The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Grudges

 

 

 

Johnny Lancer rode along the coast road at an easy gait. He was on his way home and he was happy. He'd just finished making a deal for a prize bull that he knew would please his father immensely. He was pleased with himself as well. The bull would bring new blood into the herd and the beginning of another era of prosperity to the ranch.

Smiling to himself, he thought of the look on Murdoch's face when he told him how he'd bargained the price down. He laughed softly remembering the exasperation on Mr. Pearce's face. Johnny figured the man was ready to just give him the bull by the time they'd haggled it out. Now his new acquisition was to be boarded on the next train out and he figured if he timed it right, he'd be there to pick it up in Stockton.

Johnny suddenly found himself falling. He hit the ground hard, knocking the wind out of him. Confused, he tried to figure out what was happening when the fire in his left chest began. He looked down in fascination at the red stain spreading across the front of his shirt. He laid his head back and closed his eyes and knew no more.

The bushwhacker approached cautiously, nudging him with the toe of his boot. Satisfied the man was either unconscious or dead, he began rifling through the saddle bags of the palomino that had not budged from its master's side. He took a good look at the horse and smiled. Grabbing it's reins, he led it off back up the hill to his perch.

******

The wagon rolled and tumbled down the road slowly. The driver was in no hurry to get home. Rounding a turn, she pulled up quickly as she spied the man lying in the road. She breathed a sigh of relief that she was paying attention. Otherwise, she may well have run right over him. She climbed down and approached him slowly. Kneeling, she felt for a pulse then sat back.

With resignation, she went to the back of the wagon and cleared a spot then lead the team around him to position the tailgate closer. It took everything she had to get him in the wagon bed. Knowing she was being none too gentle but also knowing it didn't matter. If she left him, he would die anyway.

She climbed back into the seat and headed home, glancing back at him a few times. Once there, she repeated her earlier task and managed to get him in the house and onto a cot. By this time, she was perspiring heavily. She wiped her brow with the back of her hand and set water on to boil.

She unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it back, gasping at the wound that was already red and hot, blood still oozing slowly from the hole. She wasn't prepared for this, had no experience with gunshot wounds. She sat back and tried to think of what to do. There was no doctor within fifty miles.

She retrieved the hot water and began cleaning the wound as best she could, illiciting a groan twice from her patient. At these times, she stopped and held her breath, praying he wouldn't awaken. Once she'd washed the area thoroughly, she laid a clean bandage across it and covered him with the blanket. It was all she could think to do until her father returned from his hunting trip.

******

Johnny became aware of the intense burning in his chest long before he was able to open his eyes. He was also aware he was in a bed but not at home. He allowed his other senses to awaken and glean what information they could before opening his eyes.

When he did open them only to mere slits, he took in the room. It was small but warm. Easy to take in at a glance. He saw her sitting in a chair away from him, a rifle propped over her lap. She was young with brown hair. He couldn't tell her eye color though. She was pretty but not what he would call beautiful. The potential was certainly there, however. He almost smiled but the fire in his chest exploded and he clenched his teeth against the pain.

She watched him come to, saw his eyes open slightly. She waited for him to speak but instead she saw the pain on his face. She wanted to help him but was relunctant to get too close. Biting her lip, she pondered what to do. When she looked back at him, deep blue eyes were watching her intensely. She felt incredibly uncomfortable under that stare.

"Could I have some water?" he whispered.

She rose and laid the rifle in the chair and walked over. Pouring the liquid, she bent down and placed her hand on the back of his neck to help him. She noticed instantly the heat emanating from him and grimaced.

"Thank you."

"You're welcome."

"Where am I?" he asked.

"My home. I found you on the road, shot. I brought you here and did what I could. You got a bad wound and it's infected," she explained.

"Doctor?"

"Not for fifty miles in any direction. My pa will be home soon. He'll know more about what to do than me."

*****

"You got a name, mister?"

He smiled at her. "Johnny Lancer, Miss?"

"Rogers. Penny Rogers."

"Thank you for helping me, Penny Rogers."

"Didn't do much but you're welcome. You ought to sleep now. Nothin else for you to do."

"I guess not. You didn't happen to see a horse anywhere near me, did you? A palomino?"

"No, no horse, no nothin. Just you. Your gun was gone too, holster was empty."

"Great," Johnny sighed. He felt so tired. He closed his eyes and began to drift off. His last thought was that he hoped Barranca had run. He hoped his horse went home.

She watched as he drifted into sleep. Grateful she didn't have to talk to him anymore. Still, she wasn't so afraid of him now. He seemed nice enough. Didn't appear to be very dangerous. Of course, in his shape she doubted he could do much to her anyway.

Her pa had warned her a million times about letting anyone in the house when he was gone. Had scared her to death with stories of what could happen to her. But this was different and she hoped he wouldn't be mad at her for helping an injured man.

She sighed and figured she'd find out soon enough. She got up and left the room to prepare her dinner and some broth.

*******

He was riding down the coast road. It was a warm summer day and the breeze felt good on his face. He tipped his hat until it fell easily to his back, allowing the wind to run free through his hair. Life was good. Barranca whinied shrilly and began to fall. He jumped clear of the horse and rolled away unharmed.

Raising up, he saw the palomino laying on his side, struggling for breath. Johnny ran to him and dropped to his knees beside his friend. His hand went to Barranca's side and stroked the golden coat. When he lifted his hand, it was covered in blood. Johnny shouted in fury and pain.

He felt someone shaking him hard. His eyes flew open as he looked around. Terror seized his heart as he struggled to understand. Looking up into her face, he remembered what had really happened. Johnny relaxed and tried to control his breathing. He was soaked with sweat than ran down his face, glistening on his bare chest.

"You okay?" she asked.

"Yeah, sorry, bad dream," he whispered.

"I'd say so. You were tossin all around. Here, let me take a look at that wound."

She removed the bandage and saw the bleeding had started again. It wasn't bad but he sure didn't need to lose any more blood. "I'm gonna have to press down on this," she said as she did just that.

Johnny groaned and clenched his teeth.

She applied the pressure for a full five minutes before chancing another look. The bleeding had stopped and she relaxed. "It's stopped now. You can't be doin that. You lost enough blood as it is."

"Wasn't intentional," he said.

She heard the front door open and her name called. "That's my pa. You settle down and I'll be back."

******

She walked quickly from the room to greet her father. "How was the huntin?"

"Not great but not bad either. How's things here?" he asked.

"Well, I had a little problem. Now, don't get mad at me, pa. I couldn't just leave 'im."

"Leave who?" the tall man asked.

"I found 'im on the road, just layin there. He's been shot bad and it's infected. I done what I could but he's real sick, pa. Weak as a kitten and not a threat," she explained quickly.

He sucked in a breath and looked at her with some exasperation. "Well, let's get a look at 'im."

He walked into the room and straight up to the cot, glaring down at the man.

Johnny took him in. Tall, as tall as Murdoch, with gray hair and mustache. No beard. His face was weathered. The look of a hard-working man.

"Well now, young fella. My girl says you're in pretty bad shape."

"Reckon so. Sorry to be so much trouble," Johnny said softly.

"Hmmm. Well, let me have a look see at this wound," he said, nodding his head. He sat on the side of the bed and pulled the bandage off. Frowning, he shook his head.

"Bullet's got to come out."

"I know," Johnny replied flatly.

"Done it a time or two. Reckon I can do it again. Ain't got no pain medicine but I got some good whiskey."

Johnny smiled. "I'd rather have the whiskey anyway."

******

Mr. Rogers instructed his daughter on the supplies he would need then set about preparing to operate. Johnny watched the man closely and decided, even though he had no other options, he trusted the man knew what he was doing.

He prepared himself as well for what he knew was coming. Sure wasn't the first time and he knew what he was facing.

Rogers brought in the whiskey and helped Johnny take a rather healthy dose. It burned in a good way as it made it's way to his gullet. He could feel the warmth spread through his body and he relaxed.

"Alright, it's time," Rogers said.

Johnny nodded and felt something press against his lips. He looked at Penny and smiled as he took the cloth-covered piece of bark between his teeth.

Rogers sliced into his skin with the fire-sterilized knife and Johnny bit down on the bark with all he had.

The bullet was embedded in the muscle making it harder to gain hold of. Johnny thought he might just die before the man was done. He squeezed his eyes shut and concentrated all his efforts on not moving.

Rogers cursed under his breath a few times before finally locating the offending piece of steel. "Got it!" he exclaimed with relief.

Johnny was relieved as well, then he was unconscious.

Rogers looked at him and shook his head. "Wish he'd done that long before now."

******

He looked up at his daughter and noticed she was quite pale. "Gonna need the carbolic now, girl."

She nodded and left the room, grateful to escape for a moment.

He cleansed the wound thoroughly. Making sure he did all that was needed before Johnny came to again. The carbolic was as bad as the knife in his opinion. He sewed the wound with his daughter's thread and bandaged it tightly, swathing Johnny's chest in white cloth.

"Well, that's all I can do for now. We'll just have to hope the carbolic eats out that infection," he sighed tiredly. "Child, I'm a starvin."

Once more, she simply nodded and left the room. Rogers frowned. He had tried his best to protect her from the ugliness of the world. He knew it was an impossible task, especially now that she was reaching her womanhood. Seventeen already, he thought.

Johnny slept peacefully the rest of the night but she still sat with him. Nodding off herself sometime past midnight as she curled into the chair by the bed. She was no longer afraid of him, not in the least. She wondered is it was because her pa was home or if it was something else. She smiled as she drifted off thinking about his smile and his eyes.

*****

He awoke to the sun streaming through the window and took in his surroundings once more. He took a cautionary breath, judging the extent of the pain. He no longer felt too hot and hoped the fever was gone. He needed to get word to his family. They would begin to worry soon, especially if Barranca had made it home. Johnny prayed the palomino had done just that. He didn't care about his money or his gun but Barranca, well, that was different. He intended to have that horse back.

Mr. Rogers walked in and smiled down at him. "How're ya feelin?"

"Pretty good actually," Johnny returned the smile.

He felt his patient's forehead and nodded. "Fever's way down. Looks like you'll make it."

"Thanks to you. I don't know how I can repay you, sir."

"No need. Man ought to at least try to be neighborly when he can. I'm Bill Rogers, by the way," he said and extended his hand.

Johnny took the handshake with a smile. "Johnny Lancer."

Rogers' smile left immediately. "Lancer? As in Murdoch Lancer?"

"That's right. He's my father," Johnny answered with a puzzled expression.

Rogers stood up quickly, pulling his hand back. "I want you out of here, boy. Today!"

"Pa! He can't leave. He can't even move!" Penny exclaimed from the door.

"You should've told me who's pup he was."

She shook her head, not understanding. "I don't know who he is."

"I take it you don't like my old man," Johnny said coldly.

"You take it right, boy. Now, I don't care how ya do it but you get out of my house. Ain't no Lancer welcome here!" he decried and stormed out.

******

Johnny stared after him as did Penny. She was stunned by his behavior. She looked at Johnny without comprehension.

"I'll talk to him," she said.

"Won't do any good. I saw the hate in his eyes. Whatever his problem with Murdoch is, you can't fix it," Johnny said and started to raise up.

He didn't get very far as the fire ignited once more in his chest and he sucked in a breath.

She was at his side in an instant. "You can't do this, Johnny. You'll never make it."

"Just help me sit up," he said through gritted teeth. Holding his left arm close to his body, he managed to sit on the side of the bed with her help. The room spun and he closed his eyes until the dizziness stopped.

"This is crazy. You won't make it to the door," she insisted.

"Don't have a choice. Man has a right to say who stays in his own house," he ground out, breathing hard by now.

Sweat popped out on his face and chest as he struggled against the pain. "Just .... give me a .... minute."

She shook her head and left him to find her father. He was leaning against the porch support, staring into space.

"Pa, he can't leave. He won't make it."

"Ain't our concern."

"He'll die!"

"Then let 'im!"

"What has Johnny ever done to you?" she asked, hands on hips.

"His pa..."

"He ain't his pa no more than I'm you! What if it was me hurt and Johnny's pa took me in. Would you want him throwin me out in that shape?"

He turned and glared at her. "Murdoch Lancer made his bed. Now he can lay in it!" He stormed off into the woods behind the house.

******

She heard a crash and went running back inside. Johnny was leaning against the table breathing hard.

"Sorry. I broke your bowl," he whispered.

"I'm sorry, Johnny. He won't listen to me. Let me at least take you to town."

He smiled at her appreciatively. "That would help. Thanks."

She helped him sit at the table then went out to hitch up the team. While she was in the barn, her father came back in.

"Thought I told you to leave, boy."

"Just catchin my breath," Johnny said weakly.

"Catch it somewhere's else!"

Johnny looked up at the man with wonder. "What did Murdoch do to you?"

Rogers faltered and a look of pain flashed over his face, gone as quickly as it had come. "Ain't your concern."

"Ain't my concern? I think it is since I'm the one payin for it!" His anger emerged and it seemed to give him more strength.

"Ask you pa," was all Rogers would say.

Johnny laughed softly at this. "I can't. Don't reckon I'll be seeing him again in this life. So why don't you just tell me what I'm dyin for?" There was no pity in his voice, not even remorse, just a simple statement of fact.

Rogers bristled at the flat, cold tone the boy used. As if it didn't bother him to die. "Don't sound like you much care if ya die or not," he said with curiosity.

"Oh, I care. Just don't see any point in cryin over it."

******

Penny came back in and stopped short at the doorway. She squared her small shoulders. "Unless you changed your mind, pa, I'm at least gonna take him to town."

"I ain't changed my mind and you ain't taken him noplace!" he growled. Lowering his voice, he added, "I'll take 'im."

"Don't bother! I'll make it on my own," Johnny hissed, angry with the treatment the young girl was receiving. "You got no call to yell at her, Mr. Rogers. No call at all."

Penny couldn't help but smile at being defended. The smile faded quickly as Johnny started to stand. He wavered, grabbing hold of the edge of the table for support. Then he stood to his full height and turned toward the door. His face was ashen and he was sweating again.

He staggered toward her, determined to make it out of the house. He stopped beside her and smiled down. "Thanks for everything you've done."

She swallowed hard and looked up at him, tears welling in her eyes. "I'm so sorry," she whispered.

Johnny smiled and briefly stroked her cheek, then walked out of the house under his own power.

She glared at her father as he stood staring in some sort of awe at the young man. "Help him," she pleaded.

*****

He leaned against the hitching rail for a minute and looked at the road, trying to get his bearings and figure out which way town was. He closed his eyes as the pain intensified. He knew he wouldn't make it.

Johnny took a deep breath and started walking toward the road. He staggered like a drunk as he made his way.

Penny watched in abject horror as he valiantly stumbled along. She turned fierce blue eyes on her father. "How could you do that? He never did anything to you!"

"Yes he did. He just don't know it," Rogers said glumly. He turned and started to walk back inside. "Come in the house, girl."

"Pa, please," she begged.

"In the house now! Forget about him. He was never here."

******

He tried to keep his eyes down, focused on his feet as he made his way. He knew if he looked up he would pass out. The dizziness was putting up quite a battle to overtake him but he was stubborn and willed it away time and time again.

Seeing a large tree off the road through his periphery, Johnny stumbled over and leaned heavily against it, catching his breath. He knew if he sat down he may never get up again.

Resting his head against the rough bark, he gulped in the air. It suddenly occurred to him he had no gun. In all the confusion and anger, he had totally forgotten about it.

He started laughing to himself. No gun, no horse, no water. Might as well lay down right here. Good a place as any. Johnny, you are dead meat.

He sighed and looked down the road. Not without one hell of a fight, I'm not. With this resolve, he pushed onward.

If I could find a shack or something, I could hold up there. Maybe find a stream or brook. That would be a nice change of luck. He smiled sardonically to himself. Well, it ain't the first fix you've found yourself in. Might as well start usin your head for something besides a hat rack.

He tried to think about the route he'd taken from Serenity, that hole in the wall they called a town. He had been too busy patting himself on the back to pay much attention. Slippin, gettin soft. Damn!

****

The stranger rode into Morro Coyo and headed for the livery. Smiling widely, he approached the blacksmith.

"You buy horses?" he asked.

"Sure do. Whatcha got?" the smithy asked.

The man grinned even more. "Take at look at this fella. Ain't he a beaut."

The smithy looked behind him and his eyes widened, then quickly narrowed in suspicion. "Where'd ya get 'im?" he asked as he took a closer look.

"Well now, I found 'im on the trail. Just standin there all alone. Figured somebody wasn't too lucky that day and bein's there weren't no one around, I figured he was fair game," the man explained with a shrug.

"I see. If you're in no hurry, I might have a buyer for ya right now," the smithy smiled affably.

The man's eyes widened and the greed was papable. "Ain't got nothin better ta do."

"Good! You just catch yourself a piece of this here barrel and I'll be right back."

The stranger perched on the barrel and sighed happily. He knew he'd get top price for the palomino and he was already spending that money in his mind.

******

Mike Swenson took off his smithy apron, keeping the smile plastered on his face as he walked out of the forge.

His pace increased the further away he got until he was nearly running to get to the merchantile. He had seen the Lancers there only fifteen minutes earlier and hoped they hadn't left yet.

He was relieved when he saw Murdoch standing on the boardwalk talking to his son.

"Murdoch!"

"Hello, Mike," the rancher greeted.

"Mike," Scott nodded.

"Yeah, hi. Listen, a stranger just rode into my place lookin to sell a horse. Murdoch, I'd bet my life it's Barranca!"

Scott stood up and tensed as Murdoch's shoulders rose. "Are you sure?"

"I'm sure."

"Did he say where he got the horse?" Scott asked.

"Said he found him on the trail. Said there wasn't no one around. I don't know but he looks pretty seedy, if ya know what I mean. I told him to wait there cause I had a buyer for him."

"Thanks, Mike. We'll handle it from here," Murdoch said and clenched his jaw.

"It's possible he did find the animal on the trail, Murdoch," Scott tried to reason.

"Yes, it's possible but I intend to find out."

******

The man stood when he saw the two of them approach. He smiled widely. "Smithy send ya?"

"Yes, he did. He said you had a fine horse for sale. We've been looking for good horseflesh," Scott said with a friendly smile of his own.

"Well, this fella surely is that. Hate ta think what mighta happened to his owner but, well, I couldn't rightly see just leavin 'im there all alone."

Murdoch nodded and looked the horse over. He knew immediately but he took his time, pretending to be examining the animal. He rubbed his hand across the 'L' on Barranca's hindquarter and sighed.

"Where did you say you found him?" he asked.

"On the coast road," the stranger answered.

"Yes, but where exactly on the coast road?" Scott asked.

"Near a little town called, uh, let me see ....... Serenity. Yep, that was it, Serenity. Sure was, too. Nothing goin on there except the weeds growin," the man laughed.

"That's a long way to bring a horse to sell. There are plenty of towns you could have sold him in," Murdoch said.

"Well, I was really thinkin of keepin 'im. But the truth is, I'm a little low on cash."

******

Murdoch opened his mouth to ask another question but he was stopped cold. Scott had grabbed the man by the shirt collar and slammed him into the side of the livery. He reached down and pulled the pistol from the man's holster as Murdoch approached.

"Did you find this gun on the coast road, too?" Scott spat.

"That's my gun. Hey, what's goin on here?" the stranger asked, knowing he had made some kind of mistake.

"Scott?" Murdoch called.

Scott released the man but didn't allow him to move away. He handed the gun to his father. "It's Johnny's. I'd swear my life on it."

Murdoch looked at the Colt and knew it was indeed Johnny's. His anger swelled as did his fear. "Where's my son?"

"What? I don't know what you're talkin about, mister."

"That horse belongs to my brother and so does that gun. Now, I'll ask you one more time. Where is Johnny Lancer?"

He looked between the two of them in disbelief. Of all the towns he could have rode into. Of all the places he could have sold that damned horse, he had to ride into the viper's nest. "I don't know any Johnny Lancer," he tried.

"Alright. Where is the man you stole these things from? And mister, my patience has reached it's limit," Scott said harshly.

He swallowed hard as he tried to think of a way out of this mess. "If I tell ya, will ya let me go?"

"Yes," Murdoch said, effectively cutting Scott off.

******

Scott looked at his father as if he'd lost his mind. Murdoch ignored the look and concentrated on the man.

"All I want is my son. Now where is he?"

"I don't rightly know. All I know is where I left 'im. Right where I said. On the coast road, near Serenity."

"And what shape did you leave him in?" Scott asked.

"No shape. I mean I robbed 'im. I got the drop on 'im and took his gun and his horse. I left 'im standin in the road. I swear it!"

"You're a liar," Scott hissed.

"No..."

"There's no way a saddle tramp like you could ever get the drop on my brother," Scott continued.

Murdoch took a step forward, knowing Scott was right. "Did you kill him?" he asked.

"Mister, I swear I never touched him. Honest." By this time the man was trembling in fear.

Murdoch sighed heavily. "I know you're lying to me. You must have bushwacked him. I know you must have been laying in wait for quite a while. Maybe before Johnny ever left Serenity. I know this because I know my son. You couldn't have simply robbed him."

"And you had better pray he's still alive. Now, let's go," Scott added coldly.

"Go? Go where?"

"To the sheriff. You didn't really think we'd let you go, did you?"

*******

Murdoch and Scott deposited the thief at the sheriff's office, explaining what had happened.

"That's farm country. Serenity isn't much, Murdoch. Hardly worth calling a town. They don't even have a telegraph office and I know there's no doctor there," Gabe explained.

"It's also about fifty miles from here," Scott interjected.

Murdoch nodded. "Then I guess we had better get started."

Scott nodded his head firmly and they walked back over to the livery. They acquired two good horses and asked Mike to send word to Lancer to come get Barranca and the supply wagon and explain what had happened.

That done, they went to the merchantile and purchased trail provisions then headed north to Serenity.

It was already noon by the time they got started. They rode along in silence. Each man deep in his own thoughts.

"How long do you think it will take us?" Scott asked just to break the silence.

"A day, maybe two," Murdoch clipped.

"We'll find him, sir."

"I know, Scott. I know." But it didn't sound convincing to Scott's ears.

******

Bill Rogers sat at the table eating his dinner while his daughter paced the kitchen floor.

"Sit down and eat, girl."

"I ain't hungry. If anybody'd told me my pa could do such a thing...." she fumed.

He sighed heavily. "I said ta drop it."

"He's probably dead already. And if he ain't, he's probably wishin he was," she continued.

He shook his head and figured she'd go on all night about it. "I'm goin to bed." With that announcement, he rose and walked off to his bedroom, leaving his daughter to glare after him.

He stopped short at the door. "Don't you leave this house, Penny."

She didn't think she could be any more furious but he had managed to bring her to new heights. She stomped the floor as he closed his bedroom door then she sat down at the table and cried.

*******

Johnny saw it but he wasn't sure it was real. Just off the road, no more than fifty feet, stood an old barn and a shack.

The shack was useless, the roof long since collapsed onto itself, but the barn didn't look too bad. He veered off the road toward the shelter.

Without warning, his legs betrayed him and he stumbled, rolling down the slight incline. He came to rest by a water pump, his left shoulder slamming into the trough.

Johnny gritted his teeth and groaned as the pain exploded in his chest. It took several minutes for the fire to die down. Once it did, he looked up at what he'd fallen into.

Seeing the water pump gave him a spark of hope and he reached up with his right hand to pull himself to a sitting position. After a good ten minutes, he managed to get to his feet again. His right hand rested on the pump handle and he laid his head on that hand for a minute.

Please, God, he prayed, just give me one little break here. He took a deep breath and tried the handle. It would not budge. He tried again and again but it was locked up tight, rusted by years of neglect.

Finally conceding defeat, Johnny looked upward and winked. "Thanks a lot."

He stumbled to the barn and made it inside, allowing his eyes to adjust to the low light. He found some stale, dry hay in a stall. Guess it's better than nothin. Got to rest for just a little while. He knew when he laid down, he may never get up again.

*******

Bill Rogers laid in his bed and stared at the ceiling, remembering.

He'd known Maria and Johnny for the short time they'd been at Lancer. He remembered the boy vividly. Smiling at the pure raw energy that exuded from every pore of the child's body. He could almost hear the laugh that had been infectious.

Those were happy times when he'd worked at Lancer. Happier than he'd been before or since. Then came the morning when Murdoch Lancer lost his soul. Rogers had ached for his friend's loss. Had offered to help in the search but Murdoch was inconsolable then and unwilling to accept help from anyone.

Even Paul O'Brien hadn't been able to get through to the man. Rogers knew then it was a lost cause. Having already lost one son, without Johnny, Murdoch was a broken man.

Slowly, Murdoch had picked up the pieces. He threw himself into building the ranch and pushed himself and everyone else to the breaking point at times. He had always been a hard man but a fair one. After Maria left, the fairness was gone as well.

One mistake was all it had taken. One missed detail. He'd been fired on the spot. Thrown off the ranch unceremoniously with a wife who was with child. He'd packed up their few belongings and tried to console his wife. She'd begged him to talk to Murdoch but he was a proud man. He wasn't about to beg for his job. He'd told her they'd find another place. He'd find work easily with his experience.

******

At that time, Morro Coyo was nothing more than a livery and a merchantile. There was no doctor there. Heck, they didn't even have a real church. They had moved on, heading north with the hope of finding work elsewhere in the valley or the next one.

But she'd gone into labor on the trail. He thought he could handle it. He'd birthed plenty of calves and foals. The child came and they were both on cloud nine. Then something went terribly wrong. She'd looked at him with a horror he would never forget. Suddenly, blood gushed from her and he couldn't stop it. He'd tried so hard but in only a few short minutes, she was gone.

He was left with a newborn daughter and a broken heart. He had blamed Murdoch Lancer ever since. If he hadn't been fired, she'd have been in the capable hands of a midwife. If they'd been at the ranch where it was clean and comfortable, she might have survived.

Rogers sighed mournfully and thought of Johnny. He smiled when he remembered Johnny placing a tiny hand on his wife's stomach, looking up quizzically. "Baby?"

She'd laughed and picked him up, hugging him tightly. "Yes, Johnny. A new baby for you to play with in just a few months."

The boy was thrilled and had laughed with the pure, innocent joy that only a child could have. Tears sprung to the old man's eyes as the pain came back. He shook his head and wiped his face.

******

Scott and Murdoch arrived in Serenity near 4 p.m. the day after starting their trip. Their horses had been pushed to the limit and they headed for the livery.

Ensuring the animals welfare, they asked the smithy about Johnny. The man remembered the palomino well but he was positive Johnny had not returned to Serenity.

"Now what?" Scott asked.

"Well, we'll get some fresh horses and ride the coast road. Check all the farmhouses along the way," Murdoch decided.

They rode out heading south. Murdoch's thoughts were heavy with worry. He knew Johnny had to be hurt. His son was well experienced. Too much so for that saddle tramp to have been telling the truth.

Scott thought back to the day Johnny had left on this trip. Johnny had wanted Scott to go but Murdoch insisted he do the buying this time. And so Johnny couldn't resist teasing Scott about his inexperience with bovines.

Scott smiled as he remembered, then a frown creased his face. How did a simple buying trip go so wrong? He said a prayer for his brother's safety and glanced over at the furrowed brow of his father.

Murdoch would never admit he was afraid but Scott knew it was so. Oh, he'd say he was worried and his tone would be somewhat flat. But Scott had come to recognize that tone as being the one he dreaded hearing most. That was the tone that told him things were worse than he'd hoped.

******

They stopped at two farms without any luck. No one had seen a stranger, let alone an injured one. Scott was getting frustrated. He wished he'd made the thief tell him exactly how far from Serenity he was when he bushwacked Johnny.

Murdoch saw the frustration on his son's face. "There are plenty more farms to check, son."

"They're so scattered apart, Murdoch. We don't know exactly where he was or if anyone even found him."

Murdoch could only nod and head out to the next farm. They rode into the yard and were about to dismount when they heard the sound of a rifle being cocked.

The man stepped out of the house onto the porch, rifle trained on Murdoch.

"Stay saddled and get off my land," he hissed.

Murdoch started to speak, then stopped and looked closely. "Bill? Bill Rogers?"

"That's right."

Murdoch shook his head in disbelief. "How long has it been?"

"Not long enough. Now, like I said, get out."

Scott looked between his father and the man with a puzzled expression mixed with an urgency he could hardly contain.

"We don't want to bother you, Bill. I'm looking for Johnny. You remember Johnny," Murdoch said, his expression as puzzled as Scott's.

*******

"He was here," the soft voice said. She stepped out of the house and stood away from her father.

"Johnny was here? When?" Scott asked.

"Yesterday. He's gone now - on foot," she answered.

"On foot? Was he hurt?" Murdoch asked.

She dropped her eyes and only nodded.

"Bill?"

"I dug a bullet out of him. That was before I knew who he was. I sent 'im packin," Bill Rogers said coldly.

"Just a minute. Are you saying you threw my brother out with a gunshot wound and on foot?" Scott asked increduously.

"Wouldn't have took the bullet out if I'd known who he was," came the flat reply.

"Why, Bill?" Murdoch asked.

"Why? You got no right askin me that, Murdoch Lancer. You know why!"

"Whatever you blame me for, Johnny had nothing to do with it!" Murdoch shot back.

"Says you!"

"We're wasting time, Murdoch! Which way did he head?" Scott asked impatiently.

"North, toward town," Penny answered.

"We just came that way."

"There's plenty of abandoned shacks and barns he could've hold up in," she offered. When she finally looked at Scott he could see the tears brimming in her blue eyes.

He smiled softly at her. "Thank you, Miss."

They turned their horses and started to leave but Murdoch pulled up and turned back. "If he's dead, you will answer for it," he shot menacingly.

********

Johnny opened his eyes and stared at the blurry image in front of him. He couldn't figure out what he was looking at. He blinked several times and rubbed his hand across his face before his vision cleared.

A beam. He frowned and wondered why there was a beam in his room. Looking around he realized where he was and remembered.

He swallowed, his throat feeling like it was sticking together. He needed water but how? He remembered the water pump, the rusted water pump and he sighed. He knew he should check his wound but he wasn't looking forward to it.

With effort he reached across his chest and pulled his shirt back. Feeling the bandage he could tell something was there that used to be wet. Now there was a hardness to the cloth. Must have started bleeding again.

He raised his head for a split second before being forced to lay it back down. The entire barn started spinning in front of him and he closed his eyes. Keeping them closed, he rolled onto his right side. He managed to get his elbow under him and raised up.

With his eyes shut, the dizziness wasn't so bad and he raised up higher, forcing himself onto his knees. Johnny stopped, on bended knees and one hand to rest. Breathing heavily, he pulled one leg forward until his foot was flat on the ground.

With more strength that he thought he had, he pushed himself up on both feet and staggered back. The stall caught him before he could fall. He leaned his back against it and gulped for air.

*******

Now what? he thought. He sighed as he knew he had to leave the relative shelter of the barn. But leave it he did, stumbling his way to the door and getting it open wide enough to slip through.

The sun was low in the sky and he wondered if he'd slept hours or days. He started back down the road toward Serenity.

Ten minutes, he was sure it was only ten minutes. No longer certainly. You really got a sense of humor, don't ya God? he thought.

He walked over and dropped to his knees in front of the small creek. Staring at the water, he considered just throwing himself in. Instead, he leaned down and cupped his right hand, forcing himself to drink slowly.

He reached to his back pocket and took out the kerchief. Wetting it generously, he squeezed the water over his head and wiped the back of his neck. He repeated this process several times, stopping at intervals to drink again.

Exhausted, he tried to decide what to do next. He felt the need to sleep but he also knew he wouldn't last much longer out here alone. He felt hot, too hot and knew he had a fever.

He tried to get up but his legs began to shake uncontrollably. Laughing a little at his body's betrayal, he waited. He tried again after a few minutes and made it to his feet. Two seconds later, he was laying by the creek out cold.

*****

Murdoch was livid. Scott could not remember ever seeing his father in such a rage. His worst arguments with Johnny had never resulted in this kind of anger.

He decided it was best not to try to speak to Murdoch just now so they rode in silence until they reached the first abandoned shack.

They searched the shack and the surrounding grounds and came up empty. Without a word, Murdoch mounted up and rode away, leaving Scott to catch up with him.

"We should look for areas with water. Johnny would try to find some place like that," Scott suggested gingerly.

"If he's got enough wits about him to think at all!"

Scott raised a brow but said nothing as they approached a broken down shack and barn. The shack was a shambles so they checked the barn first.

As they were about to walk out, Scott called to his father. "Take a look at this. This hay is pressed down like someone was lying here. And there, see those boot prints?" he pointed out.

"I see them. Maybe he was here for a while. We'll keep going toward town. Keep a close eye on the sides of the road," Murdoch answered.

******

A few minutes later, Murdoch reined in his mount sharply.

"What?" Scott asked.

"Over there by that creek. Does that look like ....." he trailed off as his eyes focused on a form beside the water.

Both men reined their horses and turned to the creek. Murdoch got there a second ahead of Scott and was off his horse and running to Johnny.

He turned his son over, rolling him into his arms. "Johnny?"

Scott dropped to the other side with his canteen. "How is he?"

"Unconcious. He's burning up," Murdoch grumbled. He pulled Johnny's shirt away and grimaced at the dried blood on the bandage.

Murdoch bent closer then drew back. "I can smell the infection. Bill Rogers is a dead man," he seethed.

"Never mind him! Let's get Johnny taken care of," Scott said tersely.

"We can't stay out here. He needs a bed and proper attention. There's no doctor in Serenity," Murdoch said, looking thoughtful.

"Rogers' is the closest place," Scott said.

"And that's exactly where we're going."

"Murdoch...."

"At gunpoint if necessary, Scott. Johnny needs help and no one is going to stop me from giving it to him!"

******

Bill Rogers jumped to his feet as his front door came crashing open. Scott entered first, gun drawn, followed by Murdoch carrying Johnny.

Penny ran to her bedroom door and opened it wide. "In here."

Murdoch took Johnny to the room as Scott kept watch on Rogers. "Are those the only weapons in the house?" he asked, nodding toward the two rifles racked on the wall.

Rogers only nodded. Scott walked over to them and holstered his gun. He emptied the cartidges from the rifles and walked outside. Using his anger as much as his muscle, Scott slammed first one then the other rifle against the hitching post.

He walked back in and simply stared at Rogers. "If you make any false moves I won't hesitate to put you down. My brother is more important to me than anyone!"

Bill Rogers only sat back down at the table and stared at the floor.

Penny came out and put water on to boil then began gathering all the medical supplies they had. Scott helped her carry them into the bedroom. He stopped behind Murdoch and watched for a few seconds as his father washed Johnny's face with more tenderness than Scott thought the man was capable of.

With a lump in his throat, Scott walked to the other side of the bed and laid out the bandages.

*****

"Help me get his shirt off," Murdoch said in that flat tone.

Scott started removing Johnny's shirt then cut the bandage away from his chest. The bandage stuck to the wound and Murdoch poured water over it to loosen it's hold. Slowly, the bandage came off.

What they saw made both men suck in their breath and Penny turned away.

Several of the stitches were ripped out and the wound was a red, swollen mass. Yellow pus oozed slowly from it and the odor was almost unbearable.

Scott and Murdoch regained their composure. "We need to take the rest of those stitches out," Murdoch said.

Scott swallowed hard and nodded his head as he watched his father snip the threads with Penny's sewing scissors.

"What have we got?" Murdoch asked.

"Carbolic and whiskey not much else," Scott answered softly.

"I'll use the carbolic." Murdoch poured a generous amount of the corrosive liquid into the wound.

Johnny moaned then went still again as each person in the room held their breath.

Murdoch nearly scrubbed the wound even more raw as he was determined to rid his son of the infection. He knew it was too late, that it had spread into his bloodstream. Still, it was all he could do to help Johnny.

"We'll leave it open until Sam can see it," he said as they began to wrap Johnny's chest.

They heard a hissing sound as they finished and both looked up to see Johnny open his eyes.

*****

Johnny looked up into the face of his father. He blinked several times to rid himself of the delusion but it wouldn't go away. He felt the large hand on his forehead and frowned. "Murdoch?"

"Yes, son, I'm here. Scott's here, too."

"Well, brother, I have to say, life is never boring with you," Scott smiled.

Johnny turned his head toward the voice and managed a small smile. He wasn't dreaming after all. "Got to keep you on your toes, Boston," he said weakly.

"Well, you certainly do that," Murdoch proclaimed with a smile.

"Where am I?"

"Someplace safe, Johnny. Here, you need to drink," Murdoch reassured as he helped his son with the water.

He tried to inhale the entire glass but Murdoch pulled it away much too quickly. "Slow, Johnny. You'll get sick."

Once he'd finished and caught his breath, he looked back at Scott. "How'd you find me?"

"Well, that is a long story, brother. One that can wait until you feel better."

Johnny frowned, he wasn't sure he was ever going to feel better. In fact, he felt just plain awful.

*******

He inhaled sharply as the pain jabbed at his chest and two worried faces watched closely.

"Hurts," he whispered.

"I know, son. It's infected. I cleaned it out as much as I could. You have a pretty high fever," Murdoch reported.

"I know," he sighed. "Where am I?" he asked again.

Murdoch tensed but knew he couldn't lie to Johnny. "You're at the Roger's place."

Johnny looked up at him in disbelief then started to raise up. "No, can't stay here."

Murdoch's hands were on his shoulders, pushing him gently back down. "Yes, you can and you will. Stop it, Johnny. You aren't going anywhere."

"Doesn't want me here, you either," he managed.

"At the moment, I don't care what he wants. I can't believe he threw you out of here like this!"

"Murdoch," Scott's soft voice urged.

Taking a deep breath, Murdoch calmed himself. "Listen to me, Johnny. Whatever is between Bill Rogers and me has nothing to do with you."

"He thinks it does," Johnny retorted.

"Well, he's wrong. Now, I want you to rest, son."

He knew he couldn't argue the point. He was too tired and he felt too bad. Johnny closed his eyes and tried to relax. He felt a hand on his head and knew it was Scott. He drifted off, secure in the knowledge that his family would take care of him.

*****

Murdoch watched him fall asleep. A mixture of emotions warring inside him. Worry, fear, dread, love and anger.

"Sit with him, Scott. I need to talk with Rogers."

"Murdoch, are you going to tell me what this is all about?" Scott asked.

Murdoch looked at him but didn't answer. He left the room with the door slightly ajar in case Johnny needed him.

Bill Rogers was still sitting at the table, staring into space when Murdoch approached. Penny poured him some coffee and went outside.

"Would you like to explain yourself?' Murdoch asked.

Rogers looked at him and raised his brows. "Don't think it needs sayin."

"You can't hate me this much for firing you."

"It ain't that!"

"Then what is it?!"

"You don't know, do ya? It's Lizzie!"

Murdoch shook his head in confusion. "What about her?"

"She died havin Penny. Died on the trail because of you!"

Murdoch swallowed hard as he stared into the pain filled eyes of his one-time friend. "I didn't know," he whispered.

*******

Rogers glowered at him for an interminable moment. "She might've made it if we was somewhere she could get help."

"What happened?"

"She bled ta death. Just a couple of minutes after Penny came she just ....."

"I'm sorry, Bill. I truly am. But that doesn't explain how you could do what you did to Johnny. You knew him. He loved you. You were his Uncle Bill."

"And when Maria took him away you turned on everybody that tried to help you. You weren't fit ta be around, Murdoch. Well, I could understand that all right. But you had no call ta fire me. No call at all. Makin Lizzie have ta travel in her condition. It wasn't right!"

Murdoch dropped his head. "Maybe you're right. Maybe I didn't have any reason to fire you. I don't really remember much that happened in those few months after Johnny was gone. Seems I was just going through the motions. But, Bill, the same thing happened to Catherine when Scott was born. It wouldn't have mattered where Lizzie was."

"That may be true, I don't know. I spent so much time blamin and hatin you. When I saw Johnny, found out who he was, it all came back like a flood. Hell, I was young then. Maybe I should've stood up to ya. Told ya you were wrong and fought for my job. Pride can ruin a man I reckon. Lizzie tried ta tell me but I was too mad ta listen."

Murdoch smiled slightly at a memory. "She was crazy over Johnny. She was always playing with him." The smile disappeared into a frown then. "Do you think she would have wanted you to treat him the way you did?"

It was Rogers' turn to drop his head. "No, she wouldn't. If it makes any difference, I'm sorry I treated him so bad. I shouldn't have took it out on him. He didn't have nothin ta do with it, really. When I heard that name - Lancer - it just set my blood ta boilin all over again."


"He could have died, Bill. Nothing says he might not still. His fever is too high and that wound was bad."

********

Rogers took a deep breath and looked at Murdoch. "He needs a doctor but the closest one is in Morro Coyo."

"I know. We could send for him but...."

"It'd take longer than if we took him back there. I can fix up the wagon bed. I got a cover for it. Might take a little longer but it's a sight better than waitin on the doc. 'Sides, ain't no kind of proper place around here for 'im to get better."

"I agree. Johnny will want to go home, anyway."

"How long was it before ya got 'im back?" Rogers asked.

Murdoch winced at the question. "He's only been home a little less than a year."

Bill Rogers stared at his old friend. "Why?"

"I couldn't find him. All those years and I couldn't find him. He ..... his mother died when he was still a boy. She told him I threw them out, that I didn't want him."

"She didn't," Rogers said in whispered astonishment.

Murdoch could only nod his head. "When I finally did locate him, I found out what he'd been doing all this time. He was ..... a gunfighter."

"Good Lord," Rogers whispered. "How'd ya convince 'im ya didn't throw 'im out?"

Murdoch smiled. "I didn't. Teresa did. Oh, Teresa is Paul's daughter."

"Paul's got a girl? Well, I'll be."

"He's dead now. Killed in a range war last year. Teresa is my ward."

"I'm real sorry ta hear that, Murdoch. Paul was a good man." Rogers said sincerely.

******

The two men sat in silence for a while. One comtemplating what all had transpired, one thinking how things should have been different.

"Reckon we could leave at first light," Rogers said.

"Leave for where?" Penny asked as she walked back in the house.

"We're takin Johnny to the doctor in Morro Coyo, Penny," he explained.

She smiled brightly at her father. "Then everything's alright now?"

"Everything's fine now, Penny," he assured her, glancing over at Murdoch.

"I'll start gettin some supplies together," she said.

"I should let Scott know the plan," Murdoch said as he rose.

"That's Scott, huh? I knew it was when he called Johnny his brother," Rogers said.

"Yes, I guess introductions haven't been properly made."

"Well, looks like ya finally got both your boys home. I'm glad for that, Murdoch."

"Thank you, Bill. So am I." Murdoch looked pensively at him then turned and went into the bedroom.

*****

"I'm not sure he can handle the trip, sir," Scott said when Murdoch explained the plan.

"There's not much choice, son. We could send for Sam but he'd have to pack up half his office to treat Johnny."

Scott conceded the point with a nod of the head. "I take it you've squared things with Rogers."

"I have."

"But you're not going to tell me."

"Not now, Scott."

Scott started to respond but he was stopped by movement from the bed. Both men went immediately to Johnny's side.

"Easy, brother. We're here."

"Scott?"

"Yes, Johnny, it's me."

"Feel bad," Johnny mumbled.

"I know. We're taking you home tomorrow," Scott said.

"Home? Okay."

Murdoch smiled as he placed a hand on Johnny's forehead. Shaking his own head, he sighed. "That fever's awfully high."

"I know. I just hope it doesn't get any worse."

******

Scott and Murdoch threw out their bedrolls on the floor of the bedroom. Neither would leave Johnny but both knew they needed to rest for the trip they were facing.

Penny brought in extra blankets and pillows to make them more comfortable. She had offered to sit with him but both men had refused.

During the night, Johnny awakened to feel a rough hand on his forehead. "Murdoch?"

"No, Johnny, it's me," Bill Rogers said softly.

Johnny opened his eyes and took in the man sitting beside him. Rogers had a wet cloth and was soothing his fevered brow.

"Reckon it's time I apologized to ya, boy. I was wrong, Johnny, and I feel awful for what I done."

"You didn't shoot me," Johnny sighed, then looked up with a cocked brow. "Did ya?"

Rogers smiled. "No, I didn't. But I didn't do right by ya neither. My Lizzie would've took my head off if she could see what I done."

"Lizzie?"

"My wife. She died when Penny was born," he explained, the sadness still ever present in his voice.

******

Johnny used all his energy to focus on the man. He sensed this was an important moment and he needed to know. "Like Scott's mother."

"Yeah, I didn't know her. I did know your ma and you when you was a little thing."

"Yeah?"

"Ya used ta call me Uncle Bill, or as near to it as you could manage at that age," Rogers chuckled. "Lizzie sure loved you ta pieces."

"I don't remember," Johnny whispered. The sadness that always consumed him with that admission overcame him now and he closed his eyes against the emotions.

"No reason for ya to. You were so young then."

"Yeah, I know. Still, I wish ....."

"Wish you could remember bein at home then," Rogers finished for him.

Johnny nodded slowly. "Might have made things easier when I came back."

"Murdoch told me .... well, what your ma told ya. I hope you know that ain't true, Johnny. He was a proud man when you come along. I ain't never seen him so happy. Anytime somebody come by the ranch for any reason, he'd stop and make sure they met you. Didn't matter if it was some saddle tramp askin for directions, ole Murdoch would say .... "Just a minute, I want you to meet my son." Rogers laughed at the memory but when he looked at Johnny, he was taken aback by the pain on the young man's face.

"Hey now, I'm sorry, Johnny."

"It's okay. It's just hard to know how it really was. I spent my whole life hating Murdoch. It's hard to let go of that all at once."

******

"Have ya let go of it, Johnny?" Rogers asked.

"Yes. Still, we don't get along so good a lot of the time. I can't help but wonder...."

"How it'd be if ya grew up with him. I reckon we all have regrets in our lives. Funny how ya can turn pain into hate, then aim it at whoever seems the best target. That's what I did with your pa. I blamed him for Lizzie's death when the truth is, it probably wouldn't have made a bit of difference where she was. Like Scott's ma, it would've happened. Reckon it was meant ta be."

"That's what I come up with anyways. Once I seen Murdoch again, once I did what I did to you. Made me think about that time, remember things more clearly, I guess."

"I'm glad you don't hate him any more either," Johnny smiled.

"Well, I think you need ta get some rest. Tomorrow's gonna be awfully rough on you."

"I can handle it."

"Sure ya can. Just wish ya didn't have to is all."

"Mr. Rogers? Don't blame yourself for this. You and Penny gave me more of a chance than I would've had if she hadn't found me. I'd be dead right now."

Rogers looked at him, his brow crinkling. "You sure got a funny way of lookin at things, Johnny."

Scott listened to the entire exchange, fascinated by the story he'd heard. Now he knew what had been between his father and Rogers. He too, was amazed at the way Johnny looked at things sometimes. He closed his eyes and drifted off.

******

Just before dawn, Scott's senses awoke to a welcoming smell. Bacon frying, coffee brewing and biscuits baking. It took him a moment to realize he wasn't at home. As soon as he moved, he remembered. The stiffness in his back instantly reminded him of the floor he'd slept on all night. He stretched his muscles and yawned as his eyes slowly opened.

He sensed it immediately. Something wasn't right. He sat up quickly and looked around the room, his eyes falling on the bed. He couldn't see much of Johnny from this angle but his gut told him to get up.

He approached the bed quickly, taken aback by the flushed cheeks and sweaty brow. He grabbed a cloth and wet it, patting Johnny's forehead. His hand went unwantingly to that forehead, he didn't want to feel what he already knew was there.

"Murdoch!" Scott said loudly and firmly.

Murdoch Lancer bolted upright, looking around dazedly.

"You had better come over here, sir."

Scott's voice had a tight edge. One Murdoch recognized immediately. He jumped to his feet and went to the bedside.

"He's burning up. The fever is even higher now," Scott reported.

"God," Murdoch whispered as he confirmed Scott's claim.

"We can't move him. I should ride to Morro Coyo and bring Sam back here," Scott suggested.

"It will take too long, Scott."

"The trip could kill him!"

"There's no other choice!" Murdoch retorted sharply.

"I could be there by late afternoon," Scott argued.

"And how long will it take to get back? Sam hasn't sat a saddle in fifteen years, Scott. He'd slow you down."

******

Scott thought to argue. It wasn't right and he knew it. "Is that your final word?" he fairly hissed.

"Yes."

"Fine. But, if anything happens to my brother because of this decision, I will hold you responsible."

"Scott," Murdoch said dumbfounded.

"I mean it, Murdoch. I should have listened to my instincts and gone for Sam last night."

"Stop," came a weak voice below them.

Both men turned their attention back to the patient.

"Johnny, your fever is much higher. Scott wants to go get Sam and I want to take you to Morro Coyo. What do you want, son?"

"Home," was the one word answer.

"How can you let him make that decision. He's too sick!"

"Johnny knows what he's saying, Scott. It's ultimately my decision and I've made it. I'm sorry you don't agree but we are taking him home!" Murdoch said in a tone of finality.

****

"Is there a problem?" Bill Rogers asked from the door.

"Johnny's fever is much higher. Murdoch has decided to go through with the plan. I don't agree," Scott simplified.

"Well, Scott, I can't think of any better way ta do it neither. The faster we get Johnny to a doc the better."

Scott's jaw clenched as he struggled with the rebellion surging in him. He didn't know why he was so desperate that Johnny not be moved. He had no concrete reasoning other than the fever. It didn't really matter where he was as long as he was kept warm and dry and looked after. Still, he couldn't shake the feeling that this was a mistake.

"I won't argue with you," was all he would say. He walked out to begin saddling the horses.

Bill watched the grim face of Murdoch for a moment. "I'll get the wagon ready."

He left father and son alone and Murdoch sat beside Johnny, stroking his head. "Am I wrong, son? Should we keep you here?"

"Murdoch," Johnny whispered weakly and he had to bend forward to hear his son's words. "Take me home," he annunciated each word.

Murdoch closed his eyes and sighed. "Alright, Johnny, alright."

******

The men worked quickly to gather themselves and ready for the journey. Penny wrapped bacon and biscuits into napkins and stuffed them in the saddlebags, wrapping some up for the wagon as well.

There was a thick silence between father and son as they went about their chores. Murdoch wished he could think of some way to reassure his elder son but nothing came to mind. He knew in his heart this is what Johnny wanted, regardless of the outcome.

For his part, Scott tried to reconcile his own trepidation with the fact that Johnny voiced his desire to go home. It didn't surprise Scott. He was quite sure his brother would take his last breath saying that exact thing. The problem was, Scott didn't think he could stand watching that last breath. Not now, not ever.

Maybe it was fear, he told himself. Nothing more than that was the source of his resistence to this idea. The road was in good shape. There wouldn't be too much jostling about. Certainly Johnny could handle it. Scott glanced over at his father as he tied down the last saddlebag.

"I know this is what he wants. I suppose I'm just worried," Scott offered.

"Of course you are, son. I'm not sure about this either but Johnny made it clear. I can't ignore that."

"I know. He's so stubborn," Scott grinned.

Murdoch returned the smile. Knowing his son was no longer angry with him took a great weight from his already burdened shoulders.

********

It was time. The wagon was ready and supplies had been loaded. The three men walked into the bedroom and stared at the flushed face.

"Reckon we should just lift 'im mattress and all," Bill said.

"Sounds good to me," Scott concurred.

Each Lancer took a side, Rogers at the foot, as they gently lifted the mattress and carried their precious cargo outside. Penny took charge of guiding their steps, lest they stumble.

Once they had Johnny securely in the wagon, the three men took a moment to catch their breaths. Penny started to climb in the wagon bed.

"Whoa there, girl. Where do ya think you're a goin?" her father asked.

"With you of course. You didn't think I was stayin here, pa?" She jutted out her chin and waited for the argument. It didn't come.

"I ain't even gonna try," Rogers said and shook his head.

"Bill, it sounds like we just plain grow them stubborn out here," Murdoch said, a glint in his eye.

"I reckon so. Well, might as well get to it. Time's a wastin," he replied resignedly.

*****

As gently as he could, Bill Rogers started the wagon moving. It lurched nonetheless and Johnny groaned but did not awaken. Penny was grateful for it. She knew how much pain he must be in. She began using the generous supply of water they'd brought to wet down his face and chest.

The wagon canvass was pulled half way over the rigging to shield Johnny from the sun while affording a cooling breeze. Murdoch and Scott alternated pulling their horses to the back of the wagon to check. An unspoken schedule laid out quickly between them.

Johnny felt himself moving, rocking back and forth. His mind tried to focus and figure out where he was. The last cognizant thought he had was remembering his family was with him. This allowed him to relax and let himself slip back down into the velvety blackness of sleep.

Scott worried about the heat. Summer in California could try the strongest man's resolve. He knew Penny was doing all she could to keep Johnny cooled. He could only pray it was helping.

They made good time and as darkness fell, they began looking for a campsite. Murdoch took charge of that job and Bill wondered if he was ever going to find a suitable place. By the time he did, there was barely enough light left to see the road.

Rogers smiled to himself. It wasn't finding the perfect campsite, it was keeping the wagon going as long as possible. The longer they rode today, the closer they were to Morro Coyo tomorrow.

******

Johnny opened his eyes and stared straight up. The satiny onyx of night had fallen and the stars lit the sky like so many tiny candles. Flickering their illumination on the earth. He smiled as he watched. Basking in the fresh, cool air of the night.

"Penny for them," Scott said softly.

Johnny turned his head to find his brother and smiled. "Pretty, ain't it?" he fairly whispered.

Scott shook his head in amazement. "Yes, brother, it's pretty. Here, drink this," he said as he put the cup to Johnny's lips.

He tried, managed to swallow the first sip, but he couldn't take any more. He shook his head. "I can't, Scott. Can't hardly swallow," he sighed.

Scott frowned at this. "Think it would help if I sat you up?"

"Don't know. You can try."

Scott looked toward the campfire and waited only a second. Murdoch sensed him and looked over. Scott tossed his head to indicate his father come over.

"He's having trouble drinking. I thought if we sat him up it might help," he said, the concern evident on his handsome face.

Murdoch nodded and climbed into the wagon bed.

"Hi," Johnny said.

"Hi yourself. I'm just going to raise you up now so you can drink," Murdoch smiled.

"Okay."

Murdoch cast a doubtful look at Scott. Johnny's nonchalance worried him but he went about the task without a word.

*******

A task is exactly what it turned out to be, at least for Johnny. The movement sucked the air out of his lungs as he fought back a cry of pain.

Murdoch went as gently as he could but it wasn't much help. He finally got Johnny up and leaning against his chest. It took a good ten minutes before Johnny could slow his breathing down and Murdoch thought he might just lose it in that time.

Scott finally put the cup back to his lips and asked him to drink. Johnny took a sip that Scott thought he'd never swallow. Once he did, a coughing jag beset him.

Murdoch held on as tightly as he dared as Johnny fought for control. When he stopped coughing, his face was soaked in sweat and he was gasping for breath.

Scott shook his head, totally at a loss for what to do. Johnny couldn't drink, that was obvious, but he needed water to fight that fever. A fever that was draining every ounce of moisture from his body as well as his strength.

"That was fun," Johnny finally mumbled.

"I'm sorry, son," Murdoch said and held him tighter.

Johnny frowned and shifted slightly. "I think I have a problem," he said softly as his hand went to the bandage.

Scott pulled back his shirt and cursed under his breath. "It's bleeding again."

*******

Murdoch was the next to curse only it wasn't under his breath. "Damn! Scott, get some fresh bandages," he scowled.

Scott was already in the process of doing just that and ignored his father's gruff tone. Johnny did not, however.

"What're ya growlin at him for?"

"I'm not, Johnny. I .... let's just get a look at that wound," Murdoch said with frustration.

He laid Johnny down and cut away the blood-soaked cloth to find the wound bleeding. It wasn't bad but Johnny couldn't afford any more loss.

He watched his father's face. Saw the scowl that turned to deep furrows in his face. Saw the lined age marks and wondered, not for the first time, how old Murdoch really was. His thoughts seemed to be wandering like that now and he found it amusing. A smile crept across his lips.

He wondered about Scott's first girlfriend, his first kiss, his first .... dalliance. Johnny laughed softly.

Murdoch looked at him with deep concern. "What's so funny?"

"I don't know, just thinkin. I feel a little drunk," Johnny replied.

"It's the fever, brother," Scott reminded him.

"Yeah, I know. Remind me to ask you something later, Boston," Johnny said with a devilish grin that caught Scott a little offguard and wary.

*****

By the time they finished changing the bandages, Johnny's expression had changed to one of pain. He closed his eyes and clamped his jaw tight. Determined not to give in to the overwhelming desire to shout at the top of his lungs.

Bill Rogers appeared at the side of the wagon. "Hooked up some lanterns to the front of the wagon. Teams hitched up, too. You two wanna saddle your horses, we'll be on our way."

Murdoch looked stunned as did Scott.

"Well, we can't sit around here all night! That boy needs a doctor now, not tomorrow!" he growled and walked away.

Murdoch just shook his head at the man and Scott started to climb out of the wagon bed. "I'll saddle the horses."

They were ready again in a few minutes. No one had slept and Penny designated herself to tending Johnny once more as they set out.

It was 2 a.m. and the moon was half full, lending at least some light to the lanterns as they made their way more slowly than any of them would have liked. Still, it was better than staying put and to go faster would be to put them all in danger.

Scott felt the gnawing in his stomach and tried to ignore, dousing it with water until he felt he might burst.

At just past sun up, they entered Morro Coyo. A grim group, tired and dusty and ready to get off the trail.

*******

Murdoch walked up to Sam's door and raised his hand to knock only to be stopped by a note on the door.

"What is it?" Scott called.

"Sam's at Lancer," Murdoch frowned.

Scott's brow went up. "Maybe one of the hands..."

"Probably," Murdoch half-said, half-prayed nothing was seriously wrong.

"Well, let's go. If he's there, that's where we should be," Scott said.

They headed out again. Bill Rogers felt a knot growing in his stomach at the thought of seeing Lancer again. It had been so long and he had to wonder what it was like now.

An hour later, they pulled into the yard. Teresa came out to greet them, worry lining her face.

"Why is Sam here?" Murdoch asked immediately.

"Julio was thrown while working a horse. His arm's broken," she explained quickly.

Murdoch sighed in relief. Hopefully it wasn't serious. "Get Sam in here, honey. We'll take Johnny to his room."

"Murdoch, how bad is it?" she asked.

He bit his lip but he knew he couldn't fool her. "It's bad, honey."

******

"What happened?" Sam growled as he walked in the bedroom.

"He was bushwhacked," Scott offered.

"How long ago?"

"Four days."

"Four days? And you're just now getting him here?"

"It's a long story, Sam," Murdoch said tiredly.

"I don't suppose it matters much. Tell me what all you've done," Sam sighed.

Scott retold the story for the doctor trying not to get into detail about the Rogers' role. When he finished, Sam simply shook his head.

"Alright, everybody out. I need room to work," he ordered.

Teresa appeared with hot water and bandages and she and Sam began their task.

Murdoch and Scott took the Rogers' to the kitchen where Maria prepared breakfast for them all.

"Juanito?" she asked simply.

"It's bad, Maria. I don't know," Murdoch said glumly.

She made the sign of the cross and began praying softly in Spanish as she served them.

"Place has grown, Murdoch," Bill offered.

Murdoch only made a grumped noise.

"Why don't I get you two settled upstairs. You need to get some rest," Scott offered with a small smile.

"Go on, Penny. You're plumb tuckered out, girl," Rogers said.

"What about you, pa?"

"I'll be along."

*******

He sat with Murdoch as they sipped slowly on the hot coffee. He could see the myriad of emotions that flew across the man's face as he thought.

"I don't know 'im no more, but he sure seems to be tough," he said.

"He is. I just wonder how much more he's going to have to go through," Murdoch sighed.

"Can't be easy. That kind of life. Hard ta believe he was a gunfighter."

"Well, believe it. If you'd ever seen him draw ....." Murdoch trailed off. He didn't want to talk about that.

Rogers sensed it and changed the subject. "Teresa is a pretty gal. I can see Paul in 'er alright."

Murdoch smiled at this. "She's been my salvation, Bill. I think I would have just given up after Paul was murdered if not for her. She put her grief aside to nurse me. I was shot in the back that same day. If it hadn't been for her, well, I don't know."

"Scott come home the same time as Johnny?"

"Same time, same day. They were on the same stage and didn't even know they were brothers."

"Well! I'll bet that was some meetin!"

Murdoch laughed. "I can just imagine the looks on their faces when Teresa told them. I sent her to get Scott and there Johnny was too."

"How come ya didn't go get him yourself?"

"I didn't want our first meeting in almost twenty years to be in the middle of town."

"Well, that makes sense. He's a fine man. I can tell that much. He sure does love that brother of his."

"Yes, he sure does," Murdoch lamented.

******

Scott was standing just outside the kitchen door and heard the last of their conversation. Feeling a bit embarrassed that a stranger could read his feelings so well, he cleared his throat before entering.

"She's out like a light," he smiled.

"She's got sand but she ain't used to nothin like this," Bill said.

"Well, that's a good thing," Scott said affably. "I suppose I owe you two rifles."

"I suppose ya don't. Small enough price ta pay for what I done."

"Forget about it, Johnny has," Scott said, and noticed his father's head come up.

"Johnny said he would have been dead already if they hadn't helped him," Scott explained.

"That boy's got a strange way of lookin at folks," Bill shook his head.

"He has a lot of compassion, Mr. Rogers. Johnny can forgive almost anything if there's a good reason," Scott explained.

"What can't he forgive?" Rogers asked.

"Betrayal. I think that's the only thing he won't stand for. He hates being lied to and he expects the truth no matter what," Scott said.

Murdoch nodded his agreement with this description. Johnny would never hold with being lied to. He supposed he knew why. Maybe Johnny knew even all those years ago that his mother had not been truthful with him. He could understand Johnny not admitting it. To do so would be to question his mother's love. If there was one thing Murodch knew Johnny was certain of, it was his mother's love for him.

Sam walked in then and plopped down at the table with a sigh. "Well, the wound is cleaned out again and stitched up. Now, let me tell you what's happening and what you can expect."

******

Everyone at the table waited as Sam took a long drink of strong, hot coffee. He sighed and rubbed his face.

"For Pete's sake, man, spit it out!" Murdoch growled.

Sam shot him a weary look but didn't respond to the outburst. "He's severely dehydrated. He was awake for a little bit when I first started working on him. Talking some gibberish I couldn't understand. I put a tube down his throat into his stomach so we can give him water, medicine and broth. It will look horrible when you see it but it's necessary. The wound doesn't look that bad but the infection is coursing through his body. We can only ride it out at this point."

"Ride it out? What does that mean, Sam?" Scott wanted to know.

"We can give him medicines to help with the fever but the infection, there isn't much I can do about. It will run it's course."

"How is his fever?" Scott asked.

"Still too high, I'm afraid. I gave him laudanum through the tube so he'll sleep for a few hours. I've given Teresa explicit instructions on his care and you'll all have to pitch in and help her. He needs someone with him at all times in case ... look, if that fever doesn't come down he could have seizures. If that happens, well, it's not a good sign."

"What do we do if he has these seizures?" Murdoch asked.

"Keep him from hurting himself but don't tie him down. He could break a bone if the seizure is bad enough. Watch his tongue and don't let it fall back and block off his airway. You can use a piece of bark wrapped in cloth and wedge it between his teeth and hold his tongue down. But be careful, he could clamp down on your fingers and bite them clean off," Sam warned.

"Do you have any more good news?" Murdoch asked sarcastically.

"No, I don't. Now, if you'll excuse me I have rounds to make. I'll stop back by this evening to check on him," Sam said curtly and walked out the back door.

*******

"I think you need to get some rest, sir," Scott said with a wary tone.

"I know, son. I shouldn't have snapped at Sam. Maybe I will lie down for a few hours. I just want to check on Johnny first," Murdoch sighed wearily as he stood slowly from the table. He tried to hide the wince of pain that shot across his face as his back straightened.

Scott didn't miss it though he made no comment. He knew it would fall on deaf ears anyway.

Once Murdoch had left the room, Scott turned his attention to Bill Rogers. "I suppose you figured out that I overheard your conversation with Johnny the other night."

"I figured but it's alright. Wasn't tryin to hide anything."

"My mother died when I was born."

"I know, Scott. Maybe that's why Murdoch didn't tell ya what was goin on between us," Rogers surmised.

Scott nodded his head. "Yes, I came to the same conclusion. May I ask you something?"

"Sure."

"It's about Johnny's mother. What was she like?"

Bill's eyebrows shot up then closed into a thoughtful frown. "Well, I'd say she was full of fire. She was a true beauty. Have ta say most of us were pretty surprised when Murdoch brought her home. Don't think she was ever really happy though. I can't remember her smilin much and Lizzie even talked about it some."

"Oh? What do you mean?" Scott asked, intrigued.

*****

"Look, I ain't so sure I should be talkin to you about this, Scott. Ain't my business."

"I understand but Johnny and Murdoch never talk about her. It's as if her name were taboo in this house. I'd just like to try and understand her. That's all," Scott said persuasively.

Rogers considered this and nodded. "Well, Lizzie used ta say she looked lost. Like she didn't belong here. Said she figured Maria had no idea what ranch life was like and wasn't cut out for it."

"What did your wife think she was cut out for?"

"That's easy. Lizzie said she was one of them women who wanted to be Lady of the manor. Be waited on hand and foot and never do a day's hard work. You know the type."

"Yes, all too well," Scott mumbled, thinking of the women he'd known in Boston's high society. "And Murdoch didn't see that?"

"Reckon not. Maybe he didn't want to. Ya got to understand somethin. This ranch wasn't like it is today. This house was only half finished. Murdoch was out all day workin. Any free time he got, seemed ta me he spent with Johnny. He'd bring 'im out on the range sometimes. He was a proud daddy. Always tellin Johnny about how someday soon he was gonna bring his big brother home and ya'll would all be together. One big happy family."

Scott ducked his head and swallowed the lump in his throat. After a quiet moment he spoke. "So, Murdoch was attentive to Johnny?"

"Attentive? Heck, he was plumb starstruck by that boy! Never missed a chance ta show Johnny off. And Johnny, well he was a rascal, I tell you. He just ate all that attention up." Rogers laughed at the memories.

Scott smiled at the picture Rogers portrayed of his father. He was sure Murdoch loved Johnny but this affirmation laid any lingering doubts to rest.

"Maybe you ought to get some rest, too, Scott. Your brother's gonna need ya," Rogers said, breaking Scott from his thoughts.

"I will. I just want to ....." he laughed a little, "check on Johnny first."

*******

Murdoch walked into Johnny's room and pulled a chair next to the bed. Teresa gave him a warm smile and a squeeze on the shoulder before she gathered the remnants of Sam's work and left the room.

Johnny lay perfectly still. His left arm laid across his abdomen and his right arm at his side. His chest was swathed in white bandages. The contrast to his usually tan skin not as stark as it should have been. Murdoch thought how pale he looked.

His chest rose and fell slightly, too slight, Murdoch thought. His breathing was shallow. He picked up Johnny's right hand and pressed his own into it. Gripping firmly, he leaned closer to his son's face.

"I got you home like I promised. Now you have to do the rest, son. I know you can, Johnny. I know you can fight this."

There was no response. Not even a flicker under the long dark lashes that curved softly toward his cheeks. Murdoch studied his face, so still and impassive. How he looked like his mother and yet didn't.

He never noticed before. Johnny's personality always seemed to be the thing everyone noticed. Now, laying here so still, he could examine his son more closely.

His features were strong and handsome. There was nothing boyish there anymore. Murdoch realized it was Johnny's eyes that gave the impression of youth. The thing that caused him to think of Johnny as a boy not a man. But he was a man. As much as Murdoch inwardly wished he wasn't yet. Secretly wished he still had his little boy, he knew that time was well past.

He reached out and felt Johnny's forehead, frowning at the heat there. He allowed himself the luxury of stroking his son's soft raven hair. "You need a haircut," he said softly.

"He always needs a haircut," Scott smiled from the door.

******

Murdoch turned to look at his elder son and smiled. "That's true. Shouldn't you be in bed?"

"I was about to ask you the same thing, sir."

"I'm going as soon as Teresa comes back."

"She's back. Now both of you to bed," Teresa ordered, hands on hips.

Murdoch rose and turned to leave, glancing once more at Johnny's still form. Scott approached the bed, leaned low to Johnny's ear and whispered something neither of them could hear. He laid a quick hand on Johnny's arm before leaving.

Teresa settled into the chair Murdoch had vacated. Materials in hand, she began her mending, taking note of the time.

She had just finished instilling Johnny's medication and water into the tube when a soft knock came at the open door.

Penny stood a bit shyly in the doorway and smiled.

"Come on in."

"I thought you could use a break," she offered.

"I sure could. I just gave him his medicine so he won't need anything for a couple of hours," Teresa informed her.

"Has he been awake?"

"No," she frowned. "Sam did give him a good dose of laudanum. That and the fever should keep him sleeping."

Penny nodded and took up residence in the bedside chair.

"I'll check back in a while in case you need anything," Teresa smiled before leaving the room.

She waited until the other girl was gone before she felt his forehead. She thought the fever was a little better than the last time she'd seen him. She wet a cloth and began washing his face, chest and arms.

******

He was so hot. He thought maybe he'd gotten himself stuck out in the desert again. He tried to open his eyes but they wouldn't obey. Johnny wondered what was wrong. He was sick, he knew that, but he'd been sick before.

Boy, had he been sick before. Out in the desert that time. He was sure he'd die then but he hadn't. Thanks to that old miner who'd stumbled across him. What was his name? He couldn't think of it just now.

Something cool and comforting was being wiped across his face. Oh, that feels good. Wish I could dive into that water! He couldn't remember ever feeling so hot before. He felt the blankets on him and thought to push them away. He tried to raise his arm but he couldn't.

It felt like there was a boulder on top of it but he knew there wasn't. Why was he so weak? Johnny concentrated hard to open his eyes. It took everything he had but he finally managed to. His vision was blurred and he blinked several times. There seemed to be some kind of light veil over his eyes. No, that couldn't be right.

He tried again to focus and things became clearer. He looked up and realized he was home, in his room. The cloth was wiped over his eyes and the coolness helped even more. Turning his head slightly, he saw her.

He tried to smile but thought he'd failed miserably but she was smiling back at him.

"Hi. Thought you were gonna sleep forever," she said.

He opened his mouth to speak and felt something irritating the back of his throat. Frowning, he tried to make sense of it.

"The doctor put that tube in so's we can give you water and medicine. I reckon it don't feel too good but he said ya had to have it," she explained.

Johnny nodded his understanding and felt an almost uncontrollable urge to reach up and yank the offensive thing out. But he still couldn't raise his arm. He sighed and closed his eyes again. So tired. He drifted off then as she watched.

******

Scott came in and watched as she tried to cool him off. Smiling, he wondered about the girl. They hadn't had the time to talk. He wondered about her feelings for his irrepressible brother.

"I haven't had the opportunity to properly thank you, Penny," he said softly so as not to startle her.

She didn't flinch, just kept washing Johnny down. "No need."

"Oh, yes there is. You saved my brother's life. I will always be gratfeul to you."

She smiled a little though he couldn't see her face. "My pa....."

"Your father had some things to work out. I think he's done that now."

"At what cost? Johnny could've died, still might," she whispered the last two words.

"And I know how badly he feels about that. I've talked to him, Penny. He really is remorseful. I think you should give him the benefit of the doubt."

She turned to look at him, taking him in fully. "You sure talk fancy. Not like Johnny."

Scott smiled. "You might have guessed I didn't grow up out here."

"Yeah, I got that from what little I've overheard. Johnny didn't grow up here either, did he?"

"No, he grew up in Mexico. I lived in Boston."

"Lot a miles between brothers," she said simply.

"We didn't know about each other then," Scott said and the sadness could not be missed.

"Never had any brothers or sisters. Just me and pa," she sighed.

"I know how that feels. I grew up with my grandfather. Until I came here, that's the only family I ever knew."

"But now ya got your pa and brother. That's good," she said.

Scott frowned as a thought flashed across his mind. He dismissed it for the moment and turned his attention back to Johnny. "I'll sit with him. You must be tired and hungry."

"Reckon I am at that. Reckon we all got our days and nights all mixed up," she said as she stood.

"We certainly have. Thank you again."

Penny blushed a little and quietly left the room.

*****

Scott sat down and checked Johnny's forehead. He smiled, the fever was down some. He took up Penny's ministrations, determined to get his brother through this.

Johnny's eyes flickered, then opened as he once more tried to focus.

"Hey, brother," Scott said gently as he wiped Johnny's face.

"Hi," Johnny barely whispered.

Scott fought back the frown at the weak sound of Johnny's voice. "You don't look too good, boy," he teased.

"Don't feel too good," Johnny breathed.

"I know, brother. We'll get you better. You just do your part and keep fighting that fever. It is better."

"Can't lift my arm."

Scott looked down and picked up Johnny's hand, bending his arm at the elbow. "Now what?"

"Nothin, just weak," Johnny sighed and grimaced as a jolt of pain came from his chest.

"Easy. It's alright, Johnny." Scott looked over at the tablet of paper Teresa kept at the bedside. She had written down everything she'd given him and the time it was given. He saw Johnny hadn't had any laudanum for a while.

"Johnny, I'm going to give you some water through the tube," he said as he laid Johnny's arm back down. He mixed the laudanum in the water and administered it. He felt clumsy trying to work the tube and the glass but he managed not to spill any of it.

"What else you give me?" Johnny asked.

"What do you think?" Scott grinned.

Johnny sighed and said nothing, closing his eyes against the tidal wave of exhaustion that enveloped him.

*******

It was early evening and Scott had found a book to read to pass the time as he sat beside his brother. He looked up and cracked his sore neck then stood and stretched his stiff muscles. He walked over and looked out the window at the sound of a buggy approaching. It was Sam. Right on time for dinner, Scott smiled.

He started back to the bedside when he was stopped cold. Johnny's cheeks were flushed and his breathing was more rapid. He kicked himself mentally and wondered how long he had not noticed this.

He felt his brother's forehead and cursed himself. Grabbing a cloth, he wet it and washed down his brother's body. He heard Sam walk in. "His fever's worse. He was better earlier but now...."

Sam walked over and laid a hand on Scott's arm. "Let me take a look," he said gently.

"I didn't even notice. I was reading a stupid book!"

"And if you had noticed? I suppose that would have made the fever go away," Sam replied.

"No, but I could have been taking care of him," Scott shot back.

"You are taking care of him. When was the last time he had the medicine?"

"Half an hour ago."

"I assume you would have noticed the increased fever then," Sam continued.

"Of course!"

"Scott, what could you do in half an hour besides wait for me? You knew I was coming."

Scott grimaced as the truth of what Sam said sunk in. "I'm sorry."

"No need, you're worried. It's natural. Now, let me examine him."

******

Scott went downstairs and found his father on the landing, heading up. "Sam wants to examine him. His fever just shot back up," he said.

Murdoch sighed heavily. "How bad?"

"It felt higher than before to me," Scott answered.

"Dammit!" Murdoch cursed and walked into the living room.

"What's wrong?" Bill asked.

"Johnny's fever is worse. Sam's with him now," Murdoch replied.

"Scott! Murdoch! Get up here!" Sam bellowed.

They both took off running, Scott taking two steps at a time, Murdoch keeping up with him. They entered the room and stopped.

"Get over here and help me hold him down!" Sam ordered.

Johnny was thrashing about on the bed, his arms and legs jerking violently, his neck craned, his back arched. His entire body seemed in motion.

They grabbed hold of his limbs, allowing Sam to release his hold. He grabbed the cloth-covered bark and jammed a thumb into the side of Johnny's jaw.

"What the hell are you doing?' Murdoch demanded.

"I'm trying to get his mouth open. Just hold him!" Sam ordered. He pushed hard until Johnny's mouth opened and he stuck the bark between his teeth, making sure Johnny's tongue was under it. Then he released his hold and Johnny's mouth clamped shut again.

Scott could hear the grinding sound as Johnny's teeth bit into the bark. Even through the cloth that covered it, the sound reminded Scott of a beaver gnawing wood. He shuddered as he watched helplessly.

******

The seizure ended abruptly and neither man was sure what was happening.

"You can let go now. It's over," Sam said.

They did so but they couldn't seem to move away from him.

Sam pushed his way in and removed the bark. He then pulled Johnny's eyelids back. "We have to get that fever down now! Scott get a bathtub up here and fill it with cool water. Scott!"

Scott shook himself free from the daze he was in and nodded his head. He went downstairs to do as he was told.

"Murdoch, let's take these blankets off. Just leave the sheet. We'll put him in the tub like that," Sam was saying.

Murdoch moved mechanically as he helped Sam. He had never seen anything like he'd just witnessed and it shook his very foundation. "Sam, will it ..... will he?"

"I don't know what if any lasting affects the seizure will have until he wakes up. We'll need another piece of bark just in case. He nearly bit this one in half."

Scott and Bill carried the tub in followed closely by Teresa and Penny with buckets of water. Between the four of them it didn't take long to fill the tub.

"Alright, that's enough. Ladies, you'll have to leave now," Sam said.

Once the girls were gone, Sam instructed the three men on lifting Johnny and they immersed him in the water. Sam stood closeby with a new piece of bark. Ready for another seizure or shock from the cold water.

Neither came to fruition. Scott used a cloth and ran water over the parts of Johnny's body that weren't submerged. Sam had removed the bandage and the wound itself was healing well.

After an hour, Sam called a halt and they laid Johnny on the bed atop several towels Teresa had lain out. They dried him off and covered him up.

"Now what, Sam?" Murdoch asked.

"Now we wait."

*******

And wait they did, for hours. Murdoch and Scott had refused to leave Johnny's side. Teresa brought them food and kept a constant supply of coffee on hand. Each time she left the room, her heart broke a little more.

Scott talked to Johnny for hours. Sometimes his voice would fail him and he'd have to stop. This is when Murdoch would take over.

Bill and Penny came and went, offering to spell them, offering their support. As the night passed into daybreak, Murdoch stood and walked to the window.

"Johnny's favorite time of day," he said distractedly.

"I thought meal time was his favorite," Scott said in an attempt at humor.

Murdoch didn't rise to the bait. He was too tired though he could appreciate Scott trying.

Scott turned back to his brother, feeling his forehead for the thousandth time. The fever was down, way down and he sighed with relief once more.

The door opened and two ranchhands appeared carrying a cot. They were followed by Bill and another hand with a second cot. Bill instructed the men on the placement then they left quickly.

"If you two are bent on stayin in here, the least ya can do is lay down some," he explained.

*******

"Thank you, Mr. Rogers," Scott smiled weakly.

"It's Bill and ain't no need. Your man, Cipriano is wantin ta talk to ya, Murdoch."

Murdoch continued staring out the window. "I'll be down shortly."

Bill nodded and left and Scott got up and walked behind his father. "I'm sure it has to do with the ranch. Why don't you go on down? I'm not going anywhere."

"Alright, son. Call me if ....."

"I will, sir."

Murdoch went back over and brushed at Johnny's hair before leaving the room.

Scott sat back down and took his brother's hand. "Alright, we're alone now. It's time to get serious, Johnny. It's time to wake up. Your fever is down and the medicines are working. Now, I want to see those eyes open, young man." He spoke in his most authoritative voice. The one he used in the army with his men. It always worked with them. It had never worked with Johnny.

Evidently, this time was no different as there was not even a flicker from the man in the bed. Scott sighed heavily and squeezed his brother's hand.

"You're ignoring me, aren't you? You hate it when I talk to you like this. That's why you won't wake up. Well, fine, I give up and you win. If you'll wake up right now, I promise to never use that tone with you again."

Nothing.

Scott dropped his head and rubbed his eyes. He stood up and went back to the window. "Murdoch said this is your favorite time of day. I think it's impressive that he knows that, don't you? Seems he knows more about you than you realize. He hasn't left your side you know. He's only gone now to talk with Cipriano for a minute. I guess that the ranch doesn't know how sick you've been. It seems intent on demanding attention. Barranca's in the corral. He's looking right up here to your window. He must be waiting for you to look out and talk to him."

He stopped and smiled at the palomino who was doing just as he said. Barranca kept looking toward him and nodding his head up and down. "I know boy. I miss him, too," Scott said softly.

"Ain't that sweet."

******

Scott whirled around and stared at the deep blue eyes watching him. A slight grin on the lips. He smiled full out and ran to the bed, dropping to his knees.

"Johnny, I'm going to turn you over my knee when you get better," he grinned.

"Guess I better not get better then, huh?" he whispered.

"How do you feel?"

"Wrung out," the younger man sighed. He squirmed in the bed a little, trying to get more comfortable.

"What do you need?" Scott asked.

"Off my back."

Scott helped him turn on his right side and placed a pillow behind his back for support. "Better?"

"Much," he sighed loudly.

Scott smiled and reached behind him as he sat on the side of the bed. He began rubbing Johnny's back to help get the blood flowing again.

"That feels good," Johnny mumbled.

"Oh! I have to get Murdoch. I promised him," Scott suddenly said.

"Well, if you made a promise," Johnny smiled.

"Don't go anywhere, little brother. I'll be right back."

"Where the hell would I go?" Johnny snorted.

******

Murdoch was standing in the yard talking to Cipriano when Scott bolted out the door.

"What's wrong?" he asked, panic surging up in him.

"Johnny's awake and he seems okay," Scott smiled.

Murdoch took off into the house and up the stairs as Cipriano gave Scott a slap on the back.

He forced himself to slow down as he got to the bedroom door and walked in normally. The smile on his face was gigantic.

"Hello, son."

"Hi."

"How are you feeling?"

"Better, I think. I sure would like some water."

Murdoch grabbed a glass and helped him drink. Johnny had no problem swallowing the cool liquid and his father beamed with pride.

Johnny had to laugh weakly. "You look like I just took my first step or somethin."

"I guess in a way you did. Your first step back to us," Murdoch said.

"Cipriano's gone to get Sam," Scott told them as he came back in. "I told Teresa. The whole ranch should know by now," he laughed.

"Where is she?" Murdoch asked.

"Putting on a pot of broth."

"Of course, what was I thinking?" Murdoch laughed.

******

"I don't know but I'm thinkin I'd like something besides broth," Johnny said, wrinkling his nose.

"Oh? What would you like, brother?"

"Stew and biscuits," Johnny said decidedly.

Murdoch couldn't have smiled any wider if he'd tried but he knew Johnny was putting up a brave front for them. "Well, maybe we had better wait for Sam. He may have other ideas."

"I'm sure he will," Johnny said sourly.

They kept staring at him and he began to feel uncomfortable under the scrutiny. "What?"

"Nothing, son. We just .... well, how do you feel?"

"I feel okay, Murdoch. I said I did."

"Yes but, well it's just that .... you had a seizure yesterday, Johnny. Your fever was so high we had to put you in a tub of water."

Johnny raised his brows at this. "I guess I had you pretty worried. I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault, brother. But, yes, we were worried."

Sam came through the door then, much to all's surprise. "I was on my way here when Cipriano came on me. He gave me the good news," the doctor smiled.

"Here's some more news. Get this thing out of my nose," Johnny said dryly.

"He took some water and had no trouble swallowing," Murdoch reported.

"Good! Now, drink some more and show me. Just humor me," Sam said.

Johnny drank half a glass of water without problem and Sam nodded. "Okay, let's get that tube out."

******

Sam ushered Murdoch and Scott out of the room. He was quite sure they didn't need to see this and he also knew Johnny wouldn't want them to.

He grabbed a towel and explained what he was going to do. Johnny braced himself as Sam pulled the tube out as quickly as he could.

He started coughing and gagging but it subsided after a minute. Sam gave him more water and Johnny broke out in a little sweat.

"It's normal, Johnny. You're doing fine," Sam explained.

"Nothin normal about havin that thing in me," Johnny groused.

"I know you feel much better but you're still a sick man. You need plenty of rest."

Johnny nodded and laid his head back. "Guess I am still pretty tired," he sighed as he closed his eyes.

"Rest now. I'm going to talk to the family. Let them know how you are and what still needs doing. I'll come back and see you before I leave."

"Okay, Sam. Thanks," Johnny murmured as he drifted into sleep.

******

"Well, he's worn out now. He's sleeping and he should. He still has a fever though it's slight. We need to keep a close watch still. I want him to start taking broth for a few days, then he can have something more substantial."

"I hope you told him that. He's already asking for stew," Scott smiled.

"I did. There are no signs of any residual effects from the seizure. I think he's going to be just fine."

Murdoch's shoulders relaxed for the first time in a week.

"That mean these two can stop hoverin over 'im?' Bill asked.

"It does. He needs rest now. Someone should sit with him in case he awakens and needs anything but the crisis is over," Sam replied.

"Stay for supper, Sam?" Murdoch asked.

"I will, thank you. I want to see him before I leave."

Bill Rogers insisted Scott and Murdoch sit down to a real meal with the doctor. He offered to sit with Johnny so the family could relax for a change.

"He's a good man, Murdoch," Scott commented once he'd left the room.

"Yes, he is, son. I hope he'll stay on. We could use someone with his experience."

"Have you asked him?"

"Not yet. With everything that's been going on, I haven't had a chance. But, I will, I can promise you that," Murdoch smiled.

******

Bill sat down easy so as not to disturb Johnny. He rocked quietly in the chair as he watched the sleeping man. His thoughts went back over the years to before he'd left Lancer. He thought about his Lizzie which meant he thought about Johnny.

She was always spending time with the boy. That is when Murdoch didn't have hold of him. Seemed to Bill, Maria didn't spend much time with her son then. He could only hope she'd been more attentive after she'd taken the boy away. He was curious about it but he would never ask Johnny.

"You sure are thinkin hard," Johnny said with a smile.

His head jerked up and he smiled back. "Feelin better?"

"Yeah, much." Johnny studied him for minute. "How long did you work here?"

"Oh, about five, six years."

"Can I ask you something?"

Bill tensed inwardly. "I reckon."

"What was Murdoch like back then?"

Bill relaxed. He was sure Johnny was going to ask about his mother. He was relieved he hadn't.

"I mean before my mother left," Johnny was saying.

"Well, I'd have ta say he was more ..... relaxed then. He worked hard but he was a happy man. Content, I reckon."

"Did you see any change in him after he married my mother?"

Bill thought about this and nodded. "Yeah, that's when he was happier. Especially when you came along. Never seen a prouder man," he smiled.

******

Johnny wasn't smiling, he was frowning. "So, he wasn't happy before my mother."

"Well, no, I don't think he was. He seemed bent on building up the ranch. When he come home with Maria, well, I ain't never seen him smile like that."

"Did you .... did you know I was ... she was already carrying me?"

Bill's brows raised. "Reckon I can count good enough, Johnny. Nobody never said anything about it. Reckon it didn't matter."

Johnny didn't agree. He thought it mattered a great deal. "You think he would've married her if she wasn't pregnant?"

"Boy, you sure can ask some hard questions! Knowin Murdoch, I'd say yes. He would've married her. Maybe not as quick, but he would've. He loved her, boy."

Johnny nodded his head. "I guess you don't know why she left."

"No, I don't," Bill said, a bit quickly.

"He said he looked for us."

"He did. Was gone near six months. When he come home, he looked like a broken man. Ain't never seen a sadder sight. That's when he got mean sometimes. That's when he fired me," Bill said sadly.

"I'm sorry."

"Ain't your fault, Johnny. Ain't his neither, I don't reckon. Well, least I can't blame 'im no more. Reckon I never should've. Lizzie wouldn't like that. She was real fond of your pa."

"Did she like my mother?"

******

Bill squirmed in his seat a little. "I can't say they ever really talked much."

"She didn't like it here, did she? I know how she was. I knew her better than anyone, Mr. Rogers. My mother liked the better things in life. She never got them, but that didn't keep her from trying."

"Reckon that's true enough."

"So your wife didn't like her."

"Wouldn't say that. She just never got the chance ta know her. And, well...."

"What?"

"Well, Johnny, Lizzie loved you. I told ya that. She spent a lot of time with ya. I don't think your ma liked it too well. She never said nothin but it's just a feelin I got."

Johnny dropped his eyes and chewed his lower lip for a minute. "Would you consider staying here? Hiring on?" He stifled a yawn and Rogers laughed.

"I think that's somethin for your pa to decide."

"I own a third of this ranch so, no, it isn't. Besides, he'll ask you himself. I'm just beating him to it," Johnny grinned.

Rogers smiled back then rubbed his chin. "It's been a long time. I don't know."

"Think about it. When Murdoch does ask, you'll already have an answer."

"Pretty sure he will ask, ain't ya?"

"I'm positive he will."

"Get some sleep, Johnny."

******

Over the next several days, Johnny's strength slowly returned. He was allowed out of bed and down to the veranda three days after the seizure. Sam said the best thing for this particular patient was to let him be outside as much as possible.

Murdoch and Scott both agreed, thinking Sam had come to know Johnny as well as they did. He spent his days watching the ranch at work and talking to Penny. Mostly, talking to Penny.

Scott had some conversations with his father about Penny. He'd had a thought during Johnny's illness but hadn't had the chance to expound on it. Murdoch agreed and they decided it was time to speak with Bill.

One evening after supper, the first one Johnny had been allowed to attend, Murdoch brought the subject up to Bill.

They sat in the living room while Teresa and Penny finished up in the kitchen.

"Bill, I have a couple of things to ask you," Murdoch said out of the blue.

Johnny found Bill's eyes and grinned.

"The first thing is, I'd like you to come back to work here. Now, I know there's been a lot ....."

"Alright, Murdoch," Bill interrupted.

"What's that?"

"I said alright. I'll come back," Bill repeated. "Johnny done offered me the job anyway."

"He did? Oh, well, good! That's settled," Murdoch smiled at his youngest.

"What's the other thing?" Johnny asked.

Murdoch was more hesistant here and he looked at his elder son.

"Mr. Rogers, er, Bill, Murdoch and I have been talking. We know you've done everything right in raising Penny. She's a bright young lady. We thought she could benefit from a more formal education," Scott stated.

"What'ya mean 'more formal'?"

"Well, a school. A finishing school. There are some excellent ones in San Fransisco, New York and Boston."

*******

Johnny lowered his eyes and said nothing. In fact, no one spoke for a while.

"I didn't mean to insult you, sir. It's just that I see so much potential in Penny," Scott said.

"Potential, huh? I've always wanted her to have a better education. Ain't no place around here for her ta get it, though. I can't afford one of them fancy schools."

"Bill, I'd like to sponsor Penny. Pay for her schooling," Murdoch said.

"You don't owe me nothin, Murdoch."

"I think I do. If I hadn't been so bullheaded, Penny would have grown up here with Teresa. She would have had the same schooling Teresa has had."

"How come ya don't send Teresa to that fancy school?"

"She doesn't want to go. I've offered many times. Penny may not want to either but I think she should be given the opportunity."

"Oh, you mean you were actually going to ask her what she wants?" Johnny spoke up with sarcasm.

Murdoch and Scott looked at him wide-eyed.

"Of course, son. We didn't mean we would just throw her on a train."

"That's what it sounds like to me. Why aren't you talking to her about this? Why just to Bill?"

"Because it's his decision if he wants to accept the offer before we tell Penny. What's the matter with you?" Murdoch asked.

"Nothing. It just sounded like you were making all these decisions about her life without asking her what she wanted," Johnny explained.

Scott looked at his brother and knew the truth. Johnny was starting to have feelings for this girl. He smiled briefly, then forced his face to wear a serious expression.

*****

Murdoch looked at Johnny, perplexed, but turned back to Bill. "What do you say?"

"Ain't no charity case, Murdoch."

"I know that, Bill. We could split the cost. I could take a part of your wages every month as payment."

Bill nodded, deep in thought. Finally he sighed. "I always wanted more for her. If she wants ta go, it's alright with me."

Murdoch smiled and Scott walked to the kitchen to call Penny and Teresa into the living room.

Bill sat his daughter down and explained it to her. She listened carefully, her eyes widening at the offer.

"What'ya think, girl? Sound like somethin ya'd like ta do?"

She looked at Johnny but his eyes would not meet hers. She swallowed hard and looked back at her father. "Can I think about it a spell, pa?"

"Sure ya can. Reckon there ain't no hurry."

Johnny rose abruptly and excused himself. He walked out the French doors and sat on the low wall.

*****

He heard her come out but didn't turn.

"What do you think? A teacher? A nurse? You'd make a real good nurse," he said softly.

"I wasn't expectin it. It's awful big news to take in," she replied.

"It's a great opportunity, Penny. You should take it."

"Is that what you want me to do?"

"Doesn't matter what I want."

"I kind of thought of myself as a rancher's wife someday. Like my ma," she said as she laid a hand on his back.

He turned and looked at her, his eyes dark with sadness. "There's a whole world out there, Penny. A world you should see."

"I like the world I've already seen."

"That's because you don't know anything else."

"You want me to go?"

He looked into her eyes for a long moment. "No and yes," he whispered.

"What if I told you I love you?" she asked.

Johnny swallowed hard at the lump in his throat. "I'd say you're too young to know what that means."

"You're a liar, Johnny Lancer."

"I know," he said breathlessly.

He walked away from her. He knew he had to. If he didn't, he'd be asking her to stay and that wasn't fair to her. He knew she should go. Knew she may never get another chance like this. But it hurt more than he'd expected and that surprised him.

She was too young for him. He smiled sardonically at himself. She's only a couple of years younger. Yet, she seemed so young and he knew that was because of the protected life she'd led. She needed more experience before commiting herself to ..... well, to anything really.

He walked out to the barn, to Barranca. Picking up the brush he started with long strokes. Softly and slowly he brushed the palomino who nickered with delight.

Johnny smiled. "I know it's been way too long, hasn't it, compadre?"

******

She watched him walk away from her and knew what her decision was. Her eyes filled with tears that she brushed quickly away. She walked back into the house and told her father she would go away.

Three days later, Penny was ready to leave. Teresa had taken her shopping and she had new clothes and accessories. Bill was a proud man but a sad one as well.

He and Scott loaded the buggy that would take them to Morro Coyo and the stage. Scott would escort her to San Fransisco to be sure she arrived safely.

Johnny stood by the window in his room and watched them load the luggage. He heard a soft knock at his door and knew it was her.

"Come in."

She walked in wearing a new blue dress. Her hair was pulled back with turquoise combs.

"You look pretty," he smiled.

"Thank you. I guess this is it," she sighed.

"Have a good trip."

"Johnny, I ..... I'll be back," she said through the lump in her throat.

"I'll be here," he whispered.

He walked over and hugged her tightly and she wrapped her arms around his neck.

Pulling back slightly, he kissed her lightly on the lips and smiled. "You're gonna be somethin to see with all those manners and smarts."

"I'll still be me."

"I hope so. Goodbye, Penny," he said softly and carressed her cheek.

She turned and walked quickly from the room, wiping her eyes.

******

He watched her drive away and closed his eyes tightly, fighting the sadness

that engulfed him.

"She'll be back, son," Murdoch said softly from the door.

"I know."

"You love her."

"Nah, she's a sweet girl," he lied.

"She is a sweet girl. One you love," Murdoch pressed.

"Leave it, Murdoch," he whispered.

"Alright, son. I'm here if you want to talk or .... anything."

Johnny nodded his head and kept his back to his father. "I just want you to know, I hate you for doing this." The words were flat, spoken softly and unmeant. "But, I know it's the right thing for her," he added with more assurance.

Murdoch smiled bitterly. "I know, John." He closed the door as he left and leaned heavily against it. He hated to see his son in pain, any kind of pain. But this was the worst pain of all, he knew.

Johnny stared out the window watching until the buggy was no more than a dot in the road. He turned and sank into the chair near him, burying his head in his hands. She'd be back, he told himself over and over.

 

 

~end~
2003

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