The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Pestilence

 

 

 

The office door opened and Val Crawford looked up expectantly.

"Well?"

"He's in the back," Val answered.

"What's the charge?"

The grizzled sheriff chewed the inside of his cheek for a second then sucked in a breath. "Murder."

"What!"

"You heard me. Look, I'm sorry but I can't ignore the evidence."

Johnny stared in shock at his friend. Slowly, he walked to the desk and sat down. "What evidence? And who was he supposed to have killed?"

Val sat back and rubbed his face. "Rob Hunter."

"Rob? Well, that's crazy. They're friends!"

"I know that, Johnny."

Settling himself, he lowered his voice. "Just tell me what happened."

"I heard a gunshot and took off to find where it come from. Someone pointed me to the newspaper office. I walked in and he was kneeling over Hunter with a gun in his hand. Hunter was dead on the floor. I helped him up and saw the bruise startin on his forehead. Somebody walloped 'im. I went to get the doc but he wasn't there. He ain't said a word, Johnny. Not one word! I asked 'im what happened but he just clammed up on me."

"Well, that doesn't make any sense," Johnny replied, a frown creasing his forehead. "Can I see him?"

"Sure. Just leave your gun," Val stood and grabbed the cell door keys. Unlocking the door, he stepped aside then closed it as Johnny went through.

He walked up to the cell, spurs jingling loudly in the small space, and took hold of one of the bars. He stared at the man lying on the cot for a long moment.

"You gonna ignore me?" he asked softly.

"No."

"Are you okay? Val said you got hit on the head."

"I'm fine."

"What happened, Murdoch?"

The rancher swung his legs over the side of the cot and stood, approaching his son. "Didn't Val tell you?"

"He told me what he knows which ain't much. Suppose you tell me what really happened."

Murdoch shrugged. "Rob's dead."

"Who killed him?"

Murdoch turned his back and took a few steps.

"Murdoch?"

"Yes?"

"Who killed Rob?"

"I don't know."

Johnny stared at his back for a few seconds. "Look at me."

"I said look at me!" he repeated when he got no response.

Murdoch whirled around then. "Watch your tone, boy."

"Tell me again," Johnny said, ignoring the threat. "Tell me who killed Rob."

"I said I don't know," Murdoch yelled.

Johnny's shoulders dropped and he look at his father incredulously. "Well, I never thought I'd see the day when you would lie to my face."

"Go home, Johnny," Murdoch said softly, dropping his eyes from his son's stare.

"And do what? Forget you're in jail charged with murder? They'll hang you, Murdoch! Now, talk to me!"

"There's nothing to say!"

"What are you hiding?" Johnny asked, realizing that there was more going on here.

"I'm not hiding anything," he disclaimed unconvincingly.

Johnny shook his head. "How do you expect me to help you if you won't be straight with me?"

"I didn't ask for your help!" he growled.

"Fine! Sit here and rot then!" he shouted and turned on his heel. He made it to the door before stopping with his hand on the knob. "I'll get you a lawyer," he added before walking out.

*****

"Did he tell ya anything?" Val asked.

"He won't talk to me, Val. He's hiding something or ..... someone maybe. I don't know. It doesn't make any sense!" he slapped his hat against his thigh in frustration.

Val watched his friend's turmoil. "Johnny, I got no choice."

He sighed loudly. "I know that, Val. I'll stay in town tonight and get him a lawyer in the morning. Maybe after a night in jail, he'll feel more like talkin."

"If it helps any, I don't believe he did it, either," the lawman shrugged.

Johnny looked up and smiled at the sheriff. "It helps, Val. Guess I should wire Scott. Though, I don't know what he could do."

"He still in San Francisco?"

"Yeah," Johnny sighed.

"Maybe ya should wait a few days. Might be this'll all be settled without havin ta worry 'im."

"Yeah, maybe so. Well, goodnight."

"Nite, Johnny." Val sat back down and heaved a sigh. He just couldn't understand what Murdoch thought he was doing. He knew the man could no more shoot Hunter down in cold blood than .... well, no more than he himself could have.

Johnny stood out on the boardwalk and watched the town start closing up for the night. He thought to stable Barranca then changed his mind. Turning to his right, he headed toward the Green River Daily News office.

It was twilight, the last rays of the sun melting into the new night. He struck a match as he entered the building and found a lamp. Johnny held the flame high and looked around the interior. He could see the blood still wet and sticky on the floor. He could even smell the faint remnants of gunpowder.

Stepping widely over the stain, he walked over to Hunter's desk and flipped through the papers there. Just the usual stuff. Nothing jumped out at him. The question foremost in his mind was why anyone would want to kill Rob Hunter.

He was a genuinely likeable man. Always with a smile and a pleasant word. He ran a well-organized and responsible newspaper. Never bought into the gossip and rumors that flourished in small towns. Johnny had enjoyed many conversations at the Lancer supper table with the man. Sadness crept in on him as the realization struck home. His friend was dead.

The shock of Murdoch's arrest and the charge itself had numbed him to all else until now. Standing there, staring at Rob's blood, he felt the loss deeply.

Johnny sat the lamp on the desk and fell into the chair, burying his face in his hands.

"Johnny?"

His head snapped up and he looked at her through blurred vision. Her blonde hair was falling about her face. The usually coifed mane in total disarray. Johnny blinked and rubbed his eyes before standing.

"Hi, Sally," he greeted and walked over to her, careful to step over the blood. "I'm so sorry," he offered.

Her green eyes were red-rimmed and puffy, tears still brimming. "Thank you."

"How can I help?"

She looked up at him and shook her head slowly. "Tell me why," she whispered.

Johnny swallowed hard. "I don't know."

She frowned in confusion. "You haven't talked to Murdoch yet?"

Johnny's face registered his surprise. "Yes, I talked to him."

"So, he wouldn't tell you."

"Sally, Murdoch didn't do this," he stated firmly.

"Then why is he in jail for killing my husband?" she asked angrily.

"I don't know. He was here when Val arrived. He won't talk to me. But, he couldn't have, Sally. You have to know that," he pleaded.

"I didn't think so but ....."

"What?"

"He was so angry."

Johnny stared at her, totally thrown. "What are you talking about?"

She looked around the room, turning slightly to her right to take it in. Her eyes carefully avoided the stain. "When he came here today, I was here. He was so angry. I don't know why. Rob asked me to leave so they could talk."

"Did he say anything while you were here?" Johnny asked, watching her closely.

"Not one word. Not even hello. He just ..... glared. Rob seemed to know what was going on though."

Johnny was dumbstruck. His mind would not register what she was saying to be true. He shook his head, dismissing the doubts. "I don't know what happened but I intend to find out. I can guarantee you one thing. Murdoch didn't do this." His tone was one of conviction, though his heart felt like a boulder.

He walked Sally home then tended to his horse before going to the hotel.

******

He hadn't slept well though he knew he wouldn't. Johnny stepped out of the hotel into the bright sunshine of the morning and looked around. 'Well, no sense puttin it off,' he thought as he started across the street. He could feel too many sets of eyes on his back. Surely no one believed Murdoch did this!

He walked into the building and approached the door, knocking twice.

"Johnny! Good morning," Henry Richards was obviously surprised.

"Mornin, Mr. Richards. Do you have a minute?"

"Of course. Come in and have a seat."

Once settled, Johnny came right to the point. "Well, I guess you know why I'm here. Murdoch needs a lawyer."

Richards nodded and dropped his eyes. "Yes, I would imagine he does. Has he told you anything?"

"Nothin. He won't talk about it. I don't know what's the matter with him!"

"Johnny, I .... I'm afraid I can't help you. I'm not a criminal attorney. I handle business contracts and divorces mostly. I wouldn't be the right choice for this situation."

Johnny dropped his head and sighed. "Do you have any suggestions?"

"Tom Markum is pretty good."

"Markum, huh? I don't think so," Johnny grinned slightly. "Maybe Jarrod Barkley," he said more to himself.

"That's an excellent idea. He's one of the best in the state," Henry agreed.

"Well, thanks for your time," Johnny said as he stood and extended a hand.

Accepting the handshake, Henry mused aloud, "it doesn't make sense, does it? I mean, why won't Murdoch tell you what happened?"

"I don't know but I'm gonna find out."

Back outside, Johnny went to the telegraph office.   He sent a wire to Jarrod and considered sending one to Scott. He decided against it for now. His brother had enough on his plate. Hopefully, Val was right and this would all get settled soon anyway. He decided to have another go at his mule-headed father instead.

******

Val was just coming from the cell area with a breakfast tray that had hardly been touched.

"Said he wasn't very hungry," the sheriff shrugged. "I'll be back in a minute," he said and headed out to return the tray to the hotel restaurant.

Johnny laid his gun on the desk and went in the back room. Murdoch was lying on the cot, hands behind his back, feet hanging over the end of the too-short cot.

"Sleep well?" Johnny cracked.

"Not really," came the flat reply.

"I sent a wire to Jarrod Barkley."

Murdoch sat up and glared at him. "Why?"

"Because you need a lawyer, Murdoch! Henry Richards said he didn't want to try it. The only other choice was Markum. You want him?"

"No, I do not!"

"Alright!" Johnny closed his eyes and took a calming breath. "Why are you makin this so hard?"

Murdoch's face softened for an instant before turning back to granite. "Johnny, I want you to go home and take care of the ranch. Stay out of this."

He stared into his father's eyes for what seemed an eternity before speaking in a whisper. "No."

"Look, I'm telling you to leave it alone!" Murdoch shouted.

"I'll leave it alone when you tell me what happened! I know you didn't kill Rob. Who are you protecting, Murdoch?"

The man turned his back and walked to the other side of the cell.

"I knew it. I sure hope they're worth hangin over!" he declared, gripping the bars tightly.

Murdoch turned back and walked up to the bars, leaning in as close as he could. "Listen to me carefully. I am not protecting anyone. Now, go home!"

"What are you telling me?" Johnny asked, his voice forcing its way through the lump in his throat, his hands falling to his sides.

"Just what I've said."

Johnny shook his head slowly. "I don't understand you. Why won't you let me help you?"

"I don't need your help. Get out of here!" he growled and pushed at Johnny through the bars.

He stumbled back, caught offguard by the sudden move. Johnny stared at his father and thought he didn't know who this man was. He backed out of the room, grabbed his gun and walked out.

*******

Johnny stormed to the livery and saddled Barranca quickly, galloping out of town as fast as he could go. He didn't stop until he reached the ranch. Barranca was starting to lather and he immediately regretted taking his anger and frustration out on the horse. He took him into the barn and gave him a good rubdown and an extra measure of oats before heading inside.

Teresa and Jelly sat in the living room waiting.

"Well, where is he?" Jelly asked immediately.

"In jail."

"Jail? But, why?" Teresa wanted to know.

"Why? Because he's a stubborn ...... he doesn't want my help, Teresa," Johnny toned down.

"What'ya mean he don't want your help?"

"Just what I said, Jelly. He won't tell me what happened. He told me to come home and stay out of it."

"You ain't gonna...."

"No, I ain't gonna," Johnny stopped him. "I sent a wire to Jarrod Barkley. I just needed to cool off before goin back." He paced the floor, tapping his fingers on his holster.

"Ya didn't tell us what he's in jail for," Jelly reminded him.

Johnny sighed and sat down then told all he knew, which wasn't much. Teresa began crying and Jelly consoled the girl. He ranted and raved about the ridiculous situation and how any fool would know Murdoch couldn't do such a thing. Especially to a good friend like Rob.

Johnny let him go on. He didn't have the heart to stop the old man, nor the energy.

"Well, I hope you're plannin on goin back. It don't matter if he wants your help. Ya gotta give it."

"I know that Jelly and I am going back. But, not right now. I'm tired and I'm mad and feelin pretty useless. If you don't mind, I'd like to lay down for a while." He headed upstairs, his shoulders slouched.

"Why is Murdoch acting this way, Jelly?"

"I don't know, honey. Johnny'll figure it out."

"Well, I'm going to at least visit him. Maybe I can get him to open up."

*****

Teresa baked an apple pie and was ready to leave when Johnny came down for breakfast the next morning. He wasn't sure it was a good idea. Then again, no one could butter the old man up like her.

They didn't talk much on the way. Even Jelly was fairly quiet for a change.

Val took to his feet when Teresa walked in. His hand went to tip his hat before he realized he wasn't wearing one. "Mornin, Miss Teresa."

"Good morning, Sheriff. I brought Murdoch a pie. Is that all right?" she asked sweetly.

"Oh, sure thing. I'll just get the door for ya," he smiled and stumbled around the desk.

Jelly rolled his eyes and Johnny hid a smile at Val's sudden shyness.

"Take her home!" came the bellow before they even managed to get to his cell.

"Murdoch, I brought you a pie," she said, confused by his abruptness.

"Johnny, get her out of here. This is no place for Teresa," he ordered, ignoring the girl.

Johnny clenched his jaw and steadied himself. "Why don't you two wait outside?"

"But..."

"Come on, Teresa, honey. Looks like we ain't wanted round here," Jelly huffed and took the girl's arm.

She handed the pie to Johnny and kept her head down. He knew it was so he wouldn't see the tears. He had reached the end of any patience he'd had left.

"Are you happy now? You made her cry!"

"You shouldn't have brought her here," Murdoch growled.

"She wanted to see you. Did you think she wouldn't? What's the matter with you?" Johnny shouted.

"I told you to go home. Was that not clear enough for you?"

Johnny stepped up to the bars. His face showed no expression, his eyes like glaciers. "Let me tell you somethin, old man. As long as you're in here, you don't give the orders. The only tune you're callin is for the hangman's noose!" he hissed.

Murdoch turned red, the vein in his neck jutting out. "I'm still your father, Johnny."

"Oh, really? From where I'm standin, you're just a murderer. That's what you want me to believe, isn't it?"

"Don't push me, boy," he ground out.

"Or what? What are you gonna do from that cell, Murdoch? Until you can tell me the truth, I'm not gonna listen to anything you have to say. Until you can be honest with me again ...... " he shook his head, his voice growing husky. "Dammit! Just tell me how to help you!"

Murdoch saw how upset he was becoming. The telltale signs were there. The faster breathing, the few steps he'd backed away without even realizing it, the look of betrayal and hurt in his eyes. He wanted so much to reach out to his son.

"You can help me by running the ranch. Keeping the family together and safe. And staying away from here," he spoke quietly.

Johnny pulled his shoulders back, took in a breath and locked onto his father's eyes. "Do you want Scott?"

Murdoch dropped his head and closed his eyes briefly before looking back. "No, son."

He turned to go, then stopped as he realized he still held the pie. Snorting lightly, he sat it on the bench and started to leave.  

"Johnny, remember what I said. Keep the family together and safe," Murdoch called, emphasizing the last word.

He nodded and left without another a word.

"That sounded delightful," Val said sarcastically.

Johnny shot him a look then turned to his family. "Let's go home."

"Johnny, no. We gotta help 'im."

"He don't want our help, Jelly! All he wants is for me to ......" he stopped there, realization striking hard. He looked back at them. "Take Teresa home, Jelly. I'll let you know if I need anything."

"What just happened?" the older man asked.

"Something Murdoch said. Never mind, just take Teresa home."

He grabbed Jelly's arm after Teresa was out the door. "Jelly, put double guards on the house and outbuildings."

"For how long?"

"Until I say different."

"Johnny, what's goin on?"

"I don't know yet. But, I have an idea of why Murdoch's acting this way. Go on, I'll explain it when I know more."

Jelly huffed on out the door, mumbling to himself.

"Well?" Val asked.

Johnny turned to look at him. "I think someone is threatening Murdoch to keep quiet. Has he talked to anyone else?"

"Nope. No one's been to see him but you, Jelly and Teresa."

*****

Johnny walked around the outside of the jail and stood near the small cell window. He could see footprints in the dirt. They looked fairly fresh. No more than two days old. He nodded in satisfaction. Now, all he had to figure out was who and why.

Since Rob was a newsman, it stood to reason he may have had some information someone didn't want him to have. But that didn't explain why Murdoch went to see him that day in such a mood. Could have been part of the set up, though. Seemed a lot of trouble to go through. He wondered just exactly who was being set up here.

Val said Murdoch had his gun drawn. That meant someone else was there. Obviously, since Murdoch didn't kill Rob. But, what had stopped Murdoch from shooting or disarming the killer? Was he being threatened before Rob's death? His anger started to rise and he decided there was only one place to start. He walked back around the building and went inside.

Not bothering with the customary rules of the jail, he strode into the back room.

"Give me a name. One name. That's all I need."

Murdoch stared at him.

"You gonna leave us hanging out here? Not knowing what we're up against?" Johnny asked.

Murdoch chewed his lip for a second. "Monroe."

Johnny nodded. He didn't know the name but that didn't matter. He soon would, he was sure. He was gone in a flash.

"Monroe? Never heard the name. Who is he?" Val asked.

"Someone who's threatening Lancer. Or, at least Murdoch. Has to be who killed Hunter, too. Are there any strangers in town?" Johnny asked, his mind working furiously.

"Yeah, two fellas came in on the stage last week. Both are stayin at the hotel but I don't know if they came together. Seen 'em both around but never at the same time," the sheriff reported.

Johnny nodded his head and started for the door.

"Hang on a minute. You're gonna need some help. Besides, it's my job."

"Wasn't plannin on leaving you out, Val. I'll let you know what I find out."

*****

Johnny checked back into the hotel and hung around the desk chatting with the clerk. Finally, the man left for a few minutes and Johnny scanned the register. Harvey Monroe and Ellis Stone. Neither name meant a thing to him. He decided to hang out in the bar and wait. Sooner or later they had to show themselves. And, if they were any kind of normal, they'd show for a drink.

He settled himself at the end of the bar so he faced the door. Leaning against the polished wood, he sipped a beer, talked to the bartender and waited.

Almost two hours passed when a stranger entered and walked up near him. He ordered whiskey and Johnny watched his every move. He kept up the chat with the barkeep as he studied the man. There was nothing spectacular about him. In fact, he looked like a banker. Medium height and build, sandy hair and a moustache. Still, that didn't mean anything, either.

He spoke to no one and didn't seem to pay any mind to those around him. He drank his whiskey, then another and left after that. Johnny could see no signs of murder or blackmail. He almost laughed out loud. Wasn't like the man would wear a sign announcing it. He casually asked the bartender who the man was. Stone. Well, maybe he was just a traveler and it was a coincidence that he was on the same stage as Monroe.

Johnny spent a few more hours in the bar without any luck. Having taken refuge at a table in the dark corner, he weighed his options. He could go to Monroe's room and try the direct approach. But, he really wanted to get a look at the man first. Damn Murdoch's stubborn hide!

This man was threatening his family and had murdered a good friend. But, instead of pointing the finger, Murdoch was taking the rap. Why? That was the biggest question. What could Monroe possibly have on him?

He was about to leave when his eyes fell on a familiar figure. The silhouette itself was enough. There was only one man who could cast that shadow. Johnny felt his soul freeze over. Memories washed over him like a tidal wave and he found he couldn't breathe very well.

He didn't move a muscle, just watched the figure as it limped to the bar. A limp courtesy of a bullet from Johnny Madrid. It was crystal clear now. Murdoch was protecting him. He sighed softly, wondering what tale had been spun for his father's benefit. The truth would have been plenty.

He had an overwhelming urge to shoot this man down where he stood. End it once and for all. But he held himself in check and simply watched. He knew very well the man knew he was there.

He had not changed. Still well-dressed. Still putting on airs. Still exuding evil. Tall with dark hair and a craggly face. Hooded eyes watched everywhere at once. The scar down his left cheek prominent. Dressed completely in black as always. He really did think of himself as the devil incarnate. Johnny remembered the first time he'd seen him. He did strike an imposing figure and most men got out of his way. But not a brash seventeen-year-old with a sharp tongue and no fear of dying. No, not him.

At that moment, the man simply turned and faced him straight on, tipping his glass in a toast. An evil grin slid on his face and his black eyes danced with amusement.

Johnny nodded once and held his stare. He watched as the man limped toward him then hovered above him.

"Hello, Madrid."

"Hello."

"May I join you?"

"I see your manners have improved. You actually asked," Johnny replied, pushing a chair out with his foot. He sat back, arms dangling off his chair and recrossed that foot over his knee.

Monroe sat down with a slight laugh. "How have you been, Johnny?"

"Better before I saw you," he smirked.

He laughed again. "Still with that mouth, I see. Some things never change."

"That's the truth. So, what brings you to these parts?"

The dark eyes looked directly at him. "I heard there was going to be a hanging. You know how I enjoy them."

Johnny didn't flinch, not outwardly. His lip curved up on one side. "Yeah, I remember."

"I heard there was a terrible murder. Some hotshot rancher killed the newspaper man? Tragic," he said insincerely.

Johnny said nothing.

"I wonder what drove him to it?" the stranger continued unabated.

"Who knows what drives a man?"

"Why, you do, Johnny. At least, you used to. I heard a vicious rumor that you had hung up your gun. Say it ain't so," he grinned sickeningly.

"Don't listen to rumors, myself. They usually get it wrong," Johnny answered.

He laughed deeply. That laugh that always made Johnny's skin crawl.

"Well, I'll be seeing you around, Madrid. Yes, I surely will," he said, stood and limped away. He stopped midstride and turned back. "Next time, we'll have to talk about my recent travels. I've been in San Francisco. Most interesting."

Johnny frowned as he watched him go. He sat straight up then and bolted from the room.

The man was gone that quickly. Johnny made himself calm down and walked outside. Taking a deep breath of fresh air, he headed to the stage depot.

He sent the wire and knew he could do nothing but wait. The man loved to play mind games and it was possible he was just goading Johnny. Still, he had to be sure. And once he was, he decided he would have a talk with his father. This would end and soon. Murdoch would not take the punishment for his past.

******

It was no use even attempting to go to bed, so he didn't. He sat in the stage depot all night, waiting. He knew his message would arrive there late. Probably wouldn't even get to its destination until morning. But he had no choice. Just in case. Just in case.

At least he had someone to talk to and he spent the majority of the nighttime hours playing checkers with Ralph. That and drinking coffee. Gallons of it.

Ralph chattered on. It was rare a wire came through so late. But, you never knew when something urgent could come up. Then, he would be needed, he explained.

Johnny figured this was one of those urgent times. At least, for him it was. He prayed Scott was up late. That the telegraph operator in San Francisco wasn't a slacker. That his own crappy luck would change just this once. More than anything, that Scott was safe and well.

As the pink hues of dawn began their slow ascent, the tapping started. Johnny jumped from his chair and rounded the small table to meet up with Ralph. He thought he just might die as he waited what seemed an hour for the message to end.

He looked expectantly at the operator who handed the message over with a smile.

'All is well. Stop. Do you need me? Stop.   Scott.'

Johnny actually felt the tension drain from his body and he went a little limp. His knees nearly gave out on him and he leaned heavily on the desk. "Send this. 'Had not heard from you. Just worried. No need to come back. Johnny'."

Ralph nodded and began relaying the message as Johnny fished some coins from his pocket. He suddenly felt exhausted and wanted nothing more than to sleep. That was not an option right now, however. He needed to talk to his father. The sooner the better. Unless the man had changed, he slept til noon and Johnny needed no prying eyes into his business.  

He thanked Ralph for his understanding and company then set off for the sheriff's office.

}}}Scott frowned at the answer he received. Johnny would not have sent an idle 'hey, how're ya doin'. He sighed and decided it was time to go home.}}}

Stepping inside, he wasn't surprised to find the deputy snoring at the desk. Johnny smiled and shook his head. He walked over and lifted the keyring, then let himself into the cell area to more snoring.

If he'd had the time or the inclination, he would have teased his father. But he was tired and his anger was resurfacing. He called softly and Murdoch jerked awake.

"Mornin."

"Johnny? What time is it?"

"Dawn. We need to talk, Murdoch. Get yourself awake," he said solemnly.

Murdoch sat up and rubbed his face briskly then walked over to the wash basin and splashed water over his face and head. He pulled the small stool near the bars and sat down.

"Why didn't you tell me this was about me?" Johnny started right in.

"What are you talking about?" Murdoch shook his head in confusion.

"Monroe! Ain't his name, by the way."

Murdoch frowned. "I don't understand, son."

"I know him, Murdoch. What did he say to make you take the heat for this?" he pressed.

"The man I talked to didn't say anything about you."

Johnny was truly confused now. "Describe him to me."

"A little shorter than me. Sandy hair, brown eyes, moustache. Nothing that would stand out."

Johnny sat back in the chair, stunned. Murdoch had just described the man he thought to be Stone. The other stranger in town. "This doesn't make any sense."

"What's going on, Johnny?"

"Two strangers arrived in town the same day last week. On the same stage. Both are still here. The bartender at the hotel told me the one you described was calling himself Stone."

"He told me his name was Monroe."

Johnny chewed his lower lip. "Maybe you'd better tell me all of it, Murdoch."

The rancher hesitated.

"Look, this other man is a gunhawk and very deadly. If they're working together, I need to know. You have to be straight with me," he implored with exasperation.

"Hey! What're you doin back here?" the deputy asked from the door.

"Mornin, Chip. Any coffee?" Johnny turned and smiled innocently.

"Johnny, you ain't supposed to be back here. It ain't visitin hours."

He sighed and stood, approaching the young man. "Look, I need to talk to Murdoch. It's really important and it can't wait. Val won't mind."

Chip looked doubtful for a moment then nodded. "Reckon it's all right. I'll put on the coffee."

"Thanks, Chip," Johnny smiled and slapped his shoulder. "Now," he said as he resumed his seat. "Tell me everything."

Murdoch looked warily at his son, knowing this was not going to set well with him. But the stakes were growing higher and he knew he was useless stuck in this cell.

"I went to see Rob because he'd sent me a note. In it, he said he was doing a story about you. About Johnny Madrid. I couldn't believe he would do such a thing. So, I went to confront him. There was a lot of confusion in the conversation but finally, we figured it out. He hadn't sent the note. He had, however, received one supposedly from me. It said I would be coming to see him about Sally. It ..... alluded to my having ...... feelings for her. Well, we were both pretty upset at first. But, we straightened it out and realized we'd been set up. Why was the question and neither of us could figure it out." Murdoch stopped for a moment, still reeling from what happened.

"While we were talking it over, there was a shot fired from the back office. Rob went down and I drew and fired at the door. I went to the office and someone hit me on the head. I was stunned but didn't pass out. By the time I revived myself a little, the person was gone. I went to check Rob, but he was dead. That's when Val walked in. I was so shocked. I was trying to figure out what happened. Val was asking me questions and several townspeople were gathering around. I guess Val thought it best to get me out of there so he brought me here. He left for a few minutes to get Sam . While he was gone, someone came to the window and introduced himself simply as Monroe."

"He said I had to keep quiet. He said if I talked, he would kill my entire family. He said he had someone in San Francisco watching Scott and people watching the ranch. Johnny, I still don't know why he killed Rob or why he set us up. He said if I breathed a word to anyone, he'd know and kill you all. I didn't think I could take the chance, son. I was trying to figure another way out of here so I could get to the bottom of it."

Johnny listened closely to his father's tale. He sighed and shook his head. "You could have told me, Murdoch. It's not like I would have gone off half-cocked. We could have worked it out together from the beginning."

"I know that now. I didn't want to make any rush decisions. I know I should have confided in you, son. But I saw that man's eyes and knew it was no idle threat. Knowing he knew where Scott was convinced me. He named the hotel your brother is staying in and even why he's there."

He nodded his understanding. "Still, if he's using Monroe, why did Hank call him Stone?"

"Hank wouldn't lie to you. Maybe he only used Monroe with me to throw me off," Murdoch surmised.

"Could be."

"What about this gunhawk?"

Johnny looked up then immediately down again. "I know him. He's ..... evil," he said softly. Taking a breath, he looked back at his father. "I talked to him last night. They must be working together. If Stone or whoever he is mentioned San Francisco. This man made a point of telling me he'd been there recently."

Murdoch's shoulders tensed immediately.

Johnny put up a hand. "I wired Scott. He's fine, no problems."

Murdoch relaxed again. "Who is this man, Johnny?"

"Oh, he goes by a lot of names. I call him ..... " he stopped and grinned. "Well, mostly, I call him Cain." Turning serious again, he went on. "Thing is, he hates me. It's mutual. I know he has something to do with this. He mentioned you. Not by name but he talked about the killing."

"You think he's after you?"

"Yes. What I don't know is why he went after you. It's not his usual style. I mean, if he wants me all he has to do is call me out. He knows that. He's playin some game but I don't know why."    

"What about the other one?"

"Never seen him before," he answered.

"Neither have I."

They both sat quietly for a while, each trying to think things through. Murdoch sighed heavily.

"Well, the way I see it, I'm just gonna have to ask him what he wants," Johnny voiced.

"That could be a mistake, son."

"What else can I do? I had Jelly put guards on the ranch but that's no guarantee. I won't let him hurt any of you."

"Maybe Val can find something out," Murdoch suggested.

"Maybe he could if ya was of a mind to tell him what's goin on," the sheriff snipped from the doorway.

Johnny turned to see his friend's frowning face. He had to smile a little. He looked at his father and received a nod. Giving one of his own, he addressed the sheriff.

"Let's go out to your office," he said and stood.

Johnny went through the whole story as Val listened intently.

"Well, guess I can understand Murdoch's worry. Still, he outta know by now you can take care of yourself."

"It's not just me, Val. He's threatening the whole family. He'd go through with it, too." His eyes darkened with this last sentence. He knew how truly evil Cain was.

"I'll send out some wires. See what I can find out. Meantime, don't go gettin yourself in trouble," Val cocked a brow.

"Me?" Johnny grinned.

He left the sheriff and decided to check in at home first. Johnny rode to the ranch at a quick pace. His anxiety was rising with each step Barranca took.

He knew Cain was vicious. Especially when he was after something big. Maybe it was Lancer he was after. Whatever it was, Johnny would take no chances. He made at least one decision. One he knew would not go over well. But it didn't matter. He reckoned with Murdoch in jail and Scott in San Francisco, he was on his own. He was calling the tune.

He felt some relief when he saw the guards at the gate and two more on the roof. He nodded and continued into the yard. Jelly was there before he could dismount.

"How are things?" Johnny asked immediately.

"Quiet. You gonna tell me what's goin on?"

"Let's go in the house. I want to talk to you and Teresa."

*****

"No!"

"Teresa.."

"I said no, Johnny! I won't leave my home!" she interrupted vehemently.

"Listen to me!" he shouted, his fear churning into anger. Johnny stood and paced a minute to regain control. Finally, he turned to face her. "Cain is a madman. He'll do anything to get what he wants and I mean anything! I can't worry about you and do what I have to do. I need you to be away from here, Teresa. I need to know you're safe."

Her eyes glistened with tears she refused to let fall. She jutted out her chin. "I can handle a rifle."

He sighed and bowed his head for a moment. "I know that. Can you handle being attacked? Beaten? Killed? Because Cain won't care that you're a girl."

She swallowed hard, her hands clasped tightly so they wouldn't shake.

Johnny walked up and put his hands on her small shoulders. "Honey, I will not risk your life. That's final. You're going to stay with the McPherson's until this is over."

She bowed her own head then looked back up into his eyes. "I'm scared."

Johnny pulled her into a hug. "I know, honey. I know."

She pulled back after a minute and nodded. "I'll get packed."

"I'll have three men escort her. Our best sharp shooters," Jelly offered.

"Okay. Jelly, I won't ask you to leave but I won't ask you to stay either."

Jelly puffed out his chest and reared back. "Well, I never! You think I'm a scared of some two bit rattlesnake! I'll be right here!"

Johnny smiled at him. "Thanks, Jelly. Having to run between here and town won't be easy."

"You stay in town with your dad. I'll take care of the ranch. Already got us a signal. Any trouble, one of the men is ta hightail it to Green River ta get you."

Johnny's shoulders relaxed. "I'm really glad you're here," he said softly.

Jelly relaxed his own stance. "We'll take care of the ranch. Me and the boys. You just worry about the other. Are ya gonna send for Scott?"

He shook his head. "I don't know. By the time he gets back it may be over."

"Or ya might be needin his help by then," Jelly countered.

Johnny snorted lightly. "I need his help now. I don't like the idea of him bein watched either. At least with him not even knowin about it. I'll send for him soon as I get back."

Teresa reappeared with a carpetbag in hand and smiled weakly.

Johnny walked over and hugged her again. "I'll bring you home as soon as I can, honey. Don't leave the McPherson's for any reason. No going for a ride, nothing. Okay?"

"I promise. Johnny? Are you going to be able to get Murdoch out?"

"I'm gonna try. The judge is due in tomorrow. Shouldn't be too hard," he smiled reassurringly.

Jelly left them to secure the best three shooters to escort Teresa. He gave them strict instructions and they all nodded gravely. They understood the seriousness of the situation and vowed not to let their bosses down. Miss Teresa would arrive safely; period.

Johnny saw her off, wincing at the tears she could no longer keep at bay.

"I hate it when she cries," he said.

"Know what'ya mean. Tears me up evertime," Jelly sighed. "You goin back now?"

"Yeah. I want to send that wire to Scott and I have a man to see," Johnny said, his mood darkening.

"Be careful, son. Don't come home with no holes in ya."

Johnny smiled fondly at the older man. He couldn't remember Jelly ever calling him son before but it felt pretty natural. He had come to think of the wrangler as a second father. Which amazed him since he had so much trouble handling one father.

*****

He watched from his hotel window as Madrid rode back into town. He smiled wickedly. He'd never be able to think of him as Lancer. Not with their history. Not with his stellar reputation. He nearly salivated thinking of facing him down. He knew that would be the inevitable outcome of all this. But it would have to wait unfortunately. He wasn't ready for that finale just yet. He had a little more work to do. Then, he would kill Madrid and the valley would be his. Sneering, he remembered he'd have to take care of the sheriif as well. He may not look like much, but that was a facade. Cain knew the sheriff was a formidable opponent in his own right. That was fine with him.

Johnny felt the eyes on him. Never had he known so surely who was watching him. It gave him chills. A coldness deep inside himself that he knew was from his very soul. That was the feeling Cain had always given him. It would never go away. He knew Cain knew it as well but it wasn't something he could control inwardly. He smiled a little knowing it irked the man that he never showed it outwardly.

It was a battle that had begun long ago between them. A range war. Nothing spectacular. Just your run of the mill job. But Cain was there and trying to be the big dog. Only he wasn't. Johnny was and he made it very clear from the first moment he laid eyes on the man. He still remembered seeing that smile for the first time. He'd hated the man from that second on. The feeling was quite mutual.

Over the years, they had crossed paths again. The last time was when Johnny had put the bullet in him. On opposite sides, Cain had tried an ambush. Johnny had thought he'd killed him at first. He was actually disappointed when he heard later that Cain was still alive. The man had gleaned pure pleasure out of honing his aura of mystique. The peons around the border had started calling him El Diablo, much to Cain's enjoyment. Johnny hated it. Knowing the man was evil but he sure wasn't the devil. He smiled a little. He knew that because the devil don't bleed.

Johnny looked up at the window as he rode by and tipped his hat. Dropping his head back down, he smiled. He stopped in front of the sheriff's office and walked inside. Then he walked right out the back door and to the stage depot.

Ralph jumped a foot when he spoke. "Sheesh, Johnny! What're ya tryin ta do, give me a heart attack?"

Johnny laughed a little. "Sorry, Ralph. There's someone I don't want to see me just now. I need to send a wire to Scott."

Ralph removed his hand from his chest and took a deep breath. "Might want to read this one from him first."

Johnny frowned and took the paper. 'Coming home. Expect to arrive in two days. Scott'. He felt relief wash over him. "When did this come?"

"About an hour ago. I figured you'd be back soon."

"Back?" Johnny asked.

"I seen ya ride out for home earlier. Oh, this one came just a few minutes ago."

Johnny crumpled this missive. The one that told him Jarrod Barkley was unavailable. He sighed heavily then looked back at Ralph with a small smile. "Any strangers been in, Ralph?"

"Nope."

"Good. Nobody needs to know Scott's on his way home," he said in a stony voice. He slipped back out the rear exit as quietly as he'd come in.

Ralph shook his head and wondered what the big secret was.

****

Johnny reentered the jail to find his father pacing.

"What was all that about?"

"I needed to send Scott a wire and there are too many prying eyes around," he shrugged.

"Are you sending for him?' Murdoch asked.

"No need. He already sent word he's on his way home. Guess he didn't buy my last telegram," Johnny grinned, knowing his astute brother would figure something was up. "Jarrod can't come," he added more subdued.

Murdoch nodded and sat heavily on the stool near the bars.

"I sent Teresa to the McPherson's until this is over."

"Good," Murdoch sighed. "Thank you, son."

"Thank me when this is over. I think Cain is after Lancer."

Murdoch frowned. "Elaborate plan."

"Yeah well, he's flashy."

Murdoch scrutinized his son. "How good is he?"

Johnny looked at him with cold eyes. "Good."

"I don't want you facing him, Johnny."

He shook his head. "He won't give me a choice. That's part of it. He wants me and that's all."

Murdoch bit his tongue, knowing his arguments would fall on deaf ears. "Why would he kill Rob, though? What did he have to gain?"

Johnny sighed. "Putting you on ice for one. Maybe Rob saw him come in town. Maybe he knew who Cain was. I don't know. I'm going back to the newspaper office. Snoop around a bit. There might be something there."

"Killing a man just to set me up? I'd hate to think that was the reason," he said glumly.

Johnny reached through the bars and settled a hand on his father's arm. "This isn't your fault. Cain is evil. He has no soul."

Murdoch looked up in shock at the statement. "Has he hurt you before?"

"No, but he tried. Now, he knows he has the means to really hurt me. My family."

"Promise me you'll be careful, son. And thank you for being so open with me."

"I'm always careful, Murdoch. Besides, you deserve to know the truth. More than that, you need to know what we're up against. Anyway, the judge will be here tomorrow and we can get you out of here. I'll be back. I'm going to Rob's office." He refrained from making any snide comments about his father not being open with him. He figured that could wait.

*******

Johnny and Val went back to the scene of the crime and filtered through Rob's papers and notes. They could find nothing that stood out. Nothing shocking. No big news stories. Not one thing to give a reason for the killing of an innocent man.

That made Johnny all the more angry. He threw a stack of papers on the desk and sat back.

"What'ya think his next move will be?" Val asked from the other side of the desk.

Johnny considered this. Not that he hadn't been thinking about it all day.

"I don't know. So far, he thinks he's got Murdoch out of the way. Scott's not here so that leaves me. Still, there's something else he must want. He's not the type to sit around and wait like this. He likes to move in quick for the kill."

Val shivered a little at that. He didn't like the casual way Johnny said that. He knew his friend was strung tight right now. He also knew this was a very different fight for Johnny. The kind that had emotions attached. That was never good.

"Think you can push it all away? Be Madrid again?"

Johnny locked eyes with his friend for a long beat. "I'll do what I have to."

"Just don't forget you got back up," Val cocked a meaningful brow.

Johnny smiled. "I know. Have you found out anything about Monroe or Stone or whoever he is?"

"Nothin yet. Heard back from a few sheriff's but they didn't have anything. Think I'll have me a little talk with this fella. Seems to me he's been hanging around too long for no reason."

"Can't hurt. Maybe you can rattle him some. He didn't strike me as the ruthless type. He might be the money man. Still, something ain't right," Johnny frowned.

"What'ya mean?"

"Well, Cain's a gunfighter. Not that he ain't always had some pretty lofty goals. Still, I can't see him coming up with this scheme. And Stone/Monroe didn't strike me as being exactly brilliant. I think there's another player here."

Val leaned forward, his brows knitted together in thought. "If there is, he's hidin pretty good. Ain't been no other strangers around."

"Yeah, well, who said it was a stranger?"

Val raised his brows at that statement. "Who around here would go after Lancer?"  

Johnny shook his head. "I don't know. Maybe we need to get the word out. Let everyone know what's going on. It might flush somebody out. At the least, it'll make it harder for Cain to work."

Val grinned devilishly. "I know just how to do it, too. Just the person to spread the word. I'll be back."

"I'll be at the jail," Johnny replied.

Outside, Val headed toward the east end of town and Johnny stood on the boardwalk watching him for a time. His eyes strayed to the hotel. Cain couldn't see him from his window at this vantage point. But Johnny knew he was being watched. Probably by Stone/Monroe. He thought he might just need to find out a little more about that man. He stepped off the boardwalk and crossed the street.

Johnny walked into the hotel and straight for the bar. He reached the end and leaned against the polished brass edging. And he waited.

Not for long. Stone/Monroe walked in a minute behind him and took the same spot he had the previous night. Ordered the same whiskey and stood there quietly.

Johnny strolled over and sidled up beside him, beer in hand. "Evenin."

"Good evening," the taut reply came.

Johnny turned to his side and leaned once more against the bar. "Hear you had a conversation with my old man."

He turned and looked Johnny up and down, then turned back. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"That a fact. Must have lost your memory. Can't remember that, can't seem to remember your name."

"I beg your pardon," he said haughtily.

"Well," Johnny drawled. "You told Murdoch your name was Monroe. Bartender says it's Stone. So, which is it?"

The man turned to face him full on again. "I don't see that my name is any of your business."

Johnny's eyes turned a smoldering cobalt blue as he regarded the man. "Lancer is my business. You got some kind of ideas on that, best to speak on up."

He saw it then. A twitch at the corner of the eye. Recognition on the face. He waited as he watched the man try to come up with his lie.

"I don't know anything about a Lancer," he said unconvincingly.

"Uh huh. Guess you never heard the name Cain before? Or Madrid?"

"Mister, I'm a salesman. I..."

"What do you sell?" Johnny interrupted.

"What?"

"What . do . you . sell?" he enunciated each word slowly.

He cleared his throat, stalling. "Um, clothing. Men's clothing."

"Yeah? I've been looking for some new clothes. Mind showin me your wares?"

He saw Cain from the corner of his eye. A slight smile adorned Johnny's face as he waited to see what would happen.

Cain moved quickly toward them. "Madrid," he nodded.

"What?"

"We have business," Cain said stiffly.

"I've got business right here," Johnny replied in a hard tone. "Ain't that right, Mr....."

"Stone."

"Uh huh, Mr. Stone. See, Mr. Stone and me were just discussing his line of business," Johnny explained as he watched Cain's eyes grow even darker.

Stone glanced nervously at Cain then grew a little pale. "Yes, I'm afraid I'm not traveling with my clothing line. But, I'm sure I can send you a brochure when I get home."

"Where's that? Home, I mean," Johnny asked.

"Clothes? You're talkin about clothes?" Cain asked, a bit amused.

"Man likes to look his best, Cain."

"Yes, I guess you will be attending a funeral soon, won't you?" he dug.

Johnny turned and smiled at him. Stone edged away and quickly retreated, mumbling something about dinner.

Johnny watched him skitter away and laughed softly. "Your partner ain't got much backbone, does he?"

"Partner?" Cain feigned surprise.

"Yeah, partner," Johnny retorted with steel. "Guess he's the money man. Maybe your boss. They don't usually like to be right in the fray. Must have some kind of morbid curiosity."

"I don't know what you're talking about Madrid. You and me need to talk."

"So talk."

Cain smiled and walked over to a table in the back corner. Johnny sighed and followed, taking a seat to the left, the kitchen to his back. He didn't like it but it was better than having his back to the wide open spaces.

He waited for Cain to start. Watched the man take his time, order a drink, then sit back and relax. Johnny sat with his elbows leaning on the table, hands twirling his beer mug about.

"Madrid, I have an offer for you."

"That right."

"Yes, that's right. I'm going to offer you ....." he paused as he looked up at Johnny. "Your life."

Johnny smiled at that. "Well, that's real generous of you, Cain. And what do I have to do for this precious gift?"

"Leave," he shrugged. "Just ride away. Far away."

"While you do what exactly?"

Cain smiled then. "Don't concern yourself."

"Oh, it concerns me and you know it. So, you just expect me to pack it in and take off. That it? I'm afraid I'm going to have to decline your offer," Johnny raised his mug in a feigned toast.

Cain shrugged. "I figured you would."

"Then why try?" Johnny asked.

"Simple. It will make things less messy with you out of the way. Then again, you will be out of the way soon enough. It's just a matter of how." His eyes had gotten darker again and Johnny's gleamed with amusement.

"It still doesn't work, Cain. Why are you after Lancer?"

"I have nothing against the old man."

"I'm talking about the ranch and you know it," Johnny said, trying to keep the exasperation out of his voice. He hated these games, always had.

Cain chuckled. "Who says I am?"

"Right. You were just passing through. Why don't we just get down to it? You want Lancer. Or rather, that pansy wants it. Now, he's hardly the rancher type. So, what is it he thinks he has to gain?"

"Does it matter? You always were a smart kid, Johnny. You got it all figured out, or almost all of it."

"Thing I can't figure is why you would kill an innocent man," Johnny seethed.

"I haven't killed anyone. Your old man, well, that's a different story," Cain grinned.

Johnny had had enough. This was getting him nowhere fast. He nodded his head and stood up. "Whenever you're ready," he said and walked away.

Soon, Johnny boy. Very soon, Cain thought.

*****

He stalked to the jail, furious. It was time to find out who was really behind this. He knew Stone couldn't be. He wouldn't know a cow if it came up and kissed him on the mouth. He walked into the sheriff's office determined to get answers.

"Good. I got something," Val said.

"Glad someone does," he muttered and sat down.

Val cocked a brow but said nothing about it. He handed a telegram to Johnny who read it and dropped his hand onto his lap.

"This isn't happening," he shook his head.

"Fraid it is, amigo. Look on the bright side. It really don't have nothin to do with you personally, I mean Madrid," Val faltered.

Johnny shot him a look then dropped his eyes. He sighed tiredly. "Does Murdoch know?"

"Not yet."

Johnny nodded but still didn't move.

"Reckon ya ain't in no hurry to tell 'im, huh?"

"No, I sure ain't. But, no sense in putting it off, I guess."

"Where were you? I thought you were comin straight back here," Val asked.

"I went to talk to Stone. Then I talked to Cain. Didn't get very far with either of them. This just confirms what I figured out except now I have a name." Johnny looked dejectedly at the wire.

"How do you wanna handle it?"

Johnny looked at his friend and sighed. "I have no idea. Maybe Murdoch does."

He stood up and pulled his gun out, laying it on the desk. He headed to the back and Val thought he looked a lot older than his years just then. Damn that man!

Murdoch stood as his son entered the room. A frown wrinkled his brow as he took in the sullen form.

"What's wrong? Is Teresa all right?"

Johnny looked at him in surprise. "She's fine."

"You look miserable, son," he said, relief evident.

"I am miserable and mad as hell. Read this," he said, handing over the missive and flopping onto the bench.

Murdoch read the telegram and crushed it in his fist. His jaw tightened and the veins in his neck stood out. He began to pace and Johnny waited for the explosion he was sure would shake the rafters.

"Unbelievable! After all he pulled and he still won't give up!" Murdoch bellowed.

Johnny winced at the loudness though he should be used to it by now, he supposed. Still, he was tired and he felt a headache coming on. His father's rant wasn't helping.

"When did he get out?" Murdoch asked, his tone lessening a decible.

"Murdoch! Never mind that now. He's hired a gun and we need to deal with that," Johnny raised his voice.

Murdoch glared at him for a beat, then relaxed his features. "I'm sorry, son. I didn't mean to yell at you."

"I know," he sighed. "What do you want to do?"

"What can we do? We have no proof of anything."

"Val is spreading the word that Lancer's being threatened. We figured the more people who knew what was happening, the harder it will be for them to work."

"Will that really help?"

"Yes, I think it will. People like this want to work real quiet. Try and slide in without anyone being the wiser. He wouldn't be able to live here if everyone knew how he got Lancer."

Murdoch shook his head. "That's all well and good, son. But, he never wanted the ranch for its sake. You know what he wants to do."

"I know. Still, it can't hurt," Johnny shrugged.

Murdoch sat back down and looked hard at his boy. "You're exhausted. Get some sleep, John."

"I think I will. The judge will be here tomorrow. We can get you out of here then."

"I'll be very glad of that. If it happens. As I said, we have no proof."

Johnny nodded his understanding. He wanted to say more but he was really tired and just wanted to lay down somewhere; anywhere. "I'll see you in the morning then."

"Goodnight, son."

*****

It was already dark when he left Val's office. Nearly ten o'clock in fact. The town had long since closed up. All but the saloons of course. Johnny realized he had not eaten since breakfast and sighed. Well, a quick steak and then to bed.

As he made his way across the street, he heard hooves beating down from the south. He quickly crossed the street and stood in the shadows, watching.

Johnny's heart began drumming faster as he recognized Walt who pulled to a halt in front of Val's office. Johnny ran toward the man, calling his name.

"Johnny, thank God! There was a run on the ranch. We need the doc," Walt said breathlessly.

"Who's hurt?"

"It's Jelly. He's been shot. Ben, too, but it's just a graze. They tried to set fire to the barn but we stopped 'em."

Johnny's throat closed and he found he couldn't speak. He swallowed hard and fought for control. "How bad is Jelly?"

Walt dropped his eyes, knowing how Johnny felt about the old man. "Pretty bad from what I can tell."

"Did you get a look at them?"

"No, they wore bandanas over their faces. Only about six of them near as I can figure."

Johnny nodded. "Go get Sam. I'll tell Val."

Walt nodded and took off at a dead run for the doctor's office. Johnny went back inside and quickly told Val what was happening, then took off for the ranch. Anger burned through his veins as he galloped toward home. This was going to stop. He would not allow his family to be hurt any further. Fear mingled with the anger as he thought of Jelly. He kneed Barranca into a faster pace without even thinking about it.

Johnny jumped down before the horse could stop. He glanced at the remains of the charcoaled barn door as he headed to the house. Maria met him in the hallway and took him to Jelly. Talking a mile a minute in Spanish, she explained his injury.

His heart was in his throat and he didn't think it would ever leave that spot. He walked into the room and knelt beside the bed. Jelly was pale and breathing irratically. He took the older man's hand and squeezed.

Jelly moaned and opened his eyes, blinking several times to focus. "Johnny?"

"I'm here, Jelly. I'm so sorry," he whispered.

"We stopped them varmits. Don't you worry none. The boys done a real good job," he said, his voice cracking.

"You done good, Jelly. Now, just rest. Doc's on his way."

Jelly sighed and closed his eyes, drifting back into blessed sleep. Johnny hung his head and closed his eyes against the stinging. He felt a soft hand on his shoulder and raised tormented eyes.

"Let him rest, Juanito. Come, I will feed you," Maria spoke softly.

How she knew he hadn't eaten was a mystery to Johnny but he accepted it and went with her. He sat at the kitchen table as she ladled out a large bowl of stew. Placing it, biscuits and hot coffee in front of him, she sat at the table.

"Senor Scott should be told," she said after a few minutes.

"He's on his way home. Should be here day after tomorrow," he informed her between bites.

She was sure he would choke himself. "Slow down! You will make yourself sick."

Johnny looked up at her with a grateful smile. "I think you should leave here, Maria."

"No. I will not. I will stay and help. Senorita Teresa and El Patron would want me here."

"So do I but it's getting too dangerous."

She snorted at this. "I am staying," was her adamant retort.

He sighed and nodded, too tired to argue. As he finished off the stew, they heard the front door open and Sam call out.

*****

Johnny drank a pot of coffee while he waited for news on Jelly. He was exhausted but pushed it away. He couldn't rest now.

Sam appeared finally and he looked up expectantly.

"He's resting now. He should be all right," he sighed and plunked into a chair.

Johnny poured him a cup of coffee, feeling pure relief wash over him.

"Johnny, what's going on?"

"Someone is making a run at Lancer. Hired a gun and now they're starting the game," he replied flatly.

"Game? This is no game!" Sam shouted.

Johnny looked at him in surprise. Sam rarely got out of sorts. A grin crossed his lips as he understood. "It is a game, Sam. It's like chess. All about strategy and making your moves. They've already made a couple. Now, it's my turn."

"Your turn? What are you planning?" Sam asked, fear filling his gut.

"Their biggest asset is their hired gun. Time for him and me to dance," he answered coldly.

"Can you take him?"

Johnny was amused at the question. Murdoch would have immediately started arguing with him. Even if he knew it was the only thing Johnny could do. Sam was more practical. "I don't know. Mind hanging around town tomorrow?"

"I wish you would be more serious about your life. I can understand why you infuriate your father so much."

Johnny laughed softly. "Works both ways. I just hope the judge will let him go tomorrow."

"I'll do whatever I can to help, Johnny. I'll stay the night and make sure Jelly is all right. Then, I'll be sure and 'hang around' town tomorrow. In the meantime, I suggest you get some rest."

Johnny nodded. "I just want to check on Jelly, then I'll sleep some."

As he left Jelly's room, a thought struck Johnny. He leaned against the wall and sighed. He headed to the bunk house before turning in. He spoke with Frank, a trusted hand, and gave his instructions. The guards were still posted and now, he had to make sure his father was safe. He knew Val was quite capable but he had to sleep, too. Johnny sent two men to guard the sheriff's office, then went to bed.

Plopping down, he didn't bother to even remove his boots. He was asleep in seconds.

*****

The closer Scott got to home, the more anxious he became. Johnny's telegram had sent off warning signals all over the place. His brother was telling him something even if he didn't realize it. He already decided that once he reached Cross Creek, he would rent a horse instead of going by stage. That would take too long and he felt an urgent need to get home.

Johnny awoke to wonderful smells. Coffee and bacon. He opened his eyes and stretched, then scrubbed at his face. Glancing over, he saw he'd left his door open. He hadn't even remembered climbing the stairs, much less laying down. He rolled off the bed and began his morning ablutions. Looking in the mirror, he thought he looked like death warmed over. Better shave and get pretty. Can't face a man down lookin like a bum, he thought with amusement.

He descended the stairs and headed straight for Jelly. Sam was there, just finishing his exam.

"How is he?" Johnny asked softly.

"Hard-headed," Sam groused.

Johnny smiled and Jelly snorted.

"Just fine, that's how I am. What're you doin here? Ya outta be with yer dad," Jelly expounded.

"I'm goin, Jelly. I sent a couple of men to town last night. Don't worry."

"Don't worry? Hmmph! So, you're a gonna face that devil in the street are ya?"

Johnny shot Sam a disapproving look.

"I didn't know it was a secret," the doctor shrugged.

"Don't worry about anything, Jelly. Scott will be home tomorrow anyway. Whatever happens today, Lancer is still protected."

"Wahl, that's just fine and dandy! Long as the ranch is okay. Johnny, you sure got a funny way of lookin at things. How bout you just make sure YOU come outta this on top!"

He gave him a resigned sigh. "I didn't mean it that way and you know it. Stop hollerin and get some rest. Maria will be here with you. I can't get her to leave. I don't suppose it'd do me any good to try and talk you into goin to town?"

"Don't reckon it will. Me and Maria and the boys will be just fine right here. You just take care of that devil in town."

Johnny grinned and gave him a small salute. "Yes sir!"

Jelly threw him out then and he went to the kitchen with Sam.

"You can joke all you want but I know you're worried, Johnny. This man, you said you didn't know if you could take him," Sam probed.

"No, I don't. He's good, Sam. Real good. I've never faced off with him but he's carryin my bullet in his leg. Gotta say, he ain't real happy about that."

*****

Murdoch paced impatiently about the small cell. Waiting seemed intolerable but he had no choice. He wanted to know what was happening at the ranch. How Jelly was doing. If there was any damage and a million other things. Mostly, he wanted to keep his son from doing something foolhardy. He knew Johnny. Knew what his reaction would be. Knew no one could talk him out of it. But he had to at least try. He couldn't live with himself if he didn't.

Scott handed his bags up to the stage driver then headed for the livery. His expert eye took in the available mounts and picked the fastest. He wasn't particular about haggling over the price either. Soon, he was tearing out of Cross Creek like his hair was on fire.

Johnny slowed to a walk as he entered Green River. He kept his eyes straight ahead, hat pulled low as he took in the streets. Yep, he's there. I can smell the stench, he thought idly.

He pulled in front of the sheriff's office and was met by Frank who assurred him all was quiet. With a sigh of relief, Johnny sent the hands home then went inside.

"Reckon you don't even trust me now," Val started right in.

"You know I trust you, Val. You also know you hafta sleep sometime. I didn't want to take any chances."

"How's Jelly?" he asked, still insulted.

"He'll be all right."

"You better go on back there. He's been spittin nails all mornin," Val warned.

Johnny smiled a little and nodded then headed to see his father.

"Mornin."

"Good Morning. And how are you this fine morning?' Murdoch asked, sarcasm dripping.

Johnny winced a little and removed his hat, slapping it against his thigh. "Fine. Jelly's gonna be okay and the ranch is in one piece," he reported as he sat heavily on the bench.

"Well, thank you for letting me know in such a timely manner," Murdoch kept it up.

Johnny snapped. "Sorry. I've been a little busy!"

Murdoch cocked a brow. "Did you get any sleep?"

"Yeah," he sighed.

"Not much though, I take it," Murdoch inquired.

"Enough. Judge should be here by noon," he changed the subject.

Murdoch nodded and grasped the bars. "What are you planning on doing to pass the time?"

Johnny looked up, a small smile on his lips. "Thought I'd go talk to an old friend."

"No, Johnny. I don't want you facing that man alone."

"Murdoch..."

"No! That's final," he said, jutting his chin out.

Johnny laughed softly. "Remember I told you as long as you're in here, I'm callin the tune?"

"That tune is hard to call from the grave," Murdoch shot.

"Gee thanks for the vote of confidence," Johnny snorted.

"Johnny, you're exhausted and angry. Not a good combination. You can't be thinking clearly. You could make mistakes," he reasoned.

"I"m fine. I know what I can do, Murdoch. I'm not that tired and I can deal with the anger."

"And if he goads you?"

"IF? No doubt about it. That's part of his game. He enjoys his work," he said flatly. He glanced up then lowered his eyes. "Guess you don't have much confidence in me."

Murdoch sat on the stool and leaned in. "I have all the confidence in the world in you, son. But how long has it been since you faced a man down?"

"Not something you forget how to do, Murdoch. Don't worry about me. Scott will be back tomorrow."

Murdoch frowned and shook his head. "What does that have to do with it?"

Johnny shrugged. "Just that he'll be here to pick up the pieces if need be."

"Do you do that on purpose? Try to make me angry?"

Johnny looked up in surprise and shook his head, not comprehending.

"Don't you think it upsets me when you talk like that? It's as if you're saying it doesn't matter what happens to you, Scott will still be here."

"I didn't mean for it to sound like that," he mumbled.

"I'm not so sure you didn't. I would like to come out of this with both my sons intact."

Johnny smiled and looked up. "I don't plan on gettin myself killed."

"What exactly are you planning?"

Johnny sighed and stood up, placing his hat on his head. "I plan on letting Cain know that I know who he's working for. I'm hopin that will bring all the players out in the open. Either way, this ends today." Before Murdoch could digest that statement, Johnny was out the door.

Johnny stepped outside into the warm morning sun and leaned against a hitching post. He watched as Val sauntered toward him from the hotel. He figured his friend had gone to have a talk with Monroe/Stone. He saw a horse trotting toward them from the corner of his eye. A split second after it dawned on him, he heard the report.

Johnny drew and fired three times as the masked rider went down. He took off toward Val, slowing then dropping to his knees as he turned his friend over.

"Val?" he called in a soft shaky voice.

The lawman groaned then opened his eyes. "Whaaa.."

"You were shot. I'm sorry, Val. I didn't see him in time."

"'S okay, where is he?" Val asked, still dazed.

"He ain't movin. I think he's dead."

"Well find out!" he groused.

"Not until Doc gets here," Johnny replied with more calm than he could imagine.

At that moment, Sam arrived on the scene. "I thought it was you I had to worry about."

"How bad is it?" Johnny asked, ignoring the quip.

"Shoulder. Not too bad. It will take more than this," Sam snipped.

They helped Val to his feet and he wavered a bit. Johnny held tighter to his friend and walked him toward the doctor's office.

****

He paced the outer room while Sam worked on Val. Why hadn't he seen this coming? What was wrong with him? For the first time, Johnny seriously considered whether he could take Cain at all. He was off his game. He knew it was the worry and lack of sleep. Shaking his head and reprimanding himself, he realized he'd fallen right into Cain's trap.

The phrase 'strike while the iron's hot' came to mind. Johnny frowned and called out to Sam. "I'm going to the jail!"

Johnny strolled slowly across the street and into the hotel. He went into the bar and ordered coffee, then sat down at a table in the middle of the room to wait for his company. It was midmorning so the place was empty and he liked that just fine. Dust danced in the shadowy sunlight filtering through the windows. The steam from the coffee rose eerily toward the ceiling. With his back to the natural light, Johnny's silhouette seemed almost ghostly.

It wasn't a long wait as his nemesis limped into the room. Still dressed entirely in black, eyes hooded by his hat, he regarded the man. Cain walked to the bar and ordered coffee. He stood there sipping the brew for several minutes.

Johnny sat leaned back, arms resting on the armrests of his chair and hands hanging loosely in front of him. Head bent down, he smiled.

Cain watched him from the mirror over the bar. The smile irked him. It always had. Madrid always did that. As if he had some secret that amused him but that he shared with no one. He turned and walked over, hovering over Johnny.

Without looking up, Johnny pushed a chair out with his foot. Cain sat down opposite him and took a drink of his coffee.

"Heard you had some trouble last night, Johnny boy. What a shame," he tsked.

"Wasn't that bad. No permanent damage done," Johnny spoke softly and nonchalantly.

Cain just nodded. "Heard from your half-brother?"

Johnny's smile widened and he looked up, eyes dancing. "Yep, he's havin a grand ole time."

"That's wonderful. San Francisco is a fine city. Opera, museums."

Johnny cocked a brow. "Didn't think you would appreciate that type of thing, Cain."

"Oh, I do enjoy the finer things, Johnny boy. In fact, once this job is finished, I plan on retiring to that very city."

"That a fact? Nice cemetaries there?"

Cain laughed heartily. "I always did enjoy your sense of humor, Madrid."

Johnny simply smiled. He leaned forward and picked up his cup, leaning back and taking a drink. "The sheriff will be fine in case you were wonderin. Your man is a lousy shot. About as useless as your boss."

Cain's eyes narrowed as he regarded the younger man.

"You didn't really think I wouldn't find out, did you? Wasn't very hard either." Johnny leaned forward and set the cup down. His eyes found Cain's with an icy stare. "Tell your boss I'm anxious to see him again. That is, if he has the cajones to show his face."

He stood and picked up his hat. Rounding the table, he hesitated. "You always were second rate, Cain."

Johnny stepped outside and turned east, toward the sun. He walked down the middle of the street, figuring he wouldn't be getting very far. He didn't.

Scott rode under the Lancer arch still at a ground eating gallop. He dismounted and nearly ran through the front door yelling for his father and brother.

Maria came quickly from the kitchen. "Senor Scott! Dios, gracias!" She quickly explained all she knew to the stricken man.

Scott heard the rest from Jelly who implored him to get to Green River. Scott needed no further urging, he was out the door in a heartbeat. He saddled Remmie and set off to find his family.

******

"Madrid!"

Johnny stopped and turned slowly, taking his stance with a smile still on his face.

Cain stepped into the middle of the street seething. "You punk! I've had enough of you!"

"Yeah? I've had enough of you, too, Cain."

Scott galloped to the sheriff's office and dismounted. He opened the door to find an empty office. Moving more cautiously, he approached the cell area. He entered the doorway just in time to see a gun being pointed at his father's chest.

With a soft steely voice, Scott called out, "drop it or I'll drop you."

"Scott!" Murdoch called.

"I said, drop it!"

The gun dropped to his side and he let it fall to the floor with a thud.

"Murdoch. What's happening?" he asked.

"I don't have time to explain. We have to find Johnny now!" he said.

Scott moved back a step and reached around the door, grabbing the keys from their hook. He released his father and put the gunman in the cell. Before he could ask anything else, Murdoch was headed out. He grabbed his gunbelt from Val's desk and strapped it on quickly, then ran out the door, Scott on his heels.

Murdoch slowed his gait as he saw several people running around the east corner of the hotel. He grabbed someone who quickly told him what was happening. Murdoch closed his eyes. Too late. Dammit!

Scott caught up and the two of them walked cautiously around the corner. Scott sucked in a breath and held it. He felt someone behind him and turned to see Val, one arm in a sling, the other holding a gun. Time seemed to stop.

The two men stood eyeing each other. Johnny thought about making the first move while Cain was still angry. It would give him an egde, no doubt. But something told him to wait so he did.

"I've been carrying your bullet around for four years, Madrid. It's time I gave back," Cain was saying.

"Took you long enough. Tell me, why'd you wait so long? Wasn't like I was hard to find," Johnny retorted. "Could it be you were afraid?" he smirked.

Cain's grinding teeth could be heard the twenty feet between them and Johnny felt some satisfaction. The adrenalin was pumping now and he felt perfectly alert.

"Truth is, Cain, you know you can't take me. That's why you're stallin now," he drawled.

"I can take you on my worst day, Madrid."

"Then what are you waiting for?" Johnny asked, his eyes and voice going flat and cold.

"In my own time, boy," he spat the word 'boy'.

Johnny laughed. "Sure, Cain. While you're waiting, maybe you can tell me how this was planned? I mean was it the same tired thing? Killin off all the Lancers and takin the ranch? Didn't work last time."

"The man is persistent," Cain grinned, relaxing now.

Johnny nodded. "And stupid. Killin an innocent man. Or was that your idea?"

"The newspaper man? He was a real convenient way to get your old man out of the way for a while. He figured to put him on ice then kill you and that dandy brother of yours. He figured Lancer would be so grief-stricken, he'd sell for a song. I told him the old man wouldn't miss you any."

Johnny smiled but inside Cain struck an old chord. "And Stone?"

Cain laughed at that. "That pansy? Oh, he was real brave threatening a man already in jail. He's supposed to be the eyes and ears," he snorted. "I plan on taking care of him soon enough."

"Figures. One more question. Where is he?" Johnny asked.

Cain laughed again. "No reason to keep it a secret. It's not like you're going to be around in a minute anyway. He's hold up in the hotel."

Johnny nodded his head once then his eyes again grew cold and blank.

Cain took the challenge to heart and set his own face in stone.

Seconds ticked by as each man watched the other. Seconds longer than it took for them to draw and fire.

Once more, time seemed to stand still for the three observers. The smoke began to clear and Murdoch found his legs. He ran toward his son's prone body, feeling as if he was moving in slow motion. He must have been because Scott passed him and dropped beside his brother.

Val stopped at Cain, kicking the gun away and kneeling to close the one dead eye. The other one was nowhere to be seen. He then paused by the three Lancers and took off at a run to Sam's office.

"Johnny," Murdoch barely whispered. His shaking fingers found the pulse in his son's neck and his shoulders relaxed visibly.

Scott held his brother's head in his lap and stared between the two of them. He wanted to ask but knew he'd get no answers right now. Murdoch couldn't take his eyes off Johnny.

Suddenly, Murdoch moved quickly. He scooped Johnny up and began carrying him to Sam. Scott grabbed the other side to take some of the load. Together, they rushed into the office where Sam was already prepared.

Murdoch took the weight and eased his son on the table. He cast a perplexed look at the doctor.

Sam shook his head. "He asked me to be sure I was around today," was his explanation for being so ready.

Murdoch only nodded and backed away to give Sam the room he needed.

"Wait outside both of you. Oh, and I'm glad you're back, Scott."

"Thanks," Scott murmured softly. He took his father's arm and guided him to the outer room. Scott felt like he was in a dream world. He had barely gotten to town when all hell broke loose. Now, his brother was shot and he didn't know by whom or why.

"Would someone explain this to me?" Scott finally asked.

"I will as soon as I send my deputy to the hotel. I'll have him take McGovern to jail," Val said and disappeared.

"McGovern? Angus McGovern?"

Murdoch nodded. "He was behind it all."

"Behind what? Murdoch, what's been happening here?"

He closed his eyes, suddenly feeling more tired than he ever had. "I made a mistake. One that could cost your brother his life. I can't get into it right now, son."

Scott could only stare at him. Images of the blood spreading quickly across Johnny's chest caused him to shudder involuntarily. He sat down slowly beside his father.

******

Val returned soon. He took Scott outside and explained all that had happened. The younger man was stunned numb. All the implications pounded down in his brain until he felt it might explode. He tried to filter them but he was too tired. Too worried. Too scared for his brother.

All he could do was nod and go back inside. As they crossed the threshhold, Sam emerged wiping his hands on a towel.

"I"ve done all I can for now. The rest is up to him," he said simply.

"How bad?" Murdoch asked in a monotone.

"Bad. He lost a lot of blood. The bullet went deep into the chest muscle."

"Can we see him?" Scott asked.

"Of course. He'll sleep for several hours. The anesthesia and his own exhaustion will make sure of that," Sam said.

Scott opened his mouth to ask what the doctor meant by 'his own exhaustion'. Then he closed it again. He'd figure it out on his own.

"I'm going out to the ranch to see Jelly then I'll be back. I'll let them know what happened."

"Thanks, Sam. Would you send someone to the McPherson's for Teresa?" Murdoch asked as he stood.

"Of course. I won't be long."

Scott shook his head to try and clear it. This was too much information to digest all at once. He focused on the immediate and went to his brother.

Hours passed silently in the sick room. Scott had closed his eyes after a time and drifted off. Murdoch sat dejectedly staring at first one then the other son. He'd made a mess of things. If he'd only told Johnny the truth. Told Val the truth. Maybe this could have been avoided. He would have been home with his family and they could have dealt with this together. But he let what turned out to be a sniveling coward hornswoggle him.

Together, he and Johnny could have figured this out. His son would not have been forced to go days without sleep, running back and forth from town to the ranch; worrying over everyone and taking it all on his own shoulders. Facing that man down in the street. He wouldn't be here right now, maybe. He sighed exceptionally loud and Scott's head jerked.

"I'm sorry, son. I didn't mean to wake you."

Scott blinked and rubbed a hand across his face. "I didn't intend to fall asleep. How is he?" he asked as he leaned forward.

"No change," Murdoch answered morosely.

Scott eyed his father closely. "When this is all settled a bit, I want to hear the whole story. Somehow, I get the feeling Val only gave me the highlights."

"I'm sure he did."

*****

Just past noon, Val reappeared at Sam's office. Johnny had still not regained consciousness. McGovern had made a run for it and he'd had to track him down. Now, he was in jail and asking for Murdoch. The rancher's face turned to stone. He stood and strode purposefully out of the house and to the sheriff's office.

Val was hot on his trail, wanting to keep the peace. He knew it wouldn't be easy. He was having a hard enough time keeping himself in check.

Murdoch slung the door open as McGovern turned toward it. Without so much as a word, Murdoch lunged at the man who still had one handcuff locked to his wrist.

It took Val, the deputy and Scott who had appeared, to pull the rancher off. Murdoch got in one last right hook before stumbling away under the weight of the three men.

McGovern fell back against the desk, his hand going to his jaw, as he stared at them all.

"Let go of me!" Murdoch demanded.

"Settle down!" Scott yelled. He stepped in front of his father and forced eye contact. "Murdoch, calm down! This isn't helping anything!"

Murdoch locked eyes with his son and took a deep shuddering breath then nodded. They released him and Chip grabbed McGovern, hauling him to the cell area.

Scott got his father a cup of water and a chair. After giving the man a few minutes to catch his breath, Scott sighed loudly.

Before anyone could speak, Ralph rushed in with a telegram for Val. Val read it and nodded satisfactorily. "The sheriff in Blood Rock took Stone off the stage. He's got 'im locked up. I'll have ta go get 'im tomorrow."

"Who is Stone?" Scott asked.

"One of Angus' flunkies," Murdoch grumbled.

"You two need to go back to Johnny. I'll take care of this," Val reminded them.

"Not until I talk to McGovern," Murdoch said in his 'no quarter' tone.

Scott could only shrug at Val. "I'd like to hear this myself."

Val threw his hands up. "Leave your guns and don't think I'm leavin ya alone in there with 'im, neither!"

Murdoch stalked to the cell door and grabbed the iron in his big fists. He glared at McGovern for several seconds. "First, you kill off my cattle, drive my men away, make Jelly believe he's dying and take a shot at me. Now, you've nearly killed my son and set me up for murder. Tell me, was it really worth all that effort? Is Lancer that important to you?"

McGovern sat on the edge of the cot with his face in his hands. Slowly, he looked up at Murdoch then stood, wavering slightly.

"You and your precious ranch! It's all ya've ever cared about. And you're wasting it! For what? Cows? You are a fool, Murdoch Lancer. Ya always have been. You don't know the real wealth of that land."

"Wealth?" Murdoch shook his head. "There's more to life than money, Angus. More than wealth and land."

McGovern snorted loudly. "What? Family? Come on, Murdoch. Do ya really think I'd buy that? This is me you're talkin to. The man who knows what you're willing to do to keep that ranch. The man who's seen the things ya've done over the years. And none of them had much ta do with family!"

Murdoch ground his teeth. "You know nothing about me, Angus. If you did, you would know that everything I've done has been for my family. With the hope that one day I would have them with me. That day came and nothing you or anyone else tries will ever rip us apart again!"

Scott laid a hand on his father's arm. "Let's go, Sir. You're wasting your breath."

"You would have sold out with them dead, wouldn't you?" McGovern directed toward Scott.

"No, I would not have. I would have kept Lancer alive for the memory of my father and brother. And for my own family to come," he stated with surety. His hand dropped from Murdoch's arm and he stepped up to the bars. "Know this, as well. As long as there is one Lancer alive, the ranch will stay in this family." His voice was firm and cold and steady.

Murdoch had to smile a little at the pride he felt and heard in his son's voice as well. "That is what family is about, Angus. You would do well to leave this family be. If you ever spread your brand of *pestilence* on my family again, it will be the last thing you ever do," he stated and turned his back.

****

They walked out into the sunshine and Murdoch leaned heavily on the hitching post.

"Are you all right, Sir?"

"Yes, son, I'm fine. Just ..... let's go see to Johnny."

"I wish you would have let me know what was happening," Scott remarked as they walked along.

"I didn't know what was happening. Not really. Johnny and Val put most of it together."

They stepped onto Sam's porch and Scott stopped. "I have to ask. Why did you try and keep the truth from everyone?"

Murdoch had the grace to bow his head. "I was wrong, son. I thought I was protecting everyone. The truth is, I was leaving them dangling in the wind. Your brother pointed that out to me. I've never seen him so upset."

Scott had to raise a brow at that statement.

"I'm serious, Scott. I have never seen him so angry and so .... disappointed in me."

Scott bit his lower lip. "Doesn't feel very good, does it? Having someone disappointed in you, I mean."

Murdoch sighed. "No, it sure ....." he trailed off and looked at his son with understanding. "Have I been that bad?"

"Not anymore. Not like you used to be."

"But, I didn't trust Johnny. I mean, if I had just confided in him .... why didn't I?"

"I don't think it was a matter of trusting him. I think you were afraid for him and the rest of the family. You were trying to protect us. You just didn't think things through."

Murdoch looked up at this last. Frowning, he tried to wrap his mind around the idea of not thinking things through. He had never not done that before. Why was this time different? Certainly they had been faced with adversity before.

"You were locked in that cell and helpless. You had no control of the situation, Murdoch."

"How did you know what I was thinking?" he smiled.

Scott smiled softly. "I guess I've been hanging around you too long. Come on, let's check on Johnny."

Johnny did not awaken until late that night. He moaned softly as he came to his senses, his eyes fluttering open. "Scott?"

Scott immediately sat up straight from his slouched position. He'd been seconds from dozing off when he heard the soft call. "Hey there, brother."

"When'd you get here?" he asked, his speech slurred.

"Not soon enough evidently but I thought you might need some help."

"My fault. I got in a hurry," he sighed.

Scott frowned. "Why?"

Johnny looked up at him, a gleam in his eyes. "Impatient, I guess."

Scott laughed aloud at this. "You guess? All right, brother. Just rest and take it easy. You had us worried."

Johnny's mood darkened as he posed his next question. "Cain?"

"Dead."

"Good."

"Yeah."

"Where's Murdoch?"

"RIght over there sleeping," Scott tossed his head toward the chair on Johnny's other side.

He turned his head slowly and took in his father with a small smile. "Bet he's glad to be outta jail."

"I'm sure he is. McGovern took his place. Stone will be joining him tomorrow," Scott smiled.

"Damned stubborn Scot!" Johnny spat.

"That's not very nice, Johnny. Murdoch wasn't ....."

Johnny interrupted him. "I wasn't talkin about Murdoch." His voice was growing weaker with each word. His eyelids drooped and he blinked rapidly to keep them up.

Scott frowned at this display. "Oh. All right, time to rest now."

"Okay. Thanks for comin, brother," he sighed and closed his eyes.

Scott smiled and shook his head slowly. "Anytime."

*****

It took a week before Sam would let them move Johnny. He was sitting up for longer and longer periods each day. Though he was improving, he tired easily. More easily than he would ever admit. Still, he felt better. More aware anyway. The conversations around him those first few days had been nothing more than an annoying buzzing in his ears. At least now, he could follow the thread.

In that time, the judge had set a trial date for McGovern and his cronies. Johnny had yet to face the man himself. Something he was itching to do. McGovern had used his past this time and it didn't sit well with him at all.

More than that, he wanted to throttle the man for causing Jelly to get hurt. Although Sam swore on a stack of bibles that Jelly was just fine, Johnny wouldn't believe it until he saw for himself. He shook his head. A few years ago, he would have taken care of this *his* way. Now, he supposed, his way had changed. Just as so much had changed in his life.

McGovern had tried so many ways to destroy Lancer the year before: poisoning the cattle with cyanide, getting that crystal ball gazer to make Jelly believe he was dying and then taking a shot at Murdoch. Johnny was stunned at his persistence. The sheer audacity of the man made his blood boil - which wasn't an easy task right now.   He was still weak and pale and had lost some weight.

Sam knew he would not heal well until he was home, though. So, they padded the bed of a wagon and took Johnny home. He was lain on a thick layer of hay covered by blankets. Johnny gritted his teeth as the wagon lurched forward, then allowed himself to relax a bit and close his eyes as he realized the pain was tolerable.

Scott had finally, by piecemeal, gotten the whole story. He had thought to berate Johnny for not telling him straight out there was a problem. But, after thinking it through, he could see that things went awry very quickly. His brother had few resources to depend on. Like himself, Scott knew Johnny was the type of man who wanted to make sure things were done right. That meant actually seeing to it himself.

A smirk crossed Scott's face as he drove the wagon home. Murdoch had been so sure in the beginning that Johnny was irresponsible. It was no more true then than it was now.

"Something amusing, son?" Murdoch asked.

"Hmm? Oh, no, I was just thinking," Scott answered, glancing back to see Johnny resting. "He did a good job. I mean, he took it all on his shoulders and came through."

Murdoch frowned. "He shouldn't have had to do it alone."  

"No, he shouldn't. I guess we're never too old to learn valuable lessons," Scott raised his brows.

Murdoch bit his tongue and took his medicine. He figured it was the least he deserved. He also figured Johnny would never mention any of it to him.

Johnny realized they had stopped moving though he couldn't say for how long. He opened his eyes to a bearded and grinning face. His own face lit in a smile.

"Jelly!" he proclaimed as he started to sit up.

"Whoa there now. Let us help ya and welcome home, Johnny. Got your room all ready for ya."

"You okay?" Johnny asked, his face growing solemn.

"Fine as frog's hair. Now, stop yer worryin and let us get ya in a proper bed," Jelly gruffed.

*****

Johnny sighed as he melted into his bed. That's what it felt like. A smile of simple and pure joy lit his face as he snuggled in. Scott was grinning ear to ear himself as he watched his brother's reactions.

He covered Johnny and tucked just a little. Just for his own satisfaction. With a glance toward his father, Scott nudged Jelly out of the room.

Murdoch pulled a chair to the bedside and sat. He leaned forward, resting his arms on his thighs and rubbing his hands together slowly.

Johnny watched all this with interest. Wondering what was going through the old man's mind. He reckoned if he waited long enough, he might find out.

Finally, Murdoch looked up to find himself being watched. He smiled weakly. "How do you feel, son?"

"A little tired but okay."

Murdoch nodded. "Johnny, I wanted to talk to you. I wanted to .... apologize."

Johnny stared at him for a second, mouth hanging open in shock. When had Murdoch ever apologized? "For what?"

"For what? For everything. If I hadn't been so stubborn. If I'd told you the truth from the beginning all this could have been avoided," Murdoch stated in a surprised voice.

"Are you sure? I mean, how do you know what might have happened?" Johnny asked.

"I don't. All I know is I could have been home. We could have fought this together. Instead, I allowed everything to spiral out of control." Murdoch's tone was one of frustration. He spoke through gritted teeth toward the end, trying to control his anger at himself.    

Johnny bit the inside of his cheek, then let go. He dropped his eyes then looked back with something akin to need reflected in his gaze. "I did all right, didn't I?"

"You did a fantastic job, son. I'm very proud of you. I know you were disappointed in me though."

"Yeah, I was at first. I guess I just don't understand why you thought you had to handle this alone."

The rancher sighed then stood and began to pace. He stopped by the window and stared at nothing. "Do you remember the first day you and Scott came home? What I said about loving this ranch?"

"Not likely to forget it," Johnny mumbled.

Murdoch winced a bit. "I worked so hard, lost so much building and keeping the land. It was never easy. Not ever. I guess I just couldn't let myself relinquish that control. My family was being threatened. I felt it was my job to stop it. You see, every problem that's arisen over the years; it's been my job to fix it."

"But you don't have to do it alone anymore, Murdoch. I know it's hard for you to let people help you but you've done it before. When you sent for Scott and me it was because you couldn't do it alone. There's no shame in needing help sometimes."

Murdoch nodded his head. "I know that, son. I guess I just wasn't thinking clearly. I didn't think things through."

Johnny frowned in thought. "You know, there's something else you might not have thought about. With everything happening so fast, none of us has had a chance to even think about Rob. We lost a really good friend," his voice trembled near the end as the sadness engulfed him once more.  

Murdoch turned and looked at his son. An expression of dawning on his face. He closed his eyes and bowed his head for a second before looking back. "You're absolutely right. I don't know how Sally will ever be able to forgive me."

"It wasn't your fault."

"It was because of Lancer that he lost his life. For no other reason than simple greed," Murdoch stated, anger rising in his tone.

"That's usually the reason for senseless killin," Johnny sighed.

"You must be tired. I'll let you get some rest."

"Yeah, I am. Murdoch, just remember Scott and I are here. This is our home, too. We'll always fight to keep it and the family safe. You're not alone anymore." Johnny spoke softly and sincerely.

"Thank you, son. I'll check on you later," Murdoch answered and left quietly.

******

In the kitchen, Scott was filling Teresa in on the details of all that had happened. Murdoch poured a cup of coffee and smiled as he listened. Scott was being very careful not to blow things out of proportion.

He settled at the table and blew on the hot brew, frowning as he heard the story from a different perspective than his own.

He decided to interrupt. "The truth is, darling, I made some mistakes. Thankfully, we will all survive and I can learn from them."

Teresa was stunned at the admission. "I'm sure that's an exaggeration."

"No, it is not. I'm afraid I'm not as infallible as you'd like to think, honey," Murdoch stated adamantly.

Scott reached over and took Teresa's hand. "What he's trying to say is; he's human like the rest of us."

Teresa gave Scott an exasperated look. "I know what he's saying. I just choose not to believe it. In my eyes, " she said as she turned back to Murdoch with a smile, "you're perfect."

Both men chuckled at that statement.

"That's wonderful to hear, sweetheart. I'm afraid that would be the exaggeration, however. I'm just grateful everyone will be all right," he sighed a little.

Teresa nodded and stood. Walking to the stove, she started a stew for supper.

Scott turned to his father. "Did you two get a chance to talk?" he asked then took a sip from his cup.

"We did. He was too nice about it but it was a good talk."

Scott thought to say something but was interrupted by a knock on the door. He went to answer and returned with Val in tow.

"Sit down, Sheriff. Would you like some coffee?" Teresa offered.

"Yes, ma'am. That'd be nice," Val said as he snatched his hat off his head and made a slight bow.

"What brings you out, Sheriff?" Murdoch asked.

"Well, I got some good news for a change. That Stone fella spilled his guts when the judge talked to 'im. McGovern went ahead and confessed when he found that out. Won't be no need for a trial."

Scott's shoulders slumped in relief. He hadn't wanted his family going through all that. Especially Johnny. He'd been through enough.

"That is good news, Val. Thank you for coming out to tell us," Murdoch spoke.

"How's Johnny?"

"Tired and too thin," Scott answered.

"Well, I'm sure Miss Teresa will fatten 'im right back up with her good cookin," Val grinned.

Teresa smiled sweetly at the man before continuing her cooking.

Murdoch left them chatting and took to his refuge. His desk, or more precisely, his window. Staring out across the land he loved so much, his thoughts cleared.

He thought of all that had happened in the past few days. He thought of his son laying upstairs and said a silent prayer of thanks. Johnny would recover. Sam had said another week of rest then he could start doing light chores. He shook his head at his own stubborness. Pride, really. For so many years he'd had no one to rely on. No one to whom this land could mean as much. The closest he'd come was Teresa's father. Paul knew and understood the land.

But, Murdoch had always felt a heavy burden. It was his responsibility and his alone. When his sons had come home to be his partners, he'd thought the load would be lessened. But he wasn't able to let go so easily. He called the tune. A slight chuckle escaped with that thought. Johnny had put him in his place in that jail cell. Truth be known, he'd been angry, yes, but proud as well.

If he would only let them, they would carry most of that load for him and willingly so. He knew they loved the ranch as much as he. For all this, he also knew it would be hard to let go even an inch. It would take time and patience and faith in his boys. He had the time and faith, the patience was in question. Again, he chuckled softly.

Just admit it, man. You are a stubborn Scot. It's inborn and Scott and Johnny inherited it from you. Knowing that gave him solace because he knew they would wait. They understood and would allow him his tune as long as he needed to call it. He supposed it was one way they showed how much they cared. A smile adorned Murdoch Lancer's face. Taking a deep, cleansing breath, he knew all would be well again in his world.

 

 

~end~
2004

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