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Winj

 

The Final Straw

 



I'm not sure exactly how long I've been working on this one but, it's been a looong time. As most of you know, I don't do a whole lot of warm and fuzzy and this is no exception. I also don't do warnings. Sorry.
Some people use the phrase 'the last straw' but I preferred 'final' for this story.
My thanks to Geraldine and Lacy.


Johnny jerked awake, his heart thundering as he swung his legs over the side of his bed. Without looking, he pulled his gun from the holster then paused to consider if he should get dressed. He heard the pounding on the front door again and decided his long john bottoms would have to do. It was the middle of the night for Christ's sake! Something had to be wrong. That's all he could think as he headed out of his room and to the stairs. As he reached the top landing he could hear his father already at the door and trying to calm someone. He made it half way down when the boy at the door finally told the news. Murdoch was holding onto young Cal as he got his breathing under control. Johnny just stood there and listened as his entire body turned to ice.

"Doc sent me for Johnny, Mr. Lancer. It's Sheriff Crawford. He's been shot and it's bad. Real bad."

The boy's voice shook so much, Johnny wasn't sure he'd heard right but, of course, he had because they were both looking at him now. He met Murdoch's eyes and wondered what the man saw on his face to cause that pitying look. Johnny turned and headed back upstairs. As he rounded the corner, he ran headlong into his brother.

"What's all the commotion?"

Johnny kept his head down, knowing if he looked at Scott he'd be done. He shook his head and moved around his brother. As he reached his doorway, all he said was, "Val." Tossing the gun on the bed, he grabbed his pants and started dressing. He didn't hear his father as much as he felt him there but he also knew he had to keep moving. Just keep moving. He pulled his shirt on and tried to button it but his hands were shaking and his fingers felt numb and useless. All the sudden, he saw the two big hands move his own aside and start working on the buttons.

"The horses are being saddled. There's a bad storm brewing. It's windy and there's some thunder in the distance. We'll probably get soaked so you'll need your jacket."

Johnny looked into his father's face. Murdoch was still focusing on his buttons but he could see the hard set of the man's jaw, the tight line of his mouth and the deep crease between his eyes. Then, he was looking into the pale blue eyes. They were the only soft thing about his old man right then.

"Are you alright, son? Are you going to be able to do this?"

Shocked to the core by the question, Johnny pulled his shoulders back and let the ice return to his veins. He took a deep breath and nodded, walked over to the chair and pulled on his jacket then grabbed his rig. He slid the Colt back in the holster then wrapped the belt around his hips. The motion was easy and methodical as he buckled the gun belt snuggly and more easily than he'd gotten dressed. The thought flew through his mind but he couldn't linger on it. He had to go.

"Son, your boots."

He looked at his feet and sighed then sat down and pulled the boots on. He wished he hadn't done that. Now, he had to stand back up. His legs were like jelly as it was. Dammit, get hold of yourself, Madrid! Val needs you! That thought had not entered his mind until that very second and he felt ashamed. He bolted to his feet and turned to the door. Scott was standing there watching him with the same sort of expression the old man had. He swallowed hard. "You comin?"

Scott looked at their father then nodded. "Don't wait for me. I'll catch up."

One quick nod and Johnny was out the bedroom door. He didn't care who was going with him as long as they got a move on. He knew that wasn't really true. Knew he was bullshitting himself. He needed them, especially Scott. Dios, please, please, please! His prayer went no further. He couldn't even think the words. He sure couldn't say them. Hell, he couldn't say much of anything. His throat was locked up so tight, air could barely get through.

Reaching the foyer, he opened the front door and a blast of wind hit him in the face. Frustrated, Johnny let his anger go and it fueled him out into the night.

******

Scott rushed to his room and began to dress quickly. As he turned around he saw Murdoch standing in the doorway. "I said I'd catch up. You need to go with him, Sir. If ...." he stopped, swallowed hard then took a deep breath, steeling himself. "If Val dies, I don't want to think about what Johnny will do."

"I know exactly what he'll do," Murdoch replied solemnly. "I'm not sure we'd be able to stop him, either."

Scott pulled on his jacket and looked up at his father. "I'm not so sure I'd want to try. Look, we don't know anything yet so there's no point in guessing what will happen. Just go after him."

Murdoch nodded and turned to leave then hesitated briefly. Lord knew he'd never entertained the idea of Johnny losing his best friend. Shaking his head, he headed down the stairs. That relationship had perplexed him for a long time but so much had happened in the past two years, he'd seen the friendship for what it truly was. Even though it was still an odd match to him, he couldn't deny the trust Johnny placed in Val Crawford. A trust Val had proven more than worthy of time and again. One that extended to Johnny's family for no other reason than that; they were Johnny's family. Apparently, that was all Val needed to know.

As he pulled the door closed with some effort against the raging wind, Murdoch got a glimpse of Johnny riding under the arch. He hurried to the barn where Frank was holding onto Nessie with all his strength. Murdoch mounted up and took the horse in hand firmly as he ordered Frank to saddle Remmie. Bracing himself, Murdoch pressed the big bay into a gallop and hoped he didn't find his son lying in the road on the way to town. Johnny's state of mind was obvious. He wasn't thinking. The young man was afraid and Murdoch couldn't blame him for that.

His son had had enough loss in his life. Enough pain and anger. Though he knew he could never protect Johnny like he had always wanted, there was still a part of him that had to try. Or, at the very least, try to cushion some of the impact on his boy's heart. Murdoch lowered his head against the rain stinging his face and prayed Val would pull through.

He was afraid, too, if he were honest. Afraid of what Johnny really would do should Val die. His mind could picture it so easily. The hard look in the eyes, the jaw twitching with barely controlled rage, the hands curling and uncurling at his sides. And then, the seeming calm would come and there would be nothing. No sign at all of what Johnny was thinking or feeling. His shoulders would relax as would his face and his eyes would ... die. Murdoch swallowed convulsively. Johnny Madrid would come to the fore and there was little that could stop him then. It was with some relief that he spotted his son just ahead. Maybe Johnny wasn't as bad off as he thought since he'd obviously slowed Barranca down against the storm.

Murdoch came along side his son but Johnny never acknowledged him. He wasn't sure the young man even knew he was there. Suddenly, as they turned the curve in the road that heralded the edge of town, Johnny took off again and it took Murdoch a moment to react. He was seconds behind his son but, Johnny was already through the doctor's front door by the time he dismounted.

******

As Johnny rode to town, he knew it was the Jackson clan. Had to be. Val had the youngest one in his jail for murder and the Jacksons had made it clear the boy wouldn't hang. The four of them together didn't amount to a good pile of manure. They'd spent two weeks making threats in the saloon about how the whole town might burn down if folk weren't careful. But, they'd been careful enough with their slathering. They'd never said they would burn anything. They never said they'd kill the sheriff. But that's exactly what they'd done. Johnny knew it with everything he was. Knew Val would never turn the boy over. And, he knew he should have been there to help his friend even though Val had told him to go home and quit bothering him.

Why had he listened? Stupid is what he was. Stupid and now Val was ... real bad, the boy had said. He saw his father come along side him but he couldn't look at him, couldn't face anyone right now and he felt the need to move faster.

Johnny pulled back hard on the reins as he neared Sam's house. He saw a bunch of people standing around on the porch, more huddled under shelter nearby. He was soaked to the skin but he couldn't worry about that. He didn't speak to anyone just walked straight into Sam's. He stopped short when he saw the doctor standing near the doorway to his exam room, drying his hands on a towel. Johnny saw the blood smears on the doctor's shirt then found his eyes. Sam was walking up to him and Johnny saw it in his face, saw the tears in his eyes and all he could do was shake his head. He couldn't move anything else, felt nailed to the floor. Then, he felt hands on his arms and leaned back into his father a little.

"I'm sorry, so very, very sorry. I did everything I could, Johnny. I did things I knew wouldn't work when all else failed but, he's gone."

The words sounded far away like he was listening with his head in a barrel of water. He stared at Sam then suddenly jerked forward, free of Murdoch's grasp, and moved around the doctor. When he got to the doorway, he hesitated, his stomach churning as he stepped through. His eyes landed on his friend then he noticed her. Mrs. Fallon, Sam's sometime nurse and young Cal's mother, with cloth in hand, cleaning up.

"Leave us alone." He knew his voice was cold and hard but he didn't care. He just needed her to get out and right now. And she did, staring at him the whole time like he was some kind of monster. He shook his head as he heard the door click closed then slowly walked to the table where his best friend lay.

Johnny felt like he was in a dream, none of it was real. He stared at Val's pale face, waiting for a smile to crack and for him to open his eyes, make some stupid joke and ride him for falling for the whole thing. But, Val's face didn't move. His eyes trailed to the sheet over Val's chest and he reached out, pulling it back and sucking in a breath. He counted them. Six. Six fucking bullet holes in the chest and belly. He felt his face turn hot, could feel his veins throbbing with barely controlled rage as he stared at the holes.

Finally, he nodded his head and looked back at Val's face. Leaning in, he put a hand on the man's head then bowed his own until his forehead touched the side of Val's face. "They're all dead, amigo. I'll make sure they hurt and bleed a long, long time before they die. I'm sorry, Val. I'm so fucking sorry."

A sob escaped and that was the end, he knew. He couldn't stop it now and he cried harder than he had since his mother had died. His body shook with unrelenting pain in wave after wave as he choked on his own breath. He apologized to Val over and over in his head. He couldn't speak, couldn't stop crying.

******

Scott raced down the road trying not to think about what was happening to his brother or to Val. He knew if he allowed it, his imagination would run wild and he'd be of no use to anyone. The only thing that mattered to him was getting to Johnny. His heart told him his brother would need him very soon.

When he'd first met Val Crawford, he'd been less than impressed. When Val opened his mouth, it didn't improve things. Over time, Scott saw glimpses of the friendship between his brother and the sheriff. It took a long time to truly understand it but, he did now. He had his own friendship with Val, too. It wasn't as deep as Johnny's but he didn't expect it to be. He and Val shared something very precious - his brother. And Scott understood Val was a brother to Johnny as much as he was. At first, that had been a little hard to take but, once he realized how close they were, he felt honored to be included in that small group of people Johnny trusted implicitly.

As he arrived at the doctor's office, cold and soaking wet, he saw the looks on the faces around him and his heart dropped to his stomach. He walked into the front room to find Murdoch with Sam and Steve Watkins, the town liveryman. "What happened?"

Murdoch turned sad eyes on him and Scott knew. He dropped his head and closed his eyes as he listened to Steve tell the story.

"They rode in shootin up the air and hollerin like the devil himself. I was still in the livery and grabbed my shotgun. By the time I got around the corner, Val was standin in the street in front of the jail tellin 'em to get out of town. Before I knew what was happenin, all three of 'em started shootin."

Steve stopped talking and Scott looked up at him. He saw the man struggling with his emotions then he saw the blood stain on his arm.

"I started runnin towards 'em but, ya know how far away I was. Anyways, Val got off a few shots but ..." he cleared his throat and went on. "I started shootin and they winged me. Wasn't bad but it knocked me down and I hit my head on a rock. Couldn't have been out for long but when I come to, I saw 'em ridin out and Billy was with 'em. I made it over to Val."

"Did he say anything?" Scott asked huskily.

Steve glanced at him, still unable to look anyone in the eye. "He was out cold. I just picked him up and carried him over here. Sam was already comin out the door."

"So, it was the Jacksons," Scott ground out. He felt his own jaw twitch with anger.

Murdoch stepped up, put a hand on his arm and squeezed. "Johnny needs you."

******

Johnny felt hands on his back and he stiffened and sucked in a breath. "Get out." He'd meant it to be a shout but it barely squeaked out.

"I will, brother, if that's what you want."

"Scott," he breathed the name and reached back, finding a hand and grabbing hold.

"Stay or go?"

Johnny closed his eyes. Scott's voice was so soft, so kind and understanding and he knew his brother would feel no slight if he said to go. But he didn't want Scott to leave. He couldn't have dealt with anyone else but, he needed Scott. "Stay, please." He felt his brother closer now, leaning over him, wrapping his free arm around him and the tears started again.

Scott stayed just like that until Johnny moved. When he finally straightened up, Scott was still there, close behind him. He pulled the sheet back over Val's chest, ran a hand over the man's unkempt curly hair then patted his stubbled cheek. One stuttering breath, a sniff and he wiped his nose before turning to face his brother. Johnny didn't know in that moment what possessed him but he pulled Scott in and hugged him close. When he did let go, he managed to look at his brother.

"It was the Jacksons?"

Scott only nodded and Johnny understood why he'd needed to hug his brother. His words explained what his mind allowed now. "Goodbye, Scott."

"Don't, Johnny. Don't say that. We'll find them. We'll make them pay."

He almost smirked but the look of pain on his brother's face stopped him. "I'm sorry. I can't let this go. I can't do this your way or Murdoch's way. Look at him. Look what they did to him. They cut him to pieces!" His voice started trembling and he swallowed hard. "No, Scott. I won't stop until they've paid and it won't be at the end of a rope."

Scott grabbed his upper arms almost painfully and shook him. "Do you think Val would want you to throw your life away? You know he wouldn't, Johnny. You know he'd kick your ass from here to Mexico and back."

His vision blurred, the tears making Scott's face all wavy and kind of crooked. "Val ain't here!"

Scott pulled him close again and started walking, giving him no choice but to go along or pull away and he didn't want to pull away. They didn't go far and he found himself in a straight-back chair with his brother crouched in front of him, looking in his face.

"No, Val's not here so it's up to me to make you see what's right. I know, Johnny. I know what you want to do and, God knows, I don't blame you a bit. Brother, you have to think about us, too. You have to think about this family and your future. Revenge won't make anything better. Nothing is going to make this better. I know how much you loved him. The pain will ease in time. You know how grief works."

Scott dropped his head, his voice getting thick. Johnny put a hand on his head. Jesus, but he hadn't given a thought to how anyone else would be feeling about this. "I'm sorry, Scott. I know he was your friend, too."

Scott shook his head and looked back, eyes wet and a small smile on his face. "Yes, he was but, nothing like the two of you. You knew him better than anyone so tell me, what would he say to you right now?"

Johnny sucked in a breath and let it out slowly. "It don't matter, Scott. Sometimes, you just have to do the right thing no matter how hard it is. Val always tried to do the right thing. Look what it got him. I asked him to come here. Hell, I guilted him into it. All because of what I wanted."

"Bullshit, brother. Val came here because he wanted to be with you no matter how much grief he gave you over it and you know that. Don't do this, Johnny. I'm begging you now. Do you hear me? I'm begging and you know I don't beg."

Johnny looked into his brother's eyes, the pain so deep, the fear even deeper and he could almost feel how scared Scott was. He felt his brother's hands shaking as they rested on his own knees. Johnny looked down at those hands and prayed for some kind of forgiveness. All he could do was nod his head.

******

Somehow, Johnny ended up in the hotel, laying on a bed and staring at the ceiling. He vaguely remembered Scott helping him into the front room at Sam's and Murdoch taking hold and walking him out and across the street. He did recall walking up the stairs on legs shaking so badly, he was sure they'd simply give out any minute. And now, here he was. The bed was soft, he supposed, but what bothered him were the two men watching him like hawks across the room and whispering to each other. He was sure they were plotting and planning how to keep him down. Well, that would work for today maybe but that's all. Right now, he knew he was useless but he'd have to push past that. Val was depending on him. No matter what Scott thought his friend would say, Johnny knew better than anyone Val would expect him to do something.

He blinked then looked at his father now hovering over him. He waited for Murdoch to say something but he just smiled thinly and sat on the mattress. Johnny braced himself so he didn't roll into the man. Murdoch put a hand on his knee, still with that tight little smile on his face.

"We thought you might like it if we laid Val to rest on Lancer."

Johnny swallowed and his throat seemed to stick together. He couldn't do this. Dios! He couldn't do this! He turned his head and faced the wall. All he could do was nod. Pathetic piece of shit, that's what he was. He couldn't even think straight! He closed his eyes and shut them all out, shut IT all out and just tried to go quiet; tried to find that place inside him that would help him get through this and do what he had to do. He wouldn't allow himself to think beyond the immediate but he needed to somehow feel empty inside. He wasn't sure he'd be able to pull that off right now but to go out there in a fit of rage would be suicide.

Slowly and painfully, he started to feel it. He wasn't anywhere near what he needed but it was enough to get him off the bed and get him home - he hoped. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly then turned and looked at Murdoch. Of course, the man's eyes were drilling a hole through him. He tried for a smile, was sure he failed then sat up and lightly kicked at his father with his legs. Murdoch stood and made room for him. As he sat up on the side of the bed, the world tilted. Johnny closed his eyes until it passed then got to his feet, grateful they hadn't pulled his boots off. "I'm ready to go home now."

He looked across the room when he heard Scott sigh loudly. His brother's shoulders seemed slumped and Johnny realized Scott thought he'd given up on any ideas of revenge. That was probably just as well for now. Let them think what they needed to get through this. That's what he was going to do. He already knew who he was going after and about where he could find them or, at least, where to start looking. The only question for him was; could he wait until after the funeral? That very idea caused a hitch of pain in his gut and he pushed it away. He couldn't think of Val's funeral. Not now.

The walls were closing in on him and he looked around, finding his hat at the foot of the bed and shoving it on his head. He walked to the door and opened it then paused for a second before going on out into the hallway. He stopped at the top of the stairs and turned to Murdoch. "All those people gone now?"

"They should be, son. Everyone is reeling from this."

Johnny nodded once but he didn't give a damn about everyone. They sure didn't give a damn about Val until they needed him. Anger heated his face and he was grateful for it. Something had to get him out of this town and anger was a well-known friend. He took the stairs quickly and was out the hotel front door. Looking around, he saw groups of people standing around talking. When they saw him, they all stopped and stared. What the hell were they lookin at? He stepped into the street and headed for Sam's, a single purpose in mind.

******

He could hear his family behind him, their boots sloshing in the mud, their steps quick to keep right behind him, he was sure. When he got to Barranca he jerked the reins free and vaulted into the saddle. Settling the animal, he waited for his family this time but as soon as they were seated, he took off at a gallop.

The wind whistled in his ears and he focused on the sound, relished having something loud to keep his attention. He saw nothing as he rode, the wind stinging his eyes. Sure, that's what was stinging them alright. He didn't look back, didn't need to. He knew they were there, keeping pace. He allowed himself a moment to feel the love he held for his family before shutting it off. Maybe, he'd let himself feel it again a few more times in the coming days. But then he'd have to stop it for good. There was no other way.

As he rode under the arch, he slowed Barranca to a canter. He saw her come out of the house and he knew he couldn't face her. Johnny headed for the barn, dismounting in front of it and leading Barranca inside. As he removed the saddle and took care of his horse, he felt the silence around him. Murdoch and Scott hadn't followed. He was sure they were with Teresa, telling her and comforting her. She'd always had a soft spot for Val. He smiled a little as he recalled the man's shyness around her. Hell, around any woman. Johnny had always teased him, telling him he used it to reel them in. A woman couldn't resist that shy boyish charm.

He brushed Barranca a few times then stopped and leaned into the palomino, resting his head on the muscled shoulder. His eyes burned again and the tears leaked onto the golden coat. Johnny raised his head a little and wiped the wetness away. "Sorry, boy." He sniffed and started brushing again, praying Teresa would stay away from him. He wouldn't be able to hold it back if she started in.

He turned his head at the noise near the barn door and saw Scott walk in with Remmie and Nessie. Turning back, he went about his chore. His brother said nothing, just started bedding down the horses. Johnny knew Scott was waiting for him; wouldn't interrupt unless Johnny wanted to talk. He sighed a little and laid the brush on the shelf then left the stall to get some feed. As he scooped the oats up, he glanced over his shoulder at Scott. "How is she?"

Scott said nothing for a second then, quietly, he answered. "She's very upset. Murdoch made her lie down."

Johnny dropped his head and walked back to Barranca, filling his feed and water. When he finished, he closed the gate and leaned against it. "I can't handle being around her when she's upset. Not over this."

"We know, Johnny. We've already talked to her. She's promised not to ... you know, be all over you. How are you holding up anyway?"

Crossing his arms, he shrugged a little. "I'm on my feet though I don't know how. It's kind of like it's not real right now. Even though I saw ..." he stopped, his voice cracked and he cleared his throat. "Well, I'd like it to be done as fast as possible, ya know? Don't want a bunch of people hangin around anymore than we have to."

Scott nodded as he stepped out of Remmie's stall and faced him. "We thought day after tomorrow. That will give us time to get ready. Murdoch wondered ..." he grimaced, dropped his head then looked back up, "if you wanted anything on the headstone. Anything special."

Johnny looked away then took a few steps toward the door. He rubbed his fingers together then tapped his holster. "Amigos para la vida."

"What about his name? I mean, is Val his Christian name?"

A smile came suddenly to Johnny's face then disappeared just as quickly. "No, but, it should say Val. I'm gonna go to bed."

"Johnny."

He stopped but didn't turn back, had hoped Scott would leave it be. Just for today, anyway. Looked like, as usual, his brother had other ideas. He stood there, unmoving and waited.

"Nothing. It can wait."

He relaxed his shoulders and nodded then walked out quickly and headed up the outside stairs of the hacienda. He couldn't take facing one more person today, family or not.

******

Johnny's eyes flew open and he raised halfway up on the bed, looking around the room in confusion. Quickly enough it all came back to him and he let himself flop back onto the mattress. With a sigh he scrubbed his hands over his face then looked at the window. Jesus, was the sun setting? He must've slept for hours. He knew it was only around noon when they'd gotten home.

He got up and moved to the window, pushing the curtain aside and peering at the sky. Sure enough, it was dusk. He shook his head and walked to the dresser, splashing water on his face and trying to clear the cobwebs from his brain. He was hungry, that much he knew. Of course, he hadn't eaten since last night.

He moved to the bedside table and lit a lamp then pulled out his pocket watch. Almost six o'clock. Well, supper would be ready. Could he handle facing them? Not if they were going to try and talk to him, he couldn't. But of course they were gonna try. What do you think, idiot? They're just gonna sit there and stare? Shit! I must be losing my mind thinking all these crazy thoughts.

He sat in the chair near the window and leaned his head back. He still felt tired but he couldn't sleep forever. He wasn't dead. He squeezed his eyes shut. No, but Val is.

Reality washed over him and he leaned forward suddenly, moaning softly as he rocked back and forth a little. Damn, damn, damn! What the hell was he doin? Sitting here all comfortable and feeling sorry for himself while those murderin snakes were roamin around free as jaybirds! No, hell no, that wasn't gonna work at all!

He stood up and grabbed his gun belt, securing it around his hips with purpose. He didn't have time for mourning and funerals. Not yet. He had a job to do and no one was going to stop him. What the hell had happened to him? He never would've needed all this time before to pull himself together. He would have done what needed doing then, and only then, would he allow himself to feel anything. Lancer had softened him way too much. But that was all about to change. It was all gone now and he knew this truly was the only thing that could have driven him to this point.

******

He walked to the dining room slowly with his head down and slid into his seat. They were staring, he could feel it. He said nothing and started filling his plate. He wasn't stupid, knew he needed to eat then lay in some supplies. He couldn't just jump up and go on this one. So, he tucked in, hoping they wouldn't ruin his appetite by starting in. Of course, that was a pipe dream, too.

"Did you get some rest, son?"

He paused, fork almost to his mouth when he heard the question. The words were spoken almost painfully, like Murdoch didn't really want to say anything but thought he should. "Yeah, like a log. Just passed out, I guess." Hopefully, that would be enough. He shoved the food in his mouth knowing they'd wait to say anything until he could answer. How fast could he eat? The crazy notion roamed around his head for a moment.

"We should talk to Jose in the morning about the arrangements."

Johnny looked over at Scott with a frown. "Who the hell is Jose?" Scott gave him a surprised look, like he thought maybe Johnny'd lost it already.

"Jose Ruiz, the stone cutter who's making the marker?"

"Already said what I wanted. What else is there?"

Scott dipped his eyes then cleared his throat. "Well, his birth date or just the year if you know it. That's usually on a marker."

Johnny laid his fork down, swiped the napkin across his mouth and dropped it on the plate. He leaned his elbows on the table and gave Scott his hardest stare. He knew exactly what he was doing and he intended for them to back off. "January seventh, eighteen-forty. You know the other date and what I want put on it. Anything else?"

Scott shook his head and Johnny could see he understood. Now, he felt a little bad for being so hard on his brother but, he couldn't help that. He had to be who he was to get this done and he was well aware he'd never come back from it. That didn't matter. Nothing else mattered now. A knock on the door grabbed his attention but Murdoch shot out of his chair like a cannon and that merited Johnny's scrutiny even more. He stood and put a hand up to stay Scott who was making to stand. Once his brother gave in and settled back in his chair, Johnny followed his father, hanging back just at the corner to the foyer so he could hear without being seen.

"Cal, you're back again, I see."

"Sorry ta bother ya at the supper hour, Mr. Lancer. Doc thought you'd want to know only, I'm not to say it around Johnny."

Johnny raised a brow then he got angry. They weren't going to keep anything from him. He'd make sure of that.

"As you can see, he's not here. What's Sam's message, Cal?"

"Them varmints, the Jacksons, was spotted on Eagle Ridge earlier today by a hunter. Says he'd swear it was them and he didn't know nuthin about the sheriff when he told it. Doc says that's good proof he wasn't hopin to be a tall man, whatever that means."

He heard his father sigh and knew Murdoch wouldn't want him to have this information. Well, sorry, old man but it wouldn't matter. It surely does help but not knowing it wouldn't stop me. He shook his head and went back to the table.

When Murdoch returned to his seat, Johnny didn't hesitate. "If you're thinkin of sending a posse out, don't."

"That's exactly what I'm thinking. Gabe is willing to do whatever we need."

"Good for him. Tell him to see over the town." He raised his eyes and looked at Murdoch. "No one else touches them. No one and that's the end of the discussion." He stood suddenly and walked away, ignoring the call of his name by his father; the order to 'get back here'. No, old man, there won't be any more orders. He slammed the front door behind him and headed for the barn.

******

Murdoch stared at nothing as he heard the front door slam. He fell back in his chair and ran a hand through his hair.

"We can't stop him."

"We have to, Scott. He can't go around committing murder."

Scott raised a brow at that. "Murder? I suppose technically ..."

Murdoch sat forward. "What do you mean, technically? It's murder, Scott. What's the matter with you? I'd think you'd be the first one out that door trying to stop him."

Scott didn't say anything for a moment. He stared at the tablecloth then looked at his father. "Part of me wants to go with him. You heard what Steve said, Sir. Johnny doesn't even know that part. They'd hang for certain if they went to trial. There's an eyewitness to a lawman being cut down in the performance of his duties. Any jury on earth would convict."

"So, as long as we're sure of that, it's alright to go ahead and stoop to their level. Is that what you're saying, Scott?"

"I don't know what I'm saying!" Scott shouted. He took a breath and lowered his voice. "Not exactly. What I do know is nothing short of confining him against his will is going to stop Johnny from going after those men." He pushed his chair back and dropped his napkin on his plate. "And, I for one, am not about to do that."

"Well, I'm not about to let my son ride off on some vengeance trail. We are going to try to talk some sense into him. He can't take off now. If he doesn't go to that funeral, you know he'll regret it for the rest of his life."

Scott closed his eyes and sighed. Murdoch was right about that. All he could do was nod but he promised himself, he'd do nothing to physically detain his brother. And if their father tried it, he'd be on Johnny's side.

******

In the barn, Johnny grabbed his saddle and walked toward Barranca then stopped. He stared into the palomino's big brown eyes and shook his head. "No, not this time, amigo. You can't come with me." The idea exploded in his mind in that moment. "But, you can take me to what I do need."

He was surprised, maybe even a little hurt that he'd gotten the horse ready without interruption. Maybe they were going to let him be. Maybe they were in there plotting on how to tie him to his bed. He didn't know but he kept his senses on alert. Sometimes, his family went a little crazy with their ideas and he wasn't going to fall for anything tonight.

Still, he had to plan. He needed money and he knew where to get that. He needed a rifle, too. Most everything he needed, though, could be found at his first stop. The pieces were falling into place in his mind and he fell back into a comfortable routine. One he hadn't felt for a while now. A place where he could use his wits and sometimes just go by pure instinct. He didn't have a name for it other than the one everybody knew. Madrid.

And that place was talking to him now as he led Barranca toward the barn doors. He stopped and cocked his head to one side, listening intently. He gave a small huff then mounted his horse and walked to the barn doors. Leaning to one side, he pushed one door open, the one furthest from the house side of the barn, then maneuvered Barranca and pushed the other door open. Leaning low over the palomino's neck, he gave a shrill, short whistle and Barranca bolted through the doorway.

He heard his father's shout and looked back to see Murdoch and Scott standing one on either side of those doors. Yep, they were gonna ambush him. Turning his attention back on the road before him, Johnny pressed the horse for more speed and headed toward his first stop.

Anger rose as he thought about his family. If they thought this was some sort of game for him, that he was toying with them, then they didn't know him at all. The sad truth was, they didn't know Madrid. Neither of them had ever wanted to know that part of him. He had always hated the way they separated his past by talking like it was some other person. Like Johnny could just shuck off that skin and be a Lancer. Like none of it would stick to him. Because it did stick. How could it not? He was only one man, good and bad. There were parts of him that he didn't feel the need to show all the time but wasn't that true of every man? Didn't everyone hold something back some of the time?

******

He slowed Barranca's gait as he approached the small house. His heart started aching in his chest as he stopped in front of the porch and dismounted. He tied off the reins and took the one step up to the front door then leaned his hands against the frame. His head dropped and he closed his eyes, unsure if he could really go in there. But he had to and it was right. Of that much he was certain. Taking a deep breath, he pulled himself together and turned the doorknob, pushing the door all the way open and standing fully in the space. Part of him expected to hear that rough voice yelling at him to shut the damned door and stop lettin the flies in. He ached to hear that but he was met with total silence.

The darkness of the room engulfed him as he stepped inside and closed the door. He just stood there listening to nothing for several minutes. Listening and letting the memories fill him until he couldn't breathe right. He shook himself and lit a lamp on the table, keeping the flame low. He knew where everything was and went about collecting a canteen, Val's saddlebags then, finally, his rifle.

He held the weapon tightly, feeling the weight and remembering the day Val bought it. He'd been so proud of that rifle and he took real care with it. Always made sure it was cleaned and oiled and ready to go at a moment's notice. Johnny was grateful for that now. With a shuddering sigh he grabbed up the saddlebags and slung them over his shoulder then turned and looked around the room. Val's chair - his favorite he'd said. Johnny laughed a little. It was the only chair he had other than the two at the table. The Indian blankets on the bed gave him another smile. Then, he thought of the kids. Would they really care that Val was dead?

He sucked in a breath, extinguished the light and stepped back out into the night. Stopping on the porch, he listened once more and heard nothing. Either they weren't following or had no clue he'd come here. Either way, it didn't matter. He could avoid them as long as he wanted. He was good at that when there was a need.

He sheathed the rifle and tied off the saddlebags then vaulted into the seat. They'd probably head straight for Green River anyway. Which meant they would beat him there but that was alright. He was pretty sure they'd never expect him to do what he was about to do.

******

Johnny entered town through an alleyway and behind the street where Sam Jenkins lived. It was a short distance from the livery and he dismounted, walking Barranca past Sam's and keeping his head down. He didn't want to look at the building where Val had died but he couldn't help noticing the lights were still on inside Sam's. He increased his pace until he got to the back of the livery then led Barranca inside.

Quickly, he removed his tack and used it on the black stallion in the next stall. "I need your help, Milagro. We have to get the bastards that killed him and it's only right that you be there. Besides, I need a horse that won't stand out quite so much." He patted the horse's neck. "Yeah, you do stand out but not like Barranca there. He's just too light for what I need."

He led the stallion out the back, using the alleys and side streets to make his way to the general store. It had to be nearing midnight by now and he'd thought of a couple of ways to get what he needed. In the end, it was too risky to try and find Val's keys so, breaking in seemed the logical choice. It didn't take much to jimmy the lock and soon, he was loaded up on ammunition, beans and coffee. With Val's jerky, it was all he'd need or have time for anyway. He left money jammed in a crack in the back door so Virgil would know the culprit paid for his goods and the damage to the lock.

As he reined Milagro in, he cursed himself for not making better friends with the animal. Val always teased that the black would buck him clean off if he was of a mind. Johnny sure hoped he didn't take that notion to heart. He didn't have time for a lot of nonsense. He walked the animal onto the main street and looked down toward the jail. He had to go there. Dammit, but he had to.

It would be a mistake but he'd make no more after this so he figured the hell with it and headed to the building. As he suspected, there was a light on. He walked in to find Gabe standing at Val's desk looking at a map.

"Johnny, I'm glad you're here. Look, I'm really so sorry about ..."

"Whatever you're plannin, Gabe, don't bother. I'm goin after them alone." He watched the sheriff of Spanish Wells stand up straight and lock onto his eyes. Then, he saw Gabe see exactly what Johnny intended him to see. "Comprende?"

Gabe walked a little closer, his face softening. "I know you feel like you have to do this but, you need to think of how Val woulda handled it."

Johnny nodded his head. "Yeah? Val did the legal thing and it got him dead. I ain't a lawman and I don't care about bein legal. Whatever you feel like you have to do afterwards is up to you."

A frown came to the sheriff's face. "What's that mean? Do about what?"

"About me." Johnny just stared at him and knew he needed to leave here before Murdoch and Scott showed up. "Tell my family if they come after me, it'll be a mistake. I'll lose them and make sure they can't keep following." He lowered his eyes briefly and shook his head. "Tell them I'm sorry but it's all over now. I have to do what's right in my mind." He turned to leave then stopped and looked back. "Same goes for you. If you follow me, I'll stop you." With that, he walked out and closed the door softly then headed quickly to Milagro.

Once in the saddle, he looked down the street toward Sam's place and saw Remmie and Nessie out front. He shook his head and pushed down the need to see his family one last time as some semblance of the man they knew. It wasn't in him now, he'd buried it too deep already and that was a good thing. He kept telling himself that as he rode out of town. Yeah, that was a very good thing.

******

Eagle Ridge was south of Green River a few hours ride. Johnny knew he'd reach it before dawn so he took his time. He didn't expect the Jacksons to still be there. They had a little sense. Enough to know someone would be after them but not enough to realize who it would be. They knew who Johnny was but they'd never seen that side of him. Well, that was going to change and they were going to wish they'd never crossed his path, never heard of Green River. Hell, he was going to make them wish they'd never been born at all.

A scragglier crew he'd never seen and he'd seen some rough ones. Even the Deegans, who Scott's grandfather had hired last year, were upstanding citizens compared to this lot. They were stupid enough to be dangerous but the youngest one, the one Val'd had in custody, was the worst because he was not only young and stupid, he was decent with a gun. Not nearly as good as Johnny but, good enough to kill a man over a game of faro. And that's what got him thrown in jail to begin with. All over a lousy five dollars.

It had taken some time for Johnny to understand the value of life when he'd been a boy. As a young gunhawk coming up, he had few principles or, at least, he made himself believe that. No one would ever know how many times he'd thrown up after a gunfight. No one but Val, that is. Johnny had told Val everything about himself in the year and a half they rode together. He'd never had anyone like that in his life before and only one other person since. Even then, he'd not been as open with Scott. Maybe that was because he was older now and could put a lot of the past to rest. Back then, he'd needed to let it out in some way and Val had been his way. Val had saved him and nobody would ever understand that. He couldn't really explain it where people could understand, either.

It was a precious gift that Val hadn't even realized he'd given Johnny. And how could he tell the man without getting all soft and shit? Val wouldn't stand for that most of the time. But there had been a few times when they'd both gotten ... what had Val called it? Mushy. Yeah, that was it, mushy. Johnny laughed a little at that memory. There were so many memories, good and bad but mostly good where Val was concerned.

The bad had been things that happened to both of them but never between them. Oh, they'd had their fights and disagreements but, nothing that ever amounted to anything. He could honestly say that Val had never hurt him and he prayed the reverse was true. Was pretty sure it was. He'd never seen any evidence of it except for that one time and that wasn't his fault. When Val thought he'd been killed by that firing squad. But, he couldn't help that and hadn't known Val had even heard about it.

He grinned as he recalled that time but, really, he'd always felt a little bad about it. Letting Murdoch send that letter wanting to hire him in Green River. He'd listened to the whole interview with barely contained laughter. When Val had finally seen him, Johnny was shocked by the look of pure relief and anger on the man's face. When Val told him he'd thought Johnny was dead, he'd known right then the man had suffered. Val had played it off but it was written all over his face.

Johnny swallowed hard at that memory and pushed down the emotions threatening. He had to stop thinking about his friend. When he caught up with the Jacksons, he knew he'd have to be cold as ice. There was no way he could show those cobardes how much he hurt inside. No way in hell.

******

Murdoch paced the front room of Sam's as he tried to think of a way to bring his son to his senses. It wasn't easy when the other one wasn't as inclined to help. He was really surprised at Scott. He knew Val was a friend to both his boys but Scott was the levelheaded one. The one who was always ready to handle things legally if he could. He stopped short as the front door flew open and Gabe walked in.

"Johnny just left the sheriff's office. He said if anyone tried to follow him, he'd stop us."

Murdoch turned on his heel and stared at his older son. "Are you going to help me try to bring him home or are you going to let him hang in the end?"

Scott's eyes widened and he opened his mouth but found no words would come out.

Murdoch approached his son and spoke in a softer tone. "I know you haven't considered much of anything, Scott, and I know that isn't like you. I can only assume you're letting your own grief guide you. We both know how dangerous that can be but it's much more dangerous for Johnny right now. You see that, don't you, son?"

Scott sucked in an audible breath then blew it out as he looked at his father. "Yes, Sir. I see that. It doesn't mean I wouldn't like to tear that bunch apart with my bare hands but I'm not willing to let Johnny suffer their fate, too."

Murdoch breathed a sigh of relief then turned to Gabe. "How soon can you be ready?"

Gabe shrugged. "Half an hour. Longer if we need more men."

"Half an hour, then."

"Mr. Lancer, we might want to think about getting that posse together. Whether we stop Johnny or not, I still have to go after the Jacksons."

Murdoch shook his head slowly. "They're already out of your jurisdiction, Sheriff. All we can do is call in the U.S. Marshals. If you'll send a wire, Scott and I will get trail supplies together."

Gabe nodded then walked to the door. He stopped and turned back, a frown on his face. "I'm not sure why but, Johnny was riding Val's horse."

******

Johnny approached Eagle Ridge cautiously just as the sky was getting light. Even though he was fairly sure the Jacksons were long gone, he was taking no chances. They sure weren't trying very hard to cover their tracks. Any seasoned professional could easily pick up their trail. He found their campsite now abandoned and searched the area for any sign they'd left something behind. The fire was still warm which meant they'd spent the whole night here. He shook his head at their stupidity.

As he was about to stand up, he noticed a stain on one of the rocks making up the fire ring. He picked up the stone and rubbed a finger over the brownish spot then sniffed it. Blood. That's why they'd stayed. So, one of them was injured. Why hadn't he considered that Val would've gotten off at least one shot? Of course he would have given the chance. He hadn't even checked Val's gun. He should have but he just wasn't thinking straight.

Of course, it didn't have to be from a gunshot wound but, it added up in his mind. This was good. It would slow them down. Ragged crew or not, they were still a family and they wouldn't leave one of their own behind. Not after what they'd already done to free the youngest brother.

Johnny's head came up and his ears perked. Dammit! Someone was coming. He'd spent so much time thinking about Val and the Jacksons on the way up here, he hadn't thought about his own family. He was going to have to pull it together better than this! He set the rock down, turning it over to hide the stain and careful to place it so it didn't look disturbed then he mounted Milagro and moved off into the trees to wait and watch. It would give him a chance to think about his next move. He could watch them pick up the trail, see if maybe they wouldn't notice there was no trail for Milagro, or make a stand right here. If he faced them, he'd have to hurt them even more and he'd rather avoid that.

They appeared on foot, moving slowly, guns drawn. Gabe was with them. He sighed quietly. No one ever listened to him anymore. Gabe was a decent tracker, Scott was better and he figured he was going to have to face them after all. He listened closely as Scott spoke.

"They haven't been gone long. The tracks head down the south trail but I don't see Johnny's tracks anywhere."

"Maybe that's because he hasn't gone after them."

Johnny smiled. His old man was smart, alright.

"He came in here. If he didn't follow them then ..."

******

He pressed his knees to Milagro's sides and walked out of the tree line. "Then he must still be here," he finished for his brother. "Thought I was real clear with all of you about how this was gonna work."

Murdoch stepped toward him and Johnny backed Milagro up. "Don't even think about it, old man."

"I want to talk to you, Johnny. I don't want to have to strain my neck doing it. Come down from there, son. You can't go after these men alone. We're here and ready to help you bring them in."

"Bring them in?" Johnny gave a short laugh. "I'm not plannin on bringing them in, Murdoch." He looked at Gabe when the man made a grunting noise.

"I didn't hear that. Matter of fact, I think I'll walk down the trail a ways, see if they dropped anything besides horse apples."

Johnny shook his head at the lawman then looked back at his father. "Look, nothing you say is going to change my mind. You ain't comin with me, either. And if you try to track them on your own, you'll have to deal with me. That's gonna do two things. Keep you from doing what you want and slow me down. I'm gonna catch up to them. I don't care how long it takes and you can't be there when I do."

"Do you think I don't know what you're feeling, brother? All I have to do is imagine it's you back there on Sam's table and I know exactly what you're going through."

"Scott, I know you get that but that's where it stops for you. Try thinking it the rest of the way through. What would you do? Because I hafta tell you, I'd hope you'd be out after the bastards that killed me."

Murdoch took another step, bringing Johnny's attention back to him. "You'd want your brother to commit murder? Because that's what we're talking about here, isn't it, Johnny?"

A sigh escaped his lips as he looked at his father. He saw Scott move from his periphery and backed Milagro up again. "Nice try, distract and conquer. It's not gonna work. I'm riding out now. If you two want to go on a fool's errand, well, go ahead and try it. See what happens." He leaned forward, locking eyes with his father and making sure his voice was as cold and hard as he could manage. "What I do now don't concern you, old man. Either one of you. I knew when I left last night this was the end for me. I accept that and you'd better start accepting it, too. That person you call Madrid. The one you think is some entirely different man. Well, he ain't. He's me and I'm mad as hell and I'm lookin for revenge. You ain't never seen that and you don't want to. Nothing and no one is going to stop me. That clear enough for you? Go home to your life and stay the hell out of my business."

He saw the flicker in Murdoch's eyes and knew what had happened even before Gabe spoke from behind him.

"I can't let you do this, Johnny. I'll shoot you in the leg if I have to but you're not going anywhere."

Johnny looked at his father and smiled. "Nice try but you still don't get it. Shoot me in the leg. Shoot me in the arm. You're gonna have to kill me to stop me and that's all there is to it." As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he dug his spurs into Milagro, knowing the horse wouldn't abide that.

Milagro reared up on his hind legs then set his forelegs down and started backing up as Johnny tugged on the reins. He looked over his shoulder to find Gabe diving for a safe haven as the animal whinnied and snorted, bucking once before taking off at a run down the trail. He leaned low over the stallion and hoped Gabe wouldn't shoot him. He was fairly certain his family wouldn't but whether they could or would stop Gabe was another matter. It wouldn't stop him if he could help it but it sure would slow him down some.

He started pulling back on the reins after half a mile and eventually Milagro slowed down but it took some doing. "Sorry, boy, but you did real good. Now all I have to do is figure out how to stop them from coming after me."

******

Scott moved out of Milagro's path and slammed into his father. Murdoch's arms went around him and they both staggered but managed to stay on their feet. As he grabbed his father's shirt for balance, Scott saw Gabe come up off the ground, gun pointed at Johnny's quickly disappearing back. Without a thought, Scott dove atop Gabe, knocking his hand down and preventing him from even getting off a stray shot.

"Are you out of your mind? What if you'd killed him?" Scott shouted as he righted himself.

Gabe scrambled to his feet and rounded on Scott. "I wasn't gonna fire! I could see I didn't have a safe shot. What do ya take me for, Scott?"

"Enough!" Murdoch bellowed. When both men turned to him, he went on. "Let's just regroup and figure out what to do. There's no point in chasing after him. That horse is too fast."

******

Johnny figured they'd hold back, not be in any hurry to catch him up. Maybe even try to sneak up on him at the worst possible moment. Still, he needed to concentrate on following the tracks and finding these animals. He shook his head. No, they were worse than animals.

He felt like he hadn't slept much. Maybe that's because he hadn't. Those few hours last night were wearing off with all the tension he was feeling. His shoulders were tight enough to use as wire on a fence. He tried to stretch and loosen the muscles but it did nothing. He didn't think it would. Until he caught up with the Jacksons and made them pay, he wasn't going to relax. Then again, he wouldn't be able to afterward, either. He'd have to make the decision then. Stay or go. Face a possible hanging and shame his family or go back to his past for however long it lasted. Neither choice was very appealing.

He pulled to a stop and leaned over, studying the ground closely. The prints were easy to follow and that bothered him. Even with an injured man, they'd be more careful than that. He looked around and let himself go, opened his mind and let his instincts talk to him. And he was grateful they still had a voice. He knew he'd lost a lot of his edge living at Lancer but, it seemed it was still there when he needed it. Right now it was telling him this was a set up. He turned Milagro and headed east.

After half an hour, Johnny changed direction and headed south again. If he was right, he could circle around and find them. There was an old house not far and they'd have to stop at some point to take care of the wounded man. His only concern now was his family. If they'd followed him, they'd be fine. If they followed the Jacksons tracks, they could be in a world of hurt. He had confidence in Scott's abilities to track and Murdoch's sensible side. Besides, he figured he'd have heard gunfire by now if they'd run into trouble.

A heavy sigh burst from his lips. Dammit! But they were complicating things. They needed to back off, go home and stay out of this. It was a lot to ask, he realized. He understood their side. He just wished they understood his. He couldn't stay home. He had to find the Jacksons and he had to make them pay. For they'd taken something from him he could never replace. It would be no different if they'd killed Scott or Murdoch.

He felt the pain of grief try to rise in him and he pushed it down. Later. He'd deal with that later. Right now he was very near his destination and he had to focus on what was right in front of him. Right now he needed to turn off the Lancer part, pretend it simply didn't exist and be who he had to be.

He came upon a copse of trees and moved into them before stopping and dismounting. He wrapped the reins around a low-hanging limb and leaned against the trunk of a tree. Closing his eyes, he bowed his head and wrapped his arms around himself. Slowly, he let go of all the thoughts. It wasn't easy. In fact it was harder than it had ever been. Finally, he raised his head, opened his eyes and knew he was ready. He grabbed the reins and started walking. He was close to the old house now and it was time to tread most carefully.

******

Johnny left Milagro hidden near the back of the building and approached quietly. Gun drawn, he eased around the corner to the front of the house and saw no horses. The barn was a shambles and he could see inside it from where he was. Still, no horses. Damn, they must already be gone. If they'd stopped here at all. Could be they didn't know about the place. He decided to take a look around inside but he wasn't letting his guard down. He backtracked and entered through the back door into the kitchen. It was warmer than it should have been and he placed a hand over the stove, feeling the heat. He moved on to the front through the kitchen door. It was one big room sectioned off only by the way the furniture was arranged.

The dining table was nearest him with a china cabinet against the closest wall. There was a large empty space before reaching the sofa, two overstuffed chairs, a couple of tables and the fireplace across the room. It was warm in there, too, and he could see a few glowing embers still in the hearth. He couldn't be more than a few hours behind them.

As he rounded the sofa he saw a large dark stain on the cushions. He didn't have to get any closer to know it was blood and a lot of it. He raised a brow then looked around. There was another door that probably led to a bedroom. He walked over and leaned his back to the wall, reached out and turned the knob then pushed the door fully open. He heard nothing and peeked around the corner. It was empty and he stepped through the threshold. The bed looked slept in though the covers weren't turned back. Like someone just lay atop them.

He walked around the room but saw nothing more of interest. As he passed the window, he spied something outside and walked quickly to the front door then around the opposite side of the building from where he'd first approached. There was a mound of fresh dirt with a cross, fashioned by two tree limbs tied together, stuck in one end. Johnny walked over and stared at it for a minute then kicked the cross over, stepped on it and ground it into the dirt. "You don't deserve a damned cross, you piece of shit!"

He took some deep breaths and pulled himself together then turned to walk away. He spied a shovel left leaning against the side of the house and grabbed it on his way past. When he got to Milagro, he smiled. "You're a good boy. I was hopin you'd need to take a dump." He shoveled up a big pile of fresh, green manure and walked it back to the grave, tossed it where the cross had been then threw the shovel aside. "There. That's exactly what you do deserve."

Johnny turned his back and stared into space for a moment before returning to the stallion. He leaned into Milagro, surprised the horse allowed it. He'd forgotten himself, used to Barranca being there for him. Milagro surprised him more by lowering his head and nickering softly then making a noise that Johnny could swear was a mournful moan. He raised his head and stroked the black's cheek. "I know, boy. I know. But we gotta do the job. Then, we'll go get drunk. Just you and me, okay?"

******

Scott pulled back on the reins and leaned over to study the ground. As he sat back, he frowned in thought then moved the horse a few feet further down the trail. "Johnny turned east here."

Murdoch moved up beside him and looked where Scott was pointing. "Why? The tracks are headed south."

"Yes, but they're very easy to follow, too. It could be a trap. Johnny probably surmised that very thing and decided to go around, try to pick up their trail further along."

"You'd make a fine Army scout," Murdoch said.

A small smile flickered across Scott's face. "Well, we should follow Johnny's trail."

They rode for a while in silence then Murdoch spoke up. "Johnny isn't trying to hide his trail, either."

"Yes, I noticed that."

Murdoch gave his son a look of annoyance. "Why do you suppose that is?"

"Well," Scott pushed his hat back on his head, "I suppose he either doesn't care or knows I'm good enough to pick up his tracks or ..." he looked over at his father, "he's setting a trap for us."

Murdoch looked to the heavens before shaking his head. "It'll be dark soon. We need to find a campsite."

******

He sat on the rickety porch for a while and stared at nothing. He'd meant to be on his way but, suddenly, he'd felt worn out and beat up. So, he sat there and rested. He knew he'd be all right. Wasn't the first time he'd been on the hunt but it had never been so important before. With a grunt, he got to his feet. Knowing what he was about to do and that his family was tracking him, Johnny needed to stop them somehow.

Dusk was settling and, like the practical man he was, Murdoch would want to find a campsite soon. Johnny mounted up and turned back in the direction he'd just come. If they hadn't followed his trail instead of the Jacksons he'd be surprised, and not much surprised Johnny Madrid.

He smelled the smoke first and wasn't a bit rattled that they'd managed to stay so close. Still, they were sure to be just about ready to sack in and his timing seemed pretty good. Johnny dismounted and tied Milagro off. He took off his spurs and headed toward the campsite on foot.

They'd picked a nice spot, lots of trees and well sheltered. That was good for staying out of sight but it made moving quietly harder. He neared the fire and could hear their voices. Settling at the base of a large tree, he listened intently.

"I just wish Gabe had been able to come with us."

"He doesn't have any jurisdiction, Scott. Besides, someone has to watch the towns."

"I know, Sir. I'm not so sure he wouldn't shoot Johnny on sight after the stunt he pulled, either. Still, he's a good tracker."

"So are you, son. We should get some rest. I don't think we're too far behind him."

"I suppose. I'll take first watch."

Johnny grimaced at that. Scott would be on high alert. He could hear something in his brother's voice. Something that told him Scott wasn't so sure he'd kept on going. It was never a good thing when someone knew you that well and Scott knew him; knew the way he thought. Seemed like he was going to have a long night.

Johnny's head jerked up and he blinked at the inky night. It took a few seconds to recall where he was and what he was doing. He took a long, deep breath and let it out silently before getting to his feet. With a grimace, he felt the tight muscles pull. No small wonder. He'd been sitting in the same spot for ... who knew how long? He couldn't believe he'd fallen asleep. Now, he could only hope Murdoch was standing watch.

He moved back until he could see the night sky. Relieved the moon was still high, he slowly made his way back and past his tree until he could see the camp clearly. Yep, there was Murdoch sitting with his back to Johnny and sipping on a cup of coffee. He licked his lips. Coffee sounded really good right now. Well, nothing for it.

With a tinge of regret for what he was about to do, he moved to the horses, approaching Remmie. In whispers, he reassured the animal, petting him and letting him get a sniff. Remmie responded to the familiar scent by lowering his head and gently butting Johnny in the chest. He smiled and pulled the reins loose then moved over to Nessie.

A bigger horse he'd never seen but the bay was gentle as a lamb. All he required was a little attention and Johnny had them both ready to go with him without so much as a snort.

******

He led Remmie and Nessie as he headed south once more. Part of him hated doing this, a bigger part knew it was necessary. He just couldn't have Murdoch and Scott around. That was all there was to that. As the dawn broke, he came fairly near a town along his route and he released the horses, slapping them both on the backside and watching them head toward the town. They'd be all right or maybe he was just talking himself into believing it. Either way, he didn't think any harm would come to them. It was going to be quite a hike for Scott and Murdoch, too. He couldn't help that. They should have stayed home.

Johnny decided the Jacksons might just be making for the border. Oh, he did hope that's where they were headed. A wicked grin crossed his face. They couldn't escape him no matter where they ran but Mexico was his stomping grounds. If so, they were making another huge mistake. They were down to three now. He only hoped the one in the ground had suffered good and long. Must have since they'd gotten so far before burying him. That was good. Now he just needed to make the other three feel the same pain.

The further he rode, the more scenarios he came up with on how he would go about making them pay. It all really depended on where they ended up, he supposed, so he thought up ideas for any situation. It kept him occupied and he could avoid thinking about other things for now. But the sun was getting lower and lower and he'd have to stop soon for the night. He dreaded that. Dreaded the ghosts he knew were waiting for him in the dark.

Before another half hour passed, he found a good campsite. After taking care of Milagro, he built a small fire and put coffee on. He was craving the dark brew something awful. When had he last had a cup of coffee? Had to be yesterday - maybe. With a grunt, he plopped on his bedroll and leaned against his saddle. Pulling out some jerky, he bit off a piece and started chewing as he stared into the flames. It took no time for the memories to come to him. So many nights spent like this only, with Val at his side harping about his cooking. And he'd harp about Val's coffee.

He gave a short laugh and held the jerky up in a toasting fashion. "To you, mi amigo. The worst coffee maker in the world. Sure wish I had a cup of your mud right now."

The smile faded as his hand dropped to his lap. He stared at the jerky. Val really loved beef jerky. Probably the only man he'd ever met who truly enjoyed it. Most ate it because it was practical and easy. He felt his eyes burning and sucked in a breath then moved to his knees and poured a cup of coffee. Don't think about it. Just don't think about it. That's all. Don't think about the fact you ain't ever gonna see him again. Sure, Madrid. Easy, right?

He shook his head as he settled back against the saddle and took a sip of the hot brew. Okay, so if he was going to stop thinking about Val, he had to think about something. His family, of course. He was sure they'd reached the town by now. Tired and pissed, but safe and far away. If he were honest, part of him had wanted them to come after him if only because it meant they cared. It was crazy, really. He didn't want them anywhere near this. Besides, he knew they cared. Hopefully, they cared enough to stay away. Had to be hard. Sometimes, you had to do the hard things for people you loved. Like he was doing now.

He knew he was headed down a dark road. One he was pretty sure he'd never be able to come back from. Not this time. There'd be no last minute save from this. No Pink showing up in the nick of time. No father he hated rescuing him only to show him the truth he didn't want to know.

He set the cup down and scrubbed his face with his hands. Dios, Madrid! You're gonna drive yourself loco with all this shit. Just get some shuteye. Maybe the night will pass fast.

******

The night didn't pass anywhere near fast enough, he thought, as he groaned and rolled over then struggled to his feet. Dreams had kept him busy all night and he felt like he'd put in a full day's work already. His muscles ached and his back was stiff. 'Shit' was all he could think at the moment.

Once he'd taken care of his morning needs, not bothering to shave, Johnny made haste to get back in the saddle as much as he'd rather not. Another long day was ahead and he knew the Jacksons had at least that one day on him, if not more. Now that they weren't burdened with an injured man, they'd probably try to make up some lost time.

He still thought they were headed for Mexico and the tracks he'd been following continued south. With one last glance at his campsite, he headed out. If he could just be absolutely sure that's where they were going, he could easily get ahead of them. But, if it wasn't, he'd be in a fix and lose a lot of time. Not that he had anything else to do anymore.

He shook his head and tried not to think about home. He had to find a way to get them out of his head. Not easy when he expected them to show up at some point. Murdoch was just too damned stubborn to give it up. Still, he had to be done with them otherwise, he might make a mistake. He snorted at that. Another mistake. He'd made a few already and that was a few too many right now. Damn, but they made it hard.

His life used to be so much easier when he didn't have anyone else to worry about. Even with Val, they both understood what was left unspoken. And even though he knew neither of them thought on it much, it was simply accepted. It was a dangerous life and it could end at any moment. But, things had changed and it wasn't supposed to be like this. He didn't much care that being a lawman still involved danger. It wasn't a danger Val rode headlong into. He knew the risks but they were far fewer than they'd been in the past. It was supposed to be a better life for them both.

It had all changed in a few seconds and he was right back where he'd started - almost. He wished he could go back completely for nothing would stop him from getting his revenge. He had always said he'd lay down his life for Val. Now it was time to put his money where his mouth was. Even if he lived through this, his life was over as he knew it. He accepted that as hard as it was and he didn't much care what anyone else thought. That much was the gospel truth. He just wished he didn't have to hurt his family in the process. It couldn't be helped and, if he had any regret, that would be it.

They were always there in the back of his mind which made his job even tougher. Maybe, in some twisted way, it would be good for them to see what he was capable of. Then again, it could also get him killed. He wasn't sure how much he cared about that. He felt almost dead inside and he welcomed it. If he was very lucky, he'd be completely numb by the time he caught up with the Jacksons.

******

It was nearly dusk when he came near Oldham. It wasn't much of a town and there was no law there so he figured they'd chance it for some hot food and maybe a bed. The entire town consisted of abandoned mines, a general store and a livery. A few rambled shacks littered the main and only street. A boom town that never boomed.

He sat the saddle at the edge of the village and glanced at the welcome sign for this hole-in-the-wall which lay in the dirt below the decrepit post. Johnny smirked and figured he couldn't get much luckier. If they were here, no one would bother to interfere. Hell, no one would probably turn a head.

He pulled the reins to the right and skirted the town, circling around to the back of the livery. Raising a brow at the broken-down barn, he had no intention of stabling Milagro there. He was pretty sure the horse would prefer to stay outside anyway. He dismounted, tethered the animal and walked through the back doorway. There was no door there and the inside smelled of must and decaying hay. There was also no horses inside. Damn! Maybe they hadn't stayed. He sure wouldn't.

A sound near the front garnered his attention and he walked toward it, right hand hovering over his gun. As he came to the end of the stalls, he heard it again to his right. He walked cautiously toward the doorway then relaxed as he heard snoring. Stepping through, Johnny found who he assumed was the owner rattling the rafters with those snores. He kicked the end of the cot and the man snorted loudly then came awake.

"Come on, old man. I need some information." He watched the owner come to, eyes widening when they landed on him.

"Well, young fella, ya need a place for your horse and maybe yerself?"

Johnny smiled a little. "No, just need to know if you've had any customers today or maybe, yesterday. Three men?"

The old man snorted again only this time with derision. "Customers? Them three varmints come in here, took my good hay then left without payin. Did the same over to the general store, too!"

"When?" Johnny asked and watched the man scratch his greasy, gray head and frown. "I said, when?"

"I heared ya. Look, mister, I don't want no trouble."

Somehow, he managed to hold in his irritation but he lowered his voice and made sure there was a hint of a threat in his tone. "Then, tell me what I want to know and there won't be any."

The man swallowed loudly and Johnny stared at him.

"Yesterday mornin. They come in, took what they wanted, said they wouldn't house a pig in here then rode out."

Johnny nodded, unsurprised even though the Jacksons hardly had room to talk about anyone else. "Which way?"

"South. You're a day behind 'em."

"Yeah," Johnny sighed out then twisted his mouth in thought. He fished in his pocket and produced a coin, tossed it at the man and turned. Walking out, he threw a 'thanks' over his shoulder and headed back to Milagro. He heard the footsteps behind him but ignored them.

"Mister, what'd they do? Uh, if ya don't mind my askin, o'course."

Johnny mounted up and looked back at the man. "Killed a sheriff." He turned the stallion and headed out, disturbed at his own unemotional answer. It was no different than if he'd said 'nice day'. Maybe he was getting what he wanted after all. Maybe he was completely dead inside now.

******

He hadn't shaved for four days. Hadn't wanted to take the extra time. He knew he looked a sight but he couldn't care. Not until he caught up. He was near the border now. He hadn't stopped for long, hadn't spent a whole night at any campsite since leaving his family abandoned. He'd eat, drink a pot of coffee then move on. It was slower in the dark but he was making better time than them, closing in. He swore he could almost smell their stench and it drove him. He didn't need a lot of sleep. Not yet. He knew exactly how to do this. It was what he was good at, after all. Hunting.

But there was a problem up ahead. Temecula. That's where Val's first job as a sheriff had been. The job he had before Johnny sent for him to come to Green River. It would be his luck they'd stop there. It was a small town and the people were nice from what he could remember. Nice enough to steal his best friend. He snorted at that. Val had jumped at the chance to get out of the game. Johnny knew he wanted to and had for some time. He just grabbed the opportunity and who could blame him? It was a good job and he could stay in one place. Yeah, he should have stayed there. He'd be alive if he'd stayed there.

He swallowed hard and pushed the thoughts away, buried the memories deep enough they wouldn't haunt him. Not yet and not now, for sure. He needed to stay this way; no feelings at all. Nothing but what drove him. Revenge.

Maybe it was some strange sort of justice if he could take them down in Temecula. Val would like that.

He did remember there was a hill overlooking the town and he headed to it. Yeah, he remembered this alright. He settled on the hill after tethering Milagro near some sweet grass and popped a blade of it in his mouth. Pulling his knees up, he rested his forearms on them as he watched the people move around. He was too far away to see faces clearly or even much of what they were doing other than loading wagons or walking from store to store.

Suddenly, he stiffened and slowly removed the blade of grass from his mouth as he stared at the three men coming out of the store. They looked around like they didn't know where they were headed. His eyes stayed locked on them as they finally walked to the saloon. He threw the grass down and got to his feet then headed to his horse.

As he settled in the saddle, he pulled the reins and stayed Milagro. He needed to think. He couldn't go riding in there like the devil himself. Well, he thought with a smirk, he could but that wasn't how he wanted to play this. He tugged on the reins and moved the horse out at a walk, a plan formulating in his mind. With a wide smile, he nodded to himself then picked up the pace. If he could work this just right, he'd have them where he wanted them and no one would get in the way.

******

He watched them all night from the back of the saloon. As soon as he'd told the bartender who he was, there'd been no problems. Matter of fact, the man was more than glad to have him around, he'd said. Seemed he wasn't too happy about the Jacksons being in his saloon. Well, they were a mangy crew, loud and demanding. There had been a few times when Johnny almost lost his patience and walked in there but, he managed to keep himself on a tight rein. As long as they didn't hurt anyone, he'd sit still.

Once they'd closed the place down and left, the barkeep gave him a room in the back, away from prying eyes. Johnny hadn't told him about Val but, it seemed to him the man could tell something important was going on. He was a nice man and Johnny hoped he stayed out of the line of fire.

Sleep wasn't easy but he got a few hours. He actually shaved and bathed in the morning and the bartender, who introduced himself as Lloyd, made sure he got some breakfast. He sat in the small kitchen area at an old table and stared into his coffee cup as Lloyd clanged around at the sink. Finally, the man stopped and joined him at the table.

"What day is it?" He watched the surprise come to the man's face and he smiled a little.

"Tuesday."

Johnny nodded then leaned back in his chair and stared at him. "Get much business on Tuesdays?"

Shaking his head, Lloyd swallowed a mouthful of coffee. "Nah, just a few stragglers and hard cases like them three last night."

"Think you could get everyone except those three hard cases to stay home tonight?"

Lloyd stopped with his cup midway to his mouth and stared for a beat before answering. "Yeah, I can do that. Can I ask?"

Johnny looked down at the table and thought about whether he should say it. It was probably better to stay quiet. He figured people around here had liked Val. He was a likeable man once you got past the blustering. He sighed heavily and looked back up. "After."

"Provided you're around to tell it, you mean."

A slow, cold smile spread across Johnny's face. "You do exactly like I say and I'll be around. Believe me, you'll be glad of it, too. Those three deserve everything they're about to get."

"You know we have a sheriff here."

Johnny nodded and leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. "I know. Is that gonna be a problem for you?"

Lloyd just stared at him for a long time. Seemed like he was trying to make up his mind. Finally, he shrugged. "I know your reputation and you ain't like some of them others. Our last sheriff is a friend of yours, ain't he?"

Johnny pushed his chair back and stood up. "Yeah. I'll be back later. Thanks." He walked out the back door and closed it tight then leaned against it. Damn! Sure, they all knew about him and Val. He'd known that but somehow he just never thought they'd remember. It doesn't matter. Just keep thinking that. It doesn't matter.

He squared his shoulders and walked away, pushing it all back, stomping it out of his mind like a bug under his heel.

******

Danny! That was his name. Johnny had been wracking his brain to remember the name of the young man Val had handed the sheriff's job over to when he left Temecula. As he made his way along the back streets and alleyways of the town, he tried to think of anything else Val had told him about the boy. That he was pretty young was the thing that stood out. Val had said he was good, real good for his age. Johnny remembered the fondness in his friend's voice when he talked about Danny. He also remembered teasing Val about being the kid's daddy. Of course, he'd gotten swatted for that. A small laugh escaped before he could stop it then he came to a dead stop.

He looked around and noted the back of the jail was just a few feet away. He walked to the back door and leaned against it. It wasn't easy to stop thinking about Val, especially here. Not that he wanted to and he'd never forget the man. It scared him how easily he could fall right back into that place where he was vulnerable. Still, right now, he needed to stay clear-headed. He had no intention of dying and definitely not in this place.

A smirk crossed his face as he thought about his brother's words. 'You'll be dead before you're thirty.' Well, he reckoned that was true enough and always had been. He just let himself believe different for a little while, is all. Let them snooker him into believing there was any kind of life for him other than the one he'd always known. That included Val. He'd done it, too. Made him hope. They'd promised him absolution but there was no forgiveness for his sins. He knew that now. Damn them all, anyways!

It was clear to him now more than ever that he'd make his final stand staring down a bullet. But, it wasn't going to happen here. Not if he could help it. He shook his head to clear his mind then tried the back door. Raising a surprised brow it was unlocked, he stepped through into the empty room.

The cells were to his immediate left, the rest of the large room set up with a desk, a stove and a coat rack. Another small table set off to the side with a checkerboard set up. That was all the office amounted to other than a pile of papers on top the desk. Johnny wandered around, looked out the front window then walked over behind the desk. It could've been Val's desk in Green River with all the mess on it. He sighed and pushed the papers around with one finger, not really reading any of it.

Well, he supposed he should wait. Wasn't like he had anything else to do until tonight. He wouldn't even consider doing this if the kid hadn't meant something to Val. But, he would honor his friend by telling Danny his plans. If the man wanted to try and stop him, Johnny would deal with that. But, he needed to know Val was gone. He sat in the chair and leaned back, tipping the chair on its back legs and rocking. Knocking his hat off his head, he clasped his hands across his belly to show his intent and waited.

******

Johnny was beginning to think the kid was a slacker. He'd been there almost an hour and there was no sign of the sheriff. He was about to give it up when he heard boots coming closer to the door than any had yet. The doorknob turned and he relaxed back into his original position.

Well, he was young, maybe Johnny's own age but, he'd expected someone who wasn't even shaving yet. He looked at the man sporting the silver badge on his chest as he froze in the doorway. The only really impressive thing about him was the hard look in his brown eyes. Johnny could see he was thinking fast and he decided it was best not to move.

"Who are you? What're you doin in my chair?"

"Name's Madrid. Johnny Madrid." As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he watched Danny grow pale and lean against the door he had yet to close. Johnny came to his feet and moved across the room, grabbed the boy's arm and walked him to his chair. "Okay, easy. Just sit here a minute."

Danny was shaking his head slowly back and forth. Finally, he looked right into Johnny's eyes. "He's dead, ain't he? That's the only reason for you to be here."

Johnny dropped his head. The kid was smart, for sure. He let out a shaky breath. Damn, this was harder than he'd thought. "Yeah, he's dead, Danny." Looking back at the young man, his voice colder, he said, "and I'm here to take down the bastards who killed him."

Danny stiffened, his eyes cleared and Johnny was impressed. "They're here in Temecula? Are they stupid or they just wanna die?"

"Stupid. I figure they're headed for Mexico and since I didn't let them know I was following, they probably think they're free and clear by now. They spent the night in the saloon. Reckon they're sleepin it off now."

Danny came to his feet and Johnny moved with him. "Then, I'm goin over there."

Stepping in front of the sheriff, eye to eye, Johnny asked, "And do what? Far as I know, they ain't broke no laws here."

"I don't give a damn about that!"

Johnny grabbed his arm in a firm grip. "Stay out of it. I have a plan and this is mine. You knew him a few months. He was my best friend. I know how much Val meant to you but you got no idea, kid. No idea at all. If I have to put you down, I will. No one is gonna take this away from me. No one! Do you understand?"

Danny blinked a couple of times and seemed to have heard him. He relaxed a little and Johnny let him go. "He thought you were dead, ya know. He took it real hard. I ain't never seen him like that." Danny fell back into the chair, his sandy brown hair falling across his forehead and he rubbed a hand down his face. "How did it happen?"

Johnny's jaw tensed but he managed to tell it through gritted teeth. "One of them was his prisoner. His three brothers rode in one night and cut Val down in the street. Val got off a few shots and hit one of them. He's already dead. The other three will be soon."

Danny looked up at him and nodded. "I don't need to know anything else. No one will get in your way. You're right. This is yours."

He heaved a sigh of relief. "There's just one thing I need if you've got it. A badge." He almost burst out laughing at the look of disbelief he got. "Don't worry, I'm not gonna pass myself off as a lawman." He watched the young man, could almost see his mind working.

Finally, Danny nodded and pulled open a drawer in the desk. He laid the badge on the corner then stared at it as he ran a finger across the metal."It was Val's. I couldn't wear it. Didn't seem right but, he'd want you to use it if ya can."

Johnny walked over and picked it up, looked closely at it then he glanced at Danny. He closed his eyes for a beat then slipped the badge in his shirt pocket.

Danny studied him closely. “I reckon you know what this is gonna do to you."

Johnny turned and walked to the back door, his stomach flipping that a stranger could see so clearly how this was going to change his life. "Yeah, I know."

"Val wouldn't want you to throw your life away, Madrid."

He stopped after opening the door a little and turned back. "This ain't about what Val would want. This is about what I have to do. That's all." He nodded once and slipped out the back door.

******

Johnny headed back to the saloon and the small room Lloyd had given him. Calling it a room was probably stretching things but, there was a cot and a small window and a bucket. He didn't need anything else for the short time he'd be there. He lay on the cot and stared at the ceiling, thinking back to when he was a gunfighter. Back before Val when he didn't care if he lived or died so much. Well, that wasn't entirely true. He just didn't have anything or anyone to care about. He never had any kind of death wish, for sure.

Still, back then he took a lot of chances. Most people thought he was just plain loco which didn't hurt in that profession. People left you alone mostly. Those who didn't found out pretty fast why everyone else steered clear. He laughed softly at that. Could he get to that place again? He didn't think it would be too hard after all the shit he'd been through lately.

He'd learned a lot of lessons back then. Most of them the hard way but those were the ones that stuck with you the most. The anger and hate he'd felt for his father all his life, the pain that drove him, was easily replaced now that he'd lost Val. Johnny slammed his eyes shut and ground his jaw. Stop thinking about him!

After a few seconds, he opened his eyes and forced his thoughts to tonight. He had a plan and he was sure it would work as long as none of the locals got in the way. He got the feeling Temecula would be a ghost town once the sun set, though. Danny and Lloyd would take care of that for him. Why people helped him when he needed it sometimes was a mystery. Then again, sometimes they stepped right over him, too. He reckoned it just depended on why he needed the help. Made sense.

He sighed and turned his head to look toward the window. The sun was setting, the shadows long across the wall and he watched them for a while as they slowly disappeared. Shouldn't be long now. He was getting that itchy feeling that it was time to move. Time to dance. It always made his blood rush through his body. He could feel the heat nearly swallow him up, feel his heart pumping faster, and he had to move. Like always.

He got up in one quick motion and walked to the window. Leaning his left side on the wall next to the opening, he checked his gun one more time then rolled his shoulders. Soon. Soon, it would all be over. Then ... then, he had to go back for a little while. After that, he didn't really know or care at the moment.

He heard footsteps nearing and turned toward the door which was covered only by a sheet. He moved his right hand to hover over his Colt until he saw Lloyd's face. The man didn't say a word, just nodded. Johnny took a deep breath, gave a nod of his own and walked over. "I think you'll know when to duck."

******

He watched them for while, sitting at a back table so close to him, he could have reached out and touched the oldest brother. They were pretty quiet right now, not even talking to each other. He didn't know their first names, only knew Billy because he'd been the one in Val's jail. And Billy was here. He was glad about that. Glad he hadn't been the one they'd buried back at that old house. He wanted Billy most of all. One of them started talking and he leaned forward a little to listen.

"Ain't right, that's all."

"Don't start that shit again, Trev."

"Well, it ain't right, Evan. Ain't right that George is dead. And for what?"

Johnny raised a brow at that. Seemed there was trouble in the family. He saw Billy's shoulders tense up and his face turn red before he spoke.

"What'ya mean by that, Trevor?"

"I mean, it ain't like you wasn't guilty, Billy. Hell, you done killed more men than the one you got arrested for. We all knew your time was comin. You just can't control yourself, is all."

Billy laughed. A short, hard laugh with no humor to it. "I can control myself just fine, Trev. I ain't killed you yet, have I?"

"That's enough, both of ya. We're family and we stick together, that's all. George knew that. He knew what could happen."

Johnny shook his head. So, Evan, Trevor and Billy Jackson. Now he had their names and it didn't make a bit of difference.

"I doubt he figured we'd all be runnin straight out of the country. I don't even like Mexico. Why can't we go to Kansas or Arkansas or someplace like that?" Trevor asked.

Evan sighed loudly and shook his head. "I done told you we ain't stopping in Mexico. I hear there's gold in Bolivia. Might get lucky and never have to worry about where the next meal is comin from. Never have to steal it again." He lowered his voice and Johnny strained to hear him. "Besides, we done killed a lawman. Ain't no goin back from that."

"Well, he shoulda let me go in the first place. He got what he deserved."

Johnny's hands curled into fists and he fought to stop himself from lunging at Billy Jackson. He closed his eyes briefly and found his calm place as a coldness he could only find in his soul took hold. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the badge. Rubbing a finger over the star, he silently asked Val to forgive him then flicked his wrist, sending the badge twirling through the air. Johnny stepped back and slipped down the hallway and out the back door, making his way to the front of the building.

******

The badge landed on the table and skidded almost to the edge. All three men stared at it. Billy was the first to move as he scooted his chair back, eyes wide and right hand hovering over his gun. "What the hell?" He looked at the bartender who was also staring at the piece of silver. Billy pointed at it and demanded, "Who did that?"

Lloyd blinked and looked at the young man then turned toward the door as a shadow caught his notice. Billy turned to the door as well when the figure emerged. He turned to fully face the man with his hat pulled low over his eyes. His head was down and Billy couldn't see his face clearly.

Billy took a step back so he was beside the table and he glanced quickly at his brothers. Both were just sitting there like idiots, staring at the man. "Who are you, mister? Why'd you toss that badge on the table?"

Johnny turned his head toward Lloyd. "You should go now," he said in nearly a whisper. Lloyd only nodded and disappeared into the back room. Johnny then turned his attention to the three men. He felt his blood chill and was grateful for it. He was calm, almost at some strange kind of peace within himself. Billy was watching him and he could see the kid was getting antsy, shuffling his feet, licking his lips and keeping his hand right at his holster.

Slowly, Johnny reached up with his left hand and pushed his hat back so it fell, settling on his back. He said nothing, just stared at Billy, all the while watching the other two for any kind of movement.

"I'll be damned. Figured we left you far behind. Didn't you have a funeral to go to?" Billy grinned widely but, the smile faded as he got no reaction from the man before him. "Ain't ya gonna say anything?"

"Seems to me you're full of enough hot air to do all the talking. If I were you, I wouldn't be so happy about dyin. Then again, if I were you, maybe I'd be begging someone to put me out of my misery."

Billy sneered. "Who says I'm gonna be dyin?"

Johnny smiled at that, just a soft little smile.

Trevor cleared his throat and made sure to leave his hands atop the table. "Look, Lancer, we didn't intend to kill Crawford but, Billy's our kin. You got a brother. You know you'd do anything to keep him from hangin, right?"

Johnny never took his eyes off Billy as he spoke. "Not if he was guilty. He wasn't the only brother I had either. Val was my brother - as good as. And the name is Madrid, not Lancer."

Billy snorted loudly. "So, Madrid, make your mo..."

Johnny didn't wait for him to finish. He drew and fired. Billy managed to slap his hand against his holster before the bullet ploughed through the top of his right hand, out the palm and into the wall behind him. He dropped to his knees, cradling the injured hand with his left and shouting up the devil.

******

Evan came to his feet and moved around the table. Johnny fired again, putting a bullet in his right kneecap. The man screamed in agony as he fell to the floor just behind his brother. Johnny then turned toward Trevor who had his hands far out from his sides, shaking his head and backing up toward the wall. Johnny put a bullet in his elbow joint and the man slammed against the wall. Before Trevor could utter a sound, Johnny glanced at his gunbelt and saw he was a lefty. "Well, shit!" he said and took out the left elbow. Trevor slid down the wall, too shocked to make a sound.

Johnny stood there and looked at all three of them. The room was silent save for their whimpers. He walked over to Billy, leaned down, and took his gun then paused. "Hurts, don't it? Any more smart-assed remarks, Billy boy?"

The young man didn't answer at first, just kept rocking back and forth a little as he cradled his right hand to his chest. As Johnny stood and laid the gun on the table, he heard Billy. "Bastard! Son of a bitch!"

"Son of a bitch is more accurate," Johnny replied blithely as he moved to Evan and took his sidearm. As he laid that pistol on the table, he had a thought. He looked down at Evan. "You look like the type of man to be prepared." Without further explanation, he patted the man down and found a hide-away gun in his boot. He searched Billy and discovered a knife then headed over to Trevor.

The man was still sitting against the wall, arms lying uselessly at his sides. Johnny took his pistol and looked at his face. Trevor was staring into space, in some kind of state. Johnny stood and kicked his right arm and the man screamed. "You don't get out of the pain that easy, Jackson."

Evan spoke up then in a halting voice. "We never ... done any of this to ... the sheriff."

Johnny walked quickly over and hunkered down in front of him. "You put six fucking bullets in him! Every one of those bullets was pain. Real fucking pain. What you're feeling now six times over. Don't tell me you didn't do as much, you low-life snake!"

He saw Billy move, making a lunge toward the guns on the table. Johnny stood and drew then waited for Billy to turn. As the man did, gun in left hand and cocked, Johnny fired, putting a hole on his left wrist. The pistol flew across the room, slamming against the bar before coming to a rattling stop on the floor. Billy screamed and fell to the floor again, staring at his left hand in disbelief.

From his periphery, Johnny saw Evan move. He turned and pulled the trigger, the bullet ploughing into Evan's left thigh.

Johnny walked over behind the bar and reloaded his Colt as Evan groaned through his clenched jaw. He found a bottle of whiskey, pulled the cork out with his teeth and poured a glass. "That's six. Now we're almost even," he said to Evan as he raised the glass in a toasting motion.

Evan looked over at him and licked his lips. "All I want is a shot of that whiskey."

Johnny looked at the glass before downing the contents and pouring another. "This whiskey? Tell me, Jackson, how much whiskey did you offer my friend while you were filling him full of holes?"

"That wasn't the plan! We only meant ta scare him off!"

Johnny grabbed the whiskey bottle and walked over to a table in front of them. He pulled a chair out with his foot and straddled it, sitting backwards. After pouring another glass full, he rested his forearms on the chair back. "Some men can't be scared off. Some men have honor and take their responsibilities to heart. Some men are brave like that. Some, like you, are stupid, scared little pieces of shit that can't put a thought together in their heads." He took a sip of the whiskey as he eyed Evan. "Any of you ever been shot before?"

Evan shook his head and Johnny was truly surprised by that answer. "Well, I have and so has Val and we know how bad it hurts to be shot just once. You three little girls are only gettin a taste of what it really is."

Billy raised his head and glared. "So, what? You gonna shoot us all six times?"

"Nope. Just you." Johnny gave a crooked smile at the wide-eyed expression on the man's face. "This is all your fault, Billy. Your brothers are going to die tonight because of you. But, you don't care about that. Right now, all you're thinkin about is how you can get a gun and how you can manage to use it. Because all you care about right now is killing me. All you ever care about is what you want. I can't imagine why either one of these fools would give you the time of day. Not to mention George. Tell me, did he suffer before he died?"

******

Billy only kept glaring at him. Johnny almost laughed. He could see the wheels turning, the man trying to figure out what to say to that. Evan broke his momentum before he could work it out. "Yeah, he suffered. I'm sure you're glad about that."

"Yep, makes my day."

"I never knew you were such a cold son of a bitch, Madrid," Evan spit out.

Johnny stood up and walked over, standing over him and making Evan crane his neck to look up at him. "You probably should've taken that into consideration before you killed my best friend, Jackson. See, there's not too many things I'd throw my life away over. Val Crawford was one of them. Now you know how important it is to think a plan though before acting like a damned fool over a piece of shit like this brother of yours." He crouched down, eye level with the man. "Still think family should stick together no matter what?"

Evan lowered his eyes and didn't answer. Johnny sighed and patted his wounded knee hard then smiled a little when the man shouted in pain.

As he retook his seat, he stared at each of them in turn, watched as they fought the pain and watched the life's blood seep from their bodies. He watched as each of them seemed to come to the realization he was going to die tonight. Seemed the older two looked a little remorseful but not Billy. No, not that little bastard. All he was probably thinking about was revenge and how he didn't deserve any of this. Johnny snorted softly at the idea.

"So, you just walked away from your family for this?"

Johnny looked at Trevor. He had his head back against the wall and his eyes half-closed. "Told you, Val was family so, no I didn't walk away from all of them. Sometimes, you just have to do a thing."

Trevor sighed shakily. "I reckon so, Madrid. Sometimes, family ain't always what's good for ya, neither."

Johnny saw Evan's head come up and he struggled to turn and look at his brother.

Trevor shrugged then hissed in pain at the action. "You know what he said was true, Ev. Billy ain't ever been right. Hell, none of us is what ya call upstandin citizens but, this boy ..." he shook his head, "This boy is just plumb crazy."

"Go to Hell, Trevor," Billy growled. He didn't bother moving, just sat there cross-legged, still cradling his hands in his lap.

"I am, boy, I am. So are you and I reckon we both deserve it in the end." Trevor looked back at Johnny and nodded just once. "I am sorry about the sheriff, Madrid."

Johnny stared at him a long time and believed the man. It seemed he was the decent one in the family. There was usually one that was a little better than the rest. Scott was the one in his family. Trevor was the decent Jackson. He sighed and stood up. Rolling his shoulders, Johnny walked over to the man who cringed a little as he came near. Johnny squatted beside him and spoke softly so only Trevor could hear him. "I'll give you what they ain't gonna get if you want. I can put you out of your misery fast. It's up to you."

Trevor looked into his eyes for a moment then nodded.

"Anything you want to say to them?" Johnny asked, nodding toward the other two.

"Nah. We ain't exactly the type of family that gets all attached. I'd just as soon get it over with. Thanks."

Johnny raised a brow that the man would thank him for killing him but he only nodded and stood up. He didn't give himself a beat to think about it. He didn't look at the other two or even really look down at Trevor. He simply drew his gun, cocked it, aimed it at Trevor's head and squeezed the trigger.

******

Evan jumped at the sudden noise, twisting around quickly and grabbing at his knee then his leg as the pain flared white hot again. Even that didn't keep him from the shock of what had just happened. Trevor was still sitting upright against the wall but his head was hanging down, chin to chest and half his scalp gone with blood splattered all over the wall behind him. Evan blinked then slowly looked up at Madrid. "Oh, God," he whispered.

"God ain't got nothin to do with this, Jackson. He left town and he ain't comin back. Not for you or me and especially not for him," Johnny said as he looked at Billy.

"So now what? You blow our brains out, too?"

"Nope. You don't get off so easy. Your brother was the better of all of you so he caught a break. I only give one a year." Johnny smiled a little at that.

Billy sniffed loudly and started to slowly rock back and forth. "They were wrong about you, ya know. People all said you changed. You settled down what with your family and all. But, you never did, did ya?"

Johnny resumed his seat and rested his arms on the chair back, cradling his chin on them. "Yeah, they were wrong, Billy. A man don't change that much. You live your life a certain way for so long and it's part of you. I guess that's what my family never could get. Maybe what yours couldn't get, either. Only there's a big difference between you and me."

"Yeah? What would that be?" Billy asked with a sneer.

"Lots of things. I never killed for pleasure until today. There were rules we lived by. My brother called it some kind of code of honor but there wasn't any honor. I never tried to drag my family into it or make them feel guilty for not pulling my ass out of the fire like you did. I stood on my own and if I messed up, I took the heat for it. Never asked for anything or expected anything." Johnny stopped and stared into space for a moment then blinked and sighed before looking back at Billy. "Hands hurtin?"

"Of course, they hurt! Can't ya see I'm bleedin ta death, here?"

Johnny's mouth curled on one side then he turned his attention to Evan. "What about you, big brother Evan? Ever wish this one would just go away?"

Evan snorted and shook his head. "You know this ain't gonna kill me. It hurts like hell but it ain't a fatal shot. So, what else you got in mind?"

"Notice he didn't answer the question, Billy? Or did he?"

"Fuck off, Madrid!" Billy shouted, lunging forward a few inches. His motion came to a quick halt as the pain in his hands intensified.

"So what is the plan, Madrid?" Evan asked, ignoring his brother's quiet whimpers.

"Ohhh, I don't know. There's lots of things I could do but, you two are sure in a world of hurt already and, well, you're boring me now." He gave the man a crooked smile.

"You want us to beg, don't ya?" Evan asked.

"Nope."

"You know they're gonna hang you for this or hadn't ya thought of that?"

Johnny laughed heartily at that for a long minute. "Who is ‘they'? The sheriff? Who do you think gave me that badge, Jackson? You don't even know where you are, do ya? Well, let me tell you. Val Crawford was the sheriff of Temecula before he came to Green River."

He watched as Billy's head shot up and Evan grew even paler. "That's right, boys. You rode right into the hornet's nest and didn't even know it."

******

Johnny walked around the room, bottle of whiskey dangling from his left hand. He wasn't sure how long he'd been there now. The hours just seemed to fall away. Once in a while, one of the two men would groan in pain. Billy was getting weaker by the second now, his skin a pasty white. It kind of looked like one of those doll's faces he'd seen in stores. Billy was shaking all over, his hands black as pitch. Evan was staring at nothing. Occasionally, his eyes would close then he'd jerk himself awake. That just made his pain worse and he'd grimace. He was right. Those wounds weren't going to kill him. They would surely be infected but, it took time to die of an infection. And, some doctor could come along and cut his leg off to save him. Maybe even both legs.

Johnny considered letting him live like that. In the end, Billy was the main one. The evil little bastard that had caused all of this. He wondered if Evan hated his brother. He couldn't imagine that but he couldn't imagine having a brother like Billy, either. He turned his back on them and walked to the door, looking out at the empty street. Crickets were chirping off in the distance and he could hear the horses snort down in the livery, it was so quiet.

"Madrid?"

He turned back and walked over to Evan. "What?"

"If you was thinking about letting me live, maybe losin my legs, I'd just as soon ya didn't."

Johnny cocked his head aside and looked curiously at the man.

"I fought in the war. I've seen men without legs and arms and eyes." Evan shook his head. "Wouldn't make it. I just wouldn't make it. Might as well get it done with if you're of a mind."

"A man can think he couldn't live a certain way but, I've seen those fellas, too. A lot of them handle it alright. They go on with their lives and even have families."

Evan laughed hoarsely. "Me? A family? My family is all dead." He glanced at Billy. "Or as good as. Can't see me with no woman, either. Just ain't my way. Truth is, we're all a bad lot. From our pa and his pa, the whole bunch of us ain't never amounted to nothin. Only bad part is knowin it."

Johnny nodded but he really felt no sympathy. In fact, he felt nothing much at all except tired. He knew he would feel again and he may even regret what he was about to do but, he'd gotten his vengeance, they had all suffered good and long. It was time to end it. It was time to go back and say goodbye to his life. Unceremoniously, he shot Evan in the head. Without emotion, he watched the man fall to his side, eyes wide open and staring at nothing.

He could also see Billy who never even flinched. Seemed he was done, too. Johnny walked over and knelt beside the man who had slumped onto his right side some time ago. He touched Billy's arm and felt the heat of fever. "Billy," he called and shook his shoulder. There was no reaction. Johnny sighed and hefted his gun, looked at it for a long moment then, aimed and squeezed the trigger.

Standing back up, he walked to the door. It was done and so was he.

******

Johnny sat on the ridge and stared at the white hacienda while Milagro grazed nearby. Occasionally, the stallion would blow but otherwise, he was quiet. Johnny appreciated that. The light breeze, distant lowing of cattle and buzzing of insects were the only other sounds from up here. He was tired deep down and not even sure he could mount up again. But he knew he had to. Had to go down there and face them.

These past days on the trail had been the hardest of his life. There had been moments when the grief threatened to overwhelm him. There had been moments when he questioned his own actions. He wasn't sure he could go back to the life he'd had for the past two years even if it were possible, which he was sure it wasn't. But he'd missed them.

And he would miss them forever once he left this place for good. He knew his grief was about that as well as Val. He'd had moments of doubt but, in the end, he couldn't regret what he'd done. He'd thought about it plenty. He'd never acted that way before but then, nothing had ever been this important. He sighed and shook his head then turned to look at Milagro.

"Well, boy, I guess we should get on down there. I'm bettin you'd like a nice clean stall for the night." He got slowly to his feet and walked to the animal. Patting it's neck, he smiled a little. "I'll never forget the look on Val's face when I gave you to him." A frown appeared and he lowered his head. "Scott'll take good care of you, though. You can count on that. You can always count on Scott."

Johnny looked back up and found one dark brown eye watching him. He grabbed the lead rein and stepped into the stirrup then paused. "Yeah, you can always count on Scott." Pulling himself into the saddle, he let out a long breath. Johnny pulled the reins and started walking down the slope. Maybe, he could get to the barn before he saw them. A few extra minutes wouldn't hurt.

******

Scott couldn't remember seeing his father so angry. True, he hadn't known him all that long but still, there'd been times when the man had shouted down the devil. Never, though, had he seen the silent, seething anger Murdoch displayed the morning his father had woken him to tell him the horses were gone. Scott could laugh about it now but at the time is certainly had held no humor. He hadn't needed any evidence of how the horses got free but he'd found the boot prints and naturally known them to be his brother's.

That had been a long walk. Nearly ten miles as it turned out. He'd tried to get Murdoch to stay at the campsite and let him go alone but the old man's rage had fueled him on and Scott had had trouble keeping up, frankly. Once they'd discovered the horses safe at the livery, where the owner had stabled them after finding them roaming free, they'd spent the night in the small town. That's when Scott caught a glimpse of something besides anger in his father's eyes. Disappointment most certainly and maybe even a little hurt. That part he would never find humorous.

That Johnny could do that, leave them stranded like that, was a testament to his commitment that they not follow. Murdoch had seemed to accept it or, he was simply too upset to go after Johnny. Scott had since decided the man had simply bowed to his son's wishes. He knew it didn't set well with Murdoch, knew he didn't agree at all with what Johnny was planning but in the end, his brother was a grown man. They really had no right to stop him. All they could do was try and they had already done that.

Still, when Murdoch announced the next morning at breakfast that they were going home, Scott had been surprised. He'd even argued lightly though his heart wasn't really in the argument. He was sure Murdoch could see that, as well. His only concern was for Johnny's safety. He'd worry about his brother's peace of mind later.

As he sat on the veranda watching the sun set on another day, Scott decided now was later. It had been more than a week since they'd returned home. Surely Johnny had caught up with the Jacksons and was either on his way back or dead. A chill ran down his spine at that notion. That his brother would return to Lancer, he had no doubt. Whether he would stay was the question and Scott was pretty sure he didn't intend to do that.

He felt pretty wrung out himself. Since returning home Murdoch had been a bear at times. He seemed to swing between silent brooding and grouchiness. Scott had had to talk him out of going ahead with the funeral several times. He hated leaving Val in the icehouse and even Sam had said it wasn't appropriate; that the man deserved to be laid to rest. But doing so without Johnny present was simply unfathomable to Scott and he refused to allow it. Maybe it wasn't his place in the grand scheme of things but he didn't give a hang what the cattleman's association or even the township wanted. As far as he was concerned, any and all decisions about Val were up to Johnny to make. He'd told them all that very thing, too. It hadn't been a pretty scene and the mayor in particular had been difficult to stomach. He didn't want to think what Johnny would have done to the self-important blowhard had he been here. Then again, if he'd been here, there would be nothing to argue about.

Scott was just about to go inside and face his father who was in silent brooding mode, when he noticed movement on the ridge. Stepping into the yard, Scott strained to see in the fading light. Sure enough, someone was coming down the road. His shoulders fell nearly to his knees when he saw the black stallion. A smile lit his face as he walked further out toward the corral. He stopped and the smile fell from his face. As happy as he was to see his brother was alive, this was not a joyous occasion by any means. He knew Johnny would be strung tight and he needed to tread carefully. For when it was all said and done, Scott was determined not to lose his brother.

******

Johnny cursed to himself when he saw Scott in the yard. He'd hoped he could have a minute to breathe the air before facing any of them. He couldn't tell if the man was angry. Scott was just watching him with no expression at all on his face. That usually meant one of two things; he was really pissed and didn't want to show it or, he was strategizing. He walked Milagro right up to Scott and nodded his head. "Brother."

"Johnny, good to see you in one piece."

Johnny looked away and saw Frank heading over. He dismounted and handed off the reins to the man with a small smile of thanks. Then, it was just Scott standing there still looking at him.

"Are you alright?"

Johnny looked at the ground for a moment then shook his head and sighed heavily. "No, but I don't have any holes in me, if that's what you mean."

"It isn't."

He looked back up at Scott and nodded then asked the question he didn't want to ask. "Is it over?"

Scott cocked his head quizzically. "No, we were waiting for you. I thought that's what you'd want."

"Yeah," Johnny breathed out. "It is. Thanks for waiting."

"It wasn't easy. I had to fight the whole town but, I won." Scott stepped up to him and unceremoniously gave his brother a hug. "I know you must be exhausted but you're going to have to deal with him tonight."

"I figured as much." Johnny let go and stepped back. "It ain't gonna be pretty. I am sorry about the horses."

Scott smiled at that. "Well, it wasn't much fun. Murdoch was ... upset."

Johnny just looked at him. He had nothing to say to that, had figured as much at the very least. He'd known he'd have to face his father as soon as he returned but, now that the hour was at hand, he wasn't sure how much fight he had in him. He looked at the house and shrugged. "Guess I should get it over with."

******

Scott watched him walk toward the front door then looked upward, saying a silent prayer for all of them to survive this. He'd never seen his brother look so completely defeated. So sad and ... drained. Yes, that was the word, drained. His entire demeanor was flat, no life to him at all, it seemed. He headed inside knowing he needed to be there to keep something ugly from happening. God only knew how Murdoch would react to seeing Johnny again. For that matter, how Johnny would react to seeing Murdoch.

As he walked through the open front door, Scott heard nothing. He wasn't sure what to make of that until he stepped into the great room to find Johnny standing by the hearth. There was no one else in the room. His brother was staring at the Lancer L branded above the mantelpiece.

"I always thought this was really good work. Jose did this, right? The stonecutter? Has he finished Val's headstone?"

Scott walked over to stand beside him. "Yes, everything is ready. It can wait a couple of more days, though."

Johnny turned and looked at him. "Guess tomorrow is too soon. Day after is good. I just want it done with, ya know?"

"I know, brother." Scott laid a hand on his arm and felt the muscle tighten. "Johnny, you don't have to leave here. I hope you know that."

A small smile flew across Johnny's face. "I doubt the old man will agree with that, Scott."

Murdoch walked in from the kitchen and pulled up short when he saw his son. He allowed himself a few seconds and all he heard was Johnny's last statement. "Agree with what?" Both younger men turned toward him. Both looked like kids caught stealing cookies before supper. He almost smiled. Wanted to smile. Wanted to walk over and hug the stuffing out of his son but, he didn't. He just stood there and stared at the boy.

Johnny's heart started pounding and that only made him mad at himself. He stared at the old man, tried to read him and, as usual, failed. He sucked in a breath and took a couple of steps toward Murdoch. "Agree with me staying here."

Well, that was the question. One of many Murdoch had. Could he stay here after what he'd done? He needed more information before answering that question even for himself. But he wasn't sure he wanted to know or that Johnny would tell him. They were both waiting for him to speak, he knew. Both watching him, one expectantly, one with apprehension. "Did you kill those men?"

"Yes." There was no point in making excuses or trying to explain anything. Johnny had no intention of lying about it either so, simple seemed best. No need to hem and haw, just say it. And he saw the reaction flash in the old man's eyes. The disappointment and disgust. And his anger started to build again.

Murdoch was surprised by the quick response. He finally looked away and walked to the sideboard, pouring three glasses of his best scotch. He wasn't very surprised to find his hands shaking a little. Steeling himself, he turned and walked to his sons, handing each a glass before walking over to lean against the side of his desk. He took a long drink as his mind worked and he tried to find some understanding. It didn't come. He hadn't been able to accept Johnny's actions all this time, why should now be any different?

Johnny looked into the whiskey glass and waited to be told to hit the road. He wouldn't blame his father for doing that. He knew, had always known, this would end his life at Lancer. He'd accepted it but that didn't mean it would be easy to hear the words or to leave this place forever. There was a lump forming in his throat and he swallowed the liquor, hoping it would ease the tightness.

Scott took it all in, watched both of these men he cared deeply for and wished there was an easy solution. It would be wonderful if they could simply put this behind them, pretend it never happened but he wasn't one given to whimsy and fairy tales. He would fight for his brother but, in the end, he knew Johnny would accept whatever Murdoch decided. He knew his father had been untenable but it was very different when face to face with the problem.

"I'm not sure what to say to you, Johnny. You know how I feel about what you did. Even though I understand how deeply hurt you are by losing Val, there are just some things I can't accept."

"I didn't expect you to accept anything. I know you think I was wrong. I ..."

"Wrong?" Murdoch interrupted. He stood and fully faced his son. "What you did was so much more than just wrong, Johnny. You committed murder."

******

The room was silent as they faced off. Slowly, Johnny set the glass on the table and spoke in a cold voice. "What exactly did you think I was doing all those years on the border, Murdoch?"

"That's different," the rancher said with a wave of his hand.

"Yeah, nobody paid me for this," Johnny clipped.

Scott set his jaw and stepped forward. "Don't do this. Don't start sniping at each other. Nothing will get resolved that way and you'll both only end up angry and confused. We need to talk about it as calmly as possible. Johnny does have a point, Sir. He was a gunfighter and you never seemed to have a lot of problem accepting that."

"I didn't have a problem with it because that's all he knew. That was the way he survived. He didn't have anyone in his life." Murdoch turned his attention back to Johnny. "That all changed when you came home. You have a family, a life, a future here. You have roots here and in the blink of an eye, you threw that all away."

Johnny nodded his head slowly. "Yes, I did. I threw it away. I knew what I was doing and I knew the consequences. I don't regret for a second what I did, Murdoch. I do regret if I hurt you in any way but I'm not going to apologize for killing those men. I'm not going to apologize for making them suffer. I won't be sorry for making sure Val's killers paid for what they did and I don't care about what's legal. They would've hanged in any court and you know it. The only difference is there was no court and I don't wear a badge or sit on a judge's bench."

"Can't you see how wrong vigilante justice is, Johnny? Don't you understand that a lot of innocent men have died because someone decided they were guilty without a trial?"

Johnny smirked at that. "Yeah, I see that but there was no doubt about their guilt. I heard them talk about it before they even saw me. There was a witness. It's not like I just decided they must be the ones. I did have proof, Murdoch." He took a breath and shook his head. "Would you mind if I stayed here until the funeral's over?"

Murdoch blinked and shook his head. "Of course not."

"This isn't over. We haven't decided anything. We're still family and we're still partners and I'm not going to sit by and watch my brother leave forever. You can both think about that for a while." Scott slammed his glass on the table and stormed out of the house.

******

Johnny stared after his brother, a slight smile on his face. He'd always been proud of Scott but never more than right now. It was a fool's errand but his brother never backed away from his beliefs. The smile faded as he looked back at Murdoch. "I know what you must think of me. I'm just sorry you never wanted to know what I'm capable of before."

"What does that mean?"

With a heavy sigh, Johnny sat on the arm of the sofa. "You said I was a gunfighter to survive. Well, that may be part of it but there's more, Murdoch. You and Scott both do it. You separate Lancer and Madrid." He bowed his head. "Maybe I even started believing it a little but the truth is, I'm both. It's not like I'm two people. There are sides to me like there are with anyone else. I know you never really wanted to know the Madrid side. You never wanted to see me when I'm at my best - or worst. However you want to look at it."

Murdoch walked over and sat on the coffee table in front of Johnny. "I know the reputation. I've read the reports but no, I don't think I've ever seen that darker side of you."

"And you don't want to." There was a warning tone to his voice, he knew. He'd already told the old man he never wanted any of his family to see him like that and he hoped Murdoch would leave that part of it alone.

"Probably not but even if I did, I'm not sure I could understand it. Can you explain it to me, son? Can you tell me what makes you ... that way?"

Johnny looked at his father for a long moment. Suddenly, he felt terrified of this man knowing his secrets. But, it didn't really matter now, did it? After all, he wasn't staying. That much was clear to him even if Scott couldn't accept it right now. Still... He swallowed dryly. "I don't think I can."

"Because you're worried of what I might think of you?"

Johnny snorted softly at that. "I'm pretty sure you think badly of me as it is. Wouldn't want to give you nightmares."

"Don't do that. Don't be sarcastic and shrug it off. This is important, Johnny. This may well be the most important conversation you and I ever have. I want to understand you."

Johnny looked away, stared at the rug and thought about if he could do this. There were things he would never tell another living soul. Those secrets that had gone to the grave with Val and some even Val didn't know. He felt the pain of loss welling up as if it had only just happened moments ago. He'd allowed himself to grieve on the trail back to Lancer but, not very much. He'd never been one to roll around in self-pity but part of him argued that wasn't what this was. It was grief and it was suffocating at times. He always pushed it back, too afraid of showing any weakness even to himself. But now it was on the edge and so was he. But if he didn't do this right now, would there ever be another chance to at least try to explain some of it? He didn't even know how to go about that.

"Do you need some time, son?"

He looked up quickly, almost forgetting his father was waiting for his answer. "I don't know if I can find the words or if there even are any. I'm not gonna sit here and tell you 'poor me' stories."

Murdoch sighed and shook his head. "Then, just tell me a story. Any story about your life then."

******

Johnny stood up suddenly and grabbed his glass. He walked to the sideboard and refilled it then brought the decanter back to his father. Once Murdoch's drink was refreshed, Johnny set the whiskey on the table figuring one or both of them would need it at some point. He plopped onto the sofa and shrugged. "Might want to get comfortable."

He waited for Murdoch to take a seat and was a little tense when the man decided to sit right next to him. He looked at his glass and frowned. "When my mother died, I didn't have anyone else. We didn't have any friends or anything and we hadn't even been in Sonora that long. I stayed in the little room we were renting until the owner tossed me out. Then, I just kinda roamed the streets for a few months."

"Didn't anyone know your mother had died?"

"Just the priest at the church and the gravedigger. I tried to get work at the livery and the cantina and a few other places but no one wants to hire a kid to do a man's job. Besides, not too many people would give me the time of day." He looked over at his father and smiled a little. "They weren't real fond of half-breeds."

Murdoch's jaw twitched but he didn't know what to say. It was the truth. A truth that haunted him at times.

"Look, I was on my own, free as an alley cat. I mean, that seemed pretty good to me. No one to tell me what to do and all. Only, people were always trying to tell me what to do or, not to do. There weren't a lot of places I could even go inside of so, I left Sonora and wandered around the border towns. I met up with other kids sometimes and we'd run around together but they'd leave or I would. It never lasted long. I saw a lot of gunfights, especially on the American side of the border. It was pretty exciting to a kid."

"So you decided that's what you wanted to do?"

"Yeah. I practiced a lot. I spent all my time learning to use a gun, to take care of it. I knew every piece and part of a pistol."

"I think you're leaving a lot out of this story, son. You said people didn't want to give you the time of day but, that's not all there is to that, is it?"

Johnny shrugged. "If you're asking did I get beat down, yeah, sometimes. Some were meaner than others but I did meet some nice people along the way." He gave a short laugh. "By the time I met Val, I was eighteen and pretty damned mean myself."

Murdoch felt his gut turn. Did he really want to know this? Well, he'd started it, hadn't he? "Why? I mean, why were you so ... cold?"

Johnny looked at him like he was loco. "I told you. No one gave a damn about me and I didn't give a damn about anyone else."

"See, that's were you lose me, son. I've seen how caring you can be. It isn't like you had no soul. If you were so bad, Val wouldn't have rode with you for as long as he did, right? So, I guess my question is, how can you turn everything off and stop caring?"

"It's a gift," Johnny sniped. Immediately, he was remorseful. "Sorry."

"That is a perfect example. If you were such a cold, hard person, you wouldn't have apologized just now. I guess that's what I don't understand."

"Maybe, I don't understand it myself. I just ... I can make myself push everything aside. Any problems I have or anyone I care about, I just push them out until I've done what I need to do. I don't feel a thing."

"And then you can let yourself care again?"

Johnny shrugged. "I guess so. I told you I wasn't sure I could explain it."

Murdoch nodded then chewed his lower lip a moment. "So, when something hurts or angers you, when you feel you've been wronged or someone you care for has been, that's when this ... coldness, for lack of a better word, comes over you?"

"Yeah. Depends on what it is. Sometimes, it takes a while but, when something like this happens ... Murdoch, I know you've never really understood my friendship with Val and that's okay. But, you need to understand, when they killed him, it was no different for me than if it had been you or Scott." The lump was back and he swallowed it down, or tried to, but he got the feeling he wasn't going to be able to control himself much longer. The exhaustion was settling deep in his bones and he wasn't too sure he could get to his feet right then.

Murdoch saw the light reflecting in his son's eyes even though Johnny wouldn't look directly at him. He saw the tears well up and knew Johnny was fighting it back. He laid a hand on his son's knee and squeezed gently. "Thank you, John. Right now, I think maybe you need to get some rest. We can bring you something to eat in a little while. Okay?"

That's all he needed to hear. He simply nodded his head and shot to his feet, surprised his knees didn't buckle. With a quick "thanks" he made a beeline to the stairs.

******

Scott pushed away from the dining room wall where he'd been standing and listening to every word. He felt no shame in eavesdropping. He figured if he'd made his presence known, the conversation would stop and Murdoch needed to hear his son out. He walked over and sat on the edge of the sofa where Johnny had been sitting. "Did that help you?"

Murdoch sat back on the cushions and let out a long breath. "Yes, I think so. I know there's a lot he didn't say."

"Maybe, what he didn't say speaks more loudly than what he did say."

Murdoch's lips twitched and he patted Scott's knee. "You are a wise young man, son. I'm just glad he talked to me about it at all. He never would before."

"Well," Scott sighed, "He's never lost anyone he loves that much before. At least, not since we've known him."

"I just wonder what the townspeople will think. They know where he went and now that he's back, they'll know he did what he said he would do."

"There will always be some against and some for any idea or action, Sir. If you can support Johnny, I think it will go a long way in how others react. No matter how you feel about it right now or later, I am asking that you stand by him at the funeral. He's going to need us more than ever."

Murdoch nodded. "Of course, Scott. I'm not about to let him do this alone whether he likes it or not."

Scott smiled at that and stood, rolling his shoulders to work out some of the tension. "I think I'll get him a tray together and see if he needs anything else."

"Scott, tell him if he wants to talk to me more about this or anything, just let me know. At any time."

Scott looked down at his father and smiled again as he gave the man a hard appraisal. "Johnny has changed since he came here, so have I but, I think you've changed the most."

******

Johnny sat in the chair by the window, cheek cradled against his hand as he stared into space. He was dog-tired and he should probably lay down but he was too confused to sleep, he knew. He had never been sure what Scott would think but he'd been fairly certain the man would stand by him. Scott had been ready to go with him and do some damage of his own, after all. Murdoch was the one throwing him for a loop.

Now, he didn't know if he had a home or not. It was too much to expect after accepting it was all gone. He'd sort of gotten used to the idea of going back to his old life though he hated it. It almost scared him how easily he'd let go of the cold, unfeeling bastard he used in the game after leaving Temecula. If it could slip away so quickly, did he even have a chance of going back to that life? Killing had never been easy or enjoyable for him. Even the Jacksons brought him no pleasure. Well, that wasn't exactly true but it was short-lived and he'd known it would be. It was never going to wipe away what they'd done. It was never going to bring Val back. He knew all that logical stuff but he just didn't care. There was no way in hell he was going to allow that scum to live. He snorted as he recalled them talking about going to Bolivia and striking it rich!

Johnny's head came up when he heard the soft rapping on the door. Had to be Scott. He called out to enter and watched as his brother balanced a tray in one hand while he pushed the door open.

"I thought you'd be in bed."

Johnny leaned forward and rested his forearms on his thighs. "I should be, I guess. Just ..." he shrugged. He didn't know what to say.

Scott turned from setting the tray on the dresser. "Murdoch surprised you."

"Yeah, he sure did. I was all set to go, ya know? Now, I don't know what the hell is going on."

Scott smiled a little as he walked over and sat in the chair opposite Johnny. "Neither does he but, he did want me to tell you something. If you want or need to talk to him more, he's available any time."

Johnny flopped back in the chair and looked at his brother through half-closed eyes. "That's just what I mean. I figured he'd start yellin at me the minute I walked through the door and not stop til I was ridin away again. What did you say to him?"

Scott raised a brow. "Me? Nothing." He looked down for a second. "I only asked him to stand by you for at least the funeral." Scott saw the skepticism on his brother's face. "I swear, Johnny. He's been a bear since the morning we found the horses gone at the campsite. I haven't been able to talk to him about much of anything. Truthfully, I haven't tried."

Surprised as he was, Johnny accepted his brother's words. Scott would never lie to him. He might refuse to answer a question or tell something but he'd never lie outright.

"Has it occurred to you that he cares enough about you to give you the benefit of the doubt?"

Johnny gave a short laugh at that then the smile fell from his face at the harsh look he was getting from his brother. "Truth? No, it didn't occur to me. He's always so worried about the law and all. I figured what I did would be the final straw."

Scott shook his head slowly. "Well, let's just be grateful it doesn't seem to be." He stood and stretched. "Eat then sleep and don't worry about getting up in the morning. I know you're exhausted."

Johnny smiled softly. "Thanks, Scott. For everything."

Scott patted his shoulder as he passed. He stopped at the door and looked back. "At some point, I would like to talk to you but it can wait."

Johnny sighed softly as his brother closed the door. Now what? he wondered.

******

The night wasn't ever going to end. He decided that about three hours after the sun had gone down. He lay there staring at the ceiling. Every time he closed his eyes and started to drift off, he'd see Val. He thought he might have fallen asleep once because it seemed more like a dream that time. At least, Val was alive and talking to him. It had ended the same as his wakeful visions had, though. Val lying on Sam's exam table, blood everywhere.

A deep sigh came out and he sat up. This wasn't going to help him sleep. Nothing would do that, he was sure. He grabbed his pants and boots and pulled them on then headed downstairs. There was someone he needed to see and he'd put it off long enough.

Quietly, he slipped out the front door and walked to the barn. He should probably wait for morning but he'd never done things the way they 'should' be done. The door creaked as he opened it. Hell, he's probably asleep. Probably bite me. Wouldn't blame him any. As the thoughts ran through his head, he walked carefully to the stall.

The golden head came up and a loud snort followed. "Ssshhh. Hey, boy. Did you miss me or are you too mad?" Johnny rubbed Barranca's cheek and waited to see what the horse's disposition was. After a few seconds, Barranca extended his neck and rested his chin on Johnny's shoulder.

He closed his eyes and sighed out his relief. "Thanks, amigo. I don't think I coulda taken it if you were really mad at me."

Barranca snuffled and pressed down a little more. Johnny smiled and scratched behind his ear then, a sob escaped. He pulled back and stepped away from the horse, turning his back and leaning on the empty stall across the way. He tried with everything he had left to hold it in but, he couldn't now. Johnny went to his knees, still holding onto the railing as he hung his head and completely gave in to his grief.

He wasn't sure how long he'd been there when he became aware of Barranca's snorts. Somewhere in the back of his mind he thought the animal had even whinnied. He sniffed and ran his hands over his face then pulled himself to his feet. Johnny went back to the horse and wrapped his arms around Barranca's neck. "Sorry, boy. Just couldn't seem to help it. I'm tired, Barranca. I'm so damned tired. I can't stop seeing him, ya know? Every time I close my eyes, there he is. Maybe he's haunting me for what I did. I don't know. I don't know anything."

The tears came again and he let them, didn't even try to fight it. Here, alone with the animals, he felt safe enough to let his weakness show. Maybe it would help him keep it together for the funeral. He hoped so. He felt Barranca pull back and realized he was holding him too tight. He patted the palomino's neck and smiled weakly. "Sorry. Seems I've been sayin that to you a lot, huh? Guess I should go back in now. I'll be back, though. And I promise I won't leave you behind again."

He walked out into the cooler night air and took a deep, cleansing breath before walking back to the house. He stopped at the pump near the veranda and splashed water on his face before going inside.

******

Johnny closed the door quietly then turned to head upstairs. That's when he saw her standing in the great room watching him. He averted his eyes and stared at the floor. "What are you doin up?"

Teresa took two steps toward him then stopped. "It's five o'clock."

His head snapped up and he stared at her in disbelief for a few seconds. With a sigh he nodded.

She took another tentative step forward, unsure and hating it. "Did you sleep at all?"

"No, I couldn't. Just went out to check on Barranca."

Teresa smiled a little then bit her lower lip. "Are you hungry?"

He closed his eyes, could hear the slight tremble in her voice. "No, I'm gonna try to sleep now." He took a step toward the landing.

"Johnny? Did I do something wrong?"

He turned and looked at her, a frown on his face that deepened when he saw tears welling in her eyes. "Of course not."

Teresa swallowed hard and nodded. "I just thought ... I know why you couldn't see me before but, I haven't talked to you and I just thought maybe ..."

Johnny moved quickly and pulled her into his arms. He heard a muffled sob and felt the wetness on his chest. "I'm so sorry, querida. I never meant to ignore you. I just wasn't thinking." He rocked her gently for a moment then pulled back and smiled at her. "You haven't done anything wrong. I guess I didn't think you'd want to see me after what I did."

Teresa frowned, lifted her chin and jutted it out slightly. "I'm glad you did it and I don't care what anyone else thinks. They deserved whatever you did to them."

He didn't say anything but he doubted she'd feel that way if she knew the details. Teresa was fiercely loyal and never thought any of them capable of doing anything truly bad. Another one who didn't really know him. But, whose fault was that? He was beginning to realize it was his. He brushed a tear away from her cheek with his thumb. "It's all gonna be alright, honey. Now, I'd better get upstairs before the old man comes down and sees me half naked in front of you."

She gave a little laugh and slapped his chest. "I didn't even notice."

"Thanks a lot," he said sarcastically and that made her laugh more. Funny, he thought it was the most soothing thing he'd heard in a long time. He gave her a smile then headed up the stairs.

She watched him go, her heart breaking for him. Taking a deep breath, she headed to the kitchen to start breakfast and try to figure out a way to help Johnny.

******

It was hot. That was the first thought he was aware of. As Johnny opened his eyes, he squinted at the afternoon sun streaming through the window. "No damned wonder I'm sweatin," he muttered as he flung the covers back. Sitting on the side of the bed, he leaned forward and stretched his back then rested his forearms on his thighs. He was hoping he could keep his mind blank but that lasted about two seconds. Val invaded his thoughts and he grunted then stood.

Walking to the window, he looked out at the first of the crews heading in from the work day. Work. That's what he probably needed. That and a really strong cup of coffee. It had to be nearly five o'clock. He shook his head and closed the curtains. Never gonna get myself back on track at this rate. Then again, it might not matter. The old man hasn't said if I stay or go.

He leaned his back against the wall then noticed the cloth-covered tray on his dresser. He walked over and lifted the cloth then grimaced. Lunch. Looked like it had been sitting that about that long, too. He dropped the cloth and grabbed the water pitcher, filled the bowl and splashed his face. He was going to have to go down there and face them. It was almost suppertime, anyway.

Damn but this was the longest day of his life and he'd slept most of it away. He just wanted tomorrow over with, that was all. Just get it over and get all those people to go away. He knew there'd be a crowd. Some that truly were sorry, some that just wanted to gawk at him and some that might just be glad Val was gone. Those were the ones he hoped he didn't know about and that was for his father's sake. He would have no problem showing them the ground up close and personal. He figured a good fistfight would go a long way in helping him feel something besides sad and angry. He snorted. Probably should be glad I feel anything at all.

He grabbed a shirt from the closet and pulled it on. His fingers felt numb and useless as he worked the toggles. A heavy sigh came and he plopped into a chair. Closing his eyes for a few seconds, he made himself relax a little then tried again to button his shirt. He almost gave himself a round of applause when he finished the task then laughed sardonically. "Losing my mind, that's what I'm doin."

He thought about changing the pants he'd slept in, decided not to then did it anyway. Respect. The word leapt into his mind and he paused a moment to consider that. Yeah, he needed to show his father some respect. Lord knew, he hadn't lately. No matter what had happened or would happen, he did respect Murdoch. Even when they disagreed he respected his father as a man.

He knew his thoughts were all over the place but if he let that happen maybe he wouldn't think too much about tomorrow or about Val. That would leave him vulnerable and, for the first time in a long time, he felt he couldn't show any weakness to his family. It was probably a mistake to even be here but he wasn't going to miss Val's funeral. Respect again and he surely did hold his best friend in the highest regard. As much as Murdoch and Scott, in fact.

******

Scott. He hadn't really talked to his brother much and he knew Scott wanted to talk. Had said so. Sometime. He figured that would be after tomorrow but he might not be here so maybe his brother should just speak his piece tonight and get it over with. He wasn't really sure where Scott stood on what he'd done. He seemed to accept Johnny's actions. Most likely, it was the method Scott had a problem with. That's usually where they disagreed. Not on the what but the how of a thing. He didn't much care how it got done as long as it got done. Scott always wanted to do things with class. That wasn't his way, though.

His head came up when he heard a door close. That was Scott coming in. Hell, had he gotten so familiar that he could tell whose door was closing? He smiled a little at that but the smile left quickly. Maybe he should just go over there and talk to his brother now. Then again, Scott was most likely tired and hungry. No, best to wait until after supper. No sense in spoiling the man's appetite.

He stood back up and walked to the door then hesitated. The more he thought about it, the more he wanted to just go back to bed. He didn't know what was wrong with him, had never been like this before. He wasn't afraid, that much he knew. He just dreaded it. Felt like he didn't have the strength to deal with anyone or anything. Crawling in a hole somewhere sounded really good.

He took a deep breath and tried to find some anger. Feeling sorry for himself wasn't his way but dammit, how much did he have to take? What else was he going to lose?

Poor baby.

Johnny whirled around and looked about the room, eyes wide and heart thundering. He backed up until he felt the door against his shoulders. Sonofabitch! He could swear that was Val's voice. Maybe it was - inside his own head. That's what Val would say in that sarcastic tone whenever he was going on about something. Poor baby. It would always piss him off, too. Maybe that's why he'd seemed to hear it so clearly. Because, he was doing that again. He hated pity, hated self-pity even more but, he had to admit, he'd fallen into it a time or two. Seemed like Val was always there to slap him about it.

He didn't believe in ghosts, had never bought into all that folklore he'd grown up around but, right now, he felt something different in the air. It wasn't good or bad, it was ... kind of comforting. He shook his head and told himself he was daydreaming then reached back and turned the doorknob. He never turned his back on his room as he walked into the hallway.

******

Johnny called himself every kind of fool as he walked downstairs and was glad no one had seen the way he'd left his room. They'd be ready to lock him away somewhere for how stupid he was acting. As he stepped into the great room, he saw his father standing in front of that big window behind his desk, looking out over the land. He did that when he was upset or had something weighing on his mind. Warily, he approached the desk and wondered if the old man had come to some kind of decision about him.

He stood there for a while but Murdoch never acknowledged him. Reckon he must really be deep in thought. Johnny glanced around the room then started drumming his fingers against his hip. Finally, he decided to let the man know he was there with a simple, "Hey."

Murdoch startled and turned quickly. How long had Johnny been standing there? He gave a curt nod of his head then sat at his desk. Aggravated from being surprised, he asked in a clipped voice, "Did you sleep well?"

Johnny raised a brow at his father's tone and, truth be told, was a little hurt by it. "Yeah, didn't mean to bother you." He turned to walk away.

Murdoch felt like kicking himself. The last thing his boy needed was to be dismissed. "Johnny, I'm sorry if I was short with you. I didn't know anyone was in the room."

Johnny stopped and paused a moment before turning back around. One day he'd allow that not everything that pissed his old man off was about him. He took a seat across the desk from Murdoch. "You seemed to be thinkin pretty hard."

There was a question in there, Murdoch knew, but he wasn't sure about bringing this up just yet. Still, Johnny needed to know what was going on. He shook his head slowly. "I had a meeting with the cattlemen today. We were discussing the need for a new sheriff." He saw Johnny's shoulders tense up immediately. "I wouldn't even bring it up, son, except you should know what a couple of the men had to say."

"Oh, I'm sure they had plenty to say."

Murdoch sighed. "There were a couple who weren't very happy about you and a couple of idiots who actually wanted to ask you ..." he faltered, still disbelieving what he'd heard with his own ears earlier. Were some people really that insensitive or that dense? He wasn't sure which it was at this point.

Johnny was completely confused. He couldn't imagine what the ranchers would want to ask him. "Ask me what?"

"Well, first they wanted to me to ask if you knew anyone who could do the job."

Johnny got to his feet and started pacing the floor, his hands curled into fists at his side. After a moment he faced his father. "Sorry, I'm all out of friends!" He watched Murdoch just stare at him then, he dropped his eyes and ran a hand through his hair. In a soft voice, he asked, "What was the other question?"

"It's even more ludicrous than the first, I'm afraid. They wanted to hire you for the job."

His head came up and he stared wide-eyed at his old man. Suddenly, he saw the humor and burst out laughing. Bending over at the waist, Johnny staggered back to his chair and plopped down. "That's rich! I hope you told them to go to hell."

"Not in those words," Murdoch replied as he noticed Scott standing in the doorway.

Johnny followed his father's gaze, turning in his seat to find his brother standing there looking curious as all get out. "Come on in and join the party, Boston."

******

Scott stepped into the room warily. He'd only heard the part when Johnny was laughing and that was enough to have him wondering what they could be discussing. He made his voice light as he spoke. "Sounds like someone told a good joke."

"Oh, yeah, it was a real good one. Some of the cattlemen think I ought to put a badge on my chest. Can you believe that? I mean, here Murdoch doesn't even know if he can stand to have me around after what I did and they want me to be a sheriff!" Johnny chuckled.

Scott didn't find the humor and, when he looked at his father, he could see the older man wasn't finding it funny either. He took a seat next to Johnny. "Some people only care about what is to their advantage at the moment."

"Yes, and they'll try to take that advantage every time," Murdoch grumbled. "It's not funny, Johnny."

Johnny grinned even wider. "Yeah, it is. To me, anyways."

Scott didn't feel like arguing an inane point so he decided to change the subject. "Did you get any sleep, brother?"

The smile left his face, the question reminding him all too clearly of the here and now. "Yeah, I slept all day."

"You must be starving."

"Could eat a whole cow, Boston. While we're waiting for that, tell me what kind of arrangements you made."

Scott let out a soft sigh. "I spoke with the minister. He'll come out a little early tomorrow to talk to you. He didn't know Val all that well and he'd like to make the sermon meaningful. The headstone is ready and will be set right after the burial. Everyone will come to the house afterward."

Johnny stared at his hands in his lap and nodded at it all. "Where'd you pick?"

"On the other side of the hill behind the house."

Johnny's head came up and he looked at his father first then at Scott. "That okay with everyone?"

"It's fine, son. We thought you'd like to have him close."

Cocking his head to one side, Johnny studied his father. "Close to what?"

Scott rolled his eyes. "To the house, to you."

Johnny shook his head and stood, walked to the sideboard and poured a tequila. He threw it back and swallowed hard, regretted it instantly as it hit his empty stomach then turned to the others. "Anyone want a drink?" They both shook their heads so he walked over to the fireplace and stared into the cold hearth.

******

Scott leaned closer to the desk and spoke softly. "You need to give him something, Murdoch. Yes or no or you don't know but, give him something."

Murdoch frowned and nodded. He didn't have an answer and, truthfully, had tried not to think about it too much. When he did that, it was never a good outcome in his mind. He stood and walked over to Johnny. Leaning against the mantle, he studied his son's profile. "I don't have an answer for you, son. I'm sorry but I just can't make a decision like this in a day."

Everything seemed to crash down on him just then. All of it. He'd been able to focus on just one part at a time until now. Either Val's death or what he'd done to the Jackson's or Murdoch's decision but never had he let himself think of it all like this and he felt like he couldn't breathe. He kept his head down and closed his eyes, tried to push some of it away but he couldn't and that made him feel panicky. He was fighting with everything he had just to take a deep breath, just to keep from making a fool of himself. It wasn't working.

Johnny felt Murdoch's hand on his shoulder and he couldn't take that so he moved away quickly and headed for the French doors. "I need some air."

Scott watched him, heard the tightness in his voice and knew it for what it was. He stood as Murdoch started after Johnny and held out a hand. "Let him be, Sir. He doesn't want to break down in front of us."

"He needs to, Scott. I know, believe me, I know how hard that is but, he has to."

"Then let me go."

Murdoch sucked in a breath. "I need to do this, son. I really need to be the one. Do you understand?"

Scott drew his brows together for a moment then, yes, he understood. A soft smile drifted across his lips. "Yes, Sir." As he watched his father go after his brother, Scott knew this was the defining moment for them both. Murdoch needed to see Johnny as the son he knew and loved and not some dark, unfeeling monster he may have cooked up in his head. For better or for worse, that was what their father was struggling with. That side of Johnny that allowed him to go after the Jacksons and kill them.

He sat back down and closed his eyes briefly. This could be a very good thing or it could get ugly. Either way, Murdoch was right. He had to be with Johnny right now. He had to hear his son out and it was only when Johnny was this vulnerable that he might, just might, let go and talk to Murdoch.

******

Murdoch figured he'd find his son in the barn and he was right. Johnny was at Barranca's stall talking softly to the horse when he walked in. He knew his son was aware of his presence because the talking stopped and Johnny's entire body tensed up. He walked closer. "We need to talk about this, Johnny."

"After tomorrow, okay? I can't do this right now."

"I know you don't want to but I think this is the best time."

Johnny turned and glared at his father. "Really? You think right now, the night before I'm gonna bury my best friend is the best time? I'm gonna have to disagree with you on that one, old man. Then again, that's nothin new."

Murdoch knew this would happen. Knew he'd put up all kinds of walls and he hoped he was prepared to break through them. "It's not going to work, John. Getting angry and sarcastic with me isn't going to make me go away."

"Then what will?" He felt the panic coming back, knew this wasn't going to be easy but he wasn't giving in. He couldn't do this, he just couldn't.

Murdoch let out a breath and bowed his head for a moment. "What are you so afraid of? That I'll see you shed a tear? Would that be so bad?"

Johnny turned sharply on his heel and stared at the wall. He felt Barranca's breath on his neck and turned his head aside. "Not now, boy."

"Have you cried in front of that horse? Johnny, I only want to help you."

He swallowed hard and felt the tequila trying to come back up. Just that little bit was enough to make him want to puke. "Why do you want to help me? I'm a murderer, after all. Some kind of devil. Why don't you just admit you don't want me here, can't stomach the sight of me?"

"I never said that!" Murdoch sucked in a breath. Damn! This boy could do it to him every time. He took hold of himself and lowered his voice. "You're my son. No matter what you've done that will never change. I need you to tell me about the Jacksons because I've been imagining all kinds of things."

Johnny gave a short, hard laugh as he turned to face Murdoch. "You can't imagine it, old man. I'd wager you'd never be able to dream up the truth of it. No, you don't want to know, believe me. It's best you keep right on thinking what you want."

"I know you don't think so little of yourself, Johnny. I'm telling you right now, this is going to happen if I have to sit on you - literally. We're going to hash this out because it's the only way for me to understand. It's the only way I might be able to accept what you've done."

"I don't give a rat's ass what you accept, Murdoch. I already knew when I went after them how this would end. The only reason I came back at all was for Val otherwise, I woulda kept right on going south." Johnny stepped up to his father. "I'm not sorry, I don't regret a thing. I'd do it again in a heartbeat. I killed them and I made them suffer and I made sure they knew why. Especially that punk Billy. I put a bullet in his right hand then I put one in his left and that was just the beginning."

******

Murdoch stared into the cold, lifeless eyes and felt his stomach drop. He didn't know what to say, couldn't think straight in that moment. All he knew for sure was that he wanted to kill the part of his son that did this. Bury him with Val never to see the light of day again. This man had ruled Johnny's life for far too long. Murdoch knew a better Johnny, a caring Johnny. One who would give the shirt off his back to a stranger in need and fiercely protect his family against all comers. That was the man he needed in his life.

"Was that enough or did you want to hear about the other two?"

"Challenging me isn't going to help or make me stop, son. Maybe I don't want to know the details. You're hurting and you won't acknowledge it. At least, not around anyone. I know you think you have to be strong, never show any weakness and maybe you're trying to prepare yourself for tomorrow. But this isn't tomorrow. This is right now and we can deal with the rest as it comes. You have to let this out, son. Not in anger, not in spite. You have to let yourself feel it."

Johnny just stared at him in awe. What did it take? Screw this! He made to step around Murdoch and felt the vise-like grip on his upper arm. Slowly, he looked up at the man. "Let go of me."

"Or what? Are you going to shoot me, Johnny? You don't have your gun. I'm not letting go of you. I am trying to hold onto you with everything I've got but you have to give some, too, if you even want to be here. Sometimes, I'm not sure about that."

He didn't know what to say. He could shoot his mouth off but it wouldn't be the truth and the biggest part of him didn't want to chance his father actually letting go and telling him to leave. That was what he hoped for, after all. That Murdoch could let it go and, if not accept what he'd done, at least be able to live with it somehow. Otherwise, he would have stayed in town or camped out but he hadn't. He'd come home. Home.

Val had said once that home was about the best word in the world. That it just sounded sweet and warm. Like arms wrapped around you that never let go. Then, he'd gotten all embarrassed and grouchy. Johnny dropped his head and closed his eyes.

Murdoch relaxed his grip a little but he didn't let go. He pulled Johnny to his side and wrapped his arm around his boy. "Let's go to your room and talk, son."

******

Once they were in Johnny's room, he felt foolish. Was he supposed to just start bawlin like some kid? He wandered around, ending up by the window. He leaned against it and turned his head toward Murdoch. "Now what?"

Taking a deep breath, Murdoch sat on the bed and made himself comfortable. "Now you tell me whatever you want. About Val or the Jacksons or anything."

Johnny made a sound of derision and looked at the floor. "I think you're tryin to starve me out is what I think."

Murdoch smiled a little then stood and walked to the door. Opening it, he stepped out and bellowed Scott's name.

Johnny jumped a little and stared at him like he was a lunatic. He heard his brother running up the stairs.

"Would you get us some supper brought up here, son? Johnny's starving."

Scott, breathing heavily from more than his sprint up the stairs, shook his head and turned around, muttering to himself as he headed to the kitchen.

Johnny laughed softly as Murdoch closed the door. "So that's the trick, huh? Yell louder than the other fella?"

Murdoch resumed his seat on the bed and shrugged. "No, but I figured if I left you'd be out of here."

Johnny leaned his back against the wall and crossed his arms. "I might've surprised you."

Murdoch shook his head. "You always surprise me. I'll tell you one thing I'd like to know. I'd like to hear a story, any story about you and Val."

Johnny stared at him through half-closed eyes as he leaned his head against the wall. He didn't say anything for a long time. He knew what the old man was trying to do but he wasn't sure he'd be able to give him what he wanted. After a moment of thought, he began. "The first time I saw him was in a saloon in Texas. A bunch of us were gathered there, gunfighters lookin for work. I'd already been hired. Some kid walked up to me like he was going to speak and I looked at him. He took off out the door and everyone was laughing at him. Everyone but Val. I liked that so I went over and sat with him."

"And you signed up together?"

"Nope, he was already workin for the other side but he didn't like the guy in charge. I didn't like him either. Anyway, long story short, this guy tried to ambush me and Val saved my ass. When I asked him why he said he hated back shooters and liars." Johnny lowered his eyes. "We just kind of rode in the same direction when that was over. Kept on riding for almost two years."

"What made him get out of that life?"

"Old age." Johnny gave a quick smile. "He was tired of it, had been tired of it a long time. We talked about it a lot - gettin out. Wound up in Temecula and they offered him a job."

"Just like that?"

"No, we went in and took care of this gang that'd taken over the town. They killed the sheriff and no one else would stand up to them. A friend asked us to help. I didn't want to until I heard who it was." Johnny grinned. "I didn't like him."

******

Murdoch took it all in, especially the part where they talked about getting out of gunfighting. "That was quite a jump from when you first met to when he quit. You said you talked about getting out a lot. Was it just him who wanted to quit?"

Johnny sighed and shook his head. "No, not just him. There were times when I hated it but not always. It was just how I lived and I didn't know any other life. I never dreamed of living any other way. There was nothing else for me and that's what kept me in it. Val always said I was full of shit. That there were plenty of other things I could do. But, well, I just didn't believe it."

"Why not?"

"I don't know, Murdoch. It wasn't all bad. I had some fun." He grinned again. "Like tipping cows."

Murdoch's head shot up. "Tipping cows? Is that how you fought range wars?"

Johnny laughed softly. "Part of it."

"And that was effective?"

"No, but it annoyed the hell out of the ranchers and hands and, it was fun."

Murdoch looked into the sparkling, mischievous eyes of his son and saw the boy still in there. It was a puzzle he'd seen many times before and could never work out. How could so much live inside one person? "What else did Val say about you getting out?"

Johnny shuffled his feet and sighed. "I don't know. I don't remember."

"You have a mind like a steel trap, son. Once something goes in, it stays in. Especially when it's about someone you care for and you seem to remember everything Val says."

Johnny pursed his lips and blew out a breath. "He said a lot of things. Mostly that I was afraid to let go of my hate because I thought it was all I had to hold onto."

Murdoch nodded and dropped his eyes. Hate for me, of course. "Was he right?"

"I don't know! Probably. He usually was. It's like he could see inside me, inside my head. Spooked me sometimes, I hafta say." He settled down a little and shook his head. "He was funny. So damned funny. And he was trying to be and not the way people thought he was. He always liked for them to think less of him."

"I never understood that. Why did he do that?"

"Because it gave him an advantage. Val was good with a gun but he wasn't a real fast draw. He used a lot of things to his advantage like his brains. You've seen him work."

"Yes, yes, I have. You're right, he was cunning."

Johnny blinked, a little startled when Murdoch said 'was'. He realized he'd done it, too. It snapped him back to the present again and he dropped his head. He cleared his throat and spoke in a husky voice. "Is that enough for you?"

******

Murdoch watched him closely, what he could see, but it was what he heard that gave him his answer. "It's good to talk about our memories, especially the good ones. I'm sure there were bad ones, too. I don't need to know everything, son. I never knew him well enough, I'll admit. And that's my loss. Speaking of admissions, I um, I was a little jealous of him."

Johnny's head came up. "Why?"

Suddenly, Murdoch wished he hadn't said anything. He ran a hand through his hair and shrugged. "I suppose because he knew you so much better than I do. The two of you seemed to be able to read each other's minds. You trusted him without question."

Johnny swallowed dryly and nodded. "We went through a lot together. Things where we had to trust each other and he never let me down. Not once. You and me, we just haven't had that time."

"You've been here two years. That's longer than you rode with Val."

"Yeah, but it was always just the two of us. We didn't have anyone else to talk to. Didn't have anything else going on. We worked together. That's a lot of time to spend with a person, Murdoch. Hell, if we didn't talk, we woulda killed each other." Johnny let out a short laugh. "Not sayin there weren't times I wanted to anyway."

Murdoch smiled at that. Johnny was right, of course. It had been different for them. Nothing dragging Val's attention in ten different directions, no huge responsibilities other than the basic needs and staying alive. There was a bond there that he envied and hoped to achieve someday with his sons. To do that, Johnny had to be here. If he left, especially after this great a loss, Murdoch didn't think he'd ever reach the potential he knew Johnny was capable of. With guidance and love, his son could be a great man, a successful man in every aspect of his life. That's what he wanted more than anything in this world.

"Murdoch?"

He shook his head and looked at his son. "Sorry, I was lost in thought."

Johnny nodded and wondered what he'd been thinking. He doubted the old man would tell him even if he asked. He usually didn't when Murdoch was thinking that hard. Usually didn't want to know because it was always something bad or some kind of trouble. As he wondered what he'd have to say to finish this little talk, there was a knock on the door. Murdoch went to answer and he and Scott brought in two trays. His brother kept glancing over at him and Johnny just stared. He didn't have anything to tell yet.

******

Johnny sat back from the tray and sighed. That had to be the first decent meal he'd had in ages. He felt full but not too full. Maybe it would stay down if Murdoch planned on continuing this little chat. He knew the man would but he wasn't about to give any help. He watched his father staring into his coffee cup. Thinkin again. Didn't he ever get tired of that?

"There was a time when I was convinced, if it ever came to it, that you would choose Val over this family. I guess I was right about that."

Boy, that one came out of nowhere! And it pissed him off because, no matter what he said, Murdoch still didn't understand. He tried very hard not to lose his temper, though. He knew his father was trying to understand his actions. "If Scott had been cut down in the street for doing what he was supposed to do, what would you have done? And don't tell me the 'right' thing. Tell me what you really would have done."

Murdoch frowned deeply and shook his head. "I know what I would have wanted to do but I can't honestly say what I would have done."

"Right. Well, I'll tell you what I would have done. Exactly what I did do. I don't know why you can't understand that, Murdoch. Val is my brother, too. I care as much for him as I do for Scott. There is no difference to me. I'd kill any sonofabitch that did that to Scott, too."

Murdoch felt his frustration growing and he tried to rein it in. "Don't you see, Johnny? Taking the law in your own hands, even when the person is guilty, does just that much more to destroy what we've all tried so hard to build out here."

"I understand what you're saying. And maybe you're right, Murdoch. But, I just don't care about the law. I care about justice and that's not always the same thing." He leaned forward in his chair and stared hard at his father. "Do you think anyone was going to find some law to punish the man who killed my mother? Do you think any lawman could've stopped the Jacksons from crossin that border? They would've been out of your precious law's reach but they were never out of mine. I'm not sorry for it. I'll never be sorry for it."

Johnny sprang to his feet, feeling the need to move around. All the pent up anger and pain seemed to be teetering on the edge now. "No one has ever listened to me like Val did. He never judged me. He never told me not to do something. He might tell me a different way or why it wasn't the smart thing but he never tried to stop me from doing anything I was dead set on doing. He gave me advice when I asked for it not at the drop of a hat. He listened to me."

******

Murdoch watched him pace, his fingers curling and uncurling over and over, his face red, his breathing getting faster and faster. All indications Johnny was about to blow. What he heard was one thing. 'He listened to me'. Johnny said that more than once. Murdoch came to his feet and stepped in front of his son as Johnny turned in his pacing. "I'm listening, son. I'm listening."

Johnny stared wide-eyed at him then took a step back. "It ain't the same," he whispered. "It just ain't the same."

"It could be if you let it. If I promise to only listen and not judge it could be, couldn't it?"

Johnny shook his head slowly and swallowed hard. He turned away and wrapped his arms around his body. "It'll never be the same again."

Murdoch saw his shoulders start to shake then, without warning, Johnny went to his knees and started rocking back and forth. Murdoch moved quickly, kneeling behind his son and holding onto his shoulders. "I know, son. Nothing will ever be the same. It's the hardest thing in the world to lose someone you love. I know, believe me, I know. It feels like the world is ending and you just wish it would all go away. But you know eventually it will get better. It has to or none of us would ever survive the loss. I know you've lost a lot, too much, but I'm here, son. I'm right here."

Johnny swallowed down a sob and waited until he thought he could speak. "You'll leave, too. Or I will. Everyone leaves."

Taking a deep breath, Murdoch squeezed Johnny's shoulders. "That's why we need to let each other know how much we mean to each other while we're still here. Yes, everyone leaves, son. That's nature and there's not a thing we can do to stop it. All we can do is love each other for as long as we have and not take anything for granted. I think you live your life that way. I've seen how you are, who you are deep inside."

Johnny pulled away and got to his feet. He wiped his face but kept his back to his father. "No! No, you don't! You don't know who I am. If you did, you wouldn't have such a hard time with what I've done."

"Because that's not all of who you are truly. You're caring and kind and now I've seen how you are when someone takes from you. I want so much for you, son. I want everything in the world for you. When I see you do something that could destroy your life, I can't stand by and do nothing, say nothing."

"I don't understand you at all. You were so ready to string me up. What changed?"

Murdoch stepped closer, hoping Johnny would turn and face him. "I didn't want to think about it while you were gone. I made sure I didn't think about it, in fact. When I saw you standing in the living room yesterday, my first thought was relief that you were alive. What you told me then helped. I don't know, son. I just don't know what to think right now." Finally, the boy turned around and Murdoch reached out and placed his hand on Johnny's cheek. "Let's just get through tomorrow."

Johnny sighed and lowered his eyes for a moment. "I don't know what to do."

"I'm afraid I don't know what you mean." Murdoch was sure his heart would break when Johnny looked back up at him. There was so much hurt in his eyes, so much loss. His hand slid away as Johnny began to speak.

"All I wanted was to be here for ... I'm not sure I can get through tomorrow. I can't think past that much."

"Scott and I will help you get through tomorrow, son. After that, it might be wise if you took some time, maybe go fishing or something with your brother for a few days."

Johnny raised his brows at that then chewed his lower lip. "I know it's hard but maybe we could all go. I think we all need some time away from here and, maybe it'll give you some room to think."

******

Murdoch was surprised by that suggestion. There hadn't been too many times when his son seemed to want his company. He did recall once when he'd turned Johnny down and it had bothered him ever since. "I'm sure we can do that."

Johnny smiled a little. Hopefully, this was the end of the talk because he didn't have anything left to say but he sure had a lot to think on.

"Do you think you'll be able to sleep?"

Seeing his way out, guilty as he felt about it, Johnny nodded his head. "I can't believe it but I am pretty tired. I guess I just need to catch up."

Murdoch patted his shoulder. "That's good. You don't want to get your days and nights mixed up. I'll leave you to it." He headed to the door then stopped and turned. "I know it's hard to talk about this kind of thing but if you do want to, I'm available."

Johnny bowed his head. "Okay, thanks."

Murdoch smiled and shook his head a little. Johnny would never seek him out but he wanted the boy to know he could. Why, he had no idea but it was important to him. He opened the door then paused. "Oh, the minister will be here early tomorrow to talk with you."

Johnny cleared his throat. "Yeah, Scott told me. Don't know what I could tell him that's fit to be repeated."

"I'm sure you'll think of something. A lot of what you told me would be helpful to him. How good a friend Val was and how he listened and never judged you. Those are fine qualities." Murdoch stopped and frowned when Johnny turned his back. Before he could say anything else, Johnny spoke in a husky tone.

"Yeah, I'll think about it. Goodnight."

Murdoch stood there a second longer. "Goodnight, son."

******

Johnny stared at the ceiling as the room grew lighter. He was surprised he'd slept pretty well considering. He'd only awoken twice in the night that he could remember. Of course, the last time had been a while ago. How long he lay there, he couldn't begin to guess. He should've gotten up half an hour ago but he couldn't seem to make himself move. He dreaded today like no other. He needed a bath and a shave and some clean clothes. Dios, he hadn't even thought about clothes. With a sigh, he flung the covers back and sat on the side of the bed. It seemed to him he'd heard Scott say something about not working the hands much today so they could go to the service. That meant no one would be in any hurry to get up and about.

He stood and stretched then grabbed his shaving gear and some clean work clothes and headed down the back stairs to the bathhouse. As he walked into the kitchen, he was relieved it was empty. He wasn't ready to face anyone and he was sure no one would want to be around him this morning. Or any other time today, most likely. His mood was growing darker by the second as he trudged across the yard.

As he opened the bathhouse door, he pulled up short, surprised to see his brother already there. "Sorry, I'll come back."

"No need, brother. This is for you." Scott turned, the smile on his face wavering when he looked into his brother's eyes. He cleared his throat and let the smile fade. "I knew you'd want a bath and I figured you'd be up soon so ..." he shrugged as he trailed off.

Johnny stared at him for a long beat then relaxed his tense shoulders. He dropped his head and let out a soft breath. "Thanks, Scott. That was real thoughtful."

Relieved, Scott walked over and put a hand lightly on Johnny's shoulder. "I'd really like it if you'd lean on us today, Johnny. Let us do for you. Let us wait on you for once. Will you do that for me?" Slowly, Johnny's head came up, a quizzical expression on his face.

"Do that for you, Scott? Sounds like that would be for me."

"Well, sometimes, people enjoy helping someone else. Makes them feel useful when there's really nothing else they can do."

Johnny nodded. It made sense, he supposed. "I'll try."

Scott smiled and patted his shoulder. "Good. Now, Teresa has ironed a couple of shirts and some pants for you to choose from. I'll hang them in your closet while you're in here. Just take your time. We aren't going to do anything until you're ready." With that, he moved around Johnny and closed the door as he left.

"Then it'll never happen, cause I'll never be ready for this," Johnny muttered as he started undressing.

******

Johnny had to admit, he felt better. More awake anyway. Now clean and shaved, he walked into the kitchen and was caught up by the aroma. They really were going all out for him. Huevos rancheros, his favorite. Val really liked it, too. Bet they didn't know that, though. He forced a smile as all eyes turned to him then moved quickly to his seat.

"Did you sleep, son?"

Johnny looked at his father as Maria poured his coffee. "Yeah, I did pretty good." He turned to Teresa when he felt the small hand on his arm.

"Well, you look better."

He smiled and leaned toward her a little. "And smell better?"

She smiled brightly. "I wasn't going to say anything."

Johnny laughed a little then turned his attention to his food. He took a bite and felt like it might not stay down. It was delicious. Maria's best effort, in fact, but he just couldn't stomach it. He tried but the best he could do was coffee and lots of it. No one said anything, not even Maria who would usually smack him on the head with her spoon for not eating her cooking. He could feel them all watching him so he just stared into the coffee cup and let his thoughts drift.

Suddenly, Johnny blinked and his head came up as he heard a knock at the door. It had to be the minister. He wasn't so sure he could talk to the man. On the other hand, he needed to tell him something so Val's funeral would be decent. Wouldn't do to have the man stand there and just read from the bible. Val would hate that, anyway.

Scott stood and dropped his napkin, watching his brother the whole time. "I'll get it."

"The garden, Scott?"

"Sure, Johnny. I'll send him right out."

******

Johnny stood at the graveside with Murdoch on his right and Scott on his left. He kept his head down as he listened to the preacher speak. The reverend was doing a good job, Johnny had to give him that. He made Val sound ... right. Made him almost come to life. Johnny swallowed hard at that thought and tuned out the man's voice. He let his mind wander to his own memories. They weren't so lily white as the preacher's words but they were real, sometimes hard, but always good in the end. Until now.

Now, the end really was the end and no matter how hard he tried, Johnny really couldn't wrap his mind around that yet. Oh, he knew very well that Val was in that box. That it was all over. That he himself shouldn't even be here, shouldn't even be given yet another chance at this life. He turned his head slightly to the right but he couldn't bring himself to look up. Murdoch was probably watching him like a hawk. Scott, too. He knew if he looked at either of them, he'd lose his dignity. Val would have ribbed him good for that. He almost smiled at the notion.

Suddenly, he realized the preacher wasn't talking anymore and he looked over at the man who was staring at him. Johnny felt like his breath was gone as he glanced at Murdoch who simply nodded at him. What the hell did they want? He felt Scott's shoulder touch his and he looked at his brother.

"Did you want to say anything, Johnny?"

Say anything? Like what? Shit! He shook his head hard then went back to staring at the ground. Say anything. They didn't want to hear what he had to say. He sucked in a breath when he heard his father's deep voice.

"I wish I'd known Val better. I do know he was a very good sheriff and an even better friend to my son. His presence will be missed in this valley for a long time. Some people only saw how the man looked but, it's what a man does that counts. How he carries out his duties and lives his life that matters. Val Crawford was a good man. There aren't many of his measure. He will be missed by this family."

Johnny closed his eyes briefly. Okay, that wasn't too bad. It was really nice, in fact. But now he saw Scott take a step forward. Dios!

"A man can have many acquaintances in his life but, usually, only a few true friends whom he trusts beyond question. Val was my friend and I felt honored to have known him. I have my brother to thank for that. We all have Johnny to thank for bringing Val into our lives."

Johnny heard a small laugh from his brother and he looked up at Scott.

"I could tell some stories but I'll save that for a more appropriate time. Val was a character and he didn't suffer fools gladly. He was also cunning with as sharp a mind as any I've known. He would have made a fine army officer except for the fact he would probably never follow the rules. I'll miss him." Scott cleared his voice and stepped back, leaning his shoulder against Johnny's.

The minister asked if anyone else would like to say anything. Johnny looked over the crowd. He saw the mayor tugging on his jacket lapels and working his mouth. Johnny's gaze narrowed and, as the mayor took a step forward, their eyes locked. Higgs paled and took a step back before shoving his hands in his pockets. Val would've haunted Johnny for the rest of his life if he allowed that blowhard to speak. Hell, he might've shot himself if he had.

No one else seemed to want to say anything and Johnny was grateful for that. Then, the minister walked over to him.

"Are you sure you don't want to say anything, Johnny? People feel uncomfortable doing so but they are always glad they did afterwards."

Johnny sighed and shook his head. "Thanks, but I think everything that needs to be said has been said. I'd just as soon keep it to myself. You did a real good job."

******

They all wandered toward the house once the preacher said the last prayer. Johnny stood there, finally alone with his amigo for the first time since that night. He knelt beside the grave and made the sign of the cross.

"Reckon the skies might open up now. I have no right to be prayin, I guess. But, it ain't for me, God. I just wanted to remind you that, even though Val did some things you might not approve of, he did a lot more good than bad. He saved me. I know that ain't no big deal but he helped a lot of people in his time. Anyways, treat him good, please. He deserves it. I know I have a lot more to answer for and I don't expect to be forgiven. That was my choice. It was always my choice. You know that, I guess.

"I just hope you're at rest, Val. You sure deserve to be in heaven. I guess that's all I have to say except that I'll miss you more than maybe I can stand."

He stayed there for a long time, lost in memories and misery, allowing himself this time to wallow. He barely noticed the shadow fall across him and wasn't really sure how long it had been there. He knew who it was and his father didn't seem to have any notions of interrupting him. Johnny looked over the land for a moment then bowed his head once more, made the sign of the cross again and got to his feet.

He still couldn't look his father in the eye, still felt like he was on the edge of making a fool of himself. He looked past Murdoch, down the hill toward the house. People were milling about and he frowned. "Why are they still here?"

"It's what we do, son. Gather to remember and mourn together. People want to show their respect. A lot of them are truly upset at losing Val."

Johnny sighed heavily and nodded. "A lot of people liked Val after they gave him a chance. Some didn't but I guess that's true of anyone."

"Come on, son. You were the only family he had and people would like to see you."

Johnny felt his father's hand on his shoulder. He tensed at the idea of going down there and dealing with all those people. But, he knew it was expected. He didn't usually do what people expected of him but he figured he'd given his father enough grief.

******

After an hour of shaking hands and having his back patted until it was numb, Johnny was ready for everyone to leave. More than ready. He thought about shooting someone but it was a fleeting idea. Val would've liked it, though.

He figured he'd done real well. He hadn't made a fool of himself, hadn't had to walk away from anyone. Then he saw Sam walking toward him and he almost left. He knew how bad Sam felt but he wasn't sure he could do this. Not with Sam. He would never forget the sadness in the doctor's face that night. Never forget the tears in his eyes and the way his voice shook. Johnny turned his back and faced a wall and tried to find some grit. He felt the hand on his shoulder and fought back the urge to jerk away.

"Johnny, I just wanted to see how you're doing. How you're holding up."

He turned around slowly and nodded. "I'm makin it, Sam. You?"

Jenkins cleared his throat and sighed. "I'm making it, too, I suppose. You know I ... well, I just wish I could've done more."

"Sam, you did everything you could and then some. Don't beat yourself up. You aren't to blame for any of it. Those responsible have paid, believe me."

Sam's brows went up and he looked hard at Johnny. "I know Murdoch was having a hard time when you left. Well, when you lost them on the trail. He came to see me when he and Scott got back."

"Yeah, we've talked."

"So, are you staying?"

Johnny lowered his eyes and shrugged. "I don't know yet."

"You know he doesn't want to lose you. He loves you, Johnny."

A heavy sigh escaped as Johnny shook his head slowly. "This doesn't have to do with love. It's what a man can live with and what he can't. It wouldn't surprise me if he decided he can't have me around, Sam. I wouldn't blame him a bit."

Sam started to say more as Burt Wilkins walked up with a slight smile on his face that fell away as he opened his mouth. "Johnny, real sorry about Val. Real sorry. I know this is a bad time but I was hoping I could talk to you for a few minutes in private."

Johnny looked over at Sam and shrugged. "Yeah, sure. Outside."

******

Johnny led WIlkins around the side of the house near the corrals. He couldn't imagine what the rancher wanted to talk to him about. They didn't see each other often as WIlkins' ranch was on the other side of the valley. He always showed up for the cattleman's meetings and he had supported Johnny's efforts to have Val continue as sheriff of Green River. He leaned against the side of the house and crossed his arms over his chest. "What can I do for you, Mr. Wilkins?"

Wilkins shoved his hands in his pockets and paced in front of Johnny. "Not me, Johnny. For Green River. Losing Val was a blow not only for you but for the valley. We are practical men and I'm afraid, as much as we'd like to take some time, we can't afford to wait. We need a new sheriff."

Now Johnny remembered Murdoch telling him about the meeting. Was that only yesterday? Was Wilkins one of the couple of ranchers who actually wanted him to take that job? He said nothing and waited for the man to go on.

"Now, some wanted to ask if maybe you knew anyone else but, well, I think we have the right man here already."

Dios! He was gonna do it. He was gonna ask! Johnny ground his jaw and curled his hands into fists as he dropped his arms to his sides.

"I know it's bad timing. I know you're still grieving but, unfortunately, the outlaws aren't going to care about that. They aren't going to stop breaking the law. In fact, we're concerned, very concerned, things will get out of hand very quickly. So, I have to ask now. Would you consider being our new sheriff?"

Johnny took a deep breath and held it a few seconds before letting it out. "Mr. Wilkins, I understand you're worried about the town but you have no right to talk to me about this. Not now and not ever. The answer is no." He pushed off the wall and started to walk away when he felt the grip on his bicep.

"Johnny, you can be as mad as you want at me for asking today of all days but don't toss the idea because of that. Think about it. You're the perfect person for the job! Why, we'd have a lot less outlaws even think of coming to Green River with you as sheriff. Don't you see? It's the answer to everything!"

Johnny jerked free and rounded on the man. He took a step closer and leaned in. "Are you crazy, mister? I just buried my best friend who, by the way, is dead because I asked him to come here. There's nothing to think about! Besides, you're not gonna even get anyone to agree with this. It's pointless."

Wilkins swallowed hard. "I can convince the majority if you'll only agree to consider the idea. I know I can. A lot of them wouldn't speak up at the meeting in deference to your father but, I mean, you aren't staying here anyway. Murdoch isn't going to let you live here, right?"

******

Murdoch pulled up short as he rounded the house. He couldn't believe what he was hearing even though he suspected Wilkins' plan as soon as Sam had told him Johnny had gone outside with the man. "Burt! How dare you? Johnny has enough to deal with without you adding more. You have no right to offer him anything nor do you have the right to speak for me!"

"Murdoch, I'm not saying anything that isn't true. We need someone of Johnny's caliber to protect this valley."

Murdoch took a breath and stepped closer as he somehow managed to keep his fists at his sides. "It's time for you to leave, Burt. You don't know what you're talking about."

Wilkins pulled his shoulders back and straightened his jacket. "Alright. But you know I'm right. You just don't want to admit it." He turned to his right. "Johnny, if you change your mind, come see me."

Johnny shook his head as the man walked away then leaned against the wall again. "Loco," he muttered.

Murdoch stood still and watched Wilkins ride away. Slowly, he worked his anger down to a simmer before facing his son. Taking a deep breath he turned to find Johnny watching him. "I'm sorry, son. I told him all of that would have to wait."

"You can't control what another man does, Murdoch." Johnny dipped his eyes briefly. "Not any man."

Locking eyes with his son, Murdoch searched for any sign of remorse. Johnny had told him he didn't regret his actions and Murdoch could find no evidence the boy had lied. There was nothing there but the deep-rooted sadness Johnny couldn't hide from him. "I suppose I can't but I can ask that you eat something before you pass out. Don't make yourself sick."

Surprised the old man wasn't going to challenge him, Johnny just stared for a moment. Finally, he pushed off the wall and relaxed his shoulders. "Think I'll go in the back way. I'm done with all those people. I know they mean well but it's enough."

Murdoch nodded. "I'll take care of it. You'll eat?"

A small smile flittered across Johnny's face. "Yeah, sure."

"And tomorrow you'll go fishing with your brother."

He paused and cocked his head to one side. "Thought we were all goin."

Shaking his head slowly, Murdoch shoved his hands in his pockets. "I'll have to come up in a day or two. There are a few things I need to take care of first."

"We can wait for you."

"I appreciate that, son, but I would rather you two go ahead. Spend some time together," Murdoch said with a smile. Johnny sighed and nodded his head then walked toward the back of the house. Murdoch stood there for a while longer and wondered if he really could handle what Johnny had done.

******

He'd told the boy he didn't want him to leave and that was the truth. But, accepting what he'd done Murdoch wasn't able to do. It didn't matter that the Jacksons were guilty because he knew that was a fact. It was the principle. If a man didn't have principles, he had nothing. He'd always thought Johnny had principles. It seemed those ideals had flown out the window when it suited his son's purposes.

He was fairly certain Johnny did not enjoy killing those men but he'd done it. Maybe he really did need to hear the details. Still, what little Johnny had already told him about how he'd shot Billy Jackson turned his blood cold. He never said if the man had tried to draw on him, just that he'd shot him twice.

What had he done to the others? The ones who had actually killed Val. Could he handle the truth? Johnny had told them, not for the first time, they didn't really know him. Maybe he was right. He had never wanted to know that side of his son. The side that could do such things. Madrid. Murdoch's stomach turned sometimes at the mere mention of the name. He let himself believe anything Johnny had done under that name was out of pure survival. But that wasn't really true, either. He'd spent years living that life. Years to think about what he was doing.

What was it Johnny had said when he and Val talked about quitting? That he didn't think there was anything else he could do? Murdoch knew that wasn't true but if Johnny truly believed that then maybe it really was all done to survive. He couldn't imagine that kind of life. Day to day looking for trouble, trying to find a job that entailed killing men. He shuddered in the warm air then forced the thoughts away. He'd deal with it later. He had to get these people to go home now so he headed for the door. Lord only knew what Johnny would do when he really got fed up with them.

His son would pick a fight just to clear the house, he knew. Johnny was never afraid of a fight. Sometimes, he thought the young man enjoyed it. Well, that he could understand. A good fistfight was better than a gunfight. At least no one would die and a body could get some of that anger out. A whimsical moment floated through his mind when he thought of inviting his son to take a few swings at him. He wouldn't mind if it helped Johnny but he knew his son would never hit him. How he knew that he hadn't a clue.

It was part of the puzzle that was Johnny. He knew his son respected him but he would also argue the moon was pink if he truly believed it. Murdoch pulled up just short of the front door. If he truly believed it. Maybe that was the key to Johnny. Whatever he truly believed was where his passion lay.

******

Johnny closed the flap of his saddlebag and looked around the room. He still couldn't believe no one had tried to talk to him last night. They'd left him alone and he was grateful because he'd spent most of the night bawling like a kid. He shook his head. Hopefully that was all done and over with. Lately, he felt like everything was all over and done with. No matter what Murdoch said, yesterday he'd seen that his father still wasn't sure about him being here. He knew it was a hard decision but the waiting was killing him. If he had any guts, he'd just leave. Take the decision off his father's shoulders and lay it where it belonged - with him. A knock on the door interrupted his thoughts and he was glad for it. He called out to enter as he picked up his saddlebags.

Scott stood in the doorway and looked him over. Well, he looked rested so that was good. "Ready?"

"Guess so."

Scott raised a brow at the solemn tone. "Maria has breakfast ready and Frank has already saddled our horses."

Johnny turned to face him, a hint of a smile on his face. "Tryin to get rid of us?"

Scott smiled more broadly. "Must be. Let's not disappoint them." He took one step into the room and extended his arm toward his brother. Johnny walked over and Scott rested his arm around the younger man's shoulders. "We're going to have a nice time, Johnny. Just relax and do whatever we like."

Johnny almost snorted at that. Sure, we will, he thought. As soon as you lecture me or whatever it is you have in mind, brother.

As they hit the lower landing of the stairs, Johnny pulled up. "Just gonna take these out," he said as he hefted the saddlebags. "I'll be right along."

Scott nodded and headed to the kitchen but he knew better. He knew where Johnny was going and he figured his brother needed some privacy.

******

As he headed up the hill, Johnny thought they really must want him to get going. Frank took his bags from his hand as soon as he stepped off the porch. Maybe he should ask the hands, hell, the whole town if they wanted him gone. After all, they had to live with him, too.

He stood and stared at the headstone, seeing it for the first time. Slowly, he knelt and ran his fingers lightly over the carvings. Jose had done a beautiful job. The man had talent, for sure. He smiled a little as he recalled Scott asking if Val had a more proper first name. No one else knew it and they never would. Val had made him promise on all that was holy never to speak it if he told. Johnny had made the promise and he never broke his promises.

"I bet you're pissed at me, ain't ya? Well, I knew you would be but it can't be helped, amigo. I had to do what was right in my mind. If it makes you feel any better, Murdoch didn't like it any, either. I'm not too sure if I'll be around here much longer. I know he doesn't want me to go but he's a man of principles. There's just some things he can't abide. So, me and Scott are goin fishin and the old man is gonna come up in a couple of days. I reckon he needs some time alone to think things over. I'll come back and say goodbye if I have to or, I'll just come back. Either way, this won't be the last time I visit."

Johnny repositioned himself so he was sitting properly on his backside, legs crossed as he leaned forward and rested his arms on his knees. "I think there are some people who come into your life for a reason. That maybe God sends them or something. You never know why until somethin really bad happens, like this. Now, I know you were sent to save me from myself and you did. I don't think that should mean you have to leave my life now. I don't think that's right at all. So, now I'm pissed at you and God and everyone else, I guess."

He sucked in a breath and lowered his head. "Shit! Thought I was done with all this bawlin. Damn you, Val Crawford! Damn you for leavin!" He looked up at the headstone, eyes glistening. "Why couldn't you let me help you? Why did I leave you alone? You said it would be okay. You said they were all talk. Did you think about that while they were gunnin you down? Did you think how mad I was gonna be at you?"

Johnny stared at the granite slab as if expecting it to answer. Tears dripped down his cheeks but he barely noticed. There was a buzzing in his ears and he heard nothing else. There was no answer, of course. There never would be. He sucked in a breath and wiped his face. "I can live without you, ya know. I did it before. I just don't want to, is all. You just remember one thing, Val. Amigos para la vida ain't right. Amigos por siempre - forever. That's what I shoulda had them put on there."

Johnny drew his knees up and wrapped his arms around them as he gently rocked back and forth. How long he stayed there he wasn't sure but at some point he felt a hand on his back.

******

Scott had waited an hour but then he started to worry. He headed slowly up the hill, able to see Johnny sitting there rocking as he approached. He knew that posture and his heart broke for his brother. Quietly, he knelt behind Johnny and put a hand on his back. "We don't have to go, Johnny. We can stay home."

Johnny tensed a little then relaxed and sighed heavily. He raised his head and looked out over the land for a moment. Running a hand over his face he shook his head. "No, I want to go. I'm alright."

Scott pulled a face at that, knowing it was a lie. He squeezed Johnny's shoulder then stood up and rounded his brother. Extending a hand, he said, "You need to eat a little something. Maria packed us a lunch, too."

Johnny accepted the offered hand and his brother helped him to his feet. He looked back at the grave and sighed. "Amigos por siempre is what I should've had on there. Wasn't thinkin." There was a long moment of quiet before he spoke again. "I'm so damned mad at him, Scott."

Scott closed his eyes briefly and put a hand on Johnny's shoulder. "I know, brother. I know. Come on."

Johnny nodded and turned to head back down the hill. He slipped his arm around Scott as they walked and kept his head down. "Murdoch needs some time alone."

"He has some things to take care of with the cattleman's association."

A harsh laugh escaped Johnny's throat. "I'll bet. But that ain't all of it."

Scott looked sidelong at him. "No, that's not all of it."

"And you're gonna wait til we get there to tell me what you think, huh?"

A smile came to Scott's face. "Yep."

******

After more delay as Johnny ate very little and drank three cups of coffee, they were finally on their way. It hadn't escaped his notice that his father and brother had spent most of that time in the living room talking. When he'd walked in there, they had their heads together whispering. He figured they were planning his demise, as Scott would put it. He smiled a little at that even though it wasn't a bit funny.

Scott was quiet on the ride and that worried him some. They had silently agreed not to stop for lunch as Johnny took the offered apple from his brother while they rode. They'd get there before dark but not by much because of him. Well, he didn't suppose there was any big hurry. The cabin was nice as he recalled. Two bedrooms and a living room. It was more like a little house than a cabin. Murdoch had built it ten years ago so he'd have someplace to get away. As he and Scott had found out, the old man rarely used it. Both brothers had gone on a campaign then to get him up there and they'd succeeded. Was that a year ago already? Hard to believe.

Now, as the shadows grew long, they arrived at the clearing near a trout-filled stream. Johnny realized his shoulders were sore, probably because he'd had them up to his ears about the whole ride. He shouldn't be this wound up about going fishing with his brother. Then again, he doubted there would be much fishing done. No, Scott had a lot on his mind and the man deserved to get it said.

Without a word, Scott began unloading the pack mule they'd brought along. Johnny took the animals to the small barn and bedded them down. He ran a quick rag over them and promised a better grooming the next day. Once he'd finished, he paused and looked long and hard at Barranca. "What are we gonna do with Milagro, boy? You got any ideas?"

Barranca snorted and shook his head as a fly landed on his face. Johnny smiled a little. "I guess I could put him out to stud. Maybe, turn him into a cowpony." He frowned at that idea. "Maybe not."

"Talking to that horse again, brother?"

Johnny turned quickly when Scott spoke, surprised and annoyed with himself. He hadn't heard his brother's approach and that bothered him some. "He don't talk back too much."

"I think you prefer his company over mine sometimes."

Johnny smiled. "Sometimes, I do, brother. But, not now." He walked up to Scott. "What have you been doin to make yourself useful in there?"

Scott crossed his arms and took on a serious expression. "Nothing. But I made coffee and I'm heating up some beans. I thought since it's late, we could make do."

Johnny dropped his head. "Yeah, sorry about that."

"Not necessary, brother. Not at all. Come on, let's get some food in you for once."

******

Once they'd eaten and cleaned up, the brothers sat in front of the fireplace with coffee. Neither spoke, just stared at the flames for a long time. Scott jumped a little when Johnny spoke, breaking the silence.

"When's Murdoch coming up?"

"Day after tomorrow."

Johnny nodded. "What were you two talkin about this morning?"

Scott stared into his coffee cup. "Several things. The ranch, the association, you. I think it would be a good idea to turn in. Start fresh tomorrow and maybe catch a few trout."

Johnny leaned forward and shook his head. "We didn't come up here to fish, Scott. I know you're tired so, tomorrow's fine. Just want you to know, whatever you have to say to me, I'm more than willing to listen."

"That's good to know, brother. And, you're right I am tired. I will tell you one thing now. I'm worried about you in more than one way. You really aren't eating very much and I know you aren't sleeping much either. I walked right up to you in the barn and you never even heard me."

Johnny straightened and turned to look at him.

Scott raised a hand to stay him. "I know it's hard to make yourself sleep and eat when you feel ... when you're grieving but I hope you'll try at least."

"You're a real mother hen, Scott. You and ..." he stopped and looked away. "Yeah, okay, I'll try to do better."

Scott swallowed hard, knowing Johnny was about to say 'you and Val'. He was always calling both of them mother hens. Scott stood and took Johnny's cup then set both in the sink and pumped water over them. "I'll fix breakfast and you can do lunch. How's that?" He turned to find Johnny near the bedroom door.

"Sounds good."

Johnny walked into the bedroom and Scott struggled with going in there. He'd heard the emotion in his brother's voice just then. Johnny would probably want some privacy. Then again, what he needed was a different matter. Scott sighed and headed after his brother.

******

The next morning, Scott cooked a huge breakfast as he waited for Johnny to awaken. Last night his brother had refused any comfort he tried to offer with his usual 'I'm fine' and 'leave it alone'. He'd turned in the bed and faced away from Scott and that was the end of that. Now, he could only hope Johnny had actually slept. To his chagrin, he found he'd basically passed out himself. The strain of the past few weeks had caught up with him, he supposed.

Johnny stumbled out of the bedroom a few minutes later, shirtless and bootless, and looked around the room with bleary eyes. He smelled the bacon, eggs and coffee and his stomach rumbled. The sensation surprised him as he hadn't felt hunger for a while now. He walked over and fell into a chair at the table waiting impatiently as Scott filled his coffee cup.

Amused, Scott watched him nearly inhale the coffee. "Did you sleep?"

Johnny nodded. "Too hard."

Relieved, Scott set the pot near Johnny then went about plating their food. He watched with near ecstasy as his brother ate voraciously. Shaking his head a little to himself, he wondered at the things that could make a person happy in any given moment. Still, Johnny having an appetite was definitely a good sign. "I thought we could actually do some fishing. It's a beautiful day, not too hot right now. If we get going soon, we might get lucky."

Johnny shrugged and pushed his plate away then sat back and sipped his coffee. "Whatever you want to do, brother."

A bit frustrated, Scott asked, "What do you want to do?"

"Truthfully? Go back to bed."

Scott raised his brows at that. "Then go. I'm serious, Johnny. If you think you need more sleep, go back to bed."

Johnny gave him a look of disbelief. "You sure? I mean I know you wanted to talk ..."

"We have plenty of time. I'll go catch lunch. By the time you wake up, maybe you can cook it."

"Thanks, Scott. I think I'll feel better with a couple more hours."

Scott nodded and wondered how many hours Johnny had actually slept, hard or not.

******

Scott might have whooped and hollered like his brother did sometimes if he didn't think it would scare the other fish away or if he hadn't been taught better. Still, he was very satisfied with his catch so far. It seemed all he had to do was put his line in the water and a fish would take the bait right away. It also kept him from thinking about Johnny. That idea caused him some guilt but he shook it off. They all needed to start down the road of healing. Even though the funeral had only been two days ago, Val had been gone for over two weeks and, at least he had done some grieving in that time. He hoped his brother had but he doubted it. Johnny's fixation on revenge and his trek to find the Jacksons was his sole purpose for that period. Now, his brother had to face the grim reality of life without Val. And, maybe, without a home. He still refused to believe it would come to that. He simply wouldn't allow it.

Scott turned quickly at the sound of a twig snapping to find his brother leaning against a tree with a small limb, now broken in two, in his hands and a stupid grin on his face. "Nice."

Johnny laughed softly and walked down to him. "Any luck?"

"Oh, yes, brother. You'll have plenty to do." Scott nodded toward his string and Johnny walked over and pulled it out of the water.

"Whoowee! Will ya look at that! Nice, Scott. Real nice but, I think you have enough here for ten people."

Scott pulled a face as he looked into his brother's eyes. They were alive with humor, the crinkles present to show the honesty of the smile, and his heart lifted. "I suppose you're right. I was just enjoying it so much I got carried away."

Johnny dropped the line back in the water and stood up, wiping his hands on his pants. "Glad you're havin fun. Keep goin if you want."

"No, no," Scott said as he pulled his line in. "Waste not, want not, the saying goes. We have plenty. I'll enjoy watching you clean them almost as much as catching them."

Johnny rolled his eyes and squatted to retrieve the line again. He stood straight and extended his arm for a closer inspection. Frowning as if in deep thought, he twisted his mouth. "Well, now that I got a good look, I might be able to get a few pieces off there."

Scott had reeled in his line and was gathering his tackle. He stopped, stood up, turned and gawked at his brother. "What happened to the ten people?"

"That was before I got a close look, brother." Johnny tilted his head to one side, a smile playing at his lips as he watched for Scott's reaction.

Pointing a finger, Scott said, "If you can't filet all that fish any better than getting a few pieces, I don't know what you're going to eat. Especially now that lunch time has come and gone and supper is at hand."

Johnny laughed softly. "Well, you said it was fine for me to go back to bed. Just didn't figure on sleepin so long. Come on, fisherman. Let's see what I can do with this."

Scott smiled and shook his head as he followed his brother back to the cabin.

******

While Johnny cleaned the fish, Scott peeled some potatoes and readied the kitchen. His mouth watered thinking about the fish. It had been a while since they'd had anything other than beef or chicken. Teresa and Maria always did something different with it but, in the end, it was still beef and chicken. He smiled as he dried his hands and headed out to the porch. Johnny was sitting on an old milking stool in front of a tree stump in the yard. His head was down so Scott watched his hands for a moment. His brother's movements were quick and sure and Scott wondered at their abilities. He'd never really thought of Johnny's hands before and that struck him.

A man who'd made his living by the gun would surely be extremely careful with his hands but Scott couldn't recall a time when Johnny appeared concerned about injuring them. Lord only knew, they'd both had their share of jobs that could cut a man's hands to pieces. Scott found himself curious now but, he wasn't so sure about bringing up the topic. Suddenly, he realized Johnny was watching him. He blinked and smiled wanly then stepped off the porch and walked over to his brother.

"Looked like you were far away there, brother."

Scott shrugged. "Just thinking about something. How's it going? Are we going to get to eat any time tonight?"

Johnny smirked at him. "Oh, we'll eat. Don't you worry about that."

Scott tensed as he noticed Johnny cutting the fish without looking. "Watch yourself, Johnny," he said as his eyes darted to his brother's hands.

Johnny smiled a little and turned his attention back to his task.

"You should be more careful with your hands, brother," Scott said as he saw a way to start the discussion.

"Why is that?"

Looking around, Scott spied an old chair that he thought might hold his weight. He grabbed it and dragged it over then, cautiously sat down. "Because you might just need them again, for one thing. I've never seen you take much care with them."

Johnny stopped, knife in mid-air, and looked at Scott. "I take as much care as the next man."

"But, you're not the next man."

Shoulders slumping, Johnny tossed the knife on the stump and grabbed his kerchief. As he wiped his hands roughly, he worked on his temper. "Right. I might need to do some killin again sometime. Never know when you might have to go on a tear."

Scott sighed and stared at the ground. "I didn't mean it like that exactly, brother. I was curious as to why you don't take more precautions, though. I'd think anyone with a special talent would want to protect the instruments of their trade." Scott looked up when he heard the soft laughter.

"Instruments of their trade? I like that one, brother. Makes it sound almost proper. Like a doctor or something." Johnny sighed and gathered the fish in a bucket. "These are ready for you. But, be careful you don't hurt your hands. Bein such a professional cook and all, you wouldn't want anything to happen to your instruments." He held the bucket out for Scott to take.

Aggravated at his brother's sarcasm, Scott took the bucket and walked back to the house without another word.

******

Johnny stayed outside until he was fairly sure supper was ready. It wasn't right and if this was Scott's way of starting that talk he'd been wanting to have, well, he should just shut up and take it, he reckoned. He just hadn't been expecting it right then was all. Now he knew they were in for a long night. It was better to get it done before Murdoch got there, though. If the old man came up at all. Johnny had been wondering if he would just stay at the house. Still, Murdoch said he'd be there and he never went back on his word if he could help it.

He pumped water into a bucket and washed up before going inside. As he stood in front of the door, hand on knob, he hesitated then steeled himself for what was to come. Maybe Scott would let him eat first. A smile slid across his face as he opened the door.

"Good timing," Scott said as he set a platter of fish on the table. "I was just about to call you."

"Thanks, honey. Always good to have supper waiting when I come in from a hard day."

Scott raised his brows at that then made a face. "A hard day? Just what have you been doing out there?"

Johnny shrugged then took a seat and looked over the food. Nothing stunk and nothing looked burned. He was impressed. "Oh, this and that. Fixed a loose hinge on the corral, fed the horses, brushed them down. Stuff like that."

"Mmm. Yes, that sounds like back breaking work all right," Scott said with a roll of his eyes as he sat across from Johnny.

"Looks good, Boston."

"Thank you. Let's see if you survive eating it." The smile he got in return for his own pleased him. Johnny seemed to have cooled off. Maybe they could have that talk tonight. He'd thought to put it off if his brother was going to be an ass but now he appeared in better spirits.

The conversation stopped at that point as both young men dug into the meal. All that could be heard was the sounds of eating. Johnny finished and sat back with his coffee cup as he waited for his brother. Scott ate slow most of the time, like he was really enjoying every bite. Johnny knew he ate too fast but growing up he'd had to or the food would soon be gone. It was always a fight to have a meal when living on the streets. There were too many orphaned and abandoned kids and very little food. If you didn't eat fast, you didn't eat at all. Someone bigger and stronger could come along and take it in a heartbeat.

At first, Scott's leisurely way annoyed him then he realized his brother had no reason to hurry. He could picture Scott sitting at a fancy table with his grandfather and having meals that lasted hours. Scott had told him about a dinner party he'd been to once that had lasted that long. Of course, the reason for the telling had been a young lady Scott had been pursuing but the fact that a meal took that long was what had fascinated Johnny.

Finally, Scott pushed his plate back an inch, a clear indication he was finished. Johnny smiled a little. He was getting to know all of Scott's little moves and what they meant. It pleased him to be able to read his brother now. That hadn't been the case at first. Scott had been a closed book and damned hard to pry open. Time, not patience had been the key and once Johnny had noticed the first move, he renewed his efforts to watch his brother like a hawk. That it annoyed Scott at times was just an added bonus. Johnny's smile widened. He stood up and grabbed the plates, headed to the sink and began cleaning up. At least Scott had cleaned as he cooked. Must have been paying attention to Maria.

******

Scott watched for a moment, thought to give his brother a hard time then felt a small twinge of guilt. "I'll help."

Johnny shook his head. "No, you caught and cooked. I'll clean. Besides, there's not much left to do."

"Well, if you're sure."

Johnny turned to look at his brother and found a smug expression on the older man's face. He laughed a little and went back to the chore. "Maybe we can talk the old man into doin this when he gets here."

Scott leaned back in his chair and took a sip of coffee. "He likes to cook, so he says."

"Yeah, so he says. I've never actually seen him do it, though."

Frowning in thought, Scott shrugged. "Neither have I. Do you think he was telling tall tales?"

Johnny had to think about that one for a minute. "Nah, no reason for him to."

"I brought a deck of cards if you're interested."

The change in subject threw him and raised his suspicions. He didn't answer for a beat. "Sure, be happy to take your money."

Scott stood and stretched then walked toward the bedroom. "Who said anything about money?"

Johnny opened his mouth to reply but his brother was already out of the room. What else would they be playing for? He dismissed it and finished the dishes, wiped down the table and stove and set the coffee pot back on a burner to heat up all before Scott reappeared. "Did you have to make a deck, brother?" he teased.

******

Scott smiled and walked over to the table. "No, I was working out the rules."

Johnny dried his hands and brought two cups to the table. "Coffee'll be hot in a minute. I hate to break it to you but poker already has rules."

Shuffling the deck with confidence, Scott glanced over as his brother sat down. "I had a different kind of poker in mind."

"Well, you lost me there, brother. What other kind of poker is there?"

"It's simple really. Same hands win but the pot is different. If I win, you answer one question with complete honesty. If you win, I answer. I wish I'd come up with this idea long ago."

Johnny nodded slowly then leaned forward resting his arms on the tabletop. "I get where you're going but I think you've made a mistake."

"How's that?"

"If you're trying to get me to talk, you need to find a better way. You're not that good at poker, Scott."

Scott gave his brother a hard look, increased by the teasing glint in the younger man's eyes. He smirked and said, "I've been practicing."

"Why don't you just ask me?"

"Because you won't answer. Or, you'll give half an answer that only leads to more questions. It's a habit of yours that really is quite annoying, younger brother. You should work on that."

Johnny snorted lightly. "I tell what I think you get to know, older brother. You don't get an open invite to my life, ya know."

Scott set the cards down and crossed his arms atop the table. "Why not? What's the big secret? Do you think I'll run screaming into the night?" He paused as a thought came to him. "Or are you afraid I'll hate you?"

Johnny dropped his eyes and started picking at his hands. Yeah, that's what I think but don't expect me to say so, he thought.

"I just want to know what happened and maybe, hear some more about Val," Scott said gently.

Sighing heavily, Johnny looked across the table at his brother. "Not sure I can do that yet. Why do you want to know, Scott? What good will it do for me to tell you anything more than you already know?"

Shaking his head slowly, Scott frowned. "It isn't about what's good for me, Johnny. I don't think you're as uncaring about what you did as you profess. I'm sure you feel justified in killing those men but that doesn't mean it made you feel any better. That's not wrong, either."

******

Johnny stood up suddenly and walked to the stove, grabbed the coffee pot and returned, filling Scott's cup then his own. "You want something stronger?"

"Not yet, thanks. Are you going to talk to me about this?"

Sitting back down, Johnny slumped in his chair and lightly drummed his fingers on the table's surface. He'd wanted to avoid telling the details but he had to wonder why now. Whatever Murdoch's final decision would be, maybe Scott did need to know what he was capable of. It was only fair. How could his brother know if he could live under the same roof if he didn't know the man he was living with? "Temecula ring a bell to you?"

Scott pulled his brows together in thought then relaxed his face. "That's where Val was when you had Murdoch send for him."

"That's right. And that's where I caught up with the Jacksons."

Stunned, Scott sat back and stared for a moment. "Surely they didn't know ..."

"No," Johnny interrupted, "They had no idea."

Scott nodded. "That must have been hard for you."

With a shrug, Johnny repositioned in his chair. "Yes and no. At least I knew the place and the sheriff knew Val." He looked into his brother's eyes. "I told him why I was there and I almost had to lock him in his own jail to keep him from going after the Jacksons."

Scott raised a brow at that. "He must have thought highly of Val."

"Anyone who gave him more than half a chance usually did. Like you." Johnny smiled. "Anyway, I convinced him to stay out of it and he gave me Val's badge."

Scott looked at him in confusion.

Taking a deep breath, Johnny held the gaze. "Just remember, you asked for this."

******

After almost two hours, Scott felt exhausted. Yes, he surely had asked for it and now, he wished he hadn't. Johnny had told him every detail from the time he'd taken his father and brother's horses to what had happened in that saloon. Now, the room was deafeningly silent as each man kept his own vigil. He needed some time to process it all. What stood out the most, of course, was what Johnny had done to those men and the callous way he'd told it. There was no emotion in his voice, not even anger, and Scott supposed he was numb to it by now. But, being the precise man he was, Scott had more questions. "What happened to their bodies?"

Johnny jerked a little as the silence was broken. He hadn't expected Scott to speak, not to him anyway, other than to tell him how evil he was or some such shit. The question threw him for a moment. "Danny, the sheriff, took care of it. He had them taken out and burned. Said he didn't want them soiling the earth anywhere near him."

Scott nodded then crossed his arms over his chest. "So, the sheriff didn't find anything wrong with what you did. Sometimes, it's hard to know what's right and what's wrong."

"Not everything is as cut and dried as the old man wants it to be. Sometimes, there's a difference between the law and justice. Least, that's how I look at it."

"Why wouldn't you let me go with you, Johnny?"

He looked at Scott as if he were crazy. "You? Come on, Scott. Okay, yeah, you were mad, too. But, could you have done what I did?"

Scott looked at the table for a second. "I don't know, to be honest."

Johnny shook his head. "Well, I don't think you could've and if you couldn't, you would've tried to stop me and that would only make things worse on us. Nothing was gonna stop me. Nothing and no one."

"Yes, I realized that when you stole our horses," Scott said wryly.

"Borrowed," Johnny countered then dropped his eyes. "I didn't want you to see that side of me. Didn't want the old man to, either. You don't know, you can't know, Scott. Even if I tell you about it, you can't really know."

Scott stared at his brother's hands, folded on the table, for a moment. "I understand what you're saying and, you're right. But I can get a very good idea. My problem is that you don't know. You talk about that other side of you but you never acknowledge this side of you. You never see the good in yourself." Scott leaned forward, reached out and took hold of Johnny's forearm. "You talk about the things you've done as Madrid and you think we'll see you as this horrible person. Well, I don't like some of the things you've done, I'll be honest. But I've seen you do some selfless things, brother. I've seen you stand up for those who can't stand for themselves and you'd move heaven and earth for this family. Everyone has good and bad in them. Everyone has done things they're not particularly proud of and everyone has been told they're wrong when they do what they believe is right. We all have to answer to ourselves and live with our decisions. It's not always easy and sometimes, it can nearly destroy you. It's the man who can live with it, the one who still has a heart and a soul, that stands out. Whether you like it or not, that's you, Johnny."

A slight smile wafted across Johnny's face. "That was a whole lot of talk, brother, and it was all real nice. But, the question is, can you live with what I did to the Jacksons? Because I'm still Johnny Madrid and always will be."

Scott sat back, his hand sliding away from his brother's arm as he realized just how much this young man meant to him. "Yes, I can live with it, Johnny, because of the reason you did it. If you'd just gone out and shot someone with no proof or just because you can, then I'd have a problem. I might not agree with your tactics, I might not agree with the idea of vengeance, but I understand your point of view."

Johnny smiled at that. "Yeah? Maybe you can explain my point of view to Murdoch because I don't think I can and I know I can't tell him what I told you."

"I don't know what he's thinking other than he doesn't want you to go."

"Wanting and being able to live with are two different things, Scott. Murdoch has a lot of principles. It's not easy measuring up to them. I think he looks at Madrid as some kind of sickness he cured or something. Like it wasn't real or that it's just over and done with. Or maybe that I was just a kid and didn't know any better but none of that is true."

Scott smiled wanly. "He does have a tendency to stick his head in the sand when it comes to you. I think he feels guilty because he wasn't able to find you sooner and 'save' you. At the same time, he pushes at you to make sure you become the man he wants you to be."

Johnny frowned deeply at that. "I don't know what kind of man he wants to me to be. All I know is who I am and that ain't gonna change no matter how hard he pushes."

"You don't need to change, brother. He just needs to see you. He needs to accept that, even without him, you didn't turn out so bad."

Johnny looked at the silly grin in his brother's face and shook his head. "Yeah, too bad he's got so much cause to be disappointed in you, smartass."

They finally started playing poker - with the normal rules of the game - and there was no more talk of a serious nature. As they turned in for the night, Johnny kept wondering when it would sink in for Scott. He couldn't quite believe his brother was being so accepting and he figured once Scott had a chance to really think it through, he'd have a change of heart. Still, he had to admit, it was good to tell his brother the whole of it. Now, he just had to wait for Murdoch to hand down his verdict.

******

The next morning, Johnny awoke early and with an uneasy feeling. He lay in the bed for a while and tried to figure out why he felt this sense of ... finality he guessed was a good word. Eventually, he decided it was due to his thoughts about Murdoch before sleep claimed him last night. He turned his head and looked over at Scott still sleeping then he quietly got up. Grabbing his clothes and boots, he eased out of the room and dressed in the living room.

Scott had been the cook yesterday so he reckoned it was his turn. He went about starting the coffee then gathered his ingredients for biscuits. Johnny took his biscuit makings to the table and focused on his tasks. He avoided any thoughts about his old man, well, as much as he could. Maybe Scott would like to go hunting this morning. That would be a good distraction. He was tired of worrying about what would happen. Seemed he did that a lot since he'd come home. Val would say he was bein an old hen.

Johnny stopped, his hands deep in dough and just stared at nothing for a long time. Finally, he blinked and sighed and wondered if he'd ever stop thinking about what Val might say to him. Probably not but that wasn't such a bad thing. It just hurt so damned bad. Suddenly, he felt tired and he pulled a chair closer with his foot then plopped down, hands still in the bowl of dough. He hung his head and sighed out long and slow and worked hard to keep from bawling. Seemed he'd been doing an awful lot of that lately, too. Not that anybody'd know. No one but his family, anyway.

Okay, enough of that, he told himself. He raised his head and stood up then starting kneading the dough again. "Just plain foolishness, that's what it is. Come on, now. Pull yourself together."

Scott stood in the bedroom doorway and watched his brother talk to himself. He couldn't really hear the muttering but it had him worried. He steeled himself for whatever mood his brother may be in and painted a smile in his face. "Good morning. You must've gotten up early."

Johnny's head jerked as he looked at Scott with surprise. Damn! Didn't even hear him. He recovered quickly and turned away. "A little early. Coffee should be ready soon. Thought we might go huntin after breakfast."

Scott checked the coffee pot and grabbed two cups. "Sounds good. What's your pleasure, deer, rabbit?"

"Whatever's out there, brother."

Scott looked at his back. He could hear a sadness that wasn't there, or maybe he'd missed, a moment ago. He figured Johnny had been thinking about Val. Scott felt ashamed. All the time they'd spent talking about the Jacksons last night and he hadn't even asked him how he was dealing with his loss. It was bound to take a long time for Johnny to recover - if he ever did. He debated with himself about bringing up the subject. In the end, he decided against it for now. He walked over and sat at the table as Johnny continued cooking breakfast. Maybe he could cheer the young man up. "Try not to burn all of it, brother."

Johnny closed the oven door and turned slowly to his brother with a hard, mean look on his face. "Just because you got lucky last night with that fish don't mean you can sit a high horse, Boston. We'll see who the better cook is."

Scott grinned and sat back, bringing his coffee cup up in a toasting motion. "So we shall, brother, so we shall."

******

Reluctantly, Scott had to admit Johnny could hold his own in the kitchen. Of course, he knew neither of them would ever admit that to the women of Lancer. They might get the crazy idea of leaving them to fend for themselves. He watched his brother wash down the last biscuit with coffee then he stood and started clearing the table without a word. Scott smiled as he noticed Johnny had cleaned up as he went. Maybe big brother did have a few lessons to teach after all.

"I'll get our rifles ready," Johnny said as he pushed his chair back and stood.

"I won't be long."

"I know."

Scott turned to see Johnny grinning at him and he shook his head before turning back to the sink. That grin said a lot just like all of Johnny's smiles. This particular one told him his brother acknowledged the lesson learned. A knowing smile stayed on Scott's face as he washed the dishes.

By the time Scott was finished in the kitchen, Johnny was itching to go. He paced in the front yard as he awaited the older man. When the front door opened, Johnny moved quickly to grab the rifles. "Ready?" he asked as he shoved Scott's Winchester in his hands.

"In a hurry, brother?"

"Nope. I got all day. Let's go." Johnny turned on his heel and headed around the cabin and into the woods.

******

Murdoch took his time. He'd been up well before dawn and even earlier than his usual this morning. He'd waited as long as he could stand before starting his ride to the cabin. Why he was so anxious, he couldn't say. He just wanted to see his sons away from the ranch with all the noise and distractions it created. And he wanted to talk to Johnny some place they wouldn't be interrupted or have to worry about anything else.

He'd still left before the dawn and he knew he'd probably catch them in the middle of breakfast or even before depending on how their night had gone. So, he slowed to a walk and took an extra couple of breaks. He wasn't a very patient man and he knew Johnny got that trait from him as much as Maria. The restlessness, however, was all from his mother.

Murdoch smiled a little as he thought of his younger son's little habits. He wasn't sure Johnny was even aware of the things he did. His hands were almost always busy doing something and when he was ready to go somewhere, he was ready to go. He'd pace or wander a room picking things up, playing with them then setting them back down. All to say 'come on, let's go'. A chuckle escaped the rancher.

As restless as Johnny was, Scott was the opposite. Calm and still and with the patience of a saint when it came to his brother - usually. Murdoch was grateful to his older son for how he handled this whole thing. He wasn't sure what he would've done about Johnny if Scott hadn't been there to ease his frustration. His own impatience had caused rifts with Johnny time and again. He knew this would've been no different. He only wished his son knew why he reacted the way he did. That it wasn't out of disappointment but fear for Johnny's safety and wellbeing.

He hadn't felt so helpless as he did when Val died. Not since he'd watched his boy get shot out of the saddle by Pardee's gang. He'd never felt such loss as that. Not even when Catherine died and Scott was gone. He knew Scott was alive and the pain of losing his first wife just wasn't the same as thinking he'd lost a son. He didn't know if that was right or wrong. He only knew what he'd felt when Johnny hit the ground and that was complete devastation.

His sons had a penchant for finding trouble but they also had a talent for getting out of it. But this ... this was uncontrollable. He knew Johnny blamed himself a little for Val's death but he also knew his son would come out of that part of it more quickly than he'd come out of his grief. What bothered him most was Johnny's unwillingness, or maybe inability, to share that grief much with his family. He understood the why of it. Men just didn't do such things but sometimes he wondered if it wouldn't do them all a world of good. Together, just the three of them or even one on one, he thought his boys could let go and mourn.

Murdoch came out of his thoughts as he realized he'd just ridden into the yard of the cabin. He glanced at the sky and decided it was late enough in the morning. If they weren't out of bed, they needed to be, so he dismounted and headed inside.

******

It didn't take long to realize they weren't there. Murdoch walked to the barn and saw the horses still stabled. Well, they were either fishing or hunting, probably. He went to the stream and found nothing. Hunting then. He certainly wasn't going to try and find them out in the woods. They might mistake him for a deer. That's all he needed. A slight smile adorned his face as he headed back to the cabin.

Murdoch took care of his horse then went inside. He unpacked, made coffee and pulled a chair out onto the porch. They needed some chairs out there. He'd have to get some rocking chairs. Johnny liked those.

After a while, he thought about doing some fishing of his own. The boys may not be back for quite a while. They'd most likely bring something back to eat but he could always throw his catch back - if he caught anything. With a wry smile he thought maybe Johnny did get some of his restlessness from his old man. He was finding it hard to sit still.

After gathering his tackle, Murdoch walked down to the stream. The light breeze coming off the water made it a perfect day. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and he found a nice shade a little ways downstream. He cast his line and settled comfortably, not really caring if he caught anything. This was the first time he'd relaxed in ... he couldn't remember how long it had been. He figured that should tell him enough. The only thing missing was his boys.

Murdoch heard the explosion of gunfire and sat straight up. He blinked several times as he realized he'd dozed off. He was on his feet before he stopped himself. It was Scott and Johnny hunting no doubt. He looked at his fishing line then back toward where the gunfire had come from. What if it wasn't them? What if something had happened? He was sure he'd heard two shots.

He pulled in his line and gathered his tackle quickly then headed back to the cabin. All the way he told himself he was being ridiculous and looking for trouble where there was none to be found. He argued with himself that it was better to be safe than sorry. If one of them was hurt, what would it say that he stayed and fished as one of his sons ... he shook off the maudlin thought and focused on getting to the cabin.

As he reached the trail he spied his sons some fifty yards ahead coming out of the woods. Both were on their feet and carrying a deer between them. Both were wearing smiles and he sighed his relief. They hadn't seen him so he took the opportunity to watch and listen as they bantered over who had made the killing shot.

******

"I'm tellin you, Scott, you missed by a mile."

"No way, Johnny. I head him dead to rights."

"Yeah, sure you did. I had him right in my sights, brother. No way I could've missed."

Murdoch smiled and shook his head. "Did either of you check to see how many holes are in that deer?" Both young men turned quickly toward him, surprise written all over their faces. Johnny was the first to relax his face a little and return his smile.

"Well, now that might be a good idea. Scott, did you check?"

Grinning, Scott shrugged as much as he could with a deer on one shoulder. "No, I didn't think to check that. Good to see you, Sir. Did you catch anything?"

Murdoch darted his eyes away then started walking toward them. "I threw it back. I figured you two were hunting and surely one of you would provide supper."

Johnny studied the old man closely then ducked his head to hide the smile. Murdoch was a rotten liar. They should probably play poker with him tonight. "Well, soon as Scott dresses this deer, we'll have enough meat to last a month."

Scott's eyes widened. "Me? Why do I have to do it?"

"Because I cleaned the fish yesterday."

Scott gave him a sidelong look. Cleaning fish was hardly equal to dressing a deer. Still, his brother was in a good mood so, rather than argue the point, he gave in and nodded his head.

Murdoch chuckled at the both of them. It seemed they'd been doing fine. Johnny was actually smiling and joking so maybe he was feeling better after all. "I'll help you, son. And I'll help you cook it, John. I assume that's the deal."

With a nod, Johnny said, "if we don't get back to the cabin with this thing, neither one of us is gonna be able to lift our arms to cook or clean. Come on, Scott. My shoulder is numb."

As Murdoch fell in beside him, Scott glanced over. In a casual voice, he asked, "did you get your business taken care of?"

Murdoch stared straight ahead. "Yes, I took care of everything that I needed to."

Johnny listened to the odd exchange then figured the old man had made some kind of arrangements to kick his ass off the ranch. Probably something to do with the deed. His stomach dropped but he told himself he shouldn't have expected anything less. Well, he was going to try to enjoy as much time with them as he could before he left, that was all.

******

They laid the deer on the ground near the barn and both brothers sighed their relief and rubbed their aching shoulders. Murdoch knelt to inspect the animal, relieved with what he saw. Now there would be no crowing from either son and no arguing over who hit what. "Two bullet holes half an inch apart and square in the chest." He stood up and looked at them. "it would appear you are both excellent hunters. Now that's settled, let's get this deer dressed, Scott."

Beaming, Scott nodded and gave his brother a near sneer. "I'll get some knives."

"Wanna use mine, hunter brother?"

Scott stopped and turned slowly, now wearing a smirk. "No, thank you. I'd like to keep my fingers."

Johnny laughed a little as Scott walked to the cabin then he knelt and inspected the deer before he glanced up at his father. "Truth be told, I thought I might've missed."

Murdoch laughed outright then shook his head. "But you never would have admitted it, right?"

Standing back up, Johnny dusted his hands together. "No way. Kind of like you not admitting you didn't catch a thing."

Murdoch looked at him for a moment then sighed. "I'm not a very good liar. You seem to be feeling better?"

Johnny ducked his head then made a half turn and stared out over the landscape. He didn't know what to say to that and he was growing angry with himself. He'd let a simple thing like hunting chase away the pain. What kind of friend was he to so easily forget?

Murdoch could have kicked himself for reminding Johnny of Val. Now, he wondered what the boy was thinking. He saw Johnny's jaw tighten and his shoulders tense up. He was angry, probably that it had even been mentioned. Murdoch didn't know if he should press the issue or let it go. Then, he felt his own frustration. Wasn't he thinking just this morning that Johnny needed to let it out and that they needed to be there for him? Not leave him alone when they knew he was upset? That was the way they usually dealt with emotions - by ignoring the person feeling them. Then, it occurred to him that maybe his son was feeling guilty for enjoying himself. He curled his hands into fists then released them and forced himself to speak softly. "You can't grieve around the clock, son. You have to have some release. Hunting, fishing, riding - whatever it takes - you have to give yourself a break."

Johnny turned back quickly and faced his father. "Is that what you came up here for? To make sure I give myself a break? To make sure I forget about him?"

Murdoch almost took a step back at the anger and pain in his son's eyes. "No, Johnny. You won't ever forget. I know that. But you do need some distraction from time to time. You know how this works. It takes time."

Johnny snorted at that. "Yeah, everything takes time. Twenty days or twenty years, right?"

"Why are you angry with me?"

He stared at his father, stunned by the question then realizing what he'd said. He also realized his stance at the moment. He was poised for a fight, any kind of fight, and he was suddenly ashamed. Johnny dropped his head and let out a long, slow breath. In barely more than a whisper, he said, "I'm not. I'm sorry. I'm mad at myself. I let myself forget."

Murdoch stepped closer and put a hand on his shoulder. "It's natural, like I said, son. Don't beat yourself up for it."

******

Scott slowed his gait as he neared the two men. Well, that didn't take long, he thought as he saw Murdoch squeeze Johnny's shoulder. Casually, he strode up to them. "It's been years since I dressed a deer. Maybe you could start, Sir? I'm sure I'll remember once I see it again."

Murdoch was still looking at Johnny's bowed head. He didn't want to end this conversation but he knew Johnny wouldn't continue now. Just as the thought was completed, Johnny pulled away and mumbled something about the kitchen as he walked quickly to the cabin. A sigh escaped the rancher as he glanced at his older son. "He feels guilty for having fun today."

Scott raised a brow and pursed his lips. "And what reminded him?"

Turning to his son, Murdoch frowned deeply. "I did, of course. I shouldn't have said anything yet. I just said he must be feeling better but I know it was the wrong thing."

Scott dropped his head for a moment then nodded as he looked up at his father. "We talked last night. He told me what happened with the Jacksons."

Murdoch felt a wariness as he watched his son's expression turn from sad to sadder. "And?"

"It's not mine to tell, Murdoch. Don't expect him to tell you, either. At least, not the details. But, he does need an answer from you."

"I know that, son. It's just not that simple."

"It was for me. I heard every detail of what happened to those men and, honestly, I was horrified. Johnny said he didn't think I was capable of that kind of killing and, maybe he's right. All I know for sure is that he'd never hurt us, he did what he felt was right and just, and I don't want to lose my brother."

Murdoch was surprised to hear Scott accept Johnny's actions. He knew the two were close but he also knew Scott was highly principled. "What about the law, Scott? I've heard you say time and again how important it is to have law and order. Or does it not apply to your brother?"

"Of course it does. Murdoch, I don't agree with what he did but I certainly understand it. A good man was murdered. A very good man and a lawman. Those men would have hanged as surely as the sun rises and we both know it. Johnny didn't go out and shoot up anyone in sight. He had his proof."


"And he should have brought them to the law. Scott, we can argue about this all night. We both know it was wrong."

Scott took a breath and dropped his head. "I know." Looking back at his father, he asked, "But, can you live with it?"

******

Johnny was quiet and withdrawn during the meal that Murdoch and Scott ended up preparing. It was clear the young man was in no condition to cook. He sat and stared into the cold hearth the whole time they cooked then slowly came to the table when called. Now, he sat with his elbow on the table, resting his head in his hand as he pushed his food around the plate.

After several worried looks had been exchanged with his father, Scott decided enough was enough. "Did you get a piece from the side of the deer I shot, Johnny?"

Blinking, Johnny raised his head and looked confusedly at his brother. "What?"

Scott glanced at the plate. "You're not eating. I thought maybe it was because you'd gotten a piece from the side of the deer I shot." A slow smile came to his face.

Johnny didn't return the smile, didn't much feel like playing with his brother. "Just not hungry."

The smile fell from Scott's face as his brother resumed his previous position. He looked over at Murdoch, feeling at a loss.

Murdoch watched his younger son for a while longer then pushed his chair back and stood up. "Johnny, you and I need to have that talk now. Outside." Without waiting for a response, he headed out the door.

Johnny dropped his fork and sat up straight. "Well, guess the verdict is in."

Scott felt his stomach flip as his brother went outside. He considered eavesdropping and it took him a while to talk himself out of it.

******

Johnny stepped onto the porch to find his father pacing in the yard. That was never a good thing. Murdoch only paced when he was really riled up. Johnny steeled himself, started thinking about which route he'd take back down to the border then stepped into the yard.

After two more turns, Murdoch felt enough control to speak. He stopped and faced his son. "Do you have any idea how much you mean to me? And to your brother?"

He took a step back, completely taken aback by the question. His father was staring him down, the deep frown on his face that gave him the crease between his eyes. Murdoch was dead serious and Johnny found himself speechless.

"Well, do you? Then, let me tell you, young man. We both care very ..." he stopped and sighed and tried again. "We love you, Johnny. We love you very much. Don't think for one second this has been easy for either of us. Scott told me about your talk. He wouldn't tell me the details only that you'd told him everything. Still, he doesn't want you to go. I have to tell you, without knowing much myself, the fact that Scott wants you to stay spoke volumes to me.

"I thought about you a lot on the ride up here. In fact, I thought of nothing else. But it wasn't what you'd done that was on my mind. It was who you are. Or, as much of who you are as you let me know. I understand you don't want me to know certain things. I understand why. I've turned a blind eye because I don't want to know. It was all in the past until now. It was easy to ignore then. That's all changed now." Murdoch stopped and stared at the bewlidered man before him. He knew Johnny was trying to take this all in but he couldn't stop. He did manage to soften his voice, not a difficult task as he spoke his heart.

"Thinking about telling you to leave home forever ... I couldn't imagine how to even think of the words to say. But I realized just a little while ago that there had never been a decision to make. I'm not sure there is anything you could do that would make me turn you out. I don't think you're capable of anything that horrendous. I'll never agree with what you did, Johnny, but I can't imagine my life without you in it now. I don't want to. I do know you did what you truly believed was right." He paused and considered his son. "I'd wager you didn't feel any kind of relief afterward, either. I'm willing to stake my life that you weren't happy with yourself."

Johnny dropped his head and wrapped his arms around himself. Damn, the old man was good! How'd he get to know so much about a man who never let him in? Who never even tried to give him a chance? He couldn't even begin to think about why that was right now.

"I know you said you don't regret it and I believe you. But, it didn't help, did it, son?"

Johnny swallowed hard at the lump that formed so quickly in his throat. He closed his eyes and fought back the tears and he cussed his old man silently for doing this. All he could do was shake his head. No, it didn't help. Nothing was going to help. He felt the hands on his shoulders then they slid around him and he was pulled in close. Johnny relaxed and pulled his arms down, wrapping them around his father's waist.

"God knows how sorry I am about Val, son. I wish I could help you somehow and I want to try. I want to do whatever it takes to help you get through the worst of this. So, you see, you can't leave. Not now. Not ever."

Closing his eyes, Johnny could only nod as a tear leaked out and traced down his cheek and onto his father's shirt.

******

Murdoch frowned as he felt the wetness, stricken that his son had let go this much with him. Maybe this was some sort of breakthrough. One that may never have come if not for Val's death. He would rather have spent a lifetime with his son arguing with him and challenging him than have Johnny in so much pain. Even though he felt this was bringing them closer, he wouldn't have wanted it. Not this way. He pulled back a little then let his left arm drop. Easing Johnny to his side, he started walking, taking the young man with him. He headed down to the stream and they stood there side by side looking at the water for several minutes.

In the stillness of the night, Murdoch's voice was abnormally soft. "When you were a baby, you loved water. If you could get near it, you'd be in it. Didn't matter if it was a wash tub or a river."

Without warning, Johnny went to his knees, his shoulders slumped and shaking. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

Murdoch knelt beside him, rubbing his back. "For what, son?"

Johnny sniffed and took a shuddering breath. "Everything. For hurting you. For making you have to think about kickin me out. For Madrid, I guess."

Closing his eyes, Murdoch inhaled deeply then placed a hand on Johnny's bowed head. "Don't be sorry, Johnny. It wasn't your doing. You didn't cause what happened. And don't be sorry for Madrid. It kept you alive when I couldn't."

Johnny shook his head. "I can't change who I am and I am Johnny Madrid. You said once that part of me always would be. But I don't think you really understood how right you were. I don't want you to think I can change. That I can be the way you think I should be. As sorry as I am for hurting you, I can't be anyone else."

Murdoch was breathless for a moment, his senses reeling. He shook his head and focused. "Do you think I want to change you, son? Have I made you feel that way?"

Johnny raised his head and looked out over the water. "I think you want me to be more like you or, maybe more like Scott." He sighed tiredly. "I just can't, Murdoch."

"I'm glad to hear that. If that's how I've made you feel, then I'm the one who's sorry, son. Yes, there are things I want you to see my way. There are things I want you to think seriously about. But I don't want to change who you are. I just want to show you another way. Maybe a better way to do certain things."

Frowning, Johnny finally looked at his father. "You want to teach me?"

Murdoch smiled a little. "Yes, I guess I do. There are still one or two things I know that you don't, boy." He gave Johnny's shoulder a little shake. "I missed out on so much with you and Scott. I never got to teach you the basic things. I thought I could teach you something about life, though."

"But, you have." Johnny sat back a little and turned his upper body to fully face his father. "You've taught me a lot, Murdoch. About ranching and the business end of it. You've also taught me it's not always a good idea to throw your fist first." He grinned shyly before going on. "I'm still learnin that one."

Murdoch chuckled a little. "There are times when a good fistfight does a man good."

Johnny nodded then sobered. "But when you're dealing with a certain kind of man, that doesn't work. Sometimes, there is only one option."

******

Murdoch shifted to sit properly and leaned in a little to touch shoulders with his son. "Do you think Val missed something with the Jacksons?"

Johnny sighed and shook his head. "I think Val wanted to keep me out of it for some reason. Maybe he really didn't think he needed help. Maybe he really thought they wouldn't go that far. I just have a hard time believing that because he didn't miss much."

"Maybe he was trying to protect you. I don't mean to keep you from getting hurt as much as to keep you out of ... what do you call it? The game?"

Johnny thought about that for a minute then mimicked his father's earlier move and sat on his backside. Pulling his knees up, he wrapped his arms around them then leaned to the side to regain contact with his old man. He craned his neck and looked up at the stars, innumerable and sparkling like grains of sand in the sun. "That makes sense," he finally said. "I was telling him not too long ago how nice it was to be able to relax now. Not just inside the house but just about anywhere on the ranch." He laughed a little. "He told me to not get too cocky or too relaxed." He lowered his head then turned it toward his father as he rested his cheek on his knees. "We started talkin about it then."

Murdoch tried to see his eyes but they were shadowed. He knew what he'd see, though. Sadness maybe mixed with the sparkle of memory. "It?"

"Yeah. The old days. How it had been good to ride together but life was better now for both of us. He came real close to sayin he was glad I talked him up to you." A grin came to his face as he recalled that talk but it faded quickly. "I guess I still can't really believe it's true. I don't think I'm ever gonna get over this, Murdoch."

"No, you'll always feel that loss, son. I wish I could say you won't but you know better." He hesitated then decided to delve into that most sacrosanct area. "I'm sure you still feel your mother's loss."

Johnny grimaced and swallowed hard as he raised his head. "Sometimes. It's different though. Val never lied to me. I'm not gonna find out some big secret he was keeping from me twenty years from now. That much I'm sure of anyway." They grew quiet for a few minutes then Johnny spoke softly. "Thank you."

Murdoch blinked out of his thoughts and looked at his son. "For what?"

"For not throwing me out. Then or now. And for ... loving me."

Murdoch reached out and pulled his son close to his side. "I always have, you know. Both of you. I always will."

Johnny rested his head on his father's shoulder briefly before turning back to the water. "It won't be this easy. You'll always wonder what really happened. There will come a day when you'll ask me about it."

Murdoch said nothing for a long moment then he nodded his head. "I suppose that's true, son. There may also come a day when you want to tell me about it. Either way, it's up to you. As Scott said, it's your's to tell. All I do know is I've been a mule-headed fool. I spent so much time weighing what you did against what's right in my mind and to the law, I didn't take into account the most important factor."

Johnny turned to look at his father's face, waiting for him to continue. Their eyes met and he saw a softness there that nearly stole his breath.

"I didn't take into account that you're my son. Right or wrong, that was always going to be the deciding factor. I just didn't realize it."

Swallowing hard, Johnny lowered his eyes and nodded. "Maybe nobody is right or wrong here. Maybe it's just how things are." He took in a deep breath then let it out slowly. "Maybe some day I'll regret it but I don't think so."

Murdoch shook his head slowly. "I'm not sure we're going to find an answer or that we even need one. It's done now. All we can do is go on, let ourselves grieve and honor the memory of a good man."

******

Two days later all three Lancers headed home. No more was said about the Jacksons but Johnny had to wonder if his brother would really be able to live with what he knew. He supposed it was easier for Murdoch because he didn't know the whole of it. For his own part, he had no idea what price he'd eventually have to pay. All he knew was it would come some day.

As they rode into the yard and dismounted, Scott saw his brother looking toward the hill in back of the house. He glanced at Murdoch who nodded then, he took Barranca's reins from Johnny's hand. When Johnny turned and gave him a quizzical look, he smiled. "Go on, brother. I've got this."

Johnny smiled back and headed toward the hill only to be stopped by someone calling to his father. He cringed a little as he recognized Gabe's voice then turned and walked back to where the sheriff was greeting Murdoch and Scott. Gabe turned and saw him, a dark expression crossing his face. Johnny didn't even try to charm the man. He knew it would do no good. He simply nodded a greeting and stood beside his brother as the sheriff told his news.

"The US Marshal showed up finally. I told him I'd lost the trail and he said there wasn't much they could do but notify all the lawmen south of here to the border."

"Is he still here?" Scott asked.

"Left this mornin grumblin about wasting his time. I let him have it for that. Told him I hoped someone worked as hard when he got himself killed." Gabe stopped and looked apologetically at Johnny. "Anyway, just thought you'd want to know."

"Gabe, I'm sorry about how I talked to you and about tossin you in the bushes." Johnny worked hard not to laugh at the last part. It wasn't funny at the time, not at all, but now he could see the humor.

Gabe furrowed his brow. "You should be, Johnny." After a second, his face relaxed and he turned completely to face Johnny. "But, it's okay. I understand. I don't want to know anything else about what you were up to down south, though. I just need a yes or a no. Did you find them?"

Johnny stared at him for a beat. "Yes."

Gabe nodded then glanced at all three. "Well, I'll be on my way. Steve Watkins is still helping me but he's talking a lot about needing someone permanent."

"The association is working on that, Gabe," Murdoch said as he glanced at Johnny. "We've already placed an advertisement in several papers."

******

Johnny started up the hill again. He wasn't sure what he was feeling right now. He was happy to have gotten so close to his father but the cost had been much too high. He was sure they would have gotten to this point at some time. It may have taken years, though. He recalled his own words about how God sent people into your life for a reason. Maybe Val was in his life only to be taken? He didn't want to believe that. He didn't want to think God was that cruel because it was cruel.

As he reached the top, he took his hat off and knelt at the graveside. His breath caught when he looked at the headstone. Tears welled in his eyes as he read the additional inscription that had been added in his absence.

Amigos para la vida y por siempre

He hung his head and realized that was the business Scott had asked Murdoch about that first day the old man had arrived at the cabin. That his brother had taken a comment he'd made - that the headstone should have read friends forever - and had this done was stunning to him. He'd always wondered at the way this family had come together and committed themselves to each other. He'd always known his own reason. He needed them badly. But he'd never thought Scott, or Murdoch for that matter, really needed him. Now, he knew they loved him. He knew because his father had told him so. And Scott had shown it not just with the inscription but in so many ways, day after day. He felt blessed and that wasn't something he was used to feeling.

Johnny raised his head and looked at the headstone again. His breath hitched in his throat and he swallowed hard. "I love them so much. I love you, too, Val. I always will, mi hermano."

 

 

~end~

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