The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Invisible

 

 

 

Johnny eased into the hot water slowly. Every nerve in his skin sung out but, oh, did it feel glorious. He sighed heavily once he completed the emersion and sank down, resting his head on the edge.

"You want that shave now, Johnny?" called Mel.

"Sure," he answered more softly than the barber.

Mel stuck his head through the door. "What was that?"

"I said yes," he repeated, eyes closed.

Mel simply nodded and retrieved the tools of his trade. He pulled a stool to the tub and sat down by Johnny's head, then proceeded to lather his long beard.

"Ain't seen you for a long time, Johnny. Where ya been?"

"Here and there, Mel. Here and there," he answered cryptically.

"How long ya been gone now?"

"Three months."

Mel whistled softly. "Long trip. Well, reckon you decided ta spiffy up a might 'fore headin home, huh?"

Johnny's face never moved but inside he grimaced. "Yeah." 'Home' he thought. Yes, he was going home. Whether he would stay or even be welcomed was another matter. He sardonically wondered if anyone had even noticed his absence. Sighing lightly, he opened his eyes as the blade touched his throat.

"Be careful there, Mel. Got a pretty fresh scar," he cautioned.

Mel leaned in and tsked. He grabbed the scissors and trimmed the area closely. "That's a purty one. Knife?"

"Yep."

"You're a real chatterbox today, ain't ya?" he teased.

Johnny smiled a little. "Just wore out, Mel."

"Reckon so. Three months. Bet you'll be glad to sleep in your own bed again."

Johnny didn't answer, he cringed inside again, wishing Mel would just shut up and finish the shave.

Apparently, one prayer out of million had finally been answered as Mel fell quiet and finished his chore.

"Now, ya look a might presentable. Hair cut, too?"

Johnny laughed softly. "Don't ya think I'd better?"

"Unless ya want the first words your pa says to ya ta be 'get a hair cut'," Mel chortled.

Johnny thought that, yes, those would be good first words to hear. "I'll be out in a while," was his alternate answer.

"Take your time, son. I got all day." Mel left him then, closing the door tightly behind him.

Johnny took a sip of his whiskey, then drained the glass. Setting it on the floor, he sank back down and closed his eyes.

*****

He heard a noise but couldn't be sure he really had. Then, he heard his name called. Johnny's eyes shot open and he blinked a couple of times, his gaze moving up to the man standing over him. Mel wore an embarrassed smile.

"Ya fell asleep. You okay?" he asked, his smile turning to a frown of concern.

"Just tired," Johnny mumbled.

"Ya look a might pale, Johnny. Ya sure ya feel alright?"

"I'm fine, Mel. I'm getting out now."

"I'll be waitin. Knocked as much dust as I could outta of your clothes," the man said, still with a concerned look in his face. He considered sending someone for the doc or Val, then decided against it. Johnny was not a man he wanted to be on the wrong side of. No matter how scraggly he'd been when he walked in the shop. Mel had not even recognized him until he spoke.

Johnny came out fifteen minutes later, smelling and looking 90 percent better. A haircut would make it 100 percent.

Mel shook his head as he cut a few pounds off. "Ain't never seen it this long before."

"Never has been except for one other time," Johnny remarked, a cloud coming over his features as he was reminded of something he'd just as soon forget.

"Well, what'ya think?" the barber asked as he swirled the chair around to face the mirror.

Johnny stared at his reflection. The man looking at him was someone he had not seen in three months. Had not wanted to see and still didn't really want to. He forced a smile. "Good, real good, Mel. Thanks."

Mel patted his shoulder. "It's always a pleasure ta turn a scalawag into a human bein again," he grinned.

Johnny laughed honestly at that, knowing it was the truth. He'd been a sight he was sure. He paid the man and headed for the door, grabbing his hat.

"Hey, Johnny," Mel stopped him.

Johnny turned to look at him.

"How come you looked so mangy but that palomino looks like he's ready ta win one of them beauty pageants?"

Johnny grinned one his charmers and winked. "Cause I ride him, not the other way around. See ya," he gave a quick bow of his head and was out the door. Mel's laughter followed until he closed it behind him.

He mounted up and turned toward the south. He made it about fifty feet then reined to the right and to the livery. One more day ain't gonna hurt, he thought.

He stabled Barranca and got a room at the hotel for the night. He was grateful the clerk was a stranger. He didn't need any more concerned people asking where he'd been.

*****

Johnny plopped on the bed and realized how tired he really was. Bone weary. And not just physically. Every fiber of him was tired. He didn't want to think anymore. He didn't want to do anymore. He just wanted to stop for more than five minutes.

It had been an eye-opener just how complacent he'd become at Lancer. Living on the trail again the past three months had nearly done him in. He couldn't recall ever feeling so ..... lonely. Or so betrayed.

That thought was quickly banished from his mind. He would not go there again. Not now. Tomorrow would be soon enough to face the pain once more. Tomorrow, he would have his answers. He would know if this was a temporary reprieve from the trail life or if he must resign himself to the life he thought he'd left behind forever.

It wasn't the trade for he had not returned to that. He couldn't. It just wasn't in him anymore to be that heartless, that unfeeling. They'd broken him of that at least. It was the loneliness of the life. The meaninglessness. The empty days and emptier nights. Nothing to look forward to, nothing to accomplish but to feed himself and his only friend.

Which was just about all he'd managed to do. He'd taken care of his most base needs and spent more than enough time caring for his horse. He was sure Barranca was even more spoiled now. He'd been brushed and washed and fed and treated like royalty. And all because Johnny didn't have anything better to do.

He sat up and looked down at himself. His clothes were a wreck. Tattered was too good a description. With a resigned sigh he pulled himself up and left the hotel. Feeling like a fool, he walked into the bank and asked to see the president.

Frank Hamilton greeted him warmly, happy to see him, glad he was back and all that. Johnny took it well and sat in front of the large oak desk as Frank settled behind it.

"Well, what can I do for you, Johnny?" he asked, still smiling ear to ear.

"Well, this might sound like a strange question, Mr. Hamilton. Do, um, do I have any money left in my account?"

Frank cocked a brow but never stopped smiling. "I'd say you do, Johnny. Plenty. How much did you need?"

Relief washed over him. He wasn't sure what had happened since he'd been gone. What Murdoch had or had not done. "Twenty dollars should do it," he answered.

Hamilton told him to sit right there and went to get the funds. He was back quickly with the twenty dollars and Johnny signed for it.

"I take it you haven't been home yet?" he asked.

Johnny stood and stuffed the money in his pants. "No, I, uh, I figured I'd stay in town tonight. It's gettin late and I'm pretty tired," he shrugged.

Hamilton nodded knowingly. "And you wanted to maybe buy some new clothes?"

Johnny laughed and dropped his head. "Yeah, thought I'd better."

Frank extended a hand. "Welcome home, Johnny. I know Murdoch will be thrilled."

Johnny smiled tightly and wondered how true that might be but he said nothing. He simply shook the man's hand, nodded and was gone.

*****

He knew there was no way to avoid it. He had to have some clothes. But, going into the store run by Mrs. O'Hara was not something he looked forward to. She was sweet but loud and chattery. The last thing he wanted was to chat with anyone. Let alone the town gossip.

He had no choice, however, so he plunged ahead and walked in with his hat pulled low over his eyes.

There was no greeting so he chanced a look around. Seeing no one, he smiled and headed for the back where the men's clothes were. He rummaged quickly through the shirts and settled for plain blue, knowing he'd get nothing to his liking here. Baldemero's was the only place he could buy the shirts he preferred and he was not in Morro Coyo. So, he settled.

Smiling a little, he thought he'd been settling a whole lot lately. He grabbed a pair of black pants, checked the size, smaller now, and nodded. Good enough. Next came socks and underwear and he was done.

Not bad, Johnny. Five minutes at the most. Teresa would have taken two hours. He swallowed hard as he thought of the girl. Steeling himself against those emotions, he walked to the counter and waited.

Evidently, God was having some pity on him this day as Mr. O'Hara emerged from the storeroom. He was surprised, that was plain, but he never said a word other than hello, the price and 'have a nice day'.

Johnny tucked his package under his left arm and headed back to the hotel. He opened his door and stopped cold then relaxed, leaning against the door frame.

"Anyone tell you it's illegal to break into a man's room?" he asked.

"Anyone ever tell you it's impolite to ignore your friends?" came the retort.

"I wasn't ignoring you, Val. Just hadn't gotten around to ya yet," Johnny grinned.

Val sat up from his relaxed spot on the bed. "Well now, let's just see. Ya been to the barber shop, the bank and the store. Reckon that makes me fourth on the list?"

"Fifth. I came back here first," Johnny laughed and closed the door behind him.

"Gee, I feel all warm and fuzzy!" Val glared. "Where the hell have you been?"

"Around, Val, around."

The sheriff snorted. "Ain't been *around* here. Are ya goin home or settin up shop in town?" he asked.

"Just stayin overnight. Too tired to ride out tonight," Johnny said softly, avoiding his friend's intense scrutiny.

"Well, then ya can have supper with me."

Johnny smiled. "Sure, Val. Only, let me change clothes first."

Val harrumphed. "Darn tootin. I ain't got no intentions of bein seen with you lookin like that!" he proclaimed, pointing a finger at Johnny.

Johnny turned and looked at him with a stunned expression. "You got your nerve, ya slob!"

Val retreated before something got thrown at him, telling Johnny as he darted out that he'd wait downstairs for him.

*****

A few minutes later, Johnny descended the stairs looking more like his old self.

"That's more like it. Where ya wanna go?" Val smiled.

"Right here's fine with me," he answered, nodding toward the entrance to the hotel restaurant.

They were seated and ordered, taking a few minutes to enjoy their drinks before Val started.

"Why'd you leave?" he asked bluntly.

"Long story."

"I ain't got nothin else ta do unless some idiot decides ta break the law. Talk to me, Johnny. Ya just up and disappeared without a word."

Johnny stared at the glass of clear liquid, twirling it round in his hand. "I can't get into it, Val."

The lawman sighed despondently. "Are ya at least gonna stay?"

Johnny shrugged. "That depends on how things are at home."

"Ain't seen much of Murdoch since you left. But, everytime I do see 'im, he looks like an old man. Scott seems ta be doin alright. Though, he didn't come ta town for over a month. Jelly ain't been around much neither."

"Teresa?" Johnny asked softly.

"Ain't seen her but, let's see, twice I think. Both times on Sunday after church with Scott, of course."

"Of course," Johnny said a little sarcastically.

"Is that what happened? Somethin about Scott and Teresa?"

Johnny looked up at him and seemed to be trying to decide something. "Did you go to the wedding?"

"Sure. Everbody did." Val leaned in and lowered his voice. "Johnny, was ya sweet on the gal too?"

Johnny's eyes shot up and he looked at his friend like he was a lunatic. "No!" He looked around quickly at the few customers then lowered his voice. "No, it wasn't like that."

"Then what?"

Taking a deep breath, Johnny dropped his eyes again. "I don't want to get into it, Val."

Val leaned back and shook his head but he said not another word about it. They talked about what had been going on in town and the valley while Johnny was gone. Then, they parted ways. Johnny promising on the bible he would never leave again without speaking to Val first.

*****

Johnny arose before dawn the next morning. He'd spent the night tossing and turning and never able to get any real sleep. He was still bone tired and he figured he would be until things got settled. That would be today, one way or the other.

He got up and dressed quickly, making sure he looked presentable. He didn't want his father growling at him for any other reason than the one most important. That he would be growled at, and yelled at, was a given as far as he was concerned.

When he left the ranch that day, that god awful day, he knew he'd never forget the look on Murdoch's face. It had killed him but he'd had no choice as far as he could see. He could not stay under the circumstances. He wasn't sure he would have anyway. This was really just the last straw for him.

So much had happened and he was tired of it all. Sick and tired of being treated like ..... like he didn't matter. He guessed he didn't, given the way things turned out. He still wasn't sure why he was going back now. Why he thought things might have changed.

His stomach turned and he quickly dismissed the idea of breakfast. He settled for a cup of coffee that he knew he couldn't do without before heading to the livery for Barranca.

Johnny took his time on the ride out. It was still early and he didn't want to catch them at the breakfast table. He wanted to see Murdoch alone and hoped that's the way it would go. He'd thought so many times of how this would happen. What he would say and how he would react to his father's ire.

He'd even considered staking out the place. Waiting until he saw Scott ride out but he was no coward. If his brother was there he would face him like he planned to anyway. He just wanted to deal with them one at a time.

Then there was Teresa. She would be there and that would be hard. She had been so angry with him but he knew she still didn't want him to leave. She'd nearly begged him to stay; to understand.

He did understand to a point but no one had tried to understand his point of view. Which was pretty normal and which was why he'd gotten fed up and left.

Oh, he knew it was wrong. He was running away. That's what Murdoch had shouted at him that day. None of them understood that he had to go. Had to get away from it. Johnny had never been one to stay in the middle of a storm while trying to figure out how to stay dry. He needed distance from the problem to work it through.

Simple things were easy enough. Day to day problems everyone had. But these life-changing, emotionally charged problems were what he had trouble with. He was the first to admit it but he just didn't know any other way.

Before he knew it, he was just outside the arch. He stared at the sign as he rode under it, that feeling back in his gut. Fear was what it was and he might as well admit to that, too. He eyes scanned the corrals and outbuildings, the yard and house. A few men milled about, readying for the days work, but most of the crews were gone. He didn't see Jelly and he was grateful. He hoped for a nice, quiet entrance.

Johnny pulled up at the corral and tied Barranca off, then walked casually around the house as if he had not a care in the world.

He opened the kitchen door and popped his head in, relieved to see no one there. Entering, he hesitated, feeling almost like an intruder. Damn, man! This is your home. Isn't it?

He stepped lightly through the room, careful not to jangle his spurs, and eased into the dining area against the wall. Actin like a thief, he thought wryly. His stomach hitched again when he heard Scott's voice. He strained to hear the conversation. But all he heard was Scott saying he'd get right on it and then, a minute later, the front door closing. He sighed softly and relaxed for a second.

Taking a deep breath and drawing up his courage, he stepped into the living room. His eyes went immediately to the desk, knowing that's where his father would be. Quickly, he looked around the room. Murdoch was alone.

Johnny walked in, still stepping lightly and idly wondering if he was about to give the old man a heart attack.

Murdoch had his head down, pouring over some ledger or another. He never changes. That thought both reassured and disturbed Johnny as he allowed himself a few minutes to just look at his father.

Murdoch stopped writing and sat still for a moment. He felt someone in the room and his heart leapt at the electricity that seemed to charge the very air. With more hope than he'd dared to have in a long time, he slowly raised his head.

"Johnny," he breathed.

"Hey," Johnny said softly.

Murdoch stood quickly and rounded the desk, heading straight for his son.

Johnny braced himself for he knew not what but he half expected to get belted.

Murdoch grabbed him and pulled him into a breathtaking embrace that lasted for several seconds. When Murdoch let go and stepped back a pace, he still held Johnny's biceps in his hands, unwilling to completely release his son.

"God, it's so good to see you. How are you? Where have you been?"

"Whoa, slow down, Murdoch. Got any coffee?" Johnny grinned shyly.

Murdoch shook his head as if to clear it. "Yes, um, yes, come in, son. Sit down," he directed and poured from the pot on the table.

Johnny sat on the sofa, on the edge, ready to jump if need be. He still didn't trust this. Murdoch would come to his senses any minute.

But the rancher just stared at him with a silly grin on his face.

"How are you, son?" he asked gently.

Johnny nodded as he swallowed the coffee. "Pretty good. You?"

"Better now. Much better. I wasn't sure ...... well, I didn't know if I'd ever see you again." There was an ever so slight quiver to his voice.

Johnny dropped his eyes. "I'm sorry. I just had to go. I know you don't understand that."

"No, son, I don't. But, I'm glad you're back. You are back, aren't you?" Murdoch asked sincerely.

"If you'll have me," Johnny grinned a little then fell serious. "If everyone will have me."

"I don't know how Scott will react. You just missed him."

"I know. I heard him in here. I guess I'm a coward but I couldn't face you both at the same time." A small smile came upon his lips but went no further. "How's Teresa?"

"She's happy, Johnny," Murdoch stated.

"That's good."

"You didn't think she would be?"

Johnny sighed and stood, pacing to the fireplace. "I don't know, Murdoch. I know it was just my opinion and that don't matter but, I still think she shoulda waited a while."

"They're happy together, son. I wish you could be happy for them."

Johnny turned to look at him. "I am. Really, I am. I didn't want to be right. I just wanted her to realize there might be something more in life. That she didn't have to be in such a rush. That's all."

*****

Murdoch had no answer for this. It wouldn't have mattered for they were interrupted by a loud cry.

"Johnny!"

Teresa bolted through the room, deftly avoiding any furniture in her path as she flung herself into her brother's arms.

"You're home! I'm so happy to see you!"

Johnny laughed softly as he picked the girl up and twirled her around once before lighting her to the floor. He pulled back, still holding onto her with a smile on his face that lit the room.

"I can tell! You look beautiful, Teresa."

"Thank you. You look ...." she pulled back and took a better look, "skinny. You've lost weight," she frowned. "And you're pale. Are you sick?" she rattled off, feeling his forehead.

Johnny grabbed her hand gently and squeezed it. "No, I'm not sick and yeah, I've lost a little weight. That's cause I forgot to take Maria with me."

She frowned more deeply. "You should have stayed home where you belong," she stated, her hands going to her hips.

Johnny dropped his eyes for a second, then looked back with a grin. "And miss this welcome home?"

She didn't take the bait, however. "Are you okay, really?"

"I'm fine, honey. How are you?" he asked.

"I'm very happy, Johnny," she said meaningfully.

Nodding his head, he replied, "Yeah, Murdoch told me and I can see that for myself."

She smiled at him then and took his arm. "Your room is all ready for you. Just like you left it. Maria will be thrilled to see you. But, I want you to rest. I don't care what you say, you look tired to me. Go lie down until supper and we'll make you something very special." She continued her fretting all the way up the stairs.

Murdoch chuckled at her mothering then he remembered a comment Johnny had made. Why he hadn't latched onto it earlier, he couldn't say. Something about what he thought not mattering. He sighed and thought he'd ask Johnny about it later. Teresa was right, he didn't look good and it wasn't just the lost weight. He was pale and had dark circles under his eyes. His eyes. There had been something missing from those as well. The spark was gone. Even when he truly smiled at Teresa, it wasn't the same.

Murdoch supposed that spark would be lost until he settled things with his brother. Not wanting Scott to be caught unawares, he decided to find his son and let him know Johnny was back. That way, Scott could have some time to get used to the idea and hopefully, Murdoch could head off a major falling out.

He hated his sons being at odds. So much so that Johnny had left them. He would talk with Scott. Get a feel for his state of mind concerning his brother. And, hopefully, talk some sense into both of them. Not that he'd been at all successful with that three months ago.

Standing up and heading for the door, Murdoch was amazed it had been only three months. To him, it felt like Johnny had been gone for years. He had prayed every night that his son had not returned to his old life.  

*****

Johnny laid on top of the bed and tucked his hands behind his head. He stared at the ceiling, knowing he wouldn't sleep. He still had to face Scott. That was what ate away at his insides and had for three months. He understood, he really did. It wasn't a matter of being right or wrong. It was a matter of choices. He supposed it was really none of his business in the end. But, he couldn't not say what he thought of the situation.

Teresa was so young. Yes, she was tough and practical and smart, too. But she had never been very far from the ranch. Her entire world was Lancer. All she'd ever known was this place. Johnny thought she should have the chance to travel; to experience the world outside Lancer's boundaries before settling down into marriage.

As smart and practical as she was, Teresa was a romantic at heart, though. When she fell in love that was all she could see. Johnny only hoped she wouldn't one day realize she'd made a mistake. Not that he doubted her love for Scott for a second. He just hoped she didn't regret not taking that time to see other places and meet other people someday.

It had all gotten out of control so fast it still made his head spin. Scott's reaction had shocked him, quite frankly. He'd tried to talk calmly with his brother but Scott would have none of it. Told him to mind his own business and stay out of their affairs.

And he did, finally. Murdoch was no help. He refused to get in the middle of it. Saying it was Scott and Teresa's decision and he would agree with what they wanted.

Johnny knew the old man was in heaven over Teresa's choice for a husband. Knew instinctively that Murdoch hoped she and Scott would get together at some point. Murdoch may have agreed with Johnny on some level but, if he did, he never showed it. Never tried once to keep the peace.

That had been Scott's job and no one did it better. But who kept the peace when the peacekeeper was ticked off? Johnny smiled wanly. Yeah, he was ticked off, alright! He'd never seen his usually calm and collected brother so furious.

It had been okay and he could handle the anger until that day. When Scott accused him of trying to sabotage his happiness; that maybe he wanted Teresa for himself. That was when Johnny lost control. It had hurt him badly to hear his brother say such terrible things to him. And Scott hadn't stopped there. He was so angry, he threw everything he could think of at Johnny. And Scott could think of a lot! Especially when it came to his past.

Johnny threw something too; his fist. Then, he'd packed up and left without another word to anyone. Murdoch had called him to come back but he ignored his father. If he hadn't wanted this thing to blow up, the old man should have *done* something.

*****

Scott turned at the sound of a rider approaching. Seeing his father, he turned back to Emilio and finished his instructions, then went to greet the man.

"Is everything alright, Sir?" Scott asked, concerned.

Murdoch dismounted before answering. "Yes, son. In fact, I have good news." He plastered a smile on his face and prayed. "Johnny's home," he said enthusiastically.

Scott's face fell and a frown came over his features. "What's the good news?" he shot.

Murdoch gave him a sidelong look. "Scott, it's been three months. You and Teresa are happy and Johnny knows that."

"I'm sure that disappointed him to no end."

Murdoch's face turned to granite. "Now, listen here. Johnny is home and he has no quarrel with you. I expect you to behave in a civil manner toward your brother."

Scott's shoulders tensed as he stood nearly at attention. "I will behave toward him as he behaves toward me, Sir."

Murdoch shook his head. "This is ridiculous, you know that. This whole thing got completely out of hand and I must say, Scott, most of that was your fault."

"My fault! How was it my fault?" he fumed.

"Johnny voiced his opinion and you took it as an insult toward you. All he was trying to do was make sure Teresa was doing what was right for her. Both of you have always done that. Why was it all the sudden wrong for him to say something?"

Scott's jaw clenched, his lips drawn tightly. In a controlled voice, he answered. "Because this was different. It was *me* he was warning her off of."

"Warning her off...? Scott, you can't believe Johnny didn't want Teresa to be with you at all!"

"That is exactly what I believe."

"Well, then you are wrong, son. I know that isn't something you're used to being but in this case, it's true. Johnny loves you. He respects you more than any man alive. He trusts you with his life *and* Teresa's. I know you hurt him deeply."

"I didn't hear you saying anything about it then," Scott sneered.

"And I was wrong. I should have stopped it. I don't really know why I didn't. I guess I just didn't think it would get so out of control. Now, we've all lost three months together. Three months that should have been happy, celebratory times. Look, I came out here to give you a heads up. I hope you spend that time really thinking about what you're going to say to your brother tonight."

Murdoch left it at that. He figured he'd said all he could and anything more would be beating a dead horse. Scott was smart and he'd figure it out before the end of the workday. Murdoch hoped.

*****

Johnny finally gave up the ghost and got out of bed. He decided to sneak down to the kitchen and see what trouble he could cause Maria. He smiled thinking of the old woman who had taken him under her maternal wing.

He slipped quietly down the back stairs and stood in the doorway watching as she stood over the stove. Stirring steaming pots of something that made his stomach rumble.

"Hola, Maria," he called softly.

She whirled around, spoon in hand, other hand going to her bosom.

"Juanito! Venido aqui a mi este instante!" (Johnny! Come here to me this instant!)

He laughed and obeyed her, walking swiftly into her open arms. "I missed you, mamacita."

"Es tan bueno tenerle hogar. Donde usted pertence!" she proclaimed. (It is so good to have you home. Where you belong!)

Pulling him back to arms length, she took in his countenance and tsked loudly. "Es demasiado flaco. Debo cebarle para arriba, si?" (You are too thin. I must fatten you up, yes?)

"Si, mamacita. That's why I came back. So you can fatten me up," he laughed.

She smiled sadly at him then. "Ha visto a su hermano?" (Have you seen your brother?)

Johnny dropped his eyes, "Not yet."

She nodded knowingly. Wagging a finger at him, she admonished, "Si el le lastima otra vez, lo hare muy apesadumbrado!" (If he hurts you again, he will be very sorry!)

"Okay, Maria. I know you'll protect me," he grinned.

"Si. Ahora vaya de aqui. Estoy cocinando una comida especialmente para usted," she smiled. (Yes. Now go from here. I am cooking a very special meal for you.)

"Gracias, mamacita. It's good to be home," he kissed her cheek then left her domain.

*****

He ambled into the great room, thankful it was empty. Johnny walked slowly about, picking up this knickknack or that momento. Memories of each one coming easily to his mind. It had only been three months. Why did it feel like three years?

He sighed without realizing it and idly wondered where Murdoch had gone. A curious frown formed on his face as he made his way to the mantle. Picking up the picture frame, he stared long at the couple. Teresa was beautiful and Scott looked, well, Scott always looked good. Even when he was filthy, Johnny smiled wryly. His brother just had an air of dignity about him that made him appear well-groomed in most situations.

His eyes grew sad as he once more thought to the day he'd left home. Wondering again for the millionth time if he'd been wrong to even open his mouth. But he could do nothing else. It wasn't in him to stay quiet when he believed something so adamantly.

Scott had inveighed his own beliefs in no uncertain terms. Johnny's problem was his brother's unusual tenacity. Scott was always willing to listen to another point of view; had always been able to discuss anything calmly. Yet, when it came to Teresa, he turned a deaf ear. Why?

Returning the wedding picture to its place, he closed his eyes and placed both hands against the mantlepiece. Leaning in, he rocked gently back and forth trying to free his mind of these thoughts. Questions he'd asked himself so many times and always, never coming up with an answer.

He heard the door open and his heart palpitated. He knew as sure as anything, Scott was home.

Johnny steeled himself for the meeting. Suddenly, he was unsure of why he'd returned. But he chastised himself for those feelings and took a deep, bracing breath. It was time to resolve this one way or the other.

Scott walked through the door and his eyes immediately lit on Johnny. He stood stock still just inside the doorway.

"Hello, Scott," Johnny spoke softly.

"Johnny," Scott clipped with a terse nod.

Well, I guess I know now. He's still riled, Johnny thought. He didn't know what else to say at that moment. The conversations he'd had with his brother in his head had all vanished into thin air. Not one of them would come to him in his time of need.

"Murdoch told me you were back," Scott said as he walked to the sideboard.

Johnny nodded, now knowing where his father had gone.

"Drink?" Scott asked shortly.

Johnny cringed ever so slightly at the familiar question asked in much the same manner. "Sure."

Scott poured a measure of whiskey in each glass then offered one to his brother. As Johnny accepted the glass, he walked over and sat in one of the chairs near the fire.

Johnny stared into the glass for a long moment before glancing at his brother. Scott knocked back the drink in one gulp. He couldn't help the small smile that came to his lips as Scott sighed.

Johnny sat across from him on the edge of the chair. "How've you been?" he asked.

Scott stared at him for a long beat. "I've been great. Never better in fact. Very happy."

Johnny nodded though he thought Scott was being a bit overzealous for his benefit. As if he was proving himself right to Johnny.

"What about you?" Scott asked.

Johnny shrugged and took a drink of whiskey. "Okay."

One blond brow cocked. "Just okay?"

With a soft sigh, Johnny leaned back and regarded his brother. "Can we not do this?"

"I don't know what you mean," Scott replied stiffly.

"I mean, can we not act like two strangers sittin at a stage depot? More than that, Scott," Johnny leaned forward again, "can we get along?"

"I take it that means you plan on staying around - for a while?" The sarcasm dripped from Scott's voice.

*****

Johnny clenched his teeth in a desperate attempt to quell the anger rising in him. "I'm staying - for good."

"Where have I heard that before?" Scott snipped, raising his glass only to realize it was now empty. He stood and walked over to refill it then retook his seat.

"I guess the answer is no then. You're still ticked off at me. Well, that's fine, Scott. If you want to live like that, so be it," Johnny stated, throwing the rest of his drink down his throat.

"Well, let's see. Why would I still be ticked off at you? Oh yes, I remember now. You decided I wasn't good enough to marry the woman I love!" Scott spat.

Johnny's mouth fell open in utter shock. "What the hell are you talkin about? I never said that. Never even thought it!"

"Oh right. You just told Teresa it was a mistake to marry me," Scott clarified sardonically.

Eyes narrowed, Johnny responded. "No, that is not what I said. I told her she should think long and hard about it before marrying. She's never been off this ranch hardly, Scott. You know that as well as I do. I just wanted her to be sure she was ready NOW! But let me ask you this? If she had wanted to wait, would you?"

"Of course I would have! I love Teresa. I would have waited forever!" Scott retorted angrily.

"Then why were you so mad at me for suggesting it? What possible difference would it have made if you got married then or a year from now? What would it have hurt if Teresa had a chance to ....."

Perspicacity suddenly struck Johnny and he plopped back in the chair. The thought was stunning in its simplicity and yet, he would never have thought it. Had never thought of it.

"You were afraid she'd decide she wanted something else; or someone else. You were afraid if she saw a little of the outside world, she wouldn't want to come back," he breathed the statements.

"That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard, Johnny! You don't know what you're talking about!" Scott shouted, yet he was unable to meet his brother's eyes.

Johnny nodded almost imperceptively. "That's it. My God, Scott. I would never have believed you could be so ..... so unsure of yourself."

Scott got quickly to his feet and began pacing. "You're wrong, Johnny. Dead wrong. I wanted to marry Teresa because I love her. She wanted to marry me for the same reason. We are happy."

"I'm sure you are," Johnny said softly. "What about you and me, Scott? What are we now?"

Scott stopped, his back to his brother. "I don't know," he fairly whispered. "I've been so angry with you for so long. I don't know how to stop."

Johnny stood and approached his back. "You don't have to, Scott. You don't have to do a damned thing except this; don't you ever say anything like what you said to me again. Understand?" his voice was hard and edgy and he meant every word.

Scott turned and looked at him, a baffled expression on his face.

"That day I left. I didn't leave because you and Teresa were gettin married. I left because I couldn't stay here and think. I left before I really hurt you. You don't know how close I came, Scott. You had no right to say those things to me. None. You know nothing about it and it had nothing to do with anything happening here. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

"I do now," Scott spoke softly.

Before he could say any more, Johnny turned and walked upstairs.   

*****

Scott stared at the space where Johnny had just been for a long time. His mind went back to that day.

/// Scott stood on the veranda, hands on hips, glaring at his brother. "Just exactly what is your problem?"

Johnny stood facing him, eyes locked. "I don't have a problem, Scott. It's like I've already said. I just want Teresa to be sure she's ready for this. We're talking about the rest of her life." His tone was even and nonthreatening as he explained his position.

Scott took a deep breath. "It's the rest of my life, too."

"Yeah, but you're older and you've been out there, seen things. What's that girl ever seen, Scott? Stockton?"

"She's not a girl, Johnny. Maybe that's the problem. You can't see her as a grown woman."

"I see her just fine, thank you. I see someone who's old enough to marry in years. That don't mean she's ready. Why are you in such a hurry, anyway?"

Scott's hands slipped from his slender hips and hung loosely at his sides. Shaking his head, he answered, "I'm not in a big hurry. But, we've discussed it for quite some time now and we are *both* ready."

Johnny nodded. "Yeah, you discussed it. I'll bet it was all very romantic. But the romance will go away. What happens when she's faced with a life-long commitment? What happens if she realizes she has regrets? I'm not saying she doesn't love you. That's plain. But she still has some growing up to do."

Scott actually laughed. "Teresa has some growing up to do? That's rich! You're the one who needs to grow up, Johnny."

Johnny looked sidelong at his brother and shifted his stance slightly to the left. "Why is that?"

Scott shook his head slowly. "You have no idea what real love is. You don't have a clue how to act with a lady. All you know about is saloon girls and that's pretty simple. God help any woman who marries you!"

Johnny dropped his eyes for a second, then looked back at his brother. His face was devoid of emotion. Before he could respond, Scott continued.

"Look at you. There he is, Johnny Madrid. Protector of hearts! Anytime you feel threatened or someone comes too close to the truth, you slide right into the facade. I can imagine how your wife would feel staring into the eyes of a gunfighter when she doesn't please you," he spat in a condescending tone.

"You got no call to say that, Scott. You don't know anything about it," Johnny said in a low and tremulous voice.

"Don't I? Haven't you told me all about how deprived you were? I can assume that if you couldn't fill your belly most of the time, you certainly weren't running around falling in love! Of course, I suppose you could have learned very well from your mother!" he hissed acrimoniously.

Before he knew it, Scott was lying on the tile of the veranda, a trickle of blood slowly moving down from his lower lip. By the time he got his senses back and onto his feet, Johnny had gone inside.

Scott sat on the wall and wiped the blood with a kerchief, wondering when everything had gone so wrong. As he contemplated this, the front door swung open and Johnny strode out, saddlebags over his shoulder, rifle in his hand.

Murdoch was a few steps behind him. He stopped when he saw Scott and walked over.

"What happened?" he inquired.

Scott glanced at him then lowered his eyes. "We had a disagreement."

"A disagreement? He's leaving!" the rancher bellowed.

Scott stood up and smirked. "That figures. Let him go cool off. Maybe he'll wise up while he's gone. He certainly needs to mind his own business!"   /////

*****

That had been three long months ago and Johnny had not come home that night or any other night. Teresa had cried and thought about postponing the wedding. But Murdoch and Scott talked her into going ahead.

She had wanted Johnny there, standing up for his brother. Wanted the whole family together. But, it was not to be. She loved Scott so and nothing would change her mind. Still, she felt some sadness on her happiest day.

Scott had taken a seat, not remembering doing so. He stared into the once again empty glass and wondered. Could Johnny forgive him? He knew the things he'd said were uncalled for; cruel even.

He'd meant to hurt his brother. Some part of him wanted to push Johnny too far. Just to see what his brother would do. Sick. That's what it was. He knew Johnny would never physically hurt him. A punch in the mouth was nothing. But, he had admitted to himself, there were times he wasn't sure.

That legendary temper, and it was indeed legendary, had been so close so many times to boiling over. Yet, each and every time, Johnny would somehow rein it in and control the volcano.

How disgusting was it that Scott wanted to see that eruption? Wanted to know what it would take to finally make Johnny lose total control? He knew that had his brother not hit him and walked away, Scott would have kept pushing those buttons. And he thought he knew which ones to push and how many times.

Is this what it had come to then? Was this all that was left of their friendship? What had he done?

*****

"Scott?"

He turned and a sad smile came on his face as his wife entered the room. Scott stood and reached out to her. Teresa slid comfortably into his arms and held him tightly. When she pulled away, he saw the worry on her face.

"Where's Johnny?"

"He went upstairs," Scott answered, not quite meeting her eyes.

"Did you quarrel?"

"Yes."

She sighed and shook her head. "Who started it?"

Scott grimaced a little. "I did."

"Scott, don't you think it's time to end this? It's ridiculous to fight over something that isn't even an issue," she spoke firmly.

"I'm afraid it's gone farther than our marriage, darling. Johnny and I .... I'm not sure we can ever be friends again," he sighed.

"Why? What aren't you telling me?" she asked.

Scott moved away from her, pacing over to the picture window and staring out into space.

"Scott, what are you keeping from me?" she repeated the question.

"Guess he doesn't want you to know how low he can really sink," the quiet yet angry voice said.

She turned to look at him with profound confusion. "What are you talking about?"

"He's talking about our argument the day he left. The things I said to him," Scott explained softly.

She looked from one to the other, ready to swat them both for acting so foolishly. "I can't believe you'd say anything so bad ......" she trailed off when she saw the look of pain in her husband's eyes. The same pain she saw in Johnny's eyes when she turned her head.

Teresa fought back tears of sadness for something she couldn't even conceive of. That Scott could or would say something so hurtful that it destroyed the unique bond between the brothers.

Johnny stared at his brother but Scott couldn't look at him. A smirk came across the tanned face. "Remember now?" he asked sarcastically.

Scott did look at him briefly but only nodded.

Johnny sighed and left through the front door.

"Whatever you said to him, fix it," Teresa demanded.

"I'm not sure I can," Scott confessed.

Taking a deep breath, she stood her ground. "Then I hope you are quite comfortable on the sofa tonight." With that, she turned and stalked out of the room leaving a gawking Scott in her wake.

*****

Johnny stopped a few feet from the door and leaned against the cool adobe wall. He closed his eyes as he waited for the dizziness that had been plaguing him to leave.

His eyes opened sooner than he was ready for though as he felt someone watching him. Sure enough, Murdoch was standing there, brow furrowed.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"Nothin. Just talked to Scott," Johnny said softly.

"I take it things didn't go well?"

"No, they didn't. Guess warning him I was here didn't help," Johnny said, a sly look crossing his face.

Murdoch had the grace to at least look repentant. "Well, I thought it would give him a chance to think things over."

"Maybe. Didn't change his mind, though," Johnny sighed then shook his head. "Has he always been that hard-headed and I just never noticed?"

Laughter rumbled from Murdoch. "Yes, he's always been that hard-headed. However, he's usually more thoughtful." The smile left with this last statement.

They both fell quiet for a minute.

"Johnny, I owe you an apology. I should have stepped in before things got out of hand. I guess I just never thought it would go that far. In fact, I'm still unsure what happened that day; what Scott said to you."

Johnny knew he was fishing but he wasn't biting. "It doesn't matter. He doesn't seem to think he said anything wrong. Guess we'll just have to disagree about it is all."

"It matters, son. It was enough to make you hit your brother. I know it would take a great deal to push you to that," Murdoch pressed, brow cocked knowingly.

Johnny glanced at him then looked away, a small smile threatening. "You really want to know bad, huh?"

Murdoch smiled then, too. "It's not being nosy, son. I want to help but I can't if I don't know what happened."

*****

Johnny finally moved, shifting his weight and walking slowly over to the veranda. He perched on the low wall, one foot settled on the ground. He stared out at the land thoughtfully.

"I'm not sure there's anything you can do, Murdoch. Maybe I shouldn't have come back," he said, disheartened.

"No, Johnny. You should never have left. I said I don't understand why and I don't. But, I realize I don't have to understand. All I have to do is accept it as your way of dealing with things. But, son, this is your home. Don't ever feel you don't belong here because you do."

The words were genuine and heartfelt and Johnny felt a lump form in his throat. He blinked several times and swallowed hard. Never had his father spoken so openly with him. Not like this. Not with such emotion.

"Thanks," was all he could manage to croak out.

"Johnny, you said something earlier that bothered me. You said your opinion doesn't matter."

"Yeah?"

"Why would you think that?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny looked at him, stunned. He wasn't sure he could even talk, he was so surprised. But, he supposed he shouldn't be. Murdoch had always seemed blind, deaf and dumb when it came to him.

Anger suddenly surged in him and he answered tersely. "Experience."

Confusion adorned the older man's face as he shook his head slowly. "I don't understand."

"I know you don't," Johnny said harshly. "You never have understood and this is the first time you've ever even tried. Why, is what I can't figure."

"Son, I can't be part of this conversation if I don't know what you're talking about," Murdoch said, moving over to sit next to him.

But, Johnny jumped to his feet and began to pace, fingers tapping his thighs. Head bowed, he thought how best to tell the old man what he knew he had to say.

"Since day one, you haven't listened to me much. Most of the time you just dismiss me like I'm a pesky fly buzzin around your head. When you do listen, you never agree and you never discuss anything. If you don't like it, that's it and that's all," he cut his hand through the air.

"I'm gonna let you in on a little secret, Murdoch. A test, I guess you could call it. Or maybe an experiment since you like those. Somethin me and Scott have done a few times just to see." Johnny stopped pacing and stood directly in front of his father, locking eyes.

"Scott's idea to fence in that section in the east pasture? That was my idea. Scott's idea to deepen Cold Stream so the bridge would stop flooding every year? That was my idea. We just let you think it was Scott's so you'd agree."

Murdoch's eyes widened in surprise. "Johnny, both those ideas were good ones. I would have agreed if you'd presented them to me," he defended.

"But you didn't," Johnny said, his voice lowering substantially. "See, I did bring both those things up to you before I got Scott to do it. Both times, you said it could wait or it wasn't "feasible". Both times we waited a week or two before Scott brought it up and you were all for it. So don't sit there and tell me my opinion matters to you, Old Man!" His voice had regained it's strength, the anger back with a vengeance. He stared at his father, eyes daring a rebuke.

Murdoch couldn't seem to look away from those accusing eyes though he desperately wanted to do so. His mind went blank for what seemed forever. He tried to recall both events and he did. But, only when Scott had made the suggestions. For the life of him, he couldn't remember Johnny talking about it. Was this a test? Did this really happen or was Johnny trying to ..... trying to what, exactly?

"I don't remember you ever asking me about this. What was I doing when you brought it up?" he asked.

"Don't. Don't try and say I brought it up when you were busy with something else or you were distracted or whatever. I sat in front of that desk with your full attention," he said, his arm waving in the direction of the French doors.

*****

Murdoch took a deep breath and stood up. He felt at a distinct disadvantage with Johnny standing over him. "I don't know what to say, son."

"You don't have to say anything. Just don't lie to me. Don't pretend, okay?" Johnny made a half-turn away from his father.

"Did I say why it was a bad idea?" Murdoch continued.

"No, you didn't. And you want to know why? Because they weren't bad ideas, they were just my ideas. And, I guess I'm just too stupid and uneducated to have good ones."

"That is not true!" Murdoch blasted.

Johnny turned back to him. "You don't want to think it but you do. Scott went to Harvard. Scott was a war hero. Me? I'm just a gunhawk who never had much schoolin. Yeah, Scott's a lot smarter than me. I know that. But I ain't stupid, either, Murdoch. You never gave me much credit." A sardonic smile formed briefly on his lips.

"Scott said it was because you didn't know I had any sense. That ain't how he put it but that's what he meant. He tried to make light of it; tried to shrug it off. But I could see it in his eyes. I guess you just assumed I was nothin more than a ranch hand. Could never be more than that. For the life of me, I can't understand what you were thinking when you offered me a partnership. I'll bet you didn't think I could even sign my name to that piece of paper." By now, his tone had turned bitter, his face a mask of hurt.

"Is that how I've made you feel, son? Like you aren't worth anything?" Murdoch asked barely above a whisper.

Johnny turned his back and simply nodded. His arms wrapped around himself, he bowed his head.

Murdoch felt a little dizzy from this information. It was never his intention. He never wanted Johnny to feel unworthy. The exact opposite was true. He wanted so much for his son to feel wanted, loved and deserving. He realized Johnny was right. He had treated him badly. What a fool he'd been! He knew his son was smart. He had a natural intelligence one didn't obtain from any school books. More than that, he had a lifetime of experience to pull from. So why did he feel the need to belittle his own boy?

He slumped back down on the wall. His boy? Johnny wasn't a boy. He was a man. He looked at his son's stooped shoulders, the bowed head, the telling slouched posture. He'd hurt him terribly. Maybe worse than Scott ever could have with whatever words he'd used against his brother that day.

He took to his feet and approached Johnny. Placing a hand on each shoulder he felt the tension rise under his touch. But he wouldn't let go, not this time.

"I don't know what to say, son. I'm not sure I have an adequate explanation for my behavior. I really didn't realize I was doing this to you. It was never my intention, I hope to God you believe that. Maybe I did think you weren't prepared or experienced enough to know how things work here. I don't know. I can see now that I've caused you more grief than anyone should have to endure. And maybe I don't deserve another chance to get it right. But, Johnny, I want that chance. I need you here with me. I want you here. Please, son, give an old fool the chance to learn how to be a good father," he pleaded sincerely.

*****

Johnny felt an overwhelming urge to turn around. To just fall into the arms attached to those strong hands. But he couldn't because he was afraid. Afraid those arms wouldn't be there. That his father would pull away when face to face with him. So he stood there, unmoving and barely breathing and silent.

Murdoch's face fell in disappointment. Johnny hadn't moved, hadn't spoken, didn't seem to have acknowledged anything he'd said. But, before he gave up, he tried once more.

"Son, could you answer me?"

Johnny could only nod. He knew it wasn't an answer but he didn't want Murdoch to think he wasn't listening. Pulling himself up and prepared to lose the physical contact, he turned around. The hands released him so he could move, only to return immediately to his shoulders. He relaxed under the touch this time.

Slowly, his eyes raised to meet his father's. There, he found what he had been looking for his whole life. Acceptance.

"Yes," he answered simply.

Murdoch smiled and pulled him into an embrace.

"Am I interrupting?"

Both men pulled away, slightly embarrassed at being found in such an intimate display. Johnny turned away again and Murdoch frowned.

"I think we've finished - for now," he added, touching Johnny's arm.

Johnny looked sideways to catch his father's eye and smiled.

Murdoch reciprocated then turned to face his elder son. "I'll leave you to it, then," he said, casting Scott a displeased look as he passed by.

Silence descended on the veranda as Scott stared at his brother's back and Johnny stared into space.

"I don't want to go another round with you tonight, Scott," Johnny spoke quietly.

"I didn't come out here to fight. I came to talk," Scott clarified.

A smile tugged at the younger man's face. "Don't think I want to do that, either. I'm tired."

"Yes, you are tired. You're sick, too. What's wrong?"

Johnny turned to look at him, mildly surprised. "Nothin's wrong. I'm not sick."

Scott walked closer and peered intently at him. "You've lost weight, you've got saddlebags under your eyes and you're pale. I'd say something is definitely wrong."

Johnny sighed in frustration and cocked his head sideways. "I'm surprised you noticed," he slammed.

"I thought you didn't want to fight," Scott reminded him.

Lowering his eyes only briefly, Johnny capitulated. "You're right. I don't. I'm goin to bed." He started to pass his brother when he felt the grasp on his bicep.

"Where'd you get that pretty scar on your neck?"

Johnny pulled free and regarded the older man. "None of your business," he said softly and walked away.

"It's not going to be that easy, Johnny," Scott called over his shoulder.

Johnny stopped but didn't turn back. "What isn't?"

"Avoiding me. Teresa has banished me to the sofa until I talk this out with you."

Johnny closed his eyes and sighed. "It's pretty comfortable if I remember right. I'm sure you'll be fine." With that, he continued on his way.

Scott cursed himself. He should have known trying to banter with Johnny wouldn't work. Not this time. Maybe, he thought sadly, not ever again.

He stared at the stars as he leaned against the adobe and wondered how he was going to fix this. How he was going to apologize for the unforgiveable. There was a time when he was certain nothing would ever tear he and his brother apart. A time when he would have sworn on his life there was nothing that could ever happen to break the bond.

But, it had happened and he wasn't at all sure that bond could be mended. Not sure there was a glue strong enough to repair the great fissure between them. A week ago, he could tell himself he didn't care. But, he'd been lying to himself for three months now and he was tired. Tired of pretending Johnny's absence didn't matter. That it didn't affect him in the least. Even that he was glad of his brother's departure. For nothing could be further from the truth.

*****

Johnny's eyes cracked open at the sound of the doorknob turning. He watched with some amusement as Maria crept in and placed the tray on the dresser top. Wondering how she had planned to awaken him, he shut his eyes as she turned toward him.

Soft footsteps came to him. He could even hear her rubbing her hands together nervously as she softly cleared her throat. He could take it no longer and without so much as a twitch, he spoke.

"Mornin."

"Dios!" she exclaimed and crossed herself. "Do not do that, Juanito!"

He opened his eyes and grinned widely. "Do what? Wake up?"

She gave him a patronizing look and tsked him then retrieved the tray.

Johnny sat up and positioned his pillows so he could lean comfortable against the headboard. "What's this for?"

"You did not eat the superb meal I cooked for you last night," she explained and the disappointment was palpable in her voice. "I prepared this for you and you *will* eat, nino!"

She placed the tray on his lap and pulled the napkin off revealing a sumptious breakfast. Johnny cocked a brow and looked up at her. "Who's eatin with me?"

"No one. It is all for you. You are too skinny. You must eat." Her tone left no quarter and he nodded, grabbing a fork and tucking in. Maria smiled victoriously and left him to it.

As soon as the door clicked closed, Johnny laid the fork on the plate and sighed. He stared at the food, knowing it would taste like heaven but unable to force himself to eat. What the hell was wrong with him? He felt hungry but the thought of putting even one bite in his mouth left him with an overwhelming feeling of nausea.

He sipped the coffee though, needing the help to wake up. Once again, he had slept restlessly. Tossing and turning until the early morning hours. He knew he looked like hell but there was nothing he could do about it.

*****

Scott groaned and stretched his aching back as he raised up on one elbow. Looking around, he reoriented himself to the great room. He sighed and sat up on the sofa wondering how long this would go on. He'd only slept there to give Teresa her right of punishment for him. There were plenty of empty rooms upstairs he could have slept in.

Maybe she'd have pity on him knowing he'd been miserable all night. Then again, maybe not. His bride could be irascible at times and was as stubborn if not more so than any Lancer.

He had not done as she wished last night. But, it was not for lack of trying. It wasn't his fault Johnny wouldn't talk to him. Scott shook his head. Yes, it was his fault. And if he had to endure another lonely night, so be it. One way or the other, however, he was determined to talk things through with Johnny today.

He headed upstairs to get cleaned up when he met his wife on the landing. "Good morning, darling," he smiled charmingly.

"Good morning, dear. Did you talk to Johnny?"

Boy, she doesn't give an inch, he thought. "I tried but he wouldn't talk to me. I will talk to him today though. I promise," he said quickly and gave her a pathetic look.

She quirked a half-smile at him. "Well, I can understand if he wouldn't. Just be sure you clear the air today."

Scott reached over and pecked her on the cheek. "And if I don't?" he teased.

"I'm not in the mood for your jokes, Scott Lancer," she frowned. "Just get it done." She continued on her way to the kitchen and he sighed.

She sounds like Johnny, he realized.

*****

Sitting at the kitchen table with his family, Murdoch's eyes kept going to the doorway expectantly. Maria finally noticed and gave him a sympathetic smile.

"Juanito is eating in bed today," she told him.

"Is he ill?" Murdoch asked, becoming alarmed.

She frowned at him. "He will be if he does not start eating. He is too skinny."

Murdoch sighed and nodded his agreement.

"Yes, he is. He doesn't look well at all," Teresa imparted.

"I asked him about it last night but he brushed it off. Some things don't change, I guess," Scott said.

"Let's hope some things do," Teresa countered pointedly.

Scott looked long at her. He wondered what she would do if he could not mend the fence with his brother. He started to ask her that very thing when Johnny walked in.

"Ah, there you are. How was your breakfast?" Murdoch smiled.

He returned the smile a bit shyly. "Muy bueno. Gracias, Maria," he kissed her cheek.

She was skeptical. "How much did you eat?"

Johnny averted his eyes. "As much as I could, mamacita," he said truthfully. Hoping to quickly change the subject, he turned to his father. "What do you want me to do today?"

Murdoch looked at him in surprise. "Not one thing, son. Except to relax and get some rest. Did you sleep last night?"

Johnny sighed heavily and frowned. "I didn't come back to get babysat, Murdoch. Unless this ranch all the sudden started runnin itself, there must be somethin for me to do."

Murdoch leaned back in his chair and considered this. His initial anger at his son's tone was fought down quickly. "Go see Jelly. I'm sure he needs some help with that corral fence."

Johnny nodded. He knew the old man was keeping him close to the house but that was fine. As long as he was *doing* something. He'd been at loose ends for far too long now.

*****

Johnny watched from the shadows as the gruff old man grumbled under his breath about who knew what this time. A smile was plastered on his face as he fought not to laugh aloud at Jelly's quiet tirade. Figuring he wouldn't be able to hold out much longer, Johnny let himself be known. Of course, he couldn't just call out a greeting.

With the devil in his eyes, he slipped quietly past the worktable of the tack room. When Jelly turned, he found himself staring at Johnny.

"What in tarnation!? Ya nearly scared the life outta me! Johnny!" all this within a breath as he dropped the bag of nails in his hand and grabbed the younger man in an embrace.

Johnny was taken aback by the display but returned the hug with genuine affection. He pulled back and grinned down at Jelly. "Sounds like you got a bad start to the day."

"Boy, it's about time ya came home. Now, tell me you're a stayin," Jelly asked through husky breaths.

"I'm stayin, Jelly," Johnny assured him.

The old wrangler nodded and pulled his kerchief, wiping at his eyes and complaining about the amount of dust Johnny must have stirred up with his foolishness.

"Reckon I shoulda checked the barn this mornin. Then, I'd a know'd you was back."

"Reckon you should have at that, old man. Murdoch wants me to help you with the corral fence. Guess he don't want me strayin too far just yet," Johnny laughed.

"Cain't say as I blame 'im none fer that! Cain't imagine him wantin ta take his eyes off ya atall," Jelly groused back with evident emotion still in his voice.

Clearing his throat and pulling himself together, he barked, "well, might as well git to it then. Ain't gonna get fixed by itself." He picked up his bag of nails and skirted past Johnny. A grin a mile wide spread over his face and he made a promise to himself to thank the boss. Spending the day with Johnny was something he never thought he'd ever get to do again.  

*****

Scott took his time with his breakfast, praying Murdoch would get going soon. He finally got his wish as he nodded his acceptance of the day's chores. Once his father was gone, he turned to his wife.

"We need to talk, Teresa. What if I can't get Johnny to come around?" he asked seriously.

She studied him; his eyes. Eyes she knew so well and she could see what he was thinking. "Scott, all I ask is that you try. Really try. And that you want to," she replied, a slight quiver in her voice.

He smiled and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "I intend to do just that and yes, I want to. More than anything, I want things to be like they were. I just don't think they will be. Even if Johnny and I come to some understanding, things will never be the same between us. I'll live with the guilt of knowing that's my fault for the rest of my life."

Teresa leaned over and rested her head on his chest, hugging into him tightly. "Oh, Scott. I feel like I'm the one to blame, really. Sometimes, I don't think I tried hard enough to make Johnny understand. Maybe if I had, none of this would have happened."

Scott tightened his hold. "No, sweetheart. This stopped being about us getting married. I'm the one who did wrong. I'm the one who turned this into something it wasn't. I just wish I knew why."

She pulled back and looked up at him. "Maybe you had better figure that out before you talk to him."

"I haven't had much success in three months," Scott admitted.

"Have you really tried? Or have you pushed it away?" she asked.

He smiled at her again. "You know me too well, my love. You're right, I've been avoiding myself and that's not so easy to do," he laughed softly. Turning serious, he frowned. "Yes, I think I need to spend some time figuring this out. And, I think I will start right now. Murdoch may not be too happy about it but I think I need to pull a "Johnny". I need some time alone to sort things out."

She nodded her understanding and agreement. "Don't worry about Murdoch. As long as he knows the why, he'll be fine with it."

*****

Scott approached the desk where his father sat making a supplies list. He cleared his throat and waited to be acknowledged.

"Are you still here?" Murdoch asked, a bit irritated.

"Teresa and I have been talking, Sir. About Johnny. We both agree I need to work through what made me behave so abominably before I can talk honestly with Johnny. I need some time alone and someplace quiet for that. I'm going to the South Mesa. I'll be back by supper." He finished and waited for the explosion.

Murdoch sat back and eyed him for a long moment. "That's a very good idea, son. I'll have Cirpriano send Frank to take care of your work today."

Scott's brows went up and he gawked openly. "You're not angry?"

Murdoch smiled a little. "No, son. It's more important that you sort out your feelings and make things right with your brother. Johnny and I had a very enlightening talk last night. One that opened my eyes, quite frankly." He stopped and stared off in the distance for a few seconds.

Blinking himself back to the present, he looked at Scott. "Go ahead. Just don't forget to come home."

Scott chuckled. "Yes, I'll try to remember that minor detail. Thank you, Sir."

"Thank you, son. For wanting to try with your brother."

Scott dropped his head. "Have I been completely impossible?"

Murdoch leaned forward, hands clasped together on the desk top. "Not completely. There have been times when I wanted to belt you, though."

Scott's head shot up, a stunned look on his face. Murdoch was dead serious. Not a twinkle of humor on his face. "Yes, Sir," he mumbled and turned to leave.

"Scott?" Murdoch called and waited for him to turn. "There've been times when I wanted to belt myself, too."

A smile flitted across Scott's face as he nodded, then turned and left the house.

*****

Johnny didn't look up as his brother rode past. Jelly waved in return to Scott's gesture then watched a minute as he rode away.

"Reckon you two are still at odds?"

"Reckon so. Hand me that hammer," Johnny replied, nonplussed.

Jelly handed off the tool, still watching the young man's face. "Wanna talk?"

"Nope. I wanna work. It's been too long. Muscles are already feeling loose again," he smiled briefly.

"Well, it's your own fault! Nobody told ya to run off and nobody told ya ta turn inta one a them lazy types neither. Ya coulda worked somewhere, ya know!"

Johnny stood straight and eyed the older man coldly. "I recall just now sayin I didn't want to talk about this, Jelly."

Jelly's eyes widened at the tone of voice, then his chest puffed out. "Don't go gettin persnicikety with me, Johnny Lancer. Might jest find yerself missin a layer a skin off your backside!"

Johnny stared at him for a beat then burst out laughing. He bent over and held his stomach after a minute, trying without success to stop. Jelly's indignant ramblings did nothing to help qwell the mirth.

He realized Jelly had stopped his goings-on and he turned to see Murdoch nearing. Johnny stood up straight but he was wiping the tears of laughter away still.

"I must have missed a good joke," Murdoch smiled.

"Didn't miss nothin 'cept a smart aleck too big fer his britches!" Jelly announced.

Johnny snorted and tried hard not to start again but he couldn't keep the grin from his face.

Murdoch's heart swelled. How he'd missed that laugh; that smile! He cleared his throat. "Yes, well, I'm going into town for supplies. Johnny, do you want to come along?"

Johnny managed to remove the grin but his eyes still danced. "Sure," he shrugged.

*****

Scott dismounted and tethered Remmie near the stream, then walked over to the cliffside. Staring out over the land he loved so much, he took a moment to just appreciate the beauty. He wore a smile he was not even aware of as he took in the sight.

The reason for this trip made itself known soon enough and the smile left him. He turned away and walked back over near the cabin. Standing there alone, he didn't have a clue what to do. He knew he needed to think things through but it was hard to know where to start.

The beginning, Scotty. His grandfather's voice rang inside his head. He smiled wanly. Yes, always start at the beginning. And so he did.

He planted himself in a chair on the small porch and streteched his legs out in front of him. The beginning. That would have been the night he and Teresa announced their intentions. Murdoch had been so happy. Jelly, too. They both shook his hand vigorously and hugged the stuffing out of Teresa.

But not Johnny. He'd sat there quietly and watched, saying nothing. Scott recalled asking wasn't he going to congratulate them. Johnny had looked at him with sad eyes and an even sadder smile. He'd stood then.

Sure, Boston. Congratulations. That's what he'd said then excused himself from the room. That had angered Scott. The first of many angry moments toward his brother. Johnny had not been happy for them and Scott was at a loss as to why.

He hadn't had to wait long to find out. The next day, Johnny had spoken at length to Teresa about what she truly wanted. What was available to her and whether she was really ready to settle down.

When Teresa had told him of their conversation, Scott had been livid. He'd challenged Johnny at the supper table that night. With chagrin, he recalled Johnny's calm demeanor as he explained his viewpoint. One Scott had argued vigorously and Teresa, though not upset, had agreed with.

She had told Scott she wasn't angry with Johnny. Thought it sweet he was so concerned for her. But, Scott could only see a threat to his happiness. He could only see that Johnny was trying to come between he and Teresa. Though why, he could not fathom.

*****

Leaning forward and pulling his legs closer, he rested his forearms on his knees and bowed his head. It was him. He'd been the problem all along. His reaction to Johnny's opinion had been over the top. Thinking back on it, he could see so clearly now.

His own behavior had been the catalyst for the confrontation that day. His accusations had been ridiculous and unwarranted. The thought that Johnny wanted Teresa for his own was inconceivable. He knew how close the two had become and he knew just exactly what type of relationship it was.

They were as siblings. Close in age and both acting like kids sometimes. Nothing more, nothing less. Scott's confidence in Teresa's love was never in doubt. His trust in his brother had been, though. He had let this boil until it exploded.

Why? The question resounded in his head like the ringing of an anvil striking metal. Closing his eyes, Scott leaned back and rested his head against the chair back. Why? he asked again.

He let his mind go. Tired of thinking so hard and coming up empty. Maybe if he just rested for a few minutes. Maybe then things would be clearer.

He let his mind drift back to Boston. Remembering of his grandfather's words in his head earlier made him think of the old gentleman. But when he pictured the face, it was one of disappointment. Scott frowned. There had been only three times in his life he could recall seeing that look on Harlan Garrett's face.

One had been when he'd accepted Murdoch's offer. Before that, when he'd joined the army. The other time was ......

Scott sat bolt upright, eyes flying open, mouth ajar. He blinked several times then got to his feet and began pacing; stepping off the porch into the yard.

Julie.

That was the other time. When he'd broken his engagement with Julie, his grandfather had been so disappointed. Memories assaulted him of that painful time. He'd loved her so and hadn't loved another that way until Teresa.

Julie had broken his heart. Her adamant refusal to entertain any idea other than him working for his grandfather had stunned him. He'd tried to reason with her. He'd explained his position. How he wanted to make it on his own. Not live off his grandfather's name and wealth but to be his own man; make his own mark on the world.

But she would have none of it. Telling him he could be his own man as the president of Garrett Enterprises someday. She would not live in a hovel, she'd said, while he 'made his mark'. She been quite sarcastic about that and it had infuriated him. So much so that he'd taken back his proposal.

*****

Scott stopped pacing. But what did that have to do with any of this? Why should that make him behave so out of character. He realized it wasn't so much what Johnny had believed as it was the thought of Teresa agreeing with him.

Johnny had been right last night. Scott was afraid that if she went out in the world, he would lose her forever. And he couldn't stand the thought of living with that pain again. So, he had turned on his brother.  

The one person who had always stood by him. The one person who knew his secrets, his fears, his passions. The one person who would never betray his trust was the one person he had betrayed.

Scott sank to the ground on his knees. His posture reminiscent of another young man he loved so much. A man he'd destroyed any chance of continuing a friendship with.

For Scott knew that even if he explained this to Johnny. Even if Johnny understood, nothing would ever be the same again. The trust was broken; shattered by his own vicious tongue and unsubstantiated fear. Scott never knew he had the capacity to be so cruel. Where that had come from, he didn't know. But it had come nonetheless and he couldn't take it back. Couldn't undo the damage.

We always hurt the ones we love. The quote rang in his mind and he knew it was true. He swallowed at the aching lump in his throat and looked to the heavens. Eyes wet with moisture, Scott Lancer prayed for a way to make his brother understand how terribly sorry he was.

At long last, he got to his feet. The sun was waning and he knew it was time to head back. Yet he made no move toward his horse who was happily grazing nearby. He simply stood there, feeling lost. Feeling the deepest ache he'd ever experienced and he was certain, it came directly from his soul.

Scott wasn't convinced that his fear of losing Teresa was the entire problem. He should have been able to handle any misgivings Johnny had calmly and rationally. After all, that was him. Calm and rational Scott. Maybe not so much anymore, though. Maybe Johnny's emotional outlook on life had rubbed off a bit.

Maybe he'd learned how to live by his feelings; his intuition more since coming home. Maybe, Johnny had taught him some invaluable lessons and he just never realized it before.

Murdoch pulled to a stop in front of the general store. The trip into town had been quiet once they'd both settled down. Once Johnny told Murdoch of Jelly's threat to skin his backside, both men had laughed until they cried.

Jumping down, Johnny rounded the wagon to meet his father on the boardwalk. They walked inside together to be met by Mrs. O'Hara. Johnny groaned softly.

"Johnny! I heard you were back. What a bad boy you are! Why didn't you have Mr. O'Hara call me?" As usual, her voice was overly loud. And, as always irked him for some reason, she referred to her husband as Mr. O'Hara - always.

He endured the pinching of his cheeks with a tight smile and an even tighter hello. Murdoch saved him by redirecting her attention to the list of supplies. She rattled on even as she disappeared into the storeroom.

"We'll be back for those in a bit," Murdoch called out and grabbed Johnny's arm, ushering him outside.

"Thank you," Johnny breathed.

Murdoch chuckled. "You're welcome, son. You can tell me how she knew you were home while we walk."

Johnny sighed and began telling him how he'd stopped in Green River three days ago and about his talk with Val, etcetera, etcetera. He didn't even ask where they were going, nor did he think about it until they stopped.

"What are we doing here?" he asked suspiciously.


Murdoch looked innocently at him. "I thought you'd like to see Sam. He's been just as worried about you as I have."

Johnny gave him a sidelong look but acquiesced. Shrugging, he walked into the doctor's office, his father right behind him.

*****

"Be with you in a minute," Sam called from somewhere in the back.

He walked out drying his hands on a towel and stopped cold. "Johnny!" he breathed. A smile lit Sam's face as he advanced. He grabbed Johnny in a bear hug, surprising the young man again.

"Hey, Sam. Good to see you," he said softly as the doctor released him.

Sam's smile faded as he took a good look. "Well, it's good to see what's left of you, too. Johnny, you look awful."

"Thanks, Sam. You're a sight for sore eyes, yourself," Johnny shot good-naturedly.

"I'm not kidding, young man. Come in the back this instant."

"Whoa! I just stopped to say howdy. I'm not sick," Johnny protested.

One glance at Murdoch was all Sam needed and really didn't need that. He practically pushed Johnny into the examination room and up against the table.

"Sit!" he ordered and pointed.

Johnny looked to his father for help but, this time, there was no reprieve.

"You really do look bad, son. Just let Sam have a look. It can't hurt anything, can it?" Murdoch said in an oddly persuasive voice.

Johnny sighed and gave in again, easing up on the table and letting his legs swing freely.

Sam smiled in satisfaction then eyed Murdoch. "You can wait outside," he said.

Murdoch looked perturbed but he knew better than to argue with his old friend. When it came to his profession, Sam Jenkins brooked no nonsense.

Johnny laughed softly. "Wish I could make him do that."

Sam smiled but it faded quickly. He did a thorough examination and took his sweet time.

*****

Twenty minutes later, Sam stood back, a frown on his face. "What have you been eating?"

Johnny shrugged. "Beans and hardtack, mostly."

"All this time?" Sam cocked a brow.

Johnny nodded. "Yeah, so what?"

Sam shook his head and sighed. "How's your appetite?"

Johnny lowered his eyes at this question. "Not so good. I mean, I get hungry but the thought of eating just makes my stomach roll."

"And sleeping?"

Johnny sighed and shook his head slowly. "I sleep. It just don't feel like it when I wake up."

"How much sleep have you been getting, Johnny? Truth," Sam persisted.

"Couple of hours a night. I guess I got spoiled. It was hard sleepin on the trail all the time," he smiled.

"You've been back two nights now? How have you slept those two nights?"

"Bout the same," he shrugged.

Sam nodded thoughtfully. "How are you and Scott getting along?"

The tension that rose in Johnny's shoulders was all the answer Sam Jenkins needed.

"Well, I think there are a couple of things going on here, Johnny. First, you are exhausted. Physically and emotionally." Sam held up a hand as the younger man opened his mouth. "Don't interrupt me, son. You've been living on practically nothing for three months. You certainly haven't been getting proper nutrition. That's why 'real' food makes you feel queasy. Your body isn't used to it anymore."

"It was like that before only not as bad," Johnny softly admitted.

"Before?"

"When I first came home. I had a hard time keeping much down. I wouldn't eat a lot. But I could eat, at least."

Sam found something behind Johnny to look at for a moment, then refocused on his friend. "Well, you need to start out slow. Soft foods like mashed potatoes, soup. Nothing heavy like meat for a day or two. You are anemic. That means there's not enough iron in your body. Red meat, dark green vegetables and red wine will help that. Start with the wine. A glass with dinner every night for two weeks. By then, you should be able to handle any food.

"Now then, about your sleep. You've got to have restful sleep, Johnny. I'd wager you do a lot of tossing and turning?"

Johnny nodded.

"I can't tell you to just fix things with Scott but something has to give. You have to find a way to let your mind rest."

Johnny grinned. "Reckon that wine ought to help."

"About that. No other kind of liquor until your appetite is back full force. I mean it!" Sam reiterated at the appalled look he got.

*****

By the time Johnny walked out into the waiting area, he felt like a child who'd been reprimanded by the parish priest. He knew Sam didn't mean it that way and he appreciated the man more than he could say. Still, he had a hard time believing all this was due to a little lost sleep and his diet. Though, he'd never admit it to any of them, he hadn't felt well for a long time now.

Sam gave Murdoch a lengthy explanation of Johnny's ills. The rancher glanced over at his son more than once, concern etched in his brow.

Johnny could only smile sadly at him. He could see the wheels turning in the old man's head. Knew as soon as they got home, he'd have two females all over him. He sighed softly. Still and all, it felt really good to have someone give a damn about him again.

They went back to the store and loaded the wagon in near silence. Mrs. O'Hara had left for her Ladies Guild meeting and Mr. O'Hara held true to form, saying next to nothing.

It wasn't until they were well on their way home that Murdoch started.

"You will do exactly what Sam said," he said out of the blue.

"Okay."

"No whiskey, no tequila and only light chores."

"Right."

"And Maria will make you foods easy on your stomach."

"I know."

Murdoch looked over at his despondent son. "What?"

"Nothin. It's just that I've been back a day and I'm already causing problems again."

Murdoch pulled up hard on the reins, stopping the wagon and setting the brake. He turned sideways and looked squarely at his son. "You are sick. That's not causing problems. The reason you're sick is not your doing, either." Softening his tone, he added, "I never want you to think you're a problem, Johnny. You may *have* a problem and when you do, we'll fix it together. But you are never *the* problem. Do you understand?"

Johnny looked at him and nodded. "Yeah, I understand. Thanks."

Murdoch grasped the nape of his neck in one huge hand and gave him an affectionate shake and a smile. "Good. Now, let's go home."

*****

Scott rode slowly into the yard, stopping near the barn door. He dismounted and lead Remmie inside. Relief washed over him when he saw Barranca in his stall. He was surprised by the sensation. Not once had he consciously thought Johnny would not be there. He supposed it was a subconscious fear. That his brother would leave before they could talk.

He settled the horse in for the night, once again, taking his time. Putting it off, he chastised himself. With a resigned sigh, he headed inside.

Teresa met him at the door as she did every evening. They walked into the great room together, arm in arm. Murdoch was sitting on the sofa. He craned his neck to look at them and waved Scott over. He had waited to talk to Teresa about Johnny; not wanting to tell it a third time. He'd already spoken with Maria about Johnny's diet.

When he'd finished explaining everything Sam had told them, there was quiet in the room.

"Where is Johnny?" Scott asked.

"He's lying down. He's supposed to be sleeping though I doubt he is," Murdoch replied.

"Do you think .... is he too sick to talk?" Scott floundered.

"That's up to him, son. You know Johnny. He's always just fine," the older man sighed.

Scott snorted at this, knowing it to be true. "Well, I think I'll go wash up for supper, then." He gave Teresa a kiss on the cheek before heading upstairs.

"Murdoch, do you think it would do any good for me to talk to Johnny?" Teresa asked.

"No, honey. This is between the brothers. I don't think it has a thing in the world to do with you really. Something else is going on with Scott. I couldn't tell if he's made any headway on figuring that out or not."

"He has," Teresa responded assuredly. "I could see it in his eyes when he came in. He's come to some conclusions."

Murdoch smiled at his daughter-in-law. "You know him so well."

"I'd better," she laughed.

*****

Johnny stared at the ceiling, his mind wandering no place in particular. Sam sure wasn't out of practice where he was concerned. A smile lit his face. He was sure he'd never been hugged so much in his life. It had been a bit overwhelming but it had taught him a huge lesson. These people really did care for him.

Doubt had always been his faithful friend and especially since coming home. He doubted Murdoch gave a damn about him. He even doubted how much the rest of them really cared. There had been times when he'd allowed himself a bit of self-pity, that he convinced himself they wouldn't even notice if he left.

Those moments never lasted more than a fraction of a minute. He was not one to wallow. Feeling sorry for himself had stopped many years ago when he'd realized it was a useless commodity. When there was no one who gave a damn. When he himself hadn't given a damn.

A chill washed over him as memories of times when he'd been so desperate, he'd thought of ending it. It would have been incredibly easy. All he had to do was not react quite so quickly, not draw quite so fast and it would be over. What stopped him, he didn't know. Maybe it was something inborn. The will to survive was strong in him; always had been. Something he got from his father, he now knew.

And there was something else. Pride. Yes, he was a proud man and it wasn't always a good thing. He never allowed himself to do anything half-way. So, it was inconceivable to him to *allow* someone to outdraw him. A quirky smile crossed his face. You were so damn cocky, he thought. Still am, he admitted.

A light knock on the door ended his ruminations. He knew it was Scott. Could tell by the knock. He thought about not answering. Knowing his brother would never just barge in without an invitation. Still formal and polite - probably to his last breath, Johnny imagined.

Well, reckon it's time to face the music. Time to dance with his brother and see where things stood. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and rose to his feet. Grabbing the bed post, he held on tightly as a bout of dizziness assaulted him. He heard the knock again and swore under his breath.

"Just a minute," he called out and waited for the episode to end. Slowly opening his eyes, he tested his fortitude and, satisfied he was okay, he walked to the door.

"I didn't wake you, did I?" Scott asked.

"No, just daydreamin. Come on in," Johnny half-lied.

Scott walked hesitantly into the room and over to the window before turning to face his brother.

Johnny leaned against the now closed door, arms crossed over his chest and waited.

"Murdoch told us what Sam said," Scott started.

"Did he tell ya he tricked me into goin?" Johnny said, only half annoyed at the deception.

Scott smiled a little. "No, he left that part out. I guess that's my fault, too," he dropped his head.

Johnny stared at him, wondering if that was a shot or if it was sincere. He could no longer tell and that fact upset him more than he was prepared for.

"Johnny, I've been doing a lot of thinking today," Scott continued. "In fact, that's all I've been doing. I've come to some conclusions and I'd like to talk to you about them. If you feel up to it, that is."

"I ain't dyin, Scott. Just need a little good food and sleep, is all. Sit down and tell me about these conclusions," Johnny answered. His tone was flat, unemotional, unreadable and that's how he'd intended it.

Scott sat in the chair by the window while Johnny sat cross-legged on the bed.

Scott leaned forward, forearms resting on his knees. He paused, unsure how to start. Johnny waited, unwilling to give his brother a break just yet.

"I rode up to South Mesa this morning."

"Pretty," Johnny commented.

"Yes, and quiet. I don't even know what I expected to happen. I just started thinking about everything that had happened from the beginning. I started by remembering the night Teresa and I announced our engagement."

Johnny nodded thinking that was a good place to start but he said nothing.

"Well, I recalled our discussions," Scott glanced sheepishly at him. "Our arguments and everything you said then. I realized my reactions were ..... uncalled for. But I couldn't figure out why I had reacted that way."

"Me neither," Johnny agreed.

"Yes, well, I thought about my grandfather for some reason. I guess I was just letting my mind wander, trying to maybe grab hold of something that made sense. Then I saw his face and there was disappointment there. I thought to myself, why am I thinking of him?"

"Scott," Johnny interrupted. "You don't have to go through it minute by minute. Just get to the point," he said brusquely as he sure didn't want to hear anything about Harlan Garrett.

*****

Scott looked up, a bit unsettled by the tone. "Right. I thought about Julie. About how we broke our engagement and how devastated I was at the time. I realized that I was afraid of losing Teresa. That she would leave and decide not to come back. You were right last night but I couldn't see it then."

Johnny sighed and lowered his head.

"I was scared, Johnny. It's that simple. Scared and selfish and, to me, you were trying to steal away my happiness. I know that isn't true. I know it now but at the time ......" Scott trailed off, knowing his words were woefully inadequate.

"That don't sound like you, Scott. Sounds more like something I would do," Johnny said, raising his head to meet his brother's eyes.

Scott nodded. "I thought about that, as well. I think the time I've spent with you, learning how to live on instinct so much more than I ever have, has .... loosened me up," he paused and smiled.

"What I mean is, I've changed since coming here, Johnny. You've taught me things; a new way of looking at life. I may not agree with everything you do or believe but there are things you're better at than me. Especially the ability to use your senses and to trust in them. You live by your emotions. I have never done that. Everything was always very well controlled. Every remark, every thought, well planned out. Never before had I just said something off the top of my head.

"That day, I used your trust against you. You've told me things I know you would never tell anyone else. I abused that privilege because I wanted to hurt you as badly as I felt you were trying to hurt me. I wasn't thinking clearly. Had I stopped to rationalize, I would have understood you weren't trying to hurt me."

"Why didn't you?" Johnny asked quietly.

Scott frowned. "I don't know. I honestly don't know, brother."

*****

Silence fell between them for a lengthy time. Johnny sighed and uncrossed his legs, turning to let them dangle off the mattress edge.

"I can see where you might have been worried about losing Teresa. I ain't never seen you act so crazy before. Hope I never do again. But, what you said to me was downright mean, Scott. I'm not sure I can get past that. I know that right now, I don't trust you. There was a time I would have done anything for you. Would never have believed you could do something like that to me. I would have killed any man who even suggested it."

Scott swallowed hard. He'd prayed for some miracle. That his brother would forgive him. But he knew better in his heart. He knew it would not be that easy. He would have to work for it. Start all over again. Only this time, it would be so much more difficult. This time, there was betrayal involved. His betrayal.

"The best I can do is try to get along with you. I don't want to fight with you every day. I won't. I understand better why you acted that way but it still doesn't excuse what you said," Johnny went on.

"You do know that I didn't mean any of it, don't you?" Scott asked.

Johnny looked at him for a long beat. "No, I don't know that. Because at that time, you did mean it and you know you did."

"Yes," Scott admitted. "In that moment, I did. But, right after, I didn't."

Johnny only nodded.

"Is there any chance for us, Johnny? Any chance you'll be able to forgive me at some point?"

He thought about this. It wasn't the first time he had. He still came up with the same answer, though. "I don't know. Reckon only time will tell. I don't want it to be this way, Scott. I wish things could be like they were. That just ain't gonna happen."

Sadly, Scott had to recognize the truth of that. "I have missed you."

A smile flitted across Johnny's face. "I think it's time for supper. Reckon Maria has some nice mush for me," he grinned.

Scott couldn't return the smile. "That's my fault, too. I made you sick."

"Yeah, you did. Just don't do it again," Johnny said seriously and stood up slowly.

"I won't. I swear it on my life," Scott promised as he, too, stood.

*****

Sitting at the table, Johnny swirled the spoon around in his soup. He was deep in thought and no one was talking to interrupt that.

He felt a hand on his arm and looked up to meet his father's gaze.

"Are you going to eat that?" Murdoch asked.

"Why, did you want some?" Johnny asked, a glint in his eyes.

"It does look good," Murdoch retorted.

Johnny nodded and took a spoonful. It was good, delicious in fact. And for the first time in a long time, he didn't feel like it was going to make a repeat appearance.        

So, he tried it again and again. He finished the entire bowl and, though he felt full, he didn't feel sick. It was a good sign. His talk with Scott was a good sign, too. He'd pulled no punches; made no promises he couldn't keep. He'd been as honest as he knew how to be with his brother. And he knew Scott had done the same.

At what price, he couldn't say. For now, they would both have to be satisfied with simply tolerating each other. For Johnny knew, he would never leave his home again. Not for any reason.

He no longer felt he didn't matter. The homecoming he'd received from almost everyone had convinced him. Especially, his father. Most especially. For had Murdoch Lancer had any other reaction to him that day in the great room, Johnny knew all would be lost for him. He would know for certain that, in his father's eyes, he was simply invisible.

*****

Fourteen months later:

"Scott, would ya make that kid stop squallin?" Johnny called from the sofa.

"I'm trying to. He just won't settle," Scott said, more than a little frustrated.

"Here, give 'em to me," Johnny said, holding out his arms.

Scott shot him a doubtful look but handed his precious son over.

Johnny sat the three month old on his lap, careful of his head. "Here now. What's all this fussin about? You missin your mama? Well, too bad, amigo. She's taking a well deserved day to herself. You been runnin her ragged, did you know that?" Johnny bounced the child lightly on his knee.

"Now, the way I see it is this. You have got yourself an opportunity here. With your mama off to town, this is your chance to wrap your old man around your finger. But what do you do instead? Cry your head off. That ain't the way to go about it, little one. What you need to do is bat them big blue eyes at him, snuggle your head into his shoulder and coo for all your worth."

Scott laughed heartily at his brother's antics. Though, he had to admit, it was excellent advice and would work easily.

"Okay, now let's see if you were listening," Johnny was saying to the now docile baby. He handed his nephew back to Scott and waited.

Scott laid his son on his chest and Michael rested his little head against his father's neck, nuzzling him in a fashion reminiscent to Johnny of Barranca.

"How did you do that?" Scott asked in pure astonishment.

"You heard what I said to him? He ain't deaf, ya know?" Johnny grinned.

"Well, I think I might be now. Thanks, brother. You know, you should get yourself a couple of these," Scott said mischievously.

Johnny snorted. "Not anytime soon, brother. That one is work enough for all of us."

*****

Things were better now. Especially now that the new addition had arrived. The brothers had been working side by side, slowly and painfully rebuilding their relationship. It would never be as it was before and they had both come to accept that.

But now, they could be easy with each other. No more eggshells to walk on. No more watching every word said. Much of the credit for that had to be given to Murdoch and Teresa. As they had been diligent in their conniving to make sure Johnny and Scott spent as much time together as possible. Both knowing it was the only way either would ever make any headway.

When Michael was born, Johnny was almost as delighted as the parents. He'd taken the tiny bundle from Scott's offered arms not an hour after the child made his debut. In that second, Johnny Lancer had fallen and hard.

He never admitted it. Always complaining about the noise; the crying at two a.m., the temper fits, the smelly diapers. Teresa had not been fooled for a second and she had allayed her husband's fears. Telling him Johnny was just trying to annoy him.

Oddly, that had made Scott tremendously happy. He immediately began defending his son's actions and the brothers were in constant bantering over it.

Yes, Johnny had come around. Well, not exactly. He'd simply accepted that which he could not change and made the best of what he had. And he knew he had so much.

 

 

~end~
2004

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