The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Milagro

 

 

 

Johnny tugged gently on the reins to bring the barely moving palomino to a full stop. He slid out of the saddle and his knees buckled. Grasping the saddle tightly, he managed to stay upright as he leaned heavily against the horse. Slowly, he pushed back and stumbled toward some bushes that were his original destination.

When he finished puking his guts up for the second time that day, he made it back to Barranca and his canteen. He rinsed his mouth then took a small sip before wiping his sweaty brow. Capping the container and looping it back in place, he straightened his posture and slowly breathed in and out. This was getting ridiculous.

For over a week, he'd been feeling sick to his stomach, weak and lethargic. He slept like the dead all night but still, he felt like he could put in several more hours. He was losing weight, too, he could tell. He already had to make an extra hole for his belt buckles. He couldn't eat without it making a repeat visit, even though he felt hungry sometimes. He knew he couldn't go on like this.

With effort, he climbed back in the saddle and grunted as he reined Barranca toward town. He didn't know what was wrong so he figured he'd best see the man who most likely did. He kept his hat low over his eyes and his head down. He knew he looked like death warmed over and he didn't need the whole town talking about him.

The bell jangled loudly over the door and he grimaced as he closed it, setting the damned thing off again.

"Dammit, Sam! Do you really need that thing?" he asked the physician who appeared from the back.

Dr. Jenkins pulled up short and frowned. "Well, good day to you, too. What's wrong?"

Johnny removed his hat and looked fully at the man and Sam's eyes widened. "Boy, you look awful. Get in here and tell me what's going on."

He did as he was told and scooted onto the side of the exam table. "Been sick, Sam. Can't eat without losin it. Been losin weight. I sleep but I still feel tired."

"How long?"

"A week, maybe a little longer."

Sam tapped a finger on the side of his mouth. He could easily see the pallor. In fact, the young man before him looked pale as a ghost. And there was some weight loss if one looked closely. He sighed and went about a thorough examination, more worried than he let on. Johnny would never seek him out unless he was really feeling badly. He palpated Johnny's abdomen and elicited a slight hiss when he got to the right side.

"How long have you had these bruises on your arm?" Sam asked.

Johnny looked at the limb and shrugged. "I don't know. I didn't really notice them. In fact, I could swear they weren't there this morning."

Sam wore a wary expression. "I'm going to take a blood sample, Johnny. It isn't pleasant but it's not the worst thing in the world." He went about gathering his supplies as he explained.

"What'ya think it is, Sam?"

"I couldn't say. I really can't find anything definite right now."

Johnny gave him a sidelong look. Sam seemed to be dodging and he never did that. So, either he knew and didn't want to say yet or he didn't have a clue.

"You have to have some notion," Johnny pressed.

"Whether I do or not doesn't matter. I don't guess what's wrong with my patients. I won't say until I know for sure so there's no point in haranguing me about it," Sam snapped.

"Whoa, take it easy, Doc. No need to get your feathers ruffled," Johnny grinned.

Sam glanced up at him as he was tying the tourniquet on his upper arm. "Sorry. I just want to know exactly what's going on first."

Johnny nodded and let it go but he didn't like the way Sam was acting. He was sure now the man had an idea of what was wrong with him but didn't want to say. And that had to mean it was pretty bad. He sucked in a breath as the steel needle pierced his skin.  

*

An hour later, Johnny sat on Sam's sofa, resting his head against the cushion as he waited for the man to appear. Sam was sure taking his sweet time looking at that blood. Johnny was more than a little curious as to how it looked under that microscope contraption. Maybe Sam would let him take a look see when he was done.

He hoped it was something simple that could be fixed before Murdoch and Scott got home. Of course, they were due in two days so, he doubted that. From the way he'd been feeling he figured whatever the cure, it was bound to take a while to kick in. He amused himself with thinking about the trip his family was on now. He was as hopeful as they'd been that all would go well and the contracts would be signed. It seemed Murdoch was a little worried for some reason but he wouldn't say why. Well, he'll have to if things don't go well. If they do, it won't matter, Johnny decided.

He heard the door and opened his eyes as Sam walked in. Sitting up, he leaned forward and rested his forearms on his thighs. "What's the verdict, Doc?" he asked with a smile.

Sam didn't smile back. He sat down heavily in the chair opposite Johnny. The look on his face caused Johnny's heart to skip a few beats.

"I'm sorry it took so long. I wanted to be absolutely sure," the doctor started.

Johnny swallowed hard and only nodded.


"I don't know how ..... I'm not sure ...."

"Just spit it out, Sam," Johnny said harshly, unable to stand the waiting.

"John, you're very sick. You have a blood disease - a cancer - called leukemia."

He fell back against the cushions and just stared at the doctor, his mind going blank for a few seconds. Finally, he found his voice. "What does that mean exactly?"

Sam rubbed a hand over his face and looked tiredly at his friend. "It's a progressive disease and it is terminal. There's no cure and no treatment. I'm so sorry, Johnny."

He blinked finally. "Are you tellin me I'm gonna die?"

"Yes, son. That is what I'm telling you."

"And there's nothing you can do?" Johnny asked, still unable to wrap his mind around this.

"No, nothing but help you with the pain."

His head jerked as he sat forward again. "What pain?"

Sam grimaced. "It's going to be very painful, John. Near the end, that is."

"And when will the end come?" The anger was beginning to emerge now in the form of sarcasm.

Sam shook his head slowly. "I can't really say. I want to take another blood sample in a week. That may give me a better idea of how fast this is progressing."

"I've only been feelin bad a week or so."

"Well, the onset of symptoms doesn't really tell me how long you've had it. I'm sorry I can't tell you more than that right now. I'd be .... I'll tell Murdoch and Scott if you'd rather."

Johnny stared at him, his mouth hanging open. He hadn't even thought about telling his family yet. "No. I mean, not yet. I .... I need some time to ....." he shook his head. He didn't know what the hell he needed right now other than to just make this all go away. It was a nightmare, surely. He'd wake up any minute.

"John, I need to tell you some things. You need to know what to expect," Sam was saying.

"More of the same, I reckon," he lashed out. "I mean, it's just gonna get worse and worse, right?"

"Yes, the nausea and vomiting, the weight loss, the weakness and fatigue. You'll bruise easily and bleed more from any injuries. You may run a fever and you'll be more susceptible to infections. You may have some really good days where you feel fine but mostly, you'll feel worse as time goes by. When the pain starts, we'll begin using laudanum then we'll have to move to a stronger drug - morphine."

Johnny shook his head as he stood up. "I have to go now. I need to be alone for a while. Don't tell anyone about this, Sam. I mean not anyone. Understand?"

Sam came to his feet a little slowly. "I understand and I won't say a word until you tell me I can but, Johnny, you can't hide this."

"I know!" he shouted then sucked in a breath. In a lower voice, he said, "I know. I just need some time, is all."

Once Johnny had left him, the countenance of physician slid off Sam. He fell back in the chair and sobbed then raged at the injustice that had brought this hell on his friend.

*

Johnny rode through the valley with no idea where he was going. Somewhere inside his mind he knew he should go home. He was in charge, after all but, he couldn't care about that right now. He still couldn't accept what Sam had said. It had to be a mistake. There had to be some other reason for his illness.

But, he knew better. Sam would never tell him such a thing unless he was absolutely sure. Whatever he had seen in that microscope, whatever was there that showed this ..... disease, must have been pretty clear.

Suddenly, he burst out laughing. Hysterical laughter that he couldn't control, even when it started making him a little dizzy. Tears ran down his face and, still, he couldn't stop it. Long moments passed as he struggled with himself, trying to feel the anger or something to quell the near-hysteria. The irony was not lost on him at all.

Johnny Madrid, gunfighter. And he was going out flat on his back in a bed with his family agonizing over him. That thought killed the laughter and he sniffed then wiped his nose with a handkerchief.

How could he tell them this? How could he even begin? He couldn't and he knew it. He'd have to let Sam do it. He'd have to sit there while Sam told them he was dying. He'd have to look at their faces as the shock hit, then the disbelief. He could see Scott's reaction so clearly. His brother would refuse to believe, would insist on more doctors, more tests, maybe even a hospital. Murdoch - he couldn't begin to see his father's reaction to this. An angry face was all he managed to visualize and that did nothing to make him feel better.

Hell, nothing is going to make you feel better so you might as well suck it up. Easy thing to think, maybe even say, but not so easy to do.

Johnny looked up, surprised as he saw the estancia looming. He glanced at Barranca and gave a quirky grin. "Guess you knew where to go even if I didn't, huh, boy?"

With a sigh that he realized was from regret, Johnny spurred the horse on. Regret. Yes, he surely had regret. That he'd only just found this family, so new and fresh even after a little more than a year. That he'd only now come into what should have been his all along. And, even regret for the life he'd led not so long ago. That was something he had never allowed himself. For regret was not a useful commodity and Johnny seldom bothered with useless things.

Reckon I have some right to feel sorry for myself, he thought. Might as well do it and get it over with. He knew he couldn't show them his fear. He couldn't do that to them. But, he was afraid. Not of dying for he'd come to terms with death a long time ago. But, dying like this ..... a shiver ran down his back.

He handed Barranca off to a hand without even looking at the man. He walked inside and felt before he saw, Maria.

"Don't start," he began.

"You are ill," she stated, wooden spoon in hand as she glared at him.

"I saw Sam today. He told me what to do."

She gave him a suspicious look but nodded, knowing he wouldn't lie to her about such a thing. "Supper is almost ready."

Johnny grimaced but she didn't see it as he'd turned away and was headed for Murdoch's desk. "Okay," was all he said.

*

Johnny stared at the stars as he sat on the veranda, whiskey glass untouched in his hand. The blanket of sparkling diamonds did nothing to ease him tonight. Not like other nights when he'd been troubled about one thing or another. Tonight, nothing would ease him and he knew it. With a sigh, he tossed the whiskey on the ground then set the glass down.

Maria would never know he'd fed his supper to the dog that had been hanging around lately. Of course, he knew she fed it which was why it hung around. But, she would never admit it and he would never say a word about it. He smiled a little. She tried to act so tough but her heart was softer than downy. And he knew, where he was concerned, it was even softer. Why, he had never figured out but it didn't seem to matter. He appreciated and loved the woman more than he could have ever guessed.

His head came up and he stared at the shadows to his right.

"It's me. You alright?"

"Sure, Jelly. Come on up."

The old wrangler walked onto the porch and sat down with a grunt.

"How come you didn't have supper?" Johnny asked, though he was glad the man hadn't been there.

"Aw, the boys talked me inta playin poker," he grumbled.

Johnny laughed softly. "How much did you lose?"

"What makes ya think I lost?" he barked. Then, "two dollars."

"Whooeee! How're ya gonna make it?"

"Aw, hush yourself! May not seem like much but, it's two dollars I ain't got no more."

Johnny had nothing to say to that and it fell quiet for a few minutes.

"You been poorly lately."

"Yeah," Johnny breathed out. "I talked it out with Sam today."

"Ya did? What'd he say?"

Silence met his question and Jelly leaned over, trying to see Johnny's face in the shadows.

"He told me what I need to do. It'll be alright, Jelly. Well, I'm goin to bed. 'Nite."

"G'nite, Johnny. You rest and listen to the sawbones."

"I will, Jelly. I will."

Jelly wasn't convinced. Johnny hadn't told him what Sam said was wrong. He worried over the young man all the time but, lately, he'd been lookin plumb awful. Well, the boss'll get it out of him, he decided. He pulled himself out of the chair and headed to his room.

*

Sullen seemed the perfect word to Jelly to describe Johnny the past two days. Today, though, it was even worse and he didn't have a word for that. Murdoch and Scott were due back. Maybe that's what it was, even if it didn't make any sense to him. Johnny ought to be happy his family was comin home but ya sure couldn't tell it. He still didn't look good and Jelly had been chewin on that, too. Whatever Sam had said to do, maybe Johnny wasn't doin it. Well, he'd be the first ta tell the boss. Not that he'd have to. As soon as Murdoch saw Johnny, he'd know somethin was bad wrong.

The surrey pulled up and Jelly walked out to greet them. Hands shoved in his pockets, he waited for the two men to step down.

"Welcome home. Teresa get settled?"

"Thank you, Jelly, and yes, she's all settled in. She and Audra Barkley were whispering as soon as they got within a foot of each other," Scott grinned.

"Hmmph! Womenfolk. Don't reckon they'll ever make any sense," Jelly huffed.

"How are things here, Jelly?" Murdoch asked as he patted the man on the back.

"Place is still standing. Ain't been no stampedes, raids, fires or locusts. Only, Johnny's sick."

Scott turned from getting the bags. "What's wrong with him?"

Jelly shrugged. "Won't say. He went ta see Sam, though. Said the sawbones told 'im what ta do but he wasn't sharin it with me!"

Murdoch overlooked the man's bellyaching and pressed a hand on his shoulder. "What exactly is wrong with him, Jelly?"

"I just got done sayin I don't know. He looks puny, all pale and tired. Won't say nothin."

Scott and Murdoch looked at each other. "Where is he?" Scott asked.

"South pasture. I know, I'll go fetch 'im," Jelly said and walked off grumbling.

"I'm sure it's nothing," Scott said.

"Are you? You heard Jelly. Johnny went to see Sam. That means he must feel pretty badly."

Scott dipped his eyes before finding his father's gaze. "Yes, I caught that, too. I'll take the bags in and let Maria know we're home. And, I'll ask her about Johnny. You know he won't tell us much."

Murdoch nodded then looked to the south with a frown.  

*

Johnny turned to see Jelly riding up. He didn't have to ask why. They were home and he had to face them now. Only, he didn't know how. He couldn't lie to them but, he wasn't sure he could speak it. The past two days, he'd done little else but think about this. He went through the motions of working as much as he could, though he'd gone to mostly supervising. He didn't miss the curious looks he got from the hands. More concerned expressions came from the seasoned men who'd been here for years. How long before they all knew?

He shook the thoughts away as Jelly reined in beside him.

"They're home," Johnny stated.

"Yep, and Murdoch wants you at the house and yes, I told 'em you was sick," Jelly replied with a challenging tone.

Johnny only smiled at him. "You always have to be the first to spread the word, Jelly."

"This ain't funny, Johnny. I don't know what's wrong with ya but I'm as worried as I've ever been, more even."

He looked away, he had to, for a long moment. "Well, let's go. Might as well tell it all at once." Truthfully, he was at least grateful to get out of the saddle. He hadn't been sure how much longer he could stay out here anyway.

As they rode side by side, Johnny thought about the conversation to be had. Jelly was being quiet and he knew it was because of him. The old man sure had gotten under his skin in a short time. They all had. Now, he had to hurt them and he hated it. Anger began to seep into his bones, along with the aching that had been there all day. It seemed to him he was feeling worse every day. Maybe it was because he knew the truth now, maybe not. He didn't know and couldn't figure it out. Didn't want to.

"Whatever it is, we'll get it fixed," Jelly said suddenly.

Johnny looked at him with sad eyes then turned to face forward again.

*

Murdoch sat pensively at his desk as Scott paced the floors. Maria could tell him nothing more than Jelly had and he was beginning to feel a deep dread building inside. He tried to shake it off, telling himself he was being silly, but it wasn't working. Scott stopped and looked at the door when he heard it open. His jaw fell when he saw his brother.

Murdoch sat forward, hands clasped atop his desk as he waited for his son to appear. When Johnny walked in, Murdoch came to his feet in shock. The young man was pale and thin. How could he lose enough weight to be that noticeable in two weeks?

Johnny removed his hat and tossed it aside. "Hey, did everything go alright?"

"Uh, yes. We got the contracts. What's wrong with you, son? You look terrible," Murdoch blurted.

"Thanks. Good to see you, too," Johnny retorted with a small grin.

Scott walked over and took his arm. "Come sit down before you fall down and tell us what's wrong."

Johnny nodded and went with him, sitting heavily on the sofa beside his brother and wishing Scott would move away. Jelly walked into the room and sat near Murdoch who pulled a chair closer to the sofa. Johnny glanced at them all then lowered his eyes, staring at his lap. He scooted to the edge of the cushion and leaned forward a little.

He noticed as Scott prepared himself for the possibility Johnny would bolt for some reason but that wasn't why he was sitting like that. He wasn't sure he could get through this without puking.

"I've been thinking about how to do this for two days and I still don't know. It's not an easy thing and I'm not sure I can answer all your questions." He looked at his father then. "Maybe .... maybe someone should go for Sam now."

Jelly was up and out the French door then returned a minute later. "Sent Julio."

Johnny nodded then lowered his head again. "Well, I've been feelin bad for a couple of weeks. Can't eat, feel tired all the time, sick to my stomach, kind of achin. I couldn't figure it out so I went to see Sam."

"Jelly told us," Murdoch mumbled.

He nodded, glanced at his father and went back to staring at the floor. "I .... I'm not sure I can do this."

Scott laid a hand on his back and rubbed gently. "Take your time, brother."

Johnny took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Well, he looked me over, even took some blood. He said ....." He shook his head and stood up, walking around the sofa.

They all watched him closely, each man feeling pretty sick at the moment, themselves.

He picked at the sofa fabric then scuffed his boot on the floor. Finally, he walked back over and sat down, dizziness setting in. Johnny leaned forward again and buried his face in his hands then rubbed it vigorously.

"I'm sorry. This is hard. I know I'm scaring you but I can't help it."

"Son, whatever it is, just tell us. We'll figure it out together." Murdoch's voice was softer than normal and that only leant to Johnny's misery.

"You can't. There's nothing to figure out. I'm dying."

*

There was no air in the room. There couldn't be for none of them could breathe. Silence deafened the room. For Scott, that silence was replaced by a ringing in his ears as he shook his head hard. He'd heard wrong, of course. Johnny had not said he was dying. He tried to think of a word that sounded like dying. One that would make more sense to him. But, he couldn't seem to think of anything so he looked at his brother's bowed head.

"I'm sorry? What did you say?"

Johnny looked up at him, his deep blue eyes filled with misery. "You heard me, Scott."

"No, I couldn't have. It sounded like you said you were dying. That can't be what you said, Johnny."

He closed his eyes for just a second then focused back on the man beside him. "It is what I said. I have something called leukemia."

Johnny was surprised at the speed in which his brother left his seat and moved away. Scott turned his back to them all and faced a wall. Johnny looked to his father but Murdoch was staring at him, piercing him with those pale blue eyes. He swallowed hard, seeing the anger he'd conjured in his mind two days ago. He looked to Jelly but that was worst of all. The old man had tears in his eyes and they spilled over when he finally blinked.

"Tell me exactly what Sam said to you. Don't leave anything out," Murdoch demanded.

"I told you what he said. I'm gonna die. He's not sure when exactly but he said it wasn't gonna be pretty. I.... I'm sorry," Johnny whispered, his voice trembling with fear at his father's reaction.

But, just when he thought Murdoch was going to tear his head off, the older man moved over and sat next to him, wrapping his arm around his son.

"This is a mistake, son. That's all. You misunderstood. We'll talk to Sam and get things set straight. Don't you worry."

Johnny stared at him. He knew they'd have a hard time but he didn't think they would refuse to believe it at all. He was glad Sam was coming. He couldn't sit here and try to convince them of what he didn't want to accept himself.

"That's right," Scott said firmly as he turned back. "You just misunderstood what he said, Johnny. You're young and healthy. This is probably nothing to worry about."

Jelly looked between the two older men, stunned they were reacting this way.

Awestruck, Johnny only stared for several beats before his anger reared. "Look, I'm not stupid and I would never tell you somethin like this unless I was sure. But, I'm not about to argue the point. You just sit here and wait for Sam. If you don't mind, I'm going upstairs." With that, he stood up too quickly and faltered, one hand going to his forehead, the other grasping at air.

Murdoch stood and took hold of him as he found his equilibrium. Johnny gave himself time then pulled away a little. "I'm okay now. Must be that ‘nothing’," he threw out then walked away. Jelly went after him.

*

Scott watched him make his way slowly up the stairs, his heart in his throat the whole time. He swallowed dryly then headed for the whiskey. Pouring two glasses, he walked over to sit with his father and handed one off.

"I knew a boy in Boston who had leukemia. He was my age, nine at the time. He died."

Murdoch said nothing at first but drained his glass in one gulp. "Surely, it's a mistake."

Scott raised his glass, noting the shaking hand that held it then lowered the glass back to rest on his leg. He closed his eyes and searched once more for some other explanation. Some way Johnny could have mistaken Sam's words. But, in his mind and heart, he knew his brother was right. He would never tell them such a thing unless he was positive.

He stood up, setting the glass on the table as he went, and paced to the French doors. "Sam's a good man and a good doctor but he is just a country doctor. We need to take Johnny someplace where he can see a specialist. We need to find out for certain what's wrong so we can fix it. And we need to do it right away."

Again, Murdoch had no response. He was still trying to digest what Johnny had said, knowing himself, his son wasn't wrong. Maybe Sam was wrong. Maybe ..... he sucked in a breath. As much as Johnny would never say such a thing, neither would Sam unless he was absolutely sure. He still wanted to hear it from the man's mouth, though.

Scott opened the door and half-turned toward his father. "It's Sam."

"Already?"

Scott could only shrug at the quickness of the man's arrival. Sam walked in the room and took in their faces.

"I saw you leave town and thought I should head out. I see you've talked to Johnny. Where is he?"

"Upstairs. I want to hear it from you, Sam. Tell me Johnny misunderstood. Tell me you told him it was only a possibility," Murdoch nearly commanded.

Sam continued into the room before turning to face them both. "Johnny has leukemia and I'm sure of it. I'm sorry. I hate this more than you could know but I am certain."

Scott advanced on him. "How can you be so sure? It isn't as if you have the latest medical equipment here. He needs to be seen in the city. Chicago or even New York. Someplace where they have the means to diagnose him properly."

Sam bristled at the less than subtle insinuation but he maintained his professionalism. "That is, of course, your right, Scott. But, they won't tell you anything different than I have. I've had quite some experience with this and I know what I know. I wish to God I was wrong."

Murdoch sat back down, no longer able to keep his knees from shaking. He buried his face in his hands and shook his head slowly back and forth.

"I'll make some inquiries in Chicago," Scott stated.

"No, you won't," Murdoch said then looked up at his son. "Not unless Johnny wants you to." Turning his attention to Sam, he went on. "We didn't believe him. We didn't want to. We said he must have heard you wrong. That isn't exactly the reaction he was hoping for, I'm sure. I'm sorry, I need to go see him."

Numbly, he stood and made his way upstairs looking like a moving statue, stiff and unbending.

*

Johnny lay on his left side, curled up with his hand tucked under the pillow. He stared at the wall and tried to keep any emotions at bay. He'd sent Jelly away after the man tried to be a little too optimistic for him to handle. He understood their reaction but it still hurt. He really expected Scott to stay at his side but he hadn't. It was Murdoch who'd come to him even though he was denying the whole thing.

Of course he would. Johnny had denied it himself at first. But, he was a practical man as was his family. He knew they'd come to accept it, especially when Sam got there. Then, he'd have to deal with their true reaction and his stomach turned at the thought. He heard the light knock then the doorknob turn and he sat up, his back to the door.

Murdoch walked in, hesitated a fraction then continued until he reached his son. He knelt down in front of Johnny and laid a hand on his knee.

"I don't know what to say. I didn't want to believe you."

"I know. I understand. Is Sam here already?"

"Yes, he saw us in town and rode out. Son, what do you need?"

Johnny looked into his eyes and saw the love and the fear. He nearly lost control in that moment but, somehow, he held fast. "I don't know. I don't know how to deal with this. I'm not sure there's anything you can do."

Murdoch's hand went to the side of his face and caressed his cheek. "Scott wants you to see another doctor. He wants you to go to the city."

Johnny shook his head immediately. "I figured he'd say that but, no, I don't want that. I just want to stay home. Sam was real sure so there's no point."

Murdoch sighed and moved to sit next to him on the bed. "Yes, he is very sure. Scott said he knew someone with this .... illness when he was a boy. I think he's feeling some anger just now. He'll come around."

"Sam wants to check my blood again in a few days. He said he'd know better how long ....." he trailed off, not ready to say the words yet.

Murdoch put his arm around his son and squeezed tightly. Johnny flinched a little.

"Sorry, I'm pretty sore all over and, apparently, I bruise easy now," he offered with a ghost of a smile.

Both men heard the door squeak a little as it opened wider and they turned around.

*

Scott walked in and started straight away. "I'll ride into town and send some telegrams. Our best bet will probably be Chicago."

"I'm not goin anywhere, Scott. There's no reason," Johnny interrupted.

"No reason?" the older brother asked as he pulled a chair near them and sat down. "Johnny, Sam could be wrong. If he is, we need to find out what's really wrong with you."

Johnny sighed tiredly. He glanced up at Sam standing near the foot of the bed and gave him an apologetic smile. "He's not wrong. I know this is hard, Scott. Believe me, I know. And I know you had a friend that had this, too. But, you're gonna have to accept what's happening. We all are. I need your help, brother. I can't fight with you about this."

"I would never even suggest such a thing if I weren't absolutely sure, Scott. I hope you would know that. I understand why you're in denial but Johnny is going to need all of us on his side."

"I'm always on his side, Sam. I just don't understand why you're all so accepting of this ..... death sentence!" Scott blasted.

"No one is taking this lightly, Scott. We're all reeling and maybe we need to take some time to let it sink in. What I want to know is what to expect," Murdoch retorted firmly.

"For the record, I have sent off inquiries about any new treatments to the major research hospitals in the country. As for what to expect," Sam hesitated as he looked at Johnny who nodded his consent. "He's going to tire easily, he won't be able to work anymore. He can't do anything strenuous. He'll continue to lose weight. He won't have much of an appetite. He's going to be prone to infection and run fevers for no apparent reason. He bruises easily and there may be some swelling in the abdomen. He already has some tenderness there."

"Tell them about the pain, Sam," Johnny said quietly, feeling overwhelmed.

"The pain will worsen as the disease progresses. We'll start him on laudanum at first then move onto morphine. It's going to be .... bad, Johnny. I don't think I can really prepare you for that. You really have to just take it day to day. There may be days when you feel better but those will lessen as time goes on. You do need to try and eat even when you aren't hungry."

Murdoch listened closely, his heart seemed to have stopped altogether and he was holding his breath.

"The most important thing you all need to do is deal with this together. Let Johnny lead you on what he needs at any given time. And, Johnny, you need to be honest with your family about how you are feeling."

"How long?" The question came out as a whisper and the three of them looked at Scott with some surprise.

"I don't know. I'll check his blood again next week and that should give me a better idea. It seems to be progressing quickly from what Johnny has told me. I'll come out once a week at first but send for me anytime you feel you need to."

"I'd like to take a nap now," Johnny said and Murdoch moved off the bed. He covered Johnny with a quilt before they left him to rest.

*

Once downstairs, Scott stopped at the landing. "I'll be back in a while," he said and walked out the door.

Sam watched his friend as he ambled around the room before taking up his spot in front of the picture window.

"I'm so sorry, Murdoch."

"I know you are, Sam. I'm sorry about Scott."

"Don't be. I understand and I can't blame him a bit. I just hope he's able to come to terms with this for Johnny's sake. You both need to deal with your feelings about this. Let it out in some fashion. Johnny needs your strength and it won't be easy to give if you're battling yourselves."

Murdoch nodded his understanding. "I can't believe it. All these years I've searched for him, agonized over if he was even alive. Then, I finally get him back and I'm going to lose him forever. How am I going to bury my own son, Sam? How can I do that?"

His voice shook badly and Sam thought to go to him but experience with the rancher told him to stay put. Murdoch would grieve privately for it was his way. He wouldn't appreciate Sam, or anyone else, seeing him so upset.

"I wish there was more I could do, my friend. If you need anything at all, please just ask."

"Thank you. I'll take you up on that, I'm sure. Right now, I think I'd like to be alone."

Sam sighed lightly as he came to a decision. "I'm going but let me leave you with this. You're all proud men; private men. Please, don't let this cause a wall between you. Right now, you all need to come together more than ever before. I know you all need some time alone right now but let that be the last of it, Murdoch. Hold your family together. Cherish every minute you have with Johnny and for God's sake, tell the boy how you feel about him. Don't hold anything back now. It doesn't matter anymore."

Sam didn't wait for a response, he didn't need one. He'd said his piece and he left the man to his thoughts. He felt confident Murdoch would stand up and be counted where Johnny was concerned. They both would once this initial shock eased.

*

Scott paced the barn. He'd picked his saddle up then set it back down, deciding against a ride. He walked over to Barranca and stroked the horse's neck but it offered no comfort. He didn't know what to do with himself. He felt like a huge part of him was dying. And it was.

Jelly watched from the shadows in the corner, unsure if he should approach the young man. Unsure if Scott was ready to accept the truth. Suddenly, Scott went to his knees and Jelly's question was answered. He walked up behind the young man and knelt down, rubbing slow circles on his back.

"Let it all out, boy."

Scott shook his head and sniffed. "Why, Jelly? After all the hell he's been through in his life. After all he's survived, why now when he's finally got what he deserves? I don't understand anything."

"I don't know, either, Scott. I wish I could fix it all for ya. Wish I could fix it fer Johnny. I ain't got no answers. All I know is your brother loves ya and he needs ya now more'n ever before. You just gotta do this the way Johnny wants it done, is all. I know you're always wantin ta fix things for 'im but this time, ya can't."

"It's all some kind of sick joke God is playing on him. Teasing him with a family and a real life; security and love then snatching it all away just when he feels like it's going to last. He was settled here. He was relaxed and happy. He was finally happy!" A sob escaped and Scott ground his jaw even as he swiped angrily at the tears.

"Blame whoever ya need to, boy. Only, don't blame Johnny and don't let him down. I know ya need ta get it out and ya should. Just do it now and leave it behind for his sake. You come ta me anytime ya need to, Scott. Anytime atall. Lean on me and Murdoch, too. We all need to hold together for that boy. We all need ta love 'im the best way we know how. That's all we got to give 'im but it's what he wants more than anythin in this world."

Scott nodded and sniffled then pulled out a handkerchief. He wiped his eyes and blew his nose then raised his head slowly. Staring at nothing, he took in a deep, stuttering breath and relaxed his shoulders. He came to his feet slowly and Jelly joined him. Then, he turned to the old man.

"Thank you, Jelly. I'll take you up on that offer, I'm sure. You're right. Johnny needs our love and support and that's what he's going to get."

Jelly patted his arm. "That's what I knew you'd do, Scott. Ya just need to take care of yerself, too. That's where me and Murdoch come in. And you'll be there for us, too."

"Yes, I will. You can count on that. I'm going to see Murdoch now. Thank you, Jelly. And, make sure you stay close." Scott gripped the old man's arm before leaving him.

*

He found his father standing behind his desk, staring out the window. Just where Scott imagined he'd be. He walked over and stood beside the man, looking out at the scenery.

"He loves this place. If I don't know a thing else in this world, I know that," Murdoch said softly.

Scott smiled a little. "Yes, he does, but you should know that he loves us, too. All of us."

Murdoch looked over at him, his face grim but with a hint of curiosity.

"Murdoch, Johnny loves you deeply." He smiled wistfully and lowered his head for a second before looking back into his father's eyes. "He feels everything deeply, no matter what the emotion."

The statement garnered him a smile from the old man. "Yes, that's very true." His face fell then. "And he's feeling this very deeply, too. I don't know what to do, Scott. I don't know how to help him."

Scott sighed heavily and shook his head. "I think all we can do is what Sam said. Let Johnny take the lead and hope he will. Watch him, as well. He'll tell us by his actions as much as his words what he needs."

"That's what scares me. What if I can't tell? You know how we are with each other."

The younger man frowned at this, feeling more frustration with his father at the moment than anything. "Well, it's time for that to stop. Besides, you've both been doing much better. This is the time to learn about him. The only time you'll ever have." His voice broke a little and he turned quickly back to staring out the window.

Murdoch swallowed hard and put an arm around his son and they stood there together for a long time.

*

Johnny descended the stairs slowly, unsure of the time but knowing it was late. He stopped at the bottom landing to rest. Anger took hold and he cursed himself. How could walking downstairs tire him out like this? He was beginning to think some of this was in his head. He expected to feel bad so he did. Well, he decided, I can't let that happen. Plenty of time for the real thing when it comes. Taking a deep breath, he walked into the living room to find his family sitting there looking maudlin.

"Supper ready?"

Murdoch's head snapped up and he was on his feet immediately. He walked over and took Johnny by the arm, leading him further into the room.

"I can walk, old man."

The rancher stopped and looked at the hard eyes, took in the equally hard voice and felt embarrassed. "Yes, I can see that. Sorry."

Johnny relented and gave a small smile. "It's okay. Sorry I was so prickly."

"You must be hungry," Scott said as he took it all in.

"Yeah, a little, I guess. What time is it?" Johnny asked, turning to look at the clock. He was stunned at the hour. "Eight o'clock? Why'd you let me sleep so long?"

Scott stood and took two steps toward the kitchen. "We assumed you needed the rest, brother. Come on, I'm sure Maria left a crumb or two lying around."

Johnny looked at him for a long beat. He saw that same teasing glint in Scott's eyes, the tone that told of the humor of the words and he appreciated it more than he could ever say. He felt a lump in his throat and smacked himself mentally. But, he was grateful his brother was treating him normally. Maybe, Murdoch would take the hint.

It wasn't that he didn't want them to help him. But, he wanted that help only when he truly needed it. To be coddled and babied, he wouldn't stand for that. He chanced a look at his father and saw the man was musing over something. Hopefully, he was getting it. Johnny smiled at that.

"Well, if she didn't guard those crumbs with her life, I don't have much hope of any of them bein left. Not with you two around, anyway."

Scott laughed softly and extended a hand in invitation. Johnny walked over and that hand slipped casually on his shoulder as the brothers left the room side by side.

Murdoch stared after them thoughtfully. A smile caressed his face as he saw what Scott had done and understood what he needed to do. Treat Johnny like he always did. Well, without the arguing which was so much less now anyway. His son deserved that dignity and Murdoch vowed right then to make sure Johnny's dignity would remain intact.

*

The week passed and Sam returned to the ranch with microscope in tow. Johnny frowned at him. He had done a lot of thinking and wasn't really sure he wanted to know how much time he had left. He'd managed to live his life and had felt relatively well once he decided to stop sabotaging himself. He did light chores around the house and worked with Jelly mostly. Something that thrilled the old man immensely.

Now, here he sat on his bed while Sam peered into his machine. And he waited, his heart thumping. He figured this wait would kill him first.

Sam stood up straight and sighed, then took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He looked over at Johnny and smiled then sat in the chair.

"Well, it's really difficult to say from what I'm seeing here. I hate to guess, Johnny."

"Do it anyway. I wasn't sure I wanted to know but I'd like some idea, Sam." His tone was not pleasant but he couldn't help it.

Sam took a deep breath. "Six months maybe."

Johnny stared blankly at him. He felt nothing, no reaction to the sentence. Finally, he blinked and lowered his head, simply nodding.

"I'll tell Murdoch and Scott," Sam offered.

"Sure. Ya know, I haven't been feelin all that bad, Sam. I mean, I get tired pretty easy but I've been workin some with Jelly. It's not the same as working the range but I haven't keeled over. I've been eatin pretty fair, too."

Sam smiled at him. "That's good, Johnny. I didn't want you to think this would all of the sudden make you take to your bed. I just wish I'd seen something different in the microscope this time. Like maybe, it was some strange phenomenon last time."

Johnny laughed at that. "A doctor with wishful thinkin. I'm not real sure I like that idea, Sam. Anyways, at least I'll be around for Christmas."

Sam looked at the floor, he had to. Johnny's optimism was too much for him. How the young man could look at the bright side of anything right now simply stunned him.

Johnny watched him for a minute, his mouth quirking as he thought. "You know somethin, Sam? I never thought I'd see my twenty-first birthday. I mean, the life I led didn't hold much promise for gettin too old. I figure every day since that birthday has been a gift. I was pretty sure you were gonna tell me I had a month, maybe. So, I reckon six is pretty good."

"It's not your job to make me feel better, John. It's my job to make you feel better. I'm glad you have such a good outlook but you don't have to pretend with me, son."

"Why not? Aren't friends suppose to help each other feel better?" Johnny asked.

*

Sam stayed for supper and Johnny walked outside with him as he was leaving.

"What's on your mind, Johnny? You're chewing on something."

He looked into the older man's eyes and smiled warmly. "I was just thinkin maybe I shouldn't keep this a secret. I mean, I don't want the whole world to know but ....." he paused and paced away a few feet before turning back. "There's someone ..... would you ask Val to come out here tomorrow?"

He didn't really know why it was so hard to ask this of the man. Maybe it wasn't the asking. Maybe it was the thought of telling his best friend. Yes, he thought, that was it, alright.

Sam looked at him sympathetically. He couldn't honestly know how Val would react to something like this. The sheriff of Green River was as unpredictable as they came.

"I'll make a point of seeing him as soon as I get back. Is there anyone else?"

"No, no one in town anyway," he mumbled, glancing toward the bunkhouse and thinking of the men who resided there. Many of them were good friends but he couldn't imagine telling them about this. He decided he'd be a coward on that one. Maybe let Jelly do it. Hell, he wasn't about to put it in the Sacramento Daily News!

He finally noticed that Sam was studying him hard. He cocked his head to the side and gave the doctor a quizzical look.

Smiling, Sam voiced his thoughts. "I know you've never been particularly religious but I do know you have faith. Would you like me to send Father Miguel out, too?"

Johnny twisted his mouth as he thought about that. "No, I'm not ready for that just yet. But, I guess maybe you should tell him, if you don't mind. Just so he'll be prepared. I would like him here when ..... when it's time."

Sam walked up to him and put a hand on his shoulder. "Son, you're trying very hard to handle this all bravely and I suppose that's alright. Just, don't forget to allow yourself time to grieve. It's alright to feel sorry, Johnny. It's the most personal loss and some people don't have the time to think about it before it happens."

"I never thought I would either, Sam. I really believed, even when I came home, that I'd die in a gunfight or somethin. Matter of fact, I'd prefer it."

Murdoch stood behind the column and listened shamelessly to his son's words. He bowed his head and closed his eyes tightly. Hearing Johnny say such a thing broke his heart. He'd thought his son felt safe now, here with his family. Evidently, that wasn't the case.

"I gotta admit, after you first told me, I thought about finding myself a good gun to go up against." Johnny saw the widening eyes and shocked expression and laughed softly. "Don't worry, I decided not to. It ain't fair to do that to Murdoch and Scott."

Sam's relief was visible as he sighed softly. "Well, I'll talk to Val and the Father. Send for me anytime you need me, Johnny."

"I will, Sam. Goodnight." He watched as the surrey disappeared down the road but he didn't move. "How much did you hear?"

*

Murdoch gritted his teeth and stepped out to face his son. "The part about thinking you'd die in a gunfight even here."

Johnny turned around and smiled at him. "Surprised?"

"Yes, quite frankly. I thought you felt safe here." Murdoch watched him closely and Johnny's gaze never wavered.

"Safe? That's really got nothing to do with it, Murdoch. It's just part of the life. Even though I walked away, that don't mean there's not some men out there who would still try me."

Murdoch nodded his understanding but he still didn't like it. "Did you really think about calling someone out?"

This time, Johnny did look away. "Yeah, but I didn't think it would work. Well, it might have but I guess I'm too proud. I don't think I could have done less than my best." He turned back with a grin. "Still might have lost but it wouldn't have been on purpose."

Shaking his head, Murdoch walked closer to his son. "I don't think I'll ever get used to your sense of humor."

"I guess not," Johnny said softly, his eyes turning sad.

"Son, I was thinking about sending for Teresa."

"No," he answered quickly. "Let her have this time. It's only a few more weeks and she deserves to have some fun. She'll know soon enough."

"I figured that's what you'd say," Murdoch smiled a little.

"See? You know me pretty good."

Murdoch's face fell as did his eyes. "I wish ..... I want to know you completely."

His shoulders tensed, more out of habit than anything. Johnny made himself relax a little. It didn't matter anymore, he told himself. Still, he wasn't so sure he wanted to leave his father with ugly memories of him. On the other hand, the man had a right to know. Johnny had always known that, it just hadn't been a subject he was willing to bring up - ever. Now, he realized he didn't have the luxury of time.

"I know there are things you want to know about. Things you have a right to know about. I'm just not sure if I can ..... how much I can tell you." He breathed again.

Murdoch wrapped an arm around his shoulders. "Whatever you want or need to tell me, son. When you feel up to it."

*

Val Crawford was curious as hell. The cryptic message from Johnny had him thinking up all kinds of scenarios as to what could be on the man's mind. Sending for him instead of just coming into town wasn't Johnny's usual way. As he rode under the arch, he decided it couldn't be anything good. Or maybe, it was a secret. He smiled a little at that thought.

Murdoch watched him ride up with a pensive expression. He knew what was about to happen and, like Sam, he had no idea how the man would take it. Johnny's relationship with the sheriff was still a mystery to him. They couldn't be more different. But then, his sons couldn't be more different either.

"Howdy, Mr. Lancer," the sheriff greeted.

"Val, good to see you. I'll get Johnny." Murdoch turned and walked around the side of the house before the man could properly dismount.

Val raised a brow at the brusque behavior then shrugged his shoulders. He wasn't real sure what Murdoch Lancer thought of him and he really didn't care. So, he stood there feeling like an idiot until he saw Johnny round the corner. His mouth fell open for a second before he realized it and clamped it shut.

"Hey, Val. Come with me," Johnny said and walked toward a surrey hitched and ready to go.

"What's goin on?" the sheriff demanded sharply.

Johnny didn't stop but just slid onto the bench. "We're goin for a ride. You drive, I'll direct. Come on."

Val stopped and glared at him for a second before climbing aboard and taking the reins with a growl. He slapped the horse into a trot and gave Johnny a withering glare. The younger man just smiled and pointed toward the south.

Val thought they were headed for south mesa but Johnny directed him west after a half hour. Finally, they reached the lake and Johnny called a halt. He slid down and walked around a stand of trees until he reached the water's edge. He stood there staring out over the vista as he waited for Val.

"You look like hell, by the way. Now, what's so important and private?"

Johnny laughed softly as he turned sideways to look at the man. "That's what I like about you, Val. You get to the point." His smile faded as he hesitated in the telling. He turned back to the water and grew quiet.

Val's nerves began to jump as he waited. He wasn't a patient man but he could easily see Johnny was struggling with something.

*

Long moments passed as Johnny just stared into space. Finally, he moved, ambling over to the trees and leaning against an oak. He crossed his arms and regarded his friend with a small smile. Val followed him, still looking like he could chew bark.

"You and me have been friends a long time, Val. Longer than I've been able to stand anybody else. I really don't know any other way to say this but to just say it, so that's what I'm gonna do."

Val nodded his head even as his gut knotted.

Johnny looked past him then took a deep breath. "I'm sick and I'm gonna die and there's nothin that can be done about it." His eyes locked onto Val's face as the man began to hear the words fully.

Val just stared at him for a long moment, his jaw clenching and unclenching as he allowed the words in slowly. Suddenly, he turned sharply and walked away, back towards the water's edge. He stared out much as Johnny had done mere minutes before. Johnny didn't move, he watched for a while then hung his head. He knew he had to wait for Val to make some kind of move. It disturbed him that he didn't know what that would be. He knew this man better than most, yet this was new territory.

Five minutes passed until Val turned and walked back over. He looked at Johnny with a flat expression. "What is it?"

"Cancer."

He blew out a breath through his nose and nodded slightly. "What'ya need?"

Johnny's mouth quirked a little. "Nothin but my friend."

Val again nodded then, he stepped forward and wrapped his arms around Johnny who couldn't seem to move out of pure shock. "Damn you to hell," Val whispered.

Johnny closed his eyes against the tears and returned the hug. "Yeah," he shuddered out.

Val stepped back, his hands on Johnny's shoulders as he lowered his head and stared at the ground between them. "Nope. Can't do this." He turned and walked away.

*

"Can't do what?" Johnny asked, taking two steps toward him.

Val looked back at him with hard eyes. "I can't sit around here and watch you die. Never had no intentions of ever doin that. Wouldn't have come here if I'd known it was gonna happen. I figured you were home free when ya hung up your gun. But, now ...." he shook his head. "I can't do this."

Johnny was a little surprised by the anger that swelled inside him but he couldn't stop the words. "Go to hell, Crawford. I don't need you anyway, you jackass!" He turned and walked toward the surrey, sliding in and picking up the reins. "Don't reckon you need to watch me drive away from here, either," he spat.

Val's hand snaked out and grabbed his arm before he could slap the reins across the horse's rump. Johnny tried to jerk free but the grip tightened and they struggled a little. Zanzibar felt the altercation and sidestepped a little.

"Stop it!" Val shouted.

"Screw you!"

Val jumped on the seat and grabbed both his arms, sitting askew as he pulled the reins free and tied them off. "Get down, ya horse's ass!"

Johnny jumped to the ground and took a defensive stance. "Horse's ass? YOU are callin me a horse's ass?" His hands were on his hips as he stared incredulously at the man who was now standing before him.

Val swallowed hard then blinked and turned his profile to Johnny. "I'm sorry. I ....."

Johnny's shoulders relaxed and he dropped his head. "I know." He heard a stifled inhalation from his friend and squeezed his eyes shut. He felt Val near him but he couldn't look up without making a fool of himself.

"I ain't no good at this, Johnny, but, I'll do the best I can. I'll be here, I swear it. Just, tell me what ta do."

*

Johnny heard the tremble in his voice and was surprised by it. He'd never seen Val anywhere near being emotional, not like this. He always used anger and sarcasm as his weapons of choice and he was good with them. He raised his head to find Val watching him. Johnny sucked in a breath when he saw that face, twisted in pain. He reached out, grasping the sheriff's shoulders and giving a soft shake.

"It'll be okay, Val."

"Dang it all. You ain't supposed ta be making me feel better," Val groused as he pulled back in embarrassment.

"You sound like Sam. Why can't I make you feel better? I'm pretty good at it sometimes," Johnny grinned.

Val snorted. "Yeah, ya are. Anyways, it ain't right, is all."

"You know somethin? You're the one who's gonna still be here havin to deal with all this. I'll be ..... wherever I'll be," he laughed softly.

"Standin in line for your wings. That's where you'll be," Val said and was dead serious.

Johnny looked steadily into his eyes, seeing he meant every word and he smiled again. "Come on, take me home. I'm tired."

Val's frown was instant as he took hold of Johnny's arm.

"I can walk," Johnny replied with some frustration. "You're as bad as Murdoch."

With cocked brow, Val inquired, "he been babyin ya? Maybe that ain't such a bad thing."

"Yeah, it is right now. He's doin better though. Scott showed him how."

Val didn't know exactly what that meant but he didn't ask either. He let go of Johnny's arm but stayed a step behind, watching for any sign he needed a hand.  

*

Johnny shook his head slowly as he saw his father standing in the yard waiting for them. Val gave him a sidelong look then rolled his eyes and both men burst out laughing.

"Reckon Scott's got some more showin ta do."

"I reckon so."

"Still, can't be such a bad feelin, can it?" Val asked with a grin.

Johnny returned that grin. "No, I guess not."

"He's in one piece," Val called out as they came to a stop.

Murdoch walked over and scrutinized his son as he alit on the ground. Johnny turned to find himself staring at a huge chest. His head came up slowly as a smile tugged at his mouth.

"I'm okay. A little tired, is all."

"Then, you should lie down for a while," Murdoch replied gently.

Johnny nodded then walked over to Val. "Come see me, okay?"

"Count on it. You'll get plumb sick of lookin at my face."

Johnny's countenance changed quickly. "No, I won't," he answered seriously.

Val reached out and squeezed his arm gently then took to his saddle. He looked back down at his friend and Murdoch. "I'll be back tomorrow."

They watched him ride away for a moment then Murdoch put a hand on Johnny's back. "Come on, son. You need to rest. I'm sure that was hard on you."

"Yeah, it sure was," Johnny said softly. He looked up at his father. "He took it pretty good but, I hope he lets it out."

"You've known each other a long time." It wasn't a question but something the man was sure of.

"A few years. Guess that's somethin you're gonna want to know about, too." He laughed softly. "Might be the one thing I don't really mind telling you about."

"Son....""

"It's okay, Murdoch. We will talk, I promise. Right now, I just want to rest for a while. Wake me for supper?"

"I will," Murdoch assured him then stared at his back as he walked slowly into the house. He sighed heavily and wondered if he was being fair. Maybe he shouldn't ask this of his son. If Johnny didn't want to tell him, maybe he shouldn't push. He decided to let his son talk and, if it got too uncomfortable for Johnny, he'd stop the conversation.

*

Two days passed before Murdoch thought to bring up The Talk. He watched Johnny closely; well, more closely than usual. He seemed to be doing fairly well. He tired easily and he was paler than Murdoch would have thought possible for his coloring. It was devastating to watch this transition from healthy vibrance to the near-skeletal figure that moved slowly around the house now.

Yesterday, Murdoch had gone to town and made some purchases but Johnny had been asleep when he returned. Now, he thought it would be a good opening, a way to get this conversation started. He reminded himself of his earlier promise to stop if things got too hard on his son.

He knocked lightly on the bedroom door after supper, hoping Johnny wasn't too tired. Maybe he should have done this earlier in the day. He heard the soft voice beckon him enter and he turned the knob, balancing his packages in one arm.

Johnny was sitting in a chair by the window, a curious expression adorning his face when he saw his father. "What's all this?"

Murdoch sat the packages on the dresser then walked over, pulling another chair to sit opposite his son. "I bought them yesterday but hadn't had the chance to give them to you. It's just some clothes. I don't think your belt is doing the job anymore."

Johnny smiled a little at that and the gesture touched him deeply. "Thank you."

"You're very welcome, son. How are you feeling?"

Johnny looked at him from under his lashes, suspicion in his eyes. He knew what was about to happen but he'd promised to do this and he wouldn't back down. "Not bad. Just a little tired, is all, but, that's nothin new. I guess you'd like to talk a while, huh?"

"If you're up to it."

His first instinct was to say No! But, he curbed his tongue and looked at his father's face. He'd been watching that face for a long while now, noting every line, every expression. He wasn't sure why but it made him feel closer to the man. He hoped that wasn't about to change.

"Sure. What'ya want to know?" he asked as he repositioned himself in the chair. He crossed his ankles and loosely clasped his hands across his abdomen.

"Well, now that we're sitting here, I'm not sure." Murdoch lowered his eyes, feeling very awkward at the moment. For all his ponderings, he'd never thought of what exactly to ask Johnny. He heard the soft chuckle.

"You're not sure? All this time and you're not sure. That's pretty funny."

Murdoch managed a small smile. "I guess it is. Why don't you start with Val? I'm very interested in that relationship."

Johnny's smile widened with fondness.

*

"Val Crawford. Well, it's no big mystery. I guess the first time I met him was during a range war. We'd both hired on ...."

"Val was a hired gun?" Murdoch interrupted, totally surprised.

"Sure," Johnny shrugged then grinned. "He was pretty good at it, too. Anyway, we seemed to get thrown together during the job and got to talkin. I don't know, we just hit it off and kept runnin into each other over the next few months." He stopped and turned thoughtful.

"Ya know, now that I think about it, seems like we did meet up a lot then. Well, a couple months went by and we hooked up again and started ridin together for, oh, about a year, I reckon. We pulled each other's ..... butts, out of more than one fire."

"So, you watched out for each other. Well, I'm glad you had someone to do that for you even for a while," Murdoch said.

"Yeah. He's a good friend and a good man. A lot smarter than people give him credit for."

"Maybe, if he .... I don't know, cleaned up a bit ....."

Johnny laughed. "The clothes make the man, Scott says. But, I don't agree with that. I think people judge by what they see when they should judge by what's done. Actions speak louder than words and all that. I trust Val more than almost anyone. At one time, he was the only person I trusted."

Murdoch nodded thoughtfully. "And before him, you didn't trust anyone?"

Johnny shook his head slowly. "No, not really. Wasn't real healthy."

"I guess he wasn't around for the revolution."

"No, we'd split up by then. He would've told me how stupid I was to get involved but that wouldn't have stopped me. Val growls a lot but he's got a real good heart. He would've been right there with me. But, I'm glad he wasn't, ya know?"

Again, Murdoch nodded. He glanced at his son then sighed out. "There is something I've always wanted to ask you. It may seem silly and unimportant now but I am curious. Why have you always been so against taking medicine?"

Instead of the laugh or smile he expected, Murdoch watched his son lower his head. He knew what that meant. This was painful for Johnny. Slowly, his eyes raised and met his father's.

"This may be hard for you to hear."

"It's alright, son."

*

"My mother. She ....." Johnny shook his head and sighed then chewed his cheek for a few seconds before sucking in a breath. "She used it ... a lot. She couldn't go without it, in fact. She'd rather have that bottle than food and she wasn't too worried if I had anything to eat, either."

Murdoch stared at him hard. Never would he have imagined this as the reason.

"It wasn't the whole time. I mean, it started when I was about nine, I guess. She'd had a bad fall, broke her wrist and there wasn't any doctor. There was this man who did some doctoring for the village and he set her wrist then gave her the laudanum. I still can't believe how easy it was for her to get hooked on that stuff. Anyways, she never could shake it. She never tried to. That's what killed her in the end and that's why I hate the stuff."

He looked at his father and could see the shock and the wheels turning in his mind. He wondered what Murdoch would say. He had time to wonder as the man seemed to have turned to stone.

"I..... I don't know what to say. I always assumed she got sick or something. And she what? Ignored you?"

Johnny didn't bristle. His father's tone was not one of accusation but one of amazement. "Yeah, pretty much. But, it was a sickness in a way, I guess. I tried a few times to get her to stop but she just couldn't or wouldn't. I don't know which. But, I never wanted to be in that situation. The one time a doctor made me take that stuff, I could see how a person could like it. I mean, it makes you feel pretty good."

"I can't believe anyone could make you do anything," Murdoch said with a hint of a smile.

"I was in pretty bad shape. I didn't know it was laudanum at first." He looked at his father and saw the question in his eyes. "I was shot up pretty bad. Had three holes in me. Laid me up for two months."

Murdoch bowed his head, rubbing a hand over his face.

"Want to know more?" Johnny shot sarcastically.  

The older man's head snapped up. "Don't do that. Don't get angry because I'm taking this badly. Hearing that you were that hurt isn't easy for me, son."

"I'm sorry. I guess I just expect you to ..... I don't know. Blame me or somethin," Johnny said softly, guiltily.

Murdoch reached over and put a hand on his knee. "No, Johnny. I don't blame you. I couldn't. Not for anything. You did what you had to do and I'm glad you did because it kept you alive to come home to me."

Johnny snorted. "Yeah, fat lota good it did." He sighed and looked sideways at the man. "I'm sorry. Sometimes, I get so mad about all this."

"Anybody would. I sure do. Scott does, too. We all do, son."

Johnny leaned forward in his chair. "I know. I hate what this is doing to all of you but mostly to you. We haven't always gotten along so good but that doesn't matter now. All that matters is we use this time to really know each other. I want you to have good memories of me, not all this stuff from the past. I don't want you thinking about that. All I want is ...." he stopped, his cheeks flushing as he lowered his eyes.

"I love you, Johnny. I always have and I always will. And I will *always* remember the brilliant young man who graced my life for much too short a time."

He heard the quivering tone, the heartfelt words and his eyes filled. Johnny closed them but it didn't stay the tears. They rolled slowly down his cheeks. Then, he felt the arms engulf him, saw the bent knees rest on the floor and felt warm for the first time in weeks as he returned the embrace fiercely.

"I love you, too," he whispered.

*

The days grew colder as November came upon them. Johnny continued to work with Jelly and with the tack some. Jelly would tell only one other soul that the young man spent most of his time passing the wrangler nails and other small tools and materials. He knew Johnny hated being so weak but he simply couldn't do anything strenuous.

He was still losing weight, growing more pale each day it seemed, and Jelly knew how hard he was fighting this. He never said a word other than the occasional 'you alright?', but he kept a hawk eye on Johnny. His own heart was breaking slowly, like a cracked glacier. Ever melting, ever splintering until, one day, it may simply give under the weight of grief.

Murdoch hounded him in the evenings, wanting progress reports on his son. Jelly told the truth. Murdoch needed to know what was going on and Johnny rarely complained about anything. He'd missed two days of work in the past two months. Sam may not be happy about it but Jelly knew, it was all that was keeping Johnny going.

The days passed, some very long days as Johnny's health deteriorated. Yet, every day he got up. Every day he got dressed. Every day he went to 'work' with Jelly. Nights were the worst for him when everything settled down. He'd lie in his bed and listen to the quiet and just about go loco from it.

Lately, he'd been taking a dose of laudanum before bed whether he needed it or not. More and more often, it wasn't an option. He'd never rest if he didn't have some help and it no longer mattered how much he hated the medicine. He couldn't function without it. But, he had noticed its effects dwindling, only taking the edge off the pain he almost constantly battled now.

Twice, he'd nearly collapsed from the pain. Both times he'd managed to get off by himself to deal with it. He wasn't ready. Just wasn't ready for them to know how bad it really was. For if Murdoch had any clue, Johnny knew he'd be confined to a bed and he couldn't abide that. Refused to stop moving until the time came he really no longer could.

Johnny dreaded this day; Thanksgiving Day. There was no work to be done so he sat near the fire, trying not to show how cold he was. Seemed this winter was especially hard but he knew it was only him. He never seemed to be able to get warm these days. Well, except for that one night with Murdoch.

*

The smells from the kitchen nauseated him and he swallowed dryly more than once. He was alone in the big room now and he closed his eyes, leaning back in the chair, slumped down with his hand over his belly. His eyes opened slowly as he felt a presence.

Maria stood there watching him, concern pouring from her eyes. She smiled thinly and walked over, setting a cup on the table beside him.

"Ginger root tea. It will help your stomach."

Johnny scooted up in the chair and glanced at the steaming mug. "Thanks. How'd you know?"

She only shrugged and smiled. "Perhaps you should not try to have supper tonight?"

He inhaled deeply though his nose and picked up the tea, blowing on the liquid to cool it a little. "No, I want to at least sit with them."

Maria rolled her eyes a little though he didn't see. She knew better than to argue. She didn't want to anyway. All she really wanted to do was hold him forever. "I made a soup for you if you feel up to eating."

Johnny smiled at her, a soft gentle smile he used sparingly these days. One that conveyed so much love, it could well stop the heart of the person it graced. "Gracias, mamacita. You're too good to me."

"Nothing is too good for you, chico. Rest now and drink your tea. It will help."

Johnny managed to sit at the table but he ate nothing. He excused himself quietly as soon as the meal was over and went to bed. It was not a happy event for any of them. Teresa tried not to fuss, knowing he'd hate it but November was a difficult month for her anyway as her father had died two years ago. Now, she was losing Johnny and she spent her alone time crying and praying for a miracle.

*

The next day, Scott found him coming out of the tack room. Every day, it seemed, he looked worse. Scott didn't know how that was possible. He plastered a smile on his face as he approached.

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

Johnny looked at him with a frown of thought. "I don't think so. Maybe some more crackers. I think I'm keepin the company in business," he smiled. Some days, all he could manage was Maria's tea and some crackers.

"Can I bring you a haircut?" Scott teased.

He laughed softly and ran a hand through his too long hair. "Yeah, I guess I do need one. Longer than it's ever been - almost."

"And how long has it been?" Scott cocked a brow.

"You wouldn't believe it, brother. I know I've been puttin it off but I hate the thought of Jelly gettin hold of me. Not that it matters all that much."

The smile on Scott's face wavered before he battled it back. "It matters, Johnny. Okay, one barrel of crackers coming up."

Johnny shook his head and laughed but he could just see Scott lugging a whole barrel of crackers home for him. The thought suddenly brought a lump to his throat and he turned aside.

"Well, guess I should get back to Jelly."

Scott wasn't sure what had upset his brother but, these days, he didn't pressure Johnny into talking about anything. They'd spent a lot of evenings together over the past couple of months talking things out, expressing their feelings for each other and their sorrow. Scott hoped it had helped his brother deal with the grief but he wasn't sure. Mostly, because it didn't really help him but he knew nothing could.

"I'll see you in a few hours then," was his reply as he climbed into the wagon and set off.

*

Scott pulled to a stop and set the brake then turned to the man beside him who looked like he may throw up. Refraining from rolling his eyes, he reiterated, "now remember, it's going to be a shock seeing Johnny but *do not* show it."

"I understand, Scott. I'm just happy to help out. Tragic, is what it is. Simply tragic," the oily little man said, again. He'd mumbled it a thousand times on the way to the ranch.

Scott hated having to tell him but he couldn't very well just show up with him. The older brother could just imagine the reaction and he wasn't so sure this one would be able to contain himself even now. Sighing, he jumped down and rounded the wagon then helped the smaller man down, wondering once more if this had been such a good idea.

"I hate those things," he said as he glared at the wagon.

Scott smiled. "I know. Come on. You have everything?"

He patted his small bag and smiled. "Everything I need."

Scott walked into the living room cautiously. He didn't see Johnny at first and wondered if he hadn't gone upstairs. But, as he walked closer to the sofa, he saw his brother slumped down, head back and eyes closed. He glanced back at the visitor and put a finger to his lips, frowning at the gasp he'd heard from the man.

Scott reached over and lightly tapped Johnny's knee while calling to him.

Johnny opened his eyes and found his brother, smiling sleepily as he rubbed his face. "Hey, did you get the crackers?"

"I did and that other item."

Johnny looked oddly at him. "What other item?"

"Hello, Johnny."

He looked past Scott and saw the new addition. "Zeke? What're you doing here?" he asked in a hard voice that made the little man take a step back.

"I told you, I brought you a haircut," Scott smiled. Inside, he was groaning. Johnny was mad, that was clear.

The younger brother straightened up then leaned forward. Seeming to change his mind about standing, he stayed himself. "You're kiddin," he deadpanned.

"Oh, no, not at all, Johnny. I have all my scissors and combs. All I need is a towel. Now, when was the last time you washed your hair?" Zeke rattled.

Johnny shook his head a little, confused as he was so often when Zeke spoke. "Uh, yesterday."

"Just go on in the kitchen and get what you need from Teresa, Zeke. I'll get a chair ready," Scott said, pointing toward the other room.

*

"Are you out of your mind?" Johnny nearly shouted once alone with his brother.

"No, I'm trying to do something nice for you." Scott felt his own anger rise.

"Nice? How is that little weasel spreadin it all over Green River that I'm dying nice?"

Scott was taken aback. He opened his mouth then closed it again for a few seconds. "I'll tell him not to say anything."

Johnny snorted loudly. "Sure, that'll stop him. You know how he is, Scott. Worse than any woman about gossipin!"

Scott dropped his head and turned away. "I'm sorry, Johnny."

Blowing out a breath, he stood slowly, cautiously and walked to his brother. "No, I'm sorry. You did something really thoughtful for me and I took your head off. Scott, thank you. It was really nice to think of me like that."

Scott turned back with a small smile. "I'm always thinking of you, brother."

"Aw, that's real sweet, honey," Johnny grinned.

Scott gave him a sidelong look but refrained from smacking him. Instead, he wrapped an arm around his brother. "Well, he's here so we may as well take advantage. Besides, you can always threaten him."

"Yeah, I bet I'd really scare him now," Johnny grumbled as Scott led him to the dining room. He pulled out a straight back chair and sat Johnny down.

"Are you feeling up to this?"

"You're askin now? No, but I can stand it, I guess. As long as he don't take too long."

Scott shook his head but closed his mouth as Zeke returned. "Try and make it fast, Zeke."

"Oh, sure thing, Scott. Ready, Johnny?"

Closing his eyes and taking a breath, Johnny nodded his head and prayed he could stay in the chair. It really was thoughtful of his brother and he felt bad for yelling but he just didn't want a whole passel of people knowing about this. He figured they'd either feel sorry for him, which he hated, or come to gawk, which was worse.

At least Zeke knew how he liked his hair cut and, though it took longer than it used to, he did a fine job. Johnny ran a hand through it and smiled up at the man.

"Thanks, Zeke. That feels tons better."

"I would imagine so!" the barber exclaimed.

Scott laughed a little. "Well, I'll take you back now - in the surrey. I'll be back in a minute."

The relief on the man's face couldn't be denied. He did not want to climb on that wagon again.

"Listen, Zeke. I'd appreciate it if you didn't tell anyone about this. I mean, I don't want a bunch of people knowin about it." Johnny had taken to his feet and locked onto the other man's eyes.

"Oh, I won't say a word, Johnny. But, don't you think you should tell Val?"

"He knows," Johnny smiled a little and saw the man's face drop. "Val and Sam are the only ones who know, and you now."

Zeke puffed out his chest a little, proud to be part of the tight circle. It didn't occur to him it happened only out of necessity. "Well, I'll go wait for Scott outside. I know you probably don't want to hear this but I truly am sorry, Johnny."

Johnny looked into the man's eyes and saw the sincerity. He smiled. "Thanks, Zeke."

*

It was the second week of December now and Jelly noticed a change in his young charge. He'd grown quieter, if that were possible, but it was different somehow. He was spending an inordinate amount of time in the tack room alone and Jelly had been thrown out more than once when he'd dared enter. He decided to feel the boy out as Johnny watched him count hay stacks while sitting atop some himself.

"What're ya chewin on, Johnny? Somethin's been on your mind lately."

He looked up slowly from his ruminations and smiled softly. "Christmas, Jelly. This time last year Teresa already had the house decorated. She hasn't done a thing yet."

Jelly thought about this and gave Johnny a sidelong look.

"Yeah, I know she probably doesn't think she should."

"What do you think?" Jelly asked as he joined him on the bales.

Johnny threw one thin arm across the older man's shoulders. "I think this should be the best Christmas ever. I think we should really do it up right. Invite Sam and Val over. Have a real feast and be happy."

The old wrangler looked up slowly into the eyes of his best friend and saw they were alight with merriment. With actual joy. Something he'd not seen in those blue depths in ages, it seemed.

"You're joshin me."

Johnny's face fell into a frown. "Not at all. In fact, I'm gonna talk to Teresa about it at lunch, which should be about now."

Jelly watched him slide off the hay bales and walk out of the barn then hurried to catch up. He wasn't sure how this grand idea was going to go over with the rest of the Lancers but he was sure curious.

*

Scott and Murdoch were both home for lunch that day and Johnny smiled widely at this opportunity. He settled in his seat and spooned up his soup, his staple these days. Maria did everything she could think of to make it different each day. The family was quiet during the meal and Johnny decided the time was right. Casually, he elbowed Teresa on the arm.

"You're turnin pretty lazy these days, Teresa."

She stared at him. "Excuse me?"

"Well," Johnny shrugged then glanced at the rest of them before looking at her again, "you ain't put up the first decoration for Christmas. How are we supposed to get into the spirit of things if you don't get us started?"

She simply kept staring at him, her mouth slightly open in astonishment. Johnny was looking at her expectantly and her gaze traveled to Murdoch.

"We haven't really thought about it, son."

Johnny turned to his father. "Well, don't you think you should get on the stick? I mean, we don't have much time. Scott can help you get everything out of the attic, Teresa. Then he and Murdoch can go get a tree. I'll go, too, so I can supervise. We can't have them bringin home some sapling." His eyes sparkled as he looked at each one in turn.

Scott swallowed hard, his throat quite dry now. He took a sip of water as he thought furiously about this. Then, a smile lit his lips. "He's right, you know. You haven't taken us in hand at all, Teresa. You really need to shape up." He winked at her when she turned to him.

Her face broke into a wide smile as she laughed softly. "I am ashamed of myself. I'll get started on that right after lunch."

Johnny hugged her quickly. "That's my girl. Now, you two; just let me know when you're ready to go."

"Well, slow down, Johnny. We have time to get the tree," Murdoch lightly chastised, a grin threatening.

"Yeah, yeah. Look, I want this to be a great Christmas. No matter what, we're all gonna spend it together and we're gonna enjoy ourselves."

"Is that an order?" Scott asked, his tongue firmly in his cheek.

"You bet it is, brother," he winked back.

*

"What do you think?" Scott asked his father once they were alone.

Murdoch sighed lightly as he stood in the yard, staring at nothing. "I think he's trying to make this memorable for us. Something we can look back on and feel happy about."

Scott nodded sadly. "That's what I think, too. He shouldn't have had to remind us, though. We should have thought of it ourselves."

"I know, son. I just wasn't sure how he'd feel about it." Murdoch wrapped an arm around his son's shoulder.

"Well, I guess we know now and we'd better snap to!" Scott laughed. His countenance grew somber as he stepped a few paces away then turned to face his father. "He's getting so weak."

"Yes. Jelly said he can hardly do more than pass him a nail now. But, he won't quit. We both know that."

"I'm afraid he's going to have to, and soon. I, um, well, I sneaked into his room this morning after he left. That bottle of laudanum is almost gone."

Murdoch just stared at him for a beat. "Sam just gave him that last week."

"Yes, Sir. I wish he wasn't so blamed independent! He needs us. Why won't he let us help him?"

The rancher sighed more heavily now and shook his head. "Because, he knows how much he is going to need us soon and he wants to spare us as much as he can."

Scott looked at the ground. "Sometimes, I wonder if there is a God. How can He let this happen to someone with such a giving heart?" He saw the boots come to stand before him and looked up.

Murdoch put a hand on each shoulder and squeezed. "It isn't fair. None of this is fair, Scott. But, Johnny has faith and I think we should try our best to have some, too. I've asked that same question over and over myself. But, there are no answers. None we'll ever get to know on this earth."

Johnny watched from the corner of the house. He couldn't hear what they were saying but he really didn't need to. He saw their faces. Saw Scott's face and it pressed hard on his heart. He was determined to give them this gift. One more Christmas together and it was going to be a happy day even if it killed him. He smirked to himself and thought it may well do just that.

*

The decorations started appearing with more and more volume. Johnny smiled every time he smelled the sweet pine scent. The smells from the kitchen often didn't garner a smile from him - at least when no one was around. The sugary confections brought forth nausea from him at times but he swallowed it back and tried to ignore it. This was what he'd asked for and it was what he was going to get. He chuckled a little at the thought.

They only had a week left and the plan was to go for a tree the very next day. Johnny wasn't sure he could pull this off. He may have to stay behind for the trek up the mountain. He figured he had to sacrifice here and there to maintain enough health to get him through the holiday and he was determined to do just that.

He'd actually written invitations to Sam and Val last week and could just picture the expression on the lawman's face when he read it. Not your usual eloquent request for someone's presence. Not something Scott or Teresa might write. In fact, it was more of a threat coupled with some blackmail that Johnny was not above to get what he wanted this time. Val would be there, period.

He also thought about the letter he'd asked Sam to deliver, along with the invitations, to Murdoch's attorney. He knew he could trust the man to follow his instructions but he was hoping Mr. Richards would have come to see him by now.

He sat on the old tree stump and watched Jelly grease a wagon wheel, complaining the whole time about the lower temperatures and his elbows. He was quick to let Johnny know it was only the weather and not a premonition. He could tell the difference, he explained.

Jelly stopped and looked down the road then stood up straight, eyeing the surrey. "Well, sawbones must be needin an assistant these days. What's he doin out here?"

Johnny stood slowly and extinguished a grunt before it could come forth. "I asked him to come out," he remarked and walked over to greet Sam and Mr. Richards.

"Johnny, I came as soon as I could. I'm sorry to have put you off," Richards started right away.

"No problem. It won't take long, I imagine." Johnny looked at Sam and smiled. "I think Teresa has a few hundred cookies coolin in the kitchen. You mind waitin?"

"Not at all. In fact, that's why I brought him with me. So I could steal cookies with a good excuse," Sam smiled and headed for the house.

Johnny drew his attention to the lawyer. "Would you mind talkin in the barn? It's more private."

"Of course," the man replied with a tight smile. He was trying his best not to gawk but he barely recognized Johnny Lancer now.

*

"At least it's pretty warm in here," Johnny said as he closed the barn door behind them. "I just don't want the family gettin all upset."

"I understand. It's not an easy thing to talk about. I've read the will, Johnny, and I must say I'm impressed. I don't see any need to change a thing. I'll be glad to execute it for you."

Johnny smirked at the wording. "Execute, huh?" At Richards blush, he laughed softly. "Funny the words we use, isn't it? Anyway, I'm glad it was clear. I mean there won't be any problem with all that percentage stuff?"

Regaining his decorum, the attorney shook his head. "Not at all. It will, in effect, give Murdoch and Scott fifty percent of Lancer each. And, of course, the rest is plainly spelled out."

Johnny frowned. "Yeah, about that. I'm not sure, I mean, I should probably tell them about it. Wouldn't want them fallin out in surprise that I did this."

"I would advise you at least tell them about the arrangements. It's been my experience that family can become so embroiled in the minutia of burial arrangements, tempers can flare. I've seen brawls erupt before."

Johnny stared at him, unable to believe people would behave in such a way at such a time. He knew his family would never do that. "All I wanted to do was make it easy on them, ya know?"

Richards smiled. "It's smart. This way, there is no doubt about what you want done. Plus, it eases the burden for your family. Now, is there anything else I can do for you, Johnny? Anything at all." His expression had turned sad as he looked at the young man.

Johnny bristled a little. He knew people in the valley didn't know what was going on and even if they did, he was sure they'd be shocked if they saw him. The last thing he wanted was pity but, he sucked it up and managed a small smile. "Thank you, but no. I just need to talk to Sam for a few minutes. Come on in and get warm. Maybe Doc left a cookie or two."

*

Sam sat back in the chair and eyed him. "I don't see any changes but tell me how you've been feeling."

Johnny sat with his back against the headboard and closed his eyes for a second. "Truthfully, I feel pretty bad most of the time. That laudanum, it ain't helpin much anymore." He opened his eyes and looked at the doctor. "I hate ...."

"Johnny," Sam stopped him. "I know how hard it is for you take medicine but I'm glad you have been using it. I think it's time for the morphine now. I brought some packets. Mix one in water and take it like the laudanum," he explained as he pulled some small white envelopes from his bag. "I only have a few with me but I'll bring more tomorrow."

Johnny watched him lay the medicine on the bedside table next to the bottle of laudanum that was nearly empty now. "How's it going to make me feel?"

"Well, you'll actually have a feeling of euphoria but it will make you sleepy. I suggest you wait until tonight to take the first dose so you know exactly what it will do. Everyone reacts differently to medications. I have to say, I'm impressed that you're still on your feet, Johnny. How hard are you pushing yourself?"

He looked into the doctor's eyes and knew he couldn't lie to him, couldn't shrug it off. There really was no need anyway. "A little hard. I just want to have a good Christmas, Sam. After that, it'll be alright."

Sam frowned and rubbed his cheek. "I don't want you working anymore." The snort he heard surprised him a little.

"If you wanna call it work, go ahead. I mostly aggravate Jelly which is kind of fun sometimes." He grinned a little then fell serious. "I know I can't hang around outside much anymore. I'm just tryin to hold out a few more days but, well, I guess I won't be goin for a Christmas tree tomorrow."

Sam dropped his eyes and nodded slowly. He hated this, absolutely hated it. He wished he could give the young man some hope, any hope, but there was none. "I'm looking forward to Christmas Eve with all of you."

Johnny grinned wickedly, reminiscent of his old self. "Did you by chance see Val's reaction when he read the invitation?"

"No, why?"

He laughed then and shook his head. "I pretty much blackmailed him. You know how he is. Always findin an excuse not to be social. He's worse than I ever thought of bein."

"Oh, I don't think that was necessary. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that Val Crawford would do anything for you."

Johnny's smile faded away, his eyes taking on a distant look. "Yeah, I know he would. I also know how hard this is on him. On everyone."

"Just take care of yourself, Johnny. Stop worrying so much about everyone else for a change!"

"Dr. Jenkins, why are you yelling at my son?"

*

Both men looked to the door as Murdoch stood there grimly, Scott at his side.

"And why is Mr. Richards in the kitchen eating pie?" Scott asked.

Johnny shrugged. "Maybe, he didn't like the cookies."

Sam chuckled and stood up. "I'll be back tomorrow."

"You don't have to make a special trip, Sam. This should do me." Johnny said, his eyes casting to the table. Three more sets of eyes followed.

"I don't want to chance you needing more and it's no bother. Just do what I told you for a change." Sam gave him a wink then left them alone.

"What is that?" Murdoch asked as he picked up an envelope.

Johnny took a deep breath and let it out. "Morphine." That statement left a din of silence in it's wake. No one spoke for a long time as each took in the implications.

"I wanted to talk to you both about why Mr. Richards is here."

Scott sat at the foot of the bed, bending one knee and resting his leg on the mattress as Murdoch took the chair to the bedside. Both men gave him their full attention but Johnny faltered at first. Then, he realized there was no other way than to just say it. That seemed to be his creedo these past months.

"I wrote out a will and sent it to him and I also asked him to make my funeral arrangements. It's nearly all laid out so you don't have to make many decisions or worry about anything." He held his breath as their faces registered the news. Scott was surprised, Murdoch seemed a little angry.

"I guess that's smart, brother, but why didn't you tell us beforehand?"

"I don't know. I just wanted to get it done, I guess."

"Did it occur to you I might want to do a few things for you, myself?" Murdoch blurted out, his tone harsh.

Johnny's eyes widened at the reaction. "Such as?" he retorted.

"Such as .... I don't know! Maybe the headstone. Did you already have it made?"

"Murdoch, stop it. Johnny has a right to ....."

"It's okay, Scott. No, that's the one thing I didn't do. Mostly, because all I could think to put there was my name and the dates." His voice was steady, much to his amazement. He watched his father waver, shocked when he noted the older man's lower lip quiver. Johnny wanted nothing more than to reach out just then but he didn't and he wondered why.

"Excuse me," Murdoch muttered and sprung from the chair. He was at the door when he was stopped.

*


"Come back here!"

Murdoch's shoulders rose as he slowly turned to face the wrath. Even from his spot by the door, he could swear he felt the heat coming off Johnny. His son locked onto his eyes and he couldn't make himself look away even though he wanted to desperately. Shame colored his cheeks but, still, he held the stare.

"I want to talk to you about this. Don't walk away from me." Johnny's voice had softened into an almost pleading quality and Murdoch found his feet moving back to the bedside.

Scott wasn't sure what to do, if anything. He stayed himself and waited to see if, finally, one of them would go berserk.

Once Murdoch was seated again, Johnny found his calm. "I wasn't trying to leave you out. If you'd given me a minute, I would've told you that. This isn't easy to talk about, Murdoch."

"I'm sorry, son. I just .... there are things I'd like done, is all." Murdoch's voice was softer than normal, reticence flowing in his tone.

"Like what?"

The ranchers eyes lifted to meet his son's and he once more seemed embarrassed; almost pained. "Like the headstone. I'd like to think of something nice to put on it. I'd like a priest to reside over the services and I'd like the entire valley to come if they want. But, I'd also like a private service for just the family and close friends, too. I'm not sure."

Johnny smiled sympathetically. "I'd like a priest, too. As for who comes, that's up to all of you. And I don't really care what's on the headstone other than my full name."

"Your full name?" Scott asked.

Johnny looked at his brother and smiled then held his father's gaze with almost a challenge. "Johnny Madrid Lancer."

All Murdoch did was nod. There was no expression past sadness in his eyes and Johnny relaxed a little.

"What about you, brother? Any requests?" Johnny asked.

Scott just sat there biting his tongue nearly off. The first thing that sprang into his mind was, 'yes, live', but he kept it to himself. "I don't want a bunch of gawkers there. People who only come out of some morbid curiosity."

Johnny smiled widely at that. "Yeah, and a few who just want to make sure I'm really in that box."

"That will be enough of that! No one is going to gawk at you!" This time, Murdoch did walk out; no, he stormed out.

*

Johnny sighed heavily and glanced at his brother, seeing the pain so clearly there. "Hey, want to do something for me?" he asked in a near whisper.

"Anything," Scott said firmly.

"Take care of him. I mean really watch him, Scott. I don't know what he's gonna do but I'm really worried."

"So am I, brother. He could break down or he could shoot someone," Scott responded glumly. "I'll watch over him. I promise."

Johnny smiled. "I know you will. Now, what about you? I want you two gettin along and helpin each other through this. And, more than anything, I don't want you pinin away over me."

Scott's mouth quirked a little. "Pining away? I'll try, brother." His face fell then. "I .... I hate this with everything I am. You know that, don't you?"

"I do and I hate it, too. At least, we got this time together. We get to say goodbye. Could've been a lot different."

"Yes, I know that too well. It doesn't help though. I mean, it doesn't prepare me. Nothing will, I'm sure."

"Well, one thing's for certain. We ARE going to have a good Christmas if I have to hold you all at gunpoint to do it!"

Scott laughed and scooted up the bed, nearer his brother. "You've been incredible, Johnny. I know you've been struggling but you hardly ever show it. I don't want you pushing yourself, though. Save your strength for the holiday."

Johnny nodded his head. "I will. Jelly will be plump broken hearted that I won't be helpin him out anymore." A grin slid on his face but Scott didn't return it.

"You're joking but it's true. He will be. He's treasured the days with you."

"Yeah," Johnny breathed out. "He's gonna need you, too. I just want you all to lean on each other. Don't take everybody else's grief on, Scott. Not without letting your own out. Don't close yourself off, either. You're more like Murdoch than you'll admit, especially that way."

"I'll do my best, brother."

"That's all any of us can do, I reckon," Johnny sighed and scooted down in the bed.

Scott stood and pulled a quilt over him, tucking it in just a little. "I'll wake you at supper time."

*

Johnny sat on the sofa resting and waiting for his father and brother to return from getting a tree. He'd tried hard but he just couldn't manage to feel well enough to go with them. He knew it would be colder up there, too, and that didn't help. With a sigh, he stood slowly and made his way to the fireplace, cautiously placing another log on the flames. He wished he could get warm for just a minute.

As he straightened his posture, his head swam and he forced himself to step away before he fell into the fire. He grabbed the nearest chair and sat down heavily, then buried his face in his hands.

"Are you alright?"

He looked up slowly at Teresa watching him with a worried frown. "Just got a little dizzy, honey."

She moved swiftly to him and felt his forehead. "You feel a little warm."

"Yeah, well, Sam said I might take a fever for no reason. I'm okay. It's passed now."

She wasn't convinced and her expression showed it, but before she could say anything, there was a knock on the door. Teresa stood and gave him a half-hearted scorn before going to answer.

When she returned, her face held a new visage - confusion. "You have a visitor."

Johnny's eyes widened when he saw Padre Miguel but he pulled himself together. "Come in and sit, Padre. What brings you all the way out here?"

The middle-aged priest smiled as he took a seat next to Johnny's chair. "I have come to tell you something, Johnny. I hope I'm not intruding."

"Of course not," Teresa broke in. "Would you like some coffee or tea, perhaps?"

"Tea would be very nice," he said graciously as he bowed his head a little.

She smiled, looked to Johnny and received a nod, then excused herself.

"How are you feeling, Johnny?"

"I guess Doc Jenkins told you what's goin on. Today's not one of my better days but it's not one of my worse either, so I guess I'm in the middle somewhere," he smiled.

"I was very saddened to hear the news and I've been praying for you, my son. Every day that passes and I do not hear from you is a good day."

Johnny's mouth quirked. "I guess I should have asked you out before to talk but, I think I'm just trying to avoid it."

"I understand. I'm here to serve whenever you need me and in whatever capacity."

Johnny smiled at him. He was a good man and he knew the padre was compassionate with his flock. He was always willing to visit or counsel or even grab up a hammer when the need arose. He remembered the padre working alongside he and Scott last summer as they patched the roof of the orphanage. Ever subtle, he'd talked about the church and Mass several times. Johnny knew he was trying to get the younger Lancer inside the house of God but he failed at that one. Well, except for Christmas. Johnny laughed softly as he thought of the expression of surprise on the padre's face when he'd shown up last year.

"What?" Miguel asked.

Johnny blinked then looked up, not realizing he'd laughed aloud. "Sorry. I was just remembering Christmas Mass last year," he grinned. Sobering, he added, "I guess I won't be able to make it this year."

*

Teresa stopped in the dining room when she heard the sadness in Johnny's voice. She stepped closer to the wall and waited to see if she was about to interrupt something. She thought to go back to the kitchen to give them their privacy if that was the case.

"That is what I wanted to talk to you about." Padre Miguel was saying. "I assumed you would not be able to come this year but I thought it important that you know something." He paused, wondering how the young man would take his news.

Johnny leaned forward slightly. "Go on."

"Well," he began and folded his hands in his lap, "almost all of my parishoners have come to me over the past week with a request. The very same request. They have all asked that a special prayer be said for you during Christmas Mass this year."

Johnny fell back in the chair and stared, slack-jawed at the man. The priest said nothing, waiting for it to sink in.

"I .... I don't know what to say, Padre." His voice was but a whisper and it cracked.

Padre Miguel smiled warmly at him. "There is more. I ran into Reverend Simmons yesterday evening and he told me something remarkable. His congregation have made the same request of him for their Christmas Eve service."

Johnny actually blushed and lowered his eyes. Finally, he shook his head slowly back and forth. "No, that's not right. That night is for something very special."

Padre Miguel reached out and held his arm, squeezing until Johnny looked back at him. "The night is to celebrate the birth of our Lord and to celebrate love. What better way to show that love than to honor a neighbor and friend?"

Johnny stared at him, still unsure, but he couldn't say no. He couldn't slap these people in the face like that. "Thank them for me, Padre," he whispered.

"I will, my son." Padre Miguel stood and placed his hand on Johnny's head. "Bless you, Johnny Lancer."

Teresa sucked in a breath and squared her shoulders, fighting back tears as she entered the room with a tight smile. "I'm sorry it took so long. Are you leaving already, Father?"

"I must get back. I have a very special Mass to prepare for and precious few days in which to do so. Thank you, my dear, for your hospitality." Turning back to Johnny, he went on. "Unfortunately, it takes a tragedy sometimes for people to realize how valuable another is to them."

Johnny looked up at him but all he could do was nod.

*

Teresa stood in the yard until the priest was well on his way then hurried to the side of the house. She let the tears flow then, her heart joyous even as it broke. She had always known how likeable Johnny was and how many friends he had but she'd never before realized how much he had touched the community. No, she thought as she shook her head. No, that isn't right. She never knew how many people realized what a fine young man he was.

She pulled a hanky from her skirt pocket and wiped her eyes as she heard the wagon rumbling closer. Sniffing and patting her cheeks, she walked back to the front yard and watched Scott and Murdoch pull up.

"Teresa, we finally made it back!" Scott proclaimed as he climbed to the ground. Murdoch chuckled at him as he jumped to the ground and walked to the back of the wagon.

Scott's smile slid off his face as he looked closely at the girl. "What's wrong, sweetheart?"

"Nothing," she replied in a soft, tremulous voice.

Murdoch wrapped an arm around her and pulled her in. "You've been crying."

She broke down again, not as bad as earlier but she buried her head in his chest for a few seconds. She felt Scott's hand take her arm.

"Is it Johnny?" the young man enquired urgently.

"Yes and no. He's alright. It's just ...." she took a deep breath and repeated the conversation she'd overheard. As she began her story, Jelly walked upon the scene, listening intently.

When she finished, none of them could look the others in the eye. Each found some object to focus on though none could describe it to save their lives. It was quiet until Murdoch sucked in a loud breath. The noise seemed to break all of them from their reverie.

"How does he seem?" Scott asked.

She shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know. I saw the Father out then I .... I couldn't .... I didn't know what to say to him. I knew he'd just blow it off, make light of it, but I know it affected him deeply."

"How could it not?" Jelly asked. After a second, he pondered, "wonder how they found out?"

Scott closed his eyes briefly and sighed. "Zeke. I brought him out to cut Johnny's hair."

"Well, I think we should get the tree and just go on in as if we don't know a thing. Give him a chance to tell us himself," Murdoch decided.

"And if he doesn't?" asked Scott.

"Then he doesn't, son. It's a private thing." Murdoch turned his attention to the monster spruce in the wagon bed.

*

Johnny stared at the flames that still didn't warm him. He wondered why the padre's news hadn't run the coldness off him. He thought it should as it sure did make him feel good. He still couldn't believe all those people had made such a request for him. That so many people cared about whether he lived or died. It was a novel feeling. A monumentally novel feeling.

He sighed tiredly and wished Scott and Murdoch would get back soon. He needed to lie down for a while but he didn't want to miss the tree. It seemed ridiculous to him that he cared so much about that tree, but he did. He reckoned they really were trying to find the perfect one and that feeling poured over him again. The feeling of belonging, of family and love. He smiled softly as he felt the warmth he'd been lacking flow through him like a fine whiskey.

He heard the French doors bang open and Jelly's fussing. Turning around in his chair, he watched as they struggled through the door. Scott and Jelly grappled with the base of the tree and Teresa was walking backwards, directing them. His eyes widened as he waited to see Murdoch at the other end. And waited, and waited.

Finally, the man emerged with the top of the tree firmly in gloved hands. It was all wrapped in a tarp and Johnny mused where they'd found a tarp so big. With much frustration, they finally got it settled in the pail. Jelly scooped the dirt all around it and packed it firmly. With held breaths all around, Murdoch let go and waited a few seconds to see if it would hold.

It did and all four sighed in relief as Johnny laughed at them.

Scott turned and glared half-heartedly at him. "Well, brother, here's your tree. What do you think?"

He studied it for a moment before shrugging. "Looks like a big ole tarp to me, brother."

Scott rolled his eyes as Murdoch laughed and began loosening the rope that held the tarp in place. With Jelly's help, he got it loose and unveiled the tree. Johnny gawked in wonder at it, shaking his head slowly.

"THAT is a tree! It's beautiful, Murdoch. Really beautiful."

The rancher grinned widely at the expression on his younger son's face, immensely pleased to make Johnny happy in any way. "Thank you, son. It was a debate but I won."

"What's this?" Jelly asked.

"Well, Murdoch wanted this one and I wanted a fir I found. I still think mine was better but, this one is good, too," Scott grumbled a bit.

"I don't know, brother. I can't imagine a more perfect tree than this one. In fact, it's great just the way it is."

"Oh, no, you don't! I lugged all those decorations down from the attic and we ARE going to use them." Scott pointed his finger at his brother.  

All he got in return was laughed at but, very soon his face cracked and he smiled widely at them. He walked over and sat on the arm of Johnny's chair, hanging an arm loosely around his brother's shoulders.

"We'll start decorating tonight."

"Wake me up for that, okay?"

"Going to bed, son?"

Johnny dropped his eyes and nodded. "I'm kind of tired." He stood up and Scott held a hand out at the ready but it wasn't needed.

Murdoch crossed the room to meet up with him as he moved toward the stairs slowly. "We won't touch a thing until you're here."

"Thanks," Johnny smiled then dropped his head again quickly. He grimaced as a sharp pain ripped through him but he bit his lip and kept moving. Once at the stairs, he gripped the bannister tightly as he pulled himself up each step.

They all watched him, trying to pretend they weren't.

Scott sighed softly once he'd disappeared. "He's hurting again."

"He never stops, I don't think," Murdoch muttered.

*

As soon as he got to his room and took a few breaths, Johnny mixed a packet of morphine in a glass of water and inhaled it. He grimaced, more from the act than the bitter taste. He was acting like some dope fiend. He'd seen plenty of them in his life, even his own mother, and they were all the same. They'd sell their soul for just a fraction of what he'd just taken. He figured most of them already had sold their soul anyway.

Well, he would gladly hand it all over to them for a few minutes without the constant pain. They knew, of course; his family. To their credit, they hadn't said a word and he was grateful. He knew with all he was, it wouldn't be long before they'd have to do everything for him. That he'd be bedridden and too weak to even raise his head probably. The thought made him physically shiver and the coldness was back now.

He grunted as he stood and turned the covers back. He sat back down and pulled off his boots then crawled under the quilt, pulling it up to his chin. He smiled a little as it started to warm him and he thought about the quilt. Maria had given it to him over a month ago. It was an exquisite piece of craftsmanship and the needlework was so fine, it was hard to even see the thread. He knew she'd worked hard on it and had to put in long hours to get it finished so quickly.

That woman was more like a mother to him than he'd ever known and his thoughts turned dark. He shook his head and berated himself, refusing to go back to that place in time. What he had now was so much more precious than he'd ever thought he'd have. As was time, now. He knew he wouldn't last long past Christmas but he believed firmly, he would have that day with his family. He hoped to make it til the first of the year so the holiday wouldn't seem so bleak for them next year. Crazy probably, but there it was.

He heard the door open and looked up. Val smiled a little at him and closed the door behind him.


"Your pa said to come on up but make it short."

Johnny laughed a little at that. "Come on in. It'll be awhile before the medicine knocks me out."

Val stopped in midstride. "If you're feelin that bad, I can come back."

"Just get it in here, will ya?" Johnny tried to grouse but he couldn't pull it off. "You ain't been around this week."

"I know. Had some stuff to deal with in town. People get plum crazy this time of year. Fightin in the stores over some piece of crap or other. Ya'd think the earth was gonna stop if they don't get exactly that scarf they was eyein."

Johnny laughed more boisterously at that. "I'm sure you told them how it was, Val."

"You're darn tootin, I did!" he stated as he pulled a chair to the bedside. "Anyway, how're ya feelin?"

"Not too good today. I couldn't go with Murdoch and Scott for the tree but did ya see it? It's a real beaut!"

Val smiled as his friend's eyes lit up. "I saw it. Don't know how they got it cut let alone inta the house."

"It was pretty funny to watch 'em all gruntin and strainin. Thought all three of 'em were gonna bust a gut," Johnny grinned.

"Well, they're down there fluffin out the branches or whatever the hell ya do to a Christmas tree."

*

"You are comin, right?" Johnny asked, his expression turning serious.

"Said I'd be here and I will be!"

Johnny grinned again at the grouch before his face fell.

"What?" Val asked.

Johnny glanced up at him, seeming as if he were trying to decide. He sighed then told Val about the priest's visit.

Surprised wasn't the word for it. Val sat there and stared at him for a long time. "Well, I gotta say, that's real nice of 'em all."

Johnny raised a brow at that. "That all you got to say? Ain't you gonna blast 'em all for somethin?"

Val shook his head and rubbed his whiskers. "Blast 'em for what? Bein nice? Oh, sure, I could say somethin, I reckon, but there ain't no point."

"I think you're gettin soft in your old age, Val," Johnny quipped and a yawn escaped.

"Maybe, but you need ta sleep now. I'll see ya in two days."

Johnny nodded, his eyes drooping more with each passing second. "Sorry, that stuff just wipes me out."

Before Val could say another word, Johnny's eyes slid closed and his breathing softened. The sheriff sat there for half an hour just watching him, tears welling in his eyes before he knew it. He took a long, shuddering breath and wiped his eyes, anger slamming against his chest painfully. He'd never cried like he did the day Johnny told him. He'd barely made it home, left his horse standing out at the hitching post half the night as he sat in his chair and sobbed. No one would ever know it, though. Not even Johnny though Val figured he   already knew. He wiped his nose and stood, walking quietly to the door and closing it with a soft click as he left the room.  

*

Christmas Eve morning, Johnny awoke with determination in his heart. Today, he would not allow anything to get in his way. He took stock and sighed as he rubbed his face vigorously. He sat on the side of the bed and opened a packet of morphine, carefully measuring out one third a dose. He wasn't sure it would be enough. He should have experimented with it before now. Well, no sense whinin about it now. It will have to be enough.

An hour later, he walked down the stairs and smiled once more at the tree. They'd done a fine job decorating. His contribution was the strings of cranberries and popcorn draped around the branches. He'd spent a lot of time working on that. He also congratulated himself on his midnight excursion last evening.

He'd crept downstairs with his bundle, not an easy chore to be sure. But, he knew he'd been nearly soundless during his trek. He'd placed the packages around the tree strategically. No one would notice them right off. He knew they didn't expect presents from him but they were going to be surprised. Pleasantly so, he hoped.

"Good morning, son."

"Mornin."

Murdoch looked closely at him, he surveryed his son head to toe with a smile. "You look nice."

Johnny smiled. He was wearing new clothes. Ones he'd picked out from Murdoch's gift of a few weeks ago and set them aside for today and tomorrow. His father had gone a little crazy, he'd thought at the time. He had more clothes than he could ever wear now but the gesture itself was enough.

"Thanks. Where's Scott?"

Murdoch frowned a little. "He went out to the barn. All very clandestine."

Johnny smiled with the secret.

"Alright, what's he doing?" Murdoch asked suspiciously.

"Well, it's a surprise for Val, actually. But, you'll have to wait, too."

The older man scowled a little then smiled.

"Good morning. Johnny, you look very nice," Teresa smiled as she walked into the room.

"You are beautiful, querida. I wish you'd wear dresses more often."

She was wearing a dark blue dress with lace at the bodice and cuffs, the skirt swaying slightly as she walked. She'd pulled her hair up into a loose bun with a blue butterfly comb.

"Don't lecture me, Johnny. Pants are more comfortable for working. Besides, you wouldn't appreciate it if I dressed up all the time."

"I would."

Both men looked at each other and laughed at the chorused reply. Teresa simply rolled her eyes.

*

They convened in the kitchen for breakfast so Teresa's dining room table wasn't disturbed. She already had it laid out for the early meal they'd be having. Johnny took small bites of the oatmeal Maria had made for him as the others demolished the rest of the food.

"How's the barn?" Johnny asked his brother.

Scott looked up and smiled then winked at him. "All ready."

"Thanks, brother," Johnny said sincerely.

"My pleasure. I can't wait to see Val's face," Scott smiled warmly.

They settled in the great room, Johnny sitting close to the fire. He knew he'd burned up half the trees on Lancer, he thought quirkily. There were times when the others had to sit at the dining room table as the room was stifling hot. No one ever complained, never said a word about it and Jelly had gone to making sure there was three times the firewood at the ready all the time.

Johnny mused about how his family had treated him. It was surprising they didn't hover so much and he would never be able to express his gratitude to them.

Murdoch opened his book and began reading aloud. Something he had always wanted to do on this day but only started last year. His sons' first Christmas together. They'd all been rapted by the reading, listening intently to every word. Today was no different as Murdoch read poems by Robert Burns. It had been unexpected and overwhelming when Scott and Johnny presented him with the book on his birthday.

He'd had one volume, one he'd brought from Scotland with him which he'd read from last year. It was worn and dog-eared and the brothers had the same thought. They'd looked across the room at each other that day and knew exactly what was going through the other's mind.

Now, the clear, strong voice of Murdoch Lancer could be heard through the rooms on the first floor as he got caught up in the emotion of Burns' words. The brothers shared a knowing grin as they listened.

During a respite, while Murdoch chose another poem to read, a voice aroused them all.

"What kinda talk is that? Sounds funny."

"Val! Where'd you come from?" Scott asked as he stood.

The sheriff gave him an odd look. "If ya don't know by now, Scott, I don't hold out much hope for ya."

Johnny laughed at his friend. "I thought you were coming with Sam."

"He's here. Just old and slow," Val quipped.

"I heard that, Sheriff, and I'll remember it next time that carbuncle acts up," Sam Jenkins growled as he pushed past the man and into the room. "Close the door, man! It's cold outside."

Val sneered at his back but he closed the French door and stepped into the room.

*

Sam's eyes immediately rested on Johnny as he greeted them all heartily. Val muttered something indistinguishable, too, as he made a beeline for the chair nearest his friend.

"You look quite dapper, Johnny. All of you do," Sam added the last quickly.

"Thanks, Sam. You don't look half bad yourself but ...." Johnny paused for effect as his eyes settled on Val, twinkling merrily in the firelight, "Val, if you hadn't opened your mouth, I never would've recognized you!"

"Me neither," Jelly concurred as he appeared with Teresa and coffee.

The sheriff had shaved and everyone was pretty sure he'd gotten a real haircut. His white shirt was crisp and clean, his dark trousers actually looked pressed and his black string tie was straight. Even his boots shone.

Val got to his feet when Teresa walked in, giving a quick bow of the head. "Miss Teresa, that's sure a pretty dress."

"Well, thank you, Sheriff. I must say you're looking more handsome than usual."

Va's face turned three shades of red as he dropped his head and sat back down. He knew better than to look at Johnny or any of them, so he didn't.

Johnny was grinning ear to ear, they all were, but it was Scott who took pity. "What do you think of the tree, Val? Johnny supervised the placement of every single decoration."

"Yeah, right," the younger son quipped.

Val looked at the big spruce and nodded. "Mighty fine tree." He glanced at Johnny who only smiled at him.

"I'd say it's a magnificent tree. The best one you've had, Murdoch, and that's the truth," Sam proclaimed.

"Scott picked out a different one but Murdoch knocked him around until he agreed with this one."

"Johnny, you know that isn't true," Murdoch said, a bit shocked.

"It is, too, true. I still have bruises," Scott piped in.

"Alright, that's enough!" Murdoch said loudly to be heard over the laughter.

Johnny locked onto his father's eyes, his own shining with simple joy and not so simple love. The rancher dare not break the stare but he felt his emotions creeping to the surface and had to blink. Teresa moved between them serving coffee and the spell was broken.

Chatter erupted in the room and Johnny sat there watching them all. When his eyes landed on Val, he found himself being stared at and he smiled at the man. The devlish smile that said he had a secret or a joke. Val cocked a brow but Johnny would only shrug. He got a suspicious sidelong look for his efforts. Val scooted his chair closer to Johnny's.

"What've you got goin round that head of your's?"

"Me? Don't know what you mean, Val. I'm just enjoying the day."

"Uh huh. You feelin okay?"

Johnny sighed lightly. "Yeah, pretty good. I'll make it." He quirked his mouth then. "Say, wanna take a walk outside with me?"

"Sure, if we can get past the guards," Val snorted.

"We always have," Johnny grinned.

*

"How long's it been since ya been out?"

Johnny laughed softly at that as he leaned against the corral fence. "Oh, I made it to the porch a few times lately but that's about it." He felt a nudge and turned to find Barranca's nose in his face. He reached up and scratched the palomino's ear then stroked his neck, reaching under his chin for another good scratch. Barranca nickered softly and lowered his head.

"If'n he was a cat, he'd be purrin," Val chortled.

Johnny smiled fully, his attention all on the horse. "Scott's been riding him a lot, running him good. I wish ....." he stopped and shook his head, aggravated with himself.

"Wish ya could ride him one more time?"

Turning to his friend, Johnny just nodded. Val chewed the inside of his cheek.

"Well, what about just around the corral? Nice and slow."

"No, Val. I mean, I think I could handle it but that's pretty pathetic."

"Then, we could ride down the road a mile or so. Real easy," Val compromised.

"You tryin to get yourself killed? Do you have any idea what Murdoch and Scott would do to you?"

Val shrugged. "I ain't afraid of them." He didn't sound terribly convincing, though.

Johnny smiled then laughed aloud. "Sure. Well, I am. Anyway, I don't want to do anything to ruin today. Even though, it would be nice." His expression turned thoughtful, wistful even, as he continued to pet the horse.

"Johnny!"

He sighed and closed his eyes for a second before turning to watch his father stride across the yard looking like a grizzly. He also noticed Val flinch a little. "Are you sure you ain't scared?" he whispered.

Val growled a little then turned to look at Barranca as Murdoch drew near.

"Son, it's awfully chilly out here."

"I have my coat on."

"Still, you don't want to push it."

Johnny looked up at his father and saw nothing but concern. No, that wasn't true. He saw fear as well. He sighed lightly and nodded then turned back to Barranca.

"Lo siento, mi amigo. The old man is callin the tune. I gotta go. Feliz Navidad."

Barranca nuzzled Johnny's neck then pulled his head up and snorted.

"That was for you, Murdoch," Johnny grinned.

"I think I can take it. Come on, gentlemen." Murdoch held his arm out and let it fall lightly around Johnny's shoulders as the young man stepped to his side.

Val fell in with them and kept his eyes down. He didn't know how he was going to get through this day. Every time he looked at Johnny he wanted to kill someone, anyone. There is no justice in this world, he decided.

*

Supper was earlier than usual and a feast in it's own right. Ham was on the menu and Johnny found himself managing a few bites. He talked more than he ate but he fooled no one. After the meal, they made their way to the great room. Johnny maneuvered to his brother's side and nudged his ribs with an elbow. Scott read the thoughts easily, smiled and nodded slightly.

"Who's minding the store, Val?" Murdoch asked.

"Tom Wilkins. You know, he ain't got no family. He was more'n happy to watch things for me tonight."

"And tomorrow," Scott added for him.

"Well, only if it's quiet but I don't reckon there'll be a crime spree on Christmas Day."

"Sounds like the perfect time fer one, ta me," Jelly said and got odd looks. "Well, everbody's tucked in at home. Leaves the town wide open," he shrugged. His face fell when he looked at Johnny who was glaring at him.

"Didn't happen last year. I don't expect it will this year," Johnny said firmly.

"Reckon not. Tom knows where I am. I already told him if anything happens ta just come get me and not take it on by himself," Val explained.

"Good! Now, all we have to worry about is tummy aches, right, Sam?" Murdoch smiled at the doctor.

The good doctor chuckled a little. "I do have one patient who is close to giving birth but not that close. Hopefully, all will be quiet."

Scott watched his brother who had lowered his head. He was beginning to think this wasn't going to go as well as Johnny had hoped. But, after a minute or so, the younger Lancer's head came up and he found his brother's gaze. He smiled and stood slowly.

"I'll be right back."

Scott frowned but said nothing as he watched. Johnny was supposed to let him do this. Then, his brother headed up the stairs and Scott sighed to himself. No, he thought, this isn't going to go as planned. He waited only a moment before excusing himself and following his brother.

Johnny sat on the edge of the bed and measured out another dose of morphine, cursing to himself the entire time. It wasn't right. He shouldn't be cussing on Christmas Eve but he was more angry with himself than anything. He also knew he couldn't control the pain just because he wanted to and that only served to put him in a worse mood.

He stirred the powder into the glass of water and slugged it back, grimacing at the bitterness. His determination to make it through tonight and tomorrow only intensified as the disease tried to get the upper hand on him. Not now, he thought. Not now.

Scott pushed open the door which was already ajar. He leaned against the frame and took it all in. "Are you going to be able to do this?"

Johnny glanced at him, annoyed with the interruption. "Just need a few minutes."

Scott pushed off and walked into the room, sitting beside his brother on the bed. "How much did you take?"

"Enough. It did good all day. Guess I just needed a little extra."

"Johnny, I know .... please, don't push yourself. We can do it tomorrow."

He shook his head vigorously. "No! No, tonight, Scott. We stick with the plan, okay?"

Scott sighed but he nodded his consent and stood up. "If you aren't down in fifteen minutes, I'll be back."

*

Ten minutes later, Johnny walked back into the living room. He nodded at Scott who was the first to see him because he'd been watching the doorway since he'd rejoined the others.

Johnny didn't take his seat again. Scott stood and simply left the room, grabbing his coat as he walked outside.

"Hey, Val, I wanted to give you your present tonight," Johnny announced.

"Ain't Christmas yet," Val scowled, a bit embarrassed at being singled out.

"I know but, I thought you might need a day to stop yellin about it," Johnny grinned widely.

Val Crawford stood up and leered at his friend. "Why? Is it an outhouse?"

Johnny's face fell then. "How'd you know?"

Everyone laughed, everyone but Val who wouldn't put it past Johnny to do just that.

"Well, come on, it's outside," Johnny urged.

"Where else would it be?" Val sneered. But, he followed Johnny as did the rest.

They all donned their coats quickly and Johnny led the way into the yard. He stopped and waited for the others. Val came to stand beside him, still scowling and more than a little wary. Johnny had a strange sense of humor and Val knew he could also show it at the strangest times.

Sam leaned in toward Murdoch and whispered, "what is it?"

"I have no idea," the rancher shrugged. He was as surprised as anyone. He didn't think Johnny had gotten anyone presents. How could he have?

Johnny whistled and most everyone startled a bit but he didn't seem to notice. The barn doors opened and Scott appeared, followed by a magnificent black stallion complete with tack. Scott walked right up to Val and extended his hand to give over the reins.

"What's that for?" Val asked gruffly.

"Merry Christmas, ya old grouch," Johnny smiled.

Val turned fully to look at him, never taking the reins. "I got a horse, Johnny."

"Yeah, and he's ten years old, Val. I know you're fond of him but he ain't gonna last much longer. Not with the job you have. Now take the damned horse, say thank you and be done with it." He didn't get the reaction he expected as Val stared at him a beat longer then dropped his head. The sheriff turned back to the horse and took the reins in a limp hand.

Johnny swallowed hard. "He's got a lot of spirit in him so he needs a firm hand. Once he gets to know you, he'll settle right down."

*

Val only nodded then took in the animal fully. He ran a hand down it's nose then walked around it, checking out the muscular build. He had not a clue what to say. Thank you wasn't enough. Nothing was enough to express the love he felt for this man who would and had done anything for him.

Murdoch walked up beside his son and put a hand on his back. "That's a wonderful gift, son."

Johnny nodded, he couldn't seem to find his voice. He knew Val was overwhelmed but he hadn't intended to embarrass his friend. He thought maybe he should have done this privately.

Val turned and looked at him, their eyes meeting again. "Thanks, Johnny. He sure is a beauty. Gonna have to find him a real good name."

Smiling with relief as much as pleasure, Johnny livened up. "Yeah, gonna have to choose real careful. Somethin that really fits him. I gave him to ya tonight cause I thought you might want to ride him tomorrow. You know, get a feel for him."

"Yeah, I'll do that for sure."

Murdoch stepped back, taking his older son's arm and tossing his head toward the door for the rest to follow, leaving the friends alone together.

"I'm sorry if I embarrassed you. I didn't think about everyone being here," Johnny said softly.

"Aw hell, you know me. Nothin much gets ta me." Val tried to shrug it off but his voice betrayed his words as it grew husky.

"Yeah, that's true," Johnny remarked as unconvincingly.

Val cleared his throat then looked off to the horizon. "You'll have to help me with that name."

"Sure."

The sheriff turned back, seeming to just notice they were alone. "You didn't have to do this, Johnny. I sure wasn't expectin it."

"I wanted to. I know everybody thinks I didn't have a chance to get gifts but I figured it was more important this year." He swallowed again, then his eyes brightened. "Hey, you got the most expensive one. How's that?"

Val smiled a little. "Ain't important. The thought behind it's what matters. That ya knew what I'd like and need."

Johnny nodded and it grew silent for a few minutes.

"Well, I'll take him back to the barn. You should get inside," Val said.

"Yeah, I'll see ya in a few minutes."

*

Val led the horse to an empty stall then removed the tack carefully. He sighed as he picked up a brush and gave the stallion a quick brushing. He didn't need it as his coat was shiny as silk, soft as silk, too, Val noted. He tried to think of a name but his mind wouldn't go in that direction. There was only one thing he was thinking about just then. He set the brush down and stepped out of the stall, latching the door and leaning against it as a tear rolled down his face.

His head jerked up and he quickly swiped his face as he heard then saw Scott standing near the barn door.

"I'm sorry, I can come back," Scott apologized.

"What for? Your barn. Ain't no need ta come back, is there?" Val threw with an accusatory tone.

Scott didn't flinch. He'd come to know the sheriff pretty well and knew he was covering. Scott understood the need to be alone but he wouldn't call Val down at such a painful time. He ambled on inside and to the stall.

"He's a magnificent animal."

"Yeah, a little much," Val mumbled.

Scott smiled and stroked the horse's neck. "Johnny is a generous man to those he calls friend. But, I don't have to tell you that."

"He'd give his life for a friend or his family," Val stated assuredly then ducked his head.

Scott had nothing to say to that. He leaned against the stall and crossed his arms over his chest. "I don't know what I'm going to do," he confessed in a near whisper.

Val glanced at him then shook his head slowly. "Me neither."

"Maybe we should go back in. Today and tomorrow are really important to him - and us. We should spend every minute we can together."

Val nodded and walked briskly from the barn.

*

Johnny perked up after a while and the rest of the evening was spent in conversation, musings about who got whom what gift and a chess game between Murdoch and Sam. At ten o'clock, Sam, Val, Jelly and Teresa said their goodnights, leaving the Lancer men alone.

It was quiet for a while, a comfortable silence in which each man took to his own thoughts. Johnny rested his head on the back of his chair and closed his eyes.

"Ready to call it a night, son?"

He opened his eyes halfway and smiled softly. "Can't. Not midnight, yet."

"What happens at midnight?" Scott asked.

"Mass. I thought I'd ....." Johnny squirmed a bit in his chair, uncomfortable. "I'd pray," he mumbled.

Murdoch hid his surprise then wondered why he was surprised at all. His eyes dimmed for a second then he smiled. "Did you want to be alone for that or would you mind some company?"

Johnny's eyes opened fully as he pondered his answer. "I don't mind," he shrugged.

"Well, does anyone want coffee?" Scott offered as he came to his feet.

"No, I'm coffee'd out. I'll never sleep," Murdoch replied.


"None for me, either."

Scott sat back down, not really wanting any himself, and clasped his hands in his lap. "Val was certainly taken aback."

Johnny grinned.

"He's a hard man to figure out," Murdoch commented.

"You think so?" Johnny asked. "You just need to spend a little more time with him, I think. Once he feels relaxed around a person, he let's go."

"How long did it take him to 'let go' with you?"

He looked at his brother, the cynical expression tickled him. "A few months, come to think of it."

"Did you know he was a gunfighter, Scott?" Murdoch asked.

"No, but it doesn't surprise me. He's not a pushover, certainly. He's smart and more than a little cunning," he cocked a brow.

Johnny laughed softly. "You have no idea how cunning he can be."

"It's five of midnight, son," Murdoch announced.

Johnny stood up and headed for the front door.

"Where are you going?" asked Scott.

"The chapel. Where else would ya pray?"

*

Murdoch sighed and Scott shrugged. The oldest man knew it would do him no good to voice his concerns about Johnny being out in the cold weather. The chapel would be no warmer, either. He knew this was important to his son and he decided to just be grateful to share this moment.

Johnny pushed the door open, using more strength than he thought he possessed at the moment. He leaned against the door for a few seconds before walking into the small stone room. He held his lantern high and swept it about, smiling. He'd asked Jelly to straighten the room a little but it looked like he'd taken a scrub brush to the whole interior.

"Who cleaned?" Murdoch asked, happy not to see cobwebs hanging everywhere.

"Jelly did it for me." Johnny walked up to the alter, bent his knee a little in a half bow and made the sign of the cross.

The other two men joined him, opting to sit on one of the two small pews. Johnny joined them then slid to his knees and hung his head. Scott bowed his own head, as did his father, and they prayed.

In Green River, silence reined supreme in the Catholic church as the parrishoners lowered their heads in silent prayer. Down the street, the Christian congregation mimicked them.

*

High above the stars, above the one brilliantly illuminated star to the east, whispers were heard. Soft at first then growing, not in volume of voice but of sheer number until it became a loud hum. Many different words were used, fervent, intense and heartbreaking, they all conveyed the same message.

Then, one voice, soft and melodic, broke through the rest with a different plea. A selfless, wrenching, reverent voice full of love and hope. Not for himself but for those he loved - and there were many souls he prayed for.

A symbolic wave of a hand quieted all the other voices and focused in on the one lone, soulful voice. And a tear fell from heaven.

*

Johnny awoke the next morning cautiously. He rubbed his face then stretched slowly, carefully. He sighed out heavily with relief then sat up. His brows knitted together as he sat there, waiting for the inevitable. But, the pain did not come. He felt stronger and .... content.

Hesitantly, he pulled the covers off and swung his feet over the side of the bed, touching the cold floor. A hiss of surprise at the cold surface on his warm feet, then he plunged ahead and stood up. Walking to the dresser, he took in his countenance. Still gaunt, hollowed cheeks stared back at him. But the eyes weren't dulled, they were vibrant and he smiled.

Looking upward, he smiled more fully. "Thank you," he whispered. Today would be perfect. Today he would be closer to his old self. He knew it but wondered at the knowing. It didn't matter. It just was and he accepted the gift with gratitude. He set about his morning wash with renewed vigor.

Dressed in black pants and a new light blue shirt, he made his way down the stairs then pulled up half-way down. An odd sensation came to his stomach. It had been so long, he didn't recognize it for what it was at first. He shook his head in wonder then headed to the kitchen, the growling of hunger growing with each step.

Murdoch sat there, nursing a cup of coffee and looking grouchy. Johnny smiled widely then simply slid into his seat. Before he could greet his father, Scott walked in the back door.

"Good morning and Merry Christmas, brother!"

"Feliz Navidad, hermano! Where'd you get to so early?"

"I saddled Val's horse for him. How are you feeling today?" Scott asked as he took his usual seat.

"Actually, I'm hungry as a bear. I feel better than I have in months!" Johnny grinned.

Complete and total silence followed his statement. He looked at the men staring at him then turned to look at Maria who was also staring slack-jawed at him.

"Well, are you going to feed us, or what?" he smiled.

"Son?" Murdoch whispered.

"I don't know. I woke up this morning feeling great. No pain, nothing. A little weak and still look like he.... a mess but ...." he ended with a shrug.

Scott's mouth turned up then widened into a sincere smile. "I guess some prayers were answered last night."

Johnny looked at him curiously. "Not mine. At least, I don't know that they were yet."

Murdoch reached out and slid a hand down the side of his face, resting it on his shoulder for a quick squeeze. Maria set platters of food on the table and Johnny's fork was in the air almost before she could pull her hand back.

*

The rest of the family appeared five minutes later, all gawking as Johnny ate robustly. Well, for Johnny it was robust. Most people would call it a normal breakfast.

Sam watched him closely after hearing Johnny's report on his health this morning. He had no explanation and was tempted to just accept what was and be glad for it.

"Hey, Val, Scott saddled your horse. Maybe we could take a little ride this morning," Johnny said after wiping his mouth with a napkin.

"WE?" Val scowled.

"Son, I know you feel very good but don't push it." Murdoch's stern words were tempered with a smile.

"I won't. If I can't handle it, I'll come back," he said off-handedly. He looked to each of them, seeing the wariness on all faces. "Look, I know this is all really strange but I'm not gonna think it to death. Yesterday, I was wishing I could ride Barranca one more time. Now, I have a chance to do it. I'd like to take that chance."

"I'll watch him close, Mr. Lancer," Val promised.

"Well, as long as you promise not to overdo," Murdoch caved.

Johnny smiled and jumped from his chair.

"I'll saddle Barranca," Val said. It wasn't an offer but an order.

Murdoch and Scott stood in the yard with Sam, holding their collective breaths as Johnny put his foot in the stirrup and hauled himself up. Scott's shoulders were at his ears as he waited for the man to fall. But, he didn't and settled into the saddle, his face alight with simple joy.

Val mounted up, a tight grip on the reins as the stallion took some exception. But, he was an experienced horseman and handled the animal well. He looked over at Johnny and waited as the young man clucked his tongue and Barranca began to walk toward the road.

Murdoch took two steps further in the yard as Val turned and gave him a nod.

"What do you make of this, Sam?" the rancher asked as he kept an eagle eye on his son's slowly disappearing back.

"I have to say, I'm stumped, Murdoch. But, if he's been given a reprieve, just try to enjoy it while it lasts."

*

Once Johnny knew his family could no longer see him, he pulled to a stop.

"Need ta go back?" Val asked as he, too, stopped.

"Nope." A grin erupted on his face.

"Johnny, don't you do it. Your old man will kill me!"

"Not if he don't know," Johnny replied and spurred Barranca.

"Johnny!" Val shouted as he watched, horrified.

The palamino took off in an explosion of energy, racing across the valley floor, the young man on it's back whooping all the way.

Val growled then took off in pursuit. He watched for any sign Johnny was wavering but he saw none. He also was not catching up very quickly. Well, he thought, might as well see what this animal can do. With that, he kicked harder and the stallion responded.

The sheriff finally pulled within yelling distance and yell, he did. "Stop that damned horse right now!"

Johnny looked back at him, saw not only the anger but the terror on his friend's face and began slowing Barranca. He reined to a stop after a few minutes, breathless. His cheeks glowed from the cold wind and sheer exhiliration.

Val turned his horse and came along side, facing Johnny. "You get that horse back to the house right now or I'm goin without ya!"

"I'm fine, Val. Better than fine. I feel great. I swear it!" he argued.

"Don't care. Let's go. I ain't gonna be responsible for you killin yourself, that's all!"

Johnny looked at him for a second, licking his lips and slowing his breathing. "Alright, but it sure did feel good." He grinned and turned Barranca, heading back at a much slower pace.

Val fell in beside him, glancing over a few times. "Looked like your old self there for a while. Racin hellbound for leather. It was .... somethin," he faltered.

"It was, wasn't it? Sorry, if I worried you," Johnny said with some reticence.

"Sure ya are. No harm done, I reckon. You really feelin that much better?"

Johnny shook his head with some awe. "I am, Val. I can't explain it and I'm not sure I should try. I'm just taking it as a gift and goin with it, ya know?"

Val nodded but he didn't know really. He was just happy Johnny would be able to enjoy today. What Val knew was his last Christmas. They pulled up to the corral and Johnny threw his leg over the saddle, sliding to the ground like he used to. Murdoch was standing there, waiting.

"Are you alright?" he asked immediately.

Johnny smiled widely. "Never better. I know, inside," he laughed and walked away.

Val ducked his head and followed, unwilling to be grilled by Murdoch Lancer.

*

Johnny hung up his coat and walked into the living room to find Sam standing by the fireplace. He walked over and stuck his hands out to warm them.

"Sam, what's going on? I feel so good, it's a little scary."

"I don't know, Johnny, I can't explain it but I would like to examine you."

Johnny buttoned his shirt as Sam put his stethoscope away. When the doctor turned back, he had a thoughtful frown on his face.

"Your heart and lungs sound fine, Johnny. I'm going to my office to get my microscope. I'd like to take a blood sample. I really should have brought it with me."

Johnny stood and tucked in his shirt. "Let Scott go, Sam. He'll be a lot quicker."

"I don't want to take him away from family on Christmas," Sam shook his head.

Johnny smiled. "You're family, too. He won't mind. He can get there and back in half the time on horseback, anyway."

Scott sure didn't mind. He saddled Remmie in two shakes and was down the road before anyone else knew what was happening. Murdoch took the news with caution. He didn't know what had Johnny in such good shape but he wasn't a man to deal in whimsy.

The rancher snorted. Good shape. He was thin as a rail, his cheeks sunken, saddle bags under his eyes and still a little pale. Though,he had to admit, Johnny's color was much improved, as was his appetite. He'd been munching here and there since the ride with Val. Murdoch didn't have to ask, he knew Johnny had run the horse. Still, he couldn't berate his son. Not today, especially.

Scott's return should have gone down in the books as the fastest trip to Green River ever. He handed over the equipment but Johnny begged off.

"There's plenty of time for that. Let's open presents first."

Sam gave him a wary look then nodded. He wasn't going anywhere, he supposed, and it wouldn't make a bit of difference an hour from now. So they settled in the living room, Scott playing Santa and handing out gifts. He paused when he read the name and recognized the handwriting easily.

With a smile of wonderment, he handed over the package to his father. Soon enough, everyone had their gifts before them and ready to open.

*

"Johnny, no one expected you to do this," Murdoch said gently.

"Well, I guess that makes it all the better," the young man smiled as he ripped open his first gift.

Teresa refrained from jumping up to pick all the wrappings from the floor. She allowed herself to just relax and enjoy it all. She looked at Johnny with a puzzled expression when he started laughing.

"I guess I don't have to worry about being cold anymore," he said as he hefted up the long johns from Scott, the wool-lined slippers from Murdoch, the heavy socks from Sam and the thick robe from Teresa.

All three laughed with embarrassment.

"Well, brother, we just want you to have the best."

"I already have that," Johnny replied softly, a gleam in his eye. "But, I can't figure out how to keep warm with this," he remarked, holding up Jelly's St. Jude medallion.

"Ain't ta keep ya warm, unless it'll keep yer heart warm," Jelly gruffed.

"Thanks, Jelly. I reckon it will do that," Johnny replied with affection. "This, now, this will make sure I stay all warm and cozy," he laughed at the bottle of Kentucky Bourbon from Val.

"Might as well have some fun about it," Val smirked.

"Well, I don't know how you pulled it off, brother, but your gifts are wonderful," Scott noted, still admiring the leather belt his brother had made him. He looked over at Teresa and her new handbag, Murdoch's pipe pouch, Jelly's leather vest and Sam's new medical bag. That one had them all oohing and ahhing. Johnny had done a wonderful job making that bag, inlaid with Sam's initials in silver.

"What did you think I was doin in the tack room all this time?" Johnny asked.

Scott cocked a brow at that, giving him a suspicious look. "I didn't want to hazard a guess."

*

Supper was served, turkey with all the trimmings, of course. Maria had included some of Johnny's favorites at the last minute. Since her nino seemed to have found his appetite, she wanted him to enjoy the day all the more. She'd prayed constantly as she made the tortillas, flour covering her apron and cheeks, turning sticky from the tears.

They all watched him under hooded eyes, trying to pretend they weren't as they enjoyed the meal. Johnny knew though and they knew he knew but no one spoke of it. Finally, he pushed his plate back, having devoured more than he had in months, sum total.

"Are you okay?" Murdoch asked with amusement.

Johnny grinned as he leaned back in the chair and rubbed his belly. "I'm about to bust."

"I hope not. We haven't had dessert yet," Teresa reminded them all.

Several groans were heard around the table. "Maybe we should wait a while, sweetheart. I think we've all eaten more than our fair share," Murdoch advised.

"It was good, really good, honey," Johnny smiled as he gave her arm a squeeze.

"I'm just very happy you could enjoy it, Johnny," she replied, trying hard not to tear up.

"Well, I think I need to transfer all my equipment into this bag. No better time to take that blood sample, either," Sam broke in with a no nonsense expression.

Johnny laughed softly and stood up. "Good one, Sam. Come on, get this over with. There's pie to be eaten!"

*

Johnny walked back into the living room to stares all around. He shrugged and sat near the fire. "He's up there starin into that thing. I figured he didn't need me watching him."

"How do you feel, brother?"

Johnny looked at Scott, the concern was there as always but there was hope as well. He didn't like that. Whatever was going on, and he was grateful for it, he knew it couldn't last. He wasn't that much of an optimist.

"Other than my stomach ready to explode from all that food, I feel real good," he answered.

"Well, I can't explain it but I'm glad you're having such a good day, son. Very glad." Murdoch's eyes caught the flames of the fire, making them shine brightly.

Johnny watched for a second, fascinated, before smiling back. He didn't know what to say to that but he felt he should make some effort to ease what had to be a disappointment for them all. He never got that chance as Sam walked into the room with a befuddled look on his face.

"Sam? You look like you've seen a ghost," Scott commented.

"I don't know what I'm seeing. I mean, I do, but it just isn't possible." The doctor fell onto the sofa and shook his head slowly back and forth. "Maybe you were right, Scott. Maybe Johnny should have seen a specialist."

"What do you mean? What's going on, Sam?" Murdoch asked, nearly demanded.

Sam looked up at him, still bewildered but with hope shining through, too. He then looked to Johnny who was as confused as the rest. "I don't see anything in your blood that shouldn't be there. There is nothing but healthy cells. I looked for over half an hour and ... nothing."

Johnny leaned forward slowly in his chair. "I don't understand. Are you sayin the cancer is gone?"

"I don't see it now. It was there. I'd stake my life on it. But, now, it's all gone," Sam avowed.

"It's a miracle, is what it is," Jelly stated assuredly.

*

Murdoch, Scott and Val scoffed at this explanation but Sam didn't. He looked over at Jelly and nodded.

"I have no explanation," the doctor reiterated.

"Maybe, it was never there?" Scott tried.

"I swear it was, Scott. Believe me, I didn't want to see it in the first place. But both other samples of Johnny's blood I tested, it was clear the cells were abnormal. Clear as day!"

They all grew quiet as the implications began to sink in. Johnny was the first to speak. Brows knitted together, unable to truly believe what he was hearing, he spoke softly. "Test me again."

Sam looked up at him and shrugged.

"Test me again, Sam. Maybe there was somethin wrong with the microscope."

"I will, Johnny, but I always check to make sure it's working properly before placing a specimen."

Johnny stood and headed up the stairs. "Well, there's a first time for everything."

As they stared at his disappearing back, they could all feel the anger coming from him.

"He's afraid to believe it. Afraid of the disappointment. I can't say I blame him," Scott explained.

"No, neither can I," Sam agreed then followed the young man.

Murdoch and Scott had no intentions of waiting downstairs and, they too, headed for Johnny's room.

*

Johnny frowned as he rolled his sleeve back down. He was completely over being stuck with needles. He watched his family all gathered round. Val, Teresa and Jelly had also converged in his room, hanging at the outer edges, waiting. It was almost like a funeral.

Sam was bent over the microscope. He moved the lamp twice to gain better lighting. A few sighs escaped into the air of the room. Johnny sat on the edge of the bed, Scott beside him, with his hands wrapped tightly in the spread. Scott kept looking down at his right hand, wanting to grab it, make him relax, but there was no way. Nothing could relax any of them.

Sam stood up straight and they all seemed to lean forward a little. But, the doctor only fished around in his bag and pulled out a folded piece of paper. He straightened it and laid it next to the microscope then went back to work. Five more minutes passed.

"Johnny, come over here."

He pounced off the bed and stood beside the physician.

"Look at these drawings. I made these when I first discovered the cancer cells and again the second time I tested you. This is what they looked like. Now, look in the microscope."

The young man shot him a wary look then studied the drawings. He peered into the machine then looked back at the paper. Twice more, he performed these moves until he stood up straight and shrugged.


"They don't look anything like what's in there," he said, pointing to the scope. "But, Sam, I don't know what I'm lookin for."

"That's why I asked you to look. I wanted to see if I was crazy or blind suddenly. There is no cancer in your blood. I don't know how it happened but it happened."

Murdoch grabbed hold of the bedpost as the room spun a little. Scott stood slowly and moved to his brother's side.

"May I?" he asked and Johnny moved so he could look. "No, they're nothing alike," he announced as he turned to his brother with a huge smile. Scott grabbed Johnny and hugged him tightly.

The younger man blushed a little as he pulled back. "Just, wait a minute, okay? I mean, this doesn't make any sense! How could this happen?"

"Hundreds of people prayed for you last night, Johnny," Teresa said softly from the corner.

He looked incredulously at her. "Yeah, but ...."

"But, nothin. She's right. I said it before and I'll say it again. It's a miracle!" Jelly proclaimed.

"I want to believe that with everything I am," Murdoch spoke for the first time in a barely recognizable voice. "But, I have to admit, I agree with Johnny. It doesn't make sense."

"Miracles don't hafta make sense, Boss. Look, Johnny's alright, or he will be soon. Ain't no sense in askin a ton of questions no one can answer. We oughta be grateful and thank the good Lord!"

Johnny stepped slowly toward his father. "Murdoch, do you think? I mean, could it really be true?"

The rancher looked into the most hopeful eyes he'd ever seen. More full of need than they had been that first day they'd met. He would never forget that expression, fleeting as it was, in his second born's eyes upon seeing his father for the first time he could remember. He reached out and took Johnny's arm, pulling him closer and placing the big hand at the nape of his son's neck.

"It must be, son. Sam wouldn't say it if it weren't true. I'm as confused as you are and maybe we should wait a while and test you again. But, for right now, all I can think is how incredibly grateful I am to have you here."

Johnny sighed and nodded then bowed his head. "I don't want ...."

"I know, son. I know." Murdoch pulled him even closer and wrapped an arm around him.

"Cautious optimism," Scott whispered then smiled as they all looked at him. "We should celebrate. Whatever is happening, Johnny has gotten a reprieve. I, for one, am going to enjoy it."

*

Two weeks passed. New Year's had been celebrated to its fullest by the Lancer clan. Every day, Johnny grew stronger, gained weight and became more vivified. Sam had been out January second to test his blood. He found it as healthy as he had Christmas Day.

Today, he returned with Val in tow, sitting his black stallion with a loose and comfortable hand on the reins. Once more, Johnny and Sam went upstairs then returned to the family with the same good news.

"I think I can say with confidence that Johnny is as healthy as a horse. A bit of a thin horse still, but nonetheless, he's fine," Sam smiled widely.

"Well, don't worry about that, Sam. The ladies are doing their very best to rectify that situation," Murdoch smiled.

"He's also chomping at the bit to go back to work, Doc," Scott told.

"Well, not quite yet. I'd like him a little stronger before trying to put in a full day. It would be better if you started with lighter chores, Johnny."

"Well, I have one chore I want to do today," Johnny said. He turned to Val, grinning like the cat the got the cream. "I want to see if you really have gotten control of that animal or if he's just playin with you."

The sheriff's back went up immediately. "You're on!"

Johnny led Barranca into the yard where they had all converged. "Ready for a real test?" he grinned at Val.

"More than ready," Val scowled back.

They both gathered their reins then Johnny stopped.


"Hey, did you ever find a name for him?"

Val turned, a crooked grin spreading slowly across his face. "Yep, sure did. His name is Milagro," he announced and winked.

Johnny stared for a beat then burst out laughing. "You'll need a miracle to beat Barranca. Let's go!"

Scott and Murdoch took a few steps further into the yard as they watched the two friends racing down the road neck and neck. Murdoch hung an arm around Scott's shoulders.

"I still can't believe it."

"I know. I can't either, but, I've decided not to question it anymore. But, I have to say, every night, I get down on my knees and thank God," Scott said quietly.

"So do I, son. So do I."

 

 

~end~

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL AND PEACE ON EARTH!!!
Feliz Navidad (Spanish)
Joyeux Noel (French)
Frohe Weihnachten (German)
Nollaigh Chridheil (Scottish)

2006

 

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