The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Odd Man Out

 

 

 

Chapter 1

He crouched in the tree line and stared at the tall rancher riding the valley below. Johnny pulled his gun silently from its holster and cocked the hammer. Bringing it to bear, he lined his sights and applied pressure to the trigger then released that pressure before firing the shot. With a quick move of his wrist, he pointing the gun toward the sky.

"Bang, you're dead," he whispered as he watched Murdoch Lancer disappear behind a boulder.

Mounting up, he reined his steed toward the hacienda with a grin. He wiped a hand over his bearded face, still getting used to the unfamiliar touch. Looked pretty good , though, he thought. Now, all he had to do was get hired on and hope no one recognized him. It was a fair bet they wouldn't and, if they did, so what? He had his plan, his story, all figured out no matter what circumstances may arise.

Part of him still struggled with it. Part of him just wanted to go in there and do what he could have so easily a few minutes ago. Another part had doubts about what he'd been led to believe all his life. Knowing the source of that belief had not always been a reliable sort.

He saw a commotion near the corrals as he rode in and veered over that way. Dismounting silently, he watched the action.

A vaquero was trying his best to approach the stallion who was having none of it. Johnny smiled at the animal, a deep appreciation of its wildness engulfing him. It was a beautiful sight to behold.

The golden coat shimmered in the sunlight. The white mane tossed about haphazardly as the stallion bucked then pawed at the ground. He wondered how they'd managed to get a saddle on at all.

A man approached him with a wary expression and Johnny smiled at him.

"Buenos dias, Senor."

"Buenos dias. May I help you?" the man asked.

"I was looking for work," Johnny said, looking over the man's shoulder at the horse.

Cipriano glanced back at the scene.

"Looks like ya got some problems there," Johnny noted.

"Si, the animal will not be broken. We have nothing available, Senor."

Johnny sighed at this. "What if I break him?" he asked, nodding toward the palomino.

"As I said, Senor, he cannot be broken," Cipriano restated his claim.

A soft laugh came forward. "You let me worry about that. Deal?"

The segundo studied the young man before him. He wasn't sure about this one. Something about him spoke of danger. Still, he was a fair man and believed in giving everyone a chance. "Deal," he finally said.

Johnny grinned and shucked his jacket, then removed his gunbelt, looping it over his saddle horn. He followed Cipriano to the corral.

*****

The vaqueros watched, none believing the man could do anything but get his back broken. Johnny felt their doubt; saw it on their faces. It wasn't the first time he'd seen that look and he figured he was going to have to prove them wrong - again.

He stepped through the fence and stood where he was as the stallion eyed him. Eyes rolling back, the palomino reared up on his hind legs and snorted. Johnny never flinched. He took four steps closer then stopped again. He found the animal's eyes and held the stare for several long moments.

Then, he crouched down, almost sitting on his haunches but never breaking eye contact. The horse snorted and whinnied as if to tell him this was his territory and the man was not welcome. The palomino pawed at the earth again and lowered his head.

Johnny stayed perfectly still for several moments, then he stood slowly and extended a hand. He was nowhere near the animal yet and he began walking in a wide circle around the corral. He could hear the men start whispering and, with his other hand, waved at them behind his back to hush. Thankfully, they did so.

One could hear a pin drop in the dust as they watched with curiosity.

The stallion stood near the center of the corral and continued his dance of dominance. Still, he kept close watch of the man.

Johnny circled him, his hand still out, ever watchful and the horse turned with him. Then, Johnny began to whisper in Spanish. Though they strained, no one could hear the words but it didn't matter. He kept his voice soft and melodic as he continued to circle and circle. Each round drawing him nearer to the stallion.

At last, he was close enough to touch the horse but he didn't. The stallion watched him, growing quiet now but still wary. Johnny stopped and crouched again, hand still out, eyes locked on.

Then, he dropped his eyes to the ground and continued talking to the horse softly. Slowly, the palomino stepped nearer until Johnny could feel his breath on the outstretched hand. He smiled to himself as he felt the wet nuzzle, hesitant and fleeting. The horse brought his head up then lowered it again, stretching out to touch the hand with his nose once more.

Johnny slowly raised his head and looked into the deep brown eyes, ever talking, ever still. He turned his palm down and reached out, stroking the nose gently, lightly, then with more pressure as the animal got used to the feeling.

The palomino allowed the touch to continue as Johnny's hands went from his nose down to his neck then around to the withers, a tremor visibly coursing through the animal. Softly speaking and gently touching, he made his way to position. Then, inhaling deeply and leaning into the horse, he placed his foot in the stirrup. He knew what would happen and there was no way to ease into it so he mounted up and pressed his legs firmly to the animal's sides.

The palomino stood stock still for one second, then reared up on his hind legs. He then began to buck for all he was worth, determined to unseat this stranger and the strange sensation he afforded.

Johnny held on, one hand flopping about in the air, one holding to the reins as his body was jerked in every direction, legs still clamped tightly.

*****

Johnny straightened his aching back and glanced around at the sound of a horse approaching. He quickly turned back to his task on the work crew and went about his business. Surreptitiously, he watched the rancher converse with his segundo a few feet away. He could hear them clearly and what he heard made his curiosity pique.

"When will he arrive?"

Murdoch Lancer's enthusiasm was easy to hear and see. "Should be next Thursday. I can't believe he's actually coming."

Cipriano smiled knowingly. It had been many years in the making but finally, Scott was coming home.

"Well, pick a man out for me and have him start first thing in the morning. I want to make sure the room is in top condition for Scott's arrival." He patted Cipriano on the back and mounted up.

The segundo watched him ride away and shook his head. He could tell his Patron was nervous beneath the excitement. He understood it well. His eyes wandered over the work crew and settled on his choice. "Juan!"

Johnny tensed, then turned and looked at the man who waved him over. He sighed and dropped his shovel then sauntered up. "Yeah?"

"Tomorrow you will work at the hacienda. One of the bedrooms needs repairs. Senor Lancer's son is coming and he wants everything working perfectly," Cipriano explained.

Johnny took half a step back. "Son?!" he exclaimed and received a curious and aggravated look.

"What is wrong with you?"

Heart thundering in his chest, he answered, "nothing. I just didn't know he had a son. Maybe you should get someone else. I mean, I, uh, I ....."

"You are the one who will do it, comprende?" Cipriano stated firmly.

If there was one thing Johnny had learned in these past three months, it was that this man brooked no nonsense and expected his orders to be carried out without excuse or debate. He sighed again and nodded his head then went back to work, his mind racing as quickly as his heart. In all this time he had not once been closer to the hacienda than the barns.

As he went back to digging post holes, he thought over this grand idea of his. He had not achieved his goal of learning anything about Murdoch Lancer. In fact, he had laid eyes on the man only half a dozen times. Mostly from a distance. Today was as close as he'd ever been. Five feet, no more than that.

Thus far, all he'd been able to learn was that the rancher was fair with his men. Cipriano was his greatest fan, evidently. Only problem was, Cipriano was pretty close-mouthed.

*****

That night, Johnny lay on his bunk with his hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling. Three back-breaking months and he'd accomplished nothing. Well, that wasn't entirely true. He had to admit he'd never felt better. The long hours of hard work had muscled him. He'd been surprised by it, too. He never thought he was in bad shape. Always was trim. But now he had muscles bulging in unexpected places. Not that he was complaining.

At first, he had thought about just forgetting this whole crazy idea. That first week had about killed him. But, being the stubborn sort, he'd persevered until one day he wasn't sore everywhere. That was a very good day for he no longer had to hide his discomfort. The hands thought he was a cowboy so seeing him struggling would have been a dead giveaway to them.

Sighing softly in the still night air, he shifted a little on the bunk, scratching at the beard he still wasn't sure he liked. Why he thought he needed to disguise his appearance was a mystery. He was sure the old man wouldn't recognize him if he walked up and smacked him in the face. Other's might though.

Scott Lancer. He had been so thrown by that he hadn't been able to wrap his mind around the information. He had a brother! How? When? The questions soared through his mind. Was he older or younger? And where has he been? No one had mentioned a son before this and the old man seemed to be walking on air that he was coming.

But, he hadn't said coming back or coming home, just that Scott was coming. Johnny wasn't sure if the phrasing mattered but something inside him said it did. The words used had some meaning although, what, he hadn't a clue. Maybe he could ask some questions at breakfast. He'd have to be careful. He had not made a single inquiry other than 'what's the old man like'. He knew pretty early on that these vaqueros were loyal to their patron.

He was glad he'd stuck it out now. Even if he never got to know Murdoch Lancer, he at least knew he had a brother. And that meant everything to a man who had lived his entire adult life and most of his childhood alone. If his father didn't want him, maybe his brother would be more open. He shook his head in frustration. So many questions and no answers. Well, I just have one more week until I find out - hopefully.

He closed his eyes and drifted off.

*****

"So, the old man has a kid?" Johnny asked casually as he took a sip of his morning coffee.

"Si," Cipriano answered shortly.

Johnny ground his teeth together. "Ya know , you don't have to talk so much." The look he received caused him to drop his gaze. Johnny wasn't shy nor was he easily intimidated but this man somehow got under his skin.

"If I thought you needed to know, I would tell you," Cipriano retorted.

Johnny shrugged. "Just curious. I've been here three months and this is the first I've heard of it, that's all."

The segundo eyed him for a long moment. "Senor Lancer's son has never been to the ranchero. He grew up in Boston with his abuelo. El Patron has anticipated this day for many years."

Johnny's hand tightened around the coffee mug. "Lancer's father?"

Cipriano shook his head. "His first wife's father."

With a raised brow, Johnny asked, "how many wives has he had?"

"Two. Now, you will see Senora Maria in the kitchen. She will tell you where the room is and what needs to be repaired."

Johnny recognized the tone. Cipriano was done. He would say no more. Johnny only nodded then left the bunkhouse.

As he approached the back door, his gut tightened. This would be the first time he walked into this house that he could ever remember. His hands started sweating and he cursed himself. It's just a house, Madrid . Just a house and he's just a man.

Snorting lightly, he reprimanded himself. Just the man who threw you away, that's all, he thought bitterly. The man with an apparently white son he's so happy about seeing. Not the half-breed though. Oh no, not him!

By the time he opened the kitchen door, Johnny was livid.

*****

"Ma'am," he said in little more than a whisper as he removed his hat and nodded.

"You are here for the repairs?" At his second nod, Maria continued. "The room is upstairs, second on the right. The door needs oiling and the window is stuck. The baseboards are loose as well. It needs painting. Let me know when you are ready for the paint. I have cleaned it thoroughly. There is a toolbox already in the room for you."

Johnny waited a second to see if she was through. Deciding she was, he simply nodded once more and turned toward the stairs to his right. His foot was on the first step when he heard the voice.

"If there's anything special you need just let Cipriano know. Whatever it takes. The room needs to be perfect. Understand?" Murdoch added his own instructions. He had walked in just as Maria had finished and saw the young man whose head seemed perpetually bowed accepting the orders.

"Yeah," Johnny said softly then took the stairs two at a time.

He didn't stop until he was in the room with the door closed. Leaning against the wall, he let out a breath and sucked in a deeper one. That was the first time his father had ever spoken directly to him and something had happened to him. He didn't understand it, couldn't explain it. But that deep, resonating voice had sent an electrical shock through his entire body.

He pulled himself together and looked at the room. It was big, lots of space and he fought the urge to let out a whistle. He spied the toolbox and walked over to it, rooting through until he found a pry bar. It was stuffy and his first order of business was getting some air in there. He tried the window first and, indeed, it was truly and well stuck. It took several minutes to loosen as he didn't want to break the danged thing and get himself fired. He was certain that would be the result since this was Lancer's precious son's room. Heaven forbid it wasn't perfect!

Johnny raised the window and stuck his head out breathing deeply of the cooler air. Spring was here and the days were comfortably warm, the nights with a slight chill. He loved this time of year as long as he wasn't in Mexico or Texas where it always seemed to be just plain hot.

"Good job!"

His eyes popped open and he jerked at the loud voice, banging his head on the window.

"Sorry," came a reticent addendum.

Johnny looked down into Murdoch's eyes and immediately shifted his gaze. "No problem," he called and withdrew his head.

Murdoch smiled and shook his own head. He still didn't know what the kid looked like. He doubted anyone did. He never seemed to look anyone in the eye. Well, at least not him. Not that he'd had many opportunities. He'd seen the boy a few times and he was always hard at work. That's all he really needed to know; he caused no trouble and he was a good worker. Still, he usually got some feedback from Cipriano on the new hires. This one, however, he'd heard nothing about.

Curious, Murdoch decided to ask the segundo about this young man. He smiled to himself. The beard was probably meant to make him look older but, the long hair and his demeanor implied his youth somehow. Murdoch wasn't really sure how he knew that. It just seemed - right. Of course, he thought that hair was much too long, hanging past his collar like that. Well, it wasn't as if he could tell the man how to wear his hair. Still, if it was his son, that wouldn't go over at all!

*****

Johnny cursed himself and slammed his hand on the dresser top. Why did he act that way? He wasn't afraid of Murdoch Lancer. Was he? No! Damn it, no!

He reined in his anger and set about the work, oiling the squeaky hinge and repairing the baseboards. He checked the closet doors, finding one loose and fixing that. He checked the bed springs and found them fine, the mattress looked new. The linens fresh as sunshine. Of course they are. Can't have anything less, can we? Stop that! Ain't Scott's fault.

He smiled a little. Already, he was thinking kindly of his brother and he hadn't even met the man. What if he was a snob? Or a pansy? Johnny frowned. Boy, Murdoch sure would be disappointed. This gave him a chuckle but he hoped it wasn't so. He hoped his brother was a good man. He also hoped he'd get a chance to get to know him. Though how that would ever happen, he couldn't begin to figure.

For he was no nearer being ready to make his presence known than he'd been three months ago. He dropped into the overstuffed chair by the window and rested his chin on his fisted hand.

He'd been so tired of the life he led. The constant moving. Never relaxing. Never able to trust too many people. Always looking over his shoulder and always having to be ready to defend his very life. The jobs were fine and he was in pretty high demand. But life itself was a lonely existence and he was so very tired. Already so very tired at twenty years old.

Relaxing into the cushion, he leaned his head back and closed his eyes. He remembered the day he'd made this decision. The day he had, miraculously, escaped the rurales and certain death before a firing squad. He smiled. That Capitan was surely pissed off.

As he rode out hellbent for leather, he wondered what he would do now. He made it across the border in record time then slowed his journey. Still undecided at that moment, he wandered wherever his horse wished to go. Seems it wished to head north into California . That's when the idea came to him. Maybe, just maybe, he'd look up his old man.

Another smile flitted across his lips. The plan had developed on the trip. Hiring on seemed the best course of action. He'd been lucky to get the job, he soon found out. Seemed Lancer had a good reputation among professional cowboys. Johnny knew it was that first day's luck that had won him the job. The stallion that no one could get near enough to even think about breaking. No one, that is, except him.

Cipriano had been duly impressed and Johnny had, of course, accepted the job.

He opened his eyes and leaned forward. A job he wouldn't have long if he kept lazing about like this. He stood up and checked the room once more. Satisfied all was in order, he went downstairs to find the cook.

*****

Johnny was given two buckets of white paint and the other supplies he'd need to do the job. He watched the woman closely as she instructed him.

She met his eyes undaunted. "Can you paint?"

"You just now asking? Reckon I can handle it," he replied with amusement.

She did not return the smile. Johnny's faded quickly and he ducked his head, turned and started back to the room.

"How long will it take you?"

Without missing a step, he called back. "Today and tomorrow, I reckon."

She made no reply so he figured she was satisfied with the answer.

Two hours passed and the door opened. Johnny looked up.

"You have not even started!" Maria chastised.

He stood and faced her, his shoulders slumped, his posture relaxed. "Sure I have."

She looked around the room then saw the unopened paint buckets. "With what?"

Johnny gave her a lopsided grin. "Senora, do you want everything in the room painted? The bed, the chairs, the dresser? I have to cover all that stuff and cover it well before I can even think about dipping a brush."

Her face relaxed as she considered him. "Of course. It is noon . You will come to the kitchen and eat, si?"

Johnny's posture tensed. "Well, the ol, um, Mr. Lancer ain't gonna be there, is he?"

"He has gone to town. I do not expect him until this afternoon. Why?"

Johnny relaxed and shrugged. "Bosses don't eat with the hired help."

She nodded. "Perhaps not all but Senor Lancer would have no problem with it. Come."

Johnny watched her disappearing back for a second and thought maybe this woman was his key to Murdoch Lancer.

*****

He blew out a breath as he sat back in the chair. "Senora, I haven't had a meal like that in years. Muchas gracias. It was muy bueno."

She smiled widely for the first time. "De nada. Pie?"

Johnny raised a skeptical brow. "Not sure where I'd put it but, if you've got anymore lemonade." He left it there.

She nodded and poured him another glass before joining him at the table.

Johnny glanced at her a few times before sucking it up. "Mr. Lancer sure is excited about his son coming home," he mentioned casually.

"Si."

"Cipriano said he grew up back east. That Lancer's never even seen him?"

"Not exactly. He saw Scott once when he went to Boston to claim him."

Johnny's hand stopped in midair and he lowered the glass back to the table. "Guess he wasn't successful."

"He was not. That man!" Maria's face reddened in ire.

"What man?"

"Garrett. Senor Scott's abuelo. He would not give the boy back. He threatened El Patron with ruin. Senor Garrett is wealthy and powerful. He would have made a good Don."

Johnny nodded, understanding completely the comparison. "That must have been hard."

"Si. El Patron was heartbroken. I had not seen him so since ..." she stopped herself there and dropped her eyes.

Johnny fought with everything in him not to ask but he had to. "Since what?"

She looked up at him and shook her head. "I have said too much. It is not my place to speak of such personal issues."

He hid his disappointment with a sympathetic smile. "I understand. I was just curious, ya know? I mean, I didn't even know he had a son and all the sudden he's coming here. Makes you wonder even though it's none of my business."

She smiled at him. "Curiosity is a good thing, si? One cannot learn if one does not question."

"Makes sense. Well, I should get back to it. Gracias, Senora. That really was a wonderful meal."

She beamed at him and he left her. He'd gotten some answers about his brother's history but not many. What she didn't say only added to the multitude of questions already on his mental list. Johnny didn't know how he was ever going to find those answers. His approach so far had been less than successful.

A thought hit him then. One he had not even considered before. He spent the rest of the day thinking it through, planning it out to see if it would hold water.

*****

Johnny got an early start the next morning, unwilling to chance running into his father. He'd lain awake part of the night still going over his idea. He had decided it was worth the risk if the opportunity presented itself.

At noon , he crept slowly down the backstairs to check out the kitchen. He stopped and pressed himself against the wall as he heard the masculine voice.

"Don't hold dinner for me, Maria. I'll be at this meeting most of the night."

"Again until after midnight ?"

"You know cattlemen. We can't seem to stop once we get started talking about business," he chuckled.

Johnny smiled at the information. Now all he had to do was figure when Maria would leave for the day. He heard a chair scrape against the floor and heavy footfalls recede. Straightening himself, he sauntered into the room.

"Ah, you must be hungry. Sit, I will fix your lunch," she smiled.

"I could go to the bunkhouse, Senora. No need for you to bother."

"It is no bother and there is no reason you should not eat right here. It is easier for you, si?"

"Si," he smiled and took a seat. "Thought I heard Mr. Lancer as I was coming down."

"Si, he just left. He will not be here for supper so I will be leaving early today."

"Lucky for you," he grinned.

Johnny ate quickly and got back to work. He wanted to finish this today and knew he'd have no problem with it. Partly because he wanted to be ready when Murdoch left and partly because, if he were caught, he wanted the job finished first. It astounded him that he cared that his brother's room was ready for him. After all, he didn't know the man. He was a stranger. Still, if he did get caught it was a sure bet he'd be fired. Getting arrested wasn't an option since there was no law in these parts to speak of.

Still, he made sure he told Maria it would take the rest of the day to finish. That way, no questions would be asked of why he was still in the house.

He happened to glance out the window and see Murdoch riding away less than an hour later. Good, he thought. One down, one to go.

Two hours later, Maria stuck her head in the door to tell him she was leaving as well. Thankfully, she didn't pay much attention to the room. He was done, just marking his time before cleaning up. Once she left the room, he made quick work of the chore.

*****

Johnny waited another hour before descending the back stairs quietly. He opened the back door and saw no one about. He stepped through the kitchen and out into the dining room, then the great room beyond. He stood stock still for long moments just taking it all in. He'd never seen anything like this. It was the biggest room in a house he'd ever seen.

Reining himself in, he focused on the task at hand. His eyes found the large oak desk and he made for it. Seeing the plate glass window behind it, he frowned. Someone might happen along and see him. He considered drawing the drapes then thought that wasn't a good idea. If it was a normal thing, Maria would have drawn them before leaving. He reckoned her as not the type to forget anything.

Well, nothing I can do about it. I'll just have to take the chance, he thought and advanced. Sitting in the deep leather chair, he realized no one could see him from behind. As long as he didn't move the chair about, he should be okay. He glanced at the French doors, having seen Cipriano use them before to gain entry to the house. But, he knew the segundo would have no reason to come in with Murdoch gone. And the veranda was not a place any of the hands frequented, certainly.

As satisfied as he could be, Johnny began rooting through the drawers. He found ledgers and contracts and some personal correspondence with friends, he imagined. He scanned some of them. Part of him felt bad for doing this, part of him needed it desperately.

The bottom left hand drawer was locked and he knew instinctually, this was what he sought. He rummaged around the top of the desk and the other drawers until he found a key. Biting his lip, he tried it and sighed his relief when it turned easily in the lock. He pulled out some folders and laid them atop the desk. The very first one caused him to suck in his breath.

Scott Lancer

Opening the file, he looked to the left. The Pinkerton Agency name was imprinted inside. Pinkertons? His mind registered the information as familiar for some reason other than the obvious. Of course, who hadn't heard of the Pinks? But, there was something else nagging there. He dismissed it for the moment and began to read.

He was smiling through a great deal of the folder which started with the most recent dates. Scott's education, his grades and honors bestowed on him were all there. Then, his service in the cavalry. He frowned as he read of his brother's time in a prisoner of war camp. He didn't like that and found it made him sad. Somewhat surprised at the feelings, he tried to push them away.

That was it basically. Since the army, Scott had been working with his grandfather. He sighed and sat back. The part that bothered him most was the last. That Murdoch had, as Maria said, tried to get his son back. Johnny was perplexed. Murdoch didn't seem the kind of man to back away from a fight. But, he had.

Maybe, he figured Scott was better off. Sure, all that money, a grand home, all the comforts. Still. He leaned forward and arranged the papers neatly then set the file aside. His hand froze on the next folder.

John Lancer

There it was. The first time he had ever seen his own name in print. He stared at it for a long time, unable to move or think. Suddenly, he shook his head hard and set his shoulders.

He slumped back in the chair after reading just the first few pages. No longer was he worried about someone seeing him. No longer did he have to worry about someone recognizing him. It didn't matter anymore. He knew. Murdoch knew the truth. Knew exactly who his son was.

The last report was dated just a month ago. So, the old man was looking for him.

Why? Why would he even bother? He'd thrown his wife and son away like yesterday's trash. Hadn't he? Johnny frowned deeply. Shaking his head slowly, he tried to grasp the meaning of all of this. If Murdoch was looking for him, did that mean he hadn't thrown them out? Maybe .. maybe he'd thrown his mother out but had wanted to keep him? No. That made no sense.

He started to read again when he heard a horse whinney. He looked out the window just as Murdoch passed under the arch. Cursing, Johnny quickly shuffled the papers together, stacked the folders and put them away.

Standing up and crouching low, he made his way to the kitchen and out the back door, slipping into the shadows.

*****

Lying in his bunk that night, his mind whirled with the information. Scott was what he focused on just now. He'd been in the army. He'd gone to Harvard. That was pretty much it. A few mentions of other occurrences like a trip to Europe . Nothing that would tell him who this man was. Not like his report. No, that told the story. Or did it? Johnny thought not. He hadn't read very far but what he'd read didn't tell much. There was more to him than his life as Johnny Madrid.

Dios! He couldn't think about this anymore. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep but sleep would not come easily. Finally he drifted off only to bolt upright in the cot less than an hour later.

Now he remembered! The Pinkerton's were after them. That's why they had to leave. That's what she'd told him whenever she hauled him out of bed in the middle of the night. Johnny had never questioned why they were being hounded. Didn't really understand who the Pinkerton's were. He only knew they were bad and he was not to ever go with them should they approach him. She had been very clear on that point. 'Run, Juanito. Run away fast,' she'd instructed.

But, no Pinkerton had ever approached him. Had ever tried to steal him away from her. Her words. He had completely forgotten about that. Following her death, he'd had other things on his mind. Like survival. And then, his own career. His craft to hone.

Johnny glanced around the room to ensure he hadn't disturbed the others. Nothing but snores were heard, though. He slipped out of bed and pulled on his pants and boots, not bothering with a shirt.

He walked over to the corral and leaned against the fence, staring at the millions of stars in the black velvet above him. Breathing deeply of the air in appreciation for its clean crispness, he let out that breath slowly.

What was he supposed to do now? How would he ever really know the truth? Who could tell him and who would he even believe ? Johnny felt a lump forming in his throat and a sense of deep despair threatened to overtake him. He dropped his head onto his arms and closed his eyes.

He should have never come here. He should have gone to Texas or New Mexico . Anyplace but here. What the hell was he thinking? Why would he do this to himself and what had he hoped to accomplish here? His initial thoughts had been black and ugly. He had not been so sure he wouldn't kill Murdoch Lancer before it was done. Now, he didn't know what to think or do.

His shoulders tensed as he sensed a presence near him. With disturbing clarity, he realized he was unarmed. He stood stock still and waited to see if this was friend or foe. He felt like he waited forever.

*****

"Vega, isn't it?"

Johnny smiled a little. He hadn't even thought about it when Cipriano had asked his name. He'd just grabbed onto a common one.

"Yeah," he answered softly, raising his head but not turning.

"It's late and it's chilly. You should put on a shirt or something."

"I'm okay. I like it," he shrugged.

Murdoch took two more steps so he was standing directly behind Johnny who could smell his pipe tobacco. It was oddly familiar.

"I couldn't sleep myself."

"Guess you're pretty excited about your son coming home, huh?" Johnny asked, trying to keep any cynicism from his voice. Murdoch hesitated long enough for him to realize he'd made a mistake. But he said nothing.

"Yes, I am looking forward to it," Murdoch finally answered.

Johnny only nodded.

"The room looks great, by the way. Thank you."

He shrugged again. "Welcome. Not my area of expertise."

"No, that would be horses, I understand. Cipriano was quite impressed with your skill."

Was that praise he heard in the man's voice? Johnny felt a warmth spread through him and it gave him an odd, unfamiliar feeling. "Yeah, I do okay."

He heard the deep-throated chuckle as Murdoch stepped up beside him. The nearness caused his heart to thunder in his chest.

"I'd say more than okay. Some of the vaqueros are calling you a musterno."

There was a question in that comment, Johnny was sure. "If you're asking, I haven't had any formal training to speak of."

"I was asking. It comes naturally then?"

"Yeah."

Murdoch looked at his profile. What he could see of it in the night which wasn't much. "He says you're quiet and stay to yourself a lot."

"I didn't know being social was part of the job," he said with a sarcasm he immediately regretted.

Murdoch cocked a brow. "It isn't. Just an observation. I like to know a little about the men who work for me. There doesn't seem to be much known about you, though."

"Nothing to tell," he lied through his teeth.

"Well, think I'll try turning in," Murdoch said.

"Yeah, me too. G'night."

"Good night, son."

Johnny stood frozen in place as he listened to the man walk away. Son. He'd called him son. It meant nothing to the older man, he was sure. Simply a name he would call anyone younger than he. Something he didn't even think about or probably realize he did, Johnny was sure. Still, to him, it meant so very much and he wished with all his heart, it was meant the way he wanted it meant.

He turned in time to see Murdoch close the front door. Shock resonated through him with the realization that he wanted this man to know who he was and accept him into his life.

*****

Johnny made his decision sometime during that sleepless night. He would wait. Scott was coming home and he didn't want to throw more into the mix. He was sure Murdoch would keel over if he had to deal with two long lost sons at once. And he still wasn't sure he would be accepted.

So, he worked his days and bided his time and waited with as much anticipation as his father for the arrival of his older brother. And that would be today. He wasn't sure of the time. He had overheard enough to know that Murdoch would not be meeting the stage. This perplexed him at first until he realized the reason. Who would want their first meeting with their son to be in the middle of town?

It was with relief that he found himself working near the house this day. He wanted to get a look at Scott as soon as possible. He was repairing the barn roof so he had an excellent vantage point. He also checked out the hacienda.

During his brief job in the house, he'd taken the time to scope out the lay of the land. He knew there were several means of entry into that estancia and he now knew where they were. He smiled at himself and, truthfully, was a bit surprised Murdoch hadn't discovered his crime.

The surrey rumbled through the arch and many of the vaqueros began shouting and waving. Johnny stopped his chore and watched closely.

His eyes drank in the sight. And what a sight it was! Dressed in a gray traveling suit, complete with bowler hat and gloves to match with a white, starched and ruffled shirt, Scott Lancer struck quite the image. He stepped down and Johnny could see he was fairly tall and slender. He removed his hat to reveal neat blond hair. His shoulders were back and he seemed stiff. Johnny figured he felt like tossing a few cookies at that moment. He smiled, knowing the feeling well and having some sympathy for the man.

Scott disappeared inside the house and Johnny scuttled off the roof from behind. He made his way around the back of the house and kept going. He slipped easily through a side door that he knew led to the great room. Luckily, the connecting door was closed. He slid to the floor and leaned against it. Closing an eye he peered through the keyhole. His line of vision was limited and he couldn't see Scott at all but he could hear pretty well so he concentrated on that.

*****

Scott Lancer stepped into the great room, hat under one arm as he removed his gloves, slapping them together and tucking them inside the hat. He watched as the towering figure approached him slowly. He accepted the proffered handshake with a firm grip. His face was impassive, his lips tightly drawn.

"You have your mother's eyes," Murdoch said softly.

Scott cocked a brow but said nothing.

"Drink?" Murdoch offered.

"No, thank you."

No, thank you. The voice was deep and seemed cold to Johnny's ears. But then, why shouldn't it? He was sure Scott had no clue what his grandfather had pulled to hang onto him. Johnny did though and he hoped Murdoch would tell it.

"Well, please have a seat. I'm so glad you accepted my offer."

The old man sounded a little nervous to Johnny and he smiled. He heard them moving about then it got quiet.

"Are you?" Scott finally asked.

"I'm sorry?" Murdoch responded with confusion.

"Are you glad I'm here?" Scott clarified.

"Of course, I am."

"The Pinkerton agent mentioned a sum of money," Scott said icily.

Murdoch dropped his eyes for a second and nodded. He stood and walked to the desk, retrieving an envelope. He returned and handed it over then sat down. "One thousand dollars. You'd better count it."

Scott glanced at the envelope and tucked it into his jacket pocket.

Johnny almost whistled. A thousand dollars? For that kind of money, I'd ride all the way to Hell, he thought.

"Thank you. Well, now that's out of the way. What did you want to see me about?"

"I was hoping you would stay here. Live and work with me," Murdoch replied.

Scott raised a surprised brow. "Why would I do that?"

Murdoch's mouth twisted as he thought. "I realize we're strangers to each other. Scott, I've wanted you home. I wanted you to grow up here. To be a part of all of this."

"All of what?"

Murdoch stood and walked over to the window behind his desk. "This," he nodded toward the outside. "One hundred thousand acres and twenty thousand head of cattle."

Scott stood and walked over to look out. Now, Johnny could see him.

"Impressive. So, you want me to be a cowboy?"

There was a smirk in that voice Johnny could have heard a mile away. He sighed silently.

*****

"No, I want you to be a rancher. A partner. My partner," Murdoch said, trying to ignore the tone.

Scott turned away and for the first time, Johnny could see his face fully. A face that was frowning and with a hint of confusion, he thought.

"Why now? Why after all these years did you send for me?"

"You're grown now and can make your own decisions. I know you've been of legal age for a while now but, well, I suppose I've been a bit of a coward. I wanted to send for you when you turned twenty-one. But, you were still in college then. Afterwards, well, I had to work up the nerve to face the possible rejection, I suppose," Murdoch answered honestly.

Scott whirled around to face him. "Possible rejection? What other reaction could there be, Sir? You send for me after years of silence and you expect what exactly? That I should just be grateful that you bothered at all? Are you ill? Dying, perhaps?"

Murdoch's eyes widened at the onslaught but mostly at the last. "I am perfectly healthy, thank you. Why would you ask me that?"

Scott spoke with venom. "Well, it's the only reasonable explanation I could surmise. The only thing that could drive you to finally ask for me. That you need someone to keep the ranch going."

Murdoch's face turned to stone, a grim expression if there was one at all to be described. "I just told you why I..."

"Yes, you told me you waited for me to be all grown up. I suppose you couldn't be bothered with a child to raise !"

"Just one minute, young man. I tried to get you back."

"When?" Scott challenged.

"I came to get you on your fifth birthday. I'm sure you can't remember meeting me then. Your grandfather made it perfectly clear that any attempts to reclaim you would cost me not only you but everything I owned. He said he would drag a custody case and you through the courts for years. He said he could buy any judge in Boston and I had no reason to doubt him. As I'm sure you well know, Scott, your grandfather is a very powerful man. I knew you were well-cared for. You had every advantage. And though it killed me, I gave into him. I have regretted that decision ever since!"

Scott's resolve faltered in the wake of these revelations. Still, his stubbornness wasn't easily quelled. "You could have written."

Johnny had to smile at this. Scott sounded very young just then.

"I did! You never replied," Murdoch defended.

Scott opened his mouth then closed it, then, "I never received anything from you. Not ever."

Johnny shook his head sadly, figuring this was true.

"I did write, son. I swear it. Scott, I know this hasn't been easy for either of us. We don't know each other at all but I'd like to change that if you'll give me the chance. What I'm offering you is a completely different life than you're used to. It's hard, back-breaking work but the rewards are worth it. Will you at least give it a try?"

Murdoch's sincerity rang through the room and Johnny's heart soared. He held his breath waiting for Scott's answer and hoping his own return would be as genuinely wanted.

*****

Scott stared at him for several beats. "What are you offering?"

Murdoch's shoulders relaxed and he smiled. "One third ownership."

"One third?" Scott asked, the question unasked easy to surmise.

Murdoch dropped his eyes briefly. "It's all I can offer, son. There is a reason but I'm not sure we should get into that right now. You've had enough thrown at you for one day."

Johnny wondered if they could hear the pounding of his heart through the door. It nearly squelched any other sound from his own ears. One third because he was waiting, hoping for another partner? He swallowed hard and worked to make his pulse slow down so he could hear the rest.

Scott frowned quizzically then nodded. "Alright. I suppose we could give it a try."

Murdoch smiled widely. "I'll show you to your room. It's been freshly painted but I think the smell is all gone now."

Johnny sat back against the wall and hung his head. He figured it couldn't have gone much better. Lord knew , it could have been way worse. Still, now he knew his father did truly want him back. Was holding onto his birthright for him. Emotions surged in him that he couldn't identify easily and he had to get out of there.

He left his spot silently and returned to the barn. He thought he was free and clear, then...

"Juan!"

Johnny stopped in his tracks and turned briskly on his heel.

"Where have you been?" Cipriano demanded.

Dropping his head, he thought fast. "Well, I got to feeling a little dizzy up there. I guess maybe the sun got too hot for me. I figured I'd better take a little rest before I fell off the roof." He brought his head up and gave the segundo his most innocent look.

Cipriano studied him hard, too hard for Johnny's liking but he never flinched.

"You are better now?"

Johnny nodded.

"Bueno. Can you finish the job?"

"Si," Johnny responded. "I'm fine now."

*****

Scott strode out to the corral the next morning to pick a horse per his father's instructions. He smiled slightly to himself. His father. The previous day had been a whirlwind for his mind and he'd spent most of the night sorting through it all. It had not surprised him. The revelations about his grandfather. Yet, he still needed to deal with what the possible repercussions would be. Later. Right now, he just wanted to find a good mount.

"Good morning, Senor Scott. I am Cipriano," the segundo introduced.

Scott shook hands and smiled at the man. "Good morning. I understand you have a few horses for me to look at."

"Si. Any of these." Cipriano waved his hand at the corral.

Scott leaned against the fence and took in the horseflesh. Impressive. He nodded toward one. "That one looks good."

Cipriano smiled and nodded his approval. "Bueno, he is a fine animal."

Johnny walked out of the barn and heard a commotion near the corral, he looked up in time to see Scott flying over the fence sending a couple of vaqueros scrambling to safety. He took off at a run until he reached the segundo. "What's he doin?"

"Choosing a horse," Cipriano replied without sparing him a glance.

Johnny's jaw clamped shut as he watched Scott fly back over the same fence and come to a stop near him. He leapt the corral fence as Scott dismounted and grabbed the halter.

Scott, thinking he was merely helping out, released his hold on the reins. He smiled at Cipriano. "He's a good one, I'll take him."

"He's mine."

Scott turned at the hard-edged voice to find two blue volcanoes ready to erupt all over him. The intensity of the glare took him aback but he held the gaze. "I thought all these horses were Lancer property," he replied flatly.

Johnny's gaze never wavered. "I broke him and no one else has ridden him until now. And, he didn't like you showin off at his expense neither."

Scott raised a brow but Barranca decided to put in his two cents worth. He lowered his head and gently butted Johnny's chest. Johnny glanced down then stroked between the palominos ears with one hand as the other went under to scratch the jaw line.

"Juan!" Cipriano ground out. "Senor Scott has his pick of any horse here. He is El Patron's hijo."

Johnny ignored the man, his eyes never leaving Scott's. Barranca raised his head and rested his chin on Johnny's right shoulder.

Scott smiled widely at the sight. "Well, far be it from me to break up such a team. I can see the animal is quite attached." His voice was as full of amusement as his eyes.

Johnny watched the expression, unsure if his brother was poking some fun. He decided he probably was but that was okay as long as he didn't try to take Barranca for his own. He relaxed his face and gave a small smile and a nod then led the horse away.

*****

"Senor Scott, if you want that horse ..."

"No, Cipriano. I served in the cavalry and I know a man's steed can be his best friend. It's obvious those two have a special connection. Besides, I did notice that chestnut over there. He isn't, um, taken, is he?" Scott's voice was full of laughter.

"Is there a problem? Didn't you want the palomino, son?" Murdoch asked as he approached, having witnessed from a distance the conversation.

"No problem, Sir. I've decided on the chestnut," Scott answered nonchalantly and walked over to the animal. But Cipriano was not so charitable and reported the incident in detail to his patron.

Murdoch's face was grim as he listened. He looked to his right to find Juan standing with the horse outside the corral. He turned on his heel and stalked over.

Johnny's back was to him but he heard the approach and tensed. You ain't takin this horse from me, he vowed silently.

"Vega! If I ever hear you've caused another problem you'll be out of here. Is that understood?"

Johnny turned his head slightly toward his shoulder. "Yes, Sir."

"My son will have his choice of any animal on this ranch. Got that?" Murdoch went on.

Except this one, Johnny thought. "Yes, Sir," he answered instead as he tightened the cinch. He reached back and pulled his hat up and set it firmly on his head, pushing it low over his eyes and mounting up.

"And in the future when I speak to you, I expect you to face me," Murdoch added.

Johnny looked down from the saddle, little of his face showing and tapped a finger to his hat brim. "Yes, Sir." He waited to see if Murdoch had anything else to say. When he remained silent, Johnny reined the horse and rode out.

Murdoch watched after him with an odd feeling of familiarity. He studied the young man's back for a few minutes as he grew smaller then shook his head and dismissed the thought.

"You didn't have to do that."

Murdoch turned to find Scott behind him. "He was being insolent. I won't have any of my men behave that way toward you or me."

Scott smiled a little. "He said he broke the horse."

"He did. No one else could get near it. Still, that's no excuse. He knows the horses on this ranch belong to Lancer and if he leaves it will be without the animal."

"I take it he's a good hand?" Scott asked.

Murdoch nodded. "He's done a good job."

*****

Scott and Murdoch spent the rest of the day in Morro Coyo buying more suitable attire for the newest rancher. Scott still didn't understand the problem but he bowed to his father's expertise in these matters. The next day he would begin learning about this ranching business. Murdoch had told him he could ease into it but Scott Lancer had other ideas. If he was to learn then he'd as soon get on with it.

Cipriano would be his teacher and Murdoch could think of none better. So, the next morning a rather sleepy Scott walked across the yard to the corrals.

Johnny readjusted his saddle then re-cinched as he watched his brother. He ducked his head and smiled at the disheveled appearance. Reckon ole Boston ain't used to bein up with the chickens.

The segundo of Lancer was not one to baby any man. If he was to learn the ropes it was best to get on with it. Scott seemed very willing so they started with the worst job on the ranch by all accounts. It was branding season.

*****

Johnny looked up and his mouth dropped open when he saw them coming. Cipriano walked over with Scott in tow. He quickly explained to anyone who may have been comatose lately who the newcomer was and what was happening.

Johnny stepped nearer the segundo and leaned in. "Don't you think he should start off with something a little easier?"

Scott heard it and bristled. "I'm sure I can handle it. I need to learn everything so the order doesn't really matter."

Oh, it matters, Boston . It matters, Johnny thought yet he smiled and shrugged.

It took maybe fifteen minutes for Scott to turn completely pale but Johnny was impressed. He hadn't thrown up yet and he hadn't called it quits. Still, all he'd done so far was watch.

Miguel walked over and slapped Scott on the back. "Ready?" he grinned toothily.

"For what?" Scott asked with trepidation.

"To try it yourself, Senor."

Scott swallowed hard and nodded but he wasn't ready and he wished to God he was anyplace else. The stench was indescribable. He hadn't smelled anything like that since ... never mind, he thought.

Miguel walked him over to where Johnny was wrestling a cow to the ground. When the young man glanced up, he froze. "What're you doin?"

"Well, I believe the point is to place the brand on that cows rump," Scott answered.

Johnny looked around but could not see Cipriano. His eyes fell on Miguel who was trying hard not to laugh and he glared at the man. "He ain't ready."

"Why don't you let me be the judge of that?" Scott shot back angrily.

Johnny laid further over on the bawling cow before looking back up with his own anger. "Go ahead, Boston ."

*****

Scott opened his mouth to reprimand him for the nickname but he felt an iron shoved into his hand and looked down at it. Miguel, still grinning, nodded toward the cow.

"Just hit the right one, that's all," Johnny jeered.

Scott stared at the animal then the iron then the animal for long seconds.

"Some time today, Lancer! This ain't as easy as it might look!" Johnny yelled.

Scott shot him a disparaging look then set his jaw and stepped forward, placing the iron on the cow's flank.

"Harder," Johnny said but Scott seemed mesmerized at the sight.

Johnny sighed and grabbed the iron as high up as he could reach with his gloved hand then pressed down. The cow bawled louder and bucked and Johnny released the iron before it could burn through the glove. He pushed it away and rolled off the cow who scrambled to his feet and took off.

Johnny scrambled as well and walked over to Miguel whom he summarily punched right in the mouth. Standing with hands on hips, he glowered at the now supine vaquero. "¡Idiota! ¿Estas loco? El pudo haber salido lastimado. El no sabe lo que esta hacienda. ¿Es esta la forma como te enseñon? ¡Lo dudo! (Idiot! Are you crazy? He could have gotten hurt! He doesn't know what he's doing. Is that the way you were taught? I doubt it!)

Scott stared with open mouth at the young man beside him. He didn't have time to say anything and he didn't know what to say. He felt the presence behind him and turned his head.

"Miguel, go back to the bunkhouse and stay there," Cipriano ordered.

Miguel wiped the blood from his mouth and, with a glare for Johnny, did as he was told.

"What did you say to him?" Scott asked.

"Nothing," Johnny mumbled.

Turning to Cipriano he posed the question. "What did he say?"

Cipriano looked at Johnny who had his head down staring at his boots and sighed. "He told the man he was an idiot and you could have been hurt. That he was sure this was not how Miguel had been taught."

Scott nodded and turned back. "Thank you. I didn't realize how dangerous it could be but I have the feeling you were at more risk than I."

Johnny looked up with a grin. "Probably. Must be why I got so mad."

Scott found he had no choice but to smile back. There was something about this young man that interested him. First the horse and now this.

"Well, lunch time," Johnny said and walked away quickly.

*****

Scott saw him sitting alone on a boulder near the stream and walked over. "Mind if I join you?"

"Sure," Johnny shrugged and dug in.

"I appreciate the help today. I imagine the men will want to test me again."

Johnny looked up and frowned. "Most likely but that wasn't a test. That was just plain mean. I can't stand nobody bein just plain mean."

Scott nodded. "My father shouldn't have laid into you like that yesterday."

"Yeah," Johnny sighed, "he should have. Wasn't my place."

Scott thought he heard some emphasis on the last word, some bitterness even, maybe. "I know a man's horse is important to him."

"You do?" Johnny asked, honestly surprised.

Scott laughed. "Yes, I do. I was in the cavalry during the war."

Johnny nodded and stared at him. "You sound like an educated man."

"Harvard. That's in Boston ."

"I know. I mean, I thought that's where it was. Heard of the place," he hedged, hoping he didn't sound too unconvincing.

If he did, Scott showed no reaction to it. "What about you?"

"What about me?" Johnny asked with a bite.

"Where did you go to school?"

A small smile curved one side of his mouth. "Mexican border towns."

Scott stared at him and for a second Johnny thought he saw sympathy in the blue eyes.

"Sounds interesting," was Scott's only reply.

Johnny grinned then and shook his head.

*****

It seemed luck was finally on the Johnny's side as he found himself working closely with Scott for the next week. Yet, Johnny sensed something was troubling the man the third day out. Something other than the hard work, trying to get to know his father and adapting to a whole new way of life.

As usual, Scott sought him out at lunch. It had become a habit that neither could figure. Scott found himself drawn to the irrepressible young man. Juan's easiness and candor appealed to him. He was funny, too and smart. Scott wondered about his life; had since that schooling remark. There was so much he didn't know but he felt Juan could teach him. When he looked into those blue eyes most times, Scott's thought was 'an old soul'.

"Somethin on your mind?" Johnny asked out of the blue.

"Why do you ask?"

It was a habit Johnny had noticed. Scott didn't give much away. He seemed to hold a tight rein until he knew the conversation wasn't going to get personal. The few times it had, he'd tensed up and closed down. It was frustrating for Johnny but he understood it well. He was the same way. "Just seems you have something on your mind, is all. I mean, something other than all this." He grinned and waved a hand out over the land.

Scott considered if he should say anything then thought perhaps, being a westerner, Juan may have some perspective. "My father was telling me the other night that some of the smaller ranches in the area are being raided. Apparently, they're rustlers and they've been hitting pretty hard. He's worried about Lancer's cattle." Scott watched carefully for the reaction, still feeling the foreign sensation of saying those two words - 'My father'. Whatever reaction he had hoped for, he got absolutely none. Juan's eyes were stony as he looked at him.

"How long's this been going on?"

"A couple of weeks from what I understand. Murdoch only heard of it himself a few days ago."

Johnny lowered his head in thought for a minute. He hadn't heard anything but how could he? He hadn't left the ranch, worried he may be recognized were he to go to town. "Got any names?"

Scott shook his head. "I've told you all I know about it. I can't believe men can just come in and take a man's property like that."

*****

A smile lifted Johnny's lips. "Happens all the time, Boston ." After a beat, he added, "well, me and the boys will keep a close eye out. The old man should have told us about this. Not smart to have your hands out working without knowing the score. I'll ask around. See if the boys have heard anything in town."

“Wouldn't they tell Murdoch if they did?"

Johnny took one last bite of his apple then tossed it to Barranca. "Maybe, maybe not. Might not think it's a big deal or none of their business."

"None of their business? It will affect them. How can they think that?"

Johnny looked over at him. "Same way the old man figured it wasn't worth mentioning to the men who will probably be the first to die, I reckon," he responded coldly and stood up, walking away.

He stroked Barranca's nose as he tried to rein in his anger. Murdoch is a fool, he thought. How could he leave these men to fend for themselves without a clue they might be in danger? He felt Scott walk up behind him.

"I'm sure if my father thought you were in any danger, he'd warn all of you."

Johnny laughed softly as he turned. "You're sure about that, are ya? Gotten to know him that well, already?"

Scott pulled his shoulders back. "That's really none of your business, is it?"

Johnny dropped his eyes and turned back to Barranca. "No, I guess not."

Scott stood there while his anger deflated. "Look, I'm sorry. I understand you being upset. He should have told you all there was a potential threat."

"Yeah," Johnny breathed out. "I'm sure he will when he knows for certain. Maybe he just didn't want to get everybody all het up."

Scott smiled, assuming his definition of the unusual sounding word was correct.

Johnny turned back, seeming to want to ask something but he hesitated.

"What?" Scott asked.

"Do you ... nothing," he decided.

"Do I what, Juan?"

He smiled at the name. He preferred 'Johnny' but he couldn't tell Scott that right now. He was kind of getting used to it, though. For some reason, that bothered him. "It's none of my business," he finally answered. "Best get back to work."

Scott frowned and was about to press the issue when they both turned at the sound of pounding hooves.

Johnny stepped quickly around Scott when he saw Miguel tearing in, his hand going to his side. But, Miguel did not come near him. He leapt from the saddle and ran to Cipriano talking a mile a minute in Spanish. Johnny dropped his shoulders and started toward Barranca when he felt a hand grab his arm.

"What's happening?" Scott asked.

"Looks like those rustlers have made it to Lancer. The east pasture was just hit. Hope you know how to use that thing, Boston ," Johnny explained quickly as he glanced at Scott's gun.

*****

By the time they arrived, the damage had been done and the fight was over. Scott rode over to where Murdoch stood next to a man who appeared to be bleeding.

"We came up on 'em and knew right off, they weren't our men. They started shootin, so, we fired back," the hand was explaining.

Murdoch's face was set in stone. "Alright, Henry. Get back to the house and get that arm looked at."

The hand nodded and mounted his horse without another word. Scott watched him for a moment before asking what had happened.

"I don't know anything more than you heard just now, Scott. No one knows who they are but, this is the biggest ranch they've hit." Murdoch turned toward the men and raised his voice. "Start rounding up any strays, men, and let's get a head count. And, watch your backs out there!"

Scott frowned deeply as he watched the hands move off in search of the beeves. "What about the law?"

"There isn't any." Murdoch turned to face him. "Out here the big dog gets the meat."

Scott cocked a brow at this. "What can we do?"

"Fight. Unite all the ranchers. Try and find out who's behind it," Murdoch answered rather calmly. His eyes lowered briefly before looking back at his son. "I suppose this isn't exactly what you were expecting when you accepted my invitation."

A brief smile came to Scott's face. "No, Sir, but I'm not afraid of a fight as long as it's for a good reason. Protecting your property is a very good reason."

Murdoch's lips twitched as pride shone in his eyes. "Well, I'll send a message to the surrounding ranches. How has your day been otherwise?"

Scott shrugged. He'd never told Murdoch about the branding incident and he had no intentions of doing so now. "I really can't say. I didn't know what to expect so, nothing that's happened seemed out of the ordinary."

*****

Cipriano joined them as they rode back to the house, coming alongside Murdoch. He nodded to both men but said nothing for a while. Finally, he spoke respectfully. "There will be a fight, perhaps."

"Si, amigo. I would expect so. They don't seem to be afraid to mix it up with us as things stand."

"We could use more help. We have not hired the drovers yet."

Murdoch sighed and nodded.

"Perhaps, more help than just vaqueros?"

Murdoch flashed him a stony look. "It isn't as if I haven't been trying, Cipriano." After a pause, he sighed. "I'll send another wire but ,   it seems he's dropped off the face of the earth."

They reined to a stop in front of the house as Scott asked, " who are you talking about?"

Murdoch glanced at the segundo who nodded and rode off toward the barn.

"Come inside the house and sit down, son. I need to tell you something."

Scott didn't know his father very well at all but he could tell he was about to hear something he might not want to. He steeled himself as he entered the great room and sat down.

Murdoch walked to his desk and opened a drawer, pulling out a folder. He hesitated only a brief moment before explaining. "A few years after your mother died, I remarried. We had a son. Johnny. Two years later, I awoke one morning to find them both gone.   I spent almost a year trying to find them but they simply vanished. I hired the Pinkertons and over the years, when I could afford it, had them search. They were able to track Johnny here and there but he was quite elusive. I ..."

"Wait!" Scott interrupted, his hand held up. "Wait, just a minute. Are you telling me I have a brother?"

"Yes, Scott, that is what I'm telling you. And that's why I could only offer you a third ownership. I was hoping that some day, Johnny would come home as well."

Scott stared at him, his mind suddenly spinning. He shook it hard and tried to focus on the problem at hand. "Alright. And now you hope to find him to help with this problem. Is that it?"

"Yes and there's a good reason. Not that getting him back isn't enough reason. You see, Johnny is a gunfighter. He has quite a reputation. He uses the name of Madrid . But, a few months ago the reports indicated he'd simply disappeared. There has been no word about him. No rumors, nothing."

"You're afraid he's dead, aren't you?" Scott asked softly.

Murdoch could only nod, his eyes plastered to the front of the report.

Scott closed his own eyes for a moment then sighed. "I hope that isn't true. I'd like to know my brother. Right now, however, we have more pressing problems."

"I know, son, I know. I just ... well," Murdoch didn't finish the thought.

*****

Johnny was livid as he paced the floor. His mind worked furiously on a plan. He would not allow anyone to steal from this ranch. He wondered if he shouldn't come clean with the old man now. They would need his help and it wouldn't be as easy to give from the bunkhouse. He needed to know who was running this outfit and how many men they really had. Plenty, he was sure and Lancer wasn't going to be able to match that number from the looks of it. Already, many of the hands were packing up to leave. Cowards! He fumed then relented. No, just cowboys who didn't sign up for a possible range war.

Cipriano walked in and Johnny approached him. "How many are leaving?"

The older man sighed and ran a hand through his salt and pepper hair. "Too many. Will you be joining them?"

"Hell, no!" Johnny spat and went back to his pacing.

"I have always wondered at the way you wear your gun. Like a pistolero."

Johnny turned to face him. "Yeah?"

"Is that what you are?" Cipriano asked boldly.

Johnny smiled at the man's macho. "Si, I was not so long ago. Now, I'm a vaquero."

Cipriano smiled. "Perhaps, for a little while, you could become the pistolero again?"

"Ain't no perhaps to it, Senor," Johnny grumbled.

The man cocked his head and looked questioningly. "Why are you so angry? It is not your fight."

"Yes, it is!" Johnny exclaimed then took a step back, turning so as not to have to face the man. "I don't like thieves, Senor," he added more softly.

The door opened and Miguel walked in. "You leavin?" Johnny asked, the challenge in his voice unmistakable.

"I am not. My foolishness the other day was not well thought out, amigo. I apologize for that. But, I will not leave my Patron," Miguel replied genuinely.

Johnny smiled and nodded his approval.

*****

"Well, the way I see it is simple really," Scott said as he walked over to the map on the wall. "One, find the enemy. Two, engage them. Three, destroy them."

Murdoch raised a brow. "It is simple but may be effective. These men don't play by the rules, though. Rustlers get down and dirty. And I don't know how many men we'll have left. Some have already gone, others are about to."

Scott grimaced at this. "Who's staying?"

"As I said, I don't know yet."

"Not enough." Both men turned to the door as Johnny walked in with Cipriano.

"More than half have left so far, Senor," Cipriano confirmed.

"Might've helped if they'd known what they were in for," Johnny said coldly.

Murdoch's face tighened. "I had planned to tell you all tonight. I wanted to know what exactly we were up against before causing any panic."

Scott shook his head. "I still think we should go after them. Attack while they aren't expecting it."

"That's too dangerous and, besides, we don't know where they are. Best thing to do is set a trap," Johnny spoke and walked around the room. "You need to place a few men with each herd. And, you need to find out from the other ranchers where they were hit and what direction the rustlers went. They headed south from the east pasture but, that doesn't mean they're camped south. If you get the other ranchers and their hands to help, we'll have enough men to cover. We can take a best guess at where they'll hit next once we have all the information. When they come back, we'll have a surprise of our own."

Murdoch watched him as he spoke but Johnny mostly kept his back to the man. When he did face him, their eyes only met briefly.

"Sounds like you know a little about this," Scott said but the question was in his tone.

"Had some experience. Between the two of us we should be able to kick some ass, Boston ," Johnny grinned.

Scott smiled back and nodded his approval.

"How do you know so much about this, Vega?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny glanced at him then walked to the French doors and looked out. "Like I said, I've had some experience. I was in the Mexican Army for a spell and I've seen things." His voice took on a distant quality as he spoke. He blinked and sucked in a breath. "Just a suggestion. It's your ranch, do what you want." With that, he stepped outside.

Scott frowned at his disappearing back then addressed Cipriano. "What do you think?"

The segundo had a thoughtful expression on his face. "I think we would do well to listen to Juan."

"Cipriano, get a head count of the men staying with us. Have Frank come in. I want to send a message to the Conway and Santee ranches. They can spread the word. We'll meet here in the morning." Murdoch's tone was determined as he gave the orders.

Scott couldn't help a small smile as he walked outside. He found Juan leaning against the hitching post. "My father has decided to go with your plan for now."

Johnny relaxed visibly and nodded then listened as Scott rounded up the men and barked orders. He grinned as the officer in his brother came to the forefront.

*****

The next morning, the neighboring ranchers began arriving early. Johnny was saddling Barranca as he watched them all ride in looking angry and anxious. 'Good. Be mad. Makes you fight harder.' When he saw the woman, his interest piqued. He walked over to Frank. "Who's that?"

"Aggie Conway . She owns the ranch on our south border."

"Huh! Never seen a female rancher before."

Frank smiled. "Her husband was good friends with Mr. Lancer. He died a while back and Miss Aggie took right over. Mr. Lancer helps her out when she needs it but, mostly, she does a good job of it."

Johnny nodded and wondered what else the old man helped her with. Grimacing at his own crude thoughts, he shook his head and mounted up. "Tell Cipriano I'm gonna ride the boundary lines. See if I can find anything."

Frank took hold of Barranca's bridle. "I get the feeling you know a lot about this, Juan. I'm not sure if that's good or bad."

Smiling down at the man, Johnny shrugged. "All you can do is decide if you trust me. I've seen a lot in my day." His grin widened at the disbelief on the man's face. "I might not be too old in years but, I've done a lot of livin. If you feel the need to say something to the old man, well, be my guest. Reckon I wouldn't respect you too much if you were suspicious and kept your mouth shut."

*****

Inside the house, there was low murmuring as everyone was served coffee and waited for the rest to arrive. As soon as the last rancher ,   Joe Santee rode in, they all quieted.

Murdoch stood in front of the cold hearth and looked at his friends and neighbors. He had imagined this day, this gathering only, in his mind, it was to announce the arrival of his son and partner. That announcement was taking on a bittersweet taste now. Scott stepped up to his right and Murdoch sucked in a breath. "Before we discuss the rustling situation, I have an announcement to make." He glanced over at Scott. "This was supposed to be a happy occasion and, even though we're all under threat, I can say I'm still very happy, very pleased to introduce you all to my older son, Scott. He's come to visit and has accepted my offer to stay as a partner in the ranch."

Several nods and 'welcomes' could be heard in the room then, Aggie stepped up and looked closely at Scott, a warm smile on her face. "Welcome to the valley, Scott. I'm Aggie Conway and I'm so pleased you'll be staying. Your father has looked forward to this day for many, many years."

Scott accepted her hand and gave a small bow. "Thank you, Mrs. Conway. I'm looking forward to learning ranching ... eventually."

She smiled sadly. "I'm sorry the circumstances have been so dire."

"We're all real glad your boy came home, Murdoch. I'm sorry if I sound rude but, we need to get this thing settled."

Murdoch nodded sharply at Santee . "Of course, Joe, of course. Once this is over, we'll have a proper welcome party for Scott. Now, we need to discuss each hit we've all taken and see if we can find some pattern; some direction these rustlers head. Then, we can make a guess as to who and where they'll hit next and be ready for them."

Driscoll stepped forward. "I was first hit, Murdoch. I don't mind telling you, this has hurt me. I'm not sure I'll even be able to go to market this year."

Murdoch gave him a surprised look. "I didn't realize it's been that bad."

The man smiled a little even as he perspired. "You know me. Never like to harp on my problems. I've lost a lot of cattle and they downed my fencelines."

"Was there any shooting, Mr.?" Scott realized he had no idea who he was talking to.

"Driscoll and no, they got in and out before we ever saw them. Hit the west pasture and it looked like they just kept heading west from there. I figured they hit the night before we found the cattle missing so, didn't think there was much chance of finding them."

"You should've told me sooner, Driscoll. We'd have gone after them together," Santee said.

Driscoll ducked his head. "Yeah, I know, Joe. Maybe, if I had, no one else would've gone through this."

Murdoch shook his head sadly at his neighbor. "I doubt that. They're obviously in this for the long haul. As long as they can get away with it, they will keep coming back. That's why we need to figure this out and lay a trap. Now, you said they were headed west?"

*****

Johnny headed east then, he remembered a canyon several miles northeast which he'd stumbled on one day while out working fence line. Dell Canyon , Cipriano had told him was the name. It had easy access and seemed the best place for the rustlers to hide out. Where they were taking the cattle though, that was a mystery. They had to have a separate location. Even if they hadn't gotten many head, and he had no idea of that, they couldn't just let them graze out in the open and the canyon afforded no graze at all. He frowned as he thought about the area; one he, admittedly, didn't know as well as he should.

He knew Lancer pretty well but, beyond it's boundaries, he wasn't familiar and, again, he berated himself for that. Of course, he had no way of knowing he'd need that information but, as a professional, he should have made sure he knew the land inside and out. It was a mistake he intended to learn well from.

He stopped in a grove of trees fifty yards from the canyon edge and dismounted, tethering Barranca and walking the rest of the way. Quietly, he reached the rim and went to his belly, peering over. Well, Madrid , you still have your instincts, he thought as he spied the camp below. And, as he'd surmised, there wasn't a cow in sight. He eased back from the edge and rolled onto his back, picking a blade of grass and popping it in his mouth as he stared at the sky and thought.

Let's see. I'm at the northeast boundary so, what's beyond that? Another ranch, he knew but, not whose. Damn! Well, nothing for it. He sat up and looked around then made his way back to his steed. Riding off toward the Lancer boundary, his suspicions rose. Another ranch bordered this one so, where else could those cattle be but on that ranch? Sure, mix them in with your own herd. No one would look especially, if you were the first one to shout you'd been hit by rustlers. He grinned and figured the old man would have a cow of his own if Johnny was right and one of his neighbors was responsible. He'd kind of like to see how Murdoch would handle that.

It didn't take long to reach the border of Lancer here. Johnny stopped at the fenceline and dismounted. Walking over to the wire, he reached out and pulled the sign straight. Circle D. He stared at it a beat then looked beyond the fence where he could see cattle grazing. It took all of a second to decide and he walked over to where the branches of a big oak tree hung low over the fence line. Johnny climbed up onto the lowest branch and jumped to the other side.

He slowly made his way, checking all around him to ensure no one was about plus, he didn't want to start a stampede by spooking the cattle. Lord knew , it didn't take much to set them off. As he approached the first small group, he noted the brand was Circle D. Almost disappointed, he walked around them to another group of seven steers and confirmed his suspicions. There were two different brands on these head, one of which he recognized right away. The Circle L. The other read SR. He didn't know that brand but, he memorized it then, moved on to another small group, finding the same brands. Well, that should be enough, he thought and made his way back to Lancer property. Looking at the sky, he figured he'd reach the hacienda around supper time.

*****

Scott scoured over the notes he'd made during the meeting and made lists of timelines and directions but, none of it really seemed to show a pattern. Sighing, he tossed the pencil atop Murdoch's desk and sat back, rubbing his neck. "I don't see anything here, Sir. Maybe, you could take a look?"

Murdoch leaned over his son's shoulder and looked at the lists and notes. "Maybe, it would be easier if we used a map so we can see the locations. There's one over here in the safe. I'll get it."

Scott nodded then his head came around when he heard the knock at the door. He went to answer as Murdoch rummaged in the safe.

Johnny looked up when the door opened, relieved it was Scott who'd answered. "Hey, Boston , can I come in a minute?"

"Of course, Juan. We were just trying to make some sense of all the information we've gathered. My father is getting maps so we can track better," Scott replied even as he walked back into the great room.

Johnny started to take his hat off then, pulled it lower when he saw Murdoch. He wondered why he kept this up. The old man probably wouldn't recognize him if he spat in his face. "You're not gonna need that. I found out some things you probably won't like much."

Murdoch closed the safe door and locked it then got to his feet. "What did you find?"

Johnny walked over to the desk and looked at the notes Scott had made. He picked up the pencil and drew the SR brand he'd seen. "Who does that belong to?"

Murdoch glanced at it. "Joe Santee. It's the Santee Ranch brand. Why?"

"Because," Johnny breathed out heavily, "I found that and Lancer branded beef on the Circle D ranch."

"Circle D?! That's Driscoll's ranch."

"I had a hunch and rode up to Dell Canyon . I figured it was a really good place to camp out. I found the rustlers but, keeping cattle there would be stupid. No graze. I knew there were ranches bordering Lancer but, I didn’t know who they belonged to. I rode over to the Circle D and jumped the fence. That's where I found several steers with Lancer and Santee brands."

*****

Frowning, Murdoch muttered, " there are no Lancer cattle that far north right now. They couldn't have strayed onto Driscoll's land."

"Fence is sound, anyway. Unless they climbed the same tree branch I did and jumped, there's no way they got there on their own."

"Why would this Driscoll steal cattle from his neighbors?" Scott asked.

Murdoch shook his head slowly back and forth. "I have no idea, son. Unless, he's in some kind of financial trouble. He said he was the first one hit and hit hard." He looked at Juan. "How many rustlers?"

"I counted fourteen in camp but, there could be more."

"Did anyone see you?"

Lowering his head, Johnny replied. "Nope."

Murdoch looked hard at him. "Are you sure?"

Johnny raised his fiery gaze to the man. "Dead sure."

Scott looked between the two men and wondered why Murdoch was interrogating this young man who had done nothing but find out what they all needed to know. "What will we do next?"

Murdoch tore his gaze from Juan's when Scott spoke. His gut had clenched when the man had stared at him. He shook his head to clear his thoughts. "I'll ride out to Santee 's ranch tomorrow and talk to him. He and Driscoll are supposed to be best friends."

"Wait a minute, old man. If Santee and Driscoll are that close, what makes you think Santee ain't in on this with him? Just because a few of his steers where there don't mean he's innocent. I think you should get all the ranchers to go out there and face Driscoll together. Better yet, get him here on your own land."

Murdoch moved around the desk to stand directly in front of Juan. "First of all, I don't care to be called 'old man'. Secondly, I appreciate everything you've done, Vega, but, this is my ranch and I'll run it as I see fit. Is that clear?"

Scott stepped up beside Juan. "Sir, he's right. It's always better to have the upper hand. If you bring Driscoll here, he'll be at the disadvantage. Going to his ranch or Santee 's is dangerous. If they are in on it together, their hands may be as involved and you'll be a sitting duck. If Santee isn't in on it, will he believe you? Will he warn Driscoll either purposely or inadvertently?"

Murdoch stared at his son for a moment then turned and paced away as he thought through what both men had said. Basically, they'd said the same thing. He turned back and nodded. "You're right, both of you. I'll ask for another meeting of the ranchers. Tell them we have some ideas on setting the rustlers up then, we'll confront Driscoll." He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "I don't understand what he thinks he's doing."

*****

Johnny walked into the bunkhouse pissed off. He threw his hat on his bunk then plopped onto it. Leaning forward, he rested his forearms on his thighs and hung his head. Don't call him old man. He snorted at that. How about evil bastard? Ya like that one better? He closed his eyes, knowing Murdoch was not an evil bastard but, just a man trying his best. His best just hadn't been good enough and how many times could he say that about himself? Too many, he knew. His head came up when he saw the boots in front of him.

"Did you find anything?" Cipriano asked.

"I sure did. What do you know about this rancher Driscoll?"

Cipriano pulled a stool over and sat in front of him. "Not much. I do not like him. He seems a very nervous man. Why, Juan?"

Johnny looked steadily at the man and told him what he'd found. He watched Cipriano's surprise as it registered on his face. "If Lancer can get him here with the other ranchers, he should be able to end it peaceful. If not, we might have a fight on our hands."

Cipriano nodded and patted his knee. "Gracias, nino. You did well." He paused a moment in consideration. "Why did you stop?"

Johnny frowned then realized what he meant. A small smile came to his face. "Who says I did? Maybe, I just needed a little break. Something different."

"I hope you like being a vaquero more. You will live longer."

A laugh burst out. "Yeah? Maybe not. I mean , seems like workin a ranch is pretty dangerous."

The red-headed young cowboy in the next cot listened closely to the two men talking. He didn't understand the last part of their conversation but it didn't matter. He'd heard what he needed to. Now, he just had to sneak away before daybreak. He closed his eyes and feigned sleep.

*****

Scott paced the great room in the early dawn hour trying to sort through all he'd learned. Murdoch sat at his desk with a pensive expression. Neither could sleep last night. Murdoch's mind kept him awake with thoughts of his neighbor betraying them; Scott felt wide awake as he always did when he was strategizing. The thoughts were ripped from their minds at the sound of the fire bell clanging frantically, gunshots following that. Scott ran to the picture window and pulled the heavy drapes back. Murdoch grabbed two rifles and threw one to his son as they both darted outside.

They ran up the outside stairs for a clearer view. The vaqueros were getting in position and Scott started yelling out instructions to them. Murdoch had to smile a little at the take command attitude.

Scott's eyes raked the yard looking for Juan then, he spotted him beyond the fence on the golden horse. Further back, he could see the marauders taking cover behind trees, fences and anything else they could find as they fired at Lancer's hands. And he could see Juan firing back at them. "What is he doing?"

Murdoch turned his attention to where Scott was looking. "Some men like to fight on horseback, son. You should be familiar with that."

Scott gave him a sharp look then nodded. Yes, he was familiar, he just didn't know Juan was. He watched as the palomino took the fence gracefully, then the next. Juan jumped from the saddle and ran to a large oak tree in the yard, crouching down and readying himself.

Men fell around Scott as they fought with their all. He kept glancing at Juan's position and he seemed to be holding his own. Better than his own, in fact. Scott ran down the stairs and to the wall as the intruders entered the yard. He fired with precision, felling each man he aimed for. It seemed to go on for an eternity but he knew the surreal feeling of war. The way time seemed to stand still.

*****

Johnny kept watching his father and brother. They moved position and he couldn't see them as well but he could see Scott shooting that rifle for all he was worth. Damned good at it, too. He had to smile at that. Just what we needed. The cavalry. He turned back to the fight, movement flurrying around him like fireflies. He spotted a recognized face. One of their own hands shooting at Murdoch. With no time to find anything but anger for the betrayal, he aimed, squeezed the trigger and watched the red-headed kid disappear. Dammit! he thought. He moved around the oak tree and watched as Scott ran out into the yard. He wanted to yell at him, make him take cover. Then he did yell out - a warning.

Scott turned at the shout and leveled his rifle, taking the young traitor down in one shot. Then, he turned back to the main attack without a breath of time taken. The attack waned a few minutes later, the rest of the assumed rustlers and, probably Driscoll's men, retreated under the barrage of gunfire. Scott watched the vaqueros chase off the last of the attackers with satisfaction. He then saw Juan stand up and falter. He took off like a bullet.

Johnny stood and felt the fire in his left side. Damn! he thought. When did that happen? He looked down and clamped his hand over the wound then staggered to the bench on the other side of the tree. He sat down heavily and leaned his head back, the Colt dangling limply from his hand. He felt someone watching him and opened his eyes slowly. With a small smile and a soft voice, he said, "good shootin."

"Thanks." Scott looked down and saw the blood seeping through Juan's hand. "You're hurt. Let's get you inside."

"No," Johnny ground out and repositioned himself a little.

"Why not?" Scott asked.

"Hands will take care of me. You should check them and your old man," he said softly.

"Juan, I AM checking - on you. Now, come on before you bleed to death," Scott stated adamantly.

As he took one step toward Johnny, Cipriano and Miguel appeared and scooped him up. "We will take him, Senor. Your father needs you," Cipriano explained.

Scott stood and watched them carry the young man off then felt a presence behind him. He turned to his father. "He's hurt badly. He needs a doctor."

"Someone has already gone to get the doc, son. Cipriano will take care of Vega. Let's check the rest of the damage." Even as Scott walked away, Murdoch kept staring until the men entered the bunkhouse. He shook off the strange feeling and focused on the task at hand.

*****

Johnny frowned then opened his eyes as the fire awakened in his side. He groaned a little as he turned his head to find a stranger sitting beside him. With a start, he tried to raise up.

"None of that, young man. I'm Dr. Jenkins. Just relax and don't move around."

Johnny nodded and relaxed back onto his cot. "How bad?"

"Bad enough. You lost a good amount of blood but, barring infection, you should recover in time. You need to drink a lot of fluids so let's start now." He pressed a glass to Johnny's lips.

He took several breaths once finished then regarded the man before him. "Anybody else?"

The doctor nodded. "Two dead, three more injured but none as bad as you. They'll be fine in a couple of days."

"What about the ranch?"

Shrugging, he smiled, "you'll have to ask Murdoch about that. Or, Scott." Shaking his head, he went on. "I'm still getting used to that - Scott being home, I mean."

Johnny gave him a small smile and sighed. "Thanks, Doc."

"You're welcome. Now, sleep, drink, eat and sleep. Maria or one of the other women will change your bandages every day. If you start feeling worse, have them send for me."

"How is he?"

Johnny turned to find Scott walking up on his other side.

"He'll be alright as long as he follows my orders," Sam replied.

"I still think he should be in the house, Doctor. The bunkhouse isn't the most conducive place for healing."

Johnny grinned a little at the fancy talk. "I'll be fine, Boston . Estancia ain't for the likes of me."

"What does that mean? You're an employee here. One who nearly died protecting this ranch. I doubt my father would object," Scott said passionately.

"You need to calm down, young man. He'll be just fine right here in his own bunk," Sam spoke. Turning to Johnny, he added, " remember what I said."

Johnny nodded and thanked the man again then closed his eyes for a minute. When he opened them, Scott was still there, now sitting beside him. "Ain't you got anything better to do?"

"Juan, I'm worried about you. You did the most work and found all the information for us but you paid the highest price for it."

"I wouldn't call two dead men me payin the highest price, Scott," Johnny hissed.

Scott dipped his eyes briefly. "No, neither would I and that isn't what I meant. I feel terrible those men lost their lives. I just don't want to lose anyone else."

Johnny sighed. "Don't plan on dyin any time soon. Just need to rest up a bit, is all. Go do whatever it is you do and let me rest." He was growing irritable and tired and he couldn't deal with putting on the pretense with his brother right then.

Scott gave him a perturbed look but relented. "Alright. If you need anything, let me know."

The younger man just nodded and closed his eyes, drifting away.

*****

Johnny stared at the ceiling and figured he'd be crazy pretty soon. At least Scott hadn't come back the past few days. Reckon he's too busy to bother. He shook his head at himself. He didn't want his brother hovering and taking the chance of letting something slip. On the other hand, he was a little hurt that Scott hadn't checked on him. Murdoch either, for that matter. He thought the man could at least look in for a second. He supposed Cipriano was keeping him updated. Still, if this was his ranch ...

He stopped himself then. This could be his ranch, couldn't it? His mind went back to the day Scott arrived and Murdoch's offer of one third. Remembered his father saying there was a reason and knowing he was that reason. Murdoch knew all about Madrid and still, he was holding onto part of the ranch - his birthright - for him. He had to smile a little at thatt. It made him feel ... wanted, he guessed was a good enough word.

So, what was holding him back? Why didn't he just tell Murdoch who he was? There was nothing stopping him now other than this bullet wound. He decided once he was well again, he would talk to his father. His father. His stomach still fluttered every time he thought about it. More than anything, he admitted he was afraid of Murdoch's reaction. He'd been lying for months. How would Murdoch feel about that? He knew the old man brooked no nonsense and wasn't that exactly what all this was; nonsense?

He supposed it could be seen that way. To him, the opportunity simply had not presented itself. He'd wanted to give Scott time, still did. The raids changed nothing. He didn't even know if they'd dealt with Driscoll yet. Scott still needed time to settle in and sort out some kind of relationship with Murdoch. Come to terms with the past and move on. Only thing was, he may have no idea if that happened.

Scott was ticked off at him and he may well have done too much damage to their fragile friendship with his sharp mouth. Scott may not confide in him at all, not that he had much. Still, it had been enough for Johnny to see things were going fairly well all things considered. He made a promise to himself to make sure Scott got over his mad.

Johnny shook his head and took a deep breath. He was never going to get better if he didn't get out of this bed. He pulled the blanket back and moved his legs to the edge, his side protesting a little too much. But, he knew that was from inactivity and he'd just have to grit his teeth and stand it. After a few minutes, he managed to sit on the side of the cot. He was pretty sure that was as good as it was gonna get for now. That idea was concreted when he heard the door open.

"What are you doing?"

*****

Johnny looked up with his most innocent expression and smiled a little. "Just need to move around a little, is all."

Scott moved to stand in front of him. "Did the doctor okay that?"

With a laugh, Johnny answered. "Don't need a doctor to tell me what I need to do. I've been laid up before. I know how I heal."

Scott was unconvinced and his frown deepened as he sat in the chair. "I think you should wait for the doctor, Juan. You could have a setback."

"The only thing setting me back is layin here doin nothin. I have to get up, that's all there is to it. If you ain't gonna help, at least move." He spoke more harshly than he'd intended. So much for mending that fence, he thought with a grimace. "Look, I'm sorry, I'm a little grumpy. It's just laying in here all the time not doing anything's got me edgy."

"I understand," Scott said and Johnny heard it in his voice. He did understand.

He looked into his brother's eyes and smiled. "Then, lend a hand?" he asked, holding his hand out expectantly.

Scott gave him a sidelong look and shook his head at his own bad judgment as he stood and took Johnny's hand. "This is a mistake."

He made it to his feet and fell into Scott who held on tightly and gave him time. "Thanks," Johnny whispered, keeping his head down. He couldn't look at Scott right then, not when he was so close. He righted himself and took a deep breath then took a step. It wasn't pretty but he stayed on his feet and took another.

Scott held onto him but didn't move as Johnny walked slowly away. Scott's arm stretched until his hand fell away naturally, then he sucked in a breath and cursed himself for it.

Johnny turned quickly at the sound, losing his balance and tumbling forward.

Scott grabbed him and eased him over to the cot then lowered him to sit down. "Easy, now," he said softly.

Johnny took a few minutes to slow his breathing and collect himself before looking at Scott. "What happened? Why'd you make that noise?"

Scott looked away. "I ... I'm sorry, Juan. I didn't intend ... I wasn't expecting ..."

Johnny's concern grew substantially at Scott's uncharacteristic loss for words. He put a hand on his brother's arm and squeezed a little. "What's wrong, Boston ?"

Scott looked at him with deep sadness. "Your back."

*****

Johnny's shoulders tensed and he drew his hand back. His eyes grew dark and cold. "What about it?" he asked sharply.

Scott started at the look then managed to find his decorum. "I just wasn't expecting to see ... that. How did you get all those scars?"

Cocking a brow, Johnny stared at him. "Kind of a personal question, don't you think?"

Dropping his eyes, Scott nodded. "Yes, I suppose it is. I was just surprised. My apologies." He stood then and made to leave.

"Scott, wait. It's just not something I want to talk about. You can understand that, right?" Johnny spoke quickly, not wanting his brother upset with him.

Scott sat back down and smiled a little. "Yes, I understand completely."

Johnny's smile exploded on his face. "Good! Then, you can help me outside. I sure could use some sun on my face about now."

"Oh, I don't know about that, Juan. You're pretty shaky."

"Hey, I was doin fine until *you* made me lose my balance." He grinned and slapped Scott's leg.

Scott laughed and shook his head. "Sure you were. Well, I suppose you're going to try it no matter what so I should at least be there to catch you. Come on." He stood once more and grabbed a shirt off the bedside table.

Johnny faltered a moment, thinking he sure did hope Scott would be there to catch him from time to time. He shrugged on the shirt Scott handed him then, he reached out and took his brother's hand and together, they got him outside.

Scott brought out a chair and sat him down just out of the sun's harsh rays. "How's that?"

"Perfect! Thanks," Johnny said sincerely.

"You're very welcome only you did this all by yourself. That's what I'm telling the doctor, anyway."

Johnny laughed. "Fair enough."

"I don't want to leave you out here alone," Scott frowned.

"I'll be fine, Boston . Go on about your business. All I need is fresh air and sunshine."

Scott shook his head. "Well, let me get you some water then I'll go." He walked back inside the bunkhouse and returned shortly with a pitcher and cup.

"Thanks," Johnny said, his eyes closed, his head back.

Scott smiled and caught himself before he actually ruffled the young man's hair. Wondering at that instinct, he left Juan to his own devices.

*****

Johnny watched the world around him. Vaqueros were working horses in the corral, others were doing various chores around the grounds and he wished he could be out there with them. Not that he enjoyed breaking his back but it was a sight better than being an invalid, he decided. Several times, he had to stop himself from walking over to the corral.

"Should you be out here?"

His head jerked around, his eyes wide with surprise. As suddenly as these reactions came, they changed to frustration and aggravation with himself . He hadn't even heard Murdoch walk up. He was losing his instincts as well as the muscle he'd worked so hard to gain.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you," Murdoch went on.

"It's okay. I just ... I'm gettin a little edgy sittin on my haunches," Johnny muttered.

Murdoch nodded and dragged over a tree stump used to chop wood then sat beside him. "Sam will be out in a day or two."

Johnny frowned. "Who?"

"Dr. Jenkins."

"Oh. Yeah, well, I'm not real patient. I can't just lay there. Ain't how I heal."

Murdoch only nodded at that. "I'm sorry I haven't been to see you. It's been so busy since the raids. I wanted to thank you. We were lucky to have you here."

Johnny bowed his head and smiled a little. "Is it over?"

"Joe Santee found Driscoll hiding out in some caves and beat the hell out of him. We have him locked in our guardhouse. It's the closest thing to a jail in the valley. We've sent for the US Marshal but, I don't know how long it will take."

Johnny smiled a little at that. "Guess I was wrong about Santee , then. Glad at least it was only one neighbor stabbing you in the back. Did he say why?"

Murdoch's forehead creased even deeper and he shook his head. "He was whining about his cattle being puny stock. That he needed an infusion of new blood and about how much debt he had. Then, he started in on how prosperous the other ranches here are, especially Lancer. He said he was going to lose his ranch if he didn't do something."

Johnny leaned back and rested his head against the side of the bunkhouse. "Seems to me, a man could ask for help from his friends. Santee woulda helped, wouldn't he?"

"Yes, so would I if we'd known. Sometimes, a man's pride is his worst enemy."

"Or best friend," Johnny imparted off-handedly. "Funny how people always want what they don't have. I mean, yeah, this is a real nice place but, you don't show off like I've seen a lot of Dons in Mexico do. They think if they dress in fancy suits and have fancy horses and rigs, it shows their wealth. Well, I reckon that's true enough but, I never saw any of them get ther hands dirty like you do." He paused for a moment, unsure why he'd gone down this road. "I just think if a man works hard and prospers , it's because of that hard work. As long as he don't lose his head over 'things', that's when pride is his best friend."

*****

Murdoch looked at his profile, once again getting that strange unidentifiable feeling wash over him. "I never thought of it like that but, it makes sense. I had a dream when I came here and I wasn't afraid to work for it. It's been hard, very hard sometimes. I've lost more than I ever gained in some ways - the important ways."

"You mean Scott and his mother?" Johnny saw Murdoch's jaw twitch and he sighed. "Sorry, none of my business."

Glancing sideways at the young man, Murdoch nodded. "Scott's confided in you. I'm glad he has a friend to talk with. Yes, Scott, his mother and ... others."

Johnny looked away and it was quiet for a while between them. He listened to the sounds of men working and let the breeze calm him some. "That kid, Red, they called him, was working for Driscoll. I saw him during the fight. Tried to get him but, I missed. Scott got him, though."

"I wondered how Driscoll knew we were on to him. It's hard to lose any men but I know it could have been much worse. I saw you out there fighting. It was impressive."

Johnny lowered his head and closed his eyes and wondered how impressed the old man would be if he spoke up right now. "Thanks," was all he could think of to say

Murdoch smiled a little at the bowed head. "I have to wonder why you won't look at me."

Johnny's head came up and he looked into the gray eyes briefly. "I ... I look at you."

"Not much and not for long. It's, um, hard to see you with all that hair in your eyes," Murdoch countered.

Johnny felt the fluttering in his stomach again, the tension in his shoulders. Does he know? He drew in a breath and decided diversion was the way to go. He looked out at the corrals again. "Those horses are lookin good."

Murdoch sighed softly, his eyes never leaving the young man's profile. "Juan, I'm going to be straight with you. I can't help but think maybe you're in some kind of trouble. That you're hiding here."

Johnny's head snapped around, his eyes narrowing. "I ain't wanted, if that's what you're askin."

Murdoch was unperturbed. "Partly. What I see mostly, when I get to see at all, is pain. You seem haunted by something, son. I'd like to help if I can."

Johnny was shocked by the sincerity in the voice and eyes. He blinked several times and looked away to hide the emotions so near to uncovering his secret. He took his time and worked it through, somehow knowing Murdoch would wait. It's time. Right now and right here. He took a deep breath and turned to his father. "Murdoch, I ..."

"Senor Lancer!"

Johnny gritted his teeth and looked at the approaching segundo with irritation.

Murdoch was a little irritated himself as he watched Cipriano walk up.

"There is a situation in the east pasture, Patron. We need you."

Murdoch nodded and stood. He looked back down at the once again bowed head. "I hope we can continue our talk later."

"Yeah, sure," Johnny mumbled. He watched his father walk away and ran a hand over his beard, wincing and wondering if they'd ever have a chance to talk again.

*****

Murdoch never made it back to see him and the next two weeks went by. Johnny healed nicely and was back to work. This night, Cipriano gathered the men to discuss the upcoming cattle drive in one week.

Johnny listened intently to the plan and the route. Cipriano explained all the areas of the trail that were of concern for the newer hands recently hired. "Juan, you will stay here."

"Whoa! How come?" Johnny protested.

"I have spoken to el doctoro and he feels it is too soon for you to go."

"I'm fine. Been back workin for over a week now."

Cipriano gave him a stern look. "It has been decided."

Johnny stood up slowly. "No disrespect, Cipriano, but what's Mr. Lancer say about it?"

"Senor Lancer leaves assignments to me, Juan," the segundo replied flatly.

Johnny stared at him for a second then walked outside and straight to the house. He hesitated before stepping onto the veranda.

"Juan?"

He looked over to find Scott watching him from the shadows of the porch. "Hey. Think I could talk to your old man for a minute?"

"Sure. I'll tell him," Scott replied and walked inside.

Murdoch appeared on the veranda and suddenly, Johnny felt foolish.

"What is it, Vega?"

He tensed at the name. More than ever, it bothered him. "Well, I was just talking with Cipriano about the cattle drive and he said I wasn't going. I'm fine and I've been doing my work. I see no reason why I can't go."

"Did he say why he didn't want you to go?"

Johnny grimaced and sighed. "Yeah, said the doc didn't want me to," he mumbled then straightened and looked into the man's eyes. "But, I think I've already proven I know myself better than that doctor does. I can handle it and if I can't, if I slack off and can't pull my weight, I'll come back. No pay expected."

Murdoch raised a brow at that offer. "That would leave us a man short."

Johnny faltered, knowing that was true. "Then, I'll go extra and for no pay," he countered.

Scott smiled and held back a laugh but Murdoch's expression never changed.

"I have to ask why you're so adamant about this."

Johnny sighed and looked at the ground. "Well, I figure this is the best way to get all the way back, ya know? I feel really good but I just need a little push."

Murdoch nodded and thought about it. "Well, I don't usually override Cipriano's decisions. He's never failed me and I don't want to put him in a bad light with the men." He stopped as he considered the request. This one still intrigued him and, though he'd never gotten back to their conversation of a few weeks before, he wanted to. "I'm going to town tomorrow and I'll speak with Sam myself. If he thinks you can handle it at all, you can go. BUT, if he says no, you stay here. Agreed?"

Johnny's defiant look wavered under the stern visage. He sighed and nodded his head. "Agreed, only I ain't seen him for a week now."

Murdoch nodded. "Then, I guess you'll just have to go to town with me."

Johnny almost said no but he knew it was his only way of going. He clamped his jaw tightly, nodded and walked away. His sole reason for going was to watch his brother's back. Scott was brand new to cattle drives and he knew the men would be testing the greenhorn. That was alright as long as it didn't get out of hand. If it did, or Scott got into trouble, he wanted to be there.

*****

Cipriano stared a hole through him as he mounted up beside Murdoch the next morning. He had not been happy when Johnny had told him about this. The young man had tried to explain as best he could but it didn't seem to make an impression on the segundo. Well, Johnny thought, get over it.

There wasn't much conversation on the ride in as Johnny was tense to say the least. He could only pray no one in town would recognize him. With the beard, he had a good chance of getting by.

"I need to stop at the bank. Go on ahead to Dr. Jenkins and I'll meet you over there," Murdoch said.

Johnny nodded and rode on down the street where Murdoch had indicated. He found the office easily and dismounted. Casting a wary glance around, he stepped inside the door.

Murdoch walked in half an hour later as Johnny waited in the outer office. He never said a word to the young man and waited for Sam to appear.

"He's doing remarkably well, Murdoch. Much better than I would have expected in one week. I see no reason why he can't go as long as he's careful."

"Thanks, Sam," Murdoch smiled.

"I've never seen anyone so bent on going on a cattle drive," the doctor quipped.

Murdoch looked over at the young hand. "Neither have I. I wish I had twenty more like him."

Johnny dropped his head, a slight blush coloring his cheeks.

"How's Scott?" Sam asked.

Murdoch smiled brightly. "Doing very well. He's settling in so fast and picking up everything quickly."

"Well, that Harvard education was not lost, then," Sam laughed.

Johnny held back his own laugh. He didn't figure they taught much about ranching at Harvard.

"I have to tell you, Sam, he's been a blessing. Now, if I could just get Joh ...." Murdoch stopped himself and glanced over at Juan. "Well, you know."

Sam nodded sadly. "Yes. I'll pray for that, Murdoch. Good luck on the cattle drive and you, young man, take care of yourself."

Johnny smiled at him. "I will, Doc. Thanks for everything."

*****

He stole a few glances at his father on the ride back, noting a sadness in the man's face. He'd been so happy talking about Scott. Then, he'd almost let it slip. Johnny felt like a fool, a coward and an idiot all wrapped up in one package. Why was he torturing his father like this? Scott seemed settled, it was true. Sure, there were going to be problems but Johnny couldn't wait forever. He was almost one hundred percent again. He should tell Murdoch. Tell them both. That would be hard. It was one thing to tell his father, but both of them? Maybe he should start with Murdoch. If the man didn't kick him out for lying, maybe he could help explain it to Scott. He started to speak but, Murdoch beat him to it.

"I'm glad you're able to go, Juan. We need every able-bodied man."

" You expecting trouble?"

Murdoch shook his head a little. "No, not that kind. Still, Driscoll's foolishness hurt us financially. We need to get this herd to market."

"I don't understand. I mean, we stopped Driscoll."

"I'm sorry. Of course, you were still healing when we found out. The night before the raid, or maybe that morning, Driscoll's men stampeded our herd in the east pasture. We lost over half of them."

Johnny's mouth fell open and he almost asked why the hell no one had told him. Of course, why would they? Still, had he been so busy wallowing in his own self-pity that he hadn't heard the men talking? What the hell was wrong with him? The east pasture held most of the market-ready cattle sum total.

He looked over at the young man. "That was confidential information. I hope I can trust you not to repeat it. I don't want the men worrying about that."

He blinked and looked over. "I won't say a word. We'll get the cattle through, I promise."

Murdoch smiled at him and started to bring up their unfinished conversation.

"I'm gonna turn off here and catch up with the work crew," Johnny said before he got the chance.

"Oh, alright. Well, I'll talk to Cipriano. He won't be happy but he'll get past it."

Johnny grinned as he reined to a stop, Murdoch following his actions. "Guess he don't like to be second guessed. I'll make it up to him somehow. Well, thanks for going to all the trouble. See ya." He didn't wait for an answer but turned and galloped off.

Murdoch watched him top the rise and disappear. That strange feeling engulfed him again and he wondered what it meant - if anything. Sighing, he continued on his way home.

*****

Johnny slowed down once he reached the other side of the hill. Damn! They needed to get the cattle to market now. He couldn't tell Murdoch who he was until that was done. They were in a spot. He could tell it was pretty bad by the old man's expression. He sure didn't need this on his plate, too. He was beginning to wonder if he'd ever tell his father the truth. If he wouldn't spend the rest of his life as a Lancer ranch hand. He smirked at the thought.

Well, as soon as the drive is over, I'll sit him down and tell him. Just have to find a way to do it without interruptions. That would be the trick, for sure. Seemed like they never got the chance to talk much. That would be his fault. Ranchers didn't spend a whole lot of time talking to the hired help. Murdoch had spent more time with him than he should have and Johnny knew that.

He stopped and sat still, Barranca reaching down to munch some grass. He patted the golden neck and took in the view. God, but this was the most beautiful place he'd ever seen. And he loved this land, too. It grew on him when he wasn't looking, he supposed. He laughed a little at that.

Murdoch had grown on him, too, he realized. Scott. Scott was so likeable. How could he keep up this pretense? It was tearing him apart but he'd started this fiasco. Now, he had to find a way to end it. But, not yet. Not until they had the drive behind them and Lancer was sound again. A sense of pride filled him at the thought of contributing to that soundness.

Okay, stop thinking it to death and get to work, he thought. He spurred Barranca on. Scott wasn't mad at him anymore. Johnny wasn't sure he ever really had been. He supposed Scott realized it was the pain and illness that had made him so prickly. At any rate, Scott was being his normal self and he was grateful for that.

His brother had not shown any signs of worrying about this cattle drive and Johnny had to wonder if Murdoch had told him about the problems. Surely, he had. That wasn't something you kept from your partner especially. Or from your son. Scott was good at holding things in, though, so he may well know. It didn't matter for Johnny was determined all go well on this drive.

He approached the work crew and smiled a little when he saw Scott hard at it.

"Hey," he called as he walked up.

Scott straightened and regarded him. "You're just in time for lunch. A more cynical person would be suspicious of that timing," he grinned.

Johnny laughed. "Maybe you should be more cynical then, Boston ."

As they settled under a tree, Scott asked about the doctor.

Johnny filled him in then warned him. "You know the men are gonna test you on this drive. Play little jokes on you and the like. They'll be testing you because you're new at this."

Scott frowned. "Great, just what I need."

Johnny could see he wasn't joking. He quickly surmised Scott was well aware of the financial problems. "They won't let it interfere with their work, Scott. They're good men and they know the dangers of a cattle drive. No one would do anything to cause a problem with the cattle. Just that they need to let off a little steam sometimes, ya know?"

Scott relaxed a little. "That's good to hear. I don't mind telling you, we need this drive to go well. Just between us, of course."

Johnny only nodded. So, another Lancer had confided in him. He felt ... honored. That was odd, he thought, and smiled. "It will, Scott. I got a good feeling about it."

*****

Johnny mounted up and looked out over the thousand head of cattle. It was an impressive sight and he just stared for a moment. He'd been on a drive once before and it was brutal. He wasn't an expert at this but he knew what he was doing. He glanced over at Scott and Murdoch as they mounted up and smiled a little. Scott looked a might scared. He chuckled.

They hadn't gone half a mile when Johnny caught up to Scott and leaned over. He couldn't whisper but he tried not to be too loud as he pulled the bandana off his face. "I guess the old man's got a lot on his mind. Otherwise, he would've told you. Put your kerchief over your mouth and nose or you're gonna choke on this dust."

Scott looked over as Johnny repositioned his own kerchief. He nodded and untied the cloth, replacing it more appropriately.

The day went well and Scott stayed close to Juan, watching and learning. He felt a little better about this knowing the young man would help him out when he needed it. That he would need help was a given. He was just grateful Juan would give it without being condescending.

They stopped for the night, everyone covered in dust and sweat. Scott headed for the river first thing. Murdoch, curious as to his son's actions, followed. He stood by a tree and watched in humor as Scott scrubbed himself as best he could. He couldn't hold back the laughter forever, though, and Scott turned. "I'm sorry, son. I'm afraid you won't always have such a nice place to bathe on this trip, though."

Scott stood and lowered his head for a moment. "I suppose I look foolish."

"Not at all. You're just not used to having to stay dirty."

"No, but I guess I'll have to get used to it. Maybe Juan can give me some perspective," he smiled.

Murdoch walked over to him. "He's been a real asset, quite frankly. His investigation of the cattle rustling was impressive and he's a top hand."

Scott nodded, a frown crossing his face. "I shouldn't tell you this but, when he was hurt and I was helping him out of bed, I saw ..."

"What?" Murdoch asked.

"His back. It's covered with old scars. I asked him about it but he wouldn't say. It's none of my business, of course, but I was so shocked. He's awfully young to have so many scars."

Murdoch sighed and, that feeling flittered through him again. "I tried to talk to him, too. I thought he was going to confide in me but I got called away. I never got back to him, I'm ashamed to say. There's something about him, though."

"Yes, there is. I really like him. He's been a good friend to me from the start. Sometimes, I feel like ..." Scott didn't get to finish. A ruckus gained their attention and both men headed back to camp.

*****

Murdoch walked right into the fray, or what was left of it. He saw Juan holding one man back and Cipriano had the other as both tried to get free.

"I said stop!" Vega shouted.

"What the devil is going on here?" Murdoch bellowed as he looked between the two adversaries.

Both men stopped struggling immediately and were released.

"Well?" Murdoch pressed. When neither man would answer, he looked to Cipriano.

"They started fighting, Senor. I do not know why. Juan and I broke them up."

"Are either of you going to tell me what started this?" When they still wouldn't speak, Murdoch nodded his head. "Alright, if you both have so much energy after a hard day, you can take night watch duty. Now, go get cleaned up and if either of you get into any more trouble, you're out of here. Understood?"

Both men only nodded and walked away in opposite directions.

Johnny sighed and shook his head. "Idiots," he mumbled and looked up to see Scott grinning at him.

"Come on, referee. I don't know about you but I'm starving," Scott said and wrapped an arm around Juan's shoulders, walking toward the cook's wagon.

Murdoch shook his head. "I don't need this," he grumbled.

"I will watch them, Senor. I will ask Juan to watch as well. He jumped in right away to stop them. He told them they would frighten the cattle."

Murdoch nodded again. "I was just talking to Scott about what a valuable asset he is. He just keeps proving himself. I'm, uh, glad to see you aren't upset with him anymore." He gave the segundo a wary look.

Cipriano glared then acquiesced. "It is as he said. He knows himself better than el doctoro."

Murdoch smiled as the man walked away. He looked over at the campfire as his son settled next to his friend. Murdoch was very glad Scott had a friend to confide in. Things were good between them. Scott had not asked about the past anymore. Though he was a little concerned about that, Murdoch wasn't about to bring it up himself. He saw no reason to hurt his son and finding out the whole truth about Harlan Garrett would definitely accomplish that. He heard Scott and Juan laughing and his heart clutched. That should be Johnny sitting there laughing and joking with his brother. He closed his eyes briefly and sighed.

*****

"I'd still like to know what started that fight."

"Well, Boston , I'll tell ya. Sometimes, people just don't get along."

Scott turned and looked fully at the young man beside him, the light in his eyes was magnified by the fire dancing there. He shoved at Juan's arm and shook his head.

Johnny laughed and went back to his stew. He watched Scott play with his food and noticed the pensive look on his face. "You better eat when you can out here." Scott made no reply and Johnny nudged him a little. "Something wrong?"

"Yes. Something is very wrong." Scott looked at him and wondered if he should but he knew this man would never divulge his words. "I have a half-brother somewhere. Murdoch told me about him during the rustling problem."

Johnny's heart thundered in his chest. He said nothing.

"Murdoch has been trying to find him for years but he's disappeared now. We fear he may be dead."

"Just because a man can't be found don't mean he's dead."

Scott looked sadly at him. "It can if that man is a gunfighter."

Johnny thought to try looking surprised but he couldn't pull it off. He kept his face flat. "How do you feel about that? Him bein a gunfighter."

"I don't know. I hadn't really thought of that part. I'd just like to know my brother."

"You should think about it, Scott. Think about it real hard before deciding if you can handle having a man like that in your life."

"What does that mean? He's my brother!"

Johnny smiled at him. "You know anything about gunfighters?"

"No."

"They ain't exactly saints."

Scott's face took on a determined, if sad look. "I'm sure whatever Johnny has done he had to do. I'm just afraid I'll never find out."

"Yes, you will." He bit his lip as soon as he said it and wished he could just yank his stupid tongue out. "I mean, you hafta believe that, right?"

*****

Johnny stared at the stars, a slight smile on his face. Other than a stupid fight that first day, there'd been no problems. He chuckled softly as a vision of Scott sitting in the dust came to mind. The men had uncinched his saddle and he'd plopped right down on his butt. He'd taken it in his stride and when Murdoch questioned him, Scott had taken the blame. The men all watched and nodded their appreciation of the easterner. One more trick had been played with no harm done. Of course, it had taken Scott a while to get all the sand out of his boots. Johnny laughed softly again.

Since then, the men had backed off. They'd accepted Scott and Johnny was more than pleased with that. His brother had a commanding presence that just screamed for respect yet, Scott never assumed he would get that respect simply because of his name. He'd worked hard and earned it and Johnny was proud of him.

Tomorrow, they would be in Stockton barring no unforeseen problems. He hoped there were none. They were so close to a successful end and he was that much closer to his own judgment day. He almost snorted at that. Six months ago, he would have scoffed at the very idea that Murdoch Lancer pass any kind of judgment on him. Since then, he'd changed. Not only physically but in every way. He felt ... settled. And if not happy, then content at least. He wouldn't be happy unless or until his father accepted him into his life.

The thought scared the hell out of him. He had no idea how to go about telling this. He couldn't hem and haw, he knew. But, could he just blurt it out? He'd almost have to. Still, he needed to cushion the blow somehow. He hadn't a clue how to do that but he'd need to figure it out and soon.

Scott would be tough, too. Johnny knew he'd feel betrayed and he wasn't sure he could explain it well enough for Scott to understand. He knew he would have to tell the man about some of his past to help Scott reach that understanding. That was so hard for him but he'd do it. This was too important to him. He didn't want to sit on the outside anymore. He didn't want to be odd man out. He was a Lancer and he wanted to be part of it all; part of them. Johnny's heart felt full yet fragile.

He had another worry. Stockton . He'd never been there but that didn't mean some saddle tramp passing through wouldn't recognize him. That would be just his luck. He'd decided he would get his pay and head straight back to Lancer. If he was very fortunate, he'd get away with it. Murdoch would think nothing of it, he hoped. Guess I'll find out soon enough. He sighed and closed his eyes.

*****

The sound of four thousand pounding hooves moving through the streets of a town can be nerve-wracking. The people of Stockton were used to it by now, though. No one gave the herd or the men a second look. They pushed the cattle into the pens at the train station and, once the last gate was secured, a loud whoop went up from the cowboys.

They all settled and gathered around the cook's wagon as Murdoch let down the tail gate and opened the cash box. Scott stood beside him feeling quite proud of himself. Murdoch paid off the men then turned to them all.

"I know it's customary for the boss to buy the first round of drinks but, I'm not going to do that this year. I'm not going to do that because I've got my son with me and I'm going to delegate that honor to him. So, cut the wolf loose!"

Whoops and hollers resounded through the streets as Scott shouted he'd meet everyone at the saloon. He turned to find Juan standing behind him."Well, ready to let off some steam?"

He shook his head even as he smiled. "You go ahead. I need to talk to the old man."

Murdoch turned and waited as Scott walked away. "Is there a problem?"

"Not at all. I'm just gonna head back to Lancer, is all."

Murdoch looked hard at him. "Why?"

Johnny sighed and looked off down the street. "Just not in the mood to party."

Staring hard at the young man's profile, Murdoch felt concern rise up. "Juan, we started a conversation several weeks back that we never finished. I need to go to the bank but if you'll meet me at the hotel, I'd like to finish it now."

Johnny looked up at him and winced a little before lowering his head. "I tell ya, that sounds good but, I can't. I promise we'll talk when you get back, okay?"

"Are you worried about being in the city? I understand you never go to town. In fact, the day we went to see Sam you seemed ... tense about being there. What aren't you telling me?" Murdoch's tone demanded an answer.

Johnny swallowed, suddenly feeling a little trapped. He hadn't felt that way much since being at the ranch and he didn't like it one bit. His defenses kicked in and he fought hard not to be angry. "I don't want to get into this here. Can you just wait a little longer? I promise I'll tell you everything when you get home."

The rancher sighed and backed down. "You always seem to keep your promises as far as I can tell. I will expect to see you when I get back in three days. And I will expect to be told all of it no matter how you think I'll react. Something is troubling you deeply. Whatever it is, if I can help you fix it, I will. I just have to say one thing more." He hesitated, not wanting to insult the man.

Johnny looked curiously at him. "Go on."

"You told me you aren't wanted and I believe you. But, if you've broken the law ..."

"I haven't," he answered quickly. "I swear," he added softly.

Murdoch nodded and smiled. "Good enough."

Johnny dropped his head. "Just one more thing before I go." He looked back up. "Thank you for being so good to me."

Murdoch smiled again. "You're welcome."

*****

Johnny rode home with a million thoughts going through his head. Three days! Murdoch would be back in three days. Of course, it took much less time getting back without a few tons of beef to push. He'd be back himself in the morning at this rate. He was so close now and it scared him. He spent the first two nights on the trail then set out again, heading to Morro Coyo first.

His first stop was Baldemeros where he bought a new shirt and pants, some socks and underwear. Might as well be spiffy about it, he thought.

He walked into the barber shop next and saw his reflection. A grimace crossed his face. "Need ... everything."

The barber took one look and nodded. "I'd say. What's first?"

Johnny thought for a second. "A bath, then a shave and haircut."

"How much of a shave you want?"

Johnny smiled a little and with more relief than he thought he'd have, answered, " All of it."

An hour later, he stepped onto the street feeling more himself than he had for six months. More than that, really. He rubbed his smooth cheek and smiled. God! That feels good! He thought he looked pretty damned good, too, actually. With a grin, he walked to the cantina and ordered tamales and tequila.

He was surprised at how natural it was. How he scoped the place out, sat in the back, in the shadows, watched everything. It was also unsettling how easily he slipped back into this. Still and all, he figured it was a good thing. All he had to do now was get the hell out before anyone noticed him.

It wasn't arrogance, it was simply life lessons hard learned. Expect anything at anytime and never take anything for granted. He paid for his meal, donned his hat and walked outside. He almost made it to the horse.

*****

"I wasn't sure it was you at first. But, once ya got those whiskers off, my whole day got better."

Johnny had stopped on a dime at that voice. He drew in a slow breath and closed his eyes briefly before turning to see the face he would have given about anything not to see. "It's been a long time," he said in a low voice.

The man smiled wider and stepped into the street. "Way too long. Been hopin, hell, prayin to run into you again, Madrid ."

Johnny regarded the man with an expressionless face. "What'ya want , Bates?"

Surprise covered his face as he laughed. "What the hell do you think I want? Revenge." The last word was spoken harder, the promise of its danger reverberating through the air.

Johnny sighed and regarded the man. "Not now," he hissed, anger overtaking him so suddenly, it disturbed him.

"Not now? I'm callin you out, half-breed. Right Now!" Bates stepped further into the street, taking his stance.

A crowd was gathering on the boardwalk now, whispering amongst themselves. How many times had he been here? He cursed under his breath. He didn't need this. He was too close. He didn't move, his eyes staying on Bates, his ears picking up pieces of conversations. Gunfighters. Outlaws. Dangerous. All the same words spoken so many times. All of them cowering a little, staying far enough away to not be hit by a stray bullet - they hoped. All of them disgusted yet, too intrigued to walk away.

"Come on, Madrid ! I've been waitin a long time for this!"

He heard the gasps from the crowd, the low murmuring growing a little louder. Johnny gritted his teeth. Why did he have to shout my name like that!? He turned fully to the man, his eyes smoldering. He took two steps then stood still, hands at his sides and waiting. Waiting to either die here and now or to keep dying in pieces every day. What difference now? It was all ruined.

It was over in one second. Silence followed it for another. Then, the murmuring started again and he shoved his gun in the holster. Turning sharply, he glared at the people on the boardwalk. Then, his heart fell to his stomach as the doctor stepped out and walked to the dead man, his eyes staying on Johnny.

He stood there, unsure what to do as Sam Jenkins pronounced Bates dead. He didn't move as the physician walked up to him and locked eyes. Sam took his arm and gave him a push to get him moving down the street.

*****

Sam didn't stop when he opened the door to his offices. He led Johnny through to the back, to his living quarters before stopping and letting go of the young man. He stared into the blue eyes that showed nothing. Finally, Sam spoke in a whisper. "It is you. Dear God."

"God ain't got nothin to do with it, Doc." Johnny dropped his eyes and ambled around the living room, not seeing anything there.

"Why did you lie to Murdoch about who you are? How long have you been at Lancer?"

Johnny froze on the spot then turned sharply and glared at the man. "Is there some reason you think you have a right to ask me about that?"

Sam didn't flinch much and recovered nicely. "Yes, there is. Murdoch Lancer is my best friend and, I delivered you, boy."

The surprise was easy to see on Johnny's face then, he broke out in a grin.

"Yes, there it is. I couldn't see it before with all that hair on your face. That's the smile I remember."

That smile disappeared as Johnny bowed his head. "I'm not a baby anymore."

"No, you certainly are not!" Sam laughed then walked over to him. "Why, Johnny? My God, do you have any idea what your father has gone through trying to find you?"

"Not as much as I've gone through tryin to survive!" He reined in the sudden flash of anger and sighed. "It's a long story, Doc. One I have to tell the old man, still. I'm pretty sure I can't go through it twice. Only now ..." he turned and walked away. "Now, I'm not so sure I shouldn't just ride out of here for good."

"Ride out? You can't do that, Johnny. You have to talk to him."

"Might be better this way. See, I just got a real good reminder of what my life really is. Being at Lancer the past six months, I let myself start thinking maybe I could walk away. Start a new life here. But, Bates just gave me a hard lesson."

Sam took a step toward him, desperate to find the right words. "Johnny, I don't pretend to understand the life of a gunfighter. But, Murdoch knows who you are and he still wants you back. I know that man and he's thought long and hard about this. We've talked about you many times over the years. When he found out you were Johnny Madrid, I could see how afraid he was for you. More than ever, he feared you'd die before he could find you."

Turning back, Johnny looked curiously at the doctor. "My guts are twistin just thinking about telling him the truth. I'm not afraid of any man but, I am afraid of hurting him."

Sam smiled warmly. "He'll get over any pain knowing his son is right there in front of him. Oh, he may be angry with you at first but, trust me, he'll be more relieved and grateful to have you back. I'm very sure about that. We don't know each other but, do you think you can trust me?"

Johnny thought about that for a beat. "You saved my life, Doc. I guess I can trust that you'll tell me the gospel truth."

*****

Scott had been upset when Murdoch told him Juan had returned to the ranch without so much as one beer or a 'see ya later'. He didn't understand it but Murdoch told him Juan was going to tell him whatever it was he was hiding. Still, he was perturbed. He thought they were friends but Juan had basically dismissed him out of hand.

As they left Stockton , Scott was still angry with the man and thought through what he would say when they saw each other again. It wasn't going to be pleasant, either.

The ride home went smoothly, the men would follow the next day. Murdoch figured they needed one more night to recover from all the celebrating. He really was getting too old for all this. Soon, he'd have to turn this part of ranching over to Scott. He felt confident doing that now that Scott had a drive under his belt. He would always have good men like Cipriano and Juan to help him.

They rode into the yard late the next evening and all was quiet. Murdoch decided to wait until the next day to seek out the young man. It was too late and he was too tired to get into anything tonight. The smells as he stepped into the house were inviting. Maria was cooking the traditional welcome home supper for them and Murdoch smiled through his exhaustion.

As they settled at the supper table, Scott's mood wasn't much better. Murdoch understood the reaction to a degree but, it seemed to him Scott's attachment to this young man was deeper than it should be after such a short time.

"I suppose he's out in the bunkhouse."

Murdoch raised a brow. "Yes, and it's too late to get into it tonight, son."

"Perhaps. Still, I don't understand why he just left like that."

"Something was on his mind and whatever it is, I have a feeling it's not going to be easy for him to talk about."

*****

Johnny stood at the front of the estancia the next morning, staring at the door and wondering how he was going to go about this. He'd waited until he was sure they'd eaten breakfast. No sense in being hungry, too. He'd been able to choke down some jerky with his coffee this morning so, maybe he wouldn't throw up. He smirked at that. Sucking in a deep breath, he knocked on the door.

Scott answered the door, a frown and some disappointment on his face. "May I help you?"

A quirk of the lips accompanied a soft, "hey, Boston ."

Scott stared hard at him then, his eyes widened. "I didn't even recognize you." He scrutinized the younger man for a long moment then, nodded his head. "I like it. Makes you look younger."

Johnny smiled at that. "Thanks, I guess. Good trip back?"

"Better than going." The frown hadn't dissipated. "Well, he's waiting for you. Come on in."

Johnny's shoulders tensed as he took off his hat and smoothed down his hair. He stepped over the threshold holding his breath and hoping his heart wouldn't jump right on out of his chest. As he walked into the great room, his eyes settled immediately on Murdoch who was standing with his back to them, in front of his desk.

"Scott, make sure you go over this contract for me. We need to send it back next week. Was that Juan?"

"Yes, Sir. He's right here and, looking rather dapper." Scott grinned at the young man but, he noticed Juan was a bit pale and was wringing the life out of his hat.

Murdoch turned with a smile on his face that faded as his jaw dropped open. He walked slowly up to the young man before him and stared openly into his eyes. "You look so different. I can see your face now." He frowned as he looked the man over. Something was ... what was it about this boy? He sighed, frustrated with himself. "Are you ready to talk to me, son?"

Johnny swallowed hard. For a moment there he thought his old man had recognized him. He reckoned that was too much to ask. Hell, he hadn't seen him since he was a little baby. "Yeah, I'm ready."

Murdoch stood there, waiting as Juan didn't seem to want to get started. Must be really bad, he thought. Then, the boy cocked his head to the side and looked up at him with those incredibly blue eyes. Those eyes seemed to hold a world of pain; a world of need. Those eyes. They were so familiar now that he could actually see them. The shape, the color. In fact, they reminded him very much of his own dear granny's ...

"My name is Johnny Madrid."

... eyes . Murdoch blinked and shook his head. "What did you say?"

Johnny sighed. Hell, it was hard enough saying it once. He was pretty sure he was gonna puke as it was.

"Johnny Madrid?" Scott grabbed his arm and jerked him around. He looked hard at the young man but, he never got to say anything else.

Johnny felt another hand on his other arm, not as rough and he turned to Murdoch who was nodding.

"Yes. By God, yes, you are."

*****

Johnny found himself in the arms of a bear who he wasn't so sure wasn't about to hug the very life from him. He couldn't stop his arms from encircling the man's waist and he closed his eyes against raw emotions surging to the fore. Far too soon, it seemed, he was released and he stood there not knowing what to do next.

Murdoch had a million questions running through his mind. He couldn't settle on any of them for a moment. Finally, he decided to go slowly. "Come in and tell me."

Johnny hesitated a fraction before following the man further into the room. He didn't look at Scott but, he could feel his brother wasn't following them. When he got near the hearth, he stopped and turned to find Scott standing right where he'd been and staring at him. "You comin?"

Scott blinked then made his feet move, still in shock at this ... he didn't know what the hell to think.

"We should all sit down before I fall down. Over here, son?" Murdoch motioned for Johnny to sit with him on the sofa.

Johnny wasn't so sure about that, being that close to the man but, he got the feeling he'd be safer than being closer to Scott. Boston seemed to be coming out of it and he was getting that pissed off look on his face. So, he joined Murdoch on the sofa as Scott took a chair across from them and leaned forward. His brother was scowling at him now, but Johnny had no words at the moment. He was more overwhelmed than he'd ever expected.

"Perhaps, we should start with why you've been lying all these months?"

He grit his teeth then, forced himself to relax. Scott had every right to be angry, to feel betrayed, if he was reading that look in his brother's eyes right. "Well, when I first came here, my idea was to get a look at Murdoch, find out what kind of man he is then, kill him."

Scott looked over at his father, the shock easily seen on the rancher's face. "Why?"

Johnny lowered his head for a beat then crossed his arms over his chest. "I was told he threw us out. Didn't want me."

"That is not true!" Murdoch bellowed, leaning forward and locking onto his younger son's eyes when Johnny jerked his head up in reaction.

Softly, Johnny said, "I know that now but, I didn't then. That's what I believed all my life. When I got here, well, it wasn't easy. The hands are pretty close-mouthed. I wasn't getting anywhere. Then, I found out about Scott and," he paused and shook his head, "that was a shock, alright." He looked over in time to see a small smile fly across Scott's face. "Anyway, Cipriano assigned me to fixing up his room. That's when I got the idea to poke around some."

He dipped his eyes then looked at his father. "I'm sorry but, I kind of broke into your desk and found the Pinkerton reports. I didn't get to read much of mine but, it was enough to know that you knew exactly who I was. I almost ..."

Murdoch leaned toward him, putting a hand on his knee. "Almost what?"

"Left. I figured that was it, ya know? You knew I was a gunfighter. Why would you want me around? But, it didn't make sense because the last few pages of the report were pretty recent. I knew you'd been looking for me. I just didn't know why. Then, Scott came and I kind of eavesdropped on your conversation." Damn, it was hard confessing your sins !, he thought. "I heard you talking about only being able to offer him a third and, I got it. Still, I figured maybe you were loco or something."

Murdoch's lips twitched. "Why is it loco? You're my son. This ranch is yours as much as it's mine or Scott's."

"Because of who I am, Murdoch. I thought maybe, it would be okay. I haven't been seen for months and, I thought things would just settle; people would forget all about me. But, that was stupid."

Scott leaned back in his chair and frowned. "It makes sense to me."

"Yeah, well, you missed all the fun, Boston . When I got back, I went to Morro Coyo to get myself cleaned up. I wasn't there an hour before some idiot called me out." He felt a hand clamp down on his arm and turned to his father.

"You were in a gunfight? Are you alright?"

Johnny smiled warmly. "Yeah, I'm fine. He was someone I knew a while back. He hated my guts. After the fight, the doc showed up and dragged me to his place. Told me I'd be wrong to leave. He said you'd want me even with all that hanging over my head."

"He was right and, I'll remember to thank him."

Johnny shook his head. "You might want to think about that. I've been out of the game at least six months and all it took was one trip to town to bring it all right back. What if Scott's with me next time? Or you? I can't let either of you get killed because of me."

"I don't really know anything about gunfighters but, I'm willing to take the chance," Scott said.

"As am I," Murdoch added with resolve. "Son, one gunfight, one moment of bad luck doesn't erase everything else. Like you said, you've been out of it for a long time. And, this man hated you. I mean, how many enemies could you possibly have?"

Johnny raised a brow at his father as he considered whether he should answer that question.

Scott was watching his face and was a little surprised at the pause. "And of those men, how many are likely to come to this area? They won't be looking for Johnny Lancer."

Johnny looked over at his brother and shrugged. "It's not like anyone would keep it a secret. I don't intend to. I'm done hiding out. Look, I just want you to be sure about this. I want you to know what you could be letting yourself in for, that's all. If someone comes looking for me, I don't want either of you getting in the middle of it." He sucked in a breath. "That is, if you want me to stay."

"Of course, I want you to stay, son. It's what I've always wanted. Both my boys home."

*****

Scott smiled and nodded his agreement then, he turned thoughtful. "Who is Juan Vega?"

Johnny shrugged. "No one. I mean, I didn't steal the name. I just made it up."

"How much was made up and how much was Johnny Lancer?"

They locked eyes as Johnny replied. "Everything I said to you was me, Scott. All me. The only thing I lied about was the name."

"So, the growing up on the border, the remark about your education, it was all true?"

"That's right."

Scott relaxed and smiled a little. "Well, then I don't have to start from scratch. I mean, I do know something about you."

He didn't smile back. Instead, he frowned. "Very little."

"It's a start."

Murdoch cleared his throat and stood up, walking over near the cold hearth. Both young men followed his short journey with their eyes. "I just want to make one thing clear. I don't like being lied to. I understand why you did this, Johnny. I understand you believed some things that aren't true but, if you'd just come to me, we could have avoided all of this."

Johnny considered that. "Maybe. You're right, I shouldn't have lied to you and I shouldn't have kept it up so long. It just seemed like every time I started to tell you or even thought about it, something would happen. This is the busiest damned place I've ever seen. But, Murdoch, I'm not so sure just coming to you would've worked. See, I was pretty mad at you. In fact, I hated your guts. It took me working with the hands who respect you and watching the way you are, seeing who you are to get that maybe things weren't like I'd believed."

Scott shook his head. "I'm afraid I'm not fond of subterfuge, either, brother. I think you do yourself a disservice. You aren't so reckless as to walk in here and just shoot Murdoch. I don't believe that for a minute. You would've wanted to hear it from his own mouth, at the very least."

A grin came to Johnny's face as he looked at his brother. He said nothing for a moment then, "huh?"

Scott rolled his eyes. "You know exactly what I said."

"Sometimes, Boston , I really don't know what the hell you're talking about."

Murdoch chuckled at that then retook his seat. "You tend to be ... scholarly."

Perturbed, Scott snipped, "well, excuse me for using the English language appropriately."

"Don't get your back up, son. It's just that some of that language you use ... well, most people here don't understand. Education isn't as important out here as it is in the east. However, I am a great believer in it, myself. In Scotland , education is encouraged and sought."

"That where you're from?"

Murdoch looked at Johnny, surprised by the question until he realized, maybe more painfully clearly than before, his sons knew nothing about him. "Yes, Inverness . That's a port city."

Johnny leaned his elbow on the arm rest and cradled his cheek in his hand as he watched his father. "Where is that exactly?"

"It's in Europe . I'll show it to you on a map."

"Sounds like it's far away."

"Yes, very far," Murdoch replied with a hint of sadness.

"So, why'd you come here, anyway?"

A small smile lifted the man's lips. "I wanted a new life. Things were tough for my family. I had a dream of coming to this new world and making my mark."

"Well, you certainly have." Scott smiled a little, as intrigued as his brother though he was in wonder at the expression on Johnny's face. It was as if his brother were enraptured with this information. Like he was a starving man, feeding on his heritage and this ... closeness of family.

Murdoch smiled softly. "Thank you, son." He turned to his younger boy then. "Why don't you get your gear from the bunkhouse and I'll show you to your room?"

"I suppose I'd better let Maria know what's going on," Scott said as he came to his feet.

Johnny groaned at that thought then stood as well. "She's probably gonna want my head."

Murdoch put a hand on his shoulder. "This evening, we all need to talk."

*****

Johnny took the seat at the table to his father's left which the man had indicated and felt that flipping in his stomach again.

"Did you get settled alright in your room, son?"

Johnny shrugged and smiled. "Sure, it doesn't take long to unpack a saddlebag."

Murdoch didn't find the humor in that but, he managed to keep any sympathy off his face. "Maybe, you and Scott could go to town soon. You both probably need some more good work clothes."

Scott nodded. "I know I do. I didn't get enough the first time. I had no idea I'd go through them so quickly."

Johnny grinned mischieviously. "That'll ease up, Boston . Now that you know more what you're doing, you won't be so hard on your clothes."

Maria walked out with the food and scowled ferociously at him. She sat the plates down and walked over to stand on Johnny's right, one hand on her hip, the other with a wagging finger pointed at him. "No mas de insentatez de usted, hombre joven. Comprende?"

Johnny dipped his head. "Si, Senora. Promesa."

"Bueno. Now eat," she ordered and returned to her kitchen.

"What did she say?" Scott asked.

"She told him there'd be no more foolishness from him," Murdoch chuckled.

A small smirk came to Johnny's face. "I think I got off easy. I'm surprised she didn't wallop me with a spoon or somethin."

"So am I," Murdoch agreed. He grew serious as he looked at each of his sons then raised his glass. "Gentlemen, I'd like to propose a toast."

The brothers looked at each other then picked up their own glasses.

"To Scott and Johnny. May we grow and prosper as a family."

Both brothers drank to that then they all settled in to the meal. There wasn't much talk during supper and Johnny, for one, was grateful. It was nice to just have a meal without a bunch of men jawin all around him. The bunkhouse was loud sometimes and Johnny liked his quiet.

*****

"Why don't we go to the living room," Murdoch suggested once he was sure they'd both had their fill.

Now, Johnny's nerves began to sing. Now, he suspected would be 'family time'. What that was, he hadn't a clue. He wanted this too much, he knew. And any time he wanted something badly, it was always just out of his reach.

Murdoch poured two brandies then turned to Johnny. "Do you like Brandy, son?"

Johnny shrugged. "Never had any."

Murdoch poured a third glass and handed two off. "Well, if you don't like it, there's whiskey and tequila."

"Just a minute. Is he old enough to drink?" Scott asked, a gleam in his eyes.

Johnny snorted. "Since before you were out of short pants, brother," he replied and took a drink. He looked at them both as he swallowed and realized he'd made a mistake. Feeling like the center of attention even though neither would look at him, he thought he might just blush. "Not bad," he said and sat the glass down. Actually, he didn't care too much for it but he'd already shot off his big mouth enough. He wandered over to the fireplace and looked up and the L. "Nice work."

"It was done by a man who worked for me when I first bought the place. He was very talented. He died shortly after finishing it," Murdoch imparted.

"What happened to him?" Johnny asked.

"Consumption."

Silence fell over the room after that short exchange. All three felt ill at ease.

*****

"Well, we are a chatty bunch," Scott spoke, trying to break the tension.

Johnny smiled at him and Murdoch made no comment for a moment.

"There is something I want to discuss with you both. Now that we're all together, I'd like to make it legal."

Johnny cringed and looked at him like he was a crazy man. "What's that mean?"

Murdoch looked over at him and smiled. "I offered Scott one third of Lancer when he arrived. We never did get around to signing a partnership agreement. Providence , I suppose. Now, I'd like us to do that. One third to each of us only, I call the tune. Agreed?"

Scott nodded and raised his glass but his smile fell when he looked at his brother.

"What about you, boy?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny raised a brow at the term but decided not to fight that battle at the moment. "What exactly does 'calling the tune' mean? Are we gonna be cowboys, or do we have a say?"

"Of course, you have a say. But, I get the final vote," Murdoch stated firmly.

Johnny considered this for a few seconds then smiled a little. "Okay."

Murdoch nodded, fighting down a huge smile. "Good! We'll ride into town tomorrow, then."

At that moment, they heard several horses riding in and Johnny tensed. "Guess the men are back. How do you want to handle this?"

"Well, they're going to wonder where you are. I'll go talk to them once they've had a chance to settle," Murdoch replied.

"Perhaps you should talk to Cipriano first," Scott suggested. He knew he didn't want to be in the room for this.

Cocking a brow, Murdoch grinned a little. "Maybe, Johnny should do that."

The younger man shook his head. "Uh, no, that's okay. I mean, you're the Patron and all. You should be the one to ..." he stopped, knowing by the looks on their faces they weren't buying this at all. "Fine!"

He strode out the front door determinedly then, stopped once the door closed. Oh, boy! That old man is gonna take my head off! Well, might as well get it over with. Probably be worse than telling Murdoch and Scott. He took two steps into the yard then stopped when he saw Cipriano walking toward him.

*****

"Hola, Cipriano! Good trip back?" Johnny smiled as charmingly as he could manage but, the older man was scowling at him.

"It was a trip like any other, jefe."

Johnny stared at him for a beat then put his hands on his hips. "How'd you know?"

"We stopped in Morro Coyo. All anyone could talk of was the gunfight and Johnny Madrid. Then, I saw el doctoro and he told me it was you. The men do not know that part but, it will not be difficult to figure out. They all know Johnny Madrid and Johnny Lancer are one in the same." Cipriano's anger abated as sadness overtook him. "Why, nino? Why did you do this thing?"

Lowering his eyes and feeling about ten years old, Johnny scuffed at the dirt with his boot. "Lo siento, Cipriano. It's a long story. Will you listen to it?" He raised his eyes to the man.

Cipriano nodded and waved his arm out in the direction of the oak tree where Johnny had been shot not so long ago.

He settled on the bench and looked over at the tree trunk, the browned stain evidence of the blood he'd spilled for this ranch and this family. It gave him an odd sense of comfort and pride to see it. He blinked and looked at Cipriano standing over him. "You've been here a long time. Did you know my mother?"

Cipriano let out a heavy breath and sat next to him. "Si, I remember her. I did not know her well. I remember you, too, nino ."

Johnny watched curiously as the man smiled in remembrance. Then, he told Cipriano his long and sorry tale. When he'd finished, he looked closely at the man, trying to gauge his reaction.

Cipriano sat still for long moments then, he nodded and looked at Johnny, a soft expression in his eyes. "Very well, nino. I am sure there will be no more deceptions from you and no more foolishness." He gave Johnny a look that told the younger man his words were an order, not wishful thinking. "I will tell the men. I will not tell so much to them as you have confided in me but, I will make sure they understand."

Johnny nodded, having the grace to look remorseful. "Murdoch was going to talk to them."

"I will spare the Patron this. He is not a man who talks openly of his private affairs."

He laughed at that. "Yeah, I figured that out. Thanks for understanding, Cipriano. I don't think I could take you being mad at me. I respect you a great deal. I hope you know that."

Cipriano stood and looked down at him, laying a gentle hand on Johnny's shoulder. "This I do know, nino." He paused as he studied Johnny's face then, smiled a little. "I am not so sure I like this look but, I can now at least see your face. Now, go back to your familia, eh? Let them love you as you deserve and you them, si?"

Johnny smiled softly. "Si, gracias, amigo."

*****

Johnny stayed where he was for a while, resting his head against the tree with his eyes closed. Why was he so surprised at their acceptance? Hadn't he found out everything he needed to realize Murdoch did want him? That these people would accept him? With a sigh and a grunt, he stood and walked over to the corrals. Barranca came up to him and he smiled, scratching the palomino behind the ear then stroking his mane.

"Looks like we found ourselves a home, amigo. Finally." He laid his forearm across the top rail and rested his chin on it, looking out over the land. His land. Their land. "Home." The word stuck in his throat and he closed his eyes, willing the emotion away. Later, when he was properly alone, he might let this out once and for all. In fact, he thought he should just so he could let go of all the misery and loneliness at last.

His shoulders bunched as he heard the footsteps closing in on him. He didn't move, couldn't quite trust himself just yet. He felt a hand on his back and relaxed.

"How does it look?"

He smiled a little and spoke softly. "It's the most beautiful place I've ever seen."

Murdoch smiled as he leaned against the fence, facing his son. "Cipriano?"

"Already knew. Seems they went to town first and heard all about the excitement. Doc told Cipriano about me. He said he'd tell the men, explain it to them so they won't hate me." He turned to face his father. "So you wouldn't have to."

"He's a good man and a good friend."

Johnny nodded then looked down. "He said he remembers me from before. It's strange knowing you have a past other people remember but, you don't." He looked up then, waiting for ... something though, he didn't know what.

Murdoch was watching him closely and didn't say anything for a while. "If you want to know about that time, I'd be glad to tell you. It was probably the happiest time of my life even if it was bittersweet."

Johnny cocked his head aside. "Because Scott wasn't here."

"Yes. I wanted you two to grow up together. I had planned on going to get him but ... well, it didn't work out."

"Because she left with me." Johnny turned back to his previous position, anger for his mother seething within. He would never understand why she'd done this.

Murdoch watched the frown deepen on his boy's face. "Do you hate her?"

He closed his eyes briefly. "I don't want to. I want to understand. I mean, even if you two couldn't make it work, she didn't have to lie to me. She didn't have to make me hate you all my life." Johnny turned to him, his eyes smoldering. "I hated you all my life! I wanted to kill you. What if I had? What if I'd walked into that house and put a bullet in your heart? For a lie!"

Murdoch grabbed him by the shoulders and felt the trembling and the heat. He pulled Johnny close to him, holding him tightly. "You didn't. You wanted to be fair, give me a chance and I'm so grateful for that. Johnny, we can't spend our lives with what-if's. It does no good, son. Don't you see? All we can do is go forward from here. Learn from our mistakes and keep going, doing the best we can with and for each other."

Johnny had brought his hands up, bunching his father's shirt in his fists. He pressed against the man's chest and backed up a little. "I'm sorry. Sometimes, it just ... it all gets too much and I can't stop it." He looked up at his father. "I just want it to stop."

The need in those eyes was breathtakingly painful to see. His throat closed some and Murdoch swallowed hard. "It will, my boy. We'll make it stop, I swear."

*****

Johnny chewed his stampede string as first Scott, then Murdoch signed their names to the partnership agreement. He let the string fall from his mouth as the lawyer turned to him, extending the pen for him to take. He grabbed it then looked at Scott who was wearing a silly grin. Johnny almost made a face at him but, instead, he just winked. Then, he looked at his father and saw so much in that one look that he had to drop his eyes. Dios! This man was going to kill him. He could say more without opening his mouth than anyone Johnny had ever met.

He took a deep breath and dipped the pen in the inkwell then, hesitated for a moment when he saw his name printed on the paper. John Lancer. He had to make a thoughtful effort to sign his proper name for the first time in his life. His hand flowed steadily through the signing of his first name. Then he bit his lip as he made the 'L' so foreign to him. He pushed through and finished then, set the pen back in its holder on the desk and looked at his father.

Murdoch had a satisfied look on his face and Johnny got the strange feeling he was a rabbit that just got snared. Smiling at his crazy thoughts, he looked at Scott and shrugged. The look he received told him his brother was thinking similar thoughts and, in that moment, Johnny knew that no matter what happened from this day on, he was going to be just fine with these men.

 

~end~
July 2009

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