The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Reunited

 

 

 

Johnny walked out of the saloon Saturday evening in good humor. It had been a while since he could make it to town and he'd enjoyed himself, even though he was disappointed Scott didn't join him. He stepped off the boardwalk and heard his name called.

Turning, he spied a man dressed in a gray suit approach him.

"Are you Johnny Lancer?"

"That's right."

"My name is Ellington. I'm a Pinkerton agent," he introduced.

"And?" Johnny asked flatly.

"There is someone who wants to see you. They're staying at the hotel. Would you come with me?" he asked and started that way.

"Hold on a minute. What makes you think I'm gonna just follow you like a lost dog?"

"I assure you, Mr. Lancer, there is nothing to fear. My client wishes you no harm."

"Yeah, maybe that's what they told you. How can you be sure?"

Ellington walked back to him. "I'll be in the room with you until the introductions are completed. Is that suitable?"

Johnny considered the man. He didn't look like much but he knew the Pinks could take care of themselves. Had to or they didn't last long in their profession. "That won't be necessary. I can take care of myself."

The man smiled. "Yes, I know you can."

"So, who is he?" Johnny asked as they walked.

"Did I say it was a he?"

Johnny stopped and grinned. "If you'd told me it was a woman in the first place, we could have avoided that whole talk."

Ellington laughed. "In my experience, it doesn't matter if male or female. Both can be equally dangerous though usually in completely different ways."

Johnny chuckled. "I heard that."

They continued on their way. Johnny was curious as to who would hire the Pinks to find him. Wasn't like he was hiding out. They entered the Green River hotel and proceed up the stairs to the Presidential Suite.

Johnny whistled lowly. "Are you sure this is for me? I don't know any grand ladies," he grinned.

"I'm quite sure, Mr. Lancer. Go on in. She's expecting you."

Johnny shrugged and opened the door. Walking in, he scanned the room quickly. It was empty. He felt some trepidation along with curiosity. He walked around the room, examining the decor. There was nothing there to indicate who this woman was. He was growing impatient and sighed.

Just as he was thinking of leaving, an inner door opened. Johnny turned and nearly fainted dead away.

"Hola, miel," she smiled.

He gawked at her, unable to speak for a long time. He couldn't trust his eyes. It couldn't be real. This was some kind of trick. All these thoughts fled through his mind in a fraction of a second. "You're dead," he finally whispered.

"No, I am very much alive as you can see."

He took a few steps toward her and reached out to touch her face. "Is it really you?"

"Si, querido."

Johnny couldn't take his eyes off her. Couldn't believe it was really happening. He fell into her arms and she embraced him tightly.

"Sssshhh, it's alright, Johnny. I'm here. I'm really here," she whispered.

Pulling away but maintaining contact, he looked into her eyes. "How?"

"Sit with me, my love. I will explain."

He allowed her to guide him to the settee and sat with her, never relinquishing the hold he had on her hand.

"They did believe I was dead and I was very close to being so, but, they were a bit premature. They realized I was still breathing but by then, you were gone. Why did you leave so quickly, Johnny? You could not even stay long enough for a funeral?"

He blushed with embarrassment at the thought. "I was scared. They said they were gonna throw me in an orphanage. I couldn't stand the thought of it. I saw no reason to stay. You know how I felt about all that religious stuff." He looked into her eyes and smiled. A happiness he found surprising overwhelmed him.

"Mama," he whispered and hugged her again.

"My son. My beautiful son. I have missed you so. It took a long time to recover then I searched everywhere for you. You simply vanished. My heart broke a thousand times," she said softly in his ear.

"I'm sorry, mama. So sorry."

"There is no need, miel. You could not have known."

"How did you find me?" he asked.

"The Pinkertons are very good, si? I was surprised but relieved you were here with your father."

He pulled away then, a pain so deep in his eyes, it took her breath away. "Why did you lie to me about him?"

*

She dipped her own eyes before meeting his gaze again. "There is much to discuss. Where shall I start?"

"Why did you leave him?" Johnny asked, his voice barely audible.

She sighed. "That is something for your father to ask. It is very complicated. What I can tell you is I didn't want to leave."

"You left with a man," he said, the pain dripping from his voice.

"Si. I used him but I did not love that man, son."

"But, why did you tell me he threw us out? Why, mama? I've hated him all my life."

"Oh, Johnny, forgive me. It was a horrible thing to do to you. I felt I had no choice. As I said, it is complicated. I think it is best not to speak it now," she said.

Johnny swallowed hard, trying to accept her at her word. "Did you ever love him?"

She looked at him in surprise. "Yes, I did. Very much. Tell me how you came to be here."

Johnny sucked in a breath and blew it out slowly. He didn't know how much she knew of his life before. He simply told her about the Pinkerton agent, the offer for an hour of his time and how he and Scott had come to stay.

She saw his face light up at the mention of his brother.

"You didn't tell me about Scott," he said.

"No, I saw no reason, son. I didn't think you would ever meet. I knew his grandfather would never let him go."

Johnny looked quizzically at her, then went for it. Maybe he would finally learn the real reason Murdoch never went after Scott. "Can you tell me what you know?"

She raised her brows briefly. "I know Murdoch wrote several letters to him. Garrett refused to let Scott go. Murdoch simply did not have the funds for a lengthy fight. Garrett threatened to ruin him if he tried."

Johnny nodded. He had figured it was something like that.

*

"You have become close with Scott?" she was asking.

His face lit up like a candelabra. "Si, mama. We're good friends, compadres."

She smiled tenderly at him but it faded soon. "Johnny, I made terrible mistakes with you. I will never forgive myself for that."

"When you ..... died, I was all alone," he whispered.

She pulled him to her and squeezed hard. Johnny felt crushed but he didn't care. He never thought he would ever feel her arms around him again. He never wanted her to let go.

"It's been hard finding out the truth. Having to accept that you lied. I didn't want to believe it but I had to. Otherwise, I couldn't stay with him."

"And you would have had to go back to that other life," she stated factually.

Johnny bowed his head. "I wasn't sure you knew about that."

"Yes, I know about that," she said sadly.

When he looked back at her, tears brimmed her eyes. "Don't cry. It's alright. It wasn't so bad."

"Oh, Johnny. It wasn't so bad? Mi hijo."

"Could have been worse. Could have been a horse thief or something," he grinned.

She laughed and hugged him again. "How I have missed your smiles."

"Are you going to see him?" he asked suddenly.

Her face fell and she dropped her eyes. "I'm not sure I can face him but I know I must."

"He deserves the truth, mama. He needs to know. Sometimes, he looks at me and his eyes beg for answers. I never had any to give him. Sometimes, I think he can't hardly stand to look at me," he grimaced with pain.

She cupped his chin and lifted his head. "Has he treated you badly?"

"No, it's just ..... we don't always get along too well. My past ..... he doesn't ..... he tries to pretend it never happened, I guess."

She sighed loudly. "Murdoch was always muy obstinado. Like you, miel," she smiled.

He laughed softly. "Yeah, we do butt heads."

"Are you happy there, Johnny?"

He looked at her and smiled warmly. "Yes, I am."

"Good. You are right. He deserves his answers. It is time I stopped being a coward. How do you think we should handle this?"

Johnny chewed his lip for a minute. "Let me tell him you're alive first. That should pretty much give him a heart attack. Can you come to the ranch tomorrow at noon?"

She nodded, a look of fear flashing across her face.

"Do you want me to be there, I mean in the room?"

Relief filled her face. "Gracias, miel. I am not sure I can handle seeing him alone."

Johnny looked uncertain then laughed at himself. "I want to go tell him but I don't want to leave you. I'm afraid you'll disappear."

She smiled and kissed his cheek. "I will not, I swear it."

*

He felt good for most of the ride home. But when he passed under the arch, his stomach churned. He didn't know how Murdoch would react. Shock, at first, sure. But then what? Anger? Oh yes. Johnny could take that. Murdoch's bellowing stopped bothering him some time ago. Hurt was the thing he couldn't stand to see on his father's face. That was what worried him most, what hurt HIM most.

He dismounted and asked a hand to care for Barranca for him, then walked to the front door. His knees felt a little weak and he laughed at himself. Taking a deep breath, he walked inside.

Scott looked up from his book and smiled. "Have fun?"

Johnny returned the smile. "Sure."

"I didn't expect you back so early, son." Murdoch was sitting by the fire with his own book.

"Well, something pretty incredible happened and I need to talk to you about it."

Recognizing the serious tone, Scott closed his book and made to stand.

"No, Scott, don't leave. You need to hear this, too."

Murdoch repositioned himself as Johnny sat on the ottoman at his feet. He was smiling so Murdoch relaxed.

"Looks like it's good news," he commented.

"It is. At least, I think it is. You may not agree at first." Suddenly, his nerve left him and he fiddled with his conchos.

Murdoch glanced at Scott who shrugged and waited.

"What is it, son?"

Johnny cleared his throat and chanced a look. He smiled nervously then berated himself. "Well, I was leaving the saloon and this man approached me. He was a Pinkerton agent. Said someone wanted to talk to me at the hotel. Murdoch, I don't know exactly how to tell you this so I'm just going to say it. My mother is alive."

He stopped and watched as the information seeped in. He heard Scott lean forward quickly. He didn't have to see his brother's face to know he was shocked.

Murdoch stared at him, his mind going blank, his body feeling numb. He was sure he'd not heard his son correctly. He shook his head slowly in disbelief. Finally, he managed to croak out one word. "How?"

"Well, the priest said she was dead. She'd been so sick. But, she said they were wrong, obviously. She recovered but it took a long time."

"And you never knew?" Scott asked.

Johnny turned and looked at him, shaking his head. "No, I didn't. If I had stayed around ......" he was angry with himself now. He'd left her alone and sick. But he didn't know.

"Where has she been all this time?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny turned back to him. "I really don't know. I didn't ask. I was pretty shocked to see her. She said she tried to find me once she was better, but...."

"But, it was nearly impossible. I know that myself," Murdoch mumbled.

*

Scott got up and poured his father a good measure of whiskey. He walked over and handed it to him. "Johnny?"

"No, I'm okay. Could have used it an hour ago," he smiled.

Murdoch took a long drink and let it settle before looking back at his son. "Did she tell you why she left?"

"No. She's coming here tomorrow to talk to you, Murdoch. To tell you herself."

Murdoch stood up so quickly, Johnny nearly toppled backwards moving out of his way. He stalked around the living room and Johnny held his breath. Here it comes, he thought.

"What makes you think I want her here? What makes you think I want to see her?" he growled.

Johnny didn't answer and reached over to put a hand on Scott's arm to keep him still.

"After twenty years, she decides to rise from the dead like Lazarus? She may not have been able to find you but she damned well knew where I was! She could have come to me long ago. We could have found you together. It would have been easier if I had SOME information about you. But, no! She didn't think of that, I suppose." He continued his pacing, making large circles around the room. One arm flailed about as he raged.

"Did she explain why she lied to you about me? Did she tell you that? I'll just bet she did! I can just imagine what more lies she's filled your head with!"

"Murdoch!"

He stopped and turned, glaring.

"Stop it. This is Johnny's mother you're talking about," Scott continued more quietly.

Murdoch looked at his youngest as if just now realizing he was in the room. Johnny's head was bowed, his arms wrapped tightly around himself as he stooped over on the ottoman.

Murdoch closed his eyes for a second then drained the whiskey glass. "I'm sorry, son."

"It's okay. I knew you'd be mad at first. She's afraid to face you, Murdoch. She wouldn't tell me why. She said that was something you should hear first. I just thought you'd want to hear it straight from her."

Murdoch sighed and brushed a hand through his hair. "And you were right. I shouldn't be taking this out on you."

Johnny looked up at him, his eyes anguished. "Don't take it out on her, either," he whispered. "She wants me to be there. She's afraid to face you."

"I would never hurt her," Murdoch said, anguish in his own voice.

"She knows that. She's just scared."

"What time is she coming?" Scott asked.

"Noon, if that's okay."

"It's fine, son. Maybe I'll have slept a minute by then," Murdoch smiled weakly. "I'm sorry. I need some time alone," he added and walked upstairs.

*

Scott studied his brother's face. Knowing the torment the young man was in. He decided on a different approach. He put a hand on Johnny's shoulder and shook it vigorously.

"Well, this is great news! It's almost like a miracle. I'm really happy for you, brother," he smiled.

It worked and Johnny relaxed into a broad smile. "I tell ya, Boston, I almost passed slick out when I saw her."

"I'll bet! So, what's she like?"

"Sweet and beautiful. Like always. She was always good to me, Scott. She always loved me. She's more worried about me than herself. She asked about you," he smiled even more.

"Oh?" Scott raised a brow. "And just what did you tell her?"

"The truth, of course. That you're a greenhorn, eastern dandy who couldn't hit the side of a barn with a pistol."

The brothers shared a laugh and Scott watched his brother relax even more. They spent the night talking about Maria and Johnny's childhood. For the first time, he opened up to his brother. Telling him about his time with his mother and even a little about afterwards. He explained why he'd left so quickly after thinking she was dead.

Scott was starting to gain some perspective on this woman. She wasn't like he had imagined. She really had tried to give his brother a decent life. She'd worked hard to provide what she could for him. It was obvious to Scott that Johnny loved her deeply. That he knew she loved him as well.

The clock chimed midnight and both were startled at the late hour.

"Guess I should get some sleep. I'm going to have double duty tomorrow," Scott smiled.

Johnny looked quizzically at him and shook his head.

"There is no way you're going to work tomorrow, brother. I want you here all day. Murdoch will need you. So will your mother."

Johnny's gratitude could be felt throughout the big room. He smiled at Scott, speaking tomes without uttering a word. "Thanks, brother," was all he could vocalize.

They walked upstairs, arms around one another. Johnny knew he wouldn't sleep much but that was alright. He just wanted the night to be over so he could deal with tomorrow. It was going to be tough on all of them. He could only hope Murdoch would listen to her, really listen. And, he hoped her reasons were very good ones. He decided to give them both the benefit of the doubt.

They stopped in the hallway and Johnny turned. "Wait a minute. Tomorrow is Sunday."

Scott grinned devilishly. "I almost got away with you owing me."

Johnny laughed and gave him a shove. "I want you to meet her."

"I will. After the talk," Scott said, shooting him a wary look.

*

Murdoch spent the night staring at the ceiling of his bedroom. A million thoughts and memories ran through his head. Some good some bad. When he arrived for breakfast, his face told the story. The only one clueless enough not to stay quiet was Teresa.

"The Reverend's sermon is supposed to be especially good this morning," she chattered. Looking at each of them, she frowned. "Well, what's wrong with everyone?"

"Sorry, Teresa. We won't be going to church with you today," Johnny smiled a little.

"Why not?"

"Johnny and Murdoch have other things to attend to. I'll escort you to church," Scott smiled and bore his eyes into hers.

She opened her mouth but the slight shake of Scott's head caused her to close it again.

Soon enough, they were on their way to church and Johnny felt like getting out of there himself. His anxiety was growing by leaps and bounds as the minutes slowly ticked away.

Murdoch had yet to speak at all. He went to his desk and pulled out the books. Johnny shook his head, knowing it was all a mask. He sighed loudly.

Murdoch looked up and frowned and he smiled weakly. He slipped outside and headed to the barn. Currying Barranca always helped soothe his nerves but this time it wasn't working. He jumped a mile when Jelly walked in.

"Well, what's got you so jumpy? And how come you and Murdoch didn't go ta church this mornin?"

Johnny smiled at the man. "How come you didn't?"

"Don't usually but you been goin purty regular and Murdoch always goes."

"We're expecting company," he hedged.

"Ohhh, who?" Jelly asked suspiciously.

Johnny set the brush down and walked out of the stall. He sat on a bale of hay and Jelly walked over to stand near him.

"My mother." He looked up quickly, thinking Jelly was choking. He nearly was. The look on his face was comical and Johnny had to laugh.

"I'll bet that's how I looked when I saw her last night."

"Johnny, I don't understand. I thought your mama was dead!"

"So did I. It's a long story, Jelly, but she's very much alive. She's coming here today to see Murdoch."

Jelly rubbed his whiskers and nodded. "Think I'll see if I can catch up ta Scott and Teresa."

"That's probably a good idea."

*

At quarter to the hour, Johnny came back in the house. He felt badly for avoiding his father but he knew Murdoch wouldn't talk to him right now. He paced the room, picking up knickknacks and setting them back down. He patted his leg and ran his fingers over the mantle. He picked up an apple then sat it back in the bowl.

"Stop that!"

Johnny jumped at the sudden shout. He turned and stared at his father.

"You're driving me crazy," Murdoch explained.

"Just now?" Johnny grinned.

Murdoch's face relaxed into a smile and Johnny grabbed the chance.

"You okay?"

"I don't know what I am, son," he shook his head.

"It'll be alright, Murdoch. Whatever happens, I just hope you finally get your answers."

Murdoch looked at him, stunned Johnny would know what he was thinking.

"Well, don't look at me like that. I know you've needed to know why for a long time. I can see it when you look at me sometimes," he said, bowing his head at the end.

Murdoch stood up and rounded the desk, approaching his son. Laying a hand on his shoulder, he asked, "Johnny, have I hurt you?"

He swallowed hard. The lump in his throat had been there since last night. "It's okay."

"No, son, it isn't okay. My God, Johnny, I am so sorry. I never meant for any of that to spill over on you."

"I know you didn't. I know that's why you've never asked me, too. Look, all I want is for you to have some kind of peace. To be able to lay it all to rest. Both of you."

"It would be nice to put a period to that chapter of my life. I suppose it's true. The not knowing is the hardest part," he sighed.

"Do you ...... do you hate her?"

Another stunned look crossed the older man's face. "Hate her?" he blurted then stopped to think before answering. "I've been so angry and bitter for so long. I've wanted to throttle her. But, hate her? No, son, I don't hate her."

Johnny sighed with relief then turned toward the door. They could hear the surrey pulling up and both men tensed.

Johnny walked to the door but stopped and turned. "Just give her a chance to explain, okay?"

Murdoch nodded and gave him a small smile.

*

He blew out a breath as he opened the door. A smile lit his face and he hugged her tightly. She kissed his cheek and looked warily at him.

"It's okay. He'll listen."

She nodded and stepped inside. Memories washed over her and she felt a little faint. She grabbed Johnny's hand and held on for dear life as they entered the great room.

More intense feelings assaulted her when she saw him. She was quite sure she wavered as Johnny took hold of her arm tightly. She looked at her son, seeing the concern on his face and managed a smile.

She found Murdoch's eyes and they locked onto each other for a long moment. She felt Johnny tug a little and let him guide her to a seat.

"Do you need some water?" he asked.

"Si, please," she whispered.

"I'll get it," Murdoch said abruptly. He wasn't ready to be alone with her for even a minute just yet.

"How did he take it?" she asked.

"Like a bear," Johnny laughed. "He was angry at first. I knew he would be. But he's calmed down now."

Murdoch returned and handed her the glass wordlessly. She drank long, her mouth dry as the desert.

They all sat quietly for a while, an awkwardness unparalleled taking hold of them all.

"Well, I guess you should just tell us, mama," Johnny finally spoke.

She nodded and looked into the pale blue eyes. Her voice wouldn't work though and she shook her head. "Forgive me," she whispered. "This is most difficult."

"Take your time, mama." He sat close to her, letting her feel his presence and love.

She took a deep breath and tried to begin but where to start? She really didn't want to tell this in front of her son for she knew his reaction. Knew Murdoch's as well but she didn't think she could handle them both at the same time. "I'm not sure I can do this."

"Excuse me for a minute," Murdoch said and walked out of the room.

*

Murdoch stood out in the garden and stared at the sky. He wasn't sure he could deal with this. After all this time, she reappears and loses her voice? She had looked panicked in there and he knew he was about to lose his temper. He had to leave before he yelled.  

He knew nothing could satisfy why she took his son from him. There was no defense for such an outrageous stunt. He felt the old anger come back and he didn't even try to stop it. And now she couldn't speak it?

"The garden is beautiful."

He turned at the soft voice. "Teresa does a wonderful job," he replied flatly.

She nodded and lowered her eyes as she moved about, smelling the fragrances. "My vision of it was almost identical to what it is now."

"Maybe it would have been then if you'd stuck around." He hadn't intended to say that, to say anything. He certainly hadn't intended to sound so ugly.   "I'm sorry. That was uncalled for."

"Was it? I know you are angry and you have every right," she said softly, a tremble in her voice.

"What am I supposed to do, Maria? How am I supposed to react to you now?"

"I don't know," she whispered, tears in her eyes.

"Why did you come back?"

Her eyes widened in surprise at the question. Shaking her head slowly, she answered simply. "To see my son."

Murdoch nodded, the anger coming on again. "I see. Do you know what his life has been like? Do you have any idea what he's gone through because of your lies?" he yelled.

*

"Murdoch."

He turned to see Johnny standing in the door watching them. He hadn't wanted his mother to come out here but she insisted. He gave them enough time to either talk calmly or start fighting. Seemed he would have won his own bet on which it would be.

"Johnny, this is a private conversation," Murdoch stated.

"Not if you're gonna bring me into it," Johnny drawled.

"How can we not bring you into it?"

Johnny stepped out of the doorway and stood closer to his father. "This is about you and her, not me. What happened before she left. That's what you have to deal with. The rest don't matter."

"It does matter, miel," Maria said. She walked over and took his arm. "The truth of the matter is that you are what is important. Our relationship is secondary."

Johnny didn't want to believe that. He didn't want to be the reason they could not at least get along. He reckoned if they couldn't, he'd have to choose again and he wouldn't do that; he couldn't do that.

"What are you afraid of, miel?" she asked.

He smiled slightly. She still knew him so well. "I don't want you to leave," he said whisper soft.

Her lips tightened and his stomach knotted. "Whatever happens, I will not simply disappear. I swear this to you."

He figured it was the best he could hope for right now and he nodded. Besides, he still had his ace. Scott would help him work it all out. He left them to it making them promise not to kill each other. They both smiled but he wasn't joking. Johnny was scared and he had no idea how this would turn out.

*

They were silent for a time, both thinking about their son.

"Yes, I know how he lived," she answered his last question. "I found out some months ago. I tried to find him but he disappeared. Now, I know where he went."

"Yes, I found him, seconds before he was to be executed in front of a firing squad," Murdoch said.

Maria gasped, not having that knowledge. She began to cry softly and turned her back, shoulders quivering uncontrollably. "What have I done?"

Murdoch took one step then stopped. No, I will not feel sorry for her. Not after what she's done, he resolved.

"You know he was alone all those years. But what about before that, Maria? How did my son fare with you?"

She sniffled and wiped at her nose then turned to face him. "Not well. I could barely feed him. Sometimes, I could not feed him. His clothes were rags most of the time. Garments found in the trash. Thrown away by those who no longer needed them." She stopped for a moment. "But every night, Murdoch. Every night, I held him and sang him to sleep. He knew my love."

"But not a full belly. Not a warm shirt. Not a bed many times, I'd wager. There is more to being a parent than love, Maria."

"I know that!" she yelled. Lowering her voice and her eyes, she went on. "I did the best I could."

"No, you did not. Not by a long shot! The best thing would have been to send him home where he could be provided for!"

"I couldn't!" she shot back.

"Why not?" he shouted.

*

She inhaled deeply and looked at him. "I will tell you what happened but you must be willing to listen, Murdoch. Stay calm and listen to me."

"Alright," he nodded and took a seat on the bench.

Maria turned aside and stared at the rose bushes. "You were away on a business trip. A man came to the house and said he was a business associate of yours and he needed to speak with me urgently. My first thought was bad news about you so I invited him. As soon as we were in the living room, his entire demeanor changed. He became cold and threatening. He said he had lied and that his employer had sent him to me with a message. I was to leave Lancer, go back to Mexico and disappear. He said if I didn't leave with Johnny, he would send men to the house when you returned and kill us all in our sleep." Tears rolled down her face and she shook visibly as she recounted that horrible day.

"I told him he was insane and I would not leave my husband and my home. That I had no reason to go. I told him to get out, I shouted at him to leave. He only smiled at me. It was such an evil smile," she stopped and shivered.

"Then, I heard a noise behind me. When I turned, there was a second man standing there holding Johnny against his chest. He had .... a knife to our son's throat." She turned back quickly, nearly sobbing now. "A knife to my little boy's throat! Johnny saw my tears and began to struggle but he only laughed and held Johnny tighter. He was hurting my baby! I begged him to give Johnny to me and he finally did."

Murdoch stared at her, simply stunned. He found his own voice had left him. But she wasn't finished.

"I was trying to calm Johnny when the first man said I had one week to leave. He said he would know if I didn't and come back to kill us. He said I would get no warning, that it may be a day, a week or a month later. We would never know when they would come." She walked over and sat beside him, her legs unable to hold her up any longer. Her body was trembling but Murdoch couldn't look at her. He could only stare at the ground.

"Why didn't you tell me?" he finally asked after several minutes had ticked by.

"I couldn't! Don't you understand? He was going to kill us all. I had no doubt he meant every word. Anyone who would put a knife to a child's throat ..... I was frightened, Murdoch."

"Who did he work for?" This time, his voice was strong and full of anger.

"He never said. I asked but he would not tell me. He said it was not my concern."

Murdoch stood then and blew out a breath. He paced a little in front of her before looking down at her. "And the gambler?"

Her cheeks flushed hotly and she shook her head slowly. "He had made a pass at me two months earlier. I rebuked him but had seen him in town again from time to time. I spent that entire night sitting beside Johnny's crib watching him sleep and trying to decide what to do. My first instinct was to tell you and let you handle it but I didn't even know this man's name let alone who had hired him. Sometime that morning, I remembered the gambler and thought I could use him to escape. I didn't have much time and you were due home any day."

"So, you worked on him in those few days and convinced him to run off with you," Murdoch finished for her.

"Yes, that is what I did. Please believe me, I hated every minute of it. I was afraid for all us but mostly, for Johnny."

Murdoch nodded grimly. "Is there any more? Anything else he said?"

"Yes. He said if I ever tried to contact you, if I ever sent Johnny home, they would know and come back. Murdoch, they even threatened Scott."

"How?" he ground out.

"He said he knew you had another son and he would not be safe, either. Do you understand now why I left? Why I told Johnny those lies? I had to make sure he never sought you out. I had to keep him safe!"

*

Murdoch looked in her upturned face and he believed her. Once he allowed himself past the anger of her betrayal, he remembered the woman he'd married. She had loved him then, he was sure of it. He could see the terror in her face even now as she retold the events.

"But, Johnny came home and nothing happened," he said then realized how that sounded.

"Perhaps, the man is dead now. Or he no longer cares. I have no idea why he wanted this to happen. I believed him when he said those things to me," she explained.

Murdoch took in a deep breath and blew it out. "And I believe you, Maria."

Her face fell lax with relief even as fresh tears fell. "Gracias, Murdoch. I know it was wrong not to tell you then."

"Yes, it was but I understand you were trying to protect us all. Unfortunately, things didn't turn out very well for Johnny - or you," he said as he retook his seat next to her.   

"For any of us for many years. I never thought about the possibility that I might die when he was so young. That was my fault. Even as I lay there so ill, I wanted desperately to tell him the truth but I was still so afraid of what might happen. I convinced myself I would recover for his sake. It was foolish."

Murdoch gave a small smile. "But, you did recover. Life is never easy, Maria. The twists and turns can throw you headlong down a canyon wall sometimes."

"Si, I know that all too well. I wish I could change what I did and I will never know if it helped save Johnny and you or not."

He turned sideways on the bench to look at her. "Or you."

She smiled a little at him then lowered her eyes. "Can you ever forgive him?"

*

"Forgive him? Johnny? There's nothing to forgive him for."

"Isn't there, Murdoch? He said you sometimes do not get along so well. I know you, Murdoch. He said sometimes when you look at him ....."

"What?" he asked when she didn't go on.

"Sometimes, he could see the pain. The pain he believes he has caused you. For me, for his past."

Murdoch felt a knot form in his gut. "I never meant for him to feel that way. I never wanted him to think I blamed him."

"You do blame him for Madrid," she said frankly.

He looked up, a protest on his lips but it died there. He couldn't deny it. As much as he said he understood Johnny's choices, he didn't really. And he supposed he never would. So, he chose to ignore it as much as possible.

"Would you rather he became a simple murderer? Or perhaps that he had died before shaming you?"

He was on his feet before he realized he'd moved. "Don't you ever say that! I love that boy and I always have. I have never wished him dead!"

She stood as well and walked a few steps away before facing him. "I am sorry for saying such a horrible thing that I know is not true. But, Murdoch, you must not punish our son. I beg you."

He looked into her black eyes and saw the pain and pleading there. He thought he could still drown in those eyes happily. Blinking several times, he looked away. Uncomfortable with the feelings creeping up on him.

*

Johnny paced the living room, arms wrapped tightly around himself. Forcing himself to stay put. He heard the surrey pull up and sighed with some relief.

Teresa was the first one through the door and she hugged him. She didn't say a word though and Johnny wondered if that meant anything.

"Don't go in the kitchen just now," he warned her.

"They're in there?" she asked.

"No, they're in the garden but I'm sure you can hear every word through the back door," he sighed.

"Are they fighting?" Scott asked as he came in.

"They were. I don't know what they're doin now. They made me leave," he said with an attempt at a smile.

Scott gave Teresa a look and she nodded, heading for her room to change.

"You okay?" Scott asked softly.

"I don't know what I am. I hate that they're goin at each other like this. This is not what I wanted. If he makes her mad, she'll leave," he rattled erratically.

Scott reached out a hand and grasped his brother's shoulder on his next trip round the room. "Do you want me to go out there?"

Johnny shook his head fiercely. "No. That'll just make things worse."

"Johnny, you had to know this would not be easy. After twenty years there's a lot to be hashed out. And yes, there will be a lot of anger and hurt feelings. They need to do this, brother."

"I know, Scott. And I know he won't hurt her - physically anyway. But they are gonna tear into each other and that's what I can't stand!" He released himself and flung his arms at his side, clenching his fist. "I know you're right and it has to be. Don't mean it's not gonna drive me crazy, though."

"No one likes to hear their parents argue, no matter the circumstances. You just have to stay out of it, brother."

Johnny looked at him and nodded. "I know, I know. She promised she wouldn't take off without talking to me first. I just .... I want her to stay."

"Here?" Scott asked incredulously.

Johnny looked at him with a frown, then realized what he meant. "No, not on the ranch. Just ... close by."

*

"I never meant to hurt Johnny but I know I have. It's so hard to look at him and see so much of you there," Murdoch admitted.

"Perhaps now, it will be different. You can lay all the hurt and anger at my feet now. Where it belongs."

He looked at her then and sighed. "No, Maria. It doesn't belong there, either. I only wish I knew who this man was and what he hoped to gain by all this. Can you think of anything else he may have said?"

She shook her head. "I have thought about it many times over the years and much more recently, knowing I was coming here and would have to tell you. I wish I could think of something."

"You should have talked to me, Maria. Maybe I wouldn't have been able to do a thing about it but you could have said something. Instead, I've spent all these years wondering. Sometimes hating you, sometimes simply enraged at you. Sometimes blaming myself. But always - *always* - wondering why."

She took in his countenance, seeing the pain and anguish, the broken heart. Hearing the pleading quality of his tone as he stood before her, straight as an arrow and bracing himself against whatever he thought she might say or do. Tears sprung in her eyes and she cursed herself for her weakness.

"I don't know what else to say, Murdoch. I was wrong to leave as I did. Wrong to take Johnny from you. But, I could not leave him and we could not stay. Yes, I should have talked with you but I didn't. I made so many mistakes. All I can ask is for your forgiveness. I realize that is asking so very much."

Her words rang with sincerity and he had no doubt she meant them. But how could he forgive her so much? How could he not think about what she had done to him? And worse yet, what she had done to Johnny. For that, he wasn't sure he would ever be able to forgive her, even though it seemed Johnny had. He knew she was telling him the truth and that she'd been afraid, terrified. Still, she should have trusted him to know what to do. He also knew how easy it was to judge another persons actions when you weren't the one standing in their shoes.

"I'm going to need some time, Maria. I can't make you any promises."

"I understand. I only ask that I be allowed to see Johnny."

Murdoch frowned. "Of course. But, we're going to have to tell him the truth."

*

When they walked back into the living room, Johnny stood. Scott had only a few minutes earlier gotten him to stop pacing a rut in the floor. He eyed them both carefully, trying to read their expressions and failing. So, he held his breath.

Maria walked up and smiled at him, albeit with sadness. Her eyes went past him as she saw, for the first time, Scott Lancer.

"Mama, this is Scott," Johnny obliged.

"Ma'am," Scott nodded at her.

She walked up to him and looked at him a long time. Scott started to feel a bit uncomfortable.

"Forgive me. I see Murdoch in you but the pictures of your mother; si, you resemble her. Especially the eyes."

"Yes, so I understand," he replied, trying to sound polite but not happy with the conversation.

Maria smiled warmly. "I have made you uncomfortable. Johnny tells me you are compadres."

Scott relaxed and smiled back. "Yes, we are."

Turning to her son, she bit her lower lip briefly. "Would it be possible to speak with Scott privately? If he agrees, of course."

Murdoch didn't try to hide his surprise nor did Scott. Johnny looked questioningly at his brother. "Up to him," he shrugged but curious as hell.

"I don't see why not," Scott replied.

"I guess we could give Teresa a hand in the kitchen," Johnny suggested.

Murdoch opened his mouth to tell Johnny that was not a good idea, then rethought. Nodding, he followed his younger son.

*

"I must say, I'm surprised you wanted to talk to me alone," Scott started right away.

"I'm sure you are. I am also sure Johnny has told you everything," she said, almost a question.

"He has," Scott confirmed.

She smiled then. "Do you have any questions for me? This involves you as well though not as much as Johnny and Murdoch."

Scott looked at her, trying to size her up. In his heart, he had never thought much of the woman. He knew that wasn't fair but he also knew his brother's life had been a living hell. He didn't think he would ever be able to forgive her for that.

"I'm angry with you. I have been for as long as I've been here. I never knew I had a brother. When I found out you took him away and the kind of life he led, I admit, I hated you."

She turned and paced a bit as she considered this. "I cannot blame you for that, Scott, but there are things you don't know. Things Johnny does not know."

The grandfather clock chimed twice and she flinched. Turning to face him, she almost laughed. "I have always hated that clock."

Scott did laugh. "I'm not very fond of it myself."

"It was your mother's."

Scott gaped at her.

"I'm sorry. You didn't know. Murdoch never was much for small talk."

"How did you feel about her?" Scott asked.

She frowned at this. Shaking her head, she answered honestly. "I felt nothing. I didn't know her. Murdoch spoke of her at times and always with much love. If you are asking was I jealous, the answer is no."

*

Scott nodded thoughtfully.

"I don't want you to hate me, Scott. I had hoped we could get to know each other. Johnny's eyes light up whenever he mentions you. He loves you very much. I would like to know the man who is my son's hermano."

"Does that mean you plan on staying around a while?" he asked.

"I do. Whatever happens with Murdoch, Johnny is my son and I have missed too much of his life. Whatever penance I must pay, I will pay it gladly. If that means facing your father's wrath again, so be it."

"He's not a vindictive man," Scott defended.

She smiled. "I know that. But he is very angry and rightfully so. I have been honest with him and he with me. At this moment, neither of us know how things will work out. All I know for certain is I want to be in my son's life."

"Would you mind telling him that? He's worried to death you'll leave," Scott sighed.  

She cocked her head to the side in a way that gave Scott chills. So familiar it was.

"I will. But will you help me convince him of it? He does not trust easily. Not even me. I'm not sure he even trusts I'm really here."

"I'll do whatever I can to help Johnny with whatever he wants," Scott said.

She laughed. It was a pleasant laugh and Scott was beginning to see the woman his father fell in love with.

"That was most diplomatic, Scott. Your grandfather taught you well." Her eyes darkened with the last sentence.

"What?" Scott asked.

"Nothing. It is not my business."

*

There was a lengthy pause then as Scott considered pressing her. She had to know something. Murdoch must have discussed it with her.

She sensed his apprehension and his questions. "All I can tell you for certain, is this. Murdoch desperately wanted you back. Anything else you need to know will have to come from him."

Scott nodded. "Fair enough. Thank you."

"Perhaps I should leave now. It was been a most exhausting day," she smiled.

"Won't you stay for dinner? I know Johnny would love it," he offered.

"I'm sure he would. Murdoch, however, may not. I would not wish to cause him indigestion," she cocked a brow.

Scott laughed aloud at this. And at that moment, Johnny walked in smiling as he heard his brother.

"I was going to ask if everything was alright but I guess it is," he grinned.

Maria walked over and hooked her arm in his. "Si, miel. But it is time for me to go now."

The smile left his face. "Go? Aren't you staying for dinner?"

"It would not be wise, son."

Johnny dropped his eyes and sighed, anger feeling its way up from his gut.

"No, Johnny. Do not blame your father. He has every right and you know it," she said, reading his thoughts easily.

"I have every right to what?"

*

Johnny turned sharply and walked away from her, his head still bowed as he worked through so many emotions.

"Johnny and I both invited Maria to dinner but she's declined," Scott said, shooting his father a meaningful look.

Murdoch looked at Johnny's back, seeing the tight shoulders and reading the signs. With a soft sigh, he walked over to Maria.

"Would you like to have dinner with us?" he asked in his most hospitable voice.

She almost cried, knowing he was making this gesture for their son. "Are you sure?"

"I'm very sure."

"Then, I would be delighted," she bowed her head slightly.

Johnny turned and locked onto his father's eyes. Murdoch found he couldn't hold the stare. There were too many warring emotions storming in the blue depths. Gratitude being one of them.

He cleared his throat. "I'll just let Teresa know then," he said and quickly left the room.

Johnny smiled after him then looked at his mother. "Want to take a walk?"

"Yes, I would like that," she smiled as he offered his arm.

Scott sat on the arm of the sofa and sighed. He didn't know what to make of all this. He certainly couldn't read his father's mind. He was sure Murdoch didn't know what he was thinking himself. None of them did really.

*

Dinner was much more quiet than usual. Even Teresa didn't chatter about anything which she was inclined to do when the conversation stalled. In fact, she was unusually complacent.

Maria sat next to Johnny and he smiled through the whole meal. This kept Scott entertained for quite a while. Murdoch kept his expression flat for the most part.

Finally, Scott could take no more silence. "Where are you living now, Maria?" he asked.

She was a bit startled at the break in the quiet. "Mexico City."

"What have you been doin?" Johnny asked.

She smiled. "Promise you won't laugh."

He frowned and nodded his head.

"I have been working at a school."

Murdoch looked up then, more intrigued than surprised. "Doing what?" he asked.

"Helping with the children. I am an assistant to the teacher there. It is a large school. I help the children with their reading and writing. I work mostly with younger children," she explained.

Johnny smiled. "You always were a good teacher."

"Well, I am not officially a teacher, hijo."

He shrugged. "Don't matter, does it? I mean you help out." He turned to his brother. "She taught me to read in Spanish and English."

Scott smiled and nodded and wondered why she didn't teach him how to survive. Berating himself mentally, he made those thoughts leave. But a glance at his father told him the man was thinking much the same thing.

"Johnny taught school for a while," Murdoch said.

Typically he bowed his head but his mother's hand on his arm caused him to look at her.

*

"What is this?"

"It was nothing. The teacher's wife gave me the next days lesson every night. I was just helping out. The kids were just bein kids and he was, well, missing. It's a long story."

"It wasn't nothing. You did a wonderful job with those kids, son. They respected you and they learned a great deal. And not just from those planned lessons," Murdoch said, hating that Johnny never thought anything he did was a big deal.

"You always were so intelligent. You learned so easily," Maria recalled fondly.

"Yeah, well," he shrugged.

She leaned in and hugged him quickly. Her heart broke as she witnessed what she had done to his self-esteem. "Well, nothing. It is true. I never had to show you anything twice. Do you still draw?"

Johnny suddenly felt like he was ten years old and he wanted nothing more than to get away from this topic.

"Draw?" Scott asked.

Maria looked over at him. "Yes, he has a remarkable talent. I see he has not shown it to you," she looked a bit disapprovingly at her son.

"Not much time for that kind of nonsense, mama. Besides, it was just kid stuff," he mumbled.

"No, nino. It was not." She looked to Murdoch. "He has a real talent."

"Johnny has many talents. Like horses," Murdoch countered, feeling he needed to let her know HE knew a few things about his son as well.

But she smiled knowingly. "And where do we suppose he began that? I still remember you taking him riding, Murdoch. I think you did it partly just to scare me to death."

He looked in her eyes and saw she was joking with him. Teasing him like she used to. It all felt so familiar yet, at the same time, uncomfortable.

Teresa sat her fork down a bit too hard then rose. "I'll get desert," she said flatly and left the room.

*

Johnny stared after her wondering what was wrong. Teresa was never rude. Not ever. He wanted to go talk to her but he was wont to leave his mother.

Murdoch suggested they retire to the living room and they all settled. Maria and Johnny sat next to each other on the sofa, not a hair's breath between them. A fact that did not go unnoticed by Murdoch or Scott.

"That's a lovely gown," Scott complimented, hoping to get the conversation flowing.

"Thank you," she smiled then glanced at Murdoch. She knew exactly what he was thinking and she was sure Johnny was of the same mind.

"You must wonder how I could afford such expensive clothes," she commented.

"Well, yeah, mama. I mean, you work in a school," Johnny replied with a little embarrassment. He looked at his brother and knew Scott felt bad for bringing it up, innocent as it was.

"It is a wonderful story. The school is actually in an orphanage. One of our benefactors is a kind, elderly widow. Dona Regina Elisa Maria de la Vega," she spoke the name with reverence and Johnny's attention was captured.

Maria repositioned herself a little before continuing. "Well, she not only donates money but she spends a great deal of time with the children. She never had any of her own. One day she found me alone in the kitchen crying my eyes out." She stopped and shook her head then looked at her son.

"I'm afraid I had just received more bad news. More inquiries about you that brought nothing. Before I knew it I was telling her all about you. I told her everything. I had never spoken to anyone, not even the priest, at such length. I was sure she would be disappointed in me but she only squeezed my hand and smiled." She halted once more with a smile of fondness for the old woman.

"She promised to help me find you, hijo, and she did everything she could in Mexico. She could find nothing, though. Then, she wrote to the Pinkerton Agency in my name. She didn't tell me for fear of raising my hopes. It took months to hear from them. They explained that they, of course, knew where you were. But, they had to verify who I was. They, too, thought I was dead, it seems. Anyway, they finally delivered the information I had searched so many years for." She lowered her eyes and blinked at the tears, chastising herself for her silliness. She felt the warm hand cover her own and smiled as she looked into her son's eyes.

Taking a deep breath, she went on. "I didn't know how I could get here. I thought of writing to you but that didn't seem fair. Dona Regina paid for my passage and clothes and traveling money. I refused her at first, she had done too much already. But, in the end, she would not accept my refusal. How could I not agree if it meant seeing you again? I have never met such a generous person." She stopped and dabbed at her eyes then laughed lightly. "I believe she would like to adopt me."

Johnny laughed at that and Murdoch even smiled a little. Scott, too, was smiling fully at the story.

"She sounds like a wonderful woman. Maybe you should write to her, Johnny. Thank the woman for all her help," Scott suggested.

"That's a good idea, Boston. Maybe you could throw me some of them ten dollar words for good measure," he grinned and winked.

Maria stiffened just a little then sat forward. "It is getting late. I should go."

"Not yet, Maria. Johnny deserves to know the truth and it isn't fair to make him wait any longer," Murdoch spoke out.

"You are right, of course," she agreed.

"Well, I'll just ...."

"No, Scott, stay. This involves you a little, too. Unless, Johnny has any objections?" Murdoch interrupted.

Johnny looked at all three of them, totally perplexed but he only shrugged and Scott settled in his chair.

*

By the time Murdoch and Maria had finished telling the brothers all they knew, Johnny and Scott were livid. Johnny fumed silently as he let the information sink in and began thinking of how to track this bastard down - whoever he was.

Scott was less reserved for once. He sprang to his feet and paced the living room in it's entirety. "I can't believe this! All these years, all this time you believed Maria had simply run out on you! And Johnny! Johnny spent years thinking his own father hated him, didn't want him. Who would be so evil, so vindictive?"

Johnny's head came up slowly when Scott said the word vindictive. That was exactly what it was - vengeance. Now, he had to figure out who hated his father that much. He'd decided this plot was directed at his father. Why else threaten Scott, too?

"I don't know, son. I know I've made enemies but I can't imagine anyone being this cold and calculating."

"It was personal, Sir. It had to be. No businessman would go to such lengths. Whoever this man is, he meant to destroy you. It wasn't about land or cattle," Scott expounded.

"That does make sense. Still, I can't think of anyone that heartless," Murdoch replied.

Maria had been listening to them but her eyes were on her son. She reached over and touched his arm and he looked up at her blankly. She was taken aback by the coldness in his eyes, the lifelessness.

"Are you alright, miel?" she asked.

"No, I'm not alright. I'm not going to be alright until I track this lunatic down and make him pay for every ounce of pain he's caused this family," he replied calmly.

Scott and Murdoch exchanged looks and the rancher went to sit next to his son on the sofa.

"Johnny, I understand the need for revenge and, right now, I'd like to shove every acre of Lancer down that man's throat one fistful at a time. But, we can't let it take over our lives. It's been nearly twenty years, son. How do you propose we find him now?"

Maria smiled a little at the calm and reassuring tone of Murdoch's voice. "He is right, hijo. There is nothing we can do."

Johnny took to his feet, stepping over his father to gain some space from them both. He walked to the fireplace and turned to face them.

"You're both wrong. There's plenty I can do. I don't know exactly how I'm going to find him, but I will. Scott will help me." He didn't even look at his brother, so high was his confidence that Scott would back him up.

"Johnny's right. A crime doesn't lessen just because a couple of decades have passed. The man needs to pay for this and he will," Scott spoke up. He turned his attention to Maria. "It would be helpful if you could write down everything that happened that day, every word you can remember him saying. We'll need his description and anything that would make him stand apart. A limp, a scar, an accent - anything."

Maria looked to Murdoch who nodded his head. "Very well. I will try."

"Try hard, mama. This ain't over. Not by a longshot."

*

Johnny escorted his mother home and in the quiet living room, Scott regarded his father as the older man stared into the fire. He decided to try and calm down. There was nothing they could do tonight. He went on tactical diversion.

"She seems very nice," Scott ventured.

Murdoch looked up at him with a pensive face. "She was always very charming."

"You don't think she's sincere?"

"I didn't say that. She wants to be in Johnny's life. That won't be easy if she plans to go back to Mexico, though."

Scott bit his lower lip. "Unless Johnny goes with her." The sentence was said so quietly, Murdoch almost didn't hear it.

"I've thought about that."

"And what conclusions have you come to?" Scott asked.

Murdoch sighed heavily and went back to staring at the flames. "He's a grown man. If he wants to go with her, I can't stop him."

"Would you even try?" Scott asked, his anger rising.

Murdoch closed his eyes briefly. "Johnny knows how I feel about him."

Scott took to his feet and paced a bit. So much for reining in his anger. "Have you always lived in this dream world, Murdoch? Johnny does not know how you feel about him because you've never told him. Johnny needs to hear the words. He doesn't trust what he *thinks* you *might* feel. How can you not see that?"

"What do you want me to do, Scott? Beg him to stay?" Murdoch countered, his own ire showing.

Scott shook his head. "No, Sir. I suppose that would be my job - as usual." With that, Scott turned on his heel and stalked out of the room.

*

Johnny rode back home in an ambiguous mood. Part of him still couldn't believe it. Would not allow himself to believe she was really here. He knew logically, of course. But that part of him that never quite allowed him to accept anything good that happened without a cost nagged at the back of his mind.

Not this time. I won't let it get to me this time. I'm gonna be happy and that's all there is to it. Nothing bad will happen. Nothing will ruin this. And once Scott and I've taken care of this mystery man, we can all be happy. He thought, for tonight anyway, he would allow himself to be happy. There'd be plenty of time tomorrow to start investigating.

Johnny spent his usual time with Barranca as he bedded the animal down. He chattered away to the horse all the while. Then, he decided a piece of pie sounded good and he headed around to the back of the house.

Walking into the kitchen, he found Teresa drying the last of the supper dishes.

"Feeling better, querida?" he asked as he tugged gently on her hair.

She jerked her head away and didn't answer him.

Johnny leaned beside her and crossed his arms. "What's wrong, Teresa?"

She turned and flashed angry eyes at him. "What's wrong? How can you ask me that?"

Johnny was more than a little surprised at the outburst. "I can ask because I don't know."

She shook her head incredulously at him. "How can you not see that this is killing Murdoch? Don't you know what she did to him?"

Johnny sighed softly. "Teresa, it was a long time ago..."

"Not for Murdoch, it isn't. If you're too blind to see it, Johnny Lancer, I'm not. This is tearing his heart out. Why would you bring her here?"

*

Johnny tried to keep himself in check but his voice was hard when he spoke. "He agreed to see her. I didn't just spring her on him. They needed to talk about a few things, don't you think?"

"What else could he say, Johnny? No, she can't come here? No, you can't see her? It's not right to put him through that. You weren't here, sitting with him day after day when all he could do was call out for her. Sit there and listen to that knowing she wouldn't come. Hearing the pain and anguish and watching his heart break over and over when she didn't answer his calls. She ran off with another man! How do you suppose that made him feel? How would you feel?"

Johnny hung his head for a minute. "You don't know the whole story. I know you're worried about him but he seems to be doin alright."

"Seems to be. Right," she shot.

"What do you want me to do, Teresa?" he asked in frustration.

"Keep her away from here!"

"Teresa!"

They both jumped a foot and turned to see Murdoch looming in the doorway.

"I think that is quite enough, young lady," he went on, lowering his voice.

"It isn't fair to you, Murdoch," she started.

He walked over and stood facing her. "I'll decide what's fair to me and what's fair to Johnny. He has every right to invite his mother to his home." Relaxing his shoulders a little, he smiled at her. "I appreciate the mother bear instincts, sweetheart, but this is not your call to make. This is between Johnny, Maria and myself. I want you to apologize to Johnny."

"She don't have to, Murdoch. She's just worried about you," Johnny said.

"I won't anyway. I won't apologize for speaking my mind. I won't say I'm sorry for anything I've said," she jutted out her chin.

Johnny laughed softly but Murdoch was not happy. "Then I think perhaps you should go to your room and think about everything you've said."

She stared up at him for a beat then turned and ran from the room.

"You shouldn't have done that," Johnny said.

"Don't let her talk to you like that, son. Especially about your mother."

Johnny just shrugged but Murdoch knew her words had stung him. For the first time he could ever remember, he was actually angry with Teresa.

*

Johnny lay on top the covers, his hands cradling his head as he stared at the ceiling. His thoughts were not where they should be. It was Teresa's words that kept repeating in his mind. Still, it wasn't like he showed up on the doorstep with his mother. He'd warned Murdoch; asked the man could she come. He knew if his father had refused that would be the end of it and he would never have asked again.

He could understand her concerns but he had to admit, Murdoch was right. It wasn't her business. Though, knowing his father had called for his mother when he was so gravely ill had always brought him a measure of peace. When Teresa had told him that day near the stream, he hadn't wanted to believe her. He was so full of anger and hate then; all for a man he didn't even know.

Maybe she just needed some time to get used to the idea. After all, didn't they all need time? He knew he was still reeling from everything happening so fast. And she didn't know the truth of it. Maybe, he should tell her what had really happened. He was sure Teresa would understand.

Sighing, he rubbed a hand across his face then let it drop on his chest. He wasn't going to sleep tonight and wondered if Murdoch would. Johnny argued with himself over the merits of going to his father's room. It was very late and even if he was awake, Murdoch would probably not appreciate the interruption.

Deciding against the idea, he sat up while swinging his legs over the side of the bed then pulled on his boots before standing up. Well, maybe a walk will help, he thought and headed downstairs.

Johnny paused outside Teresa's room and laid his hand on the door then shook his head and kept going. He couldn't get into this with her right now. He wasn't sure he could hold his temper again, especially if she was going to stay as stubborn as she'd been earlier. He had to smile a little at her tenacity, though. She spoke her mind, that was for sure.

He headed down the back stairs and out into the garden. The full moon shone brightly on the rose bushes and he inhaled deeply of the fragrances surrounding him. In a split second, his shoulders tensed and his eyes narrowed as he peered into the dark.

"Who's there?"

*

"It's just me, son."

Johnny didn't relax, he tensed even more. 'Guess I was right, he can't sleep either'. He watched as his father approached him, his shadow cast alongside his bulk looked small in comparison.

"Couldn't sleep," he said unnecessarily and heard his father chuckle. He relaxed then.

"It's no wonder. How are you feeling?" Murdoch asked as he stopped two feet from his son.

Johnny shrugged. "I don't know. I mean, it's a lot to take in. I'm happy she's alive, of course. Still ...."

"Yes, still," Murdoch mumbled and looked off to his right.

Johnny watched his profile then dropped his head and studied the ground. "How do you feel about it?"

There was a lengthy silence in which Johnny wished he could take back the question, take back the decision to come outside, take back just about everything.

"It doesn't matter how I feel, Johnny. This is about you."

He closed his eyes and let out a breath before looking up at his father. "That's a load of bull. Look, Murdoch, I know there's a couple of things going on here. Me and her, you and her. But, you need to face it, too."

Murdoch set his jaw firmly as he studied his son. "Johnny, I hope you aren't expecting ....."

"What?"

"A reconciliation," Murdoch said flatly.

Johnny's eyes widened in surprise as his mouth fell open. "No, I wasn't even thinking that. I just mean you have things to sort out, that's all. You're still married, aren't you?"

Murdoch turned and walked a few feet away. "No, we aren't. I divorced her years ago."

"How? I mean, you can do that?"

"Yes, for abandonment. If one party can't be found ..... you have to wait a year," he said in a low voice.

Johnny didn't know what to feel about that. He couldn't blame his father. After a year it would be pretty plain she wasn't coming back.

Murdoch turned back to him. "Son, this isn't something you should even be thinking about. You should be focusing on your relationship with your mother and what you want to do."

Johnny cocked his head to one side and looked at him. "What do you mean, what I want to do?"

Murdoch just stared at him for long seconds. "If you want to be close to her ..... in Mexico City."

He felt like he'd been punched in the gut and found he couldn't get a good breath. Johnny just looked at him, unable to think for what felt like forever. "Is that what you want me to do?" he finally whispered.

"What? No, of course not! How can you even think that? I only meant I would understand if you wanted to go back with her."

"Thanks a lot, Murdoch," he mumbled and turned. He had his hand on the kitchen doorknob when the big hand clamped down on his shoulder. Johnny stopped but he didn't turn back.

"You surely know how much I love you, son."

Johnny slumped his shoulders. With his head bowed, his eyes closed briefly before focusing on the door again. "I guess so."

Murdoch relaxed his grip and slid his arm around his son's chest, his hand resting on the other shoulder, effectively holding him. "Don't guess, Johnny. Don't ever wonder or hope. Know it, son. I do love you. I always have and I'm sorry if you weren't sure. It's hard for me to say the words."

"I know. It's hard for me, too, but ..... I love you."  

"I don't want you to leave. It would kill me."

Johnny sighed and nodded his head. "I wasn't plannin on leavin. Whatever happens with my mother, I'm not going anywhere."

Murdoch relaxed and let out the held breath. Johnny maneuvered to face him. "We sure make it hard, don't we?"

The rancher chuckled a little. "We sure do."

*

The next morning, Johnny entered the kitchen cautiously. Teresa had her back to him at the stove and he slid into his seat quietly. He greeted his father and brother with a forced smile. He was tired and moody and could see the old man was, too. Scott looked a little better but not much.

"Did anyone sleep last night?" the older brother asked.

"Not much," Murdoch replied and Johnny only shook his head as he poured a cup of coffee.

Teresa placed a laden plate on the table and Scott tucked in, stopping with serving spoon in midair as he took in the two of them more closely.

"Is everything alright?"

Johnny looked up at him and saw exactly what his brother suspected. He gave Scott a warm smile and a wink and Scott relaxed.

"Everything is fine, son. Will you be finished with the surveying today?"

"Yes, it shouldn't take more than a couple of hours. I thought I'd catch up with the bridge crew after that," Scott answered.

"Good, good. Johnny, are you going to town this morning?"

Johnny looked up slowly and with some surprise. He nearly jumped when the pot met the stove with enthusiasm. He glanced in Teresa's direction then back to his father who was now scowling.

"I wasn't plannin on it. Need to finish that creek bed today. The sky was clear last night but I still think the rain's not far off," he answered. "I thought I'd go in tonight," he added more softly.

Murdoch nodded but no one could miss the expression on his face. Scott was the only one perplexed by it. Johnny figured he'd better explain it to his brother sooner rather than later.

*

"She said what?" Scott shouted then grabbed Remmie's lead rein as the horse reacted to the unusually loud voice of his master.

"Calm down, brother. I'll handle it. I just hope Murdoch don't say anything else."

"Why shouldn't he, Johnny? Teresa has no right to say anything to you about your mother," Scott fumed.

Johnny smiled a little then went back to saddling Barranca. "I understand she's upset and tryin to protect the old man. Maybe she went too far but ....."

"Maybe?" Scott said with sarcasm though his voice had dropped a decibel.  

Johnny glanced over at him. "Okay, she did go too far but I can talk to her."

"If that's what you want. I was just coming to talk to you about that very thing," Murdoch spoke out as he walked into the barn.

"It is. Leave her be. She'll settle down then we can talk it out. I'll explain things to her. She's just bein a mama bear, Murdoch."

"Well, brother, as usual your generosity is redoubtable."

Johnny stopped and leaned out of the stall with a frown on his face. Then, he brightened. "Yep, you're gonna have to help me write that letter to the Dona."

Scott grinned and shook his head then led his mount out of the barn. He glanced over to see Teresa hanging out the wash and fought back the desire to turn her over his knee. He had to let Johnny handle this.

"Don't let her speak to you like that again, Johnny."

"Murdoch, you worry too much," he said as he walked Barranca outside. "I'll come home for lunch and talk to her then." He stopped and watched her shake the life out of a sheet. "Well, maybe," he grinned and mounted up. "See ya."

Murdoch watched him ride out then went about his business but he didn't stop worrying about Teresa and Maria.

*

Johnny strolled into the kitchen whistling. Truthfully, he felt anything but chipper but he hoped he could relax the girl out of her mad. Evidently, Murdoch had made sure no one else was about. Either that or he was just lucky. Somehow, he doubted that was the case. She was standing at the table slicing bread with a large knife. He had second thoughts for a heartbeat then told himself he was being foolish.

"Hey, Teresa," he said softly.

"Hello," came the static reply.

Johnny held himself in check, not an easy task considering how tired he was. "Would you mind comin outside with me? I think we need to talk this out."

"Maria had to go help her sister. I don't have time right now. The men will be wanting their lunch."

Johnny put his hand over her left one; the one holding the knife. "I think they can fix a sandwich on their own."

She didn't move, didn't look at him and said nothing.

"Come on, Teresa. This is crazy," he cajoled.

She took a deep breath and let it out then pulled her hand away, laying the knife on the table and walking outside. Johnny looked to the heavens then followed her.

Now, she had her shears and was clipping roses. He had to wonder about her fondness for sharp instruments today. He sat on the bench and watched her cut three roses before speaking.

"Don't you think this is a little ridiculous?" he asked.

She stopped and turned to face him. "What is ridiculous, Johnny, is you! How could you bring that woman here and flaunt her in front of your own father? How could you hurt him like that? Do you have any idea how deeply she hurt him?"

Johnny came to his feet. "Wait a minute, little girl. That woman happens to be my mother and I didn't flaunt her at anyone. I asked Murdoch and he agreed. He's not some fool, Teresa. He knows what he's doing. Look, I know you want to protect him but that's not your job. Don't come between me and my father, Teresa. Don't try to do that."

"I'm not! But, you don't seem to understand something, Johnny. All she wants to do is cause him grief. All she's *ever* done is break his heart. He would have been better off if he'd never met her!"

Johnny stared at her, his heart thundering in his chest. His legs felt weak suddenly and his mouth went dry. He swallowed hard. "Well, I guess that tells me everything I need to know. Now, let me tell you what you need to know. Murdoch's a grown man and he can damned well make his own decisions about who he wants to see. As for you and me, I guess there's nothing much to say about that."

She frowned. "What does that mean?"

"Well, if you wish he'd never met her then you must wish I'd never been born. Guess he would be a lot better off without me to worry him to death, huh?"

"I didn't mean it like that, Johnny, and you know it! But, why would you put him in that position? Why would you bring her here to do the exact same thing all over again?"

"She's here to see me, Teresa. I think Murdoch deserved some answers and so does he. You don't know the whole story. What makes you so sure she's here to hurt him anyway?"

"I saw the way she looked at him last night. Batting her lashes and smiling so sweetly. She wants him back. And for what? So she can leave again? Will you go with her again?"

Johnny had a sudden insight just then. "You're jealous! You think he'll take her back and there won't be any place for you. Teresa, you can't seriously believe Murdoch would toss you out."

"Don't be absurd, Johnny. I am not jealous of that ..... that tramp!"

"Teresa!"

*

She whirled around at the sound of his voice, her breaths coming shorter as she saw his enraged face. She began to tremble and wrapped her arms across her waist, tears brimming in her eyes.

Scott strode purposefully up to her, towering over her petite frame. "How dare you? Get in the house now!"

She stepped back from him then turned and ran inside.

Johnny sat down, lucky the bench was there to catch him. His face was pale, his entire countenance screaming of shock and angst. Scott moved to sit beside him, laying a hand on his knee.

"Breathe, Johnny. Just breathe," he said softly.

He did but it came in short, uneven gasps as he bent over then straightened and leaned his head back against the wall. He closed his eyes tight and concentrated on nothing but breathing in and out, in and out.

After an indeterminate length of time, Johnny opened his eyes and stared at the trees. He felt Scott's hand still on his knee and sighed softly. "Thanks," he mumbled and stood up slowly.

Scott rose with him. "Are you alright?"

He shook his head and walked away.

"Johnny, wait. Where are you going?"

He didn't stop but answered. "Away. Just away from here."

Scott watched him go, looking broken. His anger returned tenfold and he glared at the door then walked inside to find Teresa.

"Hi, son. Where is everyone?"

Scott leered at his father then tried to answer in a controlled voice. "Johnny just rode out. He needed to get away from Teresa. You need to do something about her before I do, Murdoch."

"What happened?" he asked, dread dripping from his voice.

"You'd better sit down," Scott advised and took a seat himself. He didn't have much to tell as he hadn't heard much but it was more than enough.

Murdoch was out of the chair in two minutes and heading for Teresa's room.

*

Johnny rode like the devil was after him. He didn't want to think but he couldn't stop either. He was still in shock and after fifteen minutes, he decided he needed to stop before he broke his neck. Lord knew, he wasn't paying much attention to the horses path. He reined Barranca in and slid off the saddle, letting the horse roam free. He walked over to a tree and dropped to the ground. Pulling his knees up, he wrapped his arms around them and rested his head on those folded arms.

'I don't want you to leave. It would kill me.' His father's words rang in his head. 'I love you.' Yes, he believed that. Believed anything Murdoch told him. He knew his father wanted him and that was the lifeline he clung to in this moment. Otherwise, he wasn't sure he could go back there without tearing Teresa apart.

The more he thought about her words, the angrier he got. He was so grateful to Scott for showing up at just that moment. He didn't know what he would have done. He knew he could never hurt her physically but, God help him, he'd wanted to - badly. She had no right. None. But, she didn't see it that way. Well, he sure hoped someone set her straight before he got the chance.

Johnny stood up and looked around before glancing at the sky. Around one o'clock, he reckoned. He still had work to do. He didn't want to go to town now. Maybe not at all today. He wasn't sure he could not tell his mother what had happened. He figured she'd see it on his face.

Did Teresa see something he hadn't? Did his mother want his father back? He shook his head. It didn't matter because it wasn't his business. He'd told Murdoch there were things between the two of them and it wasn't his to butt into.

He walked Barranca down then saddled up and headed back to the creek bed. Work always helped when he was troubled but he wasn't so sure this time.

By the time he finished the job, the dark clouds had intensified over the mountains and he could see lightning up there. Perfect timing, he thought with a small smile of satisfaction for getting the job done. Now, as he cleaned up, he wondered what job he'd find at home.

He wiped the sweat from his chest and arms with his shirt then shrugged into it, all the while wondering how he was going to deal with her. He wasn't sure he could if she kept acting like such a child.

Johnny stopped and sighed. That's what she is, he told himself. A child. Just a kid who's never known anything outside ranch life; outside Lancer really. Still she'd had a taste of the uglier side when Angel had come back. Guess she forgot about that, he thought grimly.

Maybe Murdoch should handle this. She's his problem. The anger was building again and he had to swallow it down. Just go home and see what's happening. Could all be over by now, anyway. With that resolve, he mounted up and headed home, his thoughts straying to his mother and wondering what she was doing right then.

*

Murdoch stood outside the door for a full ten minutes while he tried to control his ire. Never had he been so angry, he was sure. Finally, he rapped his knuckles against the wood panel but got no reply. He leaned in and heard nothing. Knocking again, he called out her name.

"I'm coming in," he announced then turned the knob only to find the door locked. "Teresa, open this door or I'll open it, young lady!"

He heard shuffling feet and a sniffle from the other side. She opened the door slowly, her head bowed, her shoulders slumped. Then, she raised her tear-filled eyes and flung herself into his arms.

Taken aback, Murdoch could only hold her as she sobbed.


"I'm so sorry. I don't know what got into me. I can't believe I said such a filthy thing!" she cried.

His entire frame relaxed as he rubbed her back. "Alright, darling. Let's go inside and talk this out," he said softly.

She pulled away and went to sit on the edge of the bed, still sniffling.

Murdoch pulled her rocker close and lowered himself slowly, unsure if the small furniture would support him. It creaked under his weight but didn't break.

"Alright, why don't you just tell me what you're feeling about all of this? Calmly, if you don't mind," he started, using just enough edge to let her know she hadn't gotten away with a thing.

She swallowed and shook her head. "I keep remembering how you called out for her after Pardee shot you. How she ran out on you and stole your son. How much pain she's caused you all these years. Seeing her walk in here like nothing happened; I just can't take that."

"She didn't just stroll in, Teresa. She and I have been talking about things and there's more to this than any of us could imagine. As for Johnny inviting her here, he did so only after asking me. He never would have just shown up here with her on his arm. You must know that."

She looked at him then. "No, I don't know that. Have you seen how he's acting? He looks like that cat that got the cream. So smug and pleased with himself," she snarled a little.

Murdoch sat back, a little stunned at her vehemence. "Yes, he is happy. Why shouldn't he be? He thought his mother was dead then finds her alive; here and healthy and wanting him. What he has not been is smug. No, Teresa, there's something else going on here. If you aren't willing to be honest with me about that, then we have a big problem. So, I'll make it perfectly clear to you. I support Johnny completely. I will not, nor will I let anyone else, ruin this for him. No one is going to cause problems for my son and his mother."

"And what about you, Murdoch? What about the problems she could cause you? The grief?"

Murdoch sighed out through his nose. "I can take care of myself, young lady. It's not your job to try and look after my heart. I appreciate the thought but your actions have been very hurtful to Johnny and I want you to apologize to him. And, if I ever hear you call Maria any name other than her given one, you won't like the consequences. Are we clear?"

She gawked at him then nodded slightly.

"And you'll apologize to Johnny? Sincerely?"

"Yes, I'll apologize," she said meekly.

*

Scott watched him ride in and head to the barn with Barranca. Frowning, he followed his brother.

"Aren't you going to town?"

Johnny glanced up from loosening the cinch. "Not tonight."

"Why?"

"Too tired, brother. Hey, I got the creek bed cleared just in the nick of time. It's lightning in the mountains and looks like a big storm already. Reckon by mornin, that creek'll be full." Johnny flashed him a smile but Scott wasn't fooled.

He walked over to the stall and leaned against the wall beside it. "That's good. But, are you sure you wouldn't rather see your mother tonight? I would have thought you'd want to steer clear of here for a while."

Johnny stopped and turned fully to his brother. "Why? What's going on now?" he asked with dread.

Scott folded his arms across his chest and shook his head. "I'm not sure. Murdoch talked to Teresa and I haven't seen either one of them since."

"You told him," Johnny stated.

"I certainly did."

He only nodded and went back to his task. "Reckon we'll have cold biscuits for supper."

Scott snorted lightly. "I don't know what's the matter with that girl."

"She's jealous and spoiled," Johnny grated out.

"I'm sure Murdoch set her straight," Scott tried.

"I hope so cause I ain't gonna put up with any more of her mouth. That's all."

Scott raised a brow at the strength of that conviction but he could hardly blame his brother. He didn't know if his explanation for Teresa's behavior was accurate and he didn't really care at this point. The fact that she'd spoken to Johnny so horribly about his mother was enough for him, no matter what she thought Maria had done. He thought back to when Angel Day had arrived on their doorstep and could not recall Johnny or himself saying one disparaging word about the woman before or after that whole debacle. In fact, they'd both been extremely supportive of Teresa.

"Hey!"

Scott jerked his head up and looked questioningly.

"I said, let's go get some of them delicious cold biscuits," Johnny grinned.

Scott laughed and grabbed him around the neck then herded his brother to the house.

*

Both were pleasantly surprised by the aroma that greeted them and as they stepped into the great room, their eyes strayed to the dining room table; set and ready.

"Hey, Murdoch," Johnny called softly.

The rancher turned from the picture window and smiled. "Where did you go today?"

Johnny frowned and shrugged. "Back to work. Got done just in time, too. Stormin in the mountains," he replied as he plopped onto the sofa.

Murdoch glanced at Scott who shook his head a very little. "Good job, son," he settled on.

"Thanks," Johnny smiled brightly.

Murdoch walked over and sat in the chair nearest him, pulling it closer as Scott opted to surround his brother by settling next to him on the sofa.

"I talked to Teresa today, son. I think she understands things now. She's going to apologize to you and I want you to let her."

"Oh, don't worry, I'll let her," Johnny said statically.

"I know what she said is inexcusable. It was me she was worried about but I made her understand a few things. I'm still upset and, frankly, shocked by her language," Murdoch relayed sadly.

Johnny chewed his lip. "I was pretty shocked, too, believe me. I'm still mad about it, I won't lie. But, if she's really sorry, I guess we can work through it. Did you tell her all of it?"

Murdoch smiled and reached over to pat his knee. "I'm glad, son. She's still very young and no, I didn't tell her. It wasn't the right time."


"She is young. Have you ever thought of sending her to finishing school?" Scott asked.

Johnny grinned at that. "Ain't she cooked and done yet, brother?"

Murdoch gave him a sidelong look as Scott jabbed his ribs.

"I have made the offer but it's been a while. It might do her some good but I don't want her to think I'm trying to get rid of her, either."

"Well, maybe in a month or so you could bring it up. I really think it would do her a world of good to get a different perspective," Scott said.

Murdoch nodded as Johnny fidgeted.

"Think I'll get cleaned up for supper," he said as he tried to stand up. Murdoch had to scoot his chair back and Scott shifted over. It was only then Johnny realized they'd cornered him. He fought back a grin and just shook his head as he maneuvered off the sofa.

*

There wasn't a great deal of conversation around the supper table that night. Mostly, everyone politely asking to pass this item or that. Murdoch and Scott disappeared outside before dessert was even offered, leaving Johnny and Teresa alone at the table.

She sat staring at her plate for the longest time as Johnny twirled his wine glass between thumb and forefinger. Finally, she let out a light sigh and sat back, wringing the napkin she held in her lap.

She closed her eyes and sucked in a breath. "Johnny, I'm sorry for what I said in the garden today. I'm sorry I called your mother that name."

He didn't say anything for several seconds then, he stopped fiddling with the glass and looked over at her lowered head.

"Sounds like you're saying you're sorry for using that word."

"I am. Oh, I am," she said quickly.

"What about the rest, Teresa? What about the other things you said about me and my mother?"

She looked up at him. "I'm sorry about all of it. I was so worried about Murdoch, I lashed out. I'm not even sure what all I said but I know it was horrible. I hope you can forgive me."

He stared at her, studying her face, especially her eyes. She didn't mean a word she was saying and he knew it. He stood up and tossed his napkin on his plate.

"For Murdoch's sake, I'll accept your apology even though I know you don't mean it. Let's just keep the peace for the family," he said and walked away.

Teresa slammed her fist on her thigh and grit her teeth. She'd forgotten how good he was at reading her. At least he was willing to let it go. She still had a home if she could just keep her mouth shut. She hated what that woman was doing to Murdoch and she was truly scared for him. She could understand Johnny's feelings, she really could. Still, there was something about Maria that bothered her. Call it woman's intuition, but she was nothing but trouble.

She decided to stay quiet for Johnny's sake, too. She'd never seen him this happy and whatever story Maria had told, he believed her. All she could do was hope for the best. Sighing, she stood and started clearing the table.

*

Maria's smile faltered as she realized who was standing at her hotel room door. Her hand went to her bosom as she worked to regain her decorum.

"You were expecting Johnny, I'm sure."

"Yes, yes, I was. I'm sorry, I'm surprised. Please, come in, Murdoch," she replied as she stepped back, opening the door wider for him.

He walked in, hat in hand and quickly looked the room over. It was grand, he thought and wondered about this benefactor in Mexico City.

"Is Johnny alright?" she asked.

"Oh, he's fine. He was planning on seeing you last night but some things came up," Murdoch said, averting his eyes.

"Well, ranch work is always demanding, as I recall," she smiled. "Please, sit down. Would you like some coffee?"

"No, thank you. I had some business at the bank and, well, since I was in town, I thought we could talk," he blubbered.

"Of course. Oh," she said then walked to the dresser and picked up the envelope. "This is for Scott. What he asked me to write down. I think they are both on a wild goose chase."

He smiled a little as he repositioned himself in the chair. "So do I but it will make them feel better knowing they've at least tried." He faltered for a moment then braced himself. "I wanted to clear up a few things."

"Of course," she replied and felt tension rise in her shoulders.

"It's just that I've been thinking about everything you told me and the one thing that stands out is, why didn't you comtact me after you recovered and found Johnny gone?"

She nodded and lowered her eyes, smoothing her skirt nervously. "I still believed the threat was real, Murdoch. I had no way of knowing for certain. I thought it too big a risk."

"More of a risk than Johnny being out there alone? Maria, you must know I would have risked anything to find that boy." He was trying to remain calm but every time he thought of Johnny's life before, it was the same anger and resentment that welled inside him.

Her eyes came up and a pained expression occupied their black depths. "Anything? What did you risk to find him, Murdoch? I'm not trying to accuse you of anything but, really, what did you risk?"

*

He sat back in the chair and stared at her. His eyes hardened as he held the stare.

"You spent a great deal of money on the Pinkertons. I'm sure there were just as many times you could not afford to keep up the search."

"Yes," he mumbled as her words sank in. What had he really risked?   "If you had only contacted me. Let me know what was happening."

She sighed tiredly. "I know I made many mistakes. I didn't handle things well at all. I wish I could go back in time and change it all but I can't. All I can do is try to make it up to him. And you."

He blinked a few times and realized this would solve nothing. He could rant and rave at her, blame her for her choices all day. In the end, it couldn't matter any more. They had to move on - all of them. Otherwise, Johnny would have no peace. He knew he had to find a way to deal with her being in their son's life. In his life, too.

"Have you thought any more about your plans? Johnny wasn't sure if you were staying."

She smiled lightly. "He is still so impatient. Always wanting an answer right away." Her face fell serious as she studied him. "I suppose he has every right, though. The thought of leaving him ..... I don't think I could stand that. I suppose that is my answer. Perhaps I should check into the orphanage he told me about. Perhaps they might have a position available. And, of course, I'll have to find more permanent living quarters."

"That's actually what I wanted to talk to you about. There's a cabin on the ranch not ten miles from town. It needs some fixing up but it could be very comfortable. I'd like to give it to you. That way, you'll be close to Johnny and still near town."

"Oh, Murdoch, no. I couldn't accept."

"Why not?"

She blushed a little. "Well, it's just ..... it's too much. You owe me nothing, certainly."

"Maria, this is for Johnny. I want him to be able to see you anytime he wants and I'd like to make it as easy for him as possible."

She looked hard at him for a long time. Long enough for him to feel uncomfortable.

"You love him so much."

Murdoch fidgeted and bent the brim of his hat then cleared his throat. "I always have," he said softly.

She reached out and squeezed his hand. "I know. I remember very well and I can never apologize enough for what I did to you both."

He grimaced a little. "Will you take the cabin? I can have it ready in a week."

She sighed and smiled. "Si, for Johnny, I will accept your generosity. However, once I find employment and settle, I intend to pay rent."

"Oh, no ....."

"Oh, yes!" she proclaimed.

Murdoch made a growling noise. "You always were so stubborn. Alright. One dollar a month."

"Murdoch...."

"One dollar and don't think you can barter me down," he said authoritatively.

Her eyes widened then she laughed. "Very well, Senor. I will pay your outrageous rent."

*

When Murdoch told Johnny of his talk with Maria, the young man hugged his father giving Murdoch quite a shock. He'd never seen Johnny so happy. So ..... alive and it pleased him beyond measure.

The next few weeks went by fairly smoothly. Scott and Johnny had diligently made inquiries about the man who had destroyed their family but had come up empty. It left them both frustrated and on edge.

Teresa said nothing more to any of them and Maria had visited a couple of times. This night, however, she'd invited them to her new home for supper. Teresa could find no plausible way to get out of it so she went and plastered a smile on her face.

After supper, Johnny took a walk around the outside of the cabin. He came back in frowning.

"Why didn't you tell me that barn was in such bad shape, mama?"

"I was going to have someone repair it, miel."

"I'll do it in the morning. That horse will be lucky if the roof don't fall in on him. Corral needs some repairs, too."

"Why don't you just spend the day out here tomorrow and fix everything, son," Murdoch suggested.

Johnny nodded.

"I'll be glad to help," Scott offered.

"Thanks, brother. It'll go a lot faster with the two of us. And, if we're real lucky, mama will make some of her tortillas. You ain't never had tortillas like these!"

"Johnny! That wasn't very subtle," Murdoch chastised lightly.

"Oh, it's alright. If my son wants tortillas, he shall have them. It is the least I can do for two such hard working men," Maria laughed.

"I look forward to it," Scott smiled, raising his glass.

Johnny grinned, already planning how his brother could spend more time with his mother. They got along but he knew they'd never really talked alone. He wanted Scott to know her, the real her, and not his own preconceived notions. For Johnny knew his brother had never felt kindly toward her simply because of the life Johnny had led before coming home, even now that the truth was out. Now was his chance.

For Teresa, the night was agonizingly long. She had to admit on the drive home, though, that Maria had made no overt moves toward Murdoch. She had focused most of her attention on Johnny. Maybe it had been her imagination. Or maybe, it had simply been innocent. She began to doubt herself then shook her head slightly. No, she couldn't trust this woman. She couldn't say why exactly. Maybe it was the past but she thought not. Maria had an agenda, she was sure of it.

*

She found herself alone in the living room with Murdoch as the brothers put the surrey away. Her nerves began to jump at the way he was looking at her.

"That was a nice evening," Murdoch said casually.

"Yes, it was," she answered cautiously.

"Are you sure? You didn't seem to be enjoying yourself," he noted.

She shrugged and paced the room. "It was nice. The cabin looks wonderful. Very homey."

Murdoch bit his lower lip as he watched her. "Darling, come sit with me. I want to talk to you about something."

Teresa sat in the chair, her heart pounding.

"I've been thinking a lot about you lately. About your life and future. Teresa, you've lived on this ranch all your life. You've never experienced anything else."


"Yes, I have. I've been to San Francisco and Stockton," she argued.

Murdoch smiled paternally. "Yes, for short visits and always with me. I think you need to broaden your horizons, my dear. I worry you don't have the experience, the sophistication you need."

"Murdoch, please don't send me away. I love this place so much!"

Murdoch leaned over and patted her hands. "Now, Teresa, I know how much you love Lancer. It will always be your home. But, you need more. You deserve so much more. Now, I've been looking into some finishing schools and there's a very nice one in Boston. Scott recommended it, actually. You need to go now while you're still young. Once you've completed your studies, of course you'll come home."

A loud buzzing erupted in her ears. Scott recommended it? Scott wanted her gone, too? She shook her head slowly back and forth then blinked several times as she tried to focus on what he was saying.

"You leave next week."

"Next week?! Murdoch, please. I've been good. I haven't said anything about Johnny's mother. I've ....."

"Teresa, this has nothing to do with that. I'll admit your outburst gave me some things to think about but you know I have made this offer before. I let you refuse then because your daddy had just died and you needed me. And the truth is, I needed you. But, now the time is right. It's now or never."

"Then, let it be never. There's nothing they can teach me I need to know," she cried.

"I know it's frightening but try to look at this as an adventure. Before you know it, you'll be home and I do believe they can teach you a great many things. Things I think you'll be glad of knowing in the future. Please, don't cry, honey. I'm doing this for you."  

"And I don't get a say?"

"No, you don't get a say. Teresa, if it were up to you you'd never leave this ranch. Now, that's just not right. It's not fair to you. I know it's hard but you'll thank me in the end," he said and it was getting harder to hold onto his control.

He hated sending her away but she needed this to grow up. He felt he'd failed her. He knew nothing about raising a girl and he'd always relied a great deal on the women at the ranch to help. But, that wasn't enough, either. She needed to learn grace and etiquette; how to be a lady. He wanted the best for her and this was a start.

She only stared at him, tears rolling down her face. Then, she ran out of the room.

*

Johnny and Scott walked into the room slowly, relieved to see Murdoch alone.

"Did you talk to her?" Scott asked.

"Yes."

"How'd she take it?"

"About how you'd expect. She doesn't want to go and begged me not to send her. She thinks it has to do with Maria."

Johnny sighed. "Doesn't it? I mean, a little?"

Murdoch looked at him and nodded. "Yes, I suppose it does in a way. Her behavior toward your mother is just a reminder of how much more she needs that I can't give her."

"That's not true, Sir. You are giving her what she needs. It's just that what she needs isn't available here. I know it will be hard on her at first. Once she gets there and meets other young women, I believe she'll really enjoy her stay."

"I appreciate that, Scott. I hope you're right," Murdoch mumbled.

"He's always right. Look, it's gonna be hard not having her here but it's for the best. She'll thank you, you'll see," Johnny tried.

Murdoch smiled a little at him then said his goodnights.

Scott poured two whiskeys then joined his brother outside.

"She will enjoy herself," he said.

"Yeah, I know. Just gettin her to that point is gonna be the hard part. Listen, just how do you know so much about this place? You didn't, uh, visit there, did you?" Johnny asked with suspicion.

Scott grinned. "Well, my friends and I tried a time or two. That's why I picked this particular school. They have very good security. No young men are going to scale those walls."

Johnny laughed and clinked his glass against his brother's.

*

Johnny was up early the next morning loading a wagon with supplies. He dreaded breakfast. He didn't want to see Teresa, knowing she would blame him for her departure. No, he wasn't going to let her do that. She brought this on herself. And, maybe Murdoch was a little to blame, too. Well, blame wasn't really the word. He'd just protected her too much, gave into her too much, is all. He idly wondered if the old man would have spoiled he and Scott like that had they grown up here. He thought not. Girls were just different.

A grin lit his face. Yep, they were different, thank God. The smile faded quickly enough as he turned to face the house. Sucking it up, he walked in the front door then to the kitchen.

Murdoch and Scott were at the table, Maria at the stove but there was no sign of Teresa. Scott caught his brother's eyes and simply shrugged. Johnny relaxed and took his seat as his father poured him a cup of coffee.

"Thanks," he murmured as he took a sip.

"Wagon all ready?" Scott asked.

He nodded as he swallowed. "I think I've got everything we might need."

"Well, just pick up any extras in town, boys. Tell your mother we'd like her to have supper here Sunday."

Johnny looked up slowly and stared at his father. It was the first time Murdoch had actually suggested Maria come to the house for any reason. His eyes darted to his brother who was just as surprised.

"Okay," was all he could think to say.

The brothers stood to go just as Teresa walked into the kitchen. Scott greeted her but she only gave him a curt nod of the head as she went to the stove. The air grew thick so they decided it was best to leave, relaying their thoughts with no more than a look at each other.

Murdoch waved them off from the yard then turned back to the house, sighing heavily as he steeled himself. He would quickly find it wasn't necessary. Teresa did not speak to him when he returned to the kitchen. So, he filled his coffee cup and went to the great room to read over his contracts one last time.

An hour later, he was riding off to Green River and his appointment. Teresa watched from the French doors until he was out of sight then went to her room and began to pack.

*

"Be careful!"

Johnny's shoulders tightened as he fought the instinct to jump three feet from the sudden outburst. He laid the hammer down and turned slowly, staring down at the woman on the ground, hands on hips watching him like a hawk. Relaxing his shoulders, he looked intensely at her.

"Do you know what the number one cause for a man fallin off a roof is? A woman screamin at him to be careful!" he informed sharply.

Her gaze never wavered. "I would disagree with that. The number one reason is they think they are indestructible. Being a man, they can't possibly fall off a roof!"

Both of them looked away toward the young man laughing loudly at them. Johnny's lips twitched but he refused to smile. Maria, however, burst into laughter. She walked over to the well and filled the dipper before taking it to Scott.

"SOME men do know how to take heed, though," she said loudly as she patted Scott's cheek.

Johnny watched the interaction and was surprised by the resentment that swelled inside him so suddenly. He inhaled sharply at the assault on his heart and grit his teeth at his own foolishness. He said nothing and returned to his work before he betrayed his pettiness.

As he hammered the shingles into place, he wondered at his reaction. It seemed Scott liked his mother. He sure seemed comfortable around her which had not been the case a few weeks ago. Of course, that was understandable. Now, it looked like they were best of friends.

Stop it, Johnny! You're being ridiculous. The fact was, he was glad his brother and mother got along so well. And, it looked like Murdoch was even warming up to her. Maybe ...... no, can't think that way. It wasn't his business whatever was between them then or now.

He finished the barn roof and climbed down the ladder only to turn and find her standing right there.

*

"What?"

"Nothing," she said. "Lunch is ready."

Johnny grinned and pecked her on the cheek then went to wash up. Scott was just drying off when he got to the bucket.

"I think these repairs are nearly done. Wasn't as bad as you thought," the older Lancer remarked.

Johnny poured the dipper of water over his head then plunged his hands into the bucket, splashing water all around as he washed away the sweat. "Reckon not. At least the horse won't drown if it rains," he laughed then dried off. He tossed the towel in Scott's face and strolled to the cabin.

Scott pulled the offending linen off and slapped it against the side of the well. Smiling, he shook his head and followed his brother.

"Wipe your feet, Johnny," Maria called when she heard the door open.

He pulled up short, his heart skipping a few beats as he stared at her back. The memories washed over him like a thunder burst and it took his breath away. Wipe your feet. She'd always said that to him every day of his life.

Maria turned when she heard no movement and stared curiously at him. "Miel?"

Johnny blinked and sucked in a breath. "Yeah," he muttered and wiped his feet before entering.

Scott had just caught up and made sure his boots were clean as well. He sat across from his brother and noted he looked a little pale. "You okay, brother?"

Johnny's head came up. "What? Oh, yeah. Just thinking." He recovered and smiled brightly. "Let's eat."

Scott let it go but something was wrong. Or, at the least, something was weighing on his brother's mind. He looked at Maria and could tell she had seen it as well. Maybe it was something between them. Scott couldn't help but wonder if they would argue. He couldn't imagine Johnny had just let the past die quietly. Neither of them had ever been able to, really. Even if they didn't speak it, it was there. Lurking in the back of their minds. The questions, the resentment even. Sooner or later, he figured his brother would blow. He wasn't sure he wanted to around for it, though. Wasn't sure anyone else should be around for it.

*

Lunch was pleasant and delicious. Scott complimented Maria several times on her cooking which made her blush a bit and Johnny smile. They lingered with their coffee for a while before she stood to clean up.

"I'll help you," Scott offered.

"Nonsense. Your work is outside. Mine is in here. Go on, now," she fairly ordered him in a maternal voice.

Scott dipped his head briefly then bowed and smiled at her. When he looked at his brother, the smile faded. Johnny was watching them both - a hard look in his eyes and Scott was more than surprised.

"Ready?" he asked the younger man.

"Yeah, sure." Johnny stood and walked out quickly.

"What's the matter with you? Something's eating at you," Scott started right in once they were alone.

Johnny walked over to the small corral and leaned his back against the fence as he faced his brother. "When you were a kid and your grandfather was busy talkin to someone else, did you ever ..... get mad at him?"

Scott raised both brows but took his time and thought about it. "Yes, I suppose I did. Especially if I had something I thought was important to tell him."

"Kid's stuff, right? I mean actin that way."

"Oh, sure. Children like attention," Scott smiled.

"Then, I'm sorry. I'm actin like a kid. I was ...... upset in there. Sometimes, I feel like no one else should be allowed any of her attention. Guess I figured I was owed a few years worth," Johnny admitted and smiled sheepishly.

Scott nodded his head and smiled back. "I can't say that I blame you. It's a unique circumstance. I'd be surprised if you didn't want her all to yourself."

"I'm really glad you two are gettin along, though. I mean that."

"I have to admit, she's a remarkable woman. I do like her," Scott said and surprised himself.

Johnny laughed softly. "Reckon you didn't expect that and I know why. I'm just glad things seem to be working out. Look, why don't you go on home? I can finish up here and, well, I think I'll stay the night."

Scott nodded and patted him on the shoulder. "I'll let Murdoch know."

"Sure. Probably best I stay clear of there as much as possible anyway."

"THAT is not your fault, Johnny. Don't feel like you have to stay away because of Teresa."

"I know it's not my fault. Don't make bein around her any easier, though. I'll see ya in the morning."

"Tell your mother I look forward to seeing her Sunday."

Johnny almost groaned. Teresa wasn't leaving until Monday morning. He bit his tongue and just nodded, slapping his brother lightly in the gut.

*

He stood in the doorway and watched her in the waning daylight as she stirred a pot of something incredible smelling. Then, she opened the oven and Johnny smiled appreciatively. He could smell the spice even from where he stood.

She closed the oven and stood back up then suddenly grabbed the counter beside her, leaning into it heavily. Johnny moved quickly up behind her and took her shoulders.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing, miel. I just got a little too hot. Just a little dizzy. It has passed now."

"You sure?" he asked.

She straightened and turned to face him with a smile. "Si, very sure." Her eyes scanned the room behind him. "Where is your brother?"

"I sent him home hours ago. Didn't need any more help and I thought I'd just stay here tonight if that's alright."

She smiled again and patted his cheek lightly. "Of course, but he is going to miss a delicious meal."

Johnny's grin exploded on his face. "So I smell. I'm starvin, too. Is it ready?" he asked even as he stepped over to look in the pot.

She smacked his arm and scolded him. "Go wash. It will be ready when you return."

Johnny laughed and walked back outside. The smile on her face faded as she waved the dish towel in front of her face. She poured a glass of water and downed it quickly then patted her cheeks with more. Taking several deep breaths, she pulled herself together and set the table.

Toward the end of the meal, Johnny extended Murdoch's invitation and received a look of incredulity.

"Surprised?" he laughed.

"Very," she said softly. "Of course, I would love to come. I just ....."

He put a hand over hers on the table top. "What?"

"I don't want him to feel uncomfortable in his own home, Johnny. I know he's doing this for you and that is wonderful. Still, a man's home should be the one place he can relax."

"Mama, listen to me. I really think he's trying hard to forgive everything that happened. Neither of you can forget it but the only way to get past it is spending time together. You don't have to talk it to death. It wasn't even your fault and he knows that. He's trying." Johnny's eyes searched hers, fairly pleading with her.

She couldn't resist him and squeezed his hand. "Very well, miel. I will come."

*

Murdoch sat on the veranda that evening staring into space. The whiskey glass in his hand remained untouched. Scott watched from the doorway for a few minutes before joining him.

"Nice evening."

"Yes," Murdoch replied absently.

"Don't tell me you're missing him already?" Scott joked.

Murdoch didn't smile, just kept frowning into the growing darkness.

"Sir?"

"I'm fine, son. Just thinking."

"About what, if I may ask?"

Murdoch looked at him for the first time. "About your brother, Maria, Teresa. All of it."

"Are you rethinking your decision about Teresa?" Scott asked, ready to argue the merits of sending her away.

"No," the rancher sighed out. "I know it's for the best and should have been done long before now. I'm going to miss her terribly, though."

Scott nodded, relieved.

"I just feel uncertain how this will all work out. If Maria will be content to stay in the valley. If Johnny will be enough reason for her to settle down."

Scott blew out a breath. "Well, I have to say, she seems sincere, Murdoch. I like her and she shows a lot of love for Johnny. I know he feels very protective of her. If she did leave, it would hurt him deeply."

"Which is exactly why I'm worried, son. She's already hurt him once."

"She didn't intend that, Murdoch. It was all a horrible mistake."

"I'm not talking about him thinking she was dead. I'm talking about how she lied to him about me. He could have come home, Scott. After he thought she'd died, he could have come to me all those years ago if only ....." Murdoch trailed off, not feeling the need to speak the tale again.

"She was trying to protect him. She was sure he'd be killed, you know that. So, are you going to be able to forgive her?" Scott asked.

Murdoch shook his head slowly back and forth. "I honestly don't know."

*

Murdoch waited until Saturday night to tell Teresa they were having a guest for supper the next evening. She said nothing, only nodded. Johnny spent Sunday morning riding the countryside alone. He'd avoided Teresa as much as possible and she had not spoken one word to him all week. He hated how things had panned out but he wouldn't turn his back on his own mother - not for anyone.

He sat the saddle and looked out over the vista, letting his mind relax and just appreciate the beauty around him. Then, he turned his head at the sound of a rider. Smiling, he went back to his view and waited.

"Mind some company?"

"Not at all, brother. How're things at home?"

Scott grimaced a little. "Quiet as a church."

Johnny let out a breath and nodded. "Tomorrow is gonna be tough. Think she'll bother to say goodbye?"

"I don't know. I was hoping to talk to her but she isn't interested. She's already packed."

Nodding, Johnny looked into his brother's worried gaze and smiled. "I'm not going to feel guilty about this, Scott."

"No reason you should. But, that's never stopped you before."

"Maybe, but not this time."

"Good. You know, I've been thinking that Murdoch's right. I really don't know how we'll ever find out who was behind this whole mess."

Johnny sighed and nodded his head. "I know. I thought maybe she'd remember something that would give us a clue. It was a long time ago. It's just hard to let go of, Scott. Every time I think about what he did and how it affected all of us, I just want to hit something."

"I feel the same way, brother, but we may have no choice but to let it go," Scott advised.

"Yeah, you're right. But, then, you usually are," Johnny said and grinned cheekily.

Scott rolled his eyes and laughed. "So, what would you like to do for the next hour or so?"

Johnny's grin turned wicked as he looked down the hill. "Race ya," he said then took off like a bolt of lightning before Scott could even respond.

The older man shook his head then set off in pursuit.

*

Teresa finished the last letter then sealed it in an envelope before addressing it. She stared at the stack and sighed lightly. She'd made no apologies for what she'd said, only the way she'd said it and the language she'd used. She could only hope they'd understand one day. She prayed Johnny's pain would be tolerable when that woman hurt him again. For she knew that's exactly what would happen. She was almost glad she wouldn't be here to see it. Almost.

Tears threatened as she thought of leaving her home. She had no illusions. She knew she'd never see Lancer again. Or, at least, not for many years to come. The very thought caused a sob to escape her lips but then she fought the tears back. Determined not to cry anymore, she wiped her eyes and stood to pace her room.

She'd thought about the letters, what to say to each of them, for days now. She couldn't speak to them without becoming emotional and that would only make matters worse. She knew they wouldn't like what they read for the most part but that was just too bad. She needed them to understand her point of view and since they refused to allow her to speak it, she'd written it instead. Whether they read her words was their choice. She knew she'd done all she could. Now, she was being punished for it. So be it.

She had no intention of eating supper with them. Knew she could not put on a happy face in 'her' presence. She'd eaten a late lunch and decided she'd have a late supper after they'd all finished the meal. The only person she'd informed of this plan was Maria.

Maria. She sighed once more thinking of the woman. She had no idea how Maria felt about all that had transpired. Teresa believed the older woman was siding with the Lancers. That she agreed with them sending her away. The housekeeper and said not one word about Johnny's mother's miraculous return from the grave. Not one hint of concern for the young man's heart and nothing about Murdoch, either.

She'd thought more than once about having a heart to heart talk with the woman but she supposed she was afraid to actually hear Maria say she agreed with what was happening. She wasn't so sure Maria would say one way or the other. She never spoke ill of the Lancers; loved them all fiercely. Which is why her silence was a surprise. Normally, she had no problem telling any of them they were being foolish. Now, she was suddenly mute.

She tensed when she heard voices in the hall. Loud, boisterous voices. Scott and Johnny laughing and teasing each other as if all were normal. She felt like crying again. To avoid this, she managed to get angry. It helped keep the tears at bay but it didn't stop her heart from breaking all over again.

*

Maria pulled the buggy to a stop in front of the hacienda and took a breath. She set the brake and pulled her hanky from her sleeve then patted her forehead and cheeks. She moved slowly as she began to disembark. Suddenly, she saw hands in front of her. Looking up slowly, she met Murdoch's troubled gaze. Giving him a small smile, she allowed him to help her down.

"Gracias," she breathed.

"Are you alright? You look pale," he noted.

"Si, I'm fine. It is quite warm, don't you think?" she asked then walked inside before he could answer.

The answer was no, he thought, it wasn't overly warm this evening. Not nearly as warm as she was used to in Mexico. His concern turned into a frown as he followed her inside.

She was sitting on the sofa when he found her and he made to the sideboard, pouring her a glass of water before sitting opposite her and handing it off.

"Thank you."

"Are you sure you're alright, Maria?"

"Quite sure, Murdoch. Where is Johnny?" she asked, unwilling to look into his eyes.

"He and Scott will be down in a minute."

She nodded and managed to look at him. "And Teresa?"

Murdoch dropped his own gaze. "She won't be joining us. She's packing for a trip."

"Oh? Where to, if I might ask?"

Murdoch repositioned himself in the chair and crossed his legs. "She's going to Boston to a finishing school there."

Maria raised her brows at this and cocked her head in an all too familiar gesture.

"Well, I thought it was about time. I should have sent her a year ago but with the boys coming home and everything that was happening, I let it go," he explained.

"I hope she finds it a beneficial experience," she said.

*

Johnny bounced down the stairs and entered the room with a smile. Maria turned to look at him and, as he rounded the sofa, the smile left his face.

"What's the matter?" he asked.

She looked oddly at him and shook her head.

Johnny sat next to her and looked closely. "You're pale, mama. Are you sick?"

"Don't be silly, Johnny. I'm a little tired, is all," she reprimanded.

But Johnny wasn't satisfied. "Why are you tired?"

"I've been getting the cabin together. You know that."

"Yeah, but most of it was done days ago. Now, are you gonna be straight with me or do I have to send for the doc right now?"

Murdoch had to smile a little at his son's paternal tone but he had to admit, she didn't look well to him either.

"Honestly! Do you think you are the parent and I the child now? I am fine, hijo. Enough," she said sternly.

To Murdoch's surprise, Johnny backed down. He couldn't help staring openly as his son sank back in the sofa cushions and lowered his eyes. The room grew silent as Maria scowled.

Scott saved them all unknowingly as he entered the room and greeted Maria warmly. His presence vivified Johnny and all seemed well again.

Soon, they gathered around the table for supper with small talk and brotherly bantering relaxing them all. Still, Murdoch noticed Johnny was a little off pudding; as if he were forcing himself to be his normally charming and witty self.

After dinner, they retired to the living room again but Maria begged off soon after. Johnny walked her out, arguing the whole way about escorting her home. She won out and he gave her a hand into the buggy.

Laying a hand on her arm, he waited until she looked him in the eye. "Go see the doctor. If it's nothing, I'll apologize and pay for the visit."

"Johnny...."

"Please, mama. For me," he said softly.

She sighed and nodded. "Very well, miel. For you."

"Manana," he said strongly.

"Manana," she promised.

*

The next morning, Scott and Johnny loaded the surrey with Teresa's bags then stayed back while she walked outside. Murdoch was with her and waited to give her a hand up. She hesitated and he thought she was going to cry or make a scene so he braced himself.

Jelly had sauntered over to see her off and was standing with the brothers. She looked up and walked over to them. She passed out the letters to each one then walked back to Murdoch and gave him his. Then, she climbed into the surrey and stared straight ahead.

Scott stared at her back and Johnny turned away quickly, anger taking hold of him once more. He heard the surrey roll off and turned back to his brother and Jelly.

"Reckon what she wrote she couldn't just say?" Jelly pondered.

"Why don't you read it and find out?" Johnny said sharply then sighed. "I'm sorry, Jelly."

"It's alright, boy. Think I'll go read it in my room," he said and walked away.

Scott pressed his lips together for a few seconds. "She could have at least said goodbye."

"So could we."

"It's not like she gave us much of a chance, Johnny," he said angrily.

"No, don't guess so," he mumbled and stuffed the letter in his back pocket.

"Aren't you going to read it?" Scott asked.

"Not right now. I don't want to be any more ticked off than I am. I'm goin to work," he answered and walked to the corral.

Scott figured that was probably a good idea and decided to wait until the evening to read his letter as well. He folded it and stuck it in his shirt pocket then went about his day.

*

Murdoch stole glances at her every few minutes, wondering what was in the envelope in his breast pocket. She was being stubborn and childish and he didn't want things to be left like this.

"Don't you think we should talk, Teresa?" he asked as they neared town.

"I can't think of anything left to say," she replied flatly.

"Other than what you wrote, you mean?"

She hesitated. "Yes, that's what I mean. Please, let's not argue. This is hard enough. I just want to go." Her voice quivered slightly.

Murdoch sighed and said no more as they pulled up near the stage depot. He greeted the owner of the mercantile, Mr. Hanson, who had agreed to escort Teresa as he was headed to Philadelphia on a buying trip.  

Murdoch stayed with her until the stage arrived though one couldn't tell as she ignored him the entire time. The stage pulled up and loaded her luggage. As she waited her turn to board, her hands began to shake. She turned to Murdoch standing beside her and looked up into his eyes.

"All I ever wanted was to protect you. I love you like my own father. I hope everything works out for you. Goodbye."

Murdoch swept her into his arms and hugged her tightly. "I love you, Teresa. Never forget that and please understand this really is the best thing for you. I hope someday, you'll come to realize that. Take care of yourself and write to us when you get there."

As he released her, she only nodded then turned and quickly boarded the stage. She looked out the window with tears in her eyes and reached out. He grasped her hand and held on until the stage pulled away then waved until it was out of sight.

Murdoch sighed heavily and leaned against the support post for the building. He gave himself a moment then straightened and walked back to the surrey.

*

The weeks passed and the Lancer men tried to go on with their normal activities. Almost daily, one or more of them would think about the words Teresa had written to them. Though none of them had shared the contents with the others, the message was remarkably the same with some added details specific to each man's standing in her life. Jelly's was the only one without animosity though he didn't share his either.

Johnny spent a great deal off his free time with his mother and their bond strengthened daily. He still watched her like a hawk even though she had assured him the doctor had given her a clean bill of health. He wasn't completely convinced.

He stood in the cabin ready to leave one day. As he was saying goodbye, she swooned a little. He moved to grab her and sat her on a chair.

"Alright, tell me the truth. Something is wrong, mama."

"Johnny, I am getting older and a woman's body changes. It is nothing, miel. Now, go. I will see you Sunday," she told him adamantly.

He stared at her for a long beat then nodded. "Sunday, then."

It had become a ritual that she had Sunday supper with them now. Murdoch was much more relaxed around her and she had allowed herself to hope he'd forgiven her. She prayed it was so.

Johnny left her but he didn't go home. He headed to Green River and straight to Sam Jenkins. He walked into the office and called for the doctor.

Sam walked out and gave him a wary look. "Johnny, what can I do for you?"

Johnny slapped his hat against his thigh and fixed a stony gaze on the man. "You can tell me what's wrong with my mother, Sam."

The doctor lowered his eyes for a brief moment then looked back at him. "You know better than to ask me about the health of one of my patients. If your mother has something to tell you, it's up to her to tell it."

"Then, there is something to tell," Johnny surmised.

"I really couldn't say."

Johnny ground his teeth as he glared at the man but it soon passed. He never could stay angry with Sam no matter what. Still, the man's reaction had told him something, at least, and his heart cramped a little.

*

Scott watched his brother all day Saturday as he worked with a vengeance. It seemed Johnny had a personal vendetta against the corral fence they were building. More than once, his brother had cursed colorfully when something didn't go just right. Scott was a little surprised that he was doing so in English. Generally, Johnny cussed in Spanish. He'd told Scott once it just sounded better.

He waited until the day's work was nearly done before approaching Johnny; figuring he'd be too tired to knock his head off by then. He walked over to the fence rail and watched his brother bang the devil out of it with a hammer.

"What's eating you, brother?"

Johnny glanced up but never stopped working. "Nothin."

Scott cocked a brow. "Then, you're just especially angry at the fence today. Did it offend you in some way?" He didn't think it was possible but Johnny's shoulders tensed even more.

"Look, I know something is wrong so spill it, Johnny," he pressed.

Johnny stopped and stood up straight, tossing the hammer down and putting his hands on his hips as he glared at Scott. Within seconds, his expression changed to pure misery and he walked away.

Scott relaxed his own shoulders and walked up beside his brother. "Talk to me."

Johnny hung his head and closed his eyes for a moment. "I think my mother's real sick. She keeps getting dizzy and she's pale all the time. I know she went to see Sam cause I asked her to but she said she was fine. Then, I went to ask Sam."

"What did he say?"

"He said if I wanted to know anything, I'd have to ask her. That just makes me sure somethin's wrong. I mean, he would have said she was okay, wouldn't he?" he asked, looking into his brother's eyes for some reassurance.

Scott looked into his eyes and felt the desperation coming from the younger man. "I couldn't say. Sam is funny about patient confidentiality. Maybe, he felt he shouldn't say anything no matter what," he shrugged a little.

"Maybe," Johnny said softly.

"Have you asked her?"

"Of course I did, Scott. She said she was just gettin older."

Scott smiled a little at that but he could see his brother was torturing himself. "Maybe, you should try again. Talk to her tomorrow when she comes for supper."

*

Johnny spent most of that evening in his room. Scott told their father of his fears and Murdoch couldn't dismiss it. He'd seen how pale she was and she seemed thinner as well. He thought to talk to his son but he had no words of comfort. He had no idea if Johnny's concerns were valid. He thought he'd talk to Maria himself and see what was going on.

Johnny sat on his bed and read the letter Teresa had given him the day she left. As always, it left him angry and disappointed with the girl. Her words were cutting; accusing him of not caring for his father's feelings and parading his mother in front of the old man. Telling him he was selfish.

Selfish! Well, maybe he was but he didn't really care. Her mother was no saint! She had no room to talk about anyone else.

He jumped off the bed and paced the room, clenching and unclenching his fists as he worked through the anger. He had other worries right now. He didn't know why he was reading that stupid letter again anyway. She'd only written once since then. She'd said she had arrived at the school and was settling in. That was it.

Well, if she wanted to act like a spoiled brat, so be it. At least he didn't have to be around it every day. She'd been so sympathetic when he'd come home. He understood now that sympathy was for Murdoch, not him. That was okay. He was glad she loved the old man so much. That didn't give her the right to try and come between him and either of his parents.

He stopped by the window and looked out over the land. Closing his eyes, he let himself picture it in his mind. It almost always helped when he was feeling unsettled, angry or defensive. Just seeing Lancer soothed his nerves.

Tomorrow, he would have a talk with his mother and get the truth from her. His heart sank thinking about that. Was he sure he wanted to know the truth? He thought not. He wanted nothing to interfere with his life now. He had both his parents, they were getting along and he had never been happier.

Which is exactly why he knew something was bad wrong. He never trusted happiness; always approached it with a measure of suspicion. For it always failed him in the end. He could only hope that had changed.

It wasn't helping much this time; thinking about Lancer. That was another sure sign, he figured. He had nowhere to vent his frustration either and that only lent to heightening it. He left his room and walked outside. Taking the outside stairs, he went to the barn and, hopefully, some solace.

*

Murdoch stood on the veranda Sunday morning, relishing the quiet of the day. His sons had a habit of sleeping in on this day and he couldn't fault them for that. Any work that needed tending could wait until later. He'd always allowed only the most necessary jobs be attended to on the Sabbath. His own childhood and his vaqueros' faith had driven that decision.

This was the time of the day he enjoyed most. Before anyone else arose, while it was still and peaceful; the early morning fog still on the ground, the dew on the grass. The air smelled sweet as honey and he inhaled deeply of it.

A noise broke his reverie and he scanned the yard but saw nothing untoward. He craned his neck and looked to the side of the house, sure the sound had come from that direction. He still could see nothing so he walked around to the garden.

Murdoch watched as his younger son paced the edge of the vegetable garden. Every so often, he would stop and kick at the fence that edged the plants. That must have been what he'd heard in the near silence of the morning. Johnny's arms were wrapped so tightly around himself, Murdoch could see the white knuckles. He idly thought the young man would be pretty bruised if he kept this up.

Clearing his throat, he approached slowly. "Good morning."

Johnny stopped and faced him letting go of himself and allowing his arms to hang at his sides. "Mornin."

"You're up early," the older man commented.

"Never went to bed."

"Why?"

Johnny sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "Just have a lot on my mind, is all."

Murdoch nodded. "Scott told me your concerns about Maria. Don't make yourself sick over what may be nothing, son," he advised.

Johnny smiled briefly. "You know me. Can't seem to help myself."

"Yes, I do know that. I wish you could find some other way to deal with it other than going without sleep."

"Well, I guess I could've gotten drunk and passed out," Johnny shot snidely.

Murdoch raised a brow and walked closer. "I suppose but then you'd have a whole other problem. Why don't you go lie down? At least rest if not sleep. You won't be worth a plug nickel if you don't. So, why worry your mother, and me for that matter?"

Johnny considered the idea and nodded. "Yeah, okay. I'll try. But, wake me up before she gets here if I do sleep, okay?"

"I will, son," Murdoch promised then patted his shoulder as he passed. He sighed once alone and shook his head. Worry. A person could lose their mind worrying about things they didn't know or had no control over. It was hard enough worrying over the things you could change.

*

Johnny's body overruled his active mind and he fell asleep just as Scott walked into the kitchen for a late breakfast.

"Good morning, Sir."

"Morning, son," Murdoch said distractedly. His coffee cup was raised in midair as if he meant to take a drink but it went no further.

"Is Johnny up yet?" Scott asked as he poured his own cup.

"He just went to bed."

Scott turned from the stove and stared at his father's back for a second. "Up all night worrying about his mother, I assume?"

"Yes, I'm afraid so. You know how he is, Scott."

Scott took a seat to Murdoch's right and nodded. "Yes, I know how he is. Hopefully, she can put his mind at ease today."

Murdoch looked at him somberly. "I hope so."

*

Maria stopped the buggy just before the hacienda would come into sight. She fished the brown bottle from her bag and took a swallow, chasing it with water from a canteen. She smoothed back her hair and pinched her cheeks and knew it wouldn't help. Inhaling deeply, she took up the reins and slapped the horse into a slow trot. She was sure she'd pass out if she had to go much further. Thankfully, she was almost there. She wasn't too sure she could pull this off.  

She watched the house grow larger as she made her way along. Every time she saw it her heart skipped a few beats. She'd never get used to this, she knew. It didn't matter now, though. Soon, she would never see it again. This thought saddened her more than she was prepared for.

But, Johnny had been born in that house. She smiled as she remembered that night. Murdoch had paced relentlessly, wearing on her already jumbled nerves. Once the pains were coming fast and furious, he'd stood near the end of the bed and waited.

Men didn't usually stay in the birthing room but he refused to leave. She knew it was his fear of history repeating itself. As much as she had tried to reassure him, she knew anything could happen during delivery so she hadn't been able to quite pull it off. Truthfully, she was scared to death herself. She'd never given birth before and really didn't know what to expect.

She shivered a little as she thought of the agony, relaxed when she remembered the pure joy of hearing her baby's cry. Joy, relief and gratitude. And there had been many tears. Some of them from her husband.

Her husband. She sighed loudly. Dios! She had loved him then. She shook her head. Fool, you still do, she admitted to herself. Well, it no longer mattered.

She pulled to a stop, thankful Johnny wasn't outside, and gave herself a moment before stepping to the ground.

*

Scott had awakened Johnny and he descended the stairs looking and feeling much better. His heart was still heavy with dread but he was trying hard to be optimistic. He heard the buggy outside and hesitated on the last step. Pulling himself together, he walked outside just as she was approaching the door.

Johnny smiled as always when he saw her but it was tempered with concern. She looked unwell and he noticed once more the weight she'd lost. He took her arm and guided her inside and to an armchair.

Murdoch and Scott stood when she entered the room and greeted her. Once settled, Johnny brought her a glass of water.

"How are you, Maria?" Murdoch asked congenially.

"Well, and you?" she replied automatically.

Johnny snorted softly and walked over near the fireplace, leaning against the wall.

Murdoch answered her briefly and she felt all eyes on her. "I have news but I don't think some of you are going to like it," she started.

"Go on," Murdoch urged.

She set the water glass down and smoothed her skirt. "I have decided to return to Mexico."

"Why?" Scott blurted out.

She smiled at him softly. "I have enjoyed my time here but I'm homesick. I miss the children and the orphanage and my friends. I hope you'll understand."

Johnny pushed off from the wall and stood straight, glaring at her. "I understand perfectly. You're runnin again! Only, this time, it ain't some killer you're runnin from, it's yourself!"

Murdoch leaned back in his chair. He felt many things at the moment, not the least of which was de ja vu. He found he couldn't chastise his son for his outburst. He sat quietly and waited.

"Johnny, please. It is my home," she tried.

"So was this at one time. You told me you missed Lancer. Or was that just a lie?"

"Take it easy, brother," Scott tried.

Johnny shook his head. "No, I won't. Not until she tells me the truth. You're not leaving because you miss Mexico. You're leaving because you're sick. Isn't that right?"

She lowered her eyes and gathered her skirt material between her clenched fists. Biting her lip, she fought back the tears.

*

"I've caused you enough pain, son. It's best if I just go," she whispered.

Johnny moved to her side, kneeling next to the chair and taking her hand. "Mama, if you leave, it will hurt more. Whatever is wrong, stay here and let us help you get through it," he quietly pleaded.

"You can't help me, Johnny. There's nothing that can be done."

He swallowed hard at the lump in his throat and thought he'd managed to move it - right into his heart. "What is it?"

She looked up at him, eyes brimming, lower lip trembling. "Cancer," she breathed.

Johnny only stared at her for a moment then dropped his head. She stroked the black hair slowly.

"What did Sam say?" Murdoch finally managed to choke out.

She took a deep breath and looked at him. "There is no treatment. He thinks maybe six months."

Scott closed his eyes briefly and reminded himself to never ignore Johnny's instincts about anything ever again. When he looked at his brother, all he saw was the top of his head.

Murdoch's gaze never left hers as the pain intensified in the pale blue depths. He managed a small supportive smile and nodded.

"I think the best thing for you to do is move in here, Maria."

Both young men looked at their father as he made the offer.

Stunned, she gawked at him. "I can't ..."

"Yes, you can. Please, mama, stay here with me. Give us this time," Johnny interrupted.

"It isn't fair to your father, miel."

"I made the offer, Maria, and I meant it. I want you to live here. I want Johnny to have as much time with you as he can. And, I'd like to make things as easy on you as possible," Murdoch stated. He wasn't sure how he was maintaining his calm at the moment.

"Why? Forgive me, but why would you be so generous to me, Murdoch? You owe me nothing," she asked, stunned.

He looked oddly at her. "I owe you everything. You gave me my son."

"Then took him away," she reminded unnecessarily.

Scott smirked a little and shrugged. "Details. And not the whole of it, either, I might add."

Johnny laughed a little at that then looked to her again. "Por favor, mama. No me deje otra vez." (Don't leave me again)

The tears fell down her cheeks as she smiled at her child. "Si, permanecer." (Yes, I'll stay)

*

Within the hour, Scott and Johnny were headed to her cabin to collect her belongings. Maria tried to go with them but they insisted she stay behind and rest. It was obvious to them all she felt very badly.

Murdoch took her upstairs to a bedroom next to Johnny's.

"It will help him knowing you're right next door," he explained.

She nodded and looked around the spacious room. "I remember this room. I wanted to use it as a sewing room but I never got around to it. The light has always been good in here," she smiled, remembering another life. She turned to look at him with a serious expression then.

"Murdoch, please tell me this won't be too difficult for you."

"Maria, we've been getting along, haven't we?"

"Si, but we have been living apart," she reminded.

"I know but I'm sure I can handle it. Besides, it doesn't really matter. You need Johnny and he needs you. It really is as simple as that."

She sighed as she recalled more vividly his stubbornness. "I see you put our sonâ€s needs before your own and that is as it should be. But, pretend for a moment Johnny is not in the equation. Now, tell me this does not upset you."

He smiled and rubbed a thumb down the side of his nose. "Maria, I've been angry with you for years. Lately, I've been able to put that anger aside. You've told me your side of things and, whether I agree with your actions or not isn't the issue. There are always two sides to every story. Two different perspectives. I've accepted your apologies and I'd like to move on now." He stopped and moved closer to her.

"You are going to need Johnny - all of us - and we're going to be here for you. And, Scott and I will be here for Johnny when ..... afterwards. There is no other place you should be than with the one person who loves you more than life itself. Johnny would do anything for you. I'm quite sure he would have packed up and moved back to Mexico if that's where you wanted to spend these months."

"That would have been alright with you?" she asked.

He frowned and shook his head. "No, but not because of you. It's not the safest place for him to be."

"Si, of course you are right. I would not have let him go. I want you to know that," she said.

"I do know that. Why don't you lie down for a while? If you feel up to it, we'll have a nice supper in a bit," he smiled.

"Gracias, Murdoch. Muchos gracias," she said with a trembling voice.

*

Johnny hurried through the cabin, grabbing up everything and shoving it into her bags. Scott watched him, worried he'd get run over if he tried to help. He knew why his brother was so frantic. He knew nothing to say to help him right now. Still, he thought he should try and before they got back to the ranch.

"Johnny, stop for a minute."

He did and turned to face Scott. "What? Did I miss something?"

"No, brother. I want to talk to you."

"Not now, Scott. I want to get back."

"She'll be there, Johnny. Look, I know this is killing you. Talk to me, okay?"

Johnny turned his back and his shoulders fell. "I can't believe this is happening again," he whispered.

Scott walked over and took hold of his shoulders. "I know, brother, I know. I'm so sorry, Johnny. I wish I knew what to say to make you feel better."

"Nothing is gonna make me feel better, Scott. Nothing."

Scott could only hold onto him and pray for guidance. Johnny's head came up and he turned around, Scott's hands sliding off his shoulders.

"There is something we can do."

"What?"

"Well," Johnny breathed out. "However it came to be, my mother never had the finer things in life. She always had to work so hard for everything we had. I'd like to give her that as much as possible. Make her room real grand and buy her some pretty things, you know," he shrugged.

Scott smiled and nodded. "I think I have an idea about that, brother. Will you trust me with it?"

Johnny looked at him like it was the craziest question he'd ever heard. "Of course, I trust you, Scott. You know all about that fancy stuff, anyway."

*

The next morning, Scott headed to Green River early. Johnny had spoken with his father the night before about taking some time off. Not yet. But, when the time came, he'd explained.

Murdoch had thought his son was behaving much more maturely than he himself at the moment. The rancher was having a lot harder time with this than he could admit. Johnny told him of his plans and Scott's mission and Murdoch had only shook his head and smiled.

Johnny had spent the rest of that evening alone with his mother. They didn't talk much as she'd fallen asleep quickly. He'd sat with her for the longest time, just studying her face. A face he knew better than his own.

Scott dismounted in front of the biggest house in the town and walked to the door. He didn't really know this woman well, had only spoken to her briefly twice in two years so he hoped she would oblige him.

The door opened to his knock as the lady herself answered, much to his surprise.

"Mrs. Cornwall, my name is Scott Lancer," he started.

"I know who you are, young man. What may I do for you?"

Scott twisted his hat in his hands. "Well, ma'am, this is going to sound rather odd, I suppose, but I need a favor."

She was completely gray now, her hair in a neat bun. Her face still smooth and her blue eyes intimidating. She was dressed elegantly as always. She was a widow of ten years, her husband a successful businessman who'd died in a tragic accident. She'd managed his business affairs herself and was reputed to be quite savvy as well as the most fashionable woman in the valley. Scott knew that wasn't saying much here but she kept up on the latest styles and was never seen with a hair out of place.

"A favor? Please, come in," she offered, intrigued with the young man.

Scott stepped inside and knew he'd come to the right woman. Now, he could only hope she'd help him. This was going to be hard.

She invited him into the parlor and he begged off the offer of tea.

"Well, then, how may I help you, Scott?"

He fidgeted a little then called upon his Boston breeding. Something he hadn't had much use for lately. But it was as much a part of him as anything and came easily to the forefront. He took a deep breath and told her about Maria and her history with Murdoch. About Johnny and basically everything about his brother's life. He hated it but he knew he had to tell her the whole story. He had no right to expect her help if she didn't understand the reasons.

When he'd finished, he looked expectantly at her. Mrs. Cornwall was staring at the small coffee table and he couldn't really see her face. Suddenly, she sniffled a little and dabbed daintily at her nose with a lace handkerchief.

"Forgive me. That is the saddest thing I've ever heard. Yet, miraculously, Mrs. Lancer is alive and back in Johnny's life. At least, there's a happy ending," she brightened as she looked up at him.

"I only wish that were true, ma'am. You see, we found out last night that Johnny's mother is gravely ill and nothing can be done to help her."

The woman's face fell again and Scott was sure she'd start sobbing any moment.

"That's why I've come to you, Mrs. Cornwall. Johnny needs your help."

*

Her head snapped back up and she straightened her shoulders. "That's all you had to say in the first place, Scott Lancer. I would do anything for that young man."

"You would?" he blurted out before thinking.

She smiled a little. "You don't know, do you?"

"Know what?" he asked, totally perplexed.

"Last Spring when we had those heavy rains I was at the general store. The roads were quite muddy and I was attempting to cross to the bank. Well, I slipped in the mud and fell right on my ...... pride," she smirked. "A wagon came barreling down the road much too fast for the weather conditions. It was obvious the man couldn't stop the animals in time once he saw me. I screamed and before I knew it, I was scooped up and carried to the boardwalk. When I looked up, Johnny was looking down at me with the most concerned expression.

"He got me to my feet and took off his jacket, wrapping it around me. Then, he brought me home, shouting out to the staff as we entered. He began issuing orders for a hot bath and tea and settled me by the fire to warm me up. He spent a good hour here until he was sure I was alright. Then, he offered to get the doctor to see after me. I have never witnessed such concern for a total stranger as I did that day, Scott. He didn't even know my name at the time."

She stopped and leaned in closer as if her next words might be overheard. "I will confess this to you but deny it should you repeat it to anyone. I fell in love with that young man that day."

Scott was grinning ear to ear during the telling. It wasn't a chore at all for him to picture Johnny doing these things and pride swelled in him for not the first time.

"Now, tell me how I can help Johnny and his poor mother," she was saying.

Scott pulled himself together and began telling her Johnny's idea. She didn't seem to react adversely, just nodded her head in understanding.  

"I have a few ideas. Let me look into some things. I'll get back to you within two days," she promised.

Scott left the house feeling much better and more than willing to leave this in the hands of an expert.

*

Two days later, a wagon rolled into the yard of Lancer followed by an expensive surrey. Johnny walked out of the barn and smiled when he saw Mrs. Cornwall. He walked over and helped her down.

"Johnny, how are you, my dear?"

"I'm alright, Mrs. Cornwall. You?"

"Fit as a fiddle, as they say," she smiled. She could see the sadness he was trying to conceal and her heart broke once more.

"What's all this?" Johnny asked of the wagon.

"Well, your brother came to see me the other day. He asked for my assistance."

"Oh, right. He told me about that. Still, what is all this?" Johnny asked, watching as two men unloaded a Queen Anne chair, a day bed, bolts of silk and crates whose contents he couldn't see.

"Never you mind, young man. This is woman's work. Just introduce me to your mother and have someone show these men where her room is. They know what to do."

Johnny looked at her for a second then shrugged and took her gently by the arm, guiding her into the house. Maria was on the sofa reading when they entered. Johnny introduced the women and decided it was best if he just left. He went to find his father so the man wouldn't have a fit when he walked in the house.

When Mrs. Cornwall explained her presence, Maria was not impressed, she was insulted. She stood and walked over toward Murdoch's desk before facing the woman again.

"So, you bring your charity here, is that it?"

Mildred Cornwall was unperturbed by her demeanor. "Mrs. Lancer, Scott came to me with a request from Johnny. He wants you to be comfortable. No, more than that. He wants his mother living in the lap of luxury. This is his gift to you, not mine. I hope you will accept this token of your son's love for you."

Maria lowered her eyes and turned her profile to the woman. "It is Miss Alvarez, not Mrs. Lancer anymore," she corrected then turned back. "And this is from Johnny? All of it?"

"Yes. They're men, my dear. They haven't a clue how to go about this. That is why Scott came to me. They needed a woman's help. Can you imagine those two trying to pick out furniture and the like?" she laughed.

Maria laughed as well. No, she couldn't picture that at all. The more she tried, the funnier the images were. She walked back over and sat on the sofa. "Then, I am grateful to you for helping my son."

"Johnny is a treasure as I'm sure you know. He saved my life last year. I'd do anything for that young man."

*

Two hours later, Maria walked into her bedroom and gawked openly. The transformation was remarkable. The room glowed with soft pinkish hues that inspired tranquility.

"Tomorrow, a bed will be delivered that you'll find much more comfortable as well as a few other odds and ends," Mrs. Cornwall said.

"Whoa!" Johnny exclaimed from behind them. "How did you do all this?"

"Very impressive, Mrs. Cornwall," Scott agreed.

"Thank you, gentlemen. Now, I must be going. The bed should be here by noon and my men will set it up for you," she said.

"A bed? Ma'am, you didn't have to go to all this trouble. I didn't expect it to be ...." Johnny floundered.

"Elegant? That is what you wanted, isn't it, Johnny? Your mother now has a haven of luxury," the woman smiled.

"Johnny, miel, it is beautiful. Too beautiful. You should not have done all this," Maria said, tears in her eyes.

When Johnny looked at his mother, any thoughts of overdoing went out the window. He smiled and walked over, taking her in his arms. "It can't be as beautiful as you, mama. You deserve this so just enjoy it, please."

Mrs. Cornwall felt those confounded emotions overcoming her again and quietly left the room. Scott smiled at the woman and followed, leaving his brother and Maria alone.

"Thank you, my son. It is magnifico."

Johnny smiled and hugged her tighter. "Is there anything else you want in here? Anything at all, just name it."

"No, hijo. This is more than enough," she said.

He noticed her leaning into him more heavily and he moved her to the bed, sitting her down. "Rest a while, mama. I'll be back later," he whispered as he laid her down. He kissed her cheek and left her then hurried downstairs to catch up.

Mrs. Cornwall was about to get in her surrey when he found her.

"Ma'am?" he called and walked over then hung his head. "I don't know how to thank you for all this."

"Johnny, I'm the one with a debt to pay. This doesn't even come close to repaying it. I'll do anything I can to help, my boy. Anytime, you just come to me."

Johnny looked up at her. "Anyone would've done what I did."

"No, Johnny, that isn't true. Even if it were, no one else did. No one else even tried," she told and kissed him on the cheek.

Johnny blushed and lowered his head again. She laughed lightly and stepped into the surrey. As she was riding off, she turned back and called out. "Any time, remember that!"

*

Murdoch was flabbergasted at the sight. Johnny had told him they were 'fixin up the room' but this was .... overwhelming. He never would have even thought about doing this and he felt some chagrin over that. But, he was also proud of his sons.

Once in the living room with the other two men, Johnny said what he'd been thinking since that morning. "I don't think she bought any of that. I think it's all from her house. She shouldn't have done that."

"I think you're right but, she could never have gotten all those things here so quickly any other way," Scott said.

"Well, we can return them to her if she wants when ..." Murdoch trailed off and felt like smacking himself.

Scott cleared his throat. "Why didn't you tell us you saved Mrs. Cornwall's life?"

"Wasn't that big a deal," Johnny shrugged.

"I think she'd disagree, brother. In fact, I know she would," Scott grinned.

Johnny gave him a small smile. "Well, think I'll clean up and check on mama," he said and left the room.

"When will I ever learn to keep my big mouth shut," Murdoch groused.

Scott laughed a little. "I don't know but I hope it's soon."

Murdoch didn't laugh or smile.

"Sir, he knows you didn't mean anything by it. Don't be so hard on yourself." Scott sat across from him and leaned forward. "It occurs to me that this is very difficult for you, as well. Having Maria here and being so ill. Watching her .... die," his voice softened substantially with the last word.

"It's much harder than I would have thought, son. No matter what has happened, we were married. We had a child together. Those feelings don't just go away even after all this time."

Johnny leaned his head back against the dining room wall as he listened to their conversation. It was as he'd thought. This was much harder on his father than he'd first given thought to. In fact, he hadn't thought about it at all and now, he felt like a fool. Of course the old man was suffering, too. Johnny resolved to try and get his parents to spend some time together while they still had it to spend.

*

Maria seemed to have found some new strength that evening and talk around the supper table was animated and light. Johnny still watched her like a hawk but he felt better tonight, as well. He'd been thinking about his father and mother and decided, while he had no illusions, they still deserved some alone time.

After the meal, he beckoned his brother to the veranda and seated himself in one of the chairs there. Scott leaned against the wall across from him and waited.

"I was thinking maybe those two should have some time alone. Maybe settle things once and for all so they can both have some peace," Johnny explained.

Scott smiled warmly. "Sounds like an excellent idea to me, brother. Are you sure they can handle it, though?"

Johnny laughed softly. "Yeah, I think so." His expression faded as the sadness that had lived in his eyes for what seemed like forever returned.

Scott turned to his side and looked out over the vista. "She might enjoy a picnic with you, too."

"All of us. We're a family, Scott."

The older man looked back at him and Johnny misread his face.

"Aren't we?" he fairly challenged.

"Yes, I suppose we are but, at the end of the day, she is your mother, Johnny. I think I can speak for Murdoch as well as myself here. Neither of us want to impede on your time together."

Johnny looked at his lap. "Do you want to spend time with her?" he asked softly.

Scott smiled and kneeled in front of him. "I've enjoyed the times we've spent together very much. I've had more fun watching the two of you together. And, I will admit, your mother is very pleasant company. Brother, all I want is what makes you happy. Both of you."

Johnny looked into his eyes and smiled faintly. "I know. Thanks, Scott."

*

Murdoch drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair as he looked around the room. Maria watched him with some amusement for a while.

"Johnny does that."

He looked over with a frown. "Does what?"

She nodded toward his hand. "That. Tapping your fingers when you're nervous. Johnny does that, too."

"I'm not nervous," he quickly defended then sighed. "He does, doesn't he?" A small smile lifted his lips.

She laughed lightly. "I suppose you associate all his mannerisms with me. I do the same with you. All I know for certain is he managed to glean the best from us both and put his own brand on it. He truly is remarkable."

He watched her eyes well up as she spoke with so much love for their son. Murdoch's heart skipped a few beats.

"Did you know he saved Mrs. Cornwall's life last year?"

Maria looked up and nodded her head. "She didn't tell me much."

"Scott told me about it. He didn't know either until he went to see her. He was as surprised as me. Johnny never said a word."

"He wouldn't. He did that as a child, as well. He'd help some poor soul and never mention it. Sometimes, I would hear about it in the village. I'm sure I only heard a fraction, though. As I said, remarkable."

Murdoch smiled. "I wish I could take some credit for that. He makes me very proud."

She frowned and looked squarely at him. "You can take credit, Murdoch. He is so much like you. You never got the chance to help mold him but he takes after you so much."

"No, Maria, he's very much like you. Especially, in temperament," he grinned.

She gave him a sidelong look. "Of course, you are right. How could he take after such a quiet, meek man as yourself," she shot back with a roll of the eyes.

The both laughed at that for a moment then grew quiet again.

"Is Johnny all we can find to talk about? Not that I don't like talking about him, but we used to be able to talk about anything," Maria spoke.

Murdoch grew pensive before answering. "What would you like to talk about?"

*

For the next few weeks, the Lancers spent every available moment together. Sunday picnics had become a custom and sometimes they would take Maria fishing. She watched but had no intentions of dealing with smelly fish, she had proclaimed. The men simply laughed at her.

Johnny spent hours talking with her but it was Murdoch who stayed home during the day and they had lengthy conversations. Johnny was itching to know what they discussed. He hoped it was more than him. He realized it had to be. No one could talk that much just about him.

When he wasn't with his mother or his entire family, Johnny was with Scott. Murdoch had made sure they worked side by side on a daily basis now, no matter what the circumstance. Neither man was allowed to camp out on the range; hands were assigned to that chore when it was necessary.

Scott understood Murdoch's motives and he never had a problem working with his brother anyway. Still, it tickled him to see his father so overprotective. Not a trademark the man had ever possessed before. He spent a lot of that work time talking to his brother, trying to prepare him for what was to come. He knew there was no real way to do that but he still had to try. Johnny was being very open with him, discussing his feelings and fears. Scott had never felt this close to his brother and thought it not only ironic, but absurd that such a thing had brought them this closeness.

One Sunday, Johnny noticed something he had not before. Murdoch and Maria were walking along the shoreline of the lake holding hands. He raised a brow and thought back over the past few weeks. No, they definitely had not done this before. He felt a rush of joy that was quickly tempered with a profound sadness. That his parents had come together now when there was no hope for a future, hit him like a rockslide. He closed his eyes and leaned his back against a tree, trying to rein himself in.

He felt a hand on his arm and looked up at his brother then smiled. "You see them?"

Scott smiled widely. "Yes, I see, brother." But he also saw the pain in the blue eyes and knew exactly what his brother was feeling.

"He's settin himself up all over again."

Scott was surprised by the harshness in his tone. "He knows what he's doing, Johnny."

"I sure hope so."

Scott sat down next to him. "Isn't this what you wanted? I mean, deep down?"

"At first, but, not now. It doesn't matter now," Johnny mumbled.

"Oh, it matters a great deal, brother. It's hard enough to find love in this world. No one knows how much time they'll have to enjoy it. I think a person should grab hold and hang on for as long as it lasts. There's a quote I've always liked. "It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all"."

"Well, I'll tell ya, Boston. I've done that and I ain't so sure it is better," he remarked with some bitterness.

Scott didn't know quite what to say to that but he understood his brother's anger at the situation. It was unfair and he wished he could fix it.

"Sorry."

"No need, Johnny. I understand."

Johnny looked over at him and smiled. "You've been great, Scott. I don't know what I would've done without you through all this."

"I'm just glad to help however I can. I'm going to miss her, too."

Johnny nodded, thrilled his brother cared so much for his mother, saddened he'd brought this grief to Scott. It was almost as if he was finally living his own mother's death. Unfair didn't even begin to cover it as far as Johnny was concerned.

*

Maria watched the ground as they walked, knowing Murdoch's eyes were on her. She tightened her hold on his hand and he returned the gesture.

"You don't have to put on a brave face for us, you know. We can handle it, Maria. Don't wear yourself out for our benefit," he said gently.

She looked up at him and smiled. "You have always known me better than anyone."

"Except Johnny," he reminded her. "Don't think he doesn't see it, too. Lean on us, darling."

She stopped walking and turned to face him, craning her neck to look into his face. She smiled softly, almost whimsically. "Darling. It has been so long since you called me that."

Murdoch smiled back then glanced around. They were hidden from his sons' view now by a stand of trees then he spied a fallen log. "Sit over here," he said and guided her to a seat.

Joining her, he faltered for only a second before plunging in. "I suppose you already know but I still love you, Maria. I always have."

Her eyes welled up immediately. "As I have you." She shook her head then. "Such a fool I was."

"We're past that now, I hope. I know we can't ..... we don't ..."

"Have much time," she supplied for him.

"Yes, that's right. You may think me foolish. I'm sure the boys will. But, well, I see no reason why we shouldn't - if you would agree that is - get married again."

Maria stared at him in shock. The thought had never occurred to her, not even once, that they would remarry. She found her voice had left her and she blinked several times.

"Are you alright?" Murdoch asked with concern at her sudden pallor.

She nodded her head and swallowed hard.

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have ..."

"No, Murdoch, no. Forgive me, it's just such a surprise. I didn't know you were thinking about this."

"I have thought about it long and hard, Maria. I am sure. But, I would understand if you turned me down," he said softly.

"Oh, Murdoch, I just don't want you to do something you may regret. We don't have much time. I wouldn't be able to ..... be a real wife to you," she blushed.

"I know that, my dear, and I certainly don't expect it. And before you even think it, this is not for Johnny. I wouldn't propose marriage to anyone because it would make my son happy. That's not a reason to get married. I love you. It is that simple." He stopped and laughed a little. "And that complicated."

She also laughed, knowing how true that was.

*

Johnny and Scott looked up as they reappeared suddenly.

"Where did you two get off to?" Scott asked with a mischievous grin.

Murdoch cocked a brow at him. "Just taking a walk, son," he answered as he helped Maria sit on the blanket next to Johnny.

Johnny held onto her until she was down and comfortable. "Are you okay?"

"Si, miel. I'm fine. A little tired, perhaps."

"We should go then," he said and started to get up.

"Nonsense. We haven't even eaten yet. I can rest very well right here," she admonished.

"I can't figure it out," Scott spoke up.

"What's that, son?"

"Well, I always thought Johnny got his stubborn streak from you. Now, I'm not so sure," he grinned.

"I'm afraid he possesses equal shares from both his parents," Maria smiled.

"You know, I'm right here," Johnny said.

Maria smiled and patted his cheek before pulling the picnic basket close to her.

"I'll do that, mama."

"No, I'll do that," Murdoch intervened before the argument started. He grabbed the basket and started emptying it's contents on the blanket, passing plates to everyone.

They ate in relative silence, each enjoying the food and company. Johnny watched her closely still and she sighed a little. Immediately, he was on alert.

"Johnny, I have never been stared at so much in my life. I wish you would relax," she started.

"That ain't true, mama. Everyone stares at you all the time. They can't help themselves," he grinned.

Murdoch chuckled, knowing how true that had always been. She was a real beauty even now, as sick as she was.

Maria just shook her head at him then caught Murdoch's eyes. He nodded and began packing things away, assisted by Scott. Once the leftovers were ready for travel, he sat back down, closer to Maria.

*

"Boys, we wanted to talk to you about something. Now, I know this may come as a shock but I want you to understand this isn't whimsy. Maria and I have decided to get remarried."

Complete silence followed his statement. Johnny stared hard at him, looking for something, though what he didn't know. Scott was watching his father as well. Then, Johnny studied his mother.

"I know it is a surprise, miel," she said, some nervousness heard in her voice.

"Yeah, it is."

"A wonderful surprise," Scott said, overcoming his initial shock.

Johnny didn't say anything for a while and they waited for him. Suddenly, he got to his feet and grabbed the basket. "Best get back now," he said softly and walked to the surrey.

Maria stared after him, Murdoch frowned and Scott sighed.

"He hates the idea," she said.

"No, he just needs some time, is all. He wasn't expecting this and, quite frankly, he doesn't want either of you hurt again," Scott explained gently.

"Give me a minute with him," Murdoch said and rose.

Johnny was making quite a chore of securing the basket. He stood at the back of the surrey with his head down.

"What are you thinking, son?"

He turned and looked at his father. "I think you're a damned fool. That's what I think," he stated firmly.

Murdoch tried not to smile. "Why is that?"

"Why would you marry her now, Murdoch? She's dying! What good is it now?"

"Because I love her and she loves me. We never stopped, son. I know it's hard to believe and it was hard to let myself accept the truth of it but there it is."

"I can understand that, I really can - somehow. But, what's the point?"

Murdoch looked into his eyes and saw the need as well as the fight to deny. "I don't know how else to explain it, son. I love her and, I think she deserves this last forgiveness on my part." What he couldn't tell Johnny was, as much as he meant all of this, he also wanted to give her name back. Wanted her to be buried as Maria Lancer - for Johnny's sake as well as his own.

The young man sighed and turned aside, staring off into the distance. "This is what you both want? You're not doing this for me, are you?"

"No, son. I wouldn't marry for that reason, as I told your mother. It is what we both want."

Johnny nodded and faced him again with a small smile. "I sure hope you ain't plannin on a big wedding."

Murdoch chuckled and threw an arm around his shoulders. "I think a nice private ceremony will do."

*

And that next Saturday, they stood in the living room in front of the minister and said their vows again. Johnny gave his mother away and he and Scott bore witness. It was all very quiet and serene and over fairly quickly. They had a celebratory dinner then the brothers went to town, giving the newlyweds some privacy.

It had been the first time Johnny had been to town in a couple of months now. He preferred lately to stay home with his mother. He had to wonder if anything would change now. He was still reeling from all of this. His parents were married and living under the same roof! It was surreal and he felt a little dizzy as he dismounted in front of the saloon.

"You okay?" Scott asked.

"Huh? Oh, yeah. Just can't really believe what just happened, ya know? It's like a dream."

Scott smiled and put his arm around his brother's shoulder. "Yes, a nice dream, too. Come on. I think you deserve to have a little fun."

When they walked into the saloon, a chorus of shouted greetings erupted from the patrons. Johnny looked at them all a little suspiciously as Scott led him to a table. Soon, a pitcher of beer was in front of him and several men walked by, slapping him on the back.

"Okay, what's goin on here?" he asked.

"You know how it is, brother. Good news travels fast. They all know about the wedding," Scott shrugged.

"Already?"

"Fraid so."

Johnny sighed and shook his head. He wasn't sure he wanted anyone to know. Why, he hadn't a clue. It all just seemed so odd to him. At one time, it had been his most fervent dream that his parents reunite. Now, it just seemed plain crazy to him. He wouldn't question either of them about it again, though. It was done and he should just be happy about it.

Seemed to him most of his life had been pretty strange anyway. Why change? He smirked a little just before he took a long drink of beer.

Soon, his thoughts were on other matters. Like the full house he held in his hand.

*

Johnny awoke early one morning a month after the wedding. Dawn was still a ways off but he couldn't go back to sleep. Something was gnawing at him. Some ..... thing he couldn't pinpoint. It wasn't danger. It was .....

He flew out of bed and grabbed his pants, tugging them on quickly then donning a shirt. He headed out his door and to the next one down then he stopped. Leaning against the oak panels, he dropped his head and tried to slow his breathing. He didn't have to go in, he already knew what he would find.

His parents did not share a room as Maria needed all the comfort she could get. He knew Murdoch spent many nights with her, sitting by her side talking. Somehow, he knew his father was not there now, though. His heart started cracking and by the time he found the courage to open the door and step inside, it was nearly broken.

He walked over and pulled the lace curtains aside then lit the lamp on the small table there. Turning up the wick, he sucked in a breath and turned slowly, walking to her side. He sat the lamp on the bedside table and dropped to his knees. Placing a hand on her abdomen, he felt a slight movement.

He laid his head on her chest and heard the faint heartbeat and caught his breath. Picking up her hand from across her chest, he held on firmly but not too tight. He looked up at her sleeping face and whispered. "Mama."

Maria's eyes moved under the lids and after several moments, they cracked open a little. She smiled sleepily at him and squeezed his hand.

"I'll get Murdoch," he said.

"No, son. I've had my time with your father. Now is for you and me."

Johnny stared at her, blinking several times as he fought to stay in control. "I love you so much."

"I know, my love. I love you more than I could ever express in word or deed, Johnny. Be happy, my son. Live a long and prosperous life here with your family. They love you so. Let them help you through. Promise."

He nodded his head.

"Promise me, Johnny. Promise me you won't run away from them, won't shut them out," she said, her voice stronger now.

"I promise, mama. I'll let them help me. I won't leave. I swear it," he vowed. He got off his knees and sat on the bed then lowered himself beside her, slipping his arm beneath her and lifting her into his embrace.

She snuggled her head against his chest and sighed out. "There is no pain, son. I feel at peace now."

Johnny bit his lip even as the tears slid down his face. "That's good, mama."

"Forgive me, son."

"I have, mama. I have."

"Find love, Johnny. And when you do, hold onto it with all you are. Give yourself completely to her and don't be afraid. Don't ever be afraid to love with your whole self."

He couldn't hold back the small sob that forced it's way out. "I'll try, mama."

"You have so much love inside you to give and you give it so freely, so willingly." Her voice was fading now, barely a whisper.

Johnny moved so he could look in her face.

"Do not cry for me, miel. I have many regrets. There are two things I am most grateful for. You and your father. And tell Scott I have grown to love him as well. He is your second self, my son. Apart, you are both lost."

"I know. I'll tell him. I .... I don't want you to go," he said, his voice trembling badly.

She smiled softly at him, the love in her eyes almost painful to see. "I do not wish to go but it is my time. I feel myself slipping away but I am warm and peaceful. I have atoned for my sins and prayed for my soul. Mourn for me, my son, then move on with your life. There is nothing I want more than for you to be truly happy."

Her eyes began to close even as she fought for just a few more seconds with him. Johnny held her tighter as if this would stop her leaving.

"No greater love has been known than my love for you," she said. In a breathy whisper, she spoke her last, "Johnny."

Her eyes closed and he stared at her chest. "No," he breathed. "Mama?"

He felt her neck then pulled her up and into his arms, rocking back and forth as he cried for her, for himself and for his family.

*

Murdoch awoke to his name being called. He looked around the room and frowned. It had sounded so close. Then, he heard his son's name, as if it floated in on the wind. Rubbing a hand over his face and trying to make sense of things, he suddenly froze.

His heart hitched and he got up, throwing his clothes on quickly even as he made his way out of his bedroom. It was only a few feet to her door but in that time, his mind went back to their conversation of last night. Their goodbye to each other. They had talked for hours, she having to stop and rest several times. But, she was insistent they say all they had to say and they had.

He'd gone to bed feeling relief and sadness. It wouldn't be long and he tried to prepare himself to help his son. He opened the door quietly and peered inside. He saw Johnny on the bed, holding her and rocking back and forth. He thought briefly of waking Scott but decided against it. He went to his son.

Johnny felt the mattress bow under the weight, felt the hand rubbing slow circles on his back and felt the love so strong in this room, it nearly overwhelmed him.

"She's gone," was all he managed to croak out.

"Yes, son, I know. She woke me up."

Johnny looked up at him quizzically then understanding transformed his face. He only nodded and went back to rocking her.

"Do you want me to wake Scott or stay here?" Murdoch asked.

"Stay here."

He moved around so he could sit next to his son and wife with an arm around Johnny's shoulders and the other hand on Maria's hip. They stayed that way for a good hour and he said nothing. There was nothing to say. Finally, Johnny sighed heavily and grew still.

He moved then and laid her down gently, smoothing her hair down and kissing her cheek. Murdoch moved as well, getting up and giving his son room. He waited for Johnny again for several minutes as the younger man simply stared at his mother's face, his thumb gently rubbing the back of her hand.

The sun slowly began to appear, lighting the room in fractions. The soft glow leant to an almost ghostly feel.  

Johnny sighed once more then pulled the covers up to her neck before standing. Murdoch was there with a hand on his back again. Johnny turned and wrapped his arms around his father as the older man pulled him in closer.

"I'm going to see Scott," Johnny murmured.

"I can tell him, son."

"No, I need to see him."

Murdoch gave him a tight squeeze and let him go with a small sad smile.

*

Scott wiped the remnants of shaving cream from his face then pulled his shirt on. He was working on the buttons when he heard a light tap at his door. Frowning as to who was up and ready to go so early, he called out to enter.

Johnny walked in and closed the door, leaning against it heavily. Scott took one look and his heart plummeted. He walked over and hugged his brother.

"When?"

"About an hour ago. I was with her."

Scott let out a breath. "That's good, brother."

"Yeah. I woke up early but couldn't figure out why for a few minutes. Then, I just knew. We got to talk a little," Johnny explained, feeling the need to speak anything at the moment.

"I'm so glad you got that time with her," Scott said as he released his hold and moved his brother to the bed. They sat together and Scott put his arm around Johnny.

"It was a good talk. She wanted me to tell you that she'd grown to love you," he said, glancing at Scott briefly.

The older man was a little taken aback but pleased. "I loved her, too," he said and realized he really did. "Do you want me to get Murdoch?"

"He knows. He said she woke him up," Johnny reported and shook his head. "I don't really want to know the details of that."

Scott didn't either so he said nothing about it. "How is he?"

Johnny smiled just a little. "A rock. You know how he is. I figure he knew it was coming. He was with her a long time last night. She said she was at peace. Said there wasn't any pain and she felt warm."

Scott squeezed his shoulder. "It sounds like it was ..... an easy passing."

"Yeah, I think so. The last thing she said was my name." Johnny broke then and leaned against his brother.

Scott wrapped both arms around him and hung on tight. He said nothing, just let Johnny get it all out - for now. He knew there would be many more times like this and he was grateful his brother wasn't trying to be stoic.

He seemed to be running out of steam and Scott eased his grip a little. "I love you, brother."

"I love you, too, Scott. Thanks for lettin me bawl," Johnny laughed a little.

"Any time and I mean that. Don't hold anything in, Johnny."

He nodded and wiped his face. "I promised her I wouldn't."

"You are a man of your word," Scott smiled. "How about some coffee?"

"Yeah, sounds good."

"I'll bring it to you."

"No, I want to go downstairs. I want us all to go downstairs."

*

Scott eased the door open and watched his father, waiting to be acknowledged. He knew the man was aware of his presence by the slight rise of his head when the door creaked. Murdoch was sitting by the bed holding her hand in both of his and simply staring at her face. Scott decided he should probably leave and made a start to do just that.

"What do you need, son?" came the soft question.

"Nothing, Sir. Johnny's headed down for some coffee and he wanted us all together, but ...."

"I'll be right down," Murdoch replied.

Scott nodded though his father wasn't looking at him and closed the door. He leaned against it for a second and took a steadying breath then went to his brother.

Maria was rubbing his back as he sat hunched over, his hands cupped around a coffee mug. The steam rose to his face but he made no move to drink it. Scott's eyes caught the housekeeper's and she smiled sadly at him then went to the stove. Scott sat beside his brother, not his usual chair, and leaned over slightly, touching his shoulder to Johnny's briefly before straightening his posture.

"Murdoch will be right down."

Johnny nodded and finally sipped the hot brew. "How'd he seem?"

Scott thought about that before answering. "Very quiet."

Maria sat the coffee cup in front of him then moved to the head of the table, pouring another cup before returning to the stove. She doubted they would eat but she would prepare it anyway.

Murdoch walked in and took his place, quickly taking up the coffee and slurping a mouthful. He looked at Johnny, then Scott then down at the table.

"That little knoll out back of the house. The one with the big oak tree? I thought that would be a nice place. We don't use it for anything so it would be quiet and peaceful."

Johnny's shoulders tensed just a little then he nodded his head. "Okay."

"Should I go see the undertaker?" Scott asked so quietly, his voice was barely heard.

"I'll do that. Unless, Johnny, you want to," Murdoch offered.

"No, I don't want to. Take Scott with you."

"You shouldn't be alone, brother."

Johnny looked up for the first time and faced his brother. "I'd like to be for just a while if that's alright?" It was a true question, an askance of his family and neither could deny him.

"We won't be long," Murdoch spoke.

*

Johnny stood in the yard and watched them ride off. He heard the shuffling feet behind him and sighed softly.

"What's goin on? Everybody's up before the chickens this mornin," Jelly asked.

Johnny turned to him. "They're going to see the undertaker, Jelly."

The old man's eyes widened then he seriously considered biting his foolish tongue off. "I'm so sorry, Johnny."

"I know, thanks. Could you do me a favor?"

"Anything."

"Do we have anymore of that fencing, the kind Teresa used around her vegetable garden?"

Jelly almost snorted. "Tons of it. She didn't use half what she bought."


"Could you get it and load it in a wagon with a hammer and some nails?"

Jelly looked sideways at him. "Whatcha gonna do?"

Johnny looked toward the side of the house. "We're gonna put her up on that small hill back of the house. I thought I'd build a fence around it. Make it nice."

"I can do that for ya, Johnny. Wouldn't take me long atall."

Johnny looked back at him and smiled. "I'd like to do it myself."

Keepin busy, Jelly thought but he only nodded, patted the younger man's arm and set off to get his supplies.  

Johnny ambled around the yard, ending up near a bench along the house. He sat down and studied the ground, watching the ants crawl around busily. He heard a small chirp and looked at the tree as a squirrel climbed through the limbs quickly. He envied that squirrel. He could climb over anything, jump from limb to limb and all he needed to live was a hole and some acorns. Sounded pretty good to him just then.

Shaking his head he stood and walked to the barn just as Jelly was hitching the team.

"Got it all together for ya. Want me to tag along? Might need a hand," Jelly offered.

Johnny climbed up in the seat and took the reins. "No, thanks, Jelly. I'd like a little time to myself right now."

*

Scott kept watching his father on the ride home. He'd been surprised, though he figured he shouldn't be, that Murdoch had already made the arrangements for Maria's burial. He simply needed to have the coffin and headstone delivered. Scott had been quite impressed with that headstone, too. It was beautifully carved of granite.

"Are you alright, Murdoch?"

"Sure, son."

Scott reached over and took hold of his arm then pulled back on his reins. Murdoch stopped with him and simply looked at his son with a blank stare.

"Somehow, I'm not buying that. I know you want to be strong for Johnny but, please don't shut down on us."

Murdoch's stare faltered and he looked down the road ahead. "I'm trying, son. It seems to be a habit of mine. I don't want to seem cold."

"You don't seem cold, you seem .... distant, like you're far away from us. I don't expect you to .... break down but, if you want to, that's alright, too. I guess what I'm trying to say is, whatever you need to do to get through this, please let us help you. Johnny said his mother made him promise to let us be there for him. I'm asking you to do the same. We can't heal if we don't all grieve together some of the time. We can talk about it, about her, with you."

Murdoch didn't speak for long moments, still staring down the road. Finally, he turned to his son with a small smile. "I thought I'd be prepared but I don't suppose you can really prepare for this. I've lost her again. So has Johnny. I don't have a clue how to help him through this."

"By being there for him. Being right by his side. That way, you can help each other and I can help you both."

Murdoch reached over and squeezed his son's shoulder. "Thank you, Scott. I know this isn't easy on you, either. We all need to support each other. You need to grieve as well."

The younger man dropped his eyes. "Johnny said she wanted him to tell me she'd grown to love me. Until that moment, I hadn't really realized that I loved her, too. I have to say, I was surprised. For so long, I didn't like her. I mean, what she did to both of you. But, spending time with her, getting to know her, was a gift."

"I'm very glad of that, son."

"We should go. I don't want Johnny alone too long."

*

They dismounted in front of the house and Jelly walked out to meet them.

"Boss, Scott, I'm real sorry."

"Thank you, Jelly. Where's Johnny?" Murdoch asked.

"Well, he's up on that hill back of the house buildin a fence."

"What?" Scott asked, flummoxed.

"He's usin that white picket fencing Teresa bought. Said he wanted to make the place look pretty. Reckon he needed to keep his hands busy. Wouldn't let me help him," Jelly explained.

Scott nodded and started toward the side of the house but Murdoch's hand on his arm stopped him. "Would you mind, son? I'd like to go."

"Of course not. I'll talk to Maria about the service. Jelly, maybe you could let the hands know if you haven't already? And ask for some volunteers to .... dig the grave," Scott asked, faltering a bit.  

"I'll take care of it," Jelly nodded and left them.

Murdoch walked up the slight incline, his eyes on his son's back. Johnny was on his knees, hammering away. When Murdoch drew closer, he could see the young man had already broken a sweat. He said nothing, just kneeled down beside Johnny and handed him another nail.

Johnny paused, looked up at him then took the nail. "Thanks," he mumbled and went back to work.

Murdoch sat there for a second then his hand stroked the black hair. Johnny tensed a little but kept hammering.  

"You're almost done. You must've have been really going at it."

"It helps," Johnny remarked.

"I know, son. Anything else you can think of that will help, let me know."

He hesitated with hammer in midair then nodded as he struck the nail. "Okay."

"Do you want to talk?" Murdoch asked.

"Not right now. Maybe later."

Murdoch nodded and handed him another piece of the fencing. It was less than a foot in height once in the ground so they could easily step over. It's purpose was purely decorative but he thought it a nice idea.

*

It took less than hour to finish and Johnny was sorry the task was done. He needed something to do but he didn't want to stray far from the house. He and Murdoch cleaned up the remnants of the job then Johnny walked over and sat under the tree, looking out on the pasture beyond.

"This is the perfect place."

"I thought so, too. The undertaker will be here this evening and the minister will arrive in the morning for the service."

Johnny sighed. "I wish the priest would do it."

Murdoch closed his eyes. He hadn't wanted to ask. Since they couldn't be married by a priest due to their divorce, he didn't figure her burial would be any different. "Do you think he would perform the service?"

"No." His voice was harsh with the answer but Murdoch didn't push.

"Why don't we try and eat something," he suggested.

Johnny only nodded and pushed himself to his feet. Holding out his hand, he gave his father a lift up. They walked back to the house with their arms around each other.

Scott was in the garden, sitting on a bench and he watched their approach with a slight smile on his face. Johnny plunked down beside him.

"It looks good from here," Scott remarked.

"It looks good from there, too," Murdoch complimented.

Johnny said nothing, just rested his head on the adobe and closed his eyes.

"We thought some lunch would be a good idea," Murdoch said after a few seconds of silence.

"I can make us some sandwiches," Scott offered as he stood.

"Where's Maria?" Johnny asked, opening his eyes.

Scott looked away. "She's, uh, upstairs, getting ..... "

"Okay," Johnny said shortly and stood, then walked inside. Details, he thought as he pushed the door open. He didn't want to hear anymore details.

*

Murdoch had spent a considerable amount of time in the past few weeks talking with the Reverend Anderson about his wife and their son. He wanted the man to know as much about their relationship, their bond, and Maria's best points before the man had to give a eulogy over someone he didn't know.

The family, including Jelly and Maria, stood at the graveside as most of the hands stood a respectable distance away. Johnny's head stayed down with his hands shoved in his pockets the entire time and Murdoch's arm stayed around him. Scott slipped his arm through Johnny's when they got there and it never left.

More than once, the younger Lancer swayed a little to one side or the other. He listened to the reverend and was impressed with his words. Impressed and deeply touched. How this man could say all the right things was beyond him. It didn't occur to him at the time that anyone had spoken at length to the preacher about his mother.

As the final prayer was finished, Johnny looked up at the man. He pulled his hand out of his pocket and wiped it on his pants, damp from sweating, before offering it to the clergyman.

"That was really nice. Really. Thank you, Reverend," he said softly.

"You're welcome, Johnny. Again, I am so sorry for your loss."

Johnny tried to smile but knew he hadn't made it.

"There are refreshments in the living room. Please, help yourself, Reverend. We'll be along shortly," Murdoch said.

"Come on, Preacher, I'll show ya," Jelly spoke out and waved the man on. He took Maria's arm and the hands dispersed as well.

Alone with his family, Johnny sank to his knees beside her final resting place. He rocked back and forth a little. Scott joined him quickly, Murdoch a bit slower and with a slight grunt. He wrapped an arm around his son and pulled him close.

"She was happy," Murdoch said.

"Yes, she was," Scott agreed.

Johnny only sighed and the others looked at each other over his head.

"What are you thinking, brother?"

Johnny shook his head slowly back and forth. "I'm so angry. I want to yell and hit something. I just don't have the energy."

"Well, when you do have the energy, let me know. I'll help you find something - or someone to hit."

Johnny looked over at his brother and smiled a little. "Thanks, brother."

"Come on, boys. Let's go inside," Murdoch said and stood up.

"You two go ahead, I'll be along."

Scott started to balk but he looked at their father who shook his head.

"Alright, son. When you're ready."

*

Finally alone with her, Johnny let the tears slide down his face. "Gracias, mama. Thank you for coming back to me. I wish it could have been for a lot longer but I guess I should be thankful for having you back at all. If you can, look down on us once in a while. Keep an eye out. I don't think Murdoch's gonna do so good with this. He's trying to be strong for me but, sooner or later, he's gonna break down. I know it'll be when he's alone, too. So, if you can, just help him through it.

"For so long I hated him. Then, I couldn't anymore. The day I laid eyes on him again, I just couldn't feel that hate so much. Something else got in the way. I didn't know what it was right then but I guess it was a need. I needed him and I wanted him to want me. It took a lot of time but I finally realized he did. I wouldn't let myself believe it at first, ya know? You know how I am, though. Too suspicious and distrusting. I spent so many years bein cynical and hard I just never thought I'd be able to let go completely. But I did, with Scott's help, and I'm grateful for that - for both of them.

"I don't know what I would've done without them these past two days. Don't know what I'd do without them in the days to come. I'm glad you made me promise to stay because I might not have. I might have taken off to deal with it alone like I used to. You knew that wasn't gonna help me, though. You knew I needed them. No one has ever known me like you do. Scott's gettin real close now, though. Maybe Murdoch, too. Yeah, he is.

"These past months have been like a dream, and a nightmare. But, I'm gonna try real hard to remember the dream part. The happy part. Because, I have to tell you something. Watching you and Murdoch get hitched again was like a miracle. I know I acted stupid about it but I was afraid to be too happy. Besides, all that other was killing me inside. Knowing you wouldn't be here much longer; it felt like someone reached inside my chest and ripped my heart right out.

"Well, they're waiting for me. Scott's probably looking out the kitchen door at me right now. Murdoch's sittin with the preacher trying to be a good host. But, he's thinking about me, too. How can a person feel happy and sad at the same time? I hate losing you. I hate everything right now - except them. Maybe I never will get to hit something but maybe I don't need to, either. Maybe, knowing they'd let me is enough. Knowing they'd let me go off and yell and act crazy is enough. Just the knowing makes me feel better.

"I have to tell you, even though we never got to be a family for all those years, having the three of you these past months has made up for a lot. I've learned a lot more about being part of a family, about loving them and being loved, about letting them love me, than I ever thought I would. As crazy as it sounds, I think that's because of you being sick.

"Scott said once every cloud has a silver lining. I really get that now. It still hurts to lose you, though. More this time than the first, even. Maybe that's because I'm grown now and understand things better. I don't know.

"I have to go now, mama. I know you'll always be here, in my heart. Resto en paz, mama. Te amo."

He wiped his face and stood up. A breeze lifted and swirled around his face, drying the rest of his tears. He smiled and turned around, looking down on the house and knowing they were there, waiting for him.

*

For a month, the house was held siege under the heavy curtain of tension and grief. Slowly, they all began the process of healing. Work helped but the evenings were quieter. Scott watched his family closely. His own grief was there but he felt he needed to be strong for them both. They'd been closer to her than he had. He wished that wasn't the case but he'd spent as much time with her as he could. He could honestly say he missed her a great deal.

Still, his thoughts kept returning to one thing. Who had forced Maria from her home all those years ago? Why was the most puzzling question, though. He supposed once, if, they found the who they'd quickly figure out the why. Well, Murdoch would, anyway. Scott was totally convinced this was a ploy to destroy his father. It had nearly worked. If not for the Scot's strength, losing Johnny - losing yet another son - may have been his undoing.

He didn't bring it up, though. It wasn't the time and he wasn't sure there ever would be a good time for it. Johnny's initial rage seemed to have waned. He knew his brother had other things on his mind right now and he had to wonder if Johnny had forgotten about it altogether. It didn't seem likely but Scott had never seen Johnny in such deep grief before. He had no way of knowing how his brother dealt with such things or when he would be able to deal with anything more taxing than laying fence.

He stared into his whiskey glass as the fire altered the color of the liquor. He swirled the contents about and seemed mesmerized by the changes. His right leg was crossed over his left and his foot swung lazily back and forth as he contemplated their situation.

Johnny sat on the floor with his back leaning against a chair and watched his brother with some amusement but more curiosity. Scott was thinking hard on something, had been for days, and he wondered what it could be. Johnny suddenly realized Scott may have a problem he was trying to deal with and he hadn't been the best brother lately. Now, he was worried for Scott and berating himself for being so selfish.

Scott hadn't left his side much in the past month and Johnny knew he'd had his own grief to deal with. He also knew he hadn't helped Scott one bit with any of it. Guilt lay heavy on his heart as he studied the man before him. A man who had shown his true mettle many times but no more so than now.

I've let him be the anchor. Leaned on him every second of every day. Who has he had to lean on? These thoughts ran through the younger man's mind and he decided it was enough. He had grieved hard for his mother that first week. Mourned her in the weeks to come and spent a considerable amount of time on that hill back of the house. There was a visible path up there now. Between he and Murdoch, they'd killed every blade of grass under their boots.

And then there was Murdoch. Hard-set jaw, even harder set eyes. He gave nothing away but Johnny had come upon him at the graveside a time or two and knew his father had let down his defenses. Murdoch wouldn't talk about her but, then none of them had. It was like an unspoken rule. He knew that wasn't a good thing but he felt it really was just too soon. He worried about his father but he had no idea how to help the man. Johnny let out a heavy breath and found his brother's worry-filled eyes scrutinizing him.

*

He smiled a little and got to his feet. With a toss of his head, he indicated Scott join him outside.

The air had a slight crisp to it as winter approached. Johnny didn't like winter and he thought this one would be the worst of all. The gray, short days could only lend to his misery. Only make him miss her more. He took in a lungful of air as he settled on the wall.

Scott walked out and sat next to him, gazing at the stars overhead.

"How ya doin, brother?" Johnny asked quietly.

"Alright. You?"

"Okay, I guess. Look, Scott, I was just thinkin, well, you seem to have something on your mind lately. I mean, something else. Is there anything I can help you with?"

Scott looked over at his brother and smiled a little. "It can wait."

Johnny leaned forward a little, resting his forearms on his thighs. "It doesn't have to. You can stop treatin me like a china doll, Scott. I'm okay. Besides, I could use a distraction."

Scott grimaced, bit his lip and turned to look back out at the yard. "This wouldn't be a distraction. Only a reminder."

Johnny's interest was now piqued and he straightened his spine, lightly tapped his brother's shoulder and looked seriously at him when Scott turned his head.

"Tell me anyway."

Scott stood and paced a small area of the veranda. "It ..... I can't bother you with this, Johnny. It isn't fair."

The younger man breathed out heavily through his nose and stood to block Scott's path. "Fair? Are you kiddin me? Just spill it."

"Alright. But, if you don't want to deal with it, just tell me. I'll be fine with that."

Johnny only nodded and waited for him to speak it.

"It's about the man who drove your mother from Lancer. I want to find out who he is." Scott waited with held breath for his brother's reaction.

*

Johnny stared at him hard for several long beats before turning away. Scott let out his breath and wished he could kick himself.

"It's alright, brother. It can keep."

"No, it can't. I haven't forgotten about it, Scott. I just haven't wanted to face it, I guess. Or, maybe, I just didn't have the gumption to," Johnny said softly.

"I don't know how we could even find out any information," Scott said.

"Me neither. Maybe we should read that letter she gave you. The one where she wrote out everything she could remember about that day and him?"

Scott nodded but he didn't make any move. He stood still watching Johnny's back until the younger man was ready. He saw Johnny's back rise as he took a deep breath, then turn around.

"Let's go to your room. I don't want Murdoch to know about this just yet," Johnny suggested.

"We'll have to tell him at some point," Scott warned.

"Yeah, but this ain't the point," he muttered and walked inside.

Scott walked into his room and to the dresser, retrieving the letter and settling on his bed. Johnny had already plopped on top the covers, legs crossed Indian-style.

Scott read the letter out loud but, there wasn't anything new there. "It's the same as Maria told Murdoch," he remarked.

"No, it isn't. She described him better. And, I have something that might help, too," Johnny said and bounded off the bed. He left the room momentarily then returned with a piece of paper. Handing it off to Scott, he settled in his previous position.

Scott unfolded the paper and stared at it for a long time. "Where did you get this?"

"One night I asked mama to describe him to me and I drew that picture. She said it was pretty close."

Scott kept looking at the likeness and felt an overwhelming sense of dread engulf his entire being.

"Hey, you okay?" Johnny asked, putting a hand on his arm.

"What? Oh, yes, I'm alright. There's just something about him. Something very familiar," Scott frowned as he thought.

Johnny sat up straight. "You know him?"

"Maybe. I'm not sure. I need to think about it but I'm almost sure I've seen this man before, Johnny."

"That don't make any sense, Scott. How could you have ever seen him? Unless, he came to Boston. Maybe he really did plan on carrying out his threat. Maybe, if she hadn't left he was gonna kill you first," Johnny surmised and his heart bounced in his chest at the thought.

Scott nodded but he didn't really think so. "I was so young then. What, maybe five or six? I'm not so sure I would have remembered a stranger who I may not have even seen."

"Yeah. Well, sleep on it. Maybe, it'll come to you." Johnny picked up the letter Scott had lain on the bed and stared at his mother's handwriting. His throat tightened and his hand began to shake a little.

Scott rubbed his shoulder. "Why don't you try to get some sleep?"

Sighing, Johnny looked up and gave him a small smile. "Let me know if you remember anything. Nite, brother."

"Goodnight, brother," Scott replied with a sympathetic smile.

*

He couldn't sleep. The image from that drawing seemed to be taunting him; daring him to remember where he'd seen that man. Scott flopped onto his side and readjusted the covers. He raised his head and punched the pillows then snuggled down into them. None of it helped. He was still wide awake.

Giving up for the moment, he got out of bed and wandered to his window. Scott smiled a little as he looked over the land, the shadows cast by the full moon. It was almost surreal and it was beautiful. Even at night, he could appreciate the land around him. He heard the lowing of the cattle and it soothed him. Closing his eyes, he took it all in. The slight breeze on his face was cool but not uncomfortable. This was winter in California. He had to admit, he preferred it to the frigid Boston weather.

His eyes popped open and he sucked in a breath. Scott felt lightheaded and he stumbled over to the chair, falling into it. His eyes were wide and he blinked several times, trying to wrap his mind around what couldn't be possible. Please, God, it can't be!

He didn't know how long he sat there unthinking, letting his mind go completely blank. He couldn't handle this. Anything else he could stand but not this. And how could he tell Johnny? Tell Murdoch? He couldn't. He knew he would not be able to speak the words.

Maybe it wasn't true. Maybe he'd made a mistake. His memory was failing him. Yes, that must be it. He sat and thought hard now, trying to force his mind to go some other direction. But, in the end, it came back to what he knew was the truth. At least, what he remembered which wasn't really much.

Scott stood and paced his room, trying to come to terms and figure out what he should do. By dawn, he thought he'd made a decision. The only problem was, he had to lie to his brother. That idea caused him a great deal of discomfort as his stomach flipped a few times. A lie of omission, yes, but still a lie.

He walked over to the wash basin, filled it and splashed the cold water on his face. His mind worked out the details but there was one thing he didn't know how to accomplish without raising suspicion. He'd have to work on that. Even as he shaved and dressed for the day, he was formulating a plan.

By the time Scott descended the stairs for breakfast, he thought he had it all laid out. That is, until his father laid a gift right at his feet.

*

"I was going through the mail last night and there was a letter from Teresa," Murdoch mentioned as the morning meal wound down.

He had written to tell the girl about Maria's death, their marriage and the real story behind her leaving. He felt the girl needed to know the truth of the matter and thought the time and distance would help her be more receptive.

"What did she say?" Scott asked, grabbing hold of a better idea.

"She's lonely, Scott. She sounded miserable, actually," Murdoch replied.

Neither young man missed the misery in his voice.

"Maybe you should have her come home," Johnny said quietly.

Murdoch looked at him, well, his head as Johnny had it lowered over his coffee cup.

"How would you feel about that, son?"

He sighed loudly and shrugged. "It's her home. If she's been there all this time and still doesn't like it, maybe she shouldn't be there. I never wanted her to be unhappy, Murdoch. Just wanted her to grow up."

"Things are slowing down around here now. Maybe I could go get her. She'll need an escort," Scott piped up.

Murdoch considered the idea. "Yes, she will. Alright, son. I'm sure Johnny and I can handle things here."

"I'm sure you can," Scott smiled.

Johnny smiled at him but there was a question in his eyes. He didn't speak it just then, not with Murdoch present.

"I'll send her a letter today as well as the school and let them know you're coming. You can leave the end of next week," Murdoch stated.

*

"What's the deal, Scott? I thought we were gonna work on finding out who this man is," Johnny started as soon as they got outside.

"And we will, Johnny. This doesn't mean we're giving up. Besides, sometimes, when you're trying to remember something, it helps to stop thinking so hard about it."

Johnny thought about that for a minute. "Yeah, that's true. We've waited twenty years, I guess a few more weeks won't matter any."

Scott nodded, relieved and guilty. He'd found his excuse but he'd still lied to his brother. He only hoped Johnny would forgive him. But, he knew this young man and if he'd told Johnny what he'd remembered, there'd be no stopping him. Scott was afraid of what his brother might do. He was afraid of what HE might do, truthfully. But, for the moment, he thought it was best if he continued this investigation on his own.

The week and a half passed quickly and Scott had made his travel arrangements. Teresa had wired her reply to the letter, thrilled she was coming home, it said.

Johnny wasn't so sure he was thrilled. He'd seen no indication she'd changed her attitude. Then again, it wasn't as if they'd been corresponding. She only wrote to Murdoch and only a few times in the months she'd been away.

As he drove his brother to town to catch the stage, Johnny decided to voice his concerns.

"I have every intention of having a long talk with her on the way home, Johnny. She will understand everything that's happened and I promise you, she won't say a word to you about your mother," Scott stated with conviction.

"Her saying something ain't what I'm worried about. It's her attitude, Scott. She can be mute but Teresa always gets her point across. I don't want to have to live like that, tiptoein around her," Johnny said, the frustration evident.

Scott laid his arm on the back of the seat behind his brother's back and stretched out his legs. "I don't think that's going to happen, either."

"And if it does?"

Scott frowned. He didn't know how they would handle that. He knew Murdoch wouldn't put up with it for a second. "I think she knows she hasn't a leg to stand on. Anyway, it's not really an issue anymore."

Johnny's jaw muscle flexed but he said nothing. He slapped the reins and increased their speed.

*

Scott checked his watch again before snapping it closed and slipping it in his pocket. Was that stage ever on time?

"You'll make it," Johnny said.

"I know. I just hate waiting," Scott smiled.

"Somethin's been on your mind. Besides Teresa, I mean."

Scott looked over at him leaning against the post, his ankles crossed, looking like a man without a care.

"Sometimes, brother, I'm not sure I like you knowing me so well," Scott replied with a hint of a smile.

Johnny smirked at him. "Yeah, well..." he trailed off as the stage rounded the corner and came to a dusty halt in front of them. Both men waved at the air to try and dissipate the dust that covered them.

"Five minutes, folks," the driver shouted.

Scott threw his bag up to the shotgun rider then held the door for those disembarking. He turned to Johnny just before boarding.

"I'll see you in a couple of weeks, then."

Johnny extended his hand. "Take care, brother. Don't get all mushy bout bein in Boston again. Your place is here."

Scott gave him a quizzical look. "I hope you're joking. You don't think I'd really stay?"

Johnny shrugged. "Depends on how many old flames you run across." A grin slid slowly up his face then and Scott laughed.

He was about to reply with a witty quip when the driver interrupted.

"They're always late but the passengers better dare not be," Scott said and climbed inside. He poked his head out the window. "I *will* be back," he winked.

Johnny waved him off then stood there for a minute. He considered the saloon then decided against it. Company was not what he wanted.

*

One week later, Scott stood before the school and looked up at the wrought iron fence. It was colder than he'd remembered and he felt some guilt for suggesting this place to Murdoch. Deciding it was a little late for that sort of thinking, he made his way down the drive to the front doors.

Entering the foyer, he knew it was colder; sterile. He shuddered, thinking it was a prison.

A stout woman of some years approached and looked down her nose at him. "May I help you?"

"Yes, my name is Scott Lancer. I'm here for Miss O'Brien."

She nodded and crooked a finger. "This way, please. I am Mrs. Forsythe, the headmistress of the school," she introduced as she led him to her office. She instructed her secretary to bring Teresa to them.

"Please, have a seat. I must say, Mr. Lancer, it is highly unusual for one of our students to be removed before her education is completed."

Scott wanted to laugh at her - snootiness, Johnny would call it. He managed to keep his decorum. "Yes, well, it is an unusual circumstance, Mrs. Forsythe. I couldn't get into the details. It is a family matter."

She nodded then sniffed lightly. The room grew quiet as they waited and Scott felt like running for the hills. Finally, Teresa entered the room.

Scott almost didn't recognize her. Her color was paler, her posture erect - too erect and her face was pinched. She almost smiled when she saw him. Almost.

"Well, Miss O'Brien, your escort is here to see you home. I can assume you are packed?"

"Yes, ma'am. My bags are at the front door," she replied demurely.

"Very well. I hope you've gained some knowledge in your short stay with us. I wish you all the best," the woman said as she extended a hand.

Teresa took it, her own hand limp in the headmistresses. Scott could only gawk at her as she gave him a slight nod and walked out the door.

"Thank you, Mrs. Forsythe. Goodbye." He could think of nothing else to say and didn't want to anyway. All he wanted was to get out of that place and feel warm again.

*

He watched Teresa warily as he loaded her bags, then settled in beside her in the cab. They jolted to a start and she sat perfectly still until they passed through the gates.

Teresa sighed and relaxed her shoulders, almost slouching. She looked at him then threw herself in his arms. "Thank you. Thank you, so much," she whispered.

Scott held her tightly as they rode along. "Was it really that bad?"

She only nodded as she rested her head on his shoulder. He felt like a heel for making her stay in that place. She'd lost all her color, obtained from years in the bright sunshine.

"I'm sorry, Teresa. I didn't know it was such a ..... cold place. We shouldn't have sent you so far from home."

She said nothing only held him tighter. They didn't speak again until he had her in the hotel room next to his own.

"When does the train leave?" she asked.

"Well, I need to talk to you about that. I need to spend a few days here. I hope you don't mind but it can't be helped."

She felt panic rise up and swallowed hard. "But, we are going home?"

"Yes, we are going on home. I just need to see Grandfather," he explained, his gut clenching.

She relaxed then. "Of course, you'd want to see him while you're here."

No, Scott thought, I don't. But, I have to. He gave her a small smile and left her to her own devices with a promise they'd dine together that evening. He headed for the house, knowing his grandfather wouldn't be home for several hours yet.

*

After greeting the staff with a smile plastered on his face and convincing them there was no need to call his grandfather home, Scott finally found himself alone in the man's study. He closed the door and wasted no time heading to the desk. He knew Garrett kept highly sensitive documents in a locked drawer in that desk. Scott figured you couldn't get any more sensitive than this. Of course, his grandfather may not think so. It had occurred to him the man may have destroyed any evidence but he didn't think so really. If Garrett would have thought he might need the information, he'd definitely hold onto it.

Scott didn't stand on ceremony. He grabbed a letter opener and pried the drawer open, retrieved a thick stack of folders and sat them on the desk. He glanced at the clock on the mantel then settled in the chair and stared at the papers. His mouth twitched back and forth twice, then he went to the bottom of the stack.

For twenty minutes, he read of his grandfather's misdeeds. Crooked business deals and the men he'd bribed to ensure a fortuitous outcome for himself. He found a file on Mr. Dennison, the father of his former fiancé, showing the man's business troubles. Information Harlan had used on his visit to Lancer last year to coerce Julie into coming along. Frowning, he thought it must misfiled as it was not in chronological order. Scott almost started to put it where it belonged then berated himself. What matter is it?

Refocusing on his mission, Scott sorted through the files, any of which could land his grandfather in prison. One name kept appearing in all those reports. Scott jotted that name on a piece of paper for future reference and went back to reading. It wasn't long before he spied his father's name in one file. A file from the Pinkerton Agency. Scott read it thoroughly, then the next and the next. All reports on Murdoch after Scott's birth. All signed off by the same agent; one with a familiar name.

Ten more minutes and he found what he'd been praying he would not. Scott's heart pounded in his ears as he read the words over, his own eyes not believing the print. He sat back in the chair and stared off into space for a time then he rubbed his face and sat forward, sighing heavily and trying to calm his nerves.

Now that he had the information, what should he do with it? Should he confront the man and listen to his lies? Or, should he take this knowledge to the two men who had every right to read it? And, if he did that, what would his brother do - or his father for that matter? Scott's stomach knotted, knowing Johnny's initial reaction. But would that reaction falter in the face of who this man was to his own brother? Scott didn't think it mattered. He knew it no longer mattered to him.

To blackmail him was one thing and he really never did believe his grandfather would have gone through with his threats against Murdoch. Once he'd had time to think it all though, that is. Harlan seemed truly reticent about his actions if not his intention. Now, Scott knew it was all a facade. A lie to cover his true feelings. All this time, all these years, Harlan Garrett had been manipulating their lives and none of them knew it.

He drummed his fingers on the desk while he decided how to proceed. He glanced up and saw the picture of his mother. Picking it up, Scott stared at her face. "What should I do?" he asked it. But, he really didn't need to ask, he already knew the right thing.

Scott replaced the files in the drawer, not caring about the damage to the lock. He stood and picked up the files he'd kept out then walked out of the house without a word to the servants or a backward glance.

*

Johnny sat next to the headstone as the evening sun slowly set. He stared at her name but didn't really see it. His thoughts were everywhere. With her, with Murdoch and with Scott so far away. He needed his brother and knew he always would but, now more than ever.

He heard the footfalls, the slight grunt then saw the shadow fall over him. Craning his neck, he looked up at his father slightly to his left. "Hey."

"Hi, son," Murdoch replied then got himself to the ground with another, louder grunt.

"I was thinking we should bring a bench up here. Be easier on you," Johnny said softly.

"That is an excellent idea," Murdoch sighed out.

Johnny smiled wanly at him then went back to staring at the headstone. Murdoch watched him for a while before asking.

"Do you like the headstone, son? I should have asked you ...."

"It's perfect. I don't think I could have done that, anyway. I don't know how you managed to think of all those things beforehand. I guess you'd already talked to the preacher? He did such a good job."

"I talked to him several times in those last couple of weeks. I guess I was just trying to keep you from having to worry about the details," Murdoch told.

Johnny nodded and looked back at him. "Thanks," he said sincerely.

"You're welcome. You miss Scott, don't you?"

"Yeah," Johnny breathed out. "Reckon he'll be heading back tomorrow or the next day. I just ..... it's Teresa I'm worried about."

Murdoch laid a hand on his shoulder. "I wrote her a long letter just after your mother passed. I explained everything exactly how Maria explained it to us. I hope it makes a difference."

"She didn't write back?"

"Not right away," Murdoch admitted. "Her last letter didn't mention anything about it."

Johnny puffed his cheeks and blew the air out harshly. "I can't put up with any more garbage."

"You won't have to, son. That's my promise to you. And, I'm sure Scott will have a talk with her."

Johnny nodded. "He said he was gonna do that."

*

Scott arrived back at the hotel and went directly to Teresa's room.

"Change of plans. We're leaving tonight. I hope you haven't unpacked," he said hurriedly.

"Tonight? Is something wrong, Scott?"

"No, I just want to get out of here. We can eat on the train. I'll be back in ten minutes. Be ready, alright?"

She looked at him with confusion but simply nodded her head. She was ready now, actually. She hadn't unpacked - only the dress she was going to change into. It was fine with her as she was ready to leave this place forever. To go home, where she belonged and to try and find a way to make up for all she'd done to hurt Johnny and Murdoch.

Scott returned after shoving his things in his bag and checking out of the hotel. He rapped on her door and grabbed her hand, taking her quickly down the stairs and out into the street. The clock in the lobby told him he didn't really have much time. Still, it wasn't as if he was hiding out. But, at this point and after all he'd read, he didn't know what lengths his grandfather would go to get those files back. With Teresa in tow, he was taking no chances.

That his grandfather would harm him, he would never believe. But, if he sent men and those men weren't terribly particular, things could get out of control. He couldn't put Teresa at risk. They arrived at the train station with little time to spare. Scott bought their tickets and they rushed onto the train.

Once settled in their private car, Teresa caught her breath and asked. "What's going on, Scott? Are you in trouble?"

Scott stowed their bags and sat across from her before answering. "No, I'm just avoiding my grandfather. I'll explain later," he smiled, hoping to reassure her. "Now, tell me how the school was."

Teresa lowered her eyes and shook her head slowly. "Horrible. All the teachers are so cold and unfeeling. They all wear starch collars and walk around with their noses in the air. The girls aren't much better. No one would talk to me. They said I was a country bumpkin and not worth their time."

"They actually said that to you?" Scott asked.

"Yes, they did. They were so hateful. Not like the girls back home. I miss everyone so much." Her voice was soft but her conviction was heard.

"I know. We missed you, too. And I want to talk to you about home, Teresa. About Johnny."

She looked up at him with tears in her eyes. "Murdoch wrote to tell me her reasons for leaving, about her illness and that they'd remarried. I know she died. How are Johnny and Murdoch holding up?"

Scott watched her and saw her pain and her real concern for her family. His face softened. "Not great. I've spent a lot of time with Johnny, just being there for him. He doesn't talk much about her. Murdoch is, well, you know Murdoch. He's trying to stay strong for Johnny. I know he's grieved for her but I worry about him. Johnny does, too. We just don't know how to get him through this. Maybe you could help with that."

"He did the same thing when daddy died. I talked to him then. Maybe, I can help. I hope so." She stared at her hands in her lap for a few seconds.

"I was so wrong," she whispered. "She'd been terrorized, her baby threatened. I think I would have done the same thing she did."

*

Scott thought about her words but wasn't really satisfied. "As horrible as it was, I have to admit I'm relieved there was a very good reason behind her leaving. But, Teresa, even if there hadn't been; even if she'd left on her own, your reaction to her was wrong."

She looked up at him then and nodded. "I know, Scott. Whatever I thought I should have kept to myself. Even if I couldn't have accepted her, it doesn't matter. It wasn't my place to accept her. It wasn't my place to say anything to Johnny. If I should have spoken at all, it should have been to Murdoch and in private. And calmly," she acknowledged.

"You had a right to voice your concerns, sweetheart, but like you said; privately and to Murdoch," he agreed and sighed inwardly with relief.

"I still don't think it was right that you all sent me away for it," she included.

Scott chewed his lip for a few seconds. "Well, it wasn't so much that you didn't like her, it was your outburst. Your refusal to apologize and mean it. To accept that she had a right to be with her son. It worried us all. We thought you needed some maturity and sophistication you couldn't get at Lancer."

Her eyes flashed for just a moment. "I certainly didn't get it at that prison!"

"No, you didn't and I'm sorry about that. It really did have a good reputation when I lived in Boston. I thought it would be ideal for you. That was my fault. We shouldn't have sent you so far from home."

She relented quickly. "I know. I'm just glad to be going home. Is Johnny ..... does he want me back?" she asked timidly.

"He's ready to see you again. I think he'll need some time to get past it. Right now, he's really not doing so well."

She read his intent easily. "I won't do a thing to cause him more grief, Scott. I won't try to force myself into his life. I think it's best if I apologize and let him know I won't crowd him."

He smiled at that. "Yes, Johnny doesn't like to be crowded."

She laughed lightly and nodded.

*

Jelly walked into the living room and looked at the two glum men. One reading a paper and one staring off into space. He shook his head sadly then hoped his news would brighten them a little.

"Scott and Teresa are headed home. Scott wired from Denver. Should be here in two days," he reported as he handed over the telegram to Murdoch.

Johnny looked up and smiled at him sadly. "Thanks, Jelly. It'll be good to have Scott home."

"Yes, both of them," Murdoch said meaningfully.

Johnny only nodded a little and went back to his staring. "Want me to pick them up?"

"I'll do that," Jelly offered and Johnny nodded again.

*

Scott stared out the window as the terrain changed before his eyes. He paid it little attention, his mind on more pressing matters. He wasn't so sure he could bring this up right now. Johnny was raw and Murdoch was practically a rock formation. At least, it might bring his father out of his self-enforced statue portrayal.

He felt a hand on his arm and looked up at Teresa leaning over him. "What's on your mind?"

He sighed and straightened in the seat. "A lot but I can't get into it right now."

"You look so sad, Scott. Isn't there anything I can do?"

Looking into her concerned face, he saw their Teresa and his heart lightened a little. "No, honey. I wish there were but I just have a decision to make, is all."

She knew not to push him any further so she said no more. Her own nerves jumped more with each second that passed; bringing her closer to home and her family. Her emotions warred within her for supremacy. Fear, anguish, and yes, some anger. More with herself than them though. She was still upset at them for sending her away but she just wanted to put it all behind her now and move on. She only hoped they all could move on now.

*

As the surrey passed under the arch, Teresa's stomach lurched. She swallowed hard, tears brimming in her eyes as she saw the hacienda looming ever closer. She was scared now but determined to make this work. She never again wanted to leave her home and she had missed them all terribly. That had been the most poignant realization for her; the loneliness she'd felt, the heartache.

Jelly had stopped chattering a while back and allowed them some quiet before reaching the house. From this small hill, Scott could see the grave site and spied a new addition. He said nothing, his eyes fixing intently on the house now.

Murdoch walked out and waited for them in the yard, a smile on his face. Scott smiled, too. His father had not so much as twitched his lips toward any semblance of a smile in a long time now.

"Teresa, welcome home, darling," he called.

She jumped from the surrey almost before Jelly could bring it to a stop and ran into his arms. "It's so good to be home. I've missed you all so much!" she cried.

Murdoch held her longer than normal, just relishing the feel of her hug again. His head was bent down but Scott could see the emotions welling and he cleared his throat.

"Son, welcome home," Murdoch said as he sniffed then cleared his throat, his arm still around Teresa.

"Thank you, Sir. It's very good to be home. I see you've added a new addition," Scott remarked as he tossed his head toward the hill out back.

"Johnny and Jelly did. Your brother was getting tired of hearing me grunt and groan every time I sat on the ground," Murdoch said with a small smile.

"Where is my brother?"

Murdoch's smile faltered a little and Teresa didn't miss it. Her stomach knotted again.

"He's in the house. Come on, the hands will get your luggage," he said and pulled Teresa along.

*

Johnny stood near Murdoch's desk, waiting with held breath. He prayed she would be herself again. He watched as they walked into the room and her eyes rested on him.

He wasn't prepared for the running tackle, though, and was glad he had a solid surface behind him. Teresa ran into his arms and hugged him tightly around the waist.

"I missed you so much," she choked out.

Johnny looked at his father and brother then tightened his own hold on the girl. "I missed you, too, querida."

She pulled back and smiled at him, tears in her eyes as she kissed his cheek then stepped back. "Before anything else happens, I want you to know how badly I feel for the way I behaved, Johnny. I was so wrong and I only hope I can find a way to make things right between us. But, I know right now you have other things on your mind so don't worry about that. Just take your time and, when you're ready, we can talk if you want."

Johnny looked in her eyes and saw the sincerity. He felt a lump in his throat and he pulled her into another hug. "Thank you, Teresa. I promise, I'll come to you when I can."

Murdoch stepped closer, relieved things had gone so well. â€Why don't you unpack and get settled in, Teresa. Maria is making a welcome home dinner for you and Scott."

"I will as soon as I see her," she smiled and left them alone.

Johnny looked at his brother and smiled. "Welcome home, brother."

Scott walked over and threw an arm around him. "Very glad to be back."

"How was the trip?" Murdoch asked as he walked over and sat in a chair.

The brothers joined him, sitting together on the sofa.

"Fine, I guess. I have to say, that school was atrocious. The headmistress was a little scary. Teresa didn't have a very good time there. She said the other girls scorned her."

"She looked pale," Johnny noted.

"I doubt she saw much sun during her stay," Scott relayed.

Murdoch frowned deeply at this. "Does she seem any different?"

Scott smiled. "I'm happy to report that, aside from her pallor, she seems to be the old Teresa. She is very remorseful. We had a good talk on the train and she really does want to make up for things."

"Well, that's good news."

Johnny looked at them both and nodded. "She is sorry, I can see that. I'm glad she's not pushing, too."

"She understands you're still grieving and she doesn't want to add more to that," Scott explained.

*

That evening, supper was a little lighter than it had been. Teresa wasn't especially chatty but she was pleasant and happy. She watched Murdoch closely and saw what Scott had mentioned on the train. 'Always worrying about others and dismissing his own feelings,' she thought.

Remembering her father's death and how Murdoch had been so supportive of her while pushing his own grief aside, she knew she needed to do something to help him. It would wait, though. She didn't want to start right in on him, after all.  

Scott was quiet and Johnny noticed it right away. He assumed it was the same thing that had been on his brother's mind before his trip. After supper, he took Scott outside.

"You okay?"

Scott walked away, his back to Johnny, and sighed. "Sure."

"How come I don't believe that?" Johnny asked softly.

Scott smiled and turned to his brother. "It can wait."

"Until when?"

He faltered, his eyes dipping briefly. "Until you feel better."


Johnny nodded and looked at the ground, scuffing his boot on the tiles. "Then, it has to do with that mystery man. Well, brother, I'm about as okay as I'm gonna get, I reckon." He looked back up then.

Scott didn't believe that for a second. "I'm not so sure about that. Johnny, you need to mourn you mother for however long it takes. Until then, nothing else is more important. We will deal with it, brother, but not now, okay?"

Johnny thought about it. Scott was right, he didn't want to have to deal with this now - maybe ever - really. He didn't think they'd have any luck anyway. He smiled softly. "Okay," was all he said.

Scott relaxed a little and nodded then said his goodnights. He was exhausted and didn't think he could stand being alone with Johnny right now knowing what he knew.

*

The rest of the week passed much the same as all the other weeks since Maria's death. Scott was beginning to think this was their new way of life and he didn't like it. He also didn't know how to bring his family out of their perpetual sadness. Johnny and Murdoch shared this burden and he couldn't alleviate the load for either of them.

Teresa watched as well and thought she'd waited long enough. They'd settled back into a routine though nothing was the same. It was time to talk to Murdoch and she only hoped he would be open to it. She walked into the great room to find him staring at some papers. She knew he wasn't reading them.

"Could I talk to you?" she asked.

Murdoch blinked and looked up at her. "Of course."

She sighed lightly and walked over to his desk, sitting across from him. "When my father died, you were all I had and you bore that responsibility without a second thought. I love you for that and so many other reasons. It breaks my heart to see you like this, Murdoch. You and Johnny. I know everyone has to grieve in their own way and time but, it seems to me you're being too strong. I know in my heart Johnny would want you to deal with this. I can't help him, yet, but I hoped I could help you. I'd like it if you could talk to me about Maria, let your thoughts and feelings out. You know it will go no further."

He stared at her, rocking his chair a little then smiled warmly. "I appreciate the offer, sweetheart, but I'm fine."

"No, you're not fine. Not by a long shot. I know Johnny needs you but this doesn't mean you can't be there for him. You've both had to mourn her twice now and it's just too much. Please, talk to me. Let me help you through this. I know you think I'm young but I'm not as young as you'd like to believe. I lost both my parents in one way or the other. I know what grief is and how crushing it feels sometimes. I also know it really does help to talk it out. Scott is hoping Johnny will do that with him and so do I. I'm right here, Murdoch."

He frowned and she knew right away what he was thinking.

"I wasn't very kind to her and I didn't give her a chance. I didn't know her. Maybe, if you could talk about her, I could gain some perspective, too. I want to know who she really was and no one knew her better."

"That's not true," he spoke up immediately. "Johnny knew her better than anyone," he said softly.

"That hurts a little, doesn't it? That your son knew your wife better than you. That isn't your fault, Murdoch. It's not hers either. Still, you knew her very well."

He sighed and looked out over the room at nothing. "She was remarkable. She knew what I was thinking almost before I did. She could read me like a well-worn book. Her heart was so open. What she did for us, what she gave up, it makes me so angry to think about that. But, when I think about her, the anger isn't there. It wasn't her fault. The only mistake she made, maybe, was not telling me. But, I've thought about it and I can't blame her for that. She was scared to death, especially for Johnny. Any woman would do what she did to protect their child."

"I think it was incredibly brave of her. She had no money, no idea how she would support them both. She had to leave in the middle of the night. She must have been terrified and heartbroken all at the same time. And she was convinced she would never see you again. That Johnny would never know his father. It makes me so sad just thinking about it," Teresa said.

Murdoch looked at her and saw the tears starting in her eyes. He smiled lovingly at the girl. "I'm so glad you understand now. I never stopped loving her. I was hurt and confused and angry but, always, I loved her. Even if it made no sense to do so. It was the anger that made me divorce her in the first place."

"Of course, it was. I think you were very lucky to know love like that twice in your life."

There was a silence after that and she knew he was done. "Did that help?"

He smiled at her again. "Yes, me dear, it really did. Thank you for listening."

"I always will, Murdoch. Any time you need to talk about anything," she promised.

*

"Brother, whatever is wearing on you, I sure wish you'd spit it out," Johnny proclaimed.

He was standing near the river, skimming stones as they broke for lunch. He wasn't hungry so he amused himself while Scott ate. But, his brother had been pretty much a sourpuss ever since he'd returned from Boston and Johnny was weary of it.

"Nothing is wearing on me, Johnny. I am worried about you, though," Scott replied as he stood and walked to the horses. He stuffed the remains of his lunch in his saddlebags then walked over to his brother.

"Me?"

"Yes, you. Do you realize you haven't talked to me about your mother once?"

Johnny turned and skipped the rock over the water, counting as it danced three times. Bad shot, he thought. "Yeah, I know. Nothin to say."

"Nothing at all?" Scott pressed.

"I miss her, Scott. What else is there?"

"Plenty. I know you told me a lot about growing up with her but, what about since she came back? How do you feel about everything that happened after that?"

Johnny stood where he was, watching the sun on the water. "I'm angry. I feel cheated."

"Who are you angry with?"

Johnny's shoulders slumped and his head went down, then he turned to face Scott. "God, mostly. Mama, too."

"That's pretty normal, Johnny. What can I do?"

He smiled a little and shrugged. "Not one thing, brother."

"You need to get it out. Do you want to do some target shooting?" Scott suggested.

The grin that slid up Johnny's face was reminiscent of happier times and Scott's heart lifted a little.

"Who ya want me to practice on?"

Scott laughed and slapped him on the shoulder. "I'll have to think about that one. Really, though, it might help get some of the anger out."

"Maybe. The old man might not like it."

"Oh, I don't think he'd mind," Scott smiled.

Johnny spent the rest of the afternoon disposing of ammunition while Scott sat under a tree and watched with respect. He had never watched Johnny do this and he was picking up a few things, himself. He wasn't bad with a pistol but better with a rifle. He decided this was as helpful to him as Johnny. It gave him something else to think about, too.

Johnny walked over and sat next to him.

"Done?"

"Out of bullets," Johnny said.

"Want mine?"

He looked up and grinned. "Nope. Might need those if we run across a rattlesnake or some hombre."

Scott looked thoughtfully. "Good point. Come on, brother. Time to head home."

As they rode toward the house, Scott thought Johnny seemed in a better mood. He gave himself a mental pat on the back and hoped it lasted past the next few minutes. His mood darkened as he thought of what he wasn't telling them. He had to and soon, he knew. He just hadn't a clue how.

*

Murdoch raised his head from the contract he could now concentrate on with a frown. He walked to the front door and opened it. His frown deepened.

"Harlan!"

"Hello, Murdoch. Aren't you going to invite me in?" the elder man asked.

"Uh, yes, of course," Murdoch stammered as he stepped aside. "Scott didn't mention you were coming," he continued, his decorum now returned.

"It's a surprise. I was in Chicago and heard of a possible business deal in San Francisco that may interest me so I decided to stop by here first. I hope that's alright," Garrett said with a strained smile.

Murdoch's first thought was no, it wasn't alright, but he didn't speak it. "Of course. I'm sure Scott will be glad to see you. Come in and have a seat."

"Actually, if you don't mind, I'd like to freshen up a bit before Scotty gets here. May I use his bedroom?" Garrett asked as he eyes raked over the great room.

Murdoch hesitated, why he wasn't sure. Harlan was too congenial. Even after the debacle of his last visit, Murdoch had no illusions about the man's feelings toward him.

"I'm sure that would be fine," he answered.

*

Johnny and Scott dismounted and walked to the front door, both spying the surrey.

"Who's that?" Johnny asked.

Scott scrutinized the vehicle. "I don't recognize it. Must be someone to see Murdoch," he shrugged.

They walked into the living room side by side. Johnny stopped when his brother pulled up short. He looked at Scott and was startled by the pure anger on his sibling's face. He followed Scott's glare and saw the reason. No, that wasn't right. It might be a reason for him to be ticked off but not Scott. Johnny felt the air thicken with tension and prepared himself mentally for anything.

"What are you doing here?" Scott managed to ground out between clenched teeth.

Murdoch raised a brow and knew his own suspicions had just been validated. He'd never seen Scott so upset.

"Is that any way to greet your grandfather, Scotty? As I just explained to Murdoch, I was on my way to San Francisco on a last minute business trip and decided to stop here for a couple of days," Garrett smiled outwardly. Inwardly, he was seething at the interruption.

Johnny looked back at Scott and watched in surprise as the man visibly relaxed and smiled back.

"What a nice surprise."

No, it wasn't, Johnny thought as he heard the tension still in his brother's voice.

"Well, I'll let Teresa know we have a guest. Johnny?" Murdoch said then looked at his younger son.

Johnny didn't move at first, unsure what exactly was happening but sure his brother was in some kind of trouble.

Scott merely looked over at him and nodded so Johnny went with his father begrudgingly.

*

In the kitchen, Johnny voiced his concerns. "I've never seen Scott act like that with the old man. Even after he almost got Scott killed last year."

"I know," Murdoch said thoughtfully. "Something is going on between them. Maybe they had an argument while Scott was in Boston."

"I don't think Scott even saw his grandfather," Teresa spoke up. Receiving curious looks, she explained Scott's odd behavior and their quick departure from the city.

"Okay, now I know something's wrong. I'm not leaving those two alone together," Johnny said.

"Wait, son. If Scott needed us in there he would have said as much. I'm sure he can handle Harlan," Murdoch cautioned.

Johnny chewed his lip but he didn't agree. He'd wait a few more minutes but that was all.

*

"Well, Scotty, I must say I was simply stunned by your outrageous behavior," Harlan said as he paced back in forth, hands clasped behind his back.

"My behavior? How dare you?"

"Calm down, my boy," Harlan continued. "Yes, your behavior. I would think a grandson of mine above thievery. I want my property back, Scotty. Now!" he stated the last word firmly and harshly and turned to face the younger man.

"No," Scott responded in a guttural tone.

"It is obvious you haven't shared your discovery with Murdoch or Johnny. I have to wonder why that is, Scotty. Perhaps, you've thought better of it and come to understand there is no point."

"I haven't shared it - yet - because they both have other things on their minds. Have no doubt, I will tell them both you were behind this .... this treachery!"

"Oh, please, don't be so melodramatic."

"I cannot believe you are being so flippant about this. You destroyed my family. How could you do that? Why?" Scott shouted.

*

Johnny heard his brother's raised voice from the hallway that ran alongside the wine cellar. He'd moved there for just this purpose. That shout was all he needed and he made for the living room.

"That is an overstatement, Scotty. I hardly destroyed them," Garrett said. In his mind, he added 'unfortunately'.

Johnny walked in before Scott could say anything else. One look told Johnny his brother was beyond livid. Murdoch walked in from the dining room and quickly took in the scene, as well.

"What's going on in here?" he asked.

"Just a disagreement, Murdoch. Nothing to concern yourself about. Scotty inadvertently took something from the house when he was in Boston. I merely want it returned," Garrett said in a sociable tone.

"Uh, huh," Johnny said sardonically. "What's goin on, Scott? What's he tryin to pull now?"

Scott closed his eyes and sighed. He hadn't wanted to get into it like this. Now, he had no choice. He felt his family converge on him, waiting and supportive and he felt a little overwhelmed at having to be the bearer of this news. He looked at them, now standing side by side before him and tried to smile. It didn't work.

"I had an idea and I went to Grandfather's house to find the truth. I found it. I should have told you before but you both had enough to deal with."

"Scotty, I would advise you to stop now," Garrett interrupted.

"So would I."

All four men turned at the new voice. A man stood in the doorway holding a gun.

"Who the hell are you?" Johnny asked, ready for a fight now.

The man smiled and removed his hat, tossing it aside thoughtlessly. He stepped further into the room but still ten feet from any of them. "What? You don't remember me?"

Johnny stared hard at him even as he heard Scott's teeth grinding together. He wanted to look at his brother but he wasn't about to take his eyes off the stranger. He was about six feet, brown hair graying at the temples, brown eyes and pretty much unremarkable. Still, there was something about him.

"I don't know you," he finally answered.

The man shrugged, still smiling. "Well, it was twenty years ago. Reckon you wouldn't remember. I remember you, though. Boy, you had a mouth on you."

Johnny was completely confused by now. He had no choice but to look at Scott. What he saw made his blood freeze and memory crashed down on him. His eyes returned to the stranger.

"You sonofabitch!" He took a step forward only to be stopped, not by the gun pointed unwaveringly at his chest, but by Murdoch's hands on his arms.

"Well, I've been called worse. Now, let's get down to business," he said, focusing on Scott now. "I think you'd better get those papers for your granddaddy now, boy."

Scott only glared at him unmoving.

"Don't make me say it again," the man stated, his gun going back to Johnny. "But first, both of you drop your gun belts."

Scott and Johnny moved simultaneously as they unbuckled the belts and dropped them to the floor.

"Alright, Lancer, go get those papers."

Scott glanced at his brother for the first time then went upstairs.

*

"I don't need those papers, mister. There ain't no place on this earth you can hide from me. I will find you," Johnny threatened then looked at Garrett. "Then, I'll find you, old man."

The stranger laughed. "Looks like you still got a mouth on you, boy. Best get this kid of yours under control, Mr. Lancer, before he buys himself a whole load of trouble."

"Right now, I don't care about you," Murdoch seethed. He turned to Harlan. "What I want to know is why you did this. What possible reason could you have?"

Scott walked back in with a thick envelope and returned to his place with his family.

"Murdoch, are you that dense? It was simple, really. A man whose wife ran out on him, stole his son and disappeared? What chance would a man like that have for custody in a court of law?"

"You did this to keep Scott?" Johnny asked, dumbfounded.

"Of course. What other reason could there be? I knew, even if you came after him, you'd have no chance. I believe I pointed that out to you when you showed up on my doorstep all those years ago," Garrett stated smugly.

Scott felt the world tilt a little and he had to concentrate to keep from just falling to the floor. Because of him? He couldn't look at his father or brother. Didn't want to see that hatred on their faces. It was his fault - all of it.

"That's bull, Garrett. You don't care about Scott. You never did. All you care about is your legacy. Carrying on your business. And for what? Money. You're a pathetic excuse for a human being," Johnny spat, feeling his father's grip on him tighten.

"At least I am a human being, Johnny, unlike you," Garrett spat.

Murdoch released his son and stepped around him only to be stopped by the sound of a hammer being pulled back.

"This is all real sportin but I've got better things to do than watch you all tear each other apart for somethin that's done with. Just hand over the papers to grandpops, boy, and we'll be on our way," the stranger said.

"Don't do it, Scott," Johnny said.

"I'll kill your precious brother, Scott. Don't think for a second I won't," the man warned.

"He's not worth it, Johnny," Scott answered.

"She was," Johnny retorted.

Scott turned and looked at him sorrowfully. "I know. I'm sorry." He turned back and walked over, handing the documents to Harlan. He started to go back until he was stopped.

"You can stand right there next to Garrett," the stranger ordered.

"Let's get out of here," Harlan said anxiously.

"No yet, old man. Not yet."

*

Garrett glared at him. "We've got what we came for, now let's go!"

The man settled icy eyes on him. "There's a real nice fire burnin in that hearth. Toss those papers in it. I'm not gonna give you any chance to hang onto somethin that could see me swing. You already lied to me once, old man, don't make the mistake of crossing me again," he seethed.

Garrett's back went up. "You work for me, Trask."

"I also have the gun. Burn it."

Johnny listened to them, hoping they'd keep right on arguing. He spied his gun on the floor and thought he could dive for it easily. His eyes went to Scott's but the other man was looking a little panicked and Johnny couldn't figure that one out.

"I'll hunt you down, Trask. You won't see a minute's peace," Scott said.

The man laughed once more. "Yeah? That's what your brother said, too. I'm real worried about that," he smirked.

"You should be," Scott said, locking eyes with him. "My brother is very good with a gun. In fact, he was just practicing today."

Johnny's heart skipped a few beats. Dammit! His gun was empty. But, Scott's wasn't and it was near his own. Johnny fought back a smile and thought he would have to thank his brother for that one. He didn't even want to think of coming up and firing an empty gun at a cold-blooded bastard like this.

Johnny leaned back into his father a little, hoping it was enough to warn the other man to hit the dirt. He watched Garrett pull the papers from the envelope.

"The rest of these have nothing to do with you, Trask. This one," he held the folder in the air, "is yours." He started toward the fireplace but he didn't make it.

Johnny dove toward the gun belts, grabbing Scott's out of the holster as he rolled and came up on his feet all in one quick move. He emptied three bullets into Trask while the other man fired twice.

Scott and Murdoch both went to the floor. Scott scuttled to his father's desk and opened the drawer, grabbing the gun Murdoch kept there and looking over the ledge of the desk but it was over.

Johnny stood, still pointing the gun at Trask, waiting for him to move. He was nearly panting from the rush of adrenaline. Murdoch moved to the man and tossed the gun away then felt his pulse and looked at his son. He shook his head.

It was only then any of them looked at Garrett. Scott raised up and walked slowly toward his brother as Johnny just stared at Harlan. He was on his back on the floor holding his shoulder and rocking back and forth just a little.  

"Scotty. Scotty, I'm hurt," Garrett pleaded.

Johnny raised the gun from where it dangled at his side and pulled the hammer back. He aimed it at Garrett's head.

Scott sucked in a breath and froze. He didn't know what to do or what Johnny would do.

*

Garrett's eyes grew wide as silver dollars as he stared down the barrel. Those eyes moved to Johnny's and he began to shake all over.

"Scotty, please. You can't let him do this. It's murder!"

"That's what I do, Garrett. Remember?" Johnny said in a voice so low, so hard and cold, no one in the room recognized it. "You almost destroyed this family. You stole two decades from us. We could have all been together if not for you. You put my mother through a living hell. Your conniving has cost us all more than your pathetic life is worth. Do you think he's going to stop me? Do you think he could?"

Murdoch came to his feet, unable to fathom what his son was implying. Surely, Johnny was just trying to scare Harlan. Surely. He moved then, walking around the sofa to stand on Johnny's left.

"Son, put the gun down," he said softly.

"Why? Why should I? He deserves this, Murdoch! He deserves this and so much more," Johnny growled.

"Yes, he does. Let's make him suffer, Johnny. Send him to prison for the rest of his life. Wouldn't that be a better punishment? This is too easy, son."

Murdoch glanced over Johnny's head at Scott and saw his son understood what he was saying. He didn't think it mattered much to Scott now, though. His face told the story. Scott was finished.

"You can't ever win when people care this much about each other, Garrett. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that. But, you'll never learn that because you don't know how to love. All you know how to do is own," Johnny said and squeezed the trigger.

*

Scott watched in fascination as the bullet dug a hole into the floor less than an inch from his grandfather's head. Was astounded when the man curled into a ball and began to whimper. He looked at Johnny and saw only disgust on his face.

His brother tossed the gun aside and walked out the door without another word. Murdoch sighed with relief and knelt over Harlan, trying to get a look at his wound.

"Stop crying and let me see!" he barked at the man.

Scott just stood there, not knowing what to do. He felt nothing but animosity for the man lying on the floor. Nothing but misery for the one who'd just walked out. He sucked in a breath and left the room.

Johnny was sitting on the bench by the grave, hunched over when Scott found him a few minutes later. He sat next to his brother quietly.

"I wanted to wait a while to tell you. I didn't want to heap any more on your shoulders. I didn't think ... I don't know why I didn't think he'd come after me. I'm so sorry, Johnny." Scott waited for a reply but got none.

"I can't imagine what you must be thinking. If it weren't for me, none of this would have happened. His reasons didn't matter. The fact is, he did it to keep me in Boston."

"When did you figure it out?" Johnny whispered.

Scott lowered his eyes to his lap. "The night you gave me the drawing. Well, morning actually. I couldn't sleep and it just came to me. I wasn't sure at all. But, when I saw the opportunity to go to Boston, I took it. I was hoping, praying, it wasn't true. I remembered seeing Trask around the house a great deal when I was a boy. It seemed like he was there over the years right up until I entered the Army.

"I found a lot of Pinkerton reports on Murdoch, Maria and you. Trask's name was all over those report. He was an agent but I guess Grandfather hired him away from the Pinkerton's. Then, I found that one report that told it all." Scott stopped, his voice cracking.

"Teresa said you were in an all-fired hurry to leave the city," Johnny remarked, his voice sounding tight.

"Once I found them, I wanted to get home. Get away from him. I didn't want to even look at him. I didn't even care if he saw the lock had been forced on his desk."

Johnny closed his eyes and sighed but he never moved. "And that way, you could warn him."

"What?" Scott asked.

"You knew he'd see the lock sprung. You knew he'd know right off what had been taken and you knew he'd know you'd been in the house." His voice was flat now.

"Johnny, you can't believe I wanted him to come here?"

"Yeah, I do. Maybe so we could confront him together and maybe so you could get an explanation someplace you felt safer. Maybe you didn't want him getting into trouble. You waited a week and said nothing, Scott. Then he shows up here with his hired gun."

Scott opened his mouth, then closed it and thought about his brother's words. "I didn't want him to get away with it. I couldn't let that happen," he finally said with conviction.

"I believe you. Still, he's your grandfather and it's gotta be tough either way."

"It's hard. I won't deny that. Right now, I hate his guts for what he did. You were right, it wasn't for me, it was for him. It's always been for him. That's hard to admit much less accept," Scott said painfully.

*

Johnny only nodded at that. He had not moved at all.

Scott turned and looked down the hill. He saw Murdoch loading Harlan into his surrey. Jelly was at the reins and another hand in the seat with Garrett. He imagined they were taking him to town; to jail and he felt nothing but loathing.

"They're taking him to town now," he said for Johnny's benefit.

Johnny rolled forward and stood up, still slouching quite a bit more than usual. "That's it then. Can't say for sure they'll do much to him. It was so long ago, might not have anything to hold him on."

"Nothing but attempted murder right here today," Scott reminded him.

"Maybe," Johnny muttered and took a step toward the grave. He sighed. He couldn't do this now.

"Do you want to be alone with her?" Scott asked gently.

Johnny shook his head then went to his knees so suddenly, it startled Scott who knelt beside him.

"Johnny?"

"I'm sorry, Scott. I didn't think it was too bad," he grunted.

"What are you talking about, brother?"

Johnny looked up at him then moved his right hand, raising it a little to show Scott the blood.

"Oh my God!" Scott exclaimed.

*

Murdoch mumbled under his breath as he cleaned the wound and bandaged it up. It was a deep rut in Johnny's left side but the bullet hadn't gone in. He shook his head more than once and kept right on muttering about stubbornness and foolishness and children who thought they were invincible.

Any other time, Johnny might have thought his father funny. Right now, he felt numb to everything and everyone around him. He closed his eyes and hoped that would stop his father's quiet tirade.

Scott had insisted on getting Sam but Murdoch figured the man would be busy with Garrett for while. Unless, Scott hauled him out here by his collar. He wasn't so sure his son wouldn't do just that. The look of guilt on Scott's face told him more than any words and he hadn't a clue how he was going to get them all through this.

Teresa decided it was enough and she walked into the room, having listened to Murdoch for a while at the doorway. She took the cloth from his hand and gently pushed him aside then sat next to Johnny and wiped his brow.

Johnny felt the difference and opened his eyes, smiling at her a little.

"Just sleep, Johnny. It's all you can do right now," she advised and he closed his eyes again.

When next he awoke, Sam was sitting beside him.

"How do you feel, Johnny?" the doctor asked.

"Tired."

"Well, the wound isn't bad. Murdoch did a fine job cleaning it out. Just keep it that way and take it easy for a few days. You should be fine."

"Thanks, Sam. Is Scott here?"

The physician sighed. "Yes, but how is that going to let you rest?"

Johnny smiled softly at him. "Just need to see him for a minute."

"I'll see if I can corral him. He's probably off somewhere feeling guilty," Sam snorted.

Johnny grimaced as the man left, knowing he was right. He wasn't sure how he felt about all of this. What he'd said to Scott earlier was simply what he'd been thinking - wondering. Had Scott hoped Garrett would come after those papers? Still, he'd seen his brother's face in the living room today. He knew Scott was beyond angry with the old goat. He also knew his brother would never do anything to hurt him.

Scott's head appeared in the open doorway. Johnny almost laughed and waved him inside. Scott walked in slowly, stopping at the foot of the bed.

"Sit," Johnny commanded and he did.

*

"Well, brother, what do you make of this mess?" Johnny asked.

"I'm not impressed with it. I don't know what to say, Johnny," Scott responded sadly.

"I've been thinking about it and I've decided it's not your fault. I'm sorry for what I said out there. I was just ....."

"Hurting."

"Yeah. Look, it may have been because of you that Garrett did what he did but, you had nothin to do with. You didn't even know about it. It's not like you plotted this all out with him. No way you're to blame," Johnny said.

Scott smiled a little then went back to his frowning. "I'll never understand it, is all."

"Me neither. Ain't like you're that much of a prize," Johnny said then grinned.

Scott reciprocated the smile, more enthusiastically this time. "Gee, thanks."

"Anytime, brother." Johnny grew solemn then. "I think we all need a whole lot of time to heal from this. I thought we made some headway earlier today. I did feel better before we got home. By the way, thanks for reminding me my gun was empty. Guess I've gotten too lazy."

Scott blew out a breath. "I could see the wheels turning, brother. I wasn't sure you remembered. And, you're right. It's going to take a long time." He frowned in thought. "Something you said today really struck home."

"What was that?"

"You told Grandfather a person can't ever win against people who care so much about each other. I think that says it all. No matter what happens, as long as we're together, we can survive anything."

"Yeah, but it's more than surviving, ya know?"

Scott nodded. "Yes, I know. Loving each other and making a good life together is what really matters."

"I couldn't agree more."

They both looked up at Murdoch as he walked in. "Eavesdroppin again, old man?" Johnny asked.

"Only way I find out anything around here," Murdoch quipped. "Are you two alright?"

"Sure, we're getting there. How about you?"

"I'm getting there, too, I think. I had a nice talk with Teresa today. It helped me see some things more clearly."

Scott raised a brow then smiled. "Maybe, we can all see more clearly now."

"Maybe you two could see your way clear to letting me get some sleep," Johnny snarked lightly.

Murdoch ruffled his hair much to Johnny's chagrin. "I suppose we could do that."

Johnny smiled patiently then shot a look toward Scott then back at his father. Murdoch gave him a small nod and smiled.

Scott rolled his eyes. "You two are as subtle as a braying mule."

Murdoch chuckled. "Come on, son. Let's let your brother rest."

*

Once in the living room, Scott plopped into a chair and stared at his lap morosely. Murdoch poured two whiskeys and took him one. Scott took it but made no move to drink.

"You know this wasn't your doing, I hope," Murdoch started.

"Yes, Sir," he mumbled.

Murdoch sighed out and took a sip. "I don't know where you two find all this guilt to heap on yourselves. Scott, I don't mean to sound unfeeling but it could have been anything Harlan wanted. He'd do anything to protect what he perceives to be his."

"I understand, Sir. But, he is my grandfather, my blood. How could he do this to my own father?"

"Because he hates me and he always has. That will never change. What I really want to know is how you feel about him possibly spending years in prison?"

Scott looked up at him with cold eyes. "I feel just fine about it. Nothing less than he deserves. You were right about that. Killing him would have been too easy."

Murdoch stared at his son for a long time. "How would you have felt if Johnny had killed him?"

Scott faltered for a second. "It would have broken my heart to watch my brother commit murder. No matter what Harlan did, he was unarmed and Johnny would be the one to pay with his life. I could never accept that happening. As for what you really wanted to know, I can't answer that. I'm not sure I would have felt anything."

Murdoch was stunned by the heartlessness but maybe he shouldn't be. Scott had been through a hellish nightmare. It was enough for all of them to deal with. Too much, in fact. It didn't escape him that Scott was referring to his grandfather by his first name now.

"Do you want to see him?"

"No," Scott growled. "If you'll excuse me, I'd like to go to my room for a while, now," he added more softly and left the room.

Murdoch sighed and downed his whiskey. He felt like hurling the glass against a wall but that wouldn't help. He only wished he knew what would.

*

The next morning, Johnny awoke to find his brother asleep in a chair at his bedside. He frowned and tried to stretch but stopped quickly as his side pulled painfully. He yawned and watched his brother for a while then tired of that. Putting his right hand over the wound to his left side and pressing down a little, Johnny sat up with a muffled grunt.

He pulled the covers back and made it to the side of the bed, his feet touching the cold floor. He glanced at the bandages, pleased there was no bleeding then stood cautiously. So far, so good, he thought and walked to the dresser. He was half dressed when Scott stirred.

Johnny sat in the chair by the window buttoning his shirt when Scott opened his eyes. He immediately scanned the room then relaxed when he saw Johnny.

"Should you be doing that?"

Johnny smiled a little. "Someone gonna do it for me? Before you say anything, the answer is no," he replied.

Scott stretched and stood, bending over to stretch out his back.

"Why'd you sleep in here?"

"Keeping an eye on you, brother. You're sneaky," Scott smiled.

Johnny cocked a brow and his eyes danced. "If that's what you call keepin an eye out, I'm in trouble."

Scott didn't smile back.

"Brother, let it go."

"How?" he asked sharply.

"However you can, I guess. It'll take some time, I know. But, stop blaming yourself, at least."

Scott nodded and sat back down. "I don't blame myself. I blame him. I just want to choke him!"

"Me too," Johnny said softly. "Can you believe he had Trask threaten you, too, all those years ago?"

Scott snorted. "Probably to throw Maria off the trail if she had any suspicion." He looked at his brother then. "Do you think she did?"

Johnny shook his head quickly. "She would've told me."

"Yes, I'm sure she would have. Well, I'm going to get cleaned up."

"Thanks, I appreciate that," Johnny grinned.

Scott gave him a half smile and left the room. Johnny sighed after him. Their roles were reversed now. It was his turn to help Scott grieve for his loss. He'd be angry for a good long while but, in the end, he'd have to mourn. Well, he'd make sure he was right there just like Scott had been for him. He sat back in the chair and rubbed his face, never feeling so worn out in his life.

*

Teresa watched the two of them looking so glum. Why did things have to be so complicated? If only they could get a break. She freshened Murdoch's coffee then Scott's and started to sit down when she spied him in the doorway. Giving him a smile, she fixed him a plate and sat it on the table.

Murdoch looked up and noticed Johnny. "You should be resting, son."

"I'm alright to move around a little. Don't know about you two, though," he remarked as he took his seat.

No one commented and they finished breakfast silently. Scott and Murdoch went into the living room and Johnny lingered a while.

"I don't know what to do for them. For you," Teresa said.

He smiled at her. "I'm okay. But, maybe I can get them to take out some of their frustration," he said, thinking of a plan.

"I hope so. Can I help?"

"No, but thanks. Murdoch said he talked to you yesterday before all this started. He said it helped him a lot."

She sighed and shook her head. "I'm glad but I just wish that was all they had to deal with now." She looked up quickly, her eyes reflecting her horror.

"It's alright, Teresa. I know what you meant," Johnny smiled and patted her arm.

He walked into the living room to find them both sitting there not doing a thing. Without a word, he walked over to the rifle rack and took down two rifles then grabbed two boxes of shells. "Come with me," he told them and walked outside.

Looking at each other, Scott and Murdoch followed wondering what he was up to.

Johnny waited for them to appear then walked around the back of the barn. Curious, the other two men followed.

"What are you doing, son?" Murdoch asked.

"I'm not doing anything. I'm hurt, remember? You two are going to blast the hell out of that tree out there, though."

"Johnny, shooting a tree is not going to help," Murdoch said.

"Won't hurt, either. It helped me some yesterday. Give it a try," he shrugged.

*

Murdoch leveled the rifle and felt foolish. Both men went at it for a good half hour. Johnny found an old chair and settled down to watch. Finally, they both grew tired and stopped.

"How'd it feel?" Johnny asked.

"Good but I'm afraid it's going to take a lot more than this, brother," Scott said.

"Yeah, but it's a start. It helped me to get some of the mad out, anyway. Thought it might do the same for you two."

"I do feel a little better, I admit," Murdoch rejoined and cast a small smile at his son.

They walked around the barn and stopped as a rider neared. All three felt some trepidation as Val Crawford rode up.

"Hey, Val,"Johnny greeted.

"Hey, yourself," the lawman answered in his usual grumpy manner.

"What can we do for you, Sheriff?" Murdoch asked.

Val sighed and looked up at him. "Well, need statements from all of ya. Figured I could use a good ride, too."

Johnny smiled, realizing the man knew none of them were up to a ride into town. "Come on in, Val."

Once Val had a cup of coffee and was settled in a chair, he pulled out a stained piece of paper and a stub of pencil. He licked the end of the pencil and poised it over the paper. Johnny nearly fell out laughing but he managed to remain serious for the most part.

Val relaxed his hand. "First, I reckon I should tell ya, old man Garrett is accusing you of attempted murder, Johnny. Said you tried to shoot him in the head but missed."

Johnny leaned back in his chair and crossed one knee over the other. "That a fact?"

"Yeah, it is. So, reckon I should start with you. What've ya got ta say for yourself?"

*

Johnny's fingers drummed the arm of the chair as he regarded his friend. "I missed on purpose."

Val stared at him for a beat then rolled his eyes. "Scott, what can you tell me?"

Scott shrugged. "He needn't have missed on my account."

"Boys, let's just do this so the sheriff can get back to town," Murdoch intervened. He then went on to tell Val the facts as he knew them. All the facts.

When he was finished, Val Crawford was stunned, then he was livid. He tapped his foot on the floor as he looked at each of them. "Either of you got anything ta add?" he finally asked.

Scott and Johnny both shook their heads as Val scratched his then cleared his throat. "Alright, I'm headin back now."

"Wait a minute. I know that look, Val. What are you thinkin?" Johnny asked, leaning forward in his chair.

"I ain't no lawyer!"

"Spill it, Val!"

"Alright! Just seems like them papers ain't gonna do you any good. They were got by illegal means. Scott stole 'em. Ta my thinking, the prosecutor can't use any of that."

Scott leaned forward as well. "Are you saying he could get off?"

"Could be, Scott. Like I said, I ain't no lawyer."

"What about having his hired gun threaten to kill us?" Murdoch asked.

Val shrugged. "It's pretty thin, Mr. Lancer. He could claim the man was only protectin him."

"Trask is the one who shot Garrett," Johnny reminded.

"Yeah, we'll just have to see how it pans out. That's all I'm sayin. I gotta get back now," Val said dejectedly.

All three men sat in stunned silence. Johnny was the first to move, more quickly than he should have and he groaned a little as he came to his feet. Murdoch was at his side instantly.

"I'm okay," he said.

"No, you aren't. You need to lie down, Johnny."

"Murdoch, I can't. I'm too damned mad!" He walked away from his father and stared out the French doors.

Scott sat silently, his mind shutting down as he fought thinking about this. Murdoch watched him for a minute then sat beside him.

Johnny couldn't believe it. He is not gonna get away this, he vowed to himself. If he had to hunt Garrett to the four corners of the earth, he wouldn't get away with it. He thought about his brother but that didn't dissuade him at all. He couldn't let Scott's feelings get in the way. That man had taken too much from him. He slipped out the doors quietly.

"Scott, are you alright?" Murdoch asked, knowing the answer.

He shook his head and closed his eyes briefly. "I don't know what I am. This can't be happening. He can't get away with this, Murdoch."

The rancher rubbed the nape of his son's neck as he tried to comfort Scott. He didn't know what to do, either. He glanced over and saw Johnny was gone. He hoped his son had gone upstairs to rest.

*

Johnny walked toward the barn, grabbing a young ranch hand on the way. "Saddle my horse for me, Luke."

"You sure, Johnny? Didn't you just get shot?"

"I'm sure, kid. It was just a graze. A little sore is all. Just saddle him for me," Johnny replied, trying to hold his temper with the boy.

Luke shrugged. Unconvinced this was the best idea in the world, he nonetheless did as he was told. In short order, Johnny was leading Barranca out of the barn. He didn't hesitate, but mounted up with a slight grimace and headed down the road.

Luke stood there watching him as Jelly came up behind him. When the young man turned, he got a glaring eyeful, but Jelly said nothing, knowing the kid wasn't at fault. He shook his head and walked away.

It was a little harder than he thought it would be but Johnny hung on tight. His side was aching something fierce but he was more determined to make it to Green River. He had to end this for his family, for his mother's memory. He'd never been so sick of anyone in his life as he was of Harlan Garrett. How that man had anything to do with the birth of Scott's mother was beyond him. By all accounts, she was a peach. He was definitely the bitter pit.

He reined to a stop in front of the sheriff's office and sat in the saddle for a few minutes, hoping he wouldn't fall to the ground when he dismounted. At last, he swung his leg over slowly and eased to the dirt. Barranca stood still for him and Johnny gave him a thank you.

Calling on his reserves, he walked into Val's office and to a surprised expression.

"What the devil are you doin here?" Val asked.

Johnny walked in and eased into a chair. "Resting at the moment."

"Dang it, Johnny. Of all the fool-headed stunts!"

Johnny held up a hand. "Val, please, just give me a minute."

Val reined himself in and opened a desk drawer, pulling a bottle and cup out and pouring a measure. He handed it off and Johnny inhaled the contents. It helped after a few minutes and he sighed with the relief.

"Thanks, amigo."

"Don't thank me, ya mule," Val groused. "Now, what do ya think you're doin?"

"I need to talk to him, Val. Need to set some things straight."

"Can't do it, Johnny. You're a witness and a victim. I can't let ya back there," Val announced.

Johnny looked darkly at him but Val was unswayed. "Val...."

"No! I said it and I mean it. Go home, Johnny. I can't let you do this."

*

Scott sat at his writing desk in his room and took a deep breath before dipping pen to ink and beginning his letter. It turned out to be three pages long. He wasn't sure this would work but he had to try. Never did it occur to him those papers he'd taken may not be used as evidence. But, as soon as Val had said it, he knew the truth of it. Now, he had to find another way and he hoped this was it.

He sealed the envelope then took it downstairs, finding Murdoch just where he'd left him half an hour ago; staring out the French doors in search of Johnny.

"Murdoch, I need to borrow one of the hands."

"Alright, son," the rancher answered distractedly.

"I need him to hand deliver a letter to Boston," Scott went on, knowing his father had not heard his initial request.

That statement got Murdoch's attention and he turned to Scott. "What did you say?"

"I want someone to deliver this letter to Mr. Dennison in Boston. Val's right. Those papers won't be allowed into evidence. Mr. Dennison and Julie can file a complaint with the Boston courts, though. Their testimony about the blackmail last year may be enough for a search of the house. The police will find all the other documents Gran .... Harlan has," he explained.

Murdoch noted once more his avoidance of using the word grandfather. He frowned as he studied Scott's face. "Don't you think Harlan has removed the rest of those documents by now?"

Scott's shoulders rose slightly. "I have considered the possibility but I don't know what else to do. I'm hoping this will work but we can't wait for the post to deliver the letter. I think time is of the essence. Once he has an attorney, who knows what will happen?"

The older man nodded thoughtfully. "Who did you have in mind?"

"Jelly. He's the only one I'd trust."

"I agree," Murdoch stated. "But, it has to be his decision, son. I don't want him pressured into going. It's a long trip and Jelly isn't as young as he used to be."

Scott smiled wanly. "He can do it, I know he can. Besides, he can be very persuasive."

*

Scott wrote another letter. One of introduction so the Dennisons would know he had sent Jelly. He then went to find the old wrangler.

"Boston? Are you crazy?" Jelly grumped.

"I may be but that is beside the point," Scott quipped then explained his idea.

Jelly stroked his beard as he considered. "I ain't exactly the high society type, Scott. Even with that other letter, are ya sure they'd see me?"

"I'm not sure of anything, Jelly, but we have to try. I understand if you don't want to do it. I'll find someone else," Scott said and tried to keep the disappointment from his voice.

"Wahl, now, who else ya think'll have a chance? 'Sides, who else'd be as persistent as me. Don't you worry none, Scott. I'll get that letter delivered and I'll explain things to them folks so's they understand. Make sure they know they ain't got nothin ta fear from Harlan Garrett ever agin!"

Scott's eyes widened a little then he looked warily at the man. "And how do you propose to do that?"

Jelly wavered and cleared his throat. Then, he reared back and puffed out his chest. "You don't need ta know the particulars. Just leave it ta ole Jelly. I won't let ya down, Scott."

Scott sighed and handed over the letters then smiled at his friend. "Thanks, Jelly. I knew I could count on you."

"I'll get packed and get ta town right now. Might be able to catch a stage today. If not, I'll be on it tomorra."

Scott nodded and handed him a third envelope containing traveling money. He patted Jelly on the back and walked away.

Jelly sighed and shook his head sadly. He sure hoped no one forgot that Scott was grieving, too.

*

Johnny pulled to a stop as he met Jelly on the road. His scowl found a twin in Jelly's face.

"'Bout time ya went home. Murdoch and Scott are fit ta be tied. Are ya tryin ta kill yourself?" Jelly ranted.

Johnny sighed loudly. "No, just tryin to take care of some things. Didn't exactly work out, though. Don't tell me they sent you out to hunt me down?"

"Got better things ta do with my time," Jelly said then puffed up. "I got important business ta take care of. I'll be gone couple of weeks."

Johnny's face fell as he stared open-mouthed at the man. "Where you goin, Jelly?" he asked in a soft whisper.

Jelly thought his old heart might just break. He hadn't considered Johnny would take him leaving for a while so hard. But, he reckoned he should have. "I got somethin ta do for Scott, Johnny. He'll explain it all to ya, boy."

The younger man cocked his head to the side as he gave Jelly a puzzled look. Something for Scott that would take a couple of weeks?  

"Well, whatever it is, take care old man."

"Don't you worry bout me, Johnny. I'll be just fine and back before ya know it. Go on home now before Murdoch sends a posse after ya."

Johnny smiled a little and nodded. He reached out and squeezed Jelly's arm then spurred Barranca on down the road. Jelly turned and watched him for a minute. He didn't look well. His shoulders looked like there was a mountain sitting atop them and Jelly was worried for the young man. He reconsidered leaving then decided this may help Johnny, too.

Putting Garrett away for good would help ease some of the pain maybe. At the least, it would be one less thing to worry about. He turned back round in the saddle and kicked the mare into a trot.

*

Johnny walked into the house to two sets of angry eyes staring him down. He felt like he was about to be in a gunfight.

"Where have you been? Sam told you to take it easy. Going for a ride is not taking it easy, Johnny," Murdoch started right in.

"Didn't exactly go for a ride. I had something to do."

"What? What was so important it couldn't wait?" Scott asked.

Johnny sighed and sat on the sofa. He looked up at them both then dropped his eyes. "I went to Green River."

Murdoch ground his teeth and Scott stared, slack-jawed at him.

"Why?" his father asked.

"To see Garrett but Val wouldn't let me."

"Did you think he would?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny only shrugged.

"Why would you want to see him anyway?" Scott sneered.

"I don't really know now. Thought I could get him to confess maybe."

Murdoch looked at him closely and saw the weariness and pain in his eyes; heard it in his voice. "Alright, young man, upstairs to bed. You're still healing."

"First, tell me where Jelly's goin. He said he was doing something for you," Johnny addressed his brother.

Scott sighed and sat across from him then filled him in on what was happening.

"You think Mr. Dennison will go to the law now? He didn't before. Or Julie for that matter," Johnny spouted, his anger near the surface.

"It's worth a try. I don't know what else to do. He's not going to sit idly in that jail cell. We have to go on the offensive," Scott explained.

Johnny clamped his mouth shut before he said something he may not regret anyway. He knew it wasn't Scott's fault but he should have confided his thoughts before he ever went to Boston. That was the part that upset Johnny. He stood up slowly, trying to hide the grimace of pain. His side was throbbing now and felt like there was a branding iron stuck to it. He started for the stairs then turned back to them both.

"I just want to say one thing. Stop treating me with kid gloves. If I was gonna break, I would've done it by now." He left the room without waiting for a reply.

*

Jelly stood in front of the mansion and shook his head. This wasn't going to be easy. He had gone over it a thousand times in his head since leaving Lancer. Now, here he was and he still wasn't sure this was going to work. Sucking in a breath, he knocked.

It took some talking and the letter of introduction from Scott but, finally he was allowed entry. He was taken to a parlor to wait. Jelly raised his brows at the haughty interior and stood in the center of the room so he wouldn't chance breaking something. The door opened and he turned.

"Mr. Hoskins, I must say this is a surprise."

Jelly swallowed and gawked. She was still a beautiful girl but he noticed the sadness in her eyes. "Yes, ma'am. I reckon so. Is your pa at home?"

"He'll be along in a moment. Please, sit down. This must be very important," she fished.

"Oh, yes'm. It's real important. It's ..." he stopped as the elderly man entered the room.

He was completely gray haired with deep wrinkles on his face. Worry lines from Jelly's guess. Sure wasn't from hard work outside. He stood up and nodded at the man as Julie made the introductions.

"Well," Jelly said as he retook his seat, "reckon it'd be easiest just ta give you this letter, Mr. Dennison."

The old man took the missive in a shaky hand. He read it slowly with a thoughtful expression. Julie sat in a chair beside him wringing her hands.

"I don't understand. What blackmail is Mr. Lancer referring to here?" the man finally asked.

Jelly stared at him then turned to Julie who was paler now.

"I'm sorry, Father. I didn't want you to know," she started and told him about her trip out west the previous year and the real reason she'd gone.

Harold Dennison's age must have been an illusion, Jelly decided. The man's face reddened and he stood quickly, pacing the room with his hands clasped behind his back for several long moments.

"Harlan Garrett," he growled the name. "That man is a menace to decent society. Why didn't you tell me about this, Julie?"

She flushed and lowered her eyes. "You were so ill, Father. I was afraid," she spoke softly.

"Rubbish! There is no need to treat me as an invalid, my dear." He stopped pacing and took a deep breath. "Mr. Hoskins, I hope you will accept our hospitality during your stay in our fair city. Tomorrow morning, Julie and I will be speaking with the police and the District Attorney."

*

Johnny paced the veranda, his fingers tapping his thighs, as he waited on his brother to appear from the barn. He was still upset with them all for keeping him grounded. If they'd listen to him they'd know he was just fine. All this sitting around the past week was getting on his nerves and he figured he could take some of his frustration out on his brother. Fair or not.

Scott finally appeared and started toward him only to slow his gait as he took in his brother's countenence. Johnny could see him bracing himself. It should be funny. It wasn't.

"Well?" he asked as soon as Scott was in earshot.

"There was a wire from Jelly. The Dennisons are going to the authorities. He's going to wait to hear the outcome before heading home," Scott related.

Johnny nodded his satisfaction. "Jelly okay?"

Shrugging, Scott answered. "He didn't say he wasn't."

Johnny sighed loudly, inordinately so. "Anything else?"

Scott lowered his head and stepped a few feet away. "I saw Val. Harlan keeps shouting about bail but Val isn't going to release him until the judge gets here. That should be another week."

"Did you see him?"

Scott's eyes came up quickly. "No. Why would I?"

Johnny shrugged. "I don't know. Just thought you might."

"You're still angry with me, aren't you?" Scott surmised.

It was Johnny's turn to turn away. "Yeah, I am. You should have told me what was going on before you went to Boston."

"Johnny, you were grieving. You still are. I couldn't lay more on you."

The younger man turned back, his eyes flashing with anger. "What the hell do you think I am, Scott? Some baby? You think I can't handle more than one thing at a time? I'm not an invalid. I had a right to know!"

*

Murdoch stepped outside when he heard his son's raised voice and didn't like the stance Johnny had taken. He walked over to stand beside Scott.

"Johnny, Scott was only trying to help."

"Help who? Garrett?" Johnny lashed out.

Scott's eyes narrowed. "You know that isn't true."

"Do I, Scott?"

"What is that supposed to mean?"

Johnny lowered his voice, turning it into black ice. "You never said a word about this to anyone. You went to Boston and made sure that old man would know you'd been there, know you'd taken those papers. You didn't even try to find Trask while you were there. You lit out of town like a thief in the night."

"We've had this conversation, Johnny," Scott replied tightly.

"And you are not having it again. This is useless. Johnny, you don't believe Scott wants Garrett to get away with this. I know you're angry, son. And frustrated. But, don't tear yourself and your brother apart over this. He's not worth the effort." Murdoch's voice was calm for the most part but he was also fightened at Johnny's anger.

"Fine! You want to stand there and treat me like a child? Well, I don't have to stand here and take it!" He walked past them both and straight to the barn.

Murdoch closed his eyes briefly and sighed then went after his son.

"You aren't well enough....."

"Don't," Johnny growled as he turned and glared at the man. "I mean it, Murdoch. Leave it."

The rancher looked into the eyes of the gunfighter with sadness in his own. He could only nod and walk away as Johnny saddled his horse.

Outside, Scott waited too short a time as Murdoch emerged.

"Not now, son. He's worse than I've ever seen him."

"He can't leave, Murdoch! He's not well yet!" Scott argued.

"We can't stop him and I'm afraid to try. I'm serious, Scott. You can't handle Johnny right now."

As the words left his mouth, Barranca walked out of the barn, Johnny leaning low over his neck to miss the doorway. He didn't look at them, just spurred the palomino into a gallop.

*

He rode as fast as the horse could move, uncaring, unthinking; a pure raw rage consuming his entire being. After an hour, he slowed the horse. Five minutes later, he stopped altogether. Breathless and unsurprised at where he was, Johnny dismounted and dropped the reins. He walked into the cabin and looked around.

Nothing much was left but the furniture. They'd taken it all to the house. He walked aimlessly about the room then started. Johnny   upturned the settee and flung it against the wall. He picked up the coffee table and flung it at a window, breaking out the glass. He walked to the kitchen and threw that table against the stove; soot raining down in a billowy black cloud.

He continued in this fashion, destroying every stick of furniture in the place until he was nearly spent. As he surveyed his handiwork, he nodded in satisfaction. Then, he picked up an oil lamp and flung it against the far wall. He drew his gun and blasted out the windows then reloaded.

He picked up a second lamp and pulled off the top, pouring the combustible on the walls and floor, the curtains and broken furniture. Then, he tossed the lamp base aside and walked outside. Fishing in hs pocket, he pulled out a match and struck it against the the door frame. He tossed it inside and walked away.

Johnny mounted Barranca and headed to Green River as the cabin exploded, crackled and popped behind him. He rode to the saloon, walked inside and ordered two bottles of tequila. He paid for them and walked back out. He went to the telegraph office and sent a wire then mounted up and rode back out of town.

Val watched him from the doorway of his office, a scowl of concern on his face. But, he'd also seen Johnny's face and he had no intentions of going after the man. He was only glad Johnny had left town.

Johnny returned to the inferno still raging and slid off Barranca. He sat under a tree and opened a bottle then took a long pull and settled in to watch the show. And that's where he stayed all night.

*

Scott stayed up all night waiting for his brother. It was wasted time as the dawn broke and Johnny had not returned. He was worried. More worried than he'd ever been. He had thought Johnny would lose control but he could not have imagined the extent. Murdoch's words rang in his head. His father had been afraid OF Johnny. Scott shook his head slowly as he stood and made his way to the kitchen for his one hundredth cup of coffee.

He found Teresa there and smiled wanly at her.

"He didn't come home?" she asked.

"No," Scott sighed and lowered himself into a chair. "I'm worried, I have to tell you."

"I know. I wish there was something I could do."

Scott looked up at her as she refilled his cup. "Stay away from Johnny for a while, Teresa. He's in a bad place."

She stopped pouring and stared at him. "He wouldn't hurt me," she proclaimed with certainty.

"I don't know what he'll do at this point," Scott admitted aloud.

Teresa frowned at him but she could never believe Johnny would do any of them physical harm. He may cut them with his words but they had to let him. He needed to get this anger out. Lord knew, he deserved to.

Murdoch walked in and gave Scott the once over. "I take it he's not home."

"No, Sir. I'm worried, I don't mind telling you," Scott repeated for his father's benefit.

"No need," Johnny said from the doorway. He walked in and plopped down in a chair, grabbing the coffee Teresa poured almost before she finished.

"How are you, son?"

"Tired and hungover. I owe you for a cabin. Take it out of my pay," he said curtly.

Murdoch didn't know exactly what that meant. "Don't worry about it."

"I'm not," Johnny snipped and downed the coffee. He stood up then. "Goin to bed. You can take that out of my pay, too."

Both men sighed as he left the room.

"How are we going to handle this?" Scott asked.

"We're not. Leave him be until he's ready. He'll come to us," Murdoch replied.

"Will he? I'm not so sure this time."

"He just needs to be angry, son. It will pass," Murdoch said, trying to convince himself as much as Scott.

"Someone needs to check his wound. You know he hasn't," Teresa reminded them.

*

Johnny fell onto the bed, bouncing twice before the springs settled. He threw an arm across his forehead and stared at the ceiling. What was he doing? Why was he hurting them? He didn't know but he couldn't seem to stop. He knew it was wrong but that didn't matter when he had to face them. His anger had been out of control yesterday. That had never happened. Not like this.

He could shout down the devil, rant and rave but never had he felt the ice that had consumed him yesterday. The total lack of concern for any of them. This was worse than Johnny Madrid. He didn't know what this was.

He heard the footsteps stop outside his door and felt the ire begin to arise. He closed his eyes and slapped it back down, daring it to rear up again. A soft knock but he instinctively knew who the brave party was. He just didn't know why the man was bothering. He didn't answer and the knock came again. Johnny closed his eyes and stayed quiet.

The door opened as did his eyes as he looked at his father entering.

"Please leave me alone," he breathed out.

"I will as soon as I've checked your wound," Murdoch bartered, hands laden with bandages.

Johnny looked blankly at him then remembered. How could he forget? His teeth ground together as he watched Murdoch get closer. The instinct to move away was strong in him.

"Please, Johnny. Just let me check it. The last thing you need is an infection."

He inhaled deeply and relaxed, nodding his head and moving to pull out his shirttail. It wasn't that hard as it was already askew.

Murdoch sat on the mattress and shook his head. There'd been some bleeding but it was dry now and he knew the bandage would stick. He went to the dresser and poured water then grabbed a wash cloth and returned to the bed. He said nothing as he cut away the bandage and used the wet cloth to soak it off the wound.

Johnny flinched several times but made no sound. He kept his eyes closed as Murdoch glanced at him every few seconds.

*

"I understand, you know. We all do. We only want to help but if there's nothing we can do, I guess we'll have to accept that," Murdoch said as casually as he could.

Johnny said nothing.

"I thought you were doing alright but I imagine this whole mess with Harlan has you ready to just take off from here."

He did open his eyes with that statement and watched his father's face.

"I can't say I exactly blame you but I pray that won't happen. This is going to sting quite a bit," he went on as he pulled the bandage the rest of the way off.

Johnny's abdominal muscles flexed as he sucked in a breath.

Murdoch noted the loosened stitches as he began to gentle wash the wound. "Not that I would look forward to such a thing but, if you feel the need to hit someone, I'd be available. I promise not to hit back." He glanced at his son.

Johnny's mouth twitched a fraction.

"I'm going to have to tighten these stitches up. Wouldn't want Sam in the line of fire. He can't hold his tongue, you know," Murdoch went on as if having a normal conversation.

Another twitch and Johnny steeled his resolve, surprised it was a little harder now.

Murdoch leaned in for a closer look as he pulled at one stitch. Johnny reacted slightly and he grimaced, hating to cause his son more pain.

"I burned down the cabin. Destroyed everything in it then lit a match," Johnny spoke almost too softly to hear.

Had he not been bent over his son, Murdoch may not have caught it. He only nodded, though.

"Got drunk and watched it burn most of the night," Johnny continued his confession.

"One more then it'll be over," Murdoch stated. "Head hurt?"

"Not really. Just tired."

The rancher sighed then straightened. He picked up the roll of bandages. "Can you sit up?"

Johnny nodded and pulled himself up, leaning forward slightly.

"Sometimes, when there's nothing else you can do; when there are no options, destroying something can make you feel better for a while," Murdoch said as he pulled the bandage around his son's waist.

"Don't last, though. Nothing lasts," Johnny noted, a tremble in his voice with the second sentence.

Murdoch tied off the bandage and lowered Johnny's shirt then wrapped his arms around his son and pulled him close. Johnny grabbed his father's arm and hung on. No words were spoken as they stayed there, holding onto each other for several moments.

At last, Murdoch released him, gently taking Johnny's shoulders and pressing him down. He covered his son and smoothed his hair. "Go to sleep now. Let your mind rest."

*

Johnny slept the rest of the day so he was unaware when the rider arrived with the telegram from Jelly. Neither of them wanted to waken him, unsure what his reaction to anything would be these days. So, they waited for him.

Scott was still reeling from the accusations Johnny had thrown at him again. That first day when Harlan had shown up, Scott could understand the reaction. Now, more than a week later, it had stunned him. He tried not to let it get to him. Tried to see things from Johnny's perspective. None of that made it hurt any less. He'd earned his brother's trust and it wasn't fair to question that now.

Johnny's irrational behavior was troubling and frightening. Scott didn't know this person and he didn't know how to help. It seemed Murdoch had broken through this morning. He could only hope that lasted.

He was about to find out as he sat in the living room with his father. They both looked up as Johnny walked in looking worse for the wear.

"Did you sleep well, son?"

"Guess so," Johnny muttered and headed to the sideboard.

Scott shot a look at his father who was about to say something when he saw Johnny pouring water. He smiled and relaxed a little.

Johnny turned around as he inhaled the water. He saw them both looking like mountain lions coiled to attack - or run. He sighed and set the glass down before ambling toward the hearth.

"I know I was a bastard yesterday and sayin I'm sorry doesn't really cover it but that's all I've got right now. I'm doing the best I can."

"We know that, son. It's hard to watch you go through this. That's why we keep trying to keep you from .... losing control," Murdoch spoke.

Johnny nodded and looked at the floor. "I did lose control. I've never done that before. Not ever. It scared me some, I have to say. I don't know where it came from."

He glanced at Murdoch then found Scott's eyes. "No way you deserved that, brother. Nothing I said was anywhere near the truth. I'm sorry. I know I was pretty hateful."

"I have to admit it was hard to hear, Johnny. It stung," Scott said quietly.

Johnny could only nod again and go back to watching the floor.

Murdoch cleared his throat and repositioned himself in his chair. "Do you want to hear what's happening?"

Johnny looked up at him with dread. "What?"

*

"The District Attorney had a judge issue a search warrant to Harlan's house. They went in late this morning. Jelly wired to say they're bringing charges. He's leaving this evening. He'll give us more details when he gets home but I suspect Val will hear from the Boston authorities before then," Murdoch reported.

Johnny sighed. "They must think they have somethin then?"

"Yes. They wouldn't bring charges otherwise. The D.A. doesn't like to lose cases," Scott imparted.

"Have you heard from Val?" Johnny asked.

"Not since I spoke with him yesterday," Scott replied.

Johnny grimaced, remembering his near accusatory question to Scott as to visiting Garrett.

"There's really nothing we can do but wait, boys."

They fell quiet then, each with his own thoughts on the subject. Johnny moved slowly about the room keeping his head down. He didn't think Scott was very happy with him and he couldn't blame the man. Scott hadn't forgiven him and that wore on his soul. He walked into the kitchen and out the door without so much as a glance in Teresa and Maria's direction.

Murdoch had watched him go and knew where he was headed.

"I don't know what to say to him."

Scott looked up, just realizing Johnny had skipped out. "Where is he?"

"I think he went to Maria's grave. Scott, I know he hurt you. Can you get past it?"

Scott just looked at him blankly then stood and headed toward the kitchen.

*

He sat down heavily on the bench next to Johnny and stared into the distance. The younger man leaned back and crossed his extended legs.

"Can you forgive me?" Johnny asked.

Scott didn't say anything for a while. He knew what he wanted to say but was uncertain he wouldn't cause yet another battle. He made his decision and stood up, stepping away so he could face his brother.

"I just want you to understand something. I know how hard this has been on you but, you aren't the only one hurting, Johnny. Murdoch lost Maria, too. As did I. But, I also lost my grandfather. No matter what you think of him or thought of him before this, he raised me and I can't just forget that. I'll never forgive what he's done and I want nothing more to do with him but that doesn't make it any easier to take. I think I've shown my loyalty to this family more than once. I've earned your trust so it's difficult to stand there and listen to you accuse me of betraying that. It's just not that simple to tell you it's alright to accuse me when it isn't."

Scott stood his ground and waited for his brother's response. Johnny stood up and faced him.

"I had no right to do that. I don't know why I did, really. I knew I was wrong but I couldn't seem to stop myself. I guess I needed to yell at someone, blame someone and you were there. You've been right here so I guess I thought I could lay it all on you and that would be okay. But, it's not okay and never will be. I can't tell you how bad I feel about this, Scott. I do trust you. I respect you more than any other person in this world. I've been selfish all along. Every since my mother came back, I've been selfish and you've all been really understanding."

Scott held his eyes while he spoke, saw the sincerity and remorse and the pain that was always there now. His heart broke all over again and he felt the pull; the same pull he'd felt from the moment he'd known who this man was to him.

"We were so happy for you. We wanted this to last forever. When it didn't, you needed us and that's fine. We wanted to be there for you and still do."

"But, you need me, too, and I let you down." Johnny turned away, unable to hide the shame he felt. It welled inside him and threatened to overwhelm him. He felt Scott's hand on his shoulder and shook his head, disbelieving of the depths of the other's compassion.

"There's no rule book, Johnny. Nothing to tell us how we're supposed to get through something this devastating. Because that's exactly what it's all been. I just don't want what was supposed to happen twenty years ago to happen now. I don't want us torn apart."

Johnny turned and embraced his brother. "No, we won't let that happen," he said, his voice muffled by Scott's shirt sleeve.

*

They pulled apart after a moment and sat down. Johnny laid his arm behind Scott on the bench back, his hand resting easily on his brother's shoulder.

Johnny snickered a little and Scott gave him a surreptitious look.

He shook his head. "Murdoch told me I could hit him if I wanted to and he wouldn't hit back."

Scott laughed at that. "Is that a standing offer and can I get in on it?"

"Somehow, I don't think so," Johnny grinned. He grew somber then. "He's been incredible. You both have."

Scott laid a hand on his knee. "We've been worried about you."

"I know. Thank you."

"Anytime, brother. Anytime."

"You know there is something I haven't done. Didn't really think about it until now. That Dona in Mexico. I need to write to her. Mama said she helped out so much."

Scott nodded. "Yes, you need to do that and soon." He hesitated, unsure about bringing up the other unfinished business.

Johnny felt him tense and looked at his profile. "What?"

"Well, there's someone else you may want to talk with."

Johnny sighed and nodded. "Teresa. I know. She's been real patient. I don't know if I can, though, Scott."

"She really is sorry, Johnny. I'm not sure she learned much in that awful school but I know she feels badly."

Johnny pulled his arm down and leaned forward. "I haven't really thought much about it. She's been so quiet and all. I guess she's waiting for me, huh?"

"Yes, she is. Now, how about going inside? Supper is probably ready. You must be hungry."

Johnny straightened up. "Yeah, I am at that. But, are we okay?"

Scott looked at him and smiled. "Yes, we're okay. We're going to be better than okay, too."

*

Johnny went to his room after the evening meal and pulled out paper and pen. He sat at the small desk and stared at the blank page for fifteen minutes then, he began to write.

It took an hour but he finished and knew it was inadequate. He just didn't have the words and even if he did, he wasn't sure how to say it. How do you thank someone for giving you back your mother? Even if it was for such a short time, it was better than nothing. This woman had given them all a priceless gift. He sighed and left his room.

Scott called out to enter from his bed. He was sitting with his back against the headboard reading. Johnny walked in looking a little embarrassed and Scott frowned.

"I wrote it but I don't think it's very good," Johnny announced unceremoniously.

Scott jumped up and took the papers from his hand with a smile. "Well, let's have a look."

Johnny only smiled back as he waited the two seconds.

Scott looked warily at him. "Okay, read it to me."

Johnny laughed. "Sorry. I just figured Spanish would be easier for her - and me." He sat on the edge of the bed and translated his words.

Scott listened closely, stopping him a few times to offer advice. Johnny grabbed a pencil and made the changes. Some after much discussion as to the translation of certain words. He should have taught his brother Spanish long ago but Scott knew Latin and he did pretty well with the rudimentary stuff. This was much different though and they spent two hours working on the letter.

Finally, it was done and Johnny was as satisfied as he thought he would be with it. He went back to his room and rewrote the whole thing. Sealing it in an envelope, he figured he'd mail it tomorrow. He didn't want to wait any longer. He'd put this off long enough. He only wished he could meet the lady some day.

As he lay in bed that night, he thought about his other chore. It wouldn't be easy especially if she started crying and he knew she would. He didn't think he could take that. Still, it felt like he was wrapping up loose ends. Like he was finishing a very long and difficult job that had lasted months. He was exhausted emotionally and he didn't know how to rest that. Sleep did nothing for this weariness. His heart felt like a block of ice most of the time. Too overworked, too abused to take any more.

And he missed her.

*

Johnny rode into town with his father the next morning. Murdoch had no intentions of leaving him to his own devices being that close to Harlan Garrett. So, when Johnny told him of the letter and his desire to send it today, Murdoch had casually mentioned he needed to go to the bank.

"I want to see Val, find out if he's heard from Boston yet," Johnny said as they rode along.

"Yes, I was thinking about that, too."

Johnny looked over at his father and smiled a little. "I'm not gonna take the old man's head off. Well, I'm sure I won't get the opportunity, anyway."

Murdoch's mouth lifted minutely before he scowled. "I'm sure you won't."

They stopped in front of the stage depot and Johnny mailed his letter and picked up their own mail then he and Murdoch headed to the sheriff's office.

Johnny walked in first and stopped cold. His eyes narrowed and his blood turned to ice as he glared. Val came around his desk in record time and stood in front of his friend.

"Judge got in a little early and set bail. Don't start nothin, Johnny," Val warned.

Garrett scowled at them both then looked at the man next to him.

"So, he's just gonna walk right out of here and get on a stage. Is that right?" Johnny seethed.

"No, he can't leave town. Judge already told him that," Val answered and waited.

Johnny looked incredulously at his friend. "Right, cause he's such a law-abiding citizen," he spat.

Murdoch took hold of Johnny's arm firmly. "Take it easy, son. There's nothing we can do about it."

*

"When's the trial?" Johnny continued as if he hadn't heard his father.

"I doubt there will be one, young man. The so-called evidence is inadmissible and I intend to have it thrown out."

"Who the hell are you?" Johnny shot and felt Murdoch's hand clamp down tighter on his arm.

"Milton Bean, attorney at law," the man answered, unperturbed.

Garrett smiled at Johnny then tugged on his jacket. "Let's go, Milton. He's already tried to kill me once," he sneered.

As he passed, Johnny spoke softly. "If I'd been tryin, you'd be dead."

Garrett stiffened and pushed past him and out the door.

Johnny walked further into the office and paced the room. Val exchanged a concerned look with Murdoch then sat back down at his desk.

"When's the trial?" Johnny asked, hoping for a better answer this time around.

"Next Monday. Until then, you stay away from him," Val ordered.

Johnny turned quickly and glared at his friend.

"Val's right and you know it. Let's just go home, son," Murdoch urged. He was worried now. Johnny seemed to have calmed down. Now he was almost as bad as the other day when he'd stayed out all night.

"Thought you had to go to the bank," Johnny said then studied his father. "Or, was that just an excuse to keep an eye on me?"

Murdoch looked flatly at him and simply shrugged. He watched as Johnny struggled not to smile. He wished the young man would ease up.

Turning back to Val, Johnny asked, "guess there's no word from Boston?"

"Not yet. I told Vic to bring anything that comes in to me right away. Now, go home!" Val ended with his usual grace.

Johnny sighed and headed for the door. He paused with the knob in his hand. "Thanks, Val," he said softly then walked out.

Murdoch watched as the sheriff relaxed measurably and wondered, not for the first time, about the relationship between these two men. He said nothing and followed Johnny out, thankful his son was heading to the horses.

*

Scott wasn't any happier than the rest of them that Garrett was free. He couldn't hazard a guess as to whether the man would stick around. The logical part of him said yes. Garrett had a lot to lose if he jumped bail. Scott knew his grandfather was too greedy to give up all he had. He also had to wonder how long it would be before Harlan found out what was happening in Boston. If he did, he may just run.

He watched his brother simmer as he sat in a chair in the living room staring at nothing. He bit his lip and ventured forth.

"I can't see where it would be against the law for us to have a hand keep an eye out in town. If Harlan finds out about the search in Boston, he might try to take off."

Johnny closed his eyes and said nothing and Murdoch considered the idea.

"There's no law against a man sitting in a hotel lobby that I know of," he mused then stood up. He walked to his desk and scribbled on a piece of paper then went outside. Ten minutes later, he returned.

"I sent Walt."

"Who's the note to?" Johnny asked numbly.

"Bert at the hotel. I asked him to let Walt hang out and not run him off."

Scott felt a little better, anyway. One look at his brother told him Johnny was not put at ease. He got up and walked outside, uncomfortable with second-guessing what his brother was thinking. It wouldn't take a genius to know Johnny was thinking of one thing. Although he couldn't blame his brother, Scott didn't want to listen if Johnny started ranting.

The evenings were cooler now and he appreciated the slight breeze wafting by. Scott closed his eyes and leaned his head against the chairback. He rocked slowly back and forth and tried to empty his mind.

"How come you never go up there?"

*

Scott's eyes flew open and he gave a start as he heard the soft words spoken so near him. Johnny was leaning against a column not five feet away watching him. "I wish you wouldn't do that. You took ten years off me."

Johnny smiled briefly and shrugged.

"Go up where?" Scott asked.

Johnny tossed his head to the side. "Up there."

Scott lowered his head for a moment. "I guess I felt like I'd be intruding," he admitted.

A grimace flew across the younger man's face. He sat beside his brother and sighed. "You wouldn't be. Not at all. I'm sorry, Scott."

"For what?"

"For wanting to kill your grandfather. I mean, that it's your grandfather I want to kill," he stammered out.

"I know what you mean. I think," Scott murmured. "I'm sorry, too. For everything he's done and for not handling it well myself."

"I'm sure you weren't thinkin too clear," Johnny offered.

Scott smiled wanly. "I don't think I was thinking at all."

They fell quiet for a while until Scott spoke again.

"It's hard but all we can do is wait."

"Yeah," Johnny breathed. "Reckon I have some things I could be doin."

"Like?"

"Like, talkin to Teresa," Johnny said and closed his eyes.

"Maybe you shouldn't ... force it," Scott said, a little wary as to Johnny's state of mind.

"Won't fix itself. Anyway, she's waited long enough." He stood and stretched out his back then looked down at his brother. "Whatever happens, we'll get through it," he said and walked inside.

Scott closed his eyes again and breathed out. He hoped so.

*

Johnny stood in the kitchen doorway and reconsidered this bright idea. Teresa was wiping down the counters, her back to him and he thought he could just leave. But, he didn't move and she turned. She smiled a little nervously and he returned it in kind.

"Got a minute for me?" he asked.

"Always," she replied, her voice trembling a little.

He walked in and sat at the table and she joined him. Johnny rested his hands on the surface and rubbed at it as he thought. She watched the familiar mannerism with a bit of whimsy but more plain fear.

"I would never want you to feel like you can't speak your piece. This is your home and you have a right to your opinion. It was the way you said it that .... hurt," he started.

She swallowed hard. "The last think I would ever want to do is hurt you but I know I did. I can't tell you how sorry I am about that. I handled myself all wrong."

Johnny nodded and met her eyes. "Can you tell me?"

She sighed and looked at the table, shaking her head slowly. "When Murdoch was shot and so sick and calling for her, it broke my heart. All I've ever known is what I told you when you came home. I assumed she'd left of her own free will. I think I even said those words to you that day by the river. When she showed up, I was shocked, like everyone. But, it just seemed you all accepted her without explanation. Thinking back, I know you said I didn't know everything that had happened. At that time, I didn't want to hear it, either. I was angry and frightened for Murdoch. I didn't think I could stand to see him so miserable again.

"Since you and Scott came home, he's been so much happier. I know, it's hard to tell with him sometimes, but he has been. I told you then he wouldn't say how much it meant to him to have you both here. It took a long time for him to get to a place where he could say those things to you. I didn't trust her, Johnny. I didn't give her a chance because I thought if I did, she'd hurt you both terribly. I couldn't stand the thought of that.

"It turns out she did hurt you but not by her choice. It seems to me she didn't get much choice when it came to being with her family. All those years ago and then when she came back. I wish I'd handled myself better, given myself a chance to know her. I would have liked to be able to see you in her. See how much of you is her and how much is Murdoch." She stopped and smiled a little.

Johnny nodded his head and reached over to cover her trembling hand with his own. "I wish you could have known her, Teresa. You would have loved her. See, that's the thing about my mother. Everyone loved her if they gave her a chance. She was .... charming, I guess is the word. But, it was genuine and natural."

"I did see that. She was always gracious to me even when I was scowling at her. You got that from her, I know. What you said about people loving her if they gave her a chance, that's exactly how it is with you. I was so foolish and childish. I've learned a lot from this experience."

Johnny smiled a little. "But, not from that school. Scott told me about it. I'm sorry, Teresa. I ...."

"No, Johnny," she interrupted. "You don't owe me any apology. I will always regret the way I behaved. I think, in a way, going there did help me. It helped me appreciate you all so much more. Seeing how those girls are and knowing they'll be that way all their lives; so cold and distant, showed me how very lucky I am to have this family. Right now, I'm more worried about you and Scott."

"What do you mean?" Johnny frowned.

"How could this not come between you? It already has. I hope you both won't let what that man did push a wedge between you."

Johnny smiled fondly at her. "That's my Teresa. Always worrying about everybody. We've talked - and fought. I think we'll be okay. It's just that I'm worried how Scott will feel when that old man does go to jail. I can't feel bad about it but I can see where he will. It's just that I know I won't be able to help him through it."

"He has Murdoch for that. I doubt anyone expects you to be that understanding. It's too much to ask of anyone. Maybe, this one time, you won't be able to help each other but I hope in my heart, you'll come out of it together."

He squeezed her hand and leaned over, kissing her cheek. "Thanks, honey. I've missed you."

She stood up and leaned over him, hugging him tightly. "I've missed you, too."

*

"They did what??" Harlan Garrett shouted at the top of his lungs.

Milton Bean cringed at the outburst. "Calm down, Mr. Garrett."

"How can you expect me to calm down. I'm ruined!"

Bean cocked a brow. "Is it that bad?"

Garrett stopped pacing and looked at him with a strange expression. "It is."

Bean nodded and sat down, crossing his legs. "Then, we have a lot of work to do. I have no doubt I can get this trial thrown out before it ever gets started. But, if I'm to help you in Boston, you need to tell me everything."

Garrett regarded him suspiciously. "Just get me out of this mess, Mr. Bean. I have attorneys in Boston to handle that."

"It may be unwise to return there until you know the details. Oh, they can extradite you but it's a long way to the east coast," the man smiled.

Garrett sat across from him. "Go on."

"If you were to continue retaining my services, I could contact the D.A. now, while he still thinks you're being held over here for trial. That way, we can ascertain exactly what evidence they have and formulate a plan of defense."

Harlan thought long and hard about that. "Very well. You have my permission to act on my interest in this matter. Now, exactly how good are you, Mr. Bean?" he asked.

He'd come to hire the man out of San Francisco on the advice of his Boston attorney. He was beginning to see it was a sound choice. This man had no qualms about bending the rules. Garrett hoped that extended to breaking them as well.

"We need to move your assets before they can be confiscated. Do you have any foreign accounts?" Bean was asking.

"Several. I'm not a fool," Garrett grumped.

Bean bit his tongue with that statement. He was a fool to leave such incriminating evidence lying about. He only nodded and started planning out scenarios.

*

Two days later, Scott Lancer threw the front door open. It banged loudly against the wall and swung closed as he stepped aside. He stalked into the living room and headed straight for the liquor. Pouring a full glass of whiskey, he guzzled half of it before taking a breath.

"Problem, son?" Murdoch asked.

Scott whirled around and stared at him, having not even seen his father. "I'd say so. The judge threw out the case!"

Murdoch gawked openly at him then fell back in his chair. He shook his head slowly as if this would negate the truth.

"He said the papers were inadmissible because they were illegally obtained. Then, he said there wasn't enough other evidence to go on with the trial. As if our testimony weren't enough! He said it was our word against his. That we would be prejudiced and our combined testimony didn't stand up under scrutiny. With Trask dead, there's no one else to contradict Garrett."

Scott stopped and took another long drink. "He said he was simply visiting when Johnny went crazy and attacked him. Then, he said he wouldn't press charges because Johnny was grieving. He made himself out to be so noble!" He flailed his arms about, sloshing the whiskey over the rim of the glass.

"What happened then?" Murdoch asked in a stunned voice.

Scott took a breath and averted his gaze. "I don't know. The judge threw me out."

Murdoch looked at him. "What did you do?"

"I stood up and called him a liar to his face! That's what I did!"

The rancher sighed and closed his eyes. He should have gone with Scott but his son had insisted he not be put through the hearing. He really thought things would go more smoothly.

"You should have seen the prosecutor sitting there playing with his fingers while Bean spouted off all this legal rhetoric. He actually yawned once! I wanted to shoot the lot of them!"

Murdoch raised both brows at this. "You sound like Johnny," he said then caught his breath. His eyes widened as he thought about how his other son would take this news.

Scott deflated and plopped onto the sofa. "I can't tell him. I can't be in the room when he finds out. He'll lose it for sure."

*

"I'll lose it?" Johnny asked incredulously from the doorway. He stepped inside and tossed his hat on the end table. "Brother, I've got nothin on you." He walked over and leaned against the wall near the hearth.

"You know," Scott deadpanned.

"I was there. You might've seen me if you hadn't been carryin on."

Murdoch sighed heavily. "You shouldn't have gone, Johnny."

"No, he shouldn't have gone," Johnny tossed his head toward his brother. "I stuck around for the good part."

Scott raised his head and shook it slowly back and forth. "What good part?"

"The part where as soon as Garrett walked out of the courtroom lookin like a struttin peacock, Val slapped the cuffs on him. Boston authorities sent extradition papers last night. He's leavin tomorrow to face charges there."

Murdoch smiled at this news but Scott didn't.

"He won't go. He'll pull something. I'm sure he's already got a plan in the works."

Johnny nodded, his head lowered. "And I've got two escorts to make sure he does get there."

"Who?" Murdoch asked, stunned.

Johnny looked up slowly and grinned. "Just a couple of old friends, Murdoch. They were real intrigued with the idea of seein a big eastern city. Of course, I had to pay them."

"I hope you took it out of the ranch account," Murdoch said.

Johnny nodded.

"I don't know, Johnny. He's ... slippery," Scott said, still unconvinced.

The younger man smiled devilishly, a mirror of his former self. "These men know what they're doin, brother. I got Val to deputize them as soon as they got in last night."

"Last night? You knew what would happen today?" Scott asked.

"I had a feelin. Figured it wouldn't hurt to have back up ready. They're leavin on the morning stage. I plan on being there."

Murdoch squirmed in his seat a little then nodded. "So do I."

*

All three Lancers rode into town early the next morning. Two men stood outside the sheriff's office, both cradling rifles. Both with low slung gun belts. One of them nodded at Johnny as they rode up and Johnny nodded back. Scott and Murdoch watched it all curiously.

Johnny walked up to the men. "Thanks for doin this."

"Any time, amigo," the first man said.

"After what you told us last night, it'll be our pleasure," spoke the second. "You sure you want him to make it to Boston?" he asked.

Johnny ducked his head to hide a smile then looked back up, his face blank. "No, but that's how it has to be."

The first man stepped off the boardwalk and took Johnny's arm, pulling him away. "This is your call and we'll do what you want, but, I don't know how you can let that snake live."

Johnny sighed heavily and cast a look around. "I told you who he is. I came close, real close, to puttin a bullet in his head. But, well, my family has other ideas of justice."

"Like what happened yesterday?"

Grimacing, Johnny replied, "Anyway, you'll have a nice little vacation. Just don't let his age fool ya. He'll try somethin."

"Don't worry about us, Johnny. We can handle ourselves."

He laughed outright at that. "Yeah, I noticed."

Scott watched his brother and the man for a moment though he couldn't hear their words then he took in the other one. They both looked tough and experienced, he thought. Still, Harlan played by different rules. If these men were anything like his brother, they had honor. He stepped onto the boardwalk.

"I don't know how much my brother told you but I feel I should warn you. My .... Garrett can be very manipulative. He may have men on the train or somewhere along the route. He wouldn't think twice of having you shot to keep from going back."

The young man looked at him and nodded. "Thanks, but we've got it."

Murdoch listened to the warning, knowing this was killing his son. "You'll let us know if there's trouble?"

"Sure. You know, Johnny's already filled us in and we talked it all out. We're ready," he answered just as the door opened.

*

Val pushed his prisoner out the door. Garrett's hands were handcuffed in front of him. "I checked him out. He ain't got so much as a toothpick on him. He's all yours."

The second man took hold of his arm and Harlan tried to jerk free. "Who are they?"

"Special deputies to escort you all the way back to Boston, Garrett. They got all the papers they'll need and," Val hesitated and smiled, "they know how ta get the job done."

Garrett's eyes widened as he took in the two men, one rather scruffy looking with long brown hair and the other more well-dressed though all in black. His eyes found his grandson's.

"Scotty, you can't be serious about this. These men are strangers. How do you know they won't kill me at the first opportunity?"

"I don't know that. Johnny picked them. They're his friends," Scott responded and almost took pleasure in supplying that information.

Garrett nearly gasped, his eyes narrowing as he glared at Johnny. "Sheriff, this is outrageous!"

"Aw, shut up! These men are bound ta uphold the law. So, don't you try nothin cause they got every legal right ta shoot ya if ya do," Val harped.

Johnny moved to stand in front of the old man and leaned in, speaking softly. "Are you done messin with me and mine now, old man? There won't be anymore reprieves. Scott or no Scott."

Garrett stared at him, his mouth hanging open.

"Stage is comin," Val called.

Garrett was shoved into the coach followed by the second deputy. The first stood holding the door open as the second leaned out the window.

Johnny shook hands with one then the other. "Don't take any chances, fellas."

"Who us?" the second smiled.

"We'll get him there, Johnny. You have my word."

Johnny relaxed and breathed out. Smiling softly, he held the man's eyes. "Thanks, Chris." Looking to the other man, he nodded, "thanks, Vin. I owe you both."

"We'll remember that," Vin said with a hint of a smile.

*

The Lancers and Val watched as the stage pulled away. Johnny walked off a little with Val as Scott stared at the coach rounding the corner. Murdoch put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed.

"Let's go home, son. It's time we had a talk."

Scott looked quizzically at his father.

"One that's long overdue," Murdoch continued, cocking a brow.

Scott's face took on an understanding but he didn't really want to have this talk. He knew they were worried about him but he would just as soon crawl into bed or take off on his own for while. With a little chagrin, he thought he was starting to react remarkably like his brother. The thought comforted him a little somehow.

Johnny walked back up to them as Val retreated to his office.

"Who are those men?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny looked down the street and shrugged. "Old friends. They know how to handle themselves."

"Where are they from?" This was Scott.

"Texas. They've both got the skills, Scott. Don't worry, he will get back to Boston," Johnny assured him though he was thinking he'd make it back as long as he didn't do something stupid.

Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were good men who believed in doing things the "right" way most of the time. Still, they had no qualms about doing what was necessary as well. That wasn't always what most folks would consider "right" either.

"Well, let's go home, boys."

*

Scott kept his face expressionless on the ride back to the ranch. Johnny knew, he was watching his brother like a hawk. He was also watching his father and he had a sinking feeling the old man wanted to hold court. His mouth quirked a little with that idea.

Once in the living room, Murdoch wasted no time.

"This has been a difficult few months on all of us. So many revelations have been uncovered from the past. I know when you both first came here I told you the past should be kept there. It seems fate has other ideas where this family is concerned. You've both been hurt almost beyond endurance and I have to admit, I'm worried. I know you *seem* to be coping, Scott, but I just don't buy that.

"Johnny, you've taken your anger and hurt out on your brother and the ranch. Still, you have a lot pent up inside you. I want us to talk, not argue, not accuse, talk," he finished with his firmest tone.

Both young men kept their heads down as their father spoke. Both raised them slowly at the same time and looked to each other. Johnny smiled softly at his brother and Scott nodded.

"I apologized to Scott, Murdoch. It wasn't enough but we've talked," Johnny said.

"Yes, we're fine," Scott agreed.

Murdoch looked to the heavens and sighed then set his sights on his eldest. "You are not fine! Scott, you just found out the man who raised you threatened your brother and his mother, forcing them to leave me and their home for twenty years. That he's manipulated and bribed his way to the top. That he would stop at nothing to have what he wanted. You love him, I know you do. People can't just turn off their feelings, son. I know that better than anyone. You can't hold it in!"

Scott was taken aback by his father's passion. More than that, his emotional honesty. He stared at the man, stunned for a few seconds. But Murdoch was looking at him expectantly.

"What do you want me to say? Yes, it hurts? Of course it does but there's nothing I can do about it now. He did what he did with no regard for my feelings. No regard for what I might want. He took me from my father and kept me from my brother. Then, he tried to blackmail me into going back with him and it would have worked if Johnny hadn't intervened. What do you want me to do, Sir? Burn something down?"

Johnny raised both brows at that then lowered his head and turned away.

"Do you want to? There's an old line shack we don't use anymore," Murdoch retorted with a hint of irritation.

"No! I don't ..... I ...." Scott sighed with frustration and Johnny turned back in time to see him turn aside.

*

He walked over to stand in front of his brother and put his hands on Scott's shoulders, squeezing firmly. "What, Scott? You what?"

Scott looked up at him, deeply etched pain drowning in his eyes, drowning him. "I hate him," he whispered.

Johnny gave him a sympathetic look and pulled him into a hug. "I'm sorry, brother. So sorry."

"It's not your fault," Scott mumbled.

"No, but I'm still sorry this is so hard for you."

Scott pulled back, breaking the contact.

"I know it may not help right now, but you still have us, Scott," Murdoch offered.

Turning to his father, Scott smiled slightly. "It's the only thing that does help."

"You've been so focused on helping Johnny through his grief, you haven't given yourself a chance to mourn. You need to do that, son."

"So do you, Murdoch," Johnny imparted. "You've been doing the same thing as Scott. Spending all your time lookin after me, worryin about me and I let you both do it. I let you both down," he ended softly.

"No, you haven't let anyone down, Johnny. I don't think any of us has handled this very well. It's overwhelming and we let ourselves swim in it for so long," Murdoch replied.

"Yes, we have, and it's time to try and let go."

"How, Scott?" Johnny asked, really hoping for an answer.

"I wish I knew, brother. Maybe if we were to be really honest with each other, no matter how hard it is," Scott suggested though he wasn't so sure about this idea.

Johnny looked closely at him. "You mean like you tellin me how mad you are that Garrett is goin to prison?"

Scott grimaced and turned away, walking to the French doors. Murdoch opened his mouth to deny the statement for his son but quickly closed it as he watched Scott.

"It doesn't have to make sense or even be true, Scott. If it's what you feel right now, then you should say it out loud. Maybe doin that will help make it go away. I don't know," Johnny said morosely.

*

Scott stared out the window. He inhaled deeply and felt the emotions threaten to choke him. "It doesn't make sense and it isn't the truth and I know it in my head. But, my heart says this is all happening because Maria came back into your life. I wish I'd never been so set on finding out who threatened her. I wish she'd never told us about it at all."

"And you wish you'd never met her."

Murdoch looked at his younger son, aghast at such a statement. He felt like he'd suddenly lost his voice and he was wishing he'd never started this whole thing.

Scott turned around with a frown on his face. "No, I would never wish that. I wish I'd grown up here with her as my stepmother. If I'd been here, she wouldn't have left. I wish I'd never known Harlan Garrett."

Johnny was surprised but relieved by the statement. That feeling didn't last long as his emotions turned to anger and pain for his brother. He was beginning to think Scott was the one who'd gotten the raw deal. Mansion or not; luxury or not; at least Johnny had felt the love of a parent growing up. Scott hadn't, though. No, living the life of a gunfighter was easy compared to what Scott had lived with.   

Murdoch walked over to his son and put an arm around him, pulling him close to his side.

"And I wish I hadn't let him bully me all those years ago. If I could have brought you home even then, things would have been so different."

Scott lowered his head and nodded. "That wasn't your fault, either. He would have made good on those threats and all the rest. I'm sure of that now. I wanted to believe it was just that; threats. Idle and empty. But, I know the truth now and all I want is to be free of him forever."

"All I want is for both of you to be free of all this pain and doubt," Murdoch rejoined.

Johnny watched them together and his heart filled with something he hadn't felt in a very long time. Happiness and peace. This astounded him, frankly as he'd almost forgotten how it felt not to be suffering. This was his defining moment. The moment when he let go of the pain and let himself appreciate what he did have. These incredible people and this incredible land. He would always love her. Would always miss her but her words came back to him just then. Be happy.

Johnny closed his eyes for a moment then walked over to his family. He looked from one to the other and smiled.

"No matter what happens. No matter what life throws at us, we'll get through it as long as we're together. That's never been more clear to me than right now."

Murdoch extended his other arm and Johnny stepped into the embrace. He wrapped an arm around his father's back and latched onto his brother's arm.

"This," Murdoch said as he squeezed them in closer, "this is our foundation. Our family will grow as we let others into our lives but the foundation is what will keep us standing."

*

A week later, Johnny received a telegram from Chris Larabee telling him Harlan Garrett had been delivered into the hands of the Boston authorities. A letter followed detailing the one attempt Garrett had made. Two men boarded the train in Denver and attempted an escape. Chris wrote how Vin shot the gun clean out of one man's hand, leaving only a residual small burn while he had dispatched the other. Johnny didn't share the letter with his family. Somehow, he didn't think they'd find it as humorous as he. Especially Scott.  

A month after that, Val rode out to the house to tell them all Garrett had been sentenced to twenty years for bribery, conspiracy and blackmail. Scott said nothing and walked away.

Johnny found him on the hillside an hour later. He wasn't sure his brother wanted to talk to him but he needed to know the man's thoughts.

"Hey," he said softly.

"Hi," Scott replied.

Johnny walked slowly around the white fence. "You okay?"

Scott sighed and picked a blade of grass, shredding it. "I guess so."

"I'm sorry, Scott. Sorry about it all," Johnny sighed.

"It's not your fault, brother. It's not any of our fault. He did this and he's paying for it. That's how it's supposed to work, right?"

"I guess so. I'm just really tired of feeling so bad every other day. That's all I know."

Scott turned to look at him then walked up and put a hand on his shoulder. "So am I. But, at least it's not *every* day now."

Johnny smiled briefly. "How can we get past all this? How can we go back to the ways things used to be?"

Scott shook his head slowly. "I don't think we can. We just have to try and move forward. Try to put it all behind us as much as we can and ..... live."

"Yeah. Maybe ..... maybe we could take Murdoch and Jelly fishin Sunday. They always like that."

"That sounds like a good idea," Scott smiled.

"Teresa, too. It's time we all started bein a family again," Johnny added.

Scott closed his eyes and breathed deep before looking at his brother again. "Amen to that, brother. Amen to that."

 

 

~end~
2006

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