The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Homeless

 

 

 

Johnny heard something but what, he couldn't be sure. He was pulled out of his sleep unwillingly as the noise persisted. His mind told him he needed to see what was going on. His body had other ideas, not wishing to leave the warmth and comfort of his bed.

But the noise was persistent though it waxed and waned. He sighed and opened his eyes to complete darkness. No moonlight spilled through the window as it had when he'd first slipped into bed and he frowned, rubbing a hand over his face.

He sat on the edge of the bed and lit a lamp, turning the wick up then concentrating on what had disturbed his sleep in the first place. Shaking his head, he stood and walked over to the window.

Wind.

Now, that's not something that usually wakes me up. No, something more is happening, he thought. But he could see nothing from his bedroom window. He couldn't believe how dark it was and he idly wondered as to the time.

Dressing quickly, he started downstairs. As he passed his father's room, the door opened and Johnny stopped.

"What is it?" Murdoch asked sleepily.

Johnny shrugged. "Lot of wind but I can't see a thing from my window."

Murdoch nodded and walked downstairs with him. In the great room, they lit one lamp away from the huge window behind Murdoch's desk and stood before it trying to see outside.

"This is useless. I'm going out," Johnny grumbled, never liking his sleep disturbed suddenly.

*****

He opened the heavy front door and was slammed in the face by the wind and now rain. Automatically, he jerked his head to the side to keep the water from stinging his eyes.

Stepping out and closing the door behind him with a mighty effort, Johnny made it to the veranda and the partial relief of the wall. Chancing another look, he peeked around the wall and was pelted in the face again.

Okay, now that you know it's rainin, do you have enough sense to go back inside? he asked himself with some amusement.

But he stood there a bit longer as his hackles rose. This was no ordinary storm. It was a real doozy. There was an eeriness to the air that he couldn't describe. Johnny cupped his hand over his eyes and peered through the darkness toward the barn. He couldn't see anything out of the ordinary and the doors seemed to be holding fast.

He knew the stock would be edgy in this weather. He sure didn't want to spend tomorrow tracking down a bunch of horses.

Just then a lightning bolt cracked across the sky leaving him temporarily blinded by its brilliance. He blinked several times as the black dots danced before him. Shaking his head, he went back inside.

*****

"Could you see anything?" Murdoch asked from the hearth. He already had a small blaze going and was working on making it bigger. There was a definite chill in the air.

"Not much. The barn looks okay but I think we're in for a big one," Johnny replied as he quickly made his way to the fireplace.

"Sounds like it. We haven't had a big storm in years. I suppose we're due," Murdoch commented.

Johnny snorted at this. "I don't recall anyone asking to be paid."

Murdoch smiled and stood back up. "I'll put on some coffee unless you want to go back to bed."

"I won't be able to sleep now."

Johnny picked up the fireplace poker and repositioned a log that had rolled off kilter. He jabbed at the fledgling fire a bit, willing it to spark up. He was getting quite chilly now.

The temperature had definitely dropped and that rain had been unpleasantly cold. Unusual weather for June, to be sure.

He wondered if Scott was still sleeping and envied him if he was. Johnny sat on the hearth and rubbed his hands together in front of the heat.

*****

They had been sitting there about an hour when both men noticed an increase in the wind's intensity. So much so, that they were concerned about the barn doors holding. If the horses got spooked enough, they would try to break out of their stalls to get away.

A noise over their heads had both craning their necks.

"Was that the roof?" Johnny asked.

"I think so," Murdoch replied with a worried tone.

It had been lightning for a while now but no thunder had accompanied it yet. Again, unusual.

"Well, I'm not goin up there tonight," Johnny grinned.

"No, you are not," Murdoch smiled back.

Again, the noise overhead only this time, louder and longer. Like a train. Johnny went to the picture window again and, expecting the lightning now, he kept his eyes lowered until it struck. He looked up quickly, trying to catch a glimpse of the storm. What he saw chilled him to the bone.

"Murdoch, get down!" he yelled, skirting around the desk in a flash and grabbing his father. He slung Murdoch from his semi-standing position to the floor with surprising strength. Murdoch was tossed down like a ragdoll and felt his son drop on top of him.

Before he could ask what was happening, he heard the glass shattering, felt the wind blow into the room and heard objects being thrown about. It was so loud, he couldn't hear himself think.

Johnny was struggling to stay where he was. He felt his body lift up a little and grabbed tightly to his father's shirt.

How long this went on, neither could say. Finally, the wind died down enough that they could move. And they did. Johnny jumped up, yelled two words and waited for the old man to get up.

Murdoch moved quicker than he had in some time, grabbed his son's arm and ran to the kitchen at Johnny's suggestion.

*****

It wasn't much better in there. The outside door was banging back and forth in the wind. Pots and pans were stewn across the floor and flames licked out from the stove.

Murdoch ran to the water pump, grabbing up one of those pans from the floor and started filling it. He then pulled the cover from the burner he'd used for coffee and doused the flame. They didn't need a fire, too.

"The fireplace," he shouted to Johnny.

Closing his eyes for a second, Johnny nodded and headed back in. It was almost too late as the flames shot out from the hearth; the wind tunneling down the chimney with ferocity. He grabbed the poker and flung out a log, pouring coffee from the pot over it. It was a challenge to ward off the wind as it seemed to come from several directions now.

Murdoch appeared with more water and they repeated the process with the other two logs. Pulling them out to deal with them one at a time in case they exploded from the dousing.

Satisfied the fire was out and no sparks would ignite, they struggled to make their way back to the dining area. Backs against the wall, they considered where to go now.

"If Scott's still asleep, I'll kill 'im!" Johnny groused. How could his brother not awaken with all this racket?

But he wasn't asleep. Scott came down the stairs and saw the carnage in the living room; destruction still going on as the wind had an opening now.

He stepped through the arched doorway with mouth agape. Murdoch spied him and called him over.

Once together, all three took a breath.

"What about Teresa?" Scott asked loudly to be heard.

*****

Johnny bolted through the kitchen to the rooms in that part of the house. The wind wasn't as bad here and he banged on the girl's door.

Teresa opened the door, clutching her robe around her.

"Get dressed, honey."

"What's happening, Johnny? I heard a loud crash."

"Just get dressed and hurry up," he said more urgently.

She nodded and closed the door. Johnny leaned against it and took some deep breaths. His back stung though he couldn't figure out why and at the moment, he didn't care. It seemed to him this had all taken hours to occur when in fact, it had been scarce minutes.

Teresa didn't take long, opting for jeans and a shirt for which Johnny was most grateful. He grabbed her hand and made his way back, having to pull at her when she saw the kitchen.

Murdoch opened his arms when he saw his ward and she gladly ran into his embrace.

"What's happening?" she asked.

"Tornado," Johnny clipped.

"What? Are you sure?" Scott asked, stunned.

"I'm sure, brother. I saw it right before it saw me," Johnny breathed out.

"What should we do?" Teresa asked.

"Stay right here. It seems to be the safest place at the moment," Murdoch answered.

*****

They all hunkered down on the floor, staying close to the wall as they listened to the house moan and groan. There were other noises, as well. Sounds of breaking glass and furniture overturning and things they couldn't identify.

For three hours they stayed there, barely moving. Then suddenly, it was over.

Johnny looked at Scott who nodded and they both got to their feet together, followed by Murdoch and Teresa.

"Guess we should have a look," Scott said warily.

"Stay together, everyone. We don't know how stable the structure is," Murdoch warned.

The four of them stepped around the corner and gawked at what was once their living room.

Glass covered the floor. One French door lay wasted, the other hung limply from its hinges. Every piece of furniture in the room was overturned or moved a considerable distance from its original spot. The grandfather clock lie on its side, shattered beyond repair. Books were strewn everywhere. Papers from Murdoch's desk accompanied those books. The desk itself was now close to the front entrance hall though it still stood upright.

Glass crunched under their feet as they stepped gingerly through the room. Light from the now rising sun filtered through a huge whole where the roof used to be though it was still overcast and grayish.

Murdoch squatted and picked up the remains of his model ship. Pieces fell off as he did so. Teresa bent over and hugged him, knowing how much that ship meant to him.

"I wonder what the upstairs looks like," Scott mused.

Johnny raised a brow, thinking of the position of the rooms. His was on this side, obviously the worst hit. Scott's was opposite. With a sigh, he nodded his head toward the stairs.

"Be careful, boys," Murdoch called as they headed up the stairs.

*****

Stepping over and around more debris, the brothers got to the top of the stairs and headed down the hallway.

The window at the end was shattered, a small table that once sat beneath it now at the top landing in pieces. Light fixtures dangled from the wall all the way down. Wallpaper hung down, swinging in a still light breeze.

Johnny and Scott stopped in front of their doors and turned to look at each other. With a small smile, each turned the knob and pushed.

Scott had an easier time getting his door open. Johnny had to put his shoulder into it to budge the door at all. He finally got it open wide enough to squeeze through and saw his dresser was what blocked his entry.

He stood in the middle of the room and gawked. His bed was overturned as was the wardrobe. Glass was everywhere. He didn't think he had that much glass in his room but most of it was from the now missing window panes and his mirror.

Johnny never kept much in his room. He was not one for a lot of doodads cluttering his space. But he had mementos. Special things he treasured. At this moment, he didn't have the heart to root around for them.

He kicked at the mess on his floor then went to the bed. Pulling it away from the wall, he stepped around and searched until he found his gun. Then he hunted until he found his gunbelt. He strapped the belt on and ran a hand though his hair, sighing heavily.

"Well, it's not really that ....... bad," Scott paused before the last word as he took in his brother's room. "My God!"

"Yeah," Johnny breathed out. "Well, at least I found my gun," he smiled weakly. "Come on, brother. We need to check the hands and the horses and .... everything."

Scott stayed rooted where he was as Johnny left the room. He didn't move until he heard his brother call out for him.

*****

Downstairs, Teresa stood in the middle of the kitchen floor and cried silently. Maria would ..... Maria! She prayed the woman had survived the storm.

She felt strong hands on her shoulders and relaxed a little.

"Nothing that can't be replaced, darling," Murdoch assured her.

"I know. It's just such a mess! Murdoch, will someone check on Maria?"

"Of course we will. As soon as the boys come down, we'll start checking with all the hands. There's a lot to do. Why don't you gather as many medical supplies as you can find. Just in case someone is hurt," he suggested.

She nodded and smiled a little, grateful to have a solid task.

Johnny and Scott came down the back stairs, which were clear.

Murdoch started laying out a plan and assigning chores. First and foremost were their employees then the stock. After that, they'd look more closely at structural damage. For the moment, at least, they seemed to have a partial roof over their heads.

Teresa gathered what supplies she could salvage then worked on some food for them all. It wasn't easy either. She couldn't find half of what she sought and the young girl swiped angrily at her tears. Now was not the time to fall apart. Later, when she knew everyone was safe and well, then she could go to her room and bawl like a baby if she wanted.

*****

The yard was littered with tree limbs and wood planks that were once corral fences and Lord knew what else. A soft rain fell but it was more an annoyance than anything. It was eerily calm outside and warmer though all three men had donned their jackets.

The Lancers stepped over all the debris as they made their way to the bunkhouses and homes of those who lived and worked on the ranch with them.

The bunkhouse, what was left of it, had them all gaping with open mouths. Hands were searching the wreckage already and they jumped in to help.

All except Johnny who Murdoch sent to check on Maria and the others who had homes at the ranch. He didn't want to go. Didn't want to find anything ...... anything at all, really.

Johnny walked toward the small home of Maria Sanchez, his stride slowing as he neared. The door was open, half the roof gone and what he could see inside was pure carnage.

His stomach cramped as he made himself go inside. "Maria!" he shouted. Por favor, Dios, he thought over and over.

"Maria!" he shouted again and still received no answer. Johnny's panic level was rising quickly. He started looking under overturned furniture, under anything and everything for the woman. His heart racing, he continued calling out to her. His voice growing more shaky by the second.

Then, he thought he heard something. It was soft, very soft, but he could swear he heard it. Johnny went still, willing his heart to stop thundering in his ears so he could hear.

There! There it was again. His eyes went to the door to his right. The bedroom, he knew, and he rushed in, flinging the door open.

He stopped and stared at the overturned bed, the broken window pane, the small dresser that now sat atop the bed.

Johnny threw the dresser aside and went to his knees. Laying flat of his stomach, he peered under the bed. "Dios," he whispered.

"Juanito, gracias, Dios," she breathed out softly.

"Are you hurt, mamacita?"

"I .... I cannot tell, nino," she answered hesitantly.

"I'm gonna lift the bed. You stop me if you feel anything at all, okay?" he explained.

"Si."

Johnny got to his feet and grabbed the side railing of the bed. He lifted slowly, waiting for any protest from the woman but none came. As he got the bed high enough that he could see her himself, he put all his strength into one final shove.

The bed toppled aside and, thankfully, stayed there. Johnny knelt down and looked her over intently.

"Juanito, help me up."

"Not yet, Maria. Let me look," he argued gently.

"Look at what? An old woman undressed?" she protested.

Johnny laughed softly. "You're wearing a nightgown. Don't worry, mamacita, I won't tell," he grinned.

She mumbled something he didn't quite catch and was sure he didn't want to.

*****

Johnny's smile left as he checked her opposite side. Blood stained the hem of her gown and he lifted it gingerly to expose a nasty and deep cut to her left leg.

He swore under his breath then scooped her up in his arms. She wrapped her arms around his neck and laid her head on his chest.

"I've got you. I'm taking you to Teresa. She'll take good care of you," he whispered.

"What was it, nino? Is anyone hurt?" she asked tiredly.

"A tornado. And besides you, I don't know yet. Murdoch and Scott are checking the hands now. As soon as I know you're safe, I'll check the rest. Now, hush and let's get out of here."

She sighed and said no more, closing her eyes and trusting in her chico.

Johnny made haste getting her in the house. Teresa had him take Maria to her room which was virtually untouched and he laid his precious cargo in the bed.

"I'll be back to check on you, mamacita," he said softly, then kissed her cheek.

*****

Johnny went though the rest of the homes finding much of the same destruction as he had with Maria. But, he had found no one else injured. Many stunned, bruised or with minor cuts but that was the extent of it. He started making a list of those homes empty, praying they were all helping out elsewhere.

When he returned to his father and brother, they went over the list and all were accounted for. Murdoch told him there had been two deaths. Two hands that Johnny knew well. There was no time to grieve, though.

With the people accounted for, Murdoch stated, they now needed to check the stock.

Once more, Johnny's heart plunged as he made his way to the barn.

The doors were gone. Simply gone. Not laying nearby or swinging precariously on their hinges, just gone.

He made his way slowly, knowing there could be many dangers in the barn. Much of the tack and equipment used had sharp edges. Stepping on something like that could be disastrous.

Scott followed Johnny, his own heart aching with fear and praying all was well.

At first, they couldn't see the horses they sought. Their stalls appeared empty yet they were still latched securely. Johnny swallowed hard and took a breath. Then, he trudged forward.

Johnny saw the palomino pressing against the back wall. It was clear he'd been trying desperately to get away from the storm. He quickly unlatched the gate and stepped inside.

Next door, Scott was mimicking him, finding the same with Remmie.

Johnny approached and stroked the horse's neck, talking softly to the frightened animal.

"I'm sorry, amigo. I couldn't get to you. I know how scared you were but it's okay now, Barranca. It's all over now."

Barranca nickered and nodded his head a few times and Johnny could tell he was ready. He backed out of the stall as the magnificent beast came forward and shook himself heartily. Johnny laughed a little and stroked his forelock. Then, he realized it was too quiet.

"Scott?"

"Yes."

"Is he okay?"

"I think so."

The uncertainty and tension of his brother's voice gave Johnny pause. He looked into Remmie's stall and found him very much like he had Barranca.

Scott glanced at him. "He doesn't seem to want to come up."

Johnny stepped into the stall and ran his hands over the horse, as much of him as he could reach. "I think he's just plain scared."

Scott nodded and continued to stroke the horse's neck.

Johnny knew this particular animal required a firm hand. A hand his brother usually had no problem giving. But he saw the concern on Scott's face.

"Let me in there, Scott," he said softly.

Scott gave up his place and Johnny placed a gentle hand on the chestnut's face.

"Listen up, Remmie. Time to come away from there now. Look, Barranca's here and doin just fine. So will you. Come on, it's all over now," he spoke almost harshly and Scott cringed a little at the tone.

"So, are you just gonna let Barranca show you up - again? Boy, I tell you what. You are a sorry excuse. Get your behind up here right this minute," Johnny said, grabbing at the horse's mane and tugging.

Remmie snorted and nipped at Johnny's arm but the man didn't flinch. Then, the horse began to stomp a foreleg and Johnny stepped out of the stall with Scott.

Remmie snorted and whinnied and took his time but he stepped up and Scott grinned.

"Stubborn, just like his rider," Johnny remarked.

*****

Before Scott could make a retort, they heard their father calling. Johnny and Scott walked out of the barn and followed Murdoch's eyes to the mountains.

Black clouds swirled in the distance and they couldn't seem to tear away their gaze. The sky looked almost green.

"Again?" Scott asked.

"I'm afraid so, son. They're moving fast, too."

Johnny turned and went back inside, scouring about and finding two halters.

"What are you doing?" Scott asked.

"Giving these two a chance. They'll do better on the open range than trapped in here," he explained as he set to applying the halter to Barranca.

Scott could not disagree and he grabbed the other halter and readied Remmie.

Leading the animals out, Johnny talked continuously to Barranca. "You know what to do, boy. Whatever you need to survive. You hear me? Do whatever you have to do but take care of yourself. I'll find you when it's really over. It don't matter if you head to Texas, I'll find you, okay? Watch out for Remmie, too. You two should stick together. Just like me and Scott," his voice was whispery and trembling as he released his friend.

Barranca stood there for a moment, then turned and looked at Johnny. He pawed at the earth and sensed the imminent danger. Whinnying once, he took off at a run, heading east, away from the storm.

"Stay with Barranca, boy. Help each other," Scott spoke into the horse's ear then let go of the bridle.

Remmie faltered a moment then followed the palomino, he too, sensing the impending weather.

"I know that was hard, boys, but it was the right thing to do," Murdoch said, standing between them with a hand on each shoulder.

"Yeah, too bad we can't go with them," Johnny sighed.

*****

Scott frowned and looked at the mountains again. It couldn't have been more than ten minutes but he could swear those clouds were much closer.

As if concreting his thoughts, the wind began to gust around them, swirling dust all about.

Ducking his head to avoid the dust, Murdoch increased his grip on his son's shoulders and guided them into the barn. They released the rest of the horses quickly.

"Well, what're we gonna do now?" Johnny asked once the barn was empty.

"How many people will the wine cellar hold?" Scott asked.

Murdoch raised a brow in thought. "I'm not sure, son. Maybe forty."

"We can squeeze in the rest," Scott stated.

"It would be the safest place," Murdoch agreed.

"Yep and the most fun," Johnny added.

Murdoch gave him a sidelong look. "Gather everyone up. Let's get inside as soon as possible."

*****

Teresa hurried to gather as much food as she could, mostly dried goods, for their stay in the cellar. No one could predict how long they'd be down there.

Johnny and Scott gathered blankets and lamps and some of the hands carried cots down for the wounded. They removed a large amount of the wine as well to make more room. Murdoch pointed out that the glass bottles were more a hazard than a help.

By the time they were almost ready to go, the storm was very near. Much like it had been the night before when it had awakened Johnny.

Murdoch was convinced they'd done all they could to prepare and he ordered everyone downstairs. Johnny went to Teresa's room and gathered up his most prized possession. He carried Maria down the narrow stairs and laid her gently on a cot in the furthest corner, then sat beside her and explained all that had happened.

Maria grieved for the lost hands and prayed for them all to survive yet another onslaught from Mother Nature.

Scott and Murdoch lit some lamps and tried to make everyone comfortable.

Once Teresa had placed her supplies to her liking, she took a moment to breathe. She glanced over at Johnny and Maria and smiled. Such a beautiful relationship, she thought.

It was only then, with a lamp lit near him and his jacket off, that she noticed his back. Teresa frowned and moved closer, unsure what she was seeing. Then, she gasped.

Johnny turned to look at her with a puzzled expression. "What is it, honey? A spider?" he asked.

"Johnny, your back! Take your shirt off!" she ordered.

He couldn't have been more surprised at that order and he just stared at her.

"Well, take it off," she repeated, hands on hips.

"What's going on?" Murdoch asked.

"Look at his shirt," Teresa pointed.

Murdoch picked up a lamp and shined it above Johnny as he leaned in. "Take it off, son. There's blood on it."

Johnny unbuttoned his shirt, recalling how his back had stung earlier and wondering what they would find.

"Oh, Johnny. You've got cuts all over your back. It must have happened when the tornado first hit. Didn't you feel it, son?"

Johnny shrugged. "No, not really. Not until I went to get Teresa. Then, I just forgot about it."

Teresa sighed and shook her head. "I'll need more light. There may be glass in there."

"It's not a big deal, Teresa," Johnny protested.

"It will be a very big deal if that glass stays in there. Can you say infection?" she shot back sarcastically.

"Nina!" Maria scolded.

Teresa dropped onto a chair next to him and buried her face in her hands.   "I'm sorry, Johnny. I'm so sorry," she quivered.

Johnny pulled her into a hug. "It's okay. We're gonna be okay," he hushed her.

As Teresa worked on Johnny's back, the wind intensified with every passing second. It howled through the house as if the place were gutted.

They could hear the house creaking and groaning under the strain. There was a war going on up there. No one was sure who would win.

*****

Murdoch paced and looked upward then paced some more. His home was being destroyed and this time, there was nothing he could do to stop it.

Scott looked at Johnny and smiled. Johnny nodded his head knowingly.

Scott got up and stood in place as Murdoch turned to pace and nearly ran into him. "Sir, you need to settle down. You're making everyone nervous and we're all nervous enough as it is," he spoke quietly.

Murdoch glanced at his men, their families, the faces of the children and nodded.

Crrraaaccckkk!

Johnny bolted from his seat as Murdoch headed for the stairs, stopped only by Scott's strong grasp.

"What the devil was that?" the rancher demanded.

"I don't know and we aren't going to find out. Not right now, anyway. You can't go up there, Sir," Scott said firmly.

"I want to know what that was," Murdoch insisted.

Johnny came to stand on his other side. "And what're you gonna do about it when you find out? Nothing, that's what. Except maybe get yourself killed. Sit down, Murdoch. Nobody's goin nowhere."

Murdoch's eyes flashed with anger at his younger son but Johnny didn't flinch. He held his old man's stare for several seconds until Murdoch dropped his eyes and slumped his shoulders. Without a word, he turned and went back to his seat.

"This is killing him," Scott said softly.

"Not as much as going up there would. I know he's having a hard time," Johnny said in the same soft tone. "There's nothing we can do, Scott."

"I know. That doesn't mean I have to like it," Scott sighed.

Johnny smiled. "Don't like it all you want, brother."

Scott grabbed him around the neck and realized he was still shirtless. "Get back over there before Teresa's glare drops you where you stand."

*****

For eight hours the storm raged, waxing and waning at times then, seemingly, returning with even more force. They tried to sleep and some were successful. Others played cards or talked quietly.

Johnny nodded off in his chair, still sitting next to Maria. Now bandaged at the deeper cuts, he had donned his shirt against the chill. Leaning back against the wall with his arms tight across his chest and a frown on his face, he looked miserable.

Murdoch got a blanket and draped it over him causing him to stir slightly then resettle. He pushed Johnny's hair from his eyes then went back to his own spot. He didn't miss the looks from some of the hands.

Scott amused himself by looking through the wine selection or what was left of it. He was impressed and wondered why he'd never gotten around to really looking before. He knew many of the labels Murdoch stocked but some surprised him. He wondered why his father had never offered them. They were reportedly quite good.

Teresa alternated between offering food and drink, checking on the wounded and reading a book. That and cringing every time the wind picked up again.

Murdoch checked his timepiece for the hundredth time. It was almost 4 a.m. now. The wind had lulled in the past twenty minutes with no sound of it gusting again. He decided he might have a look now so he inched toward the stairs as he considered his idea.

"Don't."

He turned to see Johnny watching him, his eyes dark with concern.

"It's been quiet for a while," Murdoch stated.

"Yeah, way too quiet," Johnny replied.

The rancher frowned and walked over, sitting next to him. "The quiet before the storm?"

"Somethin like that. Besides, you won't be able to see anything. May as well wait a couple of more hours for dawn."

Murdoch smiled. "I hate waiting."

"Me, too," he sighed and closed his eyes briefly.

They fell quiet for a time and Murdoch kept glancing at him.  

"I'm okay," Johnny said.

"No, you aren't. How's your back?"

He shrugged. "Fine. It was better before Teresa got hold of it though," he grinned.

Murdoch chuckled softly then grew serious. "Those men were your friends."

Johnny swallowed, dropped his eyes and frowned. "Yeah. They were good men."

"And I know you're worried about Barranca," Murdoch went on.

"Not as much as if he was in the barn."

"Did you get a chance to go through your room?"

Johnny glanced at him and shook his head. "No. But, I guess it's just as well. Least, I won't have to do it twice. It was a wreck."

"Scott told me. I'm sorry, son."

"Not like I had much in there anyway. Boston got off pretty lucky, I guess. All his little knickknacks are okay," Johnny grinned again.

"Are you hungry?"

"I could eat," Johnny acknowledged.

Murdoch went to the makeshift pantry and found sandwich makings. He prepared two good sized ones and grabbed a bottle of wine.

"Maybe this will ease our misery," he smiled.

As they settled in to their late night snack, a sound above halted their nourishment. Scott walked to the middle of the room and looked up toward the door.

Then, it hit.

*****

The howling was deafening and those who'd managed to fall asleep were now fully awake. Amid the wind, there was another sound. Johnny frowned. It sounded like .... rocks raining down.

Johnny felt someone grab his hand and he looked at Maria, pure terror in her eyes. He moved to the cot and pulled her into an embrace.

Teresa had moved to his chair and Murdoch held her tightly, trying to alleviate the girl's fear but not very successful.

Everyone hunkered down, some covering their ears from the horrific sounds.

Scott stood mesmerized where he was, unable to tear his eyes from the door at the top of the stairs. Unconsciously, he moved closer to it.

Johnny looked around and saw him move closer; too close and he shouted to his brother. But whether it was the noise that drowned out his voice or Scott simply did not hear him, he made no show of answering his brother.

Johnny was on his feet and moving toward his brother, wondering why his legs felt like stone. When he got close enough, he reached out. His hand touched Scott's arm as the explosion occurred.

Scott was brought quickly from his fascination and felt himself being propelled back. He landed on his back on something soft and wondered what it could be.

He felt strong hands grab him and pull him to his feet as he was nearly flung into a corner.

Scott took hold of himself and turned back in time to see Murdoch grab Johnny in much the same fashion. Lifting his son off the floor and pushing him toward his brother.

And then it fell quiet.

*****

Johnny was on his hands and knees when he stopped and he gave himself a minute to breathe. Then he looked up at Scott staring at him.

Johnny reached out one hand and touched his brother's forehead. "That's gotta hurt."

Scott frowned and placed his own hand where Johnny's had been. Pulling it away, he saw the blood. Then, he felt it and nodded. A warm stream made it's way down the side of his face.

Murdoch grabbed a lamp and began tending Scott's head as Johnny scooted back to lean against the wall.

"Anybody ever tell you not to do that before?"

"Do what?" Scott asked.

"Stand in front of a moving train," Johnny retorted.

Scott glanced at him then winced as Murdoch began cleaning the wound.

"There's something in there. Hold still, son," he commanded in a too soft voice.

Scott looked at his father and saw the deep lines of worry; guilty he'd caused them.

"I'm sorry. I've never been in a tornado before. I guess I didn't know the rules."

Johnny smiled a little. "Same rules as a hurricane or any other storm, brother. Get out of the way."

"I'll remember that," Scott shot with a slight smile.

"Hush! I need to get these splinters out," Murdoch barked. This time, he sounded like himself.

Murdoch wrapped Scott's head with Teresa's help and Johnny retook his place next to Maria, reassuring her that Scott's head was much too hard to be seriously injured.

She scolded him gently but gave thanks it seemed to be over. "It is over, si?"

Johnny took a deep breath and let it out before answering. "Si, pienso tan." (Yes, I think so.)

*****

By six o'clock, Murdoch could wait no longer. He climbed the stairs quietly, not wanting to disturb the others. At the top, he took a deep breath and removed the rest of the door gingerly.

"Careful," Johnny said from the bottom stair as he started up.

The first thing they saw was daylight in front of them. There was no house to block the view, just space. Outside space.

Both men stared in unmitigated horror. The wall that separated the hall from the great room was gone. The great room was gone on two sides. Nothing was left but two walls, one leading to the kitchen, the other housing the fireplace.

Murdoch slumped against the wall behind him. Johnny hoped it would hold his weight. He felt such sympathy for his father. As much as this hurt him, he knew it was much harder on the old man. He built this house almost from scratch.

The rancher pulled himself together and walked toward the kitchen. It, too, was half gone. He simply turned and walked back to the front hall. The staircase had collapsed. That must have been that horrible crack they'd heard early on.

"We should get everyone out of here. It's not safe," Johnny suggested but Murdoch didn't seem to hear him. He sighed and went back to the cellar to arouse his brother.

Johnny warned Scott of the wreckage but nothing could prepare the other man for what he was about to see. Johnny awoke everyone and told them they needed to get out of the house. That it was unstable.

He carried Maria upstairs then she insisted she could walk. He set her down and she limped outside. Teresa was right behind her. Well, he guessed they could console each other. Right now, he was more concerned about his father.

*****

After a few minutes, Frank reappeared in the huge hole that was once a wall. "Mr. Lancer, the bunkhouse is gone and the barn and most of the houses."

Murdoch didn't seem to hear him. Scott acknowledged the man and instructed him to try and salvage as much as they could from the outbuildings.

As they stepped outside, Johnny and Scott looked at each other, both at a loss as to what to say. Scott bent down and picked up a huge hailstone the size of a wagon's hub. Johnny stared at the chunk of ice disbelievingly.

"We'll have to pitch some tents for now. Start rebuilding the barn as soon as possible. Then, we can start on the house," Murdoch said.

"We'll need a wagon if one survived and go to town for supplies," Scott added.

"What if there's no town left?" Johnny mumbled then wished he hadn't.

Murdoch turned and looked at him. "Then we'll order the supplies from somewhere. There was no town when I first came out here. We'll manage."

Johnny nodded, grateful his father hadn't shouted at him anyway. But Murdoch seemed to be working on automatic now. There was no emotion in his voice or his face. There was nothing.

Taking a deep breath, Johnny reminded him of something else. "We can't pitch tents on this muddy ground. And we need to check on the cattle. Some of them might be hurt or caught in the fencing or ... something."

"We'll have to hunt down some horses," Scott said, a lump in his throat as he thought of Remmie.

"Our first priority is shelter. Then the stock," Murdoch stated. "Johnny, find a horse and ride into town. See what damage was done there. They may have been missed completely. If you can, get some lumber and supplies. We'll build platforms to pitch the tents on. That way, we'll at least have a dry floor. Figure out how many tents we'll need. Women and children together. Scott, see what can be salvaged as far as food. We'll slaughter a steer or two if need be. Check with Maria and Teresa. Then, survey the immediate area. See what's passable as far as roads go. Check the stream. See if it has or will flood. Look for anything that may be a threat in the coming days. Have the women start collecting blankets and clothes. They'll have to be washed. It looks like a clear day today."

"What will you be doing, Sir?" Scott asked.

"I'll be checking the house. See what we can use."

"Be careful, old man. Don't want the roof falling in on you," Johnny said with concern.

"What roof?" Murdoch mumbled then walked away.

*****

Green River had not been touched. Val told Johnny they hadn't even had any rain. He was shocked when Johnny told him about the ranch.

Together, they filled a rented wagon over full with supplies. Val offered to ask people to come out and lend a hand but Johnny told him they had plenty of help.

He got two more horses from the livery and tethered them to the back of the wagon then made his way home slowly.

Scott was aghast at the amount of debris. He didn't know where Johnny had found a horse. He walked down to the stream and didn't like what he saw. He sent six men to clear the waterway before it completely ran over its banks.

Teresa gathered the women and set them to work washing and looking for supplies throughout the outbuildings once the men had cleared them as passable.

Murdoch checked his desk and was surprised the locked drawers had survived the onslaught. All the contracts, deeds and other important papers were locked in the safe which also survived virtually unscathed. He went upstairs using the back stairs. There were no front stairs anymore.

He went to his room and stood in the doorway just looking at the mess. Walking in slowly, his eyes wandered until they fell on what he sought. In a corner, covered with mud, were pictures of his wives. Ruined.

He sighed heavily and pushed the dresser out of his way. Then he found the picture of his sons also ruined. He sank to his knees then and thanked the Lord his sons had survived these horrible days.

Teresa stood in the doorway, hesitant to announce herself but finally clearing her throat. "I was looking for more blankets," she explained.

Murdoch nodded and rose to his feet.

"Are you alright?" she asked.

"Yes, darling. I'm fine. Just ..... in shock, I guess."

"We'll get through this, Murdoch," she said, hoping her voice sounded strong.

He smiled and hugged her to him. "I know we will, sweetheart."

*****

When Johnny returned all other chores stopped. Every man was assigned to building platforms and pitching the tents. Johnny told them that, incredibly, Green River had no idea what had happened.

Murdoch oversaw the construction, having the men place the family's tent near the house. Johnny and Scott began the arduous task of checking the cattle. It was nearly noon before they got started and they knew they wouldn't get much accomplished but they had to begin and the sooner the better.

They called it quits an hour before sundown so they could get back before dark. It was hard enough to pick their way through the debris in the light of day.

When they arrived at the hacienda, there were a dozen tents set up. Both of them smiled. At least they'd have a dry place to lay their heads tonight. Muddy, tired and disheartened, they stopped at the stream and washed off as best they could before facing their father.

"This might just kill him off," Johnny said.

"I have more faith in him than that," Scott replied.

Johnny raised a brow. "Did you see him this morning?"

"Yes, of course I did. It's been a huge blow but he's strong."

Johnny shook his head. He hoped his brother was right.

Wonderful smells wafted through the air as they drew nearer. They could see a huge barbeque pit had been dug and a side of beef slowly turned on a spit.

Murdoch met them as they dismounted.

"Looks good. Smells good, too," Johnny smiled.

"Things are coming along. How does it look out there?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny turned away and stared at the sky.

"It doesn't look good, Sir. We've hardly found any cattle alive. But, they're sure to be scattered far and wide. It's just going to take some time, is all."

Murdoch stared at Scott for a beat then nodded. "Tomorrow the men can start helping. They've been able to rustle up a few horses."

Johnny turned back around. "Anyone we know?" he asked hopefully.

"I'm afraid not, son."

He dropped his eyes. "When I told him to go to Texas, I didn't really mean it," he muttered.

*****

Murdoch told the boys that Teresa would be staying in the women's tent. He didn't think it appropriate for her to stay with them under the circumstances. Since the tents were essentially one big room, the brothers could not agree more.

As they sat on make shift benches at makeshift tables and ate their supper, Scott's head jerked up.

"God, I forgot about Jelly!" he exclaimed.

"Don't worry bout it. I sent him a wire while I was in town. Told him what happened and that we were okay," Johnny told them.

"I hope his sister is feeling better," Murdoch frowned.

"I told him not to hurry back. Not much he can do anyway. Of course, you know Jelly," Johnny smiled.

Murdoch smiled wanly and nodded his head. He looked at each of his sons for a long moment, just drinking them in.

"This has been a hard blow, I know. We've lost so much. But, we are all still alive and well and we need to focus on that and be grateful for what we still have," he said quietly.

Scott nodded thoughtfully. "Most of what we lost can be replaced. Except for those men," his voice lowered with the last.

Johnny swallowed hard and it had nothing to do with eating. He lowered his eyes and stared at his plate. "We need to give them a proper burial."

"First thing in the morning, son. I think the ground will be dry enough by then."

"Did they have any family?" Scott asked.

"One of them did. Joe was an orphan and only child. Ross has a brother up in Wyoming. I'll write him a letter and let him know," Johnny answered quietly.

The conversation died after that, no one wanted to discuss any more painful topics.

*****

After the funerals, everyone went back to work. Murdoch was proud of his men. They were all so willing to help out. No one had left though he'd told them he would certainly understand if they wanted to do just that.

Being a cowboy was one thing but this was something completely different.

MicahTownsend arrived shortly after the burials with twenty men and a string of horses, saddled and ready to go.

"Val told me what happened, Murdoch. I'm so sorry," Micah explained as his eyes took in what was once a beautiful home. "We're here to help. I've got a wagon load of lumber coming to rebuild the barn."

Murdoch shook his friends hand. "I don't know what to say, Micah. Thank you."

"Yes, thank you, Mr. Townsend," Scott imparted.

"That's what neighbors are for, Scott," he smiled a little too widely, like a man with a secret.

Scott looked suspiciously at him.

"Where's Johnny?" Micah asked.

"Right here," Johnny replied as he came up behind the man.

"Ah, good. Johnny, Scott, I have something I believe belongs to you," he grinned and turned toward the horses.

It took Johnny half a second to spot him and his heart filled joy; emotions nearly overwhelming him. Scott had the same reaction as he breathed out one name.

"Remmie."

The palomino and chestnut were at the back of the string, standing docile as they waited.

Johnny and Scott both took off and grabbed them, cutting them away from the rest.

Murdoch laughed for the first time since this nightmare began. "Where did you find them?"

"Grazing happily on the side of the road near my place," Micah laughed as well.

*****

With the additional men and horses, Murdoch was able to send more hands out to tend to the cattle and still have plenty to build a new barn. It turned into quite the barn raising as more neighbors showed up with food, tools, supplies and muscle.

Murdoch Lancer had always counted himself lucky for his friends but he was overwhelmed at the show of support.

Evidently, the tornadoes had something against Lancer for none of the surrounding ranches had been hit. Some reported storms and some high winds but nothing comparable to what hit Lancer twice.

The rate of rebuilding was astonishing each day as Scott and Johnny rode home. They too were overcome by the support.

It would still take a long time to rebuild the house and Murdoch had decided it would be the last job to be accomplished. It wasn't the same as building a wooden barn to be sure. He wanted to match the adobe that was left and that took some effort.

Val came out every other day or so and volunteered himself as a gopher, relaying messages from town to Murdoch and vice versa. This freed the rancher a great deal and allowed him to stay home and supervise. He did ride out with his sons one day but his back nearly gave out on him. Scott and Johnny had threatened physical harm if the old man pulled another stunt like that.

Even Sam Jenkins had stopped by to offer what assistance he could and had been given the task of harnessing one Murdoch Lancer. Keeping the rancher from doing any heavy lifting was the job he shared with Teresa and Maria. Probably the most daunting job there was to be had.

He also tended the minor injuries though Teresa had already done a masterful job with those. He had to spend the night so he could get a look at Scott and Johnny who refused to wait for him to arrive that morning.

Things were beginning to shape up around the ranch. Much of the debris had been removed and burned. The cattle had been located for the most part though the loss was devastating. Murdoch had already started thinking about his plans where the cattle were concerned. It would be a huge loss for them this year. He didn't even want to look at the ledgers or crunch the numbers but he had to and he wasn't allowed to do much else other than supervise.

*****

Living in such close proximity was bound to start wearing on their nerves. Soon, Scott and Johnny had gone to sniping at each other. Not much, just enough to keep the tension in the tent at a higher level.

Murdoch wasn't sure what to do about it. So far, nothing truly damaging had been said. He knew it was inevitable, though and he braced himself every night for an explosion between the brothers.

It was one thing to be close and be friends but they were and always would be very different. Two distinct and strong personalities with just as strong opinions and convictions. And, very different ways of living.

Scott kept his area of the tent extremely tidy. Murdoch was not a slob but he wasn't that careful with his things. Johnny was maybe a step below his father's tidiness. He tended to pile his things up in one spot and rummage through them to find whatever he wanted or needed at the moment.

This wore on Scott's nerves for some reason. He couldn't understand why Johnny didn't just fold his things up so he could find them easily. But every morning found his brother searching for clothes, unable to distinguish clean from dirty without a quick whiff.

After an uncomfortably hot night spent stewing in their own sweat in the tent, Scott was in a foul mood. He watched with a disgusted grimace as Johnny went through this morning ritual.

"Must you do that?" he asked.

Johnny glanced over and realized Scott was talking to him. "Do what?"

"That! Why can't you keep your clothes separate? At least have two piles," he sniped.

Johnny turned to look at him, down on one knee as he looked for a shirt. "Is there some reason that's any of your business?" he asked with equal sarcasm.

"As long as we are forced to live in this tent together, yes it is. I would think you could at least be cognizant of the other two people who have to live here."

Johnny dropped the shirt dangling from his fingers and turned, sitting cross-legged in front of his brother. "Oh, you mean like how I have to put up with you stinkin up the place with that cologne of yours?"

"Stink? I will have you know this cologne costs twenty dollars a bottle!" Scott retorted.

"Yeah? You been robbed," Johnny deadpanned.

"That's enough, boys," Murdoch intervened.

"Tell Mr. Clean. I was minding my own business," Johnny snipped.

"I'm telling both of you!" Murdoch said, raising his voice.

Johnny seethed but bit his tongue as did Scott - for now.

*****

That evening, the brothers were both quiet over dinner. Murdoch surmised they were still upset. Childish! He wouldn't have it. That's all. They had enough to deal with without going at each other.

Scott took up his book once they retired to the tent. There wasn't much else to do at the end of the day. They were mostly too tired to

do anything anyway.

Johnny cleaned his gun for the millionth time. Gonna rub the damned handle off if I keep this up, he thought.

Murdoch continued his self-inflicted torture of crunching numbers. He had not asked for any help and both young men were grateful.

Johnny looked up at the pile of clothes near his bedroll and smiled. His mind imagined a little Scott neatly folding his clothes and putting them away in their designated drawers. Probably separating them by color. Then, he thought that was wrong. Scott's maid would have done those things.

Scott would have just checked behind her and made sure she did it right then scolded her if not. Johnny shook his head. Not very charitable thoughts, Lancer. Not nice at all.

"If you've nothing to do, Johnny, why don't you do something with that," Scott said, pointing to the pile.

Johnny glared at him. "Why don't you...."

"Boys," Murdoch said parentally.

"Smell your perfume," Johnny finished with a sarcastic grin.

Scott returned the grin in like and Murdoch sighed.

"Why does it bother you so much?" Johnny asked in a sincere tone.

Scott put down the book and regarded him. "It's just .... disgusting, Johnny. Your room never looked like that."

"My room had a dresser in it, Scott. And a bed," he mumbled the last.

Scott fell quiet after that and dropped his eyes with a slight nod.

Two weeks had passed and the additional help had been thanked profusely. But, Murdoch had told them there was no further need. All of the outbuildings had been rebuilt. The livestock had been rounded up. All that was left was the estancia and they had to wait for the adobe before beginning that chore.

The next day was to prove the hardest for the family. They planned on going through the house room by room and checking all the damage. A thorough assessment of what had been lost would be done. What could be replaced would be replaced.

No one expected it to be easy. There was still danger as the roof especially wasn't safe. Johnny planned on checking that first thing. He would let them know which rooms were off limits until he could remove the damaged tiles.

That evening was a quiet one. The only ones left in a tent were the Lancers. Maria had Teresa stay with her in her newly built home so there was no need for the rest of the tents. They had been taken down that day.

Scott read a book as Murdoch sat at a small writing table and looked over the ledgers. Johnny didn't feel like reading and he sure didn't want to volunteer to help the old man. He sat on his bedroll and picked his hands.

It's not like it's that important, ya know. You got your family safe and sound. Barranca's in his brand new stall and loving it. You found out just how many friends this family has. So why are you brooding over it? These thoughts went through Johnny's mind over and over. It's just a stupid box full of stupid little trinkets. No one else would give two cents for anything in there. Stop being so selfish.

But he couldn't help it. It wasn't much but it was all he had. A few mementos to show for his life. Treasures, Teresa had called them though she knew nothing of what they were. She only knew Johnny kept something in that box on his dresser. Something that meant a great deal to him. And those things did mean a great deal to him. They couldn't be replaced, either.

Lancer, you're damned lucky to be alive and you know it. Stop bellyachin over stuff. Murdoch ain't been cryin over that ship he loved so much. Scott hasn't said a word about all his doodads and he had a lot of them. Probably things he can't replace either. Nope, you're the only one acting like a baby. So, just stop it. He sighed aloud.

"Problem, brother?" Scott asked, looking up from his book.

Johnny looked up with a puzzled expression.

"You just sighed like the world was over," Scott explained with a smile.

Johnny smiled back. "Did I? No, no problem. Hey, Barranca and Remmie really liked their new stalls, huh?"

Scott grinned widely. "Yes, they did seem very content."

"Spoiled rotten. I don't believe there are any two horses more spoiled than those two," Murdoch groused affectionately.

"Remmie is not spoiled, believe me," Scott protested.

"Of course he isn't, son. He just does what he wants when he wants and you let him," Murdoch came back, trying to keep a smile from his face.

"Well, Remmie is spoiled but Barranca is just plain smart," Johnny piped in.

"Oh, please. That palomino has you eating out of his hand, brother, and you know it."

Johnny cocked a brow. "Does Remmie come when you call him? Does he go where you tell him to go?"

Scott cocked a brow of his own. "Was Barranca found in Texas?"

The brothers eyed each other for a beat then burst out laughing.

Murdoch smiled, grateful the tension seemed to be gone between his sons now.

*****

"Be careful!" Murdoch admonished for the hundredth time.

"It'd be a lot easier if you'd stop yellin at me!" Johnny shot back from the roof.

Murdoch clamped his mouth shut and watched as Johnny moved slowly about the roof, checking every inch.

"This is going to take all day," he griped.

"I can do the other side," Scott offered.

"No, one of you up there is more than enough, thank you," Murdoch sighed.

Scott shook his head at this and watched his brother, sure he wouldn't breathe again until Johnny came down.

"What a mess!" Johnny mumbled to himself. He was sure there wasn't a single section of the roof not damaged to some extent. But as he got near the back of the house, it didn't look as bad. Still, there were large dents and pieces of tile missing. He guessed that was caused by the hail. He'd never seen anything that big drop out of the sky before.

He climbed up onto the second story and started again, shaking his head at the condition of the tiles. The east side, his side, was unsalvageable. The west side had not taken the brunt of the storm so it wasn't nearly as bad. "I'm movin," he muttered.

He figured they could repair the west side easily. Just a few tiles here and there. The north and south faces were the worse for wear but it was the east that was hardest hit. Figures, he thought.

He scrambled down an hour later, hearing the caught breaths of his family as he made his way to the ground. Johnny smiled a little. As he got to the lower rungs of the ladder, he felt hands grab his waist and hold on until he was on solid ground.

"Thanks," he said to Murdoch.

"Well?" Scott asked.

Johnny sighed. "Well, I'm moving to the other side of the house, brother. It just needs a few tiles. North and south are gonna take some work but the east side is gone."

Murdoch ran a hand through his hair and sighed himself. "Well, figure out how much you'll need then go to town and get it."

"Might have to order it," Johnny said.

"Fine."

"When will the adobe be here?" Scott asked.

"I'm not sure. Javier is making it as fast as he can but it's not a quick process. Besides, I'm not even sure how much we'll need," Murdoch explained.

"Would it be out of the question to rebuild with wood?" Scott asked.

Johnny ducked his head and turned away and Murdoch stared his elder son down. "Yes."

Before Scott could ask the inevitable why, Johnny jumped in. "We're gonna have to check the walls, make sure they didn't get too wet. It'll crumble like dried leaves. Scott, just use a hammer and tap it. If it falls apart, well, it'll be pretty obvious."

Scott nodded his head and realized what his brother had done. For some reason he could not fathom, Murdoch was intent on adobe brick.

So they set about checking the outside of the house first. It turned out to be another daunting chore. Johnny climbed the outside stairs and tapped along the wall, getting covered in dust along the way.

They were at it all day, stopping only for lunch. They never did make it inside the house as the sun set on them.

That evening, Scott and Johnny stood outside at the corral, watching the stars.

"Why?" Scott asked.

"Well, it's the style here and to replace it with wood would mean rebuilding the house, for one thing. Plus, the old man built this place, Scott. Most of it, anyway. You know how hard this has been on him even if he don't show it. He wants everything to be exactly like it was," Johnny explained in a quiet voice.

"But, it won't be. It will never be the same," Scott argued gently.

"I know that and he probably does, too. Just let him have his way, okay?"

Scott chortled a bit. "Like I could stop him?"

*****

The next morning they finally ventured inside. Checking the walls inside the house was worse than outside. Moving the wreckage from one spot to the other took up most of their time.

Eventually, they made it upstairs and started in the hallway. Johnny took a deep breath and entered his room for the first time in weeks. It was even worse now than the last time he'd seen it.

The bed was history. It couldn't be repaired. Nor could the furniture but he didn't really care about that. He picked up broken pieces and threw them out the window. Then, he saw it. The box.

The lid was open and he picked it up carefully. Inside, some items were missing. He pulled out what was there and determined what wasn't, then replaced the items and closed the lid. He then began picking through the debris, trying to find the rest of it. A needle in a haystack, he thought.

Two items were missing. His medallion of Saint Jude and his mother's wedding band. Both small and hard to find. Johnny got down on his knees and sifted through the dirt and glass gingerly.

He located the medallion and put it around his neck, then went back to his search. He knew he should be doing something else but he wanted that ring. Then, he spied it near the middle of the room. There was a rather large splinter of wood on top of it which is why he hadn't seen it before.

As he made his way toward it, he heard the floor creak underneath him. He grabbed the ring while wondering if Scott had checked the ceiling below. His room was directly over the one next to Teresa. She used that room for sewing and making clothes.

As he was thinking about this, the floor buckled and gave way. Johnny had nothing to grab hold of. Nothing to stop his fall and he crashed through the floor with a thunderous sound.

*****

Scott and Murdoch ran out of their rooms and stared at each other. The thought hit them simultaneously. Johnny!

Scott crossed the hall and pushed the door open further. What he saw made his heart stop. He moved gingerly to the gaping hole in the floor and looked down.

"Oh, God!" he exclaimed and took off for the back stairs.

Murdoch didn't have to look. He already knew what had happened and he was hot on Scott's heels.

They burst through the door and knelt beside Johnny. He was lying at an odd angle. His body twisted in the opposite direction from the waist down. Scott placed a finger on his neck and sighed relief.

"I'll send for Sam," Scott breathed and took off.

Murdoch stroked Johnny's cheek, calling his name but he got no response. Please, son. We've survived so much. Not now. Please, God, not now, he prayed.

Scott returned with Teresa in tow but there was nothing they could do at the moment. They all knew they couldn't move him. Not in the position he was in. They had to wait for Sam to make that decision.

Murdoch took his right hand which was clenched in a fist. He pried the fingers open and heard the soft tinkle as the metal fell to the floor. Murdoch picked up the object and recognized it immediately. He closed his eyes and bowed his head.

"What is it, Sir?" Scott asked, seeing his father's obvious distress.

"Maria's wedding band," he choked out.

Scott didn't know what to say so he reached out and squeezed his father's arm.

*****

Sam, thankfully, had already been on his way to the ranch when the hand caught up to him. He slapped the reins and hurried on his way at the news. He was surprised something like this hadn't happened earlier. They'd all been pretty lucky during the clean-up in his mind.

What he saw when he arrived on the scene made him sick. Scott moved away to allow him access and he began a thorough examination, careful not to move Johnny.

"Scott, we'll need a board wide enough to lay him on and some men to help," he finally said.

Scott was gone in an instant.

"Sam?" Murdoch asked.

"Well, he has a bad concussion. I can't feel any broken bones but I don't like the way he landed. I won't know about his spine until he wakes up but once we get him in a bed, I don't want him moved. Not one inch. He has to stay perfectly still," the doctor pronounced.

Murdoch looked at the man doubtfully.

"I mean it, Murdoch. Not an inch. We'll have to watch him carefully. He can't be left alone for a minute. Once he wakes up and is coherent, I'll explain it to him."

Scott returned with the plank and three men. Following Sam's instructions to the letter, they moved Johnny onto the board and carried him out of the house. Maria was waiting to usher them to her home. There was no point in arguing with the woman. No way could Johnny stay in the tent. She only had the one bedroom but she quickly gave it up to her nino.

*****

Five hours passed without so much as a flinch from Johnny. Murdoch sat beside him, staring at the floor. He clenched his fists and realized he was still holding the ring. He examined it, knowing it so well. Feelings of pain, loss and anger assaulted him as he held the metal.

Why did Johnny have it? Why wasn't it buried with her? He couldn't imagine his son taking it from her finger. Then again, Murdoch was sure she didn't wear it. He supposed Johnny found it tucked away someplace and wanted a keepsake.

A soft sigh beside him brought him to the present and he leaned in as Johnny opened his eyes.

"Hi, son."

"Hey," Johnny mumbled.

Murdoch laid a hand on his arm. "How do you feel?"

Johnny frowned and took a moment to answer honestly. "My head hurts; back, too."

"You had quite a fall."

Johnny sighed and recalled the event with some chagrin. "Yeah."

"Do you hurt anywhere else?" Murdoch asked, his heart thumping wildly as he awaited the answer.

Johnny smiled a little. "Yeah, everywhere. My left knee is achin pretty bad. Where am I?"

"Maria's. She wouldn't have anything else," Murdoch smiled.

Johnny tried to laugh but it was a lost cause with his head aching so.

Murdoch hung his head and thanked the Lord his son could feel his knee. "Sam said not to move, not at all."

"What do you mean, not at all?" Johnny asked, fear in his eyes.

"Easy, son. Take it easy. It's just that you twisted your back pretty badly and he doesn't want you moving until he's checked you out. Which he's about to do because I'm going to get him. Promise me you won't try to move," Murdoch sat where he was until Johnny answered him.

Taking a fortifying breath, Johnny nodded. "I promise. Just tell him to hurry."

*****

Sam poked and prodded until Johnny was ready to do some poking of his own. Just as he'd reached his limit, Sam stopped.

"Well, you haven't lost any feeling anywhere and I can't feel any breaks but I'm inclined to err on the side of caution," Sam said as he sat in the chair beside the bed.

"What does that mean?" Johnny asked, knowing he would not like the answer.

Blowing out a breath and steeling himself for a fight, Sam leveled his gaze on Johnny's. "It means, when you fell, your body was twisted," he used his hands to show Johnny how he'd lain. "Even though there's no sign of paralysis now and no swelling, I don't want to take any chances, Johnny. I want you in this bed and completely still for one week. Then" he raised his hand to stop Johnny when he saw the young man open his mouth, "then, another week of complete bedrest. After that, we'll see."

"We'll see? We'll see?! Uh, uh. No way, Sam. I can't stay in bed for two weeks. There's too much left to do. The house hasn't been touched. We got adobe and tiles coming and..."

"That's enough, John."

The stern voice cut through Johnny's rebuttal like a knife through butter. He closed his mouth and stared at his father.

"You will do exactly what Sam says. Do I make myself clear?"

"Murdoch..."

"DO I make myself clear, young man?" Murdoch interrupted him once more, stepping into the room and towering over his son.

Johnny frowned and shot fire from his eyes but he only nodded his head at the question.

"Good. Now, are you hungry?" Murdoch said, not allowing the smile his face wanted to make.

Johnny swallowed and nodded again then turned his head away from them both.

Sam rolled his eyes and stood. "I'll tell Teresa to feed him. Thank you, Murdoch," he patted the other man's arm as he passed.

Murdoch took up the seat and watched Johnny ignore him. Since his son wasn't looking at him, he allowed the smile now, albeit briefly. He knew this would be near torture for Johnny. But the alternative was unthinkable. He decided to try and get through.

"You know Sam wouldn't make you do this if he didn't think it was necessary," he began. Getting no response and not expecting any, he went on. "Would you rather be an invalid the rest of your life?"

Johnny still would not answer him.

"Son, I found something I believe belongs to you."

That caused Johnny to turn and look at his father questioningly.

Murdoch held his folded hand up and Johnny cupped his palm as the rancher dropped the object in his hand. He looked at it then closed his eyes and his fist.

"Thank you," he whispered.

"You're welcome. Was that why you went in your room when you knew it wasn't safe?"

"I didn't know the floor would give out. I thought Scott had already checked the ceiling below," he explained.

Murdoch nodded. "Where did she, um, keep it?"

Johnny looked puzzled for a moment until Murdoch glanced at his clenched fist. "Right where you put it. She always wore it."

Murdoch felt his gut clench but he tried to hold his anger. He was partially successful. "You took it off her dead hand?" he asked gruffly.

Johnny turned away again and didn't speak for long moments. "I knew it wouldn't make it to the grave with her. Someone would steal it. Besides, it's all I had...." he trailed off, his voice giving out on him.

Murdoch swallowed hard, his throat dry as the desert suddenly. "I'm sorry, son."

"De nada."

"Excuse me but I heard someone was hungry?" Teresa asked airily as she entered with a tray.

"Don't know how I'm supposed to eat it if I can't move," Johnny shot.

"I'll be feeding you," Murdoch stated.

Johnny turned and glared at him, his eyes dropping in humiliation as he glanced at Teresa.

She stood there in uncertainty for a moment, then passed the tray to Murdoch and left the room quickly.

Murdoch unfolded the napkin and placed it on Johnny's chest as he prepared the tray.

"I ain't hungry now," he mumbled.

"You have to eat eventually, son. This is the only way it's going to happen. I know it's embarrassing and I'm sorry about that but it is necessary. Besides, I've fed you before," Murdoch said.

Johnny looked at him and Murdoch was caught off guard by the pain he saw in the blue depths.

"What?" he asked.

"Nothin. Let's just get it done," Johnny mumbled.

It wasn't pretty and fairly messy but Murdoch managed to get more in Johnny than on him. It was obvious the young man was growing quite fatigued.

"That's enough," Johnny breathed out, not sure he could stand another second of this.

Murdoch nodded and placed the tray on the dresser then returned to his seat.

"I'm tired."

"Get some sleep, son. It's the best thing for you," the rancher smiled.

*****

The next time Johnny awoke, Scott was sitting beside him reading.

"You still reading that book?" he asked with amusement.

Scott looked up and smiled. "No, Mr. Townsend sent some over. How do you feel?"

"I hurt," he clipped.

"I have the cure," Scott said, lifting the brown bottle and waving it in front of Johnny. But the younger man turned up his nose at it.

Scott shrugged and set it down. "Your choice, brother. Suffer away," he said nonchalantly.

Johnny looked at him and grinned. "Nice try, Boston."

Scott cocked his head to one side in consideration. "It's been a while since you've called me that."

"Yeah?" Johnny sighed tiredly. Then he grimaced.


"Maybe you should reconsider the laudanum?"

"It ain't that," he muttered, his cheeks flaring.

Scott ahhh'd and nodded then got up and closed the door tightly. He then retrieved a metal pan from beneath the bed.

"What the hell is that?" Johnny asked, wide-eyed.

"It's called a bedpan and Sam brought it. It's for you to ..... you know," Scott said, equally embarrassed now. He cleared his throat and went on. "Sam showed us how to turn you and .... place it."

"Us? Who exactly did he show?" Johnny asked.

"Only Murdoch and me, I swear," Scott answered quickly. "It's the only way, Johnny."

Closing his eyes and deciding how desperate he was, Johnny finally just nodded. Scott went about the chore as quickly as possible.

Once the equipment was in place, Scott stood there.

"I don't need an audience, Scott!"

"Oh, right. Sorry. I'll just be right outside the door. And Johnny, call me or this will be the last privacy you have for two weeks," he pointed out firmly.

*****

After suffering the ultimate indignity of his life, Johnny was not in the mood to chat. Scott wasn't sure how to make his brother feel better; wasn't sure there was a way. He knew had he been in the same position, he may have just died from the embarrassment.

Then Scott remembered something that might take Johnny's mind off things and he disappeared for half a second. Returning, he handed Johnny the small box from his room.

"I found this near you on the floor. I know it's yours. Thought you might like it back," he explained.

Johnny took the box but he didn't open it. He laid it beside him on the bed and uttered a soft 'thanks'.

Scott sighed softly. "Johnny, I'm sorry. I don't know what to say to you. You're going to have to accept what's happened and deal with it, brother. Two weeks beats the hell out of forever."

"That's real easy to say, Scott, and it's the truth. But, it don't make it any easier. Try it sometime," Johnny sneered.

"What's all this caterwallin about? I know I didn't just hear Johnny Lancer makin a ass outta hisself!"

"Jelly!" Johnny exclaimed, his eyes lighting with happiness for the first time in a long time.

"Course, it's me. Who'd ya think it was, the Easter bunny?" Jelly groused then grinned.

He was beside the bed in a second, Scott having made way for him to sit. A grin reached across the elder son's face for what seemed a mile.

"How're ya doin, Johnny? Murdoch done tole me all what happened. Don't you worry none, ya hear? Ole Jelly'll have ya right as rain in no time flat," the old man rambled.

"I'm okay, Jelly. Just stuck here, is all. How's your sister?" Johnny asked.

"Now, didn't I just this minute tell you not ta worry none bout nothin? Stop askin questions and answer a few. Are ya hurtin?" Jelly retorted.

Johnny laughed at the cantankerous old man but Scott noticed how quickly Jelly had gotten past his brother's question. He decided everything was not well with their beloved handyman.

Scott saw Murdoch standing in the doorway with a sad look. He walked over and left the room with his father unnoticed by the two friends talking it up.

"Jelly's sister died last week. He headed home the day after the funeral," Murdoch explained.

Scott nodded and dropped his head. He had nothing to say.

"Jelly doesn't want Johnny to know. Once he got a look at the house and I told him about Johnny, he geared himself up. You know what he's like," Murdoch continued.

"Yes, I do. Johnny won't like this. When he does find out he's going to be angry," Scott replied.

Murdoch shook his head. "This is how Jelly wants it, son. I have to honor his wishes."

Jelly was a godsend to the family. He spent more hours with Johnny during the day than anyone. Then, he would nap and help out with the house then sit with Johnny again for a few hours.

It was a balm to the old man having someone to care for. He didn't have to think about his grief and Johnny kept him laughing much of the time. He took over all the bathing and grooming chores and Johnny didn't seem to mind.

Scott thought it curious that his brother was more comfortable with Jelly helping him with these most private rituals than his family. But, he didn't openly question it. He was just glad Jelly was back. He'd tried to talk to the old man about his loss but Jelly would simply say he had more important matters to attend, meaning Johnny.

Scott's heart ached for his friend. He wasn't so sure burying his feelings was the right way for Jelly to deal with this but it wasn't his place to tell anyone how to grieve.

As much of a help as Jelly was, Johnny still had a hard time staying still and sometimes, he'd go to that dark place. Scott recognized the signs of it happening and spoke with the family. Jelly told them not to worry, he'd make sure Johnny's spirits were kept up. Both Lancer men knew that was a lot of high talk. When Johnny started to be depressed, nothing much was going to stop it.

The days were busy for everyone else. The tiles had arrived and roof repairs were ongoing. Bricks were starting to come in too and they knew it would be a long process. Plus keeping up with the daily running of the ranch. Murdoch was exhausted most evenings. He visited Johnny less and less, allowing Jelly to take over his fatherly duties. He knew it was wrong but most evenings found him asleep right after supper.

Scott was more resilient and he spent at least an hour with his brother after supper each night. He explained Murdoch's absence and Johnny worried about their father. Scott's insistence that the man would be alright did nothing to assuage that concern.

*****

One week later, Sam arrived to examine Johnny again. He'd been pleasantly surprised he hadn't been called back to the ranch before this. Obviously, someone was sitting on his irascible patient.

When he walked in the room and saw Jelly, he actually smiled.

"Jellifer, welcome back. I didn't know you were home."

"Cain't much call it a home right now, Doc. But, I'm here," Jelly grumbled.

"Well, I'm sure someone is glad to see you, aren't they?" Sam teased.

Jelly huffed and stood back while Sam started his exam.

"Where's Murdoch?" the doctor asked.

"Off workin himself to death, Doc. You need to talk to him. He's gonna kill himself," Johnny replied.

Sam heard the worry and saw it in his eyes and nodded. "I will, Johnny. As for you, let's see if you can sit up."

Johnny's eyes widened and a smile exploded on his face.

"Wait a minute, now. We'll need help. Jelly, your assistance, please," Sam warned.

With the help of both of them, Johnny sat up in bed. He was more sore than he could ever recall being and his back was numb. The air hitting it caused goosebumps and he shivered at the change in temperature. He was breathing hard by the time they finished and he laid his head back against the propped up pillows.

"He okay?" Jelly asked.

"Just give him a minute, Jelly. Being immobile takes a lot out of you," Sam explained.

"No kiddin," Johnny mumbled and opened his eyes. "Feels a lot better though. How about getting out of this bed?"

Sam chuckled. "I already told you that won't be happening. Now, you're doing very well, Johnny. You can turn in the bed and sit up for short periods of no more than an hour at a time. But, you will stay in that bed and rest."

"That's all I've done is rest! Sam, I'm fine, really," he protested.

"And you want to stay that way, do you not?" At the nod, he continued. "Then do as I say, Johnny. I refuse to have to bring a wheelchair out here. Understand?"

Johnny looked up at him. "Okay, I get the point."

"Good. Now, let someone help you when you move, turn or sit up. I'm going to find that pig-headed father of yours."

*****

Sam found Murdoch standing by the corral talking to a hand. Even from a profile, Sam could see the man was haggard. Done in, he thought.

As he neared, the hand left and Murdoch turned to him.

"How is he?"

"Better. He can move about in bed with help and sit up for an hour at a time with help," Sam emphasized.

Murdoch sighed and nodded.

"Now, I understand you are about ready to collapse," Sam stated bluntly.

Murdoch looked at him with surprise.

"Don't give me that look, Murdoch Lancer. Even if Johnny hadn't said something, I would have seen it right away. You are exhausted."

"I guess I am, Sam. But no more so than any of these men."

"These younger men? Yes, I'm sure they are all under a lot of pressure. None as much as you, my friend. Except maybe Scott and he's able to bounce back easier."


"I am not old!" Murdoch argued.

Sam smiled. "No, you aren't. Would you like to be? Because if you would, then you need to slow down. You're killing yourself, Murdoch and I mean that literally."

Scott came to a stop as he approached from behind them. He'd heard Sam's warning and he hitched in a breath.

"Do you want Johnny's first act out of that bed to be to bury his father? Do you want to leave all this burden on Scott's shoulders while his brother recovers? And yes, I am trying to scare you. Scare some sense into you," Sam said adamantly.

Murdoch fumed for a moment. "What do you expect me to do? The ranch won't run itself."

"I expect you to let me handle things, Sir," Scott spoke up.

They both turned at his statement and Sam smiled.

"We're both needed, son."

"Yes, but you take more on yourself than is necessary, Murdoch. Most of what you do I can do just as well. Anything I can't handle I can bring to you. Besides, you've been completely ignoring Johnny for days now."

"Ignoring him?" Sam asked.

"He's been so exhausted at night, he can't stay awake long enough to even say hello to Johnny," Scott told.

"Well, that's just great! Not only are you jeopardizing your own health but Johnny's recovery as well. That boy needs to see his father. Needs your strength, Murdoch. Jelly can't play daddy to him forever!" Sam said, his voice rising in anger.

"That is not what is happening!" Murdoch barked.

"Yes, Sir, that is exactly what is happening," Scott shot back. Forcing himself to calm, Scott lowered his voice. "I know you hate to give up control and we all know you call the tune, but right now, you're needed elsewhere. Right now, you are very near collapsing. How will that look to the men?"

Murdoch opened his mouth, then closed it for a moment. "What am I supposed to do then? Sit in a rocking chair and watch the world go by?" he asked sarcastically.

Scott smiled a little at that ridiculous idea. "No, Sir. Just let me take care of the day to day. Spend some time with Johnny. There will never be a better time to talk to him about ..... anything. He can't walk away from you," he grinned.

Murdoch wasn't sure he wanted to talk to Johnny about "anything", knowing what Scott meant. But as he took in the two visages before him, he was suddenly sure he was not going to win this battle.

Clenching his jaw, his managed to sputter out "fine" and walked off toward Maria's.

*****

Johnny didn't try to show his surprise when Murdoch walked into his room. "What are you doin here?"

Murdoch stopped halfway in. "Is there some reason I shouldn't be?"

Johnny shrugged and glanced at Jelly. "Figured you were too busy."

Murdoch sighed. "Well, I guess Scott was right - again. I have been ignoring you."

Johnny smiled a little but it wasn't heartfelt. "It's okay."

"No, it ain't. And it's high time ya figured it out, too, Boss," Jelly intervened.

"Jelly, I've already heard it from Sam and Scott. I get the message," Murdoch groused a little.

"Hmmph! Well, I reckon I'll go do some work of my own then." Jelly puffed out his chest and left them, closing the door behind him.

"I am sorry, Johnny. I've just been so busy," Murdoch said as he sat down.

"I know. How's the house coming?"

"Slowly. There was so much damage," Murdoch shook his head.

"Kind of almost makes you want to tear it down and start over. Almost," Johnny grinned a little.

Murdoch smiled. "Almost," he raised a brow. "I take it you said something to Scott about that idea of his to rebuild with wood?"

Johnny laughed. "Yeah, I explained it to him."

"How are you feeling, son?"

"I'm fine and I mean it. Sam's bein ornery, that's all," he grumbled.

"Ah, Sam's being ornery. I see," Murdoch said as he swiped the side of his nose. "You, on the other hand, have been the model patient."

"I have. Ask Jelly. I ain't hardly complained at all. Now, Murdoch, you have got to admit you haven't heard a word from this room."

Raising a hand, Murdoch surrendered. "You're right, you're right. I'm proud of you, son."

"One more week," Johnny sighed after a few moments of silence.

"It's not as long as it seems. Jelly's been good for you."

Johnny smiled fondly. "Yeah, the old geezer gets under your skin."

Murdoch watched him for a few minutes then made a decision. "Son, Jelly didn't want me to say anything and, at the time, I agreed. You were too sick then. But, well, you're much better and I think you should know."

Johnny watched his father hesitate. "What is it?"

"His sister died."

Johnny stared at him for long moments, then blinked several times and dropped his head. "When?"

"He buried her the day before he left to come home."

"I see," he whispered. "Thanks for telling me."

Murdoch reached out and took hold of his arm. "Are you alright?"

Johnny looked up then rested his head back against the pillows. "Yeah. Wish I'd known though."

"I think taking care of you has been the best thing for him. It's helped him get through the loss."

Johnny snorted softly. "You really believe that? Maybe it just gave him an excuse not to think about it."

"I thought that at first but he really seems to be doing better now," Murdoch replied.

"I hope so," Johnny mumbled.

Murdoch's eyes strayed away and fell on the small box on the bedside table. He picked it up. "What's this?"

Johnny looked over and shrugged. "Nothing. Just a box."

Murdoch started to lift the lid then found the box snatched from his hand.

"That doesn't mean you can pilfer through it," Johnny spat.

With eyebrow raised in surprise, Murdoch replied calmly. "You said it was nothing."

Twitching his mouth, Johnny acknowledged he had indeed said that. "It's just a few things I've kept."

"Things you don't want to share?" Murdoch asked gently.

Johnny nodded his head. "This was one of them," he said, holding up his right hand to show the ring on his pinky. "I used to wear it around my neck but one day I just put it away."

"Why?"

Johnny shrugged, his eyes lowered to the box as his fingers swept across it. "I don't know. Guess I didn't need it anymore."

"When was that?" Murdoch pressed.

Johnny sighed and looked up at him. "Last year."

"I never noticed it around your neck before."

"It was there under this medallion," he said, hooking a finger under the chain and raising it for Murdoch to see.

He leaned in and cradled the medallion in his hand. "Saint Jude."

"Yeah. Patron saint of lost causes," Johnny grinned.

Murdoch was not amused. "Is that what you think you are?" he asked a bit angrily.

"Not anymore," Johnny breathed out.

Murdoch nodded. "What else do you have in there?" he asked, tossing his head toward the box.

Johnny eyed him and considered it then shrugged and opened the box. "A picture of my mother," he pulled it out and showed the man.

Murdoch swallowed hard. "When was this taken?"

"I don't remember. I was pretty little, I think. This," he hesitated and frowned. "I don't know where I got this but I've always had it. Figured it must mean somethin," he explained as he pulled the figurine out.

Murdoch inhaled sharply and Johnny looked up at him. He took the toy and fingered it lovingly, a smile coming to his eyes.

"I made this for you," Murdoch explained.

Johnny took it back and studied the carved horse. "Good work," he commented.

"Thank you," Murdoch mumbled, unable to hide the disappointment from his voice. Obviously, the toy meant nothing to his son, nor the fact it had been he who had made it.

But Johnny was smiling and looking at the horse still. "His name's Barranca," he laughed.

Murdoch chuckled. "I see. So we have Barranca junior in the barn."

"Yeah, but don't tell him. He'll get jealous," Johnny grinned. The smile slid off his face and he fell serious. "It really is good work. You should carve more often."

"Thank you, son. Not something I have much time for these days."

"But, you had time then?" Johnny asked disbelievingly.

"Well, I had a reason to make time then."

Johnny smiled softly. "Thank you."

*****

Murdoch kept looking at the box and biting his lip. Johnny could tell he wanted to ask but wouldn't. He almost laughed aloud.

"There's one more thing in here," he said and hesitantly pulled out the object.

Murdoch took it and frowned. "I don't understand. An ace of spades?"

"With a bullet hole in the center," Johnny added.

"I see that but why?"

Sighing, he explained. "Two reasons. It's the first time I hit dead center with a gun. And it was when I decided I was ready."

Murdoch shook his head. "Ready for what?"

Johnny wanted to roll his eyes so badly. Sometimes, the old man could be dense. "Ready to be Johnny Madrid but more importantly, ready to kill the son of a bitch that killed my mother." His voice grew hard and dangerous as he spoke.

Murdoch looked into his eyes and saw the anger that had fueled his son's very survival for so many years. "And maybe ready to take out your old man?"

Johnny looked away. "Yeah, that too."

Murdoch bit his lower lip. "Do you think it's time to maybe get rid of this one memento?"

Johnny closed his eyes and nodded. "Definitely."

Murdoch closed his own eyes briefly and sighed silently. "I'll take care of that if you want."

"Yeah, I'd appreciate that."

At that moment, Jelly returned with Johnny's lunch and Murdoch went to find Scott and check on the progress then haul his son back to eat. He tossed the playing card into the fire as he passed the cook stove.

*****

As he walked across the yard he realized Johnny had just opened up to him. Gave him a glimpse into his private life. It saddened him deeply that these few items were all his son had from a lifetime. That and the numerous scars his body held. More of those scars hidden than could be seen.

But he did share and Murdoch didn't have to go ten rounds with him to do it either. He smiled sadly. It felt good but at the same time, it hurt. The picture of Maria was but a shadow of the woman he'd married. Too thin with a haunted expression. This was the mother Johnny knew. He wondered what his son would think of the picture he'd had of Maria.

Then there was the fact that Johnny assumed someone would steal his mother's wedding band had he left it to be buried with her. That had told him volumes of the places his son had lived. More than any report could have. But then, his smile brightened as he thought of the wooden horse. Barranca. He chuckled.

He switched emotions once more as he thought of the playing card. His son's rite of passage into the world of a gunfighter. His mark that he was ready to join that element. And his proof that he was ready to seek revenge not only on the man who murdered his mother, but on Murdoch himself.

Once more he wondered what Maria had done to their son. He should have asked while he had the chance. But he hadn't been able to bring himself to. Not now. Not yet.

His head jerked up at the sound of his name being called so near by.

"Are you alright? I called to you three times," Scott asked as he came to a stop.

"I'm sorry, son. I was thinking. How are things going?"

Scott studied him as he answered. "Fine. Everything is on schedule."

"Good, good. Come have some lunch," Murdoch said and wrapped an arm around his shoulder.

*****

Sam came by four days later and was so impressed with Johnny following orders, he allowed him out of bed early. There were no signs of spinal damage and everyone was relieved.

It was on shaky legs that Johnny stood with his brother on one side and his father on the other, one of his arms tightly around each man's waist. He had grown pale quickly and Scott shot a look at Sam.

"Easy, brother."

"I just need a minute," Johnny breathed out.

"Just to the chair, gentlemen," Sam instructed.

"By the window, please," Johnny bartered.

Sam nodded and Jelly pulled the chair close to the window as Scott and Murdoch nearly dragged Johnny to it. Easing him down, he sighed heavily and closed his eyes as dizziness came over him in wave after wave.

A fine sweat beaded his forehead and Murdoch wiped it away with a kerchief.

"Thanks," he whispered.

Sam knelt in front of him. "Are you going to be sick?"

"I'm tryin not to."

"Maybe we should put him back in bed now," Murdoch suggested but it sounded more like an order.

"No, just a few minutes. It'll pass," Johnny almost pleaded.

"Let's give him two minutes," Sam said.

Johnny took slow deep breaths through his nose and his stomach settled, the dizziness passing. He opened his eyes to all of them watching and smiled.

"Better now," he sighed and looked out the window. What he saw stunned him and he leaned closer.

"What is it, Johnny?" Scott asked, leaning over to look out, too.

"I just thought .... I don't know why but I thought it would look .... better," he stumbled as he took in the estancia.

"It's a long and slow process, brother. The roof is almost done. The flooring upstairs has been repaired. There won't be any walls for a while longer yet, I'm afraid."

Johnny shook his head. "I just had this crazy notion that when I got better, I could go back to my room," he smiled.

Murdoch leaned against the wall next to the window and crossed his arms. "Looks like you're going to beat us, then, son. I wish it was completed."

"So, you've all been still sleeping in the tent?"

"That's right," Scott answered.

Johnny grinned. "Sorry."

"I can see that you are," Scott replied with a hint of sarcasm.

"I'm afraid that's enough for today, Johnny," Sam interrupted.

"Okay."

Four sets of brows went up at that response. Everyone stepped forward knowing Johnny must feel really awful to give in so easily.

Once he was back in bed, he sighed. "That was hard but it felt good."

"It's going to be quite a while before you get your strength back," Sam cautioned.

Johnny dropped his eyes. "Wish I could help with the house," he said glumly.

Murdoch found the eyes of the other three men and gave them an indication he wished some time alone with Johnny. They all made quick excuses and left the room hastily.

Johnny watched them go with some amusement. "Must've given them that look, huh?"

Laughing, Murdoch sat on the side of the bed. "I guess I did. Are you okay?"

"Sure. Just a little worn out."

"And a little depressed, maybe?"

Johnny looked up about to protest but he knew better. "Think you know me, do ya?"

"A little better every day, I hope," Murdoch said sincerely. "I, um, I burned that card."

Johnny only nodded.

Silence filled the space between them for a while until Murdoch sucked it up.

"That picture of your mother. It was surprising. She looked different when she was here."

Johnny looked up then. "How so?"

"Well, she was thinner in your picture," Murdoch shrugged.

"Yeah, she was always too thin," Johnny mumbled.

"Where did you get the medallion?"

Sighing, Johnny realized what he was trying to do. He wasn't sure he was up for it, though. "A priest."

"That was nice of him."

Johnny snorted. "It wasn't meant to be nice. It was meant to be a reminder that I'd never amount to anything."

Murdoch heard the anger and resentment and felt some of his own toward this priest. "That wasn't very priestly of him."

Johnny laughed. "No, it wasn't."

"I guess you proved him wrong, though," Murdoch said.

"Did I?" Johnny asked, looking in his father's eyes.

"Yes, son, you most definitely did," he answered firmly.

"Yeah, now I'm respectable," a wavering smile graced his lips.

"You always were respectable. And honest and charitable and caring."

"Okay, what do you want?" Johnny asked, knowing the old man was being way to easy with the compliments.

"Just to talk to you, son. To talk to you about your life. I'd like to understand, Johnny. That's all," he shrugged.

"Understand what? Seems you already know a lot."

"I know facts. Events, dates and names. I'd like to know what you felt, how you lived day to day, what you thought."

Johnny squirmed. "What difference does it make? Can't we just have now?" he asked softly.

Murdoch dropped his eyes to hide the disappointment. "If that's what you want."

"Murdoch, if you want to know me, I'm right here. I'm the same person I've always been. Just with a different name and job."

"Is that really true, son?"

Johnny bit his lip. "Yes. Maybe I'm not so cynical anymore. Maybe I'm willing to give people a chance more. Maybe I've learned to trust more. So, you see, I'm more now than I was then," he grinned as this thought came to him.

Murdoch smiled. "I've watched you grow here, that's true. I've seen you become more relaxed, more accepting. I guess you're right. I've already got the best right here."

Johnny's cheeks heated and he dipped his eyes.

"I also have more hair. You need a haircut, son," Murdoch laughed as he pushed a stray lock back.

"Ain't exactly had the chance," Johnny grinned back.

Murdoch's smile faded. "No, you haven't. I never did thank you before."

"Thank me? For what?"

"For saving my life when that first tornado hit."

Johnny frowned. "That's pushing it a little, don't you think? I just warned you, is all."

"And threw yourself on top of me to protect me. Which is something you had better never do again," Murdoch warned and he was serious.

"Excuse me?" Johnny asked, stunned.

"I am the father, Johnny. It's my job to protect you not the other way around. If anyone should have been a shield, it should have been me," he stated with complete confidence.

"Sorry, old man, but when I love someone I don't stop to think what role I'm supposed ta be playin," Johnny shot.

Murdoch's eyes widened and his mouth opened and closed a few times. He looked like a fish out of water trying to get some air.

"What?" Johnny finally asked.

"When you love someone?" Murdoch managed to croak out.

Johnny stared at him then realized he had said it. Once more, his cheeks felt hot and he dropped his head. "That's what I said," he whispered as he picked at his blanket.

He felt a hand on his shoulder then move to his cheek. He closed his eyes and tensed. The hand moved to his hair and stayed there a while.

"I love you, too, son."

"I know," he breathed out.

"I hope to God you do," Murdoch said in a quivering voice.

"Time for supper!" the loud announcement made both men jump a little. Jelly stood at the door and felt like kicking himself. He could tell he just walked in on something and it looked like it was a good something.

"Well, when ya'll are ready," he said and closed the door quickly.

Johnny looked up at his father and they locked eyes, then both burst out laughing.

"How about Scott and I eat with you tonight," Murdoch suggested once they'd settled.

"Yeah, I'd like that. Teresa, too and Jelly. The whole family."

"Yes, the whole family," Murdoch agreed and gave his shoulder a quick squeeze before going to organize the meal.

*****

Laughter filled the small room as the family enjoyed the first meal together in what seemed like forever.

Scott and Johnny were in rare form as they teased at each other throughout.

Teresa brought in an apple pie and Johnny's eyes lit up.

As they enjoyed their dessert and coffee, they began discussing the progress on the house again. Johnny felt useless, he wanted so badly to help out. But his family kept him too entertained to wallow in self-pity. He was most grateful for that.

"Well, I think I'm going to turn in. It's been a long day," Scott announced.

"Me, too," Teresa agreed.

"I have to look at the books and ....." Murdoch stopped as a groan filled the air from both his sons.

"Go to bed, Murdoch. Sleep for once. The books will still be there tomorrow," Scott advised.

"He's right, old man. You need your beauty sleep," Johnny grinned cheekily.

Murdoch glared at them both but it was a half-hearted attempt. "Alright. I can see right now that the seat of power is shifting in this family. Exactly when did this happen?"

"When we decided it was time, Sir," Scott said triumphantly.

They all took their leave, all but Jelly who was tidying up and helping Johnny settle.

"When were you gonna tell me, Jelly," Johnny spoke up.

"Tell ya what?" he asked distractedly.

"About your sister."

*****

Jelly stopped and turned to look at him. "Who told ya?"

"Murdoch and there ain't no need to be mad. You should have told me yourself," Johnny countered.

"You was too poorly."

"Well, I'm not too poorly now. Sit down and talk to me, Jelly."

The old wrangler sighed and sat next to the bed. "I'm alright, boy."

"Sure ya are. You bury your sister one day then come back here to no home and me laying here. You jumped right in and I was glad; grateful, Jelly. I knew you'd take care of me and I wouldn't have to feel so ...... embarrassed, I guess," he dropped his eyes for a moment, then lifted them again.

"But, I asked you how she was and you blew me off," Johnny finished.

"You was too sick ta worry bout my problems, Johnny. It was good ta have somethin ta keep me busy."

"I'm sure it was for a while. But, you need to grieve for her, Jelly."

Jelly shook his head. "Already done that."

"Have you? When? On the trip home? What happened to her?" Johnny's voice softened substantially at the last question.

"Doc said it were her heart. Just plump give out on her, is all. Said it was just age. She was real weak and sometimes, she didn't know who I was," Jelly said, his voice barely audible.

Johnny reached out and took hold of his arm.

"That was the worse. When she didn't know me. But then she'd seem alright and we'd talk. We had us some good talks. Rememberin and all," he smiled sadly.

"That's nice. I'm glad you got to be with her."

"I'm real glad I was there alright. Just wish I coulda been here, too."

Johnny shook his head. "Nothing you could have done here, amigo. Except maybe get blown away. It was really bad. The worst I've ever seen and I've seen some bad storms."

"Don't it strike you funny that Lancer was the only place hit?" Jelly asked.

Johnny chuckled. "Nope. But that's not the subject," he looked meaningfully at the older man.

"Oh, I'm okay. Sure, I miss her real bad. Reckon I always will. But she lived a good long life and she was happy for the better part of it. Reckon that's the most important thing."

"How old was she?"

"Ninety."

Johnny almost swallowed his tongue. "Ninety!? How old are you, Jelly?"

"Wahl now, that wouldn't be none of your business, would it? 'Sides, she was a sight older'n me anyhow."

"How much is a sight?" Johnny laughed.

"Alright, Mr. Smartypants. That'll be enough talkin for one day. Unless ya wanna talk about what it was I walked in on earlier," Jelly raised a brow.

Johnny grinned and shook his head. "Nope, you're right. That's enough talk for now." Growing somber, he added, "but, if you ever want to talk about her some more, I'm right here, amigo."

Murdoch watched as Scott prepared for bed. He was lying on his side, propped up on his elbow. He wore a small smile on his face as he watched the young man.

A lifetime of rituals, he thought.

Finally, Scott climbed into his bedroll and picked up his book.

"How are you, son?" Murdoch asked before he could get involved in reading.

Scott looked up at him, puzzled by the sudden question. "I'm fine," he shrugged.

"No lasting effects from your head?"

Scott raised a brow and started to remind his father that his injury had occurred weeks ago. If he had any lasting effects, he'd be dead he was sure. Instead, he bit the retort back and answered simply. "No."

Murdoch nodded, knowing he was blowing it. "I, um, I had some good talks with Johnny."

Now, Scott's interest was piqued. Setting the book down, he gave is father his undivided attention. "That's wonderful. How did it go?"

"Surprisingly well. He opened up to me some. We "¦. Well, things are good. I was hoping you and I could talk a bit," he said, his stomach churning.

If Scott had any reaction, he hid it well. His expression was as blank as his mind had fallen. Never in his life had he been this stunned. Not even when he first discovered he had a brother. And that was saying something!

Now, Murdoch wanted to talk to him? Really talk? Scott pondered this for several minutes. He knew Murdoch was waiting for an answer but he'd just have to wait until Scott had one.

Clearing his throat, Scott decided he needed clarification. "What exactly did you want to talk about, Sir?"

Murdoch took a breath. "Well, anything you want. Any "¦. questions you may have."

Scott nodded. "You mean like, why did you leave me in Boston? Why did you let another man raise your son? Why you never came for me?"

"Now, wait a minute? I did come for you!"

Scott's eyes widened but he didn't get the chance to ask.

*****

"I was there, Scott. At your fifth birthday party. I came to take you home."

"Why didn't you?"

Murdoch dropped his eyes for a moment, then looked up and held Scott's stare. "Are you sure, absolutely sure, you want to hear this?"

"Yes," he answered assuredly. 

"Harlan wouldn't let you go. He threatened a lengthy custody battle, dragging you through the legal system for years. He pointed out that by the time it was over, I'd be financially ruined and he would still win. He made a point of telling me he had friends in all the right places in the courts."

Scott sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. He simply nodded.

"I couldn't take the chance, son. I didn't think I had a chance to take," Murdoch explained.

"You didn't. I'm sure Grandfather meant every word he said. But, why did you wait so long after? Once I was of legal age"¦.." he stopped there, thinking no further explanation was needed.

Murdoch shook his head slowly from side to side. "I didn't know what Harlan had told you about me, son. My mind invented all sorts of scenarios and stories. I assumed you would hate me for not coming for you. I knew you were well looked after, wanted for nothing and most likely firmly ensconced in your life. I couldn't expect you to remember a man you met once when you were five. I suppose I was a coward to let it go so easily."

"I did hate you when I was a child. As I grew up, I learned not to think of you at all," Scott replied coldly.

Murdoch cringed at this statement made so factually.

"What did you expect?" Scott asked harshly.

*****

Murdoch looked at him and saw the anger he had always suspected was there below the well-healed surface. The time is now. It will never come again, he thought.

"I expected you to hate me the same as Johnny did. I hoped it wasn't so but, realistically, how could it be otherwise? Scott, I can tell you what happened then. I can give you my reasoning at the time. I can even make excuses for my behavior. In the end, son, it's up to you to either accept my mistakes or not. I pray you can forgive me. I don't know what else to say to you."

Scott listened to the words and knew they were reasonable. He wasn't trying to worm his way out of anything. Murdoch was accepting responsibility for his actions. Just as Scott had seen him do time after time since he'd been here. What he'd seen in this time was an honorable and fair man. And though it had been difficult to acknowledge to himself, he had done it. Murdoch was not the emotionless monster he'd concocted as a young boy. Nor was he the indifferent man Scott had come to assume he was in later years.

He was simply a man. A fallible man who perhaps didn't have the knowledge or experience of being a father to know how his actions had affected his son. Scott had always accepted Murdoch's reasons for going after Johnny so vehemently while he lived so far away.

He knew Johnny's life was so much worse than his own. And he knew Murdoch knew that as well. It was a matter of logic at that time. And he also knew Murdoch felt like a failure. Not something the Scot was used to being.

"Simply put, you were afraid to face me," Scott finally said softly.

Murdoch smiled a little. Yes, that was putting it very simply. "I was, son. But no matter what I thought you thought of me, I never stopped wanting you by my side. I never stopped loving you, Scott."

The young man's head jerked up at hearing these words. Words he never thought he'd hear uttered from the mountain before him. Suddenly, Murdoch didn't seem so unobtainable. So out of reach.

"I don't expect you to have any such feelings for me"

"But, I do," Scott interrupted. When Murdoch looked at him, Scott smiled softly. "I do," he repeated, his voice husky.

*****

After a week of diligent and sometimes obsessed exercise, Johnny was standing on his own two feet again without any help. He started walking around the estancia, watching the repairs and asking questions; pointing out potential problems and generally making a pest of himself.

Several of the men went to Scott to complain, gently, that Johnny was in the way. But Scott was reticent about mentioning this to his brother knowing Johnny's newfound freedom was precious to him. So, he went on diversion and enlisted his father's help in keeping the young man busy elsewhere.

Murdoch was amused but understanding so he agreed. He did the only thing he knew for certain would drag his son away. He located a surrey and hitched up a team. Then, he saddled and tied Barranca to the back.

When Johnny saw the surrey and his horse, he didn't ask any questions or wait for an invitation. He jumped in and anxiously awaited his father.

"Slowly, Johnny," Murdoch warned for the umpteenth time. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea, he thought as he anxiously watched his son ride the palomino around the pond over and over.

Barranca wanted his head and Johnny had to watch him closely. He felt bad for the horse and sympathized with his plight.

Finally, he dismounted and walked back over to his father, letting Barranca roam free.

"Maybe Scott should give him a good ride," Johnny said.

"I think that would be wise, son. I don't think I can take watching that anymore."

Johnny smiled and sat down, cross-legged under a tree. He picked a blade of grass and stuck it in his mouth then stretched out.

Murdoch sat beside him and smiled at the look of pure contentment on his boy's face.

*****

Johnny chuckled a little. "You sounded like I was just learning to ride. Go slow, go slow," he teased.

"Well, you may think you're a hundred percent but you are not by any means."

Johnny opened his eyes and looked at his father. "I talked to Jelly. How old you reckon he is?"

"I'm sure I don't know. Why?" Murdoch was a bit surprised by the question.

Johnny raised up on his elbows. "He told me his sister was ninety! He said she was "a sight" older than him but he wouldn't tell me how much that was."

"Ninety," Murdoch repeated in awe. "Well, Jelly is up there, son. Still..."

"Yeah, that's what I thought. Kinda gives ya hope though, don't it? I mean, someone like Jelly who's had a rough life and still making it this long," he shrugged.

Murdoch smiled. "Yes, it does give you hope. Of course, I'll have to live to be ninety if I ever want to see any grandchildren!"

"Whoa! Talk to Scott. He's the oldest. He should go first."

"Oh, I don't know about that. You're both certainly old enough to think about settling down," Murdoch grinned.

Johnny's smile faded and a sadness overtook him. "I don't have much luck with that."

Murdoch squeezed his shoulder. "You'll find her, son. And she'll realize what a prize she has. That's when you'll know she's the one."

*****

Murdoch spent more and more time with Johnny, ostensibly to keep him out of Scott's way. But the young man was getting stronger every day and soon enough, he asked Sam to let him do something. So he was put to work on light chores. Carrying nails, hammers and the like around to the men.

Eventually, he was in the house and working hard alongside his brother.

Murdoch missed his days alone with Johnny. They'd made remarkable progress in their relationship. And all because they'd been homeless. He shook his head at the wonder. The things that would bring people closer. They had lived under the same roof for over two years. But it wasn't until that roof was destroyed that they grew so very close. Scott, too, he smiled.

He'd told Scott the truth about why he'd left him in Boston and was pleased when Scott didn't balk. He believed his father and Murdoch had to wonder if that wasn't due in large part to Harlan's disastrous visit last summer. He didn't want to think that, however. He hoped it was because Scott knew he wouldn't lie to him.

It wasn't easy for the rancher to let his sons do most of the work but he had to admit, he felt better. He'd gotten some much needed rest after those first grueling weeks. He had even thanked Scott and Johnny for making him slow down.

But now he was back in form and ready to resume his responsibilities. The cattle were all rounded up, fences were nearly all repaired and his people had homes again. The corrals and barn were back up. There were still the line shacks but that would be the last thing on their list. The most pressing job at this point was getting the house livable again. Frustratingly slow as it was.

This day, he watched as the work progressed. Watched his sons working side by side. A sight that always filled him with pride.

Teresa came up and handed him a glass of lemonade then wrapped her arm around his waist, leaning into his embrace.

"It's getting there," Murdoch remarked.

"We're so lucky," she sighed.

"Yes, my darling. We certainly are. I'm luckier than I ever thought," he smiled and kissed the top of her head.

*****

It had taken almost two months but finally, today, they moved back in.

It was like seeing a new house and they all had a look around. All so new yet familiar and that was the best part. The familiarity.

Scott walked up to his father and gave him a nudge. "I'm glad we didn't use wood."

Murdoch laughed and wrapped an arm around him.

Johnny came downstairs, bouncing on each step to test its strength. "Well, I was thinking of moving over to the other side of the hall but think I'll just stay where I am," he smiled.

"Testing fate?" Scott asked.

"Nah. She ain't killed me yet. I think she's given up on me," he laughed.

"Listen," Scott said suddenly and everyone fell quiet for a few minutes.

"What do you hear, son?"

"Nothing. That da, er, clock isn't ticking," he said.

"You didn't like the grandfather clock?" Murdoch asked in astonishment.

The brothers shared a look.

"Well, Murdoch, it's like this. We both hated that clock!" Johnny told.

Murdoch was stunned. "I can't believe it. Do you know how old that clock was?"

"Older than Jelly, I'd wager," Johnny smirked.

"Why, I ..... it ....." Murdoch stopped and sighed. "Truthfully, it got on my nerves sometimes, too."

They all shared a laugh that resonated through the halls of the estancia and that was when the house was christened a home.

 

 

~end~
2005

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