The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Misunderstandings

 

 

 

"Johnny, you have to hurry," Scott said, exasperated.

"I'm trying, Scott. Just give me a minute," Johnny said, breathlessly.

"We don't have time. We have to get there, now! Look, I know you don't feel good, but you're going to have to suck it up!" Scott yelled.

"Suck it up? Ya know , I don't have to do this at all, Scott!" Johnny shot back.

"Oh, yes, you do. I am not going to lose a good friend over some stupid misunderstanding and you are the only one who can set things straight," Scott explained his motives once more.

"I can't believe you dragged me out of my sick bed to ride to Stockton. I think there's somethin wrong with your head," Johnny grumped.

"You're not that sick. It's not like your dying," Scott retorted.

"Yet," Johnny shot. "All this over a stupid letter," he mumbled on.

Scott had received a letter from Nick Barkley informing him they were no longer friends. Evidently, Nick had been made to believe by someone that Scott had made some disparaging remarks about Nick's service during the war. Scott was determined to find out who this liar was and convince Nick he would never do such a thing.

Knowing Nick, it would take more than his word to convince the man so he had brought his brother along to stand up for him. He surmised that Nick would believe Johnny as they were not exactly the best of friends and Nick knew Johnny was a straight shooter.

Johnny was in shock that his brother would go to such lengths to make things right with a man he had only known a few months. He had been minding his own business, slowly dying from the cold he was suffering from when Scott barged in his room and dragged him out of bed.

He had explained his intentions and Johnny had protested. Unfortunately, he was too weak and sick to put up much of a fight. He still couldn't believe his own brother would put him through all this for the likes of Nick Barkley.

So here they were, on the road to Stockton and Johnny was using every ounce of energy he had left to stay in the saddle. Scott wasn't helping by insisting he move faster. He felt like he was moving entirely too fast as it was. At least Scott had consented to staying in a hotel that night so he wouldn't have to sleep out in the cold. What a guy!

*****

They finally made it to a small town and Johnny wasn't too sure he could make it inside the little hotel, much less walk to the room. Scott dismounted and started inside, but Johnny hadn't moved. He stopped and looked back in exasperation.

"Well, what are you waiting for?"

"I could use a little help, Scott."

Scott sighed heavily and went back to help him down. Johnny was leaning on him heavily as they walked inside.

"We need a room for the night," Scott clipped to the clerk.

"Your friend alright, mister?" the clerk asked.

"He's fine. The room?"

The clerk handed him a key and looked doubtfully at Johnny who managed to give him a weak smile. Scott pulled him up the stairs and into the room then dropped him unceremoniously onto the bed.

"Thanks, brother," Johnny said sarcastically.

"I'll take care of the horses and get us some food."

When he got back, Johnny was sound asleep. He ate quickly and went to bed himself, anxious to get the night over so they could get to Stockton the next day.

Scott awoke at dawn and dressed. He sat on the side of the bed and read the letter again. He was fuming that Nick would believe such a thing and ready to have it out with him right then. He went down and retrieved the horses, then attempted to wake his brother.

"Johnny! Get up!" he shouted as he shoved his brother's shoulder.

"Huh? Leave me alone," Johnny mumbled.

"Get up! We have to go!" Scott ranted.

"M sick, you go, I'll just lay here and die quietly," he said.

"Johnny, I need you to go with me," Scott said more calmly.

Johnny sighed and looked at his brother. "Fine, just do me one favor. Make you sure you take the body back to Lancer, ok?" He sat up on the side of the bed and the room started spinning. " Ohhhh ."

"What's the matter now?" Scott snipped.

Johnny found his anger and it gave him some energy. " Nothin ! Just shut up and get out of my way!" He stood up and stumbled over to the wash basin, throwing the icy cold water on his face. "You owe me big, Scott," he muttered.

"Come on, let's get some breakfast," Scott said. "Big baby," he muttered under his breath.

"I ain't hungry, but I'll stay here while you eat," Johnny offered, not hearing the comment and hoping to lay back down for awhile.

"I don't want anything, let's just go," Scott said.

"Fine," Johnny whispered and gave in to having to leave the nice warm room.

They headed out and it was a repeat of the day before with Scott urging him to go faster and Johnny holding on for dear life. He had the feeling it wouldn't have done him any good to try and get Barranca to get his gait up anyway.

The horse was definitely being careful with his rider, making his step sure and easy. Johnny thanked the animal several times throughout the day. He knew he was getting sicker with every passing moment but he figured it wouldn't do him any good to complain. Scott was on a mission and nothing was going to stop him.

*****

Mercifully, they finally arrived at the Barkley ranch. Scott didn't wait to be asked this time as he helped his brother down. He rapped on the door loudly and waited impatiently for an answer. The butler opened the door with some surprise.

"Mr. Lancer! We weren't expecting you. Please come in," he said.

"Thank you, where's Nick?" Scott asked, coming right to the point.

"He's working, Sir. Mr. Lancer, are you alright?" he asked Johnny.

"No, I'm not! Could I just sit down somewhere, or fall down, or something," he said.

"Of course, this way," Silas said as he helped the young man into the living room. "Do you need a doctor?" he asked.

"Don't waste your time, just send for the undertaker," Johnny said snidely and started coughing. It lasted quite a while and he sounded like he had the croup.

"Good heaven's, who is sick?" Victoria Barkley asked as she came in the door. "Johnny? What in the world?"

"Hello, ma'am," Johnny croaked.

"Send for the doctor, Silas. Here, let me take a look. Why you're burning up! Scott, what happened to him?" she asked.

"He has a cold," Scott said, a bit short.

She laid her hand on Johnny's chest while he struggled for breath. "This is more than a cold. Help me get him upstairs."

For the first time since they'd started their trip, Scott looked closely at his brother. Laying his hand on Johnny's forehead, he was shocked at the heat there. He half-carried Johnny up the stairs and laid him down on the bed, pulling his boots off and covering him up.

Johnny was shivering by now and coughing his head off. Victoria brought him some warmed whiskey and he inhaled it gratefully.

"Scott, go downstairs and find Audra. Tell her I need her help," she instructed. "What in the world were you thinking, making a trip like this?"

"Wasn't my idea," Johnny whispered.

"I don't understand," she said.

"Scott. Nick's mad at him for somethin and he wanted me to talk to him," he explained.

"That's it? He dragged you here to talk to Nick?" she asked, astounded.

"I don't know, ma'am. All I know is I was minding my own business sleeping when he came in and dragged me out of bed. I was already sick, I tried to tell him but he wouldn't listen," Johnny complained.

"Of all the .... well , don't you worry. The doctor will be here soon. Does your father know about this?"

"I don't think so. Scott wanted to leave in the middle of the night," Johnny replied.

"The middle of the night! Why it's freezing outside!"

Scott and Audra came in then and Victoria instructed her daughter to care for the sick man. She pulled Scott out in the hallway.

"Scott Lancer, you should be ashamed of yourself! Dragging your brother out in this weather! What were you thinking? Nevermind , I don't care what you were thinking. I only hope that when I tell your father about this, and I intend to do so immediately, that he turns you over his knee. You're not too big to get your britches dusted, young man!"

Scott's face was a deep red. "He wasn't that sick when we left," he mumbled.

"Did it ever occur to you that he might get that sick, being dragged across the country in the middle of winter? Honestly, what could have been so important?" she shot.

Nick and Heath vaulted up the stairs then, having been informed of their visitors rather dramatic entrance.

"What's goin on?" Heath asked.

"I have no idea. They showed up here with Johnny half-dead and with a fever. Audra's with him and I've sent for the doctor," Victoria explained.

Heath didn't wait for further explanation, he went in to see his friend.

"It's his fault!" Scott exclaimed, pointing to Nick.

"My fault? How is it my fault?" Nick asked.

"This!" Scott said and handed him the letter.

Nick looked at the paper and glared at Scott. "What is this?"

"It's the letter you sent me, Nick!" Scott said.

"I didn't send you any letter. What are you talking about?"

"Read it!" Scott glared.

Nick read the letter quickly. "I didn't send this Scott. How could you think I would even say these things? Wait a minute. Are you telling me you risked you brother's life to come here over this?"

"He wasn't that sick!" Scott defended.

"Well, he is now! Alright, let's just calm down. The important thing now is to take care of Johnny. Not you, Scott. I can't imagine he would want to see you at the moment. Just wait downstairs for the doctor. Perhaps you can explain to him how sick your brother wasn't ," Victoria declared and went back in the bedroom.

Nick shook his head and followed his mother into the room. When he saw Johnny he was shocked at the pallor of his face.

"He's been coughing a lot, Mother, and he's so hot," Audra said with concern.

"Just keep trying to cool him down, dear. The doctor shouldn't be much longer," she replied.

Johnny opened his eyes to a roomful of Barkley's. He was a bit confused at first until he remembered he had a crazy brother.

"How do you feel?" An angel was asking him.

"No flowers," he mumbled. They all looked at him strangely. "No flowers on the grave," he explained with a small smile.

"I don't think we're that far along yet," Audra smiled.

"Oh, I thought I saw an angel," he replied.

"Ok, he's not too sick to charm our sister. I think he'll make it," Heath smiled.

*****

The doctor arrived and, after talking to Scott, he came into the sickroom. He examined Johnny for quite a while. Scott stood in the back of the room waiting and feeling like he should just leave the planet. "Well, he has pneumonia," the doctor announced.

"What? Will he be alright?" Scott asked, astounded.

"I don't know, Mr. Lancer. Keep him warm, give him plenty of fluids and try to get some broth in him. Make him cough at least every two hours and sit him up in the bed a couple of times a day. That's all we can do; that and wait," the doctor instructed.

"I'll come back and check on him tomorrow," he added.

"I guess I should send for Murdoch," Scott said quietly.

"I've already done that," Victoria told him.

Scott squared his shoulders. "I'd like to talk to my brother alone."

They all looked at Johnny questioningly but he only nodded his head so they left the Lancers alone.

"What can I say? I didn't realize you were that sick. Johnny, I'm so sorry," Scott said miserably.

Johnny didn't say anything, but just looked at him.

"What can I do? I ... I'm an idiot," he went on.

Still no answer.

"Will you say something?"

"Leave me alone, Scott," Johnny said softly.

"Johnny, please...I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," he tried.

Johnny turned his head away and closed his eyes. Scott left the room without another word.

*****

Murdoch Lancer arrived the next morning, having ridden all night to get there. He was tired, cold and hungry but it didn't matter. He was too angry to worry about that. He stormed into the Barkley home and demanded to know where his sons were.

Victoria calmed him pretty quickly, more easily than most people could have. She explained as much as she knew of the situation, but once she told him how sick Johnny was, he didn't want to hear anymore. He went immediately to his son.

"Johnny," he whispered.

Johnny opened his eyes slowly and looked at his father, giving him a smile. "Hey, you got here fast," he said softly.

"I rode all night. How are you feeling?"

"Lousy, hard to breathe," he whispered.

The answer shocked Murdoch more than the pale face and dark circles under his son's eyes. Johnny wouldn't complain if he had a tree branch sticking out of his head. He noticed the labored breathing though, and realized his son was having a hard time of it.

"Where is your brother?" he asked gruffly.

"I don't know, haven't seen him."

"What?" Murdoch asked, stunned.

"Don't want to neither," Johnny added.

"I can't blame you for that. What was he thinking?" Murdoch asked.

"Guess Nick's more important to him than we thought," Johnny said a bit sarcastically. He turned his head then to hide the hurt he was feeling but it didn't do him any good. Murdoch didn't have to see his face to know how deeply Scott had hurt him with this stunt.

"Try to get some sleep, son. I'm going to change my clothes and get a bite to eat then, I'll be right back," Murdoch said softly.

"You get some sleep, you look tired," Johnny said, turning back and smiling.

"Maybe I will. I think we're going to be here for a while," Murdoch said, returning the smile.

"Darn, you mean I have to let Audra take care of me?" Johnny grinned full out.

"Behave yourself, you're too weak to be chasing that girl," Murdoch teased. He petted Johnny's head and squeezed his shoulder, then left to find his other son.

*****

Murdoch went downstairs to find anyone. He found Victoria in the living room. "Where's Scott?" he asked.

"I don't know. He rode out this morning and I haven't seen him since. I'm sure he feels awful about this," she replied.

"He should! What was he thinking or was he thinking at all?" Murdoch groused as he paced the room.

"I know you're angry with him Murdoch and you have every right to be, but don't say anything you'll regret," she warned.

Murdoch waited two more hours before Scott returned. By then, he was seething at his eldest's behavior.

Scott walked into the living room and stopped in his tracks. "I didn't think you'd get here this soon," he said.

"I rode all night. Tell me, did you make your brother do the same?" he quipped.

"Murdoch..."

"No! Don't say anything, just listen. I don't care if you've heard it already, you haven't heard it from me and I need to tell you a few things, young man. Of all the idiotic displays I have been witness to in my life, I have never seen such stupidity from a supposedly intelligent man. It never occurred to you that you might be putting your brother at risk. All you could think of was confronting Nick about some letter. Nothing else mattered to you. You just had to set things right with your friend and in the process, you may very well have killed your brother!

"Now, Johnny doesn't want to even look at you, and who could blame him? You may have lost him, Scott. You may have done irreparable damage to your relationship with him. Do you even care? You must not, otherwise you would have thought about what you were doing. Is Nick Barkley more important to you than your own brother?"

"No! I didn't realize he was that sick. He just had a cold!" Scott defended.

"Just a cold. A cold that you made him ride across the country in winter with. Why do you think he was in bed in the first place? To keep him from getting sicker, that's why! Just a cold .... Sure why didn't I think of that? Why I should have had him out rounding up stays, mending fences, painting the barn!" His voice boomed throughout the house.

"Unbelievable, that's what it is, unbelievable!" Murdoch stormed out of the room and up the stairs.

Scott sat down heavily in the nearest chair, his legs shaking. He had done such a stupid thing and for what? He didn't even care about Nick at the moment. All he cared about was how he was going to get Johnny to forgive him. Could he forgive him? Scott wasn't sure he would be able to if things were reversed.

*****

Heath was sitting with Johnny when Murdoch came in. Johnny was sitting up in bed and Murdoch smiled at this.

"Don't get happy. Doc said I had to sit up a couple of times a day," Johnny said when he saw the smile.

"Oh, well, do you feel any better?" Murdoch asked, his face dropping at the news.

"A little, I guess," Johnny replied.

"Well, I'll let you two have some privacy," Heath said and left quietly.

"I just spoke to your brother," Murdoch said.

Johnny laughed a little which turned into a coughing fit. Murdoch held onto him until he stopped.

"Sorry, I heard you; everybody heard you," he said once he could breathe again.

"I guess I got a little loud," Murdoch said, a bit embarrassed.

"A little," Johnny smiled.

"Johnny, how do you feel about Scott right now?"

"I'm mad as hell, that's how I feel!"

"That's all?" Murdoch asked with a raised brow.

Johnny dropped his eyes and played with his hands until Murdoch put his hand over them to stop him.

"Talk to me, son."

"How am I supposed to feel? He drags me out here cause he just has to set things straight with his friend. I told him I was sick. He should have at least cared but, all he could do was yell at me to hurry up," he whispered.

"I don't know what he was thinking either. I know it's been important to him to have a friend here, someone he can talk to about the war, as well. I can only guess that he was so afraid of losing that friendship, he wasn't thinking clearly," Murdoch said, trying to explain to himself as much as Johnny what could have drove Scott to such lengths.

"I can understand that, Murdoch. I really can, but..."

"Tell me, Johnny," Murdoch urged.

"It's just the way he treated me, like I didn't matter, like I was holding him back, like I was a burden to him. That's what ..."

"Hurts?"

"Yeah, I guess so," Johnny muttered. "I can't deal with this right now, that's all I know."

"No, you shouldn't have to. Here, let me help you lie back down," Murdoch said and laid Johnny down gently in the bed.

The doctor arrived then and Murdoch left the room while he examined Johnny.

*****

Murdoch was pacing the foyer, waiting for the doctor to come down when Nick walked in. He hadn't seen the man since his arrival.

"Murdoch, how is he?"

"The doctor is with him now," Murdoch said flatly. "Nick, would you mind telling me how this whole thing got started?"

"It's a long story, Murdoch. I met a man who said he served with Scott in the army. We started talking and he said he had recently seen Scott. He said Scott told him about me and said some things that weren't very nice. I didn't really believe him and thought nothing more about it until Scott and Johnny showed up here," he explained.

"But you sent Scott that letter," Murdoch said, confused.

"No, Sir, I did not and I told Scott that the day they arrived. We haven't had a chance to talk since then but I can guess the man I met sent it. It was obvious he wasn't a friend of Scott's and was trying to make me believe things that I knew weren't true."

"Well, I know no one has been to visit Scott recently, certainly not any one from the army," Murdoch said. "Do you remember his name?"

"Yes, it was Fulton. William Fulton," Nick answered.

"Fulton?" Scott asked, overhearing the last part of the conversation. "What about him?"

"Nick, why don't you explain this to Scott? I'm going to see what's taking that doctor so long," Murdoch said and headed upstairs.

*****

The doctor was just coming out when Murdoch met up with him. "How is he?" he asked anxiously.

"His lungs sound a little better. He still has a fever but it's gone down some. Just keep doing what you've been doing. I'll come back tomorrow to check him," the doctor replied.

"Doc, he is going to be alright?"

"Mr. Lancer, he has an infection in his lungs. There isn't much I can give him in the way of medicine for it, all we can do is treat him and hope he can fight it off. He's young and strong and otherwise healthy. All those things are in his favor, plus, from what I've seen of him, he's been through much worse in his life."

"Yes, he has. Thank you, Doctor," Murdoch mumbled and went to sit with Johnny.

"Doc says you're a little better," Murdoch announced when he walked in.

"If he says so. I still can't breathe too good ," Johnny said glumly.

"Just keep doing what he tells you, son. It's up to you to fight this thing, I know you can do that," Murdoch encouraged.

"I ain't gonna die on you, Murdoch," Johnny grinned.

"You better not. I'll be pretty angry with you if you do," Murdoch teased. But his heart skipped a beat hearing this from his son. When did Johnny get so good at reading him? "There's something you should know. I just talked to Nick and he said he didn't send Scott that letter," he added.

"He didn't? Who did?" Johnny asked, surprised.

"We think it was a man Nick met recently who said he knew Scott in the army. Nick said it was pretty plain the man didn't like Scott and badmouthed him quite a bit. Nick said he paid no attention and had forgotten the entire thing but Scott knew the name when Nick said it. They're talking about it now."

"So, this man might be out to get Scott?" Johnny reasoned.

"It seems so," Murdoch replied.

Johnny sighed and closed his eyes, he felt very tired all of the sudden. He opened them again and bolted up in the bed.

"What's wrong, son?"

"If this man wrote that letter, then he must have figured Scott would come here. That means he might be waiting for him," Johnny said.

Murdoch felt the tension rise in him. Scott could be in danger and they hadn't even known it! "I'd better go talk to your brother and find out just who this man is and what he wants," he said determinedly.

"Bring him up here. I want to know what's going on," Johnny said.

Murdoch almost said no, he didn't want Johnny worrying about anything, but he quickly changed his mind as he saw a way to possibly ease the distance between the brothers.

He brought Scott and Nick back in the sick room with him but Johnny's eyes were closed.

"Maybe we should wait until later," Scott whispered.

"Or not," Johnny said as he opened his eyes. "Tell me."

"Johnny, you should be resting," Scott tried.

"Nick, will you tell me?" Johnny asked, ignoring his brother's attempt to stall.

"Alright!" Scott clipped. He began to pace the room until he finally stopped and squared his shoulders, facing his brother.

"William Fulton was a Major in the union army. For a short time he was my commanding officer. He didn't like me and had no problem letting it be known. He tried many times to boot me out but I was finally transferred to Sheridan."

"Why didn't he like you?" Johnny asked.

Scott bit his lower lip. "I was stationed in Pennsylvania during that time. Fulton was from there and he was a lawyer. He was a self-important arrogant man. He was always boasting about this thing or that. He fancied himself an expert on war. One night, he was talking about the revolutionary war and he said something that was inaccurate. I corrected him and it turned into a heated debate. From then on, he hated the sight of me. He tried more than once to get me discharged. Later he was wounded in a battle both our regiments were involved in. I was the one who found him and took him to the surgery tent. He cursed me the entire way."

"That's it? All this is over some stupid argument?" Johnny asked incredulously.

"I'm afraid so," Scott said.

"There has to be more to it than that, Scott," Johnny replied suspiciously.

Scott avoided his brother's gaze. "There's nothing else I can tell you, Johnny."

"You do realize he sent that letter hoping you'd come here. He's probably out there somewhere waiting to ambush you right now," Johnny said flatly.

"I know that now," Scott mumbled.

Johnny shook his head at his brother. Murdoch and Nick stayed silent throughout the entire time. No one said anything for a while until Johnny finally spoke again.

"Nick, maybe you should let the sheriff know what's going on here," he said, then turned to his brother. "That man is obviously loco, Scott. Now get out of here and let me rest," he finished and turned his head away.

Scott started to say something but found he had no words. He bowed his head and left the room quietly.

"I'll talk to the sheriff, Johnny. And I'll see if I can track down Fulton and 'reason' with him," Nick said gruffly.

"Be careful, Nick. The man is obviously on a mission. He might not have any qualms about going after you, too," Murdoch pointed out.

Nick nodded his head and left the room. Murdoch watched Johnny for a while, knowing his son was not asleep, yet unsure of what to say. He sat down on the side of the bed and waited.

"Unbelievable, that's what it is," Johnny whispered.

"It was a good set up," Murdoch commented.

"Sure, if you're insane! There's something wrong with him, Murdoch; something wrong with his head. You should have that checked out," Johnny said sarcastically.

"I know you're hurt, John, but I have to worry for Scott's safety now," Murdoch said gently.

"I know. He's in danger. You need to go get this sorted out. I'm okay, go on. Besides," he said, turning to face his father with a grin, "Audra will take care of me."

Murdoch laughed and shook his head. "You leave that girl alone or you'll have a half dozen Barkley's tanning your hide," he admonished with a wagging finger. Murdoch quickly brushed Johnny's cheek with the back of his hand then left.

*****

Murdoch caught up with Nick and rode into Stockton with him. It was time he took this bull by the horns himself. After a disappointing conversation with the sheriff who told them there was nothing he could do as no laws had yet been broken, the two men stood on the boardwalk fuming.

"Let's check the hotels, see if this Fulton is still in town," Murdoch suggested.

Nick was more than agreeable to this, he was furious at being used this way. He stalked down the boardwalk to the Stockton Hotel and stormed up to the desk, ringing the bell enthusiastically.

The desk clerk, a rather austere looking gentleman, came from the back room and smiled sickly. "How may I help you?"

Murdoch decided to intervene as he saw the steam coming from Nick's ears. "Do you have a guest named William Fulton?"

"I'm sorry, Sir. We do not give out information about our guests. It is the policy of the hotel to remain discreet," he replied arrogantly.

Nick grabbed the sign in book and twirled it out, flipping through the pages.

"Sir, please! That is not allowed!" he exclaimed.

Nick stopped and glared at him menacingly. "Do you know who I am?" he hissed. At the shake of the clerk's head, he continued. "I'm Nick Barkley," he finished.

"Oh! Oh, my. Well, uh, Mr. Barkley, allow me," he stammered as he turned the book back and started looking. "What was the name again?"

"William Fulton," Nick hissed once more.

"Yes, here it is. Room 110, just up the stairs and down the hall, gentlemen," the clerk hurried the information along.

They walked up the stairs and Nick was about to knock on the door when he felt Murdoch's hand on his arm.

"Have you thought of how we're going to handle this?" Murdoch asked quietly.

"I plan on handling it with my fist if I have to. This is going to end today. Nobody uses me, nobody!" Nick hissed and pounded on the door.

Murdoch sighed and shook his head at the obstinate man. He knew Nick had a terrible temper and it flared as easily as Johnny's.

The door opened wide and the man stared in open surprise at finding Nick Barkley at his door with a man he did not recognize.

"Nick! This is a surprise. What brings you here?" Fulton asked.

"Aren't you going to invite us in, Bill?" Nick asked in a friendly tone.

Murdoch was stunned at the change that had come over the dark haired man in the matter of a few seconds, but he realized that Nick was going to play the game.

"Oh, of course, Come right in," Fulton said, sounding quite relieved by the friendliness in Barkley's tone. "What can I do for you?" he asked, eyeing Murdoch.

"I'm sorry, don't you recognize my friend?" Nick asked.

"Should I?"

"Well, I would have thought you two had met when you visited Scott. This is Murdoch Lancer, Scott's father," Nick said, his voice changing now to flat monotones.

Fulton's eyes narrowed as he took in the tall man before him. "What's this all about?"

"Obviously, it's about my son. What are your intentions, Mr. Fulton? You were trying to get Scott here by sending that letter supposedly from Nick. Did you think Scott would ride here on a whim?" Murdoch shot, knowing that is exactly what his son had done.

"What letter? I don't know what you're talking about," Fulton replied, turning his back to them.

"It won't work, Fulton. You can't lie your way out of this. I know you sent that letter because I read it. Now, what's your game?" Nick bellowed.

Fulton turned back and smiled. "You read it? That means Scott is here, right?"

"It doesn't matter where my son is, you won't get anywhere near him," Murdoch growled.

"Does he always send his daddy to fight for him now?" Fulton sneered.

Murdoch took a threatening step forward. "He doesn't need me to take up for him. Whatever you think it is Scott did, he didn't. He told me all about the situation and it's your behavior that was outrageous, Fulton. I suggest you get on the next train out of town and forget this ridiculous vendetta," he nearly ordered.

"I have no vendetta, Mr. Lancer. This is my home now, or it will be as soon as the renovations to my house are completed. I don't intend to go anywhere," Fulton replied.

"Just stay away from my son or you'll have me to contend with," Murdoch fumed.

"Not to mention me as well," Nick added.

They both walked out of the room then, slamming the door behind them.

"What do you think?" Murdoch whispered.

"I think the man has a plan and he's not going to stop until he finishes it," Nick replied glumly.

*****

Scott Lancer paced the drawing room of the Barkley mansion waiting for his father to return. Heath had told him Murdoch and Nick went to see the sheriff and he was incensed that they were going behind his back. He could take care of his own problems. He didn't need his father to bail him out! He heard the front door open and walked into the foyer.

"I hear you went to see the sheriff. Why?" he demanded.

"To see if he could intervene. He couldn't," Murdoch clipped.

"You were gone a long time for such a short conversation," Scott pressed.

"We made another stop to chat with your friend Fulton," Murdoch said.

"You did what!?"

"Scott, calm down. We were in town so we decided to see if we could find him," Murdoch said.

"What did you do, Murdoch?" Scott asked suspiciously.

"Now, Scott. Don't get your back up. We just made sure Fulton knew not to bother you. That's all," Nick said.

"How, Nick?" Scott asked, still fuming, now at the both of them.

"Well, we just let him know you had family and friends to back you up," Nick shrugged.

Scott's face turned beet red with anger. He couldn't even speak, he was so enraged. He wanted to scream at them but he couldn't find his voice. Someone found it for him, however.

"You had no right to do that," Johnny said from the stairs.

"Johnny, what are you doing out of bed?" Murdoch asked with concern as he went to his son's side.

"I wanted to know what all the yelling was about. You had no right to do that to Scott, Murdoch. No right at all," he reiterated.

"What are you talking about? We didn't DO anything to Scott," Murdoch said.

"Yes, you did. You tried to scare him off, threaten him. That ain't right. This is Scott's fight and if he wanted your help, he would have asked. He doesn't need us to fight his battles for him," Johnny explained. He was growing quite weary but he held on, he wanted to make his point.

"I don't see what the harm is," Nick said gruffly.

"How would you like it if somebody came after you and Heath scared them off?" Johnny asked.

Nick's brows knitted together as he considered the point, he wouldn't like it at all. In fact, he'd be damned mad about it. He looked at his friend with something akin to embarrassment. "Sorry, Scott. I didn't think about it like that."

Murdoch wanted to go to his son but he was afraid to leave Johnny's side. He could tell his youngest wasn't going to be on his feet much longer. "Scott, come here," he said gently.

Scott walked up the stairs but he refused to look at his father. He was angry and hurt.

"I'm sorry, too, son. I wasn't thinking. We were trying to talk to that lunatic and get rid of him."

Scott said nothing but Johnny did. "Would you all mind finishing this without me. I..." That was as far as he got before he collapsed against his father. Scott moved quickly to grab his brother and together they got him back to bed.

Scott immediately began caring for his brother and still he had not spoken a word to his father or Nick.

Johnny opened his eyes and looked around, puzzled. "What happened?"

"You passed out," Scott said softly.

"Oh, okay," Johnny said and closed his eyes again.

*****

Johnny slept a great deal the next two days. Between Audra and Victoria's watchful eyes, they managed to make him do as he was told. Murdoch sat with him most of the time but Scott was not to be found. Johnny looked for him each time he opened his eyes and each time he felt a deep hurt that his brother was staying away.

He knew he had told him he didn't want to see him but that was days ago and before all this craziness had come to light. He was still angry but he wanted to talk to his brother. His stubbornness would not allow him to ask for the man, however.

Scott's anger toward Nick and his father only kept simmering. How dare they? He spent his time alone, usually in the gardens or riding the countryside. He knew Johnny didn't want to see him but he got daily reports from Victoria or Audra. He didn't know how he was going to fix the mess he had created with his brother. He was ashamed of the way he had acted and all because of his own selfishness.

He hadn't wanted to lose the friendship he cherished with Nick, now he didn't care one way or another. The only thing that mattered was somehow getting Johnny to forgive him.

He decided it was time to face his brother on the third day after the debacle on the stairs. Victoria had told him Johnny was much better and the doctor was happy with his recovery. This was the best news he had heard in a long time and he ventured into the room after making sure Murdoch was not there.

Johnny was asleep, breathing easy and resting comfortably. Scott sighed softly with relief. He eased down on the side of the bed and watched for awhile.

"Johnny, I don't know how I'm ever going to make this up to you. I wouldn't blame you if you never forgave me. I was so thoughtless, so selfish. I'm also a hypocrite. I was angry with Murdoch and Nick for trying to bail me out when I was trying to do the same thing with Nick. I dragged you out here for my own purposes and never once did I think of your welfare. I was so angry, all I could think of was finding out what had happened here.

â€I guess I needed that connection to Nick. I've never had anyone to talk to about the war before. When I met him, it was so easy because he knew what I was going through. We shared a common bond and I needed that bond with someone so badly, I was willing to do anything to keep it. I know that's not a good reason, but it's the only explanation I've been able to come up with."

Scott stopped talking and looked down at his boots. It sounded so lame he knew he had to find a better way of explaining himself.

"You had me," Johnny whispered.

Scott looked up suddenly and stared at Johnny without comprehension.

"You said you didn't have anyone to talk to. You had me," Johnny explained.

"You couldn't understand what happened then. You weren't there," Scott said.

"No, I wasn't but I've been in war before. Maybe not like that, but the results are the same. I've also been in a pretty awful prison. You didn't even try, Scott. You always want me to talk to you, to share things with you but you never share anything with me."

"It's not the same. The things you've been through, it's more important to deal with that than my problems," Scott said.

"Says who? Why is it more important? Because it lasted longer? That's horse ... manure and you know it! What is wrong with you people? Am I that pathetic that you have to coddle me?" Johnny raged.

"No, just the opposite. You're not pathetic at all. You don't show any emotion about your past. That's what worries me and Murdoch. You keep it all bottled up inside. We feel like we have to drag it out of you to help you," Scott explained.

"Help me what? Did I ask for your help? Scott, my feelings are just that, mine. If I want to share something with you, I will. I have, haven't I? You don't have to keep after me, I ain't gonna break! But you just might, if you don't stop acting like a fool and realize that I can listen much better than I can talk about myself. I can help you, Scott. All you have to do is let me.

"You want to talk about the war, you just won't talk to me about it. You think it won't stack up to what I've been through. Well, that's just plain loco! It don't matter, we have different experiences, different lives, everybody does but it don't make them any less."

Scott smiled at his brother. "You didn't cough once through that entire diatribe. You must be better."

"Is that all you can say to me?" Johnny asked.

"No, I can say that you're absolutely right. I should have come to you, Johnny. I didn't want to be a burden. I know, I know, but that's how I feel and I can't help that. None of that matters right now. All that matters is , can you ever forgive me for almost killing you?" Scott asked, mournfully.

Johnny smiled wickedly at his brother. "Takes a lot more than that to do me in, Boston. It ain't the pneumonia, it was the way you treated me. Like I was a burden to you, something that was dragging you down, like I didn't matter," Johnny said softly and the hurt could not be missed.

"I swear to you that will never happen again. No one is more important to me than you are, Johnny. I guess I started taking you for granted," Scott said, ashamed.

"You did? That's good, Boston," Johnny smiled.

"Do you have a fever again?" Scott asked as he felt his brother's forehead.

"No, I just mean if you take me for granted, that means you're used to me. That's a good thing, means you don't expect me to run off anymore," Johnny explained.

"I guess I don't. Well, how about that? When did that happen?" Scott smiled.

"I don't know but ... I'm glad it did cause I'm not goin anywhere, brother," Johnny said, serious now.

Murdoch stood just outside the door and eavesdropped without shame. He smiled to himself as he heard his son's making up. He wasn't sure it was going to happen and, for the first time, he really worried about their relationship. It had always been so strong, almost from the first day.

He had watched it grow stronger every day since until he was satisfied nothing would ever come between them. That was when he relaxed more about Johnny, felt more confident that his youngest would stay with him, with them. He sighed with relief and walked into the room, his face a mask of supposed unawareness.

Too bad he had a professional for a son, one who had become quite good at reading his father. Johnny smiled knowingly at Murdoch, telling him with his eyes that he was not fooled. That he knew Murdoch had been listening to them.

The humor that danced in those incredibly blue eyes told the old man that his son was not angry with him for listening in. He also knew it would be their secret for as long as Murdoch wanted it to be.

*****

Johnny felt much better the next day and decided it was time to get out of bed. He waited until Audra had taken his breakfast tray away and slipped out from under the covers. Moving a bit slowly, he dressed and was putting on his boots when he was caught.

"I hope you don't think you're going somewhere," Murdoch said in a strict voice.

"Just out of this room," Johnny smiled.

"The smile isn't going to work, Johnny. You're too sick to be up until the doctor says it's alright. Now, back to bed," Murdoch ordered.

"Murdoch, I can't lay here anymore. I feel a lot better, no fever, no coughing. I just need to move around a little," Johnny nearly pleaded.

Murdoch sighed heavily, the look on his boy's face was killing him. "Alright, but you go nowhere alone. Understand?"

"Yes, Sir," Johnny saluted.

He walked closely beside Johnny down the hall and to the stairs. Johnny stopped at the top and took a breath.

"Are you sure you're alright?" Murdoch asked.

"Yeah, just weak. Might need a little help with the stairs," he said softly.

Murdoch took hold of him, wrapping his arm around Johnny's waist and helping him downstairs to the living room.

He sat down on the sofa and sighed. "Whew! Glad that's over," he grinned.

Victoria walked in and her hand went to her bosom. "Johnny, what in the world?"

"He needed to move around, get out of that room. I know, I know, but you don't know how stubborn he is," Murdoch defended.

"Oh? As stubborn as his father, no doubt," she retorted.

"No doubt," Johnny mumbled.

"What are you doing out of bed?" Scott asked as he walked in with Nick.

"I ain't goin through that again," Johnny said tersely. He looked into his brother's eyes. "Find out anything yet?"

"No, not yet," Scott said, breaking the hold Johnny had by moving away.

"What are you going to do, Scott?" Victoria asked.

"I have no idea, ma'am. I suppose the best thing would be to confront him and get it over with," Scott said with a sigh.

"Not alone," Johnny said flatly.

"This is my problem, Johnny. It's mine to fix," Scott said.

"It was your problem, Scott. Now it's mine, too, and you're not goin anywhere without me so just sit back and relax until I get my feet under me," Johnny said harshly.

They were interrupted by a knock at the door. A few seconds later, Silas showed the doctor into the living room.

"Funny, I don't recall saying you could get out of bed yet," he commented.

"Don't recall askin ," Johnny clipped.

"Johnny!" Murdoch admonished.

"Sorry, Doc. I feel a lot better," Johnny said.

"Well, how about you let me be the judge of that," the doctor replied and went about examining his patient.

"Well, your lungs are much clearer and there's no fever. I suppose you know yourself pretty well," he proclaimed.

"Reckon I do. When can I ride?"

"Not for a few days, young man. The weather is your worst enemy right now. It's best if you stay indoors where it's warm."

Johnny was not happy with that answer and the scowl on his face was all the reply any of them needed to know it.

"Thank you, Doctor. We'll make sure he stays inside," Murdoch said to alleviate the tension.

The doctor nodded and left, promising to come back in two days time.

*****

"Can we finish our talk now?" Johnny asked once Murdoch returned to the room.

"We are finished, Johnny. You won't be fighting my battles for me," Scott said firmly.

"Really? Then what the hell am I doin here?"

"I don't think that kind of language is necessary, young man. You need to settle down," Murdoch said.

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Barkley. No offense meant. Guess I'm a little short tempered today," Johnny said.

"It's alright, Johnny. I understand. Why don't I leave you to talk with your family?" Victoria replied and gracefully left the room.

"Scott, this whole thing has been a set up from the word go. What makes you think Fulton's not still setting you up? He's probably biding his time, waiting for you to let your guard down before he strikes," Johnny said, calmer now.

"You may be right, Johnny. It's still my problem. I've done enough to you, I won't put you in harm's way again," Scott replied, trying to control the pain in his voice without much success.

"Murdoch, will you talk to him? I don't have the energy," Johnny sighed and leaned back against the sofa cushions.

"He has a point, Scott, but Johnny isn't going anywhere. You and I will handle this," Murdoch said.

"I don't need...."

"I don't care what you think you need! This mess is going to be resolved and now!" Murdoch bellowed.

Scott glared at his father, a sudden memory flashing through his mind of that first day he arrived at Lancer. 'You'll do as youâ€re told,' Murdoch had said to him. It made him feel exactly five years old then and it still did.

"I'm not going to let this hurt anyone else. This is my fault and I am the one who will take care of it," he said in a deceptively calm voice.

"How? By getting a bullet in the back?" Johnny clipped.

There was a silence in the room after that remark until Nick walked in and felt the thick air.

"Something wrong?" he asked.

"Other than the usual, no," Johnny grumped.

"Well, I just came back from town and Fulton has moved into his new house," Nick reported.

"Then I guess it's time I pay him a visit," Scott said.

"Not alone, Boston," Johnny replied.

"Yes alone, Johnny. This is between he and I and you can't help, none of you can. Besides, I doubt he'd be stupid enough to kill me in his living room, if that is his intention," Scott said firmly.

"Scott..."

"No, Murdoch. It's time for me to handle this. I'm a grown man. You're going to have to trust that I know what I'm doing," Scott interrupted.

"And Fulton? Am I supposed to trust him, too?" Murdoch asked a bit sarcastically.

Scott smiled a little. "No, just me."

"Well, nothing can be resolved today. Let's call a truce for now," Nick offered.

*****

Two hours later, Scott was on his way to Stockton alone. He had waited until Murdoch insisted Johnny lie back down and snuck out while his father was tending to his brother.

He made a quick inquiry at the hotel and headed to Fulton's house. It was an impressive structure and Scott remembered the man always spoke of his wealth, bragged was more like it.

He strode up to the door and knocked.

Fulton opened the door with a look of surprise on his face.

"You were expecting me," Scott said coldly.

"All alone, Lieutenant?" Fulton smiled.

"This is between you and I , Fulton. I see no reason to involve the Barkley's or my family any longer," Scott explained.

"Come in, then," Fulton offered, opening the door and bowing slightly.

Scott smirked at the gesture, knowing it was meant as a rub. "After you," he said.

Fulton only laughed and led the way into the living room.

"Alright, what exactly do you want?" Scott asked.

*****

Murdoch came back downstairs and looked for his son, then went back up to check the room Scott occupied.

He met Audra in the hall outside Johnny's room. "Have you seen, Scott?"

"Not for a while. He rode out about two hours ago," she replied.

"Rode out? Alone?" Murdoch asked.

"Well, yes, I saw him from my bedroom window," she said, not understanding the concern.

"Audra, will you keep an eye on Johnny until I return?" Murdoch asked, his face in a deep frown.

"Of course, but ...." the sentence trailed off as she spoke to his disappearing back.

She turned and saw Johnny standing in the doorway looking like he could chew nails.

"What in the world is going on?" she asked.

"Nothing. My brother is an idiot, is all," Johnny snarled.

He stood by the window and waited until he saw Murdoch ride out, then started downstairs.

"Where do you think you're going?" Victoria Barkley asked from the parlor.

"After my crazy brother. Mrs. Barkley, I appreciate everything you've done for me but you can't stop me so don't even try," he said before she could start in on him.

*****

"What do you think I want, Lancer?" Fulton asked.

"I hardly think our differences were bad enough for you to want to kill me," Scott answered.

"Kill you? Good heaven's, I don't want to kill you."

"What do you want, Fulton?" Scott said, frustrated.

"A challenge, Lancer. A simple challenge of brains and wit," Fulton replied as he poured himself a brandy. "You've already proven to me you are not as intelligent as you perceive yourself. That letter should have been a red flag but you didn't even think about it. You charged forth to face your friend. Perhaps, if you had stopped to think, you could have reasoned the letter was false."

Scott winced as the words hit home, harder than Fulton knew. He was right, if he'd only stopped to think.

"Fine, you win. Feel better?" Scott retorted.

"That was nothing. No, my challenge is more ...well, challenging," Fulton laughed.

"I'm listening," Scott said.

"I've done some research on you, Lancer. Fascinating story. How long have you been with your father now? A year? How well do you think you know him and the ranching business?"

"Why?"

"I've begun to learn about ranching myself. In fact, I've only been at it six months or so. I'd say that puts us on a fairly level playing field," Fulton said.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Scott said, exasperated.

"Allow me to explain."

*****

Johnny could feel the days of inactivity deep in his bones as he held onto Barranca . He cursed his brother's stubborn hide the whole way to Stockton. By the time he arrived at the edge of town, he wasn't sure he could stay in the saddle.

Calling on his reserves, he decided to stop at the hotel when he spotted Murdoch coming out of the building. Pulling into an alley, he watched his father ride out and followed.

Murdoch rode up to the house and saw Scott's horse tethered in front. Gritting his teeth, he dismounted. He stopped when he heard a horse behind him. His anger flared when he saw Johnny.

"What are you doing here?" he hissed.

"Same as you, so let's go," Johnny said, fighting to keep his voice level.

Murdoch shook his head and walked to the door.

He didn't see Johnny sway and grab hold of the hitching post briefly before following him onto the porch.

*****

"So, this is a game?" Scott asked.

"A very high stakes game, Lancer. One you will play whether you agree or not. I intend to ensure you cannot refuse," Fulton smirked.

"And how do you intend to pull that off?" Scott asked with a raised brow.

"Simple. Either you play or you lose your ranch," he shrugged.

"Go on," Scott said flatly.

"I have done quite a bit of research on Lancer. A very profitable business. Of course, you are wasting a huge amount of resources. It's sad really, when you think of all you could be accomplishing. I suppose you are still, what do they call it, a greenhorn," Fulton laughed.

"I have no problem admitting I still have things to learn but my father built that ranch from the ground up. Surely you don't think you can destroy him?" Scott said smugly.

"Certainly I can and will, Lancer. You will see who is the better man ," Fulton said angrily.

"All I see is a lot of caterwallin '," Johnny said softly from the doorway.

Scott jerked around to find his brother and father eavesdropping.

"How dare you barge into my home?" Fulton said indignantly.

Johnny just glared at the man.

"What's all this about destroying Lancer?" Murdoch asked.

"Mr. Fulton seems to think he and I are going to play a game of wits with Lancer as the prize," Scott explained.

"Does he?" Murdoch asked, amused.

"So that's what all this has been about? Some stupid game?" Johnny asked in shock.

"What else?" Fulton replied.

Johnny sauntered over to the man and squared up. "I don't care what it is. I ain't playin and neither is Scott. You got somethin wrong with your head, mister. Lancer ain't in the pot!" he hissed.

"And just who the devil are you?" Fulton asked.

Johnny smiled softly. "Exactly."

"It's time for us to leave, boys. Fulton, I don't know what you think you're going to accomplish here, but let me just say this. Lancer will not be used in any scheme you have in mind," Murdoch said, eyeing the man coldly.

"We shall see, Mr. Lancer. The game has already begun as you will soon find out," Fulton retorted smugly.

"Hey, let me ask you somethin . Do you like livin ?" Johnny asked, still smiling.

"Yes, of course I do."

"Then forget about this revenge or whatever it is against Scott and get a life of your own. You won't have Lancer so you best get busy finding something else to play with."

"And who is going to stop me?" Fulton asked.

Johnny smiled and stared at him with icy eyes. "I will."

" Hmmph ! I don't know who you are but it is apparent you don't have enough brains to stop a cough," Fulton said.

"You're a fool, mister. Ask around, you'll find out who I am. When you do, don't come beggin for mercy. I don't have any," Johnny drawled and strode confidently out of the house.

"So much for his research. He doesn't even know about you," Scott said as they walked to their horses.

"What is this all about, Scott?" Murdoch asked.

"He's insane, Murdoch. He's obsessed with proving he has more intelligence and cunning than I do," Scott frowned.

"Well, I'm obsessed with layin down somewhere if you two don't mind," Johnny said sarcastically.

"You shouldn't even be here, Johnny," Murdoch clipped.

"None of us should be here, Murdoch! Let's just go home," Johnny shot and vaulted onto Barranca .

The Lancers rode back to the Barkley home together and Nick watched as they approached, grateful they all seemed in one piece. Victoria walked out on the porch as they were dismounting.

"Johnny Lancer, what do you think you are doing?" she said, her hands on her hips.

"Don't even try, Johnny. You can't win," Nick advised.

"Come here, young man," she said and immediately felt his forehead. "You're a little warm. Up to bed this instant," she commanded.

"Yes, ma'am," Johnny mumbled and skulked into the house.

Murdoch couldn't hide the smile as he watched his old friend mother his son. "I'll see to him, Victoria," he said.

"Hardheaded, that's what he is, just like his father," she seethed.

"What happened?" Nick asked Scott.

"Let's go inside and I'll tell you about it," Scott said, looking quite unhappy.

After Scott explained the situation to the Barkleys , they sat quietly for a while.

"You said he told you he'd already started. What do you think he meant by that?" Heath asked.

"I don't know, I ...." Scott stopped, his face dropping.

"What is it, Scott?' Nick asked.

"I need to wire the ranch. Make sure everything is alright there," Scott said as he stood.

"I'm sure they would have sent word if anything were wrong," Victoria tried to reassure him.

"I hope so, Mrs. Barkley, but I'll feel better when I know for certain," Scott said and walked to the front door.

Nick trailed behind him, not wanting his friend out alone with an obviously mad man on the loose.

*****

Victoria headed upstairs to fill Murdoch and Johnny in and to check on her young charge.

"How is he?" she asked.

"I'm alright, ma'am, just a little tired," Johnny answered.

"Scott and Nick have gone to town to wire your ranch. Scott wanted to make sure everything was alright there," she explained.

"This whole thing is so ridiculous. I'll never understand what drives a man to such lengths," Murdoch said, shaking his head.

"He's loco, that's all," Johnny snorted.

"I'm sure you're right, son, but that doesn't mean he can't do some damage," Murdoch said.

"I got some damage for him," Johnny grumbled.

"You are not in any condition to do anything, young man. I've already sent for the doctor to check you again. Going off like that was foolish," Victoria chastised.

If anyone else had spoken to him like that, he would have let them have an earful, but Johnny said nothing and simply dropped his head.

"Victoria, could you come to Lancer and handle my sons? You do a much better job than me," Murdoch said, chuckling.

*****

Scott and Nick waited in town for a reply to the wire and Scott was relieved to hear from Jelly that all was well. They started to the horses when Scott saw Fulton coming out of the bank.

He watched him stop to chat with a few people, laughing and smiling and it made him sick to his stomach.

"You said Fulton didn't know who Johnny was," Nick said suddenly.

"That's right."

"And none of you cleared that up for him?" Nick continued.

"We didn't feel inclined," Scott said sarcastically.

They watched Fulton walk into the saloon and Nick had an inspiration. "I'll be right back, Scott. Do me a favor and don't go near him. I have an idea," he said and patted Scott's arm as he walked away.

Nick returned ten minutes later with a satisfied look on his face.

"What did you do?" Scott asked with a cynical tone.

"Oh, nothing. Let's get back to the ranch. I don't know about you, but I'm hungry," Nick smiled.

*****

The saloon wasn't too crowded and the noise level was more tolerable than usual. Two cowboys walked in and sat at the table next to Fulton.

They ordered their beer and started talking.

"I'm tellin ya , I don't like it. I just thought Miz Barkley was smarter than that."

"I know but it's her place and if she wants ta let him stay there, ain't much we can do about it."

"Maybe not, but I been keepin a real close watch. Specially now that he's on his feet and not sick no more. I don't know why she let them Lancers talk her into it, that's all."

" Ain't like she had a choice with Scott showin up like that with ' im . She ain't the type ta turn a man away, specially the son of a friend."

"Well, I can understand her lettin him stay but havin Johnny Madrid under your roof, and her with that pretty daughter, it ain't right I'm tellin ya ."

"I heard tell he faced down four guns one time down in Texas and came out of it without a scratch. Dropped all four of ' em and never even batted an eye."

"That's exactly what I'm a talkin about. He's a killer, a stone cold killer. Don't know why Mr. Lancer even has ' im on the payroll."

" Cause he don't have no trouble with rustlers or horse thieves long as Madrid is around, that's why."

"Excuse me, gentlemen. I couldn't help overhearing your conversation. Scott Lancer is an old friend of mine. I haven't had a chance to visit with him yet but are you saying that Murdoch Lancer has a gunfighter on his payroll?" Fulton asked as he scooted closer to the table.

"Not just any gunfighter, mister. Johnny Madrid."

"I believe I have heard of him," Fulton said.

"Who ain't ? He's just the fastest thing there is, that's all."

"Well, perhaps he just hasn't met anyone faster yet," Fulton smirked.

"Yeah sure, that's it. The day a faster gun comes around's the day I head for higher ground. Thinking about doin that anyway if he stays round here much longer."

"He ain't stayin . Heard Mr. Lancer say they'd be headin back soon."

"What does this Johnny Madrid look like?" Fulton asked.

"Dark hair, blue eyes, half Mex and a nasty temper."

Fulton's face dropped almost to the floor when he heard the description.

"Temper, you say? I suppose he goes off half-cocked," he fished.

"Hah! Mister, you got it all wrong. Yeah, he's got a temper and he'll show it but he keeps it all tied up real tight. He'll let ya talk trash but you just know before it's done, he's gonna but a bullet between your eyes. Any man fool enough ta cross ' im is just livin on borrowed time. Soon as he smiles at ya , ya best be makin your peace with the man upstairs."

"Well, reckon we best be going. Nice talkin to ya , mister."

"What? Oh yes, thank you, gentlemen," Fulton replied, his brows in a deep furrow.

Nick waited in the barn for the two cowboys to return, smiling as they reported their conversation with Fulton. He patted the boys on the back and thanked them then strolled back into the house with a pleased look on his face.

*****

The doctor left the Barkley ranch muttering to himself about ungrateful young people. Murdoch could only give him a sincere apology but what he really wanted to do was laugh. Johnny had given the doctor an earful and Murdoch knew what the problem was, Johnny wanted to go home.

The fact that his son so easily said the word 'home' now filled his heart with joy. Johnny had always been the hold card, would he stay was the question for months. But he had settled in after a rocky start that Mudoch knew was partially his fault. 'Oh hell, man, it was all your fault,' he thought.

He returned to his son's room to find Scott standing by the window. Both young men were frowning.

"Scott, did you hear from the ranch?" Murdoch asked.

"Yes, Sir, everything is fine," Scott replied in clipped tones.

"Good, now what's the matter with you two?" Murdoch asked, looking from one to the other.

" Nothin . I'll be ready to leave in the morning," Johnny said sharply.

"Alright," Murdoch answered simply.

Scott turned and stared at his father. "The doctor said..."

"I heard what he said, son, but he doesn't know you brother like we do, does he?" Murdoch asked, raising a brow as Johnny snorted.

"I see you two are still at odds," Murdoch mused.

"I suppose we are. Johnny wants to handle Fulton 'his way'," Scott said sarcastically.

"And Scott wants to play chess with him," Johnny reciprocated.

Murdoch sighed heavily. "We aren't going to do anything about Fulton. We're going home, period," he stated.

*****

Dinner was quiet that evening as the Barkley's could all feel the tension in the room. Finally, Victoria attempted some civil conversation but she was met only with curt responses.

"Johnny, are you sure you're up to traveling?" she asked with concern.

"I'm fine, ma'am. Been in a lot worse shape," Johnny replied.

Scott shot him an ugly look but Johnny missed it.

"I want to thank you all for your hospitality, Victoria. We owe you a debt of thanks," Murdoch said.

"Not at all. We were happy to help. Perhaps you could visit again under less strenuous circumstances," she smiled.

"That would be nice," Murdoch said.

"Sure would," Johnny mumbled.

"How many more times would you like me to apologize, Johnny?" Scott spat.

"I don't want your apology, Scott," Johnny shot back.

"That's enough, both of you," Murdoch grumbled. "Forgive my children, Victoria. They obviously don't know how to behave themselves in someone's home."

Johnny stood up and excused himself, then stomped out of the dining room.

*****

He stood on the porch and breathed in the fresh air, relishing the quiet for a change. It didn't last long as his nerves screamed at him and his hand went to his side.

"Who's there?" he called out into the night.

"My, you are good," the voice came from near the hedges.

"Show yourself or I'll drop you right now," Johnny hissed.

Fulton stepped out of the shadows, his hands out from his sides to show he was unarmed.

"What the hell are you doing here?" Johnny asked.

"I was hoping to speak with you, Mr. Madrid," Fulton smiled.

"So speak," Johnny said, never moving his gun from its target.

"Perhaps we could talk without the gun?" Fulton asked.

"Perhaps, but we ain't . Speak your mind or get out," Johnny said quietly.

"Very well, I suppose I can't blame you. I have an offer for you, Mr. Madrid. An offer I think you will find intriguing," Fulton began.

Johnny looked the man up and down and hid his disgust behind the mask.

"Go on," he drawled, relaxing against a column, gun still trained on Fulton.

"First, I would like to apologize for my brusque remark earlier. Had I known who you were ... well, I apologize," he started.

Johnny simply nodded his head once and waited.

"I would like to hire you, Mr. Madrid. I am quite certain I could pay you more than Lancer does."

Johnny smiled softly. "I'm listening," he said.

"Well, I don't know what Lancer pays you but I'll double it, whatever the sum," Fulton said, puffing out his chest.

"What exactly would you want me to do, Mr. Fulton?"

Fulton smiled wickedly. "Help me destroy Lancer."

"How?" Johnny asked.

"With you by my side, knowing Lancer from the inside, we could have the ranch in two months time, Johnny. Uh, may I call you Johnny?"

"No."

Fulton's smile left at the clipped answer. "Very well, Mr. Madrid. What is your answer?"

"I don't have one yet. You still haven't told me how. I don't take a job until I know the particulars, Mr. Fulton. Then, I'll decide if it's worth my time," Johnny explained.

"I have no intention of fully disclosing my plans to anyone, Mr. Madrid. Any man who works for me is given information on a need to know basis," Fulton said.

Johnny shrugged. "Nice talkin to ya ," he said and started to go inside.

"Wait! You won't even consider?" Fulton asked, shocked.

"I told you my terms, if you don't want to accept them, that's your business. I have a good deal goin at Lancer. Why should I give that up for nothin ?" Johnny said.

"Because Lancer will belong to me eventually. Then you will either work for me or die," Fulton said arrogantly.

Johnny laughed softly at this. "Mr. Fulton, if you do take Lancer, I'll already be dead. When I work for someone, I do my job. If I can't, I die. It's as simple as that. Now, as you can see, I'm still alive, so what does that tell you?"

"It tells me you are the man I need on my side," Fulton replied. "Very well, Mr. Madrid, is there somewhere we can speak privately?"

Johnny took Fulton to the barn, ensuring they were alone as he closed the door and lit a lamp. He did not take his eyes off the man for a second.

"My plan is simple, break Lancer financially. We begin by rustling the cattle, starting stampedes, killing livestock. This will be done before the next cattle drive which, as you know, is in two months. Lancer won't have enough cattle to drive to market and that will cripple them.

"Then, we make the offer to buy which I know will not be accepted. After that, we begin burning the pastures, the line shacks and outer buildings all over the ranch and poisoning the water supply. We stop anyone from bringing in any kind of supplies. We will, in effect, cut Lancer off from the rest of the world. Eventually, they will sell or starve."

Johnny listened quietly as the man laid out what could be a very effective plan. There were plenty of flaws he could see, though. Fulton had already made a fatal mistake, he was too self-assured. He didn't know Lancer at all. If he did, he would know who he was talking to.

"Well, what do you think?" Fulton asked with an already victorious smile on his face.

Johnny had to smile at the man's audacity. "Sounds like a good plan. How may men do you have?"

"Forty now. I can get more as we need them, I'm sure," he answered.

Johnny nodded his head, then looked amused. "None of them are gunfighters, I take it? I mean, you wouldn't be coming to me otherwise."

"No, they aren't professionals. That's why I need you. That and the fact that you already know the ranch," Fulton said.

Johnny began to pace, thinking about how he would handle this situation. He knew threats would not be enough, nor would trying common sense with this man.

"I'll need your answer tonight, Mr. Madrid," Fulton said.

"If I do this, I'll want more than a salary," Johnny said.

"What more?"

"Half interest in Lancer," Johnny said, eyeing the man intensely.

"Done," Fulton said confidently.

"In writing," Johnny said.

"Of course."

"Alright, Mr. Fulton, you have a deal. We're leaving for Lancer in the morning. Meet me in Morro Coyo in a week," Johnny said.

"Excellent. That will be perfect," Fulton grinned.

"Alone, Fulton. Don't come ridin in there with an army. Surprise has to be on our side," Johnny warned.

"Of course, it is an army's best weapon," Futon smiled appreciatively. "I knew you would be an asset, Mr. Madrid."

*****

"You did what?!" Murdoch bellowed.

"Calm down. At least I know his plan now," Johnny said softly.

"Johnny, this is a dangerous game you're playing," Murdoch said.

"I ain't playin at nothin , Murdoch. Besides, he's gonna give me half of Lancer," Johnny grinned.

"I see. Well I suppose that's a better offer than I gave," Murdoch glowered. Watching his son's eyes dance with humor, Murdoch couldn't stay angry and a smile spread across his face.

"How did he find out who you were?" Scott asked.

"I made sure he knew," Nick said from the door.

"You? Why Nick?" Scott asked.

"When you told me he didn't know Johnny was your brother and that you didn't tell him, I got an idea. I sent a couple of hands into the saloon and made sure Fulton heard them talking about Johnny Madrid. I thought it would scare him off," Nick explained.

"But instead, he wants to hire Johnny," Scott said.

"It's better that way. Now, you'll know his plans before he can do anything," Nick said.

"Fine, you go fight my battles for me, little brother, and I'll go hide under my bed!" Scott glowered.

"Look! This isn't your battle anymore, Scott. He's after Lancer and that makes it our business!" Johnny snapped.

Murdoch went to Scott's side and laid a hand on his shoulder. "He's right, son. This is something we all have to fight. And having you two at each other's throats won't help matters," he said, looking to both of them.

"How do you want to handle it?' Scott asked his father.

"So far, all he's done is make threats. But, if we can catch him in the act, we can call in the law," Murdoch said.

"Sounds simple enough. He's meeting me in Morro Coyo next week. I'll make sure he shows up for his first rustling job and Gabe can be waiting," Johnny said.

"How? Fulton isn't the type to get his own hands dirty, Johnny. How are you going to get him there?" Scott asked.

"Guess that's somethin we'll have to figure out," Johnny shrugged.

Scott looked warily at his brother.

Johnny's eyes narrowed as he locked Scott into a stare. "This is what I know, Scott. Don't underestimate me."

"I certainly wouldn't make that mistake," Scott clipped.

Murdoch shook his head sadly as he watched his sons.

*****

The next morning, the Lancers headed home. Johnny could feel someone watching them as they rode the trail. He casually rode up beside his father and brother when the road widened enough to allow it.

"We're bein watched. Probably will be all the way home. Don't act too friendly to me. I'm sure that won't be too tough," Johnny said, smirking at his brother with the last sentence.

Scott opened his mouth, then closed it again as he shot Johnny a hateful look.

Johnny grinned at him and tipped his hat, then lagged behind them again.

That evening, as they set up camp, Johnny took care of the horses, scanning the surrounding area casually.

He walked over and squatted down in front of the fire, pouring himself a cup of coffee. "He's gonna get cold tonight," he grinned.

"Good," Murdoch whispered.

After they had eaten, Johnny took his saddle and bedroll off a little distance. Murdoch watched with great interest as his son began to settle for the night. He walked over and knelt down next to Johnny as he rolled out his blanket.

"Don't you think it would be more comfortable closer to the fire?" he asked.

Johnny smiled as he continued what he was doing. "Hired guns don't sleep with the family, Murdoch. I need to be where I can see you both," he said softly.

Murdoch didn't answer, knowing Johnny was playing his role, but it saddened him to see how easily his son slipped into his old life.

*****

They kept up the charade the next two days until they reached home. Teresa and Jelly came out to greet them and Johnny stayed in the saddle as hugs were exchanged with the girl.

"Murdoch, let them know what's going on. He's still there. I'm gonna take care of Barranca then I'll slip in the back," Johnny said.

Jelly and Teresa gave him a strange look but said nothing as they both sensed there was a problem.

Once in the house, Murdoch explained the entire situation.

"So he's gonna pretend to be Johnny Madrid and somebody's watchin ta make sure he' s on the up and up," Jelly summarized.

"That's about it, Jelly," Murdoch said.

"Well, reckon I'll make him a place ta bed down with me. If'n yer gonna do this, might as well do it right," Jelly said, scratching his beard.

"Thanks, Jelly," Johnny said from the dining room.

"Don't do that!" Jelly said as he jumped a foot.

Johnny laughed softly at his friend as Teresa walked to him.

"I don't like this, Johnny. If they find out the truth..."

"Don't worry, honey. It'll be fine," Johnny smiled reassuringly.

"Where's Scott?" Johnny asked.

"He went upstairs," Murdoch answered.

Johnny sighed and headed up the stairs.

"Well, what's that all about?" Jelly asked.

*****

"You gonna keep this up much longer?" Johnny asked from the open bedroom door.

"Keep what up?" Scott asked as he unpacked his saddlebags.

" Dammit , Scott, spit it out!"

"Fine! It's always Madrid to the rescue isn't it? You couldn't just let me handle this, could you?"

"What did you want me to do?" Johnny asked.

"You could have told Fulton the truth!"

"The truth? Which truth would that be, Scott? That I'm a Lancer or that my brother has gone loco?" Johnny hissed.

Scott's face turned blood red as he clenched his fist.

"Is that what you want to do? You want to hit me? Go ahead if it'll make you feel better, make you stop blaming yourself for this," Johnny said in a slow drawl.

"Who else am I supposed to blame?" Scott said.

"Oh, I don't know, how about Fulton?"

"You don't understand," Scott said, his voice lowering as he turned away from his brother.

"Okay, Scott. I don't understand. Guess I'm too uneducated to get that a crazy man wants revenge on you over nothing," Johnny said.

Scott closed his eyes and sighed. He turned to speak but Johnny was gone.

*****

Scott did not see his brother for the next week as Johnny made sure he stayed away from the hacienda, sleeping in Jelly's quarters and eating with the hands.

He wanted to talk to Johnny, make him understand what he was feeling. If only he knew why Johnny's actions were making him so angry, maybe he could explain it to himself first.

He sat at the dinner table and played with his food.

"Johnny will be meeting with Fulton tomorrow," Murdoch commented.

"Great," Scott said snidely.

"Scott, what is the matter with you?" Murdoch asked.

"I don't know, Sir. I just hate being the cause of all this," Scott said morosely.

"You aren't, Fulton is. Why can't you understand that? Is there something else you haven't told us?" Murdoch asked.

Scott looked at his father but said nothing.

"I smelled tortillas. Is Maria cheatin on me?" Johnny grinned from the kitchen door.

"I'm afraid she is, son," Murdoch smiled.

Johnny walked in and took his rightful place at the table, smiling at Teresa as he sat down.

"We've missed you," she said.

"Me too, querida ," he smiled.

"Well, tomorrow is it, then," Murdoch said.

"Yeah, that's why I came in. I wanted to tell you what I planned," Johnny said as he filled his plate.

Scott watched his brother acting as if nothing was wrong. He suddenly felt a profound sadness.

"I figure Scott's right, Fulton won't want to get his hands dirty. So, I'm gonna tell him Scott will be in the east pasture tomorrow with the herd. That alone should get him to come along. But ... I'm also gonna tell him how Scott's been bad mouthin him ever since we left Stockton. Just a little extra insurance that he gets worked up enough to want to see Scott," Johnny said as he ate.

"What about Gabe ?" Murdoch asked.

"You'll have to ride in and see him. Just be sure Fulton doesn't see you," Johnny said.

"It just sounds so dangerous," Teresa said.

"What am I supposed to be doing during all this?" Scott asked.

Johnny looked at him for the first time and smiled. "Moving the herd in the east pasture."

*****

Johnny rode into Morro Coyo and headed to the hotel. He wanted to keep Fulton inside so Murdoch could see the sheriff without being spotted. He walked into the hotel and inquired to the room, noting the man standing in the corner watching him. Johnny tipped his hat as he walked by and headed upstairs.

"Mr. Madrid, welcome," Fulton smiled when he answered the door. "How are things going?"

"You tell me. You've had a man watchin me since I left Stockton," Johnny said casually as he perused the interior of the room.

Fulton laughed. "You are good."

"Yeah, okay the biggest herd is in the east pasture. I figure we can hit right before sundown. That way, they'll have a lot tougher time tryin to control a stampede," Johnny said.

"You're all business, aren't you?' Fulton asked.

"That's what you're payin me for. Speaking of which," Johnny said, raising an eyebrow.

"Do you need cash?" Fulton asked, bringing his wallet out.

"No, just want to make sure you didn't forget our agreement."

"I have ten men waiting outside town. Will that be enough?" Fulton asked.

"Yeah, that'll be plenty, plus the two of us," Johnny said matter-of-factly.

"Oh, no, Mr. Madrid. I don't intend to participate," Fulton said, holding up a hand.

"Oh? I thought you'd want to see Scott Lancer tryin to stop a stampede. It's gonna be pretty funny. He don't know one end of a cow from the other," Johnny grinned.

"Scott will be there?"

"Yeah, he's helpin move the herd today. That's why I figure it's the best time, while they're tryin to move them," Johnny reported.

"I see. Still, I shouldn't be directly involved," Fulton frowned.

"Up to you, but I always protect the man I'm workin for, Mr. Fulton. Part of the package. But I understand. From what Scott's said, I can see where you couldn't handle it," Johnny said.

"What did he say?"

"Oh, something about how you couldn't sit a horse and about bein more green than he is. Stuff like that. He sure don't like you," Johnny smiled.

"Is that a fact? Well, I'll have you know I was a cavalryman and a damned fine one at that! And, at least I know which end of a cow is which! I believe I will join you, Mr. Madrid. It will be a pleasure to watch Lancer scampering about chasing those cattle. Who knows? With a little luck, he'll be trampled," Fulton grinned.

Johnny grinned as well. Inside, he just wanted to shoot the man. "One more thing, Fulton. I don't need to be spied on. If you want that man to stay alive, tell him to stop doggin me."

"Very well, Mr. Madrid. You've proven to be a most valuable partner. I trust you," Fulton said.

*****

Johnny left the hotel feeling sick inside. He hated this game. It was always the same, always the lies, the backstabbing and this time, he was on the other side of it.

He rode into the yard and walked inside. "Did you see Gabe ?"

"Yes, he'll be ready. Should you be in here?" Murdoch asked.

"I told Fulton to back off. He's meeting me in an hour. Is Scott in the east pasture?" Johnny asked.

"Yes. Johnny, when this is over, I want you and your brother to work things out. I don't like all this hostility," Murdoch said.

"Tell it to him. He's the one with the problem," Johnny clipped.

"He feels responsible for all this. I know you can understand that," Murdoch said wryly.

"Yeah, I can understand that. Don't mean he has to treat me like dirt," Johnny said.

"It's um, it seems so easy for you to become Madrid again," Murdoch commented.

Johnny looked at his father and realized he was asking a question. "Does it? It's not. It makes me sick."

*****

Murdoch rode out to the east pasture to catch Scott up on the plan. They tried to act casually but it was difficult, knowing what was coming. Gabe had positioned himself in a thick stand of trees where he could witness everything. He could see the road Johnny would come down and the pasture.

"Glad you're on time," Johnny smiled as Fulton and his men rode up.

"I'm always punctual, Mr. Madrid. I've instructed the men to follow your orders. Is there anything else you need?" Fulton asked.

"Nope. Let's go," Johnny said and reined Barranca toward the east pasture.

He pulled up half a mile away. "This is gonna be simple. We just ride in there shootin at the air and start a stampede. Then just sit back and watch the fun. Anybody don't get that, speak up now."

"I think we all understand," Fulton said, pulling a Colt from his pocket.

Johnny nodded and started out again, his gut feeling tight.

They turned off the road and up a small rise. Below them, the cattle stood grazing.

He sat and watched for a minute, spotting Murdoch and Scott. His eyes went to the grove of trees and, although he couldn't see the sheriff, he knew the man was there.

"Ready?" Fulton asked as he stepped his horse up beside Johnny.

"Yep. Let's do it," Johnny said and pulled his revolver.

*****

Murdoch and Scott were riding beside each other when they heard the first shot, followed by a barrage of gun and rifle fire. The cattle began to move erratically, bumping into each other nervously. They bawled and started running as the shots continued to ring out.

Johnny rode down the slope toward the herd, firing into the air. The rest of the men followed his lead and spread out to cover the herd as they began to run.

Scott and Murdoch tried to round the cattle, keep them from running. This was their job though they both knew it was futile. The ranch hands did their jobs as well, firing back at the intruders, making sure their aim was untrue. Murdoch had given strict instructions. He didn't want Johnny hit by a stray bullet.

Johnny pulled up as the rest of the marauders passed him and turned to see Fulton staring. He turned and saw what the man was looking at ... Scott.

Johnny turned back to Fulton and saw him taking aim. "Scott!" Johnny shouted, but there was too much noise from the stampeding cattle to be heard over their thunder.

Johnny aimed and fired dead center of the man's chest. As Fulton fell from his horse, Johnny turned to see Scott lying on the ground, a small group of steers heading straight for him.

Johnny kneed Barranca and took off toward his brother. Murdoch could see what was happening as well and started toward Scott but he had gotten too far from his son.

He knew he wouldn't be able to reach Scott in time, so Johnny went after the steers instead. He rode Barranca right into the middle of the herd, firing his gun as he went.

A heifer bumped Barranca and he faltered, struggling to remain on his feet. The horse sidestepped and Johnny fought for control as Barranca became entangled in the cattle.

He fell to the ground, pulling his feet from the stirrups and yelling for Barranca to run as he went down. Johnny hit the ground and rolled but he felt the hoof strike him in the stomach as the last steer tried to get away.

A searing hot pain ripped through his entire being as he sucked for air. He looked up to see Barranca running away and sighed in relief. He turned his head and saw Scott standing up with Murdoch at his side, both of them staring in disbelief at him.

Johnny rolled onto his back and looked up at the blue sky. He closed his eyes and sighed.

*****

Scott thought he heard his brother yell at him and he heard the bullet whistle by his head as his horse bucked and threw him. He landed hard on his left shoulder and felt the breath knocked out of him.

He laid there for a second, trying to breathe again when he heard the hooves beating closer. He raised his head and saw the cattle running toward him. Frantically, he struggled to his knees when he saw Johnny ride into the stampede.

Unable to find his voice, he watched in horror as his brother fell from his horse. He felt Murdoch take hold of his shoulders as they watched the drama unfold.

Scott managed to breathe a soft "no" before he was jolted into action, running toward his brother as fast as he could.

Murdoch reached him first, dropping to his knees beside his son. "Johnny?"

He stroked his forehead and looked down at his son's wound. Blood poured from Johnny's abdomen and Murdoch thought he might lose his lunch just then.

Scott slapped his hand across the wound in a futile effort to staunch the flow of blood. He heard the wagon coming, saw Jelly racing toward them and was stunned by the man's timing.

"Oh, my God," Jelly gasped then, quickly got hold of himself.

By this time, several of the hands had gathered as the rest went to round up the herd.

Jelly looked at them, staring at their friend in wide-eyed terror. "Help me get ' im in the wagon," he barked.

Gabe rode down to the men surrounding and lifting Johnny into the wagon. "Murdoch?"

"Murdoch!" he called more loudly.

Murdoch turned and looked at him dazedly.

"Fulton's dead," Gabe said.

Murdoch nodded at him and turned to climb into the wagon with his son.

"Scott, I'll get the Doc," Gabe said.

Scott nodded as well, unable to speak at the moment. He climbed in the back of the wagon with his family as Jelly turned the rig and headed home.

*****

Doc Jenkins operated for four hours straight, trying to repair the extensive damage caused by the steer's hoof. He cursed under his breath as he repaired one thing only to find another problem.

The clock in the great room chimed the hour and Scott nearly jumped out of his skin. "I hate that damned clock!"

"Your mother wanted it," Murdoch stated.

Scott continued his pacing, watching the staircase with each turn toward it. He would stop at the landing every five turns or so and look up as if expecting Sam to appear simply because he wanted it.

Murdoch sat in his desk chair, staring morosely into space.

"Why would he do such a fool thing? That's what I want to know," Scott said.

"You know why," Murdoch said, looking at his son's confused face. "He saw you fall and thought you'd been shot. He saw the cattle heading for you and he didn't stop to think,' he explained.

"He never stops to think!" Scott said loudly. "If he had waited a second, he would have seen I wasn't hurt."

"I'm sure he'll apologize for trying to save your life if he makes it," Murdoch shot sardonically.

Scott's anger fell away and his cheeks blushed pink. "I'm sorry, Sir. I'm just worried," he said.

"I know, son," Murdoch replied.

*****

Sam came downstairs and sat with the Lancers as he rubbed his face and accepted the coffee Scott poured.

"Thank you," he said, taking a sip of the hot brew. "It's been a while since I've seen a mess like that. He has a lot of internal injuries and he's lost a great deal of blood. I've put a tube in his nose down to his stomach to give him fluids. He'll need those desperately until his body can replace the lost blood. Nothing had to be removed. He has a long road ahead of him. I've cleaned out the wound as thoroughly as I can but there is always a risk of infection. The next twenty-four hours will be critical. That's all I can really tell you at this point."

"How long do you think it will be before he wakes up?" Murdoch asked.

"Several hours, I should say. He was under the anesthesia for a long time," Sam replied.

"Jelly has a room ready for you, Sam, and there's food in the kitchen," Murdoch said.

"Thank you. I'll rest for a few hours then check him again," Sam said.

"I'm going to sit with him," Murdoch said and stood up.

"I'll go with you," Scott said.

"You better get some rest. He'll need someone with him at all times so you'll need to take shifts," Sam advised.

"He's right, son. Get some sleep. I'll take first watch," Murdoch said.

*****

Murdoch sat next to the bed and watched Johnny sleep. Noting the pallor and the black lashes that lay softly against his cheeks, he felt a sudden stab of pain in his heart as he was reminded of Maria. He thought back over the past few weeks. The miscommunication, Scott's behavior and Fulton's part in this whole mess.

He wished he could blame the whole thing on Fulton but, sadly, he knew Scott's actions had to be held accountable. He knew his son was blaming himself for all of this but he didn't know how to help him.

This son had done nothing to bring any of this about. Now, just as he was getting over pneumonia, here he lay so seriously injured. Once more because of Scott. He didn't want to have these thoughts but he couldn't deny the truth of them. He wasn't sure the boys would be able to get past this.

Scott's anger and Johnny's stubbornness clashed at every turn these days. Murdoch was truly worried they would not be able to resolve this.

"How's he doin ," Jelly whispered.

"Still sleeping, Jelly. Sam said he would for several hours," Murdoch replied.

"Get some rest, Boss. I'll sit with ' im ," Jelly said.

"Maybe I will. Best to do it now instead of when he's awake," Murdoch said, standing and stretching out his tired muscles.

Jelly settled in the chair and took Johnny's hand in his own. He felt the boy's forehead to assure himself there was no fever.

"Well, doctor?" Sam asked as he walked in.

"No fever, Doc," Jelly replied, not in the mood to exchange insults with his friend at the moment.

Sam moved to the other side of the bed and examined his patient, taking a peek under the bandages.

He poured an ample amount of sugar water down the tube and secured it again.

"Well?" Jelly asked.

"His heartbeat is still too fast as is his breathing," Sam said.

" Ya know he just got over the pneumonia," Jelly commented.

"Yes, Murdoch told me. I should write an article about him for the New England Journal of Medicine. I could title it "The miracle patient," Sam smiled.

"Just plain miracle works for me," Jelly said.

"Murdoch resting?" Sam asked.

"Well, that's where I sent ' im off to," Jelly said, rolling his eyes.

"You take good care of them, Jelly," Sam observed.

" Tain't easy, neither," Jelly huffed.

Sam left him to his charge and Jelly sat and stared at the young man. "No, tain't easy atall ," he whispered.

"Well, here we are again, Johnny. Reckon it's gettin ta be a habit with you. Just don't let me down. Ya ain't never so no sense goin and startin now. Ya'd do anything for that brother of yours, wouldn't ya ? Couldn't even take a second to see he was alright afore ya charged right in," Jelly sighed.

"Sure hope he knows how lucky he is ta have you around. Folks is always goin on about how Scott's made your life so much better and that's true, but nobody ever sees how much you've done for him. Why is that, do ya reckon?"

"I don't know, Jelly. If you find out, let me know," Scott said from the door.

" Ain't polite to listen in on other folks conversations," Jelly huffed.

"It was unintentional. I'll sit with him now. I know you must be tired," Scott smiled.

"Reckon I could use some shut eye. Doc was just here," the older man reported.

Scott nodded and smiled and took over the chair as Jelly left the brothers alone.

Scott sat beside the bed and stared at his brother's face, taking note of the intricate lines and contours. He knew that face so well, but not what was behind it. He thought he did, thought he knew Johnny better than anyone, but he didn't. He didn't think he knew him at all.

He thought back over the past week, watching his brother act as Johnny Madrid and he had noticed how easy it was for him. How he had turned into Madrid at Fulton's house that day in Stockton without even trying. When he was angry or hurt, the mask went on and that was that.

Scott began to think there was no Johnny Lancer. That there never had been, that it was a role he played to placate his family. Whether Johnny wanted it or not, Scott began to believe he would never be anyone other than Madrid.

He had wanted to protect his little brother almost from the first day they'd met. He had wanted to fill that role for Johnny, give him what he had never had in his life. Now he wondered if Johnny really wanted that, or even needed him.

He had never asked for it, never once indicated he needed a brother. He always took care of himself, even when Scott tried to take care of him. He wouldn't let anyone help him. Maybe Johnny resented Scott's presence in that role. Maybe he resented him for trying to push himself on the gunfighter.

Scott fell asleep in the chair still troubling over these thoughts and what, if any, place he had in Johnny's life.

*****

He awoke to a gentle hand on his shoulder and looked up into Teresa's face. She was smiling at him and he felt like he sure needed that.

"Good morning," she said, amused.

"Good morning," he smiled and looked over at Johnny.

"No fever, thank goodness, but I don't think he's moved all night," she said.

"Sam said he probably wouldn't," Scott yawned.

"Breakfast is waiting."

"Thank you, I need some coffee," Scott smiled.

"You need to eat," Murdoch censured as he walked in.

"Yes, Sir," Scott said and left the room.

Murdoch frowned after his son. He sat beside Johnny and checked his forehead.

"Well, so far so good," he smiled at his ward.

"That's what I like to hear," Sam said, walking in on the exam.

He did his own examination and told Teresa he wanted to change the bandages. She left to get the supplies and Sam looked at his old friend.

"I know it hasn't been twenty-four hours but he's showing no signs of infection and his vital signs are starting to become normal. It's looking good so far, Murdoch," he smiled as he poured water in the tube.

"That's a relief," Murdoch said.

"But that's not all of it. What's going on?"

"Johnny and Scott haven't been getting along lately," he confided.

"Well, that is surprising. Those two are always together," Sam frowned.

"I know. I just hope they can reconcile their differences," Murdoch said sadly.

*****

Johnny felt a hand on his forehead and tried to open his eyes but it was so hard. He heard the voices but couldn't understand the words. Everything felt fuzzy and detached. He tried to remember what had happened and when he started to, his anger rose. Damn that Fulton!

He opened his eyes to an exquisite pain in his gut and thought idly he'd been shot there again.

"Hi," Murdoch said softly.

Johnny met his eyes and smiled weakly. "Hey."

"How do you feel, son?"

"Lousy. What happened to me?" he asked, his words slurred.

"A stampede," Murdoch said.

Johnny frowned as the memory hit him then, his eyes widened. "Scott?"

"He's fine, son. He wasn't shot, he's just a little sore is all," Murdoch answered quickly.

Johnny relaxed and sighed which sent another spasm of pain through his stomach. He sucked in a breath through his teeth and ground them together.

Sam poured laudanum into the tube without a word.

Johnny squeezed Murdoch's hand white until the pain subsided then, he let loose.

"Sorry," he whispered.

"Nothing to be sorry for, son," Murdoch smiled.

"Johnny, you were hurt badly. It's going to take quite a while to heal. You're going to be in bed for a few weeks," Sam explained.

"Gut's on fire," Johnny said.

"A steer kicked you. It did a lot of damage but I fixed you up. Just don't try to move around. I don't want those stitches tearing," Sam warned.

"Where's Scott?" Johnny asked.

"I sent him to get some breakfast. He sat up with you all night," Murdoch answered.

Johnny closed his eyes, the laudanum taking effect, and drifted off.

Scott came in a few minutes later to check on him.

"He asked about you. He thought you were hurt," Murdoch informed him.

"How is he?" Scott countered.

"I gave him laudanum. He's in a lot of pain and will be for a few more days. As long as he stays still and lets himself heal, he should be alright," Sam reported.

Scott gave a snort and a 'wishful thinking' look at Sam. "Think I'll lie down for a while," he said quietly and walked out.

"What's going on with those two?" Sam asked.

"A whole lot of nonsense, that's what," Murdoch said, frustrated.

"Well, whatever it is will have to wait. I don't want Johnny upset, Murdoch. I mean it. He needs to rest."

"I know. I'll make sure he does," Murdoch replied.

"Well, I'll be back this evening to check on him. Just give him the water like I showed you and let him sleep. If he does wake up, give him the laudanum, no arguments," Sam instructed.

Murdoch sat down beside his son and watched him breathe, wondering once more what was wrong with Scott.

*****

Scott laid on his bed and stared at the ceiling. He knew he wouldn't be able to sleep. He was still angry about this entire situation and how it had been handled. It was a waste to him. A waste of time and effort.

He could have dealt with Fulton himself if his family had given him the chance. But they hadn't. They took control of something that was his to deal with and it irked him to no end.

He especially could not fathom Johnny's role in this. The one person who should understand how he felt had totally ignored him and gone off on his own. No, not on his own, with Murdoch's blessing.

Maybe Murdoch was glad to have Johnny Madrid to solve this problem for them. I guess he got himself quite a bargain in Johnny. A gunfighter and a good ranch hand. Scott began to chastise himself for having such horrible thoughts but he stopped. No, I won't feel badly for thinking the truth.

He turned on his side, trying to find a comfortable position. Where did he fit into all this? If Johnny is the rescuer then what was he? The bookkeeper, the peacemaker, the gatekeeper? What did he want his role to be in this family? All this time he had felt secure with his position but what exactly was that position?

He always thought of himself as Murdoch's right hand. After all, they thought alike on most subjects, agreed in business for the most part. But when it comes to a fight for Lancer, it's Johnny he turns to.

I helped save this ranch as much as Johnny did. I had the plan that worked perfectly. All Johnny managed to do was give us a warning that we didn't really need. We already knew Pardee was coming.

What if he had listened to Johnny, he wondered. What if they had used Johnny's plan, whatever it may have been? He still wasn't sure what exactly it was his brother had in mind all those months ago. There never seemed any reason to discuss it afterward.

Scott sighed and turned over again, then sat on the side of the bed. He walked over to his window and looked out on the ranch he had begun calling home. He tried to reason things out in his mind but it all came back to the same conclusion for him; Murdoch didn't trust him with the Fulton situation. He decided he needed to discuss this with his father and the sooner the better.

*****

Scott walked across the hall to check on his brother and found Murdoch sitting in the chair, his chin on his chest, fast asleep. He walked over and lightly felt Johnny's forehead and smiled slightly at the normal temperature.

Standing at the window, he watched the dusk settling over the mountains, still surprised he'd managed to get those few hours sleep with the thoughts that had bombarded him. He was mesmerized by the incredible hues appearing before him as the amber rays kissed his face.

"Pretty, ain't it?" Johnny whispered.

Without turning around, Scott answered, "yes."

"How do you feel?" he asked after a moment of silence.

"Lousy. My gut's on fire," Johnny said through a sigh.

Scott turned then to look at his brother, noting the lines of pain and a little surprised at the truthful answer.

At that moment, Murdoch began to stir.

He opened his eyes and took in the scene as he blinked away the remains of sleep.

"Hello, Sir," Scott said stiffly.

"Scott," he mumbled then looked at Johnny. "How do you feel, son?"

"Not too good," Johnny said.

Murdoch stood up and began administering the water through the tube, laced with laudanum.

"I can drink," Johnny said.

"Not until Sam says so," Murdoch replied, glancing at his elder son. "See how this works?" he asked.

"Yes, I see," Scott answered.

"You'll need to do this when you sit with him," Murdoch said in a tone that told Scott he had no choice in the matter.

"Certainly," he replied, annoyed that his father would think he wouldn't sit with Johnny.

Murdoch nodded and finished his chore, then washed Johnny's face for him. "No fever," he smiled.

"Nice to have some good news," Johnny smiled back. It wasn't long before he drifted off again.

"Come downstairs with me, son. We need to talk," Murdoch said.

"Shouldn't one of us stay with him?" Scott asked.

"I'll send Teresa in," Murdoch said, heading for the door.

*****

When they settled in the great room, Murdoch didn't hesitate.

"Sam said Johnny is not to be upset under any circumstances. That he needs complete rest and quiet."

"Alright," Scott said.

"That means no disagreements between you two," Murdoch reiterated.

"I understand, Sir," Scott said hotly.

"Maybe you'd like to have a go at me; get it off your chest?" Murdoch asked.

"As a matter of fact, I would. I am angry, Murdoch. Angry that you and Johnny took control of a situation that was mine to handle. I'm angry with Nick for pulling that stunt with those cowboys for Fulton's benefit. But mostly I'm angry because you all think I am incompetent!" Scott flared.

"No one thinks you're incompetent, Scott. If this had been something strictly between you and Fulton and your life wasn't in danger, I'd say fine, handle it. But it wasn't, it threatened Lancer and THAT involves all of us. You have been too busy being mad at everyone to participate in anything and we didn't have that luxury," Murdoch said angrily.

Taking a deep breath, the rancher changed his tone. "Son, don't you see? This wasn't about you, it was about protecting what belongs to all of us and that means we are all involved in fighting whatever the threat may be."

"You didn't even ask my opinion. You let Johnny just take over and run everything," Scott said.

"Is that why you're angry? Because this was Johnny's plan?" Murdoch asked incredulously.

"No! I'm angry because you didn't consult me. If, as you say, this affects all of us, then we should all have a say in how to handle things. I told you both I could talk to Fulton, but you wouldn't listen. Now, the man is dead, Johnny's badly hurt and half the herd is spread out from here to ... Kansas!"

"Alright, what would you have said to him?" Murdoch asked.

Scott didn't answer but turned his back.

"There's more to this than I know, isn't there? Has to be for the man to go to these lengths," Murdoch surmised.

"It doesn't matter now," Scott mumbled.

"It does matter, Scott! Whatever happened between the two of you has caused a lot of trouble around here and it's got you tied up in knots!"

Scott sighed heavily and turned to face his father. "Sit down, please."

Murdoch sat in the nearest chair and waited, anxiety building in him as he watched his son's face.

"I told you about the argument we had and that I saved him after a battle. That wasn't all of it, though. It wasn't the argument that made him hate me. He despised me before that and he tried to make my life a living hell."

"Why?" Murdoch asked.

"He was a lawyer, as I said. Grandfather had business dealings in Philadelphia from time to time and he had dealt with Fulton in the past. The man was, well, not above dirty dealings to get his way. He tried to undercut Grandfather in a business deal but it didn't work. Grandfather was made aware of his underhandedness by one of Fulton's own employees. Fulton lost a great deal of money because of it and was financially ruined.

"When I was assigned to him, he found out who I was and he made it his business to do everything in his power to belittle me. He even tried to have me arrested once for insubordination."

"So, because Harlan beat him out of a deal, he wanted revenge on you?" Murdoch asked.

"It wasn't just the deal. Grandfather ruined him. He made sure Philadelphia society and the courts knew what Fulton was like. He acquired proof of other illegal activity the man was involved in and turned it over to the circuit judge.

â€Fulton was not allowed to practice law after that and he was shunned by everyone. He had a daughter in boarding school but he had to bring her home because he couldn't afford it any longer. She was ruined as well, as far as he was concerned. No upper class eligible man would have anything to do with her," Scott explained.

"Well, I can't blame Harlan for exposing the man's illegal activities. Still, to blame you..." Murdoch trailed off.

"It wasn't so much that he blamed me as he saw it as his only way to get back at Grandfather. He knew he couldn't ruin us. When we had the argument, it was just one more thing to humiliate him as far as he was concerned. It gave him a reason to hate me as much as he hated Grandfather."

"Scott, it's obvious the man wasn't steady. Why do you think you could have talked him out of this?" Murdoch asked.

"Maybe I couldn't, but I would have liked to have tried, Murdoch. Now his daughter has lost her father."

"You should have told us, son. If we had known the whole story, it might have made a difference," Murdoch pointed out.

"Aren't you the one who says to let the past lie?" Scott asked.

"When it isn't threatening your life," Murdoch retorted.

"I didn't think he would try to kill me," Scott said.

"Scott, let me ask you something. If someone from Johnny's past came after him, would you stand by and do nothing?" Murdoch asked.

Scott thought about this before he answered and he had to be honest. "No, Sir, I wouldn't."

"Then why are you so angry with Johnny for trying to protect you?"

"It makes me feel like a child, Murdoch. Like I can't take care of myself when I know I'm perfectly capable."

"Maybe we should have let you handle this. I never wanted you to feel helpless. I know you aren't. You're very self-sufficient, Scott. You've proven yourself time and again," Murdoch said gently.

"If I had told you everything to begin with, this may have been avoided. I know that now," Scott confessed.

"This whole mess has been about misunderstandings but, Scott, the biggest one is with your brother. You need to talk to him honestly," Murdoch said.

"I know. I owe him an apology and you as well. I'm sorry I wasn't more up front with you. I guess I thought if you knew this was about Grandfather...."

"Scott, what Harlan did was right. Just because he and I don't get along, that doesn't mean I can't be objective, well, most of the time," Murdoch said with a slight grin.

"I don't want you to feel you can't even talk about him around me, son. I know how important he is to you and I understand."

"Thank you. I don't know if Johnny will be so understanding ," Scott said warily.

"He might surprise you, but it will have to wait until Sam thinks he's strong enough," Murdoch warned.

"I know. I just hope he wants me around in the meantime."

"Murdoch? Johnny wants you," Teresa called from the stairs.

*****

"Son?"

"Hey, just wanted to know if Scott's okay," Johnny said sleepily.

"I'm fine, Johnny," Scott answered from the door. He walked over and knelt beside the bed. "We need to talk when you're stronger but for right now, just know I'm sorry for being such a pain," he said softly.

Johnny looked into his brother's eyes and saw the sincerity. "You want to do something for me?"

"Anything."

"Stop giving me laudanum," Johnny whispered.

"You need it, Johnny," Scott frowned.

"All I need is time, brother," Johnny sighed and closed his eyes.

Scott looked up at Murdoch and shook his head. "He doesn't like losing control."

"Seems that runs in the family," Murdoch smiled.

 

 

3 weeks later:

Johnny sat on the veranda and watched the ranch at work while he listened to his brother explain the entire story of Fulton. He nodded in the appropriate places and waited for Scott to finish.

"So the guy was a crook and your grandfather nailed him and he hated him and you because of him. What about his daughter? Where is she?" Johnny asked.

"In Philadelphia, I suppose," Scott answered.

"Maybe you should try and find her. Write to her or something. That's how feuds start, Boston. Nobody is willing to talk to each other."

"You think she'll want revenge?" Scott asked, not having even considered the possibility.

"I don't know, maybe not. Maybe she couldn't stand him or she knows he was loco. You need to find out, though," Johnny reasoned.

"I will."

"I guess I could yell at you or something but I'm not exactly in a position to do that. It's not like I tell you about my past," Johnny said as he stared out at the corral.

"I should have told you everything, Johnny. I should have made you understand," Scott said remorsefully.

"Reckon so, but you didn't."

"Can you forgive me?" Scott asked.

"Nothing to forgive, not anymore," Johnny replied.

"I feel like something has changed between us, Johnny," Scott said.

"It has."

"Forever?"

"No, probably not. Forever's a long time, Boston. Just take some time is all," Johnny said and leaned his head back, closing his eyes.

"I've been doing a lot of thinking about things. Where I fit in here. Some of those thoughts haven't been very charitable," Scott said.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, it just seems when there's trouble, Murdoch turns to you. I had no say in what was happening with Fulton."

Johnny opened his eyes and looked at his brother. "I have a lot of experience in this kind of thing, Scott. I know how to handle men like Fulton. You got your pride hurt and you couldn't think of anything else. I wish we could have talked about it, worked it out together, but you didn't want to do that. As far as where you fit in here, I don't know what you mean by that."

"I think of you as the protector. The one who fights the battles. I don't know how I think of myself anymore," Scott explained.

"Why do you have to put a label on it? You're you, I'm me. You don't have to put us in a box."

Scott thought about this for a moment. "Then how do I define myself?"

"You're Scott Lancer, rancher, son and brother, period." Johnny said. "Look, we all work at this together. None of us knows what the hell we're doing but we keep trying to figure it out. Putting names on us makes it that much harder. I don't want to be the protector. I just want to be Johnny."

Scott smiled affectionately. "Well, you do that very well."

"When we first came here, you were all guts and glory. Ready to take on the world to protect this place. I didn't know why, couldn't figure it out for the life of me. You were so ready to do whatever it took to protect a man you didn't even know. Why? I don't know and I guess it doesn't matter anymore but I have to tell you, I was impressed, Boston."

"You could have fooled me," Scott smiled.

"Yeah? That's what I was tryin to do. I didn't have any intentions of showing you anything about myself. There was no way you were gonna see who I really was. No way I was gonna let you or him know just how much I hated him." Johnny's face took on a haunted expression.

"Johnny, I didn't know what to think of you then. When you told me you were only here for the money, I have to admit, I was disappointed. I spent that entire first night in awe of the thought of having a brother. I thought about all the things we could do and be together."

"But you didn't have a clue, Scott. And why should you? How could you have known? See, that's what I'm sayin . We've gotten to know each other better. Maybe we won't ever know each other completely but that's okay because we're different. What we have now is what matters. Being brothers is all that matters now," Johnny said earnestly.

"Does that mean you can forgive me?"

"I told you, nothin to forgive. It's done. We both made mistakes but it all worked out and that's all that's important," Johnny shrugged.

"No, Johnny, it isn't all that's important. I don't ever want this to happen again," Scott said.

"Live and learn, Boston. Man makes a mistake once, well that's okay. If he makes it twice, he's just a plain fool," Johnny said with a tired sigh. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes again.

Scott sat and watched him for a while as he drifted off. He prayed things would go back to the way they were between them but he had no illusions. He had hurt his brother deeply and that was not an easy thing to forget or to forgive, no matter what Johnny said.

He realized though, that Johnny was right. He had tried to label himself, all of them, and that wasn't working. He decided maybe he was just thinking too hard about it. One thing he realized, he was so wrong about his brother. There was no Johnny Madrid, only a man who would do anything to protect his family and had the skills to back that up.

Scott realized something else, too. Jelly was right. Having Johnny for a brother was the best thing that ever happened to him. He vowed right then he would never let his pride come between them again.

 

~end~
2003

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