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Winj

 

The Return

 

 

 

WARNING: This is an alternate reality story. If you do not like AR read no further.
First of The Return series. Followed by Foundations

Scott and Murdoch Lancer walked into the estancia together. They had just returned from the south pasture where a small herd had broken through the fence. Both men were tired and dusty and ready for a good meal and a night's rest.

Murdoch had his arm around his son's shoulder as they laughed and talked about the propensity of cattle to do exactly the worst thing. As they walked into the great room, Murdoch stopped on a dime. His expression turned grim and his arm slid off Scott's shoulder.

Scott frowned and looked at his father. "Pa? What's wrong?"

"I imagine I am."

He noticed the young man sitting at his father's desk for the first time.

Scott tensed immediately at the presence of the stranger. One who had seemed to make himself right at home. He was leaning back in the leather chair with a drink in his left hand. Scott couldn't see his other hand but he didn't like the looks of this man. His own hand slid to his right side.

He was dark-haired and tanned. But his eyes were what drew Scott's attention. They were a vivid blue and held an expression of great amusement.

"Who are you?" Scott demanded.

The stranger glanced briefly at Scott's right hand then looked to Murdoch and raised a brow. "Well, who am I, old man?" he drawled softly.

Murdoch seemed frozen in place. Unable to speak or tear his eyes from the young stranger.

He smiled sardonically and stood. Strolling across the space between them, he came to a stop directly in front of Murdoch. His eyes locked onto the older man's and he stayed that way - waiting.

Scott watched him closely, taking note of the Mexican style clothes and the low-slung gunbelt. He didn't like this, not at all.

********

"Swallow your tongue, old man?" he asked with some humor.

Murdoch managed to break free of his daze, his eyes darting away from that stare.

"Pa, who is this man?" Scott asked, more concerned for his father now.

"Scott, would you give us a minute," Murdoch asked softly.

"No need for him to leave. Or is there?" the young man asked, still amused by the events.

"No, I don't suppose there is," Murdoch mumbled. "How are you?"

He stared in disbelief for a moment, then began to laugh. It was a bitter laugh but full of humor at the ridiculous question. "Well, I'm just fine, old man. How are you?" he retorted after a few seconds.

"Would someone please explain what is going on here? Who is this man?" Scott asked once more, his patience dwindling quickly.

"Name's Johnny Madrid," he introduced himself.

Scott's eyes widened in surprise at this announcement. He quickly recovered his decorum. "What do you want?" he asked tersely.

"What do I want? Hmmm, now, that's a good question. What do I want, old man?"

"Stop calling me that!" Murdoch burst out, finally finding his own equilibrium.

Johnny only smiled at him in response. He walked over to the sideboard and helped himself to another drink. Settling by the fireplace, he leaned against the mantle and stared at them.

"I need to explain this to my son," Murdoch said to him.

"Oh, I see. Well, go right ahead. Don't let me stop you. I'll just listen and correct you when you get it wrong," he said, his voice hardening at the end.

Murdoch glared at him for a second before turning his attention to Scott. "Maybe you should sit down, son."

*******

"I don't want to sit down. Just tell me what's going on," Scott retorted, angry at this intruder and his arrogance.

Murdoch sighed heavily and shook his head. "I'm not even sure where to start."

"The beginning is usually a good place," Johnny stated, taking a sip of his drink.

"Fine. After your mother died, you lived with your grandfather for five years. Well, you know that. While you were gone, I met and married another woman. We had a child, a son. I awoke one morning and found her gone and him with her. That son is standing right here."

"Nice. Short, but nice," Johnny clipped.

Scott stared at Johnny in unadultered shock. "Are you telling me HE is my brother?"

"Half-brother, actually," Johnny supplied.

"Obviously," Scott snipped. "Why didn't you ever tell me about him?" he asked, turning back to Murdoch.

"I didn't know where he was. I .... "

"He didn't care. Now I know why. Guess you got one son. No need for another one," he shrugged, his right hand going absently to his chest as he rubbed it.

"That's not true, Johnny! I looked for you. I even hired the Pinkerton Agency!"

"Oh, yeah, the Pinks. I know all about that," he replied flatly.

"They never could find you," Murdoch said, barely above a whisper.

"Sure they did. Few years ago."

Murdoch's mouth fell open. "They didn't tell me."

The half-smile that curved up Johnny's face sent a chill through Murdoch. "I didn't want them to."

"I think I will sit down," Scott said, still stunned.

********

"You knew I was looking for you. Why didn't you come home?" Murdoch asked.

"Home? I don't have a home. You made damned sure of that!"

"What are you talking about?"

"That was a real sweet story you told. About my mother just up and leaving. Why don't you tell him the truth? Tell him how you threw us both out!" He was standing straight and taut now, glaring at the rancher.

"Threw you out? What the devil are you talking about? I didn't throw anyone out. She just up and left!"

"Yeah? That ain't the way I heard it."

"Then you heard wrong," Murdoch stated emphatically. He walked over to stand face to face with Johnny. "I went crazy looking for you. I couldn't understand why she left. There was no warning. She never said anything about being unhappy. I spent a year riding through every border town I could. It was as if you disappeared off the face of the earth. I tried so hard for so long. Eventually, I had to make myself stop. I couldn't take the disappointment anymore. But, I never gave up hope, Johnny."

The angry young man looked into his father's eyes. For the first time, he felt doubt. He wasn't sure the man was telling the truth but, somehow, he knew he wasn't lying either.

"Why would she lie to me?" he asked softly.

Murdoch shook his head sadly. "I don't know. I wish I did."

Johnny dropped his head, suddenly unsure of his position. He had come here with one thing in mind. Now, he found he couldn't do it. Nodding his head, he made his decision.

He looked back up into the man's face. "Thanks for telling me." He started to pass by Murdoch.

"Where are you going?"

Johnny stopped, his head still down. "Wherever the wind takes me."

"Don't go, son. Stay here with us, please."

********

He felt something very strange in his gut at hearing himself referred to as 'son' by this man. Shaking his head, Johnny sighed. "You don't want me around here, old man."

"How can I make you believe me?"

"It ain't that. It's .... look, my life is pretty much laid out already. I can't walk away from who I am," he whispered.

"Who are you?" Murdoch asked.

He turned and looked at his father. The torment in his eyes stunned Murdoch. "I'm a gunfighter."

"You don't have to be."

Johnny smiled. "You think it's that easy? It's not."

"Why are you asking him to stay here? He'll only bring trouble," Scott interrupted.

"He's my son, Scott. He's your brother," Murdoch said, surprised at his eldest.

"He's Johnny Madrid. We've both heard of him, pa. Let him leave. He's no rancher."

"Scott!"

"He's right. Besides, trouble just seems to find me. Thanks for talkin to me. I'm glad I didn't kill you," Johnny smiled. He turned and started toward the door.

Murdoch felt a surge of panic rising in him. "Wait! At least stay the night. It's late and you probably haven't eaten."

Johnny hesitated, unsure of himself. He hated that feeling. It wasn't one he was used to having.  

"One night is all I'm asking," Murdoch pursued, feeling Johnny's ambivalence.

Johnny turned and looked at Scott. "You got a problem with that?"

He did have a problem with it, a big one. But he looked at his father and knew it was important to him. 'Fine, let him see just what kind of man he's dealing with', he thought. "I suppose one night won't hurt."

"Got a stall for my horse?"

"I'll show you," Murdoch smiled.

********

Johnny made quick work of bedding the animal down. Murdoch watched him intently as he went about the chore.

"That's a beautiful animal," he remarked.

Johnny smiled. "Yeah, he's a good fella. Been with me for a while now."

"We have some fine horses on the ranch."

"It's a big place."

"Yes, it is. There are herds of wild horses all over. If you want to...."

"Won't be here that long," Johnny interrupted.

"Won't you even think about it?"

He sighed heavily and looked at Murdoch. His eyes intense. "Look, your son doesn't want me around. I don't blame him."

"This isn't his decision. You are my son, too. This is your home, it always has been. It's your birthright."

"Birthright? Where I come from the oldest son inherits."

"This isn't Mexico, Johnny. This is my ranch and I say who stays," Murdoch stated firmly.

Johnny smiled again. "And if he bucks?"

"He'll get over it. Scott was just taken by surprise. He'll get used to it."

"Will he? Look, this whole conversation is meaningless," he sighed and dropped his head. "I can't stay here," he mumbled. He rubbed at his chest.

Murdoch leaned in to hear him. "I don't care about Madrid. You are my son. You're a Lancer and this is your home. It's where you belong."

Johnny turned his back, feeling overwhelmed. He didn't expect this, any of it. He expected the old man to hate him as much as he had hated all his life.

"Johnny, please listen to me. I should have told Scott about you. I guess I didn't want to get his hopes up. I had almost given up on ever finding you. It killed me to think that way."

*****

"He grew up here?"

"Yes, from the time he was five. I went to Boston and brought him home. His grandfather didn't make it easy but that's another long story."

"Seems you have a lot of those," he smiled softly.

"Will you stay? At least for a while. Give us a chance to get to know each other. You're a stranger to me."

He could hear the pleading quality of the big man's voice and it surprised him. He had done his homework. Knew what kind of man his father was. Respected and admired. Tough but fair. He hadn't believed it; couldn't. It didn't sit with everything she had told him. And she had told him so much.

He felt a hand on his shoulder and he instantly tensed then regretted the reaction. The hand slipped away and he turned in time to see the disappointment on the old man's face. He smiled, trying to reassure him. Though why, he couldn't imagine. Something made him want to believe. Something inside him needed to believe this man cared.

"You know what kind of life I've had?" he asked.

"I can imagine."

"I doubt it," Johnny said flatly. "Your son, he has some idea."

"Would you please stop calling him that. It sounds like he's the only son I have. He's your brother, Johnny."

He shrugged as if it didn't matter. "Don't think he'd agree with that."

"He's a fine young man. Give him a chance."

The smile was back, fleeting, but there. "Think you got that backwards, old man."

Murdoch sighed heavily. "Must you call me that?"

Johnny laughed softly. Murdoch thought it was a wonderful sound. An honest laugh, without sarcasm or bitterness.

"What would you like me to call you?"

It was Murdoch's turn to smile. "I suppose it would be too much to ask you to call me pa."

Johnny's face fell as did his eyes. "Yeah, I think so."

An uncomfortable silence followed until Murdoch cleared his throat. "Well, we can figure that out later. Let's get you settled."

NOTE: Translations at the end of the this section.

Supper was tense. Scott kept glowering at him and Johnny held a tight check on himself. It was all he could do not to deck the man.

Maria brought in the serving bowls and platters. She made an effort to stay on Scott's side of the table. Placing the dishes near him as she cast stony looks at Johnny. She laid a protective hand on Scott's shoulder and he looked up and smiled.

Two words came to Johnny's mind. 'Spoiled brat.'

"Did you want anything else, Johnny?"

He looked at Murdoch then at Maria and shook his head. "I'm fine."

The front door opened and Johnny's hand went to his right hip. He felt a hand on his arm and looked at Murdoch.

"There's always someone running in and out of here. And it always seems to be at supper time," he explained with a smile.

Maria went to the front entrance and loud whispering could be heard. Johnny couldn't tell what was being said but he recognized the Spanish. He tried to ignore it until the voices grew louder and he heard a man say his name. "Juanito."

His head snapped up as the segundo walked into the room, obviously flustered from having gone a few rounds with Maria.

"Excúseme, Patron."

"What is it, Cipriano?" Murdoch asked.

"I just returned and heard of ....." he stopped and looked at Johnny closely. He stepped closer and Johnny felt uncomfortable with his scrutiny.

"I told him you were eating," Maria interrupted.

"We're trying to," Scott clipped.

*******

"It is you," Cipriano fairly whispered.

Johnny frowned as he watched the man. He didn't recognize him but he felt no threat. "Do I know you, Senor?"

"No, nino, you do not." The man stepped even closer, wanting to reach out but unsure.

Murdoch didn't know if he should explain or not. He was at a loss. Truthfully, he had not even considered this eventuality.

"So? Who are you?" Johnny asked, more than a little wary of this man.

"I am Cipriano Valdez. I am your tio."

Johnny stared at him for a second, then looked at his father, the question burning in his eyes.

"It's true, son. Cipriano is your mother's uncle."

He sighed heavily. Another lie. He looked back at the graying man and wondered what he wanted from him. "It's nice to meet you," was all he could think to say.

The older man smiled, a knowing in his eyes that intrigued Johnny. "Si, we will talk more later."

"Yeah, sure."

Cipriano left and Maria shot a scathing look after him. "I do not know why you let him get away with such things, Senor."

"Maria," Murdoch warned.

She shrugged her shoulders and walked back to Scott. Patting his cheek, she went to her kitchen.

Johnny stared at his plate, his appetite had left him. He pushed the food around, his mind somewhere else.

"Are you alright?"

"Sure. Just not hungry. Excuse me," he spoke softly and left the table.

********

"Something else you forgot to tell me," Scott shot, bringing his father back to the present.

"What's that, son?" he asked distantly.

"Cipriano."

"Oh, yes."

"Pa?"

Murdoch looked at him quizzically. "What is it, Scott?"

"He's not worth it."

Murdoch slammed his hand on the table and leveled his eyes on his son. "Don't you have any feelings about him? Other than anger and jealousy, I mean. Aren't you even a little curious?"

"I am not jealous of HIM! I don't understand how you can even have him under this roof. He's a hired killer!"

"Shut up! He is my son. As long as I live and breathe he will have a home here!"

Scott stared at his father. Stunned by the outburst. Murdoch had never yelled at him like that. Never told him to shut up. How could this .... stranger have such an impact on his father? How could he side against the son he'd raised? Scott's own anger got the better of him and he pushed his seat back. He stood and stared at his father for a second before storming out the door.

*******

Scott stopped in front of the house, unsure where to go or what to do.

"Goin for a ride always helps me."

He whirled around to see Johnny leaning against the wall. His stance was casual as his relaxed shoulder propped him up. His arms crossed over himself.

"I'm not interested in what helps you," Scott spat.

"Yeah, I know." His expression was nonexistent as he took in the fair-haired man. His eyes lit with amusement as a thought occurred to him.

"I'll bet you didn't share your toys either."

Scott walked over and faced him. "I'm not afraid of you."

"Oh, I think you are. Not, because of this," Johnny said as the Colt suddenly appeared in his hand. He slid it effortlessly back into the holster. "You're afraid you might have to share your daddy."

"That is ridiculous!"

"Is it? Okay," he shrugged.

"Why did you come here? Why now?"

Johnny considered him for a long moment before answering. "To kill Murdoch Lancer."

Scott's eyes widened and his mouth opened but no words would come.

"Don't worry. I changed my mind. Things ain't the way I thought they were," he said, his eyes dropping to the ground.

"You mean because your mother lied to you."

"Yeah," he breathed out. "That and, well, he ain't what I expected."

Scott tried to see his face but Johnny wouldn't look at him. "Did you know about me?"

"No. Not until I got to Morro Coyo. I was pretty surprised," Johnny laughed.

*******

Scott smiled, his shoulders relaxing a bit. "As surprised as I was, I'm sure."

"Oh, I don't know about that. You were pretty dumbstruck, cowboy," he grinned.

"I guess not much surprises you," Scott said, the flatness returning to his voice.

"I didn't use to think so. Now, hell, I don't know what to think."

"Think he feels guilty. He feels sorry for you. That's why he's so bent on you staying here," Scott said. His tone one of pure bitterness.

Johnny felt a little dizzy at how quickly this one's emotions switched. "Well, say what you mean. Don't hold anything back," he replied sarcastically.

"Alright, I won't. My father is a good man. He made a mistake and he feels responsible for that. You staying here will bring nothing but trouble and pain for him and who knows how many others. People like you don't belong with decent society. You have no place here."

"Scott!"

They both turned quickly at the thunderous voice. Murdoch stood in the doorway, his face a mask of anger. He approached them purposefully.

"How dare you speak for me? How dare you talk to your brother that way?" he hissed.

"He's not my brother!"

"Dios, what a brat!"

Scott turned, his fist clenched, his arm pulling back. Murdoch grabbed him and turned him back around.

"Stop this! I will not allow you to drive him away!"

"What about me, pa? Will you let him drive me away?" Scott asked with vehemence.

"You aren't going anywhere, young man. Now, start acting your age."

*******

"That's enough," Johnny said softly. "I didn't come here to cause problems between you two."

"No, you just came here to kill my father!"

Johnny shrugged. "I said I changed my mind."

Scott's rage was near the point of no return. "Do you see how he is? He doesn't care about you or anything else except his next job."

Johnny pushed himself off the wall so that he was mere inches from Scott's face. "You don't know anything about me," he said icily.

"And that's how I like it!"

"Why don't you go suck your thumb, little boy?"

Scott grabbed his shirt and pushed him against the wall. Johnny lunged back with a right uppercut to Scott's jaw. Murdoch held Johnny back from going after Scott again as the older son lay in the dust.

Scott touched his lip with the back of his hand, pulling it back to find a spot of smeared blood. He pulled himself to his feet and glared at Johnny.

"Scott, go inside and get that cleaned up," Murdoch ordered.

Scott hesitated for a second, then went in the house.

******

Johnny turned and walked off a few paces. "Sorry."

"So am I. I don't understand why he's acting this way. This isn't like him."

"No one's ever threatened his place with you before," Johnny said softly. Shaking his head, he laughed a little. "Not that anyone is now."

"No one could take Scott's place and no one can take your place. He just doesn't understand. He doesn't know what you've been through."

Johnny turned and faced him. "What difference does that make? Why should it matter if I grew up poor or in the lap of luxury? This isn't about how I grew up, Murdoch. It's about who I am. That's what bothers him."

The rancher swallowed hard as he heard his son call him by his first name. It didn't sit well with him. But then, he could hardly expect more. Not yet, anyway. "I won't give either of you up. We'll find a way to make this work, son."

Johnny shook his head. "I wasn't looking ...."

"Johnny, wait. Listen to me, please. I know you came here hating me. I hope that's changed some. I think it has. I think you believe me. And I think, I hope, I've shown you how much you've always meant to me. I have always wanted you home, son. Please don't give up on us so quickly."

"I don't know. You got a good thing goin here. I don't want to mess things up for you."

"You won't. You can't. Having you here can only make things better," Murdoch smiled.

Johnny sighed, his right hand went to his chest and he rubbed it absently.

"Give it some time, son. Stay a few days. Let me show you the ranch. Give us a chance to know each other," Murdoch said, placing a gentle hand on Johnny's shoulder. He smiled when the young man didn't flinch.

"Okay, a few days. But, keep him away from me," he replied, his voice falling flat at the second sentence.

********

Murdoch tried to talk to Scott that night but the young man was having none of it. Feeling a bit defeated, Murdoch went to bed and concentrated on the positive side of recent events.

He thought about Johnny, pictured his face in his mind. He looked so much like Maria. Yet, there was something distinctive about him. Something that belonged to Johnny alone. He was arrogant and flip and sarcastic.

Murdoch smiled. He was also charming. He'd seen a hint of it off and on today. Something in his eyes. Something that gave it all away if a person looked closely. And he had looked very closely! Drinking in his youngest as if.....

Murdoch forced negative thoughts away. This would not be the last time he saw his son. He could not allow that to happen. Scott would come around. He knew his son. Knew he was a fair man. He was just overwhelmed and shocked.

Once he had time to let the dust settle, Scott would see how wonderful this was. He would accept his brother. He had to.

Murdoch realized he wasn't going to get much sleep tonight. He wondered if Johnny was having any problems settling down. Frowning at the thought his son might need something, he arose from bed and slipped his robe on. Stepping into his slippers he eased out the door and down the hall.

The light was still on under the door. He tapped lightly and heard a soft voice call him in. Smiling, Murdoch opened the door.

"Do you have everything you need?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," Johnny replied. He was standing at the window, bending over to feel the cool night air on his face. He was half-dressed, his shirt tossed on the bed.

"There are more blankets in the cedar chest if you get cold," Murdoch said.

Johnny turned his head to the side and nodded. "Thanks, I'm fine."

"Well, I'll see you in the morning."

"Goodnight, Murdoch."

"Goodnight, son."

********

Johnny stared out the window, relishing the soft breeze that gently lifted his hair from his brow. He watched the night, listened to it's sounds. It had a calming effect on him. An unusual occurrence. Ordinarily, this was the time his senses were on highest alert. He should be sitting in a cantina somewhere playing cards. Or maybe, with some female companionship.

He grinned at that thought. The smile slid from his face, though. A sadness replaced it. One that took him completely by surprise. He sighed heavily and rubbed his chest.

Walking to the bed, he plopped down on the side and stared at the room. His eyes took in every nook and cranny. He had a sense of deja vu. A chill ran down his arms, causing goose bumps to appear.

Johnny idly rubbed at the bumps. He'd been too angry when he first arrived, too confused after that, to really look at this place. This massive house.

He slipped his shirt on, not bothering to button it and left the room. Padding down the hall in his socks, he hesitated outside a door. Somehow, he knew this was his father's room. He felt a bit lightheaded but shook it off. He eased down the stairs into the living room.

Lighting a lamp, he turned up the wick and looked closely at the room. He walked along the bookcases that took up one wall. His hand slid over the volumes, not bothering to read the titles. Sighing, he made his way to the kitchen. He realized he was hungry since he hadn't gotten to eat his dinner.

*******

The kitchen was warm, the stove still with embers glowing. He tested the coffee pot, feeling the heat. Grabbing a dishcloth, he picked it up and shook it. Still a good amount left. He wondered if it was left for Murdoch. He seemed the night owl type for some reason.

For some reason. He'd been thinking that phrase a lot today. Johnny poured a cup of coffee and perused the top of the stove. There was a covered plate which he discovered held biscuits. He grabbed a couple and sat at the table.

He was lost in thought when he heard it. The soft step that could only belong to a woman. He tensed as he waited for her to appear. Waited for her to speak her mind. He knew she would, too. It was as plain as the nose on his face, she hated he was here.

Maria entered the kitchen and stopped short when she saw him. Her nose went up in the air and she walked past him without a word.

He heard her moving about behind him but refused to turn around. After a minute, a plate was placed before him holding a sandwich. He looked up into her face and saw nothing but contempt.

"Gracias, Senora."

"De nada."

"¿Por qué usted me odia?" he asked.

She shrugged her shoulders. "No le odio."

"¿Realmente? Me alegro muy alegre oír eso. Odiaría ver cómo usted trata a alguien que usted odia," he grinned slyly.

She was not amused and her eyes narrowed. "Usted no pertenece aquí, pistolero. Señor Scott es el heredero a Lancer."

"No estoy intentando tomar cualquier cosa de él."

"¿Entonces porqué está usted aquí?"

Johnny dropped his head and sighed. "Tengo cada derecha de estar aquí. Ãl es mi padre, también."

"Usted no deseó a su padre. ¿Ahora, usted ?"

"No sabía la verdad," he whispered.

She sighed and sat down beside him. "No los lastime. Ãse es todo lo que pido."

Johnny smiled a little. 'Guess it don't matter if they hurt me, though, huh?' he thought. But, he said nothing more and simply nodded his head. He hoped it would satisfy her. If he knew anything at all, he knew not to get on the wrong side of a Latino woman. His hand went to his chest and he absently rubbed at it.

*******

Scott was up and out before Murdoch came downstairs the next morning. He sighed heavily when Maria told him. He ignored the pointed look she gave him. Why was everyone on this ranch against Johnny?

As he comtemplated this, Johnny walked slowly into the kitchen. His eyes darted through the room in a flash and he sat down.

"Good morning, son."

"Mornin," he smiled softly.

"Did you sleep well?"

He thought about lying but what was the point? "Not really."

Murdoch frowned. "I guess you have a lot on your mind."

Johnny nearly spewed the drink of coffee in his mouth. He managed to swallow it and his eyes danced. "Ya think?"

Maria set a plate of food in front of him and walked away quickly. He looked at her back and sighed softly.

"Are you up to a ride this morning?" Murdoch asked.

"Sure, I'm always up for a ride."

"Good. I'll have someone saddle our horses."

"I wouldn't. I mean, my horse is pretty particular. He's been known to bite a stranger," Johnny grinned.

Murdoch raised a brow and nodded. "Well, I'll let you take care of that, then."

"Where's Scott?"

Murdoch's face turned to a frown. "He left already."

Johnny watched him closely, nodding knowingly. "You sure make things hard on yourself."

"I don't know what you mean."

He shrugged and took a drink of coffee. "Scott. He hates that I'm here. Would be a lot easier if you sent me on my way."

"Let's not start that again. Scott will get over it."

"And if he doesn't?" Johnny asked. He noticed Maria was listening intently to every word.

"I'll deal with Scott. I don't want you worrying about that. This is as much your home as it is his," Murdoch stated firmly.

Johnny didn't say anything but he could see the woman tense from his periphery. Well, if she thought he was going to defend Scott Lancer's rights, she was about to be disappointed.

*******

He finished breakfast quickly and walked out to the barn with Murdoch. Cipriano walked around the side of the barn as they approached.

"Buenos dios, Juanito."

"Mornin," he mumbled and kept going.

Murdoch smiled at the segundo weakly and followed Johnny inside.

"Was that necessary?"

"What?"

"You weren't exactly pleasant with Cipriano, Johnny."

He was amused at the 'fatherly' tone of Murdoch's voice. "What do you expect? Want me to hug him? I don't know him anymore than I know you," he stated. Dropping his voice to a whisper, he added, "more lies."

"What does that mean?"

"She told me she didn't have any family," Johnny sighed. He turned and began saddling his horse as Murdoch closed his eyes and shook his head.

They said no more about it and rode south from the estancia. Murdoch had a particular place in mind. A place he and Scott had been many times before.

As they climbed higher, Johnny wondered where the old man was leading him. A quirky thought filtered into his head. Maybe he's gonna throw me off a ledge. He smiled to himself.

They rode through some heavy undergrowth and emerged in a clearing near an old cabin and mine. Murdoch dismounted and Johnny followed suit.

"You wanted to show me an old mine?" the young man asked.

"No, follow me," Murdoch smiled and headed away from the shack. Johnny hesitated long enough for Murdoch to get a good ten feet ahead of him. He wasn't sure he liked this.

When he cleared the trees, he saw his father standing at the edge of a cliff. 'Yep, he's gonna throw me off,' he smiled to himself. Stepping up beside the man, he sucked in a breath.

*********

Below him lay a crystal blue lake surrounded by trees. Just to the left was a meadow filled with bluebells. Johnny could see a herd of wild horses grazing to his right, close to a mesa. It all seemed so close, yet so far away.

He stared in awe at the view. Never had he seen such beauty all in one place.

"As far as you can see, is Lancer," Murdoch announced.

Johnny turned slowly and looked at his profile. The pride on the rancher's face could hardly be missed. He swallowed hard and turned, walking a short distance away.

"Something wrong, Johnny?" Murdoch asked as he approached.

His hand went to his chest, unthinking, and he massaged the area over his heart. "No, it's incredible. It's ..... it's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," he whispered.

Murdoch listened to his voice as it cracked a little. He wondered what Johnny was really thinking about all this. He suddenly noticed a gesture that had become all too familiar.

"Why do you rub your chest like that?" he asked.

Johnny dropped his hand immediately. Shrugging, he answered, "I don't know." But his eyes would not meet the older man's.

Murdoch stepped closer, laying a hand on Johnny's shoulder. "I've been as honest with you as I know how to be, son. Won't you give me the same respect?"

"It's just ironic, is all," he sighed and walked back over to the edge of the cliff. Looking out over the vista, he spoke softly. "That now, at the end, I find all this. I find out I could have had a home, a family."

"At the end? The end of what?"

Johnny turned and looked into his eyes. "The end of my life."

TRANSLATIONS:

"¿Por qué usted me odia?"   "Why do you hate me?"

"No le odio."   "I do not hate you."

"¿Realmente? Me alegro alegre oír eso. Odiaría ver cómo usted trata a alguien que usted no tiene gusto."   "Really? I'm glad to hear that. I'd hate to see how you treat someone you hate."

"Usted no pertenece aquí, pistolero. Señor Scott es el heredero a Lancer."   "You do not belong here, gunman. Mister Scott is the heir to Lancer."

"No estoy intentando tomar cualquier cosa de él."   "I am not trying to take anything from him."

"¿Entonces porqué está usted aquí?"   "Then why are you here?"

"Tengo cada derecha de estar aquí. Ãl es mi padre, también."   "I have every right to be here. He's my father, too."

"Usted no deseó a su padre. ¿Ahora, usted?"   "You did not want your father. Now, you do?"

"No sabía la verdad."    "I did not know the truth."

"No los lastime. Ãse es todo lo que pido." "Do not hurt them. That is all I ask."

Murdoch stared at him, all the breath seeming to have left his lungs. He wasn't sure exactly what he was hearing. "What are you talking about?" he asked, when he managed to breathe again.

Johnny smiled a little and walked over to sit on an old log. He motioned with his hand for Murdoch to join him and he did.

"About six weeks ago I got shot in the chest. Doc did what he could, sewed me up. He said the bullet was too close to my heart and he couldn't take it out without killing me on the spot. I figured a few weeks was better than a few seconds. That's why I decided to come here now. I figured if I was going, I wasn't going alone," he finished with a sarcastic smile.

"What about seeing another doctor?"

Johnny shrugged. "He's a good man. He's fixed me up more times than I'd like to think about. I trust him."

"I didn't mean to imply he wasn't being truthful. Let me take you to see Sam Jenkins. He's an excellent doctor. If he can't help you, he'll be able to recommend someone."

"I don't see the point."

"The point is to keep you alive! How can you give up on your life so easily?"

"Not much to give up," he shrugged.

Murdoch took to his feet with surprising speed. He glowered down at the young man. "I am sick and tired of hearing you berate yourself. You talk as if you're worthless. As if your life has no meaning. Well, I made you and I don't like to fail at anything. I refuse to fail at my son. I let that happen for twenty years. It's time to fix it and you."

Johnny stood and looked up into his eyes, an expression of pure marvel on his face. "You really do care."

"Yes, son, I really do care. Will you see Doc Jenkins?"

A smile crept onto his face, he couldn't make it stop. "Sure, why not?"

*******

They rode into Green River together an hour later. People stopped in the middle of the street and stared openly. Johnny kept his eyes fixed ahead of him. But he saw everything, noted every person. He wondered if they knew who he was or were just curious gawkers.

His face was set in stone, not giving an inch away. Whether they were aware of it or not, Johnny Madrid had arrived.

Murdoch led them to a moderate-sized home with a picket fence in front. Flower pots sat beside the porch. There were no stairs.

The rancher strode up to the door and walked in. Johnny noted the shingle hanging outside announcing the doctor's abode. He followed Murdoch, taking in the front room quickly as a bell jingled over the door.

"Murdoch! Good to see you." A brown-haired, balding, middle-aged man appeared from a back room. He smiled and extended his hand to Murdoch.

"Sam, how are you?"

"Oh, I'm fine. Is someone hurt?"

"Well, someone needs your attention. Sam, you aren't going to believe this but .... this is Johnny," he smiled as he waved a hand toward his son.

Sam Jenkins looked stunned. He stared for a long moment before recovering himself. "Johnny? Well, I'll be. Welcome home, son!"

The smile was genuine and Johnny found himself smiling back, taking the proffered hand.

"Johnny has a problem I hope you can help him with," Murdoch continued, his tone changing to one of concern.

"I hope so, too. What's the problem?" Sam asked, also concerned now.

"Can we go in the back?" Murdoch asked.

 

Johnny explained his injury as Sam listened closely. Nodding his head grimly, he asked Johnny to remove his shirt.

He listened to the young man's heartbeat and found it strong. "I'm going to feel your chest. This may be uncomfortable," he warned.

Johnny grimaced and took the examination silently. The doctor's sure hands were hitting right on the sore spot.

"I can feel where the bullet went through the sternum. There's a break there. Nothing life-threatening. I'm pretty sure I feel the bullet as well," he said.

Taking a step back, Sam assessed his color. "Well, the only way to be sure is to get in there and have a look. If that is the bullet I'm feeling, it's not so close that I can't safely remove it. It could have moved to that position since the injury occurred. It's entirely up to you, Johnny. If I can't remove it safely, I'll leave it there."

Johnny pulled his shirt back on as he listened to the doctor's assessment. His eyes went to his father's with the question lingering in the blue depths.

"I can't tell you what to do, Johnny, but I think it's worth a chance."

"What are the risks, Doc?" Johnny asked.

"As with any surgery, there is a risk of infection and, of course, death. But, you are young, strong and healthy. That alone reduces the risks."

"What about ..... prior injuries? I mean, would that have any bearing on it?"

"Not as long as they've healed," Sam replied, not surprised by the question. He had examined the young man's upper torso thoroughly. He would have to be blind to miss the scars.

Johnny chewed his lower lip as he considered. Sam almost laughed out loud as he recognized a familiar tic of his old friend's in this son.

"Guess I got nothin to lose. When can you do it?"

"In the morning would be best."

"Can you do it at the ranch, Sam? I want him home so I can look after him," Murdoch intervened.

"Of course."

******

Riding back to the ranch, Johnny was deep in thought. "It's not a good idea," he said out of the blue.

"What's not?"

"Me havin this operation at the ranch."

"Why not?"

Johnny inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly as he tried to find the right way to say it. "Well, I don't think anyone is gonna be too happy about me bein laid up there."

Murdoch reached over and grabbed his arm, pulling on his reins at the same time. This forced Johnny to come to a stop as well.

"Do you want to be at Lancer?" Murdoch asked point-blank.

Johnny dropped his eyes then looked straight ahead at the road. "Yes."

"Then that's where you will be. No more arguments. No more worrying about other people," Murdoch said soundly.

"It's not that I care how they feel about me, you know. I just don't want to cause you any problems."

"Any problems that are being caused are not your doing, Johnny. And, I hope you will come to care, eventually."

Johnny smiled and shook his head. "Don't seem likely, but ya never know."

*******

"And they left right after breakfast?" Scott asked again.

"Si, right after breakfast," Maria confirmed once more for the young man.

"Where could they have gone that's taking all day?" he wondered aloud.

"Why are you worried, nino?"

He looked at her, a frown furrowing his brows together. "If he hurts pa, I'll...."

"You'll what?" Johnny asked softly from the door.

Scott turned quickly and glared at him. His eyes went past Johnny to Murdoch who was standing behind him.

"Where have you been?" he demanded.

Murdoch stepped around his youngest and cocked a brow. "I didn't realize I had to check in with you. Do I have a curfew now?" he asked with amusement as he poured a cup of coffee.

"I was worried," Scott said.

Murdoch smiled and laid a hand on his son's face for a moment. He sat at the table and sipped his coffee. "Sit down, both of you. We need to discuss something."

Scott shot his brother another ugly look, one Johnny was getting very tired of. They both settled at the table.

"You may as well hear this, too, Maria," Murdoch added. Not that he wasn't quite sure she would listen to every word.

She sat down beside Scott and folded her hands on the table top.

"Johnny has a problem that ....."

"How much?" Scott snorted.

Not understanding his son's question, Murdoch looked at him, puzzled.

"How much money does he want?" he clarified.

"How much ya got?" Johnny shot back.

"Be still!" Murdoch bellowed.

Scott flinched at his father's tone, Johnny stared at him like he was crazy.

"He doesn't want money. I don't want to hear another word until I've finished. Is that understood?"

Scott nodded his head and Johnny shrugged.

"Johnny has to have an operation. He has a bullet in his chest and Sam is going to try and remove it. He will recuperate here."

"What do you mean 'try' to remove it?" Scott asked.

Murdoch looked at Johnny who nodded. "The first doctor he saw said it would kill him if he operated. Sam thinks the bullet has moved enough away from his heart to chance it."

"So, someone was actually faster than Johnny Madrid?" Scott smirked.

The corner of Johnny's mouth curved upward. "Is that what happened?"

"Are you saying it isn't?"

"Were you there? Cause I don't remember seeing you. Of course, I didn't see that bushwhacker either," Johnny grinned.

"Can you tell us what did happen, son?"

Johnny sighed, not wanting to get into it. But he figured the old man had a right to know since he was putting up with him.

"I did a job for a rancher. Some banditos were rustling his cattle, burning his fields, generally makin a pest of themselves. I got rid of them for him. When I went to collect my pay, he decided he didn't want to give it up." He stopped for a moment, shaking his head.

"I knew something was wrong but I didn't listen to my own head. I rode right in there. He had two men hiding in the barn loft. I didn't see them until it was too late. Never even made it out of the saddle."

"So much for the legend," Scott quipped.

Johnny looked up at him, ice in his stare. "I ain't no legend. Besides, I got off a couple of rounds myself. One hit the target. Don't reckon that rancher will be cheatin anyone else again."

Silence filled the kitchen. Johnny had dropped his eyes from Scott's and was making circles with his finger on the table.

Scott looked at his father and saw the sadness in his face. Murdoch got up abruptly and excused himself, leaving the room quickly.

"Why don't you leave?" Scott asked.

Johnny looked at him, his own sadness evident for a fraction of a second. He sighed loudly and leaned forward in his chair.

"That man is my father whether you like it or not. We don't get to choose our family. Now, you can deal with it or don't, but he's asked me to stay. I'm not going to give up this chance to get to know him because of you. So either stop acting like a two-year-old havin a temper fit or leave yourself."

"You don't care how much pain you cause him, do you?"

"I could say the same thing about you, Scott. So he didn't tell you about me. So you were surprised. So you have to share. So what?"

"You're dangerous, Johnny. Just having you here could bring all kinds of trouble on this house. Or don't you care about that?"

"When Murdoch tells me I'm too much trouble to have around, I'll leave. Until then, you're stuck with me," he hissed. Johnny grimaced and dropped his eyes to hide the sharp pain in his chest.

"I understand you bein worried. I don't blame you for that. But, this isn't about me causin trouble for the ranch. This is about you. It's all about the fact that you can't stand that I'm even on this earth," he ground out between clenched teeth.

Scott watched him struggle, saw him start breathing more heavily. Saw his hand grasp the edge of the table until the knuckles turned white. A strange feeling emerged from somewhere inside him. "Hey, are you alright?"  

When Johnny didn't answer, he walked around the table and knelt beside him. "Johnny, do you need the doctor?" he asked softly.

The younger man could only nod his head. It was enough for Scott. He called loudly for his father.

********

Murdoch stood in front of the picture window, staring into space. His right hand leaning heavily against the wall beside him. He hoped Johnny didn't think he was judging him. He just had to get out of there before he made a fool of himself.

He didn't want his sons to see him get all teary-eyed but the thought of what Johnny had gone through was too much. He could picture his son being attacked and it killed him. He had to wonder how many other times he had fought for his life. How many times he'd been hurt with no one to care for or about him.

His reverie was broken by Scott's voice urgently shouting his name. He took off to the kitchen, wondering if they were killing each other.

What he saw was unexpected. Scott kneeling next to Johnny's chair, a hand on his arm.

"He's hurting and he's not breathing too good," Scott reported quickly.

Murdoch bent over him. "Johnny?"

"It'll ..... pass," he breathed out.

"It's been going on for at least a minute, maybe more," Scott countered.

"Let's get him upstairs. Maria, send for the doctor," Murdoch took charge and pulled Johnny out of the chair.

He leaned heavily on his father as they made their way. He insisted on making it under his own steam, or at least, mostly.

Scott walked ahead of them, glancing back constantly to check on their progress. Once at the top of the stairs, he went to open the bedroom door and turn the covers back.

Murdoch sat him gently on the bed and Scott lifted his legs onto the mattress. He pulled Johnny's boots off and covered him up. Then, he poured a glass of water and handed it to Murdoch.

Stepping back, Scott watched closely, noting the pallor of Johnny's skin and the fine beads of sweat forming on his forehead.

Murdoch wiped the sweat off with his hand as he brushed back his hair. Scott went to the dresser and grabbed a cloth, pouring water into the wash basin and wringing the excess. He handed the cloth to his father without a word.

Johnny's eyes opened slowly as he took a slow breath. "That was the worst," he sighed.

"Just rest easy, son. Sam will be here soon."

"Guess the bullet moved."

"Maybe. He may decide to go ahead with the surgery tonight," Murdoch said.

"Might as well get it over with," Johnny smiled slightly until it turned to a grimace. The fire burned in his chest once more and his breathing became shallow again.

Murdoch took his hand. "Easy, son. Just hold onto me."

Scott took a step forward, his brows knitting together as he watched Johnny try to control the pain. He was fascinated as he watched the young man's face. He could see the effort it was taking to keep himself in control.

Finally, he relaxed, the pain subsiding and he let out a breath.

"Gone?" Murdoch asked.

"Almost," he said softly.

The rancher frowned. "I wish there was something I could do."

"Don't worry about it. It'll be okay one way or the other."

Murdoch frowned at this statement but he said nothing. It wouldn't help Johnny to argue the point. He watched as his youngest son slipped into sleep, his hand relaxing within that of the big man's.

********

Murdoch eased off the bed and stood up. Waiting to make sure he hadn't disturbed Johnny. Once sure he was still resting, Murdoch turned and took Scott's arm, guiding him gently out the door.

"He's in a lot of pain," Scott said softly.

"Yes, he is. I hope Sam can help him."

Scott looked at his father. He seemed to have aged ten years. The creases in his forehead deepened and he looked tired. Very tired.

"Pa? Maybe you should lie down for while. Until Sam gets here. You don't look too good."

Murdoch smiled at his son. "I'm alright, Scott. I don't want to lie down. I just want....."

"What?"

Murdoch sighed heavily. "Let's go downstairs and talk."

Scott tensed but he knew this was needed. He smiled a little and nodded his head.

Johnny opened his eyes when he heard the door close. Taking a halting breath, he sat up. Easing out of bed quietly, he went to the dresser and found paper and a pencil. He looked around the room and walked slowly to the table by the window. Sitting in a chair, he began to write the letter he never thought he'd be writing.

Downstairs, Murdoch stood by the fireplace, staring into the flames. "Tell me why you're so angry."

Scott sat down in a chair near him. "A lot of reasons, I suppose. You didn't tell me about him. He's a gunfighter. He came here to kill you. And ......"

Murdoch turned to look at him when he stopped talking. "And what?"

"And I suppose I feel threatened," he answered more softly.

"Son, I know Johnny has a reputation ....."

"That's not what I meant. It just seems like you're so ...... happy. So thrilled he's here. You're willing to do anything to get him to stay."

Murdoch walked over and sat near his eldest. "And you feel threatened that my feelings for you will change? Scott, you are my son and I love you. Nothing will ever change that. You must know that, son. I know I should have told you about him. That was my wrong, not Johnny's. You have to understand how frightening it was not knowing where he was or even if he were alive. Having this chance now; it's something I've dreamed of for a long time. A chance to have both my sons with me. Together as a family.

"Yes, I am thrilled he's here. And I can't blame him for hating me. His mother told him so many lies that he had no way of knowing were just that. She took him away to a life of poverty and prejudice. I will never understand that. What I do know is, Johnny needs stability, safety and family. He needs love and a home. He needs us, Scott. Both of us. I could see it in his eyes. He doesn't want the life he has."

Scott listened closely to his father. He could feel the anguish as the man recounted what Johnny's life must have been like. Murdoch's voice had the tone of failure in it. Scott didn't like that part.

"It's not your fault. You tried to find him. I wish you would have told me about him before. It's just ...... I don't know how to be a brother. It's always been just you and me, Pa. It's going to take some time to get used to someone else."

"As long as you're willing to take that time, son. That's all I'm asking. Get to know him, really know him. It won't be easy. He doesn't trust easily. But, somewhere deep inside, I know it will be well worth the effort."

"I guess I can do that. If he .... makes it," Scott said, his voice dropping with the last.

Murdoch closed his eyes briefly, then in a determined voice, "he will make it. He has to. He can't come back into my life only to leave again."

Scott had to laugh a little. "Because you say so?"

"Yes, because I say so," Murdoch smiled.

They heard a buggy drive into the yard and Murdoch sighed with relief as he went to greet Sam Jenkins.

"What happened?" the doctor asked immediately.

"Scott?" Murdoch turned.

"We were in the kitchen talking .... arguing. Suddenly he bowed his head and grabbed the edge of the table. He couldn't talk for several seconds. When I asked if he needed you, he nodded his head," Scott reported.

"We took him upstairs and laid him down. It eased up then hit him again. Not as hard, I don't think. He's sleeping now," Murdoch finished.

Sam nodded as he listened to them both. "When did he eat last?"

"This morning."

Sam pulled out his pocket watch and noted the time. "Alright, I'll need Maria's help. Send her up and I'll take a look at him."

"Are you going to operate tonight, Sam?" Murdoch asked.

"I'm afraid I may have no choice. If the bullet is moving around, it needs to come out."

"Scott, have Maria come up. I'm going with Sam."

Scott nodded and went to the kitchen.

Sam entered the room quietly. He wanted to get a good look at this young man when he was unaware. He had gotten the distinct impression that this one hid a lot of his pain. Physical and emotional.

Johnny looked pale but his breathing was even. Sam gingerly took his wrist and the young man stirred.

Hand going immediately to his right hip, his eyes shot open.

"It's just Doc, Johnny," Sam assured him.

He blinked several times and nodded. "Hey, Doc. Sorry to drag you out here."

"Don't worry about that. Johnny, I'm going to operate tonight. I don't want to wait any longer. You're pale as it is. Now, let me examine you."

He lay still and waited for the doctor to finish. He spied Maria walk into the room and he tensed a little. Sam didn't miss it.

"You're heart is still going strong." Looking around, he saw the woman standing near the door. "Maria, I need my instruments boiled and more hot water. I'll need you to assist me with the operation," he instructed.

She nodded her head and left quietly.

"Do you really need her? Can't Murdoch help you?" Johnny asked.

"Maris has assisted me many times. Why would you ask?" Sam posed.

Johnny shrugged and dropped his eyes. "She don't like me much."

"Well, it's a good thing she won't be doing the operation then, isn't it? Don't worry, Johnny. She's a good woman. A bit overprotective maybe."

"Maybe? If she gets any more overprotective, I'll wake up with a skillet in my head!"

Murdoch chuckled at this statement, not entirely sure it wasn't true. "Don't worry about Maria, son. Just worry about getting well."

Johnny fell quiet. "Doc, can I have a minute with Murdoch?"

"Of course," Sam said and smiled knowingly.

*******

"I just wanted to thank you," Johnny said.

"For what?"

"For takin me in. For asking me to stay. For caring if I live or die," he responded in a murmur.

Murdoch sat on the bed. "Johnny, I love you. I know that may be hard for you to believe. When you have children of your own, you'll understand."

"Children. Don't reckon that's ever gonna to happen."

"Why not?"

Johnny shrugged.

"I, uh, I talked to Scott. He wants to try and get to know you."

"What changed?"

"We talked. He admitted he was overwhelmed and a little jealous. I told him no one could replace him in my heart. Just like no one can replace you. He said he didn't know how to be a brother but he's willing to try."

"I don't know how, either. Guess we can stumble along together, if....."

"When, not if. You are going to be just fine," Murdoch stated.

Johnny smiled fully at him. "Yes, sir."

Murdoch felt a happiness he had given up all hope of ever feeling again. The pure joy of seeing his little boy's smile. They were interrupted by Sam and Maria.

"I'm sorry, but it's time," Sam said.

"I won't be far away, son."

"Okay."

"Johnny?"

"Yeah."

"Stay with me."

He swallowed hard. "If it's in my power, you bet I will."

Murdoch couldn't ask for more than that. He squeezed Johnny's arm and left the room. Walking downstairs slowly, he felt real fear for the first time in a long time.

Scott was pacing by the fireplace when he walked in the living room.

"They're starting," Murdoch said.

He nodded his head and went back to his pacing.

"I guess it will be quite a while," Scott said.

"I'm afraid so. Why don't we get a bite to eat while we wait? Might make us feel better," Murdoch smiled a little.

"Sure, pa."

Sitting at the kitchen table with their sandwiches, neither had much of an appetite.

"I told Johnny you were willing to give this a try," Murdoch said out of the blue.

"How did he respond?"

"He wanted to know why then he said he was willing, too. Said you could stumble along together," Murdoch laughed lightly.

******

Three hours later, Sam came down the backstairs. Murdoch and Scott both jumped to their feet.

Sam held up his hand and gave them a small smile. "He's alive. If all goes well, he'll stay that way."

Murdoch's shoulders slumped as did he, back into his chair.

"What did you mean, if all goes well?" Scott asked as he sat down.

Sam joined them, smiling gratefully for the cup of coffee Murdoch poured him. "Well, the biggest danger right now is infection. But, I don't see that as a major threat. He's young and strong and willing."

"When do you think he'll wake up?" Murdoch asked.

"Oh, not for several hours. He's still heavily sedated. Maria is sitting with him."

Murdoch nodded then sighed. "I'll go give her a break. I'm sure she's worn out."

Alone with Sam, Scott thought to seek the man's opinion. "What do you think of him?"

"Johnny? Well, I don't really know him at all. But, he seems like a decent young man. He has a good sense of humor, I know."

"He's a gunfighter," Scott stated simply.

"I know, Scott. When you've lived as long as I have, you'll come to realize you can't judge a man by the outside. What's in his heart is what really matters."

"You knew about him, didn't you?" Scott asked.

"I did. Murdoch talked to me about him many times. Your father has been nursing a broken heart for nearly twenty years, Scott. I only hope that can mend now."

"He's certainly enthusiastic about Johnny being here."

"But you aren't?"

"I don't know. I mean, it was a shock. I'm still trying to accept it."

"Are you willing to try, Scott?"

"Yes. I told pa I would. I know it won't be easy."

"Well, I've never known you to back away because something wasn't easy," Sam smiled and patted his arm.

*******

Conscious thought pulled at the edges of his mind. With it, came a breathtaking pain. He grit his teeth and shut his jaw to manage the fire in his chest. Johnny let himself awaken before opening his eyes. He allowed himself to remember where he was. Knowing that wherever that place be, he was in a bed and naked and totally disadvantaged.

As memory took hold, he opened his eyes a little. Taking in the surroundings in his immediate field of vision, his eyes landed on a form. Sitting next to the bed with his head bowed was Scott. Johnny opened his eyes wider and watched the young man for a while.

Scott wasn't engrossed in the book. In fact, he was a bit bored. Longing the feel of the sun on his face as he labored. He felt someone watching him and looked up. Pale blue eyes settled on dark blue as he regarded Johnny.

"Hi."

"Hi," came the strangled reply.

Scott stood and poured water into a glass. He leaned over and slipped his left hand behind Johnny's neck and tilted. He placed the glass to the younger man's lips and waited.

Johnny took a small sip, then a bigger drink and sighed. He thanked Scott who eased his head back down and replaced the glass on the bedside table.

Settling in his chair again, Scott watched Johnny. "Sam said the operation went well."

"That's good," Johnny breathed out.

"Do you need something for the pain?"

"Nah, it's not too bad."

Scott nodded.

"Where's Murdoch?"

"He's napping. He was pretty tired."

"Okay."

Scott watched as he slipped back into sleep, then resumed trying to read his book.

********

When Johnny opened his eyes again, sunlight was streaming through the window. He squinted against the brightness of the room.

"Do you want the curtains closed?"

"No, I like it," he smiled a little.

Murdoch smiled back and reached across the space between them. His hand lightly touched Johnny's forehead. "No fever."

"Nice to know something's going right," Johnny grunted.

"Sam left some laudanum....."

"I don't need it. I'm fine."

Murdoch started to question that statement when the door opened and Scott stepped in.

"How is he doing?" the young man whispered.

"He's fine," Johnny whispered back.

Scott smiled and walked closer. "Thought you were asleep."

"Seem to be most of the time. What day is it?"

"Saturday. Oh, I mailed that letter for you," Scott said.

Johnny frowned. "What letter?"

"The one lying on the dresser."

Johnny's eyes widened. "Why?" he asked coldly.

"I .... I was just trying to be helpful," Scott stammered a bit, surprised by the sudden change.

"What's wrong, Johnny?" Murdoch intervened.

Johnny closed his eyes. "Nothing, I guess. I just wasn't gonna mail it. Doesn't matter, it was a long shot it would get where it was going anyway."

"Why would you write a letter you didn't intend to mail?" Scott asked.

Johnny opened his eyes, thought about telling him to mind his own business. With a huff of breath, he answered, "figured it would get mailed if I died. I was going to ask you to mail it if ..... but, things happened faster than I thought."

"Is it going to cause you a problem?" Murdoch asked, concern on his face.

"No. Like I said, probably doesn't matter."

*******

Scott took the evening shift again. He was still working on the same book but it still wasn't holding his interest. Like a dog with a bone, he stubbornly continued reading. He figured it would get better eventually.

He stretched his neck muscles and yawned. As he lowered his head, he noticed Johnny watching him.

"I wish you would let me know when you wake up. It's a little unnerving to know you've been watching me."

Johnny kept staring, didn't answer.

Scott leaned in and noticed Johnny's eyes were unusually bright. He felt his forehead and jumped from his chair.

Out the door, he headed straight for his father's room and knocked loudly. "Pa, it's Johnny. Come quick!" he yelled through the wood. He could hear Murdoch moving about so he went back to his brother.

Scott poured water in the wash basin and wrung out a cloth. He laid it on Johnny's forehead and the younger man sighed a little. He gave Johnny water and covered him up more securely. Then, he waited.

Murdoch barged into the room and Scott quickly reported his findings.

"Should we send for Sam?"

Murdoch felt Johnny's fevered brow and frowned deeply. "Yes, son. Send for him."

Scott was out the door in a flash.

"Son?" Johnny whispered.

"Johnny, it's Murdoch. Can you hear me?"

"Son," he repeated.

"Yes, you're my son. Johnny?"

He closed his eyes then opened them again quickly. Blinking several times as if trying to clear his vision. Murdoch watched closely. The fever must have him confused, he thought.

Maria came in, Scott having told her about the fever. She brought fresh water and medicinal tea.

"This will help the fever, Senor. Por favor, get him to drink," she said, offering the cup.

Murdoch started to take it, then stopped. "Could you do it, Maria?"

She looked puzzled but nodded. Approaching the head of the bed, she lifted Johnny's head and helped him drink. Then she petted his cheek.

"Mama?"

"No, nino. No es su madre," she spoke softly. (No, boy. I am not your mother.)

"Mama, por favor. No se sienta bien." (Mama, please. I don't feel good.)

She swallowed hard and petted his head. "Lo se, nino. Resto ahora." (I know, boy. Rest now.)

He closed his eyes and relaxed. When she removed her hand, his eyes shot open again. "Mama? No se vaya." (Mama? Don't leave me.)

Maria started stroking his hair again, whispering softly to him, telling him to sleep. Slowly, he relaxed completely and drifted off.

"Thank you," Murdoch whispered.

"De nada, Senor," she shook her head sadly. "Nino pobre," she sighed and left the room. (It was nothing.) (Poor boy.)

"Si, nino pobre," Murdoch repeated past the lump in his throat. (Yes, poor boy.)

*******

Johnny's fever refused to abate over the next several days. Sam was trying everything he knew and using Maria's home remedies as well. Still, the fever remained.

For a week, Johnny drifted in and out of consciousness. Each time, he would call for his mother. A distant look in his glassy eyes. Murdoch knew he was in another place, another time in his life. He felt helpless and that was not a feeling the rancher was used to having.

He seldom left his son's side now. Constantly bathing him with cool water. Pushing the tea and broth down Johnny's throat. Feeling helpless.

Scott didn't know what to do. He'd never seen his father like this. Never had a brother to worry about. But he was worried. That in itself surprised him a little. He had promised to try but now, he may not get that chance.

His thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door. He opened it to find a woman, dressed in a plain gray dress, her hair pulled back in a loose bun. She wore no makeup, no jewelry. Still, Scott thought she was quite beautiful.

"Is Juan ..... Johnny here?" she inquired.

Scott immediately went on the defensive. "He's not up to visitors at the moment."

"He is ill?" she asked with concern.

"Is there something I can do?" he avoided answering.

"You are Scott, si?"

"That's right. And you are?"

"Perhaps I should speak with Murdoch," she hedged. "Por favor, it is muy importente, uh, very important."

"Come in, I'll get my father," Scott said curtly.

She stepped into the living room and stared at familiar surroundings. Tears sprang unexpectedly to her eyes and she closed them tightly. Willing the emotions and memories away. It was a futile battle.

She heard the heavy footsteps and her stomach lurched. Taking a deep breath, she turned to face him.

Murdoch walked downstairs grumpily. He didn't want to leave Johnny's side. This had better be very important, he thought.

He took two steps into the living room and froze. Mouth sagging open, he stared. "Maria!" he breathed.

"Si, hello Murdoch," she said softly.

"What are you doing here?" he demanded.

"Please, I have come to see Johnny. He is ill?"

Murdoch shook himself a bit to break the trance. "Uh, yes. Yes, he's ill."

"May I see him?" she asked hopefully.

"Why?" he asked too harshly.

She lowered her head and sighed. "You have many questions, I am sure. I will try to answer them for you. But, right now, I need to see my son."

"OUR son," Murdoch retorted without thinking. He relented then. "Yes, alright. Come with me. But, Maria, we will be having that talk," he said with a tone of warning.

He led the way wondering how the hell he was going to explain this to Scott.

He opened the door and allowed her to enter first.

Scott was beside him, bathing his face. He looked up and moved out of the way. "He's been asking for you for days."

She looked oddly at him as did Murdoch.

"Who else could she be?" Scott shrugged.

*******

Maria approached the bed and took in a breath. She crossed herself and said a silent prayer. Then she sat on the bed and began stroking Johnny's hair, murmuring to him.

"Mama?"

"Si, nino. It is mama. Shhhh, bambino. Rest now. You must get better, si?"

Johnny opened his eyes and for the first time in days, he focused. Blinking rapidly, he brought her out of the haze. "Mama."

"Hello, my love," she smiled tenderly.

Johnny looked past her and saw Murdoch standing there. He could tell the old man was ready to chew nails. He wasn't alone.

His eyes went back to his mother. With a cold voice that was barely audible, he hissed, "what the hell are you doing here?"

She was taken aback by his vehemence. With sad eyes, she whispered. "Please, son. Let me help you."

"Help me?" he choked out. "Get her out of here!"

Murdoch was stunned by Johnny's reaction. He had been calling for his mother for a week. Now, he didn't want her here? It made no sense but Murdoch wasn't about to let her upset his son.

He walked over and took her arm, gently bringing her to her feet. "Come on," he said simply.

"But....."

"He doesn't want you here, Maria. Come," Murdoch said tersely.

She nodded her head and left the room with him. Murdoch sent Scott back in and he led Maria back downstairs.

Once there, he demanded his answers.

"May I sit?" she asked.

"Of course," he clipped.

She settled on the sofa and wrung her hands. "I don't know if I can explain it to your satisfaction. I will try."

He stood where he was and waited for her to begin. It took some time to build her nerve. Finally, she squared her shoulders and he knew she was ready. Murdoch walked over and sat in a chair near her.

"You want to know why I left. I felt trapped here. It was not what I expected. I was young and foolish and wanted all the fine things in life. I always knew I could have them if I played my cards right." She stopped here, as if chiding herself.

"Idiota! I ran off with that man because he promised me the world. He promised I would never want for anything. It did not take long for him to break that promise. I left him less than a year later. For eight years we wandered from town to town. I knew you were looking for us so I kept moving."

"Why? If you were that destitute, why wouldn't you ask for my help?" Murdoch interrupted.

She looked at him in total surprise. "Your help? I could not ask for your help. Besides, I thought you would take Johnny from me."

Murdoch just shook his head. "Go on."

"As I said, we moved a lot. Johnny never had the chance to make friends or go to school very long before I decided it was time to move on. I let myself turn into nothing less than a whore. I thought I was using those men but they were using me. As you can see, I never got what I wanted."

"What about Johnny? Why hasn't he been with you?"

She swallowed hard to hold the tears away. "That is my greatest shame. My greatest sin," she said and crossed herself. "I ...... I abandoned him."

"You what?" Murdoch bellowed, rising from his seat. He stood before her, fire shooting from his eyes, his fists clenched tight.

She cringed at the outburst. Even backed away a little.

Murdoch controlled himself after seeing her reaction. He sat back down and worked to curb his anger.

"Why?" he growled.

"He was getting older. He was starting to realize what I was doing and he did not like it. He would cause problems with the men. Try to fight them." She shook her head in wonderment. "That skinny nino would stand up, jut out his chin and dare them to enter. I could no longer control him. He would not listen to me. So, I left with a man."

Murdoch's temple pulsed, his jaw clenched tight. He managed to ask a question. "How old was he?"

"Ten."

He blew out a breath, dropped his head into one hand and rubbed his forehead. "Ten. So, you just walked away from him. Left him to fend for himself in the border towns. Tell me, Maria. Did you even think about him? Ever?"

"At first, I would not allow myself to think of him. I continued that evil life for another five years. One night, I was beaten severely and left for dead. The priest found me and took me to the mission where the nuns cared for me. That is where I have been ever since. Trying to cleanse my soul and make penance."

"Penance? And what about Johnny? Do you know what he's been doing for the last five years of HIS life?"

"Si, I know. I found out three months ago. I tried to find him. I almost did but then, he disappeared."

"Did it ever occur to you to send him home?" Murdoch asked, his heart aching at the realization that Johnny's life had been so much harder than he imagined.

"No. I am so ashamed, Murdoch. I told him horrible lies. I spoke viciously of you to him. I hated you and I wanted him to hate you, too."

"Well, you managed to do a fine job of it. He came here with the intention of killing me."

She stared in wide-eyed horror at him.

"Luckily, he's a reasonable man. He listened to me. I suppose it wasn't much of a reach for him to realize you had lied. He let me reach out to him. He agreed to stay and try to work things out with me - and Scott."

"Dios, gracias. I am so glad he listened to you. Murdoch, I have spent the last years working hard to understand myself. I think I have finally found some peace. But, when I received Johnny's letter, I knew I had more work to do."

"Johnny's letter?" Murdoch asked, then realized. The letter Scott had mailed. The one Johnny didn't want sent unless he didn't make it. The one he wasn't sure would be delivered. "Where did he send it?"

"The mission. Why?"

"Then he knew you were there," Murdoch surmised.

Maria looked stricken with this realization. "How could he?"

"I'm sure it wasn't too difficult for Johnny Madrid," he retorted sarcastically.

She ignored it, knew he had every right. "Then he knew where I was and chose not to see me. I cannot blame him for that. You accept who he is?"

"I don't have a choice, do I? I can either accept him or turn him away. I will not turn my son away."

Maria smiled, grateful her memory had not failed her. Murdoch had loved Johnny so. Her heart broke for the pain and misery she had caused them both.

Scott walked in quietly, hating to disturb them but knowing Murdoch would want him to. "Pa? Johnny wants you. He seems ..... clear-headed."

Murdoch jumped to his feet and strode out of the room. Scott stood there, unsure. He wanted to talk to this woman and he didn't.

"How long have you lived here, Scott?" she asked.

"Since I was five."

Maria nodded, smiling a little.

*********

Murdoch sat beside Johnny and waited. Slowly, the blue eyes opened and focused.

Murdoch smiled. "It's good to see you again."

"Is she gone?" he asked flatly.

"No, son. She and I have things to discuss as well."

"Did she tell you?"

"She did," Murdoch ground out. "You, um, knew where she was," he added more softly.

"Not really. I knew she was there a year ago. Wasn't sure she still was. Heard she found religion," he snorted.

"She seems to have."

Johnny turned his head.

"Son, I don't know what to say. I'm still reeling from what she's told me. Right now, however, I'd like to concentrate on getting you better."

Johnny nodded. "I feel better."

"Sure you do. At least your lucid. You've been pretty out of it for the last week."

Johnny's head snapped around and he stared at his father. "A week?"

"I'm afraid so. It seems your mother's voice brought you out of it," Murdoch said, waiting for the reaction.

"Nightmares can shock you," Johnny said snidely.

Murdoch couldn't help a small smile. "I'm going to send for Sam. I think the fever's down," he said as he felt Johnny's forehead. He didn't miss the slight pressure against his hand as Johnny leaned into that touch. Murdoch stroked the side of his head.

"Thanks for taking care of me," Johnny whispered.

"It's my job and I love my job."

********

Sam came and examined him, stated the fever was going down and started him on more nutritional foods as he could tolerate them. The presence of Maria in the house shocked the doctor. But, true to form, he remained impassive as he went to work.

"Well, young man, I am very pleased. It's about time you started responding to all my good doctoring," he smiled.

"Sorry to be such a pain, Doc," Johnny smiled back a little.

Murdoch waited downstairs with Maria while Sam looked Johnny over.

"Where's Scott?" he asked.

"He said he was going to take a ride. He said Johnny told him it helped," she answered.

Murdoch looked hard at her. "What did you tell him?"

"Nothing."

"Good," Murdoch stated. He had wanted to break it to his elder son himself.

His son was not naive, certainly. Still, he wanted to cushion the details and help Scott see how bad things had really been for Johnny. Again, he felt he was selling Scott short. He knew in his heart, the young man was quite capable of seeing this himself.

His thoughts were interrupted as Sam entered the room. Murdoch looked expectantly at his friend.

"He's doing better. The fever is much diminished. I think it's time we got him some real food. Nothing too heavy though. Whatever he can handle is fine."

"Johnny could eat an iron skillet if it had tortillas in it," Maria smiled.

Sam found himself smiling back at her. "Well, I'll check on him tomorrow. Send for me if you need me."

"Thank you, Sam. I'll walk you out," Murdoch said and showed him to the door.

Outside, Sam had to ask.

Murdoch explained the letter Johnny had not intended to send and Maria's appearance. He gave a shortened version of her story. Sam had known Murdoch for years. They had spent many late nights talking about Johnny after Scott had gone to bed.

*******

As Sam drove out, Scott rode in. He dismounted and walked up to his father. "How is he?"

"Better. The fever's still down and Sam said he could eat whatever he could handle," Murdoch smiled.

Scott sighed. "Thank God."

Murdoch cocked a brow and looked questioningly at his son.

"What? Can't I worry about my own brother," Scott shrugged and headed inside.

Murdoch's smile grew wide then. He felt they could finally be a family. Only one thing left unresolved. Johnny and Maria. He knew his son would have to find some peace with his mother before he could have the life he deserved.

A twinge of doubt fluttered through Murdoch's mind. Would Johnny stay with him now? He shook it off. He had known where his mother was a year ago and did not seek her out. Still, the doubt stubbornly lingered in his mind. He looked to the heavens before going back to Johnny's side.

He found Scott there, talking quietly with his brother. They both stopped when he entered.

"Secrets?" Murdoch asked with amusement.

"Nah, just talkin," Johnny replied.

"Are you hungry, son?"

"I could eat."

"I'll get you something," Scott offered, giving his brother a smile.

"He's coming around," Murdoch noted.

"He was tellin me a little about himself. Harvard, huh?" Johnny said, his eyes showing his amusement.

"Yes, well. His grandfather offered to send him. I couldn't turn it down. Scott really wanted to go."

"But you worried if he'd want to come back." Johnny stated it as if it were a well-known fact.

Murdoch looked up, surprised. "That's very astute of you."

"I have my moments," Johnny shrugged. "So, when is she leaving?"

"I wanted to talk to you about that, son. I think it's important that you speak to her. Listen to what she has to say. I hate for you to go through your life hating your own mother."

"Don't you?" Johnny asked.

"I did for a long time. Now .... no, I don't hate her. I'm disappointed, even hurt. But hate? No," he shook his head.

*******

Scott walked into the kitchen and smiled at Maria. "Could you fix Johnny something light to eat?"

She nodded and smiled at him, then turned to the stove. Pausing, she turned back.

"Scott? How do you feel about him?"

He wasn't surprised by the question, only how long it had taken her to ask. "Let's sit down."

She settled at the table near him and waited patiently as he formed his thoughts.

"I was angry at first and hurt, too. Pa should have told me about him."

"Did he say why he did not?"

"He said he didn't want to get my hopes up. But, I don't know, that just doesn't seem plausible. I think he was worried I'd think less of him."

"Por que?" She asked, not understanding.

"Well, his wife ran off with their son. A son he couldn't locate all this time. It had to be humiliating on top of the heartbreak. Maybe that's why he was so determined to bring me home from Boston."

She laid a hand on his arm quickly. "No, nino. He was determined because he loves you."

"Oh, I know that Maria. I just meant, he couldn't stand losing us both and that's what made him come for me at that time. As for Johnny, I owe him an apology."

"For what?" she demanded.  

"For hating him without even knowing him. I focused all my anger on him. This isn't his fault. He didn't have a say in what happened to him anymore than I had a say in going to Boston. From what pa has told me and what I can see for myself, he's had a rough life. It shouldn't have been that way. He should have grown up here with me," he said, a distinct sadness filling his voice and his face.

Maria sighed heavily and nodded her head. "Si, you are right. I, too, owe him an apology."

"You? For what?"

She lowered her eyes and had the grace to blush. "I spoke harshly to him that first night. He came down to eat late and I heard someone prowling about. I thought it was your father. I told him you are the heir and he has no business here."

Scott's face mirrored his shock. "You had no right to do that, Maria. You shouldn't have spoken to him like that."

His harshness hurt her but she knew he was right. "I know, nino. I was afraid for you. Afraid you may lose something. It did not occur to me you may be gaining something far more important than the land."

Scott smiled wanly. "It didn't occur to me, either. At least, not at first. It's funny. I wanted him gone but when I saw the pain he was in ...... something changed. It all seemed more real. It wasn't a question of what problems he might cause. All I could think about was getting him help."

She smiled and patted his arm. "Perhaps we have both learned something, eh? Now, I will fix him a good soup and he will forgive me while I fatten him up."

Scott laughed. He figured anyone could forgive Maria once they got her cooking on a regular basis. He only hoped he and his brother could come to an understanding that easily. At least, enough of an understanding to make a fresh start.

Johnny chewed his lower lip for a moment. A gesture that amused Murdoch as he had seen it in his other son many times.

"I don't know. I've been mad at her for so long, it's like that's all I know to feel."

"I can't believe that, Johnny. The whole time you were so sick, you called out for her. Something inside you must have been feeling something."

"Like I said, nightmares," he replied flatly.

"You are stubborn, aren't you?"

He grinned a little. "Yeah, guess so. Maybe .... maybe I can talk to her but not right now. I don't want to deal with her until I get my strength back."

"I understand. I'll ask her to stay."

"And if she doesn't want to?" Johnny asked. A note of fear in his voice.

"I think she will. She was very worried about you. She still is."

"Won't that be pretty hard on you, though?"

Murdoch smiled at the concern. "It's more important for you to deal with her and your feelings than whether I'm uncomfortable."

Johnny cocked his head to one side and looked closely at Murdoch.

"What?"

"Nothin. Just ...... nothin," he said softly.

Scott came back with his food and Murdoch left his sons alone together, hoping they would continue talking.

********

Murdoch thought some sort of miracle had happened. Two days after the fever started coming down, it was completely gone. With it, Johnny's strength began coming back quickly. He was up in a chair by the second day.

On the third day, Murdoch walked in to find him up and dressed.

"Are you sure you're up to that?"

"I'm sure. I'm about to go loco trapped in this room."

Murdoch frowned a little at his choice of words.

"I didn't mean you had trapped me," Johnny said, seeing his father's reaction.

"I know you didn't. I just hate for you to feel so confined."

"Guess I'm used to the wide open spaces," he smiled.

"Think you could get used to sleeping in a real bed after being in those wide open spaces all day?" he asked with trepidation.

Johnny looked up at him, his eyes revealing nothing. "All I can do is try, Murdoch."

"And that's all I can ask of you," he smiled.

"Well, I guess it's time to face the music," Johnny sighed.

"If you're not ready, son...."

"I'll never be ready. But, I want to get it over with. And I want to be standing on my own two feet when I do."

A disturbing thought came to Murdoch. "Johnny, are you pushing yourself to get better so you can face your mother?"

His head dropped and Murdoch knew the answer.

"I told you I could handle her being here. I hardly see her, in fact. She spends most of her time in the garden or that old chapel behind the house."

Johnny nodded. "Guess I know where to find her then." He walked out of the room.

Murdoch stood there and briefly closed his eyes. He prayed his son would find some answers and some peace for his soul.

"Pretty, ain't they?"

She turned quickly to find him watching her admiring the roses. "How long have you been there?"

He simply shrugged and walked over to a bench.

She watched him move, remembering his stride. So steady, so confident. She sighed.

"There is much we need to discuss," she said.

"Not so much. Just tell me why you left and why you lied," he stated bluntly.

"That is a great deal to tell, nino."

"I'm not a kid," he shot.

"No, you are not," she said sadly.

"Well, go on. I'm listening." He settled on the bench, pulling his knees up and dangling his arms over them as he regarded her.

She pulled a chair near, sure he would balk if she sat on the bench. Hands in her lap, she thought of how best to start.

"When I met Murdoch, I was barely eighteen. I was wild then. Uncontrollable," she shook her head.

Johnny's face remained impassive, waiting for her to get to the point.

"He was very charming. He spoke of the ranch and how he was building it. He talked of the empire he dreamed of having. It was all very .... intoxicating. He was so big and strong. I felt like I was in love." She stopped here, trying to decide if she should tell him all of it. She decided there was nothing to be gained by lying now.

"Johnny, we .... didn't wait. I became pregnant." She watched for his reaction. There was none. His expression had not changed so she continued.

"Well, when I told him, he proposed immediately. We felt it was the right thing to do and .... I really did think I loved him. He said he loved me and I believe he did."

Johnny still said nothing. His silence was beginning to work her nerves.

"When we arrived at the rancho, it was not as it is today. The hacienda was not yet finished. Oh, it was very nice still. I just didn't understand what was expected of me. Murdoch gave me time to settle but then he started issuing orders. This needs cleaning, that needs dusting. I was a fool. I thought I would be queen of the manor. Have servants waiting on me hand and foot. That was not what he had in mind, however.   He said this was a working ranch.

"I tried, I really did. But, I was not used to this life and I hated it. I wanted more. I wanted a life of luxury. The longer I stayed, the more I resented him. He worked long hours, he was never home before dark until ... until you were born. Suddenly, he found time to come home for lunch. He spent hours riding you around the valley, showing you off. I was jealous, I admit. He loved you so. He was so proud."

"So, to get back at him, you took me along for the ride," Johnny spoke. His voice was hard and cold, his face still impassive.

"Yes, Johnny. That is why I took you with me. I loved you, hijo. But, had I shown more concern for you, I would have known you were better off here. That is one of my greatest regrets."

"And the lies you told me?"

"As I said, I began to resent Murdoch. That resentment turned into hatred. I could not stand it. You kept asking for him. Where's papa? I want papa. You would not stop. That is when I started the lies. To stop you from asking for him. And, I wanted you to hate him as much as I did."

Johnny nodded his head. "And when you left me? Why didn't you tell me the truth then?"

Maria dropped her head in shame. She shook it slowly. When she looked back at him, tears were in her eyes. "I should have. At that time, I was desperate to be free of you. You were .... in the way." She stopped and swallowed hard, blinking back the tears. "I have no excuse, hijo. Only that it did not occur to me."

"Because you didn't care about me," he said flatly.

"Si, at that time, I did not," she admitted.

A soft sigh escaped his lips and he turned to look out over the meadow behind the house.  

"How did you end up at the mission?" he asked softly.

"Five years ago, I was beaten badly. I nearly died. The padre found me and took me to the mission. The sisters healed my body. The padre began to work on healing my soul."

"Must have shocked the hell out of him when he realized you don't have one," Johnny spat.

The tears brimmed and spilled over and down her cheeks then. "You hate me."

"You blame me?" he asked, glaring at her.

"No, hijo. No, I do not blame you. I can only ask for your forgiveness as I have asked for God's. It is up to you to grant it if you can."

He turned his head back and leaned it against the adobe wall. Staring up at the sky, he didn't answer.

"What else can I tell you?" she asked quietly.

"Nothing. I don't want to hear anymore," he sighed.

She sat quietly for a moment, shifting in her seat. Finding her courage, she began to speak again. "May I ask something?"

Johnny dropped his eyes and looked at her, considered it, then nodded.

"Johnny Madrid?" she asked.

"Does that shake your sensibilities, mother?" he snorted. "Yes, Johnny Madrid. Are you asking me why? Do you have to?"

"Because of what I did. Because I left you," she answered.

"No, because you took me. I think I would have taken that road even if you had stayed. It wasn't like I had a whole lot of other options even when you were around. It wasn't like you were a mother to me anyway," he said, his voice rising with anger.

"Johnny...."

"No! I don't want to hear anymore. I don't want to talk to you anymore. Leave me alone," he hissed, his voice wavering with anger and pain.

She stared at him for a moment then nodded. Rising quickly, she returned to the house.

*****

Maria entered the kitchen to find Scott and Murdoch at the table. She locked eyes with Murdoch then ran toward the back stairs.

He sighed heavily and headed to the garden.

Johnny hadn't moved, not a muscle. Other than his head, which was hanging down.

"Johnny?" he called out softly.

"I need to be alone."

"Alright, son. Just .... when you want, I'm here," he said hesitantly.

"I know. You've always been here," he replied with anguish.

Murdoch wondered whether he should leave the young man alone or not after that statement. "Are you sure you don't want to talk now?"

"I'm sure. Thanks," he whispered.

"Whenever you're ready, then," the rancher said and left him to himself.

Johnny rested his head against the wall again and shook it in wonderment. One of the things he wanted to ask his father was if he was crazy or blind. How he could have chosen Maria ..... he trailed off because he knew. The same way every other man could choose her. She was beautiful, exciting, breathtaking.

Selfish, greedy, unfeeling. These adjectives slipped in his head as well. And now she wanted forgiveness. A commodity Johnny Madrid was sorely lacking and always had. He had given up on forgiveness for anyone, including himself, a very long time ago.

He had to wonder what made a person do such things. What 'thing' compelled someone to heap so much pain on others. How could anyone be that selfish? He didn't understand it, though he'd seen it many times. He wondered if it was some family trait. Or maybe she hadn't had that love herself when she was a child.   Maybe she was simply incapable of loving anyone but herself. Johnny frowned.

A memory registered in his mind of a man he'd met once in Kansas City. He was full of himself beyond belief. Primped and preened at every opportunity. Some newspaper man had called him a name. He couldn't recall the word but the man had explained it meant someone who was in love with themself to the point of being unable to feel for anyone else. That was his mother. Maybe Scott knew the word, he thought.

He took a deep breath and let it out. He had to give her this much. She'd been brutally honest with him. For once in her life, finally. What he was supposed to do with that information, he had no idea. In fact, he had no idea what the hell he was going to do in the next minute, let alone the rest of his life. He felt that sense of lonliness engulf him again. A feeling he'd grown used to over the years. One he didn't like at all. One he had hoped he was free of now that he was home.

Home. A word that should have brought a smile to his face. Instead, it brought a pang of pain to his heart. So many regrets. So many mistakes. Was it too much?

Murdoch had asked him to stay. Said the past didn't matter. But didn't it? Could he stay here knowing the danger he brought to them? Knowing he couldn't just walk away. Knowing 'they' wouldn't let him.

He eased his legs down, planting his feet on the ground. He leaned forward to rest his arms on his thighs. His face buried in his hands. What the hell was he going to do?

******

Scott had slipped out the front door and made his way around the side of the house. He leaned against the corner, hidden by a bush. He watched his brother in turmoil and his heart felt heavy.

These feelings were so new, so different than what he felt for his father. Their father. He shook his head. I'm going to have to used to that, he thought. There's a lot I'm going to have to get used to.

But would he? Watching Johnny, he wondered what was going through the younger man's mind. Would he stay now? Or would he find a way to forgive his mother and want to go with her? To his utter surprise, he found he didn't want Johnny to leave.

He wondered if it would make a difference to his brother. If he were to tell him he wanted him to stay. Would it matter? Something told him it would. He didn't know what that something was, though.

During his recovery, Scott had spent a little time talking with Johnny. He had told him about himself, even learned a little about the man as well. Enough to know he wanted to learn more. A lot more.

Enough to feel a connection that was deeper than any he'd ever felt before. It had shocked and disturbed him. This man, this gunfighter. Scott shook his head. How could he get to me so fast?!

Scott jumped when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned to see his father jerk his head toward the front of the house. The look on his face told Scott he was not pleased.

Once out of Johnny's earshot, Murdoch glared. "What are you doing?"

"I was just watching him. I thought I would talk to him but it doesn't look like he wants company. I wasn't trying to spy on him, pa," he said defensively.

Murdoch appraised his eldest, found he was telling the truth as always, and smiled. "What did you want to say to him?"

Scott bowed his head for a second then locked eyes with his father. "That I want him to stay."

Murdoch's smile grew and he wrapped an arm around Scott. "I'm very happy to hear that, son."

"I'm not sure it will do any good. He looks like he's struggling to make a decision."

Murdoch nodded. "Well, we'll just have to help him with that decision, won't we?"

"Yes, sir," Scott smiled.

"I think your brother has had enough time with his misery. Let's go let him know he has a home and a family," Murdoch said, giving Scott's shoulder a loving shake.

*****

As they rounded the corner together, Johnny's head came up. His shoulders tensed as they approached.

"I know I said I'd wait, son, but Scott and I feel there's something you need to know," Murdoch started right in.

"What's that?" he asked suspiciously.

"Well, it's just this. We want you to stay, Johnny. So, if you were thinking of leaving, don't," Scott smiled.

Johnny's mouth twitched. "That an order?"

"It's a request," Scott clarified.

The twitch grew into a grin then. "And if I don't?"

Scott raised a brow. "Well, I've never been to Mexico but I'm sure I can get along down there while I beat some sense into you."

"Oh, really? Think you got what it takes?" Johnny retorted, still wearing that grin.

"Oh, I do. You see, I'm the oldest. That means I'm automatically entitled to beat on you."

"Oh, I see. I never heard that rule before."

"It's not a rule, it's a law. I'm sure I could find it if you're interested."

"Yeah, I'm interested. I'd like to read that law. Not that I follow that too much."

Murdoch was smiling as widely as he could manage. His heart felt warm listening to his sons banter back and forth.

Suddenly, Johnny grew quiet. His eyes lowered and a frown appeared.

"What is it, son?"

"I want you both to understand what you're getting into here. It's not like I can just walk away from who I am. As soon as people find out I've hung up my gun, they'll be coming for me. Every two-bit wannabe gunhawk will want his shot. Figure I'm rusty or I've lost my edge. I don't want either of you hurt because of me."

He looked up at them, his eyes going to his father. "Do you understand? How will you feel if someone from my past hurts Scott?"

Murdoch found he didn't have an immediate answer for that question.

"I can tell you. He'll be upset and angry. But not with you, Johnny. Being a rancher has it's own dangers. I know it isn't the same but I take that risk every day. I'm willing to risk you, too," Scott said with a measure of compassion in his firm tone.

Johnny looked from Scott to Murdoch.

"He's right. I would be very upset if either of you got hurt. A family sticks together under the best and worst of circumstances. By doing that, we lower the risk to each of us individually. Do you understand?"

Johnny nodded. "United we stand, divided we fall," he murmured.

"Exactly," Scott smiled.

"Could I have a minute alone with Murdoch?" Johnny asked.

"Sure," Scott smiled and left them alone.

Murdoch walked over and sat beside him on the bench.

"She told me everything. I guess she told you, too," Johnny whispered.

"Yes, she did."

"She asked me to forgive her."

"Can you?"

He shook his head. "Not right this minute. I don't know if I'll ever be able to."

Murdoch watched him, his head hung, hiding. "Johnny, look at me."

He tilted his face up, his eyes bright with need and longing.

"Son, whatever you decide is alright. They're your feelings and you have a right to them. I just want you to know that I'll do everything in my power to help you have a good life here."

Johnny looked hard into his eyes. An expression of curiosity adorned his face. He thought better of voicing his thoughts just then and simply smiled.

"I think I'll lay down for a while if you don't mind," he said instead.

"Of course. I think you've been out here too long as it is," Mudoch said paternally.

Johnny nodded and rubbed his chest absently.

"Are you hurting?" Murdoch asked.

"Just a little sore still."

"A little sore. Right. You know, Johnny, part of being a family is being honest. You don't have to hide your pain from us."

He dropped his head once more. "Habit, I guess."

Murdoch smiled and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Takes time to get used to a whole new way of life."

*********

Murdoch walked with Johnny up to his room. Keeping close but allowing the younger man to make it under his own steam. He had learned how independent his son was in this short time. Stubborn, as well.

Once he was settled in bed, Murdoch sat beside him and casually felt his forehead.

"You're a little warm."

"Probably all that movin around," Johnny sighed.

"I hope that's all it is. I'll check on you in a while."

"Murdoch?" he called as his father neared the door.

"Yes, son."

"Thanks."

Murdoch smiled a nodded his head.

Downstairs, Scott was pacing the great room. His mind awhirl with thoughts and emotions. The teasing with Johnny had felt so natural. There was no tension. No misunderstanding of what was said. It felt like breathing to him.

He shook his head for the umpteenth time, wondering what was happening. Were they becoming friends? Scott didn't think it would be that easy. But if not that, then what? What did he feel towards this man? This stranger who had barged into his life, turning it upside down.

All he knew for certain was he had a headache. Too much thinking, he supposed. Or maybe, too much feeling. His love for his father had always been there. That was easy. But, he had never really loved anyone else except his grandfather. A man he didn't really know well. He had spent four years with Harlan Garrett while he attended Harvard. To his dismay, he realized he had not become very close with the older man.

He looked up to see Maria walking quickly out the front door. Scott felt a sudden anger rise up in him toward this woman. He set his jaw and followed her.

She was sitting on the low wall on the veranda when he found her. Staring out over the land, she seemed a thousand miles away. Or maybe, twenty years away.

"May I speak with you?" he asked.

She turned, a bit startled, and nodded her head.

Scott walked over and sat next to her. He wasn't sure what he really wanted. "I don't know what to call you."

"Maria is fine," she answered simply.

"Alright, Maria. I want to know why you took my brother away."

Her eyes widened a bit and she stared at him. "You are as direct as your father."

"I suppose so," he said flatly.

"It was a mistake. I will regret it for the rest of my life. I have tried to explain it to Murdoch and Johnny. Forgive me, but I do not feel the need to explain it to you." There was no animosity in her voice. She was simply stating a fact.

"Johnny is my brother. Doesn't that give me the right to know?"

She looked curiously at him. "You have known him what? A week or two? Did you know of him?"

Scott dropped his head for a moment. "No."

"But you feel you have a right to know these things. If you do, you will hear it from them. Not me."

"I guess you think I'm being nosy."

She smiled. "No, not at all. Curious, yes. That is natural. Much has happened in a short time in your life. It is a great deal to absorb. Perhaps, you should focus on getting to know your brother. Do not worry about why I did what I did. Pay attention to him now."

"Then, you don't want him back?"

Maria could not have been more stunned. "Want him back? Dios, yes, I want him back. I do not deserve him. I have nothing to offer him. Not even a home." She smiled sadly. "I never could give him a home."

"You should have sent him back," Scott said tersely.

"Si, I should have done many things differently. But, I cannot change what is done. I can only live my life better now."

Scott nodded. "Thank you for talking to me." He stood and walked away, leaving her to her thoughts.

*******

Johnny awoke drenched with sweat. He raised up and grimaced as the pain seared his chest. Damn! he thought. Lying back down, he slowed his racing heart and wiped his face with his hand.

More slowly, he raised himself up and sat on the side of the bed. Taking a hitching breath, he walked to the dresser and splashed water on his face.

He stood there, hands leaning on the dresser, head bowed, eyes closed. He hated having these dreams. It had been a while since he'd had one. He didn't have to guess why they were plaguing him once more.

Raising his head up, he saw his reflection. He looked like hell. He felt even worse. His eyes were too bright and he knew the fever was back. Cursing softly, he remembered his father's words.

He made his way to the door to seek out that help he was supposed to ask for. As he stood in the hall, he wavered a little. He knew he'd never make it downstairs.

He crossed the hall and knocked on Scott's door. No answer. He sighed heavily and went to Murdoch's door. The same result. Looking down the length of the corridor, he felt his strength wane. No way he'd make it that far.

Resignedly, he passed by his room to the next one and knocked. This time, he got an answer.

She gasped aloud when she saw him.

"I'm sick," he whispered.

Maria took his arm and guided him inside, lying him on the bed. She felt his forehead and worry lined her face.

"Rest, nino. I will get your father," she said softly and disappeared.

Murdoch was surprised when she led him to her room. She quickly explained how he'd come to her door.

He sat on the bed and felt his head. Murdoch closed his eyes briefly, then steeled himself.

"No one else was up here," Johnny said softly.

He frowned and then understood what his son was saying. "It's alright, Johnny. I've sent for Sam. We'll get you taken care of."

"My bed's wet. I woke up sweaty."

Murdoch smiled. "I'm sure that won't be a problem." Turning to Maria, he asked her to get fresh water and a cloth but she was already wringing a towel out and handing it to him.

"I want to go back there," he whispered.

Maria bent over him and stroked his hair. "I will change the sheets for you." She left quickly to hide the tears that welled in her eyes.

Johnny grabbed his father's hand and held tight. Murdoch looked into those eyes and smiled.

"I'm sorry. I never should have come here."

"Why, Johnny?"

"Cause I'm dying."

"No, son. You are not dying. Sam will fix you up," Murdoch argued.

Johnny shook his head. "No, it's too late. Too late for eveything. I'm sorry. I wanted ...." he closed his eyes, he was so tired.

"Don't leave me, son," Murdoch whispered.

Scott appeared and together, they carried Johnny back to his room and settled him in.

"Better?" Murdoch asked.

"Yeah, thanks," he sighed.

"Good. Now, I don't want to hear anymore talk about dying. You're going to be just fine," he said as sternly as he could manage.

Johnny smiled weakly at him then turned to Scott sitting on the other side. "Talk to me."

Scott raised his brows in surprise. "About what?"

"Anything. Tell me what it was like growin up here."

Scott looked at his father then back at Johnny. He started talking about anything he could think of. He told Johnny about school and friends. About fishing and swimming. He told him about the hunting trips he and Murdoch had taken together and how their father had taught him to use a rifle and gun.

He told him about his first horse and his first girlfriend. Scott talked for over an hour until Sam mercifully showed.

Johnny drank in every word, trying to burn it into his memory. Trying to picture himself joining in it all. But he couldn't manage that part. He couldn't see himself growing up here. He couldn't imagine participating in it all. Having his father teach him to ride and hunt and shoot. It left him with a desolate feeling. Although they were right beside him, trying to comfort him, he felt incredibly lonely just then.

He closed his eyes to keep the tears from springing forth. He had a sinking feeling this was his last day on earth and it had all come to him much too late. The pain in his chest was no longer from the surgery. It felt much deeper and melancholy than physical pain.

Maria had long since slid to the floor in a corner. As she listened to Scott talk, her heart broke a thousand times. She wept silently for her son and for her own sins.

******

Sam tried to make them leave but he wasn't having much luck. He gave up and examined Johnny. He didn't like what he heard through his stethoscope. Johnny's heartbeat was irregular. It was beating much too fast. Sam reached into his bag and retrieved some medications.

Pouring a glass of water, he placed a hand on Johnny's shoulder. "I need you to take these pills, Johnny."

He looked at the doctor suspiciously and Sam smiled.

"It's to slow down your heart. It's beating much too fast."

Johnny nodded and swallowed the medicine. "Am I gonna die?" he asked softly.

Sam raised a brow and considered him for a long moment. "I hope not. We need to slow your heart down for sure. If that medicine doesn't work within an hour, I'm not sure what else I can do for you."

Johnny nodded once more, seeming to accept the diagnosis. "Thanks for bein straight with me, Doc."

"Why does he have a fever, Sam?" Murdoch asked.

"He's still got an infection. His heart jumping all over the place doesn't help any. The blood isn't getting a chance to empty from his heart like it should. That's causing it to back up and pool in the chambers. It's like a landslide, Murdoch. Once one thing goes wrong, it affects a multitude of others."

"Is that from the surgery?" Scott asked.

"Not the surgery. The original injury itself caused some damage to the muscle. That's what is causing the faster heartbeat."

"So, we just wait to see if the medicine works," Johnny said tiredly.

"Yes, and you get some rest, young man. You're exhausted," Sam said firmly.

"Kind of hard to sleep when you ain't sure you're gonna wake up again," he smiled wanly.

******

For the next forty-five minutes, it seemed they had all stopped breathing. The waiting was working on Murdoch's nerves. How could this be happening? Now, when they were so close to having it all.

Sam got up from his seat and leaned over Johnny. The entire room stood still. He listened closely to the young man's chest for a good two minutes. Johnny watched him, tried to read his expression, but he couldn't. He was too tired and, honestly, too scared.

Sam straightened up and smiled. "Normal."

There was a collective sigh in the room and Johnny had to laugh softly.

"Could it happen again?" he asked, becoming serious.

"It could. But, if we can get rid of that infection and you get plenty of rest, you should be alright. You need to give the muscle time to heal. That's going to take at least a couple of weeks."

Johnny grimaced at this news. "I have a hard time bein still that long, Doc."

"You'll have to if you don't want a repeat of today," Sam warned. "Now, Murdoch, how about buying me a cup of coffee."

"I'd say you deserve it," Murdoch smiled. He flashed a look at Scott who nodded.

The two older men left and Scott sat himself down.

"Thanks," Johnny murmured.  

Scott frowned. "For what?"

"Talking me through it. I was a little worried," he chewed his lower lip.

"Couldn't tell."

Johnny snorted. "Yeah, right. Is she still over there?" he asked, nodding toward the corner.

Scott had forgotten all about Maria. He turned to look but she was gone.

******

Sam settled in the kitchen and cupped his hands around the strong brew. He was deep in thought as he waited for Murdoch to settle.

"There's one more thing Johnny needs."

Murdoch looked at his friend with a questioning gaze.

"Peace, Murdoch. Peace and quiet and no more emotional upset for a while. I hate to say this but I think Maria being here isn't good for him. At least, not until he's completely healed."

Murdoch nodded thoughtfully. "I agree. I think she's changed. I'd like to believe that. But, Johnny isn't ready to forgive her yet. He may never. She's a constant reminder of everything he's lost for so many years," he sighed.

"I assume they have talked?" Sam inquired.

"Yes, and it was right before Johnny laid down. Right before all this happened."

"I thought as much. It's too much for him. He's been through major surgery and a life-threatening injury. His body needs time to heal before he can work on the rest."

"I'll talk to Maria."

"There is no need. I will leave tomorrow," she said from the doorway. "Forgive me but I could not help hearing. I know my presence here is hurting Johnny. I will stay away until he asks for me ..... if he asks for me," she said sadly.

Murdoch felt a twinge of something but he wasn't sure what. "I'm glad you understand," was all he could think of to say.

"Do you think it would be alright if I spoke with him one more time, doctor? I will be brief," she asked.

"I suppose it would be alright. But I want to be near by," Sam replied.

******

She waited a couple of hours, giving him time to rest. She eased open the door and found Scott reading at the bedside.

He looked up with a wary expression. Seeing his father behind her, Scott rose and stepped to the door.

"Sam said it was alright for Maria to visit for a minute," Murdoch explained.

"He's sleeping right now. I hate to wake him," Scott said softly.

"I'm not asleep," the voice from the bed spoke.

Scott turned and smiled. "Playing possum? Tired of me already?"

"No, just plain tired," Johnny returned the smile. It left quickly as he saw her.

"Are you up to a short visit, son?" Murdoch asked, trying to read Johnny's face.

"Guess so," he mumbled.

Murdoch gently nudged Maria into the room then took Scott by the arm and led him out. He closed the door behind him.

"Are you feeling better?" she asked nervously.

"Si, tired still, is all."

She sat gingerly in the chair beside the bed. "I am leaving tomorrow, hijo. The doctor wants you to have calm to recover. I will wait for you to contact me if you wish to."

Johnny stared at his hands, picking at some invisible malady. He said nothing.

"I will be at the mission."

He only nodded.

She felt the tears begin to burn in her eyes and blinked furiously. "Johnny, por favor, te amo, mio hijo." (Johnny, please, I love you, my son)

"Goodbye," he whispered.

She inhaled deeply and straightened her shoulders. Standing, she smiled through the brimming tears. "I am happy you came home. I pray you find all the love and happiness you so deserve. Goodbye, my son."

She walked quietly to the door and opened it, slipping out.

*******

Johnny kept staring at his hands for a long time. He didn't seem to notice the moisture invading his cheeks, sliding down his face. Finally, he swiped at the tears with some fury.

"Dammit!" he swore softly. Sniffling, he wiped at his nose with the sleeve of his nightshirt.

He raised up into a sitting position, grimacing at the pull of pain. Burying his face in his hands, Johnny felt lost.

He didn't know if he wanted her to go or stay. He didn't know if he could stand being around her. But the thought of her leaving tore at his heart. It felt the same as it had ten years earlier. The reasons didn't seem to matter. Only that she was going.

It boggled his mind that he would even care. Would give her a second thought. Maybe she really had changed. Was it possible? Did they have a second chance now? No, he couldn't believe that.

He felt he had to make a choice between her and Lancer. Staying here meant he couldn't be with her. Leaving meant giving up the chance to know his father, who truly wanted him, and a brother he was starting to actually like.

Murdoch had never lied to him. Had never left him. She had though. Too many times. Left him and admitted he was in her way. Now, ten years later, she comes back and says she's sorry? He sighed deeply.

No, there really was no choice here. It was all too clear. He could have a home here, a real home. And a real family. Settle down. Maybe even get rid of Madrid.

He closed his eyes and leaned back against the headboard. No, he had no decision to make about that.

*******

Murdoch watched his son pace for a good ten minutes. When it was evident Scott wasn't going to stop any time soon, he intervened.

"Sit down, Scott," he said a bit tersely.

"I can't!"

Murdoch raised a brow at his son's tone. Quickly, he changed tactics. He fought the smile threatening.

"What's got you so jumpy, son?" he asked in a nonchalant voice.

Scott stopped pacing and stared incredulously at his father. "Is she talking him into going with her? Because if she is, I have to wonder why you'd allow that."

"Well, firstly, Johnny's a grown man. He has to decide for himself where he wants to be. Secondly, I thought you didn't want him here. Isn't he going to just bring trouble?" He managed to keep his face impassive.

Scott lowered his eyes for a few seconds before meeting his father's gaze again. "I hate it when you throw my words back at me. I said I don't want him to leave," he admitted quietly.

"I was hoping you still felt that way. He's not leaving but Maria is. In the morning. Sam said it was best if Johnny wasn't kept all upset while he heals."

"Good. I'm glad she's leaving," Scott said sharply.

Murdoch grimaced a little but said nothing. The expression was not missed, however.

"You're glad too, aren't you, pa? That she's leaving?"

"Yes, it's best for Johnny," he mumbled.

"And you? Is it best for you?"

"Why wouldn't it be?" he asked. His temper flaring briefly.

"You're still in love with her, aren't you?" Scott asked pointedly.

Maria knew she couldn't bear to hear the answer to that question. No matter what that answer might be. She stopped eavesdropping and walked into the room.

Murdoch stood up when he saw her.

"He is alright, I think," she said unconvincingly.

"I'll go check on him," Scott said and was gone before he finished the sentence.

They stood there and stared at each other in the awkward silence that followed. Neither sure of what to say.

Murdoch cleared his throat. "I'll have someone drive you to town in the morning."

"Gracias."

"He really seemed alright?"

She shook her head slowly. "I don't know. It's so hard to tell. He wouldn't look at me. He only kept his head down just like when he was little. Always with his head down," she sighed.

"Yes, I've noticed that. He says it's so no one can see what he's feeling or thinking."

"It is so he can hide," she said conclusively.

"Hide? What do you mean?"

She sat down on the edge of a chair seat and bowed her own head.

"When one of my men would be angry with him. Or, when I was angry with him. He would drop his head so he could hide from the pain. He would wrap his arms around himself, as well."

Murdoch closed his eyes briefly. Astonished at the thoughts scattering through his brain. He didn't want to think about it but he couldn't stop it.

"How badly did they, you, hurt him?" he asked barely above a whisper.

"Too badly. Too much. Too much pain and sorrow for one so young. For anyone." She looked up at him with pure anguish in her face. "Sit, please. You have a right to know some things about our son."

*******

Murdoch was all too ready to sit. His legs felt like water and his knees were trembling. He wasn't so sure he wanted to hear this but he knew he had to. He wouldn't be able to help Johnny, connect with him, otherwise.

"He cried so much at first. Always, he was crying for you, wanting to come home. It was very difficult to calm him. After some time, he did stop. He became his old self for a while. Playing and always into mischief. Such a handful!" she smiled fondly at the memories.

Her face fell as she continued. "At first, it was simple to keep him out of the way when I had .... company. I simply put him to bed. After a day of playing wildly, he would be exhausted. Then, when he got older, it was more difficult."

"How much older?" Murdoch asked quietly.

She frowned as she thought. "Six, I think. Si, it was then that he started. He would beg me not to go to the cantina. It was the same every night. He would say he would take care of me. Then, when I came home, he would be waiting. He would make such a pest of himself. Interrupting ..... things," she blushed.

"The first time he was hit, I was furious. I sent the man away. But then, I was alone with only Johnny. It was not enough for me then. I am ashamed of all of this, Murdoch, but I must tell you. I started hitting him myself." Tears sprang unbidden into her eyes but she went on.

"He started fighting the men back. He would hit and kick. He was small and quick and would many times dodge the blows. But, many times he could not. He was so brave. Never did he show fear or pain. But, he never fought me. He never once raised a hand to me."

"Why would he? You were the one he was trying to protect?"

"Even when I beat him myself? He took it. He took it without making a sound. Later, he would come and apologize. He would apologize to me!" she shook her head at the incredibility.

Murdoch felt his jaw clench tighter until he thought it might just break. He waited until he could make himself calm down a little before he dared to speak.

"So, you got fed up one day and left. Is that it? You got tired of his meddling in your life. Tired of having to deal with him."

"Yes. That is exactly what I did. At the time, I was not sorry for it. I felt no remorse then. Madre del Dios, me perdona," she crossed herself.

"She might, but Johnny may not be able to. I hope you can live with that, Maria. I hope you can live with what you've done to our son," he said angrily.

******

Johnny sat in the chair by the window. His arms crossed over the sill. His chin resting on those arms. He watched as his mother climbed in the surrey and looked up toward his window.

He almost reached out. His arm even moved a little. But he settled back again, frowning.

"I'm sure she'd stay if you asked her."

"I don't want her to stay."

"But, you don't want her to go either."

He kept watching as the surrey gave a jerk then headed down the drive away from him. "They teach you how to read people's minds at Harvard?"

Scott smiled and shook his head a little. "No, but I wish they had."

Johnny lowered his eyes briefly, then locked back on the disappearing surrey. Murdoch stood in the doorway, giving Scott a questioning look. The young man could only shrug.

"Shouldn't you be resting?" he asked.

"I am resting," Johnny replied but he had yet to move.

Murdoch walked over and stood behind him, looking out the window. He couldn't see her anymore. He doubted Johnny could either but his son had not stopped gazing.

"You know where to find her," he said softly.

Johnny dropped his head and nodded. He didn't speak the sarcastic thought that entered his mind. He stood up slowly and went back to the bed, sitting on the edge. Head still down.

Murdoch remembered Maria's words from the night before. He sat next to Johnny and put two fingers under his chin. Raising his son's head up, he met the sorrowful eyes.

"I want you to live here for the rest of your life. I want you to raise your own family right here. But, Johnny, if that's not what you want. If you want to go after her...."

"No," he interrupted. "I don't want to go away again," he whispered in a trembling voice.

Murdoch smiled softly at him.

Johnny began recovering from this last illness. He was feeling antsy being so idle. He needed to do something. Unfortunately, he was being watched like a hawk. Murdoch seemed to find a great deal to do around the house so he was never far away. Though Johnny appreciated his concern, he had never liked being watched for any reason. Scott had gone back to work so he didn't see much of him until the evenings. They spent a great deal of time talking openly and honestly with each other.

Johnny understood his attitude at first. That didn't mean he liked it or that it hadn't bothered him. He had to admit to himself, Scott's anger had disappointed him. They sat out on the veranda together this evening, listening to the sounds of the ranch settling for the night. Scott watched Johnny from his periphery. The younger man seemed lost in his thoughts. He stayed quiet, thinking Johnny didn't want to talk.

"How long has Maria been here?" he asked suddenly.

"She came less than a year after I came home. I was six."

Johnny nodded. "She's very protective of you."

Scott grimaced a little, remembering his talk with the cook. "Yes, she spoiled me. There's no doubt about that. Look, she told me about what she said to you."

Johnny raised a brow. "She did?"

"Yes, I told her she shouldn't have spoken to you like that. She felt she needed to protect me."

"Why shouldn't she have spoken to me like that? You did," Johnny asked bluntly.

"That was before. I mean, I was telling her how badly I felt for treating you that way. Still, it wasn't her place."

Johnny laughed softly. "Maybe she feels like you're her kid. She helped raise you. She was a real mama bear."

Scott smiled a little at that description. "She said she told you to leave. That I was the heir and you had no right here."

"Yep, pretty much."

Scott turned to look fully at him. "Pretty much? What else did she say?"

"She just questioned why I was here. Why I was hanging around," he shrugged.

Murdoch stepped out from the front door where he'd been listening. His face set in a deep frown. "When did this happen?"

Both young men started a bit at his voice.

"Eavesdropping, pa?" Scott grinned.

Murdoch did not reciprocate. "When did Maria say these things to you?" he reiterated.

"The first night I was here. Why?" Johnny answered.

"She had no right to speak to you like that. No matter what her intentions," he stated adamantly.

"It's alright," Johnny said softly.

"No, it is not alright. That woman has too loose a tongue," he shook his head.

"She feels part of the family, pa. She is part of the family."

Murdoch turned to his elder son. "I understand she loves you, Scott. I have always appreciated her help in raising you. Even though I knew she was spoiling you, I thought I was counteracting her overprotectiveness. I think I did a good job of that."

"You did," Scott smiled.

"But, this is inexcusable, son. She has overstepped her bounds."

Johnny felt the tension rise in Scott. "Murdoch, it's no big deal. She seems to be fine with me now."

"Johnny, this is your home. You shouldn't be made to feel unwanted by the help!"

"The help?!" Scott fumed.

"Wait a minute. First of all, she didn't make me feel unwanted. She wanted to know what my intentions were. Just like both of you. Second, you should be glad Scott had a mother figure in his life that gave a damn about him!" Johnny stood quickly and walked away from them both. He leaned against a support column and stared into the dusk.

Neither knew what to say to that proclamation. But the pain they heard in his voice was undeniable.

"Leave her alone, Murdoch. She was protecting her cub. If anything, you should thank her for caring about him," he said softly.

"Alright, son. But, I am going to at least talk to her about it."

Johnny shrugged. "Think I'll take a walk."

Before either could respond or offer to tag along, he'd walked off quickly.

"Maybe I should go after him," Scott said as he stood.

"No, let him alone, son."

He turned to his father. "Don't fire her."

Murdoch smiled. "I won't but I also won't have her making your brother feel uncomfortable."

*****

Johnny slowed his stride and wandered around the corral toward the bunkhouses. He hadn't really met any of the hands yet. He wondered what they all thought of this situation. He smiled a bit. Situation. Nice, polite name for it.

He saw some of the men sitting outside. He wondered if he should even try yet. They were staring openly at him, obviously very curious. Johnny smiled only to himself. "Evenin," he called softly.

"Evenin," came a choir of three. "Nice night," a lone voice added.

"Si, it is," he agreed as he ambled over. "I'm Johnny."

All three laughed a little. "We know."

"Guess so," he smiled.

"Heard ya was healing from a gunshot. I'm Vince, by the way."

Johnny shook hands with him. A tall, weather-worn wrangler with sun-bleached blond hair and brown eyes. Friendly eyes, Johnny noted.

"This here is Cabe and Hank," Vince introduced his two friends.

"Nice to meet you all."

"So, how long Doc got ya down for?"

Johnny smiled again. "Two weeks at least."

Vince whistled lowly. "Got to be hard just sittin around all day."

Johnny knew what he was doing. Sizing him up. That was okay. He understood their trepidation. "Yeah, I'm not used to bein still that long."

"Ever done any ranchin?"

"Some in Texas. Horse wranglin mostly."

"Good with horses, are ya?" Hank asked.

Johnny shrugged. "Fair."

"Got some nice palominos runnin wild on the range. Might interest ya. Course, that black you ride ain't real friendly, is he?"

"Someone been messin with him?" Johnny asked tensely.

They all laughed. "Are you kiddin? Ole Cabe here got too close to him one day and he nearly took a hunk outta his arm. He's a might ornery."

Johnny grimaced at this. "Yeah, he's particular. Sorry bout that. Guess he needs a good run."

He noticed the three of them sober suddenly. Turning, Johnny saw Cipriano walking up.

"Hola, Johnny."

"Hola."

"Perhaps you and I could talk now?"

Johnny thought about it, didn't really want to. But he nodded his head out of respect for the older man. He turned back to the threesome. "I'll see ya."

He followed Cipriano to a small house nearby, wondering why the others reacted to the man as they had. The older man walked inside and left the door open. He sat at a table and waved his hand for Johnny to join him.

He sat down and leaned his forearms on the table, clasping his hands. "Those men I was talking to. Don't they like you?"

Cipriano frowned. "I do not have a problem with them. I am the segundo here."

Johnny nodded in understanding. The Boss.

"It is good to have you home again, sobrero."

"How long have you worked here?" Johnny asked.

"Since the beginning. I knew Scott's madre and, of course, your's."

"Yeah? How come you didn't warn Murdoch off her?" he asked spitefully.

Cipriano didn't flinch. "They were married before I even knew they were involved. El Patron was as surprised as I of the circumstances."

"So, you never told him."

"It was not my place. She was his wife. I thought perhaps she would change when you were born."

"Guess you thought wrong," Johnny snorted.  

Cipriano was quiet for a moment. "Sobrino, do you blame me for your madre's behavior?"

Johnny was surprised by the question. "No."

"Then, why do you speak so disrespectfully to me?"

He lowered his head and sighed softly. "Perdoneme, tio. I meant no disrespect. I'm angry with her."

"Lo se. You have every right. I am most displeased with how Maria has led her life."

Johnny studied the man for a second. "What was she like when she was young?"

Cipriano sighed heavily and shook his head sadly. "Always, she has been a problem. A more beautiful child you could not find. But her beauty, it was en la superficie, on the surface only. She was always selfish, Johnny. Always needed to be the center of attention. As she grew into womanhood, she had many admirers. She played with them all until your padre."

"Why was he different?"

The older man seemed almost embarrassed. "He was the first who had some wealth. A landowner - ah, you know how it is. She thought he was rich. That he would keep her in finery and jewels."

Johnny nodded knowingly. So it had always been that way with her. "Was her family wealthy?"

"No. Perhaps that is why she craved it so much. They were not poor but certainly not wealthy. But, they were happy. Your abuelo and abuela were very much in love. They doted on her as the only child. Perhaps, they spoiled her."

"Tal vez," Johnny whispered.

He felt the hand on his arm and looked into his tio's eyes. The kindness and compassion there was touching.

"This is where you have always belonged. Had I known where she had taken you. Ah, what does it matter now? You are here. That is what is important. It is only that I have such regret for the life you led."

"Don't feel sorry for me. I did alright."

Cipriano cocked a brow.

"Yes, I was a gunfighter. I was good at it, too. I won't apologize for it. I survived," he explained firmly.

"Survived. Si, you did survive. But, did you live, chico? Really live?"

He swallowed hard and looked at the table. "I don't know. There were good times. Happy times. Maybe not so many but they were there. I was free to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. No one told me what to do. No one controlled me."

"Were you free, nino? Truly free? Si, you did what you wanted. But, there was no one for you to care about. No one to care for you. Is that the life you wished?"

He couldn't look at the man. He was hitting way too close to his heart. Why was this man doing this? He found he couldn't help but answer. He needed to answer. "No, it's not what I wanted. This is what I wanted."

Cipriano took a deep and satisfied breath, letting it out slowly. "Bueno. This is what you shall have. Johnny, I only want you to know you are wanted here. You belong here. This is your destiny. Your life. Your familia. Si?"

He was finally able to meet the man's eyes and he smiled appreciatively. "Si. Gracias, tio."

"De nada, sobrino."

"She asked my forgiveness," he said suddenly.

"And you feel you cannot give it," Cipriano stated as fact.

"No, I can't."

"It is alright, Johnny. You do not have to forgive her. But you must forgive yourself."

He looked up quizically.

"Forgive yourself for not forgiving her. What she did - it was too much for a child to bear. Too much for a young man to deal with. Forgive yourself, nino. So you can truly be free."

******

Murdoch found Maria in her kitchen finishing the supper dishes. He stood in the doorway for a moment and watched her go about the mundane chore. His mind flashed back to the day he'd hired her. Scott had been there just a few months and he was difficult to handle. He'd had many adjustments to make and Murdoch was at his wit's end.

Maria had entered the room to a tantrum taking place. Without a word, she walked over and picked the boy up. She began speaking softly to him in Spanish. Soon, Scott had settled down and rested his head on her shoulder. Murdoch needed no more proof she was right for the job.

Since that time, he'd noticed Scott cling to her more and more. As soon as he was old enough, Murdoch had taken control of his son. Taking him out on the range, showing him how the ranch was run. Teaching him to be a man. Thankfully, it had worked. He had never had to speak with Maria about it. She seemed to have known the time was right for Scott to break free of her apron strings. Still, the bond between them had fused and Murdoch was glad for it. Until now.

"Senor?"

His head jerked up as her voice broke through his thoughts. "Maria, I want to talk to you. Sit down, please."

She nodded and did so, looking curiously at him.

Murdoch took a seat across from her and cleared his throat. "I want to talk to you about Johnny."

She nodded and waited.

"I know about what you said to him that first night," he started and looked for her reaction.

Her face flushed and she lowered her eyes.

"You know you had no right to talk to my son that way. I am very disappointed in you. I expect you to apologize to Johnny and start treating him with respect. He is a Lancer and this is his home."

"Si, Senor. I have wanted to apologize to him. I will put it off no longer."

"Why, Maria? Why would you take it upon yourself to do such a thing? You knew I wanted Johnny to stay."

"Scott. He was so angry, so hurt. He did not want his hermano here."

"That is not your business. I know how you feel about Scott and he about you. But you are not his mother, Maria. You can't speak for him. Scott doesn't pay you, I do. I won't tolerate this kind of thing again. Do you understand?"

"Si, Senor," she whispered.

Murdoch nodded in satisfaction. "Good. As soon as you've apologized to Johnny, we can put this behind us."

*****

Johnny walked slowly back to the house. Thinking of his conversation with his tio. He felt better about things now. Part of him felt like he should forgive her. She was his mother, after all. But a much bigger part could not let go of the pain she'd caused. The emptiness of his life for so long. There was no reason for it. No cause to point to. Nothing that had happened to make her do such things. It was all her doing. She had made all the decisions about his life without considering him for a moment.  

So, why should he consider her feelings now? She seemed sincere in her regret. But it was too late as far as he was concerned. Too late from the second she had left him ten years ago. She had sealed both their fates at that moment. Cemented the knowledge that he would never be her son and she would never be his mother. He idly thought things had worked out backwards. Scott's mother should have lived and his would never have known Murdoch Lancer. He would never have been born. He frowned at that part.

Then he would never know Murdoch either. No, as much as he hated all she had done, he wanted to be with his father. Johnny stopped in midstride and turned, heading for the corral. He leaned against the fence and rested his chin on his arms. Rocking himself gently back and forth against the fence, he sighed. Maybe he should just forget all about her. Could he? He'd tried for the last ten years and hadn't been able to. But now he knew the why of it. So maybe now he could put her to rest. Pretend she was dead like he'd tried to before.

He decided to think about more pleasant things. He smiled a little thinking of his family. It was so strange. Scott was trying very hard and he appreciated the effort. But, Murdoch. He hadn't tried. He had opened his arms that first day. When he had brashly made himself at home in the old man's chair. He laughed at the thought. He'd known it was Murdoch's. Had to be. The massive desk and leather bound chair screamed Big Dog.

Pa. Murdoch had wanted him to call him pa then. He hadn't been able to. Could he now? "Pa." He said the word aloud. It felt foreign on his tongue. Uncomfortable, yet not. What the hell! I'm gonna drive myself loco goin on like this, he thought. He figured he'd give the old man a heart attack if he called him that anyway. Maybe not, though. Maybe .... maybe it would make him happy. He was sure it would. He wanted to make Murdoch happy. He'd done so much for him. Was so ready to take him in and care about him.

Even to the point of going against Scott. Johnny had to admit to himself that had bothered him some. He should have told Scott. At the least, he should have talked to Scott long before he did. Johnny knew there'd been no conversation between the two of them until his surgery. That's when Scott had changed his mind. He figured Murdoch had a heart to heart with the man then. Timing. Everything in the world came down to timing.

Something he knew well. When to make a move, when to wait. When the other guy was going to draw. When to cut your losses and when to stand and fight. With a soft snort, he thought - when to get married and when to run screaming.

He whirled around, drawing his gun and crouching slightly at the sound. Maria gasped and her hand went to her mouth.

Johnny swallowed hard and blinked. Then he holstered the Colt and stood up straight. "Don't ever sneak up on me!"

"Forgive me. It was not my intention," she breathed.

He leaned back against the fence and let out a breath. "No, I'm sorry. You just startled me."

She came closer and nodded.

"Did you want something?" he asked.

"Si. I wish to apologize to you."

"For what?"

"For speaking to you as I did that first night. It was not my place. I should not have interfered."

"Murdoch talked to you, didn't he?"

"Si."

"I asked him not to. I understand why you did it. Don't worry about it."

She looked at him hard for a moment. "Juanito, do you truly care for them?"

"Si, Senora, I do. Scott's been hard," he laughed softly. "Murdoch, he just .... he wanted me here so much. I couldn't believe it at first. But, well, he sure has proven himself. As for Scott, we're doing better. It's gonna take time for all of us, I guess."

"I wish I could take back what I said to you. I have watched you with the patron and with Scott. I see how you try. It cannot be easy for you."

Johnny shook his head. "It isn't. I don't know how to be part of a family. I'm sure I'll mess up a lot. Maybe ..... maybe you could help me sometimes?"

She smiled at him. "I would be happy to listen whenever you wish."

"Gracias, Senora. Buenos noches."

******

He watched her walk back to the house then turned and stared into the night. Maybe this really would work out. There was only one thing that worried him. Scared him. He wished he could make them understand. He knew they didn't really. Couldn't know what it would be like having him here.

Madrid would not go quietly. Part of him didn't want him to go. Part of him was still Madrid. He reckoned he always would be. Lancer was who he had trouble with.

"Johnny Lancer," he said the name aloud.

"How does it sound?"

Johnny smiled. He'd heard the footsteps and knew who it was. "Not bad. Take some getting used to."

"I'm sure. I saw Maria talking to you."

"She apologized. I told you it wasn't necessary."

"Well, I suppose that isn't the only thing we'll ever disagree about. As long as we can talk things through, I guess we can agree to disagree at times."

He turned and looked up at the tall man, a smile adorning his face. It was replaced with a frown.

"What is it, son?"

"I want to make you understand something but I don't know how."

Murdoch leaned against the fence and waited for him to find the words.

"It's just .... I know you said you don't care about my past...."

"I don't."

"You should. You can't bury your head in the sand, Murdoch. It's too real, too much a part of me. It's been going on for too long."

"How long exactly?"

"Five years now," he answered and glanced at the rancher. He wasn't surprised that Murdoch was wearing a shocked expression.

"Guess you're rethinking things, huh?"

Murdoch shook his head and blinked. "I had no idea. You were so young. But, no, I'm not rethinking anything, Johnny."

His shoulders sagged but he knew he had to try again. "Look, it's like this. I always have to watch my back. Always look over my shoulder. There is no relaxing, no letting down my guard. I can't walk into a room without checking it out. Seeing who the potential threat might be. I always sit with my back to a wall. Everyone is a stranger. I have no friends. I can't afford them. What I do have is a lot of enemies. Some I know, some I don't. Some who just want the reputation as the man who killed Johnny Madrid. Some of them ain't too particular about how they go about it either. I can't trust anyone because they might betray me. I can't stop. Not for a minute."

By the time he was finished, he felt like he'd ridden all day and night. It took more out of him than a range war. This ..... confession. This purging, had exhausted him. Now, he had to look into the eyes of his father and he didn't want to. He was more afraid than he'd ever been and that was saying a lot.

"Are you trying to scare me off?" Murdoch asked after a beat.

"I'm trying to be honest with you. I'm trying to tell you what to expect."

"I understand, Johnny. I really do," he said with sincerity.

"Then why do you want me here?"

Murdoch felt he wasn't making his point either. "It's like this. You are my son. I lost you for nearly twenty years. I didn't know if you were even alive. I couldn't find you no matter how hard I tried. I had nightmares about what was happening to you. I'd sit up at night driving myself crazy with the possibilities. Praying you were safe and well cared for. Now, you walk back into my life and I'm supposed to - what? Turn you away? No, Johnny. That will never happen. There is no risk great enough to make me do that."

"Even if the risk is to Scott?"

"We've talked about this."

"I know, but...."

"Listen to me. Johnny, your brother wants you here. He's not stupid. He knows the risks. He's seen gunfights. He's seen men die. He understands and he's certainly old enough to make his own choices."

He still wasn't convinced Murdoch understood. But, he felt a warmth he'd never known before. Johnny turned away toward the dark cover of night again. "I sure hope you know what you're doing because I don't."

Murdoch smiled a little. "I do. As for you, we'll make it, son. We have to, don't we?"

"I guess we do," he answered in a husky voice.

"Johnny, look at me."

He didn't turn around, couldn't.

"Son, please," Murdoch tried again.

He could only shake his head.

Murdoch took his shoulder and turned him firmly then cupped his chin and raised his head. "What is it?"

He swallowed hard, trying to keep the tears at bay. "I just don't understand, that's all."

Murdoch shook his head. "Understand what?"

"How you could care so much about someone you don't even know."

Murdoch had to blink a few times himself. "I told you. I love you, son. You are my child. It's that simple."

"But, she didn't love me. How can you?" he asked, his voice hitching.

"Oh, Johnny," he whispered and pulled his son into a hug. "Most people love their children without question. Some just aren't able to for whatever reason. That doesn't make you unloveable. It doesn't make you any less a person or any less deserving of love. In fact, it makes you even more deserving. What I've seen is a young man who cares about others. Even if he does try to hide it. A young man with so much to give if only someone would ask. Well, I'm asking, son. I'm asking you to be my son. To be a brother to Scott. To care about us and hopefully, one day, love us."

He could no longer hold back and one tear fell from his eye, dropping into the dry ground beside him. He was holding on tightly to Murdoch. He knew it was too tight but he couldn't let go. He would never let go. And no one would ever tear them apart again.

He did pull back a little. Just enough to speak. "You said I would understand when I had kids of my own. But, I understand now. As much as a parent will always love their kid, a kid always loves their parents. I tried to hate her. I tried to hate you. I convinced myself I did. But it was a lie. I ..... it hurt thinking you didn't want me either. I kept wondering what was wrong with me. I know the truth now."

He stopped and looked up into his father's eyes. "I don't want to make promises just because. I will promise to try hard. I promise to work everything out with Scott. I promise to do everything I can to be a son you can be proud of.   And I promise, I'll try really hard to stop calling you Murdoch."

He smiled at the last, his heart glowing. "I'd like that. I know it's uncomfortable for you right now. When you're ready, son."

"Just don't keel over if I walk in and call you pa some day," he smiled and there was a twinkle in his eyes that told Murdoch they were going to be just fine.

 

 

~end~
2004

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