, everything Murdoch had done could be seen two ways - one way made him a loving father who had made the only conscionable decision in first place and taking the side effect as a blessing; the other way made him a controlling old man who had done it solely as a means to force his will on Johnny, no matter what.

What was it Scott had said about Louisa? How it was up to Johnny to decide how he would view her actions. It was his choice to ignore all the good things she had done and concentrate just on seeing her as bad because she hadn't told him the truth before she got sick and died. Johnny frowned. Wasn't this the same thing, only a little twisted around? Was he relying too much on how Murdoch's actions of the past year had made him feel unworthy to accept that things had changed and that he could now give Murdoch the benefit of the doubt?

A few days ago Murdoch had said that he loved him - no he had actually made that a declaration, forcefully given with a passion that could not be forgotten. For the first time ever his father had said what Johnny had longed to hear, and Johnny believed him - then and now. In his father's eyes he had seen nothing but honesty, and love. Johnny could not help but smile as the warmth first felt at the sound of those words washed over him once again.

Johnny did not doubt it anymore, not like he had for most of the past year, so why was he dogmatically holding on to the man who had been unable to say those words? In his heart Johnny knew that when it came down to it, Murdoch had made the only choice possible and that his only real mistake had been in not revealing it sooner. Like the blue birds in the yard, Johnny couldn't help but wonder if he was putting up a token battle just because that's the way it had always been between them.

If that was the case, then it would end right here, right now. Johnny would not allow pure stubbornness to cost him something that meant so much to him. "I ain't mad at you no more."

"Just like that," Murdoch asked cautiously and with a hint of surprise.

"Yep. I'm not saying that I'm not mad anymore, just that I ain't mad at you."

"John, I can't honestly tell you that I wasn't relieved when that second cast all but insured that you would be unable to leave Lancer."

Johnny was taken aback by his father's bluntness. "You want me to be mad at you?"

"No, but I don't want you to let go of that anger because you've convinced yourself of one thing, only to have it flare back to life when you find out that things were not exactly the way you thought."

In that respect, Johnny could understand Murdoch's worries. Given their past relationship, it seemed like things left unsaid or taken for granted had been biting them in the backside all too often.  There was only one thing to do. Johnny looked Murdoch dead in the eye and brought the real issue out in the open. "If Sam had been sure that my right leg wasn't broken, would you have told him to put on that cast, anyway, just to make sure I couldn't leave?"

"No," Murdoch replied without hesitation, then added, "That doesn't mean I wouldn't have at least thought about it, though."

"Thinking and doing's two different things."

"Yes, they are." Murdoch's voice took on a wary tone. "But you're still angry?"

"Not at you."

"That's not what I asked. Son."

Johnny knew exactly what his father was asking. He did not want to lie, but at the same time, he couldn't just sit by and let Murdoch keep worrying over the thoughts he was bound to be thinking. "I'm always going hate her. Ain't nothing you can say or do to change that, but there ain't nothing you need to be worrying about it, neither."

"Thank you, John."

With that issued settled, Johnny figured he might as well get the old man prepared for what was coming up. "I ain't happy about being stuck with the other one," he said with a casual nod towards the remaining cast.

"Johnny, your left leg is broken."

"I know it is. I'm just telling that I ain't happy, so don't go expecting me to be Mr. Sunshine until it's off and I can get back to work." Johnny glanced at the book he had discarded on the table. "I'm already getting bored."

This admission had Murdoch chuckling. "Well, Son, you could always take this opportunity to get better acquainted with the bookkeeping."

"If you're that dang set on having me mad at you, then why'd you come in here."

The glare Johnny shot his father would have had anyone else terrified, but Murdoch just laughed. "Johnny, you're going to have to find something to occupy your time for the next five or six weeks. Scott and I will be busy with the round up and then the cattle drive. It would be very helpful if you would cooperate by-"

"Cooperate!?" Johnny snapped. "I cooperate just fine, it's them dang numbers that won't do right. Besides, I never did see the point in making such a fuss over it anyway. All you get is told what you've already done. When you mess up, you shouldn't need a book of numbers to tell you that."

"Johnny, it's not that simple."

Murdoch's reply came in that tone Johnny easily recognized because he had heard it so often. It was the one that made him feel like he was the only person in the entire world who did not understand the concept of worrying over something that was already done. "Of course it ain't." Snatching up the book he had previously dismissed as not being worth the effort, Johnny opened it and attempted to look like he was interested in its contents. "It never was and it ain't never gonna be. I'm the only one 'that simple' around here."

"Johnny, I didn't mean it that way and you know it."

"All I know is that every time I touch those stupid books, something goes wrong." Memories of the last encounter over the books drove away all desire to get along with his father. His voice was ice cold and dripping with accusation when he said, "Even when it ain't even my fault, it's my fault."

"Johnny, the number you wrote was illegible."

The defensive/accusing tone in Murdoch's voice cut through Johnny like a knife. "It wasn't until you changed it."

"I did not change it, I merely made it look more like what it was."

"Made it look like what it wasn't you mean. Scott didn't seem to have no problem seeing it was a 'four' and not a 'nine' when he was the one doing the checking."

"Scott was not even sure that he had checked that column."

Old thought patterns slipped too easily into place. There was no winning when it came to arguing with the old man, especially not this argument. "Okay, fine, I can't write and I can't add so why the hell do you want me near your precious books anyway? Or are you just getting an urge to yell at someone for no reason, and figure you got it made now that I can't get away from you!"

Braced for the onslaught of demands and accusations he knew would be forthcoming, Johnny was stunned when Murdoch got up and headed for the door. He was even more shocked when Murdoch stopped at the door and said in a voice as calm and matter-of-fact as it would be if he were telling Johnny that there were cows on Lancer, "If you're planning on actually reading that book, you might want to turn it around. You've got it upside down."

A few seconds after the door closed, Johnny closed the book with a huff and slammed it down on the table. He was totally disgusted with himself for getting so worked up over something that had been inevitable. Of course Murdoch was going to suggest that he work on the books - what else was he good for when he couldn't sit a horse at roundup time?

 *** *** *** ***

Frustrated with Johnny, but mostly angry with himself, Murdoch headed for his desk feeling worse than he had before he went to talk to his son. He had gone in there expecting to face his son's ire over the cast situation, and had been very pleasantly surprised when acceptance that it had not been intended as a trap had come so easily. Things were going so well, and then he had to bring up the bookkeeping. Why did he have to bring up a subject they had done nothing but argue over since the first time he had tried to show Johnny how it was done?

Johnny had every right to be sensitive about being asked to work the books, too. It did seem that every time the youngest Lancer was involved something went wrong, but even Murdoch had to admit that most of the time it was not due to negligence. A few times there had been simple transposition errors - something that no one who had ever worked with accounts could deny having made, and more than once, too. A few others instances had even been the result of invoices that had been added incorrectly at the store.

What bothered Murdoch the most was that he could see that all so clearly now, but in the past, each time something had gone less than smoothly, he had been so ready to place the blame on Johnny's shoulders. He could clearly remember the time that Scott had made a series of minor errors, but Johnny had gotten yelled at for having been a distraction. The bigger question was why Johnny was still around at all? Murdoch had no answers by the time he reached his desk and plopped down in his chair with a heavy sigh.

"Something wrong, Sir?"

Startled, Murdoch looked up to see Scott and Harlan standing just inside the front door, where Scott had just deposited his hat on the rack. Apparently they had entered just in time to witness Murdoch's display of frustration. Scott looked concerned as well as curious, but Murdoch did not want to get into the matter with Harlan present. It was hard enough to admit to himself that he had treated Johnny unfairly in the past, but he did not need to have his nose rubbed in Harlan's smug satisfaction.

"Not really, Son. It's just that your brother is already feeling bored." It was the basics of the truth, anyway.

"Oh," Scott sighed. "I guess Jules Verne wasn't intriguing enough for him, after all."

"Jules Verne?"

"The author of the book I gave Johnny this morning, 'From the Earth to the Moon'," Scott explained. "It's a bit out of the norm, but I thought Johnny might find it interesting enough to keep him from getting bored for at least a day or two."

"Pure fantasy," Harlan scoffed from behind Scott. "Men flying to the moon? Ludicrous!"

"That's what the good people in Europe said a few hundred years ago when those fool-hearty adventurers set out to find the 'New World'," Scott challenged as he followed his grandfather to the sofa.

"That may be true, Scotty, but the Europeans of that day had no idea what they would find, if anything. The risk was there, but so was the potential reward. Astronomers already know that the moon is a barren wasteland of rock and dust. What possible economic value could there be in spending good money on such frivolous folly?"

Scott was highly disappointed. After the way his grandfather had talked on the way to and from town, it had seemed the business man had come to recognize that with dreams, came realities, and some of those realities could even be profitable, too. "Sometimes economics have to take the back seat to adventure, Grandfather."

Again, his comment was answered with a scoff of disapproval, but when no further argument was posed, Scott turned his attention back to his father. He was surprised to see Murdoch leaning back in his chair, looking both amused and pensive. He was even more surprised when Murdoch answered his expectant look with the last thing he expected to hear from the adventurer who had left Scotland to follow his dreams.

"While I'm hardly an expert on the matter, from what I've read about astronomers' studies of the moon through telescopes, I have to agree with Harlan. Without a plentiful supply of water, which does not appear to be present, the moon can't sustain life, so what is the point?"

While his first thought was disbelief over Murdoch's narrow vision, that thought was quickly pushed aside by another, much more important observation. Looking from one man to the other, he said softly. "I guess the two of you have more in common than you once thought."

Father and Grandfather shifted nervously, but neither objected to Scott's assessment. There had been a time when Scott would not have believed these two men would agree on anything; even an argument that was so commonly accepted among the masses. Confident that the foundations were being laid for a more amicable relationship, Scott took pity on them and changed the subject. "Do you have any suggestions on how to alleviate Johnny's boredom, Sir?"

Though not as tense, Murdoch hardly sounded pleased when he answered. "I did, but all managed to succeed in doing was getting your brother so riled up that he tried to read that book of yours, upside down."

Scott groaned, hoping that Murdoch had not been this hasty in bringing up the fact that the bookkeeping was going to have to be done by Johnny for the next few weeks. "You didn't?"

"Yes, I did," Murdoch responded in disgust.

His grandfather looked at him with a raised eyebrow and Scott felt compelled to explain. To an outsider, he had to admit that he and Murdoch had sounded rather ominous. "Johnny and bookkeeping just don't seem to get along."

"Ah," Harlan said with a nod.

"Don't get the wrong idea, Grandfather," Scott automatically went to his brother's defense. "It's not that Johnny can't do it, he just would rather be doing something else."

"Anything else," Murdoch mumbled in agreement, and then heaved a huge sigh of regret. "So, of course, that's the first thing I bring up and, as usual, I ended up getting on the defensive."

"Which put Johnny on the defensive," Scott interjected a bit pointedly.

"Yes."

Before Scott could reply, Teresa and Catherine came through the archway. "Father, Scott, I didn't realize you had returned."

Years of unyielding rules had Scott automatically on his feet. His mother slipped under his arm and gave him a hug and a kiss on his cheek, while Teresa moved to Murdoch's side, leaning against him with as he stood beside his desk. Even without the strict instructions of Boston society, Murdoch's manners could not be considered the least bit lax.

"We only just returned, Mother," Scott replied even as he once again struggled to keep his joy and wonder from overtaking him completely. Sometimes it was just so hard to believe that his mother was actually here.

"Did you get your telegrams sent?" she inquired of Harlan, who was standing next to Scott.

"Yes, Dear, I did. Now, if you all would excuse me, I would like to retire to my room for some rest before dinner." With the utmost propriety, he turned towards Teresa. "What time should I be down for dinner, Miss O'Brien?"

Teresa actually blushed under the formality of his address. "Please, Mr. Garrett. It's Teresa," she said softly. "And dinner should be ready by seven."

"I shall be ready, Teresa." Harlan turned to go, his eyes lighting on Catherine for just a moment. "Catherine, Murdoch, Scotty," he acknowledged each of them before turning to leave the room.

"Have a good rest, Grandfather."

"Thank you, Scotty."

After Harlan left, a silence filled the room. "Is something wrong?" Teresa asked.

"He's feeling guilty," Scott answered softly. "He knows that everything that happened to my mother was a direct result of his actions. That's a lot for a father to live with."

"If he had known I wasn't really dead, he would never have left me. I know that."

Scott smiled at his mother. This situation was hard on all of them. "He knows that, too, Mother, but it's," Scott struggled to find the right words. He did not want to make too light of the situation, but at the same time, the past could not be changed. The future was all they had, and they had to make the most of it. "It will just take him some time to before he can see you without feeling guilty. You've had much longer to come to terms with it than he has."

"And how do you figure that?" Murdoch asked stiffly.

Catherine's arm tightened around Scott's waist. "Because once I found out I had not killed all of you, then I had to believe that either one of the two men I loved most in life had betrayed me, or that neither of them had known what happened. For my own sake, I had to believe the best - of both of you."

The expected backlash never came. Murdoch merely nodded in agreement. Scott could have hoped for more, but this was a beginning, a lessening of enmities that had been nurtured for too long to simply dissipate overnight. Both men were trying, both men were willing. Both men were stubborn enough to succeed at anything they put their minds to, and that was what really mattered.

"Well, if dinner is going to be ready, I better get started." With a bright smile on her face, Teresa practically bounced out of the room.

"I'll see if there is anything I can do to help." Slipping from Scott's embrace, Catherine made a brief stop at Murdoch's side, sharing a kiss and a smile, before continuing on her way.

Scott watched as Murdoch's gaze followed Catherine out of the room, and then remained on the doorway through which she had disappeared. In that moment, he could not help but wonder how different his life would have been if his parents had raised him, sharing with him a love the depths of which he was just now beginning to understand.

"I think I'll go check on Johnny."

Murdoch turned away from the doorway and looked over at Scott. "Yes, that might be a good idea. Just be prepared for the worst," he added sadly.

"Everything will be fine, Murdoch. We're all dealing with a lot of changes. It's going to take awhile to adjust to all of them," he offered compassionately before heading for the guest room.

 *** *** *** ***
 

"Johnny?" Scott opened the door and walked in. Normally he would knock, but if Johnny's mood were anywhere near as foul as Murdoch indicated, he would not have gotten a response, anyway. However, all thoughts of a bad reaction disappeared as he entered the room and saw Johnny on his feet, but headed for the floor as his right leg buckled beneath him.

Instantly, Scott was on the move, grabbing Johnny around the waist with one arm and the bureau mirror with the other. Thankfully, Johnny was able to hold on to him as he struggled to balance them both against the weight of the mirror. This was the only thing that prevented both of them from them crashing to the floor. Scott quickly deposited the mirror safely back on the dresser so he would have both hands free for maneuvering Johnny back to the bed. "Would you mind telling me what you think you're doing?"

"Well, I thought I was getting ready to clean up so I'd look respectable for dinner, but I guess it wasn't going to turn out that way."

Surprisingly, Johnny seemed only sheepish over his near calamity. None of the anger and frustration Murdoch had mentioned was evident in the guilty grin staring up at him. "What part of falling flat on the floor and breaking furniture constitutes 'cleaning up'?"

"Like I said, things wasn't exactly going as I planned." The grin faded.

"Which was?" Scott asked as he sat down on the bed next to his brother.

"Well, I was trying to get the mirror over to the bed. Them other books," Johnny nodded towards the shelves that held some books for restless guests, "was close enough that I could reach them. I was going to use them like you did the other day, to set the mirror on."

Scott could not exactly fault Johnny's logic, since it had been his idea when Johnny was bedridden upstairs to use books, placed on either side of Johnny's hips, as extensions for the standing mirror's legs so it would fit over Johnny's lap and allow him to shave without having to depend on anyone to do it for him. However, in that instance it had been Scott, with his fully functional appendages, who had been the one moving the mirror. "You're pushing too hard, Johnny."

Johnny's head bowed. "I know, Scott. After being such an ass towards Murdoch, and over nothing, I just...I had to do something to get myself back acting like a civilized man, again. I'm tired of feeling like I don't have any control over nothing." Johnny paused and then looked up, but would not meet Scott's eyes. "It was only a couple of feet. I didn't figure it'd be too hard getting the mirror over to the bed. Once that was done, everything else was close enough."

Again, Johnny was actually making some sense, if one ignored the fact that Sam had made it a point to tell Johnny that his right leg would not be up to much moving around until it had a chance to recover from the effects of the week of immobility. "Wouldn't sitting at the table be more comfortable?"

"Yeah, I just didn't think I could get the mirror over there as easy as I could to the bed."

Scott laughed. "I would hardly describe what I walked in on as 'easy', but since I'm here now, how about the table?"

A hint of a smile flittered across Johnny's face. "Guess I better get used to needing help. Looks like that's what it's gonna be like for the next few weeks."

"Six weeks." Standing, Scott ignored the scowl on Johnny's face while he moved the mirror over to the table. Pulling the chair out  first, he returned to the bed where Johnny was already standing on a very shaky leg. He resisted the urge to further chastise his brother, though. Johnny was trying to behave, and like the rest of them, it would take some adjusting to cope with all the changes that had been thrust into his life. All in all, he was cooperating more than Scott dared hope. These feelings must have shown, because just as he lowered Johnny down into the chair, his brother looked over at him.

"What?"

"I think I'm becoming too accepting." Scott headed for the bureau to retrieve the shaving supplies. "You nearly fall on the floor trying to move a mirror you have no business moving, and I'm actually considering that to be 'good behavior'."

After depositing the shaving supplies on the table next to the mirror, a basin of water was quickly added to the mix, and then with a playful smirk, Scott tossed a towel over Johnny's shoulder. "*You* *look* *shabby*."

Johnny grinned. "You think so?"

"Bedraggled. Scruffy. Absolutely hideous."

"You know, any more smart-mouth comments from my older brother, and I just might have to teach you some manners."

Both men laughed, and Scott picked up the shaving brush, dipped it in the lather, and handed it to Johnny. "Not until you've made yourself more presentable, Little Brother. I would hate to be accused of accosting a poor vagabond."

"Or maybe you just don't wanna have to say that you got whipped by some shabby-looking vagalong."

Johnny's eyes danced with mischief, and Scott felt even more confident that things would work out for all of them. "'Vagabond', Little Brother."

"How's things looking for the round up?" Johnny asked as he began scraping the beard from the left side of his jaw.

Scott, who had taken up residence on the bed and was actually trying to read the book he had left for Johnny, looked up with a frown. "The preliminary counts indicate that the calving season was pretty good. Everything is all set for the round up, so don't be getting any ideas."

"I ain't getting any ideas. I just want to know what's happening." Dipping the razor in the water, Johnny started on his neck, tilting his head to get a smoother shaving surface. "Even if I can't get out there, that doesn't mean I can't know what's going on."

"Just make sure you keep that 'not getting out there' part firmly in the forefront of your mind, Brother." Although Scott could not help but issue the warning, something told him that Johnny just might be learning that following Sam's instructions wasn't such a bad idea.

"Not a chance of that," Johnny snorted softly, wincing as he nicked himself with the razor. "Damn," he swore under his breath.

Johnny's beard tended to come in thick, and with nearly a week's worth of growth to remove, he had to stop and let Scott sharpen the razor for him. To Scott's surprise, Johnny took the help in good stride and with no outward signs of frustration at his own inabilities. A few minutes later, Johnny wiped the remaining lather from his face. Twisting around, he grinned. "Well, now am I pretty enough for you?"

Scott snorted loudly. "Not hardly," he chuckled.

"Well, don't just sit there. Since you're the one with two good legs, how about grabbing me a bucket of hot water and a cleaning cloth? I might not be able to take a proper bath, but I could use a good scrubbing down."

"Are you going to be sitting right there when I get back?"

Johnny rolled his eyes. "And just where else would I be?"

"Nowhere but in that chair, if you know what's good for you," Scott warned. He was well aware that this good behavior could not last, no matter how sincere Johnny's intentions. However, when he returned fifteen minutes later with the bucket of water, soap, wash towel, and other necessities, he was pleasantly surprised to see that was Johnny sitting patiently in the chair.

Staying in the chair would be easiest on Johnny, and would save the bed from becoming unnecessarily wet with so little time to dry before nightfall. Scott helped Johnny get undressed, and made sure that everything was in reach. Kneeling down next to the chair, he began wrapping a large piece of leather around Johnny's cast.

"Cipriano left this extra piece of rawhide laying around and Maria thought it would help keep any water from getting splashed on your cast," he explained as he worked. When he was comfortable that the cast was as protected as it could be, Scott pulled the other chair closer and lifted foot into the seat. "There, that will keep any water from running down your leg and under the plaster."

"How am I supposed to bathe proper with my leg up like that?"

"Wash this leg first. When you finish, we'll put it back down." This placated Johnny and Scott moved away.

"Any idea what Teresa's cooking up for supper?" Johnny asked as he washed.

"I have no idea. She and Mother are working on it now."

Johnny finished cleaning his left leg, and actually managed to get little, if any, water on the cast. Scott moved the chair aside lowered Johnny's foot back to the floor, where he had placed a pillow for it to rest on. As Johnny was totally naked, Scott quickly stood and moved away. It would not do for him to remain in this state for too long, for more than one reason, though the threat of catching a cold was the more serious than a bubbly brunette who had a problem with knocking.

"Scott?"

Something in the timbre of Johnny's voice said that this was a serious question he was about to ask. He settled himself on the bed and asked, "Yes, Johnny?"

"Why was Catherine in Mexico all these years?"

The low voice and noticeable attention to his arm as it was washed told Scott that Johnny was feeling awkward about asking such a personal question, but mostly, Scott was surprised that Johnny had to ask this question. Looking back, he remembered that the one time he had started to tell Johnny his own emotions had gotten in the way. Johnny had not pressured him for information, and for some reason, Scott had just assumed that Murdoch had told Johnny the rest of the story, or maybe his mother had during that mystery afternoon that Scott still did not want to think about too much.

While Johnny continued bathing, Scott told him everything, from the beginning, and leaving nothing out. Johnny could handle the truth better than anyone, and Scott found that he really needed to say it, if for no other reason than to remind himself of just how lucky his mother was to be alive, and how grateful he was that she was such a strong person. When he was finished, Johnny remained silent, but the white-knuckled grip he had on the bar of soap let his feelings be known.

"Thankfully, she doesn't remember the bad parts," Scott offered more for his own benefit that for Johnny's.

"She doesn't remember you, neither," Johnny protested in anger. "She shoulda had the chance to be your mamma when you was growing up."

"Yes," Scott agreed. "But she's here now, and all we can do is make the most of the time we have left."

"Bet Old Ma...your grandfather, he's gotta be taking it hard?"

Scott studied Johnny's tense form as he stiffly began drying himself. He could have sworn he heard a bit of empathy in Johnny's tone. "He's understandably upset, but he never meant for anything bad to happen to her. He honestly believed she was dead."

"Yep."

Again, the word and the feelings did not seem to match. At any other time Scott would think Johnny did not believe that his grandfather had truly been as in the dark as the rest of them, but something in the way he said that one word told a completely different story. That and the memory of how Johnny had asked that very question the other night, and had accepted Harlan's answer as the truth. "Why do I get the feeling you understand that more than I do?"

Johnny did not answer immediately. Instead he leaned back in the chair, the towel he had used to dry his body lay limply in his lap. "I could have been back here sooner, Scott; before Murdoch's detective had to save me from that firing squad, and before there ever was a Johnny Madrid. I could have saved the Old Man a whole lot of grief, and maybe even been a brother to you a whole lot sooner. If I hadn't believed..."

Scott could feel his brother's regret just as he had felt his grandfather's the night before. "Believed what?"

"What I was told - that Murdoch hated me."

While waiting for Johnny to continue, Scott tried to put the pieces together in his own mind, but kept coming up with something missing. Finally, after a few moments, Johnny put the final piece into place for him.

"When my ma...when Louisa and Carlos died, the woman I had been staying with and the padre were going to send me to one of them church orphanages."

Scott recalled that soul-bearing conversation of a several weeks prior. "I remember. You said you had heard stories about the orphanages and refused to go there."

That was only part of it."

"What was the other part?"

Johnny's head bowed low. "I was afraid they'd send me back to Murdoch. I couldn't bear the thought of being with him, knowing what he had done to..."

"You didn't know it wasn't the truth, Johnny." Scott's forgiveness for his grandfather had not been in question, but this conversation was definitely helping him to understand how wrong something could go without it being intentional. "Did you really believe the church could have found Murdoch?"

"Why not?" Johnny shrugged. "Murdoch wasn't hiding out anywhere. Them church people talk to each other all the time, spreading more than just God's word, if you know what I mean. If my...if Louisa told Carlos Murdoch's name, she probably told the padre, too. She went to church just about every time there was a mass."

That made sense, but something more important than a past that could not be changed had caught Scott's attention. "You know, Johnny, it's okay if you still want to think of Louisa as your mother. She was. In all the important ways."

Johnny shrugged again. "Guess I don't want anyone confusing her with...."

"With Maria?" Johnny nodded and Scott could not help but smile. "Don't worry, Johnny, no one will ever think of Maria Lancer as anyone's mother." More seriously, he added. "Johnny, she - Louisa - was your mamma."

There was a noticeable lessening of the tension in Johnny's body, accompanied by a jerky nod. Those words had needed to be heard.

"What's gonna happen now?" Johnny asked softly.

Confused, Scott could only issue an inquisitive, "As in?"

"Murdoch and your mamma. That lawyer Murdoch hired said that he and my...that woman," Johnny spat out the term as if it were the most vile thing he could call her, although that was hardly the case. "They're still married."

"Mr. Barkley is filing for Murdoch's divorce."

"You think it's gonna be that easy?"

Scott hesitated. "All we can do is wait and see."

Johnny snorted. "That puta ain't gonna let him go without a fight."

There was a certainty in Johnny's voice that alarmed Scott. His brother had very good instincts when it came to people, and even though he had only met his birth mother that one time, that seemed to be more than enough for his brother. "What makes you so sure of that?" Scott asked, even though he was not at all certain he really wanted to hear the answer.

"According to what your grandfather told us, she sees being Mrs. Murdoch Lancer as being to her advantage. If that's the case, she won't just give up on keeping his name." Johnny's gaze turned as cold as his voice. "Besides, even if that wasn't the case, she'd fight it just because she's pure mean, and it's what Murdoch wants."

"I hope you're wrong."

Johnny's voice turned cold. "There's another way. A way that she can't fight."

Scott's head jerked up to see Johnny Madrid sitting in the chair by the table. Johnny Madrid would not care about the legitimacy of a name he did not use; only Johnny Lancer would. Johnny Lancer would make the sacrifice, but would he be able to endure the pain it would bring to him? "No, Johnny. Mother and Murdoch are both opposed to that option. They will not take away your legitimacy."

Eyes full of anger and hate turned towards him. "She ain't gonna give 'em no choice?! Damn it, Scott! Can't you see that?!"

Keeping his voice calm, Scott reiterated what he knew to be the truth. "They won't do it, Johnny."

The towel that had been covering Johnny's lap went flying across the room. "Then I will!"

Retrieving the clean pants and shirt that he had gathered during the trip for fresh bath water, Scott handed them to his distraught, but still naked brother. "Put these on before you catch cold."

Johnny snatched the clothes from him, and Scott finished voicing the rest of the truth. "Only Mother and Murdoch can do anything about this."

"Wrong - She can do plenty." Nimble fingers were making short work of the buttons on the side of his left pants leg, but that steely voice had said it all.

A hard shudder made Scott sit back on the bed to keep from falling as Johnny's harsh words brought forth another unthinkable possibility. If Maria Lancer decided that she would lose her fight against the divorce, she could very well see petitioning the court to nullify her marriage to Murdoch as her final chance get to Murdoch by hurting Johnny.

Then again, from what his grandfather had said, she would be just as likely to do it for the sole reason of hurting Johnny. Her hatred for husband seemed to be exceeded only by her hatred for their son. "Let's cross that bridge when we get to it, Johnny."

Johnny looked up from buttoning his shirt. "That is one bridge that will have to be crossed, Scott." A bit of the fire left those sapphire eyes. "Now help me get these pants on, would ya? Before Teresa comes barging in while I'm not decent."

The attempt to tease him out of the somberness of his mood was only partially successful. "I thought you were always 'decent', Little Brother?"

"I am, I just don't want her to be disappointed when she finds her some man to marry and he don't measure up to the Lancer standards."

That comment succeeded in driving the rest of the previous conversation away. "And just what makes you so sure that she's even looking 'elsewhere'?" The pointedness of Scott's remark hit home, but with a reaction that Scott had not expected as Johnny went totally pale.

"She ain't...she can't...I never gave her any encouragement..." Johnny stuttered.

Although amused, Scott could see that Johnny was genuinely worried by his inadvertent insinuation. "Easy, Brother. I have no reason to believe that Teresa has ever thought about you in a romantic context. Besides, would it be that bad?"

"Yes!" Johnny yelped. "In the first place, Murdoch would shoot me just for daring to think about doing them kind of things with Teresa."

Scott had to agree on that point. He actually felt sorry for any man that tried to court Teresa. "And in the second place?"

"I just don't feel that way about her. She's my sister. Besides, she's just a kid."

"You do realize that she will be eighteen this fall?"

"I know, but she's still a kid in here, where it counts." Johnny patted his chest over his heart. "Don't get me wrong. She's family and I'd die to protect her, just like I would for you and Murdoch."

"But you don't particularly want to be snuggling up with me or Murdoch, either?"

"Darn straight!"

Something in the Johnny's denial struck a cord of familiarity and brought back a memory from way back. "She lost interest in you and you'd prefer that she not get it back?"

For the second time, Johnny's head shot up in surprise. Then he looked away. "Yeah."

Well, that explained those few tense weeks between the two of them all those months ago. It wasn't anything really blatant, but Scott had detected a chill that had not been there previously. Just about the time he had decided to confront Johnny about it, things seemed to return to normal. He had said nothing, believing that it had just been them working through the newness of suddenly being 'family'.

This revelation also made Scott even more grateful for his mother's intervention when Johnny had needed tending after they brought him home from the mesa. It also explained why Johnny had been so disheartened on the couple of occasions he thought Teresa might have had too much access to him while he was unconscious. Still, it was undeniable that Teresa would be a nice choice for a wife. "You could do a lot worse, you know."

Johnny nodded in total agreement. "Scott, it's not that. Teresa's a nice gal, and she'll make some man a mighty fine wife one day. She's got guts, and smarts, and she's pretty as a speckled pony, too. But she's my sister, my hermana. Brothers don't think of sisters like that, least ways not any that don't deserve a to get plugged between the eyes."

Sensing that he was pushing too hard, Scott backed off before Johnny could pull out the most obvious challenge - why wasn't Scott chomping at the bit to get to her. "I understand, Johnny. And I'm glad to know that you two got this worked out already. Now let's get those pants on you before she comes in and totally ruins her life."

Scott easily dodged Johnny's half-hearted attempt to punch him. "You know, if you had some drawers that button up one side...

"You go making that suggestion to Teresa and I swear I'll hurt you, Scott Lancer!"

Although he laughed at the thought of Teresa tending to Johnny's drawers, Scott's suggestion had actually been based in serious contemplation. "What about my mother? She wouldn't mind at all. In fact, when she noticed that you're wearing any, she'll probably figure it out all on her own."

"And just how's she gonna notice something like that, unless a certain son tells her?" Johnny demanded.

"I think that even Teresa could come to that conclusion after a few weeks of not finding any evidence in the laundry."

"Oh."

Scott sat back down on the bed and waited for Johnny to finish dressing. Johnny had not answered his question, but an answer was not necessary, either. If Johnny decided some modifications to his drawers were in order, he could ask Scott's mother himself. Scott saw no reason that he had to be a go between, and for that he was grateful. Too often he had occupied that role between father and son, but that was done out of necessity. Johnny was fully capable of handling his own clothing decisions.

"Is it time for supper? I'm starved."

Closing the book he had not been reading, Scott slipped off the bed and headed for the door. "I'll go check, and inform the ladies that their dining experience will be greatly enhanced by your magnanimous presence at the table this evening." With an overly emphasized bow, Scott left the room to complete his duties.

 *** *** *** ***

 Long before the rest of the household got up and began stirring about, Murdoch was already well into his first morning cup of coffee. The peaceful solitude that was the Lancer kitchen just before daybreak had become his own personal time; a quiet moment he had come to relish through the years, when the steam rising from a cup of fresh-brewed coffee tickled his nose with the soothing aroma that was second to none.

Even when Teresa's father had been alive, this had been Murdoch's private morning ritual. He would silently go over the upcoming plans for the day that he and Paul had discussed the evening before, scrutinizing each detail one last time to ensure that there were no conflicts between different work crews' objectives, or that they had not overlooked that one minor detail that would turn a perfect workday into a unproductive waste of time.

The necessity for this routine had come to an abrupt end, however, when his sons had accepted his offer of a partnership. Unlike Paul, who was his friend and employee, Scott and Johnny were part owners. They were decision makers. Even though Murdoch called the tune, it was still Scott and Johnny's right to be included in the process. Now his early morning solitude was used to reflect on how much his sons' presence had changed his life.

Rising to his feet, he stretched out a few more kinks and walked over to the stove. He poured his second cup of coffee, this time forgoing the cream and sugar that only seemed necessary additions to his first cup. "Scott does that, too," he noted to himself, as if to appease an unheard voice of rebuke over such a seemingly silly habit.

He returned to his chair, and his thoughts. Legally, of course, he had the final say in all matters that pertained to the ranch, but he had found both of his sons to be quite capable of making their mark - each bringing to the table his own unique talents and perspectives, each breathing a breath of new life into an old game, each easing the burdens Murdoch had, for he most part, shouldered alone for too many years. He took a sip of the black brew and coffee. He was contented.

Change was inevitable. Sometimes it was even good.

Take yesterday, for instance. He had slept in for the first time since the boys had come home. Too many things to consider and too many sleepless nights had finally caught up with him, but he had no fears of anything dreadful happening due to his lapse.

Scott had effortlessly dispatched the men with precision and ease, like he had been doing this all his life, instead of just a few short months. Murdoch smiled. His first-born son might have been reared in Boston, but he was a Californian by birth. After only a year of ranching, Scott handled himself as well, if not better, than most men who had lived here all their lives. He was one old man whose heart was bursting with pride.

Another sip of coffee tantalized his taste buds. Old man? He snorted softly at this image of himself. He had turned fifty only a month or so before his sons had returned to the land that was always meant to be theirs. The hoopla his children had made a few months ago over his fifty-first birthday made him all the more thankful that he had reached the monumental more milestone before embarking on this new journey in his life. Actually, if the truth be told, he felt younger now than he did when he was forty.

Old man? This time his snort was accompanied by a satisfied smile.

Johnny called him 'Old Man' on occasion - sometimes in anger, but mostly with a tentative, almost shy, sense of affection. There was no denying that his younger son was hesitant to reveal the depths of his feelings for his father. This knowledge hurt the venerable Scotsman, but he could not deny that Johnny had good reason to be so wary. Like a complete fool, he who had kept Johnny at arm's length since that very first day, all but forcing Johnny to respond in kind out of sheer self-preservation.

If only he could make it up to his son, help Johnny understand just how proud he was of him; proud of the way Johnny had walked away from a life that was no longer desired, yet with his head held high and feeling no shame in admitting that it had been his. There was regret, but from the very first day, Johnny had denied nothing. All he had ever tried to do was to blend the man that he had been with the man he had a chance to be.

An ache in his leg made him shift positions, and reminded him that sometimes Johnny had not found relief so easily. There was no denying that Johnny's life had been difficult, that a little boy had been forced to grown up entirely too fast. No, what he had doubted, what he had been unable to accept, was his own position as one of Johnny's greatest obstacles. The threat of those who would see Johnny Madrid disappearing into a six-foot hole in the ground was all too real, but Johnny's most tasking battle had been the one he should never have had to fight - the one against his own parents.

Regret filled Murdoch's heart as it had many times over the years. The ache was all too familiar, but this time it was not over how he had been wronged by a beloved wife's betrayal, but for the innocent child who had been wronged by the two people in the world he should have been able to depend on, no matter what. In the past few days, the enigma that had been his second wife had become less of a mystery, while at the same time, had become even more of one.

No longer did he wonder how Maria could have seemed so loving when they met, so vibrant, so passionate, so full of hope. At this thought he had to snort. Maria had been full of hope all right - only her hopes had included nothing but her own selfish desires. All he could wonder now was how he had managed to miss what she really was during the two years they were together. With a furrowed brow he looked around the kitchen, seeing it in an old light for the first time in a long time.

This had been her domain while she was here, the iron stove her first 'demand' after taking up residency in the massive hacienda. Had it all been a lie? Had she really been that good an actress, or did, at some point, a tiny part of her heart harbor some need for what he could offer?

With a heavy sigh, he admitted that he had tried to think so, if for no other reason than for their son. Through it all, Johnny had been the one most hurt by the truths his father had failed to see. No matter how hard Murdoch tried to convince himself there was some good in his second wife, the undeniable truth kept getting in the way - she had never loved him, and worst of all, she had never loved their child.

A hard shudder surged through his body, shaking his hand so suddenly that the coffee splashed over the edge of his cup. He quickly wiped up the liquid with his napkin, and then set the cup down on the folded material. Through the years his nightmare had been that he would find his son too late, that a cold headstone would be all he would ever have of his vibrant little boy. The truth had been so much more chilling.

Johnny had come too close to being denied even his first breath of life, and at his own mother's hand. For Murdoch to realize that he could have loved someone who was so evil, so brutal, so incapable of caring for anyone but themselves was a cause for immense shame over his inability to see that which was right in front of his face. He should have known. He should have seen what she really was. How could he not?

In spite of all these new regrets, he found hope in the fact that the one regret that had nearly cost him his son for a second time was gone. As stupid as it sounded, the more he heard about the woman he had married so many years ago, the less he regretted marrying her. He may have bedded the devil, but he could no longer be sorry that he had done so. In an unusual twist of reality, he found only satisfaction in the result of that union - Johnny.

"Murdoch?"

Startled, Murdoch looked up to see Harlan standing in the kitchen doorway. It was early for the regulars at the ranch, which made it even more unusual for the Boston gentleman to be up and about. "Is something wrong, Harlan?"

"No, nothing like that." The older man's movements were stiff and awkward as he slowly made his way across the kitchen to where Murdoch was seated at the table. He was wearing a stylish lounging jacket and house slippers, similar to the pair Scott had brought with him from Boston. Even with his proper attire, he still looked disheveled in his half-asleep state. "I was wondering if you had a moment to discuss a matter of concern. Privately."

Intrigued but still a little wary, Murdoch nodded towards the chair by which Harlan had come to a stop. "Of course, Harlan. Can I get you some coffee?" he asked politely, even though he was already on his feet and headed for the stove.

"Yes, thank you. A fresh cup of coffee is just what I need." A yawn escaped the older man, who seemed a bit miffed at his own shortcoming. "I always considered myself an early bird, but as Scotty has told me numerous times, life out here is very different than it is in Boston."

Murdoch grabbed another cup from the pantry and, using a towel to protect his hand from the hot handle, retrieved the coffee pot from its place on the stove. Refreshing his own at the same time, he carried the two cups to the table. "Cream or sugar?"

"No. Black is fine, thank you." Harlan accepted the steaming beverage, blew on it for a moment, then took a sip. He almost sighed with satisfaction. "I must say that you brew an excellent pot of coffee, Murdoch. Have you ever noticed how the quality of one's first cup of coffee in the morning can actually set the tone for the rest of the day?"

"Thank you, and yes, I have," Murdoch chuckled. Still a bit wary about what his former father-in-law had to say, Murdoch set his coffee down and gave the other man his undivided attention. There could only be one reason that would necessitate such an early morning discussion, and that reason did nothing to settle his nerves. "What is it that you don't want Scott or Catherine to know about?"

If Harlan was surprised by this deduction, it did not show. "Actually, Murdoch, it is not so much that I wish for Catherine and Scotty to remain unaware of my offer, as much as I wished to present my proposal to you without their involvement. Only then would you have the freedom of declining, without fear of displeasing either of them."

The older man's prologue did little to ease Murdoch's tension. "What exactly do you have in mind, Harlan?"

"It concerns Johnny."

Any senses that Murdoch possessed that were not already alert came instantly to life. "Go on."

"Well, I've been thinking about what Scotty said yesterday afternoon, about how Johnny and the task of bookkeeping do not get along." Harlan toyed with the coffee cup in front of him, as if he were unsure of how to continue. "I thought that perhaps I could be of some assistance by offering a professional explanation of the virtues of both the practice and procedures; however, for me to be of any practical service, I would have to be very specific with my instructions."

Suddenly it dawned on Murdoch as to why Harlan thought he might object, and why Catherine and Scott might not agree with the grounds for those objections. "Which means you would need to become extremely familiar with Lancer's finances."

Harlan nodded. "Precisely. If I were officially your accountant, professional ethics would be involved and there would be no need for any concern on your part. However, given our history and the lack of formality of my proposal, I would understand any reluctance, whereas Scotty or Catherine might not. That is the only reason I wished to keep this from them."

Murdoch thought on this for a long moment. While it was inconceivable that a man of Harlan's experience would be unable to form at least a basically accurate assessment Lancer's financial position, even without a careful perusal of the books, Murdoch could not deny feeling uneasy over the prospect of handing over the ranch's accounts. With that information, Harlan would gain an almost perfect sense of where their strengths and potential weaknesses lay. What concerned Murdoch even more, though, was the venue through which this information would be obtained.

"The truth, Harlan. Why you would want to do anything to help Johnny?"

"First and foremost, Johnny is Scotty's brother."

Murdoch raised an eyebrow. "Johnny has always been Scott's brother. Half brother, to be exact," he added, stressing the 'half' part as Harlan had done himself on numerous occasions.

"Yes, he has been, however, this foolish old man has only recently accepted that fact, along with the concept that there is nothing half about the relationship between Scotty and Johnny."

The heaviness in Harlan's voice made it impossible to dismiss the man's regret. Not only that, but the elderly man's carriage was equally, if not more, revealing - Harlan Garrett was a proud man who looked absolutely downtrodden as he slumped over his coffee.

Slumped might have been a bit much if it had been anyone else, but Harlan had always been very conscientious of appearances. Even when his plan to blackmail Scott into returning to Boston had failed, the air of dignity had remained, even if it had lost nearly all of the haughtiness. This was no longer the case, and it was very telling.

"Harlan, I appreciate your offer, but mostly, I thank you for the sentiment that comes along with it. Your acceptance of his brother will mean a lot to Scott."

Eyes both weary and grateful looked up at him. "Thank you, Murdoch. I wish you to know that I no longer have any desire to come between you and your family."

'Your family'. With those words came the ultimate admission, and one that Murdoch could not ignore. As he was facing the painful facts of his own misjudgments and foolish actions, how could he deny this man his own awakening? "Catherine and Scott will always be your family, too, Harlan."

The two proud men fell into an awkward silence. Baring their souls was not something either of them did with any frequency, and never had they expected share such personal things with each other. The olive branches had been extended. Acceptance would take some time; trust would take even longer.

It was this lack of trust that fueled Murdoch's continued concerns. "Harlan, why this sudden interest in Johnny's welfare?

There was nothing but understanding in the eyes that stared at Murdoch from across the table. The formal tone was back, and the stature of propriety was firmly back in place. "Actually, there were a couple of incidents that prompted me to make this offer.  During our trip to town yesterday, Scotty was rather open with me about his worries concerning Johnny's recovery time overlapping some rather important upcoming ranching duties. According to Scotty, Johnny is rather prone to deviate from the spirit of sound medical advice."

Murdoch nearly choked on his coffee. After regaining his composure, he said in total sincerity, "Harlan, out here you'll find that  we call an ass an ass. There is no deviation involved; Johnny flat out defies Sam's orders as soon as he's physically able to do so.

Harlan actually grinned at this rather blunt revelation. "I see."

"As for teaching Johnny accounting, he understands how it works, it is its overall importance that he can't accept. Scott and I have both tried to explain the necessity for accurate financial records, but, quite frankly, the life Johnny was forced to live left very little room for anything that did not involve surviving the here and now. Once that was done, there was no benefit in examining what was already known to be true."

"If you have money left at the end of the month, then it had to have been a good month?" the elder man offered in an amused tone.

To this, Murdoch could not help but laugh. "Yes, that is one of Johnny's favorite arguments."

A knowing smile began to form on Harlan's face. "Wasting time doing bookkeeping keeps one from doing work that actually makes the money?"

Murdoch's amusement took a shift towards earnest interest. "I've heard that one a time or two, as well."

"I would imagine a resourceful young man such as Johnny would have also mentioned that bookkeeping only tells one what has already been done, and that a person should know what they are doing when they do it, not afterwards?"

The accuracy of the shrewd accountant's assessments was uncanny. "Harlan, if I didn't know better, I would swear you had been eavesdropping on some of our discussions."

This time it was Harlan who chuckled. "No, not at all, Murdoch. I have, however, heard those arguments and countless others like them through my many years in the profession. I have total confidence that I would be able to succeed in presenting Johnny with ample bases to dispel his fallacies concerning the importance of proper bookkeeping."

Given the way Johnny had constantly rebuffed both his and Scott's efforts to do just that, not to mention the animosity that Johnny felt for the man who had caused Scott so much pain, Murdoch had serious doubts that Harlan would be successful. It also did little to explain why Harlan would be willing to go to such effort, even for Scott. "You said there were a couple of reasons for your interest in helping Johnny."

"Yes." Harlan set down his cup and his expression hardened. "During the time I spent with Johnny's mother-"

"That woman is not Johnny's mother!" Even as angry words were leaving his mouth, Murdoch instantly regretted saying them. "Forgive me, Harlan. It's just hard to think of her as having such a nurturing connection to Johnny." He briefly closed his eyes as the anger threatened to overtake him again. "She would have killed him, and it's only by the grace of God that he is still alive."

Harlan's expression softened with compassion. "I understand, Murdoch. I can refer to her only as 'that woman', if you prefer." The hint of a devious smile twitched at Harlan's lips. "That is, unless you would prefer that I call an ass an ass."

In truth, Murdoch would actually prefer to forget Maria Lancer ever existed beyond the day she gave birth to Johnny, but that was not realistic. "'That woman' will do fine," he said quickly. The other option was not really an option.

"Very well," Harlan agreed. "After spending some time with that woman, I found myself actually..." the older man paused, his tone and expression picking up a tinge of anger, "I began to see that there could possibly be more to Johnny. That circumstances may have set his feet on a path that he might not have otherwise considered traveling."

Murdoch could not agree more, but his own feelings of self-loathing over his part in the decisions Johnny had been forced to make made it impossible for him to say anything. Thankfully, Harlan continued without seeming to notice.

"While I am well aware that Scotty's assistance is sometimes too freely bestowed on those undeserving of such things, his respect has always had to be earned. Given the length of time that he has been associated with Johnny, it is inconceivable that the depth of Scotty's respect could be attributed only to his desire for a fraternal connection. I simply wish to find out for myself what Scotty has already discovered."

Even as he was comforted by that sentiment, Murdoch sensed that there was a deeper truth behind those words, one that was even more important than just Harlan's willingness to recognize Johnny as Scott's brother. "You really have accepted it, haven't you, Harlan?"

Harlan's brow furrowed. "Pardon me?"

"You have finally accepted that Catherine and Scott will not be returning to Boston, not on any permanent basis. That their life is here, at Lancer, and that is because they truly want to be here."

The old man relaxed, and nodded. "Yes, Murdoch, I have come to realize those things as undeniable facts of life."

The demand was on the tip of Murdoch's tongue - to know why it had taken so long to accept what had always been so - but he choked back the words. Harlan's acceptance was more than he could have ever hoped for, and the past could not be changed. For his family's sake, he would do his best to let prior transgressions remain buried.

*** *** *** ***

Dressed in a sage green blouse that Mateo had given to her for her last birthday, and a deeper green skirt that she had made while anxiously awaiting Murdoch's arrival at the mission, Catherine hurried down to the kitchen to meet Murdoch. After spending a lonely night apart from him, she was truly looking forward to some time alone with the love of her life. Even when she was able to share his bed, this time alone together each morning was treasured.

They would talk, plan, and revitalize their relationship in ways that were just as important as their physical lovemaking. Last night, though, with Johnny sleeping just across the hall, she had felt too uncomfortable to slip into Murdoch's bedroom. Murdoch had not been happy, but had tried to understand her need to resist adding another possible issue to the family's plate.

When she entered the kitchen, she was both disappointed and startled to find her father already sharing cup of coffee with Murdoch.  "Father?"

Harlan smiled as soon as he looked up at her. "Good morning, Catherine. You look lovely."

"Thank you, Father." After bestowing a kiss upon her father's cheek, and one that she wished could have been a bit more intimate to Murdoch, she headed towards the stove.

"There is some leftover coffee in the pitcher by the sink," Murdoch said with a grimace.

Harlan huffed loudly, and Catherine looked up to see a sight she had not seen in over twenty-five years. She quickly blinked back the tears and smiled at the disgruntled expression aimed at her from across the table. "Don't roll your eyes as me, Father. Just because you have never learned to appreciate the finer attributes of well-developed coffee."

"Well-developed?" Harlan visibly shuddered. "I believe you used to called it 'finely aged'."

"Yes, I believe I did." She laughed, but those words had brought back even more memories of a past that was long gone. She turned away and covered her emotional response by gathering a cup and saucer from the cupboard. "However, now that I am older, I find it more settling to avoid using the word 'aged'," she explained over her
shoulder as she poured herself a cup of coffee from the pitcher.

Taking the seat next to Murdoch, she inquired cheerfully, "So, what are you two discussing so early this morning?"

Her father looked down at his cup, toying with it as if making an attempt to remix the contents. She looked over at Murdoch only to find his gaze firmly glued on her father. Before she could inquire further, he turned to her and smiled.

"Your father was offering to assist Johnny on the books while Scott and I are busy preparing for the round up. What with all that has happened lately, Scott and I are going to be needed full-time on the range for awhile. Johnny is going to have to pick up the slack here, and most of that, unfortunately, is going to be the paperwork, which is probably his least favorite chore."

Harlan looked up and for a moment the two men shared what Catherine could swear was more than just a simple look of mutual agreement. Whatever it was, though, she felt no sense of despair from either of them. She took hope that the two men were finally trying to put the past behind them.

"I'm sure Johnny would appreciate the assistance," she said simply because nothing else would come to mind. She was surprised when her words brought a frown to Murdoch's face.

"Harlan, Johnny will have to agree to this, too. I will not force him to work with you."

"No, Murdoch, that would be counterproductive. I had planned to present the possibility to Johnny later this morning, but not before obtaining your approval."

"You should be prepared for a rather blunt refusal," Murdoch warned. "As I said before, Scott and I have both tried to convince Johnny that keeping up a set of accurate books is a necessary part of running a successful business."

"Murdoch, each business' books have their own unique signature - quirks that do not deviate from the general principles of accounting, but that are necessary adaptations for a particular type of business. Other than Scotty, how many individuals have you instructed in the particular details of your accounting system?"

"None."

"Scotty came to you with a well-established foundation of knowledge in those principles - obtained both from me and from his studies at Harvard. He, too, though, has had very little experience in the actual practice of teaching those principles to others. In fact, the one instance of which I am aware that Scotty undertook such a challenge involved his cousin, Wade. The endeavor was well meant, but ultimately unsuccessful. Scotty has the knowledge but not the experience in passing on that knowledge when met with resistance."

Before she could stop herself, Catherine was asking, "Who is Wade?" The conversation she had interrupted was obviously important and had something to do with Murdoch and Johnny, but she had waited too long for her own needs to be satisfied to remain silent. There was twenty-five years of catching up for her to do.

"Do you remember Cousin Walter?"

"Of course." She laughed. "He taught me how to ride a horse."

"Yes, he did," came the disgruntled reply.

More memories surfaced, and Catherine felt a growing sense of belonging with the familiarity of the moment. "Walter was almost six years older than me," she explained to Murdoch. "For his twelfth birthday, his parents gave him a beautiful black gelding. Since the older mare that he had been riding was in need of some exercise, he took me down to the stables and gave me riding lessons."

Murdoch looked from Catherine to Harlan, then back at Catherine. "And this was a problem?"

Her father scowled and Catherine laughed. "Not for me, but as Walter had no sisters and most of the Garrett cousins were men, Walter thought nothing about teaching me to ride using a regular saddle. Father was aghast the first time he saw me sitting astride that mare."

The true Boston gentleman spoke up with a firm admonishment. "Proper ladies use sidesaddles."

Ignoring her father's archaic remark, Catherine redirected the conversation back towards where it had been headed. "So, Wade is Cousin Walter's son?"

"Yes. Walter married Bernice Quincy."

"Bernice Quincy?!" Catherine gasped, her eyes wide with shock. "Bernice has to be at least ten years older than Walter?"

"It is only nine years, Dear. Their parents arranged the pairing because they believed it to be a very good match, despite the age difference. I was not able to attend the wedding because-" Harlan stopped short and looked down at his coffee.

"Father?"

"Walter and Bernice became engaged a few months before my first journey to California. They were already married by the time I returned. Their son, Wade, was born a few months after Scotty's first birthday."

Catherine had devoted a lot of thought on how she would deal with her father's actions when it came to stealing her son away from his father. Her emotions had run the gamut from bitter to irate to disappointed, but as much as his actions angered and hurt her, she had promised herself that she would not let those feelings destroy the relationship they could have now. She had voiced her disapproval, and that was as much as she could do. Scott had forgiven his grandfather, so she felt she had no right to do otherwise.

The past could not be changed. Scott was back with his father where he belonged. Catherine honestly believed that her father had come to see not only the error of his actions, but the thoughts and motivations behind them. She had convinced herself that her father would end up punishing himself far more than she ever could, and seeing him now, she knew this to be true.

"Scott tried to help Wade with his accounting studies?" she interjected as a peace offering.

"Yes. Bernice was most insistent that Wade follow that line of study. Unfortunately, Wade had little interest in becoming an accountant."

Catherine had no fond memories of the bully from her youth. "So Bernice got her way, as usual."

"Quincy? That name sounds familiar," Murdoch remarked thoughtfully.

"It should. Josiah Quincy practically owned Boston at the turn of the century. He was the city's second mayor, and then went on to become the president of Harvard University. He died not long before we met. His son, Josiah Quincy, Jr. - Bernice's father - announced his intention to run for mayor about the time we left Boston for California." Catherine paused to take a sip of her coffee, and her father picked up the story.

"Josiah did run for office, and was elected. Unfortunately, his re-election bid was sabotaged by those too short-sighted to see the good he had done for Boston, as well as the state of Massachusetts." There was no doubt for whom Harlan had voted.

"I'm sure he did Boston proud, Father." Catherine tried to keep the skepticism out of her voice, but that was difficult, seeing how the man in question had seen fit to overlook his daughter's manipulative ways. "The Quincy family is one of the richest and most influential in New England; something that Bernice never hesitated to point out at every opportunity when we were growing up. She was a perfectly prudish old snob even when she was still too young to be considered old. I can't recall the number of times I wanted to smack that condescending smirk right off her face."

Harlan frowned at her with marked disapproval. "Bernice Quincy Garrett is a one of Boston's most upstanding citizens, as well as a respected member of this family."

"Upstanding citizen?" Catherine repeated with disgust. "Her family is rich and she brandished their wealth around like a club to beat everyone into seeing things her way. Why do you think she was incapable of finding a husband on her own? I do hope our family was well compensated for Walter's supreme sacrifice, though it doesn't say much for our honor."

"Catherine Margaret Garrett!"

*** *** *** ***

"What's all the shouting about?" Scott asked as he swiftly entered the kitchen, while finishing tucking in his shirt. He looked from his grandfather to his mother expecting to see something other than their pleasantly welcoming smiles. "Grandfather, I could hear you yelling all the way upstairs."

The proper Boston gentleman immediately apologized for the improper outburst. "Forgive me. I should not have shouted at you, Catherine."

Scott glanced over at his mother, who looked equally as contrite.

"You were justified, Father. I have no right judging things of which I know nothing about."

"Is someone going to tell me what's going on?" Scott asked with a hint of impatience.

Catherine was on her feet and at his side exchanging good morning hugs and kisses before she spoke. "It is nothing important, Scott," she said with a smile. "Father and I were just having a bit of a disagreement. Would you like some coffee?"

"Yes, please." Scott watched as she prepared his coffee with a comfortable ease that made it seem like she had been doing it for years. He accepted the steaming cup and sat down next to his grandfather. Murdoch was at the head of the table, and his mother sat down in the chair catty-corner from Murdoch.

"What kind of disagreement?" he pressed.

"Father was just telling me some of the happenings in the family, and I was surprised to hear that Cousin Walter had married Bernice Quincy."

"Ah." Scott thought very little of Bernice, finding her to be insufferably snobbish, and he had the distinct feeling that his mother shared that sentiment. In fact, he and his grandfather had shared a few disagreements over that very woman, too.

"Actually, Harlan was telling us about her son, Wade," Murdoch interjected diplomatically. "I understand you tried to work with him on his accounting skills at one time."

"Yes, Sir." Scott was startled that, of all the things that his grandfather could have brought up, this would have been mentioned. "I was hardly successful. That particular career path had been chosen by Wade's mother, therefore, Wade was about as open-minded to it as Johnny is." Suddenly, Scott found himself peering over the edge of his cup at three expectant faces. "What?" he asked cautiously.

"After some private tutoring, Wade has become one of my best junior accountants," Harlan said a bit too informatively.

"Yes, and I have to admit to being very skeptical that you could accomplish such a feat." Scott tipped his cup in a gesture of appreciation for his grandfather's talent. "My lack of faith cost me twenty dollars; something that Uncle Mike never failed to reminded me of every time I saw him."

"Scotty!"

Scott heard his mother's muffled laugh, but his attention was focused on the corner of the table, where she and Murdoch were very unobtrusively holding hands. His father's hand all but dwarfed her much smaller one, but it was the way she was holding tightly to his thumb that brought a lump to Scott's throat.

It was an old memory that had clawed its way from the recesses of his mind. It was of an overheard conversation between his grandfather and some unknown lady who was a guest at one of the many elaborate parties thrown in the Garrett mansion when Scott was growing up. He was probably eight or so, and had been in the process of sneaking down to the kitchen to swipe a glass of the spiked punch. That was when he had heard them talking.

The woman had grown up with his mother, and she was telling his grandfather that he had should reconsider the way he felt about Murdoch. She had mentioned how Catherine and Murdoch had been so in love, and asked if he ever noticed how cute it was that Murdoch's hands were so big that Catherine could do little more than hold onto his thumb. His grandfather had been anything but receptive to her question or her line of thought, but they moved out of earshot, and Scott had never seen the woman again. He was not sure 'cute' would be his word of choice, but the sight was most definitely very comforting to their son.

"Scott?"

Scott looked up at his father. "Sorry, Sir. Did you say something?"

Murdoch hesitated, but did not question Scott any further on his momentary lapse. "What do you think about your grandfather working with Johnny?"

Obviously Scott had missed more than he realized during his brief foray into the past. "Working with Johnny on what, Sir?"

Three pairs of eyes stared at him. "On the books, Son," Murdoch replied. "That's what we were discussing. Since Harlan had such success with your cousin Wade, he thought maybe he could help Johnny, too."

Scott considered this for a moment. True, his grandfather had succeeded when no one believed he stood a chance - even Uncle Mike said he bet on Harlan only because everyone else was so sure Harlan would fail - but Wade and Johnny were two entirely different people. "I'm not sure, Sir. You know how stubborn Johnny can be. Wade is a pushover in comparison."

The expression that appeared on his father's face made Scott nervous, but it was the gleam in his eyes that was downright alarming. Without a word, Murdoch reached into his vest pocket and pulled out a something small. He began unfolding the piece of paper, which turned out to be a twenty-dollar bill. He ceremoniously placed it on the table between them. "How would you feel about losing twenty dollars to your old man?"

The challenge was issued, and Scott's jaw shifted as he smiled at his father. Reaching into his own pocket, he pulled out his wager.  "This will be like taking candy from a baby," he chuckled as he set his bet down on top of Murdoch's. "I have faith in my little brother," he added with certainty.

Murdoch retrieved the two bills from the table, folded them in half, and handed them to Catherine. "Would you mind holding this for me, Darling?"

 "Thank you for watching my winnings, Mother," Scott said with confidence as his mother took the money.

"Really, Gentlemen," Harlan groused. "Is this necessary? Is this what you've learned out here, Scotty?"

"Actually, Harlan, I believe he learned this back in Boston."

 Harlan acquiesced the point with a resigned sigh, and Murdoch's gracious acceptance came in the form of a light chuckle; all of which made Scott very suspicious. Still, Johnny was Johnny and this would never work. "I have faith in my little brother," he repeated as he raised his cup in a mock salute before taking a sip.

"Good," Murdoch responded with equal confidence. "Because I have faith in my son."

"Good morning, Everyone!" With a youthful vigor, Teresa practically bounced into the kitchen, her yellow skirt swishing wildly as she moved quickly towards the door, pausing only long enough to give Scott and Murdoch the usual peck on the cheek. She grabbed he egg basket from it's spot by the door and barely got out, "I'll have
breakfast started as soon as I gather the eggs," before the door shut behind her.

"Ah, the exuberance of youth," Harlan sighed.

 *** *** *** ***

"Harlan!" Murdoch's voice thundered through the great room, drowning out the chimes of the grandfather clock as it began striking noon.

 "Least it ain't me he's yelling at this time, not that he has to worry about me being hard of hearing," Johnny mumbled to himself.  Unfortunately, it turned out that Scott's grandfather's hearing was still pretty good, and he gave Johnny a rather annoyed glare.

"Harlan!"

"I'm right here working with Johnny, Murdoch," Harlan responded with a sigh, and another annoyed frown was sent Johnny's way. "There really is no need to yell. I can assure you that my hearing is still exceptionally good, despite my advanced years."

Johnny would have laughed, but the look on his father's face as he stormed across the room said that whatever burr had gotten under Murdoch's saddle, it was a very bad one. "What's wrong, Murdoch?"

Without answering Johnny's question, Murdoch handed a piece of paper to Harlan. Johnny easily recognized it as the same kind of paper that Evan used down at the telegraph office for recording incoming telegrams. The crumpled envelope still clenched in Murdoch's other hand took away any doubt that the paper was, indeed, a telegram.

Harlan's head began bobbing slowly as he read the paper. When he was done, he looked up at Murdoch, his face a mask of resignation.  "I expected as much, Murdoch."

"You knew about this?!" The Scotsman virtually exploded.

However, the unflappable businessman took little notice of Murdoch's ire, pausing only long enough to roll his eyes with tolerance. "Not specifically, but given what I revealed to you the other night, surely you did not believe your actions would go unchallenged?"

Tired of being left in the dark, Johnny stretched across the desk. Ignoring the pain in his leg, he snagged the telegram out of Harlan's hand. Paying no mind to elderly man's indignant huff, Johnny read the message and his blood ran cold. "I told him so," Johnny growled under his breath.

"Told who?" Murdoch demanded.

Tossing the telegram down on the open ledger in front of him, Johnny stared up at his father. "Scott. I told him this was gonna happen. What I don't understand is why neither one of you expected it." Johnny's hand hit the desk in frustration and glared over at his father. "Was I the only one paying attention the other night when Harlan told us that she was getting something out of being Mrs. Lancer?"

"I take it that bridge just got crossed?" Scott had just entered through the French doors. His expression was tight as he removed his hat and approached the small gathering.

"Just like I told you." Still looking at Murdoch, Johnny spoke with a steely edge that he hoped would get through to his father. "Tell Mr. Barkley to file that petition thing."

"What petition-" Murdoch stopped short and shook his head. "No, Johnny. I will not do that."

Grabbing up the telegram from where it lay crumpled on the desk, Johnny waved it at his father. "You forgettin' this already, Old Man? She ain't gonna give you that divorce. If you ever want to marry Scott's mother, then you're gonna have to get rid of the wife you still got!"

"Murdoch, what is Johnny talking about?" Harlan asked with increased interest.

"I'm talking about handin' a mangy dog her walking papers, once and for all!" Johnny threw the telegram down on the desk in disgust.

Scott, however, was more diplomatic with his response. "Grandfather, when Jarrod was here to explain the legalities of Mother's reappearance, he informed us that Murdoch was still legally married to Johnny's mother."

"Yes, I deduced as much, and Maria, herself, validated that suspicion, too," Harlan stated with a business-like demeanor. "That, and there would be no divorce for her to contest if the were not the case."

Propping his leg up on the corner of the desk, Scott set his hat down and began removing his gloves while he explained. "Well, there's more to it. With Mother alive, Murdoch's second marriage can be officially voided, but it would take petitioning the court for that to happen. Murdoch, Mother, and Maria are the only ones who have the authority to file such a petition."

"I see," Harlan acknowledged thoughtfully.

"Then how about convincing your daughter and that stubborn fool over there to quit being so dang noble and get it done!" Johnny had been sitting forward in the chair, but at this point he swiftly sat back and swiveled around until he was almost facing the window behind him. His casted leg made the maneuver anything but graceful but he refused to allow them to see how much the pains shooting through his leg really hurt. "It ain't like it's not gonna happen anyway."

Murdoch face turned red and he looked like he might explode, but after a brief pause, he rather calmly reiterated his steadfast position. "You're wrong, Johnny. That will never happen. Catherine and I have already discussed the matter, and we both agree that getting my marriage to your mother legally nullified is not an option either of us is willing to chose."

 *** *** *** ***

Johnny's shoulders were rigid, and Scott had seen the painful grimace when Johnny swung the chair around, even if it was only a brief glimpse. The anger and frustration radiating off of Johnny could be felt across the desk. What Scott knew Johnny was not saying was that he just wanted this to all be over, and while no one could blame him for wanting that, there were major doubts as to whether or not his brother had completely thought through what the action he was requesting could mean for him, and for the rest of his life. Scott had to agree with Murdoch and his mother in this instance - no matter how hard Johnny tried, it was inevitable that eventually there would be some level of resentment towards them if they were the ones to strip him of his legal claim to the Lancer name.

Looking over at his father, Scott easily recognized the stubborn set of the Scotsman's tightly clenched jaw. A battle of wills was about to erupt, which was the last thing any of them needed. "Murdoch, Johnny believes that Maria will eventually file the petition, herself."

"She wouldn't-" Murdoch's denial fell short of completion. After taking a deep breath, he slowly moved over to the blue wingback chair that was positioned several feet away from the desk, but still within range for a shared conversation. There, he sat down heavily.

The tension in the room was uncomfortably stifling. Harlan shifted in his chair, and Scott recognized the expression on his face. It would not be good news. "What is it, Grandfather?"

Harlan's gaze briefly shifted towards Johnny, who was still staring out the window. Then he looked over at Murdoch and pursed his lips. "Your brother's evaluation is most probably correct. In my opinion, she will do just that if it appears that Mr. Barkley will be successful in countering her challenge to the divorce."

"There you have it, Old Man," Johnny grumbled without turning around, but loud enough for the others to hear him clearly. "If you won't take my word for it, how about listening to Mr. Garrett. Or ain't his opinion respectable enough for you, either?"

To Scott's surprise, Murdoch's reaction was not the least bit defensive, in spite of the undeniable accusation in Johnny's tone. Instead, Murdoch's expression and demeanor seemed to become even more dismayed.

"Johnny, this has nothing to do with me not respecting your opinion. It's just that I never once considered that to be a possibility." Murdoch's voice was a haggard as his expression. "Maybe I should have, but I didn't."

"Are you gentlemen ready for some lunch?"

Scott looked up to see his mother standing in the archway. She was wearing one of Teresa's aprons, and was drying her hands with a kitchen towel. The lack of response immediately raised her suspicions. Her smile faded and she walked over to stand beside Murdoch's seat.

"What's wrong?" she asked as she looked at each one of them in turn.

"I just got word from Jarrod. Maria is fighting the divorce," Murdoch answered solemnly.

Scott watched his mother's expression crumble as she sank down onto the arm of Murdoch's chair. Murdoch wrapped his arm around her and she leaned into his embrace. At that moment Scott could almost wish that his father would be willing to request that his second marriage be nullified, but the chair behind the desk squeaked and those thoughts died. No, the price of that action would be too high, for all of them.

Johnny managed to struggle to his feet, where he stared across the desk at Harlan with an expectant look on his face. "Can't you talk some sense into those two?"

"Johnny, leave Grandfather out of this," Scott interceded firmly. "And just what do you think you're doing?"

"You heard your mother. Lunch is ready and I'm hungry." That being said, Johnny defiantly began trying to hop towards the kitchen, bracing himself on the desk until he ran out of desk.

Scott was instantly on his feet and moving in his brother's direction. "Not without some help, you're not." However, when he tried to get close enough to help, Johnny pushed him away.

"I don't need no help!"

"Yes, you do, and you're going to get it whether you like it or not." Scott snared Johnny's wrist in a firm grip and proceeded to pull Johnny's arm across his shoulder. "Now lean on me before you do any more damage to that leg."

Although Johnny was clearly not happy, he did not resist any further and allowed Scott to escort him out of the room.

 *** *** *** ***

After Scott and Johnny disappeared from sight, Harlan spoke up. "Murdoch, you must know that Johnny is right."

"You expect me to denounce my own son, Harlan?" Murdoch demanded angrily. "Would you? If it were Scott, would you deny him his name, his birthright, for your own personal gain?"

Harlan shook his head, then looked at them both with sympathy. "No. I could never do such a thing. I was not suggesting that you do so, either. I merely wanted to make sure that you and Catherine realize that it is almost guaranteed to happen anyway."

"No, it is not, Father," Catherine challenged, having missed this part of the earlier confrontation. "Murdoch and I have already discussed this. We both agree that the nullification is not the answer we can live with."

With regret, Harlan looked at his daughter and said the words that he knew she did not deserve to hear. "Johnny believes that his mother will do it anyway, out of meanness or just for spite, or maybe to further purposes that have not yet been revealed. Whatever the motive, I have to agree that she will take the action."

Catherine shared a desperate look with Murdoch. "We've got to do something. Surely she can be stopped," Catherine whispered.

"I don't know if there is anything we can do, Darling," he answered her pain with regret.

"I know someone who can," Harlan spoke with confidence. "After lunch would it be possible for me to go into town, Murdoch? My attorney should have already arrived in San Francisco. Not that I doubt Mr. Barkley's capabilities, but Randall has a way of making things happen, no matter how difficult the task."

Murdoch shifted away from Catherine and reached into his vest pocket. "Yes, of course. And a telegram came for you, too. Evan brought it out with the one from Jarrod, but with the disturbing information about Maria, it slipped my mind." Having fished out the envelope, Murdoch handed it over to Harlan.

Harlan read the telegram and smiled. All hope was definitely not lost. Not by any means. In fact, he was willing to wager that the tide had already turned and it would be Maria Lancer who would end up losing it all.

"Father?"

Catherine's gentle voice broke through his revere. He looked up and was momentarily taken aback by what he saw. Actually, it was not so much that he was seeing anything new, just that he was seeing it clearly for what seemed to be the first time. Catherine was leaning against Murdoch, her arms wrapped around his shoulders as if she were holding on for dear life, but what impressed Harlan the most was the way Murdoch was holding her back.

For too many years he had allowed himself to believe that it was Catherine who had been foolishly in love, and that Murdoch had been using her only to get to the Garrett money. When that did not work, had married her and taken her away as a means of extracting his revenge. Seeing them now, though, he had no doubts that he had been
wrong - so very wrong.

"Harlan?" Murdoch's deeper voice broke his train of thought.

"It seems that Mr. Timsdale will be arriving tomorrow, as well. Between Randall and your Mr. Barkley, I'm sure we can find an acceptable solution to this legal dilemma."

What Harlan kept to himself was that Randall was already well into a plan to out fox Maria Lancer. While the actual wording of his message would mean nothing to anyone else, the well-established code told Harlan that things would soon become very uncomfortable for the overconfident strumpet who had dared threaten his daughter and grandson's happiness.

*** *** *** ***

"Johnny, would you like some coffee?"

Looking over his shoulder, Johnny saw Catherine standing just inside the archway. She was holding a tray laden with coffee and something else that Johnny could not quite make out from his position on the sofa. Sandwiches, probably, or maybe those little cake things that Teresa seemed to think should be served with tea. However, what he noticed most was the tension in her expression. He wasn't the only one with good reason to dread the meeting that would be taking place as soon as the two lawyers arrived.

"Sure, Catherine," he replied with a smile and set the book he had been reading aside. Truth was that he was already feeling the pressure of the four cups he had already drank that morning and really didn't want any more coffee. However, Catherine seemed to need to be doing something, so he did not see any harm in helping her out. He only hoped that in the hubbub of the arrival of Mr. Barkley and Mr. Garrett's lawyer that Scott would be able to get him away for a quick privacy break.

Catherine's deep blue skirt rustled as she approached the coffee table and deposited her tray. Johnny noticed the deep blue color as it shimmered in the sunlight from the picture window, and smiled. He had always liked that color; a deep, almost black blue that reminded him of the night sky at the earliest moments before sunrise. The softness of the pale yellow blouse complimented it perfectly, like a fading sunset at the end of the day. Shaking his head, he laughed at himself.

"Johnny?"

A steaming cup of coffee was waiting for his acceptance, but he knew there was more to the question in her voice. Taking the cup from her, he considered what to say, then settled on the truth. "Just thinking that another few weeks of being cooped up in here and I'm gonna be thinking about joining a quilting bee."

Catherine's raised eyebrow as she sat down in the chair by the fireplace told him that he would have to explain a little more. "That's a nice outfit you got on."

"Thank you, Johnny, but what does that have to do with quilting?"

Johnny explained why he liked it and that he normally would not have noticed such a thing. They both laughed; however something about the way she averted her eyes snagged his attention. Taking a stab in the dark, he asked smugly, "And just what have you been thinking about to take your mind off what them attorneys are gonna have to say?"

A rosy glow spread across Catherine's face. "Believe me, you don't want to know."

Intrigued, Johnny pushed her. "Come on, Catherine, I told you my embarrassing secret."

After taking a deep breath, Catherine confessed. "I've had a few thoughts about doing some remodeling."

Even though she did not elaborate, Johnny had a pretty good idea that it was not so much the plans as it was who was going to carry them out. "Maybe I need to suggest to Murdoch that he put a lock on that work shed door."

Catherine's eyes narrowed, but there was a teasing gleam dancing in the blue-gray depths that detracted from the desired effect of reproach. "You do that, Johnny Lancer and I'll suggest that Teresa invite all her friends over for a quilting bee while you're still laid up and can't get away."

Johnny laughed, and then sighed. As frustrated as he was that she and Murdoch refused to do what had to be done, he still felt a connection to her. Not only because she had been denied the life that should have hers here at Lancer, but also because both of their fates now rested in other peoples' hands.

He hated that part most of all, and his humor died instantly. Control of his own destiny was not something he relinquished easily, and having to do so always seemed to bring out the worst in him. "Murdoch ain't the only one with any say in this, Catherine. You can put an end to it all, too. All you gotta do is decide that you're gonna be the one to file that damned paper."

Catherine's eyes flashed with both horror and anger. "No, Johnny, I can't!"

"Yes, you can!" Johnny countered vehemently.

Instead of letting go, Catherine sat back and addressed him calmly. "And what if I did? How long would it be before you started hating me for it? How long would it be before you hated Murdoch for allowing me to do so?" she asked in a voice so icy it could have chilled their coffee cold in a second flat. "How long would it be before you left to get away from the hate?"

Johnny glared at her. "I been dealing with that kind of hate all my life, and you know it."

She met his steely stare head on. "And in how many places did you ever stay for more than a few months? How many of those places where you were hated for no other reason than you were the son of a gringo and a Mexican did you stay for any amount of time at all?"

"None!" Johnny argued. "But that don't mean nothing. I didn't have family in those places, no friends, no reason to stay. I got paid for my services and I moved on to the next job. The money and the job, Catherine, that's what kept me movin'. Not being too afraid or ashamed to stick around."

Catherine paused, then asked sadly. "You don't really know that, do you, Johnny? You've never had people you thought were your friends suddenly turn their backs on you. Have you thought about the family you're going to have someday? Do you really want your children being told by their schoolmates that their father isn't really a Lancer, that they are not really Lancers?" She bowed her head and pleaded, "Please, Johnny. I can't take that chance. Please don't ask me to hurt you?"

"Why not? You're forcin' me to hurt Murdoch!" Johnny snapped before he could stop himself.

Catherine's head popped up as if she had been slapped. "How am I doing that?" she asked in total shock.

Johnny silently cursed himself for making that slip. He had no intention of bringing this up, to her or to Murdoch. Ever. Now, there would be no hope of getting her to give up. She was the most infuriatingly stubborn woman he had ever met, but he tried to be tactful. "Murdoch can't marry you because of me."

"That is not true, Johnny. Murdoch and I can't get married because he is still married to someone else."

Someone else? Johnny had to give her credit for not calling a bitch a bitch. If anyone had the right to, it was her. As for himself, with every passing day it was getting easier to do just that. "Would he still be married to her if it wasn't for me?"

"Johnny-"

"No! Answer my question, Catherine. If it wasn't for me, would you have to sneak-" The silence was deafening. The ticking of the grandfather clock sounded more like a pick ax against granite, instead of a little piece of metal buried inside the clock works.

Finally, it was Catherine who broke the silence, and she did so with conviction. "Sharing a bed is not the most important part of a marriage, Johnny,"

Johnny did not know what surprised him more; that she had figured out what he had left unsaid, or that she was talking to him so openly about something so personal. Then again, she had proven that modesty was not much of a deterrent once she had her mind set on something.

The truth was that he did not want to argue with her. He really did not want to hurt her, either, but she had to understand. "You don't have a marriage, Catherine. Sneaking into Murdoch's bed at night don't make you his wife, anymore than it changes the fact that he's married to someone that isn't you."

When she said nothing, Johnny looked over to find that her head was bowed and her arms were crossed tightly across her chest. He knew his words had hurt her, but maybe now she would be able to see why this was so important to him. "You and Murdoch deserve to be happy, and that's not going to happen if you can't be together the way a man and a wife are supposed to be together."

Her head lifted slowly and she looked at him, her expression full of loss and hopelessness. "You deserve to be happy, too, Johnny, and that can't happen if you are constantly having to defend your right to be here against narrow-minded bigots with big mouths."

There it was in a nutshell, only that nutshell had a big ol' crack down the side. "Catherine, that's always gonna be the choice. Only thing is, people around here will eventually forget about me or they won't, but there is no way they'll ever stand for you living out here if Murdoch can't marry you. You wanna see a group of decent people turn real nasty, just let them get a whiff of Murdoch having something to hide. They won't think twice about turning on him."

Wishing there was more he could say, but not knowing what words to use, Johnny looked down and noticed that the cup he held in his hand was empty. He didn't remember drinking most of it, but now the effects were undeniable. He was not going to make it until the others returned from picking up the two attorneys.

Although he knew Teresa was over at the Jacobson's place, it bothered him taking care of personal business out in the open like this. "Can you help me to my room, Catherine? I need some privacy."

"Of course," came the disheartened reply.

*** *** *** ***

With the most pressing issue settled, Johnny sat on the edge of his bed staring out the window, wishing the rest of his problems could be so easily solved. He was just so tired of it all. He wanted it to end. He needed it to end. His thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door. "Come in, Catherine."

The door opened and Catherine stood there, an anxious frown on her face. "They're coming up the drive." Her voice was as strained as her expression.

From where he sat, Catherine looked like she was about to lose her lunch. Damn it! In that moment Johnny realized that he was not the only one who needed for this whole mess to be over. "Come here." He patted the bed next to him. She hesitated, but when he nodded, she came over and sat down. "I need you to make me a promise."

"No!"

When she started to move away, Johnny threw his arm around her shoulders and pulled her back. "Listen to me, Catherine. This can't go on forever. You know it can't. I can't deal with it, and I'm thinking you're having a hard time, too, only you're too stubborn to let any of us know just how bad it is. All I'm asking is if them two lawyers can't get this ended that you'll talk to Murdoch about filing that petition. For me, for you and him, and for Scott. He's your son. It ain't fair for him to be left hanging like this, either."

"Even if I agreed to talk to him, your father would never allow it, Johnny."

Despite the seriousness of the moment, Johnny couldn't help but smile at how little Catherine seemed to know of the power she wielded. "Murdoch'll do anything for you, Catherine. Trust me. I ain't never seen him act so...so obliging as he does to you."

"Obliging?"

The look she gave him was both amused and insulted, and he looked down, feeling rather sheepish. "I'm guessing I could have picked a better word, but you know what I mean. He'd do anything to make you happy."

"Johnny, Murdoch would do anything to make you happy, too." Reaching over, she took his hand. "I know the two of you haven't always had the easiest time understanding each other, but that's changing, isn't it?"

Johnny looked up and saw the tears in her eyes. She was right, but all he could do was nod his agreement.

The spark returned to her eyes. "Johnny, your father's whole face lights up whenever he tells me about how good things are getting between you. You are very important to him, and to us."

Catherine's revelation brought on another tidal wave of emotions, and Johnny had to look away. Even though things between him and Murdoch were not anywhere near as easy as what they both shared with Scott, they were so much better since they had talked. Shoving all that aside, or maybe using it as his strength, Johnny turned to her and said what he knew to be the cold hard truth. "Ain't none of us going to be happy if this keeps up for much longer."

"Johnny..."

Whatever else she meant to say seemed to have died before it would be said, and Johnny sensed that she was finally beginning to grasp the truth that Murdoch seemed so determined to ignore. "There's a cattle drive coming up in a couple of weeks, Catherine. If nothing can be settled by then, all I'm asking is that you'll agree to talk to Murdoch."

Beneath his arm he could feel Catherine tremble, but only for a few moments. After that she took a couple of deep breaths and shook her head. "Two weeks is not enough time, Johnny. We've got to be realistic, too. It could take longer than that just to get all the paperwork completed, or a case prepared, or whatever they think they need to do. After the cattle drive?" she offered with reluctant acceptance.

"If it ain't happened by then, you'll talk to Murdoch?"

After a few moments, Catherine nodded. "Yes. If nothing is resolved by the time Murdoch and Scott get back, I promise I'll talk to him. I can't promise that he'll listen to me, Johnny," her voice took on a decidedly stern tone, "and I will not go against him."

Her tremors returned and Johnny pulled her into a comforting hug. "He'll listen to you, Catherine. He loves you too much not to. Any fool can see that."

Muffled voices could be heard coming from the direction of the great room, but Johnny didn't want to let go of her. She was...he smiled and kissed her forehead. Legal issues be damned, she was family. "How about telling Scott to come get me?"

"That won't be necessary," Scott said from where he stood in the doorway.

Catherine lifted her head off Johnny's shoulder and smiled lovingly at her son. She stood slowly, without releasing the hold she had on Johnny's hand. "I'll get the refreshments while Scott helps you back to the great room."

After giving Johnny's hand one last squeeze, she hurried for the door, stopping long enough to share a rather intense hug with her son. Then she slipped out, her skirts rustled soothingly as she moved down the hallway.

"What was going on in here?" Scott asked as he sat down in the spot just vacated by his mother.

"We were just talking," Johnny mumbled. Actually, he was remembering his mother, Louisa, and how she had always been there for him, how she had always made him feel so safe. He didn't know why he was thinking of her right now. All he could figure was that Catherine's promise had been more of a relief that he had expected. "Your
mamma, she's a very special lady, Scott. You...you should be proud of her."

"I am." Scott's hand came to rest on Johnny's shoulder. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah." Gathering himself, Johnny turned to his brother and nodded. "Let's go hear what them attorneys have to say."

*** *** *** ***

Although Scott was curious about what kind of discussion had taken place between his mother and Johnny this time, he was less concerned than he would have been if he had not seen a noticeable change in both of them. Tensions had been building for everyone since Jarrod's telegram had arrived, but he had noticed the effect mostly
in Johnny and his mother. While not exactly relieved, they both now looked much more relaxed than they had that morning. He could only hope things would stay that way when they heard what Jarrod and Randall had to say.

"We picked up your crutches from Sam's office," Scott said as he helped Johnny to his feet. "He's going to stop by later on to make sure you're not having any trouble with them. He also wanted to check out your legs."

"Good. I hate having to depend on someone to get me around."

Scott knew this to be true, and couldn't help but wonder why Johnny hadn't stayed on the sofa. "How did you get back into your room?" he asked as they made their way slowly down the hallway.

"Catherine helped me." Johnny tightened his arm around Scott's shoulder. "Don't go makin' something out of nothing, Brother. I just had too many cups of coffee this morning."

When they rounded the corner and entered the great room, the other men quit talking and came to their feet. Murdoch hurried towards them, and helped guide Johnny towards the chair by the fireplace. "Are you okay, Son?"

"I'm fine, Murdoch. Now quit your fussing," he scolded gently.

The easy lightness of Johnny's tone gave Scott's heart a much-needed lift. There had been a time not too very long ago when those same words would have been spoken harshly, and with resentment. Now there was only affection behind them, and maybe even a little gratitude for the 'fussing' that was supposedly so annoying.

Scott knew that most of what was about to be said was not going to sit too well with his brother, so he took up a position on the arm of Johnny's chair. He grimaced as the hard surface put an unwelcome ache in a very unmentionable place. "I hate this chair," he grumbled under his breath, elbowing Johnny when he dared to snicker over Scott's discomfort.

*** *** *** ***

"Johnny, I'm sure you remember Jarrod Barkley," Murdoch began the introductions.

"Mr. Barkley," Johnny nodded and extended his hand as Jarrod moved over and reached out to him. "Sorry I can't get up, but at least I'm out of bed this time."

Jarrod smiled as they shook hands. "No apologies necessary, Johnny. It's good to see you up and about."

"Johnny, this is Harlan's attorney, Randall Timsdale."

Randall moved over and shook Johnny's hand. "Pleased to meet you, Johnny."

"Nice to meet you, Mr. Timsdale."

While they all got settled, Johnny couldn't help but compare the two attorneys. In some respects they were very much alike - same neat appearance and same fancy-looking duds - but they were also very different from each other. Jarrod Barkley had gentle brown eyes and a quiet manner that was nothing like most of the attorneys Johnny had encountered during his days along the border. Those men had hard, cold eyes, and a look that said they'd just as soon fry up your liver and have it for breakfast as not.

That was the impression Johnny got from this Mr. Timsdale. If he were not absolutely certain that Harlan was on their side this time, this new attorney would be a big worry. However, after all Scott's grandfather had done to help, and after their rather interesting conversation yesterday morning, Johnny felt better with Timsdale around; better, but not yet totally convinced.

Catherine entered with a fresh pot of coffee, and when everyone was served, she joined Murdoch on the love seat on the other side of the fireplace. Jarrod, Randall, and Harlan were seated on the sofa.

"I reckon you all talked about some of this on the way in from town, so how about catching me and Catherine up?" Johnny addressed the group in general, but his gaze was fixed on Randall. This man was the wild card, and Johnny needed to find out for himself that he would not do them more harm than good.

"The relevant issue you both already know - your mother is contesting the divorce," Jarrod spoke up in a professional manner.

Johnny shuddered and stared hard at Jarrod. "Find something else to call her, Mr. Barkley. The only mother I had died of a fever and is buried in Mexico," Johnny strongly suggested before stating what he viewed as the situation in a nutshell. "So she's got her heels dug in. What are you two gonna do to shake her loose?"

Jarrod glanced at Murdoch, who gave him a jerky nod as he slipped his arm around Catherine's shoulder. Next to Johnny, Scott stiffened. Any doubts that he and Catherine were the only ones who did not already know what was about to be said faded away, along with the hopes that the two attorneys had any good news to share.

"The bottom line is that Murdoch has a decision to make," Jarrod reluctantly stated.

Johnny looked over at Murdoch, and was surprised when his father would not meet his eyes. "What decision?"

"If Murdoch presses for a divorce, there is a chance that Maria could be entitled to a portion of Lancer."

"NO!" Scott's hand held him back when he tried to stand up, momentarily forgetting that his leg would not allow such a move. The cast on his leg did the rest, but Johnny was already fuming mad.

"Given the circumstances, a monetary settlement would most likely be ruled an acceptable substitution for any actual ownership in the ranch."

"I said no! That puta ain't getting anything else from this family." All sense of reason and fair play was gone, and Johnny's focus settled squarely on the new attorney. This was turning into an out and out showdown, and the best gun would be needed on point. A gun that would not be given to niceties and would go for Maria Lancer's
jugular without thinking twice about doing whatever was needed to take her down. "What can you do to stop her?" he asked in his most menacing voice.

If the Boston attorney was the least bit intimidated by the sudden appearance of Johnny Madrid, he did not show it. Another plus for him as far as Johnny was concerned. It didn't matter to him at this point that the lack of reaction most likely meant that he knew more about Madrid than even Murdoch or Scott.

"My advice is to drop the divorce proceeding and petition for an annulment," Randall stated calmly.

"And I said NO!" Murdoch growled.

The wily attorney's cool demeanor was not the least bit affected by Murdoch's display of temper, either. "If the marriage never existed she would have no claim to any marital assets."

"Do it," Johnny ordered.

Tempers began to flare, and Murdoch surged to his feet. "Johnny, I will not allow it!"

"Murdoch, quit being a sentimental old fool and do what has to be done!"

Surprisingly it was Randall who stepped in between the two men. "Mr. Lancer, would you mind explaining to me why exactly it is that you are so opposed to filing for an annulment?"

With both men standing nearly toe-to-toe, Johnny got a better idea of how tall Mr. Timsdale was not. From his nearly perpetual seated position, it was a bit difficult to judge things like that anymore, but with Murdoch now towering over the man, Johnny figured that Randall was no taller than he was, if not a little shorter.

"I will not sacrifice Johnny's name," the Lancer patriarch growled.

Randall gained a few more points when he stood firm under Murdoch's intimidating stance. In fact, he stood his ground until Murdoch retook his seat next to Catherine. Only then did the Boston attorney address Jarrod. "Do you know what he's talking about?"

 

Jarrod looked like he had been sucker punched. "I'm afraid I do."

Randall returned to his seat, and Jarrod took over. "Murdoch, this is my fault. I should have realized before now that there was a huge misunderstanding over the annulment procedure." Jarrod turned towards Johnny. "Johnny, before your...before Maria showed up and we were merely discussing Murdoch's marital status, do you remember asking me if just anyone could petition the court and make you a bastard."

"Yeah, you said Murdoch, Catherine, and that bitch were the only ones who could do it." Johnny was beyond caring about manners or propriety, though a brief thought was given to how surprising it was that Murdoch had not called him for using such foul language in front of Catherine.

"Actually, Johnny, the truth is that no one can do that." Jarrod shifted in his seat. His remorse was genuine. "I should have corrected you at the time, but I didn't simply because it was not an issue. Then, after Maria showed up, I'm afraid it slipped my mind." He looked around the room, from one Lancer to the other. "What all of you need to understand is that the law is very clear on this point - children of marriages that are annulled are not considered illegitimate."

A shocked silence filled the room, but Johnny felt only a huge sense of relief. Now there would be no reason for Murdoch to put off getting his annulment and marrying Catherine.

"I'm sorry, Murdoch. I've let you and your family down by not realizing this was a concern," Jarrod apologized again.

"Jarrod, don't be so hard on yourself," Murdoch said with a heavy sigh. "It doesn't make any difference, anyway."

"Doesn't make any difference?!?" This time it took both of Scott's hands to hold him back in the chair. All Johnny could think of was why his father was throwing away the answer to all their problems. "Are you loco? What he just said solves everything," Johnny argued as he pointed at Jarrod. "You can marry Catherine and not have to
worry about me. What more do you want?"

Instead of answering Johnny's question, Murdoch posed one of his own. "Scott, did you have any idea that Johnny's legitimacy was not at stake?"

 Scott shared a curious glance with Johnny, and then answered cautiously. "No, Sir."

"Harlan, what about you?" Murdoch queried the older gentleman, who also hesitated before finally answering.

"No, Murdoch, I had no idea."

Frustrated with the rehashing of old news, Johnny jumped back in. "You didn't think any different, and neither did I, but that ain't the point. Didn't you hear what Mr. Barkley said? That ain't the way it is."

Murdoch's face turned red and he all but erupted as Catherine clung tightly to his arm. "Yes, Johnny, I heard what Jarrod said, but I'm not talking about legalities! I'm talking about those people out there," he dramatically pointed in the direction of the French doors and his voice began a steady escalation. "Scott graduated from
Harvard and Harlan Garrett is one of the most astute businessmen on the entire East coast, yet they both thought exactly what those people out there are going to think - that you are not a legitimate Lancer! I won't have it, Johnny! I won't have people looking down on you because of my mistakes! Not anymore!"

The deep bellow faded away and Johnny was torn about what to say. Part of him was so mad that he could spit ten-penny nails, but another part of him was shocked - shocked that his father would make such a sacrifice for him. Yes, he now knew Murdoch loved him. The doubt that had dogged him for the past year was gone, but he was not prepared to hear his father's love for him voiced so loudly.

Scott squeezed Johnny's shoulder. "Murdoch, I think you are underestimating those people out there. They are our friends, our neighbors, and if we address the situation correctly, they are not going to think the worst." Even though Scott was using his most diplomatic voice - the one to which Murdoch would usually listen - this
time would be the exception.

"Scott, no matter how carefully we address this situation, there will be those who will find it too difficult to believe that if my marriage to Maria never happened that Johnny could be anything but illegitimate."

"Those people ain't important, Murdoch," Johnny argued. "I'm sure you know that some of those 'good folks' out there still look down on me for what I used to be. I can't help that, and I don't let it bother me."

"Well, it bothers me, damn it!" Murdoch exploded, this time pulling free of Catherine's arms as he stood up. "Maria is a problem because of my mistake. If I had divorced her twenty years ago when she first ran out on me, none of this would be happening, but I didn't. I let my pride get in the way. I let foolish dreams of her coming back to me, of her bringing you back to me, overrule the plain truth - she was an adulteress and she was not someone I even wanted in my life. I should be the one paying the price for my stupidity, not you!"

Johnny could understand Murdoch's regret. It was the same regret he felt when his own past snuck up behind him and gave a little nudge. It usually happened just about the time things were beginning to feel too good, and he would begin to doubt if he deserved the new life he had found.

Looking up into his father's eyes, Johnny's heart broke at the self-loathing he saw in their depths. This he understood, too. "Murdoch, what's done is done. You can't change the past any more than I can. We gotta play the hand we get dealt the best way we can. I..." the words caught in his throat and he had to swallow hard. "I appreciate what you're trying to do, but you can't control what other people think."

"Maybe not," Murdoch said sadly, "but in this case I can control what information they have to think about."

Johnny's frustration stoked the fire of his anger, but he did his best to control himself. Murdoch was right, even if he was wrong, too. Very calmly, Johnny stated the facts as they would always be. "Then we got us one hell of a problem, Old Man, because I'm a partner in this ranch. You can call any tune you want, but if it involves
paying that she-devil a damn penny, you're gonna have a fight on your hands."

Murdoch sat back down, but would not meet Johnny's gaze. He stared stubbornly at the floor, his elbows resting on his knees and his jaw clenched tightly as his hands clenched and unclenched.

"Gentlemen, if I may make a suggestion."

Johnny stared up at Harlan's attorney, who had suddenly reappeared between him and his father. "Get it said," he replied tersely.

"Mr. Lancer wants a divorce so he can be free to marry Catherine without jeopardizing Johnny's standing in the community, which he believes will be the result of having his second marriage declared void."

Murdoch nodded.

Turning to Johnny, Randall continued. "Johnny wants there to be an annulment because it would end the marriage without giving Maria any claim to what would, otherwise, be considered marital assets in a divorce."

Johnny resisted the urge to lash out at the brash attorney and merely nodded.

As calmly as if he had just announced his intention to cross the street, Randall stated clearly, "I'll need six weeks, Gentlemen."

Looking beyond Randall towards Murdoch, Johnny saw that his father was as confused by this as Johnny was. "Six weeks to do what?" Johnny demanded.

"To obtain the divorce Mr. Lancer wants," Randall directed towards Murdoch, then to Johnny he added, "free of all marital claims that you will not accept."

"Six weeks or six years, she ain't gonna give up what she don't have to." Johnny snorted loudly at the absurdity of that statement.

Randall stood firmly by his offer. "If the divorce is not finalized in six week's time, a petition for annulment will be filed."

"No!" Murdoch objected.

"Mr. Lancer, I can assure that it will not come to that, but unless you agree to my terms, Johnny won't."

"No."

"Murdoch, may I have a word with you," Harlan interrupted. "Privately."

"Nothing is going to change my mind, Harlan."

"Then it will do no harm to listen to what I have to say."

The two old adversaries stared at each other for a long moment. Then Murdoch nodded and led the way out of the room.

"You know what your grandfather's up to?" Johnny asked Scott, who was staring at the archway through which the two had disappeared.

"I don't have a clue." Scott got up and walked over to Murdoch's desk, taking up a stance with his arms crossed as he stared out the window. Johnny understood Scott's need to move, even if it was just across the room, and he envied his brother's ability to do just that.

He also envied his brother the loving mother who moved to his side. Arm in arm, they offered each other the only comfort they could. Johnny's mother was dead and would never be there to offer such relief, and the pain of that loss returned with a vengeance, but along with the hurt came a relieving insight.

Scott was right. Louisa would always be his mother. It didn't matter that she wasn't the one who birthed him. She was the one who had loved him, who had always been there for him, until fate took her away.

Pushing the old hurt away, Johnny tried to concentrate on the here and now. Scott's uncertainty over what his grandfather was saying to Murdoch had done nothing to ease Johnny's concerns, however, when he looked over at the sofa, Mr. Timsdale's expression told an entirely different story. "You know what Garrett's up to, don't you?" he said coldly.

Randall raised an eyebrow and Johnny knew the legal double-talk was about to commence, which was something he was in no mood to hear. "A simple 'yes' or 'no', Timsdale."

"Yes."

A faint smile actually appeared on Randall's face. It was not smug, though. It was more like an acknowledgement of some sort. Johnny wanted more than anything to get this man alone, but that was going to prove very difficult under the circumstances. He glanced down at his leg, encased in plaster and stretched out on the ottoman in front of him. He was about as useful as a three-legged horse at a rodeo.

As if he had read Johnny's mind, Randall stated with conviction. "Six weeks, Johnny. That's all it will take to meet both you and your father's conditions."

Blue eyes met brown ones in a battle that was not unfamiliar for either. Intimidation was a gunfighter's second most important ally, an attorney's, too. However, it still came in second to the most important talent - making the right shot at the right time.

"How?" Johnny asked coldly.

 The smile deepened. "Is the 'how' really important, Johnny?"

Johnny glanced over at Jarrod. The attorney with the gentle eyes appeared to be both interested and uncomfortable. Jarrod was not part of this deal; it would be Randall's game all the way. Something about that made Johnny feel a little more confident. Jarrod was a good man and that meant that he would be too inclined to keep the fight fair. Randall Timsdale, on the other hand, was a man who would not be so limited in his thinking.

"She ain't getting squat from Lancer - nada," he warned Timsdale.

The attorney nodded. "There will be no contest of any kind."

Johnny was not convinced. "She did all this because she wants something. She ain't just gonna back off just because you ask her nicely."

To this Randall chuckled. Then he smiled that devious smile that was reserved for attorneys and snakes. "I can assure you, Johnny, it does not take me six weeks to 'ask nicely'."

"So what does take six weeks?"

Timsdale studied Johnny for a long moment, then gave a nod, as if he had decided that Johnny could know some part of his plan. "It will take that long to arrange for her to get exactly what she needs."

Johnny's eyes narrowed. "What she needs is to hurt Murdoch."

"That is where you are mistaken. Hurting anyone, including your father, is just the gravy. That is a 'want', not a 'need'; there is a difference." The smile disappeared and Randall leaned forward, locking eyes with Johnny. "There is an old saying about being careful what you wish for because you just might get it. Maria Lancer was not careful."

Johnny considered the attorney's words very carefully, rolling them around in his mind and trying to put them together with everything else that Harlan had told them. While he could not come up with anything concrete, there was something about the man that felt right, but at the same time, his family was at stake. "You had best be very careful, Mr. Timsdale."

The smile returned to the lawyers face, only this time it reflected only mutual respect. "I am always careful, Mr. Madrid."

Before Johnny could respond to the acknowledgment of his threat, Murdoch and Harlan returned. There was pure hatred in his father's face as he stared directly at Harlan's attorney, which made his next words even more surprising. "You have your six weeks, Mr. Timsdale." Murdoch spared a brief look in Johnny's direction, then turned and walked away, exiting through the French doors where he could be seen heading towards the barn.

Scott moved to follow, but Catherine stopped him. "No, Darling."

After watching his mother hurry out the doors, Scott turned towards his grandfather. "What did you say to Murdoch?"

The old man sat heavily down in the blue chair by the sofa. "The truth, Scotty. I told your father the truth."

*** *** *** ***

"What truth, Grandfather?"

"Scotty, I....

"What truth, Grandfather?" Scott pressed. He could see that the older man was distraught, but he had also seen his father's face. That, along with the unsettled feeling caused by seeing Murdoch Lancer back down on something that had been previously absolutely beyond negotiation, was too much for him to overlook.

"Mr. Garrett, if I may?"

Scott turned to the man he had known all his life as his father's attorney. "With all due respect, Mr. Timsdale, this is none of your concern."

"It is unless you want the second hand version of the truth, because that is all your grandfather is able to tell," Randall argued.

"No, Randall," Harlan stated firmly. His tone became softer as he addressed his grandson. "Scotty, your father requested that he be the one to tell you what we discussed, and I agreed. I owe him that much."

Scott was torn. He wanted to know what had been said to produce such contradictory actions in his father. The hatred that had been directed towards Mr. Timsdale was all too real, which made Murdoch's sudden turnabout in agreeing with the attorney's plan even more surreal. On the other hand, he felt obligated to respect his grandfather's agreement to Murdoch's request.

"Let it be, Scott," Johnny's calming voice floated up from behind him. "Murdoch'll tell you as soon as he gets himself together."

Recognizing the determined set of Harlan Garrett's jaw, Scott knew he had no choice but to accept that he would have to wait for Murdoch. While Mr. Timsdale obviously had some insights into what had just transpired, in all the years Scott had known the attorney he could not remember one time when the loyal employee had circumvented his employer's orders. There would be no answers from him now that Harlan had said 'no'.

"I'll take your bags upstairs," Scott said to the two attorneys, then departed before he changed his mind about being patient and polite.

*** *** *** ***

As big as the Lancer hacienda was, it was not a hotel. Jarrod Barkley had been put in Johnny's room and Randall Timsdale was in the guest room next to it. With his grandfather still using his bedroom and his mother in the remaining upstairs guest room, Scott found himself sharing the downstairs guest room with his brother. Lying in bed next to Johnny, Scott stared up at the ceiling.

"Murdoch sure was quiet at dinner."

Although Johnny's remark sounded casual enough, Scott knew his brother was trying to ease Scott's mind about the conversation that had been promised would take place the following morning. Murdoch and Catherine had remained absent from the time he had stormed out until just before dinner. Afterwards, he had  uncharacteristically retreated to his room, saying very little to anyone one except to tell Scott that he wanted to talk to him in the morning, privately.

"I can't imagine what grandfather said to make Murdoch change his mind about the annulment," Scott answered softly, then added with a bit more of the frustration he was feeling. "Whatever it was, though, it definitely has something to do with Mr. Timsdale."

Johnny's snort reverberated in the darkness. "Guess you didn't miss those death looks Murdoch was shooting across the table at him during dinner, either."

"A blind fool couldn't have missed them." Scott admitted with a heavy sigh. "I guess I'll find out in the morning."

After several minutes of restless calm, Scott decided to tackle another issue, one that would not have to wait for an answer. "Johnny?"

"Yeah?"

"I looked at the books before coming to bed. Not only was the ledger in excellent shape, but last month's financials looked outstanding."

"Weren't that good," Johnny scoffed. "Didn't have a loss, but the month before was a lot better."

Scott smiled to himself at the remarkable difference in his brother. Only yesterday he would have gotten a mutter 'whatever' about anything pertaining to accounting. Now Johnny was actually willing to admit that he knew what was going on. "I wasn't talking about the bottom line, I was talking about your preparation." Although pleased, Scott was still a bit miffed. "I hope you're happy, Little Brother. You cost me twenty dollars, and to Murdoch, of all people."

The mattress moved as Johnny shifted around. "How'd I do that?"

"I had a bet with Murdoch that my grandfather would not have any more luck getting through to you than we did," Scott admitted with only a hint of remorse. "What did my grandfather say about accounting that finally made it a worthwhile endeavor?"

"We didn't talk about accounting."

This comment took Scott completely by surprise. Turning his head, he could just make out Johnny's profile in the pale moonlight. He wished he could see his brother's expression so he would know if he was being teased, but the light was not bright enough for that; and Johnny had sounded earnest enough. "Then what did you talk about?"

"Gunfighting."

If Scott thought Johnny's previous answer was surprising, this one would have knocked his socks off, had he been wearing any. "You decided to avoid accounting by discussing gunfighting with my grandfather?"

"Nope. He's the one who brought it up, not me." There was a hint of unexpected humor in Johnny's voice. "Gave him a pretty hard time about it, too, but he took it better'n I expected."

Scott's first instinct was to be worried by his brother's admission, but his worry faded under the knowledge that Johnny and his grandfather had displayed no signs of antagonism towards each other over the past two days. In fact, now that he thought about it, there were more signs that the former adversaries were anything but upset with each other. Even now, Johnny didn't sound the least bit annoyed, which, considering that the topic of gunfighting was usually off-limits, was rather astonishing.

In an unusual twist, the relevance of which had gone unnoticed at the time, Johnny had even turned to Harlan for help to convince Murdoch and Catherine to file the petition of annulment, after Jarrod's telegram arrived informing them that Maria was fighting the divorce. Then, this morning at breakfast, the elderly gentleman had noticeably bristled when Johnny called him by the inappropriately-familiar 'Harlan', but the reaction had been much less than what Scott had expected. In fact, looking back on it now, his grandfather's rebuke had been half-hearted, at best. It was all becoming too much for him.

"Johnny, I've got enough to worry about with Murdoch being so secretive, so please, just tell me how my grandfather gaining an understanding of gunfighting suddenly made accounting sensible to you."

"Sorry, Scott. I didn't mean to upset you."

Sensing as well as hearing Johnny's genuine remorse, Scott took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. He was taking his frustrations out on Johnny. Now he had a much better understanding of some of what Johnny had been going through lately. "I'm not upset, Johnny. I would just really like to know."

"Well, first off, your grandfather still don't understand."

"My grandfather doesn't understand what?"

"Gunfighting."

"Johnny," Scott voiced his exasperation.

"Sorry," Johnny again apologized. "Well, it took awhile for me to decide he wasn't trying to set me up or nothing, but he seemed really interested so I tried to tell him the way it is. Why men are willing to hire guns, why men are willing to hire out their guns, and what happens when they get together. He listened real good, but he still said he didn't understand why everyone felt the need to...what'd he call it," Johnny paused for just a moment, then said with certainty, "To 'circumvent' the law like that. Said it was barbaric and undignified."

Scott could not help smiling. "Yes, that sounds like Grandfather, but it still doesn't explain what any of it has to do with accounting."

"I'm getting to that," Johnny replied. "After I explained about why it was, he wanted to know more. I told him about how there's rules and such, and how some follow 'em and some don't. He claimed he still thought it was senseless violence." A light chuckle interrupted Johnny's rendition of events. "That's when the sly fox caught me."

'Sly fox?' Through the humor, Scott could hear the respect in Johnny's voice, which was pretty amazing considering how low Johnny's opinion of his grandfather had been prior to yesterday. They had discussed it a time or two in the past and Johnny had been very adamant that Harlan Garrett was to blame for keeping Scott away from Murdoch and Lancer for all those years.

While Johnny had also argued that Murdoch should have done something more to get Scott back, he stood firm in his belief that Murdoch would not have had to do anything if Scott had not been kidnapped in the first place. Though Scott did not see that he had been kidnapped, he could concede that Johnny's point of view was at least understandable.

"And just how did my grandfather catch you?" Scott asked curiously.

"He asked me if his not understanding made any difference in the way things were. I told him it didn't, and that's when he told me that just as him not understanding gunfighting did not change how it was out here, my not understanding why accounting was important didn't make it any less important. Made a whole lot of sense, in a round about sorta way, so I figured there wasn't good no reason why I couldn't do it, even if I still don't see the point."

To this logic, Scott could only shake his head. "That is one approach I never would have considered." He would have to make a point to thank his grandfather. Even if it had cost him a few dollars, it was money well spent. If Johnny doing bookkeeping without complaining wasn't enough of a miracle, that his brother and his grandfather had found some level of mutual respect for each other most certainly was. Scott had never dared hoped for this much, that was for certain.

"Scott?"

"Yes, Johnny?"

Silence met Scott's reply, but he waited patiently for Johnny to continue. Even though Johnny had only said Scott's name, Scott easily detected the uncertainty in the low timbre of his brother's voice. Johnny was thinking about how to say whatever it was that he wanted to tell him. There was no need to hurry him.

"Gracias."

Johnny's barely audible thank you was full of emotion, but Scott had no idea for what he was being thanked. "For what?"

"For being right about my mother."

The pure affection in Johnny's voice left no doubt that the mother he was referring to was Louisa, and the fact that he had called her his mother, put another worry of Scott's to rest. "I wish I could have known her," he said in all sincerity. "She must have been a very special person."

Johnny did not respond, but Scott did not expect him to, either. Johnny had regained something very important, though why it had happened at this particular moment Scott did not know, nor did he care. There had been enough heartache for all of them over the past few weeks, and Scott was content to take comfort in his brother's renewed faith in the woman who had been his mother in every way that mattered.

Closing his eyes, Scott listened to the crickets chirping with one ear, and Johnny's soothing breaths with the other. Soon the peaceful feelings pushed away all else, and Scott slept soundly.

 *** *** *** ***

Murdoch rose slowly from his chair and turned to stare out the picture window behind his desk. The family breakfast, shared with the two visiting guests, had been causal and the conversation light, but as soon as the meal was over Murdoch's mood had turned sullen and he had retreated to his desk. Not even been a token objection had been voiced when Johnny defiantly announced that he would be joining Harlan, Mr. Timsdale, and Mr. Barkley on the trip to town.

The two attorneys had to catch the early stage to Cross Creek if they intended to make the afternoon train to San Francisco. Mr. Timsdale, especially, seemed quite eager to get started on his task, and Scott's grandfather had said he needed to send a few telegrams. Johnny was more or less going along for the ride and to make sure that Harlan did not get lost on the way back. That's what he had claimed, anyway, but Scott suspected the real reason was that Johnny was beginning to feel trapped again. Teresa and Catherine were once again sequestered upstairs working on some sewing project, which left Scott and Murdoch alone for their talk.

From his position in the chair in front of the desk, Scott could see his father's shoulders tense, then sag, as if defeated. "I need to tell you the truth about a few things, Scott."

"Including what my grandfather said that changed your mind about Mr. Timsdale's proposal," Scott interjected. He was not about to let the conversation get sidetracked by other issues. With his mind set on this line of thought, Murdoch's next words shook his entire world.

"Yes, Scott. That is part of it...part of why I left you in Boston."

*** *** *** ***

Murdoch grimaced as his stomach twisted into a tighter knot. For all he wanted to let the past rest in peace, this had to be done. It was time to get it all said and see what they had left. Only then would he vanquish the nagging fear of losing Scott to the life that had been left behind in Boston. Only then would his son finally have the peace he deserved. "The answer about what your grandfather's said is tied to what happened back then."

Scott looked over at Murdoch, his expression a blank slate that could only come from carefully guarded emotions. He nodded once, stiffly, and then waited.

The memories of years gone by crashed down on Murdoch, and he slipped into his chair under the weight. It was like he was living it all over again - the pain, the heartbreak, and the monumental sense of loss. "Scott, when your mother died - when I thought she had died," he quickly corrected as much for himself as for his son, "it felt like the biggest part of me had been ripped away. I wasn't there for your birth. I didn't get to say goodbye to her. I felt lost."

Reliving that time, even if it was only in his mind, tore at his burly heart. Not once during the entire time that he had followed the trail of his wife and unborn child as they were spirited away by her father for his own selfish reasons had Murdoch ever expected to find only the mound of dirt that marked his dear Catherine's final resting place. Never had he even considered the possibility that she would die. The shock had been devastating, and even debilitating in some ways.

"I could only stand by her grave. The last time I had seen her she had been so full of life, so eagerly looking forward to our future, to your birth, to raising you at Lancer." A faint smile appeared as the happier memories momentarily managed to push the sadder ones aside. "She was so happy, as was I. We were making our dreams come true." As precious as they were, those glorious memories could not take away the pain of the reality that had unfolded in a matter of days.

Murdoch's heart sank and his smile faded. "I returned to Morro Coyo after a particularly intense series of attacks on the ranch by Haney and his men, only to be told that she had left. I was shocked, and furious. I tracked them to Carterville, where I found out that it was over. Everything was gone."

"Not everything." Scott's voice was strained, and his unspoken meaning extremely clear.

Murdoch looked at his son, studying the fine features and trying to ignore the pain etched in every facet of his sour expression. This was his son, Catherine's child, the baby that had grown into a fine boy before his own father had ever laid eyes on him, the boy that had become an honorable man under someone else's guidance. His son had spent most of his life feeling forsaken by his own father, even though nothing could have been further from the truth. "I followed your grandfather's trail all the way to San Francisco. The boat had already sailed. You were gone."

"You knew Grandfather would take me to Boston," Scott objected more forcefully. He was sitting up straight in his chair, looking more like he was on trial than having a conversation with his father. "Why did it take you five years to come for me?" he demanded.

The words would not come, which did not seem to be an entirely bad thing.  Even in his own mind, Murdoch thought they sounded cheap and shallow. Still, he owed Scott something. Some explanation. "I couldn't," he whispered, avoiding Scott's gaze, but feeling it just the same. "If I had left there would have been no one here to protect the ranch."

As if ignited by a torch, Scott anger flared. "This ranch! It always comes back to this ranch being more important than me!"

Through his son's anger, Murdoch could hear his hurt. "No, Scott, nothing was more important than you. This ranch was important because of you, because you were part of the same dream that brought your mother and me out here," Murdoch paused. Would Scott understand? Could he? "Your grandfather left a message for me at the docks in San Francisco. He said he was taking you back to Boston where it was safe. He..."

"He what?" Scott demanded crisply.

A week ago Murdoch's only hesitation would have come from his desire not to undermine his elder son's relationship with his grandfather. He respected that Harlan was very important to Scott and that he had done a fine job of raising Scott, even if he had done Scott a disservice with his deceptions. Now, however, Murdoch had as much reason to be thankful to Harlan as he had to hate him, and absolutely no desire to put a wedge between grandfather and grandson over past transgressions.

"Murdoch, it's all or nothing." Scott's voice was icy cold, and had an edge that would broker no compromise. "You started this, now finish it."

His silence had nothing to do with a desire not to finish it, but Scott's reaction was understandable, even expected. "Your grandfather left word that your mother had made him promise that he take you with him and keep you safe."

Twenty-five years of doubt returned with a vengeance. "It didn't sound like Catherine. She loved Lancer as much as I did, but I...I didn't know for sure. I couldn't know. What I could not deny, though, was that you would be safer in Boston. Being in San Francisco was a stark reminder that the war with Mexico had turned parts of California into a battleground. Haney's threat might have been closer to home, but he was not the only danger. There was no arguing against the practicality of what I thought to be your mother's dying wish."

Twenty-five years of frustration and anger would not be so easily derailed. "Fine. You believed he was doing what my mother asked. If I remember correctly, our war with Mexico ended in 1848. That doesn't explain why it took another three years for you to come for me."

There was no denying the truth or the underlying accusation in Scott's curt demand for information. "The war had been hard on all the ranches in the area and things did not get better immediately upon the war's end. I was having financial difficulties, so much so that it made it impossible for me to undertake a trip of such magnitude. I even had to take that deputy job in Texas with Joe Barker just to pay the taxes. As you already know, while I was working for Joe, I met Maria."

Murdoch dared a glance up at Scott, and what he saw both shocked and dismayed him. His son was not looking at him anymore, but the resentment in his expression left no doubt as to what he was thinking. "I never intended to replace your mother, Scott."

Blue eyes filled with anger turned towards him. "You expect me to believe that? My mother was gone, but instead of making your top priority getting back the son you already had, you found someone else to love. Someone who was right there and could give you a family, without having to make that time-consuming and costly trip to Boston."

A strained silence settled between them. Murdoch had hoped that Scott had not been harboring such resentment, but in his heart, he knew it would have been impossible for him not to do just that.  Thankfully, Scott had always managed to separate his love for his brother from the contempt he felt over the union that had created him.

"I'm sorry, Sir," Scott apologized without looking up. "I had no right to say that."

"Scott, I did not trade you for Maria. I loved her. I couldn't leave her while she was pregnant, and then..." As it had happened when he realized just how unfair he had been by taking his anger for Maria out on their son, a flash of insight forced Murdoch Lancer to admit to what he had been denying to his elder son for too long. "Scott, I left you in Boston because that was where you belonged."

 *** *** *** ***

With his jaw slacked open, Scott stared at his father. It was not possible. He could not have heard the words that his ears were insisting had been uttered. "I belonged with my father," he ground out through clenched teeth.

"You belonged where your needs could come first," Murdoch said softly.

The second blow from the invisible fist slammed into Scott's stomach. The ugly truth was finally out. "You didn't want me."

Across the desk the Scotsman's eyes bulged out of his head. "That is not true!" A massive fist slammed down on the desktop to punctuate the sharpness of his tone. "I always wanted you!"

"Then why didn't you come for me?" Scott said forcefully.

"Because I couldn't provide for you!" Murdoch's face fell and he slumped back in his chair. His voice was barely above a whisper when he continued. "That's not something that's easy for a man admit - not being capable of taking care of his own family - but that is the truth. I couldn't provide a decent life for you, not like you could have in Boston. Between the war with Mexico destabilizing the local cattle market and Haney and his raids killing the cattle I couldn't sell, I was flat broke. It took time to regain any level of financial stability. Before that could happen, I had lost another wife and child. If I couldn't take care of them, what could I have possibly offered you?"

Scott's anger was sucked away by his father's startling admission. Knowing Lancer only as it was today, he was hard pressed to imagine it as anything but a thriving  empire; yet, all empires had to start somewhere. He could also understand the pride that would have been broken under the strain of such a truth. If only Murdoch could understand that it had never been the money or the land that he had always wanted. "All I ever wanted was my father," Scott softly revealed the truth that had been buried in his heart for too many years.

Sad eyes stared at Scott for a moment, then looked away. "Son, you needed food, and clothing and a warm place to sleep. Your 'father'," Murdoch's voice was full of self-loathing as he spoke of himself in the third person, "could not give you any of those things; Harlan Garrett could."

Scott's heart ached. "Could my father have given me love?"

Murdoch bowed his head. When he spoke, his voice was heavy with emotion. "He gave you all he had."

In those few words, Scott finally understood. The love of a parent who could give up their child for the betterment of the child was a precious gift. Before the bitter truth about Johnny's mother had been revealed, Scott had seen Maria as nothing but a selfish, unloving witch who had stolen her son away from a life of comfort to subject him to prejudice and poverty. In his heart Scott had damned her for that action, but how could he damn Johnny's mother for not leaving him where he would be safe and secure, while damning his own father for doing just that?

Still, Scott felt there had to be more. There was still one more piece to the puzzle that had never been solved. "When you did come," he pressed onward with more compassion than he would have previously, "why didn't you fight for me? I know about the custody battle that my grandfather threatened you with, but why didn't you try at least try to get me back?"

Murdoch nodded, as if he, too, knew that the rest had to be told. "When I arrived in Boston and your grandfather refused to relinquish you, he took me completely by surprise. The few times I had corresponded with him about you, there was no hint that he intended to prevent me from taking you with me when I-"

"The few times? In five years there were only a 'few times' that you could be bothered?" The understanding of a few minutes before evaporated, and Scott wasn't sure whether he should be insulted or just downright furious. "Postage wasn't that expensive, Sir."

"No, Son, it wasn't. I wrote your grandfather as soon as I returned from Carterville, and I responded to every letter he sent to me." To Murdoch it felt like he was living it all over again; drowning not only in his own inadequacies, but in the limitations of the world that had surrounded him. "You have to understand the way things were back then, Scott. There was no railroad, no telegraphs, no overland stages. It took several months just for a letter to get-"

"I can see your point," Scott conceded, not that he had much choice. After all, he had presented an almost identical list of obstacles to his mother in order to justify her father's negative attitude about her plans to marry Murdoch and travel to California. Still, none of that explained why Murdoch had left him in Boston after finally making the rigorous journey. "So, you came for me when you could, but they you just gave up. You walked away from me and never looked back."

"No, I did not just give up," Murdoch denied.

"You left without me," Scott refuted bluntly.

"Scott, before I left Boston without you, I had called on every attorney in town. Most of them laughed in my face as soon as they heard who I was. The few that would even listen to me all agreed that I had no chance." Murdoch's face twisted into an angry scowl. "There was always a 'maybe': 'maybe', if it was anyone but Harlan Garrett; 'maybe', if I wasn't planning on taking you on a dangerous trek to the other side of the continent to be raised in the uncivilized West; 'maybe', if my wife had not run off with another man!"

Scott was stunned. "You told them about Maria? What possessed you to do something that stupid?"

"I didn't have to tell them anything!" Murdoch snapped defensively. "They already knew, thanks to that shark, Mr. Timsdale. He made sure every attorney and judge in Boston knew about Maria leaving me, but he didn't stop there. He also arranged for me to end up in situations that would make it seem like I was not responsible enough to raise my own son."

"What kind of situations?"

Murdoch slumped back in his chair. "I spent two nights in jail for being 'involved' in a highly publicized drunken brawl right in front of the courthouse. I wasn't drunk, but the derelicts who conveniently started the fight also conveniently splashed enough liquor on me to make it appear that I was to the local constables. Not to mention the sweet old lady who pointed me out as the one who had started the altercation."

"Surely you could have explained yourself. Your attire, alone, should have been enough to tell them that you were not a bum," Scott argued, though his resolve was weakening.

A sad frown pinched Murdoch's features. "My attire was more than appropriate enough for a town meeting in a town that wasn't even officially a town, but can you honestly say that anyone in Boston would be impressed by any form of Western clothing."

Scott was not sure he wanted to hear any more, but he had to know it all. No matter what. "Is that all?"

"No. There were other instances. Some involved nice ladies asking directions or requesting other information. Their expressions of gratitude were rather exaggerated, very unladylike, and always in a very public place. Something else that Mr. Timsdale arranged to raise questions about my respectability."

The picture Murdoch was painting was not very pretty. Scott hated to think that his grandfather had sunk to such levels, but part of him was not surprised. This further confirmed what he had already expressed directly to his grandfather - that the older man's hatred for Murdoch was more powerful than his love for his grandson.

Then Murdoch surprised him with another admission. "Scott, your grandfather had nothing to do with it."

Startled, Scott looked up at his father. "How could he not?" he asked hoarsely.

"Because Mr. Timsdale wasn't even employed by Harlan at the time. He used the entire situation to get his foot in the door. The problem was that he was fresh out of law school, only it was the wrong school."

"The wrong school?"

"Yes, Mr. Timsdale graduated from Yale."

While the College did not hold a candle to the prestige that abound at Harvard, Scott had heard that the curriculum and teaching staff were actually extremely proficient, and highly underrated. That would not have been a consideration in Boston, though, which was home to the esteemed Harvard College. "Surely Mr. Timsdale knew that he would have a very difficult time finding employment in Boston?"

"According to your grandfather, he was a brash young man who was determined it make it in Boston because it was home to the prestigious Harvard." Murdoch sighed. "Everything Timsdale did, he did on his own, for the sole purpose of impressing Harlan Garrett and making a name for himself."

Scott suspected that this was only partially true. The whole truth would include Harlan Garrett needing to best Murdoch Lancer. That was the only thing that would allow such a blatant intrusion into the Garrett family business, as well as the bestowal of the coveted position of Harlan's personal attorney. In his grandfather's defense, though, he had to admit that what was merely allowed to happen and what was purposely instigated were two different things.

"That's what Grandfather told you," Scott stated more than asked. "That's what convinced you to let Mr. Timsdale take on Maria?"

"Yes," Murdoch confirmed unnecessarily. "Having first-hand knowledge of what that man was capable of fresh out of college, I am sure that with twenty years of experience under his belt Maria will end up the loser in this fight. Your grandfather assured me that Mr. Timsdale would not make claims that he could not back up." A strangled snort filled the air. "Twenty years ago that man was responsible for denying me one son. Now, he may just be the only hope I have for keeping my other son. Ironic, isn't it?"

Ironic would not be Scott's word of choice, but it was more polite. However, for Scott there was still one more thing that Murdoch had not yet to explain. "What about later? I wasn't always five. I grew up. I fought in a war. I had a right to know the truth about my father."

For a long time Murdoch did not answer. His struggle was clear, and it worried Scott that the answer would be so hard to say. The financial issues would have been moot in the later years, so what was it that had kept a father who claimed to love his son from having any contact with that son?

"I was scared."

Shocked by the vulnerability in those very rarely spoken words, Scott stared at his father for another long moment. "Scared? Of what?"

"That you would reject me." Those words hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity. "It had taken a long time, but I had learned to live with the uncertainty over whether it might happen. So many times I started letters to you, only to dismiss them as inadequate reflections of what I wanted to say. The more time passed, the harder it was to imagine that you would even want to hear from me." Murdoch paused, swallowing hard as he gazed sadly at his son. "Mainly, though, I could not face the reality of your rejection, so...so I never gave you the chance."

Scott looked at his father and felt like he was seeing the whole man for the first time. No longer was he the unshakable paragon of strength that had carved a cattle empire out of the untamed wilderness. In those older eyes Scott saw fear, regret, but mostly he saw an uncertainty that tugged at his heart.

"Would you have, Scott?" Murdoch's voice was very above a whisper.

There was no misinterpreting the meaning of Murdoch's question. Nor was there any way to ignore the answer. "Yes."

As much as he hated to admit that it was true, Scott could not deny that it would have happened. His initial reaction to any contact from his father would have been to hurt the man who had hurt him so badly for so long. Too many times he had declared to those closest to him that he hated his father, even though that had not been the total truth.

Yes, he hated his father, but at the same time, he had always held on to the hope that there was a reason why his father had abandoned him. Scott was sure that even if Murdoch had contacted him when he was older, that his anger would have driven his father away long before his buried hope could have clawed its way to the surface."Thank you, Sir."

Murdoch looked up, startled. "For what, Son?"

"For making the right decision."

A strained silence filled the room. "Are you sure, Son? Maybe I should have...maybe I could have done more."

"Like what, kidnapping me?"

"I did consider it."

Scott was taken aback by this admission to what he had intended to be a preposterous suggestion. "Why didn't you?

Murdoch looked dejected as he stared across the desk. "I couldn't do that to you. As much as your grandfather hated me, I knew he would give you a good life; a life better than I could offer you running from the law."

"I know there really was nothing you could have done, Murdoch." Scott looked down at his hands as he collected his thoughts and emotions. "I know it wasn't easy for you to tell me all this, and I appreciate it more than you will ever know, but...I have to be honest with you. I believe everything that you've said, but there will always be a part me that will wonder if you really did it for me, or if this ranch was more important to you than I was. I can't help it."

Murdoch nodded. "I understand, Son."

"Do you?"

"Yes. It's the same doubt I feel every time I think about how I handled the situation. For every moment I know I did the right thing, I have a dozen moments when I wonder if I should have done more, no matter what." Murdoch paused for a moment. "Scott?"

The strain in Murdoch's voice was disconcerting. "What is it, Sir?"

"When I came to Boston to claim you, I honestly didn't think I could be a very good father," the hoarsely spoken confession came out as barely a whisper.

This admission was more than Scott ever expected. The more he considered this, though, the more he could see how this would have been a very plausible reaction for a man who had been abandoned by his wife and had his child taken from him. Despite the additional shame Murdoch would face from those who would see his return empty handed as the abandonment of his child, he had still put what he believed to be his son's best interests above his own. A truly selfish man would have given in to the lure of kidnapping, or left a little boy's heart crushed by a futile court battle. Scott would always be eternally grateful to his father for refusing to stoop to such lows.

"You thought wrong, Father," Scott stated with conviction, and the very seldom-used term of endearment.

 *** *** *** ***

Catherine swept into the kitchen, her billowy skirt rustling as she hurried towards the stove. She was so caught up in the flurry of her task that she did not even notice Murdoch's presence until he quietly slipped up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist.

"Murdoch!" she exclaimed as she jumped at the unexpected contact. "I didn't see you."

Murdoch chuckled. "I don't doubt that. What's the hurry, Darling?"

"Lunch," she said firmly. "Teresa and I lost all track of time. It's nearly two. You men must be starving." She paused long enough to slip from his embrace and grab the frying pan from the nearby rack. "Have my father and Johnny returned?"

"Yes, about an hour ago. Right now they are looking over the books with Scott.

Deciding that lunch could wait another few minutes, Catherine turned and leaned into Murdoch, savoring the closeness. "Was Father able to help Johnny?"

"Yes," Murdoch laughed. "I'm not sure what he said, but whatever it was Johnny is no longer making disparaging commentary about the chore. Scott is brooding over the lost bet, and..."

When Murdoch paused, Catherine pulled back and looked up at him. "What?"

"I don't know, Catherine. Scott just seemed a bit annoyed at the two of them."

"Annoyed?" Catherine paused her cooking to look at Murdoch with concern. "You don't think there's anything wrong, do you?"

"Nothing like that, Catherine," Murdoch reassured her. "More like Scott is in the dark about how Harlan pulled this off, or for some reason he does not approve of what Harlan did. Scott tends to be very rigid in his thinking whenever your father is around."

This was something that Catherine could understand. She had been the same way back when she was still living in Boston. She had to laugh as a thought came to her, one that she found to be both funny and heartwarming.

"Catherine?"

Murdoch's concern was totally unnecessary, though. "I was just thinking that if Father and Johnny are getting on so well, Johnny just might be the one to break Father out of some of those stuffy old habits."

The smell of hot oil had Catherine turning back towards the stove, but not before she saw the raised eyebrow on Murdoch's forehead and took that as a definitive lack of faith in that every happening. "I'm not expecting miracles, mind you," she added over her shoulder.

"Good, because I don't see Harlan as ever relinquishing his tight hold on decorum."

With the beef steaks arranged in the large skillet, Catherine turned around to find Murdoch sitting at the table, watching her with a contented smile on his face. She went to him, allowing him to guide her down onto his lap as she wrapped her arms around his sturdy shoulders. "How did your talk with Scott go?" she asked softly.

The contentment faded, but did not totally disappear. "It went fine, Darling. Scott and I both said some things that have needed to be said for too long."

Catherine knew there was more. Murdoch's arms tightened around her and she fought to contain her growing anxieties. "Ducky?" she whispered softly.

"I never stopped loving you, Catherine."

"I know." Although she was unsure as to what had brought on this unnecessary admission, Catherine waited. It had taken some time, some readjusting, a lot of reacquainting, but Catherine was confident that Murdoch would tell her as soon as he found the right words.

"I did love Maria when I married her."

Catherine easily recognized where this was heading, and could only hope that Scott had not accused his father of what she feared.  "You believed I was dead, Murdoch. I don't feel betrayed, and you have nothing to feel guilty about."

A furious sizzling sound emanated from the stove, and Catherine eased herself out of Murdoch's embrace. "I love you. Nothing will ever change that." She planted a soft kiss on his forehead, and then hurried over to save the day's lunch from burning. It was bad enough that it was late; she didn't want it to be inedible, too.

The steaks were turned and just as she was trying to decide how to prepare lunch and comfort her man at the same time, Teresa came bounding into the kitchen.  "Catherine, I've got it tucked away in the-" the young woman stopped short when she saw Murdoch sitting at the table.

"Got what tucked away?" Murdoch asked with a teasing smile.

To Catherine's relief, Murdoch seemed to be back from wherever his dark thoughts had taken him. She would make it a point to reassure him that she did not feel threatened by Maria Lancer in any way. Well, not from the past, anyway. There were still very real fears over what Maria could do to them, and to their family, in the here and now.

"Oh, it's nothing, Murdoch," Teresa said with a causal wave of her hand. "Just a new dress Catherine is helping me put together."

"A new dress?" A bushy eyebrow rose high on his weathered brow.

"A couple of new dresses, actually," Catherine inserted as she accepted the onion Teresa handed to her and began slicing it into thin rings. By the time Murdoch appeared next to her, the tears were streaming down her face.

"I love you," he whispered in her ear as his thumb brushed the tears from her cheek. He kissed her other cheek, gave Teresa a quick hug, and then left them to finish their work without any more interference.

Placing a huge dollop of butter in another of the cast iron skillets, Teresa prepared to begin cooking down the onions that Catherine was slicing. "Do you think he suspects?" she asked conspiratorially.

"No, he doesn't suspect a thing, Teresa. He knows for certain," Catherine laughed.

Teresa's eyes popped wide open. "How?! I swear I've been so careful to keep them hidden except when we were working on them."

With a reassuring pat to the distraught young woman's shoulder, Catherine assured her that this was not a problem. "Murdoch knows what they are, but that is all. One day, Teresa, you'll find a man who seems to know your every thought even before you think it.  When you do, don't ever let him get away."

 *** *** *** ***

 Murdoch had just entered the great room after his retreat from the kitchen, when something outside the French door caught his attention. After making a rather hasty excuse to his sons and Harlan, he headed straight for the barn.

It took a good fifteen minutes for Murdoch to complete a summary of the recent events, and when he was finished, Jelly and Cipriano stood staring at him with dumbstruck expressions on their pale faces. Having left before Maria's shocking arrival and subsequent revelations, neither man had any idea of how the family had been turned inside out during their absence. A few muttered obscenities later, which Murdoch chose to ignore in light of their extreme accuracy, and the two trusted friends were up to date with the current state of affairs.

"Things have not gone very well around here since you left," Murdoch concluded. He looked at each man expectantly. "I could really use some good news, Gentlemen."

No sooner were the words spoken when Jelly's sullen expression transformed into a proud smile. "We got that good news fer ya, Boss. Hustled 'em right into the barn, soon as we got here."

"We found two, Señor," Cipriano added with a pleased smile of his own. "There was a third that was lost, but we have the one that I know is for sure."

Murdoch nodded in relief. Things were still tense between him and Johnny, despite the assurances that they only had a few more weeks to worry about Maria Lancer disrupting their lives. Murdoch could only hope that the faith they had all placed in Mr. Timsdale was not misplaced. Part of him had no doubts; the attorney had proved long ago that he could get the job done, no matter what. Still, he would not rest easy until Maria was no longer in a position to harm his family.

"How's Johnny doin', Boss?" Jelly asked.

The concern in the older man's voice touched Murdoch. Jelly had truly become a part of their family in every sense of the word. Cipriano, too. They were both very fond of the Lancer sons, but with Johnny in the position to be losing the most, their concerns would naturally turn towards him. "For the most part he's handling it well enough." Murdoch tried to sound reassuring. "Being able to get around has helped."

Jelly bowed up indignantly. "Yer lettin' that boy up an' about with two broke legs?"

Murdoch attempted to reassure both men that things were not that bad. "Actually, it turned out that only one of Johnny's legs was broken. We put the cast on his left leg as a precaution. The swelling had made it impossible for Sam to tell for sure if it was broken or not. Circumstances necessitated that the left cast to be removed to check, and Sam determined that there was no need to put the cast back on."

"Circumstances?" Jelly asked with a raised eyebrow. His indignation had been replaced with amusement. "Is that one a them there mannerly ways a sayin' Johnny weren't too happy 'bout bein' cooped up?"

At any other time Murdoch would have smiled over that comment, but this time the seriousness of the situation prevented such a reaction. "No, Jelly, Johnny was not happy. He's still limited to getting around on crutches, but at least he can get around."

A high-pitched whinny sounded from the barn. "Señor, your secret seems unwilling to remain hidden for long," Cipriano remarked.

This time Murdoch could not have kept his smile hidden if he had tried. "Very, true, Cipriano. You and Jelly get ready, and I'll get Johnny."

*** *** *** ***

A pair of crutches appeared in his line of sight, and Johnny gave them a curious glance before casting a wary eye up at his father. "We going somewhere?"

"Out to the paddock. Jelly and Cipriano just got back."

This was news to Johnny, who had just assumed that the men were busy preparing for the round up and doing the extra work that he was unable to perform. "Got back from where?" Johnny asked as he accepted the crutches and pulled himself to his feet with a little bit of help from Murdoch.

"Fort Bowie," Scott chimed in. He and Harlan had stood as well, and Scott was smiling devilishly in Johnny's direction.

"What's going on, Scott?" Johnny asked suspiciously.

Scott's smile did not fade, but his eyes were almost apologetic as they met Johnny's. "Honestly, I don't know, Johnny." Murdoch got an annoyed glare from his elder son. "Murdoch wouldn't tell us anything. Just that it was personal business for him."

"Come outside, Johnny. I have a surprise of you."

As the small group moved towards the paddock, an unsettled feeling descended on Johnny. He could only hope that his father had not tried to do the unthinkable, but something about Murdoch's excitement told him otherwise. How could he explain that there could be no replacing Barranca, or the significance that had been his father's first gift to him. Should his fear turn out to be justified, Johnny would do his best to be gracious, but it would not be easy. So far he had been unable to spare more than a furtive glance or two up at the hill beyond the hacienda where Barranca was buried.

"Jelly!" Murdoch called out as soon as they reached the paddock fence.

A few seconds later the barn door opened. Johnny's stomach twisted into a painful knot when a golden head emerged from the darkness. Even as he inhaled a ragged breath, Johnny realized that there was something very different about this particular palomino. As the animal came into full view, Johnny saw that the horse he was expecting was not there - at the end of the lead was a young colt.

Judging from his size and movements, he was a yearling at best. The frisky colt pranced gracefully around Jelly, his golden coat gleaming in the afternoon sun while developing muscles rippled beneath the surface. A lump formed in Johnny's throat as his thoughts turned to Barranca, who had sported the same golden coloring, and had moved with the same energetic vigor. The colt gave the lead a rambunctious tug, but Jelly easily maintained control. He was spirited, but well-mannered enough to show that someone had been working with him.

"John, Barranca was his sire."

Johnny's heart stopped, or it might as well have. Nothing Murdoch could have said would have been more shocking. With his jaw slaked open, Johnny stared at the young horse that had in an instant changed from a painful reminder of what had been lost into the miracle for which Johnny had dared not even consider being possible.

Maybe Jelly had guide the spirited colt closer; Johnny didn't know for sure because he could not take his eyes off the colt as it came closer. A shaky hand reached out towards the velvety nose. The golden head pulled away, but just as quickly the soft muzzle was back, inspecting palm of Johnny's outstretched hand. The colt's hot breaths brushed over his skin and soft lips took a nibble at his palm, without teeth or intent. Just like Barranca; too much like Barranca. The lump in Johnny's throat made it difficult to breath. There was not much about the colt that did not have Barranca's stamp on it.

"How?" Johnny whispered hoarsely as his mind tried to comprehend what his eyes were telling him was true.

Murdoch's voice filtered in from somewhere on his right. His father's tone was gentle and full of relief. "A few weeks before Pardee killed Paul and wounded me, I had made an agreement with the Army to deliver some saddle horses to Fort Bowie. They were mostly mares, and a couple of geldings. Due to the distance involved, it was an unusual transaction, but Pardee was making things difficult. I simply could not turn down the Army's offer to wait for a more lucrative sale closer to Lancer."

"Your Barranca, he broke into the corral and got to the mares." Cipriano's voice continued the story, reminding Johnny that there were other's present around him, even though his world had all but narrowed down to just the golden colt. "I am positive this colt is Barranca's. I caught him with the mare. This one," the soft-spoken Mexican indicated the second foal that Johnny had not yet noticed, "I cannot guarantee she is his, but I know of no other stallion that it could have been."

Finally tearing his eyes away from the golden colt, Johnny looked over at the filly standing quietly beside Cipriano. The first thing he noticed was that she was smaller boned than the colt, almost dainty-looking, like a filly should be. Still, her chest was broad and her back straight and her head...the lump in Johnny's throat made it difficult to breath. The set of her ears was all Barranca. That, and the look in her eyes made him certain where Cipriano was not. As calm as she seemed, those dark brown eyes belied the feisty spirit that lay smoldering inside.

The filly moved restlessly at the end of the lead rope, turning sideways so she could be seen more fully. The first thing Johnny noticed was the filly's unique coloring. Unlike the colt, she did not have the golden coat of her sire. Instead, she was a very dark blackish-golden color, almost metallic. It's shine reminded Johnny of his own handgun, when it was freshly cleaned and oiled.

Unlike a palomino, she bore the distinctive dark line down her back and shaded barring on her legs and shoulders that made her a dun. The shadowy markings gave her an autumn-colored appearance, like burnished leaves in November. Her mane, tail and stockings were coal black, a stark contrast to the colt's silky white markings. One thing he knew for sure - both of Barranca's offspring were going to have heads turning.

"There was a third mare that was with foal when the mares reached Fort Bowie, but neither one survived the birthing," Cipriano said sadly. "We were told it was another colt, only it did not have the golden coat of his sire."

"Isn't it unusual to include mares in foal in any sale?"

 Although Scott's inquiry had genuine merit, for Johnny it was a greatly appreciated reprieve from having to make any kind of response. His mind was a flowing mass of thoughts that would not stop changing, and he literally had no idea what to say, especially to his father. The horses, themselves, were overwhelming enough, but the lengths to which Murdoch must have gone to get them left Johnny feeling off balance.

The rest of the world continued to exist in some plane beyond Johnny's senses as he tried to come to terms with the fact that his father had done the impossible for him. Only these two horses could fill the empty spot left behind by the golden stallion, and only his father could have made this gift so treasured. As important as Barranca had been in his own right, it was the loss of what the special gift had represented that had left Johnny's heart aching. That ache was gone, now, and in it's place was something he would treasure even more.

While Johnny was trying to sort out his feelings, the filly eased towards where he was standing. With a tentative nudge, she nuzzled his cheek with her velvety muzzle, startling him out of his revere. He had to blink back a few tears when she began rubbing her sweaty forehead against his arm. Where the feisty colt exhibited his sire's barely contained energy, the filly was all of Barranca's loving affection. Two parts of the same whole, both easing the emptiness that only this morning had seemed would last forever.

Eventually Johnny glanced around and realized that everyone else had gone - only he and his father remained. Murdoch had both the lead lines in his hand, and Johnny reached over and took the lead to the filly from him. It seemed to make more sense to leave his able-bodied father to contain the more rambunctious colt.

With his head bowed, Johnny began speaking. "Murdoch, I...I don't know what to say...except...mucho gracias," he finally choked out.  "I can't believe any of this...thank you."

Murdoch's big hand came to rest on Johnny's shoulder and gave it a firm squeeze. He said nothing, but words were not needed. His contented smile as he looked at his son said it all.

The leads were removed from the young horses' halters, and the two men leaned on the paddock fence as they watched the golden colt and the darker filly wander skittishly around the enclosure. Ears flicked forward and back, while tails twitched nervously.  Eventually their wariness gave way to curiosity, and the newcomers became bolder in their explorations, filling the air with the sound of their curious snorts and playful nips to each other.

"It'll be some time before either of them will be ready for a saddle. You'll be needing a riding horse in the meantime," Murdoch said softly.

Johnny sighed. He had been dreading this thought, too, knowing it would mean he would have to face that Barranca was really gone. Nothing would push that point home more bluntly than having to saddle another mount for a day's work on the range, or even a trip to town for a poker game or to grab a beer with Scott. However, life had taught him early on that avoiding problems didn't solve too much. He took a deep breath and mustered the courage to do what had to be done. "While you and Scott are gone, I'll do some looking around."

Murdoch frowned.

"Don't go gettin' all excited, Old Man. I'll get Catherine to drive me around in the buggy. That way she can get acquainted with the lay of the land at the same time." Bowing his head to hide his smile, he toed at the fence post where it disappeared into the dirt. "She'll be needing a good riding horse, too. Might as well pick it out herself," he dared a look at his father under hooded eyes, "unless you already got one in mind for her."

Murdoch's frown eased, but concern still shadowed his expression. "No, with all that has happened, I hadn't really thought about that. Just don't push yourself too hard, Son."

Although Johnny had expected this warning, he could sense there was something else going through his father's head. "What?"

"Thank you, Johnny." Gratitude rang loud in those words, but Murdoch's gaze remained fixed on some spot in the distance. "I know it couldn't have been easy for you - accepting Catherine - especially after believing what you did about her for so long, and on top of the mess I made of things before she even arrived."

"No, it wasn't easy," Johnny admitted honestly.

Still not looking at Johnny, Murdoch asked, "What changed your mind?"

With that question, Johnny realized that Murdoch was still dwelling on that nearly disastrous afternoon of few weeks ago. This query also made it clear that Murdoch had heeded his warning, and had not have been pushing Catherine for answers. Answers were still needed, though, or this wouldn't be coming up again. Johnny would never tell his father the whole truth, but he didn't see anything wrong with giving him a general idea. "She was willing to fight for us."

Murdoch turned towards him, looking genuinely surprised. "Us?"

"Yeah, you and me. She coulda just done nothing and let us...let me destroy it all. She would've had you and Scott all to herself, without any reminders of you lovin' someone else. But she didn't." Momentarily distracted, Johnny smiled as his colt got a swift reprimand for being too frisky around the filly. Yep, she was Barranca's all right. Don't take no crap off no one, not even her own brother.

"You're never going to tell me what really happened, are you?"

"Nope." Johnny gave Murdoch a sidelong long. "You ever gonna quit asking?"

The corner of Murdoch's mouth twitched. "Maybe," he said with an affectionate slap to Johnny's back. "Come on, Son. Lunch is ready and Catherine and Teresa were already worried about it being this late."

Johnny struggled for a moment to get the crutches situated just right. One the way back to the house, he figured now was as good a time as any to bring up another matter. "Murdoch, you remember that fancy catalogue Teresa was showing us a couple months back? The one she borrowed from Mollie Clavis?"

"The one from that new specialty store in Sacramento?" Murdoch asked.

"Yeah, that's the one." Johnny's crutch slipped on a loose rock and it was only Murdoch's quick thinking that saved him from ending up flat on his face in the dirt. "Thanks," Johnny sighed. "I guess I'll get better at using these things in a few days."

"Don't get impatient, Johnny," Murdoch warned gently. "Now, what were you saying about that catalogue?"

"There was a set of dishes in there that Teresa seemed to like real well," Johnny paused. He hated to get this far back into that delicate subject, but seeing no other way to make his point. "Me and Catherine talked it over, and seeing how we was both sort of responsible for ruining the set we got now, we decided that we should be the ones to replace them."

"Sort of responsible?" Murdoch's attempt to look stern failed under his barely contained amusement.

"Okay, so we're all the way responsible," Johnny huffed. "Are you gonna listen, or are you just gonna make comments that ain't necessary?"

They reached the veranda, and Murdoch threw his arm around Johnny's shoulder and laughed. "I'm picking them up when we deliver the herd to the railhead in Sacramento."

"Catherine already talked to you?" Johnny voiced his surprise.

"Yes. She mentioned it yesterday afternoon."

"Oh." While Johnny waited for Murdoch to open the French doors for him, he recalled how Murdoch and Catherine had spent most of the afternoon somewhere off by themselves, after the lawyers got through talking and Murdoch had agreed to Mr. Timsdale's offer. Johnny still didn't know what all that had been about, but he did know that it had been pretty rough on his old man, so he didn't press the issue any farther. That, and the fact that there was a table full of hungry people looking expectantly in their direction, had Johnny moving as quickly as he could through the doors, with Murdoch right behind him.

*** *** *** ***

Scott heaved a contented sigh as he drove the buggy under the Lancer arch. Zanzibar knew he was almost home, and there was no need to urge the horse on. In fact, the anxious animal had to be reined in slightly to keep him at a respectable trot. Scott didn't mind, though; he was anxious to get home, too.

The last couple of days had been extremely busy, but fortunately, free of any more unpleasant surprises. His grandfather and mother had been able to spend quite a lot of time together while Scott and Murdoch were busy making preparations for the upcoming cattle drive. With the small measure of freedom that had come with Sam's crutches, Johnny had pretty much taken over anything that could be handled from the house or the nearby barn.

Today, Scott had taken the morning off to escort his grandfather to town. The businessman in him was eager to get started on his new endeavors, now that he had more reason than ever to be in California. From the way his grandfather had talked, it seemed he would be spending as much time on the west coast as he did the east. It was well past noon when Scott handed the surrey over to Miguel, gave Zanzibar a pat on the neck and headed for the house, wiping his brow with his handkerchief as he walked. Earlier, a cool breeze had made it almost chilly, but the afternoon hours were a testament to impatience of the impending summer.

The sun's wrath was not nearly as strong as it would be later in the season, but even now the deep blue shirt clung annoyingly to the small patches of sweat on his back, making his skin itch in places he could not easily reach. With chagrin, Scott contemplated how that annoyance would not last long - the heat would eventually make unreachable itches insignificant compared to those that would be more accessible.

Entering through the French doors, Scott discovered Murdoch sitting behind his desk, his nose buried in a rather large stack of papers that could only be the Army contract that had yet to be finalized. Johnny was seated on the other side of the massive oak desk. The younger man's tight expression gave the impression that he was both bored and a bit annoyed.

Scott's first guess was that Murdoch was going a bit overboard in his attempt to make sure that Johnny had more input than he had been expected to give in the past. That contract should have been dispatched days ago, but their usually dictatorial partner had balked, unwilling to let two signatures finalize the contract, even though the Army required no more. However, Scott's attention quickly refocused on an even more unusual sight; a casted leg propped up on the corner of the desk, resting on a pillow.

"Comfortable, Brother?" Scott inquired with a raised eyebrow.

"My toes were all swollen up," Johnny explained with a cheeky grin. "They were probably as big as them bratty sausages you told me that German widow lady who lived next door to you in Boston was always making and bringing over."

Murdoch snickered, but Scott managed to fight off the urge to do the same. "Bratwurst? That must have been quite a sight," Scott said with a smile, although he did have to admit that Johnny's toes looked abnormally rotund. Vienna sausage would be a more appropriate comparison, though, and even that was a stretch.

"Sam said I needed to keep my foot up for a few hours." The somewhat pudgy toes poking out of plaster encasement wiggled, though not very freely. "Seems to be working, too, 'cause they ain't near as puffy as they were when he was here around noon."

Murdoch looked up and gave his younger son a resigned look of tolerance before addressing his elder son. "Did your grandfather get off on the stage all right, Scott?"

"Yes, Sir, he did." After pulling up another chair, Scott sat down with a sigh.

"But?"

Scott had to laugh. The irony was still settling in. "It seems that his opinion of California has taken a rather dramatic about-face."

"Oh? How so?"

The genuine interest in his father's expression gave Scott's heart a warm feeling. Lots of opinions had changed in the past few weeks, and some of them were more than welcome, and long overdue. "Well, Sir, it seems California is now the 'untapped mecca' of the US, just waiting to be 'cultivated into a civilized society', a 'utopia of business opportunities'."

"It ain't just a state no more?" Johnny asked, but there was too much amusement in his voice for his interjection to be taken seriously.

"No, Brother Johnny, it is not just a state anymore." Scott set his hat on the edge of the desk and began removing his gloves. "During his time in San Francisco, Grandfather discovered a very nice vintage of wine that was bottle in the Napa Valley. He also heard that this particular winery might be willing to take on some new investors. I believe he is heading there, first. He also made arrangements with Jarrod Barkley to meet him in Sacramento in a couple of weeks. Jarrod is going to introduce him to all the 'proper people'."

"Sounds like he isn't planning on heading back to Boston any time soon," Johnny said more seriously this time.

Scott looked down at the gloves held tightly in his hand. "No, he's not," he admitted somewhat reluctantly.

"You're not upset about that, are you, Son?"

Looking up into his father's confused expression, Scott understood how he must have sounded. "No, I'm not upset. It's just that even if it wasn't for these business opportunities, he would not be leaving until things were settled with..." Scott paused to give his brother an apologetic glance.

"Now, Scott, you can't be expecting him to leave before the wedding, do you?" Johnny asked with a teasing grin.

How Scott loved this man. Johnny had a way of cutting to the chase and getting straight to the heart of the matter - or at least leaving the less savory parts of an explanation unspoken, as in this case. Nothing could be more unsavory than just the mere mention of Maria Lancer. "No, I don't expect Grandfather will be leaving California before the wedding."

A devilish gleam flashed in Johnny's eyes as his gaze turned towards their father. "So, when are you gonna pop the question, Old Man?"

"That, Young Man, is none of your concern."

Johnny's insolent grin and Murdoch's seemingly indignant response had Scott fighting back his laughter. However, if Murdoch wanted to have a little fun with Johnny, then who was he to interfere? Johnny had done it to them enough times to warrant a payback or two.

"I wouldn't be waiting too long, Old Man. Some younger fella might just get a few ideas of his own."

The absurd insinuation was clear and Scott waited for Murdoch's response. His reservations that his father would not be able to think fast enough to keep up with Johnny's sometimes annoyingly devious mind were quickly proved wrong.

"I'm not worried about that, Johnny. I'm sure there are plenty of men who would consider it a blessing to have Catherine for their wife, but I'm confident that she will be accepting only one proposal."

Johnny's gaze held firm. "Being over confident can get a body in trouble, Old Man."

Scott listened, amused by the word play between father and brother, but what he felt most was joy, and the pure satisfaction of having Johnny so squarely in favor of their father and his mother being reunited. This was how he had imagined it was going to be, back when he first learned that his mother was still alive, and before the subsequent nightmare began. Well, maybe not exactly like this, but it was close enough.

"Scott, you're back," Catherine announced with pleasure as she entered the room and moved quickly to his side. Both Scott and Murdoch rose to their feet, while Johnny looked down rather sheepishly.

Scott hugged his mother and exchanged affectionate pecks to the cheek, before she moved over to Murdoch's side. Even as she slipped under his arm and they shared a quick kiss, Scott considered how easily they fit together. It was like they had not been apart for the last twenty-five years.

"I'm not interrupting anything, am I?" she asked when the men were seated again. She took up a position on the arm of Murdoch's chair, with his arm ensconced firmly around her waist.

"Actually, you interrupted a very important matter," Murdoch stated a little too matter-of-factly.

Scott had to look away. Murdoch was about to get Johnny, but good.

"Oh?" Catherine looked startled, obviously taken by surprise after the warm greeting she had received from them all.

"Murdoch," Johnny warned, garnering an expectant look from Catherine and a wily smirk from Murdoch.

"It seems I am under strict orders to propose to you before someone much younger steps forward and steals you away from me," Murdoch informed her.

Catherine looked at Murdoch with reproach. "Oh? I wasn't aware anyone else was interested. Who is it?"

Murdoch's head cocked a bit to the side. "I believe Johnny just suggested that he might have a mind to ask you."

Her face instantly lit up. "That's wonderful. Once you call him out, we can have that gunfight after all!"

"Now wait just a darn minute!" Johnny struggled to straighten up, but with his leg propped up on the desk, his movements were very limited, and momentarily took his mind away from the discussion at hand.

"Changing your mind already, John?" Murdoch teased. "Or are you just toying with this good lady's affections?" With a serious nod towards Scott, he added, "Yes, Scott, I do believe this is reason enough to be calling your brother out. A man has to defend his woman's honor, especially when she has already agreed to become his wife."

"I couldn't agree more, Sir," Scott responded with all due seriousness.

"She's already agreed?" Johnny turned his head to glare in Scott's direction. "You knew he'd already asked her, didn't you?"

Unable to remain impassive any longer, Scott chuckled and nodded his head. "Johnny, do you honestly believe that I would sit by and let anyone, including our father, take it for granted that my mother would be willing to become his wife?"

"You better not," Johnny grumbled.

A pouty frown formed on Catherine's face. "Johnny, does that mean you won't be willing to fight for my hand?" Before Johnny could answer, she snuggled closer to Murdoch. "I guess I'll just have to settle for the Lancer who is willing to fight for me."

"Settle?" Murdoch's indignation actually seemed a bit genuine.

Catherine smiled at Murdoch in a way that left no one doubting that she did not consider accepting his proposal as settling in any way. "Yes, settle...settle down and grow old together," she spared a rather pointed look at Scott, "while spoiling our grandchildren something awful."

"I think that's our cue to be making a hasty exit," Johnny said even as he struggled to lower his foot to the floor.

Although he was cornered by his mother's remark, Scott couldn't resist chuckling as Johnny gracelessly fumbled with his crutches before finally ending up on his feet, or foot, as the case might be. "I could have been out of here and back five times in the time it took you to get out of that chair, Little Brother," Scott teased as he easily caught up with Johnny's retreating form. "When word gets around about that cast, you're going to have the ladies flocking out here in droves and you won't be able to get away. I guess you'll be the first Lancer son to provide those grandchildren."

"Not on your life, Brother," Johnny growled over his shoulder.

 *** *** *** ***

 Murdoch had to laugh at his sons' obvious reluctance to even talk about being tied down. "You do know how to clear a room, Darling." He eased her off the arm of the chair and down onto his lap. "Not that it is an entirely disagreeable talent," he said softly, and with more than a little innuendo.

"Murdoch," she chided, but the desire burning in her eyes told the real truth, as did the fact that she had made no effort to get up. Instead she leaned closer. Their lips met and the kiss they shared spoke of more passionate intimacies that longed to be shared.

The kiss ended, but they remained locked in each other's arms, savoring a small measure of the privacy they had been denied since Johnny was moved downstairs. While Murdoch could understand her reluctance to carry on as they had been with Johnny now sleeping across the hall, he could not deny feeling very frustrated by the lack of intimacy with the woman he loved.

"Later," Catherine whispered her promise to end his suffering.

Taken by surprise, Murdoch stared at her in disbelief. She had made it perfectly clear that with Johnny across the hall from Murdoch's room and Teresa in the room next to her own, there would be no interludes that could possibly bring more heartache down on their family. His arms tightened around her as if he could hold on to that promise by holding on to her.

Although confused about her sudden change of heart, he wasn't about to question it. Not when there was a chance of her returning to his bed. Besides, for the moment there was another issue that needed to be addressed. "Catherine, before we can even think about getting remarried, we need decide how to explain your rather miraculous return. There are going to be questions asked that we will not be able to avoid."

"I know." Catherine sighed, and then pulled away. Still sitting on Murdoch's lap she stared over his shoulder and out the window behind them and sighed deeply.

He too missed the moment they had just lost, but there was no denying the need to resolve the rest of the issues that stood between them. "It's going to be harder, now. You've been here too long for there not to be even more questions asked about why we kept the truth a secret for so long."

"We could tell the truth," Catherine suggested.

Uncertain about what she meant, Murdoch asked cautiously. "Which is?"

Two gray blue eyes, flashing with anger, met his. "That your second wife was and is an ass."

"Catherine!"

"She's right, Old Man."

Startled more by the tone of Johnny's voice than from his unexpected appearance, Murdoch looked over at his son, standing the archway leaning heavily on his crutches.

"Sorry, didn't mean to eavesdrop," he apologized. Father and son shared a long hard look before Johnny broke eye contact. "I'll butt out," he said softly.

"Johnny," Catherine called after him, but he was gone.

"Murdoch, go talk to him," she said as she rose off his lap to stand next to his chair.

"Where's Johnny?" This time the intruder was Scott, the checker board under one arm, the checker case in his hand, and two beer mugs filled with lemonade in his other hand. The handles made the glasses easier to carry as a pair.

As it seemed they would not be allowed to make this decision themselves, Murdoch stood up and guided Catherine over to the sofa. "Scott, we need to talk."

A wary frown formed on Scott's face. "What about, Sir?"

"How we are going to explain me being alive," Catherine answered for Murdoch.

Scott nodded slightly and set down the checkerboard and glasses down onto the coffee table. He sat down on the table's edge and turned to his parents, who were now seated on the sofa. "I've already given that some thought. I believe the best approach would be to utilize the most obvious means."

Murdoch felt a bit dense, as he had no clue what was supposed to be so obvious. "Which is?" he prompted.

"We introduce you to the people here at the ranch, first. Jelly already knows who you are, but Cipriano, Maria, and the hands merely believe you are an old friend visiting Murdoch. Unless you're planning on holding a town meeting to make a formal announcement, word of mouth is the most logical means of getting the word out."
 
Scott's argument made sense, but Murdoch hated to let others control what information was passed on about Catherine. "That could very easily backfire, Son."

"I honestly don't see how we have any choice," Scott stated with a certainty that underscored the reality of the situation. "I would suggest that we consider a tactical avoidance of exactly when Mother regained her memories. It will be enough that she remembered the Lancer brand and sent a trusted priest to bring Murdoch to the mission."

"What excuse are we going to use for withholding this information for so long since we all returned to Lancer?" Catherine asked.

Scott smiled reassuringly at her. "The truth. We did not want to complicate the settlement of Murdoch's divorce from Maria."

"Most people already assume that Maria is dead," Murdoch argued. "Johnny did, as did the rest of us."

"Which is why we need to be the ones correcting that assumption," Scott countered. "The more honest we are about what has happened, the less chance Maria will have getting anyone to believe her lies."

Catherine went pale. She looked over Murdoch with fear in her eyes. "What is he talking about, Murdoch?"

Murdoch had wanted to avoid revealing this, but on the ride back to the ranch from the stage depot, Jarrod had told them some of the details of just how much Maria's challenge to the divorce included. "Maria threatened to go public with her claims that I raped and abused her, and that she was in fear for her life when she left with Johnny."

"That's not true!" Catherine exploded. "No one will believe her!"

Wrapping his arm around her shoulder, Murdoch tried to offer what little comfort he could. "No, but there could be a few who might at least wonder."

"That's why we need to put up a strong front, first," Scott argued. "Let the townspeople get to know Mother and already have an opinion of her and of you two getting remarried, before Maria has a chance to do anything."

A voice, deadly and low, came from the direction of the archway. "She'll tell those lies over my dead body."

Murdoch watched his younger son move into the room, stopping at the end of the sofa. Despite the broken leg and the crutches, he looked every bit as formidable as he ever did with his hackles raised. "Johnny, don't talk like that," Murdoch warned. "If Maria chooses to talk, there is nothing we can do to stop her."

"She won't talk."

The certainty in Johnny's tone would broker no argument, but Murdoch still had his doubts. Not because he had no faith in his son, but because he had that much faith in Maria's need to hurt him, to hurt them all. "She will, and we best be ready for her."

As usual, it was Scott who came to the diplomatic rescue. "Whether Maria follows through with her threat or not, the problem still remains that we have to inform everyone of my mother's true identity."

As usual, it was Johnny who let his temper get the best of him. "All any of them need to know is that Catherine and Murdoch are in love and they plan to get married. They don't need no one's approval. Once Murdoch's rid of that bitch, he can marry anyone he wants."

Although he had been too off balance to call Johnny on his language the prior afternoon, Murdoch was determined to pull in the reins once and for all. He would not stand for such obscenities to be used around the women. "Johnny, you will refrain from using that kind of language in this house."

"That's what she is!" Johnny challenged right back. "There's no reason to sugar-coat the truth, especially at the expense of someone who hasn't done a damn thing wrong. Catherine deserves better than that, better than what she's gonna get because-" Johnny stopped short. He paled and then quickly turned away.

"Johnny!" Murdoch called after him, but Johnny disappeared through the archway without ever looking back.

"What was that all about?" Scott mused aloud.

"I have no idea." And Murdoch honestly didn't. Pulling Catherine closer to him, he held on to her, borrowing some of her strength as he tried to work out what had just happened. "What I do know is that Scott's plan seems more reasonable than anything. We introduce you to the people we trust most, explain enough to justify your presence and the need to keep your identity secret for a short time, and then let the word spread naturally."

 *** *** *** ***

 Johnny heard his father's approach long before the older man said anything. The old wound from Pardee's bullet left just enough of a limp to make the sound of his footfalls very distinctive, although their sheer heaviness was a dead give away, too.

Figuring his best bet was to be in control for at least the beginning of their impending argument, Johnny ran his fingers through silky mane of his new filly until just before Murdoch got close enough to say anything. "I'll apologize for saying what I did the way I did, but no more," he snapped, getting in the first round without even turning around.

Murdoch said nothing, but he was standing a few feet behind where Johnny was leaning against the paddock fence. Johnny's attentions to the filly had ceased as he waited for his father's response, and she reacted by nudging his hand with her nose. He smiled a little, finding comfort in the loving nature of Barranca's daughter. His fingers once again began massaging the soft neck until her eyes closed in blissful contentment.

When Johnny could stand it no longer, he asked. "You got somethin' to say, Old Man?"

Moving closer, Murdoch stood shoulder to shoulder with Johnny. His burly hand reached out and ran the smooth line down the filly's back. "She's quite a beauty, Son. So's that colt."

Startled, Johnny risked a look at his father. The hard lines of disapproval that he had become accustomed to seeing on the rugged face were not there. There would be no showdown today, though why that was the case he had no clue. Instead, he found himself once again wallowing in the inability to express his feelings over the most treasured gift that was standing before him. Opting for the road of least turmoil, he said softly, "Things aren't going to be easy for Catherine, no matter what you do."

"Why do you say that, Son?"

Johnny could feel Murdoch's eyes on him, but he could not bring himself to meet his father's curious gaze. "There always seems to be someone around who just can't stand for anyone else find a little happiness."

After a few moments of strained silence, Murdoch said regretfully, "I should have made sure that things were easier for you, Son."

"Wasn't nothing you could have done then; ain't nothing you can do about it now." Which was what he really needed to get across. He looked over at Murdoch, who met his gaze with an expression that was full of remorse. "She's gonna get hurt, Murdoch, and so are you. Some of them are people you ain't gonna be expecting it from."

Murdoch's remorse turned to curiosity, and Johnny turned away. He couldn't bring himself to name names, not when a couple of those names were going to really tear up his father. He hoped he was wrong, hoped that their disdain was limited only to ex-gunfighters, but he doubted it. People like that loved it when any kind of disgrace managed to befall those who seemed to have too much.

"Thank you for the warning, John," Murdoch said in a sad voice. "I hope you can forgive me for being blind to what you went through. I can assure you that I won't stand for that happening anymore."

Although Johnny realized that Murdoch was saying that he would not be overlooking any more intolerance of Johnny, either, Johnny knew it would not be that easy. He considered voicing that sentiment, but didn't. It would be a waste of breath. Murdoch would do what he wanted, and so would the others. A clash was inevitable, but it could wait. He was tired. Tired of worrying, tired of regretting, tired of arguing with his Old Man.

A large hand settled on his shoulder. The warmth was comforting enough, but what mattered most was what it conveyed - the unchallenged acceptance of what Johnny had said. Thinking back over their short conversation, Johnny realized that this was the first time that he had not had to justify claims made to his father, had not had to prove that he was right before his word was accepted. No words could have made him feel more loved and accepted.

"It's getting late," Johnny said to cover his real thoughts. "Wanna help me get these two settled in for the night?"

"Only if you promise to let me do most of the 'helping'." After giving Johnny's shoulder a firm squeeze, Murdoch moved away and grabbed a couple of lead lines from the hooks by the barn door. "You think you can handle her and those crutches?" Murdoch asked as he snapped the lead line onto the filly's halter.

Again, Johnny was stunned. Murdoch was actually giving him a choice about doing something when he was sick. True, he wasn't exactly sick, but he wasn't as able bodied as normal, either. "I think so," he answered tentatively. "She's pretty well-mannered." With a jerk of his head in the direction of the colt, who was on the other side of the paddock with his head stuck through the railings trying to nibble at the grass on the other side, he added, "That one's gonna be more than a handful when it comes time to break him to a saddle."

"Yes, I believe he is," Murdoch agreed. "So was Barranca, but you managed to take him in hand just fine. I'm sure you'll be able to keep his son in line, too, once you're back on your feet."

Johnny bit his lip. He appreciated that Murdoch wasn't treating him like a child over the loss of Barranca, but it was going to take some time to get used thinking of he beloved friend in the past tense. Figuring it would be wiser to keep the filly away from the more rambunctious colt until he was more able to counter any antics from the pair, Johnny waited until Murdoch led the colt through the barn door before he began leading the filly towards the barn.

Handling just the filly did not concern him. They were inside the paddock, so even if she did manage to pull away there would be no place for her to go. However, he proudly discovered that there was no need for worry, as she followed obediently by his side. She stopped only once, pulling away to the length of the lead line in order to snort indignantly at a rabbit that had ventured into the paddock from the meadow beyond. The rabbit startled and scampered away at the noise. The filly gave a final snort before returning to Johnny's side where she stood patiently waiting for his command to continue their journey.

"Your daddy didn't care for them critters coming into his territory, neither." With a pat to the filly's neck, Johnny took a few more steps toward the barn and was just approaching the door when Murdoch appeared, a concerned expression on his face.

"The lady had to chase off a trespassing rabbit," Johnny explained with a grin as he led the filly past Murdoch and into the barn. He spied the colt in the far stall, and led the filly towards the stall across the aisle. Murdoch had already stocked the hay bin, and Johnny reluctantly gave the filly a parting pat on the neck.

After exiting the filly's stall, he moved across the isle to offer the golden colt some attention. The filly had settled in much sooner, enjoying Johnny's attentions while the colt had been intent on further investigating his new surroundings. Soft velvety lips eagerly nibbled at Johnny's collar, then his sleeve, before a golden head bowed low and pressed against his chest for a gentle rub. All of this was so reminiscent of Barranca's behavior when bedded down at night that Johnny had to take a couple of deep breaths to steady his emotions.

"You're going to have to come up with names for them, Son."

There was a soothing comfort in his father's voice that helped lift Johnny's spirits. He had lost a lot, but he had gained so much, too. Life was like that, now. Before the losses had always outnumbered any gains.

"Yeah, I know," he agreed, dodging the colt's head when he jerked back, having had his fill of being scratched. "Better come up with 'em quick, too, before Scott gets it in his mind to get even with me for Freya."

The older man chuckled as they headed for the house. "You should have thought of that before you renamed Scott's mare for him."

Johnny couldn't argue with that point, but there were a couple of other things on his mind. "Murdoch?"

A hand reached out and held him back until the rake handle that was about to clash with his left crutch was moved out of the way. "Thanks," Johnny sighed, wishing more than ever that he could be rid of his cast. Still, he was thankful that he could get around better with it than he would have if Sam has used the old-style splints.  "You mind telling me what all that nonsense inside was about?"

"What nonsense?"

"That stuff about calling me out and there being gunplay over Catherine."

By the time Murdoch finished relaying the story of how Scott had first demanded that he propose to Catherine, then teasingly threatened to call him out if he didn't, Johnny was laughing so hard his sides hurt. Not to mention becoming extremely aware of just how difficult it could be to laugh and work crutches at the same time.

"Something funny?" Scott asked from the doorway of the hacienda.

"Just wondering whose gonna be left to work this ranch, what with all the calling out being planned." Johnny nudged Scott with his shoulder as he made his way into the house, still chuckling and shaking his head.

 *** *** *** ***

Scott took a deep breath and watched his brother as he made his way past the table on his way, presumably, to the kitchen. He felt a sudden surge of resentment. Why should it bother him that Johnny knew about his own father's proposal to the woman he loved?

"Scott?"

"Sir," he began hesitantly, knowing he would sound petty for even caring about such a small thing. "Did you tell Johnny everything that was discussed the night you proposed to Mother?"

Murdoch frowned. "Johnny asked me what prompted all that talk about gunfighting and calling each other out. I told him about how you 'threatened' to do just that if I didn't propose to your mother."

After a thoughtful pause, Scott asked, "You didn't mention anything about my mother being the one that proposed to you the first time?"

"No," Murdoch's confusion grew. "Is there some reason you would prefer that Johnny didn't know about that?"

The surprised disbelief in Murdoch's tone made Scott really felt like a heel. He didn't know why, but no, the fact of the matter was that he did not want to share that particular bit of information with Johnny. Not yet, anyway.

"It's not that I don't want him to ever know," Scott tried his best to explain what he did not fully understand himself. "It's just that it's...well, that is something that I have with just you and my mother." Frustrated at his own growing sense of selfishness, Scott decided he had made a big enough fool of himself. "It's nothing, Sir," he mumbled and started to walk away, only to be stopped by a firm hand on his arm.

Sky blue eyes stared down at him with understanding. "Scott, there is nothing wrong with wanting to keep that, or anything else that doesn't directly affect Johnny, between just you and your mother and me."

"It's not that I want to exclude Johnny, it's just that maybe, just for a little while, I guess I'd like to hold onto something that's just my family..." Scott turned away, running a hand through his hair before shaking his head in disgust. "Could anyone possibly be more selfish?" he spat.

"You're not being selfish, Son, and Johnny would understand." Murdoch's voice was patient and soothing. "Tell him when you're ready, and it will mean more to him because you are willingly offering to share what you feel so...that you cherish so much."

There was a great deal of logic in Murdoch's argument. When it came to Johnny's past, Scott could very easily have sought out information from outsides sources, but it meant too much to have Johnny willingly impart that side of himself. Still, this felt different for some reason. "I understand what you're saying," Scott paused to take a deep breath.

"But?"

"But you're Johnny's father, too." And there was the crux of his dilemma. Scott did not consider this something that did not affect Johnny, because Johnny was connected to it all through his blood ties with Murdoch. Still, Scott could not deny this need to keep something of his parents as his own, even if he was ashamed of it.

"Scott, try not to be so hard on yourself. You've only just found your mother. It's not unreasonable to want keep some memories of her just to yourself, even if it is just for a little while. Like Johnny has about his mother."

Startled and angry that Murdoch would even say such a thing, Scott pulled away and turned on his father. His instinct to defend his brother from that monster who had given birth to him quickly fled at the softness he saw in his father's eyes. Then the real meaning became clear.

It had been a heartwarming victory when Johnny had finally accepted that he could still consider Louisa his real mother, but for such acceptance to come from Murdoch was an unexpected surprise. "I would really like to have known Louisa. To thank her for all she did for Johnny."

Murdoch smiled. "She wouldn't want any thanks, Scott. She loved Johnny and that's why she did it. The best way we can thank her is to accept her memory into our family as Johnny's true mother."

Scott reached over and put a hand on his father's shoulder. "We have a most complicated family, Sir."

"Yes, Son, that we do."

*** *** *** ***

Dinner had gone well, and now Murdoch was worried about how to address the delicate issue with the old housekeeper who could be both ally and foe, depending on who had annoyed her. "Maria?"

The old Mexican cook turned around and immediately began shaking her head. "Sí, Patrón. I will bring Juanito more tortillas, muy pronto."

The Lancer patriarch had to chuckle: on any other day that would probably be a very good assumption on her part. "No, Maria. Johnny is fine. I want to talk to you about Catherine."

"Señora Catherine?"

"Yes, please sit."

The old cook moved around the stove. She dried her hands on her apron as she moved, and then sat down in the chair Murdoch had pulled out for her. She looked apprehensive as she waited for him to speak.

"Maria...well, you see...Catherine is," Murdoch stammered. He had thought this would be easier, but he was finding it difficult to say the words. "Maria, the truth is that Scott's mother did not die like we all believed. Catherine is Scott's mother."

The older woman's expression remained confused. "Sí."

Murdoch felt his jaw slack open. His mind raced to catch up with his hearing, while the knot in his stomach twisted, relaxed, then twisted again. "Sí?" he repeated at barely a whisper. "You know who she is?" he added a bit more forcefully.

"Sí," Maria repeated. "There is a resemblance, and just seeing them together...who could not know?"

'Who could not know?' Murdoch's mind repeated a few times. Gathering himself, he asked, "Who else is aware that Catherine is Scott's mother?"

Maria shrugged a little. "Mi espousa, Señor Jelly, José, Frank, todos...Is something wrong, Patrón?"

Todos...everyone? Murdoch shook off his surprise. "No, Maria, nothing is wrong." As an afterthought, and being that he apparently did not even realize what was common knowledge on his own ranch, he asked. "What about in town?"

The old woman shifted a bit and averted her eyes. "No one knew it was to be kept secreto."

A cold-seated fear suddenly gripped Murdoch's heart. "Maria, what else does everyone know about?"

*** *** *** ***

Murdoch returned to the great room feeling like the biggest fool in the county. "She already knew," he sighed as he sat down on the sofa next to Catherine.

Johnny was stretched out on the loveseat, an overturned crate between him and the ottoman on which Scott was perched held the checkerboard at just the right height for a battle that was being decisively won by the former army lieutenant. Mid-move, Johnny set the checker down and looked up with concern. "How?"

Teresa, who seated in the chair on the other side of the fireplace, looked up from her knitting. "Who already knew what?" she asked curiously.

"Maria. I was going to tell her that Catherine was Scott's mother, but she already knew."

Knitting needles and yarn sank down with Teresa's hands into her lap. She gazed at each one of them, expectantly. "You're all serious, aren't you?" When nothing but shocked expressions replied to her inquiry, she shook her head. "With all that has been going on around here, how could any of you possibly think that word would not have gotten out? What with Scott's grandfather being here, Mr. Garrett and Scott spending so much time with Catherine, the resemblance between all three is pretty telling, too, not to mention Johnny's mother-"

"What part about my mother does everyone know about?!" Johnny growled, sitting up straight as his anger came in such a spurt that he did not even realize that he had referred to Maria as 'my mother'.

"Johnny, simmer down," Murdoch warned softly. He had hoped to get to speak with Johnny alone, first, to prepare his son for the revelations that were likely to be both comforting and disconcerting. "When I was talking to Maria in the kitchen, she told me that most of what has been going on here has gotten around. With as many people as we have coming and going, I guess it was rather foolish to think it would be otherwise."

"And?" Johnny snapped.

 Now for the part that was going to be very hard for Johnny to hear. "And, everyone understands. Maria knows of no one who has heard anyone speaking out against Catherine, and nothing but sincere regrets and support have been offered for what we are dealing with over my second wife." Too many Maria's was getting a bit confusing and he refused to refer to her as Johnny's mother. "They have all been waiting for us to let them know when we're ready for company."

Everyone relaxed. Murdoch did not even realize that Catherine had been gripping his arm until the pressure was suddenly released. After a reassuring smile, Murdoch kept a watchful eye on his younger son. The momentary flicker of hurt that passed over his face had not gone unnoticed - as it undoubtedly had so many times in the past, Murdoch shamefully admitted to himself. After the others went to bed he would be sure to check in on Johnny, and reassure him that he had his father's support, against any and all comers.

Scott moved his checker over the one Johnny had just recently set down, scooped up the black chip and ordered triumphantly, "King me."

"Huh?" Johnny's head jerked back towards the playing board where a red checker sat squarely on his back row. "Wait a minute," he objected. "It was my turn. I didn't make any more."

"Yes, you did," Scott argued. "You placed your checker down on that square," he tapped the board where Johnny's black checker had sat before being confiscated after the jump.

"I know, but that wasn't my move," Johnny continued to object.

Scott's eyebrow rose high on his forehead. "You picked up the checker from one space and set it down on a different space. I could be mistaken, but I believe that is the definition of 'making a move'."

Johnny's expression clouded over. "Murdoch interrupted me. That move would have been plain stupid." Scott's other eyebrow joined the first at the edge of his hairline. "What?" Johnny groused.

"Well, Little Brother, on any other day that argument would have merit, but tonight your moves have been well below your normal level of play."

Frowning, Johnny leaned back against the arm of the love seat. His arm came to rest across his forehead and he closed his eyes. "Sorry, Scott."

Eyebrows fell back into place and a worried frown formed on Scott's face. "You look tired, Johnny."

"Yeah, I guess I am, a little." Then Johnny did something that shocked everyone in the room. Lifting his head just a little, he looked over at Catherine. "Would you mind brewing me up a cup of that el dormir tea?"

Catherine hesitated for just a moment, and then she smiled at Johnny and slipped out from under Murdoch's protective arm. "Of course, I don't mind, Johnny." She headed for the kitchen, leaving everyone behind in a daze.

Johnny laid his head back down and closed his eyes again; ignoring the startled looks he was getting over his request. The request for the 'sleeping' tea was too unusual to go unnoticed, or to not raise some concerns from those who knew the young man so well.

"I'll go turn down your bed." Teresa laid down the knitting that she had resumed while enjoying the brother's customary bantering.

"I'm okay," Johnny said softly, but addressing no one in particular, though he could feel his father and brother's gaze. "Just tired."

Worried cerulean eyes turned towards his father, but Murdoch had no answers for his elder son. Johnny's request had been so out of character. Before he could think of anything to do or say, for either of his sons, Johnny stirred. Sitting up, the younger man fumbled for his crutches that were leaning against the wall near the end of the love seat. Scott pulled the crate away and well out of Johnny's path as Johnny pulled himself to his feet.

"I'll keep you company until Mother is finished with your tea."

Scott's helpful suggestion was met with a wry grin. "I think I can still manage to answer the call of nature without your help, Big Brother."

The teasing grin on the young man's face chased away most of the other men's worries. Murdoch knew Johnny was covering up his real feelings, but that he had trusted them, had even trusted Catherine, enough to let his guard down for even a short time was very heartwarming. Johnny seldom did this around anyone but Scott.

They watched as Johnny made his way out of the room. "Something is really bothering him." The worry was back when he turned to face Murdoch.

"I know," Murdoch sighed.

"Do you know what it is?"

"I think so," Murdoch hedged. Being the one in on Johnny's confidences instead of Scott was something that Murdoch had not had to face before. "I'll take him his tea and see if he'll talk to me."

Scott nodded and began cleaning up the remnants of the now abandoned checker game. The expected resentment at being replaced as Johnny's confidant that Murdoch had halfway expected to see in his elder son's expression had been conspicuously absent. In its place had been only relief, and gratitude, and a few other emotions Murdoch could not quite place, but that he felt were definitely on the supportive side. It seemed he had as much to learn about how to read Scott as he did about how to relate to Johnny.

*** *** *** ***

With the lamp already doused, Johnny lay in his bed staring up at the ceiling, waiting for Catherine to bring him his tea. He wasn't even sure what had possessed him to make such a request, and he knew it had shocked his family. He also knew that it had nothing to do with the visit he was certain Catherine would be making to Murdoch's bedroom later that night.

He had known ever since he woke up in Murdoch's room several days ago that she and his father had not waited for any 'official' sanctions before they resumed that part of being married. He didn't blame them one bit, and didn't think he would 'hear' anything for them to be concerned about, either. They were both adults, and they were in love. Besides, sharing a bed wasn't anything to be ashamed of.

Johnny could honestly say he had never been in love, not like he knew Murdoch and Catherine were in love, but he had been intimately familiar with quite a few women over the years. Some required payment, while others hadn't wanted nothing but a good time. The way he figured it, if a man and woman being together in that way wasn't something that was natural to do, the urge wouldn't be so strong. As long as everyone was on the same page and didn't expect no more than the other, he didn't see anything wrong with a nice friendly romp between the sheets.

With a sigh, he turned his head and gazed out the window at the stars, shining bright on the black backdrop of the night sky. He was kidding himself. He knew exactly what had him so edgy, and so desperate to leave his thoughts behind that he would seek out sleep in a way that he normally avoided at all costs.

There was something he had to do. There was no use fighting it, not that he really wanted to, anyway. Until his leg was healed, though, it would have to wait. What he hated most was that his actions would bring more heartache down on his family, one in particular, but he hoped they would eventually be able to understand that this was something he had to do for his own peace of mind. Maybe he wouldn't succeed, maybe it would be for nothing. All he knew was that if he did not try he would never be able to live with himself.

The door hinges creaked as the heavy slab of carved wood was pushed open. The light from the hallway flooded the darkened room, and Johnny reached for the lamp. He didn't want Catherine tripping in the dark.

"It's okay, Son. I can see well enough."

The door closed and the light was cut off, leaving the room lit only from the soft starlight from the window. Murdoch's voice had startled Johnny, but he laid back down, thankful that he could remain hidden away in the darkness from his father's concerned but probing eyes. The mattress dipped, and Johnny shifted to the side to allow his father more room. Sitting up, he reached out for the steaming shadow. "Gracias."

One sip of the tea and Johnny's mind was instantly flooded with memories from his childhood. Loving, caring, nurturing memories of a mother who loved him. Many a night he had been lulled to sleep by the herbal brew; nights when nightmares he did not understand threatened his security. And every time his mamma had been there, holding him, rocking him, doing all she could to help him sleep soundly and peacefully.

It was a little unsettling that he could suddenly recall being troubled by nightmares when he was younger, but he could not recall anything about why he had them or what they were about. All he remembered was feeling scared and alone. The nightmares had faded over time, but looking back now, he had to wonder if they had been his young heart's reaction to things his mind wasn't old enough to hold onto. Things like being ripped away from a home and a father.

Whether by design or by accident in the dark, Murdoch's hand brushed against Johnny's, the one that was still resting on the bed next to his leg, the one that was balled into a fist as he waited for his father to bring up subjects Johnny was not ready to discuss. Without thought, Johnny's hand relaxed at his father's touch, grabbing onto the burly fingers before they could move away. The larger hand returned his grasp, but Johnny's tightened even more. He could not let go, did not want to let go.

Somewhere in the darkness, an understanding was forged. No words had to be spoken. Murdoch maintained his tight hold on Johnny's hand, even after the tea was consumed and his son had leaned back and closed his eyes. Johnny's last thought as sleep overtook him was of the steadfast grip he shared with his father, and how he was clinging just as desperately to the hope that this unyielding support would still be here for him when he returned.

*** *** *** ***

Letting the reins slip from his fingers, Murdoch put his arms around Catherine and pulled her into a tight embrace. "I'll miss you, Darling."

"I'll miss you, too," she answered, her tone just as disheartened as his. "Please be careful, and come back to me."

The pure love in their expressions as they gazed at each other was tempered by the sadness of their impending separation. They both knew it would not be for long, and it also allowed them to share something that they had been denied for over twenty-five years - a goodbye kiss.

Over by the hitching rail, Johnny nudged Scott's arm. "Reckon you're gonna get this drive on the trail before next fall?"

Scott, however, was much too content at the sight of his parents wishing each other a mushy goodbye to get caught up in Johnny's teasing. After placing his hat squarely on his head, Scott clamped his hand affectionately on Johnny's shoulder. "Take care of yourself, Johnny. And pay attention to Sam's orders. I expect you to be ready to resume your own workload by the time we get back."

A deep rumbling cough cut off Johnny's reply. "Don't count on that, Scott," Murdoch chastised, but his warning was clearly aimed at his younger son. "That cast isn't coming off until about the time we're due back. Sam has already warned Johnny that it will be a couple more weeks before his leg will be strong enough for any serious work."

"I done said I'd behave," Johnny sighed.

Catherine and Murdoch shared another quick kiss, before she went to bid Scott a farewell. Scott bent slightly, allowing her to kiss his cheek, then they gave each other a big hug. "Please be careful, Sweetheart." Her voice quivered as her eyes filled with tears.

Scott held on to her tightly, hating to leave, hating to be separated from his mother so soon after finding her, but it could not be avoided. Even if Johnny's leg wasn't broken, if anyone were to stay behind, it would be Murdoch. The older man's back had not been the same since Pardee's bullet had almost killed him and this time in the saddle was going to cause him much pain. Cattle drives were for the young; and that was him and Johnny.

Over the top of the blond head buried against his chest, Scott spied Johnny rather dramatically rolling his eyes at the continued delay. With a smile, kissed his mother's forehead. "I'm always careful, Mother, and I have even more reason to be now." With a wry look in his brother's direction, he added, "Johnny's the one you have to worry about not being careful."

Without commenting, Murdoch mounted his horse. "We'll be back in three weeks."

"Bet you're wishin' you hadn't made that special deal with the army." Johnny's parting shot sounded only half teasing.

"I am not," the rancher refuted with genuine annoyance. "This is a small drive and the profits have been well worth a few weeks away from home."

"Whatever you say, Old Man," Johnny groused. He did not even look up at Murdoch as he reined Caledonia towards the already moving chuck wagon.

Scott lifted his foot into the stirrup and mounted Charlemagne with an easy grace. He pulled up the feisty mount just short of where Johnny was standing. "Take care of her for me, Brother," he said softly.

This got Johnny's head raised and the sour expression off his face. "You know I will." A look of understanding passed between them and Johnny reached out and gave Scott's knee a quick squeeze. "Don't worry, Brother. She'll be here when you get back."

Scott nodded. He knew there was no need to even ask such a thing, but just hearing those words made him feel better. With a wave, he kneed Charlemagne into a gallop and headed out to catch up with Murdoch and the chuck wagon. They would join the rest of the men with the herd in the north pasture, and then it was up to the railhead in Sacramento.

*** *** *** ***

"Johnny, what was so special about this deal with the army?" Catherine asked as she walked along side Johnny on the way towards the corral.

"Nothing too much. It just ain't normal to be driving cattle in the spring," Johnny answered. He appreciated the fact that Catherine had noticed that little comment, and that she was interested enough to ask questions about the life in which she was claiming as her own.

"Why isn't it normal?" she queried.

"Well, spring is the time for rounding up the herd, but not to take to market. The early round up is for branding the new calves, taking head counts, and checking the stock for diseases and such. Then the beeves graze all summer, gettin' fatter and even more ornery, and when fall comes along, they're rounded up again. The ones ready for slaughter are driven to market."

"Why is this one so early, or late, as the case may be?"

It was an obvious question, but just thinking about the answer made Johnny scowl. "Seems the US Government made plans to enlarge an Indian reservation somewhere north of here. They weren't expecting the new 'citizens'," Johnny couldn't help the disdain that crept into his voice, "until later on this summer."

"So why didn't they just wait and buy the cattle when they needed them?"

"Like round ups and cattle drives, fall is the time when herds are bought and sold. The Army didn't have the spare manpower to keep watch over a herd all winter, but they needed the beeves before this fall. The government bought our herd last year, and paid extra to winter them on our range and to be delivered now, instead of last fall."

Catherine moved ahead of Johnny and opened the gate to the corral. "I take it that you did not approve of this sale?"

"Darn right, I didn't!" Johnny snapped. He regretted his tone instantly. "Look, Catherine, I'd really rather not discuss this. Especially not with you."

A wounded look passed over her face as she closed the gate behind them. "Why especially not me?"

Johnny sighed. He leaned back against the inside of the corral fence, playing in the dirt with one of his crutches before looking over at Catherine. She was standing a few feet away, staring off in the direction of the faint cloud of dust which marked the departing chuck wagon's progress. Her arms were wrapped protectively around herself and Johnny hated that he had hurt her. Reluctantly, he answered her with the best answer he could. "Because you don't need to be hearing things against the man you're planning on marrying."

To Johnny's surprise, Catherine turned and smiled at him. Then she really surprised him by moving closer and giving him a quick hug. "Johnny, I know Murdoch isn't perfect. No man is, and no man ever will be. I love you for wanting to protect me, but I can assure that I'm not going to stop loving you father, even if I don't like the concept of reservations any more than you do."

Their eyes met and a deeper understanding began to form. Johnny sighed deeply, this time his eyes finding the cloud of dust in the distance. "I just don't understand how anyone can think they have the right to herd people around like cattle. That's what those reservations are - big pastures where proud men are kept out of the way. It just ain't right."

"No, it's not," Catherine agreed sadly. "And I can understand your reluctance to be part of what could be seen as supporting the idea."

"But?" Johnny knew there was one coming.

A gentle hand reached over and grasped his arm. "But, sometimes we have to chose our battles, and fight only the ones that can make a difference. If Murdoch hadn't sold the government his herd, they would have gotten them from someone else with little or no difficulty. A cow is a cow."

Johnny couldn't help but laugh. "Better not let Murdoch hear you say that. He's got a much higher opinion of his cows."

Catherine gave him the smile that reminded Johnny so much of Scott's when his brother was feeling a bit mischievous. "I'll be sure and keep that opinion to myself," she agreed. "All I meant was that to effectively protest any practice, you have to find a way to disrupt it so that it can't function properly. Simply withholding something that can be obtained very easily elsewhere would not accomplish anything." Catherine paused as if considering whether to say more.

"And?" Johnny prompted curiously.

"I can't tell you what your father's reasons were last fall, but right now the last thing he wants to do is give Lancer a bad name with the Army."

"Why's that?"

She hesitated again, then said softly, "Because he wants there to be a good market for Lancer horses."

With a shake of his head, Johnny snorted. There were too many bad memories swirling around in his head that were centered on that particular subject. "Lancer isn't in the horse business," he retorted.

"No, but it will be. As soon as you're back on your feet."

The meaning behind those words managed to break through the bitterness that has descended over Johnny. Startled, he looked at her, trying to gauge both her sincerity and how much more she would be willing to reveal. He stared at her, unable to say anything as this new information waged a war with Murdoch's adamant denials to ever consider the endeavor.

"Your father has had men working all week, finishing up the corral you started, and rebuilding the line shack into a more workable base of operations. He said he would have preferred to have you closer to the main house, but couldn't deny that the spot you had chosen was more practical because it was closer to the ranges where the wild horses ran."

Johnny couldn't believe his ears, but he knew Catherine would not lie to him. His thoughts ran rampant as he stared out at the cloud-tipped mountains in the distance. So many harsh words, so many hurt feelings had accompanied any mention of this project that he felt a little numb knowing that it was finally going to become a reality.

Actually, that was a lie. The numbness came from an entirely different source - something that had his heart aching inside his chest. He had planned the whole thing out in his mind, grateful for the cattle drive he once cursed, because it would take Murdoch and Scott away long enough for him to set his plan in motion. Now he was torn.

He knew what he had to do. There was no way he could ignore the need to set things right that was tormenting his soul, not that he wanted to ignore it. If only it wasn't going to end up hurting his father so much.

His father. He had finally found his father inside the man who had spent the last year doing his best to keep Johnny away. He had found the heart, the soul, the acceptance he had craved. For the first time he doubted his need, and considered not going. He would go; he had no choice. This was about having his family together, and he would do anything for family - anything.

*** *** *** ***

In Mexico City -

A half-empty tumbler was raised and a tolerant sigh expelled before another sip of the clear liquid disappeared. Tequila, pardon, mezcal would never be his preferred drink, but when in Rome...he could hardly toast such a satisfying victory with anything but the most highly regarded local brew. His bottom lip twitched a bit devilishly as he watched Maria Lancer twirling gracefully around the dance floor, looking every bit like a lady who had the world at her feet - however, looks could be very deceiving.

This particular endeavor had been a welcome diversion from the usual boring legal entanglements for which he was paid handsomely to resolve. From the moment the nature of the fight had been relayed, the possibilities had kept his blood tingling with anticipation - this was as close to the concept of 'kill or be killed' as he ever hoped to get. There had never been any doubt that if his plan did not work, he would stand little chance of making it out of Mexico alive. Maria Lancer was a ruthless woman, and had already proven the extent to which she would go to maintain her position.

Mr. Garrett had, as usual, provided all the information that Randall needed. His employer had learned long ago that to censor information was to decrease the likelihood of a quick and satisfying solution, and now let Randall be the one to decide what was and was not relevant. Given more time, the plan could have been much more creative, but Mr. Garrett had warned that dragging even six weeks out of the stubborn Scot and his equally stubborn son would be a formidable task. Despite the time restraints that had somewhat limited his options, the plan had worked virtually flawlessly.

As Randall watched the various couples dancing around the room his satisfaction grew. So much had happened in the six days since Maria Lancer had returned to find that her life was no longer her own. That first meeting and her shock over finding two uninvited men living in her home would be a memory he would savor for a very long time.

Her maidservant had been dismissed long before, and Murdoch had no problem restraining Maria once the shock wore off. She fought like a wildcat, even as Randall gave a painstakingly detailed explanation of the effects of an air embolism. Her defiance continued until the deadly syringe concealed in Murdoch's walking stick was revealed. A very close up view and the revelation as to just how expertly Murdoch had become with its use had her smoldering, but definitely more manageable. It seemed that even first-class bitches had an aversion to excruciatingly painful deaths.

Maria had not given up easily, though, and before the evening was over Murdoch had reacted to her incessant challenges by nearly making good on the threat. She found herself sprawled out on her own dining room table, Murdoch's massive frame holding her in place as the hypodermic needle expertly pierced her jugular. Any vein or artery would suffice, but this made a very effective example. All those hours of practice on any available piece of fruit during the journey south had been well spent; one twist of the head of that cane would have ended her life.

This was not a part of the plan, though. Murdoch had been accepted as her husband, but her sudden death this soon after his arrival would raise suspicions that could make things very uncomfortable for the two men. Randall held his breath until the needle was extracted, the syringe of air still full. A trembling hand grasped at her neck, stemming the trickle of blood that escaped through the small opening even as Murdoch informed her that if she continued to defy him, she would die. One wrong word, one hint to anyone that things were not exactly as they appeared to be, and the threat would become a reality.

This had been the defining moment in their plan. Having faced death and lived, Maria had been more subdued - silently contemplating her next move, no doubt. It was later during that first night of her return that things heated up once again. With brazen intent, Randall had entered her bedchambers without knocking. She had ordered him to leave, not yet realizing that she now belonged to Murdoch Lancer - in every way.

Ignoring her indignation, not only did Randall did not leave, he made himself quit comfortable in one of the sitting are chairs, reveling in her discomfort.

'You will do as you are told, when you are told, and how you are told.' Those words were spoken as a violent thunderstorm raged outside the villa, bathing the room in flashes of light as one lightning bolt after another streaked through the night sky. Considering what might have happened, the ambiance could not have been more perfect had the storm been prearranged. A firestorm was ignited inside the elegant villa with his subsequent revelation; 'and with whomever you are told'.

A letter opener seized from her dressing table suddenly become a makeshift dagger, but Randall had been easily rebuffed her attack. Although a man whose stature was considered small by most, Randall took great pride in his physical prowess. For years he had maintained a strict regime of fencing, boxing, and a rarely heard of form of self-defense from Japan known as karate. At forty-three he was a worthy opponent for almost any man, and no mere woman stood a chance. Within seconds Maria was fully subdued.

What had followed had been satisfying in ways he was sure he would never experience again. Her indignation when he casually informed her that her husband had most generously offered him her company for the night, free of charge, had aroused him both physically and emotionally. He would never forget that look of contempt in her brown eyes, seemingly coal black with rage. That he could invoke such a strong response only added to his satisfaction.

That particular deed had gone undone; raping any woman was something he would never lower himself to do, no matter how much she had set herself up for it. He did not, however, have any qualms against pursuing the encounter to the point where even she would be unable to deny that it was his decision, and his decision only, that she was spared that particular humiliation. There were other options, though; things that would demean and demoralize just as effectively, but not at the cost of his own self-respect.

Naked, her tattered dressing gown littering the floor at her feet and her white silk camisole serving as an effective gag, Maria had stood before him. Not by choice, but because her wrists were tied to the bedpost of her own bed. Very casually he had finished his drink, fully clothed, sitting in the chair by the window, occasionally admiring her body as if she were an object on display. When his glass was empty, he had simply left without so much as a backwards glance. A tap at Murdoch's bedroom door to inform him that his wife was available went unheeded. It was not until morning that Maria was released from her humiliating bondage.

During the nights that followed, Murdoch had not been nearly as generous. As her husband, she had no right to refuse him her body, and he had exercised his right to the fullest. With the maidservant having been dismissed for a several weeks to allow the happy couple more privacy for their reunion, there had been no one to hear Maria's struggles. And it wasn't just the nights, either. Murdoch's sexual appetite was nearly insatiable.

In fact, on the third afternoon after Maria's arrival, Randall had seriously considered the use of a bucket of cold water when a visit to the mayor's house for what was to be a very important introduction for Murdoch was delayed because the libidinous man had decided to take his wife as his luncheon dessert. The two men ended up attending the mayor's dinner alone, making Maria's apologies as she was feeling too ill to go out that evening. Maria had spent the evening securely tied to her bed, drugged into submission.

Randall's thoughts were pulled back to the present by a particularly striking cadence in the music. On this night, Maria Lancer was the picture of health as she gracefully sashayed around the room in the arms of her husband. The next time by, Murdoch guided her close enough to the table that Randall could not resist the urge to tip his glass towards the couple.

It was a subtle gesture; just enough for anyone who might be watching to think that he was offering his respectful acknowledgment to the graceful elegance of her dance. Maria, however, has seen his toast for what it was; the smug reminder of her recent defeat at his hands.

Many of the things Randall had discovered about Maria's social climb had made him almost regret the victory had been his before she even had a chance to mount a counter attack. If her past were any indication, she would have made a worthy adversary. Through cunning and sheer force of will she had managed to dig her way out of the life to which she had been born as just another border town slut, to become a lady of refinement that was welcomed into the highest levels of Mexican society.

Unfortunately, though, time had been a luxury which he had been denied. With that in mind, he had arranged for a few strategically placed obstacles - a bridge that mysteriously collapsed without warning, a boat captain that bypassed a port of call and refused to turn around, a stage that took the wrong turn, amongst a few other minor inconveniences - to delay Maria's return to Mexico City by several weeks. This had been more than enough time for Murdoch Lancer to firmly insinuate himself into the life that she had so painstakingly created for him.

Murdoch Lancer? Randall laughed to himself. This Murdoch Lancer had used many names, though he had entered this world as simply Stanley Crance. For most of his life, Stanley Crance had been a con man, a thief, a procurer, a suspected murderer, and could claim the dubious honor of being wanted by the law in seventeen states and territories. His destiny was to spend a very long time in a very ugly prison, should he manage to dodge the hangman's noose. That destiny had been changed when Stanley Crance disappeared from a Sante Fe hotel room under the very noses of two US Marshals.

As a precaution, Randall had left Stanley Crance alive. He was still wanted, and should he return to the US the law would hunt him down. There was little concern for this happening, though; taking over Maria Lancer's invented husband's identity had given him unprecedented social standing, much wealth, and the opportunity to pull off the biggest con of his life. The beautiful wife that came with the identity was an added perk, and one that Murdoch would, no doubt, fully exploit for his own benefit.

In Denver, Stanley Crance had rented his the former Mrs. Crance to various business associates. This had continued until she had become more of a liability than an asset. Her body had been discovered under a snowdrift a few days later. Dealings with Maria would have to be more diplomatic, especially in the beginning, but the challenges would be more than enough to inspire determination in the con man.

The music stopped, and the appreciative dancers offered their respects to the musicians with a respectful round of applause. A few moments later, the musicians resumed their playing with a soft, sultry melody that had the couples once again moving gracefully around the room. This music was more to Randall's liking than the more vigorous tempo of the previous numbers.

As a rule, he preferred slower music that allowed him to savor the closeness of a female body. Across the room he caught a glimpse of the happily reunited couple. From the nearly feral smile on Murdoch's face, it appeared that he, too, appreciated the slower music. From Maria, daggers were smiled at both men.

This opportunity had been a once in a lifetime experience; assuming the identity of someone who could not possibly refute the deception as they did not exist. Such a scheme would have been too risky had it not been for the meticulous attention to detail that Maria had used when creating her phantom husband. The trick had been knowing that the identity was nothing but a fraud. This knowledge had allowed Stanley Crance to step into his new life as if it had been tailor made just for him. He had become Murdoch Lancer, retired buying merchant and devoted husband to Maria Lancer.

From the very beginning, the confidence man had expertly manipulate the language barrier and successfully utilized his innate ability to adapt to any situation to masterfully extract information from those around him. He had started with the less intelligent, but extremely attractive, women in Maria's social circle; it was amazing how much some people would reveal once they were convinced that the information was already known to the other person.

They women had all but melted when Murdoch spoke of Maria with such adoration that sometimes Randall found himself forgetting that the man had yet to even meet this woman. With this as his foundation, Murdoch had then turned to the men, who would be less willing to be so gullible without him being able to give them something in return. Within days, everyone was totally enthralled with the man they had only heard about from Maria for so many years.

With Murdoch's identity tentatively established, Randall had been introduced as his business attorney, who had accompanied him to Mexico to complete the final details of his retirement from a very lucrative career as a buying merchant. That Harlan Garrett owned a substantial interest in a merchant company was an added bonus; should anyone become suspicious enough to make any inquiries or make an innocent comment during a business dealing, the company heads were all extremely familiar with Randall and would not hesitate to verify his position.

Like Maria, Randall knew that the most successful deceptions always contained as much verifiable truth as possible. She could very easily have come up with another name for her phantom husband, but she was married to a Murdoch Lancer so there was no reason to make up another name. That she gave him an occupation other than a rancher in California only served to keep that connection from becoming an issue to anyone who might travel to Mexico City from the west coast of the United Stated.

The news of Maria's husband's return to an empty fold had spread quickly and her friends had been eager to make Murdoch's wait for Maria's return as pleasant as possible. Invitations were issued and received, with both men attending numerous social functions, utilizing each as the means to diligently prep the scene for Maria's return.

For his part, Randall employed his most gentlemanly charms with the wives of their hosts and guests, gleaning information in much the same way as Maria's husband was busy doing across the room with their husbands. It amazed him as how none of these women seemed the least bit suspicious that Maria had been bedding their husbands for years. They were still married women, though, and if there was anything a married woman loved to know it was that another married woman's husband was being unfaithful to her.

Employing just enough discretion to avoid raising suspicions, Randall had taken advantage of enough opportunities where one too many drinks had mingled with a few too many dances to make the perfect setting to introduce an appropriate amount of subtle innuendo. Before the third night of festivities was over, it was common knowledge amongst the society wives that, while Murdoch truly and dearly loved his precious Maria, he was also a man with needs and desires. Like any man, being deprived of his true love's womanly charms for too many long stretches of time had left him only one alternative - to seek his relief with the body of another woman.

By allowing these women to share in this tawdry secret concerning Murdoch's indiscretions, which most would more than likely share with their husbands, Randall had laid the foundation for the discrepancies that were sure to arise between Maria's previous tales of her husband's whereabouts over the years, and anything Murdoch might inadvertently say to contradict those claims. No one, especially a man who was guilty of the same offense, would expect a husband to tell his adoring wife the truth concerning trips that had less to do with business and more to do with satisfying his manly urges.

Maria, herself, had played the crowning role in their success, and her downfall. Besides creating the perfect 'husband', she had long ago provided the explanation for her absence from his side; she just couldn't bear to abandon her native land. She had visited Murdoch when business brought him to nearby ports, keeping the home fires burning in between, portraying herself as the dutiful wife who longed for the day when this heart-breaking separation would no longer be necessary. Randall saw it for what it really was - a brilliant cover while she bedded men in other parts of Mexico who had the money and power she craved.

As her husband, Murdoch had naturally taken up residence in her villa in the heart of Mexico City to await his wife's return from an ill-fated trip to California. On more than one occasion, Murdoch had emotionally expressed his dismay over his message being delayed; the one that was meant to inform Maria that he would not be able to meet her in San Francisco and that he would be joining her in Mexico City, instead.

From the moment Murdoch had passed over the threshold, he had projected an unqualified air of ownership that had left the young maidservant with little reason to doubt that he was not who he claimed to be. The young woman had been easily charmed by Murdoch's wit and mild flirtations, so much so that she had not even noticed the envelope that had been slipped into the small stack of mail until she retrieved it for him. In the aftermath of his mortified dismay, she had become an unwitting ally in corroborating his story. Only Maria's husband would have known about the letter. Any remaining doubts that might have lingered in the maid's mind were effectively banished when Murdoch all but burst into tears at just the sight of Maria's portrait on the wall over the fireplace.

This Murdoch Lancer was pure poetry to watch, smoother than the finest cognac ever bottled. Under any other circumstances, Randall might have felt a twinge of sorrow for what Maria's life was going to become, but knowing what she herself was capable of doing herself, left him feeling only the sweetest sense of satisfaction over her impending fall. The victory would be even more delicious as it was her own impeccable deceptions that were going to send her to an earthy version of hell.

By the time Maria had arrived from her abnormally tedious journey, Murdoch Lancer had won over her friends and associates, firmly established into the identity that she had created. The mayor had most graciously insisted on introducing Murdoch to his brother, the president of the bank where Murdoch's funds had been accumulating for years. Murdoch Lancer was home, and there was nothing Maria could do to change that fact that would not cost her dearly.

Around him, the music faded after the last dance. Randall stood and offered his own applause. As it was common knowledge that he would be departing for California in the morning, he graciously accepted the heart-felt good-byes offered by the elite of Mexican society. Even the Governor of the neighboring state of Morelos took a moment to shake his hand and wish him a safe journey. Open invitations were bestowed, should he ever find himself back in the Mexican capital.

It was only after the threesome had entered the villa that Maria Lancer's carefully constructed facade fell away. "You will live to regret this, Gringo," she hissed at Randall as soon as Murdoch had ascended the stairs with a pronouncement that he was retiring for the evening and that Maria was expected to join him as soon as Randall's business with her was finalized.

Ignoring her threat, Randall casually moved across the room poured himself a glass of the Lancer's finest brandy. "Murdoch informed me that his original offer still stands."

Drink in hand, he approached Maria who stood glaring defiantly at him. With his fingertip, he traced the outline of her jaw, causing her to turn her head away. Even in her advancing years, she was still remarkably beautiful, he thought to himself. His finger moved lower, skimming lightly over the straining tendons in her twisted neck, dipping downward to skim over the swell her breasts made under the delicate silk of her ball gown.

"It is tempting," he said softly.

His own body was beginning to react to the sensuality she exuded so naturally. His senses were heightened and he could feel the tightness in his nether regions. In his mind he saw flashes of bare skin glowing softly in the low lamp light, with curves so provocative they could get a rise from a monk; hers was a body that any man would crave to possess. Beneath his fingers he felt the warmth from her skin, the slight jerking motion as she breathed. Carnal lust vied with rational thought until one came out the victor.

After setting his glass aside on a nearby pedestal, he cupped her chin and forced her to face him. He lowered his head, his lips heading for hers with bold intent. When they met his resolve faltered, but only for a moment. His strong arms immediately pulled her roughly to him, while lips and tongue ravaged her delicious mouth. His right hand slid down her back, lingering for a moment at the tantalizing curve at base of her spine, before swiftly moving to grope the firm mounds of her backside. He pressed himself firmly against her, rubbing and teasing with both hands and mouth until she moaned seductively.

Pushing her away, he smiled down at her swollen lips. "Murdoch was right. You are a very well-trained whore," he laughed.

"Bastardo!"

Brown eyes blazed with fury, but when her hand came forward a strong hand grasped her wrist and then wrenched her arm behind her back, averting the intended slap. "You are owned, Maria," Randall growled menacingly into her ear. "You are Murdoch Lancer's whore. He will bed you when he wants, and sell you when he wants more than your body can provide. You are his - signed, sealed, and delivered by your own hand."

Pushing her away, he watched in satisfaction as she backed into the bed and ended up sprawled on her back. "You are Murdoch's, but he is mine. I did this to you, and I can do more, should you chose to fight the inevitable. Do not ever forget that fact."

Not one to give in too easily, Maria's will once again exerted itself. "You will not be here forever," she stated with bold defiance.

Reclaiming his drink, Randall laughed as he moved over to the sofa and sat down. Crossing his legs, he took a sip of the amber liquid and then smiled at her. "I don't have to be here to control you," he said slyly, watching her reaction, waiting for the best moment to destroy the rest of her world. "You created the perfect husband as a reason for those societies bitches to deem you as 'safe' to let run loose around their husbands. After all, why would they ever suspect anyone who was so devoted to her own husband of trying to seduce someone else's?"

Maintaining her position by the massive marble fireplace, Maria glared at him with pure hatred in her eyes. "I will find a way to be rid of that beast. I have resources."

Randall laughed. "On the contrary, Maria. You have nothing. Murdoch Lancer owns this villa. He owns the chateau in Morelos, and he owns the bank accounts, the land, and you. There was no reason not to put your husband's name on the assets his money purchased, was there? In fact, that was part of the plan - having Murdoch Lancer a viable, but invisible, presence in all aspects of your life."

"The man of which you speak is not real!"

"He is now." The tingling sensation that always came over him when he vanquished a foe was twice as strong as before. "The man you created is so firmly rooted in reality that no one would ever suspect that he was a fictional character invented to deceive everyone. I gave him life. He is flesh and blood and bone," Randall said that word suggestively enough to spark another flare of anger in her seething eyes. "And thanks to your own meticulous work and some very important letters of introduction which I provided, there is no one to counter his claim that he is your husband. You have acknowledged him in public, which makes his identity indisputable."

"For now, maybe."

Randall had expected this, had even prayed for this. Toying with her was half the pleasure and he had been denied so much of the hunt. This was almost as good. "Until death do you part," he said with a smile and a tip of his glass.

"That can be arranged."

"Yes it can, however, you may wish to rethink doing anything quite so rash."

"Nunca! Never," she spat as she turned and moved over to the window. "You two may have won the battle, but the war will be mine."

"Never is a long time, Maria," Randall pointed out casually. "A long time to be poor and destitute."

She whirled to face him, her silk dress rustling noisily at the abrupt movement. "I am neither, nor will I ever be again!"

"Should anything happen to Murdoch, you will be."

Dark eyes narrowed. The question remained unspoken, but Randall understood it all to well. The time was now. "In the event an untimely accident should befall your dear husband, certain papers will be made available to the Mexican government."

A wave of fear washed over Maria's face. "What kind of papers?"

"Documented proof that Murdoch Lancer used his travels to conspire with foreign enemies, mainly the French, to undermine the authority of the true Mexican government." After swirling the amber liquid around the base of his snifter, he looked over at her. "Not to mention the strong circumstantial evidence that they contain that will suggest your active participation in his acts of treachery. I believe traitors are executed by firing squad, are they not?"

The Mexican government could be ruthless when it came to suspected traitors. Too many years spent under the subjugation of foreign monarchies had left a bitter taste that vehemently demanded restitution. The French, especially, were despised. Even though the French had been driven out nearly a decade ago, the hunger to root out traitors was still quite strong, and it would take little more than an accusation to have Maria facing the wrath of a very vengeful government. Throw in documentation of such collaboration, and there was no hope for the victim. From her pallor, Maria did not have to be told any of this to know that she had no choice but to accept her fate or die.

"You have no one to blame but yourself, Maria. You created someone out of thin air and fooled everyone." Randall could not help but acknowledge his admiration for her ability, and the stupidity that had brought it all to an end. "Too bad you let the thought of Murdoch Lancer - the one who is the rancher in California - finding happiness become your undoing. You threw away the perfect scheme to play a game of winner take all, only you are not the winner."

"I do not care anything about him, or that bastardo he calls a son. I went to California only to retrieve Madrid because he was useful to me."

Randall had scoffed at this when Harlan first told him about her claims, and he found them even less believable now. "Lie to yourself if it makes you feel better. The fact is that Johnny Madrid's days were numbered from the moment he earned a reputation. It was a simple matter of probability that he would die sooner than later. His name was a convenience you exploited, but it was hardly a necessity. It was letting his father have him back that was the part you could not accept, wasn't it?"

Maria did not answer him, but she did not have to. Her expression had said it all. She knew the truth - her hatred for Murdoch and Johnny Lancer had destroyed all she had worked so hard to build.

"Stay away from Lancer," Randall warned. "You made your bed, and now you will lie in it."

Defiance would not die easily. "And if I do not?!"

"Then you will die," he stated flatly. "Your husband has been accepted by all, and the death he will bring to you will be undetectable by your physician. You will be dead, your husband will put on a respectable display of grief, and then he will continue to live the life you so meticulously created for him. Take my advice, he has nothing to lose by disposing of you now, besides an exceptional bed warmer. Keep your husband happy, Maria." Allowing a tiny bit of satisfaction to reflect in his smile, he added, "And don't get any ideas about turning your husband against me. Those papers can be presented at any time, for any reason. Two traitors can be shot just as easily as one."

"Why did you not just kill me?" she snapped.

It was a good question, and one that Randall had expected long before now. "That was an option, and it still is." With her potential demise hanging so clearly over her head, now was the time to get down to the brass tacks - the real reason for all of this. Moving over to the stylish mahogany secretary in the far corner of the room, he removed the papers from his coat pocket, he unfolded them and laid them out on shiny surface. "Now, if you would please sign here."

From across the room she eyed the documents with suspicion. "What is that?"

"Divorce papers. With them you will denounce any and all rights to the marital property in California, along with a detailed confession of your infidelity and abandonment of said marriage. There is also an admission to trying to abort your first child, one John Lancer, and of succeeding in aborting a second child five months after you ran off with another man, who you deliberately led into a region of Mexico you knew to be highly unfriendly to Americans where he was killed."

Maria snorted. "I would rather die."

Nonplused, Randall replied with a simply stated, "That can be arranged."

"You will not kill me," she challenged with a sudden burst of self-confidence. "You need me."

Randall sighed at her useless effort. "I would not kill you, but your husband would. As for your signature being required, widowed or divorced, the desirable outcome would still be achieved. You might, also, consider that to sign would be to your advantage."

"My advantage?!" Maria's face turned red with rage. "I have no advantages. By your own words, I am nothing but a piece of property!"

In the same conversational tone, Randall issued his rebuttal. "But you are a piece of property in a very nice neighborhood. In the morning I will be leaving. By the end of the week I will make a delivery to the courts in California. Whether that is these signed papers or your death certificate is up to you."

Picking up the pen from the elegant desk set, Randall dipped the tip in the ink well, before holding it out to Maria. "It is your choice. You may continue to live in luxury as Murdoch's whore, or you can die."

From the doorway a deceptively docile voice spoke. "Sign the papers, My Dear."

Maria turned to face her husband. Her eyes were once again nearly black with rage, and her body trembled. She said nothing, and neither did he. The battle of wills was being fought with only their heated gazes. That lasted for many moments, until Murdoch entered the room and approached her with an air of total confidence, his deadly cane clicking ominously against the terra-cotta tiles with each step he took.

He stopped directly in front of her, so close that Randall wondered how Maria managed to keep from falling backwards. A hand moved upward and brazenly caressed her breast through the material of her dress. "Sign the papers, then we will retire for the night, My Dear. I am feeling a bit needy for more of your charms."

Maria tried to back away, but before she took more than a step Murdoch's hand left her breast and his arm snaked around her waist, pinning her against him. With his tone never faltering from the sweet timbre that was laced with an underlying threat, he upped the ante. "In the past I have often enjoyed watching my women with other men. I doubt any of the gentlemen we know would be willing to provide that kind of entertainment, but there are others who would not hesitate." His eyes narrowed menacingly. "Men who consider cleanliness an annoyance."

Maria's eyes grew wide and she actually gasped.

"You remember what it is like down there, don't you, My Darling?" Murdoch's voice become bitterly cold. "Filthy mattresses, slovenly bodies, being mounted by those more animal than man; and this time it will be for nothing but the price of my witness."

While this threat was a new one for Randall, the unveiled fear in Maria's expression told him that Murdoch knew exactly what buttons to push. He took advantage of her fear and dipping the pen back into the well to freshen the drying ink before offering it to Maria again.

"If you don't mind," he said with satisfaction. "I have made arrangements to spend some time with a rather beautiful young lady on my last evening in town and I would hate to keep the lady waiting." Randall stressed the word lady both times, knowing that Maria would see it for the insult it was meant to be.

After a slight hesitation, Maria snatched the pen out of the smug attorney's his grasp. The fear was gone, and in its place was a resigned anger. "You must be proud of yourself," she hissed as she bent over to sign her name on the hated documents.

As soon as her name was scrawled on the appropriate lines, Randall applied the ornate sterling silver rolling blotter and gave her signatures a finishing touch. Now that they were safe from smearing he refolded the documents and slipped them back into the breast pocket of his coat. "I am now," he smiled at her in affirmation.

Grabbing his overcoat from the back of the chair where he had laid it after their earlier return, he addressed his host for the last time. "Mr. and Mrs. Lancer, I wish you my best for a long life together," he gloated with mock respect. "My bags have already been taken to the train station, and as I have made other sleeping arrangements for the night, I will bid you both au revoir."

"Audios, Mr. Timsdale. The pleasure has been all ours. Isn't that right Dear?" Murdoch pulled an unhappy Maria closer to him, his hand coming to rest indecently over her breast. "If you are ever back in town, you are always welcome to stay with us. Maybe next time you'll be more inclined to let Maria provide you with a sampling of her special brand of hospitality."

Although he never intended to return to Mexico City or to bed the whore of the hour, Randall smiled politely. "Maybe I will do just that," he jauntily agreed just to annoy Maria. "Oh, before I go," he added as a last jab at the defeated opponent, "several copies of those documents we discussed will be given to various individuals, should you ever need them and find that I'm not available."

A victorious smile turned up Murdoch's lips, while his hand massaged the sensuous flesh beneath it with enough force to make the breast's owner wince. "So very thoughtful of you. I'm sure they won't be necessary. Will they, Maria?"

Maria did not answer, letting her hatred do her talking as she glared at Randall. She was beaten. The last thing Randall heard as he pulled the door closed behind him was the distinctive sound of tearing fabric.

 *** *** *** ***

Scott was hot and dusty and nothing had ever looked better than the Lancer arch as he and Murdoch approached the adobe structure.  The drive had gone very well. In fact, they managed with even fewer problems than the drive last fall. Still, Scott had missed having Johnny with them, and he had really missed seeing his mother's smiling face every morning. It was strange how something he had never had before had so quickly become an important part of his world.

Their return was a day early, which was probably why no one was outside to greet them. Scott almost laughed when Murdoch practically jumped down from his saddle. Caledonia snorted, as though taken by surprise, too. 'So much for his aching back,' Scott mused to himself. Honestly, though, he knew exactly how his father felt and couldn't wait to witness his parents' reunion.

Dismounting a little more slowly that Murdoch, Scott tied Charlemagne to the hitching rail, along with the horse he had bought in Stockton for Johnny. The three-year old, coal black stallion was a real beauty. His conformation was perfect - not too stocky, but sturdy enough for the rigors of a working ranch.

Luck had been on his side when Jarrod had kept his brother, Nick, from bidding on the stallion, too. There was already enough competition for the fine piece of horseflesh, and Scott had been shocked when Murdoch had offered part of the proceeds from final payment on the herd to shore up his son's bid. In the end, the stallion had ended up costing a pretty penny, but both men had agreed that it was money very well spent.

Scott smiled with satisfaction. The best part was that the stallion was unbroken, so Johnny could do that job himself. The animal's high spiritedness had caused a few problems on the way back to the ranch, but Scott couldn't imagine Johnny ever being content with a mount that behaved too well.

Although Scott was confident that Johnny would like the horse, even though it would be painful to make that final step in replacing Barranca, if Johnny didn't, the stallion was good stock. He could be used for stud or sold for a decent profit, maybe even to a certain rancher in Stockton.

Murdoch had already disappeared into the house the time Scott had the horses temporarily tied until he could tend to them properly after the reunion, he hurried in the direction of the opened front door.

"Catherine! Teresa!"

Scott grinned as he came to a stop beside Murdoch, who was unbuckling his gun belt and looking expectantly into the great room. "You're going to give them both a heart attack if you don't stop-"

"Murdoch!!!"

The rest of his reprimand was forgotten as his mother came rushing through the great room and threw herself into Murdoch's arms. She was whirled around once, then set back down on her feet. The pure look of unbridled love on both their faces was worth all the dust that had been inhaled over the last few weeks.

"Scott, you're back early," Teresa said with a smile while Murdoch and Catherine were busy sharing a more substantial greeting.

Hugging his sister, Scott laughed. "I couldn't hold the Old Man back," he explained, borrowing Johnny's term of endearment for their father. "I think he smelled your pot roast all the way to Stockton."

Teresa slapped at him with the towel she had been using to dry her hands, but her smile reflected only affectionate teasing. "Yes, I'm sure that was it. There's nothing Murdoch loves more than a good pot roast."

"Are you two finished?" Murdoch asked, but there was no bite to his query. His arm was around Catherine as they stood side-by-side with starry expressions on their faces.

"I think so," Scott grinned. His mother came over to him and he got his first welcome hug. "It's good to be back, Mother."

"Welcome, home, Sweetheart."

Those words made Scott's heart skip a beat. He quickly covered by looking around. There was another face Scott wanted to see. "Where's Johnny?"

The ladies' smiles disappeared. The joy was instantly sucked out of the room, leaving a heavy sense of dread in its wake.

"Johnny's gone," Catherine informed them reluctantly.

"Gone? Where? And when?" Murdoch demanded.

Scott looked down at Teresa, but his sister's eyes were on Catherine. However, the anxiety in her face was all too clear.

"He left four days ago. We found what was left of his cast buried under pile of hay in the barn. Manuel said it looked like he had chipped it off with the end of a metal support from one of the buckboards that was found in the scraps. A horse was missing, and," Catherine pulled a folded piece of paper from her skirt pocket and handed it to Murdoch. "Teresa found this note in Johnny's room."

Murdoch accepted the paper and quickly read its meager contents. When he looked up, there was no hint of comprehension in his expression.  "All it says is that there was something he had to do, and that he hopes we can forgive him."

Scott felt as if he had been sucker punched. He wanted to hit something - hard! Instead he turned towards the door, his fists clenched as he tried to control the mounting fury raging inside him.

"Scott?" Murdoch said to him.

Whirling around, Scott pointed to the chair beside the fireplace. "He sat right there and he promised me that he would not do this! Later, he promised me that there was nothing to worry about, and now I find out that the the whole time he was lying to me!" With his teeth clenched so tightly they hurt, Scott stalked out of the room before he could reveal any more of just how utterly and totally betrayed he felt.

 

 Epilogue -

Catherine set the serving tray down on the corner of Murdoch's desk, gently nudging to the side the letter tray and ink blotter. This was the only spot she could use, as the coffee table was covered with the paperwork the men had been studying ever since the dinner conversation had turned to a more detailed study of financial positions and future potentials of a variety of investments.

Murdoch was particularly interested in the winery that Harlan had discovered in the Napa Valley, and it looked like Lancer just might become an investor in the near future. It was so strange to see Murdoch Lancer seriously considering business advice from someone he once loathed. Strange, but especially pleasing for the family that loved the two men.

A lightning bolt surged through the stormy night sky, illuminating the darkness with a window-rattling 'boom', and causing Catherine to jump at the unexpected intensity of both light and noise. It had been raining all day, but the storm had intensified since sundown. A few seconds later, another flash illuminated the outside world, this time causing her to drop the cup of coffee and gasped loudly.

"Murdoch, it's Johnny! He's come home!"

Scott was instantly on his feet, followed closely by Murdoch and Harlan. For nearly a month now, he had worried constantly about his brother, even when he was downright mad as hell at him. Despite his grandfather's continued reassurances that Mr. Timsdale's sources unequivocally confirmed that Johnny had not been to Mexico City, Scott still had no doubt that Johnny had left to find her. What other destination could there have been that would have Johnny skulking off while he and Murdoch were away from the ranch?

Every eye was glued to the door when it opened and Johnny slipped inside, shutting out the rain as he quickly closed it behind him. He was drenched from head to toe, and his boots made a squishy noise as he walked slowly towards them. He paused only for a moment to look at each one of them - Teresa, Catherine, Harlan - bowing his head after very briefly meeting Scott's stern glare. Without saying a word, he walked over to Murdoch and stopped directly in front of him.

It was then that Scott noticed that Johnny was carrying something partially covered by his jacket. It wasn't all that small - about the size of an over-packed bedroll. It was wrapped in a protective sheeting of leather, and the only reason Scott could think of for not noticing it right off was that he had been too intent on making his anger known. Johnny still had not said a word as he stood before their father, head still bowed, his arms almost imperceptibly tightening around the mysterious package.

"Johnny, where have you been?" Murdoch asked with more control than Scott knew he would have been able to maintain should he try to talk to his brother at this moment. "We've been worried sick about you, Son."

A big hand reached over and touched Johnny's shoulder, bringing a frown to the weathered brow when the water-logged jacket sent water gushing between his fingers. "You need to get out of those wet clothes before you catch pneumonia." A bit of an edge crept into his tone, "Then, I think an explanation is in order."

Johnny pulled away, but his head remained bowed. A puddle had already formed around his feet as the water slipped relentlessly from his clothes. He lifted his head and looked Murdoch in the eye for the first time since his abrupt entrance. "I don't have any right to ask you for anything, but..." Johnny's voice faltered.

Still remarkably controlled, Murdoch shook his head and sighed. "Let's get you dried off and then we'll talk-"

"No!" Johnny snapped and took a step backwards and away from his farther. "Please, Murdoch. I gotta know..." he looked down at the leather-encased item even as he used his body to shield it from of his father's reach. His expression was full of pain when he said more gently, "Lo siento. I don't want to hurt you, but I just couldn't leave him there."

"Leave who?" Murdoch's softly spoken words held no anger, just confusion and concern. He eyed Johnny with concern, but made no move to shorten the distance between them.

Johnny turned a little, loosened his arms, and allowed Murdoch and the rest of them a closer look at the bundle. "My brother."

Catherine and Teresa gasped, while Scott felt the blood drain from his face. Next to him, he could feel his grandfather's stiffen over the unsettling revelation. Scott eyes focused in on the bundle in Johnny arms, seeing it from an entirely new, and very disconcerting, perspective. Under those protective layers were the remains of a baby, of his other brother.

"Look, Murdoch, I know he ain't nothing to you except a bitter reminder of how you was cheated on, but he didn't have no part in our mother betraying you." Johnny took a deep breath and stood tall in front of his father. "He's my brother, and I want him buried on Lancer."

The bravado faded as quickly as it had appeared and Johnny's head fell forward again, his voice barely above a whisper. "I promise I'll find a spot way outta the way where you won't ever have to see him."

Scott watched in tense anticipation to see at what Murdoch would say, even as he racked his own brain for answers. For the life of him, he could not recall ever once doubting that the baby Maria Lancer had aborted was as much his brother as Johnny was. His grandfather had told them that Maria hated the unborn child because it was Murdoch's, even referring to the baby as Murdoch's youngest son when he confirmed that Maria had not lied about their child being dead. Only now did he remember that Johnny had not been present to hear that part of the story.

Holding his breath, Scott hoped that Murdoch had been convinced that it was his child, too. His beleaguered brother had not traveled all that way and done God only knew what to find that one rock beside the road to accept 'no' for an answer.

As the room of onlookers anxiously waited, Murdoch addressed the situation in a most unusual manner. "Harlan, during any of your conversations with Maria, do you ever recall her flat out lying about anything?" he asked without taking his eyes off his younger son.

The cagey businessman opened his mouth to speak, but stopped before any words came out. Comprehension quickly dawned and he shook his head firmly in denial. "No, Murdoch. As horrific as that woman's words were, they were all very carefully phrased so that nothing was an absolute lie."

Murdoch's gaze remained fixed on Johnny. "And she specifically told you that the child she killed was mine?"

"Yes." Harlan nodded vigorously. "Yes, she stated that as a fact on more than occasion."

With that Murdoch took a step forward, closing the distance between him and his son. "Thank you, Johnny, for bringing my son home."

Any sign of relief in Johnny's expression was lost in an overwhelming display of disbelief. The anger that Scott could have otherwise felt over being denied participation in the search and return of a Lancer to his rightful home all but disappeared under the undeniable truth - Johnny had honestly believed that he was the only one at Lancer with any blood ties to the baby.

A tired voice broke the silence; Johnny's words coming out as barely more than a whisper. "When we were on the trail home, I told him all about special Lancer is - how it gets to be a part of you before you know it. How the mountains get all white when the snows come, and all green after the spring thaws. How the rainbows are so clear you just know you can reach out and touch them. I've been calling him 'Sein'." Johnny's voice cracked. "Guess you'll be wantin' to name him, yourself."

"Johnny-"

"I didn't find much, just a few bones. I got as much as I could of what mighta once been-" A deep tremor cut off Johnny's horrific explanation.

"Easy, Son." Murdoch's strong arm was around Johnny's shoulder, holding him tightly against his chest for support both physically and emotionally. "You're chilled to the bone. Come over by the fire," he ordered as he began moving them both in that direction.

Although it was nearly summer, a late cold snap had come through the day before. The night air was crisp, and the dampness made it feel even colder. A fire this late in the season was unusual, but a welcome relief for a cozy after-dinner conversation. Once Johnny seated on the ottoman in front of the roaring flames that Teresa had efficiently stoked back to life, Murdoch attempted to take Johnny's precious bundle, but Johnny twisted away.

"It's okay, Johnny. I'll take good care of Sein. I promise."

Johnny's head jerked up and he looked at Murdoch as if he was seeing him for the first time. At first his eyes looked glassy, giving the impression that he had no clue of where he was or how he got there. Slowly they took on the more natural reflection that always seemed to intensify whatever emotion Johnny was feeling, and right now that emotion was profound gratitude.

A sad smile turned up his lips and he reverently handed his brother's remains over to their father. "Gracias," he whispered, sounding no less tired than before, but no longer defeated.

With Murdoch in charge of Sein, Scott focused his attention on Johnny. He knelt down and began removing the waterlogged boots. He had one off and was working on the second when Johnny pulled his foot way and finished the job himself, setting the second boot down in a puddle next to the one Scott had already removed for him.

"We okay, Scott?" Johnny's voice cracked.

Scott looked up and was startled by the naked fear he saw in Johnny's eyes. Allowing fear to show so readily was not something Johnny did on a whim, and it drove home just how much Johnny cared, for all of them, and how effectively Scott had conveyed his pervious anger.

"I know you're mad at me for leaving like I did," Johnny reiterated through chattering teeth as the tremors shaking his body became even more pronounced. "I didn't want to hurt anyone, but I couldn't leave him out there."

"We're fine, Johnny." Scott assured him as he quickly unbuttoned the wet shirt and slipped it from Johnny's unresisting shoulders. His mother was ready to wrap the blanket she and Teresa had warmed by the fire around Johnny's bare torso. Johnny looked up at her and smiled gratefully.

Even though Scott still harbored a few reservations about Johnny's methods, there was no way he would voice them at this moment. Scott didn't even want to contemplate how Johnny found the grave site, or how he had felt while digging up what was left of the tiny baby's body that had been killed by his own mother.

Later, when things were more settled and Johnny was in a better frame of mind, they would talk, but for now he felt confident that he understood Johnny's motivations and felt nothing but pride in his brother's actions. Family meant everything to Johnny, and now that Scott knew where Johnny had gone, it bothered him that he had not once considered this as a possible reason for Johnny's abrupt departure.

"We'll get some hot tea," Teresa said. She and Catherine exited the room just as Murdoch reappeared with some dry clothes from Johnny's room. In a matter of minutes, he was divested of his wet clothing, redressed, and huddled on the ottoman in front of the fire.

Scott moved over behind Johnny, handing him the towel his mother had laid on the table. While Johnny worked at drying his hair, Scott tried to rub some heat into his brother's trembling shoulders.

"Why Sein?" Scott asked.

"The name means 'innocent' in Mexican," Murdoch answered for Johnny. All eyes turned towards the bundle that was now lying on a blanket at the end of the loveseat, and for a long moment no one spoke. Then Johnny coughed loud, and hard.

"Scotty, see if Johnny can drink this." Harlan slipped past Murdoch and handed the ample serving of brandy to his grandson. "Just until your mother and Teresa can get the tea brewed."

"Thank you, Grandfather." Scott accepted the snifter and pressed it into Johnny's hand. "Sip some of this, Johnny," Scott ordered while his other hand continued vigorously rubbing Johnny's shoulder.

By the time Catherine appeared with the piping hot cup of tea, Scott's ministrations and the glass of brandy had done its job - Johnny was warm all over. Unfortunately, the brandy had also done what a good dose of alcohol usually does on an empty stomach - made him feel drunk; more precisely, he felt drunk tired.

Mindlessly, he watched the snifter float away from his hand, and a steaming cup of tea miraculously took its place. He stared into the darker liquid, watched in wonder as it moved upwards toward his face, then he felt its soothing warmth slide down his throat. He closed his eyes and let the moment consume him. There was no more fear of the darkness now that he was safe and sound in the protection of his family.

A wave of air rushed over his face, and he opened his eyes with a start. He was laying flat on his back, and Murdoch's concerned face was hovered over him. Burly fingers gently tucked a blanket in around his bare shoulders.

"Go back to sleep, Son."

The words sounded far away, but they brought comfort and security to Johnny's fading world. His parting thought as he heeded his father's order without protest was that he was in his own bed, in his own room. He had no idea how he got there but that did not matter. He was home.

*** *** *** ***

Two days later, a somber group gathered at the small cemetery on the hill overlooking the peaceful lake that was just over a small rise not far from the backside of the hacienda. Paul was buried there, and this was where Teresa had laid flowers on her mother's grave, before Angel had returned and Murdoch had been forced to admit Paul's deception. Cipriano's first born grandson, who died of pneumonia when he was only two months old, was there, as were a few hands who had lost their lives in the service of Lancer over the years, those who had no other family to care for them.

And so it continued. On this beautiful and sunny morning, the air crisp with the linger chill and all of nature humming with life all around them, a tiny Lancer baby was laid to rest in the land that was his birthright.

Even before they left the house, Scott had stuck very close to Johnny and at the same time, tried not be too smothering. While his own feelings about Sein had become stronger, they were nothing compared to Johnny's.

The younger man had dug up what little remains there were of the youngest Lancer brother, given him a name, talked to him all the way from Mexico to the ranch as if he were still alive, and had thought of himself as the only family that remained to take care of the murdered child. After being taken to bed, Johnny had slept for over twenty-four hours, straight through, which Scott could not ever remember happening, even when Johnny was sick or wounded. That in itself said it all about the state of mind and body that Johnny had been in upon his return home.

The ride to the cemetery had been shrouded in a strained silence. Murdoch, Catherine, Teresa and Harlan had ridden in the surrey, while Johnny and Scott rode along behind the wagon that carried the tiny coffin. Scott had been so proud of his father when the Lancer patriarch had made a point to specifically include Harlan in the family-only service. In as much as the stoic Bostonian was capable of revealing, Scott had seen that the older man had been humbled by the inclusion in what was a very private matter.

The tension remained as the padre from Spanish Wells said a prayer for the young baby, recommitting his body to the ground and his soul to God for all eternity. Flowers were laid on the tiny wooden casket, then it was lowered into the freshly dug hole. Tears were shed, but with them came the much-needed sense of completion.

Long after the others returned to the house, Scott stood straight and tall under the blossoming red bud tree, keeping a silent vigil as Johnny stood at his side, unwilling to leave until the last shovel of dirt had filled in the tiny hole. Only then did he turn towards Scott, his eyes glistening with unshed tears, but mostly, they were filled with a peace that set Scott's mind at ease.

They had all been through so much, but now it was finally over. Their father would remarry Scott's mother in a couple of days, and life could begin to settle down from the uproarious events of the past few months. Johnny's arm snaked over his shoulders, and Scott smiled, returning the now familiar gesture that both gave and sought comfort.

"I found a riding horse in Sacramento that I hope you'll like," Scott said after mounting Charlemagne. He had not missed the slight hesitation as Johnny lifted his foot into the stirrup before swinging onto the back of the roan mare. "He's a black stallion; all black, except for a white star and a snip. He's never been broken and is extremely spirited. Jarrod Barkley's brother, Nick, was highly irate over losing him, too." Scott's voice took on a mischievous tone. "It's too bad that it will be a few years before either Tortilla or Biscuit will be ready to take their father's place."

Blue eyes looked curiously over at him. "Tortilla and Biscuit?"

"Surly you haven't forgotten Barranca's foals?" Scott asked with a sly grin as he reined his horse towards the nearby road.

Johnny groaned. It was payback time.

"José is especially fond of Biscuit. He brushes her all the time to keep her coat nice and shiny." Scott chuckled a little as Johnny pulled the roan mare up beside Charlemagne. "I think he'd sleep in the barn with her if he wasn't afraid you'd shoot him for trying to steal your horse."

Scott was overjoyed not only by getting back at Johnny about Freya, but just to have his brother back at all. A little teasing came with the territory.

Johnny shook his head, and heaved a resigned sigh. "Okay, why those names?"

"Well, Brother, it was a revelation. There we were, eating breakfast one morning and they came to me," Scott explained, even as he fought to keep is laughter in check. "At one end of the table was platter of Maria's golden tortillas, glistening with butter and looking just like the colt's coat. On the other end of the table, was a pan of her biscuits, you know, the ones that you like so well?"

"Unless that filly's done changed colors on me, she don't look nothing like Maria's biscuits," Johnny interrupted with a frown.

Scott laughed. "Normally, no. However, last Sunday morning, Murdoch got a little boisterous about the sausage taking so long to cook, and while Maria was explaining to him the hazards of impatience, the pan of biscuits that was in the oven got a little over done. Teresa tried to salvage them with a layer of butter on top. It didn't work, but it did make them look just like the filly...all dark-golden and as shiny as a freshly-minted twenty-dollar gold piece. Hence, the perfect names - Tortilla and Biscuit!"

"Last Sunday, huh?"

"Yes, last Sunday." A few days earlier and Johnny would have been home in time to head off Scott's 'revelation'.

"I named 'em Verano and Caida," Johnny gave a token protest to the inevitable.

"Summer and fall?" Scott scoffed. "Now, Johnny, that is a little mundane for Barranca's offspring, don't you think?"

"It's more respectable than Tortilla and Biscuit," Johnny grumbled. "At least Freya was one of them goddesses. That gives her some class, even if she is a tad bit too 'sociable' for any respectable female." With a frown, he added, "If I'd hurried more on the way back, maybe I could have gotten here in time to keep you from ruining my horses' reputations before they even got 'em one."

"Don't be such a sourpuss. Everyone agrees the names are perfect for the pair." All teasing disappeared and Scott said in all sincerity. "And you're not too late, Johnny. You made it back in time for the wedding."

Johnny's eyes remained focused on the hacienda that was now only about a quarter of a mile ahead of them. His anxious tension was easy to read, for Scott, anyway, and he said gently, "She signed the papers, Johnny. The divorce was finalized a week after you took off. Murdoch and Mother are getting married on Saturday, and you won't ever have to worry about being considered less of a Lancer."

After a moment, Johnny looked over at Scott. "She signed 'em? Why?"

Scott shrugged. "We don't know for sure. Grandfather delivered the papers and all he would or could tell us was that he never questions Mr. Timsdale's methods." Scott's gaze shifted downward. "I got the feeling that he didn't really want to know the details so he didn't ask," he added tensely.

"Smart man." At Scott's inquisitive stare, Johnny sighed. "I've known lots of men like Timsdale, Scott. They're lower'n a rattlesnake's belly, and just as lethal. The only difference is that this one's got a real good thing goin' with your grandfather. He gets to be sneaky, and gets paid, too."

The rode past the adobe walls of hacienda, shivering a little as the shadow cast by the massive building blocked out the warming rays of the sun. "Grandfather is headed back to Boston next week. He has some pressing business matters that could not be put off any longer."

At the unexpected divulgence of information, Johnny glanced over at Scott. "I guess it'll be hard on you and Catherine, havin' to say goodbye to him and all."

"Yes, it's been nice having him here this time," Scott agreed but he could feel Johnny's uncertainty. "I wanted you to know that they waited as long as they could."

"Who?"

"Mother and Murdoch. They didn't want to get married without you being here, but with Grandfather leaving, they had to set a date and get things planned out. They both hated not knowing if you would be back in time."

Both horses came to a stop by the corral fence. "It's okay, Scott. They did what they had to do, just like I did. It all worked out." Johnny's eyes looked around the barn area. "So, where's this stallion, Brother. Tortilla and Biscuit ain't getting older any faster, and I need me a horse to ride." His eyes narrowed, but the teasing gleam took the bite out of his words. "And if you already named that stallion, I'm gonna seriously consider hurting you, Brother."

*** *** *** ***

The following Saturday, there was a wedding at Lancer. Scott, dressed in his most elegant suit, stood up with his father, who looked very debonair in the new suit he had made for just this occasion. Harlan was the picture-perfect proud father as he escorted Catherine down the isle. Teresa cried when the newly married couple kissed, and Johnny made sure there were no objections when the minister asked.

All attempts to include Johnny more prominently in the ceremony were firmly rebuffed by the young man. Johnny insisted that all he wanted was to witness the joy in his brother's face as he watched his mother walk down the isle on the arm of his grandfather. Johnny did not consider himself an outsider in any way, he just wanted Scott to have a little bit of something to keep for himself, like Johnny felt he had with the memories of being loved by his mother when he was little, something that Scott and Catherine had been denied.

Later, at the reception, the bride and groom shared the first dance. Then Catherine and Harlan had the traditional father/daughter dance that had been sorely missed all those years ago. Scott had his turn with the bride, smiling brightly the whole time as he twilled his mother around for their very first dance. After that, with a lot of coaxing, Catherine managed to get Johnny out on the dance floor for one very short waltz. Now, she was again ensconced in Murdoch's arms and both of them looked like they would drift away on the wings of pure happiness as they swayed to a very slow piece of music.

"They're real good together," Johnny said softly as the two brothers watched the happy couple moving gracefully around the dance floor.

"Yes, they are." Not for the first time that day, Scott found himself struggling to maintain his composure as emotions he had never experienced before struggled to be set free.

"Scott, I know I ain't done a good job of showing it, but I am real happy for you."

Scott blinked back the moisture accumulating in his eyes before turning towards Johnny, whose head was bowed. "I knew you would be, Brother, and you show it just fine. I just wish Louisa could be here for you, too."

Johnny's head lifted and a smile so warm that it could have melted a block of ice appeared on his face as he stared up into the night sky. "She's here. Thanks to you, Brother."

 

~end~

unimportante - unimportant
consecuencia - consequence
gringo - a foreigner, especially an American
hermano - brother
embustero - liar, fake
zapatos - boots
dignidad - dignity
pinche - bitch
puta tu madre - mother whore
no corazon - no heart
no almal - no soul
lo siento - I'm sorry
preocúpese no más, Hermano - worry no more, Brother.
puta - whore

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