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Winj

 

Viscious Circles

 

 

Part one of the Circles series, followed by Breaking The Circles

Johnny walked into the house late. It was well past dark and the estancia was quiet. A little early for everyone to be in bed, he thought. Well, maybe Teresa left me some dinner.

He headed through the living room toward the kitchen.

"Late aren't you?"

He turned and saw Murdoch sitting by the fire in the dark. He walked over smiling. "I got into an argument with a tree stump. I guess I'm too stubborn," he laughed.

"Who won?"

"I did, finally. But it was so dark by that time, I could barely see anything," he replied but the smile was gone. Murdoch didn't sound right and he moved closer.

"Drink?"

"No, thanks. Hey, are you okay?"

"I'm just fine. Have a drink."

"Murdoch? Are you drunk?" Johnny asked, amusement dancing in his eyes.

"I've had a few. Join me and we'll make a toast."

"A toast to what?"

"Grab a drink first."

"I don't want a drink."

"Indulge me," Murdoch said tersely.

His tone took Johnny a bit by surprise but he walked over to the side board and poured himself a whiskey.

"There's tequila," Murdoch offered.

"This is fine. So, what are we toasting to?" Johnny asked as he returned to his father's side.

"To life, John. To love and marriage," Murdoch said, raising his glass and smirking. He downed the Scotch in one gulp.

Johnny knelt beside him on one knee and looked into his father's face. "What's the matter?" he asked softly.

*******

Murdoch looked in his eyes and the bitterness shocked Johnny. "Worried about me? That's very kind of you."

Johnny said nothing, figuring if he waited a minute, the old man would spill it.

"Do you know what today is, Johnny?"

"No."

"It's my anniversary. Congratulate me, boy. Twenty-one years ago today, I married the sweetest thing this side of the Mississippi," he sneered and poured his glass full again.

Johnny hung his head for a minute. When he looked back up, Murdoch was gulping the Scotch.

"Maybe you should take it easy on that stuff," he said gently.

"No, I don't think so. Come on, drink up. It's a celebration," he said and stood, a bit off kilter.

Johnny stood as well, reaching out a steadying hand. But Murdoch swatted it away. "I'm fine!"

"Okay," he backed off, raising the hand in surrender. "I think I'll go get something to eat. You want to join me? I can make a fresh pot of coffee," he offered.

Murdoch turned, swaying a bit, to face him. "Why would I spoil perfectly good Scotch with coffee?"

"Maybe you've had enough Scotch for one night," Johnny suggested evenly.

"Maybe you shouldn't try to tell me how to drink?" he retorted sardonically.

Johnny knew he wasn't getting anywhere. He figured it was best to leave Murdoch to his memories. "Well, I'm gonna go eat now."

"Wait," Murdoch blurted, grabbing his arm roughly and jerking him around.

"Easy, Murdoch," he said in surprise.

"You never drank to my toast."

"I told you I don't want a drink. Now, let go of me!" Johnny said harshly, his temper getting the better of him.

******

"Let go of you? Like I did twenty years ago? No, Johnny. No, I don't think so," Murdoch slurred.

"I didn't mean .... okay, Murdoch, say what's on your mind," he sighed, resigned to an argument.

"Nothing much, John. Just your mother and how she ran out on me. Stole my little boy and any chance I had at having my family," he spat.

He released his grip and Johnny fought the urge to rub the soreness in his arm. "I'm sorry," he said.

Murdoch looked at him and smiled. "Are you? Are you sorry, John? Would have been tough growing up here with an ogre like me. So hard-headed and strict. So unfeeling."

"Murdoch, you aren't like that." The tenderness in his voice was lost on his father.

"No? Isn't that what she told you? Didn't she tell you why she ran out? What lies did she fill your head with, Johnny? I'd like to know. Did she tell you I wasn't man enough to keep her satisfied?"

"I'm not doing this, Murdoch. I'm going to bed. I suggest you do the same."

Murdoch snorted. "You're starting to sound like your brother. I want to know what she told you."

"Nothin."

"I find that hard to believe. She said something to make you hate me all those years."

"Stop it. I don't want to do this. You're drunk," Johnny pleaded.

******

"I am not drunk! I've had a few drinks, is all. I don't have to explain myself to you."

"No, you don't," Johnny sighed. "Goodnight."

Once more, Murdoch grabbed his arm. "I want to talk to you."

"Murdoch, it's late and I'm tired. Can't this wait til morning?" he asked in exasperation.

"No, it can't. Morning will be too late. Don't you see? We have to celebrate tonight," he slurred.

"No, I don't see. Let it go," Johnny said as gently as he could manage.

"She was so beautiful. So exciting. For the first time since Catherine died, I felt alive again. She did that. And then she turned me to stone. She was so wild, so unbridled. This place, this ranch, it wasn't enough for her. She wanted excitement, parties. What I don't understand is why she married me in the first place." He eyes took on a distant look as he remembered.

Johnny stared at him. "Gee, Murdoch, maybe because she was pregnant?" he said snidely.

Before he knew what was happening, Johnny felt the hard sting of Murdoch's hand across his face. His head snapped to the side and he left it there for a long second. Then, he turned and glared at the older man.

"She said she loved me. Another lie!" he growled.

"Maybe she did once or maybe she thought she did. I don't know but don't you ever hit me again!" Johnny hissed.

Murdoch ignored the command. "What did she tell you?"

"Nothing. She didn't tell me anything. Leave it alone, Murdoch. You're never going to have the answers you want. Neither of us are," Johnny said, lowering his tone.

*******

"I can't! Why can't you understand that? You have to know something. You lived with her longer than I did!" he persisted.

"What do you want me to do? Make something up? She didn't talk about you!"

"Don't you lie to me, boy," Murdoch said, taking a menacing step forward.

Johnny didn't flinch, didn't move, he just stared into Murdoch's eyes. "I have never lied to you," he pointed out.

"Not telling me something is the same as lying."

"I don't know what you want me to say!"

"The truth! All of it!" he bellowed.

"There's nothing to tell! She never talked about you! Maybe that should tell you something!" he slammed.

Johnny stared into his father's face, watching the anguish and anger build. He didn't know quite what reaction to expect, but he braced himself for the shouting.

"Did you ever wonder why I wasn't around? Did you ever even think of that?" he continued his interrogation.

"I was a kid. No, I didn't think of that," he responded softly.

Murdoch shook his head and downed the rest of his drink. He looked at the glass in Johnny's hand, untouched. "In polite society, when a person makes a toast, you drink to it," he said sarcastically.

"Well, I guess I'm not up on polite society," Johnny shot.

"No, I don't suppose you would be. I suppose all you know about is back alleys and cantinas."

Johnny dropped his head.

"You should want to celebrate this, Johnny. After all, if I hadn't married her, you'd be a bastard!"

His head snapped up then. "And who's fault is that? She didn't get pregnant by herself," Johnny fumed.

"No, she just planned it out perfectly."

"What are you saying now? That she trapped you? I have a hard time believing that could happen to the great Murdoch Lancer. Oh, right. You were so taken by her beauty. So crushed by your Catherine's death. You know something? You were right before, you are a hardhearted son of a bitch!" he glowered defiantly, waiting for the yelling.

It didn't come. He was so intent on Murdoch's expression, he didn't notice his hand move. He felt the blow to his gut and it knocked the wind out of him. Driven to his knees by the sheer force, he struggled to get a breath.

"You're just like her. So ready to do whatever you can to hurt me," Murdoch hissed.

Johnny looked up and felt the pain ignite in his left cheek. He went completely to the floor with that punch. He laid there, trying to catch his breath. He heard Murdoch move away, heard the sound as the liquor was poured into the glass. He heard the gulp as his father swallowed. He could hear all this in those few seconds because he wasn't able to breathe.

******

He finally managed to suck in some air. He made it to his knees, holding his left hand to his stomach. Climbing to his feet, he turned to face his father. Breathing heavily now, he managed to speak.

"I know you're drunk and I know you're hurt. So, I'm gonna overlook this. But if you don't apologize to me tomorrow, old man, it'll be the last you see of me. Maybe that's fine with you. So be it. Now, I'm going to bed. If you try to stop me again, you won't make it through another drink." His words were soft, cold and deadly.

Johnny walked slowly from the room, still holding his stomach.

Murdoch scowled after him. "Maybe I don't give a damn if you leave. Ever think of that?" he called.

Johnny didn't respond, he kept walking. He made it upstairs, amazed they hadn't awakened the entire house.

Stumbling a bit, he opened his door and stepped into his room. Closing the door behind him, he leaned heavily against it as the pain in his stomach increased.

Damn, he can hit hard, he thought. His hand went to his cheek and he gingerly rubbed at it. Shaking his head, he started to undress.

He was moving slowly. He couldn't believe those two blows could slow him up like this. But Murdoch was a big man and a strong one. He had wondered before how hard the old man could throw a punch. Well, he didn't have to wonder anymore.

As he lay in bed, he heard thumping noises as Murdoch made his way to his room. He sure wasn't trying to be quiet about it. He heard the old man cuss then close his door hard. Johnny sighed and stared at the ceiling. His gut was on fire and he didn't think he was going to get much sleep. Well, at least Murdoch would sleep in. No chance in hell of him rising before the sun this morning.

*

Scott Lancer smiled as he eased his brother's door open just after sunrise. He had missed Johnny the night before so he figured he was overdue some quality teasing time. He tiptoed to the bed and started to jump on his brother but something stopped him.

Johnny was deeply asleep and quite pale. His left cheek was swollen and bruised. Scott frowned, wondering what his brother had gotten into this time.

He decided to be gentle and shook Johnny's shoulder, calling softly to him. It took a few attempts before Johnny moaned and started opening his eyes.

"Good morning. Is the grizzly in as bad a shape?" Scott grinned.

"What?!" Johnny snapped.

"You look like you had a run in with a bear," Scott explained, still quite amused.

"Yeah, I sure did," Johnny muttered.

"Well, don't think it will get you out of work. Come on sleepy head, I'll race you to breakfast," Scott laughed and grabbed the covers. He pulled them halfway down before Johnny could grab hold.

Scott's jaw dropped open. "My God, Johnny! What happened?" he asked as he stared at his brother's stomach.

Johnny raised his head slowly and looked down. His own eyes widened in surprise at the massive bruising that covered most of his stomach. "Dios!"

"Johnny, who did this to you?" Scott asked, now extremely concerned.

Johnny didn't answer him, he was staring at his stomach. He suddenly realized his face hurt almost as bad as his gut and he laid his head back down. Carefully, he touched the swollen cheek and groaned.

*****

"I'm going to get Murdoch," Scott announced.

"No!"

At the tone of Johnny's voice, Scott turned back. "Why not?"

"Leave him alone. He's sleeping in," he said, lowering his voice.

"How would you know that?" Scott asked suspiciously.

Johnny sighed heavily, grimacing. "Because he got drunk last night. Very drunk."

Scott frowned as he stepped closer to his brother's bed. Cocking his head to the side, he asked, "Johnny? Who did this to you?"

"Scott, please."

"Tell me now or I'm going to get Murdoch!"

"No! He probably won't even remember," Johnny insisted.

"Are you telling me our father hit you?" Scott asked in total astonishment.

"He was drunk," Johnny mumbled.

"That is no excuse!"

"Scott, please. Yesterday was the anniversary of his marriage to my mother."

"I knew something was bothering him. He was pretty grumpy at dinner. I went to bed early just to get away from him," Scott explained with a frown.

"Yeah, well, wish I had."

"So, once again he took his anger and frustration at your mother out on you," Scott ground out.

Johnny didn't answer, he just turned his head away.

"I'm going to send someone for Sam. Then, I'm going to get Teresa and we'll take care of you. I don't like all that bruising. You're probably bleeding inside." Scott set his jaw and turned, storming out of the room.

Johnny watched him go, wondering how he was going to calm his brother before Murdoch awoke.

******

Scott found Teresa in the kitchen with Maria. When she saw him, she frowned.

"Is it a holiday or did you all just decide to take the day off?" she teased.

"Johnny's sick, Teresa. I need your help," Scott explained blandly.

"Que? Juanito is ill?" Maria inquired.

"Yes and I need Teresa to take a look. I ... I'll explain later, Maria. Please send one of the hands for the doctor," he fudged and took the young girl's arm.

On the way to Johnny's room, Scott explained what had happened. She stopped cold and stared disbelievingly at him.

"Murdoch wouldn't..."

"He did, Teresa, and we don't have time to debate it," Scott interrupted.

They entered the room and she was surprised by his pallor. Scott pulled the covers back to show her and she gasped.

"I .... I'll make a poultice," she stammered and left the room.

"She alright?" Johnny asked.

"She's in shock, I think."

"You told her?"

"Yes, I told her! Don't think for one minute I'm keeping this a secret, Johnny. And as soon as Murdoch manages to wake up, he's going to hear about it as well!" Scott declared.

"Remind me not to get you mad at me," Johnny smiled tiredly.

"Go to sleep, brother. It's the best thing for you."

And he did drift off as Scott sat guard. That's exactly how he felt. He had to protect Johnny from their own father. His anger would not be abated and he had every intention of telling Murdoch Lancer exactly what he thought of him!

******

Sam arrived an hour and a half later. Scott explained what had happened and the man listened, slack-jawed. He recovered and examined his patient, waking Johnny in the process.

"Tell me what hurts," Sam directed.

"My guts on fire. My face don't feel too good either," Johnny replied weakly.

Scott didn't like how pale he'd become. In just that short time, Johnny had grown much weaker. Scott informed the doctor of this as well.

"I think you're bleeding in there. In fact, I'd bet on it. I'll have to operate to stop it," Sam explained.

He handed his instruments to Teresa to boil and sent Scott for lamps, bandages and towels. He took the opportunity alone to talk with Johnny.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

Johnny shook his head. "I've never seen him like that. He was so angry, so ..... bitter. He said some ...... awful things."

"Like what?"

"I can't, Sam, please," Johnny sighed.

"Okay, just try to relax. You'll sleep for several hours after the surgery but when you wake up, you're going to be in a lot of pain."

Johnny hmmphed. "Won't be the first time."

"I know," Sam said sadly.

Scott and Teresa returned with all the needed supplies and Sam instructed them on what he needed each to do. Scott was given the job of sedating Johnny and he did not relish it. Placing the mask over his brother's face, he smiled reassuringly.

******

Scott could have done without this. He wasn't particularly interested in getting this intimate with his brother's internal organs. It took everything he had to stay in that room. Yes, he'd seen much worse things in combat but, this was Johnny.

Sam finally finished evacuating the hematoma and stopping the bleeding. He sewed up the incision and swathed Johnny's abdomen with bandages. He checked the young man's vital signs and nodded with satisfaction.

"He'll sleep for several hours. When he wakes up, give him the laudanum. He's going to be in a lot of pain."

"Will he be alright?" Scott asked the ultimate question.

"With rest and plenty of fluids, I think so. But, I wouldn't be surprised if his cheek bone isn't fractured. I'll have to wait for the swelling to go down," Sam explained. His expression soured then. "Now, where is Murdoch?"

"Still asleep as far as I know," Scott said tersely.

"Is that right?" Sam retorted. "Keep an eye on him. I'll be around," he added as he left the room purposefully.

"If he thinks he's the only one who's getting a shot at Murdoch, he is sorely mistaken," Scott griped.

"I'll sit with him. Why don't you get something to eat?" Teresa offered.

"Thanks, Teresa, but coffee is about all I think I can handle right now. I'll be back soon."

*****

Scott was surprised to see Murdoch sitting at the kitchen table, sipping coffee.

"What are you still doing here?" he grumped.

Scott narrowed his eyes and decided to see just how much the man remembered. "Well, I figured since everyone else was taking the day off, I would as well," he shrugged.

"I think I'm entitled to sleep in once every twenty years," Murdoch retorted.

"Yes, I suppose you are. Especially when you have a hangover," he snipped.

Murdoch leered at his son. "How did you know about that?"

"Johnny told me. Right before Sam operated on him," he stated flatly.

"What?" Murdoch asked, straightening himself.

Scott shook his head. He'd had enough. "You heard me. Sam just finished. It seems Johnny was hit last night. Hard enough to cause internal bleeding. Sam had to cut him open to stop it," he replied harshly.

"What the devil are you talking about? Who hit him?"

"Dammit, Murdoch. You did! You don't even remember, do you? Johnny said you were drunk but you must have really tied one on. You nearly broke his jaw and punched him so hard in the stomach, he bled all night! And all this because you felt sorry for yourself!" Scott's hands were on his hips. If it were possible, steam would be coming from his ears as he glared at his father.

"That's not true! I would never hit Johnny!" Murdoch defended, rising to his feet.

"Are you saying Johnny is lying?"

"He said that? He said I hit him?"

"Yes, he did. What I want to know is, when are you going to stop punishing him for Maria's behavior? When are you going to realize that her leaving was not Johnny's fault? When are you going to stop torturing my brother?!"

"I .... I don't remember anything," Murdoch mumbled.

"No, of course you don't! The sad part is, Johnny was almost defending you. He wouldn't even admit you were totally out of line. He blamed it on the liquor and the past. Well, it won't be that easy with me! I'm telling you right now, you had better start treating him with some respect. If you don't, you'll find yourself alone here!" He pointed a finger toward his father as he berated him.

Murdoch moved closer to his son. "I don't respond to threats, Scott," he said coldly.

"Maybe you'll respond to this," Scott spat. He pulled his arm back and threw a punch that landed squarely on Murdoch's jaw.

Murdoch's head jerked back and he staggered into the wall. He recovered quickly enough and stared disbelievingly at his eldest.

"You aren't the only one around here who can throw a punch, Murdoch!" He passed Sam in the doorway as he headed up the stairs.

********

Murdoch stared after him for a long moment, a thin trickle of blood on his lip. He turned and went back to the table and buried his face in his hands. Sam watched him grimly. He walked over and poured himself a cup of coffee, then sat at the table and waited.

"What have I done?" Murdoch mumbled.

"Do you really want an answer?" Sam asked.

Murdoch looked up at him and nodded.

"Well, he formed a hematoma during the night. A massive bleeding bruise in his belly. I fixed it and sewed him up but he's going to be in a lot of pain for a while. I don't know if his cheek is fractured. Teresa is applying poultices to it to bring down the bruising and swelling. With luck, he'll recover but it will take some time. Now, what you've really done is manage to alienate both your sons. Johnny wouldn't tell me what you said, only that it was ugly. I could see for myself that you hurt him as deeply with your words as with your fist. Maybe moreso."

"I ..... I don't even remember seeing him last night. My head feels like it's coming off." He shook it slowly and covered his face with his hands once more.

Sam leaned in close to his old friend. "Good!" he shouted.

Murdoch grimaced and frowned at the doctor. "How long before he wakes up?"

"Why?"

"I need to apologize."

"How about thinking of what Johnny needs for a change? And that is to not see you for a few days. It's best if you stay away from him, Murdoch. Let him start to mend," Sam ordered firmly.

"Did he say he didn't want to see me?"

"He didn't say one way or the other. I have a feeling, though, that if you try, you'll have to go through Scott first."

*

Scott and Teresa took turns sitting with him through the day but Scott insisted on taking the whole night shift. He had a feeling Johnny would awaken at night and he wanted to be there. Murdoch didn't show his face and Scott was grateful. He didn't want to see his father now.

He heard a moan and Johnny turned his head slightly. Scott readied a glass of water laced with laudanum and waited.

Slowly, blue eyes opened hazily. Johnny blinked several times as he tried to focus. His gaze settled on Scott and he smiled weakly.

"Hey there. About time," Scott whispered.

Johnny opened his mouth but nothing came out.

"Here, drink some water," Scott offered and held his head up a little.

Johnny grimaced as he tasted the bitter medicine. "Don't do that," he sighed.

"You need it," Scott cajoled.

Johnny didn't argue, he closed his eyes and frowned as the pain awakened. "Bad as gettin gut shot," he mumbled.

"When were you gut shot?" Scott asked.

"Long time ago. What time is it?"

"About three in the morning," Scott answered automatically, still absorbing the fact that Johnny had been injured that seriously in the past. He couldn't help wondering who had taken care of his brother then. Now was not the time to ask, however.

"Scott? You seen Murdoch?"

"This morning," Scott replied tightly.

Johnny looked at him, seeing the hard line of his lips. "And?"

"And he doesn't remember any of it."

"Didn't think he would," he mumbled.

"That doesn't excuse his behavior, Johnny. Nothing does!"

"Easy, brother."

"No, I don't think so, brother. If you aren't going to call him down for this, I certainly will. I've already given him an earful and I haven't even started." He had set that jaw again.

"Has he been up here?" Johnny asked, almost hopefully.

"Sam told him not to. He doesn't want you upset. He told Murdoch to stay away from you for a few days."

Johnny nodded and sighed. "I'm tired."

"Go to sleep, Johnny. I'll be right here when you wake up," Scott smiled, patting his arm.

*****

Johnny stayed in a drug-induced haze for the next two days. Scott was more worried that he didn't fight taking the laudanum at this point. Sam had come back both days to check Johnny and to make sure Murdoch hadn't bothered him.


And he hadn't. Murdoch stayed away from Johnny's bedroom. He spent the first day trying to remember what had happened. And keeping a wash basin close at hand. He was reminded in the worst possible way why he didn't drink to excess. He couldn't keep anything down and his head throbbed unmercifully. He went back to bed and that's when he remembered; in his dream.

Vivid memories washed over him of the way he'd behaved. The words he'd said emblazoned in his mind forever. How could he do such a thing? He couldn't blame it on the liquor. Scott was right, that was no excuse. He was out of control and that was something he wasn't used to.

He remembered distinctly how Johnny had tried to calm him. Was even sympathetic at first. That he'd only lost his temper after being provoked so insistently. Murdoch realized he had meant to provoke Johnny. Why, he could not fathom.

His son had nothing to do with any of it yet, he laid it all on Johnny's shoulders. Idiot, coward, fool. These were the words that sprang to his mind. That's what he was. Now, he had to find some way to apologize. But how could he? What words would make up for this?

He remembered Johnny saying he would overlook it if he apologized. But that was before he knew how badly he'd hurt his boy. Before he damned near killed him!

********

Johnny finally got his head clear enough to say no to the medicine and Scott didn't argue. He still slept most of the third day away. At dusk, he started to rouse.

"Good evening," Scott smiled.

"Don't you ever sleep?" Johnny asked lazily.

"I do but I guess I'm just lucky to be here whenever you wake up. How do you feel?"

"Lousy but the pain's better," he replied.

"Honest?" Scott asked sincerely.

Johnny smiled a little. "Honest."

"Sam was here and changed your bandages."

"Gee, sorry I missed it."

Scott laughed. "I'll bet."

"Where is everybody?"

"Teresa's downstairs getting some rest."

Johnny waited for Scott to finish. When he didn't, he gave his brother an expectant look.

"I don't know, nor do I care, where Murdoch is," Scott said flatly.

"That mean you haven't talked to him?"

"That's what it means. I've either been with you or asleep for the past three days."

*******

Johnny looked over to the window.

"Do you want to tell me what exactly did happen?" Scott asked.

"Not really. It was ugly."

"He hurt you, I mean, not just physically," Scott surmised.

Johnny turned and smiled a little. "Ain't the first time I've been hurt, Boston."

"That doesn't make it okay, Johnny. Especially coming from your own father."

"What difference?" he shrugged.  

Scott clenched his jaw but he could see Johnny was tiring. He decided to let it go for now. "Your cheek is less swollen."

"Still hurts like hell."

"Sam said it was fractured. It'll take some time to heal."

"What doesn't?" Johnny sighed again.

'Your heart. Sometimes, it doesn't heal', Scott thought. "Tired?" he asked instead.

"Yeah."

"Get some sleep, brother."

"You don't have to sit with me, Scott. I'm okay."

"You're far from okay, Johnny. I'm not doing anything else anyway," he smiled.

Johnny smiled a little and closed his eyes.

********

Three more days passed and Johnny had not seen his father. Scott had not spoken to him and neither had Teresa. Sam decided Johnny could sit up in bed for a few hours and Scott helped him.

Once Johnny was settled, Scott left him to talk with Sam.

"I'm worried, Sam. He's not acting right. He's not complaining about being couped up. He didn't fight me on the laudanum. It's not like him."

"Scott, he's depressed. He's been hurt deeply by this. I know you know that. I don't expect him to be himself. Until he can settle things with Murdoch, Johnny isn't going to feel any better."

Scott sighed. "Do you think he can handle talking to Murdoch now?"

"If he wants to, yes."

"He asks about him every time he wakes up. I don't understand him," he shook his head.

Sam smiled. "You don't have to. All you have to do is be there for him. Get him through this and get him to talk. Either to you or Murdoch."

"Thanks, Sam," Scott smiled. He wasn't sure about letting Murdoch see Johnny. He sure didn't want those two alone together. But it wasn't his decision to make. He headed back to his brother.

"I just talked to Sam. He said if you want, Murdoch can see you now. Only if you want though, Johnny."

"Does he want to see me?"

Scott wasn't prepared for that question. "I'm sure he does."

"If he wants to, it's fine. If not, well, I guess I'll have my answer."

"What answer?" Scott frowned.

"Nothing, brother. Just ask him. And Scott, just ask, don't demand. It has to be his decision," Johnny clarified.

*******

Scott went downstairs to find Murdoch. He was watching Sam drive off in the yard.

"Johnny said if you want to see him, you can," he said shortly.

Murdoch turned to face him and simply nodded. He headed for the door.

"If you hurt him again....."

"I won't," Murdoch interrupted the threat and walked on.

Johnny heard the door open and stiffened. He tried to make himself relax but it was futile. He turned his head and looked at his father. He was taken aback by Murdoch's expression. He had never seen a more sorry sight.

"Hi, son."

"Hi."

Murdoch bit his lower lip and stepped cautiously toward Johnny. He grabbed a chair and pulled it over, sitting across from his son.

"How do you feel?"

"Sore, tired," Johnny shrugged.

Murdoch nodded, he couldn't look Johnny in the eye. "What can I say? I'm sorry doesn't begin to be enough. I don't know why I ....."

"Don't you?" Johnny interrupted.

Murdoch looked up at him questioningly. "Why do you think?"

"A few reasons, I guess. She's not here. I look too much like her. You can't stand to look at me on a good day. And you really are sorry you ever met her." Johnny finished with a tremble in his voice. He looked out the window as he spoke.

When Murdoch didn't answer, he looked over at him. The truth was there, so easy to see. Johnny felt the sting in his eyes and he looked down. "I'll leave as soon as I can ride," he mumbled.

"I don't want you to leave, son."

"What do you want from me, Murdoch?"

*******

"I don't know. Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. Too much, I guess. Answers to unanswerable questions. Reasons where there are none." He shook his head, feeling lost.

"I don't know. That's the only answer I can give you."

"And I can't accept it."

"Where does that leave us then?"

Murdoch shook his head slowly. "I don't know."

Johnny sighed softly and looked out the window again. "I love this place. I wish....."

"What?"

"Nothin."

"Johnny?"

"Leave it, Murdoch. It doesn't matter now, nothing matters now," he mumbled.

"What do you mean, nothing matters?"

Johnny looked at him with an expression of pain mixed with deep sorrow. "You and me. It's not going to work. There's too many ugly memories for you and no memories for me."

"I don't want you to leave."

"Yeah, you said that. But you can't stand to be around me either. You can't have it both ways, Murdoch. I won't be your punching bag."

"I'm so sorry about that. I ...."

"I'm not just talking about the other night. I'm talking about all of it. Since the minute I walked in that door. You looked at me and I could see it in your eyes. The first thing you thought of was her. You haven't been able to see me at all." There was no anger in his tone, only an honest assessment of the months past.

"You're right, Johnny. I don't know how to fix it, either," Murdoch replied in a low voice.

"Nothing you can do, I guess. It is what it is. What it always has been," he sighed.

********

"What does that mean?"

"Nothing, Murdoch. I'm tired. If you don't mind, I'd like to get some rest. As soon as I'm able, I'll move on," Johnny said flatly.

"That's not what I want, Johnny!"

"You don't know what you want, Murdoch!" Johnny yelled. His hand went to his stomach and he grimaced. Lowering his voice, he continued, "look, I can't talk to you anymore right now. Please, just leave me alone."

"Do you need something for the pain?"

Johnny shook his head, his eyes closed. "No, it'll settle down."

He felt Murdoch's hand on his forehead and looked up.

"No fever," his father reported.

"Don't concern yourself," he said flatly.

Murdoch's face dropped as did his head. He only nodded and left the room.

Johnny watched him go, fighting the emotions overwhelming him. He closed his eyes and slowly donned his mask. Completed, he opened his eyes once more and stared blankly into space.

*

Scott was pacing the great room when Murdoch walked in. He stopped and stared at his father in anticipation.

"Well?"

"Well, what?"

"Did you manage to rip the rest of his heart out?" he asked snidely.

"Scott, please," Murdoch sighed.

"Please what, Murdoch? Please excuse your inexcusable behavior? What happened up there?" Scott demanded.

"We talked."

"And?"

"And we didn't get very far. It isn't a simple issue, Scott. Please try to understand," he answered tiredly.

"I understand perfectly. You hate him," he stated, crossing his arms across his chest.

"I do not! Why can't either of you see? It's not Johnny," Murdoch shouted.

"You are absolutely right. It's not Johnny. But somehow, he's getting the abuse, taking the blame for his mother's actions like always. How do you do it, Murdoch? That's what I want to know. I swear, I'm almost glad my mother died in childbirth. Otherwise, you may have found something to hate me for as well!" Scott had now moved his hands to his hips, glaring accusatorily at his father.

"That's enough! How dare you speak of your mother that way. She was the kindest, gentlest woman...."

"Who ever lived. And nobody could measure up, right? Especially not Maria Lancer!"

"That's right!" Murdoch bellowed. A pain shot through his chest then, a deep gasping breath erupted from his throat as realization pounded down on his head like a rock slide. Murdoch sat down heavily on the arm of a chair. He stared blankly into his son's eyes.

Scott shook his head. His face a mask of pity. "I've had enough of this. I'm quite sure Johnny has as well. When he's well enough, we'll be leaving together." With that said, he turned and headed upstairs.

*******

Scott pushed open the door that had been left ajar. When he looked at his brother, he knew Johnny had heard it.

"I'm sorry, brother," Scott whispered.

"Not your doing," he shrugged.

"How much did you hear?"

"Enough, not that I needed to. I already knew," he said through gritted teeth.

Scott's frown deepened as he approached his brother. "Are you alright?"

"Sure. Would you ask Jelly to come up? I'd like to talk to him," Johnny asked.

Scott looked suspiciously at his brother but did as he asked.

Jelly, of course, knew what had happened. Most everyone at the ranch did by this time. He had stayed away solely because he knew he wouldn't be able to hold his tongue not to mention his fists. He walked quietly into the room.

"Hey, Johnny, how're ya feelin?" he asked gently.

"Not too bad, Jelly. Could you close the door? I need to talk to you."

Jelly did so and walked over to sit beside his friend.

"I need a favor," Johnny started.

"Name it."

He smiled at the man who was more like a father to him than his own. This thought caused him to lower his eyes to hide the pain.

"Sam will be back in the morning. If he okays it, I want you to drive me into town."

"Town? What's so all-fired important it can't wait til you're all better?" Jelly asked.

"I .... I just need to take care of some things, Jelly. Will you do it?"

"Sure, Johnny. Long as Sam says it's okay."

"Gracias, amigo," Johnny smiled.

*******

Sam arrived the next morning and was pleased at Johnny's recovery. But the question the young man posed had him wondering.

"What do you need, Johnny? I'm sure Scott or Jelly could get it for you."

"No, Sam. I have something I have to do and no one else can do it for me. So, is it okay? I mean, as long as I ride in the buckboard?" he asked with the most innocent look he could manage.

The doctor considered the request. "Make it a buggy and I'll agree to it. Just don't overexert yourself. Those stitches are still in and I don't want you having any set-backs."

Johnny smiled lightly. "I'll be careful."

Jelly went to his room when he saw Sam leave. Johnny informed him of Sam's agreement and the older man went to ready a buggy. Johnny stopped him at the door.

"Saddle Barranca and tie him to the back."

This stopped Jelly in his tracks. He turned to face Johnny. "You ain't comin back, are ya?"

"Not for a while. I need to get away from here for a few days. I'm gonna stay in the hotel."

"You sure?"

"Yeah, I'm sure, Jelly."

The old man sighed and shook his head sadly. But he did as his friend asked and pulled the surrey to the front of the house. He went back upstairs to find Johnny completely dressed and staring at his boots sitting beside the bed.

Wordlessly, Jelly walked over and helped him into his boots. When he looked up into Johnny's face, he saw the pallor and fine sheen of sweat.

Eyeing him suspiciously, he asked, "who's gonna take care of ya in town?"

"I can take care of myself," he whispered.

"Sure. Ya can't even put your boots on! I don't like this, Johnny."

"Please, Jelly. Just take me to Green River," Johnny said, his voice shaky with exhaustion.

******

They went out the upstairs door and made their way down to the surrey. Johnny was moving slowly and Jelly was sure this was a mistake.

Once Johnny was settled in the buggy, he asked, "does Scott know about this?"

"Do you see him chasin after me with a lasso? No, he doesn't know yet."

"When was ya plannin on tellin him?"

Johnny looked over and grinned.

"Sure! Make me the bearer of bad news! Well, that's just great, is all!" he huffed and flicked the reins.

Johnny was sure he would die pretty soon. The surrey jolted over the rough road and it seemed there were new potholes Jelly was trying out. He kept his hat pulled low over his eyes so Jelly couldn't see.

Mercifully, they arrived in Green River and pulled up in front of the hotel. Johnny eased himself to the ground and sighed. Jelly grabbed his saddlebags and walked in with him.

He made sure the young man was settled in his room then left to stable Barranca and let Sam know what was happening.

When Jelly returned to the hotel, Sam was with him and not a happy man.

"I should have you horsewhipped for pulling a stunt like this!" he admonished before even making it fully into the room. "Unbutton your shirt and let me have a look."

"I'm okay, Sam."

"Johnny, if I'd known this was what you had in mind ....." he trailed off and shook his head in frustration as he examined his patient.

"It doesn't look like any damage was done. Now, what's this about staying here?" he demanded.

"I have some things to take care of and that's all you need to know," Johnny said stubbornly.

"I hope you know what you're doing, young man." Sam left them still feeling furious.

******

"Reckon I'll get back and face the music. Scott ain't gonna be happy bout this. Not one bit."

Johnny smiled tiredly. "I know. I expect he'll be here later. Right now, I could use some rest."

"Need anything before I go?" Jelly asked, his voice softening with concern.

"No, I'm okay. Just tired," he sighed.

Once Jelly finally left after much fussing and fuming, Johnny relaxed onto the bed. He stared at the ceiling for a long time, letting his mind go blank. He didn't want to think about anything at the moment. Mostly, he didn't want to think about Murdoch or his own plan.

As predicted, four hours later, there was a heavy pounding on the door. Johnny's head jerked up and his gun was in his hand before he realized it. 'Must have dozed off.'

The pounding came again and he called out. "Who is it?"

"Who do you think!?" came the angry reply.

He sighed and got up slowly, walking over to the door. He thought briefly of giving Scott a hard time, but that idea was quickly abandoned. He opened the door and walked back to the bed.

Scott stood in the doorway, hands on hips, fuming. "What do you think you are doing?"

"Well, I was sleepin before you woke me up," Johnny shot.

******

Scott walked in and closed the door. He stood there, arms folded over his chest, jaw tight.

"Well?"

"Well what?"

"Johnny, why did you take off like that? Not a word. I was worried!"

"Sorry. I have some things to do," came the soft reply.

"What could possibly be so important that you would risk your health?"

"Scott, please. I can't get into this right now. I need some time to think."

"Think about what?"

Johnny stared at him in disbelief. "Think about what? How can you ask me that?"

Scott's shoulders relaxed as did his demeanor. "You couldn't think at home?"

"No, I couldn't. Not with Murdoch there. Not knowing he could walk in any time he wanted. I need to be alone for a while. Can you understand that?"

"Yes, Johnny. I can understand that. I could have understood it back at the ranch before you skulked off, as well."

"I didn't .... look, I just didn't want to have this argument with you. I had to get out of there!"

Scott shook his head. "Is it ever going to happen? Are you ever going to trust me?"

"Trust you? I trust you with my life, Scott. But I knew you'd try to talk me out of this. I just didn't feel up to fighting you."

Scott walked over and sat next to him on the bed. "Who's going to take care of you here?"

Johnny smiled and shook his head. "I guess the same person who has always taken care of me, brother. Look, I do have a lot to think about and some decisions to make. I just need time to get my head clear."

"You will let me know what those decisions are, won't you?" Scott asked.

"I will. I'm not gonna run off, if that's what you're worried about."

"That is exactly what I'm worried about. Or was. You see, I trust you, too," Scott smiled.

******

Scott refused to leave until he was sure Johnny ate. So they had dinner together in the hotel dining room. He escorted Johnny back to his room then left.

Johnny pulled a chair up to the window and watched the town for a while. His mind going over his plans again and again. He knew it would be a battle. One he may not win but he was determined to try with everything he had. He would not leave Lancer of his own free will. That was the only thing he was absolutely sure of. That, and his brother.

He smiled thinking of Scott. But then, Scott always brought a smile to his face. Not for the first time, he wondered what it was Scott saw in him. What it was that made his brother defend him from almost the first day. How Scott had been so sure of him and where that certainty came from.

He sighed loudly without realizing it. He looked around the room and suddenly felt very lonely. A sardonic smile crossed his lips. Ain't the first time for that either. Sadly, he thought, there wasn't much he hadn't experienced in life. Most of it painful but not all. How he had gotten this second chance at life was still a mystery to him. That he wanted to fight to keep it, was not.

He felt exhaustion take over and played with the bandages across his abdomen idly. Tomorrow would be a tough day. He figured he may as well get some sleep.

*******

Murdoch Lancer was fuming. Pacing the great room in it's entirety when Scott told him Johnny had left. He was ready to throttle one Jellifer Hoskins as well.

"You can't really be surprised, can you?" Scott asked.

He stopped and glared at his son. "No, of course not! It's typical, after all. Whenever there's a problem, his first and only thought is to run," he groused, arms flailing as he spoke.

Scott stood up and faced his father. "That may have been true in the past but no longer. Johnny was settled here until you threw it away! Now he needs time to think things through and we're going to give it to him. Whatever he has in mind, he promised he'd let me know his final decision. Until then, all we can do is wait. He said he wasn't going to run and I believe him."

Murdoch continued his pacing. "I wanted to talk to him again. Try to make things right," he grumbled.

"When Johnny is ready to talk to you, he will. Until then, you have to let him be."

*

Johnny stepped out into the bright sun, grateful for it's warmth. He knew he was still pale and had lost a few pounds. He only hoped he didn't look too wrung out. Crossing the street he walked slowly toward his destination.

As he stood outside the building, he felt his resolve waver a bit. Shaking his head he sucked it up and walked in. He approached a young woman sitting at a desk and smiled.

"Is Mr. Richards in?"

"Do you have an appointment?" she asked politely.

"No, I was hoping he could spare some time for me."

"Your name, sir?"

"Johnny Lancer."

"One moment, please," she said and directed him to a chair. She disappeared behind an office door and was back in a few seconds. "This way, please."

"Johnny! Good to see you. Come in and have a seat," the tall, thin man greeted.

"Mr. Richards," Johnny smiled and shook hands.

"What can I do for you? Oh, did you want some coffee?"

"No, thanks, I'm fine. I wanted to talk to you about the partnership agreement," he said as he took a seat, grateful to get off his feet.

"Alright. Let me just get that file," the man smiled and retrieved the document quickly.

******

"Now then, you had a question?"

"Yes. I want to know if it's possible to break up the land and holdings three ways."

Richards looked at him, stunned. "I'm not sure I understand what you're asking."

"I own one third of Lancer, right? So, is there a way I can take my third and be on my own?"

Richards continued to look at him with the same expression. He shook his head a little to clear his mind. "Well, let me look over the agreement."

Johnny sat patiently and waited as the man thoroughly perused the papers before him.

"Well, Johnny, there's nothing in this document that says you can't but there's also nothing that says you can. It's in very general terms, you see."

Johnny nodded his head. "Let me ask it this way. How do I go about getting one third of Lancer and it's holdings free and clear?"

The attorney blew out a slow breath. "You have two options. If your partners agree to it, that would be a simple matter of drawing up the legal documents."

"And if they both don't agree?"

"You would have to go to court."

*******

Johnny winced at this thought. As he was mulling this information over, Richards interrupted.

"If you do take this to court, Johnny, I can't represent you."

Johnny looked up. "Why not?"

"Because Murdoch is my client, not you. It would be a conflict of interest for me."

"I see."

"I could, however, serve as a mediator. I could present your request to Murdoch and Scott and counsel them. That means I would tell them what their options are as well."

"Can you tell me what their options are?"

"No, I can't do that. You need to hire an attorney, Johnny. I would advise it strongly. Quite frankly, I can't see Murdoch agreeing to this."

Johnny smiled at that. "No, neither can I. Okay. Would you do that then? Be a mediator? I'll let you know when I find a lawyer."

"I'll ride out there today."

Johnny stood and shook hands with the man, thanked him and left.

He stood on the boardwalk, unsure. He didn't know any other lawyers and wasn't sure there were even any more in town. He decided to find the man who could tell him. Johnny turned and headed for the sheriff's office.

*******

"He wants what!?" Murdoch Lancer shouted at the top of his lungs. He had taken to his feet with the information but stood stolidly at his desk.

Harry Richards winced at the booming voice but he wasn't surprised at the reaction.

Scott stood by the hearth with a satisfied smile on his face.

"Calm down, Murdoch. Johnny asked me to mediate. I told him I couldn't represent him as you are my client. If you'll settle down, we can go over your options."

"Options? The answer is no!" Murdoch fumed, his voice shaking the rafters.

"Don't be so sure," Scott said quietly.

Murdoch glared at him but Scott ignored it and joined the men. "I assume you need both our permission?"

"That's right, Scott."

"And one of us isn't enough?"

"No, it has to be unanimous."

"And if we don't agree, what happens?" Scott continued.

"Johnny will take you to court."

Scott smiled full out at this pronouncement, even gave a small laugh at his brother's ingenuity.

"I'm glad this amuses you, Scott. I will not chop Lancer into bits!"

"You can fight him, Murdoch. You may even win but I wouldn't count on it," Richards stated.

"What does that mean?"

"Johnny has a good case for this. You agreed to the partnership and the document is open to interpretation. It's rather vague," the attorney explained.

"We made an agreement that I call the tune," Murdoch glowered.

Richards smiled. "That wasn't in the contract. And it isn't what's being challenged. Since it's obvious you won't agree to Johnny's request, the only thing you can do now is wait for his attorney to contact me."

*******

"Well, Richards is about the only decent lawyer around these parts, Johnny. There's two others but I wouldn't let 'em defend my dog," Val stated.

"You don't have a dog," Johnny grinned.

"What'ya need a lawyer for? Ya ain't in any trouble."

"It's a business matter, Val," Johnny said softly.

Val Crawford studied his friend's face. "Where'd ya get that pretty face?"

Johnny looked up but the smile Val expected to see wasn't there. In it's place was a sadness the lawman wasn't prepared for.

"Johnny?"

"I'm okay, Val. Guess I'll have to look someplace else for a lawyer, huh?"

"There's a real good one in Stockton. Worked with him once. He's sharp as a tack."

"What's his name?"

"Jarrod Barkley."

Johnny groaned. "Yeah, I know him. Murdoch's friends with his mother."

"So?"

Johnny glanced at his friend then dropped his eyes.

"Are you gonna tell me what's goin on or not?" Val asked, a bit perturbed.

"Not. Not right now, anyway. Well, guess I have a telegram to send. Thanks, Val." Johnny got up and walked to the door then turned back. "Wanna have dinner with me tonight?"

"Sure. Where?"

"I'm stayin at the hotel. About seven?"

Val bit his tongue to keep from asking and only nodded.

*******

Johnny and Val sat in the dining room awaiting their meal when the telegram arrived. Johnny read it, nodded and stuck it in his pocket.

"He's coming," was all he'd offer.

"Ya know, I could have a better conversation than this with that dog I don't have."

Johnny laughed outright and Val grinned.

The laugh was cut short when Johnny glanced at the door. He sighed and dropped his head. Val turned to see Murdoch Lancer standing in the door glaring at them. He suddenly wished he had that dog to go home to.

The rancher walked swiftly to the table and stood beside Johnny. "We need to talk," he said shortly.

"Talk to my lawyer. He'll be here in three days," Johnny replied in the same tone.

Murdoch glanced at Val who only shrugged his ignorance of the situation. Murdoch sat down. "This is a family matter, Johnny. We can work it out ourselves."

"Since when?" Johnny shot.

Sighing heavily, Murdoch glanced around the room. "Can we do this in private?"

"We ain't doin this at all. Now, if you don't mind, Val and I are trying to have a nice dinner."

"You won't even talk about it."

"We did our talking, Murdoch. It got us nowhere and it never will." Johnny leaned in closer to his father and lowered his voice.   "But I will be damned if you take my birthright from me," he hissed.

"I'm not trying to," Murdoch shot loudly.

"Good, then agree to the terms and we can both get on with our lives," Johnny replied, sitting back in his chair.

"Just like that. I'm supposed to rip my ranch apart," Murdoch said in awe.

"OUR ranch and yeah, just like that," Johnny clarified.

"I guess I'll see you in court, then," he said and stalked out.

*******

Three days later, Jarrod Barkley disembarked from the stage in Green River. He headed for the hotel and checked in. Acquiring his client's room number, he sent a message stating he would meet with Johnny in an hour. Then, he went to his own room to get settled.

In precisely one hour, there was a knock on Johnny's door. It was answered by a stout, short man. Jarrod looked at him with raised brows.

"Mr. Barkley, I'm Sam Jenkins," he extended a hand. "Come in, please."

"Mr. Jenkins," Jarrod nodded.

"It's Doctor," Sam clarified.

Jarrod looked over to see Johnny buttoning his shirt. "Are you ill?"

"No, Doc was just removing some stitches," Johnny smiled and extended his hand.

"I'm sorry you were injured," Jarrod said politely.

Johnny snorted and Jarrod frowned.

"He wasn't 'injured'. Not in the way you think. Murdoch did that to him."

"Sam," Johnny reprimanded.

"Just a minute. Johnny, if I'm to represent you, I want to hear about this," Jarrod countered.

Johnny looked at Sam and sighed but nodded his assent. He finished dressing as Sam filled Jarrod in on the recent events.

"Well, I'll leave you to it," Sam said as he finished.

"Doctor, I wonder if you could prepare a written medical report for me about all this?" Jarrod requested, still reeling from the news.

"I can and I will. I'll get it to you as soon as possible," Sam agreed.

*******

Once alone with his client, Jarrod took a closer look at the young man. "Did that happen at the same time?" he asked, pointing to Johnny's face.

"Yeah."

"I'd like to see your stomach, Johnny."

He sighed once more and pulled out his shirttail, lifting it to expose the now healed incision and the still healing yellow bruises that covered his abdomen.

Jarrod actually whistled softly. "That had to hurt."

"Yeah, well, the old man can pack a punch," Johnny whispered and pulled his shirt down.

"I'm not sure why you need my services, Johnny."

"Jarrod, I've had it. Murdoch and me, we just can't make it work. I can't live under the same roof with him. But, I won't give up what's mine. And that's Scott, Teresa, Jelly and the ranch. All I want is my third but he won't do it."

Jarrod nodded, finally understanding what the legalities were. That Murdoch had done this was astonishing but, more than that, it galled Jarrod. "Do you have a copy of the agreement?"

"Yeah, Scott brought it to me," Johnny replied as he retrieved the paper and handed it over.

"What about Scott? Is he agreeable with your request?"

"Yes, he is."

"I'll look this over carefully. Who is Murdoch's attorney?"

"Harry Richards. Nice man. He's the one that told me I needed a lawyer."

"Okay. I'll talk to him as well. Before I go, I want to be clear on what it is you want. You're not only asking for a third of the land, are you?"

"No, I told Mr. Richards one third of Lancer and it's holdings."

Jarrod smiled. "Good man. I'll be in touch. Oh, one more thing," he said as he paused by the door. "This may turn ugly, Johnny. You should prepare yourself for that."

Johnny stared at the door after Jarrod left. He couldn't imagine it getting any uglier than it already had. All he wanted was what was his. What he had earned.

*

Two days passed and Jarrod came to see Johnny again. Something was pressing on his mind and he had to clarify this detail.

"When you left the ranch, did you tell anyone?"

"Jelly brought me to town," Johnny answered.

"Think carefully. What did you tell Jelly about your intentions?"

Johnny looked at the man in confusion. "I told him I had some business to take care of and I needed time to think."

"What about Scott and Murdoch. What did you tell them?"

"I didn't tell Murdoch anything. Scott came to see me that same day and I told him exactly what I told Jelly. Why are you asking me this?"

"Just one more question. Did you tell Scott you were coming back to Lancer?"

"I .... I told him I wasn't gonna run. I told him I needed some time alone to think. But, I don't think I actually said one way or the other if I was coming back," he frowned.

"How long have you been gone?"

"A week."

Jarrod sighed with relief. "You aren't going to like this, Johnny. You have to go home."

Johnny stood and looked at him as if he were mad. "Why?"

"Abandonment. If it looks like you've simply walked away, they could use that against you. Obviously, you haven't been able to work so unless you are physically present at Lancer, well, you see what I mean."

Johnny sat back down as he thought about this. He nodded his understanding. "But, as long as I'm living on Lancer land, it's okay. I mean, I don't have to live at the house, do I?"

Jarrod smiled. "No, you don't. You can camp out if you want. I wouldn't recommend it, however."

"No, there's a little cabin not too far from the house. I think one of the hands used to live there but no one does now. I always wondered about that," he said. Then, shaking that thought away, he looked back at Jarrod. "Murdoch's gonna hit the roof."

"He can do what he wants but he can't stop you from living there. I also need a map of Lancer. I want you to map out an area to claim as your own. We have to be very specific about what we want."

"That would be at the house. Scott could get it for me."

"Get it yourself. You have every right to walk into that house. Live there if you want to. You need to establish your rightful place again. Do you see what I'm getting at?"

Johnny nodded. "Yeah, I just ..... I understand, Jarrod. I guess I'm also starting to see what you meant about this getting ugly."

*******

"I don't think you do, Johnny. Murdoch has ammunition against you. Now, I'm going to do everything I can to keep him from using it but that doesn't mean I'll be successful."

"What ammunition?"

"Your past, for one. All the arguments the two of you have had. He could make a case for you being irresponsible and antagonistic. He could say you haven't earned your share of the ranch. There a many avenues he could take."

"Murdoch wouldn't do that," Johnny insisted.

"Are you sure about that? How far would he go to keep Lancer whole? I hate this, Johnny. It's difficult when families are at war with each other. But I have to focus on what's best for you."

Johnny looked closely at him. "Ammunition of your own?"

"That's right. So, you see how it could get really bad in a hurry."

Johnny dropped his eyes. "I don't want that. I ....."

"Tell me to stop and I will. Tell me you want to work things out with your father and I'll be happy to leave."

"We can't work things out," Johnny said softly. "Just try to do this without getting mean, okay?"

"I'll try, Johnny," Jarrod smiled.

"Well, I guess I'd better pack and get ... home."

Johnny approached the little cabin and sighed. It was sturdy but a mess. He dismounted and checked the barn. Shaking his head, he grabbed a pitchfork and went to work.

"Got to get you a nice place to live, Barranca. No more livery stables for you."

Barranca nodded his head and snorted his agreement.

He spent the entire day and half the night cleaning the place up. By the time he finished, he was bone tired. Not bothering with supper, Johnny fell into bed and was asleep instantly.

*******

He awoke the next morning confused. It took a minute to remember where he was and why. He sighed and went about his morning rituals. Thinking the whole time of riding back to the house to get that map. It wasn't going to be pretty. He imagined Murdoch wasn't just going to hand him anything.

He thought briefly of scoping out the place and waiting until Murdoch was gone. Then he chastised himself. He was no coward. He would face the old man.

Johnny saddled Barranca and headed the five miles to the estancia. As he approached the huge house, his stomach knotted. He could see Jelly by the barn. Then he saw Murdoch and Murdoch saw him. Steeling himself, he continued on.

"Mornin, Johnny. Welcome home," Jelly said enthusiastically.

Johnny smiled at the man. "Mornin, Jelly. How are ya?"

"Fit as a fiddle. You?" Jelly scrutinized.

"I'm okay," he shrugged. "Really," he added at the look he got.

Murdoch was standing outside the house watching the exchange impatiently. Johnny knew it and he didn't care.

"Can I take Barranca for ya?" Jelly was saying.

"No, I ain't stayin."

Jelly's face fell in disappointment. "Johnny, what's goin on? Murdoch ain't been fit company for a rattlesnake all week. Scott ain't been much better. They ain't hardly talkin ta each other."

"Sorry, Jelly, but if you're looking for me to explain Murdoch, you're looking at the wrong man," he said and patted the older man on the back.

******

Johnny took a deep breath then turned and walked toward the tall rancher. Murdoch watched him like a hawk, deciding to let Johnny make the first move.

But Johnny walked right past him and went into the house without so much as an acknowledgement of his presence. Murdoch's face turned red with ire as he stormed inside. Johnny was at his desk.

"What do you think you're doing?" he demanded.

"Looking for a map," Johnny replied, never looking up.

"A map of what?"

He pulled out what he wanted and only then looked up. "Lancer."

"If you think you're taking anything out of this house...."

"That's exactly what I'm going to do," Johnny interrupted. "I need this map and I'm taking it. I have every right. Oh, and by the way, I'm living at the old cabin a few miles south. You know the one? That's my temporary home now."

"Oh it is, is it? By whose authority?" Murdoch growled.

"By my authority as a partner in this ranch. I have every right to be here. In fact, I have every right to live in this house if I want." He locked eyes with the older man.

"Johnny, you are pushing me too far," Murdoch warned.

For some inexplicable reason, Johnny's anger waned. He didn't know why, couldn't fathom it.

"Murdoch, just give me what I want and we can stop this right now."

"How can I make you understand what that means?"

"I do understand. Believe me I do. But there's no other way. We can't live together, Murdoch. You know it as well as I do. This is the only way I know of solving the problem. If you have a better one, I'd like to hear it."

"I do have a better way. Come home," Murdoch said, his own voice softening.

*******

Johnny stared at him for a long moment. Had he actually heard that? Did Murdoch actually ask him to come home?

"Nothing has changed, nothing ever will," he said barely above a whisper.

"Can't you forget about all this nonsense? Just come back and we'll work together."

Johnny's head dropped. 'He doesn't want you, he just wants to keep the land whole,' he thought.

"Together? When did we work together, Murdoch? No, I can't do that. Jarrod Barkley is my lawyer. I'm sure he'll be in contact with Mr. Richards. In the meantime, I'll stay at the cabin and I'll do my work. Just have someone come by and tell me what needs doin."

"If you want to own this land, you'll have to decide for yourself what needs doing," Murdoch smirked.

"Fine. I just thought it would be easier if we weren't trippin all over each other." Johnny looked at him one last time, trying to find something, anything in the man's eyes to tell him what he desperately wanted to see. It wasn't there and Johnny felt a strong need to get away.

He walked to the French doors and opened them when he felt a hand on his arm. "Why are you doing this to me?"

He turned, stunned by the question. "Doing this to you? I'm not trying to hurt you, Murdoch. I'm trying to survive this. I'm trying to have a life that doesn't include living by my gun. Because that's all I have to fall back on and it don't set real well with me anymore. Look, I'm sorry it has to be this way. You don't know how sorry I am."

"It doesn't have to be this way, Johnny," he argued.

"It can't be any other way. You said you can't live with the not knowing. I don't have the answers you need. All I ever wanted was for you to care a little but I guess that just ain't in the cards. It's okay. I can't make you feel what you don't. But I don't have to stay around it either. This is the choice I came up with." He couldn't look at the man. Knew he couldn't stand the anger and hate he saw there.

"So the only way to get you to stop this is .... what? Telling you I care about you?"

"No, Murdoch. Words can't change anything. You can tell me anything you want. Don't make it true. You don't feel it, that's all," he shrugged.

Murdoch snorted. "And you do?"

Johnny swallowed hard and looked up at him. "Yeah, God help me, I do." He walked away then, pushing down the urge to run to Barranca.

******

He managed to keep his pace down to a brisk walk. When he got to his horse, he leaned his head against it's neck for a second.

"Johnny?"

"Hey, Jelly. I'll see ya, okay."

"You alright?"

"Sure, Jelly," he answered huskily.

"Wait a minute. Are ya still stayin at the hotel?"

"No, I'm staying at the cabin five miles south. Come by and visit me, okay?" Johnny said in a trembling voice and he couldn't stand there any longer. "I got to go. I'll see ya."

Jelly watched him gallop away. He knew something had happened between the boy and his father. He knew it wasn't good, either. He saw Murdoch watching Johnny, too. The man turned and went back in the house, his face set in stone.

Jelly stared after him and wondered, for the first time, if Murdoch had any feelings at all for Johnny. Jelly's anger raised itself up and he strode purposefully to the house.

Murdoch was staring out the window behind his desk.

"Do ya care anythin for that boy? Anythin at all?"

"Jelly, not now," Murdoch sighed.

"Not now, not now. When? Never that's when! Well, let me tell you somethin, Mr. Murdoch Lancer. You are a fool! That's right, a fool! If you can't see what a treasure that boy is, ya don't deserve 'im nohow. No sirree! I don't understand it, that's all. That boy has done everythin in this world ta get you ta love 'im. But it ain't gonna happen is it? Well, I feel sorry for you, Murdoch." Jelly stared him down then stormed back out of the house.

********

Johnny made it back to the cabin. He dismounted and didn't bother to tether Barranca. He threw the door open and slammed it shut behind him. Standing in the middle of the room, he looked around. He felt lost, helpless and hopeless and ..... it hurt.

God, it hurt so bad! He sank to the floor and sat there. His emotions raw, he went from pure rage to complete heartbreak. For the first time he allowed himself to see the truth. He had worked so hard to keep himself blind to it. Tried with everything he had to make it change. But it never would and he had to accept that.

He had to accept that his father cared nothing for him. Had no feelings for him but bitterness and regret. Maybe even hate. Was it worth all this? Was staying on Lancer land worth this kind of pain? He was beginning to doubt it. Maybe he should leave. Turn it all back over to Murdoch. Give him back what he cared most about. The land.

He wondered about Scott. How did Murdoch feel about his brother? Was it the same only Scott was able to get along with him better? That he could tolerate Scott because he was a better man than Johnny?

He knew his brother was a better man than he. That was no great revelation. But the thought that Scott could be as blind as he'd been tore at his heart. He didn't want his brother to go through the same pain he was feeling. But he had no way of knowing for sure. He knew Murdoch wouldn't tell him. Would shut down at the very mention of it.

He also knew he could never talk to Scott about it. Never even broach the subject. He decided it was better to leave Scott out of this. Let him live his life. He'd made his choices just like the rest of them. He was a smart man. He would figure it out on his own. Johnny could only pray Murdoch did love his brother. That he was even capable of love.  

*******

The room was dark when he heard the knock. He lifted his head and looked around, not sure he'd really heard it. But it came again along with his name being called. Scott, he smiled.

"Johnny, I know you're in there. Barranca's out here roaming around," Scott called out.

He stood up and stretched, then opened the door. "Hey, brother."

"Why is it so dark in here?" Scott asked as he stepped in.

"Lost track of time, I guess," he shrugged.

Scott lit a lamp and turned it up. He studied his brother's face for a moment. "Jelly told me you moved in here. Why?"

Johnny smiled slightly. "Jarrod said I should be living and working on the ranch. Something about abandonment."

Scott nodded his understanding. "So, you've been sitting here in the dark, letting that horse roam around unattended?"

Johnny closed his eyes and sighed. "I forgot." Without another word, he walked outside and took care of the palomino.

When he returned, Scott had lit the stove and put coffee on.

"I looked for something to fix for dinner but your supplies are pretty poor."

"Yeah, guess I need to take care of that," Johnny smiled a little and sat at the table.

"Soon, I hope. When's the last time you ate?"

Johnny only shrugged.

"You know, for someone who's used to taking care of himself, you are doing one lousy job, brother," Scott gave him a sidelong look.

Johnny laughed softly and sipped the hot brew.

*****

Scott sat down and studied him again. "Jelly said you talked to Murdoch today."

Johnny nodded. "Fat lot of good it did."

"At least you were willing to try."

"I didn't go there to talk to him. I went to get a map of Lancer for Jarrod," he answered bitterly.

"I see," Scott said, disappointment evident.

Johnny looked at him for the first time. "Scott, you need to understand that Murdoch doesn't care anything about me. I saw that today for sure."

"I can't believe that."

"Believe it. I asked him point blank and he couldn't even answer me."

Scott looked doubtfully at him. "Asked him what?"

"Well, it wasn't really a question. I told him all I wanted was for him to care a little. Told him he just didn't feel it."

"And?"

"And he didn't deny it. He threw it back at me. Asked if I did care. Before you ask, yeah, I answered him. The answer was yes," he whispered, his eyes on the table.

Scott's mouth dropped open but he could find no words.

"I'm starting to wonder if it's worth it anymore. I just wanted to have a place to call home. Now, I don't know." Johnny sounded more dejected than Scott could ever remember.

"Johnny, when you said you cared, did he say anything?"

Johnny shook his head. "No, I got out of there. I had to."

Scott thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a wagon. The brothers gave each other a look.

"Too late for Sam or Jarrod," Johnny commented.

*******

He got up and opened the door to see Jelly driving up. He shook his head.

"What are you doin out so late. Don't you know you'll change into a pumpkin?" he teased.

Jelly grumbled something Johnny couldn't hear and climbed down. He grabbed a huge pot from the floor rest and walked up.

"Maria fixed ya some stew. Figured ya'd starve if'n she didn't feed ya."

"She's right, come on in."

"Scott."

"Jelly, you are a savior. Johnny hasn't got a thing to eat in this place."

"That's what I figured. I'll have this heated up in no time flat. One of ya wanna make yourself useful? There's a box in the wagon bed with plates and the like."

Johnny went out to get the box. He sat it on the table and began unloading it. "And the like? Looks like enough stuff in here to ...."

"Set up housekeeping?" Scott smiled wryly.

"Well, did ya tell 'im?" Jelly turned to Johnny.

"Tell him what?"

"Bout that danged fool for a father of your'n!"

Johnny dropped his head and concentrated on emptying the box and storing things away. "I told him," he mumbled.

"I just can't believe it is all. I gave im a piece of my mind, too. Don't you think I didn't."

"I have no doubt about that, Jelly," Scott said.

"And you? How can you stay in that house?" he turned to Scott.

"Jelly! This is between me and Murdoch. It's got nothin to do with Scott. Leave him out of it."

They both looked at him, stunned at the outburst.

"Well, excuse me for livin. I'll just be on my way, then," Jelly said.

"I'm sorry, Jelly. I .... I guess I'm just tired is all. Sit down and eat with us. Lord knows, there's plenty," Johnny smiled.

As they ate, Johnny felt the need to make himself clear. "What I said about this bein between me and Murdoch. I meant that. Scott, this isn't your fight. I don't want you making any decisions for yourself because of what I'm doing."

Scott studied him for a minute before answering. "I understand you feel that way. But, it isn't exactly true. This affects me, Johnny. It affects us all. I can't say right now what I'll do. For now, I'm staying. But, don't think for a minute that means I agree with Murdoch."

"I know. Just don't do anything you'll regret, brother," Johnny smiled.

*

The next morning, Jelly rode into the yard at dawn. Johnny was just leading Barranca out of the barn.

"Mornin. Brung ya some fresh eggs and bacon," Jelly called.

Johnny shook his head. "Thanks, Jelly, but no more, okay? I'm goin into town today and lay in supplies."

"Long as ya take care of yourself. Murdoch sent a list of jobs. Said for ya ta pick the ones ya thought was most important and let me know. Said somethin about not wantin ta trip over ya?" he frowned in confusion.

Johnny smiled a little and looked over the list. 'Is this supposed to be a test?' he wondered. 'Still calling the tune.' He sighed aloud.

"Come on in and have a cup of coffee. I'll mark off this list."

Johnny made quick work of the list, copying down the jobs he'd chosen and sending the list back with Jelly. He made his plans for the day and decided he'd head for town later.

He didn't get far as he saw a surrey driving up. 'Guess I'm not gonna get much done.'

Jarrod drove up and stepped out of the rented surrey. "Good morning. Did you get the map?"

"Yeah, it's inside," he stated in a monotone.

"Are you alright?"

Johnny looked at him and shrugged. "Had a run-in with the old man yesterday. Don't worry about it."

As Jarrod looked over the map, nodding his approval, Johnny asked.

"How long is this gonna take, Jarrod? I swear I can't take much more of this waiting around."

"I've already drawn up a preliminary contract. I was just waiting for the particulars from you. I'll have it finished today and delivered to Mr. Richards."

"Then the roof comes off?" Johnny asked.

"Then the roof comes off."

*******

Two days later, Harry Richards drove up to the hacienda in sheer dread. He was shown in by Scott who he asked not to leave.

When Murdoch read the proposal, Scott was sure he could see steam coming from the man's ears.

"Am I supposed to respond to this?" he asked.

"Yes, Murdoch, you are," Richards replied calmly.

"The answer is no!"

"May I see that?" Scott asked. He read it thoroughly, taking his time.

"It seems fair to me, Murdoch."

"Fair? Fair? There is nothing fair about this, Scott." Turning to Harry, he asked, "what's the next step?"

"If you won't both agree to this, the next step is court."

"When?" Murdoch demanded.

"Should be within the next two weeks."

"Fine. Scott, would you excuse us? I have some other matters to discuss with Harry."

Scott nodded and left, unsettled by the request. Though why, he didn't know.

"How can we fight this, Harry? What's the most effective way?"

"Murdoch, why don't you just agree? It's a fair proposal and everyone can get on with their lives."

"I will not have my land chopped into pieces. I've worked too hard for too long to have even an acre taken away from me," he scowled.

Harry sighed and shook his head. "Then, we might have to get in the mud."

"What does that mean?"

"I hate this, Murdoch. I really hate this. Do you have the Pinkerton report on Johnny?"

Murdoch stared at the man for a long moment. Without a word, he walked over to his desk and retrieved the thick file from it's place. He handed it to Harry unceremoniously. "Do what's necessary."

*******

Jarrod informed Johnny of the response. He wasn't surprised. They had petitioned the court and a hearing was set for two weeks hence. Johnny spent the days working until he was dead on his feet. Trying with everything he had not to think about this.

Scott came to visit almost every evening and they talked for hours about the situation. Neither able to come up with another solution. One that did not entail Johnny leaving for good, anyway.

Scott was adamant on that point. He would not let Murdoch drive his brother away. It was tearing him apart to watch this. Feeling helpless to intervene. Johnny made him promise not to leave Lancer. Whatever happened, he didn't want his problems with Murdoch spilling over onto his brother.

Johnny felt there was still a relationship for Scott and Murdoch and he wouldn't be the reason that was ruined. If it fell apart, he was certain it would be Murdoch's doing. Johnny told him he would always have a place for him, should he win this case. He reminded Scott of his own rights and felt it would be much easier for him to take his own share of the ranch after this.

It was a Monday morning and they were all due in court at ten o'clock. Johnny went to town early to meet with Jarrod once more. He saw Murdoch and Scott going into Harry's office.

Jarrod wondered if he had done all he could to prepare Johnny for what might happen. He didn't want to believe Murdoch would stoop to mudslinging but, as a lawyer, he had to be prepared for any eventuality.

They managed to arrive at the courthouse at the same time. Murdoch glowered at Johnny and he glowered right back. Scott gave him a smile of support which Johnny also reciprocated.

Stomachs in knots, the Lancers entered the courthouse. All were thankful the courtroom was empty of spectators.

*******

Johnny sat next to Jarrod talking in whispers until the judge made his entrance. Everyone rose until the man was seated.

"Alright then. What do we have today?" Judge Cameron asked.

Jarrod stood and addressed the court. "Your honor, I'm Jarrod Barkley, attorney-at-law in the city of Stockton, California."

"I'm Harry Richards, counsel here in Green River."

"So noted, gentlemen," the judge responded. "Now, why are the Lancers in my court?"

"My client wishes to amend the contract he signed with his partners, Murdoch and Scott Lancer, your honor."

"Amend it to what?"

"Mr. John Lancer would like to separate himself from the partnership and claim his rightful third of the ranch known as Lancer and it's holdings."

"Really?" the judge asked.

"Yes, sir."

"Mr. Richards, I take it your clients are contesting this?"

"No, your honor. That is to say, only one of my clients is contesting."

"Should I take a wild guess?" the judge snarked.

"Mr. Murdoch Lancer contests, your honor," Richards clarified.

"Surprise, surprise," the judge mumbled. "On what grounds does he contest?"

"On the grounds that Mr. John Lancer has not lived up to the partnership agreement."

Johnny's head came up and he stared in disbelief at the atrocious statement. Jarrod put a hand on his arm and squeezed.

"Go on, Mr. Richards."

"If I may, your honor, I would like to call Murdoch Lancer to the stand."

"Very well."

*******

Murdoch stood and walked to the witness chair, his face granite. He did not look at Johnny who was staring a hole through him. He was sworn in and sat down.

"Mr. Lancer, tell us how this partnership agreement came to be," Richards began.

"I sent for my sons to help me fight off land pirates. In exchange for their help, I offered them one third partnership in my ranch with the understanding that I would still be in charge."

"And they agreed to this?"

"They did."

"The three of you came to my office and signed those papers, did you not?"

"Yes, we did."

"Now, Mr. Lancer, could you explain to the court why John Lancer has not lived up to that agreement?"

"Yes. It was made clear, as I said, that I would be in charge. Johnny took every opportunity to rebuke my authority. He argued with me incessantly about the running of the ranch. He made it difficult to maintain my authority with the hands. It was becoming an impossible situation."

"I see. How did you attempt to solve this problem?"

"I tried talking to him but that didn't work. All we could do was argue. Usually he would storm out. Several times, he took off for three or four days before returning."

"He took off? Did he stay on the ranch during these times?"

"I have no idea where he went."

"So, he wasn't working during these times when he 'took off'?"

"No, he most definitely was not."

*******

Jarrod Barkley was writing furiously during this testimony. Johnny stared at the table.

"Mr. Lancer, when you located your sons, where were they?"

"Scott was in Boston, living with his grandfather. Johnny was in Mexico."

"In Mexico doing what?"

"Being a gunfighter," Murdoch answered flatly.

Johnny tensed. Surely he wouldn't. Jarrod never missed a beat.

"And when the Pinkerton agent you hired did track him down, where exactly did he find Johnny Madrid?"

"About to be killed in front of a firing squad."

"Why?"

"Something about an uprising in one of the communities. From what I could gather, they had hired him."

"So, you in essence, saved Johnny Madrid's life."

"Yes."

"Now, Mr. Lancer. You knew your son was an infamous gunfighter, didn't you?"

"I did."

"But still, you sent for him. Why?"

"I needed his help."

"So, you wanted to hire him?"

"No, not exactly. I was hoping he would stay and change his life."

"Has he?"

"Not as far as I can see."

Johnny slammed his hand down on the table and shot daggers at his father with his eyes.

"Mr. Lancer, control yourself," the judge admonished.

Johnny looked over at Scott who was staring in horror at his father.

******

"Now, then. What did you mean, not as far as you could see?" Richards continued.

"Johnny has a terrible temper. He flies off the handle. His reputation has caused more than one problem for the ranch."

"Could you give us an example?"

"Last year a man named Warburton was trying to sell his cattle off in a low market. Several of the ranchers, including myself, were trying to stop him. It would have ruined the smaller ranchers if he sold out. Johnny decided to be Madrid and infiltrate Warburton's camp because he'd hired guns to protect his cattle. At first, he said he was gathering information from these former friends of his. It turned out, he was going to help them get the beef to market."

"So, he lied to you about his intentions."

"Objection. Calls for speculation," Jarrod called.

"Sustained."

Johnny had hung his head by this time. Ashamed to even call this man his father.

"Mr. Lancer, how long did you search for Johnny?"

"All his life."

"You accumulated a rather thick dossier on him in that time."

"No, not until the last two years."

Richards had gone to the table and pulled a thick file out of his brief case. He turned and stared at Murdoch. "I'm sorry, the last two years?"

"Yes, the Pinkertons couldn't locate him."

"I see. So most of this report I'm holding came in the last two years. Is that what you're saying?"

"No, I meant the last two years before he came home."

*

Johnny looked up at Murdoch, stunned. He shook his head and dropped it once more. He was quite sure he couldn't take anymore of this.

Jarrod stared at him as well, shocked at the admission. Scott was doing everything in his power to stay in his seat. Every fiber of his being screamed at him to smash Murdoch Lancer's face in.

Harry Richards didn't like surprises. He was flabbergasted by this statement. He found his composure and decided to forgo the rest of this line of questioning. But he knew the damage had been done.

Clearing his throat, he proceeded. "Now then, you said Johnny argued with you about the running of the ranch, would leave for days at a time for parts unknown. Was there ever a time when his actions cost the ranch?"

"Yes. He was working a fence line with a hand, an old friend of his. They saw some wild horses and decided to chase after them. The cattle strayed through the unfinished fence into a gully. It took days to pull them all out."

"Did you lose any cattle?"

"Two. We also lost time. Hands had to be pulled off their jobs to clean up the mess. A footbridge we needed repaired had to be left and a line shack was left unrepaired for a week."

"What was Johnny's response to this?"

"He said I was pushing him too hard then he left."

"Left?"

"Yes, he took his pay and left the ranch."

"But he came back?"

"Yes, he came back."

"Why?"

"I have no idea." Murdoch's expression had not changed throughout this entire questioning. He had not once looked anywhere but at Harry Richards.

*******

"Mr. Lancer, how long did it take you to build the ranch into what it is today?"

"Twenty-five years."

"It is an impressive accomplishment."

"I had some help."

"Still, most of the burden was yours, isn't that right?"

"Yes."

"No further questions, your honor."

"Mr. Barkley, you may cross-examine," the judge directed.

Jarrod reined in his anger and approached the witness chair.

"Well, Mr. Lancer, that is quite a tale you told."

"It's the truth."

"Yes, I'm sure it is, as you see it," Jarrod cocked a brow.

"Your honor," Richards spoke up.

"Ask a question, Mr. Barkley."

"Yes, your honor. There are just so many. Let's start with the Pinkerton report. Now, you said you knew your son's identity two years before you sent for him. Is that correct?"

"Yes."

"But you chose to ignore this information until you needed his services?"

"I didn't ignore it."

"I see. What did you do?"

"Nothing."

"Very well. Why?"

"I was trying to come to terms with the information. It was pouring in by that time."

"I'm sure it was very disturbing. So, you sent for a hired gun to help you save your ranch. I'm puzzled, Mr. Lancer. Why did you ask Johnny to stay?"

"I told you, I was hoping he would change."

"Wasn't that quite a risk to take? Why did you offer him a partnership before you knew if he would change?"

"I thought he wouldn't stay without an incentive."

"And you didn't think his family was enough incentive?"

"No, I didn't."

********

Jarrod turned for a moment and closed his eyes briefly before going on. "How would you describe the relationship between your sons?"

Murdoch stared at him. He wasn't ready for that question. "They ..... they're close."

"Close? Brothers," Jarrod simplified.

"Yes."

"And how would you describe your relationship with Scott?"

"Good. We understand each other."

Jarrod raised a brow at that. "Mr. Lancer, let's go to the night of April 25th this year. Can you tell us what happened that night?"

Murdoch fidgeted in his chair.

"Mr. Lancer?"

Murdoch shot Jarrod an ugly look. "It would have been my 21st wedding anniversary to Johnny's mother. I drank a bit that night."

"In fact, you were quite intoxicated, weren't you?"

"Yes."

"What happened when Johnny came home that night?"

"I asked him to join me for a drink to celebrate."

"And did he?"

"He joined me. I don't think he ever took a drink."

"What happened next?"

"I was asking him about his mother. Why she left. He said he didn't know. We .... argued."

"Then what happened?"

"I slapped him."

"Why?"

"He said something that made me angry. We argued some more and .... he called me a name and I hit him again ..... twice."

"You slapped him yet Johnny stayed there? Why would he do that?"

"Objection, calls for speculation," Harry spoke.

"Your honor, if you'll allow the witness to answer, I'm sure you'll find it is not speculation."

"Very well, answer the question."

"I grabbed his arm as he tried to walk away."

"After you hit him the second and third time, what happened?"

"I poured another drink. Johnny got up from the floor and went to his room."

*******

"Did you remember any of this the next morning?"

"Not at first, no."

"Now, let's talk about this business with Warburton. You say Johnny turned against you?"

"That's right."

"Isn't it true that he decided you were wrong to try and stop a man from selling his property? And isn't it true that he, in fact, saved your life?"

"He didn't agree with me, no. That doesn't mean he should side against his own father. And yes, he did save my life."

"I see. So you're saying that as long as Johnny agrees with you on every issue, you have no problem with him?"

"I ...."

"I'll withdraw the question. How long had Johnny been at the ranch when the problem with the wild horses happened?"

"Six weeks or so."

"Six weeks? Well, he should have been whipped into shape by then."

"Mr. Barkley," the judge warned.

"Sorry, your honor. Isn't it true, Mr. Lancer, that you told Johnny to make up his mind then and there if this was the life he wanted?"

"I told him he needed to make up his mind, yes."

"And in that second, you fully expected this young man who had spent his entire adult life on his own. This young man who had not known what having a family meant for ten years. This young man who had raised himself from a tender age. You asked him to make a life-altering decision after having known you for only six weeks. Is that what you are saying?"

Murdoch played with his hands, staring down at them in his lap. "Yes," he answered quietly.

"How badly was Johnny injured the night of April 25th?"

"He, um, he was bleeding in his belly. Sam, the doctor, had to operate to stop it."

"Any other injuries?"

"Yes, his left cheek was fractured."

"I hope I never get into an altercation with you, Mr. Lancer," Jarrod smiled. "Now, when you signed the partnership agreement, you asked Mr. Richards to make an amendment, didn't you?"

"Yes, Johnny's name was written as Lancer. I told Harry to change it to Madrid."

"What was Johnny's response to this?"

"He said to let it stand."

"How did that make you feel, Mr. Lancer?"

"I was .... glad he wanted to claim his name."

"His name and his birthright?"

Murdoch looked down at his hands and nodded.

"I'm sorry, I didn't hear you."

"Yes."

  "I have no further questions for this witness at this time, your honor."

"Very well, court will recess for lunch. All parties reconvene at 2 pm." The judge slammed down his gavel and left the courtroom in obvious disgust.

*******

Murdoch got up from the witness chair feeling exhausted. He looked at Scott who dramatically turned his back.

He walked out of the courtroom alone.

Scott approached his brother and Jarrod. "Are you going to call me to the witness stand?"

"Yes, I am."

"Good! Johnny, I don't know what to say," Scott turned to his brother.

Johnny smiled at him. "Remember, this isn't your fight."

"It damned well is now!" Scott declared.

"Scott..."

"No, Johnny. This is it. I tried to do this your way but I can't any longer. I'm sorry, I need some time to think," Scott walked away then, looking like a lost pup.

Johnny sighed and sat down heavily.

"How are you holding up?" Jarrod asked.

"How do you think? He lied, Jarrod. He sat up there and lied. How could he do that?"

"He doesn't see it as lying, Johnny. To him, that's how it happened."

"Then he's a fool and I don't buy that for one minute. He used me and I fell for it. Bought into it like the idiot I am," he said despondently.

Shaking his head, Johnny felt the need to escape all this. "I don't think I can do this, Jarrod."

"It will get better, Johnny. Scott's testimony is sure to help us. Try to hang in there."

Johnny nodded but he felt sick to his stomach. He left the courthouse and walked around to the alley. Making sure he was alone, he slumped down against the building and hung his head. All the words of Murdoch's testimony came flooding back and he found himself retching.

*******

When court reconvened, Johnny was pale and still a bit sweaty. Jarrod looked at him with concern but he simply shrugged. Judge Cameron entered and the proceedings started again.

"Mr. Richards, do you have any more witnesses?"

"Yes, your honor. I call Jellifer Hoskins."

Johnny and Scott both looked stunned, turning in their seats to see Jelly walk in. The man looked miserable.

He was sworn in and sat down, staring down at his hat.

"Mr. Hoskins, how long have you been employed by the Lancers?"

"Nigh on six months now."

"And what were the circumstances of your employment?"

"Well, at first it was ta pay off a debt to Murdoch. Then, I was asked ta stay on."

"What was that debt?"

"Breakin out of jail money."

"Could you just tell us the story?" Richards asked.

Jelly sighed and went into detail about how he met Scott and Murdoch, then Johnny. About his boys and the bank robbery and how he'd stolen Teresa's pearls. How the Lancers had found good homes for his boys, especially Johnny, he made sure to point out.

"Murdoch Lancer was quite sympathetic to your plight once he learned the reasons behind it, wasn't he?"

"I reckon he was."

"In fact, if not for him, you would have most likely gone to prison. Is that right?"

"I reckon it is. Never said it weren't!"

"Thank you. No further questions."

******

Jarrod was a bit puzzled at Richards' tactics. It seemed to him a mistake to call Jelly, but he wasn't about to pass up the opportunity.

"Mr. Hoskins, what did you think of Johnny Lancer when you first met him?"

"Not much. He was holed up with my boys. Got a chunk blown out of his head by them bank robbers. Course, I didn't know that at first. I thought he was a drifter."

"You didn't want him around your boys, did you?"

"No, sir. I didn't trust nobody back then. Not where my boys was concerned."

"When Mr. Lancer had you arrested, it was Johnny that fought for you, wasn't it?"

"Yes, sir, it sure was."

"Mr. Hoskins, what are your feelings toward Johnny Lancer now, six months later?"

"Well, I reckon I look on 'im kinda like he was my own."

"What does that mean exactly, sir?"

"Like he was my son," Jelly said softly, his head bowed.

Johnny smiled at the old man.

"Do you have an opinion about what is transpiring here in this court?" Jarrod asked.

"Objection. Mr. Hoskins opinion is not relevant," Harry spoke.

"I disagree, your honor. Mr. Hoskins, by all accounts, has become an extended member of the Lancer family. I believe his opinion is as important as that of any of the three Lancer men," Jarrod argued.

Judge Cameron looked at Jelly, then nodded. "Overruled."

"Will you answer please," Jarrod smiled.

"Gladly. It's just plain foolishness, that's what. Murdoch ought to give that boy what's due 'im. Johnny earned that land as much as Scott did. More so, ta my way of thinkin since he got a bullet in the back for his trouble. Sorry, Scott," Jelly looked regretfully at the elder Lancer son.

Scott only smiled and nodded to Jelly.

"I have no further questions for this witness, your honor," Jarrod smiled.

*******

"Mr. Richards," Judge Cameron addressed.

"Yes, your honor. I have no further witnesses."

"Very well, Mr. Barkley, call your first witness."

"I call Scott Lancer to the stand."

Scott nearly jumped from his seat, anxious to have his say and set the record straight.

"Mr. Lancer, how long have you known your half-brother?" Jarrod began.

"A little over a year."

"It must have been quite a shock."

"Yes, but a pleasant one," Scott smiled.

"The two of you have become quite close, haven't you?"

"Yes, sir, we have."

"I'd like to call your attention first to the episode involving the wild horses. What do you recall about that?"

"Well, Johnny was supposed to meet me at the house at two o'clock to help   with the surveying. When he hadn't shown by three, Murdoch was becoming upset. He told me to go ahead with the job."

"And did you?"

"Yes, I did. When I returned home, Johnny's friend Wes told me he and Johnny were leaving. I tried to talk to him - Johnny that is, but I didn't get very far."

"What did you do then?"

"I tried talking to Murdoch but he informed me the subject was closed," Scott replied flatly.

"Mr. Lancer, you've been playing peacemaker between your father and brother almost from the beginning, isn't that true?"

"I suppose it is."

"Your father has testified that he and Johnny argued about ranch business. Is that how you recall it?"

******

Scott's jaw tensed but he remained calm. "Not very often."

"Could you elaborate?"

"Most of the arguments they had were about Johnny's past. In particular, about his mother."

"I see. Was there a recurring theme to these arguments?"

"There certainly was. Murdoch would start questioning him and Johnny would refuse or be unable to answer."

"Unable to answer?"

"Johnny told Murdoch over and over that he didn't know why she left."

"But your father didn't accept that answer?"

"No, he refused to believe Johnny knew nothing."

"So, most of their arguments had nothing to do with the way the ranch was run?"

"No, sir. If Johnny disagreed with something, he'd say so but he seldom argued with Murdoch about it. It didn't take him long to figure out it would do no good. Murdoch was determined to run things his way and Johnny went along."

"Tell us what you know about April 25th."

Scott's eyes blazed as he recalled that horrible event. "I don't know much about what happened that night. Johnny won't tell me. I do know what I found the next morning."

"What did you find?"

*****

"I went in to wake Johnny that morning when I noticed his face was quite bruised. At first, I thought he'd gotten in a fight with someone in town or something. When I woke him up, he wasn't in the best mood. I was teasing him and I grabbed the covers and pulled them down. That's when I saw the massive bruises on his stomach."

"Did he tell you what happened?"

"He told me Murdoch was drunk the night before and hit him. He said Murdoch probably wouldn't remember doing it and he was right. I sent for the doctor and he had to operate to stop the internal bleeding."

"How long did it take Johnny to recuperate?"

"To me, he still is. The stitches haven't been out that long and he's still not one hundred percent. But the physical damage wasn't the worst part," Scott said more softly.

"I can imagine it isn't. Let's move to something else I've been wondering about. Your father testified that Johnny would sometimes take off after an argument. That he would be gone for days at a time. Is that the way you recall things?"

"Johnny has left a few times, yes. But, he always came back after he had a chance to cool off."

"So he left to control his anger?"

"Yes, that's right."

"Why would he need to leave the ranch to do that?"

Scott smiled. "Technically, he never left the ranch. I always knew where he was."

Johnny didn't look up at his brother but a smile came on his lips.

"How did you know?"

"I followed him a few times and he always went to the east line shack. After that, I knew where he was staying. It was his place to get away and think. He went there a lot. Even when he and Murdoch weren't fighting."

"Still, he was gone for days. Not working the ranch like he should have been," Jarrod argued lightly.

"Yes, that's true. It's also true that, without exception, when he did return he worked twice as hard to catch up. My brother is not irresponsible," Scott announced, shooting Murdoch an ugly look.

"No further questions."

*******

Harry Richards stood and approached the witness. "Mr. Lancer, you grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, correct?"

"Yes, that is correct."

"How did you feel about meeting your father for the first time?"

"I felt many things. Anxiety, trepidation, curiosity."

"Have you ever argued with your father?"

"Yes, there have been times."

"But not often, I take it."

"No, not often."

"Why do you think that is, Mr. Lancer?"

"I'm not sure. I suppose I'm able to control my temper better than my father and brother," he said honestly.

"Could it be that you agree with your father most of the time?"

"On business issues, yes, I do."

"Mr. Lancer, in your opinion, is Johnny Lancer a good businessman?"

Scott was a little surprised by the question but he didn't flinch. "Yes."

"Really?" Richards said in surprise.

"Yes, really," he reaffirmed soundly.

"I see. No further questions."

*

"Your honor, given the lateness of the hour, I would respectfully ask to adjourn for the day," Jarrod spoke.

"How long will the next witness be, Mr. Barkley?"

"Quite lengthy, your honor. My next witness is my client."

"Very well, we will adjourn until nine o'clock tomorrow morning. And, if you gentlemen could settle this amongst yourselves, the court would be grateful," he added before rapping his gavel.

"That'll be a cold day in hell," Johnny mumbled.

"I want to go over your testimony, Johnny. Have dinner with me tonight," Jarrod said.

"Sure thing," he answered, but his gaze was elsewhere. He was watching Murdoch.

The rancher was sitting very still in his chair, staring straight ahead.

"Johnny, Jelly and I thought a beer would be warranted about now," Scott said.

"You go ahead. I don't feel like it," Johnny smiled half-heartedly.

"Do you want to talk?"

"No, Scott. I got some thinkin to do."

Jarrod closed his briefcase and looked at them. "I'll walk out with you, Scott. Johnny, meet me in the hotel dining room at six?"

Johnny nodded at him. He watched them all walk out together. Suddenly, he found himself alone in the room with Murdoch. He was still staring into space. Johnny didn't know what he should do but he didn't want to leave the man alone. He looked ..... crushed.

*******

He ambled over closer to his father and leaned against the table.

"Is that really what you think of me?" he finally asked.

"What?" Murdoch mumbled distantly, still staring straight ahead.

"That I haven't changed, that I'm irresponsible."

"Should you be talking to me? Jarrod won't like it."

"I don't much care. You gonna answer my question?"

He kept staring into space. "I kept trying to see my little boy. Kept looking so hard for him in there somewhere. But I couldn't find him. He's gone now. I tried to imagine what you would have been like if you'd grown up at Lancer. I couldn't do that either."

"Boy, I didn't think anyone was harder on me than I was. Guess I was wrong. Tell me something, Murdoch. Is there anything about me you like? Anything at all?" His voice started out strong but, much to his chagrin, it wavered in the end. Johnny mentally slapped himself.

"I envied you that freedom you hold so dear. The way you grab hold of life and hang on. You're funny, too.   You have a good sense of humor, too much so sometimes." His voice still held that distant quality. As if he were speaking of something that happened ages ago.

"I always liked how solid you are. So sure of yourself. So strong," Johnny whispered.

"You're good with horses. Most animals actually."

Johnny smiled. "Except geese."

A smile flittered across Murdoch's features. "Yes, except geese. And people. You're good with people."

Johnny dropped his head. "Except you." He took a deep shuddering breath and let it out slowly. "How the hell did it get to this?"

Murdoch shook his head slowly. "I don't have a clue."

They stayed there in silence for long moments. Neither knowing what to say but neither wanting to leave it like this.

"I wish I could have been the son you wanted," Johnny spoke so softly, Murdoch almost didn't hear him.

"So do I."

Johnny turned away then. He leaned heavily on the railing that separated the court from the spectator's seats.  

Murdoch's shoulders sagged, he felt defeated. He could think of nothing more to say.

Johnny moved quietly through the gate and on out of the courtroom.

******

Jarrod wasn't happy with his client after their dinner. Johnny was not being cooperative. While he understood on one hand, he didn't on the other.

Still, he did his best to prepare Johnny for the cross examination he was going to face. At least he seemed to listen to him on that score. Truth be known, Jarrod was rather proud of the younger man.

Johnny rode back to the cabin late. He was dog-tired. All he wanted was to sleep. He only hoped he could. As he rode into the small yard, he noticed a movement on the porch.

Still in the saddle, he drew his gun.

"Easy, brother."

Johnny relaxed and holstered the weapon. "Little late to be out cattin around," he grinned as he dismounted.

"I was waiting for you. I thought it better to wait outside. I can see it didn't matter," Scott smiled back.

"Go on in. I'll just be a minute."

Scott nodded and went inside as Johnny took Barranca to the barn. He stopped just inside the door and frowned. Looks like Scott's spending the night, he thought as he saw Remmie bedded down.

He made quick work of bedding Barranca and gave Remmie a pat on the neck as he passed by. He walked in to the aroma of fresh coffee.

*******

"Smells good. You're gettin better at makin that stuff," he smiled.

"Thanks. I do try."

Johnny frowned and scuffed the toe of his boot on the floor. "Remmie looks comfortable."

"Hope you don't mind. I could stay at one of the line shacks," Scott answered, his back still to his brother.

"No, no, I don't mind. Just wonderin why, is all."

Scott stopped and slumped his shoulders for a minute. Then, he turned to face his brother. "I can't stay there, Johnny. The reasons should be obvious."

Johnny nodded and sat at the table. He folded his hands on the top. "I'm sorry."

"You have nothing to be sorry for!"

Johnny looked up in surprise at the anger he heard. "Easy, brother."

"Sorry. I just ..... I'm at a loss, Johnny. I don't know what to do. Murdoch ..... I can't even stand to be in the same room with him. Not in the same house anymore."

"Ever?"

Scott shook his head. "Until or unless he changes his attitude or finds his mind that he seems to have lost, never."

Johnny smiled a little at this. "He's goin for broke, that's for sure."

"What he's breaking may be irreparable."

Johnny sighed. "Coffee ready?"

"Sure. I wasn't sure you'd want any this late," Scott said as he grabbed some cups.

"Not likely to get much sleep anyway," he mumbled.

******

The brothers rode into town together the next morning. Jarrod was just stepping out of the hotel and he smiled at the sight. He knew Scott would side with his brother. This united front needed to be seen by the court as well.

As they rode toward the courthouse, Scott glanced over at his brother. Johnny's face was hard and grim. Tense lines formed around his eyes and mouth. Scott knew he hadn't slept. He knew because he hadn't either.

"How are you holding up?" he ventured.

"Feel like I'm gonna loose my breakfast any minute," Johnny mumbled.

"You didn't eat breakfast."

"Good thing."

Jarrod joined them as they stepped onto the boardwalk.

"Good morning. Have you changed your mind?"

"Nope."

"Changed his mind about what?" Scott asked.

"Nothin. Just some legal stuff, brother," Johnny interceded quickly.

Scott's attention was drawn away and Johnny followed his gaze. They saw Murdoch riding up, stiff as an arrow, solid as granite. His eyes were set straight ahead.

Johnny studied him. The man looked so old, so tired. He sighed.

"We need to get in there," Jarrod said gently.

Johnny turned and walked briskly into the building, leaving the other two men to follow.

Jarrod took the opportunity. "Scott, will you sit on our side today?"

"I was planning on it."

*******

Johnny was standing in the doorway of the courtroom, his mouth hanging open. Jarrod and Scott walked up behind him and Scott groaned aloud.

Two dozen spectators were sitting or milling about the room.

"What are these people doin here?" Johnny asked.

"I guess they heard about the case. It's an open court, Johnny. There's nothing I can do about it," Jarrod replied.

"There's somethin I can do about it," Johnny hissed and walked up to Val.

Scott and Jarrod watched the animated conversation. Val's expression was quite comical but it looked like he was standing his ground.

Johnny glared at him, not that it had an effect. He turned then, and eyed each and every person in the courtroom. By the time he was done, there were only two remaining. Val and Sam Jenkins. Two men he could not intimidate.

"I don't know why you did that. It's about time this valley knew what was happening," Sam stated.

"Ain't none of their business. That's why!" Johnny spat and took his place.

Sam rolled his eyes and took a seat directly behind Johnny. Val sat next to him and Scott took the aisle seat.

Murdoch walked in with Harry and took in the group sitting together. His face remained a rock as he took his place.

*****

Judge Cameron entered and took the bench. He looked sadly at the men before him. "I take it you were not able to settle this amongst yourselves."

Murdoch and Johnny both snorted at the same time. The attorneys answered the judge more verbally.

"Very well. Let's get on with it. Mr. Barkley?"

"Good morning, your honor. I call John Lancer to the stand."

Johnny stood slowly and walked to the witness stand. He felt like he had a boulder sitting on his chest. His face was expressionless as he was sworn in. He sat down and seemingly relaxed.

"Mr. Lancer, I'd like to start by addressing some of the testimony from yesterday. Now, it was stated that you were living in Mexico when the Pinkerton Agency located you. That you were waiting your turn in front of a firing squad. Is that true?"

"Yes."

"It was stated there was some sort of revolution going on and that you hired out to the villagers?"

"Yes and no. There was a revolution and I was in it but I didn't hire out. Those people couldn't pay for a gun."

Jarrod raised his brows. "Then, why were you involved?"

"I believed in the cause. What was happening there made me sick," he stated matter-of-factly.

"I see. Alright, so you weren't a hired gun. You were a revolutionary. Now, let's talk about the incident with the wild horses. What an you tell us about that?"

Johnny lowered his eyes and picked at his conchos. "I shouldn't have done that. I should have finished the job. It was a mistake."

"Did you learn from this mistake?"

"Yes, sir."

"So, you never went chasing wild horses again instead of doing your work?"

"No. Well, that's not true. I did one more time. With my father," he stated.

******

Jarrod approached him, just to the right and leaned his arm on the witness stand. "With your father? How did that come about?"

"Well, after that whole mess was over, Murdoch came out to where I was working. On the same fence. He said he saw some wild horses over by black mesa and we went after them."

"So, it was Murdoch's idea to leave the fence line unrepaired and chase wild horses that time?"

"Yes, sir."

"Do you know why he did that?"

Johnny glanced at his father but Murdoch's eyes were downcast. "I don't know for sure. I think he wanted to apologize."

"Objection. Calls for speculation," Richards called.

"Sustained."

"Let's move on to Warburton. What happened there?"

Johnny sighed. "I ran into an old friend who was headed to Morro Coyo on the same stage as me. He told me about this job he had and asked if I wanted in. He didn't know I wasn't doing that anymore. After talking to him and another man, I decided I'd play along and see what was going on. I knew about Warburton and I was worried about him hiring guns."

"How long was it before you let your father know what you were doing?"

"That very night. He wasn't happy about it."

"Why not?"

"He said it could backfire. Worried that they'd find out the truth. He went on and on about how the ranchers had to stick together and how Warburton was some kind of adventure seeker."

"What was your response?"

"I asked him about legal means. He told me Scott was in Sacramento but he didn't think we could count on any help there."

"Johnny, what was your intention in playing this rather dangerous game?"

"I know men like Sexton Joe Hughes. He was Warburton's right hand. I knew that sooner or later, they'd come after Murdoch. I wanted to stop that from happening."

"Later, you teamed up with Warburton, didn't you?"

Johnny chewed his lip for a minute. "One of the ranchers bushwhacked Warburton. Shot him in the back. I was pretty mad about that. I went to the house and confronted the ranchers. They were all there havin a meeting. Things got physical and Murdoch and I had words." He stopped and shook his head.

"I didn't think it was right. Tellin a man he can't sell his own property. So, yes, I decided to make sure the cattle got through."

"That all changed though, didn't it?"

"Yeah. Warburton told Sexton Joe to kill Murdoch."

"You stopped him, didn't you?"

"Yes."

"In fact, you ended up having to kill a friend of yours to save your father's life, didn't you?"

Johnny bowed his head. "Yes."

******

Jarrod walked over and poured a glass of water, taking a long sip of it. He was giving Johnny time.

"Now then. Let's talk about the arguments you've had with your father. When did those start?"

Johnny smirked a little. "Day one."

"Was it always about the same thing?"

"No, not always. We don't seem to be able to agree on much of anything. He doesn't trust me."

"Objection, your honor."

"Sustained."

"Johnny, how often did you disagree on ranch business?"

Johnny thought about this for a moment. "Not very often. Usually, he'd just tell me what he had decided. A few times, I disagreed."

"Did Murdoch ever change his mind when you disagreed with him?"

"Never."

"What else did you argue about?"

Johnny sighed. "Everything, it seems. Mostly, I guess, my past and my mother."

"Were you aware that your father knew your identity two years before he sent for you?"

"No," he whispered.

"Did it surprise you?"

"Yes, though I guess it shouldn't have. He never made a secret that he hated it."

"And the disagreements over your mother. What did those entail?"

"He wanted to know why she left him. He wanted to know what she told me."

"And you couldn't answer him?"

"I don't know why she left," he answered.

******

"Let's talk about April 25th of this year. Tell us what happened in your own words."

Johnny took a long deep breath and let it out slowly. He felt a twinge in his gut just thinking about it.

"I came home late. The house was dark and I thought it was pretty early yet. I started for the kitchen when Murdoch called to me from the living room."

"You hadn't seen him there?"

"No, he was sitting in a chair by the fire. The back of the chair was to me."

"Go on, please."

"He had said something about me being late and I was telling him why. Then, I noticed he sounded strange. I walked closer and saw a drink in his hand. He said something else and I heard the slurred speech. I thought it was kind of funny. I've never seen him drunk."

"He told me to get a drink but I said I didn't want one. He pretty much insisted, so I poured a glass of whiskey."

"Did you drink it?"

"No, I didn't want it. I wanted to go eat. Anyway, he started telling me how it was his anniversary. I tried to get him to drink some coffee or go to bed but he wouldn't."

"Can you remember exactly what he said to you?"

"Not everything."

"Do you remember why he slapped you?"

Johnny swallowed hard and nodded his head. "Yes. He said something about wondering why she married him in the first place. By that time, I was angry, too. I said maybe it was because she was pregnant."

Scott's head jerked up and he stared at his brother. He closed his mouth quickly and dropped his eyes again.

Jarrod was a bit surprised as well, but he covered it well. "Do you recall what was said just before he hit you the second and third time?"

Johnny sighed, he hated this. "He was asking me over and over what she said to make me hate him. Asking me why she left. I kept telling him I didn't know. That she never talked about him. But he didn't believe me. He called me a liar.

"Then, he made some remark about how all I knew about was back alleys and cantinas. And that I should be glad they got married cause otherwise, I'd be a bastard." He stopped, his voice trembling slightly.

Jarrod waited as long as he thought he could before he gently urged Johnny to continue.

"He said she had planned the pregnancy. That got me really angry. I ..... I called him a .... son of a bitch." Johnny cleared his throat. "That's when he hit me in the gut."

"Go on, please," Jarrod said in a whisper.

"I went to my knees. I didn't see it coming. He said I was just like her, always trying to hurt him. When I looked up, he hit me in the face. I went on down to the floor. Couldn't get my breath for a few seconds."

"Then what happened?"

"I got up and told him he had better apologize to me the next day or I was leaving. I told him if he tried to hit me again, he wouldn't make it through another drink. Then, I walked away."

"Did he say anything else?"

"Yeah. He said maybe he didn't give a damn if I left."

*******

"Where did you go when you left your father?"

"To my room. I went to bed."

"How were you feeling physically?"

"Pretty rough. He hits hard. My gut was burning. I was surprised I fell asleep."

"Johnny, we know from Scott's testimony what he discovered the next morning. Can you tell us how you felt about your father when you realized how badly you were injured?"

Johnny shrugged. "I'm not sure. I was mad at him. I was ..... hurt. I wanted him to apologize."

"Did he?"

"Eventually, yes."

"What do you mean by eventually?"

"Scott and Doc wouldn't let him see me for several days."

"When you did see him he apologized?"

"Yes, he did."

"Did you talk about anything else?"

"We talked about my mother again. And how he couldn't look at me without bein reminded of her. He said he couldn't let go of the not knowin. I said I couldn't give him the answers he needed. Guess we were at a stalemate."

"And is that when you decided that you wanted out of the partnership?"

"Yes. I knew we couldn't live together. It was just too hard on both of us. But, I didn't want to leave the ranch."

"Why not?"

"I couldn't leave Scott and Teresa and Jelly and everyone. And, I .... love the place."

"So, instead of 'running', you came up with a solution that was feasible?"

"I thought so."

"No further questions, for now, your honor."

*****

Johnny closed his eyes and breathed a sigh of relief.

"Mr. Richards, your witness."

"Thank you, your honor. Mr. Lancer, there are a few points of your testimony I'd like to go over.   You said Murdoch would ask you why your mother left and what she told you." He stopped here and picked up his notes.

"Mr. Barkley asked 'and you couldn't answer him?' and you replied 'I don't know why she left.'

"That's right," Johnny answered.

"That was only half an answer, Mr. Lancer. So, what did your mother tell you to make you hate your father?"

"Nothing."

For the first time in days, Murdoch looked at his son. His eyes flared in anger.

"Mr. Lancer, you are under oath," Richards reminded him.

"I know that. She didn't tell me anything. She didn't talk about him. I told him that the night he .... hit me."

"I'm confused, Mr. Lancer. Why would your father think she lied to you if she didn't?"

"When I first met him, Murdoch told me his version of things. I said that wasn't how I heard it. I never said where I heard it."

Murdoch stared, flabbergasted, at him.

"Where did you hear it?" Richards was asking.

"From my tia. My aunt. My mother's sister told me he threw us out. She told me he didn't want a mestizo, a half-breed kid."

Murdoch leapt to his feet. "Why the hell didn't you tell me that?!" he demanded.

*

The entire courtroom was deafeningly quiet as Johnny and Murdoch stared at each other. One in anger, one in grief.

Suddenly, the judge rapped his gavel. "Mr. Richards, control your client," he admonished.

Harry Richards shook his head to clear it and placed a hand on Murdoch's arm, pulling downward to get him to sit. But, Murdoch never moved.

"Mr. Lancer, sit down!" Judge Cameron ordered.

Murdoch kept looking at Johnny, waiting for his answer.

"I'm sorry," Johnny barely whispered.

"Your honor, may I request a short recess so we may all have a chance to collect ourselves," Jarrod spoke.

"Yes, yes I think that is in order. The court will take fifteen minutes," he said, not bothering with the gavel. He disappeared into his chambers.

Johnny dropped his eyes to his lap and no one moved for several seconds.

Scott was stunned by this admission. His mind reeled. He was still trying to grasp things when he saw Murdoch move. He was on his feet in a heartbeat.

*******

Murdoch stepped around the table and walked up to the witness stand. "Why?" he demanded.

"Why what?" Johnny whispered.

"Why did you lie to me!?"

Johnny's eyes shot up and he glared at the man. "I didn't lie to you. When have we ever been able to sit and talk about any of this? When have I ever had the chance to tell you what happened? You're always so ready to burn my mother at the stake. You never gave me the chance!" he yelled.

"I asked you repeatedly ...."

"No, Murdoch! You never asked a damned thing! You accused! What did she tell you? That's what you asked me. Well, I answered you. Nothing," he stated, somehow able to lower his voice.

Murdoch stared incredulously at him. "All these years. All this time. For a full year you let me think....."

"I let you think? How did I ever let you think anything?"

"You said ....."

"I said that wasn't the way I heard it!"

Scott approached them both with some trepidation. He wasn't quite sure how to handle this but he saw the veins throbbing in Murdoch's temple.

"I think you both need to calm down. There will be no repeat of that night," he hissed at them both.

Murdoch's eyes never left his youngest. "Was this some kind of payback? Some way of hurting me for thinking Maria lied to you?"

Johnny shook his head in disappointment. "No, Murdoch. I don't work that way. This is pointless, as usual." He stood up and stepped out of the witness box.

"Where are you going?" Murdoch demanded.

Johnny glared at him. "Away from you!" He strode past the man.

*****

Murdoch took one step before he felt Scott's grip on his arm. "Don't," came the harsh warning.

"Did you hear that?" Murdoch asked rhetorically.

"Yes, I heard it. Did you hear anything else? Or did you, as usual, stop listening immediately?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Murdoch, Johnny is right. You assumed it was Maria who lied to him. So did I. But that's only because you never really asked him to tell you. All you have ever done is demand answers and shout those demands. I wouldn't have told you either!"

Murdoch stared at his son for a long moment and Scott waited until he felt the man relax a little.

"Why don't you sit down and give yourself a minute to take this in?" Scott suggested.

Murdoch dropped his head and nodded then took his seat. Scott sighed and walked back over to Jarrod.

"What happens now, Jarrod?"

The man looked at him, puzzled. "This doesn't change anything, Scott. The issue is still before the court. Johnny has to continue his testimony."

Scott sighed and went to find his brother. He didn't have to as Johnny walked back in and took his seat. His face was blank and Scott felt defeated. Here comes Johnny Madrid, he thought.

Before he could even try to talk to his brother, the judge returned and court was reconvened.

"Mr. Lancer, please resume the witness chair," Judge Cameron stated.

Johnny stood and strode to the spot, sitting down and crossing his arms over his chest.

"The court will remind you, you are still under oath."

******

Harry Richards had managed to get his thoughts together. Like Jarrod, he knew this proclamation had nothing to do with the reason they were here. Still, if he could, the man would have preferred to just go home.

"Alright, now. Mr. Lancer, let's address some other points of your earlier testimony. You said your father invited you to chase wild horses with him. Did he ever actually say why?"

"No."

"Very well. You testified that this Warburton had been shot in the back. That you confronted the other ranchers and had words with your father. What did you mean by 'had words'?"

"I got in a fight with one of the ranchers. Turned out to be the one who shot Warburton. Murdoch and Scott pulled us apart and pushed me outside to cool off. That's when Murdoch and I argued."

"About what?"

"He said I couldn't blame the cause because of one man's actions. I told him any cause that turned to backshootin was wrong. Then I told him I was making it my personal business to see those cattle got on the train."

"Sounds as if you threw down the gauntlet," Richards opined.

"Objection," Jarrod spoke up.

"Sustained."

"So, you decided then that you would side with Warburton against Lancer and the rest of the valley. Is that correct?"

"It wasn't ...."

"Is that correct, Mr. Lancer?"

Johnny sighed. "Yes."

"Now then. You said most of the arguments you had with your father were not about ranch business. Can you recall any that were?"

Johnny thought about it for a long moment. "Horses. I wanted to break and sell horses. Murdoch wouldn't agree."

"Why not?"

"He said it wouldn't be profitable."

"I see. Did Scott agree with that assessment?"

"I'm not sure. Scott was undecided the last time we talked about it."

"When was that?"

Johnny shook his head. "Had to be about eight months ago."

"So, you gave up on the idea?"

"For the time being, yes."

******

"For eight months. Seems a long time to bide your time."

"Was that a question?" Johnny asked.

"Yes, Mr. Lancer."

"Not really. Not in ranching. There are other things to consider. I understand that."

"Have there been other disagreements about the ranch?"

"I can't remember every incident."

"Very well. Mr. Lancer, when did you take the name Madrid?"

Jarrod looked up from his notes and listened intently.

"When I was twelve."

"Where did the name come from?"

"It was my aunt's married name."

Harry shrugged. "Why wouldn't you just keep your own name?"

Johnny dropped his eyes and sighed. "After what my aunt told me, I didn't want the name."

"I see. And when did you kill your first man?"

"Objection, your honor. Mr. Lancer's past has no bearing on this case," Jarrod stood for this one.

"I disagree, your honor. Mr. Lancer wants to breech his partnership agreement. His background and propensity for violence has been directly linked to problems with the Lancer ranch. I believe it is important to know what kind of man he is," Richards argued.

"His past was not a problem for the other two partners when the agreement was first signed, your honor. Now, all the sudden it is? That doesn't seem logical," Jarrod came back.  

"No, it doesn't. Nor is it relevant. Objection sustained. Mr. Richards, you will refrain from this line of questioning. Only those events that have a direct bearing on this case will be considered."

"If I may, your honor. The event that has this case before you was brought on by John Lancer's past."

"No, it was brought on by Maria and Murdoch Lancer's past. The objection is sustained, Mr. Richards," Judge Cameron reiterated.

*******

Richards sighed and nodded. "How old were you when your mother died?"

"Twelve."

"How did she die?"

"Objection."

Judge Cameron held up his hand. "No, Mr. Barkley. This is relevant. Overruled."

"I'm not sure what it was. She got very sick. There were no doctor's."

"Given your experiences since that time, could you hazard a guess as to what that illness was?"

Johnny raised his brows briefly. "Could have been pneumonia."

"Pneumonia. Or something else?"

"Yeah, like I said, I don't know."

"Mr. Lancer, I want you to take your time and think about this. Did your mother ever say anything to you about why you were not living with your father? Anything at all."

Johnny clenched his jaw. "No."

"You didn't think very long. Are you positive?"

"I don't have to think long. I've thought about it for a year now. The answer is the same as always. I don't know."

"How long was your mother ill before she died?"

"About a month, I guess. She just seemed tired all the time. Then she took to her bed."

"A month? That's a long time to have pneumonia."

"I wouldn't know about that. I'm not a doctor," Johnny replied flatly.

"You spent a great deal of time with her while she was ill. Did she ever talk about your father?"

Johnny swallowed hard and closed his eyes for a minute. "The last day. She called his name. That was all."

Hearing this, Murdoch buried his face in his hand. Johnny saw it and looked pleadingly at Harry Richards to stop.

*****

Scott was beginning to see something he had not seen before. He couldn't believe he'd been so blinded to it until now. He leaned forward to ask Jarrod to make this stop but Jarrod had no reason to object.

"When you came to Lancer, what was your intention?"

Johnny was actually relieved. At least he wasn't asking about his mother. "To get the money I was promised."

"One thousand dollars, wasn't it?"

"That's right."

"And you had no intention of staying?"

"Didn't have any reason to at the time."

"You met your brother on the stage, though neither of you knew that. What did you think of him?"

Johnny smiled softly. He even laughed a little. "Thought he was a dandy."

Everyone else in the room smiled as well, except Murdoch, who was in his own hell.

"Must have been quite a sight. The two of you didn't get along initially, is that right?"

"That's right. I didn't trust him."

"Why not?"

"I had no reason to. I didn't know him from Adam."

"Do you think he trusted you?"

"Objection. Calls for speculation."

"Sustained."

"No," Johnny answered anyway.

"You don't have to answer, Mr. Lancer," the judge informed him.

Johnny just shrugged and smiled at his brother. Scott smiled back and shook his head.

"Now, Scott agreed readily to your father's offer, didn't he?"

"Yes."

"But, you didn't?"

"No."

"Why not?"

Johnny stared at him. "Why would I? With what I had believed all that time? Besides, sounded too good to be true."

"You don't trust easily, do you?"

"No, I don't."

"Why is that, Mr. Lancer?"

"Experience is a hard teacher, Mr. Richards," he replied a bit sarcastically.

********

"So, you don't trust easily. How have you gotten along with the businessmen in the area since your arrival?"

"Alright, I guess."

"Just alright? You guess? Have you actually done business with anyone or has it been your father or brother?"

"Yes, I've done business."

"And have you been successful?"

"For the most part, yes."

"For the most part. How much education have you had?"

Johnny stared coldly at him. "Not much."

"Can you read and write?"

"Yes."

"Math?"

"Some."

"I see. Who does the accounting books for Lancer?"

"Murdoch usually. Sometimes, Scott."

"But not you?"

"On occasion I have, but not very often."

"Why is that?"

"Because I hate it."

Scott smiled at this, knowing how true it was. But he wasn't happy with where this was going.

"Mr. Lancer, why do you think you can run a ranch? You have no formal education, no math skills, little experience dealing with other businessman."

Johnny shifted in his seat so he could lean forward a little. "Why does it matter? I'm not asking to run the entire ranch. I'm asking for my third. What I do with it would be my business, now wouldn't it?"

******

"Mr. Lancer, please answer the question, not pose one," Harry rebuked.

"I know cattle and horses. I know the market prices. I know how to work the cattle, feed them, breed them, brand them, birth them....."

"Thank you. I get the point. But, that isn't all there is to ranching. How do you think you'd fair in the business world?" Richards interrupted.

"I think I'd fair just fine."

Harry wasn't getting his point across and he knew it. He didn't want to have to bring this up but he had no choice. He softened his voice and hoped Johnny would understand.

"Johnny, are you aware that there are some businessmen in this area who will no longer do business with Lancer?"

Johnny was stunned by this question. "What are you talking about?"

Scott looked at him with equal puzzlement and Murdoch looked up for the first time in several minutes. A frown creased his forehead. He had only heard part of the question.

"I mean, there are men who have stopped doing business with Murdoch."

Johnny just shook his head. He was stumped.

"Mr. - Johnny, were you aware of that?"

"No," he said softly. He looked at his father and saw anger on his face. Johnny assumed it was for him.

"The reason these men refuse to do business is ......"

"Harry!"

Everyone jumped a little at the thunderous outburst and Murdoch was glaring at his attorney.

Judge Cameron slammed his gavel down. "Order! These outburst will not be tolerated. One more time, Mr. Lancer, and I'll hold you in contempt," he warned, wagging his gavel at Murdoch.

But Murdoch was glaring at Harry and shaking his head no.

******

"Your honor, may I have a moment with my client?" Harry asked.

"Make it brief."

Everyone watched curiously as Harry and Murdoch debated in whispers. It was pretty much assumed that whatever Harry Richards was getting ready to say would never be heard. The look on Murdoch's face made that clear. They were wrong.

When Richards stood back up, he had a determined look on his own face. Murdoch was grasping the table with white knuckles.

"Now, as I was saying. The reason these men refuse to do business with Lancer is because of you."

Johnny looked at his father who had closed his eyes and was shaking his head ever so slightly. He understood then.

"Were you aware of any animosity in that area, Mr. Lancer?" Harry was asking.

Johnny felt sick and he shook his head. "No," he breathed.

"Has your father ever told you that business was refused him because of your ethnicity?"

Johnny hung his head. "No, sir."

"Has he ever told you business was refused him because of your past profession?"

"No."

"Do you think you would fair very well in the community, knowing these things now?"

"Stop this," Scott breathed out. "Stop it!" he yelled.

"Mr. Lancer..."

"I'm sorry, your honor. But, this has gone too far. Johnny....." Scott looked beseechingly at his brother.

Johnny looked at Scott and nodded. "Jarrod, stop it, okay?" he asked softly.

"Are you sure?" Jarrod asked.

Johnny only nodded.

Jarrod took a deep breath and stood. "Your honor, my client wishes to dismiss his claim."

"Thank God," Judge Cameron sighed. "This case is dismissed. Without prejudice, gentlemen," he made clear. He rapped his gavel for the last time and left the courtroom.

*

Harry Richards was standing near the witness stand when the judge left the room. "I'm so sorry, Johnny. I wish ...."

Johnny suddenly felt claustrophobic. He sprang to his feet and headed for the door. Scott reached out but Johnny moved his arm and warded him off with a wave of his hand. Ducking his head, he increased his gait.

"I had Barranca stabled in the livery for ya," Val called after him. "Shouldn't you go after' im?" he asked Scott.

"No, he needs time," Scott said despondently.

"And if he leaves?" Murdoch asked from behind them.

Scott turned to face him. He could only shake his head. He didn't want to argue anymore. He couldn't stomach it.

Murdoch looked at the doors of the courtroom and set his shoulders. He did a half turn and walked out.

The four remaining men gave each other wary looks. Scott decided he needed a drink and all readily agreed.

Finding Johnny saddling Barranca in the livery, Murdoch strode up to him.

"That's it then? You're just giving in?"

"Yep."

"Why?" he asked suspiciously.

Johnny stopped and turned to face him. "I don't want it anymore."

"No, Johnny. You don't give up that easily."

"Easily? This wasn't easy, Murdoch! I was ripped to shreds in there! Why would I want to have anything to do with you?" he asked incredulously.

"I thought the whole point of this was to be rid of me," Murdoch glowered.

"The point was to have something I can hold onto. Something I can be proud of.   But, I would still have to deal with you. I see that now. I know you don't want me in your life, Murdoch. I won't bother you anymore. I won't shame you anymore. I realized today what I was doing to you. I was trying to take away the thing you love more than anything in this world. I never meant to hurt you." He stopped and shook his head. "No, that's not true, I did want to hurt you. But I don't anymore."

"All the sudden this came to you?"

"Just accept that it did, okay?" Johnny clipped and turned back to his horse.

Murdoch grabbed his arm and turned him back around. He found himself staring down the business end of a Colt.

"Old man, I told you not to ever lay a hand on me again," he hissed coldly.

"I .... I wasn't going to hit you!"

*******

Johnny took a step back against the stall. His hand starting shaking and he dropped it to his side. Lowering his head, he tried to control his breathing.

"My God," Murdoch whispered, "Johnny, I'm so sorry. I ..... I'm so sorry."

"Leave me alone," he whispered.

Murdoch stood frozen in place.

"I said leave me alone!" Johnny said more loudly, but his voice was still shaky.

"I can't leave you like this."

His head snapped up then. "Why the hell not? This is what you wanted. To be rid of me. You got your wish, now go!"

"I ..... I only wanted you to be the man I know you can be," he said softly.

"And who is that, Murdoch? Scott's twin? Catherine wasn't my mother. I'm sorry you got a raw deal with Maria. But I'm *not* sorry she was my mother. She was good to me. She loved me. She tried...." he trailed off, his voice breaking as he turned his back once more.

"She never said a bad word about you. She never complained about her life. I guess she knew she'd made her choices. No sense whinin about it. Just like me." He turned then, fire blazing in his eyes. "Just like me! I'm just like her, right?"

"No, I don't think so. I'm starting to think you're not that much like her at all," Murdoch answered gently.

"Don't you do this, old man. Don't do this to me." He took another step back, effectively cornering himself.

"Do what, Johnny?"

"Don't get all soft on me. You made your stand. That's it and that's all." He cut his hand through the air like a knife.

"I'm not allowed to change my mind?"

"No, you're not. Not with this. I'm not gonna do this. I'm not gonna be pulled in ten different directions by you. He loves me, he likes me, he tolerates me, he hates me. I can't do it!" By now, he was breathing hard, trying to hold it all in.

"The truth is, I don't know how I feel about you, Johnny," Murdoch admitted.

"After a year, I can't help that because I do know how I feel. Scott knows how he feels. Your problem, Murdoch, is you're scared. You're scared to death of this very thing. Well, you made this bed. I sure hope it's comfortable," he spat.

*********

Johnny opened the stall gate and led Barranca out. He was half-way out of the barn when he heard Murdoch's voice, barely audible.

"Don't leave me."

Johnny's shoulders slumped, his head went down and he sighed.

"Johnny?"

"What?"

"Please, son. I ...."

Johnny turned to face him and Murdoch stared at him, his mouth open.

He waited what seemed an eternity; waited for Murdoch to say it. But he didn't. The pain was too much to bear and Johnny shook his head and turned, walking away.

Murdoch watched him go, unable to find his voice. He sat on a bale of hay and hung his head, ashamed of his actions. He had started this entire debacle and he saw no way to fix it.

There was only one hope. He stood up and walked out of the livery barn, heading for the saloon.

Murdoch stood at the swinging doors and peered in. He saw Scott and waited to get his attention. Finally, his son looked up and Murdoch waved him over.

"I need to talk to you in private," he said and headed around the corner to an alley.

Scott followed, a frown on his face. He didn't want to get into this mess here, in the middle of town.

Murdoch came right to the point. "I just talked to Johnny and he's leaving. You need to stop him."

Scott stared stunned at his father. "I do? Why?"

"We can't let him leave, Scott!"

Scott sat down on some boxes and crossed his arms. Looking up at Murdoch, he cocked a brow. "We?"

*******

"I don't have time for this. He's probably on his way to the ranch to pack. Now, go after him!"

"You seem to be in a panic, sir," he noted wryly.

"Are you going to sit there and be sarcastic or are you going to stop Johnny?" Murdoch posed.

"I'm going to sit here. If you want Johnny to stay, you have to get him to agree."

"I told you I tried!"

"Did you? How?"

"I asked him not to leave."

"And?"

"And what?"

Scott sighed and shook his head. "And did you bother telling him why you don't want him to leave?"

"I .... I tried but the words wouldn't come," Murdoch said, disheartened.

"Until they can come, Murdoch, there's nothing I can do. This is about you and Johnny. It's your relationship that's on the line, not mine. I can tell him you care until I'm blue in the face. He won't believe me. He may not believe you. But you will never know unless you find a way to say the words to his face."

Murdoch looked a little pale and Scott almost laughed out loud.

"What are you afraid of?"

"Exactly what's happening," Murdoch said glumly.

"Then I'd say you have nothing to lose and everything to gain," Scott said

calmly.

Murdoch took a deep breath and nodded. He walked out of the alley and headed back to the livery.

*******

Johnny rode up to the cabin, his heart still pounding. His breath still uncontrolled. He cursed silently as he slid off Barranca. Leaning heavily on the horse, he buried his head in it's neck.

He took deep breaths to slow down his pulse. He had to get himself under control. He had to stop this foolishness. It's over, that's all. It was a temporary ..... job.

He raised his head and nodded it firmly. A job. That was it. That's how he would think of it. Just another job that lasted way too long. He came here and did what was asked and now it was time to move on.

He pushed away from the palomino and started for the cabin. His legs felt weak and he leaned on the hitching post. "Damn you, Murdoch Lancer. Damn you to hell! I wish I'd never heard of you!" he shouted to the wind.

It happened then. He could no more stop it than he could stop the sun from rising and setting. He sank to his knees, hanging on to the hitching post tightly, leaning forward with his head bowed.

Tears fell unwanted and he gave up trying to stop them. Johnny let go of the post and knelt there. He let it all out. All the times he'd felt Murdoch's anger and mistrust. His bitterness and hate. The blame and accusations. The knowledge so recently found. He wasn't wanted. He wasn't worthy. Period.

His entire body shook and he gasped for hitching breaths. What had he done? What horrible sin had he committed? He shook his head. Stupid question. He knew very well. He knew it all. The lives he'd took. The blood. Even being born, evidently.

How long he stayed there, he hadn't a clue. Soon enough, the tears abated and he sucked in a breath. Wiping his face angrily, he stood up and walked inside.

******

Murdoch rode toward the cabin, his mind whirling. How was he going to fix this? That tightness that had consumed his chest earlier in the day was still there. He felt like he couldn't breathe.

He pulled to a stop and sat there for a minute, trying to think. He knew he had to get himself together before facing Johnny. He knew with everything in him, this was his last chance.

He couldn't make Johnny stay. He couldn't bear for him to leave. Why had he done this to his son? Murdoch dismounted and walked over to lean against a tree. He closed his eyes and prayed for guidance.

Knowing he deserved no help from above, still he prayed hard. He went over it all again in his mind. Starting at the beginning. That first day. God! How he had looked forward to them coming home. Then he went about summarily destroying it all. What the hell is wrong with me?

He sat down, his knees shaking, and pulled them up close to his chest. Think, man! And he did. But the only thing he could think of, see in his mind, was Johnny's face.

Sitting there on that stand, answering those degrading questions. The look on his face when he pulled that gun. When he turned back that last time in the livery. Murdoch felt the tears spring up and he let them flow.

For the first time since Maria left, he allowed himself to cry openly. He forced himself to focus and try to come up with a solution. Okay, work this problem out, Murdoch, he thought.

Shaking his head, he stopped. No, I can't look at this like a business problem. That's been the trouble all along. I have to face the real issues. I have to be honest with Johnny. Completely honest once and for all. If he'll even listen to me.

That thought brought the heaviness back to his chest. What if he won't listen? What if he just rides away? Or worse, what if he's already gone? I'll never find him then. Stomach churning, Murdoch got up and mounted his horse. He dug in his heels and took off at a gallop.

*****

Johnny packed his belongings quickly. He wanted to get to the hacienda and get the rest of his things before Murdoch got back from town. But, standing there on the porch, his legs felt weak again. He sat down in the rocking chair and closed his eyes.

Pinching his nose, he then swiped his face. He looked out over the land that he loved so much and sighed. He felt like crying again and he had to laugh at himself.

One year ago, he would have belted anyone that told him he would love his father. One year ago, he would have put a bullet in the man's head. One year ago.

One year ago, he didn't have a brother, a home, a family. Now, he still didn't. Scott would always be in his heart but he couldn't be in his life. It hurt worse than anything he could ever imagine. Almost. To have his father admit he cared nothing for him hurt worse. He reckoned it was because it wasn't something he had to imagine, it was true.

He thought about where he would go, what he would do. The plain truth of it was, he knew exactly. He didn't want it anymore. Hell, when had he ever really? In the beginning, he reckoned. In the beginning he'd wanted nothing more. Now, that life tasted bitter in his mouth.

He thought he may as well blame that on Murdoch, too. But he couldn't. He'd let himself get suckered in. Let his emotions overrule his head. He'd known all along, hadn't he? All he had to do was look at Murdoch and he knew. Still, he thought there had been times when it seemed different, better. But was that an illusion? A dream? A wish?

No answers. He shook his head. It always came back to that. No answers. Well, he had sat there too long. He thought he should get going and get it over with. He actually shuddered a little thinking of Teresa. Well, he'd get himself together before he got to the house.

As he stood, he saw a rider top the ridge. Johnny's mouth fell open when he saw who it was.

*

He stood on the porch with his saddlebags slung over his left shoulder. Leaning his right against the post, he watched the man ride in. He breathed out loudly through his nose, his stomach knotting up again.

Murdoch dismounted and tied off his horse. He stood beside the animal and looked at Johnny. His eyes darted around then fell back on his son.

"I was hoping I'd catch you," he started.

"Almost didn't."

"I, um, I'd like to talk to you. Do you have a minute?"

"About what?"

"Could we go inside?"

Johnny looked intensely at him, seeming to consider. He shrugged his shoulders and pushed himself away from the post. "Come on in."

When Johnny turned to go inside, Murdoch sighed and smiled just a little. One hurdle over, now the really hard part.

The cabin wasn't much. Just a big room with a cot in one corner, table and kitchenware opposite. One wooden chair by the fireplace which was cold now. Johnny dropped his saddlebags by the door and walked over, taking a seat at the table.

Murdoch strode over and joined him, sitting across from his son. He placed his hands on the tabletop, then dropped them to his lap. Johnny sat with his arms on the table, hands clasped together. He seemed relaxed. He wasn't.

He waited for what seemed an hour for Murdoch to say something. He figured there was some legal matter to be cleared up. But the longer it took his father to speak, the more unsure he became.

"Johnny, I ..... I don't know where to start," Murdoch said, the frustration evident in his voice and demeanor.

"What is it you want to talk about?"

Murdoch looked up and his expression was melancholy. "You and me."

"Should be a short conversation," Johnny replied glibly.

"I hope not."

******

"What's this about, Murdoch?" he asked tensely.

The older man shook his head. "I don't even know where to start," he repeated.

"Just get it said. I got a lot of miles to make," he snapped.

Murdoch reined in his anger. He had no right to it. Johnny did, though, and he knew it.

"I'm sorry just isn't enough. I know that. I don't want you to leave. I know I've said that before, too."

"Yeah, right before you did everything you could to push me away," Johnny mumbled.

"What will it take, son? I've tried to think of the words but they all seem so ..... I don't know," he sighed.

"If you want me to fix this for you, Murdoch, I can't."

"How can I fix it? That's the question I keep asking myself. Everything I've done to you. Every dirty trick and ugly word has been for the sole purpose of hanging on the only way I could think of. I've been a desperate man, Johnny. I panicked, thinking I was losing you."

He stood up suddenly and began to pace. Running a hand through his hair, he ended up by the fireplace.

"I kept this picture of you in my mind for so many years. A picture of the last time I saw you. You were sleeping and I came in to kiss you goodnight. You wiggled a little and murmured 'love you'. That's the way I remember you. But, that's all wrong now. And I don't know how to get that picture out of my mind," he slammed his hand on the wall in frustration.

Johnny didn't move from the table. He played with his hands, staring intently at them. A lump as big as a boulder in his throat.

*****

"The whole time I was searching, that's the memory I held onto. Praying with every border town that I'd find you just that way. Sleeping peacefully. Warm, safe and loved. When I was forced to give up and hire the PInkerton's, I think my heart broke completely. I was sure you were lost to me forever.

"Oh, I didn't give up hoping. But, part of me knew it was useless. Paul said I turned to ice. I guess he was right. I couldn't feel anything for so long. I tried to get Scott back. Thought that might ease the pain, having one of my sons home. But I failed at that, too."

Johnny's head came up then. "Too?"

Murdoch looked at him, puzzled.

"Is that what you think? That you failed?"

"It's what I know. I failed to find you. I failed to keep you with me. And, I must have failed your mother somehow."

Johnny was stunned silent. He had never thought of Murdoch believing he had failed at anything.

"When you said she spoke my name when she died; I thought maybe she did love me a little. I realized then that I still love her. I never stopped."

Murdoch turned and faced his son. "I never stopped loving you, either. I never will. Somehow, I have got to stop seeing that child. I have got to start seeing who you are now."

Johnny's intense eyes pierced his father's. "You never mourned her," he whispered.

******

Murdoch felt like he'd been hit. The air left his lungs and he seemed to forget how to get it back in. "Mourn?" he breathed out.

"Yes, mourn. You never mourned her death. You've been too busy being mad at her for leaving you."

This realization stunned both men and they were quiet for a while as each absorbed this new thought. Murdoch felt the need to sit down so he rejoined Johnny at the table.

"I never had much of a chance to mourn either," he admitted.

Murdoch looked into the blue depths and saw the deep well of pain his son had been living with for far too long. He scooted his chair over close to Johnny's and put his hand on his son's shoulder.

"Maybe it's time we both did that. I loved her so much."

"So did I."

"That's not all that's between us, though. What I've done to you is unforgivable," Murdoch admitted.

"Why did you?"

"I was trying to hold onto you. I thought the longer we fought, the longer you'd stay. I know it makes no sense."

"You thought if I lost the case, I'd come back," Johnny stated.

"Yes, I did. I was wrong - again." He smiled wanly. "I don't believe I can remember ever being so wrong so often with anyone or anything else."

"Sucks, don't it?" Johnny deadpanned.

"Yes, it does. More than that, I hurt you. I am so ashamed of myself, Johnny."

"That's all well and good, Murdoch. But, it don't help. What you did today; I just can't believe you did that to me." His voice was soft and full of angst.

******

Murdoch dropped his head. "I should have insisted Harry stop. It was my decision, I can't fault him. I don't know what I thought it would accomplish."

"Exactly what it did accomplish. Making me quit."

Murdoch closed his eyes briefly. "I can't deny that. I've never felt so filthy, so lowdown. I can't believe I let myself do such a thing to my child."

"You did."

"I can't blame you for not being able to forgive me, Johnny. But, I want so much for you to. I want so much for you to be in my life. I love you more than anything."

Johnny dropped his face into his hands and shook his head. "Why did it take this for you to say those words to me? Why, Murdoch?" he pleaded.

"I don't know, son. I honestly don't know. I'm used to fighting and working for what I get. I just didn't understand that I didn't have to fight you. But, the love has always been there. I'm sure you can't believe that. All I can tell you is it's the truth, I swear it."

"Was it the truth what Harry said? About you losing business?"

"Yes, but I don't care. I didn't care when it happened and I still don't. Those people can go hang themselves and I told them that at the time. The important thing is, I should have never let it get that far. I should have never let you get away."

Johnny smiled sardonically. "Let me?"

"Well, I should have fought FOR you, not against you."

"Seems to me you fought for me with those businessmen. You should have told me about that."

"I didn't want you to get hurt."

Johnny looked at him incredulously. "It's okay for you to hurt me, though."

"No, it is not okay. It's less than okay. It's the most basically wrong thing there is."

*******

"Do you ...." Johnny stopped, deciding he didn't want to know.

"What?"

He shook his head and Murdoch laid a hand on his arm. "Ask me anything, Johnny."

"Are you ashamed of me?"

Murdoch's eyes widened in surprise. "Ashamed of you? God, no! I could never be ashamed of you."

"Then, what was the point of bringing up my heritage?"

Murdoch shook his head in disgrace. "Part of it was shock value, I suppose. Part of it was wanting you to understand how hard it would be. Mostly, I admit, it was to make you stop."

"Because I was hurting you."

"No, because I was hurting you and I couldn't seem to stop myself. That's what I don't understand; why I couldn't stop it myself."

Johnny thought about it but he couldn't come up with an answer either. What drives a man to such lengths? In his experience, the greatest reason was greed or fear. He looked at his father's face and wondered.

"You were afraid?"

"Terrified," Murdoch answered without even having to think about it.

"Of what?"

"That you hated me," he said, locking eyes with the younger man. "You did for so long. And I thought that had changed some. But, when you tried to break away from me. When you fought so hard to stand on your own I felt you didn't .... need me. That you didn't want me." He felt a flush of embarrassment blossom on his cheeks at the admission.

"I didn't think you wanted me. I thought you hated me," Johnny whispered.

*******

"Hated you? How ....." he stopped and shook his head. "That would have been a stupid question. Why wouldn't you think that? After everything I've done over the past year. I don't know how you've stood it this long."

Johnny crooked a small smile. "Stubborn, I guess." The smile faded and he frowned. "I kept hoping things would get better. Every now and then you seemed to ease up. Show a little ..... I don't know, something, that made me think there was a chance."

"Those few times I let my guard down."

Johnny nodded. "It wasn't all you. You can't fight without an opponent. I did my share of being an ass, Murdoch."

"When?" he asked and when Johnny looked at him oddly, he repeated it. "I want to know when you were ever an ass to me. Name a time when I didn't push you to it."

"I ...."

"Exactly. No, Johnny, this was all my doing." He dropped his eyes and stared at the floor. "I've forgotten who I was, used to be. I used to like to have fun. I used to like to joke and horse around. I used to ....."

"Be happy," Johnny finished and Murdoch could only nod. "You could be again if you let yourself."

"I'd like to think so. I'd like to think I'm not really the monster I've been acting like. I just don't know how to go about it."

"You need to get laid."

"Johnny!"

He laughed softly. "What? Forget how?"

Murdoch's face turned beet red. "That is not something I'm going to discuss with you."

"Why not?" he challenged gently.

"Because you're my son."

"So?"

"Stop that. Good Lord, it's hard enough to talk to you without bringing that into the mix."

******

"Yeah, I guess so," he sighed. "Still, something to think about," he glanced up quickly.

Murdoch gave him a chagrined look. "I appreciate that you're trying so hard. I don't deserve it but I do appreciate it more than you'll ever know."

"Look, if we're gonna do this, we need to talk about the real problem. I should have told you the truth but, well, I wasn't sure you knew exactly what I'd been told."

"Teresa told me what you said that day. I was pretty shocked, I admit. I just assumed Maria was the one that told you that."

"I can see where you'd think that. I'm sorry, I guess it didn't help you're feelings toward her."

"No, it didn't. When you walked into the living room that first day, I almost fell over."

Johnny bit his lip. "Yeah."

"I didn't handle that very well at all. I was .... nervous. Hell, I was scared to death."

"Couldn't tell. You just looked pissed," he laughed a little.

"I was, but at myself. I didn't know what to expect. And that mouth of yours didn't help. When I found out, well, I knew why you were so angry. I should have put a stop to it right then. But, I was a coward. I fell back on what I know best. Giving orders."

"Yeah, you do that real good."

Murdoch smiled. "And you don't take them too good."

Johnny smiled, too. "Never had. Mama used to call me a burro. Said I was mule-headed."

"You said before that she was good to you," Murdoch fished.

"She was, Murdoch. She did her best. She just seemed sad a lot of the time. She worked so hard. I hated that. I hated seeing her come home at night so tired she'd fall asleep sitting at the table."

"What about ..... the gambler?"

Johnny swallowed hard. "I don't remember him much. He was gone by the time I was about six, I guess. She did meet someone else after a while. At least she didn't have to work anymore for a time."

"What happened to him?"

*******

Johnny stood suddenly and paced the room. Murdoch sat still, waiting, hoping the boy would open up more. When he ventured a look, Johnny had his arms wrapped around himself in that all too familiar stance.

"She threw him out when she found out what he was doin."

It was so soft, he had to give himself time to absorb the sounds lifting toward his ears. "What was he doing?"

"Beatin the hell out of me every chance he got," Johnny spat coldly.

Murdoch forced down his anger and made his voice stay level. "How long did that go on?"

Johnny glanced at him then continued his pacing. Shrugging his shoulders, he answered. "I don't know, less than a year but not by much."

"And she didn't know?"

"No, she didn't know. He was pretty good at making sure he hit where it wouldn't show. And I made sure she didn't see."

"Why, son?"

"I don't know if you'd understand. She didn't have to work anymore. She could grow a little garden. She loved gardens. She wasn't tired all the time anymore. She had time for me."

Murdoch nodded. He did understand. "It boggles the mind what children will do to protect their parents."

Johnny stopped pacing and hung his head. "Sure does."

Murdoch stood and walked over to him. Putting a hesitant hand on his shoulder, he squeezed. "A lot of us don't deserve it. Your mother did, I'm sure."

His shoulders relaxed and he nodded his head. "Thanks." He moved away though. They weren't done, not by a long shot.

"Can you tell me about the two years?"

Murdoch sucked in a breath. "When I found out who you were, I was shocked. I couldn't equate that with the boy I knew so many years ago. That's all I ever had to go on, like I said. My memories of you. I .... I spent many evenings talking to Teresa's father about you. He nearly begged me to send for you. And, this is the truth I swear it on my mother's grave; I was about to when the trouble with Pardee started. Then Paul was killed and I was shot. It's no excuse, son." He looked up with the last sentence, ready to face the hurt in his son's face.

"I don't know about that," Johnny said quietly.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I can understand it was a shock finding out your kid is a gunfighter. And it would take some time to get used to the idea," he shrugged.

"It was six months before I made the decision. Then almost another year before I was well enough and they could find you again," he admitted.

"Six months isn't so bad," Johnny shrugged again.

*****

"You really are being too understanding about all this," Murdoch marveled.

"I think the biggest problem we have isn't what we've done, it's that we kept it a secret. We let each other think whatever and that's usually always worse than the truth of a thing."

"That's the most insightful thing I've ever heard," Murdoch smiled.

Johnny snorted. "Don't get too excited. I don't always have such great ideas."

"Can you tell me about your aunt? I don't remember Maria ever mentioning a sister."

Johnny sighed and nodded. "Let's sit down."

Once settled back at the table, Johnny picked at a splinter of wood. "When mama died and I went to live with tia, I didn't feel like a part of her family. Her son was two years older than me and he made my life hell. She never tried to stop him. I guess I was just someone to clean up to her. She never showed me any kindness. I felt more alone then than I ever did when I was on my own."

He stopped here, frowned and swallowed hard.

"My mother was good to me, Murdoch. She loved me and spoiled me as much as she could. She was really protective of me. I felt pretty lost without that. It's something I've missed for a long time. That's why I don't like to be coddled. It reminds me of her.   So, you see, that's something I've really missed. Feeling part of a family." His eyes never left the table, the splinter now growing bigger as he pulled at it.

"When she told me that you threw me and mama out, I felt like ......" he shook his head.

"Tell me, son," he urged gently.

"Like my last hope had died. Something else I never grieved about. I only stayed about six months. Couldn't stand it any longer. I figured if I was gonna clean stables for a livin, at least I oughta get paid for it. And I sure didn't need to get knocked around every day by her old man.

"I kept trying to find something in her. Anything that was like mama. But, it just wasn't there. She always seemed mad. Like she resented me. I guess she did. They all did, that's for sure." He stopped and shook his head in disgust.

"She made me sleep on the barn. Actually, I was glad of it. Hell of a lot better company. I think she just couldn't stand that I was mestizo. I took off in the middle of the night. I left with one of Emilio's shirts and a name." Johnny glanced up at the end.

Murdoch looked up and frowned.

"Tia's husband. His name was Madrid," Johnny grinned.

"So that's where it came from."

"Yeah, sounded pretty good."

"It definitely has a ring to it," Murdoch smiled.

"Yeah," Johnny sighed. "But, I like Lancer better."

Murdoch smiled fully then. "I'm very glad of that."

********

"Are you? So much has happened between us."

"Johnny, if you never believe another word I say, believe this. I love you, son, and I'm proud of you."

  Johnny smiled as he looked down at the table, his fingers drawing circles on the surface. The splinter now abandoned.

"What?" Murdoch asked, an amused look on his own face.

"It's just funny. I mean we've been sittin here all this time talking and we haven't killed each other or anything."

Murdoch frowned, though. Something else had just occurred to him. "You said in the livery that I wanted you to be Scott's twin. Do you think I want you to be like your brother?"

Johnny dropped his gaze. "Yes, I do."

Murdoch sighed. "I guess I was so angry with your mother, I couldn't remember the good in her. When she left, I kept comparing her to Catherine. I guess I just got into the habit of doing that."

"And she fell short," Johnny mumbled.

"Yes, in my mind, she did. You have to understand how devastated I was," he said with emphasis.

"I do. Catherine didn't want to leave did she? I'll bet she put up a hell of a fight."

"Yes, she sure did. I wish I'd given into her," Murdoch said distantly. He jerked his head and looked at Johnny. "I didn't mean..."

"It's alright," Johnny waved a hand. "I know what you meant."  

"As for you being like Scott; the only thing I wish you were like him in is the opportunities he's had that you didn't. The advantages he was given that you went without."

"I don't know. Can't imagine myself at Harvard," Johnny grinned. "Tell me about her," he said suddenly.

"Catherine?"

"Yeah."

Murdoch raised his brows. "Well, she was beautiful, funny, smart, she had wit. She was a strong woman. Much more so than you would think looking at her. She was petite. And she could wrap me around her finger," Murdoch chuckled.

"Yeah? That's hard to imagine. Wonder what her secret was?" Johnny grinned mischievously.

"I'm sorry, son, but I don't think your charms would work on me like hers did," Murdoch said dryly.

Johnny laughed. "No, I guess not. She sounds like my mother, though."

Murdoch thought about this. "Yes, I suppose so. I can see some similarities."

Johnny took a deep breath. "There's something else about her you should know. You ain't gonna like it."

*

Murdoch stared for a moment. "Does it have to do with you?"

"No, not really."

"Johnny, if it isn't something that's affected you, I'd just as soon not know."

He raised his brows and stared at his father. "You sure?"

"Yes, I want to try to remember the good in her. The woman who gave birth to such an extraordinary young man."

Johnny smiled a little and nodded. "It's probably for the best. I just have to wonder sometimes if it's me you want to know or her."

"I guess I haven't done anything to make you think otherwise. I wish there were some new words to express how sorry I am for how I've treated you."

He sighed heavily and shrugged a little. "It's more than just me lookin like her, Murdoch. It has to be. I mean, all that stuff in court...."

"I explained that."

Johnny got up and paced a little. He turned and faced his father, hands on hips. "It wasn't enough. All my life I dealt with that garbage. That's okay, I got used to it. But hearing it coming from you was..... I just don't understand, Murdoch. You can't be prejudice."

"I'm not! It was a low blow, Johnny. All I can do is apologize."

"Whose idea was it?"

"Harry brought it up and I said no at first. He said it would show the judge you were disadvantaged and how it would lead to the ranch failing. I ..... I should have stood my ground."

"Why didn't you? I've never known you to back down," Johnny persisted.

"What can I say, son. I just felt ..... numb. I didn't want to be there. I wanted the nightmare to stop!" he said in frustration.

***

Johnny felt the heat rising in his veins. "Have you always been this selfish?"

"Selfish? What are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about how everything is always about you. What you want. Everything has to be done the way you want. Everything has to come in your time. Did it ever occur to you that someone else might not agree?"

"You asked me a question. What do you want me to say?"

"Only the truth, Murdoch. I want you to tell me the truth - finally!"

Murdoch turned around in his chair, his arm hanging over the backrest. "The truth about what?"

"About me. About why it has always been so hard for you to accept me. In the beginning, I could understand. There wasn't any trust for either of us. But it's been a year, Murdoch. And I don't think I've screwed up so bad that I don't deserve to be trusted. You've spent twenty years filled with anger and hate. I have to wonder when that hate turned on me." He made sure his voice remained steady. This was not the time for emotions. It was a time for getting to the root of things.

"I don't understand this, Johnny. We were doing so well. We were talking."

"We're still talking. Just tell me the truth!"

"Fine! I was jealous!" He declared as he came to his feet. "Jealous of him and, yes, you! I was always jealous of her. She was too beautiful. Every man in the valley wanted her. I knew that. I couldn't stand for her to be away from the house. I didn't want her going anywhere without me."

He turned away and paced the room. "It got to the point that she was lying to me. She'd go riding in the buggy with you and think I didn't know. But, I always knew. I .... I had her watched. I didn't ..... I didn't trust her." His voice fell with the admission and he couldn't face his son.

******

Johnny stared at his back. It all made sense to him now. He shook his head in amazement. "And you don't understand why she left?"

"She said she loved me," he mumbled.

"I'm sure she did. But, you didn't love her."

Murdoch turned and glowered. "How can you say that to me? I loved her more than anything!"

"You can't love someone you don't trust, Murdoch. All this time you acted like you were the one betrayed. But, it was her. You betrayed her. You pushed her away just like you push me away," he said in a voice of total astonishment.

"I never wanted that. I wanted her to stay. I was trying to ....."

"You were trying to own her. Control her. That's what it's always about, isn't it? You have to be in control of everything. But, you couldn't control her anymore than you can control me." Johnny looked at him with sudden and vivid insight. "You think love is control. It's no wonder she....."

Murdoch scrutinized him. "No wonder she what?"

"She turned into a whore, Murdoch!"

He stared at Johnny in shock. Swallowing hard, he barely voiced the words. "Is that what you wanted to tell me?"

"Yes. When she threw that bastard out, she couldn't find decent work. We were starving. She did what she had to do. It's like she just gave up trying to have any kind of life for herself. And you! You drove her away!"

"That is ridiculous!"

"Is it?"

"Yes, it is! You don't know what you're talking about! You weren't there. You can't know what was between us."

"You're right about that, Murdoch. So why is it you can blame me for it?" he glared.

"Because she's not here!" he yelled and stopped breathing. He stared at Johnny for an interminable length of time. Realization struck with that statement. He felt sick to his stomach.

"Dear God!" he whispered and made it back to the chair before slumping down. He buried his hands in his face.

Johnny watched him, wishing he could feel a victory. But it wasn't anything to celebrate. Getting Murdoch to admit his true feelings was harder than pulling teeth with cotton. He saw the big shoulders shudder and took an involuntary step toward the man.

He stopped himself. He would not feel sorry for this. None if this was his doing.

"Look at me," he said softly.

Murdoch shook his head and made no other movement.

"I said look at me!"

*****

There was no ignoring the icy voice and Murdoch lifted his head and turned around. Moisture brimmed about his eyes as he looked up.

"What do you see?" Johnny asked calmly.

Murdoch frowned. "My son."

"No, what do you see?" he asked again.

Still frowning, he tried again. "A man."

Johnny nodded and walked over, kneeling beside him. "A what?"

"A .... a man. A grown man," he answered with understanding.

Johnny nodded solemnly. "Not a baby, not a little boy."

He took in a deep if hitching breath and nodded. "No, a man."

"Don't you think it's about time you started treating me like one?"

Murdoch closed his eyes briefly and nodded. "Yes, I do."

Johnny stood up and walked a few feet away. "Good. Now, I owe you something."

"You owe *me* something?"

"That's right. Stand up."

Murdoch did so, his face lined with creases of confusion.

Johnny sucked in a breath and faced him full on. "I never did cotton much to drunks. The only reason you got away with what you did was because I'm a fool. That, and I felt guilty. Something I shouldn't have felt. So now, it's payback time."

Before Murdoch could take it all in, Johnny pulled back his right arm and belted him in the left cheek.

*****

He hit the floor flat of his back and lay there, stunned. He gawked openly at Johnny standing over him. Poised and ready to take him on if he challenged.

Murdoch rubbed his jaw and started chuckling. That turned into a full bellowing laugh as he made no attempt to get up. It was hard to laugh and moan in pain at the same time, but he managed it for a full minute.

Johnny stared at him like he was crazy. He thought he may have hit him too hard as he found nothing funny about any of this.

"What the hell is the matter with you?" he demanded.

Murdoch raised a hand to ward off his son's ire. "I'm sorry. It's just ....." he calmed himself and wrestled to his feet. Still rubbing his jaw, he grinned. "You hit hard."

"You deserved it," he stated resolutely.

"I did. I'm just wondering what took you so long."

A flicker of a smile threatened to curve Johnny's lips. "Been busy." His face fell and he turned and paced away.   "That wasn't just for hitting me. That was for mama. That was for what you did in court." Turning back, he eyed Murdoch hard. "You got off easy."

"Have I? Gotten off, I mean."

Johnny shook his head. "It'll take more than words, Murdoch. You just have to know how bad that hurt me. I won't ever let you get away with it again."

"I can see how much I hurt you, son. I almost killed you. I couldn't have lived with that. I know that's not all you meant. It isn't all I mean either. There is no excuse for putting my hands on you that way. Can you forgive me?"

"I honestly don't know. I want to. I have to know if it's even worth trying."

"I'm not so sure you can. If you blame me for what happened to your mother ....."

"Why shouldn't I?! You blamed me for it! And every damned thing else that's ever gone wrong in your life!"

"Vicious circles," Murdoch sighed.

"What?"

"I said vicious circles. We keep going around and around and end up in the exact same place."

******

"You said the past was the past. That it was over and done. But that was a lie. I'm sure you didn't mean it to be. And I could have let it go, I think. But, you couldn't. Or wouldn't. I have a lot to let go of, Murdoch. I've done so many things I'd love to just forget about. My mother is one of the few things I don't regret. So, when you start in on her, it takes away the only good thing that happened in my life until Scott."

Murdoch bit his lip. "I understand things so much better now, John. Things are clearer than they have ever been. I spent so many years building up this false image in my head. Placing the blame solely on Maria. You've done a great deal to help me see things the way they really were. It doesn't excuse what I did. But maybe now, I can deal with it from a better place. I will never bring her up to you again. But, if you want to talk about her, I'd love to hear your memories. I'm beginning to let myself remember what an incredible woman she really was."

"I don't think I can do that. At least, not right away. I just want to deal with what's between us. Leave her out of it."

"You're right. My relationship with your mother was completely separate. I never should have put that burden on you. But, you said not right away. Does that mean you'll stay?"

Johnny stared at him, doubt creeping in once more. "And if I do? What changes?"

"My attitude for starters. The way I treat you definitely. I have spent this time having an adult conversation with a grown man. I think this is the first time we've really done that. I see you so differently now."

"That's nice talk, Murdoch, but...."

"But, actions speak louder than words, right?" he finished. "I'm afraid you'll have to give me time to put my words into action, son. I don't see any other way I can prove myself to you."

"Prove yourself. Funny, I never thought of you as having to prove anything. I know you're right, it'll take time. I guess we'll have to wait and see, huh?"

Murdoch nodded. "Do you think that, while you wait, you could do it at home? Don't stay here, son. Please."

"Why is this cabin here, anyway?"

Murdoch smiled. "Paul used it when he first got married. He was planning on building a house but, well, things didn't work out. When Angel left, I asked him to live in the house with me."

"Wish I could have known him."

"So do I. If he were alive, he would have kicked my ..... rear into shape where you're concerned."

"Yeah?" Johnny smiled.

"It's so good to see that smile again. I've missed it. I've missed you terribly, son," he said with sincerity.

******

They fell quiet then, both taking a seat. Johnny noticed a chill in the air and he was surprised to note the shadows lengthening in the room. "Think I'll build a fire."

"I could use some coffee," Murdoch said and went about the task.

Johnny's head came up and he looked at the door. He stood from where he knelt at the hearth and walked over to the window.

"It's Scott. Should we be nice or let him think we're killin each other?" he grinned.

"Like I said, you have a good sense of humor. A little strange sometimes, though."

"Don't let that scare you off," Johnny laughed.

"Nothing could," Murdoch replied seriously.

Johnny's eyes danced as he smiled at his father.

Scott was relieved to see both horses still tethered in front of the cabin. He dismounted softly and tethered Remmie. Patting the horse's neck, he looked at the door. Apprehension adorned his face and his muscles were drawn tight.

It was quiet inside, too quiet. He wasn't sure that was a good thing. He wasn't even sure he should be here. But he had waited long enough after Murdoch left and he could stand it no longer.

The thoughts that had raced through his mind on the ride out had him nearly exhausted. He wasn't really sure he was up to another ten rounds in the Lancer war.

He had tried to think of something new and brilliant to say to them both but it hadn't come. The same arguments filled his head. The same words that neither ever seemed to listen to. He had to wonder why he tried so hard.

He shook his head ruefully. He knew why. It was purely selfish. He needed them both. But, if he had to choose, he knew what that choice would be.

"What's he doing?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny was peering through the curtain, standing aside from the window. "Oh, he's standing out there petting Remmie. Trying to decide what he's gonna say. Working out his arguments."

Murdoch chuckled. "You know him so well."

Johnny dropped his head. "Yeah, sometimes. Not so much others. Sad truth is, I've seen him do this way too many times."

Murdoch grimaced. "I think that needs to stop, too."

"Yep, and no time like the present." Taking a deep breath, Johnny took the two steps to the door and opened it.

*

"You gonna stand out there and watch the grass grow all night, Boston?"

Scott's head jerked up at the sound of the door opening. He had been deep in his thoughts. So much so that he forgot for a moment what he was doing. Looking a bit embarrassed, he smiled lightly.

"Someone has to."

Johnny raised his brows. "They do? Wouldn't mind that job, myself. Come on in."

While the brothers were having their exchange, Murdoch poured the coffee.

Scott crossed the threshold, removing his hat. He nodded curtly at Murdoch and tried to get a feel for the atmosphere in the room. It didn't seem tense and he could smell no gunpowder. A slight smile threatened but he squashed it.

"What have you two been up to?" he asked as nonchalantly as he could.

"Oh, just talking," Murdoch replied. His face was blank.

Scott turned to Johnny and found the same expression on his face.

"Talking about what?"

Still standing near the closed door, Johnny reached up and rested his hand on the frame. "Oh, this and that."

Scott sighed. He was very near reaching the end of his rope. "I see. Well, I just stopped by to see how things were. I guess I'll go on home."

He turned and walked to the door but Johnny stepped in front of it. "There's something we want to talk to you about, Boston."

Scott stared at him. Johnny's eyes did not hold that teasing sparkle. He looked dead serious. Not a man to be intimidated, Scott held the stare.

"What would that be?"

"Sit down, son. This might take a minute."

Scott looked back at his father and nodded, walking to the table with trepidation.

He settled in and Johnny joined them.

********

Murdoch rested his arms on the table and folded his hands. His forehead was creased in thought.

"Son, Johnny and I think you need to stop interfering."

Scott felt like he had swallowed a frog. He opened his mouth but had no chance to speak.

"That's right. It's not your job to try and make things right with us," Johnny spoke.

"Is that right?" Scott said indignantly.

"Yes, that's right. While we appreciate your concern, you can't fix us," Murdoch said quite firmly.

"Yeah, it ain't your place."

Scott took a deep breath, tightened his jaw and stood up. "Well, you'll forgive me for being so overbearing. I certainly didn't mean to stick my nose in. I'll just see you both back at the house." He turned on his heel and stepped to the door.

His hand in the knob, Scott hesitated. "You are coming home, aren't you, Johnny?"

When he didn't receive an answer, he turned back to see his brother looking at him with a darkness in his eyes.

Scott released the doorknob and sat back down at the table. "Johnny?"

Murdoch, too, was looking expectantly at his youngest.

"We've come a long way. I think we still need to work on some things."

******

"Is it enough to get us all under the same roof?" Scott asked for clarification.

They both turned to Johnny who sighed lightly.

"I'd like to finish what we started tonight. But, I think it's best if we do it here and now."

Murdoch bowed his head and nodded.

"Scott, would you mind?" Johnny asked.

"Not at all, brother. I think it's safe to leave you alone together," he smiled. Once more, he approached the door. This time he opened it. Turning sideways, he spoke. "Just remember, there are more people involved than you two."

With that, he quietly closed the door behind him.

"He's right about that," Johnny said.

"I know. The whole family has been affected by my stupidity," Murdoch said gently.

Johnny raised a brow and looked at him. "Murdoch, do you like me?" he asked bluntly.

*******

He looked oddly at his son. Confused by the question. "I told you, I love you, son."

"I know but, do you like me? I mean, if you met me and didn't know I was your kid, would you like me as a man?"

Understanding dawned and Murdoch nodded to show it. He thought about the question. Unwilling to blurt out an answer lest it be seen as too hasty.

"Well, let me see. You're smart, funny, generous, caring. Yes, I do like you, Johnny," he smiled as if just realizing this very thing.

"I like you, too," Johnny said softly.

"Why?" he asked, really wanting to know.

Johnny grinned a bit. "You're honest and fair. You work hard. You're proud, caring, smart. You're even funny sometimes."

"That pride isn't such a good thing," Murdoch said morosely.

"Yes, it is. Too much probably isn't. I think that's part of the problem with me. You have too much pride around me." He spoke gently, hoping not to awaken the bear that was his father's ire.

"Yes, too proud to admit what I've done. Too proud to accept that I was wrong," he sighed and stood. He picked up his coffee cup and walked over to the sink. "This is the worst coffee I've ever made."

Johnny laughed softly. "Those beans've probably been around since Paul lived here."

"Thanks for warning me," Murdoch gibed.

"Didn't even think about it. I kept tellin myself I was gonna get more supplies but, it just hasnâ€t happened."

"Maybe you were thinking you wouldn't be here that long?"

Johnny dropped his eyes. "Maybe."

******

Murdoch rejoined him at the table. "Would you have gone back to that life?"

He shrugged a little. "Not much else for me."

"Oh, Johnny, that's not true. You have so many talents, son."

His eyes came up, a bit surprised. "Like what?"

"Horses, cattle, building things. You have an artistic touch," Murdoch smiled.

"And when exactly did you notice this?"

Murdoch could only gawk at him. Surprised himself that he knew these things. "Good Lord. You don't think I actually paid attention, do you?" he feigned.

"Hard to believe," Johnny deadpanned.

Murdoch fell quiet for a moment. "Do you think you could come home, son?"

"I don't know. I'm afraid if I do, we'll just fall right back into the same patterns. That we won't accomplish anything. And that just might lead us right back here."

Murdoch nodded thoughtfully. "If you really want it, we can split up the land."

It was Johnny's turn to gawk, certain he'd heard wrong. "I'm sorry, what did you say?"

"You heard me. If it's the only way that you'll stay, I'll agree."

Shocked speechless, Johnny could only stare. His mind would not accept what his ears had heard. Finally, he managed one word. "Why?"

Murdoch looked him square in the eye. "Because I'd do anything to keep you here, close to me. If not in the same house, then at least on the same land. All the talking we've done tonight has led me to one irrefutable truth. I love you more than this damned ranch."

******

Johnny's throat constricted and he couldn't even swallow. His mouth felt like the desert. But, more than anything, was the overwhelming realization that he believed his father. That gut instinct that had kept him alive all these years was telling him this was the truth.

"When did you know?" he asked.

Murdoch wasn't surprised by the question. "I've always loved you, son. But, I know what you're asking. When did I know I loved you and not the memory. I'm ashamed to say I don't know exactly. I realized it today when you left the livery. I panicked. Everything hit me at once then. I knew I had to do everything in my power to stop you from leaving."

Johnny shook his head, aghast at the concept. "I just want you to know that no matter what happens, no matter where I am or what I'm doing, I will always love you."

Murdoch closed his eyes against the stinging. "I don't know how you could but I think I'll just be eternally grateful that you do."

Johnny sat back and took a deep breath through his nose, exhaling slowly. "I'd like to stay here for a while. Maybe a few months. See how things go. I don't want to break up the land. I never did really."

"That's more than I could have hoped for, I suppose. Just ..... just don't isolate yourself here, okay?"

Johnny smiled. "Don't worry. I hate being alone."

"I know I have a lot of work to do with you, son. But, it's the kind of work I really want to do. The kind I'll work hardest at. All I ever wanted was a family."

"Me too. We have a lot more in common than you might think."

"I'm beginning to see that as well. My eyes are wide open now. I'll never close them again." Sighing, he stood up. "Maybe I should leave you to get some rest. Is it alright if I come back tomorrow?"

Johnny stood as well. "Sure, I'd like that."

Murdoch walked to the door and picked up his hat. He felt an almost uncontrollable need to not let this young man out of his sight. He needed to make sure Johnny understood. He turned to face him.

Throat tight, he managed to whisper. "I love you more than anything on this earth. More than my life. More than Lancer."

Johnny felt his own eyes water but he didn't care. This was the moment. That precious, fragile moment when it all became real. When his dreams all came true. For now he knew with all he was, he was home. At last. No matter how long it took, they would make it together now.

He would always remember it, too. That time, that fraction of time when it happened. This cabin, this night, were burned into his memory. Replacing all the ugliness of the past with the bright hope of the future.

His future at Lancer.

 

 

Continued in Breaking The Circles
2004

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