The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Fugitive

 

 

 

Scott Lancer stood in the bank, patiently waiting for the teller to complete his transaction. His thoughts were quickly turning to the cold beer that was awaiting him at the saloon. As he signed the papers, he heard gunfire from a distance. Surmising it was too far away to be a threat to the bank, he finished his business quickly and was about to leave when someone ran in shouting about a gunfight at the saloon.

Scott tensed immediately, knowing Johnny and Jelly were waiting for him there. He took off down the boardwalk and walked up to the crowd surrounding the entrance to the saloon.

He saw Val Crawford looking more grim than usual and he shouldered his way through to get a look at the man they were all gawking at. Relief filled his heart when he saw the stranger and his eyes began to seek out his brother.

"He ain't here," Val said.

"Where is he?"

"Scott, I'm sorry, but all the witnesses say Johnny shot that man down without any warning," Val said.

"That's ridiculous! Where's Jelly?"

"Right here, Scott. I wish it was a lie but I seen it myself. Johnny shot him then took off on Barranca outta town," Jelly said grieviously.

"There has to be an explanation, Jelly. Johnny wouldn't do something like that," Scott insisted.

"I wouldn't think so neither, Scott, but I seen what I seen," Jelly argued.

"Let's go to my office and talk about this," Val said, feeling the eyes of the town on them.

"Ain't you goin after 'im, Sheriff?" someone asked.

"Yeah, he's a murderer," someone else agreed.

Val turned to the crowd and sneered. "Anytime any of ya want my job just say so. Til then you let me worry about what needs doin!"

Inside his office, Val sat down heavily in his desk chair. "Alright, Jelly, tell us exactly what ya saw."

"Johnny walked outside to watch for Scott so's he could get 'im a beer when he saw 'im comin. He was standing right outside and I could see 'im plain. All the sudden, and without no warnin, he draws and fires. Weren't no talkin, just shoots. Well, I come outside like everbody else and seen this fella layin there. Johnny never said a word. He just mounted up and rode out." Jelly shook his head.

"Wait a minute. You didn't see the other man at all so you don't know if he said or did something threatening. Johnny could have been reacting to something none of you saw," Scott reasoned.

"The other man's gun was still in the holster, Scott," Val pointed out.

"Val, you know how fast Johnny is. The man may have never gotten any further than going for his gun," Scott defended.

"I know it. But, we don't know nothin about this stranger, even his name yet, and Johnny takin off like that just don't seem right. He would've stayed and explained what happened to me," Val said.

"Well this is just ridiculous. He probably went home, thinking someone had seen it and would tell you. I'll ride back to the ranch and have him come back and talk to you," Scott said.

"And if he ain't there?" Val asked with a raised brow.

"I thought you were his friend, Val. Of course he'll be there!"

"I am his friend! But if he ain't back here in a couple of hours, I'm gonna get a posse together, Scott. I don't have a choice!"

Scott turned on his heel and strode out of the office with Jelly right behind him.

"I'm sorry, Scott, I had ta say what I saw," Jelly said.

"I know you did, Jelly. I just think you didn't see everything."

"Never said I did and I know Johnny's got an explanation. Still, it ain't like him ta take off like that. The look on his face...."

Scott stopped and looked at the older man. "What look?"

"I ain't never seen Johnny so mad," Jelly mumbled.

Scott frowned and wondered exactly who this dead man was. He mounted and took off for home at a gallop.

******

Scott rode into the courtyard at Lancer and dismounted quickly, handing his mount off to a hand. He nearly ran in the door shouting Johnny's name.

"Scott! What in the world?" Murdoch growled.

"Where's Johnny?"

"I thought he was with you."

"He was, he ...."

"Scott, what's wrong?" Murdoch asked with dread.

"There was a shooting outside the saloon. All the witnesses say Johnny shot a man without warning or, apparently, reason," Scott reported.

"That's ridiculous! Johnny wouldn't do that."

"I know, sir. It's just that he rode out of town right afterward and Val wants to talk to him. He said if I didn't get Johnny back to town, he would go after him with a posse."

"A posse! Wait a minute. Who was this man Johnny shot?"

"I don't know. He's a stranger. Murdoch, Jelly was in the saloon and he said from what he could tell, Johnny shot the man for no reason."

Murdoch looked stunned, then frowned deeply. "Where was Jelly when it happened?"

"In the saloon. Johnny was standing outside."

"Alone?"

"Yes."

"Then we don't really know what happened."

"No, only Johnny does. Why would he take off like that? Jelly said he's never seen him so angry."

"I don't know, son. We need to find him."

******

Scott and Murdoch checked all Johnny's favorite places on the ranch. They checked Morro Coyo and Spanish Wells. No one had seen Johnny. It was almost dark when they finished checking Spanish Wells. As they walked out of the cantina, they saw a group of men ride toward them with Val Crawford in the lead.

Murdoch pulled himself up to his full height and squared his shoulders. "Val."

"Mr. Lancer. I take it you ain't found him," Val said.

"No, not yet, but we will," Scott said.

"I hope so, Scott. I hope you find him and bring him in before I do."

"I can't believe you formed a posse, Val. You know Johnny wouldn't...."

"Mr. Lancer," Val cut him off. "I got identification on that stranger. He was a sheriff from Arizona."

Murdoch felt like the breath had been knocked out of him and Scott wasn't sure he would be on his feet in another second.

"There's more," Val said. "He had a wanted poster in his pocket for Johnny Madrid; for murder."

Murdoch dropped his head and closed his eyes briefly before facing the sheriff again. "Is it legal?"

"I'm checkin on that now. But I can't wait, I have to find Johnny and bring him in."

"Bring him in how, Sheriff?" Murdoch asked.

"However he'll let me, I reckon," Val said, the sadness in his face unmistakable as he reared his horse and headed out again.

"Murdoch?"

"No, Scott, no. If Johnny knew he was wanted, he wouldn't have kept that from us. I'm not going to jump to any conclusions."

"Thank you, sir," Scott whispered.

Murdoch put his arm around his son and they walked back to their horses.

******

Murdoch stopped next to his bay. "Scott, for the sake of argument, where would Johnny go if he were on the run?"

Scott looked at his father with surprise which quickly turned to understanding. "Someplace he'd feel safe that didn't put us at risk. Someplace close by so he could keep an eye on things."

Murdoch nodded his head. "That's what I was thinking, too. Let's check out the line shacks at the ranch."

Scott smiled slightly and nodded his agreement and they headed back to Lancer.

Murdoch pulled up five miles from the ranch boundary. "Val's a smart man. He would figure we'd know where to look for Johnny."

"Yes, he would," Scott agreed.

They looked at each other and nodded, then headed out in opposite directions.

"What'ya reckon they're up to, Sheriff?"

"I reckon they know we're followin," Val said, trying hard not to smile.

"Wanna split up?"

"No, I do not. We'll follow Scott. Murdoch would most likely send him where they think Johnny would be," Val said. He hoped he was right and that they were heading in the wrong direction. He hoped Murdoch would want to be the one to find Johnny. He hoped.

******

Murdoch approached the line shack cautiously, having dismounted some quarter of a mile away. He slipped up onto the porch and called softly. Hearing no response, he tried again but was still met with silence.

He opened the door slowly, announcing himself to the darkness. He didn't want to be mistaken for anyone else if Johnny was in hiding. Allowing his eyes to adjust to the near darkness, he struck a match and held it up. The room was empty.

His shoulders drooping in disappointment, Murdoch lit an oil lamp and turned up the wick. He surveyed the interior of the room and found no evidence of anyone being there for some time. 'Maybe Scott found him,' he thought, or rather prayed.

He decided to stay there through the night and hopefully pick up some tracks at first light. Sighing heavily, he started a fire in the stove and went about making coffee. He knew it would be a long night.

Scott rode up to the east line shack, using the same caution as his father and called out softly for his brother. Getting no response and seeing no signs of life, he dismounted and entered the darkened building.

He lit a lamp and looked around, finding nothing to indicate a human had been in the place lately. He figured he could do no more searching until morning, so he decided to sack in at the shack for the night. Maybe Murdoch had already found Johnny.

******

"What'ya think, Sheriff?"

"I think we been wastin our time. Johnny ain't in there," Val sneered.

"How do you know?"

"Because, I can see through the winda and Scott's alone. 'Sides, ain't no other tracks around and no other horse," Val sighed with a mixture of aggravation and regret.

"What're we gonna do?"

"Set up camp. Too dark to do more tonight. We'll start out again in the mornin," Val answered.

"What about Scott? He'll see us."

Val snorted. "You think he don't know we're out here?"

Scott laid down on the cot and smiled slightly. He supposed he should be glad he didn't find Johnny. With Val on his tail, he wouldn't have had time to talk to his brother before the sheriff was upon them. He knew Val was not trying to hide his presence. He also knew this was a high price for the lawman to pay to wear that badge.

He couldn't imagine having to track down his best friend. Scott caught himself; that was exactly what he was doing. Tracking down his best friend and brother. He knew Johnny could not have done what they said. He knew there was a reasonable explanation. Still, why did Johnny take off like that? Why was he so angry, as Jelly had reported? Too many question and no answers and Scott hated it. He had to find Johnny, he had to help his brother, no matter what he had or had not done.

******

The next morning, Murdoch rose before the sun and began preparing a quick meal before setting off again. He had not slept well and what little sleep he did manage was filled with nightmares about Johnny.

Sipping his coffee at the table, Murdoch knew in his heart Johnny could not have killed a man in cold blood, let alone a sheriff. Something was missing from this story. Something only Johnny could tell. It was unfathomable to him why Johnny would take off like that.

He supposed that was the burning question. He knew Val didn't believe it either but the circumstances were such that the sheriff was left with no choice. None of them had a choice it seemed, including Johnny.

As Murdoch saddled his bay, he heard a rider approaching and his heart lifted. It dropped again as he saw Scott coming into view. Trying to cover his disappointment, he smiled weakly.

"I thought it might be Johnny."

"Well, that answers my question," Scott said, not bothering to dismount. "You ready?"

"I am. Where's Val?"

"Oh, he's back there," Scott smiled slightly and hooked his thumb over his shoulder.

"I've been thinking, son," Murdoch said as he mounted his steed. "Maybe we're wrong about this. Maybe Johnny didn't stay on the ranch."

"You think he might have headed south, don't you?" Scott asked.

"I hope not. I just don't know. None of this makes any sense!" Murdoch expounded his frustration.

"I just can't believe it, Murdoch. What to you want to do?"

Murdoch looked out into the distance, then shook his head. "Val!"

Val rode up to the Lancers and simply waited.

"I think we should go back to town and see if there's any word on that wanted poster," Murdoch said.

"Was thinking the same thing myself. Pretty obvious Johnny ain't still on Lancer," Val said.

Scott didn't like the implication that if Johnny wasn't here, he really was on the run. He refused to believe his brother could kill a man in cold blood. Setting his jaw, he reined his horse and headed back to town.

Scott and Murdoch waited in Val's office while he checked the telegraph for any word on his inquiry.

Scott's frustration was building with every tick of the clock and Murdoch watched him closely, worried for his son's state of mind.

"Will you sit down? You'll wear yourself out," he said.

Scott opened his mouth to reply when the door opened and Val stepped through.

******

"Got a telegram from the deputy in Tucson. He says the poster ain't legal. Some rancher over there printed it up and spread it around the area," the sheriff reported.

Murdoch was relieved but it didn't last long. "So, any fool with a gun could come looking to collect the reward. Five hundred dollars is a lot of money."

"Murdoch! Do you think Johnny knows about it and went to Arizona?" Scott suddenly blurted.

Murdoch stood up, stunned at this idea. "I hope not, son."

"We need to go to Tucson," Scott announced.

"Now hold on a minute, Scott. What'ya think that's gonna accomplish?" Val asked.

"For one thing, we can find out who this rancher is and why he wants Johnny dead. Maybe we can get him to back off or listen to reason," Scott explained.

"He's right, Val. It's worth the chance. And if Johnny did go there, we'll be there to help him," Murdoch said, the decision made. "We'll go back to the ranch and lay in supplies, let Teresa and Jelly know what's happening. We can make some miles before dark."

"Mr. Lancer, you let me know if I can help in anyway," Val said.

"I will, Val and thank you."

******

After filling the family in on the events of the past twenty-four hours, Murdoch and Scott set out for Arizona, leaving a very unhappy Jelly behind. He wanted to go with them but Murdoch insisted he stay behind in case they were wrong and Johnny showed up.

Heading east, southeast toward the Arizona border, both men were lost in their own thoughts. The silence was uncomfortable and Scott spoke up.

"How long do you think it will take us to get there?"

"Three, maybe four days. There's desert between us and Tucson and that may slow us down."

"I'm sure it won't slow Johnny down," Scott said wryly.

Murdoch glanced over at his eldest son. "No, I don't suppose it will, provided that's where he's going."

"It's the only thing that makes sense."

"Think about it, Scott. How would Johnny know about the wanted poster? As far as we know, he never got to talk to that sheriff."

"Maybe he already knew about it and decided to settle it once and for all," Scott surmised.

Murdoch had thought of that possibility. Johnny would have no reason to tell them about a wanted poster that wasn't issued by the law. Still, he wished his son had confided in them. A warning would have been nice.

******

Three days later, after some hard riding, Murdoch and Scott rode into Tucson and were met with several curious stares.

Unbothered, they headed to the saloon. Scott felt disappointment when he was unable to spot Barranca. Of course, Johnny may have stabled him. They walked into the saloon together and scanned the interior.

"He's not here," Murdoch stated the obvious.

"Let's check the livery," Scott suggested, thinking how foolish he'd feel if Johnny wasn't even in the territory.

They arrived at the livery and found the smithy. "Mind if we look around inside?" Scott asked.

"Suit yourself," the man shrugged.

Scott stepped inside and gave himself a moment to adjust to the lower light and odor of the stables. He walked straight up to the palomino and patted his neck.

"Well, boy, where is he?"

Barranca nickered and butted Scott's chest with his head.

******

"Excuse me, but where is the man who owns that palomino?" he asked as he came back out and nodded to his father.

"Well now, I ain't in the business of talking about others, mister. Man's business is his own, far as I can see."

"He's my brother," Scott said flatly.

The smithy looked Scott up and down then chortled. "Sure he is and I'm the Queen of England."

"He's telling you the truth. He's also my son and we've been looking for him for days," Murdoch spoke up, not amused with the man's humor.

"Look, I ain't seen him since yesterday. He come in, took that fancy horse out for a few hours then came back. Don't know who he is or where he is and I'd just a soon keep it that way. Man paid for his animal's keep and that's all I care about."

Scott sighed loudly and Murdoch nodded at the man. "Give our horses the same as the palomino," he said and handed over some coins.

The smithy nodded and took charge of their mounts as they stepped away from the livery. "Well, now what?" Scott asked.

"I guess we could ask around but I'd rather not just in case he is laying low. Let's get a room and hang around the saloon."

******

They sat in the saloon and watched the locals, sizing them up. To Murdoch, they seemed like any other cowboys in any other cow town. None of them seemed threatening or dangerous, just men having a good time.

They both looked up as two raucous characters entered the saloon whooping and hollering. One was Mexican, the other white and older than the first. Scott watched with some interest as they both seemed well known to the saloon patrons. Within thirty minutes, the party was on.

The Mexican seemed well-mannered, even as he threw back tequila shots. There was something almost regal about him, Scott thought. The older man was clearly the rough and tumble sort and Scott was quite sure the evening would end in a brawl.

Murdoch had an amused look on his face as he watched and listened to the two men, obvious good friends, talk about cattle and women, mostly women. From what he could hear, the Mexican seemed to be quite the ladies man. He thought of Johnny then and his face fell into a worried frown once more.

From where they sat, they could see anyone come into the saloon before they could be spotted themselves. Murdoch had chosen this spot in case Johnny needed quick assistance of any kind.

******

Several more minutes passed and the two men grew louder, too much so for Murdoch's taste. He was just about to suggest to Scott that they leave when he heard the voice.

"Montoya!"

The room grew quiet and the Mexican turned slowly, the grin never leaving his handsome face. When his eyes fell on the man, the grin spread into a dimpled smile.

"What are you doing north of the border, you mangy dog," the voice said.

The Mexican leaned back against the bar and took in the man before him. "I thought I might find some amusement in this country, hombre. Perhaps you could provide it."

"I might, but I ain't feelin real obligin right now," came the slow drawled response.

The Mexican's friend tapped his arm but he waved him off. "Are you sure compadre? Perhaps a dance?" he raised an eyebrow.

"That might be arranged."

Manolito Montoya broke out in laughter and walked toward the stranger who took a few steps into the saloon.

Murdoch and Scott could see him now and they watched, fascinated as the Mexican grabbed Johnny and bear-hugged him.

******

"Johnny! Mi amigo, what are you doing here?" Manolito exclaimed. Lowering his voice conspiratorily, he added, "I thought you were dead."

"I am, didn't you hear?" Johnny laughed. His expression turned serious. "I need your help, amigo."

"Si, of course. It is bad?"

"Could be."

"Come," Manolito said as he turned Johnny toward the door. He stopped and turned back. "I will see you later, amigo," he said to his friend who had been eyeing Johnny with suspicion.

"Why don't I go with ya? Mebbe I can help."

Manolito shook his head and waved off the offer then disappeared out the door.

Scott and Murdoch sat where they were, stunned by the events. "He never even saw us," Scott said.

"At least he has a friend here. Come on, we need to find him," Murdoch said and got up to leave.

"Uh, excuse me there fellas. Mind if I ask where you're goin?" Manolito's friend inquired.

******

"As a matter of fact, we do. What business is it of your's?" Scott asked.

"Well, I couldn't help noticin ya eyein my friend and his friend an since he is my friend, I don't want no trouble for 'im," the man explained, rubbing his chin.

Although a bit befuddled by this mirky explanation, Murdoch responded. "The man your friend is with is my son and we've been trying to find him. Now, if you don't mind."

"No, I don't mind. In fact, I'll just go along with ya, just ta be sure."

"Fine. Murdoch Lancer and this is my son, Scott."

"Buck Cannon, pleasure. Ya say this is your son? His brother?" Buck asked, nodding toward the door.

"We're half-brothers if you must know," Scott replied.

"Uh huh," Buck answered and led the way.

The three men stepped into the streets of Tuscon and found them virtually empty. Scott sighed aloud once more in frustration.

"Oh don't worry, I got me an idee where they went," Buck said and crooked a finger indicating they should follow.

******

True to his word, Buck took them to a cantina where they found Johnny and Manolito with their heads together, talking quietly.

Murdoch walked right up, tired of the cat and mouse game, and cleared his throat.

Johnny looked up, total surprise plastered on his face. He glanced behind Murdoch and saw his brother as well. "What are you doing here?"

"Looking for you, what else?" Murdoch replied.

"Johnny?" Manolito asked.

"It's okay, Mano. He's my father."

"Que? Madre del Dios, you are full of surprises, amigo," Mano grinned.

"Johnny, we need to talk," Scott said.

"Might as well join us. This is Manolito Montoya, an old friend," Johnny said.

"Buck Cannon," Buck introduced and shrugged when Mano gave him a curious look. "I got nothin else ta do, Mano."

"Johnny Lancer," Johnny said and shook hands with Buck.

"Lancer, huh? Okay," Buck said disbelievingly.

******

Once they were all settled in the near empty cantina, Johnny took in all four men with a playful grin.

"I'm glad you think this is amusing, son. Would you like to tell us about the dead sheriff in Green River?" Murdoch asked grumpily.

Johnny's smile faded and he dropped his head. "Yeah, I feel bad about that."

"You feel bad about it? Johnny, what happened?" Scott asked, raising his voice.

Johnny looked at his brother in shock. "What's the matter with you?"

"Oh nothing. I suppose my brother killing a lawman then taking off shouldn't bother me one bit!"

"What are you talkin about? I didn't kill him," Johnny hissed.

Scott and Murdoch both just stared at him, stunned into silence.

"Is that what you think? I killed that man?"

"Maybe you should just tell us what did happen, son."

******

"Yeah, do, I'm gettin a headache," Buck piped in.

"Yo tambien," Manolito concurred.

Johnny sighed and nodded. "I was standing there waiting for Scott when I saw Sheriff Ford walking toward me. I was surprised to see him. I smiled and he smiled back, then I saw someone across the street in the alley. I looked past him and Ford saw that. He turned to look but by then I saw the gun and I fired. He shot Ford and I shot him but I didn't know how bad he was hit. I trailed him and found him south of Lancer. He tried to ambush me and I killed him. I found the wanted poster in his pocket."

"So you headed straight here," Murdoch finished.

"Did it ever occur to you to tell us what was going on?" Scott asked.

"I'm sorry, but I didn't want you involved in this, Scott."

"Why not?"

"It's my problem," Johnny shrugged.

"Who put out the wanted poster, Johnny?" Murdoch asked.

"Man named Guiterrez."

"Ramon?" Buck asked.

"Yeah, you know him?"

"Sure I know 'im, so does Mano. He's a dog," Buck said.

"Si, he is that," Mano agreed.

"Yeah well, I did a job for him a few years back and he wasn't exactly satisfied with my services," Johnny sighed.

******

"What happened?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny smiled slyly. "I didn't like the way he operated. Ended up working against him. He took exception to that. Swore he'd get even with me."

"What's this about a sheriff?" Buck asked.

"Ah, Buck, that was Dave," Mano said sadly.

"I met him once before but he wasn't a sheriff then. I don't know what he was doing in California," Johnny explained.

"Maybe he wanted to warn you about the wanted poster," Scott suggested.

"Tal vez," Johnny mumbled.

"Well, what do you propose to do about this, son?"

"I propose to talk to the man. See if we can reach some kind of peace."

"Good luck. Guiterrez ain't real friendly," Buck said sarcastically.

"Yeah, I know."

"Do not go to his rancho, amigo. Let him come here. He has many men but not so many are cowboys, comprende?" Mano warned.

"I'll go get 'im. He ain't got no use for my family but he won't shoot me on sight neither," Buck offered.

"This ain't your fight. I'll handle it," Johnny said.

"Fine, handle it, soon as I get 'im ta come ta town, he's all yours," Buck said and got up to leave. Tipping his hat, he added, "I'll just tell 'im an old friend wants to see 'im tomorrow."

"Gracias, amigo," Mano called after him. "Buck is a good man, Johnny."

******

"Manolito, is there any other law in town?" Murdoch asked.

"Si, the deputy but he is not very good. Dave felt sorry for him and gave him a job. I should tell my employer about this. He will be able to get another sheriff, pronto."

"Your what?" Johnny asked.

Mano looked slyly at him and grinned.

"Who gave you a job?" Johnny asked.

Mano laughed and slapped Johnny on the back. "His name is John Cannon, he is Buck's brother. He owns the High Chaparral rancho and he is married to my sister."

Johnny nearly choked on his beer. "Victoria is married?"

"Si, amigo. You were not fast enough," Mano laughed.

"You know I never had those kind of feelings for her, Mano," Johnny defended.

"Si, a little sister, right?"

Johnny smiled at him, letting him think what he wanted. He would never tell his friend the real reason, that she reminded him so much of his mother it was almost painful to look at her.

"Sounds like you two go way back," Scott noted.

"Si, we had many good times together," Mano smiled.

******

"Well, I hate to break up the reunion, but we should talk about what's going to happen tomorrow," Murdoch said.

"Nothing's going to happen. I'm going to talk to him and make him see the error of his ways," Johnny said harshly.

"And just how are you going to accomplish that?" Scott asked.

"Don't worry about it, Boston."

"Johnny, we didn't track you down to stand idly by and watch you get hurt or killed," Murdoch said.

"Thanks for the vote of confidence, Murdoch," Johnny smirked.

"It has nothing to do with confidence. You are the most exasperating man I have ever met," Murdoch growled.

Manolito nearly fell out of his chair as he burst out laughing at this statement. Johnny grinned and slapped him on the arm.

"Pardon me, Senor Lancer, but I cannot help thinking you know him very well indeed," Mano said though the laughing.

A twinge of a smile flitted across Murdoch's face then and Scott chuckled his agreement.

******

"I have a feeling I'm about to get ganged up on," Johnny said.

"Johnny, you can't expect us to stay out of this," Murdoch said, serious again.

"Yes, I can and I do. Murdoch, this is my mess, I'll take care of it," Johnny said definitively.

"Why? Because it happened before?" Scott asked.

"That's exactly why, Scott."

"When are you going to get it through that thick skull of yours that we are a family. When one of us has a problem, it's a problem for all of us?" Scott asked.

"Amigo, he is right," Mano said.

"No, he isn't. Look, neither one of you signed up to take on my past. I can't expect you to do that and I don't want you to," Johnny spewed.

"Why? Because it might be ugly? What are you afraid of, Johnny?" Murdoch asked.

"I'm not afraid of anything!" Johnny glared, then suddenly sighed. "Except you getting hurt because of something that happened before you even knew me."

"Before I knew you?! What the devil does that mean? You're my son, it doesn't matter what happened when you weren't home!"

Scott laid a firm hand on his father's arm as a warning to get hold of himself. Murdoch took a deep breath and blew it out, glancing around him quickly as the few patrons of the cantina stared at him. When he looked back at Johnny, he was surprised at the gentle look on his son's face and the affectionate smile that lay there so easily.

******

"Perhaps I should leave you now. I will come back tomorrow and let you know what happened with Buck," Mano said, excusing himself.

Johnny stood up with his friend. "I want to talk to you again before I leave."

"Oh, do not worry, amigo. We WILL talk," Mano said with a sidelong look and a grin.

"He seems nice," Scott said.

"He's a good friend," Johnny replied.

"Johnny, I don't want you ending up in a gunfight," Murdoch said.

"Neither do I, Murdoch. But I can't let this go on. I'll be a target for every gunhawk that can read," Johnny argued.

"Well, maybe you can talk to this man," Scott said hopefully.

"Maybe, Boston, but I won't get my hopes up. Unless he's changed, he's still a grizzly," Johnny said.

******

The next morning, Scott, Johnny and Murdoch sat in the dining room of the small hotel having breakfast when Manolito and Buck walked in.

"Buenos dias, amigo," Mano called.

"Buenos dias, Mano," Johnny smiled. "How did it go yesterday, Buck?" he asked immediately.

"Well, he was curious. Said he might make it to town today but I could tell, he'll be here," Buck reported.

"I hope this doesn't cause trouble for you," Johnny frowned.

"Nah, he ain't no big bull round here no more," Buck said, waving off the concern.

"What do you mean?" Scott asked.

"Well, just that High Chapparal is the biggest ranch in these parts now. Guiterrez, his place used ta be but he ain't got the gumption ta build," Buck answered.

Johnny took in this information with great interest. "Are you saying he's not an important man anymore?"

"Well now, I wouldn't say that, just that my brother is a bigger dog," Buck smiled.

Johnny nodded thoughtfully.

"Anyhow, said he'd be here round noon, if he decided ta come," Buck continued.

"Thanks, I appreciate your help," Johnny smiled.

"You have a few hours, amigo. Perhaps we could have that talk now. Just in case there is no opportunity later," Mano grinned.

"Sure, Mano," Johnny smiled, knowing full well his friend's curiosity was about to kill him.

"Don't go far, Johnny," Murdoch said.

Johnny rolled his eyes and nodded, then grabbed his hat and walked out with Mano.

******

"Amigo, tell me everything," Mano started right in.

Johnny laughed and told his friend a condensed version of meeting his father and brother. When he had finished, Mano was quiet for a while.

"So, now you have a papa and a gringo hermano," he grinned.

Johnny shoved him and laughed. "Si, I guess I do at that."

"How are things, really? They both seem to worry about you."

"I'll tell ya, Mano, I never thought .... well, it's been pretty amazing. The old man ain't easy to get along with but we're doing a lot better. Scott is ..... well, he's not what you'd expect from an easterner. He's got guts, he's," Johnny stopped, his emotions threatening to overcome him, and swallowed hard.

Manolito put an arm around his friend's shoulder and squeezed. "Si, I know, amigo. I know."

Johnny smiled appreciatively. "I just hate it when my past causes trouble. I feel like they'd be better off if I just left."

"I am quite certain neither of them believe that. Why else would they come all this way to help you? They did not believe for one minute you were a wanted man. I could see that," Mano said.

"They didn't, did they? There was a time when Murdoch would have. I guess we've come farther together than I thought."

"This is good. Now, all you have to do is stay alive to enjoy your familia, si?" Mano laughed.

******

Johnny returned to the hotel half an hour before Guiterrez was due to arrive. He found his family in the hotel room.

"How do you want to do this?" Scott asked.

"I'm going to wait in the saloon, that's where he'd look. I don't want either of you to be there."

"We will be there, Johnny. We'll stay out of the way but I'm not going to let you face this man and his crew alone," Murdoch stated.

"I wish you wouldn't," Johnny mumbled.

"Why?" Scott asked.

"He doesn't want us to see Johnny Madrid. Well, I've seen him and it doesn't matter," Murdoch answered for him. He walked over and put an arm around Johnny's shoulder.

"When are you going to start trusting in us? When are you going to believe that your past doesn't make us ashamed? Johnny, we are your family and we stick together no matter what."

Johnny dropped his head and sighed. "I guess I just want to .... spare you."

"There's nothing to spare us from, brother," Scott said as he joined them. "Johnny, look at me. You are my brother and that means more than Johnny Madrid or the past ever will. Stop worrying about us, we can take anything as long as we're all together."

"Thanks, brother. I just don't want either of you to get hurt by something that happened so long ago."

"If we do, then it's by our choice, son. That's what you need to understand. This isn't about some sense of loyalty due to blood ties. This is about caring for you and each other. It's about more than the word family, it's the feeling of family. Do you understand?"

"Yeah, I do. Thanks, I am glad you came and I'm sorry I took off like that. I just wanted to get this taken care of."

"As long as you know, we will always want to help you just like you help us," Scott said.

"Okay, Boston, you can come. Just stay back and take my lead, okay?"

******

Ramon Guiterrez was not a stupid man and he had sent his men into town the very day Buck Cannon delivered his message. He was quite pleased to hear who it was that wanted to see him. He began planning his revenge immediately and was still at it in the early morning hours.

"Papa, why are you still awake? You need your rest," his daughter asked.

"I will go soon, miel. Why are you awake at this hour?"

"I heard you moving around down here. Is something wrong, papa?"

"Mi amor, come sit with me. I have good news for you," Guiterrez smiled.

Elisa Guiterrez walked over to the sofa and joined her father, a smile on her face. She was twenty now and she was a beautiful woman with long dark hair and eyes that were almost black. Her long eyelashes fluttered down onto her high cheekbones as she lowered her eyes. Her father knew she was the most beautiful thing in this world, even more so than her mama was.

"What is it, papa?"

"He is here, miel, in Tucson. He will die this very day!" he swore.

Her face wrinkled in a frown as she tilted her head to one side. "Who, papa?"

"Who? Who do you think? Johnny Madrid!"

******

He heard the sharp intake of breath as she heard the name again. "Johnny is here?" Her voice was a mere whisper.

"Si, he wants to talk with me. He will pay for what he did to you, Elisa. I swear it!"

"No, papa, I do not want you to kill him. I told you..."

"He took everything from you. He will pay if it is the last thing I do!"

"And if he kills you? What will become of me then?" Elisa tried another approach.

"He will not. I am not a foolish man, daughter. I have no intention of facing him down myself."

"Who then? Who here is faster than Johnny?"

"Do not worry yourself with the details, miel. I will take care of everything. I will reap your revenge for you."

"It is NOT my revenge!" she blurted out, standing up with her fists clenched. "I don't want you to kill him! I don't want him dead. It wasn't his fault!"

"It was his fault. He ruined your life and he will pay! Now, go to your room."

She stood there a few seconds longer, trying desperately to think of a way of talking her father out of this. Knowing it was useless, she sighed and went to her room.

******

Johnny sat alone in the saloon, his father, brother and friend sitting at a nearby table. They kept watching him and he found it amusing, if troublesome. Finally, he got up and walked over to their table. Leaning down with his hands on the tabletop, he grinned.

"If you three are trying to be inconspicuous, you're lousy at it. Could you not stare a hole through me?"

He didn't wait for an answer, but turned around and went back to his spot. He sipped his coffee and waited, knowing it was nearly noon. He didn't expect Guiterrez to show up alone or at all. He fully expected one or more of his pistoleros to come gunning for him.

Johnny thought back to that time when he worked for Ramon. He felt bad about what had happened but he certainly didn't intend for the girl to get in the way. What was she, all of seventeen then? God, she was gorgeous. He'd had a hard time staying away from her and she didn't make it any easier for him. She flirted every chance she got and had finally flat out told him she was attracted to him.

He had warned her off, tough as it was, but he had told her in no uncertain terms - pretty girls and gunfighters don't mix. She'd laughed at that, a silky musical sound that he could still hear in his memory. When he'd decided he couldn't work for Guiterrez, she'd made it hard for him to walk away.

She knew, of course, what kind of man her father was. It didn't matter though, he was her father and she loved him. Johnny knew she would stand by him no matter what. Beautiful, yes, but not terribly scrupulous. She couldn't understand why he had to go, why he couldn't work for her father. As much as he'd tried to explain it to her, she defended the man. Johnny figured it was her right.

******

He sighed heavily as he remembered what had happened next. He was brought back to the present by the sound of church bells - noon. He glanced over at his family who were trying hard not to look at him. He coffee was cold and he waved the bartender over.

"Mister, what's goin on?" the barkeep asked as he refilled the cup.

"Nothing to concern yourself with. Just stay out of the way," Johnny replied flatly.

He continued sipping his coffee, even though he didn't really want it, just something to do while he waited. He'd never minded the wait before, it always gave him time to prepare. But then, he usually knew what to prepare for. Guiterrez could surprise him and come in for that talk.

Johnny realized he hadn't spent any time preparing himself today and he sighed. Dropping his eyes, he went inside himself to find what he needed. He knew exactly where to look and how to bring it out. The only thing that surprised him is that it took a few minutes to get to that place. He was both disturbed and pleased by this. He just wished he didn't feel like he was being pulled in two directions. One toward his family, the other toward his past.

Murdoch watched Johnny as inconspicuously as possible, but he could see his son was going through some kind of transformation. It seemed that when the church bell tolled the noon hour, Johnny had begun his search for whatever he used to face a man down in the street. Murdoch would never understand it but it didn't matter anymore. No, it had never mattered, only when he had let it. Now, he understood that his son wanted the same thing for his life as his father did.

Without a hint of a warning, Johnny stood up and walked outside. Scott and Murdoch were stunned by this and stared at each other. Manolito tapped them each on the arm and turned his head to the window. They moved to where they could see outside and watched Johnny standing on the boardwalk, waiting.

******

Guiterrez had his plan in place and now it was time for him to make his appearance. He had every intention of talking to Madrid once last time. It would be both sweet and bitter. He rode into town at a leisurely gait, waving at acquaintances as he passed. He looked as if he hadn't a care in the world.

Johnny watched him approach, thinking how much older he looked now. It had only been three years but the man looked as if he'd aged twenty. He had to smile as Guiterrez took his time. He knew then the man was now quite aware of who was seeking him out.

Guiterrez dismounted in front of the saloon and walked up to face Johnny. "Buenos dias, Senor Madrid."

"Buenos dias," Johnny nodded.

"I understand you want to talk," he said pleasantly.

"Inside okay with you?" Johnny asked.

"Bien," Guiterrez nodded and flourished a hand for Johnny to go first.

Before he could get in the door, Murdoch, Scott and Mano had taken up their previous positions at the table next to his. Johnny walked past and stood beside his chair.

******

"I see you still have some manners, Senor," Guiterrez said as he took the proffered seat.

"You want something to drink?"

"Nada. What is this all about?"

Johnny pulled the paper from his shirt pocket and unfolded it. He smoothed out the wrinkles and handed it over. "A bit of an exaggeration, don't you think? I didn't murder anyone."

Guiterrez smiled as he read the wanted poster. "Didn't you? You took my daughter's life, at least any semblance of the life she should have had!"

"I told you to get her away from here, Don Ramon. You wouldn't listen," Johnny said calmly.

"Hmmph! You try telling Elisa to do anything she does not want to do. She is muy obstinado," he said with some pride.

"Yeah, just like her old man. How is she?"

"That is none of your concern," Guiterrez huffed.

"I'm not a gunfighter anymore, Don Ramon. I walked away from that life."

"Why would I care?"

"I don't guess you would. I can see there's nothing I can say to make you change your mind about that wanted poster either," Johnny sighed.

******

"How much?" Guiterrez asked.

"What?"

"How much are you offering?"

Johnny's eyes narrowed dangerously. "I didn't come here to pay you off, old man. I came here to settle this."

"There are two ways to settle this, Madrid. Pay for it with dinero, or with your life," Guiterrez hissed.

"And Elisa? How does she feel about all this?"

"She told me to be sure and spit in your cold dead face!"

Johnny leaned back in his chair and smiled wanly at the man. "I have a hard time believing that."

"You think she was in love with you? Hah! It was infatuation. One that went away as soon as you destroyed her life!"

"I didn't do anything to her, you did! You did it, Ramon. You were the one who wouldn't stop. You were the one who kept pushing even though you knew you couldn't win. You put her in harm's way!"

"Bastardo! If you had not betrayed me, it would never have happened!"

"Betray you? I was straight with you. I told you I couldn't be involved in hurting those people. I told you if you didn't stop, you would have me for an enemy. But your pride got in your way. Tell me, Don Ramon, where has that pride gotten you? Way I hear it, you ain't the big dog around here anymore." He allowed a slight smile to play at his lips when he finished.

******

Johnny felt the air being knocked out of his lungs at the same time he found himself being propelled back against the wall, chair and all. Guiterrez was on top of him before he knew what was happening. His arms were pinned to his sides and he couldn't protect himself as the man pummeled him with his fist.

It was maybe three seconds before Guiterrez was pulled off Johnny but it felt like an hour to him.

Murdoch had seen the murderous look in the man's eye and had leapt to his feet the split second Guiterrez attacked. He pulled the man off his son and held him until he stopped fighting, which he did not do until he saw Manolito's gun in his face.

Scott was at Johnny's side helping him to his feet as the former gunfighter wiped the blood from his mouth with the back of his hand.

"Only a man who has heard the truth and hates it would lash out like that, Don Ramon," Johnny said breathlessly.

"You are a dead man, Johnny Madrid," Guiterrez spat.

"Let him go, Mano," Johnny ordered.

Manolito placed his gun back in his holster but he did not move.

"I see you have the Cannon crew on your side. How much is John Cannon paying you?" Guiterrez sneered.

"I told you I'm not a gunfighter anymore. Manolito is my amigo and this is my family. So you see, Don Ramon, I don't want no trouble from you. If you can't let go of this, maybe Elisa will listen to reason," Johnny proclaimed.

"Perhaps she will," came the feminine voice from the doorway.

******

All eyes turned to take in the dark beauty standing in the saloon door. Ramon Guiterrez found his mouth hanging open at the sight of his daughter anywhere other than their home.

Johnny felt his heart skip for a moment. He had remembered her, but how could he have been so off on how beautiful she really was? He felt Scott lean into him.

"It had to be about a girl, didn't it, little brother?"

Johnny scowled at him then approached her with trepidation. He didn't know how she felt about him now. "Elisa."

She smiled and every man in the place smiled back. "Hello, Johnny."

"Stay away from her!" Ramon growled.

"Papa, enough! You must stop this now! It is time you knew the truth," she demanded.

"Perhaps the young lady would like to sit down," Murdoch suggested.

"She is not staying!" Ramon huffed.

"Yes, she is and so are you, papa. Please, this must end before another tragedy occurs." Her tone changed in the middle of her speech to a lulling melody she often used to get her way with him. As always, it worked.

"Very well, miel. Sit," he said and took her arm.

******

Johnny sat beside her on one side as her father took the other, glowering at him the entire time. Scott pulled a chair close to his brother while Murdoch positioned himself near Guiterrez. Manolito stood back, grinning at the protective stance his friend's family had taken.

"How are you?" Johnny asked.

"I am well, thank you," she smiled.

His face was sadder than Scott had seen it in a long time.

"Elisa, what has brought you to town?" her father asked.

"You papa. I had to stop you from killing Johnny. What happened to me was not his doing."

"Miel, I know this is difficult, but...."

"No, papa," she cut him off. "You must listen to me. That day when the fighting started, I ran and got a rifle to help you. I .... I had Johnny in my sights but I could not pull the trigger. He did not see me, he was looking elsewhere. That is when the bullet hit me. So you see, I know Johnny did not do this."

"Whether he put the bullet in you or not, he is still the one who caused this!" Guiterrez spewed.

"No, you caused this, papa. It took a long time for me to realize that. It was your fault, all of it. I love you, but you must realize that truth. If not for your greed, none of this would have happened," she said firmly.

******

The room was quiet for a while as everyone listened to this courageous girl. Johnny had to smile at her, she had grown up a lot since those days.

"You felt a need to own all that land at any cost, at the cost of the lives of others. That is no better than the don's in Mexico you claim such hatred for, papa. It was your bullet that ricocheted and struck me," she said, the anger in her voice causing a tremble.

"What are you saying, Elisa?" Guitterez gasped.

"I am telling the truth, finally. I let you believe Johnny did this because I was sure he would never return here. But your actions left him no choice but to return. If you could have only let it go, papa, I would not have to tell you this."

"I do not believe it! You are protecting him. You are still in love with him!"

"No! Stop this now! Please, papa, I didn't want to hurt you but I will not allow you to kill Johnny for something that was your own doing."

"Young lady, you have a lot of courage. We appreciate you speaking up like this," Murdoch interrupted.

"Who are you, please?" she asked.

"I'm Murdoch Lancer, Johnny's father," he said as he extended his hand.

Johnny reached over and placed his hand on Murdoch's extended arm, lowering it to the table. He shook his head and Murdoch looked questioningly at him.

"He was offering his hand, Elisa," Johnny said.

She smiled and put her own hand out as Murdoch accepted it. He suddenly realized what had happened to her. He had been puzzling over this very thing, how Guiterrez could say Johnny ruined her life when she was obviously very much alive. 'My God, she's blind', he thought.

******

The realization struck Scott at the same time. He was stunned as he would never have known from looking at her.

"The bullet lodged near my optic nerve, so the doctors say. There is no chance of recovery," she was explaining.

"There are new discoveries in medicine every day, perhaps someday they will be able to correct the problem. I'm Scott Lancer, by the way, Johnny's brother."

"I never knew you had a family, Johnny," she said.

"Neither did I," he replied softly. Turning his attention to her father, he asked, "what about it, Don Ramon? Is this over or are you still hell bent on ending my life?"

He had been sitting there, barely listening to anything after his daughter's revelations, trying to come to terms with her statements. He began to see things as she had said they were, began to realize she was right and his hatred had become his entire life. "Elisa, I did this? I ruined your life?"

"Oh papa, you did not ruin my life. I am not dead, I am blind. It is time you stopped treating me as an invalid and time I stopped allowing you to. You have protected me for three years, not allowing me to even leave the house. It is time I stood on my own now."

He looked at Johnny and, for the first time, did not see the man who had destroyed his daughter's life.

Guiterrez sighed heavily and shook his head. "It is over. I will make sure those posters are destroyed and I will put out new ones to say the reward is no longer valid."

"Thank you, Don Ramon," Johnny smiled.

Murdoch didn't know why Johnny was thanking this man who had caused him so much trouble, but he said nothing about it.

"Elisa, you should have told me this before. Why did you not say something last night?"

"I'm sorry, papa. I tried to think of some other way, I didn't want to hurt you. When you left for town, I could not stand by and wait for you to make such a mistake."

"I understand, miel."

"Bueno! Now that this has been settled, perhaps we could have a drink," Manolito grinned.

"In a minute, Mano. Elisa, may I walk you to your carriage?" Johnny asked softly.

"Si, gracias, I would like that," she smiled demurely.

******

Johnny stood up and helped her from her chair, glancing at her father who nodded his approval. The man was still trying to deal with what he had done to his own beloved daughter.

Johnny walked Elisa out onto the boardwalk and stopped. "Scott was right, you know. They're always finding new treatments for things. Maybe your father could ask around. There's also some good schools you can go to, places where you can learn to be more independent."

She laughed softly, that laugh he still remembered. "I am not independent enough for you, Johnny? Si, I know of those schools. I suppose I have been a coward, allowing papa to coddle me all this time."

"It can't have been easy. Elisa, I'm so sorry this happened."

"Johnny, please don't. It really wasn't your fault. I admit, I blamed you at first just as papa did, but with time, I remembered exactly what had happened. I remembered the arguments you had with papa, too, about how wrong he was. I would never admit it then, but I knew you were right. You are too honorable to have ever allowed him to hurt innocent people."

"I wish things could have been different. I was a fool, you know. You wanted me and I turned you down," he smiled.

"No, querido, you were right there as well. I was young and foolish and believed papa was perfect. I would have fought you tooth and nail for him. It could not have worked then."

"And now?" he asked softly.

"Now, you have another life, a different and, I hope, better life. You have a familia who obviously love you very much. I am so happy for you, Johnny. You deserve the very best in life."

Johnny could think of nothing to say to this, knowing she was right and that once again, their timing was terrible. He smiled at her, thinking what an incredible woman she had grown to be.

"May I see you?" she asked.

"Yes."

She reached up and touched his face, tracing the lines and curves until she reached his mouth. Her fingers lingered there, tracing his lips lightly. He took her hand and held it tightly, then leaned down and kissed her softly on the lips.

"Still so handsome," she said when they parted.

He laughed softly. "Still incredibly beautiful."

"Perhaps, in another time, in another place..." she trailed off, knowing he understood.

"Si, tal vez," he whispered and took her arm to lead her to her carriage.

******

Don Ramon sat playing with the empty tequila glass. He had downed it quickly as soon as Mano had set it before him. Still in a bit of a daze, he stared at the glass, entranced.

"Are you alright, Senor?" Mano asked.

"Alright? No, I am not alright. All this time, all these years I have hated that man. And now I find out it should have been myself I hated. I should be the one ..... Madre del Dios!" he exclaimed and jumped from his chair.

The Lancers and Mano stared at him as if he'd lost his mind. Ramon headed for the door and was frozen in his tracks by the sound of gunfire outside.

Johnny was just about to help Elisa into the carriage when he felt the burning pain explode in his chest. He was ripped from her grasp as he fell back onto the ground.

She screamed when she felt him pulled away from her and heard the gunfire.

Her driver jumped down and grabbed her, pulling her off the street to safety as she fought the whole time to get back to Johnny.

Scott was the first to see his brother lying in the street and he bolted toward him.

Murdoch yelled out Scott's name but the man did not heed him. He felt the pain in his left shoulder as he was propelled onto his back.

Johnny heard Scott call to him, then heard Murdoch call to Scott with the report of a rifle following. He drew his pistol and tried to sit up but the pain sucked the breath out of him as he did. He managed to raise his head and squeeze off a round before he was forced to lie back down.

Scott was on his back half-raised up as he fired at the sniper. Manolito stepped into the street, drew his gun swiftly and fired, watching as the gunman toppled off the roof of the livery stable. All this took place in the matter of a few seconds.

There was another second of silence as Murdoch stood stunned at the sight of both his sons injured. He didn't know which to go to first. Manolito ran to Johnny and bent over his friend so Murdoch went to Scott.

"Hey, amigo, what did you do?" Mano asked softly.

"Think I messed up, Mano," Johnny whispered and closed his eyes.

"Are you alright, son?" Murdoch asked.

"It's not too bad. How's Johnny?" Scott grunted, watching his brother.

"Senor Lancer, we must get him to the doctor," Manolito called out.

Murdoch helped Scott stand up, then went to his other son, who lay unconscious. He knelt beside him and moved Johnny's shirt back to reveal the bullet wound to his left chest. Murdoch felt his own chest constrict at the sight and he picked Johnny up with Mano's help.

******

Guiterrez tried to get his daughter to go home but she pulled away from him, tears streaming down her face.

"Why? Why, papa?" she wailed.

"Miel, por favor, I had forgotten about the man. I was on my way out to stop him."

"You were going to murder Johnny. That man was hidden somewhere, Johnny never saw him, had no idea he was there!"

"Si, it is true. I am sorry, daughter. I was wrong, terribly wrong. Please, forgive me," he said ashamedly.

"It is not I who's forgiveness you should be asking, it is Johnny. If he survives! Jose, take me to the doctor's office," she ordered her driver.

The man took her arm, guiding her away as her father stood in the street with his head hung.

Elisa entered the front room of the doctor's office and was met by Manolito.

"You should not be here, Senorita."

"How is he?" she asked, ignoring the comment.

"The doctor is with him now as is his family. It is too soon to say," Mano reported.

"I will stay until I know he will be alright," she said with a tone that was inarguable.

******

"Doctor?" Murdoch asked.

"I don't know yet. It's a bad wound, I'll have to operate. Please wait out front. You're only in the way here," Dr. Sawyer said.

"We want to help," Scott said.

"I have help. My wife is in the back preparing what I need already. Looks like you need some looking after as well, young man."

"It's not bad," Scott mumbled.

"Maybe you could clean that up for him while I look after this one," the doctor said to Murdoch.

Murdoch nodded and motioned Scott out of the room.

"Where is your father, Elisa?" Murdoch asked, not too kindly.

"I left him in the street," she replied with anger.

"Manolito, will you get the deputy?" Murdoch asked.

"Si," Mano said and headed out the door.

"I'm sorry, young lady, but...."

"No need, Senor," she cut him off. "It is time for my father to pay for his sins. He told me he had forgotten the man was out there and was coming to stop him but that is no excuse."

"He was on his way out the door when we heard the gunshot," Scott acknowledged. He may have been more understanding about the situation if his brother were not lying in the next room. As it was, he wanted justice for Johnny and he couldn't be completely concerned about Elisa's feelings, no matter how Johnny might feel about her.

Murdoch sat Scott down, then retrieved some supplies from the doctor's wife and set about tending his son's arm. He removed the shirt gingerly to find a chunk of Scott's left upper arm missing. "This is going to sting, son."

"I know, just do what you have to," Scott said, setting his jaw against the pain about to come.

Manolito returned within twenty minutes and informed them Guiterrez had turned himself in to the deputy and was now behind bars.

"Forgive me, Senorita, but I asked your man to go to the High Chaparral. My sister will want to know, she is good friends with Johnny."

"Of course," she said as she dried her eyes once more.

With nothing more to be done at the moment, they all settled themselves in the waiting room. It would be a long night.

******

Four hours passed without a word from the inner room of the doctor's office. Scott alternated between pacing and sitting, his left arm now in a sling. Murdoch sat in a wooden chair looking defeated. No one spoke much and if they did it was only for necessity's sake.

Scott was sure he would go out of his mind if they didn't hear something soon. He replayed the events of the day in his mind, trying to figure out just what it was his brother felt for this woman and she for him. He had always wanted to know more about Johnny's past, some thing that would help him understand his brother. Tempestuous one moment, mischievious the next and underneath it all, Johnny held secrets. Secrets that Scott knew he had no right to ask about but wanted desperately to know.

Somewhere underneath that tough exterior lay the soul of a romantic, of that Scott was quite sure. He had seen the evidence of it in the way Johnny was always more concerned about other's plight than his own. How he was always so willing to help, literally giving the shirt off his back to help another. How he marveled at the simplest things in life, in nature and it's beauty. Selfless was the word that jumped into his mind.

Scott sighed audibly though no one noticed. There had been hundreds of sighs in this room today, everyone deep in their own thoughts. Scott looked at his father and wondered what Murdoch was thinking about. Was he pondering the same questions as Scott about his brother? Sadly, he had to admit he didn't have a clue, usually didn't know what Murdoch thought. He looked at Manolito, a man who always seemed to be smiling, like Johnny, but he wasn't smiling now. He stood leaning against the wall with his head down, seemingly a million miles away.

******

The front door opened and a woman walked in. Murdoch looked up and found he couldn't breathe. He stared at her unabashedly as she walked over to Manolito. They spoke quietly together for a moment, then she nodded her head and turned to face the room. She was beautiful and very sad.

"Senors, this is my sister, Victoria Cannon," Manolito said by way of introduction.

"Scott Lancer and this is my father, Murdoch," Scott said, standing and shaking hands gently with the lady.

"It is a pleasure to meet you both. I only wish the circumstances were different," she said softly. She had not noticed that Murdoch hadn't moved yet, or spoken.

Scott noticed however and he gave his father a perplexed look that Murdoch didn't see. "Murdoch?" he called firmly.

Shaken out of his daze, Murdoch stood and greeted the woman as cordially as he could manage. "Forgive me, you look like someone I used to know," he explained.

"No apology needed, Senor. I am sure you are quite out of sorts," she smiled, then turned her attention to Elisa. Walking over and sitting beside the young woman, Victoria took her hand. "How are you?"

She smiled but it wasn't very convincing. "It has been difficult." She started to say more, then stopped when she heard footsteps approaching from the other room.

Everyone converged on the doctor at once as he wiped the perspiration from his face.

******

"It was a difficult surgery. The bullet lodged close to the heart but I was able to get it out and repair some of the damage to the muscles. His heart wasn't damaged, he is a very lucky young man," he reported.

Murdoch closed his eyes for a brief prayer then focused again on the doctor. "How long will it take him to recover?"

"That's difficult to say, Mr. Lancer. Everyone heals at different rates but he's young and otherwise healthy. Barring infection, he should come along nicely in a couple of weeks."

"When will he be able to travel, Dr. Sawyer?" Victoria asked.

"Travel? Mrs. Cannon, you can't be serious," the doctor exclaimed.

"I am quite serious, doctor. Johnny will come to the High Chaparral to recover. When will that be possible?" she reiterated.

"Oh, well, that's not too far away. Still, it will be several days before he can handle being moved."

"Very well. We will prepare for his arrival and you will let us know when he is able to make the trip," she said with authority.

"Senora Cannon, we appreciate your offer but we don't want to put you and your family out," Murdoch spoke up.

"Senor, Johnny is a dear friend of both my brother and myself. I will not hear of him recovering in some small hotel room with no amenities. No, you will all come to the rancho. It will be much more comfortable for all of you, especially Johnny. Don't you agree?"

"Well, yes, it would be better for Johnny," Murdoch fumbled.

"Bueno. It is settled then. Manolito, you will take care of the arrangements when it is time? I will see you all at the rancho," she smiled and left the doctor's office.

******

Scott and Murdoch were stunned by the whirlwind that just left the room. Manolito began to chuckle.

"My sister has that affect on everyone. I should warn you, it will do no good to argue with her. Once her mind is made up, it is done," he grinned.

"She certainly is a force of nature," Scott agreed.

"May we see Johnny?" Murdoch asked.

"Of course. He'll sleep for several hours yet, but someone should be with him at all times," the doctor instructed.

Murdoch nodded and headed for the inner room. He sat in a chair next to the table where Johnny lay. His heart sank as he noted the pallor of his son's face, the dark circles already starting to form, the very stillness of his energetic boy. He watched the white bandages, in such stark contrast to the tanned chest, as they slowly rose and fell.

He laid his hand on Johnny's shoulder. "Son? Can you hear me? I guess you can't just now, but don't worry you're going to be just fine. The doctor did a good job and we'll have you home before you know it."

Scott watched this from behind his father and smiled at the tenderness Murdoch displayed so easily. He stepped up and placed a gentle hand on Murdoch's shoulder.

"He's tough, sir. He'll make it through this."

"I know he is, son. I just wonder how much more he can take."

******

Murdoch insisted on staying with Johnny through the night. No amount of arguing from Scott could budge him and the younger man had to wonder why. Certainly Murdoch was worried but the doctor said Johnny was doing well and he had to know Scott would come for him if anything went wrong. Murdoch reminded his son he had been injured as well and needed the rest. Scott had finally acquiesced to his father and gone back to the hotel room.

Murdoch sat and waited for Johnny to awaken. He would feel his son's forehead from time to time to ensure there was no fever. Satisfied, he'd lean back in his chair and resume his thoughts. Those thoughts were what was disturbing him so much and why he felt the need to be there when Johnny awakened.

He was still reeling from the encounter with Victoria Cannon. He remembered Manolito teasing Johnny and Johnny's reply that he'd never had those kind of feelings for the woman. Now Murdoch knew why, the resemblance was remarkable.

Sighing heavily, he leaned forward to check for fever once more only to be stopped cold by blue eyes watching him intensely.

******

"How do you feel, son?"

"Hurts."

"I know. The doctor said you were going to be fine, it's just going to take some time," he smiled and felt Johnny's forehead. "No fever."

"Scott?"

"He's alright, son, it was just a graze."

"Ramon?"

"Turned himself into the deputy."

"Elisa?"

"She went home after she was sure you'd be okay. She's understandably upset but she was very angry with her father. How do you feel about her?"

Johnny sighed and closed his eyes briefly. "I don't know. I thought ... back then it was impossible, now it's still impossible."

"Is it, John? I'm sorry, son. This can wait until you're stronger. I, uh, I met Victoria," he said, waiting for a response. The response he got nearly broke his heart as Johnny looked into his eyes.

"I didn't think you'd meet her. I would have warned you," he sighed.

"It's a remarkable likeness," Murdoch said in a whisper. "She wants to take you to High Chaparral to recuperate. Evidently, there is no arguing with her."

Johnny smiled slightly at this. "No, there isn't, but I can't do that. It's not fair to you."

"Johnny, the only thing that's important right now is to get you better. You'll be much more comfortable there and Scott and I can take better care of you. Don't worry about me, I'm fine."

Johnny didn't believe it for a second, he'd been watching his father for a while before Murdoch realized he was awake. He had seen the pain, the anguish in his father's features. He knew exactly why it was there even before Murdoch confirmed he had seen Victoria.

He wanted to protest but his eyes were so heavy and his chest burned like fire. He winced when he tried to take a deep breath and closed his eyes against the thoughts and feelings that consumed him. Sleep was what he wanted, escape from all that had happened and all that was yet to happen.

******

Victoria entered her home to fnd her husband and brother-in-law deep in conversation. They stopped as soon as they saw her and both men rose to their feet.

"How's he doin, Victoria?" Buck asked.

"The doctor said he is very lucky and with time and care he will recover. I have invited the Lancers here when Johnny is well enough to be moved from the doctor's office," she reported.

"Here?!" John bellowed.

"Yes, husband, here. Is there a problem?"

"Victoria, Buck has been filling me in on this whole mess. I'm not sure I want Johnny Madrid in my home."

"I see. Then I will gather some things and move to the hotel in Tucson so I can take care of him. Until he has fully recovered, that is where you will find me," she said as she jutted out her chin.

"Now just a minute," John started.

"No. Johnny is an old and dear friend of mine and Manolito. He is no longer a gunfighter but even if he were, I would expect my husband to respect my feelings. I would expect you to welcome my friend into our home."

"What kind of trouble is he bringing with him?" John asked.

"There is no more trouble. Ramon Guiterrez is in jail and his feud with Johnny is over." She waited for him to reply. When he did not, she continued. "John, would you turn away an injured man?"

Big John Cannon sighed and knew he'd been licked. He smiled wanly at his wife. "No, of course not. Alright, he can stay. I sent Blue up to the north line border with a crew this morning so there'll be plenty of room."

Victoria smiled broadly. "Oh, thank you, husband. I knew you would understand." With that she flew up the stairs to prepare for her guests.

Buck chuckled then put his gloved fist in his mouth to stifle the sound. "Well, John, I guess yore a right sweet fella, allowin yore wife her company."

He got a glower for his trouble and took off out the front door while he still could.

******

Three days passed and Dr. Sawyer felt Johnny was well enough to handle the trip to High Chaparral. Manolito secured a wagon and he and Murdoch carried Johnny out and laid him down as gently as possible.

"You okay?" Scott asked.

"Dandy," Johnny grimaced.

"Maybe this will cheer you up," Scott smiled as he disappeared from view for a second and returned with Barranca, whom he tied to the back of the wagon.

Johnny smiled when he saw the palomino. "Hey boy! Did you think I'd forgotten about you?"

Barranca bucked his head twice and nickered and Johnny laughed for a second before the pain overtook his joy. He closed his eyes tight and laid his head back while he waited for the burning to subside.

Murdoch climbed into the back of the wagon and sat beside Johnny. "You okay, son?"

"Yeah, it's better now. Guess that'll teach me to laugh at Barranca's jokes," he grinned.

"Are we ready?" Mano asked. Getting nods all around, he flicked the reins and the wagon jolted forward.

Scott followed alongside, leading Murdoch's bay. He kept himself positioned beside the wagon bed so he could watch his brother for any signs the trip was getting to be too much.

"Do you want to lay on me, Johnny? It might cut down on all the jostling about," Murdoch asked.

"Yeah, that's probably a good idea."

Murdoch lifted him gently and laid him across his own chest, positioning them both into a more comfortable spot. "Better?"

"Yeah, much, thanks," Johnny said softly.

Scott smiled and moved his horse up beside Manolito.

******

The guard on the roof spotted the wagon half a mile away and notified Victoria as instructed. She had made her husband stay home today so he could greet their guest with her. He had done so, albeit begrudgingly, and frowned deeply at her enthusiasm.

Manolito pulled to a stop and greeted them both as he jumped down. Victoria went immediately to the back of the wagon even as Murdoch was making his way out.

"How is he?" she asked.

"Worn out. He's asleep," he smiled.

"Let's get him out of the sun. Everything is ready. I will make introductions once Johnny is settled," she fairly ordered.

Once they had gotten Johnny safely in bed and she made sure he was comfortable, Victoria motioned the men out of the room and downstairs. Johnny had not stirred during the entire move.

"This is my husband, John Cannon and you already know Buck," she said.

"Mr. Lancer," John greeted with a handshake.

"Murdoch, please. This is my son, Scott."

Once the introductions were over there was an awkward moment until Victoria settled them all down for lemonade.

"I'm sorry about your boy," John said.

"Thank you. You have a nice place here," Murdoch replied.

"We like it. I've heard of your spread. California, right?"

"That's right."

"Look, I think you can guess I'm not crazy about this. I mean having a gunfighter in my house isn't my idea of...."

"Mr. Cannon, if you don't want us here, just say so. But I will not have my brother moved all over the Arizona territory because of his past, and it is the past," Scott interrupted.

******

"I just want to be sure there won't be any trouble," John grumbled.

"There will not be, Big John. I told you, it is over. Ramon Guiterrez is in jail. He had called a truce with Johnny but had not had the opportunity to tell his men. I explained this to you, yes?" Mano said.

"Yes, Mano, you explained it."

"And my good friend, Buck, what did he explain?" Mano asked suspiciously.

"It's not like I haven't heard of Johnny Madrid, Manolito," John growled.

"My brother's name is Johnny Lancer, Mr. Cannon," Scott said firmly, his jaw clenched tight.

"Johnny was right. We shouldn't have come here. If you don't mind us staying the night, we'll leave first thing in the morning. I don't want to put my son through that trip again today," Murdoch intervened.

"Leave? Who is leaving?" Victoria asked as she re-entered the room.

"We are, Senora Cannon, in the morning. Perhaps you should have told us your husband had misgivings about this. It could have saved Johnny a lot of wear and tear," Murdoch said as he stood to face her.

"John Cannon!"

"Now wait just a minute, everybody. I didn't say I wanted you to leave. I said I was concerned. Maybe we should just start this all over again. Please, Mr. Lancer, sit down. I'm sure we can discuss this like gentlemen," John said.

******

Johnny awoke feeling befuddled. His mind would not focus and neither would his eyes. He closed them and concentrated hard until he remembered what had happened and where he was. High Chaparral. He'd rather be in the desert with a rattlesnake for a nurse than to be here.

He looked around the room, noting he was alone. He frowned at this, wondering where his family was. Probably having a nice chat with Mr. John Cannon, no doubt. Bet he's not too happy with Victoria right now. Well, he had better be treating her well, that's all there is to that!

He tried to sit up, his breath catching in his throat as the white hot pain seared through his chest. He began to wonder if that doctor really had taken the bullet out. Sure didn't feel like it. Easing himself back down, he sighed and once more, the pain shot through him. Dammit, can't I even breathe?

He forced himself to become calm, going inside to a place he used many times as a child. When he was younger, he called it his happy place. A place where there was no hunger, no fear, no anger, no pain. A special and beautiful place that didn't exist on earth. At least, he had thought that up until he had seen Lancer. Then he knew, this was the happy place he had pictured in his mind.

Not long ago he had found an area of the ranch that reminded him of the place in his head. He had been stunned by how close his thoughts were of that very meadow. At that time, he'd thought of asking Murdoch if he'd ever been there as a child, but then chastised himself for it. Ridiculous to think he would conjur up a place from his long ago past, a past he couldn't remember.

******

The door opened and she was there, standing in the glow of the lamplight, and his heart began to beat faster.

"Victoria," he whispered.

"Johnny, it is so good to see you again," she smiled as she neared him.

As always, his first instinct was to back away but he stopped himself, realizing there was no place to back away to. He hid it from her, smiling as he watched her move.

"How are you feeling?"

"Not too bad, a little sore. Um, where's Murdoch?"

"He is downstairs talking with my husband."

Johnny frowned. "Does he treat you well?"

"John? He is wonderful to me, Johnny."

"You love him," he stated.

"Si, very much."

Johnny relaxed then, knowing she was happy and well was a great load off his mind.

"Hey, you're awake," Scott grinned as he entered the room.

Johnny smiled in relief at seeing his brother. "Hey, Boston. Come to keep me company?"

"I have, if Mrs. Cannon will allow it," he said surreptitiously.

"Of course, as long as you do not tire him too much," she smiled.

"How's your arm?" Johnny asked.

Scott smiled, there it was again, that concern for others over himself. "It's fine, Johnny, just a graze. I really don't need this sling but it makes Murdoch happy."

******

Once alone with his brother, Johnny visibly relaxed. Scott noticed this and frowned.

"May I ask you something?"

"Sure, Boston."

"Well, Victoria is an old friend of yours. Why are you so .... tense around her?"

Johnny dropped his eyes and played with the hem of the bedsheet. "Murdoch didn't say anything?"

"About what?"

"She looks like my mother. I mean, she really looks like my mother, Scott. It's kinda spooky sometimes. A cetain way she moves or something she says, I swear it makes me edgy."

Scott's face took on that 'oh now I understand' look and he nodded. "That's why Murdoch acted so strangely when he met her. They look that much alike?"

"Yeah. I love Victoria, she is the sweetest, kindest woman I've ever met. It's just so hard to be around her sometimes."

"This has to be tough on both of you. Does Mano know?"

"No, I never told him. I didn't want to make him uncomfortable or her. She doesn't know either and I'd just as soon it stay that way."

"Okay, if that's what you want. Now, how about some water and then some sleep," Scott smiled.

"Yes, sir."

******

As the next few days passed, the Lancers and Cannons put aside the initial uneasiness and began getting to know each other. Manolito spent most of his time with Johnny, giving Murdoch and Scott much needed breaks. During this time, they would ride out with John Cannon as he showed them the ranch. He explained the hardships of taming this territory and the problems there had been with Cochise and his braves.

"We're hoping the hard times are behind us now as far as Cochise goes," he was saying.

"You have a wonderful place here, John. You mentioned a son?" Murdoch inquired.

"Yes, Blue. Well, his name is William but everyone calls him Blue. He's out with the men at the north border line right now. He probably won't get back before you leave."

"I'm sorry we'll miss him," Murdoch smiled.

Cannon pulled his steed to a stop, causing Scott and Murdoch to follow suit. "Look, I just wanted to say, well, I'm sorry we got off to such a rocky start."

"I'm sorry, as well, Mr. Cannon. I'm afraid I wasn't very polite," Scott said.

"I can't blame you for taking up for your brother. I've always wished Blue had a brother or a sister for that matter. From what you've told me, sounds like you two have made up for a lot of lost time."

"We're still making up for it," Scott smiled.

Murdoch felt uncomfortable with this subject as always and strove to find a way to change the course of the conversation. Something had been nagging at him for days anyway.

"Well, maybe we should head back. I want to check on Johnny," he said.

******

Murdoch heard laughter coming from Johnny's room and he smiled. Manolito was good for Johnny even if some of the stories he'd overheard were a little, well, risque. Some, in fact, had made even he blush. Hearing about his son's romantic adventures was not exactly the type of bonding he'd ever had in mind.

He knocked on the open door to announce himself.

"Ah, Senor Lancer, I was just reminding Johnny of the time ...."

"Mano! I don't think my father wants to hear about that," Johnny grinned.

Laughing, Manolito agreed," si, perhaps not. Ah, but I know Scott would like to hear."

Johnny smacked him on the arm and shooed him from the room. Murdoch closed the door behind him which caused the smile to disappear from Johnny's face.

"What's wrong?"

"Wrong? Nothing, son, I just wanted to talk to you. You're feeling better?"

"Yeah, Mano's good medicine," he smiled.

Murdoch returned the smile, even chuckled a little. "Yes, I've heard some of the stories."

Turning serious, he sat on the bed next to his son. "I wanted to talk to you about Elisa."

"What about her?" Johnny asked.

"Well, you said something before about the time not being right. What did you mean?"

Johnny sighed and dropped his eyes. "Back then she was too young and she couldn't see her father like everyone else saw him. Now, she's grown up and she's learned some things, but she's still loyal to him."

"Is she? I wonder about that. She was very angry with him," Murdoch said.

"I'm sure she was, but that was a week ago. I don't know, Murdoch. She's hard to figure out," Johnny smiled wanly.

Murdoch chuckled at this. "Most women are, son."

******

Murdoch decided his son needed to know exactly how Elisa felt. He asked Manolito to ride with him to the Guiterrez ranch. Mano only grinned and agreed, suspecting what the man was up to.

As they approached the entrance to the house, Manolito couldn't help but notice the difference in the place. The once busy and noisy rancho seemed too quiet, almost desolate.

A woman answered the door and led them into the living room, then excused herself to find Elisa.

"It's too quiet here," Murdoch noted.

"I was thinking the very same thing, Senor. I do not think I like this."

"Senor Lancer, Manolito?" Elisa called as she entered the room.

"Hello, Senorita. How are you," Murdoch smiled and took the proffered hand.

"I am well considering," she smiled a bit grimly.

"How is your father?" Mano asked.

"It is kind of you to inquire but I am sure you could care less," she replied flatly. "Please, sit."

The two men exchanged wary looks but took a seat. "We just came by to see if you needed anything," Murdoch said.

"Thank you, but no. My tio is due any day now. He will handle my father's affairs."

"I did not know your father had a brother," Mano said.

"They have not seen each other for many years but when family is in need, one comes to help," she replied.

"Forgive me, young lady, but you seem to be angry," Murdoch interjected.

******

She was silent for a moment before speaking in a reserved tone. "Much has happened, Senor. My father is in jail and will most likely be there for the rest of his life. This rancho will not run itself which leaves me in charge of something I know nothing about, at least until my tio arrives. Many of the men have left already and so much work is going undone."

"High Chaparral would be happy to assist you in any way, Senorita," Mano offered.

"I appreciate that, Senor, but my father would probably not approve."

"Have you talked with him?" Murdoch asked.

"I have. He is in low spirits. He feels very bad for what happened. He wanted to tell Johnny ...." she trailed off then, her emotions becoming more powerful than she had wanted.

Murdoch went to sit beside her and took her hand. "Maybe you should start being honest with us and yourself, Elisa."

She sighed and sniffled, then nodded her head. "Everyone here looks to me for answers, for guidance. I do not know what is right. I do not know which fences should be mended and which cattle should be moved. It is too much, I ...." she broke into tears.

Murdoch put an arm around her small shoulders and shushed her. "Let us help you until your uncle arrives."

She only nodded her consent and Manolito stood up and left the room quietly.

"Manolito will take care of things for you. Now, tell me how you are doing, other than the ranch," Murdoch said gently.

She straightened her shoulders and smiled slightly. "Please forgive me, I was trying to be strong. What I really want to know, Mr. Lancer, is how Johnny is doing."

"He's getting better everyday. I'm sure he'd love to see you."

"I have wanted to come but I wasn't sure he would want to see me. I thought he might be angry with me."

"Nonsense. Johnny knows you had nothing to do with what happened. He also knows your father was trying to stop it from happening. Elisa, come with me now to see him. I have a buggy right outside."

*****

Scott helped his brother sit in the chair next to the window. From here he could see Barranca in the corral and he smiled at the palomino. Scott set up the checker board and they began a contest.

Half an hour later, they were still battling it out when the door opened.

"Johnny, you have a visitor," Murdoch said, then turned his back.

Scott and Johnny stood up when Elisa entered the room. Scott cleared his throat and smiled. "I guess we'll finish this later, brother," he winked.

Stopping beside her, Scott greeted the young woman then left with his father.

Johnny moved over and took her hand, guiding her to the chair Scott had vacated. "How are you?"

"It has been difficult, Johnny. Trying to run the ranch has been hard but my tio will be here soon and Manolito is helping now."

"How is your father?"

"Sad and remorseful. I have never heard such despair in his voice," she said with a tremble.

"I've been thinking about him. I don't want him to go to jail, Elisa. What happened was just bad timing. Scott told me he was trying to stop it."

She smiled sadly at him then. "It seems everything between us is bad timing."

Johnny's face fell and he nodded. "I guess so," he whispered.

"I am sorry, Johnny."

"For what? You didn't do anything wrong. I guess it just wasn't meant to be."

She heard the sadness in his voice, the regret, and she reached out to touch his face. "Do you remember when you left the rancho three years ago? I tried to kiss you but you wouldn't let me. You've only kissed me once since."

He smiled and leaned over, kissing her softly on the lips. She placed her hands on the back of his neck and pulled him closer until they were passionately embroiled.

When they finally pulled apart, they were both a bit breathless. "If that is what it is like to be kissed by you, I truly am a fool," she said.

Johnny leaned over until their foreheads touched. "I'm the fool, like I told you that day. I shouldn't have let you go then and now it seems I can't have you."

******

"Oh Johnny, I want to be with you. It's just...."

"I know, miel. Bad timing," he smiled a little.

She sighed heavily and touched his face, tracing it again as she had the day on the boardwalk. "I love you," she whispered.

"I love you, too."

"Is there no way for us to be together?" she asked.

"Yes, Elisa. Come home with me, to Lancer."

"I can't."

Johnny closed his eyes for a moment. "Why?"

"My father needs me, Johnny."

"Elisa, you're father knows you are a grown woman. He had to know someday you would want to marry. Let me talk to him."

"I'm afraid," she whispered.

"Of what?"

"Of giving myself to you, of being away from my home, of starting a new life, so many things."

"Don't be afraid, miel. I'll be with you every step of the way. It's worth the fear to have what you want, I know that better than anyone."

She closed her eyes and dropped her head.

"Do you love me?" Johnny asked.

"Of course I do."

"Then marry me."

******

Johnny watched as she drove away with one of the ranch hands. He swallowed hard as he thought about her answer to him. He wrestled with the emotions inside himself as he tried to understand, to empathize.

Scott watched his brother's tormented face as Johnny lost himself in his thoughts. He wanted more than anything to comfort his brother, but in order to do that, he needed to know what was wrong.

"Johnny?" he called out softly.

"Leave me alone, Scott," the answer came in a whisper.

"What happened?"

"She said no."

Scott walked over and laid a hand on his brother's shoulder. "I'm sorry."

Johnny took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. "Guess I'm not a very good catch, huh?" he said, trying to laugh it off.

"That won't work, brother. I know you're hurting. Talk to me, Johnny."

"Nothin to talk about, Boston. Just bad luck, I guess. I just want to go home."

Murdoch was standing outside the door and had heard his son. His heart ached for Johnny and he wished he'd never brought the girl here to begin with. He'd been so sure she was in love with his son. He stepped into the room.

"I'll talk to the doctor about when we can leave. I'm sorry about Elisa, son."

Johnny looked up at his father and tried to smile. "I don't want Don Ramon to go to prison, Murdoch. Can you fix that for me?"

"Are you sure, Johnny?" Scott asked.

"I'm sure. She couldn't take that."

"I'll talk with John, he can probably help us with that," Murdoch answered and left the brothers alone.

"Want to finish our game?" Scott smiled.

"Not right now. I really do want to be alone for awhile, Scott."

"Sure, just ..... well, I'm here, Johnny," Scott said and squeezed his brother's shoulder.

******

He sat in the chair staring blankly out the window, his eyes distant and haunted. He thought back to when he'd first met her, how he'd felt when he'd laid eyes on her then. She was incredible, wild and free. He'd thought then she was unbreakable like a truly wild horse.

Johnny sighed and looked down at his bandaged chest. He played with the edges for a minute, then began ripping the cloth away. It bound him tightly and he felt too constrained, too closed in on the whole.

He felt desperate to get out of the house, to be outside in the sun. He looked longingly at Barranca who seemed to be feeling the same as he circled the corral. He walked over to the mirror and looked at the wound. It was healing well and the stitches were ready to come out, something he was well experienced with.

He took a deep breath and felt only a tug of soreness. Nodding his head, he made his decision. He tucked in his shirt and donned his gunbelt, then walked out the door and down the stairs.

Setting his hat firmly on his head, Johnny strode outside as if it were the most natural thing in the world. He walked to the corral and Barranca immediately came to him.

Stroking the horse's nose and neck, Johnny spoke softly. "Hey, I sure did miss you. Yeah, you're a good fella, aren't ya?"

"Johnny!"

He tensed but didn't turn around at the sound of his father's voice, only kept stroking the palomino.

******

"What are you doing?" Murdoch demanded.

"Just visiting Barranca," he said calmly.

"I said I would ask the doctor about leaving, Johnny. Can't you wait even that long?"

Johnny sighed and turned to his father. "I had to get out of the house for a while. I feel okay."

Murdoch eyed him suspiciously then looked away. "I guess a little sunshine never hurt anyone. You weren't thinking about taking that horse for a ride, were you?"

Johnny's lips tugged a little but he remained serious. "Of course not. What did you think, I was stubborn or something?"

"No, not you, son. I know you would never do anything you shouldn't do," Murdoch said, playing the game as well.

"It's funny how people are so different. I mean, you can be raised in the finest house with everything you could ever want and not be able to tear yourself away from that security. Then somebody else who grew up the same can just up and walk away, start a brand new life that's totally different from anything they ever knew."

Murdoch thought about this for a minute before responding. "I guess it's something that's inborn, son. Either you can face the fear of the unknown and take that chance or you can't. Scott did that, he walked away from everything familiar and comfortable to start all over. Elisa wasn't able to. I'm not sure it really has anything to do with how well off you are, though."

"Maybe not. Just seems it's easier to walk away from nothing than everything. I guess I've always admired that about Scott."

"Don't worry, I won't tell him."

Johnny laughed softly. "Thanks."

******

"I talked to John about Don Ramon. He thinks you're crazy but he said he'd talk to the deputy and the judge. He thinks he can get him released," Murdoch said.

Johnny nodded. "That's good."

"I have to wonder if she wouldn't be better off being forced to face her life on her own."

"She's not ready, Murdoch. He always did spoil her rotten, maybe she'll never leave him."

"I'm sorry, son. I know you have deep feelings for the girl."

"That why you brought her here?" Johnny asked.

Murdoch dropped his head. "I guess I'm not a very good matchmaker."

"I guess not. I know why you did it, just don't do it again, okay?"

"Are you alright?" Murdoch asked.

"No, but I guess I will be," Johnny mumbled.

"Maybe it's time to go back inside now. Victoria will be angry with you."

Johnny smiled at that. "Yeah, well it won't be the first time and, believe me, you don't want to see it."

******

Dr. Sawyer came the next day and, after lecturing his patient for removing his bandages, he took the stitches out and proclaimed Johnny could travel.

It didn't take long for Johnny to be chomping at the bit to get going but Murdoch managed to get him to agree to wait for morning. He joined the Cannon's and his family for supper that night.

"We will be sorry to see you all leave," Victoria said.

"We appreciate everything you've done, Victoria," Murdoch smiled.

"Must you leave so soon? I have not had a chance to get my two amigos together for a night on the town," Mano grinned.

"Precisely why we are leaving, Manolito," Murdoch grumbled, then smiled.

"Yes, after all those stories I've heard, I'm not sure I could keep up with the two of you," Scott said.

"Don't believe everything you hear, brother," Johnny smiled.

"Are you saying I .... embellished my accounts, amigo?" Manolito asked with a raised brow.

"Not at all, Mano. I am saying some of that stuff you told was out and out lies," Johnny replied deadpan.

"Which ones?" Scott asked.

"I don't think that is an appropriate subject for the dinner table, boys," Murdoch warned with a glance toward Victoria.

******

"I couldn't agree more," Big John stated.

"What a surprise," Johnny smirked.

"And what is that supposed to mean?"

"Well, Murdoch, if there were ever two men alike, it's you two," he said, waving his fork between the two ranchers.

"Oh? How's that, Johnny?" John asked.

Scott and Johnny both tried to curb their laughter but Manolito made no such effort. "Ah let me see, you are both stubborn, used to getting your own way, grumpy..."

"Now see here, Mano," John grumbled.

"Case closed," Scott chuckled.

The three younger men broke out laughing as the two elders looked at each other in dismay.

"I don't know what they're talking about, do you?" John asked.

"Not a clue, unless it's our taste in women," Murdoch said, then wished he could bite his tongue out.

Johnny glared at his father as the rest looked quizzically at him.

******

"What does that mean?" Scott asked.

"Nothing, I ... nothing at all," Murdoch fumbled.

"It had to mean something, Murdoch," Scott pressed.

Murdoch shot him a look but Scott ignored it and waited for an answer.

"I would like to know as well," Victoria said.

Murdoch fidgeted in his chair and glanced at Johnny who was fuming by this time. "It's just that, well, you remember I told you when we met that you reminded me of someone..."

"Si, I remember."

"Well, that's all I meant. You look like my former wife," Murdoch said and prayed no one would push the subject. That prayer was not answered in the positive.

"Really? Johnny, I look like your mother?" she asked.

"A little," Johnny mumbled, dropping his eyes.

"Ah, I understand now," Mano said. "Why Johnny never seemed interested in my sister. I often teased him about it then but he would simply say she was like a sister to him."

"Manolito, there are many reasons a man would not be attracted to a woman," Victoria blushed.

"In your case, only if he were blind, my dear," John smiled.

She smiled warmly at him.

"Excuse me," Johnny said and abruptly left the table.

******

"I have upset him," Mano said.

"It's my fault. I shouldn't have said anything," Murdoch replied.

"Is the resemblance really that remarkable?" Scott asked.

Murdoch looked at Victoria for a second. "Yes, it is. Especially the eyes."

"I'll go talk to him," Scott said as he started to get up.

"No, son, let me," Murdoch intervened and left the table.

The door was open and the bedroom empty when Murdoch arrived. He frowned and headed toward the back of the hall where he found a door leading outside. Sighing he headed out and toward the barn.

Johnny was grooming Barranca and talking to a hand in Spanish when Murdoch entered. The hand looked up and immediately left the two men alone.

"I'm sorry, son. Seems I can't do anything right lately."

"Forget it," Johnny said sharply.

"No, I can't, but is it really that big a deal that she knows?"

Johnny stopped currying his horse and turned to face his father. "No, Murdoch, it's no big deal at all. Just like being around her is no big deal. It's not enough that she looks like her but she has to be so damned completely opposite in personality," he shot sarcastically.

Murdoch frowned at the vehemence he heard in Johnny's voice. "Is she?"

"You can't tell? Victoria is so sweet and kind and caring. She would help anyone without a second thought. Can you say the same about my mother?"

******

Murdoch raised his eyebrows at that question. "The woman I remember was caring and loving."

"Guess she must have traded me off then, cause that's not the way I remember her," Johnny snorted.

"How do you remember her?"

Johnny turned back to his horse and scratched the palomino's ears. "Selfish," he replied curtly.

"What did she do to you, son?"

"Nothing, not a damned thing! To me, for me, about me. Nothing!" He sucked in a breath and tried to calm himself. "I used to think it was all your fault. I blamed you for the way she acted. I figured you'd hurt her so bad she just couldn't help it. But now, well now I know the truth, don't I?"

Barranca became skiddish when Johnny's tone rose and he quickly calmed the palomino.

"Tell me about it, Johnny," Murdoch said, trying desperately to keep his voice even.

"Tell you what? That she pretty much ignored me? That she couldn't be bothered? Do you know where I was when she died? I was working. Ten years old and working so I could have something to eat that night. She sure as hell wasn't worried about whether I did or not. I was out at a farm, stayed there for a couple of days to earn a few pecos. When I got back, the priest told me she'd died and they'd buried her. He showed me the grave and you know what? I didn't feel anything. No, that's not true, I felt relieved. Relieved that my mother was dead and I didn't have to worry about feeding her, too."

******

"Did she ever show you any love?" Murdoch asked, hoping for some reprieve for his son from this torment.

"I don't remember. All I remember is she was usually drunk and in bed with some piece of trash."

"Johnny."

"What, Murdoch? She was a whore! I know you don't want to hear that but it's the truth!" he yelled. "She was a whore and she bed down with whores. Men who used her for what little they could get. Any money I earned that she got her hands on, she spent on them and liquor. What more would you like to know? Would you like to hear some stories? What it was like every day to wake up hungry with a hung over mother who made me wait on her hand and foot? That she couldn't even manage to wash herself half the time and I had to do it for her?" He stopped then, breathless from his tirade. He turned his back and leaned on the stall gate, his head hung low.

Murdoch didn't know what to say. Nothing would come to his mind that was even slightly comforting. He felt the outrage build inside him for this woman and knew if he opened his mouth, his son would be the one to pay for it.

"I wanted, I tried to remember something good about her. I got to the point where I just pretended, made things up that never happened. When I was grown, I just stopped thinking about her at all, or tried to. When I saw you, I wanted to kill you so bad. I might have done it if Scott hadn't been there. I put it all on you that first day. The second day, when Teresa told me the truth, I knew she wasn't lying. I wanted her to be, but I knew. I swore right then, I would give you a chance. It was about the money at first but, then I had to let myself believe you cared. I couldn't have stood it if you were as unfeeling as her."

******

"And I didn't make it easy for you, did I, son?"

"No, but I understood. You didn't know me, all you knew was my reputation. Can't blame you for being cautious. I caught a glimpse every now and then. Something that told me you really did care. It was enough to keep me there, enough to give me some hope that at least one of my parents gave a damn if I lived or died."

His voice was trembling so badly, Murdoch had trouble hearing him. It was time now so he moved closer to Johnny. "I do care, son. I always have. I know I'm not a very affectionate person, but I hope you know I ...."

"I know. If you didn't care, you would have ignored me like she did."

Murdoch laid a hand on Johnny's shoulder and squeezed it tightly. "I wish I could have spared you from all of that, son. I wish to God I could have found you."

"You tried. Just knowing that makes it better." He turned then to face his father. "I don't want to talk about her anymore. I don't want to have to even think about her."

"What can I do, Johnny? How can I make it better for you?"

Johnny closed his eyes to ward of the emotions he had been battling for days. Between Elisa and his mother, he felt completely drained. "Nothing. There's nothing anyone can do, Murdoch." He swayed a bit as a wave of dizziness sought to claim him.

Murdoch reached out a steadying hand and pulled Johnny beside him. "I've got you," he said softly.

"I'm okay. Can I ask you something?"

"Of course."

"When I was little, did you take me out on the ranch?"

Murdoch smiled at this. "All the time. You loved horses even then and were always begging me to take you riding."

"Did you ever take me to that meadow by Cripple Creek?"

"It was your favorite place. I'd hold you over the water and dip your toes in. You laughed and squealed and wiggled so much, I thought I might drop you right in sometimes," Murdoch laughed at the memory. The laugh faded when he saw Johnny go pale. "Johnny?"

"I'm okay. I ..... I'm okay," he whispered.

******

"I think it's time to get you to bed," Murdoch frowned.

"Yeah, I am tired. I want to get started first thing. I just want to go home."

"And to that meadow?" Murdoch asked, an odd look on his face.

"Yeah, to that meadow," Johnny smiled slightly.

He allowed his father to guide him in, arm wrapped around Johnny's waist, obstensibly for support. Neither of them saw the shadow that moved out of sight just before they left the barn.

Scott stood on the side of the building and didn't know whether to laugh or cry. He had heard it all, every ugly word Johnny had said about his mother. Yes, his brother had secrets and Scott wasn't so sure anymore if he wanted to know them. He waited a few minutes before going back inside, feeling sick to his stomach at the images Johnny's words invoked. He made himself concentrate on the good part of that conversation. Johnny opening up to his father about his feelings, Murdoch doing the same. Well, as open as either of them ever would be, Scott smiled.

He made it as far as the porch when Manolito came out of the darkness.

"Eavesdropping?" he grinned.

"It's usually the only way I learn anything that goes on between those two," Scott replied.

"I hope it was a good lesson."

"Some of it, not all. I'd just as soon they didn't know I was there," Scott said surreptitiously.

Mano held up his hand. "They will not hear it from me, amigo."

******

Not surprisingly, neither Johnny nor Murdoch slept well. Both of their dreams were filled with the images of a woman who had caused so much pain and loss in their lives. For Murdoch, the question remained unanswered and he now knew Johnny did not hold that key. Why she left would forever remain a mystery but he found himself no longer caring. All he could think of was what a poor excuse for a mother she had turned out to be. He still couldn't reconcile Johnny's recollections with the woman he had married. When Johnny had been born, she seemed so loving toward the child, so protective. What had changed? What had turned her into such a vile creature?

Johnny's sleep, what little he got, was filled with nightmarish images of his childhood. All the times she had ignored him, not bothering to even speak to him much of the time. He was amazed at the loyalty he'd felt for her back then. With all she had done, or not done, he would still have given his life to protect her. He figured that probably would never have changed had she lived. He would never have left her, of that he was certain. Why, was the question. That and why she had taken him from his home in the first place. Two questions he knew would never be answered now.

He realized it no longer mattered but some questions screamed to be answered, some problems begged to be resolved. There was no way, however, so he tried to push her away once more. Coming home had been the hardest thing he'd ever done. To learn his entire life had been a lie was even harder though. He couldn't count the times in the past few months that he'd been thankful he hadn't killed his own father. He'd told Murdoch the truth, that he'd wanted to, but not how badly, not how close he came even with Scott there. It wouldn't have mattered really that there was a witness. He shuddered when he thought of how much hate he'd allowed to fill his heart and soul.

Blame. He shook his head at the word. She had blamed his father for every single thing that went wrong in her life and that was pretty much everything. She would rant on and on, especially when she was really drunk. How many times had he been made to listen to it? How many times had she blackened his heart with her lies? How could he have come from this woman with so much anger and evil inside her? He knew he wasn't that way, knew he was capable of loving, of caring about others. He'd thanked God when she'd died, then felt guilty for it. That guilt had nearly eaten him alive over the years. Now, he had to find a way to lay it all to rest, some way to leave her behind and get on with his life. A life that truly was worth living now.

******

Johnny arose before the sun and dressed quickly. He wanted to get out of here, had to get away from Victoria and Elisa. It was time to put the whole ugly mess away forever. Whatever became of Elisa, however she decided to live her life, he couldn't be a part of it. As for Victoria, he loved her and was happy for her, but he knew he could never see her again.

He slipped quietly out of the room and turned to find his father standing in the hall. "I guess we had the same idea," he whispered.

"I'll wake your brother," Murdoch smiled, noting the exhaustion on his son's face and wondering if Johnny was really up to this trip. Before he could ask though, Johnny had disappeared out the back. Sighing, Murdoch tapped on Scott's door.

"I'm awake," Scott called softly.

Murdoch opened the door to find his elder son already dressed. "Couldn't sleep?"

"I don't imagine any of us got much sleep last night," Scott smiled tightly.

Murdoch eyed him for a long moment. "You know, don't you?"

"Yes sir, I was listening. I'm sorry but I needed to know."

"It's alright, son."

"No, it's not! How could she do that to him?" Scott said, his voice rising.

"Sshhh, you'll wake the entire house," Murdoch reprimanded. "Scott, I can't answer that question. The woman Johnny told me about last night was not the same woman I married. It certainly wasn't the same woman who cooed over her baby and was so protective."

******

Scott stood silently for a moment. "It's not my business, I suppose."

"It is your business, son. Johnny is your business. Just don't let him know you heard. Let him come to you if he wants."

"I won't say anything, though it's going to be difficult to stay silent."

"I know, but I also know you can do that for your brother."

Scott nodded his head and smiled a little. "Let's get out of here."

When they got downstairs, they found John Cannon drinking coffee in the dining room.

"Well, you're both up early."

"We wanted to get an early start," Murdoch replied.

"Is Johnny alright?" John asked.

"He will be," Scott answered.

"Oh, you are up. Let me fix you some breakfast," Victoria said as she entered from the kitchen.

"Thank you but we'd like to get started home," Murdoch said.

"Johnny should eat, Senor. It will be a long ride," she insisted.

******

"I'm not hungry, Victoria. The horses are ready. I guess Mano's not up yet?" Johnny inquired as he walked in.

"Si, he is around here somewhere," Victoria frowned.

Johnny shook his head. "I guess I'm not the only one who's changed."

She walked over and took his hand. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I didn't want to upset you or make you uncomfortable. I love you, Victoria, you'll always be mia hermana."

She smiled and hugged him, then kissed his cheek. "I will miss you." She took his arm and walked out with him.

"Amigo! Que pasa!? You are leaving so soon?" Manolito called.

"Si, time to go home, amigo," Johnny smiled.

Mano nodded, the smile leaving his face. "Will we see you again?"

"I don't know but you're always welcome at Lancer. All of you," Johnny said softly.

Manolito nodded, knowing that answer meant no. He hugged Johnny and patted his back. "I will watch over her for you," he whispered.

"Gracias, amigo," Johnny smiled.

Finally, the Lancers mounted up and with a wave, started to ride out of the High Chaparral.

******

Manolito started to turn away with the rest of his family, but something made him look back at the Lancers.

Suddenly, Scott's horse became agitated and reared back. Scott tightened his grip on the reins as Johnny drew his gun and fired.

Scott felt himself falling but could do nothing to stop it and he hit the hard-packed dirt with a thump.

Manolito took off running toward them with John and Victoria in tow.

Murdoch and Johnny were both off their horses by the time the rest arrived. Johnny was feeling Scott's head and talking to the unconscious man.

"What happened?" John asked.

"Rattlesnake. Johnny got it," Murdoch said quickly.

"Let's get him back to the house," John said and ordered Manolito to get the doctor.

Johnny handed Barranca's reins to Mano and he mounted and took off for town as they carried Scott back inside the house.

Laying him down gently, Victoria began washing his face with a cool cloth as Johnny sat on the other side, watching his brother with a worried frown.

"He hit pretty hard," Murdoch said.

Johnny only nodded and kept watching for any sign Scott was waking.

******

Dr. Sawyer walked in the room and shook his head. "You folks must have some kind of curse on you."

He began his examination and quickly assessed his patient. "Well, he definitely has a concussion. I won't know how severe until he awakens. We'll have to watch him closely for at least the next 24 hours," he diagnosed.

"And if he doesn't awaken?" Murdoch asked.

The doctor shook his head. "I can't tell you anymore than I already have, Mr. Lancer. We just have to wait."

Johnny shook his head. Doctor's - always talkin and never sayin anything. He took Scott's hand and squeezed it, leaning close to the other man's face.

"Scott? Come on, Boston, time to wake up. If you didn't want to leave all you had to do was say so. No call to get all dramatic," he teased.

He felt a slight twinge in his hand, or so he thought. Johnny waited another several seconds and felt it again. It was definitely there now, Scott was waking up. "Doc, he's coming around."

"I don't see any movement, Johnny," Dr. Sawyer said.

"His hand moved in mine, I felt it. Just wait for him."

The doctor looked suspiciously at him but waited as he'd asked. Sure enough, a minute later Scott groaned.

******

"Scott?" Johnny called softly.

Scott opened his eyes and his hand went immediately to his head. "What happened?" he mumbled.

"You fell down and went boom," Johnny grinned.

"A rattler spooked your horse, son, and he threw you," Murdoch answered seriously.

"Oh, my head," Scott moaned.

"Let me take a look at you, young man," Dr. Sawyer said.

Johnny leaned back to give the doctor room but he didn't move from Scott's side.

"Looks good, I think with a few days rest he should be alright. You still need to watch him like I said. Sometimes a head injury won't manifest for several hours to a few days."

"He'll be alright, his head's hard," Johnny said.

"Call me if you need me," the doctor said and left them.

"Try to rest, brother. You sure know how to mess up a vacation."

"I appreciate the effort, Johnny, but my head hurts too much to joke with you," Scott said solemnly.

"Sorry, go to sleep," Johnny said remorsefully.

******

"How is he?" Mano asked as Johnny reached the bottom of the stairs.

"Doc thinks he'll be alright with a couple days rest. Guess you're stuck with us," he smiled tightly.

"We are happy to have you. I am glad this did not happen further away from the rancho," Victoria said.

"Yeah, could have been worse," Johnny sighed.

"I will fix you and your father some breakfast, and Scott, if he feels up to it."

"I doubt it, Victoria. His head's hurtin, I think he'll sleep for a while."

"Come outside with me, amigo," Mano said suddenly.

"What?" Johnny asked once they were alone.

"I know you are uncomfortable around my sister, Johnny. I also know how much you care for her. I have been thinking about this situation and I need to ask - is the resemblance that close?"

"It is, Mano. Her eyes, her chin, even the way she moves...."

"I see. Will you be alright, amigo?"

"Guess I'll have to be because I'm not leaving my brother."

Manolito smiled at this. "It is good to see you with a family, Johnny. Scott means a great deal to you."

"He does, Mano. I was more surprised than anyone when I realized he'd wormed his way into my life," Johnny laughed.

******

Johnny sat with Scott through the night. He had promised to wake Murdoch to spell him but he decided to let his father sleep, knowing he'd gotten little if any the night before. He awoke Scott every two hours as the doctor had instructed and each time, Scott was alert and oriented.

He spent that time thinking about his mother and especially about how she died. He hated telling Murdoch about that time, hated the way it made him feel. He knew it hurt his father to find out what kind of woman he'd married but he'd been too angry to stop the outburst in the barn.

Johnny had never been one to feel sorry for himself but he never wanted to cause pain to those he loved. For that, he felt truly sorry. He was still angry with her even now, after all this time, that anger would not leave him.

Sighing heavily, he wondered what good it did him. None, he knew, but how could he get passed it? How could he put her and those memories to rest once and for all? He wanted to, desperately. He wanted to forget all about that time in his life and just live for now and the future. A future that was brighter than anything he could have ever imagined before.

"What are you thinking so hard about?"

******

Johnny's head jerked up at the sound of his brother's voice. "Oh nothin. How do you feel?"

"Better, but I'm starving."

Johnny smiled at this. "I'll sneak down and get you something."

"Johnny? I'm sorry."

"For what?

"For getting hurt and making you have to stay here. I know it's hard for you."

"Scott, you didn't ask that rattler to go after your horse. It was an accident. Don't worry about me, I'm fine."

"Sure you are, that's why you were thinking so hard just now."

Johnny only smiled and patted Scott's arm. "I'll get you something to eat."

He started to stand up, then sat back down and grinned. Pulling his leg up, he removed first one spur then the other. "Hard to be sneaky when you're makin so much noise."

Scott smiled at him as he left the room.

******

Johnny made a quick sandwich and found some cookies and milk for his brother. He started back through the living room and spied Manolito by the door.

"Look, I know you've gotten all respectable and everything but, don't you think it's a little early even for the most devoted rancher?" he grinned wickedly.

"I see you are stealing our food, amigo," Manolito diverted.

"It's for Scott. Where are you going?" Johnny asked, not letting his friend off the hook.

"I have some business to take care of. I will be back on a few days. Do not leave before I return, okay?"

"Why, Mano? What are you up to?" Johnny cocked his head sideways.

"Up to? Why would you think I am up to anything?"

"Because I know you and you ain't changed that much, amigo. Come on, spill it."

Manolito grinned devilishly. "It is nothing of concern, amigo. Just wait for my return." With that he slipped out the door, leaving Johnny to stand and wonder what tricks his friend was pulling now.

Shrugging his shoulders, Johnny went back to his brother's room to find Murdoch sitting with him.

"You were supposed to wake me hours ago, Johnny."

"You were tired, I don't mind," Johnny said nonchalantly.

"Get some rest, son. I'll stay with him and no arguments," Murdoch said with his do-as-I-say look.

******

Scott recovered fairly quickly though he had bouts of dizziness that kept Murdoch watchful and wary. He knew this son could be as stubborn as the other one and he wasn't about to let Scott take any chances.

They sat out on the porch one evening enjoying the peace and the cooler night air.

"Why does it get so cold in the desert at night?" Scott pondered aloud.

"Don't you know, Boston? I thought they would have taught you all about the weather at that fancy college," Johnny grinned.

"No, I didn't study meteorology, Johnny."

"Meter - what?"

"It's the study of weather patterns," Scott explained.

Johnny shook his head. "Why couldn't you just say you didn't study the weather?"

"Because I knew it would annoy you," Scott retorted with a laugh.

"Glad you're feeling so much better, brother," Johnny said sincerely.

Murdoch shook his head in amazement at their antics. They could seem cross with each other one second and be laughing it off the next. Brothers. He smiled at them both as they sat quietly side by side. He thanked the good Lord his boys were with him now.

A rider came galloping in and Johnny stood up, his hand going to his side automatically. He relaxed and smiled when he saw Manolito.

"About time you showed up," he called.

"How are you feeling, Scott?" Mano asked as he approached.

"Much better, thank you."

"Johnny, I need to talk to you and your father. It is important," Mano said seriously.

"What about?" Murdoch asked.

"Something amazing and surprising, Senor," Mano answered.

******

Once everyone was settled in the living room, Manolito felt a bit awkward as to how to break this news.

"Manolito, what is it?" Victoria asked, a worried frown on her face.

"And just where have you been for the past few days?" John Cannon asked gruffly.

"Ah, I went to see papa," Mano answered, seeing his opening.

"How is papa?" Victoria asked.

"He is fine. I went to talk to him about Johnny."

"About me? Did he throw you out?" Johnny laughed.

"Well, he was not happy to hear your name, amigo. At least, not at first. When I explained your situation now he was more receptive, which is very good."

"I'm afraid I'm lost, Mano. What does this have to do with anything?" Murdoch asked.

"Forgive me, Senor, I will explain. I was curious about the resemblance between Johnny's mother and Victoria so I went to talk to the only man who would know, papa."

"Know what, Mano?" Johnny asked.

******

Manolito took a deep breath and began. "Our mother died when we were very young but she had family. I remembered seeing pictures of a wedding of a cousin many years ago. Our mother's entire family was there," Mano stopped and pulled open the saddlebags he had carried into the house.

He pulled out a photograph and walked over to Murdoch. "Senor, do you recognize anyone in this picture?"

Murdoch looked suspiciously at him but took the picture. His eyes widened in surprise. "That's Maria," he fairly whispered.

Johnny was on his feet immediately and took the picture from his father. He stared at it for several minutes then turned his back to everyone. "What does this mean, Mano?" he asked softly.

Mano walked over to his friend and put a hand on his shoulder. "The woman standing next to her is my mother. She is standing with her sister."

Johnny looked at his friend, then at the picture again. "That's your mother?"

"Si."

He shook his head, trying to grasp this. "And this is her sister?" he asked, pointing to Maria.

"Si."

******

"Manolito, are you telling me that your mother and mine were sisters, that we're cousins?"

"Si, Johnny, that is what I am telling you, amigo."

"I don't believe it! Why, this is wonderful news!" Victoria declared as she joined the two men, hugging Johnny tightly. She looked closely at the picture and smiled. "Mama was so beautiful as was Maria. I do not remember meeting her."

"Neither do I. Papa will be here tomorrow, Johnny. He wants to see you," Mano said.

"Don Sebastian wants to see me? Why?" Johnny asked with a sidelong look.

Mano laughed and slapped him on the back. "He said he had some things to tell you. That is all I know."

"Excuse me but, could we get in on this conversation?" Scott asked from the sofa.

Johnny suddenly remembered his family, moreso Murdoch, who was sitting dumbfounded. He walked over and knelt beside his father, placing a hand on his arm.

"She never talked about her family. She only said they had disowned her. Not why just that they did. I don't know why it never occurred to me that she may have siblings," Murdoch said, almost in a daze.

******

Johnny smiled slightly and squeezed his father's arm. "She never told me either. It's okay."

Murdoch's head snapped up. "Okay? No, it's not okay, Johnny! Don't you understand? If I had known they could have helped me find you. You ran around with your own cousin and didn't even know it."

Johnny dropped his head and nodded. "What do you want me to say, Murdoch? Do you want me to be mad because you didn't think about the possibility? Do you want me to blame you? I won't do that. It doesn't matter anymore."

"It does matter, Johnny. It matters because you have family you didn't know about. How many more relatives do you have that you're unaware of?" Scott asked.

Johnny looked over at his brother and shrugged. "I don't know. Mano?"

"I cannot answer that but my papa can."

"Good luck," John grumbled.

******

"What does that mean?" Scott asked.

Johnny laughed softly. "Don Sebastian is not an easy man to talk to, brother. He's ...... well, you'll see." He refrained from saying what was on his mind for Victoria's sake.

"He's manipulative and irascible," John contributed.

"Husband," Victoria said in a warning voice.

John looked at her a bit sheepishly and smiled.

"When was this picture taken?" Murdoch asked.

"I am not sure, Senor. I believe it was before I was born," Mano said.

"She looks so young."

"Si, she could not have been more than sixteen."

"Before we met," Murdoch surmised.

The room grew quiet with comtemplation and awkwardness as each person took in all the news.

Scott watched his brother closely for a minute and decided he needed an escape. "Johnny, would you help me upstairs? I think I'd like to lie down."

"Sure, you okay?"

"Yes, just tired."

******

The next morning a shiny black surrey with gold trimmings drove up to the hacienda. John Cannon looked like a bear who hadn't eaten for several days and Victoria looked like she wanted to jump up and down with joy.

Johnny watched the surrey drive up and felt a knot form in his stomach. He wondered what Don Sebastian wanted to talk to him about. Murdoch felt pretty much the same way and Scott was very curious.

An older man with salt and pepper hair and a well-groomed beard to match stepped out of the surrey. He was dressed impeccably in a caballaro's suit.

"Papa, welcome to our home," Victoria greeted.

"Gracias, daughter, you are looking well. John," Don Sebastian greeted.

John Cannon nodded his head.

He walked up to Johnny and eyed him up and down. "Who would have thought, eh? Well, shall we go inside and talk, Johnny?"

"Sure, Don Sebastian. It's good to see you again," Johnny smiled.

"It is?" the older man laughed.

Johnny introduced his family and Don Sebastian nodded pleasantly then dismissed them from thought. He settled comfortably into a chair and instructed his son, daughter and nephew to sit across from him. Don Sebastian was calling court.

Murdoch and Scott both raised a brow at the audacity of the man but they stood back and waited.

He noticed them there and turned to face them. "Gentlemen, this is a family matter. Would you mind?"

"Don Sebastian, this is my family as well. They have every right to be here," Johnny said firmly.

The old man sighed and waved his hand.

******

"I cannot believe I did not see it before. You look very much like your mother, except the gringo eyes."

Johnny narrowed those eyes and looked coldly at the man. "If you came here to insult me...."

"No, no. Do not be so sensitive. Now then, what can I tell you?"

Johnny was stunned by the question. "Manolito said you wanted to talk to me."

"I thought perhaps you would like to know about your mother."

Johnny stood up and paced to the fireplace. "What gave you that idea?"

"I do not understand this. Manolito?"

"Papa, you said you wanted to speak with him. Johnny did not ask to see you nor did he ask about his mother," Mano replied, as perplexed as Johnny.

"You have nothing to ask me? You do not even care how she is?"

Johnny spun around and stared at the man. "What are you talking about? She's dead!"

Don Sebastian stood and faced him. "Who told you such lies?"

******

Johnny suddenly felt lightheaded, everything dimmed in his periphery and he closed his eyes to get control of himself. He didn't get the chance to ask.

"Are you saying Maria is alive?" Murdoch asked.

"Si, she is alive and well and living in Mexico City," Don Sebastian replied. "I have sent a man to bring her here," he added.

"You did what?! Who told you to do that?" Johnny spat.

"I do not understand any of this. Someone explain it to me now," Don Sebastian demanded.

"Maybe we should all just calm down. Johnny, please come sit down. Don Sebastian," Scott spoke up, waving a hand for the Don to resume his seat.

Once they were all seated again, Scott took the burden from his brother and father. "My family is understandably surprised, sir. They were under the impression that Maria was dead. A priest told my brother she died and showed him her grave."

"How awful."

"Yes, sir. I'm sure you can understand how this news is .... disturbing. I don't suppose you know anything about that? It happened ten years ago," Scott went on.

"Ten years ago I did not know where Maria was. She came to me perhaps five years ago and asked for my help. She needed money to settle in the city and I gave it to her."

"And she never mentioned her son?" Scott asked.

"No, I did not even know she had married," Don Sebastian answered. "Maria was an impetuous child and when she reached womanhood, she became even worse. She ran the streets until all hours. Her parents could not control her and finally, they threw her out. She disgraced them at every opportunity. I know how they felt," he continued, shooting a glance at his son.

******

"Why would a priest tell you she died, Johnny?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny shook his head, trying to come to terms with it all. "I don't know."

"Are you sure that's what happened? I mean, you were so young," Murdoch asked.

Johnny glared at him. "Do you think I would make it up? He showed me the grave, said they would put a marker up. Told me how sorry he was and that he would 'make arrangements' for my care. God, Murdoch, I wouldn't lie about that!"

"Perhaps she is the one who lied. Perhaps she convinced the priest to help her make you believe she was dead," Mano said.

"Why would she do that?" Scott asked.

"I do not know but it is the only thing that makes sense. Johnny was young but not so young he could not remember exactly what happened. You said you were not there when she died, amigo."

"There's one way to find out," Murdoch said angrily.

"No, I don't care what happened. I don't want to see her!" Johnny shouted.

"Calm down!" Murdoch yelled back.

"You calm down, old man! I'm not doin this. No, uh uh, no way in hell am I gonna sit here and wait for her to show up, not that she would! If she faked her own death, fine. It's pretty obvious she wanted to get away from me then so let her stay away!" With that, Johnny stormed out of house, slamming the door behind him.

******

"That was nice," Scott said sarcastically.

"What?"

"Murdoch .... nevermind," Scott said and went to find his brother.

Scott found him in the barn with Barranca, just as he knew he would. "You okay?" he asked and wished he hadn't, it was a stupid question. "Sorry," he added immediately when Johnny glared at him.

"I don't understand any of this, Scott. What the hell was she doing? What was she thinking?" Johnny's voice was low, trembling with anger and pain.

"If you really want the answers, brother, you're going to have to ask the right person," Scott said gently.

Johnny was leaning against the stall gate and he suddenly starightened and turned to Scott. "Do you believe Murdoch? Asking me if I was sure?"

"He's as much in shock as you are, brother. Especially after the talk you two had in this very barn," Scott reminded him.

Johnny took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Yeah, I guess he's as twisted up inside as I am. But he wants to see her."

"So let him. It doesn't mean you have to, unless ....."

"I don't! I ..... I don't know what I want," Johnny whispered and turned away.

"Give yourself some time, Johnny. It's a lot to take in at once. First you find out you have cousins then that your mother is alive. It's too much to figure out in one day."

"Scott? Thanks."

"Anytime."

******

"Papa, when is the last time you saw Maria?" Mano asked.

"The last time I was in Mexico City which was six months ago. She is married now."

"Married? How can she be married?" Murdoch asked.

"I do not understand, Senor," Don Sebastian said.

"Unless I'm mistaken, she's still married to me, Senor," Murdoch said gruffly.

"Ay yi yi, this is getting more and more complicated," Mano said.

"Papa, do you think she will come?" Victoria asked.

"I do not see why not, daughter. I simply told my man to bring her to see me here. I felt it was too much to tell her why until we were face to face."

"How considerate of you," Murdoch shot.

"She is my wife's sister, Senor. She deserves respect," Don Sebastian shot back.

"Respect? Do you have any idea what that woman did?"

"Manolito has told me very little," he said calmly.

"She took off in the middle of the night with my son! She stole him!" Murdoch blasted.

"He is her son as well, Senor."

"Don Sebastian, I know you are aware of Johnny's past. Can you honestly tell me he was better off being raised in border towns? And I use the word 'raised' very loosely because from what my son has told me, he pretty much raised himself from the word go."

"Senor Lancer, I do not pretend to understand Maria's motivations but I will not pass judgement until I have all the facts," Don Sebastian stated.

******

Johnny and Scott walked in on the last statement. "It's not your place to judge anything, Don Sebastian," Johnny said from the door.

"Maria is my familia, Johnny, as you are."

"Si, by marriage. Look, would you all excuse us? I'd like to talk with my father alone."

Murdoch and Johnny went upstairs to talk.

"You want to see her, don't you?" Johnny asked.

"I'd like some answers, son. Wouldn't you?"

"I don't know what I'd like except to be home right now. I don't understand any of this," he sighed softly and sat on the edge of the bed.

Murdoch joined him, uncertain how to proceed. "It will take several days for her to get here. Maybe we could use that time to figure some things out."

"I don't think there is anything to figure out. Yeah, sure I'd like to know why but getting the truth out of her is like getting blood from a turnip."

"Maybe she's changed, settled down. Don Sebastian said ..... Johnny she's married."

Johnny only smiled sardonically at this. "I'm not surprised. Is it legal?"

"I doubt it."

"Well, I guess you have to see her then, huh? If for nothing else than to get that mess sorted out."

"I certainly don't want a marriage hanging over my head."

"Yeah, ya never know when you might get the urge again," Johnny grinned.

"You are an amazing young man," Murdoch said gently.

******

The next several days were full of tension at the High Chaparral. John Cannon was put to the test of his patience with Don Sebastian as a guest. The man had a way of taking over anywhere he went and managing to do absolutely nothing but be waited on hand and foot.

Victoria was the one doing that waiting and she was not as controlled as her husband. She finally let her father know she was not his hand maiden and had better things to do with her time.

Murdoch had sent Scott to town this day to talk with the judge, who had finally arrived, about freeing Ramon Guiterrez. He figured Johnny didn't need anymore on his plate at the moment.

Johnny went to work, partly to pay back the Cannon's hospitality and partly to keep his mind occupied on other things. He and Manolito worked together with Buck which was enough to distract anyone.

"I'm tellin you right now, Mano, that jar head cain't be broke," Buck was saying as Johnny approached the corral.

"Who can't be broke?" he asked.

"That stallion right there! He's the meanest, orneriest animal I ever did meet," Buck said.

"Johnny can break him," Mano stated matter-of-factly.

"Oh he can, can he? Well, I'd shore like ta see it," Buck retorted.

"You do not believe me, amigo? How much are you willing to bet?" Mano smiled wickedly.

Buck stroked his cheek with his gloved hand and thought about it. "A week's wages."

"Now wait a minute, I'm the one who's doing the breaking. What's my cut?" Johnny grinned.

"Half, amigo. Deal?"

"Deal."

******

All three men shook to seal the deal and Johnny asked the ramrod what techniques had been used thusfar. He grimaced when he was told and figured he had his work cut out for him.

John and Murdoch were walking out of the house and noticed the commotion at the corral. They walked over to see Johnny being bucked for all he was worth.

"Buck! What the devil do you think you're doing? He's going to get killed on that animal!" Big John growled.

"Don't worry about Johnny, he knows what he's doing," Murdoch intervened. "Just watch," he added as he settled by the fence.

Don Sebastian joined them shortly and watched with a smile as Johnny worked the stallion. "He is very good. He broke a magnificent wild stallion for me once."

"Si, papa, and you refused to pay him as I recall," Mano said.

"You certainly made sure he was paid," the don said grumpily.

"Is this another story I don't want to hear?" Murdoch asked.

Mano didn't get a chance to answer as the hands began whooping and hollering.

Johnny was working the horse, who had finally succumbed, around the corral. He motioned for the gate to be opened and took off like lightning across the desert.

Murdoch stood on the fence rail and watched him go, shaking his head in wonderment.

"Well, amigo, I believe you owe me one week's wages," Mano grinned at Buck.

"It was worth it, Mano, to see that. He shore has a way with horses."

"Yes, he has a way with most everything," Murdoch said proudly.

John Cannon flinched a little but said nothing.

******

Johnny came tearing back to the corral and reined the stallion in just before reaching the gate. He led the animal into the corral then threw his right leg over the saddle and slid to the ground, landing effortlessly.

Grinning the entire time, he walked over to the fence and jumped it, then retrieved his gunbelt from Manolito.

"He still needs some work but he's ready for it now. Man, he's fast!" he said.

"So are you. Say, how'd you learn ta do that?" Buck asked.

"I do everything fast, Buck," Johnny smiled charmingly. "Well, almost everything," he added with a wink and slapped the older man in the gut.

Scott rode in just then and joined them.

"Where'd you get off to?" Johnny asked.

"I was in town talking to the judge. He charged Guiterrez a fine and let him go home."

"Why didn't you tell me about this?" Johnny asked.

"I thought you had enough to deal with, son. I knew Scott could handle it just as easily as you could."

Johnny nodded his agreement, just glad that loose end had been tied up.

"Anyone ready for lunch?" John asked.

"I am, I'm starvin," Johnny grinned.

They started back to the house only to be stopped by the sound of a buggy approaching. Johnny closed his eyes and hung his head as his appetite left him quickly.

******

Johnny felt a strong hand on his shoulder. "Let's go inside, son. There's no sense facing this in front of the whole ranch."

Johnny nodded his agreement but kept his head down as they walked into the house. Manolito informed his father the carriage was arriving and he quickly went out to meet it.

The carriage was protected by black curtains to keep people from seeing in but it also kept the passenger from seeing out very well without moving those curtains. She could see several people walk into the house but could discern none of them. All she knew was her brother-in-law had asked to see her at his daughter's home.

It was an odd request but she could not deny the man who had helped her so much in her time of need. The carriage came to a rolling stop and the driver jumped down immediately to open the door. She stepped out and met Don Sebastian's grinning reception.

He was once more stunned at her resemblance to his own daughter which had been the spark that led to this meeting. She was still quite beautiful and her green gown with gold trimmed bodice accentuated her smooth, tanned skin. Her silky black hair pulled up loosely with stray wisps floating about her face gave the impression of an angel.

******

"So good to see you again, Maria," he said.

"Gracias, Don Sebastian. I am curious as to why you wish to see me here," she said softly.

"Ah, I have a surprise for you, my dear," he said, still smiling as he took her arm and led her into the house.

Johnny found a corner to stand in and Murdoch was right beside him, unwilling to be very far from his son during this meeting. His own nerves were frazzled and he had been trying to remain calm since they'd seen the carriage.

The front door opened and Johnny tensed every muscle in his body as he pressed himself against the wall. He wanted to disappear into the adobe.

"Maria, this is my daughter, Victoria and my son, Manolito. I am sure you do not remember them, it has been so long. Ah, and this is my son-in-law, John Cannon."

Everyone said their hellos a bit tenuously as Maria walked into the middle of the room. Her back was to Johnny and he watched her like a hawk. Something was different about the way she moved. He realized with chagrin what it was, she was sober.

******

He heard her voice and his heart skipped a few beats as memories rushed in on him. He could feel his father's form beside him, leaning over just enough to make physical contact with his side.

"I am afraid I do not remember you but it is always wonderful to meet family," she was saying.

Johnny almost laughed out loud at that comment.

"Is this why you sent for me, Don Sebastian? To meet your children?"

"No, Maria, to meet yours," he said simply.

"Mine?! I do not understand, I have no children," she replied.

"Bitch!" Johnny hissed.

She whirled around, her skirts rustling loudly at the sudden movement. Her eyes found his and she locked onto them for a long moment. The world seemed to tilt crazily around her as she stared into the deep blue depths and she found she couldn't breathe, couldn't speak. She swayed a little and Don Sebastian took hold of her, sitting her in the closest chair.

Victoria brought her some water, wishing fleetingly that she could lace it with poison. How could this woman deny her own child?

Johnny had not moved, not even flinched when she looked at him. He glared at her with smoldering hatred and even found some sick pleasure in watching her reaction. He had never forgotten the pain she had caused him, the pain she still caused him. Denying him was like a knife through the heart but he shook it off, telling himself it was typical.

******

Silence took over the the room as they all waited for her to recover, waited for her to say something. The glass she held began to shake violently in her grasp and Victoria took it from her quickly.

She finally looked at him again, still standing where he was, still glaring at her with such hatred. She shook her head slowly as if this would make the apparition disappear.

"Why are you here?" she finally asked in a voice barely above a whisper.

"Does it matter?" Johnny asked coldly.

Suddenly, she noticed Murdoch and her own anger surfaced. "Why are YOU here?"

"I'm here with my sons," Murdoch replied more calmly than he thought possible.

She frowned at this and Scott stepped up beside his father and brother in a symbol of unity. "I'm Scott Lancer," he said simply.

Her anger was building more now as she took in the son of her husband's first wife. The gem, the pearl of his life, his sweet Catherine! "Good for you," she replied icily.

"Maria, there must be explanations now. Johnny thought you were dead. What happened?" Don Sebastian inquired.

******

She looked up at him and suddenly felt no more loyalty for this man. "I do not owe anyone any explanation. I am leaving," she huffed and stood up.

Johnny moved so quickly, everyone was startled. He walked to the door and opened it wide, waving his arm through. "Go ahead, no one wants you here. No one asked to see you, believe me!"

She tilted her chin, raising her nose slightly in the air and started for the door.

"Stop!" Don Sebastian exclaimed. "You will explain, Maria, You will tell us now why you let your son believe you were dead. You will explain the priest who told him and the grave he was shown. I demand answers!"

"Don Sebastian, I am grateful to you for the help you have given me in the past but you will not order me to do anything and I do not care what you demand!"

"You're lettin the flies in," Johnny drawled.

She turned and glared at him but it no longer had the same effect. She started past him and stopped. She was only a breath away from him and she looked up into his face. "Goodbye," she whispered.

"Maria!" Murdoch bellowed. "You aren't going anywhere unless you intend to walk!"

She flashed steely black eyes at him then looked at Don Sebastian who only nodded his agreement.

"How dare you keep me here?" she said indignantly.

"I want answers," Murdoch said.

"You do not deserve any."

******

"Get her drunk, ya can't shut her up then," Johnny said stonily.

She slapped him hard across the face and felt Murdoch's hand on her arm, yanking her away from Johnny.

"Don't you EVER hit my son again!"

"Your son! I suppose you are what he deserves afterall," she smirked.

Johnny was about to lose any self control he might have had and even Madrid was abandoning him in his time of need. Scott saw it instantly and went to his brother's side, wrapping an arm around Johnny and leading him outside. He slammed the door shut behind them.

Johnny stumbled to the corner of the house and leaned against the wall for support. He felt Scott there, waiting, worrying. He took a deep breath and blew it out slowly, then turned to face his brother.

"What can I do?" Scott asked.

"You could put a bullet in her head," Johnny smiled briefly. His hand was on his chest, rubbing it, but he didn't seem to notice.

"Are you alright?" Scott asked, nodding toward said hand.

He looked down and smirked. "Yeah, it's just been awhile since I had that feeling."

"What feeling?"

"Kind of an ache," Johnny shrugged.

Scott could not have felt more miserable if he tried but he remained stoic and didn't show his own pain. His face was impassive as he observed his brother trying so hard to make it all just stop.

******

Murdoch and Maria were in a staring match that neither was about to break. Both wanted to be the last to give up and Victoria had had enough.

"What kind of woman are you, Senora? How could you deny your own son, hurt him so badly?"

"Hurt him? It is not possible to hurt him," she said sarcastically.

"You think not? As usual, you're wrong, Maria, so wrong. What you did to that boy is unforgiveable, it's incomprehensible!" Murdoch scowled.

"And what? What do you want from me now? Do you want me to take him in my arms and rock him? Tell him I am sorry?"

"No, I don't want you to lie to him anymore. What I want to know is why you took him in the first place. It's obvious you don't love him and never did!"

"Why do you think I took him? Because he was the only thing other than that ranch that meant anything to you! Oh, except for your precious dead wife!"

"Ai yi yi, papa, tell me how it is this woman came from the same parents as my mother?" Manolito finally spoke.

"It is beyond me, hijo mio," Don Sebastian sighed.

"I cannot believe you hated me so much that you would take Johnny into a life of poverty and prejudice. Do you even know what became of him because of your lies?"

"I know he is Johnny Madrid," she said without emotion.

"And that's just fine with you, isn't it? Tell me, Maria, did you always hate me so much?"

******

She dropped her eyes at the question and shook her head. "No, at first I thought you would be a good husband for me. That was my first mistake, no, that isn't true. Johnny was my first mistake."

Murdoch's hand went up and back and Manolito grabbed hold of his arm quickly.

"Senor, I know how you feel but you do not want to do that."

Murdoch relaxed his arm after a long several seconds and nodded to Manolito.

"I know this much, Maria. Despite you, Johnny has become a fine young man. He is a decent human being and I suppose that's because you did abandon him. If he had stayed with you, I hate to think what he might have become."

"Well, I am so glad you are one big happy family now, Murdoch. What did it take to get him to come to you? What did you have to do to get the other one back?"

"The other one has a name," Scott said from the doorway where he stood with Johnny.

Murdoch's head jerked around when Scott spoke and he wondered how much Johnny had heard. From the look on his face, Murdoch had to assume he'd heard the worst of it.

******

"I do not care what your name is," she said snidely.

"Tell me, madam, is there anything you do care about? I mean, all I've heard since you walked in here is what you don't care about," Scott fumed as he stepped forward.

"None of this is your concern," she retorted.

"You are wrong about that. My brother is most definitely my concern."

She started laughing at this, almost to the point of hysteria. Everyone in the room watched her with stunned expressions, everyone except Johnny.

She stopped as suddenly as she had begun and her face fell into a flat expression. "Your mother, she was all he could think about. Catherine did it this way, Catherine did it that way. I never thought I could hate someone I had never met but I did. And you, oh yes, soon we will bring Scott home and we will be a whole family. That is what he kept saying." She nodded her head toward Murdoch. "I would have never allowed that. Had I stayed, you would have never seen your father or Johnny. Do you think for one minute I would allow her son in my home?! Johnny would have never known you existed!"

That was about all he could take and Johnny walked silently to her, taking her roughly by the arm and dragging her to the door. He opened it and pulled her through, closing the door behind them.

Murdoch and Scott were aghast and both stood in place, unsure if they should follow or not.

******

Johnny jerked her around to face him once they were out of earshot. "Listen to me well, you will not speak to my brother that way. In fact, you will not speak to him at all. I never want to hear another word about him or his mother come out of your mouth. Why shouldn't Murdoch spout off about her virtues? You sure as hell didn't have any to compliment. You have some unfinished business with my father and you will go in there and discuss divorce with him and nothing else. Do you understand?"

She scowled at him. "And if I do not?"

"I'll drop you where you stand and if you doubt that, just try me, because I was never so happy about anything as I was when that priest told me you were dead. I was relieved that you were gone and you can stay gone as far as I'm concerned. How you do that is up to you but if you think I'm going to let you speak to my brother that way, you are wrong, dead wrong!"

"How dare you..."

"Shut up! You know who I am so don't think for a minute I won't put a bullet right between your eyes. I hate you, never forget that I know you better than anyone. I can ruin your life and I will in a heartbeat if you cause my family any more pain."

She swallowed hard and looked into his eyes. Seeing the fire that burned there, she believed he was capable of carrying out his threat. She only nodded her head.

"Say it. Say you will not speak to my brother that way again."

"I will not speak to your brother that way again."

******

Johnny opened the door and allowed her to enter the house once more. He stood close behind her, making sure she felt his presence.

"I understand we have some legal matters to discuss, Murdoch," she said calmly.

"I'll have my lawyer contact you through Don Sebastian, if he's willing," Murdoch said.

Don Sebastian nodded his head sadly.

"Do whatever you like, you always have. Send the papers and I will be more than happy to sign them. I want nothing from you."

"That's good, because that's exactly what you'll get," Murdoch retorted.

She gave him a hateful look and once more started toward the door. She stopped and faced Johnny, searching his face for ..... something.

"Would you walk me out?" she asked.

He stared at her then nodded, giving his father a quick glance. Johnny opened the carriage door for her but she didn't get in, she stood there looking at him.

"What?"

"I loved you once," she said.

"Good for you."

"You loved me, too."

"For a minute."

"When you were a baby..."

"No, stop, I don't remember that and I don't want to. I'd just as soon remember it the way it really was."

She sighed and looked in his eyes. "That's why it happened, why I could no longer love you. Your eyes, your father's eyes."

"Reckon that's as good a reason as any. You keep telling yourself that, mother, and I guess you'll sleep well at night."

"Mother. You used to call me mama."

"I've called you a hell of a lot worse since then. Are you getting in or not?" he asked, frustrated.

She lowered her head and climbed into the carriage to have the door slammed behind her. Johnny looked up at the driver and said, "get her out of here."

******

He watched the carriage drive away, standing there for a long time until he could see no more than a dust cloud. He felt them standing behind him but he couldn't turn around yet. He only managed to turn his lowered head to the side.

"I'm going for a ride," he said softly and no one tried to stop him.

He didn't know where he was going, didn't know the country, but he rode all the same. Galloping across the desert with the wind in his face as he kept his mind blank.

He finally stopped near some scraggly trees, enough to provide some shade for himself and Barranca. Taking his hat off his back, he poured some water in it and quickly watered his palomino. He saved a little for himself and sat down on the hard ground, pulling his knees up and hanging his arms over them.

He sat like that, with his head resting on the tree, for a long time. He watched the sun move across the sky as the afternoon deepened toward evening. Her voice resounded in his mind - I have no children. He shook his head sadly and wondered what was wrong with her.

His eyes began to burn and he shook his head violently. He refused to do this, the last time he cried over her he was fifteen years old. That was the very last time and he'd sworn it to himself then.

His head came up with the sound of horse's hooves and he wondered which one it would be, Murdoch or Scott. His eyebrows went up when he recognized Manolito.

******

"Surprised to see me, amigo?" Mano grinned.

"A little."

"I convinced you father and brother to allow me the honor of finding you. I brought something for you," he smiled wickedly. Opening his saddlebag, Manolito pulled out a bottle of tequila and waved it in front of Johnny.

"Perfect," Johnny laughed.

Mano burst out laughing as he sat next to his friend. "I thought your spirits could use some lifting, eh?

"Sure could, gracias amigo," he smiled.

They took turns passing the bottle until it was empty, neither talking. Johnny looked thoughtfully at it then tossed it away.

"Would you like to shoot it?" Mano asked.

"I'd like to shoot something but it ain't that bottle."

"Amigo, I wish there was something I could say to you."

"Mano, it's alright, nothing has changed, she hasn't changed. I didn't expect anything from her and that's exactly what I got."

"Still, for your mother to be so ..... unfeeling..."

Johnny smiled sardonically. "I guess you can get used to be treated a certain way. Then, well, you realize it was wrong. That's when everything feels like it's closing in on you. That's when I always used to take off, but no more. I don't have to do that anymore."

"Si, because you have familia. And now, you have even more!"

Johnny laughed at this. "Yeah, but ya know what? I ain't so sure about that familia. A man who only brings one bottle with him, I don't know...."

Mano grinned knowingly. "Ah, I agree. Any man who brings only one bottle does not deserve to be called familia." With that he stood and walked over to the other saddle bag, producing another bottle.

"I knew I liked you for some reason, compadre."

******

The desert can be surrealistically quiet at night, very few beings venture out in the colder air. This night, however, there were two beings making more noise than a herd of stampeding cattle. Their laughter echoed through the night air as did the sounds of gunfire as they took potshots at anything and everything.

Mano and Johnny had decided those bottles needed to be shot after all and in doing thus, had continued on their merry rant with every other immoveable object they could find.

It finally got too dark to see much of anything and they stopped shooting and became quiet. Mano started to say something but Johnny's hand on his arm stopped him.

"Just listen," Johnny whispered.

They stood a still as rocks for a good ten minutes before Johnny sighed.

"I love the quiet at night, it's so still and peaceful."

Mano smiled but his eyes told a different story, the sadness inside him for his friend was nearly overwhelming. He knew not to speak it, knew Johnny wouldn't appreciate sympathy but symathy is what he felt all the same.

"Come, amigo, let's go home," he said instead, wrapping an arm around Johnny's shoulders.

Murdoch and Scott watched as they rode in together. Well, rode probably wasn't the best choice of words. Both were hanging onto the saddle for dear life. Scott couldn't help but smile as his brother fell off the horse and somehow managed to land on his feet.

He was beside Johnny in an instant, supporting him with an arm around the waist.

Johnny looked at him and smiled. "I knew you'd be there."

"Time for bed, brother. Let's see what you remember tomorrow," Scott teased.

"Nothing, I hope," Johnny answered sadly.

******

Johnny awoke to a gentle nudging on his shoulder. Before he opened his eyes, he allowed his mind to awaken, taking in the memories of the previous day and night. He did a mental check of his physical wellbeing and found that he, surprisingly, didn't feel bad at all. No headache, no nausea, no signs of a hangover. Relieved that something was finally going his way, he opened his eyes to his father's increasingly urgent prodding.

"Mornin," he mumbled.

"Good morning, son. How do you feel?"

"Fine," Johnny smiled. The smiled faded when he took in the expression on his father's face. It was a mixture of sadness and turmoil that made his insides feel cold. "What's wrong?"

"Johnny, I ..... I hate to have to tell you this," Murdoch faltered, dropping his gaze.

"Just say it," Johnny replied, sitting up in the bed. He quickly noticed someone had undressed him last night. Scott, he imagined.

"It's about your mother."

Johnny groaned and shook his head. "What now?"

"John Cannon's men found the carriage this morning, it was overturned not far from here. It looks like a wheel splintered from what they tell me. They took a wagon out and retrieved ...... the bodies."

******

Johnny sat as still as death for long moments as he took in his father's words. He wasn't really sure how he felt at the moment, everything seemed to be whirling through his mind at once and he couldn't make sense of any of it.

"Where is she?" he finally asked.

"Tucson."

"You said bodies, the driver's dead, too?"

"Yes, son."

"And it didn't look like some kind of attack?"

"Not according to Sam, John's foreman. He said all the signs indicated they must have hit a particulary big rock and the wheel just broke, causing the carriage to flip."

Johnny didn't know why he was asking all these questions, none of it really mattered. He reckoned he was just trying to make sense of it. "Did she ..... could they tell if she died right away?"

Murdoch swallowed hard at the thought but shook his head. "They didn't say."

Johnny looked into his father's eyes and the thought suddenly struck him. He reached over and took Murdoch's arm. "Are you okay?"

"Well, it's a shock, son. All these years I thought I was a widower and now, I guess I am. I'm more concerned about you."

"I think I'd like a little while alone."

Murdoch placed his other hand over the one Johnny still had on his arm and squeezed. "We're close by when you're ready."

"Ready?"

"To go to Tucson, to make arrangements."

Johnny sighed and nodded his head.

******

Murdoch slipped out the door to find Scott waiting in the hall. "How did he take it?"

"I think he's in shock right now, son. It will hit him soon enough."

"Do you really think he'll grieve for her, Murdoch? Will you?" Scott asked with some anger.

"Scott, I understand how you feel but she was his mother. No matter what she did, he's her flesh and blood and the only family he knew for the first ten years of his life."

"And who's fault was that?"

"It doesn't matter now, Scott, none of that matters now. All that matters is how Johnny is going to deal with this and I don't have a clue. He may not care or he may break down. Whatever he does, we have to understand and support him."

"I will be there for my brother, Murdoch, but ..... well, don't expect me to mourn that woman," Scott said firmly and walked away.

Murdoch sighed and headed down the stairs. He certainly couldn't blame Scott for his feelings, he felt no love loss either. He stopped at the landing to face Manolito and Victoria.

"He wants some time alone," he said to the unasked question.

"How did he react?" Victoria asked.

"He didn't," Murdoch said and walked outside.

"Manolito, we must do something," Victoria said miserably.

"No, there is nothing for us to do. Johnny's father and brother are the ones to help him now. We can only offer our assistance, Victoria, not interfere."

******

Johnny sat in the bed for a while, his mind refusing to think about this. He got up and dressed then started out the door. Stopping with his hand on the doorknob, his entire body began to shake.

He turned and slumped his back against the wall next to the door and slid down to the floor. Drawing up his knees, he rested his head on them and thought about her.

He went back to his first true memories and could see her hugging and kissing him. When had it changed? When had she begun to hate him? For he knew she did hate him. He had seen it in her face just yesterday. The hatred that she had for his father had been bequeathed to him by proxy. His eyes, she had said. That was bull and he knew it. There was more, much more and he thought it was because he reminded her of Murdoch in other ways as well.

Scott had said they were two of a kind, both stubborn and unwilling to give. He knew that was true and guessed she saw it as well. Even from that early an age, she had seen it. How old had he been when he first realized it? Seven? Yes, he remembered his seventh birthday because it was the one they didn't celebrate and had not celebrated any after that.

Still, with all she had done, all the pain she had caused him in so many ways, he had loved her. He had to admit it to himself if no one else. She was his mother and he loved her. It was that simple. Tears welled in his eyes with this realization and he didn't bother to try and stop them. Now was the time for them, now while he was alone. Later, he wouldn't be able to show his grief for he knew they would never understand, not really.

He could hear Scott's voice now. His brother was not judgemental but when it came to Maria, he could well imagine what his brother had to say. She had hurt him and Scott could not stand for that. It brought him a huge measure of comfort to know that his brother would defend him, stand up for him against all odds.

He sat there and mourned her, mourned his lost childhood and all that might have been. He sat there for what seemed like hours until he was done with it, putting it back on the shelf in his mind where it had been for so long. It was enough, he'd had enough of it all and he determined to end this today. His past was done, his mother truly dead and all ugliness she had brought to his life would forever be buried with her.

Johnny stood up and walked over to the wash basin, splashing the cool water on his face and letting it drip off his chin. He looked at himself in the mirror for a moment. Johnny Lancer. He nodded his head as if he'd made a decision. That is who you are and who you have always been. That is who you will be forever more. He smiled a little, shaking his head at himself as he dried off with a towel. Okay, Lancer, now comes the tough part. He took a deep breath and left the room.

******

He walked into the living room to find them all waiting there. His entire family, well, he guessed. Smiling only to himself, he wondered if there would be anymore surprises in his life similar to this.

He did not hesitate, did not allow any uncomfortable silences. He walked up to his tio.

"Don Sebastian, you said my mother was married."

"Si, sobrino."

"And he loved her?"

"Si, they were very happy."

"I think it's best if we send her back to him for burial. I see no reaosn to tell him anything other than she had an accident while visiting you. There's no need to tell him about me or Murdoch, let him have his memories."

"Are you sure, son? We could take her back to Lancer," Murdoch said.

"No, absolutely not. This is what I want," Johnny said steadfastly.

"Very well, Johnny, it is your decision," Don Sebastian replied.

Johnny nodded and turned to his father and brother. "I'll ride into Tucson and take care of the arrangements."

"Want some company?" Scott asked.

"Yeah, I do, Boston," he smiled gratefully.

"We'll all go," Murdoch affirmed.

Knowing his father might want this last moment with her, Johnny simply nodded his agreement.

******

The Lancers rode to Tuscon together in silence for the most part. Neither Scott or Murdoch were sure what, if anything, they should say.

"When we're finished with this, I want to get the hell out of here and go home," Johnny said out of the blue.

"Sounds like an excellent idea to me," Scott smiled.

"Me too," Murdoch made it unanimous.

They headed directly for the undertaker's office and Johnny walked in without hesitation. He felt the need to make sure she was really there.

He hated these places and the undertaker's with their sad, bereaved faces, as if they were the ones who were grieving. They smelled awful as well and Johnny had always shyed away from getting anywhere near one.

The thin, pale man showed them to the back room and left silently. They both stared at the simple pine box for a while, then Johnny took a deep breath and opened the lid.

She was no longer beautiful, laying there with scratches and bruises all over her swollen face. A huge cut had been sewn closed in her forehead and her eyes were slightly open beneath the long black lashes. Her head lay at an odd angle and Johnny realized her neck must have been broken.

He felt physically ill then and turned his head from the sight. Murdoch was standing beside him and had the same reaction. He closed the lid quickly and placed a hand on Johnny's shoulder, gently urging him to leave the room.

******

Scott was waiting in the outer office and when they came out, his heart almost broke at his brother's expression. Murdoch was right, she was his mother and however he felt was appropriate.

He wanted to say something but nothing came immediately to mind. Johnny was pale and he quickly left the office with a quiet 'excuse me'.

"I'll go," Scott said and followed his brother.

He found him in the alley next to the building, wretching. Scott walked quickly back to his horse and grabbed his canteen, then waited patiently for Johnny to finish.

He held the canteen out silently and Johnny took it, rinsing his mouth and spashing some on his face. He leaned heavily against the side of the building and rested his head on his arm.

Scott walked up behind him and placed a hand on the back of his neck, massaging gently at the tension there.

"Her neck was broken so I guess she didn't suffer," Johnny finally whispered.

Scott knew nothing to say. He spied some crates near them and took Johnny's arm, guiding him over to sit down.

******

He took several long, deep breaths trying to quiet his stomach. "Funny the way things work out."

"What do you mean?" Scott asked.

"All these years I thought she was dead only to find out it was a lie. Now, she really is dead and ..... it hurts more than it did the first time." His voice was shaky at best as he fought to keep control of his emotions.

Scott looked around them and saw they were alone. He knelt down in front of his brother and put his hand on Johnny's arm.

"Can you tell me?"

Johnny looked into his brother's eyes then quickly looked away. He couldn't do this, not now and he simply shook his head.

"It's okay, Johnny. Whenever you're ready, I'm here."

He swallowed hard and nodded. "I know, you're always here. That's what keeps me sane." There was no teasing, no banter in his voice, only the simple truth.

Scott smiled a little at this statement. "I'm just glad to be here."

"You know, if you weren't, I don't think I could do any of this."

"Yes, you could, Johnny. You've been through so much in your life without me, you could get through this, too. I'm just glad you don't have to."

"Me too, brother. Guess we should get back in there. Murdoch ain't doin to well either."

******

Murdoch was not doing well but he had managed to tell the undertaker the information needed which Don Sebastian had provided before they left the ranch. He was just finishing when Scott and Johnny came back.

"Are you alright?" he asked.

"Yeah, thanks. Did you tell him everything?"

Murdoch nodded and Johnny looked at the sickly little man. "You understand not to say anything about me or my father to her .... husband." It wasn't a question and Johnny's eyes told the story.

The undertaker nodded fervently. "Yes, Mr. Madrid, your father has explained it to me. I understand completely."

Johnny doubted that but it was enough to satisfy him. "It's Lancer, not Madrid," he clarified and walked out.

Murdoch smiled at this and he and Scott walked out as well.

"I think I need a drink," Johnny said.

"No, you need to eat. When's the last time you had food in your stomach?" Murdoch asked paternally.

Johnny frowned as he thought about the answer. "Yesterday mornin, I guess," he smiled.

"That's what I thought," Murdoch said and wrapped an arm around Johnny's shoulders.

They headed toward the cafe adjacent to the cantina only to be stopped cold.

******

He had seen them come out of the undertaker's office and waited for them to reappear. Unwilling to disturb whatever had happened, he stood on the boardwalk a block away.

Johnny sighed and walked up to him. "Buenos dias, Don Ramon."

"Buenos dias. You have had a loss?"

"No importante," Johnny said.

Don Ramon nodded and there was an awkward silence. "I wanted to apologize personally to you, Johnny."

"Apology accepted. How is Elisa?"

"She is well."

"Good. Well, excuse me," Johnny said and started to walk away.

"Johnny...." Don Ramon started, then faltered and just as quickly found his resolve. "I have taken care of the wanted posters."

"Okay, thanks."

"Elisa told me you proposed to her."

Johnny tensed, he did not want to talk about this. "Don Ramon, it's done, just let it go."

"I .... I feel I owe you something."

"You don't owe me anything. Good bye," Johnny said brusquely and walked away.

"I have the feeling that loss was muy importente," Don Ramon commented.

"You are right about that, Senor," Murdoch said and walked away with his other son.

******

Johnny was checking his cinch when they caught up to him.

"I thought we were going to eat," Scott said.

"I seemed to have lost my appetite," Johnny said curtly.

"Too bad, you have to eat something, Johnny, and right now," Murdoch ordered.

The glare he got didn't surprise Murdoch Lancer, it only surprised him it had taken this long. He knew Johnny was at the breaking point and he also knew how his son would react. Anger was his weapon and he used it as well as his gun.

He didn't want it to happen in the middle of Tucson however, so he silently mounted his own horse and waited for his boys.

Scott gave him a look of pure disbelief but he followed suit, trusting his father knew what he was doing.

Johnny vaulted onto Barranca's back and galloped out of town, leaving his family in the dust. Scott looked at Murdoch and saw the determined set of his jaw. It was then he realized what was about to happen and he set his own jaw in much the same fashion as they rode out after his brother.

******

Murdoch had pegged it right, knowing Johnny would not ride Barranca full out in the desert for very long. Soon they caught up with him and Murdoch silently rode alongside.

Johnny sat with his reins in a relaxed hand and Murdoch simply reached over and grabbed them, pulling the palomino to a halt. Johnny stared in disbelief as he waited for his father to say what was on his mind.

"Get down," Murdoch ordered gruffly.

Johnny only stared at him, unmoving.

"Either get down yourself or I'll put you down!"

Johnny's anger reached it's apex and he jumped off the horse taking a stance of defiance as he glared at his father.

"What?!"

Murdoch and Scott dismounted and the older man took a deep breath, changing his demeamor quickly.

"It's time to get this off your chest, son."

"Get what off my chest?"

"All of it. Maria, Elisa, all of it."

Johnny stood there, his breathing increasing in rate as the seconds ticked by. His eyes flickered between his father and brother then he dropped them altogether and turned his back.

Murdoch was there in a second, grabbing his shoulder and turning him back around. "Don't turn your back on me, Johnny. Spill it!" The gruff tone was back and Scott flinched but said nothing.

******

"Spill what? What do you want me to say? It hurts? Okay, it hurts! She hated me, Murdoch. Don't try and say she didn't, I saw it in her eyes yesterday. How am I supposed to feel? I hated her for so long, I ..... loved her for so long." His voice cracked and he looked away from his father's intense gaze.

When he spoke again, his voice was barely a whisper. "All my life she made me hate you. She lied to me at every turn. I was glad when I thought she was dead. I was glad to be free of her. But I didn't know then, I didn't understand how she felt about me. I thought she just didn't give a damn, I never knew she hated me."

"How am I suppose to live with that? How am I suppose to deal with my own mother hating me because ....."

"Because why, Johnny?" Murdoch asked. "Tell me, son."

"Because of you. Because she hated you and I reminded her of you." He turned around then to face his father. "Just like you can't stand to look at me sometimes because of her."

Murdoch felt his heart drop and his knees grow weak. He didn't realize Johnny knew about that. "I'm sorry, son. I'm so sorry."

"I know," Johnny whispered.

They stood there, eyes locked onto each other for an eternity.

******

"You have us, now, Johnny. Can that be enough?" Scott finally spoke.

Johnny broke the stare with his father and smiled at Scott. "It's more than I ever had before. I can't begin to ever understand her and I don't think I want to. Look, all I want to do is get out of here. Just put it in the past. Can we do that?"

"We can, son, as long as you deal with it first. You can't put something in the past until you're satisfied that it's truly done. If I've learned anything since you two came home, it's that."

"I'll never have all the answers and neither will you, Murdoch. It's just that .... well, it doesn't seem to matter so much anymore. Does it to you?"

"I have to say it doesn't, son. After talking to her, I can see that she never would have been satisfied at Lancer. The only regret I have is that she took you away from me."

"That's the biggest regret for me, too."

"I feel a little responsibility for that," Scott intervened.

Johnny looked quizzically at his brother then it dawned on him. "No, Scott. If it wasn't your mother, it would have been something else. I know my mother, believe me, it wasn't Catherine herself. She was never satisfied with anything. She always wanted more. I don't think she ever really knew what she wanted. Whoever this man she was with is, he must have found the key to her. That's all I can think. That, and I guess he's pretty well off," he added the last line with some sarcasm.

Watching them both so deep in thought, Johnny spoke once more. "She's dead, for real this time. Can we just forget about her and move on?"

Murdoch looked at him and believed Johnny was going to get past this. He knew it would take time and all the bravado in the world couldn't convince him his son was alright. But he would be, in time.

"And Elisa?" he asked.

Johnny sighed loudly, his frustration becoming more tenable. "She made her decision. Her father is more important to her than I am. There's nothing I can do about that and I don't want to even try."

Scott smiled a little and laid a hand on his brother's shoulder. "I was a little surprised you didn't belt Don Ramon. After all, he started this whole thing."

Johnny laughed softly. "I thought about it but, well, I did get a couple of cousins out of the deal. It's just ...."

"What, son?"

"Having Don Sebastian as an uncle, even by marriage..." Johnny shuddered dramatically.

This set all three men laughing and the feeling of family and love nearly overwhelmed them all for a moment. They shared a brief group hug as each man backed off, feeling a little embarrassed by the display.

"Well, I think we should get back. What's say we leave first thing in the morning?" Murdoch said.

"Great, I'll just go out tonight and make sure there aren't any rattlers around," Johnny grinned.

******

That evening, the Lancers and Cannons shared their last dinner together. Victoria had outdone herself with the meal and they all felt full and satisfied.

Don Sebastian announced he would be returning home the following morning himself and this brought a smile to the face of one John Cannon. Manolito could not help the laugh that escaped him when he saw this.

Sitting on the porch after dinner, the men basked in the quiet serenity of the night for a while until Don Sebastian spoke.

"Johnny, take a walk with me," he said and stood.

Johnny gave him a suspicious look but agreed.

As they walked slowly around the house, Don Sebastian began. "As you know, Mexican tradition is grounded in the idea of family. It does not matter if the ties are by blood or marriage. You are my sobrino and I am your tio. Manolito and Victoria are your blood. This is muy importante, you agree?"

"Yes, I agree."

"Good! I have been thinking a great deal about your situation, Johnny. Maria was a great disappointment to say the least but the rest of her family was not. I want you to know about them, about your familia."

Johnny stopped walking and faced the older man. "I would like to know about them," he said softly.

Don Sebastian found a log to sit on and Johnny joined him.

"Beautiful, isn't it, the night?"

"Si, tio," Johnny smiled.

Don Sebastian returned the smile and patted his leg. "My wife, your tia, she was a wonderful woman. Beautiful, strong and devoted to her children. Her name was Juanita."

******

Johnny looked up at him and a smile crossed his face.

"When your mama was very young, she adored her older sister. She would follow Juanita around everywhere. When I began to court her, Maria went with us. Her papa did not have to worry about a chaperone," Don Sebastian laughed.

"Your grandparents were honorable people. They worked hard and were well-respected in the community. Your abuela was a good woman with a kind heart. You abuelo was strong, stubborn at times but fair and honest with a kind heart as well. I believe you get some of your traits from them, Johnny. If you ever doubt how you became who you are, it is partly because of them. I do not know your father well, but I see he is a good man. You have benefited from both sides of your family."

"Don Sebastian, what happened? I mean, something must have caused her to become the way she was."

He frowned at the question he had been pondering himself. "I am not sure, Johnny. When Juanita and I married, she was her maiden of honor. She seemed so happy for us but after the wedding, she began to have problems. She became wild and uncontrollable. Her parents tried very hard but in the end, there was nothing they could do. She ran off when she was sixteen and they never saw her again."

"She told Murdoch they disowned her."

"That is not true, sobrino. They loved her very much. Their hearts were broken when she left."

******

Johnny sat there thinking, another lie she had told. When did it all start with her? The lies, the deceptions, the hate. It was more than he could fathom. Another thought came to him, one more pressing.

"I wanted to talk to you about Manolito, tio."

"Ah, that boy," Don Sebastian shook his head slowly.

"He's a good man. He's wild, yes, and he's made mistakes but he's honorable, Don Sebastian. Mano has a heart of gold, he would do anything for his family and friends. You should cut him some slack."

"He is irresponsible. He has no interest in the rancho or how to run it."

"He's changed a lot, I can see that. You're right, he doesn't agree with your business tactics but not many people do. You are a tyrant, old man," Johnny smiled.

Don Sebastian looked at him with surprise and indignation.

"Don't look at me like that. You did it to me, refusing to pay me for my services. And I know the story of how Victoria got married, old man. You're just lucky she loves Cannon or you'd have me to answer to," Johnny said stonily.

Don Sebastian gave him an exasperated look. "I knew she was in love with him."

"You did not. Don't even try that with me. Look the point is, Mano loves you. Take it from someone who knows, don't waste that, don't dismiss it because you will regret it and so will he."

******

"I did not bring you out here to talk about Manolito," Don Sebastian said stubbornly.

Johnny sighed and shook his head. "Is it possible to get stubborness by marriage? I mean, you are the king of stubborn. I can't help but wonder...."

Don Sebastian began to laugh heartily at this. "Si, it is in the blood on both sides, Juanito."

He became serious again as he studied the young man beside him. "Manolito has no interest in my rancho, Johnny. I began to think I would have no one to leave my estate to but my brother who is a soundrel."

"What are you saying?"

"Familia, Johnny. By marriage or blood, familia."

"Manolito is your son. The ranch is rightfully his. You may not think he wants it, tio, but I guarantee you, he will do you proud when the time comes."

"You truly believe that?"

"Yes, I do, truly," Johnny said firmly.

Don Sebastian nodded his head thoughtfully. "I always liked you. I know, I know, but I did. Even if you were a pistolero, I thought you were a good man."

"Yeah, okay," Johnny laughed. "I am glad we had this talk. Thank you for telling me about my family."

"It is my pleasure. I want you to know they would have loved you and embraced you into their hearts."

"Are they all gone now?"

"Si, I am afraid so."

******

When Johnny and Don Sebastian reappeared, the looks on his family's faces nearly caused him to fall out laughing. He smiled instead and they all relaxed. Johnny winked at Mano and this caused the man to sit up. He gave Johnny a questioning look but only got a grin for his trouble. Manolito knew he didn't like that and wondered what his father had said. More than that, he wondered what Johnny had said.

Don Sebastian said his goodnights and retired soon after giving Mano his opportunity. "What was that all about, amigo?"

"What? Oh, nothing, Mano, nothing at all."

"Oh no, I know something is going on. Tell me."

"We just talked about family," Johnny shrugged. Turning to his father, he had to ask. "Who named me?"

Murdoch raised a brow at the odd question. "Your mother."

"Manolito's mother's name was Juanita. Don Sebastian said mama used to follow her around like a pup."

"Yes, yes, this all very interesting but what did you say to my father about me, Johnny?" Manolito interrupted.

Johnny laughed. "Nothing bad, amigo. I swear," Johnny raised a hand.

Manolito gave him a look of uncertainty measured with distrust. "What?" he asked once more and firmly.

"I told him he should cut you some slack. That he should know that you love him and not waste your time together."

Mano relaxed and smiled a little. "I am sure he agreed with you completely," he said with an air of whimsy, his hand swaying through the air.

"He didn't disagree," Johnny shrugged.

******

The next morning, Don Sebastian arose early, surprising everyone. He explained he wanted to return home as soon as possible but would offer no reason why. The way the Don said it was what had their curiosity piqued. Knowing him, however, Johnny and Mano knew pushing the issue would do no good.

As he was about to climb into the surrey, Don Sebastian turned and faced his son. Placing a hand on each shoulder, he squeezed tightly. "Manolito, come see your poor old father soon, eh?"

Mano, clearly stunned by the display, nodded his head and smiled. "Si, papa, I will, I promise."

Johnny smiled at the old man who turned to him next. "And you, do not be a stranger to your familia. Blood is blood, recuerde?"

"Si, I'll remember," Johnny said and hugged the old man.

Don Sebastian smiled warmly at him which was another shock to all, then he hugged and kissed his daughter and was on his way.

As they watched the surrey drive off, Manolito wrapped his arm around Johnny's shoulders. "I do not know exactly what you said to him last night, amigo, but it has had an effect."

"I told you what I said, Mano," Johnny grinned.

"I think we should be going, too," Murdoch interrupted.

******

More sad faces loomed as the Lancers prepared to depart. Victoria walked up to Johnny. "I hope you will visit us again. I know it is difficult for you to be around me."

"Victoria, I'm sorry about that. But, you know, the more I looked at that picture of our mothers, the more I see how much you look like your own mother. I think I'll keep that in my head from now on," he smiled and kissed her cheek.

She smiled back and hugged him tightly. "We will miss you, Johnny."

"You should all come visit Lancer as soon as you can," Murdoch invited.

"We'll try, Murdoch. Maybe you can meet my son then," John said.

Johnny laughed softly and winked at Victoria. "Are you being a wicked stepmother? Chasing that boy away?"

"I did no such thing!" she decried and slapped his arm.

Mano approached his friend next and sighed deeply. "We have had many good times together, compadre. We will have many more, eh?"

"Si, Mano, many more."

"Perhaps I will tell your brother the real stories next time."

"Real stories? What real stories?" Scott asked, intrigued.

"Nothing, nothing at all," Johnny said and slapped Mano in the gut. "My brother is too young to hear about that!"

"Hey, I'm older than you!" Scott protested.

"Maybe, but you're still too young," Johnny laughed.

"Okay, now I have to know. Mano, write to me," Scott winked.

******

They mounted up and rode off, waving behind them. They could hear Manolito laughing as they went.

"Johnny, you have to tell me about these 'real stories'," Scott pushed.

"I'm not sure I want to hear them so you can just wait until I'm not around. I've heard enough of the adventures of Johnny and Manolito," Murdoch said humorously.

"Those were pretty .... risque. You can't tell me you two have done worse," Scott said.

"I didn't tell you anything, brother. Mano brought it up," Johnny shrugged.

"Well, at least tell me what it has to do with. What, rustling his father's cattle?" Scott teased.

"Cattle? No, it has nothing to do with cattle."

"Okay, drinking each other under the table," Scott guessed.

"Nope."

"Then it must be about women," Scott kept on. When Johnny didn't answer, his eyes lit up. "That's it, isn't it?! It's about women. Alright, little brother, I'll wait until we're alone but then you have to spill it!"

Murdoch smiled and shook his head at the antics. His face turned to a frown as something else came into his thoughts.

******

"What's wrong, Murdoch?" Johnny asked.

"Hmm? Oh, nothing, son, I was just thinking."

"It's getting pretty dark, we should find a campsite," Scott interjected.

Johnny kneed Barranca and rode ahead to find a good spot and Scott smiled ruefully. "Why does he always do that? Doesn't he think we're capable of finding a campsite?"

"Do you want to find one and listen to him tell us all night what a better one he could have found?" Murdoch asked wryly.

Scott laughed. "No, I don't."

When they got there, Johnny was hunting stones to make a fire ring. He had left Barranca saddled and Scott shot him a scornful look. "I get it now. It's not that we can't find a campsite, it's so he doesn't have to take care of the horses."

Murdoch laughed, "well, I didn't want to give his trick away."

Once settled for the night, dinner having been devoured and all secured, the Lancers sat by the fire nursing their coffee.

Murdoch watched Johnny's face in the firelight, a bit bemused by the way the fire flickered in his eyes and gave them the illusion of twinkling stars. He could tell by his son's expression that it was indeed an illusion. Johnny was deep in thought and Murdoch knew exactly what those thoughts were about.

Glancing over at Scott, Murdoch saw he was watching his brother as well and he smiled at the protectiveness Scott displayed. Not one for showing his emotions, Scott nevertheless was always ready and willing to come to Johnny's side.

******

"I'm alright," Johnny spoke softly into the fire. He glanced at them both and smiled at the odd looks on their faces. "You two have been watching me like hawks all night."

While they were both a bit embarrassed at being caught, both were as amazed as ever at Johnny's ability to see without looking, to hear without listening.

"Are you sure about that, son?" Murdoch spoke first.

"Yeah, I think so anyway," Johnny smiled.

"I'm amazed you're such a good poker player, Johnny. You don't lie very well," Scott said sardonically.

Johnny threw a small pebble at his brother. "Thanks, I think."

"There is something I wanted to say to you, son."

"Sure."

"Well, it's about what you said to me yesterday in the desert. About my not being able to look at you. It's true it was hard for me. You remind me so much of her, but it wasn't .... I mean I never hated you, Johnny. It was a painful reminder of what I'd lost."

"I know you don't hate me, Murdoch. At first, I wasn't so sure, but .... well, I guess I can understand."

"No, it was wrong. If I have learned anything from this mess, it's that. No child should have to suffer for what their parents have done. It's not right and I have no excuse other than I didn't know I was even doing it for a long time."

"I forgive you," Johnny smiled.

"So do I," Scott added.

"You? What did I do with you, Scott?" Murdoch asked.

******

"It isn't what you did to me, it's what you did to Johnny."

"I have to wonder how I managed to survive all these years without my big brother to watch my back," Johnny grinned.

"I wonder about that myself, little brother. It can't have been easy but then, I believe you must have an angel on your shoulder."

Johnny snorted at that comment. "More like a devil."

"Stop that! Even if you're just joking, I don't like to hear you put yourself down. Haven't enough people done that for you?" Scott lashed out.

"Whoa, Scott. Take it easy," Johnny raised both hands to ward off his brother.

"I'm sorry, I just don't like to hear you talk like that."

"I was just kidding, Scott."

"Were you, Johnny? I mean, were you really? You do that all the time, make jokes about how you're going to hell and the devil's after you and how you deserve what happens. It isn't true, you know. I have never met a kinder, more caring individual. If anybody deserves a break, it's you and I'm quite certain there is a place for you with the angels." Scott stopped, realizing he'd said too much and let his emotions get out of hand. He dropped his eyes, embarrassed by the uncharacteristic display.

Johnny and Murdoch exchanged humored glances and Johnny scooted over to his brother's side.

"That was really nice, Scott. Very sweet and touching, really. I appreciate the kindness and well, I'd just like to say that I hope when I do meet the angels that you're one of them." He tried to hide the smile that was working itself across his face but he just couldn't manage it.

******

It took Scott a split second to realize what his brother had just said, then he looked up into those devilish eyes and grabbed him around the neck. They wrestled on the ground for a few minutes before Murdoch thought to stop them.

He was having too much fun watching his sons 'play' together. Besides, he was still laughing at what Johnny had said. He finally decided it was enough and pulled himself together.

"Boys! I think it's time for bed," he grumbled.

They stopped cold when they heard his voice and looked at him sheepishly, then burst out laughing. Disentangling themselves from each other, they exchanged a slap on the back and went about getting ready for the night's sleep.

Murdoch volunteered for first watch so he could watch his sons in slumber. It was a rare opportunity and he relished in it. As they settled down, which took a few minutes of chuckling and slapping at each other, he smiled widely.

How could a man be so lucky? he thought. This question struck him hard. He had never thought of himself as lucky with all he'd endured in his life. Yet, here he was, watching his sons sleep, and he was happy. Happier than he could remember being in a very long time.

Whatever pain and humiliation he had gone through in his life, if this was the end result then, yes, he was a very lucky man indeed.

Murdoch Lancer sighed softly and leaned back against his saddle. He looked up at the stars and said a silent thank you to the greater force in all their lives.

THE END

Epilogue to follow

Fugitive Epilogue

The Lancers decided it would be best to stop in Green River and see Val before heading home. Johnny was a bit amazed to find out his friend had formed a posse but he realized Val had a job to do, unpleasant as it may be.

He rode into town flanked by his family and people stopped in the street to stare at him. He almost smiled but kept his face blank as his eyes focused only in front of him.

He strolled into the sheriff's office and plopped down in the chair opposite Val's desk with a big grin on his face.

"I've come to turn myself in, Sheriff," he said, holding his arms out to be cuffed.

Val glared at him, his eyes narrowing. "Is that a fact?'

"Yessir, it is."

"I ought ta throw ya in that cell right now."

Johnny laughed. "Come on, Val, how could you think I'd kill a lawman?"

"Never said I did but I had to go by what the witnesses said," the sheriff grumped.

"Yeah well, I got a few choice words for those witnesses," Johnny grumped back.

******

"You wouldn't happen ta know anything about a dead body found south of town, now would ya?" Val asked with a raised brow and a sideways look.

"Yeah, I did that. He was the one that shot the sheriff. I was just trying to track him down - for you." Johnny protested innocently.

"Oh, for me. Well, ain't that nice!? How about you let me do my job from now on and stop runnin off?" he frowned.

"Okay," Johnny feigned remorse.

"Well, tell me what happened," Val said, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms.

Johnny began to relate the sequence of events as they had occurred, leaving out some of the more delicate issues. When he finished, Val only nodded his head.

"Sounds like you, all right. Well, what're ya sittin there for? Go home and stop botherin me."

Johnny smiled his most winning smile and stood up. "I am sorry, Val," he said, this time with true remorse.

"Ah, go on," Val waved him off.

******

Johnny joined his family outside and they rode toward home, still receiving suspicious stares from the townspeople. He figured Val would tell one or two people and the next time he was in Green River, they would all be looking at him very differently.

Riding under the gate, Johnny sighed in relief. What had started out as a simple trip to town for supplies had ended with a lot of pain and anguish for so many people. It would take time, he knew, but they would make it through. He was more sure of that now than he had ever been of anything.

Teresa was there, waiting for them as always and she hugged and kissed all three as she welcomed them home.

Jelly came around the side of the house then. "Well, finally decided ta come home, did ya?" he grinned.

Johnny returned the grin and walked over, throwing his arm around the older man's shoulders.

"Yep, we're home, Jelly. I need to talk to you, too."

"Bout what?"

"Oh, about your vision. I think you might need to get a new pair of glasses and start wearing them all the time," he feigned concern.

"Is that right?" Jelly puffed out his chest.

"Well, it's pretty obvious you can't see so good. You wouldn't make much of an eyewitness," Johnny said, cocking an eyebrow.

Jelly flushed and fumbled. "Now, Johnny, I never said I seen the whole thing. I only told Val what I did see. Can't draw no conclusions from that."

"That's not what I heard. I heard you were feeling pretty bad about it but that, well, you had to tell the truth." Johnny said with a firm nod.

******

"Now, just a minute....."

"In fact, you told Scott you ain't never seen me so mad. Well, I gotta tell ya, Jelly, that wasn't mad. No, that wasn't mad at all. See, if I was really mad at someone, I'd make them pay."

"Johnny, just hold on ....."

"And the way I'd make them pay would be to take something they valued," he continued on.

"What does that mean?" Jelly asked fearfully.

Johnny looked over at the barn door where Dewdrop was waddling about. "You know I have got me a taste for something different for supper. Teresa, do you have a recipe for goose?"

"Oh, no, you don't," Jelly said and headed for Dewdrop.

Johnny ran past him and started chasing the terrorized fowl around the yard as Scott, Murdoch and Teresa laughed their heads off at the sight.

Jelly was doing everything he could think of to divert Johnny from the bird and Dewdrop squawked and fluttered his feathers as he grew more anxious.

Jelly yelled how sorry he was and swore never to talk to another lawman as long as he lived but Johnny was not deterred. He finally wrestled the bird into his arms.

A wicked smile came on Johnny's face as he turned to look at Jelly. His hand went to Dewdrop's neck and he stroked the bird.

"Johnny, don't you do it, I mean it now," Jelly said.

Murdoch wrapped an arm around Scott's shoulder and smiled. "You were right, son. He is tough."

 

 

~end~
2003

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