The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Reclamation

 

 

 

Johnny lay on his cot, his hands clasped behind his head and stared at the ceiling above him. Suddenly, two large hands pressed down on his shoulders bouncing him up and down. The big man laughed heartily as he continued his play. Johnny smiled and even laughed little.

"Tomorrow you'll be a free man, Johnny. Ain't ya happy?"

"Sure."

The man gave him an odd look but continued to smile. "What will you do on your first day of freedom?"

Johnny's eyes grew cold. "Got some business to take care of. That's all."

Leroy nodded solemnly. The relationship had begun tenuously but eventually he had come to realize that Johnny may well be the only really innocent man in the entire prison. Now, he was well aware of the look he was seeing in the young manâ€s eyes. It was nothing more than simple revenge.

Johnny stared at the ceiling and went inside himself. His thoughts wandered back in time six months to when he had first entered this hellhole. Leroy had always been his cell mate but not always his friend. Their first meeting had been severe. Johnny had been convinced that he may not survive that first night. Soon enough, he had fought off the man's attacks and won his respect. Since then, they had slowly developed a strained friendship that was now more solid. Johnny trusted this man enough to tell him at least some of his story.

What he had told Leroy was very little in reality. He would never divulge that much of his family history. Now, he couldn't help but remember what had landed him here in the first place.

Six months. Six slow and agonizing months. That was how long he'd been in San Quentin. The only thing that kept him from going insane was knowing his family would need him at some point. Now, that time had come.

Just one more day, one more agonizingly slow night and he would be a free man. What he didn't know was how Scott and Murdoch were faring. But, he would have no way of knowing until he was free. And even then he would have to wait until he could reach them.

*****

Morning broke finally. Johnny had not slept one minute of the night, so anxious was he to rid himself of the stench of prison. The guards were not as anxious to be rid of him however as they took their sweet time releasing him.

Johnny collected his belongings, scowling at the fact that his gun was not amongst his possessions. He knew it had been left behind so long ago. Still, even after all these months, he felt naked without it.

He stepped through the main gate and breathed deeply of freedom. Closing his eyes, he tilted his head back and relished the sun on his face. When he opened his eyes and looked around he was surprised to see someone waiting for him. Tension mounted briefly in his shoulders. As quickly as it had come, he released it.

"How the hell did you know?"

Val Crawford grinned and shrugged his shoulders. "Been keepin tabs. What else was I gonna do?"

Johnny cocked his head and looked thoughtfully at his oldest friend. "What exactly have you been doing?"

"This and that," Val said mysteriously.

Johnny only nodded but the smile that so easily came to his face in the past was missing. "Have you been keepin tabs on Scott and Murdoch, too?" Johnny asked.

"As a matter of fact, I have. They both get out next month. Just enough time," Val said knowingly.

Johnny nodded, "get outta where?"

Val raised a brow at this.

"They wouldn't tell me a damn thing in there," Johnny tossed his head angrily behind him.

Val sighed and shook his head. "Folsom."

Johnny clamped his teeth together and said nothing.

"Well, come on. We'll stay in San Francisco tonight. Got a room waitin. Figured you might wanna get a proper bath. You sure could use a haircut and shave!"

Johnny said nothing about the barb, knowing he looked like just what he was. An ex-con fresh from prison. He mounted the horse Val had brought him and felt a pang of loss, thinking of his beloved palomino. He didn't ask, figured Val wouldn't know anyway, if Barranca was still even alive.

*****

The city wasn't far and they arrived just at noon. Val led the way to the hotel. Small but clean and functional. Just what Johnny needed. They walked right past the desk and up the stairs. Val opened the room and waved his friend inside.

On the bed was a new set of clothes. A dark blue shirt with red and gold embroidery, a pair of black calzoneros, socks, boots and, most importantly, Johnny's own gun and belt.

He picked up the weapon, hefting it in his hand as he tried to get the feel for it back. "Where'd ya get this?"

"Last thing I did before throwin my badge at that so-called mayor was heist your gun from the jail," he explained with a growl.

Johnny's shoulders slumped. "Thanks, Val."

"I didn't quit on your account!"

Johnny raised his head, a soft smile on his lips. "Never said you did," he argued softly.

"Yeah, well. The bath is at the end of the hall."

Johnny nodded, collected the new clothes and left the room.

For a small hotel, it had all the amenities. Running hot water filled the tub and Johnny almost cried with relief. He shucked his old clothes, worn and moth-eaten from time stored - wherever the hell they'd been stored. With a second thought, he walked over and locked the door, wincing a little at the sound of the lock striking home. He'd come to hate that sound.

There was a full-length mirror in the room and he took stock. He'd lost a few pounds for sure. Hard, back-breaking work coupled with lousy food had seen to that. He looked at the labels inside the clothes and smiled. Seemed Val had taken account for this and the clothes were a size smaller than his normal. Either that, or - and this was more likely - Val didn't have a clue what size to buy.

Johnny chuckled at that thought as he eased into the hot water, sighing with the pure joy of such a simple task. He laid his head on the rim and relaxed into the heat.

Well, I'm a free man. Wonder how long that'll last? He wondered more as to the state in which he'd find his family. He had done little else but worry about Murdoch in particular these last six months. He had confidence that Scott could handle himself but Murdoch, well, he'd lost everything including his freedom. Johnny knew this could well destroy his father and he'd prayed hard all this time that was not the case. The only other thing that occupied his thoughts was revenge. And he would have it in one fashion or the other. Even if it meant winding up right back where he'd just left. He would avenge what was stolen from them all. The most precious thing in the world.

He pushed that thought away for now, for it only served to fuel his rage. And right now, he needed to stay as calm as possible. Stay focused on what lay ahead. He'd planned it all out. He had two scenarios to work with. One that included his family, one that didn't. In case they refused to go along, which he couldn't imagine. But, if they did, Johnny would seek his vengeance in his second plan. The one that would end in either his death or life-long imprisonment. Right now, he didn't care which.

The only thing he hadn't planned on was Val, but that wasn't a problem. He knew as soon as he'd seen his friend's face that Val was ready for anything Johnny had in mind. The only problem to sort out was making sure Val didn't suffer anymore.

*****

Half an hour passed before he decided he'd like to apply some soap to his body now. Johnny scrubbed his skin until every inch was red from the friction. He hadn't felt clean for so long. Bathing in prison was a free for all and always a battle. He'd learned quickly to wash up in the sink and wait until he was alone to take care of the more private parts. No one tried to lay a finger on him after the second attempt. Johnny had made sure of that! He grinned a little thinking about it.

After scrubbing himself nearly bald and dunking his head, he raised up slowly, allowing the water to drain off him like a waterfall. He was still muscular from breaking rocks all day. His waist was a little slimmer, his thighs, too but all in all, he didn't think it was that bad. He could recover the weight quickly.

He stepped out, making a small puddle and dried himself, making sure he got completely dry. Another luxury that hadn't been afforded in prison. He never dared take the time for that. Getting half way clean was enough of a challenge then.

Johnny laid the towel on the bench and sat for a few minutes just relishing in the privacy. Completely and totally alone. No one to come busting in on him. Able to just sit there naked as the day he was born and not worry about his manhood being wrenched away. Goosebumps broke out as he thought of how close he'd come to that happening. But it hadn't and not for the first time, he prayed his brother had escaped that fate as well. He figured he would know the minute he saw Scott.

Scott! How he missed his brother! He could picture the man in his mind so clearly. His smile, those intense blue eyes. That smirk he got when he was teasing or sarcastic. And the humble look he got sometimes.

Johnny swallowed hard at the lump in his throat and shook himself a little. He examined his body thoroughly. He hadn't felt any itching but he wanted to make sure he hadn't caught anything in that hellhole. Satisfied he was free of varmints, he dressed and left the bath anxious to have a strategy session with Val.

He walked into the room and stopped suddenly. The smell was incredible and he almost thought he was dreaming. His eyes found the table near the window and he smiled at the fare. Steak, real steak, and potatoes steaming from the plates. And Val, grinning like an idiot as he sat in one of the chairs.

"Hungry?"

Johnny's crooked smile was all the answer he got as he joined Val and tucked in.

As they sat languishing over the last cup of coffee, the food demolished, Val watched Johnny's expression change from pleasure to deep thought.

"What's the plan?" he asked abruptly.

Johnny looked up at him and smiled briefly. "Scott and Murdoch, first. Depends on what shape they're in after that."

"Wish I could tell ya some news but I didn't even try to see any of ya. Didn't think it was such a good idea. Though, I don't think he's payin any mind now."

"You don't think so or you know for a fact?" Johnny asked harshly.

Val's eyes narrowed. "Fact," he clipped.

Johnny nodded and sat back in the chair, relieved to hear this. "Reckon it'll take about three days to get there."

"Yep, that's what I figured. But, we got time, Johnny. If we give it a week, you'll have some time to practice. Got plenty of ammo."

Johnny frowned at this then nodded his head. "Yeah, good idea. I .... I don't want to visit them in there. Is that bad?"

"Nope, it's smart. Way I see it, we should lay low anyhow. No sense in showin yourself til you have to."

"Guess so. Well, it'll be nice to sleep in a real bed again," he smiled.

"For tonight. Then it's the trail for a while," Val reminded him. "So, what IS the plan?"

Johnny grinned at him. "I've got a couple of ideas but they both hinge on how things are at the ranch and how Murdoch and Scott are doin." The darkness fell over his face again as he thought of his family and what they may have dealt with in Folsom.

Folsom! Of all the places for his father to be stuck in. Well, he could do nothing about it and part of him was glad he hadn't known where they'd been sent. A much bigger part was grateful they'd at least been together. Though, why he'd been separated from them he wasn't sure. Guess they didn't want me causin trouble. He almost laughed at that. Still, there had to be a real reason. He pondered this as his lids grew heavy.

"Johnny!" Val shouted.

His head jerked up and he looked quizzically at his friend.

"Time to tuck you in, boy. You're about to fall asleep sittin there," Val said more softly.

Johnny rubbed a hand over his face and stood up, stretching his muscles. "Guess we can talk about things on the road tomorrow," he yawned.

"Yep. Got plenty of time and nothin but ocean to look at most of the way," Val agreed.

*****

They headed out south the next morning along the coast road. There was no hurry and they decided to stop every day a few hours before dusk so Johnny could practice with the Colt he hadn't held in so long. It felt heavy on his hip and a little odd but he knew he'd grow used to it in no time. He only hoped his expertise would come back quickly.

Johnny laid out his two plans for Val who was impressed but not surprised. The only thing that surprised him was that one plan excluded his family. That Johnny would even consider Scott and Murdoch refusing to go along with this was unimaginable. But, he knew Johnny always had a back up plan. Always thought about the not so obvious and always tried to look at a thing from all angles. That's what had made Madrid so good. He always expected the unexpected.

Val put in his two cents worth which Johnny was as impressed with and no more surprised. It had been a long friendship to this point and one Johnny valued highly.

They found a suitable campsite and set it up quickly. Val worked on coffee after listening to Johnny harp on his abilities in that area for a good five minutes before he sent the man off to work.

He could hear the shots, an interminable amount of time between each one. Val worried about this and so many other things, including Johnny's frame of mind. He seemed his old self but Val knew how prison affected men. Johnny would be no different. It would just take some time to show itself. He was prepared for it as much as he could be, he reckoned.

An hour later, Johnny walked back into camp with a scowl on his face.

"Give it time. Did ya expect to be shooting the wings off mosquitoes right off?" Val asked.

"No, I guess not," Johnny mumbled as he sat down heavily by the fire.

"You always was too hard on yourself," Val opined as he pointed a piece of jerky at Johnny for emphasis.

"Got anymore of that?"

"Sure," he tossed the dried meat. "Don't ruin your supper," he grinned.

Johnny grinned as he pulled off a piece with his teeth and chewed it slowly.

Val pulled himself up. "Well, speakin of supper, reckon I'll get to it."

Johnny watched him thinking they'd just take turns every night. That's how they'd always done it. He sighed heavily.

Val dished out the beans and handed him a plate. "What now?"

"Nothin. Just thinkin about when we used to ride together," Johnny answered quietly.

A grin broke out on Val's face. "Yeah, I remember the first time I laid eyes on your scrawny hide. I thought that couldn't be Johnny Madrid," he laughed.

Johnny smiled wanly. "Scrawny?"

"Yep, scrawny. Ya know ya was. Just a kid. What was ya then, seventeen?"

Shrugging, he sighed out, "about that."

Val kept grinning for a few minutes then cocked a brow as he leered at Johnny. "Good thing I came along to save your sorry hide."

Johnny stopped with his fork in midair and looked over with an astonished expression. "Excuse me? YOU saved ME?"

Val, sitting up straight and with an indignant look, stated, "you're darn tootin, I did. Seems your memory ain't too good, Johnny. Them folks was about to skin you alive. "

Johnny waved his fork in the air in a sign of dismissal. "I had it under control."

Val snorted loudly at this. "Sure ya did. All tied up like a Christmas goose! I suppose that rope hangin off that tree was all a part of your plan, too!"

Johnny grinned wickedly. "Of course, it was. Had them right where I wanted them."

Val shook his head in disbelief. "Ya know, I always did know ya was cocky as hell but this takes the cake!" After a few seconds, he went on. "You never did tell me what that was all about?"

"I didn't? Well, it wasn't much, really. There was this pretty little senorita and well, she couldn't keep her hands off me. I swear it!" Johnny proclaimed as he saw the look of disbelief on his friend's face. "Anyway, we were, um, occupied in the barn when her father walked in on us. I was .... well ..... unprepared for a gunfight," he stopped and grinned at the memory of the girl.

"And?"

"He had me dead to rights. Pointed his rifle at me the whole time I was gettin dressed. Then, he called up his cronies and they dragged me out to that tree. You know the rest."

"All that over some girl!"

"You didn't see her, Val. She was something."

"Somethin ta die for?" Val sneered.

Johnny's grin faded. "I never did thank you for that, I don't think," he said solemnly.

"Yeah, ya did a month later if you'll remember," Val sighed out.

Johnny cocked his head in thought then a smile burst through again. "Oh, yeah. You sure did rile them cowboys up."

"They had it comin!"

"Still, Val, six of 'em?" Johnny cocked a brow of his own.

"Reckon they'll think twice before badmouthin ...."

Johnny watched him when he stopped talking. He could swear he saw a blush cross Val's scruffy cheeks. "Badmouthin what? What was that all about?"

Val shrugged. "For as much time as we spent together, we sure didn't talk much."

"You're avoidin the question, amigo. Badmouthin what?" Johnny asked, not to be denied his answer.

Val breathed in deeply then let it out slowly. "You. Well, not you in particular but mixed folks. Ah, they was makin fun of this poor fella that came in for a drink. Bartender threw 'im out but they got in their licks. Just made me mad, is all."

Johnny smiled and lowered his head. "We had us some good times that year, didn't we?"

"Year and a half by my reckonin and yeah, we sure did." Val smiled then frowned. "How come we split up?"

Johnny raised both brows. "And you talk about my memory? You decided to get all lawful on me."

"Oh yeah." Val rubbed his chin as he remembered. "That is when that happened. I'm regrettin that decision now," he spat the last sentence.

"Well, don't! You were a damned fine lawman. Still would be if ....."

"I done told ya I didn't quit cause of you!" Val shouted.

Johnny sighed and tossed his plate on the ground. "Sure, Val. It's just that sometimes I wish I hadn't asked you to come to Green River, is all."

"Well, I ain't sorry for it," Val stated emphatically.

"I'm gonna clean up and get some shut eye," Johnny said softly.

*****

For a week they took their time. Johnny improved on his draw and by the time they reached Sacramento, he was almost back in form. They spent the time reminiscing about the old days. The days they'd rode together. Most nights left them with aching sides from laughing so hard at their own antics.

Johnny was once again reminded of what a good friend Val had been to him. He hoped Val knew that but he wasn't about to bring it up. The former sheriff would only get grouchy on him. Johnny smiled at the thought. When wasn't Val grouchy?

His mood sobered as they rode down the street to the livery. His eyes were ever watchful and he was relieved his instincts were still there. Not as finely honed but he knew that would come in time.

They checked into a hotel and Val plopped down on the bed.

"I hope you're keepin tabs on the money you're spendin. I aim to pay you back," Johnny said.

"Don't think I ain't!" Val groused indignantly.

Johnny gave him a grimace. "I'm going to the Cattlemen's Association."

"What're ya gonna do there?"

"I hope I'm going to find Henry Richards still in charge. Or, at least, available. And I'm hoping he's still loyal to Murdoch," Johnny explained.

He stepped out of the hotel and looked up and down the street, across it and in any alleys and doorways. Johnny shook his head. He figured no one would be looking for him. He hoped that, anyway. He turned left and headed toward the only place he knew he could find some help.

It took about two seconds for the office door to swing open and Henry Richards to appear with an anxious and surprised expression.

"Johnny! What .... never mind, come inside," Richards greeted with a fervent handshake.

Johnny smiled and walked into the office, sitting in front of the huge cherry desk. It hadn't changed a bit. Sometimes, he forgot he'd only been gone six months. It felt like six years.

"When did you get out?" Richards was asking.

"Last week. Murdoch and Scott get out in about two weeks."

"Thank God! Well, I'm so glad to see you. What can I do for you, Johnny?"

"Well, I'm hoping first that you'll tell me you still consider my father a good friend."

Richards sat back in his chair stunned by that statement. "Of course, I do, Johnny. You and Scott as well."

Johnny nodded and shifted in his seat so he could lean forward, resting his forearms on his thighs. "I'll get right to it. I need money. I don't know when I can pay you back."

"How much?"

"Five hundred should do it."

"Done. What else?" Richards asked.

Johnny smiled at the man. "Tell me everything that's been happening at the ranch."

Richards' frown made Johnny's heart drop to his stomach.

"It won't be easy to hear, son."

"I didn't expect it to be but I have to know," Johnny said softly.

"Are you going to try and take Lancer back?" Richards asked and Johnny heard hope in his tone.

"Damned straight!"

Richards smiled and began to fill him in on the last six months.

Johnny felt sick when he left that office. He leaned against the building's wall for a few seconds before making himself walk back to the hotel.

He filled Val in, waited for him to rant and rave a while, then started strategizing. Now that he knew exactly what they were up against, he could visualize his plans more clearly.

The more he talked, the happier Val Crawford got. It was dangerous, maybe even illegal, but he liked it and thought it just might work.

"Now, we're going to take a little ride to Morro Coyo," Johnny finished.

"Are ya crazy? You can't show your face there!" Val shouted.

"Calm down! I don't plan to. But, I want to see for myself, Val. I *have* to and before Scott and Murdoch get out."

Val scratched his head. "Reckon that makes sense. Just don't make me have ta lasso ya in. That temper of yours ...."

"I'll be fine," Johnny said sharply and hoped it was the truth. He knew going back would be hard. Seeing what had become of Lancer was going to rip his guts out. But he had to go. It was that simple.

*****

Scott lay on his cot with his hands behind his head as he stared at the frayed mattress ropes above him. For six months he'd been waiting for them to break and come tumbling down on top of him. With his luck, that would happen tonight, he thought wryly.

The only saving grace was that his cell mate was a slender old man. Yes, that was the only saving grace about him, he frowned. He was more grouchy than even Jelly. Scott sighed thinking of the old handyman. He wondered what had become of Jelly. Of all the employees. But, he pushed those thoughts away, unable to deal with the images his mind wanted to bring forth.

Gus, his cellmate who was snoring for all he was worth at the moment, had them all beat hands down. Scott had offered to take the top bunk when he'd first arrived. He only got an earful of how he must think Gus was decrepit and how the man had battled Indians and famine, deserts and yankees and come out without a scratch.

Scott hadn't believed it, of course. But, he simply tried to smile and begged the man's pardon. The last thing he intended to do while in prison was cause any trouble. Now, he was spending his last night here and it was the longest night of his life.

His thoughts turned to his father, wondering how he was faring. Scott had watched helplessly as Murdoch shrank away from him - literally. The man wasn't much more than a scarecrow now. He remembered when they'd first come here. Murdoch had been assigned to kitchen duty and that's the only time Scott was allowed to see him. For two months, Murdoch would meet his gaze with a confidence that gave Scott so much strength. Then, one day, Murdoch had looked at him with defeat in those once proud eyes. He'd simply shook his head and Scott had known what he was saying. Their appeal had been denied.

Since that day, Scott had witnessed the change. Slow at first then spiraling downward. Murdoch wouldn't look at him most days. The times he did broke Scott's heart. He couldn't even talk to Murdoch lest he be punished by the guards. They weren't allowed to attend church at the same time on Sunday or to be out in the yard at the same time. Scott had puzzled over this for weeks until he finally realized where that pull was coming from. Since that time, he'd looked on the guards with near hatred.

He wasn't sure about the warden since he'd only met him once. He was hard and cold but Scott thought nothing of that. His job dictated he behave such. But, was he honest? Scott didn't know and he didn't care anymore. There was only one thing he cared about right now. Getting his father the hell out of here.

And Johnny. Scott's heart raced when he thought of his brother. They had no idea how Johnny was faring. No one would tell them a thing. No one came to visit. He knew his second task after getting some sort of help for Murdoch was to find out about Johnny. He prayed harder than he ever had that his brother had survived.

Scott wondered about how hard it would be for Johnny Madrid to be locked up in prison. If his reputation would make him a target. That question had been answered brutally just a few weeks ago when he'd seen a gunfighter knifed across the yard from him one day. He'd heard the rumors. 'Serves him right' 'couldn't expect any less' and on and on. Still, he couldn't imagine why these men would have a grudge against someone of that profession. He'd wanted to ask someone if it was that man in particular or gunfighters in general that were despised. But he didn't dare because he'd made a point of keeping to himself. Not an easy chore to be sure.

But, he'd been in prison before. Still, this was different. Worse, in fact. The conditions were much better than Libby but there was no camaraderie here. No common cause to unite them all. In Libby, he'd been with fellow soldiers, all fighting for the freedom of all men. Here, he was surrounded by murderers and rapist. Thieves and thugs. No, it was not the same. It was worse in so many ways. The distance from his family, even though Murdoch was only one cell block away, wrenched at his heart.

Worst of all was the not knowing.

He sighed and shifted in his cot bringing on a snort and some unidentifiable noise from the cot above. Scott winced and shook his head. Gus was a pistol alright.

It was the anger that he worried over. It was so much less now. Was he accepting his lot? He hoped not because he'd spent a considerable amount of time planning what would happen when they were freed. He was sure his brother was doing the same. Scott smiled thinking of how he and Johnny would compare plans, take the best of both and meld them together.

But the ache came back. The longing and the fear. How are you, brother? Are you alive? Please, dear God, let him be alive.


Scott arose and sat on the edge of the thin mattress, leaning over as there was no room to sit up straight. He knew he would not sleep tonight. He wondered if Murdoch was. If the man was even aware they were getting out tomorrow. If, indeed, Murdoch would ever be the man he had once been.

*****

Johnny paced in front of the gate. He knew the guard was watching him closely but he didn't care about that. His nerves were frazzled. They were so close to being together again and it scared him. Fear that something had or would happen to his family before they made it out that gate. He didn't know what shape they'd be in but he had to believe they were alright. A huge part of him was forcing itself to believe that. It was that smaller part that made him feel like screaming.

He stopped and turned as he heard the squeaky hinges, the door opening slowly. Johnny held his breath.

Scott stepped out, half-turned back as he guided Murdoch through. Johnny's mouth dropped open when he saw his father, or he thought it was his father. But the shock was replaced with such a rush of relief, he felt dizzy from it.

Scott was speaking softly to Murdoch, guiding him along. His mind awhirl with how he was going to get them to Sacramento. They had twenty dollars between them for services rendered. Scott wanted to snort at that description. He didn't know if there was a stage or cab service out here. He didn't know a damned thing! And the guards surely weren't about to offer any assistance. Scott had refused to ask for any, though. He was still angry at being kept away from his father all this time.

He stopped and stood perfectly still, afraid to turn around, afraid it was a dream or a hallucination. Then, he heard it again.

"Scott?"

Johnny waited for his brother to acknowledge him. All he could see right now was too-long blond hair and worn clothes. Then, he turned.

Johnny smiled fully as he and Scott stepped toward each other simultaneously. They embraced tightly for several minutes before Johnny pulled away a little and placed a hand on each side of his brother's whiskered face.

"You are a sight for sore eyes, brother," he laughed. He had to blink several times to force the tears away. Scott was doing the same.

"I wasn't sure .... we didn't know how you were, when.....," Scott stammered a little, still floored that he was holding his brother.

"Three weeks ago," Johnny nodded. His eyes went to Murdoch who was staring at the ground then back to Scott. The older brother could only shake his head.

Johnny stepped in front of his father. "Murdoch?"

Slowly, the pale blue eyes raised and found the concerned face. Murdoch raised a shaky hand and cupped his son's face. "Johnny?" he whispered.

Johnny stepped in and wrapped his arms around his father as Murdoch returned the hug loosely. Then, Johnny reached out his right arm for Scott who stepped in. Murdoch pulled an arm out and wrapped it around Scott. It seemed to the older brother as if the man was just then realizing he was there. As if he hadn't known Scott had walked him all the way across the yard and out the gate. He didn't think his heart could take much more of this.

Val Crawford wrinkled his nose and turned away from the reunion before he made a fool of himself. He pretended to be caring for the draft horses as he wiped at his eyes.

*****

They finally pulled apart and Johnny cleared his throat. "I've got rooms for us in town."

"How did you know when we'd get out?" Scott asked.

Johnny nodded toward the buckboard. "It's good to have friends," he smiled.

Scott saw Val for the first time and nodded, his face tight. Johnny moved to Murdoch's side and together, they led their father to the wagon.

Once Scott and Murdoch were tucked in the back seat, Johnny slid in next to Val and simply nodded. Val slapped the reins and they were on their way.

Johnny positioned himself so he could look back at them. "So, you gonna keep that?" he grinned as he scratched at Scott's beard.

"No, I don't think so," Scott laughed and slapped his hand away. "How did you manage to get out early?" he asked, the information just now registering.

Shrugging, he answered, "good behavior. Don't laugh!" he warned when he saw Scott's smirk.

Johnny looked over at Murdoch who was looking at the passing scenery. The question in his eyes was easy to read but Scott shook his head. They'd discuss it later.

They pulled up in front of a nice yet low-key hotel and Johnny jumped out and waited for Scott to pull Murdoch out and to his feet. Johnny could not believe this was his father. That this was Murdoch Lancer. He felt the tightness in his chest as the emotions began to overwhelm him. Turning away, he whispered in Val's ear then headed inside.

"There's a bath down the hall. Murdoch, you want to take a bath?" Johnny asked.

The older man just nodded.

"Well, I'll show you were it is. Val's goin to get some new clothes for you. He'll be back before you're ready to get out." Johnny kept up the prattle as he led Murdoch out and down the hall.

Val had disappeared and Scott was left to himself. He wandered around the room, looking out the window then sitting on the bed, jumping on it a little to test the mattress. He felt overwhelmed and sighed heavily.

"It gets better," Johnny said from the doorway. He moved through and closed the door.

"When?" Scott asked sincerely.

Johnny plopped down on the bed opposite his brother. "In a couple of weeks you'll be looking a lot better and feeling better, too."

"Is that how long it took you?"

Johnny frowned at that. "Still taking me, I guess, but it is better," he shrugged.

*****

"How did he .... I mean did something happen?" Johnny asked quietly.

"After the appeal was denied, he started ..... losing hope, I guess. We weren't allowed to talk to each other at all."

Johnny scowled. "What the hell do you mean? You were right there together!"

"Yes, but in separate cell blocks, separate yard times, separate everything. I saw him three times a day at meals. He worked the kitchen and served the trays but we weren't allowed to speak," Scott explained calmly. He was almost numb to it by now.

Johnny stood up and paced the room, furious. His fists clenched and unclenched as he tapped them against his thighs. He stopped and turned, looking at Scott in disbelief. His brother was laughing.

"I'm sorry," Scott grinned. "I've missed that so much."

Johnny started to ask what then realized the meaning. He relaxed and sat back down. "I didn't know if you were together or not. They wouldn't tell me anything either. If it hadn't been for Val, I don't know what I would have done," he spoke softly.

Scott's shoulders tensed. "I noticed he isn't wearing a badge."

"Nope. He quit. But, is was *not* because of me, he'll be quick to tell ya," Johnny laughed.

Scott's eyes were down but Johnny could see the frown.

"Hey, what's wrong?"

"I just .... it seems to me he could have done something, Johnny."

"Like what? Get himself thrown in prison, too? Come on, Scott. Val had no choice, either. You know that. He's been a good friend to me for a lot of years."

Scott inhaled deeply. "You're right. I guess I'm just ready to blame the world," he smiled weakly.

"Well, concentrate on who's really to blame. But, let's wait a while to get into that. I got a barber on his way to make you pretty again," Johnny grinned devilishly.

Scott didn't smile, he looked long at his brother. "Thank you."

Johnny swallowed hard but he was saved by a knock on the door. "That's probably him," he said as he went to answer.

Johnny opened the door and let the man in. He took one look at Scott and gaped.

"Well, I take it you are the customer, Sir?" he asked, trying to recover.

"Yep, that's him. Just sit him where ya want him. Oh, there's new clothes for ya in the drawer, Scott," Johnny rattled off.

Scott stood to move to a chair then stopped. "You bought me new clothes but not Murdoch yet?"

Johnny dropped his eyes. "Well, I got him some things but Val's just gone to replace them with somethin .... smaller," he managed through the lump in his throat.

Scott could only nod.

"Sir, this way, please," the barber interrupted, pointing at a straight backed chair.

"Make him look sharp now. He just got out of prison," Johnny grinned. "I'm gonna go check on the old man," he added, quickly leaving before Scott threw something at him.

The barber gawked and Scott blushed a little.

"My brother has quite a sense of humor," he mumbled then sat in the chair.

Johnny tapped on the door and heard Murdoch call to come in. Well, he barely heard the soft voice he still didn't recognize. The door was unlocked and though he understood why, Johnny didn't think it such a good idea. Some lady might walk in on him and he was sure Murdoch couldn't take any more.

He ambled over to the bench where Murdoch had laid his clothes rather neatly. Johnny smiled a little at that as he picked them up and shook them out.

"Val's gone to get you some new clothes and such. Should be back any time now."

"I remember," Murdoch said.

Johnny glanced over and saw he was resting his head against the rim, his eyes closed as the steam rose around him. He grimaced at the collar bones so prominent now. He sat down on the bench and rested his back on the wall.

"The barber is in with Scott. Should take him an hour or so," Johnny laughed softly.

Murdoch only nodded that he'd heard.

"He'll be ready for you whenever so take your time."

"Thanks," Murdoch mumbled.

There was a light knock at the door and Johnny cracked it open and took the package from Val with a smile of appreciation. He unwrapped the clothes and laid them out on the bench.

"Val's taste is improving. These should fit. I'll just leave them here for you."

"Alright."

Johnny sighed softly and bundled up the old clothes under his arm. He stopped with his hand on the doorknob. "Take your time."

He moved quickly through the door so as not to cause too much of a breeze then leaned heavily against it for a minute. He shook the shirt from his pile and hung it on the knob. Hopefully, that'll let folks know it's occupied, he thought then returned to his brother.

The barber was just finishing the shave and starting on Scott's hair when he walked in. Val was lying on the bed with his boots dangling off the side, taking in the show with a grin.

"Figured you'd want to eat in the room tonight but we can go out," Johnny offered.

"I think it's best if we stay here," Scott answered.

Johnny walked over and stroked his brother's cheek. "Smooth," he grinned.

Scott rolled his eyes. "Maybe I haven't missed you all that much."

Johnny laughed then jumped on the other bed. "You want to sleep in the room with Murdoch or me? I gotta warn ya, Val snores - LOUD!"

"Then, you already know my answer."

"I'm right here, ya know," Val grumped.

The barber cleared his throat. "I understood there were two customers. Might you be the other one, Sir?" he asked, looking directly at Val.

Johnny rolled on the mattress.

"No, I ain't! Their pa is and he's bathin right now," he yelled then threw a pillow at Johnny.

The barber grimaced at the tone then addressed Scott. "Sir, please hold your head up."

Johnny looked over, seeing Scott's head down and was off the bed and kneeling beside him. "You okay? Need to rest?"

Scott shook his head. "No, no. I ... it's just ...." he sighed and shook his head hard then looked at his brother. "It's so good to hear you laugh."

Johnny locked onto those eyes and they stayed that way for what seemed forever. Val shot the barber a look and the man kept his mouth shut.

For long moments they both just stared. Both searching for and finding what they needed. Both looking deeper for what they hoped wasn't there. Both deeply relieved at not finding what they feared. Johnny squeezed his brother's shoulder then stood up and turned away.

"Go ahead," Scott choked out to the barber.

*****

Murdoch scrubbed his skin raw then rinsed and stepped out of the tub. He dried off vigorously then walked over to the bench and picked up the clothes, inspecting them.

He sat down and heaved heavily, dropping his head and letting out the misery. Finally, he was alone. Completely alone and he knew his sons would let him be until he was ready. Tears rolled down his face for all he'd lost and he allowed it - finally.

After several moments, he took a deep if hitching breath and pulled his shoulders back. He allowed himself to think again. For so long he'd closed himself off to everything around him. Even Scott and for that he was deeply ashamed. Though they had so little contact, he could have made those few brief moments meaningful. But, he hadn't. He'd gone inside himself and wallowed.

Anger began to burn in his veins and he relished, even welcomed it back. Finally, it was back! His thoughts turned to his sons, both now so close. They were together again. A family again. No bars, no restraints kept them away from each other. Only his own restraints and he resolved in that moment to let those fall away from him, as well.

It took some time but he stayed where he was until he could feel it happening. He knew it would take more than this. That there would be times when he faltered. He also knew his sons would be there to catch him. More tears sprung up but they were from such a deep love and not self-pity. These tears were more welcomed and they cleansed his soul.

Murdoch collected himself and got dressed. He stood and started out the door then stopped. Smiling for the first time in months, he went over and emptied and scrubbed out the tub for Scott so he wouldn't have to wait for the maid. It was a small gesture maybe but it was a start.

He finished the chore and tidied the room then, with a deep breath, opened the door. Murdoch stopped and a grin exploded on his face. Johnny. He knew I didn't want the door locked so he made sure to 'hang a sign'. He grabbed the old shirt and shook his head then returned to the room, a little surprised he even remembered where it was in his previous stupor.

Four heads turned toward the door as Murdoch walked in. Smiles lit three of the faces and he returned them in kind. "I cleaned the tub for you, son."

Scott stood up as the barber brushed the last stray hairs off his neck. "Thank you, Sir. You look better."

Murdoch could hear the question in that comment. It sounded a little desperate and his shame returned. He pushed it back down and nodded. "I feel *much* better."

"Well, I'm off to that tub then," Scott smiled fully and grabbed up his new clothes. As he passed his father, Murdoch reached out and took hold of his shoulder, squeezing gently.

Scott dropped his head and went on out.

"You next, Sir?" the barber asked, clearly ready to take his leave of them.

"Oh, yes, definitely," Murdoch smiled at the man and sat down.

Johnny was grinning ear to ear. He knew a bath had not brought on this change in the old man. He knew it was Murdoch himself who had fought his way back to them. And while he also knew this was only the beginning, he thought it a huge start.

"We thought we'd eat in the room tonight if that's alright with you," Johnny said.

"Good idea," Murdoch said, not ready to meet the outside world just yet. He had questions, so many questions. Yet, it had to wait. He certainly couldn't discuss things in front of the barber but he could tell Johnny had information. He'd heard him say he'd been free for three weeks. He knew his son had not been sitting on his laurels in that time. He thought of one or two more innocent queries to pose.

"Have you been practicing, son?" he asked nonchalantly.

Johnny's eyes came up and he faltered for a moment. "Yeah," he answered simply.

"That's good. I'm very glad to see you, too, Val."

"It's real good to see you again, too, Mr. Lancer. Been lookin forward to it," Val replied noncommittally.

"Who have you seen?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny shot a look at Val. "Henry Richards. It went well," he replied, giving Murdoch so much more of an answer than one would think by the simple words.

The older man closed his eyes and smiled a little. At least, we still have friends, he thought. "That's good, son. Very good."

It didn't take as long to groom Murdoch as it had Scott and soon the barber had finished and left them. Johnny tipped him generously and thanked him before scuttling him out the door.

"Scott might be in there all night," he laughed.

"I considered it myself," Murdoch said as he adjusted his collar. Looking at himself in the mirror, he grimaced. "I look like hell."

"Yeah, you do," Johnny said softly, his eyes down.

Val got up off the bed and cleared his throat. "Think I'll go arrange supper now," he said and left quickly.

Murdoch walked over to Johnny and put a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry, son."

"For what?" Johnny asked in surprise as he looked in his father's eyes.

Murdoch sighed. "For falling apart in there. I didn't take care of myself. I .... gave up, I guess."

To his surprise, Johnny's eyes narrowed. "Well, get over it cause we've got a lot to do."

Murdoch raised both brows then smiled. "I figured you had a plan. I'm sure Scott has some ideas, too. But, could we wait until tomorrow? I'd like to have this evening with my sons."

Johnny relaxed. "Absolutely. I .... I missed you both so much," he whispered the last.

Murdoch pulled him in and gave him a proper hug like he knew he should have outside the prison earlier. Johnny once more wrapped his arms around his father and relished the contact. And now, the strength he felt in the old man.

"I was so afraid something might happen to you," he mumbled into his father's chest.

"I was afraid, too, son. All I knew was that you were all alone."

Johnny pulled back a little and snorted. "From what I hear, so were you. Scott said they wouldn't let you be together. We'll make him pay, Murdoch. No matter what it takes, we'll make him pay!"

Murdoch increased his grip on Johnny's shoulders. "Yes, we will, son. I swear it."

They stood there, hands locked on each other's arms for long moments.

Murdoch's eyes flickered, dropped then met Johnny's gaze again. "Did they .... were you hurt in there?" he asked.

Johnny's face relaxed and he smiled. "No, they tried a couple of times but I made them see what a bad idea that would be."

Murdoch chuckled a little and Johnny thought it a sweet sound. "I'll bet you did."

"They didn't hurt Scott, either," Johnny stated.

"He told you?"

Shaking his head, he responded. "No, he didn't have to. I could see it in his eyes. Just like he could see it in mine."

Murdoch smiled and sighed softly. "I love you both so much."

He would have shaken the rafters with his laughter if it weren't for the seriousness of his statement. Johnny's expression was pure shock. His mouth opened but no sounds came out. Murdoch grabbed him about the shoulders and led him to the bed, sitting him down and joining him.

"Shocked?" Murdoch asked with humor dripping from his voice.

"Yeah, that was .... unexpected. But, I love you, too."

"I know you do. And that is what made me come to my senses. Knowing how much we all mean to each other. Being together again made me see how much I have to be grateful for. I could have lost one or both of you."

Johnny could only nod. He was still stunned but that feeling was back. One he hadn't felt for so long. A warmth and peace that he'd missed so terribly. And even though they weren't home - yet - he felt at home with his father.

*****

Scott walked in the room almost glowing, mostly from the red tone of his skin but it was his smile that completed Johnny's contentment.

"Where's Val?" Scott asked.

"Gettin supper. You look a hundred times better, brother. Almost good as new."

"There is nothing like a hot bath to get the blood flowing," Scott said as he sat across from them. "All I need now is some real food."

"I'm looking forward to that myself," Murdoch agreed.

"Well, Val will have it done up right. Same as he did for me."

"He met you?" Murdoch asked.

"Yeah. Said he'd been keepin tabs," Johnny grinned.

"He didn't visit you?" Scott inquired.

Johnny frowned and shook his head. "Wasn't sure it was safe. He's right besides .... it would have been hard, ya know?"

They both nodded their understanding.

"I don't know what I ever did to get such a good friend," Johnny sighed.

"How did you two meet?" Scott asked.

Johnny grinned, remembering that first meeting and the nights on the trail recently when they'd relived those days. "I'll tell ya about it sometime, Scott, but when Val's not around. He keeps gettin the facts confused."

They both laughed at that, both figuring Val wasn't the only one who would embellish the story.

"Well, now. That's more like it! Supper'll be here in fifteen minutes," Val grinned as he walked in.

They opened the door that joined the rooms and pulled the table in to make enough room. The food arrived steaming hot and they were all quiet during the meal. Mostly to give Scott and Murdoch the peace to enjoy it. They took their time, Johnny impressed they hadn't wolfed the food down like he had that first night. He smiled as he swirled the wine around in his glass. It felt so good to be here.

He looked over and caught Scott's glance. Both grinned before returning to the meal. They all knew to appreciate this time. Soon enough, they'd be too busy to indulge in this luxury.

*****

The next morning, they had breakfast in the hotel dining room. Everyone was quiet, knowing the discussion they were about to have. Val kept looking between all three of them, hoping they were up for this. Scott and Murdoch were still finding their sea legs, so to speak. Johnny was back in form but Val didn't think it was complete. He wondered if Madrid would appear when needed. If Johnny could call up that side of himself again now. Part of him had doubts and worried over his friend. Another part told him to stop being so ridiculous and trust in Johnny's abilities.

Scott and Murdoch's abilities were another matter. Val figured they could do with a little practice, too.

They didn't dawdle and, as one, they all four stood up and headed to the room. Once there, a silence descended heavy and foreboding.

Johnny sighed loudly. This was the part he was not looking forward to. Telling them, especially Murdoch, what he knew. He stood near the window and leaned against the wall, crossing his arms over his chest.

"This isn't going to be easy to hear but I'm just going to start at the beginning." Getting nods all around, he began.

"First thing I did was see Henry Richards. He loaned me some money and gave me a lot of information. Then, me and Val went to Lancer."

Murdoch took to his feet. "You did what!?"

"Calm down, old man! No one saw us," Johnny retorted.

Murdoch blew out a breath and sat back down. After a moment, he asked, "how did it look?"

Johnny grimaced. "Different. Almost abandoned. There's not many cattle left. I'd guess at maybe a thousand head scattered to the four winds," he stopped and reined in his anger before continuing. "A few men sittin around the ranch. The hacienda looks in one piece but I didn't get close enough to look inside. It's the north end - the mountains where they're doing all the mining. The land is stripped clean, ruined. It's never going to come back."

He waited for this to sink in, watching his family closely. Murdoch looked pale but Scott was angry. Good, Johnny thought.

"They're gonna start mining the east side next. Already moving timber over there to reinforce the mines. From what we could find out, there's been a lot of profit made so far. Greedy bastard can't wait to destroy the rest!" There, he'd let some of it out, anyway.

"How many men?" Scott asked.

"He's using Chinese workers but I reckon maybe thirty gunmen all told. Not bad," Johnny shrugged.

"Sure, four against thirty. That's not bad," Scott said sourly.

"I do have a plan, brother," Johnny said flatly.

Scott looked up at him and pulled his shoulders back, gearing himself up for the fight. Johnny smiled at him.

"Val has gathered us up some supplies. Ammunition and horses and dynamite plus some odds and ends," Johnny went on.

"Dynamite?" Murdoch asked.

"Yep, we're gonna blow those mines to kingdom come!" Val imparted.

Murdoch looked doubtfully at him.

"I'll tell you the rest on the way there. We have a wagon that Val's gonna drive but the rest of us will go on ahead. Should only be a day behind us. We've already figured out where to hold up so we'll meet him there."

"Then what?" Scott asked.

Johnny grinned at him. "Then all hell breaks loose, brother."

Murdoch listened to the rest of Johnny's plan as they rode toward Lancer. Scott put his own ideas into the mix. Once Johnny had laid it all out, his mind drifted back ten months to when this had all begun. He should have listened to them both then.

It had started out as more of a nuisance than anything. Johnny and Scott had both warned him of what could happen and they were right. Never in his wildest dreams would he have believed it, though. But, it had happened and now they were fighting for their very lives, it seemed. And with their very lives as well.

Jeremy Folger. The very name induced such a raging hatred in Murdoch's heart, it stunned him in its voracity.

The man had seemed more of a pest than a threat. He'd arrived in the winter offering to buy Lancer. He was persistent, too. Every other day, he'd ride out to the ranch and make a new proposal. Every time, Murdoch would politely but firmly turn him down. Until, he'd lost his manners and his patience with the man.

Scott and Johnny had been standing by his side when he'd told Folger not to come back to Lancer again. That they weren't interested in his offers and that Murdoch didn't care if he offered a million dollars. Lancer was not for sale.

That was when the man had started to show his true colors. When he'd spouted that if Murdoch wouldn't sell, he would simply take what he wanted. That statement came very close to earning him a punch in the mouth. Johnny had taken a step toward Folger but Murdoch had matched it and kept his son from doing the deed. He wished now he'd stayed out of it. A small pleasure but at least he would have had the memory of it.

He'd thought it was over. Had not heard from the man in a month. Murdoch now thought bitterly he was maybe laying low during the Christmas holidays. But, at the first of the year, he was back - and with a vengeance.

It was the gold. Murdoch didn't think there was anything left in the mines that littered Lancer but he'd been wrong. Folger had surveyed those mines without their knowledge and found the mother lode. He was desperate to get his hands on it and willing to do anything, Murdoch now knew.

He felt a hand on his arm and turned to see his son staring at him.

"We're stopping for the night, Sir. Are you alright?" Scott asked, studying the man closely.

"I'm fine, son. Just thinking," Murdoch managed a small smile. He took in his surroundings, noting plenty of daylight left. "Why are we stopping so soon?"

"I don't know about you but I'm a little out of practice sitting a horse all day," Scott said with a slight grimace as he shifted his seat.

*****

Camp was set up fairly quickly and supper was made and eaten in silence. Johnny watched them both closely, worried mostly for Murdoch. He was more talkative but that didn't mean he was okay.

He got up and walked over to the large rock where they'd stored their gear for the moment. He came back with both their rifles and handed them off.

"Practice," he said, hooking a thumb off toward the woods to their left.

Scott and Murdoch exchanged woeful looks then dragged themselves to their feet. The last thing either wanted to do was practice firing rifles. Still, they would agree it was needed. They may not be gunfighters but they still had to be able to hit what they aimed at again.

Johnny pulled the saddles over and shook out the bedrolls. Leaning back with his coffee in hand, he listened to the loud reports, grinning as they came easier and easier.

An hour later, Murdoch and Scott came back and nearly fell into the bedrolls.

"Thank you, son."

"Welcome. Sounded good. Well, after a little bit," Johnny laughed.

"Hard to believe I could get so out of practice," Scott groused lightly.

Johnny frowned a little. Yeah, sure is, he thought.

They fell quiet for a while, all three just staring at their boots.

Scott took a deep breath and plunged in. "So, why didn't you ever answer my letters, brother?"

Johnny's head came up and he looked blankly at his brother. "I never got any letters from you, either of you. I didn't even know where you were."

"What do you mean, you didn't know where we were?" Murdoch asked.

"Like I told Scott yesterday, they wouldn't tell me anything," Johnny said flatly.

"I didn't think you meant ...." Scott trailed off, his face flushing with anger.

Silence fell again as none of them wanted to think about the lengths taken to keep them apart.

"Well, we need to get our hands on that fake deed," Scott finally said, his voice deceptively calm.

"Yeah, sounds easy," Johnny grinned.

"We'd need to get it to Sacramento to validate the forgeries," Murdoch imparted.

"That may be all we really do need to do. We may not have to go through with this plan," Scott said.

"And if he finds it missing? No, Scott. He needs to be kept busy round the clock," Johnny replied.

"He'll know who it is," Scott told him.

"I'll make sure of that!" Johnny spat and threw his coffee in the fire.

"It's revenge you want. I don't blame you, brother. But, we have to take care of business first. Let's make sure we do it right this time."

Murdoch glared at Scott but his son wasn't looking at him. Johnny saw it though and let Scott know with his eyes.

"I didn't mean anything by it, Sir," Scott said as he turned to his father. "I just want this to be legal and binding."

Murdoch relented and sighed heavily. "You're right, son. You were both right then. I should have listened to you."

"No sense in rehashing history, old man. Let's just get some shut eye," Johnny drawled.

*****

Morning came quickly and they silently went about breakfast and breaking camp. Johnny saddled the horses, stopping for a moment as he laid his head against the stallion's neck. His thoughts went to another stallion. His amigo. Dios, please let him be okay, he prayed.

He knew it was selfish and probably a little silly but he missed Barranca with a passion. Especially when he'd laid eyes on the mount Val had brought for him. In that instant, his heart broke all over again. Why he expected to see the golden coat, he couldn't say. He hadn't asked Val, either. He didn't want to make his friend feel bad after all Val had done for him and his family. It was too much to ask.

He felt someone behind him and raised his head going back to the business at hand.

Murdoch watched him and knew what he was thinking. His own heart hurt for his sons. They had just regained what had been lost to both for so long only to have it stolen out from underneath them. His anger resurfaced and his resolve concreted.

Johnny turned, a little surprised to see it was Murdoch standing behind him. He smiled briefly then walked past his father to retrieve his gear.

They rode in silence until noon when they stopped for a break. Scott hiked up a small hill to take a look around. He was still drinking in the open spaces; the freedom.

They didn't bother with lunch, just jerky and water. Though they would have to wait for Val to catch them up, they wanted to get home. Or, as close to home as they could be.

After about an hour of riding, Scott spoke. "How about finding a town tonight?" he asked casually, glancing at his brother.

Johnny knew the why but he couldn't agree. He didn't get a chance to argue the point.

"I'm fine, Scott. I don't need to be babysat. I can handle the trail," Murdoch grumbled.

Scott winced. He supposed his skills of subtlety needed some oil, too.

"I'm actually enjoying it," Murdoch added more gently to ease the sting of his words.

Scott smiled at that. "Yes, Sir," was all he said.

*****

It took three more days to reach their destination. The need to hurry was overwhelming but each man had reined in their desires. This had to be done right.

It was afternoon when they rode up to the cabin.

"Are you sure about this, son?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny dismounted and wrapped the reins around the hitching post. "I cleared it," he said simply.

Murdoch felt a little uncomfortable. He hadn't been to this cabin in a year or more. The last time, one of his dearest friends had held him here at gunpoint. Driven by greed and lies, Jay had made the mistake that had cost them both dearly. Murdoch had been told that the McKillen's had packed up and left the very next day. No one had heard from them since. He imagined Jay and his son, Canopus had taken to the hills again.

He looked around the abandoned 'ranch' and realized, this was Lancer land. A small smile lifted his mouth briefly. He felt a hand on his arm.

"Are you alright?" Scott asked, watching him closely.

"I'm fine. Just thinking about Jay."

Scott's lips tightened but he only nodded. That whole debacle with Jay and the con Buttermeir had pulled left him with a bad taste. He'd always felt partially responsible. He had steered the man straight to them, after all.

Johnny opened the door and waited for them to enter as he leaned against the frame. "Nothin on Bone Mountain anyone could want. It's close enough and still far enough away," he explained further with a slight shrug.

Murdoch pulled himself together. "Good thinking," he nodded then walked inside.

*****

It had never been much to begin with. Now, with time and neglect, it was even worse. Still, it looked as if Johnny and Val had given it a cursory cleaning.

Johnny closed the door behind them. "I still wouldn't light a fire or the stove during the day."

"Probably not a good idea, no," Scott said as he looked around.

"There's two beds. We shook out the mattresses. I found some old pots and pans we can get by with until Val gets here tomorrow."

Murdoch turned to look at his younger son. There was a strain to Johnny's voice he hadn't heard before. Johnny met his eyes then looked away.

"I'll tend the horses," he said softly and walked outside.

"What's wrong with him?" Murdoch mused aloud.

Scott's brows went up. "I suppose being so close to home has him feeling edgy. I know I do."

Murdoch nodded and sighed. "Well, let's get settled in."

They decided to take a more industrious stab at cleaning and had the place almost livable by the time Johnny came back. Words weren't needed between the three as they each took a task in hand. By dusk, they had the cabin to their liking.

Scott lit the stove now that it was dark and heated some beans and coffee. Murdoch sat in the overstuffed chair Jay had been so fond of when he lived there. Johnny sat at the small kitchen table and watched his brother attempt to cook.

"Well, it's no better than trail food but it will have to do," Scott smiled as he ladled out plates of beans.

Johnny accepted the food and the cup of coffee with a small smile and a nod. Murdoch came to join them and silence once again fell.

"First thing in the morning, I'd like to ride out to the east side and check out how far along they are," Johnny said casually as the meal wound down.

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

Johnny glanced over at him and nodded. "Someone should be here to wait for Val," he said as he looked at his father.

"I suppose I've been elected, then. But, I want to make something perfectly clear to the both of you. Don't even think about trying to protect me or keep me out of this. I fully intend to reclaim our ranch and smash Folger's face in!"

Scott and Johnny looked at each other for a beat then burst out laughing.

*****

Johnny led the way over the mountain and down what Scott supposed he thought was a trail. He couldn't swear to it though. He spent most of his time leaning over to avoid getting smacked in the face with tree limbs. He wouldn't have said no to a pair of chaps either as the undergrowth was battling for superiority with those trees. Finally, Johnny came to a stop. He turned in the saddle and smiled at the aggrieved expression on his brother's face.

"We walk from here," he said and dismounted.

Scott followed him, sliding his rifle from its scabbard. They made their way almost silently up a ridge then Johnny dropped to his stomach just before the summit. Scott sighed and went down, too, scooting along the ground.

They both stared in awe at the site below them. Dozens of Chinese men were milling about, carrying timbers into the mine then back out for more. Some were on saw horses cutting the wood to size while others unloaded supply wagons of what the Lancers assumed were tools. Still more were laying tracks into the mine for the carts to use.

Scott's face reddened with ire. The stream below the mine was already murky and he could see the real possibility of damming it up very soon with waste from the labors.

He felt an iron grip clamp down on his arm and turned to his brother. He could swear he almost saw the fire coming from Johnny's eyes and he followed his brother's glare below. And there he was!

Jeremy Folger eased out of the fancy surrey with the black fringed top. He removed his bowler hat and wiped at his forehead with a handkerchief. His full salt and pepper hair, mostly salt, laid perfectly on his head. A matching moustache, impeccably trimmed, complimented his features which had only the first fine lines beginning to hint at an aging face.

He was six feet two inches and dressed in gray today. Johnny had once mused the man had more suits than ought to be legal. Now, he just wanted to set fire to that suit and Folger with it!

Scott managed to get free of the grip and change positions, grabbing Johnny's arm and shaking it until his brother glared at him. He motioned for them to move back then began scuttling away from the edge. Once they were down the ridge half-way, Scott stopped and took a couple of breaths.

Johnny's fists were clenched as he paced before his brother and Scott watched him begin to master his emotions. Once complete, Johnny looked at him and smiled wryly.

"A real dandy, ain't he?"

Scott returned the smile. "Yes, he certainly is. I can't wait to see him all dirty and bleeding."

"We best get back. Val should be there by that time."

Scott nodded and followed his brother back to the horses. He hadn't quite mastered his own anger but he hid it better which gave him more time. The thought that Johnny would allow his emotions to rule his head crossed Scott's mind and he knew he would have to keep a close watch.

*****

Val was there and he and Murdoch were nearly finished unloading the supplies when the brothers rode up.

"How does it look? Murdoch asked immediately.

"Busy," Johnny clipped and walked inside.

Murdoch turned to his elder son with an inquisitive look.

"Folger showed up. We were both sorely tempted but we stayed out of sight," he explained.

Murdoch could only nod since his jaw was clamped shut. He walked into the cabin with Val and Scott behind him.

Johnny was standing by a window that faced the east side, his hand high on the wall, his head down.

"Well, tomorrow soon enough?" Val asked right off.

"No, but it'll have to do. We should ride up to south mesa," Johnny grumbled.

"No, son. I want to see the estancia," Murdoch answered.

All three men looked at him in surprise.

"Don't know if that's such a good idea, Mr. Lancer," Val offered.

"Maybe not but I'm going," Murdoch said determinedly.

"Well, in that case, I'm going with you. It's bound to be an easier ride than the one I just took," Scott said.

"Don't count on it, brother. Well, let's go," Johnny said and walked outside.

Murdoch stared after him for a minute. "I hope he can keep it together."

"He will when he needs to."

They both looked at Val, not surprised but intrigued at the surety of his statement. Again, Scott wondered about the relationship between his brother and this man. It was a most unlikely pairing in his eyes. He shook it off but didn't forget it. He stored it away for a better time. A time when they could sit and talk without worry.

*****

Murdoch knew it would be hard but he hadn't counted on it being this hard. He crouched behind a tree like some thief and looked down on his home. A home he had built with his bare hands. A home he'd defended with his life and had nearly lost that life for. A home that was now lost to him.

Horses wandered about the corral and a few head of cattle grazed in the pasture nearer them. The grass was green once more. It was late spring now. He hadn't seen it since winter. The blue ribbon of the stream snaked through the land and jasmine rose up in the light breeze to his nostrils. He bowed his head and closed his eyes to the memories.

Scott knelt beside him, a hand on his shoulder and waited for his father. After a few minutes, Murdoch looked up and smiled weakly at him.

"Let's get out of here," he said in a shaky voice.

Johnny rode behind Scott and Murdoch with Val at his side. The former lawman watched the chiseled features of his best friend closely albeit surreptitiously. Johnny's eyes were on his father's shoulders the whole time as they slumped then rose only to slump again. Val saw that determined look grow deeper and deeper and he wondered when Johnny was going to lose it. He also wondered if he'd be able to rein him in this time. Or, maybe, Scott could. It would be a battle no matter.

Val decided to care for the stock so the Lancers could have some time to either settle down or explode all over each other. He shook his head as he lead the horses away.

Murdoch walked in first and plopped in a chair, his head resting on his fist. Johnny perched on the small settee and Scott stood in the middle of the floor with his arms crossed over his chest.

"When are we going to talk about the elephant in the room?" Scott asked.

Murdoch looked up wearily and frowned. "What?"

Scott inhaled deeply, looked from Murdoch to Johnny then back again. "Teresa."

Murdoch came out of the chair and glowered at him. "There is nothing to discuss!"

"Yeah, there is, Murdoch, and you know it," Johnny said softly as he watched his father.

Murdoch turned his angry stare on Johnny who slowly took to his feet and waited.

"She isn't a factor," the rancher growled.

"Oh? And how are we supposed to get around her? Assuming, of course, she's still there," Scott asked snidely.

"She's still there," Johnny answered.

"You're sure?" Scott asked for clarification.

"Unless she has a twin we didn't know about, I'm sure. I saw her when I was here before. She's the only problem I haven't figured out yet. We need to get her away from the house somehow," Johnny said, frowning in thought.

"She won't let on," Murdoch said.

Scott threw his hands in the air and turned his back to them.

Johnny remained calm as he addressed the problem Murdoch had never wanted to admit. "She did before. Murdoch, you're gonna have to face that Teresa is not on our side. She made her choice and she can damned well live with it!"

The anger surged suddenly and he wasn't expecting it. He cursed himself to hell and back for allowing it to sneak up on him. Johnny tightened his jaw and refused to look away.

"She was confused," Murdoch defended.

Scott turned back and gawked at him. "Confused? Was she confused when she sat in that courtroom and watched us be convicted without a word? Was she confused when she walked out hanging onto that bastard's arm? Was she confused when she settled herself in as queen of Lancer?" With each question Scott threw, his voice rose.

"She was lied to, Scott. She was manipulated. He took advantage of her naiveté!"

"Oh, please. Teresa hasn't been naive for years. She chose her side and that's all!" Scott shouted.

Val walked back in at the end and wished he hadn't. Johnny had made him tell all of it when they'd come here the first time. It took some convincing but Val could only say what he knew. It was up to Johnny now to tell his family the rest. The part that he knew might destroy Murdoch. Johnny had vowed he wouldn't unless he had to. It looked to Val like he was going to have to.

His eyes fell on his friend's and he could see he was right. Johnny looked like he was in physical pain. Val thought he just might be in another minute or so. He walked casually over to stand by Johnny just in case.

"I just need to talk to her, Scott. I know I can make her see what a mistake she's made," Murdoch was saying.

"Her mistake is pretty permanent, Murdoch. She married him."

The silence in the room was deafening as Scott and Murdoch simply stared, slack-jawed, at Johnny. Val watched them both carefully and, as he knew, it was Murdoch who was ready to hit the roof.

"What are you saying?" Scott whispered. He'd been so angry with her, so ready to tell her exactly what he thought of her. But, married?

"I don't know many other ways of saying it, Scott. Teresa is married to Folger. Has been for about five months now," Johnny answered flatly.

"Don't you lie to me, boy," Murdoch hissed and took a step.

Val moved in front of Johnny which sent Johnny into orbit.

"Mr. Lancer, I know it hurts ta hear it but it's the God's honest truth. And I reckon it's been a little longer than that. They got married bout a week after the trial was over. Last thing I seen before I left town was them comin out of the church. Frank Hamilton himself told me about it, too. He said he walked in and sat in the back just to be sure." Val spoke quickly before Murdoch Lancer made a huge mistake.

Val found himself being shoved aside and he didn't have to look, he was sure he was being stared down.

Johnny only gave him a cursory glance, for now, though. He was more focused on his father's reaction to the news. He looked over at Scott several times, as well, as they both tried to absorb this development.

Then, Johnny moved quickly to his father's side as Murdoch swayed a bit. He led him back to the chair and eased him down. He looked back at Val then Scott and the former sheriff took the hint and led Scott to the seat beside Murdoch. Both men went willingly.

Scott shook his head slowly back and forth as if this action would negate what he'd heard.

"I can't believe she would do that," Murdoch whispered.

"I'm sorry. I didn't want to have to tell you but there's no way we can trust Teresa, Murdoch. It's not gonna happen. We have to figure her as much an enemy as her .... as Folger," Johnny said as gently as he could manage.

After a few more minutes of this stunned silence, Johnny lost his temper. "Look, we have to move on now! We have to go through with our plans! I know this is a shock to both of you but you're gonna have to snap out of it!"

Scott took a deep breath and blew it out hard. He looked at his brother and nodded.

"I don't .... I can't ...." Murdoch mumbled.

Johnny stood up and walked away, frustrated beyond any more words.

"Johnny is right. We have to ignore this for now. We can deal with what Teresa did later. Right now, we need to push on with the fight. Murdoch, if you can't do this, say so now. Johnny, Val and I will get Lancer back," Scott spoke in his most commanding voice.

Murdoch's head snapped up. "I need a few minutes, Scott! That girl was like a daughter to me. It's almost as bad as if one of you had betrayed me!"

Scott set his jaw. "Fine," he said and stormed out the door.

*****

Scott sat in a rocking chair on the porch as the sun set off to his right. He stared at nothing, his mind numb now. He was aware of his surroundings but he couldn't manage to care much about them right now. The door opened and he braced himself.

Johnny walked out and sat on the step to his left. His knees bent close to his chest, he rested his forearms on them.

"I don't know why she turned on us. Do you?" he asked quietly.

"No, I have no clue. When this is over, perhaps she'll explain it to us from the jail cell she'll be in," Scott spat bitterly.

Johnny cocked a brow at that but made no comment for now. "I figure it won't be too hard to get her away from the ranch. We need to find out who we can trust. Frank Hamilton for one. He'd help us. At least, he could find a way to get her out of there for a while."

Scott nodded and rocked gently in the chair. "How far away were you when you saw her?"

Johnny sighed. "Too far, really. I couldn't see her face too good. Just saw her walking across the yard."

Scott snorted. "Just think of me as a sister," he mimicked the girl.

"Scott, we can't do that right now. We can't put all our attention and anger on Teresa. We need to focus on getting the ranch back. Then, I don't care what you do to or about her," Johnny said harshly.

"I know and we will. We'll get that ranch back, Johnny. I swear it!"

They both turned as the door opened again and Val stepped out. He sat beside Johnny.

"He's still out of it," he reported.

"We can't count on Murdoch now. Val, tomorrow I want you to ride into Green River real early and talk to Hamilton. See if he's willing to help us. We need to get Teresa away from the ranch day after tomorrow. He might have an idea how to do that," Johnny said.

"Alright but I don't know how friendly he is with her. Last I saw 'im, he looked ready to chew nails," Val answered.

"What about Sam?" Scott asked.

"Yeah, he'll help for sure. Between him and Hamilton, they oughta be able to come up with somethin," Val agreed.

"I also want you to find out about Jelly and Cip and all the others. See if you can find them," Johnny went on.

Scott closed his eyes as he thought of Jelly and all the hands. He missed them all so much.

*****

Scott and Johnny talked late into the night about their plans. They fine tuned their ideas and came up with what they thought would work well. Both figured if it didn't, they'd resort to a more final resolution to the problem of Jeremy Folger. They also discussed their father who had not moved from the chair all evening. He ate what they gave him but made no effort to speak. It was like that first day Scott had led him out of Folsom only worse.

Johnny gave up on Murdoch going to bed and took the other cot. He'd talked Scott into sacking in an hour before but he didn't want the old man sleeping on the floor. He realized Murdoch wasn't going to be sleeping anywhere tonight so he stretched out for a few hours. Val had long since been snoring up a storm on his bedroll.

Scott opened his eyes to early morning light and clanking sounds. He heard water splashing and grunts and groans before he managed to look around. Val was washing up and grumbling about it the whole time. Johnny was sitting at the table with a cup of coffee.

He stretched and swung his legs around the side of the cot then scratched at the stubble on his cheek. Scott's eyes fell on his father still sitting in the chair but his head was down and soft snores could be heard.

"Mornin," Johnny called softly.

Scott nodded and waved a hand, unable to make his voice work just yet. He heard Johnny chuckle.

"Where'd you get coffee?" Scott managed to croak out as he stumbled to the table.

"Made it a bit ago. It's still hot," Johnny answered and poured him a cup.

"Well, reckon I'll get goin," Val said loudly.

Johnny winced at the sound. "Be careful. Don't let anyone see you."

Val just looked at him for a beat. "Ya know, I don't know how I managed all these years without you around ta tell me what's as plain as the nose on your face!"

"Neither do I," Johnny grinned.

*****

No one knew Green River better than Val Crawford so getting to the back of the bank unseen wasn't a problem even though few people were out and about this early. He also knew getting out wouldn't be too hard either.

The new and useless sheriff wouldn't be a problem either. He did what Folger told him to do and Folger had never told him to make the business owners change their locks. Val pulled the key from his pocket and slipped inside.

Hamilton would be in half an hour before his employees just like always. It was plenty of time for a chat. Val walked into the man's office and closed the door. He took a seat and propped his feet on the edge of the desk and he waited.

Frank Hamilton walked through the front door at precisely eight-thirty then locked it behind him. He went straight to his office and stepped in then stopped cold.

"Dammit, Val! You nearly gave me a heart attack! What are you doing here?" the man bellowed.

"Mornin, Mr. Hamilton. Need ta talk to ya," Val said lazily as he removed his feet from the man's desk.

Hamilton walked over and sat in his chair as he worked on calming his heart rate. "About what?" he asked grouchily.

Val leaned forward. "About Lancer and givin it back to it's rightful owners."

Frank eyed him closely then smiled. "Are they here?"

Val shrugged. "Close enough."

"What do you need, Val?"

"Well, we need you to get Teresa away from the ranch tomorrow and as early as possible."

Frank sat back in his chair and frowned. "That won't be easy. We aren't exactly friends and her *husband* doesn't do business here."

Val cocked a brow at that. "He don't?"

"I refused his business!" Hamilton nearly spat.

Val grinned at that then frowned in thought. "What about Doc? Reckon he can pull it off?"

Nodding, the banker rubbed his chin. "Yes, I believe he could and I know he would help. Are they ..... how are they?"

Val sighed and shook his head. "They try ta act like everythin's alright. Well, except for Murdoch. He took the news bout Teresa real hard last night. Hasn't said a word to nobody since. Johnny and Scott are just gonna go on with their plans though."

"What is the plan?"

Val looked sideways at him. "Best you don't know about that, Frank."

Hamilton nodded his understanding. "I'll go see Sam this morning after the bank opens. I'll say I've got an upset stomach. One way or another, Teresa will leave the ranch in the morning and be gone all day."

Val grinned widely and stood to shake the man's hand. "Johnny and Scott knew they could count on ya."

"One more thing, Val. Tell the Lancers their money is still right where they left it. Folger tried to get to it but I put a stop to that."

Val left him, made one more stop then left town and no one ever knew he'd been there. He reported his conversation to the Lancer brothers who were relieved.

*****

Frank Hamilton walked down the boardwalk holding his stomach. He crossed the street and walked into Sam Jenkins office.

Sam came from the back at the sound of the bell ringing and looked questioningly at the banker.

"Are you alone, Sam?"

"For now. And good morning to you, too. What's wrong with you?" Sam asked.

Frank closed the door tightly and walked through the back room and into the doctor's living quarters. He sat at the kitchen table and folded his hands on top.

Sam, frowning and a bit irritated, followed him then poured them both coffee and joined the man.

"I just got a visit from an old friend," Frank began.

Sam Jenkins was grinning ear to ear when he heard the Lancers were back. The smile left his face when he heard what was being asked of him. He knew he could do it but he'd rather not. Still, his discomfort was a small price to pay. He'd had little dealings with Teresa since all that had happened. He'd been polite though strained with her so he figured he could get away with this.

"The orphanage charity drive is coming up. I'll ride out in the morning on that pretense and convince Teresa to go there and help out. I'll play on her guilt since she's had nothing to do with anything charitable in quite some time!" he couldn't hold back the bitterness in his voice.

Frank winced but knew it to be true. He prayed it would work, that Teresa could even feel guilt anymore. He wasn't sure what the Lancers had in mind but it was obvious they needed access to the house. He agreed with the plan and left the doctor, feeling a multitude of emotions, mostly fear for his friends. He knew they would not stop until they either got Lancer back or died trying. It was that second part that troubled him so.

*****

The entire day was a wash as far as any of them were concerned. Murdoch was still brooding and they'd done all they could to prepare for the day ahead. The only thing left to do would have to wait until tonight. Val wasn't crazy about the two of them wandering around in the dark on top of a mountain with a load of dynamite. But, it was the only time they could wire the north end mines and those were the ones in operation at the moment.

Val would be ultimately responsible for actually blowing the mines to kingdom come as soon as he got the workers clear and the timing had to be perfect. He and Johnny synchronized their pocket watches for the tenth time.

Murdoch had actually moved around and even mumbled a few times in answer to questions posed. He'd eaten and now, this late afternoon, he stepped outside and took a walk.

The woods were cool but inviting and he wandered through them. His thoughts were in turmoil and no one would have ever convinced him that this could happen. Yet, it had. How many times he'd thought that very thing. He would not have believed it could happen.

He felt anger rise in him. Anger at himself. It *had* happened and it was time he stopped wallowing and got down to business!

He thought back to that time and tried to remember anything, any clue as to Teresa's thinking. He only remembered her concern and fear for them all at first. Then, when Folger had forged the papers and gotten his bought and paid for US Marshal to back him up, she seemed almost resigned to losing Lancer.

None of them had given up the fight though. Val had been rendered useless long enough to pull this off. The Marshal had jurisdiction according to the equally bought and paid for judge. Then, Johnny had come up with the idea. An idea that had worked once before for a friend. One that had only seen his sons put on probation. Johnny had cockily explained to him at the time that was only because they got caught.

Murdoch shook his head at the whole debacle. Still, they'd almost made it or so it had seemed. That's when the hammer came down and they realized they'd been set up. All they had to do was get those papers off the train bound for Sacramento before they could be notarized. Before Folger's judge got his hands on them.

It still stunned Murdoch that they'd been able to do this. But he'd waited too long and hadn't had time to get to the governor or anyone else to stop it. They'd been thrown in jail. Val relieved of his duties. The trial had been quick and they'd been sentenced to prison.

Murdoch had almost gone to his knees when he heard that judge sentence his sons to a prison term. His sons! And he remembered then, as Scott had reminded him last night, that Teresa had left with Folger. Why had he blocked that from his mind? The answer was easy. Simple denial. Just as he'd been doing through this whole fiasco. Well, no more!

Murdoch headed back to the cabin and arrived just as Scott and Johnny were about to leave for their midnight run. He walked up and eyed them both.

"Be careful, boys."

They both looked at him and smiled a little before mounting up.

"You know me, Murdoch, I'm always careful," Johnny said with a cocky grin.

Murdoch chuckled then fell serious. "Especially now, then. We're close, I can feel it. I'm going with you to the house tomorrow."

Both young men nodded before riding away. Murdoch watched them go and felt Val's grinning eyes watching him.

*****

There had been a few close calls and heart stopping moments but all in all, it had gone well. The dynamite was ready and so were the Lancers. When Johnny and Scott returned at almost dawn, Murdoch and Val were waiting.

The idea of doing this without much sleep wasn't appealing but even if they'd sat in the cabin all night, none of them would have slept anyway.

Scott felt the surge of adrenaline familiar from his cavalry days. Johnny was cool and calm, almost serene.

Val mounted up and headed for the mines. They'd give him two hours before leaving themselves. It was a very long two hours as all three men kept their own counsel.

Finally, it was time and few words were spoken between them as they rode toward home.

*****

Teresa walked out of the house and watched the surrey approach. She lifted a surprised brow as Sam pulled to a stop. She walked over and waited for him to step down.

He took a deep breath then turned and smiled at her. "Good morning, Teresa."

"Good morning. What brings you out here?" she asked politely.

"Well, I'm on a mission of sorts. I'm recruiting help with the orphanage charity drive. There's been quite a drop off of volunteers this year for some reason. Anyway, Father Mike thought since you were always so good at organizing these things, you might agree to help out."

There, he'd said it and kept that damned smile on his face the whole time. He thought he even sounded very convincing. He watched her and waited for an answer. He almost lost his control, however, when Folger walked outside. Teresa had turned to look thankfully, and missed the sour expression Sam just couldn't stop.

She explained the doctor's presence and Folger studied the man carefully. Sam didn't attempt to smile at the man, knowing that would be a dead giveaway so he kept his expression impassive.

"I think that's a wonderful idea, darling. You should become more involved in the social issues of the valley," he smiled.

She shrugged. "Alright. When would you need me?"

"Today, I'm afraid. They're already far behind. The Father fears they won't have everything ready for the annual picnic," Sam answered.

"I'll have the surrey hitched up for you, dear," Folger kissed her cheek, bowed slightly to the doctor and strode off toward the barn.

"Well, the orphans will be grateful, I'm sure. Now, I must be getting along on my rounds," Sam said and slid into the seat of his buggy.

"You aren't going with me?" she asked as she placed a hand on the seat rail.

"I really can't but I'm sure your husband will proved an escort for you. Father Mike will be looking for you. Good day, Teresa," he said then slapped the reins and drove away, fighting the urge to run his horse.

*****

The Lancers watched her drive away with a guard riding alongside. Murdoch's face was stone and he gave nothing away. Scott was not trying so hard as he seethed openly. Johnny had made himself immune to her now. He had turned off his heart and had no feelings one way or the other. He may as well have been watching a bird.

Johnny looked at his pocket watch then snapped it closed. "Val should be settin the charges off now. About half an hour I reckon before word gets to Folger."

They sat under a tree and waited those thirty minutes that turned into forty, then forty-five. Scott was beginning to worry and was about to make a comment when they saw the rider coming.

It was almost comical to watch Folger rant and pace across the yard. Then, he rode off with what looked like every man with him. Perfect.

They waited until the riders were mere specks before descending on the hacienda from the back. They stopped in the trees not twenty yards from the house and left the horses there then made their way around to the side of the house. The door there lead to a small room which in turn led to the great room.

Scott and Johnny had both drawn their guns and stood guard as Murdoch eased the door open. They slipped inside then on into the great room, closing the door silently behind them.

All three just stood there for several seconds as the enormity of where they were crashed down on them all. Murdoch scanned the room and saw few changes. He noticed the grandfather clock was gone. His model ship was missing as well. Otherwise, nothing was different.

Scott moved first, stepping over to the safe and smiling a little that it hadn't been replaced. Overconfidence always fell an arrogant man, he thought as he knelt down. He moved the dial around then held his breath as he turned the handle, letting that breath out with relief as the door swung open.

As Scott rummaged for the forged deed, Murdoch sat at his desk and rooted through the drawers looking for anything else they could use against Folger. He spied some documents that looked fishy and stuffed them in his jacket pocket.

Johnny stood watch at the French doors while this went on.

"I think that's everything," Scott said quietly.

"Did you find the original partnership agreement?" Murdoch asked.

"Yes, and a few other things we might be able to use," Scott grinned.

Murdoch nodded and sat back. He was about to stand when he saw the picture frame. He reached out and picked it up, staring at the images.

Johnny glanced over and noticed the old man was frozen in place. "Murdoch?" he called as loudly as he dared. They couldn't be sure the house was empty.

Scott walked over and peered over his father's shoulder. His face went flat as he reached out and took the photograph and set it back in place. He pulled on his father's arm and Murdoch stood, looked at him then walked to the side door.

Johnny backed toward them, shooting his brother a questioning look.

"It's a wedding picture," Scott said with barely contained hatred.

"Yeah? I hope they like our gift. Late as it'll be and all," Johnny said snidely.

*****

They met up with a grinning Val at the cabin. Murdoch's sour mood was no better but they could do nothing about that.

"It was a sight ta see. All of 'em runnin around like chickens with their heads cut off. Didn't know what hit 'em. They're probably still tryin to figure it out," Val reported happily.

"How long did you stay?" Scott asked.

"Until Folger got there. Never seen a man have a conniption fit like that before. Figured I'd best head on back though. Did ya get it?"

"We got it and a few other things that might help. You two better get goin," Johnny answered.

Scott looked warily at his brother. "This is the part I don't like, Johnny. We should all go to Sacramento."

"We talked about this, Scott. It's better if just you and Val go. Murdoch's in no shape and I want to keep an eye on things here. Just use the trail I laid out. It'll cut your time in half and you'll be there before Folger even gets a clue," Johnny explained a little impatiently.

"We'll need every bit of that time, too, if we want to see the governor," Val supplied.

"I know, I know," Scott sighed out. "I still don't like us splitting up," he added with some grumpiness.

Johnny put his arm around his brother's shoulder and shook him gently. "It shouldn't have to be this way but it is. Soon enough, we'll be together again."

"Just don't go getting yourself in any trouble while I'm gone, Johnny," Scott warned.

Johnny's eyes widened in mock innocence and he laughed at his brother's frown.

Scott walked over to where Murdoch stood apart from them. Heâ€d had all he could take of the man's mood. "Val and I are leaving now, Murdoch. We'll be back as soon as we can and with as much help as we can find."

Murdoch blinked and looked at his son. He tried to smile. "Be careful, son. Everything is riding on you making it safely to Sacramento and back."

Scott nodded and lowered his voice so only his father heard his next words. "Whatever you're feeling, you need to push it away. Johnny is going to need you. He'll need to be able to count on you having his back. Don't let my brother down." The last sentence was particularly harsh.

But, it got Murdoch's attention and he snarled a little. "I won't let either of you down again."

Scott dropped his head and sighed. "You didn't let us down."

"No time for that now. You need to get goin," Johnny said roughly from behind them.

Scott nodded and looked one more time into his father's eyes. What he saw comforted him and gave him the strength to get this done. He wasn't sure any other reaction wouldn't have set him on a road to defeat before he ever got started.

*****

They stood on the porch and watched the two men ride away. As they topped the rise and descended the other side, silence fell around the small yard.

"Wish I'd seen Folger's face when he got to the mine," Johnny said.

"We'll get to see it soon enough, son. After that, he won't have much face left!" Murdoch stated and walked inside.

Johnny grinned but it faded soon enough. He planned to spend this time waiting helping his father come to terms with Teresa. How he would accomplish this miracle, he wasn't sure. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly then went inside.

Murdoch sat at the table with a cup of water. He was getting very tired of no coffee until sunset but it was a sight better than prison so he wouldn't complain.

Johnny joined him, resting his hands on the table top, palms spread flat. Soon, those hands started tapping at the surface. He looked down when he felt Murdoch's hands covering his own then glanced up at his father with an impish grin.

"I thought I missed that," Murdoch said wryly.

Johnny laughed. "Guess some things are just never missed."

"Some things are - terribly," the rancher said seriously.

Johnny smiled at him then drew his brows together. "We should talk about it. Get it out and done with."

Murdoch dropped his eyes. "It's hard to talk about something when you can't fathom the reasons behind it."

"Yeah, I know," Johnny mumbled. "Still, it might help some."

Murdoch shook his head slowly. "I'll never understand it. If she was just biding her time, waiting for us to come back then, yes, I could see her staying on there. But not like this. Not as his wife!" He slammed his fist on the table top.

"I've been thinking about it a lot since I found out. Thinking back to that time. We were so focused on Folger and fighting him, we didn't really pay much mind. Now, I can remember times when she wasn't around. She took a lot of rides back then. She'd be gone for hours. I wonder if she wasn't meetin up with him then." Johnny spoke softly and worked hard to keep the bitterness from his voice.

"You're right. And, she seemed to become more distant toward the end. When we talked about stopping the train and planned it out, she just sat there not saying a word."

Both men looked up at the same time. Realization crushed their chests and neither thought they could take a breath at that moment. Finally, Johnny found his voice.

"You think she told him?"

Murdoch blinked several times. "How else could he know? What other reason would he have to think we would go to those lengths? He counted on us working the law, using legal means to stop him." His voice was tight as if he could barely manage enough air to make the words. Murdoch sagged into the chair and dropped his head in his hands.

"Don't!" Johnny demanded. "Get mad, Murdoch. Get stark ravin mad if you need to. Yell at me, the walls, the heavens if you have to but don't you dare give into it! Don't you dare let them win!"

Murdoch pulled his shoulders back and looked into the fiery eyes of his son. "I'm trying, son, but you have to understand. Paul was my best friend. Teresa was born and raised on Lancer. She was like a daughter to me. It isn't so easy to accept how she betrayed me." He stood then and walked about the room, his hands clasped behind his back.

"Paul would roll over in his grave if he knew about this."

"Maybe that's why she did it. Maybe she's blamed you for his death all this time," Johnny spoke.

He turned and stared at his son, the thought never having occurred to him. "She was so supportive. She was so happy when you boys came home. She seemed ..... happy," he trailed off.

Johnny sighed and shook his head. "Things like that can fester over time, Murdoch. It can eat you alive if you let it. Look, I'm not defending her by any means. In fact, I'm not sure what I'd do if she was standing in front of me right now. I've never hit a woman and never thought I could but ......"

Murdoch walked over and laid a hand on his shoulder, squeezing tightly. He could feel the bunched muscles beneath his hand and began kneading them.

Johnny let his head drop and accepted the much needed massage and physical contact from his father. Murdoch smiled and started on the other shoulder, too.

"She'll go to jail if it's proven she had anything to do with stealin the ranch," Johnny said after a minute. He didn't want to say a word but he needed to know how far Murdoch was willing to go with this.

The massage stopped and he almost let his displeasure be known but he kept quiet while his father retook his seat.

Murdoch rested his chin on his clasped hands. "I don't know how I feel about that. Part of me says let her take her medicine, part of me sees Paul's face."

"He was a good friend to you," Johnny noted softly.

Murdoch smiled a little. "The best. He kept after me to send for you boys especially after the trouble with Pardee started." He paused and frowned. "It was like he knew I'd need more help but mostly he knew how much I needed you both. More than I even did."

"I wish I'd had a chance to know him."

"You did."

Johnny looked up at this. He didn't have to ask the question, it was written all over his face.

"Paul had been working for me a few months before your mother left. He'd gotten quite attached to you." Murdoch laughed then. "He didn't have much choice. You were always hanging onto him."

Johnny smiled. "Why?"

"Because he was a very good horse wrangler and you were always around the corrals. Some days, I'd have to lasso you and tie you to the fence to keep you out of harm's way. Your mother hated that but Paul was relieved. He spent most of his time watching out for you. It wasn't very conducive to getting any work done." Murdoch cocked a brow with the last statement.

Johnny grinned widely. "Sorry."

"Yes, I can tell you are," Murdoch chuckled. "I, um, I got a little jealous one day."

Johnny cocked his head and rested it on his hand as he waited to hear about this.

"Well, you were a baby. You couldn't say his name but you tried. It came out sounding like 'pa'. The first time I heard it I thought ... well that you thought he was your father." Murdoch looked down, suddenly embarrassed.

"I hope you figured it out before you said something you'd regret," Johnny remarked.

"Actually, your mother did. I told her about it and she listened the next day. She laughed and assured me you were trying to say Paul. Then, she pointed out that you didn't call me pa anyway."

Johnny frowned at that. "What did I call you?"

Murdoch looked up, his eyes full of emotion. "Papa."

They looked at each other for a long moment before Johnny dropped his eyes, uncomfortable with the memories he couldn't share. More than sad about the fact as well. He cleared his throat and looked around the room, noting the lengthening shadows.

"I'll get some wood for the stove," he mumbled and got up.

*****

Scott and Val rode hellbent for leather until the sun dipped low in the sky. Val slowed to a walk and Scott reined in his steed, waiting to hear the reason.

"We gotta rest these horses, Scott," Val said as he caught up.

Scott scowled for a second then nodded. They found a stream and loosened the cinches before making a small fire and brewing coffee.

Scott sat by the fire brooding as he stared in the flames.

"Just a couple hours then we can start out again. Almost a full moon so there's plenty of light," Val tried to placate.

"I suppose you think I'm being reckless," Scott muttered.

"Nope. I'm as anxious to get there as you are. That's why I'm along. Keep you from bein reckless."

Scott looked up at him in wonderment. "Sure, Val. That's why you're along. Wouldn't have anything to do with your former profession."

Val scowled now. "Reckon Johnny thinks I got some pull."

"As do I." Scott shook his head and smiled. "He really thought this whole thing through. We'll be in Sacramento by tomorrow night. Why doesn't anyone use this trail anyway?"

Val shrugged. "Rough country. Lots of rattlesnakes around and used to be lots of Indians. They're all gone now - the Indians, that is. The rattlers, well, reckon we'll just have to take our chances," he grinned.

"Great! Leave it to my brother to send me off into a rattler haven!" Scott laughed.

"We'll make it. We have to," Val said, now serious.

They gave the horses the two hours then headed out again. Soon, Scott's mind was on anything but rattlesnakes as he went over what he would say to the governor in his mind. He only hoped the man would see them. Murdoch was a friend of the man and had helped get him elected. But, that was before his father became a convicted criminal. Scott's blood pressure went through the roof every time he thought about that.

*****

They arrived in Sacramento the following evening and found a hotel. This was the hard part for Scott. Now that they were there, he wanted to get this done. The sooner the better. His family was depending on him to be successful and he refused to let them down.

They ate quickly and went to bed, anxious for the night to be over.

The next morning, both men were up with the dawn. This only lent to Scott's anxiety as now, they would have to wait a couple of hours to see the leader of the state. They spent that time going over the rest of the papers they'd retrieved from the house. To Scott's thinking, it wasn't stealing. Anything in that house or on that property belonged to him and his family.

He'd grabbed a couple of folders without bothering to look inside until now. One set his teeth on edge again. It contained a marriage license. He thought to rip it to shreds but decided against that.

The other was much more interesting. He and Val went through it carefully, both men in much better spirits by the time they'd finished.

Once more, Folger's arrogance would lead to his downfall, Scott thought happily.

They went downstairs for breakfast then headed to the capitol building. Scott's stomach was churning and he wished now he hadn't eaten at all.

Once in the office, they had to sit and wait after a long conversation with the secretary. Scott had used his considerable charm on the woman and it had worked. She'd promised to get them in as soon as possible.

Two hours later, Scott's charm was wearing thin as was his patience. But, he smiled at her when she looked over in response to his heavy sigh. He shrugged.

The door opened and Scott fought to keep his seat. She stood and walked in after the man who'd just left. She returned after several minutes looking a bit frazzled. Her grim face told Scott the governor was not a happy man. But, he was more determined.

"He'll see you now," she informed them tightly.

Val smiled and even gave her a slight bow as he followed Scott inside. His own stomach wasn't faring well either.

Newton Booth stood behind his massive desk as Scott approached him. He was a tall man with curly dark receding hair. He sported a beard and moustache. His roman nose was the main accent to his unremarkable face. Scott locked onto the brown eyes and extended his hand.

"Governor, so good of you to see us without an appointment," Scott started right in on the diplomacy.

"I'm afraid you'll have to make it brief, Mr. Lancer. I have a full schedule," the man stated.

Scott took a deep breath and introduced Val. They sat in the offered chairs and Scott began to tell the story.

*****

Thirty minutes later, Governor Booth was fuming. He knew about the Lancers, of course. Having been friends with Murdoch then hearing about the turn of events in the San Joaquin Valley, he hadn't wanted to believe it. But, he felt he couldn't intervene. Not without being asked to. Well, he was being asked to now.

Scott pulled the deed from his jacket and stood, laying it flat on the man's desk.

"This is the forged deed with our names," he started. Then, he pulled out more papers. "This is the original partnership agreement we signed three years ago. As you can easily see, Sir, the signatures are not the same."

He allowed the man a moment to look over these documents before producing the rest.

"These show a rather detailed plan for taking over another ranch adjacent to Lancer where the mines extend onto that property. As you can see, Governor, the man's greed has no limits." Scott had tried but the anger and resentment shined through in his voice.

Governor Booth nodded as he perused the papers. Then, he stood. "Gentlemen, excuse me for one moment." He walked out and spoke to his secretary for a minute then returned.

"I've cancelled my next two appointments and have sent for the circuit judge for the district and the Federal Marshal. Mr. Crawford, you were the sheriff in Green River?"

"Yessir. Folger brought in a US Marshal and a judge. They had legal papers givin the Marshal jurisdiction."

Booth nodded then leaned back in his leather chair. "I am quite stunned by the depth of corruption I see here, I must say. I'm not familiar with Judge Dotson or this Marshal Bentley."

"Well, Bentley's the sheriff there now. Of course, he's on Folger's payroll. Ain't real sure how he got the job since the Cattlemen's Association hires the sheriff," Val explained.

"I imagine they felt if Lancer could be taken, they didn't have much of a chance," Booth remarked.

Scott nodded his agreement. He had thought that very thing when Val had explained who was running the town now. Bentley was a ruthless man. He had not forgotten his brother's treatment at that man's hands. Johnny hadn't been able to keep his mouth shut as usual and Bentley had made quite a sport of punishing his brother in front of he and Murdoch. He put Johnny in a cell by himself with Scott and Murdoch sharing the other.

Every night, Bentley would come in and antagonize Johnny, goad him until the young man just couldn't help himself. Usually, it was some rather nasty remark about how Murdoch would fair in prison and, of course, that pretty blond boy. His jaw clenched at that thought.

Johnny would never say a word when Bentley mouthed off about him but his family was another matter and the man learned that quickly. Scott shook his head at Johnny taking those punches and just smiling at the irritated man.

His thoughts were broken as the door opened and two men walked in.

Scott and Val stood and turned to the two men entering the office. They were introduced as Appellate Judge Connors and US Marshal Salinger. Governor Booth explained in detail what he'd been told and shown. Once he finished, both men had many questions then it fell quiet for several minutes.

"I vaguely remember Bentley resigning a few months ago. I didn't think anything about it other than relief since he was close to being fired anyway. The man was ..... well, unethical is putting it mildly," Marshal Salinger reported.

"Well, gentlemen, this is ample evidence to my mind. I'll prepare the appropriate documents to negate the forged deed," Judge Connors added.

Scott smiled and his shoulders sagged in relief.

Booth and Salinger put their heads together for a few minutes, then the governor eyed Val and called him over to his desk.

"Mr. Crawford, would you be interested in returning to law enforcement?"

Val cocked a brow. "I don't know bout that, Governor."

"Well, Marshal Salinger would like to appoint you a US Marshal and assign you to the San Joaquin Valley."

Val looked at the marshal then at Scott who was nodding his head. He pulled a face as he considered the idea. "Short work?"

Booth laughed at the question. "Long enough to make sure Lancer is back in the hands of it's rightful owners and Folger is put away?"

"That'd work for me," Val said.

"Well, I'd like for you to at least consider making it longer term, Mr. Crawford. But, if that's what you want," Salinger agreed.  

Scott watched as Val Crawford was sworn in as a US Marshal. He thought Johnny should be here to witness this. He'd be proud of Val and, Scott was positive, have a few comments of his own to make about the merits of the idea. He smiled widely as Salinger pinned the badge on Val's chest.

"Gentlemen, give me until the end of the day and I'll have arrest warrants and all the legal documents you'd ever need to reclaim your ranch," Judge Connors said.

Scott shook hands vigorously with all three men then addressed the governor. "Sir, I can't thank you enough. Murdoch was sure you would give me a fair hearing and he was right."

"Scott, your father is an honorable and just man. That this even happened galls me. I'll be looking forward to hearing that things have been restored to their proper order," Booth replied.

"If you need any help, Marshal, let me know. I can get you at least a dozen men," Salinger offered.

Val shook the man's hand, still getting used to the weight on his chest again. "I think we got that covered, Marshal, but thank you just the same."

Scott and Val left the capitol after being assured by Judge Connors the papers would be delivered to their hotel that evening. Scott felt happier than he had in months and he was anxious to get back to his family with the good news. It would have to wait until morning, though. Still, he couldn't stop smiling.

Val stood on the sidewalk and fingered the badge.

"Feel odd?" Scott asked.

"Yeah, it does. I think this one is heavier than the sheriff's badge," Val frowned.

Scott drew his brows together in thought. "You know that once this mess is over, Green River will want you back."

Val scowled at the younger man. "Is that right? Well, too bad!" he spat and stalked off.

Scott rolled his eyes and followed the man.

*****

Johnny spent the next two days repairing everything he could find which was a lot. He couldn't sit still and do nothing and he figured this was good practice anyway. Soon, they'd be back in the ranching business again. It never occurred to him they would fail. He had faith in Scott and Val. He knew they'd come through. Then, it was just a matter of delivering the final blow to Folger.

Murdoch watched him and helped out sometimes but he was still struggling with Teresa's betrayal. It took a lot of his enthusiasm away thinking about going back home without her being there.

Johnny had given up talking about the girl. It did no good as neither knew the reasons behind her behavior. All they could do was guess and Johnny wasn't in the habit of guessing at why people did what they did. Plus the fact that he still felt like strangling the girl. Girl. No, she's a woman now in every way. Well, he sure hoped Folger's bed was worth it!

He pounded the nail unmercifully into the corral post, sweat running down his reddened face. He never heard the approach.

Murdoch pulled his hand back from Johnny's shoulder as if he'd been bitten. The barrel of the Colt was shiny with fresh oil, he noted as he stared into it.

Johnny raised the gun skyward quickly then shoved it in the holster. "Don't do that!" he reprimanded.

Murdoch swallowed. "I'm glad your reflexes are back in form, son, but I would have taken your word for it."

Johnny just stared at him for a beat before tossing the hammer down and walking back to the cabin. He ladled a drink of water and poured a little over his face before drinking.

Murdoch ambled over, his hands shoved in his pockets. "You know this is a waste of time. We'll probably never use this land."

"I have to do something unless you want me to go loco," Johnny grumbled.

"Scott and Val should be in Sacramento soon if they're not already there."

Johnny nodded and threw the ladle back in the water bucket. "I guess Val couldn't convince Jelly or the others to join us."

There. He'd said what had been troubling him for three days. Val had found Jelly working at the orphanage and talked to the man about what was to come. He'd told Jelly where the Lancers were, knowing the old man could be trusted. Jelly had said he'd try to round up some of the old hands but he'd made no promises. Still, Johnny had expected to at least see Jelly by now.

"I guess not," was Murdoch's only reply.

Johnny's head came up as a thought occurred to him. "Unless. Murdoch, you don't think Folger got to Jelly, do you? I mean, if he even suspected it was us that blew those mines, Jelly be would a prime target."

Murdoch stared at him then shook his head. "I ... I didn't even think about that!"

"I'm goin to town and find him," Johnny said and made to walk away. Murdoch's hand on his arm stopped him.

"Don't be rash, son. You can't go tearing in there."

"I know that!" Johnny shouted then sighed and lowered his head for a second. "I know that. I'll be careful," he said more softly.

"And quick. Don't make me worry too long," Murdoch said gently.

Johnny smiled and nodded then went to saddle a horse.

*****

It was late morning when Johnny stopped outside town. He tied off his mount and stealthily made his way through the alleys to the orphanage. He wasn't sure what to expect but his heart hammered in his chest at just the thought of seeing Jelly again.

He had to stop a few times and take cover when he passed a street opening. Otherwise, he made it to the back of the orphanage without trouble. He only hoped none of the kids saw him. Children weren't real subtle and he figured they'd either scream or call out to him if they recognized him at all.

He positioned himself behind a huge oak tree and waited. It was quiet in the yard but he knew the kids would be out for lunch pretty soon. After ten or so minutes, he saw Jelly walk out of the side door of the building and head for the small storage shed. He waited until the man went inside then followed.

Johnny eased the door open and closed it silently behind him. He watched as Jelly collected a bucket of nails and a hammer before speaking.

"Buildin somethin?"

Jelly froze in mid-turn at the familiar voice. He closed his eyes, afraid to believe it, then angry that he had. He turned fully to face the man.

"Reckon that prison done made ya plain loco. What're ya doin in town, Johnny? Tryin ta get yerself killed?" he reprimanded.

Johnny grinned at him. "Just lookin up an old friend." After a second's hesitation, he added, "right?" in almost a whisper.

Jelly blinked several times and swallowed hard as he worked on his decorum. "It's good ta see ya agin."

Johnny stepped over to the old man and put a hand on his shoulder. "I thought I might see you before now." The question was there.

Jelly nodded and looked at the ground. "I been workin on it, Johnny. Ain't easy to find all the boys. They spread out all over. Some ain't even around anymore. And, I can't find Cip nowhere. Ain't like I could put up posters, ya know. Takes time."

Johnny knew something was wrong here. He squeezed Jelly's shoulder more. "If you can't or don't want to help us, Jelly, just tell me. I'll understand.

The older man jerked away and backed up a step. His whiskers started twitching and Johnny braced himself.

"If I didn't wanna help I'd a told Val ta go ta hell 'tother day! I said it takes time and that's what I meant. Ain't nobody wants ta see that critter get what's comin to 'im more'n me, Johnny. How could ya even ask?"

Johnny stepped up and put a hand up to ward off any further verbal attack. "Keep your voice down, old man! Look, I'm sorry, Jelly but after Teresa ...." he stopped and sucked in a breath. "I don't know who I can trust anymore," he finished with his head bowed.

Jelly took hold of his arm in a firm grip. "You can trust me, Johnny. As long as I draw breath."

Johnny nodded and Jelly gave him a few seconds to collect himself. "How's Murdoch and Scott doin?"

Johnny sighed and sat on the small bench against the wall. "Scott's in Sacramento with Val talkin to the governor right now. Murdoch .... he's pretty torn up about Teresa. He can't get past it."

"Can't say as I blame 'im none. Can't hardly believe it myself."

"Jelly, did she say anything to you about why ...." Johnny could only shake his head.

"Ain't talked to her since the trial, if ya could call it that! Saw 'er leavin with that heathen. Went back to Lancer and packed up my belongins. Ain't set foot on the ranch since," Jelly relayed as he sat beside Johnny.

Johnny stared at the floor for a long time. "How many men have you talked to?"

"Five so far and all of 'em are just waitin for the word, Johnny. I aimed ta talk to some more tonight. One way or the other, we'll meet ya on Bone Mountain tomorra night."

"Okay," he sighed and stood up. "Just be careful, old man. I couldn't stand it if anything happened to you."

Jelly stood up as well. "I ain't ashamed ta say it, Johnny. My heart's been broke for too long now. Just thinkin about all of ya throwed in prison like that. Well, at least ya had each other."

Jelly looked closely at the young man. Johnny winced at the words and Jelly felt the rest of his heart fall away.

"I wanted ta come visit. Thought about it more'n once but..."

"No, Jelly. I'm glad you didn't. I told you not to, remember? We all told you not to. But, we weren't together. Scott and Murdoch were in Folsom. I was in San Quentin."

Jelly's face turned deep red. "Why?" he ground out so low, Johnny looked at him with surprise at the venom.

He could only shrug in answer, though. "We can talk about that some other time, amigo. I'd best get out of here. Don't want to push my luck. No matter what happens, come to Bone Mountain tomorrow night."

Jelly nodded. "I will, Johnny, I swear it."

*****

Sheriff Josiah Bentley happened to glance toward the orphanage as he walked out of the hotel from lunch. He saw Jelly walk out of the shed. Something about the way the man kept looking around piqued his curiosity. He moved behind a pillar and watched Jelly walk back into the orphanage. Slender as he was, he had no problem making himself virtually invisible to the street.

A minute later, the door opened again and Bentley almost swallowed his tongue when he saw Johnny Lancer. He resisted the urge to draw down on the man, quickly thinking he had no legal reason and the streets were teaming with people at this hour. He watched Johnny disappear into the trees then spied him as he moved through the alley. He made for the livery and saddled up quickly then rode east where he'd last seen Lancer headed.

Johnny made it back to his horse and mounted up, reining to the east as he traversed his false trail. He took no chances that he hadn't been seen. It was midday and there were plenty of people around. He used the road for only a mile or so before heading overland.

Bentley followed the freshest tracks. A seasoned Indian scout, he spied the horse prints easily. They moved off to the right and so did he.

Johnny rode up a small rise then felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand straight up. He kept going straight into a copse of trees then stopped and dismounted. Drawing his gun, he waited.

Bentley moved slowly, keeping his eyes on the grass beside him as he followed the trail Johnny made. He came to a rise and felt someone watching him. He looked up from beneath his lashes and scanned the area. He saw the stand of trees and headed away from them to the left.

Johnny watched him, gun trained on the man. He was easy to spot anywhere with his black suit and Stetson. His well-trimmed moustache that he was always stroking. That habit had irritated Johnny to no end. He had a sharp chiseled face and deep set brown eyes that seemed to bore through a man. Johnny reckoned he'd have made a fine lawman had he been honest. He was certainly good at his job. But he didn't fool Johnny who knew he'd been spotted.

Bentley's hand rested on the butt of his gun as he made his way back down the hill and around the back.

Johnny knew what he was doing and he mounted up, riding back the way he'd come. He broke into a gallop and took off toward the road, crossing it as he heard the horse beating down behind him. Never breaking his stride, Johnny turned to look back. Bentley had him in his sights and Johnny fired.

Bentley's left side jerked but he didn't falter. He returned fire and a satisfied smile broke out on his face when he saw Johnny's back arch in pain. He was still smiling when Johnny turned back and fired again. The smile left as he hit the ground hard.

Johnny kept going, making for the cover of the woods that were his original destination to begin with. He had to slow down through the foliage and he slumped forward some as the slow sway of the horse awoke the burning in his back.

He pulled to a stop and slowed his breathing then focused his ears to the sounds around him. Silencing the sounds of nature to his brain, he focused on the unnatural sounds. There were none and, satisfied no one else was following, he proceeded toward the cabin.

*****

Murdoch stood on the small porch staring out across the scrubby land. His face was set in a perpetual frown as he waited for his son's return. Johnny should be back by now, was what he kept thinking as the minutes ticked away.

He thought about going after his son several times but stopped himself. Johnny wouldn't appreciate that. Now, at nearly five o'clock, he was starting not to care about his son's pride. He was worried about his health. He stepped off the porch, intent on saddling a horse when a sound caused him to still.

Murdoch pulled the gun from its holster and kept his eyes glued on the small path until the rider came into sight. Sucking in a breath, he sheathed the weapon and ran to his son.

Johnny was slumped over the saddle horn, the horse walking slowly into the yard. Murdoch had but to touch the bridle and the horse stopped completely. He reached up to take Johnny who fell into his arms. Murdoch took him to the ground, unprepared to bear his full weight so suddenly.

Johnny opened his eyes and looked up at his father's frowning face. He smiled.

"I made it."

"Barely," Murdoch sighed and picked him up, carrying him into the cabin.

He laid Johnny on the cot on his side, having seen the blood on his son's shirt. He gathered water and supplies then removed the shirt as gently as he could. Johnny had passed out by now but he knew pain would bring his son back faster than anything.

It wasn't until he had the shirt off that Murdoch realized it was the exit wound. Gritting his teeth he looked at Johnny's back and saw the entry wound, smaller and bleeding less. It was plenty enough, he thought.

Murdoch quickly went though his options and knew what he had to do. He cleaned both wounds thoroughly, scrubbing in an effort to keep infection out and eliciting only groans from his son. He stitched the wounds closed and prayed nothing vital had been hit. He would know soon enough if that was the case and if it was, he would have no choice but to get Sam involved.

He didn't want to put his friend in a precarious and dangerous situation but if Johnny needed a doctor, he would have one. He washed up and sat beside his son, waiting for him to awaken and keeping a close eye for fever.

The shadows drew long across the floor and Murdoch lit two lamps. As he finished, he heard a low moan and moved to Johnny's side.

Long lashes fluttered then blue eyes opened and blinked.

"It's alright, son. You're safe now."

Johnny licked his lips and felt a cup placed to his mouth. He drank deeply and sighed when he'd finished. "Thanks."

"Welcome. Do you feel up to telling me about it?"

Johnny nodded and closed his eyes again for just a second. "Found Jelly and talked to him. He's havin some trouble rounding up the men but he'll be here tomorrow night no matter what."

"How is he?" Murdoch asked, his heart a little lighter with this news.

"Real sad," Johnny said quietly.

Murdoch pressed his hand into his son's.

"Guess the sheriff saw me leavin and followed me. I almost got away but we got to shootin at each other. I hit him twice, I'm pretty sure. Second one took him out of the saddle."

Murdoch closed his eyes for a second and nodded. "Where did this happen?"

Johnny shook his head. "Not two miles outside town. Nobody followed me. I made sure." At Murdoch's unconvinced expression, Johnny had to smile a little. "I didn't pass out until I got here. I had to keep stoppin to make sure no one was there."

"Alright, son. The bullet went straight through. I don't think it hit anything important. I sewed you up but we may need Sam."

"No!" Johnny shouted and instantly regretted it as his side burned.

"Sshhh. Take it easy, Johnny. There's no fever for now and I don't see any sign of bleeding. But, if you get worse, I WILL go for Sam. No arguments. I'm not going to lose you now!"

Johnny grimaced but he didn't argue.

"Here, son. Drink some whiskey. It will help with the pain."

Johnny did so and sighed. "Thanks. We'll have more help tomorrow. I'm sorry."

"Don't be. We needed to know what was happening. It wasn't your fault, Johnny. I'm just thankful you made it back. It'll be alright, son. I promise."

Johnny looked up at his father and smiled softly. "You're a man of your word." He closed his eyes then and fell asleep.

*****

Scott hadn't slept a wink. He was anxious to get going and cursed the sun for being so slow. He listened with some envy but more annoyance at Val's snores until he could take no more. He walked over and smacked Val's arm. The lawman snorted and jerked his head up.

"Get up. It'll be dawn soon," Scott said harshly.

Val rubbed his face vigorously and sat up. He looked out the window by his bed and sighed. "Yeah, only three more hours," he shot.

Scott scowled at him. "The moon is full."

Val smiled a little and got up, washing and dressing quickly. "I don't suppose breakfast is happenin."

"We can eat on the trail."

"Course we can. Don't know why the hell we stayed this long," he snorted.

"Neither do I!" Scott shouted.

Val slumped his shoulders and walked over to the man. "Why don't ya go saddle the horses and bring 'em over. And try not ta get arrested for breaking inta the livery."

Scott opened his mouth then closed it. He smiled and nodded then left the room. Val fell onto the bed and sat there shaking his head at the innate Lancer stubbornness. He took a deep breath and pulled his vest on, rubbing a finger over the badge there.

Thirty minutes later they headed out of town at an easy canter. Val had to convince Scott not to run the horses until daybreak. Once the sun showed itself and without a word, Scott kneed his mount into a ground eating gallop.

Val only shook his head once more and matched the gait.

At noon, they stopped to rest the horses by a river. Scott checked his saddlebag once more just to ensure himself the papers were there. Val did the same with the arrest warrants. It would be his pleasure to serve them. He grinned thinking about slapping the handcuffs on Folger's wrists.

Scott stood looking at the water rush by. Suddenly, his head came up and his breath stopped. He stood frozen like an icicle. Val walked over and touched his arm and Scott blinked.

"What's the matter?"

Scott shook his head. "I ... I don't know. I just got a really bad feeling. Something is wrong, Val. We need to get back now."

Val stared after him as he walked to his horse.

"Scott! If you keep ridin that horse so hard, we'll be walkin back!"

Scott looked down from the saddle, his eyes icy. "We'll be near a town by dusk. We can change horses there."

"We ain't supposed ta be goin anywhere near a town," Val reminded him.

"It doesn't matter now, does it, *Marshal*?" Scott cocked a meaningful brow and let his eyes go to Val's vest.

Val's eyes widened then narrowed. "Reckon it don't at that."

Scott nodded once and set off again, leaving Val the task of catching up.

*****

Sheriff Bentley growled and opened his eyes to a blurry and tilting world. He blinked to clear his vision and found Dr. Jenkins staring down at him with a flat affect.

His hand went to his head. "What happened?"

"I'm not really sure. Someone found you outside town and hauled you in here. You had a bullet high up in your chest and a graze to your left shoulder. Oh, and a nasty lump on the back of your head," Sam reported.

Bentley sighed and tried to sit up.

"Not a good idea, Sheriff."

He slumped back down. "How long will I be down?"

"That depends on you, now doesn't it?" Sam asked then looked at the man. "This is the first time you've been hurt since taking the job."

Bentley knew he heard some emphasis on the word 'taking' in that statement but he let it go. It was no big shock that the doc hated his guts. He couldn't care less either.

"Yeah," he answered.

Sam raised a brow. "What ever will we do now?" he asked sarcastically.  

Bentley glowered at him for only a second before closing his eyes again. His head felt like it was coming off. "Send for Mr. Folger."

"I'm not your lap dog, Sheriff! I have better things to do with my time!" Sam shouted and got some perverse pleasure when the man winced in pain.

Bentley raised up shakily. "Look, I need to see Mr. Folger. He needs to know who did this."

"And who was that?"

Bentley shut his mouth tightly and laid back down. He closed his eyes and was almost gone when he felt a sharp pinch to his arm. His eyes flew open and he looked at the arm then at the doctor.

"What the hell was that?"

Sam smiled. "Something to help with the pain, Sheriff. It will help you sleep, as well."

Bentley fought to get up but it was a losing battle. He fell back on the exam table and passed out.

Sam smiled. "And to keep you out of the way," he added softly.

He was making a lot of assumptions, he knew. But, since Bentley had taken over no one had tried to cross him. It seemed as if even the dregs of society knew not to cross the man's path. Mostly because they knew Bentley had no trouble using his gun to mete out justice. With the circuit judge they now had to deal with, there would never be any repercussions for the sheriff.

Sam only hoped whichever Lancer he'd tangled with had gotten out of it much better than Bentley. Sam growled to himself. He didn't even know where they were. He could go help if he only knew that much. Then, he had an idea. He grabbed his bag and left the sheriff to fend for himself. Knowing the man would sleep for several hours yet.

*****

Murdoch felt Johnny's forehead again and, once more, said a word of thanks for the coolness there. Johnny had awakened and ate well then slipped back into sleep. Murdoch knew it was a healing sleep. He was grateful Johnny could allow himself this respite. He knew why, though. Johnny wanted to be well enough when Scott got back to be there for the final showdown.

With Bentley at least a little incapacitated, they had better odds. Still, Folger had about thirty guns. They'd have to plan carefully when to do this. When the least amount of thugs were nearby.

Murdoch's head came up and he reached down for the rifle he kept beside him. With Johnny down, he had no back up. He was vulnerable, he knew. He heard the noise again and moved to the lamps, extinguishing them quickly. Then, he moved to the door and leaned against it, rifle at the ready.

He heard rustling noises then footfalls on the porch. Murdoch brought the rifle up. Then, he heard his name whispered. He waited, unsure of the voice. Then, he heard it again and dropped the rifle to his side. He opened the door a crack.

"Jelly?"

"Yeah, it's me and I brung help."

Murdoch opened the door wider to allow Jelly in. It was then he saw Sam behind the other man. Murdoch sighed with relief and walked over to light a lamp.

"How did you know?" he asked as he lowered the chimney.

"Bentley's in my office unconscious," Sam said as he headed straight for Johnny.

"I think he's alright. The bullet went on through. I cleaned and stitched it and he's been eating and drinking well," Murdoch reported quickly.

Sam nodded.

"I got ten men outside, Boss. They set up a perimeter though I don't reckon we got nothin ta worry bout tonight," Jelly said as he grabbed Murdoch's hand and shook it enthusiastically.

"Do they know Scott's on his way? I don't want them shooting the wrong people!" Murdoch proclaimed.

Jelly grinned and thought the Boss sounded like his old self. "They know alright."

Murdoch finally smiled at the man. "Thank you, Jelly. But, I thought you weren't coming until tomorrow."

"Doc come to me. He figured Bentley coulda only mixed it up with one of you. Couldn't get the varmint to say so but Doc wanted to make sure none of ya needed him."

"Well, I'm very glad you're all here," Murdoch sighed and ran a hand through his hair.

"Sure. Why don't ya lay down and rest for a bit? Me and the sawbones'll look after Johnny."

Murdoch nodded and walked over to Johnny. "How is he?"

"Remarkably well," Sam said and stood, extending his hand. "It's so good to see you, Murdoch. Welcome home."

"Thank you, Sam, but save that welcome for when it's true."

*****

Scott tore through the undergrowth as the sun shined down on his back. He hadn't slept more than a few hours in the past several days but the urgency he'd begun to feel back at that stream would not leave him. Someone was hurt. He'd come to that conclusion sometime after they'd stopped for fresh mounts in Dry Gulch.

Val was ready to shoot him if he didn't take care. He really was getting reckless now that they were so close to the cabin. Two more hours would find them back with Johnny and Murdoch. If Scott didn't kill his horse or himself first!

Finally, the trail itself forced Scott to slow down and Val caught him up.

"We're almost there now, Scott. Think you could let that horse breathe for a minute or two?" he asked, sarcasm dripping from his voice.

Scott looked back at him with cold eyes. "Someone is hurt, Val. I can feel something is wrong."

"Well, I ain't one for all that superstition type stuff but you ain't gonna help anybody by gettin your neck broke! Now, let that damned horse rest!" he shouted.

Scott ground his teeth then relented. He knew Val was right and he was being careless. He made himself stop and dismount at the next clearing. He wiped the lathered horse down using the blanket from his bedroll as Val did the same.

Both men poured water into their hats and let the horses drink after giving them some time to cool down. Guilt oozed off Scott once he realized the condition the animals were in. Johnny would kill him if he knew what Scott was putting the beasts through.

Thoughts of his brother sent a pang through Scott's heart and he knew with everything he was, Johnny was the one hurt. He wasn't surprised but that didn't make it any easier. He needed to get to his brother. Wisdom finally won the war and he waited until Val gave the word this time. Then, he let the Marshal take the lead.

Two hours later, Val slowed to a walk as he looked back at Scott. He saw the determined set of the man's jaw but he would not relent. Riding in there like their hair was on fire was a sure way of getting themselves shot.

Val pulled back on the reins abruptly as a man stepped out of the brush to his left bearing a rifle, then one appeared on his right. Scott's heart nearly stopped before he recognized them both.

"Mr. Lancer, glad ta see ya."

"Thanks, Walt. It's good to see you as well. And you, Jose," Scott smiled.

"How're things?" Val asked.

Walt's face fell and Scott's stomach clenched.

"Johnny's hurt but he's doin a lot better."

Before the man could finish the sentence, both Val and Scott were gone.

*****

Murdoch took the plate from his son with a smile. He was halfway across the room when the door burst open. He heard the click as Johnny pulled back the hammer then again as his son released it.

Scott's eyes fell on his brother and that's where his feet carried him.

"What happened? Are you alright?" Scott asked.

"Slow down, Boston. I'm doin fine now," Johnny smiled.

Scott let out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding and his shoulders relaxed measurably.

Val walked over to Murdoch and Sam. "Bout killed hisself gettin back here. Said he felt something was wrong. That someone was hurt," he explained.

Murdoch nodded then he saw it. "What's that?" he nodded toward Val's chest.

Scott turned and they all joined at Johnny's bedside. He relayed the entire story of their meeting with the governor. When he finished, the relief in the room was palpable.

"Wish I'd been there. Could of told 'em they were makin a big mistake pinnin a star on Val again," Johnny grinned.

"I did tell 'em but they wouldn't listen ta me! Sides, it's temporary," Val proclaimed.

"Short work," Scott smiled. He turned his attention back to his brother. "Now, how did this happen?"

Johnny sighed and told his story. When he was finished and Sam reported on Bentley's condition everyone was happy except Scott.

"You should have waited, Johnny. Jelly would have come when he could."

"Reckon so, but I was gettin a bit restless. Besides, some good come of it. Bentley's out of the way."

"Makes it easier for me to arrest him," Val snorted.

"I think it's time for you to go back, Sam. The men will help you to the road," Murdoch said.

Sam nodded. "Yes, I suppose so. I'll try to make the sheriff as comfortable as possible but he could have managed to come to by now and get to Folger."

"Don't matter now. Tomorrow morning, we're goin home," Johnny said coldly.

Scott raised a brow. "Is he ready for that, Sam?"

The doctor frowned in thought. "He is as long as he doesn't get into anymore scrapes. He can ride. Just take it easy, Johnny."

"I will, Sam," he promised and didn't mean a word of it. He figured he'd take it however it came.

*****

The Lancers and Val went over their final plans that night. Walt was elected to blow the mine again. A distraction to rid the house of as many of Folger's men as possible. It wouldn't have to be elaborate. Just throw some dynamite toward the mine, careful not to injure any workers if he could help it. Then, the rest of them would ride in and take Folger down.

Scott watched his brother closely and, he had to admit Johnny seemed to be doing fine. He was sitting in a chair at the table and not once had Scott seen even a faint hint of pain or weakness from his brother. Johnny was good at hiding it but Scott had become better at seeing it so he was confident Johnny would be alright tomorrow.

Johnny had been watching Scott as well though the older man didn't know it. He knew his brother was exhausted and that he was watching for any sign of weakness on Johnny's part. He'd shown him none. Sometimes, Johnny figured, Scott thought he knew him better than he really did. Partly because that's how Johnny wanted it. He trusted Scott with his life and his father's life but he never let his guard completely down with anyone. He never would. It was the nature of the beast.

Scott was put to bed early as was Val who was just as tired. The day ahead of them would be hard and not because of Folger. Johnny wished there was a way to get Teresa away from the house if only so Murdoch didn't have to deal with her right away. But, there was nothing he could do about it now. His injuries had negated any fine tuning of the plan in the area of emotions. All he could concentrate on now was results.

He sat alone in the dark as the others slept. He'd had plenty of rest the past two days. His wounds bothered him more than he would admit but they would not slow him down one second. Whatever happened tomorrow, one thing was certain. His father and brother would sleep in their own beds come nightfall.

He slipped outside once he was sure they were all deeply asleep and sought out Frank. He talked through the plan with the man and made sure it was understood completely. Frank liked the plan until the end. Johnny's last instruction unnerved him and, though he promised to do what his friend asked, Frank knew he would not go through with it.

To ignore Johnny's safety was not an option. If he was bound to go through with it, Frank would have his back whether he wanted the help or not. He'd been at Lancer for years when the brothers came home. He'd watched as the family slowly came together. Until they melded into a cohesive unit. Thinking and acting in concert on almost every point. The one point they'd never agreed on was this very thing. Johnny still to this day would sacrifice himself without a second thought to protect them.

They all would, he knew. But, Johnny always seemed to be ready for it. As if it was expected of him to do so when Frank knew better. Knew Johnny had been told better by his father and brother more times than he could count. It hadn't seemed to have gotten through to the young man, though. So, Frank decided Johnny would not be exposed tomorrow. He would watch his back while the others watched the lot of them. More men had shown earlier that day as Jelly went out on his rounds. They were now twenty and loyal to the cause.

*****

The next morning, twenty-three men rode toward Lancer as one rode toward the mines. The timing was important to their success as having the law on their side meant little to Folger, they were sure. He wouldn't go quietly unless he was severely outgunned.

They came to a stop just shy of the rise that would show them the estancia. Murdoch turned to the men and spoke.

"This is it, gentlemen. This land was stolen from us and it's time to reclaim it. I'll ask once more. Any man who isn't willing to fight today can leave. No hard feelings."

No one moved and Murdoch nodded and smiled a little at them all.

Johnny moved his horse closer to his family. "I'm going with them and work my way in through the back. Just in case."

"We should stand together, Johnny. A united front," Scott argued.

Johnny smiled a little at that. "We've got the law at our front. Let me take care of the back. I don't want any surprises."

Scott frowned and started to speak but was interrupted.

"Be careful, son. We've come too far to make any mistakes and you've still got stitches in you," Murdoch spoke quietly.

"I'll be careful. Don't worry. Nothing is going to keep me from getting this ranch back," Johnny said with stern resolve. He moved back to the men who had split into their respective groups. With a simple nod of his head, Johnny sent the men to set up position.

"Why does he always do that?" Scott asked, disgruntled.

"Cause he knows he'll be better in the fight doin it his way. You trust 'im, Scott. Just keep right on trustin that he knows how he can best help," Val said.

Scott sucked in a breath and dismounted to take up surveillance. They wouldn't be able to hear the explosions from the mine but they would know fairly soon after it happened.

Murdoch settled in beside him and peered through the brush and down the hill. "I wish we had twenty more men."

Scott glanced back at him. "I wish we had the 7th Cavalry."

"That'd be better, alright," Val grinned as he sat down.

*****

Johnny and his crew dismounted well away from the house and worked their way through the pastures and corrals to the stand of trees where the Lancers had been just a few days before. Johnny squatted and turned to the men. He gave hand signals and all nodded then set off in three different directions. Johnny and Frank stayed where they were and watched as the men hunkered down unseen.

Johnny smiled and looked at Frank. "Shouldn't be too long."

"You sure we'll know from back here?"

"Yeah, I bet we'll hear Folger shouting at the moon when he finds out that mine was blown up again," he grinned. The smile fell away as he saw her.

Teresa came around the house to the small garden in back and began picking beans. Johnny's muscles tightened in anger as he watched her smile and hum her way through the rows.

"Hope she gets done, soon," Frank whispered.

Johnny only nodded. He figured it wouldn't take long to gather enough of the vegetable for just two people. He was a little surprised her highness was doing such menial work now. Surely she had all the servants in the world. He sighed and shook his head then closed his eyes and went inside himself to find the calm, cold persona.

*****

Scott repositioned himself before his leg fell asleep and checked his pocketwatch for the tenth time. Murdoch said nothing, knowing the wait was the worst part. Well, the second worst part. For he knew when they did get down there what he would be facing and he really didn't want to see her.

Suddenly, Val tensed and stood up. He pointed to the north where a rider was hauling ass and grinned.

The three of them watched with held breath as the man tore into the yard and jumped from his horse. Folger ran outside and it was quite a show. He shouted and waved his fists in the air then the rider said something and Folger punched him in the mouth. He then began screaming orders at anyone within earshot, which was most of the valley by Val's reckoning.

The three men on the hill couldn't help but smile at the sight.

Johnny's head came up and he glanced at Frank, laying a hand on the man's arm in anticipation.

Teresa stood and turned toward the house with a frown then hurried around to the kitchen door.

Johnny stood and drew his gun, holding a rifle in his left hand and stepped out of the treeline.

"Wait!" Frank whispered loudly and grabbed his arm, pulling him back. At Johnny's frown, he explained. "We gotta wait for 'em to ride out. Don't get anxious now, Johnny. We're almost there."

Johnny scowled but he knew the man was right. He could ruin everything if he was seen while Folger's gang was still near the house. He sighed and nodded and settled down. He waited.

He only wished they'd hurry up. Not just so they could get on with this but he felt the warm fluid on his back and knew he'd torn some of his stitches at some point in this journey. It was more a nuisance than anything but he was glad he was wearing his jacket so Frank didn't see and have a fit. Truth be told, he wouldn't mind laying down for a while but that was not an option. So, he stayed where he was and kept firm control of his emotions. No more slips would be made this day.

Val counted as best he could amongst the dust from the horses hooves. Fifteen men rode out toward the mine. If Folger had kept the same count at the mine, that made five more. Val didn't think so, though. He figured Folger would double the guards out there after the last big bang. If that was true, Folger had maybe half a dozen men left at the ranch. Perfect.

Murdoch stood up as the riders disappeared down the road and, without a word and his face set in granite, he mounted up, Scott and Val alongside him. All three determined men set off down the hill at an even gait.

Johnny saw one of the men near the barn signal and he smiled. They were on their way in. Now he could make his move. He looked at Frank and winked then made his way to the back of the house.

Johnny leaned his back against the adobe structure and looked at Frank. "Go in the kitchen and lock Teresa and anyone else there in the pantry. And be quiet about it," he ordered.

"Where are you goin?" Frank asked dubiously.

"To the living room. Folger will be outside soon and I want to have his back," he grinned once more.

Frank took a breath. "And what if them ladies get the drop on me?"

Johnny laughed softly. "Then, I reckon you ain't much of a pistolero there, Frank."

Frank rolled his eyes and set off to the right. Johnny watched until he rounded the corner then went to the left.

Scott's right hand rested on his hip as they made their way into the yard. Val wasn't so subtle and had his rifle laying across his lap. Murdoch had both hands on the reins, having no intention of settling this with gunfire. Given his choice, he'd settle it with his fists.

Folger was pacing the great room, swearing under his breath. Teresa watched him for a few minutes before going up to him and blocking his path.

"What's happening?" she asked.

He looked at her and smiled briefly. "Someone blew the mine again."

"Who's doing this, Jeremy?"

"I don't know, darling, but I intend to find out. What I really want to know is where that no good sheriff is. I sent for him this morning," he ground out the last.

The front door opened and one of his men ran in. "Mr. Folger...." he started, his face had gone pale and he was sweating.

"What is it!?"

"It's ....."

"Spit it out, man!" Folger yelled.

"The Lancers are here," the man said, panic in his eyes.

Teresa gasped, her hand going to her heart and she looked at her husband with wide-eyed fear. "Jeremy?"

"It's alright, darling. At least now we know who's been behind all this. I should have known." His face turned rigid as he regarded the man.

"Well, ride out and get the men back here!"

"Yessir," he said and ran out of the house. He was stopped cold by a rifle cocked behind him. Julio stepped out from the side of the house and shoved the man out of sight.

*****

"Folger!"

He turned to the French doors and Teresa grabbed his arm. "That's Murdoch," she said breathlessly.

"Stay in the house, Teresa," he said calmly. He straightened his coat and walked outside.

Folger stepped into the yard and regarded the three men, surprised that someone was missing. "Well, Murdoch Lancer. How long have you been out?" he grinned.

He only received an icy glare in return.

"Mr. Folger, I have a warrant for your arrest," Val stated.

Folger looked disdainfully at Val. "By what authority? You're not sheriff anymore."

"Nope, not sheriff. By the authority of the Governor of California and the US Marshal service, you're under arrest, you pile of dog turds!" Val stated and moved his jacket so Folger could see the badge.

Folger hesitated when he saw the star, his eyes went to Murdoch then Scott. "Where's Madrid? Did he get himself killed in prison?" he grinned.

"Ain't no concern of yours," Val said calmly and dismounted. He walked up to Folger with a pair of handcuffs.

"Surely you don't think I'm going anywhere with you? My men have you surrounded. Ride out of here or die now," Folger glared.

Murdoch smiled for the first time. "If you take a look around, I think you'll find that *you* are the one surrounded, Folger. Your men are riding toward the mines. MY men are right here," Murdoch said and raised his hand.

Folger looked past the Lancers and all around him. Men he didn't recognize stepped out into the open, some holding his own men at gunpoint.

Val reached in and took his gun from it's holster, tucking it into his waistband. He grabbed Folger by the arm and started to turn him but the man wrenched free and headed inside.

*****

Johnny stepped through the door he'd used the last time he'd been in the house. He froze when he saw Teresa standing near the desk wringing her hands. He cursed himself then drew on his resources, stepping silently behind her.

She felt the presence and whirled around to find herself face to face with him.

"Hello, Mrs. Folger. Your husband is outside being arrested by the real law. Care to join him?" Johnny's smile was only on his lips.

She backed away, shaking her head and turned to run. Johnny's hand snaked out and he grabbed her, pulling her close to him.

"I'm afraid you don't get a choice, Mrs. Folger. Time to pay for your sins," he said harshly.

"Johnny, please," she whispered and thought she saw a flicker of something less cold in his eyes. She went for it. "You don't understand. Let me explain what happened."

Johnny stared at her, considering the idea. But, he knew there was no time to hear her lies and knew he couldn't stand it anyway. His plan was to get her out of there before Murdoch ever got the chance to see her.

"Sorry, that's not gonna happen. We're goin to the kitchen."

"Why?" she asked.

He gave her an exasperated look. "Because I'm hungry," he answered sarcastically. "Just do what I tell you and I might not hurt you. Believe me, it's takin everything I've got to keep from it."

He jerked her toward the dining area. They were almost there when the French door flew open and Folger ran in. He stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Johnny and Teresa. His eyes darted to the rifle case.

Johnny turned Teresa so that she was in front of him, his arm around her waist. Briefly, he thought she wasn't as small as he remembered but he pushed that aside.

Folger glared at him. "Hiding behind women now, Madrid?"

Johnny grinned at him then saw Val rush in. "Hiding? Thought I'd take this little filly for a ride."

Val's brows shot up at the implication of that wicked statement then realized Johnny was goading Folger.

He took one step toward his wife and heard the click as Johnny cocked the hammer. His hand came from around her and he leveled the gun at Folger.

Teresa squirmed and Johnny tightened his hold on her. Her panicked eyes begged her husband not to take the chance. She knew Johnny would kill him without a second thought.

"Please, Johnny. I ..... I'm pregnant."

Johnny was sure his heart had stopped beating and his jaw tightened but he made no move to release her. His eyes went to Folger who looked terrified at the moment. Then, Johnny smiled widely.

"Well then, I reckon I won't have to worry about that little complication, will I?"  

Folger shot him a hate-filled glare as he felt the steel slam onto his wrist. He never stopped staring at the two of them as Val secured his hands behind his back.

Scott and Murdoch walked in then, taking in the scene before them. They were shocked by what they saw and unsure what it meant that Johnny was holding Teresa in front of him like a hostage.

"You can let her go now, amigo," Val said.

Johnny looked at his friend then back at Folger. "Don't think I will, Val. Me and Teresa got a lot of catching up to do, after all." He leaned in and whispered in her ear. "Don't we, honey?"

She gasped and looked helplessly at her husband. She shook her head and in a trembling voice, said, "you wouldn't do that, Johnny. It's not in you."

He released her then, grabbing her arm and turning her to face him. The look he gave her made her feel faint.

"You don't have any idea what's in me, you bitch!"

"Johnny!"

His father's voice penetrated the raw hatred but he never took his eyes off her. He did release her and she backed away, rubbing her arm, tears spilling down her cheeks. Her other hand moved to her abdomen.

Gunshots exploded into the silence of the room and Julio burst through the front door.

"Senor, Folger's men have returned!"

Folger smiled at this news and Val jerked him toward the fireplace. He fished the key from his pocket and unlocked one handcuff, sliding it through the iron ring attached to the hearth and locking it back.

Frank came from the kitchen after hearing the gunfire.

"Lock her up, Frank," Johnny told him. "And don't worry about bein gentle," he added as the man took her arm.

Murdoch looked grimly at him for a second before turning his attention to the firefight.

Scott had already moved to the gun rack and tossed his father a rifle then the four of them went outside and into the middle of a firefight.

They fanned out across the yard, each taking a fairly secure position. The gunmen had ridden straight in and the Lancer hands had begun firing as soon as they were in range. Taken by surprise, they'd never made it any closer than the corral fence but they fought still.

Murdoch signaled for the men to hold their fire and after a few minutes, it fell quiet enough.

"You men out there! Folger has been arrested and is going to jail. Now, if you want to either join him or die, you can keep fighting but you are outnumbered and outgunned. It's your choice!"

Scott smiled at his father and waited to see the reaction. He didn't have to wait long.

One man stood and threw down his weapon then ran to the nearest horse, taking off at top run. Soon, they all followed, knowing it was a lost cause.

Johnny stepped out first and watched them ride away. Murdoch walked over and stood behind him. Johnny turned and smiled.

"That was pretty good, old man."

The smile slid from his face as his father glared at him. Johnny kept the stare and waited to find out what Murdoch was so mad about.

"Since when do you talk that way to a woman?" Murdoch finally asked through gritted teeth.

Johnny's jaw dropped as he stared at the man in astonishment. "You're mad at me for that? After what she did?"

"You don't sink to that level for any reason, Johnny," he retorted.

"Do you really think I meant any of that? Is that what you really think of me?" Anger caused his voice to rise but the hurt in his eyes couldn't be hidden.

Murdoch sighed and dropped his eyes. "No, of course not. I've just never heard you speak that way to anyone. It shocked me to the core, son."

Johnny relaxed a modicum but he had failed to keep Murdoch from seeing her and he didn't know how to fix it for his father. It was bad enough to deal with her himself. He would have given almost anything to spare his father this anguish.

Scott had been standing behind them a little surprised that his father was reprimanding Johnny as well. The venom and pure hatred his brother had displayed had shocked him as well but he had no problem with it. The tension was still in the air though. Scott knew there was nothing that would ease it for now.

"I guess Val can take Folger in now," he said.

Johnny looked over at him then past him. "Where is Val?"

Both other men searched the area with their eyes as well but couldn't spot the lawman.

"Where was he?" Johnny asked, his voice shaky.

Scott pointed toward the end of the veranda and Johnny took off at a run.

He slowed then stopped when he saw Val. He dropped to his knees and, with shaking hands, turned his friend over. All the time praying harder than he'd ever prayed before.

"Val?" he called softly.

"What?" the Marshal grumbled.

Johnny smiled and sighed then shook his head hard to ward off the emotions that had consumed him. "Where are you hit?"

Val struggled to sit with Johnny's help. "Ain't nothing. Just in the arm. Sorta took my breath is all cause I hit that damned wall so hard!"

Johnny leaned over him and ripped the shirt open to get a good look.

"Hey!"

Johnny ignored the protest and shot him a weary look. He saw the offered bandana over his shoulder and took it with a quick 'thanks' to his father. He wrapped the wound tightly, focusing all his attention on that arm. He couldn't look at his friend.

"I'm sorry," he whispered.

"Why? Did you shoot me?" Val groused.

Johnny's shoulders sagged and he sighed heavily at the irascible man. "Could I?" he shot.

Murdoch stepped over them both and leaned in to help Val to his feet. Grumbling and grunting he came to his full stature and shrugged off the assistance.

"Got some business to take care of now," he mumbled and walked into the house.

"I swear sometimes I don't know what to do with him," Johnny said exasperated.

"Or without him?" Murdoch asked with a smile.

"Yeah, that, too," Johnny conceded.

"The men are cleaning up now," Scott said. His voice betrayed the fact that he really didn't want to face their next tasks.

The three of them stood there silently for a few seconds.

"I'll get her," Murdoch said.

"No, Sir. I'll get her," Scott countered and walked off before anyone could argue.

Johnny was fine with that. He knew he should not be alone with her. He wasn't sure what he'd do. Never in his life had he wanted to hurt anyone that much, especially a woman. And he knew he couldn't trust himself. Not even now that she was with child. His stomach turned at the very thought of that. He knew neither of them had heard that announcement. Now, he may have to tell them and he would just rather not.

Johnny and Murdoch walked back in as Val was situating his prisoner once more. Folger's head was down and he was complacent. No one trusted it and no one let their guard down.

Scott stalked back in the room. "She's gone! I guess she managed to get free and took off!"

Folger's head came up then and he smiled.

"She won't get far. She has no place to go," Murdoch noted.

"Yeah, especially ...." Johnny stopped and bit his lip. "Val, could you get him outta here? Take a couple of the men with you in case he has anyone actually loyal to him," he sneered.

"You'd better take more than that. Once you get to Green River, you'll have to deal with Bentley," Murdoch reminded them all.

Johnny sighed. "I'll go with you. Got some things to say to that cobarde, myself!"

No one argued though Murdoch would rather his son stayed with him. But there was time now for that. And they had a lot of work to do before the day was over.

Jelly had a wagon hitched up with Folger's remaining men tucked inside. Val hauled the man himself in and closed the tailgate.

"Jelly, stay here, will ya? I'll drive the wagon in," Johnny said.

"Alright. You okay? How's your back?"

"I'm fine, old man. Just take care of them for me. Teresa got away and, well, Murdoch ...." Johnny didn't finish. He knew he didn't have to. Jelly nodded and patted him on the shoulder then went inside.

*****

Johnny climbed in the driver's seat and waited for Val to mount up as the marshal's movements were a little slowed from his injury.

"If you touch my wife, I'll see in you in hell!" Folger hissed at his back.

Johnny turned to look at him and grinned. "I wouldn't touch that with a ten foot pole. Don't worry, you'll see her again real soon. Maybe, Val will even let her stay in a cell next to ya, though I doubt it. As for hell, I've been there. You're gonna love it." He laughed and turned back, flicking the reins.

Folger glared at him and said nothing more until they were almost to Green River. He brightened as they neared the town.

"Bentley is going to have you for his lunch, Madrid. Then, he'll have Crawford for supper."

Johnny didn't say a word nor did he even acknowledge the man had spoken.

Johnny pulled to a stop outside the jail. Everyone on the street stopped and stared at the group. People came out of businesses and homes to watch curiously.

Val unhitched the tailgate and ordered them all out, his rifle trained on Folger as Johnny stood guard.

Once they were inside and locked up, Val slammed the back room door closed and threw his hat at the nearest surface.

The door opened and the mayor walked in timidly, followed by Sam Jenkins who pushed the man aside. He walked straight up to Johnny.

"How'd your wounds hold up, son?"

"Think I might've stretched them stitches a little, Sam. But, Val got shot in the arm," he grinned as he diverted the man's attention.

"Ain't nothin. I'm alright. What do you want?" Val growled at the mayor.

The man pulled himself to his full height. All five feet six inches and tugged at his frock. "As mayor of this town, I..."

"Ah, shut up!" Val interrupted. "I'll tell ya all about it when I get good and ready. Til then, run along and mind your own business!"

The mayor huffed and sputtered then left the office red faced.

Johnny chuckled and shook his head.

"Let me see, Val. And you're next, Johnny," Sam said, trying not to laugh himself.

As he tended Val's arm, proclaiming it didn't even need stitches, Johnny lit the stove and put on a pot of coffee. He wasn't going to make it much longer without the elixir.

"How's Bentley?" Val asked.

"He's been quite sedate, literally," Sam grinned. "I've been keeping him pumped full of morphine but you can drag him over here anytime you feel like it. The sooner the better for my part."

"I'll take care of it right now," Val said as the doctor tied off the bandage.

"Fine. He won't give you any trouble but you'll need a hand carting him over. He can't stand much less walk. And not you, young man. I need to take a look at you," Sam declared as he turned his attention to Johnny.

Johnny pulled his shirt out of his pants and removed his jacket without a word of complaint. Val cocked a brow and walked outside not bothering with his own jacket. Made it easier for all them yahoos to see the badge, he thought and grinned to himself.

Val felt his anger rising with each step he took as he sensed the eyes of the town on him. He leered at a few people who turned away when his gaze fell on them. He could hear some whispers as well. Let 'em talk all they want, he thought.

Johnny endured Sam's ministrations without a word as the man restitched the back wound. He never flinched at Sam's disapproval and lecturing. Finally, he had the bandages on and Johnny sorted himself out.

"When were you gonna tell us, Sam?" he asked quietly.

"Tell you what?"

Johnny looked up at him with sad eyes. "That Teresa's pregnant."

Sam's jaw dropped and he stared at Johnny, then shook his head slowly. "I had no idea." A frown creased his forehead. "Come to think of it, she did look a little bigger that day I went to get her away from the house. It never even occurred to me, Johnny. Surely she hasn't gone without medical help."

Johnny snorted at this.

"How far along is she?"

Johnny looked up at him. "How the hell should I know? She just announced it like I was supposed to let her loose and drop to my knees or somethin. She's got a little belly, I think."

Sam nodded, he didn't ask the circumstances of the telling. He didn't want to know, truthfully. "Well, I hope she comes to her senses that much anyway and turns herself in before she does the child harm."

Johnny winced as he thought of the rough handling she'd received from him. He was sure it would cause the baby no harm but he had to admit he was ashamed of his actions. No matter what, he wasn't a vile person. Yet, he'd acted that way to get a rise out of Folger and her, too. He thought about where he'd been holding her and knew it was too high up to hurt the infant inside.

*****

Val came back with a stretcher and Todd Masters helping him. The young man was grinning ear to ear as Bentley mumbled under his breath.

"He's been callin for his mommy," Val sneered.

They plunked him in the crowded cell and returned to the outer office.

"Johnny, it sure is good ta see ya. Sheriff, I mean, Marshal Crawford told me your pa and brother are well. I'm real glad you're all back home and ya got rid of that Folger fella and the sheriff. He's a real bad man, Johnny. Real bad," Todd blabbered on.

Johnny smiled patiently at the boy. Todd had always looked up to him for some reason and it had tickled Johnny in the past. Todd hadn't changed much except his height.

Johnny stood and looked him up and down. "Boy, I think you've grown two inches since I saw you last."

Todd beamed at this. "Near to it. Pa says he can't keep me up in clothes and such."

"How is your pa?"

"Well. He'll be happy as a June bug ta hear about all this, too. A lot of folks will be. I just can't tell ya how bad we all felt, Johnny. It was just awful ...." the boy trailed off as he hung his head, ashamed of letting his emotions overrule him.

Johnny put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed tightly. "Todd, you spread the word for us. The Lancers are back in business. Can you do that for me?"

The young man's face came up and a smile as wide as a canyon spread across it. "It'd be an honor. Yessir, a real honor."

Johnny patted his shoulder. "Good man! How bout you get started on that?"

Todd nodded enthusiastically and left the office at a dead run. The smile slid from Johnny's face as the door closed.

"What's wrong?" Val asked.

Johnny looked at the floor and shrugged. "What ain't? Sorry, I'm just not lookin forward to seein how this is affecting my old man. And I ain't real thrilled with the 'good' people of this valley, neither!" He stood and paced off then went to the stove and poured a cup of coffee.

Val walked over and stood next to him as Sam perched on the desk.  

"Will ya listen to me for a minute? Really listen?" Val asked.

"Sure, Val."

"The good people of this valley, the really good people of this valley, felt awful about what happened, Johnny. Sure, there's some that didn't care a hoot but them kind is everywhere ya go. But, by the time any of 'em knew what was happenin, it was over already. What would you've wanted them to do? Go after Folger? String 'im up?"

Johnny glanced over at him then went back to staring into the cup. "That would've been nice." He sighed heavily. "I know you're right, Val. It's just that .... whenever something goes wrong the first person they look to for help is Murdoch. Most all of them. It just don't sit real well with me that none of them lifted a finger, is all."

"They did, Johnny. As much of one as they could," Sam interceded.

Johnny turned and looked questioningly at the man.

"Frank Hamilton refused to be Folger's banker even though it would have been a huge account. Several of the business owners here and in Morro Coyo refused his business. He sold Lancer's cattle to Fred Saylor and he told me he's holding that herd until you all came home."

Johnny swallowed and closed his eyes for a second. "I didn't know that."

"I know you didn't. So you see, the Lancers do have some really good friends here. They did what they could and it cost them all."

"Thanks, Sam. Thanks for telling me. I know it'll make Murdoch and Scott feel a whole lot better, too."

"You need ta get on home now. I know ya don't want ta face all this mess but it's time now," Val said.

Johnny nodded and smiled at them both. "You know who else has done a lot for my family? You two. You both put your lives on the line to help us and we won't ever forget it."

*****

Murdoch wandered through the downstairs rooms almost lethargically. Scott watched him for a while, knowing it for what it was. At least a part of it. The let down after a battle. It drained a man beyond physical exhaustion. He remembered it well from his days in the army.

"It will pass," he said suddenly.

"What?" Murdoch mumbled.

"That feeling of being lost. Wondering what to do next."

Murdoch looked at him and smiled weakly. "Is that what it felt like after a battle?"

"Yes, it is. But the bigger worry isn't this let down, is it?" Scott asked with a cocked brow.

Murdoch sighed and sat on the arm of the couch. "No, it isn't. For one thing, I won't feel better until Johnny gets back. We've all been separated too much as it is."

"And the other thing is Teresa and where she may have gotten off to," Scott concluded.

"I will never understand that girl," Murdoch shook his head sadly.

"Neither will I.   Maybe we should start taking a closer look around, Sir. I've noticed a couple of things missing from this room. I imagine none of our belongings are still where we left them."

"He probably burned everything," Murdoch muttered.

"Possibly. But, I'm going to take a look in the attic. Why don't you check out the storage shed?" Scott suggested.

Murdoch stood and nodded then gave his son a surreptitious look. "Are you trying to divert my attention?"

Scott laughed softly. "Maybe, a little."

*****

Murdoch walked out beyond the flower gardens to the storage shed and walked inside. Even in the daylight, it was a bit gloomy in there. He grabbed the lantern off the hook by the door and lit it, turning the wick up fully to light the small but full room. It did seem as if there was more in here than before.

He sat the lamp on a crate that he knew contained some old clothing then he stopped cold. He heard a small sound from the back of the room. It could be a mouse, he supposed. Something told him it wasn't. It sounded like someone sniffling. His heart raced and he knew for certain what had made that noise.

"Come on out, Teresa. You can't hide in here forever," he said as he turned to face her.

He heard more sniffles then a scraping noise as she emerged from behind some crates. Her head was bowed as she stepped forward a little.

Murdoch watched her for a full minute before speaking. He had to lest he start ranting and raving. Suddenly, a coldness enveloped him and any feelings he had for her died under the ice in his heart.

"Come in the house. We have some talking to do."

She looked up briefly then shook her head. "I can't. I'm afraid."

"Of what?" he asked with pure surprise.

"Johnny."

Murdoch rolled his eyes. "He's not here. He went with Val to town. But, if you truly are afraid of him then, well, I guess I don't have to hold out any hope, do I?"

Her eyes came up, fire shooting from them. "Hope of what?"

"That you were temporarily insane. That you've been brainwashed. Pick one!" He closed his mouth tightly and breathed deeply. "Let's go."

She picked up her skirt and hurried past him.

They had just walked in the living room when Scott came downstairs.

"Well, I found some clothes and personal items. I guess he didn't get around to burning them, ye ...." Scott stopped talking when he saw her. His face fell then turned to stone.

"She was hiding in the storage shed," Murdoch explained.

Scott only nodded and held his tongue. He had plenty to say and would say it but he bowed to his father right now. He had more right than any of them, Scott realized.

"Well, Teresa? Would you care to explain why you betrayed your family?" Murdoch asked, arms crossed over his chest.

She turned from the fireplace to face him and glowered. "MY family? I don't have any family, Murdoch. You made sure of that!"

Johnny came to a stop in the foyer when he heard her voice. He closed his eyes and sighed. Will this nightmare never be over? he wondered. He decided to stay out of sight and listen to her for now.

"What the devil are you talking about?" Murdoch demanded.

"I'm talking about you and how you killed my father!"

Murdoch stared at her, stunned at the accusation. "I didn't kill Paul. Pardee did!"

"You may as well have. You put him in the line of fire. You just had to go after that stupid horse! You just had to ask him to stand and fight with you!"

"It was his choice to stay. I told him he could leave. That I wouldn't blame him for wanting to get you away from here. In fact, I fairly ordered him to go but he wouldn't. He said his place was here with me. We were best friends, Teresa. He was fighting for your future as much as Lancer's."

"I don't believe you. My father would never have put me at risk. You made him stay here!" she insisted.

Murdoch sighed. "If you knew your father at all, you would know that is malarkey, young lady. NO ONE made Paul O'Brien to anything he didn't want to."

"Including my mother. Another lie! All those years you told me she was dead! You let me believe I was an orphan!"

"Better that than have you end up one of her "sunshine girls"! You had a taste of that. Is that really what you wanted for yourself? It wasn't what your father wanted for you! It was his decision and I honored it!"

"A decision that was taken away from me like everything else has been taken away! You gave me no choice in the matter. You could have told me the truth after he died but you didn't. You kept me on this ranch and away from any other kind of life I may have wanted. You never once asked me what I wanted!" She stood there, trembling in anger, tears streaming down her face, her arms wrapped around her body.

"I gave you a home when you had none. I gave you everything you could ever need. I treated you as if you were my own child. How dare you betray me like this?! How dare you bed that man!" Murdoch shook the rafters.

Johnny cringed at the loudness but more so at the pain he heard through the noise. Murdoch was getting very close to completely losing it now. He warred with himself about going into that room.

Scott walked over to his father and laid a hand on his arm. He looked at Teresa with an unreadable expression.

"Murdoch took you in, Teresa. He didn't have to do that. He could have sent you to an orphanage. But, he honored his best friend's memory and took care of his only child. Above all that, he loved you with all his heart. Can you really stand there and deny the truth of that?" His voice was unbelievably calm and Scott had no idea how he was managing that.

Her eyes darted between the two of them then she took a deep breath. "He felt guilty for killing my father. He needed someone to take care of him, to cook and clean and make up for his own guilt. He didn't have you so he used me as a substitute until you came home."

"And when we did come home, he continued to treat you exactly the same as he always had," Scott argued lightly.

"Of course he did! Now, there were three of you. He needed me even more then to wait on you all!"

"How long did it take Folger to convince you of all this bull?"

She turned quickly to find Johnny in the doorway. Scott and Murdoch turned as well.

"Did everything go alright?" Scott asked firstly.

"Yep. Bentley is cryin for his mama and her old man is still bein an ass," Johnny replied. Turning back to her, he asked again. "So, how long did it take him? Those are Folger's words you're sayin, Teresa. His ideas comin outta your mouth."

"You stay away from me," she said and backstepped.

Johnny laughed softly as he stepped into the room and walked over in front of the French doors, across the room from her. "Like I said, you don't know what's inside me. But let me tell you what you've really done."

She kept her arms crossed and shifted her footing, ready to run if he came any closer.

"It ain't the ranch, the land or the cattle. It ain't us losin all of that. It's what *you* took away from us, Teresa. What you destroyed. And that's any kind feelings for you. Any sense of family or love we had - and we did, girl. We all loved you and would have died to protect you. You not only betrayed us, you slept with the enemy."

"I love Jeremy and he loves me!" she proclaimed.

"That won't get you much now, will it? You knew what he was plannin. You even helped him out by telling him about the train, didn't you?" Johnny asked, looking deep in her eyes.

She dropped her gaze and didn't answer.

"Well, I suppose that's the answer, then," Scott spoke. "You know, Teresa, I can't even buy into Folger manipulating you. You wanted to believe whatever he told you because you really did blame Murdoch for all your losses. Well, you don't know what loss is. You don't have a clue what it is to be homeless, broke and alone. He looked twice at you and that was enough. I have to wonder exactly who was using whom in this scenario."

"It really doesn't matter now. She made her bed, she can lie in it," Johnny said coldly.

"I want nothing from any of you. Do you think I would ask you for anything? Jeremy will provide for me," she stated, jutting her chin out.

"From prison? That will be a neat trick. All his assets will be confiscated and most likely, in the end, be turned over to us for damages. Someone will drive you to town. I will allow you to pack some belongings. Don't even try to take anything other than clothes and anything Folger may have bought for you. Don't take anything from this house that I've ever given to you," Murdoch said flatly. There was not a speck of emotion in his voice or his demeanor.

Her eyes welled again and she turned, striding determinedly to the kitchen.

"Someone should keep an eye on her. She might set fire to the place," Johnny said bitterly.

Neither Scott nor Murdoch made any comment, nor did they make a move to follow her. Johnny sighed and headed toward the back of the house.

He stood in the doorway of what was once her room and noted the wall had been torn down between it and the room Maria used occasionally. He ground his teeth at that.

She pulled a valise from under the bed and dropped it on the mattress before noticing he was there.

"Don't touch me!"

"Don't flatter yourself! I'm just here to make sure you don't do anything else stupid!" Johnny sneered.

She turned her back to him and went to the dresser then began pulling out her clothes. Johnny watched as she packed the valise full then retrieved another one. She began packing Folger's clothes.

"Stop."

She turned and looked at him.

"Just your stuff. He ain't gonna need anything where he's goin," he explained.

"You may think it's over, Johnny, but Jeremy will find a way to get out of jail," she stated confidently.

"Won't matter," he shrugged. "If he gets off, I'll kill him." His tone was matter-of-fact and she began to cry again. It had no effect on him.

"Why didn't you tell Murdoch about the baby?"

"Because it's none of his business! I wouldn't have told you if I hadn't been afraid of it getting hurt. Not that it made a difference!" she slammed.

"Nope."

She seethed then turned back to the room. She opened her jewelry box and pulled out the items her husband had bought then laid the rest out for him to see she wasn't taking any of it with her. She went back to the dresser and pulled out something he couldn't see then stuck it in the pocket of her dress.

"What's that?" he asked.

"Nothing that belongs to you."

"Then let me see it."

She turned and pulled it out, shoving it in the air at him. "It's money. I need it for a room in town."

He almost took it from her. it would serve her right. But, the thought of the innocent child she carried gave him pause and he simply nodded.

"What did you think it was?" she asked.

Johnny's mouth crooked a little. "A gun. Thought you might take a crack at me. Sort of a going away gift."

She only stared blankly at him for several seconds before dropping her eyes and turning away. She closed the second valise and lifted them both. Standing there in front of him, she sighed. "I'm ready."

Johnny looked sadly at her. "I never would have thought it. No one would have ever been able to make me believe it, Teresa. If this is how you've really felt all this time, if it's all been one big lie, then .... I feel sorry for you. I feel more sorry for my father. He loved you like a daughter. If this is how you show your gratitude...."

"Gratitude? I showed my gratitude by being his slave!"

Johnny shook his head at her. "How do you think you'll fair out there in the world? No husband and a baby to care for? Tell me somethin. How did you want Murdoch to treat you? Did you want him to let you sit around all day and never do a lick of work? Did you want him to hand you everything on a silver platter? Because that's how you act. Like the world owes you something."

"Why are you even asking me? You don't care."

"I did once. Very much," he said softly.

They looked into each other's eyes for a long time before he blinked and sighed. "Let's go."

*****

Julio took her to town. None of them could do it. Murdoch sat and stared into the fireplace, his expression missing.

Scott poured his father a drink then lit the fire. He looked at Johnny and nodded toward the kitchen.

"I think a lot of our stuff is in the attic and storage shed. I'd like to see how much we can find and try to put Murdoch's room back in order before he goes to bed. It might help him."

Johnny nodded and smiled sadly. "Good idea, brother."

Scott put a hand on his shoulder. "You okay?"

Johnny looked at the floor. "No, can't say I am. None of us are. So much has happened and there's more to come. You should see what they did in Teresa's room. Tore the wall down and made it bigger."

Scott sighed. "Well, we'll worry about that tomorrow. Let's take care of Murdoch tonight."

"Sure. I guess I can throw somethin together for supper, too."

Scott looked warily at his brother then rolled his eyes.


"What? You think you could do better?"

Scott laughed. "Probably not. I hope Maria comes back."

Johnny dropped his eyes. "Me, too."

"I'm sorry, brother. I know it's hard on you and you miss them both."

"I do, Scott. I just hope we can find them. They're my family, too."

The brothers went about opening crates and boxes, pleasantly surprised as it appeared all their belongings were intact. Both had to wonder why. Maybe they just hadn't gotten around to throwing it all out. Both were sure they'd have no problem remembering to rid themselves of what no longer belonged at Lancer and what never had.

*****

Murdoch felt his heart thump slowly in his chest. He wondered if the pain there would ever go away. How could she believe all those lies? How could anyone believe he would do such a thing and to his best friend?

Johnny had believed lies about him but his son did not know him then. Teresa had known him all her life. She had been born on Lancer. She loved it here. Enough to want to take it for her own, he thought bitterly.

He wasn't sure he could stand thinking about this much longer. What purpose did it serve? What could he do about it? Nothing. And he didn't want to either. She was out of their lives forever. He didn't want her to go to jail. He still had a deep-seated loyalty to Paul. Dear God, what would he think of all this? Murdoch was sure his heart would be as broken as his own.

He sighed and leaned his head back against the cushion, staring at the ceiling. A frown creased his forehead as the aroma filled his nostrils. Who was cooking?

He got up stiffly, wondering how long he'd been sitting there brooding. A little surprised his sons let him get away with it. But then, he knew they were worried about him. At least that thought gave him some peace in his soul. He headed for the kitchen to investigate, his stomach rumbling with the smells.

Murdoch watched with a bemused look on his face as Johnny stood at the stove stirring a pot then checking a skillet. Scott was standing at the sink giving suggestions and being lightly rebuked by his brother. An overwhelming sense of love enveloped Murdoch's heart and he felt a hot sting in his eyes.

Scott saw him then and locked eyes. He smiled at his father and Murdoch thought he would surely lose his decorum. The love he saw for himself in that gaze almost hurt. Scott nodded in understanding and the older man looked away, trying to regain his composure before his other son - the irascible one - noticed him.

"Ouch!"

Murdoch's head jerked up and he strode quickly to Johnny's side. He grabbed the hand Johnny was cradling and inspected the burn. Without a word he guided his son to the sink, Scott moving quickly out of the way, and pumped water onto the thumb.

Johnny was speechless for once and simply stared at the water, chancing a glance now and then at his father's face. A smile broke out on his own face and he ducked his head when Murdoch ordered Scott to get the salve.

Once well doctored and bandaged, Johnny finally spoke. He raised his swaddled thumb in the air and grinned.

"Sam sees this and he'll think I cut it off."

Murdoch actually blushed a little. "Did I overdo it?"

"Just a bit," Johnny laughed. "But, thank you," he added sincerely.

Scott cleared his throat and walked to the stove. "I'll just see to this for you."

"Oh, no you don't. Can't mess with perfection. Just sit yourself down and wait," Johnny said as he bounded to his feet and headed his brother off.

*****

Murdoch headed for bed after a surprisingly delicious meal. He opened the door with trepidation and held the lamp in his hand up high. His mouth fell open as he took in the room. It was almost exactly as he'd left it. He shook his head, not understanding at first. Then, it dawned on him. Johnny and Scott. They'd done this.

Once more, his emotions welled and Murdoch wondered if he'd ever be the same man again. Maybe not and maybe that wasn't such a bad thing. Maybe now, they would appreciate everything they had so much more. No, there was no maybe about it. He knew they would. Could do no less. Once you've had everything taken from you, you never take it for granted again.

And maybe he had started taking his sons for granted before all this happened. He knew he'd taken his position for granted. He had been arrogant enough to believe they were secure. That lesson had been hard learned but he would not forget it - ever.

Scott and Johnny stood in the hallway in front of their rooms and looked at each other. Neither wanted to face the bareness they were about to walk into. Both knew it was a temporary thing yet it was a reminder of all that had transpired.

Johnny grinned and shrugged and Scott smiled back at him.

"Bet the old man is standin in the middle of his room with his mouth hangin open."

Scott laughed and agreed. "I'm glad we could do it for him."

"Yeah. Maybe he'll get some sleep," Johnny said then frowned. He was still worried and he knew Scott was as well.

"Goodnight, brother," Scott said softly.

"Night, Boston."

*****

The next morning, the Lancers found Jelly in the kitchen preparing breakfast. They sat down, grateful just to sit at the kitchen table together over the morning meal again.

Johnny relayed what Sam and Val had told him about their neighbors. Murdoch felt a knot in his throat at all they'd done in protest. He was especially grateful to Fred Saylor and announced his intention to ride over to the Crooked S first thing.

"There's so much to do, I'm not sure where to start," Scott commented.

Johnny stared at his plate, pushing a piece of bacon around.


"What is it, son?"

Johnny's head came up and he smiled sadly at his father. "Nothing. I think I'll just ride around the ranch and take a look at everything."

Murdoch nodded but he worried. Something was troubling Johnny and he had a multitude of things to choose from. Too many to narrow it down.

"Scott, maybe you could ride into town and get the word out we're hiring," Murdoch suggested.

"What am I supposed to promise to pay the men with, Sir? For that matter, what are we going to pay the ones we have now with?" Scott asked, a minute amount of anger hidden in his words.

"There's a pile of gold at that mine, unless it was all stolen last night. Might as well use it since it's already been hauled out," Johnny said.

"I agree. I'll send the men out to take care of that this morning. And, they can make sure the mine is blocked off as well," Murdoch said then supped his coffee.

Johnny pushed back from the table and stood. "I'll see ya later then." He walked out the back door with his head down.

"Do you know what in particular is troubling him?" Murdoch asked.

Scott shook his head. "Too many possibilities to choose from, I'm afraid."

Jelly had listened to it all and he knew exactly what was bothering Johnny. He said nothing, unsure if the other two Lancers would deem it as important much less a top priority. Jelly had taken full count of the stock last night. He walked out the back door and headed for the barn.

"Want some help?" he asked as he watched Johnny saddle a horse.

"With what?" Johnny asked, not looking up.

"You're goin after that palomino."

Johnny stopped and turned to look at him. "Pretty selfish, huh? I mean, there's so much to do."

"There is but it'd be a lot easier ta do on a horse you know," Jelly replied.

Johnny's head went down. "If he's out there, he's gone wild again. Probably won't remember me, anyway."

"Won't know til ya find 'im. Best get to it while it's still early."

Johnny smiled brilliantly. "You won't snitch on me?"

"Didn't a minute ago, did I?" Jelly said with some huffiness.

"Did I tell you how much I've missed you, amigo. Cause if I didn't, then shame on me."

"Aw, go on and git 'fore I change my mind!" Jelly said, flustered as always with any emotional moment.

*****

Johnny headed to Black Mesa. He didn't know why he was going there. Instinct, he supposed. The wild horses seemed to like that area of the ranch. He shoved the memories of so long ago from his mind and concentrated on the hope he had of finding Barranca.

He sat looking down on the herd, wishing he'd brought a spy glass with him. They were milling about, grazing in the lush grass and scattered out pretty good. He reckoned there had to be a dozen or so. He moved slowly down into the canyon.

Some of the horses raised their heads and stopped chewing, their ears going flat then coming forward as they heard the approach. Johnny walked his mount at an easy canter, staying relaxed in the saddle. His eyes scanned the horses left to right slowly. Beautiful mares, every one. But, where was their stallion?

Then, he heard it. The alarm had been sent out. The stallion was near though he still hadn't laid eyes on it. The mares turned in circles, sidestepping and nickering anxiously.

Johnny's heart was thundering in his chest as he waited to see what they would do.

Suddenly, he appeared. Raising up on his hind legs, he whinnied loudly and the mares started to run. Johnny couldn't breathe. He watched in awe at the sight. Then, the stallion looked ready to run and he closed his eyes for second.

A shrill whistle emitted from his lips. The stallion reared up and turned to face him. Johnny tried to work his mouth but it had gone dry and a lump the size of Texas had formed there. He swallowed hard and cleared his throat.

"Barranca!" he called.

The stallion snorted and pawed the earth, lowering his head.

"Barranca, come!"

He watched the stallion and knew he remembered. At least part of him did. Johnny saw the struggle the horse was working through. Barranca snorted once more, pawing the earth again then moving to his left. He circled around, lowering his head and bringing it up over and over.

"Barranca, come," Johnny called more softly.

The horse continued his moves, still unsure, still not trusting. Johnny slowly removed his lasso and let the loop drop easily beside him. Barranca was wild again but not completely. He moved his own mount closer and Barranca stayed relatively in the same spot.

Johnny began to speak in Spanish, softly, musically as he neared the animal. He didn't want to lasso the horse. He dismounted, rope in hand and approached cautiously. Still, he spoke his soft words. Barranca lowered his head and nickered, bobbing a little.

Johnny walked right up to him and eased the rope over his head. He sighed and smiled. "Hey, fella. Remember me, don't ya? I'm so sorry, boy. I didn't want to leave you. I didn't have a choice. But I'm back now. Do you still want to be amigos?"

The palomino jerked his head up a little and brought it back down. He pawed once more at the ground and Johnny reached out, stroking the tangled mane.

"Gonna have ta brush you out real good, huh? Remember how much you like that?" He walked slowly, backing up to the horse he was riding. Barranca tugged on the rope a little, still balking. Johnny wasn't sure if he wasn't putting up the resistance as a gesture. But he wasn't counting on it. He was taking nothing for granted. He'd have to work with the horse again just as he had before. With patience and understanding.

*****

Scott rode into Green River and headed for the sheriff's office. He walked into a mess. Mayor Higgs was there with members of the city counsel. Val looked like he was ready to shoot every last one of them.

"Scott Lancer! Maybe you can tell us what's going on here!" the mayor clamored.

Scott sighed. "I'm sure the marshal can explain it to you, Mr. Mayor. I just came to town to hire some men for the ranch."

"I done told ya what's goin on once. I don't aim ta keep on repeatin myself. It's real simple so see if ya can get it this time. Folger's under arrest for forgery, conspiracy, robbery and any danged thing else I can think of! The governor knows all about it. Now, you want any more answers, you go see him," Val shouted, leering at the man.  

"What about the sheriff?" the mayor asked.

Val sighed and dropped his head before looking at the man again. "Conspiracy, robbery and attempted murder."

"Who'd he try to kill, Marshal?" asked Owen Douglas.

"Johnny Lancer. Shot 'im in the back!"

A lot of mumbling ensued and Scott made his way through the crowd to Val's side. "Everything alright here?"

"If ya mean the prisoners, yeah. Just makin a lot of noise. Bentley's awake and sobered up some. Ain't sure he knows where he is, though."

Scott nodded then lowered his voice. "Teresa came to town last night. She's at the hotel if you want to question her. And good luck, if you do."

Val looked at him and didn't have to ask how it went. He could see the pain and anger written all over Scott's face. "How's Murdoch holdin up?"

"Pretty good, Val. He was a mess last night but he seems better this morning. Johnny's in a mood, though. He took off this morning, saying he wanted to look over the ranch," Scott reported.

Val smiled a little and shook his head.

"What?" Scott asked.

Val looked back at him with an exasperated face. "Reckon he might be out horse huntin?"

Scott's eyes widened, then an expression of shame covered his face. "Yes, I imagine that's exactly what he's doing. How could I forget about that?"

"I just don't know, Scott. Ain't like ya got nothin else ta think about," Val said sarcastically.

"You thought of it," Scott said.

"I ain't got no worries past these fools and I'm about to fix that," Val replied and straightened up. "All of ya can git outta here now. Ya might wanna start thinkin about a new sheriff instead of gossipin like a bunch of hens!"

The men stilled and looked at him then quickly left the office. Scott laughed.

"You do have a way about you, Val. My vote for sheriff would be you, by the way."

"Don't want it! I'm sick of these people. I'm stayin long enough to see this bunch off ta prison then that's it!"

"Johnny won't like that," Scott remarked.

"Oh, he won't, won't he? Well, too bad," Val snorted then sat down with a thump.

*****

Scott rode back to the ranch after putting out the word Lancer was hiring. He hoped some more of the old crew would come back but they'd just have to wait and see. He smiled widely as he approached the corral.

Murdoch was standing outside the corral, leaning against the fence with his arms crossed over the top rail. Johnny was inside with Barranca.

Scott dismounted and tied off his steed then joined his father.

"How is he?"

"Pretty wild but Johnny said he let him put the rope on and didn't put up too much fuss on the way back. Johnny said that fuss was probably because of all those mares he was leaving behind," Murdoch chuckled.

Scott laughed as well. "We'll have to find some mares to keep him interested here, I guess."

"You boys should go round up some tomorrow. We are in short supply of good animals."

"Alright. I stopped in to see Val. The city councilmen were there giving him a hard time. He took care of it. He, um, told me he wasn't interested in being sheriff again." Scott relayed his news quickly. He knew he'd have to tell Johnny and he didn't want to.

"I can't really blame him, son, although he is the best man for the job."

"Who's the best man for what job?" Johnny asked as he stepped through the rails.

Scott sighed and told him of Val's decision. Johnny didn't seem surprised, though.

"He told me he didn't want it anymore. He only took that badge to help us out."

"It's a waste, son."

"I know, Murdoch. I'll talk to him but I doubt it'll do any good. Val can be stubborn."

Both men laughed at that. "Yes, we noticed that," Scott said.

*****

Teresa looked at herself in the full length mirror in her hotel room. She smoothed her dress, her hand raising slightly over the mound of her stomach. She smiled then burst into tears. Dropping to the floor, she buried her face in her hands and sat there for an hour.

Once the tears were gone, she pulled herself up and washed her face then reapplied the small amount of makeup. Jeremy didn't like her to wear too much. She smiled as she remembered him telling her no makeup could improve on God's creation.

Inhaling deeply, she grabbed her bag and left the room, walking quickly out of the hotel and toward the jail. She kept her eyes straight ahead as she heard the whispers of those passing by. As she neared the jail, the whispers became louder.

Teresa burst through the door to the sheriff's office and closed it quickly behind her, leaning against it and breathing hard.

Val had come to his feet, his pistol in his hand before realizing who was there. Slowly, he lowered the gun and glared at her.

"Don't be runnin in here like that unless somethin's bad wrong!" he reprimanded.

She looked up at him, terror in her eyes. "They ..... they were all taunting me," she explained.

Val sighed and shook his head. "You surprised?"

Her face hardened then as she pressed her lips together and raised her chin. "I'd like to see my husband."

Val looked hard at her for a long beat. "Leave the bag on the desk," he nodded toward the furniture then opened a drawer and grabbed the keys.

She did so and followed him as he unlocked the door to the cell area and let her in. She stepped through, blinking at the lower light and squinting to locate her husband. Val stood in the door and leaned against the frame, crossing his arms.

She walked down the small hall then stopped and looked back at him. "Can we have some privacy?" she asked flatly.

"Nope."

She grit her teeth as his tone reminded her so much of Johnny just then. She whirled back around and approached the second cell where Folger was waiting, his hands clamped onto the bars.

She placed her smaller hands over his and squeezed, tears welling in her eyes.

He smiled at her and she relaxed a little, only a little.

"Jeremy, what are we going to do?" she asked in a quiver.

"It's alright, darling. Keep your voice down and listen to me closely," he whispered then leaned his forehead against the bars. "Do you have any money?"

"Only a few hundred dollars. They wouldn't let me take much. I have some of the jewelry you bought me, too."

"Good girl. We're going to have to be very careful now, Teresa. I can get out of this but I'll need your help."

"I'll do anything you ask, you know that," she said.

He cocked a brow. "Anything?"

She looked into his eyes and wasn't sure she liked what she saw. Her stomach turned a little then she found her resolve. "Anything, my love."

He smiled softly at her and entwined his fingers with hers. "I want you to talk to Johnny."

She gasped and pulled away a little. Val straightened himself and looked hard down the aisle. Teresa saw it and returned to her previous position, turning away from Val.

"I can't, Jeremy. Don't ask me."

"You must, Teresa. If you don't, they'll send me away for years. Is that what you want?"

"No! Of course, not. But, he won't see me. He hates me."

"He will if you handle it the right way."

"Shouldn't I try to talk to Murdoch?" she asked.

"No, Madrid is the biggest problem. We have to get rid of him once and for all!"

"How?" she asked tremulously.

He leaned as close to her as he could and she did the same until he was able to whisper in her ear.

*****

Teresa sat at the small table in the hotel room and worked on the note. Several balled up pieces of paper lay about the floor beside her as she tried to find the words to bring Johnny to her. She wasn't sure she could do this. She couldn't believe he had asked it of her. But he was her husband, for better or for worse, and she would do anything for him.

She went over the plan in her mind. She felt physically ill at the thought. His hatred for her was so easy to see; to feel when he'd held her so close. She could barely admit to herself, let alone her husband, the feelings he had evoked. Feelings she had long since buried, knowing they would never be reciprocated. A huge part of the very reason she found herself in this position.

Her head came up and she smiled. That was it, of course! She resettled herself and went back to writing the letter, knowing exactly what to say now.

She folded the paper and slipped it in the envelope bearing his name then walked downstairs and stood on the boardwalk. It didn't take her long to decide who the messenger would be. She smiled as she headed for the livery.

Todd Masters was feeding the horses when she walked into the barn. She watched for a few seconds before lightly clearing her throat. He turned and dropped the feedsack, his mouth agape.

"Hello, Todd."

"Hello, Miss Teresa, um, I mean ...."

"Just Teresa is fine, Todd," she smiled as she approached him. "How are you?"

"Fine, Miss," he said and blushed. She'd always made him blush and he hated himself for it.

"I wonder if you could do me a favor, Todd? I need to send a note to Johnny Lancer. Could you take it for me? It's very important."

His unease slid away as he remembered. He looked suspiciously at her. "I don't know, ma'am." His voice was harder now.

She tensed a little then smiled widely at him. "Johnny will want to read this, Todd. It will help him and his family. Please," she pouted a little and held the envelope out to him.

He stared at it for a long time before accepting it. He nodded his agreement.

"Today?" she asked.

"Yes'm. I'll go right now."

She grabbed his hand and squeezed gently. "Oh, thank you, Todd," she exuded then leaned in and gave him a peck on the cheek.

The boy blushed furiously as she turned and walked out.

*****

Murdoch looked out at the road when he heard the rider coming in. It took a minute to recognize the young man as he had not seen him for so long. He smiled a little as Todd rode up. Gangly as ever, Murdoch thought.

"Howdy, Mr. Lancer."

"Hello, Todd. How are you?"

"Good, Sir. Did Johnny tell ya what I said? Bout bein so glad you're all back and all," he asked.

Murdoch smiled. "Yes, and we appreciate the kind words, Todd. What can I do for you?"

"Not a thing, Sir. Was wonderin if I could see Johnny."

Murdoch noticed the young man looked a bit flustered but then, Todd always looked that way. Before he could answer, the front door opened and Scott and Johnny walked out. Todd's face lit up.

"Hey, Todd. What brings you out?" Johnny smiled.

"You. I mean, I got something for ya. I was asked ta deliver this letter. Hope it's okay, Johnny. I wasn't sure if I should," he explained quickly, his face darkening by the end.

Johnny couldn't begin to decipher what the boy was talking about. He took the letter and smiled at the boy, not even looking at it. "Well, thanks for riding all the way out here. Ya want some lemonade or something?"

"Can't. I gotta get back ta work. Just, just real glad you're all home," he repeated, a bit emotionally.

Johnny smiled and slapped his arm. "Thanks again."

They watched the boy ride out and Scott, bemused as always at the hero worship, laughed. "I don't know why you don't adopt that boy."

Johnny glanced at him and grinned. "Don't think he's pa would like that too much. Seems to be kind of fond of the kid." He glanced down at the letter and the smile slid off his face.

"What is it, son?" Murdoch asked.

He sighed and looked up at his father. "It's from Teresa."

All three men stood silently for a few seconds.

"Are you going to read it?" Scott asked flatly.

Johnny considered that question then shrugged and tore the envelope open. Murdoch and Scott held their breaths as it seemed he took his time about it.

Johnny did take his time, reading it twice and shaking his head.

"She wants to see me at the hotel."

Scott turned away for a moment, biting his tongue. Murdoch's jaw tightened and his temple pulsed.

"Why?"

"Says she has something to tell me and it's important. Something we need to know about Folger."

"I highly doubt that!" Scott spurted out as he turned back to them. "It's a trap."

"A trap? What kind of trap? What could she possibly gain?" Murdoch asked, shocked at the idea.

"I don't know but there's something wrong here. Why Johnny? She was so terrified of him before," Scott said, his sarcasm hardly missed.

Murdoch looked at his younger son. "You aren't saying anything, Johnny."

He looked up at his father then at Scott and shrugged. "She can't hurt me."


"Johnny, don't go. Just ignore it. I have a bad feeling about this," Scott nearly pleaded.

"What can she do, Scott?"

"It's not her I'm worried about, it's Folger! What he's putting her up to," Scott stated.

"He's in jail. He can't touch us now," Murdoch argued lightly.

Johnny chewed his lip then made his decision. "I'll be careful."

Scott grabbed his arm. "Let me go with you."

"No, Scott. If she has something to say, she might not say it with both of us there."

"Then how important can it be?" Scott countered.

Johnny smiled briefly. "I'll let ya know," he slapped his brother's gut and walked back in the house and grabbed his hat.

Scott scowled at his father but it did him no good. Apparently, he was the only one who thought this was a bad idea.

As Johnny walked back out, Scott stepped in front of him. "Just remember how this all started, brother."

"I know, Scott. I know," he said softly then walked around his brother and mounted up.

*****

Johnny walked up to the hotel clerk and looked him in the eye. "I'm goin upstairs to see Teresa O .. Folger. I want you to know that she invited me to see her. Anything happens, I've been set up and you need to call the marshal."

The man stared at him, stunned at the statements made so bluntly. "Of .... of course, Mr. Lancer. I understand, I think. I'll keep an ear out."

Johnny nodded and started up the stairs.

"Mr. Lancer? Welcome home."

Johnny stopped and looked down at the man. He smiled. "Thanks."

He stood outside the door and stared at it for a good three minutes before sighing heavily and rapping twice. His head came up when the door opened, fully alert.

"Hello, Johnny," she said calmly.

"You sure you want to be doin this, Teresa?" he asked.

Her eyes darted around before looking back at him. She only nodded and stepped aside so he could enter. Johnny walked into the room and scoped it out. He walked over to the heavy drapes on the windows and looked behind them. He went to the bedroom door, opened it and walked inside then back out again.

"We're alone," she said as she stood leaning against the door.

"Okay, what do you want?" he asked, situating himself so he could see every facet of the room.

She walked over and sat on a small settee, her hands clasped in her lap. "To try and explain."

"Go on."

She frowned and dropped her eyes. She reached in her dress pocket and produced a kerchief which she began wringing in her hands. Johnny took it all in and was unimpressed.

"I'm not sure how it all happened. How it got so out of control. At first, I didn't like him. He was a threat. But when he came back after Christmas, he seemed different. He said he'd given up on buying Lancer and only came back because of me. He said he'd been intrigued and wanted to know me better."

Johnny crossed his arms and leaned against the wall.

She cleared her throat and went on. "He said Murdoch wouldn't approve and I knew that was true. We started meeting different places on the ranch. He was so charming and intelligent. He spoke of the places he'd been; the things he'd seen. He's traveled so much. I got swept up in it. Even when I heard you all talking about him, I wouldn't believe it. I convinced myself you were all just being overly cautious.

"Then, everything started to happen. The forged deed, the runs on the ranch. I asked him but he swore it wasn't him. He said it was his former partners and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He said they'd kill him if he tried. I ... I confided in him. Told him everything that was going on and about the plans to stop the train. Before I knew what was happening, you were all being sent to prison. Jeremy was so strong for me. He let me lean on him. Then, he asked me to marry him and I happily agreed.

"I didn't know what would become of Lancer. Who really owned it anymore. Once we were married, he said he had a surprise for me. After the ceremony, he took me back to the ranch and explained everything. I was crushed. I was married to him now and he really had been behind the whole thing. What could I do? He was my husband. As far as the law was concerned, he owned the ranch. My home.

"I knew there wasn't a thing I could do to help any of you. Soon, he started talking to me about my father and mother and convinced me of Murdoch's part in daddy's murder. He made me hate you all. I never wanted to see any of you again. He said if you ever came back, especially you, that you'd kill me."

Johnny's face was a blank page. He listened to her story without emotion. It was surprisingly freeing for him. To listen objectively and picture her words really happening. He wondered how far she would take this fairy tale.

"I tried so hard to make a good life. I wanted to love him. He was all I had left. But, when I saw you again. When you touched me, at first I was terrified but then, I remembered."

Johnny raised a brow at that, curious as to the meaning.

"I remembered how in love with you I was. How I used to dream of the day when you would feel for me the way I felt for you. About marrying you and having your children. It's all I ever wanted."

She looked up then at the soft sound coming from him. She wasn't sure what it was at first as he had his head down. Then, Johnny looked at her and burst out laughing. He leaned over and grabbed his knees as he laughed his head off.

She scowled at him, her anger rising as tears threatened to spill in pure rage. Finally, he managed to get himself under control. He chuckled a few mores times and wiped his eyes before looking back at her.

He just looked at her with delight in his eyes and she hadn't a clue what he was thinking.

"Can I ask some questions? Just to be sure I'm clear on everything," he finally spoke.

"Of course."

Johnny nodded and tried to keep a straight face. "How long have you been in love with me?"

Her eyes dropped and she worked the kerchief again. "I'm not really sure. I just realized it one day."

"Did it ever occur to you I might feel the same way," he said softly.

Her head came up and she looked at him with surprise. He wasn't smiling or laughing. He was serious.

"No," she whispered, her heart pounding. "It never occurred to me."

"Good thing," he said harshly.

Her face fell then her cheeks blushed hotly.

He shook his head. "Teresa, I don't know if you really thought I'd believe a word of this or if you've got something else up your sleeve but this ain't workin. So, why don't you cut the bull and tell me what you really want?"

She closed her eyes for a moment then stood and walked about the room. She past the window and pushed at the drape as she went. "I was hoping you could all forgive me. I thought you might understand that I was manipulated, Johnny. He used me."

"You did exactly what you wanted to do, Teresa. Scott was right about that. You've lived on that ranch too long not to know what's what. You're not stupid or vulnerable. You're a grown woman with a mind of your own. I just never knew your heart was so black. What did you really think you'd get out of all this? It couldn't have been just the ranch. You had that. You had Murdoch wrapped around your finger. Me and Scott, too, for that matter. You could've had anything you wanted at anytime. So, what were you really after?"

She stared at him for a long moment then winced and grabbed her belly, doubling over. Johnny pushed off the wall and crossed the room quickly. He took her arms and bent over a little.

"Teresa? Is it the baby? Do you need Sam?" he asked with concern.

She shook her head. "I just need to sit down, please," she breathed out.

Johnny moved to her side and wrapped an arm around her waist, guiding her toward the settee. When they got to the window, Teresa stopped and dropped to the floor. Johnny leaned over her and heard the glass explode over his head.

Johnny dove on top her and drew his gun then rolled aside, under the window. He scooted beside it and peeked out.

"Stay down," he ordered her but she was already crawling away from the window.

Johnny couldn't see anyone. He knew they had to be on the roof across the street to get a clean shot. The drapes were still partially closed and he wondered how they could have seen well enough to ......

His eyes went to her as she turned back to him. Johnny's face turned to stone as he regarded the woman.

"What are you waiting for?" he asked her softly as she pulled back the hammer of the derringer.

Her hand shook as she aimed it at him.

"I said, what are you waiting for?!" He raised his voice in an angry tone. He was breathing hard now, more from the emotions running wild inside him than the exertion he'd been through.

She was blinded by the tears and she shook her head slowly back and forth.

"Go ahead, Teresa. Pull the trigger. But, just so you understand, it won't make one bit of difference. Folger's not getting out and you're not getting Lancer back. What will happen is Val's about to bust through that door and he'll either take that gun from you or shoot you. Either way, you're done."

She began to cry harder then, sobs escaping through her clenched teeth. She dropped the gun to her lap. "I told him I couldn't do this!"

The door did burst open and Val stood there, gun drawn as he took in the scene.

"Get down. He might still be out there," Johnny shouted to his friend.

Val ducked and moved to Teresa, easing the gun from her hand as she continued to gasp and cry. "Was this for protection or what?" he asked.

"Or what," Johnny answered quickly. After a second, Johnny sighed. "Well, ya wanna sit here all night?"

"Nope," Val clipped and moved to the door.

Johnny joined him, staying low. He didn't say a word to Teresa as he passed her. They moved downstairs and out the back of the building, making their way through the alley to the end of the street then crossing. They took the alleyways on that side until they were behind the general store. Val went first up the outside stairway, Johnny right on his heels.

Val peeked over the roof ledge and saw a man still sitting there with his rifle trained on the window opposite. Val shook his head and wondered what kind of idiot he was. He slid over the ledge and sat there, gun leveled at the man's back as he waited for Johnny to join him.

They looked at each other and grinned.

"Drop it, mister," Val called and saw the man's shoulders tense.

"Best do as he says," Johnny rejoined.

The man slowly laid the rifle down and stood with his hands up then turned to them.

"Any more at home like you?" Val sneered.

The man cocked his head to one side, a puzzled expression capturing his face. Johnny laughed.

"Climb on down to the ground and don't get no ideas about runnin off or I'll put a bullet in your back!" Val threatened.

Jeremy Folger turned green when the marshal shoved his newest prisoner into a cell. Val locked the door and walked over to Folger's cell.

"I hope you're done cause I'm runnin outta room in here! Next one I hafta haul in here, I'm gonna move you to the ice house!"

Folger sneered at him then his face changed to pure hatred as he saw Johnny leaning against the door frame.

"Ain't much of a man, are ya? Tryin ta get a woman to do your killin for you. Well, Teresa wants me to tell you she's found a real man." Johnny grinned and stepped forward until he was face to face with Folger. He leaned in and quietly said, "real sweet tastin, too."

Folger's eyes widened and his hand snaked out to grab Johnny but he moved too quickly. Johnny laughed at him.

"You are pathetic, aren't you?" Johnny asked rhetorically.

"I'll kill you for touching her!" Folger warned.

"Yeah? I look forward to you actually trying that yourself for a change, Folger."

"Come on, Johnny. I ain't done workin yet," Val growled and pushed lightly at him.

In the front room, Val shook his head. "You just can't stand it, can ya?"

"What?"

"Her bein with him."

Johnny gave him an icy look. "I can't stand her, period. You should have heard the malarkey she was tryin to sell me."

"I don't know where I'm gonna lock her up at," Val sighed.

"Can't help ya there," Johnny said coldly. "I have to get home and ....." he stopped and hung his head, turning away from his friend.

Val's shoulders sagged and he walked up behind Johnny, laying a hand on his back. "I'm sorry, amigo. It's like she's possessed by the devil. That ain't the Teresa I knew."

"Ain't the Teresa any of us knew. You're right, it is like she's possessed. I ain't never gonna understand it, Val. Not ever."

They stayed that way for a long time before Johnny straightened himself and took a deep breath. He turned to face Val. "How am I gonna tell Murdoch about this?"

Val was sympathetic but also a bit wary. "Don't even think about not pressin charges."

Johnny only stared at him.

"I mean it, Johnny. If you don't, then I will!"

"I know!" he shouted and paced across the room. "You take care of it, okay?" he said more softly.

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah, I'm sure."

Val nodded. "Alright. Reckon I can just keep her at the hotel for now."

Johnny looked hard at him. "You need some help here. We don't know how many more men Folger's got lurkin about."

"I know. Was thinkin about that myself. I'll wire Sacramento but it'll take a few days for anyone to get here."

"What about locals?" Johnny asked.

Val shrugged. "There's one or two I'd trust with the job."

Johnny wouldn't leave until Val had deputized some men. He felt pretty sure they'd be able to control things. But, Johnny was worried about Val and his family. He knew he'd have to tell them she set him up. He rode home with his senses on high alert.

*****

Murdoch stood and rounded his desk when the front door opened. Scott was on his feet as well as they waited for Johnny to walk in the room. They saw his face and knew it wasn't good.

"Hey," Johnny greeted softly.

"Hi, how'd it go?" Scott asked.

"Not well," he sighed and plopped down on the couch. They both joined him there, Scott beside him and Murdoch in a chair opposite.

He looked at his family and hated this. Hated Folger and her and every damned thing else at the moment. All Johnny wanted was a little peace for once. He sucked in a breath and started.

He finished telling them about her reasons and excuses then paused.

"Did you believe any of it, son?"

Johnny looked over at him, the pain in his father's eyes was too much to bear and he looked at his feet. "No."

Johnny felt the disappointment and heartbreak. He didn't have to look at Murdoch, it was pouring off him in waves.

"There's more, isn't there?" Scott asked with dread.

"Yeah, I'm afraid so," he sighed and went on to tell them about the sniper.

Before he was finished, Scott was on his feet pacing the room. He had never felt so much anger in his life. So much hate for another human being. If that's what you could call the man! And Teresa, too!

Johnny watched Murdoch. The man had grown silent, leaning back in his chair and rubbing his forehead. Johnny got up and moved to his side, kneeling by his father. He touched the man's arm but Murdoch didn't seem to feel it or, at least he didn't acknowledge the touch.

Scott saw this and walked over to join them, kneeling on the other side of their father. "Sir?" he called softly.

Murdoch looked up at him, his eyes distant and unseeing. "I'm alright," he fairly whispered then made to stand.

Scott and Johnny rose, too as Murdoch took one step and faltered. They grabbed him and eased him back into the chair. Johnny got him a drink and pressed it in his hand but Murdoch made no move to drink it.

"Go ahead, Murdoch, it will do you good," Scott gently cajoled but he didn't respond.

"Well, are you gonna just lay down and die or what?" Johnny said angrily.

Murdoch's head jerked up and he glared at his son.

Johnny stood over him, his fists clenched at his sides. "I don't know about you but I'm damned tired of this. She did what she did and that's all," he sliced a hand through the air. "She made her choice and if you give up then they win. All this was for nothing. Is that what you want, old man?"

Murdoch rose to his feet slowly. Scott joined him holding his breath.

"Don't you talk to me like that, boy," Murdoch hissed.

Johnny stood toe to toe with him and locked eyes. "Or what? What're you gonna do, old man? Think you're man enough to handle me? Huh!?" he shouted as he leaned into his father's face.

Johnny's head snapped back as the fire exploded on his cheek. Murdoch's hand froze in midair as he drew it back, clenching his fist and pulling it to his own chest, his eyes wide with shock at his own actions.

Scott gawked at him, momentarily paralyzed by what he'd just witnessed.

Slowly, Johnny turned to face his father again. "I guess so," he said just above a whisper.

"Johnny. My God, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, son," Murdoch said, still in shock.

Johnny swallowed hard, lowering his eyes to hide the sting in them. He blinked several times then raised his head again. "Don't be. I wanted you to hit me."

"In heaven's name, why?" Murdoch asked.

A quirky grin lifted the corners of the youngest man's mouth. "To bring you back to us." His face fell then.

"You have to let it go, Murdoch. Let *her* go. She's nothing to us now. It's like she's dead. I'm sorry, but it's the truth. The Teresa we knew *is* dead and we have to let her go." Johnny searched his father's face and prayed he would agree.

Murdoch dropped his head and his hand and nodded. He reached out and pulled Johnny to him. With his other arm, he reached for Scott who stepped into the embrace. "Please understand how hard this has been for me to accept. I don't know who that woman is. I don't understand and I never will. But it doesn't matter anymore. I've got all I ever needed right here with me. My sons."

"It's just us now. The three of us and that's such a blessing. It could have so easily been very different," Scott said.

Murdoch held his sons and fought back the tears. Later, he would let them spill. When he was alone he would mourn his loss. Right now, he needed his sons and they desperately needed him. He saw that in Johnny's face just before he slapped him. His heart ached at the recent action.

"I will never raise my hand to you again, son," he whispered.

Scott raised his head and pulled back a bit. "Um, or me, right?"

Johnny laughed aloud and Murdoch chuckled as he released them both and looked at Scott. "Welllll."

The three of them shared a laugh before settling down again in their former seats. Johnny sat a little closer to his brother this time.

"Val's sending for reinforcements from Sacramento but he's got a couple of deputies in the meantime," Johnny reported.

"How many more men do you think Folger has?" Scott asked.

Johnny shrugged. "Couldn't say but if they're all like that one today, I'm not too worried," he grinned.

"Well, I am. Any fool can get lucky," Murdoch groused.

Scott sighed heavily. "Will this ever end?" He wondered the same question the other two men were.

*****

For two weeks, the Lancers worked on restoring their once huge enterprise. Fred Saylor had brought the Lancer cattle back and spent two hours arguing with Murdoch over compensation. Murdoch insisted and finally won out. A disgruntled Saylor left the ranch with a thousand dollars in his pocket and a smiling Murdoch waving him off.

The gold left behind after the explosions more than made up for what had been lost financially. Nothing would ever make up for the rest. The Lancers had ensured the entrance to the mines were sealed.

Johnny grew quieter every day and Scott watched him closely. He wasn't sure what troubled his brother. There was so much to choose from. He had a feeling it was Teresa but he couldn't speak the woman's name let alone hear any more regrets, see any more anguish in his family's faces over her deeds. So, he said nothing and marked himself a coward for it.

Val rode out this Wednesday morning. All three Lancers were working at or near the house and gathered to see what news he brought. Scott noted a hopefulness to Johnny's expression.

"The judge got here two days ago. The trial's set for Monday morning. Prosecuting Attorney'll be out here in the mornin to take ya through it. Folger's got himself a fancy lawyer from Sacramento," the marshal reported.

"They give you any more trouble?" Johnny asked.

"Nope. Not since ..." Val stopped and glanced at Murdoch. "Not since I got some help. The deputy marshals got in last night, too."

Johnny nodded, knowing Val was about to say not since Teresa. He looked at his father and saw only a grim determination. Looking back to Val, he tried to sound casual. "Any other news?"

Val studied him and shook his head no. Johnny's eyes dropped to the ground and Scott's spine tensed.

When the lawman had left and Murdoch resumed his chores, Scott grabbed Johnny's arm and pulled him into the garden. Johnny didn't protest physically but his face told the story. He wasn't happy with the treatment he was receiving.

Once Scott released him, Johnny put his hands on his hips and glared. "What?"

"What other news would Val have, Johnny?" Scott asked tersely.

Johnny's eyes flickered then he turned his back and walked a few paces away. Shrugging, he answered softly, "don't know. Was just askin."

Scott was not to be deterred. "Just asking? Were you expecting him to tell you something about Teresa?"

Johnny whirled around, his eyes narrowing, his brows knitting together. "Why the hell would I expect that?" he spat.

Scott was surprised by the reaction and relieved. "I don't know what other news Val might have. You've been sulking about for days, brother. I ... I was afraid to ask in case it was about her. I didn't think I could stand it if you were pining over that ...." he trailed off, unwilling to degrade himself.

Johnny stared at him for long moments before sighing and dropping his head. "Val's been keepin an ear to the ground for me, is all. See if he can hear anything on Cipriano and Maria. And I ain't *never* pined over that!"

Scott sighed and dropped his own head, ashamed he had not thought of this for the reason Johnny was in a mood. He looked back up and smiled a bit shyly at his brother then walked over and laid a supportive hand on his shoulder.

"I'm sorry, brother. Don't you have any idea where they might be?"

"Sure, Mexico. But they ain't in Matamoros so who the hell knows for sure?" His tone was angry and frustrated and he knew it but couldn't stop it. He missed them.

Esperanza was doing a fine job but her time with them was limited. She was about to pop that child out at any moment and had already informed them she would not return after her baby was born. It wasn't easy having a pregnant woman around the house but they could hardly blame her for that. And if they even tried, her husband, Julio, would have some choice words for the Lancers.

And she was limited in what she could do. Cooking was about the extent and some sewing. She tired easily and her feet would swell near the end of the day. Scott felt sorry for her and many times, he and Johnny would wash the supper dishes, sending her home early.

"So, you don't know for sure they actually went to Mexico," Scott surmised.

"Not for sure, no. But, they ain't around here either. We would've heard by now," Johnny admitted. His head came up and he swallowed hard as a thought broke through in his mind. One he had resolutely refused to acknowledge before but now screamed inside his head.

"Scott, do you think maybe somethin happened to them?"

The older man raised a brow at the idea but he could hardly dismiss it. "Cipriano was very loyal to us. I hope to God not, but ....."

He didn't finish the sentence as Murdoch walked outside to find them. He didn't look happy and he didn't look angry, he was sad. Johnny's heart thundered in his chest when Murdoch focused his gaze directly on him.

"Boys," the man nodded.

"What's wrong, Sir?" Scott asked. Not a blind man, he could easily see something was indeed wrong.

Murdoch looked at one then the other and settled on Johnny again. "Son, I need to talk to you."

Johnny shook his head and backed away from his family. "No."

"Please, just listen to me, Johnny," Murdoch implored.

"No! I don't want to hear it!" he shouted, knowing in his soul what his father was about to say.

"John!" Murdoch yelled in his most parental voice.

But Johnny turned away and Scott stared openly at him. Surely not. They had just been talking about this. That's why Johnny is so .... afraid to hear whatever it is. He stepped up to his brother.

"You need to hear Murdoch out, Johnny. Not hearing it, whatever it is, won't make it any less true," he said gently, squeezing Johnny's shoulders.

Johnny was working on controlling himself, his breathing and his panic. He'd seen what he'd seen in the old man's eyes. He knew what this was about just not to what extent. He knew Scott was right and he had to hear it. He closed his eyes and took long, deep breaths. When he turned around, his face was expressionless.

Murdoch sighed and walked up to them both. "You should sit down."

"Just get it said," Johnny spoke harshly. He knew he couldn't take this another minute.

Murdoch took a deep breath and held his temper in check. "Lorenzo just received word from his cousin in Mexico. Son, I'm so sorry. Cipriano died four months ago."

Johnny's face twitched but, otherwise he had no reaction. "And Maria?"

"She's living with a cousin in Socorro."

Johnny nodded, turned on his heel and walked around to the front of the house.

Scott and Murdoch followed him as he made his way to Barranca.

"Johnny, that horse isn't completely trained again and where are you going?" Murdoch asked.

"Socorro," he clipped as he tightened the cinch.

"Just like that? With no provisions, nothing? Johnny, stop and think," Scott said rationally.

Johnny did stop, his shoulders sagging as he leaned against the saddle. "Fine, I'll get some provisions."

"No, Johnny, you're not going anywhere," Murdoch stated.

He turned and glared at his father. "The hell I'm not! I'm going to see her, try to get her to come back."

"Not until after the trial, son. It's not safe to be out there alone right now," Murdoch reminded him.

Johnny's jaw tightened and Scott knew what was coming.

"If you want to let that bastard run your life, Murdoch, you go right ahead. But, my family needs me and I'm not hidin under my bed!"

"Stop this!" Scott shouted and they both turned to look at him.

He inhaled deeply. "Let's go inside and talk this through calmly and rationally then decide what to do." With that, Scott strode toward the house, closing his eyes as he went and praying they would follow.

And they did.

Once in the living room, Murdoch made his stand near the French doors while Johnny headed to the fireplace. He leaned against the mantle and looked at his brother standing between them.

"Why don't you write to Maria and ask if she wants to come back first?" Scott asked.

Johnny considered this for a second. "She lost her husband and she is my tia, Scott. I can't just write and say I'm sorry. I have to go see her. If for no other reason than respect and tradition."

"I'm sure she would understand it's not safe for you right now," Murdoch imparted.

"Yeah, she probably would. She's always been very understanding, Murdoch. They both have."

Murdoch frowned. "What does that mean?"

Johnny sighed and looked at his boots. "It means that ever since I came home, they've stayed in the background. Waiting for me to find a few minutes to spend with them and never complaining about it. At first, I agreed that was right. I needed time to adjust to all of this, to you. Then, it just got to be too much of a bother, I guess. I should have spent more time with them both while they were right here. Now, it's too late." His voice began strong and ended in a mere whisper as the pain of losing his uncle assaulted him.

Murdoch walked the distance between them, one that seemed very long. "Son, I understand that this hurts. Cipriano was a damned fine man and loyal. I'm going to miss him terribly. And I know Maria must be heartbroken but she is with family, Johnny. I don't think it's right for you to go down there now. It's not safe. I don't want to lose you, too."

"Besides, you really can't leave, Johnny. The trial starts next week and you need to testify," Scott reminded him.

"Son, I think you're using anger to keep from feeling the pain of the loss."

Johnny sighed and turned his profile to them. "As soon as the trial is over, I'm going," he said quietly but firmly then went to his room.

Murdoch sagged into a chair and rubbed his forehead tiredly. Scott watched him and decided this is where he should be. Johnny would want to be alone anyway, he was sure. He walked over and knelt beside the man.

"I'm so sorry, Sir. I know this is a huge loss for you as well."

"Thank you, son. You only knew him a couple of years but I'd dare say, you're feeling that loss pretty heavily, as well."

Scott nodded. "Yes, I am. He was a good friend to us all and loyal to the core. And, he loved Johnny so much. Can't get much better in my book."

Murdoch smiled a little. "Your brother is going to need us."

"Yes, but he'll want to be alone for a while to grieve in private."

Murdoch nodded. He'd like that, too, but it would wait until later.

*****

Johnny meandered around his room listlessly. He looked out the window then walked over and plopped on the bed face down. Cradling his head in his arms, he thought back to when he'd first learned of Cipriano's relationship to him.

The man was stolid, tough and brave. Johnny knew that upon first meeting him. He'd sized the older man up pretty fast and Cip had given nothing away then. And not for a long time after. Over a month, by Johnny's reckoning. That was when he'd finally told him the truth and Johnny remembered being stunned and pissed off.

Mostly, he'd been angry with his mother for yet more lies. Johnny figured a lie of omission was still a lie. She had never told him he had family other than his father. She hadn't told him about Scott, either and he'd still been trying to come to terms with that when more was thrown in the mix.

Cipriano, true to form, had remained impassive as Johnny ranted and raved about his mother. Then, the man had started talking quietly to him. Johnny found a whole new respect for the segundo then. He'd been fair and honest and square with Johnny. Always, he'd been square.

Johnny smiled a little. Cip had taken none of his guff from day one. Well, day one after he managed to get healed up. He'd already been working with Scott at that point and Johnny had been impressed. Though, he figured the old man would have nothing less than the best working for him. He'd even said that the first day. Only the best stayed.

It had actually taken him a while to even put the two together. He knew Cip and Maria were married but he reckoned he'd been so danged bumfuzzled after hearing the man out, he hadn't made that connection. It was when he walked into the kitchen after that talk and saw her at the stove.

Then, it all made sense. She'd always coddled him and he wasn't crazy about that. He also could never figure it out. He knew it couldn't have just been that he was half Mexican. That made no sense. But it all came together that day and he remembered walking up behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist and kissing her cheek.

She had beamed with delight when he'd said the word, called her Tia. She'd turned and nearly hugged the stuffing out of him and he'd laughed, picking her up and twirling her around until she smacked him hard on the back and demanded he set her down.

Johnny laughed into the pillow even as tears were running down his face. What would they do without Cip? Without his tio there to support them all? He didn't know and could not fathom it. He'd felt the missing family members from the first day they'd retaken the ranch. His despair deepened every day there'd been no word. What was he going to do now?

He had his father and brother and that was more than he'd ever dare hope for before. Now, was he being selfish? Maybe, but he didn't care. He wanted them back. Period. But it would not be, not as before even if Maria would come back. She may not be able to. So many memories.

Johnny grieved for Cipriano and for Maria and prayed she would come home to them. He got it all out, for now, and sat up, wiping his face dry. It was getting dark and supper would be ready soon. He splashed water on his face and straightened himself. With the doorknob in his hand, he stopped. Dear God! He hadn't even asked how the man had died!

Murdoch and Scott were already at the table though neither had taken a bite yet. Johnny slid into his seat and gave a soft 'sorry."

"No need, son," Murdoch said sympathetically.

Johnny cleared his throat and frowned. "How did it happen?"

Murdoch lowered his own eyes to his plate. "From what Lorenzo could find out, his heart gave out on him."

Johnny's jaw tightened and he nodded. "And he was in Socorro at the time?"

"I believe so, yes."

They ate the meal in silence, each thinking of the beloved segundo and his widow.

*****

Johnny went outside after supper and walked aimlessly about the yard, wandering toward the side of the house without conscious thought. He looked up and found himself in front of Jelly's door. Closing his eyes for a second, he knocked on the door.

Jelly answered quickly. As he looked into Johnny's eyes, his own sadness intensified.

"Come on in here, youngun," he said softly and stepped aside.

Jelly closed the door and watched Johnny walk about the small room, holding himself like he always did when he was hurt. The old man's heart broke yet again.

"Can't begin ta tell ya how sorry I am, Johnny," he said in a voice almost too soft to be his own.

Johnny turned and looked at him. "I figured you'd heard."

Jelly nodded and gestured to a chair. "Figured ya'd all need some time but I'm glad ya come to see me."

Johnny sat down heavily. "I was goin to Socorro. Didn't think about one thing but that."

"Reckon your dad and brother had other ideas?"

Johnny smiled briefly. "Scott and his reasoning. The trial's next week."

Jelly sat in the chair beside him. "It's too much, is what. Too much fer anybody ta have ta deal with. And all because of money," he snorted derisively.

"Jelly, I ..... when I do go to see Maria, I'm not sure what I should say. I mean, Murdoch said his heart gave out but ....."

"Johnny, you listen ta me. If anyone's ta blame for Cip's death, it's that damned Folger! I reckon he'll pay plenty fer it, too!"

"Will he?" Johnny asked, his eyes coming up to look at the older man. "Will he pay, Jelly? Cause it won't be enough. Whatever they do to him won't ever be enough!"

"I know, boy, but it's all we got," Jelly answered sadly.

Johnny knew better. He could think of all sorts of punishments for Folger. Then, he thought of some more. He sighed out and stood. "You okay?"

Jelly rose as well. "Don't reckon any of us are right now but all we can do is stay tough, Johnny. Just hang on and let time do it's job."

Johnny nodded but he doubted enough time would ever pass for him - any of them - to get over this. All his life he'd dealt with brutality and hate. Never had he thought any one of those events would last. He always knew he'd get over it in time. Not now, though. Now, he wasn't sure anything would take the hurt away. He said his goodnights and left Jelly then disappeared into the night.

*****

Murdoch paced the great room the next morning. He'd risen early and Esperanza had fed him before his sons came down. He assumed they were in the kitchen and would be out soon. He was trying to rein in his emotions before they saw him but it wasn't working. Today, the prosecuting attorney was coming out to talk to them. It wasn't going to be easy, either. He only hoped they could all control themselves and not sound like vigilantes. At least, not in front of the man.

Scott walked into the room then and greeted him with a tight smile. Murdoch nodded and forced a smile himself.

"Where's Johnny?" Scott asked.

"He wasn't in the kitchen?"

"No, Sir. I thought he'd eaten already," Scott frowned with concern.

"Maybe he's sleeping in. He couldn't have gotten much rest last night," Murdoch mused.

Scott agreed with that. "I'm sure none of us did. I'll check."

It didn't take long to look at an empty room. Scott did notice the bed was made. His concern heightened as he descended the stairs. He didn't want to alarm his father yet, however.

"He's probably in the barn," he called and dashed out the door.

Scott asked the few hands he passed but no one had seen the young man this morning. Scott walked into the barn and saw Barranca in his stall. He put his hands on his hips and a puzzled expression painted his face.

"Where are you, brother?" he asked the air.

Deciding it was wiser to inform Murdoch, he walked back into the house and told his father.

"Where could he have gone? Barranca's here. He has to be around somewhere." Murdoch's voice was full of frustration. He didn't need this right now.

"He was upset, Sir. I'm sure he's just off by himself somewhere. He'll show up," Scott rationalized but he didn't believe it too much himself.

Murdoch sighed and nodded then sat in his leather desk chair. His head came up as the front door opened.

"Where have you been?" he growled.

Johnny pulled up short and just stared at him for a beat. "Excuse me?"

"We were a little worried, brother. Your bed doesn't look as if it's been slept in," Scott intervened.

Johnny slumped his shoulders and walked on in, taking a seat in front of the desk. "Just takin a walk."

Murdoch eyed him and noted the tired eyes and posture. "Did you even go to bed?"

"No."

"Have you eaten?" he persisted.

Johnny glanced up then lowered his eyes. "No, but I think I will." He stood and walked to the kitchen, just wanting to get away from the grumpy man.

*****

Scott walked to the French door an hour later and grimaced. A surrey was pulling up in the yard and he quickly surmised it was the prosecutor. He didn't recognize the man and he looked like a city slicker. Scott smiled to himself at the description he'd labeled the man with.

Garson Malone eased out of the surrey smoothly and adjusted his jacket. He removed his bowler hat and slicked his black hair back with one hand as his blue eyes took in his surroundings. He was of medium height but muscular. His blue suit cut his figure handsomely. His tanned skin accentuated the suit well.

Scott opened the door as he approached it and let him in. He then retrieved his brother and introductions were made all around. Once settled in the living room with coffee, they got down to business.

"I've spoken with Judge Connors and the governor. I have your statement to them, Scott, as well as Marshal Crawford's. I need to go over everything with you all again now. There should be no surprises during the trial. Judge Reynolds has been here all week and the jury selection went well."

"Do you know Folger's lawyer?" Murdoch asked.

"Yes, I do. He's very good and tends to command an audience well."

"This isn't a show," Scott said tersely.

"He'll try to turn it into one," Malone said flatly. "Now then, gentlemen. Mr. Lancer, let's start with you." He opened his satchel and removed paper and pencil then positioned himself and looked expectantly at Murdoch.

The rancher sighed and leaned back in the chair as he began to relay the story as he saw it. Malone had to stop both Scott and Johnny from interrupting, explaining it was important for him to see the events from all their points of view in order to mount a successful prosecution.

Two hours later, Murdoch felt like he'd already been through a trial. Malone asked him what seemed like a million questions and he'd answered them all; some angrily, some with sadness.

Johnny and Scott had long sense moved aside. Since they couldn't comment, they saw no real reason to be in the room other than to support their father.

"Tell me about prison," Malone stated.

"Why?" Murdoch asked grumpily.

"The jury needs to hear what you went through while incarcerated. It will help."

Murdoch sighed and started again. His throat ached from talking so much. No, the trial couldn't be this hard, he thought.

Malone set the paper and pencil down and rubbed his aching hand. He smiled a little at Murdoch. "Well, that is quite a tale. I'll need to interview your neighbors as well. Is there anyone in particular I should speak with?"

"Frank Hamilton. He's the president of the bank. Sam Jenkins, our doctor."

"What about Mrs. Folger?"

The air in the room turned to molasses in a heartbeat. Three men scowled at him.

"Gentlemen, I know this is difficult but we need her testimony. Unless, of course, you think she'd lie under oath."

Johnny snorted. "Yeah, I think she would."

"I'd still like to talk with her," Malone persisted.

"Good luck," Scott muttered.

Johnny took a breath and let it out.

Malone turned to look full on at Johnny standing behind him. "I think I'll interview you next."

Johnny nodded and sat down across from him, slumping into the chair and crossing his extended legs. He began much the same as Murdoch, giving his own take on the events as they unfolded. He didn't mention Teresa until he got to the part when they took back the ranch. He then told the man everything he'd said to her and everything she'd done.

Murdoch stared slack-jawed at his son. Scott came to his feet and paced to the hearth.

"And this young lady was your ward, Mr. Lancer?" Malone asked, clearly surprised.

"Yes, she was. Her father was my segundo. After he died, I took her in. She apparently blames me for his death and everything else in the world," Murdoch answered with a scowl.

Malone nodded, a frown creasing his forehead. "Well, Scott, you're next. You can skip over what you already told the governor. I have those notes. Just start from when you got back here from Sacramento."

Scott nodded, relieved his part would be shorter. He was quite sure the man's hand was about to fall off anyway. He suppressed a grin at that thought and began his story.

Malone stayed for supper then returned to Green River. He informed the Lancers he would begin speaking with other valley residents the next morning. The room stilled once he'd left. Each man worn out from the telling.

"Think I'll turn in," Johnny mumbled and started toward the stairs.

"Not yet, son. I want to talk to you," Murdoch said firmly.

Johnny turned and looked questioningly at him. "About what?"

Murdoch studied his face from across the room. "About what really happened with Teresa in the hotel. I had the distinct feeling you didn't tell Mr. Malone the whole of it. Am I right?"

Johnny shifted his weight, his eyes dipping then focusing back on his father. "I told him what he needed to know."

Murdoch grimaced. He knew Johnny had been holding back, not only from Malone but from him as well. "That's not your decision to make, John. Mr. Malone needs *all* the facts otherwise, he's put at a disadvantage during the trial. He said no surprises and I agree. Now, what else happened with Teresa?"

Scott looked back and forth between them. He knew Johnny was holding back, too, but he wasn't sure his father needed to hear anymore.

Johnny's jaw twitched as he stared at Murdoch, trying to decide if he should tell the rest. "Nothin to tell," he finally said.

Now, Murdoch set his jaw and the battle was on. Scott was almost amused at the sight. Almost.

"Johnny, Murdoch is right. If something comes out at the trial that Mr. Malone was unaware of, it could jeopardize his case. I know you don't want that. Do you really want to protect Teresa?" he asked, stunned that the thought even entered his head.

Johnny's head snapped toward his brother. "Protect her? I'm not tryin to protect her!"

"Then, it's me you're trying to protect. Johnny, you don't have to try and spare my feelings. I want to know it all," Murdoch said. He began his speech softly but at the end, his tone brooked no argument.

No, you don't, Johnny thought then sighed heavily. He bowed his head and stared at the floor, his mouth shut tight. He felt and heard Murdoch near him but he couldn't look at his father and lie.

Murdoch put a hand on his shoulder. "Look at me, son."

Johnny closed his eyes briefly then looked up at his father.

"I'm alright."

"No, you're not," Johnny argued lightly.

Murdoch smiled a little. "I will be but I need to know it all, son. I don't want anymore surprises. Tell me, Johnny."

He leaned his head back and looked at the ceiling before facing his father. "Alright. The only thing I didn't tell you is ..... after the sniper missed, Teresa pulled a gun on me."

Scott inhaled sharply and Johnny felt Murdoch's grasp on his shoulder tighten painfully. He didn't move though he really wanted to wrench free of the hold.

"She couldn't do it. Folger told her to but she couldn't," Johnny said.

"Well, I suppose that's something," Scott spat sarcastically.

"I guess. Can I go to bed now?" Johnny asked, a little perturbed at the whole situation.

Murdoch was staring a hole through him and didn't answer, nor did he release his son. Johnny grimaced, the hand on his shoulder now bruisingly firm.

"Murdoch, let go," he said softly.

He blinked twice before finding Johnny's eyes again.

"Let go," Johnny repeated as softly as before.

Murdoch's eyes strayed to his hand and he quickly released his hold. "I'm sorry, son. I ..... God! I don't understand any of this!" He turned and walked away, stopping near the fireplace.

Scott and Johnny locked eyes, neither knowing quite what they should do at that moment.

"Alright, thank you for telling. You boys should get some sleep," Murdoch said after a time.

"And you, Sir. You need to get some rest, as well," Scott rejoined.

"Yes. Yes, I'm going soon. Goodnight," he replied distantly.

But Johnny stayed where he was and wondered if he should. No more surprises, Murdoch had said. Yet, could his father take any more?

"What is it, brother?" Scott asked.

Murdoch turned to look questioningly at his son. "Johnny?"

"I ..... there's one other thing. I don't know if ..."

Murdoch wasn't sure he wanted to hear it but it was obviously causing his son discomfort. "Tell us," he said steadily.

Johnny looked into his eyes and saw the usual strength his father normally possessed. He wasn't sure it was real or forced but he figured he didn't have much choice now.

"She's pregnant," he said harshly.

Murdoch's expression never changed and he found that, surprisingly, he didn't really care.

"And you're just now telling us this?" Scott asked irritably.

Johnny turned to him. "I didn't think about it. It didn't really matter to me," he replied coldly.

"There's no reason it should. Thank you for telling me, son. Goodnight," Murdoch replied, his voice devoid of emotion.

Johnny sighed and shook his head then walked up the stairs. Scott followed after a few seconds. He caught up with Johnny in the hallway.

"Why didn't you tell me about this before?" Scott asked angrily.

"What good would it do? I just want this nightmare to be over," Johnny said tiredly.

Scott relaxed his stance and nodded. "Are you okay? Did he hurt you?" he asked, his eyes going to Johnny's shoulder.

The younger man smiled a little. "He's got a good grip. I'm okay. Might be a little bruised by morning," he grinned wider.

Scott wasn't smiling, though. "I'm a little tired of you getting the brunt of this, Johnny. I know Murdoch is hurting but he hit you the other day and now this," he said through clenched teeth.

"Don't worry bout it, brother. I can take it. Besides, it beats him takin it out on the hands or worse."

"He shouldn't be taking it out on anyone."

Johnny just looked at him for a second. "Get some sleep, Boston. You look wrung out."

"As do you. Goodnight, brother," Scott smiled wanly. He watched Johnny go into his room and wondered why his brother seemed to take this all in his stride. Murdoch's behavior had been less than flattering of late. Scott understood the devastation his father was facing, they were all facing, but it wasn't fair and he determined to speak to the man about it soon.

*****

Scott found himself alone the next morning as he entered the kitchen. He raised a brow at this then settled at the table. Esperanza informed him he was the first one down. He was more than surprised he'd beaten his father that morning. Murdoch always rose early. Well, he's probably exhausted, Scott surmised.

Within ten minutes, Murdoch walked in and bade him an unenthusiastic good morning. He looked like he hadn't slept at all. Scott reconsidered speaking to him about his rough handling of Johnny.

"Did you sleep at all?" Scott asked.

"An hour or so. I couldn't settle down," Murdoch mumbled before he took a long drink of coffee and sighed out.

"I can imagine."

"I just wish .... I don't want either of you keeping anything more from me, is that clear?" he grumbled loudly.

"It is. And I don't want you laying another hand on my brother," Scott hissed back.

Murdoch's head came up and he frowned ferociously. "What are you talking about?"

Scott stared at him for a beat. "Last night, when Johnny told you, you grasped his shoulder so hard, I'm sure it's bruised very nicely by now."

Murdoch just stared then blinked a few times. "I .... I didn't even realize I was doing it. Scott, you can't believe I intended to hurt him?"

"No, Sir, I don't believe that. Any more than I believe you intended to slap him the other night. It just seems you're taking your frustration and anger out on Johnny and I want it to stop."

Murdoch opened his mouth then closed it as his eyes lowered to the table. Finally, he spoke. "Your brother always seems to be right there in front of me when something like this happens. But, you're right. I didn't realize it, but you're right."

Scott smiled with relief. He was happy things didn't turn ugly between them.

Johnny walked in and slid into his seat. "Mornin."

"How are you, son?"

"Fine," he shrugged and winced a little.

Murdoch reached over and tugged at his shirt collar but he didn't get to see anything as Johnny pulled away.

"What're you doin?"

"I want to see your shoulder. I didn't realize I had hurt you, son. I'm so sorry," Murdoch said remorsefully.

Johnny shot his brother an ugly look. "It's fine, Murdoch, don't worry about it. Got better things to think about."

"Such as?" Scott asked.

"Such as fixin the east pasture fence. It's wrecked. And the corral gate is broke again. Jelly said he'd get to it today. We need to get the herd in one place so we can make a head count. And we still need to go after some more horses."

"Okay, sorry I asked!" Scott smiled.

Murdoch smiled. "I'll send a crew out to the east pasture. You two should round up some horses. That needs to be done again and soon. Hopefully, we'll be able to hire some more men."

"Most of those who stayed in the valley have already come back. Anyone else will be new," Johnny commented.

"Well, we'll do as much as we can before Monday," Murdoch said and all three of their faces fell at the reminder of the impending trial.

The rancher could have shot himself in the foot for bringing it up. They'd been having a nice conversation and Johnny seemed to be doing okay for the moment. He knew there would be many more times when Cipriano's death would hit him all over again. There wasn't a thing he could do about that and he hated it.

They grew quiet then and finished their breakfast. As she was clearing the dishes, Esperanza spoke hesitantly.

"Senor Lancer, I must quit soon," she almost whispered.

Murdoch tensed then closed his eyes briefly. He forced a smile on his face as he looked up at her. "Of course, Esperanza. How soon?"

"The end of this week, Senor. The bambino, he is very busy," she smiled and put a hand on her swollen belly.

"Alright. If you know of or hear of anyone interested in the job, please let me know," he answered dully.

Her face fell and she only nodded at him then returned to the sink. Scott sighed and walked over to her.

"So, is it a boy or a girl?" he asked with a grin.

Her face lit up. "A boy, I think, Senor Scott."

"And do you have a name yet?"

She smiled again but there was a secretive expression on her face. "I cannot say yet."

Scott cocked a brow at that and patted her shoulder then returned to the table.

"Ready to get to work, brother?"

Johnny looked up at him and nodded. "No." Then he laughed and stood up. As he walked around his father, he let his hand slide across the older man's back.

*****

Garson Malone listened patiently as Val Crawford ranted and raved while telling what he knew. He raised an eyebrow more than once at the Marshal's colorful language. Once Val stopped, he gave a polite yet firm warning.

"Marshal, I understand the Lancers are your friends but, you're going to have to tone it down when I put you on the witness stand."

Val's back was up. "I know that! I know how to act in court, Mr. Malone. Don't worry bout me, worry bout that snake's lawyer. Folger has been happy as a lamb on it's mama's teat last two days."

Malone frowned at that and wondered what Silverman was up to now. The man had a knack for twisting the facts and getting people to believe him. He wouldn't admit it to a living soul but he was worried. Everything seemed to be on their side but he'd seen for himself how little that mattered at times. Especially if emotions ran high and he knew they would in this situation.

"I have to admit I'm concerned about how the Lancers will perform on the stand, Marshal. Could you give me some insight?"

Val sighed and leaned back in his chair, his hands clasped lightly in front of him as his elbows rested on the arms. "Well, it's hard ta say. Johnny is usually the loudest one but in this case, I think you gotta worry more about Murdoch."

"Really? I wouldn't have thought that."

"You start talkin about what that snake done to his family and his ranch and you'll see it. Reckon Folger's lawyer will work that real good. I can talk to Johnny, make him settle down. But, Murdoch is another story. I don't have much weight with him."

"Doesn't he like you?" Malone asked.

Val smiled a little. "Reckon he likes me alright. I just mean me and Johnny go way back and I know how to talk to him, is all."

"What about Scott?"

Val snorted. "He'll be fine. He'll look mean and mad but he'll behave hisself. He's got a lot better control than his father or brother."

Malone nodded, he didn't like this but he couldn't control another person's reactions. "Where is Mrs. Folger?"

Val's eyes narrowed and his teeth ground together. "Got her in the hotel. Ain't no room in there," he tossed his head toward the back of the room.

Malone leaned forward in his chair. "What evidence to you have against her?"

Val studied the man and he knew, just knew, Johnny hadn't said a word. Well, whatever the reason, Val didn't have any to keep quiet. He told the man about Teresa's part in the attempt on Johnny's life. It was the derringer the attorney found to be news.

"Reckon Johnny didn't wanna upset his old man again. Murdoch's takin Teresa's part in all this real hard," Val said by way of explanation.

"I can understand that, I suppose. Still, this is something I needed to know."


"And now ya do."

Malone had no comment to that. He sighed and stood. "Well, I'm off to speak with the banker now."

Val stood as well and offered his hand.

*****

Malone left Sam Jenkins office feeling better. Both the doctor and the banker had assured him the Lancers had many friends in the valley. Neither of them could think of anyone who would say a bad word against the family. No one who actually resided there, anyway. He stepped into the street and headed for the hotel when he spotted Cyrus Silverman coming out of the sheriff's office. Malone grimaced then moved to intercede the man.

"Cyrus!"

The tall, thin man with the straight, pointed nose looked up and smiled as he waved to the prosecuting attorney. He was dressed immaculately in a dark brown suit that did nothing for his pale, waxy complexion. He tipped his hat to a passing woman and revealed thinning brown hair.

"Garson, how are you?" he asked as the man approached.

Malone almost twitched at the nasally voice. Silverman always had a tone of superiority, even with something as innocuous as a greeting.

"I'm well, and you?" Malone answered.

"Very well, indeed. I was just about to have lunch. Won't you join me?"

In any other circumstance, the prosecutor would have begged off but he needed to size the man up and see if he really had a strategy worthwhile. Hopefully, he'd get a glimpse of what that strategy was.

"Sounds delightful," he smiled and waved a hand, indicating Silverman should take the lead.

They settled in and both men ordered a scotch to start with. It was relatively quiet in the hotel dining room.

"Well, Monday is drawing ever near," Silverman smiled.

Sometimes, Malone really wanted to smash the man's face in when he smiled like that. It was a malignant sort of smile.

"Yes, it's going to be quite an interesting trial," he said in a friendly tone.

Silverman quirked a brow at that. "I'm sure you will be well prepared, Garson. You always are," he said as he lifted his glass in a toast.

"Thank you, as are you, Cyrus. The Lancers seem to have a lot of friends," he replied casually.

"Yes, they do. But, that really isn't the issue, is it?"

"No, the issue is rather convoluted on the surface."

"I don't think so. It's really quite simple. Three men turned over their property then cried foul when gold was discovered. A very large amount of gold," Silverman replied.

Malone kept his expression flat but inside he was smiling a little and hoping Cyrus really was going with that line of defense. Still, he didn't think that was the whole of it. He knew this man and knew he'd have at least one rabbit under his hat.

*****

Monday morning started clear and sunny. The Lancers rode into Green River side by side, a united front. Heads held high and looking straight forward, they arrived at the court house thirty minutes early.

Malone was just approaching the building and he stopped to wait for them. He smiled as they walked up.

"What can we expect today, Mr. Malone?" Scott asked.

"The jury was chosen last week so we start right in," he answered.

Johnny hadn't said a word and simply walked toward the doors.

"He seems to be wound up," Malone observed.

"He's been that way forever, it seems. We all are. I'm sure you can understand," Murdoch replied.

"I do but I hope you all maintain your decorum. Ugly outbursts in a courtroom does not help the case," the man warned.

The Lancers were seated directly behind the prosecutor's table. Johnny watched the side door where Folger would be brought into the room. It seemed the very air had been sucked out of the place which was teeming with onlookers. None of them were happy about it but there was nothing to be done.

At five of nine, that door opened and Val brought Folger in. He was smiling and Murdoch wanted to bash his face in. He fidgeted in his seat and scowled at the man.

Judge Reynolds arrived and everyone rose until he gaveled the court to order. Opening arguments were given and many mouths fell open as Silverman began expounding his client's innocence and virtues. One might think the man was up for sainthood by the time the attorney was finished.

"Mr. Malone, call your first witness," the judge stated.

"I call Marshal Crawford," Malone spoke loudly as he stood.

Val walked to the witness stand and was sworn in by a deputy marshal.

"You were the sheriff of Green River in April this year, were you not, Marshal?" Malone asked.

"Yes."

"Describe for us the events that took place in this very courtroom as you know them."

Val winced and began telling of the trial of Murdoch, Johnny and Scott Lancer. It was dry testimony and some people began sighing loudly and squirming in their seats. Val leered at them, wondering what exactly they expected to happen here.

But, Malone ignored them and allowed Val to tell it in his own words without much direction. He was pleased with the testimony. Then, it was Silverman's turn. He stood and straightened his jacket then walked around the table and approached Val.

"You are very good friends with Johnny Lancer, aren't you?"

"Yes," Val answered.

"How long have you known him?"

Val hesitated and thought about that. "About five years now, I reckon."

Silverman nodded and smiled. "How did the two of you meet?"

"Objection. Relevance," Malone interrupted.

"The witness objectivity is what I question, your honor. It would be difficult to see events clearly if his view is tainted by friendship," Silverman argued.

The judge considered it a moment. "Objection overruled. Answer the question, Marshal."

"Do you need me to repeat it?" Silverman asked.

"No, I heard ya the first time. I met him down in Mexico, on the border."

"And what were the circumstances of that meeting?"

"He was about ta get strung up by an irate father," Val smirked.

Chuckles spread through the court and Johnny dipped his head to hide the smile. Scott turned to look at his brother with a suspicious frown.

"Could you elaborate?" Silverman asked, undaunted.

Val sighed and told the story of how he'd saved Johnny from the distressed father and his cronies.

"And you started riding together then?"

"That's right."

"How long?" Silverman asked.

"Year and a half, I reckon."

"And why did you part ways, Marshal?"

"I was offered a job as sheriff in a Texas border town. It was a good deal so I took it."

Silverman nodded and paced in front of the witness stand a few times. "What exactly was your occupation prior to that sheriff's job?"

"Hired out my gun some," Val said statically.

A loud gasp was heard through the spectators and Johnny turned to glare at them. Why did they think Val was so good?

"You were a gunfighter?" Silverman asked, allowing a surprised tone.

"Yep."

"And Johnny Lancer? Was he a gunfighter, too?"

Val's eyes narrowed and he leaned forward in his seat. "Ain't no big surprise, Mr. Silverman. He was."

"No, no surprise. Still, a gunfighter turned lawman is .... unusual."

Val sat back in his chair. "Why? Gunfightin ain't illegal," he shrugged.

"Your honor, I haven't heard a question from Mr. Silverman, lately," Malone stated.

"Nor have I. Get on with it," the judge ordered.

"How did you come to be the sheriff of Green River, Marshal?" Silverman asked.

"Johnny sent for me. Said they was lookin for a lawman and he wanted me for the job."

"Does Johnny Lancer hire the sheriff of Green River?" Silverman asked with amusement.

"No, he just recommended me to the Cattlemen's Association," Val sneered.

"A recommendation which I'm sure was taken to heart," the lawyer muttered.

"Careful, Mr. Silverman," the judge warned.

Silverman bowed his head toward the man.

"Marshal, why did you quit your job?"

"I didn't want ta be around a place where judges and lawmen could be bought. I figured it was time for me to move on."

"Isn't it true that you quit your job so you could be available when the Lancer's returned to steal Mr. Folger's ranch?" Silverman asked, turning quickly to face the man.

"No, it ain't," Val said calmly.

"Who met Johnny Lancer when he was released from prison?"

"I did."

"And who rode with him to Sacramento for his father and brother's release?" Silverman went on.

"I did."

"And who bought the supplies they would need to blow Mr. Folger's mines to kingdom come?"

Val almost smiled, almost. "I don't know nothin about Mr. Folger's mines," he answered.

"You aren't aware of the explosions at the mines?" Silverman asked.

"Yeah, heard about that but those were Lancer mines," Val said and did smile very slightly.

Silverman took a deep breath and walked closer to Val. "Did you blow up the mines located at the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains?"

"Yes, I did."

"Then you admit you destroyed Mr. Folger's property," Silverman said with satisfaction.

"Nope," Val replied. "Those mines were on Lancer land and I had the permission of its owners to set dynamite to 'em."

"Marshal, Mr. Folger had ownership of those mines," Silverman argued.

"No, he didn't."

"He had a deed."

"That was illegal," Val cut him off. "As far as I knew, it was still Lancer land."

Silverman sighed and changed direction. "Did you break into Mr. Folger's home and steal documents from his safe?"

"No."

"I'll remind you that you are under oath," Silverman warned.

"You can do what ya like long as it's legal. My answer's the same," Val quipped and heard a chuckle in the room again.

"Marshal, did you go to Sacramento with Scott Lancer to speak with the governor?"

"I did."

"And it was at that time you were sworn in as a US Marshal?"

"That's right."

"No further questions," Silverman said and retook his seat.

"Redirect, Mr. Malone?" the judge enquired.

"Not at this time, your honor."

Val was excused and he sighed with relief. He figured it went pretty well and Malone looked happy.

"Your honor, I call Frank Hamilton to the stand," Malone stated.

Hamilton testified of what he knew which wasn't much. He did inform the court of Folger's attempts to take Lancer money from his bank and his adamant refusal to do business with the man. Silverman had no questions and he was excused. Then, Sam took the stand. His was character testimony and he regaled the Lancers as upstanding citizens and leaders in the community. Silverman didn't pass on this witness.

"Dr. Jenkins, how long have you known Scott and Johnny Lancer?"

"Three years."

"How did you first meet them?"

Sam smiled a little. "Well, actually, the first time I met Johnny was on his birthday. I delivered him."

The crowd laughed and the judge gaveled them quiet.

"I met Scott after that awful mess with Pardee."

"Pardee?" Silverman asked.

"Day Pardee was a land pirate. He invaded this valley three years ago with his gang and tried to take it over. He nearly succeeded until Scott and Johnny came home."

"What happened to Mr. Pardee?" Silverman asked.

"He was killed in a gunfight when he and his men raided Lancer. Scott killed him."

"I see. And when did you first meet Johnny as an adult?"

"Unfortunately, it was to treat him. He'd been shot in the fight and I removed a bullet from his back," Sam said, a little sadness in his voice.

"What did you think of Johnny then?" Silverman asked.

Sam raised a brow. "Well, he was unconscious for about two days. After that he wasn't in much mood to chat. Over time, I've gotten reacquainted with him."

"And now?"

"Now, I know them both to be honorable men," Sam smiled.

"How many times has Johnny Lancer been your patient, Doctor?"

Sam sighed. "Several. I haven't really counted them up."

"He has a propensity for trouble then?"

"He has a propensity for injury," Sam countered.

"When did you treat him last?"

Sam shook his head. "A month ago when he was shot in the back by Sheriff Bentley."

Again, gasps and murmurs erupted in the gallery. Judge Reynolds pounded order and shook his gavel at the onlookers. "If you folks can't be still, I'll have you removed from these proceedings," he warned.

"Doctor, how do you know who shot Johnny Lancer in the back?" Silverman asked.

"Well, Johnny told me for one. But, before I treated him, I treated the sheriff. He had a wound in his shoulder and his side and a lump on his head from falling off a horse."

"Did Sheriff Bentley tell you Johnny Lancer had caused those injuries?"

"No, but no one has ever crossed him and he asked for Folger. Was very adamant about seeing the man. I put two and two together."

"How? Did you know the Lancers were out of prison?"

"Yes, I knew," Sam answered.

"Who told you?"

"Frank Hamilton."

"And how did he know?"

"Objection. Hearsay," Malone interjected.

"Sustained."

Silverman mulled this over for a moment. "No further questions."

By this time, it was a little after noon. Judge Reynolds adjourned for lunch and everyone rose as he left the room.

"How do you think it's going?" Murdoch asked as he leaned over the railing that separated them from Malone.

"Well, so far. Gentlemen, is there some place we can go for lunch that's private?"

Murdoch nodded and they left together.

*****

Once settled in the cantina and their food ordered, Malone came right to the point.

"I'll be starting with you next, Mr. Lancer. Then Scott then Johnny."

"Why is Silverman focusing so much on Johnny?" Scott asked.

"He's trying to discredit Johnny. You all need to be prepared for him to attack Johnny's past. AND, you must keep yourselves under control. It is imperative none of you show anger."

"How can we not?" Scott asked, appalled.

"And why shouldn't we? We're the victims," Murdoch grumbled.

Malone sighed and shook his head. He looked over at Johnny who hadn't said a word all day. He noted the young man's cool demeanor.

"Take lessons from him," he said and tossed his head in Johnny's direction. "You can't come across as vigilantes. No matter how angry you are, just remember what the desired result is. Folger in prison for a very long time."

"Why me?" Johnny finally spoke.

"To discredit you is to discredit your family. If Silverman can show you as an outlaw, then the family that supports you won't have much credibility, either," Malone explained. "Since you have the most ..... colorful past, he's concentrating on you."

Johnny only nodded.

"But Val said it. Gunfighting isn't illegal," Scott argued.

"Don't matter, Scott. Most people figure if you'll hire your gun, you'll do about anything," Johnny said quietly.

"But that's not true," Scott challenged.

"True is what a man believes it is. Your truth ain't necessarily my truth," Johnny shrugged.

Malone smiled and nodded his agreement. He spent the rest of the meal trying to prepare them all for Silverman's cross-examination. He hoped they were ready but he knew deep inside, no one could ever really be ready for the pouncing they were about to receive. They were, after all, the very crux of the case. Silverman would go hard at them. He sighed a little as the hour to return to court approached.

*****

Once the courtroom settled, the judge resumed the session. Malone called Murdoch to the stand. He was pleased at the man's strong presence. He commanded respect without asking for it.

"Mr. Lancer,   when did you first meet Jeremy Folger?"

"Last year around the middle of November," Murdoch answered in a flat voice.

"What were the circumstances?"

"He came to our ranch and offered to buy it."

"Your response?"

"No," Murdoch said with a little more force in his voice.

"Did you see him again?"

"Several times. He came out once or twice a week and made the offer again. He increased the price a little with each visit."

"When did these visits stop?"

Murdoch took a deep breath. "Two weeks before Christmas. I told him that time not to come back to Lancer. That it wasn't for sale at any price."

"What was his response to this?"

Murdoch looked directly at Folger. "He said he'd have Lancer one way or another."

Again, the whispers and murmurs started in the crowd and the judge wearily gaveled quiet.

"Did you see him again?"

"Not until April of this year. Right here in this room, in fact."

"When you and your sons were convicted of train robbery?"

Murdoch dipped his eyes for a split second. "Yes."

"Mr. Lancer, did you and your sons rob that train?" Malone asked.

Murdoch straightened his shoulders. "Yes, we did."

"Order in this court!" Reynolds shouted above the melee. "Marshal Crawford, remove anyone who is still talking from this courtroom," he ordered.

Val stood and walked down the aisle. He hooked a finger at two men who were too engrossed in their own gossip to hear the judge. He removed them quietly and retook his seat.

"Now, then," Malone continued. "You and your sons served time in prison for that crime, did you not?"

"Yes, we did," Murdoch ground out.

Malone shot him a warning look before continuing. "Where were you imprisoned?"

"Scott and I were at Folsom. Johnny was at San Quentin."

"Why was Johnny sent to a different prison so much further away?"

"I have no idea. We didn't know why they'd taken him there. No one would tell us."

Malone could see the vein in Murdoch's temple pulsing but he had to do his job. "When you were released, what did you do?"

Murdoch looked up and blinked, seeming to come out of some deep thought. "Johnny was there to meet us. He'd been released a few weeks earlier. We went to Sacramento and stayed at a hotel for a few days then headed here."

"Did you have a plan?"

"Yes, we were coming to get Lancer back."

"And how did you achieve this?"

Murdoch sighed. He knew he had to tell it all. Some might think it was illegal but not to his mind. "We asked Val to blow the mines as a diversion. Then, Johnny, Scott and I went to the house and took the forged deed out of the safe."

"You broke into the house?" Malone asked.

"It wasn't robbery. That is our home and we never signed it over to anyone."

"What happened then?"

"Scott and Val took the deed and the original partnership agreement between my sons and I to Sacramento to see the governor."

"Why the partnership agreement?" Malone asked.


"To prove the signatures on the deed were forgeries. We knew the governor would need proof."

"Why didn't all of you go?"

"We decided Johnny and I would stay behind and keep an eye on things. We were also hoping to get some extra men. We were confident that once Scott explained the situation to the governor, he would negate the forged deed."

Malone nodded and walked to his table, taking a sip of water. Giving Murdoch a moment.

"And did the governor do that?"

"Yes, he did. He, the appellate judge and the US Marshal were all involved."

"Is this when Val Crawford was sworn in as a US Marshal and given arrest warrants for Folger and Bentley?"

"Yes, that's right."

"When your son and the marshal returned, what happened?"

"By then, we had about ten men. More showed up that night. The next morning, we had one of the men use dynamite at the mine again to create a diversion."

"Why was that necessary?"

"Folger had at least thirty gunmen. We didn't want a blood bath."

"Alright, go on."

"We rode in and the marshal arrested Folger. Then, his men came back and there was a short gun battle. Marshal Crawford was shot. A graze to his left arm. Once it was over, he and Johnny took Folger and his remaining men to jail."

Malone nodded and looked at his notes. He decided not to bring Teresa into this just yet. He was sure Silverman would anyway.

"Let's go back to the beginning, Mr. Lancer. You said Folger left before Christmas and you didn't see him again until April. What happened in that time?"

Murdoch sighed and set his jaw. "After the first of the year, someone began raiding the ranch. They cut fences, started field fires and stampedes and took some potshots at some of the hands. We weren't sure who was behind it. Then, Sheriff Crawford came to the ranch in February and told us Folger was in Green River.

"He said Folger had a US Marshal named Bentley with him and a deed showing that he owned Lancer. He said there was a judge involved as well and he had issued an eviction notice giving us thirty days to leave the ranch."

"Did then Sheriff Crawford serve this eviction notice?"

"No, he said the marshal would be out to serve it."

"How did you and your sons respond to this?"

Murdoch shifted in his seat then resettled. "We were very upset as you can imagine. There was some arguing between us. Eventually, we began to talk things through and try to come up with a plan to stop it."

Malone took a breath. "What happened next?"

"Marshal Bentley came to the ranch and served the notice. He seemed to enjoy his work," he spat.

"Objection." Silverman called.

"Sustained."

"What did the marshal say?"

"I told him none of this was legal and that the deed had been forged. He said that wasn't his problem and that the deed would be legal enough in a few days. He told us the judge was taking it back to Sacramento to be filed."

"Mr. Lancer, was there an altercation with the marshal then?"

"Yes, my son, Johnny, told him to get off our land. The marshal called him a name and Johnny shoved him. We held them apart and the marshal left."

"He didn't arrest Johnny for assault?"

"No. As he rode away he said he'd see Johnny again and he'd teach him a lesson," Murdoch fairly growled.

"What name did the marshal call Johnny?"

Murdoch clenched his teeth and forced the word out. "Half-breed."

Malone turned to the jury and cocked a brow. "What happened then?"

"We devised a plan to get the deed. There wasn't time to go to Sacramento to the governor. We had to get that paper before it made it that far."

"So, you decided to rob the train for the soul purpose of retrieving this illegal document?"

"Yes. I'm not proud of that. I'm a law-abiding man but we were desperate. We thought once we had the deed, we could go on to Sacramento and have Folger arrested."

"But, you were caught. How did that happen?"

Murdoch's face reddened and he swallowed hard. "They were waiting for us, Bentley and his men. We were arrested and tried."

"Mr. Lancer, what kind of treatment did you and your sons receive in the Green River jail?"

"Bentley had taken over since the train was federal jurisdiction. He taunted us but mostly Johnny. He beat my son."

"Why?" Malone asked softly.

"I would imagine it was because Johnny is mixed and possibly because of his past profession. Bentley made no qualms about his hatred for my son."

"Did Johnny provoke him?"

Murdoch dipped his eyes briefly. "At first, yes, he did. He was angry but I talked to him and he settled down. It was only when Bentley disparaged Scott or myself that Johnny couldn't keep his temper under control. Bentley had Johnny in a cell separate from Scott and me. He had free rein to do as much damage as he wanted."

Malone sighed and shook his head sadly for the jury's sake. "No further questions."

Silverman stood and smiled at Murdoch who glared back at him. Malone saw that look and cringed.

"Mr. Lancer, that is quite a tale you told."

"Was that a question, Mr. Silverman?" the judge snarked.

"My apologies, your honor," he grinned and bowed slightly before the bench.

"Mr. Lancer, isn't it true that you signed over your ranch to Mr. Folger only to change your mind once you discovered why he wanted the land?"

"No, that is not true," Murdoch said loudly.

Johnny coughed very loudly and Murdoch looked over to receive a warning stare. He noted his son's slouched posture and seemingly bored countenance and he almost smiled.

"So, you had no idea of the amount of gold on Lancer?" Silverman was asking.

"No."

"Are you telling this court that you had no idea there was gold on Lancer? A ranch you had owned for twenty-five years?"

"That is what I'm telling you."

"How is that possible, Mr. Lancer?"

"I'm a rancher, not a miner. I wasn't interested in whether there was gold or not," Murdoch answered calmly.

"What about your sons? Were they interested?"

"Objection. Mr. Lancer can't speak for his sons," Malone piped in.

"Sustained."

"Very well. Did you ever discuss the possibility of gold on Lancer with either of your sons?"

"Not until after we were freed from prison."

"And did they voice an opinion on their interest at that time?"

"No, they didn't."

Silverman paced before him and it was getting on Murdoch's nerves.

"Your sons have been with you for three years now. Why didn't they grow up with you?"

"Objection. Relevance, your honor?" Malone asked.

"Sustained."

Silverman sighed lightly. "What was your impression of Johnny Madrid when you first met him?"

"Your honor, there is no relevance. The Lancers are not on trial. Mr. Lancer's relationship with his sons has no bearing," Malone said.

"I believe it does, your honor. Especially this son. If you'll allow me to proceed, I will make that point."

"Make it quickly, Mr. Silverman. Objection overruled," the judge decided.

"I was unsure of him," Murdoch answered.


"Did you have a difficult relationship?"

"At first."

"How so?"

Murdoch sighed. "Johnny wasn't used to ranch life. He had a hard time adjusting at first. We argued at times."

"Many times?"

"Yes, many times," Murdoch said statically.

Silverman came to a stop directly in front of Murdoch, effectively cutting off his line of vision to his boys.

"Mr. Lancer, did you ever believe Johnny had betrayed you?"

"No!"

"Think about it, Mr. Lancer. Think carefully. Never? Not even in the beginning?"

Murdoch stared at him. How could he know that? His face fell as he realized the source. Disappointment was replaced quickly with anger.

"Answer the question, Mr. Lancer," Silverman pressed.

"Yes," he mumbled.

"I'm sorry, the jury can't hear you," Silverman said and Murdoch could hear the pleased tone of his voice.

"I said, yes," he answered more firmly.

Silverman smiled and stepped away. Murdoch's eyes went immediately to Johnny but his son was smiling, his eyes dancing in delight. Something seemed to be amusing his son but he couldn't figure out what for the life of him. Still, it helped ease the burden of the admission.

"When was that, Mr. Lancer?"

"In the beginning when he first came home. I wasn't sure he hadn't decided to side with Pardee. I was proven wrong soon enough."

"Still, you questioned his loyalty."

Murdoch's brows knitted together. "No, that wasn't it. He had no reason to be loyal to me at the time. He had no reason to help me. Still, I was disappointed."

Silverman's jaw twitched with the answer. Not what he had hoped for. "You said Marshal Bentley was waiting for you when you robbed the train. Do you know how he found out about the robbery?" He turned to find Murdoch's face growing red again and bit his lip to keep from smiling.

"Not at that time."

"At some point, you found out, didn't you?"

"Yes."

"And how did the marshal know?"

Murdoch glared at him and the man almost took a step backward from the gaze.

"My former ward told him of our plans."

"Why would she do that?" Silverman asked with an innocent air.

"You would have to ask her."

"When was the last time you saw her?" Silverman asked.

"Three or so weeks ago when I threw her off the ranch."

"Why did you throw her off the ranch?"

"She didn't belong there anymore than her husband, Jeremy Folger!"

"Ah, so your ward married Mr. Folger. Why would she marry a man you hated?"

"I don't know that either, Mr. Silverman. You'd have to ask her."

"How many times has Johnny Madrid's past caused problems for the ranch?"

Murdoch was stunned at the turn in the line of questioning back to Johnny. He sat there and didn't answer.

"Mr. Lancer?"

"What?" he asked softly.

"How many times?"

"I don't know of any."

Silverman cocked a brow. "Really? At no time did Johnny Madrid's past cause the ranch hardship?"

"No, Mr. Silverman. And my son's name is Lancer," he answered passionately.

"What about a man named Warburton?" he asked, ignoring the remark.

Murdoch actually shrugged. "That had nothing to do with the past. The man hired gunfighters. Johnny was only trying to find out what he could to protect me."

"Still, you were worried he'd sided with Pardee," Silverman cocked a brow.

"I didn't know him then. I do now."

"And your neighbors, Mr. Lancer? Has your son's reputation caused any problems there?"

Murdoch tensed a little. "There were a few who couldn't get past it."

"And that doesn't bother you?"

Murdoch sighed and looked pitiably at the man. "My sons are more important than any business associate or friend for that matter. They come first."

Scott and Johnny both smiled at him.

Silverman walked over and rummaged through his papers, a frown deep on his brow. He wasn't riling the man as he'd hoped. He decided Murdoch Lancer had garnered enough sympathy from the jury.

"I have no further questions for this witness, your honor."

"No questions," Malone said and smiled a little.

Scott sighed with relief. Murdoch had done well as far as he could tell. Malone seemed pleased. Johnny still looked bored and Scott shook his head at his brother.

*****

After a fifteen minute break in which Malone once again warned Scott to keep himself controlled, court reconvened.

"I call Scott Lancer to the stand," Malone began.

Scott walked through the gates and took his seat with an air of confidence that was impressive.

"Mr. Lancer, you heard your father's recollections about what transpired with Jeremy Folger. Is there any part of that testimony you disagree with or feel a need to elaborate upon?"

Scott thought about this for a few seconds. "I can't think of anything."

Malone smiled. "When you removed the deed and partnership agreement from the house, did you take anything else?"

"Yes, I grabbed a few papers as did Murdoch. We didn't feel we had time to go through them just then, though."

"When did you look at them?"

"Not until Val and I arrived in Sacramento."

"And what did you find?"

Scott grimaced a little. "One was a marriage certificate. There were documents, plans, that showed Folger was working to take over a neighboring ranch as well."

"Which ranch was that?"

"The Crooked S."

"What?!" Came a bellow from the back.

Murdoch cringed and felt instant regret for not telling Fred about this. Truthfully, he'd forgotten about it.

The judge worked his gavel again as Fred Saylor came to his feet. "I take it this is your ranch, Sir. While I understand your reaction, I will have order in my court!" he said and slammed the gavel.

Saylor's son pulled on his arm and the man took his seat but not before shooting a death look at Folger.

Malone sighed and returned to Scott. "Was there anything in those papers to indicate the reason for this plan?"

"There was a map that clearly showed the mines Folger was working extended onto the Crooked S."

"And did you show these papers to the governor?"

"I most certainly did."

Malone smiled at him. "What was Governor Booth's reaction to your story?"

"He seemed upset. He called in the appellate judge and the US Marshal and we explained the situation to them as well. All three of them examined the evidence and concluded the deed was a forgery. The judge issued arrest warrants that evening and reinstituted the original deed to Lancer in our names. The Marshal swore Val Crawford in and we left the next morning."

"As I understand it, your trip only took a few days. You must have ridden hard?" Malone phrased it as a question.

"We did but my brother mapped out a faster route over some pretty rough land. It was tough going but it was much faster," Scott smiled.

Johnny grinned at his brother but maintained his casual demeanor.

"It was on your return that you discovered your brother had been shot and more men had come to help you?"

Scott grimaced. "Yes, that's right."

"Was Johnny very ill?"

"Well, the bullet went in and out. Murdoch had stitched it up and the doctor was there. He wasn't in the best shape but he managed."

"Thank you. I have no further questions."

Silverman was on his feet and in front of Scott before Malone made it back to his own chair.

"When you went to the house to arrest Mr. Folger, his wife was there, wasn't she?"

"Yes," Scott said through clenched jaw.

"When did you first see her?"

"The marshal took Folger's gun and was about to put handcuffs on him when he bolted into the house. Murdoch and I were still on our horses so it took us a minute to dismount and tie them off. When we entered the house, she was there."

"And what was she doing?"

"Nothing. Johnny was holding her."

"Holding her? How?"

Scott glanced at his brother who simply shrugged. "He had his arm around her waist and was holding her in front of him."

"Where was Mr. Folger?"

"Across the room. Johnny had a gun trained on him."

"Did you hear your brother say anything to Mrs. Folger? And if so, what?" Silverman asked. He knew he'd have to drag it all out of Scott.

"Yes, he was taunting her. He was very upset by her betrayal of our family."

"What did he say to her?"

"I believe it was something like they had some catching up to do."

"That's it?"

"Yes, as I recall," Scott replied calmly.

"Did he threaten her?"

"I don't remember him threatening her, no."

"Did she tell him she was with child?"

Scott sighed. "If she did it was before I came in the room. I didn't know it until much later."

Silverman only nodded as he turned to face the audience. His eyes fell on Johnny and he smirked. He got no reaction.

"Did he call her a bitch?"

Scott cringed a little. He had actually forgotten about that part. "Yes, now that you mention it, I believe he did," he answered, still with the same calm tone.

"How did you react to that?"

Scott shrugged. "I didn't. Someone started shooting then and I focused my attention on that."

"No further questions."

Malone's head came up from his notes and he looked at Silverman with a puzzled expression. That was it? he wanted to ask.

"Gentlemen, the hour grows late. We will adjourn for the day and reconvene tomorrow morning at nine o'clock," Judge Reynolds announced, struck his gavel once and left the room.

Scott stood in the witness stand as the judge left then walked over to Malone.

"What was that?"

"I don't know. He has something up his sleeve though, I'd wager." He turned and looked at Johnny. "I'm afraid he's going to be gunning for you tomorrow."

A grin slid up Johnny's face. "Gunnin for me? That's a mistake."

Malone smiled briefly. "Johnny, I want to talk to you about what exactly happened with Teresa that day. I'm going to bring it up myself to head him off."

Johnny nodded and looked toward Folger who was being shackled by the deputy marshals. He smiled widely at the man.

The Lancers checked into the hotel having decided it would be easier to stay in town during the trial than traverse the landscape day after day. They were hoping it wouldn't take long but that wish didn't look like it was going to be granted. At six o'clock, they met Malone in the hotel dining room and sequestered themselves at a back table.

The prosecutor waited until after the meal to begin.

"Gentlemen, there is something that has been puzzling me. I can't believe I didn't think of it before," he started with a frown. "How old is Teresa?"

"Nineteen now," Murdoch answered.

Malone looked him dead in the eye. "Then how can she be legally married? I assume you did not give your permission."

Murdoch's mouth fell open and he looked at both his sons who wore similar expressions. No one spoke for several minutes then Johnny started laughing softly.

"Guess he forged that, too," he said when they looked at him.

"Scott, you said you took the marriage certificate from the safe at Lancer. Do you still have it?" Malone asked.

"Yes, I think so. I think it's still in my saddle bags. I'll run upstairs and see," he replied and left to do just that.

Johnny was still smiling and it grated on Murdoch's nerves. "None of this is amusing, young man."

Johnny looked over at him but the smile never wavered. "Oh, come on, Murdoch. This is priceless! You gotta admit, it's good enough for her."

Murdoch only scowled at him. No, he didn't want to admit that because he didn't want to feel that petty. But was it pettiness? After all she had done and without an ounce of remorse? To find herself never legally married and with child? He knew that was the part that tore through him more than anything.

"That poor child," he finally sighed out.

That was enough to wipe the smile off Johnny's face and he lowered his head and nodded. "Yeah, that's the worst part of all of this."

Scott returned then with the document and a frown. He handed it to Malone. "It has Murdoch's name on it."

"Well, I certainly didn't sign that!" the rancher declared and examined the paper Malone turned over to him.

"I'll keep this. It may come in handy," Malone said as he took it back and stuck it in his jacket pocket. He then turned his attention to Johnny.

"Tell me every word you said to her that day."

Johnny sighed and looked over at his father then grimaced. "I wasn't very gentlemanly. In fact, I was downright mean."

"Itâ€s alright, son. I know you were trying to hurt her as much as she'd hurt us. You know I don't approve of talking to a woman like that but I understand," Murdoch said sympathetically.

"When you repeat this in court tomorrow, do you think you could show some remorse?" Malone asked.

Johnny looked at the man with icy eyes that melted quickly. "Reckon I feel pretty bad about it. Not that she didn't deserve it."

He sat back and twirled the stem of his wine glass between his thumb and forefinger as he relayed the entire encounter to the three men. Scott and Murdoch were appalled at the innuendo but neither blamed him. The more Johnny spoke of it, the more reticent he became. He felt ill that he'd been able to spew such filth at any woman, let alone a pregnant one. No matter what she'd done, he shouldn't have said it.

He supposed it was as much to get a rise out of Folger as her and he admitted verbally he was hoping Folger would try something before Val walked in.

Malone questioned them about other past events and any problems that had come up over that time. By the end of the evening, they were all exhausted. Malone took his leave of them to prepare for Johnny's testimony the next day. He knew it would take hours between himself and Silverman. He once again warned Johnny the defense attorney would be pulling out all the stops.

Murdoch retired, leaving Scott and Johnny alone. They were tired but not ready for bed. They ordered whiskey and sat at the table quietly together for several minutes.

"I was wrong, I guess," Johnny finally said.

"I don't think wrong is the correct word. You were angry and hurt and that's understandable," Scott replied.

Johnny shook his head. "I don't know, Scott. One word kept runnin through my mind. Whore. I can't believe I thought of Teresa like that."

"I think we can agree this is not the Teresa we knew. Whatever drove her, it isn't our doing."

Johnny looked over at his brother and saw the fire in his eyes. He smiled a little. "It's okay, brother. It'll be alright."

Scott shook his head though. "So far, Silverman hasn't proven a thing, not that he has to. Still, I don't see that he's done us any damage."

"Well, tomorrow is another day, Boston. And he'll have me in his sights. I can't wait," Johnny grinned.

*****

Court reconvened precisely at nine o'clock the next morning. Malone wasted no time in calling Johnny to the stand. He sauntered up and was sworn in then sat back, one leg crossed over the other knee, hands hanging loosely in his lap, his eyes clear and alert. He was dressed in his red shirt and calzoneros, the Johnny Lancer the whole valley knew.

"Mr. Lancer, is there anything from you father or brother's testimony yesterday that you disagree with?"

"No, Sir."

"Tell us the circumstances of how you were shot by Sheriff Bentley."

"I came into town to see a friend at the orphanage. We talked for a while then I left. I was trying to keep a low profile, didn't want too many people knowing we were around. As I rode out of town I could feel someone following me."

"Feel someone following you?" Malone asked.

Johnny shrugged slightly. "It was an instinct. Anyway, I left the road and hid in some trees until they passed. It was Bentley and he was trailing me."

"Objection. Your honor, Mr. Lancer can't know what the sheriff's intentions were."

"Sustained."

"What was the sheriff doing when you saw him?" Malone asked.

"He was riding real slow and looking at the ground beside him as he went. Then, he turned and rode around the hill where I was. He was going to ..... I assumed he was going to come in from behind me," Johnny altered his statement with a faint smile.

"I saddled up and rode back the way I came and took off across the road. I could hear someone coming behind me fast and I looked back. It was Bentley."

"Did he call out for you to stop?"

"No, he aimed his gun at me so I fired. I think I hit him in the arm then he hit me in the back. I turned again and shot him out of the saddle."

"What did you do then?"

"I went back to where my father was waiting for me."

Malone positioned himself in front of the jury. "You didn't stop to see if you could render aid to the sheriff?"

Johnny's mouth twitched but he managed to keep a straight face. "He wasn't too concerned with my welfare so I didn't feel obliged."

Malone smiled. "How badly were you injured?"

"Wasn't bad. Bullet went straight through. Murdoch sewed me up and put a bandage on it. I was alright," he said nonchalantly.

"How many times have you been shot in your life, Mr. Lancer?"

Johnny cocked a brow. "Well, if you want an exact number, you're gonna have to let me think about it awhile."

A sputtering of laughter came from the gallery, quickly dampened by the judge's glare.

"An estimate then," Malone said.

Johnny sighed loudly and looked at the ceiling in thought. "Ten, maybe?"

"That's a lot of bullet wounds," Malone commented. Johnny didn't say anything.

"Is that due to your former profession as a gunfighter?"

"Yes, most of them."

"How many times have you been shot since returning to Lancer three years ago?"

"A sight less," Johnny quipped. "Four, I think."

Garson Malone was a professional but this young man was starting to get to him. He wasn't sure how much longer he could go without laughing at Johnny's blase attitude and quirky remarks. He cleared his throat and frowned, mostly at himself.

"How long after you were shot by Sheriff Bentley did your brother and Marshal Crawford return?"

"Two days."

"And the next day you all went to Lancer to reclaim your land?"

"That's right."

"Do you heal that quickly, Mr. Lancer?"

"No, but I was fit enough to ride." He looked over at Folger who had mumbled something under his breath.

Malone brought his attention back to the matter. "Now, when you all returned to Lancer that day, where did you go?"

"I went with the men to get them positioned and stayed at the back of the house."

"Why didn't you ride right in with your family?"

"I wanted to have their backs just in case something went wrong."

"I see. And when did you enter the house?"

"One of the men gave me a sign that Murdoch, Scott and Val were riding in. I went through a side entrance and into the living room."

"What did you find when you got to the living room?"

"Mrs. Folger," Johnny said without a hint of emotion.

"What was she doing?"

Again, he shrugged. "Wringin her hands and lookin toward the French doors."

"Tell us in your own words, what transpired next," Malone said and held his breath.

Johnny related the entire scenario exactly as he remembered it. He spared nothing and looked genuinely remorseful for his words and actions. There were several small gasps and squirming in seats as the onlookers heard the language he'd used with Teresa that day. Malone was quite pleased.

"How do you feel about the way you spoke to Mrs. Folger that day?"

Johnny looked up at him, Malone was still in front of the jury box but his eyes never left the attorney's. "I wasn't sorry for it then. I was pretty angry with her. Now, well, I feel bad. No woman deserves to be talked to like that no matter what they've done."

Malone was satisfied, more than satisfied. He nodded and moved away from the jury.

"There came a time a few days later when you received a note from Mrs. Folger. What was that about?"

"She asked to see me. The note said it was important and could help us."

Malone walked over to his table and produced the note. "Your honor, I would like to place the note in Mrs. Folger's own hand into evidence."

"Any objections, Mr. Silverman?" asked the judge.

"No, your honor."

Malone handed the note to Johnny. "Is this the note you received from Teresa Folger?"

He looked at it and nodded. "Yes, that's it."

"What did you do next?"

"I went to see her. I knew it was a mistake but I guess my curiosity got the better of me."

"What did she say to you?"

"Objection. Hearsay," Silverman spoke.

"Overruled. It's not hearsay if one of the direct parties is testifying. Continue, Mr. Lancer."

Johnny inhaled deeply and relayed that conversation as well. Then, he told them about the shot taken at him and the derringer Teresa produced.

"When Mrs. Folger dropped the gun and said 'I told him I couldn't do this', do you know who she was referring to?"

"I can only imagine she meant her husband but she never actually said that," Johnny replied.

"At that time, the marshal appeared and the two of you went after the sniper and he was subsequently arrested. Is that right?"

"Yes."

"Where is Teresa Folger now?"

"Marshal Crawford pressed charges against her. She's locked up at the hotel, last I heard."

"You didn't tell your father and brother that she'd aimed a gun at you, did you?"

"No, I didn't want my old man hurt anymore. Scott, either."

"No further questions at this time," Malone said and sat down.

Silverman rose slowly from his seat and ambled across to the witness stand. His hands were clasped behind his back and a frown furrowed his brow.

"Mr. Lancer, you stated you feel remorse for the things you said to Teresa that day at the ranch. How long did it take you to find this remorse?"

"A good long while."

"Can you give us an estimate? Days, weeks?"

Johnny sighed and thought about it. "I guess I felt bad about it a few days later."

"Takes you a while to get over being angry, doesn't it?" Silverman smiled.

"Depends on what's got me angry, I guess."

"Are you still angry with Teresa?"

"Yes, I am."

"But you're sorry for speaking to her in such a horrific manner?"

"Yes."

Silverman shrugged. "How long were you a gunfighter?"

"Five years."

Silverman turned to face the jury. "You must have started young. How old were you?"

"Fifteen."

Silverman cocked a brow. "Fifteen. Were you angry then, too?"

Johnny cocked his head and looked at the man's back. He didn't say anything.

Silverman turned and looked at him. "Were you angry then, too?" he repeated.

"Sure, a lot of the time."

"What had you so angry at fifteen?"

"A lot of things, I guess. Life."

"Hadn't treated you well?" Silverman asked snidely.

Malone gritted his teeth and stayed himself. He wanted to wait for Silverman to really hang himself first. He only hoped Johnny could stand it.

"No, I guess not," Johnny answered.

"Who were you so angry with, Mr. Lancer? Your mother? Your father?"

Johnny looked at Murdoch and answered. "My father."

"Oh? Why were you angry with him?"

"Because I thought he had thrown my mother and me out."

"But, he didn't?"

"No."

"And who told you your father had not thrown you out?"

"Tere ...." Johnny stopped and looked at him, his eyes narrowing dangerously.

Malone was thinking furiously. He had allowed the line of questioning so he knew the judge would not sustain an objection now. He needed to get Johnny out of this.

But, Johnny's eyes calmed and one side of his mouth curved up a little. "Teresa," he finished.

"And you believed her?"

"I did."

"Why? If she's such a horrible person? Such a backstabber? Why would you believe her?"

Johnny stared at him. "At the time, she was a sweet young girl who was devoted to my father. I had no reason to doubt her."

"Mr. Lancer, given your feelings for Teresa now, do you still believe your father didn't throw you and your mother out?"

"My feelings about Teresa no longer make a difference. I believe my father."

Silverman nodded. "Then, your mother lied to you."

There was a flicker, just a brief moment but Silverman felt the hook going into Johnny.

"Yes."

"Well, I can see why you don't like women. Nice shirt, by the way," Silverman quipped as he walked back to his table. Folger was grinning ear to ear. The crowd was abuzz. Scott was halfway out of his seat and Murdoch was pulling him back down.

Malone was on his feet. "Objection! This is outrageous, your honor!"

"It most certainly is. Mr. Silverman, one more sarcastic little quip like that and you will be spending a great deal more time with your client than you'd prefer. Is that understood?" Judge Reynolds admonished.

Johnny had bitten his lip so hard, it was almost bleeding. Malone and the judge's intervention gave him the few seconds he needed to rein himself in. Then, just after Silverman answered the judge with another smarmy apology, Johnny burst out laughing.

Every one in the courtroom looked at him, stunned.

"Young man, what is so funny?" Judge Reynolds asked.

Johnny managed to control his mirth after another few seconds. He held a hand up in askance to the judge who was patient.

"I'm sorry, Judge, but if that's the best he can do, his client might wanna think about doing this himself," he chuckled.

The courtroom burst out in laughter and Judge Reynolds face twitched quite a bit as he fought for decorum. The judge cleared his throat and brought down his gavel, silencing everyone.

"Let's proceed and in a professional manner, gentlemen," he said, glaring at Silverman.

Silverman had a nice blush, heightened by his normally pale complexion. He walked back over to stand in front of the witness chair. Johnny was still smirking at him, his eyes alive with humor.

The attorney stood there glaring at him for several seconds.

"Mr. Silverman, have you any more questions for this witness?" the judge finally asked.

"Yes, you honor. Yes, I do."

"Then, get on with it."

Silverman cleared his throat and took command of himself. "Mr. Lancer, have you ever left the ranch with the intention of never returning?"

"Yes."

"What were the circumstances of that decision?"

Johnny sighed. "I made a mistake and my old man was mad about it. We got into an argument and he told me to make up my mind what I wanted. I'd only been there about six weeks. I got mad and left."

"Why did you come back?"

"I decided I was bein a fool."

Scott smiled and shook his head. Murdoch grimaced, knowing Johnny wasn't saying the whole of it.

"Did your brother have anything to do with your decision to return?"

"Sure. He came to talk to me in Morro Coyo and, as usual, he made a lot of sense. But, it wasn't so much what he said as it was him."

Silverman looked genuinely puzzled. "I don't understand."

"I didn't want to lose my brother. Didn't know him well enough to know if I could stand him yet but I knew I wanted to find out."

"So, your father had nothing to do with your decision to stay?"

Johnny looked out at the man. "At the time, I didn't think so but that wasn't right. I wanted to know him, too."

"Since you and Scott have been home, has Murdoch Lancer ever made a business decision without asking your opinion?"

It was Johnny's turn to look surprised. "No."

"Oh? Didn't he buy a ranch on Bone Mountain without asking you first?"

Johnny smiled. "He did make the purchase before telling me but he said it was his investment, not the ranch."

"What was your response to this?"

"He told me the man he bought it from had saved his life. I told him Scott and I wanted in on the deal."

"You spoke for your brother? Was he present?"

"No, he wasn't but I knew he'd agree."

"So, you made a business decision without Scott Lancer's input?"

Johnny shrugged. "I guess I did but Scott would have said if he didn't want any part of it when he got home."

Silverman started pacing again. "Have you made any other business decisions without your partners?"

"I don't think so."

"You don't think so or maybe you just can't remember?"

"I don't recall any, no." Johnny grinned. "But, I'm sure you're gonna tell me if I did."

Murdoch chuckled softly at this.

"Your father sent you to sell a piece of property for him and you sold it for one dollar. Isn't that true?"

"And some biscuits," Johnny clarified.

Silverman rolled his eyes. "What was Murdoch Lancer's response when you told him about it?"

Johnny smiled. "Confusion. I explained it to him."

"And he was fine with you selling prime real estate for a dollar?"

"In this situation, he was."

"How much did he tell you to sell it for?"

"He didn't. He just said to get rid of it at any price so I did."

"So, you took it upon yourself to name the price. Did you also take it upon yourself to sell the ranch to Jeremy Folger?"

"No," Johnny said flatly.

"Isn't it true that you sold the ranch to Folger with an agreement that you would receive part of the profits from the gold?"

Again, the crowd erupted and it took the judge several minutes to restore order.

Johnny gawked at the man, his eyes wide with shock.

The judge told him to answer the question once it was quiet again.

"No, I did not," he replied adamantly.

"Then, Mr. Lancer, how do you explain a bank account in your name at the Bank of San Francisco in the amount of two hundred thousand dollars?"

Johnny fell back in the chair. "I don't know what you're talkin about! I don't have a bank account in San Francisco!"

Silverman walked over to the table. "Your honor, I have documents here from the president of that bank stating there is an account in the name of Johnny Madrid in the amount of two hundred thousand dollars," he said as he waved the papers in the air.

"I'd like to see those papers, your honor," Malone said as he stood.

"So would I," Johnny ground out.

Judge Reynolds looked over the papers thoroughly and sighed. "Mr. Silverman, there is no signature on this document."

"It's a copy, your honor. Naturally the original is at the bank," he explained.

Malone took the document and looked it over. His thumb rubbed across the top. "When did you obtain this, Mr. Silverman?"

"It arrived yesterday."

"Then, why is it dated three days ago?"

"What?" Silverman gasped.

Malone laid the paper in front of the judge. "As you can see, your honor, the date is three days ago and this ink smudges rather easily. I object to this evidence and if Mr. Silverman wishes to pursue this ridiculous claim, I would ask the bank president be subpoenaed to appear at this trial along with the person who supposedly opened the account. Furthermore, you honor, I ask that Mr. Silverman be investigated for illegal activities in this case."

"Mr. Silverman, who told you about this account?" the judge asked.

Silverman reddened in anger. "My client, Sir."

Judge Reynolds looked over at the defense table. "And how did you learn of it, Mr. Folger? You've been in jail for a month."

Folger gawked at the judge and opened then closed his mouth.

"Probably his wife," Johnny sneered.

"Did your wife inform you of this evidence, Mr. Folger?" the judge asked.

"Is the witness now conducting the trial, your honor? No one asked him to speak," Silverman hissed.

"Quiet! I'm still considering Mr. Malone's request that you be investigated as well, Mr. Silverman." The judge sighed then looked out over the room. "Court is in recess for lunch. The attorney's will convene in my chambers now. We will begin again at two o'clock." He slammed the gavel and left the room.

Johnny was glaring at Folger who had his head in his hand shaking it back and forth slowly. Scott and Murdoch walked up to the witness stand.

"Well, brother, have you been holding out on us?" Scott smiled.

Johnny turned his glare on him. "This ain't funny, Scott!" He stood quickly and stomped out of the room.

Scott bowed his head then followed his brother, Murdoch bringing up the rear. They found Johnny pacing the boardwalk, glaring at anyone who dared to look his way.

"Son, let's go over to the hotel," Murdoch said gently.

"I'm not hungry!"

"I wasn't suggesting you were but let's get off the street and talk this through. I'm sure Mr. Malone will let us know what's going on when he can."

Johnny looked at his father and took in his too calm demeanor. He nodded and walked toward the hotel.

Once in the room, Scott apologized. "That was poor taste, Johnny. I'm sorry, I was just trying to lighten the mood."

"It's okay, Scott. It just took me off guard, is all."

"It took us all by surprise, John. But, it looks as if Malone has it well in hand. It wouldn't bother me if he could get Silverman thrown in jail, too," Murdoch said.

"No, then we'd have to go through all this again. I just don't get what he thinks he's going to accomplish. If he's lettin Folger run the show, he's an idiot anyway. It's pretty obvious Folger can't open a can of beans without thirty guns doin it for him," Johnny grumbled as he paced the room.  

Scott laughed then stopped suddenly. "It is obvious, isn't it? Think about it. Folger has bungled this whole thing. And where did he get the money to start that mining operation? Or to try and buy Lancer for that matter? He's been throwing money around, bribing judges and marshals. What do we really know about the man or his past?"

Al three grew silent at this revelation. Murdoch straightened and headed for the door. "I'm going to send a wire. I'll be right back," he said and walked out.

"Who's he sending a wire to?" Johnny wondered aloud.

"My bet would be the Pinkerton Agency," Scott said then smiled slowly.

*****

Scott decided to have some sandwiches sent to the room. They had to eat and who knew what the afternoon would hold? His own stomach was still flipping over the stunt Silverman tried to pull. He idly wondered if anyone would believe it.

He and Johnny sat at the table and stared at the food while they sipped at their lemonade. Murdoch walked in and joined them.

"How long do you think it will take the Pinkerton's?" Scott asked, a wry smile on his face.

Murdoch smiled back and picked up a sandwich. "I told them it was urgent. We can always use some of Johnny's two hundred grand to pay them."

Johnny's head came up and he stared at his father before smiling widely.

"Didn't see Malone, I guess?" Johnny asked.

"No. I almost wish I could be in the room with them just to see Silverman squirm."

"He got me a couple of times," Johnny frowned.

"You recovered very well, brother. And that crack about your shirt was really low," Scott cocked a brow.

Johnny had to laugh. "That wasn't the part that made me mad but, yeah, it was low."

"Just keep doing what you're doing, son, and you'll be fine. You really are holding up well," Murdoch smiled.

"Thanks. I just hope he's done."

A knock at the door interrupted any further conversation and Scott let Malone in.

"How'd it go?" Johnny asked immediately.

He sat at the table and accepted a glass of lemonade. "Silverman swears he had no knowledge of any wrongdoing. The judge disallowed the evidence until or unless Silverman wants to subpoena the banker. I doubt he will. He's gone to see his client and he is not a happy man."

"Do you think he's capable of something like that?" Scott asked.

"I really don't, Scott. He's a snake but he's always played within the confines of the law. He knows very well he could be disbarred and even charged for any misconduct."

"We were talking earlier about how stupid Folger is and we all think he might have a backer. Murdoch sent the Pinks a telegram asking them to investigate him," Johnny informed him.

Malone raised a brow at this. "Well, I hope they work fast. Anything they find would be useful, I'm sure."

"How much longer do you think I'll be on the stand?"

"I don't know, Johnny. It really depends on if Silverman wants to try to go at you again. I wouldn't if it were me but ....." he just shrugged. "Anyway, I do have a few more questions for you but it won't take long."

*****

They all took their seats in the courtroom again and no one felt relaxed. Johnny wasn't even trying to put on a show. He was still angry and he hoped he was done with Silverman.

Court reconvened and the judge looked hard at Silverman. "Do you have any further questions for the last witness, Mr. Silverman?"

"No, your honor," he said and sat down only for Folger to lean in and start whispering angrily at him. He waved the man off sternly.

"Mr. Malone?"

"Yes, your honor, just a few more questions."

"Mr. Lancer, please retake the witness chair."

Johnny stalked over and plopped down, simply put out.

"You are still under oath, Mr. Lancer," the judge reminded him and he nodded.

"Mr. Lancer, do you have a bank account in your name only?"

"Yes."

"Where?"

"Right here in Green River."

"Do you have any other bank accounts in your name only or in the name of Johnny Madrid?"

"No, I do not."

"Thank you. Now, has there ever been a time in the last three years when you made a business decision that your father or brother opposed?"

"No."

"Have you ever made a business decision they did not agree with either before or after the fact?"

"No."

"In fact, isn't it true that your father and brother trust you to make sound business decisions in their staid?"

Johnny smiled a little. "Yes."

"And the reverse is true as well?"

"Yes, it is."

"So, Mr. Lancer, your business partners trust your judgment and you trust theirs. Now, you have a temper, don't you?"

"Doesn't everyone?" Johnny asked then lowered his eyes at Malone's expression. With a small smile he looked back up. "Yes."

"You've had some arguments with your father in particular in the past that made you very angry, haven't you?"

"Yes."

"How did you handle that anger?"

Johnny sighed. "I'd walk away."

"Why?"

"Better than the alternative. I hate fighting with my old man so I figured it was better to walk away before I said something I'd regret."

"Like you did with Mrs. Folger that day at the ranch?"

"Yeah, like that," Johnny said softly.

"As Johnny Madrid, did you walk away?"

"Not very often, no."

"And have those experiences taught you anything?"

"Taught me it's better to walk away than to kill a man. It's better to walk away than get in a fistfight, too. Sometimes, you can't walk away but a lot of times you can."

"A lesson well learned, Mr. Lancer," Malone smiled. "You were very young when you became a gunfighter. Do you think that had anything to do with why you didn't walk away often then?"

"Sure it did. I was a stupid kid. Didn't know any better and I had nothing to lose."

"But you grew up as we all do."

Johnny bit his lip. Not everyone grew up. But he said nothing.

"Mr. Lancer, today, how do you feel about everything that has happened to your family?"

Johnny repositioned himself in the chair but he refused to look at Folger. "Well, I'm still angry with a lot of people and I want justice for what was taken from us. I've also seen what good friends we have and how many people respect my father. Nothing will ever give us back what we've lost and no punishment is good enough in my mind for trying to destroy a family. But, it's all we have so it'll have to do."

"You want Jeremy Folger to pay for his crimes," Malone said.

"Him and everyone who helped him. The people he bribed, too. If a judge can be bought, well, it's pretty disappointing to say the least. Makes a man question our justice system. Still, I guess I've seen more good people in those jobs than bad. Just have to find a better way to weed out the varmints."

Judge Reynolds smiled and shook his head.

"No further questions, your honor."

"You may step down, Mr. Lancer," the judge instructed.

Johnny couldn't step down fast enough and he resumed his seat beside his family with a relieved sigh.

"Call your next witness, Mr. Malone."

"Your honor, I would request we recess for the day so my colleague may make his decision," Malone said with a raised brow.

Silverman stood, obviously embarrassed. "There will be no need for that, your honor. I won't be pursuing that evidence."

"Then, with all the documents admitted into evidence as well as the testimony, the prosecution rests, your honor."

The judge nodded and looked at his pocket watch. "The hour grows late to begin the defense. Gentlemen of the jury, it is my responsibility to direct you now that the matter of a bank account in San Francisco in the name of Johnny Madrid is not an issue and you are not to take it into account in your final deliberations. It has been stricken from the record. Now, we will recess until nine o'clock tomorrow morning. Court is adjourned," he said and took his leave.

*****

The next morning as the Lancers were walking to the courtroom, Murdoch received an answer to his wire from the Pinkertons saying they were looking into the matter with due aggression.

They were all curious as to who Silverman would call to defend the scum. As they settled down and court resumed, they didn't have to wait long.

"Mr. Silverman, are you ready?" the judge asked.

"Yes, your honor. The defense calls Teresa O'Brien Folger."

Murdoch closed his eyes and raised his shoulders in tension. Johnny and Scott turned to watch her walk into the room, their teeth on edge.

The courtroom erupted in whispers and the judge called order once more.

Teresa took the witness stand with her eyes lowered. She was showing more now and Murdoch felt like he would lose his breakfast at the sight.

"Mrs. Folger, where were you born?" Silverman started, his voice like silk.

"Lancer ranch," she responded in little more than a whisper.

"Ma'am, you are going to have to speak up for the jury to hear you," the judge instructed.

She looked at him and nodded then answered more loudly.

"When did your father die?"

"Four years ago this November."

"And when he died, what did you do?"

"I stayed at Lancer. Mr. Lancer became my guardian."

"Why?"

"My father had asked him to look after me should anything ever happen to him."

"What about your mother?"

Teresa looked up at him then. "She abandoned me though I didn't know that at the time."

"What did you think had happened to her?"

"My father told me she died. He wanted to spare my feelings, I suppose."

"And when your father died, Murdoch Lancer kept up that pretense, didn't he?"

"Yes, he did."

"How did your father die?"

"He was shot in the back by Day Pardee," she answered, anger in her voice.

"This was the same Day Pardee who raided the Lancer ranch and drove Murdoch Lancer to send for his sons?"

"Yes, that's right."

"What did you think of Scott and Johnny Lancer when you first met them?"

"Scott seemed very polite and stiff. Very proper. Johnny was more relaxed but he seemed dangerous."

Silverman raised a brow. "I'll bet. Did you know he was Johnny Madrid?"

"Yes, Mr. Lancer told me."

"Were you afraid of Johnny Madrid?"

"Yes, I was."

They heard a snort from the room and Scott elbowed Johnny to hush.

"Did you ever tell Mr. Lancer you were afraid of Johnny Madrid?"

"No, I didn't. He wanted Johnny there and that was his son. I didn't think I had the right."

"It was your home, too. Why didn't you think you had a right?"

"Because, I'm not blood. I was just there because Mr. Lancer felt sorry for me."

Murdoch leaned forward and Scott grabbed his arm. He decided he wasn't going to sit between his father and brother anymore.

"Now, Teresa, when did you first meet Jeremy Folger?"

She looked over at her husband and smiled. "When he first came to Lancer with an offer to buy the ranch."

"What did you think of him?"

"I was afraid of him. Murdoch was angry every time he came, Scott and Johnny, too."

"So, since the Lancers didn't like him, neither did you?"

"That's right."

"After he stopped coming to the ranch, when did you see him next?"

"I was out riding one afternoon in late January when I saw him. He was taking a ride, too. At first, I wasn't going to talk to him but then I decided I would."

"Why?"

"He said he wasn't after Lancer anymore and that he'd only come back because of me. He said he'd seen me at the ranch and was attracted to me. We spent many afternoons together for over a month."

"Did Mr. Lancer ever know about those afternoons?"

"No, he wouldn't have allowed it."

"Did he allow you to see men at all?"

"Only if there was a dance or picnic when he could be there, too."

"Teresa, did you tell Jeremy about the Lancer's plan to rob the train?"

She looked down again. "Yes, I did."

"Why?"

"He said he wasn't trying to take Lancer. I thought someone else was after the ranch. I confided in him."

"When did you find out that Lancer had been turned over to Mr. Folger?"

"On our wedding day. We went back to the ranch and he explained to me that Murdoch had signed it over to him when he was sent to prison."

Johnny ground his teeth together. Liar! he wanted to shout.

"When is the baby due?"

She smiled. "Four months."

"No further questions."

Malone rose and stepped around the table then hesitated. "Your honor, some of my questions may be difficult for Mrs. Folger. May I ask the doctor's opinion on her ability to answer given her condition?"

The judge looked at him a bit astounded. "Yes, yes I think that would be appropriate. Is the doctor here?"

Sam stood and stepped forward. "Mrs. Folger has not been my patient during her pregnancy, your honor. However, as long as her physician has not told her to take special precautions, I see no reason she can't continue."

"I've had no special instructions," Teresa answered, dumbfounded as to why the lawyer would even ask.

"Proceed, Mr. Malone," the judge said.

"Thank you, your honor." He turned his attention to her and smiled. "We don't want anything to happen to that precious bundle," he said.

She smiled back and relaxed and he knew he had her for a few minutes anyway.

"May I call you Teresa?"

"Yes, you may."

"Thank you. Now then, I ask you to recall an incident three years ago when Johnny decided to leave the ranch. Do you remember that?"

"Yes," she said.

"Do you recall running out the front door, crying and telling him you didn't want him to leave?"

"Yes."

"Do you recall him giving you some money and telling you to buy yourself a pretty dress and to not cry for him?"

"Yes."

"Were you afraid of him then?"

She looked wide-eyed at him. "I ..... no, I wasn't."

Malone cocked a brow as he turned to the jury. "Teresa, when Johnny was shot out of the saddle by Day Pardee, much as your own father was, what was your reaction?"

"I was frightened. I thought he was dead. I started to cry."

"You told Murdoch Lancer he was coming home to you all, didn't you?"

"Yes."

"And you nursed him back to health, didn't you? In fact, you have nursed Johnny back to health many times, haven't you?"

"Yes," she said softly, her eyes lowered.

"I suppose it was easy not to be afraid of a sick man?"

She looked up. "He was charming and fun. I forgot he was Johnny Madrid a lot of times."

"But, when you remembered that fact; that was when you were afraid of him?"

"Yes," she stated firmly.

"Alright. You saw how hard Murdoch Lancer fought against Day Pardee to keep his ranch. You were there every day and you nursed Murdoch back to health when he was shot by Pardee as well, didn't you?"

"Yes."

"Mr. Pardee was a busy man, I take it. Seems the only one he didn't shoot was Scott."

"He was an animal," she hissed.

"That is something we can all agree on. My point is this. You saw how fiercely Murdoch fought for his land. Yet, you believed he signed it all over to Jeremy Folger. Why would you believe that?"

"Jeremy said he did it so I could stay at Lancer. That he had promised to take care of me for Murdoch."

"A man Murdoch Lancer despised? Didn't you find that a little hard to believe?"

"No, I didn't."

"Why not?"

"Murdoch promised to take care of me. He loved me and ....." she trailed off.

"And what?"

She took a breath. "He made a promise to my father."

"So, Murdoch Lancer kept his promises?"

Her eyes flickered to her husband and Malone moved to stand between them. "Yes."

"You married Jeremy Folger the day after the Lancers were convicted, didn't you?"

"Yes."

"Was there a particular reason for the rush?"

Her face flushed hot. "We were in love."

"And you lived at Lancer with your husband. Tell me, Teresa, how did you feel about the Lancers then?"

She took a deep breath. "I thought they got what they deserved. They broke the law."

"A misdemeanor that would ordinarily bring a sentence of probation. Did you think it odd they received the maximum sentence?"

"I didn't think about it."

"Why didn't you seek medical advice when you learned you were with child?"

"I did."

"Oh, my mistake. Who did you see?"

"Dr. Finnegan in Hard Rock."

"Hard Rock is thirty miles from here. Why didn't you see Dr. Jenkins right here in Green River?"

"He was angry with me because I married Jeremy."

"Did he tell you that?"

"No, I could just tell."

"So you assumed."

"He was good friends with Murdoch. A lot of people around here wouldn't speak to me after I married," she said in a faltering voice.

"They just didn't understand."

"No, they didn't!"

"That you were in love."

"Yes."

"And now that the Lancers were out of the way you could finally have the ranch that rightfully belonged to you."

"Yes! I mean, no!" she said, flustered and angry.

"Which is it, Teresa?"

Her breathing was labored as her mind whirled. He had tricked her! "I meant no. I didn't think Lancer belonged to me."

She pulled a handkerchief out and began twisting it in her hands.

"The Lancers threw you out, didn't they?"

"Yes," she said and stifled a sob.

"And Johnny especially said some terrible things to you?"

"Yes," she sniffled.

"You were afraid of him again?"

"Yes, he was so hateful," she cried.

"You were terrified of Johnny weren't you?"

"Yes, you didn't hear him. He was so ..... cold."

"Then, why did you ask to see him a few days later at the hotel?"

She sniffled and looked up at him, wiping at the one tear in her eye.

"Isn't it true that your husband told you to get Johnny Lancer in that hotel room and make sure he stood in front of the window so a sniper could kill him?"

"I didn't know ....."

"And isn't it true that when he escaped death, you pulled a derringer on him?"

"I told you I was afraid of him!"

"Then why invite him to your room?"

She stared blankly at him.

"Why, Mrs. Folger? Why did you invite a man you were terrified of into your hotel room?"

"I ..... I thought I could reason with him. Make him understand."

"Understand what? That you are in love with him?" Malone was shouting now.

Silence hung thick in the room as every one stared at her, waiting for an answer. Everyone but the Lancers who all had their heads down, ashamed of her lies and deceptions. Folger was digging his nails into the palms of his hands, his teeth grinding could be heard throughout the quiet room.

"Stop this," he hissed to his lawyer.

"I can't," Silverman whispered back vehemently.

Teresa sat with mouth agape as she shook her head back and forth in denial.

"That's what you told Johnny in the hotel room. That you were in love with him, isn't it? Was that a lie or are you lying now? Johnny laughed when you told him that, didn't he? He laughed in your face and you couldn't stand that. That's why you pulled a gun on him, isn't it, Teresa?" Malone battered the girl.

"No, I am not in love with him. Jeremy told me he had to die. That he was the threat. That Madrid would kill Jeremy and we had to stop him no matter the cost!" She gasped and clamped her mouth shut. Her tear-filled eyes sought out her husband but he wasn't looking at her. He was staring at Johnny.

Malone walked over to his table and poured a glass of water then returned and handed it to her. She took it in a shaky hand and drank half the glass before handing it back.

As he sat the glass back down, he picked up a paper. He didn't look at the Lancers. Wasn't sure he wanted to see their reaction.

"Teresa, did Murdoch Lancer give his permission for you to marry?"

She blinked several times and stared at him. His demeanor was calm and assured and she wasn't sure what had just happened.

"No, I .... I don't know," she whispered.

"Your honor, I would like to place into evidence this marriage certificate with Murdoch Lancer's forged signature. Teresa O'Brien is nineteen years old. Mr. Lancer is her legal guardian. He never gave his permission for her to marry. I submit the marriage between Teresa O'Brien and Jeremy Folger is illegal."

"NO!!!" she screamed and slumped back in the chair.

Sam ran to her and did a quick exam. "She fainted. I think she's alright but she can't go through anymore of this," he diagnosed.

"Court is in recess for an hour. Doctor, get some help and care for the woman. I'll examine this document in my chambers," the judge directed.

*****

Scott watched his father. What he saw was a man emotionally exhausted. He was feeling used up himself. He knew this would be hard and he honestly had no feelings for Teresa's distress. But, the child was another matter.

Johnny was on his feet and leaning over the railing toward Malone.

"Was that necessary?" he hissed.

"I'm afraid it was. I didn't intend for her to faint but I had to break her down. She had to admit a few things and she did," Malone answered quietly. He looked at Johnny and saw the anger.

"I'm sorry, Johnny, but it had to be done. I don't like attacking pregnant women. That's why I asked for the doctor's opinion."

Johnny relented. He didn't care about Teresa, it was the child that concerned him.

"No!"

They all heard the shout and looked over at Folger shouting at his attorney.

"Jeremy, think about this."

"I will not let her go through that again. You guarantee me he's done!" he yelled, pointing at Malone.

Silverman looked over and Malone simply shook his head. No, he wasn't done. Not by a long shot.

"Then, do it!" Folger insisted.

Silverman sighed and nodded and Folger was taken to a back room until court resumed.

"What was that?" Scott asked.

"Gentlemen, unless I miss my guess, Mr. Folger is about to change his plea," Malone smiled.

"I hope to God so," Murdoch mumbled and stood up. "I need some air."

"Should we go with him?" Scott asked his brother.

"No, leave him be, Scott. He needs some time alone."

*****

Murdoch walked outside and took a deep breath then turned and walked to Sam's office. People on the street watched with sympathy as the man made his way. Most were not surprised at where he was going.

"How is she?" Murdoch asked as he walked into the office.

"She's resting but she can't continue today. Maybe tomorrow."

"She may not have to. Malone thinks Folger's about to change his plea."

"I hope so. She's been through the wringer," Sam sighed.

"The baby?"

"It's fine. Kicking a little. You know, it never occurred to me her marriage wasn't legal," Sam noted.

"It didn't occur to us either until last night. Scott still had the marriage certificate and it was easy to see that wasn't my signature. I'm beginning to think Folger is the biggest con artist in the country. Still, we thought Malone would use it with Folger."

The door opened and Val walked in. "Scum wants ta know how she's doin," he said.

"She'll be alright, Val. The baby is fine. She'll probably sleep for quite a while," Sam said.

"Reckon I'll get around ta tellin him sometime," Val snorted.

"Maybe you should wait, Val. Malone thinks he'll change his plea to keep her off the stand," Murdoch reported.

Val smiled at that. "Then, I won't tell him nothin til after court starts again. How're you holdin up?"

Murdoch sighed wearily. "I hope it's over soon. I can't take much more of this."

Johnny and Scott were standing in the doorway and heard their father.

"Sir, if Folger doesn't change his plea, I ... we think you should go on home. You won't need to testify again."

Murdoch scowled at him. "I can handle it, Scott. I hate it but I can handle it."

"You sure about that, old man?" Johnny drawled.

Murdoch's mouth twitched as he looked affectionately at his son. "I'm sure, young man."

*****

Court reconvened and Silverman stood.

"Your honor, my client wishes to change his plea to guilty."

Judge Reynolds stared at Folger. "Stand up, Mr. Folger."

He did so though his head stayed down, a defeated man.

"Are you ready to confess to your crimes in detail before this court?"

"Yes, your honor," he said quietly.

"Very well, proceed and speak up," the judge said.

He raised his head and cleared his throat. His eyes scanned the court and rested on Val who just looked blankly at him.

"May I ask about my wife?"

"Mr. Folger, this is a court of law not a doctor's office. Confess your crimes," Reynolds stated firmly.

"In November last year I made several offers to buy Lancer. All of them were refused. I left the valley and returned in January. At that time I had hired several gunmen and instructed them to cut Lancer fences, start grass fires and stampedes and shoot at Lancer hands. As this was going on, I drew up a deed to Lancer and forged the signatures of Murdoch, Scott and Johnny Lancer. I also pursued Teresa O'Brien romantically. I bribed a circuit judge to legalize the deed and Marshal Bentley to take over Green River. The judge sanctioned his jurisdiction.

"I made sure Marshal Bentley let the Lancers know the deed would be on a train bound for Sacramento in the hopes they would do exactly what they did. Teresa told me of their plans to stop the train and I had Marshal Bentley arrest them. Judge Dotson oversaw the trial and sentenced them to the maximum six months per my instruction. I also instructed him to separate Johnny Lancer from his family. I forged Murdoch Lancer's name on the marriage certificate so Teresa and I could be married. We moved into Lancer and I began mining operations immediately."

"Mr. Malone has the right to question you now, Mr. Folger. Take the witness stand," the judge instructed.

Malone waited until he was seated. "What was your intention in owning Lancer?"

"To mine the gold."

"How did you know there was gold on Lancer?"

"An associate of mine ran across an old prospector in Hard Rock. He was drunk and spouting off about finding a gold strike. My associate talked the man into showing him the mine and found his claim to be true. He told me about it and I surveyed the mine myself."

"You have mining experience?"

"Yes, I'm an engineer."

Malone raised a brow at that. "What happened to the prospector?"

"My associate ..... killed him."

"And what is your associate's name?"

Folger took a deep breath. "Nelson Daniels."

The name meant nothing to Malone and he looked at the Lancers. He could tell it meant nothing to them either. "Why did you have Johnny Lancer separated from his family in prison?"

"I thought him to be the most dangerous one and figured keeping them apart would keep him in line. He wasn't told where his father and brother were taken. It was my hope that he would be killed in prison."

Johnny smirked at him, knowing he had underestimated Scott and Murdoch sorely.

"But you didn't have enough pull to make sure that happened?"

"No, I didn't."

"Why did you marry Teresa? The Lancers were out of your way. All you had to do was send her packing."

"I love her!" Folger proclaimed.

"Did you never think the Lancers would come back once released?"

"Yes, but I didn't think there was anything they could do. The deed was in my name and I figured ..... I thought they'd break."

Scott snorted and Murdoch sneered.

"The bank account in Johnny Madrid's name. Did you set that up?"

"Yes, I had Nelson do it from San Francisco. One of my men has been sneaking to the back of the jail at night for instructions."

Val growled lowly at this.

"And that's how you set Johnny Lancer up to die in Teresa's hotel room?"

"Yes."

"Did you tell Teresa to shoot Johnny if your sniper missed?"

"Yes," he said and grimaced.

"A loving husband," Malone sneered.

Folger glared at the man. "She would do anything for me."

"But, she didn't. She couldn't kill a man for you. Most of us are very grateful for that at least."

Silverman thought to object but he kept his mouth shut.

"You knew your marriage wasn't legal, didn't you?"

"Yes."

"Yet, you let Teresa think it was. You lied to her."

"Yes. Like I said, I love her. I knew she wouldn't live with me unless we were married. She loves me and believed me because she wanted to."

"And now you've left her with child and unmarried." Malone bit his tongue to keep from calling the man what he really wanted to. "The state will amend it's charges against you, Mr. Folger, for statutory rape."

Folger stared at him in utter shock.

"Where is the money you gained from the gold mines on Lancer?"

He shook his head hard to clear it before answering numbly. "The Bank of San Francisco."

"Is it in your name?"

"Yes."

"The state will also file a motion that the money be returned to its rightful owners, the Lancers."

Folger only nodded.

Malone sighed and shook his head. "I have no further questions, your honor."

"Thank you, Mr. Malone. Mr. Folger, return to your seat but remain standing," the judge said.

Once there, Silverman stood beside him.

"Jeremy Folger, you have pled guilty to robbery, assault, forgery, thievery, attempted murder and conspiring to commit murder. The court is ready to hand down it's verdict now. You are sentenced to be hung by the neck until dead. The sentence will be carried out by Marshal Crawford Monday next. The court thanks the jury for their time. You are all dismissed. This court is adjourned." He slammed the gavel for the last time.

Folger was led away by the deputies, his head down, his shoulders slumped, a broken man.

The Lancers all sat back and relaxed with relief.

"Well, reckon I'll tell him Teresa's okay," Val sighed.

"She won't be when she hears about this. Best to tell her while the doctor is nearby," Malone noted.

Murdoch stood up and approached the prosecutor, extending his hand. "You did a fine job, Mr. Malone. I'm grateful for how you handled this."

"I'm glad it turned out well, Mr. Lancer. Maybe now, you can all get on with your lives," Malone said, shaking the man's hand.

Murdoch grimaced. He knew there were still things to be settled. But he said nothing yet. He needed to talk to his sons.

*****

They decided to wait until morning to return to the ranch. The trial had taken its toll and they were all exhausted. As they sat in the dining room, Murdoch finally brought up his idea.

"I have something to say but I want you both to promise not to lose your heads."

Scott and Johnny shared a look but nodded to him.

"If you don't agree, I'll understand. I have no feelings left for Teresa past anger and regret. But, her baby is innocent. I'd like to ensure the child is cared for after it's born. Find a good family for it."

He let out the breath and waited for his sons to react.

"Okay by me," Johnny said.

"I agree," Scott concurred.

Murdoch smiled and shook his head. "I forget sometimes how charitable the two of you are."

"Well, it's like you said, Murdoch. The baby didn't do anything. It deserves a chance. As long as it's far away from here," Johnny said.

"I'll go talk to Mr. Malone in the morning. See what kind of sentence she's facing," Murdoch said.

They all fell quiet and each couldn't help but wonder about that very thing. And what if she insisted on a trial? The silence was thick.

"Who is this Nelson Daniels?" Scott asked suddenly.

"I've never heard of him. I guess Malone will be investigating that as well and the Pinkerton's may turn up something on him," Murdoch replied.

"I got a bad feeling about Daniels, though. He's still out there," Johnny said.

*****

The first thing Val Crawford did was head for the telegraph office. He sent a wire to the San Francisco police identifying Nelson Daniels as being wanted for questioning. He then went begrudgingly to tell Folger that his wife was alright for now.

Malone entered the sheriff's office and cringed when he saw the look on the lawman's face.

"He wants ta see Teresa. I told him she probably couldn't leave the bed and I don't know why she'd wanna see him no how!" Val grumbled.

Malone cocked a brow. "Has anyone told her of the plea and sentence?"

"Not that I know of. Reckon that'd be up ta me, too," Val said, still put out.

"I'll do it, Marshal."

Val breathed again. "Maybe it'd be better comin from you. Don't know how it could be anything but bad, though. Best make sure the doc's right close when ya tell her."

Malone grimaced and nodded. "Did you send that wire?"

"Yep."

"I wonder who this man is?" Malone pondered.

"Never heard of him and neither have the Lancers. Probably just some conman," Val sighed out tiredly.

Malone nodded again. "Well, I suppose I should go tell Mrs..... Teresa now," he corrected himself.

As he walked to Sam's office, he wondered about the girl. It was obvious she had done the most damage to the Lancers with her deeds. They were all nearly destroyed by her betrayal. So, he had to assume that at one time, she had been a very central figure in their lives. What drives a person? He shook his head. For all his years in law enforcement, he didn't think he'd ever find an answer to that question.

He opened the door and actually jumped a little at the sound of the bell overhead. He laughed at himself and waited a few seconds for the doctor to appear.

When Sam saw him, he dropped his shoulders. "Is it over?"

"He changed his plea and confessed to everything. Is she up to hearing about it?"

Sam stepped closer and leaned in. "What was the sentence?" he whispered.

"He'll hang Monday," Malone answered in the same volume.

Sam sighed and shook his head. "There's never going to be a good time to tell her. Wait here for a minute," he said and walked to the back.

Sam pulled the curtain separating the two rooms to the side and motioned Malone into the exam room.

Teresa lay on the table, propped up with pillows. She stared at her hands clasped tightly in her lap.

"I've given her a sedative but you still have a few minutes," Sam explained.

Malone walked over and sat in the chair Sam had placed at the table side. He took in her pale face and red-rimmed eyes when she looked up at him and he smiled softly.

"Hello again, Teresa. Are you feeling any better?" he asked quietly.

"No!" she spat, anger now flushing her cheeks.

"I can understand why you're angry but I hope that anger is well-placed," he said.

She deflated a little and said nothing.

"I need to tell you what's happened. Do you want to know?"

She only nodded.

"After you were taken from the courtroom, Jeremy changed his plea to guilty. He confessed to forging all those documents, including your marriage certificate, and how he set Johnny up to be killed. He told us he kept the Lancers apart in prison in the hopes that they would be killed or broken. He knew about the gold and that's what he was after. He had an accomplice. A man named Nelson Daniels. Have you ever heard of him?"

She shook her head violently as tears streamed down her face.

"He said he bribed the judge and bought Bentley and that he told Bentley of the Lancers intention of robbing the train. He admitted to everything, Teresa."

She sniffled and Sam handed her a handkerchief from his position on her other side. She wiped her eyes and blew her nose but still, she said nothing.

"The judge has already sentenced him," Malone said then took a deep breath and scooted forward in his chair a little. "He is to hang Monday morning."

At least she didn't scream, he thought. She was sobbing her eyes out but he knew he could do nothing to comfort her. Sam stood there stiffly. He could offer her no comfort, either. But, his reasons were not as charitable. She had been manipulated, yes. But, she also knew she was turning her back on her family. Her words in the courtroom still rang in his ears and stung his heart.

"We'll talk about your situation after you've had some rest," Malone saidSam looked toward the door when he heard the bell. His eyes went to Malone and the man nodded. He would stay with her.

Sam stopped cold when he saw Murdoch in the front room. "It's not a good time. Malone is in there telling her about Folger's sentence."

Murdoch sighed and dropped his head for a second. "I don't really want to see her. Could you give her a message for me when she's up to it, Sam?"

"Of course."

"Tell her that we'd like to help with adoption arrangements for the baby."

Sam gawked openly at the man for several seconds then shook his head in awe. "I'll tell her, my friend. She doesn't deserve your generosity but I must admit I feel a little sorry for her situation."

"As I said, it's for the baby," Murdoch reiterated firmly.

"I'll be sure to make that clear."

"I'll start making the arrangements in the morning before we head back home."

Sam smiled. "Home. Must sound heavenly."

Murdoch finally smiled. "Yes, it surely does, Sam. Though, it will be a while before it really feels like home." The smile left, replaced by a sad frown. "Johnny will want to go see Maria very soon."

Sam's own countenance grew sad. "I'm so sorry about Cipriano, Murdoch. He was a good man. The best."

"Yes, he was. I only hope she'll want to come home. It won't be the same without her but ...."

"But, you think she won't be able to handle it. I have to say, I agree with you. Not only has she lost her husband but, Teresa .... she may not be able to deal with that."

Murdoch nodded and sighed. "Well, I won't keep you. How did she handle the news?"

"She's crying but I gave her a sedative first. Hopefully, she'll fall asleep soon."

Sam returned to her bedside. She had stopped crying and looked ready for that sleep.

"Was that Murdoch?" she asked.

"It was."

"What did he want?"

"We'll talk about it later, Teresa. You need to rest now," Sam said.


"Just tell me!"

He grit his teeth. "He wants to help take care of the child. Find a good home for it."

"No one is taking my child from me!"

Malone looked at her with disbelief. "Teresa, do you think you're going to walk away from this? You confessed to some serious crimes in that courtroom."

She stared at him unblinking, realizing he was right. "Why would he help me?" she asked Sam.

"He said *they* are doing it for the baby's sake," Sam answered.

She dropped her eyes and nodded, knowing she couldn't refuse the offer. She began to cry softly again but soon, her eyes grew heavy and she fell asleep.

Malone left then, stunned by the generosity of the Lancers.

*****

Johnny stared out the hotel room window as the sun began to show itself for another day. He hadn't slept but a few hours. Dreams had awakened him. Dreams of his family lost. He was torn. He needed to go to her but he knew they needed his help getting the ranch back in order. He also knew neither of them would say a word about it.

What else could he do? He'd already waited long enough, way past long enough. In his heart, he knew she would not come home and he was already grieving for that loss as well. He heard his brother stir to his side and turned to watch as Scott struggled out of the depths of sleep.

"Good morning."

Scott cracked his eyes open and found the source of the voice standing by the window with an amused look on his face. 'It's too early, Johnny,' he thought.

"Mornin," he mumbled. "How long have you been up?" he asked as an after thought.

"Hours."

Scott registered the answer and stored it away. He needed to wake up first. He threw the covers back and sat on the side of the bed, stretching his muscles awake. With a yawn, he stood and made his way to the wash basin.

Johnny went back to watching the sunrise while his brother sorted himself out. His thoughts went back to Maria and he sighed softly, almost silently.

Scott stopped his hand, razor in midair, when he heard it. "When are you leaving for Socorro?"

Johnny didn't move but a smile crossed his lips. "I don't know."

"The sooner the better, I'd say. We all miss Maria."

Johnny frowned and turned to look at his brother's reflection in the mirror. "I don't think she'll want to come back."

Scott looked at him through the glass but he didn't know what to say to that.

"Anyway, I thought I'd talk to Murdoch about it this morning if he's not too grumpy," a grin slid up his face.

Scott smiled back then returned to his shave. He wiped off with a towel and grabbed his clothes before speaking again. "I'm sure he'll be grumpy for a good long while yet."

Johnny nodded, still staring out the window. "Maybe Monday after the hangin," he said, mostly to himself.

Scott stopped, his arm halfway in the sleeve. "Do you ..... Teresa won't ...." he couldn't even think it completely, let alone say it.

"No, she won't," Johnny spoke firmly. After a few seconds, he turned to his brother. "And do me a favor. Don't ever say her name to me again."

Scott's head jerked around to find the expression that matched the voice. Cold, hard and unfeeling. He only nodded, not really knowing why he'd brought it up himself. A knock on the door stopped anything he might have wanted to say.

Murdoch didn't wait for an answer. He swung the door open and filled the space. "Boys, let's get some breakfast and go home," he stated then walked away, leaving the door open.

Scott smiled and shook his head. "I believe we've received our orders, brother."

*****

The ride home started in complete silence. Scott watched his father's face and couldn't tell what he may be thinking. He chewed his lip for a minute before making the decision.

"I think we need to go over our finances thoroughly. Once we know how much we have we can decide how to proceed."

Murdoch gave a curt nod and Johnny just looked at him.

"We won't be driving any cattle to market this year, obviously, so we should concentrate on building up the herd this year," Scott went on, paying the silence no mind.

"I'll send some crews out to survey the fences and line shacks. See what needs to take priority," he continued, undaunted.

"Then, I thought I'd hitch a wagon to a star and see where that takes me," he finished.

It took a couple of seconds for Murdoch to absorb this. His head came up and he slowly turned to look at his son, sure the man had lost his mind. His eyes flickered past Scott for a second to find Johnny shaking with held back laughter.

Then, he glared at Scott before narrowing his eyes. "I suppose you think that was cute. I heard every word you said," he tried to growl.

Scott raised a brow. "Well, then, your manners have failed you, Sir. Generally, when someone speaks to you, you respond in some way."

Murdoch's eyes went down then quickly back up. "Yes, I suppose I am out of practice. We will do all those things, son. They're good ideas. However, let me be perfectly clear. I will NOT be hitching any of our good wagons to any stars!"

Scott burst out laughing, joined instantly by his brother who would have died if he had to hold it in any longer. Murdoch chuckled, then roared with laughter himself.

They spent the rest of the trip making solid plans for the near future. As they dismounted in front of the hacienda, Johnny faced both men.

"All these plans are fine and all but it's all been Scott'll do this and Murdoch will do that. What am I supposed to be doing?"

Murdoch stepped up. "You are supposed to be convincing Maria to come home. I know it won't be easy, son, but we really have lost more than I care to think about. I don't want to lose her, too." His voice was gentle and understanding.

Johnny kept the eye contact but he shook his head a little. "I don't think she will, Murdoch. Not after everything that's happened. I'll try as hard as I can but I'm not gonna push her."

*****

Johnny did find something to do the rest of the week. He spent his time in the corral breaking horses. Horses they needed badly. He couldn't get them ready fast enough though and he was exhausted come Sunday evening. As much as Murdoch didn't like working on the Sabbath, he no more felt like going to church than his sons did. He kept telling himself it would just take time to get back into a routine they were all comfortable with. The estancia seemed empty somehow and he knew the why of it which didn't make things any easier.

Nothing would replace what had been taken. He only hoped Johnny could get Maria back. It was something to look forward to for he was not looking forward to the next day's events.

At least Sam was coming for dinner and he was happy about that. It was time to start living in the world again. Seeing friends and maybe, soon, venturing off the ranch for more than weekly supplies. With Johnny leaving for Socorro the next day, Murdoch knew things would only be quieter for a time.

It was also Esperanza's last day as their cook. She was nearly busting open as it was and Sam would be taking a look at her tonight as well. Murdoch had chuckled a little when he'd walked into the kitchen earlier to find her stirring the biggest pot he'd ever seen. Stew, she had said. To keep them until Senora Maria returned.

But supper wasn't much better than the past evenings. Johnny and Scott were both exhausted and try as they did, conversation was stilted. Sam frowned in concern. How could he help them? The news he had would not be appreciated and he decided not to tell them. It would serve no purpose and only open wounds that were in the infant stages of healing as it was.

They all settled in the living room for drinks. The fire did most of the talking at first. It was the center of attention for many long moments.

"I've had better conversations with a cactus," Sam suddenly said.

Johnny smiled at him. "Sorry, Sam. We're all just tuckered, I guess."

"You have a long trip ahead of you tomorrow, John. You should get some sleep," Sam replied.

"I will. What do you think about Esperanza?"

Sam smiled. "Any minute now."

"Her husband will be very glad to hear that. From what I understand, she's been treating him rather badly," Scott grinned mischievously.

"I have no doubt about that. She wasn't very nice to me, either. Well, it goes with the territory. Don't fault her," Sam smiled.

Scott raised his glass in a toasting motion then took a sip.

"How's your other patient?" Murdoch asked quietly.

Silence rained down on them like a landslide with that question. Johnny sighed heavily and Scott clamped his jaw. Sam took a deep breath and figured he really was going to tell them his news after all.

"She was taken to prison yesterday. The judge sentenced her to twenty years to life," he said softly.

Murdoch looked blandly at him. "That was fast."

Sam shrugged. "She pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder and attempted murder. Malone didn't press the other charges. I don't see that she had much choice after her testimony."

Murdoch only nodded and Johnny downed the rest of his whiskey.


"Barranca's been eyein that pretty mare I was workin with today," he spoke out suddenly.

"Oh? Maybe you'll be a grandpa soon, then?" Scott grinned, grateful for the change in subject.

They spent the rest of the evening talking about horses and the ranch, filling Sam in on their plans.

"Where's Jelly anyway? I knew it was too quiet," Sam smiled.

"He's been keeping to himself a lot lately, Sam. I'm afraid we really haven't had much time to spend with him," Scott frowned as he realized how true that statement was. They had been neglecting the old man.

"Yeah, we've all been pretty busy," Johnny agreed though he was feeling some guilt as well.

"I'll spend some time with him while you're gone, Johnny," Scott promised.

"I will, too. In fact, when we get home tomorrow, I'll invite him to start eating with us again. I don't know how that stopped," Murdoch frowned as well.

"That might be my fault. Somethin I said to him when I went to town that day to see him. I told him I'd understand if he didn't want to get involved."

Scott looked at his brother, stunned. "Why would you even think that?"

Johnny sighed heavily. "Because, I was feelin pretty sorry for myself, Scott, and I took it out on him." He closed his eyes for a second. "Think I'll go say goodnight to him and turn in."

"That's a good idea. I should be heading back," Sam said and made to stand.

"You should stay the night, Sam. Esperanza may need you. There's no sense in traipsing back out here in the middle of the night," Murdoch offered.

Sam thought about that for half a second. The woman probably would go tonight. He settled back into the chair. "I think you're right, Murdoch. Thank you."

*****

Johnny said his goodnights and went to Jelly's quarters around the side of the house. He saw the light on in the window and rapped sharply on the door.

"What?!"

Johnny grinned and shook his head. "Let me in, old man!"

Jelly swung the door open and glared at him. "What'ya want? I was about to go ta bed."

"Just wanted to say goodnight and goodbye if I don't see ya in the mornin," Johnny explained, his voice softening.

"Ya goin after Maria then?"

"I'm gonna try, Jelly. Can I come in for a minute?" he asked, looking past the older man into the room.

"Your house," he snipped and turned his back, walking over to plop into a small chair.

Johnny pulled a face and stepped inside, taking in the decor as if he'd never seen it before. Maybe he hadn't or hadn't noticed at any rate. There wasn't much there, for sure. A simple room with simple furnishings for a not so simple man.

"Reckon you're still pretty mad at me, huh?" Johnny asked, his head down.

Jelly didn't answer and he looked up at the old man.

"I'm sorry, Jelly. I knew you wouldn't turn your back on us. I was just feelin sorry for myself." He ducked his head again and scuffed his boot on the floor. "Don't know what we would have done, would do, without you around."

"Me neither!" Jelly snapped.

Johnny walked slowly over to sit on the edge of the bed. "I don't think Maria will come back."

"Shore she will!"

Johnny gave him a doubtful look. "I don't know, Jelly. Without Cipriano here and .... the other, it might be too hard."

Jelly rolled his eyes at the younger man. "The 'other' has got a name, Johnny. Not sayin it ain't gonna make the pain go away."

"What will?" he asked in such a soft voice, it took Jelly a minute to hear it.

He studied Johnny for a long beat. "Time, I reckon. Only thing that can heal a body or spirit. Ya'll just have ta stop dwellin on what happened and start livin again."

Johnny winced at those words. "We're tryin, old man. It feels like ..... like I'm in quicksand. I guess it's the same for Murdoch and Scott, too. We can't seem to pull ourselves out of it."

"Johnny, I know this has all been about the toughest thing you've ever been through. But, you got to, boy. There just ain't no other way. Ya gotta start bein yourselves again. Stop dancin around each other. I seen the way ya all do. All so polite and holdin it all back. Ya just can't do that. Let it out and get back to how it was."

Johnny's head came up at that. "How it was? It won't ever be the same as it was, Jelly!"

"No, I don't reckon it will. But, it's losin someone ya love. Sooner or later, ya have to go on with livin. That's all there is to it. I know it's harder when somebody stabs ya in the back but that don't mean you should lay down and die, does it? Well, does it?"

Johnny closed his eyes for a second. "I understand what you're sayin. But, what I really need to know is are we okay? You and me?"

Jelly snorted a little. "Reckon so. Just stop bein a jackass, that's all."

Johnny grinned. "I'll try but it's not that easy."

"Awww, get outta here and get some sleep. Ya got a long trip tomorra," Jelly groused and walked over to open the door.

Johnny stood and laughed softly. He stopped when he came alongside of Jelly. "You start bein a part of this family again, too, amigo. You hear me?"

Jelly nodded and pushed him out the door.

*****

The Lancers rose very early the next morning. Breakfast was not an option. Coffee was almost more than they could handle. Sam staggered in the back door and looked up in surprise.

"Well?" Murdoch asked.

"It's a boy," he smiled and sat down heavily.

Scott poured him a cup of coffee. "How is she?"

"Exhausted but very happy. Julio is beaming, too, though he looks terrified at the same time," Sam laughed.

"I'm afraid we weren't up for breakfast, Sam. I could scramble you some eggs," Murdoch offered.


"No, this is fine. I'll ride back when you go. Mother and son are very healthy and I need to be there this morning."

The mood in the room slid downhill after that comment. Johnny stood after a few minutes and went outside to harness Sam's buggy for him. He grabbed his saddlebags as he went, dreading this trip almost as much as the stop he'd be making first.

They rode in silence to Green River, four grim-faced men. The town was already teeming with people when they arrived. Most milling about the gallows.

Johnny headed for the sheriff's office to see Val while Murdoch and Scott stayed with Sam.

"Mornin," Johnny said somberly as he walked in the office.

"Is it?"

"Well, the sun's up so I reckon so," Johnny smiled weakly.

Val looked him up and down. "Thought you were goin to Socorro."

"I am. Right after .... this."

Val nodded. "Want some company?"

Johnny's eyebrows rose.

"The deputies can handle things here til they elect a new sheriff. I told the governor this was short work," he explained with a shrug.

Johnny sighed and started to argue but had another thought. "Sure, I could use the company. I'm not lookin forward to this," he smiled wanly.

He left then to join his family and tell them Val was leaving with him today. Murdoch was about to argue but Johnny stopped him.

"Let me work on him out on the trail, old man. Don't let the cattlemen elect a new sheriff until you hear from me."

"And if you can't talk him into it?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny dropped his head then looked back up with anger in his eyes. "Well, then I guess that's another good friend I'll lose!" he spat and walked away.

*****

Ten minutes later, at five minutes of nine, Val led Jeremy Folger out of the jail and around to the gallows. Folger faltered when he looked up at the noose awaiting him and Val had to push him a little to start him going again. The short climb up the steps turned into quite a battle as a deputy marshal had to step in to lend a hand. Folger was fighting the whole way.

Finally, Val jerked him to a stop when they reached the platform and said something to him that settled the man. He stood still as the noose was fitted around his neck.

Scott's eyes went to the hangman and he thought it appropriate it was the undertaker. Cut out the middle man he thought dryly then berated himself. There was nothing satisfying about this. Nothing about it would make him feel the least bit better.

Folger's eyes searched the crowd frantically. Panic adorned his face. His gaze landed on Johnny and his face reddened in anger then he went back to searching.

Val cleared his throat and started reading the charges for which Folger had been convicted in a loud voice so all could hear. He was cut off by a frantic cry.

"Teresa! Where is Teresa?" Folger shouted.

Val growled and stepped up to the man, speaking quietly once more. This time, Folger slumped, hanging his head as tears rolled down his cheeks.

"You got anything to say?" Val asked.

Slowly, he raised his head and found Johnny's eyes again. "I curse you to hell, Johnny Madrid. I curse all the Lancers straight to hell!"

Johnny reached up slowly and tipped his hat to the man, his face void of any expression.

The preacher began a prayer and Val sighed loudly and glared at the man. He hurried things along then nodded to Val who did the same to the executioner.

Then, it was over. Folger swung lifelessly from the rope. The crack as his neck snapped still reverberating in the minds of those in the crowd. No one moved for long moments. Then, Murdoch turned and walked away, followed by his sons as Sam approached to officially declare Jeremy Folger as dead.

They stopped when they came to the surrey and Barranca. "Well, it's finally over," Murdoch said.

"Yeah," Johnny breathed out.

"Yes, finally," Scott concurred.

"You don't have to wait. Go on home. Val shouldn't be long," Johnny said.

"Are you sure, son?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. I just ......"

Murdoch put a hand on his shoulder. "What?"

"I don't know. Just tryin to figure out what I did to the man. I mean, he was so focused on me."

"Yes, he was. It really was as if he had a grudge against you specifically and us in general," Scott said with a frown.

"Well, don't take it too hard, brother. I'm sure he hated your guts, too," Johnny said flippantly.

Murdoch sighed and looked to the heavens. "Be careful, son, and hurry home."

Johnny nodded and shook hands with his family then watched them drive away.

*****

"You gonna wait for me?"

Johnny turned to see Val standing behind him. "Yeah, I'll be at the cantina when you're ready," he answered.

He stared at the coffee until it turned cold. Johnny still could not figure out what he had done to Folger. He knew the man's greed was what drove his plans but, Scott was right, it was him in particular the man really hated. Why, was the question and he wondered if he shouldn't have tried to find out before it was too late. It didn't matter, he told himself. But, that was a lie and he knew it. He also knew he would never know now so he may as well let it lie.

"I'm all ready."

Johnny's head jerked up at the voice and he shook his head. "Well, took ya long enough," he grinned, not having a clue really of how long he'd been sitting there.

Both men were deep in thought as they rode the trail. Johnny glanced over at Val's scowling face and knew now was not the time to talk to him about his future.

They stopped for the night and went about the ritual of setting up a camp. Val chewed on a piece of jerky as he stared into the fire.

"What's on your mind, amigo?" Johnny asked.

"You, mostly."

"Yeah? That's sweet," Johnny grinned.

Val sighed and threw the rest of the jerky into the darkness. "Been wonderin why Folger hated you so much."

"Yeah, was wonderin that myself."

"Was wonderin about this Daniels fella, too. Ain't heard a word back from San Francisco."

"He's probably long gone now," Johnny guessed.

"Yeah, but gone where? Who is he and does he have more stake in this than we know? I tried talkin to Folger but he wouldn't say nothin. Bentley just growls whenever I go near him."

"When's his trial?" Johnny asked.

"Won't have one. Confessed to the judge. We're just waiting for the prison wagon ta come get him."

Johnny leaned forward quickly and stared at his friend. "Prison wagon? Folger got hung for attempted murder. How come Bentley ain't?!"

"Calm down, Johnny. He is but the judge reckoned one hangin was enough for one town. The mayor talked him inta lettin Folsom do the dirty work."

Johnny slumped back against his saddle with a frown. "Why didn't he just hang 'em together? Would have been easier."

"Don't know. I ain't no judge but that ain't what I was talkin about anyways."

Johnny sighed and stared at the fire. "Not much we can do unless we find him. Murdoch hasn't heard anything from the Pinkerton's either."

"Just watch your back. That's all I'm sayin, buddy."

Johnny raised a brow and saw his in. "Wouldn't have to if I had someone watchin it for me."

"Don't start that!" Val shouted.

"Why not? Come on, Val. What else have you got goin on? Nothin, that's what. So, the town didn't measure up. You don't see me leavin."

"You got more to stay for, Johnny."


"You got more there than any place else, Val," Johnny reminded him.

He didn't say anything and simply stared into space. Johnny sighed and leaned forward, arranging his bedroll to his satisfaction. He slid under the blanket but left it at his waist. "Just think about it."

*****

Johnny picked up the pace the next morning. He wanted to get there as soon as possible. He had not sent word he was coming. That wouldn't be wise even now. It had been three years but some people just didn't forget. He had to admit if only to himself, he felt better having Val with him. He only hoped the man would be returning with him as well. Plus someone else.

They didn't speak anymore about Val's future and two days later, they entered Socorro. Johnny's eyes were busy, as were his ears. Val mimicked the movements. Johnny pulled up in front of a small house and dismounted. Val stayed in the saddle and he looked up at him quizzically.

"I'll take care of the horses. You need some time alone with her. I'll be back in a while," Val explained as he held out his hand for Barranca's reins.

Johnny smiled and handed the palomino off then turned and walked up to the door. He took a deep breath and knocked.

A young girl answered the door, opening it only wide enough to peek out.

"Hola, esta Maria aqui?"

She looked at him, unsure, then moved away as an older woman appeared. She opened the door and allowed him in without a word.

Johnny looked around the small home, his eyes lighting on his tia. He went quickly to where she sat on a small settee and kneeled in front of her.

Maria looked up with sad eyes then fell into his arms, sobbing uncontrollably. Johnny held her for several long minutes, speaking softly into her ear as he rubbed her back slowly.

Finally, she pulled back and wiped her nose and eyes. "When?" she asked simply.

Johnny smiled softly at her and moved to sit beside her. For an hour, he told her all that had happened since they had last seen each other so many months ago.

He watched as she alternated between tears and anger, unsure which would win out in the end. When he'd finished, she looked right in his eyes.

"How are Senor Murdoch and Senor Scott?"

Johnny sighed. "We're all doing the best we can, Maria. We sure do miss you, though. But, tell me what happened to Cipriano."

The tears filled her eyes again. "He was heartbroken, Johnny, and so angry. He made a vow to return to the hacienda and help when you all returned. He had no doubt that would happen. He had talked to many men, amigos, and they all agreed to return with him to fight. But, we never heard from Pablo. He was to send word when you returned to the rancho. Then, one day, he was working with a green horse and he just grabbed his chest and fell to the ground."

Johnny nodded solemnly. He had been worried something more nefarious had happened to his tio. Part of him was relieved it wasn't so, all of him hating it had happened at all.

"I haven't seen Pablo but I'll find out what happened to him. I'm so sorry, Tia. I wish I could have come sooner."

"No, you did what was needed. That man! He deserved all he got!" she spat.

Johnny had no response for this other than to squeeze her hand.

"And what of Teresa?" she asked.

Johnny took to his feet and began pacing the small space. "I can't talk about that."

"Por que?" she asked.

He looked over at the woman and bit his lip. "She married him!" he blurted out.

Maria's hand went to her heart then she crossed herself, her mouth hanging open.

"You didn't know. I'm sorry, I wasn't sure," Johnny said softly.

"Tell me, sobrino. Tell me everything now," she ordered.

Johnny grimaced, unsure if he could tell it without cussing and he wouldn't speak such to his tia. But, he looked in her eyes and knew he had to tell her. It wasn't fair. She had loved the girl so. He sat back down and, fighting with all he was to stay calm, told her the whole sordid mess.

Maria shook her head in disbelief. "Are you sure, Johnny? Are you sure it wasn't some trick she was playing on him - for all of you?"

"No, Tia. The Teresa we knew would never have married him to save Lancer. She sure as .... she sure wouldn't have gotten pregnant by him," he said, toning his language down.

"Have you told me everything?" she asked.

He glanced over at her. "I can't tell you everything, Maria. It wouldn't be right. I said some things to her I'm not very proud of. Things I won't repeat to a lady."

She sighed but squeezed his hand. "Then, she is gone. My nina is gone forever."

"Si, she's gone," Johnny whispered, his heart hurting once again. "Will you come home, Tia? Murdoch and Scott miss you as much as I do."

She frowned and lowered her eyes. "I do not think I can, Johnny. So much pain," she sighed.

"Si. It's been hard to start over. We've all been trying but .....nothing will ever be the same again."

She heard the agony in his voice, could see it clearly on his face. She cupped her hand to his cheek and patted it lightly. "No, sobrino, it will never be the same," she said sadly.

*****

Johnny found Val and they spent the night in the rooms over a cantina. Neither got much sleep. For a Thursday night, the place was busy. And loud. Val was even grumpier than usual the next morning but his mood lightened when they returned to Maria's for breakfast.

"Ma'am, that was a fine meal. I sure do hope you decide to go back to Lancer. Them fella's are lookin mighty puny," he grinned.

Johnny laughed at the lie. But it wasn't really a lie. They may not be starving but they were all pretty pathetic. He was getting tired of it, too.

Maria made no response to the comment, only smiled and poured Val more coffee. She sat with them as they finished eating. Johnny drained his cup then looked squarely at her.

"Well, Tia? Will you come home with me?"

She sighed heavily. "I cannot, Johnny. It is difficult enough here. At the ranchero, I would see my marido everywhere. Too many memories."

"Good memories, though," Johnny reminded her.

"Si, very good but bad as well. Teresa, what she did," she shook her head.

Johnny clamped his mouth shut, a tight-lined grimace. He finally managed to speak.

"We all have to live with that every day for the rest of our lives, Maria. It's not easy but we have to get past it."

"Por favor, Johnny. What would you have me do?"

"Come home. Please, I need you," he whispered. It was low and he knew it but he did need her more than he'd realized.

Val suddenly felt very uncomfortable and out of place. Johnny glanced over, sensing it.

"Besides, I need someone to help me convince this gringo to stay put. He wants to leave Green River, Maria. How many more people do I have to lose?"

Another low blow but he no longer cared. He felt them both slipping away from him and he didn't think he could stand it another minute. Too much pain, too much loss, too much heartbreak. It was enough. It was time to get his family back. As much of it as he could.

"That ain't fair, Johnny!" Val hissed.


"I don't care! None of this is fair, Val! My family has been torn to shreds! I'm sick and tired of everyone I love leaving and all because of   greed!" he shouted as he jumped up, knocking the chair back. He walked about the small area, hands clenched.

"Goddammit!" he spat.

"Johnny, enough!" Maria berated.

"Yes, it is enough," he said in a low voice and walked outside.

*****

Johnny stood facing the small pasture behind the house where goats milled about. He heard the door open but he didn't turn around.

"You are one selfish sonofabitch!" Val spewed.

He didn't answer.

"Did ya ever stop to think what I might want? Or what Maria might want? Or is the whole world suppose to stop turning because Johnny Lancer don't get his way!"

Johnny turned quickly and punched him in the mouth. Val flew to the ground, stunned beyond words. He licked his bloody lip and glared at the man standing over him. Val jumped to his feet and hit Johnny in the jaw.

Johnny picked himself up off the ground breathing heavily.

"Feel better now?" Val sneered, waiting for the next swing. But it didn't come and the look he saw on his friend's face nearly broke his rough ole heart. He hadn't seen Johnny look this vulnerable and young in a long time and he wanted to kick himself.

"What did I do, Val? What the hell did I do to that man?" he asked in a whisper.

Val relaxed his stance and took a step closer. "I don't know, amigo. I just don't know. But, you gotta let it go, Johnny. You're lettin this eat you up inside. Why don't ya think about what you still have? Your father and brother and your land. Jelly and the hands and that damned palomino."

Johnny grinned at him then laughed softly. He ducked his head then looked back up, remorse in his eyes. "I'm sorry I hit you, Val. And you're right, I do have a lot to be grateful for. Guess I just got used to having everything I ever wanted."

"Took ya a long time to accept that, I know. I wish none of it had ever happened but it did. It's over now, though."

Johnny nodded. "What do you want, Val?"

The man raised a brow at that. He just looked at Johnny for a long beat then a grin slid up his face. "Don't rightly know."

Johnny leered at him for a second then laughed and threw an arm around his shoulders. "Well, then it won't be such a hardship to hang around with me til you figure it out then, will it? You don't have to be sheriff. Come work at the ranch."

Val gave a start and gawked at him.

"What? You've done it before."

"Well, yeah, but I never thought about it. I mean, I've been a lawman for so long now, don't know if I remember how," Val said, rubbing his chin.

"I'm sure it'll come back to ya. Unless, you want to be sheriff again. I know the cattlemen would be happy to get you back," Johnny smiled.

Val gave him a discerning look.

*****

Johnny tied off his bedroll and hesitated a minute before turning to face her. She watched him with a deep sadness, her hand clutching her rosary. He walked slowly over to her and bowed his head.

"Perdoneme, Tia. I'm sorry I spoke that way to you. If you ever change your mind, Lancer will always be your home," he said softly.

She reached out and he stepped into her embrace. "My sweet nino. Please be careful. Te amo, sobrino. Te amo," she said through her tears.

Johnny stepped back and nodded his head then looked into her eyes. "I love you so much and I miss Tio."

"We will all miss him forever, nino. Take care," she sniffed and kissed his cheek.

Val looked up at a bird flying by, suddenly fascinated by the crow. He blinked at the sun in his eyes.

Johnny mounted up and looked back down at her. "Write to me, okay?" he asked in a shaky voice.

"Si, I will," she promised and stood waving until they were no longer in sight. And she stood there still for long moments afterward.

"Why do you not go home?" her sister, Elena asked.

"It is too painful."

Elena tssked loudly. "Is it more painful than staring at that corral every day and remembering your husband fall to his death?"

Maria turned and glared at the woman.

"Do not look at me that way, Maria. I know your heart and it is not here. Go home, where you belong."

"I cannot. After all that has happened. After what Teresa did."

"That was not your doing. Do you think it easy for them to live in that house, remembering the sweet girl she once was? The daughter and sister that betrayed them so shamefully - and betrayed herself!? You said the gringo called Johnny selfish this morning. Who is the selfish one now? They need you and you turn your back on them." Elena lifted her chin, daring her sister to argue.

Maria's cheeks flushed with anger and shame. She ran into the house sobbing. Elena sighed and shook her head. It was time for her sister to start living again and she knew Maria was only truly happy when she was caring for others. No one needed her care more than her sobrino. Elena had seen that in the young man's eyes. A desperation, a longing to have back some of what was taken from him. She turned and followed Maria inside with determination.

*****

Val watched from under his hat brim most of the day. It was fascinating to see all the different expressions that flew across Johnny's face when he was deep in thought and not as aware of his surroundings. That part, the not being aware part, was why Val was going back. Well, that's what he kept telling himself anyway. Johnny needed someone to watch out for him until he was home again. Then, Val wasn't sure what he would do.

He reckoned he'd blamed the whole town, too. But, if he were honest with himself, it was he who was at fault. He waited too long. Didn't act on his instincts and neither had Johnny. He surmised they had both grown complacent in that valley. Something in the air, maybe, he thought. Something that made a man think he could settle down and relax.

He shook his head hard at that. Relax. Yep, he'd relaxed alright. Started to think a little too much of himself, he imagined. And it had cost his best friend dearly. How Johnny could even talk to him was a mystery. When he waited outside San Quentin that day, he expected Johnny to tear him apart. But he hadn't and Val had to wonder why.

There was a time not so long ago that neither of them would have waited around for the law to handle things 'properly'. Val almost grinned as he thought maybe Murdoch Lancer had grown on him, too. All that stand up and be a good citizen stuff had rubbed off on him, he reckoned. Still, it was rare that this kind of thing, this severe a thing happened. Mostly, it was a good life and he enjoyed the job. Even if he would never allow anyone to know that.

But Johnny knew. Knew all too well how settled Val had become and how much he liked it. And he had to admit it was nice having Johnny back in his life. True friends were nearly unheard of in their world. But that world was gone now and Val supposed he should be glad of that. He was sure glad of it for Johnny who had a harder time of it than he.

Val had never tried to be a big name. Had always been more than satisfied to be one of the men who took the orders and did the deeds. Johnny was one of those who gave the orders and he'd earned that right. A lot of gunfighters balked at being told what to do by a mere boy but all of them soon learned Johnny Madrid was no boy. Easy or hard, they learned.

"Hey!"

Val's head snapped up and he looked over at Johnny and blinked at the grinning face.

"Where are you?" the question came with a laugh.

Val grimaced and looked back at the road. "Just thinkin," he mumbled and felt like kicking himself. So much for watching his friend's back. Seemed someone needed to watch his.

Johnny didn't say anything, hoping Val was thinking about what a good idea staying around Green River would be. He scanned the surrounding countryside again and sighed.

"Should stop soon. We'll pick it up tomorrow," he said idly.

"Sounds good ta me. You need ta get home," Val agreed.

Johnny only nodded and added a mental you tooto that statement.

*****

They spoke of the past again on the trip home. Sharing fond memories and some not so fond ones. Serious talk was abandoned as Val skirted the issue time and again. Johnny gave it up, recognizing that Val would not talk about anything he didn't want to talk about. Much like himself, he thought with some disdain. Now, he knew how Scott and Murdoch felt sometimes. He really could have done without that lesson.

They rode into the yard at Lancer and Johnny had a smile on his face. Val smirked at the tough guy who had spent the last few days exalting his hard and fast former lifestyle. Not that Val had been convinced then, either. He knew as well as Johnny, it was malarkey.

Scott's face broke out in a smile that slid slowly away. He waited for his brother and Val to dismount and grab their gear before stating the obvious.

"You couldn't talk her into it, I see."

"Nope."

Scott examined his face closely. "Did she do that?" he asked, pointing to the bruise on his jaw.

Johnny laughed. "Nah, Maria hits a helluva lot harder than Val."

Scott raised a brow at that but his next question was cut off.


"What happened to your face, son?" Murdoch asked as he approached.

Johnny wished his father wasn't so observant sometimes. "Well," he started, looking at the ground and toeing the dirt. "Val smacked me around some."

Val's mouth dropped open and he stared at Johnny then looked at Murdoch who was grinning.  

"You deserved it! Don't know why I came back here," he groused.

"We're very glad you did, Val. Even if you are abusing my son," Murdoch said, barely able to contain a laugh.

Johnny didn't try to contain anything and he chuckled at his friend. "I did deserve it," he admitted.

"Why don't we go inside and you can explain it to us," Scott suggested and grabbed his brother by the nape of the neck.

Johnny did tell them about his visit and his bad behavior with Maria and Val. Both men were clearly disappointed that Maria had not returned.

"Well, I hate it but I guess I understand her position. We can't replace her, that's all," Scott said.

"No, we can't. But, we will have to hire a housekeeper at least. I was hoping ..... well, that she'd come back just to be here," Murdoch said, frustrated as he knew how it must sound.

"We know what you mean, old man," Johnny smiled. "Meantime, Val is trying to decide what he wants to be when he grows up. I told him he could work here. He's got a little experience."

Val smacked his arm.

"I'm sure he does. You're more than welcome, Val. If you want to give up being a lawman, we could use a good wrangler. Someone to keep Jelly in line," Murdoch smiled.

"Jelly? Ya mean I'd have ta work with that old coot? Well, that tears it! Reckon bein a sheriff ain't so bad, after all," Val grumped.

Johnny slapped his leg. "I knew you couldn't stand to be too far away from me."

Val snorted at that. "Think what ya want, Johnny. Ya still gotta buy them Indian blankets."

*****

Two days later, Murdoch paced the living room in it's entirety. Scott and Johnny sat on the sofa and watched him with some amusement. But, if they were honest they'd admit they were a little nervous, too. The Cattlemen's Association was meeting here in less than an hour. The first time they had faced these men as a group and they all had to wonder at the reception they might receive.

As right as they were, that didn't mean these men would agree or not have doubts. Scott and Johnny had talked at length last night and decided they would not allow their father to be humiliated. If things got ugly, they'd get ugly right back.

Scott leaned over to his brother as they watched the men ride in.

"Do you think they all met up over the rise so they could show up at the same time?"

"Yep," Johnny clipped, his face granite as he watched the somber expressions that greeted them. All but one.

Fred Saylor was seldom somber and this was no exception. He was the first one off his horse and walked right up, extending a hand to each of them and slapping Murdoch on the back - hard. The rest were more sedate as they gathered in around the dining room table.

Murdoch stood at the head and began as soon as they were settled. "Gentlemen, I ...."

"Murdoch, may I?" Micah Townsend interrupted. Murdoch nodded and sat down, holding his breath.

Micah stood and inhaled deeply. "As president of the association it falls to me to express our deepest sympathy for all that you and your family have endured. Many of us feel ashamed for our lack of assistance in your time of need. Our only defense is that we really didn't know how bad things were."

"Micah, my sons and I have come to understand that. It was difficult at first. We felt betrayed but as time went on we all realized just how little everyone knew of what was happening. I, myself, didn't appreciate the depth of the problem until it was too late. We would like very much to move past all of this and find some normalcy again," Murdoch said.

Turning to Fred Saylor, he went on. "Fred, I owe you an apology as well. Hearing about Folger's plans for your ranch in a courtroom must have been hard. I can only say I honestly hadn't thought to tell you."

"I can understand that, Murdoch. Yes, I wanted to strangle him but I reckon that was done for me. I don't hold any hard feelings. I'm only glad you're all back where you belong!" Fred stated emphatically.

Many 'here, here's were heard around the table and the Lancer brothers relaxed.

"Thank you, gentlemen. Now, what I wanted to discuss was the position of sheriff for Green River. Val Crawford is willing to resume the job and we would be lucky to get him back," Murdoch spoke then waited.

There was silence in the room and Johnny tensed.

"Is that a problem?" he asked softly.

"Well, it's just that we can't help wondering how Val could let this happen," Townsend spoke up.

"A US Marshal showed up with jurisdiction, Mr. Townsend. At the time, Val had no way of knowing he was bought and paid for by Folger. No one took this harder than Val Crawford. He turned in his badge over it," Scott said.

"He also helped us get the ranch back. Without Val, it would have been a lot harder," Johnny imparted.

"Plus the fact that the governor himself had Val sworn in as a marshal to help us," Scott added.

"Well, I'm all for it. Crawford's a lot sharper than people give him credit for. And, well, after finding out a little about his background in court, I'd say he's the right man for the job," Fred said with a grin.

Johnny smiled at that and looked around the table.

"Shall we vote?" Murdoch asked.

And they did vote unanimously to offer the job to Val once again. Johnny called him in and, as he expected, Val glared at them all.

Townsend cleared his throat and stood. "Val, we've voted and we all agree you are the best man for the job of sheriff of Green River. Will you accept the post?"

Val didn't answer right away and Johnny was ready to smack him upside the head.


"Yeah, I accept," he said begrudgingly.

"Good! Well, now that that is settled, Murdoch some of us thought a party would be in order. A sort of welcome home. What do you say?" Townsend asked.

"Oh, I don't ...."

"I think that's an excellent idea. Don't you think so, Johnny?" Scott cut his father off and gave his brother an expectant look.

"Uh, yeah. Yes, I think that's a great idea, too," Johnny said, raising his enthusiasm to match his brother's, though he didn't know why.

"Excellent! I'll let you know the date very soon. We'll have it at my place," Townsend smiled.

Murdoch stepped back inside after seeing the last of their guests off. "What was that?" he asked Scott.

"What? A party is the perfect idea, Murdoch. Didn't we all agree it was time to get back to normal?"

Johnny cocked a brow then smiled a little. "Yeah, we did, didn't we?"

Murdoch sighed and rolled his eyes. "I suppose it wouldn't hurt. We do need to get back in the swing of things."

"Yeah, and now that we have a sheriff, he can make sure it don't get out of hand," Johnny smiled and hung an arm around Val who quickly shoved him away.

"I ain't your babysitter, Johnny Lancer. And if ya get yourself in trouble, you'll find your sorry carcass in my jail!"

*****

Two more days passed and Murdoch was having no luck finding a decent housekeeper. None of them was willing to live at the ranch and that had to be part of the deal. How could they expect to do the job if they had to travel hours every day? It would be nearly midnight before some of them ever made it home. He sighed heavily and ran a hand through his hair.

He pulled out his pocketwatch and scowled. This one was early. Maybe that was a good sign. He sighed heavily and went to answer the knock at the door. Jerking it open with irritation, he simply stared, his mouth falling open.

"I understand you are looking for a housekeeper, Senor," she smiled.

"Maria!" Murdoch bellowed and grabbed the small woman up, swinging her around twice before setting her down and receiving a sound smack on the arm.

"Senor! That is not how one interviews for a position!" she exclaimed then laughed.

"Get in here this instant," Murdoch laughed, blinking hard at the tears forming in his eyes. The first tears of joy he'd felt in a very long time. He grabbed her bag from her hand and ushered her in to sit on the sofa.

"Johnny said ...."

She held up a hand. "Si, I was wrong. I belong here with my familia. Mia hermana made me see what is true and right," she explained.

"Then, I owe your sister a debt I can never repay," he grinned like a silly schoolboy.

Johnny walked in, slamming the door behind him, disgruntled and frustrated at the world in general. He stepped into the room and threw his hat on a table, never looking up.

"That is not where your hat goes, Johnny."

His head snapped up, his eyes wide with shock, quickly replaced with a genuine smile of pure delight. She stood as he walked to her, wrapping her in his arms, never wanting to let go.

"You came home," he whispered, his voice choked. "Gracias, Tia. Muchas gracias."

"Shhhh. It is alright now, sobrino. Tia Maria is here," she spoke soothingly.

Scott stood in the dining room and watched Maria and Johnny. He knew they hadn't heard him come in and he couldn't seem to move for a moment as he prayed his eyes were not deceiving him. He walked slowly into the room and waited.

Maria pulled away and laughed with tears in her eyes. She turned when she saw Johnny look past her.

"Senor Scott," she said softly and pulled him to her.

Scott was taken aback for a second then relaxed into the embrace. Never one for public displays, he threw his upbringing out the window and hugged the woman until she couldn't breathe.

They all sat down with huge smiles on their faces. Johnny held her hand tightly lest she disappear before his eyes.

"I am not a ghost, sobrino. You do not have to hold such a strong grip." She laughed when he blushed.

"I'm just so glad you changed your mind," he said.

"We all are; very glad. I'll put your bags in your room," Scott said, stood up and grabbed the luggage. He stopped then as he remembered.
"We'll have to get you situated. You'll need some furniture and a bed," he said, lowering his eyes.

"Por que?" she asked.

"Well, the room, it's ...." Scott faltered, unable to bring himself to explain that they'd burned everything in the rooms. Folger had knocked down the wall between Teresa and Maria's room to make it one huge bedroom. Johnny and Scott had a bonfire one night and burned it all.

"Maybe Maria would like the spare bedroom or that room," Murdoch said quietly.

Johnny stood and pulled her to her feet. "Come on, I'll show you."

She gasped when she saw what had been done. The look on Johnny's face was more than enough to explain. "No," she shook her head hard. "I will take the other bedroom."

"You sure? It's a little smaller," he said.

"I am sure, sobrino. It is not as if I stayed there so much, anyway. Only when Cipriano was away," she said, lowering her eyes.

"Si, I remember," he said sadly then his eyes sparkled a little. "Cause you were scared to stay at home alone."

She looked up at him haughtily. "I was not afraid! It was simply easier to stay here," she argued and knew he wasn't buying it. But she hadn't been afraid. She'd been lonely and staying at the estancia, she always had Teresa for company. But, that was no longer true and she wondered how she would manage the loneliness when the men were gone now.

"I do not need much room, anyway," she went on after a brief pause. She squeezed his arm and walked on down the hallway to the next door and opened it. "You see? Plenty of room and already there is a bed and dresser. It is more than enough."

Johnny sat the bags on the bed and turned, hugging her close. "Thank you so much for coming back to us."

She smiled through more tears and squeezed him tightly. She pulled back and pinched his side.

"Ouch!"

"You are too thin. All of you are too thin. I will take care of that in no time," she nodded firmly.

Johnny smiled his most dazzling smile and she had to sigh. "I'll leave you to get settled. There may not be much in the pantry. Just make a list and I'll get whatever you want tomorrow."

She nodded and pushed him out the door then sighed heavily and began to unpack. How long would the tears come unbidden? she wondered. Many more, she had to assume. Now, she was here and the memories were crushing. Elena's words came back to her. It will get easier. And she prayed it would happen soon.

Jelly had embraced the woman as well, welcoming her home over and over. As he sat down for supper with them, he could feel the difference in the very air. They were all smiling for a change. Maria was exactly what they needed to put some spring in their steps.

Conversation flowed around the table, joking and laughter abounded. Jelly shook his head in wonder and even said a quick prayer of thanks. He was smiling pretty widely himself and felt things getting back to normal. He shouldn't have. Not by a long shot.

*****

Maria settled in quickly and resumed running the household. Three happier and more grateful men could not be found. The simple daily tasks they took so much for granted had them all spinning when left to their own devices. The only thing Murdoch learned was that Johnny could actually cook a decent enough meal. Scott, on the other hand, would be better off left with the dishes.

Murdoch chuckled at the thought as he read the mail. He would never tell his son he was a lousy cook. Of course, Johnny would and did and banished his brother from going within ten feet of the stove. But, Murdoch had to wonder. Scott had seemed a little hurt but he thought he'd seen a smirk on his elder son's face. Scott may very well have been pulling their legs. He'd never know without asking and he didn't want to give his son away if that were the case.

The smile slid off his face as he came to the next letter. He stared at the insignia of the Pinkerton Agency on the large envelope for long moments before tearing it open.

Johnny and Scott walked in the house together that afternoon, chatting and smiling. Scott stopped short when he saw their father and Johnny could feel him tense beside him.

"What's wrong, Murdoch?" Scott asked.

The rancher blinked and looked slowly up at them. "Sit down, boys. I've heard from the Pinkerton's."

The brothers shared a wary look then sat before the desk, holding their breath.

Murdoch was running a finger over the envelope, a frown creasing his forehead. "Well, the long and short of it is this. Folger was a mining engineer by profession as he said during the trial. From all accounts, he was always looking for an easier way to make a living. Always looking for the short cut, always living above his means. He had several debts in Denver. That's where he's originally from. He came to California five years ago but most of the mines were depleted by then. He worked for an assayer. Apparently, he met up with Bentley about a year ago and forged a partnership. It gets a little hazy here. There is mention of another, silent partner but no name could be found."

"That has to be Daniels," Scott interceded.

"Most likely. They're still trying to find him," Murdoch said.

"Probably not his real name," Johnny surmised.

"They indicated as much in the report. They still have some leads to follow up on, though."

"So, what he told the judge was the truth. That this Daniels came across an old miner in Hard Rock?" Johnny asked, finding it a bit hard to swallow.

"I suppose Daniels could have just told him that. Until we know something about him, we only have Folger's story to go on," Scott said.

Johnny tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair.

"What is it, son?"

He looked up and shrugged. "Guess there's nothing in there about me? I mean, if Folger had some reason for hatin my guts?"

"I'm afraid not but the Pinkerton's are still investigating."

Scott opened his mouth then firmly shut it. This did not escape his brother's notice.

"What?"

"Nothing, Johnny, nothing at all."

"Come on, Scott. If you've got an idea, spill it," Johnny pressed.

Scott looked him in the eye. "I can't. I'm not allowed to mention certain people," he said tightly.

Johnny's face turned to stone as he glared at his brother. "Couldn't be important, anyway," he hissed and stood, stalking out of the room.

Murdoch sighed heavily as he watched his son ascend the stairs. "Do you have a theory, son?"

Scott looked at him briefly then dropped his eyes. "Well, there were a couple of times when it was mentioned that Teresa may have had feelings for Johnny at one time. If Folger knew that, he'd have plenty of reason to hate Johnny."

Murdoch's shoulders rose nearly to his ears. "I think that was just a ruse, Scott."

"Was it? I wonder, Sir. I've been thinking about this. I mean, I wasn't banned from thinking about her, only speaking of her," he shot.

Murdoch raised a brow.

"Sorry," Scott mumbled. "Anyway, I've been thinking back and I can see times when Teresa was overly attentive to Johnny and for no apparent reason. She was always doing extra little things for him like making sure he had his favorite foods at least once a week, repairing that damned red shirt over and over until it was a bare thread," he stopped and shook his head.

Murdoch was thinking back, too. "Well, that is true, son. I really didn't think anything of it at the time."

"There is one way we might be able to find out for certain. Millie Barren. She was Teresa's best friend. If she confided in anyone, it would be Millie."

Murdoch twisted his mouth as he grimaced. "I'm not sure it's worth trying to find out about."

"I disagree. This is really bothering Johnny. I know he thinks it has to do with his past because Folger always called him Madrid. I believe Johnny blames himself for everything that happened. That Folger attacked us because of him."

Murdoch's eyes widened. "Are you sure? He's never said anything."

"He wouldn't," Scott said, giving his father a meaningful look.

"No, of course he wouldn't. He'd just carry it around for the rest of his life!" Taking a deep breath, he calmed himself. "The picnic is next Saturday at Micah Townsend's. If Millie is there, maybe you can talk to her."

Scott nodded then went upstairs to clean up for supper.

*****

Saturday began gloriously. The sky was bluer than anyone could remember in quite some time. Not one cloud graced the azure ceiling. A light breeze blew steadily, pleasantly cooling the ever warming sun. For all this, the Lancers were in a pensive state upon arriving at the Townsend ranch.

Decorations abounded inside and out. A dance floor had been constructed. Long tables bore every manner of food and dessert imaginable. Musicians played upbeat tunes as people milled, danced and talked.

The first person after Micah Townsend who Johnny saw was Val. He was leaning against the corner of the two-story brick house with a frown on his face. Normal, Johnny thought and grinned as he walked up.

"Havin fun?"

"Sure. How could I not!" Val snorted.

"Come on, Val. If nothin else, there's plenty of food," Johnny laughed and tapped him lightly on the arm.

Val nodded then looked over at the other Lancers. "How's the house?"

"Much better since Maria came home. I guess we're all a little ..... out of sorts about this party," he said quietly.

"Why? This whole shindig is for you," Val shrugged.

"Exactly," Johnny moaned.

"Well, looks like everybody's bein real friendly. Murdoch and Scott are surrounded."

Johnny looked over at his family and nodded. "Guess I should go be friendly, too," he sighed, not really wanting to.

Val finally smiled. "And I'll stay here and keep a close watch for apple pie thieves and the like."

"You do that, Sheriff," Johnny laughed and walked away.

*****

Soon enough, the Lancers relaxed, realizing they were amongst friends. No one spoke of the 'incident'. Scott and Johnny watched those on the dance floor for a while, laughing at Jelly's wild steps.

"He'll be gripin about his feet tomorrow," Johnny said.

"Yes, and how all these women forced him into dancing. Poor man. It really doesn't pay to be that popular," Scott laughed.

"How come you're not out there, brother? I know how much you love to dance," Johnny grinned wickedly.

Scott cocked his head to the side. "You are right about that, brother. I believe I will take a stroll and see who's available."

Johnny shook his head and turned his attention to Fred Saylor who had walked up and laid a crushing hand on his shoulder. As much as Johnny liked the man, he wasn't thrilled with Fred's propensity at manhandling everyone. Johnny knew it was a sort of affection that he couldn't begrudge the kind man. He allowed Fred to lead him away toward the liquor table.

Scott walked casually around the young ladies who had convened on one side of the dance floor. He didn't want to look like he was headed straight for her, but that's what he did. Millie Barren was talking to another girl when Scott walked up and waited politely for her to notice him. It took about a second.

"May I have this dance?" he asked with a deep-waisted bow.

She flushed furiously, accentuating her red hair and her brilliant smile lit her face. "I'd be delighted," she answered demurely. She glanced back at her friend who was smiling but envious.

Scott twirled her gracefully about the dance floor, taking the girl's breath away. When the music stopped, she was breathing a bit heavily.

"Would you care to take a walk with me, Miss Barren?"

Her eyes widened in surprise then delight as she simply nodded her head and took his offered arm. Scott guided her to a large tree and sat her on the bench underneath. "Would you like some punch?"

"Yes, please," she smiled. She stared after him, stunned that he'd asked her to dance. She never thought Scott had even noticed her before. It must be the new dress, she thought, feeling a little giddy at the attention from such a handsome man.

Scott returned and sat beside her. "It's a very nice party," he commented.

"I'm glad you think so since it's for your family," she laughed softly.

Scott smiled and took a drink of his punch. He was trying to think of a way to start this conversation without insulting the girl. She saved him the trouble.

"I am so happy you've all come home. I can't believe all that happened. I was simply stunned, Scott. Simply stunned."

Scott looked at her for a long beat. "I suppose Teresa's part was the most stunning for you. After all, you were her best friend."

Millie gawked at him then dropped her eyes. "I thought I was. We used to tell each other everything. But, when she married that horrible man .... well, I went to Lancer to see her. To try and find out why she'd done such a thing. Scott, she was awful to me. She said she loved him and that was all I needed to know." She stopped and bit her lip.

"It's alright, Millie. We've all come to realize what Teresa did and the lengths she went to. It's not surprising she didn't confide in even you. I always thought she cared more for us than that."

"So did I, Scott. Especially Johnny."

Scott looked at her closely. "Why especially Johnny?" he asked.

She blushed then and looked away.

"Millie, do you think you owe her any kind of loyalty now?" Scott asked gently.

She turned back, fire in her eyes. "Not one bit!" she huffed then calmed. "She told me more than once that she was in love with Johnny."

Scott feigned surprise. "When was this?"

Millie shook her head. "My goodness! About three months after you both arrived and several times after that. We talked about it a lot. She knew he didn't have the same feelings for her but she thought she could get him to notice her."

He nodded his head thoughtfully. "Now that you mention it, she did seem to be very attentive to him. More so than one would think." He hated lying and was beginning to realize he didn't have to with the girl.

"Truthfully, we spent hours plotting and planning on how to get him to notice. We came up with some outrageous ideas," she giggled shortly. "But, every time we thought something up, she'd come back and say it didn't work. In fact, it was New Year's Day the last time we talked about him. She was in tears because she'd failed once again."

Scott was taken aback. Then he remembered and his eyes lit. "The new dress. That red one that Murdoch was not happy about. I remember it was, well, quite risqué for Teresa."

"Yes, she told me how she made such an effort to be near Johnny all night which wasn't easy. You know how he is at parties. She was crushed, Scott. I didn't know what to do. I finally told her she needed to give up. That she couldn't make Johnny love her. She got very angry with me about that. It was the last time we spoke until that day I went to see her after her marriage."

Millie's eyes were shining with unshed tears and Scott felt like a cad. He decided not to tell her of his suspicions. The girl had been hurt, as well. He knew what it was like to have a best friend but he could not imagine that person betraying him. Not Johnny. Not ever. He took her hand and squeezed it gently.

"I'm sorry, Millie. This whole ordeal has affected more people than any of us realized."

"It has, Scott. The whole valley was devastated. My father spent many nights pacing the floors. Mother couldn't comfort him. He just kept mumbling about 'that man' and how hell would freeze over before he did one second of business with him." Millie gasped and covered her mouth, her cheeks ablaze with embarrassment at her language.

Scott laughed softly at her. "It's alright. You know, I've been in prison. I've heard that kind of talk," he grinned and she laughed.

After a minute of quiet, she looked at him. "Was there anything else you wanted to know?"

Scott's surprise was genuine.

"I may not have gone to a fancy college, Scott Lancer, but I know when I'm being interrogated," she said ruefully.

It was his turn to blush a little. "I'm sorry, Millie. Honestly, I am. I needed to know."

"Why?" she asked.

Scott took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Because Folger focused all his hatred on Johnny and my brother thinks it has something to do with his past. He's blaming himself for the whole thing."

Millie gasped loudly and looked at him with first shock, then sympathy. "Scott, it was because of Teresa's feelings for Johnny. That last day I saw her, I asked her how she could betray the man she loved. He walked in right then and I could tell it wasn't news to him. But, the look he gave me ..... I was frightened. I left as quickly as I could."

Scott took her hand once more and smiled gently at the girl. "I appreciate you talking to me and allowing me my attempt at deception. I wasn't sure how you felt about Teresa now."

"I understand. How could you all not be a little suspicious? Please, tell Johnny about this. I'd hate for him to think it's all about his past. Folger kept calling him Madrid to goad him. That's what my father said and I believe it, too. Daddy said he was trying to demean Johnny to make himself feel like a man." She stopped and grinned shyly. "He said a lot worse but I wasn't supposed to hear it."

Scott laughed genuinely at that and squeezed her hand. "Millie, you are delightful girl. Thank you."

She felt some disappointment at him referring to her as a 'girl' and not a woman. She knew he was a bit older than her and she supposed that made a difference to him. But, she was not going to fall for a Lancer who was obviously not interested. Seemed to her, that sort of thing led to much worse than a crush.

*****

The Lancers said their goodnights and the ride home was much lighter than the ride over.

"I think it went well," Murdoch said after a while.

"Yes, I enjoyed myself," Scott agreed.

"Yeah, it was fun."

They both looked over at him and gawked. Murdoch almost stopped the surrey.

"What?" Johnny asked innocently, then grinned.

Scott shook his head. "Did Val ever smile?"

"Just once early on."

Murdoch chuckled, knowing Val had enjoyed himself a little anyway. He'd seen him talking to some men and feasting on the food. His heart felt light this night.

When they got home, Jelly limped to his room, grumbling the entire way about pushy women and being cursed with a light step himself. The others laughed at him all the way in the house.

Murdoch poured them all a drink and noticed Scott had grown somber. "Something wrong, son?"

He looked up as he accepted the glass. "No, nothing. I did want to discuss something but it can wait until tomorrow."

"We're here now, brother," Johnny shrugged.

"Yes, and we're all in a good mood. I don't care to spoil it," Scott cocked a brow and took a drink.

"Well, that's the best way to spoil it right there. Just say it, Scott," Johnny said.

Scott sighed and looked into his glass, swirling the amber liquid around as he thought. "If I do, I don't want you getting angry and walking out, Johnny. You need to hear this."

Johnny leaned forward, resting his forearms on his thighs as his glass dangled from his right hand. "Okay."

Scott nodded and stood, wanting some distance between himself and his sometimes temperamental brother.

"I talked to Millie Barren for quite a while tonight. She's a sweet girl," he stopped and smiled. "She told me that Teresa confessed to her three months after we arrived at Lancer that she was in love with you. Millie said the two of them conspired many times to get you to notice Teresa. She came to see Teresa after the .... her marriage and Teresa practically threw her out. Millie said Folger heard her ask Teresa how she could betray you. She said it was evident that Folger was not surprised at this statement. He focused his hatred on you because he knew how Teresa felt about you, Johnny. It was nothing more than pure jealousy."

Scott let out the breath and took a long sip of his whiskey as he watched his brother.

Johnny had stared at the floor the entire time, having no reaction which worried his family more than any outburst would.

"Am I suppose to have something to say about that?" he finally asked quietly.

"No, son. Just know that it wasn't anything from your past. He hated you because of her and he was already after Lancer before that. So, as Scott said, it was nothing more than jealousy," Murdoch imparted.

Johnny raised his head then. "You knew about this?"

"Scott and I discussed the possibility since the subject had come up more than once. It was his idea to talk to Millie."

"She's deeply hurt by what Teresa did, as well. She told me the whole valley was in turmoil. Her father had some choice words to say about it but, being a lady, she couldn't repeat them," Scott grinned. "It was good to hear that," he added.

"She say anything else?" Johnny asked.

"She said the last time they really talked about you was New Year's Day. That red dress Teresa made was for you. Millie said she was sobbing to her about how it didn't work and Millie told her she needed to drop the whole thing."

"Reckon she took that advice to heart," Johnny sneered.

No one spoke after that and after a few minutes, Johnny sighed, downed his drink and stood. "Goodnight."

"Johnny, wait a minute," Murdoch said and walked over to him. Finding his son's eyes, he held them with his own. "You see now, right? You see it had nothing to do with Madrid or the past?"

Johnny nodded. "Yeah, I see. Goodnight, Murdoch," he said softly and left the room.

"Do you think he really does understand?" Murdoch asked.

"Yes, I think he does but I'm wondering about something else, now."

Murdoch wasn't sure he wanted to hear that but he asked anyway.

"That maybe Johnny had feelings for Teresa, too. He told me he didn't, but he was angry at the time," Scott said.

"Millie told you what Teresa said to her," Murdoch argued.

"Yes, and maybe I'm wrong, Sir."

"How about we get some sleep and not start looking for even more problems? We'll keep an eye on Johnny," Murdoch said and wrapped an arm around his son's waist as they walked toward the stairs together.

*****

Johnny slid between the cool sheets and sighed as he got comfortable. Lying on his back with his hands behind his head, he stared at the ceiling. He should be relieved but he wasn't. Why couldn't he let it go? Let her go? He was still more than angry with her, still felt hatred for her. Had she been in love with him? He'd laughed in her face in the hotel room that day when she'd said it. But, wasn't there a part of him then that believed it could be true?

And what if it was? So what? It sure wasn't his fault if she had feelings for him. It wasn't his fault he had none of that kind for her, either. So why did he feel guilty about it? Murdoch was right. Folger was after the ranch long before he started pursuing Teresa. And he reckoned the bastard had loved her. Otherwise, he wouldn't have confessed to keep her off the stand.

She was ruined, he knew. She could never come back and he was glad for it. He never wanted to see her again and he wished Scott would stop bringing her up. He knew why his brother had gone to these lengths to find the truth and he really was grateful to Scott. He'd needed to know why Folger was so bent on killing him.

He shook his head. She'd drawn a gun on him because Folger had told her to. If that's her kind of love! He sighed loudly. A woman scorned. He almost laughed aloud at the thought. He supposed he'd scorned a few in his time but none of them had tried to kill him for it. He knew he would never understand why she'd done this. He also knew he needed to let it go. How, was the question.

His brows knitted together. Same way he'd let go of his mother's lies, he imagined. Then, he snorted. He hadn't really let go of that, just buried it so deep, he didn't think about it anymore. Well, he'd just have to bury this, too. Just take some time, that's all. Just like everyone kept telling him. Time. It didn't pass very quickly sometimes; other times, it flew by at dizzying speeds.

He moved his right arm and rubbed his face vigorously. He wasn't going to sleep, that was plain. Johnny sat up and pulled on his pants, not bothering with shirt or boots. He walked downstairs and outside to the veranda, sitting on the wall and staring at the stars.

Billions of them. That's what Scott had said. How he knew that, how anyone knew that was a mystery to him. Surely, no one had actually counted to a billion. And how could they in one night? How could they know which ones they'd already counted? And why the hell was he thinking about that?

Johnny laughed softly at himself and judged he was just about loco now. So, he decided to just watch them and appreciate their beauty, no matter how many there were.

He heard the door open and looked around to find his brother emerge from the shadows.

"I see you couldn't sleep, either," Scott smiled.

"Guess not. Say, how do you know there are billions of stars? How could anyone count them all?"

Scott sat beside his brother. "Well, it's a calculation. An educated guess. No one could actually count them all," he replied as his eyes went heavenward.

"Well, all I know is they're pretty," Johnny sighed.

Scott watched his profile for several quiet moments.

"Hear that?" Johnny asked, his head cocking to the side.

Scott listened but heard nothing. "What do you hear?"

"Nothin. Nice, huh?" Johnny grinned.

Scott laughed. "Yes, it is nice. Very nice."

Johnny turned so his back rested on the column behind him and bent one knee to plant a foot firmly on the wall in front of him. He looked seriously at his brother.

"I appreciate you goin to all that trouble, Scott. But, can we let it go now?"

"I can if you can, brother. If you can stop blaming yourself for everything that happened," Scott cocked a brow.

Johnny smiled softly and nodded his head. "I can."

"There is still one problem," Scott mentioned, trying to sound nonchalant.

"Daniels. Or whatever his name is."

"Yes. I wish the Pinkerton's would find something."

"Well, I don't know what we can do about it, Scott. I mean, he's not likely to show up here unless this is personal for him."

Scott frowned at that thought. "I don't see how that can be. We're strong now. He would have come sooner while we were still low on men if he wanted to take another shot at us."

"Maybe. Unless he was waitin to see how Folger fared. Maybe he didn't want to take a chance on someone figuring it out."

"Well, I suppose we could sit here all night and debate the what if's," Scott sighed.

"But, you'd rather go to bed," Johnny grinned. He slid his foot down and stood up. "Me, too, brother. Let's give it another go."

*****

Daniels sat calmly as the man paced before him in the hotel room.

"Well, now what are you going to do? All your plans have been ruined by those Lancers!" the man fumed.

"Calm down, Rich. I think a more direct approach is needed now," he smiled.

"Like what?"

Daniels rose and paced across the room, his hands clasped behind his back. "I was so close! I had them all right here," he stated as he clenched his right fist. "Sometimes, subterfuge and cunning have to be tossed aside. We got more than I expected from those mines even if part of it will be returned to the Lancers. There's still plenty left and we are both set for life with our shares," he stopped and grinned at the thought.

"Much more gold than the last time," he added as an afterthought.

"Are you saying it was worth it?" Rich asked in shock.

"Of course not! Spending a year in prison was never part of the plan. If it hadn't been for Johnny Lancer and Sheriff Crawford, my plan would have worked perfectly. If Folger hadn't been such a bungling fool, Lancer would be dead and Crawford would be long gone!"

"So now what? Like you said, we're set for life. Why not just leave it?"

Daniels whirled and faced the man with a menacing glare. "Oh no. Those people cost me a year of my life and a lot of money. No, I won't be finished until Green River is in ashes and Crawford and the Lancers are destroyed!" he vowed.

Rich sat down and studied the man. He hadn't known him all that long but he was smart and his plan for the valley had been a stroke of genius. If he'd only found someone with more sense than Folger to do the deed and if the man hadn't fallen for that girl, this may have worked out a lot better. He hadn't counted on the Lancers, or Crawford for that matter, being so tenacious. Then again, he'd never had anything that mattered much to him in his life. Maybe that's how people were when they had a lot to lose. Well, now he had a lot to lose, too. A lot of money. He'd been dumbstruck when he'd happened on that old miner. Even more so when he found out the man had been killed. That wasn't until after he'd told his partner of the find. Rich was almost certain Daniels had killed the man to keep him quiet. That's when he'd brought Folger in to survey the strike. When they'd discovered it was on Lancer land, Daniels was nearly salivating. Well, he didn't know a lot about what had happened in the past and he didn't care. He wasn't willing to risk his neck on more plots of revenge. Folger had already paid that price.

"Listen, I think it's time we dissolved this partnership. I've got no grudge against those people. You do what you have to do and I'll just go my own way," he said calmly.

Daniels looked up and smiled at him. "Sure, Rich. I don't need you for this. It's not exactly your type of work anyway. Where will you go?"

Rich sighed in relief. "I'm going to travel the world, my friend. Anywhere outside the country," he grinned.

Daniels nodded. "We'll go to the bank first thing in the morning and make a clean break."

"What about that account you opened in Madrid's name?" Rich asked.

"I'm afraid we can't go near that now. Folger messed that up, too! Don't worry, there's plenty more," he smiled.

Rich grinned. "It's been a pleasure, Nelson. Even if it didn't work out exactly as planned."

"You've been a good partner, Rich. And, by the way, you can call me by my real name now. Clay Criswell."

The next morning, Criswell transferred the largest portion of his funds to a bank in England and withdrew the rest. He mounted his horse and rode out of San Francisco.

The maid's scream could be heard two blocks away when she walked into the hotel room find that nice Mr. Rich dead in his bed, his throat slit ear to ear.

NOTE: For those who may not know who Clay Criswell is, he was the villain in Man Without a Gun. I think (hope) in the next two chapters, enough of that episode will be remembered for everyone to follow along.

*****

Murdoch sat with a pensive expression as he stared at the top of Val's desk. The envelope from the Pinkerton's dangled from his right hand.

"What do you make of it, Val?" he asked.

"Don't know, Mr. Lancer. The San Francisco police wired me about a man who'd been murdered in one of their hotels. They been keeping me updated on anything that happens just in case. Man's name was Harry Rich."

"I don't know that name," Murdoch said distractedly.

"Ain't necessarily his real name. So the Pinks are gonna start looking at anyone from your pasts as suspect?"

Murdoch nodded and Val grimaced.

"Could take a lot of time."

Murdoch's head came up and he frowned at the man.

"Especially Johnny," Val shrugged.

"I hope to God this isn't someone from Johnny's past, Val. We've finally convinced him Folger's hatred was over Teresa and not something to do with Madrid. If this Daniels or whoever he is has some grudge against Johnny, I don't know what he'll do," he said morosely.

Val said nothing but he knew exactly what Johnny would do. He saw no sense in upsetting his friend's father, though. He only hoped Murdoch's prayer would be answered. To his way of thinking, Johnny had paid for any 'sins' years ago.

"I expect you and Scott've made a few enemies in your lifetimes, too," he said.

Murdoch smiled a little. "I know I have. Scott, I can't imagine."

"What about that fella Cassidy?"

"No, he and Scott have been corresponding. He's in New York. Besides, they settled all that."

"Right. Well then ....." Val stopped and lowered his eyes to his desk, shuffling papers around.

"Val? What?"

"Nothin, Mr. Lancer. Just jawin is all."

"Spill it, Sheriff! We can't dismiss any possibilities!"

Val's head jerked up at the 'order' and he came within a hare's breath of telling Murdoch where to go. He calmed himself but gave Murdoch a sidelong look.

"Harlan Garrett," he spat the name.

Murdoch's brows nearly left his head as they shot up. "No, Val. Harlan wouldn't put Scott at risk or allow him to go to prison."

Val shrugged. "If you say so, Mr. Lancer. I was just thinkin out loud."

Murdoch gave him a small smile of apology. "It is something he'd come up with, though," he frowned and hoped he was wrong.

"Who?"

They both looked up to see Johnny at the door, Scott beside him.

"No one, son. We were just pondering who this Daniels might be. I have another report here but there's not much to it. The Pinkertonâ€s are going to start looking at past enemies and Val got some news from San Francisco."

"Not much. A man was murdered in a hotel. Ain't got much detail other than he seemed well to do and was seen with another man a lot. They're still investigatin and they'll let me know if anything comes up I might be interested in," Val said, trying to sound casual.

Scott moved inside and sat on the edge of the desk. "Johnny asked a question before. Who would have come up with such a plan?"

Murdoch wouldn't look at him and neither would Val. Scott sighed.


"I've already thought of it, you know. Grandfather wouldn't do this. It wouldn't serve his purposes in getting me back to Boston."

"Wouldn't it, son? If we lost the ranch, what would be left to keep you here?" Murdoch asked gently.

Johnny moved quickly, and paced toward the back of the room, his lips pressed tightly together to keep from saying something he probably would not regret anyway.

Scott glowered at his father. "Of course, you're right, Sir. What possible reason other than the ranch would I have for being here?" he shot.

"I didn't mean it like that, Scott! I simply meant that without a roof over our heads, Harlan might conceive of you returning to him!" Murdoch shouted.

"It wasn't Garrett," Johnny said softly from the other side of the room.

"Why are you so sure?" Val asked.

"Ain't his style," Johnny shrugged. "Too many other people were involved. I figure the old man would want to be hands on like he was before. Besides, he ain't tried nothin since that one time and that was two years ago. Scott's said he's been behavin himself since then," he smiled a little at his brother.

"Thank you, Johnny. I'm glad someone listens to me," Scott said indignantly.

"Look, we was just tryin to come up with somethin, Scott. Just throwin names out there to see if any bit," Val explained.

Scott only nodded and they all fell quiet for a bit.

"This is someone who's smart, alright. Someone with a grudge against Lancer, for sure. Someone who was lookin for a way in and used Folger to get it. Only Folger was a fool and screwed everything up. The way I see it, he's gonna be mad as a wet hen about that. He'll be wantin his revenge still. This wasn't business, it was personal."

They all looked at Johnny as they considered his statement.

"Why do you think it's personal?" Murdoch asked.

"Well, I'm not really sure. It's more of a feelin than anything I can point to. They tried to make it look legal so we know it's some kind of conman. Folger was too emotional to plan this all out by himself. Someone was pulling his strings so why would they go to all the trouble? Why not just kill us off and take Lancer? That would've been a lot easier than settin us up to lose everything. So, it's either someone who wanted us to suffer or someone who don't like killin. Since Folger had no problems tryin to kill, I figure his partner doesn't either."

"Especially if the dead man in San Francisco has anything to do with this," Scott added.

"Yeah, they said his throat was slit," Val imparted.

"So, again, he's smart. Killin quiet then probably leavin just as quiet," Johnny said.

"Val, could you ask the San Francisco police to check if any large sums of money were withdrawn from a bank the day of or after this man was killed? If the murderer is Daniels, he would have left the city quickly and he would have taken his money with him," Scott suggested.

"The murder could be totally unrelated, though. People get killed everyday," Murdoch surmised.

"True enough but, at the moment, it's all we have," Scott sighed.

The Lancers left Val to his work and rode home quietly. Murdoch felt he should apologize to Scott but part of him did wonder if Harlan had a hand in all this. Still, he shouldn't have been such an ass about it.

"Scott, I'm sorry about what I said. I didn't mean to imply you had no reason to be here other than the land," he piped up.

"I know," Scott replied stiffly.

Murdoch sighed to himself at the formal reply. He glanced over at Johnny who was looking straight ahead with just as grim an expression as his brother. So, he's mad at me, too.

"Scott?"

"Yes, Johnny?"

"Race ya."

Scott looked over and met the dancing eyes of his brother. With a smile sliding up his own face he nodded and they took off like two bolts of lightning.

Murdoch kept his slow gait and watched them tear up the ground, wondering if Johnny was trying to get Scott away from him before he stuck his foot even further in his mouth. He smiled just a little at that thought and the scene that was quickly disappearing before him.

*****

Clay Criswell sat at the mouth of the cave and watched the small campfire dance before his eyes. He envisioned that fire growing larger, hotter and brighter as it consumed building after building, starting with the jail. A wicked grin spread across his face as he saw in his mind's eye the carnage, the screaming weaklings running through the streets in a panic. And all the while the good sheriff ranting and raving for someone to help.

He laughed out loud at that vision. Then, another came to mind. Lancer ablaze, it's adobe brick baking and crumbling, barns and bunkhouses crackling as the red and yellow flames consumed the very air and thick black smoke covered the landscape. From Green River to Lancer, there would be nothing but devastation. Death would fell every tree, bush, animal and man. And he laughed again.

The three men sitting around the fire looked at him quizzically at first, then warily. Sharing looks between themselves, they rose and walked away from him. Criswell never even noticed.

"I ain't so sure about this. That man is crazy," said one.

"So what? His money spends like anyone else's," another snorted.

"Maybe, but burn the whole valley? Just the four of us? How're we gonna do that?" the first asked.

"If you will all rejoin me, gentlemen, I'll tell you exactly how we are going to do that," Criswell said from the shadows.

All three jumped and turned quickly, drawing their guns then sighing shakily as they reholstered.

Criswell kept right on smiling and walked back to the camp site. Once the three men joined him, he picked up a stick and began drawing a crude map in the dirt at his feet.

"It's all about timing, gentlemen. That is the key to any good plan," he began. "In three days, we will begin precisely at midnight. Harper, you and Smith will go to Lancer and set three fires. One in the barn, one in the kitchen and one in the field behind the house."

"Dontcha think someone will see us before we get all that done?" the man asked.

"Not if you follow my instructions to the letter. Now, at the same time, Murray and I will be in Green River setting fire to the jail, the church at the north end and the hotel at the south end."

"How?" asked Murray.

Criswell was not deterred by their suspicions. He continued as if he hadn't been interrupted. "Harper, start with the barn. Anyone who may happen to notice will sound the alarm and the whole ranch will be concentrating on putting out that fire. Then, you'll sneak into the kitchen and set it afire. While this is happening, Smith will be setting blaze to the field. They'll be surrounded and begin to panic.

"I'll torch the jail then the hotel while Murray takes care of the church. The whole town will go up like kindling before they know what hit them," he grinned and the light from the campfire danced in his eyes, casting a surreal impression that his very eyes were made of fire - or maybe brimstone.

"I ain't real sure bout burnin no church down, Mr. Criswell," Murray said doubtfully.

He sighed, his frustration showing for the first time. "Fine! I'll take the church and you take the hotel."

"How come we gotta wait three days, Mr. Criswell? Why don't we just do it tomorra night?" Smith asked.

"Because, I have some business to attend to. A little insurance. We need to get the sheriff away from town." This he had decided only a few minutes ago. He had no intention of underestimating Crawford again.

"How're ya gonna do that?"

"Don't you worry about that. Just hold up here until I tell you I'm ready. I'll be riding out tomorrow and I may not be back until the next day. So rest up and stay put!"

*****

The next day, Criswell rode out early, leaving the men sleeping noisily. He sighed as he gave them one cursory glance. Well, they were the best he could do on such short notice. He was confident they would do his bidding even if it didn't 'sit well' with them. Money could drive a man to do just about anything, he'd learned. He chuckled as he slapped the reins and moved out.

Murray was the first to awaken around noon followed soon by the others. Once they'd eaten and cleaned the camp up, they sat staring at the ground.

"How long ya reckon he'll be gone?" Murray asked.

"Said probably all day and night," replied Harper.

"So, why do we hafta sit here and watch the weeds die? Nobody knows us round here. Let's go ta town and have some fun. Might be the last we get for a while," Murray groused.

"Yeah, specially since we'll probably hafta hightail it ta Mexico after this!" Smith piped up.

"Man said ta stay put and since he's payin our salary, we'd best do as he says," warned Harper.

"Yeah? I ain't seen a dime yet. How do we know he's even got any money?" This was Murray.

"Did ya look at him? Them fancy duds and that nice horse and saddle. He's sittin pretty, alright," Harper said.

"Still, he ain't gonna know. We ain't gotta go to Green River. There's another little town we can go to. Morro Coyo," Smith informed them.

They fell quiet for a while then looked up at each other with slow grins. Soon enough, they were saddled up and heading for town.

*****

Johnny tapped the side of the wagon as he waited for Scott. His eyes kept straying to the saloon and he licked his lips. Sighing loudly he pushed away from the wagon bed and began pacing the boardwalk in front of Baldemero's. How long does it take to pick up a couple of books? he wondered - again.

At long last, Scott emerged from the store looking only half-satisfied.

"Somethin wrong?" Johnny asked.

"Yes. Only two of the books came. The other one is on back order and won't be in until next month," Scott griped as he stored his package under the seat.

Johnny cocked a brow. "How long's it gonna take you to read those two?"

Scott scowled at him. "That's not the point."

Johnny grinned and ducked his head for a second. "I'll bet a beer would make you feel better."

Scott sighed and looked at him seriously. "I believe you are right." He smiled widely then and grabbed his brother around the neck, pulling him across the street.

They walked in and settled at a table on the left of the room. Scott ordered two beers and removed his hat, tossing it in the empty chair beside him then resting his forearms on the table. Johnny stretched his legs out and crossed his ankles, slouching down in his chair and clasping his hands loosely in front of him.

They didn't talk much at first, just sat quietly enjoying the afternoon and each other's company.

"Seems like old times," Johnny said softly after a while.

Scott smiled wanly. "Yes, feels good."

Johnny straightened and leaned forward as he took another long pull of his beer. "You ever thought about gettin the old man to come out with us some night?"

Scott jerked forward, sputtering as he fought to swallow the beer in his mouth. He sat the mug down and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

"Are you trying to choke me?"

Johnny laughed and slapped him on the back. "I mean it, Scott. What's he ever do but sit at the desk and look at those damned books? He never has any fun. It'd do him good."

"We just had that picnic at the Townsend ranch," Scott reminded him.

"Yeah, but there were a lot of people there and he had to be all polite. Maybe, if it was just us, he'd loosen up some," Johnny shrugged.

Scott bit the inside of his cheek. "So, you think going out to a saloon with his *sons* is going to loosen the old man up? He'd spend the entire time scolding us on behaving ourselves."

Johnny's brows went up at this. "Guess you're right about that. Well, he needs to have some fun, that's all. Hey! Maybe we can hook him up with a lady."

"There's not a lady in this valley you would approve of," Scott noted.

Johnny looked at him in confusion. "Me?"

"Yes, you. Or haven't you noticed that anytime Murdoch has a woman friend around, you try to find out what's wrong with her."

Johnny sat back in his chair, stunned. "What are you talking about? I don't do that!"

It was Scott's turn to look stunned. "Oh, come on, Johnny. What about Mrs. Dane? Or Lizzie or Aggie."

"Hold on there, brother. I like Aggie. She's got lousy taste in men but I like her. And those other two were schemin."

"Johnny," Scott dragged out his name.

"Well, Mrs. Dane was. Lizzie, she just had some tough breaks," he admitted begrudgingly.

Scott shook his head in exasperation. "Why are you all the sudden so interested in our father's social life?"

Johnny shrugged and looked at the table. "I don't know. Just seems like he needs something to occupy him."

Scott grimaced. 'You mean to get his mind off Teresa,' he thought but dared not say.

"I'm sure he's quite old enough to occupy himself," he said instead.

"Tal vez," Johnny sighed.

One of the men at the next table reached over and tapped Johnny on the arm.

"Scuse me, mister. Don't mean to interrupt but did I just hear you say somethin in Spanish?"

Scott tensed and Johnny looked hard at the man.

"What if I did?" he asked.

"Well, it's just that me and my friends was thinkin bout headin ta Mexico in a few days and, well, we ain't never been."

Johnny smiled a little. "You want me to teach you Spanish?"

The man looked blankly at him then laughed boisterously. "Nah, not that. I was just wonderin, well, if you was familiar like with the place, ya could tell us some good places ta go. You know, for a good time," he grinned and winked.

Johnny's first thought was why would I do that to Mexico? His eyes raked over the three men and figured they wouldn't last long. He almost told them to go to Nogales but that wasn't very charitable of him.

"Well, exactly what type of a good time are we talkin about?" he asked.

"Someplace with lots of pretty senoritas that like to have fun. Don't matter if they speak English. We'll have somethin that anybody can understand," one of the others piped in with a sickening grin.

"Oh? What's that?" Scott had to ask.

"Greenbacks, mister," he winked.

Scott hoped his smile didn't resemble the grimace he wanted it to be too much.

"Well, if you want a good time and not so much trouble, stay away from the border towns," Johnny advised. He had to wonder where these three were getting any money. They looked and smelled like they hadn't seen soap for weeks let alone the money to buy it with.

"Southern Mexico is real pretty. Lots of beaches and pretty girls, too. But, it's awfully expensive that far south," he went on.

The first one who spoke snorted loudly. "Ain't gonna be a problem here in a coupla days."

Johnny smiled tightly. All he really wanted was for them to shut up.

"Sounds like you gentlemen have struck it rich," Scott smiled and raised his glass in toasting fashion.

"Yeah, we're about to."

"Shut up, Murray!"

Scott and Johnny both looked at the man who had issued the order.

"I'm just tryin ta get some information, Harper. What's your problem?" Murray asked harshly.

"You got a big mouth. That's my problem," Harper retorted.

"I ain't told nobody nothin. I ain't stupid!"

"Excuse us, gentlemen, but we need to get going," Scott said and rose. He didn't want to get into the middle of this.

Johnny joined him, more than happy to leave the threesome to their bickering. He noticed the bartender out of the corner of his eye. The man was staring a hole through him and he walked over. Ben's eyes were flittering between Johnny and the threesome until Johnny thought they'd pop out of his head soon.

In a voice more loud than necessary, Johnny addressed the man. "Ben, don't I have a bar tab to settle?"

The man smiled and nodded his head, beads of sweat on his brow. "Uh, yeah, ya sure do. Let me go in the back and get it for ya."

"When did you have time to build up a bar tab?" Scott asked as he stood next to his brother at the bar.

"Didn't. Ben's about to bust a gut about something and it has to do with those three yahoos," Johnny said softly.

He feigned impatience and walked around the bar. "Damn, Ben, can't ya find it?" he shouted as he disappeared behind the curtain.

Scott leaned against the bar and shook his head, smiling at his brother's disappearing back.

Johnny returned in a few minutes, his face a total blank. He looked at nothing and headed straight out the door with Scott, somewhat surprised, hurrying to catch him up.

"Johnny?"

"Let's get out of town, first, Scott," he said as he jumped onto the wagon bench.

Scott felt his patience waning the further they drove. Just when he didn't think he could stand it any longer, Johnny pulled over and set the brake then jumped down and walked over to a tree. He leaned against it, closing his eyes for a few seconds until Scott joined him.

"What is it, Johnny?" he asked briskly.

"I'm not sure it's anything, really. But, Ben said those three came in about an hour before us and were asking how to find the ranch. Then they sat with their heads together whispering. He brought them a bottle and he says he could swear he heard the word 'fire'. It might not be anything but they seemed pretty sure they would be rolling in money pretty soon."

Scott listened and thought about the three men and the conversation. And about the one who was angry with the big mouth. He began to pace and Johnny waited for him to think it all out.

"We never did find out who this Daniels is," Johnny reminded him.

Scott nodded but never stopped pacing. Then, he did.

"They said in a couple of days they'd be rich men. That means whatever they're planning is going to happen very soon."

"Yeah, like tonight maybe."

"Maybe, but why would they be in town today? Seems to me they would be making sure they were sober for the job, whatever it is."

Johnny nodded. "Makes sense but they ain't too bright, Scott."

"No, but Daniels is. Do you think we should lean on them?"

Johnny's eyes came up and sparkled with humor as he studied his brother's serious countenance. "Lean on them? Sure, Scott. Let's go beat the hell out of them."

Scott rolled his eyes. "Do you have a better idea?"

Johnny's grin widened. "Yep, follow them."

*****

Scott was still trying to figure how Johnny had convinced him of this as he drove the wagon into the yard. Somehow, his brother had talked him into letting him track these men while Scott returned to the ranch to fill Murdoch in. He wondered what their father would think of their conclusions. After all, this could simply be paranoia on their parts. But his gut said different.

Murdoch stood in front of the picture window and stared out over the land. Scott waited to hear they were both crazy. Waited for his father to tell him he was seeing problems where there were none. Murdoch finally turned to face him.

"I wish you had gone with your brother, Scott. We don't have any idea where he's headed or if these men are alone. There could be a dozen more waiting in some hideout."

Scott opened his mouth and left it there for a few seconds. "Then, you're taking this seriously?"

"As you said, Daniels is still out there. We know nothing about the man. What are your instincts telling you, son?"

"That we're in trouble," Scott stated adamantly.

Murdoch nodded his head. "I trust you and your brother. It's obvious Johnny feels the same way. But, if he isn't back by nightfall, we'll go after him."

Scott frowned. "That's the problem, Sir. We have no idea where he is. I knew I should have gone with him!" he spat the last in frustration.

Murdoch walked over to his son and laid a hand on his shoulder. "There's no sense in second guessing yourself now. Johnny must have put up a good argument for you to agree with him. I hate that he's out there alone, but he knows what he's doing, son."

*****

Johnny slid silently along the side of the cave and hunkered down in some thick bushes just to the side of the opening. The three of them bedded down their animals and started a fire then fixed their supper. He thought he might fall asleep watching all this drama. Johnny grinned at himself then leaned forward a little as they started talking.

"Southern Mexico. Sounds right nice," Murray smiled.

"How's prison sound to ya? You coulda blown the whole thing talkin to them two strangers," Harper griped.

"Now, how are they gonna know what we meant? Ain't like I told 'em nothin."

"That was pure luck! Another drink or two and you woulda been askin 'em if they wanted in on the deal!" Harper went on.

"Weren't no harm done. Let's just drop it," Smith said.

"Well, just make sure Mr. Criswell don't hear about this," Harper said, refusing to let it go just yet.

Johnny's eyes widened in surprise. Criswell!?

"How can he? We didn't go to Green River and he won't be back til mornin at the earliest. 'Sides, ain't gonna be no Green River after tomorra night," Murray snickered. "I still don't like the idea of burnin a church, though," he added with a frown.

"He said he'd do it so ya don't hafta. All you gotta do is burn a stupid hotel. Me and Smith's got the hard part. You know how many hands the Lancers probably got? Settin fire to a barn is one thing, but the kitchen and a field too? And all at the same time!"

"Wonder why he picked midnight? Some folks might still be up," Smith said suddenly.

"Not ranchers. They go ta bed with the sunset," Harper explained.

"Yeah, reckon that's true. Still, don't know how he expects us to light it all at the same time. And how's he gonna burn a jail AND a church all at once?" Smith pondered.

Harper sighed and looked pitiably at the idiot. "Ain't like he meant exactly the same time. Ain't possible ta do that. Just meant ta start at midnight."

Johnny couldn't move he was so shocked. Clay Criswell? That was one name he'd never have come up with. Partly because he thought the man was still in prison. Boy, he must really have a hate on to go to all this trouble. He closed his eyes and sighed inwardly. Sure, Green River - Val had ruined his plan to steal the gold and he had been right there with Val. He shook his head and pulled himself together. It was getting dark and he knew his family would be worried. Johnny eased backwards and left the campsite.

*****

He rode up to the house and slid off the rented horse, leaving it tied to the hitching post. He smiled when he saw Val's horse standing there. The smile left his face when he was met with three very grim faces.

"What happened?" Johnny asked.

"I'm glad you're back and safe, son, but we don't have time to talk. Someone robbed the bank and Val needs help. He tracked them this way," Murdoch explained quickly as he finished buckling his gunbelt.

"You can't go after them," Johnny said.

Val looked at him as if he were crazy. "What'ya mean? I gotta go after 'em!"

"It's a set up, Val. They're trying to get you away from Green River and gettin us away from Lancer would be a nice bonus."

"Johnny, what are you talking about?" Scott asked.

"Sit down and I'll tell you what I found out," Johnny sighed as he took his hat off and flung it on a nearby table.

By the time he had finished telling them what he knew, Val was livid. He paced the room, fists clenched.

"So, he's gonna burn the whole town and Lancer, is he?' Val said snidely.

"That's his plan. Now, the question is, how do we want to stop him?" Johnny asked.

"That's easy. In the act!" Val spat.

"Johnny, are you sure the bank robbery is a ruse? What if you're wrong?" Scott asked.

"I'm pretty sure but no, I'm not positive, Scott. Criswell wasn't there and they weren't expecting him until morning. It's just too much of a coincidence."

"Johnny's right, I just know it. He didn't take much, just what was in the drawers and it was only one man. Teller said he seemed in an all-fire hurry," Val said.

"Well, I suppose we should make a plan, then," Scott suggested.

They quickly came up with a plan to assure Criswell that Val was taking the bait. He rode out with three hands and would make his way back to the hacienda later in the night. The sheriff would lay low during the next day to make it look like he'd gone after the robber. The house shut down for the night as normal in case Criswell was watching.

The Lancers sat in the dark of the living room and talked about how to catch Criswell and his men. By the time Val returned, they felt they had almost all of it sorted out. Except for Murdoch's stubbornness.

*****

Val walked in through the kitchen with a biscuit in his mouth. "Found more tracks. He sure put on a production!" He pulled up short as silence greeted him. He didn't have to see their faces to know how they all three looked.

"What's the problem now?" he asked.

"We've been talking it through, Val. Johnny wants to be in Green River with you while Murdoch and I take care of the ranch," Scott explained in a monotone.

"And?" the sheriff questioned.

"And Murdoch thinks I'm five years old!" Johnny shot.

"That is not what I meant and you know it! I simply think we should stay together," Murdoch retorted.

Val sighed and plopped down in a chair. "Well, I gotta say I'd rather have Johnny at my side but it's up to all of you."

"See? Come on, Murdoch, who's gonna help Val. Mayor Higgs?" Johnny asked sarcastically.

"I know how ya feel, Mr. Lancer. Ya just got your family back together and ya don't want nothin happenin. I can't make no promises, neither. But me and Johnny can read each other pretty well and I ain't got time ta find anybody else I can trust," Val explained, his voice amazingly calm. "Don't trust nobody else, noways," he added under his breath.

Johnny, who was sitting beside him, was the only one who heard the last part and he smiled.

Murdoch's sigh resonated through the darkened room. "Just be careful, that's all."

Johnny shook his head. "I will, old man," he said softly.

"Well, now that's settled, I think we should all get some rest," Scott suggested.

*****

The next day was hard on the Lancers, going about their business as if nothing was afoot. But, it was much tougher on Val who had to stay indoors all day, away from the windows and doors. He sat in the kitchen while Maria prepared lunch and stared into a coffee cup.

"Senor, you will watch over Johnny, si?" she said suddenly.

So suddenly, Val jerked his head up from his thoughts. "Uh, sure, ma'am. Me and Johnny go way back. I'll watch out for him," he said and actually smiled at the woman.

She returned it and sat beside him. "Johnny is especial to me. You know he is mia sobrino."

"Yes'm, I do know that. But, I'll tell ya what I told his pa last night. I can't promise nothin'll happen but I'll do my best to keep him safe."

"This is all I can ask of you," she said, a sadness in her brown eyes.

"Ma'am? I never got to tell ya how sorry I was ta hear bout Cipriano. He was one of the finest men I ever did meet," Val spoke gently.

"Gracias, Sheriff," she said softly and went back to her stove.

Val felt like kicking himself for even bringing it up. He never was good with words, especially words of sympathy. He closed his eyes and sighed then turned to see what he knew was already there. Johnny was watching him from the doorway with a soft smile on his lips and that damned mischief in his eyes.

Val frowned at him and turned back to the table.

Johnny pushed away from the doorway and walked in, giving Maria a kiss on the cheek before joining his friend.

"How's it look out there?"

"Nothin out of the ordinary. I don't think Criswell's watching anymore. Probably somewhere sleepin til tonight," Johnny answered with some bitterness.

"Look, I got a whole mess of people expectin me ta keep your sorry hide alive. Don't you go gettin any crazy ideas tonight, Johnny. I mean it, now!"

Johnny gave him the most innocent look he could manage. "Who me?" he laughed. "Don't worry about me, Val. Just keep your own temper," he said, using a warning tone.

"Yeah, yeah. I ain't gonna have no temper left if I stay cooped up here much longer!"

Johnny rolled his eyes but said nothing as the rest of the family joined them. They went over the plan once more just to make sure everyone was on the same page. All eyes went to Johnny.

"What? You know it's a wonder I've stayed alive all these years without the lot of you to watch over my shoulder! I can take care of myself," he said indignantly.

"Yes, like you did when you let Bentley shoot you," Murdoch said.

"Let? Oh, well, see you should have explained it to me, Murdoch. Am I not supposed to let them shoot me? Ya mean I'm supposed ta duck!" Johnny shot sarcastically.

For a moment they all thought he was joking but when the chair clattered to the floor and he stormed out of the room, it was obvious he was not.

They all sat there with their mouths hanging open, stunned silent.

"Why do you treat him like a child?" Maria asked.

"We don't ...." Scott started.

"Parada! Yes, you do, Senor Scott. Johnny is right. He has been taking care of himself for many years. I know you do not like to admit that but he knows what he is doing. You treat him as if he is, how do you say, a greenhorn!"

"Maria, I don't think showing concern is treating him like a child," Murdoch grumped.

She rounded the table to look him straight in the eye, her hands on her hips. "Concern? That is not concern, Senor. Concern is 'be careful' 'come back to us'. That is concern. Not making him guilty because some gringo shot him. Making him feel menos que un hombre."

"I wasn't trying to make him feel less than a man!" Murdoch argued. "I am trying to keep him alive!"

"How? By making him feel guilty? By making him lose his confidence?" she shot back.

"Murdoch, she's right," Scott said firmly. He stood up and walked toward the door, stopping beside the woman and giving her a kiss on the cheek before going after his brother.

Murdoch stared at his son's back then looked over at Val who was staring at the table.

"I suppose you think she's right, too," Murdoch groused.

Val looked up at him with a steady gaze. "Yep. You seem ta forget who your son is, Mr. Lancer. That'd be a mistake. He ain't perfect and he messes up like the rest of us. But, when it comes ta somethin like this, when it comes down to who you can count on ta get the job done; well, I'd rather have Johnny beside me than anybody. That's all I'm sayin. I know it's hard bein his father but ya gotta stop chokin him ta death."

Murdoch sighed. "Val, he's my son. I worry about that cavalier attitude of his."

"Let me ask ya somethin. You've seen Johnny when he's facin down somebody or there's real trouble right there in his face. Have ya ever seen him take it lightly?"

Murdoch frowned and studied his hands clasped on the table top. "No," he admitted.

"Then, trust him and let him do what he's gotta do. Same as you're doin what you got to." Val got up and walked out of the room, leaving Murdoch to ponder all that had been said.

"He loves you and this ranch. He will not take risks with his life," Maria said her last and went to the pantry.

*****

Scott leaned against the corral fence as he watched Johnny examine a horse's foreleg.

"Better rub it down good and get Jelly to put a poultice on it tonight," Johnny advised the hand then walked toward Scott.

He watched his brother tense as he neared him and Scott felt some guilt of his own. A sly grin came on his face, though.


"You really missed it, brother," Scott said.

Johnny slowed his gait and looked hard at Scott. "Missed what?"

"Maria just blistered Murdoch's ears," Scott laughed.

Johnny grinned though he didn't know what she'd gotten on the old man about. He stepped through the rails then leaned against them.

"Bout what?"

Scott's eyes danced. "Oh, about how Murdoch is treating you like a child and how he needs to remember you're grown and know what you're doing."

The smile slid off Johnny's face and he lowered his eyes.

Scott stopped smiling, too. "I guess part of that blistering was for me, as well. She was right, too. I guess we do forget you've been on your own for so long. I know it comes off sounding as if we don't have faith in your abilities but I hope you know that isn't the reason."

"What is the reason?" Johnny asked softly.

"Fear. The way you take things sometimes worries us, Johnny. But, I realized something as I was walking out here. You put on this front about how easy things will go but when it comes to the crunch, you're all business and never take anything for granted."

Johnny turned around and put his hands on the railing then starting picking off a splinter of wood. "I know I act like it's no big deal and I guess I know that gets on your nerves. It's just that after all this time, I figured you knew it was just the way I am. Like you said, I don't take things for granted. Anything can happen. I've seen it too many times not to believe it."

"Well, I think it's sinking in with Murdoch, too. I left the room but I'm sure Maria gave him more of a lecture."

Johnny laughed softly. "That old man learns hard, don't he? Should know by now he can't argue with a woman. Especially a hot-blooded woman."

Scott crossed his arms and lowered his head as he chuckled. "I'm sure he's being re-educated as we speak."

"Maybe we should go rescue him," Johnny sighed.

"Or not," Scott shrugged.

Johnny looked over at his sometimes devilish brother and grinned then they both burst out laughing.

*****

They never did rescue Murdoch, figuring he probably deserved what he got, and went about their work. As night fell, the brothers returned to the estancia and Johnny stopped outside the door.

"What is it?" Scott asked.

"Oh, nothin. Just not sure I want to face Val. He's grumpier than I've seen him in a while."

Scott raised a brow. "Well, that is saying something, isn't it? Come on, time to face the music." He grabbed Johnny's shoulders and pushed him through the door.

"About time!" Val scorched.

"Told ya," Johnny mumbled.

"Good evening, Sheriff. Is there a problem?" Scott asked too politely.

Val sneered at him and crossed his arms over his chest as he went back to staring into the fireplace.

Scott shrugged and grinned then poured he and Johnny a drink. Handing one off, he sat on the sofa next to his father. Softly, he asked. "How are your ears, Sir?"

Murdoch frowned and shook his head in confusion but Scott didn't bother and just focused on his drink.

Johnny braved the fireplace and leaned against the wall opposite Val's side. "Get any rest?"

"Not hardly. Can't sleep in the daytime."

"Since when?" Johnny asked laconically and took a sip of his drink.

"Just keep it up, hombre. Remember who's supposed ta have your back tonight," Val gave him a sidelong look and Johnny grinned.

"Johnny, I, um, I wanted to .... well, to clarify what I was saying at lunch," Murdoch started.

Scott's eyes caught his brother's for a second but Johnny didn't want to play with his father tonight. Ordinarily, he'd go for it but he wasn't in the mood.

"I know what you meant, Murdoch. Let's just forget about it. We all need to try and relax a little while we can." He knew his tone was sharper than he'd intended but he always got edgy before a fight and this wasn't the time for getting sentimental.

But Murdoch recognized the irritability and mistook it as being solely directed toward him. "I don't think that's wise, son. You need to be calm and it sounds like you're angry with me."

Johnny sighed and dropped his head for a second before looking at the man. "I'm not angry with you. This ain't the time to talk it over. I'll be as calm as a breeze when it's time," he said assuredly.

Scott nudged his father a little and Murdoch scowled but dropped it. Maria called them to the table and they ate a relatively silent meal.

At eight o'clock, Val was checking his pistol, ready to go - finally!

Johnny had snuck out to the barn and saddled their horses then led them through the rear barn door and tied them off behind the house. He came back in and grabbed the rifle being tossed through the air at him by Val.

"The men all ready?" Johnny asked his father.

"Yes, they're ready. As soon as we take care of things here, we'll ride to town," Murdoch answered.

Johnny looked at his father and smiled. "Well, time to party."

"That. That right there is what aggravates me to ...." he stopped as the three of them started laughing. Murdoch inhaled deeply and put a hand on Johnny's shoulder. "Be careful and come back to us."

Johnny cocked a brow then smiled and nodded. He looked over at Scott and winked. "Keep that rifle hot, brother."

"You, too," Scott nodded and smiled back.

*

It took longer to reach town going the back way but they arrived around eleven thirty. Val was anxious as they approached the back of the jail. He relaxed measurably when he smelled no smoke. It would be his luck they decided to start early.

Johnny's eyes were alive as adrenaline rushed through his veins. He dismounted silently and spared a thought for his family. He couldn't give anymore than that right now. When it was over, he'd worry himself sick until he saw them again. Right now, he was focused on the task at hand.

He looked at Val then nodded and set off to the south end of town - to the hotel. He knew how badly Val wanted Criswell and since he'd gotten his enemy, Folger, he allowed the man should get his, too. Val never had gotten to see Criswell dirty. Maybe this time, he would, Johnny thought with a grin.

He took nothing for granted, though, and wasn't about to let his guard down. Those three saddle tramps had seemed about as bright as a rock but that didn't mean they weren't dangerous.

The town was quite as a church mouse and it was a little eerie. The saloon closed down early on Wednesdays and, of course, Criswell knew that. Johnny remembered all too well what a good liar the snake was. How he had convinced an entire town to lock their guns in the jail. A jail he'd taken over after ensuring Val was laid up with an injured leg. How he'd gotten Mayor Higgs to appoint him temporary sheriff so he could rob the gold shipment and how he'd had his men come into town to cause trouble only to back down from just Criswell's smooth talk.

Johnny grimaced as he remembered, too, how Criswell had suckered him into going to the jail for that fight only to be waylaid as soon as he walked through the door. He sighed to himself. It had been his temper that ruled him. His temper and his worry over his friend. Well, he had his temper under control and Val was just fine. Nothing was going to stop him from catching that piece of dirt in the act again. This time, he grinned, Criswell would get dirty even if he had to throw him to the dust himself.

He pressed his back against the side of the building and fought off the desire to look at his watch. He glanced at the sky but could see nothing for the tree nearby. It's huge branches swayed slightly in the breeze, rustling softly. He stopped breathing when he heard footsteps.

*****

Val hunkered down beside a large bush at the back corner of the jail. He was thankful he had no prisoners at the moment. All he needed was for the town drunk to start singin or snorin so he couldn't hear thunder. He made himself go still and quiet and waited with perked ears.

This time, Criswell would be rollin in the dirt if he had ta roll him! He grinned at that thought then sobered. Part of him was still angry with some of the townsfolk around here. Especially that fool mayor and barber. They'd licked Criswell's boots, droolin over the man and all the while he was playin them all for fools. Himself included.

He'd never admitted to Johnny that he had believed Criswell for a split second when the man had told him Johnny and Scott were playing him the fool. Laughing at him behind his back but that now they just felt sorry for him and wanted to pay him off so he'd leave town quietly. Val knew it wasn't true, had told Criswell he didn't believe it. But, for a second, for just that one second, he had thought it might be true. And he'd never forgiven himself for believing that of Johnny for he knew his friend was not that sort.

He didn't know Scott as well but he knew any brother of Johnny's was trustworthy. Any one Johnny trusted, Val trusted and vice versa. It was just that simple. He figured he'd just been feelin sorry for himself, laid up like he was and with the town turnin their backs on him. If they'd wanted a sheriff who'd just kiss their behinds, well, they coulda had that! But that wasn't him and never would be. He reckoned they'd accepted that since the cattlemen gave him the job back. Still, the town didn't hire him and he wondered if they still felt that way. Too bad! he thought angrily.

Again, he thought of how he'd rode out to Lancer that day to return the food Johnny had brought him when he was hurt. The money, too. He'd heard Johnny call after him but he hadn't stopped, couldn't face his friend and he'd counted himself a coward that day. But Johnny had come after him and didn't he know that would happen? Still, he was mule-headed and didn't want to hear his friend's truth. The truth he already knew himself.

He hadn't known what Criswell was after and hadn't cared. He really was going to ride out of there with the sixteen bullets he'd thrown in the kitty when he took the job and little else. He'd never needed much anyway. He'd thought about Lone Crow's kids and who they'd sell their blankets to when he was gone. But even the kids were swoonin all over Criswell. Val knew it was a hard way to learn a lesson but it was a lesson well worth learnin. For the adults and kids alike.

Then, Johnny had walked in and started mouthin at him and Zeke had come runnin in like the fool he was. Askin him, Val, wasn't he gonna do somethin! All the sudden he was the sheriff again. Well, the hell with that! And if Johnny hadn't been there ready ta take on the whole gang alone, Val would've left. He knew it as well as he knew his own name.

For all his blabberin about how he wasn't gonna help Johnny just because they were friends, that was exactly what he'd done and it was the only reason he'd done it, truth be told.

Val shook his head slowly and wondered at the way people acted. Some folks were plain selfish, thinkin only about what they wanted at that particular moment. Then, there were some who'd spill their own blood to help those that didn't deserve the help. That was Johnny and he reckoned, if he were honest, it was him, too. Why, he could not fathom.

Val stopped his revelry when he heard a twig snap and lowered himself even further in the bushes, gun in hand and licking his lips.

*****

Scott settled on the second story veranda, crouched behind the wall with rifle at the ready. He knew Murdoch was in the barn and he peeked over the edge briefly. The house was dark, not one lamp burning as was the bunkhouse. But, he knew they were all out there. They'd stationed several men in the field behind the house and several were with Murdoch. Scott had three men with him, covering all sides of the house since they weren't sure which direction the attack would come from.

Knowing where their hideout was didn't guarantee a direct approach. Of course, as dense as those three in the saloon had been, Scott figured them for the direct types. He smiled a little at the thought.

His thoughts turned to his brother then and he gave a quick prayer for his safety then returned to his vigil. Now was not the time to get distracted. Though, he had to wonder at the friendship between Johnny and Val. It was plain Val was a bit older and Johnny never had told him about how they met. He knew a little from the trial but he also knew there was more to it than that.

That Val had saved Johnny's life was all he really knew and he would forever be grateful to the man. Still, that didn't account for the camaraderie between them. The closeness that Scott had, at times, envied. He shook his head. Focus, Lancer, focus.

Criswell. He didn't know much about the man and hadn't been involved in that whole episode. All he knew was that Johnny was set on Val being re-elected sheriff and that he seemed to be the one losing clothing in that endeavor. He grinned a little and shook his head at his brother's antics. Then, he'd gone on his business trip and when he returned, it was all over.

Murdoch had filled him in but Scott felt there was something more. Something about Johnny and Val's friendship that wasn't being told. He had never asked and maybe he should have. His head came up as he thought he heard a sound.

*****

Murdoch had five men with him, ample force, he thought. Why Criswell thought he could do this with only three men was beyond the rancher. But, sometimes, the fewer involved the better. Plus, Criswell had no way of knowing his plan was about to blow up in his face. Murdoch almost smiled at that.

He thought back to when the man had darkened their lives before. He hadn't really been too involved at first. Johnny was determined Val make a good impression on the ranchers. Murdoch knew he was a good man and Johnny's impassioned belief in Val had sold him instantly. But, when he'd first gotten a look at Val, he had doubted his son's sanity. Johnny had assured him Val was much more than his clothing and lack of a razor and he'd been right.

Still, he'd argued lightly with his son that times were changing and Criswell's idea that the need to wear guns was becoming a thing of the past was worth thinking about. Johnny had told him in no uncertain terms they weren't ready for that and he'd been right. Murdoch looked to the future, Johnny was looking at what was right in front of him. He hadn't trusted Criswell and Murdoch thought again of how he should have listened to his son.

He shook his head. Another time he'd dismissed Johnny's instincts. How many times before you learn? he asked himself.

Then, Johnny had come to him and told him of Val's brief visit and cryptic words to Jelly. Murdoch's own instincts hollered at him and he'd gone to Val's with his son only to find him gone. When Lone Crow's children had finally told them enough for them to figure out what was about to happen, Murdoch had told Johnny specifically not to try anything on his own as he went for reinforcements. He later learned his son was going to do just that. He never listens to me! he thought with exasperation. And once again, he was grateful to Val for standing beside Johnny and taking Criswell down.

His thoughts were broken by a noise outside the barn. Murdoch looked over at his men and nodded. They all readied their rifles, aimed at the door and waited.

*****

Harper eased closer to the barn doors and crouched down as he peered through the darkness and listened intently for any sound. All he heard was cows and horses and a cricket or two. He smiled as he reached in his jacket pocket and produced a match. Raising his torch up in front of his face, he struck the match and lit the flame.

He pulled the latch up and swung the door open, his right arm back, prepared to toss the torch. Then he froze.

"Don't move a muscle, mister," Murdoch said in a low growl.

A lantern was lit inside the barn and Harper saw the five men standing there with him in their sights. His mouth hung open as he stood like a statue.

"Now, just hand over that torch very slowly," Murdoch ordered but still, he didn't move.

Murdoch sighed and stepped out of the barn, grabbing the torch and tossing it to the ground as he extinguished it with his boot heel.

"Where's your friend?' Murdoch asked.

"Huh?" Harper asked, still not able to comprehend what was happening.

"Your friend! The one who's supposed to set fire to my house!" Murdoch growled as he pulled the man into the barn and closed the door.

Scott smiled as he watched Murdoch take the man easily. He moved toward the back of the house where the kitchen was and scanned the area. The garden was directly below him and he indicated to the guard he was going to ground. He made his way down the outside stairs and to the corner. Then, he saw him.

Smith was moving slowly through the garden, taking his time. Scott frowned at this then figured it out. He was giving his partner time to torch the barn and for the alarm to sound so he wouldn't be spotted. He gritted his teeth, quietly set his rifle down while drawing his pistol and stood waiting.

Smith moved closer still then stopped and waited for something to happen. He didn't like this. Harper should have that barn ablaze by now. He was reconsidering his option when he heard a noise to his right. He spun and dropped the unlit torch while drawing his gun.

Two shots rang out in the night and two men went to the ground with grunts.

Murdoch's head jerked around at the sound and he started out of the barn. "Keep him here!" he yelled as he ran to the back of the house. He slowed and eased through the night, gun drawn and ready. It was too quiet and his heart hammered in his chest.

"Scott?" he chanced whispering.

"Over here, Mr. Lancer," Frank shouted. "We got the other one but Scott's hurt!"

Murdoch's pounding heart leapt in his chest as he ran toward the now lighted area. One hand held a lantern high as another lit a lamp in the kitchen. Yellow light spilled over Scott's prone body and Murdoch's step faltered briefly.

He dropped to his knees and called his son's name, his hand going to the side of Scott's head as he brushed back the soft hair.

*****

Johnny waited until he heard a creaking noise; footfalls on the wooden hotel steps. He moved quietly around the building and saw a flash of light as the torch was lit.

"I wouldn't," he said coldly.

Murray whirled around, nearly losing his balance as he had one foot on one step and the other one step higher. He wavered, the torch swaying over his head.

"Just walk back down to the street, mister, or I'll blow your head off right now," Johnny ordered.

Murray squinted in the dark to see who it was then his eyes widened. "You?" he barely breathed out.

Johnny grinned. "That's right and I'm only gonna say it once more before puttin a bullet in you. Step back!"

Murray blinked then did as he was told. He licked his lips and sweat popped out on his face. Johnny saw the look of a trapped man and shook his head.

"Don't even think about it, mister. I'm not in a charitable mood right now."

"Who are you?" Murray asked, his voice shaky now.

The grin slid further up Johnny's face. "Name's Lancer and right now, your friends are havin about the same kind of night as you. Now, drop that torch to the ground and put it out real good," he ordered, using his gun to wave toward the dirt.

Murray dropped his arm, more in defeat than anything else. His hand relaxed and the torch fell to the ground. He shoveled dirt over the flame with his boot then looked back up at Johnny.

"Toss the gun over here."

Murray did so, thinking only briefly of fighting his way out. But, he saw Johnny's eyes and thought better of that idea.

*****

Val eased to his full height and made his way around the corner of the jailhouse. He watched as Criswell snuck around the hitching post then shot a look all around. He almost laughed when he saw the fine clothes.

Criswell took out a match and struck it. His left hand was half-way to his right.

"Hold it right there."

He stopped and looked up into Val's eyes with a deep frown. They stood that way for just a few seconds until the match burned down to Criswell's fingers and he jerked his hand as he dropped the small stick.

"Why, Sheriff Crawford, what brings you out so late at night?" he asked, smiling.

Val sneered at him. "Could ask you the same thing, Mr. Criswell. What exactly was you plannin on doin with that torch?"

Criswell cleared his throat and continued smiling. "Well, it is rather dark. I was just trying to light my way."

"Uh huh. Light your way where? To the jail?" Val asked.

"Well, no, I was just passing this way."

"Goin where?" Val pressed.

Criswell licked his lips and laughed nervously. "Why, to the hotel to check in."

Val shook his head slowly back and forth. "Raise your hands up high over your head, mister," he said, punctuating the order with the barrel of his gun.

"Why? I haven't done anything wrong? I just arrived in town and was seeking shelter, Sheriff. Surely there's no crime in that."

Val took a deep breath. He'd shown an abundance of patience up until now that he simply did not usually possess. "Mr. Criswell, if you don't raise your hands right now, I got every legal right to shoot you down where you stand. Now, get 'em up!"

Criswell hesitated and Val's finger tightened on the trigger. He looked suspiciously at the man and knew he had some idea that was gonna be stupid. His hands came up slowly to his sides.

"All the way, Criswell. Or is it Nelson these days?" Val cocked a brow.

He didn't move, but the faltering expression gave him away and the sheriff locked onto his eyes. Then, Criswell moved.

*****

Johnny walked around the corner with his prisoner and saw Criswell go to the ground. He pulled up, grabbing Murray by the arm and waited.

Val walked over and tugged on Criswell's right sleeve, pulling a derringer out and snorting. "That the best ya could do?" he asked as he took the man's sidearm, as well.

Criswell's head came up then went right back down again.

"Need any help, Val?" Johnny called out.

"Nah, he ain't hurt too bad, I reckon. He's a might dirty though," Val said and a smile flushed his face.

Johnny chuckled and pushed Murray forward until he was standing next to Val. "I'll lock this one up then give ya a hand."

"Sure, we ain't goin nowhere," Val said and leaned against the hitching post, gun still trained on Criswell. "Look at that. Ya finally got dirty," he grinned at the still stunned man.

Sam walked out of the cell area and shook his head at the offer of coffee from Johnny. "He'll live. It was a flesh wound but you'd think Val put a bullet in his head," he grumped.

"Yeah, I figured him for a pansy," Johnny grinned.

"Well, reckon Murdoch and Scott'll be comin in soon with more company for 'em," Val noted and sat at his desk.

Johnny frowned and pulled his pocket watch out. He snapped it closed with an even deeper frown. "Should have been here by now."

No sooner were the words out of his mouth than they heard a horse coming in fast. Johnny flew out the door and stared at Frank.

"Need the Doc," Frank said breathlessly.

"Who?" Johnny managed to croak out.

Frank looked sadly at him. "Scott."

Johnny was gone before anyone could say another word. Sam headed off for his surrey and Frank filled Val in on what had happened. The sheriff instructed Frank to help the doctor and he ran to get Todd Masters to watch his prisoners.

Within ten minutes they were all headed for Lancer.

*****

Johnny galloped into the yard and jumped off his horse before it even came to a stop. He ran through the front door and took the steps two at a time as he skidded into Scott's room.

Murdoch was on his feet waiting to slow him down. He grabbed Johnny's arms as the younger man fought to get free.

"Johnny, calm down! It's not that bad!" Murdoch shouted.

Johnny stopped struggling and looked up into his father's face for the reassurance he knew the man's eyes would give him more than any words could. He relaxed and nodded and Murdoch let go.

Johnny walked over and sat gently on the edge of the mattress. Scott's eyes opened immediately.

"Hey, brother. Thought you were the careful one," Johnny said through heavy breaths.

"Did you fly home, brother?" Scott smiled sleepily.

"Yeah, I did. Barranca must be one of them winged horses you told me about once. Sam's on his way, too."

"Did you get Criswell?" Scott asked.

"Val got him. Had to shoot him but it wasn't serious. Now, how serious is this?" Johnny asked, looking at his brother's bandaged chest and frowning at the swathing.

Scott grinned as Johnny's eyes met his again. "Remember your burned thumb?"

Johnny laughed out his relief and glanced at Murdoch who was actually blushing a little.

"Better safe than sorry, boys," Murdoch shrugged.

Sam arrived and diagnosed Scott a lucky man. The bullet had cut a deep graze in his chest and he would be sore for quite some time but it wasn't life threatening. Had Scott not turned sideways at just the right second, things could have turned out much worse.

Val stood outside the bedroom door and fell against the wall, relieved and exhausted.

*****

San Quentin Prison Infirmary Women's Section

The nurse swaddled the baby in a blanket and offered it to it's mother. She turned her head and stared at the wall. The second nurse scowled at the first.

"You never offer the child. They can't keep them so there's no sense in letting them get any more attached," she explained.

The doctor returned to the room and took the child in his arms. "This one got lucky," he said as he took the baby away.

Both nurses frowned in confusion and followed the man to the visitors area. They watched as he handed the baby to a young woman with tears in her eyes. The young man with her wrapped his arm around her and pulled her and their new child in close. They thanked the doctor and walked away with their new family.

The doctor returned to the two nurses.

"Evidently an interested party contacted the prison and arranged for this couple to adopt the child as soon as it was born. They've been waiting three weeks now."

"Does she know them?" one nurse asked, tossing her head toward the room behind her.

"No, that was part of the agreement. The birth mother will never know the identity of the adoptive parents. As far as she knows, the child is on its way to the orphanage right now. It seems this person has already paid those folks' adoption fees," he shrugged.

"Well, at least the child will have a good home. They seemed well to do," the nurse noted.

"They are. Very well to do, in fact. They've been trying for a child of their own for three years now. They said this was a miracle for them," the doctor smiled. "Now, ladies, let's see to our remaining patient," he added and walked into the room.

 

 

Lancer

Murdoch Lancer read the letter again then stood and wadded the paper into a ball. He walked over to the fire and tossed it into the flames. The letter didn't tell him much, only what he needed to know. The child had been born, it's sex not disclosed, the adoption completed and the records sealed.

Returning to his desk, he stood and stared out over the land he loved so much. But not as much as he loved his sons, he thought with a small smile.

It was well and truly over now. As far as he was concerned, that chapter of his life was closed. No more loose ends to tie up. He sighed heavily then walked over and grabbed his hat. Placing it firmly on his head, he walked outside to watch his sons breaking horses in the corral. Life was good again and they would all fight the hounds of hell to keep it that way.

 

~end~
2005

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