The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Grit

 

 

 

Chapter 1

Spend all your time waiting
for that second chance
for a break that would make it okay
there's always one reason
to feel not good enough
and it's hard at the end of the day


Angel
Sarah Maclachlin

Damned cows! Damned fences! Damned ranch! Damn that old man! I'm sick of it, that's all. Don't know why I put up with it this long. And for what? To break my back every day? To be told I can't do anything right? Or, that I do everything wrong? And all the time, he's patting that dandy on the back, saying how proud he is. Well, pride goes before the fall, old man. Least, that's what the priest always said and he was right, too!

Proud of what, by the way? Proud he could stay in the saddle? Proud he didn't break his fool neck every time he tried to rope a steer? What makes him think I know any more about bein a damned cowboy than Scott does? That's what I wanna know. Still, soon as I make one mistake, it's like the world is about to end. Like the blamed sky will just collapse on top of us all. It ain't right. That's all there is to it and I'm sick of it.

I can hear him right now. Barkin about me bein here in the saloon instead of killing myself chasing his cows. And, yeah, old man, they are *your* damned cows! I sure don't want them. I can't believe I let Scott guilt me into going back the last time. What did I get for it? Nothing. Not one goddamned thing. A few days reprieve, maybe, before he started right back in again.

So what if I die before I'm thirty? The only reason I did go back is because I let that old man make me think it was my fault. Okay, it *was* my fault but I was at least trying. That's what he won't get. He doesn't care and that's all there is to that. I can see it every time I look at him. He can't hardly stand to look me in the eye and I know good and well, Murdoch Lancer never has a problem looking a man square in the eye. So why can't he do it with me? Hell, I already know the answer to that.

So, why am I still here? Still killing myself, still working like a crazy man? Nothing is ever gonna change with that old man. And Scott. Well, Scott's alright I reckon but he ain't all that! He sure ain't no cowboy, yet. But ... he will be and I know it. He'll be the best damned rancher in California. Hell, in the world. Because Scott can do anything and do it right.

Me? I'm lucky I don't get myself shot in the back every day of my life. That's what I have to look forward to. Reckon it ain't such a bad life. At least I can do what I want when I want. I don't have to get up before the crack of dawn every day. Don't have to eat dust and push cows and mend those fucking fences. God! I hate fences! They don't do anything but keep a man tied in. And I don't have to listen to Murdoch Lancer's mouth! That's the best reason right there.

Did I really think I needed a father at this stage of the game? What a joke that is! Never needed him before. Never will need him. Don't need any of them and they can all go to hell as far as I'm concerned. No point in dragging it out. Just get on out of here while the gettin is good.

He thinks he can break me like I broke that stallion. Thinks he can fence me in and I'll just smile and thank him! Well, that's a load of bullshit!

*

"Johnny."

He slowly raised his eyes, leaning back in the chair from his hunched position and dragging his beer mug with him. His eyes were devoid of emotion as he appraised the man standing before him. "What?"

"What are you doing here?" Scott sat across from him and waved away the bartender as he approached.

"Drinking a beer. You blind all the sudden?"

Scott raised his brows, his mind working furiously. "What's happened?"

"Happened? Not one thing has happened, Scott."

A sigh of frustration emitted from Scott as he settled further into his seat. He took on an air of ambivalence as he studied Johnny. "So, you just decided to quit work for the day and have a beer. Is that it?"

"Sounds good, don't it? Have one. Might take that pickled look off your face."

As much as he hated it, a small smile came to his lips even as Scott shook his head. "No, thank you. I still have chores and so do you. You were supposed to help me with that creek bed."

Johnny shrugged and took a long drink before looking squarely at his brother. "Yeah, I know but I don't want to." That finally did it and Scott scowled, his features darkening and Johnny had to fight from laughing. He wasn't really sure why he was trying not to, though.

"I guess Murdoch was right. You really have no sense of your responsibilities."

That did it for Johnny and he gave a scowl of his own. "Reckon my idea of responsibility and his are very different. Anyway, it don't really matter. I'm leavin." He stood and grabbed his hat, setting it on his head.

Scott took to his feet and made to follow him out. He pulled up short when Johnny stopped walking and turned to face him.

"Where are you going?"

"Back to work with you, of course."

A slow smile spread across Johnny's face and he shook his head. "I told you, I'm not cleaning out no creek."

Scott looked puzzled then his face lit with comprehension. Just as suddenly, the expression fell to disappointment. "I see. So, you're quitting. Is that it, Johnny? It's too hard so you're tucking it in?"

"Ain't gonna work, Scott. You're not gonna guilt me into it again. I was stupid then but I learn from my mistakes." He started to go but stopped, his profile to Scott. "I know that little notion will shock the old man to the core."

As he started to proceed, Scott gripped his arm. "Tell me what happened, Johnny. Something must have."

"The only thing that happened was I wised up, Scott. We ain't been at it. Not today, anyway. I just finally got it, that's all. Now, let go of my arm." With the last sentence his voice turned icy, the volume dropping substantially as he looked in Scott's eyes.

The older man's hand loosened as he stared at the gunfighter. Johnny moved away and was gone.

*

Scott didn't catch up to him until he got back to the ranch. He looked Barranca over as he walked inside. The horse seemed to only be breathing a little hard. He had to wonder if Johnny had found a shortcut. Taking a deep breath and with much dread, Scott walked into the house.

It was quiet. A little too quiet and he peeked around the corner of the doorway. Murdoch was at his desk, head down reading something. Scott glanced around the room and found it empty of anyone else. Frowning, he walked in and made his presence known.

"What are you doing back, son? Is something wrong?"

Scott had to smile a little at the concern then he got angry. "Did you greet Johnny the same when he came in?"

Murdoch frowned and shook his head. "Johnny's not here."

"Yes, he is. His horse is out front. I guess he walked right past you. He can be quiet when he tries."

Murdoch scowled and rose to his feet. "Well, what is he doing here in the middle of the day? Why isn't he finishing that creek? I swear I don't know what I'm going to do with that boy!"

With sudden insight and feeling a bit naive, Scott realized what Johnny had meant. What he'd been going through with their father and he wanted to smack the man. "From my earlier conversation with him, I can only assume he is upstairs packing. He told me he was done. He's leaving here."

"Why?" Murdoch growled.

"I guess he's fed up, Sir. Tired of your accusations and unending questioning of his motives in every single thing he does. He's angry; very angry."

"I haven't said a word to him today."

Scott sighed heavily and thought he wasn't the naive one after all. "No, not today. But yesterday, I seem to recall. And almost every other day. Murdoch, you have pushed him and pushed him and now you're getting exactly what you wanted, I suppose."

"I didn't want him to leave! I want him to grow up!"

Johnny stepped into the room, saddlebags over his shoulder, rifle in hand. "Too late for that, old man. Grew up while you weren't lookin. Well, I don't reckon you could've looked anyway. No need to stand on ceremony. Just take what Barranca is worth out of my pay. That should make it even. Reckon you can do whatever you need to with that piece of paper we signed. Probably ain't legal anyways."

"Of course it's legal! Johnny, what brought this on? Why all the sudden?" Murdoch stepped around his desk and approached the young man who was staring at him like he was crazy.

"All the sudden? It ain't all the sudden! Besides, I don't have to explain myself to you. Think what you like. You will anyway no matter what." He inhaled deeply and turned to Scott. "Take care of yourself. One of these days, you might make a decent cowboy." He turned and headed for the door only to be stopped by a large hand on his bicep swinging him around.

"Don't you walk out that door, boy! You need to explain what's going on here. Why would you throw everything away like this?"

"I ain't throwin nothing away, old man. It was never mine and you made damned sure I knew that every chance you got. You weren't ever gonna loosen those reins on me. Well, I ain't a wild horse, Murdoch! I'm a man. A full grown man and I do what I want. Now, take your hand off me!"

They stared each other down for what seemed eternity. Murdoch's grip didn't relax and Johnny's ire was nearly out of control.

In a throaty voice, he spoke. "You wanna keep that hand, you'll move it."

Murdoch blinked. "Go ahead and go then. If it's so easy for you to walk away from your family then fine. Live with the consequences." With that said, he let go of Johnny.

A short laugh burst from him as he backed away. "Family? That's a funny one, old man. Reckon you do have a sense of humor after all."

"I don't know what it is you're thinking, Johnny, but you're wrong. This is your family for better or worse."

"Yeah, I'm always wrong with you, ain't I? If this is family, you can have it! Good luck with your grass!" He addressed Scott once more. "If you had any sense, you'd hightail it back to Boston before it's too late. He ain't ever gonna tell you what you want to hear, Scott. He ain't ever gonna be a father to you."

"How dare you!" Murdoch roared. Fist clenched and drawing back, he took one step only to be stopped cold.

Johnny cocked the gun before it was even out of the holster and leveled it at Murdoch. "Nobody manhandles me, old man. Nobody!" He backed to the door, moving his pistol to his left hand as he opened it and stepped through.

The door clicked loudly in the ensuing silence.

*

Murdoch turned sharply and walked back into the great room with his fists clenched tightly at his sides. His head turned toward the French doors and his body followed as he looked out the glass, watching Johnny gallop away fast. Face set in stone, he revealed nothing of the turmoil in his gut.

Scott stood just to his side, looking at the rapidly disappearing form with an odd ache. He swallowed hard and looked at his father's profile. "He wouldn't have shot you."

"Wouldn't he? That's what he wanted to do the minute he walked through the door with you that first day. The only thing that stopped him then was the same thing that stopped him now. You were here."

"You don't believe that." Scott knew his voice was weak and unconvincing. He wasn't so convinced himself after what he'd just witnessed. He could hardly blame Johnny for the anger the young man displayed but drawing his gun was out of order.

Murdoch turned slowly toward him, appraising him carefully. "I do believe it, Scott. I believe if Johnny were angry enough, he would pull that trigger on me."

"And whose fault would that be?! You goad him at every opportunity, Murdoch. It's as if you want him to leave. Was he right about that? Was all this animosity your clever way of forcing him out of here?"

His face reddened once more. "If I wanted him to go, I would have told him to go, Scott. I don't play games! And I certainly don't sign partnership agreements with people I don't want to be around!"

"That was the deal. We help you save this ranch and we become your partners. That was business!" He sighed and shook his head, trying to calm down. "Family is a whole other matter. Johnny thought what I thought. That you wanted us both here as your sons not as some reward for helping you save this land."

"That *is* what I wanted!" He turned and stalked away, pacing the entirety of the room. "That boy is too wild, too irresponsible to ever have made it here. I think you know that, Scott. You just don't want to admit it. Johnny can't stop. I thought he could; I thought he'd be settled here but I see now it would never have worked."

"A man can't change his life in a heartbeat, Murdoch. Johnny never had to worry about anyone but himself for a good portion of his life. Now, all the sudden, you expect him to do a complete about face and toe the line. Well, a man like that can't change without some help; some guidance. You never gave him that. You never even tried. Just admit it. Admit you didn't want a gunfighter under your roof!"

Murdoch faced him fully and came to a stand still. "That's easy to admit, Scott. Of course I don't want a gunfighter under my roof. I was hoping he would stop being one!"

"In two seconds? God! You are a hard man to please. Could you do it? Could you stop being a rancher, stop calling the tune in the space of a few weeks? The answer is no and you know it. You pushed him right out that door!"

He said nothing for a long time, just stared at his son, his jaw twitching. "If he's not man enough to stand up to me then he shouldn't be here."

Scott took a step back, his lips parting slightly in awe. Slowly, he shook his head, knowing Murdoch would never get it. "The reason he hadn't stood up to you was out of respect. How could you not see that? He respected you. He wanted you to be proud of him; to accept him. To care about him. But, that was never going to happen because you wouldn't allow him in. You can't get past what his mother did and you're blaming Johnny - blaming a child at the time - for her running off. Well, don't blame him for running now, Murdoch. He learned from the only person in his life who ever cared a nickel about him."

"That woman wouldn't know how to be a decent mother if she had written instructions! That is how she raised him. To run when things got a little tough. To avoid responsibility. To blame everyone else for his troubles. That's what Maria did for her son!"

"Her son. I see. Well, I guess I know exactly where you stand now. And instead of trying to help him be a better man, you turned him away. You finally did what he'd believed of you all his life. You tossed him to the curb without so much as a thought to what he needed from his *father*!" Scott turned on his heel and walked to the doorway then stopped. He couldn't leave it like this.

Turning back, he added, "by the way, Johnny didn't need any help being a better man. He's always been much better than you ever gave him credit for. You refused to see who he really is because you couldn't get past your hatred of his mother. Well, my brother is a good man, a caring man, and I am astonished by it, quite frankly. Given his upbringing, it's a miracle he has any consideration for others at all. But, he does, Murdoch. Maybe you should talk to your hands, talk to your neighbors. See what they have to tell you about your unredeemable son!"

He left then, he had to. He'd done all he could do, said all he could say and Scott needed to be alone now. He needed to sort out what he was going to do himself.

*

Johnny rode for a solid hour before slowing his horse to a trot then a walk. He reined off the road and headed toward a stream nearby. Once there, he slid from the saddle and let the reins drop where they may. Walking to the water's edge, he squatted and cupped his hand, drinking several times to quench his thirst and his anger.

Sitting properly on his backside, he pulled his knees up and wrapped his arms around them, resting his chin atop. He stared over the water, trying not to think of anything but that wasn't happening. He wanted to stop but his mind wouldn't allow it and his anger began to grow once more.

Be a man. Her voice was so clear in his head just then. Be a man. How old had he been the first time she'd said it? Six or seven, he thought. He remembered being very puzzled by the words, not understanding their meaning at all. She would explain no further and from that time on, any time he so much as looked as if he might cry, that's what she'd say to him. Be a man.

He'd come to define it as not crying. Men don't cry. Men don't complain or whine or moan. Men don't say they're hungry or cold or tired or in pain. Especially pain. It was pain that was his most constant tormentor. The one thing that she always seemed to get mad at him for. It was pain that made him want to cry most so that made sense. That those were the times she said those three words most often.

So he had learned not to complain and not to cry and never, not ever say he was hurting. He began to rock back and forth gently by the water's edge, recalling a time when he was ten years old.

He'd fallen out of the tree and landed on his left side. And, boy had that hurt! The bone was sticking right through the skin and when he saw it, his first reaction had been tears. Suddenly, fear took hold and he bit his lip so hard, it bled. Be a man. He heard it so clearly even though he hadn't seen her yet. So, he had sat there for a long time, probably a good half hour he imagined before struggling to his feet.

Boy, the world had turned upside down then! He threw up and went right back down to his knees and that's where she found him not long after. Kneeling in the dirt, holding his broken and bleeding arm and not crying. She'd scooped him up and carried him home without a word. But he had seen her face and tears were rolling down her cheeks. He almost smiled right then and there because she was crying and he wasn't. He was being a man. Of course, she couldn't be, she could cry if she wanted. It was okay for her to cry.

And he'd lain there on the little cot while the old woman who doctored the villagers grabbed his arm and pulled it near off his body. And he hadn't cried, but he had groaned just a little. He remembered looking wide-eyed at his mother but she must not have heard it for she hadn't reprimanded him and he'd been so relieved by that, he didn't even remember passing out.  

He shuddered as he recalled the agony he'd been in then. Johnny blinked and shook his head. His hand came to his face and swiped it then he looked at the hand incredulously. Tears? Now? He couldn't cry now. Men don't cry and he had to be a man. Sucking in a stuttering breath, he moved nearer the water and splashed it on his face.

"Idiot!" he muttered to himself as he dried his hand on his pant leg. Sitting back once more, he opted to stretch his legs out and lean back on his elbows.

Just plain stupid is all. No need to blubber like a baby. For what? Got no reason to cry. Never have had a reason to cry. Women cry. Boy, do they cry sometimes! He held his left arm out, twisting it back and forth then making a fist. See? Perfectly fine. That old bruja fixed it right up. Didn't hurt all that much anyway. Why am I thinking about that? Got more important things to think about.

Like reclaiming my life and my reputation. It's been a few months now what with the prison and this god-forsaken place. Might have to start from scratch. Well, not exactly but I'll have to earn it all back for sure. That's okay, though. Reckon I can do it or die tryin. He laughed aloud at that.

Clarity struck him with such force in that moment, he started howling with laughter. Rolling back and forth on the grass, he couldn't seem to stop his mirth. He had no idea why he found all this so funny in that moment so, he just let go and had a good chuckle. Hell, he deserved it, didn't he? After all the shit he'd put up with lately.

*

Finally, he settled down and thought about the outburst. Yeah, that's what it was. He'd been in hell. Some sort of sick, twisted joke had been played on him and it wasn't a damned bit funny, really. It was absurd. Guess that's what makes it funny.

Someone had thought it would be a real hoot to drag him from the jaws of death and sit him down smack in the middle of a nightmare. Tease him with something that could never have been real. Here ya go, Johnny boy. Here's a big ole ranch, more money than you could ever spend and a family. Have fun!

He snorted aloud. Yeah, it had been a real barnburnin, rip-roarin hoot, alright. He reckoned he hadn't had that much fun since Don Emilio had him horsewhipped that time. Couldn't ask for more, could ya?  

Well, no sense in thinking about it anymore. It's over, thank God. He stood up and stretched then walked slowly toward Barranca. Smiling as he neared the beast, he patted its neck then stroked its nose.

"Time to head south, boy. Time to go on home where I belong. You'll like it and I'll make sure you eat good. Graze might not be as good sometimes but don't you worry none. I'll always take care of you. I guess I won after all, huh? I got you out of the bargain."

Again, he snorted as he mounted up. Some bargain. Still, he reckoned it hadn't been all bad and he did get a fine animal out of all that mess.

He rode up a hill across the road and came to a stop. Standing up in the stirrups, Johnny looked out over Lancer for the last time. Finding himself without regret and with some relief, he settled into his seat and headed for the border.

*

Chapter 2

"I'm tellin ya, I ain't never seen the like. It's like you don't give a damn whether ya live or die long as ya take the other feller with ya."

Johnny smiled a little as the story was told - again. It was wearing thin now, the fifth time he'd heard it in the past two hours. He sipped his tequila, rocking his chair back on its legs and scanning the saloon for anyone who thought they'd like to see if that story was more hot air than substance. So far, no one seemed too interested. Too bad, he thought with a smirk.

"I think everyone's heard it by now, Slim."

His soft voice caught the man's attention and he just smiled and nodded at Johnny.

He liked the man well enough, he supposed. As well as he liked anybody. But, sometimes, Slim's mouth didn't know how to close and sometimes, Johnny got very irritated by it. Not tonight, not yet anyhow. But, he was getting close to it and he didn't want to have to kill the man. He was fair company.

It hadn't taken him as long to regain his reputation as he'd thought. About three months, he reckoned. He'd worked very hard in that time, though and took almost anything that came his way as long as the pay was good. Now, he was back in form and had a very different attitude about his profession. For it was a profession and he wasn't about to go soft ever again.

Slim grew quiet for a minute. It was almost a record for him. "Hey, Johnny. How about headin to Sonora for a few days? There's a little gal down there I sure do like ta visit."

"You go ahead. I ain't interested in Sonora just now."

"How come?" He knew it was a mistake as soon as it left his mouth. Slim looked into the darkening eyes and swallowed hard. He knew better than to question Johnny. "Sorry," he mumbled.

The eyes relented after a few more seconds and Johnny looked back to the door with interest. Fresh meat was coming in. He didn't recognize the two men and a sly smile came to his face.

Slim cringed a little then made himself relax. Johnny was in a mood and it was always a little scary to him. Not that he'd ever admit that. Hell no! Then, he noticed the two men walking toward them and he felt Johnny slump further into his chair. That wasn't a good sign so he held his breath and hoped he didn't get dragged into it. There was only two of 'em. Johnny could handle that easy.

The taller of the two settled his foot in the chair beside Johnny and leaned over, resting his elbow on his leg. "Madrid."

Johnny looked at the foot for several long beats of the clock then, slowly his eyes came up to the face. He said nothing, just waited.

"Heard you were back in the game. What? You take a little holiday?" The man sneered, the jagged scar on his face contorting even more as he smiled through tobacco-stained teeth.

Suddenly, the man was on the ground, clutching his gut and writhing in pain.

Johnny eyed the second one, raising his Colt just above the table with an audible click of the hammer. "Were you thinkin of talkin to me, too?"

The younger man swallowed convulsively then shook his head. He looked at his friend still in agony on the floor and pointed a shaky finger. "Can I ..."

Johnny regarded him for a second then shrugged. "Sure, go ahead."

The man grabbed his friend under the shoulders and dragged him out of the saloon.

No one so much as raised an eyebrow.

"That was risky." Slim said after a minute or so.

"That's why they call this place Purgatory, Slim. No one gives a rat's ass what happens here. Now," he scooted the chair back and stood up, "I could use some company and you ain't near pretty enough." He grinned at the man then walked away.

Slim smiled nervously and watched him approach a saloon girl, take her hand and lead her up the stairs.

*

Johnny sat in a rocking chair on the hotel porch just before noon and watched the world go by. Occasionally, someone would emerge from the hotel and turn his way, hesitate then turn and go the opposite direction. It amused him to no end and he stretched his legs out to block part of the boardwalk just for the hell of it.

San Diego hadn't changed much since last he'd been here. It was a big town by most standards but there wasn't much law. Still, the heavy Mexican influence made it feel like home to him. Johnny smiled as he watched some children run past him and dart down an alleyway, playing some game or other. Their laughter was about the best sound in the world, he reckoned. Their cries, definitely the worst.

He shook his head and wished they'd hurry up. He was bored out of his mind. He didn't even know what was going to be asked of him but it didn't matter, either. He didn't have any friends but he supposed these two were about as close as it came. He trusted them not to stab him in the back and that was good enough.

A shadow fell over him and he smiled softly then looked up, pushing his hat back. He nodded at the men who walked around him and perched on the rail.

"Thanks for comin, Johnny."

"No problema. What's goin on?" They hadn't changed much, maybe a little more tired around the eyes, like himself. This life wore on a man, for sure.

Mitch Wilson was the older brother but only by a year and a half. He was about six feet, two inches with long dark blond hair and full facial hair. His eyes were a light blue, like cornflower. His skin was dark from the sun, rugged, and crows feet were starting to appear around his eyes.

The younger brother, Tom, was an inch shorter with the same coloring as his brother. In fact, they looked almost enough alike to be twins. The biggest differences were Tom's clean-shaven face, short hair and darker blue eyes, almost as dark as Johnny's. And the fact that, for some reason, Tom was a little bit more handsome than his brother. Then again, neither man ever had a problem with the ladies. Johnny's smile got a little wider at the thought.

"Got a job and we need another man. I heard you were back in the area and I wouldn't want anybody else for this," Mitch was saying.

"What kind of job?"

"Wells Fargo wants to hire outside help. Seems they got some employees who aren't real loyal, if ya know what I mean."

Johnny nodded though he was surprised.

"They got a big payroll soon. Going all the way to Stockton."

Johnny whistled softly. "Long way on a stage."

Mitch shrugged. "Not much choice."

"How much?"

Tom grinned and spoke for the first time. "Hundred dollars a piece."

Johnny frowned and sat up straight in his chair. "For all that way?"

"The kicker is a bonus if we're successful. A thousand split three ways."

Johnny shrugged. "Well, that's better, I reckon. You have a plan?"

Mitch glanced around then stood up. "Yeah, but let's go upstairs. Don't want everyone listening in."

*

Johnny boarded the stage headed for Stockton, still growling. He hated leaving Barranca behind and had threatened the livery man's family jewels if he came back and found a hair out of place on his palomino. He'd added the extra insurance of having made sure the man knew his were not the only jewels he'd be after. The look he'd thrown at the man's seventeen year old son was all the convincing the man had needed.

He wasn't so sure he liked this position. If the stage was robbed, he would be right in the middle of it. Mitch and Tom would be following off trail. That had been cold comfort but, hell, he didn't have anything better to do. As he settled in his seat, he admitted to himself, he did love the thrill of the danger. Never knowing the outcome or even how a man would react in a given situation. It got his blood pumping.

He took in the two other passengers and figured they'd be no problem. They'd do whatever they were told. Two businessmen dressed in suits and not a gun between them. He sighed lightly and pulled his hat lower over his eyes. As the stage jolted down the street, he examined them.

One was a slightly pudgy middle-aged man with a round, friendly face; wide brown eyes and a straight nose surrounded by a full head of thick wavy brown hair. He had to be about forty. Though his face was pleasant, he seemed to have some fire to him, some gumption but it was hard to tell.

The other one was a real piece of work. His suit looked freshly pressed. He was thin, too thin. His brown hair was thin, too and he was starting to bald even though Johnny judged him to be only in his late twenties. He had a pinched expression on his face like he was in pain. His skin was lily white, damned near dead lookin. He had brown eyes, as well, but they were beady and untrustworthy. He also had an annoying habit Johnny saw way too soon. He was forever brushing a finger across the thin brown moustache. He smelled like perfume and Johnny grinned to himself. A real, bonafide pansy. Stuck up, he was sure. He disregarded them both and closed his eyes as he thought about all this.

There were so many places something like this could happen. The shotgun driver was the suspect. Mitch said Wells Fargo figured him to be the point man who let the others know the route. It had to be an inside job, it was explained, since they always changed the route prior to a big haul and no one but the drivers knew about it.

Still, there were only so many ways you could get to there from here no matter where the 'there and here' was. It wasn't like there were a hundred roads from San Diego to Stockton. Johnny hadn't been ready to jump to any conclusions about the shotgun rider or anyone else just yet. He only had two men to watch. Only problem was, they were up top and he was stuck in here. Hard to watch a man when you can't see him. He smiled a little as he crossed his arms over his chest.

*

Johnny's body jerked forward and he opened his eyes, pushing his hat back and taking in the coach then sticking his head out the window. Sighing, he sat back. Just a way station. He glanced at the two men and found ones eyes. The man smiled quickly and insincerely but Johnny just looked blankly at him.

The stage slowed then finally stopped and the driver called out. "Ten minute stop, gentlemen."

Johnny stepped out and stretched, taking in the landscape as he did. He stood by the coach as a middle-aged woman walked out with a tray of coffee and offered it to the passengers. Nice job, he thought. Give ten minutes and a cup of coffee and get paid by the stage line for the trouble. He could do that. He laughed to himself. Sure, and go stark ravin mad with the boredom.

He accepted the cup with a nod and a tip of his hat for the beleaguered woman. Walking around the yard to stretch his legs and work out the kinks, he tried to see if Mitch and Tom were visible. Not a sign, a good thing. They knew what they were doing.

Mitch had been a confederate soldier, an officer if he remembered right. He was a smart man. They grew up in Georgia, had a lot of money but with the war, they'd lost it all; including their family. They'd headed to Texas afterward, just the two of them left, and took up a life of hiring out. There were a lot of men like Mitch in Texas. Hell, everywhere in the west, he reckoned. Now, they just rambled wherever there was a job, like him.

Tom had been too young to go to war and, one night, Mitch had confessed to Johnny how grateful he'd been his brother never had to see war. Johnny had almost pointed out to the man that their life now *was* a war but he said nothing. The sadness in the man's eyes, the haunted look had stayed his words.

Shaking his head, Johnny drained the coffee cup and walked back to the woman, placing it on the tray still in her hands and giving her a soft thank you. With one last surreptitious glance toward the hills across the road, Johnny walked back to the stage.

He watched, holding the door open, as the drivers spoke to the station master for a moment then started climbing aboard. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary so he climbed in after the other two men.

"Next stop will be overnight, fellas," the shotgun driver called just before they lunged forward.

Johnny grimaced, not happy with the reminder of having to bed down in some way station all night with a couple of strangers. None of them had spoken since the trip had started four hours ago. Well, at least I'll get a chance to talk with the drivers. Might get an idea of what kind they are, he thought as he settled back.

*

Another four hours passed before they arrived at their destination for the night. Johnny looked around and was unimpressed. They were in the middle of nowhere, it seemed.

"Gentlemen, welcome!" The station master advanced on them, smiling widely with arms out in greeting. He was older, short and slim with a wide open face, easy to read and not a hair on his pate. Watery blue eyes fairly popped out of his head with excitement. Johnny wondered idly if he wasn't going to hug them.

He looked up at the driver. "No ladies this trip, Henry? Well, we'll just have to have a boys night, then. Come in, men, come in. Welcome to Sharp's."

The two businessmen seemed relieved by the welcome and smiled genuinely. Johnny smirked a little as he lagged behind, ostensibly checking out the horses in the corral. He still didn't see anything out of place so he made his way inside.

"Walters, Joe Walters." The pudgy passenger was saying.

"Phillip Hanks," the thin man introduced.

"Very nice to meet you, men. I'm Ray Sharp and this is, of course, my place. There'll be stew in just a few minutes so, please, make yourselves to home." He turned to the door and smiled. "And you, sir?"

"Me what?"

Ray laughed a little. "I'm sorry, we were just introducing ourselves. This is Mr. Walters and Mr. Hanks."

"Yeah, I heard 'em. Name's Madrid, Johnny Madrid." He heard a choking sound from Hanks as he nearly spat out the drink of coffee in his mouth and he just had to smile a little. His eyes went back to Sharp who suddenly didn't seem all that friendly.

"Well, uh, Mr. Madrid, please have a seat. Supper will be right up."

Johnny walked over and sat at the end of the table away from the others, leaning back in his chair until the front legs were off the floor. He rocked gently back and forth as he regarded the now quiet room.

The door opened and Johnny's eyes were on it in a flash. The two drivers stepped inside and sat at the table. Johnny took a long look at them for the first time. Unremarkable, Henry, the driver, had a shaggy long beard and a pot belly. His clothes were pretty ragged and he was bow-legged. The shotgun rider, Jack, was pretty average. Gray-headed but Johnny didn't think he was all that old. He, too, sported a beard though he kept it better trimmed than his partner. He was bespeckled and kept pushing his glasses up his nose.

"Henry, Jack," Sharp greeted.

"Something wrong, Ray? You get a splinter in your finger or somethin?" Henry asked.

Sharp turned and smiled nervously. "What do you mean?"

"You seem awful quiet all the sudden. Usually, you're talkin your head off."

He turned back to the stove and ladled the stew into a large bowl. "I'm fine. Just fine."

Johnny laughed softly and all eyes turned to him. "I think Mr. Sharp just got a surprise, is all."

Henry smiled knowingly. "Might teach him to stop bein so danged friendly with folks. He drives some of my passengers crazy with his chatter."

"I only try to make folks feel welcome, Henry. It isn't as if I get any other visitors out here." Sharp's tone had become defensive. He sat the bowl on the table. "Eat up, gentlemen. There's a room in the back with cots for you whenever you're ready."

No one moved for a second. Johnny sighed and let his chair rest back on all four legs then leaned forward and grabbed the ladle, pouring stew into his bowl. When Sharp sat down with a plate of bread, he grabbed a piece and tucked in.

*

Johnny finished his meal and walked outside for some air. He ambled around to the back of the house and took in the flatlands. They stretched out for miles on this side while the other side was still hilly and rough country. He spied a little garden and walked over to see what Sharp was growing. Tomatos, beans, potatoes. Standard stuff. He didn't know what he expected to find.

He wondered how Mitch and Tom were doing. The thing that bothered him most about this whole set up was he had no way to contact them. No way to know if anything had happened to them. He could very well find himself out here all alone to handle this little problem. Well, wouldn't be the first time.

He made his way toward the front of the house and, as he rounded the corner, he ran right into one of the passengers. The man staggered back a step then took two more, his face white with fear.

"Excuse me," Johnny said softly and the stunned look on the man's face almost made him laugh out loud. Walters, he thought the name was.

"No, it was my fault, I'm sure. I was just going to the, er..."

"Yeah, sure." Johnny stepped aside and let him pass. He sighed and wondered if people were really that intimidated by him or if this was just a bunch of hens. He didn't know and he didn't really care. Only sometimes, it got to him a little.

He went to the coach and climbed up top, rooting through to find his saddlebags then took them inside.

"I coulda done that for ya, Mr. Madrid. Was just about to go get everyone's bags," Jack said.

"It's Johnny and it's no bother but, thanks just the same." He sat at the table and pulled a bottle of tequila from his saddlebag. Setting it down, he looked at Ray Sharp. "Got a glass or cup?"

"Sure thing, Mr. Madrid. Comin right up." He moved quickly to the cupboard, grabbing a cup and setting it before the young man.

He sighed as he opened the bottle. "Like I said, it's Johnny."

Walters walked back in with Jack and the tension in the room rose that much more. Johnny stared into his cup and tried to ignore them as best he could.

*

They all settled at the table with coffee and Ray couldn't stand the quiet. It was bad enough being here all alone. His only comfort was the overnights.

"Where you gents headin?"

Walters glanced up. "Los Angeles."

"Me too," Hanks commented.

All eyes turned to Johnny but he didn't look up and didn't respond.

"Well, that's a good piece of travelin. Won't find a more comfortable station along the way, I'm proud to say."

"I gotta admit, you run the best station on my route, Ray," Henry smiled.

"Yeah, always make folks feel ta home," Jack agreed then it fell quiet again.

"What about you, Mr ... Johnny. Where you headed?"

He smiled a little, the man was a chatterbox. Slowly, he looked up. "Wherever the wind takes me, I guess."

"Must be quite a life. Just roaming place to place. You must see a lot of country."

He shrugged. "Guess so."

"I don't know how you do it, quite frankly."

Johnny looked at Hanks who seem to have found his balls. His eyes lit with amusement as he sat back in his chair and regarded the man. "Do what, exactly?"

Hanks face fell and he swallowed hard. "Well, what you do. You know, being a gunfighter."

He nodded, still smiling. "It ain't hard."

"Killing isn't hard?" Walters seemed to realize it was his own voice he heard and his face reddened.

"No, Mr. Walters, it's not. You just point and shoot. Pretty simple."

"There must be more to it than that. I mean, you have to be proficient with a gun. You have to have some intelligence, some ability to strategize."

Johnny looked hard at the man. "I reckon."

"So, you must have practiced a great deal to be so good."

He sighed and leaned forward, draining his glass. "I'm gonna turn in. Down the hall you said?" He looked at Sharp.

"Men's room is on the left."

He nodded and stood up.

"I'm sorry if I was presumptuous," Walters said.

Johnny paused, gave him one nod and left the room.

*

The morning meal wasn't any more cheerful than the one the night before. Johnny ate his fill then grabbed his saddlebags and headed out the door without a word.

"This will be a pleasant ride," Walters snorted.

"It's your own fault. I don't know why you had to even speak to him much less question him. We're lucky to be alive," Hanks spat.

"You started it, Phillip. Besides, I thought it would be polite to invite him into the conversation. If he was going to kill us, I'm sure he would've done it by now. He doesn't seem the sort to dawdle over things."

Henry couldn't help the sputter of laughter. "Team will be hitched up in a few minutes, gents. We'll be on our way in no time."

Johnny stood at the corral and looked out over the land. The ruggedness of it calmed him for some reason. It made no sense but, he supposed it was comfortable, something he was used to. Hard land and hard men. He sighed and looked at his hands resting on the railing. Picking at a splinter, he thought he should've come out last night to see if he could spot a campfire up there. Just so he'd know Mitch and Tom were okay. Well, they're grown, they can take care of themselves.

He heard footsteps and turned around to see the stage drivers walking up.

"Just have to hitch up the team then we'll be on our way."

"Need any help?"

"No, thanks. We got it." Henry paused and wondered if he should say anything. They were going to be together for a few more days.

"Somethin wrong?" Johnny asked.

"No, no. Just that skinny feller seems to think you're gonna kill us all."

Johnny smiled widely. "Some reason I should?"

Henry cocked a brow. "Well, by the time this is over, you might feel like it. He's a might uppity, if ya ask me."

He bowed his head and laughed. "Yeah, I noticed. I'll try to control myself."

"I'd appreciate that, young feller. Well, best help Jack. He'll be gripin if I don't."

Johnny nodded and turned back to the corral, watching them gather the horses and still smiling. He could have some fun on this trip, he supposed. Might be amusing to make that snob sweat a little. Hell, it'll pass the time, anyways. Four more days on this coach was looking rougher all the time. Lord only knew who they might pick up in the next town.

*

Chapter 3

They reached Oceanside without incident and Johnny had refrained from making Hanks piss himself. It had been hard but he managed to pass the time watching the scenery and sleeping. Something about stages always made him sleepy.

They had thirty minutes before pulling out again but he didn't stray from the depot. No sense in pushing fate, he reckoned. Somehow, he always managed to find some trouble. So, he sat on the bench and watched the people scurrying about. It wasn't a big town but it seemed real nice. Not for the likes of him. He imagined they'd all be locking themselves indoors if they knew who he was. He smiled at that.

Henry walked out of the depot looking worried. He scratched his head and sighed heavily.

"Something wrong?" Johnny asked.

He looked over then took a seat on the bench. "Maybe. Feller says the bridge washed out a few days ago and he ain't too sure it's fixed yet."

"Ain't it his job to be sure?"

Henry scowled. "Sure, it's his job but he ain't the most lively of men. He'd rather sit behind that desk all day and eat than even think about movin his fat ass."

Johnny laughed and shook his head. "Well, are ya gonna chance it?"

"Yeah, I reckon. It's about ten miles outside town so we can always turn back if we have to. Well, no sense puttin it off." He stood up with a grunt and climbed up top, yelling for everyone to board as he went.

Johnny sat where he was and watched the two men walk to the stage. Then, he saw something that made his heart drop. A young woman was boarding with a little girl. Johnny grimaced and hoped they weren't going too far. Women and kids always complicated things. He sighed and stood up, meandering over as the others climbed in.

He looked inside and saw Hanks had seated himself next to the woman and child, leaving him to sit with Walters. Well, great! The kid would probably be kicking him in the knees the whole way. He settled down with a tip of the hat for the woman and a smile for the child who buried her face in her mother's arm.

As they got underway, Johnny leaned against the window and looked out at the passing town. He felt a nudge on his arm and looked over.

Walters leaned in so he could speak softly. "I noticed you looked rather bored. I bought some books if you're interested."

Johnny smiled at the man. For some reason, the simple gesture struck him. "What have you got?"

Walters untied his package and showed Johnny the two books. He picked one, not knowing which was better and nodded. "Thanks, that was real kind."

"Not at all. These trips can be so boring. The railroad is almost finished to San Diego. I'll be very glad when that happens."

*

Johnny closed the book after the first chapter and looked out the window. It was just like him to pick something about some poor orphan being treated like shit! He sighed more loudly than he realized.

"Don't you like it?" Walters asked.

Johnny looked over and tried to smile. "Not a very happy story."

"Want to trade? This one is about a boy and his life on the Mississippi River. It's quite amusing."

"Maybe later but, thanks."

"Perhaps, Mr. Madrid prefers dime novels."

Johnny looked across at the smirking man then glanced toward the woman whose face had gone flush. Looking back at Hanks, his eyes grew hard and cold. "Perhaps, you think you're safe with a woman and child on board. If I were you, I would never presume to know what another man *prefers*." A wicked grin slid on his lips at the implication.

Hanks face finally had some color to it and he looked quickly out the window. Johnny watched his hands clench into little balls. Funny, he hadn't noticed the man's hands before. They were small and womanly. He smirked again.

His eyes met the mother's and he gave her an apologetic smile. She tried to return it but her lips were trembling and Johnny wanted to hit Hanks really bad. Why would he upset the woman like that? It was cruel. He thought he'd go ahead and make the man's trip miserable just for that thoughtless comment.

As he predicted, a few seconds later the little girl's foot connected with his knee. He looked at her and she smiled. She was a pretty little thing. No more than seven or eight. Blonde curls all over her head and big blue eyes. Her nose was so tiny, he couldn't believe it and her cheeks were rosy red. Damn! Was he ever that young?

The bridge had been repaired and they made a standard ten minute stop before reaching the next overnight. Johnny waited for everyone else to disembark before climbing out of the coach. He decided it was best if he gave himself a few minutes away from Hanks. He was still mad about the smart-assed remark but he didn't want to scare a mother and child so he helped the coach drivers with the team and brought in the luggage.

As he entered the building and took in the additional people, his heart dropped.

*

Johnny set the bags down slowly, his mind racing with so many thoughts. Resignedly, he comforted himself with thinking he could ride up top in the morning. Get some air and get away from Hanks and now, a damned priest and a nun!

Henry walked in just behind him and set the rest of the bags down. Their eyes met and the man was actually trying hard not to laugh. Johnny scowled at him but it didn't last long. No one saw the ridiculous situation more clearly than he.

Henry cleared his throat and turned to the room. "Shorty, have ya learned to cook yet?"

"Nope," the tall, skinny station master clipped. He turned from the stove and grinned toothlessly. "Have a seat and try ta choke it down."

"That bad?" Johnny asked Henry.

"Worst on the trail. At least we'll get it over with quick."

Jack walked in and went straight to the table without a word.

"He always so talkative?" Johnny asked.

Henry chuckled. "He don't say much but then, neither do you, young feller. Well, might as well have a seat. Wanna sit next to the priest?"

Johnny smacked him on the arm and took a chair at the other end of the table from the padre. He liked Henry. The man had a sense of humor, for sure. He was glad he wasn't a suspect of Wells Fargo and he hoped the man was clueless about what had been going on.

He sat next to Walters and across from the young mother who held her daughter in her lap. Hanks was on Walters other side followed by the priest and the nun sat next to the mother. Henry sat at the head of the table and Jack had settled on the other side of the nun. Johnny figured this would be a real hoot.

Directly, a huge bowl was clanked down on the table, its contents spilling over the side a little. Shorty dropped a plate of bread next to it and simply said, "enjoy."

This simple statement brought a snort from Jack and Johnny raised his brows in amusement. He didn't make any move this time to help himself. He almost expected he'd get his hand smacked if he did. Boy, the lessons of childhood sure did stick with you, he thought.

Apparently, Jack not only spoke little, he paid precious little attention to his surroundings. He grabbed the ladle and started helping himself.

"Ouch!" he exclaimed then shot a withering gaze at his partner while rubbing his kicked knee.

"Reckon the padree might wanna say a few words, Jack."

Jack looked over at the man and gave a reticent look before dropping the ladle. Still, he gave Henry one more parting glare.

The priest said a blessing in a soft, heavily accented voice then he and the Sister made the sign of the cross; a clear indication they could eat now. Johnny smiled through the prayer, his eyes meeting those of Hanks who hadn't bowed his head either. He figured he knew the why of that.

*

Supper went quietly for the first few minutes until Joe Walters evidently could stand it no more.

"Well, I must apologize for my manners, young lady. We spent the entire day together and have failed to properly introduce ourselves. My name is Joe Walters from San Diego and this is Phillip Hanks of the same."

"Forgive me, Mr. Walters. My manners are lacking as well. I'm Sarah Harding and this is my daughter, Hannah. We're on our way to Stockton to meet my husband."

"This is Padre Matteo and I am Sister Mary Elizabeth. We are going to Los Angeles to our new church," the Sister announced.

Johnny didn't say a word, he just concentrated on his soup. It was pretty bad but he'd had worse, for sure.

"Just call me Henry, folks and this is Jack. We'll be your drivers the whole way through."

Someone cleared their throat rather loudly and insistently and Johnny glanced up, seeing all eyes on him. He sat up straight and looked at Hanks first. The man was enjoying this so Johnny plastered a charming smile on his face as he addressed the priest.

"Padre Matteo, como esta. Johnny Madrid."

There was silence for a beat then the priest smiled and nodded. "Es un honor, Senor Madrid. Como esta?"

"Bien. Monja," he nodded to the Sister and she nodded back. Johnny looked over at Hanks and thought he might swallow his tongue. Truthfully, he was a little surprised himself. Padre Matteo was young, though. Not as hard-assed as the older priest, Johnny surmised. It was a welcome relief not to be condemned to hell with his supper.

"That's funny talk."

"Hannah!" Mrs. Harding admonished.

Johnny laughed at the girl. "It's Spanish. It's a different language is all. Haven't you ever heard it before?"

"I'm afraid she hasn't. We're from St. Louis and have traveled straight through."

"My goodness!" Walters stated. "You must be exhausted."

"It's been a trying journey but we've both managed to behave ourselves reasonably well."

Johnny leaned over a little to the child. "Is that true? Has she been behaving herself?"

Hannah giggled and put two fingers very close together. Everyone laughed and Mrs. Harding hugged her daughter close. "I think we should get ourselves to bed, my dear. Goodnight, gentlemen."

Sister Mary Elizabeth joined them, bidding the men a goodnight.

*

Once the females were gone, Hanks spoke up. "It's terrible, having that poor woman travel alone all this way with a child. It's dangerous!"

For once, Johnny had to agree with the man but he said nothing.

"Well, she'll have us to see after her through Los Angeles. Perhaps, Johnny is going to Stockton and could keep an eye out."

Hanks snorted, appalled at the very idea.

"If you're so worried, Mr. Hanks, maybe you should travel on to Stockton to watch out for the lady." Johnny's eyes drilled the man.

"I'm afraid I have business to conduct in Los Angeles."

"Of course you do. Why is it some people love to complain about the way things are but have no interest in changing them?" Johnny scooted his chair back and stood. "Think I'll get some air."

Once Johnny left, Hanks started. "Of all the nerve! A gunfighter talking to me about moral decency. It's laughable!"

In a soft voice, Padre Matteo spoke. "Do you know Senor Madrid?"

"Know him? Certainly not!"

"Then, perhaps you should not judge so harshly, Senor. Johnny Madrid is a good man. He has always been willing to help the people in our country."

"I don't understand how a man of the cloth can defend a hired killer, Father."

"I am not defending that. I am defending the man. A man you know nothing about. Now, if you will excuse me, I would like some air myself."

Walters looked at his companion. "Phillip, why don't you keep your mouth shut the rest of the trip? Unless you're trying to provoke that man into killing you."

*

"The stars are very near tonight."

Johnny turned to the priest and leaned against the corral. "Yeah, they always are out here."

"I fear I will not get much chance to appreciate them in the city."

He frowned as he looked up. "Yeah, I don't care for big cities. Too much noise, too many people."

"Senor Hanks does not like you."

Johnny laughed heartily at that. "I noticed." Sobering, he looked at the young priest. "Thanks for not tryin to bring the fires of hell down on me."   

It was Matteo's turn to laugh. "I try only to do that once a month and I've already met my quota."

Both men kept smiling as they settled by the fence, gazing out into the darkness. Johnny scanned the landscape but could detect no campfires.

"There is a story that you escaped the firing squad some time ago. That an angel swooped down from the heavens and saved you."

Johnny turned slowly toward the man, the surprise registering clearly on his face. He opened his mouth then closed it, unable to speak.

"The people like to turn story into myth and legend, Johnny. May I call you Johnny?"

"Si," he croaked out.

"I am sure it wasn't an angel but someone saved you, si?"

His anger surged forth. "It was a temporary reprieve, Padre. Taught me not to get in the middle of lost causes, at least."

Matteo raised a brow. "I hope not."

Johnny cocked his head and looked oddly at the man. "It's a real easy way to get yourself killed."

"Or to help those in need. That is something you used to do all the time. What has changed?"

"What makes you think anything changed?"

"You have not spent so much time in Mexico lately. We hear of you north of the border. The news is rather sad to me. You seem to have lost your way, my son."

He pushed off the fence and walked a few paces off. "Don't. I ain't lookin to be saved. The thing is, you do one nice thing and people call you a hero. Well, I ain't no hero, Padre. I don't want to be one. I don't want to be no legend either. I'm just a man tryin to make a livin; tryin to survive. That's all."

"Survive but not live? What will that bring you in the end?"

Johnny glared at him then walked away, around the back of the house. He leaned heavily against the wall and closed his eyes. Dammit! Why the hell did a priest have to come along? He worked to settle his breathing down and calm his nerves. The man was doing his job, he reckoned but he hadn't asked for any advice and he sure as shit didn't want any.

After several moments, he opened his eyes. Eyes full of heat and ice at once. Madrid remained unwaveringly in control then walked around to enter the house.

*

"I have every right to speak my mind," Hanks said tersely.

"Then speak it to the person you're talking about not behind his back," Walters rejoined.

Johnny stopped with the doorknob in his hand. He was so tired of this little weasel. He closed the door soundly and stood in the middle of the room. "You got somethin to say to me, say it."

Hanks dropped his eyes and remained silent.

"Didn't figure you for havin any balls, Hanks." He watched the man flush red. "Just keep your mouth shut about me and I'll do the same."

His head jerked up, curiosity turning into genuine fear.

"You say one more thing about me to my face or behind my back and you won't make it to Los Angeles, comprende?"

The man swallowed hard and nodded.

Johnny grabbed his saddlebags and went to the back, more than ready for some decent sleep.

*

Sleep never came as he tossed and turned most of the night. Giving up about an hour before dawn, he pulled his boots on and headed for the front room. He was a little surprised to see the padre sitting there quietly reading the bible. Johnny sighed and headed for the pantry. He didn't care much if Shorty liked it or not. He needed some coffee and bad.

Matteo didn't speak until the coffee pot was on the table and a cup was in front of him, steaming and aromatic. "Gracias. Mr. Hanks spoke to me last night."

Johnny didn't look at him. "Tell you I threatened to kill him?"

"Si."

"Well, it's the truth. I'm sick of him badmouthin me. Seems to think he can get away with it because all these people are around. I just let him know that wasn't a factor."

"Why would you let a narrow-minded man like that upset you, Johnny?"

He set his cup down and looked at the priest. "Because, he's a hypocrite. I can't stand people like that. He wants to turn his nose up at me? Maybe someone should ask him what he does behind closed doors. At least, I don't try and hide my sins, Padre. Everybody knows who I am."

Matteo smiled. "No, I'm afraid they do not. Oh, they know what you do for a living but they do not know who you are, my son."

"Neither do you, Padre. No offence but you seem to think you know a lot about me because of some stories you heard. You know as well as I do all that is a bunch of bullsh.. malarkey. I ain't no saint, for sure and I'm not a good man. I'm just a man, period."

"Perhaps the stories are exaggerated but I know men who do not elaborate on such things. Men who speak the truth of a matter without embellishment. These are the men I believe and what they tell me of you is that you have a good heart. You care about the people and you do not allow bad men to hurt them if you can stop it. At least, that is how it used to be. Whatever has happened to harden your heart, I pray that pain will release you soon."

Johnny stood up so suddenly, the chair turned over behind him with a loud clatter. "Listen, Padre, I don't want to hear your sermons, got it? Don't think just because you wear that collar it gives you any special privileges with me." He turned and walked out, slamming the front door.

*

Johnny took it upon himself to hitch the team to the coach. He wanted to get the hell out of there as soon as possible. As he set the last trace, he heard a soft rustling sound near the barn. Drawing his gun, he moved quietly toward the building. Leaning his back to the wall, he moved to take a peek around the corner. Then, he heard the snickering and ground his jaw. Stepping on around, gun cocked and ready, he glared at the brothers.

"It's about damned time you showed yourselves."

"Problems?" Mitch grinned.

"Yeah, I got problems. What are you doing here, Mitch? Tryin to blow this whole thing?"

Mitch saw what he missed at first. Johnny was pissed. "Just checking things out, Johnny. No need to get all prickly."

Johnny looked in his eyes and sighed then leaned against the barn wall. "Nothin has happened. It's been real quiet as far as that goes but I'm not promisin I ain't gonna kill a couple of these passengers before much longer."

"Try to hold out a little longer, huh, amigo? I don't think Wells Fargo will want to pay us if they come up short on passengers." Tom tried to hide a smile and almost managed it.

"If you two think this is the easy part, you're dead wrong. Anyways, you got any ideas when this is gonna happen or IF it's gonna happen?"

"Nope. There's been plenty of good places they coulda hit ya but they have been hittin further north than this. Most likely won't be til after Los Angeles."

"Great!" Johnny's frustration rose a few more decibels. "You two best get outta here before one of these damned nosy people comes prowlin around."

Mitch reached out and touched his arm. "You okay?"

Johnny pulled a face. "Yeah, just aggravated."

"Right, cause you're so good with polite conversation and all."

Johnny reached out and smacked the brim of Tom's hat then grinned. "Go."

*

He looked around, sure as he could be no one had spotted their rendezvous. He tried to settle down, calm himself before facing the rest of them. At least he knew Mitch and Tom were alright.

With a resigned sigh he headed back inside. Maybe they'd let him eat in peace for once. He was pleasantly surprised by the tempting aromas as he opened the door. Then, he saw the woman at the stove and understood.

He nodded at her when she glanced his way then settled at the table, pouring another cup of coffee and trying to put off an air of 'leave me alone'.

"Mornin, folks," Henry greeted as he came out. "Ma'am, that sure smells good. Do I have time to hitch up the team?"

"It's done," Johnny spoke softly. He looked up at the surprised man. "Hope you don't mind. I got up early."

"Mind? Heck no and thanks, young feller. Gives me all that more time to get some coffee in me." Henry sat at the table next to Johnny, smiling ear to ear. He glanced around as he poured a cup and noticed everyone seemed jammed toward the other end of the table. Eyebrows raised he gave Johnny a questioning look.

He would have laughed if he'd been in the mood but Johnny only shrugged his ignorance. He knew, of course, why they were all avoiding him but he wasn't obliged to tell Henry. Besides, the man might just try to throw him off this trip and that wasn't happening.

Jack came in and plopped down on the other side of Johnny, grabbing the coffee pot, pouring and slurping all within a few seconds. Johnny smiled at the grumpy man. He sure didn't seem the type to get caught up in this kind of game. Well, he'd wait and see.

He figured if this trip went without incident, he wasn't about to agree to anymore. Especially not a week on a stagecoach.

"If you boys don't mind, I thought I'd ride up top. It's gonna be pretty tight in the coach."

"Don't mind atall. It'll be nice to have an extra pair of eyes," Henry replied.

Johnny looked down the table and saw several pairs of hunched shoulders relax. He looked up when Mrs. Harding set a platter directly in front of him.

"Thank you, ma'am."

"I hope you enjoy it, Mr. Madrid."

He smiled warmly at her and it didn't escape his notice that her attitude chilled toward the others. Well, reckon he had one fan, anyway. He almost laughed at that.

The meal was silent after that and Shorty insisted Mrs. Harding leave the dishes and besides, she didn't have time and he'd really enjoyed her cooking, too. And finally, they were on their way again.

*

Chapter 4

Johnny settled on the luggage and thought idly of throwing Hanks' stuff off the side of the road. At least he'll be gone after today. He hadn't really meant he'd kill him, well, sort of. Sometimes, he wondered what held him back when he ran across men that just rubbed him the wrong way.

It was different if they were in the same line as him. Those men knew what to expect. But this other kind who always thought they were better, smarter, more deserving - those were the ones he really wanted to shoot. And priests, too.

He'd thought this one was different but he wasn't. In the end, he'd still preached and prayed and Johnny could hardly stand it. Especially when the man looked at him with those sad-assed eyes. Must be some kind of requirement to become a priest. Had to have sad-assed eyes. Well, he'll be gone today, too.

That just left the woman and the kid. Fine traveling companions but not so great if things got heated. He wondered what they'd be picking up in Los Angeles and almost groaned at the thoughts running through his mind.

Even as he let his mind wander about these things, his eyes scanned the landscape all the way to the horizon. He saw nothing out of the ordinary. Then, he saw something that settled him right down. Off to the left, it was coming into view now. And wasn't it about the most beautiful thing there ever was? Johnny inhaled deeply and could just detect the slightest hint of salt air.

He heard Hannah squeal and when he looked over the edge, saw her chubby little hand pointing, heard her cries of delight. Must be the first time she's seen the ocean, he surmised. Well, ain't my first time, little one, but it makes me feel the same way every time I see it.

He glanced toward the front and saw something that almost made him fall right off the side. Jack was smiling. Actually smiling! He was stunned and perplexed by this until he heard Hannah make another loud sound of pleasure and the man's grin widened. Well, I'll be damned! He likes kids! Who would've thought that?

Johnny sat back, quite stunned by this revelation. Why he should care, he couldn't say but it tickled him at the least.

"Next way station has a real good view. The little missy will be screamin her head off bout that!" Henry proclaimed.

Jack kept grinning and nodded his head.

*

As the stage pulled into the station, Johnny heard Mrs. Harding admonishing her daughter to stop and wait for her. When he looked down, Hannah was scrambling to get out of the coach then headed straight toward the water. He laughed as he watched her mother working hard to catch her up. Finally, one arm grabbed the little girl around the waist and swung her around. Mrs. Harding threw her daughter onto her hip and hugged her fiercely then walked her down to look at the ocean.

When he looked back down, Walters was looking up at him, smiling. Johnny's smile eased and he started to climb down.

"Children are such a joy."

Johnny turned when he landed on terra firma and nodded. "Yeah, they sure get excited about things."

"She'd never seen the ocean before."

"I could tell. Been a while since I've seen it anyplace ships weren't comin in."

Walters looked at him slyly. "Me too. I don't get much chance to go to the beach even though I practically live on top of it. All I see are the ships every day. I think I'll take a stroll down. Join me?"

"Yeah, sure." Johnny fell into step with him wondering why the man was friendly again all the sudden. Maybe this morning he was just tired or maybe he was worried about his partner's bacon. Whatever the reason, he seemed to be actin like he did before Johnny threatened to kill his friend. He smiled a little.

"I know you're a private man and the only reason I ask is because of those two," Walters nodded toward the woman and child. "I just wondered, rather, hoped you were going all the way to Stockton. I'd hate to think of them out there all alone. One never knows who will be their traveling companions."

"What makes you think they'd be safe with me?"

"Because Hannah likes you and children are good judges of character. Besides, after that breakfast Mrs. Harding cooked this morning, a man would be a fool not to hope for more of the same."

Johnny laughed at that; a joyful, unencumbered laugh and Walters looked at him as if just seeing him.

"You got me there. I'll look after them, Mr. Walters."

"I'm glad to hear that. Phillip is terrified of you." He stopped by a sand dune and reached down, picking up a small shell.

"He should be."

Now, the man he'd been spending the last few days with was back and Walters found himself feeling a bit dizzy with the sudden changes. "He can try a man's nerves."

"Don't know how you stand bein around him."

"Well," he sighed, "his father was my partner then he died and Phillip took over his interest in the business."

Johnny reached down and picked up his own shell, nodding his understanding. "Ever think of buying him out?"

Walters laughed. "Well, yes, I have but he doesn't want to sell and it's an equal partnership."

Johnny turned to look at him, a gleam in his eye that made Walters leery. "Want me to encourage him?"

There was a long silence as Joe Walters stared into those eyes then, he burst out laughing, bending over and holding onto his knees.

*

Mercifully, at least as far as Johnny was concerned, they reached Los Angeles late that afternoon. Though he'd come to like Walters some, Hanks would be out of his way and the man should be grateful, too. He really didn't know how close he'd come to dying. He shook the thought away and the memory of the man as well as Hanks quickly grabbed up his bags and headed away from the stage depot. Walters lingered a while longer then walked up to Johnny.

"Take this. It might while away the time on your journey." He handed the book over.

Johnny took it slowly then frowned. "I can't do that but, I'll buy it from you."

Joe Walters studied his face and saw the pride. With a smile and a nod, he agreed and charged Johnny fifty cents. Johnny had no idea how much a book cost. It wasn't one of those damned dime novels he hated so much, it was a real book. But, he reckoned it was a fair price and handed the two bits over.

He smiled as Walters walked away, even laughed very softly. There were some nice people in this world. He just wished they weren't so few and far between. He turned back and grabbed his saddlebags up then walked over to Henry.

"What time we leavin in the mornin?"

"Eight."

"Know any quiet hotels?"

Henry looked at him then, a little surprised. "Well, there's some right fancy ones." When Johnny grimaced, he scratched his head. "Reckon your best bet is the Savoy. It's about middle of the road. Not too close to the saloons and whorehouses and fair priced. They got a dining room and the food is pretty good."

With a sigh, Johnny looked past the man. "I don't guess there's any Mexican restaurants near here?"

"Sure are! Hey, why don't me and Jack go with ya? We're stayin at the Savoy, too." He leaned in and lowered his voice. "Truth be told, it'd be nice not havin ta watch my own back every minute. I ain't sayin it's the worst part of town but it's close. Good people livin here but at night, well, you know how it is."

Johnny smiled. Yes, he knew exactly how it was and he wasn't looking forward to spending a long night alone. Playing bodyguard for these two would be easy so he nodded.

"Great! We'll be five minutes at the most."

"I'll be right here." He settled on a bench outside the office to wait when he noticed Mrs. Harding and Hannah looking around the streets.

She found his eyes and smiled then walked over. "I'm afraid I'm lost in a strange city."

Johnny got to his feet and smiled down at her. "Yeah, I know what you mean. Me and Henry and Jack were goin for some supper. I'd ask you to join us but I'm not sure about the area, either. Might not be real suitable for a lady."

Just then Jack walked out and tipped his hat at her. "Ma'am, it's not so bad a place. I ain't one to assume nothin but unless you're used to them real fine hotels and the like, it might not make ya scream."

Mrs. Harding laughed outright and shook her head at the man. "Mister ..." she stopped, realizing she didn't even know his last name.

"Just Jack, ma'am."

"Well, Jack, I'm certainly not used to real fine hotels. I'm sure whatever you gentlemen decide will be fine."

"Well, we were goin for Mexican food," Johnny told her.

"Sounds wonderful. Hannah has really taken a liking to chili."

Johnny looked down at the child enthusiastically nodding her agreement and he couldn't say no. He wasn't sure this was a good idea. It was plain this was a true lady but he had to take Jack's word not knowing the city and not wanting to.

*

It was only three blocks from the stage depot and as they all five settled at a table in the restaurant, Johnny inhaled the aromas of his life. If there was one thing he missed while traveling in some places, it was good food. He had a good vantage point where he could see the front door and the kitchen entrance and he relaxed a little, taking his hat off and settling it on the back of his chair.

As soon as the waitress came over, Hannah spoke up. "Chili!"

"Hannah! For heaven's sake, child! Give the poor woman time to give us a menu," Sarah Harding chastised.

Johnny was watching the waitress and it was obvious she wasn't happy to be here. He wasn't sure if that was a normal pinched face or she had some problem waiting on gringos. As soon as their eyes met, he knew it was the latter. She smiled a little at him and spoke in Spanish.

"That's that funny talk, mama." Hannah may have thought she was whispering, may even have been trying very hard but every eye in the place turned to her.

Johnny slid down just a little in his seat. Not much embarrassed him but this kid was something else. He looked at her mother's red face. She looked like she might cry at any moment. He leaned over and whispered in Hannah's ear and she lowered her head.

Henry and Jack looked like they'd swallowed a frog and no one spoke for a long moment. The waitress was glaring at Hannah's blonde head.

"Por favor, es nina no sabe para mejorar."

The waitress gave a soft snort and put their menus down then walked away. Johnny sighed.

"I'm sorry," came the tiny voice.

"As you should be. Hannah, you know better. When she comes back, I want you to apologize."

"Yes, mama." She looked at Johnny almost fearfully. "Can I say it to her in the funn... in Spanish?"

He gave her a sidelong look then thought about it. "Lo siento, Senorita."

She repeated it a few times and nodded. When the waitress came back, Hannah burst out.

"Low scent, Snorta."

Johnny burst out laughing followed by Henry and Jack. Sarah felt like climbing under the table and Hannah's smile lit her face. The waitress stared at her for a long second before starting to laugh, herself.

They could all hear the other patrons chuckling and the entire room breathed more lightly.

Finally, they were able to order a meal then the men escorted the young mother and child to the Savoy and checked in.

*

Johnny walked outside of the hotel after breakfast and wondered what hell he was facing today. He'd rather be in the middle of a firefight with every gunhawk he'd ever heard of than get back on that stage today. Lord only knew what kind of passengers they'd pick up now.

As he walked to the depot, he thought about Hannah last night and had to smile. That kid was going to put her parents through the wringer, no doubt.

He still had about thirty minutes so he took his time, looking in the windows of the shops he passed and scanning the nearly empty streets. His thoughts turned to Mitch and Tom and he grinned, wondering if they'd chanced getting a room last night. Maybe they decided it was safer to sleep on the trail. That's what he would have done and he figured it served them right for sticking him with this part of the job.

As he turned the corner and looked the half block to the depot, his heart stopped. He took a step back then pressed himself against the wall of the building watching and hoping his eyes were deceiving him. It can't be! What the hell is he doing here?

Maybe he won't recognize me. It's been over a year. Hell, he could hope anyway. This had been his secret fear. That he'd run into someone along this route. It was unlikely but it looked like not so terribly unlikely after all. Now what was he going to do? He couldn't abandon the job, couldn't betray Mitch and Tom.

He closed his eyes briefly and sucked in a breath. There was nothing he could do. Hell with it, he thought and made sure there was no expression on his face, no sign he recognized the man at all.

He heard light footsteps behind him and turned to see Sarah and Hannah walking up.

"Good morning, Johnny."

He stared at her for a beat and nodded his head.

She looked at him with confusion, not understanding the cold reception. Her hand tightened on Hannah's and she forced another smile then walked past him. She turned once to see him watching her then proceeded to the depot.

Johnny watched them as they arrived and Henry threw their bags up to Jack. He was still standing there. Why the hell didn't he get on the stage? Because there's still a good fifteen minutes to wait, that's why. He stepped back around the corner and figured he'd wait til the last minute then he got angry.

Why am I standing here hiding? Because that's exactly what I'm doing. I've never hid from any man let alone ... Sighing, he knew he was only delaying the inevitable and the only chance he had was that the man really didn't remember him or would be too shocked to say anything.

Steeling himself, Johnny stepped around the corner and walked down the boardwalk.

*

He threw his saddlebags up to Jack with a nod and gave Henry a quick smile. He hadn't been spotted yet but it was only a matter of time before the man turned around. A wry smile crept on his face as a thought came to him. He leaned against the support beam and crossed his arms, eyes trained on the man's back for almost a minute before he turned.

"Johnny!"

"Howdy, Doc. What's got you down this way?"

Sam Jenkins stared openly at the young man before him, taking in every inch as if he were in his office examining a patient. Finally, he shook his head and cleared his throat. "I, uh, I was at a medical convention. Just heading back home."

Johnny nodded once, never moving from his relaxed position. "Learn anything good?"

Sam smiled easily. "I did learn some new procedures though I hope I won't have to test them too soon. How are you?"

The question, such an innocuous question people asked and never expected answered honestly, sounded so genuine and heartfelt from this man, Johnny had to lower his eyes for a second.

"Good. Real good. You?"

"I've been well, thank you. Are you going to Stockton?"

He pushed off the post and shrugged. "Yeah."

"Time to go, folks!" Henry called then looked down at Johnny with a grin. "Only one extra passenger for now."

Johnny grinned back and nodded then stepped up and opened the door for Sarah. With an almost apologetic smile, he offered his hand.

She looked relieved and smiled back then boarded. Johnny picked Hannah up and set her inside then nodded to Sam.

Once everyone was settled and the stage jolted on its way, Johnny leaned against the side of the stage and looked out the window, a frown on his face for the city and very glad to be leaving it.

Sam watched him from his periphery. He had so many questions. He was thrilled to see Johnny but the young man didn't seem to care one way or the other. Maybe he doesn't, Sam thought sadly. Well, it isn't as if we had a chance to get very friendly before he left. Murdoch will be ... he stopped and wondered if Murdoch would be glad to have news of his son. The thought struck him for the first time but he quickly decided against saying anything to Johnny.

Sam looked across at the young woman and child and smiled. "Dr. Sam Jenkins of Morro Coyo." He extended a hand and she accepted it while introducing herself and her child.

"I don't like doctors," Hannah spoke up.

Johnny snorted and silently agreed.

Sam laughed. "Well, I can understand that, young lady. Sometimes, we have to hurt you a little to make you all better. But, it's better to have a little, quick hurt than be so sick, isn't it?"

She scrunched her cute little face up and thought hard about that. "No," she finally answered.

Johnny smiled out the window.

"You'll have to forgive my daughter, Doctor. She doesn't seem to have any manners on this trip."

"Children have a great propensity to speak the truth, Mrs. Harding. It's quite refreshing. Especially in my field when sometimes, my patients are too stubborn to admit they're in pain." Sam cast a quick glance Johnny's way but saw no reaction. Of course, all he could see was the side of Johnny's head.

Sarah looked between the two men. It was obvious they knew each other but Johnny didn't seem too thrilled with the meeting. She understood now why he was lurking at the corner earlier. Apparently, he didn't want to have this little reunion. She wondered why but knew it wasn't her business.

*

Chapter 5

I need some distraction
oh beautiful release
memory seeps from my veins
let me be empty
and weightless and maybe
I'll find some peace tonight


Angel
Sarah Maclachlin

At the first stop, Sam had thought to talk to Johnny but the young man had walked around the back of the station house and seemed to have vanished until it was time to get underway again. Sam had scowled but Johnny had ignored him.

He sighed as they tumbled along. Well, he has to talk to me at the stopover. He smirked to himself. No, Sam, he doesn't *have* to do anything of the sort. Maybe I can get him to, though.

When he'd left Lancer, Sam had seen the devastation it wrought his old friend. Scott wasn't in the best shape either but he was young and hadn't known his brother long enough to form any true bonds. Scott had gotten on with the business of learning the ranch and living his life. And he was doing very well, too. Murdoch had gone on as well but, Sam could see the way it was wearing on the man. Not knowing his son's whereabouts - again - and not knowing if Johnny was even alive - again - aged Murdoch and it was a sad sight.

Oh, he tried and he was doing better, certainly. Scott had gotten his father through a great deal of the grief and was Murdoch's shining joy. His pride in his son was so easy to see.

Now, Johnny had his nose in a book. Sam had been a little surprised by that and wondered if he wasn't just avoiding talking. But, every once in a while, Johnny would laugh a little. Sam had crooked and craned his neck until he saw what Johnny was reading and he'd smiled. Tom Sawyer.

He sighed lightly and looked out the window at the passing terrain. Two days on a stage was about all he could handle these days. He hadn't really wanted to go but he was glad of it now. Not only for the valuable information he'd gotten in the most recent medical advances but, because he'd run into Johnny. No matter how they got on, at least he could tell Murdoch his son was alive and looking very well.

Before Sam knew it, the sun was lowering in the sky and the stage was slowing to a stop.

*

Johnny closed his book and looked out the window briefly. He stretched his neck muscles and swiped a hand down his face as he prepared to get out of this box for the night.

He didn't look at Sam or the females as they disembarked and went immediately to help Jack and Henry with the team.

Sam walked the ladies inside, meeting the station master and his wife. They settled at the long table that seemed to be a requirement of these way stations with coffee and a glass of milk for Hannah.

"You know Johnny?" Sarah asked.

"I did once a long time ago. Not well, I'm afraid."

"You seemed very happy to see him."

Sam looked at her and thought. "I was but he doesn't seem too thrilled with seeing me."

"He acts mean sometimes," Hannah piped in.

"Acts?" Sam asked with a raised brow.

"Yeah, when people are mean to him or he doesn't like them. But, he likes me." She smiled brightly.

Sam chuckled. "Johnny always seemed to have a soft spot for children." He surprised himself. He hadn't known the man but a few months yet, he knew that much at least. What he didn't know and could never fathom is why Johnny would walk away from such a good life.

The object of their discussion walked in with Henry and Jack and sat at the end of the table away from Sam.

"We'll bring your bags in shortly, folks," Henry announced. "Tag, Millie, how are ya?"

"Fine as frog's hair, Henry. Fine as frog's hair. Hope you folks like chicken. The missus is fryin up some of the best you'll ever taste, I guarantee it."

"Tag, you don't know what kind of chicken these folks have eat before. Don't go buildin me up just ta disappoint." Millie grinned from the stove which her large frame fairly blocked view of.

Johnny thought she sure seemed to be happy to be stuck out here in the middle of nowhere. Well, to each his own, he reckoned. She was a big woman, at least around, and it sure looked like she enjoyed her own cooking. Still, she had a spring to her short step as she moved around her kitchen area, her graying hair wisping into her face as she constantly shoved it away with the back of a hand.

Tag, who was the polar opposite of his wife, tall and skinny as a bean pole, beamed with pride. His teeth were crooked but clean and his rugged face was full of love.

"Well, I know what I know, is all," Tag rejoined.

Johnny decided it was the best gringo chicken he'd ever tasted. Not as spicy as he liked his food but he'd accepted a long time ago that white people just didn't know how to cook very well. They seemed to think all you had to do was throw some salt and pepper on something and it was the best thing ever.

"That was real fine, Millie, real fine," Henry stated as he leaned back in his chair and patted his belly.

Everyone agreed and Mille flushed furiously which actually improved her looks.

Johnny stood up and started out the door.

"Here now, I know what you're up to. I'll help," Henry said as he joined the young man.

*

"Well, I'll say it. Ain't it excitin to have Johnny Madrid here? He's a cutie, too."

"Millie, for heaven's sake! Did ya ever stop ta think these folks might not've know'd who they was travelin with?" Tag reprimanded.

"It's alright, Tag, we are well aware of who he is," Sarah said softly.

"I don't. Is Johnny famous, mama?"

She looked at her daughter blankly for a moment and found she had no words.

"He's well-known in the area, young lady. He helps people in trouble," Sam said gingerly.

Hannah smiled then wondered why that pickle-faced man hadn't liked him if he helped people. Maybe the pickle-faced man didn't like to help people. Hannah decided that must be it and she smiled again, glad Johnny was her friend and glad the pickle-faced man wasn't around anymore.

*

Henry sidled up to the corral fence and handed Johnny his saddlebags. "So, ya know that doc, huh?"

"A little."

"Seemed to be real glad to see ya."

Johnny turned and looked flatly at him. "Can't imagine why."

Henry just nodded. "Got any of that tequila left?"

Grinning, Johnny hefted his bags. "Nope, but I did replenish the supply." He walked back with Henry and Jack fell in with them as they went inside.

The womenfolk turned in, leaving the men to their talking and drinking. Johnny poured for himself and Henry but the rest preferred the rye whiskey Tag had.

Johnny was well aware of Sam's eyes on him as they sat quietly for a few minutes. It didn't take long for him to make a decision. With a sigh, he looked into the man's eyes.

"Reckon we should step outside and get this over with, Sam."

The other three men's mouths fell open and Sam couldn't help but laugh. "Don't worry, gentleman. I'm fairly certain I'll return."

Johnny, unamused, made no comment but simply walked out the door.

Sam emptied his glass before standing then muttered, "maybe," as he joined the younger man.

*

Johnny was sitting in a chair on the porch, his legs propped on the railing.

Sam pulled another chair from the opposite side of the door and settled beside him.

"Whatever you been itchin to say, go ahead and say it."

Sam looked at his profile and saw absolutely nothing. "Alright, I will. First, it's really good to see you again and looking so well."

"Thanks."

"But, I have the feeling you'd rather I wasn't here."

Johnny shrugged. "Makes no difference to me."

"Aren't you even going to ask about them?"

"If I was gonna, I already would have."

Sam sighed and ran a hand through his brown hair. "You're still as exasperating as ever, I see. Well, they're doing fine. Everyone is healthy and fairly happy." He saw the slight twitch of Johnny's jaw in the dim light from the lamp inside.

"Murdoch had a very hard time when you left. It nearly did him in but Scott got him through it. He's doing better now but there's still a sadness to the man..."

"I didn't ask, Doc," Johnny interrupted.

Sam came to his feet and paced to the railing then turned to look down at him. "Do you even care?"

Slowly, Johnny raised his eyes and stared at him. "Nope."

"I don't believe that."

"Believe it. You and me ain't gonna have a heart to heart. We got nothin to say to each other. I don't wanna know anything you have to tell me. Can I get any clearer than that?" He stood up.

"What happened to you, Johnny? Why did you turn your back on them?"

He clenched his fists and walked further down the wrap around porch. "Nothing happened to me. I gave it a try and I didn't like it. As for turning my back, I didn't owe them a goddamned thing. Besides, the old man is puttin on a show for you. He had to be jumpin with joy when I left."

"That's not true, Johnny! He was devastated! I've known Murdoch Lancer for years and I've seen him disappointed, even dejected and usually because of you. But, I've never seen him grieve like this. I'm glad I ran into you. At least I can tell him you were alive when last I saw you."

"Good for you. Besides, if I caused him so much 'heartache', he should be glad to be rid of me."

Sam sighed with frustration. He wanted nothing more than to shake some sense into this boy. "It was because there was never any news about you. Every time he got an update from the Pinkerton's it was always the same. No news and it did break his heart a little more every time."

"It don't matter, Doc. I ain't no cowboy and I ain't gonna break my back for that son of a bitch. He did nothin but ride me the whole time I was there. Then, he just can't understand why I don't want to hang around." He started pacing, his hands clenching and unclenching.

"All he cares about is that ranch. He said as much. So, why should I do all the work and get nothin for it but a hard time? I'm my own man. Nobody tells me what to do."

"Did you think it would be easy, Johnny? That you'd just walk in there and everyone would get along fine? What did you expect?"

Johnny stopped, his back to Sam then turned around and advanced on him, coming within a hair's breadth. "I expected to be treated like a human bein. I expected to be listened to. I expected to be treated the same as Scott and shown a little respect. What I didn't expect was to be yelled out, treated like a kid and made to feel like less than nothin! Ya know, I might not be so smart. Might not have gone to school much or know much about the world outside my own, but I'm not stupid. I can learn but he didn't want to show me nothin! He just expected me to do it and shut up about it while he spent all the time in the world with that dandy.

"Sure, I know a little about ranchin, a very little. Not enough to know what the hell I was doin but he didn't care. Every time I tried to say somethin to him, he shut down, didn't want to discuss it. So be it." He stepped around Sam and walked into the yard.

*

Sam stood where he was for a long time, trying to absorb everything Johnny had said and trying to reconcile it with the man he knew Murdoch to be. It didn't wash and he went after Johnny. Finding him at the corral, he stopped and stared at the young man's back.

"The man you just described isn't the Murdoch I know. So, maybe he was worried things wouldn't work out. Maybe he didn't know how to talk to you. You're strangers to each other and maybe he needed a little time to know you."

Johnny snorted and turned around. "Well, that all sounds real pretty, Sam. Only problem is, he never even tried. He had nothin to say to me if it didn't have to do with the ranch. Maybe you think I'm remembering wrong or I'm so mad I'm seeing things that weren't there. Well, that's up to you but I know what happened. I was there every day. The truth is he was afraid of me."

Sam gawked at him. "I can't believe that. Murdoch isn't afraid of anyone."

A sneer came across Johnny's face. "Ain't never had a gunfighter livin under his roof before, has he? You know what the first thing he said to me was? You've got your mother's temper. Well, I reckon that was part right. Seems to me he's got one helluva a temper himself. The plain truth of it is we didn't get along. It wasn't gonna work so it was better to leave than stay and have it turn real ugly. Besides, he's got the son he can be proud of. I bet ole Scott has turned into the best rancher this side of the Rockies by now."

Sam smiled a little at that. "He has and is doing very well."

Johnny just stared at him. The anger dissipating as he pictured his brother in his mind. He'd never been mad at Scott. He seemed to be a nice enough fella from what Johnny could tell. Just real ... stiff, he reckoned. Well, that was easy to explain. They were all stiff. Still ...

He sighed and shook the thoughts away. "You done now?"

"No, I'd like to know what drove you to leave. From what Murdoch told me, nothing had happened that day."

"Didn't have to. I just thought it through and made the decision. Ya know, there doesn't always have to be some big problem going on for a man to realize he doesn't belong somewhere."

"Oh, Johnny, you're so wrong. You belong at Lancer and not just for your family, for yourself."

He cocked his head and looked curiously at the physician. "You don't even know me, Doc."  

"Does anyone?"

"Nope."

"Must be very lonely."

His jaw twitched again and he turned his back, leaning against the fence. "This is the last time me and you are gonna talk about this. If you wanna talk about the weather or the road or how lousy stagecoaches are, that's fine. But, I don't want to hear the name Lancer again."

Sam swallowed and felt a deep sadness overcome him. He couldn't get through to this young man and he knew it. "Alright, Johnny. IF we ever do talk about it again, it will be because you brought it up." He turned and walked back inside feeling completely defeated.

*

Fuck! Why did he do it? Why did he bring the man out here? It was eating Sam up to talk to him, he could tell. He thought it would be real simple. Just tell him to mind his own business. Why hadn't he? Why couldn't he just give him a look and tell him to shut his mouth.

But, he knew why. He respected the doctor. The man had saved his life and he figured he owed him something for that. But, not all this. Just a few words would have been more than enough. Not all this shit!

He hadn't had any intentions of going into all that. Of reliving it which is exactly what it felt like he was doing. Like it was all happening all over again right here and now. How long had it been now? A year and a half or so, he reckoned and he hadn't thought about any of them in so long. That's how he wanted it to stay, too. He didn't need that bullshit on his mind, especially right now.

Now, he couldn't get his brother's face out of his head. Shit! Damn you to hell, Doc!

Johnny took a very deep breath and slowly let it out as he made his mind go blank. No images, no memories, no nothing. He let nothing from those few short months into his thoughts. But, he knew it wouldn't be so easy. Not with Sam in his face all the way to Stockton. Well, just have to focus on the job, is all.

He looked out into the darkness all around but he saw no campfire. A slow grin spread across his face as he thought of his friends and their cold camp. Friends. Well, near enough, he reckoned.

He thought about Henry and Jack. There was a pair. Still, he couldn't believe Jack was in on this. If he was, then Johnny's instincts were dulling. He didn't say much but he was friendly at least. Well, as friendly as a quiet man could be. He remembered the man's reactions to Hannah and smiled. Can't be all bad if he likes kids.

Henry was just as happy-go-lucky as a man could be. Saw the humor in everything and was very friendly. Johnny frowned at that. In his experience, stagecoach drivers weren't too keen on having gunhawks on board. He remembered the ride he'd hitched into Morro Coyo and the driver asking for his gun. That had been a tough choice but his feet hurt and he was too tired to walk another ten miles.

He didn't travel by stage much, he admitted to himself, still it didn't seem right that the man seemed glad to have him there. Then again, if they'd been getting robbed lately, Henry might think having him around a good thing. But, his presence didn't guarantee a thing. He could as easily stay out of it or even help the robbers, if he was of a mind.

For all Henry knew, HE could be in on the robberies. It didn't make any sense but he hoped he was wrong. He did like the man. He wondered briefly why he hadn't entertained this idea before then realized he'd let that fool Hanks distract him. Being pissed at that pansy had taken his attention off what he should be thinking about. Well, that's done with and he was just lucky nothing had happened so far. Now, he needed to pay close attention to his two suspects.

He turned back to the house and, regretfully, headed inside. He was pretty sure Sam would leave him be but just being around the man was a reminder of something he had worked to forget.

*

The next day was a quiet one and Johnny ignored Sam Jenkins to the point of rudeness. Not that he gave a damn about that. He just wanted to be left alone. They spent the night at another way station and he was grateful no more passengers had joined them. Too many people would be a mess if something ever did happen.

They would be in Stockton late this afternoon and he was starting to think this had been a wasted trip. A one hundred dollar wasted trip. No robbers, no bonus.

He looked over at Hannah fast asleep with her head resting on her mother's lap and smiled.

"I'll be so glad to get there today," Sarah said softly.

"I'll bet. You two have been travelin for a long spell. Your husband will probably climb on board before the stage can stop." Johnny grinned.

She laughed and nodded her head. "I hope so. I'm anxious to see our new home."

"Stockton is a good town. A bit noisy when the cattle come through but there are some very nice people living there," Sam supplied.

"How far out do you think we are?"

Johnny looked out the window. "About twenty more miles."

Her smile widened and she petted her daughter's head. "I appreciate all your kindness, Johnny."

"I didn't do anything, ma'am." And he hadn't so he thought it was a strange comment. His head jerked toward the window when the stage started slowing quickly. Johnny craned his neck and looked forward then his gut tightened.

"Tree down across the road," he explained but his senses were screaming at him. "Whatever happens, stay inside. If you hear any gunfire, you and Hannah get down in the floor. You, too, Doc."

"Is it a trap, Johnny?" Sam asked.

"Don't know but I don't see any other signs of a storm recently and that tree looks pretty healthy from here. Might just be what it seems to be but you never can tell."

Sarah lowered Hannah into the floor. "You have good instincts."

He looked funnily at her then heard a shot.

*

Chapter 6

Four men on horseback approached the coach and ordered everyone out.

"Just leave her here. They don't hafta know she's even around," Johnny said, his eyes going to the sleeping child. He wondered how she could still sleep through the noise but didn't have time to entertain the notion any further as he opened the stage door and stepped down.

Johnny helped Sarah and Sam down then turned back, his hands out to his sides. He took in the four men, all with bandanas over their faces and tried to find something remarkable; something he could identify later if need be. His thoughts went to Mitch and Tom.

Three of the men dismounted as Henry and Jack joined the others. Johnny saw Jack's face and he looked properly pissed off. Henry's face was a mask of irritation. He thought that a good thing.

"Drop the iron, mister," one man ordered.

Johnny unbuckled his gun belt and tossed it in front of him wondering where the hell his backup was.

A second man climbed up top and started tossing the luggage to the ground then growled, "it ain't here."

"Where is it?" The first one asked of Henry. He seemed to be in charge at the moment.

"Where's what?"

Henry received a pistol butt to the side of the head for his troubles and went down like a rock.

Jack spoke up. "Under the coach. I'll get it if ya hold yer horses."

"Get to it and hurry up!"

Jack glanced down at his partner then scuttled under the coach and opened a false bottom, pulling out a mail bag and dropping it in front of the man then going to tend to Henry. The robber leaned down and jerked it open. His eyes lit up and he nodded to the others. He stood back up and looked over the passengers.


"Hand over any valuables ya got."

"You got what you came for. Why don't you get out of here before somethin bad happens?" Johnny met his eyes with a cold stare and the man walked up to him.

"Shut your mouth, breed. Ya got any money?"

Johnny smirked. "Sure, I walk around with thousands in my pocket."

"Here!" Sam said and pulled out his wallet. "Take it. The lady doesn't have anything. Here's my pocketwatch, too. That's all there is."

The robber grabbed the offered items then looked Sarah up and down with a lascivious glare. He nodded toward her neck. "What about that?"

Her hand went to her throat. "I...it's just a cameo. It's not worth anything."

"Lady, everything is worth somethin to someone. Hand it over and your ring, too."

"Please, not my wedding ring," she implored.

He snorted loudly. "Would he rather have you alive without a ring or dead without a ring?"

"Give it to him, Mrs. Harding," Sam said.

*

During this exchange, Johnny's eyes roved the hillside. Where the hell are they? he wondered. He couldn't put the woman in danger let alone that child. He couldn't do a damned thing until Mitch and Tom showed. Where are you, boys?

"What're ya lookin for, breed? Guardian angels?" the robber asked and guffawed at his joke.

Johnny's eyes settled on him. "Thought I saw somethin up there. Figured you had a few more friends hangin around."

"Don't need no more than I got. I bet you're thinkin how to get the drop on us. Don't be a hero, Madrid. It ain't worth it."

Johnny had no reaction to being recognized but Sam's head jerked up.

The robber looked at the doctor and snickered. "What's the matter, mister? Didn't ya know ya had a famous gunhawk ridin with ya? Wonder how scared you woulda been if ya'd known."

"What I was wondering is how *you* knew who he is," Sam said more calmly than he felt.

The man seemed unsure for a moment, casting a glance at Johnny then Sarah. Johnny was wondering the same thing and he began to put some things together.

"I ain't seen that ring come off your finger yet, little lady. Give it up or make your old man a widower. Or, maybe, you need a real man. That it?"

Sarah removed the ring with shaky hands and thrust it at him, her eyes unable to meet his lustful glare.

"What'ya think, boys? Should we take this one along for the ride? Not all that far, ma'am. Just long enough to..."


"Shut your mouth!" Johnny hissed and took a step forward. He felt Sam's hand on his arm but ignored it.

"Mind your own business, Madrid. Maybe you were thinkin of takin her for yourself. That it? Well, too bad cause I got dibs."

"I bet that's the only way you can get a decent woman. Just take her. Even a whore couldn't stand your stink!"

Johnny felt the fire in his belly and was surprised by it. Why, he didn't know but he figured on a fist fight, not getting himself shot. He looked down at his abdomen and watched in some fascination as the small tear turned to a slow spreading red stain. His hand went automatically to cover the wound as he went to his knees and felt hands on his shoulders. Everything else seemed to dim around him as he stared at the ground. He heard noises, voices he supposed but he couldn't make out a word being said.

The scream he'd heard loud and clear. Hannah. Oh, God, don't let her have seen this. Then, he heard horses riding away fast. Must be away cause the sound was fading. Or was it him fading? He couldn't tell right now. And gunfire. He heard gunfire. Must be Mitch and Tom. Too late now, amigos. Where the hell were you when I needed you? Can't count on a damned thing in this life.

He felt himself tilting to the left. He couldn't stop it so he laid on down, figuring this would be as good a spot as any to die. Dios! It hurt like hell!

*

Sam went to his knees with Johnny, shocked to the core at the ease in which the robber had just shot him. No warning, nothing. He just shot an unarmed man! He held Johnny upright and glared at the shooter.

The man was grinning, he could tell even through the bandana. Then, he heard a scream and looked over at Hannah standing at the window.

For some reason, this seemed to propel the robbers into action, or so Sam thought, as they mounted up and started to ride away. Then, he heard rifle fire and looked up the hill at two men riding down. At first, he thought they were giving chase but they caught up with the highwaymen and he heard them all laughing and whooping it up, firing their guns in the air as they rode away together.

Johnny started leaning to his side and Sam eased him on down.

Sarah was shocked mute when Johnny went to his knees. She couldn't comprehend what was happening at first then, the gunshot registered in her mind. She heard her daughter scream and ran to her, wrapping her in her arms and pulling her out of the stage, away from Johnny. Out of sight.

Henry came to with the shot and felt Jack jerk. Thinking his friend was the one shot, he sat up too quickly, groaned and started back down. Jack grabbed hold and held him upright against his own chest as he stared in horror at Johnny.

Everything seemed to stop for the people on the stage for several long beats.

Then, Sam jumped into action, rolling Johnny onto his back. He looked around at the drivers and barked. "Get my medical bag and some water. Help me!"

Henry pulled himself to sit up straight and elbowed Jack into action. The man gathered supplies and hurried to Sam. By now, Henry had managed to keep his head on his neck and make it to Johnny's side.

"Just tell us what ta do, Doc."

Sam glanced at him, saw the blood still oozing from the side of his head and shook his own. "I don't need you passing out on me. Just sit back, find some shade if you can." He looked at Jack. "I'll need your help. The best we can do right now is try and stop the bleeding then get him to town."

"That's nearly twenty miles," Jack pointed out.

"I know! There's nothing else we can do!"

The shotgun driver leaned back a little from the ferocious voice then sucked in a breath.

"I can get things ready to travel whilst you tend him," Henry said and struggled to his feet, holding the side of his head for a moment before making his way around the coach in search of the missing passengers.

*

He found Sarah and Hannah on the side of the road. Sarah was holding her daughter and rocking back and forth, humming softly to the child. Henry knelt beside them and put a light hand on her back.

"How's the youngun holdin up?"

"She's scared to death. So am I."

"I know but they're gone now. Soon as the doc gets Johnny fixed up, we'll head to Stockton."

Sarah looked up at him, a stunned expression on her face. "Johnny's alive?" she whispered.

Henry grimaced and looked at the child's head, buried in her mother's bosom. "For now. We're gonna have to get him to town, ma'am. I'm sorry but there's only one way ta do that. We're gonna have to put him in the stage. I know it ain't the kind of thing a little girl should see but there ain't nothin ta be done for it. I reckon you two should get inta the coach and wait there."

She closed her eyes, tremors wracking her body as she thought of her daughter. Nothing ugly was ever supposed to touch her child. She finally nodded her head and, with Henry's help, got to her feet and carried Hannah back to the stage.

Sarah sat her daughter in the seat and gave her a reassuring smile then climbed back to the ground and turned to Henry. "I can at least but a bandage on your head."

He smiled a little and touched the wound. "Reckon the doc is gonna need all the bandages he's got for Johnny."

She lowered her head in thought then, unceremoniously lifted her skirt and ripped a long piece of her petticoat. Her cheeks slightly blushed, she barely met his eyes for a second. "Extreme circumstances, I'd say."

With no more conversation, she washed the wound clean and wrapped it then joined her daughter in the stage.

Henry stood it, his own face red as a tomato at having this pretty young thing tending him with her petticoats. He managed to get past his embarrassment once she was settled in the coach then he checked the horses and cleared the road.

*

Jack had never thought doctors cussed. Leastways, he'd never heard one do it before. He didn't know if it was a normal thing or if this one just liked the words. He must cause he sure was usin a ton of 'em and Jack hadn't heard some of the words before. He was impressed.

"We need to sit him up so I can wrap this bandage around. You'll have to take all his weight so I can make this as tight as possible," Sam said.

He only nodded and took hold of Johnny's shoulders, pulling him to a sitting position then bracing the young man against his own side. He was dead weight, flopping around like a rag doll.

Sam worked as quickly as he could, tugging on the bandage with every wrap to ensure a tight fit. Pressure was the only thing that was going to help until he could get Johnny somewhere he could operate. As he tied the bandage off, he looked at the incredibly pale face and sighed heavily. If anyone were to ask his professional opinion in that moment, he'd tell them to start digging a grave.

With a shudder, he shook that thought away and got back to business. "Alright, it will take all three of us to lift him into the coach. I'll take his head and go in first so he can rest on me."

Jack looked up at Henry who was now standing beside him. "Can ya do it?"

"Hell, yes! Head's too hard to be bothered much, anyways. I'm alright. Let's get this boy some help." Henry moved into position and, in sync, they lifted Johnny.

It wasn't pretty and Sam was glad the boy was out cold. This would be excruciating but there was no choice. The coach was small on a good day. Now, it was downright claustrophobic.

Sarah had turned aside, putting her feet in her seat to make room, still holding Hannah protectively. The child once more buried her face to avoid seeing.

"How's that, Doc?" Henry asked from the doorway.

"Good. Grab his gun for me. He'd never forgive me if we left it behind."

Henry had no response to that other than a nod of the head. He picked Johnny's gun and belt up and laid it inside the coach.

Sam caught his eyes. "Hurry."

He swallowed and closed the door then climbed up top with Jack. Without delay, they started out.

*

The stage was moving probably too fast but no one thought much about it. Sam checked Johnny's pulse again and grimaced.

"Is he going to make it?"

He looked at the woman and tried to smile. "I don't know. Anyone else, I'd say probably not but, Johnny has a fierce will to live."

"You've known him a long time?"

Sam's eyes flickered. "No, not really. I only knew him a few short months and not well. But, I have treated him before. I only hope he hasn't lost that will he had back then." The last sentence fell into a mutter. He sighed then looked at Hannah. "Is she asleep?"

"Amazingly. She's exhausted, I imagine."

"I'm so sorry she had to see this."

Sarah gave him a weak, tired smile. "So am I but it's hardly anyone here's fault. I'll find a way to explain it to her." She paused and seemed to consider. "It's odd, really. We've traveled so far and now, when we're so close to our destination, we're met with violence. We hadn't had a drop of trouble all the way until now."

Sam didn't know what to say to that. He looked back down at Johnny and thought his pallor was worse than before. There was no life to the boy at all save the shallow breaths he took. He opened Johnny's ripped shirt but saw no blood on the bandage yet. Sam's hand brushed across his forehead, moving the too long hair away. He leaned down as much as he could and whispered.

"Hold on, Johnny. Just hold on now."

They hit a deep rut and the coach seemed to leave the road momentarily. It set back down with a bone jarring crunch. Johnny groaned and moved his head slightly.

Lord, don't let him wake up, Sam prayed. It did him no good as Johnny's eyes fluttered open a second later.

"Easy, Johnny. I've got you. We're on our way to town where I can take better care of you."

Johnny managed to look up into Sam's face. He saw a smile but it wasn't real. The man's eyes told him the truth and he let out a soft breath. "Yeah, sure, Sam. If you say so."

"I do and, for once, you need to do as I say. Just hang in there a while longer."

Johnny didn't respond to the order. His eyes went to Sarah and Hannah and he frowned. "Sorry," he croaked out.

"It's not your fault. You were trying to help me and I'm grateful."

He shook his head slightly. "Hannah ... shouldn't have ..."

"I know, Johnny, but don't worry about that right now. Save your strength." Her eyes filled with tears and she blinked hard to make them leave.

"Don't cry over me, ma'am. Waste of water." Johnny closed his eyes again and his head lolled to the side.

Sam closed his own eyes, feeling a little too emotional himself. Still don't think anything of yourself, I see, he thought.

*

Red Mitchell leaned out the stage depot window and looked down the street. He had a bad feeling. Henry was always on time unless something bad happened. What that bad thing might be was anyone's guess. Could be a broken wheel, a lame horse, a sick passenger or worse. Henry was his best driver, bar none. Nearly all his passengers praised the man after a trip with him and those that didn't were just plain impolite to Red's mind.

Now, they were two hours late and the sun was setting. The passengers in the depot were being understanding. Most of them. There was always at least one big mouth whiner and Red had about had his fill of his for the day. He pulled his head back in and threw a shrug to the folks.

"If he ain't here in five minutes, I want my money back."

"If you want to turn in your ticket, Sir, that's fine." Red managed to sound thoroughly disgusted when he'd said 'Sir' and he had to hide a smile for himself. Part of his annoyance was the fact that this 'sir' wasn't even a full grown man yet. He was short, skinny and way too slender in the hips to hold up that big gun he was trying to tote. He kept hitching up his gunbelt and trying to be real casual about it. Like it was normal for a man's gunbelt not to fit him.

"I ain't givin up my ticket. I don't see why anybody should have to pay when the stage is this late."

"Company policy, mister. If you read the back of the ticket, it says so right there."

"Well, it's plain wrong, is all."

Red raised a brow at the whining but he said nothing else.

"Well? Don't ya all think it's wrong for them to hold us up then expect us ta pay for the privilege?" the boy asked of the room.

"I think you need to learn some patience. Things happen and no one expects it but we have to accept it. It's inconvenient but no one here seems to have any true urgency to reach their destination. If you're in such a hurry, perhaps you should take the gentleman up on his offer and buy a horse to get on your way."

The boy glared at the man speaking, sizing him up and rubbing his hand over his gun. The man smiled a little at the gesture and shook his head slightly at the petulant boy.

"That's real fancy talk, mister. Well, maybe I don't wanna ride all the way on horseback. That's my business, anyways. But, I am in a hurry. I got an appointment." He grinned, thinking of his destination.

The man cocked a brow and was ready to reply when his traveling companion touched his arm and shook his head slightly indicating it just wasn't worth the trouble. The man looked over with a gleam in his eyes and considered the idea then shrugged and smiled.

Red took it all in, wondering if he wasn't about to have some troubles of his own right here in the depot. But, seemed that older man had reined in his friend. Not that Red would blame him. That kid needed his ass walloped and good. His thoughts were interrupted when he heard the sound and he hurried outside to see what had caused the stage's delay.

Red Mitchell's mouth dropped open as the stage rounded the corner, nearly went up on two wheels then drove right past the depot. "Henry! What the hell are ya doin?!" he shouted but he got no answer.

The awaiting passengers all gawked at the stage as it disappeared around another corner.

"Well, don't that beat all! What's he think he's doin?" the boy asked.

"Obviously, there's a problem," his nemesis answered the turned to Red. "What's down that way?"

Red's stomach flipped as he answered. "The doctor's office."

The man looked at his companion and in harmony, they breathed one word. "Sam." They ran down the street in the stage's wake.

*

Chapter 7

Henry heard Red hollering at him but he didn't have the luxury of answering as he was trying to keep the stage upright. He'd nearly lost it on that turn and again as he turned to head for the doc's office.

Jack's knuckles turned white as he held on for dear life and wondered if any of them would survive this ride. He could hear Hannah screaming and that just about killed him. It was bad enough the first time. There was nothing worse than the scream of a terrified child to his thinking.

Sarah grabbed Hannah and the side of the coach as they nearly toppled over. She tried to hush the child but there was no doing that. Hannah was crying hard through her screams.

Sam nearly went into the floor, Johnny along with him as they hit that second turn. He'd managed to hold on for the first one but this one almost did him in. He cussed to himself as he worked to calm his heart. He looked down at Johnny who was still unconscious. At least, he hoped that was all it was. He couldn't assess anything with the stage rocking back and forth so violently. He just had to wait for them to stop.

Finally, they pulled to a halt and he checked Johnny's pulse, relieved to feel it, feather-light, under his fingers. The door flew open and Henry popped his head inside.

"Sorry, folks. We're right outside Doc Saxton's. Hang on a second and I'll get him." Henry didn't wait for a reply, he headed inside.

Sam started repositioning his frail cargo as Jack opened the opposite door and crouched inside the coach, preparing himself to lift Johnny's legs.

Very shortly, Henry appeared with a stretcher and a doctor.

"Sam, what have you got?" Saxton asked.

"Bullet wound to the left lower abdomen. I've got pressure on it but it's been three hours, Burt. We'll have to work fast."

Saxton nodded. "My nurse is already preparing. I'll run inside and get her my instruments."

By now, several people were crowding around the stage and Henry shouted at them to back off and give them room. They moved only slightly, just enough to get Johnny on the stretcher and carry him inside.

No one noticed Sarah Harding disappear into the crowd with her daughter.

*

It was ordered chaos in the doctor's operating room. The nurse scurried about, laying out supplies and boiling water with a confident proficiency. Sam removed the bandage and probed the wound, glancing at Johnny's face for a reaction. There was none.

Burt Saxton sighed as he straightened, removing the stethoscope from the young man's chest. "His heart rate isn't doing too well, Sam. He's lost a lot of blood already. Surgery just may finish him off."

"We don't have much choice. He'll bleed to death for certain if we do nothing."

The two physicians locked eyes then, solemnly, Saxton nodded. "I know. Just don't expect much."

"But, I do, Burt. I know this young man and I do not intend to let him die."

They heard the front door slam shut and the bellowing voice calling for Sam.

Jenkins cringed and slumped his shoulders. "Dammit!" he whispered. He glanced at his friend. "I'm sorry, I'll be right back."

"Hurry. He doesn't have much time."

Sam nodded and walked to the door, straightening his jacket and hoping he didn't look as desperate as he felt. He pulled back the curtain separating the two rooms and walked purposefully to his friend. He had no idea how this news would be taken.

"I need you both to listen to me. I can't answer any questions right now. I have to get back in there fast. But, you need to know ..." he faltered then sucked in a breath. "He's been shot and lost a lot of blood. It doesn't look good but we have to operate if he's to have any chance at all. I'm so sorry, Murdoch. It's Johnny."

Sam watched the man's face pale then saw Scott grab his father's arm. "I really have to go," he said and disappeared.

*

Scott guided his father to a chair and eased him down, joining him as his own knees quivered.

"What's he doing here?"

"I don't know but it doesn't really matter, does it?" Scott asked.

"I want to know what happened on that stage." Murdoch was back in form, angry and demanding answers. He looked up as the door opened and two men walked in looking bedraggled. He took to his feet.

"You're the stage drivers? What happened to Johnny?"

Henry raised a brow. "You know him?"

"Yes, I know him and I want to know what happened to him."

He exchanged a look with Jack then shrugged. "Stage was robbed. There was four of 'em at first. They took the payroll then was robbin the passengers. There was a pretty lady on board and one of 'em was bein real ... well, ungentlemanly with her. Johnny told him to shut up and leave her alone. They had a few words then the man shot Johnny."

"I assume Johnny was unarmed by this time?" Scott asked.

"Sure was. Fella knew who he was, too. Called him by name. Then, they rode out but two more men came down out of the hills and joined 'em. I thought they was help but it was obvious they was with the robbers. Don't know why they stayed back. Maybe to cover their partners' backs."

Murdoch sat back down and closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose then sighing loudly. Scott sat beside him, putting a supportive hand on his arm.

"How do you know Johnny Madrid?" Henry asked.

Murdoch looked at him for a long beat. "He's my son."

Henry was obviously surprised by the information and not entirely sure it was true. He gave a skeptical look to Murdoch. "Son, huh? Never heard of Madrid havin any family."

"Whether you've heard or not doesn't matter. He is my son."

"And the doc. You know him, too? Cause Johnny did."

"Sam Jenkins. He's an old friend and our doctor in Morro Coyo. I'm just grateful he was with Johnny."

"Us, too, mister. Don't think Johnny woulda made it this far without him," Jack said. "Henry, we best get to the sheriff and tell him what we know."

"Ain't much. Didn't see any of their faces but, you're right." Henry walked to the door and stopped. "Hope Johnny makes it. He's a nice young feller sometimes. Funny, too."

"Funny?" Scott asked.

Henry grinned. "Yeah, got a good sense of humor."

Scott thought about that after they'd left. "Nice sometimes? What did he mean by that?"

Murdoch just shrugged. He didn't know or care at the moment.

*

Sheriff Madden wrote down all the information the drivers provided then tapped the paper with his pencil. "And you say two more rode down and joined them as they were leaving?"

"Yep. Reckon they were back-up in case of trouble. Thing is, at least one of 'em knew who Johnny was. Called him Madrid," Jack provided.

"Well, it's not much to go on. I'll send out wires to as many towns south of here as I can. I imagine they'll be heading for the border."

"That's what we figured, too."

Madden looked sidelong at them. "Gunfighters don't usually travel by stage."

"Reckon not but this one did. Don't know why and didn't ask 'im." Henry stopped and leaned forward in his chair, his elbow planted on the sheriff's desk. "If you're thinkin he was in on it and his partners just decided a seven way split wasn't worth it, you're wrong. Johnny didn't have nothin to do with that robbery."

"How do you know?"

"Call it instinct if ya want but I spent a week with that young feller and I can tell ya, he ain't no thief. Sure, he's a gunfighter but that's a whole different profession."

Madden wasn't convinced about that but he didn't argue the point. Six men were plenty to focus on. Besides, it didn't sound like he had to worry about Madrid much longer anyway. He'd probably be dead soon. Truth was, he figured he didn't need to worry about any of them. They had a four hour head start already. He'd form a posse and go after them but he wasn't optimistic about his odds.

"If Madrid makes it, I'll want to talk to him. See what he knows. Fact is, he is a professional so he might've noticed something you didn't. I'll check on him when I get back."

"What about Mrs. Harding and her daughter?" Jack asked.

"Well, that's the funny part. No one seems to have noticed them and I can't find them anywhere. Don't know the name Harding, either. If the husband is new in these parts, I'd probably have heard of him or met him by now. I try to keep up with who's moving into town. I'll have my deputy keep asking around while I'm out with the posse."

Both men stood and nodded but both were worried. As they stepped outside, Jack grabbed Henry's arm.

"Where would she go?"

"It's strange, Jack. Reckon that deputy will find her, though. Ain't like she'd just disappear on us. Poor thing probably ran as fast as she could to her old man."

*

Murdoch sat staring at nothing as Scott paced restlessly about the room. He'd stop and look out the window then take another turn before repeating the action. It seemed as though Johnny had been back there for hours though he knew that wasn't right. Still, how long could it take?

He looked at his father and felt an ache for the man. "I wonder why Johnny was on the stage. And where's Barranca?"

Murdoch inhaled deeply through his nose and looked up at his son, a vague and distant expression on his face. "I don't know, son. Maybe Barranca isn't around anymore."

Scott hadn't thought of that scenario. He hoped it wasn't the case, knowing how attached Johnny had become to the animal. More attached than his brother had become to either of them. It pained him but it was the truth he'd had to accept. Johnny had no feelings, no regard for his family. If he did, he would have at the very least stayed in contact over the past eighteen months.

He sighed and sat next to his father as the front door opened and Henry and Jack returned.

"Any word?" Henry asked.

Both men shook their heads despondently.

"Well, the sheriff's formin a posse but I don't think it'll do him any good. Said he'd come by and talk to Johnny when he was well enough."

"Talk to him? What more could Johnny tell him?" Murdoch asked.

"Well," Henry scratched his bearded jaw, "thinks maybe Johnny coulda noticed somethin we didn't. You know, bein he's a gunfighter and used to noticin things real close."

Murdoch frowned more deeply and Scott just grimaced.

Henry looked at Jack and shrugged then both men took chairs opposite the Lancers.

"Ya did know he's a gunfighter?"

"Of course we know it. We just don't like it much," Scott scowled.

"Reckon ya wouldn't. Still can't believe it. Heard lots of stories about Johnny Madrid. None of 'em ever said anythin about a family."

"It isn't as if we're a gang. My father and I have a ranch near Morro Coyo. Johnny wasn't interested in that life." Why Scott was explaining this to these men, he had no clue. Maybe he just needed to talk about anything right now.

Henry nodded his understanding though he didn't really. It wasn't his business but he just wanted to hear somethin besides the air movin around.

"Don't you have a stage to drive?" Murdoch asked suddenly.

"Company never lets us go out again after a robbery for a few days. Gotta hang around and help the law if we can."

Jack snorted at that explanation. "Yeah, and ta make sure we wasn't in on it, too."

Murdoch crossed his arms and let out a heavy breath. He didn't want to chat with anyone let alone strangers and he didn't know why Scott felt the need to explain any part of their situation to the men, either. Situation. That's a good word for it. He knew he had to try again now that the opportunity was in front him. He just didn't have a clue how. What to say to make Johnny come home.

He thought he might do a better job this time. He could do no worse, certainly. And, maybe he'd learned a few things in the past year and half with Scott that may help him convince his youngest to give up this life before it killed him. If it hadn't already. Raw fear coursed through his body, causing chills down his spine. Murdoch shuddered inside and closed his eyes in prayer.

*

Scott shot to his feet followed closely by his father when Sam walked into the room. Sam held up a hand and waved them to sit back down then pulled a chair up to sit directly in front of the men.

"He's alive but he's hanging on by a thread. He lost a lot of blood and having to travel didn't help matters. It's touch and go at the moment. We took the bullet out and stopped the bleeding. The rest ... we'll just have to wait and see."

Both men took the news in slowly. At once grateful he was alive, then worried about him staying that way.

"How long before he wakes up?" Murdoch asked.

"I doubt it will be anytime soon. Between the anesthesia and how weak he is, he may not awaken for a few days, Murdoch. If you're planning to stay, you might want to get a hotel room."

"Of course we're staying, Sam!"

Scott put a hand on his father's arm.

Sam looked behind him at the two stage drivers. "Gentlemen, I need to have a private conversation with Johnny's family. I appreciate you're worried. Please come back in a while."

"Sure thing, Doc. Just wanted ta say thanks for all ya done for him. We'll keep a good thought." Henry stood and tapped his partner's shoulder then the two men left quietly.

Sam turned back to face the Lancers with a heavy heart. "I spent a couple of days with Johnny on the stage. We talked at length once then he ignored me the rest of the time. Murdoch, he is still very angry with you. The way he talked, the things he said, I don't think you're going to have a chance in hell of convincing that boy to go back to Lancer. If that's what you have in mind, I'm afraid you'll be wasting your time."

Murdoch blanched at the information. "After all this time, he's still that upset?"

Sam considered his words. "Well, I can't imagine he's talked to anyone about it all this time. Maybe, seeing me brought it back and he felt overwhelmed. He was livid, I can tell you. He said you rode him, never explained anything to him and treated him with no respect."

Scott cocked a brow at this and looked at his father, waiting for the man to even try denying it. But Murdoch's face fell and he stared at his lap.

Sam sat back in his chair as he took in both their faces. "Dear God, man. I told Johnny that wasn't who you were. That you wouldn't do such things. What were you thinking?"

"Sam, I just thought he needed a firm hand."

Scott snorted. "Maybe, but not an iron fist."

Murdoch threw him a look. "I know I didn't do right by him but I didn't think it was bad enough to run him off. I always thought he'd just finally talk to me."

"He said you never talked to him about anything that didn't have to do with the ranch. He said you were afraid of him. Afraid of Madrid."

Murdoch raised his head and stared at the doctor. "That's not true. I was never afraid of him. I was terrified *for* him. I know I didn't handle things well but neither did Johnny."

"I'm sure he didn't. In fact, I'd lay odds on it but, Murdoch, you are the father. No matter how old he is, he's still your boy and that boy has been without guidance and love for so long, it takes a hundred times the patience to get through to him." Sam patted his knee and tried to smile. "Maybe, you'll get a chance now."

"I hope so. Can we sit with him?"

"Yes, but like I said, don't expect anything any time soon."

*

Three days later, Sheriff Madden and his posse returned to town empty-handed. He dismounted in front of his office and released the deputized men then went inside and fell into his chair.

He simply sat there for a moment before going through his notes again. He knew this was a waste of time but it was his duty and he wouldn't shirk it no matter how long the odds. Sometimes, things turned in the laws favor. He smirked a little then wondered if Madrid was still alive.

"Nothin, huh?" Henry asked as he walked in.

"I'm afraid not but it was a long shot to begin with."

"Not even a trail?"

"Well, we found plenty of tracks around where the stage was held up and they were headed south just like you said. Then, they went up in the foothills and we lost the tracks in the rocks. Madrid make it?"

Henry looked up, aggravated at the nonchalant tone. "He's still alive but he's pretty weak. Ain't even woke up yet. His folks have been with him the whole time."

Madden shook his head. "A man like Murdoch Lancer must feel like somebody gut punched him, finding out Madrid is his kid."

"I don't know but what I do know is the man has barely left his side. Tells me a whole lot."

"Don't get your whiskers twisted, Henry. If I didn't know better, I'd say you were right fond of Madrid." Madden smiled a little.

"Ain't no crime. I do like 'im. He's a nice young feller when he's treated nice. He stepped up, Sheriff. Stepped up good and proper durin that robbery. Tells me all I need ta know."

Madden shrugged indifferently.

"Well, me and Jack was headin out on the afternoon stage unless ya need us."

"No, go ahead. I can always grab ya when you come back through if I do. I have a feeling this is a dead end anyway. Looks like Wells Fargo is just going to have to eat that payroll."

Henry simply nodded and left.  

With a grunt, Madden stood and headed back out the door and to the doctor's office.

*

"As stubborn as you are, this should be easy for you. Come on, Johnny, wake up now. You're giving us a bad name. We keep telling these doctors nothing can keep you down very long." Scott wiped the cloth over his brother's face again and sighed tiredly.

He stared at the pale face, willing him to open his eyes but there was nothing. At least he's not as pale as he was, Scott thought. His breathing is much better, too. All good signs. Now, if he'd just wake up!

He heard the front door close and sighed, figuring Murdoch was back. He'd only left an hour ago under threat of physical injury from his son if he didn't get some rest. He turned to the doorway, prepared for a battle. So, when he saw the sheriff, Scott was taken aback and at a loss for a moment.

"How's he doin?"

"He hasn't come around yet but his breathing and color are better," Scott answered automatically.

"I'm Sheriff Madden. You Scott Lancer?"

"That's right."

"I just got back with my posse but we came up empty. I was hopin Madrid could tell me something the others couldn't."

"I'm afraid I can't tell you when he'll wake up, Sheriff. The doctors don't seem to know."

Madden nodded and walked to the bedside. He looked at Johnny then Scott. "Don't look nothing like you."

"We had different mothers." Scott went back to his ministrations, useless as he felt they were.

"Well, when he wakes up and can talk, send for me, huh?"

"Of course."

Madden started to leave then turned back. "Sorry, but I'm just real curious. I take it he don't live with you and your old man?"

"Johnny decided ranching wasn't for him."

Madden snorted a little. "No surprise there. He's been in the game a long time. Hard to turn it all around. Still, funny he didn't grow up with you."

Scott looked up wearily. "No, he didn't." He simply could not get into this right now and, even if he could, he wouldn't. It was no one's business.  

Madden nodded and left.

*

Chapter 8

Scott stared at the cloth in his hand a long time thinking of the possibilities if he and Johnny had grown up together. Whimsically, he pictured all sorts of mischief he and his brother would have gotten into on a ranch the size of Lancer.

"He gone?"

His head jerked up and he leaned forward suddenly, staring at Johnny as the young man opened his eyes and scanned the room.

"Yes, he's gone and how long have you been awake?"

"A minute. I heard him say he wanted to talk to me. Didn't feel up to bein interrogated."

"I wouldn't have let him do that, Johnny."

Johnny gave him a hard look then looked around the room with some confusion. "Where am I?"

"Dr. Saxton's office in Stockton. Do you remember what happened?"

"Sure, I got shot. Sam was there."

"He's still here. At least until tomorrow then he has to get home. He'll be relieved you woke before he left." Scott smiled a little.

"Why?"

"He was worried. We've all been very worried."

Johnny sighed heavily and wiped a hand down his face then grimaced as the pain awakened. "What are you doing here?"

"We just finished a cattle drive. We knew Sam was coming back from his convention so we decided to meet him at the stage and take him to dinner. It was quite a surprise when the stage rounded the corner on two wheels then kept right on going. The driver brought you right here."

Johnny shook his head. "No, I mean, what are you doing here?" He pointed downward to indicate the room.

Scott was stunned for a moment then his anger rose. "Well, we were worried about Sam so we followed the stage. He told us it was you who was hurt so, stupidly, we thought we'd hang around to see if you'd live!"

Johnny smirked. "Well, now ya know so you can go about your business."

He shook his head slowly back and forth. "You may not live with us, may not want the same life we have but we are still family, Johnny. That's something I never got a chance to tell you before you lit out of Lancer. Just because we don't share the same life doesn't mean we can't keep in contact. You act as if you hate us."

He turned his head and looked right into Scott's eyes with an icy stare. "Don't think enough about you to hate you or not hate you. I'd just as soon be left alone by everyone in the world, if you don't mind."

"I do mind but I'm sure you don't care. Is that what you really want? To be all alone in the world?"

"Yep." He turned his head away and stared at a door. "Where's the doc?"

Scott stood up and walked to the door. "Sorry, but I can't answer you since I'm not here." He walked out and Johnny heard the door slam.

*

He sighed and shook his head then took stock. He was hurting pretty good but not as bad as before. He felt very weak and shaky. That wasn't good. He held his right hand out in front of him, concerned as it trembled.

"You're awake!" Sam proclaimed as he entered the room.

"Must've been a helluva doctor's school you went to," Johnny smirked.

Sam rolled his eyes. "I heard the door slam."

"Yeah, it was Scott. I ran him off."

"Why, Johnny?"

He just stared at the man for a beat. "How bad off am I?"

Sighing, Sam began. "You almost died. It's a miracle you're breathing, quite frankly. You lost a lot of blood and it's going to take some time to rebuild your strength."

"How much time?"

"At least a week."

Johnny's eyes narrowed in anger then he heard heavy footfalls coming toward the room. "Where's my gun?"

"I'll get it later. I'm not going to arm you and watch you shoot someone who simply came to see how you are."

"I don't go around just shootin people, ya know."

"That's good to hear. Otherwise, your brother would probably be the next patient," Murdoch said statically from the doorway. "I just saw Scott and he told me you are your usual charming self."

"Ain't gonna be no better for you, old man, so don't waste your time."

Murdoch looked at Sam who could only shrug in defeat. The rancher pulled his shoulders back and advanced to the bedside. Sitting in the chair Scott had vacated so abruptly, he stared at Johnny.

"It's my time. I'll waste it if I like. Now, have you even thanked Sam for saving your life?"

Johnny scowled at him. "Ain't had the chance. We got interrupted. If you don't mind, I was still talkin to the doc."

Murdoch leaned back and waved a hand. "Go ahead. I'll wait."

He sighed loudly and turned back to Sam. "I need to get back to San Diego, Doc. So, really, how long?"

"A week, Johnny. What is so important in San Diego?"

"Lots but mostly, I left my horse in the livery there and if I don't get back, he might just eat the owner."

Sam smiled briefly. "Well, you'll just have to chance it, I'm afraid. You really are in no condition. You know you're weak and you know you're in pain. If you even try to get up right now, you won't make it out of the bed before passing out. Now, Dr. Saxton is out on his rounds. I'll introduce you to him when he gets back then I have to get back home."

"Yeah, okay. Thanks, Sam."

The doctor sighed at the sincere tone. "You're welcome, Johnny." He leaned down so he could speak in the young man's ear. "When people argue, both are usually a little wrong about a thing. Think about it." He stood back up and straightened his jacket. "I'll get you some broth."

*

Johnny stared at his hands as he frowned at Sam's words.

"Are you going to ignore me?"

"I'm trying to. Go home, Murdoch. Or, go somewhere else. Leave me alone. I didn't ask you here and I don't want you here."

"Why? Are you worried you might actually feel something?"

He looked hard at the man. "Ain't your concern what I feel or what I do."

"I know you believe that but it isn't true. Whether you like it or not, I'm your father. I know I haven't been a very good one, Johnny, but I was trying. It may not have seemed that way but I was. I just didn't know how to deal with you, frankly, and I handled it all wrong. I've had a lot of time to think about it and Scott harping on me, as well. I was trying to sit on you and the more I did that, the more you bucked."

"I ain't a horse, old man."

"Well, it's a fitting analogy. You are wild and," he stopped and sighed heavily, "and maybe you can't be gentled. I don't know and I never will because you won't give me the chance."

He gingerly laid a hand on Johnny's arm and the young man seared it with his eyes. Murdoch dropped the hand back to his lap.

"I want that chance, son. I still want you to come home and I always will. I don't think you really gave the ranch a chance at all. I know how hard it was, how different from anything you've ever known. And, I know I didn't help matters but I can learn from my mistakes. Don't say anything right now, please. Just think about it. Really think about it. I'll come back in a few days."

Murdoch walked to the doorway and almost made it until the cold voice pulled him short.

"Nothing to think about. Don't come back here, old man. You got nothin I want."

His heart clenched and he faltered for a second before making his way outside.

*

Johnny stared at the ceiling and worked on managing the pain. His gut was on fire but he knew it hadn't been a direct hit. Still it was damned near point blank. Reckon the bastard wasn't payin any mind to where his gun was pointing. He frowned as he realized something much more important could have been hit had that barrel been a little lower.

He still didn't know anything about Mitch and Tom and there was no one to ask, he reckoned. Drivers are probably long gone and Sarah, too. Not that he'd ask her. She'd been through enough. He wondered how Hannah was doing as his eyes slid closed.

He was pretty sure he hadn't been asleep very long but he felt someone in the room with him. He kept his eyes closed and listened, hoping he could figure out who was there. Not Scott or Murdoch, thank God. Not Sam either. Maybe that other doc. After another minute he gave it up and opened his eyes. The first thing he saw was a badge and he cussed.

"That how you say howdy?" Madden asked.

"What can I do for you, Sheriff?"

Madden raised a brow. Sarcasm. Well, what did he expect? "You can tell me what you know about the robbery and anything you saw that can help me find out who did it."

Johnny smiled a little. "Oh, is that all. Well, there was four of them. They laid a tree across the road then came on in and ordered all the passengers out. Tried to get Henry to give up the payroll. When he didn't, they smacked him upside the head with a pistol then Jack got it for 'em. Then, they decided to rob the rest of us. Took the doc's wallet and watch and the lady's wedding ring."

"And tried to take the lady from what I hear. That's when you stepped in and got yourself shot."

"Yeah, that's it. That's all I know."

"Anything about any of them that you noticed?"

Johnny sighed and grimaced as he shifted a little in bed. "The one doin all the talkin had a scar on his left temple. Wasn't very big but I saw it. Just a white line. I didn't notice any kind of accent."

"What about the other two? Did you see them?"

He frowned and shook his head. "What other two? There were only four."

Madden sat back in his chair. "Nope. Two more men rode down after the others had mounted up and were riding away. Henry says he thought they were gonna help at first but then they rode off with the other four."

Johnny felt a little dizzy, then his face flushed with anger. "Any description?"

"Youngish. Both fair-haired. One with a beard and one without. One was ridin a paint."

Johnny's jaw clenched tightly and he turned away from the sheriff. He felt like he'd been gut punched at that moment and he took a few minutes to pull himself together.

"What were you doin on a stage anyway?"

He blew out a breath and turned to face the man. "The other two are brothers. Mitch and Tom Wilson." He shook his head. "They set me up. Told me Wells Fargo had hired them to catch the robbers because they figured one of the drivers was in on it. Seems they been hit pretty hard lately. They wanted me to ride in the stage and they trailed off the road. Bastards!"

"Friends of yours?"

"Obviously not. I thought I could trust them. Just goes to show can't trust nobody."

Madden stayed quiet for a while, giving Madrid time to rally. "Any idea where they'd go?"

"If they didn't go below, they'll be in Texas."

"Mexico or Texas. Well, that's just a little out of my jurisdiction."

Johnny looked at him with hard eyes. "Ain't out of mine. You won't have to worry about it, Sheriff. Soon as I'm able, I'll find them."

Madden raised a brow but simply nodded. There was nothing he could do about it and he probably wouldn't anyway. If Madrid wanted to see justice done, it was his business. "If they did have anything to do with all these stage holdups, then they're wanted for murder."

Johnny didn't respond to that. "What about the woman?"

"Well, that's another mystery. She and the kid disappeared. I've had my deputy all over the area and no one has ever heard the name Harding. Maybe she's runnin from her old man or someone else."

"She didn't seem scared, like she was runnin from anyone." He frowned as he recalled the strange comment she'd made to him about his instincts.

"All I know is nobody has seen them since they got off the stage right out front of this building. Well, thanks for the information."

"Yeah, sure," Johnny replied distantly. He didn't like the feeling he was getting about Sarah. He hoped she wasn't involved in any of this. None of it made sense to him. Why drag him into this? Why involve him at all? Well, reckon I'll ask 'em right before I kill 'em both, he thought angrily.

*

"I don't know why you're bothering. You know he won't appreciate it."

"Maybe not but, I'm going, Scott. Barranca is the only thing Johnny values. If I can give him his horse back, maybe ... maybe he'll soften up some."

Scott rolled his eyes at his father's back then sighed softly and walked up to the man. "I know how much you hope that but, I just don't see it happening. I'm sorry, Murdoch, but Johnny is lost to us. He doesn't care about us at all. Surely, you can see that by now."

Murdoch straightened from packing his saddlebags and turned to face his son. "I can't believe that."

"Why not? Has he ever given you any indication, one flicker, that he gives a damn? No, he hasn't and you know it. Why must you be so blind?!"

Murdoch stared at his son's outraged face for a long beat. "Scott, it's not easy to explain but I simply cannot give up on him. There *is* something there. There has to be."

"Only what you imagine. I understand how hard this is for you and I hate all of it. But, Johnny has changed and I just don't believe he'll ever be the person he was before."

"And I have to believe he will. I know he's capable of it but he's afraid, Scott. He's scared to death of opening himself up to more disappointment and pain." He walked away to the window and stared out at the predawn light. "He lost the only person he ever loved and at an early age. He's shut himself off and I have to try to get through to him, somehow."

"I guess you know what it's like to shut down like that." Scott's soft voice caused Murdoch to turn to him.

He frowned and shook his head a little. "Not like that, no. I did shut down but not to the degree Johnny has. Maybe it's because I had Paul then Teresa and the hands and Sam. I had friends, Scott. Johnny doesn't have anyone. He won't let himself." He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "I know you think I'm dreaming but I can't just walk away from him."

Scott gave him a pained and sympathetic look. "He'll walk away from you, Sir."

Murdoch swallowed and turned back to the window. "Promise me you'll stay close to him while I'm gone."

"Are you trying to get me killed?"

"He won't hurt you. Not physically, anyway. I'm very sure of that."

Scott sighed and muttered, "I wish I was."

*

Scott stood at the doorway, curtain pushed back and watching Johnny tentatively.

"Two whole days. I thought I was in heaven. What are you doin back here?"

Anger had a way of easing any misgivings for Scott and he stepped into the room. "I made a promise and I never break my word."

"Promise? To who?"

"Whom."

Johnny sighed. "What the fuck ever, Scott. To whom, then?"

He smiled a little and sat at the bedside. "Murdoch. He made me promise to stay close to you until he gets back."

He rolled his eyes and stared at the ceiling.

"Don't you want to know where he went?"

"Why should I?"

"Because he's gone to San Diego to retrieve your horse."

Johnny looked sharply at him. "Why?"

Scott shook his head and crossed his arms over his chest. "I have no idea. I suppose he thinks it will soften you up if he makes this gesture. He said he knew how important the animal was to you. That it was all you had."

He smirked at that. "Is that what he thinks? All I have is a horse?" He would never admit the old man was right about that. Why, he wasn't sure but he sure didn't need anyone even thinking about feeling sorry for him.

"Well, unless you have some secret life, a wife and kids stashed somewhere then, yes, that's what he thinks."

"Maybe I do," Johnny sneered.

It fell quiet for a moment, an uncomfortable silence that caused Scott to frown and shift in his chair.

"You kept your promise to your father. You checked on me so you can go now."

"What do you do to keep yourself occupied in here, Johnny?"

He shrugged. "Oh, I have a lot to think about. Lots of plans to make. A little revenge to plot. Standard stuff."

Scott actually laughed at that. "I see. Must give you a headache sometimes. May I ask you something?"

"You just now botherin to ask permission?"

Scott shrugged, a small smirk on his face. "I was just wondering if anything made you happy. Do you ever smile? I mean a real smile and not that malicious grin you like so well?"

Johnny shot that malicious grin at him. "Don't worry about what I do."

"I suppose I'm just bored. I told Murdoch he was wasting his time if he thought you would appreciate him going after Barranca."

"I appreciate it and I'll tell him but that don't mean we're gonna get all cozy. Just means I owe him a favor, is all."

Scott raised a brow at that. "That's good information to have. If we ever need a gun, we'll give a yell."

"That's business. It don't come free. You need me to go get a horse for you, just holler."

*

Scott ground his teeth together and wondered why he was here, why he bothered at all. He could have talked to the doctor and gotten any information on Johnny's health.

"Still here, huh?" Johnny asked with some amusement.

Scott thought it rather odd he thought this funny but then, he didn't know enough about his brother to know if that was normal or not. "I wonder, brother, if you aren't counting on that very thing. That I will hang around here or, more to the point, that Murdoch will hang around."

Johnny frowned at him, shaking his head in confusion. "What are you talking about now, Boston? I swear I never could understand you most of the time."

"I mean, you are a master manipulator, Johnny. You push us away knowing we won't go very far."

He raised up on his elbow, unable to hide a grimace of pain and not really trying. "I have told you about a hundred times to leave me alone. What do you want me to do, Scott? Shoot you? Will that get it through your thick skull that I don't give a fuck what you do?" He laid back down, breathing heavily. "If you stay around here it's you're choice. If you ain't man enough to make up your own mind, that ain't my problem. I've already made up mine."

"I told Murdoch he was dreaming if he thought there was a chance in hell of you coming home. Quite frankly, I hope you stay away. You've done nothing but hurt him and if you did come back, that wouldn't change one bit."

"You're preachin to the choir, Scott. As for hurting Murdoch, give me a break. None of this was my doing. I didn't run off on him. I didn't lie to my kid about it. I didn't make me hate him. I took what I was handed and did the best I could with it. If that ain't good enough for Murdoch, tough shit! I'm all grown up now. I don't need no daddy and I don't need no stuck up fancy-pants dandy tryin to talk down to me all the time, either!"  

"All I have *ever* tried to do is help you. Get to know you and try to be a brother to you. But, you turned your back on all of it, Johnny. You ran away."

Johnny's hand moved like lightning as he grabbed Scott's shirt front and pulled him closer. "I don't run from nothin. You got a funny memory there, Scott. I told you I was leavin. I told him. It's my right to do what I want. Get the hell out of here and don't come back!"

"What is going on in here?" Dr. Saxton demanded as he walked in on the fray.

Scott wrenched his shirt free and stood up. "Nothing, Doctor."

"Nothing? Why are you upsetting my patient, young man? He's barely out of a crisis and you're in here arguing with him?"

Scott turned and glared at the man. "I didn't start it!"

"The hell you didn't! Started it by walkin through that door. Tell him, Doc. Tell him how bad he is for my health!" Johnny sneered.

Dr. Saxton stared at one then the other then shook his head. "You are both acting like ten year old schooboys! Mr. Lancer, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you not to come back. At least until he's better."

"Don't worry, Doctor. I have no intentions of coming back. I promised my father I'd check on him and I've fulfilled that promise." Scott never looked back at Johnny as he stalked from the room.

*

Chapter 9

Johnny slowed his breathing and settled himself as the doctor checked him out.

"How's it looking, Doc?"

"I'm glad you've calmed down. The wound is healing well. No sign of infection but you can't be moving around like that. What were you thinking fighting with that man?"

"Wasn't fighting. Just making my point."

Saxton raised both brows. "Well, I'd say you made it. The stitches won't be ready to come out for several more days. You're doing well, young man. Just keep doing what you've been doing."

Johnny looked at the man. He knew he wouldn't get as much of a fuss from this sawbones. "I'm done layin around here, Doc. I've got things to do and it can't wait no more."

"Mr. Madrid, you are in no shape to ride a horse or anything else. You won't make it fifty feet."

Johnny grinned at him. "Would you care to put a little wager on that, Doc?"

Saxton gave him a wary look. "I don't think I would. I can't condone this."

"Not askin ya to. I'm free to do what I want, ain't I?"

"Even if it kills you."

Johnny nodded and dismissed the man from further thought. He had other things to worry about. Like how he was going to go anywhere without a horse. He had enough money for trail supplies but nothing to put them on, like a mount. He didn't suppose he was going to get paid by Wells Fargo since they never hired the Wilsons in the first place. He seethed at the betrayal and vowed to exact his revenge.

Slowly, he tested his fortitude by raising up on his elbow, more slowly this time than last. He threw the covers back and got to the side of the bed. Not bad, he thought.

*

Johnny sat in the chair in the corner of his sick room, pale and sweaty but completely dressed. It had been a chore but he'd finally made it. He glanced out the window and reckoned it had only taken him a couple of hours. He laughed softly. Well, not the first time I've done this. Reckon it won't be the last. Maybe.

He eased to his feet and walked around the room, taking his time and focusing on the pain then, focusing on ignoring it. He didn't want any sudden catches to take him by surprise and give his condition away to anyone. He blew out a breath and walked over to the dresser, finding pencil and paper.

Well, reckon Scott was a little right. I am using him but not how he thought. Reckon he's so mad, he'll send the sheriff after me. Might even hang me if they catch me. Oh, well.

He scribbled the note then found his hat and put it on his head. He was almost to the door when he sighed and sagged his shoulders. Going back to the dresser, he wrote another note and left it there then headed out.

He opened the front door a little, one eye peering into the streets. Slipping out, he shut the door with a soft click then walked nonchalantly to the corner. He looked left and right then found what he sought. He headed for the livery, working on his charm. And, it was work with the mood he was in but, he figured he could pull it off.

After several minutes of witty reparte with the livery owner and a few raucous jokes, Johnny was heading south out of town on Remmie. He had to laugh as he pictured Scott's face when he found out.

*

Dr. Saxton stopped abruptly in the doorway when he saw the empty bed. Moving into the room, he saw the note and picked it up.

'Sorry, doc. I'll pay you as soon as I can. Thanks for saving my life, Johnny Madrid.'

He crumpled the note in his fist and thought about seeing Scott Lancer but, it was clear Madrid had no use for the man. He didn't want to put Lancer in harm's way.

*

Scott strode purposefully to the livery the next morning, intent on riding off his anger and frustration. Riding Remmie full out always calmed him down before. He hoped it would work again.

He stepped into the livery and stared at the empty stall then went out back to the corral which was empty, as well.

"Oh, howdy, Mr. Lancer," the livery owner smiled as he rounded the corner.

"Good morning. Where is my horse?"

The liveryman grinned then chuckled. "Well, reckon a joke can only go on so long. Here," he said as he fished a note from his pocket.

Confused beyond measure, Scott took the paper a little hesitantly. When he read it, his jaw dropped.

'Scott, sorry but I need to borrow your horse. I'm goin after Murdoch. He can bring Remmie back. If you're too sore, you can always turn me in as a horse thief. Don't think Murdoch would like it much. How's that for manipulation? Forget about me, Scott. Get the old man to forget, too. Johnny.'

He wadded the paper into his fist and set his jaw.

"It was a joke, wasn't it?" the liveryman asked, a little worried at the reaction.

Scott considered taking Johnny up on his offer and turning him in as a horse thief. Then, he sighed, knowing Johnny was right. Murdoch would kill him for it. Yes, indeed, brother. You are a master manipulator.

"Mr. Lancer?"

"What? Oh, yes, it's fine," he muttered. He should go after him. That was his first instinct then he shook his head. No, he's done with us. Murdoch can bring Rembrandt back. He turned and walked away.

*

The first day out, Johnny figured this was the worst idea he'd ever had. His side pulled constantly, the stitches stretching against the movement of the horse. But, the second day, it was better. Or, he'd gotten used to it. He wasn't sure which and he didn't care as long as he could ride.

He reckoned Murdoch had made it to San Diego, somehow gotten the livery owner to hand Barranca over and was heading back by now. He wondered how the old man had managed it. He remembered his threat to the man if Barranca wasn't in perfect condition when he returned. Well, money talks and loud. Reckon the old man paid him off.

He frowned at that. He didn't want to owe Murdoch Lancer anything. He figured he'd owe the whole damn world somethin before this was over. He knew two men he owed a bullet and he was more than anxious to pay that debt. Every time he thought of Mitch and Tom, his blood boiled. They would curse the day they ever heard of Johnny Madrid.

He still couldn't reason out why they'd done this. Why would they set him up like this? Maybe they were gonna lay the robbery on him. But, no one was blaming him for anything. No one had tried to say he was in on it. Maybe, they had some score to settle with him he wasn't aware of. Or, one of the other robbers and they just went along with it. He wouldn't have thought the brothers the kind to do that but, you could never really know another man. He'd seen plenty of men do things no one thought them capable of. He'd always wondered at how people could be so suprised by those actions. Now, he was one of those people. Because he sure was surprised they'd betrayed him. Pissed, too.

As he rounded a curve in the road, Johnny reined to a stop and had another surprise ahead of him. He watched for a minute until the man raised his head and saw him. He clucked at Remmie and moved on down the road.

"Problem or did ya just feel like walkin?"

Murdoch looked hard at him. His initial question was what the hell was he doing on a horse. Then, he recognized the horse Johnny was on and had a surge of hope.

"He came up lame a few miles back." He nodded to his mount.

Johnny nodded then cocked his head to the side, curious. "Why didn't you ride Barranca?" He looked at the horse, relieved beyond measure the animal looked so good.

Murdoch's eyes darted around then he looked at Barranca and scowled. "He wouldn't let me."

Johnny burst out laughing, his left hand going to his side. He managed to dismount and walk over to the palomino, still chuckling. "Hey, boy. Bet you about gave up on me, huh?"

He stroked the velvet nose then scratched his ears. Barranca lowered his head and laid his forehead to Johnny's chest, nickering softly. Johnny laid his head on Barranca's. "I know, I know. Lo siento, amigo. Lo siento," he whispered.

Murdoch waited for the reunion to be over, overjoyed at Johnny's love for the horse for some reason. Finally, the young man pulled away and patted Barranca's neck. He looked over at Murdoch and smiled.

"You can take Remmie. Scott's probably got a posse out after me by now."

"A posse? Why?"

Johnny grinned. "I sorta borrowed him without permission."

Murdoch's mouth twitched but he managed to scowl a little.

Johnny sighed and looked off over the land. "Thanks for getting him for me. You didn't have to do that."

"It was my pleasure though that liveryman was hard to convince. What did you say to him?"

The grin was back then he ducked his head. "You don't want to know."

Murdoch figured that was true. "Well, it's almost sunset and my feet are killing me. I think I might be a little lame, too. Camp with me tonight?"

Johnny's shoulders tensed.

"It's one night, son. Besides, you probably need some help with that wound."

He blew a breath out between pursed lips. "Yeah, okay."

*

They set up camp silently and Murdoch cooked a pot of beans before putting the coffee on. Johnny took care of the horses and it took all Murdoch's reserves not to insist on doing it. Johnny had to be hurting. He sighed as he ladled out the beans.

Johnny walked over and settled on the ground, his back against his overturned saddle.

"How's it feeling?"

"A little sore is all. Thanks," he said as he took the plate and coffee.

"You're welcome. I take it Scott is angry?"

Johnny chortled. "Not as much as I bet he was when he found his horse gone. We had it out and he gets it now."

Frowning, Murdoch asked, "gets what?"

Johnny locked eyes with his father. "That we ain't gonna be a family." He saw the pain fly across his father's face but he remained stoic.

"I see." It was all Murdoch could think to say for now. "You didn't fight, did you?"

"I grabbed his shirt but that's all. Doc came in and told us both off then he tossed Scott out. That son of yours has a mouth on him."

Murdoch had just taken a sip of coffee and he nearly choked on it. Coughing harshly for a moment, he tried to breathe. Clearing his throat, he replied, "yes, *they* do."

Johnny smiled a little then went back to his food.

Murdoch watched him wolf down the beans and coffee and wondered at the way Johnny sat. His plate just under his chin as he scooped the food in, his eyes darting around watching everything. As soon as he was finished, Murdoch held his hand out for the plate.

"You've done enough, Johnny. You aren't healed yet." He stood and went to the stream.

Johnny sighed and stretched his legs out, wondering why the hell he was here with this man. Well, it's one night then I'll be on my way and he'll be on his.

*

They sat quietly by the campfire for a long time, both just staring into the flames.

"You used to run out into the barn all the time to be around the horses. I knew then you'd be good with them."

Johnny frowned but said nothing.

Murdoch started laughing. "I remember once you got into the corral with some green broke horses. I thought your mother was going to kill me. You were only about a year old, maybe fourteen months. You were already walking well by then. I'm pretty sure my heart stopped when I saw you in there, trying to pet the horses."

Johnny sighed harshly. "And then she left. The end."

"Yes, it was almost the end of me, for sure. I closed myself off, turned to stone for a long time. It was Paul who helped me get through it. Even then, it was hard for me. Especially after Teresa was born. Having a baby in the house again was tough. Eventually, I think having her there helped me some. Still, it wasn't the same ever again."

"And it never will be."

Murdoch closed his eyes briefly. How could he break through? It was like mining for gold with a spoon. "Did you love your mother, Johnny?"

His eyes came up quickly and he held the man's stare, pure fire shooting from every pore of his being.

"It's a simple question, son."

"Yes, I loved her and she died and that's the end of it."

"And you've never loved anyone again, have you?"

"Ain't your business."

"I believe I told you before that you are my business whether you like it or not."

He shifted against his saddle, his side sore as hell. "That's your problem, old man. Don't mean I have to tell you anything."

"No, I don't suppose it does," he said as he stood and walked around the fire.

Johnny watched him approach, unsure what he had in mind but on high alert. Murdoch knelt next to him and he had the fleeting thought the old man was gonna slug him.

"Let's take a look at that wound. I'll change the bandage for you. Maybe, it won't get infected before it's completely healed."

Johnny stared at him for a second then lowered his arms and started unbuttoning his shirt.

"I'll get some water and supplies," Murdoch grunted as he got to his feet again.

*

Johnny endured the bandaging silently, praying the old man would finish soon and get the hell away from him. He could hardly stand anyone touching him.

Murdoch tied off the bandage and sat back a little. "That should do it."

Johnny started buttoning his shirt and tossed out a mumbled thanks. Murdoch still hadn't moved away from him so he took matters into his own hands and stood up.

"Are you alright?"

"Fine. Just gotta step to the bushes." He didn't really but it was good enough. Why couldn't he just say 'get away from me'? Because that would have brought on another interrogation from the man and he just wanted some quiet. Some peace and quiet, thank you very much.

He walked down to the stream and stared out at the woods beyond, listening to the water babble downstream and trying to let it relax him. He inhaled deeply of the fresh air and let it out slowly. And he thought about what he was heading into. He was going, no doubt and he was still pissed off. But in this moment, with the water and the nightbirds and the crickets, he didn't care so much.

Suddenly, he turned, his gun in his hand, hammer cocked.

"It's me, Johnny."

He sighed and relaxed, holstering the weapon as Murdoch appeared. "That's not a smart thing to do."

"So I see. You were gone so long, I thought I'd check."

He frowned and shrugged. "Didn't realize it had been that long. Just listening."

"To what?"

Again, he shrugged. "The night." Murdoch was looking strangely at him so he walked back to camp. Can't even have a minute without him following me. That's what it'd be like at Lancer. Always wanting to know where I'm goin, what I'm doin. None of your business, that's what.

He poured a cup of coffee then settled on his saddle again.

Murdoch grunted as he made it to the ground, back on his side of the campfire. "You're very fast."

"Thanks."

"It must have taken a long time."

Johnny looked at him and said nothing.

Murdoch laid on his bedroll and pulled the blanket over him to his waist, staring at the stars. "I think you are so scared of letting anyone get close to you. So afraid you'll get hurt again like you did when your mother died. You won't let anyone in and that way, they can't disappoint you. What I'm most afraid of is that you'll die alone and soon without ever knowing what you could have had if you just gave it a fair shot."

"I ain't afraid of nothin, old man. Least of all, dyin."

Murdoch rolled onto his side, facing Johnny. "You aren't afraid to die?"

"Nope. Learned a long time ago to stare it in the face. Once you do that, there ain't no fear. Just ... a kind of relief."

Murdoch's heart thundered in his chest. "Relief?"

"Yeah. It's facing your fears. Starin down the devil and laughin in his face. Tellin him you don't give a rat's ass."

"Do you give a rat's ass about anything, Johnny?"

He looked at the man for a long beat, considering the question. "Not really."

"What's the point of living, then?"

He smirked. "Good question. Ain't figured that one out yet."

"Maybe, you know somewhere deep inside; somewhere you won't let yourself look; that there is a better life for you out there. There's a hand held out to you if you'll only take it."

He snorted. "Murdoch, you are funny. Let me see if I can get you to understand this. I don't care about you. I don't care about Scott and I sure as hell don't care about Lancer. I don't have any friends because they just stab you in the back. That's a lesson I keep learning over and over, though. Maybe, this time, I really did learn it. I hope so cause I get tired of teaching people how unhealthy it is to turn on me. I live day to day, goin wherever the wind takes me. Only real friend I got is over there asleep." He nodded toward Barranca then took a drink of coffee.

"I don't know how you get out of bed in the morning, John. I don't see the point in living at all if you have nothing to look forward to, no one to share it with, nothing to leave behind."

"I got somethin to leave behind. A name. A reputation. Might not meet your standards but it's all right by me."

Murdoch sighed and sat up, drawing his knees to his chest and holding onto them. "You've spent a lot of years building up this barracade. This ... I was going to say stone wall but it's even harder than that. Nothing gets through to you. You won't allow it. It breaks my heart, Johnny. You could have so much. You could be so much. You have it all at your fingertips and you're letting it slip away."

He frowned. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"I'm talking about your natural intelligence, your wit, your charm, your ability with horses. And, I swear I believe this with everything I am; your ability to love if you'd only let yourself take the chance. I'm not saying there aren't risks, son. But the reward is worth it."

Johnny stared into his cup, swirling it around. "Never seen any reward for it. Caring don't bring nothin but trouble. It can even get you killed."

Murdoch grimaced. "The firing squad. You helped those people try to make a better life for themselves and it didn't work out. It's terrible, I know. It's painful and I'm not saying it won't be again. Still, I think it *is* worth it."

He sighed and tossed the rest of the coffee then scooted down into his bedroll. Johnny took his gun out and laid it by his head on his right side. "Well, I don't agree. Think I'll sack in. I got a lotta miles to make."

*

Chapter 10

Murdoch stared at him, watched as he closed his eyes and wondered when his son would die. The very thought shattered his heart and brought raw emotions too close to the surface. He blinked and rubbed his eyes then lay back down, still facing Johnny.

"Life is fragile. Love even moreso. People can disappoint you so easily. Maybe we set ourselves up for it sometimes. Maybe we expect too much. We forget that we are all human and make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are horrible and sometimes unforgiveable. But, sometimes you can forgive because if you don't, you stand to lose more than you're prepared to lose. I spent nearly twenty years searching for you and it seems it was for nothing. I lost you the day your mother took you away from me but I didn't know it then."

"Now you know. Maybe, you should just accept that and move on." His voice was but a whisper as he listened to his father.

"I can't, Johnny. If you ever become a father, you'll understand. I can't forget about you. Even when you're dead, I will never forget you. I will never stop loving you. You are my son. It's that simple." His voice was shaking now and he swallowed hard.

"Well, I don't know what to tell you about that. Seems to me, you're the one that got yourself into being a father."

Murdoch smiled. "I will never regret that. I'll never forget holding you in my arms for the first time. I never got to do that with Scott. I'll confess I cried."

Johnny stared at the stars. He didn't know what to say to that. He just wished the man would shut up and go to sleep. This was all getting to be too much for him. He really didn't think he could stand any more.

"You didn't want me changing your bandage. Did you just not want to be that close to me?"

"I don't like anybody bein that close to me. Don't take it personally."

Murdoch had an epiphany. He was sure it was one. He raised up, opened his mouth but never got to say the words as the Colt exploded.  

*

Johnny bolted straight up, gun in hand as he fired then jumped to his feet. He vaulted over the fire and landed at Murdoch's feet, crouching and ready to fire again. It wasn't necessary as the rattlesnake was in two pieces now. His eyes went to Murdoch's face, the agony clear in the firelight. Without a word, he ripped the pant leg open, pulled his knife and sliced into his father's leg.

Pressing in a downward motion, he tried to express as much of the venom as he could. He grabbed a canteen and poured the contents over the wound then ran to the stream and refilled it, repeating the action. Once the canteen was filled a second time, he rummaged through Murdoch's saddlebag, finding a shirt and tearing it into strips.

Johnny bandaged the wound then helped Murdoch drink a little. He straightened the man out on his back and covered him with the blanket then fed the fire and grabbed his bedroll, using his blanket as well.

He didn't think, didn't breathe, just simply worked on instinct until he finished everything he had to do. Then, he sat beside the man and panted. Wiping a shaky hand across his own forehead, he finally allowed himself to look at the man's face.

"How's it feel?"

"On fire," Murdoch grunted.

"Yeah. I got a lot of it, I think. It doesn't look like he got a good hold on you. Just have to let it work through you. Just hang in there, old man." When Murdoch looked in his eyes, Johnny smiled. "Let's see just how tough you really are."

Murdoch nodded, accepting the challenge then his eyes lowered and he blinked rapidly. Suddenly, he realized what he was seeing. "You're bleeding."

Johnny looked down, surprised at the stain. He'd forgotten about the wound and now, it seemed he'd ripped his stitches open. He sighed and shook his head. "Well, we're a pair, ain't we?"

He didn't wait for a response. He unbuttoned his shirt and pulled the bandage back, grimacing at the oozing wound. With another sigh, he took some leftover shirt and made a pad, shoving it under the bandage.

"Is that all you're going to do to it?"

"It'll keep. Ain't that bad. You're the one who's in for a helluva night."

Murdoch knew that to be true. He stared at the stars for a minute then turned to find Johnny watching him. "Could I have some water?"

"Yeah, sure."

*

Johnny positioned himself beside his father's head and kept vigil as he watched the symptoms develop. He knew there wasn't a whole lot he could do. He watched the usually granite face twist in pain.

"Hurtin?"

"Yes, it's bad." Murdoch choked the words out then licked his lips. Johnny held the canteen to his mouth and let him drink his fill then he wetted a bandana and laid it across the old man's forehead.

"You're startin to get hot. Feeling all tingly all over yet?"

Murdoch nodded then looked at him. "You know a lot about snakebites?"

He grinned a little. "Enough to know I never want to go through it again. Damned near killed me about three years ago. But, I got a deeper bite than you so maybe it won't be as bad."

The older man sighed heavily; so much he didn't know about this young man. So much he wanted to know. His hands clenched into fists as he fought the pain wracking his body. His leg felt like it was afire and his head swam.

Johnny leaned over and looked at the leg. It was swollen and dark, not that he was surprised. He sat back and watched Murdoch struggle with the pain, curious as to the way the man handled himself. Curious and impressed so far. He offered more water, remembering well the thirst that assailed him. He hadn't been so lucky to have water handy. There wasn't much water in the desert. Sometimes, he still wondered how the hell he'd survived that. He blinked and refocused as Murdoch began to talk.

"You were the cutest baby. A head full of coal black hair and the most vivid blue eyes I'd ever seen." He laughed a little. "That hasn't changed. You had a heartbreaking smile, too. I'd never seen a happier baby." He stopped and looked into those eyes now but saw nothing. Just a blank wall.

"How's your wound?"

Johnny frowned then sucked in a breath. He'd forgotten about that. He looked inside his shirt. "No new blood. It's fine. Worry about yourself, old man. You're the one in trouble."

"Oh, Johnny, don't you see? It's you who's in trouble and you don't even realize it."

"What're you talkin about?"

"I'm talking about your life if that's what you want to call it. What do you have to look forward to? What are you going to do? Will you ever be happy? Be in love? I want so much for you, I always have but I never got the chance. And when I finally got it, I threw it away over my foolish pride and fear."

Johnny latched onto that last word. "Fear?"

Murdoch blinked several times then opened his eyes wide as if trying to stay awake. "Yes, fear. I was afraid you couldn't settle down, that you'd leave and I made sure it happened. You were right about that. I didn't give you a chance. I guess I was so angry over the life you've led, the choices you've made, I couldn't get past it. Now, you push anyone away who might cause you to feel something other than anger. The fact that you don't want to be touched ... it kills me to think you're going to be alone all your life. It doesn't have to be that way, son. No matter what you say, I don't believe you want that either. I think you have some fear as well."

Murdoch raised a hand to stay the impending argument. "I know, I know. You aren't afraid of anything. So you say. But, I think you are. I think you're afraid of giving anyone a chance because you're afraid they'll hurt you or leave you like your mother left you." He stopped to catch his breath which was getting to be a chore. He licked his lips and focused on getting said what he needed to say.

Johnny sighed softly and helped him drink again then turned the bandana over to the cooler side. "You're really hot now."

"I know. My leg feels like it's sticking in that fire. I don't think I'm going to be able to stay awake much longer. I can hardly raise my hand."

"Then don't raise it. Lie still, Murdoch. Moving around is the worst thing you can do anyway. All this talkin ain't helpin you none either."

"Yes, it is. I need to say these things to you now. I might not get another chance. I know what I did was the last straw. You weren't this hard before at home. You seemed happy sometimes, almost at ease even. If I die, I pray you go home to Lancer. Be with your brother and build a life together. Have your own family someday and pass the ranch onto them. That's what I've always wanted for you and Scott. A stable home. I know it's laughable now but that was my dream. To raise my sons and teach them. Watch them grow and have their own children. Then sit in a rocker and watch those children take over some day."

"Whooee! That's some dream, old man! But, it ain't over. You can still have that with Scott."

Murdoch managed to raise his hand to his face and he pinched the bridge of his nose for a few seconds before his hand fell limply to his side. "I wanted *both* my sons to have a home. A future. I wanted so much to give you something."

Johnny shook his head but he said nothing. He didn't know what to say to that.

"Will you? Go home, I mean."

"No, Murdoch. I don't have a home. Not that kind, anyway. My home is wherever I happen to lay my head down at night. I know you don't get that but you don't have to. Nobody tells me when to spit and when to polish. Where to go and what to do when I get there and when to be back. I've never lived my life like that and I don't want to. I know you think I'm irresponsible and maybe to your way of thinkin, I am. But, to me, I take my own responsibilities and leave behind anything else. There's a real freedom to that and I ain't givin that up."

He watched the man struggle to say something then sigh out and close his eyes. Murdoch had given in to the weakness, the pain and the sickness. For now, anyway. Johnny took the bandana off and wet it down again. He felt Murdoch's forehead and sighed out. He wasn't so sure the old man would make it. Maybe, if he was younger. And he had to wonder how Scott would take this. He'd probably lay the blame all at his feet. Murdoch wouldn't have been out here if not for him. Well, he didn't ask him to get Barranca. Didn't know anything about it until the man was gone so it wasn't his fault.

He stretched out his back, wincing at the pull to the wound then slowly got to his feet. He stoked the fire then went to the stream and refilled the canteen. He walked around the campsite, working out the stiffness in his muscles and feeling a little lightheaded. That's all he needed; to get sick now. To have a set back now that Murdoch was in such bad shape.

He looked over at the man so still, his breathing faster than it should normally be and wondered about this mountain of a man. Who was he? What did he really want? Johnny reckoned he'd been straight with him. But, that was Murdoch's dream not his. Hell, he didn't have any dreams. And maybe there was some truth to what he said about why he couldn't get close to people. He'd had his heart broken more than once and it was enough to last ten lifetimes. No way he'd ever set himself up for that again. It just wasn't worth the trouble. Was it?

He didn't know. Couldn't really remember the exact feeling of loving someone. It had been so long since his mother died and he'd closed himself down that very day. He had never cried for her. Men don't cry. He smiled wryly at that.

*

"Maria."

Johnny jerked his head up and looked at Murdoch as his head rolled back and forth. He moved to the man, kneeling down and waiting.

"Maria."

He closed his eyes and hung his head, recalling Teresa's words that day. It was her name he called when he was recovering from Day's bullet. He loved her. That's what the girl had said. Maybe it was true. Maybe it was all true, what she'd told him. But, none of it mattered to him, either. Not anymore. One more thing he'd turned off.

"Johnny."

He leaned in, laying a tentative hand on Murdoch's arm. "I'm here, old man."

Murdoch opened his eyes half-way. His vision blurry and unfocused. He blinked several times and found his son's face and he tried to smile. "I was dreaming about you. You were trying to ride this little pony. You climbed up on some hay stacks and tried to throw your little leg over her but you couldn't quite reach. I still remember the anger and frustration on your little face." He winced from the pain and grunted.

"Yeah, well, I ain't a kid anymore. Here, drink." He held the canteen while Murdoch inhaled the cool liquid. "Maybe you need to forget about that baby and see me for who I am now."

"I see you perfectly, son. Better than ever before."

Johnny leaned back in surprise then resumed his calm indifference. "Then you should know you're wastin your breath. Somethin you probably shouldn't be doin right now."

"I will use my ... very last breath trying ... to convince you. Come home, Johnny. It's where ... you've always ... belonged."

Johnny leaned over and put a hand to his forehead. "Ssshh. Alright now, that's enough talk. Really, Murdoch, you have to save your strength. Stop pushin yourself so hard."

"I ... pushed you too ... hard, didn't I?"

Johnny blew out a harsh breath. "Well, I know where I get my stubbornness now! Will you shut up and rest?"

Murdoch smiled vaguely. "Why? What difference does it make to you? You don't care if I live or die."

He lowered his eyes and sat back. "I never said that."

"You pulled a gun on me."

"You were gonna slug me and I was pretty sure it would've hurt."

Murdoch laughed then started coughing harshly. He struggled for breath and Johnny grabbed him, pulling him to a sitting position and rubbing his back in gentle circles while shushing him softly.

Finally, he calmed, still breathing too fast and he'd started sweating profusely. Johnny laid him back and wiped his forehead, cooling it with the cloth. He helped him drink again then sat back and took a few calming breaths himself.

"Thank you, son," Murdoch whispered.

"Welcome. Try to sleep now."

"Just one more thing."

He rolled his eyes then looked at the man. "What?"

"Whether you believe it or not, I love you." He closed his eyes then.

Johnny stared at the man, this stranger who'd given him life. Something he had never been particularly grateful for. His mind stopped working. He refused to think about the words just said. He couldn't fathom the why of it or if it was even true.

*

Throughout the night, Murdoch raged with pain and fever, trying to toss and turn as Johnny held him as still as he could. He fed him water and soothed his brow and talked to him about nonsense. His breathing was shallow and fast. His heart thundering in his chest when Johnny laid his hand there and he was sure the organ would simply explode.

Sweat ran down his temples and he chilled, shivering uncontrollably then his muscles would seize up until the cords in his neck stood out. Johnny used all their blankets to cover him and built the fire up but it didn't seem to help warm him.

Near dawn, it seemed Murdoch was settling some. Whether it was from pure exhaustion or the poison had done its worst, he couldn't say. All he knew was he was done in himself and not feeling all that great, either. As Murdoch finally slept more peacfully, he checked his own bandage and found fresh blood and too much of it for his liking.

He went down to the stream and took the bandage off, washing the wound in the cold water, hissing at the soreness. He splashed some water on his face and wondered if he didn't have a fever. Sure felt like it but he could ill afford one right now. He could ill afford any of this shit but here he was. Pushing his frustration away, he used the last of the bandages he'd pilfered from the doctor's office and rewrapped the wound then went back to Murdoch.

Coffee. That was what he needed and he imagined Murdoch would, too, when he came around again. He still acted like he was cold so that should help warm him right up. He went about making the brew, deciding against food. He wasn't a bit hungry and, if experience taught him anything, the old man wouldn't be either.  

He settled back in his spot next to Murdoch and sipped the coffee, glancing around now and then as he had all night. Ever vigilant for any predators, man or animal. The gray light of early morning was showing itself and he started planning what to do with the old man. He had to get him back to town but that was two days, maybe more, with Murdoch in this shape. Plus his own shape wasn't so hot, either.

Two more days before he could get on his way and find Mitch and Tom. And kill them. And he would kill them if it was the last thing he ever did. Right after he found out why they'd set him up in the first place. It was never far from his thoughts. The very reason he was out here before he was really ready. Revenge. Pure and simple and he had no problem with it. He smirked as he thought of what ole Murdoch would have to say about that. He could almost imagine that sermon.

With a sigh, he got up and started saddling the horses, checking Murdoch's mount and finding that foreleg still a bit tender. Well, he can ride Remmie back. He smiled and petted Barranca for a while then headed back to the fire. He slowed his step a little as he saw Murdoch watching him.

*

"Mornin. How ya feeling?"

"Wrung out and weak, still."

Johnny frowned and nodded then poured a cup of coffee. "Here, this should warm your bones."

Murdoch gratefully accepted the hot brew and started feeling a little better for it. Johnny helped him ease back down to the ground then started breaking camp.

"Going somewhere?"

He glanced over his shoulder. "Takin you back to Stockton. You need a doctor although I think the worst is over. Reckon you got some sand, yet, old man."

"I think I was just very lucky I didn't get a full bite."

Johnny grinned as he looked at him. "Yeah, that, too."

"I can't really express how grateful I am, Johnny."

"No need but, you shouldn't have been out here in the first place. Nobody asked you to go get Barranca."

"You love that horse. I know how much he means to you and how worried you'd be about him. I thought you'd heal better knowing he was nearby."

"Well, he's a good mount, no doubt about that."

Murdoch sighed. "You really can't even admit to loving that horse much less a human being, can you?"

Johnny's shoulders went up and he slowly turned in his crouched position at the fire. The tone was so reminiscent of the short time he'd spent at Lancer, it drove home his reasons for leaving in the first place. "Thanks for the reminder of what a bastard you can be." He stood up and walked toward the stream.

Murdoch closed his eyes briefly and cursed himself. He'd blown it. He thought maybe he'd made some headway last night but that could have been a dream, or a delusion in his state at the time. Slowly, he sat up, fighting the dizziness that had the ground looking as if it was beside him instead of under him. He gave himself the time then made it to his knees, then his feet. Standing there, reeling back and forth a little, he cursed his infirmity and gritted his teeth. He would not allow this illness to keep him from his son. Johnny needed him whether he knew it or not and Murdoch knew it was a not.

With conviction and determination, he took slow, small steps toward the stream and his son. Grateful when he reached the treeline and had something to lean against, Murdoch took a moment to rest and wipe the sweat from his face before continuing on. He made it to the water then pulled up short as he stared at the barrel.

*

"What the hell are you doin? Tryin to kill yourself after I stayed up all night tending you?" Johnny holstered the gun and went to him, grabbing him around the waist and guiding him to a huge boulder near the water's edge. He sat Murdoch down then stepped back and glared at him.

He couldn't speak for several moments and he thought he wouldn't be upright much longer either but he had to try. "I thought ... I didn't want you alone. I didn't ... mean it the way it ... sounded."

Johnny sighed and put his hands on his hips. "Can I trust you to stay put for a minute?"

Murdoch managed to look up at him. "Either here or on the ground, son."

He said nothing, set his jaw and walked away only to return a few seconds later with a canteen. He handed it to Murdoch and watched as the man drank with shaky hands then swiped his forehead again.

"Don't ever tell me I'm stubborn again!"

Murdoch smiled a little. "Okay. I just get so frustrated with you, Johnny. You refuse to allow yourself to be happy."

"What makes you think Lancer would make me happy? You act like it's the best thing this side of heaven. Well, I ain't gettin into heaven, old man."

"Don't talk like that! You are my son and I want you home. Why is that so hard to understand?"

Johnny squatted in front of him and looked up into his face. "I understand that's what *you* want."

"Make me understand what you want, Johnny. Make me see what is so wonderful about this life you lead."

He shook his head. "I ain't inclined to talk about this anymore. We need to get you back to town. Sooner we get goin, sooner we'll get there. Now, are you hungry?"

Murdoch shook his head dejectedly.

"Then, let's go."

"I need a few more minutes first. Just to rest."

He stood up and nodded. "I'll be right back then."

Murdoch watched him walk away and felt his heart drop to his stomach. He'd failed again. How could he get through? Those walls were so much thicker than his own had ever been. His had started crumbling a little when his boys had come home. He knew he'd made mistakes with Johnny but no one could expect him to get it right the first time out, could they? Maybe Johnny expected him to.

No, he didn't think that was true. Maybe Johnny just wanted more of a chance than he'd been given, which was none. He lowered his head and pinched the bridge of his nose, knowing with all he was, he had lost his son yet again.

*

Chapter 11

It was the slowest ride of his life, he was sure. Leading a lame horse and watching Murdoch was starting to get to him. He could feel his patience dwindling fast but he could hardly blame the man or the horse for their troubles. It was all just a crazy set of circumstances. A couple of minutes of bad luck. He'd had plenty of those in his life.

At least the old man seemed to be holding his own even though Johnny saw his head start to dip more and more as the day wore on. They couldn't stop for more than short breaks, though. Murdoch needed a doctor and, truth be told, so did he. Those stitches were a distant memory now and he needed the doc to put him back together again. Maybe, without someone to babysit, he'd heal up this time.

He was convinced the old man would be alright. That the bite hadn't been too bad. He'd be dead if it had been, he imagined. He could just picture that. Taking the body back to Stockton. Scott trying to shoot him. Yeah, that woulda been ugly. Might still be. Who was to say the man wouldn't go at him anyway? He sure had been pissed last time Johnny had seen him. He imagined he was even more so since his horse got stolen. He smiled a little at that.

He looked back at Murdoch riding slightly behind him with his head down. But he wasn't leaning so that was a good thing. He took the chance to peek at his bandage and he cussed under his breath. Looking up at the sky, he figured they'd have to bed down soon so he started scouting a good area.

At least they'd made better time than he thought they would. Should be in town tomorrow afternoon at the latest unless something else happened. It wouldn't surprise him one bit.

He spied a good campsite along the same stream they'd been following and reined the horses off the road. Slowly, he dismounted with a grimace then walked over to Murdoch. Reaching up, he touched the man's arm and his head jerked up.

"Stoppin for the night. Come on, real slow now."

Murdoch nodded and managed to get his leg over the saddle, falling into Johnny's arms. He grunted at the impact and bit back a cry of pain, trying to steady his own breath as he maneuvered Murdoch onto the ground a few feet further off the road.

"Just hang on a minute and I'll get the bedrolls." He walked back to Barranca and leaned into the horse, resting his head on the animal's neck and clutching the white mane in his fist. Johnny fought to control the dizziness and pain. He had to wonder who would be taking who to town in the morning. Or, if either of them would make it at all.

Eventually, he pulled away and untied his bedroll, taking it to Murdoch and bedding the man down. With slow steps, he set up camp then tended the horses, watching the older man all the while. Murdoch was asleep within a second of lying down. That was good to Johnny's mind for so many reasons.

That his father cared for him, he knew. Why, he couldn't fathom as they knew nothing of each other. He knew the man worried over him and he didn't want to give him more to chew on. He didn't need to know Johnny was bleeding too much or that he felt like shit or that he figured he'd pass out any minute. As long as he could hold it together even a little, Murdoch wouldn't notice. He was too sick himself.

His mind went back to the man's words of last evening as he stared into the fire. It was all pretty true, he guessed. Seemed Murdoch was figuring things out about him. He had to wonder why he was bothering now. He sure didn't before. And maybe there was some truth to that, too. He screwed up, no doubt about it but Johnny knew he had as well. He didn't handle things well and he had a hard time trusting any of it. He still did and he just didn't see that ever changing. Give it a chance? A chance to do what? Blow up in his face again?

He sighed and shook his head then looked over to find Murdoch watching him. He moved closer to the flame and ladled out some beans then poured a cup of coffee and took them to his father.

"You were far away it seemed," Murdoch commented as he took the plate.

"Just thinking about tomorrow and gettin you to town." Of course, that was a lie but he didn't care. The fact that he didn't care had him pondering. Johnny pushed the thoughts aside and figured the only thing to be gained by hanging around Murdoch was a headache. "Feelin better?"

"I am, thanks to you."

He nodded and sighed his relief quietly. Maybe you can take care of me tomorrow then, he thought. He went back to his bedroll and took up his coffee cup.

"Aren't you eating?"

Johnny glanced sidelong at him. "Already did."

Murdoch frowned and looked around but didn't see another plate. It was possible Johnny already cleaned it up and stowed it away. Something told him that wasn't the case. "How's the wound?"

"Fine. Eat up and rest up. You'll need it for tomorrow." He tossed the coffee then laid down, turning his back to Murdoch.

*

Murdoch stared at the sky as the dawn broke. He knew he should get moving and he felt much better. But, moving meant getting on their way. Closer to Stockton and closer to losing his son forever. He sighed heavily and sat up, rubbing his face. He looked at Johnny's back more than curious as to why the young man hadn't awakened yet. He must be exhausted. He didn't sleep any night before last, Murdoch was sure.

Quietly, he went about readying himself for the day, more than pleased he was only a little shaky. He built up the fire and started the bacon and coffee then headed to the stream to wash up. He saddled the horses and checked breakfast and still, something nagged at him. He hadn't been particularly quiet and he knew Johnny's propensity to sleep lightly even when ill.

He gave a start as he turned to look at his son. Ill. Dear God! He walked around the still form and knelt down, pushing on Johnny's shoulder until he rolled back a little. Murdoch was stunned by the pallid face, the dark circles under the eyes and the shallow breathing. He pulled the shirt tail up and sank further down on his knees.

"Johnny." He shook the man's shoulder harder when he didn't respond. "Johnny!" Nothing. "Dammit!"

Murdoch removed the bandage and wasn't surprised by the pus he saw coming from the wound. That his son was too cool instead of flush with fever was what concerned him. He rummaged through Johnny's saddlebag and found nothing to make a bandage of. Not even an extra shirt. He moved quickly to his own bags and found what was left of his own shirt, remnants of what Johnny had used for his leg. He probably needed another bandage change, too, but not as badly as his son.

He cleaned the wound then rewrapped it. Suddenly, the smoke caught his attention and he grabbed the frying pan, jerking it off the fire, the bacon ending up in the dirt. It didn't matter. He was no longer hungry and he needed to get Johnny some help. How he was going to do that, he didn't know just yet. He couldn't leave him yet, Johnny surely couldn't ride like this. He was unconscious, evidently.

He decided to break camp as he worked through the problem. There were no ranches or farms out here. The nearest one was the Barkleys and that was as far as town and in a different direction which meant Johnny would be further from the doctor. No, that wouldn't work. He poured water over the fire as it sizzled and popped in protest to its death.

*

Johnny frowned as he came up from the depths of sleep. He quickly took stock and knew he was in trouble. His entire body was sore and ached as if he'd been bustin broncs for three days straight. Opening his eyes, he found his vision blurred and he rubbed his eyes, blinking sleep away - or trying to. Sighing lightly, he turned on his back and a moan filtered through his lips. A shadow fell over him and he was instantly more alert then as quickly subdued.

"I should wring your neck, boy. Why didn't you tell me how bad it was?"

"Good mornin," he shot back. Dios, he didn't need this shit. Murdoch was giving him that look. The one that said he wasn't amused. Johnny smirked. "What could you have done? You were in sorry shape yourself."

Begrudgingly, he accepted that as the truth but it didn't matter. "I still should have known. I don't know how I'm going to get you back to town."

"Get me on Barranca. He'll do the rest."

"You can't ride, son."

"The hell I can't! Just put me in the saddle. I can make it. I always do."

Murdoch gave him a disbelieving look and chewed on it for a moment. "I can't leave you like this. I guess we have no choice. I changed the bandage already which should give you an indication of how sick you are. You never even flinched." He reached behind him and grabbed the canteen then helped Johnny drink.

"I'll be ready in a few minutes. Just rest. I'll be right back."

"I ain't goin nowhere," he muttered and closed his eyes.

Before he knew it, Murdoch was patting his cheek and calling his name. He looked at the worried face and scowled. "Ready?"

"I am. You are a whole other matter."

Johnny gave a cocky grin and started to raise up, Murdoch's big hands on his back and neck helping him along. He got to his feet, rather, Murdoch got him to his feet and he leaned heavily against the man. Realizing what he was doing, Johnny straightened himself up and took a deep breath then nodded.

Agony didn't begin to cover it. He wanted to scream as he was thrown into the saddle like a sack of flour. Grim-faced and biting his lower lip, Johnny kept his eyes closed. He knew were he to open them, the dizziness would find him right back on the ground again.

"I can ride behind you."


"No, I'm okay," he ground out.

Murdoch snorted and mounted Remmie then grabbed both lead reins and headed out slowly. They'd never make it back before nightfall and he'd just have to make the decision to keep going when the sun went down. It all depended on how Johnny was doing. He figured he'd ride through the night either way.

Johnny allowed himself to feel the rhythm of the horse and settle into it before opening his eyes. He looked around just a little then focused on Murdoch's back. At this rate, they'd never make it back. He pressed his legs to Barranca's sides and the palomino increased his gait. As he came alongside Murdoch, he spoke in little more than a whisper.

"Give me the rein."

He almost asked if Johnny was sure but one look in the steely blue eyes told him not to bother. He handed the lead rein over and Johnny adjusted his seat slightly then moved Barranca on at a fast walk. Murdoch sighed and stepped up his own pace, keeping astride of Johnny and watching for any sign the young man was faltering.

*

Scott sat in a chair on the porch of the hotel and watched the people go by. He tipped his hat to the ladies as they passed and nodded to the men. And he watched the dust settle. He was bored and still angry with both his father and brother. Murdoch should have been back yesterday but he knew, if there was a chance to spend time with Johnny, he'd grab it.

While he understood the man's need to try, he just didn't think it would do any good. He hated thinking Johnny was a lost cause but what else could he think? His brother had made it clear how he felt. No matter the underlying reasons, the past, his childhood, nothing could get through to the man. Nothing and no one. Especially Murdoch Lancer. Of that, Scott was sure. Mostly because his father was not the most diplomatic when it came to Johnny. He always lost his temper at some point during any conversation with his younger son. Scott had never understood it.

He thought back to the day Johnny had left and the argument he'd had with Murdoch. He'd struggled with himself about staying on but he'd decided to give it a try. Now, he was happy with that choice. He had thrived at Lancer. He was happy. Only once in a while, something would happen or he'd see something that reminded him of his brother and the loss was felt. Over time, the ache had dulled and, although this disturbed Scott, he realized it was one of life's coping mechanisms.

This last meeting had broken all hope as far as he was concerned. Johnny had turned into someone he didn't know even a little. This wasn't the same man he'd lived with for those short months. That young man was vibrant, easy-going. That young man smiled, laughed and enjoyed life. This one showed no emotion at all other than anger and he kept that pretty tightly reined most of the time, it seemed.

Scott knew he'd pushed Johnny into that last heated exchange but he'd lost his own temper. He had the right to that certainly. And he really just wanted to see something, anything, other than that flat, expressionless demeanor he now understood was Madrid. This was how his brother had been all these years? He couldn't reconcile that with the young man he'd known. Maybe, the experience at Lancer, the disappointment in his father had pushed Johnny into shutting down even further. If that was true, Scott saw no hope.

Evening was upon him before he realized it and his stomach was letting him know the hour for supper was at hand. He rose from his chair and stretched a little before heading inside to the restaraunt. He glanced down the street then stopped and looked more closely.

"I'll be damned!" He hadn't realized at first he'd spoken aloud then, self-consciously, he looked around, relieved no one had heard him. But it was an appropriate sentiment as he watched the two men and three horses slowly make their way down the street. He stepped off the boardwalk and watched.

Murdoch saw him and smiled at his son then gave a glance toward Johnny whose head was down. Murdoch gave a nod down the street, indicating his destination.

One look at Johnny was all Scott needed to know where they were going and he nodded at his father as he headed to the doctor's office afoot.

*

Together, the Lancers carried Johnny into the doctor's office and laid him in the bed he'd so recently left. Scott didn't ask until Dr. Saxton shooed them from the room and into the front office.

"He opened his wound up. It's bleeding a lot." Murdoch eased into a chair and sighed wearily.

Scott shook his head back and forth. "He shouldn't have been on a horse yet much less my horse. Did he tell you he stole Remmie?"

Murdoch gave a wisp of a smile. "He told me but riding isn't what caused this. He tore the stitches saving my life. I was bitten by a rattler."

Immediately, Scott was beside him taking in the man's countenance.

"I'm alright now, son, but it was close. I was lucky the bite wasn't too deep but that is one night I won't soon forget if ever. Johnny sat up with me all night doing what he could."

"When did this happen?"

"Two nights ago. I saw the wound had started bleeding but he kept saying it was alright. I'm still a little weak and it wasn't until I woke up this morning, I realized he was sick. He was still sleeping and never moved while I was fixing breakfast." He stopped and shook his head sadly. "I don't know why it didn't dawn on me sooner. When I went to check him, he wouldn't wake up. That's when I saw the blood saturated bandage. He insisted on riding his own horse."

"Of course he did!" Scott shot then stood up and paced the room, his arms crossed over his chest. He turned back to his father. "I'm surprised he came back with you."

"He didn't have a choice in the matter and he knew it. I tried, Scott. I tried so hard to break through that fortress he's surrounded himself with."

He sounded bone-weary to Scott. Just looking at the man, he could tell Murdoch was done in. "I take it you weren't successful."

"Not yet."

Scott's mouth tightened and his jaw clenched as he moved to a window and peered out at nothing. "What will it take, Sir? What has to happen for you to understand Johnny wants nothing to do with us? Only what he can get from us right now."

Murdoch frowned. "What does that mean?"

"It means, he used me to get a horse. He used you to get his horse back and he's using our feelings for him to get who knows what else."

Slowly, the bigger man stood and approached his son. "Johnny has done nothing but push us away."

"Knowing that we wouldn't go. The harder he pushes, the harder you push back and he knows it."

"Is that how you really feel about your brother?"

Scott turned to look at him, a mixture of anger and sympathy in his eyes. "Yes, it is. I wish it weren't but that's how I see things. He's not the same person he was before, Murdoch. Even then I could see something in him. Something kind and caring but, it's as if he's completely shut down and nothing will change that." He stook two steps toward his father. "If watching you almost die didn't change his mind about coming home, what will?"

Murdoch lowered his eyes. He had no answer for that and hadn't really thought of it that way before. He turned and went back to his seat. "I asked him to go home if I died and be with you. He refused."

Scott's hands went out from his sides in a gesture of exasperation. "I have to ask what it will take to get through to *you* at this point."

With a grimace, he shrugged. "Maybe I am fooling myself. I'm sure you're right. But, Scott, if I don't try with everything I have, I'll regret it for the rest of my life. At least, this way, I know I've done everything humanly possible to get through to him."

Sighing, Scott walked over and sat next to his father. "I understand that but, it's time to go home now, Murdoch. As soon as the doctor can take a look at you and tell us he'll be alright, we should leave here."

*

Johnny slept for two days straight awakening the third day in the midmorning. Slowly, he took in the now familiar surroundings and let out a sigh. Taking stock, he felt like he'd gone a few rounds in a barroom brawl. Every inch of him was sore especially, the wound. How long does it take to heal one lousy wound? A long time when you do something as stupid as rippin out the stitches, he answered himself.

He raised up on his elbow with a wince and found a glass of water on the table. With some effort, he reached out for it but it was barely beyond his fingertips. Adjusting his position a little, he tried again without success.

"I've got it."

He dropped his head and sighed out harshly. "How long have I been out?"

"Two days and some change. It seems you needed it." Murdoch handed him the glass then sat beside him.

"Thanks. Guess I did though I feel sore all over."

"I can imagine."

Johnny gave him a sideways glance. "How's the leg?"

"Perfectly fine. The doctor said you did exactly the right thing."

"Still hangin around, huh?" he asked as he settled back on the pillow.

"I'm stubborn, I've been told."

Johnny smirked at that. "Sheriff waitin to arrest me for horse thievin?"

"No, son. Scott's angry but he isn't going to press charges. Barranca's at the livery."

He nodded and closed his eyes, thinking this was just one more thing he was indebted to someone for. It pissed him off to no end.

"I brought you something."

He looked at the man curiously as Murdoch tossed a brown paper package on his lap. Johnny fingered it for a second. "What is it?"

"Just a shirt. I was looking for some bandages in your saddlebags and noticed you didn't have an extra."

"Guess I used it up last time around." He handed the package back. "I don't want anything from you. I ain't no charity case."

Murdoch scowled and tossed the package back. "It's a thank you for saving my life as is the doctor's fees. I've already paid him and the livery."

Anger colored Johnny's cheeks as he glared at the man.

"Is my life not worth that much?" Murdoch asked.

That took the wind out of him momentarily. "That would be your call. Still, I will pay you back every dime, old man. Yeah, maybe I saved your life but you saved mine, too, so we're even far as I can see."

"Your life wouldn't have needed saving if I hadn't been bitten."

"And you wouldn't have been bitten if you hadn't been goin after Barranca for me."

"You didn't ask me to do that."

"I know!" He took in a breath. "Goddammit! Why do you have to be so fuckin ornery? Just leave me alone!"

Murdoch grimaced at the choice words then leaned forward. "Why do you want me to leave, Johnny? Could it be I'm getting to you?"

His icy eyes turned on the man. "Yeah, you're gettin to me. Gettin on my nerves. Usually, when a man gets on my nerves and don't have the sense to get out of my sight, he ends up dead. That what you want, old man?"

"You'd kill a man for annoying you?"

"Would and have."

Murdoch sat back in the chair. He wasn't sure if Johnny was telling him the truth of just trying to scare him away. "When you left Lancer that day, you drew on me. I was sure then you were capable of pulling the trigger."

"Believe it."

"Scott said you wouldn't have shot me."

"For a smart man, Scott's wrong a lot of the time when it comes to me. Or was. He sees things clear now."

"He has given up on you. I think that would change in a heartbeat if you'd just come home."

Johnny looked at the ceiling and wondered where his gun was. He was sure it wasn't anywhere he could reach and he supposed that was a good thing for Murdoch. He felt the hand on his arm and flinched but the hand didn't move. He gave Murdoch a scathing glare.

"I'm going to get up and walk out that door now, Johnny. If you don't stop me before it closes, it will be the last time you ever see me. Do you understand what I'm saying?" There was a flicker in the blue eyes. Murdoch would swear to it until the day he died. He held his breath as Johnny simply nodded his understanding.

Slowly, Murdoch stood and walked to the door, opening it and pausing within the frame. He didn't turn back though everything in him screamed to do just that. He waited five seconds more then slowly, closed the door behind him until he heard the click.

*

Chapter 12

Johnny watched his every move, watched him hesitate and prayed he'd go on out. Once the door shut tightly behind Murdoch, he let out a breath. Then, a faintly familiar feeling rose in him. So long buried, he didn't recognize it for a moment. He blinked several times and winced with a pain that was nothing to do with his physical injuries.

Softly, nearly inaudibly, he spoke the words. "Goodbye, old man."

His voice trembled, his vision blurred and he squeezed his eyes shut. Hitching in a breath, Johnny rubbed at his eyes then grit his teeth. He was breathing too fast, his heart jumping around in his chest and he clamped down harder.

Deeper and deeper inside himself he went until he was one person again. No longer did he feel torn into three parts; child, son, gunfighter. As he opened his eyes and stared blankly at the wall, he breathed out his relief. He had his control back and never again would he lose it.

*

Murdoch leaned against the door frame and bowed his head. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he sucked in a stifled breath. Knees shaking and heart racing, he fought the battle valiantly. Finally, agonizingly, he won as he always did. Inhaling deeply, he pulled himself to his full height and walked outside.

He stepped into the street as Scott walked up. Face a vision of granite, he looked to the sky. "It's still pretty early. We can make some miles today. Pack up our gear, son. We're going home."

Scott opened his mouth then shut it quickly when he saw the crack in that wall. Bowing his head, he turned and headed to the hotel, his own heart painful in his chest.

*

Johnny untied the package and pulled the shirt out, a soft smile sneaking onto his face. Blue with embroidered lapels. The kind of shirt he liked. Not some plain white or brown workshirt. The old man finally got it. Finally figured out a few things about him and still, he'd held out his hand that one last time.

Well, now he could forget them again. Go on with his life and take care of his business without interference. And, if there really was a God in heaven, he'd never hear the name Lancer again.

He pulled the covers off and sat gingerly on the edge of the bed, testing his fortitude. He had things to do and he had to do them quickly. Then, he had to get a job and pay these people back.

With a grunt of irritation, he realized he wasn't done with them yet. But, as soon as he could get some cash together and pay the old man back, he'd be completely rid of them.

With slow diligence, he dressed, opting to wear the new shift since he couldn't find his old one. He sat in a chair by the window and pulled his boots on with a groan. Leaning back and wiping the sweat from his face, he looked out the window as Murdoch and Scott rode by, heading home. Thank God!

Well, if there was one thing about the old man, it was he was true to his word. Johnny could see his face clearly and he looked like a statue. It's his own damned fault. Should've left me be in the first place. I'd be in Texas by now if he had.

"Leaving so soon?" Dr. Saxton stood in the door, the sheriff right behind him and scowled at his patient.

"Got things to do, Doc."

Madden nudged past the physician and stepped inside. "Mind answerin a few more questions first?"

He rested his head on the back of the chair. "I don't mind but I don't know what else I can tell ya."

The sheriff sat on the edge of the bed. "You can tell me what you know of the woman and kid."

Johnny raised a brow at that. He'd forgotten abut Sarah and Hannah. "I don't know anything. She said they were from St. Louis. Comin here to meet up with her husband. I take it you didn't find them?"

"Not a sign of 'em. It's like they disappeared into thin air. There was a lot of excitement around the stage, the way Henry tore through town and all, and she just walked away, I guess. But, there's no Hardings here. No one has seen a woman and child."

"That's strange alright. She didn't really say much about herself and the girl was pretty quiet. Well, until she saw the ocean. Then, she went buck wild." He smiled at the memory. "But, they were both real pleasant. Real nice. She did say somethin to me right before the robbers showed up. I thought it was ... I don't know. I told her to keep Hannah out of sight in case there was trouble. She said I had good instincts. It was like she was saying I was right and she knew what was about to happen."

Madden's face turned thoughtful. "Could be she was in on the whole thing. I'll check and see if there was a woman and kid on any of the other stages that were robbed."

"Don't know what good it'll do ya now but have fun. I'm leavin."

*

Johnny rode at a comfortable gait. As bad as he wanted to hunt down Mitch and Tom, he knew he needed to take it slow and let himself heal up. It wouldn't do to get down there and start bleedin all over the place at the exact wrong time. He thought about Sarah and had a hard time believing she was a part of all this. She looked like she was scared to death at the time.

Then again, he hadn't expected Mitch and Tom to be in on it either. He still didn't know the why of that. It made no sense to him. He couldn't think of one reason why the brothers would be out to get him. In fact, he hadn't even seen them for about two years before that.

Now that he thought about it; it was kinda strange them callin on him for his help after all that time. Boy, Madrid, you must be gettin real soft to let a couple of good ole boys like that snooker ya. He shook his head at his own stupidity. Well, ain't the first mistake I've made and I don't reckon it'll be the last. But, it will definitely be the last mistake they ever make. All I hafta do is find them.

Shouldn't be hard. They liked women and drink. And with all that money, they'd be livin the high life at some fancy hotel, he wagered. He couldn't see those two crossing the border, either. Even though they never said anything and he never really gave it much thought, neither seemed too eager to spend any time with Mexicans. Being southern, he reckoned their type of prejudice extended past negroes. Sorta strange they'd hung around him.

He'd heard them talk about their plantation before and the slaves they owned. He never did like it but he didn't care enough to make it a reason not to share a drink or two with them. He'd learned a long time ago that everyone had a dark side. For some men, that's all they had. Some walked a pretty even line between the two and then there were the ones who went to the opposite extreme. Priests, ministers, high flautin old women who really just needed to get laid to take that pinched look off their faces. Of course, who would want to lay them? He chuckled a little at that.

He could use a lay himself now that he thought about it. Hadn't had any since San Diego and that had been, what? Three or four weeks now? Damn! Of course, he didn't have enough money right now to lay a hen. Well, he knew a few women who wouldn't charge him if he charmed them just right. He grinned at the thought.

Eyeing the setting sun, he started looking for a good camp site when he saw smoke in the distance. Shit! Sure don't want to share a camp with anyone.

Clarity struck and he knew who was up ahead. Had to be the Lancers. He hadn't left that far behind them. Damn it to hell! He reined to the right and up a small hill then followed it for a while. A wicked grin appeared on his face and he dismounted, walking Barranca along until he was above their camp.

Johnny squatted in the trees and watched them for a while. All settled in and cozy. If he was feeling really evil, he'd pull some kind of prank on them. But, then they'd know he was there and he sure didn't feel like going another round with the old man. Then again, he might not say a word.

Jokes on you, Murdoch. You said I'd never see you again yet, here you are. He smiled a little at that then moved back to his horse. Mounting up, he disappeared into the night.

He rode another ten miles in the half moon before making camp. He quickly heated beans and sat drinking his coffee, staring into the fire and feeling better than he had in a long time. Sure, his body felt like shit but his mind was at ease. Knowing what he needed to do, having a purpose to focus on helped. But, what was even better was the quiet. No one yappin at him. No one expecting a thing from him. Yep, this was more like it.

*

It took a week which didn't surprise him but he finally arrived back in San Diego. Taking it easy on the trail had been the smart thing to do. His wound was healed, the soreness gone - thanks to some hot baths in towns along the way and working out his stiffness by practicing his draw. Now, he was more than ready to start the hunt.

Johnny felt a rush of thrill run through his veins as he rode into town. God! How he'd missed the action!

Now, as he tethered Barranca to the hitching post outside the hotel, he smiled slightly in anticipation. Grabbing his saddle bags and his rifle, he walked inside and acquired a room.

He settled on the bed, surprised by the softness after so long on the trail. He hadn't stayed in any hotels along the way. He really couldn't afford to. The baths were a luxury but he'd needed that to heal up. He reached into his boot and pulled out a small pouch he kept hidden there for emergencies then dumped the contents on the bed. He sat there, staring at it for several minutes. It took no time to realize what had happened but it did take him a while to come out of the shock and allow the anger to flow.

He wish he'd checked his funds in Stockton. Then, he would have rode into that campsite that first night and threw this hundred dollar bill right in Murdoch Lancer's face. How did he find the stash anyway? He had to be rooting through Johnny's personal possessions to come across it. Who the hell looks in a man's boot?

Would he ever be rid of that son of a bitch? Who the hell did he think he was? Johnny didn't need his money. Yeah, sure he was broke but it wasn't the first time and sure as hell wouldn't be the last. Did that old man really think so little of his abilities to survive after all these years of doing just that? More importantly, would he ever be free of them?

He tossed the bill aside and counted out his own money. Better than he thought. It was enough to do him until he found a quick job. That shouldn't be any problem. Then, he'd neatly fold this hundred dollars plus the rest he owed the man, including the cost of the shirt, and mail it right back to him. He smirked as he decided a sweet little love note would be called for, too.

He gathered up the money and put it away then flopped on the bed, arms cradled behind his head as he thought through what he needed to do again. He'd planned this out all along the route. It might be hard to find them, it might not. Depends on if they think I'm dead. If they do, they won't be hiding. He hoped that was the case. Because he didn't give a damn how long it took, he was going to find them.

*

As dusk fell, Johnny left his room and went to a favorite cantina. He ate then sauntered over to the saloon. Standing just outside the batwings, he scanned the interior and found a familiar face. With a grin, he walked in, aware all eyes were on him. To the back table he walked, confident, head up.

"Howdy, Slim."

"Johnny? Damn, where you been? Sit down, amigo, sit down!" Slim damned near fell over himself moving out of the chair so Johnny could have his back to the wall.

"Thanks, amigo. Been here and there. Anything going on?"

"Hell, no! Been pretty quiet around here."

He nodded then looked up at the bartender who hefted a bottle of tequila in his direction with askance. Johnny nodded his head and the man brought the bottle, a glass and the customary salt and lime. Once he'd gone, Johnny poured a shot and threw it down his throat then refilled his glass. He twirled this one around the table top for a few seconds before speaking again.

"Need a favor, Slim. A quiet favor."

Immediately the man leaned closer and nodded his head, a solemn expression on his face.

"Seen or heard anything of the Wilson brothers?"

"Not since you were here last."

"Could you ask around on the sly?"

"Sure thing, Johnny. You can count on me."

Johnny smiled at the man. "I know, Slim. You're about the only one I can count on."

The man beamed with pride and Johnny nearly laughed in his face. He was handy to have around. Slim always heard everything that was going on somehow.

"I'll start right now. Pretty quiet in here but I know a couple of places in town. I'll catch up with you later on, okay?"

"Gracias, amigo. If I ain't here, I'm at the hotel. Same one as before."

Slim nodded his head gravely. He knew this was important to Johnny and he'd never let the man down. Partly because he genuinely liked the man, mostly because he scared the shit out of him. He slid out the back door quietly.

*

Three hours later, Johnny could hardly stand it much longer. He'd been eyeing the dark-haired beauty all night and if he didn't get some news from Slim soon, he was going to have to wait for tomorrow. She was staring at him openly, swinging her hips back and forth as she leaned against the bar.

So far, he'd resisted the temptation to call her over but his restraint was wearing thin. He needed a woman tonight and just when he was about to raise his hand to her, Slim slipped back into his chair. Johnny sighed as she turned away.

"Laredo."

"How old's the information?"

Slim shrugged. "Three or four days. They've been livin it up, though, from what I hear."

Johnny smiled, even patted him on the back. "I owe you, amigo."

"Want me to go with you?"

"I'd like that, Slim, but this is one I have to do alone. Next time, okay?"

"Yeah, sure, Johnny. Whenever you say. You know you can always find me around someplace. Mind if I ask, though?"

Johnny looked at him. The man was useful but he also had a big mouth. "I'll tell ya all about it when it's over. It's ... delicate. I don't want to get into it right now. Might mess things up for the boys and I'd hate that to happen."

Slim nodded then frowned. "Guess I had the feelin you was gunnin for the brothers. I couldn't figure that one out, though. I know ya like 'em as well as anyone."

"Yeah, Slim. As well as anyone. I'll catch ya up when I'm done. Right now, that little lady over there has been waitin way too long."

Slim grinned at him. "Let 'er buck." He raised his glass and Johnny smiled at him then walked over to the girl. She practically ran up the stairs, dragging him along by the hand.

*  

Laredo! Why the hell didn't they just go to the ends of the earth?! He sighed as he headed into Mexico. He was beginning to think he'd be hunting those two the rest of his life. Still, it didn't matter. He didn't appreciate being stabbed in the back and he needed to make sure not only the Wilsons, but everyone else knew just what he would do to anyone who pulled that shit on him.

He figured he'd stay close to the border for a while then turn south across to Chihuahua and on into Texas. All he had to do was cross some of the roughest terrain he knew. Shit! He was gonna have to stop somewhere and pick up some work. Might have to cowboy for a while if no one needed a gun.

Well, nothing for it. He rode on wondering what kind of trouble he was gonna run into. Seems he always did. He'd be in Apache country at several points. That didn't bother him so much. It was the comancheros he worried about. He didn't want to tangle with them. Hell, he didn't want to go to Laredo either but here he was!

He could've stayed north of the border but it would have taken almost twice as long if he had. He knew this country well. Had been here many times. Hell, he'd lived in a few of these little villages at one time or another. He wasn't impressed for sure. Seemed to him the entire country was nothing but poor people. Of course, he knew that wasn't true but that's mostly what he saw.

He'd seen the dons, too, and their fancy villas and clothes with their noses stuck up in the air. They should drown when it rained, he thought with a smirk.

Irritated with the whole situation, he knew he needed to just calm down, take things as they came, like he usually did. He'd try not to think about it until he got closer. He had other considerations. Like eating.

"Barranca, I don't know why I let you get me in all this trouble all the time."

The horse whinnied it's argument and tossed its head in defiance.

"Okay, okay. Sheesh! Take a joke, will ya? Anyways, there's some pretty country up ahead. Some not so pretty, too. Let's just make sure we keep a low profile. How's that sound?"

Again, the horse answered with a snort this time.

Johnny grimaced. "I know. Hard to do."

*

He figured it was a record. He was almost to Chihuahua and no trouble so far. He'd seen some Apache off in the distance and they'd followed him for a while then gone on their way. For some reason, they never had bothered him. Maybe they knew he meant them no harm. How they'd know that, he hadn't a clue. They were a pretty ruthless tribe; would slit a man's throat just for laughs. The best thing was, he hadn't seen or smelled any comancheros. That bunch was worse than any Indian ever thought about bein.

Still, he was down to his last few dollars and he needed to make some money. As he entered the town, he scanned the street looking and feeling for anything of interest. He could usually get a sense when trouble was brewing. It was in the air, the smell of fear; rancid and choking at times. There was nothing of that here. Nothing but crowded marketplaces and colorful fabrics swaying in the breeze as people put out their wares for inspection.

Same old shit.

He noticed a rise in the din and he looked around. People were staring at him, some of them pointing. Damn! What is it now? He hadn't been here long enough to cause a stir. He decided to ignore it while keeping an eye out for any sign of guns. He sure as hell didn't want to get backshot just for riding down the street. Of course, there was a very real possibility of that wherever he went.

He finally noticed the aroma and his stomach reacted. Some real food. Now that was worth the ride! He smiled to himself and followed his nose to a small cantina. It was rundown, what around here wasn't? But, it was definitely the place. He could see smoke rising from the stove chimney in the back and pulled to a stop.

He tossed the reins around the post then turned to find a dozen or so people standing behind him in the street, all staring. He eyed them and they lowered the stares but didn't move. Frustrated, he growled.

"Que?"

No one spoke or looked at him for several seconds then, an older woman stepped up, bravely raising her eyes to his and she smiled.

"Somos asi que feliz usted esta vivo, Senor Madrid." {We are so happy you are alive}

He stared at her, a little taken aback then sighed lightly and nodded his head. "Gracias, Senora."

She nodded and gave him a huge smile then backed away into the crowd once more. Johnny stood there another beat, wondering if they were going to follow him around then he turned and went inside the cantina. If they think I'm gonna get sucked into another lost cause, they're crazy!

Sure, they all seemed real happy to see him for some strange reason. That didn't mean one of them wouldn't put a bullet in his head. He wanted to make sure he saw anyone coming so he sat near a window.

Like lightning, a short little man approached the table and fired the questions at him. What would he like to eat? To drink? They had a special salsa, his grandmother's very own recipe and on and on.

Johnny put a hand up and gave his order then sat back and rubbed his forehead with one hand. He was getting a headache. Too much time alone on the trail. Barranca didn't talk much which was fine by him. Now, all this noise, he just wasn't used to it yet. Maybe, he never would be again. He frowned. Now why did I think that? Must be too much time alone. I'm goin loco.

*

It didn't seem any time had passed before his food was set before him by the grinning little man who bowed over and over as he backed away from the table.

Jesus Christ! Johnny thought as he started to eat. One bite and he slowed his chewing, looking over at the man with some amazement. He nodded and thought the man was gonna bust his jaw but he should. It was the best damned food he'd ever had, bar none. He took his time, enjoying every bite and feeling contented for the moment.

Finally, he got up and reached in his pocket to pay and the little man was right there again.

"No, Senor, No. Es gratuito."

Johnny cocked his head then shook it and the man laid a hesitant hand on his arm.

"Por Favor, Senor Madrid. Gratuito."

He sighed and nodded. "Es muy magnifico. El mejor alimento." Adding a smile, he walked outside, glad the small crowd had dispersed.

A young boy stood beside Barranca though and Johnny stepped into the street, eyeing him closely. He was grinning like an idiot. "What'ya want, kid?"

"Room for you. I show you."

"I know where the rooms are. Go on, get out of here. Salga." He untied Barranca and started walking down the street, knowing the kid was following him. He never slowed his stride or looked back until he got to the small hotel.

"I can take your horse, Senor."

Johnny turned and looked hard at him. "Touch that horse and I'll kill you."

The boy's eyes widened in fear and he swallowed hard.

"Get out of here, kid. I don't have anything to give you."

The boy could only nod, any arguments he may have had disappeared in the face of the gunfighter's wrath. He turned tail and ran down the street, disappearing around a corner.

Johnny sighed heavily and grabbed his gear, heading inside and wishing the hell people would leave him alone.

*

Chapter 13

He sat in the saloon watching the men come and go while he nursed a beer. He'd idly thought of sitting in at a poker table but he'd never gambled to make a living and he wasn't about to start now. He just wasn't that lucky. They were quite a mix of white and Mexican, half breeds and Indians. Seemed all were welcome here. He smiled fleetingly.

He had almost come to terms with having to find a job at a ranch or something when providence stepped in, rather walked in. He watched the man scour the room, searching for someone obviously. When their eyes met, the man seemed almost relieved and walked over.

Tall and rugged, he was most definitely a rancher. One with a problem, it was easy to see and Johnny almost smiled, but he didn't. Tanned from the sun not ethnicity, Johnny wondered what he was doing down here.

"Are you Johnny Madrid?"

He simply nodded.

"Mind if I sit?"

He pushed the chair out with his foot then sat up straight in his chair as the man took a seat.

"My name is McCoy. I'm from El Paso."

"Didn't think you were from around here."

The man eyed him hard, surprised by the soft voice. "I'll come straight to the point. I'm having trouble with rustlers and I need someone with grit to take care of them."

Johnny's eyes shone in the low light. "Ain't you got any grit, Mr. McCoy?"

The man's fist tightened on the table top. "I've got plenty, boy. What I need is someone with experience who doesn't have the added problems of running a ranch to deal with. I've tried taking care if it myself but my hands haven't been too inclined to mix it up. They steal my cattle and cross the border before I can catch them. I'll pay you well if you can get rid of them."

Johnny stared at his beer mug for a few seconds. "How many?"

"I haven't been able to get a good head count but I think there's five or six. They seem to know what they're doing."

He nodded, still thinking. "Ten dollars a day whether I get rid of them or not. A hundred dollar bonus when I do get rid of them."

McCoy smirked a little at the arrogance but nodded his agreement.

"One more thing. Don't ever call me 'boy' again."

McCoy sat back a little, not having realized he had called him boy. He had to smile a little. Yep, this one had plenty of grit. He was glad what he'd heard was true, or so it seemed. The proof was in the pudding, they say. "Deal. I'm ten miles west of El Paso. The Crooked M Ranch."

He extended his hand and Johnny shook it. "I'll find it. Be there in two days."

*

Johnny released Barranca's left hind leg then patted his backside. "That's it, boy. Hooves all clean and pretty. Guess we can get goin now."

Barranca turned his head and nudged Johnny's arm as the livery owner stood watching and laughing. Johnny looked over at the man and smiled.

"Don't know where ya got that one, Johnny, but he's somethin else."

"Yeah, he's smart as a whip, Hal." He replaced the tools and started saddling his horse as Hal walked nearer.

"He's pretty, no doubt. A little particular."

Johnny grinned as he tightened the cinch. "Go on and say it. He's spoiled rotten. But, he comes when I call and he don't let nobody else mount him."

"Can't do any better than that, I reckon. Good ta see ya again, kid."

"You, too, Hal. Might see me some more. Got a job outside town."

Hal crossed his arms over his burly chest and leaned against a stall. "McCoy?"

"Yeah. What sort is he?"

"Tough as rawhide but a good man. Fair and honest. I know he's been havin a time with them rustlers. Hope ya can help him out."

"You know anything about the rustlers?"

"Not really. Nobody's ever gotten too close. Ain't like they come into town. Well, I don't reckon they do. Might be right under our noses for all anyone knows. Sheriff is useless. He ain't been out there but once then hightailed it back and said he couldn't do nothin cause he ain't got no help." Hal spat on the floor in disgust.

Johnny gave him a devilish grin. "Reckon I should invite him to give me hand?"

The liveryman guffawed at that notion and slapped Johnny on the back. He damned near choked. Hal was a big man with some huge hands. He figured he'd have a nice bruise from that little 'pat'.

"Just west of town and right off the main road to the house. Ya can't miss it. Stop back by when you get done out there and we'll have a beer."

"Sounds good. See ya." Johnny gave him a smile and led Barranca out of the barn then saddled up. He gave a wave behind him as he headed out. Hal was a good man, too. He'd always treated Johnny square and never judged him for his line of work. That made him as close to a friend as Johnny could stand.

*

As told, the house was easily visible from the road. A big open gate announced the Crooked M Ranch in all it's glory. It was a Spanish style hacienda like so many in the area. Adobe everything. He watched the men working around the grounds, not a one of them with more than a sidearm. Well, he didn't suppose rustlers were inclined to come in and say howdy.

He just hoped this wouldn't take too long. He still had to get to Laredo. As he stepped up to the door, he tried to knock some dust off himself, figuring the house would be pretty fancy by his standards. He knocked briskly and waited only a short time before the door opened. Johnny snatched his hat off his head and stared openly.

The woman was holding a baby on her hip, another one clinging to her skirts, his blue eyes peeking from around his mother's leg. He took the children in quickly but it was the woman who took his breath away, made his senses reel.

"May I help you?"

He looked at her as if he didn't understand a word for a second then he swallowed and cleared his throat and felt like just leaving, really. He knew he was making a fool of himself, not the best first impression and it definitely didn't instill confidence in his abilities, he was sure. He licked his lips and tried it again.

"Mr. McCoy in?"

"May I ask who is calling?"

Her voice was like music but her hard stare kept him in reality. "Johnny Madrid, ma'am."

The stare hardened even more, her mouth tightening, diminishing the full red lips as she stepped back and aside. "My husband is expecting you, Senor. This way, please."

He nodded and walked into the foyer. Husband. Well, what did you think, Madrid? Damn, this is way too crazy. He followed her into a room off to the right that was as big as than any one room he'd ever seen. His eyes didn't roam from the man standing by the hearth, though.

"You're right on time." McCoy stepped forward, hand extended in greeting.

"Yeah, wasn't hard to find."

The rancher nodded then turned his attention to his wife. Johnny looked, too, and saw she was staring her old man down just as hard as she had him. He smiled a little and looked away.

"We won't be long, Anna."

She opened her mouth then closed it and left the room, the boy still clinging to her, following her every step.

"Beautiful family."

"Thank you."

Johnny sighed softly then took in the room at a glance. "Well, tell me what's been going on."

"I'd rather show you. Let's take a ride."

*

They rode west for half an hour before topping a small rise. McCoy stopped and looked down into the valley. "This is where they've hit every time. They seem to know when there won't be anyone out here."

"Might be a stupid question but, why don't you keep guards out here or move the herd?"

McCoy only shrugged. "I don't have enough men for that. As for moving the herd, I can't. This is where the graze is right now. We moved them here two months ago and the rustling started almost immediately. I've changed the watch times but they always seem to know."

"You got anyone working for you that might be tippin them off?"

"I thought about that but my men are loyal. They've all been with me a long time."

Johnny nodded, deep in thought as he stared out over the herd. "There's a lot of places to lay low. Could be they just wait and watch; make their move when the vaqueros ain't around. Do they come in at night?"

"It's hard to say. It seems to happen at about any time."

"You're only about five miles from the border here. It's a real good spot for them."

"I know. They usually only take a couple of dozen head at a time but it's costing me, I can tell you."

A frown creased Johnny's forehead. "Must be a small operation. They have to take them someplace to sell them. Well, that tree line to the north is a good place to watch from. They'd stay to the south when they're scoping things out, I'd think. I can sit up there tonight and see what happens."

"Won't they still see a campfire from up there?"

"Nope, cause there won't be one."

He stopped and looked at the man fully. "I'd like to know where they take 'em and just how many of them there are before doing anything. Can you handle one more loss?"

"Compared to what I stand to lose, yes, I suppose so." He paused, looking back out over the land. "Look, I've never hired a gun before so I don't have a clue how you do things. I mean, do you want your pay every day?"

Johnny laughed softly. "When the job's done, Mr. McCoy. I figure if I get myself killed, well, at least you ain't out no money. I don't take pay for a job I haven't done yet. That's just me, though. Others might want a different arrangement. I'll ride back to the ranch with you in case anyone's watchin now then head out again at dusk."

"What if they don't hit tonight?"

"Then, send your men out in the morning and I'll try again tomorrow night."

*

Johnny spent a long night in the dark staring at nothing but sleeping cattle. Nothing had happened and he was bone tired as he rode back to the house. He dismounted near the barn and looked Barranca over, deep in thought. He turned as McCoy walked up.

"Nothing," he answered the unasked question. "I saw your men ride in."

"Well, tonight again then?"

"Yep, just point me where I can get some sleep. Oh, and, do you have a darker horse I can borrow. Black is better."

McCoy smiled and nodded. "That is a beautiful animal. You know horseflesh."

He always smiled whenever someone complimented Barranca. "Thanks."

"Come in the house. Anna will fix you some breakfast."

"Oh, no. I don't think that's such a good idea. She don't seem real happy with me bein here, anyway."

The rancher grimaced as if in pain. "She isn't but, I have to do whatever it takes to survive. But, I can also tell you no matter how upset she is about it, she'll thrash me if I don't feed you. You know how women are."

"Not really," Johnny muttered as he followed the man inside. Hell, he was starvin. Might as well have a scowl with his meal.

They walked into the huge kitchen, the aromas hitting Johnny hard in the memory as well as the stomach. Shit! I don't know if I can do this.

"Can you feed a hungry man, Anna?" McCoy was asking her.

"Of course. In fact, I can feed two. Sit."

Johnny sat and was stunned at how he obeyed her instantly. Soon, she placed a platter on the table full of huevos rancheros. She leaned next to him to settle it in the middle of the table and he thought he'd pass out as her scent hit him. He stood up quickly, scraping the chair back on the wood floor and receiving startled stares from them both.

"Lo siento, Senora. I ... I can't ..." He knew he was making an idiot of himself but he had to get out of there so he took off out the back door and found himself in a garden.

He headed around the corner to the back of the house and leaned against the wall, resting his forehead on the cool adobe and cursing himself for being a fool. His heart was in his throat and he felt like he couldn't breathe. What the hell was wrong with him? But, he knew what it was and he suddenly felt very young again and very afraid. He tried taking deep breaths and that seemed to settle his heart rate at least.

With a shaky hand, he wiped the sweat from his forehead and walked it off. Slowly, inexorably returning to his normal state. He felt the presence behind him and stiffened.

*

"Are you alright? Are you sick?"

Johnny took a deep breath and turned to face the man, his own face expressionless. "No, I'm okay. I'm sorry. Please tell your wife I meant no offence."

McCoy stepped closer, scrutinizing him. "What happened?"

Shaking his head, he paced away. "Nothing, I just ... it reminded me of something. She reminds me of someone."

"Ah, an old girlfriend?" He almost smiled.

Johnny looked sharply at him and shook his head vigorously.

"Look, Madrid, whatever it is, I hope it's not going to keep you from doing the job."

"It won't," he clipped icily. He was grateful to the man for bringing him back into focus; the reason he was here that had escaped him in those moments of vulnerability. He hated himself for letting it happen. It would not happen again. "I just need some sleep is all."

"You need to eat, too."

He bit the inside of his cheek. "Ain't hungry. Where can I bunk down?"

McCoy tossed his head forward. "The bunkhouse. Just take one, the men won't mind."

*

Johnny said no more and headed for the building with a quick stride. Once inside, he leaned against the door and tried to pull himself together. He looked around the room and found the bunk most likely to be clean then laid atop the covers on his back, staring at the ceiling with his fingers interlaced across his stomach.

God, I don't need this shit! Yesterday was bad enough. He hadn't allowed himself to think about it, whiling away the night hours with scenarios of what the rustlers were up to, where they took the cattle and how many there actually were. But, this morning had been different. He was tired and his defenses were down. He let her get to him.

He hadn't thought about his mother in almost two years. Having buried her memory forever, or so he thought, once the truth had come to light. And he did believe it was the truth. The why would never be known to him now and he had made himself not care. Told himself it didn't matter when, really, it was all that *did* matter.

He'd spent those first eight years forgetting about her, purging her memory from his mind. Then, one meeting had brought it all back to the fore and he'd had to try and start all over. It had taken a couple of months for him to bury it again that time. But, he figured it was because he had the constant reminder around all the time. His father. Looking at him, studying him, comparing him to her. He couldn't stand it anymore so he'd made himself stop. Even with this last run in with Murdoch, he hadn't allowed himself to really think about her.

Johnny had spent most of his life making himself stop remembering bad things. If he hadn't, he reckoned he'd be stark raving mad by now. He figured it was some special ability he had, some gift he possessed. He could bring a memory out then banish it when he was done and never feel the emotions attached to it for more than a fleeting moment or two.

The pain of losing her had been more than he thought he could bear and he made the vow to himself then, kneeling at her graveside, that he would never allow anyone to cause him that kind of intense pain again. He would never get close enough to anyone because they all left sooner or later. No one wanted to stick around him very long. He figured they just couldn't stand him. Which is why it was so hard for him to understand why his father tried so damned hard. Didn't he know? Hadn't he known from that first day it would be like this? He had to. Johnny had seen it in his eyes when he stared at him. Hell, he could almost hear the man's thoughts.

This one is nothing but trouble.

Murdoch had been right then and he should have remembered his own gut instincts. He should know those were the only ones you could trust. Maybe, his instinct had failed him or his memory had. Johnny knew about failed instincts. They were the very reason he found himself tracking down two men.

He squeezed his eyes shut then sighed heavily. Stop thinkin about all this crap and get some shut eye. Got another long night ahead of me. He turned on his side and tried but his stomach was rumbling loudly and he knew he wouldn't sleep until he ate. Resignedly, he sat up and looked around the room. Someone must have some grub around here somewhere. He'd just leave a few coins for what he found. That should be alright.

As he stood, the door open and the Colt was in his hand instantly.

McCoy paused when he heard the click of the hammer.

"Sorry," Johnny mumbled and slid the gun into the holster.

"I guess I came to the right man. You're faster than lightning." He smiled but got nothing in return. "Well, Anna couldn't stand it so she sent this out to you." He hefted the tray and sat it on the long table in the middle of the room.

"Thanks and thank her for me."

He nodded and watched the young man a long moment. "Your mother?"

Johnny closed his eyes briefly and simply nodded. "No importante." The look he gave the rancher told him there would be no further discussion of the subject.

McCoy could only nod and leave him be.

*

After sleeping most of the day, Johnny was back in form. He'd pushed the thoughts away and vowed Senora McCoy would no longer bother him. Whether he saw her again or not, it would have no effect. As he left the bunkhouse, he found himself about to be tested.

Heading for the barn, he rounded the building and found himself rammed by the boy who only yesterday had clung to his mother. It seemed he was over his shyness and out running wild. Johnny had to reach out and grab him before he ended up splayed on his backside from the sudden impact.

"Whoa, nino. Liento."

The boy's eyes widened as he stared at the stranger. "Perdon, Senor," he whispered.

Johnny smiled as he crouched down to look the child in the eyes. "No problema. I'm Johnny."

"Ricky."

Johnny held out a hand and the boy hesitantly shook it. "Nice to meet you, Ricky. Are you supposed to be running around like this?"

The dark blue eyes flickered away then the boy dropped his head and shook it. "Not around the barn, Senor."

"Know why? Cause, you'll scare the horses. They don't like sudden noises and they get all skittish. That's a real easy way to get yourself hurt bad. Comprende?"

Ricky nodded his head, his eyes slowly meeting Johnny's and he smiled gently.

He was older than Johnny first thought. Of course, he'd only seen a little of him yesterday. He looked to be about five years old. Cute as hell and most likely full of mischief.

"Ricky, leave Senor Madrid alone."

He stood and turned to face her, his resolve implaccable. "He ain't botherin me, ma'am. Just bein a kid is all."

"I hope you rested well, Senor."

He raised a brow, her hard visage once more in place. Damn! Did she ever smile? "Si, I did. Is your husband around?"

"He is in the corral. Will you be out all night again?" At his nod, she continued. "I will make you some sandwiches. My husband tells me you are unable to have a campfire."

"No need to go to any trouble."

"It is no trouble. Come, Ricky."

Johnny watched her walk away and sighed lightly. Hope she's happier than she seems.

*

Chapter 14

// in the arms of an angel
fly away from here
from this dark cold hotel room
and the endlessness that you fear
you are pulled from the wreckage
of your silent reverie
you're in the arms of the angel
may you find some comfort here

Angel
Sarah Maclachlin //

With a saddlebag full of sandwiches and a black stallion, Johnny headed back out as the sun dipped toward the horizon. He didn't like leaving Barranca behind but last night he'd realized a light-colored horse probably wasn't the best way to stay hidden. It promised to be only a half moon tonight but he was taking no chances.

He settled in the tree line further along than last night just to be on the safe side. He ate the sandwiches early in case there was no opportunity as the night went on. He figured if they didn't hit tonight, tomorrow for sure and he planned on staying out here all day, too, if need be. The sooner he got this job over, the better he liked it. He needed to be on his way but he also needed the money. He figured if he could take care of this little problem, that extra hundred dollars would tied him over for quite a while.

He spent his time thinking of Mitch and Tom and what he'd do to them when he caught them up. That he would find them was not in question. How he handled the confrontation was the only thing left to ponder. It really all depended on what he found when he got there. If they were even still in Laredo. And, if they were, they'd probably still be living high. That payroll would split well six ways.

Enjoy it while you can, boys, he smirked. The only thing he really didn't want to know was if that woman had been in on the whole deal. He didn't know what he'd do if he found her there with them - and the little girl.

His thoughts were rent away when he heard the sound of horses. He moved around the tree he was leaning against and sunk to his belly. There were four of them. Not bad odds but he didn't move, simply watched as they cut out twenty or so head and started moving them south. They were pretty good at it. He reckoned stealin cows was a helluva lot easier than cowboyin.

He waited until they were almost out of sight before mounting up and heading down the slope. He moved slowly, not wanting to be heard. Just in case, he pulled his rifle from the scabbard and laid it across his lap, ready for anything, he hoped.

Five miles was a lot longer when you were pushing cattle and it took a couple of hours to reach the Rio Grande. It was a perfect place to cross where the water was lower. The splash and noise of the small herd hid his own horses steps. He found some boulders near the river's edge and stopped, dismounting and watching as they crossed.

Once more, he headed out as they faded from his sight. Two more hours passed and he was starting to wonder just where the hell they were going. Then, they disappeared.

Johnny moved slowly through the darkened landscape, knowing twenty cows and four men could not simply disappear. He was patient as he sought his quarry and was rewarded a short time later when he heard, rather than saw them. He dismounted and walked the horse until he came to a trail leading down.

Tying the horse to a small tree, Johnny went on alone, skirting the edge of the canyon and hoping he didn't lose his footing in the blackness. He saw the dim light of a campfire and went to his stomach, scuttling to the edge and peering down.

The canyon wasn't terribly deep, the trail down not too treacherous. No, that wouldn't do. They'd lose more cattle than they stole if the going was too rough. It was, however, well-hidden. A perfect place, really.

As he squinted, hoping for better sight, he heard the distant lowing then saw the men. Shit! There were ten of them. No, twelve, he recounted. He lay there for a while, watching them mill around. Some of them retiring, some standing watch, the rest drinking or eating or both.

Fifteen minutes passed and he scooted away, careful not to knock any debris over the edge and give himself away. Twelve men. That was a few too many to handle alone. Maybe. A grin spread wide across his face as an idea came to him. Moving away and returning to the horse, he headed back to McCoy's ranch, marking his trail at intervals.

*

It was daylight when he rode in and spied McCoy out in the yard talking to a hand. He wasted no time as he approached the man.

"They hit last night. I trailed them across the border to a small canyon. I'm gonna need some dynamite."

"Dynamite? What for?"

Johnny smiled a little. "There's twelve of them."

McCoy looked hard at him, wondering what he intended.

Johnny saw the misgivings on the man's face. "If the law caught 'em, they'd hang. What's the difference?"

The rancher relented as the words rang true. "Well, I have some left over from clearing some trees earlier this Spring. Should still be good. Come on, I'll show you."

Johnny sniffed the explosive and nodded. "Anyplace I can try this out? I'd hate to get there and it not work."

"I'll go with you. Just let me tell my segundo I'll be gone a while."

"Don't tell him why."

McCoy turned back and glared at him.

"Look, I know you said you trust them all but I don't know any of 'em. This is my hide we're talkin about. Fewer people that know, the better I like it."

McCoy's eyes fell then he looked back at the young man and nodded.

Johnny dove around the boulder to join McCoy as they waited for the fuse to ignite the dynamite. It was a resounding success and Johnny took his hat off, slapping it against his thigh as they stood and looked at the results.

"Yep, I'd say it still works. That's one tree stump ya don't have to worry about anymore."

"Waste not, want not, they say. You aren't going right back out are you? I mean, you haven't had any rest."

"Well, best to do this in the light of day. Wouldn't want to blow myself up. I can't see the trail very well in the dark. I'm fine, Mr. McCoy. I've gone without sleep longer than this during a job."

"At least have something to eat first."

Johnny sighed and regarded the man. "Sure."

*

As they rode back to the house, Johnny contemplated the man's situation. It wasn't his place to say a thing but he had to wonder if the man had ever considered what lay ahead for his children. If he'd run across it at all, yet. Well, he can always tell me to go to hell.

"You have two beautiful children. It's not gonna be easy for them, though."

"What does that mean?"

Johnny looked over at him. "Bein mixed. Ain't gonna be easy for them."

"That's not a problem around here."

He raised a brow. "You think so? Because, you're wrong. Look, it ain't my place to say nothin but I do have some experience. Maybe nobody has ever said anything to you. Maybe that's because you're a big dog in these parts. But, I've lived my whole life in the border towns, Mr. McCoy. I know what I know."

He didn't say anything for a long time, then, "what do you know?"

His voice was so soft, it took Johnny aback for a few seconds. "Just that some people are full of hate. They see someone different than them, they can't seem to stand it. Kids are cruel, sometimes, too. Maybe worse than their parents. They hear that garbage at home and repeat it at school or wherever. They don't even know what it means. All they know is their pa says it so it must be true. And they say it with the same venom they hear it with.

"Ricky will get it first, of course. Soon enough, the little one, too. Ain't nothin you can do about it except try to explain it to them. If I were you, I wouldn't wait until something happens, either. By then, it's too late to keep it from hurtin bad."

"My wife has said something about that before."

"She knows. She's seen it, I'm sure. Did you meet her in Mexico?"

A soft smile came to the man's face. "Yes, in Mexico City. She grew up there."

"Then, she knows what it's like. You should listen to her. You're a proud man, that's easy to see. Just don't let that pride blind you to what could cause your kids a lot of heartache."

"How do I keep it from them?"

He shook his head. "Can't. All you can do is tell them it's out there and help them deal with it when it happens. Just love them and they'll be able to handle it a lot better."

Neither man spoke again until they were in the yard and afoot.

"It's hard to think your children will suffer because two people love each other enough to want a life together. Thank you for your insights."

Johnny smiled a little and shrugged. "Figured you'd tell me to mind my own business."

"If you were anyone else, I might have. But, only a fool doesn't listen to the voice of experience. Come on, you need a good meal before you head out."

*

Johnny was on high alert as he crossed the river into Mexico. He knew he was fine until then. He found his markings easily in the light of day and followed them until he reached the opening of the canyon. He was about a quarter mile away when he spied it and turned left to edge around.

Finding a small copse of trees, he left the stallion tethered there and took his saddlebags and rifle. With a little luck, he'd find them all still together. If he didn't, he may have a decision to make.

Skirting the edge, he made his way nearer the trailhead then used a large boulder to store his wares before taking a look below. To his relief, he counted twelve men. Some were with the herd, looking them over, sizing them up and figuring how much they could get for them, he imagined.

The cattle all looked healthy and fat. Johnny knew they'd get a fair price. Not as good as if they sold them legally but, good enough. Well, they *would* have gotten a good price if they hadn't been found out. Now, it was just a matter of his precision.

He moved back to the boulder and gathered the dynamite, quickly putting the fuses in and heading back to his spot. Fishing matches from his pocket, he laid them beside him then struck one and lit a fuse. He watched it burn almost halfway down before standing straight up and launching it at the side of the trail.

Timing. Everything in his life always came down to timing. The explosion shook the canyon walls, reverberating up to him and he felt the hot wind on his face before he crouched down again. Large rocks were ripped from the wall, tumbling down and blocking the trail out. He smiled, satisfied with his first assault but not dawdling with his victory. He lit another fuse as the men below all scattered, confused and angry. Scared, too, he bet as he stood and launched another stick directly into their camp.

One of the men spotted him that time but before he could sound a warning, the camp site exploded, throwing bodies in every direction. Johnny grabbed his rifle and took aim. It was like shooting fish in a barrel at this point. Hardly any game to it at all. He was almost disappointed until he felt a projectile whiz past his ear.

Crouching down on one knee, he leveled the rifle and found the man shooting at him. He took him out then twisted at the waist to finish the job.

Ten minutes later, he watched the smoke and dust settle. Sitting properly on his backside and crossing his legs, he sat there until the field became visible. Small fires scattered about the area, eating the brush and anything else that could burn within the boundaries of their flames.

Suddenly, he perked up, seeing movement. He got back on one knee and watched as the smoke cleared then sighed heavily. Damn! He took aim again and squeezed the trigger, putting the injured horse out of its misery with a sting of regret. Scanning the ruins, he saw more animals laying dead. Horses and cattle but, he'd known they would be collateral damage. There was nothing to be done about it.

In fact, he knew he had to leave those uninjured animals down there as well. The trail was blocked with too much debris to move them out. They might find another escape route but he couldn't worry about that. He sat for another hour, watching and waiting and making sure all the men were dead.

When he was satisfied the job was done, he stood and gathered the remaining dynamite and walked back to the black stallion.

*

Johnny stuffed the one hundred and thirty dollars into his pocket and nodded at McCoy. "Thanks."

"Thank you."

"Sorry about the cattle but there was nothin I could do."

McCoy sighed and looked out over his land as they stood in the yard. "I understand. At least, I won't have to worry about losing any more now. Hopefully, not ever again."

"Up to you. If you want to tell people how it happened it might make 'em think twice about hittin you again. But, there's always some that'll try a thing, thinkin they'll be the ones to get away with it."

"You have a lot of knowledge and experience for someone so young, Mr. Madrid. I talked to Anna last night about our conversation concerning the children. She agreed with what you said and was a little upset I hadn't listened to her about it before."

Johnny grinned at the man's painful expression. Looked like he got an earful of Mexican female anger. "Ain't nobody can blister your ears like a woman. Specially, a hot-blooded one. I hope your kids never have to deal with that. Well, best get going."

McCoy walked with him to Barranca. "She has a temper. I find most Mexican women do but it's not always a bad thing. Good luck, Mr. Madrid."

"Thanks," Johnny said as he mounted up. He looked back down at the man with a small smile. "You got a real nice life here, Mr. McCoy. A fine herd, too."

McCoy patted Barranca's withers. "Yes, I've had a lot of ranchers interested in cross-breeding with my herd. Some from as far away as California and Colorado."

Johnny tensed a little but his curiosity got the better of him. "California, huh? I know a few ranchers there."

"Oh? Ever heard of Murdoch Lancer? He's the main one who's been writing to me. I don't know anything about him."

He just stared at the man for a minute. "Lancer is a fair businessman. You can trust him."

Cocking his head to the side, McCoy studied the young man's face. "I'll take that as the highest recommendation. Thank you for that and for helping us."

"Anytime. I'll see ya." Johnny tipped his hat and spurred Barranca into a walk, heading southeast toward Laredo.

*

Time is a funny thing. It can seem as though it has completely stopped, especially during unpleasant or painful times. Then, it can seem to be gone in the blink of an eye, especially during happy, joyous times. And then there are times when you are so lost in your thoughts, so deep inside yourself, it simply vanishes.

Johnny rode into Laredo late at night, having waited for the moons appearance to make his own. He stayed in shadow, eluding the slightest possibility of detection. His journey from El Paso had taken no time, it seemed to him. He'd occupied himself fully with thoughts of revenge and other things he had not wanted to think about but which decided to come to the fore anyway.

The nightmares had started again. It had been six years since he'd had one and he wasn't sure why he was suffering them again. So much for that wonderful 'gift' of being able to bury anything. It seemed his own brain was working against him now. Maybe it had been saying his father's name or hearing it. Or maybe it was vouching for the man that had brought on this onslaught. It made no sense to him.

That his nightmares about the day of her death could be triggered by thinking of his father had caused him considerable discomfort. Even Anna McCoy hadn't caused him nightmares. It wasn't until that last conversation with Mr. McCoy that they started. And didn't that prove even more that he had no business at Lancer? Wasn't this some sort of sign that he'd been right all along? Why was he even thinking of it at all? It was a done deal. He'd rode away, left them behind, told them to leave him alone. And they had. So, what the hell was the deal?

Using side roads and back alleys, he made his way to a livery just in time to bed his horse before they closed up for the night. The owner had no qualms about him bedding Barranca himself so Johnny went about the task in an automatic fashion. Promising the palomino he was safe, Johnny slipped out the back way and disappeared into the shadows again.

He hadn't been in Laredo for a long time. Another place that held bad memories for him. A shiver went down his spine as he recalled that night. Shaking his head, he focused on what lay ahead, not behind. It was strange to him that they'd choose this place. A fair-sized town and right on the border - that had an allure. But, it also boasted some law. Texas Rangers to be exact and they weren't men to mess around with. But, he supposed Mitch and Tom had no intentions of messing with Rangers and as long as they behaved themselves here, the Rangers would have no reason to bother them.

He slid into an alley alongside the Silver Dollar saloon. The piano player was banging away and the noise was deafening even out here. It suited his needs; less chance of being spotted. He peered in through a grimy window and took about two seconds to spot his prey. A grin slid up his mouth for a moment. Still here, huh, boys? You're dumber than I thought. Of course, they probably think I'm dead.

Satisfied for the moment, he walked away and found a rooming house near the outskirts of town. Little chance the Wilson brothers would find out he was there. His information said they were living it up at the fanciest hotel in town and the Palace was on the opposite side of town.

*

Johnny shucked his shirt and looked at the scar with a grimace. Not for the appearance but for the reminder of who had it put there. All he really wanted to know was why. Now that he was here and knew they still were, too, he could take his time and watch them. Maybe their friends were here, too. And the woman. He frowned, still holding out hope she wasn't involved. There wasn't much he could do about it if she was. Maybe turn her over to the law. Maybe not. She had a kid, after all.

He flopped onto the bed on his back and cradled his hands behind his neck. Crossing his ankles, he stared at the ceiling. Just have to watch and wait. See if they have some kind of routine. See who they spend time with and figure out if it's the same four men. He really only cared about the one who'd shot him. If the others wanted to get in his way, that was fine. He didn't really care about the odds.

His eyes grew heavy and he fell asleep only to bolt upright in the bed an hour later. Covered in sweat and trembling all over, Johnny got to his feet and walked around the room, trying to shake it off. He splashed water on his face then downed a glass and still, he was shaky, his breaths ragged.

He walked over to the window and leaned against the frame, closing his eyes and trying to still his heart. It took entirely too long but, eventually, he was able to calm himself. Anger emerged from deep in his gut and he clenched his hands tightly.

This has to stop. I don't have time for this bullshit! I need to stay focused. He ordered himself to push it away and could almost hear an evil laugh inside his own head.

// It ain't goin away. Not ever again. //

"Shut up!" He ground the words out, only vaguely aware he was speaking aloud.

// 'Are you worried you might actually feel something?'//

Murdoch's voice in his head shook him to his core. Why the hell was he thinking about that?

// 'I can't forget about you. Even when you're dead, I will never forget you. I will never stop loving you. You are my son. It's that simple.' //

His hands went to the sides of his head and he squeezed hard, trying to squash the voice of his father. He can't love me. He doesn't even know me. Just because he sired me don't mean a thing.

// 'Oh, Johnny, don't you see? It's you who's in trouble and you don't even realize it.' //

"Yeah, I'm in trouble all right and it's all your damned fault, old man! Why can't you leave me alone? Even when you ain't here you're still houndin me. Why?"

He kept muttering and cussing for several more minutes until he didn't hear his father's voice in his head anymore. A vague, whispery ache fluttered in his chest as he realized this then, he found his resolve again. He had to wonder if he'd lose it all over and, if that time would prove to be disastrous.

*

He was getting tired of lurking in shadows and alleyways but he was gaining the information he needed so it was well worth the trouble. Mitch and Tom had a routine all right. Though it changed up a little from time to time, the one thing he could count on was them heading to the saloon every night. They liked the poker tables and Johnny recalled Mitch was a very good poker player. He won a lot of hands but he was also a charmer so his opponents never got too riled with him.

The other thing he noticed was two men the brothers played with every night. The same two, always there, waiting for the brothers to show. They wouldn't start playing until the Wilson's arrived then, they'd all sit with a few other gamers and generally wipe them out. They were cheating, of course. Not Mitch but the other two. He was sure Mitch knew it, though. Nice little set up. Let them do the cheating and Mitch keeps up the charm so nobody walks away pissed - or worse, decides not to walk away. Johnny wondered why they did it. They'd made quite a haul on that stage robbery. Had to be simply the thrill of getting away with something.

As the Wilsons entered the saloon this night, Johnny made his way to the Palace. Up the outside steps and around the balcony, he made his way to where he thought their rooms were. That had been a trick, finding out their room numbers but he'd stayed up last night and watched until the clerk left the desk for his supper. Well, Johnny assumed that's where he was going so he took the chance and eased to the desk, flipping quickly through the pages and finding their room numbers. Each man had two people listed in their rooms and that gave Johnny pause.

Now, as he moved quietly along the balcony, he was determined to find out who they were shacking up with. He had no qualms about peeking into the rooms, not caring what else he found as he counted off room numbers in his head. Soon, he located Mitch's room. He could tell by the jacket flung across the back of one chair which he recognized instantly. Mitch's favorite from leaner days. Now, he dressed a lot fancier. Johnny imagined he was going back to his plantation days with all that finery. Well, it'll be pretty to bury you in, I guess.

A door opened and he pressed himself against the outside wall then looked inside. His heart fell to his stomach as she walked in, dressed like she was goin to a ball or somethin. Sarah Harding or, whatever her real name was, swept into the room like a queen. The window was open and Johnny could hear her calling into the other room. Telling Hannah she'd be right back and picking up the child's doll from the floor. He watched as she left the main room and closed the door then he slumped his shoulders.

So, she's Mitch's woman. He'd never mentioned her and Johnny was getting a really bad feeling he'd been played like a fiddle all this time. Even before the stage heist, the Wilsons had been lyin their heads off. More determined than ever to make the woman a widow or, whatever she was to him, Johnny left the hotel and went back to his own room.

Quickly, he checked his rifle and Colt, making sure they were loaded then he stuffed two boxes of bullets in his saddlebags. Slinging the bags over his shoulder, he walked downstairs and headed to the livery. He saddled Barranca and led him to the back of the saloon, tying him off.

Johnny stood at the corner of the alleyway and boardwalk beside the Silver Dollar until his quarry started past him.

"Hey, Mister," he called softly. He saw the man tense as he turned and Johnny smiled to ease his uncertainty. "I've seen you in the saloon playin cards with them southern boys."

"What of it?"

Johnny lowered his eyes for a second. Now was not the time to get pissed off by some idiot. "Just though you ought to know those other two that play with them? They cheat. I've been watchin real close. Think all four of 'em are in on it. They always play together and I know for a fact, they're all friends."

The man scrutinized him and Johnny's eyes never wavered. "Why are you telling me this?"

He shrugged and leaned against the post. "I hate cheaters. Now, I ain't played with 'em but, if I did and found out they were cheatin ... well," he drew out the word, "let's just say somebody would be feelin more air goin through 'em than before."

The man smiled grimly and Johnny knew he had him. This one would not back away, he'd seen that right off. "How are they cheating?"

"They're pretty slick. Deal off the bottom but, the shorter one likes to hold cards in his sleeve. But, hey, if you don't believe me, watch real close. You'll see it."

The man nodded, his hand going to pat his holster. "Thanks, Mister ..."

Johnny just smiled and said nothing as the man smirked a little and headed inside.

*

Chapter 15

// so tired of the straight line
and everywhere you turn
there's vultures and thieves at your back

Angel

Sarh Maclachlin //

He positioned himself back in the alley and watched the poker game go on for about half an hour. He could tell his quarry was watching and he smiled. He'd picked the right man for this, unwitting as he was. Johnny could tell he was one not to be messed with. A tough man without fear. Just who he needed at that table. If he'd figured it right, neither Mitch or Tom would want to get in the middle of this.

Suddenly, he perked up as the voices at the table grew louder. He watched as his quarry grabbed one of the men's arm and pulled his sleeve up, revealing the ace of hearts. Johnny grinned and waited.

More heated words were exchanged, chairs scraped across the wooden floor as the two men stood and faced off. The cheater's friend tried to intervene, calm things down but there was no stopping this now. Johnny looked at Mitch, his face expressing surprise, could even hear him say how he hated cheating. Tom's face revealed nothing but fear which was about normal in Johnny's estimation. The kid never had a problem with blood as long as it didn't get too close to his own hands. His brother had always protected him too much.

The gunfire resounded in the now silent saloon and, as the smoke cleared, the cheater fell to the ground. His partner jumped from his chair, gun drawn but it did him no good. He, too, fell next to his friend and Johnny felt a little cheated himself when he saw the white scar on the man's temple. The man who had shot him at the stage. He sighed.

Johnny's pawn stared hard at Mitch and Tom and questioned their involvement but, as Johnny knew, Mitch quelled any further potential violence. He swore on all that was holy and his own mother's grave that he and his brother knew nothing of the duplicity and even thanked the man for revealing the two sharks who now lay dead at his feet.

Johnny didn't hang around any longer. There was no evidence Mitch and Tom were cheating and he figured his pawn was a fair man. He headed to Barranca and led him down the alley and to the back of the Palace. Now, it was his turn.

He climbed up a trellis to the balcony and made his way to Mitch's room, sliding the window open easily and stepping into the room. He found a comfortable position behind the door to the bedroom and waited for her.

*

The door opened and Sarah walked through with one last goodnight to her daughter. Johnny could hear the child respond sleepily as Sarah closed the door.

He moved quickly, stepping behind her and putting a hand over her mouth. She sucked in a breath and started to struggle until she heard the voice.


"Don't want to scare Hannah now. Just relax. I ain't gonna hurt you." He let go and took hold of her arm, turning her to face him.

"Johnny!" It was a mere whisper but, still, he held a finger up in warning.

"Surprised to see me still alive, Sarah? Or is that even your real name?"

She could only stare at him in shock.

Johnny guided her to the settee and sat her down. "Get hold of yourself, woman. I want answers and you're gonna give them to me. If you lie to me, I'll know it. Now, tell me everything."

She seemed to get hold of herself and pulled her shoulders back, inhaling deeply and wringing her hands in her lap. "What did you want to know?"

He ground his teeth for a second, praying she didn't piss him off too much. He couldn't say what he'd do to her right then. He sat down in a chair across from her, close enough to be in arms reach and still with an eye to the door. "All of it. What you are to Mitch. Why he set me up. Start talkin."

"He's my husband."

"Hannah his?"

"Of course!"

He smirked. "It's a little late to be actin insulted, Sarah. I can figure out the stage robberies. I can see where you'd be the perfect inside man. One hell of a performance, too. What I can't figure out is why the hell you dragged me into it."

She looked away, her head turning toward the door.

"If he walks in here, he's dead, so you best get it said."

She looked sharply at him and he saw the true woman she was. Not one to be trusted, probably not even by her old man. He sure as hell wasn't gonna trust her.

"It wasn't Mitch's idea. One of his partners heard you were back around the border and came up with the idea. He knew you and Mitch were on good terms. He wanted you dead. That was always part of the plan; to kill you during the robbery."

Johnny sat back, speechless for just a second. "Who?"

"His name is Riley. Pete Riley."

He simply nodded, unsurprised really. Then a frown came to his brow. "He wasn't at the robbery so how many are in this little gang?"

"Seven. Pete's the only one who wasn't there that day. He said if you saw him, it would give it away."

"No, he's a back-shootin coward who always gets other people to do his dirty work for him then takes the credit." He sighed loudly and figured that was one more man to take care of now. Pete Riley was as he'd said. A coward of the worst kind. Always in the background so he didn't get caught; always tellin everyone else what to do and thinking he was some great brain. Well, Johnny had never bought it but the mistake Pete made was sending his own brother after Madrid two years ago. Now, little brother was roasting in hell and Pete laid all the blame at Johnny's feet instead of his own.

Of course, he figured losin a brother wasn't the real reason Pete was pissed. Johnny knew it was more because he'd made it his business to interfere in Pete's little 'business deal' at the time.

"Where's the rest of the stage money?"

Sarah bowed her head and didn't speak.

"Don't sit there thinkin up lies, Sarah. Where is it?" His tone was harsh enough to bring her eyes back up, fear shining through unshed tears.

"Our take is in a carpet bag in the bedroom. Everyone has their own. I don't know what they've done."

"There's two at the saloon with Mitch and Tom. What about the others?" He didn't think she needed to know those two were dead just yet.

"They took off after the robbery. Said they were going to South America. Pete's in Monterey, California. His mother lives there. He said he was going to lay low for about six months." She reached out and took his hand. "Johnny, please, it was never Mitch's idea to kill you."

"Yeah? He coulda said no."

She lowered her eyes and took her hand back. "What will you do?"

He stood up and walked to the door. "Guess I'm goin to Monterey. It's time for me and Pete to have this out once and for all."

"And Mitch?"

Johnny stared at her coldly as she stood to face him. He said nothing and opened the door then paused and looked back at her. "I was never here."

Sarah's face fell into pure relief, the tears finally falling as she readily nodded her head in agreement.

*

Johnny closed the door and sighed. If she wanted to believe her husband was gonna live through this night, so be it. He knew she'd try to warn him otherwise so it was best to keep her out of the line of fire. He just had two to deal with now then, he was going to California. Shit! That was about a days ride from Lancer. Well, tough! He had to go.

He walked downstairs and out the front door, no longer caring who saw him. The Rangers were off chasing some hombre who'd killed the sheriff last week so he had no worries about that. There was no other law in Laredo right now. He figured he'd wait for them to come out of the saloon. Nothing said Sarah wasn't lyin about those other two or, Pete for that matter. He'd get his answers though and he knew exactly who he'd get them from.

He quickly retrieved Barranca, tying him off in front of the hotel. Then, he sat on the steps and stared at the saloon two doors down and across the street. He was almost surprised the Wilsons hadn't left after the shootings in there but, Mitch never let much interrupt his fun.

 

Half an hour later, the brothers emerged not quite so happy as they'd been previous nights. Johnny stood up and stepped into the street, waiting for them to see him. They were only ten feet away when Mitch finally noticed.


"Slippin there, Mitch. You shoulda spotted me the minute you walked out that door."

"Johnny!" Tom exclaimed, his eyes wide as if seeing a ghost.

Johnny only gave him a cursory glance before focusing back on the older brother.

"Damn, Johnny. I thought you was dead." Mitch almost smiled at the man.

"That was the plan, wasn't it? At least, that was Pete's plan. Hard to believe you fell in with that cobarde, Mitch. Disappoints the hell out of me." He could see the surprise in both mens faces and waited for the information to register. Mitch scowled and opened his mouth but Johnny cut him off.

"She's alright. She'll stay that way, too, as long as you and me can come to an understanding."

Warily, the man regarded the gunfighter, unconsciously stepping a little to his right to block his younger brother. "What kind of understanding?"

"Tell me where Pete is."

It didn't take a second for Mitch to give the man up. "Monterey with his mama." There was a smirk in his voice and on his face.

"And the others?"

"Well, two of them just got themselves killed in the saloon for cheating at cards. The other two headed for South America."

Johnny nodded, as satisfied as he could be the man was telling the truth. They all believed him dead so there'd be no reason to come up with a story should he ever catch up to them. And, there was no one else they would need to lie to that he knew of. A soft sort of half-smile came across his face.

"You do better when your pockets are emptier, Mitch. I've been watching you for three days and you never even knew it. I told that man he was bein cheated by your partners at the table. I sent him in there to take care of your friends." The word friends tasted bitter on his tongue. He had at one time considered Mitch a friend.

Genuine suprise stole across Mitch Wilson's face then, a kind of appreciation replaced it. "You always were smart, Johnny. Always strategizing, always thinking every part of a thing through."

"Not always. I trusted you and that was a big mistake."

Mitch's eyes flickered for a minute. "I do regret that but, Pete's my partner."

"Not anymore."

Wilson stiffened a little at the hard words, understanding the implication. "Tom didn't have anything to do with it."

Johnny smiled again. "No? You didn't tell him what the game was? Don't sound like you, Mitch."

"Stop it, Mitch. I knew all about it, Johnny. I didn't like it much either but, like my brother said, Pete's our partner. We had to go along with him." Tom stepped up to stand beside his brother, taking a stance that was undeniable in its meaning.

"There's always a choice, Tom. You made yours now, you're gonna have to deal with the consequences. This is what happens when you cross me. This is where it ends."

*

Schooled as he'd been at his brother's knee, Tom Wilson was still just a kid. A brash, overzealous and impatient kid. He made his move and died before his gun cleared leather.

Johnny fanned the hammer and took Tom down then turned to Mitch, firing rapidly four more times. Mitch got off a shot but it went astray, hitting the dirt five feet from Johnny. He staggered, clutching his gut as he made himself turn toward his brother. He went to his knees and leaned over Tom's body, the gun falling from his hand with a puff of dust as it hit the ground.

He was a stubborn man, a hard man and he would not admit defeat until he saw Tom with his own eyes.

Johnny walked over and kicked his gun away then reached over him and picked Tom's up, tossing it aside. "I'll be sure and send Pete your regards. He'll be real happy to know how loyal you were to him. But, just so you know, he would never have done the same for you, Mitch. You backed the wrong horse."

Mitch, sucking for the tiniest breath, managed to look up at Johnny. "You killed Tom."

"Yeah, and I'm gonna kill Pete and I'm gonna turn your pretty little wife over to the law, too." He knelt down eye level with the man. "You should've known not to ever fuck with me, Mitch."

"You're right. I shoulda ... known." He ground the words out, hatred firing in his eyes then, the fire went out and Mitch slumped over his brother's body.  

Johnny stood and looked at the crowd gathered along the street watching the drama unfold. There was an increase in the noise behind him and he turned to see people being pushed aside. He sucked in a breath and waited for her to appear.

Sarah shouldered her way through the throng of people then stopped in her tracks when she saw her husband in the dust. Disbelief colored her face then she settled her gaze on Johnny. Staggering a little, she approached him.

"You said you wouldn't..."

"No, I didn't."

She swallowed harshly as tears rolled down her cheeks then she went to her husband, kneeling over his body and wailing. Johnny watched her then felt the crowd change. He decided he needed to clear the air or get hung.

"Over a month ago, these two men and four others robbed a stage in California. They shot me and got away with sixty thousand dollars in payroll. Part of that money is in their hotel room right now. This woman was in on it with them. She was on the stage with me and knew part of the plan was to kill me. I know the Rangers are out on a posse. If someone wants to lock her up, go ahead."

He didn't wait for their reaction, knowing it was best to get out of there while they were still thinking it through. Johnny walked toward the hotel, the crowd parting to get out of his way. He was still holding his gun and exuding an air of confidence that was unshakeable.  

He mounted up and spurred Barranca out of town at a gallop. He'd told Mitch he was gonna take her to jail but he'd never really considered it an option. No matter what else she was or what she'd done, she still had a child to take care of. He could only hope she changed her ways for Hannah's sake. It wasn't his business or his call to make, however. He headed back to California.

*

He thought about the time thing again. As fast as the trip to Laredo had seemed, heading to California seemed even quicker. He supposed it was because he didn't want to be there. But, that's where Pete was, supposedly, and he had a debt to pay. Well, what were the chances of running into them in Monterey? It wasn't a cowtown and he was sure they would have no reason for being in the little seaside city.

It wasn't as if he was avoiding them, he told himself. If he saw them, he saw them. He would simply walk away again. No big deal.

// 'Is that what you really want? To be all alone in the world?' //

Johnny closed his eyes as his brother's voice invaded his thoughts. He opened them and looked around him. The trail was an easy one, the landscape lush and green and it was quiet. So quiet, he thought he could hear his own heartbeat. He was alone out here. Not a farm or ranch or anything for miles around. Alone.

// 'You may not live with us, may not want the same life we have but we are still family, Johnny.' //

He snorted at that. Ain't like I can drop ya a letter and wait for a reply. He sighed. Well, I guess I could have but, shit! I just want to be left alone.

// 'I was just wondering if anything made you happy. Do you ever smile? I mean a real smile and not that malicious grin you like so well?' //

That one had gotten to him. Scott knew better, had seen him smile and laugh. They'd had some good times together, hadn't they? Sure, they had. It just didn't last. Nothing lasts.

// 'All I have *ever* tried to do is help you. Get to know you and try to be a brother to you. But, you turned your back on all of it, Johnny. You ran away.' //

Now, *that* was a load of bullshit if he'd ever heard it. He hadn't run. He'd left. There was a difference. Was a man supposed to stay where he wasn't happy? Was he supposed to live a life he didn't want just to please someone else? Was he supposed to give up his freedom? Scott had fought for freedom. He should understand best. He'd thought his brother did understand. He sure seemed to at the time. But, Scott was really pissed at him now so, he reckoned he didn't really mean it. Not all of it, anyway.

Johnny was pretty sure he'd meant some of it. He knew Scott wanted nothing to do with him. Had said he didn't want him to come back. Maybe, he shoulda told the old man that. If Scott told Murdoch, then the old man would have given this up long ago, he was convinced of that.

What the fuck am I doing? Trying to get myself killed? Out here thinking about all this crazy shit when I should be payin attention to what's around me. He sighed and looked around again. There ain't nothin around me.

He reined to a stop and patted Barranca's neck then just sat there for a minute and listened to the silence. He heard the birds, the insects, a toadfrog off to the right. Must be water over there. A pond cause there's no sound of running water. Still, it was very quiet. A chill went though him and he smirked. Someone walkin over my grave. The smirk left. An unmarked grave, most likely. Or, maybe, just my name if I'm lucky.

He sighed, anger and annoyance welling in him. Why was he thinking about them? Because he was so close, that's why. Still, that shouldn't matter. He hadn't given them a thought when he'd set out on that stage to Stockton. Not until he saw Sam.

What he would never get was why Murdoch had tried so damned hard with him. He knew he was no prize. Love! That old man didn't know anything about him. He couldn't possibly love him. He'd never get that.

The only thing he knew for sure was he was losing his ability to make it all go away. The nightmares were still haunting him, leaving him tired and unrested and that was never good. He needed to be sharp, needed to take care of Pete and go on his way.

Maybe, head back into Mexico. Stay down there for a while. He'd been avoiding the place, just like that padre had said. What was his name? Matteo. Yeah, that was it. Well, maybe he had been but he didn't want people thinking they could just come cryin to him and he'd put his neck on the line again. Being a minute from losing his life in front of that firing sqaud had been a real dose of reality.

He hadn't been that scared since ... he shook his head. Nope. Not goin there. Let's just say I ain't been that scared in a long time. Been scared enough but nothing like that. When you know there's no hope, no way to get out of a thing; when you know for a pure fact you're going to die in the next minute, that's real fear.

He had to wonder at the why of it. He'd always thought he had accepted death as being inevitable and that it would come to him sooner rather than later. He thought he had dealt with that, faced it and then went on with his life. But, maybe he hadn't, really. Maybe you can't ever really face a thing until it happens. And, if so, then he'd failed miserably.

No, he shook his head. I didn't fail. I was scared but I didn't beg, I didn't cry, I didn't whine. I stood up and was ready to face that firing squad. No matter my knees were shakin. No matter my heart was about to pound out of my chest. It didn't show on my face and that's what counts. Maybe there is no way not to be scared of a thing like that. Maybe, just not showing the fear is enough.

Maybe, that's what real grit is.

*

Johnny rode into Monterey slowly. He'd never been here and didn't know a soul save the one he was here to kill. Didn't know how to find him, really, but he figured it wouldn't be too hard. Pete might be layin low and this was a good place to do it but the man was no monk. Matter of fact, Pete's favorite pasttime was whores. He smiled a little. He might have to visit more than one brothel to find the man but, well, he'd have to suck it up.

He laughed softly to himself at that then found the livery. He asked about a hotel, followed the directions and checked in. He figured one of the less fancy saloons to ask about brothels in the area. Pete preferred that to the saloon girls. Always said it was too noisy in the saloon and he liked it quiet when he bedded a woman. Johnny never understood that. He didn't give a rat's ass how noisy it was as long as he got what he wanted.

He fed himself then sauntered around town, heading for the wharf where his instincts pulled him. He let himself just walk until his inner voice told him to stop. He entered the Lucky Chance saloon on high alert.

It was a shit hole if ever he saw one and he figured it was the perfect place to get some information. He sidled up to the bar and ordered a beer then turned aside so he could check the place out. There weren't many men in the place and most of them looked ready to pass out already.

He put a coin on the bar as the beer was served then nodded to the barkeep. "I'm new in town. Lookin for some female company."

"Some of the saloons around here have women."

"Nah, what about a bordello?"

The man's eyes raked over him. "Depends on what kind of woman ya want. Most of 'em don't mix. Ya got Chinese, Mexican and white."

Johnny thought about that. Not Chinese. He didn't think Pete went for that. "Mexican."

"There's one. It's about two blocks up, take a left then three blocks down. It's kinda orange colored. Weird looking, if ya ask me."

"I didn't." Johnny's voice brought the man's eyes to his own and they stared at each other until the barkeep shrugged and walked away. Johnny finished his beer quickly and left.

Kinda orange colored. Fuckin idiot. Lives in California and don't know shit. Why do gringos think everything should be what they want? Funny how they forget this was Mexico for a helluva lot longer than it's been America. He sighed as he walked and shook it off. It wasn't worth getting himself all worked up over.

He found the bordello and wondered if he could really be that lucky to find Pete the first night. He'd love that. He'd love to get the hell out of here tonight.

He opened the door and smiled, taken back to another place, another brothel, another incredible experience.

*

The place was colorful though the lighting was low. But it was a subtle muting, not simply lowering the wicks of lamps. Scarves of all colors covered the lamps, giving off a kind of glowing effect. Mexican rugs draped the walls, pottery and knickknacks lined a shelf to one side of the room. Three sofas, all red, sat in the front room with chairs scattered about. The middle of the floor was left unencumbered by furniture, a large woven rug covering the hardwood.

The aroma of food permeated the place and he inhaled deeply of the familiar scents. Dios! It took him back in time.

"Buenos sartes, Senor."

Johnny turned, removing his hat as the raven-haired woman stepped into the room. She wore a turquoise dress that hung just below the knee. Black stockings covered her legs and she wore the black shoes of a fandango dancer. Her eyes were ebony; her skin flawlessly brown. He swallowed and nodded.

"Buenos sartes, Senorita."

She smiled at him then, straight ridiculously white teeth glowing in the darker room. "You are hungry?"

"Huh? Oh, no, ma'am." He snapped back to reality when she laughed softly, realizing what she meant now. He could swear he almost blushed. Damn! "That is, a friend told me about the place. Said he came here a lot and I was looking for him."

She walked further into the room, her hips swaying as if she were listening to some music only she could hear. She turned to face him, mere inches from him now. She pouted her full lips, her eyes dancing with delight. "It is a man you are looking for only?"

"No! I mean, he's just a friend. I figured he'd be here or someplace like it." Goddammit! She was really good at this. He could feel the effect she was having on him and thought he might have to worry about Pete tomorrow.

She slid her hand down the front of his shirt, stopping when she got to his belt buckle.

Johnny backed away and walked around the room, trying to get his bearings. "Por favor, Senorita. Es muy importante."

"What is your friend's name."

He turned back, feeling the difference in her. She no longer played with him and he was grateful, giving her a soft, slow smile. "Pete Riley."

"A gringo."

"Si, I'm afraid so," he laughed softly.

"He comes here but not yet tonight." His disappointment was obvious and she advanced toward him again. "Perhaps, you can while away the time waiting for him?" Her hand came up his chest again, this time, delving underneath the fabric.

Johnny's heart raced as her touch set him afire. "With you?"

She smiled seductively. "If you like."

For the first time in a very long time, Johnny kissed a whore. He usually didn't, knowing where their mouths ended up most times but, this woman made him feel drunk. And, hell yes, he was starving! He took her in his arms and pulled her hard against his body. She leaned into him, allowing his kiss, his touch and before long, he swept her up in his arms and carried her upstairs.

*

Johnny lay in the bed, Serena nestled on his chest. He played with her soft black hair distractedly as he stared at the ceiling, trying to figure out what the hell he was looking at.

"What is that?"

She looked at him then at the ceiling and laughed. "It is a painting of the Archangle Michael at war. I don't know much about it."

"That's strange."

"Si, but it has always been there. Why do you really want this Pete Riley?"

He looked at her for a long moment. "Thought I'd give him one more chance. He tried to have me killed a while back. I plan on returning the favor only, I don't plan on missing."

She simply nodded and laid her head back on his chest. "He may be here by now. He always sees Rosita on Saturdays. He is usually here until nearly dawn." Looking up again, her eyes took on a pleading quality. "Por favor, do not kill him here. It will bring the law."

He smiled and caressed her cheek then moved his hand behind her neck, wrapping a handful of her hair into a gentle fist. "I won't. Might be here til dawn myself." He pulled her head down and kissed her, igniting her passion once more.

*

She wrapped a blanket around her shoulders as she watched him get dressed, her eyes roving over every inch of his body. With a resigned sigh, she leaned back against the headboard.

"He will leave by the back door. It leads to an alley. He will take it east until he gets to Main Street."

"Gracias, querida."

"If you are ever in Monterey again, Johnny Madrid, come see me."

He turned and looked at her with some surprise then a grin slid on his face. "I never told you my name."

Shrugging, she let the blanket fall away, exposing her firm breasts. "You did not have to. You are well-known."

Johnny walked over to the bed and put one knee on the mattress, leaning over her. He kissed her and she wrapped her arms around his neck, pulling him in. Eventually, he had to pull away or he may never leave. Breathing a little hard, he rested his forehead against hers. "Es muy hermosa, querida. Recordare siempre."

"Vuelve aqui," she whispered.

He smiled and nodded as he stood up and grabbed his hat from the dresser, replacing it in one easy move with money. Without another word, he left her room and headed downstairs.

*

Out on the boardwalk, Johnny inhaled deeply of the pre-dawn air. The fog had rolled in and he smiled. It was thick and hard to see through but it was perfect for his purposes. Moving with determination, he headed for Main Street then turned south and found the alleyway. He walked in a few feet and found a deep-set doorway. Slipping into it, he waited for his prey, hoping he hadn't missed him and hoping Serena stayed in her bed.

It wasn't that he didn't trust her but, well, he didn't trust her. She was an incredible lay, the best he'd had in a long time, but she was a woman and she'd want to warn her friend that her best customer might not be coming back. There was nothing he could do about that now so he settled in and hoped he could stay awake. He was worn out and starving for some good food.

He didn't have to wait long, maybe ten minutes, when he heard boots on cobblestone walking toward him. The steps were easy, the walker taking his time, unalarmed. He smiled and pulled his gun from the holster.

Pete Riley walked along the alleyway, not a care in the world. He wore a smile on his face and would have broken into song if not for the early hour. Rosita always made him feel this way. If she wasn't a whore, he'd ask her to marry him. Hell, he just might anyway. He was almost to Main Street when he was stopped cold by a familiar voice.

"I've heard that if you want a thing done right, you should do it yourself."

Pete turned slowly, his heart nearly stopped in his chest. His eyes found the gunfighter's and he shrank back a step.

"Don't run, Pete. I got no problems shootin you in the back."

"Johnny! What're you doin in these parts?"

"Livin, no thanks to you. Don't try to worm your way out of it, Pete."

"What're ya talking about? I ain't done nothin."

"I know. You never do anything. You just have other people do it for you - or try to. Like your brother."

Pete's face turned red with anger and he forgot himself for a minute, taking a menacing step forward.

Johnny laughed at the stance and shook his head. "You ain't got the guts. But, if ya want to give it a go, drop the gunbelt and we'll see who lasts longest with our fists."

"You had no call to kill Billy."

"Yeah, I did, cause he tried to kill me on your orders. I'm done talkin to you. I owe you and I always pay my debts. You had me laid up for a good while, cost me potential jobs and that means money in my pocket. While you were here whorin it up, I was finding out all about your little gang. By the way, the only two left breathin are the ones I didn't find - yet. Mitch and Tom and them other two are dead."

"The others are in South America. You won't find them." Pete smirked. He shouldn't have done that.

"Don't need to. I got what I want. You."

Pete saw the eyes narrow, the gun level and the finger pressure apply and he drew his gun. Or tried to. He fell to the ground, the shot resounding hollowly off the brick walls and cobblestone street. A dog barked, then another and the peace of early morning was broken. Johnny walked over and took his gun from his hand, tossing it down the alley. It clattered then skidded to a stop.

"I'll tell you what I told Mitch as I was leanin over his dyin ass. It don't pay to fuck with me." Johnny grabbed Pete's hat and threw it across his face then stood for a second and watched the crimson stain spread out over his chest. "Bastard!" He spat on the ground next to Pete then walked away.

He could hear people now, running toward the alley as he turned onto a side street and made his way back to his hotel.

*

Chapter 16

He decided he wouldn't be able to sleep until he got some food in him but he was too tired to wander far. He settled for the hotel dining room. It was passable if bland then he went to his room and laid down. He was almost asleep when he felt it.

He sat up quickly, a little disoriented as the bed shook. Hell, that shouldn't happen when I'm alone. His quirky thought died there as he realized what was happening. He got up and walked to the door, opening it and standing within the frame, holding on and waiting to see how bad it got.

People were standing in doorways all along the hall clinging to each other and to their children. No one was panicking, though. They all seemed a little shocked. Must not live around here, Johnny thought.

It stopped then, just a little rattle and he sighed with relief then hoped that was all there was to it. Just a little tremor. They happened all the time. He leaned back and nodded to a man across from him who was mimicking his actions. The poor fella was pale as a ghost.

After five minutes, he reckoned it was safe enough and he headed back to bed. Falling onto the mattress, he was asleep in less than a minute.

When he awoke the shadows were long across the floor. He sighed and scrubbed at his face. Damn! He hadn't wanted to sleep so late but there was nothing he could do about that so he washed up and straightened his clothes then packed his gear. He wasn't about to spend another night here and figured the trail was better than stickin around a town where he'd just killed a man. Not smart so he slung his saddlebags over his shoulder and headed downstairs to find a decent place to eat before he left.

As he entered the lobby, he knew something was wrong. There were throngs of people hanging around, spilling into the restaurant and onto the street. He walked up to the clerk and laid a dollar on the counter, curious as all hell.

"Checkin out. What's goin on?"

"Didn't you hear?"

He smirked. "Would I be askin if I did?"

The man smiled nervously then brightened at the idea of getting to tell someone all the news. "Well, it's just awful. That tremor we had this morning was just an off-shoot. There was a huge earthquake not far from here. The news is coming in slowly but it sounds like it was pretty bad."

Johnny sighed. He hated people who got off on telling bad news. "Where did it hit?"

"San Joaquin Valley. I hear there's an awful ..."

Johnny didn't hear anymore. He shoved his way through the crowd, shouting at everyone to get the hell out of his way and cursing to beat the band. He made it to the street and ran to the livery. He saddled Barranca himself and tossed a coin at the liveryman.

"Somethin on fire?" the man asked.

"Gotta get to Morro Coyo."

"I wouldn't, son. I hear the quake hit hard there."

Johnny stopped and looked at him. "I know."

He received a sympathetic look from the man. "I hope your folks are okay."

It stunned him for a split second but he only nodded and mounted up, galloping out of town to the east. He didn't let himself think about it. The liveryman's words stuck in his head but he just couldn't go any further than that. He knew what he was doing was crazy but he couldn't stop himself and, anyway, he didn't want to.

Heart in throat, he tore through the night, pressing Barranca to his limits.

*

Johnny had seen devastation before. Rurale raids that left villages in ash, range wars that left little if anything standing. This looked the same. Like a war had happened. Morro Coyo was flattened. Not a single building was left standing upright. Many were listing to one side or the other. It was as if a giant hand had come down from the heavens and simply crushed the town like a bug.

People stood or sat in the street, many weeping. Men and women alike cried for the loss. He didn't want to think of how many people had died. The tremor hit Monterey around seven o'clock. The quake must have hit maybe an hour earlier. Townspeople would have still been home. It had been Sunday and they'd apparently not yet made it to church. He didn't know if that made it better or worse. The church was history. It's small bell tower lying off to the side as if it had simply leapt to try and get free. The bell was still inside it which he found more odd than anything.

Now, a day later, no one seemed to be functioning at all. No one seemed to be trying to rescue anyone. He saw children staring into space, their faces covered in filth, many still in their night clothes. Just standing there. In shock, he knew. Adults wandered in the streets or sat around looking lost and defeated. No one looked up at him. They didn't even seem to see him ride by. He spied Senor Baldemero sitting in the street in front of his store clutching something to his chest. He couldn't tell what it was but it didn't escape his notice that Senora Baldemero was no where in sight.

He hated leaving them there but he had to get to Lancer first. Maybe then, he could come back and help out. Maybe. It all depended on what he found at the ranch. A sharp pain seared through his gut and he grimaced as he pushed back the macabre visions.

When he got to the edge of town, he thought about Sam Jenkins and sucked in a breath. Reining to the right, he headed to the man's house then pulled up quickly. Barranca snorted and side-stepped in protest but Johnny couldn't think about that right now. The doctor's office leaned into itself. He could hear the creaking as the weight warred against it, like a house of cards, ready to completely fall in at any second.

He dismounted and left Barranca stand then made his way cautiously to a large opening that used to be a front wall. He peered inside but could see only wreckage.

"Sam?" He stepped gingerly inside, wobbling as his foot landed on something. He readjusted his stance then tried again, louder. "Sam!"

"Here."

His head jerked to the left as he crouched down, trying to see through the dust still hanging thick in the air. "Where?"

"Over here!"

Trying not to breath too deeply, he tied his bandana over his mouth and nose to avoid breathing in the heavy dust then he saw something shift. "Don't move! It's not stable. Hang on, I'm coming," he ordered, his voice muffled by the cloth.

He took each step as if he might set off an explosion and slowly made his way to the once moving piece of debris. He cleared a path as he went, pushing demolished furniture and part of the ceiling aside to make way. When he got close enough, he saw the debris was part of the wall.

Johnny lifted the wreckage and pushed it back with a mighty heave. It leaned precariously and he knew time was not on his side. He knelt down and grabbed the man under the arms then stopped when Sam cried out in pain.

"I'm sorry but we have to get out of here. I don't know how bad you're hurt but it's gonna be a lot worse if we don't move now."

"It's just my arm, I think. It's broken. Just do it and don't worry about me yelping."

Sam's voice was strained but Johnny had to give the man credit for being so tough. He simply nodded and pulled him to his feet then lowered him over his shoulder and carried him outside. He settled the man on the ground in the street then squatted beside him, pulling the bandana away and checking him out.

"Johnny?"

He looked up and met the man's stunned gaze with a smile. "Surprised?"

"Very."

"Well, it's broken alright. Let me get a sling fashioned." He went to his saddlebags and produced a shirt, tearing it into as long a strip as he could then tying it off and easing Sam's left arm into it. He shook his head. It was his only spare shirt. Some day he might wise up and buy more than one extra.

"How bad is it? The town, I mean."

Johnny didn't look at him. "It's gone. Just about completely flattened. Everyone is just standing or sittin around crying or starin into space. No one has tried to do a damned thing! It's been a whole day. What's the matter with them?"

Sam shook his head sadly. "They're all in shock, I suppose. What about the rest of the valley?"

"I don't know. I came here first. I was in Monterey when I heard." He stopped and sighed as he sat back on his heels. "That should hold you for a while. Sam, I'm goin to Lancer. If they managed to survive, it's the best place to find some help."

"Can you take me with you? If we can use the ranch, I'll need to set up a sort of hospital. We need more help than we have, for sure."

Johnny shook his head. "Everyone in Monterey heard about it. Surely they'll send help - or someone will. But, I don't know if you can make it to Lancer."

"I'll make it. Just get me on a horse."

He snorted. "You'll be ridin with me. There ain't no other horses from what I seen. They're either dead or long gone. Come on, we'll manage."

Sam nodded as Johnny helped him to his feet. He swayed a little then righted himself and drew in a deep breath. "We should try to find someone to organize these folks before we leave."

Johnny started to protest but he knew the man was right. They couldn't leave these people just wandering the streets. He chewed his lip for a second. He'd never really gotten to know the townsfolk. "Who?"

"Well, we have a sheriff now. He'd be the best bet unless..." he didn't finish but he did notice the look of surprise on Johnny's face and he almost smiled.

*

"Where was his office?"

Sam grimaced at the use of the past tense. He couldn't see much of Morro Coyo from where they stood and had hoped Johnny exaggerated his report. Obviously, he hadn't. "Follow me."

Johnny walked beside him, paying more mind to Sam's gait than where they were going. The man was paler than usual and seemed to lose even more color the more he took in of the carnage. Johnny let his hand slide under the other man's arm casually. Sam didn't seem to notice.

They arrived at a small building beside the land office and Sam simply stared. It looked like a pile of kindling.

"Stay here," Johnny said softly then went to investigate. He came back shortly. "No one in there. Where's he live?"

"He hasn't been here long. He was staying at the hotel." Sam turned to his right where the establisment once stood. "God in heaven," he whispered.

Johnny took his arm again and led him to the boardwalk, easing him to sit. "Stay here and I'll try to find him. What's his name?"

Sam shook his head, trying to clear it. "Uh, Gabe Nichols."

He looked around the immediate area and spied the broken out window of Baldemero's. Without hesitation, Johnny climbed inside and found a canteen then filled it from a pump at the horse trough. "Here, drink some of this and rest while I find this sheriff."

He crossed the street, looking at the people sitting around and shaking his head with some disgust. He knew they had to be devastated but, Christ! Where was their guts? He didn't linger on the thought long, more impatient to find this sheriff or someone to get these people to *do* something.

Inside the hotel, Johnny picked his way around the debris, calling out for anyone to answer him. He stopped abruptly and cocked his head to the side, then called out again. He heard a muffled response to his right and went into the restaurant area, shoving tables aside and yelling out.

"Here! Over here!"

Johnny found the man stuck under a table and a large shelf that had once been nailed to the wall. He leaned down and peered underneath. "I don't suppose you're the sheriff?"

"I am. Help me outta here. Been layin here for a whole damned day!"

Johnny cocked a brow and moved the shelf with quite some effort. The table was much easier. He pulled the man to his feet and took a long look at him. "You hurt?"

"Nah," he grumbled as he dusted himself off. "Just mad as hell. Nobody has been in here. You'd think this is one of the first places they'd start lookin for survivors!"

"Maybe, if anyone was actually lookin. That's why I came lookin for you. They're all just wanderin around out there like they've lost their damned minds. You need to get these people organized, Sheriff."

Gabe looked him over with a narrow gaze. "And who are you?"

"Johnny Madrid. I'm headin out to the Lancer ranch and I'm takin the doc with me. If there's anything left out there, we'll send you some help."

He started to ask. Really wanted to know why a gunfighter gave a damn about any of this but Gabe Nichols was a practical, no-nonsense man and he knew where his priorities were. "Seen any horses?"

"Just mine. I'll try to round some up for ya but I don't know how long it'll take. Anyways, you'll have your hands full here."

"We probably need the doc."

Johnny sighed, tired of wasting time. "He wants to go there. Said he could set up a hospital or somethin. It's a better location for the whole valley. Don't know how bad Spanish Wells or Green River were hit let alone the ranches and farms."

The sheriff stared at him for a few seconds then nodded his head. "Reckon that's the sensible thing ta do. Doc's okay, then?"

"Nope. Broke his arm but he's a wiry cuss. Can't tell him what to do." Johnny grinned then turned and walked out.

Gabe followed, spoke with Sam Jenkins for several minutes then set about his job. All the while, Johnny was drumming his fingers on his thigh and shifting from one foot to the other. Another minute and he would've left Sam where he was.

*

Sam was trying to stay conscious and he knew he was leaning too hard against Johnny. The young man was trying to support his broken arm with one hand while guiding the horse with the other. It couldn't be easy. The harder he leaned back against Johnny's chest the more he could feel the man's heartbeat. And the closer they got to Lancer, the faster that heart rate.

"What are you thinking, son?"

"I'm thinkin if Lancer survived, they would've been in town helping out."

"If the ranch was damaged, that doesn't mean your family didn't survive. Maybe they just have too much to deal with for now."

"No, Sam. Murdoch would have sent *someone* to town."

He knew Johnny was right. His own heart was thumping faster at the thought of what they might find at the ranch.

"I ain't seen no one."

Sam tried to look around but gave that idea up instantly as his head protested the movement. He knew he had a concussion but he knew it wasn't severe. Besides, he trusted Johnny. That thought fairly took his breath away. He trusted Johnny? Yes, he did. How odd?

"You must have rode like the devil to get here so quickly."

Johnny glanced down at him and didn't answer for a long beat. "Rode through the night. I didn't hear about it til late afternoon. I was ... I slept in."

"Still, that's a good distance. I hope this animal can handle my extra load."

Johnny smiled at that. He knew he'd put Barranca through hell but the horse was holding up very well. Suddenly, he reined to a stop.

"What is it, Johnny?"

"Some horses off in that field. I'll come back and get them later. We'll need them. I guess they ran off."

"Are you sure they're Lancer horses?"

He cleared his throat but it didn't do any good. His voice was still husky when he answered. "Yeah, I'm sure. One of them is Scott's."

It seemed to Johnny as if the world was off-kilter. His vision was a little blurry. He knew he was tired but something else was going on here and he couldn't put a name to it. He got a grim, tight hold of himself as they neared the ridge overlooking the hacienda. When he stopped there, his entire world crashed.

Sam felt Johnny slump forward against him just a little and he turned his head, looking down into the valley. He sucked in a breath and bit his lip. "God. Oh, dear God," he whispered.

*

The house was half-gone, the barn and bunkhouses completely collapsed. Sam could see people down below but he was too far away to make them out. He reached out with his right hand and placed it atop Johnny's, squeezing hard and trying to hold himself together.

"Come on, son. We need to get down there and see what's happening."

There was no reply and Sam felt a little rare panic. "Johnny? Please, I need your help."

He snapped back, squaring his shoulders and shaking his head as he put his spurs to Barranca. "Remind me later how really stupid I am."

"I hope with everything I am, I'll be able to do that, John." Sam cleared his throat and focused on being a professional while his entire being screamed silently. His best friend's world had crashed again. How much more could one man endure? He knew when Murdoch and Scott had returned from Stockton those months ago what had happened. He didn't need anyone telling him though Scott did.

Scott had been very angry at the treatment they'd received from Johnny. He knew first hand how hard and callous Johnny had turned. Sam knew it for what it was but that didn't make it easier to cope with. Johnny had completely turned himself off. Unwilling or, more likely, unable to handle anymore hurt and loss, the young man behind him had decided feeling next to nothing was better than chancing that pain again.

Slowly, they made their way down from the ridge. As much as he wanted to tear in there, Johnny couldn't do that to Sam. He knew the man was in considerable pain and close to passing out. So that time thing came into play again and the world seemed to have simply stopped.

Finally, they made it into the yard. Johnny scanned the faces looking at him and found none that lifted his hopes. He dismounted and helped Sam down as two hands walked hesitantly toward him.

"Take Sam inside."

"Boss said no one could go in. It ain't stable."

Johnny turned to the man, his heart in his throat. "Just tell me who's dead!"

Frank leaned back away from the venom then got hold of himself. "Murdoch, Scott and Teresa are all alive but, Miss Teresa's hurt pretty bad and Scott's got a deep cut on his leg."

"Murdoch?"

"Just some cuts and bruises. They're all around the back. We set up a tent for the wounded."

Johnny's heart restarted and his mouth tightened. He had a lot of questions but it would have to wait. "Come on, Sam. Sounds like that tent is the place for you."

"I wish I could have gotten my medical bag."

"Don't need it. You're one of the wounded. Come on." Johnny led him around the house, knowing with all he was, he would not be welcomed here. It didn't matter. He was staying, at least until things got a little better. Truth be told, he'd almost started blubbering when Frank told him his family was alive. He took the time walking Sam to the tent to gather his emotions and stuff them away.

*

Johnny sucked in a deep breath before stepping into the huge tent he recognized from a party Murdoch had held once so long ago. The first person to see them was a hand and he quickly took hold of Sam, leading him to a cot and helping him lie down. Murdoch was on the cot beside it and when he leaned back, Johnny saw Teresa lying there.

"Sam? Dear God! How bad?" Murdoch asked.

"Just a broken arm and a slight concussion, old friend. I'll survive."

"How in the world did you get here?"

Sam smiled a little. "It seems I have a guardian angel." He turned his head and it was then Murdoch saw Johnny.

Eyes widened in surprise, the rancher stood up slowly and simply stared at him. Johnny felt like backing out of that tent, backing out of their lives again. He shouldn't be here. He wasn't wanted here. He clamped the thoughts down, pissed at the feeling of vulnerability seeping into his bones.

"I was in Monterey when I heard. Thought I'd come see if I could help." His eyes went to Teresa and he grimaced. "How is she?"

Murdoch blinked, brought back to the present by the question. He looked at Teresa and shook his head. "Not well. I think she may be bleeding inside."

Sam sat back up. "Set my arm and I'll help you. She may need an operation. I can talk you through it. Let me examine her."

"Where's Scott?"

Murdoch turned back to his son. "He's outside. He won't sit still. I sewed up a deep cut to his leg but he won't rest."

Johnny nodded, figuring his brother would be in full military mode. "I saw some horses out in a field on our way here. I'll go get them."

"That would be good. We haven't been able to do much. Hadn't been able to find any of the horses."

"They're a good piece away. If you see Scott, tell him Remmie is one of them. He looked okay from a distance." Johnny didn't wait for an answer. He disappeared.

*

"Murdoch, I need hot water, a knife, towels, bandages, needle and thread and a lot of light. We'll have to get in there to stop the bleeding."

Murdoch nodded, still staring at the tent flap with a feeling of foreboding in the pit of his stomach. He was about to go gather supplies when Scott walked in the back flap of the tent.

"Sam? How did you get here?"

"Johnny brought me."

"Johnny who?"

Sam looked at the young man and scowled. "Your brother!"

Scott was perplexed. No, beyond perplexed. "What's he doing here?"

"He was in Monterey and heard, he said. He came to help. He's gone after some horses he saw on the way here. He said one of them was yours. Right now, Teresa needs surgery. Scott, help me get things ready." Murdoch rattled off his litany in a droning voice.

He'd been that way since it happened. No, since they'd discovered Teresa badly injured. He understood his father's state but Johnny? Scott shook his head and pushed away everything but the immediate. Teresa needed him now. If Johnny was around later, they'd have a nice long talk. Or a short one depending upon his own mood at that moment. Right now, all Scott knew was he wasn't about to let Johnny tear his father's heart out again.

Yet, as much as he'd spouted off in Stockton, Scott understood Johnny really did not want to be around them. That he wasn't manipulating them. That accusation had been his own hurt shining through. That Johnny had come when trouble was at hand, he didn't understand. Maybe he's repaying that debt he said he owed Murdoch for going after Barranca. He didn't want to think that way but Johnny had made himself perfectly clear so he had no choice but to assume that as the reason his brother had shown up.

*

Chapter 17

Johnny walked out to the yard and hailed Frank. "I'm sorry I was ... about earlier. I saw some horses on the way here. A couple of them were saddled. Ride with me and lend a hand?"

Frank nodded and gave him a little smile then mounted up behind him.

"Once we get these, I'm gonna take one and see if I can find anymore. Bring Barranca back with you? He's about done in."

"Sure thing, Johnny. Glad to have your help. How's Morro Coyo? We ain't been able to get there without horses."

He sighed tiredly. "Morro Coyo is gone, Frank. I don't know how many are dead. There's a bunch of people out in the streets just standin around. I figured Lancer was hit hard since I didn't see anyone doin anything to help out in town. I don't know what's gonna happen to those folks. The sheriff is startin to work on it but I don't know how much good one man can do if those people don't get a hold of themselves."

"Maybe the army can come in and lend a hand," Frank suggested.

"Good idea. I'll try and find the closest town with a telegraph workin and send a message. Maybe, once you bring this string back, you and some of the boys can try finding the rest of the horses."

"Will do. Johnny? It's good ta have ya back."

He grimaced and thought Frank might be the only one who thought that. Right now, he had to concentrate on the immediate problems. He could fight with his brother later. Scott would, no doubt, have some choice words for him at some point. But, if he knew anything at all about his brother, he knew the man would wait until things settled down. Still, it would not be pleasant being around him. Well, he'd been around unpleasant most of his life.

*

For a week, the entire ranch worked diligently to get things back in some sort of order. Murdoch had sent some men to town once more horses were retrieved. The army showed up four days after Johnny wired them and set about relocating people in Morro Coyo and Spanish Wells. Green River got the least of the damage and were left to fend for themselves without much problem.

Teresa clung to life those first days and it seemed the ranch was holding its breath. Finally, she started improving and when Sam said she'd survive, Lancer breathed again.

During this time, Johnny and Scott had managed to avoid each other. Johnny stayed away from the house, helping out with rounding up the cattle and repairing fences and line shacks. Scott took charge of rebuilding the house, barn and bunkhouses and Murdoch stayed with Teresa most of the time. He helped Sam tend the injured and did what the doctor could not do with a broken arm.

Every day, he watched as the crews came in and every day someone told him Johnny was camping out on the range. He needed to see his son, lay eyes on him but it wasn't to be. Every day, he expected someone to come in and tell him Johnny had rode on. Had said he'd done all he could do and left to the call of the wind again. And every day, his heart cracked a little more.

The second week, things seemed to settle a little. The barn was finished, the bunkhouses nearly complete. All that was left was the house and soon, they'd start on that. Teresa was awake and taking nourishment, talking about helping out and being as terrible a patient as Murdoch knew his sons to be. He'd even compared her to them which brought a resounding chatisement from the young woman. Still, she was in pain and unable to move around much. Murdoch told her it was a lesson well worth heeding. Her body wasn't ready no matter what her heart and mind wanted.

Frank told him they'd finished fence repairs to the north and east pastures and had moved the herd there. They were still short about five hundred head and Johnny had taken a crew out to hunt them down. Frank reported the young man was determined Lancers cattle would all be returned.

The rancher had smiled at that but, still, that lingering doubt pervaded. Would Johnny come back to the house or simply ride away? His mind told him the latter, his heart prayed for the former.

Scott had been quiet and he knew why. His son was still angry with his brother. He supposed he couldn't blame the man but, didn't it say something that Johnny had come here? Sam said he'd ridden all night once he heard the news. Why would he do that if he didn't care about them? Scott had no answer when that question was posed. All he said was he was sure Johnny would let them know how much they owed for services rendered then he'd walked away. But, Murdoch had seen something in his older son's eyes. Hope? Maybe. Pain definitely.

But now, Murdoch was growing impatient. Teresa was doing well and didn't need him hovering over her. Scott had things well in hand here at the house. He decided to ride out and take a look at the land. He smiled a little to himself. He was going to find Johnny and talk to him. No matter what, he'd seen the look on his son's face when he'd seen Teresa that first day. He knew they meant something to Johnny or he wouldn't have come back.

*

"That's a lot of supplies for a man who is simply going to ride out and take a look," Scott remarked as he took in the overfilled saddlebags.

Murdoch avoided his gaze. "You never know what you might find."

"What or whom?"

He sighed and turned to his son. "Yes, I'm going to find Johnny and talk to him."

Scott rolled his eyes heavenward. "Why? Why must you put yourself through this all over again?"

He reached out and took hold of his son's shoulder, squeezing gently. "He came back, Scott. He heard about the quake and he rode all night to get here. Sam told me he was so shocked when he saw the ranch, he couldn't even speak for a minute. That he was so worried about us, his voice was shaking. And Frank said he was angry and impatient to find out if we were alright. Does that sound like a man who doesn't care? No, son. Something has changed. I don't know if it was the realization that he could lose us forever or something else. Whatever the reason, this proves to me Johnny does care about us. And maybe, I can get him to admit that to himself if not to me."

"And if he's too stubborn to admit it to anyone?"

"It's not stubbornness!" Murdoch lowered his voice. "He's afraid, Scott. Afraid of this very thing. That he'll become attached then we'll leave him. Maybe he's realizing he's already attached and it doesn't matter if he's here or not. If something bad is going to happen, it's going to happen no matter where he is. So, why not cherish every moment together? At least, that's what I'm going to try and convince him of.

"Son, I don't know exactly what happened to Maria. All I know; all I suspect is, that Johnny saw it. I can't imagine what that must feel like. I can see it making him close himself off, too afraid to let anyone in for fear of it happening again. That's what he's lived with for the past ten years. Can you try to be a little understanding?"

"I could be, I would be if he'd come home. I'm sorry. I understand what you're saying and it makes sense. But, until I can have it out with him, I'm not going to get past what he's done to you."

Murdoch frowned. "I think you're forgetting some things, son. I hurt Johnny. I pushed him too far. We were both at fault. Don't lay it all on your brother's shoulders. I get a good portion of that blame."

Scott dipped his head then nodded and walked away.

*

Murdoch topped the small hill overlooking the south range and reined to a stop. Repositioning himself in the saddle he rested his hands on the saddle horn, a small smile crossing his face as he watched.

Johnny was rounding up the errant cattle, using that palomino to his will as if he'd been born for this very thing. Murdoch sucked in a breath. He *had* been born for this very thing. How had life gotten so twisted, so off track, so insane? How had his son turned himself off to life? He didn't think Johnny had or, his walls were cracking. He wanted, no needed to know what had changed the young man's attitude.

Of course, he wasn't really sure it had changed that much. It could simply be a feeling of obligation on Johnny's part. He'd said he owed them. Was this his way of paying back that debt? Would he simply leave when the job was done as was his way? Murdoch closed his eyes briefly, the emotions warring within him these past two weeks were nearly impossible to bear. But, they were making it through.

They'd lost many good hands, many good friends in the wake of this devastation. Two towns destroyed, so many more lives. And in the midst of it all, he found himself grateful for all he had. Scott and Teresa were healing. Johnny was home - for now. If he could only grab hold of the boy, sit him down - tie him down. Something!

Every ploy he'd tried had failed. Pushing Johnny didn't work. Talking to him didn't work. Opening his own heart didn't work. There had been dark times in the past two years when he'd wished he'd never sent for Johnny. Never found out who or where he was. Those times were quickly snuffed by the realization of what would have happened if he hadn't found his son when he did. Johnny would be dead.

There was nothing to say his son would live very much longer, though. If he didn't change his lifestyle, Murdoch knew he'd die a tragic, needless death alone. So completely alone.

His head jerked up at the shrill whistle and he found the source just below him. Johnny was watching him with a curious expression. Wondering why I'm out here, no doubt. He waved and headed down the slope.

"Somethin wrong?"

"No, I just needed to get away for a while. I wanted to see how things were going. Frank tells me you refuse to come back until every heifer is accounted for."

Johnny smiled a little and looked out over the herd. "Well, I might of been a little optimistic with that. We've found a lot of dead cows. Looks like they ran right off the edge of a cliff. Found 'em at the bottom. Dumbest animals in the world."

Murdoch's mouth twisted with the information. "Do you have a count?"

"One hundred and fifteen dead so far." He looked back at Murdoch. "Not all of 'em in that ravine. Some wandered up into the hills. Looks like a cat or two found four head. Right now, there's still about fifty unaccounted for."

A raised brow and a smile greeted the information. "Fifty? That's not bad considering."

"Nah, but I'm still gonna look for 'em. I'll send the men back with this herd today." He dropped his eyes then looked back up. "If that's okay with you, that is."

Murdoch almost smiled but managed to keep his face stern. "The idea is fine but you need a little help, I think. It isn't just the cattle, it's those cats and there's a lot of dangers. All the debris in this area hasn't been cleared. I wouldn't want you to get tangled up in something without some back up."

His eyes narrowed suspiciously as he watched the man. He could practically see the wheels turning inside his head. "Well, I reckon I can stand bein around Frank."

"Frank has other things to attend to. I thought I'd go with you. I have plenty of supplies with me."

"Yeah, I saw that. Wondered if you were runnin away from home."

He bit his lip. He almost said 'that's your area' but he didn't. Because he knew Johnny hadn't run away. He'd left and with good reason. His lips quirked briefly. "I'm a little old for that."

The grin that softened his son's face and lit his eyes was almost more than he could stand in that moment.

"Well, come on, old man. I know you still got what it takes. Seen that for myself." He didn't wait for a reply. He turned Barranca and headed back to the herd.

Murdoch hesitated for a few seconds. "Dear God, does he have any idea how much I love him?" The words were whispered, his eyes going heavenward for a fraction before he pressed his horse to follow.

*

Johnny gathered the men and waited for Murdoch. When the man didn't speak, he looked over expectantly.

"This is your crew, Johnny."

He smirked and nearly rolled his eyes before turning to the men. "Me and Murdoch are goin after the stragglers. Take these to the east pasture then go on back to the house. Scott'll be runnin things there." He watched as each man nodded and most of them smiled. What the hell had them so happy?

"Well, which way?" Murdoch asked as they watched the herd disappear.

"I guess you think this is some great chance for you to talk some sense into me." Johnny turned and rode away.

Murdoch stared at his back, wondering where that sudden turn of attitude had come from. He sighed. Well, it's not like I tried to make a secret of it. With determination, he hurried to catch up.

He fell in stride next to Barranca and looked over at Johnny's profile. His jaw was tight, his lips clamped shut, his eyes straight ahead and his shoulders and back rigid. This was not how Johnny usually rode a horse. Usually, it looked like he melted into his seat and his body swayed in a natural rhythm with the animal.

He quickly decided now was not the time to comment on Johnny's last remark. "Do you think anymore of them headed into the foothills?"

"Probably. It's cool up there and there's water. Plenty of grass in some spots. The cats are probably still around, too, stalkin 'em. Those four head they killed, the scent of blood might bring more cats down. Might not be worth the effort."

"Well, we won't know until we get there."

Johnny just nodded and said nothing more until they reached the foothills of Lancer. He stopped and looked up into the treeline then walked Barranca along, searching the ground for tracks.

"Here. Some of them went up from this spot." He pointed at the tracks as Murdoch joined him. "Be ready for company."

Johnny lifted his Colt half-way out of the holster then slid it back, assurring himself of an easy draw, then grabbed his rifle and laid it across his lap. Murdoch watched him then took his own rifle from the scabbard and they headed up into the hills.

Both men remained on alert for any sign of cow or cat. By evening, they'd seen nothing.

"We should set up camp. It's getting too dark to go further," Murdoch suggested.

"Just up here there's a clearing and a stream."

"You remember?"

Johnny glanced over at him and shrugged.

*

After settling the horses and having a meal, they sat quietly by the fire, staring into the flames.

"One of us will have to stay up, watch the fire. It'll keep the cats away."

Murdoch blinked and looked over at him. "We can take turns. We both need some rest to stay sharp."

Johnny only nodded and repositioned himself against his saddle.

"There is something that's been on my mind today, Johnny. I'd like to set it straight."

He looked across the fire. "Go ahead."

Murdoch sat forward, resting one arm on a bent knee as he looked intently at his son. "I don't appreciate the way you talked to me today. Some respect would be nice."

Whatever he thought his old man was going to say to him, that sure wasn't it. "What are you talking about?"

"That remark about thinking I was going to talk some sense into you. It was rude and uncalled for."

"Was it? Uncalled for, that is? Ain't that the plan? Get me out here alone for a heart to heart?"

Murdoch sighed and shook his head. "Why did you come back?"

Johnny lowered his eyes and stared into his coffee cup.

"Well?"

The demanding tone caused Johnny to look hard at him. Anger welled up inside. "I don't know."

"You don't know?"

"I just ... reacted. When I heard about it, I just took off."

"I see. And the time it took you to get here, you didn't think about it?"

He shifted, leaning forward a little. "No, I didn't think about it." His eyes came up, an expression foreign to Murdoch's experience present there. "You want me to go?"

"No, son. I don't want you to go. I want you to realize this is where you want to be. I want you to realize you do care about us. If you didn't, the news wouldn't have affected you at all."

"Look, I heard it was bad and yeah, I was worried. That don't mean I belong here."

*

Murdoch poured his coffee out and set the cup down then got to his feet and stretched his back. He walked around the small camp then checked the horses. When he returned, he remained standing.

Johnny was feeling antsy with all this moving around. What's the old man up to now? He could be kinda sneaky which was something Johnny could appreciate but, not around him. Not *with* him.

"Do you remember when we were out on the trail before? When I was bitten by that snake?"

"Not likely to forget it."

Murdoch smiled a little. "It was a rough time for both of us. Do you remember what I told you?"

Johnny sighed and leaned back so he could look at the man better. "You told me a lot of things, old man."

"One of those things was that I love you."

Johnny lowered his eyes.

"I wonder if you even remember what that feels like."

He sprang to his feet with such speed, Murdoch took a step back then braced himself.

"There you go again. Tellin me I ain't human."

"I didn't say that, John! Dammit, listen to me instead of expecting me to insult you!"

Johnny stood his ground, his fists tight by his sides as he glared at his sire. "That wasn't an insult? Sure sounded like one."

"I think you're angry because I hit at the heart of the matter. I'm right and you don't want to be reminded of the facts. Well, I'm sorry but, the biggest problem you have is your inability to connect with other people. Especially your family. You refuse to allow yourself to *feel*. What I want to know is why. Why can't you let go?"

"No, Murdoch, you don't want to know why. Oh, you think you do. You think you can solve the problems of the world! But, you don't really want to know what I know, old man." He was breathing too hard and his heart was jumping around in his chest. Damn! I don't want to do this!

"I guess you think I won't be able to handle the truth. Maybe, you think it will hurt me too much to know. But, Johnny, not knowing is what's killing me. It's what's keeping you away from me and *that* I can't stand anymore. I simply cannot stand it another day." He took a big gamble and stepped forward, grabbing Johnny's upper arms in a strong grip.

"Tell me the truth, son. Tell me all of it."

He tried to pull away but Murdoch wasn't letting go. Suddenly, Johnny calmed and looked into the man's eyes. In a voice so cold, it could suck the very life from a man, he spoke. "Take your hands off of me."

"You can't stand being touched, can you? You're so afraid you might actually feel something for another person. You can't take intimacy."

He laughed at that. "I do just fine with intimacy but not with you. Now, let me go!"

"I can't! I know you want to be here, Johnny. I know you want to come home. Just do it, son. Let go and just do it."

The panic was back, that old foe. It rose from the marrow of his bones like a fire spreading through dry grass. His face felt hot, his entire being was burning. It was taking his life, his very self and he fought back. Johnny wrenched free of his father's grasp and walked away. He stopped at a big oak and leaned into it, trying to control his emotions. Trying to get free.

"Please, let me help you."

*

Chapter 18

// and the storm keeps on twisting
you keep on building the lies
that you make up for all that you lack
it don't make no difference
escaping one last time
it's easier to believe in this sweet madness oh
this glorious sadness that brings me to my knees

Angel
Sarh Maclachlin //

The voice was so close, he startled and whirled around. His hand went to his side and he realized he'd taken his gunbelt off. "You wanna help me? Stop touchin me!"

Murdoch held his hands out to his sides. "Tell me why it hurts you so much to be touched. It's like it causes you physical pain, Johnny. If you don't tell it, it's going to destroy you. It will never allow you any peace."

He slumped against the tree, exhausted by this torment. Why couldn't Murdoch understand what he was doing? "You're askin a lot."

"I know. I really do."

Johnny shook his head. "No, you don't. You have no idea." He looked up at the man and breathed out heavily. "You know what? Maybe if I tell you, you'll get it. You'll finally see what I am and send me packin once and for all. But, let me tell you this first." He stood up straight, shoulders back and deadly intention in his eyes. "If you ever tell another living soul, I'll kill you and whoever you told. You got that?"

Murdoch swallowed hard and tried to remain impassive but his voice wouldn't work and he could only nod his understanding.

Johnny walked around him and back to the fire. He poured a cup of coffee and pulled a bottle from his saddlebag. He started to pour the whiskey in the coffee then cussed and tossed the coffee out, filling the cup full with liquor.

Murdoch settled and watched as he downed the first cup then filled it again, sipping more slowly now.

He got comfortable, leaning against the saddle and feeling the whiskey warm him inside. He smiled a little. What did Scott call it? Malicious grin. "Well, where to begin."

Murdoch didn't like that smile or the sarcasm but he knew Johnny was arming himself against this telling. He had a sinking feeling the boy had been right and he didn't really want to know. But, he had to so he simply waited.

"The greatest lesson my mother ever taught me was that men don't cry. She started tellin me that for as long as I can remember. Of course, I didn't get it at first but it didn't take long to figure it out." He stopped and frowned then held his left arm out, twisting it back and forth.

"When I was ten, I fell out of a tree and broke my arm. Bone was sticking straight out and there was blood everywhere. But, ya know what? I learned my lesson well. I didn't cry. Not one tear and mama, she was proud of her little man. That's what she used to call me. Her little man. Said I was the man of the house and I had to take care of her." He dropped his arm and his eyes. "I didn't do a very good job of it. I didn't protect her when she needed me most."

He stared into the flames, lost in the past for a few moments. Then, he blinked and sucked in a breath. "I was twelve years old when it happened. This gang of banditos rode into our village, terrorizin everybody. Mama said to just stay inside and it would be okay. But, she was wrong. They came into our house." He stopped and smirked. "House. That's funny. It was a shack. Anyway, they came in and started slappin us both around. Mama tried to fight back. I tried to fight back but well, there were too many of them.

"Guess they got mad when they saw we didn't have anything worth stealin. Of course, they shoulda known. Nobody in those little villages ever had anything. Anyway, one of them finally noticed her. I mean, you know how beautiful she was. They tried to ..."

He cleared his throat and shifted around a little then took a healthy dose from his cup. "They tried to rape her and she fought them like a crazy woman. Reckon they got tired of the fight or, maybe they weren't as interested anymore. Oh, did I forget to mention? Two of them held me down and made me watch the whole thing. Made me watch as they snapped her neck."

Murdoch sucked in a breath at this. He'd never known the details. Only that she'd died.

Johnny looked over at him, his eyes so dark they looked almost black. "She fell to the floor and, either I finally got loose or they let me loose, I don't remember but, I went over to her and tried to wake her up. When I rolled her over, her eyes were still open and she was dead."

He looked back up at his father with a sadness that nearly took Murdoch's breath. "But, I didn't cry."

"I'm so sorry, son. I never knew the details. I ..."

"I'm not done."

Murdoch looked at him and he saw that his mother's death was not the only thing that had caused him to turn his back on the world. A chill went through the rancher as he waited.

*

"I could hear them laughin about it, ya know? Well, that pissed me off as much as anything. I got up and started swingin. I guess it was pretty funny from their side. This skinny little kid tryin to take on four grown men. One of 'em grabbed me from behind and pinned my arms back. I was still kickin at them until another one whomped me upside the head with his pistol. There was this kind of explosion and all I saw was white light for a minute but I didn't pass out.

"The one that hit me grabbed me by the back of the neck and started lookin me over. He said somethin to another one but I couldn't make it out. I was barely on my feet and wouldn't have been if someone wasn't holdin me up." He stopped and drained his cup, refilled it then offered the bottle.

"Might want to take this. The rest of the story ain't pretty."

Murdoch reached across, careful of the flames but he couldn't imagine anything worse than what his son had endured.

Johnny stared into the cup for a long time before speaking again. "This is the part that'll get you killed if you repeat it. Are you sure you wanna hear this?"

"No, but I have to."

He smirked at that. "If you say so. Well, let's see. Oh, right. Well, two of 'em left and the third one closed the door then pulled a dresser in front of it. I could barely see what was goin on with all the blood runnin in my eyes but I didn't get why. Then, the first one, we'll call him Raul. Ole Raul turned me around and threw me over the table face first but my feet were still on the floor. Get the picture?"

Murdoch blinked and nodded.

"Then, he pulled my pants down. But, I guess he wasn't payin much attention to anything else. There was a big knife on that table and I reached out and grabbed it." He stopped a swallowed hard, lowering his head for a second and sucking in a breath. "It was real close. I could feel ... anyway, I moved real fast. Threw myself back against him then turned around and gutted him like a fish. Should have seen the look on his face.

"The other one, we'll call him Pedro for kicks. He was busy leanin over mama. I couldn't tell what he was doin but he wasn't payin any attention to me. Ole Raul was still on his feet but I knew he wouldn't be for long and I figured Pedro would notice that. So, I walked up behind him and looked over his shoulder." Again, he stopped, a grimace of physical pain on his face.

"He was messin with her. She was dead and he was feelin her all over ..." He shuddered and bit his lip hard. A long pause ensued before he spoke again. "I grabbed his hair and pulled his head back then slit his throat."

"Johnny, stop."

He looked up and shrugged. "Story ain't over yet. You wanted to hear it and you're damned well gonna hear every bit of it." He reached out and curled his fingers, indicating he wanted the bottle back. Murdoch filled his cup and handed it back. Johnny turned the bottle up, not bothering with the cup anymore.

"I stood there and watched him bleed for a while, not sure how long. Then, I kind of staggered out the back door and just walked away. No one noticed me. I ended up outside town in a cave I used to play in sometimes. But, right before I passed out I remembered seein mama's dead eyes starin right at me. Funny, but I could swear she was givin me that disappointed look. The one that told me I'd fucked up again."

He tipped the bottle again before continuing his story. His voice had taken on a sarcastic tone early on and didn't seem to be changing anytime soon. "When I woke up it was morning and I went back to the house. I didn't know what else to do. Mama was gone. I knew she was dead but who the hell had taken her body? So, I headed to the church." He snorted and took another drink.

"Padre told me they buried her the day before. When I asked where her grave was, he wouldn't tell me. Said I had shamed the whole town and condemned my soul to hell. Said there wasn't no redemption for the likes of me. No absolution. Said I needed to leave and never come back.

"Well, that pissed me off. I found her grave, wasn't hard. There was only one cemetery and, apparently, no one else had died recently. So, I sat there for a while and stared at the dirt and told her how sorry I was that I'd failed her."

He stopped there and looked at his father until Murdoch met his eyes. "But, ya know what? I didn't cry. I never cried the whole time. Mama would've been proud of that part, anyway. The end."

*

Johnny drained the bottle and tossed it aside before looking over at Murdoch. The rancher had his head down, nearly between his knees and Johnny wondered if he was gonna puke. Wouldn't surprise him. He just waited for a while but Murdoch didn't seem to be able to move.

"There's a full moon tonight. You can head on home or you can stay here. I'll leave. I'm used to riding at night."

Slowly, the gray head moved, the worn face raised to reveal tear-streaked cheeks. Johnny stared in fascination at the tears, unable to fathom them there, on the face of this man of all men.

"Men do cry, son. When the pain becomes unbearable, the only thing you can do sometimes is cry. And if you don't, you do what you have done. Closed your heart against all threats. Nothing I say to you can take away your pain. Nothing I do can make it so it never happened. If God would allow it, I'd give my life to ensure you never had to suffer that torment. But, why do you blame yourself? Why would you blame a child for what evil men do?"

He was speechless. Fascinated and speechless and in pain. A physical pain it seemed. His heart ached ferociously. He opened his mouth but the words wouldn't come. How can he even look at me now? How can he stand to be anywhere near me? He swallowed and wished he had more whiskey.

Murdoch waited, watching the agony on his boy's face, the shame in his eyes and the incredulity as he fought with himself.

"How can you sit there? How can you even look at me? I'm ... dirty."

For a big man, he could still move pretty quickly. Murdoch rounded the fire and sat beside him, placing a tenuous hand on Johnny's knee. He felt the tension then felt it release a little so he left his hand there. "You were attacked, Johnny. It isn't you who's dirty. It isn't you who sinned. It isn't you who is condemned to hell. That priest should be shot for talking to a child that way."

Johnny shook his head. "No, it was my fault."

"How? What did you do to invoke such cruelty?"

"I shouldn't have fought them."

Murdoch sighed. "Even if they wanted retribution for you fighting them, *that* was beyond anything anyone would *deserve*. Do you think any child would deserve such treatment?"

 

Johnny shook his head but he had nothing to say.

"There are some truly evil people in this world, son. I know you know that. You've seen more than your fair share. You are not one of those men, Johnny. You don't have the stomach for it. Don't ask me how I know, I just do. Most people use touch as a way to show affection for one another. There's nothing dirty or sinful about it. It's a natural way for human beings to connect. I understand now why you don't like to be touched but, if you knew for a fact the other person meant you no harm; if you could let yourself believe that, I think you'd find it easier to allow that touch.

"I think you believe me to be an honorable man. A good man. I'm telling you right now that when I touch you it's only to show you I love you as a father should love his son. There is never anything ugly or demeaning meant. There is never an ulterior motive other than the hope you'll be able to accept and reciprocate those feelings. Do you believe that?"

"You're wrong. I am evil. I've done a lot of things, Murdoch. I've killed a lot of men and some of them because they did me wrong. Those men who set me up with the stage robbery? I killed them. I hunted them down and killed them and I wasn't sorry about. I'm not sorry about it."

Murdoch's jaw twitched as he listened. He didn't want to know any of this anymore. He wished to God he'd never asked. What did that make him? "Have you ever killed someone just because they were standing on the street? Have you ever killed an innocent person?"

He didn't answer for a long while. "I don't know any innocent people in my world. Everybody just about is after somethin."


"Surely you've met good people."


"Yeah," he sighed heavily and shifted a little. "Yeah, I've met some nice people and no, I didn't kill them. I know what you're askin. I understand what you're tryin to get at but does it really matter? I still did it and I can honestly say I never felt bad about those killins. Maybe it is because they deserved it or, I thought they did. My point is, that's who I am."

He turned his head and looked at his father. "I tried when I was at Lancer. I really thought I could change all that. I could live in that world and everything would be alright. I wanted it so bad. But, it wasn't alright and all I knew to do was what I do best. Only, now it's ..."

"What, Johnny? It's what?" Murdoch squeezed his knee, hoping to provide support and encouragement to continue.

In a whispery, throaty tone, Johnny answered. "It's worse. I'm worse than I ever was before. I'm cold all the time inside. I can't ..."

"Yes, you can. I know you can and I know you still want it. We really made a mess of things, didn't we? But, son, that's what second chances are all about. Changing the path of your life, making a difference. I still believe that caring young man is in there somewhere. If he could just come out. If you would just let him out, this *will* work. That's my promise to you."

He felt the world tilt a little but it wasn't askew. It seemed his world was righting itself after years of being crooked, off-balance and dark. His heart didn't ache quite so much. His vision was clearer than it had been in years. His muscles melted and Johnny took the biggest risk of his life. He leaned into his father.

Murdoch moved his hand away from Johnny's knee and wrapped an arm around his son's shoulders, pulling him closer and feeling him relax. He closed his eyes and thanked God for this incredible young man. He laid his cheek on the top of Johnny's head and they stayed that way for long minutes. Neither wanted to move, neither wanted to break the contact both had craved for so long.

*

Johnny's head jerked a little and he pulled back, smiling almost shyly. "Almost fell asleep."

Murdoch chuckled and rubbed his back, wont to completely break the contact. "How do you feel?"

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly as he thought about that question. "Lighter, I guess. Not so mad anymore. A little drunk."

Again, the rancher laughed. "Some coffee might help that."

"I never thought it would do any good to talk about it. Always figured there was no one to tell. I can't believe how much better I feel."

"And you decided whoever you told would think less of you."

Johnny nodded then bowed his head. His father was still rubbing his back and it felt good. Could it really be this easy? No, he knew it wasn't. Nothing ever was. He felt the hand leave his back and almost protested then bit his lip as he watched his father pour coffee for them.

"Thanks," he mumbled as he sipped the brew. A frown creased his forehead. "It ain't just all that stuff, you know. It's Madrid, too. How you feel about that."

"How do you think I feel?"

He sighed heavily. "Maybe you should just tell me. I'm a little tired of bein wrong."

Murdoch crooked a quick smile. "I will admit, it bothered me a little but not enough to keep from sending for you. I can live with Madrid. Can you live without him?"

He turned to the side and held Murdoch's gaze. "No, but I might be able to live without the gunfighting. Look, I can't not be who I am no matter what name I go by. The same problems are there. Feelin closed in, livin by your rules."

"I can't say the rules will change but maybe you won't feel so closed in now. Maybe, telling me some things will help ease the tension you seem to always feel. I can tell you I won't be on your back all the time. That doesn't mean you can ride roughshod over me."

Johnny grinned. "Damn!"

Murdoch smiled. "Son, there are responsibilities to running a ranch. You know that. You know it takes a real commitment for the long haul to make this work. Can you rein yourself in enough for that?"

His face grew serious as he thought about what he knew of ranching and all he knew was expected of him. "Can you cut me loose once in a while?"

"I can."

"Will you teach me what I don't know?"

"Yes, son."

He smiled wanly. "Will you whop Scott when he's mean to me?"

Murdoch laughed loudly. "No, but you can."

Johnny's smile faded into a frown. "About Scott. He ain't gonna like this."

"Why do you say that?"

He shrugged. "He told me he hoped I didn't come back."

Murdoch's frown deepened. "Were the two of you fighting at the time?" At Johnny's nod, he relaxed. "Then, he said something in the heat of the moment he didn't mean. I talked to Scott this morning before I left the house. I reminded him of some things that happened when you left Lancer."

"Yeah, he seemed to be havin some trouble rememberin the way things were."

"It might not be easy but the question you have to answer is; is it worth it?"

*

Johnny didn't answer right away. He scooted a little closer to the fire, feeling colder now. He knew what it was but could he say it? He almost laughed at himself. Hell, it ain't no worse than anything else you've told him.

"I'm scared." It was just a whisper and he wasn't sure his father had heard it so he waited to see.

"So am I." The answer came haltingly, a hard thing to admit.

"I've been scared my whole life."

Murdoch pinched the bridge of his nose and moved closer, placing a hand on Johnny's back. "I'll do everything in my power to help you feel safe now. I don't ever want you to be afraid of anything, son. Least of all of telling me anything you need to tell me and at any time."

Johnny nodded and looked over at him. "You woulda been a great father to grow up with."

"Thank you, son." Murdoch gave him a sidelong look. "Of course, your mouth would be a lot cleaner."

"Excuse me?" Johnny gave him a perplexed look.

"Johnny, your language is ... inappropriate to say the least sometimes. Especially around Teresa. Now, I know you've never said any of those words in her presence before but, it does worry me."

Johnny started to get angry but quickly deflated. He knew it was the truth but it was just what he'd grown up around. He also knew he used those words as a weapon much of the time. He let out a soft breath and looked back at the fire. "I'll work on that and I won't ever cuss in front of Teresa. I don't ever talk like that around women."

"I'm very glad to hear that. There is just one more thing I'd like to suggest." Murdoch made sure he put emphasis on the word 'suggest'.

Johnny gave him a quirky look before smiling and waiting.

"About that never crying business. I don't expect you to walk around bawling all the time. I know that's not who you are but, it might be a ... cleansing you could use. If you ever wanted to be alone and deal with that, I think it would help you a great deal."  

His face flushed a little and he mentally blamed it on the heat of the fire. Johnny ducked his head and thought about it for a while. "Yeah, maybe."

Murdoch smiled broadly and patted his back. "I think we should get some rest."

"Go ahead. I'll take first watch."

"Would first watch include the rest of the night? You *will* wake me in a few hours."

He couldn't help himself. He craned his neck as his father now stood over him. "That an order?"

Murdoch held his stern visage and knew this was some sort of first test. "Yes."

"Okay."

*

Johnny stared at nothing, listening to the sound of his father's light snores across the fire. He watched the man for a moment before returning to his reverie. Old doubts crept up his spine then wrapped around his gut, squeezing until he felt an almost physical pain from it. No, nothing is ever that easy. Then again, nothing about tonight had been easy.

That was just it, though. They'd sat here and talked for *one* night. What about tomorrow? Or the next day? Or next month? He remembered all too clearly how Murdoch acted around him before. Now, he says he can stop doing that but, could he really believe it? He wasn't inclined to. Wasn't able to put that kind of blind faith in anyone. For, he believed his father was only being his normal self back then. Calling his tune and expecting everyone to bow down to his rules without any say. Johnny knew he couldn't do that. He could never keep his mouth shut when he felt wronged. He had always stood up for himself and always would. It may have taken him a while to do it with Murdoch last time but, he'd done it.

He had tried so hard which is why he'd stayed quiet as long as he had. He just couldn't see the old man bending. What Murdoch said he'd do and what he really did might be two different things. Oh, he had no doubt his father had good intentions. And maybe this had nothing to do with calling the tune, really. Maybe it was as simple as two people who didn't get along.

He resettled against his saddle and crossed his ankles, letting out a soft sigh. Pick your battles. He'd heard that somewhere before. Sometimes, every battle was one worth fighting though. Sure, he knew he could button up, spit and polish and be a good little soldier - for a while. It just wasn't in his nature to cave in to any man.

The more he thought about it, the more anxious he felt. He stood up, pent up energy calling him into some kind of action. He walked softly over to check Barranca who was sound asleep. Johnny smiled. Best damned horse he'd ever had. And maybe that was all he could reasonably expect to gain from his bloodline. A horse and some bitter, painful memories. It wasn't enough.

He walked away from the animals and out toward the trail, standing there, staring into the darkness of the valley beyond. Lancer. God, how he'd hated that name his whole life! But the land was something else. It was a beautiful place. Peaceful when you could find a good spot away from everything and everyone. How many times had he done that when he was here before? How many times had he not, though he desperately wanted to? How could he put himself through that again? And, how different could it really be now?

Responsibility. He shook his head and wrapped his arms around his abdomen. It was the one thing Murdoch thought he didn't have yet, he knew all about responsibility. He'd accepted it for years now. Since his mother died, he'd accepted responsibility for his life and those he'd taken. For his own actions and actions done in his name. He was responsible. Maybe not in the same way the old man defined the word. How could he make them understand? Why should he?

Orders. No, he wasn't good at taking orders. He hated it, in fact. That was an old wound, too. Could he finally let it heal? Could he ever let any of them heal? They'd kept him alive all this time. Those wounds both old and new had reminded him that no one could be trusted. He turned and looked back toward the fire. That includes you, old man. I can't trust you, either.

Maybe that was his answer. If he couldn't trust Murdoch, how could he live with him? Take orders from him? Be a son to him? He sucked in a breath. He had no idea what it was to be a son to a man like that. How to go about that task. And if it was going to be such a hardship, why whould he bother?

Still, he *had* trusted the man with his most vile, disgusting secret. Something he'd sworn to never reveal to another living soul. Why had he told it? Because he had to or he'd explode. In that moment with his father pushing him like he always did, Johnny couldn't hold it in any longer. No matter the death threat, which he had meant and still did, it was trust that made him speak it.

With more clarity than he'd felt for some time, Johnny realized it wasn't Murdoch who couldn't bend here. It was him. He was the one unwilling to change. Unable to understand why he would have to. Was this man asking more than he had to offer? Not that he had anything to offer. He had to wonder why the man bothered, really. He had Scott who was, by all accounts, a decent and honest man. What the hell did he need Johnny for? Some kind of strange balance? Good versus evil?

He snorted aloud at that then glanced at the man who didn't stir. He should wake Murdoch soon. The man had ordered him to. He almost choked on the thought. He couldn't do this and he knew it.

With a resigned sigh, he walked back over and started a fresh pot of coffee before waking his father for his watch. He idly thought they could've been attacked by ten mountain cats and he wouldn't have noticed, so lost was he in his torment. A torment he heaped on himself, he knew.

*

Murdoch awoke to a hand on his shoulder, gently shaking him. He looked up and smiled then raised up on one elbow and scrubbed his face. Johnny had moved away to the fire with his back to him. He watched the young man with some relief. Part of him expected to wake up in the morning alone; Johnny having taken off.

He turned back and offered a cup of coffee which Murdoch took gratefully.

"It's been quiet."

Johnny moved to his side of the camp, settling into his bedroll. Murdoch thought something seemed off here. Johnny looked like he was brooding and that fear singed his gut again.

"I think we should probably just head home in the morning. I doubt we're going to find anymore cattle out here." He waited for a reply but his son was quiet, his eyes closed, his hands cradled behind his neck.

"Johnny?"

"I heard you. See ya in the morning." With that, he turned on his side away from his father.

Murdoch stared at him for long minutes, knowing that reply had been as noncommital as any he'd ever heard. And, he also knew, deep inside that Johnny had changed his mind. Had thought himself right out of accepting his home and family. Why?

He stood up and stretched his frame before walking around the campsite. Johnny had told him the worst thing he could, he knew. Had trusted him with this horrible truth. Had it been too much? Did he feel he couldn't face his father now? He needed to make the boy understand he felt nothing but love for him. He needed to make Johnny see his life was headed nowhere and he could change that all in the blink of an eye. He could have so much if only he'd let himself.

Maybe he thinks he doesn't deserve it. Murdoch was sure that was part of it. He felt weary deep in his bones. What more could he say? And, honestly, how much more could he take? Had Scott been right? Had Johnny? Did he really not belong at Lancer? His heart and mind screamed no!

Another part wondered if he could keep up this pace of reassurring a young man who fought against him so fiercely. It was a terrible thought to have. To give up on his own son. He hadn't done that - ever. Yet, he hadn't had to deal with Johnny's insecurities, either. Hadn't had to talk his head off just to get the boy to stay put. He never thought it would be a hard decision. Lancer was far better than anything Johnny had ever had. Murdoch had even thought once that the relative wealth could be enough to entice Johnny stay. He'd been dead wrong about that. His son didn't seem to care about the money.

He looked to the heavens then glanced at his son. Walking over to the treeline, Murdoch stepped as quietly as possible into the woods. He headed for the small stream and found a fair-sized boulder. Lowering himself to his knees, he leaned forward against the rock and folded his hands then bowed his head.

"Heavenly Father, it's said you never give us more than we can handle. Sometimes, my heart questions that. I know my son is struggling. He's changed his mind and he'll leave me again in the morning. I don't know what else to do, what else to say. I want so badly sometimes to just tie him down and make him stay with me but I know I can't do that. I've opened my heart to him even though it's the hardest thing I've ever had to do. I think you know I've closed myself off for so many years; afraid to endure anymore pain. Losing my boys and my wives nearly destroyed me. I think the only thing that got me through it was the good friends you sent to me.

"But, Johnny never had any friends to help him through. He didn't have me or anyone to lean on and he taught himself not to lean on anyone. He doesn't trust himself. He can't believe he's worthy of my love. One false man of God destroyed the heart of a child those years ago and now, the man can't find any faith. Give me the words to say to him. Help me find the way to get through to him. Help him believe in himself, Lord. Please, please, help my son find his way home.

"I feel such anger, such hatred for those men who hurt my boy so viciously. My heart cries out for justice. I'm glad they're dead. I pray they're in Hell now. But, please help Johnny find a way to stop paying for their sins. Father, please don't punish my boy anymore."

Murdoch hitched in a breath and leaned heavily against the boulder, burying his face in his hands and choking back a sob.

*

Johnny heard the old man moving around but he couldn't face him right then. He'd wait for morning, try to find a way to explain what he had never really understood himself. What made him the way he was. Why he couldn't relax and allow anyone to care for him. He heard the bushes rustle, the soft footsteps recede and turned over.

Raising up, he watched as Murdoch disappeared into the woods and he frowned. He'd heard nothing but maybe the old man had. Maybe he heard a cat. Johnny got up and checked his gun then, fearing for the man, followed his father; his footsteps soundless.

He moved slowly, straining to hear anything out of place. He stopped and held his breath as he heard someone talking. Moving forward, he made his way to the clearing at the water's edge and saw Murdoch knelt down. At first, he thought the man was hurt and took two steps before realizing Murdoch was praying.

Feeling embarrassed for finding the man in such a private moment, he started to retreat until the softly spoken words reached his ears.

'I know my son is struggling.'

He stared at Murdoch's back and listened. As the words filtered to him, the pain and anguish in the voice registered. Johnny sunk to his knees and bowed his head, his shoulders slumped until he was nearly doubled over.

There they sat, one unaware of the other's presence; the other too aware of the pain laying heavy in the air.

*

Murdoch finally raised his head and rubbed his face, blinking and looked upward for one last pleading entreaty. Slowly, he came to his feet and turned around, heart nearly stopping at the sight before him.

Johnny was still there on his knees, head down, hands loose in his lap and slowly rocking back and forth. Murdoch moved over and knelt beside him, placing a hand on his shoulder.


"I'm sorry. I was gonna leave you be but, I heard what you were sayin." The words were strangled as if forced past some blockage.  

"Maybe you were supposed to hear, son. You're going to leave tomorrow aren't you? You aren't going home with me."

Johnny raised his head at the quivering voice, locking onto the pale blue eyes with a misery too unbearable. "I don't deserve it. I can't put you through that. It's me, Murdoch. I'm the problem. Don't you see?"

"I see you think that but, it isn't true, son. I know you think the things you've done are unforgiveable but they aren't. All you have to do is accept the forgiveness and give us all a chance."

Johnny shook his head back and forth slowly. "Why? It's just too damned much, ain't it? I'm too much trouble. I ain't worth all this effort you keep puttin in, Murdoch. You need to see me for who I really am."

"The problem you have is, you can't see who you really are. Johnny, you are not some ruthless, cold-hearted bastard. If anything, you care too much. So much so that it scares the hell out of you and you don't know what to do with that. Let me show you the way, son. Just give me your hand, John." Murdoch reached out, offering his own hand, palm up and simply waited with held breath.

Johnny stared at that big hand and suddenly thought how much it resembled his own. He curled his fingers into his palm loosely then relaxed them. With a shuddering inhalation, he looked back up at his father. The stare he received was unwavering, the eyes so full of determination and surety. So willing and ready. Slowly, his hand came up and he laid it within that of his father.

"Sometimes, I wonder how I can do what I do. Sometimes, I feel like all I want to do is hide somewhere for the rest of my life. Go someplace no one can ever find me. Sometimes, I can't stand my own skin."

Murdoch swallowed hard. "One day you won't feel that way anymore. One day, you'll embrace life with joy and conviction and hope."

He shook his head, incredulity transforming his face into that of what seemed a very young boy. "You're gonna get tired of this; of me. What will I do then?"

"It will never happen, son. I love you. I will never turn my back on you. I swear it. Let go, Johnny. Believe."

He stared at the man who'd given him life, such as it was, for what seemed a very long time. Doubt still colored his face but eventually, he relaxed and sat back a little. "I ain't sure which of us is crazier, old man."

Murdoch smiled and squeezed his hand. "Neither am I. Maybe, we're equally crazy."

Johnny nodded slightly, still disbelieving of all this. Still so unsure of this man but mostly, of himself. What does it take, Johnny boy? What will it take for you to let this happen?

"Milagro," he whispered.

Murdoch leaned in, frowning. "What?"

His eyes came up, a little surprised he'd said it aloud. "I said milagro. It's gonna take a miracle."

With a sideways nod, Murdoch started to rise to his feet, bringing Johnny with him. "Well, they happen. Come on, the sun is nearly up now. Let's go home, okay?"

Johnny inhaled deeply and let it out in one long breath. "Yeah, okay."

*

Chapter 19

// in the arms of an angel
fly away from here
from this dark cold hotel room
and the endlessness that you fear
you are pulled from the wreckage
of your silent reverie
you're in the arms of the angel
may you find some comfort there
you're in the arms of the angel
may you find some comfort here

Angel

Sarah Maclachlin //

Scott rolled his shoulders as he stood in the front yard, coffee cup in hand and still trying to find some energy. The days had been long and hard and sorrowful. His leg throbbing wasn't helping matters but, more than that, the past two days had kept him on edge. If Murdoch had been successful, how would he deal with it?

He realized it was his anger over his treatment by Johnny in Stockton that had caused his ill feelings toward his brother. At the time Johnny had left the ranch, he'd understood the young man's reasons. They had been valid. Unfortunately, Johnny and Murdoch had never gotten to a place where they could be in each other's presence without the crackle of electricity that always ran through a room they both inhabited. He had to wonder why Murdoch thought that would change.

If Johnny wasn't willing to give any, it would never work. He had to admit, Murdoch had made some astounding moves in Stockton. But then, his father had grown quite a bit in the past two years. Together, they'd made it through the very rough time immediately after Johnny's departure. It hadn't been easy for Scott to stay here. He'd struggled with the decision long and hard. In the end, his father had offered the olive branch; had sat down with him and talked it all through. Had, in fact, listened to Scott when he'd told him he'd been treating Johnny horribly.

He'd had no problem pointing out Murdoch's shortcomings where his brother was concerned then. Most astonishing was the fact Murdoch actually listened and accepted the words. Had, in actuality, accepted his faults and seen the error of his ways. At the time, Scott had grieved for the loss that had been so unnecessary. If he had been able to talk to his father like that before Johnny left, none of this would have ever happened. His brother would have been with them for the past two years instead of out there somewhere constantly on the edge of death.

Scott shuddered even in the warm air. He'd had nightmares the first couple of months of Johnny lying dead in some street. Worse, that he was lying dying and calling out for either himself or their father. It broke his heart every time. So, when his brother turned him away in Stockton, the grief started all over again. Only, this time, anger with Johnny had been thrown in the mix and Scott had lost his way. Forgotten his brother's misery.

For all that, if Johnny wasn't willing to work at this they'd all suffer the consequences. There had never been a chance to talk it out, to reason through Johnny's problems with settling here. Scott never found out if there was more to this than Murdoch's missteps. If Johnny was, in fact, unable to abide by any rules, not just Murdoch's barking. For his brother was incredibly independent; too much so. Scott knew there was more to that; some *thing* or *things* that caused Johnny to react the way he did.

He'd probably never have the chance to find out. He couldn't see Johnny allowing Murdoch to talk to him enough to get through that rather stubbornly thick head of his. So, how many more times would he have to mourn the loss of his brother? Maybe that's why he'd been so upset with Murdoch when he'd gone chasing Johnny yet again.

That their father loved them both, Scott understood now. Back then, he didn't know. How could he? How could either of them? Murdoch was, quite frankly, as worried and trepidacious as they in the beginning. But, Scott knew he was more likely to get his father talking if for no other reason than, when he wanted to, he could control his anger.

He smiled a little. So could Johnny. It was sad Murdoch hadn't been able to see that. Johnny had held his temper so many times, Scott didn't know how the boy had managed not to simply implode.

He caught movement in his periphery and turned to look down the road. His stomach twisted a little as he saw the familiar animals riding toward him. Seems a miracle had happened. Seems that way. It could be Johnny was simply escorting the man home. Sure, Scott. That's what he's doing.

As they grew closer, Scott could see his brother's face clearly and he looked as if he was riding to his death. Murdoch, on the other hand, looked quite pleased with himself. This did not bode well.

*

"Good morning, son."

"Good morning, Sir. Johnny." Scott gave his brother a nod, a tentative expression on his own face.

Murdoch dismounted and walked over, clamping a hand on Scott's shoulder. "How are things?"

"Improving slowly. The house is liveable again. I take it you didn't find any more cattle?"

"No, we gave it up. We were very lucky to get back as many as we did, thanks to Johnny."

The man in question was yet to dismount. He sat the saddle and looked at them both, sizing them up. Well, sizing Scott up. He couldn't really tell what his brother was thinking and he had the suspicion Scott didn't want him to. Well, hell, this is gonna be a real ride.

Murdoch turned to him with a smile. "Son, are you going to stay up there all day?"

He blinked and looked at the man then shrugged and dismounted, walking over to join them. "Scott."

The older sibling looked him over as if expecting to see something wrong then, met his eyes. "Welcome home, brother." He extended his hand and held his breath.

Johnny glanced at the hand then accepted it. "Thanks. How's Teresa?"

"Much better. Trying very hard to pretend like she's fine. Must be something in the air out here." Scott couldn't help the smile that came across his face and sighed a silent relief when his brother's mouth quirked on one side.

"It's called grit and nobody has more than Teresa."

"Well, let's go in for breakfast and see the young lady in question." Murdoch placed a hand on each man's shoulder and guided them toward the door.

Johnny's heart was in his throat. Would she hate him? He hadn't really thought about how she'd react and that shamed him some. He should have considered her then and now. Shit! Would he ever get this right?

He walked into the great room and felt a little lightheaded. Memories washed over him. Bad memories. Were there any other kind? He felt that panic again and swallowed hard, hoping against hope it would just go away. He almost jumped out of his skin when Scott yelled out for Teresa.

*

She walked in, wiping her hands on a towel and stopped in her tracks for a second. A smile grew across her face as she stepped closer. Toe to toe with him, she looked up into his face with shiny eyes.

"Welcome home, Johnny. We've missed you terribly."

"Thanks, querida. I missed you, too." It wasn't really a lie. Had he thought of it, he would have missed her. Did miss her the few times he'd let himself think of it after he'd first left. Then, he pushed them all out of his mind. He'd had to. He couldn't survive if he didn't. Survive but not live. Padre Matteo's voice slipped in his head and he crushed it immediately.

Teresa was staring at him so he gave her a little smile. He didn't feel like smiling. He felt like leaving. This was harder than he'd thought. He felt like he'd done something wrong. Like it was all his fault. Well, it wasn't *all* his fault, just some of it.

"Well, I have breakfast all ready."

"You should be resting."

"I'm fine, Johnny, really. But it's sweet of you to be so concerned. Now, come into the kitchen and sit down to breakfast." She hooked her arm through his and walked him through the dining room.

Scott waited until they were almost out of sight then leaned into his father. "What happened?"

"Later, son. We'll talk it all out later. Right now, I just want to sit down with my whole family again. Come on." Murdoch wrapped an arm around him and they headed to the kitchen.

When they walked in, Johnny was still standing and being stared down. Both other men pulled up short as the stand-off continued. Maria stood there, hands on hips as if she were waiting for something. Johnny was frowning at her. Murdoch decided he should probably do something.

He walked up beside Johnny and put a hand in the small of his back. "Come on, son. Let's eat."

"Ain't too sure I want to eat. I might get poisoned."

Maria hmmphed then went into a litany of Spanish. Telling him not to be ridiculous. That what she really wanted to do was turn him over her knee and teach him some manners. That he needed to learn respect.

"Old woman..." Johnny started.

"John, please sit down. Maria, enough. Johnny's home now and that's all that matters. Everything will work itself out." Murdoch pressed a little harder at his back until he moved to the table.

Johnny plopped into the chair, the anger still easily seen on his face. He sat with his hands in his lap and staring at the table.

Scott walked slowly to his seat glancing between the two adversaries. He was stunned by Maria's outburst. She'd never shown any sign that Johnny's leaving had upset her. Then again, he probably wouldn't have noticed. Sadly, he was too busy wallowing himself.

Teresa sat next to Johnny and put a hand on his arm, squeezing gently and giving him a little smile when he looked over.

Murdoch cleared his throat, feeling the need to say something. "We're all a little anxious, I guess. We just need to take things slowly and give everyone a chance to adjust. Johnny is home and he's staying home and we're all grateful for that. Now, let's enjoy the meal."

A smirk came across Johnny's face as he continued to stare at the table. Sure, old man. It's all gonna be a breeze. Just slide right in like nothin ever happened. He closed his eyes for a second then chanced looking across the table. Scott was watching him and that didn't help anything. But, then his brother smiled and Johnny found himself smiling back. Maybe Boston wasn't as pissed off as he'd thought. Maybe, they could get along alright. Hell, he could hope, couldn't he?

*

It didn't take long. Johnny knew it was coming but he'd rather have waited a year or ten. He watched Scott walk toward him with purpose as he stood out in the garden. He turned away and touched a rose petal, rubbing it between his thumb and forefinger. He stopped the action and stared at his hand. Did he really have his father's hands or was it some stupid imagining?

"I see you're still standing. I guess Maria didn't poison you afterall."

Johnny smiled a little before turning to face him. "This time."

"What did she say before we came in?"

He shrugged and paced away. "Don't matter. She's gonna speak her mind and that's all. Reckon it just took me by surprise a little at first."

Scott nodded. He didn't really care about that but it was as good an opening as any. He decided to plunge right in. "What changed?"

A heavy sigh was his first answer. "I ain't so sure anything has changed. Murdoch talks a good game but, I don't know. Guess I'll just have to wait and see."

"He wants this to work, Johnny. I think he sees things very differently now."


"Yeah? Would that have anything to do with you?"

Scott gave a small smile. "Perhaps. We had some long and hard talks after you left. Some very painful talks but we cleared the air. He saw what he'd done to you and he's felt guilty about it ever since. He battled with himself about going after you then. In the end, he didn't think it would do any good."

"It wouldn't have. But, it ain't all him. I mean, I guess I knew it then but I just didn't want to see it. I know I've got a lot of sh ..." he stopped and looked around then curbed his tongue. "A lot of stuff goin on in my head. I told him he was loco for wantin me anywhere around him or any of you."

Scott leaned against the low wall that traveled the length of the side of the house. "Can you tell me about it?"

Johnny sighed and lowered his head, pacing in a small circle as he shook his head. "I don't know. I spent most of my life bein pissed off about somethin or other. Suspicious of everything and everyone just about. Every time I let myself depend on someone else, it ends real bad. I don't have a very good record when it comes to that kind of thing. So, I didn't trust things to work out here."

"And Murdoch didn't make it easy on you, certainly."

"No, he didn't but neither did I. See, I coulda stood up to him. I should have but I just kept thinkin it was the same old thing over and over. He was gonna disappoint me. He was gonna betray me some way. And I guess it was really hard for me to stay put in one place. I started feelin caged in."

"So what makes you think it's going to be any different now? Aren't you still going to feel caged in?"

Johnny stopped walking and looked over at him. "I don't know. Maybe I will. He said he'd give me some room long as I took my responsibilities seriously. Said he'd help me learn about ranchin." He stepped closer to his brother. "If I was bein honest, I'd tell you I don't know what the hell to do, Scott. I don't know what's best. I mean, a sensible man would grab hold of all this with both hands and never let go, right? Who could walk away from a deal like this?"

Scott cocked a brow and crossed his arms over his chest. "You, apparently."

"Yeah, well, I ain't always so sensible." He looked into his brother's eyes and saw nothing much other than curiosity. Johnny felt that drowning feeling come over him again. What did he want from this man? Either of them?

"Sometimes, the only way to know how things will turn out is to let them run their course. You can't ever know what's going to happen. No one can predict the future, Johnny. None of us have a clue where our lives will take us."

"I knew exactly where my life was taking me. It wasn't pretty, but I knew. I didn't have to worry about anybody else. I didn't have to ..." he stopped and turned away with a heavy sigh.

"You didn't have to feel anything? You know, Johnny, there was a time in my life when I felt such despair and misery, I thought I wanted to die. I didn't think things would ever change for me but they eventually did. I tried to shut my feelings off and all that was left was anger. It took me a long time to get to a place where I could feel some happiness again. Until I came here, that feeling was fleeting at best. Oh, it didn't happen right away. It took time and patience and diligence. You just have to give yourself a chance. Allow yourself to feel and you might be surprised at what comes of it."

It was quiet for a couple of minutes. Scott let him think about what he'd said and waited to see if it made any impact. Finally, Johnny looked at him again.

"Hard to imagine you bein in such a bad place, Boston. How long did it last?"

"The ordeal itself lasted almost a year. Getting past it, well, I'm not sure I'll ever be entirely over it but it's been much better since coming here."

"You seem settled." It was almost a question. Johnny knew Scott wasn't going to tell him whatever that ordeal was. He could still read his brother enough to see that.

"I am. I'm happy here. Content. You could be, too, if you'd give it a chance. Look, it's not going to be smooth sailing. There are going to be problems, hard times but, if we work through it; if we talk about it, I think you'll deal with things a lot better."

He nodded, his mind going back to last night and the painful ripping out of his guts as he told his father his worst nightmare. He'd felt like a weight was lifted from around his heart. Like someone had waved a hand and said it never happened, almost. He knew it would never go away but he'd learned to live with it long ago, somehow. He'd always believed talking about it would only shame him; only bring it back into vivid color again. And it had but, having Murdoch there had helped him. He hadn't screamed, hadn't howled at the moon, hadn't simply vanished into thin air. Still, there was a part of him, the part that never believed things could work out well, that wondered if his father would ever use that information against him.

Murdoch wasn't the sort of man to do such a thing and he knew that, he truly did. Still, he couldn't help that vague doubt that crowded his mind sometimes. He felt a touch on his arm and jerked his head up.

Scott frowned in worry. "You okay? You sort of went away on me."

"Sorry. Just thinkin about something. I guess you're right. Only thing that's gonna tell us if it's workin is time. Unless Maria kills me first, that is."

Scott laughed a little and stood up. He wanted nothing more than to hug his brother but he wasn't a demonstrative man and wasn't sure Johnny would appreciate it anyway. He settled for a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "It will work, Johnny, if we all work at it."

He smiled and nodded a little, feeling wrung out. He hated it. This feeling of being so emotional all the time. Since he'd come here after the earthquake, all he wanted to do was bawl. He didn't understand it, could not fathom the reason for it but he hated it and knew it had to stop. He had to stop it. He wasn't mushy and sure wasn't the type to break down and cry like some little girl.

"There is one thing I need to say." Scott paused as his brother gave him a curious look. "What you did; how you treated us in Stockton. I think I can understand it a little but that doesn't mean it was deserved. You were way out of line."

Johnny quirked his mouth to one side as he considered his response. "I know I was hard on you but I meant to be. I just wanted you to go, Scott. I figured if I could get you to understand, you could make him understand. Everything I said was the truth at the time. I couldn't handle bein around you. I guess I wasn't ready or maybe, I was just too mad or ..." he stopped and sighed, unwilling to admit what he'd really been feeling at the time. Still felt, truth be told.

"If you want an apology, I can give you this. I am sorry I was so hard. I know I could've made my point without bein such an ass about it."

Scott raised a considerate brow then smiled wanly. "I suppose that's fair. I accept your apology and the unspoken promise it won't happen again."

A smile burst forth on Johnny's lips, lighting his face seemingly as bright as the sun. He laughed softly and slapped Scott's arm, nodding his own understanding.  

*

"There you are. I was wondering where you two had gotten off to." Murdoch strode up to them, smiling a little as he approached. Inside, he was hesitant, wondering what they were talking about. They both seemed alright but he never knew what was going on in Johnny's head. Well, that wasn't entirely true anymore though, since last night, he had to admit he wished it was.

God knew, he could have done without the information and he resolved to try very hard to stop thinking about it. It served no purpose now. Johnny needed to tell it and he had. Now, they could hopefully move forward. Still, what kind of hell had his son been living in for most of his life? He pushed the thoughts away.

"Just talking, Sir. I think Johnny is worn out, though."

"Well, he was up all night. I'm a little tired, too, though I got more sleep than he did. Why don't you lie down for while, son?"

Okay, this was too much now. He couldn't take all this charity. "I'm alright. Ain't there somethin for me to do?"

Murdoch chuckled. "Always but it will keep. You should rest today, John. You've been hard at it since you got here. Your room is all ready for you."

He started to object but, truth be told, he could use some time alone. In fact, he needed to get away from them and get his head on straight. "Yeah, okay. Maybe for a few hours."

"Scott and I are going to take a ride and look things over. We'll all talk about what's left to be done over supper. Les just rode in from town and said the army is doing a good job of getting things back in order there and in Spanish Wells. Hopefully, this nightmare will be over soon."

"I've seen a few earthquakes but never anything like this one. Don't think I'll ever get that picture out of my head."

"I can't imagine. We've been so busy here, we haven't had the chance to go take a look," Murdoch said.

Scott's face suddenly brightened a little. "You know, brother, this entire valley is in your debt."

Johnny looked at him as if he were crazy. "How do you figure?"

"Well, you saved Sam Jenkins' life. He's the only doctor we have, you know."

"Scott's right. Sam has been telling anyone who'll listen about it."

Johnny grinned. "Hell, Murdoch, Scott's always right. Ain't you figured that out yet? Well, I'm headin up. See ya."

Scott shook his head ruefully at his brother's retreating back. "That boy is incorrigible."

"Yes, he is." Murdoch's smile widened as he thought of the prospects before them all now. "Come on, son. Let's take a look at the ranch."

*

He tried but it wasn't happening. As tired as he was, Johnny couldn't sleep. He gave it up and sat on the side of the bed, pulling his boots on then heading downstairs. The great room was quiet with Murdoch and Scott gone. He figured Teresa was in the kitchen so he ambled around the room, remembering.

That model ship. Murdoch valued it. He'd often wondered what it represented. Probably his voyage from Scotland. Wonder what it's like in Scotland? He'd never asked and he should. It was part of his heritage. A part he knew nothing about. In fact, he knew nothing about the Lancer family. He reached out to touch the ship but withdrew his hand. That's all I need; to break the damned thing.

He went to the book shelf next. He'd never paid much mind to it other than to notice it was full. Never had time to read here. He snorted softly. Never had much inclination, either. But, he'd been enjoying that book on the stage. He frowned and wondered what had happened to it. Well, it didn't matter now.

His hand skimmed over the tomes, his eyes not focusing on the titles until he came to the only book that was familiar to him. It was a big one, red leather bound and he pulled it down. Heavy, he thought as he hefted it in his hands. The smell of leather was strong for something that was obviously pretty old. Maybe it's a family bible. Might be some information about his family history. He opened the book gingerly, not knowing its condition inside and not wanting to damage it.

Yep, a family bible alright. He walked over and sat at the dining room table then started to read. Ten minutes passed as he went through the names listed there. Then, he came to the last page and just stared at it for a long time. Finally, he shook his head and sighed and wondered why he'd never seen her for who she really was before.

He heard the soft footsteps behind him and turned around.

Teresa smiled when she saw what he was reading. "Murdoch takes pride in that. It lists a lot of your family history."

"Yeah, I guess it's real accurate, huh?"

She gave him an odd, questioning look. "Very. He told me he made his entries as soon as possible after his marriages and you and Scott were born."

Johnny looked back at the page and sighed lightly.

"Is something wrong?" she asked as she sat beside him.

He smiled wanly at her. "Is anything right? Sorry, it's just this date."

She looked over and shrugged. "Your birthday."

"News to me. I always thought it was June twenty-fourth."

Teresa raised a brow at that. "Why?"

"Cause that's what she told me. That's when we celebrated if you want to call it that."

She was stumped as to why Maria would give Johnny the wrong date. Surely, she knew when her son was born. It struck her then, the importance of the date but it still made no sense. Gently, she spoke it. "June twenty-fourth is St. John's Day."

"I know. She always said I was born on my saint's day. Maybe that's what she wanted it to be. I don't know. Don't know a thing." He shook his head and slammed the book shut then stood and replaced it on the shelf.

"I'm sorry, Johnny."

"No need, querida. It's just a day. Never paid much mind to it anyway. Think I'll try for that nap again." He didn't look at her, just walked away.

*

Upstairs, he stood in the hallway outside his father's room and debated with himself. He had no right to go in there and what did he think he'd find anyway? Murdoch surely wouldn't keep any mementos of a woman who'd run out on him. Would he?

Well, he rummaged through my stuff. Had to or he wouldn't have found that money pouch in my boot. He grimaced as he recalled he hadn't paid his father back yet. Gonna have to do that when he gets in. But, for now, no one was around and he couldn't stop himself. Well, he could but he didn't want to so he didn't. He opened the door and stepped inside, closing it tightly behind him.

Maybe I'm just trying to get myself thrown out of here. Got no business in the man's bedroom.

He walked around, taking in the sparse decorations. Pictures of his mother and Scott's sat on the dresser. Really like to torment yourself, don't ya, old man? He picked the likeness up and scowled at it, angry with her all over again. Setting it down, he looked at Catherine's picture. She was beautiful, no doubt about that.

The was an ornamental box on the dresser and he lifted the top, fingering through and finding nothing of interest. Well, in for a penny, as they say, he thought wryly and opened the bottom drawer of the dresser. That's where he'd keep anything special if he had anything of the like.

There was a book of some sort in there and he pulled it out, opening it to find entries not unlike those in the bible only these were more detailed. Murdoch kept a journal? For some reason, that amused him. The first entry was dated over twenty-five years ago. It was hard to read as the ink had faded some but it talked about boarding a ship for America. He wished he had time to read the whole thing but he knew he didn't so he thumbed through quickly to the back.

Moving to the window to gain more light, he started reading about the night of his birth. The more he read of a man's private thoughts, hopes and dreams, the more guilty he felt but he couldn't stop. Murdoch extolled on his pride at a second son, spoke of the heartbreak of Scott so far away. These were not the ramblings of a hard-hearted man but of a father's joy and despair.

Johnny rubbed his eyes and blinked several times, clearing his throat as he read about his own achievements early in life. Sleeping through the night, his first steps, his first word - mama. He snorted at that. Suddenly, he saw the entry that cramped his chest.

'She's gone. I awoke this morning and thought she was simply up for the day. Checked on Johnny but he wasn't in his crib. Went downstairs and found nothing. I searched the whole house before looking in the closets and finding all their things gone. There's no note. I don't understand. Why?'

That was it. Shorter than the rest and almost panicked. There wasn't another entry for four months.

'Returned from search. They've disappeared. I can't find him. I don't know what to do. Hiring PInkerton's now. They're supposed to be the best. God, I hope so. I miss him so much.'

Johnny leaned heavily against the wall by the window and shook his head. The entries were sporadic now. Every few months, Murdoch wrote the same thing.

'Pinkerton report arrived. No news.'

Again and again those words were written. Then, something else.

'Scott looked so happy. All dressed up for his birthday party. I can't believe he's five already! Harlan won't let him go and I can't afford to fight him in Boston courts. He knows too many people there. I don't stand a chance. Scott is so well taken care of. I know he'll have the best of everything. Will it be enough? I pray so. No news on Johnny.'

That was the end. There were no more entries after that. Johnny closed the book and returned it to its place. He left his father's room and went to his own were he fell onto the bed and gave in.

He rolled on his side and tucked his hand under the pillow, swallowing back the lump in his throat and commanding himself to take hold, rein it in and stop this stupid shit before it ever got started.

*

Chapter 20

// in the arms of an angel
fly away from here
from this dark cold hotel room
and the endlessness that you fear
you are pulled from the wreckage
of your silent reverie
you're in the arms of the angel
may you find some comfort there

Angel

Sarah Maclachlin //

"Things are looking good, son." Murdoch walked into the great room and went to his desk, shuffling through some mail.

"I think in another two weeks, everything will be back to normal. Well, you know what I mean." Scott sighed as he followed his father into the living room. The memory of those lost in the earthquake was never far from his thoughts.

"I know, son. How's the leg?"

"Good. You did a crackerjack job on those stitches. You may have missed your calling." He grinned slyly and Murdoch chuckled at him.

Johnny walked in, feeling the warmth that was lacking in the room earlier.

"Did you get any sleep, son?"

"Some," he muttered and paced the room.

Scott glanced at his father then addressed his brother. "Are you alright?"

He sighed and turned to face both men. Scott had moved to stand next to Murdoch and he felt a little on display. "I was lookin at that bible earlier."

Murdoch nodded, his gut feeling tight as he watched his son struggle with something. That Johnny would struggle at first was a given to him and he thought he was prepared for it. Now, he wasn't so sure.

"There's a lot of history in there." He didn't know what else to say. Didn't know what his son was thinking.

"Yeah, some time you should tell us about that. I mean, I don't know anything about that part of your life." He smirked a little. "Any part of your life. Thing is, I found something kind of surprising."

"Oh? What was that?" Scott asked as he perched on the edge of the desk.

"My birthdate. She said it was June twenty-fourth."

Murdoch didn't miss the anger in Johnny's words, the disappointment.

"So, I guess there's a lot of things she lied about. I guess she lied about everything." He turned his back and stared at the mantle by the fireplace where he stood.

Murdoch walked over and laid a hand on his shoulder, inwardly pleased Johnny didn't flinch. "I don't know what to say."

"Nothin for you to say. I just wanted you to know that I see things, I see you a lot clearer now. Seems to me like you've been screwed over pretty good, old man."

"John, I am sorry you're finding out so many hard things about your mother but, son, your language."

He turned and looked at the man then burst out laughing. "You really are somethin. Okay, okay, I'll watch it. I promise. It's a hard habit to break, is all."

Murdoch smiled a little and nodded then patted his arm. "If you need to talk or want to..." He left it there.

"I know. It's gonna take some time but I think ... I think maybe I can do it now. I just need to clear my head and focus on what's important right now."

"I think that's an excellent idea, brother. We can't change the past but we can make our own future." Scott walked over to join them. It didn't escape his notice. The expression in Johnny's eyes when he looked at their father. Something akin to respect and admiration. No, not akin, that's exactly what it was. And maybe even affection. For the first time in a long time, Scott felt this family could work. Would work.

"I feel like I'm standin on the edge of a cliff most of the time."

"We're right here, Johnny. We won't let you down and we know you won't let us down."

"I did before."

Murdoch shook his head. "No, we let each other down, maybe. Things are different now. I think we both understand each other much better."

*

He nodded, knowing it was true. But, there might be one thing more his father didn't know about him and he needed to make it clear. He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out the folded envelope, offering it to the man.

"I've been meaning to give you this for a while now. I was gonna mail it to you but, well..." he shrugged as Murdoch took the envelope. He saw the look of curiosity mingled with worry on the man's face.

Murdoch opened the envelope and pulled out the money, unfolding it. Perplexed, he shook his head. "One hundred and twenty dollars?"

"I pay my debts."

"I don't know what you're talking about, son."

Johnny raised a brow. "Guess hundred dollar bills don't mean so much to you. I found that," he stopped and pointed at the money, "that exact bill in my boot pouch after I left Stockton the last time. You paid my doctor bill and the livery, too. That's what the money is for."

"I told you that was ..."

"A gift. I know what you said but it wasn't, Murdoch. I don't take charity and I don't much appreciate that you went through my stuff, either. Look, I guess I understand some but that don't mean I'm gonna accept it." He almost blushed and felt like a hypocrite in that moment but, he knew he'd never do such a thing again as rifle through his father's belongings. He needed to make sure Murdoch wouldn't either.

Scott sat on the arm of the sofa, an amused smile on his face as he waited to see how his father would react to the calm and logical words of his brother.

Murdoch ground his teeth together and made himself think first. "I was trying to help but I can see where you'd think of it as pity money. It wasn't. I just couldn't stand the thought of you going hungry."

A grin slid on his face. "How much do you think I eat?"

A chortle escaped Murdoch's throat. "Obviously not enough, son. You could stand a few pounds." He glanced behind him and added, "both of you."

"How did I get in the middle of this?" Scott asked with feigned indignation.

Johnny's face fell and he looked squarely at his father. "If I ask you for somethin, that's one thing. If I can't pay my own way then I'll go without. That's just the way I've always been. I don't steal and I don't cheat and I don't take advantage. Reckon that's about all I've got to call my own but it's enough."

A heavy sigh parted the big rancher's lips even as he laid a hand on his son's shoulder. "Johnny, that kind of integrity is worth more than a thousand of these." He waved the money in the air.

"I don't know about integrity. All I know is what I've learned."

"What you need to understand is, while I know you'll always hold onto those values, you *do* have something else to call your own right here."

He dropped his head and stared at his boots. His heart hurt and he didn't get why. Would it ever go away? Really, completely go away? This feeling of not belonging anywhere? Why was he whining to himself? What were these people doing to him? And, most importantly, did he want it to stop? He sighed lightly then looked back up into his father's expectant face. What do you want from me?

A voice inside his head answered. Everything. He wants everything you've got. Can you give it up? He almost snorted. Give what up? I ain't got nothin. And, I'm goin loco cause I'm havin conversations with myself inside my own head.

"I need some air." It was all he could think to say. He had to get away, just get away and make his mind stop working against him. Either that, or have the old man lock him up somewhere. He stepped around Murdoch, half expecting to be grabbed and made to stay put. But, it didn't happen and he walked swiftly out the French door.

*

Murdoch stared after him, stunned by the reaction. He took a few steps to stand beside Scott who had taken to his feet.


"What got into him?"

"I don't know, son. I think sometimes, he gets overwhelmed when someone is nice to him." He looked shaprly at his older son when he heard the harsh breath.

"I think sometimes you still look at him as a child, Sir. Johnny isn't going to break; he isn't going to shatter into a million pieces if someone is mean to him. In fact, he'd probably take their head off one way or the other. If you treat him with kid gloves, he won't   appreciate it. He'll buck faster than a wild stallion."

"What do you want me to do, Scott? Yell at him? Demand he tell me what he's thinking?"

"No, you know that doesn't work. Why don't you treat him like you would anyone else? Like you treat me. Like a man." Scott zeroed in on his father's eyes and tried to drill his point home with a steady stare.

"So, I should just pretend like nothing has happened? Like he hasn't been gone for almost two years? Like I didn't almost lose him forever?"

Scott inhaled deeply and held the breath. "Yes."

Murdoch's eyes widened and he shook his head slowly, almost imperceptibly. "I'm not sure I can do that."

"If you try smothering him, this will never work. I know it's hard but, you still see him as that baby he was. You should realize by now, Johnny is his own man. He won't allow you to coddle him."

"I'm not trying to! He needs someone to talk to. Can't you see that?"

Scott maintained his calm demeanor while inside, he wanted to bop his father in the head. Deliberately, he spoke. "Yes, I can see that and you made the offer in no uncertain terms. If and when he's ready to take you up on it, he'll come to you."


"I'm not so sure about that."

"Then, Murdoch, maybe he isn't really back at all. You've spent a considerable amount of time alone with him. Are you telling me Johnny talked to you when he didn't want to?"

The rancher glared at his older son for a split second before relenting. Pulling a hand through his hair, he sighed heavily. "No, no he wouldn't talk until he was ready no matter how hard I pushed."

Scott managed not to smirk his victory but sometimes, getting Murdoch to see what was right in front of his face was like banging his head against a brick wall. It was stunning, quite frankly. The man was more than competent in business but when it came to Johnny, Murdoch Lancer seemed to lose all sense.

"Johnny isn't acting out, Sir. He's not expecting you to go after him. He expects that you will respect his need for privacy enough to grant it."

"How do you know, Scott? How can you know? You haven't spent much time with him lately. How can you know so much about what he wants?"

Scott thought about that then shrugged as he retook his seat on the sofa arm. "I suppose it's because, in this respect, Johnny and I are a lot alike. We don't play games and we don't say what we don't mean because we think it's what someone wants to hear."

Murdoch's mouth quirked on one side as he ambled toward a chair. Slowly, he settled into the cushion and regarded his son. "You're both straight shooters as it were. Yes, that's very true. Thank you for keeping me from making a fool of myself or worse."

"I'm sure you wouldn't have made a fool of yourself." Scott smiled a little and wondered if that was true. He hoped it was, believed it was but once the words were out, he had to ponder. The 'or worse' part, he couldn't disagree with, though.

*

Johnny leaned against a column, his arms crossed over his chest as he stared out past the yard to the green pastures, the river and the mountains beyond. It was beautiful and, in this moment, it was peaceful. Evening had settled and he could barely discern the sounds of the men in the bunkhouse.

He closed his eyes for just a moment and listened to the sounds. The cattle and horses, the crickets just beginning the nightly song, the barn owl hooting once as if testing his voice for the night. Opening his eyes again, he sighed lightly and let his mind go where it would.

Where it went was easy. No place other than right here. He still didn't know if he could do this and it wasn't Murdoch. At least, not like he'd been before. He was trying very hard and Johnny knew and appreciated it. Could he change enough was the question that went round and round in his mind.

Scott had said it. Time would tell. Had he the patience to allow it? He wanted this chance. He knew that much. Why was he making it so damned hard on himself? On them? On *him*? What his father had done was astounding. Why he had worked so hard at this, Johnny wasn't sure he'd ever understand. Murdoch had said it was because he was his son and he loved him. Johnny had a hard time believing in that just now. He hoped time would prove it out.

That Murdoch cared was obvious but love? He didn't know love anymore. Wasn't sure he ever really had. And, how could he recognize it now if he couldn't remember it? Almost unwanted, his eyes went heavenward and he smirked at himself.

Sure, look there now. Why? Never have before. What was it people said? Even an atheist hedges his bets when he's starin death in the face. Well, Johnny wasn't looking at death, was he? Yeah, he was. The death of everything familiar and real to him. Everything he'd ever known life to be which wasn't much. What he was looking at was the death of himself. Of Johnny Madrid. Could he let that happen?

No.

His head lowered and he stared at the ground. No, he couldn't let that happen and he'd told the old man that in so many words. He would always be Madrid. He just needed to find a way to let himself be Lancer, too. Maybe there wasn't any difference, really. Maybe he could just be him no matter the name he used.

The same, tired old doubts crept into his mind and he pushed them away. Shoved them hard and fast and told himself he would stop this and accept this life. He would try his damnedest to make this work. He would not disappoint his father or trash the man's work. And he knew it had been work. He'd made it so. Made it the hardest job ole Murdoch ever had, he was sure.

A slight smile crossed his lips. Yep, should be interestin anyways. He pushed off the column and stood straight then turned on his heel and headed inside, his heart thundering in his chest.

*

He found them much as he'd left them. Murdoch looked pretty disappointed and Johnny grimaced, knowing he'd caused that. He looked at Scott and nodded and the older sibling simply smiled and quietly left the room. Johnny shook his head slightly, surprised Scott was so good at this.

Murdoch was watching him, had seen the exchange between brothers and Johnny thought he saw something like pride in the man's eyes. Not wanting to even go there, he stayed focused.

"Sorry I walked out but I needed to think about some things."

"I understand."

Johnny glanced at him then started ambling about the room, fingers drumming his thighs as he chewed his lip. "Well, I reckon Scott was right. It's gonna take time to prove if this will work or not. Guess I just need to be patient."

"Yes, I need to find some patience as well. I don't think either of us have a lot of that commodity."

Johnny looked at him and smiled softly. "Guess we have some things in common." He took a deep breath and forced through. "Look, she lied to me. I don't know why but if I try to figure it out, all I'm gonna get is a headache. I don't have any answers for either of us and I always got the feeling that's what you wanted from me. So there it is. I'm not gonna drive myself crazy thinkin on it. You probably shouldn't either. All we can do is put it to bed and move on."

Murdoch stood up and walked toward him, stopping a few feet away. Close, not nearly close enough but he didn't want to crowd his son. "I think that's the wisest thing. That doesn't mean I won't listen if you want to talk, son. I never again want to make you feel you can't speak about your mother or anything else." He stopped and his eyes darted around before looking back at his boy.

"I should confess I was going to go after you earlier. Scott stopped me and I'm glad he did."

"So am I."

Murdoch nodded, relieved there was no anger in Johnny's voice. "I guess I just feel the need to protect you. I know it's foolish but I wasn't able to for so many years. I can't ever make up for that, though. I understand that but, I may falter again. Just be straight with me, Johnny, and I'll do the same. That's all I ask."

He nodded and nearly collapsed from the relief. "Sounds good to me."

*

Johnny peeked around the corner of the foyer into the great room, scanning it quickly and smiling. Empty. He moved silently which wasn't easy given the enormity of his load but he wasn't about to get caught out now. Not after the hell he'd gone through.

It had taken three days to finally have a plausible reason for using the wagon. Then, he'd had to drive all the way to his hideout and back while still completing the job at hand and all within a reasonable amount of time that wouldn't raise unanswerable questions.

For, Murdoch would ask if he was late and he didn't want to lie. Bad time of year for lying. He grinned a little to himself. Like there was a good time of year to lie.

But, he'd made it so far. Unloading the wagon in the barn had been difficult as he had to be quiet. It was there he'd had the thought and almost smacked himself for not thinking of it sooner. He removed his spurs and tucked them under the wagon's tarp. It would be disastrous if anyone found them before he could get them back. Even with all the time he'd had since to think of a good reason for leaving his spurs behind, he couldn't. There wasn't one.

Well, never mind that now. He still had half the room's length to cross and his arms were starting to tremble under the bulky weight. It wouldn't be so bad it everything was the same size and weight but, of course, that wasn't to be. Well, nothing for it. He just had to get it done, is all.

He stopped, holding his breath when he thought he heard the squeaking of a door hinge. He waited what seemed an hour but was only seconds before convincing himself it was probably his stupid head squeaking. Thinkin too hard. Starting out again, he made his way to his destination then found a chair to settle his load. He sighed as the weight was released onto the furniture then gave himself a few seconds to catch his breath.

He never thought it would be so hard. He probably should have waited until they were all asleep but getting caught in the middle of the night was sure to bring the roof down on his head.

Shaking himself a little and getting back to his task, he placed his packages where he wanted them, hidden from easy view. Now, he sighed as he straightened his back. That should do it.

He stood back and walked around to gain different angles and was satisfied everything was in place. That was it, then. He was done. Everything had been accomplished and he hadn't missed a minute of work. Old man should like that, anyway. His eyes fixed on the small figurine, arms outstretched in welcome and a peaceful smile on the face. He stepped up to it with a slight frown and adjusted the halo. There, that's better.

He laughed softly to himself as he walked to the sideboard and poured a drink.

*

Johnny ambled around the great room thinking. How had it gotten to this? What had happened? Nothing he could think of. No big event, no drama. He chuckled. It had just seemed so natural, so right. All that tension and frustration that had edged every single moment the last time had evaporated.

Oh, they still argued but it wasn't a taking the roof off kind of thing. Disagreements. Scott liked to say they were disagreements and he reckoned that was right. He was really surprised by it at first. That very first time when he'd disagreed with the old man and told him so. He hadn't even raised his voice, hadn't given him that look, just said what he thought and waited, holding his breath.

And Murdoch had looked at him for a long time, thinking it through before opening his mouth. That right there was a miracle as far as Johnny was concerned. From both of them. The old man explained his reasonings and, even though Johnny still thought there was a better way and said so, he didn't balk when Murdoch made it clear they were gonna do it *his* way.

And it was alright with him because the old man had listened. Besides, he'd gotten his way a few times so it all evened out. This whole situation had taken him through such a tornado of emotions, he felt like a dishrag those first couple of months. Then, it seemed like everything just kind of leveled out. Sort of got on an even keel and the sailing had been pretty good. Only a few storms along the way and they'd weathered them. First with a whole lot of worry and frustration then, slowly with acceptance and understanding. It still befuddled him as to the how.

In the end, the how didn't really matter. What they had now simply astounded him but he was grateful. More than grateful but he couldn't think of a better way to explain it. Murdoch had been his rock and his biggest supporter and no one was more surprised than Johnny himself.

He walked over to that big window behind the desk and stared out like he'd seen his father do so many times when he was thinkin on something. The view was magnificent and he wondered how the man could ever think about anything with all this to look at every day. A smile crossed his face, warm and content.

His thoughts turned to his brother and the smile grew a little. Scott had been tough on him at first and that was alright. He'd expected as much. But with that toughness had come understanding and an open mind. Open heart, too. Slowly, sometimes painfully, the brothers had come together and developed both an understanding of each other and a friendship the likes of which Johnny had never known before.

Trusting Scott had been easier than he'd thought. Still, it had been no picnic. He knew he had frustrated his brother beyond measure at times. Beyond what he himself would have put up with. Somehow, Scott always seemed to find his center and accept whatever had happened. Of course, ole Boston wasn't exactly a chatterbox about himself and it had taken some work on Johnny's part to get the man to open up, too. It had happened though, for the both of them and now, he couldn't imagine his life without Scott in it.

He saw movement on the road and grinned then headed up the stairs to clean up. They were home finally.

*

Johnny descended the stairs cleaned and pressed and with a wide smile on his face. "How was church?"

"Fine, son. The usual. What did you do today?"

"Oh, I finished up that creek bed and checked the fence. Everything is fine there." His eyes landed on his sibling's unhappy face. "What's the matter with you, sunshine?"

Scott scowled, or tried to. "Just wished you'd gone with us, brother, or at the very least, taken the day off."

"Well, I took half the day off. I compromised. Ain't that what you're always sayin is the key to everything?" Johnny grinned and slapped his brother on the back as he passed him by then plopped on the sofa.

"Yes, that's what I always say. Glad to know you listen once in a while."

"I always listen to you, Scott. I just don't always know what the heck you're sayin."

Murdoch chuckled a little and settled by the fire. "It's chilly out there."

Johnny refrained from making a joke about old bones. "Where's Teresa?"

"Right here," she sang as she walked in. "Dinner is ready."

All three men headed to the dining room, impressed with the job she'd done the night before. They settled and waited as Maria and Teresa brought out the cornucopia of food.

Murdoch poured wine all around then lifted his glass and was still for a long moment. Finally, he took in a breath and spoke.


"To my family. God has truly blessed this house. We are all together for the first time on this most holy of days and for that, I am most grateful. To Scott, whose wisdom has guided me through my own pride and stubbornness. To Teresa, whose unwavering faith in us all kept us from failing. And to Johnny, who has worked harder than anyone to find his way in this world and back to his family. I treasure each of you. Merry Christmas, everyone."

They all raised their glasses and Johnny looked long at each face there. Scott was grinning like an idiot and he almost laughed at his brother's exuberance. Murdoch's face was softer than he'd ever seen it and full of peace and joy. Teresa's smile could get no bigger and there were tears in her eyes.

He felt a lump form in his own throat and drank long of the wine, hoping to wash away the emotions before making a fool of himself. He accepted a dish from his brother and began filling his plate. All the while thinking of the packages he'd so carefully placed under the Christmas tree and the people in this house who had moved heaven and earth to ensure he had a place at this table and in their hearts forever.

*

Johnny stood out on the veranda, a glass of twenty-year-old Scotch in his hand and breathed deep of the crisp night air. He could hear the soft strumming of a guitar from the bunkhouse and make out the voices raised in song. His eyes went to the night sky and he saw the star, shining so brightly above him.

He swallowed hard and spoke in a whisper. "Thank you. I'm sorry I didn't go today but you know why. Maybe, I can do it soon. I think I can. I want to. It's just so hard and the memories I know I'll find there ... I'm not sure I can handle it yet. I feel stronger every day, though. Like I'm healing from a deep wound. I guess I am. But, I gotta tell ya something, God. When you were handin out grit, you sure gave Murdoch Lancer more than a healthy dose. Nobody has ever fought for me like he has.

"I realized something tonight. Something I didn't know or, maybe, didn't let myself know. I love that old man. I love all of them and it feels better than I ever thought it could. I feel free. Really free for the first time in my life. So, thanks again for not letting him give up on me. For answering his prayers and for letting me get out of my own way somehow."

Johnny raised his glass and, in a shuddering breath, softly spoke, "Feliz Navidad." After taking a slow sip, he headed back inside to his family and his future.

 

~end~
2007

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