The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Last Fight

 

 

 

Johnny and Scott Lancer left the saloon and headed for the supply wagon for the trip home. It was a beautiful spring day, just a little over a year since they had both come home.

Scott said something that caused Johnny to laugh and throw an arm around his brother's shoulder as they walked. The camaraderie was negated with two words.

"Johnny Madrid!"

They both stopped, Johnny's arm coming off Scott's shoulder and dropping to his side as he turned.

Two men were standing in the street not twenty yards away.

"Yeah?" Johnny said softly.

"Never thought we'd see your face again, Madrid. You're gonna wish we hadn't," the first man spat.

Johnny studied them both for a second, then remembered and sighed. "I can't believe you two are still breathin."

"Hmmph! We plan on stayin that way but you ain't!"

"Johnny?" Scott called gently.

"Stay out of this, Scott," Johnny whispered.

"You ready, Madrid?"

"Just a minute!" Scott spoke out. "Two against one? That hardly seems fair."

"He's right. I'll be glad to wait if you want to get some more of your buddies together," Johnny stated with a grin.

"Looks ta me like there's two of you."

Johnny shook his head slowly, never taking his eyes off the men. "He ain't involved," he stated icily.

"Yes, I am. You need backup," Scott stated emphatically.

"Scott, move out of the way!" Johnny retorted.

"I'm done talkin, Madrid!"

The man drew and Johnny pushed Scott back before he could draw and return fire. He dropped the man and was amazed he hadn't felt a bullet. He turned to the second man and fired, sending him to hell with his friend. It was then that he felt the familiar fire in his side.

Johnny watched the two of them for a second longer, making sure they were dead. Then his hand went to his left side and he felt the hot blood running between his fingers. He could also feel it running down his back.

He holstered his Colt and turned to find Scott. His eyes widened when he saw his brother on the ground. Johnny went to him, sinking to his knees.

"Scott?"

Blue eyes fluttered open as Scott took in his brother's face. "You okay?"

"Never mind that. Are you hit?"

"Just my arm. I think I hit my head on something," he said as he raised up. Sure enough there was a decent sized stone beneath where his head had been laying.

Johnny touched the back of his head and grimaced. "Nice lump. What about your arm?"

Scott looked at his left arm. There was a jagged rip in the shirt and a small amount of bleeding. He peered through the tear. "Just a graze."

"Good, cause I think I need Sam first," Johnny grunted.

Scott focused his full attention on his brother. He sat up and saw the blood. "God, Johnny. Can you stand?"

"I ... think so."

Scott helped his brother up and wasn't sure he was going to stay that way himself for a minute. Dizziness threatened and he closed his eyes for a second.

"Scott?"

"I'm alright. A little light-headed. Come on, brother," he said, wrapping an arm around Johnny and guiding him down the street.

"Don't you worry bout nothin, Johnny. We all saw it happen. We'll tell the sheriff," a local called after them.

Johnny waved his hand to indicate he'd heard the man.

********

Scott drove under the Lancer gate and glanced in the back of the wagon. As he pulled into the yard, Murdoch stepped out of the house.

"About time. Where's Johnny?"

"I'm right here," came the voice.

Murdoch frowned and walked to the back of the wagon, unhitching the tail gate. "What happened?"

"We had some trouble in town. Help me get him to bed and I'll explain everything," Scott said.

It was then that Murdoch noticed his older son's left arm was in a sling. He frowned more deeply as he turned his attention back to his youngest.

With a man on each side, Johnny made it upstairs and onto the bed - barely. He was sweating by the time they laid him down and a groan escaped his tightly pressed lips.

"Sam said he should rest for a week. He lost a lot of blood," Scott said.

Murdoch unbuttoned the shirt and got a look at where the wound was. "Any lasting damage?"

"No, Sam said it went clean through, tore the muscle so it'll take some time to heal," Scott relayed.

"Figures," Murdoch mumbled under his breath.

They got Johnny tucked in and Scott sat down, wiping the sweat away with a cool cloth.

"Thanks, brother," Johnny smiled weakly.

"Go to sleep, Johnny. Sam said lots of rest," Scott replied gently.

"Kay," he sighed and closed his eyes.

Scott felt his father's hand on his shoulder and he turned to receive a nod from the older man. He sighed and stood up, glancing once more at Johnny before heading out the door.

*****

"Alright, what happened?" Murdoch asked as soon as they got downstairs.

"Two men called him out. He pushed me out of the way and I fell. My head hit a rock and it dazed me but as I was going down, I got a graze. If I'd stayed out of the way like he told me, neither of us would have been hurt," Scott explained guiltily.

"Two against one?"

"That's what I thought but Johnny killed them both. If not for me, he wouldn't have gotten shot. The time he spent getting me out of the way made him lose his advantage."

"So, it was about Madrid," Murdoch said flatly, the crease between his eyes deepening.

"Yes."

"Did Johnny know them?"

"Yes, but I haven't had a chance to ask him about it."

"Why bother? I'm sure he wouldn't tell you anyway," Murdoch shot.

Scott's eyebrows went up as he stared at his father.

"I'm sorry, son. I just get so tired ... well, you're both safe and will live. I should just be grateful."

"Thank you, sir. Now, if you don't mind, I think I'd like to lie down for awhile."

"Of course, son. I'll check in on you later and your brother."

Scott nodded slightly and went to his room. Murdoch sat down heavily at his desk and sighed.

'When is it ever going to end?' he thought ruefully.

********

Johnny opened his eyes to the low light. It took a second for him to gain his bearings. He looked over and saw Murdoch sitting beside the bed.

"How do you feel?"

"Sore, tired," Johnny replied sleepily.

"It'll take some time."

"Yeah. Sorry."

"I know, son. Here, you need to drink," he said and helped Johnny with the water.

"Thanks," he sighed as he rested his head against the pillow.

"Get some sleep."

"How's Scott?"

"He's resting but he's in better shape than you," Murdoch answered.

Johnny studied him for a second. It took him this long to realize Murdoch didn't sound like himself.

"You okay?"

"I'm fine, Johnny. Why?"

"I don't know. You sound ... different."

"You're tired. Go to sleep. I'm going to check on Scott now."

******

For two days, Johnny did little else but sleep. Scott recovered quickly and was helping Jelly around the barn and grounds, doing as much as he could with a sore arm.

Murdoch had been distant, Scott thought. More so than usual. He wondered what was weighing so heavily on his father's mind. He was sure he would get an "It's nothing" were he to ask so he let it be.

On the third day, Murdoch sent Scott to the line shacks to inventory. He would be gone a week at least but it was something he could do that required no heavy exertion.

He entered Johnny's room that evening after supper. "Feeling better?" he asked, noting the empty tray on the bedside table. He moved it to the dresser before sitting down.

"Yeah, much. I'll be up and about before you know it," Johnny smiled.

"Sam said a week of bed rest," Murdoch reminded him.

"Yeah, well, you know me. I heal fast."

"Johnny, I need to talk to you," Murdoch started, then hesitated.

Johnny felt the tension in the man and reacted in kind. He felt a dread wash over him like never before.

"Go ahead."

"I'd like it to be without arguing. I want to talk about what happened in town. I'm not angry, Johnny, but there are things we need to discuss."

"Alright," Johnny replied softly.

"Scott told me what happened from his perspective. I'd like to hear it from you, as well."

Johnny sighed and nodded. "Well, these two guys called me out. I knew them before. They were scum. Lowlife thieves and back shooters. I was surprised they had the guts to face me. I guess they figured they had pretty good odds. Scott wanted to stand with me but I told him no and to get out of the way. Before he could, I saw one of them go for his gun. So, I pushed Scott back and drew."

"You didn't know Scott was hit?"

"No, not until it was over."

Murdoch was still for a second. "It could have been much worse."

"Yeah," Johnny sighed heavily.

"How many times does this make? I mean, since you came here, how many times have you been called out?"

Johnny looked up at him and frowned. "I don't know. Too many, I guess."

"And how many of those times was Scott caught up in it?"

"What are you getting at?"

"Johnny, I have to think of everyone. I have to consider the safety of the whole family. Teresa could have been with you. They could have waited and followed you home. Called you out here. That's happened before."

Johnny dropped his eyes. "What are you saying, Murdoch?"

"I've given this a lot of thought. I just don't see any other way. I want you to sell your third of the ranch to me."

Johnny's eyes shot up just as his heart stopped beating.

"If it were just me, I'd say fine, I'll risk it. But I can't risk Scott and Teresa. Not to mention Jelly and the hands. You see that, don't you, Johnny?"

Johnny nodded slightly and stared at the ceiling.

"We both know they'd say they're willing to take that risk. But are you? Are you willing to continue risking their lives? I knew it would be rough at first but, it's been a year now and it's just not getting any better. I hate this, Johnny. I wanted you home but ..."

"I understand," came the hoarse whisper. "You don't have to pay me for the land. Just give Scott half, equal partners. Fix it up however you need to make it that way."

"I don't expect you to give it ..."

"It ain't mine!" he said loudly. "It never was," he added more softly.

Murdoch swallowed hard. "Please understand."

"I do. Better than you know. As soon as I can, I'll leave. There's no point in telling anybody about this yet. Just get the papers ready for me to sign."

"You won't ... go back?"

Johnny looked at him briefly. "I don't know. Maybe. I always wanted to go to Montana. Hear they breed thoroughbreds up there."

"You're so good with horses," Murdoch whispered.   He got up and walked out quickly.

Johnny stared at the ceiling for what seemed like hours. His mind a total blank. He didn't want to think about this, couldn't think about it. Yet, it crept in and he felt an overwhelming sense of loss. So strong, he thought he might suffocate in it. Tears welled in his eyes and he shook his head hard. Blinking to ward them off.

Murdoch was right and he knew it. He also knew no one else would accept it. He would have to leave quickly after announcing it. He would have to come up with some reason for it. Something other than the truth. He knew Scott would be furious and he didn't want him to leave Lancer. Not ever.

Scott belonged here, unlike himself. Why had he ever thought it could work? What made him think he could walk away from a past so dark and ugly and get away clean? He should never have stayed here to begin with.

But the lure was so strong. The need even stronger. And he suckered himself into believing in a dream that could never come true. He knew he would not go back, could not. He would go to Montana. Hire on at a ranch or work with horses. It was a good life. A simple life. No books to do, no responsibilities other than to get that day's job done. No one looking to him for answers or direction.

He could keep in touch. He wasn't much on writing letters but he could change that. He would make sure they all thought he was happy and settled. Maybe even come back for a visit now and then. He closed his eyes and actually felt his heart break. There was no place like Lancer and there never would be.

*******

Sam came the next morning and was pleased Johnny was following instructions for a change. The wound was clean, no sign of infection.

"Well, young man, I'd say two more days and you can start getting up and moving about. But you still need to take it slow."

"When can I ride, Sam?"

Sam Jenkins smiled, he'd been waiting for that question. "Another week at least and then only for short periods. You lost a lot of blood, Johnny. And that muscle is going to take some time to heal."

Johnny nodded. "Okay."

Sam sat on the edge of the bed and studied his face. "Something troubling you, Johnny?"

"No, I'm fine."

"You look like you just lost your best friend. You didn't have a fight with Scott, did you?"

"No, Sam. Scott's not even here. He's checking the line shacks. I'm fine, really," he stated, though he would not meet the man's eyes.

Sam took in the flat expression, the lackluster words. This was not the Johnny he knew. "If you get any finer, I'm calling the undertaker," he smiled.

Johnny raised the corners of his mouth but it could hardly be called a smile. More like the most miserable attempt at one Sam Jenkins had ever seen. It wasn't pain or discomfort. He looked just plain sad.

"You know, you can tell me anything and it will go no farther," he nudged gently.

Johnny looked in his eyes and seemed to consider it for a moment. Then he shook his head and looked away.

******

Sam found Murdoch in the kitchen and joined him for coffee.

"How is he?"

"He's healing very nicely. He can get out of bed day after tomorrow. But he still needs to go slow. Now, why is he so depressed?"

Murdoch looked up in surprise.

"Surely, you've noticed. I've never seen a sadder pup."

"I don't know what you're talking about, Sam," Murdoch said, lowering his eyes.

"I see. You two have been going at it again. I should have guessed. Do me a favor and cut him some slack while he's healing. He doesn't need any added worries."

"But he is healing. You said he was doing fine."

"He is, but ... a person's state of mind has a lot to do with how well they heal. Johnny is so down and it might affect his recovery. So, whatever it is, fix it," Sam ordered.

"I'll talk to him, Sam."

"Good. Well, I have to get going. Have heavy rounds today. Everyone is coming down with spring fever," he laughed at his own joke.

Murdoch saw him off and went to check on Johnny. Opening the door, he saw his son staring toward the window.

"I'm going to town now. Do you need anything?"

"Can I keep Barranca?" came the whispered question.

Murdoch closed his eyes briefly. "Of course. He belongs to you."

"I don't need anything," Johnny said quietly.

"Johnny, I..."

"I said I don't need anything," he said harshly.

Murdoch dropped his head and left the room.

*******

Murdoch went to see his lawyer who was surprised at the request.

"Are you really going to let him sign all that land over for nothing?" Mr. Richards asked.

"That's how he wants it but I plan to give him five thousand dollars anyway."

"Nice coup," the man replied flatly.

"Can you write it up the way Johnny wants it or not?" Murdoch asked grumpily.

"Yes, it will take some time. I suppose you want it today."

"I don't want to have to come back for it."

"Give me an hour. I'll start right now."

Murdoch left in a huff and headed for the bank and his old friend, Frank Hamilton.

"Five thousand dollars? Murdoch, that's a lot of cash."

"I know, Frank. How long will it take to gather that much?"

"Well, if I sell off some stock for you, I can get it by the end of the week."

"Do it."

"And once I have the money, what then?"

"Johnny has his own account, doesn't he? Put it in there."

Frank Hamilton stared at Murdoch. "You want me to get five thousand dollars and put it on Johnny's individual account. Why?"

"That's a personal matter between my son and me," Murdoch said defensively. He may have heard it from his lawyer but he didn't want to hear it again from his banker.

"Alright, Murdoch. I assume Johnny knows about this."

"He will. I'll check back with you at the end of the week," Murdoch said and stood. Donning his hat, he nodded and left the office.

********

Johnny stayed in bed for the next two days as he was told. Murdoch realized why his usually noncompliant son was being so compliant. Johnny was putting it off. He couldn't blame him. This wasn't easy for him either.

On schedule, Johnny came down to breakfast the day Sam told him he could get up.

"Good morning," Murdoch said pleasantly.

Johnny shot him a look and mumbled, "mornin."

"How do you feel?"

"A little stiff is all. Gracias, Maria," he directed to the woman who sat his plate in front of him. Johnny grimaced at the food and played with it more than he ate.

"Scott should be back tomorrow or the next day," Murdoch mentioned.

Johnny nodded and sipped his coffee.

"How do you want to handle this, Johnny?"

He sighed and looked at Murdoch. "I'll think of something. He can't know the truth."

"No, I don't suppose so," Murdoch agreed.

"I'm gonna take a walk," Johnny said and stood very slowly.

"You shouldn't overdo. Sam said..."

"I know what Sam said. I won't," Johnny replied tersely and walked out.

'I didn't want him to hate me but I guess I can't blame him,' Murdoch thought.

*******

"Hey, Johnny! Bout time ya got your sorry hide outta bed," Jelly called.

"Hey, Jelly. How's things?"

"Quiet without you and Scott causin a ruckus," the old man teased.

Johnny gave him a small smile and walked into the barn.

"Yeah, he's been askin for ya."

"Askin for me, Jelly?" Johnny cocked a brow.

"Well, either that or he's just the noisiest horse in the world!" Jelly proclaimed.

Johnny ran his hand down Barranca's neck then scratched that special spot behind his ear.

"You two wanna be alone?"

"Funny, Jelly."

"Well, I got work ta do. Some folks can't be lollygaggin about all day, ya know!" he rolled his eyes and left.

"Well, boy. Looks like we'll be leaving here soon. For good, this time. I think you'll like Montana. Lots of wide open spaces to run in. I hear the grass is real sweet." Johnny choked on the last few words and buried his head in the palomino's neck.

"At least I got you out of all this. Me and you were meant to be together. Guess that's why I had to come here, huh? Least it's all nice and civilized. Ain't like I'm runnin off all hot under the collar this time, right? Dios! This is gonna be so hard," he whispered into the mane.

"Johnny?"

He jerked his head up and saw Scott watching him from the door. "Hey, welcome home," he said in a strained voice.

Scott walked in and nodded. "Thanks. Are you supposed to be up?"

"Sam said it was okay as long as I didn't push it."

"You look pale. Maybe you should go back inside," he said, eyeing his brother suspiciously.

"Yeah, I think I will. I'll see ya soon, Barranca." Johnny patted the horse's neck and walked past his brother with his head down.

Scott watched him, a puzzled expression on his face. He walked over to the golden horse. "What's the matter with him, boy?"

*******

Johnny walked back in and headed up the stairs when he heard Murdoch call to him. He stepped into the living room.

"Scott's back," he announced.

"Already? Well, I ... you look pale. Why don't you go rest?" Murdoch suggested.

"I was just about to. What did you want?"

"It can wait. Go ahead," Murdoch said.

Johnny nodded and headed up the stairs. He grabbed the banister as his head began to swim. Closing his eyes, he waited for the dizziness to pass.

He felt a hand on his arm and looked up into Murdoch's eyes. Feeling overwhelmed, he pulled free. "I can make it," he whispered.  

Murdoch watched him slowly make his way up the stairs. He swallowed at the lump in his throat. When he turned, he found Scott watching.

"He doesn't look good, Murdoch."

"It's his first day out of bed. He's still weak."

"Why didn't you help him?"

Murdoch averted his eyes and headed back to his desk. "You know Johnny. He likes to do things on his own. How did the line shacks look?"

"Not bad. I made a list of supplies needed. The structures themselves are fine."

"Good! One less worry," Murdoch smiled. "How's your arm?"

"Much better, thank you. I think I'll check on Johnny," Scott said.

"Alright, son. He's probably asleep already, though."

"Well, it won't hurt to check," Scott frowned, wondering what was wrong. He knew something was, felt a difference in the air. It was almost tangible, the feeling of ... loss.

******

Scott tapped on the door then eased it open. Johnny was lying on his back on top the covers, his eyes closed. But Scott was pretty sure he wasn't asleep.

"Playing possum?" he asked.

"Just resting my eyes," Johnny replied without looking.

"You don't look too good."

"I'm fine, Scott. First day out of bed is always the hardest."

Scott studied his face, his voice was flat, no emotion evident. He was convinced that his brother was anything but fine. "Talk to me, Johnny."

At this, the blue eyes opened and focused on him. "About what?"

"Whatever it is that's bothering you. And please don't tell me it's nothing. I can tell you aren't yourself."

"Well, I just got shot so, no, I'm not myself. Look, I just have some things on my mind, is all. When I'm ready to talk about it, I will."

"I hope so because you look like you just lost your best friend," Scott said seriously.

Johnny turned his head and closed his eyes again. Scott sighed and left the room, determined to find some answers.

When he came downstairs, Sam was in the living room.

"I'm glad you're here, Sam," he said.

"Hello to you, too. What's wrong?"

"It's Johnny. He's not acting right. He says he's fine but ..."

"Scott's concerned because Johnny is tired. I told him it was his first day out of bed," Murdoch intervened.

"There's more to it than that. He's so ... down," Scott defended.

"Yes, I noticed that myself the last time I was here," Sam frowned and glanced at Murdoch.

"Did he tell you anything, son?"

"Only that he'd talk about it when he was ready."

"So, why don't you wait for him to be ready?" Murdoch asked.

"He has a point, Scott. Whatever is worrying Johnny, pestering him about it will do no good," Sam agreed.

"Well, fine, I'll just ignore it!" Scott declared in frustration. He turned on his heel and walked out of the house.

"That boy gets more like his brother every day," Sam commented.

******

Three days passed and Johnny stayed up for longer periods. Not because he felt like it, he was forcing himself. Trying to make himself stronger as quickly as he could. He knew he couldn't stand it much longer. If he didn't get out of there, he would lose his mind.

He spent the morning riding. Starting out slowly as he felt the muscles in his side pull with every step Barranca took. By lunchtime, he was taking the horse through his paces. It hurt but he was staying in the saddle and that was good enough.

He rode up to the house as Murdoch stepped outside to watch him.

"How does it feel?"

"Pretty good. Think I can travel soon," Johnny mumbled.

Murdoch nodded, a pained expression on his face. Johnny didn't see it, he couldn't look at his father.

"If you're not too tired, there's something we need to take care of before Scott gets home," Murdoch said tightly.

Johnny nodded and walked into the house. He stood in front of the desk and waited. Murdoch pulled the document out of a locked drawer and handed it to him.

"Read it over carefully," he advised.

Johnny sat down and began to read. His throat getting tighter by the second. It was all very official, all neatly explained. He stopped near the end and stared at the paper for a long time.

"Is something wrong, Johnny?"

He cleared his throat. "No, it's just ... I guess it's just the wording." He frowned as he read the same line over and over. ...gives up all rights and claims to the land known as Lancer ranch.

He glanced up at the desk and grabbed the pen, dipping it in the inkwell. He signed his name and laid the paper and pen down, sitting back in the chair, his eyes down.

"Guess that takes care of everything," he whispered.

"Not quite."

Johnny looked up at him. "What else?"

"I deposited five thousand dollars in your account in Green River."

Johnny scowled. "I told you I didn't want it."

"You can't start a new life broke, s...John. I don't want there to be any reason for you to even consider going back to that life."

"I told you I wasn't."

"Please, take it, Johnny. It's the least I can do," Murdoch said, his voice softening.

Johnny sighed heavily. "Fine."

"Good. It will take a few weeks for this to get notarized and entered in Sacramento."

"I don't have to be here for that, do I?"

"No."

"Then I'll be leaving in the morning," he announced and stood up.

"In the morning? But, you're not ready to travel yet. Sam hasn't released you," Murdoch said, standing as well.

Johnny looked him dead in the eye. "I don't need Sam's permission; or anyone else's. I stayed because I had to. I can't do this anymore. I can't ..." he stopped and turned away.

"I wish there was another way, John."

He swallowed hard at the lump in his throat. "Don't say anything about this. I'm not telling anyone until morning. I don't want a big deal made out of it." With that, he walked upstairs.

*******

Johnny fell onto his bed, covering his head with his arms. He tried to keep it in, tried to make it not matter. He couldn't do it. When did he lose the ability to hide his emotions, even from himself?

Tears sprung up in his eyes and he couldn't hold them back any longer. Tomorrow he would walk away from the only good thing that had ever happened to him. And he had no one to blame but himself.

All those years of not caring, not believing in anything, much less the future. It had cost him dearly. But he knew it was the right thing to do. He couldn't stand being the cause of anyone he loved getting hurt or killed.

He had already been the cause of hurting Scott. He wouldn't do that again, not ever. He didn't know how he was going to get through tomorrow morning. How could he stand there and say goodbye forever?

He sat up, wiping away the tears. Walking to the window, he looked out over the land he had come to love so much. He could actually see it growing before his eyes. To know he would never again stand at this window, ride those valleys and mountains...

Dropping his head, he swiped at his eyes again. Better get it all out now. Can't fall apart tomorrow.

That evening, he sat at the dinner table with his family for the last time. He watched them surreptitiously beneath hooded eyes. Murdoch was making light conversation but he could hear the strain in the old man's voice.

He played at eating his food, listening to Murdoch's voice, to Scott's and Teresa's. Forging the sounds into his mind forever.

As the meal wound down, he could take no more. He excused himself and went to his room. He prayed Scott would leave him alone.

*******

'Another prayer gone unanswered', he thought when he heard the knock.

He'd been leaning against the wall near it, so he opened the door. He was surprised to see Murdoch standing there.

"Can I come in?"

Johnny shrugged. "Your house."

Murdoch bit his lip and walked in, closing the door behind him. "I guess you must hate me."

"No," he sighed. "I'm angry ... at myself."

"Why, Johnny?"

"Because I let myself get suckered in here!" he exclaimed, turning away to the window. "I let myself believe I could just walk away. That I could have a life here. I was a fool so I guess I'm getting what I deserve. Sometimes, I wish ..."

"What?"

"I wish you'd never found me," he whispered.

Murdoch's eyes widened. "If I hadn't, you'd be dead."

"Better dead than ... forget it. I'm just runnin off at the mouth," he shook his head.

"Better dead than what, Johnny?"

"I said forget it," he clipped.

"I can't just forget something like that. Tell me," Murdoch said softly.

Johnny turned to face him, raw pain in his eyes. "Better dead than hurtin. Better dead than alone. Better dead than Johnny Madrid. Pick one!"

Murdoch stared at him. No words would come to mind.

"Or all of them. Doesn't matter. And stop lookin at me like that! I don't want your pity!"

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry you had to live that life. I'm sorry for every bad thing that's ever happened to you. I wish I could make it all go away, but I can't. And it won't go away. That's the problem," Murdoch said. His voice unemotional as he fought for control.

"Like I said, you should have left me alone. Then there would be no Johnny Madrid to worry about. No one to threaten your family."

"I couldn't do that. I'm glad I didn't," Murdoch said quietly.

"What do you want from me?" he asked, nearly pleaded.

"I want you to understand why I'm doing this."

"I told you I do. Doesn't make it any easier, Murdoch. Look, just leave me alone, please."

******

The next morning, the family sat down to breakfast. Murdoch had made sure Jelly was there as well.

"Where's Johnny?" the older man asked.

"I'm sure he'll be along," Murdoch said nonchalantly.

Twenty minutes later, Johnny walked into the dining room and stood at the end of the table.

"Are you going to join us or just stare?" Scott smiled.

Johnny gave him a small smile. "I need to tell you all something and I want you to hear me out. I know I've been quiet lately but I've had some things on my mind." He stopped as he felt his voice begin to tremble. Clearing his throat, he continued.

"I've made a decision and it wasn't easy. I hope you'll all respect it and not try to talk me out of it. It won't do any good."

"That sounds rather ominous, brother," Scott frowned.

Johnny looked at him for a long moment. The affection in his eyes was almost embarrassing to Scott.

"I'm leaving Lancer," he stated simply.

Three pair of eyes widened as they stared at him.

"What'ya mean, you're leavin?"

"Just what I said, Jelly. This is the longest I've ever stayed in one place and the walls are closing in. I need to move around. See somethin of the world," he shrugged.

Scott looked sharply at his father and noticed he didn't look at all surprised. "Is this your doing?" he accused.

"It's my doing, Scott. It's my decision. Murdoch helped me with some things, is all."

"What things?" Scott asked.

Johnny dropped his eyes briefly, then locked onto his brother. "I signed my third of the ranch over to you both. Equal partners, fifty percent each. Don't go messin it up," he said with a slight grin.

Scott got up and walked over to him. "Why, Johnny? Does this have to do with that gunfight?"

"No, Scott. I told you, I need to move on. I can't stay still here. Come on, brother. You had to know this would happen." His eyes pleaded for his brother's understanding.

"No, I thought you were happy here with us, with me," Scott said, unable to hide the hurt in his voice.

"I was. Now, it's time to move on. You all mean the world to me but I have to do what's right for me."

"Where will you go?" Teresa finally found her voice.

Johnny smiled at her. "Anywhere but south."

"So ya ain't goin back ta gunfightin."

"No, Jelly, I ain't. That part of my life is over."

"And now this part is over. Is that what you're saying?" Scott asked, his jaw tightening.

"Don't get mad, Scott. I hoped you'd understand."

"Oh, I'm not mad, Johnny. You're right, I should have known you would take off some day," he replied flatly.

Johnny dropped his head. This was not how he wanted it to be. "Well..."

"You mean you're leaving right now?" Teresa asked.

"Of course he is! You didn't really think he'd give any of us a chance to let it sink in, did you?" Scott sneered.

She ignored him and walked up to Johnny. "Let me fix you some sandwiches, at least."

"I'm fine, Teresa."

"Well, you'll come back, someday. Won't you?" she asked, her eyes pleading.

"Sure, I'll come visit and I'll even write to you," he smiled. He swallowed again at that damnable lump and walked to the front door.

Outside, he tied his saddlebags, stuffed full, onto the saddle and checked Barranca's cinch. Then he turned to face them all one last time.

"Well, I guess this is it."

Teresa walked up and hugged him tightly, kissing his cheek. "You'll be back. You can't stay away from us very long," she smiled through her tears.

"I'll miss you, querida," he whispered. Turning to Jelly, he extended his hand.

The grizzled old man slapped it away and hugged him fiercely. "You stay outta trouble, ya hear. Don't make me come bail you out."

"I promise, Jelly."

"Scott? Take care of everybody," he said softly.

Scott looked into his eyes and grabbed him by the nape of the neck, pulling him into an embrace. "Don't go, Johnny. Talk to me. Whatever it is, we can fix it together."

"There's nothing to fix, Scott. I guess it's just my nature. I have to get ... I have to leave," Johnny fumbled.

"Is there nothing I can say to make you stay? At least talk with me. We can take a ride," Scott tried.

"No, Scott. I really have thought this through. Nothing you say can change my mind."

"And you're sure this is your decision?" Scott asked.

Johnny nodded, his eyes on the ground. He couldn't look Scott in the face and lie anymore.

"Come back when you're ready. This is always your home. I'll miss you, brother."

"I'll miss you, too, brother," Johnny said hoarsely, hugging him again.

When Scott released him, Johnny turned back to Barranca. He laid his hand on the horse's neck. When he heard the voice, he tensed.

"Stay safe, Johnny," Murdoch said from right behind him.

"Yeah, you too."

"Forgive me, son," he whispered.

Johnny turned and looked up at him, his eyes glassy with moisture. "Don't make me regret this. Keep them safe," he whispered back.

"I will, I swear it." Murdoch laid his hand on Johnny's shoulder and squeezed.

He figured that was all he was going to get, so he nodded and started to turn. He felt himself being turned back into the arms of his father for the first time he could remember.

Johnny allowed himself a second, then pulled away and mounted up. He rode off without a backwards glance. He knew he couldn't look at them again. Tears welled in his eyes as he left his home forever.

*******

Scott stood and watched until he could no longer discern Johnny from the landscape in the distance. When he turned, he saw Murdoch still standing there as well.

"Did you even try to talk him into staying?" the remaining son asked.

"He's a grown man, Scott."

"Is he?" Scott spat.

"Yes, he is! I can't tell him what to do!" Murdoch came back with his own anger.

"Since when, Murdoch? I'm sorry, but I have a hard time believing you couldn't have convinced him to stay if you had wanted to. Why didn't you tell me he was planning this?"

"He asked me not to, Scott. He wanted to tell everyone himself."

"No, he wanted to make sure we didn't have any time to think about it before he took off. To make sure no one could talk him into staying. I have to wonder about that as well. If he was so certain this is what he wants, it wouldn't have mattered what we said. So there was no point in ambushing us. Now, how about the truth," Scott glared demandingly.

Murdoch returned the glare, his stubbornness kicking into high gear. "If you can't accept your brother's explanation, that's your problem, Scott." He turned and walked back into the house then.

Scott was not deterred and he followed the man inside. Murdoch was staring at a piece of paper at his desk. Scott was shocked by the profound look of sadness in the man's face.

"This is the contract signing away his third of the ranch," he explained. 'His birthright,' he thought but didn't speak.

Scott took the paper and read it. Standard legalese as far as he could see. He handed it back to Murdoch without a word.

He watched as his father walked determinedly to the fireplace and threw the document into the flames.

"Maybe someday..." Murdoch trailed off and walked out of the room.

Scott stared into the fire, watching as the flames licked and ate the paper. 'Maybe it really was Johnny's idea. Murdoch looks like he's aged ten years in five minutes. It's obvious he didn't want Johnny to leave.'

 

 

ONE YEAR LATER

Murdoch Lancer walked into the Green River bank and stood in line. Frank Hamilton spied him through his open office door and walked out, inviting him in for a visit.

As the big rancher eased himself into a chair, Frank closed the door and settled behind his desk. He took note of the tired eyes and perpetual crease of Murdoch's forehead.

"You look like hell. Have you lost weight?" Frank inquired.

"I think so," he replied flatly.

"Have you heard from Johnny?"

Murdoch's eyes shot up. "Is that all anyone can ask me? Everyone I see asks if I've heard from Johnny," he groused.

Frank ignored the outburst. "He had a lot of friends here," he said simply.

Murdoch blew out a breath but didn't comment.

"Well? Have you heard from him?"

"Scott and Teresa have. Jelly, too."

"But not you," Frank added.

Murdoch shook his head no.

"What happened, Murdoch? There's more to this than Johnny just up and deciding to leave."

"I don't want to discuss it," Murdoch nearly barked.

"That's too bad because whatever happened, it's eating you up inside. Or haven't you noticed that you look like death warmed over?" Frank commented sarcastically.

"It's my problem, I'll deal with it."

"You are not dealing with anything. Murdoch, we've been friends a long time now. I know how happy you were when those two boys came home. I've seen for myself how happy you've all been. Yes, there have been difficult times but every family goes through that. Your situation is unique to say the least. You have to expect some discord."

"Discord? How many families do you know who have a gunfighter's past to contend with?" Murdoch shot.

Frank Hamilton's brows shot up and a look of disbelief adorned his face. "You threw him out, didn't you?"

"No! I ... I told him it was best if he left," Murdoch admitted.

Hamilton's shoulders sagged and he shook his head sadly. "Well, I can see how that decision has improved your life so much."

"Don't you understand? Johnny's past was bound to get someone hurt or killed. It was ..."

Before Murdoch could finish that thought, a gunman burst through the office door.

"Hands up, fellas," he commanded. He leaned forward and took Murdoch's gun from the holster. "Out front. Now!"

Both men followed direction and stepped into the main room of the bank. Three more gunmen were present. Two filling sacks with money and the third holding a gun on the other hostages.

The fourth man pushed Murdoch toward the rest of the customers and grabbed Frank by the arm. "Open the safe."

Frank did so as Murdoch looked on. He calculated his chances of causing a disturbance and thereby alerting Sheriff Crawford before the men escaped with the townâ€s money.

There were only two other customers in the bank, both women, and the two male tellers. Murdoch devised a quick plan and hoped it would work. All he needed was to make some noise that could be heard outside.

He saw his opportunity when the man holding them at gunpoint turned to check what was happening with his partners. Murdoch grabbed the chair beside him and threw it at the man then lunged at him.

The robber's gun fired harmlessly away from the others as he scrappled with Murdoch.

The rancher landed some impressive punches until he felt the hard butt of a gun hit his left shoulder, knocking him to the floor. The gunman grabbed him by the shirt and stood him, throwing him against the wall.

"Great! Now the whole damned town knows we're here!" he cursed.

"Forget it, let's get out of here!" a partner called.

As they were leaving the first gunman glared at Murdoch, pointed his Colt and fired then hurried out the door to meet his death.

******

The sound of gunfire had Val Crawford on the scene in seconds, along with several local men. As the last man was coming out of the bank, a short-lived firefight ensued that ended with all four robbers dead.

Val entered the bank to find Frank Hamilton kneeling over Murdoch Lancer.

"He needs Sam!" Frank exclaimed.

Val sent for the doctor and surveyed the damage himself. Murdoch's upper right chest had a nice sized hole in it that Frank was applying pressure to. The lawman sighed and stood, finding someone to send for Scott.

They carried him to Sam's office and Frank gave Val an account of the robbery and Murdoch's actions. Val Crawford's face became more grim as the banker went on. He finally nodded and thanked the man, then returned to Murdoch's side.

"That was a fool thing ta do, Mr. Lancer," he chided.

"Just wanted to get your attention, Sheriff," Murdoch grunted.

"Well, ya did that! How is he, Doc?"

"Not great but I don't think it's fatal," Sam informed him.

"Did you send for my son?"

"Yeah, I sent someone to the ranch. Scott'll be here soon as he can."

"Thanks, Sheriff," Murdoch sighed.

"Don't thank me for nothin!" Val sneered and walked out.

"What's the matter with him?" Murdoch asked.

"Same thing that's the matter with everyone else. He misses Johnny," Sam said bluntly.

*****

Johnny stepped out into the morning sun and took a deep breath of the fresh air. He walked over to the corral with a smile on his face.

"Mornin, Johnny."

"Morning, Chuck. How are they lookin?"

"I do believe this is the best bunch yet."

Johnny laughed. "You say that about every string of ponies we round up."

"And every string is better than the last," Chuck proclaimed.

"Well, where's Dusty?"

"He forgot somethin in the bunkhouse. He'll be right along," Chuck grinned.

Johnny looked suspiciously at the wrangler. In the nine months he'd owned the ranch, he'd come to respect and admire his foreman. The man knew horses.

"Well, which one ya want to get to first?" Chuck asked.

"Oh, think I'll work that stallion," Johnny played along. It was this way every time they brought in a new herd. Chuck would ask him which one and Johnny would always answer the stallion. Both men knew to break the leader was to make easier work with the rest. Still, they liked to play the game.

When Johnny first hired the man, Chuck wasn't sure his new boss knew how to change his own diaper. Much less anything about horses. It didn't take long for him to realize he was working for a master. A true horse whisperer. A rare commodity in Montana, to be sure. What made it near heaven was that Johnny wasn't like any boss he'd ever had before. He got his hands dirty.

Johnny had been less than sure about Chuck as well. The land agent who sold him the ranch had recommended the man. As with Chuck, it didn't take long to see the man knew his stuff. He had also become a good friend. Someone Johnny could count on.

He still couldn't believe how fast the ranch had taken off. The days were long and hard. Just what he needed to keep his mind busy. He had kept his promise and written to his family. He let them know where he was and all about the horse business. Murdoch had never written back but Scott and Teresa always did. And always, there was a note from Jelly in one of the letters.

Still there were times, late at night, when he'd stare up at the stars. The old, familiar ache would come back and he wondered if it would ever leave him. Not likely, he supposed. He'd think about those first three months after he'd left. He'd gone to Green River and obtained a bank draft, figuring he'd set up an account when he settled somewhere. But he didn't feel like settling at first. He spent a lot of that time on the trail, camping out under the stars and trying to heal his heart.

That's when he'd happened on this place. One rainy night when he was looking for refuge. He was going to ask the owners if he could sack out in the barn since it was late and town was twenty miles away. But the place was empty. Didn't look like it had been that way long, though.

That next morning, he'd ridden to town, noting the pasturelands and plentiful waterways. It reminded him a little of Lancer. So, he'd asked about the place and learned it was for sale. The price was right and he figured he had to stop wandering sometime. Besides, his muscles were getting loose and he felt the need for physical labor.

Now, the ranch was showing a profit and they couldn't break and train the horses fast enough for the army's liking.

"Well, if he's gonna learn something today, he'd better get a move on," Johnny said, feigning frustration.

Chuck just shook his head. Dusty Rhodes had come to them four months ago and Johnny had seen something in him right away. He had confided in Chuck that the boy was a natural. He had the gift and Johnny had been teaching him since day one.

"Reckon you better not wait. That boy just ain't got no sense of responsibility," Chuck laughed, knowing it was a bald-faced lie.

"Sounds like someone I use to know."

Johnny whirled around at the sound of that voice. "Scott!" he called and ran to his brother.

Johnny grabbed him in a bear hug and Scott was sure he wouldn't let go.

"Well, let me see you, brother," Scott laughed.

"Look at you. You look good, Scott," Johnny smiled widely.

"So do you, brother. You look really good."

"Oh, Scott, I'd like you to meet my foreman. Chuck Jackson, this is my brother, Scott Lancer."

Scott extended a hand to the surprised man who accepted it haltingly.

"Brother? You two couldn't look more different," Chuck noted.

"Well, we were both lucky enough to look like our mothers," Johnny grinned. "You go on ahead with that stallion. I'll see ya in a while," he said as he grabbed Scott around the neck and led him to the house.

Scott stepped inside and looked around. It was a moderate sized house. A big fireplace in the living room. Comfortably furnished.

"This is nice, Johnny."

"Thanks. Come on in the kitchen. I'll buy ya a cup of coffee."

Scott sat at the table and looked around the well-equipped kitchen. "Do much cooking?" he grinned.

"No, I got real lucky with that. Found a woman who knows how to cook. Like Maria. How is Maria?"

"She's fine."

"Jelly, Teresa?"

"They're fine as well. They miss you," Scott replied as he took a sip of the hot liquid.

"I miss them, too. And you," Johnny slapped his arm. "What are you doin here? Not that I'm not happy to see you."

"Well, I ... I came to bring you home," Scott declared.

Johnny laughed a little. "This is my home, Scott. This is my ranch, my horses, my business."

"How is business?"

"Busy! I can't keep the army in horses. I don't know what they do to those animals but they're always wantin more."

"And the name? The Double L?" Scott cocked a brow.

Johnny grinned. "Had ta call it something. I figured one of these days I might have some kids to leave this to."

"Well, it looks like you've made a place for yourself."

"Yeah. These people are really nice, Scott. Everyone's been great."

"You didn't ask about Murdoch," Scott said.

Johnny dropped his eyes. "He never changes," he said flatly.

"He's the reason I'm here, Johnny. He's sick and Sam thinks he's dying."

Johnny's head shot up. "Dyin? What's wrong with him?"

Scott shook his head. "He was shot during a bank robbery three weeks ago. He's recovering from the bullet wound but Sam says ..."

"What? What does Sam say?"

"He says Murdoch has made himself sick with grief. I tend to believe it."

"That's bull, Scott."

"Is it? The day you left he showed me that contract you signed. I read it and handed it back and he threw it in the fire. I watched him grow old right in front of me that day. And every day since, he's gotten a little worse. Since the shooting it's really gotten bad."

"Why?"

Scott raised his eyebrows. "I'm not sure. He was up and moving around until about a week and a half ago. He went to bed one morning and he's been there ever since."

"Murdoch's been in bed for over a week?" Johnny was astonished.

"I had to do something, Johnny. If you don't go see him, I'm afraid he'll just wither away."

Johnny closed his eyes. He didn't know whether to laugh, cry or yell. He settled on yelling. Slamming his fist on the table, he stood up and began to pace.

"What the hell did he think? He was so sure this was the answer to all his problems! I guess he thought he'd just forget about me. Well, I'm glad he's feeling bad! He can go straight to hell as far as I'm concerned!"

Scott stared in disbelief as his brother ranted. "What are you saying? What do you mean the answer to all his problems?"

Johnny looked at him as if just realizing he was even in the room. Sighing to himself, he figured it didn't matter now anyway.

"He asked me to leave, Scott. He said it wasn't safe for all of you with me around and he was right. And now he has regrets?"

"Are you telling me Murdoch made you leave Lancer?"

"He didn't make me but he made it clear that's what he thought was best. It was right after that gunfight when you got hurt."

"I remember," Scott said in a distant voice. He seemed to refocus and locked eyes with Johnny. "I should have known. All that talk about seeing the world and the next thing I know, you've bought a ranch. Well, it's time you came home. You still own one third of Lancer, Johnny. It's your home, it's where you belong."

"No, Scott, it isn't. Not anymore. I've built something here that I'm proud of. Something that's my very own. I don't want to give that up. No one here has ever heard of Johnny Madrid. I haven't even drawn my gun in ... four months. Haven't even practiced. I've never felt so ... free. I'll come with you, talk to Murdoch, but I can't stay."

"Alright, brother. I can't say I blame you. I don't suppose you have a position available for a former greenhorn?" Scott grinned.

Johnny laughed. "Your place is at Lancer, Scott. It always has been. Now, come on. I want you to meet my hands and I need to work those ponies."

"Fine, but don't think we're through with this conversation," Scott said in a warning tone.

*******

Johnny introduced Scott to his hands and to Dusty. Scott was surprised at the youth of the boy. He couldn't be more than seventeen.

"He's sixteen and he's a natural," Johnny replied to the inquiry. He leaned against the corral fence and nodded toward the boy. "Just watch this, Scott."

Scott watched in fascination as the young man began to work the wild stallion. It was easy to see Johnny's influence in the boy's moves. His voice was gentle and melodic, his hands feather soft as he worked the animal.

"He's so good, Scott. Takes to it like mother's milk."

"Where did you find him?"

"Didn't. He found me. Said he heard I could teach him something," Johnny laughed. "He threw it out there like a challenge. But the minute I saw him with a horse, I knew."

"You knew he could be as good as you," Scott affirmed.

"No, better. He has the patience and the understanding. At his age, that's a miracle," Johnny chuckled.

"So, how did he hear about you?" Scott asked.

Chuck answered that question. He knew his boss wouldn't. "Everybody in Montana knows about Johnny. Didn't take long for word to spread that there was a horse whisperer around."

As anticipated, Johnny dropped his head at the compliment. Scott was amused at the thought that struck him.

"Do you mean my brother has a reputation?" He grinned widely when Johnny looked at him.

Chuck was confused by the laughter between the brothers but he figured it was some kind of private joke.

******

Johnny made arrangements with Chuck that evening over supper. Scott knew Johnny had this in him. He was never allowed to let it show before. As much as he missed his brother, Scott wondered if Johnny wasn't right. Maybe this was the place where he could find that peace and happiness.

They left the next morning for Lancer. During the trip, the brothers caught each other up on their lives. Scott didn't bring up his feelings about being lied to. He decided to wait until they got home. It took four days of steady riding before they topped the ridge.

Reining to a stop, Johnny looked down over the valley. An unexpected pain shot through his chest as he saw Lancer again.

"Welcome home, brother," Scott smiled.

Johnny shot him a look and spurred Barranca on. He had barely dismounted when he found himself in an embrace.

"Johnny, welcome home. You look wonderful!" Teresa exclaimed.

"Well, how can you tell? Let me get a look at you," he laughed as he pushed her gently back. "How many beaus you got?"

"Oh, Johnny!"

"Too many," Scott interjected.

"Bout time ya straggled yourself back here."

Johnny grinned as he turned to greet Jelly. "Been waitin for you to come haul my carcass back."   He hugged the old man and couldn't believe the overwhelming emotions churning in him.

He heard the shouts of the vaqueros welcoming him home and waved to them all. "How's Murdoch?" he asked Teresa.

Her eyes welled with tears. "Not good, Johnny. He won't eat, he won't talk. I just don't understand."

"I do," Scott said firmly.

"Well, I guess I should go on up there," Johnny sighed.

He stepped into the house and felt almost dizzy with memories. The aromas caught him up and he damned near thought he'd cry.

"Juanito."

"Maria," he smiled and hugged the woman.

"You will stay now?"

"For a few days, Maria," he said softly.

She frowned and looked to Scott who could only shrug.

*****

Johnny opened the bedroom door gently and slipped into the darkened room. The heavy curtains were drawn against the sun and one lamp flickered a low flame near the bed. He walked silently to the bedside and knelt down.

"Murdoch?"

Pale blue eyes fluttered open. There was a distant, unseeing look about them.

"Murdoch."

He turned his head and blinked at the apparition. "Johnny?"

"Yeah."

"Go away. I don't want any more dreams," he grumbled.

"I'm not a dream. See?" Johnny said, reaching out and taking his hand. "Scott came to get me. Said you were feeling sorry for yourself and needed someone to yell at. He figured I'd be perfect for the job."

Murdoch felt the touch on his hand and reached out to caress Johnny's face. "You're real?"

Johnny laughed softly. "Yeah, I'm real. Real as can be, I guess."

Murdoch struggled to raise up, leaning on an elbow. "Johnny?"

Johnny watched him. Murdoch seemed confused. Shaking his head, he stood up and walked to the window. He pulled the curtains back and let in the sunlight.

"Don't!" Murdoch yelled.

"Oh, you don't like that? Then get up and close them."

"It's too bright!"

"Tough! Time to stop wallowin in self-pity, old man," Johnny groused as he opened the closet and pulled out pants and a shirt. He threw them at Murdoch. "Get up and get dressed. I ain't talking to you like this!"

"Now, just a minute..."

"No! When you're decent, come downstairs. That's where I'll be if you want to talk to me. If you don't, I'll be glad to head right back to Montana first thing in the morning." Johnny was out the door before Murdoch could speak.

He tore down the stairs and into the living room. Reaching the fireplace before he stopped. Surprised at the anger that had overtaken him so quickly.

"I take it things didn't go well," Scott said calmly.

"They haven't gone at all. I told him if he wanted to talk to me, he could get dressed and get down here."

"And if not?"

"I told him I'd be glad to head back to Montana."

"That oughta do it," Jelly said from the door.

"Don't be so sure about that," Johnny stated.

"I ain't never been more sure of anythin. He's heartsick, Johnny. Plain and simple," Jelly diagnosed.

"Feelin guilty's more like it," Johnny mumbled.

"Why?" Jelly asked.

"Because, Jelly, it seems it wasn't Johnny's idea to leave Lancer after all," Scott spoke up.

Jelly's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "You don't mean it."

"I do indeed mean it."

"Well, if that ain't the galdurndest thing ... what's the matter with him?!"

"He's an old fool," Murdoch answered from the landing.

"For starters, I'd say that's right!" Jelly said as he turned.

"Come on, Jelly. This isn't our business ... yet," Scott said, flashing Murdoch a murderous look.

Scott hooked Jelly's arm and guided him outside as Murdoch stepped slowly into the living room.

"You better sit down. You don't look so good," Johnny said.

"I feel as good as I look, I'm sure."

"So, what's all this about? And don't give me that malarkey Scott tried to dish out."

"What malarkey?"

"Oh, about how you were missing me so much you just made yourself sick," Johnny replied sarcastically.

Murdoch managed to sit in a chair and blow out a breath. "And that couldn't possibly be true?"

"We both know it ain't."

"What do you think it is?"

"Guilt," Johnny clipped.

"You're right. I do feel guilty but I also missed you terribly."

Johnny shook his head. "You amaze me, Murdoch. Am I supposed to feel all warm and fuzzy now? You sent me packin and I agreed to go. Now, I have a new life and I like it. Oh yeah, here," he tossed an envelope at his father, then turned his back.

"What's this?"

"Five thousand dollars. Paid in full."

"It wasn't a loan."

"Yes, it was," Johnny challenged.

"Johnny, I was wrong to ask you to leave. Everything inside me screamed to stop you that day."

Johnny turned and looked at him. "Why didn't you?" he asked, his voice full of emotion.

"I don't know."

"You broke my heart, Murdoch. Bet you didn't think I even had one. Don't think for one minute I'm gonna let you do it again."

"I want you to come home."

Johnny's shoulders sagged and he hung his head. "I have a home. In Montana."

"This is the place you love and you know it. I didn't file those papers."

"Scott told me you burned them. Did you think that would make me happy? Do you have any idea how much hell you put me through - again!? God! I am so mad at you, Murdoch. I swear ..." Johnny stopped and turned away, his shoulders trembling with anger and pain.

"What can I do, son? How can I make you believe me? Johnny, I was wrong. Stupid and wrong and the biggest fool in the state. I asked my own son to leave me. A son I spent so many years trying to find. I love you so much but I let my fear get in the way."

Johnny turned back. "What did you say?"

"I said I was wrong..."

"No, the last part."

Murdoch frowned as he thought. Then his face alit. "I said I love you so much."

"You've never said that to me before," Johnny fairly whispered.

"I have. You were just too young to remember. Something else I have to regret. Not telling you how I feel about you now."

"Murdoch, if you love me, why did you send me away?" Johnny asked, his eyes pleading for an answer. A real and true answer.

"I was afraid, Johnny. Afraid of your past. Afraid that, more than anyone else here, YOU would be the one I'd lose. You would be the one gunned down in the street. I couldn't stand the thought of that. The odds were getting slimmer every time you managed to stay in one piece. Yes, I was afraid for Scott and Teresa, very afraid. But you were the one they were always coming after."

Johnny sat down on the arm of the sofa and shook his head. "Did you think you were protecting me?"

"I hoped so... you promised you wouldn't go back. I thought you could find a place where you'd be safe."

"I did. I have a ranch. I break and train horses. It's been doing real well, too," he said with a measure of pride.

"Scott told me. I'm sorry I didn't respond to your letters. It was too hard. I'm proud of you, son. I know you've always wanted to work more with horses."

"I like it there. The people are nice, it's beautiful country."

"I'm sure it is. You said you like it. Do you love it like you love Lancer?"

"Don't, Murdoch."

"I'm being unfair but I can't help it. I want you home, Johnny. I spent too many years away from you. I'm a damned fool!"

Johnny looked into his eyes. Something just wasn't right here. "If you want me to even think about staying, you're going to have decide if you can tell me the whole truth. You're keeping something from me, Murdoch. I can tell."

His father dropped his eyes and said nothing.

"Well, it's up to you. But then, it always is," Johnny said sadly and walked upstairs.

********

Murdoch closed his eyes and sighed. How could he get Johnny to stay? He wouldn't blame the man if he told him to go straight to hell. What did he have to offer? Pain, anguish, guilt. What kind of man was he to send his own son away? He knew Johnny was right. He had to tell him all of it.

He felt weak and tired and wanted to go back to bed. But he couldn't. As long as Johnny was here, there was a chance to get him back. If he could only think straight. Maybe that wasn't such a good idea. Trying to think straight is what got him in this mess. It was time to be honest, like he just had been. Time to stop worrying about what might happen and work on making his family whole and happy.

It had been dark at Lancer for so long now. Since the day Johnny left, it seemed the sun had stopped shining, the birds had stopped singing. Oh, he knew that hadn't been the case, but it sure felt that way. He felt that way and he knew everyone else did, too.

Scott had changed. He had reverted to being polite and reserved. Gone was the happy, smiling son. In his place, was the proper young gentleman who had first graced his door two years ago.

Teresa smiled less, too. She seemed to go about the day automatically. There was no brightness to her. The happy, carefree young girl seemed to age into a sad woman.

Jelly didn't come into the house often. Only when he had to. He seemed even more grizzled, more grumpy. There was no teasing, no laughter.

The laughter was what he missed. The sounds of happiness that once pierced the halls of the hacienda. The light had faded to a dull gloom from which none of them could escape.

********

He sat at the head of the table and looked at each of his children. Teresa had given up her place on his left to Johnny. Somehow, things seemed ... better. Even with the heavy air of tension in the room, it seemed brighter now.

"Scott, tell us about Johnny's ranch. I know he won't do it justice," Teresa said, a gleam back in her eyes.

"Well, I was quite impressed. It's a beautiful place. Everything is so green and the sky is almost as blue as here," Scott grinned. "Johnny has a very nice set up. New corrals and several pastures. His house is nice. I know he didn't decorate it," he continued, raising a brow at the last comment.

"Funny, Boston. It was already furnished. I just changed a few things around," Johnny said.

"Well, it looks like you found someone to cook for you," Teresa said, poking at his ribs. "I half expected you to look like a scarecrow."

"Anna is a fine cook. I'm even teaching her to fix some Mexican dishes."

"I'll bet she's young and pretty," Teresa half-asked.

"She's a middle-aged widow with no kids," Johnny defended.

"Well, he has some good men working for him. His foreman, Chuck, really seems to know his job," Scott said.

"Chuck's a good man. Don't know what I'd do without him," Johnny agreed.

"It sounds like you really like it there," Teresa commented. There was no mistaking the disappointment in her voice.

"Yeah, I like it. The place is doing real well."

"Johnny says he can't get horses to the army fast enough," Scott said proudly.

Murdoch took it all in. He could hear the pride in Johnny's voice at his accomplishments. His heart plunged.

"What's the stock like there?" he asked.

Johnny looked at him, a bit surprised he would ask. "Well, I'll tell ya, all you have to do is throw a lasso in the air and you'll most likely rope something. I've never seen so many wild horses. They're good quality animals. Maybe not as good as here," Johnny conceded.

"Yes, the horseflesh here has always been top quality. I imagine a man could make a fine living working horses right here in the valley," Murdoch said, taking advantage of the admission.

Scott looked from his father to his brother. "In fact, I ran across a herd of wild horses just a few weeks ago. Beautiful animals. One of them reminded me of Barranca," he said.

"A man with, say, thirty thousand acres of land to work with, would have his pick of the horses around here," Murdoch said as he sipped his coffee.

Johnny stared at his plate, wondering if he was about to get ganged up on. He didn't have long to wait.

"No one has ever taken advantage of the opportunities for a horse business here. I'm sure one man could end up with a monopoly in that business. Here in the valley, that is," Scott said.

"Of course, it would take someone with the talent for working horses to pull that off," Murdoch added.

"Oh, absolutely. It would take a real horse whisperer to really make a go of it," Scott agreed.

"You two finished?" Johnny asked softly.

Murdoch laid his hand on Johnny's arm, causing him to look up at his father.

"I ... we want you home, son. If horses are what you want, that's what you'll have."

"It's not the horses, Murdoch."

"I know, I know. I don't know how many ways I can say it, son. I was wrong, dead wrong. You have no idea how ... empty this place has been without you."

"He's right, Johnny. Nothing has been the same since you left. Even the hands have been affected," Teresa said.

"I have a ranch, a business," Johnny said.

"You could have that here, brother. The difference is, you'd be with your family. You said I belonged at Lancer, well so do you. You know there's no other place in this world that makes you happier."

"Nothing's changed, Scott. The same problem is still here," Johnny reminded him.

"Yes, there are still people here who know who Johnny Madrid is. There are still people who don't want to let you forget. You got away from that in Montana. But, can you honestly tell me you're happier there? You've told me you like it there. Well, I like Boston, but I love Lancer. Given the choice, I choose Lancer. You have a choice, Johnny. What do you choose?"

Johnny let out a long breath. "I don't know. I need to think about it."

"But you will think about?" Murdoch asked.

"Yeah, I will."

A knock at the door ended the conversation. Murdoch sat back and smiled slightly.

"Would you get that, John?"

Johnny stood up and looked at him. "Boy, back one day and all the sudden I'm the butler," he grinned. He walked to the door feeling some suspicion.

"Johnny!"

"Hey, Sam," he smiled.

Sam Jenkins stepped over the threshold and hugged the young man. Johnny, taken aback by the display, hugged him back hesitantly.

"I came by to check on Murdoch," Sam explained.

"He's at the table."

Sam raised a brow. "He is? Well, I suppose that's your doing."

Johnny shrugged. "You let him get away with too much."

"I guess I've lost my knack since you've been gone," Sam retorted.

Johnny smiled. "Yeah, I haven't had more than a hangnail for a year." His face darkened with that statement. One more testament for why he should stay away.

"Yes, well, let's get a look at the new and improved Murdoch Lancer," Sam said, feeling the pain Johnny's own words caused the young man.

"Hello, Sam," Scott greeted.

"Scott, Teresa. Well, Murdoch, it's about time you got your sorry hide out of bed. How are you feeling?" Sam asked as he sat down.

"A little tired is all, Sam," Murdoch answered with a growl.

"I'll get you a plate, Sam," Teresa said with a smile.

"Haven't seen that in a while," the doctor noted.

"What?"

"Teresa smiling," he said, looking straight at Johnny.

Johnny sighed and looked down. They were really laying it on thick and his temper was edging to the boiling point. He wished they'd just stop pushing.

"Yes, I think we're all feeling a little happier today. We're hoping that will last a good long time," Scott said, smiling at his brother.

Johnny looked up at him and reached the breaking point. He stood up quickly, knocking his chair onto the floor.

"It's time we made a few things clear," he hissed.

Scott leaned back in his chair, astonished by the sudden move, as was everyone else. Teresa had walked back in at just that moment. She stood there with her mouth open.

"You all keep going at me about how miserable you've been. Like this is my fault. Well, I've had enough! I have nothing to feel guilty about and I ain't taking the heat for it anymore!"

"Johnny..." Scott started.

"Shut up! You want to tiptoe around this old man, fine! You do that. But I won't. I won't act like everything is fine and dandy. Like all I have to do is move back in here. Never mind what I've built. Never mind what I want. As long as you all get what you want. Well, I've had enough of it. I won't stand for this anymore. Do you hear me?" He turned his rage on his father. "You asked me here to help you keep this ranch. You offered me a partnership. You had no problem with my past then. I'm sure you would have said something if you did. Then, all the sudden I wasn't good enough to be your son. I was too much of a danger to you all. It was too hard. Now, you change your mind - again! Well, let me tell you something, Murdoch! I ain't a toy you can take out and play with when you feel like it. I'm sick and tired of being made to feel lower than dirt by you. I don't have to take that from anyone!"

Johnny stood and glared at his father, his entire body shaking with rage.

Murdoch stared at him dumbfounded. He had never seen Johnny so angry. He had never talked to him like this before. "What do you want, son?"

Johnny shook his head slowly. "I want you to leave me the hell alone," he whispered and walked out the door.

Scott stood up and headed after him.

"Scott, leave him alone," Murdoch said.

"No! He needs me whether he knows it or not. He needs you, too, Murdoch!" Scott spat and walked away.

*******

He found Johnny in the barn saddling Barranca. He wasted no time.

"So you're leaving again? Just like that."

"Yep, just like that!"

"And you won't even talk to me."

"Think I said it all in there," Johnny clipped.

"You said a lot. Now, I have some things to say and you are going to listen. Just like I listened to you," Scott said, a determined set to his jaw.

Johnny turned and faced him, fire shooting from his eyes. "I won't listen to you defend him, Scott."

"I don't intend to. The first thing I want to do is apologize. You were right. We were trying to make you feel guilty when you have nothing to feel guilty about. I suppose when you're desperate, you're willing to use whatever weapons are in your arsenal. Johnny, all I want is your happiness. If you are truly happier in Montana, I won't try to stand in your way. But, I saw the look on your face on that ridge today. I know what Lancer means to you. It's not right that you give that up unless you really want to."

Johnny stared at him for a long moment before turning away. "When I left here, I felt like I was dying inside. For months, all I could think about was all of you and the ranch. When I started building the Double L, I could push all that from my mind. Concentrate on all the work to be done. But, every night, I'd sit by the fire and wonder what you were doing right then. I'd sit outside and look at the stars and wonder if you were watching them, too."

He laughed softly. "Dios, I sound like a love-sick pup. But, I missed you, brother. I missed being with you, talking to you. Sometimes, it hurt so bad..." his voice choked off as he leaned against the stall gate.

Scott walked up and put his hands on Johnny's trembling shoulders. "You say all that in the past tense. Does that mean you don't feel that way anymore?"

Johnny could only shake his head no. His voice had left him.

"Maybe that's your answer, brother. Nothing that hurts so bad can make you happy. No matter how hard you try to convince yourself," Scott said gently, his own voice quivering.

"If I could just find a way to put the two together," Johnny said.

"You can, brother. I'll help you. Stay here, build up your horse business. Hell, build your own house if you want." Scott wrapped one arm around Johnny's chest and held tight.

"I don't know if I can. I don't know if I can be that close to him," Johnny whispered.

"He's hurt you too many times, I know. But, if it's any consolation, he doesn't mean to, Johnny."

"What does he mean, Scott? You tell me because I don't have a clue," he answered, the anger back in his voice.

Scott moved back, turning Johnny to face him. "I think that's something you'll have to ask him. If you want to. If you even care anymore."

Johnny looked into his brother's eyes. "I care. God help me, I care," he mumbled.

Scott smiled. "Why do you care?"

Johnny dropped his eyes. "Because I love the old goat."

"And he loves you. Of course, at this moment, I'd like to strangle him," Scott laughed.

"Yeah? Stand in line, brother," Johnny smiled. "I've missed this."

"So have I, brother, so have I."

"Scott, I'm sorry I lied to you. I..."

"No, Johnny. Murdoch used that gunfight as ammunition. He got to you when you were hurt and feeling guilty. I'm not happy about it but you aren't the one who needs to explain," Scott said firmly.

"But, it was my idea to make up that story."

Scott sighed softly. "Maybe some day we can all stop trying so hard to protect each other and start trusting each other to handle the truth."

"That'd be a nice change," Johnny smiled.

Both men turned at the sound of a cough. Murdoch was standing in the barn door trying not to eavesdrop. But he'd heard Johnny say he loved him and his heart lifted with hope.

Scott looked at Johnny with a questioning gaze. Johnny smiled and nodded his head. Scott squeezed both shoulders and let one hand slide quickly across his brother's cheek, ending with a pat.

He passed by his father and shot him a look that said 'don't mess this up'.

"Are you leaving?" Murdoch asked, glancing at the half-saddled Barranca.

"I was thinking about it."

"I, um, I've made a lot of mistakes with you, Johnny."

"Yeah."

"I don't know how to make things right."

"Honesty would be a good start," Johnny stated.

"I've tried to be honest ... no, that isn't true." Murdoch sighed and ran a hand through his hair. He walked over and sat on a bale of hay.

"The truth is my feelings about you are all over the place. You are my son and I love you. But, trying to deal with your past has been hard. I thought I could do it. I let myself believe I was doing the right thing by asking you to leave. I know now that was very wrong. Not only because you're my son and this is your home, but because it isn't an answer. I was running away from the problem by sending you away."

"Well, I guess if you send the problem away, that should solve it," Johnny said sharply.

"No, because you weren't the problem."

Johnny walked over and knelt in front of his father, searching his eyes as he posed the question. "Do you even know who I am?"

Murdoch looked quizzically at him as if he didn't understand the question.

"Do you know who I am? Do you know anything about me?" Johnny reiterated.

"Yes, I know you."

"Who am I, Murdoch?"

"Johnny, I..."

"Who am I?" he insisted.

"You're Johnny Lancer. You're my son. You're a rancher and a damned fine horseman. You're giving and caring. Brave and loyal and trustworthy," Murdoch answered definitively.

"And a gunfighter."

"No, a former gunfighter. A man with a soft heart and a giving nature. A man anyone would be proud to call son, brother, friend."

Murdoch looked as if he'd had an epiphany just then. "My God, how blind I've been," he whispered. He pulled the young man into an embrace and tightened the hold.

"Forgive me, son. Give me the chance to show you how much you mean to me. Give me one last chance to be a real father."

Johnny relished the closeness but he couldn't let it go, not just yet. There was something else he needed. "Wait, please," he said, pulling back but keeping the contact. His hands rested on Murdoch's arms just as Murdoch held a tight grip on his biceps.

"I wasn't buckin for compliments. I want to know how you know these things you think I am."

Murdoch understood. "I've watched you. Seen the way you help others. How you're so willing to lend a hand, never expecting or wanting anything in return. I've seen you with the hands. I know they respect and like you."

Johnny shook his head, his expression perplexed. "I'm trying to understand, Murdoch. If you saw these things, why didn't it ever make a difference before?"

"I can only say I closed my eyes, Johnny. I couldn't accept anything other than what was in those damned reports. I couldn't believe a gunfighter could be so caring about anyone."

Johnny dropped his head in disappointment. "You didn't believe your own eyes. A stranger's words were more important than what was right in front of you."

"It was a struggle, son. Part of me saw it but part of me wouldn't allow it in. After you were gone, I began to think back. Think about all you'd done here, how you were with Scott and everyone. Everyone but me. That was my own doing. I never gave you a chance. Johnny, when you left, a big part of this place died. For years, I tried to keep it alive, waiting for the day when I could have you and your brother back. When you were both here, I saw the life blossom in this land and its people. Without both of you, it just doesn't seem as alive."

"If I stay, what will be different?" Johnny asked.

"I will be. That's the only thing that needs to change as far as I can see. I promise you, son, I will never again doubt you."

"Oh, Murdoch, I don't believe that for a minute. But, that's not what I want to hear. What I need to know is , can you accept me? All of me?"

Murdoch cupped Johnny's face in his hand and lifted it to look into his son's eyes. "Believe this. You and Scott are the most important things in my life. Never again will I ask you to leave your home or give up anything that belongs to you. Yes, Johnny, I accept you, all of you. Every part, good or bad. Though, there's no bad that I can see. All I can see, finally, is what I should have seen all along. My son. My Johnny."

Two sets of blue eyes glistened in the low light of the barn as father and son came to an understanding.

"Now, tell me the rest of it," Johnny said.

Murdoch sighed and his shoulders slumped. Johnny took a seat beside him on the hay bale.

"Right after you were shot I found out some things. The two men who called you out were looking for bounty money."

"Bounty? I'm not wanted!"

"It was a personal bounty, son. It didn't take me long to find out who put it out. I made some inquiries of some people I know down around the border."

Johnny repositioned himself so he could face his father. "And?"

"That rurale captain, Himinez, was behind it."

Johnny stiffened at the name. His mouth was suddenly dry and his heart was pounding. "I thought I killed him," he breathed out.  

"I guess not. My contacts told me he'd been up and down the border for six months telling anyone who'd listen he was going to kill you."

Johnny looked down at his hands. The palms were sweaty. He couldn't believe after two years that the thought of that man could have this effect on him.

"Why didn't you just tell me?"

"I thought you'd go after him."

"You were right."

"For you to go into Mexico at that time, Johnny... it was too dangerous."

Johnny took a deep breath and let it out slowly as he worked to calm himself. "Now, I know how Scott feels."

Murdoch looked at him, puzzled.

"We lied to him to keep him safe. You did the same thing to me. I don't like it anymore than he does," he explained. After a long moment, he added, "have you heard any more about him?"

"No," Murdoch shook his head. "Nothing for about nine months now."

"And you couldn't ask me to come back?"

"I ... the letters you wrote to Teresa made it sound like you were so happy. I didn't want to hurt you anymore."

"Well, that's it then," he sighed resignedly.

"That's what?"

"I have to go find him, Murdoch. I'll never have any peace as long as that man is alive."

"Johnny, you can't!"

"The hell I can't! You don't know anything about what's between him and me, Murdoch. I thought I'd killed him. It's the only thing that kept me ..." Johnny stopped, unwilling to reveal anymore.

"Can't you tell me about it, son?"

"You must know something. Just because someone's after me, that wouldn't make you do what you did," he said, suddenly wondering what Murdoch did know.

"All I really know is he hates you and that he's a very dangerous man bent on revenge," Murdoch answered, unwilling to reveal what he really knew.

"Yeah, he's dangerous. As long as you're tied up and half dead, he's real dangerous," Johnny shot sarcastically.

"Let me wire my friend again. Maybe he's heard something more. Please don't go down there half-cocked, son. This is exactly what I was afraid you'd do."

Johnny made himself calm down once more. "Go ahead. Maybe someone's already done the honors for me. Wouldn't be surprised. But, Murdoch, if he's still gunnin for me, I won't run," he warned icily.

******

Scott was pacing in front of the fireplace, his nerves raw. Sam had left after Johnny's tirade, his appetite suddenly gone. Teresa watched Scott moving back and forth, her own face pinched in worry.

Johnny and Murdoch walked back inside and Scott stopped, holding his breath. All eyes turned to Johnny, waiting expectantly.

"Teresa, I think we could all use some coffee," Murdoch said.

She nodded and left with a backwards glance.

"I owe you an apology, brother," Johnny said.

Scott looked rather surprised. "For what?"

"For telling you to shut up earlier," Johnny grinned sheepishly.

Scott laughed softly. "To tell you the truth, I didn't even remember that."

He sobered as he saw the long expressions reappear on the other men's faces.

"Scott, something happened, something ..." Johnny found he couldn't tell his brother this tale. For some reason, talking to Scott about that firing squad had always been an impossible chore. He looked to Murdoch for help.

"Why don't we all sit down and I'll explain," Murdoch said more calmly than he felt. He went on to tell Scott about Himinez and the bounty. When he finished, they all fell quiet for a while.

"How long before you think you'll hear from that friend?" Johnny asked.

"Just a day or two at the most."

"While we wait, let's talk about your future, brother," Scott smiled.

Johnny looked up and smiled then. "Future?"

"Yes, your future. Here, at Lancer," Scott said determinedly.

"Will you stay, son?"

Johnny looked from one to the other. "Like to tell me what I'm supposed to do with my ranch?"

"Sell it to Chuck," Scott shrugged.

It was a good idea, actually, Johnny thought. Chuck would run the place the way it should be run. He knew horses and he could talk the devil out of his fork. He smiled at the thought. He'd miss those people but they weren't family. The ranch was great but it wasn't Lancer.

"That's not a bad idea, Boston. Of course, I don't have to sell it. Chuck can run things for me," he grinned.

Scott smiled back. "I'll be glad to help you get everything taken care of."

Johnny chewed his lip for a moment. "I just want to be sure of something. I can't go through this again," he said softly.

"You won't have to. I swear it on my mother's grave, Johnny. I will never ask you to leave your home again," Murdoch proclaimed.

Teresa came back in with the coffee service and eyed them all expectantly. She said not a word as she poured them all a cup. Once settled herself, she couldn't stand it any longer.

"Are you staying or not?" She was surprised by the brusqueness of her own tone and blushed a little.

Johnny laughed softly. "I don't know, Teresa. Seems like I'm gettin on your nerves already."

"That's what I miss," she said quietly.

Johnny got up and walked over to the chair where she was sitting. He kneeled down beside her and smiled. "Yes, I'm staying. I have to take care of things in Montana first."

The smile on her face couldn't have been any wider. She reached out and hugged him and kissed his cheek. "I'd just like to know what all this foolishness was about to begin with."

"Well, I'd love to tell you but I'm worn out."

She smiled lovingly at him. "Your room is all ready for you. It has been since the day you left."

"Gracias, miel."

*********

Johnny walked into his old bedroom and closed the door. Leaning back against it, he closed his eyes. Of all the people to be gunning for him!

Shaking his head, he walked over and fell across the bed. Lying on his back, he stared at the ceiling. He couldn't believe his reaction in the barn when he heard that name again. He'd been sarcastic with Murdoch but he knew all too well just how dangerous Himinez was.

Johnny wondered why it had taken a year for him to come. Maybe he'd shot him bad enough to lay him up a good long while. He smiled at the thought of causing that much damage. He never liked killing but that was one man he'd enjoyed putting a bullet in. If anybody deserved to die, it was Himinez.

He closed his eyes as the memories of the Mexican jail came back. The man was pure evil. He enjoyed torturing his prisoners and he seemed to take a special interest in Johnny. Not that he'd made any qualms about it. It was clear why. After a few weeks, Johnny was beginning to believe his name was mestizo. That's all he was ever referred to as by the guards. He knew that was Himinez order. Bastard!

Johnny smiled a little. That was his other favorite thing. Telling Johnny he was a bastard. Johnny knew better but he hadn't explained it. Wasn't the man's business for one thing. He was loud, too. Johnny recalled that he yelled a lot. His voice only softened when he was working.

Working. Nice name for torture, he supposed. Every morning like clockwork they'd awaken him and drag him into the guard room. They'd tie him in the chair and Himinez would come in taunting him.

"Today, you will die, mestizo." It started out with those same five words. Then he would lay into Johnny, beating him until he'd either pass out or Himinez would get tired.

He had other tricks as well. Throwing water on him at night when it was cold in the cell then taking his blanket. Serving him that mush with cockroaches running around in the bowl. Throwing rats on him. He shivered at the thought.

It seemed his only goal in life was to break Johnny Madrid. Well, he never did reach that goal. Never would have either. Johnny had vowed to himself he would not break. He would stand in front of those rifles and stare straight at Himinez as he died. Leaving him with the most hateful look Johnny could muster.

He had known the day. It was the only day the ritual had been broken. They didn't drag him out to the guard room or tie him in a chair. Instead, they came in, jerked him up and tied his hands behind him. He knew then this was the day he would die. It was almost a relief.

For the first time in longer than he could remember, he was outside. The sun shown down from the clear blue sky. It was hot but it felt incredibly good on his skin. He had been cold for weeks, or had it been months. He had lost all sense of time in the cell.  

Kneeling there on the hard-packed ground, his head bowed, Johnny had summoned every ounce of willpower he possessed. Still, he couldn't stop from jumping when the rifles fired, taking out the first prisoner. The man on his right looked over at him but Johnny would not meet his eyes. He didn't need to stare into the sadness he knew was there, the fear.

Those last words from the prisoner were ironic, so Johnny thought. At least he took it well, fighting until the end. The words were still fresh in his mind. The words the man never finished. "Vive la reve..." He couldn't help finishing the phrase as Himinez began shouting at him. This was the reason he was about to die after all. And so, while the capitan was yelling, Johnny lifted his head and whispered "lución".

That was when the world changed. That was when he had been saved from certain death. That was the day he began the transformation into Johnny Lancer.

******

Scott poured two glasses of Brandy and handed one to his father before settling on the sofa. He swirled the liquid round the glass, a thoughtful expression on his face.

Murdoch watched him, waiting. He knew Scott wanted to say something and was working himself up to it. Ever the diplomat, his son needed time to phrase his words in a way that left no doubt to his feelings.

"I wonder if Grandfather felt he was protecting me," he said suddenly.

"What?"

"Well, if he thought I would be in danger out here in the wilderness, I can certainly understand his keeping me in Boston. I can understand his blackmailing me into going back, as well."

"How could you even think that, Scott? Harlan had no right to play with your emotions like that!"

Scott looked up slowly and locked eyes with his father. A hint of a smile played at his lips. "And you do?"

Murdoch opened his mouth then shut it again as Scott's intent hammered its way home. He slumped back in his chair, a frown of concession on his face.

"This is where you tell me I had no right making decisions about what's best for you," he remarked glumly.

"Yes, this is the part."

"Point taken."

"Is it, sir? I wonder. Murdoch, I don't have any more experience with family than you do. But, I'm pretty sure families should talk about their problems and concerns. That they should include the entire family in decision making that affects everyone's lives. What you did was selfish."

Murdoch looked up at him, surprised by the word. "Selfish? Yes, I suppose I was being selfish. I only wanted everyone to be safe."

"I understand that, I really do. But, it isn't your job. I'm sorry, sir, but it should have been when we were children. We aren't children now. We're grown men with our own principles and values. I'm not trying to hurt you, Murdoch. I'm only trying to make you understand. You can't father us like you want to."

"I know that, Scott. At least, I know it in my head. It's not always so easy though. I never had the chance to teach and guide you. I missed so much. I know I can't get that back and I can't make it happen now."

"That's not entirely true, sir. You can still teach and guide us. What you can't do is try to run our lives and treat us as children."

Murdoch smiled, a deep pride filling his chest. "You are a remarkable young man, Scott. Maybe we should have family meetings when one of us is troubled."

"Now that is the smartest thing I've heard in a while," Scott smiled fully.

********

Johnny awoke from a restless and troubled sleep. Nightmares had filled his slumber, what little he'd had. He rubbed his hand vigorously over his face and stretched his muscular body before making the effort to get up.

Sitting on the side of the bed, he thought about how to handle the situation. He would wait for Murdoch to send the telegram so he may as well head back to Montana and settle things there.

As he went about his morning ritual, he thought about how to handle the transaction. He wanted to keep the ranch. After all, it was a success - his success. Yet, he wanted to stay here with his family. He decided he would ask Scott for his advice.

As if reading his thoughts, Scott popped his head through the door. "Good morning."

"Mornin. I was just thinking about you," Johnny said as he pulled the razor down his cheek.

"I'm touched," Scott grinned.

Johnny paused in his shaving so he could smile. "How do you see this happening, brother? I mean, with the Double L."

Scott moved over to the bed, sitting down as he considered. "Well, Chuck seems capable of handling the running of the place. Can he handle contract negotiations?"

Johnny wiped the shaving cream from his face with a towel. "Oh, he's savvy. No doubt about that. He's done a couple of contracts for me."

"What about the book work?"

"Well, that might be a little harder. But, Anna used to be a school teacher. I'm sure she could help with that."

"It sounds like it will work, then."

"Yeah, Dusty's ready, too. He's young but he's really dedicated. Now all we have to do is ride on up there and make it official."

"We?" Scott grinned.

"You said you'd help," Johnny said, then threw a towel at his brother.

The brothers shared a laugh and hooked an arm around each other as they headed downstairs for breakfast.

*******

Murdoch Lancer heard them before he saw them and his heart felt light again. He smiled as they entered the kitchen, greeting each of them.

"I'll be heading into town first thing to send that wire, son."

"Okay. I thought I'd go back to the ranch and make some arrangements with Chuck while we wait for an answer."

"Today? Can't it wait a few more days, Johnny?" Teresa asked.

"The quicker I get it taken care of the better I'll feel about it, Teresa." Turning his attention to Murdoch, he added, "Scott's going with me if that's okay with you."

"Of course. What have you decided, Johnny?"

He explained the plan to Murdoch who felt it would work as long as Chuck was trustworthy. Johnny assured him the man was loyal to a fault.

They finished their breakfast and Murdoch left for town. Scott and Johnny readied themselves for the trip as Teresa fussed the entire time.

*****

They arrived at the Double L late morning four days later. Chuck and Dusty were hard at it in the corral. Johnny smiled at his foreman's diligence.

"Well, have a good trip?" Chuck called.

"It was ... interesting," Johnny replied as he dismounted.  

"Mr. Lancer," Chuck nodded to Scott, a suspicious look in his eye.

"It's Scott," he corrected.

"I'll have someone take care of your horses. Soon as youâ€re ready, I'll catch ya up," Chuck directed to Johnny.

"Yeah, come in the house in an hour, Chuck. We need to talk," Johnny answered solemnly.

Chuck nodded but he didn't like the sound of Johnny's voice. A sense of foreboding washed over the man as he watched the brothers walk away.

Johnny headed to his desk and pulled out the ledgers, deed and contracts with the army. "I'll put on a pot of coffee if you want to start wading through all this."

Scott sat down at the desk and began with the ledgers. He read them thoroughly and shook his head. 'When I get him home, I never again want to hear how he knows nothing about books,' he thought wryly.

Johnny appeared with a tray of coffee and cups. "Might be a long night."

"I'm not so sure about that. It looks to me like every penny is accounted for, brother," Scott emphasized the last word with a cocked brow. "I thought you didn't know anything about bookkeeping."

"Well, I had to learn. I mean, can't let them army types cheat me," he grinned wickedly.

"No, those army types are scoundrels. Can't trust any of them," Scott retorted.

"That's what I hear," Johnny laughed.

*******

Chuck knocked once and walked into the house. The first thing he saw was Scott at Johnny's desk, going over the books. He frowned and tensed, wary of what was going on.

"Come on in, Chuck. There are some things I need to go over with you," Johnny called.

"What's goin on here, Johnny?"

"Sit down. This is gonna take a while," Johnny said seriously.

"Just spit it out. Is your brother takin over?"

Scott looked at him in surprise but no more so than Johnny. "Why would you think that?"

"Well, you're goin through them books with a fine-toothed comb. The fact that youâ€re back here says somethin, too," Chuck said flatly.

"Did I mention that Chuck doesn't pull any punches?" Johnny grinned.

"I believe you may have forgotten to mention that," Scott returned the grin.

"Chuck, Scott's not taking over. Before I came here, we lived together with our father on a ranch. We were equal partners, the three of us. For reasons I don't want to get into, I left. Now, I've decided to go home."

Chuck was on his feet in a split second. "You can't! Johnny, why?"

"Sit down, amigo. I'll try to explain. My old man and me didn't get along. There are things ... well, it's a long long story. But, we've talked and I've decided to go back. I want to be with my family. You can understand that," Johnny explained quietly.

"So now all the sudden your old man is easier to get along with? That don't sound right. Somethin else is goin on here," Chuck observed.

"I think you're going to have to tell him the whole thing, brother," Scott advised.

Johnny sighed and nodded. He got up and walked to the hutch in the corner. Grabbing a bottle of whiskey and three glasses, he sat back down and poured. "My mother ran off when I was two. She took me along for the ride. She told me my father threw us out. That he didn't want me. I didn't have any reason to doubt her. She died when I was twelve and I was on my own. A couple of years later, I became a gunfighter. I used the name Johnny Madrid. For five years..."

"Johnny Madrid!" Chuck exclaimed.

"I take it you've heard the name?" Scott asked.

Chuck was staring at Johnny in utter shock. "That ain't true. There ain't no way you was a gunfighter, Johnny. No way."

"I was, Chuck. Two years ago my old man found me. Well, the Pinkertons did. He asked me to come home. There were a lot of hard feelings between us for a long time. Right up until when I left a year ago. Now, we've come to an understanding."

Chuck was still trying to absorb this information. He couldn't believe that his boss, his friend was a gunhawk in another life. He gulped down the whiskey and held out his glass.

Johnny smiled and filled it, waiting for the man to process it all.

Finally, he spoke and with venom. "So, he threw ya out when you was a baby and he threw ya out again a year ago. And now you've come to an understanding? Are you crazy?"

"He didn't throw me out as a baby. My mother lied to me, Chuck. I don't know why but she did. As for last year, he asked me to leave because of my past. Scott was hurt when two men called me out and Murdoch was worried about the risk," Johnny replied calmly.

"Did he know who you were before ya came home?"

"Yes."

"Then he accepted the risk when he asked ya ta stay to begin with!" Chuck fumed.

"You have no fight with us, Chuck. Johnny and I both know how wrong Murdoch was. And I know how he manipulated Johnny to agree with him," Scott inserted.

"What are you talkin about, Boston?"

"I'm talking about how he used your guilt to get you to see things his way, Johnny. How he knew all he had to do was make you think about any of us getting hurt because of your past. It was a sure-fire way to get you to go along. He didn't even pay you for your third of the ranch!"

"I didn't want any money. I told him that!"

"And I'm sure that thrilled him immensely!"

"Hey, Scott, what's goin on here?" Johnny asked, softening his tone.

"I'm still angry with him, Johnny. I can't just forget what he did. We have spent most of our lives not even knowing the other existed. Then, he decides to take it all away - again!"

"You didn't know about him?" Chuck asked.

Scott looked up at the man who was still standing, pacing the floor. "No, I grew up in Boston with my grandfather. I never met Murdoch until Johnny and I arrived. I had no idea I had a brother."

"I sure would like ta meet this Murdoch Lancer," Chuck fumed, clinching his fists.

"That's enough! Both of you. Look, I can't tell you not to be angry, Scott. All I can tell you is this is because of choices I made in the past. That's why it happened. It was because of me, whether you like it or not."

"Choices? What choices did you have, Johnny? The only choice was to survive however you could."

"That's pretty, Boston. But it ain't all of it. It doesn't matter now. What matters is what's going to happen to this ranch. That's what I wanted to talk to Chuck about."

"You gonna sell out?"

"No, I'm keeping the ranch. I want you to run it for me," Johnny replied.

"Me? Johnny, I can't do that."

"I can't think of anyone better, Chuck."

"I don't know. I ain't good with bookkeepin and the like."

"Anna can help you with that. She used to be a school teacher. I know you can handle the army contracts. You could sell the devil a bible," Johnny grinned.

Chuck scratched his head. "What about the horses?"

"Dusty's ready. Anything more he could learn, he'll teach himself in time. There's nothing more I can show him."

"I don't know, Johnny."

Johnny stood up and approached his friend. "You've been a good friend and the best wrangler I ever met. I know you can run this place the way it should be run. I wouldn't leave it to you if I didn't. We've worked too hard to throw it all away, Chuck."

The older man sighed heavily. "I'm glad ya got all this faith in me, Johnny. I sure hope I can live up to it."

"You will. And if you ever need me, I'm not that far away. Besides, I expect you to send me reports every three months," Johnny grinned.

Chuck laughed. "Reckon Anna can help me with that, too."

"Scott and I'll go over everything and make all the arrangements. You know, my brother went to Harvard so he's kind of smart," he laughed.

"That a fact. Well, if you trust 'im, reckon I can, too. It's just that, well, we'll all sure miss ya around here."

"I'm gonna miss you all, too," Johnny said softly.

Chuck left them to it and went to tell the men of the changes about to take place.

******

The night wore on. It was well past midnight when Scott looked up. He stretched his arms and yawned.

"Brother, I think we should call it a night."

"Yeah, it's pretty late. Scott? Are you okay? I mean, you were awfully mad earlier."

"I still have some issues with Murdoch. But, you and I are fine, brother."

"Are we?" Johnny cocked a brow.

"As long as you understand that I hate what you did and you had no right to lie to me."

"I understand that. I was trying to protect you and keep you at Lancer. I know it was wrong, Scott. You're a grown man and you don't need me to take care of you."

"Well, that's where you're wrong, Johnny. At least, partly. I'll always need you. I may even need your help. But what I need most of all is an honest relationship with the man I trust more than anyone in the world."

"Don't know how you could trust me after what I did," Johnny mumbled.

"Because I understand what you did and why. I don't like it, but I understand it. I know you were thinking of me, not yourself. I wish you'd start considering yourself as much as you consider others. Johnny, I've never met a more confident, self-assured man than you. But when it comes to relationships, you lose that confidence. I'd like to know why that is, brother."

Johnny stared into the flames of the fire, thinking about his answer. "Never had any luck with it, I guess. I turned myself off for a long time, Scott. I couldn't let anyone in, get too close."

"But that didn't stop you from caring about others. How is that?"

Johnny shrugged his shoulders slightly. "Seemed more important."

"They aren't."

Johnny looked at his brother with a puzzled expression.

"They aren't more important than you. Their feelings aren't more important than yours. They aren't less important, either. You have a right to care and be cared about, Johnny. Every human being on this planet has that right. More than that, it's a need. To be loved is something people can't live without. Oh, they can exist, work, eat and sleep. But that's not living."

A crooked smile played up Johnny's mouth. "You learn all that at Harvard, Boston?"

"As a matter of fact, some of it, I did. I took a course in philosophy. But mostly, I've learned from experience. Grandfather wasn't demonstrative with his affections. I can't remember him ever actually telling me he loved me. But I knew he did. I used to think that was enough, just the knowing, but it isn't. A person needs to hear the words."

Johnny nodded, knowing exactly what Scott was saying. When Murdoch had said those words to him just the other day, it had meant more than anything he could have done.  

"I love you, Scott," he said softly.

"I wasn't looking for..."

"I know. Just the same, you're right. It's nice to hear the words. You mean more to me than anyone in the world, brother. I love you."

"I love you, too, Johnny."

A long silence followed until Johnny laughed softly. "Maybe men don't need to hear it from each other so much, huh?"

"Maybe not so much, but some," Scott smiled.

"Come on, Boston. Better get you to bed. You need your beauty sleep."

******

It took a couple of days to square things away at the Double L. Johnny packed the items he'd accumulated over the past year and Chuck was to send it by stage to Morro Coyo.

He said his goodbyes to his men, they were friends and he'd miss them. Dusty was hard. He made no qualms about the fact that Johnny shouldn't go. The boy had no family, being orphaned at the tender age of one. He didn't remember what it was like and Johnny was patient.

He spent a great deal of time talking to Dusty the day before he left and they had come to an understanding. Chuck was the hardest and Johnny made him promise to contact him for any reason he was needed.

As he rode away from the ranch, Johnny stopped and looked back over the land. A sadness crossed his face that worried Scott.

"You okay, brother?"

"Yeah," he sighed softly. "It's just ... I built this, Scott. I guess I have a better understanding of how Murdoch feels about Lancer now. It's hard to leave."

Scott watched him, wondering if Johnny was making this choice for himself or for his family.

"If this is where you truly want to be..."

"No, it isn't. It's like saying goodbye to a friend you know you'll probably never see again. But, Lancer is in my blood. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't shake it loose." Johnny looked meaningfully at his brother. "Or you."

Scott smiled in relief and affection. "Me too, brother. Let's go home."

*******

Johnny and Scott arrived home in time for supper four days later. As soon as they entered the house and saw Murdoch's face, they became wary.

"What?" Johnny asked.

"Sit down, boys. I heard from my friend. Himinez hasn't been seen for three months. The last sighting was in El Paso."

"El Paso? He crossed the border," Johnny almost whispered.

"Does that mean something, Johnny?" Scott asked.

"I'm not sure. It's just hard to believe he would ever cross over. He hates gringos with a passion. I mean he really hates them."

"Maybe you should tell us exactly what is between the two of you," Scott suggested.

Johnny grimaced and didn't answer.

"Son, Scott and I were thinking maybe we could start something new. When one of us is troubled or worried about something, we should all discuss it."

Johnny stood and walked over to the fireplace. "That's a nice idea," he smiled wanly. "It's simple really. I made a point of making his life a living hell. I raided his camps, stole his food and money, ran his horses off."

"Why?" Scott asked, unaccountably amused.

"He was a thief. Everything he had was stolen from peons who had little to begin with."

Murdoch leaned forward, intrigued. "What did you do with all these spoils?"

"Gave them back to their rightful owners," Johnny shrugged.

Scott looked at Murdoch and they shared a smile that Johnny didn't see. He was staring into the flames.

"Well, I can see why he hates you so much," Scott spoke.

Johnny turned to face them. "Yeah. He almost got his revenge, too." His face darkened suddenly.

"There's more, isn't there, son?"

"He was so smug that day. He took that Pink's money and thought he'd get my life, too. I know I hit him. Too bad my aim was off." His voice was ice and he could have said more but he wouldn't. He would never tell them everything that had happened.

There was a silence in the room as each man became lost their own thoughts. Johnny began to pace the floor which unnerved Murdoch even more.

"What are you thinking, son?"

"I don't know what to think. If he finds out where I am ... I should have stayed in Montana," he said dejectedly.

"Let's not start that again. If this man really is after you, we'll face him together, Johnny. As a family," Scott stated.

Johnny smiled at this. "I can handle him, Scott. Thing is, he never travels alone. He's always got a dozen men with him."

"Then we'll face those dozen. We have plenty of hands here. Men willing to fight for you."

"Are they willing to die for me, brother? Are you?"

"Yes, I am, if need be. Of course, I don't see the need," Scott grinned.

Johnny chuckled. "You sure are casual with your life."

"No, I'm not. I just know what I'm willing to do to help you. Just like you knew what you were willing to do to help those people who were robbed."

"This all may be just speculation. We don't know what happened to Himinez or where he is. He could have gone back to Mexico and taken up his raids," Murdoch interjected.

"I hope not, but it doesn't matter. I won't have any peace until he's dead," Johnny mumbled.

Scott stood quickly as a thought struck him. He stared wide-eyed at Johnny.

"What?"

"Johnny, didn't you tell me you haven't drawn your gun in four months? That you hadn't even practiced?"

The realization hit Johnny like a boulder. Damn! He needed to rectify that situation. He didn't know how long it would take him to get back to his former speed and precision.

"You should start practicing first thing tomorrow," Murdoch said.

Johnny cocked a surprised brow at his father.

"What? It's the sensible thing to do," he defended.

"Yeah, but it's just surprising coming from you," Johnny said, his eyes dancing with amusement.

Murdoch stood and approached his son. Laying a hand on his shoulder, he said, "if you're thinking of going after him, just remember, you won't be going alone."

********

Johnny didn't feel the need for an audience so the next morning he took off to find a remote area. He rode over the hills and valleys of Lancer with a keen appreciation for this place he called home. He had missed it so much. It felt good to be back, even with this new threat hanging over him.

He sensed a change in Murdoch as well. He seemed more accepting, more open. Johnny hoped it would last past a few days or weeks.

He found a copse of trees with an open area within, well shielded from prying eyes. He set up some targets, using stones laying about. Working first on dry draws, he began to get the feel of the Colt again. Over and over, he drew the weapon. For hours he practiced this, never once firing the gun.

As the afternoon sun began hanging lower in the sky, Johnny took some practice shots. He was surprised he hit all the targets. He reckoned it was something that would be with him all his life. His mind wandered back over the years to when he first started this ritual.

Hours of practice on first one thing, then another had honed his skill until he was satisfied. And it took a lot to satisfy him. Nothing short of perfection would do. It wouldn't do now, either.

He decided to head home, knowing they would worry. He smiled to himself at the feeling that gave him. A warmth that had been missing for so long now.

As he rode toward home, he met up with Scott coming in from a long day.

"How did it go?"

"Not bad, better than I thought. Still have some work to do. How was your day?" Johnny inquired.

"Long and hot. I can't tell you how glad I'll be to share that with you again, brother," Scott smiled.

Johnny laughed. "Not like I've been sittin on my haunches, brother."

"That's good. You'll have no trouble falling right back into it, then."

"I don't know, Scott," Johnny said, rubbing his cheek. "Been a while since I tangled with cattle."

"Well, they're smaller than horses but much dumber. I'm sure you'll recognize one right off."

They both laughed as they continued the easy banter they fell back into so quickly. Scott felt happier than he had in a long time. He missed this connection. He knew he could live without Johnny at his side. He'd done so most of his life. But it was different without him, lonelier.

********

Johnny spent two more days alone, practicing until he felt he was back to his normal level. He was surprised it hadn't taken longer but the Colt seemed to come alive of its own accord when he held it in his hand. This both pleased and saddened him.

The next day, Saturday morning, he headed to town with Scott and Murdoch. Riding Barranca alongside the wagon, the three men spent a pleasant trip talking. They entered Green River and Johnny was barely dismounted before he felt a slap on the back.

He turned to find Val Crawford grinning like an idiot.

"Welcome back," Val said.

"Good to be back," Johnny smiled and shook the man's hand.

"Johnny, if you want to catch up with Val, Scott and I will take care of the supplies."

Johnny stared at his father for a long second, then glanced at Scott who smiled and shrugged.

"Well, maybe for a few minutes."

"Great! Come on over and I'll buy ya a cup of coffee," Val said as he grabbed Johnny around the shoulder and hauled him off.

Scott watched them for a moment then addressed Murdoch. "You're going to give him a stroke if you keep up all this niceness."

"I'm just trying to let him get settled in."

"I see," Scott smiled knowingly.

"Well, how's it goin out there?" Val asked as he poured coffee.

"It's fine. A little too fine. Murdoch's bein real nice," Johnny laughed.

"Don't let him fool ya," Val said, shaking a finger.

"It's okay, Val. We had a long talk. A couple of them. So, how're things here?"

"Same old thing, just ain't had nobody ta talk to that's got any sense! Till now, anyhow."

Johnny laughed. "I've missed you too, grump."

Val settled behind his desk and brought his cup up in a motion of toasting.

"Val, there's a man down in Mexico that's been making a lot of noise about me."

"Himinez. Murdoch told me about him the day he sent that last wire. I put out feelers from here to Texas but nobody's heard nothin."

Johnny nodded, thoughtful. "I don't know if that's good or bad."

"Me neither but you ARE gonna let me know if ya hear anything, right?" Val half-asked, squinting one eye as he cocked the other brow.

Johnny smiled softly. "Sure, Val."

"Johnny, I mean it."

"I know you do. I will, I promise," Johnny held up a hand.

Val settled back and nodded. "Alright, then. So, when are we gonna get together for some poker? I hear you made it big up in Montana. Thought I'd lighten the load in your pockets for ya."

"Well, now, that's real thoughtful of you, Sheriff. How about tonight?"

"Tonight it is. And bring that brother of yours. He owes me some money."

"Oh?" Johnny asked.

"Yeah. Last time we played he cheated!"

"Scott cheated? Val ..." Johnny said placatingly.

"Well, maybe he didn't but he was awful lucky," Val conceded with a slight pout.

"Guess I'd better get goin. Murdoch might have offered but I'll bet he wants me to help out."

"Johnny, it's good ta have ya back," Val said seriously.

"It's good to be back, amigo," he smiled.

******

He stepped out onto the boardwalk and took a quick look around before heading to the store.

He spied Scott and Murdoch loading the wagon and smiled. "Having fun?"

"Oh, yes. You should join us," Scott smiled.

"I believe I will," Johnny retorted and grabbed a sack of flour. "Val wants a chance to win some money back from you tonight. You up for it?"

"Sure. I'd be glad to take his money," Scott grinned.

"He said you cheated."

Scott stopped with a sack of sugar in his arms and stared disbelievingly.

"He was kidding, brother," Johnny laughed.

"Good. I'd hate to take on the sheriff for my honor," Scott replied.

"I need to go to the bank and it's going to take quite a while," Murdoch interrupted.

"Well, I guess me and Scott could wait for you at the saloon," Johnny innocently offered.

"Actually, I have an appointment," Scott said.

"An appointment? What kind of appointment?" Johnny asked, eyeing him suspiciously.

"Well, there's a young lady I met a few weeks ago that I'd like to get to know better. I haven't had the time until now," Scott explained.

Johnny grinned widely. "How pretty is she?"

"Oh, she's not your type, Johnny," Scott frowned.

"Really? What type is she, brother?"

"My type. So, hands off," Scott warned.

Johnny laughed. "Okay, okay. I think I'll get a beer and head home. I'll meet you two there."

******

The Lancers went their separate ways. Johnny thought about following his brother but decided against it. He'd give Scott a chance with her first, then he'd make a nuisance of himself. Smiling at the thought, he walked to the saloon.

After a couple of beers and many welcome backs, Johnny left the saloon and mounted Barranca. Seeing no sign of his father or brother, he headed out of town toward home.

Scott Lancer walked slowly down the boardwalk smiling. He'd procured a date for a picnic the next day with the young lady in question and was quite pleased with himself. He window shopped until he came back to the general store.

Murdoch wasn't back yet so he stepped inside and looked around for a bit. As he came back out with a sack of peppermints, one of which he was working on, he saw Murdoch walking toward him.

"Any luck?" the older man asked.

"Picnic tomorrow," Scott announced proudly.

Murdoch smiled and climbed aboard the wagon, taking the reins. Scott's hands were full of peppermint and he chuckled at his son's enthusiasm for the treat.

"Oh, these are for Johnny," he explained.

Murdoch nodded. "And you were just sampling one to make sure they were suitable."

"Exactly," Scott smiled.

Murdoch chuckled again and shook his head as he flicked the reins. They rode home in companionable silence. Neither felt a need for conversation. It was a glorious day. Not too hot, the sky clear and beautiful. Scott was watching the scenery when Murdoch suddenly pulled back hard on the reins.

"What's wrong?"

Murdoch was staring ahead. A knot forming in his stomach. "That's Barranca."

Scott spotted the palomino off the road, grazing. He jumped down and drew his gun. Walking softly toward the animal, he surveyed the surrounding grounds. Maybe Johnny had stopped for a nap or found something interesting to check out. His brother would often stop and take notice of things in nature.

Murdoch walked around the area as Scott took hold of Barranca's lead rein. Johnny's rifle was in the scabbard. Nothing seemed disturbed. Scott laid a hand on the saddle and pulled it back. A red, sticky substance clung to his fingers. He swallowed hard as he realized it was blood.

He was about to call to his father when Murdoch bellowed his name. Scott ran to his father's side and stared at the ground before him. There, in a clump of bushes, lay Johnny's holster and gun.

Scott showed Murdoch his hand and the older man tensed even more.

"Scott, take Barranca and ride back to town. Tell Val what's happened. I'll ride back to the ranch and get some men for a search party. We'll meet you back here."

Scott swallowed hard and whispered, "yes, sir." He took off as fast as he could ride. He knew it would take him longer to return to town than for Murdoch to get to the ranch, even in the wagon.

*****

They only had to wait a few minutes for Scott but Murdoch felt like it was hours. He was about to go ahead without his son and the lawman when they rounded the turn in the road.

Murdoch wasted no more time. "There are several tracks heading off to the east."

Val dismounted and checked the tracks. "They look fairly fresh, couple of hours at the most."

He mounted up and they started off to the east. Scott sidled up alongside his father who was looking as grim as he'd ever seen him.

"What are you thinking?" he asked.

"Himinez," Murdoch clipped.

Scott was afraid that would be his answer.

********

Johnny rode toward home at a leisurely pace. He was still thinking about Scott and this new girl. Smiling as he connived how to make his brother work for the lady's affections. As he rounded the curve of the road he saw three men approaching.

His hand rested on his right thigh as they appeared to be passing him by. Suddenly, one reined his horse directly in front of Johnny, forcing him to stop.

"Buenos dias, Senor."

"Buenos dias," Johnny responded.

"We were wondering if you might help us," the man said.

Johnny looked at each of them then back to the first. "Sure, if I can."

"Gracias. Please, remove your gunbelt and drop it to the ground."

Johnny's mouth turned upward. "Now, why would I do that?"

"Because, if you do not, my compadres behind you will shoot you in the back."

Johnny heard the distinctive sound of a rifle being cocked, then another as he turned his head to look over his shoulder. Sighing, he began to unbuckle his rig.

"Ah, ah. Senor, por favor, the left hand?" the leader said.

Johnny smiled and switched hands, dropping the belt to the ground.

"Gracias. Now, please dismount."

He pulled his right leg over the pommel and slid to the ground, landing lightly beside Barranca.

The three men in front also dismounted and approached him.

"I don't have much money," Johnny said.

"We do not want your money, Senor Madrid."

Johnny's eyes narrowed as he understood. "Himinez."

"Very good, Senor. Now, turn around," the man said as he raised his hand, showing the rope.

Johnny turned slowly, his mind reeling. He felt a surge of panic and tried to stay calm, think clearly. His rifle was right there, just on the other side of the saddle. He knew the odds were against him, but if Himinez got hold of him, he had no odds at all.

He pushed back hard, causing the man trying to tie his hands to stumble. He reached for the rifle in a flash and had it half way out of the scabbard when the pain hit. A rifle butt caught him on the right side of his head and jerked his body. His head bounced off the saddle before he slumped to the ground.

*********

Johnny awoke with a train running through his head. He felt cold and wondered why. It was summer so he shouldn't be so cold. He opened his eyes slowly and blinked until they focused. Looking around the dimly lit area, he noted the stone walls and bare room. He was sitting with his back against a wall.

There was not a stitch of furniture in the place. He leaned forward and heard a clanking noise. Looking up puzzled, he saw the chain holding his right arm to the wall. His eyes wandered to the ceiling and he took in the entire room. There was a window, if you could call it that, on one side. A sliver of light shone through the small opening, telling him the sun was still out. But he had no way of knowing how long he'd been here. Dust particles danced in the one ray of light, his only source. The room had a feeling of death.

He finally noticed his clothes. Gone was the blue shirt and black calzoneros. He was dressed in a thin white linen shirt and pants. No boots, no socks. The clothes of a prisoner. The clothes he'd worn before. He closed his eyes and sighed. Himinez.

The solid wood door swung open with a loud creak. Johnny braced himself, sucking in a deep breath.

"Welcome back, mestizo!"

Johnny took in the man he had hated for so long. He looked exactly the same. The same moustache, same ugly face, same loud voice.

"Thought I killed you, Himinez," he said softly.

The man laughed raucously and Johnny's headache worsened. He pulled a small chair into the room and sat directly in front of Johnny.

"It was a valiant effort, mestizo. Still, as you can see, I survived. Of course, not without some difficulty and much pain." His eyes narrowed into hate-filled slits. "You have cost me much, mestizo. My superiors were not happy I let you escape."

Johnny smiled slightly. "I'll bet they would've been really ticked off if they knew you took that bribe."

"Ah, that was not important for them to know. I spent two months recovering from your bullet and nine months in a cell because of you."

Johnny raised both brows at this. "No kidding? How was it?"

"Not unpleasant. Many of my loyal men were my guards. I had every comfort. A soft bed, excellent meals, fine wines. It gave me time to plan my revenge," he grinned.

Johnny wanted to hit him. He never wanted to hit anyone so badly in his life. 'He's mocking me, trying to get me to lash out. Steady, Madrid. Keep it together.'

His face was impassive as he stared at Himinez. This only served to infuriate the man. Johnny could see him becoming more angry and it pleased him in a perverse way.

"Do you know where you are, mestizo?"

"No, but I doubt we're in Mexico."

Himinez laughed. "No, not in Mexico. I found this abandoned mining town a few months ago. It has everything we need, including a jail. Imagine my surprise when I found the cells to be most acceptable."

Mining town. In the mountains. That's why he was cold. The thoughts whirled through his mind. But where? Couldn't be far from Lancer. Johnny smiled a little. He knew where he was now. All he had to do was hope Scott and Murdoch could track him.

"The trail is very rough. Very hard but well worth it. It would be most difficult to track a man up here," Himinez said, as though reading his thoughts.

Johnny realized he was right. Still, Murdoch and Scott knew the area. If they could get on the right trail...

"What's the plan, Himinez?"

"The plan? It is the same as always. You will die before a firing squad as you should have two years ago," he shrugged. "Now, my dinner is waiting." He stood up to leave, grabbing the chair. "Oh, your dinner will be here soon," he laughed.

Johnny could hear him still laughing after the door was slammed shut and the lock struck home. He closed his eyes and sighed. Memories flooded his thoughts and he couldn't make them stop. As before, he knew he was in for a long haul. A long and painful haul. Well, he'd been through it before. Himinez would not break him no matter what. He made this vow to himself as he slipped into exhausted sleep.

********

Val Crawford reined his horse to a stop and dismounted. Just like he had a dozen other times. He searched the ground, looking for any tracks, any sign. They had headed east, tracking the horses easily at first. But as they went into higher ground, the terrain became mostly rock and scrub brush. The tracks became increasingly difficult to find.

A skilled and seasoned tracker, Val shook his head in frustration. He stood up and walked over to Scott and Murdoch. "Can't see nothin!"

"Look again," Murdoch growled.

Val squinted up at the tall rancher. "I can look until Christmas. Ain't gonna change what ain't there."

"There's not much light left, Murdoch. Maybe we should set up camp and think this through," Scott suggested.

Murdoch hated it but he knew Scott was right. He loathed the thought of Johnny spending one night under Himinez boot.  

Jelly went about setting up camp and cooking supper. He'd been unusually quiet all day. Scott had wondered about it but hadn't had the heart to disturb the older man's thoughts. And too, he didn't want to get Jelly started.

As they sat by the fire, they discussed the possibilities.

"There's lots of caves up here. Old mines and such. Could be in any one of 'em," Jelly suggested.

Scott nodded his agreement but Murdoch disagreed.

"No, that wouldn't do. Himinez would want someplace where he could lock Johnny up."

Scott looked at his father with surprise. "Why would you think that?"

"Because the man is crazy, Scott. Crazy with hate and anger. He'd want to make this as close to the first time as possible. He would want to try and break Johnny," he ground out.

"There's more going on here than I know, isn't there?" Scott asked.

Murdoch sipped his coffee and stared into the flames. He nodded his head in reply. "Himinez spent nine months in prison because he let Johnny escape. He was stripped of his rank then thrown out of the rurales. Everything he'd used to steal from the people was gone. He couldn't use his position anymore. He would have to become a common bandit."

Scott snorted at this. "He always was a common bandit the way I see it."

"Yes, I know. The man is evil. He's malicious and sadistic," Murdoch said, a shiver going down his spine at the thought.

Scott felt a chill as well as he listened to the bitterness in Murdoch's voice. "Are you alright?"

"No, I am not alright! I won't be alright until we get Johnny away from that lunatic!" He took a deep breath and lowered his voice. "I'm sorry, son. I'm worried. You don't know what Johnny went through at that man's hands."

Jelly stood up and walked away from them, his head lowered. Scott watched him, wondering if he knew more about this than he was letting on.

"How did you find out about it?" he asked Murdoch.

"The Pinkertons. Last year, when I heard about Himinez, I asked them to find out more details. I ... it convinced me more than ever that I was right in sending Johnny away."

Scott swallowed hard. His imagination taking him to places he didn't want to be. He knew what prison was like, he wondered how close to his own experiences Johnny had been. He also felt a pang of anger at his father's words. Now was not the time to argue about old decisions and mistakes.

He decided not to press for details. He never wanted to talk about Libby so he could understand Johnny not discussing this. He pressed a hand on Murdoch's shoulder, then went to find Jelly.

He found him at the edge of the stream, skimming rocks across the surface. "Isn't it hard to see them?"

Jelly turned and looked at him, then turned back and continued throwing rocks. "We gotta find him."

"We will, Jelly. Now, why don't you tell me what's wrong with you?"

"I'm worried, same as you," Jelly said unconvincingly.

"I know that but you haven't been acting like yourself. Johnny told you about the Mexican prison, didn't he?"

Jelly stopped and turned to face the younger man. "He did."

"That's what I figured. How bad is it, Jelly?"

"Scott, I know you wanna help but, I can't say what me and Johnny talk about. He confides in me and I take that real serious."

Scott nodded and paced a few feet away. "When I was in the prisoner-of-war camp, I witnessed some pretty terrible things. I was a victim of them as well. What I'm thinking ... is that what Johnny went through?"

Jelly sighed. Well, it wasn't like he was tellin particulars. "I heard about the treatment in them prisons. I reckon you'd be mighty close."

Scott dropped his head and closed his eyes, willing away the moisture that suddenly sprung up. He knew Johnny had a hard life, filled with cruelty and poverty. But he had hoped his brother had never endured the kind of torture he'd been subjected to at Libby.

After a minute, he gained control of his emotions. He turned to look at Jelly again. "I love my brother and I will not allow him to go through that again. We will find him, Jelly. I don't care how long it takes."

"I know we will, Scott. I love 'im, too. So does Murdoch. That devil ain't got a prayer with us on his trail."

"I think we'd better get some sleep. Tomorrow is going to be a long day," Scott said, smiling at Jelly's determination.

Scott laid down in his bedroll but sleep was elusive. He stared up at the stars and remembered what Johnny had said about them. Now, he wondered if his brother could see those stars. He thought it ironic that just when they'd gotten him back, he was gone again. And just like before, not because he wanted to leave.

But this was different. His brother's life was in imminent danger. If he was still alive. Scott pushed that thought away. Johnny was alive, he knew it. He could feel it. This past year had been hard. He'd gone about the business of living, even managed to enjoy himself at times. But the emptiness was there. The void he could not fill with anything else but his brother.

His brother. Scott smiled when he thought of Johnny. Stubborn, impetuous, reckless, gentle, caring, selfless to a fault. They'd spent too many years apart. Too much wasted time. He was damned if he would lose him now to some crazy man. Scott closed his eyes, drifting into fitful sleep.

*******

Johnny's eyes flew open, his heart hammering in his chest as he fought the panic that engulfed him. Sweat sheened his body, the thin linen clinging tightly. He looked around and remembered where he was. It wasn't a dream, he thought. A low light flickered near him and he realized someone had left a lantern in the room. He frowned as he realized he hadn't heard them enter. 'Head must be worse than I thought.'

Beside him, he saw a bowl of mush. Bugs of all manner were feasting on the gruel. "Help yourselves, boys. Ain't no way in hell I'm eatin that slop." He knocked the bowl across the room so he didn't have to look at it.

He fought his way to a standing position and stretched his cramped muscles. His head swam for a second but it passed quickly. Testing the length of the chain, he wandered about the barren room, ending up at the sliver of a window.

He had to stand on his toes to get a glimpse outside. It was night and pitch black. He looked to the sky and saw a few stars in his limited view. Smiling, he wondered what Scott was doing right now. This brought back memories of Montana which brought back memories of the past year. Another painful year in his life.

He sighed, wondering if he'd ever have any other kind. Well, no sense in feeling sorry for yourself. You need to try to figure a way out of this mess. He paced within the confines of his chains, thinking about the area surrounding the town. Easy cover for an ambush if Scott and Murdoch found him.

He had figured out that it was still the same day. His brain wasn't so muddled that he would sleep through an entire twenty-four hour period. Besides, he couldn't see Himinez letting that happen. He wondered why the maniac hadn't been back. Maybe he was resting up for all the fun he had planned. Johnny grimaced as he recalled the prison cell.

Suddenly, the cell door flew open and a guard stepped in. The brighter light that flooded through the open door blinded Johnny and his hand went to shade his eyes. He felt the rush of icy cold water cover him head to toe and he backstepped until he was against the wall.

Wiping his face, he heard that laugh. "I thought you would like a bath, mestizo. I would not want you to get lice."

Johnny still couldn't see much, just the silhouette of a man. "Can't come up with anything new and inventive, Himinez? Same tired old stuff."

"You will see what new things I have in store for you, mestizo," he spat and slammed the door shut.

Johnny felt some satisfaction at goading the man. But now, he was shivering from the cold water and equally cold cell.

********

Dawn broke and the search party was already saddled and ready to go. Scott forced himself to move along. Not having gotten much sleep, what little he did get was filled with nightmares. Nightmares about Libby. Only this time, it was Johnny's face he'd seen in his dreams.

As he cinched his saddle, he felt a presence behind him. Turning, he looked into his father's exhausted and worry-filled eyes.

"There's an old mining town up there. It's hard to get to but as far as I know the buildings are still intact."

"Sounds like the perfect place to look," Scott agreed.

Murdoch nodded, his face set in stone. He mounted his horse and led the way along the rocky incline. His thoughts went to the Pinkerton report. Himinez was legendary for his cruelty to prisoners. It was common knowledge he hated people of mixed heritage and especially Johnny Madrid.

Johnny had cost the man everything and Murdoch was proud of his son. Still, it meant Himinez would seek revenge and Murdoch was certain it would not be swift. The man relished in wielding power over others. Of breaking strong men with strong convictions. From what Murdoch gathered, he had been very successful at it. His only failure had been Johnny. Anyone else he couldn't break had ended up in front of that firing squad.

He didn't want to think about what his son was going through at this very minute. But his mind would not obey his command and his imagination ran wild. Murdoch shuddered visibly.

Scott watched his father, ever stoic, as he rode rigidly along. He's going to exhaust himself before long, he thought. He saw Murdoch's body shudder and didn't have to wonder what the man was thinking.

Behind him, Val and Jelly were talking about the mining town and Scott listened in. It sounded like they would have good cover and a definite advantage. If Himinez was like most other madmen bent on ruling others, he would be arrogant. And that arrogance would be his downfall. Scott reaped some satisfaction from that thought.

********

The cell door swung open and two men entered. They unlocked the chain and grabbed Johnny up. Pushing him through the door into the outer office. He grinned a little when he saw the chair. They sat him down roughly and tied his hands behind him. He didn't fight, knew it would do no good.

The outside door opened and Himinez walked in with a smirk on his face. "Today, you..."

"will die, mestizo," Johnny finished for him. "I know."

Himinez glowered and backhanded him across the cheek.

Johnny's head snapped back and when he looked up again, a smile donned his face. He touched the cut on his lip with the tip of his tongue.

"Have you ever had an original thought, Himinez?" he asked sarcastically.

The man smiled at him. "Si, I have something special for you. I was going to wait but since you are in such a hurry to die. Bring him!"

Johnny was brought to his feet and led outside. He had the odd sensation of deja vu as the sun warmed him. But instead of being placed in front of a firing squad, he was led to the livery stable.

"Giving me a horse to ride out of here on? Ain't that nice?" he smirked.

Himinez said nothing and motioned to his men. They untied him and placed him facing a supporting beam. They pulled his arms over his head and tied him to a metal hook used to hold bridles.

Johnny felt the shirt being ripped from his back and silently cursed.

"Is this original enough for you, mestizo?" Himinez taunted.

Johnny knew he should stay quiet but his tongue had its own ideas. "Not really, ain't like I never been whipped before."

Himinez was suddenly beside him, pressing his mouth close to Johnny's ear. "You have never been whipped like this, mestizo," he hissed.

He felt the water being thrown on his back and cringed at the coldness. Muscles rippled under tan flesh as he tried to control his reactions.

He could see Himinez from the corner of his eye. Watched as he uncoiled the whip and dunked it into a bucket. The whip was put under his nose briefly and he could smell the unmistakable scent of brine. Johnny closed his eyes and clamped his mouth shut to keep a groan from escaping.

*********

Scott and Val scrambled up the hill overlooking the abandoned town. They could see no activity in the area but both men sensed the town was inhabited.

"Whatya think?" Val whispered.

Scott scanned the buildings. "There's the jail. The livery is over there. That's where their horses would be. Johnny must be in the jail."

"Yeah, but it's too quiet," Val commented.

"I know. We have a good vantage point right here. We can see almost everything and it's well within rifle range."

"Okay, let's get everybody in place," Val nodded and started making his way back down.

Once back with the others, Scott reported their findings.

"It doesn't make sense that he wouldn't have guards posted," Murdoch frowned.

"Maybe, maybe not. If he's that sure of himself he may think he doesn't need them. He probably thinks we would never find this place," Scott reasoned.

"Makes sense. I'm surprised I remembered it was here. It's been abandoned for fifteen years," Murdoch nodded.

"I think one of us needs to sneak down there and get a good look. Make sure we know exactly where Johnny is before we make a move," Val said.

"Alright, let's get up there," Jelly urged, tired of the jawing and wanting to do something.

They positioned themselves on the hill and Murdoch took in the scene. Scott had been right, it was too quiet. He prayed they weren't wasting time. If Johnny wasn't here, they could be losing precious hours.

"I can take this path down to that small bridge and make my away across. From there, I can skirt the backs of the buildings to the end of town, then work my way back up to the jail," Scott whispered.

"Who said you was goin?" Val asked.

"He's my brother, Val."

"And he's my friend but more than that, it's my job," Val argued.

The argument was stopped cold when they all heard the crack.

******

Johnny arched his back as the first crack of the whip penetrated his flesh. Followed by intense burning the likes of which he'd never felt before. Clamping down hard on his jaw, he refused to make a sound.

Himinez pulled his arm back and flicked the whip again, hitting his target with precision. When there was still no cry from the man, his anger overtook him. He began to crack the whip in ever increasing intensity and ferocity.

Johnny ground his jaws until he thought his teeth would crack. He couldn't hold back the grunts with each sting of the whip, but he would not cry out. He refused to give Himinez the satisfaction.

He swung wildly, missing several times but hitting more often as his rage boiled. Finally, he felt a hand on his arm, stopping the next crack of the whip.

"Jefe, did you want to kill him now?" one of his men asked.

Himinez looked at his prisoner's raw back. His own breaths coming in short gasps, exhausted from his tirade. He grinned wickedly and dropped the whip. He walked over and pulled Johnny's head back by the hair.

"Are you ready to die now, mestizo? Perhaps you pray for death now. I only wish I had more time to teach you what it is to beg for mercy."

Johnny didn't answer, he was barely aware of his surroundings.

Pleased his victim was still conscious, he ordered his men to untie him and take him to the specified site he had picked out. He paused and held up a hand. Grinning wickedly, Himinez picked up the bucket filled with brine and threw it onto Johnny's back.

This time, he couldn't hold back the cry of anguish as his back exploded in fire.

*******

Murdoch had to all but sit on Scott when they heard the noise the second time. Scott knew that sound and his entire body went cold.

"You can't just go sailing in there, Scott! You'll get yourself and Johnny killed!" Murdoch said.

"They're whipping him, Murdoch! I'd know that sound anywhere," Scott said, his voice husky with fear for his brother.

"It's comin from the livery," Val added.

"Alright, we'll make our way down there but quietly!" Murdoch hissed.   

As they were about to head down the hill, they heard the scream. The livery door opened and Himinez stepped out and to the side. Two men dragged Johnny out. His head hung to his chest, his bare feet dragging across the dirt. He was unable to walk on his own.

Murdoch grabbed Scott's arm and they watched in horror at the sight before them. Johnny was tied to a post in front of the saloon. Himinez walked over and pulled his head back again by the hair. Scott leveled his rifle to bear and took aim.

"You see, mestizo, you really do die today," Himinez said before he released Johnny's hair, his head bobbing back down on his chest.

Johnny tried to clear his head. There was an annoying buzzing in his ears. Like a bumble bee was taking flight lessons beside him. He shook his head and felt the world turn upside down. Better not do that again, he thought.

Suddenly, there was a cup of water at his lips and he drank hungrily until it was empty. It helped and he was able to raise his head, hissing as the effort pulled at his upper back.

In front of him, he saw six men with rifles. All lined up and staring at him. He smiled at them and winked. He just couldn't help himself.

"Are you ready, mestizo," Himinez called from somewhere.

Johnny shook his head no. He couldn't see the man. He had to be able to see him.

"You have a last request, perhaps?" Himinez asked, now at his side.

Johnny nodded and forced the words out. "I want to see your face when I die."

Himinez smiled, stepping back and slightly to the right, out of the line of fire. "How is this?"

Johnny looked up at him, forcing his head back against the post. He nodded.

"A prayer, perhaps?"

Johnny laughed softly. "No thanks. Never had much use for 'em."

"I have waited a long time for this, Johnny Madrid," Himinez smiled.

"Lancer."

"Que?"

"It's Lancer. Johnny Lancer."

Himinez looked puzzled for a moment, then burst out laughing. "Very well, Lancer." He stopped laughing as quickly as he'd started and raised his right hand.

Despite his earlier refusal, Johnny said a silent prayer for his soul. His eyes locked onto Himinez as he heard the commands being given that would end his life. He could see from his periphery the men cocking their rifles and taking their aim.

He stood still, making himself quiet inside, pushing the agonizing pain in his back away. He narrowed his eyes, as they turned a smoky cobalt blue. He emitted every ounce of hate in himself toward Himinez. It was a grim satisfaction that took hold as the man averted his eyes from that gaze.

Johnny continued to stare at him as he began to give the final order. An order that was cut short by the sounds of gunfire.

He knew it wasn't the firing squad. They wouldn't dare shoot without Himinez's word. His mind couldn't fathom what was happening. All he knew was the flurry of activity around him. Acrid gunsmoke filled the air as he tried to make sense of it all.

***********

Scott heard the words being shouted by Himinez. He squeezed the trigger and fell one of the outlaws. A firestorm ensued as each man took aim. The outlaws fired back, running for cover as they did.

Himinez stood where he was, stunned and outraged by the intrusion. He shouted at his men to kill them all. He ran back and forth in a small area, screaming at them.

Suddenly, it was quiet. The smoke began to lift lazily in the air. He looked around and found himself alone. Just him and his enemy. Johnny was looking at him in confusion and Himinez snapped.

He drew a long blade from its scabbard and ran toward Johnny screaming incoherently.

The trussed up man could only watch as his worst enemy lunged toward him with a knife. He watched as Himinez stopped short, an odd look on his face, then fell to the ground as the report of the rifle reached his ears.

Johnny stared at Himinez, dumbstruck that he was still alive himself. He saw movement and looked up to see his father and brother running toward him.

Val and Jelly were behind them with some of the ranch hands. They took charge of recovering the bodies of the dead.

"Johnny, are you alright?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny looked dazedly at him and didn't answer.

Scott cut the ropes loose and he slumped onto his brother. He eased Johnny down and settled him on his lap. "Easy, brother. Take it easy," Scott spoke softly.

Murdoch knelt beside him and brushed his hair back. "We'll get you home, son."

Johnny looked at him and nodded, he felt the world slipping away and darkness edged into his periphery. A movement caught his eye and he looked up.

Before anyone knew what was happening, Johnny grabbed Scott's gun from the holster. He aimed and squeezed the trigger.

Both older men turned quickly to see Himinez go back down, a revolver in his hand. Scott felt Johnny jerk back against him as the gun exploded.

"Check him. He has a way of dodging death. Make sure, okay?" Johnny pleaded.

Murdoch understood his son's need to know. He walked over and felt Himinez neck and wrist. There was no pulse, he wasn't breathing, his eyes were open and staring blankly at the sky. Murdoch was pretty sure he was as dead as he was going to get.

"He's dead, son. I promise," Murdoch reported.

It was only then that Johnny relaxed and gave in to the fierce pain in his back. He grimaced and groaned as his eyes fluttered and closed. A deep sigh escaped his throat.

"Oh God!" Scott hissed.

Murdoch looked at his oldest who was staring at Johnny. It was only then that he saw the red stain spreading across his chest. Murdoch pulled the shirt back and ground his teeth at the bullet hole in Johnny's left shoulder. He pulled out a kerchief and pressed it on the wound.

"Turn him over son, we need to get a look," Murdoch said softly.

Scott repositioned Johnny so he was lying almost face down on Scott's chest. He took over applying pressure to the gunshot wound.

Murdoch swallowed the bile that rose on his throat at the sight of his son's back. He closed his eyes and cursed Himinez to eternity roasting in hell.

Jelly walked up and his mouth dropped open at the sight. "There's a wagon in the barn, Boss. We can get him home right away."

"Good, Jelly. I'm going to see if there's any water around and check out the doctor's office," Murdoch stated as he rose to do just that.

This left Scott alone with his brother and he cradled Johnny in his arms. He heard a moan and a sigh and Johnny's eyes opened.

"I hate to be rude, brother, but what is that smell?" he asked, a smile playing at his lips.

"Brine," Johnny grunted. "Dipped the whip in it."

The smile left Scott's face replaced with a fury not many had ever seen. "Okay, we'll take care of you," he managed to croak out.

"Should've kept my ... self in Montana," Johnny breathed.

"No, Johnny. That wasn't the answer. I should have been with you instead of chasing after some girl."

"You gonna babysit me forever, Boston? Gonna make it ... hard on your ... love life," Johnny laughed a little.

"Ssshhhh. Enough talk, brother. Just rest. We can discuss this later."

********

With some effort and pain, Johnny was settled in the back of the wagon. Scott rode with him as Jelly took the reins. Murdoch sent one of the hands for the doctor. Val stayed behind to clean up the mess.

Scott once more cradled Johnny in his arms to lessen the jarring. Johnny lay on his side, slightly curled up. He grabbed Scott's arm and buried his head in his brother's stomach when the deep ruts were hit.

Murdoch hadn't found much at the doctor's office but he procured some towels and wet them. He'd lain them across Johnny's back and Scott kept a canteen close to keep them moist. He'd found bandages and wrapped Johnny's shoulder tightly to staunch the blood flow.

"Scott? Don't let Teresa see," Johnny whispered.

Scott frowned at the young girl witnessing the results of such cruelty. "I won't, brother. I promise."

"Thanks for finding me."

"That's my job. Finding my little brother when he's lost," Scott tried to joke but his voice cracked and he fought back the tears of his own pain.

They pulled in front of the house and started moving Johnny as gently as possible. Teresa ran up the stairs to ready his bed, unsure what his injuries were but ready to handle it.

They laid him on his right side nearly on his stomach and covered him. Neither willing to attempt to tend the wounds until Sam was there.

"What do you need?" Teresa asked.

"Nothing until Sam comes," Scott answered.

"Well, what's wrong with him? Was he shot?" she asked.

Scott turned to face her. "Johnny doesn't want you taking care of him, Teresa. He doesn't want you to see this," he said gently but firmly.

"See what? That's ridiculous. I've taken care of him before."

Scott looked to his father for help.

"Teresa, Johnny was ... badly hurt. He was ... tortured. He doesn't want you to have to see that and we have to respect his wishes. He's only trying to spare you," Murdoch explained.

"Spare me? That's just plain silly. I've seen plenty of injuries," she protested.

"Not like this. Please, sweetheart, don't argue."

Before she could voice any further objection, Sam walked in the room.

"Sam's going to need water, Teresa. Would you get it?" Murdoch asked quickly, wanting the girl out of the room.

She frowned and walked out in a huff.

"What happened?" Sam asked, not really surprised he was back here already.

Scott gently pulled the moist towels back for Sam's appraisal. The doctor sucked in a breath at the site.

"Good God!"

"The whip was dipped in brine," Scott barely whispered.

Murdoch leaned heavily against the bed post. This was the first he'd heard of it. An anger so deep rose from his gut, it stunned him with its ferocity.

Sam swallowed hard and bent down to get a closer look. "This is going to take some time."

"He was shot in the left shoulder, too. Johnny doesn't want Teresa to see this, Sam. I'll help you," Scott explained.

"Well, I can understand that. I'll need the water she's getting and ... I don't know what else until I get them thoroughly cleaned. How long has he been out?"

"Not long. Half an hour," Scott estimated.

"I need to take care of the bullet wound first. I'll give him some morphine before I start. I don't want him waking up during this!"

Murdoch heard the door open and quickly went to block Teresa's path. He took the water from her and thanked her, then closed the door in her face.

Teresa stood in the hallway, stunned until her anger set in. She stormed down the stairs.

"I'll need lots of towels," Sam was saying.

"I'll get them," Murdoch answered dully as he set the water down. He moved as if in a daze.

"He'll be alright," Sam said in answer to Scott's worried gaze at the door his father had just went through.

"I hope so. He'll blame himself for this."

Sam bit his tongue. Now was not the time to get into that discussion.

*******

It didn't take very long to dig out the bullet. It had embedded in soft tissue, no bones or vital arteries had been damaged. It took three hours to cleanse all the wounds. Some were superficial, most were deep. Sweat and dirt had clung to the cuts and Sam had no choice but to use carbolic acid.

As he poured the liquid, Johnny began to moan. Sam stopped, checked his watch and drew up a syringe of morphine. He injected it slowly and Johnny was in no shape to object. He settled back into unconsciousness with a soft sigh.

Sam continued his ministrations until he was satisfied every wound was tended to adequately. He slathered Johnny's back in ointment and wrapped him in bandages.

"Change the dressings twice a day. You'll have to clean the deep wounds with the carbolic for three days and use the ointment each time. I'll come back every day to make sure no infection is setting in. Give him laudanum before each dressing change and don't take no for an answer. He can't handle the pain without something." He finished his instructions and stretched his aching back.

As he looked down on his patient, his friend, he shook his head. "What kind of animal would do this?"

"A dead one," Scott said coldly.

The tone of his voice caused both Sam and Murdoch to look up at him. Murdoch, who hadn't been able to speak through the whole ordeal, finally found his voice.

"Scott?"

"I'm sorry, sir. I ... I just get so tired of seeing him treated as less than human," Scott spat.

Murdoch cringed at the angry words. He had to wonder if Scott was only talking of Himinez.

Sam cleared his throat. "Someone needs to sit with him and watch for fever at all times for the first few days. You won't need to change the bandages again until morning. I'll be back tomorrow."

"Thanks, Sam," Murdoch mumbled.

*******

Something was burning his back but he couldn't figure out what it could be. He tried to open his eyes but they wouldn't work. Was he on fire? That thought brought a surge of panic strong enough to lift the veil of darkness.

Johnny's eyes flew open and he started to raise up. He felt strong hands on his shoulders pushing him back down. He fought with everything in him but he felt so weak.

"Johnny, stop fighting me. Stay still."

That was Murdoch. He relaxed once he heard his father's voice. Sure that whatever was wrong, he was at least safe.

Murdoch leaned down so Johnny could see his face. "How do you feel?"

"On fire," he mumbled.

"I know. Here, drink some water," Murdoch said softly as he tipped the glass to Johnny's lips.

He grimaced as he swallowed. "Medicine."

"You need it, son. Do you remember what happened?"

Johnny closed his eyes and thought. "Yeah," he sighed. "He's dead?"

"Yes, son. You killed him. He's very dead," Murdoch assured.

"Good."

"I'm so sorry, Johnny."

He opened his eyes and studied his father's face. "For what?"

Murdoch dropped his head and shook it slowly. "If I'd been honest with you from the start, this wouldn't have happened. We could have taken care of it together. Instead, I lost another whole year with you and you lost a year with your brother."

"And you," Johnny added.

Murdoch smiled sourly. "I'm sure that was no tragedy."

With some effort, Johnny reached out and took hold of his father's arm. "Yes, it was. Don't you understand? YOU are my family as much as Scott. Yes, you should have been honest with me. We all should have been honest with each other. But if anything good has come out of this, at least we've learned that lesson."

"A very hard-learned lesson. Too hard on you," Murdoch countered morosely.

"I'm alive. Puts me ahead in my book," Johnny said, then yawned.

Murdoch smiled. "Go to sleep, son. I'll watch over you."

"Okay. Long as you're here, I'll be okay," he mumbled as his eyes slid shut.

Murdoch felt tears well in his eyes. "Sure, son. As long as I'm able. I'll never let you down again. I swear it," he whispered.

He watched as Johnny slipped deeper into sleep. Astounded that his son could still trust him. Could have ever trusted him. What had he done to earn that trust? Nothing. So, what was it that Johnny saw? What was it that made his son trust him so much? Simply having sired him wasn't enough as Murdoch saw it. He doubted that would be enough for Johnny either.

Johnny didn't trust easily, that much he knew. As he pondered this question, he felt a presence behind him. Turning, he saw Jelly standing in the door.

"Sorry, Boss. Didn't want ta disturb your thinkin."

"What is it, Jelly?" he asked softly.

He stepped into the room. "I brung Johnny's clothes back from that old minin town. Found 'im in the jail. Boots, too."

Murdoch smiled. "Thank you, Jelly. I know Johnny will appreciate that."

"How's he doin?"

"He's in a lot of pain. I just gave him some laudanum. He's sleeping now." Murdoch shook his head again. "He said he'd be okay as long as I was watching over him."

"Sounds reasonable."

Murdoch snorted. "Why? I've done nothing for him to trust me."

Jelly walked over to the other side of the bed. He sat in the chair and looked at the sleeping young man. "You're his dad and he loves ya. He knows what ya done was done fer him. Wasn't the right thing but he knows ya only wanted to keep 'im safe. Don't know how ya could say that ain't trust."

"I don't know, Jelly. All I ever seem to do is say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing."

"Ain't easy bein a father. Don't think it is for a minute. Kids expect ya to know what's right. So, whatever you say must be the right thing. They don't question it."

"Johnny's not a kid. He's a grown man."

"Murdoch, when he's around you he feels like a kid. Don't ya see? He didn't have no dad growin up. Ta him, it's all as new as it is ta you. He expects ya ta know things cause yer older and done more. He expects ya to know the right thing."

"Then he's going to be disappointed - again. Because I don't have a clue what I'm doing."

Jelly smiled. "Yes, ya do. If ya'd let yourself. Your problem is ya try too hard. Ya try ta be a daddy when ya need ta be a father. Ya gotta show 'em by example. It ain't as much what ya say as what ya do and how ya do it. Let 'em both see the man ya really are. That's what ya ain't done yet."

Murdoch looked up at his friend. "How did you get so smart?"

Jelly hmmphed. "Same as you. By gettin older. By livin and seein and doin. Makin mistakes and learnin from 'im."

"Sounds like the most sensible thing I've heard in a while."

Both men turned to see Scott standing in the door listening in.

"Well, if'n yer gonna eavesdrop, ya might as well come on in."

"Sorry, Jelly. I didn't want to interrupt. You were doing very well on your own," Scott smiled.

"Just goes ta show. If ya'll'd listen ta me, ya wouldn't have all these problems," Jelly puffed out his chest.

"Maybe you should adopt all three of us, Jelly," Scott grinned.

"Maybe you could all shut up and let me sleep," came the voice from the bed.

"I'm sorry, son. Did we wake you?"

"Yeah but it's okay. Thanks, Jelly."

"You're welcome. I brung yer clothes and boots back. All cleaned up, too."

"Thanks again."

"Well, I'll be goin. Somebody round here's gotta work!" Jelly declared and left the room.

"Why don't you get some rest, sir? I'll sit with him," Scott suggested.

"I am a little tired. Do you need anything, Johnny?"

"No, I'm okay," he smiled.

Murdoch brushed a hand over his head and smiled back.

Scott settled in the chair and grinned. "Well, I have to say, Jelly is a smart man."

"Didn't get to hear it all but I already knew that."

"How do you feel, really?" Scott frowned.

"Like somebody slapped a branding iron on my back and they won't pull it off," Johnny sighed.

Scott didn't know how to respond to that. "Do you want some water?"

"No, Murdoch already slipped me some laudanum," Johnny smiled slightly.

"Sam said you should heal well. He cleaned your back thoroughly."

"Sorry I missed that," Johnny grimaced.

"Teresa's angry," Scott said, trying to sound casual.

Johnny looked at him and frowned. "You didn't let her see, did you?"

"No, that's why she's angry. She said we're treating her like a child."

"She is a child. One that should never see anything like this. I'm sorry, I'm really tired," he sighed.

"Go to sleep, brother. We'll talk when you're stronger."

"Yeah, all three of us. There are some things I want to get cleared up," Johnny said and closed his eyes.

Scott frowned, wondering what Johnny wanted to discuss and how his brother felt about all that had transpired.

* ******

For a week Johnny stayed immobile, taking the laudanum before the dressing changes. His compliance worried Scott a little but he felt his brother was waiting. Waiting until he was strong enough for that talk he had mentioned.

Sam was pleased with his progress. The deeper wounds would take longer to heal, of course, but he was making great strides. There had been no sign of infection and the doctor felt he was out of the woods. His shoulder was also doing well. Johnny had even been exercising it per Sam's instructions.

He decided Johnny could get out of bed for a few hours. He would allow him to progress to longer periods as long as he didn't get too weak or exert himself too much. Sam was mystified by his complacence as much as Scott.

Murdoch helped him out to the veranda. A chair had been padded with pillows for him and he eased into the seat. Sighing heavily once he was off his feet. Johnny leaned his head back and closed his eyes.

"Was that too much, son?"

"No, just feels good to be outside again," he said softly.

"How about some lemonade?"

Johnny opened his eyes and smiled. "Sure, sounds good." He watched in amusement as Murdoch hurried off to fetch it. He had to wonder how long the old man would keep this up until he got tired of it. Not much longer, he imagined.

Murdoch returned with a glass and pitcher. "I have to go to town. Do you need anything?"

"No, Iâ€m fine. I just want to sit here and feel the sun."

He seemed to want to say more but he didn't. Scott had told him Johnny wanted to talk. He would wait until his son was ready. He had vowed he wouldn't push Johnny ever again.

********

His eyes were closed and his breathing was soft and even. She watched him for several minutes, trying to decide if she should awaken him. Torn between her worry for him and her anger at her own treatment, she simply stood there.

"Are you gonna stare all day or sit with me?" Johnny asked softly.

"I thought you were asleep."

"I was, now I'm not," he said, craning his neck to see her behind him.

She walked around and sat beside him, staring out over the yard.

"You're mad at me," he stated.

"Yes."

"You can't understand why I wouldn't want you taking care of me."

"That's right."

"There are some things you shouldn't have to see, Teresa."

"I'm not a child, Johnny," she bit.

"In many ways, you are. Don't look at me like that. You're still very young, Teresa. Yeah, you've seen a lot but that doesn't mean you should have."

"Was it really that bad?" she asked, a quiver in her voice.

"Bad enough," he mumbled.

"I'm sorry, Johnny. I only wanted to help you. I'm always the one who takes care of you when you're hurt or sick. I hated thinking of you in Montana without anyone to take care of you."

Johnny laughed a little, then the laughter grew until he was holding his sides.

"What is so funny!" she demanded.

"I'm sorry ... it's just ..." he fought for control and finally won. Clearing his throat and wiping his eyes he chuckled a little more. "I spent most of my life taking care of myself, Teresa. It just struck me funny to hear you say that," he explained.

She blushed and smiled a little. "Well, you don't have to anymore. Not ever again," she stated emphatically to drive her point home.

"No, querida, not ever again," he smiled.

******

Clearing the air with Teresa made him feel substantially better. He thought he could handle that talk with Scott and Murdoch now. Still, he decided to wait one more day as this trek outside had worn him out.

He slept late the next day and awakened slowly. Opening his eyes, he found his father staring out the window.

"Mornin."

Murdoch turned and smiled. "Good morning, sleepy head. I was wondering if you'd sleep the day away."

"I guess yesterday tired me out more than I thought," he smiled.

"Hungry?"

"Yeah, I'm starving!"

Murdoch chuckled. "Well, since you've made peace with Teresa, I'll see if she might fix you something. Then, we'll change those bandages."

"Okay, but I won't need the laudanum," Johnny said.

Murdoch raised a brow. "Are you sure?"

"Pretty sure. If I do, I'll tell you. I promise," he held up a hand at the disbelieving look he got.

"Alright, son."

"Murdoch? I thought we could talk tonight. The three of us," Johnny half-asked.

The older man smiled. "That will be fine, son."

********

Johnny played with his dinner for the most part, eating just enough to keep Teresa off his back. He wasn't hungry. His mind was on other things. He wasn't sure how to say the things that had been weighing so heavily on him. He wasn't sure how Murdoch would take it either. The last thing he wanted was an argument. If that happened, there was no way he could get his point across.

Finally, the meal was over. Teresa excused herself as Murdoch had asked her earlier to make herself scarce. The men retired to the living room. Johnny sat on an ottoman by the fire, feeling chilled suddenly.

"Anyone want a drink?" Scott offered.

No one answered so he poured himself a whiskey, figuring he'd need it before the evening was over.

Murdoch sat in a chair near the fire and watched Johnny's profile as his son stared into the flames. He had to bite his tongue more than once as he waited for Johnny to start. It wasn't his way to drag things out. Just get it said.

"I want to know why you didn't tell me about Himinez when I left here last year," Johnny spoke softly.

"I told you, I was afraid you'd go after him," Murdoch answered.

"Did it ever occur to you that he might come after me?"

Murdoch opened his mouth then closed it again. After a long moment, he answered. "No, I guess it didn't."

Johnny sighed heavily. "It didn't occur to you or you just didn't care?" The words were spoken softly but the bite of bitterness couldn't be hidden.

"Of course I cared!" Murdoch said harshly.

"Don't yell. I don't want this to turn into a shouting match. I'm just trying to understand what you were thinking," he responded softly.

"I'd like to understand, too," Scott spoke up. "You knew how much he hated Johnny. How could you not let Johnny know he was in danger?"

"I didn't think he'd come after him. You were surprised he crossed the border yourself, Johnny."

"You want to know what I think? I think once I was gone, you forgot about it. Once I was out of the way, you figured there was no threat to Lancer."

A long silence filled the room. Johnny continued to stare into the flames but there was no warmth there to comfort him. The coldness was too deep inside to be reached by mere fire.

Scott felt an anger growing inside as he considered Murdoch's actions, or lack of. He could have written to Johnny, warned him. He could have told Scott so he could warn him. He could have done so many things to ensure his son's safety. Yet, he did nothing.

Scott stood suddenly and began to pace the room, trying to think of some way to bridge the chasm he felt growing between them all.

"You're right," Murdoch said suddenly. "I thought there would be no threat if you were gone."

Johnny closed his eyes briefly and nodded. "The threat was to me, Murdoch. You could have told me. What if Himinez had come to Montana? I wouldn't have known a thing about it. What you did was the same as signing my death warrant."

"No, Johnny. That wasn't my intent!"

"What was your intent, sir?" Scott asked.

"I ... I don't know! I wasn't thinking clearly. I guess I wasn't thinking at all."

"You were afraid," Johnny stated.

"Yes, I was afraid. When I found out what that man was capable of, I was very afraid. I admit that."

"Who were you afraid for, Murdoch? It wasn't me," Johnny asked, looking at him for the first time.

"Of course it was you. That's why I sent you away," Murdoch argued.

"Without a word of warning? Without so much as a note to tell me my worst enemy was after me? How can you sit there and say it was for me? You're first priority was the same as it always has been - Lancer." Johnny was breathing hard, his voice trembling. His muscles were tense, causing pain in his back, but he made himself ignore it.

"That's not true," Murdoch whispered.

"Let me ask you something. If you had to choose between this ranch and Scott's life, which would you choose?"

"I'd choose my son," Murdoch stated emphatically.

Johnny nodded and dropped his eyes. The emotions were very near the surface now. He just got his answer. The answer to the question that had haunted him for two years.

"But not me," he managed to croak out.

Murdoch shook his head, frowning. "Johnny..."

"You were more concerned with this ranch, with Himinez coming here and maybe destroying your property than my life."

"No, son. Don't you see? That's why I asked you to leave. To save you from that man."

Johnny looked into his eyes. He just didn't understand. "To save yourself, Murdoch. To save yourself from the bother. All you had to do was tell him I wasn't here if he came. Easy solution. Tell me, would you have pointed him in my direction?"  

"Johnny, you're twisting my words. That's not what I meant."

Johnny stood up and faced him. "How were things here while I was gone? Nice and quiet? Did you wake up every morning and feel relief? Did you have one minute of worry that someone was gonna come around looking for me? Not like you had to worry about that with Scott."

Johnny shook his head. "I'm sorry, brother."

"Don't apologize to me, Johnny. You're doing just fine," Scott said.

Murdoch stood up and approached his son. "I hated every minute you were away. Johnny, what do you need from me?"

His eyes welled up despite himself and he cursed silently. "I don't know, Murdoch. Trust? Confidence? Faith that I would never let anyone hurt my family? You told me you loved me. I have to wonder what that even means to you."

Murdoch felt his own eyes tear up. "I thought it meant I was willing to do anything for you. Even let you go when I didn't want you to leave. In the past few weeks I've come to realize that it means I'd do anything to keep you here. Including give my life for you.

"Johnny, you've made me see how wrong I was. I know I was trying for the easy way out. But that turned out to be the hard way, the worst way. You said upstairs that you'd be okay as long as I was watching out for you. I couldn't believe you trusted me like that. I didn't understand how you could after everything that's happened. I'm still not sure why you would."

"Because I had to. I hated you for so long but that was all based on a lie. I thought, if that was a lie, then you had to be the opposite. I see you, I watch how you are. I know you're a good man, Murdoch. That's why it's so hard when you treat me the way you do. When you don't see me." He dropped his head again, unable to look into his father's face, unable to hide his pain.

Scott couldn't stand it anymore. He had turned away from them, unwilling to intrude on this moment. His own emotions taking over. But he pulled himself together and walked over to join them.

"I think the root of the problem is having preconceived ideas of how things are. The way everyone and everything shows you things ought to be. Nothing is that black and white. This family has a unique history. I think your biggest problem, Murdoch, is that you had a set idea of what Johnny would be like. You haven't been able to see him for who he truly is. Your perceptions have been clouded."

Murdoch listened closely and realized Scott was right. He said nothing but walked over to his desk. He unlocked the bottom drawer and pulled out a thick file then returned to his sons.

"This is the Pinkerton report on Johnny Madrid," he explained. He walked over to the fire and threw the entire thing into the flames.

Turning to face them both, he said, "now, let's start building a relationship with Johnny and Murdoch Lancer . Would you want to try that, son?"

Johnny swallowed hard and nodded. "Yeah, I'd like to try. But, you know it won't be as easy as burning that file."

"I know. But from now on, we will face whatever comes together. The three of us as a family. That idea of talking things through doesn't only apply to you, son. I think all three of us have to start trusting each other."

"Amen to that. And stop trying to protect each other by keeping the truth hidden. I think we can all agree that only makes things worse," Scott interjected.

"It will take time and I'm sure we'll all stumble along the way. But, what we do will be the true test," Murdoch said.

"Actions speak louder than words?" Scott grinned.

"Exactly, son."

"This is the Murdoch Lancer I see with other people. I hope you can be that way with me," Johnny said.

"I don't expect you to take me at my word, son. I know I'm going to have to prove this to you. And I know that will take time. But, Johnny, as long as you're willing to give me the chance, I know we can make this work."

"That's what I want, what I've always wanted," Johnny said. He smiled wistfully then. "Last fight."

"What's that, brother?"

"Oh, I was just thinking. I always believed my last fight would be the one to die with dignity. Now ... well, maybe that last fight, the only important fight, is to live ... for the future. For family."

 

 

~end~
2003

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