The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Foundations

 

 

 

NOTE: Thanks to AJ for the horse help. {g}
WARNING: This is an Alternate Reality story - Sequel to The Return

 

Since Johnny was restricted for at least two weeks, Murdoch decided to start showing him the business end of the ranch. He was a bit hesitant, not knowing Johnny's educational background. He knew his son could read and write. That was obvious since he'd written to Maria. How well was the question. He certainly didn't want to embarrass his son. He worried over how best to introduce Johnny to accounting.

For his part, Johnny was ready to climb the walls. More than anything, he wanted to get on his horse and just ride. Anywhere would do. As long as he could feel the wind in his face and the sun warm his body. But the memory of that day he'd awoken so sick and the look on the doctor's face, made him find some patience. He perused the many books in the living room. Finding one that sounded interesting, he settled on the sofa.

Murdoch walked in from the kitchen and looked over his shoulder. His eyebrows went up when he saw what Johnny was reading. "A bit dry, isn't it?"

Johnny craned his neck and looked up at his father with a smile. "No, it's pretty interesting."

Murdoch pulled the book forward a bit to be sure of the title. "Anatomy of Horses. If you say so, son," he chuckled.

He walked over and sat beside Johnny. "How would you like to learn about ranching from the business side?"

Johnny closed the book and looked hard at him. "I'm not very good at math. Just enough to get by."

"Well, let's see what you know." He stood and motioned his son to follow and he went to his desk. He pulled out the ledgers and opened them, then the receipts he needed to enter. "Grab a chair, son."

Johnny settled beside him and waited. He didn't think he was going to like this.

Murdoch decided the best way would be to show him what to do and hand it over. So, he did exactly that.

It seemed simple enough but Johnny stewed over the numbers, wanting to get it right. Wanting Murdoch to be proud.

Thirty minutes went by and Murdoch waited patiently. Finally, Johnny pushed the book back to him and lowered his eyes.

A smile adorned the rancher's face as he went over the numbers. "That's perfect, son."

"It is?"

"Yes, it is. I guess you know more than you thought you did."

Johnny shrugged. "Thought there'd be more to it than that."

"Well, there is. At the end of each month, the books have to balance. It can be very frustrating sometimes. And it's usually a simple mistake somewhere along the line. Finding it is the headache."

He nodded then cocked his head to the side. "There's more though. Right?"

"Oh yes. Much more. Being a good businessman means knowing the current stock and feed prices, being able to tell a good animal from a bad one and not letting anyone cheat you."

"Nobody cheats me," Johnny said flatly.

Murdoch looked at him with some surprise at the tone. He thought Johnny must have had some expereince with that subject. He thought to press but decided against it.

"Let's walk outside," he said instead.

They walked over to the corral where some men were breaking horses. Johnny leaned against the fence, most interested. Murdoch said nothing, just watched his son. He could tell by the light in Johnny's eyes that he was enthusiastic.

A frown adorned the young man's face as he watched one hand take his turn at breaking a stallion.

"Something wrong, son?"

"He's doing it wrong," he stated simply.

Murdoch raised his brows. "How so?"

"He's bein too rough. It takes a gentle hand to break a horse," he shook his head in disgust.

"Everyone has their own way of doing it," Murdoch offered.

"Don't make it right. That stallion ain't gonna stand for that."

"He'll have to learn that lesson, then. He's new here, just started."

Johnny nodded but he still didn't like it. His eyes blazed when the cowboy picked up a whip. "Mister," he said just loud enough to be heard.

The cowboy looked at him and Johnny motioned him over. When he got close, Johnny leaned over the fence a little.

"You use that whip on that horse and I'm gonna use it on you," he hissed.

Both the cowboy and Murdoch were stunned by the cold voice. Murdoch said nothing and waited to see what would happen.

"Look, I know what I'm doin. I've broke more horses than you've ever seen, sonny," he sneered.

A slight smile pushed Johnny's mouth upward. "I doubt that and I ain't your sonny. Now, leave the whip."

They started a staring contest that didn't last long as the cowboy looked away from the death stare. His eyes went to Murdoch who stood implaccable. Dropping his head, he considered his options. He didn't know who this kid was but it was pretty obvious the boss wasn't gonna interfere.

He finally shrugged and dropped the whip, walking away.

Johnny waited until he was out of earshot. Without looking at his father, he spoke. "Wasn't my place, I guess."

"Yes, it was your place. If you hadn't stopped him, I would have. There's no reason to punish the animal for doing what comes naturally."

Johnny breathed a sigh of relief and looked at his father. "Thanks."

"Come on, I want to show you something," Murdoch smiled.

In the lower corral, behind the house, stood a huge bull. Johnny whistled lowly when he got a look. "He's a beaut. Look at that muscle! Boy, he's gonna be a good breeder."

"What else?" Murdoch asked, unable to hide the smile.

"He's got a good strong neck, muscular. Chest is wide. Strong legs. Not too fleshy. Is he frisky?" he asked with a grin.

Murdoch chuckled. "Oh, yes. He's been very interested. You know good bull flesh. How much would you pay for him?"

Johnny considered the animal for a quite a while before answering. "Well, I'd pay a thousand but I wouldn't offer that much. Probably start at half that just so the owner wouldn't be insulted."

"You've done this before, haven't you?" Murdoch asked, suddenly feeling like his leg was being pulled.

"No, but I've seen a lot of haggling done. Been to some auctions." He looked up at his father. "Gunfighting isn't the only thing I've ever done."

Murdoch relaxed against the fence and studied him. "What else have you done?"

Johnny smiled. "Wranglin. Been on a couple of drives, too. I've done some bronc bustin. How do you think I got my horse?" he laughed.

"Yes, about that horse," Murdoch cocked a brow.

Johnny dropped his head and grimaced. "Yeah, I know. I'll have to have a talk with him. He's not used to bein around other people. Guess I should turn him out and let him run some."

"I think that would help. I'm glad his owner doesn't bite unfamiliar people," Murdoch grinned.

Johnny looked up and smiled. "Who said he didn't?"

******

Sam was pleased with Johnny's progress. After two weeks, he decided the young man could ride again. Johnny almost ran to the barn until a restraining arm stopped him.

"Just a minute. How much can he do, Sam?" Murdoch asked.

"I don't want him doing any heavy lifting for another week. And he shouldn't be in the saddle all day. Give yourself about three days of riding a few hours with rest."

Johnny's face fell with disappointment but it was better than nothing. "Well, what kind of work can I do without lifting?"

"You can push the herd with Scott tomorrow. We're moving them from the north to the east pasture."

"Okay but, Diablo ain't a cowpony."

"Diablo?" Sam asked.

"My horse," Johnny explained with some pride.

Murdoch had to smile. He thought it was an apt name. "You can pick out a horse for tomorrow. Right now, go on. I know you're chomping at the bit. But, remember what Sam said, young man."

Johnny smiled widely and took off. Murdoch frowned at his exuberance and prayed he wouldn't do something foolish.

"He'll be fine," Sam said.

"I hope so. He really is doing well? I mean, his heart....."

"It's strong and the rhythm is regular. He needs to exercise as long as he takes it slow."

They heard a whoop and looked out the French doors to see Johnny take off at a gallop.

"Slow. Right," Murdoch mumbled.

*****

Johnny let his hat rest on his back by the stampede strings and lifted his face to the sun. Smiling widely as he felt the power beneath him. Diablo was more than ready to take his stride fast. They rode for almost half an hour before Johnny pulled him into a canter. Taking in the majestic scene before him, he recalled the day at South Mesa. A smile lit his face remembering his father's pride.

He topped a small hill and saw Scott with a work crew. They were rebuilding a small bridge over a stream. He sat where he was and watched for a while, noting how his brother took charge of the outfit. A grin played on his face as the blond worked, sweat streaming down his face. He pressed Diablo's sides and loped down to the stream.

Scott looked up to see him. It was the first time he'd ever seen Johnny on a horse. He had to admit, it was a magnificent animal. He stopped and walked over as Johnny led the horse to the cool water.

"Sam must have cut you loose," he smiled.

"Finally," Johnny laughed.

"Feeling alright?"

"Sure, I feel great. Of course, Doc won't let me do any lifting for another week. I'll tell ya, I'm about to go stark ravin crazy." He ground tied the stallion and walked towards the work site.

"We're just about finished here. This bridge washes out every spring," Scott explained, shaking his head in frustration.

"Ever thought about movin it to deeper water?"

Scott stopped walking and Johnny turned. "Yes, we've thought about it. But, it wouldn't do any good with this particular stream. It gets the heaviest run off from the mountains. When it floods, it floods."

Johnny nodded and looked out over the area. "Wonder how much deeper it would have to be to handle the load."

Scott frowned in thought. "You mean deepen the stream."

"Yeah. Why not? I assume it gets pretty low in late summer."

"It does. We'd need an engineer to figure the depth. Might be worth looking into," Scott agreed. He had a puzzled look on his face.

"What?" Johnny asked.

"Nothing. That was a good idea."

"Surprised?" he cocked his head.

Scott smiled a little. "I guess I am."

Johnny dipped his eyes for a moment, then looked back at Scott. "I may not have gone to Harvard but that don't mean I'm stupid."

"No, I didn't ..... I just didn't know you'd had any experience with ranching."

"Yeah, well, there's a lot you don't know about me," he said softly.

Scott nodded his agreement. "Likewise."

Johnny laughed softly. "Yeah."

He hung around until they were finished and rode home with Scott.

"Murdoch said you've seen gunfights before," Johnny said out of the blue.

"Two. Why?"

"Just wonderin. He said you knew what to expect. I think he's livin in a dream world."

Scott looked over at him. "You're still worried about that? You really do like to stew over the what if's of life."

Johnny frowned then smiled. "If I didn't, I'd be dead."

"What is it like? Being in a gunfight?"

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I don't know if I can explain it. It's a game. You wait and read the other guy. Wait for him to make his move."

"How do you stand it? I mean, don't you get nervous?"

"No. I get calm. Everything else is pushed out of my mind. There is nothing but that moment for me. I know it doesn't make much sense," he shook his head.

"Yes, it does. I think I understand."

"The thing is, I never really know when it might happen so I have to be ready all the time. So, if you're around, just get out of the way, okay?"

"Why?"

"Two reasons. You'd be a distraction and you could get hurt."

Scott smiled at this. "I'd hate to distract you."

"Me too. It would get me killed."

"You are very serious about this."

Johnny pulled on the reins and stopped. Scott followed suit.

"That's what bothers me about this whole thing. It is serious, Scott. Dead serious. That's what I can't seem to make either of you understand. Just being around me is dangerous." His eyes held his brother's as he attempted to drive his point home. "You said you've seen gunfights. But, you've never seen ME in a gunfight. I hope you never will but that's wishful thinkin."

"I almost wish I could just to get it over with. Just so you would know it doesn't change anything," Scott replied just as adamantly.

Johnny's shoulders dropped and he breathed out heavily through his nose. He decided he wasn't getting anywhere. These Lancers were a stubborn lot!

*******

Maria prepared a Mexican feast that night. Murdoch smiled at her effort and hoped it was heartfelt. She knew Scott didn't really like Mexican food that much so he knew this was a true peace offering.

Johnny didn't know or care. He was just happy to have some of his favorites. It had been a long time.

Scott explained Johnny's idea about the stream to their father.

"Well, it would have to be cost effective. It wouldn't hurt to have an engineer take a look. It's a good idea, son."

"Thanks, I ...." he stopped as he heard a ruckus from outside. Nervous horses - never a good sign.

All three men stood and headed for the door. Johnny slipped the thong off his Colt.

The corral held several horses that were being trained as cowponies. They were all skittish and the three of them moved cautiously toward the animals.

The loud whinny drew Johnny's attention and he ran to the barn. It was Diablo. He recognized the sound. He slid the door open and slipped inside. Crouching low, he moved toward the stall, gun at the ready. But there was no one in the barn though the horse was still making a show.

Johnny walked over and stroked his neck. He looked up when the others walked in. "No one here." Turning back to the horse, he tried to gentle the animal. It wasn't working and Johnny couldn't figure it out. Usually, Diablo calmed right down when he petted him.

He opened the stall and stepped in, much to Murdoch's chagrin. He didn't like the horse and made no qualms about it.

"Easy, boy. What's got you so jumpy, Diablo?" He glanced down and saw the problem. Anger emerged in him as he dropped down in the hay.

"Johnny? What is it?" Scott asked.

When he didn't answer, both men approached. Johnny was on his knees, rubbing Diablo's left hindleg.

"What's wrong with him, son?"

"Someone cut him," he hissed. "Look at this!"

Murdoch came into the stall and knelt beside him. The horse's leg was bleeding from a deep cut to the hamstring. Murdoch closed his eyes and sighed. "I'm so sorry, son."

"Why would anyone do this? Why?" Johnny asked.

"The tendon's been cut," Murdoch noted.

"I'll see if anyone saw anything unusual," Scott said softly and walked outside.

"Why, Murdoch? How could anyone treat a horse this way? He's ruined! This beautiful animal....." he trailed off and hung his head.

Murdoch squeezed his shoulder and rubbed it gently. "I don't know but we'll find out, Johnny. Do you want me to put him down?"

Shaking his head, he answered huskily. "No, I'll do it. I .... alone, okay?"

"Of course, son. I'll wait outside."

Johnny stood up and wrapped his arms around the horse's neck. He leaned in and laid his cheek on Diablo's neck. "They'll pay, amigo. I swear, they'll pay. Whoever did this is gonna answer to me. I'm so sorry. You've been a good friend."

He stepped out of the stall and closed the door. Pulling his gun slowly from the holster, he cocked it quietly and looked into the brown eyes. With a shaky sigh, Johnny brought the gun to bear.

"No one saw anything strange and no one has been in the barn," Scott reported to his father.

"Someone had to see something," Murdoch grumped.

"It's suppertime, pa. Most everyone was inside," Scott reminded him.

They both jumped as they heard the report.

"He loved that horse," Scott said.

"I know. I'll go in."

"Let me, pa. Please."

Murdoch looked at his son and smiled. With a nod, he walked to the house.

Scott found his brother sitting on a hay stack, gun dangling from his hand. His head was down, his shoulders slumped.

He walked over and sat beside him. "I'm sorry, Johnny. No one saw anything."

He only nodded.

"We'll find out who did it."

"Sure," he whispered.

"I know he was special to you," Scott tried.

Johnny sniffed and stood, reholstering his gun. "Just a horse."

"I'll have some of the men take care of him."

"Thanks, Scott."

"Coming in?"

"In a minute," he sighed out.

Scott thought to stay but he sensed Johnny needed to be alone so he left.

Johnny walked over and rested his arms on the stall door. He looked down at his friend and closed his eyes. "I know who did it," he whispered.

He left the barn and went to see Cipriano. Explaining what had happened and his suspicions, Johnny formulated a plan with the man.

Cipriano was more than agreeable. Not only was it a waste of fine horseflesh, it was a dagger in his nephew's heart. Johnny had had enough of those to last ten lifetimes and Cipriano was done seeing pain in the young man's eyes.

Johnny went back to the house and straight to his room. He didn't want to talk about it and hoped they would understand. He needed to be alone to sort this out.

*****

The next day, he was up and ready for work. He had already been outside and picked out a mount for the day. He walked into the kitchen to find his family settling in to breakfast.

"Good morning, son."

"Mornin."

"You okay?" Scott asked.

"Sure. Picked out a horse to use today," he shrugged.

Murdoch explained to Scott what he'd never had the chance to last night. Johnny would be helping him move the herd today.

Cipriano met them outside and nodded to Johnny, then the three of them rode out to the north pasture together.

It was a long, hot, dusty day. Johnny had to admit to himself if no one else, he was feeling the weeks of inactivity. Breaking in a new horse to his own style wasn't helping. But he knew that would happen. Diablo was nobody's cowpony. Sadness filled him thinking of his amigo. Anger soon replaced it. He watched his suspect most of the day.

Cipriano was watching as well. Hoping his plan would work and they would have the proof they needed. It would be a struggle for who went after the man first. He was enraged at the senseless act.

By noon, they had made good progress, stopping at a stream for lunch and to rest the herd. Scott joined his brother under a tree.

"You look a little pale. Maybe you should head back. Sam said not to overdo."

Johnny shot him an aggravated look. "I'm okay. A little sore and tired is all."

"I know you don't want to be babysat. I just don't want pa yelling at me when you fall over from exhaustion."

Johnny smiled a little then. "I'll be okay, Scott. What do you know about that new man? Dan something?"

Scott shrugged. "Not much really. He said he'd worked in Kansas before moving here. He knows his stuff. He's been a hard worker. Why?"

Johnny nodded. "No reason, Just wonderin about him."

"Well, he seems to be making friends. Cale and Vince have been with him all day. Now that I think about it, that's the first time I've really seen him with any of the other hands." Scott frowned, then looked at his brother. "Is something going on?"

"Don't know what you mean? Just asked about him. Seemed like a loner. Guess he's just slow makin friends."

"That doesn't wash, Johnny. How would you know he was a loner? This is your first day really working."

"I"ve seen him around is all."

******

When they arrived home that evening, Johnny felt like a dishrag. He wouldn't show it but Murdoch was frowning when they walked in.

"I know Sam said half days and rest, Johnny."

He looked up at the scowl and almost burst out laughing. "Did he?"

Murdoch gave him a sidelong look. "He did and you know it."

"I tried to get him to come back early," Scott said before he was given the same look.

"Seems I recall someone around here callin me stubborn," Johnny grinned.

"Yes, I recall that, too. I also know where you get it from. No work tomorrow," Murdoch decreed.

Johnny's face fell and his dander went up. "Look, I appreciate the concern ...."

"Do you want a repeat of what happened before?" Murdoch interrupted.

"No, but...."

"Then you'll do as you're told, young man."

"Murdoch, I don't take orders too good," he said in a strained voice.

"Learn." His face softened and he walked over to his son. "I worry about you. Is that a crime? I'd feel a lot better if you would take your health seriously, son."

"Sure, pull that on me. Alright. I need to cut out a better horse anyway."

Murdoch beamed. "Good! Now, let's relax before supper and you can both tell me about your day."

Before they got the chance, there was a knock on the door and Cipriano stepped in. "Perdoneme, Senor. May I have a word with Johnny?"

"Be right back," Johnny answered and walked out quickly. "Well?"

"He told Cale that he had cut your horse."

Johnny closed his eyes and nodded, fighting to keep the anger at bay.

"Do you want me to fire him?"

"No, Tio. I'll deal with him myself. But, not tonight. Gracias and thank Cale and Vince for me."

Cipriano nodded and left him alone. Johnny paced the porch several times, working to control his temper.

Murdoch wanted to go to Johnny's room but he made himself stay away. He felt at least some confidence that if his son wanted to talk he would seek him out. He told Scott to let his brother sleep in the next day since he wouldn't be working anyway.

As dawn broke to the east, Scott slipped quietly into the room. Tiptoeing in his socks, he took a long peek. Just to assure himself Johnny was resting. Satisfied the young man was sleeping soundly, he crept back out of the room and closed the door with a soft click.

Johnny opened his eyes and sighed. It was late, he could feel it. He slid out of bed and headed to the window. Yep, midmorning already. He washed up quickly and headed to the kitchen, hoping for some coffee.

As soon as she saw him, Maria grabbed a cup and poured the hot brew. She then pulled a plate from the oven and set it before him.

"Your papa said you were sleeping in. I am sorry about your horse," she said sincerely.

"Gracias," he murmured, not wanting to talk about it. He ate quickly and wandered into the living room. It was empty and he was glad. He needed time to figure out exactly how to handle this situation. The biggest question was why.

If a man had a problem with him, he should face him. Not take it out on an innocent animal. That was the worst kind of coward. His anger grew just thinking about it.

He decided the best way to handle this was the way he always did. Face to face, man to man. Even if the man he was facing was a cobarde. He paced the living room, his rage intensifying. He knew he shouldn't but he couldn't help it. He'd caught that horse and broke him. Taught him to sense his own needs. Diablo always knew when Johnny needed him. How could he ever find another horse like that?

It wasn't just an animal. He was Johnny's only friend for the past two years. The only one he could count on to not let him down. And even with all that, he was simply a magnificent animal. He sighed heavily at the senselessness of it.

He stopped his pacing and made himself calm down. Brought forth the veneer of Madrid easily. He walked into the hall strapping on his gunbelt. As he stepped outside, Murdoch walked up. Johnny forced a smile.

"Where are you off to?" Murdoch asked.

"Oh, thought I'd take a look at those ponies. See if any of them can stand bein around me," he continued the smile.

Murdoch nodded and smiled back. "Alright, son. See you at lunch?"

"Sure," he replied and walked around the man. He hated lying but this was his to handle. He got the impression his father would not like his way either. But this was his fight and he never let anyone fight his battles for him.

As promised, Cipriano had made sure Dan whatshisname was working near the house today. He was in the corral, working a green horse. Johnny walked up casually and watched.

Dan saw him watching. A smirk lit his face as he turned away from Johnny. Cabe was there, as was Vince. Both men tensed a little. More than anything, they were curious. They wanted to see how the gunhawk would handle this situation.

Johnny stepped into the corral and Cabe led the horse away, tying him in a far corner.

"What'ya do that for? I ain't even started with him," Dan called.

"You're not starting anything. You're finished," Johnny spoke softly.

He turned to see Johnny not five feet behind him. "Well, look who it is. Baby brother."

Johnny smiled but his eyes were cold and lifeless. "I know what you did. What I can't figure out is what kind of man would destroy an animal for spite."

"Don't know what you're talkin about," Dan shrugged.

"Yes, you do," Cabe spoke.

Dan turned and glared at him as he walked up behind Johnny. "You ratted me out to this half-breed?"

Johnny ambled off to his left a few paces, Dan turning to face him. This was his and no one else's.

"That why you did it? Or was it because I wouldn't let you whip that horse?"

Dan smirked again. "Yeah, both. Think you're real hard-nosed don't ya? You ain't nothin but a spoiled kid. Got your daddy to run whinin to."

Johnny almost laughed in his face. "You see my old man around now? I'm going to give you a piece of advise, though you don't deserve it. Always know who it is you're dealing with."

"Is that right? And just who is it you THINK you are?"

Johnny's lip curved upward but he said not a word. He stared into the man's eyes and waited silently.

Murdoch stepped outside and noticed the scene in the corral. Curious, he walked over. He heard Johnny's last comment and Dan's reply. His shoulder's tensed as he approached.

Cipriano was suddenly there, whispering in his ear. Explaining what was happening.

Murdoch's face turned beet red. He wasn't sure what to do. If he stopped it, the men would lose any respect they'd gained for Johnny. If he didn't, a man might die.

"Well? Ya gonna answer me or just stand there smilin?" Dan was asking.

"I'll tell you what I will do. Just to make things fair. I'll fight you hand to hand. How's that?"

Dan snorted loudly. "What's the matter, baby brother. Scared?"

"Myers, you idiot. That's Johnny Madrid," Vince called out.

The smile slid off like eggs out of a skillet. Dan stared slack-jawed as Johnny's grin widened.

He said not a word. Simply began unbuckling his gunbelt. Myers watched him, still in shock. Johnny walked up and punched him in the mouth and the fight was on.

Murdoch had to use every ounce of restraint to keep out of it. Johnny wasn't well yet. He had no business fighting anyone. He kept telling himself Johnny needed to handle this himself.

Ten minutes later, Johnny stood over Myers. He swiped at the blood from a cut lip, breathing heavily from the battle. "Get your gear and get out of here. If I ever see you on Lancer land again, I'll kill you," he spat and walked away.

Vince handed him his gunbelt and he slung it over his shoulder. As he neared the fence, he heard the sound that always made his reflexes react. He let the gunbelt slide off his shoulder, pulling the Colt as it did. Johnny turned and crouched, fanning the hammer with his left hand and squeezing the trigger. The bullet hit home as he heard the whine of a projectile pass his own ear.

Myers' gun flew from his hand as he reached for his forehead. He was dead and didn't know it.

Johnny stared at him for a few seconds, then picked up his gunbelt and stepped through the rails. He glanced at his father as he walked by. Murdoch followed him, angry, proud and relieved.

Johnny stopped at the water pump and washed his face. Grabbing a towel, he rubbed vigorously. He felt more than saw Murdoch beside him. "Well?" he asked tersely.

"Nice moves," Murdoch said and walked inside leaving Johnny staring after him.

He walked in the living room to find Murdoch looking through the mail. "Nice moves? That's all you're gonna say?"

"Did you want more compliments? Alright. You handled that very well. I must admit, I thought you might challenge him to a gunfight."

Johnny stared at him for a beat. "Wouldn't have been fair. Unlike that bastard, I don't take advantage. Too bad he was just plain stupid."

"I'm not sure I could blame you if you had. We hang horse thieves. Why should a horse killer be any different?" Murdoch shrugged.

That sounded reasonable to Johnny and he smiled a little. "I guess I should have told you."

"Yes, you should have."

"I didn't want you interfering," he said softly.

"I'm not sure I would have. Then again, I'm not sure I wouldn't either. It isn't that I didn't think you could handle yourself, you know. Johnny, you're still recovering."

"I know. But, I needed to do this," he explained.

Murdoch nodded. "Sometimes, a man has to face things on his own terms."

Johnny glanced up at him. "So, what did you think?"

"About what?"

He sighed. "What you just saw. That was a little of Madrid."

Murdoch considered him for a minute. "What I saw was a man defending himself against a backshooter."

Johnny nodded, knowing Murdoch still hadn't seen the real Johnny Madrid.

"I am sorry about Diablo, son. I know he meant a lot to you."

Johnny dropped his head. "Yeah, he did. It's gonna be hard to find a horse that good."

Murdoch studied him pensively. "I know it isn't the same. But, there are some fine horses here on the ranch. Julio is always bringing in new ones for stock. Maybe one of them will strike you."

"Yeah, maybe. So, since I survived a fistfight and gunfight, I guess I can go to work now?"

"Nice try, son. What you can do is ride into town with me and see Sam."

"I don't need a doctor."

"Maybe not. But, indulge an old man, alright?"

Johnny grinned, his eyes dancing. "You ain't that old."

"And you are not so old that I can't turn you over my knee," Murdoch shot back.

Johnny laughed aloud. "I'd like to see that. No! I wouldn't," he added, putting his hands up as Murdoch took a menacing step forward.

"Come on, then. At least it's a nice day and we can enjoy the ride," he smiled and put an arm around his son's shoulder.

*******

Johnny leaned his head back to catch the sun on his face. His smile was one of contentment. He still couldn't believe his father was being so good to him. But he wasn't going to question it. He decided to enjoy it and hope it lasted. Murdoch pulled up and he opened his eyes, seeing Scott ride toward them.

"Well, gentlemen, enjoying the day?" Scott smiled.

"We're on our way to town. Can you join us?" Murdoch asked.

"The crew is hard at it. I guess it wouldn't hurt to play hooky. I'm sure they'll stay busy wagging their tongues if nothing else," he said with a sly look.

"What does that mean?" Murdoch frowned.

"It's already spreading like wildfire. The way Johnny handled Myers."

"That was fast," Johnny remarked glumly.

Murdoch flicked the reins and Scott fell in beside them.

"Not much happens on the ranch without everyone knowing it. Might as well get used to it, Johnny," Scott imparted.

"Oh, I'm used to it."

They talked about other things for the rest of the trip. Murdoch pulled the wagon in front of the bank and jumped down. "Scott, take Johnny to see Sam."

"I told you I don't need....."

"And I told you. Indulge me," Murdoch cocked a brow.

Johnny rolled his eyes and climbed down. Once Murdoch had gone into the bank, he turned to Scott. "Is he always like this?"

"No. He'll let up on you once Sam says you're one hundred percent," Scott reassured him.

"Yeah? Can Sam be bought?"

Scott laughed and started down the boardwalk. "I don't know. I've never tried but I'd have to doubt it."

Johnny buttoned his shirt as he slid off the exam table.

"Well, no harm done. I have a feeling you're going to give me a lot of headaches, young man," Sam chastised.

"Just tell me I'm off restriction, Doc. I'll pay you anything," Johnny grinned.

Sam eyed him seriously. "You do seem to heal quickly. I'll tell you what I'll do. If you promise, give me your word as a gentleman, that you'll take heed to your body, I'll let you off the hook."

"I swear it," he answered quickly.

"Hold on, now. I mean it, Johnny. Any pulling, any funny feeling in your chest, any shortness of breath or pain and you stop whatever you're doing."

Johnny held up his right hand. "I swear on my life, Doc."

"Yes, you will."

******

Outside, Johnny took a deep breath of air. "Smell that? That's freedom," he grinned.

Scott laughed. "You're just happy pa won't be babying you anymore."

"You got that right. I mean, it's nice but .... " Johnny just shook his head.

"Come on. I'll buy you a beer."

"Sounds good. How long you think Murdoch will be?"

"I'm not sure but he'll know where to find us," Scott grinned mischievously.

"Is that right? Are you saying you're a little wild there, brother?"

"I don't know what you're talking about. I'm an upstanding citizen," Scott replied with mock indignation.

Johnny laughed and threw his arm around Scott's shoulder. The older man was shocked by the gesture but tried not to show it.

When they approached the saloon, Johnny made a quick step to be in front of his brother and held the batwings open for a split second before entering. He then headed to the back of the room and sat against the wall.

"What was that?" Scott asked.

"What?"

"That at the door?"

"Oh, sorry. Habit," Johnny said, lowering his eyes.

Scott started to say something, thought better of it and sat down.

The bartender walked over and frowned.

"Two beers, Jim," Scott ordered.

"Don't think so," he clipped.

"I'm sorry?" Scott asked.

"I don't serve his kind," the bartender snipped.

Johnny looked up at the man and smiled.

"Since when?"

"Since never, Scott. Your friend needs to leave."

"He's my brother and we are not leaving," Scott fumed.

"Come on, Scott. It ain't worth the aggravation," Johnny said as he stood.

"No, there's no reason for us to leave. This is ridiculous, Jim."

"Scott, come on," Johnny nodded toward the door.

Scott stood and glowered at the bartender. "You just lost Lancer business."

"I doubt that. Don't reckon the boys'll care one way or the other," the barkeep sneered.

Johnny leaned in close and smiled. "Thanks," he said softly and walked out.

Scott stomped out behind him. "I cannot believe that just happened. He serves all the Mexicans in the community."

"Yep, but they ain't half-breeds."

Scott gawked at him. "Just because you're mixed ...."

"Scott, it's over. Just forget about it, okay?"

"No, I can't forget about it. How can you be so calm?"

Johnny shrugged. "Used to it."

"Used to what?" Murdoch asked as he walked up behind them.

Scott turned his vehemence on his father. "Jim just refused to serve us."

"No, he refused to serve me. You can go back in," Johnny replied calmly.

"I wouldn't step back in there if I was dying of thirst!" Scott proclaimed.

"I'm sorry, son," Murdoch spoke.

"No big deal. Not the first time, won't be the last."

"There's a cantina down the street," Murdoch offered.

"That's it? You're just going to drop it?" Scott asked, astounded.

"What do you want me to do, son? Go in there and beat him up? Would that make him serve Johnny?"

"Pa...."

"Scott! Forget about it. Let's just go," Johnny said tersely and walked toward the wagon.

"How can you let this go?" Scott asked his father.

"Let's talk about this at home, son. Not in the middle of town."

Scott fumed on but he stepped off the boardwalk with his father as they made to follow Johnny. They didn't get far when they heard it.

"Madrid!"

Johnny stopped and turned slowly toward the voice. "Yeah?"

"Heard you was up this way."

"Guess you heard right. How ya doin, Slim?" he asked with a slight nod.

The tall, lanky man grinned, exposing yellowed teeth. "Doin alright. Heard you was poorly though?"

Johnny smiled. "All better now."

"Glad ta hear it."

"Really?" Johnny laughed.

"Sure. Wouldn't want no unfair advantage," Slim grinned again.

Johnny took a deep breath and let it out. "I hung up my gun, Slim."

"Yeah, that's what I heard. Don't believe it, though."

"It's true."

"Too bad - for you," he said and the grin disappeared. In it's place was a cold, blank stare.

Johnny knew it for what it was. He wasn't going to be able to talk the man out of this. For a brief second, he thought of Murdoch and Scott. Then, he closed his mind to all but what was before him. He never moved, having taken his stance at the sound of his name.

He waited patiently, eyes cold and locked on his opponent's. Then, with a flicker, he drew and fired. Slim went to the ground, clutching his chest. Johnny walked over and kicked the gun away from his hand, then knelt beside him.

"Nice .... shootin, J..Johnny," he gasped.

He sighed and looked sympathetically at the dying man. "Thanks, Slim. Don't know why you tried it though."

"Had to. You know," he struggled, then exhaled one long breath.

Johnny swallowed and reached down, closing his eyelids. "Yeah, I know."

*******

Murdoch and Scott watched and listened to the interaction between Johnny and the stranger. Then they both became quiet. Suddenly, a flash of movement, a loud report, smoke then silence.

Both were sure their hearts had stopped beating in that second. They watched as Johnny walked over and spoke with the man. Though they couldn't hear what was said, they could see Johnny's face.

They walked over to him not knowing what to say. Three men walked up, one wearing a badge. "We'll take care of it. Fair fight," the sheriff spoke.

Johnny nodded and walked back to the wagon, climbing aboard.

The ride home was more quiet than a church on Monday. Two men trying to absorb what they'd seen, one wishing he could forget it.

When Murdoch pulled to a stop, Johnny jumped out and strode quickly inside. Wanting to catch him, both Scott and Murdoch followed quickly.

Johnny was at the sideboard, already throwing back a shot of tequila. He filled the glass again. "Drink?"

"Sure," Scott said and walked over. "Whiskey."

Johnny poured two glasses and handed them to his brother who passed one off.

"That was ..... interesting," Scott said.

"Glad you enjoyed it," Johnny snipped.

"I didn't say I enjoyed it," Scott shot back.

Johnny turned to look at him. "Well, this is what I've been trying to tell you. This is how it is."

"He didn't give you any choice," Murdoch said.

"They never do!"

"Why are you angry with us, Johnny?" his father asked.

He sighed and dropped his head. "I'm not. I'm just mad that it happened. I knew it would just not this soon."

"Look, there's nothing that can be done about it. I mean, they'll forget sooner or later," Scott said.

"Sure. Soon as I'm dead."

"Don't say that. Johnny, you warned us both. We knew it could happen and it did. You have nothing to be ashamed of."

"How can you stand there and say it doesn't matter, Murdoch? I just killed a man for nothing!"

"You aren't listening to me, son. I didn't say it doesn't matter. Of course, it matters. But that man made the decision to test you and he lost."

"I hate it, that's all. I hate you seeing me like that," Johnny whispered.

"Seeing you like what? A man defending himself? A man who doesn't want to die?" Scott asked.

"Johnny, you don't think very highly of yourself. That needs to change, son. You have worth. You're a good man."

Johnny turned and looked at him increduously. "How do you know?"

Murdoch was surprised by the question but he didn't falter. "Because I've spent a lot of time with you lately. I pride myself on being a good judge of character."

"Even I can see that, Johnny. You were a lot more calm in the saloon than me. I was ready to belt Jim Hawkings."

"That wasn't anything," Johnny shrugged.

Scott stared back and forth between them. "I'd rather discuss that than the gunfight. How can you both be so accepting of such bigotry?"

"Like I said, I'm used to it."

"You shouldn't be!"

Johnny laughed. "Well, I am. So there!"

Murdoch chuckled as well before becoming serious. "Scott, you've been around prejudice before. People in the valley accept Mexicans for Mexicans and whites for whites. It's when they mix that they get their backs up."

"I have seen it and I'm ashamed to say I've never done anything about it. What difference does it make?" he threw his arms up.

"It makes no difference to anyone with decency. A lot of people believe it's wrong to mix races, son."

"It'll happen again, Scott. Try not to let it throw you. I've found the best thing is to walk away. You can fight but it doesn't change anything. People are gonna believe what they want," Johnny explained.

"I don't agree with that. How can anything ever change if no one makes a stand?" Scott asked.

"How? How do you fight hate?" Johnny threw back.

"I don't know but there has to be a way."

"There is. Boys, the only way to fight it is prove them wrong. And the only way to do that is by being an honest and respectable man."

Johnny snorted. "Respectable? Leaves me out," he grinned.

*********

No one had noticed her walk in but Maria had heard the second part of the conversation. She listened to Johnny laugh it off and she knew he was lying to himself as well as the others.

She cleared her throat and announced supper, then quickly disappeared into her kitchen. As she spooned the food into serving bowls, tears ran down her cheeks. She knew all too well how children like Johnny were treated. Especially in the border towns.

She wiped her eyes and served the food, placing the majority of the dishes near Johnny without even thinking about it. "Excuse me. What is your favorite dessert, Juanito?"

Johnny looked at her in surprise. "Well, I don't really have one. I like pies."

She smiled. "Apple?"

"Yeah, that's the best," he smiled back.

"Bueno," she said and retreated again.

Scott grinned. "I think she's warming up to you."

"Couldn't be helped. It's all that charm," Johnny winked and laughed.

As luck would have it, Maria had baked an apple pie that day. Johnny looked at the woman when she served it and saw something different. He couldn't say what it was. Acceptance, maybe? He smiled softly at her. He almost laughed out loud. Get in good with the cook. That's what the other kids had told him at the orphanage where he'd stayed for a minute.

"I still think there's something we can do. I told Jim the Lancer hands wouldn't come in there anymore," Scott started again.

"Are you gonna order them? You can't tell a man where he can drink, Scott. That's as bad as tellin him where he can't."

"I thought if they knew what had happened, they would make the decision themselves."

"Some might, son. Some may not. Johnny's right. You can't make them stay away."

"Well, I think our neighbors need to meet Johnny. Talk to him and see him for who he is," Scott pressed.

"I think that's an excellent idea. And the best way is at church," Murdoch smiled.

Johnny nearly choked on his coffee. "Church? I don't go to church."

"Why not?" Scott asked.

"Ain't my religion."

"You don't even know which church we go to," Scott argued.

"Doesn't matter," he shrugged. Looking at his brother, he quipped, "Still think you know me?"

"Why don't you go to church, Johnny?" Murdoch asked.

He sighed and set his fork down. Leaning back in his chair, he rested his hands on his thighs. "I never had any luck with the priests I've run across. Never had much use for them and they didn't have any for me. Church is just someplace people go so they can feel good about themselves once a week."

"That's awfully pessimistic," Scott noted.

"Maybe. Just the way I see things," he shrugged.

Scott wondered how Johnny saw other things. He was right, he didn't know him at all. His eyes flashed as an idea hit him.

"Well, it's too bad. All the pretty girls go to church," he said casually.

Johnny grinned. "Bet they all go to dances, too."

"Think you're pretty smart, don't you?" Scott grinned back.

"Nah, but I can tell when I'm bein snookered."

Murdoch chuckled at them. "Well, I'm sure we can figure out a way to introduce you to the neighbors."

Johnny frowned. "Maybe we should just let it happen slow. I have enough to do just figuring you two out."

"Yes, and we have our plates full with you, as well," Scott laughed.

"I forgot. What did Sam say?" Murdoch asked, suddenly remembering the reason he'd taken Johnny to town.

"He set me free," he grinned with delight.

Murdoch looked to his older son for confirmation.

"Sam said as long as he promised to stop if anything felt wrong, he could have free rein," Scott acknowledged.

"Great! I happen to know Julio brought in a string of wild horses yesterday. Maybe you could take a look tomorrow?"

Johnny's face dropped and he nodded.

Murdoch felt like kicking himself for reminding Johnny of Diablo. Still, he had to have a horse. He couldn't put it off.

"Think I'll turn in. It's been a long day," Johnny suddenly said.

"Alright. Goodnight, son."

Johnny said his goodnights and went to his room.

******

Scott and Murdoch retired to the living room for a brandy. Scott was being too quiet but Murdoch waited for his son.

"I've never seen anyone so fast," he finally said.

"Me either."

"I mean, I knew he had a reputation but, he's so good," he said in an almost whisper.

"Thank God for strange favors," Murdoch grimaced.

"There's a lot to him. He's so .... complex. One minute he's laughing, the next he's dead serious. I never know what kind of reaction I'll get."

"He's unsure, Scott. He isn't used to answering to anyone. Or even living with anyone."

"I understand, pa. I just don't know if I'll ever really know him," he frowned.

"It really bothers you, doesn't it?"

"More and more. We don't spend much time together."

"Well, I hope that will change now that he's healed. You'll be working together a great deal," Murdoch said. "How do you feel about today, son? I mean, it was a shock."

Scott nodded. "It was. He was so cold. I mean, he seemed relaxed and even friendly with the man. But his eyes ..... they were so hard and unfeeling. I hate to admit it, but he scared me."

Murdoch sighed. "He would never hurt you, Scott."

"I know that, pa. I don't really know how, but I do. I'm more scared for him. What kind of life is that? Looking over your shoulder all the time. Never able to relax."

"He told me. I can't imagine it, either. I can only pray that, in time, he'll find some peace here."

"It's going to take a long time to get to know him."

"Yes, and it will take just as long for him to get to know us well," Murdoch pointed out.

Scott smiled. "That's true. Guess we'll have to keep talking until we don't have to anymore."

Murdoch cocked a brow. Why was it he sometimes forgot how astute Scott was? Shaking his head, he changed the subject slightly. "I've shown him the books. He knows a great deal about cattle and horses. One thing I worry about is if he'll be comfortable giving orders."

"Johnny?" Scott asked.

"Oh, I know he's capable of it. I just don't know if he'll like the idea of being the boss, so to speak. Well, it will come in time, I suppose," he sighed tiredly.

Scott smiled at the familiar sound. Pa was ready for bed. "I'm sure everything will come in time. Think I'll turn in as well."

"Yes, me too. I'm very tired tonight for some reason," he frowned.

Scott raised a brow. "I suppose watching your son in a gunfight and possibly getting shot in front of you would tend to tire you out."

"Have you always had this smart mouth?" Murdoch laughed.

*****

The next morning Scott and Johnny walked out to the corral together to look over the new horses. Simultaneously, they rested their arms on the top rail and watched the animals milling about. They were restless but that was no surprise. They wanted out.

"There's some good horseflesh out there," Scott remarked.

Johnny stared at them without seeing them. Suddenly, he heard a loud whinny. Two horses parted and standing before him was a golden coat and white mane. The palomino dropped his head low and snorted, then dug at the dirt with his right hoof. Johnny watched him until the horse raised his head and looked right at him.

A smile crept onto the young man's face and he stepped easily through the rails.

"What are you doing?" Scott asked.

"Accepting a challenge," Johnny replied softly.

He walked up to the horse, oblivious to the rest. Their eyes never left each other's. Johnny came to a stop two feet from the animal's head. Quietly, he spoke to Julio. "This is the one."

The vaquero smiled and led the rest of the string out of the main corral with assistance from three other hands. Julio returned as quickly as he could. By then, Johnny was speaking to the animal in low tones. He had squatted and was looking up at into the horse's eyes. The palomino seemed entranced, unable to look away, as did Johnny.

Julio gently draped a saddle blanket over his back, then a saddle. The horse balked only slightly as he continued to stare at Johnny.

Johnny stepped closer until he could reach out his hand and touch the horse's nose. He let his fingers fall down the velvet muzzle and drop easily back to his side. Julio had him ready now and Johnny moved to the side. The horse turned his head to follow the man's movements.

Scott watched it all with some surprise. He felt someone beside him and turned to see his father and Cipriano.

"Do you see this?" Scott asked rhetorically.

"Yes, I see it, son."

"What's he doing?"

"Talking to the horse," Cipriano replied simply.

Scott frowned but didn't get to ask another question. The hands began whooping and hollering as Johnny settled in the saddle and the palomino took exception.

For fifteen minutes they went at it. A battle of wills and guts. The horse slowed his pace and stopped bucking and Johnny guided him to the fence, keeping a firm hand on the reins.

Sliding off it's back, Johnny grinned. "He's got heart."

"You did a great job with him, son," Murdoch said proudly. "Now, how do you feel?"

Johnny laughed a little. "I feel good. No pain, not even a twinge."

"That was magnifico, sobrino," Cipriano smiled.

"Gracias, Tio."

"Well, you broke him. He's yours if you want him."

Johnny looked at his father with some surprise. "Well, he ain't broke yet but, yes, I want him. Besides, I don't have a choice. He picked me."

*****

The next two months, Johnny concentrated on learning about the ranch and training his new palomino. Mostly, the expanse was what awed him. He spent most of his days with Scott and they had done a lot of talking. Sometimes about nothing, sometimes about serious things.

Barranca was coming along nicely and Johnny was most pleased. The palomino seemed to have sensed his need from the moment they met. He'd chosen Johnny though he'd had to work for it. Now, they were becoming compadres. Neither his father or brother could understand the reason for that name, though. Johnny would only smile and say it fit him.

Scott was gaining a great deal of insight about his brother. He found he learned as much by watching Johnny interact with others as he did talking to his brother. He found himself falling into an easy stride with Johnny. But there was something that nagged at the back of his mind. Something he didn't want to really think about. It hadn't happened but it was bound to. At some point, they would disagree, maybe even fight. He hoped their friendship would be strong before that happened. Too much had taken place for them to fall back to where they began.

Johnny felt a sense of trust developing for his brother. He was pleasantly surprised by this. He wasn't quite sure how much he could confide in the other man but he knew he wanted to. That in itself was a minor miracle as far as he was concerned. He began to think this family business wasn't so bad. Still, there hadn't been any arguments yet. Not since he and Scott had started making an effort with each other. He worried about it. He worried about arguing with Murdoch as well. Hell, I just plain worry too much, he thought.

In the evenings, the three of them talked about everything from cattle prices to auctions to the news of the day. They began to feel comfortable in each other's company. Murdoch watched with a huge measure of joy as his sons became closer. Scott's friends were now Johnny's friends. And Johnny had made new friends which were now Scott's as well. Everything was working out perfectly.

Maria went about her chores humming a happy tune. It was laundry day. Ordinarily not a day for humming but she was happy. Happy that everyone seemed to be getting along so well. Happy that Johnny was doing well. She shook her head, surprised at herself. That boy had somehow gotten under her skin and that was not an easy task.

It was the end of the month which meant a full laundering. All the guest rooms included. She stripped the bedding and put it in her basket, then dusted the furniture off. Opening the drawers to make sure no food or other unwanted items had been left behind. Especially in this room. The puta stayed here, she thought with disgust. She'd put this room off far too long as it was.

She found an envelope addressed to that woman and frowned. She must have left it behind. Perhaps for the Patron? She shrugged and stuck it in her pocket, going back to her task.

Downstairs, Murdoch was returning from supervising a downed fence. Maria walked downstairs with her basket full and spied him.

"Senor, I was cleaning upstairs and found this letter. It was in the ..... Johnny's madre's room," she faltered, stopping herself from uttering the curse.

Murdoch took the envelope with a frown and thanked the woman. He smiled as she walked away. It hadn't escaped his notice that she'd warmed up to Johnny considerably. He glanced at the envelope, simply addressed to Maria Lancer. He didn't pay attention to the address. Sitting in a chair, he pulled out the letter and began reading.

Mama, I don't know if this letter will find you or if you'll even read it. I'm just sending it to the last place I knew you were. If it doesn't, that's alright. I wanted to tell you I've met my father. He's told me about your lies. In case you were wondering, I consider not being told I have a brother a lie as much as all the other out and out lies you told. I'm not asking for an explanation. There isn't one good enough. In fact, I don't want you to respond to this letter at all. I just wanted you to know first, that I'm still alive and second, that I finally know the truth. At least, as much as I need to know. I doubt you care but I'm writing this for my own peace of mind.

Why you left Murdoch doesn't even matter, I guess. Not to me. You told so many lies over the few years we were together. What gets me is I believed you. After everything you put me through. After all the bullshit. I still believed it. I guess I was stupid enough to think you wouldn't lie to me about something that important. But then, maybe you didn't think it was important. To say I'm mad at you doesn't even begin to cut it. I hate you with everything I am right now. I think I always will. Nothing could ever explain why you destroyed my life or any chance I might have had at being a real person. Of being someone worthy of the love this man has shown me in a few days. It took me a while to recognize it. I never knew the love of a parent so it was hard to know it for what it is.

Murdoch was ready to move me in from the word go. He doesn't care about my past. He said it doesn't matter. He hasn't asked me one thing about you and I'm glad. I'd hate to have to tell him what a huge mistake he made. But, I guess he figured that out a long time ago. Because of you, my brother wants nothing to do with me. I can't blame him. We're strangers. Unbelievable! Then there's Cipriano. Yes, he still works here. My tio. You couldn't even give me that. No, that would have meant me coming here and I know you couldn't stand the thought.

Anyway, this is the only time I will ever make contact with you so you don't have to worry. I won't be showing up on your doorstep. I won't be asking you for anything. I won't intrude on your life ever again. I know how much you hate that. To wish you well would be lying and I've had enough lies to last a lifetime. Right now, I'm going to spend as much time as I can with my father and hope it's enough. Like I said, I don't expect or want you to answer this letter. I've said my piece. Goodbye.

Johnny Madrid Lancer

Murdoch read the letter twice before dropping his hand into his lap. The words blazed in his mind. 'a real person. worthy of love'. More than anything, these words had grabbed at him. Pulled him in and twisted his heart. He knew Johnny wrote this before his surgery. An operation that he may very well have not survived. These were what he thought would be his last words to his mother. So much bitterness and pain. That's what his son had felt right before being cut open.

And she had left it behind. As if it meant nothing. Even if she'd forgotten it, that in itself spoke of her true feelings. He sat there, staring into space and wondering if Johnny still felt that unworthiness. Wondering if he would ever be able to repair the massive damage done to his son.

*****

Scott and Johnny entered the house loudly. Laughter filled the quiet halls and Murdoch jumped a little. Stunned he'd sat there for so long, he quickly stuffed the letter into his pants pocket as he stood.

"Boys, a little loud, isn't it?" he asked, trying to sound stern.

"Sorry, pa. What's that?" Scott asked, seeing the paper sticking from his pocket.

"What? Oh, just a letter I was reading. How was your day?" he changed the subject.

"Good. We finished the fencing repairs and the bridge is holding fine. I thought Johnny and I could check the line shacks next week. It's almost time," Scott reported as he walked on in and slumped into a chair.

"Yes, you're right, son. I need the two of you to go into town for supplies tomorrow."

Johnny grimaced a little. "Maybe someone else should go with Scott," he suggested.

Murdoch looked questioningly at him, then understanding hit. "Are you going to hide here forever?"

"Hide? I ain't hiding from nothin!" he hissed.

"Good. I'll have a list ready for you in the morning. I'm sure Maria needs some things as well," he smiled.

Johnny frowned at him but it did him no good. He sat down heavily on the sofa and crossed his ankles.

"It's been two months, brother. I would imagine everyone has forgotten by now."

Johnny glanced at him and made a displeased face. "I'm sure someone will remind them."

"Why don't you go in later in the morning and spend some time. Both of you deserve a night out," Murdoch suggested.

"Now that is an excellent idea. Thanks, pa. I think I'll get washed up for supper," Scott grinned happily as he went to his room.

"You just love pushin, don't ya?"

"What do you mean, son?"

"There's gonna be trouble, Murdoch."

"Maybe. And maybe not. Johnny, this is your home. That means this is your community. It's time you started joining that community. It's time for everyone to know my son is home," he smiled.

Johnny looked curiously at him and a smile curved his lips. "You just want to show off," he laughed.

"I suppose I do. Anything wrong with a little pride?"

His face dropped as did his eyes. "Not when you have something to be proud of."

Murdoch's jaw tensed but he held his temper. He walked over and sat next to Johnny, pulling the letter from his pocket. He handed it to his son. "Maria found this upstairs in a drawer."

Johnny glanced at the letter, recognized it and dropped it beside him. "Guess she forgot it. That's convenient," he said sarcastically.

"I hope you don't mind. I didn't know what it was until I started reading it. Then, I was too curious to stop."

Johnny shrugged his shoulders.

"I have to tell you it made me very angry, Johnny."

He looked up at his father. "Why?"

Murdoch picked the letter up and looked at it. "Just one part. This one where you say you're not a real person and not worthy of my love. Did you really mean that, son?"

His eyes found the floor again and he didn't answer at first. Murdoch waited patiently. "Yes."

"What will it take, Johnny? How can I prove to you how worthy you are. How can I make you see what a good person you are?"

He took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "All my life, people have been tellin me I'm no good. Useless half-breed. Less than a dog. I've been spit on and beaten up. Johnny Madrid never got spit on, though. Nobody ever tried to beat him up. He also never had any respect from so-called decent folks. He was still looked down on only behind his back. Trash. That's what I was, Murdoch."

"Wrong! You were never trash, Johnny. You were the victim of hatred. Scorned because of who your parents are. Not for anything you did. Never for anything you did, son. Why would you let them win? Why would you fight so hard to live and then let them make you believe their lies?"

He snorted softly. "Reckon that's all I've ever lived on is lies."

"Don't you think you've had enough? Isn't it time to start living by your own values? Isn't it time for you to hold your head up and be proud?"

"Proud of what?" Johnny asked increduously. "Proud of bein a gunhawk?"

"Proud of being a rancher. Proud of the way you've turned your life around. Proud of your hard work, your intelligence, your strength and sense of fair play. Proud of all the things that make you who you are, Johnny. You are not cold-hearted or unfeeling. You are a decent man. In this world, that says a lot.

"Son, you have all the confidence in the world when you staring a man down in the street. Why can't you carry that confidence with you everyday? You have nothing to be ashamed of, Johnny."

He swallowed hard and listened intently to his father's words and the vehement certainty of his tone. Did he really see him that way? He knew Murdoch would not lie to him. He knew that as surely as he knew the sun rose in the east.   "That's how you see me, huh? You wouldn't be biased, would you?"

"Yes, I am. These aren't only my words, son. Some of my most trusted hands; men who have been with me for years, have come to me and gushed over you. They are very impressed, son. They say you are smart and funny. Easy to get along with. They say you can give an order and make a man think it was his own idea. That you show them respect and tell them when a job is well done. And if it isn't, you tell them what's wrong without making them feel stupid or less. They say you are a lot like your brother in the way you treat them. That your methods may be different but you always show them respect like Scott does. And you never make them feel like this is just a job. Like your brother. Between the two of you, the hands think they are working in heaven."

Scott returned and the conversation stopped. Maria soon announced supper and they were off on other subjects. But Johnny was still mulling over what his father had said. He began to look at things differently. He retired early, wanting time alone to think things through.

He laid on top of the bed and rested his hands behind his head. He bent one socked foot so it was flat on the mattress and crossed his other leg over that knee.

So the hands liked him. He hadn't had any problems since that coward Myers but he didn't know they felt that way. It made him feel that pride Murdoch talked about. It didn't seem a big deal to him. He treated a man with respect unless or until they showed they didn't deserve it. That's just how he was, always had been.

He'd learned pretty early that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. A smile got you a lot more than a frown.   Oh, there were times when you had to make a stand right off. Like with Myers trying to use that whip. That was just plain wrong and it angered him to no end. But, for the most part, he gave a person a chance. Like he had with Murdoch that first day. He could have opened fire as soon as the man walked in the door. But he gave him a chance. And, boy, was he glad he had!

Something else was changing, too. Though he'd never shied away from hard work, it wasn't what usually earned his daily bread. He'd worked a few ranches for short spurts then he was gone again. Now, he could feel the muscles getting stronger. He found he had more energy. He just plain felt better. It was odd. He'd always thought he was in pretty good shape. But now, well, he'd been wrong about that, too.

So, maybe he was wrong about other things. Maybe he did deserve this life. At least the chance at it. If he screwed it up, he could blame no one but himself. Murdoch and Scott were both trying hard. They deserved the same from him. He nodded his head, deciding to stop whining and be a man. He would never put himself down again. Not even as a joke. And he would never let anyone else do it, either. Scott was right. You can't change things by walking away. Fighting in some fashion may not work, but at least a man knew he had tried.

Johnny stood up and undressed, sliding between the sheets with a satisfied smile. Tomorrow, he would start acting like a Lancer.

****

They finished some chores around the barn and corral the first part of the morning. At ten o'clock, Scott and Johnny hitched up the wagon and prepared to ride to town. Johnny retrieved Maria's list as Scott found their father. In short order, they were on their way. Murdoch watched them drive off. He sensed a difference in Johnny this morning. He hoped their talk last night had something to do with that. He smiled and went to saddle his horse. He had some business of his own to take care of today.

"You seem different. Something happen?" Scott asked out of the blue.

Johnny looked over at him and smiled. "What exactly did they teach you at that fancy school?"

"You're avoiding the question," Scott grinned.

He laughed softly. "I had a talk with Murdoch while you were cleaning up last night. He said some things that got me thinking. It's time I stopped acting like a guest here. Started settling in."

Scott's shoulders relaxed and he nodded. "Took you long enough."

Johnny slapped playfully at his arm. "Look, just because you're all comfy cozy, don't mean the rest of us are."

"I'm sorry," Scott said forlornly.

"Hey, it was a joke. No reason to be sorry for growing up in your own home," he replied gently.

"I meant, I'm sorry you didn't. I really wish we could have grown up together," he continued.  

"Yeah. Wonder if we'd have made it without killin each other," Johnny said seriously.

"Probably not."

"Guess it's better this way then," he laughed.

"No. No, it's not." Scott pulled up on the reins and stopped the wagon in the middle of the road. He applied the brake and laid the reins down. Then he turned to face his brother. "We can joke about it and that's okay. But, I want you to know how sorry I really am about the way I treated you. None of it was your doing. I turned my anger on you and that wasn't right. I should have been supportive of you. Tried to help you. Instead, I told you to leave. My own brother," he shook his head at his own behavior.

Johnny studied him for a long minute. "Scott, you were thrown for a loop. You walked into your own home and found a stranger. A smart-mouthed, angry stranger with a gun on his hip. Sure, it would have been nice if you'd welcomed me with open arms. But, I can't blame you for bein suspicious and mad as hell. I *don't* blame you. I told you why I came there. That alone was enough to make you want me gone. Can we just forget about it and go from where we started being nice to each other? That's the part I like to think about."

Scott smiled. "Me too. Yes, I think we can go from there. Thanks for understanding."

"Sure. Now, you want to get this wagon goin? I need a beer."

*****

Murdoch rode up to the Circle T ranch house and dismounted. Several horses and surreys were already there. He wasn't late though. He walked up to the front door and it opened before he could knock. He was shown into the parlor where the rest of the cattlemen were waiting.

"Gentlemen," he greeted.

"Murdoch, good. We're all here now so we may as well get started," Alex Townsend smiled.

He was the president of the Cattlemen's Association this year. Murdoch had known him for fifteen years. Ever since Townsend had settled in the valley. Murdoch had helped him get started with his ranch and they'd become good friends.

"The only real order of business is the upcoming cattle drive," Alex started. "I see no reason to change from last year. This is simply a formality so we all understand the plan. Are there any questions?"

No one spoke so he rapped his small gavel on the table top. "Very well, then. That was short and sweet. Let's all enjoy a drink and some lunch."

"Just a minute, gentlemen. I do have one other piece of business to discuss," Murdoch spoke before they left their chairs.

"You have the floor, Murdoch," Alex said with a wave of his hand.

Murdoch smiled and stood before the men he'd been working alongside for so many years. "As some of you may know, there's been a change in my household. A wonderful change. My son, Johnny has come home. He's been working very hard the past couple of months learning the ranch. But, he was already quite knowledgeable about ranching. I know very few of you have had the chance to meet him yet, but I would like to make him a member of the Association."

His announcement was met with complete silence. The smile faded from Murdoch's face as he scanned the room. Not a single man would look at him.

"Is there a problem?" he asked.

"Murdoch, how old is Johnny?" Alex asked.

Murdoch nodded. "I know he's not twenty-one yet. But he will be next month."

"That's not the problem, Alex. Don't sugarcoat it," Russ Sandler groused.

"What is the problem, Russ?" Murdoch asked, turning to the burly man.

"You really have to ask, Murdoch? He's a gunfighter not a rancher," he snorted.

"Johnny has given that life up. He IS a rancher and damned fine one."

"Don't get your hackles up, Murdoch. Look, none of us have even met the boy. Naturally, being your son, you think highly of him. I think I speak for everyone when I say we'd like to at least get a look at him," Alex said, trying to divert an argument.

Murdoch curbed his tongue. "Alright. There's a dance next Saturday night. My sons and I will attend. If you want to 'get a look' at Johnny, that would be the perfect time."

"Good. Now that that's settled, and if there's nothing else, shall we adjourn for lunch?" Alex asked.

"I have business to attend to. I won't be staying," Murdoch announced and strode purposefully out of the house.

"Does he really think we'd allow a gunfighter into the association?" Sandler asked.

"I don't know how we're going to handle this. We may lose Murdoch if we don't let the boy in," Harry Grossman said.

"Then we lose him," Sandler groused.

"We are not losing Murdoch. We can't afford to and you all know it. He's got important friends in Sacramento. Friends we all need. No, Murdoch Lancer is not expendable. If accepting Johnny Madrid is the only way to keep him, that's what we'll do. Hopefully, we can come up with an alternative. Now, let's eat," Alex spoke.

*****

Murdoch fumed as he rode out of the Circle T. How dare they deny his son? He wouldn't stand for it. He would talk to Johnny about the dance and let him know how important it was to make the best impression. Not that he worried. Johnny was charming when he wanted to be. Then again, Sandler and a lot of the ranchers could be decidedly uncharming when they wanted. Johnny wouldn't stand for that and Murdoch would never ask him to. If they didn't accept his son, they didn't accept him, period.

Johnny and Scott came home just before midnight and pulled the wagon into the barn. There was nothing there that couldn't keep til morning and neither of them was feeling any pain. They stumbled into the house shushing each other and laughing at the same time.

Arms wrapped around each other for support, they walked into the living room, surprised to find Murdoch sitting at his desk.

"You're up late, pa."

"Looks like you two had a good time."

"Oh, we did. Johnny taught me how to shoot tequila," Scott snickered.

"I taught you to do shots not shoot," Johnny laughed along.

"Oh, right," Scott slurred.

Murdoch chuckled. "I think you should both head to bed."

"Yeah," Johnny sighed. His forehead creased into a frown. "Where's bed?"

Scott looked at him with his own frown and swayed a little. "I dunno."

Murdoch stood up and walked over to his upstanding sons. "Come on, I'll show you."

He managed to get them up the stairs though it was no small feat. He leaned Johnny against the wall and told him to stay put. Then he took Scott into his room and dumped him on the bed. He pulled off the young man's boots and grabbed a quilt, throwing it over him. He figured Scott wouldn't care if he was between the sheets and he was too old for this nonsense.

Once he was sure his eldest wasn't going to roll into the floor, he went back to the hall. He found Johnny sitting on the floor. Evidently, he'd simply slid down the wall. Murdoch thought briefly of leaving him there. Instead, he helped him to his feet and nearly carried him to his bed. He gave him the same treatment as the other son, then went to his own room. Neither of them would be worth a nickel tomorrow. Well, at least it was Sunday.

*******

He forsook church that morning. Even endured Maria's disappointed glare when he told her. She prepared his breakfast before leaving for Mass and tsked him all the way out the door.

Murdoch sat alone in the kitchen, listening to the quiet. He sighed and realized how noisy it had been since Johnny came home. With a small smile, he admitted he preferred the noise to this almost crushing silence. He was waiting for them to rejoin the living, thinking it may be noon before that happened.

His head came up and a look of utter surprise adorned his face as he heard Johnny whistling. His son appeared in the doorway with a smile on his face.

"Mornin."

"Good morning. Are you alright?"

"Sure. Why wouldn't I be?" he asked as he poured a cup of coffee.

"You were pretty drunk last night," Murdoch said with a sideways look.

"Oh, that. Yeah, but I hardly ever have a hangover. Any biscuits?"

"In the oven. I'm not so sure your brother faired as well."

Johnny laughed. "Probably not. He said he'd never had tequila before. Maybe I should have made him go easy," he said with a frown.

"Maybe? Neither of you had a clue where you beds were last night."

He laughed again and settled at the table with biscuits and butter. "Ain't you goin to church?"

"Not today. I didn't feel like it."

Johnny cocked a brow. "How'd Maria take it?"

Murdoch chuckled. "She gave me the evil eye."

Johnny smiled then jerked his head toward the loud thump coming from the stairway. He glanced at Murdoch and the smile changed to a devilish grin.

"Leave your brother be," Murdoch warned.

Scott staggered to the doorway, one hand on the side of his head. He looked like hell. His hair was going in ten different directions, his eyes were red and he was unshaven. His shirt was only partially tucked in and he was bootless.

Johnny burst out laughing, holding his sides as he got a look at his brother. Murdoch sat in stunned silence at the sight before him.

"Not one word," Scott warned as he made it to the table.

Murdoch got him a cup of coffee and sat the pot on the table. "Do you want some bisc....."

"No! Ohhhhh," he moaned and held his head again.

"Somethin wrong, Scott?" Johnny asked as innocently as he could manage.

Scott gave him a death glare and pointed his finger. "I will never drink that varnish again."

"Varnish? Well, I have to admit, it wasn't the best but it wasn't that bad," Johnny grinned.

"Anything that has a worm in it is bad," Scott said and grimaced as the thought made his stomach tumble. He raised the coffee cup to his lips and got a whiff of the brew. He was up and out the back door in a heartbeat.

Johnny ducked his head to hide the smile.

******

Scott was almost recovered by late afternoon so Murdoch thought to bring up the dance. Scott was all for it but Johnny fell quiet.

"Something wrong, son?"

He shrugged. "Never much liked dances."

"Why not?" Scott asked.

"Well, you have to be all polite and proper all night. And I guess you think I'm gonna wear a tie."

"That would be nice," Murdoch chuckled.

"You're going to have to face the rest of the world sooner or later, brother. What better way than a dance? Besides, there will be a lot of pretty girls there."

Johnny smiled at that. Still, he wasn't comfortable in crowds. He knew this was important to them so he didn't grouse anymore. He remembered his decision to start acting like a member of the family.

The week flew by and Saturday was upon them again. Maria had ironed all day to make sure the men were the best looking threesome at the dance. She was quite sure she had succeeded when Scott descended the stairs. He was wearing a blue shirt, black string tie, tan pants and dark brown jacket. He looked very handsome and she had to kiss his cheek.

Murdoch came down next wearing brown pants and jacket, white shirt and black string tie. She nodded her approval. All eyes were on the stairs as they waited for the third Lancer. It was a long wait.

"Maybe you should see if he needs some help," Murdoch suggested.

"I was thinking the same thing. He may have hung himself with his tie," Scott laughed and started toward the stairs. He didn't get far as he heard Johnny on the steps.

Murdoch smiled at his frowning son. He was in a white shirt and black tie which he tugged at constantly. Black pants and jacket. Scott wondered if he were attending a funeral.

"Well, I'm ready, I guess," Johnny said solemnly.

"You look very handsome, Juanito," Maria smiled and kissed his cheek.

Johnny blushed a little and dropped his head. "Well, if we're goin, let's go."

"Just a minute, son. I think you forgot something."

He turned and looked at his father questioningly.

"You're not really wearing that gunbelt, are you?"

"Yes, I am. And if you insist I don't, then I'm not going," he said firmly.

"It's a party, Johnny," Scott said.

"Yeah, where a bunch of people I don't know are gonna be sizing me up and gettin drunk. I'm not going without it," he stood his ground.

Murdoch's hand on Scott's arm stopped any retort his son may have made. "Alright. If you feel that strongly about it, son."

Johnny turned and walked out. The only thing he felt strongly about was staying home.

The Lancers arrived at the barn dance just after it had begun. They gathered on the boardwalk before going in. Murdoch looked his sons over and smiled. He grabbed both by a shoulder and led them inside.

The music had started and people were already dancing. Children as well as adults. Johnny smiled at the kids.

"Murdoch!"

They turned to see a wiry, medium height, brown-haired man walking toward them, waving.

"Alex," Murdoch greeted politely. "You remember Scott."

"Of course. How are you Scott?"

"Fine, sir," he replied and shook hands.

"This is my younger son, Johnny. This is Alex Townsend. He's the president of the Cattleman's Association."

Johnny smiled and extended his hand. "Pleased to meet you."

"Johnny, we've all been very curious about you," Alex smiled.

"I'm sure," he kept smiling.

"Well, if you'll excuse me, I have to mingle. I'll catch up with you later, Murdoch," he said and was gone.

"Quick, ain't he?" Johnny said.

"He's a fine man. A good friend. Well, boys, how about a drink?"

They walked over to the refreshment stand where Molly Pierce was serving punch. Scott smiled brilliantly at her and started flirting immediately. She kept glancing at Johnny though. Her curiosity piqued.

"Scott, aren't you going to introduce me to your brother?" she asked.

"Oh, yes, of course. Molly Pierce, Johnny Lancer," he smiled tightly.

"You are the talk of the town, Mr. Madrid," she smiled sweetly.

"Is that right?"

"Oh, my yes. Everyone is so curious about you."

"What's to be curious about?" Johnny asked.

"Well, it isn't everyday that a famous gunfighter moves in practically next door," she oozed.

Scott and Murdoch tensed but Johnny never flinched. He leaned in a little toward her. "Exactly what do they think is going to happen?" he asked quietly.

She blushed a little at the closeness. "Well, I'm not quite sure. I've heard all kinds of things. Some think you'll kill us all in our sleep. Others think you'll keep all the riffraff out."

"Be kinda hard to kill everyone in their sleep. I mean, that would be a long night for me. Having to get up so early for work and all," he grinned slightly.

She giggled shrilly and he had to fight not to wince at the sound.

"How many have told their daughters to stay clear of me?"

She leaned in even closer. "All of them. Which makes you that much more intriguing," she whispered.

He grinned fully. "That include you?"

"It certainly does."

"Molly!"

They all turned as Jeremiah Pierce stormed upon the scene. "You're supposed to be serving punch."

"I am, pa. Mr. Madrid, may I get you a refill?" she asked politely as she turned to him.

"No, thanks. And it's Lancer," he smiled.

"Murdoch, Scott," Pierce nodded.

"Jeremiah, I'd like you to meet my younger son, this is ....."

"I know who he is. We all know who he is," he snorted. Stepping up to Johnny, he towered over the young man. "You stay away from my daughter."

Johnny looked up at him with eyes of steel.

"Is that how you greet people, Jeremiah?" Murdoch fumed.

"That's how I greet trash."

He whirled around as the big hand clamped down and pulled on his arm.

"How dare you?" Murdoch hissed.

Suddenly, the music stopped and all eyes turned toward the men who were now the center of attention. Johnny looked them all over before turning to his father.

"Murdoch, don't," he said softly.

"Apologize to my son, Pierce," Murdoch said, ignoring Johnny.

Pierce snorted a laugh. "Apologize? To him? Forget it. You keep that trash away from my daughter, Lancer!"

Scott and Johnny stared in shock as Pierce went flying backwards over the refreshment table. He landed with a squish amongst the spilled punch. Molly screamed and threw her hands to her mouth.

Murdoch turned to face the crowd. "Does anyone else have anything to say? Or are you all cowards and bigots?" he yelled.

They all stared at him as if he were a madman.

Alex Townsend stepped through the crowd and approached cautiously. "Murdoch, there's no need for this."

"Isn't there, Alex? Is Pierce the only one who thinks my son is trash? Tell me now to my face. To HIS face. Tell us all where we stand," he pointed his finger toward them all.

Johnny touched his arm lightly but Murdoch only turned his head slightly. "Let's go," Johnny said.

"No, we aren't going anywhere. I want to hear the answer to our father's question," Scott spoke.

"Gentlemen, this is a party. It is not the place ...."

"No, it's the perfect place. That was the plan wasn't it? To ignore Johnny. To snub him. But you were all going to do it ever so politely, right?"

"No! There was no plan. We don't know him, Murdoch. We don't know what he's doing here," Alex defended.

"I'm living with my family. Just like all of you. That's what I'm doing here," Johnny stepped forward. He was tired of others standing up for him. It was time he did his own standing. He stepped away from Murdoch and Scott, closer to Townsend and faced the entire valley.

"I came here to meet my father. He asked me to stay and I agreed. That's all any of you need to know."

"And your reputation? What are we supposed to think about that?" Alex asked.

"Think what you like, Mr. Townsend. Me, I don't judge a book by its cover. I've found that a lot of books are full of exaggerations and just plain lies. But," he paused and stepped closer to the crowd. "Know this. If any of you have a problem with me, you come to me. Don't try to take it out on my family. Because if you do, you will really regret ever hearing the name Johnny Madrid Lancer."

His eyes scanned the room, touching every person there. When he was done, he turned toward his family. "Can we go home now?"

Murdoch and Scott both smiled proudly at him and nodded in harmony. They started toward the door. They didn't quite make it.

"Madrid!"

Johnny stopped and turned slowly to see Pierce stumbling from behind the overturned table.

"I'm coming to you, boy. I have a real problem with you."

Johnny felt more than saw his father start to move and he grabbed his arm. "No, I meant what I said."

Murdoch stepped back, his heart in his stomach. Pierce was a big man and he thought his son was about to get a real beating.

"Well, what's your problem?" Johnny asked softly.

"You're breathing," he hissed.

Johnny laughed. "Yeah, I've heard that one before. I don't plan on stoppin anytime soon either. Guess you'll just have to deal with it."

"I plan on dealin with it by kicking your sorry ass all the way out of town!"

Johnny stood where he was and regarded the man. "A few have tried that, too. Course, they were drunk and stupid. You haven't been drinkin, have you?"

Pierce's face turned beet red as he glared at the young man. Townsend stepped up to him and took his arm. "Jeremiah, don't! He'll kill you," he whispered.

He wrenched free of the hold and pushed the man back. "There'll be a killlin. But it ain't me who's gonna die."

With that proclamation, he lunged at Johnny who moved deftly aside. Pierce ran into the wall and turned, looking like a maddened bull. He lunged again and Johnny moved in the opposite direction as Pierce fell into Alex Townsend and a few other men.

He actually growled as he gained his footing and went after Johnny again, fists clenched in rage. Johnny ducked the first swing, feeling the force of the air by his cheek. He landed a punch to Pierce's gut and followed it with a left uppercut to the jaw. Pierce staggered back but kept his feet under him. Off-balance, he came at Johnny again. He managed to just clip Johnny's left jaw and Johnny blocked another swing, landing another of his own to the man's big gut.

The air went out of him and he swayed backward. Johnny took the advantage and landed a right hook, sending the big man to the ground. He stood there and waited for Pierce to get back up but he didn't move. Still trying to find air for his lungs.

"You done?" Johnny breathed out.

He didn't answer, only sat there staring at the floor.

Johnny took it as a yes and walked away. He heard the collective gasp and turned, drawing his gun and firing as he saw the weapon in Pierce's hand. The man cried out and grabbed his right arm as blood poured from the wound.

Sam appeared and began tending it, chastising him for being such a baby and such an idiot.

Johnny looked at them all with a sadness he couldn't hide. It was always the same. Now, they were sorry. Now that blood had been drawn they understood.

"I didn't want this. I didn't ask for it. But, if that's the way you all want it to be, I won't be so generous next time," he spoke icily and reholstered his Colt.

******

The ride home was made in complete silence. Murdoch felt he had failed Johnny somehow and he didn't know what to do. He knew this had hurt his son deeply. More than he would ever admit. These so-called friends. People he'd known for years had turned their backs. So be it, he thought. If they think I'll choose them over my son, they are sorely mistaken.

They bedded the horses as quietly as they'd ridden home. Johnny finished first and walked to the house without a word.

"What are you going to say to him?" Scott asked.

Murdoch shook his head slowly. "I have no idea, son. What can I say? He did everything right. He stood up for himself."

Scott nodded his agreement and they went inside. Johnny was staring into the fire when they came in.

"I'll leave in the morning," he said softly.

"I'm sorry? I don't think I heard you right," Scott said.

"You heard me."

"That's your solution? Run away?"

"I'm not runnin. I'm leaving you in peace."

"No, you aren't. Scott's right. You're running. I won't stand for it anymore than you would stand for what happened in town," Murdoch spoke firmly.

Johnny turned to face them. "Is this what you really want? A whole valley of people turning against you because of me?"

"No, Johnny. Not because of you. Because of their own ignorance and hate. Pierce is the worst of the lot but at least he has the guts to say it aloud. I didn't want to tell you this but .... the Cattleman's Association met last week. I asked them to make you a member and they refused. They said they didn't know you. That's why I wanted us to go tonight. So they could meet you and know the man Scott and I know."

"It's got nothing to do with knowing me, Murdoch. It has everything to do with this!" he stated as he drew the pistol and waved it in the air before returning it to its place. "I told you but you wouldn't listen. Nobody wants a gunhawk around until there's trouble. As soon as the trouble's over they want you gone, pronto! And God forbid you should want to move in near decent folks!"

"You're taking the easy way out, Johnny. Leaving is the same as admitting defeat. I can't believe you won't fight for what's yours. You fought me for it and rightfully so. But you're going to let a bunch of strangers run you off?" Scott was livid.

"You don't know what you're talkin about!"

"Stop this! Nothing can be gained by fighting with each other," Murdoch intervened. Taking a calming breath, he lowered his voice. "You are not leaving your home. Not for them, not for anything."

"How much does it have to cost you before you realize it's for the best? They can ruin you, Murdoch. Don't you see that?"

"No one is going to ruin US. No one can as long as we stick together. United we stand, remember?"

Johnny shook his head in amazement. "I don't want you to end up hating me," he whispered.

Murdoch walked over and took his shoulders. "That will never happen, Johnny. Never."

*******

Another Sunday was upon them and, again, no one felt like going to church. Murdoch insisted, however. They had to show unity to the valley. Lancers did not hide. Johnny even agreed to go with them. His only real reason was to protect his family from the fine people of Morro Coyo.

He gave up his gunbelt but stuck his gun in the back of his pants, unwilling to be vulnerable.

Eyes stared as they rode up to the church. All three men stared straight ahead with their heads held high. They walked inside and sat down in the middle of the room.

The minister had heard of the previous night's events. His sermon dealt with tolerance and prejudice and he was not a happy man. Hell and brimstone would not have dared cross the man's path this day. He ended on a personal note. Telling the entire congregation how shocked and disappointed he was in their behavior. He stepped off the pulpit and walked straight up to Johnny, extending his hand.

Johnny looked up at the man in surprise and accepted the handshake and a pat on the back. The Lancers stood and walked out of the church as everyone else sat embarrassed.

Once home, Johnny breathed easier. He sat on the sofa and slumped into the cushions.

"I don't believe I've ever heard the Reverend sounding so passionate before," Scott noted.

"Neither do I. He was ticked off, wasn't he?" Murdoch grinned and the three of them laughed.

The laughter died at the sound of horses. A lot of horses. All three walked out onto the veranda to see a convoy of horses and surreys headed toward them. Johnny's hand went behind him and he rested it on the butt of his gun.

In the lead was Alex Townsend and the members of the Cattleman's Association, sans Jeremiah Pierce.

Townsend shifted in the saddle and smiled tightly. "Murdoch, Scott, Johnny," he nodded.

The three simply nodded back, not saying a word.

"We're here to apologize, Murdoch."

"I'm not the one you need to apologize to," Murdoch interrupted him.

"Oh, no. No, you aren't. Well, you are but ...." He shifted once more in his saddle. "This isn't easy. Johnny, we have all talked and we agree we treated you horribly. We felt threatened by your very presence here. We judged you before ever laying eyes on you. If you'll allow, we'd like to start over. We thought a community picnic next Saturday at my ranch. It would give us all a chance to talk and get to know each other."

Johnny locked eyes with the man for long seconds. Townsend was extremely uncomfortable under that stare but he knew he couldn't look away. Finally, Johnny's eyes flickered away and he smiled a little. He looked at his father who was studying him closely. He suddenly felt that everything hinged on what he said next.  

"I don't want any trouble. Like I said last night, all I want is to be with my family. I know you're all curious. If you want to know something, just ask. I might not answer but I won't take offense. A picnic sounds nice."

Murdoch and Scott smiled and Townsend breathed in relief.

"Good. How about 3 o'clock Saturday then?"

"We'll be there," Murdoch said.

They watched as the group rode away and Johnny shook his head. "You really are important around here."

Murdoch turned and looked curiously at him. "Why would you say that?"

"You don't really think they came out here because they're sorry? They did it to keep you happy."

"You have to be the most cynical person I've ever met," Scott said with some exasperation.

Johnny looked at him and sighed. "When are you going to realize that I know what I'm talkin about? I wasn't born yesterday, Scott. I've been around too much to know those people don't give a damn about what I think or feel."

"Then you're just going to have to make them change their minds," Murdoch said.

"Why should I?"

"Because, whether you admit it or not, it matters to you." With that said, Murdoch walked back inside.

******

Johnny spent Monday morning thinking about that one sentence his father had said to him. 'It matters to you.' He hated it, but the old man was right. Why, he could not fathom. He figured it was because it mattered to Murdoch. He wanted so much to please the man. To make him proud. He didn't think he'd done such a good job of that. Especially at the dance. He smiled at the memory of Murdoch throwing that punch. The old man still had what it takes. Johnny found himself proud of his father. He liked the feeling.

"You've been quiet this morning," Scott noted when they took a break.

"Yeah, been thinking about those cattlemen," he frowned.

Scott frowned as well. He could not have been more disappointed. He'd known most of those men his whole life. "I've never seen them act that way."

"Guess they've never been around a gunfighter before. Least not one that wants to move in."

"No, I don't suppose they have. Still, I've never known them to judge anyone so harshly. Especially someone they hadn't even met."

"Well, Scott, that's partly my fault. My reputation and all, I mean."

"What do you want here? I mean, what do you hope for?" Scott asked.

Johnny was taken aback by the question. He thought about it for a long moment. "I guess I want what you have. A home, a family, a place to belong."

"Marriage, kids some day?"

"Maybe. But that's a long ways off," Johnny laughed.

Scott smiled at him. "The exact thing all those men want. They aren't so different from you. You may have taken a different road to get here, but we all want the same things."

"So, you're sayin we have more in common than we think?"

"Exactly."

Johnny nodded. "Mind pointin that out to them?"

"I'd be happy to, brother," he laughed. "Let's go home. It's time for lunch."

They walked into the house and found an unhappy man pacing the room. Both young men eyed each other warily, neither willing to break the man's concentration.

Scott cleared his throat to let him know he was no longer alone.

"Something wrong, Murdoch?" Johnny asked.

"I don't know. There's a letter here for you, Johnny. No return address," he said as he handed over the missive.

Johnny took it hesitantly. "Nobody knows I'm here."

"That's what I was thinking," Murdoch said, his voice betraying his worry.

He sat on the arm of a chair and opened the envelope. Holding his breath, he pulled the letter out and unfolded it. His eyes scanned it first, turning cold in the process. He read the letter, his shoulders tensing with each passing second. When he was finished, he crumpled the paper into a ball in his fist.

"Johnny?"

His jaw twitched as he looked up at his father. "It's nothing."

"You're sure?"

"I'm positive. It's from my mother." He stood and threw the balled up paper on the table, then strode to the kitchen.

The remaining two men stared at it for what seemed forever.

"Well? Should we?" Scott asked.

Murdoch picked it up and turned it in his hand. "No. If he wants to talk about it, he will." Making the decision, he put it back where it was and headed for the kitchen.

Scott followed, glancing back once more, wanting desperately to know the contents. He sighed as he left the room.

Johnny was sitting at the table with a sandwich in front of him. He stared at it, turning his glass around idly.

Scott looked at Maria but she only shrugged.

"Are you alright?" he asked as he seated himself.

"Sure. Dandy."

"Did she want something, son?"

"Doesn't she always?" Johnny fumed.

Murdoch put his hand over Johnny's and waited for the young man to relax.

"She wants to see me. Wants me to come to the mission. Said it was important. A matter of life and death," he snorted.

Murdoch said nothing and tried very hard to keep from griping Johnny's arm to keep him right there.

"Are you going?" Scott asked.

"Hell, no! I heard everything I need to hear from that woman!"

"Take some time to think it over, son. You're upset right now. You might change your mind."

Johnny stared at him. "You want me to go?"

"I didn't say that. I said give yourself some time before making any decisions. If you decide to go, it's alright. If not, that's alright, too."

"Fine. I'll give it some time but it won't change anything."

"If you do decide to go, I'd be glad to ride along. Keep you company," Scott offered.

Johnny looked over and smiled. "Keep an eye on me, you mean."

"Well, there's that, too," Scott grinned.

*******

For the rest of the week, Johnny was in a sour mood. No one wanted to be around him, including his family. Scott talked to his father about it but Murdoch didn't want to intervene. He knew Johnny was trying to make a decision and he didn't want to influence his son. Well, that wasn't true. It wouldn't be fair to try to influence him. Murdoch sometimes wondered why he worried about being fair where Maria was concerned. She certainly had not been fair to him. Chastising himself for being petty, he stood his ground until Friday afternoon. That's when he couldn't stand back any longer.

No one would have expected it. Even though he'd been hell to be around, none of the hands would have thought Johnny had it in him. But there he was, standing toe to toe with Vince, duking it out.

Murdoch stormed onto the scene, grabbing Johnny by the collar and hauling him backwards as Scott took hold of Vince.

The two friends glared at each other, breathing heavily and nursing cut lips and bloody noses.

"What the devil is going on here?" Murdoch bellowed.

"Ask him!" Vince shot, pointing at Johnny.

"I'm asking you, Vince. How did this start?" Scott said, making sure his voice was calm.

"All I did was ask if he wanted to go to town with us," Vince answered.

Scott looked warily at him. "What else?"

"Nothin, Scott. I swear! He just lit into me."

Murdoch looked Johnny in the eye. "Is that true?"

Johnny licked his lips and controlled his breathing. But he wouldn't answer his father.

"I asked you a question, young man," Murdoch pressed.

"I heard you!" he yelled and wrenched free of his father's grip. He turned and walked toward the house.

"Alright, it's over now. Go on about your business," Scott said to the hands. "Vince, I'm sorry. Johnny's had a lot on his mind lately."

"I know. That's why I asked him to go with us. Didn't think he was gonna go loco on me," Vince replied, obviously with hurt feelings.

****

Murdoch went inside to find Johnny. He was standing by the fireplace, arms wrapped around himself. He glanced up when his father entered.

"I'll apologize to Vince."

"I'm glad to hear that. Now, would you mind telling me why you would start a fight over an invitation to town?"

Scott walked in as he asked the question. He waited to hear an answer, as well.

"I don't know. It was just the way he said it. Like he knew somethin."

"Of course he knows something. Everyone knows something's been troubling you, Johnny. You've been impossible to be around all week!" Scott stated abruptly.

"Scott, please."

"No, he's right, Murdoch. I have been impossible. I'm sorry. It's just ..... I ...." he shook his head, at a loss.

"Do you mind if I make a suggestion?" Scott asked, curbing his anger.

Johnny simply shrugged.

"Go see your mother. Find out what she has to say and get it over with. The rest of us would really appreciate you putting an end to all this."

When Johnny looked at him, Scott felt like a heel. The pain in his eyes was crushing. It wasn't there long for Johnny veiled it quickly. But he nodded to his brother. "You're right. It's eating at me. The only way to get past it is face her."

Murdoch's jaw tightened but he tried not to show his disappointment. "Will you let Scott go with you?"

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Yeah."

"Good. You can leave Sunday. There's the picnic tomorrow at the Circle T."

Johnny groaned. "I forgot about that. Alright, I'll try not to act like a lunatic."

Murdoch smiled at him. "I'd appreciate that."

The Lancers arrived at the Circle T right on time. A few people had already gathered and more were coming every minute. Johnny hated this but knew it was necessary. He was keenly aware of their motives. His was to make his father happy, period. He didn't bother trying to dress for anyone else. He wore his calzoneros and salmon shirt with his bolero jacket and ever-present gunbelt. Murdoch had not said a word to him about it. But then, everyone was dressed casually for a picnic.

He had decided to push thoughts of his mother from his mind today. Tomorrow he would deal with those dark thoughts. Today, he planned on trying to enjoy himself. Alex Townsend greeted them, shaking hands with Johnny first. It was a blatant attempt but they all grinned and bore it.

There were musicians playing near the barn and several tables of food spread out. Soon, a few people started dancing. Scott wasted no time picking a pretty girl to dance with and Johnny watched his brother move gracefully about the temporary dance floor. It was made of simple plywood but Townsend had made sure it was sturdy enough.

Several of the ranch hands from the surrounding area were also present. Johnny approached Vince and asked for a minute. He apologized to his friend and Vince accepted gracefully, each grinning at the others wounds.

Vince introduced him to some men he hadn't yet met and soon, they were engrossed in conversation. Johnny was getting the lowdown on all the young ladies in the valley. He paid close attention. These men, the real backboce of the ranches, had none of the qualms of their bosses. They accepted Johnny because Vince said he was 'alright'. That's all they needed to know.

Murdoch was talking to a man Johnny didn't know. He saw his father keep looking over at him and figured he was the topic of conversation. Soon, Murdoch was heading toward him. It was then he spied the badge. He took note of the rather unkempt man. He had a day old growth of beard and his clothes had seen better days. Johnny wondered why he was here. He didn't look like he was having a very good time. In fact, he looked downright displeased.

"Johnny, I want you to meet the new sheriff of Green River. This is Val Crawford," Murdoch introduced.

Johnny shook hands with the man. "Pleasure."

"Yeah, me too. So, this shindig is for you, huh?"

Johnny cocked a brow. "If it is, they needn't have."

The sheriff grinned. "Ya look like you'd have more fun chasin a greased pig."

Johnny laughed. "I wouldn't go that far."

"I would," Val laughed.

Murdoch smiled and backed away, leaving the two men to talk. He couldn't say why, but he figured the sheriff would be someone Johnny could get along with.

Johnny and Val loaded their plates and found a fairly secluded area under a tree. Sitting on the ground, they dug in.

"Not bad," Val commented.

"It's alright. Not very spicy."

"Didn't reckon they'd have any real good food. Same old beef and pork. You'd think with all the Mexicans livin around here, somebody woulda taught these women ta cook!"

Johnny nearly choked when he heard this. He looked at the sheriff with amusement. "I take it there's no Mrs. Crawford?"

"Hmmph! And never will be!"

"Murdoch said you were the new sheriff. Where ya from?"

"Here and there. Done some travelin. I was born in Arizona. Tuscon. But, my old man was a sharecropper so we moved around. What about you?"

"What? You haven't heard everything there is to know about Johnny Madrid?" he asked wryly.

"If I believed half of what I heard, I'd have handcuffs on ya right now," Val sneered, disgusted by the gossip.

"Most likely. I grew up in Mexico and around the border towns."

"I heard your mama lit out with ya when you was a baby. Listen, if I'm gettin too personal, just tell me ta shut up," Val said, noting the look of discomfort.

"Not like it's a secret. Yeah, she did. She wasn't much of a mother then."

"So, ya picked up a gun."

"Yep."

"And the legend began," Val said with a hint of amusement.

"I'm no legend," Johnny said softly.

"The hell you say! Look, I don't pay much attention to gossip. But, I ain't deaf neither. I ain't talkin about folks around here. I've heard of you. Ain't many that haven't. Can't all be lies."

"I'm good with a gun. Made a name for myself. That's about it," Johnny replied flatly.

Scott walked up a bit breathless. "Johnny, you're missing out. All those pretty girls can't get enough dance time," he grinned.

"You seem to be doin a pretty good job keeping them busy. This is Sheriff Crawford. My brother, Scott," he introduced.

"Brother, huh?"

"Sheriff," Scott nodded and sat down.

"Yeah, we're twins," Johnny laughed.

"RIght. And I'm the king of England!"

"I thought you looked familiar," Scott quipped.

All three laughed and Scott snagged a piece of Johnny's beef.

"There's plenty of food, brother," Johnny stated.

"Yes, I saw it," he said and took the cup from Johnny's hand, draining it.

"Can I get you anything else, brother?"

"Well, since you asked...." he stopped to catch the biscuit Johnny threw at him. "Okay, I'm going. I'll bring you some lemonade. All better?"

"For now. Just watch yourself," Johnny grinned.

"You two get along good," Val offered.

"Yeah, wasn't easy. Still isn't sometimes."

"Takes time I reckon. Hard ta get ta know a man good right off."

"I don't think you ever really get to know anyone," Johnny said, a hint of sadness in his voice as he stared toward his brother.

"Well, I reckon that's true enough. Still, ya know some folks better than others. A lot better. Reckon that's as close as you can get."

Johnny turned and looked at him. "I haven't been to Green River yet. What's it like?"

"Oh, it's a nice town. Nice folks for the most part. It's bigger than Morro Coyo."

Scott returned with his plate laden, balancing two cups in one hand. Johnny was sure he would be wearing the lemonade but his brother managed to hand it off.

"Pa wants you to mingle," Scott informed him.

"Does he? With who?"

"I don't know. The ranchers, I suppose," Scott shrugged.

Johnny sighed and studied his drink.

"Well, best go on. Don't want a whoopin when ya get home," Val grinned.

He walked over to his father and was introduced to Owen Nichols who drove his cattle to market with Lancer every year. He was a pleasant man with an easy smile. They talked about the next drive. Murdoch was smiling as Johnny joined the conversation easily. Soon, several of the ranchers had joined the group, listening in on the conversation.

Within half an hour, Johnny had their undivided attention as he regaled them with stories of cattle drives gone bad. They were laughing heartily as Scott joined to see what was happening. He looked at his father and saw pure pride on the man's face. Scott felt a twinge of something. He wasn't sure what it was but he didn't like the feeling. He pushed it aside and listened to Johnny's outrageous stories.

The day drew near an end as the evening sun dipped toward the mountains. Every one was beginning to tire and many had started leaving as it was a long drive home. Many of them stopped to say goodbye to the Lancers, giving Johnny plenty of smiles and handshakes.  

Alex walked up to Johnny and extended his hand once more. "I can't tell you what a jackass I feel like. Johnny, you are a very pleasant young man. I have enjoyed your company today. I hope you'll forgive a bunch of old men and give us all a second chance."

Johnny smiled at the man. "Everyone deserves a second chance, Mr. Townsend. I know that better than anyone. I just hope everyone feels the same."

"I suppose it's impossible to win over everyone. What I do know is you have shown a great many of us the light. I hope we'll see you at the next Cattleman's Association meeting."

Johnny cocked a brow. "Uh, sure thing."

"Well, goodnight gentlemen. Thank you for coming."

"Goodnight, Alex. Thank you for having us. It was a wonderful day," Murdoch smiled warmly.

Murdoch wasn't sure he was even in the saddle. He felt like he was floating in air. His smile refused to leave and he didn't want it to. Scott and Johnny found it quite humorous. As they rode toward home, they grinned at each other.

"Hey, Johnny. What do you think a man looks like when his son's just been born?" Scott asked.

"Oh, I don't know. Must look something like that," Johnny grinned and pointed at Murdoch.

"I believe you're right, brother. A big silly grin. Yes, I think that's what it looks like," Scott agreed, trying to keep a straight face.  

"If you two are finished. Can't a man be happy?" Murdoch tried to growl.

"Sure, Murdoch. But, you don't have to look so ..... goofy," Johnny snickered.

"Goofy? I look goofy?"

"Well, you do, pa. A little," Scott answered.

Murdoch shook his head. "I get no respect," he sighed and kneed his bay into a faster canter. He could hear them laughing behind him and he had to laugh himself. This was how it was supposed to be. His sons being brothers to each other. Being sons to him. He sighed. Yes, he was a happy man.

*****

Murdoch went to bed as soon as they got home. Scott and Johnny stayed up and talked about their trip. Neither had forgotten, only pushed it aside to enjoy the day.

The next morning, they were packed and ready to go before coming to breakfast.

"Where's pa?"

"He is outside. He will be in soon," Maria answered. She frowned a little as she looked at Johnny.

"Somethin on your mind?" he asked.

"Si. I do not think you should go. Now, I have said it. I will speak of it no more," she said and went back to her stove.

Johnny looked at Scott who only shrugged.

"Maria, why shouldn't I go?"

"It is not my place, Juanito."

"I'm asking for your opinion. That makes it your place," he pressed.

She sighed and walked over, sitting beside him. "What has she brought you except pain? How much more will you expose yourself to? There is nothing she can give you, Juanito. Nothing better than what you have here."

Johnny looked at her in disbelief. "Is this the same woman who told me to hightail it a few months ago?" He grinned when she blushed.

Johnny sobered and looked at her sincerely. "I'm not doing this for her, Maria. I'm doing it for myself. For my own piece of mind. I am coming back. Scott will see to it."

"I certainly will."

She smiled but it was sad. She patted his cheek. "You must do what you think is right, I know. Do not let her hurt you any more." She stood quickly and returned to her work when she heard Murdoch's footsteps.

"Good morning," Scott called.

"Hmmph."

Johnny tried to hide the smile. "Mornin."

"Yeah."

"Something wrong, pa?" Scott asked, hiding his own amusement.

"No. When are you leaving?" he asked.

"After breakfast."

"When will you be back?"

"As soon as possible."

Murdoch looked at Johnny and saw the gleam in his eye. "I'm glad this is so funny."

"It's not. But, you are. Stop bein such a grouch."

"Just be careful, both of you. Watch each other's backs," he said, pointing his spoon at each of them.

"We will, pa," Scott said, fighting the urge to roll his eyes.

They tied down their saddlebags and turned to the rancher. Scott gave him a quick hug and a promise to watch out for Johnny. He turned to his horse to check the cinch.

Johnny walked up to his father. "I'll be back in a few days."

"Promise?"

He cocked his head and looked at the man. "You're worried I won't. I promise. There's nothing she has that I want, Murdoch."

The big man sighed through his nose and nodded. He hugged Johnny briefly and stepped back.

Murdoch watched as his sons rode away. He still wasn't convinced they would both be back. He had a feeling of desperation where Johnny was concerned. A feeling that he'd had when the boy first came back. But it had left some time ago. Now, it was back and he hated it.

"He worries about you," Scott said as they rode along.

"I know."

"Think that will ever stop?"

Johnny looked over at him. "Has he stopped worrying about you?"

"I don't know," he answered.

"You don't have to go with me, Scott."

"It's not about that, Johnny."

"What is it about?"

"I don't know. Nothing really. I'm just talking."

Johnny pulled up and stopped and Scott did the same.

"Say it," Johnny stated.

"It just seems like you need so much from him," Scott said, looking past his brother.

Johnny chewed his lip. "I guess I do."

"I feel like things between he and I have changed."

"He's not used to dealing with more than one son," Johnny observed.

Scott smiled a little. "Think he's overwhelmed?"

Johnny chuckled. "Wouldn't you be if you had me for a son?"

"Don't start that again," Scott shot him a sideways look.

"No, I'm not. But, seriously, Scott. Look at it. He's worried I won't come back. After everything we've been through with my mother, he still thinks I want some connection with her."

"Do you?"

Johnny looked increduously at him. "You too?"

"Johnny, it's not like you've talked to us about her. We don't know how you feel about your mother. You've never mentioned her. Not since the day she left."

He dropped his eyes. "I guess I haven't. I just don't see the point. I didn't want to make him feel bad, you know? I have talked with Cipriano. He helped a lot."

"I'm glad you talked to someone, Johnny. You could have told us that much."

"Guess I still don't have this sharing thing down, yet."

Scott smiled. "You do as long as someone asks. It's the volunteering part you need to work on."

Johnny looked up and smiled back at him. "I think you should volunteer some information yourself. Why don't you tell Murdoch how you feel?"

It was Scott's turn to drop his eyes. "Point taken, brother. Shall we go?"

Johnny nodded and they headed out again. His stomach knotted just thinking about seeing her. It would be the last time. Of that he was certain. Never again would he come when she called. Never again would he be put in this position or put his family in it either.  

"There is something you should know, Scott. When we get to Mexico, we'll have to be real careful. I have some enemies down there."

"No kidding? I thought you were loved far and wide, brother," he grinned.

"I'm serious."

"I know. Why do you think I wanted to come with you? I'm a fair shot if I do say so myself."

Johnny looked over at him. "I hope so," he said solemnly.

Scott didn't like that look. He thought he'd bitten off too much. But there was no way he'd let Johnny make this trip alone. Whatever happened, they would face it together.

He'd never been to Mexico but he'd heard about the border towns. They were refuges for every type of unsavory character. From thieves and con men to cutthroat killers. He shivered a little thinking of his brother living amongst that type. Being that type. No, Johnny may have had to live in the mire but he wasn't contaminated by it.

Scott knew his brother at least well enough to know he was a decent man. A good man. A caring man. How he'd managed to stay that way, to stay sane, Scott couldn't guess. He knew he was about to face Johnny's past head on. Part of him looked forward to the opportunity, part of him dreaded it.

In three days, they would be at the border. In three days, Scott needed to learn all he could about that life. He needed to be able to fit in to some degree. Be able to recognize potential threats from actual threats. To know how Johnny would react in a given situation.

It was a monumental task. One he wasn't sure he could accomplish in such a short time. He wasn't even sure he could get his brother to talk about it. But he had a plan and he wasn't going to back down. He had made a promise to his father. He would have his brother's back. That's all there was to it.

*****

They stopped for the night in a secluded area. Johnny took care of the horses while Scott made camp. They had a simple meal of beans and coffee. Both were quiet, lost in their own thoughts. Scott figured there was no better time. He repositioned himself against his saddle and regarded his brother.

"So, tell me what to expect down there."

Johnny stared into the flames for a long time. "It ain't pretty. The poorest people you're ever likely to meet. Most of the towns consist of too many cantinas and one or two churches. It's farming country but not much will grow there anymore."

"That's not exactly what I meant," Scott spoke.

"I know. The towns are full of gunfighters and thieves. Crooks everywhere you turn. Including the rurales. You'll see lots of kids on the streets. They'll come up and beg for money. If you give to one, they'll all be on you like bees on honey. They'll cut your throat for a peso."

Scott swallowed hard, wondering if he were describing himself.

"You can't ever let your guard down. Not for a minute. Look, if I seem ..... different down there, don't worry about it."

"You mean if you're Madrid?"

Johnny shook his head. "No, I mean *when* I'm Madrid. That's who I am down there. I can't be anyone else. Not if you want to get out alive. Anyway, I plan on stayin invisible if we can. Just slide right in and out. Real easy like. No need for anyone to know I'm even there."

"Can you do that?"

"I hope so. As long as no one sees or recognizes me. We'll go in at night, stay in the shadows. Make our way to the mission. We'll have to hide the horses somewhere close by. Hopefully, we'll be out of there in an hour or so. If not, we'll wait til dawn. Everyone will be passed out or asleep by then."

Scott nodded but he was thinking about the times he'd seen Johnny Madrid. When he first arrived and later, in that gunfight. But he got the distinct impression that was nothing. The real Madrid was still hidden. He hoped he wouldn't see it. Hoped Johnny's plan would work. But there was a gnawing feeling in his gut. It just wasn't going to be that easy.

He hoped Maria had something good to say. She had to know what a risk this was for Johnny. The question was - did she care? Or was it really that important she see him? For her sake, Scott hoped so. If she put his brother in harm's way for nothing, she would answer to him. And this time, he would not be polite about it, either.

Scott settled down into his bedroll and stared at the stars. He wondered if he'd get any sleep tonight. Soon enough, his eyes slid shut and his breathing leveled out.

Johnny watched as he drifted into sleep. He knew Scott didn't have a clue. Not really. He prayed he never would. He prayed no one would see him. He didn't sleep much that night. Just catnapped here and there. Ever wary of his surroundings. In two days he would step back into the recent past. He felt sick to his stomach at the thought. 'Mama, this better be damned good,' he thought.

Two days later, they neared the outskirts of Sonora. Johnny pulled up and reined Barranca up a slight incline off the road. Scott followed wondering what was up. He led them to a clearing and dismounted.

"What are we doing?" Scott asked as he landed on the ground.

"Waiting til dark. I told you, I don't want to be seen. There's a cave over here big enough for us and the horses. Come on," he said and led the way.

It was a huge room with a high ceiling. Scott craned his neck, admiring the stalactite. He could see remnants of campfires on the floor, the rocks still in place. "Doesn't look like anyone has been in here for a long time."

"Probably not," Johnny murmured and went back outside. He returned with wood to start a fire. "Get's cold in here. Damp, too."

Scott watched him closely. "How many times did you stay here?"

"Too many," he answered without looking up. Soon, he had the fire going and put on a pot of coffee.

Scott sat on his bedroll blanket and poured coffee for them both. "So, you lived in Sonora?"

"Among other places. We moved around a lot. Sonora, Nogales, Matamoros, everywhere," he shrugged.

Scott stared into his coffee cup. "Do you have any idea what she wants?"

"Nope, but it better be important. And quick. The sooner I'm out of here the better."

"How do you want to handle it?"

Johnny stared into the flames, the light dancing in his sullen eyes. "We'll stay at the edge of town. The mission is on the south side. We'll leave the horses in the back where they can't be seen from the street. There's a back door if I remember right."

"You've been there?" Scott asked in surprise.

"I told you, I lived here. That's where they hold Mass. She used to drag me there on Sundays. Don't know why."

They fell silent for a while, letting the heat from the fire warm their bones. The cave was dank and cold as Johnny said. With the setting sun, it got even worse.

As if by some internal clock, Johnny stood and stretched, then started dousing the fire with the remains of the coffee. Scott took the cue and packed up his bedroll and took care of the rest of the camp.

They led the horses out and saddled up. "Keep your eyes open," Johnny said and took the lead.

They rode behind the buildings that edged the town. Johnny's eyes scanned constantly. Once, he stopped behind a building near an alley for a few seconds, then started again. Scott hadn't seen or heard anything but he wasn't about to argue the point. Finally, Johnny pulled up behind an ancient looking adobe building. Scott could barely see the belltower from the back.

They tethered the horses to a scrawny tree and approached a door. Johnny hesitated, his shoulders sagging. Scott put a hand on one shoulder and squeezed. When Johnny turned to him, he found a supportive smile. He nodded and opened the door, slipping inside quietly.

It was the kitchen and it was empty. Nuns ate early, he remembered, so they could pray. He tried to map the building out in his mind. It had been years since he'd been inside and then only in the chapel. He moved quietly through the kitchen, Scott at his back. They found a hallway and walked down to the end. There was a door on either side, one ajar. Johnny looked at Scott who shrugged and they walked in.

"May I help you?" the priest asked from his desk.

'Leave it to me to pick the wrong damned door,' Johnny thought. "I'm here to see Maria Lancer," he voiced.

The priest rose and approached them, looking discerningly at Johnny. "It's late."

"And it's gonna get later. I'm here now. If she wants to see me, this is her only chance," he replied in a hard voice that stunned Scott.

The priest was not appreciative and he let it be known with his eyes. "I will see if she is available," he said quietly and left the room.

"That was a little harsh, wasn't it?" Scott asked.

"I don't have time to play footsy with a padre. I sure as hell ain't gonna stand here while he decides if I'm worth his time," he shot.

Scott raised a brow. "You really don't like priests, do you?"

"No, I don't."

They heard light footsteps in the hall and Johnny tensed, waiting for her to appear.

She walked in and stopped, a smile lighting her face. "Johnny, you came." She walked over and hugged him. He stood there like a statue.

"You said it was a matter of life and death. What do you want?" he asked coldly.

She stepped back and stared at him then glanced toward Scott. "Perhaps some privacy?"

"Senor, if you will follow me?" the priest said to Scott.

Scott looked to his brother and received a nod, then left with the padre.

Johnny turned his attention back to his mother. "Well?"

"Would you like to sit? Some coffee perhaps?"

"I don't want to sit or drink. I want to get out of here. Tell me what was so important," he said with frustration.

She dropped her eyes. "It is difficult."

"It always is."

"Must you be so cold?"

Johnny looked at her with a stunned expression. "I can see this was a waste of time."

"No, miel, por favor. Sit with me," she begged and took his arm.

Johnny sighed and walked over to a chair. He waited for her to be seated then sat himself. "Just spit it out, mama."

She had pulled her rosary out and was playing nervously with the beads. "It is about your stepfather."

Johnny's eyes narrowed. "I don't have a stepfather," he spat.

She closed her eyes and sighed. "It is about Hal Grady," she clarified.

"What about him?"

"He is here, in Sonora. He saw me with the sisters one day. He wants me back. He has threatened to take me. The padre has been protecting me but he cannot much longer. You know how Grady is."

"What do you want me to do about it?"

"Johnny, please. I need your help. I am afraid he will kill me."

He looked at her for a long moment. "So, you want to hire me. Is that it?"

Her eyes widened in shock. "Que?"

"Well, you want to get rid of him. So, you called a gunfighter," he shrugged.

"I called my son for help," she said angrily.

Johnny stood suddenly and began to pace. Shaking his head, he rounded on her. "You don't have a son."

Her eyes filled with tears. "It is like that then? You want nothing to do with me?"

"Yes, it's like that."

She stood and walked up to him, searching the dark eyes. "You cannot mean that, miel."

"How much is the padre willing to pay for your life, mother? I don't come cheap."

She swallowed hard and turned away from him. "Forgive me for taking too much for granted. I will not bother you again," she whispered.

"Fine," he clipped and headed for the door.

"Everything I have ever heard about Johnny Madrid was a lie. It is said you would always stand up for those who could not stand for themselves. That you would always protect those who could not protect themselves."

He stopped, the doorknob in his hand.

"I suppose that is only true of those whose lives you find redeemable."

Johnny dropped his head, his hand slipping off the doorknob. He sighed and turned back to her. The pain in both their eyes was nearly unbearable for the other to see.

"Where is he?"

"He has a room over Miguel's Cantina."

He inhaled deeply and regarded her. "Don't ever contact me again." He turned and walked out the door, headed to find his brother.

It wasn't hard to find Scott. He simply followed the raised voices into the kitchen. There, he found his brother embroiled in an argument with the padre.

"How can you be so critical? I thought priests were suppose to seek out the sinners of this world. Isn't that who the church is for?" he was asking.

Johnny cleared his throat. "You can't win an argument with a priest, brother. They start quotin the bible as a last resort."

Both men stood as he walked in.

"Is your business finished here?" the padre asked.

"Si, you can start scrubbin down anything I might have touched, padre," he smirked. Looking to Scott, he tossed his head toward the door.

Once outside, Johnny turned to the wall and leaned both hands against the roughened surface. His head bowed, he didn't have a clue how to explain this.

Scott waited patiently for his brother to speak. His eyes kept vigil of their surroundings.

"She wants me to kill someone for her."

Scott's head jerked back to his brother, certain he'd heard wrong. "She wants what?" he shouted.

"Ssshhh! You heard me."

Flabbergasted didn't begin to describe what he was feeling. Soon, that was replaced with outrage. Scott began to pace, trying to control his anger. "Why?" he finally asked.

Johnny turned and leaned his back against the wall. "He was her old man. He says he wants her back and she's scared."

"So? Why doesn't she just tell him she doesn't want him?"

"She did. This man ...... he's a bastard, Scott. He don't much care what she wants. Just what he wants. And he's used to gettin what he wants."

"Johnny, this is ridiculous. She called you all the way down here to hire you?"

"Oh, no. She denied that."

"What are you going to do?" Scott asked.

"I'm gonna have a talk with him. Make him see it's not in his best interest to go after her."

"And if he doesn't listen?"

Johnny locked eyes with his brother. "I'll kill him."

"No, Johnny. That's murder!"

A smile edged up his lips. "No, it isn't. Not if I call him out."

Scott stared at him, unable to believe what he was hearing. "Let's just go home."

"I can't, Scott. You go, though. I'll be along."

"I'm not leaving without you."

Johnny shrugged. "Suit yourself. Let's go back to the cave. I got some thinkin to do."

Scott had some thinking to do as well. He had to find a way to talk Johnny out of this. It was crazy, that's all.

*****

Once settled in for the night, Johnny remained quiet. Scott could take no more.

"You don't owe her a damned thing."

"I know."

"Then why are you doing this?"

Johnny sighed and looked at him. "She's in trouble. She needs help. I'd do it for anyone else."

"I guess you would. But, Johnny, to kill a man....."

"I hope it doesn't go that far, Scott. He probably doesn't even remember me."

"You knew him?"

"Yeah, he was before she took off. After the gambler she ran off from Murdoch with." He shook his head. "I think. It's hard to keep up."  

Scott frowned and dropped his head. How could anyone survive that life? "Do you have a plan?"

Johnny nodded slowly. "Yep. I might need your help if you're willing."

"I'll do whatever I can."

Johnny smiled tenderly at him and laid out his plan. Scott was amused by the audacity and prayed it would work.

As they waited for dawn to break, Scott felt he needed more from his brother. He wasn't sure how to ask, however.

"Johnny, may I ask you something?"

"Sure."

"Well, this cave. Was this your hideout?"

Johnny laughed softly. "On occasion. I found it when I was a kid. I used to come up here to get away when she was .... busy. Sometimes, I'd just come up here to think."

"What did you think about?"

"Oh, you know. Nothing grand. Just what I was gonna do when she wasn't around anymore. What kind of life I'd have. That kind of stuff."

"Did you know she'd leave you?"

"Yeah, one way or another. I figured she'd get herself killed, though. I guess part of me knew she might take off any time. I was just trying to prepare myself."

"Did it work?"

"No. It was still hard. I couldn't believe it, ya know? That she would just up and leave like that. She told me, at least. Made sure I understood."

"Understood what?"

"Not to try and follow her or find her later. She said I was a mistake she'd lived with long enough and she wished I'd never been born."

Scott stared at him, sounding so casual about it. "She actually said that to you?"

"Yeah," he sighed out.

Scott was grateful for the low light of the fire. He blinked several times and dropped his head. Monster was the word that sprung forth in his mind. Evil monster. "I don't understand how you can risk your life for that woman," he spat angrily.

"She's my mother," came the simple answer.

"Mother? She's no mother! She gave birth to you, like a heifer or a mare. No, not even like that. At least animals take care of their young until they can stand on their own!"

Johnny turned away from him.

"God, I'm sorry, Johnny. I .... I shouldn't have said that. I shouldn't have said anything," Scott said with deep remorse.

"It's okay," he said huskily.

Scott moved over and touched his shoulder. "No, it's not okay. I have no right. I don't have anything to compare it to anyway. Who am I to say who's a good mother?"

"You had Maria. She was close to having a mother. Don't guess you have to be a parent to know how one should act."

"You have pa now. And me."

Johnny smiled a little. "I know. That's what I hang onto every day."

Scott felt a deep pain in his heart. And a guilt for his own petty jealousy. "Keep hanging on, brother. We'll be there to hold you up."

Johnny reached back and patted Scott's hand, still on his shoulder. "It's time," he breathed out.

******

They tied off the horses behind the cantina and slipped up the outside stairs. Johnny figured they'd be lucky if they didn't get shot as peeping tom's but he hadn't a clue which room was Grady's. He peeked through every window just long enough to identify the occupants. Then, he spotted his man.

He was sound asleep and snoring. Johnny almost shivered at the sound. He hated the man. He signaled to Scott that this was the room. Scott nodded and set up watch. Johnny eased through the open window.

A blonde woman lay nearest him. He grinned and slipped up to her. Kneeling beside the bed, he put his hand over her mouth. Her eyes flew open and he touched one finger to his lips. "Leave," he whispered. She nodded and slid out of the bed, buck naked. She didn't seem to mind, though. Johnny sure didn't.

She grabbed her clothes and held them against her body as she opened the door silently. Looking back once more, she actually smiled at him, then disappeared.

He looked around the small room and spotted a straight back chair. Picking it up, he sat it beside the bed. He reached over and took the pistol from the gunbelt slung over the bedpost. Then he settled in the chair and relaxed. Johnny studied the face, remembering the beatings he'd taken from this piece of dirt. Remembering his thoughts of vengeance at the time. He'd been all of five. Even then, his heart was turning cold. He shook the memories away and concentrated on Grady.

He was graying now. His face wrinkled from too much hard living. Veins speckled his nose from too much booze. Johnny was surprised. He didn't look so big and tough now. He smiled a little and decided he'd have to wait all day for the drunk to awaken.

"Hey!" he said just loudly enough to stir the man.

A groan escaped the man's mouth, followed by a hand to his forehead and another groan. It took several seconds for his eyes to open and focus. When they did, he sat straight up, his hand going to the headboard.

"It ain't there," Johnny informed him.

Grady glanced behind him and Johnny laughed softly.

"She ain't there, either."

"Who are you, mister? What'ya want?" he asked in a froggy voice.

"Well, now, those are good questions. But, I want to make sure you're good and awake. I ain't gonna repeat myself." He reached over and took the still full glass of water from the bedside table. With one quick move, he doused Grady's face with the tepid water.

The man sputtered and wiped his face, which was red with anger. "Why you...."

"Ah, ah, ah. Now is that anyway to talk to a man who's got a gun on you?" he asked, pulling back the hammer of his Colt.

"Alright! I'm awake! What'ya want?"

"That's better. I want you to leave Sonora and never come back. I want you to stay away from Maria. What I really want is to blow your head off, so don't tempt me by arguin."

Grady's eyes widened in disbelief. "This is about Maria? That whore? She sent you here?"

Johnny only nodded, unfazed by the slight to his mother.

"She hire you?"

Johnny shook his head slowly.

Grady snorted. "Takin it out in trade, huh?"

Johnny smiled softly. "Do you know who I am?"

"No."

He leaned forward a little, gun moving forward slightly. "I'm Johnny Madrid. Now, I'm tellin you for the last time. Leave her be. If you don't, I will kill you and with pleasure."

Grady moved back a little and swallowed hard. His adam's apple bobbing. "Madrid," he whispered. "Thought you had more class than this."

"This ain't got nothing to do with class, Grady. You don't remember me, do you?"

"Remember you? I ain't never met you before," he said.

"Sure you have. Only I was just a little kid then. A kid you had a real good time knockin around."

His eyes widened with recognition. "Maria's boy."

"That's right. Get it now?"

"I'll be damned! I figured you'd never live past ten. And here you are, a famous gunhawk."

"That's right, Grady. A gunhawk who'd just as soon put you in the ground as spit on you. This is your only warning. Your only chance to live at least another day. Get up now and get out of town. If I hear you've been bothering my mother again, I'll be back. And I won't be so charitable." His voice was as cold as a November frost, his eyes cobalt blue and deadly. There was no mistaking who this man was.

Grady simply nodded his head and Johnny stood, pushing the chair back. He backed up and tossed Grady's clothes at him.

"What? You're gonna watch?"

"Shy? Too bad. Get up!"

Grady stumbled and struggled into his clothes, his eyes flicking to the unwavering pistol pointed at his chest. Finally, he was dressed.

"Now, leave town and don't come back here," Johnny ordered. "I'll be watching," he added.

"What about my gun?"

Johnny tossed the weapon to him and noted the hint of a grin. "Don't get any stupid ideas. It ain't loaded."

Grady glowered at him and stuck the pistol in his holster. He grabbed his jacket and headed for the door.

"Grady."

He turned to face Johnny.

"Consider yourself the luckiest man on earth today."

He glanced at the Colt then back to Johnny's eyes. He could only nod and leave the room quickly.

Johnny relaxed and sighed. He knew how close he'd come to killing the man. The very sight of Grady made him physically ill. He took a cleansing breath and stepped back out the window. He looked down to the street and watched as Grady ran to the livery.

"I take it that's him?" Scott asked rhetorically.

"Yep."

"Can we go home now?"

Johnny looked at him and smiled. "Sure, brother."

They walked back down to the alley and retrieved their mounts. Reining to the north, they rode at a comfortable gait.

"You think it worked?" Scott asked.

"I think so. He'll be thinking twice before bothering her again. Anyway ......"

Johnny didn't finish the thought as his back arched in pain. He heard the shot a split second later and reined Barranca around, drawing his gun as he did. He fired at the man sitting astride a bay, hitting him dead center in the chest. Grady grabbed his chest and stared disbelievingly as he fell from the horse with a thud.

Scott grabbed his jacket to keep him from falling out of the saddle.

Johnny turned and through gritted teeth, said, "ride!"

He kicked Barranca's sides and took off, holding his left arm close to his side. Scott followed, catching up to ride beside him. He watched closely for any sign Johnny was going to fall.

He finally stopped outside town and leaned forward in the saddle.

"Where's the closest doctor?" Scott asked.

Johnny shook his head. "No, we have to keep movin."

"Johnny, you can't!"

"Have to. Not safe here now. Come on," he ground out and started again.

Scott stared after him for a beat then kicked his horse into a canter.

He knew they had to stop soon. Johnny was almost unconscious. Scott looked around and spotted a copse of trees not far off the road. He leaned over and took Barranca's reins, leading them toward the shade.

He dismounted quickly and was at Johnny's side as he slid off the palomino. Scott dragged his brother to the shade of the trees and laid him down on his right side. He pulled Johnny's jacket off as gently as he could and pulled his shirt up. Grimacing at the wound, he ran to his horse and grabbed his canteen.

He helped Johnny take a few sips then went about cleaning the wound. Using his extra shirt for bandages, he doctored the area as best he could.

"You need a doctor," he said breathlessly.

"Not til we're out of Mexico," Johnny whispered.

"We can't wait that long!"

Johnny grabbed his shirt and pulled himself up to mere inches from Scott's face. "This is my territory, Scott. I know what I'm doing. If we don't get across the border, pronto, we're both dead!"

"You need to rest," Scott argued.

"For a few minutes. Then, we have to go," he agreed and fell back. His eyes shuttered closed and he knew no more.

Johnny heard the train and wondered why it was running through Lancer. Then he felt the burning in his back and memory returned. He opened his eyes slowly, unsure where he was. In a bed, but where was the question. He felt a cool cloth on his forehead and then heard Scott's reassuring voice. He sighed and knew he was safe.

His eyes focused on his brother's face and he smiled a little. Then he took in the room. A frown grew as he tried to piece it together.

"Where am I?"

"The mission."

Johnny tried to sit up but the fire and two strong hands held him back. He glared at his brother. "Why?"

"Because you passed out and I couldn't stop the bleeding. You needed help, Johnny," Scott explained.

"I told you it wasn't safe," he hissed.

"No one knows we're here."

He sighed in frustration. "Yet."

"Well, we will deal with that if it happens. For now, you have a fever."

"Great! Bet the padre was thrilled," he snorted.

"Oh yes, he's dancing with joy," Scott grinned, recalling the man's face when he carried his brother through the back door.

"How long I been out?"

"Less than a day."

"What time is it?"

"Afternoon. About four, I think."

Johnny nodded. "We'll leave as soon as it's dark."

Scott shook his head. "No way, brother. You can't travel like this."

"Have to."

"Why, Johnny?"

He locked eyes with his brother. "If anyone finds out I'm here and laid up, they'll come for me. And they won't much care if it's a church. It's better for everyone if I leave."

"Better for everyone but you," Scott said sharply.

"No, better for me, too. I can ride a hell of a lot better than I can fight right now."

Scott took in the pale face, the perspiration beading on his forehead. He'd never make it home like this. "How far would we have to go before you're satisfied?"

"Home."

"Johnny," he said paternally.

He laughed softly. "You sound like the old man. Okay, California, at least."

Scott thought for a minute. "San Diego?"

"Somewhere around there would be okay for a day or two," he sighed and closed his eyes.

"Alright, brother. Here's the deal. If I think you can make it tonight, we'll leave. If not, give it one more day."

"No deal. I'm leavin tonight. With or without you."

Scott clenched his jaw. "You are the most infuriating man I have ever met!"

Johnny opened his eyes and grinned.

"I mean it, Johnny. Where did you get all this stubborness?"

He chuckled and his eyes lit. "Can't imagine. Look, I know you don't get it, Scott. But this is how it has to be. I know what I'm talkin about."

"What about that cave? It's not ideal but we could hold up there for a day or two," he tried to compromise.

"No, that won't do. I know you're worried and I appreciate it. But, I've ridden a lot farther with a lot worse injuries than this. I'll be fine."

Scott pointed his finger at him. "I'm telling you right now, brother. If you die on me, there will be hell to pay. Don't think for one minute I'm going to show up home without you. Pa would kill me."

"Okay, I won't die on you. And if I do, I'll write him a letter and tell him you did everything you could to keep me alive. How's that?" he smiled.

"It's not funny," Scott said, his voice softening.

Johnny fell somber. "Thanks for givin a damn."

Scott looked at him. "I do, so remember that."

The door opened and Maria stepped in. Johnny tensed immediately.

"How is he?"

"Awake but still too warm," Scott replied.

"I fixed a tea for you, hijo. It will help with the fever," she smiled as she approached the bed.

"I don't want anything from you," he said icily.

Scott took the cup and turned back to him. "Then take it from me. Anything that might help is worth trying. No matter the source, right?" he cocked a brow.

Johnny gave him a chagrined look but nodded and drank the tea. It wasn't too bad. "Bullet still in?"

"I'm afraid so. I wasn't about to try and nobody here has any medical training," Scott said, wincing at the thought of digging a bullet out of anyone's back.

"I am so sorry, Johnny," Maria said in a trembling voice.

"I know. You're always sorry after the fact," he sighed and rubbed his forehead. That train was coming back.

She stood there with head bowed, rosary in hand. Johnny studied her for a minute. The silence in the room grew uncomfortable.

"You don't have to stay," he said.

"I would like to."

"What about what I'd like? Never mind, that doesn't matter," he said bitterly.

"Maybe you should go," Scott spoke up.

She nodded and left the room silently.

"Any chance of keepin her away from me for good?"

"I'll do my best, brother. Any chance of you resting before tonight?"

"Sure," he sighed and closed his eyes, laying a hand over them.

Scott chewed his lip for a second. "Do you need anything? I thought I'd take a nap."

"No, go ahead. Get as much rest as you can. You'll need it."

Scott laid a hand on his arm and squeezed before leaving him.

******

Johnny opened his eyes. The first thing he saw was his mother. She was laying a cloth on his forehead. He sighed in resignation. He just wasn't going to get her to leave him be.

"Your fever is worse, hijo."

"Don't matter," he mumbled.

"Johnny, you cannot leave tonight. You must rest and gain your strength."

He looked hard at her. "I stopped listening to you a long time ago. Don't start tryin to mother me now. You were never any good at it."

She pulled her shoulders back and looked sternly at him. "Perhaps not. But I am a different person now. I know what I have done and the mistakes I have made. I have learned from them."

Johnny couldn't help the laugh that burst from his lips. "Learned from them? You haven't learned a damned thing except a different con!"

"Stop it! No matter what has happened, I am still your mother, Juanito. I deserve respect!"

He looked at her in wide-eyed awe. "Which is the only reason I took care of Grady for you. Don't hand me that garbage, mama. The only reason you sent for me is because of who I am. If I were some farmer, you wouldn't have even bothered. We both know that. As for respect. That's something you have to earn. And nothing you could ever do now will earn it from me. So, let's just be clear. I'm leaving tonight. You and me got nothin else to say to each other ever!"

"If that is what you wish, so be it," she said harshly.

He looked cagily at her. "That's what this was really all about, wasn't it? You wanted me here so you could make sure I never thought about contacting you. Well, you went to a lot of trouble for nothing. I had no intentions of ever seeing you again."

"Do not be ridiculous. I told you why I sent for you," she huffed.

"Unbelievable. All that trash about repenting. All those tears and begging for forgiveness. I'll bet you just about lost it when you got that letter from me. Thought you were rid of me for good. Well, you should have believed my words. I didn't want anything from you then and I still don't! So, all this now is what? To show the padre what a good woman you are now? To show him how horrible a life you've really had having Johnny Madrid for a son?"

"That is not true, Johnny. I love you," she replied a little too flatly.

"Sure, mama. You believe whatever you need to get you through the day," he sighed, feeling incredibly tired now. "What time is it?"

"Nine o'clock," she answered, confused by the change in subject.

Johnny rose slowly to a semi-sitting position and threw the covers back. At least they'd left his pants on. A shirt he could handle. "Where's my stuff?"

"You still insist on leaving?"

"You want to cut the act and tell me where my stuff is?" he barked.

She stood abruptly and walked to the dresser, pulling open a drawer. She handed him his shirt then brought his boots and jacket.

He sucked in air when he sat on the side of the bed. But he managed the shirt easily. The boots would be a problem. He figured Scott could help him with that. "If it's not too much trouble, could you get my brother?"

As if on cue, Scott opened the door. He frowned deeply at the sight before him.

"Hey, could you help me with my boots?" Johnny asked immediately.

"His fever is higher but he will not listen to me," Maria told him.

"He won't listen to you? Gee, what a shock," Scott sniped and went over to help Johnny. Once the boots were on, Scott felt his forehead and sighed.

"If you pass out on me again, we're staying wherever I say. No arguments."

Johnny looked at him and grinned. "Guess I can't pass out then, huh?"

"Guess not. I managed to persuade the padre into giving us some supplies."

"How much?" Johnny snorted.

"Oh, he didn't charge me for the food. But, an ample donation to the cause wasn't refused," he retorted.

Johnny stood slowly, Scott with hand extended if he needed. But he managed to get on his feet and stay there. After a slight swaying motion, he felt sure he would be alright.

"Horses ready?"

"They are. Out back same as last time."

"If I do pass out and you bring me back here; I'll shoot you," Johnny warned.

"You won't have to. I'll shoot myself. Come on, little brother. Time to get out of Mexico." Scott stood aside, ready to aid him if necessary.

Maria stepped up to him. "No matter what you think of me, I do love you, Johnny."

He looked down into her brown eyes with nothing but contempt. "Goodbye, Maria. This time, it's forever. I said it before but I'll say it once more. Don't ever contact me again." He moved past her and walked out the door.

"How will I know if you made it home safely?" she asked.

He stopped just outside the door. Without turning, he replied. "I guess you won't. Don't reckon you'll lose any sleep over it."

She looked at Scott. "Will you let me know?"

"I want nothing to do with you. You didn't give a damn about him for twenty years. Just keep not giving a damn. Johnny will be much happier that way."

She fell onto the bed and sobbed loudly as he closed the door.

******

The priest was in the kitchen, waiting. Johnny walked in and smiled. "Well, thought you must have taken a trip. You didn't come to see me. I'm crushed. What? No last rites for the wicked?"

"It appears you do not need it," he said stonily.

"Wouldn't have mattered if I did. Must be nice to be perfect. So righteous. I'll let you in on a little secret, padre. That woman who you think you've saved? She hasn't changed a bit. So much for your skills as a priest."

Scott walked in then and interrupted the stand off. "Time to go."

"Thank God! Ooops. Sorry," Johnny grinned wickedly.

"I will pray for your soul, Johnny Madrid."

"Don't bother, padre. Wouldn't want you to strain yourself," he quipped and walked outside.

Scott thought to say something, then reconsidered. He knew it would do no good. He walked out to find Johnny leaning against Barranca's neck.

"Johnny?"

His head came up. "Yeah, I'm ready." He mounted stiffly and settled in the saddle. Scott joined him and they headed north.

Once out of Sonora, Scott spoke. "Are you alright?"

"Just a little sore."

"That's not what I meant."

"I really don't want to talk about it, Scott."

"Alright. For now," he said, shooting his brother a sidelong look.

Johnny smiled and picked up the pace a little.

They rode on through the night, stopping for brief periods to rest the horses. Johnny was insistent he was fine. Scott knew better but they'd made a deal. California it was.

*****

By noon, they had crossed the border and Scott noticed the relief in his brother's pensive face. Still, he was ever wary of his surroundings. Scott knew they were far from safe. This side of the border was no better than the other. The sooner they were further north, the better both would feel.

An hour later, Scott insisted they stop and rest. He built a small fire and warmed some beans. Johnny didn't eat much and Scott knew he was weak and sick. He walked over and sat beside Johnny. Without a word, he reached over and felt his forehead.

"You're burning up."

"It's hot out here."

"Nice try. How much further do you think San Diego is?"

Johnny looked down the road and considered. "Should be there in a couple of hours."

"Are you going to make a couple of hours? Truth now."

"Sure. I can make it to Lancer."

"Don't start that again."

"I can make it, Scott. One night in San Diego and I'll be ready."

"We'll see," was all he said.

Thye rode into town and headed for the first hotel they spotted. Scott got a room and put his brother in bed with a stern warning to stay put. He then took care of the horses and found a doctor.

When he returned, Johnny was sound asleep. The doctor walked right in and took his left hand. He found himself staring down the barrel of a Colt .45.

"Johnny! This is the doctor," Scott explained quickly.

He released the hammer and stowed the weapon. "Sorry, Doc. Warn a man next time."

"I will. May I examine you now?"

"Sure, if it'll shut him up," he said, nodding toward Scott.

He made a quick assessment and prepared for surgery. The doctor began instructing Scott on using anesthesia until Johnny interrupted.

"You ain't puttin me to sleep."

"Surely you don't mean that," the doctor stated in shock.

"Johnny, you can't stay awake while....."

"I can and I will. I've done it before. You are NOT putting me to sleep. Just dig it outta there and be done with it," he hissed.

Scott threw up his hands and looked toward the heavens. "I don't understand you."

"I know you don't. Just do it my way."

"Very well, young man. But, I take no responsibility for any adverse effects," the doctor warned.

"Fine. I'll take the responsibility," Johnny retorted harshly.

Johnny stuffed a wash cloth in his mouth and nodded that he was ready. The doctor took a deep breath and picked up a probe. He worked as quickly as he could but it still took a good fifteen minutes. Finally, he located and removed the bullet.

Johnny thought his jaw would break before the man got done. Sweat poured from his face as he grunted through the worst of it. Scott was sure he'd never seen anything quite so stupid in his life. He was going to make a point of letting his brother know that as soon as he recovered.

"You have an infection in this wound, young man. You need a lot of rest and care," the doctor diagnosed after surgery.

"Okay," he breathed through gritted teeth.

"How long, Doctor?" Scott asked.

"A week of bed rest, at least."

"Sure, soon as we get home," Johnny said.

"Where's home?"

"Morro Coyo," Scott answered.

"That's a good day's ride from here. You can't sit a saddle that far!" he exclaimed.

Johnny looked at both of them. "I can and I will. I'm leavin in the morning."

"Wait a minute. You promised..."

"I promised a day."

"Or two," Scott added. Walking over to the bed, he sat on the edge. "Let me wire pa and tell him what's happened and we'll be delayed."

"No, Scott. I want to go home."

"I understand that, Johnny, but ....."

"I don't think you do," he said quietly.

Scott looked at him quizzically then addressed the doctor. "Thank you for your time," he said, handing the man some bills. "I'll call if we need you."

"Alright. I've given you my advice," he said as he left the room.

Scott went back to the bed and sat. "Now, explain it to me."

Johnny closed his eyes and leaned back against the pillows. "I need to be home."

"Tell me why."

"I can't," he said huskily and Scott suddenly understood.

"Tomorrow?"

Johnny opened his eyes and smiled gratefully. "Tomorrow."

Shaking his head slowly, Scott regarded the younger man. "You are a fool. I hope you know that."

"Oh, I know it, brother. Have to be one to make this trip to begin with," he answered bitterly.

Scott arranged supper in their room, insisting Johnny stay in bed until the very last minute. They ate in silence, neither able to speak of it. Once the dishes were cleared, Scott was at a loss as to what to do next.

"I guess the smart thing would be to get some sleep."

"Yep. Long day ahead but we'll be home by the end of it," Johnny smiled.

Scott didn't sleep well but he wasn't surprised. At dawn, he rose and dressed quietly then slipped out of the room. He brought the horses to the hotel and ordered breakfast before returning to his brother.

When he walked in, he found Johnny up and dressed.

"Couldn't even wait for me to get back."

"I want to get movin," he said, breathing hard.

Scott felt his forehead, surprised but relieved the fever was down. "Breakfast first. I've already ordered."

"Sure," he mumbled and finished getting ready.

Scott was happy he had eaten a good breakfast though he could tell Johnny was still in a lot of pain. He was moving slowly and stiffly.

*****

They saddled up and Scott watched him with a srutinizing eye. Johnny leaned down as much as he could and talked to Barranca then flicked the reins.

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

"Asked him to take it easy on me today," Johnny laughed.

"He's a fine animal."

"Yeah. I can't believe I lucked out again."

"I remember when you said he picked you," Scott smiled.

"You saw him. He dared me. I can't pass up a dare."

"I'll remember that," Scott replied devilishly.

"Listen, when we get home, I'd like to tell Murdoch about this myself," Johnny frowned.

"Sure. If you ever want to talk about this or anything, I hope you know I'll listen."

Johnny looked over and smiled. "I do know now. Thanks, brother."

The sun was dipping toward the horizon when they reached the hill above Lancer. They could see the house, lit by lamps. A soft, warm glow that was most welcoming. Both young men took a moment to just appreciate the sight.

Johnny looked over at Scott and grinned. "Ordinarily, I'd race ya."

Scott laughed. "Ordinarily, I'd accept. Come on, let's get you home."

"Yes, sir," he sighed.

As they passed under the gate, they saw Murdoch step out of the house. Johnny felt an overwhelming sense of safety and love. It caught him off-guard and he had to fight back the emotions. Something he had been doing for days now. How could anyone feel so tired? he wondered.

"I was starting to worry," Murdoch said when they were close enough to hear.

"You had good reason," Scott said.

"Why? What happened?" Murdoch asked, a frown creasing his forehead.

"Johnny's hurt," he replied, dismounting and going to help his brother down.

"It's nothing," he said softly.

"It's not nothing," Scott argued.

"What is it?" Murdoch asked anxiously.

"He's been shot in the back. I had a doctor remove the bullet but it's infected. His fever is down but it's still there. He was too stubborn to rest. Insisted on getting home."

"Snitch," Johnny clipped.

Murdoch took his arm and looked critically at him. "Let's get you to bed. Scott, would you send one of the hands for Sam? Then, you can tell me all about it."

"I'll tell you about it," Johnny said firmly.

"I don't care who tells me as long as it's told," Murdoch shot back.

Johnny tensed at the tone but said nothing. He was too tired to argue and didn't really want to anyway. "Don't make Scott tell you. I need to," he said softly.

Murdoch's face softened when he looked into those eyes. He could see how important it was. "Alright, son. I promise. Right now, you need to be taken care of."

"What else is new," Johnny snipped and walked inside.

Johnny's bravado didn't last long. When he reached the staircase landing, he faltered. Leaning hard on the newel post, he closed his eyes and tried to make the dizziness pass. He felt a strong arm around his waist and turned slowly to find his father's grim face watching him.

"I'm alright. Just a little lightheaded," he tried to smile.

"Let's get you to bed," Murdoch said and helped him upstairs.

By the time he got Johnny undressed and settled, Scott appeared in the door. "Sam is on his way."

"Good. Now, you go get some rest. You must be exhausted," Murdoch fairly ordered.

"No, I want to wait for Sam."

"No arguments, Scott. You're about to fall over," Murdoch stated as he walked to the door. He laid a hand on Scott's shoulder. "You kept your promise to me. Now, it's time to rest, son."

Scott looked into his father's eyes and saw the concern. He smiled lightly. "Alright, pa. But, you'll let me know if.... "

"I'll let you know," the rancher promised.

Their voices had been soft and Johnny couldn't hear the conversation. He was too tired to try. His eyes closed of their own accord and he sighed softly. He felt a hand on his forehead and looked up.

"You are a little warm."

"It's not bad. I've had worse," he breathed out tiredly.

"Rest, son. Sam will be here soon."

******

And Sam was there soon. He decided this was going to be a popular spot on his rounds. He figured he should just stop by regularly. Just in case. He could smile about it now. After he examined Johnny. The wound was a little infected, but he cleaned it well and felt the young man would be fine. He relayed his prognosis to a very relieved Murdoch.

They left Johnny to sleep and went to the kitchen for coffee.

"What happened?" Sam asked.

"He hasn't told me yet. He wants to do it himself. Doesn't want Scott to tell me," Murdoch frowned.

"That sounds mysterious."

"Maybe. I think there's more to it than that," he sighed tiredly.

"Like what?"

Murdoch shook his head slowly. "I'm not sure. I am sure it has to do with his mother. Something happened between the two of them. That much is apparent. I have a feeling it was bad, too."

They both looked up when Scott walked in.

"You're supposed to be resting, son."

"I tried but it wasn't working," Scott replied glumly and walked to the stove. He poured a cup of coffee and joined the men at the table. "How is he?"

"He'll be alright with some rest," Sam said.

Scott nodded and took a sip from his cup. He missed the look shared by the other two men.

"Is there anything you can tell me, Scott?" Murdoch asked.

"No, sir. I offered to tell you for him. He insisted he needed to do it. I don't know everything that happened between he and his mother. They talked a couple of times privately. I can tell you he's been hurt deeply."

Murdoch nearly groaned aloud. What has she done to him now? How much more could he take? His anger swelled once again. He told Johnny he didn't hate Maria. He was beginning to think that was a lie or, at least, those feelings were rapidly changing.

"Well, don't press him just now. He needs a couple of days to recover," Sam advised.

*****

As hard at it was, Murdoch didn't ask Johnny about Mexico for the next two days. Every time he went in that room, he had to bite his tongue. Johnny had been despondent. Trying to appear normal but failing totally. His smiles did not light his face. They barely made it to his lips.

Murdoch wasn't sure how much longer he could wait. How much longer he could watch his son in such misery. The third morning when he entered the room, Johnny was up and dressed. He was sitting by the window in the same position he'd been in when Maria left the ranch.

"Good morning," he greeted cheerfully.

"Mornin," Johnny mumbled.

"How do you feel?" the rancher asked, trying to gauge Johnny's mood.

He shrugged. "Okay."

Murdoch bit his lower lip and walked over to his son. He pulled another chair close and sat down. "Are you ready to talk now?"

Johnny stared out the window for a long moment. "Yeah. Not sure where to start."

"What did she want?"

Johnny closed his eyes and dropped his head for a second, then looked at his father. "A hired gun."

Murdoch had speculated on what Maria could want. This was not something that had ever occured to him. He was sure the shock on his face was clear.

"One of her old men showed up in Sonora. He saw her and started spoutin off about havin her back. She said she was afraid of him."

"And she wanted you to do what, exactly?" Murdoch tried to keep his voice even. He wasn't sure he'd been successful.

"Get rid of him. Don't guess she cared how. I talked to him. Put the fear of God in him. Or so I thought. He was leavin town right then. Scott and I started to ride out. That's when he shot me in the back. I managed to get off a round and put him out of my misery." Pure sarcasm dripped from Johnny's voice.

"Your misery?"

"I remembered him. He used to knock me around when I was a kid."

Murdoch swallowed hard, figthing back his anger. Johnny's face was a blank. As if he were relaying something that happened to someone else.

"Anyway, me and Scott took off. Got out of town. We stopped a few miles away and I guess I passed out. When I woke up, we were back at the mission. I'm still mad at him about that," he frowned.

"You needed help, son."

"I know," he uttered.

They both fell quiet and Murdoch wondered if he would continue. But he waited.

"I woke up and she was there, acting all concerned. I was so mad at her for putting me in that situation," he shook his head. "She kept up the act, though. Got to hand it to her, she's one hell of an actress," he spat.

"I'm not sure I understand, son."

Johnny sighed heavily. "It just hit me. It was suddenly so clear. I guess I'm just too damned stupid to have seen it before. Even after all she's done. But, in that moment. Right then and there, I understood. She doesn't care about me." His voice was soft and frought with sadness. He stared out the window as if mesmerized by something only he could see.

Murdoch reached out and touched his arm. Johnny moved his head slightly, but he couldn't look at his father.

"I had to get home. It was ...... I just had to. I felt like if I didn't get back right away, I'd lose my way again. I know it doesn't make sense. I just needed to see you. To make sure it wasn't all a dream. To make sure you were real." He shook his head, knowing he wasn't explaining himself right.

"I understand," Murdoch replied simply.

"Do you? Because I don't. I mean, Scott was right there. I knew it wasn't a dream. It was just such a strong feeling." His fists clenched in his frustration.

"You needed to reassure yourself that I love you."

Johnny nodded. "Why do you put up with me? It's too hard, isn't it?"

"What's hard is watching you go through this hell. This agony. I don't 'put up with you'. I need you as much as you need me, Johnny."

He raised his brows in doubt but said nothing about it. "I feel like a little kid. Like I need to run to my daddy," he smiled wanly. His face fell then. "There's something else. Something that I made myself forget for a long time. Something she said to me when she left me all those years ago."

Murdoch held his breath, waiting for whatever Johnny said. Praying he'd be able to negate whatever Maria had said. Johnny faltered though, he could see it in his son's face. "Whenever you're ready, son."

He bowed his head and nodded. Closing his eyes tightly, he took a slow, deep breath. "When she left, she said ....." his voice choked on him. He swallowed but it didn't seem to help. He tried but his voice didn't seem to want to speak the words. His mouth was working but his brain did not want to cooperate.  

Murdoch felt a tightness in his chest. This was going to be very bad, he knew. All he could do was wait and tighten his grip on Johnny's arm.

Johnny cleared his throat and seemed to have himself under control.

"She said I was a mistake, that she wished I'd never been born," he whispered.

Murdoch's eyes closed and he inhaled deeply. Tears sprung forth and he didn't even try to hide them. His head bowed, he shook it slowly. What kind of woman says such a thing to a ten-year-old boy? When he looked back up, Johnny was watching him.

A thought struck Murdoch with such force, it took his breath away. His son's eyes were filling with tears. There was such a deep hunger there. A hunger for love and acceptance.   Murdoch didn't think he could stand it.

His own voice was failing him. Unable to speak past the huge lump that lodged painfully in his throat. He knew he had to do something and right now. He slid to the floor on one knee and enfolded his son in his arms.

Johnny fell into that embrace gratefully and with relief. He wasn't sure what reaction he would get. But, he should have. That was what hurt. He still had trouble accepting that his father loved him.

Murdoch tightened his hold, trying desperately to find some words of comfort for his boy. Johnny slid out of his chair as well. They knelt there for a while until Murdoch repositioned them both. They sat with their backs against Johnny's chair. Murdoch would not relinquish his hold. Johnny rested his head on the massive shoulder.

"You were not a mistake, Johnny. You are the only good thing that came from my marriage to your mother. You are the prize, the gift I was given. And, whether she can admit it or not, you were made of love, son. I will always love you. Never doubt that, please."

Johnny's tears flowed freely. He could no longer hide the pain she caused him all his life. He didn't care how it looked. He didn't care if he looked weak. At this moment, he needed his father. It was that simple.

"I used to think you must have felt the same. That I was a mistake. And that's why you threw me away. I wish I'd known ......"

"Ssshhhh. I know, son. There are so many things I wish could have been different. All we can do is accept what did happen and try to move past it. Do you think you can do that?"

Johnny nodded his head. "I want to. I want to forget all about her. I'm just not sure I can."

"No, probably not. No matter what, she is your mother. Good, bad or indifferent. You can't just forget that. But, maybe you can focus on us now. Scott and me and the family I know we can be."

"I'll try. Just .... it's hard for me to trust it. I know you've done nothing but accept me. Still ....."

"Listen to me, okay? I can't imagine what your life was like. I've tried and you tried to explain some of it to me. But Madrid isn't the part I worry about. It's what happened to you before that concerns me. That's when you lost your way. That's when you were left with no idea how to love or trust. You were never shown how. Both of those things take time. You can't love someone right off, nor can you trust them. No matter how badly you want to. It takes time, son. Fortunately, we have that time now. I promise not to push you. I promise to work very hard to gain your trust and love."

"No, you don't have to. It isn't you. Don't you see? It's me I don't trust. I trust you but I'm afraid I'll mess it up."

"You can't, son."

"Yes, I can," Johnny said morosely.

"Why would you say that?"

"Because that's what I do. Anytime someone tries to get too close, I mess it up. I get scared and do everything I can to make them hate me."

Murdoch leaned back and lifted Johnny's face to meet his. "Short of killing your brother, nothing could ever make me hate you."

"I would never do that," he stated without hesitation.

Murdoch smiled. "Then you have nothing to worry about, do you?"

Johnny's eyes teared again. "I love you."

Murdoch swallowed at that damnable lump. "I love you, too," he choked out and hugged Johnny closer again.

After a few minutes, Johnny sniffed a little and smiled. "Speaking of Scott. He's feelin a little ignored."

"Ignored? Where did that come from?"

"Well, you have been spending a lot of time with me. Seems there's been one problem after another. Guess he feels left out."

"He said that to you?"

"In a way. It wasn't mean or anything. He was just telling me how he felt."

Murdoch smiled. "He confided in you. If I weren't worried about him feeling left out, I'd be very happy about that. He's starting to trust you now."

"Yeah, I guess he is. How bout that? He'll be okay. Just let him know he's still tops in your book."

Murdoch chuckled. "I will, son. It's nice that you worry about him."

"He grows on ya," Johnny smiled.

Another chuckle escaped. "He does that."

Johnny sat up and scrubbed at his face. Letting out a sigh, he looked around. "How'd we get on the floor?"

"I don't remember. But, I'm too old for it," Murdoch grunted as he started to get up.

Johnny stood with him and looked up at his father. "Would it be okay if ..... well if I tried ....."

Murdoch frowned at his discomfort. "Tried what, son?"

Keeping his head down, he spoke softly. "If I tried calling you pa. Just to see if it feels okay."

Murdoch smiled fully, his heart bursting. "That would be very okay with me." He laid a hand on the side of Johnny's face and he smiled as he looked into Murdoch's eyes.

"I think you should get some rest now. I'm sure this has worn you out and you're still healing," he said paternally.

Johnny nodded. "I am tired. Seems I'm always tired lately."

Murdoch left him to rest then but Johnny stood where he was for a long time, just staring at the door. Finally, he moved. He wandered about the room, touching the walls and furniture.

"Home," he whispered. Closing his eyes, he said a silent thank you to God for bringing him home again.

Murdoch was emotionally exhausted but he didn't want to put it off any longer. He went downstairs to find his eldest son. Scott was coming out of the barn and Murdoch called him to the house.

"Is Johnny alright?" Scott asked immediately.

"Yes, he's fine, son. We had that talk."

Scott sighed and nodded. "He told you how evil she is."

Murdoch cocked a brow but made no comment. "I wanted to tell you something, Scott. I want you to know that I will always love you. Since Johnny came home, I know I haven't spent much time with you. I'm sorry about that. I promise it will change, too. I'd like for the three of us to spend time together but I promise to have time for just you and me, too."

Scott was surprised. "He told you. I wish he hadn't."

"Why not? I'm glad he told me. I'm also very happy you felt you could confide in your brother. Even if you two can't see it, I can. You're growing close," he smiled.

Scott smiled as well. "I guess we are." He frowned then. "I was so ... scared when he was shot."

"I can imagine. But, are we alright, son?"

Scott looked at his father with great love. "Yes, we are. Thanks, pa."

*******

Johnny recovered from his latest bullet wound in good time. He went back to work and was thankful for it. He spent his days working hard, coming home exhausted. But it was a good kind of tired. The kind of tired that comes from knowing you've accomplished something. That what you did mattered.

Evenings fell into a kind of routine that he made a concerted effort to stir up from time to time. Johnny couldn't stand to be bored. He started playing little tricks on his family. This meant that Scott had to retaliate. So, they spent a lot of time trying to one up each other.

Murdoch took it all in stride. Especially since their jokes usually excluded him. He wasn't happy with some of the stunts his sons pulled. But, as long as they were focused on each other, he felt safe. He also felt content. Watching his sons banter, tease and joke filled his heart completely. He finally had it all. More than he could have ever hoped for.

He even allowed himself the pleasure of dreaming of grandchildren one day. Oh, he'd always known, or rather, hoped Scott would provide that joy. Now, he had twice the chance. He smiled at that thought.

This night, he looked up to find Johnny watching him. He couldn't read his son's expression. "Something wrong, son?"

Johnny only shook his head 'no'.

Murdoch looked quizically at him. "Why are you staring at me?"

"I just want to remember you like you are right now."

"Were you planning on forgetting what I look like before morning?" he smiled.

Johnny grinned. "No, but you look so .... happy."

"I am. Very happy."

"Me too," he said softly.

Murdoch smiled and Johnny stood and walked over to him. Leaning over his father, he whispered. "Goodnight, pa," and laid his cheek   lightly against his forehead.

Murdoch watched him walk up the stairs. Tears brimmed in the older man's eyes. He'd finally said it. He'd finally called him pa.

*****

Four weeks later, Murdoch received a letter from the mission. In it, one of the sisters recounted the death of his wife. It seemed the day after Johnny and Scott left the mission, three gunmen entered the premises. They were looking for Johnny Madrid. She spoke of the carnage they left in their wake and exhalted the padre's courageous attempts to stop them. In the end, he had lost his life.

She said the padre had tried to hide Maria from them but to no avail. Though the men didn't know who she was, they were most interested in the beautiful woman. She never spoke a word. She did not fight back. She allowed them to abuse her body without resistance.

Once they left, she was given last rites and confessed once more. Though the confession could not be revealed, she felt confident she could relay this much. Maria wanted Johnny to know he was right about her. The sister wrote the exact words she spoke.

"Son, you were right. It is not in me to love you. I see you are a good man. I can take no credit for that. I hope your life is better now. Goodbye."

That was it. Her last words to her son. A confession that Johnny would never read, Murdoch decided. He walked over to the fireplace and laid the letter and envelope atop the flames. He watched as they were destroyed. Johnny would never know what happened to her. Not if he had anything to say about it.

His son had gone through a catharsis and it had been tormenting. Gut wrenching. It was enough. He had spent many hours talking Johnny through his pain. Scott had been there, as well. Between them, they had heard it all. But, in the end, Johnny seemed liberated. As if a heavy burden had been lifted from his heart. He had realized none of it was his fault. That had been the hardest hurdle to overcome.  

Johnny was happy now. He smiled and laughed now. It had taken this entire time for him to get to that place of contentment. They had laid a solid foundation for their family. Murdoch would not allow her careless words to hurt his son ever again.

 

 

~end~
2004

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