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Winj

 

Fall from Grace

 

 

 

First in the Grace series, followed by La Vuelta

 

"I'm not gonna talk to you about this!" Johnny yelled.

"Why not?" Murdoch demanded.

"Because you don't know anything about it!"

"I was married to the woman, Johnny. I think I know a little about her!" Murdoch shot back.

"Really, then why did she leave?" Johnny said sarcastically.

"That was unnecessary, Johnny. You always think I don't want to talk to you. The truth is, you won't talk to me," Murdoch pointed out, calming his tone.

"Why do you think that is?" Johnny asked, lowering his voice as well.

"I don't know. Why don't you tell me?"

"What do you want to know, Murdoch? What is it you want me to tell you?" Johnny asked.

"How she died, for starters," Murdoch said.

Johnny stared at him for a long moment, his expression was one of surprise. "What?" he whispered.

"You heard me, Johnny. I want to know how your mother died," Murdoch restated firmly.

Johnny shook his head slowly. "Who told you she was dead?" he managed to mumbled.

"What do you mean? I thought .... what are you saying?" Murdoch asked, stunned at his son's question.

"I'm asking you why you thought she was dead," Johnny demanded.

"The report .... the Pinkerton's ... it always said you were all alone. I ... I just assumed...."

"You just assumed my mother wouldn't walk out on me like she walked out on you," Johnny finished tersely.

*****

Murdoch sat down in the leather desk chair and stared at his youngest son. "Are you telling me Maria is alive?"

"No, I'm telling you I don't know," Johnny said simply.

"Maybe you had better start at the beginning, son," Murdoch said, totally confused by the revelation.

Johnny sat down on the sofa and Murdoch stood and walked over to a chair near him. "When I was ten years old, she told me I was old enough to take care of myself. She said I didn't need her to wipe my nose anymore and she had a life to live. She packed up and left and I haven't seen her since." He told the story as if it were someone else's tale, detached and unemotional.

"You mean to tell me she left a ten year old boy to fend for himself in border towns?!" Murdoch exploded.

Johnny simply shrugged.

"How, why? Where did she go?" Murdoch sputtered out the questions Johnny had no answer for.

"Now you know. Happy now?" Johnny clipped.

Murdoch shook his head slowly as he tried to digest this information. "I never thought she would ever leave you. She was so possessive of you, so ...."

"Maternal?" Johnny sneered. "What do you want me to say? That I understand why she did it? I don't, Murdoch. And I really don't care."

****

"Don't you? Care, I mean," Murdoch asked with raised brows.

"I gave up on her as soon as she walked out the door. Yeah, it hurt. Hurt like hell but there was nothing I could do about it. I wasn't gonna beg her to stay or chase after her," Johnny said softly.

"Too stubborn?" Murdoch asked rhetorically.

"Too proud," Johnny answered anyway.

"Why didn't you tell me about this before, Johnny?"

"Why? What difference does it make? Look, as far as I'm concerned, she is dead, muerto e ido ."

"And you've never even wondered?" Murdoch asked.

"Wondered what?"

"Where she is, what she's been doing all this time?"

Johnny looked suspiciously at his father. "No, but you are, aren't you?"

"I can't help but wonder what happened to her, Johnny. She was, is, my wife," Murdoch replied.

Johnny jumped up from the sofa. "Well, let me tell you something, old man. If you've got a mind to track her down, forget it. She don't want to be found and even if you did find her, what makes you think she'd ever come back here!"

"You," Murdoch answered simply.

" Somethin wrong with your hearing? I told you she walked out on me! Murdoch, don't. Just don't even think about it. If you do, you can say goodbye to me right now. I don't want to see that woman, now or ever!" he shouted and stormed out the door.

*****

'So much for a nice talk,' Murdoch thought as he cringed at the slamming door.

"Who was that?" Teresa asked as she came in from the kitchen.

"You really have to ask? It was Johnny," Murdoch replied.

"What happened this time? I thought you were going to make nice while Scott's in San Francisco ," she said.

"I was trying. Teresa, Johnny's mother is alive. Or at least she was the last time he saw her," Murdoch told the girl.

Teresa's eyes grew wide with amazement. "What happened?"

"She walked out on him when he was ten," Murdoch said gruffly.

Teresa would never utter the words she was thinking but if ever there were a time she felt like cursing, this was it. "How could she? How could she leave him alone like that? And not even bother to tell him she was lying about you? He could have come home, she should have sent him home!" she decried.

Murdoch stared at her. The thought had yet to occur to him. His anger rose to new heights at this idea. "That's it! I don't care what Johnny says. I'm going to find that woman and shake some answers out of her once and for all!"

"Murdoch, maybe you shouldn't. Wouldn't it be better to just let it lie?" Teresa said calmly.

"No, Teresa. This has been between Johnny and me from day one and it's never going to be settled without Maria. I always thought we would never know the truth but know I have a chance to find out. I have to try," Murdoch declared.

***

Johnny stomped into the barn and picked up the curry brush. He tossed it in the air a couple of times before putting it back in it's place. He sighed and looked at Barranca, then walked over and petted the horse's neck. "Sorry, boy, don't think it'd be a good idea for me to brush you down right now," he smiled weakly.

He walked over and sat on a bale of hay, swinging his legs. He should have lied to the old man. Should have told him she was dead. That would have put an end to it. Now, he knew Murdoch wouldn't let it go. He could see it in his eyes. The love was still there. Incredible, he thought. How much is a man willing to put up with for love?

He knew in his heart it was a train wreck waiting to happen. She didn't want Murdoch, she didn't want him. She didn't know what the hell she wanted and never had. Well, he would give up no more information. He had held back that much. He knew where she was, or at least, he had a pretty good idea. No way was he gonna tell Murdoch though. The thought of seeing her again after all this time made his flesh crawl. How could he get his father to drop this without telling him everything?

****

The next morning, Johnny came down to breakfast to find a near empty kitchen. Teresa was by herself, sitting at the table.

" Mornin ," he said.

"Oh, good morning, Johnny. I'll get your breakfast," she smiled.

"Thanks, whereâ€s Murdoch?" he asked as she sat a cup of coffee in front of him.

"Oh, he's been up and out for an hour now," she replied quickly.

Johnny turned to look at her back. "Where?"

"I'm sure I don't know," she shrugged.

When Teresa turned around, Johnny was standing right behind her. She jumped from being startled.

"Where did he go, Teresa?"

She was surprised by his cold tone and menacing stance but she held her ground and jutted out her chin. "I told you I don't know, Johnny."

He stared at her for what seemed like eternity before turning and walking out the back door.

****

Johnny headed for the barn and saddled Barranca quickly. When he walked the horse out, he saw Cipriano. "Did you see my father this morning?" he asked brusquely.

"No, is there a problema ?"

"I'm sure there is. Thanks," Johnny mumbled. He mounted up and headed for town.

Johnny rode at a quick pace, cursing under his breath the entire time. He didn't think he'd ever been so angry before. The only good thing about it was it didn't seem to take long to reach Green River .

He headed for Murdoch's attorney's office, figuring it was his best chance of finding his father.

Johnny walked into the outer office and was met by the secretary. He made a concerted effort to be civil.

" Mornin , ma'am. Is my father here yet?"

"Oh, yes, he arrived a while ago. I didn't know you were joining the meeting," she replied a bit puzzled.

"Yeah, I got a late start. I'll just go on in." He smiled charmingly.

"Alright," she swooned.

****

Johnny walked into the lawyer's office and glared at his father when Murdoch turned to see who was there.

"Johnny! What are you doing here?" Murdoch asked, stunned.

"I could ask you the same thing," Johnny hissed.

Murdoch's face gave nothing away, or so he thought. "I have business with Mr. Carpenter if you must know."

"Ranch business?"

"Look, I don't know what you think you're doing, young man, but..."

"I know what I'm doing. If this is ranch business then I have a right to know about it. If it isn't, then you and I have some things to discuss ... privately." Johnny held his temper with everything in him.

"Perhaps I should leave the two of you alone. I have some papers to file at the courthouse anyway. I should be gone, half an hour?" Mr. Carpenter said, embarrassed by the obvious conflict. He grabbed his briefcase and walked out, closing the door behind him.

****

Johnny took off his hat and flung it on a chair. "What are you doing, Murdoch?"

"Johnny, listen to me. It's time we laid all these questions to rest. We have an opportunity here to do just that. If I can find Maria..."

"No! Damn it, Murdoch! Don't you understand? She doesn't love you! Get that through your head. She doesn't love you or me or anyone. She's not capable of it!"

"Keep your voice down! This has nothing to do with me loving her or her loving me. It has to do with why she did the things she did. Maybe there is no answer that can satisfy either of us, but we'll never know if we don't ask her."

"I don't care why. I don't want to see her again. Why can't you understand that?" Johnny was almost pleading now.

"I know she hurt you deeply, son. Believe me, I understand that. But we can never put this thing behind us if we don't find out the truth. You and I will never be able to get beyond it. Don't you see that?" Murdoch reasoned.

Johnny approached his father, taking hold of his arm. "Yes, we can. All we have to do is forget about it, forget about her. Please, Murdoch."

"Are you that afraid of her, Johnny?"

"I'm not afraid of her! I'm afraid of what I might do to her!"

*****

"Johnny, you could never hurt a woman, not any woman. I refuse to believe that. Now, what are you really afraid of?" Murdoch asked in a paternal tone.

Johnny's eyes went to the floor. "I'm not afraid of anything. Don't you see? Nothing good can come of this," he mumbled.

"I don't agree. I think a lot of good can come of it. I understand you don't want to see her, that's fine. If I do find her, I will keep her away from you," Murdoch compromised.

"You think it'll be that easy? Dios , you have no idea what you're doing."

"Maybe you have something else you want to tell me," Murdoch tried.

"No, nothin . Just ... keep her away from me. Tell her I'm dead if she even bothers to ask."

"Of course, she'll ask. You know, this could all be for naught. Who's to say I can even find her? I certainly couldn't before," Murdoch reminded him.

****

Johnny waited for his father to finish his business at the lawyer's office. He paced the boardwalk restlessly. It was a mistake, a huge mistake. He knew it yet he couldn't prevent it. He realized it would not matter to Murdoch if he did leave, he was on a quest.

Murdoch walked out of the building and smiled at his son. He did not receive the same in kind. Johnny shot him an irritated look and went to the hitching post.

"Are you going to be like this all the way home?”

"Longer than that I suspect," Johnny muttered and mounted up. "Well, are you coming?"

Murdoch stood and stared at him, then went to mount his horse. They rode out of town together.

"You never know, this could be a wonderful thing, Johnny. People change, you showed me that," Murdoch said after half an hour of silence.

Johnny considered his words carefully for once. "I didn't change, Murdoch. I grew up a little, maybe. I'm the same person inside I always have been. So is she," he said snidely.

"You're so sure about that?"

"Yep," Johnny sighed.

*****

"There is something you're not telling me, isn't there?" Murdoch asked as they approached the estancia.

"I'm sure there's a lot I could tell you, but I'm not going to," Johnny said flatly.

"Why?"

"Because, it's none of your damned business! Look, if youâ€re hellbent on doing this, I can't stop you. Just do what I asked and keep her away from me," Johnny flashed.

Murdoch stared at him in astonishment. "I have never known anyone who can go off as fast as you, Johnny. What did I say?"

"I told you I didn't want you to do this but you don't care what I want. You can say whatever you like, the fact is you want her back. Well, that'll happen when hell freezes over. But just so we're perfectly clear, I will not live with that woman again! So if you plan on bringin her back to Lancer, you can say adios to me, Murdoch!" Johnny spewed his anger then walked away.

Murdoch looked toward heaven and prayed Scott would not be delayed on his trip home. Of course, he had no idea how his older son would react to all this. He only hoped Scott could understand his point of view and talk to Johnny. He wasn't about to give up himself just yet, however.

****

"Johnny, you can't be serious. I told you I don't want her back," Murdoch tried as he walked into the living room.

"Yeah, right."

"What is it you're so afraid I'll find out?"

This question caused Johnny to turn and face his father. He quickly turned his back again to avoid the glare of his father's eyes.

"I asked you a question," Murdoch pressed.

"If I wanted you to know something, I'd tell you."

"Johnny, I don't know what else to say to you. I wish you could understand why I have to do this."

"I wish I'd told you she was dead."

"You don't mean that."

Johnny turned and this time he locked onto his father. "Yes, I do. It's you who doesn't understand so let me spell it out. I hate her!"

****

"Hate who?" Scott asked from the doorway. They had not noticed his arrival and he had remained quiet for a moment, dreading making his presence known.

"Welcome home, son," Murdoch said less than enthusiastically.

"Gee, thanks. Do I even want to know what it's about this time?" he retorted.

"Hey, brother. Good trip?"

"Yes, it was fine. Are you going to make me repeat myself?"

"I'm not, the answer is no, you don't want to know," Johnny replied then left the room.

Scott turned his attention to his father. "Murdoch?"

"Sit down, son. I'll explain everything," Murdoch sighed.

Scott sat with his mouth open as he heard the story Johnny had relayed to their father.

"I wasn't sure if you already knew and promised not to say anything or not," Murdoch finished.

Scott shook his head in disbelief. "No, I had no idea. My God."

"I need you to talk to him, son. He won't listen to me. "

"I'll talk to him, Murdoch, but I won't promise anything."

****

Scott walked into his brother's room without knocking. "Well, I can't say things are ever dull around here."

Johnny was lying on his bed with his hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling. He made no reply.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

" Nothin to talk about. The old man's got his mind made up. Nothing I say is gonna make a difference."

"I know this may sound like a dumb question but, why don't you want to see her? Seems to me you might want some answers."

"I have all the answers I need, brother. She can't tell me anything new," Johnny sighed.

"Well, I'm still pretty stunned by this whole thing. I don't know all the details, Johnny. Neither does Murdoch, evidently. So if what I'm about to say doesn't sit well with you, well, you can only blame yourself. It just seems to me if my mother were alive, I'd want to take any opportunity to talk to her."

"I'm sure you would. Of course, your mother wasn't a whore," Johnny snapped.

Scott didn't know what to say to that statement but he wanted some clarification. "Johnny, is it really necessary to call her names?"

"I ain't callin her nothin ! That's what she was, still is I'm sure. She didn't get money, just got herself 'taken care of'.   Me too, if I was lucky. Most of the time, I just got sent off for a day or two until she was finished. Told me I could take care of myself. Yeah, I took care of myself alright." Johnny's face was getting redder by the second as he spewed his contempt.

Scott knew he'd made a mistake and his mind was whirling with how to assuage his brother. "I'm sorry, I didn't know," was all he could come up with.

****

Johnny leapt off the bed and stood at the window, his arms wrapped around his chest. Scott could see he was struggling for control of his emotions.

"All my life, I've felt like I didn't matter. Like I wasn't worth a damn. I blamed Murdoch for a long time but it was her. I just couldn't let myself believe it. I wanted to remember her as a sweet, loving mother. But she wasn't, Scott. She was never like that. It was always what good could I do her; how much leverage could she get out of being a poor mistreated woman left with the burden of raising a halfbreed kid on her own. She really played that one up.

â€I guess I got too old to be pitied so she had no more use for me. Murdoch can believe what he wants, try to remember some woman that never existed, but I know different." Johnny spoke softly now, trying not to remember too much pain.

Scott listened to his brother and finally understood where Johnny's feelings of worthlessness stemmed from. It wasn't Madrid . That was a mask, a put-on to hide the 'secret identity' of Johnny Lancer. The real root of his pain was his own mother's betrayal and his assumption of his father's abandonment. He wanted to go to his brother, wrap his arms around him and tell him how much he was loved, but he sensed Johnny didn't want that closeness right now so he stayed where he was.

"I'm sorry, I didn't know. I hate what she did to you, Johnny. More than ever, I just want to wrap my hands around her throat and ... well, talk to Murdoch. Explain things to him so he'll understand, like you just did with me. I know he'll give up on trying to find her if you would just talk to him."

"I can't, Scott. Don't you see? It wouldn't matter what I told him. All he can think about is finding her. Finding his wife. He won't stop until he does and then, then he'll find out the truth. But it won't be from me. I can't tell him ... he won't believe me. "

"Are you so sure about that?"

"More sure than I've ever been about anything."

***

Mexico City

The beautiful dark-haired hostess wound her way gracefully through the throngs of people. How she loved these parties. She was glowing with the pure pleasure of being the 'Dona'. No other woman in the city could claim to have her expertise in throwing the best parties for all the right people. The Governor himself had told her many times that she was the perfect hostess.

She made her way to her husband's side and slipped her arm under his, giving it a light squeeze.

"Ah, there you are, mi amor . I hope you are not working so hard that you do not enjoy your own party." He smiled lovingly at her.

"No, mile, I am having a wonderful time," she replied warmly, her smile radiant even in the well-lit room.

"And a wonderful party it is, Senora," a guest interjected.

She thanked him demurely and made her excuses to mingle amongst the crowd once more. She approached a group of her female friends and listened in on their conversation.

"Ah, but my Miguel, he is so curious. He must know the what and why of everything," one woman said.

"I know, my daughter Felicity is the same. Mama, why is the sky blue, why is the grass green? Why mama, why, why, why?" another woman laughed.

"Maria, why is it you have never had children, my dear?" one friend asked.

"It was not to be, I suppose," she said, her face a mask of stone, then she quickly left the group.

She suddenly felt very tired and hoped the party would wind down soon. It was nearly midnight before the last guest left, however.

She sat on the credenza and sighed heavily.

*****

"Tired, miel ?"

"Si, very tired," she replied.

"I have business to attend to and I do not know how long I will be."

"Alright, miel . I think I will retire. Buenos noches ." She smiled at him.

He kissed her cheek and went into his study. She watched him disappear and knew he would be up all night. She sighed and climbed the stairs to her bedroom.

Maria began to undress and removed her jewelry, placing it carefully in it's box. She stopped with her hand lingering over the ornate compartments. She closed the lid and lifted the box, springing the hidden drawer underneath. She pulled out the photograph and stared at it, then she held it to her breast and felt the tears fall down her cheeks. 'Where are you now, nino ?'

****

Cailfornia

Murdoch sat at his desk reading over the contracts for the cattle he was selling. He was engrossed in the figures and jumped a foot when he heard the knock at the door. He got up, aggravated at the interruption, and answered.

"Mr. Lancer?"

"Yes."

"My name is Stevens. I'm with the Pinkerton agency."

"Oh, please, come in," Murdoch said, relieved Johnny was riding range with his brother.

Seating the man, he waited anxiously for any news.

"Well, I have a report for you," the man started. "We have located your wife."

Murdoch sat stunned, he hadn't expected this rapid progress. Suddenly, he felt angry. "So soon?" he clipped.

"Yes, well the Pinkerton's do work fast," the man smiled.

Murdoch snorted at this comment. "Then why did it take twenty years to find my son? Never mind, let me see the report," he said gruffly.

He flipped through the pages and stopped, paralyzed. "Married? How can she be married to someone else?" he murmured.

"I'm sorry?" Stevens asked.

"Nothing, uh, thank you, Mr. Stevens. Just send me the bill," Murodch said and stood.

"If there's ever anything else you need, don't hesitate to call," Stevens said as Murdoch walked him to the door.

"Just one thing. This is personal and private," Murdoch said with a warning tone.

Stevens nodded his understanding and left.

****

Murdoch sat at his desk and went over the file in depth. Senora Maria Montoya of Mexico City . Her husband was a banker, very well off. She was prominent in the upper social circles and the toast of the town, evidently.

'Well, I guess you finally got everything you wanted, Maria,' he thought glumly. One part especially caught his eye, no children. He shook his head at the outrageousness.

He heard the ruckus of his boys coming home. He hadn't realized he'd been sitting there so long. He slipped the folder into a desk drawer and pretended to concentrate on his contracts. Three weeks had gone by since he first employed the Pinkertons to once more try and find his wife. He was stunned it took so little time.

Johnny and Scott made their entry gregariously, each in a headlock from the other. Murdoch smiled at his sons' playfulness with each other and wondered once more at how wonderful it would have been to have them both grow up here.

"Hi," Scott greeted.

"Boys, how are things?" Murdoch asked the same question as every day.

"Well, there was a stampede and we lost all the cattle in the south pasture, then there was the fire up on the ridge, oh and the fenceline was totally destroyed by the stampede," Johnny reported seriously.

"I see. So, just a normal day," Murdoch cracked.

"Yeah, pretty much," Johnny said as he plopped on the sofa.

"I, uh, had a visitor today," Murdoch started.

"Male or female," Scott grinned.

"Male, a Pinkerton agent."

Johnny tensed immediately. "Well?"

*****

"They found her," Murdoch said simply.

Scott moved covertly to his brother's side.

"She's living in Mexico City ... with her husband," he continued.

"Funny, I thought you were right here," Scott interjected snidely.

"What else?" Johnny asked, ignoring Scott's jibe.

"Her 'husband' is wealthy and she is apparently quite the socialite," Murdoch reported, though he couldn't hide the sarcasm in his voice.

Johnny nodded, not surprised at all. "So, now what?"

Murdoch looked into his son's eyes but he couldn't tell what Johnny was thinking. He sighed heavily. "Now I guess I have a long trip ahead of me," he finally said.

Johnny's eyes narrowed dangerously as he stared at his father. "Why? There's no point," he said through clenched teeth.

"There is a point, Johnny. The same point as always."

"Right, to screw up my life!" Johnny jeered.

"No, Johnny! To put an end to this. To be able to go on, to know the truth once and for all and put it behind us!"

"It is behind us, if you'll just let it go!"

"Stop it, both of you!" Scott said. "This isn't helping anything. Johnny, if you want him to understand, you're going to have to tell him something, anything," he added, turning to his brother.

Murdoch crossed the floor to sit in front of his boys. "He's right, you know. So far you haven't told me much of anything. I know you're angry with her, son, but I need to know some things for my own peace of mind. I promised you I wouldn't try to bring her back her and I won't. What more can I do?"

Johnny watched his father's face and knew he couldn't win. "Do what you have to, Murdoch. Just keep your promise," he said softly.

***

Scott walked out on the veranda that evening to find his father enjoying a cigar. "We need to talk, Sir."

Murdoch turned to face him, unable to read the expression on his son's face. He simply nodded.

"Johnny is really upset about all this. He can't tell you how much she really hurt him."

"Why? Why can't he tell me?" Murdoch asked.

"He doesn't think you'll believe him."

"Of course I'll believe him!" Murdoch flashed.

"Then get him to talk to you. Don't leave here without at least trying to set things right, Murdoch. I'm not so sure he'll be here when you get back if you don't," Scott said firmly.

They both turned as they heard the front door open and watched Johnny walk toward them. Scott gave his father a look that said 'now would be the time' and left them alone. He gave his brother's arm a squeeze before retreating into the house.

****

"Hey," Johnny said softly.

"Hello, son. Are you ready to talk?" Murdoch asked gently.

Johnny nodded his head and looked out over the land. Even in the darkness, he could see it in his mind's eye. "I love this place, Murdoch. It didn't take me long to either. I'm trying to understand why you feel like you have to do this."

"I'll try to explain, son. I need to know what happened. I need to know why she left the way she did. If she was unhappy, if she didn't really love me or ... whatever. When your mother left, I closed off my heart. I swore nobody or no thing would ever hurt me again. I turned into a statue, threw myself into building the ranch. I swear the only thing that kept me going at all was trying to find you. It was you I was searching for, Johnny. I think, no, I know if she had left you here with me, I could have let go. Now, all these years later, the questions just won't go away."

"You said the past was the past and what's important is what's happening now. Was that just because the ranch was in trouble?"

"No, I truly believed it. And, if I were completely honest, I couldn't bear the thought of trying to answer questions from you and your brother about what happened and why. It was unfair of me to expect you both to just drop it. You have a right to know what happened and so do I. "

"Are you sure you don't want her back?" Johnny asked, turning to face his father for the first time, watching his face and eyes for the truth.

"I suppose part of me will always love Maria but, no, I don't want her back, son. I only want the truth."

Johnny hmmphed at this. "Good luck getting that," he said dourly.

****

Murdoch made his travel arrangements and prepared to leave two days after receiving the information he had sought for twenty years. It still astounded him it took only three weeks to find Maria but he supposed now that she was a socialite, she was easier to track down.

He tied down the bedroll and grimaced at the thought of the long ride ahead of him. He heard a noise and turned to see Johnny standing behind him.

"Got everything?" Johnny asked.

"Just about."

Johnny fidgeted and looked at the ground. "I ... I don't want you to go but ... well, just be careful," he sighed.

Murdoch thought he sounded very young just then. Like a child who didn't want his father making a business trip without him. "Johnny, do you want to go with me?"

Johnny turned away and didn't answer.

"Son, I would love it if you would come but I don't want to pressure you into anything."

"I don't know what to do. I told you I hated her but ... that ain't true," he whispered.

"I know that. I can't imagine all the things you're feeling right now. I swear I wouldn't know what to do in your situation either," Murdoch said gently.

"But you know what you want ... need to do? How?"

"I just know. I can't explain it. I guess being left in the dark all these years has left me with so many questions, I have to take this chance."

"Guess I have a lot of questions, too. Plus the fact that I don't want you riding across Mexico alone. Can you wait for me?" Johnny said, a smile playing just at the corner of his mouth.

"You bet," Murdoch smiled.

****

After telling Scott and Teresa that Johnny would be joining his father, they rode away from the ranch. Scott smiled at Johnny's decision but part of him wanted desperately to be with his brother when he faced that woman again. Still, he knew this was not his fight and Murdoch would be there to help Johnny through whatever was going to happen. His apprehension was palpable as he watched them disappear down the road.

"What do you think she looks like now?" Murdoch asked as they rode along.

"The same as always, beautiful," Johnny shrugged.

"Scared?"

" Más que usted podían saber siempre ," he whispered. ( more than you could ever know)

"Oh, I think I can guess, at least. I just hope you can hold your temper," Murdoch said warily.

Johnny smiled at this. "I ain't promisin nothin ."

They rode along in virtual silence for the next few hours, commenting only on necessary things, until it started getting dark.

Johnny found a good spot to camp and they went about their business as if they had been camping together all their lives.

****

"I would guess about a week to get there," Murdoch commented.

"Yeah, guess so."

"Are you okay?"

"Sure, I'm great," Johnny clipped. "Sorry, guess I'm a little edgy," he added remorsefully.

"Can't you tell me about it, son?"

Johnny stared at the fire for a long moment then sighed. "Might as well. I guess it wouldn't be fair to let you walk in there blind."

He reached over and filled his coffee cup, then reached in his saddle bag and pulled out a flask. "Care for a nip?" He grinned as he poured the whiskey in his father's cup and then his own.

Swirling the liquid around, he stared intently at the brew. "She seemed to have this need to have a man around all the time. When there wasn't one, she was usually pretty good to me. Soon as she caught one up, that changed. None of them fancied havin a kid hanging around, especially ... me. So, she sent me away," he said with a sigh.

"Sent you away where?"

Johnny shrugged. "No place in particular. She'd just tell me to disappear for a few days. She had this signal for me when it was all clear. She hung a red shirt on the clothes line if it was okay for me to come home. I remember one particularly energetic fella , had to stay away for a week that time. Mostly it was for two or three days though."

"Where would you go?" Murdoch asked, trying to remain calm.

"Oh, sometimes I'd hang around the livery, sweepin out the stalls so I could sleep there. Sometimes, I'd go to the cantina. It depended on which town we were in. I always scoped every place out as soon as we hit town so I'd know where I could go."

"And this went on how long?"

"Long as I can remember. I guess my first really clear memories were when I was about five," Johnny said matter-of-factly.

Murdoch closed his eyes and dropped his head. He wasn't so sure he really wanted to see Maria now. He wasn't sure he wouldn't kill her on sight.

"Ugly, ain't it?"

"Yes, very ugly and inconceivable that a woman would do such a thing to her child!" Murdoch said curtly.

"I think I've had enough talk for one night. Goodnight, Murdoch," Johnny said and laid himself down.

"Goodnight, son," Murdoch answered, staring at the flames and wondering what was wrong with his son's mother.

****

There were more discussions on the way to Mexico City . More and more, Murdoch wondered if he wasn't making a mistake. He resolved to go through with it if for no other reason than to help his son lay some painful memories to rest. Johnny had told him some chilling stories of being on his own when his mother made him leave during her affairs. He was sure there were much worse stories that Johnny would never tell anyone.

He wondered just how much he could get Johnny to divulge. He had been very careful in his reactions, making sure Johnny never felt he was judging him or blaming him for his mother's outrageous behavior. They stopped for the night half a day's ride from Mexico City .

"How do you think we should go about this?" Murdoch asked as they sat by the fire.

"Best to go for a frontal attack as Scott would say. You know, the element of surprise," Johnny smiled.

"You can't hide it, you know."

"Yes, I can and you know that."

"Okay, you can't hide it from me. Is that better?"

Johnny smiled. "When did you get to know me so well?"

Murdoch shook his head. "I don't know, I guess I've just paid attention more."

"Honestly, I don't know how she'll react. I'm not even sure she'll recognize me," Johnny said and Murdoch heard the pain in his voice.

"Well, I don't think we should just barge in as soon as we arrive. I'd like to get the lay of the land first," Murdoch said, not knowing how to respond to Johnny's last statement.

"Sounds like a plan."

*****

They arrived in Mexico City late the next morning and secured a hotel room. They decided to walk around and get their bearings. Johnny had not been in the city for several years and then only briefly. Murdoch had never been there.

They found the villa where Maria lived not far from their hotel. It was impressive and huge. Johnny smirked at it, thinking how she must be loving the high life. She had always talked about snagging a rich man if she were only on her own. Well, she got exactly what she wanted.

They returned to the hotel to have an early supper and get a good night's rest in a real bed. Johnny picked at his food.

"You okay?" Murdoch asked.

"Yeah, just not hungry, I guess," Johnny said softly.

Murdoch raised a brow at the comment. "It's your favorite," he cajoled.

Johnny smiled at him. "There's nothing you can say to make me feel better. There's nothing you can do to help me get ready for this. I just don't want you to be surprised if I ... don't act like myself."

"Turning into Johnny Madrid isn't going to help you with this, son," Murdoch said knowingly.

"I disagree," Johnny replied flatly.

***

Maria finished giving her instructions to the cook for the evening meal and started dressing for her shopping trip. She smiled at her reflection in the mirror and thought she had held up quite well over the years. She floated down the stairs and into the living room with grace and ease. Her husband had commented on her gracefulness many times and she smiled at the thought of him.

She was surprised when she realized she loved him. It wasn't so in the beginning of their marriage. She had only thought of the prestige and wealth he could provide. But he was so attentive and loving toward her, she had begun to have deep feelings for him.

She heard the knock at the door but ignored it, retrieving her shopping list from the desk. The manservant entered the room and cleared his throat.

"You have guests, Senora," he announced.

"Guests? I am not expecting anyone. Who is it, Manuel?"

"They would not say, Senora. They said simply that they were friends of yours."

"How odd. Very well, show them in," she ordered, smoothing her dress and patting her hair. She pulled herself up erect, shoulders back and a pleasant smile plastered on her face.

****

Her smile faded immediately when she saw him. The man sheâ€d despised for so many years. She felt as if she had entered a nightmare and her head swam. The room was turning darker as she stared at the tall rancher. "Murdoch!" she whispered, then fainted.

Murdoch moved quickly to her side, picking her up easily and laying her on the sofa. Johnny stood in the doorway and watched the drama.

"Get some water, son."

Johnny looked at the manservant and gave a quick nod of the head, bringing the man out of his state of shock. He fled the room, returning quickly with a glass of water which he handed to Murdoch. "I will send for the Senor," he said.

"No, you won't. She'll be fine, just surprised at seeing an old ghost. Leave it," Johnny commanded with deadly eyes.

The man's face paled and he nodded and left the room.

Johnny walked over and stood behind his father, his face expressionless. "Nice little act," he said sarcastically.

"I don't think so. She's out cold," Murdoch disagreed.

*****

Maria moaned and her eyelashes fluttered against her cheeks. Murdoch thought how much like Johnny's they were.

She opened her eyes and gasped aloud, attempting to sit up.

"Easy, Maria. Take your time," Murdoch said gently.

Johnny had moved out of her line of vision, keeping back and watching her intently.

"Murdoch? What are you doing here?" she asked, still stunned.

"Here, just drink this first, then we'll talk," Murdoch said, handing her the water. He marveled at how beautiful she still was.

She took the water, sipping at it and eyeing him suspiciously.

"Better?" he asked.

"Si, gracias," she whispered.

"Good, if you've recovered, we can have a little chat now," he said grimly, standing and looming over her.

Her anger rose as did she but he still towered over her. "We have nothing to discuss. I want you to leave!"

"What about me? Do you have anything to say to me?" Johnny asked softly.

****

She whirled around and faced him. She stared hard into the blue eyes and thought she might faint again. "Johnny," she barely whispered his name.

He simply nodded his head once, staring at her with cold eyes full of anger.

She couldn't move, she was paralyzed. Her mind went back in time ten years and her eyes welled with tears. " Miel ," she said, her voice a little stronger now.

She moved around the sofa and approached him, her arms extending as she came near. Johnny backed away from her.

"Nino, is it really you?"

"Don't you know?" he asked sardonically.

"Si, I know. Look at you, so handsome. I do not understand. Why are you here with him?" she asked, spitting the 'him'.

Johnny looked at Murdoch, begging him with his eyes to intercede. He couldn't do this, not right now, not with her looking at him like that.

"Maria," Murdoch called her attention back.

She turned on him, her eyes flaming with hate. "Why did you bring him here? What do you want?"

"Answers," he replied simply.

*****

She stared at him, confused. "Answers to what?"

Murdoch looked disbelievingly at her and shook his head sadly. "I don't know where to start. How about with the night you skulked away from our home with my son!"

"You came all this way to ask me that? You are a bigger fool than I remember," she laughed.

"You got no room for callin names, lady," Johnny hissed.

"And you, why are you here?" she asked him.

Johnny shrugged his shoulders and a smile curved one side of his mouth. "I didn't want my father traveling in a foreign country alone," he drawled.

Murdoch sighed inwardly. 'Enter one Johnny Madrid,' he thought.

"So, you are with him now, is that it?"

"Si."

"Then you are a fool as well. I had hoped I taught you about him well enough. Apparently, I failed," she said, the venom in her voice surprising Murdoch.

It didn't seem to faze Johnny in the least. "As you did with so many things, woman," he said flatly.

She cringed at his tone but recovered quickly, smiling at him and moving closer. "And now you have come to be with your mama again. Is that right?" she asked seductively.

Johnny's eyes narrowed dangerously as the anger rose to new heights. He stared at her, locked into her gaze for several moments. "I came here for my father, not you."

****

He thought he saw a fleeting look of disappointment in her eyes, just before she dropped her gaze.

"Very well, what do you want, Murdoch?" she asked again, turning away from her son.

"To sit down and talk to you, Maria. That's all. I want nothing more than that from you," Murdoch said, calling on all his reserves to maintain some decorum. He wondered why he was bothering, but then he knew the answer. Johnny.

"In front of him?"

"Why not? Have you something to hide?" Murdoch asked, raising his brow.

"Always the 'holier than thou' attitude. You have not changed. Very well, we will sit and talk, but I see no point."

"No, I don't suppose you would," he clipped as he waited for her to take a seat.

Johnny sat near his father but far enough away not to be intrusive. He wanted to listen and try to hold his tongue.

"Where shall we begin?"

"At the beginning, Maria. I want to know everything," Murdoch answered with a look that told her he would not leave until he got exactly that.

***

"Why did you leave, Maria?" Murdoch asked. His voice was level, no accusation, no emotion.

"To get away from you! I could not compete with your mistress any longer," she spat.

"What the devil are you talking about?"

"El ranchero Lancer; your mistress. The only thing you could ever truly love. It was she that held your attention when I could not. It was she who you looked at so lovingly, not me. I could no longer stand to watch it, alone night after night," she said with the venom back in her voice.

Murdoch stared at her. "Why didn't you say something?"

"When? When was I supposed to say something? You never had time for me. You were always too tired at the end of the day and too busy at the beginning. The only thing you seemed to find time for was Johnny!"

"My God, woman. What is wrong with you? All you had to do was talk. I know I was busy building the ranch but I thought you understood. You said over and over that you understood," Murdoch replied in nothing short of pure amazement at her audacity.

"How could I understand? I would always be second, no, third in your heart. That ranch, Juanito , then me!"

****

Realization dawned on Murdoch then and he stared open-mouthed at the woman he thought he knew. "You took Johnny to hurt me, didn't you? You didn't want him, you just didn't want me to have him!"

"That is ridiculous!" she huffed.

"Sounds about right to me," Johnny spoke for the first time since sitting down.

"No, Johnny. That is not why I took you with me. "

"Then why?" he asked, thinking she actually sounded remorseful.

"You are my son," she explained simply.

Johnny started laughing at this, laughing hard. It took him a minute to pull himself together before he turned to her again. She was indignant with his behavior.

"Stop that! What is so funny?" she yelled.

"You are, woman. You took me because I was your son? Exactly when did I stop being your son, Maria? The day you ran out on me or was it before then?" he hissed through clenched teeth.

Her cheeks turned red and she dropped her eyes from his stare. "I never ... you have always been my son," she whispered.

****

It was Murdoch's turn now. "Then why did you leave him?"

"He was better off without me. I could not provide for him, I could not feed him as he should be fed, clothe him as he should be clothed," she said guiltily.

"I could. I could have done all those things for him but you chose to ignore that fact. You chose to make my son hate me for almost twenty years. You should have told him the truth, sent him home where he belonged!"

Her eyes flashed in anger as she turned on him. "You did not deserve him!"

"Didn't I deserve to have my father?" Johnny asked, more softly than he thought.

"No, not if this was the only father you could have! Besides, you seem to have turned out well," she shrugged.

Johnny's stomach tightened into a bed of rock. He stood up slowly and walked to her. Leaning down close to her face he spat the words. "I spent ten years of my life as Johnny Madrid."

She stared at him in pure horror as the words sank in. "No," she whispered in astonishment.

"Yes!"

****

Maria's mind raced with this information. How many tales had she heard of the infamous gunfighter? The halfbreed with the heart of stone and eyes to match. No, that was not her Johnny, her sweet, loving, trusting son.

"Why?" she finally gasped out.

"To survive! What did you think was going to happen to me, mama? Did you think I would just disappear into thin air? That I didn't need food, clothes, a home? Someone to ... did you even think about it at all? No, of course you didn't. You were too busy snagging yourself a rich man!" Johnny's face was a mere inch from his mother's as he let loose the anger that had been locked inside him for ten years. When he finished, he turned away from her and walked over near the huge fireplace.  

She stared at his back, unable to speak or even think.

"This is what your hatred for me cost our son, Maria. Tell me, was it worth it?" Murdoch said sarcastically.

She shot him a hateful glance then walked over to Johnny. " Miel , please?"

Johnny tensed under her light touch on his shoulder. A touch he hadn't felt in so very long. It was like a hot knife to him now. "Please what?" he whispered.

"Try to understand. I had nothing to give you."

He shook his head but would not look at her. "Only love. The one thing I needed more than food or clothes or shelter."

"I ... I assumed you would live in an orphanage," she stammered.

"Then you never knew me at all.   If you had, you would know I'd never go to one of those places. They tried to keep me there but it didn't work. I was too independent. Something you taught me to be. Remember?"

*****

She smiled wistfully for a second. "Si, I remember you were muy obstinado ."

"Nice to know you remembered anything at all. I wasn't sure you'd even remember my name," he cut.

She closed her eyes and sighed.   "So, you hate me for what I did. I knew you would. I could not explain it in a way you could understand.   I did what I thought was best for you, Johnny."

"Bull! You did what was best for you just like always! Whatever Maria wanted or needed was all that was important. I was just a nuisance, in the way most of the time. Just run along now, come back on a day or two. Mama needs her privacy. Dios ! You make me sick!" Johnny slammed the words hard as he turned to face her.

"You never cared about what was best for me. You never gave a damn if I came back or not. It took you a while, maybe you still had a little conscience then, but you finally got what you wanted. To be rid of the mestizo who ruined your life!"

"No, Johnny, no," she cried.

"How many times did I come home bruised and battered, and knifed that time. But you still kept sending me away time and again. And when I told you about ..." Johnny closed his eyes and shuddered a sigh. "You didn't believe me. You turned your back on me. Yes, I hate you for all those things. All I want to know is; how could you hate him more than you loved me?"

"I didn't, I..."

"You must have. You said it. You didn't want him to be my father. You should never have taken me from my home, my father. The one person who really did love me, Mother! All my life all I ever heard was how horrible Murdoch Lancer is. The monster who threw us out because he couldn't be bothered. Never once did I doubt your word, never once did you tell me the truth.

â€You couldn't even tell me I had a brother. You couldn't even leave me with that one piece of information that could have eased my soul." He was breathing heavily, the emotions laying waste to his endurance. His face was a portrait of angst, his eyes full of pure turmoil.

****

Murdoch had had enough of watching his son suffer. He walked over to the two of them and none too gently wedged himself between them. Placing a gentle hand on his son's shoulder, he spoke softly. "Do you want to leave now?"

Johnny looked up into Murdoch's eyes and broke. He fell into his father's arms and held on for dear life. Murdoch wrapped his arms protectively around his boy and squeezed tight.

Maria took all this in with amazement. She couldn't believe the gentleness with which her ex-husband handled her son. She thought back to the first time they had met in Matamoros . He had been kind and gentle with her. A true gentlemen . She remembered when he took her home to Lancer. How proud he was of the ranch, so many plans for the future. Those plans had included bringing his other son home. He had been giddy with excitement, explained the ordeal with the boy's grandfather and was certain that he could get the boy back. Now that he was married again, his family stable, he was convinced.

When had it all gone so wrong? When had she realized she had never truly loved him? She knew she married him so quickly because she was with child but she honestly believed she was in love. Perhaps she was at the time. In love with the idea of being in love at least. It had all been so romantic then with so many possibilities. But Murdoch Lancer had turned out to be much more work than she could ever have imagined and she knew she was not up to the task. She had turned that feeling of failure into hatred for the man standing before her now. The man so gentle and loving with her son, their son.

He turned his head toward her then. "We'll be leaving now," he said and she felt a twinge of regret.

"Johnny, wait. Will you see me again?" she asked.

He had recovered now, his eyes were blank, unfeeling and it startled her.

"No," he said simply and walked out.

"I think we're done here. We won't bother you again," Murdoch said sternly and followed his son out the door.

***

She stood there, frozen in place as she heard the front door slam shut. She leaned heavily against the hearth and wept silently.

"Senora?" Manuel asked from the doorway. "Shall I send for the Senor?"

"No, Manuel. Just leave me be," she said softly.

She walked over and sat back down on the sofa, remembering his breath on her face. He had been an inch from her, she could feel the warmth of his body, the heat he exuded. Dios , how she wanted to hold him, stroke his soft hair.  

She thought about the exchange she had witnessed between them. Father and son. How had that happened? When did Johnny go back to Lancer? He said he had been Johnny Madrid for ten years so it could not have been long. She shuddered at the thought of his life as a gunfighter. She longed to know the details.

What had driven her son to such lengths? He said it was survival. What had she done? She was so sure he would be taken into the orphanage, even though she knew there was little chance anyone would want him. At least, she had convinced herself, he would be well taken care of. Her thoughts leapt to her husband. He could never know of this. Murdoch had said they would not bother her again. Was he telling the truth or would he expose her lies? Fear clutched at her heart as she thought of the consequences.

*****

Johnny walked quickly down the street, causing Murdoch to hurry his longer strides to catch up. He grabbed Johnny's arm and pulled him around.

"Stop for a minute," he said.

"Let me go, Murdoch. Just leave me alone for a while. I'll meet you back at the hotel," Johnny said, almost frantic.

"No, son. I don't want you wandering the streets alone in this state. You need to settle down, take a deep breath and talk to me. "

"Talk about what? There's nothing to talk about. She ..." he dropped his head, his eyes filling.

Murdoch pulled him closer and rubbed his back. "Alright, come on, let's go back to the room," he said gently.

Johnny didn't fight him, he realized he was in no shape to be in public. God knew what he might do if challenged in the least, most innocent way.

*****

Once in the hotel room, Johnny walked over to stare out the window at the great city. Murdoch watched him for a minute then walked over to the table and poured two glasses of whiskey.

"Here," he offered the amber liquid.

Johnny took it and downed it in one gulp, taking a deep breath as it burned his stomach. "Thanks."

"Sit down, son. We need to talk about this."

Johnny sat on the bed and stared at the carpet. "Now you know why, we both know why. Can we go home now?"

"I want to go home but I also want to know what you're thinking right now." Murdoch sat down beside him.

Johnny shook his head. "I'm thinking that I was right all along and she's a spiteful bitch!" he spat.

Murdoch hesitated, trying to figure how to ask the next question. "I listened closely to you when you were yelling at her and there's something you said that I'd like to know more about," he started.

Johnny looked up at him. "What?"

"Well, you said many times you came home bruised, even knifed once. Then you said you told her something, then you stopped and just said she didn't believe you. Something terrible happened to you, Johnny. What was it?"

Johnny tensed immediately and looked away. He started to stand up but he felt his father's hand on his shoulder, firmly keeping him in place.

"Talk to me, son," Murdoch said softly.

"I got in a lot of fights. The other kids teased me, called me gringo or mestizo . The knifing was during one of those fights with an older boy. Surprised the hell out of me when he pulled that blade. I tried to stay away from the other kids so I usually ended up at the stables or cantinas, like I told you." Johnny stopped here, not sure if he could say the words.

"It's alright, son. I could never be ashamed of you," Murdoch said, seeming to read his son's thoughts.

*****

Johnny almost smiled at this. Murdoch really was able to read him better. "Most of the time the adults were fairly nice to me, or they just told me to get along. This one man, he ran a livery and he let me hang around and take care of the horses. Even let me sleep on a cot he had in the back. I went there whenever I had to stay away from home. We lived in that town for almost a year. Anyway, like I said, he was real nice to me. Gave me food, even gave me tequila sometimes. Made me feel kind of grown up."

Murdoch tried to see his son's face but Johnny wouldn't look at him and he thought it best to just let him get it out and not force anything at the moment. He noticed the boy gripping the whiskey glass tighter.

"One night after I'd cleaned out the stalls and fed the stock, he sat me down at the table and fed me tamales. Then he sat a bottle of tequila in front of me with salt and lime. He said it was time I learned how to drink like a man. I got really drunk and he put me to bed on that cot. Only, this time, he didn't leave. I ... don't remember all of it but enough to know what he did."

Murdoch fought with everything he had not to react, to let Johnny tell this and hold his temper. He said nothing and tried to stay as relaxed as possible.

"When I woke up the next morning, I had one hell of a hangover. I hurt all over but it didn't take me long to realize it wasn't all from the tequila. I managed to get home and saw the red shirt gone, her signal that I could come in. When I told her about it she said I was too young to be drinking and that I had dreamed the whole thing."

****

Johnny could hear Murdoch grinding his teeth and he knew instinctively that his father was not upset with him, didn't blame him. He wasn't sure how he knew it, but Murdoch's words rang in his head. 'I could never be ashamed of you'. He believed it and finished his story.

"The next day was when she told me I was old enough to take care of myself and she left."

Murdoch heard the shattering of glass and he looked down at his son's hand.   Johnny had squeezed the glass so hard during the telling that it had broken into a million pieces.

"Good Lord!" Murdoch exclaimed as he leapt up and grabbed a towel. He wetted it quickly and started cleaning the blood from Johnny's hand, examining the wounds.

Johnny sat there, staring at the blood blankly. He felt no pain from it, just an odd fascination at the sight.

"You've got one bad cut here, son. I think we should get a doctor to look at it," Murdoch was saying. He looked up and was startled by the expression, or rather lack of, on Johnny's face.

"Johnny?"

He blinked twice before meeting his father's concerned gaze. "I'm okay," he muttered.

"Hold this towel, keep the pressure on it. I'm going to see where the nearest doctor is located," he said and quickly left the room.

*****

Johnny did as he was told and held the towel in place. His mind was on other things, other times and other memories. He closed his eyes and tried to shut them away, push them back away from his consciousness.

He stood up and paced the room, something that had always helped him calm down before. It wasn't working this time however and he felt like a caged animal.

Murdoch flew back into the room followed by another man with a black bag.

"The hotel has a doctor on staff. This is my son, Dr. Ruiz," Murdoch explained.

"Sit, please," the doctor smiled. He examined the wounds, frowning and shaking his head. "How did you do this?"

"Broke a glass," Johnny replied shortly.

"I see. Well, you will need stitches for this one but the others are not so bad. They will heal on their own," he reported and reached into his bag for his supplies.

"Can I help, Doctor?” Murdoch asked.

"Si," was the simple answer as he went about his task. "Do you want something for the pain? I am afraid it will be most unpleasant."

"Just get it over with," Johnny said shaking his head.

*****

The doctor worked quickly and efficiently as he sutured the skin together on Johnny's palm. He gave explicit instructions on tending the wound, saying he would be back to check in the morning. He started for the door with Murdoch escorting him.

"Thank you, Doctor," he was saying.

"De nada, it is not serious. He will be fine," he smiled and opened the door. "Senora Montoya!" he gasped in surprise.

Maria turned red with embarrassment as she faced the doctor who had attended many of her parties. "Is someone hurt?" she managed to ask.

"Johnny cut his hand," Murdoch interceded. "It isn't serious, thank you again, Doctor," he added, trying to hurry the man along.

The doctor nodded and left and Maria slipped quickly through the door, clearly upset.

"What are you doing here?"

Johnny saw her then and his eyes widened in surprise.

"I ... I wish to talk with my son," she said, reclaiming her poise.

Murdoch looked at Johnny questioningly.

"I have nothing more to say to you," Johnny said harshly.

"Please, miel . I too have questions," she pleaded.

***

Johnny glared at the woman before him. "YOU have questions?! About what?" he nearly shouted.

"About you, Johnny. Please, can we try to talk without all the anger?"

"It's a little late for concern, isn't it, Maria?" Murdoch said snidely.

She closed her eyes and bit her tongue. Turning toward him she said in a controlled voice, "I am talking to Johnny." Turning back to him, she said, "Please, miel ."

Johnny studied her closely. Something was distressing her. It wasn't him, he was sure. His curiosity got the better of him and maybe something else was at play as well, though he pushed that thought away quickly.

"It's alright, Murdoch. I'll talk to her."

Murdoch raised a surprised brow at his son. "Are you sure, Johnny? Do you want me to stay?"

"I'm sure. It'll be alright. Just ... don't go far."

Murdoch looked grimly at Maria then smiled at Johnny and left the room. He found a bench down the hall and sat down to wait.

*****

Maria smiled genuinely at him before she spoke. "I'd like to know how you came to live at Lancer? "

"You mean how could I stand to be around my old man? He asked me," Johnny said sarcastically.

"He just asked you, that's it?" Maria asked, unconvinced.

"None of this is any of your business but I'll tell you though I don't know why I bother. He found me, or the Pinkerton's did, and offered me a thousand dollars for an hour of my time. Hell, for that kind of money, I'd have met the devil himself," Johnny growled.

"Why did he send for you?"

"I guess he missed me, Mother! He needed my help and Scott's to save the ranch. He offered us both a third ownership."

"I see, so he was only concerned with the ranch," she said, a touch of victory in her voice.

"That's what I thought at first, but ... he wanted me to stay. We ... we had a lot to deal with. That would be your fault, by the way, but we've come to an understanding," Johnny said in defense.

"What understanding was that, miel ? As long as you were of use to him you could stay?" she asked hatefully.

Johnny stared intently at her for a long moment. "You hate him, that's your right I guess, but I don't. If you think you can come here and turn me against him, you're dead wrong, woman. He's my family, my father and he didn't throw me out and he did and does want me. Anyway, it's none of your concern," he said flatly.

"Johnny, why can you forgive him and not me?"

"I have nothing to forgive him for! This conversation is over. I want you to leave," he hissed.

*****

"Senor Montoya!" the doctor called.

"Buenos dias , Doctor."

"I just saw your wife, Senor, in a rather unusual place."

"Oh? Where?" Montoya asked.

"El Placida hotel. I was there tending to a minor injury and when I opened the hotel room door to leave, there she stood. She was obviously there to see the two men staying at the hotel."

"Two men?" Montoya asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Si, a gringo and a mestizo who he said was his son," the doctor said, lowering his voice conspiratorially.

"Do you know who they were?" Montoya asked, clearly concerned.

"Si, Lancer was the name. I do not know their first names."

"Gracias, Doctor. I am sure they must be friends of friends or something of that nature," Montoya said, trying to defuse the gossipmonger. He tipped his hat and went on his way; straight for the hotel.

******

"What about Johnny Madrid? How did that happen?" she asked, ignoring his demand that she leave.

"I told you," he said, lowering his voice.

"Si, to survive. But, why would you choose such a ... career?"

"It was better than starving. Begging and stealing for food got old after a while. The pistoleros were feared and respected. I figured it was a good way to get by," he shrugged.

She looked at him sorrowfully and his anger surged.

"Don't look at me like that! You have no one to blame but yourself. Don't you know I would have done anything for you, Mother? I would have done anything to help you," Johnny said, his voice trembling.

"What would you have done, Johnny?"

"Anything! Anything you asked of me. Didn't I always? Whatever you wanted, I did. But you wouldn't give it back. You wouldn't let me in. You were too busy worrying about yourself."

He might have been angry, he might have been hurt, but his voice sounded like that of a child at the moment and she couldn't discern which he was most. She took the chance and approached him, laying her hand on his arm.

"Nino, I did what I did. I cannot change the past. I can only tell you I am sorry I hurt you. I love you, Johnny," she said softly.

He looked into her eyes and wanted desperately to believe her. She wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him into a hug. It had been so long since he felt her warmth, her love, and he savored it for as long as it lasted.

She pulled away and kissed him lightly on the lips. " Miel , you have your family now. Your brother, si ? I too, have a family now. I have a husband that I love very much. I don't want to lose him."

Johnny pushed her away and stared in unabashed disbelief. "That's what you're worried about, isn't it? You don't want your banker to find out about me. Don't worry, Maria. I have no intention of telling anyone about you. As far as I'm concerned, you're as dead as I made myself believe all these years."

****

Murdoch saw the man walking down the hall, pausing in front of the door to his room. He didn't know who the man was but he didn't want any interruptions until Johnny was ready for one.

"May I help you?" he asked as he walked near the man.

"No, I'm just visiting a friend," the man smiled.

"I don't know you, Senor and this is my room so state your business," Murdoch said firmly.

The man looked him up and down. "Senor Lancer?"

Murdoch nodded.

"I am Alejandro Montoya. I believe my wife is or was here?"

Murdoch took a deep breath. 'Well, it's what she deserves,' he thought. "Yes, Maria is in there. She's talking to our son."

"Excuse me?"

"Sit down, Senor. I'll explain," Murdoch said and he actually felt sorry for the man.

*****

"Please try to understand, Johnny."

"Oh, I understand completely. It's time for you to leave," he said harshly.

Johnny started toward the door when it burst open.

"Alejandro!" Maria gasped.

"Si, mi amor . And this would be your son?" he answered.

****

"Alejandro, I can explain," Maria said, desperation clear in her voice.

"Senor Lancer has already explained the situation to me. My question is why did you not tell me?"

"I ... I,"

"She didn't want you to think she was a whore," Johnny said snidely.

"Is this how you speak of your mother?" Montoya asked indignantly.

"No, I've said worse," Johnny replied flippantly. Turning to Murdoch he asked, "How much did you tell him?"

"Just the basics," Murdoch replied.

They all heard Maria sigh in relief.

"We should go, my husband," she said quickly as they all turned to look at her.

"No. I want to know what is happening here. Why is your son so angry?"

She looked beseechingly at Johnny, begging him with her eyes not to speak. But she had burned her last bridge with him and she saw it in his eyes.

"Do you want to tell him, Maria, or should I?" Johnny asked.

*****

Maria sat in a chair and sighed. She was trapped. "I will."

Alejandro came to sit beside her and she smiled lovingly at him.

"I married Murdoch when I was eighteen. It all happened very quickly. We had only known each other a few weeks. Johnny was born and, after two years I couldn't take anymore so I left," she said as simply as possible.

"You could not take anymore what?"

"I grew to hate Murdoch and the rancho. I couldn't stand being there any longer."

"I see. And your son hates you for leaving them?"

Johnny laughed at this misunderstanding and Montoya looked curiously at him.

"She did that in parts," Johnny interjected.

"I took Johnny with me, Alejandro," she clarified.

"I do not understand, Maria. Tell me all of it," he said, clearly confused.

"I ... I cannot," she sighed.

*****

"Allow me, then," Johnny said grimly. He turned to Montoya. "She let me hang around until I was ten. Then she said she couldn't be bothered and I was in the way. So, once again, she ran out," he said with a harshness that startled his father.

"Maria?" Montoya asked without asking.

"I did leave him. I could not provide for him. I thought the priests would care for him but, Johnny had other ideas," she said, tears falling freely now.

"What other ideas?"

"I'd been taking care of myself and her for as long as I could remember. No way was I stayin in that rat-infested hole. Tell him, Maria. Tell him how desperate you were, how you were only thinking of my welfare. Tell him how you figured you'd never snatch yourself a rich husband with a halfbreed kid at your hip," Johnny snarled.

"Stop it!" she glared.

"Go to hell!" he yelled back.

"Alright, I think that's enough. Senor Montoya, I think you had better take your wife home. You can worry about the legality of your marriage together. Maria and I never divorced," Murdoch intervened.

The man looked as though he might faint at any minute and Maria looked as though she could kill Murdoch right then. Murdoch smiled a little at her and opened the door wide.

He got up and took Maria's arm, standing her and guiding her to the door. He stopped in the doorway and looked at Murdoch.

"Will you be staying in Mexico City long?"

"No, we'll be leaving tomorrow."

"I see, gracias," he said in a stunned voice.

******

Johnny sat down in a chair and sighed heavily. He buried his face in his hands and shook his head slowly.

"Are you alright?"

"No, I'm not," he whispered.

Murdoch kneeled beside the chair and put his hand on Johnny's knee. "What did she want?"

"She wanted to make sure her old man didn't find out about me. I guess that doctor has a big mouth."

Johnny looked up at his father, misery painting his face. "You've asked me that about a million times. What about you? Are you alright?"

"No, I'm not alright either. But, we will be, okay?" Murdoch smiled.

"Yeah, we will be," Johnny smiled back. Then, totally out of character, Johnny reached over and hugged his father tightly.

*****

That evening, they ate in their hotel room. Neither felt up to being in public. Not much was said, they were exhausted from the strain.

"I guess we should make it an early night. I'd like to leave first thing in the morning," Murdoch said when the supper trays had been removed from the room.

"Yeah, the quicker I get out of here, the better," Johnny agreed.

They prepared for bed and Murdoch turned out the lamp and settled into the soft mattress hoping he could sleep a little.

An hour later, he was still awake, lying quietly so as not to disturb his son. He heard a sound from Johnny's bed and listened closely. He recognized the noise all too well and he slipped out of bed and tiptoed to Johnny's.

Sliding under the covers behind his son, Murdoch wrapped an arm around his boy. Johnny turned and leaned back against his father's chest and sniffled. He held Murdoch's arm, his grip tightening by the second.

"Go ahead, son. Get it out," Murdoch whispered.

Johnny turned more and buried his face in Murdoch's chest and wept freely. They stayed that way all night, finally falling asleep from pure exhaustion.

****

Murdoch awoke the next morning to find Johnny had turned over and away from him in the night. He slid out of bed and dressed quickly then left the room stealthily.

He returned half an hour later with breakfast and found his son had not moved. He smiled, knowing Johnny was spent. He hated to wake him and hated even worse making him travel but he knew Johnny would want to get out of the city today.

He placed a cup of coffee close to Johnny's face and waved the flavor scented steam toward his face. Johnny moaned and turned then opened his eyes slowly. The first thing he saw was the cup, the second was his father smiling at him. He smiled back.

" Mornin ," he mumbled.

"Good morning. Breakfast is here."

Johnny stretched and sat on the side of the bed, pulling his pants on. He remained bare-chested as he joined Murdoch at the table. Once more, they ate in silence.

"I figure if we push it a little, we can knock at least one day off the trip," Johnny said out of the blue.

"Anxious to get home," Murdoch smiled.

"You bet."

"If youâ€re that tired, son, maybe we should wait another day."

"No, no way. I'm gettin out of here. I don't trust her as far as I can spit," Johnny said emphatically.

"She can't do anything to us," Murdoch frowned.

"Not takin any chances," Johnny mumbled.

*****

Maria awoke from where she'd fallen asleep on the sofa. Bleary-eyed, she wiped at her face and the memories began. She sighed and stood, walking to the mirror on the wall. Her eyes were red from the tears, her voice felt sore from the pleading, all for naught. She felt the tears threaten to return once more and she shook herself to keep them at bay.

She heard a commotion in the foyer and went to investigate. She saw the servants bringing down her luggage and gaped at them.

"Manuel, what is this?"

"Senor Montoya said you were leaving on a trip, Senora. He had us pack for you."

"Well, you can unpack. I am not going anywhere," she said flagrantly.

"Continue your duties, Manuel," Montoya said from the staircase. "Maria, come into the living room."

"You are leaving. You will stay in our villa in the south until I can sort through all I have learned. I will find out the status of our marriage as well," he said coldly.

"Alejandro, you know how much I love you."

"Si, I know what you have told me. I also know what you have not told me. I will not live in sin with you, if that is indeed what is happening. I will send word when I know more."

"Will you come to visit me?" she asked, the tears welling again.

"Not until I know the situation. Now, go have your breakfast. You have only thirty minutes before you leave," he said and strolled out of the house.

*****

The carriage pulled up in front of the hotel as Johnny and Murdoch walked outside. Neither paid much attention until they heard the woman call.

She stepped out of the carriage and leered at Murdoch. "I hope you are happy, Murdoch. Alejandro is sending me away until he can confirm our marriage," she spat.

"And you're blaming me for that? Typical," he huffed.

"You did not have to make that remark," she retorted.

"Is anything ever your fault? You blame everyone but yourself for your problems and they're all your own doing," Johnny said.

"I know you have no love for me, Johnny. I did what I thought was right. No matter now. It is done and over."

"You said it. Goodbye, Maria," he said and walked away. Murdoch followed him.

She stood and watched him walk away from her forever. "Oh, nino , if you only knew the truth. Te amo , Johnny," she whispered in his wake.

Johnny and Murdoch set out north toward California and home. Both had grim faces and distant looks in their eyes. Silence permeated the air around them all day.

At sundown, they found a spot to camp and went about the chores at hand. Sitting by the fire, Johnny stared intently at the flames.

"Want to talk?" Murdoch asked.

"Sure, what'ya want to talk about?"

Murdoch gave him a sidelong look. "Your mother."

"Do me a favor and just call her Maria," Johnny said stonily.

"Johnny, I wish I knew what to say."

" Nothin you can say. Look, I'll be okay but you learned a lot of things I'm sure you would just as soon not know. How about you talk for a change?" Johnny said, a smile playing at his lips.

Murdoch smiled at him. "It's hard to deal with so much hate. I must have been blind not to see it then. I guess I really was too busy building the ranch."

"Blaming yourself ?"

"Maybe; some. It doesn't excuse what she did but ... I just wish she could have talked to me all those years ago," Murdoch sighed.

Johnny leaned over and grabbed his father's arm tightly. "Listen to me, Murdoch. It wouldn't have made any difference if she had talked to you then. She couldn't handle being a rancher's wife. It was hard work and Maria hates that. She had many chances to get honest work but she always turned it down. Why? Because it was work! She always saw herself as the lady of the manor. Never raising a hand to do for herself . That's who she is, always has been and it's never going to change. You think she won't be back at that mansion in a month's time? Don't worry about her, she always lands on her feet." He released his father's arm when he had finished.

"You know her very well," Murdoch commented.

"Yeah, well, I spent more time with her than you did. I think you were the lucky one. This is what I didn't want to put you through. I knew how much she hated you but I really didn't understand why then. Now, I do and so do you. How about we just forget about her and concentrate on our lives together and the future," Johnny said hopefully.

"That is the best idea I've heard in a long time, son," Murdoch smiled.

"Yeah? Well I have another one for you. Ya know how I was talking about getting into the horse business?"

 

~end~
2003

To La Vuelta---->

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