The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link
subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link
subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link
subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link
subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link
subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link
subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link
subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link

Winj

 

Half A Heart

 

 

 

Warning: Death of a Major Character

Johnny Lancer rode up to the hitching post near his home and slowly dismounted. His countenance was easy to describe. In plain words, he was worn out. The sweat stains on his shirt signified the long, weary day. His boneless movements would have been another clue for those near-sighted enough not to see the exhaustion on his face. He sat on the bench under an oak tree and melted against the rough bark with a long sigh as he closed his eyes.

He felt the presence near him but was too tired to care who it was. So, he didn't move and waited to hear the voice tell him who was about to bother his rest. Instead, the bench creaked and he felt the boards under him rise slightly from the extra weight. Murdoch. He still didn't move.

"Looks like you brought half the ranch back with you."

Johnny's mouth twitched. "Good, maybe I can work from here tomorrow." He heard the soft chuckle then it fell quiet for a few seconds.

"Have you seen your brother?"

"Not since breakfast but I didn't expect to. Why?"

When Murdoch didn't answer straight away, Johnny cracked his eyes open and turned his head slightly to look at his father. He didn't have to ask again. He didn't have to ask in the first place.

"No, he hasn't talked to me. And, yes, I offered."

Murdoch nodded, his face grim with worry. "It's ironic. He's always after us to talk things out. Now, something is worrying him and suddenly, he's mute."

"Yeah," Johnny breathed out then, with more effort than he cared to exert, he leaned forward. Resting his arms on his thighs, he lowered his head and studied the ground. "Reckon he'll get around to it soon enough. Sometimes, a man needs to think things through before speakin."

"I know you're right, but that doesn't make the waiting any easier." Murdoch stared at the top of his head and smiled a little. "Go get cleaned up. I'll take care of your horse."

Johnny's head came up quickly as he looked at his father in astonishment.

"You deserve a break. Provided that animal will allow anyone else near him."

Johnny smiled at that. "Aw, Murdoch, he's a good fella. He don't bite - much." With a wink, he stood and walked toward the bath house.

Murdoch's smile faded. Partly because he wondered if Johnny really was joking about Barranca, mostly because he was still worried about Scott.

*****

The elder Lancer son had grown quiet in the last week or so. No, that wasn't the right word, really. Contemplative was more accurate. It was as if Scott was working out a problem he didn't want to share. Murdoch had, more than once, tried to talk with him to no avail. He knew Johnny had made the same effort and probably more frequently than himself.

Scott was being close-mouthed, though. He would only say he was fine and not to worry. But, Murdoch was worried. Something was nagging his son. He was almost positive, if Scott would just talk to him, they could work it out together. That had been the way in the past nine months, at any rate. Scott never had trouble coming to him with a problem he couldn't solve on his own and quickly until now.

He'd been able to eliminate little from the list of things Scott could be chewing on. Johnny was one of them. His younger son was doing just fine. Better than fine. Those first two or three months had been painful and exhausting but Johnny was settled. Murdoch was sure of it. Mostly, because he'd finally found the guts to ask the young man. Johnny had smiled and winked at him, telling him to stop worrying so much and relax. He'd made it clear he was doing much better and he was happy.

The work he produced was the easiest proof of Johnny's commitment to the ranch. The rest, more subtle at times, was his protectiveness of them all and how much he had relaxed. He now had no problem speaking his mind, debating any issue and making observations and suggestions about the ranch and anything else they discussed. In the beginning, he'd been quiet, only listening as Murdoch and Scott discussed whatever topic was at hand.

The rancher realized, maybe for the first time, that he no longer worried about Johnny taking off at a second's notice. It relaxed him but now, he had the other one to worry after. Smiling a little to himself, he gave thanks he had them to worry over at all. Whatever was wearing on Scott, Murdoch knew, in time, the young man would come to him.

It was some solace but he wasn't the most patient man in the world. Well, he'd just have to find some patience, that's all. He stood and stretched his back then walked over to Barranca.

"Alright, boy, let's get you taken care of. And no tricks. Johnny's dead tired so you get me tonight."

*****

Scott walked into the barn an hour later looking very much like his brother had earlier. He stretched his back then rolled his shoulders even as he sighed his weariness.


"I'll do that, boy. You look as bad as Johnny did when he came in."

Scott turned to Jelly and offered a smile of gratitude. "Thanks, Jelly. I appreciate that. I am tired today."

The wrangler nodded and stepped into Remmie's stall. "How come yer late?"

Scott took off his hat and started removing his gloves. "I had a run-in with a particularly stubborn steer. It took much longer than I thought to get it free of some brambles. After that, I decided to sit under a tree for about fifteen minutes."

Jelly chuckled a little. "Can't blame ya for that." He pulled the saddle off and walked over to lay it over a stall railing for the moment. When he turned back to Scott, his face was more serious.

"Reckon yer about ready ta talk to yer folks? They're mighty worried about you, Scott."

The younger man lowered his head for a second before looking back with a small smile. "Soon, Jelly. Soon."

He said no more and left the old man, making his way to the bathhouse. When he walked in, his smile reappeared, more genuine this time. Fresh clothes were laid out for him, a clean towel folded neatly next to them and his favorite soap sat in the dish next to the tub. Johnny.

The smile wavered as pain flashed in his eyes but he quickly pushed it down and set about filling the tub. As he soaked with his head leaned back and his eyes closed, he thought again of his decision. It hadn't been easy but he'd made it. Now, he had to tell them and he didn't want to. But, he had to and there was no avoiding it. Well, there was for at least one more night. Tomorrow was Saturday. He would tell them after supper then. Get the week done and over with, he thought.

He started soaping up, noting once again how his body had changed since coming west. He couldn't say he was disappointed with the results. He'd never felt better, he was sure. As tired as the days left him, he still had more energy, more .... zest now than ever before. He'd always thought himself fit and trim. Well, he'd been trim but not nearly as fit as he'd assumed.

He ducked his head under the water and came back up, swiping the water from his face then washing his hair. That was different, too. Lighter now from long days in the sun. He imagined it would be nearly white if he didn't wear a hat most of the time. Scott scrubbed his skin nearly red. He wasn't sure he'd ever get used to being so dirty. It wasn't that he minded it so much but it did make one feel ... well, grimy was a good word.

With a grunt, he stood up and stepped out of the tub, stretching out once more like a cat sunning before toweling himself off. He dressed and remembered he'd have to thank Johnny for his thoughtfulness. His brother was doing so much better now. He and Murdoch were getting along, there'd been no major fights between them for a couple of months. They seemed to have reached an understanding with each other and the household was peaceful for the most part.

For this, Scott was eternally grateful. He knew it would take time for Johnny to settle from day one. It was unfortunate it took Murdoch so much longer to understand that, but he had. Now, his father and brother actually got along well. Scott smiled, ran his hands through his wet hair and stepped out of the bathhouse.

*****

Supper was quiet. Johnny and Murdoch both watched Scott who was concentrating solely on his meal. They exchanged a few looks between them and Johnny could only shrug. He couldn't begrudge Scott the time he was taking. He knew all too well that a man needed space sometimes. Scott had given him that space time and again and Johnny was determined to do the same in return.

But, he was worried, he couldn't deny it. He hadn't been able to come up with any reason for Scott to be in this mood. Nothing had happened. There'd been no trouble, no unsettling news that he was aware of. He was certain his brother would talk things over if it were very serious. He'd even taken a fanciful stab that this involved a woman. But, Scott hadn't left the ranch in a month so Johnny was fairly sure he wasn't seeing anyone.

Nor had the man received any mail. Murdoch would know that and he hadn't said anything. Johnny knew his father would indeed speak up if there'd been any letters of concern. In the end, after all that thinking and wondering and musing, Johnny was still stumped. He didn't like it but it wasn't his call. He'd just have to wait for Scott.

As the meal wound down and, as he had so much of the time lately, Scott excused himself and took a walk. Murdoch sighed heavily and went to the great room followed by Johnny who shook his head at the offer of a drink.

"Would you try again, son?"

"Murdoch," Johnny started, a little exasperated, "he'll tell us when he's ready."

"It's been more than a week, Johnny. Whatever is bothering him, it's obvious he hasn't been able to resolve it alone. Maybe he's waiting for one of us to offer again," Murdoch suggested, hoping he was right.

"Okay, but I'm not gonna push." Johnny walked outside with something akin to dread. He hated pushing anyone to talk when he wasn't crazy about doing it himself. But, he'd offer once more and that would be it.

He didn't see Scott at first so he ambled into the yard then over to the corrals and leaned against the railing, planting one foot on the lowest rail as he leaned in. He crossed his arms over the top and rested his chin, closing his eyes as the breeze wafted in, lifting his hair from his brow gently.

"Beautiful evening."

He smiled. "Yeah, beats today."

"It was a hard one," Scott agreed as he joined his brother. He looked out over the land serenely. "By the way, thanks for the bath."

Johnny turned his head, resting his cheek now on his arms. "Murdoch's worried. I know you know that. I'm just putting it out there, brother. If you're ready to talk about it, I'm right here. That's all I'm gonna say."

Scott looked at him, unable to really see his face clearly in the shadows. "I know, Johnny. Soon, okay?"

"Whenever you want, brother." Johnny raised his head, smiled at his brother then pushed off and walked back to the house.

*****

Murdoch wasn't happy with Johnny's report but at least Scott had given some indication. He just didn't know what 'soon' meant. After a great deal of struggling within himself, he decided once more to stop pushing. Not his strong suit but he didn't have much choice. He couldn't force Scott to talk. So, he spent Saturday as usual, working and trying to keep his mind off what was bothering his older son.

When he rode in that afternoon, he noticed Scott's chestnut in the corral and frowned. His son shouldn't be back already. Lunch was long since over even if Scott had decided to come home for the meal. Curious and more than a little concerned Scott might be hurt, he strode into the house calling his son's name.

Scott was in the living room as he walked in and he pulled up short.

"Are you alright?"

"I'm fine," Scott replied with surprise at the question.

"Oh, well, I saw you were home early. I thought you might have been hurt or something," Murdoch explained, feeling a bit foolish now.

"I finished early. I know I should have rode out to help Johnny but, I needed ......" Scott trailed off, his explanation sounding ridiculous to his own mind, let alone if he said it aloud.

"Needed what, son?"

"I should go help Johnny," he said and started for the door.

"He should be heading back by now. Scott, please talk to me."

The younger man turned his back and walked closer to the fireplace. "I will, Sir. After supper tonight."

Murdoch almost felt elated. He was finally going to hear what had been troubling his son. But, he also felt some trepidation now that it was finally to come out. He shook his head at the ridiculous emotions running amuck.

"Alright, son," he said gently.

*****

No one dawdled at the supper table that night. Murdoch had told Johnny of Scott's promise to talk tonight. Neither man was sure what was to happen but both were determined to help the young man however was necessary. If Scott were in trouble, they'd be right there. None of this had been said aloud. It was simply a given.

Murdoch poured drinks all around then settled in a chair near the fire that crackled and popped comfortingly. Winter was almost upon them, the nights growing more and more chill. Johnny sat in the chair opposite his father while Scott paced behind the sofa slowly.

"I suppose it isn't necessary to say but I want you both to know I've given this a great deal of thought," Scott started.

Johnny's mouth turned up but he refrained from making the sarcastic retort itching on his tongue. Murdoch remained expressionless.

Scott gave a small and quick smile himself before continuing. "I would also like to say that nothing has happened, no drama or deception, to precipitate this decision."

Johnny's face fell, his heart thumped in his chest and he held his breath. Looking at his father, he knew the man was feeling similar emotions.

"I love the ranch and everyone here. It's been an exciting nine months and I've learned a great deal. I've never experienced anything like it, but," he hesitated, his eyes falling on Johnny's hands which were clutching the chair arms in white knuckles. They knew, of course, what he was going to say now. He wasn't sure he was prepared, though.

"I've decided to return to Boston. I miss it terribly and I think this is the right choice for me." There, he'd said it.

Silence crushed the room, no air seemed to stir for long moments. Scott stared at the floor as his family stared at him. Murdoch was stunned speechless, too much so to react at the moment. Johnny was biting his tongue, trying to think first. To say he was disappointed was the understatement of the year, he knew. But, what could he say?

"Are you sure? Absolutely sure?" It was Murdoch asking but no one would have recognized the tight-throated tone emitting from the oldest man.

"Yes, Sir. I am quite sure."

"Why now?" Johnny asked and felt it was a lame question.

"The time is right. Winter is nearly here. You'll have time to reorganize things before it gets busy again. I don't want to leave you in a lurch."

"Thanks," Johnny retorted snidely.

"I'm sorry."

*****

Johnny sprung from his chair and paced before the fire, thinking hard and trying to find a real reason for this. "I don't understand, Scott. Explain it to me so I'll understand," he spoke and turned beseeching eyes to his brother.

Scott found he couldn't hold the stare very long. He glanced at his father but that didn't help so he stared at his boots. "I really don't want to be a rancher for the rest of my life. I miss Boston, the way I lived there."

"Don't give me that crap about you not being cut out for this life again. Did the old man put you up to this?" Johnny snarked.

Murdoch opened his mouth but Scott spoke first. "He doesn't even know yet. And I didn't say I wasn't cut out for this life. I'm saying it isn't the life I want. Look, I know this is hard but I really have thought it through. I've weighed all the pros and cons and this is the decision I've made. I hope you can accept it."

Johnny just stared at him. He looked incredibly young to Scott just then and he knew what he was doing to his brother. But, he really couldn't live his life for someone else.

"I think I'll turn in now. Goodnight," Scott fairly whispered.

"Son," Murdoch called as he came to his feet. He walked to Scott and put a hand on his shoulder. "I can't say I'm not terribly disappointed. But, if you're sure and no one has coerced you into doing this, all I can really say is this. Lancer will always be your home. If you ever decide to come back, we'll be here waiting for you." The rancher's voice trembled badly at the end.

Scott closed his eyes at the pain in that voice. "I swear on my life no one has coerced me into anything. And, thank you for the offer, Sir."

"When are you leaving?" Johnny asked, his own voice tempered with anger at the moment.

"There's a stage to Cross Creek Monday then a train that evening. Well, goodnight," Scott replied through the lump in his throat. He headed quickly up the stairs. He'd known this would be hard but saying the words, seeing and hearing the pain he caused them .... he wasn't as prepared for that as he'd thought.

Once again, it was silent in the great room for several moments. Johnny stared into the fire while Murdoch stared at the stairwell.

*****

"Of all the things I imagined was bothering him, that wasn't one of them," Murdoch finally said in a mere whisper.

Johnny said nothing then suddenly made for the French doors.

"Johnny, please don't."

He stopped short. "I'm just goin outside." He turned then, fire in his eyes. "I won't leave you," he vowed then hurried out the door.

Murdoch's legs began to shake and he stumbled to a chair, plopping down and burying his face in his hands. Thank you, son, he thought. It had been hard when Teresa left for school six months ago. Murdoch had had long discussions with his sons, especially Scott, about the merits of her leaving at that time. All three had agreed it was the best thing for her and Teresa actually wanted to go. Many times in the past Murdoch had offered and she'd refused. He knew she hadn't wanted to leave him alone. With the boys home and settling, she'd felt it was alright to start this new chapter in her life. Now, he was losing Scott, as well.

Johnny's anger had nowhere to go. He paced the porch then walked out into the yard and paced that. He wanted to hit something. No. He wanted to hit Scott. His fists clenched tightly as he smacked them against his thighs. Why? Why wait so long to make this choice?

He let Johnny get close, let him open up and then he just leaves? He'd trusted Scott with things he'd never tell another living soul. They'd made promises to each other. Obviously, a man's word didn't mean squat in Boston! Of course not! Garrett's word sure didn't mean anything so why should his grandson's?

How could he have let himself get suckered in like this? That's what he really wanted to know. Because he'd fallen for Scott's garbage, that's why. He'd believed a total stranger. All because they were brothers. Well, he'd been right that day by the stream. Just because they shared Murdoch's blood meant nothing. It hadn't to him at the time. It never had to Scott and still didn't apparently.

He heard the noise and spun around, his eyes narrowing dangerously.

"I'm sorry, Johnny. I know how you must feel," Scott apologized.

"You don't know anything! Leave me alone."


"Please, listen to me. I have to do what's right for me. You can see that, can't you?" Scott asked, hoping to make his brother understand.

"Sure, Scott. Only, you get to choose what's right for you and nobody else does. If it were me, you'd be all over me right now and you know it."

"That's different. My life is not dangerous," Scott retorted.


"What difference does that make? It's your choice, right? We should just shut up already and accept it, right? Well, you can go to hell, you lying bastard!"

"I've never lied to you!"

Johnny stepped up, an inch from Scott's face. "I'll watch your back, Johnny. I'll be here for you. You can trust me!" he spat the words.

"And I have been," Scott argued. "I just can't be anymore."

Johnny shook his head slowly back and forth. "Was this just play time for you, Scott? See how the other half lives then run back to the mansion?"

"You know that isn't true."

"No, I don't. I don't know you at all."

"Look, I understand you're angry but you have to respect my wishes," Scott said harshly.

"I don't have to do nothin but die," Johnny shouted then hauled off and punched his brother in the mouth. "And that!" he added as he stood over Scott.

"Stop it!"

*****

Johnny jerked his head up to see Murdoch standing near the porch. Scott sat up, wiping his bloody lip and turned as well.

"Stop this right now. You're not going to leave things like this," the rancher went on as he came nearer.

"I can hit him again," Johnny spat.

Scott got to his feet and glared at his brother.

"Johnny, you'll regret leaving things like this. Scott is your brother no matter where he lives," Murdoch reasoned.

Fists still clenched and breathing heavily, Johnny answered. "Yeah? Well, I didn't know that for twenty years and I wish I still didn't know it. If this is the kind of brother I get, I don't want one!"

"I know you're hurting, son, but please try." Murdoch kept his voice calm, soothing. He put his hand on Johnny's trembling shoulder. The younger man dropped his head and pulled away, turning his back.

Scott watched and his anger dissipated. "I'm sorry, Johnny." It was all he knew to say and he walked back to the house.

Johnny fell to his knees and hugged himself tightly, rocking gently back and forth. Murdoch knelt beside him and rubbed his back.

"It hurts so bad, I know. But, he isn't trying to betray you, son. That isn't his intention. Scott has to do what's right for him just as I did when I left my home in Scotland. It was the hardest thing but I knew what I wanted for my life and it wasn't going to happen there. Just like you chose to stay here and accept this life even though it was so different and hard for you at first. He tried, Johnny. You have to give him credit for trying. It isn't us he's leaving, son. It's the way of life. It's not for everyone and you know that."

"Why couldn't he just stay in Boston? Why did he have to come here and be a brother for a minute then run away?" Johnny's voice was low and husky and hard to hear.

"He's not running away, son. He tried hard. You know he did. Could you live your life the way someone else wanted you to if you weren't happy?"

Johnny sighed and sniffed but he didn't answer. Murdoch wrapped both arms around him, pulling him in to lean on his chest. Johnny didn't struggle, he allowed the contact. He rested his head against his father.

"I hate him."

"No, you don't. You're angry and hurt. You don't hate Scott," Murdoch argued gently.

"Make him stay, Murdoch," he whispered.

"I can't, son. I wish to God I could, but I can't."

*****

Sunday was more quiet than usual even though no one went to church. Johnny was no where to be found. Jelly reported he'd saddled Barranca at dawn and rode out without a word. Hearing this, Murdoch simply hung his head. He hoped his son would return, was almost certain of it. But, there was a part of him that had always believed that if Scott left, Johnny wouldn't be far behind. That part had relaxed a lot in the past months but now, he just didn't know and was too tired to drive himself crazy with the thought.

He hadn't slept, doubted any of them had. Scott was somber at breakfast but, on hearing of Johnny's early morning departure, he'd become even more sullen. Murdoch didn't know what to do. Well, he knew what he wanted to do but, tying his grown son to his bed and locking the door was illegal, he was pretty sure.

So he sat in the living room and pretended to read while Scott walked around aimlessly outside. He'd watched for half an hour as his son seemed to count off cadence, turn sharply and begin again. Every three or so turns, Scott would stop and look down the road. Murdoch had grown tired of watching so here he sat. His son's last day with him and here he sat.

With resolve, he stood and walked out into the yard just as Scott had made one of his stops to search the road.

"Son, why don't you come inside and talk for a while? There isn't much time." The request was made through a knot in his throat and he knew his voice was weak but he couldn't care.

Scott, looking reticent, nodded his head and walked into the living room. He sat in a chair and waited for his father.

"I know Johnny's behavior is hard for you but try to understand."

"I do understand, Murdoch. I just wish he'd talk to me and not with his fists," Scott remarked quietly, his fingers gingerly touching the split lip.

Murdoch grimaced, remembering how angry his younger son had been last night. He couldn't blame Johnny but he was more heart sore than angry.

"You'll write to us regularly, I hope."

Scott looked up at him, pain in his eyes. "Yes, Sir."

"Are you having any second thoughts?" Murdoch asked, hoping the look he'd seen in Scott's eyes was ambivalence.

"No, Sir. No, I'm not. It's hard to leave but I know this is the right thing for me."

"I hope you'll keep writing to Teresa in Chicago as well," Murdoch continued.

Scott smiled a little. "She's doing so well at school. Of course, I'll write to her. I just hope she doesn't ....."

"Decide to come home? Don't worry, son. I won't let her give up her education."

*****

A few minutes of silence followed that confirmation until Murdoch decided he had absolutely nothing to lose now.

"May I ask what led you to make this decision? I thought you were happy here."

Scott frowned as he stared at the floor thoughtfully. "I am happy here but it isn't enough. My life was much fuller in Boston. I know there is a lot to occupy me here but not the things I'm most interested in. It's the culture I miss and my friends. And, of course, Grandfather." Scott glanced up in time to see a grimace fly across Murdoch's face.

"He isn't the only reason, Sir, or even the main one. I really can't explain it other than to say, it's what I'm comfortable with and what I like. I'm not afraid of change but, if that change doesn't suit a man, he has to realize that and do what's right for him."

Murdoch nodded, staring at his hands in his lap. "I understand, son. It's hard for me, though. I'm so used to this life and love it so much, it's hard to grasp any other lifestyle. You've experienced a lot and I know you're a man of conviction. I also know you've been thinking a great deal about this for a long time so, I don't have to ask again if you're sure."

"Thank you. It's Johnny I worry about most. He's taking this a lot harder than I thought."

Murdoch's head came up quickly. "Really? I'd think you would have known this is how he'd react. He loves you, he trusts you above anyone else. I know it isn't intended, but he sees this as a betrayal. I was hoping the two of you could talk it out today."

"So was I, but it seems he has other ideas. And, yes, I did think he'd take it better than this. That he'd understand my feelings," Scott remarked, a touch of anger in his tone.

Murdoch sighed a little. "Well, maybe that's what he's doing right now. Trying to understand."

Scott nodded and hoped that was true. It was Johnny's way, after all. To go off on his own and think things through first then come to him. He'd done it so many times only, this time it was Scott he was having to come to terms with. The young man knew very well his brother saw this as a betrayal. He knew how hard Johnny's life had been but he simply could not live for someone else's benefit if he were unhappy in the process. That was the biggest hurdle he'd had to overcome in the past couple of weeks.

Being selfish was not in Scott's nature so it took him a long time to realize this wasn't selfishness, really. That he had to be true to himself no matter what. He would always deeply regret leaving his family and would always miss them terribly but, he had to do this. Better now than a year from now, he'd told himself. For he was convinced he would never be as happy at Lancer as he was in Boston.

The war had taken a lot out of him and he'd only started to pull himself together when his father sent for him. He'd thought it was the perfect solution and maybe it was, temporarily. He hated that he'd made this commitment and couldn't see it through. He realized now what a hasty decision that had been, accepting Murdoch's offer in a second.

His head snapped up when he heard the horse riding in and his stomach plummeted. It was time to face the piper.

*****

Johnny tied off the reins at the corral fence then ambled around outside. He didn't want to go in there. Didn't want to see his brother. Part of him thought if he didn't, then Scott wouldn't leave. He knew it was ridiculous but he felt desperate. He'd been fine on the ride home, was ready to accept Scott's decision. Now, his resolve failed him.

He heard the front door open and stiffened, stopped pacing and waited with his back to the house. He heard the footfalls coming nearer and knew it was his brother.

"Did you have a good ride?" Scott asked.

Johnny took a deep breath and turned around, extending his hand. "I'm sorry I hit you, Scott. I hope you'll forgive me. If you wanna take a swing, I understand."

Scott breathed out and accepted the handshake. He took a step closer but Johnny matched it and stepped back. He turned his profile to Scott and wrapped his arms around his abdomen. Scott took the less than subtle hint.

"I forgive you, brother, and I don't need to take a swing at you."

Johnny nodded and stared into space. "I was all set to say okay, I get it. I know you have to go. Now .... well, it's not so easy." He turned back to face Scott, his eyes hard.

"It ain't that I can't live without you, brother. I just don't want to."

Scott smiled a little. "I'm very aware that you can live without me, Johnny. You've done it most of your life. This is hard for me, too, but in time we'll be able to move past the hurt."

Johnny shook his head back and forth slowly then turned away again.

"You are staying here, right?" Scott asked.

"Oh, I'm stayin. No doubt about that. It's just .... it won't be the same, is all," he answered softly.

Scott nodded. "No, it won't be the same. But, we'll write to each other and visit."

"Yeah, sure," Johnny mumbled. "I'm gonna get cleaned up. See ya at lunch."

Scott watched him walk away and wished he could help his brother but he knew he couldn't. The only way to help Johnny was to deny himself. Johnny would be fine after a time. They'd both grieve but the friendship wasn't lost. Plenty of people maintained long distance friendships just fine. He knew his brother wasn't much on writing letters but, he thought Johnny could change that - for him.

*****

Johnny stroked the golden coat with one hand while holding the carrot Barranca munched with the other. A small smile caressed his lips, one he wasn't aware of. It was always there the times he spent with Barranca. In these quiet moments, the beast soothed him when nothing else could. He let out a soft breath as the palomino took the remainder of the carrot in his teeth.

"Ya sure do spoil that animal."

Johnny's smile widened as he patted the white-maned neck then turned around. "He deserves it, Jelly."

The older man shook his head ruefully then settled on some hay bales, regarding the other. "You alright?"

Johnny looked at the ground, his shoulders slumped as he paced nearer Jelly. He pulled his arms behind him, clasping his hands. "No, I'm not. I'm tryin. I know in my head I should accept Scott's decision. That it's right for him. I want him to be happy. I just ...."

"Ya just don't think he will be in Boston," Jelly supplied.

"I guess not. It ain't fair of me but that old goat don't deserve Scott."

"D'ya think he had somethin to do with this?"

Johnny looked up at the wrangler. "No, Scott said he didn't and I believe him. I also believe he thinks this is what he wants and maybe it is. It just ain't what I want so I guess that's why I'm bein a mule about it."

"Nobody can blame ya for how ya feel, Johnny. I'm sure Scott don't. But, instead of mopin around about it, why don't ya spend some time with your brother while ya can?" Jelly came to his feet as he waited for an answer.

"Why? I mean, nothing we say now is gonna make a bit of difference. I understand what you're sayin, Jelly. I just don't see any point in feelin even worse. That's what'll happen if I talk to him now."

Jelly rolled his eyes then frowned. "I know I don't hafta ask if you're stayin. I just wanta say one thing. Whatever else happens in this world, Johnny, you and Murdoch gotta be good to each other. You're all ya got now and that's a sight more'n some. A sight more'n you've ever had and you deserve it. And ya need it, too."

A soft smile came to Johnny's lips as he looked affectionately at the man. "We've got you, too, amigo. You're right about me and Murdoch and we both know it. Don't you worry none. We're all gonna do just fine. The three of us can handle anything."

*****

It hadn't happened the way Scott had hoped. He'd pictured he and Johnny sitting in one of their bedrooms, talking all night long. But there was little more conversation coming from his brother. Murdoch had talked to him some more but eventually, the conversation turned to less tumultuous topics. He understood. They couldn't sit there morose all night.

Now, time was nearly out. They stood at the stage depot and waited, the three of them. Murdoch stood right next to Scott as if he were afraid he'd lose sight of his son. Johnny leaned against the corner of the building, facing away from them, his head down. But, when he heard his father mention the time, Johnny pushed away from the building and walked up to Scott. Their eyes met and locked for a long, silent moment.

They heard the stage nearing the corner and Johnny's eyes widened a little. His breathing came harder and faster and he took the three steps to his brother. Johnny grabbed the nape of Scott's neck and pulled him into a hug, not caring who saw. Scott returned the embrace equally as fierce.

"If you ever, ever change your mind, ever need me, ever need to get away, come home. Okay?" Johnny whispered.

"I will, I swear it," Scott choked out.

"Te amo, mi hermano. Nuestros corazones son uno." (I love you, brother. Our hearts are one)

Scott tightened his hold. "Si, junto por siempre. Te amo, hermano." (Together forever. I love you, brother.)

The stage was pulling up when they separated. Scott's head was down, trying to hide the emotions so close to edging over his eyelids. He turned to his father who grabbed him up.

"This has always been and always will be your home, son. Come back to us if you ever decide this life is what you want. I've always loved you and I always will," Murdoch spoke in a strangled voice.

"Thank you, Si.... pa. We'll see each other again, I swear it. I love you," Scott managed to choke out.

Johnny couldn't watch this and he turned to help the stage driver load Scott's bags. Then, he stood there as Pete called all aboard. He felt Scott's hand on his shoulder and tensed.

"Don't ever leave here, Johnny."

"I won't," he said and turned. "I'll be right here if you ever need me, Scott. Right here, okay?"

Scott nodded and swallowed hard. "And you know where to find me if you ever need anything."

Johnny almost said it but he refused to hurt his brother. Scott was hurting enough. He wanted to say that he needed Scott right here but he wouldn't, couldn't. "I really do understand and I hope you'll be happy in Boston."

The sincerity in those deep blue eyes lifted a heavy burden from Scott Lancer's heart. He relaxed visibly and gave his brother a small smile. "Thanks, brother. That means so much to me."

Johnny nodded and glanced up when Pete yelled again. He closed his eyes briefly then opened the coach door for his brother. Scott turned back to his father and smiled sadly then stepped inside. He leaned out the window and Johnny reached up, grabbing his extended hand.

As the stage departed and their hands were pulled apart, Scott called out. "Top dresser drawer!"

Johnny looked quizzically at him then nodded and waved until the stage was out of sight.

*****

The two remaining Lancers just stood there staring at the dust. Murdoch walked up to his son and put an arm around his shoulders. "Let's go home, son."

Johnny nodded and stepped off the boardwalk. He tied Barranca to the surrey then slid into the seat beside his father, sitting closer than he had to.

Murdoch's mouth quirked as he slapped the reins. Three miles outside town, Johnny spoke.

"Pull over, please." It was a low, husky sound and Murdoch did as he was asked, wondering if his son was about to be sick.

Johnny had pointed to a small grove of trees. Before the surrey fully stopped he was out of it and headed into those trees. Murdoch fought with himself then decided to wait. After ten minutes, he could wait no more.

He walked quietly and slowly into the dark shelter of the limbs and heard the muffled sounds. Johnny was leaning against a tree, his head resting on his forearm perched above his head on the rough bark. Murdoch pulled out a handkerchief and offered it from behind his son.

It was a great surprise when Johnny turned and leaned into him. His arms went immediately around his boy and he held on tight and waited.

"You and me are gonna get along, Murdoch. We're gonna love each other and respect each other and have a good life here," Johnny said after a few minutes.

"Yes, son, we surely are," the rancher responded, his voice quivering.

"And some day, Scott will come to his senses and come home."

Murdoch stiffened a little at that remark. "Johnny, please don't put all your hopes on that. It may not happen. I don't want to see you disappointed again."

Johnny pulled back and wiped his face before looking up at his father. "He will come back. But, that doesn't mean I'm gonna wait for him. When he rides down that road, I'll welcome him home and kick his backside. But, you and me are gonna be just fine."

Murdoch sighed inwardly but he wouldn't argue with his son's fragile heart right now. All he could do was nod and smile a little then squeeze his son's shoulders and lead him back to the surrey.  

As soon as they got home, Johnny headed to Scott's room. He opened the dresser drawer and smiled. Scott had left his picture of himself with General Sheridan along with a note. 'I'll miss you. Remember your smarted up brother.' He laughed softly at that then sat on the bed and hung his head, grasping the picture tightly.

He had other pictures of Scott and himself. Pictures he would cherish forever.   Pictures that would stay beside his bed for the rest of his life. Pictures that would be handed down from generation to generation throughout time as the stories were told of the gunhawk who found heaven on earth and of the brother he'd belonged to for one precious moment in time.

*****

For a month, Johnny worked, ate and slept. He didn't go to town, didn't hang out in the bunkhouse with the boys, didn't take leisurely rides with Barranca. He did spent a lot of time in the barn with Remmie, talking to the horse and reassuring him his master would come back. That he just needed to get this out of his system then Scott would come home.

Johnny believed that, he made himself believe it. For to not believe was to admit he would never see his brother again. And he couldn't do that, not ever.

Murdoch's inquiries about him writing to his brother were met with brusque replies that he was giving Scott time to settle in. And he was, but he was also giving him time to see that he didn't really belong in Boston. Johnny figured another two weeks should do it. Then, he'd write to his brother and talk about the ranch and how great everything was. Then, Scott would realize his mistake and come home.

Murdoch had no such notions. He had accepted the reality even though it broke his heart. But he wasn't a man of fanciful ideas and he was a little surprised at Johnny's insistence that Scott would come back. He knew his son was setting himself up for even more pain. He just didn't know how to deal with it. He wouldn't argue the point with Johnny. The young man had kept his vow and they were getting along better than ever. And he knew Johnny wasn't working that hard at it which gave him a great deal of solace. That it seemed to come naturally to his son to get along with him was a soothing balm to his battered heart.

He'd sent off a letter to Scott just the day before but he didn't tell Johnny. Scott's reply would be a couple of weeks coming. Murdoch hoped by then, Johnny would stop his denial.

The subject of his thoughts strode into the living room just then.

"Think I'll ride Remmie tomorrow. He needs a good workout."

"Alright, son. Are you going to town tonight?"

Johnny's face fell and he only shook his head no.

"Johnny, you need to get out and have some fun," Murdoch said, trying to keep the exasperation from his voice.

"Don't feel like it. Wanna play cards?" the young man asked.

"Maybe after supper. I wish you'd spend some time with young men your own age, though." Murdoch grumbled then a thought struck him. He studied his son sitting on the sofa picking at his conchos.

"Johnny, you aren't hanging around here to keep me company, are you? Because, that isn't necessary. You need to enjoy yourself sometimes."

Johnny didn't look at him and he knew the truth.

"I am enjoying myself. Don't need to go to town for that."

Murdoch walked across the room and sat next to him. "I've seen you enjoy yourself and this isn't what it looks like. You have to start living again, son. Get out there and spend time with your friends. Maybe even a pretty girl."

Johnny smiled a little at that then looked at his father. "I like being here with you."

"I appreciate that, son, but I'm not going anywhere." Murdoch looked hard at him. "I'm not going anywhere," he repeated.

"I know," Johnny mumbled unconvincingly.   

The rancher sighed. "Do you? I hope so because if you think I'm leaving this ranch, you're loco," he said and patted Johnny's thigh.

The younger man laughed. "Hey, why don't you? I mean, let's go to town together. We never do that. We could play some poker."

Murdoch frowned at that idea. "I don't know, son. I'm a little old to be out gallivanting."

"You ain't old, Murdoch. Come on," he urged.

Murdoch twisted his mouth. "If I come with you tonight, will you go next week without me?"

Narrowed eyes turned to him. "That a bribe?"

*****

Murdoch yawned again as he made his way through his second cup of coffee. Maria looked scornfully at him and he averted his gaze. She started mumbling and he sighed.

"It was for Johnny, Maria. I'm just trying to put some spark back into him," he explained of the late night out.

She stopped complaining and smiled softly. "Did it work?"

"Some. He did seem to enjoy himself most of the night. Then, someone asked about Scott," he sighed out.

She tsked and shook her head.

Johnny bounded into the room with a smile on his face and slid into his chair. "Mornin."

"Good morning, son. How are you feeling?"

Johnny cocked a brow. "Me? I feel fine. What about you?" A devilish grin slid on his face.

"I'll live," Murdoch grunted and Johnny laughed fully. The older man's spirits lifted at that sound. One he hadn't heard for quite a while.

"You should be ashamed keeping your papa out half the night," Maria scolded unconvincingly.

Johnny looked up at her standing over him. "I'll have you know Murdoch won most of the pots last night. He's pretty shrewd, mamacita. Maybe he should be ashamed for suckerin all those men."

She swatted him for his insolence then turned quickly to the stove to hide the smile that lit her face. Johnny seemed his old self today and she was a happy woman.

But, Johnny had turned thoughtful as he stole a few glances at his father. "Thanks," he said softly.

"For what?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny shrugged. "For coming with me last night. I had a good time. It was nice to get out for a while."

Murdoch smiled. "I'm glad, son. So, you'll keep your promise and go by yourself more often?"

Johnny returned the smile. "I always keep my promises, Murdoch."

The older man gave him a serious look. "That's very true."

*****

In his better frame of mind, Johnny decided it was time to write that letter to his brother. He spent the better part of Sunday afternoon working on it. He sat at the table in his room chewing the end of the pen more than he wrote. Wadded balls of paper strewn across the floor indicated how difficult this was turning out to be. He couldn't believe it was this hard but he wanted it to be just right. Wanted to sound happy and, at the same time, remind Scott of what he'd left behind.

Just before supper, he finished and reread the entire thing - four pages long. He nodded his head and thought it was pretty good. Now, all he had to do was mail it then wait. That was the hard part, the waiting. He hated the thought of not being able to just talk to his brother and get an immediate response. Well, he sighed loudly, it won't be for long.

He was going to town for supplies in the morning so he tucked the envelope in his jacket pocket and headed downstairs. A chuckle escaped as he thought of his old man last night. Sitting there so seriously, studying the cards and the men at the table, including him. He could tell his father was a little frustrated with him. Mostly, because Johnny couldn't resist teasing him most of the night.

The men they'd play with were neighbors. Murdoch had been pleasantly surprised to find them sitting in the saloon. Johnny wondered if his father thought every rancher stayed home on Saturday night. It was telling of just how much Murdoch had closed himself off over the years. Johnny decided that had to change. Maybe not every week but once a month, at least, he'd get the old man out of that house for some fun.

*****

The next two weeks were hard. Johnny knew better but every day he thought of riding into town to check the mail, smiling to himself more than once at his own impatience. He never had possessed much of that commodity anyway. This was almost too much to stand. But, time did pass and he went to town early Saturday, heading to the post first thing.

It was there and Johnny tried to hide the smile on his face but wasn't successful. Mrs. Foster beamed at him as he headed toward the saloon. Then, he stopped and turned down an alley. He wanted privacy, wanted to savor every word. It wasn't until he was settled on a barrel and ripped the envelope open did he notice how light it was.

Johnny pulled the paper out and unfolded it. One page. He frowned and started to read. It took five seconds. He read it again.

Johnny,

     Glad to hear from you and that all is well. I'm very busy right now settling in and starting back to work with Grandfather. I'll write again when I have more time to respond.

                                                                                                         Regards, Scott.

More time to respond? Was he kidding? Scott never had any problem with words. They tripped easily off his tongue and he was a lunatic about writing to old man Garrett once a month. He'd always had time for that when he was at the ranch.

The depth of his disappointment couldn't possibly be described in words, though. He stared at the short missive for fifteen minutes before he moved. Johnny stood up, shoved the letter in his pocket and walked back to the street. He mounted up and rode out of town heading nowhere in particular.

*****

Four months passed. Johnny had written to Scott three more times and each time, the response was short. Not as short as the first one but, compared to the tomes he was writing to his brother, these letters were pitiful. Each time, Scott sounded more and more distant. More reserved. More eastern. More Harlan Garrett. That thought made Johnny cringe.

He hadn't tried to hide his disappointment. He'd made his feelings crystal clear and asked his brother each time to share more of his life. Scott would write about work and socials and the newest play; never anything personal. Never did he discuss any feelings other than to say he was happy.

As this time passed, Johnny came to accept the fact that his brother was not coming home. He continued writing though not as regularly but he no longer tried to sound as cheerful. He wrote of ranch news, Jelly's latest adventures and news about people Scott knew in the valley. Scott's responses remained cold and distant. Johnny started to feel like he was boring his brother.

It was the same with Murdoch who did write more often and never slowed his correspondence. But, Scott's answers were becoming predictable and less frequent. Sometimes, he would wait until he'd received two letters to answer. Johnny wondered why they bothered to open the envelopes.

This last time Johnny had had enough. The look on his father's face killed him. He knew Scott was pulling away from them but Murdoch didn't want to acknowledge that. So, Johnny wrote one more letter and told his brother what was what. If Scott wanted to contact them, he was free to do so but Johnny made it clear this was the last letter he would be writing for quite some time. He told Scott the next move was his to make if he so chose. He wasn't polite about it, didn't intend to be, and put his cards on the table. He ended by asking if Scott had the decency and manners to respond as plainly as Johnny had written.

He never got a reply to that letter so he went about the business of living.

*****

Johnny rode into the yard like the devil was chasing him. He jumped from Barranca before the horse even stopped and ran into the house, taking the stairs two at a time. Bursting through his father's bedroom door, he came to an abrupt stop, breathing heavily.

Sam Jenkins stood up and turned to him with a grave expression. Johnny couldn't see his father's face but his own fell.

"He's resting. Come downstairs with me," Sam said as he took Johnny's arm gently.

The young man resisted, looking at his father's relaxed face now.

"Come on, John. We need to talk."

Once downstairs, Johnny paced before Sam who was sitting on the sofa. "What's wrong with him?"

"He had a heart attack, Johnny."

He stopped pacing, turned slowly to the doctor and just stared.

"It wasn't mild but it wasn't as bad as it could have been," Sam went on. "He's going to have to take it easy. No more physical labor."

Johnny finally sat down. "Tell me everything."

"He's going to get tired easily, short of breath, too. He'll need to rest more frequently even with mild exertion. Just walking down the stairs could tire him out. He might want to think about moving to a room down here to avoid those stairs altogether. He also needs to avoid worry and tension so try not to discuss any problems with him."

Johnny fell back against the chair cushion and shook his head. "He's not that old, Sam. He's always been strong as a bull. How could this happen?"

The doctor shook his head. "Years of hard work, worry and heartache, son. Right now, he needs to stay in bed for a week at least." Sam hesitated then took a deep breath. "Johnny, you might want to send for Scott."

He was out of the chair in one second. "What for? He hasn't been interested for six years!" he shouted.

Sam stood as well. "Because he might want to see his father one more time."

Johnny swallowed hard, his mouth opened and closed. "Is he dying?" he barely whispered.

"He might. I can't predict when but he can't survive another attack like this one. I'm sorry, John. I'm so sorry."

"Sam, come on. Murdoch is .... well, he's tough. He can beat this," Johnny bargained.

"Maybe, but I'm just not very optimistic, son."

*****

Johnny eased into the chair at the bedside and took his father's hand in his own, holding it lightly. Murdoch was asleep but his face still wrinkled in a frown. Johnny sighed softly and hung his head, rubbing his eyes with his free hand.

"Come on, old man. Don't do this to me. I need you to stay strong. I need you to fight," he spoke huskily.

"I will, son."

Johnny's head came up and he leaned in with a smile for his father. "Hey. How do you feel?"

"Tired," he sighed out.

"Yeah, I know. Sam says you need to take it easy. Stay in bed a few days."

"Oh, I won't need to be down that long," Murdoch argued lightly.

Johnny bit his lip and decided. "Well, we can worry about that later. For now, you need to rest. Don't worry about a thing. I'll take care of the ranch."

Murdoch smiled a little. "I know you will. You're quite capable of running this place alone."

"May be. Don't mean I want to. Just .... just rest and get better, okay?"

Murdoch squeezed his hand. "I will, son." He closed his eyes and was asleep quickly.

Johnny sat at his side all night. He thought about Sam's suggestion as he took in his father's pale face, the lines seeming to grow deeper with each passing minute. Maybe he should send for Scott. Even if Murdoch got better, Sam said he would never be able to do like he had.

He listened to the silence in the room; in the house and sighed. Since Jelly had passed two years ago, things were definitely quieter. That had been so hard on him and so fast. They'd found the old wrangler in his bed that morning with a peaceful look on his face. Johnny shuddered to think of repeating that experience with his father.

It had never occurred to him that his father would die some day. He simply had not thought about it. Murdoch would always be there. It was a given, only it wasn't now. He was scared. For the first time in a very long time, Johnny was scared.

Their relationship had done nothing but grow stronger with each passing day. They were father and son in every sense of the words and everyone in the valley could see it. The Lancers. That's who they were. He couldn't bear the thought of that plural no longer being true. He couldn't bear the thought of living in this house alone. Scott was gone. Jelly was gone. Maria had retired last year, too old to keep working and they'd set her up with a house on the ranch.

It was just the two of them. Matilda was a good housekeeper but she would never be Maria. Could never even come close. He felt more alone in that moment than he had in years. God! How could he have forgotten that feeling? But, he had and now it was back with a vengeance.

Johnny shook his head hard. No, he wasn't going to lose Murdoch. He just wasn't.

*****

The older man stirred and Johnny straightened his back, watching closely as Murdoch awakened. He poured a glass of water and waited.

"What time is it?" was his first groggy question.

Johnny smiled softly. "Late. Here, drink some water."

Murdoch did so and relaxed back into the pillow. "I can't believe how tired I still am."

"You must need the rest. It's okay. Sam said to sleep as much as you can."

The rancher nodded then studied his son's face. "I'm not going to die on you."

"Okay," Johnny managed to croak out.

"Besides, I have a grandchild on the way. I have to be around to see him," the old man said, his face lighting up.

Johnny forced a smile. "That's right. But, what makes you so sure it's a he?"

Scott had married two years previous, just before Jelly passed away, in fact. Murdoch still wrote to him faithfully and Scott would reply once in a while. The letter announcing his impending marriage was filled with emotion. The very recent one telling of the child on it's way was nearly busting - as if one could hear the joy in the easterner's voice.

Johnny had read them at Murdoch's insistence and he'd stated his happiness for his brother. But, Scott had offered no invitation to the wedding. Murdoch simply said he must think they'd not be able to make such a long trip that time of year. Spring, when it was busiest.

Johnny had thought bitterly at the time that Scott probably planned it that way. It wasn't fair, he supposed, but he was still angry and reckoned he always would be. Scott had not written to Johnny in the past five years. Johnny rarely thought of his brother anymore. It was more sad than anything and he was so tired of sadness in his life. So, he turned it to anger. An emotion he was better prepared to deal with.

"Well, it is a Lancer and boys run in the family," Murdoch was answering.

"Right. Listen, that baby is a few months off, old man. So, you take that time to get your strength back. Wouldn't do not to be able to bounce it on your knee."

Murdoch reached out and Johnny grabbed hold of his hand. "Son, I'm sorry if I scared you. I know what Sam said but I'm not too good at taking orders."

Johnny laughed aloud at that. "You got a good memory, too."

"I do and don't you forget it." He grimaced and Johnny stiffened.

"Okay, time to rest now. No more talk. Go to sleep, pa."

Murdoch looked hard at him for a second then smiled, his eyes lighting with love. Then, they shuttered closed and Johnny breathed out.

*****

Johnny was surprised but more concerned. Murdoch had stayed in bed all week. Maria had come as soon as she'd heard to help care for the man and reported she'd had no real problems with him during the day. Now, Sam was up there and Johnny paced the living room, chewing on the side of his thumb. And he prayed when he heard the footsteps on the stairs.

"Well?" he asked as soon as Sam had a seat.

The physician looked glum and rubbed a hand over his face. "Well, he's better but still pretty weak. He can start getting up but he has to take it very easy. Don't let him push himself, Johnny. And, I think you should go ahead and move his things to a downstairs bedroom."

Johnny eased into a chair and slumped down, resting his cheek on his fist. "He won't like that but, okay. Sam, is he gonna recover from this?"

"I just don't know. What I hear when I listen to his chest isn't very encouraging. The blood is backing up in his heart instead of pumping on through. It goes eventually but that congestion is building. He'll get short of breath easily, as I said before. His feet might swell, too, if he stays up too long. Make him prop them up as much as he can. Johnny, he's not going to take this very well. I know you know that but you cannot give into him."

The younger man nodded sadly. He knew himself the old man wasn't bouncing back. Proof was in Murdoch staying abed for the entire week. "How did he seem to you? I mean, he's been pretty down."


Sam nodded. "Yes, he is. This sort of thing can depress a man like your father. He's used to running the show, giving orders and being in the thick of things. He's going to have to come to terms with the fact he can't do that any longer. It may be a nearly impossible task. I'm counting on you to help him through this."

"I'll do everything I can, Sam."

The doctor eyed him for a long beat. "Did you take my advice and send for Scott?"

Johnny lowered his eyes and didn't answer - at least not verbally.

"Whatever you feel about your brother, Murdoch is your first concern. He'll want to see Scott and, Johnny, I can't urge this strongly enough. Send for your brother now."

*****

Johnny sat at the desk and wrote the telegram. He thought at first about trying not to sound too dramatic. In the end, he knew he'd better tell it the way it was or Scott might not bother. He was pretty certain his brother would come if he worded it right. He called a hand into the house and gave him instructions and money then sent him on his way to town. He should make it before the office closed for the day. Besides, Bert was there at night and he knew the man would send the wire for him.

He thought the words he'd written over in his mind.

'Scott, Murdoch very sick. Sam says you should come right away.'

He'd scratched out the words 'come home' and just went with 'come'. He figured this wasn't Scott's home anymore by his own choice. Bitter and petty, he knew but he didn't care. He was all alone to deal with this and, once more, he was scared.

Johnny knew his father was dying, he just didn't know when. It wasn't something he was finding easy to accept and his heart raged against the very idea. He didn't know how he could possibly keep going without his old man. A sardonic smile flittered across his face. A few years ago, he couldn't imagine having a father at all. Not one he wanted, anyway. Now, his heart and soul were shattered. He bent his head as a tear rolled down his cheek.

If only he had Jelly to talk to. The grief felt overwhelming at the moment. He heard a noise and his head snapped up.

"Por favor, Johnny. He is asking for you," Maria said softly, her voice trembling.

Johnny moved quickly to her, wrapping her in his arms. "I'm gonna need you, mamacita. Hang on, okay? We'll get him better."

She cried but didn't rebuke him. She couldn't bear to hurt him more but she knew the truth and it killed her to think the unthinkable. Johnny shushed her and rubbed wide circles over her back. She pulled herself together, unwilling to keep father and son apart for even one more minute.

"I am alright, chico. Go to him."

Johnny kissed her cheek and smiled a little before heading upstairs.

*****

"There you are."

Johnny smiled at his father and sat on the edge of the bed. "Just seein Sam off. How are you feelin?"

"A little tired. I think it's going to take a lot longer to get back in form than I thought," Murdoch replied with a smile of his own.

Johnny managed not to look sad, he hoped. "Well, that's okay. We'll do fine." He dipped his eyes then cleared his throat. "Sam thinks you should move downstairs to one of the rooms. He said the stairs ain't good for you. Just for now."

He winced at the thought. "I'm used to my own bed."

Looking up, Johnny grinned a little. "We can move it, too. Anything you want, we can move."

Murdoch nodded then looked away, chewing on his thoughts for long moments. "Maybe ..... why don't you write to Scott? Ask him to come for a visit soon?"

He knows, Johnny thought. Dear God, he knows. "Yeah, I'll do that right away. It's a good idea," he answered sullenly.

Murdoch put his hand over Johnny's and the younger man held on. "You and I need to talk, son. Not right now but very soon. Tomorrow, maybe. Right now, I can barely keep my eyes open."

"Alright. Just get some rest. There's plenty of time." He looked into his father's eyes and saw the doubt there. Johnny squeezed his hand and fought the urge to just lay down and hold the old man. Crazy, he thought.

But Murdoch held the gaze, seemingly searching for something in the deep blue depths. Apparently, he found what he needed and sighed lightly then closed his eyes and relaxed the hand Johnny held. He stayed there for a while longer, ensuring his father was asleep before easing off the mattress and out of the room.

Johnny went downstairs and headed for the liquor. He poured a full glass of Scotch and settled in a chair. And that's where he spent the night.

*****

A week later, Murdoch was moving around some. He couldn't go far without stopping to rest. Maria had set him up with a table and comfortable chair on the veranda and he spent most mornings out there and some afternoons. Usually, he was too tired after noon, though, and took a nap.

He watched Johnny in the early mornings, giving orders and talking with the hands. The sight always pleased him. Sometimes, his son would walk over and ask his opinion and he relished those moments. He was still needed but he knew he had to have that talk with Johnny. The one they still hadn't had.

As the week progressed, he noticed a change in his son. Johnny seemed agitated at times, angry at others and mostly, disappointed. Murdoch couldn't figure out what was causing this but it was getting to the point where he needed to ask. And soon.

Friday, he didn't stay outside very long and opted to go to bed until late afternoon. He'd decided to rest up so he and Johnny could talk tonight.   So, he sat in the living room and waited for his son to come home. The front door slamming heralded the young man's arrival.

Johnny pulled up short when he saw his father and his expression changed instantly from a deep scowl to a more relaxed, if not happy face. "Hey."

"Bad day?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny walked on in and sat on the sofa. "No, nothing out of the ordinary."

Murdoch smiled a little. "Really? You looked like you could bite the head off a rattler when you walked in."

"Did I?" he evaded. "You're up a little later than usual."

"I rested in bed today so we could talk."

"About what?" Johnny asked hesitantly.

"A great many things, son. Right now, the ranch and you running it alone."

*****

Johnny shifted on the sofa and felt a little defensive. But, he'd learned to hold his tongue until his father fully spoke his mind. Johnny had discovered Murdoch didn't always start out saying things in the best way but he ended up explaining it just fine. He only needed to wait for Murdoch to get there.

"Okay."

"I know you're more than capable but there are some things I never got around to talking to you about. Business deals, contracts, stocks and bonds in the works that I'm afraid I've neglected to show you. I guess I always thought there'd be plenty of time."

"There is," Johnny broke in suddenly.

Murdoch's face fell. "I think we both know that may not be true. I hope it is but I can't count on that. Son, you need to be prepared to take over completely. Even if I get better, I know I'll never be where I was before. It's been hard for me to come to terms with that and I still have trouble with it. But, that isn't fair to you and I don't want to leave you in a lurch."

Johnny dropped his head, he wanted to argue the point but he couldn't.

"There's also my will to discuss. Harry has it and he'll help you with all of that. I just wanted you to know, I've left you the ranch."

When Scott left, the partnership agreement was null and void. Murdoch and Johnny had to draw up a new agreement, fifty percent each. It had been a hard piece of paper to sign but they were practical men and knew better than to leave something that important up in the air.

Johnny was staring open-mouthed at his father and Murdoch waited for him.

"What about Scott?" he finally managed to croak out.

Murdoch sighed heavily. "Scott made it clear he isn't interested in ranching. I couldn't burden him with this. I don't want him to feel manipulated or forced into something he doesn't want," the rancher explained.

Johnny nodded his understanding but he was still overwhelmed. All of Lancer? He felt sick to his stomach. He would have all of the ranch but he felt like he was losing half his heart. He wasn't sure he could afford that. Scott's leaving had torn so much of his heart away. Maybe, he'd be left with no heart at all. He blinked and looked at his father, struggling to listen to the man.

"I have every faith in you, John. I know you can handle this. You have been handling it. Now, you need to know everything." Murdoch stood up slowly and walked to his desk, sitting heavily in the chair. He waved Johnny over and the young man pulled a chair near his father.

For two hours they went over all the business Murdoch had neglected to inform his son of over the past six years. It wasn't really a lot but it was detailed which was why the rancher had never gotten around to it. There never seemed to be enough time. Now, he felt, that time was running out quickly.

*****

After supper, it was clear Murdoch was done in. He headed for the living room until he was stopped.

"Wrong way. Your room is the opposite direction."

Murdoch stopped, his back to his son and a retort on his lips. Then, those lips stretched into a smile as he turned.

"I have a feeling you think the roles have shifted around here."

Johnny's mouth quirked a little. "Yeah? Well, don't make me turn you over my knee."

Murdoch chuckled at that then sighed. "I am tired. Can you come to my room in a bit? There is one more thing I want to talk about tonight."

"Can't it wait? You look pretty worn out." The worry was plain to see on the young man's face.

"No, it can't. Fifteen minutes," Murdoch replied, giving Johnny his most stern look. But the younger man was unperturbed and simply smiled and nodded.

Murdoch sat up in the bed. He had to lest his eyes slide shut. It was a long fifteen minutes, it seemed. Finally, Johnny knocked and came in.

"You okay?"

"Yes, a little tired. Now, tell me what's been eating at you all week."

The younger man was surprised by this. He figured Murdoch wanted to talk about the ranch some more. He sat in the chair after pulling it near the bed and sighed.

"Nothing, really. Well, you and the ranch. I guess I'm letting it get to me," he said, lying through his teeth.

Murdoch studied him and knew that wasn't the whole of it. A thought struck him. "It's only been a week, son. We can't expect a reply from Scott, yet."

Johnny's eyes turned hard but he averted his gaze. "I know that. Look, you need to rest and I'm tuckered, too. I'll see you in the morning."

Reluctantly, Murdoch gave in and nodded, a yawn escaping. He laughed through it. "Why is it you're almost always right these days?"

Johnny smiled at him. "Maybe I'm all grown up now." It was sarcastic, a dig at his brother and how he used to think of Johnny more as a boy than a man. He just couldn't resist, though.

"You have been for a long time, son. I'm so proud of you." Murdoch's tone was serious and he gave Johnny a look that told him to just accept the compliment.

He did and smiled widely. "Thanks. Goodnight, Murdoch."

"Sleep well, son."

*****

Johnny didn't sleep well. His anger wouldn't allow him to rest. He couldn't turn off his mind. He also couldn't tell Murdoch the truth. Scott had never responded to his telegram. Johnny had ridden into town every day to check and there was no word. He knew Scott better than to think he'd simply come without sending a reply. He had to assume that meant he wasn't coming at all.

The alternative was Scott had never received the wire. That was a possibility. Though, he'd always received their letters, it was conceivable the wire hadn't been delivered. That's why he'd sent another one two days ago. No answer to that one either. Johnny had gone so far as to request the telegraph office wire when they delivered the message into the hands of it's intended recipient. This morning, he'd gotten that verification. Scott had signed for the wire and the operator had even sent a description of the man.

Now, there was no doubt. Scott knew Murdoch was very ill and still, he hadn't responded. Now, Johnny had to figure out what to tell his father. Murdoch would ask in another week. That was a given. The missives always took a couple of weeks back and forth and the man was patient about receiving letters from his son. He had to be. Scott got to the point he only wrote with the changing seasons, it seemed.

Johnny's greatest fear was the news would send his father spiraling downward. His health could be jeopardized by this. If he got too depressed, he might retreat to his bed and close himself off. Of course, that would never happen if the old man was healthy. Now, Johnny never knew what to expect or when. It unnerved him to think of his father being so fragile but that was the best word to describe the man these days.

If Murdoch weren't in such bad shape, Johnny would be on the next train east to kick Scott's ass all the way back to California. It wasn't as if he were asking him to come back forever. One visit in six years wasn't too much, was it? Especially with Murdoch so bad off. He'd been very clear in both telegrams. What the hell was wrong with Scott?

*****

Johnny watched the stage pull up with a heavy heart. He tried to put on a brave face and smiled genuinely when the young woman disembarked. He pushed his way through the people milling about the depot and touched her shoulder.

Teresa turned, her face lighting in delight as she flung herself into his arms. Johnny laughed as he picked her up briefly.

"Some things never change, querida."

"I'm so happy to see you, Johnny. Now, take me home," she declared, her smile wavering.

Once out of town, Johnny settled the surrey into an even pace. "How are the girls?"

"Growing like weeds and tearing the house apart. I ...I didn't think I should bring them though I know Murdoch would love to see them."

He heard the quiver in her voice and steeled himself. "No, you were right not to bring them along this time. He's .... really weak."

Teresa looked at his profile, could see how hard he was fighting to stay strong and her heart thumped wildly. She bit her lip and decided she should ask now, before they got to the house. "Have you heard from Scott?"

The change was sudden and shocking, even to her who had seen the very best - or worst - of Madrid.

"No." Came the harsh reply.

She sighed, tears welling in her eyes but she fought them off and braced herself for what she was about to face. Johnny's letter had been delicately worded which surprised her, for he was not one to beat around the bush. She knew he was trying to ease into it but she'd read between the lines and she knew what was happening. She hadn't stopped crying all week but she knew she couldn't fall apart now. They both needed her and she would never let them down.

Now, she stood in front of the great hacienda which had been her home for most of her life and allowed a tear to fall. She swiped it away even as Johnny wrapped an arm around her waist.

"Just be with him. Let him talk about whatever he wants. Just ..... try not to say anything about Scott. I'll tell him when he asks me."

She turned to look fully at him. "Do you think you should do that?"

He sighed and shook his head. "I won't lie to him, Teresa. I may tell him a little white lie now and then to make him feel better but I won't lie to him about anything important. But, I do want to be the one so if he does ask, tell him to talk to me about it."

"Alright. I just wish I understood what Scott is thinking."

Before Johnny could give a reply he'd regret saying in front of a lady, Maria walked outside and he was done. The two of them started plotting and planning Murdoch's care and he made himself scarce.

*****

A month passed slowly and still no word from Scott. Murdoch hadn't asked and Johnny knew he was trying to spare his son from making up some story. He needn't have. Johnny wasn't about to make excuses for Scott. He watched in agony as his father's health deteriorated. Sam came once a week and always said the same thing.

His heart was failing and it was just a matter of time. Johnny stayed close to the house these days. Maria and Teresa watched over Murdoch closely during the day and Johnny sat with him at night, sleeping in the chair at his bed. Murdoch wasn't crazy about that situation but nothing could get Johnny to leave him.

He would sit in a chair by the window sometimes but mostly, he stayed in the bed, sleeping as much as he could in the day so he and Johnny could talk at night. And they did talk, long hours when Murdoch could. They talked about anything and everything. For the first time, Murdoch asked Johnny about his childhood and Johnny answered him honestly. The man deserved that and so much more.

Johnny didn't sugarcoat his experiences but he did shrug them off. He told Murdoch it was the past and the present was what they had. It was all they had now. Each man spoke of his love and affection for the other. No topic was forbidden now. Murdoch opened up about his wives and his boys and his own childhood. He spoke lovingly of Scotland and told tales of his boyhood adventures.

Johnny soaked it all in, burning every word into his memory for the future. Some day when he had children, he'd tell them about their grandfather. The giant man with the giant heart that had been trampled yet held on for these long nights. He knew his father was doing just that. Hanging on by a thread. Spending every precious moment he could with his son.

Finally, one night, Murdoch asked the question Johnny had so long dreaded. He found he couldn't lie to his father - not about anything now. Not even to save him the pain. He confessed about the telegrams and the lengths he'd gone to ensure Scott had received at least one of them. He watched his father's face, saw the tears well up and hated Scott Lancer with all he was.

"Forgive him, Johnny. Whatever kept him away. Whatever his reasons, please forgive him, son. He's your only brother. You should love each other."

Johnny had no answer for that request. He couldn't make the promise his father wanted. All he could do was nod. It wasn't a commitment as far as he was concerned. Simply an acknowledgement he'd heard his father's words.

*****

That night, Johnny slipped into the bed beside his father. Scooting up to rest his back on the headboard, he slid an arm beneath Murdoch's shoulders and lifted him a little so he could hold the man. It wasn't hard now. Murdoch had lost a great deal of weight. No one would recognize him as the stolid rancher he had been.

Murdoch rested his head on Johnny's shoulder as the young man stroked his cheek with a thumb. Johnny's soft voice soothed his exhausted father.

"It's okay now, papa. Everything's been said and done. It's okay to rest now. I love you. You will always live on in the land and in me and in my children. You will never be forgotten. I swear this as my solemn promise to you."

"I love you so much, son. I've cherished these years with you and I'm so grateful to you for staying with me. I only wish I could have seen Scott one last time," Murdoch whispered.

Johnny swallowed hard, his cheeks wet, his voice tight. "Then, see him. Close your eyes and picture him listening to something you're saying the way he did. His eyes focused on you, listening to every word you say and leaning in a little to let you know he's paying attention. Can you see him?"

Murdoch smiled and nodded. "Yes, yes, I can see him. He looks so happy. Thank you, son."

"I could never have asked for a better father. Thank you for bringing me home. I love you, papa. I love you more than anything in this world." A small sob escaped before Johnny could suck it in. He ground his jaw to stop another.

Murdoch leaned in closer and grabbed his hand. He craned his neck and Johnny leaned forward a little. Murdoch kissed his cheek and Johnny nearly lost complete control. The older man rested his head again, exhausted from the exertion that simple act evoked.

Johnny kissed his forehead and held him tighter. Then, Murdoch sighed lightly and slipped away and Johnny broke down completely.

*****

Scott pulled the surrey to a stop and gazed at the white hacienda with a smile. He turned to the woman beside him and kissed her cheek before sliding out and moving around to help her down.

"Well, this is it."

"It's so big, Scott. And beautiful," she smiled. Her light brown hair had lost it's perfect coif on the way from town. She tucked the stray strands back but it was a futile effort. Blue eyes danced in merriment as she regarded her husband. "I'm afraid I'm a mess. I hate to greet family like this."

"I'm sure it won't be a problem. No one will even notice, my love. You're too beautiful, stray hair and all," he smiled.

She stood by his side, a few inches shorter. Her creamy complexion blushed from the wind. Her once perfect figure now revealing a bulge about the waistline. Her hand went unthinkingly to that bulge as she smiled widely, taking in the ranch.

"Mr. Lancer?"

Scott turned and smiled. "Since when is it Mr. Lancer, Frank? It's good to see you again."

"Uh, yeah, thanks. We didn't know you were comin," Frank replied, more than a little shocked to see the man.

"I know. It's a surprise. Could someone take our luggage in? My old room is fine."

Frank's back went up a little but he only nodded. It wasn't his place to say a thing. He'd let Johnny handle this.

"Sure thing. Mr. Lancer should be back any time now."

"Good!" Scott smiled widely and took his wife's arm, leading her inside.

"It hasn't changed a bit," Scott remarked as he took in the great room.

"It's wonderful, sweetheart. Just like you described it," she said as she walked about the room. "I love this fireplace."

Scott laughed. "It's Johnny's favorite spot."

"I can't wait to meet him."

*****

Johnny rode in and dismounted at the corral. He felt the eyes on him and looked around at the hands trying to act as if they weren't staring. He frowned then shrugged and headed to the house. It was then he saw the surrey and his head cocked to one side, curious as to who his visitor could be. It wasn't Sam's rig and he didn't recognize it. Well, he was about to find out, he reckoned as he opened the front door.

Johnny tossed his hat on the hook then stepped inside only to stop, frozen in his tracks. Scott was standing near the desk with a smile on his face. Johnny's eyes narrowed.

"What the hell do you want?" he barked.

Scott's eyes widened, the smile leaving quickly as he stared, startled at his brother. Johnny stepped further into the room.

"Well?" he demanded.

"That's not exactly the welcome I anticipated, brother," Scott replied, finding some of his decorum.

"I don't know what other welcome you could possibly expect, Scott!" He saw Scott's eyes go past him and turned around.

The woman was staring in horror at the display and Johnny stared right back. He sighed and shook his head then rounded on his brother.

"Well? Are you gonna answer me or just stand there? What do you want?"

Scott pulled his shoulders back and jutted out his chin a little. "Well, first, I'd like to see my father. When do you expect him?"

Johnny's face turned to granite, his eyes icy. "When the angels come for me. That's when I expect to see him. He's dead, you sonofabitch!"

Scott fell back against the desk, staring but not seeing. He swallowed hard and felt the presence beside him. She grabbed his arm and held tight as his world tilted.

"When?" Scott managed to whisper.

Johnny shook his head. The only thing keeping him from launching himself at Scott was that woman. "Two months ago."

A mask of anger painted Scott's face as he glared. "Why didn't you tell me?!"

"Why the hell would I? You didn't come when he was sick. I figured you couldn't be bothered with the details of his death!"

*****

Silence reigned supreme in the room. The two men stared at each other, the woman watching her husband's face intently.

"I couldn't get away," Scott finally said.

Johnny sneered at him. "Yeah, I'm sure it was a real hardship to tear yourself away from that old bastard."

"Stop cussing in front of my wife!" Scott yelled.

"I'll to whatever I want. This is my house and you ain't welcome. Get out!" Johnny shouted, the loudness reminiscent of someone else.

"Please. Please, stop this. You're brothers," she implored.

Johnny snorted and turned his back. He walked around to the sideboard and poured a drink, downing it quickly. He turned back and regarded her. He couldn't help noticing how beautiful she was, and elegant.

"Brothers, ma'am? I don't think so."

"I know this is a shock to you. We just show up on your doorstep. But, if you'll just give Scott a chance to explain, I'm sure you can solve your problems," she said and he noticed the eastern accent now.  

"We can solve it right now. Have you been sick?" Johnny asked.

"No," Scott replied, clearly confused.

Johnny nodded. "Have you been in jail?"

"No," came a firmer response.

"Ma'am, have you been sick or in jail?"

"Certainly not," she replied, insulted.

"And Garrett. He been sick?"

"No, Johnny," Scott replied with exasperation.

"Then, there's no good reason," Johnny said flatly.

Scott tensed his jaw and regarded his brother. "Would you mind if we stay the night? As you can see, my wife isn't up to traveling again so soon."

Johnny sighed and turned back to the sideboard, then reconsidered and set the glass down. "Fine. I'll tell Matilda you're stayin the night."

"Who is Matilda?"

Johnny just looked at him and didn't answer what he considered to be a stupid question. He walked to the kitchen.

*****

Scott slumped again and hung his head. "What have I done, Rebecca?"

"Darling, you didn't know," she tried.

"Yes, I did. Johnny told me - twice. He sent two telegrams in a week and I ignored it. I really didn't think it was serious. I just never believed Murdoch was that sick. He's always been a mountain. I thought he'd bounce back and be fine. I never thought .... my father is gone." His voice quivered and she wrapped her arms around his waist.

"Let's go upstairs, darling. You need to lie down," she suggested.

Scott sat on the bed, his shoulders uncharacteristically slumped. She sat beside him, rubbing those shoulders. She didn't know what else to do.

"There's no reason. None good enough. Johnny hates me and I can't blame him. I've been abhorrent. I've treated them both shamefully. I didn't write Murdoch very often and Johnny not at all after that one letter."

"Why, darling? Why didn't you stay in closer contact?" she asked.

Scott looked at her in pure misery. "Because, I wanted to distance myself from all of this. I thought if I didn't stay close, I wouldn't miss it so much. I couldn't believe how much I missed this place, these people. I wanted to make a good life in Boston. Especially after I met you. I was happy there, too."

"But, you would have been happier here. I don't know how I feel about that. If you hadn't come home, we never would have met."

He smiled wanly. "That was the very best part. But, I've lost my family."

"I know it must hurt dreadfully, my love. I wish I could help you. But, you do still have a family right here," she said as she patted her belly.

"Yes, I do have that," he replied, trying to show some happiness.

"It doesn't help when you're hurting so, does it?" she smiled a little.

"I'm afraid, at the moment, it doesn't. But, I love you." At that moment and in that room with the one person he could trust, Scott broke down. Rebecca held him as he grieved, knowing he would probably never do this again.

*****

Johnny sat at the desk and stared at the picture of he and Murdoch. The old man was smiling broadly. Johnny smiled, too, remembering the smart-assed comment he'd made just before the picture was taken. The one that put that smile on his father's face.

He grew somber then, thinking of the past two months of pure agony. He'd lived day to day, going through the motions, running the ranch and feeling little but despair. He missed his father so much, it was a physical ache. He spent a great deal of time at his father's grave, talking to him and spilling his guts. It didn't help much when the man couldn't answer back, couldn't give the sage advice Johnny had come to expect.

Now, Scott was back, all smiles. God! He wanted to knock the man's teeth down his throat! It had given him no pleasure to break the news so harshly. There'd been no satisfaction in watching the pain come to his brother's face. His brother. In name only, he thought bitterly. He still wondered why Scott was here. He wondered more what took him so damned long.

He was about to be an uncle and he found he couldn't care. She seemed nice enough, took up for her husband as she should. But, he didn't think she knew the whole story. No, he could tell she didn't. Well, it wasn't his problem and he wasn't gonna deal with it.

He looked up when he saw movement from his periphery. Frank was standing there, hat in hand and looking embarrassed.

"What?" Johnny asked harshly then immediately grimaced. "Sorry."

"It's okay. I was, well, the men were wonderin if there's anything we need to know."

Johnny frowned and shook his head. "About what?"

Frank shrugged. "About Scott bein back."

Johnny's face hardened once more. "He ain't stayin long. He'd already be gone if his wife wasn't expectin."

The foreman's face relaxed, the relief evident. He knew if Scott stayed, there'd be problems between the brothers. No one knew exactly what the deal was. All they knew, or cared, was Johnny was in charge now. That was more than fine with them. He grew pensive again and pondered if he should ask.

Johnny watched the expression change. "Frank, you and me have always been square with each other. If there's somethin you need to ask, ask it."

"It ain't really my business. It ain't nobody's business but yours. It's just that, we don't rightly know who all owns the ranch now." The man actually blushed a little.

Johnny's mouth quirked. "I'm sorry. I didn't even think about that. I do. I own Lancer, all of it. Okay?"

Frank sighed then nodded. "Good enough, Mr. Lancer." He disappeared out the door.

Johnny had to stop himself once again from correcting the man. He didn't want to be Mr. Lancer. He wanted to be Johnny. But, he realized that could no longer be. When Murdoch died, the men had started calling him that. He hadn't liked it but no one needed to explain the reasoning to him. He was the boss now. The only boss and they could do little else but show him the respect. He supposed he should be grateful they were so loyal to him.

*****

He gave a little start as he wondered if Scott would think there was something here for him now. There was a reason the man was back and it had nothing to do with missing his family, Johnny was sure. He heard a creak as someone crossed that floorboard he'd never gotten around to fixing. So many things he hadn't gotten around to.

He watched her enter the room. Her walk was light and graceful, but her face was another matter. She looked pensive, even a little frightened. He didn't like that. He could hardly blame her, though.

He stood up slowly as she neared him. "I guess we never were introduced," he said, trying to smile.

She relaxed a little and extended a hand across the desk. "Rebecca Lancer."

"Nice to meet you, Rebecca. I guess you already know who I am."

She smiled at him then took a seat as he waved toward the chair and resettled himself.

"I suppose this is completely out of line but I wish you'd listen to Scott. Really listen to him."

Johnny lowered his head, his hands clasped together on top the desk. "I understand you standin up for him. That's exactly what you should do but, there's a lot going on here. The most important to my mind is my father. He needed to see Scott and I can't tell you how disappointing it was for him." He looked back up, his eyes sad but determined. "I'm sorry, but I can't forgive that."

"That is very sad, Johnny. Scott told me the two of you had grown close when he was here before."

"That all changed when he left. No, after he left and decided he was too busy to bother," he retorted angrily.

"Maybe, the problem is that you assume the reason for his ..... distance was he didn't want to bother," she argued lightly.

He stared at her for a long moment. "Maybe this is a conversation we shouldn't be having. I'm angrier than I ever thought I could be. The fact that it's Scott I'm mad at is what ......"

"Hurts so much?" she offered.

"Not as much as what he did to Murdoch," Johnny came back.

"Perhaps, you're right. Perhaps we shouldn't be talking about this."

"Tal vez," he whispered and an ache started in his heart.

*****

She watched him, saw the firm set of his jaw. She had no idea what he'd just said and wasn't sure he realized he'd spoken in Spanish. At least, she assumed it was Spanish. Still, he needed to understand some things and she knew Scott would probably not tell him.

With a shuddering sigh, she blurted it out. "He's lost everything. His job, the house, the respect of the business world."

Johnny frowned and shook his head. "What are you talking about?"

Leaning forward a little, she clasped her hands together. "His grandfather is in prison. Mr. Garrett has apparently been conducting illegal business for years. He was finally caught out and all his assets were taken. We were tossed into the street by the authorities. Even the trust Scott's mother left for him has been seized pending investigation. They won't release it unless they can find no connection between that account and Garrett Enterprises." She breathed deeply, hoping she hadn't made a mistake.

Johnny stared at her then lowered his head and laughed softly. When he looked back, she was shooting daggers at him. He held up a hand. "Sorry, I'm not laughing at Scott's problem. It's Garrett. Someone finally gave him what he deserves after all these years. I hope you don't expect me to feel sorry for that old goat."

"No, I don't. I would hope you'd have some sympathy for your brother, though," she said angrily.

His face fell as he regarded her. "Not much. Scott made his choice. He chose to forgive that old man after he'd tried to blackmail Scott once. Seems all Garrett had to do was be a little more patient and he would've gotten what he wanted without all the drama. Yeah, I'm sorry you lost everything but it's only money, Rebecca."

"That's easy to say when you have all this," she sniped.

"There are more important things than money. I grew up without anything and I mean nothin. I know what it's like to really be poor. Too poor to even eat for days. So, no, I can't really feel that bad for Scott. He can't be completely broke." The last was more a question.

"No, he has some reserves but they won't last long," she admitted.

"He can get a job anywhere. He's smart, got all that education and experience. What are you so worried about?"

She sighed and her shoulders slumped. "His peace of mind. His heart. Mr. Garrett was awful to him during the trial. He tried to blame everything on Scott. But, it was evident these dealings had been going on for years. Even when Scott was but a child so the prosecutor didn't believe it, thank goodness. The trial went on for months. He was only sentenced three months ago then we were made to leave the house. It hurt Scott deeply. He isn't over it and now, he finds out he's lost his father as well."

"He would've known that if he'd bothered to answer my wires," Johnny shot. "Look, Scott's a big boy. He made his choices and he'll have to live with them."

"But, not at Lancer."

"No," he shook his head, "not at Lancer."

*****

Scott stood on the veranda and breathed deep of the clean morning air. He'd forgotten how sweet it smelled. The city was never this crisp and clean. A smile adorned his face for a moment. Reality wiped it away a few seconds later. They could stay in San Francisco for a while, he supposed. Hopefully, his trust would be released soon. Surely, it couldn't take too long to establish that money was clean.

But, he didn't really know that. His grandfather had said he'd never touched it but Scott couldn't believe anything the man said now. It had been hard to accept his grandfather's ruthlessness but shouldn't he have known all along? The man was not above blackmailing his own grandson. Scott knew he'd been a fool to trust Garrett. It was too late now and he worried about his growing family.

He heard a noise and turned as the door opened and Johnny stepped outside holding two cups. He silently handed one to his brother then took a sip of the hot brew himself.

Scott nodded his thanks then grimaced as he took a drink. "I'd forgotten how strong you like it."

Johnny said nothing and stepped into the yard, just a couple of feet from his brother.

"We'll leave right after breakfast," Scott imparted, trying to sound casual.

"No need," Johnny replied, turning back to him. "You can stay here a while. "

Scott looked curiously at him. "Why the change of heart?"

"No change of heart." Johnny was quick to say. "Your wife is pretty pregnant. No sense in her traipsin all over the country side. She needs to rest a while. Besides, you need to see Harry Richards. He's been tryin to get hold of you. I told him how hard it would be."

Scott didn't miss the sarcasm with the last sentence but he decided to ignore it. "Why is he looking for me?"

Johnny sighed and turned back to look at the corrals. "Murdoch's will. You need to talk to him about it. I need to talk to Frank." He started to walk away when Scott called out.

"Johnny, what happened to Cipriano? Maria?"

"Cip's brother got killed and he went to Mexico to take care of the man's family. Maria retired last year. Fixed up that house by Angel Creek for her. I go see her a couple of times a week. She stayed with me several days after ......" he stopped and took a breath. "Teresa stayed for a couple of weeks until she had to get back home. Reckon her husband had his hands full with the twins."

Scott smiled a little, remembering Murdoch's letter about Teresa's marriage to a Chicago banker and, a year later, the birth of the girls. The smile faded as he also thought of how little he'd kept in contact with the girl who'd once been his sister.

"And I reckon Murdoch wrote you about Jelly," Johnny was saying, his voice even softer now.

"Yes, he did. I was sorry to hear about that."

Johnny snorted at that. "I gotta talk to Frank. He's the foreman now."

*****

Scott was grateful for his brother's altruism, though it was hard to let Johnny know. Mainly because the younger man couldn't seem to stand being near him more than a few minutes. He knew his brother would never forgive him and he would never forgive himself. He paced the veranda a few minutes then set the coffee cup down and headed around the back of the house.

Up the small hill and under a spreading elm lay his father's final resting place. Matilda had been the one to tell him where it was. Scott couldn't ask Johnny. He just couldn't.

He stood before the headstone then went to his knees as his hands traced the letters. Sitting down properly, he crossed his legs Indian-style and sighed.

"I'm so sorry, Sir. I've been an idiot. A selfish, impudent fool. I just couldn't believe you wouldn't be alright. I convinced myself Johnny was being overdramatic and you'd bounce right back. You were always so strong, such a force. But, had I given it more than a moment's thought, I would have realized the implication of Johnny contacting me at all. I should have known he wouldn't reach out if he didn't believe it was necessary.

"I can't imagine what you must have thought of me over the years. The infrequent and short letters I sent were, at the very least, disrespectful. And when I didn't respond to your illness, you must have hated me."

"No, he didn't."

Scott's head jerked up and he turned at the waist to see his brother standing behind him, hat in hands.

"I didn't hear you."

Johnny moved forward and rounded the headstone then crouched down on the other side of the grave. "He didn't hate you, Scott. He was disappointed. He wanted to see you. He regretted not being able to see you one last time. That last night, he said he wished you were there. I told him to close his eyes and picture you and he did. He smiled, too."

Scott heard the crack in Johnny's voice, the trembling huskiness and, though his brother's head was down, he knew grief when he heard it.

"I'm so sorry. I'll regret this for the rest of my life," he replied softly, his own voice creaking.

Johnny sniffed and nodded his head. "It was peaceful. He wasn't struggling. I laid on the bed and held him. He'd lost so much weight, it was like holdin a skeleton. But, we laid there together and said our goodbyes. I told him I love him and he told me. Then, he closed his eyes and just ..... stopped breathin."

*****

Scott didn't want to hear this but he knew his brother needed to talk about it. He also knew Johnny hadn't talked about it. Who would he talk to? Maria maybe but Scott doubted that. Johnny would have been too concerned with her feelings to show his own. He would have been strong for the woman. He'd had no one to confide in and Scott's guilt rose to new heights.

"It sounds like the two of you had grown close," he noted.

Johnny nodded. "Yeah, we were real close the past few years. Since you left, we kind of hung onto each other at first. Then, we just settled in together and decided to be good to each other. It wasn't hard at all. That last month, we talked about everything. I mean everything. It was ..... a relief, I guess is the right word. Felt good to get all that old stuff out of the way finally. Still, we hadn't let it get in our way over the years, either."

Johnny laughed softly. "I even got him to go into town for poker some Saturday nights."

Scott was definitely surprised by that and he smiled at the image. "I have a hard time seeing Murdoch at the poker table."

"Yeah, but he's a natural, ya know? I mean, he's a good player. Won a lot of hands. The other ranchers were gettin kind of wary of him," Johnny laughed.

Scott laughed, too, then grew somber. "I can't believe I'll never see him again."

Johnny sighed and sat down on his backside, swiping a hand across his face. "Sometimes, at night, I feel him near me. I know it sounds crazy but, especially in the living room, I swear he's right there, watchin. It's kind of comforting. I sleep down there a lot."

"You do?" Scott asked, stunned.

"Sure. It's where I feel him the strongest. I know you're gonna think this is loco and I'll deny it if you repeat it but, twice now when I've sat down in his desk chair, it's warm. Like someone was just there."

Scott gave him a wary and worried look. "Johnny, I know you've been alone in that big house and maybe your mind ....."

"No, Scott. Murdoch is there. I know you don't believe in that kind of thing. Never thought much of it myself but, I can feel him. I know what my father's presence feels like and he's there. Besides, I'd be a little disappointed if he wasn't. Anyway, I'll leave you alone with him."

"I don't mind if you stay," Scott said softly.

"No, it ain't right. I gotta get to work anyway. Ride in and see Harry today."

"Yes, I will," Scott said absently as Johnny stood and brushed off his pants then headed down the hill.

*****

Scott reined in and dismounted in front of the lawyer's office. It had taken him the whole trip to town to get used to a western saddle again and it had been a long time since he'd ridden at all. His legs were a little unstable when his feet hit the dirt. He tried to stay still but felt a slight wobble. Embarrassed, he glanced around and didn't see anyone at first. Then, his eyes rested on Val Crawford and he nodded.

The sheriff nodded back then turned to nail some posters in front of his office. Scott sighed and figured Val hated him, too. Pulling himself up, he walked into the office, his heart hammering in his chest.

Half an hour later, Scott emerged with a disappointed look on his face. He lowered his head and made for the horse when he was stopped.

"Scott?"

He turned to his right and smiled a little. "Hello, Dr. Jenkins."

Sam pulled up short a few feet from him. "Dr. Jenkins? A bit formal, isn't it?"

Scott smiled again. "I'm sorry. Hello, Sam."

"When did you get in?"

"Yesterday."

Sam nodded then gave him a curious look. "You're staying at the ranch?"

"Johnny hasn't thrown me out, yet," Scott reported, looking toward the street.

Sam winced a little. "You'll be here a few days then?"

"Yes, why?"

"No reason. I'll see you tomorrow. I've been coming to Sunday supper regularly since Murdoch ..... well, Johnny needs some company. Not that he'd admit that."

Scott's shoulders relaxed. "I'm worried about him. He seems to be isolating himself out there. And, he's so angry with me he can't be around me more than a few minutes. I feel like a stranger."

Sam bit his lip - hard. "He's had a rough time."

Scott nodded then looked back at the man with sad eyes. "Well, I should go. I'll see you tomorrow then. I'd like you to meet my wife and, if you don't mind, give her a quick check-up. It's been a long trip and she's close to her time."

Sam smiled genuinely at that. "The next Lancer. I'll look forward to it, Scott. Have a good day." He tipped his hat and went on his way.

Scott turned to leave but found his path blocked. He looked into Val's steely eyes.

"Tell your brother ain't nobody round here moved. Some folks wouldn't mind him visitin once in a while."

Scott's lips quivered a little. "I think his reply would be that you know where he lives, too."

Val snorted then walked away. Scott sighed. Some things never change, he thought and finally made it to his horse.

*****

"Are they valuable?" Rebecca asked.

"Yes, they're all good investments. He left me three stocks. Union Pacific Railroad, Wells Fargo and the Bank of San Francisco," Scott reported.

She smiled a little and sat on the sofa beside him. "And Johnny got everything else?"

"Yes. I'll admit I'm a little disappointed not that I should have expected anything."

She squeezed his arm. "You're his son, Scott."

"Not much of one. I don't think it's the fact that I left. It's the fact that I pretty much ignored them. There is no excuse for that, Becca. None."

"He didn't want to pressure you. Didn't want you to feel manipulated into comin back here. That's why he didn't leave you any part of the ranch," Johnny said from the dining area.

Scott stood and turned to face him. "He was always a thoughtful man. Never made a decision without looking at all aspects of it."

Johnny nodded. "I asked him about it and that's what he told me."

"He told you what was in the will?"

"Yeah. Guess he didn't want me to fall over in shock," Johnny said a little whimsically.

"I'm sure he had every faith in you, Johnny," Scott said softly.

"I know he did. Mostly, cause he told me. Like I said, we talked a lot that last month. Anyway, those stocks are real profitable."

"It was generous of him."

Johnny smiled again, a little wider this time. "He wanted to take care of his grandson."

Rebecca smiled a little as her hand went to her belly. "Grandson?"

"Well," Johnny shrugged as he took a seat, "he said it was a Lancer so it had to be a boy."

Scott laughed at that as he reseated himself. "We'll see. I saw Sam in town. He's the local doctor, darling. He said he'd be glad to check on you when he comes for supper tomorrow."

"I feel fine."

"No harm in making sure. It was a long trip. He's a very good doctor, too. Johnny can attest to that," Scott argued lightly, casting a glance at his brother.

Johnny didn't smile, though. "He thinks he has to babysit me," he grumbled.

"I saw Val, too. He said to tell you he'd appreciate a visit."

"He knows where I am." Johnny barked a little more this time.

"Yes, I told him that would pretty much be your response," Scott smiled.

Johnny didn't say anything. He wondered how Scott thought he could know his response to anything. He'd changed a lot in the past six years, he thought. Maybe not, though. Maybe a person doesn't change all that much at the roots.

*

"Johnny, I wonder if I could ask a favor," Rebecca said after a minute of silence.

"Sure."

"Well, I feel a little useless around here. I'd like to help out in the kitchen and house but your housekeeper won't allow it. Could you talk to her?"

Johnny laughed softly. "The woman can't cook a Mexican meal to save her life but she rules the roost pretty hard. You don't have to do any chores around here. You're a guest."

"I suppose I'm just a little bored," she admitted.

"Reckon it ain't what you're used to. Life's a lot slower out here," Johnny noted.

"It isn't that. I enjoy the quiet a great deal and the land is just magnificent."

"Rebecca ran the house in Boston. She cooked most every evening meal. She isn't used to sitting around all day," Scott explained. "She's a very good cook, too," he added as he squeezed her hand.

Johnny looked at her with enlivened eyes. "How good?"

"Well, I'm afraid I've never tried Mexican food before but I have prepared meals I didn't know how to make. I use a cookbook and, they usually turn out well."

"They always turn out well," Scott corrected.

"Ma'am, if you could fix me something spicy, I'd sure appreciate it. Maria just can't stand over a stove anymore. She's always feelin bad when I visit because she can't fix me anything I like," Johnny said, his mouth watering at even the prospect.

"Well, if you have a cookbook, I'll give it a try," she offered.

"I'm sure there's one around here," Scott imparted.

"I'm not. No one ever needed one before. It's always been Maria," Johnny said with disappointment.

"Well, I'll get one from town on Monday. Besides, if memory serves, Sam isn't too keen on spicy foods," Scott said.

*****

Johnny wasn't sure how he'd made it through Sunday supper. Sam started asking about Boston and that's all he heard the rest of the night. Exactly what he didn't want to hear about. Scott had told them about all the changes and progress being made in the city. Johnny was as bored as he'd ever been. But, he toughed it out and kept his tongue in check somehow.

He stood on the porch as dawn broke, savoring the quiet before the work day. It reminded him of his father. He knew Murdoch did this every morning, a ritual he'd developed at some point. When, Johnny didn't know but he'd always done it as long as he'd been home. The thought of his father sent a warmth through him and he felt a light tickle at the back of his neck. He smiled widely and sighed.

"Hey, pa. Beautiful day, isn't it?" he whispered. He knew he'd get no response, not verbally anyway. But, he felt that warm breath again and knew the answer.

The front door opened and he turned to see Scott emerge.

"I thought I'd get an early start to town. Do you need anything?"

"No, thanks."

"I thought I might visit Maria on the way back," Scott said and saw his brother's shoulders tense.

"I'm sure she'll like that."

Scott stepped up to his side and looked out over the land, the light fog already starting to lift. "Rebecca isn't the only one feeling useless. If there's anything I can do to help out while I'm here." He left the offer there.

Johnny didn't answer right away and Scott wasn't sure he would. Finally, he spoke.

"Nothing I can think of. Remmie's boy is in the paddock if you wanna take a look. Murdoch named him Sheridan. He's a good cowpony. You can ride him if you want."

"Thank you," Scott said, tension in his voice for the reminder. He'd forgotten about Remmie. Something else to feel guilty about. "What about Remmie?"

"He's in the lower pasture. You can ride him if you'd rather. Well, reckon breakfast is about ready. I'll talk to Matilda about lettin Rebecca in the kitchen. She won't like it but she won't say nothin."

"She just wants to help out."

He turned to Scott and looked him in the eye. "She seems like a fine woman. She's real loyal to you. It's easy to see she loves you."

"I'm very lucky to have her. She's been my saving grace," Scott admitted.

Johnny nodded then walked inside. Scott had to wonder if his brother would ever find someone to share his life with. Someone to keep the loneliness away. It was too soon for Johnny to think about it right now, he supposed. But, after all this time, he didn't seem to have anyone special. Still, Scott would have no way of knowing that. He sighed then followed his brother inside.

*****

Scott spent a few minutes with Sheridan then went to find Remmie. The chestnut was still a handsome looking animal and he smiled as he patted the horse. "I guess you don't remember me, huh, boy?"

Remmie stood still under the touch for a few seconds then raised his head and looked at Scott. He then lowered his head and took a step away. Scott sighed and led him to the barn to saddle.

It felt so familiar, the seat perfect as he rode the animal. Scott took him for a run part of the way to town and memory crashed down. Days when he and Johnny had ridden the wind, their mounts as joyous for the ride as they. Those days when they'd laughed together, talked together and sometimes, did nothing but sit by a lake quietly together. His eyes stung and he swiped at them, angry with himself and bitter for the memories. Did Johnny remember? Scott knew he did. It was part of why Johnny hated him so; that he did remember those wonderful days. Well, he'd destroyed that. There was no going back.

The only part of returning to Boston Scott didn't regret was meeting Rebecca. But, she was so much a part of him, he thought they would have met somehow no matter where he was. He laughed at the romantic in him. He didn't think that would ever leave him and hoped it didn't. It was the only thing that kept him hoping. And, yes, he still hoped somehow, Johnny would be able to forgive him. He knew that wouldn't happen, though. He knew because he couldn't forgive himself.

The ache would not leave, not even dull. It was a constant. Ever since Johnny walked into the living room and told him his father was dead, Scott hadn't stopped hurting and he knew he never would. He'd broken every promise he'd ever made to his brother. Always thinking he was just too busy. He'd get around to it. He'd come for a visit sometime. But, that time never came. He never allowed it to come. Always thinking there was plenty of it to spare. Now, time had run out.

He had taken so much for granted. Just assuming Murdoch would always be there. That his father was too strong, too tough. But he wasn't. He was a man like any other and men died. Scott knew that all too well. Why hadn't he considered that where his father was concerned? Or his brother for that matter? Johnny was a magnet for trouble, it seemed. But, he hadn't seemed to have had any trouble. Scott wouldn't know that, though.

He would hope Murdoch would have written about any problems, any injuries his brother had sustained over the years but he hadn't. Of course, Murdoch wouldn't want to worry him, either. He imagined his father had still believed Scott would worry. It was easy not to when you weren't in the thick of it, though. When it wasn't staring you right in the face. It was too damned easy.

He realized with surprise he was entering town. Shaking his head, he concentrated on where he was going and made his way to the general store. He thought about talking to Sam about Johnny's health in the past few years then decided against it. What could he do now? Nothing. So, he walked into the store in search of a cookbook for his wife.

*****

"Scott Lancer, as I live and breath!"

He turned to the feminine voice and nearly groaned. Forcing a smile, he removed his hat. "Amelia, how are you?" he asked politely.

"I'm well, Scott. You're looking as good as ever. When did you get home?" she asked, batting her lashes.

Home. Scott nearly sucked in a breath at the word. He didn't have a home and that was his fault. He tried to focus on the woman before him, easily seeing the flirting. She hadn't changed.

"My wife and I arrived last week," he stated.

Her face fell and she actually pouted. "Wife? Well, congratulations," she said unenthusiastically.

They both heard a stifled laugh and Scott bit his own lip. She turned to glare at the proprietor who was thoroughly enjoying her disappointment.

"Well, welcome back," she said and walked out quickly.

"Hello, Scott," Mrs. Hawthorne greeted warmly.

"Ma'am. You're looking well."

"As are you, young man. What can I do for you?"

"I need a cookbook."

Scott was impressed it only took thirty minutes to get out of the store. Mrs. Hawthorne was notorious for chattering. He was a little surprised he remembered that, or Amelia for that matter. With his purchase secured, he mounted up and headed to Angel Creek with anticipation.

*

Maria eyed him sternly as he rode in and dismounted. She was rocking slowly back and forth on the porch. He noted she wasn't surprised to see him so he surmised Johnny had told her of his return. Scott couldn't help it though, he smiled warmly.

"Maria, how are you?" he asked as he bent down and kissed her cheek.

"Old and tired, Senor. You look well."

"Si, I am," he said and sat beside her, taking in the deep wrinkles and faded eyes. "Johnny tells me you've retired. I couldn't believe it."

"I am not happy about it but time moves on whether we like it or not," she answered, still looking cross.

Scott's face fell as he stared at the ground. "Yes, it certainly does."

"Johnny is very angry with you."

"You don't have to tell me. He can hardly stand to look at me. If you want an explanation, I can try. If you want a reason, I don't have a good one."

"I can see you are angry with yourself, as well."

"I'll never forgive myself, Maria. Never."

"Then you will live a most unhappy life, Senor. Your child deserves better, si?"

"How can I forgive myself? How could I have done this? I abandoned them, ignored them," he bemoaned.

She studied his profile and saw the pain. She struggled with herself. Her beloved nino had been deeply hurt yet this one was as well. She sighed heavily. "Perhaps you should talk with someone whose heart is not involved."

Scott looked at her wise face and nodded. "Maybe. It couldn't hurt."

"Si, it could but you are already hurt."

"He's suffering, isn't he? He sleeps in the living room most nights. He hasn't been to town. Val told me that. Sam, too," Scott blurted.

"Si, he is. He feels his papa closer to him in the great room. He needs that connection. He will not speak to me much about it. He tries to spare my feelings but I have made him talk some. They were very close, Scott. Very close."

"I'm so glad of that. I wish I'd never left," he confessed.

"You cannot change what was. Only what is," she said then reached over and grasped his arm. "Talk to someone, Scott."  

*****

Scott rode up to the hacienda with a heavy heart. Talking to Maria hadn't help as he'd hoped it would. Her advice kept rattling around in his brain, though. As he dismounted, Rebecca came out of the house.

"Did you get it?" she asked.

Scott looked at her with a perplexed expression then remembered. "Yes, yes, I got it," he answered, shaking his head and digging in his saddle bag. He produced the cookbook and received a bright smile and a kiss.

"What are Johnny's favorites?"

"Well, let me look through here," Scott said, forcing a smile. He didn't want to look at a cookbook. He wanted to talk to his brother. He thumbed through and ear marked some pages for her then handed it back.

"What's wrong, Scott?" she asked in the tone that told him anything less than the truth would not be abided.

"I'm sorry, I'm a bit distracted. I just need to think."

She eyed him warily but let it drop. "Johnny's in the living room going over some paperwork."

Scott nodded and gave her a quick hug then headed to find his brother. As told, his head was bent over some contract or something when Scott walked in. Johnny was rubbing his forehead hard.

"Are you alright?" Scott asked with a frown.

The younger man's head came up slowly and he squinted then nodded. "Just a headache. Always get one when I'm readin this stuff."

A small smile lit Scott's face as he ambled toward the desk. It was so strange to see Johnny sitting there. To see anyone other than their father sitting there left an ache in his heart. "Can I help?"

Johnny gave him a sidelong look.

"I can read it to you if your head is hurting that much," he shrugged then waited as Johnny considered. After a few seconds, he handed the contract to Scott then leaned back in the leather chair and closed his eyes.

*****

Scott started at the beginning, reading through the dry legalese without enthusiasm. When he came to the points of the contract, his eyes widened. He made no overt comments or gestures but he watched Johnny's eyes pop open as he leaned forward.

Scott continued reading the points, each more ludicrous than the last until he heard Johnny's soft laughter.

"I guess they must think I'm some kind of idiot," he said.

"Either that or they're trying to take advantage at the worst possible time," Scott retorted, no where near as amused with this as his brother.

"That's more likely, I suppose," Johnny sighed then reached out.

Scott handed the contract back. "There's more."

"Oh, I'll bet there is but that was enough," the younger man said as he hefted the papers in his hand. "Might do good to start a fire with. That's about all it's worth."

"Murdoch never had that kind of agreement with the other ranchers, did he?"

"Not in a million years. Well, Harry's comin out soon to talk it over. Now, I know why he wanted to ride all the way out here. I haven't had time to look at it before now. I think they can get their own damned cattle to market without Lancer this year and every other year." His voice turned to ice and Scott nodded.

Johnny tossed the paper aside and leaned back once more. Scott eyed him then decided to take a shot.

"You look awful. You know that, don't you?"

"Thanks a lot," Johnny shot.

"I'm sorry, but it's true. You're exhausted, Johnny. You can't keep sleeping down here. You can't possibly be getting any rest. You have to find a way to let go just a little, brother. Otherwise, you're going to collapse." His voice was soft yet firm with conviction.

Johnny looked at him through half-closed eyes. "How?" he asked in a near whisper.

Scott sighed and leaned forward in his chair. "I'm not sure. Try to get back into your old routine. Sleep in your own bed and, maybe, go get a haircut. It's really long."

Johnny smiled, knowing that was true. His hair was to his shoulders now. He simply hadn't had any time to worry with it since Murdoch had taken ill. Hadn't wanted to deal with it and certainly hadn't wanted to go to town to the barbershop.

"Think your wife could trim it up? Just enough so I can show my face in town," he grinned.

Scott relaxed a little. He'd longed to see that teasing grin and there it was. He almost got mushy. "I think she could do that. Maybe, after supper. She's in there with that cookbook now."

Johnny cast him a furtive look. "Were you just being nice or can she really cook?"

Scott laughed at that. "She can really cook."

*

At just that moment, the door to the kitchen swung open with a bang. A short, plump, gray-haired woman emerged with a scowl on her aging face. She walked right up to the desk and put her hands on her hips.

"Don't start, Matilda," Johnny sighed.

"I just wanna know, is all. Do I still have a job or is *she* takin over?" the woman fairly growled in a rusty voice.

Johnny looked at Scott who ducked his head. "She just wants to help out. She's bored. You can understand that. Scott says she's a good cook. Wouldn't hurt to give yourself a break and let someone help out for a while."

"A break? Mr. Lancer, you are the easiest man I've ever worked for. I wouldn't even know you was around if I didn't feed ya."

Another sigh, heavier and with more exasperation, left Johnny's lips. "Well, I reckon you can count yourself lucky then. Just let her help and don't fuss at her. She's about ready to pop that kid out, anyway. She don't need no aggravation about it."

Matilda pulled her shoulders back but her face told she was relenting. "Well, I suppose it won't do no harm long as she puts everythin back where it was." With a firm nod of her head, she stalked back to the kitchen.

"She's more bark than bite. She won't say nothin to Rebecca," Johnny said.

"I appreciate you letting her help out. She's not used to sitting on her laurels," Scott smiled lightly.

"Nice ta know you didn't marry a slacker," Johnny said then turned his head toward the French doors when he heard the buggy. "Guess that's Harry."

Scott stood and walked to those doors, opening one and waving the man inside.

"Scott, how are you?"

"Fine, Harry, fine. Well, I'll leave you to it."

"No need. This won't take long," Johnny said and stood to shake hands with the lawyer then indicated a chair. "Well, I know why you wanted to talk this over, Harry. The answer is real simple. No." He started right in.

*

"I thought as much but I had to present it to you. I don't know what they're thinking," the lawyer replied.

"They were thinking I wouldn't bother readin it and just trust them like the old man did. Only, they never would have tried to pull this on Murdoch. They should've known better than to try it with me. I guess there's snakes everywhere you look," Johnny said sharply, bitterness abounding in his voice.

"I'll take it back to them," Harry said and reached for the document.

"You take this back to them," Johnny said, picking the contract up and tearing it into several small pieces. He gathered up the strays and handed it all to Harry.

Scott laughed and paced away a bit as Harry tried to hide a smile of his own.

"One more thing, Harry. You tell those men the next time they want to pull a fast one, do it with someone whose name isn't Lancer." Johnny stood then and added, "or Madrid."

Scott was quiet once Harry left. Johnny's statement bothered him. He hadn't even thought about Madrid since he'd been back. Johnny hadn't seemed anything like that man now. He was so much Murdoch's son, Scott had simply forgotten about the gunfighter in him. Apparently, Johnny wasn't ready to let anyone forget, though.

"Is it still a problem?" he asked softly.

"What?"

"Madrid."

Johnny's mouth curved up a little. "No, not a problem. Just wanted to remind them I'm not a fool, is all."

"Oh, I think the way you answered their request made that all too clear," Scott smiled.

"Yeah, reckon they got the message good enough. Well, I'm gonna go get cleaned up. It's startin to smell good in there," he said as he nodded toward the kitchen.

"Yes, and it's quiet, too. I hope that's a good sign."

Johnny nodded again and headed up the stairs.  

*****

Scott ambled around the great room with a wistful smile on his face. Johnny seemed to be warming up a little. He hadn't thrown Scott out of his meeting. He'd been pleasant and had even joked a very little. Maybe, he was starting to forgive him? That may be too much to ask. He hoped it wasn't simply that Johnny was tired of being angry. Because, if that were the case, it wasn't really any headway at all. If his brother was simply too exhausted to fight, that didn't mean he was thawing.

With a sigh, he made his way to the fireplace, gazing up at the mantle. The picture was in his hand before he realized it. The picture of he and Johnny they'd taken not too long after coming home. Standing together, his arm around Johnny's shoulder and both of them smiling.

He replaced the photo carefully and paced again. Standing behind Murdoch's desk, he stared out the window as his father had so many times. He saw what the rancher had seen. The beauty before him was stunning and that emptiness returned. One he'd felt since he'd first left Lancer all those years ago.

He knew he couldn't tell his brother he'd made a mistake. He wasn't sure how Johnny would react to that. It could go so many ways. He never had been sure how the younger man would perceive a remark. He didn't really want to find out in this case. He felt his main goal right now was to somehow help Johnny get past his grief. At least to the point of living again. Scott knew Murdoch would hate the thought of Johnny feeling this way, living this way.

Oh, he could point that out to the younger man but he knew, on this, exactly what Johnny would say. He shook his head sadly then turned around. He stared at the picture on the desk. A picture of Johnny and Murdoch, smiling, arms wrapped around each other. They looked so happy, so content. He longed to have had that with his father. Regret settled in his heart again and he knew it would never leave him. Scott blinked several times then turned away quickly, swiping a hand over his face.

That's when he saw Johnny watching him from the doorway with such a mixture of emotions on his face. Sadness, pain, regret and, yes, some anger. Scott tried to smile at him but knew it was a lame attempt. Johnny made no such effort.

*****

"You never asked."

Scott frowned. "I'm sorry?"

"The will. It said you could have anything here that belonged to your mother but you haven't asked," Johnny explained.

"Yes, it did. I thought it could wait. I don't even know where any of her things are," Scott replied, his throat tight with the thought.

"Most of it's in the attic, I think. Whenever you want to go up there." Johnny shrugged and walked over to the sideboard, pouring two whiskeys. He walked over to Scott and handed one off then settled on the sofa.

"Thank you," Scott said, giving a partial toasting motion before taking a healthy dose.

"I've never been up there. Don't know why, really. Just never seemed to get around to it. I kinda wish now I had while he was here. Maybe, we could've gone through some of it together."

Scott nodded and noticed the lines of grief that seemed to perpetually paint Johnny's face deepening.

"You know what I think you need, besides a haircut, that is?" Scott said with a sly grin.

Johnny smiled slightly. "What's that?"

"You need to have a good old-fashioned drinking spree."

He shook his head. "Already done that. It doesn't help." And, in a lower tone, "nothing helps."  

Scott opened his mouth to reply even as he drew nearer his brother when Rebecca swooped into the room.

"Gentlemen, supper is ready," she announced with a smile then scurried back to the kitchen.

Johnny stood up and sighed. "Lord, help us."

Scott laughed and followed him to the dining table. "I'm sure you'll be pleasantly surprised." To himself, he thought, 'I hope to God, so.'

*****

Johnny was pleasantly surprised and he raved over the meal. It wasn't as spicy as he would have liked but it was a sight better than he'd had in a long time. He walked outside and sat on the low wall of the veranda, gazing at the stars. He felt the warm air on his face and smiled while wrapping his arms around himself.

"Rebecca is walking on air," Scott said from the French door.

Johnny closed his eyes and sighed silently. The feeling was gone. He was gone. He wondered why that happened when someone else was near.

"She did a great job," he answered softly.

Scott walked up next to him and leaned against a column. "She's ready to cut your hair any time."

A soft laugh escaped Johnny. "In a minute."

Scott only nodded and stared into the dark, drinking in the cool night air.

"Do you ever feel him?"

The older man glanced sideways at his brother and grimaced a little. "No."

"Still think I'm loco, huh?"

Scott considered his words and spoke haltingly. "I think you want or need to feel him near you. I also think you're exhausted and I wish you'd get some decent sleep. Johnny, Murdoch didn't run this ranch for over thirty years on no sleep and neither can you."

He stood up and turned toward the house. "Is it alright with you if I take a little time? It's only been a couple of months, Scott." His tone was harsher than he'd intended.

"I realize that, but time doesn't stop either."

Johnny glanced at him then looked away again. "Guess I should get that trim now," he whispered and walked inside.

*****

Scott rose early the next morning, finally getting back into the habit of awaking with the dawning. He quietly went about his morning wash then slipped out of the room without disturbing his wife. As he entered the great room, he witnessed Johnny slowly sitting up on the sofa and he sighed.

"You slept down here again." His voice was flat but with a hint of disappointment.

Johnny glanced at him then stood and stretched, not bothering to answer what wasn't a question. He rubbed his hands through his hair, unused to the shortness but he approved. Rebecca had given him more than a trim, she'd cut his hair and very well, too.

"That wife of yours has a lot of talents. How the hell'd you get her?" he asked with a slightly groggy voice.

Scott stepped further into the room and studied his brother. The tight face, the red eyes, the voice - all indicative of a night spent with a bottle.

"Just lucky I guess," he shrugged. He could say little else. He'd been the one to suggest Johnny have a friendly night with some liquor.

"I guess. Excuse me," he mumbled and rounded Scott, heading upstairs quickly.

Scott sighed loudly as he walked to the kitchen. He was beginning to think Johnny would never do anything more than what he was doing now. Which was nothing but work and grieve. Somehow, he had to get his brother out of this rut. Slowing his gait, he frowned at himself. Why did he think Johnny would allow him to do anything for him? He wouldn't and Scott was almost certain that wasn't going to change.

He slid into his usual chair to the right of the now vacant one at the head of the table. The seat no one was allowed to use. Matilda barely acknowledged his presence. She can't stand me, either, he thought wryly. Why Johnny put up with her was beyond Scott. She didn't do much and wasn't a great cook. He could find someone better. Someone more like Maria, surely.

Johnny quickly descended the back stairs, now shaved and changed. His eyes were bright again and Scott wondered how he managed that.

They ate in relative silence. Johnny was intent on his food and didn't attempt any chatter. Not that he was ever the chatty type, Scott mused.

"I thought I'd check out the attic this morning."

Johnny glanced up then back to his plate with a nod.

"Would you like to go with me?" Scott tried.

Downing the last of his coffee, Johnny wiped his mouth on his napkin and started to stand. "Can't. Got too much to do today. See ya."

With that, the young man was out of the room. Scott hurried to catch up.

*****

"Johnny, wait a minute," he called as his brother had the door half way open.

"What?"

Scott stopped and hesitated then plunged in. "Are we ever going to get past this?"

The young rancher eyed him thoughtfully for a long moment. "Doubt it."

"Why can't you at least listen to me?"

"I know what happened, Scott. Rebecca told me all about Garrett. I got no sympathy and I don't expect you thought I would. Doesn't excuse what you did. Hurt feelins is no reason to ignore a man who loved you all his life. And you knew that, so I don't want to hear about how he let another man raise you. We all know that was a huge mistake."

"And Murdoch was the only one who could ever make a mistake. Is that it?" Scott retorted, his anger now surfaced.

"Reckon he thought he was doin the best he could. You didn't though, and you know it and that is what's eatin you up inside. I don't know, Scott. Just seems like you couldn't bother. Unless you have some other reason you wanna tell me, that's the way I see it. Anyway, I have to go now." He turned to the door.

"I loved him, too, Johnny. You weren't the only son he had."

Shoulders tense, Johnny didn't turn back. "I know that. I also know you weren't here. No one was askin you to move back. All he wanted was to see you one last time. Guess it was too much to ask or expect."

"And you really think he wouldn't have been able to forgive me?" Scott pushed.

Now, he turned back, his eyes hard as steel. "That's the thing. He would have. But if you're askin me to do the same just because it's what Murdoch would've done, you're askin too much. I loved him but I didn't kowtow to him. That ain't the way it worked with us." Johnny sighed and shook his head as he looked down for a second then locked eyes with Scott again.

"I'm sure he would've forgiven you. Maybe that'll help you some. I don't know what you want from me, Scott. Whatever it is, I don't have it to give. Not after what I've been through. You shouldn't ask me to do that. You shouldn't even be here." He turned and walked out then, closing the door hard behind him.

Scott stared at that door for long moments. His heart thundered in his chest. He wasn't welcome in his home. No, Johnny's home. It wasn't his anymore. He'd walked away from it with no intentions of ever living here again. So, what did he expect? Too much, he knew. Scott headed up the stairs to talk to his wife about leaving.

*****

He opened the door then froze. Rebecca looked up at him from her bent over position. His eyes went to the floor beneath her, widening as he took in the puddle.

"When?" he barely croaked out.

"Just now," she managed through gritted teeth.

Scott found his mind and went quickly to her, guiding her back to the bed. He laid her down gently and covered her up then caressed her cheek. "I'm going for the doctor."

She grabbed his hand and squeezed hard. "Please, send someone. Don't leave me alone."

She was frightened and it was easy to see. Scott was a little surprised. She was always so strong, so healthy and vibrant. Pregnancy had only enhanced those virtues.

"Alright, darling. I'll send one of the hands. I'll be right back." He smiled lovingly then ran from the room, taking the steps two and three at a time. He swung the front door open and ran into the yard.

Johnny looked up, instincts awakened abruptly as he watched Scott run toward him. He reached out and grabbed his brother's arms to stop his forward motion.

"It's .... time," he gasped out through breaths.

"Time for what?" Johnny asked.

Scott looked at him like he was a madman. "Rebecca!"

Cocking a brow, Johnny made an 'ohhh' sound and smiled a little. "Frank, get Sam. Looks like a baby is about to be born."

The foreman took off, hopping into the saddle and tearing down the road.

"Come on. We'll see what we can do to make her comfortable," Johnny said.

Scott nodded and walked with him, wondering how Johnny could be so calm. He was near panic-stricken himself. And fear-stricken, he realized. What if something went wrong? What if history was about to repeat? His breathing wouldn't ease, in fact, it was worsening.

Johnny watched him from his periphery, noting the pale, clammy skin and hyperventilating. "She's so strong. I've never seen a stronger woman. She's gonna be just fine, Scott. As long as you get in there and stay with her, that is. Go on. I'll see if Matilda has any experience with this."

The older man could only nod as he worked on control. He couldn't let her see him like this. By the time he reached the room, Scott had calmed a great deal. He was still perspiring, though.

*****

Johnny knocked lightly and heard Scott call out. Easing the door open, he stuck his head through the opening. "How's the mama?"

"I'm alright now. The pains aren't too close yet." She was a little sweaty but Johnny thought she looked pretty good. Better than her husband. He smiled and walked on in.

"Matilda says she's never been around births and has no intention of startin now. I'm sure Sam will be along anytime now, though," he reported.

"Seems she isn't too good at much," Scott snapped.

"Scott!"

"I'm sorry, darling. I'm a little .... tense," he replied sheepishly.

Johnny laughed softly as he walked to the dresser and picked up the water pitcher. He poured a glass then added the rest to the wash basin Scott was using to wipe his wife's brow.

"I'll fill this up," he said as he handed the glass to Scott.

Scott sighed when Johnny left the room. "He acts like this happens every day."

"Doesn't it? I mean with the animals?" she asked.

"You are not an animal!"

"Scott, you really have to take it easy, sweetheart. No one is upset around here but you," she smiled, teasing him.

"I know," he said despondently.


"I'm going to be just fine, my love. I won't leave you, I swear it."

He leaned over and rested his head on her bosom as she stroked his hair, smiling at his ferocious protectiveness. More than that, she worried, always had, about his fears. She knew he couldn't not think about his mother when the time came. She just didn't know how to make him feel better.

*****

Sam arrived with Mrs. Cooper who had birthed more babies than the doctor had, he was sure. He knew Matilda would be useless so he'd brought reinforcements. Besides, Rebecca would need help the first few days after the child was born. Mrs. Cooper was more than capable and happy to help. He also threw Scott out of the room, much to the young man's horror.

He paced the floor in front of the fireplace. Johnny watched him some but kept glancing at the clock. He had things to do but he knew exactly what Scott was thinking. He couldn't bring himself to leave.

"If you have something better to do, Johnny, don't let me keep you!"

He jerked his head toward his brother and realized he'd been caught out. He managed to curb his tongue. "Just marking the minutes. You know, when she first started, how long it's been. Some people like to know those things afterward but they're usually too busy to notice at the time," he lied through his teeth.

Scott grimaced. "Sorry."

"I understand, Scott. I really do," Johnny said softly, his eyes showing his sympathy.

"I know you do," he replied in a pained tone. "It's probably going to take hours," he added.

Johnny hid his dismay, knowing Scott was right. What was wrong with him? His brother was about to become a father and all he could think was how much work he had to do. Was he really becoming this person? Far worse than anything he'd ever thought about his own father before coming home. He wasn't this cold and uncaring, he knew. He also knew that, for now, he had to let go of the pain and anger. Had to be there for Scott because there was no one else. And, he thought with a quiet sigh, Murdoch would expect this of him and he wouldn't disappoint his father. He wouldn't disparage the man's memory. It was the only real reason he'd let Scott stay this long.

He walked over to the fireplace and stared at the cold embers. Closing his eyes, he felt the sting and shook it away. Murdoch was so looking forward to this. He talked about it often enough. His first grandson. Johnny could admit now, he'd felt some jealousy even though he was pretty sure Murdoch would not have seen the kid before he was grown. He smirked then berated himself.

Stop this, you fool! You're about to become an uncle. Warm air blew across the nape of his neck and he sighed. Yeah, I know. You're right here, waiting and worrying, too, huh, old man? Johnny wrapped his arms around himself and smiled a little.

Suddenly, he noticed it was quieter in the room. Scott's boots had stopped their perpetual clopping. He turned and looked at his brother. Scott looked pale and was staring into space, unmoving. Johnny walked over to him, putting a hand on his arm.

"Scott?"

He blinked then slowly looked at his brother. "Did you feel that?"

Giving him a surreptitious look, Johnny asked, "feel what?"

"Warm air. I felt warm air across my cheek, like a breath."

The younger man smiled and nodded. "Yeah, I felt it. It's Murdoch. He's waiting for his grandson."

*****

They'd eaten and drank a gallon of coffee each and now they sat together on the sofa quietly. Sam had come down thirty minutes earlier to report she was progressing much faster than he'd anticipated. He felt it wouldn't be too much longer but couldn't give Scott an exact time.

It didn't take long for Scott to come to his feet and begin his trek through the living room again. Johnny sighed softly and leaned back, closing his eyes. He didn't know why he was tired. He should be climbing the walls with all that coffee in him. Scott was just wearing him out.

His eyes popped open and he sat straight up then came to his feet just as Scott froze after turning quickly to look at the stairs. The scream sounded like pure agony and Scott found his feet, moving toward the stairwell.

Johnny stepped quickly to grab his arm. "Don't."

"Did you hear that?" Scott demanded.

"Yeah, the whole valley heard it, but you'll just be in the way," he responded calmly.

"That's my wife screaming bloody murder up there. I need to go to her!" Scott declared, trying to wrench free of the grasp.

Johnny held tight and stepped directly in front of his brother, taking the other arm as well. "I know you want to help her but there's nothin you can do, Scott. Look, it's painful. No one can help that. Just try to calm down a little. From the sounds of it, won't be too much longer anyway."

His words turned prophetic two seconds later when they heard a loud cry from the second floor. Scott's mouth fell open and he sucked in air. Johnny grinned and shook his head.

"See? Your baby is here. Now, just settle down til Sam sends for you."

Scott blinked several times but he still wasn't convinced all was well. He wouldn't be until he laid eyes on his family himself. She was still in danger, he knew. He could still lose her and the very thought made him sick to his stomach.

"I know, Scott."

He looked into his brother's eyes and knew Johnny did understand what he was thinking and feeling. It helped but it didn't allay his fears. He tried to smile but managed only a small grimace. He relaxed his shoulders and stepped away. Johnny released his grip and watched Scott walk to the fireplace and lean his head against the mantle.

Johnny felt helpless to comfort his brother. He knew it wouldn't be long before Sam came down but, for Scott, it would feel like an eternity. No words would come to him. He couldn't even bring himself to go over to his brother. It wasn't what was between them that kept him away, it was that he couldn't honestly tell Scott all would be well. He was saved by a strange noise behind him.

*****

Johnny turned as Mrs. Cooper walked into the room carrying a bundled blanket. His smile lit his face as he looked at his brother. But, Scott hadn't heard the sound, lost in his misery as he was. Johnny looked back at the woman and tossed his head, indicating she take the child to it's father.

Scott felt someone behind him and looked into the kind woman's eyes which were alight with joy. His own eyes went to her arms even as tears sprung up in them.

"Well, say hello to your son, Scott," she announced.

His eyes widened as he took in the small, red face. He pulled the blanket back gingerly and laughed. Johnny moved over and stood just beside him. Scott's chuckle propelled him to take a peek.

"Coal black hair," Scott grinned then gave his brother a shifty look.

"Don't look at me! It'll change, I'm sure."

"Of course it will but I doubt those beautiful blue eyes will," Mrs. Cooper laughed. "Well, take him," she added, moving even closer to Scott.

He looked like he might bolt and run at any moment but he collected himself and hesitantly and with some finagling, took his son in his arms. Scott's face looked as if it would break at any second, the smile was so wide. Suddenly, his senses returned.


"Rebecca?"

"She's resting but she's doing fine. Sam's with her, keeping a close eye out."


"Why? I mean if she's alright ...." Scott asked.

"He understands your concerns, Scott," Mrs. Cooper said sympathetically. "Now, take your son to his mother."

Scott smiled again, looked down at the little fella and headed up the stairs.

"She's really alright?" Johnny asked after he'd left.

"She's just fine."

*****

A week went by and Johnny had seen little of his brother. Scott stayed with his wife and child, still astounded by his good fortune. The baby was an enigma to him. He'd never been around one before. Now, he couldn't seem to take his eyes away. Rebecca was enjoying the attention, too. She was so in love with this tiny person, she felt her heart might burst from it.

Finally, Sam gave her the okay to leave her bed. She was more than ready to get out of there, to show their son off to the world. The parents descended the stairs together this afternoon shortly after Johnny had come home.

"Well, is he ready to go to school?" Johnny teased.

Laughing, Rebecca walked over with her precious bundle. "He's ready to see his uncle, for sure," she replied and held her arms out.

Johnny backed away, shaking his head. "Oh, no, I can't. I'll drop him."

"I highly doubt that. It's alright, just support his head," she urged.

He sucked in a deep breath and took the baby, holding him close to avoid disaster. Johnny looked down at the feather-light weight in his arms and felt his heart hurt. He noticed the hair was already getting lighter and smiled a little. "Not very big, is he?"

Scott laughed as he joined them. "Well, he's only a week old."

Johnny nodded, his eyes glued to the child, searching intently. The baby opened it's eyes and they seemed to rove all over. He was stunned at the deep blue color, close to his own. Close to what Murdoch had once told him his paternal grandfather's were. The nose was Rebecca's, the mouth Scott's. He frowned as he kept searching. There it was. Murdoch's chin, a much smaller version, of course. He sighed with satisfaction.

"Looking for something in particular?" Scott asked, amused.

Johnny looked up, embarrassed. "Just checkin."

Rebecca smiled. "He has the bluest eyes I've ever seen. I hope they don't change."

"His great-grandpa's eyes," Johnny murmured then bit his lip. He looked at their perplexed faces and shrugged. "Maybe you should take him. Don't wanna press my luck."

"Alright, then. Come to mama, William."

"William?" Johnny asked.

Scott cleared his throat. "Yes. William Murdoch Lancer. That's his name."

Johnny stared at his brother but only nodded.

*****

The next day, Scott decided to do what he'd been putting off. He climbed the steps to the attic, holding a lantern in one hand. He could smell the must from years of neglect and wrinkled his nose at the dust mites filtering through the one window.

He found he could stand almost straight up once in the room and he lit the lantern, hoping the whole place wouldn't burst into flames. Heaven knew what was up here. Once his eyes adjusted, he moved to the south end of the attic slowly. His eyes raked over the dressmaker's mannequin. Maria's or his mother's? Then, he saw the cradle and swallowed hard. Definitely Johnny's.

He kneeled beside it, his hand brushing away the dust and fingering the intricate carvings. It was beautifully made. He reached inside and picked up a baby blanket, deciding against shaking it out. It had a Mexican pattern to it which confirmed his assumption of who had slept there.

With a soft sigh, he stood and continued to the end, passing boxes, crates and trunks. He figured it would be more methodical to start at the end and probably more logical since Catherine's things would have been up here the longest. And he was right. The second trunk he looked in had belonged to his mother. Inside the lid was her name - Catherine Garrett Lancer. Scott smiled a little.

He checked the rest of the trunks and found two had belonged to her. He wasn't about to go through all this stuff in the attic so he slid them to the trap door then went back to searching.

After an hour of rummaging through old furniture and containers, he found three smaller crates marked with her name. It was enough to get started and he couldn't imagine there was any more. She hadn't been here all that long. Resignedly, he knew he'd need help getting them down the steep steps so he left the attic door open and went in search of assistance.

Scott found two hands to help him and soon, everything was up against one wall of their bedroom. Once the hands had gone, he stared at the trunks for long moments. Suddenly, he wished his brother was with him when he went through her things. Scott sat in a chair by the window and just stared.

*****

It didn't take long for the hands to report to Johnny when he came home that afternoon. Right or wrong, they felt the man should know Scott was rummaging around the attic. Johnny reassured them then headed upstairs, his shoulders tight, his entire body simply weary. He knocked on the door and received a soft 'come in.'

"I was wondering if you were ever gonna do that," he said as he stepped into the room.

Scott looked at him, still sitting in the chair. "I got this far. I just ..... I suppose I'm being ridiculous."

Johnny looked at him with a flat expression then shrugged and sat on the edge of the bed. "You won't know what's in there til you open them up."

Scott nodded and stood, walking over and kneeling in front of one of the trunks. He lifted the lid and sat back a little. His hand fingered the silk material of a gown then pulled it out. The trunk was mostly full of clothes but, at the bottom, were some letter. Scott looked at the stack, neatly tied in a pink bow and shook his head.

"From Grandfather," he said and sat them aside.

The second trunk held some jewelry that caused both men to raise a brow. It wasn't costume; emeralds and sapphires and diamonds. Five pieces were in the small box. "Rebecca will be happy," Scott remarked as he held the jewels in his hand, almost caressing them. He replaced them carefully and sat the jewelry box aside as well.

He pulled out some pictures then and started going through them. His mouth dropped open as he stared for several seconds. "Johnny, look at this."

The younger man took the picture and stared at it in awe. It was a wedding picture, faded now, but still distinguishable. Shaking his head, Johnny breathed, "he was so young here."

Scott nodded as he went through the rest. Pictures of his mother as a child and with his grandfather but no other ones of Murdoch. He sighed. He was hoping there was more than one. "That's all of them but there's more boxes."

Johnny stood up quickly and thrust the picture at Scott who took it. "I gotta go." He left the room quickly and headed across the hall where he flopped down on his bed and buried his head in his arms.

*****

Scott took a deep, unsteady breath and went through the rest of the crates. He ignored most of the contents, searching for one thing in particular. He'd almost given up when he spied something in the bottom of the last crate. He picked up the large, thick envelope and went to the bed, sitting on the side as he opened it with shaky fingers.

He smiled as he looked through the photographs. There was another one there of his father and mother. It looked like it was taken in front of a store of some kind. From the way Murdoch was dressed, he thought it was somewhere along their journey west or, maybe, after they'd arrived.

That didn't seem likely, though. According to his father, there wasn't much of anything in this valley when they got here. Nothing but rich land and potential. Still, he had a second picture to share with his brother and that was what he'd wanted. He laid the rest of the pictures down then made for Johnny's room.

He'd heard the door across the hall slam several moments ago so knew that's where his brother had gone. Tapping lightly, he got no response and lowered his head briefly. With resolve, Scott opened the door and entered the room.

"I found something else I'd like you to have. If you want it," he said, knowing Johnny wasn't asleep even though he couldn't see his brother's face.

Johnny was lying on his stomach, his arms crossed and used as a pillow. Slowly, the young man rose and sat up in the middle of the bed, then looked at Scott. He took the picture and stared at it.

"This is yours," he said.

"I want you to have it, Johnny. How many pictures of Murdoch do you think we'd find up there? There probably aren't anymore of him so young. Look at his face. He's so happy, so ..... alive," Scott's voice faltered, breaking at the end.

Johnny bowed his head and closed his eyes for a moment. Taking a deep breath, he breathed, "thanks."

Scott nodded then glanced at the bedside table. He saw the pictures of he and Johnny and grief washed over his entire being. Knowing his brother still kept his likeness near was an overpowering thought. He couldn't make sense of the gesture weighed against Johnny's treatment of him.

Johnny saw him staring and felt embarrassed for some reason. He cleared his throat and got up, setting the picture carefully on the writing table by the window. "Supper will be ready soon. I need to wash up."

Scott tore his eyes away and nodded. "I'll leave you to it, then."

As he returned to his own room, Scott wondered if that wasn't part of the reason Johnny seldom slept in his own bed. Still, he could easily put those pictures away but he hadn't. He didn't know what to make of it. He didn't know what to make of Johnny.

*****

Johnny rode in the next day just before noon. His mind had been turning over and over and he just couldn't ignore it any longer. He dismounted in front of the barn and tied Barranca off then started to the house. Pulling up short as he looked up the hill, he changed direction.

Scott sat on the ground beside the grave and when Johnny came around him, he saw Scott holding the baby.

"I was introducing them," Scott said as he looked up, tears staining his face.

Johnny knelt down and nodded then smiled at the baby. "He's a handsome boy. Couldn't really tell that first night. He was all scrunched up."

Scott laughed as he rocked his son. "You should get you one, Johnny. They really do put things in perspective. I knew it before but now, well, it's just so much more profound."

"What is?"

"What I did to Murdoch. How I treated him, both of you. I can't imagine this one doing that to me and I am so ashamed of myself. I don't think I'll ever get over it. " His voice began to shake.

Johnny sighed heavily and sat down properly. He fiddled with his hat before tossing it on the ground beside him. "Scott, what are your plans?"

The older man closed his eyes, his head bent, before looking up slowly. "I don't know."

"Don't you think you should get to knowing? You've got a family to think about. You have to get on with it, find a way to support them and start a new life."

Scott looked into his eyes, desperate to say it. "I don't want to leave Lancer, Johnny. Neither does Rebecca." The look he got chilled him and he pulled William closer.

"I don't want a lot of things, but, I can't help you with that. You want to stay in the valley, that's your choice. But, I can't do this, Scott. I just can't."

He nodded, his heart breaking. "Would you be willing to sell me a small parcel? A hundred acres?"

"For what? What are you gonna do with a hundred acres? That ain't much land to raise cattle on."

"I'm not looking to get rich. There are a lot of ranchers and businessmen in the area that could use a good accountant," Scott offered. After a brief pause, he added, "or is it that you don't want me around? Can you really not stand the sight of me?"

Johnny heard the pain in his voice and sighed, looking down the hill to the house below. "I don't care what you do." His voice was flat, without feeling.

Scott sighed now. He looked down at his son and shook his head. "I guess I deserve that, but, my son doesn't. He deserves to know his uncle. He deserves to know about his grandfather and the land he loved so much. I'll ask Sam when Rebecca can travel. We'll go to Green River once she's able."

Johnny stood, picking his hat up as he went. "Fine," he said and walked away.

*****

"How can he be so cold and uncaring?" Rebecca asked, shocked when Scott reported his conversation with his brother.

"He's been deeply hurt, sweetheart. He feels I abandoned Murdoch and betrayed them both and he's right. I did turn my back on my family and I have no excuse. I can't expect him to forgive me. Not even for his nephew's sake."

"I'm sorry, Scott, but I just can't buy that. People make mistakes. You've apologized over and over."

"He sent for me, Becca - twice, and I ignored him. Think about it. He was here all alone with our father. Held the man in his arms as he breathed his last. All alone in this big house. Think about what that did to Johnny. I wasn't here and I swore to him I would be if he ever needed me. I promised him that when I left and I didn't keep that promise. To Johnny, a man's word is his bond. He never makes a promise he won't keep, no matter the cost to him. He expected the same of me and I didn't deliver. I can't blame him for feeling the way he does. I hoped we could get past it but that isn't going to happen. You and I have some decisions to make."

She listened, understood the deep meaning of this bond the brothers had once shared. She felt sympathy for Johnny not for the first time. But, this was her husband and she would defend him to her death. Yet, she knew, had the roles been reversed, she would have felt just as Johnny felt. She knew all too well Scott had been wrong but it just couldn't matter that much to her when her husband was in so much pain.

She'd never known Murdoch so maybe that was part of the problem. She really didn't know Johnny. For she didn't see the man Scott had described to her. This wasn't the brother Scott had known. He was grieving and angry so she understood he wasn't himself. It seemed he couldn't spare an ounce of sympathy for his brother, though.

For all this going around and around, she came back to the same thing. Whatever Scott had done wrong, she loved him and that was all that really mattered. Wherever they ended up, she'd be happy with her new son and husband. She turned to face him, smiling at his patience for her.


"I can see everyone's side, Scott. I really can but it doesn't matter. You're right, we need to make some decisions. Whatever you want, wherever you want to live, I'll be right by your side."

He moved closer and wrapped her in his arms.

*****

They sat at the supper table with Johnny, William in his bassinette next to his mother. Matilda served them, casting an odd look at the baby, as if she thought it may have horns. Scott didn't miss it and wondered again where the hell Johnny had found her.

Half-way through the meal, Johnny spoke softly.

"Old Man McMurphy died six months back. His place has been for sale since. The house is in real good shape. Outbuildings probably need a little work. If you want, I can make you a loan to buy it."

Scott managed to swallow the bite he'd just taken and sipped his wine. "That's a good-sized house and a fair amount of land. How much are they asking?"

"Not sure but he just had a great-nephew left. He lives in New York and ain't interested in the place. He'd probably sell reasonably. Seemed to me, he just wanted to unload the place. Reckon he wasn't too impressed with it."

"You've met him?"

Johnny nodded. "Yeah, he came right out and took a look. Turned his nose up and asked Mr. Hamilton to sell it. Ain't had any offers though."

Scott looked over at Rebecca who was trying unsuccessfully to hide a smile. He winked at her then turned back to Johnny.

"As I recall that is a beautiful home. Why do you suppose the nephew was unimpressed?"   

Johnny chewed and swallowed before looking at his brother. "Reckon it wasn't fine enough for a stuck-up Eastern city slicker. Too much dust in the air for his taste. For a minute there, I thought he was gonna jump in the river just to get clean."

Scott smirked a little, knowing it was a slight but not caring to indulge in a battle of words with his brother. "I'll ride over tomorrow and take a look at it."

Johnny nodded, his face devoid of expression. "Reckon I'll go along."

"Where is this place?" Rebecca asked.

"It's not far from Green River. About ten miles," Scott replied. She smiled her approval.

Johnny stood up then. "Well, I have some paperwork to do."

The baby awoke just then and fussed. Rebecca turned her attention to him and Scott gave his brother a look of gratitude. One that was ignored.

*****

"Not bad. The house is sturdy. That barn needs some work," Scott assessed.

"McMurphy always made sure the house was kept up but he let everything else go. Just got too old to worry with it and I reckon he lost interest when the missus passed. He didn't last a year after her."

"I wonder why he kept the house up," Scott pondered.

Johnny glanced at him then walked around the yard. "It was her pride. She loved this house. He said she described her dream house to him and he built it for her. That was a long time ago but it stands the test of time."

Scott smiled. "That's very romantic. I didn't think that old man had it in him. He always seemed to be in a bad mood."

"It was just his way. He was never like that with her. Melted like butter when she gave him a stare. That really tickled Murdoch. He said a woman was about the only thing that could ride herd over a man and make it stick."

"I know that's true. Rebecca does the same with me," Scott laughed. He grew pensive then and gave his brother a sidelong look. "I hope you find someone to ride herd over you, Johnny."

The younger man only spared him a glance then walked to his horse. "Well, let's go see Mr. Hamilton and find out what's what."

Scott was shocked at the asking price. "I know I'm not supposed to say this but, why so low?"

The bank president smiled at him, hadn't really stopped since Scott walked in the door. "He just doesn't want to be bothered with it, I suppose."

"What about the taxes?" Johnny asked.

"They're paid through the year."

"Well, Scott? What'ya think?" Johnny turned to his brother.

"I can't say yes without Rebecca's okay but, I'm definitely interested."

Hamilton nodded. "There's been no other offers. Why don't you talk it over with her? If anyone else shows an interest, I'll let you know."

Scott and Johnny stood and shook hands with the banker.

As they stepped out into the sunshine, Scott breathed deeply. "I can't believe what a bargain that place is."

"Yeah, you could luck out if Rebecca goes along. Well, best be headed back."

"What? No trip to the saloon? No visit with Val? That doesn't sound like you," Scott teased.

Johnny turned and glared at him but reined himself in. "I have a lot of work to do. If you want to stay, go ahead."

Scott sighed and mounted up then pushed to catch his brother up.

*****

As they rode into the yard, both noticed the doctor's surrey. Scott frowned deeply and hurried inside.

"Just a check up. Scott, you need to relax," Sam said, his eyes dancing with amusement.

"Sorry, Sam. I know I'm being a pest. So, they're both alright?"

"Very healthy. And Rebecca can ride in a surrey. She must be getting cabin fever," the old physician smiled.

"I'm sure she is. I'll just go up now," Scott said, anxious to see his wife and tell her about the house.

Sam studied Johnny, leaning against the wall near the French doors. "How are you?"

"Fine, you?"

Sam rolled his eyes. "You know what I mean."

"I said I'm fine," he answered tersely.

"Of course you are. Still being a jackass, I see."

"Excuse me?" Johnny asked, pushing off the wall.

"Johnny, I know how hard a time you've had. I know you've sheltered yourself at this ranch and I know how Scott's return has affected you. But, surely you can see you've got to relax some. You're going to give yourself an ulcer, young man."

Johnny froze for a second. Sam sounded a lot like Murdoch just then and it did nothing to improve his mood or heal his heart. He dropped his head, rubbing a hand over his forehead. "Sam, it's not easy. I can't just stop missing him. I can't just turn it all off. I wish sometimes I could."

"You have to find some peace, John. You think you're disrespecting your father's memory if you don't mope around here. That if you have even a minute of joy, that somehow lessens your loss. Well, I can tell you with absolute certainty, Murdoch would hate this. He would want you to live, and most of all, be happy. He'd also want you to get back to your normal routine and stop sleeping on that sofa. Stop working yourself into the ground and start trying to forgive your brother."

Johnny's head snapped up at the last and his eyes narrowed. "That ain't gonna happen. I can't help that Murdoch wouldn't approve. You think I don't know that? I've never lived my life the way someone else wanted, never did anything because someone else wanted me to unless I agreed. Murdoch was no different and he'd understand that, too. I know he'd want me to forgive Scott. I know this would disappoint him. I just can't, Sam. He made promises to me and he broke every one of them. That's all."

Sam took in the clenched fists at his side, the dangerous look of anger on his face and sighed heavily. "I wish I could help you, son. I wish you'd let someone help you. And I wish the one person who can help you was here right now. All I want, all any of us want, is the old Johnny back. The one who lived life to the fullest. The one who so appreciated the simple fact that he was alive. The one who would bend over backwards to help even a stranger with humility and a smile on his face."

Johnny turned away, emotions too raw nearing the surface. He closed his eyes and fought for decorum. When he won the battle, he turned back around. "I'm doin the best I can."

Sam walked over and laid a hand on his back, rubbing slowly up and down. "I know, son. I know. Maybe .... maybe when that one person comes ...."

"Don't, okay? I can't think about that right now."

"You haven't let yourself think about it at all," Sam countered.

Johnny only shook his head and walked out the French door.

*****

Rebecca raved about the house the next day when she and Scott returned. He was relieved and happy she approved. At least, he'd be near Johnny. It was all he could hope for right now. All he had to do was wait for his brother to come home and talk to him about the loan particulars.

It wasn't a long wait. Johnny came home before lunch. Though Scott was pleased, he wondered why. His brother didn't look too happy and he wasn't sure he should bring this up right then. He watched Johnny study a map of Lancer for several minutes.

"Is something wrong?" he finally ventured.

Johnny glanced up. "Isn't something always wrong? Got a bridge down and I'm sick to death of it happening every year. Just looking for a new place to build it."

"Well, we looked at the house today. We can talk about that later, though. I'll give you some quiet." Johnny only nodded and he walked outside.  

Scott watched the horse gallop down the road with a frown. Unless things had changed, no one was suppose to ride in like that unless something was wrong. When he saw the rider, his worry and curiosity deepened. He walked out to where the horse came to a stop. She was petite with long, light brown hair tied back in a pony tail and gorgeous blue eyes. Her oval face shown with a healthy glow. Dressed in a simple brown riding skirt, boots and white blouse that enhanced her curves, she was a beauty.

"May I help you?"

She looked up at him and simply glared. "You're Scott?"

"Yes, that's right."

She said nothing and made to walk around him. Scott grabbed her arm lightly. "Just a moment, Miss. Is there something I can do for you?"

She pulled free and jutted her chin out. "No, there is nothing you can do for me. I'm here to see Johnny." With that, she started to the door once more.

"He's very busy right now. Perhaps, you could wait," Scott tried, knowing his brother was not in the mood to be charitable.

She stopped with her back to him for a long beat then turned back. She was about to say something when the front door opened and she turned to the side, her face melting into a smile.  

Johnny walked out and stopped short when he saw her. Disbelief was his first expression, then a smile lit his face. "Jessie," he whispered.

*****

She ran to him, wrapping her arms around his neck as his own encircled her small waist. He raised her up and twirled her around before lighting her on the ground and hugging her tightly.

Scott stared in awe. He hadn't seen Johnny smile like that, with pure joy, in years. His mouth dropped open when his brother kissed the woman intimately.

Johnny pulled away a little, his breath quickened. "When did you get back?"

"Last night. I saw Val first thing this morning. Johnny, I don't know what to say. You should have sent for me." She let it all fall from her mouth, her grief evident in her wet eyes.

"Now, honey, by the time you got my letter and got back .... well, there was nothing you could do."

"Nothing but be by your side. Did he ..... was it ....." a small sob escaped and she could have kicked herself.

Johnny held her tighter. "It was real easy. He didn't suffer. Come on, I'll take you to him."

She nodded, pulling a lace handkerchief from her skirt pocket and dabbing at her eyes. When they turned, Johnny found Scott staring.

"Scott, this is Jessica Malone. Jessie, this is Scott."

"We met," she said sharply.

"Briefly but not formally. A pleasure," Scott said, wondering why she was being so rude. Wondering a lot more than that.

"Well, we'll be back in a while," Johnny said and led her around the house.

Scott stared after them, feeling rather than seeing Rebecca walk up.

"Who was that?" she asked.

"Jessica Malone. I have a feeling she's Johnny's girl."

"I don't recall him mentioning her."

"That's because he hasn't," Scott said sadly. His brother couldn't even tell him he had a girl. An obviously serious relationship from what he'd just seen.

"Where are they going?"

"To see Murdoch. She must have known him. I wonder where she's been? She said something about Johnny not writing to tell her."

Rebecca raised an eyebrow. "I guess he was angry with her as well." Blushing, she sighed. "I'm sorry, darling. That was an awful thing to say."

He pulled her in against his side. "She must have been someplace far away from what Johnny said. Well, I suppose we'll find out soon enough."

*****

He held her tightly, slowly rocking back and forth as she cried her eyes out. Johnny felt his control slip a little more with each passing moment. A tear slid down his face just as she pulled back to look at him. Seeing it, she tried to pull herself together even as she wiped his cheek.

"This is so awful, Johnny. I loved him so much."

"I know you did, honey. He loved you, too. He was looking forward to you coming home. He was looking forward to a lot of things," he said huskily.

"Can you tell me? It's alright if you can't," she sniffled.

He nodded and told her all that had happened from the heart attack to Scott's return. Her face hardened when he spoke of Scott. She knew how the older brother had treated them both so horribly. She knew, maybe more than Johnny, how it had affected Murdoch. She saw what he didn't or wouldn't. She supposed it was because she was a woman, she could see the pain they had both tried so hard to hide. That Scott had ignored Johnny's wires was unforgivable to her. Evidently, it was to Johnny as well.

But, she worried about this. Though Johnny had always been angry with his brother since she'd known him, there'd been times when he spoke with fondness of Scott. Times when he'd recall something they'd done together when she could easily see the love he held for his brother. But that look was no longer in the man's eyes and her heart broke all over again.

"And you're going to help him get this house?"

"Yeah, don't know why really."

She smiled. "Maybe to honor your father?"

He gave her a half smile. "He wanted to see his grandson so much. She had the baby two weeks ago. It's a boy." The smile slid a little. "They named him William Murdoch."

"How do you feel about that?" she asked.

"Well, I guess it's a nice gesture. Just seems like all Scott ever does is make gestures. Always too late when it matters and it's like he's trying to make amends after the fact. Hell, I don't care what they name their kid."

She turned and leaned back against his chest as he wrapped his arms around her. "The headstone is perfect."

"Yeah? I was hoping it was okay. I don't even really remember ordering it. I don't remember much about the funeral arrangements. What I remember is the tons of people who were here and how sad they all were. And the minister. He was crying. You never see a minister cry at a funeral. It was the saddest damned thing I've ever seen."

She sniffled a little then sighed. "I'm going to miss him so much."

*****

When Scott told Matilda that Jessica was there, the woman actually smiled. Scott nearly swallowed his tongue at the sight. She started bustling around the kitchen then threw him out.

When he walked back into the living room, Johnny was introducing the two women. Jessica cooed over William and held him.

"He's beautiful," she whispered.

"He's not beautiful," Johnny argued. "He's handsome. Boys are handsome."

Jessie smiled indulgently at him. "Not until they're older and show their personality. Until then, they are beautiful."

Johnny threw his hands up in surrender, knowing better than to argue with her.

"She's right," Rebecca seconded as Jessie handed the baby back.

There was an awkward silence in the room for a few minutes.

"I told Matilda you were here and she smiled. I almost passed out," Scott smiled.

"She's a sweetheart," Jessie said and received doleful looks all around. "Well, you have to know how to handle her."

"You and Murdoch are the only ones who could pull that off," Johnny quipped then bowed his head.

Jessie slipped her arm through his and walked him to the sofa. Scott and Rebecca sat in the twin chairs opposite them.

"So, you've been way, Jessica?" Rebecca asked.

"Yes, in Europe with my parents. My father got the opportunity to go and we couldn't pass it up. Well, I could have but Johnny insisted I go. We were gone six months and only returned yesterday afternoon."

"Must have just missed you. We were in town yesterday," Johnny said.

"Did you enjoy your trip?" Scott asked.

"It was wonderful but if I'd known ....." she dropped her eyes and Johnny took hold of her hand.

"There was no way to know, honey. Like I said, you couldn't have gotten back anyway. I'm glad you had a good time."

She laid her head on his shoulder and Scott took it all in. All this time he'd thought Johnny was alone and would be that way for a good while to come. It warmed his heart to be wrong.

"Miss Jessie," Matilda said from the doorway.

She stood and walked to the woman, stepping into the outstretched arms. "Matilda, how are you?"

"Passable, Miss, passable. You must be just heartbroken," she said sincerely.

"It was an awful shock, Tillie. Just awful." Lowering her voice, she asked. "How has he really been?"

Matilda shook her head, her eyes sad as she glanced toward Johnny.

Jessie sighed and said more loudly. "Why don't I give you a hand in the kitchen?"

She smiled and nodded and Scott was once more shocked.

*****

Matilda gave Jessie the lowdown on Johnny since his father's death. The more Jessie heard, the more worried she became. She didn't like the idea of him sleeping downstairs, working so hard and closing himself off. Well, she thought, that's about to end. There was no way she was going to let him slip away. She refused to lose him and she was sure he didn't want that to happen. They were going to have to have a serious talk. Alone.

The change in the cook's tone when she spoke of Scott did not escape the young woman's attention, either. She hid the smile as she listened to Matilda rant about Scott Lancer. Once more, though, she realized no matter what, he'd lost his father, too. And whatever reason he had for staying away, though it would never be good enough, they had to account for his feelings. She knew Johnny's offer to help buy the McMurphy place was his way of giving in just a little. It told her he really did want his brother nearby. While she wasn't sure she could ever let herself like Scott Lancer, she wouldn't allow herself to hate him either.

Supper was tastier than past meals and the conversation was lighter. Scott watched the transformation in his brother with wonder. He's in love, he thought. So, he was not only mourning Murdoch, he was missing his woman on top of it. God! What more did his brother have to endure?

Jessie gave it her all. She made pleasant conversation with them, though she focused mainly on Rebecca. It probably wasn't fair but she wasn't ready to let go of her anger toward Scott. He'd hurt the man she loved and she would not abide that. Johnny had had no one when Murdoch died. Friends, yes. Wonderful friends, but is wasn't the same as having his brother at his side. One he'd been mourning for six years now.

After supper, they retired to the living room. Rebecca took the baby upstairs and Scott soon joined her. He'd been hesitant and Johnny knew why but he didn't want to talk about the McMurphy place right now. He wanted to talk to Jessie. Was desperate to be alone with her.

They sat on the sofa and kissed for a long while until she finally had to stop lest she lose herself in his always overwhelming presence. Pulling back, she caught her breath.

"We need to talk, Johnny."

He groaned his displeasure then smiled at her. "Alright. About what?"

"So many things, sweetheart. But, I don't want to be interrupted."

He thought about that for a second. "We could go upstairs. Just to talk," he added the second hastily.

She laughed. "Alright but only if you behave yourself."

He promised and hoped he could stand it. Grabbing her hand, he led the way.

*****

"So, you're going to help Scott buy the McMurphy ranch. Why? And I'd appreciate more of an answer."

She was direct, but he'd always loved that about her. He smiled tenderly as she stood by his window. He scooted up to the headboard and rested his back against it, crossing his ankles. "He wants to stay here. Actually, he wants to stay at Lancer but I told him no. Look, no matter what's between me and Scott, he's hurting over Murdoch. Plus, he's still reelin from what old man Garrett did. He has a brand new baby and a wife to look after. I can't just toss him out with a 'good luck'."

He dropped his head and added, softly, "I know Murdoch would want him to stay here but I know that won't work. This way, he can be close by and come see Murdoch. Hell, he probably won't stay long anyway before he gets bored."

She sighed lightly and walked over, sitting on the bed, her hand on his thigh. "How is he planning on paying you back? Or make a living?"

Looking up at her, he shrugged. "If he gets his mother's trust back, he'll be sittin pretty. And, he can start an accounting business in town, he says. Scott's smart, got a good education. He can do about anything he sets his mind to."

"I suppose so. I just don't understand why he wants to come back now."

"I think he's sorry he ever left, but, that ain't my problem."

She looked at the hard eyes and her heart cracked a little. She knew how much this was tearing him apart. Knew what Scott's leaving had done to him. She knew because he'd told her. He'd told her everything about himself and she kept being surprised at how much her love grew. Just when she didn't think it was possible to love another person anymore than she did, he said or did something to make her love him even more. She'd thought fancifully, he'd kill her with all this love.

Smiling, she leaned in and laid her head on his chest. Immediately, his hand came up to stroke her hair. In two seconds, the pony tail was gone and he had a handful of hair, while massaging her scalp. She closed her eyes and melted.

"Jessie?"

"Hmmm?"

Johnny laughed and her head bobbed up and down. "You fallin asleep, honey?"

She raised up and smacked him lightly on the arm. "It's your fault if I am."

His smile faded and he looked soulfully at her. She saw the wheels turning and knew he had something important on his mind. Something he wasn't sure he should speak just then. So, she waited for him to make the decision.

Johnny raised up and she sat straight. He bounced off the bed and went to his dresser, opening the drawer then closing it quickly. Walking around the bed, he cupped whatever he had in his hand and knelt in front of her.

He took her hand and sighed then looked up into her eyes. "I've been waiting a long time for you to come home. All the while, I was praying things would be the same between us and they sure do seem that way. I've been holding onto this since the day you left and now, well, it's time."

He produced his other hand and held it out, palm up. A small black box was cradled there and she sucked in a breath as he deftly opened it one-handed. Her eyes went back to his.

"Marry me?" he asked simply.

It was as she'd always imagined. Simple, to the point but with so much love in those two words. It was .... Johnny.  

"Absolutely," she breathed.

*****

They spent a long, tortuous night in separate bedrooms. Jessie was already in the kitchen when the rest of the family descended. Johnny's eyes caught hers and he gave her a wink.

As they sat down for the morning meal, Johnny regarded his brother. "Well, what's the verdict?"

Scott looked puzzled for a second. "Oh, the ranch. We love it," he replied with a look at his wife.

"Well, reckon we can ride in with Jessie this mornin and see Mr. Hamilton."

"I, we, really appreciate this, Johnny. You know I'll pay you back as soon as possible," Scott spoke sincerely and with some embarrassment.

"Whenever. No hurry," he shrugged.

Jessie listened quietly, worry gnawing at her. She looked at Rebecca. "Do you like to garden? There's a wonderful garden out there, though it's been neglected for some time."

"I saw it. It's going to need some work but, yes, I'm looking forward to getting it into shape. I already have a lot of ideas. Thankfully, the house is in good condition." She hadn't missed the look in the woman's eyes but she wasn't quite sure what it meant. She liked Jessie, though she hardly knew her. Something about her spoke of confidence and grace. It was easy to see how she felt about Johnny, too.

"The land is pretty overgrown, too. But, I don't suppose you'll be doing any ranching," Jessie went on.

"No, I plan to keep some cattle," Scott replied. "And we were thinking of a vineyard."

Johnny laughed softly. "Of course you were. You always were goin on about the Barkley's vineyard."

Scott smiled. "Why not? Lancer Wines. Has a nice ring to it."

Rebecca gasped suddenly and Scott turned to her. "What? What's wrong?"

She looked at the two men then blushed. "I ... I'm sorry. Congratulations, you two. That's a stunning ring."

Jessie looked at her left hand as did Scott and his eyes grew wide.

"Well, you don't waste any time, do you, brother?" he grinned then lifted his coffee cup in a toasting gesture.

Johnny's eyes were on Jessie as she smiled softly at him. "It's been almost two years. I'd say I've put it off way too long as it is."

"So would I," Jessie laughed and hugged him.

*****

The ride to town was quiet, each person lost in thought. Scott's head was abuzz. Buying the ranch, Johnny's engagement, his own new family addition. So many things to think about and so much to do. He planned on checking the mail today, hoping he'd hear from his attorney in Boston.

As they reined to a stop in front of the bank, Johnny turned to his brother. "I'm gonna go with Jessie for a little while. Talk to her father. Go ahead and get Mr. Hamilton started on the paperwork."

"Alright but isn't it a little late to ask the man's permission?" he smiled.

"Reckon so but, I don't think he'll mind," Johnny said, a small smile on his face.

Johnny spent an hour with the Malones. Part of that time talking about Murdoch and part talking about the wedding. He and Mr. Malone had convinced the women they didn't need to have a say in the wedding plans. Just tell them when and where. Finally, he left them and went to the bank, his mood altering between sadness and joy. Murdoch had loved Jessie. He'd told Johnny more than once to get off the pot where that girl was concerned. He'd said he couldn't ask for a better daughter-in-law and was thrilled with the prospect of a union.

Mr. Malone had become good friends with Murdoch and the two of them conspired regularly. Each wondering what was taking Johnny so long. He'd wondered himself but when the chance to go to Europe was presented, he held back and urged her to go. To Johnny, it was a defining moment. He didn't trust things would go his way and it took a lot for him to relax about their relationship. He figured if they could get through a six month separation, they could get through anything. Now, he regretted all of that. His father would not be there to stand up for him as he'd envisioned.

He walked into the bank president's office, trying to keep the happiness at the forefront. "How are things going here?"

"Johnny," Hamilton greeted. "We were just going over the terms of the loan so I'm glad you're here. You need to read this over carefully."

Johnny sat down and took the document as the two men waited for him to finish. He looked up and shrugged. "Looks fine to me."

"Alright, well, all I need are some signatures. Mr. McMurphy will be very happy about this. He's been writing me more often about selling the ranch. Now, Scott, I need to make sure you understand. If you default on the loan, the land goes to Johnny. Plus, all assets."

"I understand, Mr. Hamilton," Scott said and signed.

Johnny signed his name and Hamilton handed the deed to Scott. "That's it. Congratulations, Scott. You now own a ranch."

They walked outside, Scott grinning ear to ear but Johnny's face was tight.

"Something wrong? Were you having second thoughts?" Scott asked.


"What? Oh, no, nothing like that. Just have some things on my mind."

"You should be happy as a lamb, brother. You're about to get married," Scott said, smacking him lightly in the gut.

Johnny put his hands against the hitching rail and leaned in, blowing out a breath. "Yeah, that's not what's bothering me." Pushing off, he turned to face Scott. "You wanted to check the mail?"

"Johnny, what's wrong?" Scott asked with concern.

"Don't worry about it, Scott. Let's just check the mail." He turned and walked away and Scott stood there, perplexed like he usually was with his brother.

*****

Scott's disappointment was clear to anyone who looked at him as he stepped away from the post office.

"Why don't you wire the lawyer and asked what's takin so long?" Johnny suggested.

"Yes, I should do that. I just wish ..... well," Scott sighed and went to the window to send the telegram.

Johnny leaned against a support beam and looked out on the street while he waited. He heard the footsteps behind him and sighed.

"Well, look what the cat dragged in."

He smiled a little then turned around. "Hey, Val."

"Hey, hell! Don't you 'hey' me, Johnny!"

"Come on, Val."

"Nope, if ya can't say howdy to a friend then who needs ya?"

"I've been a little busy. Besides, don't look like you're ailin. You know where I live," Johnny retorted, hands on hips.

"Didn't want ta intrude," the sheriff said, jutting out his chin a little.

Johnny shook his head back and forth slowly. "You don't ever intrude, amigo. You're always welcome at Lancer and you know it."

Val's face fell and he looked a little chagrined. "Yeah, well, I wasn't sure you was up to seein anybody."

Johnny dipped his head for a second. "Truth be told, I wasn't. Don't mean people ain't been comin out of my ears lately."

Val chuckled a little at that. "Heard about Scott's baby and I know Jessie's back. That oughta make ya feel better, anyhow."

A genuine smile crossed Johnny's face. "It does. I guess she'll straighten me out pretty quick."

"Reckon so. How's the little 'un?"

"He's fine. Hello, Val," Scott answered from behind him.

"Scott, congratulations."

"Come out for supper Sunday, Val. Meet the kid before he moves out," Johnny offered.

Val cocked a brow and looked at Scott. "Yeah, sure."

*****

The hacienda was more alive that Sunday than Johnny could remember in a long time. He stood by the dining room table and looked at the people in his living room. Val was goggling over William who seemed to enjoy the attention. Jessie was talking with Rebecca and Scott was keeping a careful eye on Val and his son.

Johnny's eyes roved over to Sam who was watching him intently. He smiled a little and nodded then Sam looked over at the baby. Johnny slipped into the kitchen then out the back door. He headed up the hill as the sun slowly set to his left. He sat down next to his father's grave and lowered his head. Tears leaked from his eyes but he didn't seem to notice much.

"Well, the house is alive again just like you would've wanted. I haven't had the chance to get up here alone lately. I'm sorry, pa. I tried with Scott but I just can't get past it. Maybe someday but not right now. Anyway, he's stayin close by - for now. I can't help wondering how long that will last, though. I just don't trust him and I'm not sure I ever will. But, that's not your worry. Whatever happens, we both love you, that's a certainty.

"I just wish so much you could be here to see all of this. Your first grandson, me and Jessie gettin married, our kids someday. It's not right. You worked so hard and waited so long for this family to be together but it never worked out for you. I know you're here and watching and I hope you always will be. But, now, I have to move on. I have to live again. It's gonna be hard, the hardest thing I've ever done, but I know it's what you want, too. See? I can still give you some things. I can still make you happy sometimes, I guess.

"I know you'd never want me to do anything I wasn't comfortable with so I guess you understand about Scott. I know it disappoints you, though. There is one promise I can make to you right now. I promise that as long as I live, as long as I have any say, Lancer will thrive and prosper. My children will work this land, love this land just like we have. And, hopefully, that will last forever.

"And maybe, just maybe someday, Scott's children will live here, too."

He sniffed and wiped his eyes before looking up and over the land. A soft, warm wind caressed his face and he smiled.

 

 

~end~
2006

Want to comment? Email Winj