The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

The Mountain

 

 

 

The Departure

Johnny tied down his bedroll as his father and brother looked on. Neither of them looked too pleased and he sighed softly as he walked up to face them.

"Here are the contracts," Murdoch said flatly.

Johnny took the papers and stuffed them in his saddle bag, then turned back to his family.

"Okay, I'll see ya," he said softly and returned to his horse.

"Be careful," Scott said, but there was no real concern in his voice.

Johnny cringed a little at the flat tone and nodded. He put his foot in the stirrup as he heard his name called.

"Johnny, you be careful now, ya hear? Come home quick," Jelly said as he walked up.

Johnny smiled as he turned to his friend. " Thanks, Jelly. I'll be careful," he said softly.

"And don't go gettin off the trail. Ain't the nicest area ta be travelin in alone," Jelly chided as he shot a look at Murdoch.

"Don't worry about me, Jelly. I'll be fine," Johnny said appreciatively.

He mounted up and took one more quick look at his family's grim faces, then turned and rode away.

******

Jelly glared at them both. "How could ya send 'im off like that? Not a kind word from neither of ya."

"Jelly," Murdoch started.

"Don't you Jelly me, Murdoch Lancer. If you ain't the beat all ta end all. Ain't never made a mistake before, is that it? You two are jest near perfect, huh? Hmmph! Well, let me tell you somethin. I'd rather be around normal folk than you perfect angels!" Jelly huffed and stormed away.

"He's right, you know," Scott said.

"I'm not punishing him, Scott!" Murdoch fumed.

"Aren't you, we? It was nothing, Murdoch, and you made it into a major issue and I'm just as guilty," Scott said.

"Someone had to go," Murdoch defended.

"Right, someone had to go. I suppose leaving Johnny here with you would have been a disaster begging to happen," Scott said and shook his head sadly. He had a lot to make up to his brother when he returned.

********

Johnny rode along at an easy gait. At the moment, he didn't care if he ever made it to his destination. The anger surged in him and he worked to calm himself. 'No use gettin bent out of shape,' he thought.

Still, it was so stupid and trivial. One little mistake that had no dire consequences. One forgotten hinge on a corral. It had taken all of an hour to get the stray cattle back but, boy if the fireworks didn't fly!

Yes, it was his fault and he'd owned up to immediately. Taking the blame because he'd gotten distracted by a fight between two hands. But Murdoch, well, there would be some shingles to replace on the roof, he was sure.

He still couldn't believe the old man had become so enraged over this. Shouting down the devil like that. And Scott, standing there, looking all grim and sullen. Accusing him without saying a word, not once attempting to come to his aid.

The hell with it. He didn't need Scott bailing him out anyway. Still, he could have said something, anything to try and calm Murdoch down. Johnny sure couldn't, never could and probably never would be able to settle Murdoch's ire.

Why did it always have to be this way? He'd apologized right off, tried to explain the circumstances, but the old man would hear none of it. Just yelling and bellowing like a banshee, as usual. If it had to do with Johnny, it was a hanging offense every time.

******

"I can't believe you did something so ......" Murdoch was saying.

"So what? So stupid? I told you it was my fault. What more do you want?" Johnny said.

"I want you to be responsible, Johnny. I want you to think once in a while. I want you to consider the consequences of your actions. Is that so hard?" Murdoch shot.

"No, it's not hard, Murdoch, but would you rather I let those two idiots kill each other?" Johnny said, his voice low and cold.

"Yes! If it meant avoiding a near stampede!" Murdoch growled.

"A stampede!? That's stretching it a little, old man," Johnny said.

Scott stood aside and listened to the exchange silently. He was angry as well at what Johnny had done but he didn't think it warranted this kind of assault. He decided he wasn't getting into the middle of it, though. It was time Johnny fought his own battles with Murdoch without his help.

"I don't think so. If there had been gunplay between those two idiots, it may very well have caused a stampede," Murdoch was arguing.

"Well, that's why I broke it up in the first place! Gee, I guess I WAS thinking!" Johnny shouted.

"If you had just fixed the gate....."

"Murdoch, when it comes to a choice between cattle and men, I'll choose the men every time! I didn't have time to do both!" Johnny said and stormed out.

******

He sighed again and patted Barranca's neck. "Well, boy, reckon we've been banished again," he laughed a little.

One of these days, he knew it was going to get so bad, he wouldn't come back. One of these days, he's gonna push me too far, he thought. Sadly, he couldn't call himself lying. He had put up with so much from the old man and for what?

For Scott and Teresa, and yes, even for Murdoch. For his family, the chance to be something, somebody for a change. He knew Teresa loved him, Scott, too, though he was still mad at his older brother. But Murdoch, he didn't know, was never sure of how his father felt about him. It seemed to change day to day.

Weeks could go by and all would be well. They'd get along, even laugh and joke with each other. Then, inevitably, something would happen. Some small thing, usually, that would set the old man off like a firecracker.

It was as if Murdoch would forget for a time. Forget about Johnny Madrid and the ugly past. Then, anything that could remotely remind him would set him off all over again.

Those were the times when Johnny wondered why he was still there. Wondered if it was worth the aggravation and pain. Was having a family really all it was cracked up to be? He sure couldn't see it a lot of the time. He knew families had problems but, boy, this was ridiculous! And it was all because of him.

*****

He shook his head and felt a deep sense of loneliness overwhelm him. He looked around for the first time at the landscape and realized he must have been riding for hours. This fact surprised and worried him. So deep in thought, he had ignored his surroundings and that was dangerous, not to mention just plain stupid.

This has to stop, once and for all, he pledged to himself. When I get back, that old man and me are gonna have it out. Everything is gonna be cleared up. No matter what it takes, it has to be done and, if in the end, he throws me out, well, at least it's better than putting up with all this garbage.

He looked at the mountains a few miles off and decided it would cut his time by several days to go over instead of around. Now that he'd made his resolution, he was anxious to get home and hash all this out. Johnny pulled the reins to the right and headed for the foothills with determination set in his jaw.

 

The Decision

Once he made it to the foothills, the sun was low in the sky. He figured he should bed down for the night and get a good start up the mountain at first light.

He set up camp and settled Barranca, sitting by the fire and listening to the night sounds around him.

Johnny got a feeling of nostalgia so overwhelming, it nearly took his breath. How many times had he been here? Alone in a camp, awareness heightened for anything strange or out of place. He had never been able to relax then.

When did he relax now? He smiled a little. When he was riding range with his brother, or sitting on the veranda at night watching the stars. Even when he slept in his own bed now, he was relaxed. That had taken a long time, being able to sleep soundly, but it had come nonetheless. When, he wasn't sure and wished he could remember exactly when he had begun to feel safe at the ranch.

Remembering his resolution to hash things out with his father, Johnny thought about what he would say. A frown furrowed his forehead at the thought of baring his soul. Has to be done, he thought. How, was the question. Should he just walk right in as soon as he got back and announce they had to talk? That would surprise the old man. He laughed a little at the thought.

But he knew that was exactly how to do it. The only way he could do it was to just start in. No big buildup, no excuses, no sugarcoating. Just the facts, plain and simple, no emotion, no regrets. Regrets. No, that wasn't possible because he had a ton of regrets. Too many to count, in fact. Still, Murdoch Lancer liked order and order he would get. Starting at the beginning.

******

Oh boy, the beginning. Now, that would be tough because that meant talking about his mother. The biggest sore spot of all between them, he knew. Well, it really had little to do with her other than her goin and dyin on him.

Not for the first time he wondered what his life would have been like if she'd lived. As always, that thought stirred more emotions in him than he was willing to deal with. Dios, how did I get here?

He had felt himself dying a little everyday since coming home. That part of him that was independent, wild and self-sufficient. It was as palpable as a heartbeat and he had to wonder just how much of himself he was willing to give up. How much could they possibly ask of him.

He felt like he was drowning sometimes, especially when he went at it with Murdoch. Something about that man just sets me off. So damned stubborn and so am I. Never gives an inch, Scott said, and it's true of us both. What are we so afraid of? Reckon it's finding out we really don't like each other. Or maybe, finding out he really doesn't give a damn.

*****

Johnny sighed and threw the cold coffee away, then settled in his bedroll, hoping for a few hours sleep. He watched the stars with the same awe as every time he saw them. He remembered staring into the sky as a little boy and wondering if his father was watching the same stars, too.

Emotions overwhelmed he and he blinked it away. No way in hell, old man. No way are you gonna do that to me. I ain't no little baby anymore. Time you realized that. Maybe you need to do some growing up yourself, Murdoch.

Sleep would not come but it didn't surprise him. So many thoughts whirled in his mind like a hurricane. He concentrated on the talk he would have with Murdoch when he got home. Might as well include Scott in there, too.

He laid it out in his mind, how he would start and what he would say. The thoughts made him uncomfortable but it was past time for this. Way past time to clear the air and either get on with it or walk away forever. He could do it, he knew. Though it would be hard, he could walk away from them all if he had to. Wouldn't be the first time he'd done something so hard. Wouldn't be the first time he'd walked away from someone he loved.

He closed his eyes and drifted off into dreams of returning to his life as a gunfighter.

********

The morning sun peeked out over the mountains and caressed his face with pink light. Johnny blinked and opened his eyes with a sigh. Stretching out, he sat up and looked around.

He lit the fire and made his coffee, thinking about the mountain and checking Barranca. In no time, he was ready to head out again. Get this over with, he thought ruefully.

He headed up the mountain, slipping into his jacket as the cool air made itself known. Soon enough, the sun would warm the air and he'd be taking that jacket back off.

He rode in quiet solitude for hours as his mind raced with thoughts of his decision the previous day. He still managed to admire the beauty around him. The tall, green trees, the dandelions, a rabbit scurried off to his left. The birds sang their morning songs and it was so peaceful.

He wished it was always like this, tranquil and serene. So at peace was he, that he never heard it coming until it was upon him.

 

The Attack

Johnny felt the strength of the body as it knocked him out of the saddle. Stunned and breathless, he instinctively began to fight. The claws ripped across his chest and he sucked in an agonizing breath. Teeth sank into his left arm and he could feel them penetrate the skin and muscle.

Coming to his senses with the pain, he reached to his right hip and, with an explosion of fire, the cat collapsed into a heap on top of him.

He pushed it away and rolled to his side, gasping for breath as the sweat began to run down his face in rivers. How long he lay there, he wasn't sure, but he eventually realized he had to move.

Pushing himself up on his right side, he managed to sit. He pulled his shirt away and looked at the damage with a grimace. Damn! He had no feeling in his left arm and he was almost afraid to look, but he did. The blood poured from the jagged wounds and he slapped his hand across it without thinking.

Johnny forced himself to calm down and think. He looked around but couldn't see his horse. With a shrill whistle he called out. "Barranca!"

Once more he whistled. "Barranca, come!" There was no sound and no horse and he cursed under his breath. "Probably halfway to Missouri by now," he mumbled.

Johnny removed his jacket slowly and painfully and, with a sigh of regret, he took his knife and cut the jacket into strips. He wrapped it tightly around his left arm, using his teeth to tighten the knot.

He looked at his chest again and sighed. The claw marks were deep in places and they were bleeding pretty good but he knew he didn't have enough left to bandage that.

Could use my shirt but probably not the best idea, he thought. He decided there wasn't much he could do about the claw wounds right now and he slowly made it to his feet. Swaying slightly, he grimaced against the pain and the blood loss that made him so dizzy.

*******

Have to find water, he thought and tried to remember. He had only been here once before and he couldn't think too clearly at the moment.

He stumbled forward then leaned against a tree for support. Come on, you can do this, he chastised himself.

Taking a deep breath, Johnny starting walking up the mountain, his steps stumbling and uneven as he fought to stay conscious. He knew there was a cabin up there and help . His father's friend, Jay McKillen, lived in these mountains.

He thought he heard the sound of babbling water and veered off to his right. Smiling at the brook, he staggered toward it, dropping to his knees just feet from the edge.

Darkness consumed his peripheral vision and he felt as if he were floating, then he felt nothing at all as he collapsed face first on the ground.

******

Johnny opened his eyes, disoriented. He slowly lifted his head and tried to remember where he was. As he attempted to move, the pain and memory flashed over him with agonizing speed.

He grunted and forced himself over to the edge. Sticking his face in the cold water revived him instantly and he shook his head vigorously. He rolled onto his back and rested for a minute, fighting the wave of dizziness that consumed him.

Finally, he looked down and gasped at the once blue shirt, now purple with the mixing of blood. He peeled the shirt from his skin and looked at the wounds. Dirt-encrusted now from laying on the ground, he knew he'd made a mistake.

He checked the bandage on his left arm and saw it was still bleeding though the flow had slowed considerably. Turning once more, he drank his fill from the clear blue water. He sat up with much difficulty but more determination and reached in his back pocket for his bandana.

Wetting it, he attempted to clean the chest wounds as best he could and decided he'd be better off leaving the arm alone. Removing the bandage might cause more bleeding and he knew he couldn't handle that.

He looked at the sky and figured it to be just past four. Well, Johnny boy, you really did it this time, he thought ruefully. Reckon the old man won't be too happy about this.

Setting his jaw and gritting his teeth, he struggled to his feet, waiting for the dizziness and nausea to pass. He set out once more, not too sure how much further he could go.

He'd eaten this morning so that was okay and he'd gotten a good amount of water at the brook. At least he had that advantage but the constant bleeding would soon take it's toll and he wasn't thrilled about the prospect of dying out here alone.

Well hell, Madrid , you always knew it would be like this. Always knew you'd die alone, just figured it would be in some dusty street of some no-name town by some fool a second faster than you.

Well, I ain't ready to give up the ghost just yet, he thought. Just have to make it to Jay's place and then I'll be alright.

Dammit, Barranca, why'd you have to take off like that? Too much like me, I guess. Things get tough and ya run off. I get my hands on you, we're gonna have ourselves a talk! Johnny laughed out loud at that thought. Yeah, sure, we'll have a talk. Just like me and the old man.

******

Teresa O'Brien slammed the supper dishes on the table and stalked back into the kitchen. She returned with a bowl and slammed that down as well. She repeated this process until all the food was on the table, then she sat in her chair and stared at her plate.

Murdoch and Scott gave each other woeful looks as neither wanted or had to ask what the problem was.

Jelly walked in and sat in his place, staring at the empty spot next to Teresa, then began to fill his plate without a word.

"This is delicious, Teresa," Scott said.

She glared at him then dropped her eyes again.

"Yes, I think this is the best stew yet," Murdoch agreed.

She made no reply.

"Good vittles, T'resa," Jelly said.

She looked up and smiled at him. "Thank you, Jelly."

"How long is this going to continue?" Murdoch asked.

"I'd reckon it ta be about two weeks. What'ya reckon T'resa?" Jelly spoke up.

"Two weeks sounds about right to me, Jelly, though it may take longer," she replied coldly.

"Alright, now listen to me both of you. This is getting a little ridiculous. Johnny is away on a business trip, period," Murdoch grumbled.

"Horse feathers! Ya sent 'im away cause you was mad at 'im. And for what, I ask ya? Nothin, that's what !" Jelly exploded.

"That's not true! Someone had to go," Murdoch defended.

"Yes, someone had to go. Why Johnny, why now?" Teresa asked. It was the first time she'd spoken to either of them in two days.

"Why not Johnny?" Scott asked.

"Why not you, Scott Lancer? Because Murdoch NEVER yells at you, NEVER accuses you falsely, NEVER makes you feel less than human!" she declared and stormed out of the room.

They heard her bedroom door slam and the pictures on the wall jarred.

"Reckon I got nothin ta add ta that!" Jelly said and stormed out as well.

"That went well," Scott said sardonically.

"They'll get over it," Murdoch groused.

"I just hope Johnny does," Scott replied.

 

The Trek

Shadows loomed long and dark in the last rays of light and Johnny figured he hadn't gotten more than a few miles at the most. He could feel the heat permeating his body and he was sweating profusely.

He sat down under a tree and gathered some sticks from around him, building a small fire. He struck the match and watched his hand shake with some fascination.

Once the fire was going he settled back against the trunk of the tree and closed his eyes. Bum arm, at least it's the left one. Wonder if I'll be able to use it again. Hard not to want to fan that hammer. A smile flitted across his face then he had to laugh.

Damn, stuck out here, bleedin to death and I'm worried about fanning the hammer. I must have a fever. He wished he had some water and he shook his head once more as he yearned for Barranca.

No one expects me back for two weeks. Could be long dead by then. Wonder if they'd care. Teresa and Jelly, they'd care, Scott too, he reckoned. Old man'll probably dance for joy. This caused another spatter of laughter as he tried to envision his father hopping around, laughing and thanking the Lord his troubles were over.

Tears came to his eyes, unwelcome and unbidden, as he wondered how far off from the truth he was. Damn you, old man. Damn you to hell! Won't waste the water on you, I need it. He laughed again, knowing he was delirious and not caring.

******

He drifted into a fitful sleep, full of dreams and nightmares. Most were of his past, some of his present and some of the possible futures ahead of him.

None were pleasant, however, and he moaned and mumbled in his sleep, calling out for his father.

Johnny awoke with a start, blinking rapidly as he took in his surroundings and oriented himself again. A name had been on his lips as he was jerked from sleep, his father's name.

He sighed and looked up but he couldn't see the night sky from where he sat. He wondered what time it was when he noticed his small fire was almost gone.

He felt around for more fuel but could find none. Cursing, he got up and stumbled around looking for something to burn. He managed to find a little kindling to stoke his fire but he knew it wouldn't last the night.

He was cold and hot all at the same time and he wondered once more if this was the end of the trail for him. The end of Johnny Madrid. The end of Johnny Lancer. He snorted at the thought.

Johnny Madrid, that was what Murdoch saw. He couldn't see past the name, the legend. He winced at that word, he hated it; legend. What bullshit.

He was no legend, just a man. A man who couldn't seem to do a damned thing right in his life. Always the wrong choices, gunfighter, rancher, son, brother. He'd failed miserably at all of them.

Oh yes, he was talented. Good with a gun and a horse, but people, that was a whole different story. He failed when it came to people. Friends, he'd had few and they never lasted long.

And then there was Scott. He sighed heavily at the thought of his brother. Boy, he sure had failed there. Disappointed him, even shut him out at times, unable or unwilling to talk, to share. Patient a man as he was, Johnny knew his brother had limits as well. He was quite sure he'd stretched those limits to a finely tuned wire.

Couldn't blame him though. Wouldn't blame him if he told Johnny exactly where to get off and hand wrote the instructions to do it. Scott had worked hard to become a rancher, to fit in. He was so patient, it was remarkable. Johnny often wondered how he managed to get along with Murdoch so well.

*****

He sighed and closed his eyes. He was exhausted. Sleep had not rested him, the dreams would not allow for it. He could tell it was getting light and soon, his journey would begin again. He needed to find water and fast.

He wrestled to his feet, leaning heavily against the tree for support. The ground spun dangerously at him and he wondered if he'd be able to stay upright. The dizziness subsided though and he began walking again.

His arm was like an extra limb, it felt dead and useless. If he'd cared at this point, he may have been worried. As it was, he could only focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Damned cat!

He smelled it first, the sweet, clean scent of water. His throat felt like a desert and he unconsciously licked his lips in anticipation. Following what little senses he had left, Johnny found a small stream running off the side of the mountain.

He dropped to his knees and plunged his head in the icy water, then came up quickly gasping for air. Well, that was dumb, he thought. He drank his fill, too much as it turned out, for he immediately emptied his gullet of every drop.

******

He forced himself to wait then take slow small sips of the wonderfully cold water. He thought he could just stay right here and forget about Jay's, forget about Lancer and just sleep.

He shook these thoughts away and shakily got to his feet. One more regret, leaving the water behind him.

Once more, he drudged uphill, wondering if he shouldn't have tried the road instead. He knew about Jay's and he knew there was no shelter near the trail. Still, someone could have come along to either help him or put a bullet in his head. He laughed hysterically at that thought.

Oh boy, you are losing it, Madrid . With some odd sense of relief, he found he didn't really care. Some sort of peace took over him as he stumbled on his way. Maybe I'm coming to terms with it. Never was afraid of dyin' anyway. Still and all, I guess when you're face to face with it, yeah that's a lot different. Faced it plenty of times already. Yeah, I remember this feeling.

He stopped to rest, breathing heavily as the world spun around him once more. Why do I fight so hard? Must be a reason. He looked up at the heavens. "You got an answer for me?" he asked aloud. "Didn't think so," he mumbled sourly.

"Yeah, you want things, ask the impossible sometimes, but do you ever explain it? Hell, no. Well, go right ahead with your grand plan, maybe I don't wanna play anymore. How'd ya like that? Or is that a part of it, for me to just give up? Think I've reached my limit? Well, I haven't, not by a long shot. You hear me, God? To hell with this! I ain't ready to lay down yet, not yet!"

Johnny gasped for breath after his diatribe, feeling a fool for lashing out at nothing. Slowly, he got his breathing under some kind of control. Okay, never depended on anyone else before, so no sense in doin it now. I'll make it on my own, just like always. With that thought, he began walking again, ever upward.

Then again, Madrid , why don't you just lay your sorry self down right here. Might as well cause you sure ain't thinkin. Left that stream without even trying to clean out these wounds. Yep, just go ahead and lay down, put a bullet in your brain while you're at it, ya damned fool.

He trudged on, the thoughts in his head becoming more surreal as time passed. Soon, he was sure he wasn't going to make it out of this mess with his sanity. Still, he didn't care.

 

Haven

How long has it been? Three, four days maybe? He wondered as he made his way. Need more water. Maybe this time, I'll use it, he thought sourly. Then again, may not be any reason to.

He had delayed looking at his chest again since his last stop for water had proved to be less than useful. His fault again. He could feel it though, the burning, the stretching of the skin as the wounds swelled and festered. He could smell it, too. The rank, foul odor of infection.

He sighed heavily as he made it from one tree to the next, now needing something to hold onto, to keep him from landing face first in the dirt.

Once more he wondered why he had always fought so hard to live. For a while, he thought he'd found that answer at Lancer. Now, he had to wonder. If something so inane could cause his father to banish him, well, what was the point of trying anymore.

He stopped and leaned against a tree, catching his breath and wiping the sweat from his eyes. He was amazed he was still able to think clearly and figured his body was getting used to the infection. Great, that's all I need.

Maybe a snake will bite me or a bear will come along. Yeah, that'd be the icing on the cake. He laughed at himself. Cake, man he was hungry. The few berries he'd scavenged weren't nearly enough to sustain him. If he'd been in the desert, he reckoned he'd be crow bait by now. If not for the abundance of water in these mountains, well no need to think about that.

Jay, don't you ever go huntin? Couldn't just come along and find me, huh? Make me come to you. Stubborn old goat, you're just like the old man.

Hunger, blood loss and fever robbed him of much control and he felt the sting of tears in his eyes. Wiping at them quickly, he cursed himself for his weakness. He cursed Murdoch Lancer for being able to get to him more deeply than any man or woman alive. Dead either, for that part. His own mother had never evoked such emotions in him. He reckoned there was no need for that, though. She was a woman and, well, women just got emotional is all. He'd gotten used to that with her.

Okay, Johnny, off you go . Just a little farther, I think. Can't be more than a few miles now. Might make it before winter, he laughed. Well, no sense in bein all sullen. Better to laugh than cry and he sure felt like crying about now.

Wouldn't that be something? Have old Jay find you bawling your eyes out. Yeah, that'd make the old man proud.

He found another stream and drank slowly this time, splashing the water on his face instead of dunking his head. Live and learn, he thought.

He wet the bandana and hesitantly opened his shirt. Christ! What a mess! Is there even any point? He sighed and cleaned the wounds the best he could, gritting his teeth at the pain. They started bleeding again and he figured at least he'd managed to wash through some of the grime and infection.

Go ahead and bleed! What the hell anyway. Once more, tears threatened and he splashed the cooling water on his face to wash them away. Why am I doing that? But he knew why, he was mourning. Mourning the loss that was yet to come.

The loss of his family, the loss of his future. He knew if he went through with his plan to have it out with Murdoch, it would end any chance between them. Not that there was a chance in hell anyway. Of course, it may all be for naught. Hell, who said I was going to make it out of here?

He started out again and looked up at the particularly steep incline ahead of him. He closed his eyes briefly and wondered if he could make it. He sketched out a path to follow so he could have something to hold onto almost all the way.

He took a deep, hitching breath that caught in his throat as the wounds on his chest stretched with the inhalation. Leaning back against the tree heavily, he considered sitting down to rest but knew he may never get up again.

The top of that hill was his goal and if he could just make it that far, he convinced himself, he'd be home free. Home. The thought made him wince with discomfort but he shoved it to the back of his mind and concentrated on the task at hand.

He started up, grabbing onto branches and bushes along the way. With only one good arm, it was a trying and exhausting job. He grabbed hold of a bush and it gave way. Scrappling and clutching for something to hold onto, Johnny went barreling back down the hill, head over feet.

He landed with a heavy thud at the bottom, rolling not too gently into a tree trunk and laid there stunned. Sucking desperately for air, he tried to sit up but the numbness in his left arm was suddenly gone. Replacing it was a searing white hot pain that kept him from getting that good breath and he slumped back again.

Lying on his back, looking at the blue sky above, he fought to stay awake. Part of him wondered why he bothered, part of him was too angry to give in. The latter part won out and he once more attempted a sitting position. This time he made it, barely. Scooting his back against the tree trunk, he focused all his energy on breathing.

After what seemed like hours, he thought about trying it again, then he became deathly still. He'd heard it, he knew he had. No other sound in the world like that. A horse!

Clearing his throat and mustering his reserves, Johnny called. "Hello?"

The horse stopped and he knew the rider was listening. This may be a big mistake but he had no other choice. "Hello!" he tried again.

"Hello," the call came back.

"Over here, by the hill," he yelled.

He focused all his energy, all his resources, towards the sound of the horse. Ready for anything, friend or foe.

The horse cleared the tree line and stopped as the rider's mouth fell open.

"Hey, Jay," he smiled.

"Johnny? Boy, what the hell?" Jay said, stunned.

"Had a little trouble." The fatigue and relief washed over him. He fell over onto the ground and knew no more.

*****

Jay dismounted quickly and bent down over Johnny. He shook his head as he took in the gaunt, exhausted face, the crimson soaked bandage and the bloody shirt. He opened the shirt and knew what had happened.

Moving quickly, he picked Johnny up and slung him over the saddle, tying him down so he wouldn't fall off.

Jay set out for home as quickly as he dared. It was a three mile hike but it was nothing for the mountain man.

He made it to the cabin in less than two hours and called out for his own son. Together, they got Johnny inside and on the bed.

"Best ride on to Lancer, boy. Let 'em know what's goin on then get the doc. I ain't sure I can do much for 'im," Jay ordered.

After his son was off, Jay undressed Johnny carefully. He removed the makeshift bandage from his left arm and sucked in a breath. A seasoned mountain man, he'd seen just about everything but how this boy had made it at all, he had to wonder.

The arm was swollen twice it's normal size and the cat's fangs had ripped the skin and muscle beyond any stitching he was prepared to do. He set water on to boil and began washing down Johnny's chest.

*****

Canopus McKillen rode into the yard at Lancer like the devil himself was on his tail. The entire family came out to see what the problem was.

" Canopus ? What's wrong?' Murdoch asked, knowing the boy wouldn't be there unless there was a problem. He immediately thought of Jay. "Is it your father?"

"No, Mr. Lancer. It's Johnny. Pa found him on the mountain. Said it looks like a cat got him. He looks awful bad. I'm headed for the doc," he answered, through heaving breaths.

"No, you stay here and rest. I'll send a man for the doctor," Murdoch said.

"I'll saddle the horses," Scott said and took off.

"Make it three," Jelly called after him.

"I'll get provisions together," Teresa said and didn't bother with a scowl for her guardian.

"How bad, Canopus ?" Murdoch asked after everyone had left to get ready.

"Well, sir, I didn't get a good look at 'im. Pa sent me off right quick but what I did see.... I'm sorry, it ain't lookin good."

Murdoch's stomach tightened and he closed his eyes briefly. Summoning his strength, he got down to business and prepared for the trip up the mountain.

 

The Meeting

Johnny moaned and turned his head as he called out for his father. Jay cooled him down with a wet cloth.

"Easy boy, your pa's on his way," he reassured the man.

Jay had done what he could for the wounds. He'd applied a poultice to Johnny's chest and cleaned the arm, rebandaging it. It was pitiful little, he knew, but he wasn't prepared to do further harm to that arm.

All he could do now was cool the fever and wait. He managed to get some willow bark tea in Johnny and some water but he knew it was bad. Maybe too bad to be fixed.

His grizzled heart went out to his friend as he thought of what it would do to Murdoch if he lost this boy.

Sighing heavily, he glanced at Johnny's face and was startled at the blue eyes watching him.

"Well, decided to wake up did ya? Here, take some water. Your pa's on his way, doc, too. Just got to wait it out," Jay jabbered as he fed Johnny as much water as he could take.

"Must have heard me," Johnny smiled.

"What's that?"

"I was wonderin why you weren't out huntin so you could find me. Didn't think I'd make it this far," Johnny said wearily.

Jay chuckled a bit. "Reckon I had me a fierce desire to do some huntin today at that. Reckon the good Lord sent me your way."

Johnny hmmphed at that thought. "How bad?"

"Ain't no doctor, Johnny, but that arm, well son, it ain't lookin good." He never was one to mince words and Johnny was grateful for it.

"Yeah, I figured."

"Fever's too high on top a that ," Jay said.

"I know. My fault," Johnny sighed.

"Your fault? What'ya do , ask that cat fer a fight?" he asked, amused.

Johnny laughed softly. "No, but I didn't see him either, didn't hear 'im. Too busy thinkin."

"Musta been some mighty important thinkin ," Jay said.

"No es importante," Johnny said and turned his head.

Jay frowned, he didn't know what the boy said but he sure sounded sad. Bet he got into it with ole Murdoch again.

He heard the riders approaching fast and went to open the door. "He's in there," he nodded to the bedroom.

Murdoch, Scott and Jelly poured into the cabin and straight to the room that held Johnny.

All three stopped and stared at the figure on the bed. Coming to his senses first, Scott approached his brother.

"Johnny?"

He turned his head and smiled. "Hey, brother."

"Can't you stay out of trouble for one minute?" Scott teased and grinned.

Johnny's smile left. "Guess not," he turned away again.

"Hey, I didn't mean it. I'm sorry," Scott mentally kicked himself .

"How do you feel, son?"

"I'm okay," Johnny mumbled, still not looking at them.

"Johnny, what's wrong?" Murdoch asked.

"Nothin much," he turned and smiled sardonically.

Jelly went around the other side and pulled back on the poultice, grimacing when he got a good look. "Whatcha got on there, Jay?"

"Vinegar."

Jelly nodded. "That'll do it. How about that arm, Johnny?"

"It's bad, Jelly. I'm not so sure about it."

"Well, let me get a look. Ya know I got some doctorin under my belt," Jelly   smiled .

"Yeah, I think you told me that once or twice," Johnny smiled affectionately.

Murdoch didn't miss the easy way Johnny reacted to Jelly and he bristled a little.

"What happened, Johnny?" Scott asked.

"Wasn't payin attention as usual."

"Why are you mad at me?"

"I'm not, just answered your question. I didn't see the cat until it was on top of me, having it's lunch," Johnny said flatly.

Scott frowned at the description and his brother's expressionless face. "Sam will be here as soon as he can," was all he could think to say.

"Okay."

"Good Lord!" Jelly exclaimed as he saw the arm. "Murdoch, you better look at this."

Murdoch thought he might lose his lunch when he looked at Johnny's arm. He closed his eyes for a second.

"I didn't wanna do too much, just cleaned it best I could," Jay explained.

"I don't blame you. Jelly, you shouldn't try..."

"Wasn't gonna!" Jelly snapped.

"Well, if ya'll ain't a bunch a polecats! Reckon ya should come on in the other room and get some coffee if all ya can do is harp at each other," Jay said.

"I'll stay with him," Jelly said and his expression told them he would take no quarter.

"Johnny?"

"It's alright, Scott," Johnny said.

Jelly began rewrapping the arm wound and Johnny had to smile.

"No need to be so gentle. I can't feel anything again."

" Which is exactly why I need ta be gentle. You can't feel it if I hurt somethin," Jelly explained.

"When did this happen?" he asked as he finished the chore.

"I don't even know what day it is. Day after I left though," Johnny sighed. "What?" he asked as he saw the look on Jelly's face.

"That was six days ago, Johnny," he answered as he felt the young man's forehead.

"Jay said the fever was a little better."

"Good thing cause yer a burnin up," Jelly huffed as he went about cooling Johnny off.

*******

"Well, I can't blame ya none. No sir, me and T'resa's about mad as wet hens, too. Ain't got nothin good ta say bout them two in there right now," Jelly yammered.

"I don't want to talk to Murdoch until I can do it on my feet."

"Why? So's ya can run?" Jelly asked.

"No! So I can stand my ground. It's time we got some things straightened out between us," he snapped.

"Sure is, long past time if ya ask me. And I know ya didn't."

"Jelly, Barranca took off when that cat got me. Any chance of finding him?"

"Reckon I'll do my best. Soon as Doc gets here I'll send out a posse," Jelly winked.

Johnny laughed at the thought of a posse after his palomino. Posse don't stand a chance.

 

Truth

Doc Jenkins arrived and Jelly sent out some men to try and find Barranca. He knew Johnny wouldn't rest well until the palomino was found. The men he sent knew it too and they vowed to find the animal if it took a month.

Nice somebody gives a hoot about that boy, Jelly thought.

"Well, Johnny, what have you done?" Sam asked.

"Got in a fight with a cat, Sam. Not sure which of us is better off. "

"Why is that?"

"Cat's dead," Johnny shrugged with one shoulder.

Sam frowned and removed the bandage to Johnny's arm. His face was a mask as he examined the wound. "Can you feel that?"

"No."

"Alright, I'll be back in a minute," Sam said.

"Where ya goin?"

"I need to get ready to operate on that arm, Johnny. And I need to talk to your family."

"Talk to them about what? Whatever needs explaining, explain it to me."

"I see you and Murdoch are at odds again. Alright, I don't know what's going to happen. I need to see if there's any nerve damage and if I can repair that muscle. If I can't, I may need to amputate," Sam said brusquely and wished he hadn't.

Johnny's face went even more pale at Sam's words but he simply nodded his head.

*******

Sam explained the situation to the family anyway and was met with several questions and some very sad faces.

"Johnny, we need to talk."

"Not now, Murdoch."

"Sam told us about your arm," Murdoch pressed.

"Yeah, I'm sure you can understand why I'm not up to a talk right now. If you don't mind, I'd just as soon not talk until there's something to talk about."

"You're still angry about that corral gate."

Johnny turned and stared at him in amazement. "Gate? I don't give a damn about that gate! Leave me alone, old man."

Murdoch opened his mouth then closed it again. He turned and walked out without another word.

"What's wrong with him?" Scott asked, having heard the conversation.

"I think he has a few things on his mind, Scott. Like maybe waking up without a limb," Sam said tersely. "If you two think you could stand to stop thinking about yourselves for a minute, you might want to try and understand what Johnny has been through and what he's facing. Now, Jelly, I'll need your help."

*******

Closing the door behind them, Sam and Jelly disappeared into the bedroom. Scott sat down heavily at the table.

"I don't understand what's going on here. He's not angry about the gate but he's angry with us. Not Jelly, not Sam, just us."

"Whatever is going on inside your brother's head, Sam's right. It can wait," Murdoch said.

And so they sat and paced and drank several pots of coffee as they waited for Sam to tell them what he'd had to do. Murdoch was sure it was the longest few hours of his life.

Sam walked out and closed the door behind him. "He still has his arm," he said unceremoniously.

"Thank God," Scott sighed.

"Sam?" Murdoch asked.

"It's going to be a long time before he can use it again and he may never get full use back. It's up to Johnny how hard he wants to work at it."

"Well, if that's all it takes, I'm sure he'll be fine," Scott said assuredly.

"Shore he will. Ain't nothin to it. Course Sam didn't tell ya about what he couldn't fix," Jelly said as he came out of the bedroom.

"What do you mean, what couldn't you fix, Sam?" Murdoch asked but the doctor looked as perplexed as the Lancers.

"His heart. It's broke clean in two. Ain't no Doc can fix that," Jelly explained.

"Jelly, I know Johnny has issues but we will work them out," Scott said, annoyed at the insinuation.

"Well, them's real purty words, Scott Lancer. Let's see if ya don't eat 'em. He's mad at you, too, ya know. Ain't never had ta deal with that before, have ya?"

"No, but I believe in my brother and I know we can work through anything."

"What about you, Murdoch? You believe in Johnny?" Jelly turned on his Boss.

"Whatever is bothering him, we'll deal with it, Jelly. But I'm getting awfully tired of your accusations. Johnny is at fault here, too," Murdoch said.

"You're right, he is. He fergot something, got distracted tryin ta keep two muleheaded cowboys from killin each other and a few cows got loose afore he could stop 'em. Why don't ya just string 'im up and be done with it!"

"Now see here!"

"No! I ain't gonna see here! I'm tellin the gospel truth and ya know it or ya wouldn't be so fired up! Murdoch, you're a good man, a fair man with everybody but that boy in there and I just don't understand it, that's all. I just don't understand how ya can be so charitable with everybody else but not your own blood. That's it and that's all I'm sayin on the subject." Jelly turned walked outside.

Silence filled the cabin when Jelly left. Murdoch walked over and stared out the window and Scott sat dumbfounded and stung by Jelly's words. Sam decided he'd rather sit with an unconscious man than be around any of these people and he slipped back into the room with Johnny.

 

Home

Johnny opened his eyes slowly and blinked until the blur went away. He sighed and turned his head to find Sam watching him.

"How do you feel, Johnny?"

"Arm hurts," he mumbled.

Sam smiled and Johnny woke fully.

"Hey, it hurts. Guess that means it's still there," Johnny smiled.

"That's what it means. Now, it's going to take time and hard work on your part to get that arm back to full use. You have to give the muscle time to heal first."

"Thanks, Sam. Seems I'm always thanking you," Johnny smiled.

Sam returned the smile. "Would you like some company?"

Johnny's face darkened then. "Don't think so."

"Johnny, whatever is going on with your family, they're worried sick about you right now. Whatever it is, can't you let it go until you're well enough to face it?"

Johnny sighed and nodded his head, knowing he had to face them sooner or later. He just wished it was later because right now, he was so tired and he hurt all over.

Scott appeared in the doorway and smiled, walking over to his side. "How do you feel?"

"Relieved."

"I'll bet, we all are," Scott said.

"How's the pain, son?"

"Very much there," he said, trying to smile.

Scott felt his forehead. "Fever's down."

"Sam said we could take you home in few days as long as we're careful. Think you'll be up to it?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny flinched. "Guess so."

"Teresa's really worried," Scott said.

"Yeah, when isn't she?" Johnny said with a small smile. "I'm really tired."

"Okay, get some sleep. One of us will sit with you," Scott said and laid a hand on his brother's right arm.

He didn't pull away although he wanted to. He closed his eyes and drifted off.

*******

Jelly left before daylight three days later and was back with a wagon bedded down with straw and blankets. They placed Johnny in the back as gently as possible and headed home.

Before Scott stepped out of the wagon, Johnny grabbed his arm. "I'm not mad at you," he said.

Scott smiled. "I'm very glad to hear that."

They pulled into the courtyard and Teresa was in the wagon bed instantly.

"Welcome home," she smiled.

"Thanks," Johnny said flatly.

She frowned and looked questioningly at him but he looked away from her.

"Johnny, can ya look over to yer right?" Jelly asked as they set him on his feet, supporting him heavily.

Johnny looked and, for the first time in days, he smiled. Barranca nickered at him and he laughed. "You rat, wait til I get my hands on you."

He could swear Barranca was laughing at him and he shook his head at the horse's antics. "Where'd they find him, Jelly?"

"On the mountain, just grazin in a field like he didn't have a care in the world. Got into some brambles but he's just fine."

*****

Once settled in his room, Johnny's mood returned to its previous somber state.

"Tired?" Murdoch asked.

"Yeah, very," he mumbled.

"Well, get some sleep. You still have a fever," Murdoch said and lightly brushed his head.

Don't even try it, old man, he thought as they left him alone finally.

His sleep was filled with nightmares once more and he tossed about as much as he could before the pain in his arm awakened him. It was dusk when he opened his eyes and found Scott with a hand on his arm.

"You're hard to wake up," Scott smiled.

"Was dreamin," Johnny mumbled.

"More like nightmares the way you were thrashing about."

"Guess so, I don't remember."

"Would you like to tell me what's got you so sad?"

Johnny looked at him in surprise then dropped his eyes. "No."

"Your fever is way down," Scott said.

"That's good. Guess I'll be back on my feet soon."

"Is that what you're waiting for, to get back on your feet?"

"Yep," he clipped.

"What's going to happen then?" Scott asked, dreading the answer.

"Nothin you don't want to happen, Scott."

"But you're going to make me wait," he surmised.

"If you want to hear it, you'll have to wait."

"Okay, I'll get you some broth." He started to say more, then thought better of it and left the room.

Johnny stared at the ceiling and thought again of what he would say and how. He had not forgotten his decision and he wasn't going to get chummy with anyone until he saw their reactions.

*********

Murdoch opened the door and walked in with a steaming cup. "Here's your broth, son."

"Thanks," Johnny grunted as he tried to sit up.

"Easy. I don't think that's such a good idea just yet. Don't forget about your chest."

"Not likely to," Johnny said through clenched teeth.

"Let me help you." Murdoch placed a hand behind Johnny's neck to support him as he drank.

He finished the broth as quickly as he could so Murdoch would leave him alone. "Thanks, that was good. Think I need some more sleep now," he said.

"Sure," Murdoch said softly and felt his forehead. "Fever's all but gone," he smiled.

"Yeah," Johnny answered and closed his eyes.

Murdoch sat there for another minute, then sighed and left the room.

"Did he tell you anything, Scott?" he asked his eldest once in the living room.

"All he said was he was going to talk to us and he wanted to be standing on his own two feet when he did. Then he said it was something I would want to hear. That's all, sir."

"Well, if it's something you'll want to hear then it can't be bad news," Teresa said.

"I don't know, Teresa. In the state he's in, it's impossible to tell what he's thinking. He did tell me he wasn't angry with me."

"But he's angry with me," Murdoch added.

"He didn't say that either."

"Well, I've had all I can take of this. I am going to make him talk to me!"

"No, you are not, Sir! That's been the problem all along. You only want to talk to Johnny on your terms. If he's willing to tell us anything, anything at all, you have to let him do it his way. Itâ€s obvious he's made up his mind about something. You have to give him time to say it the way he needs to say it," Scott argued.

"Scott's right, Murdoch. Don't push him, not this time," Teresa piped in.

"Fine! I'll wait," Murdoch grumbled, not sure if his patience would hold out that long.

 

Face Off, Part One

A week later, Johnny was out of bed and gingerly getting around on his own. He tired easily and his arm throbbed but he was grateful to at least be mobile. He spent his time on the veranda or in Teresa's garden. Wherever Murdoch wasn't at the time. He couldn't talk to him until they hashed it all out. Then he would know for certain if there was any reason to talk at all.

Murdoch found him sitting in the garden this afternoon. He watched from a distance as Johnny lifted his face to the sun and relished its warmth. Murdoch smiled, knowing how much it meant to Johnny to be outside again.

"You love being out of the house," he commented as he walked up.

Johnny looked at him but didn't reply; it wasn't a question.

Murdoch sat beside him on the bench. "The lilacs bloomed early this year. I hope they last."

"Are you ever going to talk to me again, Johnny?"

"When I'm ready."

"And when will that be, son?"

"Soon, very soon."

"I hope so. I miss you," Murdoch said and walked away.

Johnny smirked. Yeah, sure you do, old man. I'm sure you miss havin somebody to yell at.   Am I ever gonna stop bein mad at him? He is trying.

*******

Two days later, after talking to Sam and having gotten his thoughts together, Johnny decided it was time to face the music.

He joined the family for supper for the first time since coming home and they were all leery of what this might mean. They ate in virtual silence and the tension was thick. Johnny didn't miss it but he wasn't quite ready, not quite.

His thoughts were a tumble in his mind and he was working them out as he ate. Still, he had to admit, he was scared to death. Has to be done, he thought. Now or never.

Teresa cleared the supper dishes and excused herself to the kitchen and the men sat silently with their coffee.

Johnny cleared his throat and spoke. "There are some things I need to tell you both. Would you come into the living room with me?"

Both of them stood quickly and Johnny almost laughed. Guess I have made it tough on them, Scott doesn't deserve that.

******

He stood in front of them and hedged. No, dammit, you ain't no coward!

"It's time we cleared the air about some things. The first thing I want to do is apologize, to you Scott. I haven't been treating you very well and I'm sorry."

"Apology accepted, brother," Scott said quietly.

Johnny smiled at him but he felt his father bristle. "Okay, now, it's time to set things straight and hopefully, set them right, too." He took a deep breath and began. "My mother died when I was ten, not twelve, so that's one theory shot to hell. I was put in an orphanage where I stayed for about four months total. That's including every time I ran away and they caught me. Once I finally escaped for good, I spent my time roaming the border towns, working, stealing or begging for food."

Johnny kept pacing, unable to look at them while he spilled his guts. He played with the edge of his sling.

"When I was twelve, I got caught stealing food and was thrown in jail for a few months. I don't really remember how long. When I got out, I went right back to what I was doing. That's how I survived for the next two years as well. When I was fourteen, I saw my first gunfight and truthfully, I thought it was great. The winner was one tough hombre. Dressed all in black with those cold, dead eyes. Everybody moved aside or just plain ran when they saw him coming. I thought that was the life for me. Hell, if that's all it took to not be pushed around, I could do that."

He walked over and poured himself a drink, then poured two more and handed them off, returning for his own glass.

"Like I said, I was fourteen. I stole a gun from the gunsmith's shop and as many bullets as I could carry and I took off. I went to a place I knew near Nogales that was quiet and remote. I'd been there many times and I was pretty sure nobody else had a clue about the place. I spent eight months there, practicing. Sometimes, I'd go into Nogales and hang around, watching. I watched the gunfighters, the way they walked and talked and generally carried themselves. And I watched the gunfights. Never had to wait long in Nogales for a gunfight. But, I watched and took notes in my head. Then I'd go back to my place and imitate those moves."

Johnny took a long swallow of his whiskey before continuing.

"Pretty soon, I was developing my own moves, my own style." He smiled at this. "After eight months and one birthday, I figured I was ready. Only thing was, I didn't really know how to get started. I figured I'd have to kill somebody but I didn't feel ready to call somebody out. Then I got an idea. All I had to do was show my face, really. A certain town in a certain saloon, there were plenty to choose from. Sooner or later, somebody would start trouble with me. So, I went to Soldano."

He stopped here, remembering that time and his face was dark, his eyes hooded. No one spoke, they waited for him to be ready.

"I got myself some new clothes, a new gunbelt, a horse and I was ready. I rode into Soldano like I was somebody." He laughed at this memory. Shaking his head, he continued. "I walked into the gringo saloon on the white side of town and sat at a table. Naturally, they weren't about to serve me, but I knew that. Wasn't there for a drink. About two seconds later, some hombre was in my face.

"I had practiced for this, too. How I would react, what I would say. It didn't take much and he was calling me out. I killed him and there was a lot of hoopla about it. I had to make a pretty quick exit but I made sure they all knew who had killed Crazy Jack Monroe."

Murdoch looked up and stared openly at his son. "Crazy Jack?"

"That's right, Murdoch. In for a penny," he shrugged.

"Who's Crazy Jack?" Scott asked his father.

"A notorious and deadly gunfighter, Scott. One of the best ever."

Johnny smiled wryly at this and Murdoch felt chills run down his spine.

"By the time I got back to Nogales , the word had spread about Johnny Madrid. It still took some time, but before a year was out, I was working steady and was a high priced gun. I was sixteen and I felt like a hundred."

"For five years I ran the border towns and everyplace in between. Wherever the fight was, the money, I was there most of the time. I earned the respect of most men and the fear of others. Then, I decided to be noble."

"There was a revolution brewing in a small village in Mexico . Two men from that village traveled a long way to find me and ask for my help. I went with them and saw for myself the hell they lived under. The rurales took whatever they wanted, including women, and the Don ran every aspect of their lives. It was like living in a prison. After that, you know the rest of the story."

"Are we allowed to ask questions?" Scott asked, quite seriously.

"Sure."

"You said these men sought you out. Why you in particular?"

"I had helped one of the villagers out once when he was in Nogales . Some of the locals were giving him a hard time. He was just an old man, so I put a stop to it."

"How exactly did you get caught?" Murdoch asked.

"I was wounded in the right shoulder so I had to shoot left-handed. Not my best talent. They got a hold of an old woman and was beating on her in the village center. I guess I just got mad and took off. Turns out, it was a trap. They wanted me pretty bad, those rurales. I sure caused them a lot of trouble over the years." Johnny laughed.

"How so?" Scott asked.

"Oh, I robbed their cache which they had taken from poor villagers and gave it back. I shot up their posts just for the hell of it. I hated them and they hated me. It was a mutual war."

Scott laughed softly. "Robin Hood."

"What's that?"

"Robin Hood. He stole from the rich and gave to the poor," Scott explained.

"I only took back what they had stolen in the first place. It wasn't a big deal."

"How long did they keep you before the ... firing squad?" Murdoch asked.

"I'm not really sure. Never did keep too close track of time but I'd have to guess over a month."

"And what did they do to you during that time?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny flinched and thought not to answer but he'd started this, he had to finish it. "Every morning El Capitan would make a big show of walking in and standing in front of my cell. He'd read the so-called charges against me and the sentence. He'd tell me every day that I would die the next morning. Then, the next morning he'd do it all again. He liked to keep me guessing. At night, they'd throw a bowl of something at me which usually consisted of cockroaches and tell me to eat up because the mestizo would die at dawn."

"Mestizo?" Scott asked.

"Half breed," Johnny translated.

"What else, Johnny?" Murdoch asked.

He sighed and had the distinct feeling Murdoch already knew about this. "They beat on me sometimes, used a whip a few times. They'd take me outside and tie me to a post to bake in the sun. Joke was on them though. Those were the best times for me, being outside. One morning, they came in and tied me to a chair. They shaved me and cut my hair and I knew that was the day."

"Can you tell us about that day?" Scott asked.

"Sure, it was a sunny day, there was a nice breeze actually. It felt good. I sat there on my knees with my hands tied behind me and waited. There were four of us. Two had already gone when El Capitan walked up and started shouting at me. I hated that man." He stopped here, anger awash on his face then, he shook it off as quickly as it had come. "So, I got up and started to take my place when this gringo in a suit comes tearing over the hill yelling to stop." He had to laugh at the image.

"He paid off El Capitan and cut me loose then, told me Murdoch wanted to see me and about the money and the hour. Anyway, El Capitan wasn't about to let his prize go. I heard them talking in Spanish. I grabbed that Pink's gun and started blasting away, grabbed a horse and took off. El Capitan was dead as a doornail." Johnny smiled.

"You make it sound as if it was nothing. Sitting there waiting your turn to die," Scott said.

"I made my peace with death a long time ago, Scott. I'm not afraid of dyin or death. It's part of the deal, part of the life. You either accept that or you don't last too long. I wasn't afraid, I was .... a little relieved."

"Relieved?" Murdoch asked, stunned.

"Yeah, I mean it was better than the prison and I had tried, but there was no way to escape. I figured death had to be better than looking at that bastard every day."

"How many....."

"What, Scott?"

"How many men have you killed?" Scott asked hesitantly.

"Including the war, fifty-one," Johnny answered.

"What war?"

"The revolution, whatever you want to call it," Johnny said.

They both sat still for a moment as they drank in all they'd been told. Johnny poured himself another drink and walked over to fill their glasses. Setting the bottle back down on the sideboard, he turned to his family.

"Any more questions?"

"Yes, how did she die?" Murdoch asked the one thing he wanted to know the most.

Johnny bowed his head then, took a long drink of whiskey. He knew this was coming and was only glad he'd been able to get the rest out first.

 

Face Off,  Part Two

"She bled to death. I didn't know what was happening. She tried to hide it from me. She was in bed when I came in from playing that day. I knew something was wrong, she never laid in bed like that. She said she had a headache and not to worry. So, I fixed her some tea and sat with her until she made me go back outside and play. When I came back about an hour or so later, she was barely breathing. I ran and got the priest, there weren't any doctors around. He made me wait outside while he talked to her but I sneaked in anyway. She made confession and he gave her last rites. I heard him tell her she'd miscarried."

"She was pregnant?" Murdoch asked.

"Evidently. I didn't know what miscarried even meant until years later."

"Did you get to talk to her?" Scott asked.

Johnny smiled, figures Scott would ask that. "Yeah, for a minute, but she was so weak and so scared. She was crying and she tried so hard to tell me something, but she couldn't get it out. The only thing she managed to say was ..." Johnny stopped and looked at his father. "Murdoch."

The rancher dropped his eyes and swallowed hard at the lump in his throat. He couldn't look back at his son to save his life.

"I think she was trying to tell you the truth, Johnny," Scott said gently.

"Yeah, so do I . She ... well."

"What? She what?" Murdoch asked through the tightness in his throat.

"The way she said your name, it was like she was calling out for you."

Murdoch nodded, still unable to look at Johnny and once more a veil of silence fell on the room.

"Was there ever a time when you thought maybe you didn't want that life?" Scott asked.

"Yeah, there was. Long before I came here. I guess that's the part I want you to understand. It's not being Johnny Madrid, it's not about the gunfights. It's about being on my own for so long. I've never answered to anyone, not anyone, since my mother died. I went where I wanted, when I wanted. I was as free as an alley cat. That's hard to stop in a heartbeat. It's hard to give up your independence. It's not like I haven't been trying. But, this is the part that maybe Scott doesn't need to be a part of. This is the part between you and me, Murdoch."

"I'd like to stay if neither of you objects," Scott said.

"It's okay with me, Boston , as long as you know I don't expect or want you to take up for me."

Murdoch nodded his consent also and Scott nodded his understanding.

"Well, old man?" Johnny said.

"Well, what? And stop calling me old man!"

Johnny laughed softly and nodded his head.

"It's about trust, Murdoch. Trust you don't have in me and I want to know why."

"Come on, I've been completely honest with you. I think I deserve the same in kind," Johnny pressed.

"I guess I think you're going to take off one day and never come back," Murdoch said.

"And if I did?"

"What do you mean?"

"So what if I did take off and never came back? So what?"

"I don't want you to, that's so what!"

"Why not?"

"Johnny."

"It's a fair question, old .... Murdoch. Why not?"

"I don't want to lose you again," he said softly.

"Then why do you keep pushing me away?" Johnny asked, his voice trembling now.

"I ..... I don't want to get close to you, in case...."

Johnny swallowed hard. "Damn, she really did a number on you, didn't she?" he fairly whispered. He dropped to his knees in front of his father.

"I'm not my mother, Murdoch. I'm not. I know I'm a lot like her but I'm a lot like you, too. I have never run from a fight until I came here. I'm afraid, too. Afraid you'll hate me for the things I've done. Afraid you'll be disgusted by my past. That's why I told you all these things and I know it's not half of what all happened. I have to know if you can accept my past. I have to know if you can at least try. Because, I swear to you, if you can't, if you really don't want me here, I have to know right now."

"I don't know, Johnny. I don't know you."

Johnny swallowed hard at that damned lump but he didn't waver. "Do you want to?"

Johnny waited, seeing the emotions pass across his father's face with dizzying speed and he almost dreaded the answer that may very well break his heart. He tried desperately to reach into his father's heart with his eyes until he could no longer stand the wait. He dropped his head and sighed.

"I don't know," Murdoch mumbled.

Johnny got up and walked over to the sideboard, refilling his glass once more. He took a long swallow and kept his back to them.

Scott stared in utter disbelief at his father, too dumbstruck to speak. His mouth opened, but no words would come.

"Maybe you should tell me what you do want," Johnny said, barely above a whisper.

"I want my family whole."

"I want to start all over but that's not going to happen either. That dream is gone, Murdoch. It doesn't exist anymore, except maybe in your heart." Johnny tried hard to keep his voice level but he failed miserably.

"What heart!?" Scott exclaimed as he found his voice and came to his feet. "I cannot believe what I'm hearing! Johnny has poured his soul out to us, told us things I never thought he would and all you can say is you don't know?! Unbelievable!"

"I'm trying to be honest, Scott!" Murdoch shot.

"And I appreciate it," Johnny said. He had yet to face them again.

"Well, as long as we're being so honest, Murdoch, maybe you could tell Johnny how you really feel about him," Scott fumed.

"Scott, don't."

"Don't what? Ask for the truth, The REAL truth!"

"Could you leave us alone now?" Johnny asked quietly.

Scott was stunned into silence once more, unable to fathom why his brother would want to be alone with this man. He couldn't see Johnny's face but he didn't have to. He knew what was there and it killed him. Respecting his brother's wishes, he turned on his heel and stalked out the front door, slamming it behind him.

"He doesn't get riled very often but when he does....." Johnny trailed off, a wry smile on his face.

Silence fell on the room then and neither man could look at the other. Johnny sat his drink down and walked over to the map of Lancer.

"I like this area here," he pointed to a spot. "It's one of my favorite places on the ranch. There's a stream nearby and lots of trees."

Murdoch got up and walked over behind him, looking at the map. "Yes, that's always been on of my favorite spots, too."

"There's a small rise there, perfect place to build a house. Nothing big and fancy, just a small place."

Murdoch said nothing but looked at Johnny's back.

"I was thinking I could build a place there. It's close enough to the hacienda but not too close." Johnny continued.

"What for?"

Johnny shrugged his good shoulder. "To live in."

"You have a home right here, Johnny."

Johnny turned and faced his father. "I don't think so," he whispered.

Murdoch's jaw clenched tightly. "So, you're just going to run away again."

Johnny shook his head in wonderment. "Run away? No, Murdoch, go away. That's what you want."

"Don't tell me what I want!"

"Then you tell me!" Johnny spat, tired of the cross signals and half answers. "Oh right, you don't know," he added in a softer, sarcastic tone.

"I'm trying, Johnny."

"Trying? No, Murdoch, you're not trying. You already had me pegged before I ever walked through that door and nothing I do is going to change your mind. Well, I'm tired of it, that's all. I told you everything you wanted to know and it wasn't enough. Nothing I do is ever enough!"

"What do you want me to say? That I'm glad you were a hired gun? That I can just forget about that? I can't."

"No, you won't. You won't see beyond that gun to who I really am. That's what you refuse to do. I'm more than my gun, Murdoch. I more than ....." Johnny turned away and walked back to the sideboard. Picking up his drink, he downed it in one gulp.

"All I ever wanted to be was Johnny Madrid, good at my trade. Now, I know there's more to life than killing. More to me. Maybe I always knew, I don't know. What I do know is you can't ever accept me. But I won't turn my back on my brother, Murdoch. I won't leave Scott. I own a third of this ranch and I intend to stay. If not in this house, then someplace else."

 

Ascent

"I've always known the only reason you stayed here was because of Scott." Murdoch said flatly.

Johnny turned and stared at him. "You really don't know anything about me, do you? I stayed for you old man. To get to know you! I guess I was wasting my time."

"You hated me all your life, Johnny. Why would you want to know me?"

"I guess because I believed Teresa. Maybe part of me always knew there was more to the story than what I'd been told. I hoped to find that out. I didn't expect ....."

"Expect what?"

"I didn't expect you to be such a cold, unfeeling bastard!" Johnny seared.

"You can thank your mother for that," Murdoch shot.

"I have a feeling I can thank you both! If this is how you treated her, I don't blame her for runnin off!"

"You don't know anything about it!"

"No kidding? Whose fault is that, Murdoch!?"

Murdoch took a deep breath and brought himself under control. "This is getting us nowhere."

"You're right, as usual. This has nothing to do with my mother, not for me anyway. But it's all about her, for you. You can't get past what she did. Well, I'm not her and I haven't done anything to you!"

"Johnny, this isn't about Maria, this is about you and the life you chose."

"So, I'll ask you again. Do you want to know me or are you satisfied with what you think you know?"

"What else is there to know?"

Johnny felt his heart sink to his gut and he closed his eyes briefly. "Nothing, I guess," he whispered. "I'll camp out until I get a place built. I'll check with you in the mornings for my jobs."

"I didn't say I wanted you to leave."

Johnny rolled his eyes. "You didn't say you wanted me to stay either. I can't do this anymore, Murdoch. You talk out of both sides of your mouth. You don't want me to stay, you don't want me to leave. You want to know about my past then you don't want to hear it. I'm tired of being pulled in every direction."

He looked into his father's eyes and could see nothing to change his mind, so he walked upstairs without another word.

*********

Murdoch walked over and sat at his desk, burying his face in his hands.

"Murdoch?"

He looked up to find Scott watching him.

"He wants to build a house and live there," Murdoch said.

"He WANTS to or you didn't give him any reason not to?" Scott asked angrily.

"I can't talk about this right now, Scott," he groused.

Scott glared at his father then turned and headed upstairs.

Murdoch sat back and opened his desk drawer, removing the small picture of Johnny he kept there. Staring at it, he wondered why it was so hard for him to open up to this son.

How could he without tearing down those carefully constructed walls he'd built up around his heart? His sons had been threatening that fortress from day one and Johnny had challenged him to look inside himself tonight. What he'd seen was nothing. A blank wall, impenetrable by even the most courageous souls.

He knew if he ever let them in, he would lose all control of his emotions and he couldn't afford that. He couldn't chance that once he opened up, they would see him as weak and turn away from him. He wasn't a weak man, never had been.

If he were honest, he would admit they both meant everything to him. He loved them without condition. Why couldn't he tell them that? Why was it so damned hard?

He closed his eyes and his mind wandered back over the years.

"Ya can't seem to wait for that next fishing trip and this one's not even over yet."

"I guess I'm excited. I've waited so long."

"I know you have, son. Your Da is very proud of you," she smiled.

"He never has said. How come Da doesn't say it? How come he never tells us he loves us?"

"Murdoch, your Da is a proud man. It's not an easy thing for a man to show his feelings. It's not something men do. But, he does love you and he shows it by how hard he works to make a living for us all."

"When I have sons, I'll tell them everyday that I love them," he said with a bowed head.

"You know it though, don't ya boy? You know your Da loves you," she asked with concern.

"Yes, ma, I know," Murdoch smiled and raised his head.

His eyes flew open, stunned he had remember that long ago conversation with his mother. 'When he had sons', he smiled at that thought. Now, he had them and he was losing them. He knew in his heart, if he lost Johnny, Scott would not be far behind.

Such loyalty and love he had not seen since he was a child with his own brother, Blane. It had been so long since he'd thought of his older brother. He felt the sting of emotion threatening and shook himself to ward it off. He'd had to be strong for his mother and sister at the funerals. He was the man of the house and couldn't show such weakness.

Now, after all these years, he had the chance. The chance he was throwing away. He'd had his father for sixteen years and the man had never been given to displays of emotion. Yet, he could remember times when there was an arm around his shoulder, a quick hug and a smile. Those were the times when he truly felt loved.

Murdoch stood up and paced the living room. He had to find the words first. The words Johnny needed to hear. He had to stop lying to himself and his son because, truthfully, he didn't give a damn about Johnny Madrid. It was his out, his way of keeping his distance from one of the two people he loved most in this world. 'Murdoch Lancer, you are a damned fool,' he thought.

***********

Scott knocked lightly on the door.

"Come in, Boston ."

He smiled to himself and entered his brother's bedroom. "How did you know it was me?"

"Who else would it be?" Johnny asked sourly.

"I don't know how you're going to do it, build a house with one good arm."

"Figured I could find somebody to help me," Johnny grinned.

"If you mean me, forget it. I won't help you leave," Scott said firmly.

"I'm not leaving, just moving."

"Call it what you want, you won't be here."

"I don't really see any other way, Scott. What else can I do?"

"Stay here and drive Murdoch crazy," Scott smiled.

Johnny didn't find it funny though and he walked over to his window. "Gotta make sure my window faces west. I love the sunsets," he said distantly as he laid his head against the glass.

"Johnny, I don't want you to do this. I don't want to be that far from you," Scott said with sincerity.

He smiled and turned to his brother. "It's only a few miles."

"Who's going to cook for you, wash your clothes, make sure you don't get in trouble?"

"You know, Scott, I spent most of my life taking care of myself. I think I can manage."

Scott started to reply when there was a knock on the door and it opened. Murdoch stood in the doorway and his eyes found Johnny. "Scott, I need to talk to your brother."

 

Descent

Scott looked at Johnny who nodded his head then, he left the room with a penetrating stare for his father.

Murdoch dropped his eyes from that gaze and closed the door behind Scott.

Johnny stayed where he was by the window and turned to look out it once more. "You know land. This is the prettiest place I've ever seen." He spoke softly, almost to himself.

"Thank you. I've been sitting downstairs thinking about you and your brother," Murdoch started and suddenly felt he couldn't do this.

Johnny didn't reply but nodded his head.

He took a deep hitching breath. "I was also remembering something that happened when I was a boy."

This caused Johnny to turn and look at his father. "What?"

"My father worked on the fishing boats. He would be gone for weeks, sometimes months at a time. I was always pestering him to take me along from the time I was ten years old. My brother, Blane, was older so he got to go before me. It was his first trip and he was eighteen. A very bad storm hit in the middle of the night at sea and all hands were lost." He stopped here, waiting for his heart to slow down.

"I'm sorry," Johnny said sincerely.

Murdoch smiled at him. "It was a tough time. My mother took it very hard as you can imagine. She died six months later. My sister, Aileen, was engaged and I felt my duty to my family was finished, so I decided to come here. It took a few years to work and save the money. The reason I'm telling you this is, well, because of my father."

Johnny frowned and shook his head.

"He was a hard, tough man, Johnny. He never said the words but once in a while, he would show it. He worked hard and I suppose you could say he showed us that way but, as far as being physical, he didn't very often. I remember a conversation I had with my mother about that. She told me he showed his love by working so hard. I told her that when I had sons, I would tell them every day that I loved them." The smile that flitted across his face was sad.

"That was I promise I couldn't keep. At least, not for a long time. I used to keep it with you. I told you every day how much I loved you, but you were a baby then and it was a lot easier. You had no reason not to love me then. I've been lying to myself for so long it's started to seem like the truth. But it isn't and I'm going to lose you because of it."

"Murdoch, I'm sorry, but you're not making much sense," Johnny frowned.

"No, I suppose I'm not but just bear with me, son. I used your past as an excuse to keep you away. I was afraid if I ever let you or your brother know how much you both mean to me, that you would see me as weak. I always thought a father should be hard and tough, like mine was. Now, I'm thinking maybe that isn't true. Maybe I can let you in without seeming ....." He stopped, searching for a word.

"Mushy?" Johnny offered.

"That's as good a word as any. The truth is I don't care about your past. I don't care about Johnny Madrid. It doesn't matter to me and it never did. I only used it to keep you from ... hurting me." Murdoch dropped his head then, unable to look his son in the eye.

"You were afraid I still hated you," Johnny whispered.

Murdoch looked back up, amazed at his son's perception. "Yes, son. I just couldn't believe you could stop feeling something you've felt your whole life."

"Murdoch, I did hate you. When Teresa told me the truth about my mother, I didn't want to believe it. It's hard to think your mother lied to you and why she did has bothered me. I know I'm never going to know that but I put it aside for the chance to have a family. It's really all I've ever wanted. I don't care how much land you have or how much money. It wouldn't matter to me if you were a dirt farmer. You're my father, that's all I care about.

"I thought if I told you about my past, you would hate me. I thought you'd throw me right out the door. But I did it because I didn't think we could ever get to know each other until I did."

"I realize how hard it was for you to bear your soul like that, son. I didn't handle it well because you were doing something I never thought you would. And you were taking away my excuse to keep my distance. What you told us tonight didn't disgust me or anger me. I was so close to losing ... I didn't want you to see how much what happened to you hurts me," he turned away and paced a few feet before stopping.  

Johnny shook his head sadly, the pain in his father's heart evident. "Just exactly how high and thick are those walls, Murdoch?"

"Too much so."

"No, I don't think so. I think I see a few cracks right now. I would never think of you as weak, you know. I've never met a stronger man. If you wanted to show us how you feel, neither of us would think less of you. In fact, we'd both be grateful," he smiled.

"I love you, Johnny, and I don't want you to leave. I do want to get to know you, the real you. It's all I've ever wanted, to have my sons by my side," he turned and faced his boy, his stomach tight with the admission.

"I know how much she hurt you. I know it must have nearly killed you when Scott's mother died. Somehow, sometime, you were able to show love. Those two women saw it but you've turned yourself off, Murdoch. I see all the signs, the same ones I try to use. Only, I'm not very good at it," he sighed.

"I'm glad you're not, son. Otherwise, this would be hopeless. Think you can give your old man yet another chance?" Murdoch smiled weakly.

"I think so. All I want is that chance, a real chance. You said you didn't care about my past. Did you mean that?"

"I did. I read the reports, Johnny. All I saw was a man trying to survive and still try to be a good person. You succeeded with both and I'm very glad and proud."

Johnny turned back to the window, closing his eyes to ward off the emotions.

He felt a strong hand on his shoulder. "I can't blame you if you don't believe me," Murdoch said softly.

"I believe you. I just ... it's ..." Johnny sighed loudly, unable to put words with the feelings.

"Johnny, you said you could never think of me as weak. I hope that's true, son. I guess I'm a proud and stubborn man, but you're my son, my flesh and blood, and I love you more than anything in the world," Murdoch said and brought his arm around Johnny's chest, pulling him back against his own chest.

Johnny smiled, though his father couldn't see. "Even more than Lancer?"

"Yes, son, even more than Lancer," Murdoch replied seriously.

"I love you, too. I hope you know that's one of the reasons I've stuck around. I'm not going anywhere, Murdoch. Not if I can help it." He leaned his head back on the sturdy chest.

"I'm glad to hear that, son. I think I'd like to start over. I would like very much to get to know you," Murdoch said, his voice cracking a little.

"I'd like that," Johnny said, his own voice husky.

Murdoch kissed the top of his head. "You should get some rest. You're not healed yet, you know. I'm sure tonight has taken a lot out of you."

"Startin already with the father stuff?" Johnny laughed.

"Long past due, don't you think?"

Johnny turned to face his father, a smile on his face. "It feels pretty good at that."

*******

Scott heard his father leaving Johnny's room and sighed. 'At least there was no yelling,' he thought. He opened his own door and stepped across the hall, tapping lightly.

He opened the door and stuck his head in at the sound of his brother's voice. "Feel like talking?"

Johnny laughed softly. "I think I still have a voice."

Scott walked in and closed the door. "I think you weren't being totally honest with me when you said you weren't angry with me."

Johnny frowned and shook his head. "I wasn't, Scott. I was mad, but never really at you."

"I didn't take up for you with Murdoch."

"Not your job," Johnny shrugged.

"I should have, Johnny. He was wrong. I should have said something," Scott insisted.

"Why didn't you?"

"I guess I was just so tired of it all. The constant bickering, the accusations. I guess I was just fed up with being in the middle all the time. You didn't do anything wrong and you told him that. He just never listens." Frustration was thick in his voice.

"Scott, I never expected you to be my mouth. I know you've stuck up for me a lot with Murdoch and I appreciate it, but like I said, it's not your job."

"Yes, it is. I'm your brother, Johnny. I should always stick up for you."

"Even when I'm wrong? I know it doesn't happen often," Johnny grinned.

Scott laughed. "No, not when you're wrong, brother."

"Scott, listen to me. I know you feel like you need to protect me and I know why. But, I don't need it, not all the time. It's nice to have somebody on my side for a change and I love you for it, but..."

"What did you say?" Scott asked, his head snapping up.

"What?"

"That last thing you said."

Johnny dropped his eyes and shrugged. "I said I love you for it."

Scott swallowed hard, suddenly embarrassed. "You know that's why I do it, don't you? Why I stick up for you, I mean. Because I feel the same way."

"Yeah, I know. Murdoch loves you, too."

"Johnny..."

"No, Scott. He told me. He told me we were more important to him than anything, even Lancer."

"He said that?" Scott asked in amazement.

"Yeah, he did. I know, I was pretty shocked too," Johnny laughed.

"You two must have had a good talk," Scott smiled.

"We did. An honest talk. He told me some things and made me understand why he's acted like he has. He's built up a lot of walls but I think they're starting to come down. As long as we keep working on him, I think we'll manage to break through all of them," a note of conspiracy in his voice.

"We? So, you're not leaving?"

"No, I'm not leaving. But I am going to bed. I'm exhausted," Johnny smiled.

Scott walked closer to his brother and gave him a quick embrace. "This has been a good night. Thank you for sharing your life with us."

"Thanks for listening," Johnny whispered.

"Any time, and I mean that. Any time you want to talk about anything, I'm here."

"I know, Scott. I ... can't tell you how much it means to have somebody to depend on," Johnny said and bowed his head.

"Me too, brother. Now, you never told me what Sam said about that arm," Scott said with a raised brow.

Johnny laughed softly. "He said I could start moving it, he showed me how he wanted me to exercise it. Said it would hurt like crazy but it had to be done. It's going to be alright, Scott."

"Good, well I guess I should let you get some rest. Goodnight, brother," Scott smiled.

"Goodnight, Boston ."

********

Alone in his room, Johnny sat on the bed and smiled.   He thought back over the events of the night with sadness and joy. Finally, he had managed to make a dent in his father's heart. Enough for the old man to be honest with him. The fact that Murdoch didn't care about his past meant more to him than anything, well, almost anything. His father loved him. That revelation nearly killed him with its force. He'd been very close to losing it in front of Murdoch.

Johnny laughed softly, remembering his father's fear of appearing weak in his sons†eyes. A word he could never associate with his father. He felt at peace, finally. Content and secure with his place in this family for the first time. All it had taken was ripping his soul out. Shaking his head, Johnny sighed heavily.

He got up and thought to get ready for bed then, he stopped and rolled his eyes. 'Great! How am I gonna do this?' he thought ruefully. Knowing he had no choice he opened his bedroom door and crossed the hall. His hand was in the air to knock on his brother's door then, he stopped. Smiling devilishly, he turned and walked down the hall.

Murdoch opened his door and found Johnny standing there looking a bit embarrassed.

"Would you like to do a little more parenting?" Johnny smiled.

Murdoch returned the smile. "What do you need, son?"

"Well, I can't get my shirt off," he mumbled, blushing a little.

Murdoch's face remained stoically set. "I see. Well, I think we can do something about that. Is, um, Scott asleep?"

"I don't know."

"Oh ... well, let's get you to bed," Murdoch said, grinning ear to ear.

 

 

 

~end~

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