The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Miles Apart

 

 

 

Murdoch pulled the wagon to a stop half-way home and fished the missive from his pocket. Reading it once again, he sighed heavily and crumpled it in his fist. He couldn't see any way Scott would make it home for the holidays. He wished he could get some sense of how his son was feeling but the telegram was short and to the point.

Leave it to Harlan to have bad timing - even when it came to dying. Murdoch shook his head ruefully. Not very charitable thoughts, he supposed. Still, Scott's sudden departure for Boston was, well, ill-timed to say the least. Now, with Johnny in San Francisco, he'd be alone in the house.

A chuckle escaped. Not the first time he'd be virtually alone during these festive weeks. Still, Johnny would make it back well before Christmas day. One son was better than none and maybe, he and Johnny would have a chance to .....

No, Murdoch. You fool! he thought. Christmas is hardly the time to bring up the past. It's a time to revel in family and friends. And he looked forward to this year more than any before. Now, it seemed fate had separated them yet again. He should be counting his blessings, he told himself. Scott *would* be back and Johnny was alive. Two things that had been unknown to him a year and a half ago.

He thought about last year and how strained it had been. Teresa tried so hard to put on a happy face but without her father, she hadn't managed to pull it off. And the boys had been tense and unsure. They all had been. It wasn't much of a holiday but this year had promised to be so much better.

Even if Scott could, by some miracle, make it home he knew his son would not be in the mood to celebrate. As much as he loathed Garrett, Scott loved the man and he'd lost him. Well, nothing can be done, he thought. I just wish I'd been able to go with him or that Johnny had been. But, that San Francisco trip was a priority for the ranch and Scott had been adamant he'd be fine.

Murdoch had tried volunteering to go in Johnny's place but Scott would have none of it. Now, he was back east all alone with his grief. Maybe he thought I wouldn't be of any comfort to him, Murdoch thought sadly. He shook his head and picked up the reins, slapping the horses back into movement.

*****

Scott stared at the coffin now deep in the ground. He pulled his coat tighter around him. He'd forgotten already how cold it was in Boston this time of year. He felt a hand on his arm and turned to see Mr. Barber, his grandfather's oldest friend.

"At least he didn't suffer, Scotty."

Scott gritted his teeth and forced a small smile. No words could comfort him right now, he knew, but the man could have come up with something a little better than that. Johnny would have. He lowered his head at the thought of his brother. He should have accepted the offer to come with him. Johnny had been sincere and concerned and Scott knew it. No matter how he'd felt, Johnny would have supported Scott through this. Now, he was alone and feeling rather lost.

Barber tugged a little on his arm and Scott looked back up.

"Let's get you home, son," the elderly man smiled.

Yes, home would be grand. But not Beacon Hill. No, Scott didn't want to go there. He wanted to go home and be with his family. Especially now, with the holidays looming closer. He knew he probably wouldn't make it but he was going to try his hardest.

Very soon, the carriage turned into the drive of the mansion. Scott sighed softly and stepped out, waiting and wondering why Mr. Barber was tagging along.

The butler took their coats and they went to the study. Scott stood before the fire and held his hands toward the flame for a minute.

"May I get you a drink, Sir?" he asked the older man.

"Just one, then I must be going. Unless you need me to stay, of course," Barber answered.

Scott smiled to himself before turning to face him. "No, I'll be fine," he said and walked to the bar.

"Scotty, if you need anything at all, any help with the will - anything - just call on me."

"Thank you, Sir. I'm sure there won't be any problems," Scott said flatly.

"Do you realize how wealthy you are going to be?" Barber asked, a raised and bushy brow accentuating his point.

Before Scott could answer, the butler came in to announce his visitor. Harlan's attorney. Scott had insisted on doing this as soon as possible. He wanted it over with so he could go home.

He saw Barber out and ushered the lawyer into the room. "Well, shall we?" Scott said and settled across from the man.

*****

Johnny clutched at his overcoat. If he'd known how cold it was going to be, he would have stayed at the hotel. A smile wisped across his face, replaced quickly by a scowl as the wind whipped up again. He hailed the cab and hurried inside. It wasn't much better but at least there was no wind cutting him in half. Next time, I'll settle for the hotel food. Wasn't worth goin half way across town for anyway, he thought grumpily.

He sighed and sniffed as the cab lurched forward. Well, at least Murdoch will be happy everything went smoothly, he thought as he stretched his legs out. His meetings had gone well and the contracts were all signed and sealed. And he'd even had a great idea and mailed them to the ranch. That way, he wouldn't have to worry about losing them on the way home.

Letting out a heavy breath, his thoughts went to his brother. He knew it was a mistake to let Scott go alone. Knew his brother would need him. He hated how Scott could get sometimes. So danged stubborn! He smiled at that thought. At least he comes by it honest.

But, Scott wouldn't be home for Christmas, most likely. There wasn't a thing to be done about it, he knew. Still, it wouldn't take much to convince him the old goat hadn't planned on dyin right then just so Scott would be in Boston for Christmas. Just have to get in the last word, huh, Garrett? he snorted aloud.

Last year was pretty bad but he'd been looking forward to this year. He figured it had to be better. They were all better together. He remembered the near silent dinner, Teresa's sniffles the only source of sound, it seemed. His heart had broken for the girl and both he and Scott had tried to comfort her. But, what could they say, really? She had tried hard to smile through it all but none of them had been fooled.

Well, this year will be much better for her. He smiled as he remembered the last time he'd seen her just a few days ago in Stockton. She'd been practically glowing with happiness. Her belly pretty big now with her first child. David was walking on air, that was for sure.

Johnny chuckled at the young man's exuberance. Of course, he hadn't been able to resist poking a little fun. He'd regaled the new husband with stories of child rearing. A subject he had no experience with but that didn't stop his horror stories. Teresa had been ready to toss him to the curb before he was done.

He laughed outright at her outrage, unmeant as it was. She couldnâ€t stop the smile from breaking through the whole time she was berating him.

The carriage suddenly lurched sharply to the right and Johnny's hands went out to brace himself. Before he had time to wonder what was wrong, his world turned upside down - literally.

*****

Scott paced before the fireplace, fuming. How dare his grandfather try to pull such a stunt?! He supposed he shouldn't really be surprised. After what Harlan had tried in California, he suspected more attempts long before this to control him. This was, however, the ultimate betrayal as far as he was concerned. To try and blackmail him, even in death, to stay in Boston was inexcusable!

He had to smile just a little though. The expression on the attorney's face when Scott had told him to liquidate all Garrett assets had been priceless. After several minutes of 'polite' argument, Scott had won, just as he knew he would. Still, it would take time and that was what made him the angriest.

He had thought through all his options and he still thought he could make it home in time for Christmas if he left first thing in the morning. He would have to return at some point to finalize everything but he knew it would take the lawyer time to do as he'd instructed.

As he thought through his travel plans, he heard a soft sound. Looking up, his heart dropped at the expression on the butler's face.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Scott. Word just came that the trains are not running through the Rocky Mountains. There's been an avalanche. They don't know when it will be cleared," the man explained.

Scott's shoulders dropped in defeat and he turned away from the man. "What about ships?"

The butler raised a brow. "It would take months to travel to California by ship, Sir."

Scott nodded, knowing the truth of that before he'd even made the suggestion. "Maybe, I can ride," he said to himself then shook his head at the ridiculous notion.

Inhaling deeply, he turned back to the servant. "Thank you, Adams. I'll send a wire to my family and let them know."

"I am sorry, Mr. Scott. I know you were hoping to be home for Christmas," the man said with genuine regret.

Scott gave him a soft smile. "Yes, I was, but it can't be helped, I suppose."

"Perhaps .... it won't be the same, but perhaps, you could celebrate here with some of your old friends?" Adams remarked.

Scott shrugged and just nodded. He had no desire to look up any of his old friends. He wanted to be home fighting with his brother about the merits of Christmas trees and lighting the Yule log with his father.

*****

Murdoch launched the glass into the fireplace as his other fist enveloped the telegram. I knew it! I knew he wouldn't be able to get home! If he were a superstitious man, he would think Harlan had reached out from the grave and caused that avalanche himself!

Sighing and plopping into a chair, he made himself stop thinking such ridiculous thoughts. It could be worse, Murdoch. Scott could have been on a train in those mountains when the avalanche hit, he reminded himself. Dropping his head and saying a word of thanks his son was safe, he wondered what this holiday would bring now.

Just him and Johnny. It was an unnerving thought. They were getting along much better. Still, left to their own devices, he shivered to think what would happen. Well, Jelly will be here. Maybe that will keep us from killing each other! Shaking his head at his foolishness, he made himself a vow. He and Johnny would have a wonderful Christmas together. And when Scott got home, they'd have another.

Yes! That is a brilliant idea, he congratulated himself. Why, Johnny might even want to skip the twenty-fifth altogether and wait for Scott. No, no, that won't be right. They couldn't just ignore the day. No, they would have a quiet celebration together then have another when the whole family was home.

Then again, they'd been inundated with invitations from friends. They had decided to stay home together but that was before Harlan died. He nodded his head. Yes, maybe we could spend the day with Aggie. Johnny likes her. He decided right then to do that very thing then wondered what his son would think of the idea.

It could be possible Johnny would look forward to this time alone with him. Murdoch actually snorted at that idea. Yes, and pigs will fly through the living room here in another minute, he thought sarcastically.

Again, he let out a sigh. Maybe his son would like to spend this day just the two of them. It could be a golden opportunity to just relax and be with each other. No talk about the past, only the future. Their future together. One he never thought he'd ever have with either of them. He was so blessed. Why did he look at the negative? Yes, it was disappointing but they'd have many more Christmases together now. And no interfering old goats! Murdoch chuckled and decided to keep that last thought to himself forever.

Okay, so it would be just he and Johnny this year. Well, that was just fine. He was starting to look forward to it, actually. Next year, Teresa and David would come and with the new baby. This year they would spend with his parents. It seemed a fair arrangement to him, though he'd grumbled a little about not being first.

Another chuckle escaped. Selfish is what you are. It made perfect sense for Teresa to spend this first year in Stockton. Traveling now when she was so heavy with child just wasn't logical, as Scott had pointed out to him a month ago. The fact that his son had pointed it out with barely contained amusement and a touch of patronizing tone hadn't sit well with him, though.

*****

A sledgehammer was hard at work inside his head. He moaned, he was sure of it, but his eyes didn't seem to want to work. He was trying awfully hard at opening them but they just weren't cooperating. He knew someone was close to him. Who, he hadn't a clue and he felt panic rise up. Johnny fought it back down and calmed himself as he listened for some clue as to what kind of trouble he'd gotten into this time.

"Until he awakens, we'll just have to list him as John Doe."

"Well, I'm still checking around but we don't even know if he's a local or a visitor. It's going to be difficult to find out who he is with nothing to go on."

"His family must be worried."

"If he has any, I'm sure they are. That is, if they even know he's missing. There are just too many unknowns, Doctor."

"I understand, Officer. Well, all we can do is wait and hope he wakes up. Even then, I'm not sure how much he'll be able to communicate to us."

Well, that was an odd thing to say. Why wouldn't I be able to tell them who I am? I sure know who I am. A thought struck him hard then. Murdoch! He needed to wake himself up so he could tell them to send word to his father. He'd be worried. Johnny didn't know how long he'd been unconscious or really where he was but he felt he was safe.

Obviously, he was with a doctor but the other one he couldn't quite work out. Officer? Why would the army be here? Am I at a fort or something? What happened to me?

Okay, just take it easy and focus. Let's just take some inventory here. My head is about to fall off. Matter of fact, I'm pretty sure there's nothing that doesn't hurt. But, what hurts the worst? My leg is aching something fierce. My belly is crampin, too. My neck is killin me.

Damn, forget it. Everything is hurt. Wonder what I look like?

Exhaustion came calling and he let it in. Too tired to think anymore and a little afraid to try, he drifted off.

*****

By December 17th, Murdoch was really beginning to worry. He hadn't been concerned to this point that Johnny wasnâ€t home. Delays were inevitable and stage travel wasn't always reliable. Still, he was four days late now.

He walked up to the stage depot and waited as an elderly woman purchased a ticket and went on and on about visiting her family. Murdoch grit his teeth in an effort not to push the woman aside. She finally finished and moved away and he lunged toward the small window.

"Morning, Mr. Lancer," Jack hailed.

"Good morning, Jack. When is the next stage from Stockton due in?"

Jack scratched his head and squinted as he studied the schedule attached to the wall beside him. "Well, let me see. Oh, here it is. Not another one til tomorrow."

Murdoch sagged a little against the booth. "Well, I'd like to send a telegram then," he said disjointedly.

Jack handed him paper and pencil and he stood there as he thought of what to say. It was probably nothing and he didn't want to sound like an overbearing parent. Finally, he started to write the missive.

Jack watched with some amusement as the man struggled with his words. If he didn't know better, he'd think Murdoch was writing a love letter. He stifled a laugh under a faked yawn.

Murdoch finally shoved the paper back at him and he perused it carefully, a little surprised. He figured the man was wiring Scott.

"I'll send it right now. How late is he?"

"Four days."

Jack looked warily at him. "That ain't so bad," he said a little hesitantly.

Murdoch scowled at the man. "I suppose not but I'd like at least one of my sons home for Christmas," he barked.

Jack nodded, gave him a sympathetic look then turned and sat at the machine. Murdoch watched him tap out the message.

"Could you have someone bring the reply to the ranch if it comes back today? I'll be in tomorrow to meet the stage," he asked.

"Sure thing, Mr. Lancer. I'm sure Johnny'll be on tomorrows stage."

*****

Scott sat glumly in the restaurant and stared at his food, pushing it around with his fork.

"This is delicious," she commented.

He glanced up and nodded then went back to studying his plate.

She sighed and set her fork down, dabbing gently at the corners of her mouth with her napkin. "Scott, I am sorry you're stuck here but you could at least try to make the best of it."

He let his shoulders sag and set his own fork down as he looked up to meet her gaze. "I'm sorry, Julie. I told you I wouldnâ€t be fit company."

"I know Mr. Garrett's death hit you hard. Then, to be unable to leave. I was hoping I could cheer you up just a little," she smiled and her dimples appeared.

Scott smiled back, more warmly this time. 'You have, believe it or not. I appreciate it more than you know. I was just really looking forward to Christmas this year."

"Why? I mean, this year in particular," she asked.

Scott glanced down before meeting her eyes again. "Well, last year was quite awkward as you can imagine. We didn't know each other very well. And, of course, it was particularly hard on Teresa having lost her father the year before." He stopped and laughed a little. "We decided not to exchange gifts since we didn't really know each other's likes and dislikes yet. But, we all ended up getting presents for each other anyway. It didn't seem right to me and I guess everyone agreed."

"I'm sorry it was so awkward but it sounds as if it worked out fairly well."

"Fairly. This year, we all had high expectations. Teresa is married now and expecting her first child. She won't be there as she's spending the holidays with her husband's family. Now, it will just be Johnny and Murdoch." He frowned deeply at the thought.

"I'm sure they'll be able to enjoy it some," she said, hoping it didn't sound as bad as she thought it did and wishing she hadn't said it at all.

But he was smiling again. "I just hope they don't kill each other. They're still finding their way around one another. I hate to even think about what could happen."

She reached over and put a hand over his. "Then don't. Imagine them getting along and missing you terribly while still being able to have some fun."

"I like that scenario. I think I will do just that. Thank you, Julie," he smiled and resolved to take her advice.

*****

Johnny had to wonder if he'd ever be able to open his eyes again. Or if his head would ever stop pounding for that matter. He'd heard the doctor say they were waiting for him to wake up. He took that to mean he at least had the ability to open his eyes even if it wasn't at this exact moment. He wished he could just talk to someone, hear something. But, it was quiet in the room and his instincts told him he was alone at the moment.

He took stock again and found nothing had changed. Everything still hurt and he noticed this time that his right hand was bandaged. Dread engulfed him at the possibilities of this development. He refused to linger on it, though. At this moment, all he wanted was to be able to see anything or anyone.

Something wasn't right, though. Well, apart from everything else that was wrong. Something he couldn't quite put a finger on. Something that lurked in the back of his mind, unwilling to become a concrete thought. He recognized this as one of his defense mechanisms and the dread was back, compounded with a hint of panic.

He heard the door open and fought the darkness that wanted him back. He listened intently to the soft footfalls. A woman. He heard a familiar sound - water being poured into a wash basin, he thought. Then, he felt a cool cloth wiped gently across his face. It felt damned good, too.

Then, the cloth moved gingerly around his neck, skipping down to his chest. It was cold and a little uncomfortable but he could stand it. What started next, he decided he couldn't stand. He felt the covers being drawn back as the wash cloth moved downward. Johnny's eyes popped open.

The nurse didn't notice at first and he opened his mouth to protest but nothing came out but air. He tried again and he must have made some sound because she looked up and gave a start.

"Well," she said as she quickly recovered, "it's about time." She smiled at him and he thought it a nice smile. "I'll get the doctor. Be right back," she said then covered him up and walked out.

He sighed gratefully but wondered how many times she or some other female had given him a bath like this. His cheeks flushed at the thought of strangers doing that.

It was several minutes before she returned with a man in a white coat. He was smiling and his eyes were kind. Johnny relaxed a little and waited to hear what had happened to him.

*****

Murdoch craned his neck as he watched the passengers disembark from the stage. He bowed his head briefly after the last one. Walking over to the small window, he waited for Jack to notice him.

"Ain't had no reply to that message, Mr. Lancer. I see Johnny wasn't on the stage," he said.

"No, he wasn't," Murdoch replied glumly. "Jack, send another message to the hotel manager and ask if Johnny is still registered. Mark it urgent."

Jack nodded. "Cost a little more."

"I don't care," Murdoch said a bit harshly.

Jack turned then as the telegraph started tapping out an incoming message. He jotted it down, raising his left hand to stall Murdoch as he received the wire.


"It's from Scott," he explained as he handed it over.

Murdoch sighed and shook his head. "The tracks are still blocked. It could be spring before they're cleared," he noted even though Jack already knew the contents.

"I'm real sorry. Must be frustratin as all get out. I'll send that wire right now," Jack replied.

Murdoch stood there unable to really believe all this was happening. A simple trip for Johnny and now his son was five days late. Who knew when Scott would be able to make it home. Everything was falling apart. More than anything at the moment, his concern for his younger son was growing as each minute passed without word.

"I'll check back before I leave town," he told the operator then walked over to the general store.

*****

Johnny bit down hard on his lip when he saw the look on the doctor's face. This was worse than he'd thought, he reckoned, but he waited to hear the words.

"Do you remember what happened?" the doctor started.

Johnny shook his head very slightly, every motion painful.

"Well, you were in a cab that was hit in the side by a runaway wagon. It was a very bad accident. You've been unconscious for three days."

Johnny's eyes widened at this information. He felt the doctor squeeze his arm and saw in the man's eyes the worst was yet to come.

"You're left leg is broken. You have some broken and bruised ribs. Your right hand has several deep cuts and bruises along with swelling. There was some bleeding in your belly and we had to operate to stop it but no permanent damage was done there. I'm not sure what caused the injury to your neck but it was badly bruised. Your throat is swollen. We put a tube down to give you nourishment and medicines. Right now, you're still in critical condition but improving slowly."

Johnny closed his eyes as he digested all he'd been told. It was more than enough. So, he couldn't talk, that was plain by how his throat felt. He could barely feel the air move through it.

The doctor waited for him to open his eyes again and after a long moment, he did. The change startled the man as he looked into unemotional eyes. He frowned and gave Johnny a curious look then went on.

"We've been trying to find out who you are but the police haven't come up with anything. Do you think you could write with your left hand?"

Johnny tried to nod but he wasn't so sure he could hold a pencil at the moment.

The nurse fished out paper and pencil and handed it to the doctor. He laid the paper over Johnny's chart then lifted his left hand. Johnny could see it was bruised, too, but not bad. He closed his fingers around the pencil and sighed with exhaustion.

"Just your name if you can for starters," the doctor said.

It was so awkward and he tried to look at the paper but he couldn't hold his head up and his eyes were so heavy. Johnny made a mark and dropped his hand, closing his eyes as darkness finally won.

"Did he write anything?" the nurse asked.

The doctor shrugged. "I can't make it out. It could be almost anything," he frowned as he showed it to her. She could only shrug as well. As proficient as she'd become at reading the terrible handwriting of doctors, this she couldn't decipher.

*****

Murdoch strode back up to the telegraph office with an expectant look on his face. He had convinced himself that he would hear something and that's all there was to that.

Jack saw him coming and sighed. The man was about as lost as a man could get, he reckoned. He didn't think his news would bode well, either. Before Murdoch could ask, he handed over the wire then turned to retrieve some mail.

Murdoch frowned deeply. It didn't make any sense. Johnny was still registered at the hotel but no one had seen him in several days. He grimaced at the mention of the outstanding bill and enquiry as to should the room be held. He didn't know if it should or not. He felt a knot form in his stomach. Something just wasn't right about this.

"Mr. Lancer?" Jack called again and got the man's attention this time. "Got some mail for ya and there's a big envelope from San Francisco," he went on, hoping the letter would alleviate Murdoch's foul mood.

Murdoch ripped the large envelope open and pulled out the papers. Scanning the contracts, he saw Johnny's signature as well as that of Mr. Callam. There was no letter from Johnny, though. No explanation as to why he had mailed the contracts or where he was. None of it made sense to him and he sighed dejectedly.

"I need to send another wire, Jack. To Stan Callam in San Francisco," he started. Maybe Johnny had decided to stay with Stan for a few days. Still, he would have let Murdoch know, surely. He could be hurt, too. That thought made him sick.

He drummed his fingers on the counter as Jack sent the message, wondering what he should do. He knew there wasn't much he could do but wait and he was getting tired of that. It was less than a week before Christmas now and his hope of having either of his sons home was fading fast.

Finally, he made a decision and nodded to himself. "Jack, I'm going to stay at the hotel. Let me know when there's a reply from Mr. Callam."

"Sure thing, Mr. Lancer. I'm sure there's a simple explanation," he tried.

Murdoch gave him a faint smile and nodded then set off toward the hotel.

*****

Sam pulled up to his office and watched Murdoch walk into the hotel. Curiosity got the better of him and he dropped the surrey weight then headed over. Murdoch was signing in when he walked through the door.

"Murdoch? Something wrong?"

The rancher turned to find the concerned face of his friend. "Am I that obvious?"

Sam smiled a little. "Maybe just to me. Want to talk about it?"

"I do. Have a drink with me," Murdoch invited and walked into the hotel dining room.

After settling and receiving their drinks, Murdoch stared into the glass for long moments, a deep furrow to his forehead. He explained the strange goings on to the doctor then looked up to see Sam's reaction. It was worry and Murdoch hadn't wanted to see that. He had hoped Sam would give him a simple alternative to what his own mind was conjuring up.

"Well, it's odd. Even if Johnny decided to stay with the Callam's, he would have let you know. And he would have surely checked out of the hotel."

"That's what I thought, too," Murdoch mumbled.

Sam eyed him then asked. "Did you two argue before he left?"

Murdoch's head came up. "No! Everything was fine. Well, except we were both worried about Scott," he growled.

"Could Johnny have gone to Boston?" Sam wondered aloud.

"It wouldn't surprise me but there's still the matter of the hotel room and he would have wired me."

"Yes, that's true. Well, it is a mystery, Murdoch. Maybe ....." Sam stopped and frowned, not wanting to worry his friend unnecessarily.

"Maybe he's hurt? I've thought of that, Sam. I'm starting to think I should go up there and find him. If he's in trouble, he may not be able to send word."

"It's more likely that there's a logical explanation and he's on his way home right now. If you take off you could miss him," Sam supplied.

"And if you're wrong? I don't know, Sam. I'll wait to hear from Callam before deciding what to do," he sighed.

"Are you going to wire Scott?"

Murdoch shook his head adamantly. "He can't do anything but worry. He's stuck in Boston until the tracks are cleared in the mountains. Besides, Scott has enough to deal with right now. He would probably do something rash like try to get home. No, I can't risk that."

Sam nodded his head in agreement. He could see the usually reserved Scott doing something foolish if he thought his brother were in trouble. A small smile tweaked the corners of his mouth for a second. "Well, have dinner with me tonight. Mrs. Harper made a pork roast and I'll never eat it all."

"Thanks, Sam. I could use the company," Murdoch smiled. "As soon as I hear back from Callam, I'll come over."

*****

"Are you telling me there is no way to get through?" Scott asked, unable to believe the tracks were still out of commission.

"That's what I'm telling you, Mr. Lancer. Again," the man sighed wearily.

Scott scowled at the inference. He knew he was being unreasonable but he wanted to go home. He paced the train station ticket booth area with his hands clasped behind his back.

"And they still don't know when it will be cleared?" he asked, knowing the answer.

"No, Sir. It was a very bad avalanche. A train was caught up in it and several dozen people are most likely dead."

Scott stopped at that. He hadn't heard this information before and his face dropped. "I didn't know that." He gave the man a weak smile. "I suppose I should stop harrassing you. My apologies," he said as he straightened himself.

"No need, Sir. Everyone is frustrated at not getting home for Christmas," the man replied, the exhaustion evident in his voice.

Scott looked around the station, really looked, for the first time. Several people were splayed out on benches sleeping. Their baggage used as pillows, coats thrown over them as blankets. He felt the flush of shame cross his cheeks. He was the fortunate one. He had a home to stay in and servants to attend to him.

An idea began to form and he smiled a little. He thanked the ticketmaster and headed out the door hurriedly.

Two hours later, Scott returned to the train station. The ticketmaster saw him and groaned at first. Then, his mouth fell open. Following Scott were several men and women bearing all manner of equipment. The man wasn't sure what was happening and wondered if he shouldn't call the police. Soon enough, he changed his mind. A grin exploded on his face.

Scott and his helpers began distributing blankets and food to the people abandoned in the train station waiting for news they could head home. They all seemed to come alive again as hot food and drink were given out and chatter started slowly then built noisily.

The ticketmaster walked over to Scott and shook his hand. "That's the nicest thing I've ever seen."

Scott smiled. "Well, I decided to stop belly aching and do something productive. After all, it is almost Christmas."

*****

Johnny opened his eyes slowly and took in his surroundings as the memories of his conversation with the doctor took hold. He gingerly tried to swallow but his mouth was arid. Letting out as heavy a breath as he could, he slowly turned his head to the side and grimaced with the pain.

His head still hurt though he thought the pain was less now. He took stock and found there was some improvement overall. Not so achy and none of that sharp, cramping pain in his gut. He felt more alert, too. Not like he had to fight to stay awake. He wondered how long he'd been here. The doctor had said three days, hadn't he? He wasn't sure, couldn't really remember.

The door opened and he watched the doctor walk in, a smile alighting his face when he saw Johnny awake.

"Well, young man. I hope you're feeling some better?"

Johnny nodded slightly.

"Good!" he exclaimed jovially as he stood beside the bed. "Just let me take a look."

Several minutes and grunts passed as the man probed and prodded about everything Johnny owned by his reckoning. He wondered if there were parts of him he didn't know he had by the amount of time it was taking. Finally, the doctor sat down and considered him thoughtfully.

"Your throat is still swollen though there is improvement. You're healing, it's just going to take quite some time, yet. Now, do you think you could try writing your name again? I'm afraid you passed out on us last time."

Johnny frowned at this but nodded. He had a few questions as well. The doctor once more supplied him with paper and pencil. This time, he managed to write his last name somewhat legibly.

"Lancer?"

Johnny nodded then wrote again.

"Johnny? Johnny Lancer?"

He nodded with relief.

"Well, it's nice to be properly introduced. I'm Dr. Allister, Mr. Lancer."

Johnny shook his head and tapped the pencil on the paper.

The doctor frowned, not understanding at first then smiled. "You want to be called Johnny?"

He nodded and smiled. He poised his hand again and the doctor held the paper for him.

Dr. Allister had to take a minute to figure it out before answering. "This is your fifth day with us, Johnny. You've been very ill and sleeping most of the time."

His eyes widened in surprise as he took a moment then started writing again. What he wanted to say was taking quite an effort and the doctor stopped him.

"Let me get some help and we'll sit you up a little. It will be easier for you to write that way," he said and left the room momentarily.

Returning with two orderlies and extra pillows, they positioned Johnny so his head was elevated about thirty degrees then the doctor excused the orderlies.

"Better?"

Johnny nodded as enthusiastically as he could then finished writing his message.

*****

"It doesn't make any sense, Sam. Callam said he hasn't seen Johnny since they finished their business five days ago. He should have been home by now. Johnny wouldn't just decide to hang around San Francisco. He doesn't like big cities," Murdoch complained over supper.

"I have to agree, Murdoch. Maybe you should go up there and look for him," Sam said, feeling some dread at the prospects.

Murdoch fell quiet as he pushed his food around the plate. After several silent moments, he spoke his fear.

"Do you think he left for good?" he asked in barely more than a whisper.

Sam cocked a brow. "Why would he? You said you hadn't argued. There were no ill feelings between the two of you. Plus, he was worried about Scott. I can't see Johnny just taking off when he knows Scott will need his support."

"Unless something happened in San Francisco. Some past problem that made him feel he had to leave. You know how he is about that, Sam. If Johnny thinks I'll find out something that will make me ashamed or disappointed in him, he can't stand to face me. It's still that way with us!" he let out his frustration.

Sam reached across and laid a hand on his friend's arm. "I don't believe that, Murdoch. Yes, there was a time when it might have been true but not anymore. Johnny may still have those feelings but I really believe he would face you first. I can't imagine him just taking off without a word of warning. Without a goodbye at the very least. If this does have to do with his past, it's more likely he can't get home. And in that case, you should try to find him."

Murdoch nodded, he knew Sam was right. Johnny would not run away from him. He wouldn't do that to Scott, either. That knowledge only concreted his fear that something terrible had happened to his son. He shivered at the thoughts that raced through his mind. So many scenarios of what could have happened burst forth, he felt physically ill.

"I'll leave tomorrow," he said quietly.

*****

"Murdoch Lancer. Morro Coyo? California," the doctor read, getting a nod at the pronunciation of the town name. "I'll send a wire straight away. The police weren't having any luck identifying you. Now we know it's because you aren't a local," he explained.

Johnny sighed his relief then frowned again. He was trying to count the days but his mind was too tired now. He motioned for the paper again and the doctor gave him a wary look but allowed one more note.

"It's December 18th and I know what you're thinking, young man. I'm sorry, Johnny. I'm afraid you'll be spending Christmas right here with us."

Johnny lowered his eyes and simply nodded. He closed them and turned his head away as much as he could. The doctor took the hint and left him alone. He sent word to the police to send an officer right away.

"Well, I'm glad we finally have a name, Doc. I'll send this telegram but it's pretty late. He probably won't get it until morning," the officer said.

"It can't be helped but at least his family will have word soon. I can't imagine what they've been going through. He seemed very anxious to get word to them."

"I'm sure. I'll do this right now. Thanks, Doc."

"Thank you, Officer. By the way, did the cab driver have a family?" Dr. Allister asked.

"No, no one. His supervisor said he'd been a loner. They buried him pretty quickly."

Dr. Allister nodded, his face grim. "Well, Merry Christmas."

*****

The nurse eyed him sideways for a second before filling a wash basin with water. She walked over and wet a wash cloth then waited for him to acknowledge her. Deep blue eyes looked up at her and she was stunned at the sadness there.

"You miss your family," she said matter-of-factly.

He could only nod.

"I'm so sorry but try to look at the brighter side. You're alive and that is some feat considering how badly injured you are. Your father will know very soon and I'm sure he'll get here as quickly as he can," she smiled.

He didn't respond and she frowned a little.

"I thought a bath might make you feel better."

Johnny looked at her through narrowed eyes.

She laughed outright. "I know it's embarrasing. How about I just do your upper body. You could do with a shave as well but I'm afraid your face is still bruised and cut. It won't be long though. I'm quite good at shaving men if I do say so myself."

Johnny tried to laugh, he wanted to, but it hurt too much. But his eyes laughed and she smiled more brightly then went about the wash.

*****

Jack yawned as he set his coffee cup down then stretched. He wasn't awake yet and wasn't sure he wanted to be. He hadn't even gotten the ticket window open when the tapping started. He listened for a second as he picked up the day's schedules then froze. That didn't last long as he ran to grab paper and pencil, scribbling furiously as his heart pounded.

He tapped back a reply then sat there and took a few deep breaths to slow his heart. Well, that woke me up! he thought grimly. He went over to open the window, thinking about young Jimmy who delivered messages for him. He'd be in soon but he wondered if he shouldn't just run this one on over to the hotel.

His quandary was remedied when he slid open the wooden barrier and saw Murdoch Lancer walking across the street. Jack waved urgently and Murdoch quickened his pace.

"Just this minute came in, Mr. Lancer," he explained as Murdoch started reading. "I'm so sorry. I sure hope he gets alright," he added with sincerity.

Murdoch leaned heavily against the building, closing his eyes briefly.

Jack gave him some privacy as he grabbed up the schedule and waited for the inevitable question. Murdoch finally looked at him.

"Stage will be here in thirty minutes," he supplied.

Murdoch could only nod and reach into his jacket. He pulled out his wallet and counted out some bills, tossing them on the counter. He then turned away and walked to Sam's.

"Dear God!" Sam whispered out. "I'll be praying for him, Murdoch. Let me know how serious it is as soon as you can, will you?"

"I will, Sam. I wish they'd been more specific," he said with frustration.

"Well, that's not information you want to relay in a telegram," Sam said and his tone caused Murdoch to look at him more closely.

"What aren't you telling me, Sam?"

"Nothing, nothing at all," he hedged.

"Out with it, old friend. I need to know what I might be facing," Murdoch growled a little.

"I could be dead wrong, Murdoch. It's just that if it weren't serious they would have said so in the wire."

The rancher frowned deeply but nodded his understanding. There was no way he wouldn't worry all the way there and then some. Johnny must be bad off or he wouldn't be in a hospital. That thought struck him hardest. Knowing his son was too ill to make a run for it. Johnny hated being cooped up and especially being sick. If there was any way for him to get himself out of there, he would have, no matter the cost to his health.

"I still don't want to tell Scott until I know the situation," he said.

"I understand. He'll only worry as you said before. Take care and have a safe trip," Sam said and shook his hand.

Murdoch rocked with the stage coach as he stared into space. He pulled the telegram out again and read it for the hundredth time. All it really told him was that Johnny was hurt in an accident and in the hospital and to hurry. Hurry. That one word made his gut clench. This would be the longest trip of his life, he was sure.

*****

"Just a little more, Johnny," Dr. Allister said.

Johnny shot him a deadly look, not believing him for a minute. Sam would never torture him like this.

"Alright, try to relax now," the doctor said.

Johnny did so, closing his eyes as sweat ran down the sides of his face. He never thought a bandage change and a little poking around could be so painful and exhausting. After a few seconds, his anger at his treatment turned into concern, then fear. He opened his eyes and looked into the doctor's, asking his question silently.

"It's a deep cut, Johnny. I can't tell you how well it will heal yet. I don't think there was any nerve damage but I can't be sure until the swelling goes down more. You obviously have feeling in it, though," he explained.

Johnny wasn't happy with that answer and he knew he couldn't make the man understand how important the use of that hand was to him. How vital it was to his very life. A life he should just be grateful he still had and he knew it. That didn't make this any easier to take. What good was that life if he couldn't protect it? And he knew he would have to, always. He was quite sure as soon as word got out his right hand was dead, he would be, too. He sighed heavily.

"You're alive," Dr. Allister reminded him.

Johnny nodded and forced a small smile. He looked past the man as the door opened and his pretty nurse came in.

She looked long at the pale face before smiling. "Your father received the telegram this morning," she reported.

Johnny relaxed visibly and nodded his head, giving her a more genuine smile for the news.

"Well, that's something to look forward to," the doctor smiled.

Johnny frowned then and pointed to his neck.

"Alright, if you're sure you can handle it. I can wait a little longer," he offered but Johnny shook his head. He wanted to be able to talk when Murdoch got there. He was hoping this part of the exam would bear better news for him.

*****

Murdoch stood on the train platform looking sullenly down the tracks. He stepped to the window once more. "Are you sure there's not another train? Maybe one that can at least get me part of the way to San Francisco?"

The man sighed. "Don't know how many ways to say it, mister. That was the last train headin north today. Next one leaves at nine tomorrow mornin."

The rancher nodded and turned away. He stood there for several minutes, uncertain. Finally making up his mind, he headed to the livery. Renting a horse and stopping for trail supplies, he mounted up and headed out of town fast.

He felt a little guilty he wouldn't be able to even say hello to Teresa before moving on through Stockton. But, he knew she would understand and he didn't want to upset her. Especially now. The baby was due soon after the first of the year.

His thoughts went back to the telegram he'd received yesterday. Hurry. That word found him spurring the animal on without conscious thought. He remembered Sam's words, as well. If it hadn't been serious they would have said so in the wire. Which meant it was indeed serious and they didn't want to scare him. Murdoch thought he'd let the doctor know that tactic did not work.

Grinding his teeth, he forced himself to think of the road before him. His mind saw a map of the area and he thought he could cut down on his time and maybe even catch the train at it's next stop if he cut through the mountain pass ten miles ahead. He figured he wasn't above jumping the train in motion, either. He had to get there. Period.

*****

"Okay, whispers only," the doctor warned.

Johnny nodded and opened his mouth a little. He worked on pushing the air through as the doctor had told him. After a few failed attempts, he managed to form a word. "Hello."

Dr. Allister's face lit up. "Excellent! That was very good, Johnny. Now, remember what I said. Only whispers and not too much at first. If your throat starts to get any more sore, stop talking."

"Okay," he sighed out.

It felt so good to be able to talk. Writing with his left hand had been more of a chore than he would have believed even though, the doctor told him he did surprisingly well with it. Still, he was thankful he would be able to talk to his father. He could only imagine what was going through Murdoch's mind right now.

Then, there was Scott. He wondered if Murdoch had told Scott about this. Maybe not since he was stuck so far away. But, maybe it would bring his brother home sooner. It was a lousy reason to come home but Johnny would take it. He hated his brother going through this alone and intended to tell him just what he thought of the whole idea when he saw Scott.

A smile flitted across his face as he thought of that conversation and how it might go. Not well, he knew. Scoitt would just give him that patronizing look and inform him big brothers knew best. Johnny almost snorted aloud at that thought. Sure, they did. That's why *his* big brother was all alone three thousand miles from home dealing with a huge loss. Sure, big brothers know best, all right.

His head came up and he blinked a couple of times as he stared at the doctor. A sheepish grin lit his face and he looked apologetically at the man.

Dr. Allister smile back and shook his head. "I said I want to check your leg now. This is going to be uncomfortable."

Johnny gave him a wary look. What the hell wasn't uncomfortable? He still had a headache although it was more than manageable now. And he was still bruised and swollen in various areas of his body. What he really wanted was a hot bath. Not much chance of that, he supposed then winced as the man felt his leg.

"It's healing well," he diagnosed.

"How long?" Johnny whispered.

The physician cocked a brow in thought. "A couple of more weeks until you're strong enough to use crutches. And that hand is going to need some strengthening first."

Johnny looked at his bandaged right hand and sighed. Why did it have to be the right one? Well, he was just going to have to get it back in condition, that's all, he resolved.

*****

Murdoch turned off the road and headed up the mountain side. The air cooled substantially and the thought of snow entered his mind for the first time. Well, he'd just go back down if it got bad, that's all. He was two hours into the ride when his horse started to favor his left hind leg. He dismounted and pulled the leg up, sighing with frustration at the loose shoe. He made a mental note to give the livery man a piece of his mind when next he saw him.

He looked around and thought his best bet was to go back down to the road. Then, he saw chimney smoke. A little surprised, he slowed his gait as he came on the little shack.

A middle-aged woman was sweeping off the porch. She stopped and looked up, taking a step back toward the door when she saw him.

Murdoch smiled and hoped it seemed friendly enough. She looked scared to death. He took her in quickly. The gaunt face, way too skinny as her clothes hung on her like a wash line.

"Hello. I was just passing through and my horse has a loose shoe," he said lightly.

She scowled at him. "Nothin this way to pass through to, mister."

He smiled again. "Well, I was taking a short cut on my way to San Francisco."

Her frown deepened at this. Two young children ran around the house just then and pulled up short when they saw the stranger.

"Ma?" the boy asked.

"It's alright, boy. Man's just passin through,"she said but Murdoch heard the tremble of fear in her voice.

The children were as scrawny as she. Their clothes were mere rags and they looked as if they hadn't bathed in weeks. He also noticed the boy had no shoes.

His eyes met her's again and he saw a proud and protective mother. "Would you have any tools I could use to tighten this shoe?"

"Got nothin like that here. There's a little town bout ten miles other side," she tossed her head back. "Might be able ta help ya there."

Murdoch sighed. Ten miles on foot. This day was shot. His anger came near the surface and he knew she'd seen it.

"I'm sorry. It's just that my son has been in an accident and I need to get to him," he explained.

Her face softened and she nodded in sympathy. "Got an ole mule. He ain't much but he'll save your boot leather. You can use him ta get to town," she offered. "Harry, go saddle Ole Blue for mister ......"


"Lancer. Murdoch Lancer."

"Hannah Pearce. That's Harry runnin off and this is Molly."

"I appreciate your kindness, ma'am," he said and tipped his hat.

*****

A few minutes later, he was on his way -- slowly. Ole Blue was old alright. Murdoch decided he must be about fifty. He would have laughed at the ridiculous situation if Johnny weren't hurt. He sobered thinking of his son all alone in a hospital with strangers caring for him. He wondered if Johnny was aware of his surroundings. Because, if he was and could move at all, Murdoch figured his son would beat him back to Lancer.

Then, he thought of Hannah Pearce and her children. It was obvious they were dirt poor and the woman couldn't afford decent clothes for her kids. He wondered where their father was. Dead or ran off, most likely, he had to assume. His thoughts helped pass the time and soon he entered the small town, if you could call it that.

It was more of a tent city and he knew they were mining up here. Diehards, he sighed. He stepped off Ole Blue and tethered he and the horse in front of a hardware store, hoping they could provide the tool he needed.

He pulled the tent flap back and walked inside, pleasantly surprised by the warmth provided by a pot belly stove in the middle of the 'room'.

"Good day. What can I help you with?" a young man in his early thirties asked amicably.

"My horse has a loose shoe," he began and was stopped by a hand held up and a nod of understanding. A second later, the man produced the tool and Murdoch reached into his pocket.

"If that's all you need it for, go ahead and use it then bring it back in. There's no point in buying it for a one time use," the man offered.

Murdoch smiled appreciatively. "Ordinarily, I'd take you up on that but the way my luck has been running, I should just buy it."

The man gave him a quirky smile and nodded then accepted payment. He followed Murdoch out and watched as he expertly tighten the shoe.

"You don't look like a miner," he said.

Murdoch straightened and stuffed the tool in his saddle bag. "No, I was passing over the mountains when this happened. A Mrs. Pearce directed me here."

The look of sadness on the younger man's face gave Murdoch pause. "Is there a problem?"

He smiled a little. "It's just a sad situation. Her husband died earlier this year and she's too proud to accept help. I feel for those children," he explained.

"I take it she has no other family," Murdoch surmised.

"I suppose not. I have offered her help but she gave me an earful," he grinned a little.

Murdoch smiled widely at that then frowned thoughtfully as an idea began to take hold. "Are you still willing to help?"

*****

Ole Blue didn't move any faster on the way back and it was near dark when Murdoch returned him to the small farm. Mrs. Pearce walked out onto the porch as he approached.

"All fixed?" she asked.

"Yes, thanks to you," he smiled.

She nodded then looked skeptically at the laden mule. "You look like a man who's been shoppin," she remarked with some bitterness.

The children stepped out, hiding behind her skirts and Murdoch smiled brightly.

"Actually, you are not going to believe what happened to me on the way back here," he said loudly. Biting back a grin, he went on.

"I was just the other side of the rise when a man appeared out of nowhere. He was a strange looking fellow. Wearing this bright red suit. And he was as old as time, it seemed to me, with a long white beard. He hailed me and asked me to do him a favor." Murdoch turned to the mule and laid a hand on the packages.

"He said he was making deliveries early this year as he had so many more. So, he asked that since I was on my way here anyway, would I deliver these to the Pearce home. Well, he was such a jolly old fella, I couldn't very well turn him down."

Murdoch pulled the mules reins and stepped up to the porch. "He said these were for Harry and Molly Pearce. Oh, and their mother, too."

"What was his name?" Molly asked, her little mouth hanging open, her incredibly blue eyes wide with awe.

Murdoch looked skyward, his finger tapping his mouth. "His name? Now, what did he say it was? Claus. Yes, something Claus."

"Santa?" Harry fairly gasped the word.

Murdoch snapped his fingers and pointed at the boy. "That's it! Santa Claus. I remember now. You must know him," he looked at the boy seriously.

"No, Sir. Never met him," Harry answered.

"Well, he sure knows you. He wanted me to apologize for the early arrival but, as I said, he explained he was very busy this year."

For the first time, Murdoch dared to look at Hannah Pearce. He was surprised by what he saw. She was working her mouth and he could tell she was trying not to laugh. Her eyes twinkled in the low light of the dusk.

"We were just about to sit down to supper, Mr. Lancer. Would you join us?" she asked.

He smiled and nodded.

*****

Johnny stared toward the window, wishing he could look outside. He didn't know if there was anything worth looking at but it had to be better than these four walls. She walked in then and smiled at him and he returned it. Now that is a sight better to look at, he thought.

"So, are you ready for a shave now?" she asked.

His smile widened and he saw the effect it had on her. He turned it into an impish grin, his eyes sparkling with delight.

"And if you aren't as good as you claim, I guess I won't be able to complain about it, huh?"

She laughed and shook her head at him. "Good point. But, I think as long as you behave yourself, you'll survive," she said as she went about gathering her equipment.

"I'm not much good at behaving myself," he teased.

"Somehow, I believe that," she replied.

He couldn't look at her without smiling so he kept his eyes down and let his thoughts ramble. They didn't go far, just to his father and the expectation that he would be here today or tomorrow at the latest. He sighed and rubbed his left cheek once she'd finished.

"Very nice. Thank you, Miss .....," he said sincerely.

"Cassie is fine and you're very welcome though I'm not sure which way I like it more. Both are very becoming," she said then closed her mouth quickly and turned away, blushing furiously at her forward comments.

Johnny only laughed though.

"What were you thinking about?" she asked, hoping to diffuse her discomfort.

"My old man. He should be here today, maybe tomorrow. I wonder what the train schedules are," he frowned.

"I could find out for you. Won't take very long."

"Thanks, I'd appreciate that."

"You're anxious. I can't blame you. It must be hard being in a strange town alone and hurt," she said sympathetically.

Johnny tensed at the tone but he couldn't be angry with her. "It's just that my brother had to go to Boston suddenly and it was just gonna be us for Christmas. Guess it won't be much of a celebration here."

"Boston? That is a long way. It's a shame none of you will be home for the holiday."

"Yeah," he sighed out.

She smiled at him. "I've worn you out. Why don't you rest and I'll find out about the trains."

He smiled softly. "Seems I'm always thanking you for something."

He watched her leave, still smiling even though the door had clicked closed. She was really beautiful. Her dark blonde hair swept up in the back with wisps flowing here and there made her look like an angel. He knew he'd never seen such deep green eyes before. And when she smiled, deep dimples appeared on her cheeks. She had curves in all the right places, too. He could tell even with that smock she wore over her dress. He grinned more widely and sighed. This ain't gonna help you heal, he thought. Besides, he'd notice something else about her. A gold band on her left hand.

*****

Murdoch stepped back inside the small shack and poured a cup of coffee before taking a seat at the table. Dawn was very near now.   Hannah joined him, abandoning her dishes for now.

"Thank you again for what you did," she said quietly.

"I told you, it wasn't me, it was Mr. Claus," Murdoch said, staring at his cup and trying to look serious.

She smiled and glanced at him. "I hope the rest of your trip goes more smoothly." She saw it then, just a hint of the anguish the man was feeling. And maybe something more - guilt.

"Is he hurt badly?" she asked gently.

"The telegram wasn't specific. It only said to hurry. Our doctor back home said if it weren't bad they would have said so in the wire. I can only assume what that means. I don't even know what happened to him," he sighed, wondering again if Johnny could have gotten into a gunfight in a city like San Francisco.

"How old is he?"

"Twenty-one going on forty," he said grouchily then gave her a small smile.

She laughed at the statement, though. "That's my Harry. Ten going on a hundred. His pa always said he had an old soul."

Murdoch's head came up at that and he stared at her. "I've heard that said about Johnny, too. If he were younger, I'd call him precocious. He's so headstrong," he shook his head.

"And? What else is he?" she asked.

Murdoch smiled softly at her. "I'm afraid I don't have the time to list all his qualities. Suffice it to say my son is very special."

She returned the smile. "And you're not one bit prejudiced about that."

He chuckled as the children ran into the room. Mollie was wearing her new dress and shoes and Harry had on his new outfit as well.

"Look! My shoes fit just right! Santa sure is smart, huh?" Harry exuded.

"He certainly seemed to be a very smart man, indeed," Murdoch said, keeping up the farce.

Harry's smile left as his little brow wrinkled. "I sure hope your son gets what he wants for Christmas."

Murdoch sighed lightly and gave the boy a pat on the head. "So do I, Harry. So do I. Now, I really must get going."

They walked him out and as he mounted up Hannah walked over and looked up at him. "There hasn't been any snow this year. The mountain should be clear all the way over."

"Thank you, Mrs. Pearce."

"If you and your son are ever in the area, we hope you'll stop by."

"We will. That's a promise," he said and tipped his hat. He waved at the kids as he rode off, his pace quickening once he cleared the small farm.

*****

Scott fairly ran through the front door and bellowed for the butler. Adams came running from somewhere and looked at the man with alarm.

"Pack my bags, Adams. The tracks are cleared!" Scott announced happily.

The butler smiled widely and nodded then started up the stairs. He stopped on the first step and turned back.

"Mr. Scott? Will you be selling the house?"

Scott looked at him with a sorrowful expression. "Yes, I will. I'm sorry, Adams. If you need a referral ...... in fact, I'll write one for all of the staff. I'm sure you won't have any trouble finding employment," he smiled.

"Thank you, Sir. That is most generous of you. When is your train leaving?"

"Two hours," Scott said, the giddiness back. He laughed as he walked into the study then sobered.

The portrait of his mother hung over the fireplace as it had for as long as he could remember. He walked over and looked up, studying the face.

"I'm sorry, mother. I'm just so happy to be going home. I'm pretty sure you understand. I know how much you loved him. I love him, too. And Johnny. You would love Johnny."

He stopped and shook his head. He was being ridiculous. She would have never known Johnny. His brother would not exist had his own mother not died. Scott didn't want to even begin to think about his feelings over that thought and shook his head again - harder this time.

"Sir, we're getting you packed. Was there anything from the house you wanted to take?" Adams asked as he appeared in the doorway.

"Yes, there is. That portrait of my mother. Would you have it shipped to me?"

"Of course, Sir, and Merry Christmas!"

Scott kept the grin on his face as he settled at the desk and wrote letters of referral for the house staff. By the time he was done, it was time to leave for the train station. He figured he could run there with all the energy he now possessed. He'd been feeling lethargic for days, unused to the idle daily humdrum existence he was force into here. He had nothing much to do and his muscles ached for physical labor.

*****

Johnny stared at the ceiling, forcing his mind to stay blank. Or, at least, trying to. It wasn't working so well. Cassie, his pretty nurse, had told him the train schedules and the last one for today had arrived three hours ago. Still, no Murdoch. He sighed a little and closed his eyes.

Maybe he wasn't coming. All he really knew was that the telegram had been sent and received. Murdoch had never wired back that he was on his way. He hadn't thought anything of it until now, figuring the man was just in a hurry. But, maybe he wasn't. Maybe he had decided it wasn't worth the trouble.

Johnny sighed heavily. He didn't want to think this way. They were doing so much better with each other now. There was hardly a harsh word between them. Still, they did argue and when they did, it was ugly. Both too stubborn to back down, both too proud, as well.

What if Murdoch had decided he just wasn't worth the trouble? Figuring he'd come home when he was well enough. It hurt to think his father would be that cold but part of him had to recognize the possibility and accept it. Still, wouldn't he send some kind of word?

His eyes opened as another thought occurred. Maybe he'd gone to Boston after all. Yeah, maybe that was it. But, he'd gotten the telegram, hadn't he? Or had it simply been received by Jack? He didn't know and hope sprung up inside him. Yes, he nodded his head firmly. Yes, Murdoch had gone to Boston. He probably figured Jelly would tell Johnny when he got home and his son would understand. And he would, too. He'd wanted one of them to go with his brother. This made perfect sense to him and he relaxed a little. Still, his brain niggled with other possibilities.

Cassie walked in then and he smiled at her.

"How are you feeling?" she asked.

"Okay, I guess. Would you know anything about the telegram sent to my father? You said it was sent and received but did my father actually get the message?"

She frowned a little and opened his chart. The reply had been placed there for safe keeping. "Well, it says message received by Murdoch Lancer," she shrugged.

Johnny's heart dropped to his stomach and his face fell flat. "I see."

"Maybe he had some things to sort out before he could come. You said you live on a ranch," she tried.

He smiled weakly. "Not much sorting out to do in winter."

She walked over and sat on the edge of the bed. "I'm sure he's on his way. Why wouldn't he be?"

Johnny shrugged one shoulder. "Maybe he didn't see the need."

*****

She looked hard at him and he didn't think he liked it much. "Is that the sort of relationship you have with him?"

He lowered his eyes and stared at his hands. "It was. I thought things were better but maybe he just got fed up with me."

"I don't see how that could happen. You're ...." she trailed off and sighed. "It's not like you're a murderer or anything."

He turned his head and stared at the wall. "I used to be a gunfighter," he said softly.

Cassie stared at him, her mouth open.

He looked back and grimaced. "I didn't grow up with him. It's a long story but I was a gunfighter until I went home about a year and a half ago. Murdoch has some trouble with my past sometimes."

"Really? Then perhaps he should have raised you," she spat.

Johnny was stunned by her response. "It wasn't his fault. He didn't know where I was. He tried to find me."

She sighed lightly. "It's none of my business, I suppose. But, if you want to talk about it, I'll listen. And I'll try not to be so judgmental," she offered with some embarrassment.

Johnny grinned at that then let it fade away. "My mother took off when I was a baby. She told me he kicked us out only that wasn't true. I hated Murdoch Lancer all my life. I wanted to kill him at one time."

"I don't blame you but that's obviously no longer true."

"No, I found out the truth of it. Still, my past and my mother ..... he has a lot of problems dealing with that."

"But, you said things were better now. So, why would you think he wouldn't come?"

Johnny looked back at his hands. "Seems like I find trouble wherever I go. Maybe he's just sick of it."

"This was an accident, Johnny. All you did was get in a cab."

"Does he know that?" he asked.

She raised a brow. "No, but I would hope he'd want to know the particulars before passing judgment on his own son." She kept her voice gentle in tone though part of her wanted to throttle this man, whoever he was.

Johnny grimaced a little and she just knew that had been the case before. Cassie was finding it hard not to show her anger. She was stunned by her reaction, quite frankly. She was usually able to be objective when dealing with family issues. And that was as much a part of her job as a nurse as healing her patients bodies.

*****

"There is another possibility," she started as the thought occurred to her. "The holidays are always a heavy travel time. Maybe he had trouble getting a ticket for the train."

Johnny looked up at her, not having thought of this either. "Yeah, that could be it. I was thinkin before he could've gone to Boston but since he got the wire, he was obviously home," he smiled.

She shook her head a little. "Boston? Oh right, your brother is there."

Johnny sighed. "Yeah, well, half-brother. His grandfather up and died and he had to go to Boston for the funeral. Scott, that's my brother, he grew up there."

"So neither of you grew up with your father?"

"That's right. See, Scott's mother died having him and her father was there. He took off back to Boston with Scott and wouldn't give him back."

She blinked as she took this all in. "It's another long story, right?"

Johnny laughed softly. "Yeah, right. I wanted to go with Scott but he's so danged stubborn. He wouldn't let either of us tag along."

"Why not?"

Johnny sighed. "He knows we didn't like the old goat. I told him that didn't matter cause I wasn't goin for the old man. I was going for him. But, Scott, well he tends to consider others before himself."

She nodded her understanding. "You have a very complicated life, don't you?"

Johnny cocked his head to one side and frowned. "Guess so. Never really thought about it. Things are just the way they are, is all."

She smiled warmly at him. "Your voice is stronger."

"Yeah, still not at my best yet," he grinned.

"Well, try not to worry too much. I feel confident your father will get here as soon as he can."

His expression changed to one of doubt then. "Maybe, but it's Christmas Eve," he said, his voice even softer than his injury allowed.

She squeezed his left hand. "I'll check on you again before I leave."

"Do you work tomorrow?"

"No, I'll be with my family tomorrow." She saw the disappointment that flew quickly across his face and felt guilty. Again, she wondered why she was feeling this way. There was something about this man that brought out her protective side.

*****

Johnny awoke and gave himself a minute. He rubbed his face and let out a sigh. Same four walls, he grimaced then looked down. He frowned at the package lying on his chest and picked it up. He looked at all sides of it then the top. It had his name written on it so, with a little effort, he opened the wrapping.

He pulled the book out and studied it. Don Quixote . He looked inside the paper but could find no note. Nothing to tell him who had left it. With sudden clarity, he knew who it was. Why had she done that? He smiled widely and shook his head. Still, it was very thoughtful and more than a little sweet of her.

He knew he was thinking entirely too much about this woman but was that so wrong? Not one thing except she's married. He sighed and shook his head. Just his luck.

Hell, Johnny, you can't even get your old man to give a damn about you. Stop it. That ain't fair. Cassie was right. It's a busy time of year. Murdoch just couldn't get on a train, that's all. He'll be here.

He looked at the book again and smiled. She sure is something.

The door opened and he looked up with anticipation but it was only the night nurse come to check on him.

"Is that a Christmas present?" she asked with a smile.

"Yeah, from a friend," he answered, hoping no one knew but wondering why he hoped that.

"That's a good book," she said as she took a closer look.

"I've never read it."

"I think you'll enjoy it," she said with a gleam in her eye.

Johnny gave her a sidelong look and wondered what the novel was about.

*****

Murdoch felt like a dish rag by the time he arrived in the city. He had decided to check into the hotel and pay his son's bill quickly before heading to the hospital. It was eerily quiet this morning and he suddenly realized why. He'd been so focused on getting here, he never even realized it was Christmas Day!

He hoped a room would be available but resigned himself to the fact that was probably not true. He stiffly dismounted in front of the Grand Hotel and pulled his saddlebags down. He hadn't even packed any extra clothes. They may not let him in, he thought with chagrin.

Walking up to the desk clerk, he grimaced at the appraisal he was receiving.

"May I help you?" the man asked.

"I certainly hope so. I've been riding for days. My son was staying here and was involved in an accident. He's been in the hospital for several days. I'm sure you haven't held his room but I'd like to pay his bill then get a room myself." He figured if he started out with offering to settle the debt, he'd get a lot further.

"Your son's name?" the man asked.

"Johnny Lancer."

"Oh, yes. I believe we received a wire from you enquiring as to his whereabouts. We never heard back," he said, raising a brow.

"I learned soon after that he was badly injured. I left right away but missed the train and decided to ride. How much?" Murdoch asked, disliking the man's attitude and not in the mood to take much of it.

"Fifteen dollars, Sir. As for another room, how long had you planned on staying?"

Murdoch took out his wallet and paid the man. "I have no idea. I don't know how badly he was hurt as I said so I don't know how long he'll be in the hospital."

"I'm afraid I'll have to ask for a week up front, Sir, given the circumstances. Of course, a refund will be issued if you don't stay that long."

Murdoch glared at the man. "It isn't as if my son skipped out on his bill. He was hurt and obviously unable to even tell the doctors who he was. I don't appreciate being treated like a common thief," he growled and plunked down the amount.

The man said nothing and handed him a key, looking down his long nose and sniffing.

Murdoch sighed heavily. "Where is the hospital?"

The man gave him directions and Murdoch stalked up the stairs. He only threw his saddlebags on the bed then headed out again. He didn't think he'd ever felt so tired in his life.

*****

Johnny stared at the door. "What are you doin here, Doc?"

"I work here," Dr. Allister replied with some humor.

"Well, yeah, but it's Christmas. I figured you'd be home."

Dr. Allister walked on in the room and sat beside the bed. "Someone has to be here when those multitudes come in with cut fingers from carving turkeys and bellyaches from eating too much."

Johnny laughed. "Does that really happen?"

"You'd be surprised how often it happens."

"Don't you have any family?"

"I do and I'll be going home early today. We all work short shifts on holidays so everyone gets a chance to spend time with their loved ones," he explained. "Why are you asking all this?" he added curiously.

Johnny shrugged. "I don't know. Just that you've been so good to me I'd hate to think you're missin Christmas. It's nice that all you docs work things out with each other."

He smiled and shook his head. "Well, how are you feeling?"

"No headache so that's an improvement. My hand and leg still hurt pretty good." He frowned as he looked at his right hand.

"I know how worried you are about that hand, Johnny, but there's good nerve reaction. It's the muscle that was damaged so badly."

"Yeah," he sighed out. "Just gonna take a long time, huh?"

"I'm afraid so. No word from your father?"

Johnny dropped his head and shook it.

Dr. Allister laid a hand on his arm. "I'm sorry."

He looked back up and forced a smile. "It's okay. Wouldn't be much fun for him sittin here watchin me breathe anyway."

"You don't think much of yourself, do you?" the doctor asked, a hint of frustration in his tone.

Johnny was more than a little surprised by the question.

"Why is it so hard to admit that you're upset? You're all alone in a strange city, Johnny. All this time, ten days, you've been couped up here in pain. No one could shrug that off. I can't imagine how lonely you must feel."

"Well, hell, Doc. Why don't ya cheer me up some more!?" Johnny blurted out.

*****

"I see nothing has changed. Still giving the doctor a hard time."

"Murdoch!" Johnny exclaimed, a smile lighting his face and, it seemed to the doctor, the entire room.

Murdoch walked quickly to the bed and sat on the edge. He put a hand on the side of Johnny's face and looked into his eyes for the truth.

"I've been nearly out of my mind with worry and here you are going at it with the doctor," he smiled.

Dr. Allister stood up and backed away to give them room. "You were right to worry, Mr. Lancer, I presume? I'm Dr. Allister."

"Doctor, how bad is it?" Murdoch asked with a frown.

"Oh, he's doing remarkably well considering." He then went through the litany of Johnny's initial injuries and explained the healing process.

Murdoch stared at the man, unable to comprehend how seriously injured his son had been. He could have died in that accident and for several days after. He finally got hold of himself and looked at his son.

"I'm so sorry, Johnny. I tried so hard to get here sooner. I missed the train in Stockton and came on horseback."

Johnny's eyes widened. "You did what? Are you crazy, old man? That was a stupid thing to do!"

"Johnny, your father went through a lot of hardship to get to you. You could be grateful," Dr. Allister berated.

"You don't understand, Doc. You don't realize how far that is," Johnny retorted then looked at his father. "How's your back?"

Murdoch had been as stunned as the doctor by Johnny's outburst. He soon found his voice though. "My back is fine. Do you think I can't handle a little trip? I'm not that old, Johnny!"

"No, but you got a bad back and sittin a saddle all those miles couldn't have been good for that!"

Murdoch took a deep breath and allowed himself to relax. "I suppose not but I didn't think about that and I'm fine, anyway. I'm here. Isn't that good enough?"

"My goodness but I don't think I've ever seen two men so much alike! You're both more worried about the other than yourselves and that's perfectly understandable. However, why don't you start over and just be happy you're together?" Dr. Allister advised. "At any rate, I'll leave you to it. Just keep it down. There are other patients here to consider," he went on then left the room, closing the door behind him.

*****

Johnny and Murdoch stared at each other for a long moment before Johnny dropped his eyes.

"I'm sorry. I just can't believe you would do that. Why didn't you just wait for another train?" he asked softly.

Murdoch's shoulders sagged. "Because I would have gone crazy sitting around doing nothing. The telegram didn't give any information really. All it said was you were in the hospital and to hurry. My God, son, the thoughts that ran through my head."

Johnny looked back up with a small smile. "It was pretty bad for a while. Wasn't so sure I was gonna make. I didn't even come around for a few days, they say. I am glad you're here. I was thinkin maybe you'd decided to go after Scott after all. Then, well, all kinds of crazy things ran through my head, too."

Murdoch looked curiously at him but wasn't sure he wanted to know what his son had conjured up. He sighed and laid a hand on each shoulder. "How do you feel, really?"

"Well, my leg and hand hurt but that's all now."

Murdoch looked down and almost gasped at the bandaged hand. "Your right hand," he mumbled. He hadn't realized, so overwhelemed with all his son had endured.

"Yeah, Doc said it'll heal but he doesn't know how much movement I'll have."

Murdoch heard it in his voice. Johnny was terrified of losing the dexterity in that particular appendage. He couldn't blame his son. He leaned in and pulled Johnny to him. The younger man wrapped his arms around his father and laid his head on the man's shoulder. They stayed that way for long moments, both relishing the contact that was so infrequent.

Murdoch pulled back a little and smiled. "You need a haircut."

Johnny laughed. "Yeah, I know. Just haven't gotten around to it."

Murdoch laid his hand on the side of Johnny's head again and felt the slight pressure as his son leaned in. "I almost lost you."

"I'm okay now."

"Thank God."

*****

Reluctantly, Johnny told his father what the doctor couldn't. What he'd really gone through. The fear he'd lose his voice. The excruciating pain he'd felt those first few days. The obnoxious tube in his nose and the fear he still held about his hand. Then, he confessed his thoughts about Murdoch's absence with shame.

Shocked his son would have such thoughts and ashamed his own behavior had instigated them, Murdoch could only hold Johnny's left hand and tell him about his own anguish. How he'd tried wiring him, about the contracts coming in the mail and his own fear his son had left him. He told Johnny about the Pearce family that had caused his delay. Then, he told him about Scott being stranded in Boston.

Johnny couldn't blame his father for his doubts. He'd had his own, after all. And he surely could find no fault with his father's generosity for a poor family. It was Scott that angered him. Irrational as it was, Johnny blamed Garrett. If he hadn't up and died, Scott would be home with them. In fact, Scott would have gotten his crazy father to San Francisco without traisping all over the countryside on horseback.

He laughed softly at that thought and shook his head.

"What's so funny?" Murdoch asked with a smile.

"You, old man. I can't believe you rode all the way here on a horse. I was just thinking if Scott had been home, he could've talked some sense to ya. Seems, he's the only one of us with any."

Murdoch raised a brow at that. "I think his sense is fleeting at times. If he hadn't been so stubborn, you'd be in Boston with him and not stuck in this hospital."


Johnny's face fell into an angry frown. "I hope you ain't blaming Scott for ...."


"Of course not, son," Murdoch cut him off. "No one could have forseen this. I'm just eternally grateful you're alive," he ended softly.

Johnny smiled and leaned back against his pillows, closing his eyes for a second.


"Alright, I think you need to get some rest."

Johnny looked at him from under his lashes and a slow grin spread across his face. "So should you. Ya look like hell, Murdoch."

The older man chuckled. He couldn't disagree. "Why don't you get a nap and I'll get some new clothes and a bath. I'll come back and we can have Christmas dinner together," he suggested.

Johnny snorted at that. "Don't expect too much."

Murdoch did though. He hid a smile of anticipation as the thought formed solidly in his head. He'd need to check with the doctor first.

*****

As he made his way to Johnny's room, Murdoch fought desperately to push away his irritation. He had no reason to be upset that it took so long to get what he wanted. After all, it was Christmas Day and people did have their own lives. And no one had been unpleasant or unkind. In fact, when he explained why he wanted this, they had all been very obliging. So, he supposed it was just his upset over the whole situation that had him in a foul mood. Well, too bad, old man! he thought. He chuckled to himself then as it was Johnny's voice he heard in his head, not his own.

He took a deep, cleansing breath and the smile on his face was genuine as he pushed open the door.

Johnny's eyes were closed but Murdoch knew that didn't necessarily mean he was asleep. Still, he moved as quietly as he could with his arms laden. He turned at the touch on his back and saw the nurse smiling and offering a helping hand.

"I saw you coming in. It looks like you could use some help," she whispered softly. She was middle-aged but quite a handsome woman, he thought.

"I appreciate that. I wanted to surprise him. You haven't served dinner yet, have you?" he whispered back.

"No, but very soon. I'll just have them pass this room by," she smiled as she silently sat the picnic basket on the dresser top.

"Thank you," he smiled as she slipped out and closed the door, leaving it only slightly ajar.

Murdoch looked at his son and realized Johnny must be asleep. Even thought they'd been quiet, any noise usually woke this one quickly. He sat in the chair beside the bed and just watched for a while, drinking in the relaxed face. It never ceased to amaze him; that face. So much in turmoil many times, Murdoch had come to expect little else those first harrowing months. Slowly, though, Johnny's expressions became more relaxed, happier. He smiled a lot more and joked a lot more. But, in sleep, Murdoch's heart always beat a little faster at the youth displayed there. A youth that was hard to see in the light of day. A youth too easy to forget existed much of the time.

That Johnny had grown up fast wasn't something easily missed. Even if one didn't know of his background, they could easily see it in the lines of his face. And in his eyes. His incredibly expressive eyes.

Without realizing it, Murdoch took a deep breath and blew it out harshly.

Johnny's face twitched and Murdoch watched him come up from sleep slowly. He smiled as, again, that face came alive.

"Hey," Johnny whispered sleepily as he tried to stretch then thought better of it. A grimace flew across his features.

"Hey yourself. Feeling better?" Murdoch asked with hope in his voice.

Johnny didn't miss it and smiled. "Yeah, guess I was pretty tired." He frowned then as he caught the scent and a smile came back lazily to his face. "What smells so good?"

Murdoch grinned. "Your surprise."

*****

Johnny still couldn't believe it now, an hour later, as he drained the coffee cup and sighed. The dinner Murdoch had lugged all the way over to his hospital room could rival Maria's best. Though, he thought wryly, he'd never tell her that.

"How'd you manage to pull this off?" he asked.

"You would be surprised at people's generosity on Christmas," he answered.

Johnny just looked at him for a long second. "The hotel?"

Murdoch nodded.

Johnny smiled, then chuckled. "Yep, I knew I should have eaten there that night."

At his father's confused look, he explained. "I went half way across town to this restaurant Mr. Callam recommended. He swore it was the best Mexican food he'd ever had," Johnny stopped and snorted.

"I take it he was wrong?"

"Well, I can't say that but if that's the best he's had, the man is definitely missing out. It was pretty bad," Johnny laughed. "Anyway, that's why I was in that cab that night."

Murdoch nodded and looked down to stare into his own empty cup.

"Feliz Navidad," Johnny said softly.

Murdoch looked up and smiled. "Feliz Navidad, hijo."

"This was really nice of you. I just wish Scott was here," Johnny said.

"So do I, son. I sure hope he makes it home soon. I thought we could celebrate when he got back. Just have our own holiday."

"Yeah. I wouldn't want to do it without him," Johnny replied.

Murdoch cringed a little on the inside. Even though, he was pretty certain his son meant him no slight, the part of him that was still unsure of their relationship had to wonder.

"I kept thinking that you and I could just have a quiet evening or maybe accept Aggie's invitation. Then, we'd do it up right when your brother got home."

"That was a nice idea," Johnny said.

Murdoch looked at him. "Which one?"

Johnny grinned then laughed softly. "Either or both."

*****

"I should have brought you a present," Murdoch said suddenly.

"Yeah, you should have," Johnny replied seriously and locked eyes with his father. It didn't take long for him to start that slow grin then he burst out laughing.

"We'll do all that when Scott's home. Besides, I already got what I asked for."

"What was that?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny lowered his eyes and played with his blanket. "You here."

Murdoch smiled and laid a hand over Johnny's left, stilling it. "And I got what I asked for, too. You alive and on your way to healing."

Johnny's smile was fleeting as his brows pulled together. "It's gonna take a long time," he said so quietly, Murdoch almost didn't hear.

But he was staring at his right hand and Murdoch understood the fear. He had often wondered what Johnny would do should something like this happen. It wasn't out of the question working a ranch that he could injure himself. Maybe even to the point of it being a debilitating injury.

"I know you're scared, son, and it's perfectly understandable."

"What if it doesn't come back? What if I never get it back?" he asked in a shuddering voice.

"Then, you'll adapt, Johnny. What else can you do, son?"

Johnny raised his eyes to meet his father's. "You know it ain't because I *want* it, don't you?"

Murdoch nodded. "I know. It's because you think you won't be able to defend yourself or us. But, Johnny, like I said, you will adapt. You can be pretty ingenous when you put your mind to it."

That garnered him a grin and a cocky expression from his son and he had to laugh. "Don't let your head swell now."

Johnny laughed outright then. "It already did. Can't say I liked it one bit."

*****

Scott frowned and clutched his coat closer to him. There was no response to his wire he was coming home. He had thought maybe Murdoch would send an acknowledgement to him at his Denver stop. Well, he thought, it's not like I asked him to respond. He probably didn't even think about it.

He walked back down the platform and looked out at the mountains, remembering his first trip out west. After being at Lancer for a month, he'd decided it would be the last time he saw the Rocky Mountains. He'd never even considered a trip back east, even for this reason. Somehow, his grandfather dying had just never occurred to him.

He sighed and shook his head. Well, it's over now and he supposed being stranded in Boston had turned out for the best. Now, he'd never have to return. He knew he would miss the city from time to time but that feeling dimmed as time passed. There really was nothing left for him back there and the thought didn't sadden him, really. Losing his grandfather had been hard but the old man's last attempt at controlling him and gone a long way toward lessening his pain.

He wondered what Johnny and Murdoch were doing today. He hoped, no prayed, they were getting along well. That they were celebrating together as they should be. And, he thought with a wry grin, that they saved some turkey for him. He chuckled to himself and walked back to the train car.

Settling into his seat he began to feel a bit sorry for himself. He should be there with them, sitting by the fireplace with a glass of Brandy, listening to Jelly tell one outrageous tale after the other and laughing until he cried. Opening presents and feeling the warmth of family, home and peace settle over him like a thick quilt.

"I take it you won't be making it home today, either."

His head jerked up and he stared at the woman who had taken the seat across from his.

"Oh, no, I'm afraid not," he smiled.

"No, neither will I. Well, there's not a thing we can do about it," she smiled warmly.

"I was just sitting here feeling sorry for myself. I suppose that's not terribly productive, though," he laughed.

"Probably not but it does while away some of the time," she said, still smiling.

"Scott Lancer," he introduced and extended his hand.

She took it briefly in her gloved one and introduced herself. "Millie Rollins."

"How far are you going, Mrs. Rollins?"

"All the way to San Francisco."

Scott cocked a brow. "I don't get off until Stockton. My brother was just in San Francisco on business. Lovely city."

"Yes, but cold," she laughed.

He was about to reply when he heard his name called. He looked up to see a porter holding an envelope in his hand. He waved and the man handed over the note. Scott read it with a deep frown coming over his face. He glanced up at the woman.

"I guess I'll be going to San Francisco as well," he said glumly.

*****

"Oh? Is something wrong?" she asked with genuine concern.

Scott glanced up at her then back down at the missive. "It seems my brother never left the city. He was injured and in the hospital."

"I'm so sorry. But, you said his trip was a couple of weeks ago. Has he been there all this time?"

"Evidently. There's not much information here. Just that he was hurt and our father has gone to be with him." A hundred scenarios ran through Scott's mind of the type of injury his brother had sustained. None of them were good, of course. He could just envision Murdoch's face when he'd heard the news.

Well, maybe he could, he thought sadly. He would hope it was fear and shock but it could as well be anger and irritation. He couldn't dismiss the possibility for no matter how hard they both tried, Johnny and Murdoch could still go at it pretty good.

"It must be terrible spending Christmas in the hospital," the woman was sympathizing.

Scott blinked a couple of times and looked up at her. Christmas! That thought having left his mind. He sighed heavily and slumped into the seat, despondent.

"As long as you're all together, that's all that really matters, isn't it?" she tried.

He smiled weakly at her, appreciative of her attempts. "Thank you. I was really hoping this year would be something special. It seems everything that could go wrong has, though," he answered, feeling he had to.

Scott was beginning to think there was a curse on his family. He idly thought of asking Murdoch if any old Scottish hexes had been deposed upon them all. He grimaced at the ridiculous thought.

"We'll be there tommorrow. I know that's small comfort," she gave it one more shot.

"I appreciate your kindness, Mrs. Rollins. More than you'll ever know. I'm afraid I'm just feeling sorry for myself again. My brother is alive. I should just be grateful."

She smiled and nodded then decided to leave him to his misery.

*****

"Scott's on his way," Murdoch announced as he entered the hospital room.

Johnny looked up from reading the paper and frowned. "How'd he know?"

"Evidently they got the tracks cleared. He wired home to let us know and Jelly sent word to him where we are," he explained as he sat down.

"Well, I hope he's not too worried," Johnny frowned.

"No, I'm sure he's not the least bit worried," Murdoch said wryly.

Johnny smiled a little. Of course he was worried. He could imagine Jelly didn't get into much detail in a telegram.

"He should be here tomorrow," Murdoch said, breaking into his thoughts.

Johnny nodded and tried to turn the page. The paper wrinkled and bowed and he couldn't get it straight. He sighed and wadded it up a little, tossing it aside.

Murdoch raised a brow and picked it up, smoothing it out. He gave the pages a snap and turned them then folded the paper and laid it on his son's lap.

"Sorry," Johnny mumbled.

"It's okay, son. I know it has to be frustrating."

"It's beginning to scare the hell out of me."

Murdoch was a little stunned at the admission but he knew nothing that would assuage his son's fears. There was a possibility Johnny would never get his hand to work properly again. Truth be told, Murdoch was very worried about it. This was probably more disturbing than anything else. That he would worry about Johnny's gun hand. But, if he'd learned anything this past year and a half, it was that Johnny needed to be prepared for any circumstance. It hadn't been easy to come to that conclusion, much less accept it and he was surprised he had.

He felt the hand on his arm and jerked his head up.

"You okay?" Johnny asked with concern.

"I'm fine, son. Just thinking about something." He sighed then smiled. "Want to play cards?"

"Sure," Johnny shrugged but he kept watching his father and wondering what had the old man so deep in thought.

*****

As Johnny laid down his flush and smirked at his father's frown, the door opened and Cassie walked in.

Murdoch turned quickly to see who had put that smile on his son's face. He half expected to see Scott standing there since he knew of no one else who could please his son as much. He bit back a smile of his own. Figures it would be a pretty girl.

"Well, I heard you got your Christmas wish," she smiled.

"Sure did. Murdoch this is Cassie. The best nurse ever," Johnny stated.

Murdoch stood and shook her hand lightly. "Well, I'm very grateful Johnny lucked onto the best nurse ever."

She laughed softly and Murdoch figured Johnny was probably about gone with this one.

"I believe that is an overstatement. I'm just very glad you were able to make it, Mr. Lancer."

"Wait til I tell you what he did," Johnny imparted, still a little grumpy about his father's journey.  

"Don't start with that again," Murdoch fairly groaned.

"And don't ruin your visit. You can tell me later," she grinned at him. "I just stopped to see if you needed anything."

Johnny shook his head but his eyes had not left her since she entered the room. "Thanks for the book."

Her eyes widened then she recovered. "Book?" she asked innocently.

He smiled at her. "I haven't gotten to read it yet but I hear I'll like it."

"Well, if someone gave you a book, I'm glad. I need to see to my other patients now," she stated and walked quickly from the room.

"What was that about?" Murdoch asked as he retook his seat.

"Oh, I woke up the other night and there was a present here. It had to be her." He stopped and frowned. "Wonder why she's denying it."

Murdoch shrugged. "Maybe it's against hospital rules to give you a present. What's the name of it?"

Johnny reached over and pulled open the drawer of the bedside table, retrieving the tome. "Don Quixote."

Murdoch took it and chuckled. "You'll like this."

"That's what I hear," he grinned, wondering if there wasn't something about the book that would make a woman blush. Well, some women. That nurse the other night seemed pretty amused by it. He was starting to look forward to reading it now.

*****

Scott sighed heavily as he stepped off the train. He looked up and down the platform then walked over to retrieve his bags. As he started to walk away, he heard her voice.

"I hope your brother is alright."

Scott turned and smiled. "Thank you and thank you for keeping me sane on the trip."

She laughed and patted his arm then turned at the sound of her name being called. With a smile as bright as the sun, she turned back and said her goodbyes. Scott watched as she ran into the man's arms, two small children tugging at her dress with their own welcome.

He smiled at the scene and tipped his hat as she glanced back and waved before walking off with her family. He sighed again and headed toward the cabs awaiting fares nearby.

He decided to go to the hotel first and rid himself of his luggage. He thought fleetingly of a hot bath but he negated that idea. He needed to get to Johnny.

The hotel clerk felt he knew more about this family than anyone by now. When he heard the name he reached behind him and grabbed the key to Murdoch's room then gave Scott directions to the hospital before being asked.

Scott raised a brow then went upstairs to deposit his things, quickly changing his shirt before heading out again. It was coming into evening now and he hoped his father hadn't left for supper. He figured Johnny wouldn't tell him everything and he wanted the whole story. Smiling a little, he hailed a cab.

Then again, he hoped Johnny would be able to tell him anything, he thought as he jolted along. He still hadn't a clue as to the extent of his brother's injuries. He had to think it was pretty bad if Johnny was still in the hospital. Knowing his brother, he would have been long gone if he was able.

That thought did nothing to assuage his worry and, once again, he thought of the woman on the train. She really had kept him from going mad all the way from Denver. He would have to write her a note, something more appropriate to thank her for her concern. She certainly hadn't had to occupy him but he was very grateful. Saying the words somehow didn't seem enough, though.

With a nod to himself, he decided that he would write that note. An eloquent thank you for a real lady.

*****

"Shucks!" Johnny growled as Murdoch raked in his winnings.

"My luck seems to have changed, son. You're going to run out of those tongue depressors soon."

"Okay by me. Ever had one of those stuck down your throat?" Johnny grumbled then grinned.

"Can't say I have and I don't want to, either."

"How about takin a break?"

Murdoch looked up then and frowned. Johnny was leaning back with his eyes closed. "Of course, son. Your dinner should be here soon."

"Oh boy," he said unenthusiastically.

Murdoch chuckled. "Why don't I go get us something really good. There are several restaurants nearby."

"Sure, if you don't mind."

"Of course not," Murdoch said then turned to pick up a stray 'winning' from the bed. His eyes fell on his son and he broke into a smile. Looking quickly back at Johnny, he saw the young man's eyes still closed.

Murdoch stood up and waved Scott over to his seat. The elder son took the hint and grinned then walked silently to the bedside.

"Is there anything special you want, Johnny?" Murdoch asked, trying to hide the pure happiness from his voice.

Johnny sighed lightly but never opened his eyes. A sly grin made it's way across his lips. "Sure. How about some Boston baked beans."

"With or without brown sugar?" Scott asked.

Johnny's eyes flew open and he came straight up in the bed. He grabbed Scott into a bear hug. "Scott! You're here!" he laughed and tightened his grip.

Scott's eyes were wide as silver dollars but his grin was wider. "Now, where else would I be?"

Johnny pulled back and gave him a light tap on the cheek. His smile faded into a frown. "What are you doing here?"

*****

"Gee, thanks, Johnny," Scott laughed.

"I'm a little curious myself, son. We didn't expect you this soon, and I'm very glad to see you," Murdoch piped in.

Scott looked up at his father, the smile still on his face. "Well, I was in Denver when I got a wire from Jelly. I was able to come straight through. Now, what happened and how bad is it? AND, don't leave anything out," he demanded, turning his attention fully to Johnny and using his best expectant look.

"Why don't I let Johnny fill you in? I was about to get us some dinner. Are you hungry?"

"Starved. But, no baked beans for me," Scott laughed.

Murdoch chuckled and squeezed his elder son's shoulder firmly. "I'll be back soon."

Once they were alone, Scott settled back and waited with his arms crossed over his chest.

Johnny just looked at him with a silly grin on his face for several long seconds. Then, he started his story.

By the time he was done, Scott knew his brother had told him all. His eyes couldn't stop looking down at Johnny's right hand. A frown deepened his brow as he shook his head.


"My God, brother. I'm beginning to think you have five or six angels on your shoulder."

"Must be why it's so sore," Johnny smiled.

Scott rolled his eyes.

"So, ya got stranded in Boston. Must have been horrible," Johnny went on teasingly.

"It was. Really," Scott deadpanned. He told Johnny about the storm and the avalanche in the mountains and about the people in the train station. He didn't mention his act of kindness, of course. Then, he told of Harlan's last slight and what he'd done with the business.

Johnny saw and heard the pain and disappointment in his brothers eyes and voice. His left hand settled on Scott's arm without conscious thought. They stayed that way for a while, quiet and comfortable with each other. Scott thought how natural it felt. How warm. He'd been cold for weeks but now, he was finally thawing out.

He mentioned the woman on the train and let Johnny know she was happily married before his brother could start in on him. Then, he told of his thoughts about writing her a note.

"That sounds like something you'd do, brother. I'm glad she was there for you. Maybe I should write her a note, too. Or, maybe you could write it for me," he grinned as he held up his bandaged right hand.

Scott didn't smile back. "How are you really?" he asked in a serious tone.

Johnny's face fell and he bowed his head, black hair falling across his forehead.

"I gotta tell ya, I'm pretty worried about it. But, there's nothing I can do until it's healed. I've got a really good doctor." His head came up then and the smile was back. "And the prettiest nurse."

Scott laughed and shook his head.

*****

Cassie walked in and pulled up short for a second before proceeding to the bedside. She smiled warmly at Scott.

"Guess who this is?" Johnny asked her, his eyes alight.

She looked at him and smiled then at Scott. Well, if she didn't already know, she wouldn't have put them together. "Well, let me see how my powers of perception are working today. I would say that this is ..... your brother, Scott."

"Guilty as charged," Scott smiled and bowed his head a little.

Johnny rolled his eyes. "He's a real snake charmer. Ya gotta watch out for him."

She raised a brow. "Really? That's not how you described him before."

He saw the twinkle in her eye and groaned a little, beseeching her to have pity on him.

"Oh, really? And how did he descibe me?" Scott asked, thoroughly enjoying his brother's discomfort.

She locked onto Johnny's eyes for a long beat then made herself look away. "Oh, he said you were ... well, nice for a dandy."

Johnny laughed and Scott growled unconvincingly.

"Alright, I need to change your bandages now," she said, getting back to business.

"Mind if I stay? I'd like to get a look at that hand," Scott asked.

"Sure, brother, but it ain't pretty."

Cassie smiled tightly, knowing how worried he was. She went about unwrapping the hand proficiently. Scott fought back a gasp as he looked at the black and purple swollen mess.

"You should have seen it before, Scott. It was really bad," Johnny said, trying to sound light.

It wasn't working for they both only glanced at him. Cassie finished bandaging it then uncovered his feet, checking his toes and pulse. "Feels good."

"I've heard that before," Johnny grinned devilishly.

"Johnny," Scott berated.

"Oh, it's alright. I'm used to it by now," she laughed.

*****

"Used to what?" Murdoch asked as he walked in, arms laden.

Scott jumped up and helped ease his father's load. "Johnny is being ... Johnny," he explained.

Murdoch nodded and gave his son a stern look that Johnny didn't buy for a minute.

"If you keep this up, I'm going to start thinking you don't like the food around here," Cassie remarked.

Johnny laughed out loud at that. "Do you eat here?"

She blushed just a little and shook her head, trying not to laugh. "Well, I'll leave you to it. Dr. Allister will be here in the morning."

"I hope he's got better news this time," Johnny replied, trying not to sound unappreciative.

She could say nothing to that and started to leave.

"Hey, wait a minute. How come you're here so late?' he asked, realizing the hour.

"One of the nurses fell ill and I stayed for her. I'll be here until eleven."

He grinned and nodded and she walked out.

"She's gorgeous," Scott remarked.

Johnny glared at him and Scott held a hand up.

"Just an observation, brother."

"Uh huh. Did you happen to observe the wedding band on her finger?" Johnny said.

Scott grinned.

"Gentlemen, dinner is served," Murdoch announced.

They ate their dinner and talked for a while until it was obvious Johnny was about to fall over. Murdoch touched his shoulder and his head jerked. Blinking rapidly, Johnny stared at his father.

"I think we'd better let you get some rest, son. I've worn you out today," he smiled.

Johnny returned it. "I am tired but it was a good day." Looking over at Scott, his smile widened. "A real good day."

Scott put his hand in Johnny's and squeezed tightly. "We'll see you in the morning."

*****

As they walked down the corridor leading to Johnny's room, Scott realized it was New Year's Eve. Another holiday spent away from home. One Murdoch thoroughly enjoyed. Well, we're together and everyone is alive. I should just be grateful, he thought.

He glanced over at his father but could tell nothing from the man's stern demeanor. Scott almost laughed. Stern? More like normal. He took a deep breath as he pushed the door open.

"Happy Hogmanay!" Johnny smiled widely in greeting.

"Not quite but thank you, son," Murdoch smiled, his face relaxing.

Scott shook his head slightly. Johnny could enrage their father or make him smile easier than anyone.

Johnny only laughed. "Well, I wanted to be the first. I was wasn't I?" he asked, giving his brother an almost accusatory leer.

"I knew you'd be upset if I beat you to it," Scott replied, lying through his teeth.

But, it satisfied Johnny and he relaxed against the pillow mound behind him.

"You seem to be feeling better," Murdoch said, the question in his tone.

"I am. I'm ready to get outta here, for sure!"

Scott settled at the foot of the bed, cocking one leg onto the mattress, the other foot supporting the rest of his weight on the floor. "Took you long enough," he grinned.

"How about we wait for the doctor's opinion," Murdoch said. He made it sound like an almost suggestion but they both knew it was anything but. Johnny's smile wavered and he shrugged.


"My opinion on what?" Dr. Allister asked from the doorway.

"On me gettin out of here, Doc. What'ya say?" Johnny gave him a hopeful look.

The doctor studied him for a few seconds before advancing into the room with a wary frown. "Let me take a look."

Murdoch stood and stepped back to allow the man room.

After several minutes of poking, prodding, listening and everything else he could think of, Dr. Allister sat in the chair and let out a breath.

"Well, many of your injuries have healed but your leg and hand are still troublesome. You need to use crutches to keep weight off that leg. The only problem is your hand can't support the crutch on that side."

Johnny frowned. He knew what the doctor would say. He'd thought on the problem himself. "Can't I use one crutch? These two can help me get around."

"Well, you could but your mobility is going to be very limited, Johnny. Can you handle that?" the doctor asked.

Scott rolled his eyes and Murdoch shook his head as both prepared for Johnny's stretch of the truth.

"Of course," he smiled.

*****

Scott snorted loudly and stood up, hands on hips. "And as soon as you're out of our sight for five seconds, you'll be trying to hop around or worse."

"Whose side are you on, Scott?" Johnny asked icily.

The tone did not dissuade the elder Lancer son one iota. "Your's believe it or not. I know you, Johnny. And you know I speak the truth."

Johnny pulled a face but said nothing right away. Then, "if I promise to do everything you say, can I leave?"

Dr. Allister suddenly felt very much in the middle of a potential family feud. He looked at each Lancer then back at Johnny. "I'll think about it. That's the best I can do."

Johnny's displeasure with that answer was easy to see. Dr. Allister stood and headed for the door and Murdoch resumed his place in the chair. No one spoke for long minutes.

"It's for the best, son," Murdoch tried, laying a hand on Johnny's arm.

Johnny stared at his lap and didn't respond at all.

"You don't want to have a relapse, do you? That could leave you laid up even longer," Scott tried.

"I didn't get much sleep last night. I'd like to take a nap if you don't mind," Johnny said softly, head still down.

"Johnny ....."

"Why don't you two go take in some sights? Beats hanging around here all day," Johnny interrupted his father, bringing his head and plastering a smile on his face.

"You know we don't mind staying with you," Murdoch lightly argued.

"I mind. I'm goin to sleep. Go have some fun for a change. I'll see you later," Johnny replied, fighting to keep any bitterness from his tone.  

The older Lancers shared a glance. Both had heard the effort and both knew it was pointless to argue. That would only end in a full blown debate.

"Alright, son. We'll be back this afternoon."

Johnny only nodded and wished them quickly to the door. Once alone, he sighed heavily then scooted down in the bed, closing his eyes and waiting.

He heard the door open again then close after a fews seconds. He'd known Scott would check back to make sure he wasn't doing something he shouldn't. He opened his eyes and shook his head at the closed door.

Scooting back up in bed, Johnny starting removing the bandage from his hand. It took a while but he finally had it off. He stared for a long time then slowly made a fist. Well, half a fist. The muscle screamed at him to stop. He turned a deaf ear. He was done with this. One way or the other, he was getting out of this hospital very soon. He spent the rest of the morning gently working his hand.

*****

"What would make him feel better?" Murdoch asked as they walked down the street.

"Aside from getting his way, you mean? Not much," Scott replied with some aggravation at his stubborn brother then cinched his coat as they turned a corner and cold air off the ocean hit them hard.

Murdoch saw it and smiled. "Must be freezing in Boston."

"It is. I'd forgotten how cold it gets there."

Murdoch heard the change in his tone. Scott had been put out with his brother a little but now, he sounded almost morose.

"Son?"

"Grandfather left me everything with the proviso I stay in Boston for five years. If I didn't agree, everything went to charity." He stopped at the corner where they intended to cross and looked up at his father with a wry expression. "There are some very happy charities in Boston right now."

Murdoch breathed out hard through his nose but only nodded. What could he say? 'Thank you for coming home to me' seemed a little insulting. As if he would ever consider the idea of Scott agreeing to such a blatant attempt at blackmail.

"I suppose he felt he was doing what he thought was best for you," he finally got out as they stepped up on the sidewalk.

"That's very charitable of you, Murdoch. If Grandfather hadn't been explicit on which charities he bequeathed his estate to, I would have added you to the list."

Murdoch stopped walking and Scott took about five steps before realizing it. He turned back and looked questioningly at his father.

"Are you angry with me, son?"

Scott's brows went up. "Of course not."

"Then why the sarcasm?"

Scott sighed and lowered his head as he stepped closer. "I apologize. It's him I'm angry with. Not because of the money...."

"I understand, son. You feel manipulated and you have every right." Murdoch placed a strong hand on his shoulder.

Scott raised his head and smiled. "I am where I want to be. Well, not precisely but I'm with who I want to be with."

Murdoch nodded. "Why don't we look around some of these stores? Maybe we can find something to occupy your brother."

Scott gave him an unconvinced look but nodded.

*****

"What are you doing?"

Johnny looked up, astonished at the harsh tone. "You said it needed to get stronger," he defended.

Dr. Allister walked over and sat in the chair, grabbing Johnny's right hand and examining it. He didn't speak until he was finished.

"And you decided you know how best to accomplish that?"

Johnny only stared at him.

"You could have done more damage, Johnny. I was going to show you how to exercise it. Are you always this impatient?"

"Well, yeah," he shrugged, fighting back a smile.

"It isn't funny!" The doctor took a deep breath and settled himself. In a calmer tone, he went on. "Now, this is how it's done."

He showed Johnny how to exercise the hand and the younger man bit his tongue. He wanted to tell the doctor that was almost exactly how he had been doing it but he figured he'd only get another earful.   

"How often?" he asked quietly.

"Three times a day for twenty minutes each time and no more. Overexercising can do as much damage as anything."

He only nodded.

The doctor relaxed his tense shoulders and sat back to study the young man before him. "Why is this so important to you? I realize it's your dominant hand and that is frightening but you seem obsessive."

Johnny looked at the wall for several seconds. "You always lived in the city, Doc?"

"Yes."

He took a deep breath. "Well, other places ain't as civilized." He looked back at the man with stony eyes. "It's my gun hand."

Dr. Allister nodded though he didn't really understand that lifestyle. He had read newspaper articles about rough towns and men. A small smile swept across his face.

"My youngest son is eight. He's always sneaking about reading those dime novels about gunfighters and outlaws. He forgets sometimes that I've forbidden him to read such trash. Sometimes, he'll start going on about John Wesley Hardin, Black Jack Slade, Johnny Madrid. I swear I think I know those men," he laughed.

Johnny's eyes were alight with amusement. "Who's his favorite?"

The doctor raised his brows at the question. "I've never asked him."

"Well, you tell him Hardin and Slade are mean sons of ...... hombres. The other one ain't so bad," he grinned.

*****

Dr. Allister nodded and frowned. "And how would you know that?"

Johnny shrugged. "Just do."

There was a silence in the room for a bit as the doctor ruminated about that answer. "Do you know those men?"

"Yeah, I know them."

"But, you aren't going to tell me about it," he said.

Once more, Johnny smiled. "I'll tell you one thing. You're right about them dime novels bein trash. Bunch of lies for the most part."

"I wish you'd explain that to my son. He idolizes those men."

Johnny saw the real concern on the doctor's face. "If you mean that, bring him here. I'll put the fear of God in him."

"Uh oh. Who are you putting the fear of God into?" Scott asked from the door, a grin on his face.

Dr. Allister stood. "I'll think about it. And you do as I say, young man," he warned.

"Yes sir," Johnny mumbled.

Murdoch's surprise was evident at the demure acceptance from his youngest. He said nothing of it, however, and simply walked in and handed a package to his son.

"What's this?"

"Oh, some magazines, a razor, a checker board," he said as he sat down.

"We thought they'd keep you occupied," Scott explained.

"Keep me from breaking outta here, you mean," Johnny retorted.

"That's what I mean, brother."

Johnny sighed then saw the deep frown come across his father's face; saw where his eyes were, too.

"Doc showed me how to exercise it," he explained of the unbandaged hand.

"Did he say how long it would take?" Scott asked.

"Of course not. That would be a straight answer," Johnny shot irritably. Casting an apologetic look at his brother, he added, "guess he doesn't really know yet."

*****

The day passed excrutiatingly slow for Johnny. His family did their best to keep him occupied but he was restless and irritable. He tried, but his demeanor was wearing on them, he could tell. Finally, in the early afternoon, he pardoned them and thought they might just run for the door once he convinced them it really was alright to leave him unguarded. He laughed as they disappeared from his sight.

His thoughts turned to Cassie and that brightened his mood a little. But, in his state, it didn't take long for that mood to darken.

He'd been surprised at himself for opening up to her but at the time, he'd desperately needed someone to talk to. She sure was willing to listen even if her first reaction to his family history was a little, well, over the top, by his reckoning. Still, she'd been compassionate and he'd been grateful. Now, his feelings were a lot more. He shook his head. Stop it, Johnny. She's married, he reminded himself.

He sighed heavily and looked around the room. He reached over to the bedside table and picked up the book she'd given him and started reading.

His head jerked up and he blinked once before settling his gaze on the woman.

"I'm sorry, I was trying not to wake you. Your book was about to hit the floor," she smiled. It was the same nurse who'd told him he'd like this book.

"It's okay. You were right by the way. I haven't gotten very far but it's really interesting."

"I laughed through most of it. He sure does have some adventures," she chuckled.

Johnny only smiled and nodded. Yes, it was funny, he guessed, but there was more to it than that. Something that had captured his own imagination and tugged at his heart. He really was looking forward to finishing this book.

"That's only the first one. There's second novel as well," she told him.

"Yeah? I'll have to find it."

She started to lay the book down then frowned as she looked more closely at the cover. Flipping it open she stared at the ink.

"Somethin wrong?" Johnny asked.

"No, this one's in Spanish."

He nodded and smiled. "I think I'd like to read the English version, too. See how much they got wrong," he laughed.

"Your dinner will be here soon," she changed the subject.

"Thanks," was the unenthusiastic response.

"I know it's not as tasty as home-cooked but it really is good for you."

Johnny grinned widely at her. "You know what would be good for me? Some real Mexican food."

She raised a brow. "I don't think you're ready for that just yet."

"Lady, I'm always ready for that!"

*****

"I'm not sure I want to know what it is you're always ready for," Dr. Allister spoke from the doorway.

"Hey, Doc. What're you doing here?" Johnny asked.

The man glanced down the hall then stepped inside. "Are you tired?"

"No, I just woke up. Why?" he asked, knowing something was up with the doctor.

"Well, I took your advice," he smiled and stepped back. His hand disappeared then came back with a small boy attached.

Johnny smiled widely at the child. "Well, you brought me a visitor. Thanks, Doc! Come on in here," he called to the boy staring at his shoes.

Dr. Allister prodded the boy into the room and gave the nurse a quick smile. She returned it mixed with curiosity then left them.

Johnny watched as the father pushed the boy forward and sat him down.

"I'm Johnny," he said simply.

After a few seconds, Dr. Allister gave his son a nudge.

"I'm Roger."

"Nice to meet you," Johnny extended his left hand. The boy took it for a split second.

"Roger, I want you to stay with Mr. Lancer until I get back. I just need to check on one patient. I won't be long," he placated as the child gave him a panicked look.

The doctor looked over his head at Johnny who nodded and smiled.

*****

"You don't really think your old man would leave you with me if he didn't trust me, do you?" Johnny asked.

"No, Sir."

"Sir! Boy, you are polite. You remind me of my brother. Always with the manners. It's Johnny, okay?" he smiled.

The boy nodded.


"I was just reading this book about knights and fighting. You like that kind of thing?" he asked, hoping to find some way to get this kid to open his mouth.

The child's head came up and he nodded, almost smiled then bowed his head again.

"Your father said you like to read about gunfighters. You wanna be a gunfighter, Roger?"

He shrugged.

Johnny rolled his eyes and almost sighed aloud but held it back. He figured it would be easier to pull all of Barranca's teeth than get this one to open up.

"I figured you'd want to be a doctor like your old man. I'm a rancher now like my old man."

The little face squinched in a frown as he looked up. "Now? What were you before?"

Johnny caught his eyes and held them. "A gunfighter."

Roger's eyes widened and his mouth hung open. "For real?"

"Yeah, for real."

"Was it fun?" he asked, scooting to the edge of the chair.

"Fun? No, it wasn't fun," Johnny shook his head slowly. "It was scary a lot of the time. Lonely, too."

The boy cocked his head. "How come?"

Johnny repositioned himself in the bed and leaned against the pillows. His head turned toward the boy. "Well, you can't have any friends when you're a gunfighter. If you're real good, people want to try and take you down cause then everyone will be even more afraid of them. You'd be afraid of anyone that killed Black Jack Slade, wouldn't ya?"

"I sure would! But, he's too fast to be killed," the kid answered exuberantly.

Johnny laughed softly. "No one is too fast to be killed, Roger. There's always someone faster, someone luckier. You never know what might happen. A gun could jam, the wind could blow dust in your eyes, something could distract you all at the wrong moment. And sometimes, your hand can get hurt real bad," he ended with a flat tone.

The boy looked down at his hand and sucked in a breath. "Your gun hand," he whispered.

Johnny smiled. "Yeah."

"Were you any good, Johnny?"

"Yeah, I was pretty good. But, I gave it up to be a rancher, like Mur... my pa."

*****

Roger sat back in his chair, seemingly having a hard time understanding this choice. His frown deepened as Johnny watched him.

"You ever think about how your life would be if you didn't have a family?" Johnny asked.

He shook his head.

"Well, I didn't have to think about it, I lived it. The details ain't important. What matters is that I was alone for a long, long time before my old man found me and brought me home. Now, I can't imagine my life without him and my brother. I could never go back to that life either because I'd have to give them up."

"Why?"

Johnny shook his head. "Gunfighters don't have family, Roger. They can't worry about other people. It's the best way to get killed fast. Once you're dead, you're dead. There's no second chances then."

The boy was quiet and Johnny glanced at him a few times.

"Still sound like fun?" he asked.

"No, it sounds scary."

"It is. Now, your old man; he's somethin else! A man that can heal people, keep 'em alive when no one else can. That's something to be proud of. That's a special gift. I've met some doc's that didn't care or weren't very nice but not your father. He cares about people and that's pretty rare."

"My father is the best doctor in the world!" Roger proclaimed with absolute certainty.

Johnny grinned. "I believe it. He saved me and I was in pretty sorry shape."

Roger cocked his head to the side, a quizzical look on his face. "Is your father the best rancher?"

Johnny bit the inside of his cheek. "You better believe it! No one knows more about cattle than my old man."

Murdoch sagged against the wall outside the room. He's curiosity had gotten the better of him when he'd heard the young voice in his son's room. Scott had come up behind him and he'd stilled hs elder son with a hand, pointing to the room then to his own ear. Scott had given him a stern look but Murdoch ignored it. He knew instinctively not to interrupt. Now, he understood why. Or at least, he could hazard a good guess.

Scott grinned ear to ear with Johnny's proclamation, watching his father's face as emotion won out. He was entranced by the expression he'd never seen there before and wasn't sure what it was exactly. Murdoch's eyes were closed tightly and Scott realized with astonishment the man was trying to keep tears at bay. He put a hand on his father's arm and squeezed but Murdoch only nodded.

Dr. Allister walked up just as Murdoch got hold of himself. He asked with his eyes and Scott smiled.

"We didn't want to interrupt. Is that your son?"

"Yes, Johnny said he'd talk to him. The boy is obssessed with gunfighters and tales of murder and mayhem," he sighed sadly.

"Well, I think you'll be more pleased with him now. My brother has a way of making people see the error of their ways. Especially young people," Scott told him.

*****

They heard laughter in the room and decided it was safe to go in. Roger was now sitting on the bed laughing hysterically. Johnny's laughter was more due to the boy's pleasure.

"Are you ready to go, son?" Dr. Allister asked.

"Already? We just got here," the boy protested.

The doctor smiled at him and shook his head. "Mr. Lancer's family is here to visit and you need to have your dinner."

Roger's face fell into disappointment and he stood up slowly. He put his hand out and Johnny shook it a little awkwardly with his left.

"It was very nice to meet you, Johnny."

"It was a pleasure, Roger. You come back and see me if you can. I'll tell ya some more stories," Johnny grinned.

The boy smiled widely then walked toward his father. Dr. Allister mouthed a thank you and took his son home.

"That was very nice of you," Murdoch commented.

"He just needed to hear the real deal." He shook his head, his face contorting angrily. "Damned dime novels," he grumbled.

Scott grimaced as he settled at the foot of the bed. "Dr. Allister said his son was quite enamored by it all. I take it you set him straight."

"I hope so. I still didn't get a straight answer from the doc, though," he sighed and looked at his hand.

"I know it's hard, son, but you're almost there."

"Almost," Johnny mumbled then sighed. He couldn't help it and knew he was being an ass. He just needed to get out of that bed. He glanced over at the bedside table and a grin lit his face.

"Hey, Scott. Ever read this?" he asked as he picked up the book and handed it over.

Scott looked at the title and nodded his head. "Yes, I have. It's very entertaining."

"The nurse said there was a second book, too. I sure would like to get it. Haven't gotten all that far but it's a good read."

Murdoch saw the excitement in his son's eyes and smiled. At least something was keeping him busy. "I'll see if I can track it down for you. Maybe Cassie could tell me where she got that copy."

Johnny laughed softly. "If she'll admit to it. Oh, make sure it's in Spanish. I don't want to lose anything in the translation."

"Yes, sir," Murdoch grinned.

*****

Murdoch was beginning to worry himself. He'd kept in touch with the ranch and all was well. This was the slowest time of year but still he didn't like being away for so long. He knew he couldn't leave Johnny even though he'd made remarkable progress in the past week. The hand exercises were beginning to tell and Johnny was about ready to shoot someone. Even if he had to do it with his left hand.

Murdoch almost laughed aloud at that thought. Well, that novel sure had his attention. He couldn't stop talking about it now that he'd finished it. The book store didn't have the second tome but had ordered it. Murdoch had instructed the nice gentleman to have it shipped to Lancer if it didn't arrive before they left.

Johnny was almost more excited about getting that book than getting out of the hospital. Well, maybe that was an exaggeration. He smiled and shook his head. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his watch and glanced at the time, then at the door. Scott was taking his sweet time with that bath.

"Are you about done in there?" Murdoch called out grumpily.

"Almost," Scott snapped back as he rubbed the towel down his legs. Can't a man enjoy his bath? he wondered. He knew this extended stay in the city was wearing on his father's nerves. He knew because it was wearing on his as well. He'd been away from Lancer longer than any of them and Scott wanted to go home.

He shook his head. He'd lived in the city most of his life but it no longer appealed to him. Oh, he enjoyed a play or the opera as much as anyone. Still, there was nothing like the wide open spaces of home. The clean air and pristine waters. His brother's laughter as he teased - well - everyone.  

Scott tossed the towel to the floor and started dressing. He knew Murdoch wanted to get going. The man hated being idle as much as he did. Well, he didn't have to wait for me. His grumpiness returned and he sighed. No sense in being touchy as Johnny would say.

He just wished the doctor would let his brother go. They'd all be a lot happier once Johnny got out of that room. He had to admit that his brother was doing better than himself or their father. He supposed that was in large part due to his pretty nurse. But, as his brother had pointed out, she was married. He sighed.

He checked himself in the mirror quickly then took a deep breath and opened the door. The look on his father's face was more than enough and he bit his lip to keep from saying something he shouldn't.

Murdoch said not a word, either, but simply stood and grabbed his coat then strode out the door.

*****

Both elder Lancers stopped on a dime as they reached Johnny's room, mouths agape.

Johnny looked up shakily and grinned at them. "Don't say nothin. You'll throw me off," he whispered.

He took a deep breath and balanced his right foot then pushed the crutches in front of himself and stepped into the space.

"Excellent! That was perfect. Now, just do that every time and you'll be all set," the orderly praised.

Johnny nodded, his head down as he stared at the floor. "Turning is the hard part," he breathed out.

Scott took an involuntary step forward at the exhaustion he heard in his brother's voice. He felt the hand on his arm and turned to nod at Murdoch.

"Just remember what I said, Mr. Lancer," the orderly advised.

Johnny nodded and balanced again then moved the left crutch to the side, then the right and stepped into it. The turn was only about 10 degrees and it took several more before he was facing the opposite direction. By now, his arms were shaking.

"Okay, that's enough for now," the orderly said and pulled the chair behind him. "Just ease down, remember the crutches."

"Not likely to forget 'em," Johnny snipped. He sat down as he'd been shown to and sighed. He put the crutches together and leaned them against the wall on his left before sitting back in the chair.

"It's harder than it looks and you're still weak. Another few days and you'll be racing down the halls," the orderly smiled.

Johnny looked up and gave him a half-hearted smile. "Thanks, Mike."

The man nodded and left. Scott and Murdoch walked slowly into the room and rounded the chair. Scott knelt down in front of his brother.

"You look done in."

"I am. Help me to the bed?"

Scott stood and between them, they got Johnny in bed with minimal difficulty. He used his right leg to hop along but it was obvious to them both, the man's strength was gone.

"When did this start?" Murdoch asked.

"Been at it since this mornin. I think Mike's tryin to kill me," he laughed.

"You looked good, son."

"Thanks, but my hand is throbbin pretty good now," he sighed.

*****

Neither of them knew what to say to that statement.

"At least I can feel it," Johnny said softly.

"It's good that you're looking at the positive, brother."


Johnny glanced at his father. "Yeah, well, you know me. I'll adapt."

Murdoch chuckled and Scott looked between them, quickly figuring it was some private joke.

"How did it go?" Dr. Allister asked as he walked in the room.

"I'm sure Mike told you already," Johnny said, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. He couldn't hold it as long as usual before a smile threatened. "My hand hurts like the devil."

"Let me have a look," the doctor said, smiling at the failed attempt at anger. "Looks good, Johnny."

"And?" the young man cocked a brow.

"And you can leave tomorrow," Dr. Allister answered with a wide smile.

Johnny closed his eyes and leaned back against the pillows. "Thank God!"

"You'll still need a lot of help getting around and I'm going to write out explicit instructions to care for that hand. If you follow them, there's a good chance you'll get most if not all of the function back," the doctor went on.

"I'll follow them, Doc. You have my word," Johnny swore. His only real thought was relief at the moment.

"I'll get started on writing everything out then. You can travel whenever you're ready," the doctor said and left.

Johnny looked over at his father and chuckled at the huge smile. "Glad to be gettin out of here, too, huh?"

"Yes, I am. It will be good to get home."

"It sure will," Scott agreed.

They both looked at him and he shrugged.

"You've been gone almost two months now. Well, I guess we should tell you now, brother. We sold all your furnture and turned your room into a bathhouse," Johnny grinned.

"Is that supposed to be a bad thing?" Scott retorted.

"Not as much as you like to stay in the bath," Murdoch grumbled then smiled.

*****

Johnny sat on the side of the bed fully dressed for the first time in weeks. It felt heavenly even though his leg ached and his hand throbbed. But, that wouldn't stop him. Nothing was going to stop him from getting out of here and going home. He looked up when the door opened.

"Hey. Finally gettin rid of me," he grinned.

"Thank goodness!" she exclaimed then laughed as she sat in the chair. "How do you really feel?"

Johnny looked toward the door then leaned closer to her. "Lousy," he confessed in a hushed tone.

She nodded and gave him a conspiratorial wink. "I know this is the last thing you want to hear but, it's going to take time."

Johnny laughed. "You're right. I don't want to hear it." His expression turned serious as he swallowed and looked into her eyes. "I want to thank you, Cassie. You kept me sane those first days. I don't know what I would've done without you."

She held his gaze as her breathing increased. Her cheeks flushed prettily as she smiled. "I'm glad I could help," she whispered and took his hand.

He looked down at their hands, he had to. Looking in her eyes was too hard. His thumb brushed across the ring. "Damn! Why do you have to be married?" he asked, not expecting an answer.

"Married? I'm not married," she said, astonished.

Johnny's head jerked up and he stared at her dumbstruck. "But ....." he looked back down at her hand.

"Oh," she groaned. "Oh, Johnny, no. That's my mother's wedding band. I've worn it for so long .... that's the only finger it will fit on," she explained, kicking herself for not even thinking about it.

All this time she'd wanted so much to be close to him. But, she'd always felt his distance. She'd thought he was just flirting - not serious at all. Now, she understood why.

"I forget it's even there," she added.

Johnny sucked in a breath and shook his head slowly. "You might want to remember from now on." A wry smile appeared as he went on. "Then again, maybe not. I wouldn't want any competition."

Her eyes widened and she smiled warmly. "Competition?"

He only nodded and leaned closer until their lips touched as she leaned in as well.

After several long moments, they pulled apart, both breathing a little harder now.

"I wish I'd known. We're leaving tomorrow," he said sadly.

"I feel like such a fool. I thought you just weren't interested. It never occurred to me you were being a gentleman," she said, playfullness light in her voice.

He smiled. "Maybe .... maybe I could come back sometime," he tried and knew it would be ages before that happened.

"We could write and maybe I could come visit you," she tried hopefully.

He nodded and squeezed her hand. "I would love that. I don't want to lose you."

Her hand went to his cheek and she stroked it lightly. "Neither do I."

*****

Murdoch and Scott walked in at just the wrong moment. Both Johnny and Cassie leaned back to their previous positions. Johnny cast a glance at his father and saw the disapproval. He knew why it was there and wouldn't have blamed his father for it. But, he didn't know the truth.

Cassie smiled and stood. "I'll write down my address."

He nodded and released her hand, watching as she walked out.

"Don't say it, Murdoch. She ain't married. That's her mother's wedding band."

Scott plopped down on the bed and heaved a sigh of relief. "Thank God!"

Murdoch released a breath himself and sat in the chair. "I'm very glad to hear that, son. I was having trouble believing you'd be courting a married woman," he said with a raised brow.

"Well, I'm glad to hear that," Johnny laughed. "We're gonna write and she might come for a visit," he said, his voice softening substantially.

"It won't be easy but it'll be worth it if things work out," Scott said.

Johnny nodded. "I can't believe it, ya know? All this time ......" he shook his head. Well, there wasn't a thing he could do now. No, that's not entirely true, he thought.

"There's a cattle auction in Modesto in a couple of months," Murdoch mentioned casually.

Johnny grinned at him and Scott laughed.

"Murdoch Lancer. Matchmaker," Scott proclaimed.

"That will be enough of that, young man," Murdoch groused lightly. "I'm sure it will work out, son," he said more gently to Johnny.

After a rather heated exchange with the orderly, Johnny was wheeled to the front door of the hospital. Murdoch and Scott helped him stand and gave over his crutches. Both men held their breaths as Johnny took his first step toward freedom.

That evening, Cassie joined them for dinner. Scott and Murdoch both suddenly became very tired immediately following the meal and retired for the night. Johnny and Cassie stayed at the table talking until midnight when the staff threw them out.

As he stood watching her walk out of the hotel, Johnny knew this girl was more than special. She may very well be the one. He grinned then remembered his family was asleep. How was he going to get to his room? He turned slowly on his crutches and looked up to find Scott standing at the foot of the stairs grinning like an idiot.

"I hope you weren't watchin us the whole time," he said, feigning aggravation.

"Of course not. I was actually playing chess with Herman over there," Scott said, tossing his head toward the night clerk who was still putting the game pieces away.

Johnny glanced at the man then back at his brother. "Well, you gonna help me or do I have to sleep on the floor?" he drawled.

Scott laughed and walked over. "Come on, invalid. Let's get you tucked in."

Johnny didn't move when Scott took his arm. Scott looked in his eyes and found them warm and emotional.

"Thanks, brother. Glad to have you back."

"Very glad to have *you* back, brother," Scott said in a choked voice.

*****

It was wrong. Johnny knew it was wrong. He was beginning to realize it always would be. Acceptance had yet to come and he wondered if it ever would.

He leaned against the oak tree as he reloaded once again. Checking his gun belt, he saw this would have to be the last round for today. He only had enough for one more full load and he couldn't exactly ride around unarmed.

Might as well, he thought with some anger. Taking a deep breath and holding it a few seconds, he let it out slowly as he relaxed his body. He pushed off and limped over to his previous position in front of the targets. Eyes focused intently on his mark, he stilled himself completely and envisioned some past enemy instead of cans.

Without a twitch of warning, he drew and fired. Six shots, six tinny pings and smoke. He stood there motionless for a few seconds then hung his head and shook it. It's wrong, he thought again. Then his shoulders stiffened visibly. It was the only movement he made as he waited for more clues. They came quickly.

"That was exceptional," Scott said softly.

"It sucked!" he said through gritted teeth then turned his glare on his brother.

Scott was staring at him with surprise. "Johnny, you hit them all. It was smooth and effortless."

"Effortless?" he asked, his voice rising an octave. "There wasn't anything effortless about it, Scott. It was pathetic."

The elder brother shook his head. "So, what will satisfy you?"

Johnny dropped his eyes and began reloading. "Nothing short of perfection but then, we can't always get what we want."

Scott stepped forward, around the tree that partially obscured him. "Are you angry about your performance or that I saw it?"

Johnny glanced up then looked back down as he slid the last bullet in its chamber. "Both. Don't need an audience."

"Well, I'm sorry about that but Murdoch asked me to find you. Sam's at the house and he wants to take a look at you."

Johnny said nothing, his jaw was closed too tightly to speak. He was incredibly tired of doctors. He walked past Scott and untethered Barranca.

"How's your leg?"

He hesitated for a fraction. "Sore," he replied then mounted up.

Scott grimaced and took to his own saddle, moving to catch up to his brother's faster gait.

*****

Johnny had been in a foul mood since they'd been home. Over a month now. His leg was healing well and he'd followed Dr. Allister's instructions to the letter, much to everyone's surprise. But Scott knew what was at the center of Johnny's mood. He only wished he could help.

No words could comfort his brother. He knew this well from personal experience. It also didn't help that the two letters Johnny had sent to Cassie were in Scott's handwriting as he still couldn't grasp a pen. Small objects were a struggle and more than once, Scott thought he'd have a fork hurling past his head at the supper table.

He was worried for Johnny, there was no denying it not that he should. But his brother would brook no sympathy of any kind and this only leant to the mounting tensions in the house.

Murdoch had been incredibly patient with Johnny's sarcasm and unkind quips. Scott had been tempted more than once to belt him for that mouth. But, he hadn't. How could he when his brother was in such pain? And not physical pain. Johnny could handle that better than most. His unconfessed fear was what worried Scott. If he'd only talk about it. Scott sighed and shook his head. That wasn't going to happen.

They approached the house and Johnny slowed to a walk. Scott looked over and saw the flat affect. Tight lines formed around the mouth and eyes. He's angry still. Always angry. Scott ground his own jaw but again, he said nothing.

Johnny dismounted and handed Barranca off. These days, if he could stay in the saddle for more than an hour without his leg screaming he was lucky. Caring for his horse was now a chore instead of the pleasure he'd always viewed it as before. His limp was more pronounced as he walked to the front door. Scott trailed behind a few feet, watching. Always watching.

His hand was on the knob but he hesitated a few seconds. He turned his head to the side but never found Scott's stare. Then, he pushed on through and into the house.

*****

Sam stood up when he heard the door open. "Johnny, where have you been?"

He stopped in midstride and just looked at the man.

"We talked about doing too much," Sam continued.

"Yeah, I remember. I was doin some target practice if you must know," Johnny retorted and walked over to sit on the sofa.

"How was it?" Murdoch asked calmly.

"Lousy."

"He hit them all," Scott imparted and received a glare for his trouble.

"Well, how does the hand feel?" Sam asked, hoping to head off yet another heated conversation between these men. He'd witnessed enough of them by now.

Johnny looked down at his right hand, opening it palm up then flexing the fingers. "A little tight."

Sam sat down and took his hand, probing from the palm out. He glanced up at Johnny's face from time to time but saw no expression of pain or anything else for that matter.

"Does that hurt?"

"No."

"Make a fist."

Johnny sighed and did as he was told. His hand didn't quite close, leaving half an inch of open space and Sam could hear his teeth grinding.

"That's excellent. You're making great progress," the doctor remarked.

Johnny said nothing and looked at nothing but his hand.

"It's going to ...."

"Take time. I know!" he interrupted Sam. Johnny took to his feet and paced to the fireplace. "You keep sayin that, Sam. But, it's not getting any better!"

"I know it seems that way but you're wrong, Johnny. Two weeks ago you couldn't close your hand that much," Sam replied calmly.

Johnny turned his back to them and crossed his arms over his chest.

Murdoch looked at Sam and nodded then did the same with Scott. Both men took their leave and headed for safer ground.

*****

Johnny heard them leave and figured he was in for a lecture. He tightened his shoulders and waited. He heard Murdoch stand and walk up behind him. A hand fell on his right shoulder, light yet firm.

"I wish I had some magic spell or medicine to make this alright for you, son. We all wish that. But there's nothing we can do, Johnny. This is entirely up to you. You've been doing the work and I know you wish it would go faster but that's just not going to happen. I don't know how to help you. I'm not really sure what you're feeling right now aside from anger."

Johnny listened to the words and heard the sincerity, the worry. He felt shame flush his cheeks and he bent his head.

"I'm sorry. I know I've been a jackass. I just can't seem to help it. When I was in the hospital, I was fairly safe. There wasn't any threat. But now that I'm home, there's always a threat. And not just from men. You know how this country is, Murdoch. You know how dangerous it can be. I feel so ..... helpless." His voice was low and pain-filled.

"But you're not, son. Scott said you hit all the targets today so you are getting better. What is it that isn't up to your standards?"

He inhaled deeply and turned to face his father. "Speed. There's no speed there. The accuracy is fine right now but without the speed ..... I don't know if I can explain it."

Murdoch looked at him, searched his face. "Can you try?"

Johnny returned the stare then nodded and walked back to the sofa where Murdoch joined him.

"You can stand and hit targets all day long. When you try to do it faster, that throws off your aim. So, I need to know how fast I can ever be again before I can get the accuracy a hundred percent."

"That makes sense but how will you know how fast you can be until you're completely healed?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny smiled. "I can't and that's what's got me so frustrated."

Murdoch chuckled. "So, you're beating yourself up for nothing. I know you don't want to hear it again but you really have to give it time."

"Yeah, I know," Johnny sighed, relenting and allowing his anger to fade. He leaned his head back against the cushion. "It's not easy having Scott write for me, either. I can't say what I really want to," he confided.

Murdoch quirked his mouth. "Well, I can't blame you for that. Cassie knows he's writing for you, though. I'm sure she understands."

"She does. Don't keep her from teasing me about it," he grinned.

Murdoch raised a brow. "Yes, well."

They both laughed a little then settled back. Murdoch scooted his longer frame down so that his head rested at equal height to Johnny's on the sofa back. He crossed his ankles and, though he didn't know it, Johnny had crossed his, too.

"I've been pretty bad, huh?" Johnny asked softly after a few minutes.

"Yes."

He rolled his head to the side and grinned at his father. "Thank you."

"You're very welcome, son," Murdoch said as he turned his own head and met his son's eyes.

*****

Johnny sat on the veranda wall and looked up at the stars. His thoughts were on Cassie at the moment and he smiled. She was incredible. Funny and smart and it seemed as if she knew him down deep already. Scott called it insight. Johnny called it intuition. They were both right.

In two months he would be in Modesto for the cattle auction. Then, he would head to San Francisco to see her. No cabs, though, he thought with a small laugh. His head turned as the French door opened then he went back to admiring the stars.

"Are you okay?"

"Sure. I'm sorry about today. I know I've been an ass."

Scott smiled and sat beside him. "Nothing different there."

Johnny smacked his arm lightly and laughed.

"I'll just be glad when you can write again," Scott remarked.

"No more than me, brother."

"I'd like to make you a wager, Johnny."

This got his attention and he took in his brother's suspicious countenance. "Okay."

"I'll bet you that by the time we get to Modesto, your hand and leg will be back to normal."

"And if you lose?" Johnny asked, his brow going up.

Scott seemed to consider this. "If I lose I'll do your chores for a whole week."

"And if I lose?" Johnny asked.

Scott looked him squarely in the eye. "You marry that girl."

Johnny stared at him for a beat before smiling. "How is that losing for me?"

Scott shrugged. "From what I've seen she's more than capable of handling you, brother. If you lose, you'll be tamed inside a month."

"Tamed? I ain't sure I want to be tamed," Johnny grinned.

"Yes, you do. You may not know it right now, but you do," Scott spoke with certainty.

Johnny was quiet for a while. "You're on."

 

~end~
2005

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