The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Endgame

 

 

 

The first of the Scarecrow series, followed by Worlds Collide.

Murdoch topped the rise and looked down into the small valley, a smile spreading across his face as he spied his younger son working hard. He sat for a moment, just enjoying a sight he'd always wished had been rote at the ranch. Johnny working hard from the time he was a teen, maybe even sooner if his son's work ethic now was any indication. Yes, he thought, Johnny would have been a tiger from the word go.

He watched as the young man pulled yet another post from the wagon bed and set it in the hole. He must have set ten already this morning. Could a man be any prouder? A small part of his mind whispered to him he had no right to feel pride but he quickly squashed it. He had come to the conclusion some months ago that he needed to stop regretting the past. It served no purpose other than to make him grouchy and he usually ended up taking that out on his sons. He had just decided to stop daydreaming and pressed his legs to his mount when the shot rang out.

Murdoch pulled back on the reins in an attempt to settle his horse's skittish sidestepping. The report was loud in the stillness of the morning. His brain did not want to cooperate with his eyes for a second. Then, everything coalesced and he reacted by grabbing his rifle from its boot and looking to his right. The shot had come from that direction and it wasn't safe to go storming down that hill, as much as his heart told him to do just that. Then, he saw the rider hauling leather away from him. Away from

*****
him
*****
. Murdoch's eyes went back to his son lying so still on the ground and he was sure his heart stopped in that moment. Without further hesitation, he thundered down the hill to Johnny's side.

He didn't really register dismounting, feeling his body flinging from the saddle more than anything. He dropped to his knees and did a quick scan of the area just to be sure before focusing on what he prayed he didn't find. But, he'd already seen the blood and his hand clamped over the wound instinctively.

He looked into his son's eyes; eyes that were staring straight up at the sky. "Johnny?"

He blinked then found Murdoch's gaze, a look of pure confusion on his face. "Hey, old man. What happened?"

"Someone shot you, son. Long range from those trees over there," he explained, nodding his head in the general direction. "I don't know who. He was too far away to get a look but he's gone now."

Johnny nodded then looked back at the sky. "Can't feel a thing." His eyes closed and he sighed out, his head lolling to one side.

Murdoch lurched forward then shakily checked for a pulse, relaxing an iota once he found it. He had to have a second, just a second to think this through. Then, he went into some sort of automation, his mind unwilling to think past the steps of this process. He grabbed his canteen and a shirt from his saddlebag, ripping it apart as he returned to Johnny's side. He washed the wound, made a pad and wrapped it tightly. All the while, he kept glancing at his son's face but there was no sign Johnny felt any of it.

Probably a good thing, he decided and that's as far as that thought went. Next, he pulled the posts from the wagon bed with record speed, he was sure, flinging them afar - away from his son was good enough. There was nothing he could do to make the wagon bed more comfortable and he didn't have the time, anyway. Gently, he lifted his son and positioned him within the bed, making sure he was as secure as possible before jumping on the seat and taking off at what was too fast a rate, he was sure. It didn't matter. All that mattered was getting Johnny home. Getting help for his son.

He remembered the work crew nearby. It wasn't far off a direct route home and, in the end, would save precious time so he headed a little west. Later, he would remember the faces of those men as he drove the wagon past, slowing down only enough to shout at someone to get the doctor to the house. He heard an affirmative reply and that was all he needed as he set his course once more.

Bed. Johnny just needed to be in his own bed. Then, he would be alright. He'd heal so much faster as long as he was in his own bed. Murdoch knew it to be a fact. Had seen the effect getting his injured son home had had in the past. As long as Johnny knew he was home, he'd be okay.

His mind was whirling and he couldn't seem to think straight. At least he knew his thoughts were crazy. That was something, right? That he knew he was acting a fool or, thinking as one, at any rate. Well, it didn't matter. It helped him to not think of the wound in his son's belly. Murdoch's throat closed up tight. In his belly! God, please, please, please. It was as far as the prayer went. The words wouldn't come to him but the idea was right there and God didn't need any more.

Finally, he arrived at the house and the ensuing pandemonium kept him from thinking still of the wound. So much to do. So many preparations to make for the doctor's arrival. Scott and Teresa were all over him. What happened? That was the question he kept hearing. He finally had to hush them and he knew he was being abrasive but he couldn't talk. He had to get Johnny situated. Had to settle him in the bed and check the bandage and wash off some of the blood that covered his boy's torso. He had to be ready for Sam because he knew Sam would expect it. He knew his friend would charge in and start issuing orders and be ready himself to operate.

*****

Murdoch stared at nothing, willing his mind to remain blank. Ordering himself not to think of the implications and possibilities. Sam was up there, taking his time and, while he knew this was a good thing, it made the waiting even harder. Scott kept looking at him. He was aware of that much anyway. And, he knew his son deserved some answers only, he didn't really have any. He sucked in a breath and let it out, studying the untouched glass of whiskey in his hand for a long moment.

"I was just about to ride down the hill where Johnny was working when the shot came. Someone was in the tree line to the north. It was a few seconds before I saw him riding out fast. He was out of range and I didn't want to take the time. I have no idea who it was or why he shot your brother."

There was a long silence. Scott had been near panicked when Murdoch drove that wagon into the yard like the hounds of hell were chasing him. The chaos whirled around him, through him, until his father had berated him into silence. He remembered a fleeting and odd hurt from that but there were other things to do and to consider. He'd accepted the chastisement, knowing Murdoch was going through his own hell. Now, with nothing to do but wait, Scott's mind was on the how and why of it. He wanted answers. He wanted someone to answer for this. "Is there anything you can remember about him? Or maybe his horse? Anything to identify him?"

Murdoch shook his head slowly. "There wasn't time. I had to get to Johnny. I saw him go down. I ... I had to get to him."

Scott ambled near his father, reaching out to lay a supportive hand on the man's rock hard shoulder. He squeezed a little then let his hand slide away. "I know. Maybe I should post guards."

"Probably not a bad idea," Murdoch sighed out, rubbing a hand roughly down his face. He was exhausted, the sheer let down after so much activity left him feeling like a dish rag. He heard Scott close the front door but he never saw his son walk out of the room. He had to get himself together. He needed to find his strength for Johnny would need him; need everything he had to get through this.

He leaned forward in his chair then slowly stood and rolled his shoulders. Setting the glass down, he took a few good, deep breaths and hoped to clear his head. He walked around the room, letting the blood start flowing back into his legs. It helped, he supposed. He did feel a little better. He turned as the door closed once more and watched his son walk back into the living room.

"All done. Cipriano will make sure there are guards at the perimeter." Scott looked to the stairs as he spoke then stepped further into the room. "I also sent someone to let the sheriff know what's happened." He watched as his father nodded once. "Sir, I know this may be a stupid question but, are you alright? You seem ... more ..." Scott shook his head, unable to find the words to describe the fear he felt for his father's behavior. Murdoch was in a daze, it seemed.

"I'm alright, son. I guess I was just so shocked and the wound is so ..." his voice trailed off, cracking a little at the end.

"I know but, Johnny's been hurt before and I've just never seen you this ... well, I'm sorry but, frail."

Murdoch's head snapped up, his eyes shooting fire at his first born, his jaw grinding. "Frail? Do you understand the gravity of the situation, Scott? Johnny's wound is the worst type of gunshot. If he doesn't die it will be a miracle. If he does survive, it's impossible to say how this will affect him. I've seen it. I knew a man who survived that wound and he was never the same again. He withdrew, became almost a hermit. No one would see him for a year. He never smiled, never laughed and he'd been a friendly man. Never met a stranger. Well, he did meet one and that one stranger took everything from him. He would've been better off not surviving."

Scott took a step back from the assault before the last words seeped in. "Yes, I do know about these kinds of wounds. Believe me, I've seen my fair share. But, I can't really be concerned about how this may change Johnny. My only concern at the moment is that he lives through this!"

Murdoch opened his mouth to reply only to be stopped when Teresa walked into the room. Her eyes were red and puffy and her lower lip trembled. "Sam wants you both upstairs."

*****

Sam pulled a chair to the bedside and ran a hand over Johnny's hair. He smiled a little then sighed. "I don't know how much you may believe this but, this is killing your father. I saw his face when I got here. If you don't pull through this, it will break his heart. Trust me, I've seen him go through a lot over the years. You, my boy, have always been his greatest worry and fear. Never knowing what became of you made him one grouchy man. Since you and Scott have been home, I've seen a lighter step in his stride and he actually smiles. So, believe me when I say he loves you with everything he has. It's up to you to put that smile back on his face now." He heard the footfalls nearing the door and put his professional face back on. Standing, he shoved his stethoscope back in his bag and turned to face the Lancers.

Murdoch's eyes fell immediately on his son and his feet took him to the chair Sam had just left. He sat down, a hand on Johnny's arm and, without looking away, said, "Tell me."

Sam looked at Scott then at his friend's back. "The bullet is out but he lost a lot of blood. It's going to be a long road, Murdoch, but it isn't as bad as you might have first thought. The bullet didn't hit him in the stomach. It was off to the left enough that it didn't do so much damage as it could have. If he can hold on through these next few days and if he doesn't run a high fever, he stands a decent chance."

Scott moved to the other side of the bed and knelt near Johnny's head. "Is that why he's so pale? Because of the blood loss?"

"Yes, that's why and it's really his biggest problem now. Watch for his color to come back. I've given him extra fluids to help while his body replaces the blood he lost. It's not a quick process, though. I'm afraid all we can do now is wait."

Murdoch reached up and rubbed the top of Johnny's head gently, relieved he'd misjudged the seriousness but still knowing his son wasn't out of the woods. "Stay the night, Sam?"

"Definitely. I want to keep a close eye on him tonight. You two need to sort this out and make sure you rest. Don't tire yourselves out so much you're no good to him." Sam picked his bag up off the bed and walked it to the dresser. Setting it down, he paused then turned back. "Well, I'm off to find some coffee. Teresa is making some fresh. I'll have her bring some up."

Scott glanced up at him and nodded. "Thank you, Sam." Once the doctor left the room, he turned his attention to Murdoch. ""He's right. We should take shifts."

"I'm not leaving him tonight, Scott. Tomorrow, maybe we can work that out but, not tonight."

*****

Scott walked to the corral where Cipriano was watching the last of the work crews ride in. He settled his forearms on the top rail and followed the men's progression, as well.

"What does the doctor say?" Cipriano asked.

"He says Johnny has a long road ahead of him and the next few days will tell us how well he'll do. There was a lot of blood loss."

"Si, I know."

Scott turned and looked at the segundo, understanding of the enormity of the problems Johnny may face reflecting in his own eyes. Soon enough, anger marred his features and he turned back to the fence. "I just want to know who did this and why. Then, I want to strangle them."

"I will be happy to help with that, Senor Scott. Johnny - no one - deserves such a thing." Cip turned his head away from Scott and spat on the ground. "Bastardo!"

Scott couldn't help a small smile that flittered across his lips. Cipriano was a passionate man, especially when riled and if any Lancer was hurt, the man definitely got riled. "I'm going to see the sheriff tomorrow. See if he's found anything. I'm thinking he's got a whiff of something or he'd have been here by now."

Cip nodded, knowing Val Crawford would be here if he could. It only meant the man was tracking, though. "If he has a scent, you will not find him easily, Senor. And, he will not appreciate the interruption, si?"

Scott pulled a face and realized the man was right. "I suppose. I just feel like I should be doing something. Murdoch's camped out at Johnny's side."

"As he should be. You should work out your anger on a nice fenceline, perhaps?"

Scott turned toward the house, using his elbows to lean against the fence now, his back arched a little to accommodate his slightly slouched posture. The house looked so peaceful after the chaos of earlier. The setting sun through the tree limbs sent a dappling effect across the yard and lower part of the foundation. "Sort of like how Johnny rides off his mad? Sounds like a good idea only I think I'll take on that barn roof. I want to be close by."

Cipriano nodded though Scott wasn't looking at him. "We are all praying for him, Senor. I will say goodnight now."

Scott nodded at the man then stayed where he was a moment longer before pushing off and heading back inside. Murdoch may not move but Scott wanted to sit with his brother, too.

He opened the front door and had it almost closed when he saw a man sitting on the stairs, leaning back casually on one elbow and watching him. Scott's hand went to his side.

"Oh, you'll never make it, mister. Trust me," the stranger said.

Scott looked him over and, for some reason, believed the man. He was older, in his thirties Scott guessed, with brown curly hair and dead brown eyes. Scott was reminded of a doll's eyes and a chill went through him. The scar that ran down his left cheek only enhanced the menacing aura this stranger possessed. "Who are you and what do you want?" he demanded.

The man sat up, resting his arms on his knees now. "Well, I couldn't hardly believe I missed but, I guess I didn't really. Just didn't finish the job, is all."

Scott's shoulders reached his ears as he scowled furiously at the arrogant man. "Chalk it up as a failure. You won't be getting anywhere near Johnny again."

He laughed then. It wasn't an unpleasant laugh. His eyes came to life with it and Scott was surprised by that.

"I wasn't anywhere near him the first time." He stood up and stepped down, eye level with Scott now. "I know he's hangin on but somehow, I just don't see him makin it. I do hate to waste bullets so, I'm gonna wait until tomorrow. If he's still alive, well..." he shrugged and didn't bother finishing.

"You really think you can just waltz in here and kill a man then walk right back out again?"

"Yep."

Scott's eyes narrowed. "Why? Why did you shoot my brother?"

The man took a couple of steps to Scott's right and shrugged. "Nothin personal. It's a job, mister. One I do real well and get paid well for. So, you see, I have to make sure I finish the job. I have a reputation to uphold."

Frustrated by the man's bravado and more than a little worried for his brother, Scott was nearing the end of any patience he may have. He tried to keep a tight hold but it wasn't easy. "Who are you?"

"Name's Vic Winston."

"Who hired you?"

"Ah, well, see that's privileged information. Can't divulge that," he replied with a smile.

Scott turned slightly to fully face the man. "What will it take to get you to back off, Mr. Winston? How much will it cost to get rid of you?" He smiled again. This time, it wasn't pleasant at all. It was almost feral, to Scott. Like a big cat licking it's lips in anticipation of a kill. The man was practically posturing to pounce.

"This just got interesting, Mr. Lancer. I'm not cheap to hire but no one's ever asked for a price to back off. Then again, I've never given anyone the chance before. Could be a whole new twist to consider."

Scott ground his teeth. "While you're contemplating a career choice, will five thousand dollars take care of things?"

Winston gave a low whistle. "Your brother must be worth a lot to you. Yeah, sure, five thousand sounds reasonable since my reputation might take a black mark. And, it'll insure the rest of your family don't get caught up in this."

"Five thousand to disappear and to tell me who hired you."

Winston frowned in consideration then finally, nodded. "Alright. When I see the money."

"Fine. I'll ride into town tomorrow and get it. Where can we meet?"

He laughed again. "I'll find you." He walked to the door and pulled it open then paused and turned back. "By the way, if you have any ideas of talking to the sheriff while you're in town, don't. If I get a whiff you're trying to double-cross me, your brother won't be the only one to pay for. I'll take out your whole family, Lancer. That's a guarantee."

He was gone then, the threat left hanging heavily in the air as Scott stared at the door and wondered what he'd just done.

*****

Scott walked into the living room and fell into a chair. What had he done? And why? Why hadn't he just killed the man? Or, at least, shot him? There was something resolutely evil about Winston and Scott had felt it the moment he laid eyes on the man. Had he been afraid? Yes, for Johnny, very afraid. For himself? He didn't think so. Still, he couldn't start a shootout in the house. The thought of what might have happened made his stomach turn. What if Teresa had run in, or Murdoch?

He needed to know something about this man. Was he really as good as he professed? Winston had apparently walked right into the house unseen. And he knew Johnny's condition. How long had he been lurking around? Scott shuddered to think about it. The man who had nearly killed his brother - may still have - was right here listening to Sam's prognosis. He couldn't have heard Scott talking to Cipriano then got into the house without Scott seeing him. He was convinced of that. The man was like a ghost, it seemed.

He also knew he didn't have any time to find out much information. If Winston was still watching the house and, Scott knew he was, he'd see anyone leaving tonight. He'd know something was wrong and probably wouldn't wait for tomorrow. Murdoch was vulnerable in Johnny's room. Unarmed and unaware. Should he talk to his father? No, he had too much to worry about with Johnny. Scott had to deal with this himself. He wondered if Winston would follow him tomorrow. Most likely. Just to be sure Scott didn't talk to Val.

How was he going to do this? Scott knew he had no choice but to go through with the deal. Pay the man off and find out who was responsible for sending a killer after his brother. Of course it was someone from Johnny's past. Another ghost to haunt his brother. Would he ever have any peace? Scott's thoughts were dark and desperate and the idea he could be paying for nothing occurred to him. There was no guarantee Johnny would survive this at all. But, he couldn't exactly wait around for the worst to happen. Winston certainly wasn't going to.

With a grunt and a sigh, Scott pulled himself to his feet and headed to Johnny's room. If only his brother could wake up and tell him who this man was; how dangerous he really was. Winston appeared very dangerous but was it all an act? Like Madrid was Johnny's act? Or was it real? Scott was convinced at this moment that it was very real but, he had no way of knowing for sure. He decided he'd rather pay the man off than find out. Later, after Johnny was past this turbulent time, he'd get to the truth and track Winston down.

*****

Scott figured if he timed this just right, he'd be at the bank when it opened. Hopefully, he could be in and out without much fuss. He knew his withdrawal would raise eyebrows, even questions but he'd planned it all out last night as he lay awake. He'd tried to get Murdoch to rest a few hours but that wasn't happening. Johnny was still as death, pale and his breathing too shallow, yet he stayed with them and Scott's prayers had been heard. He only hoped they would continue to be heard and his brother would recover fully.

Scott looked around but could see no one following him. He wasn't surprised by it but he'd feel much better if he knew where Winston was. Surely the man was shadowing him. He'd be a fool to trust Scott and Scott knew he'd be a fool to try anything at this point. Winston held all the cards for now. All he could do was play along.

He entered Green River at five minutes of nine and dismounted in front of the bank. His eyes went to the sheriff's office just down the street but he couldn't tell if Val was there. Somehow, he doubted it. At some point last night, it occurred to him Winston could have laid a false trail for Val. But, Val was pretty savvy. Scott wasn't sure if he hoped to see the sheriff or not. It would be impossible not to talk to the man and if Winston saw that, he may get the wrong idea.

Frank Hamilton walked down the boardwalk just then and Scott sighed his relief as the bank president hailed him good morning.

*****

Fifteen minutes seemed an eternity but, Scott mounted up and headed toward home with five thousand dollars bulging from his saddlebags. Convincing Hamilton not to ask a lot of questions hadn't been easy but he hoped he'd satisfied the man's curiosity. It didn't matter. All that mattered was he had the money. Now, he needed to get his answers. As Scott left the town, he pulled his rifle from the scabbard and laid it across his lap.

He was beginning to think Winston was still at the house and that idea made him queasy. He was less than a mile from home and no sign of the man. Just as he was thinking it had all been a ploy to get him out of the way and gain easier access to Johnny, he heard a voice.

"This is a good place."

Scott reined to a stop and looked to his left, up the hill in the tree line but he still couldn't see anyone.

"Put the rifle away, Lancer. No need for this to be anything but a business transaction."

He still couldn't see the man but Scott shoved the rifle in its boot and put both hands on his saddle horn. He saw Winston emerge from the trees then and approach him slowly, his eyes scanning the area. "Were you in the army, Mr. Winston? Your ability at subterfuge is impressive."

A grin passed the man's lips. "I don't see any need to get familiar, Lancer. Reach back with your left hand and grab those saddlebags then open them up."

Scott did as he was told and opened the bags to expose the money within.

"I'll trust that it's exactly five thousand," Winston said as he reached for the bags.

Scott pulled away a little. "Not so fast. You have some information for me."

Winston's hand dropped to his right thigh as he looked hard at the man before him. "A codicil, if you don't mind. You didn't hear this from me."

"Fine. Just tell me."

"Martin Santee."

Scott's eyes widened, his lips parted slightly and he stared at the man for several seconds. Finally, he found his voice. "Are you sure?"

"Sure as shootin," Winston grinned.

Scott blinked then shook his head. "Then this isn't about ..." he trailed off, looking curiously at Winston. He didn't know about Madrid. Scott decided he didn't need to, either. "Did he say why?"

He shrugged. "Something about Lancer and getting rid of bad apples before buying the barrel. Hell, I don't know. Didn't make any sense to me but I don't need to know, either. Now, how about handing over that money?"

His head came up and, for a second, Scott was unsure he'd heard the man. Reality set in and he knew he didn't have time to sit here haggling. "One more thing. How committed to this was Santee? What I mean is, do you think he'd send someone else if Johnny lives?"

Winston sighed heavily and looked at the man as if he'd said the dumbest thing in the world. "Lancer, if a man goes to the trouble to hire a top gun, he must want the thing done bad enough. Yeah, he probably will but I get the feeling he's going to need time to get his resources together. From what I saw, he used his last dime to pay me. Of course, I get top dollar. He could hire some two bit gunhawk for the job. Who knows? He might get lucky."

Scott frowned at the man and handed over the saddlebags. "What assurance do I have you won't decide your reputation has been marred too badly?"

"None, I reckon. But, I've done the telling now so, even if I did decide to finish your brother off, it doesn't mean the word won't get out. Besides, I'm not real fond of California. Think I'll just go back to more familiar stompin grounds." He smiled briefly. "This has been a profitable trip for me, though. I'd say I was sorry but, well, that'd be a lie." He tipped his hat and turned his horse. "One more thing. If I see any badges behind me, I'll be back for you."

Scott said nothing to that as the man rode away. He was getting tired of being threatened and was just glad to see the backside of Winston. He hoped to the heavens he'd never see the man again.

But, Santee? It made no sense. Yes, the man had been more than willing to go after Warburton by any means necessary. He never seemed to be troubled by Driscoll taking that bull by the horns and backshooting the man. Still, Johnny was trying to keep the situation from escalating. Unfortunately, he hadn't been able to but, his brother had put his life on the line in the effort. Santee had no reason to hate Johnny.

That comment about bad apples and buying the barrel puzzled and concerned him, too. He had no idea what it meant but, he was going to find out. Before he did that, he knew he had to tell his father what he'd done. Scott didn't know how Murdoch would react but, right now, Santee was more important to him. He headed home more confused and anxious than before. How long did they have before Santee realized his hired gun was long gone?

*****

Scott didn't need to ask after his father, he knew where he'd be. He headed to Johnny's room, his entire being on alert. Lancer was under threat and he could only hope his father would be rested enough to take this all in. He was sure Murdoch hadn't slept much, if any last night. As he opened the door, he paused at the slouched figure in the overstuffed chair by the window. Wincing, Scott thought better of waking his father. He went to the bed and sat in the straight-backed chair next to his brother. He could see no difference in Johnny's condition and wondered where Sam might be. He reached out and took Johnny's hand in his own, leaning in a little.

Well, at least it wasn't about Madrid. He hoped that would help some but he doubted Johnny would care at this point. What his brother was facing was a long and agonizing recovery. If he recovered. Scott hated thinking that way but, one look at Johnny and he couldn't help thinking that very thing. Scott closed his eyes and bowed his head as the enormity of it all weighed down on his shoulders.

Murdoch shifted in his sleep and felt the pull on his neck muscles which brought him fully awake. His hand went to his neck, massaging deeply as he focused on his surroundings. It took him a few seconds to settle on Scott, his head down and holding his brother's hand. Murdoch's heart quickened as he came to his feet and walked to his elder son. Putting a gentle hand on Scott's shoulder, he saw the blond head come up quickly but his own eyes sought out his younger son; studied his chest until he saw Johnny was breathing. Only then, did he look at Scott.

"How are you, Sir? Did you get much rest?"

"Some. I'm sorry, Scott. When I saw the way you were sitting, I thought ..." he trailed off, unwilling to put voice to his fears.

Scott stood slowly and faced him, sympathy full in his eyes. "I don't see any change in him. I hate to do this but, I need to speak with you privately. It's urgent."

That got Murdoch's full attention and he nodded. "Let me see if Teresa can sit with Johnny." As he left the room, Murdoch felt a sharp pain of foreboding in his stomach. He knew that tone of Scott's and he knew his son was very serious.

Only after ensuring Johnny was looked after did Murdoch join Scott in the great room. His son was staring into the cold hearth, a drink in his hand. Murdoch made his way to the sideboard and filled a glass for himself. "Alright, what's wrong?"

Scott turned to face him and sucked in a breath. "I found out who was behind shooting Johnny."

Murdoch just stared at him for a long beat. "Spit it out, boy!"

Flinching a little at the harsh tone, Scott regained his composure quickly. This was nothing, he thought. "It's not going to be easy to hear. It was Martin Santee."

Shaking his head, Murdoch walked to the sofa and sat on the arm, staring at the floor in thought. "How do you know?"

"Because I paid the man who shot Johnny to tell me and to leave my brother alone."

Slowly, Murdoch's head came up even as he rose to his feet. He swallowed hard, his Adam's apple bobbing as he absorbed the words. In a soft, disbelieving voice, he spoke. "You did what?"

Scott set his glass down, untouched then leaned against the wall; more for support against what he knew was coming than anything. "Yesterday, when I came back into the house, the man was sitting on the stairs. Just sitting there pretty as you please. He said he was waiting to see if he'd have to finish the job. He was cold as ice, Murdoch. I tried talking to him but it was obvious all he cared about was making sure he did what he'd been paid to do. I offered him five thousand dollars to leave Johnny alone and tell me who hired him."

"Why didn't you just shoot the bastard?!" Murdoch's voice resounded off the walls and Scott could swear he felt the vibration down his back.

"Because he said I would never make it if I drew on him and I believed him. He was a hired assassin, Sir. I thought the prudent thing would be to get as much information as I could then send him packing."

Slowly, the older man shook his head. "Send him packing? You let the man who damned near killed your brother walk away scot-free? No, not free, with five thousand dollars in his pockets! That's what you're telling me? Did it ever occur to you to call in the law or call for help?"

"If I had called for help, he would have killed me then walked right upstairs and killed you and Johnny. If I had tried to contact Val, he would have killed you and Johnny. I was in an untenable situation!"

"You were afraid," Murdoch accused sourly.

"Yes! I was afraid. Of course, I was afraid of what he'd do. You were unarmed and Johnny certainly was in no shape and still isn't to protect himself. He was right here in this house, Murdoch. He'd been right here in this house listening to Sam tell us how Johnny was. He had to have been here for hours and we never knew it. I suppose I could have tried to get the drop on him at some point but I didn't know what he would do from one second to the next. The man is pure evil and he seemed to enjoy his work!"

Murdoch's mouth tightened, he stood and turned away, walking a few feet.

Scott was furious but he knew he needed to make Murdoch understand. "The point is, the threat is still very real and we know who it's really coming from. Santee hired the man to kill Johnny. He said Santee mentioned something about getting rid of bad apples before buying the barrel. It doesn't make much sense. Santee could never afford to buy Lancer. Winston said he'd probably have a time recovering after paying him from what he saw of Santee's ranch."

Murdoch turned back then. "Winston?"

"He told me his name. He wasn't trying to hide a thing. We need to be prepared for any kind of attack from Santee, Sir."

"Where is he now, this Winston?"

"I don't know. He said he didn't like California and was going back to where he came from. He didn't tell me where that was. All he did say was, if he saw a badge behind him, he'd come back."

Murdoch took a deep breath and let it out before speaking. "Post guards and go tell Val what's happened. I'll deal with Santee. There's not much Val can do about him since the only real witness has been paid off and long gone." He stopped and shook his head , a look of pure disgust on his face. "There were a lot of things you could have done, Scott. I swear, I never thought for one minute you of all people would ever tuck tail and run." With that, he walked away, heading back upstairs.

Scott stood staring after him, his mouth hanging open. Pure shock ran through his entire body. Quickly enough, anger replaced it. He stormed out of the house and headed for Cipriano.

*****

Murdoch stood in the doorway of Johnny's room and watched Teresa caress his son's brow and speak softly to him. He couldn't hear the words but he could hear the love in her voice and it nearly broke his heart. His thoughts turned to the information he'd just learned and he pushed aside what Scott had done, focusing on Santee for a moment.

Why? What could the man possibly gain? Scott was right about one thing; Santee could never afford Lancer even if there was any chance in hell they'd sell, which the man had to know there wasn't. Santee had supported Driscoll during the Warburton trouble, hadn't had any problem with Driscoll shooting Warburton in the back. Murdoch did recall Santee barking at Johnny but, that's all it had been. Driscoll had been the man's best friend but, was sending that friend to prison enough reason to try killing his son? Murdoch didn't think so. Especially after all this time.

It had been eight months or so since Warburton had died and that whole mess had died down with him. Murdoch had sold the man's beef and given the money to his daughter. It had driven the prices down but he'd helped the smaller ranchers make it through the season. In fact, his sons had been more than determined to help with that endeavor. He could not fathom why Santee would do this and he had to wonder if this Winston had made the whole thing up. Then again, why would he? None of it made much sense but Murdoch determined to find out the truth from the horse's mouth - once Johnny was more stable.

He wouldn't leave his son until he was sure Johnny was going to survive this. He closed his eyes and pushed away the thought of Johnny not making it. Then, he heard a soft moan and moved quickly into the room.

Teresa looked up at him hopefully but he also saw the fear in her eyes. "Go get Sam, please, honey."

She nodded and left quickly as he took the seat she'd been using. Taking Johnny's hand in his own, he leaned in and spoke softly. "It's alright, Johnny. You're home and in your own bed now. Just take it slowly, son. Take it slowly." He watched the eyes moving rapidly under the lids as Johnny fought his way to consciousness. He almost wished the boy wouldn't wake up. The pain was going to be intense. But, Johnny was waking and he knew nothing could stop it. He only hoped Sam would be able to control the pain.

He heard the footfalls behind him then saw the doctor round the bed and lean in, checking Johnny's pulse and assessing his wakefulness. "He's coming around. I'm going to give him a shot of morphine before he completely wakes up."

"Good," Murdoch muttered and went back to watching his son. He sure didn't want to watch Sam stick a steel needle in his boy's arm and pump him full of the medicine Johnny hated. There was nothing else to do, though, and he figured he'd deal with any consequences from Johnny later. And who knew? Johnny may actually be grateful for the relief this time.

As soon as Sam withdrew the needle, the blue eyes opened halfway. Murdoch squeezed his hand and started talking to him again. "It's alright, boy. Just take your time now. No hurry."

Johnny turned his head slightly and found his father's eyes. He made a poor attempt at a smile then frowned as his senses cleared a little. "Wha happen?"

"You were shot, son. Ambushed. Sam operated and it's going to take a while to get back on your feet. Just keep fighting, son. That's what you need to do."

The frown deepened and Johnny tried to assess his body. He cleared his throat a little. "Where? Can't feel it."

Murdoch's gaze faltered for a second. When he looked back up, he schooled his features, unwilling to let Johnny see any fear. "To the left of the stomach area. Sam gave you some pain medicine as you were waking up. I know you don't like it but, it's a very painful type of injury."

His left hand immediately went to his stomach and something like fear flashed in his eyes. "Gut shot?"

"Not quite, son. It was close."

"Christ!" Johnny closed his eyes and took a minute to let it all sink in. His heart started beating a little faster, his breathing increasing until he took hold of his emotions and tucked them all neatly away. With resolve, he opened his eyes and locked onto his father's. "Okay, I'll deal with it."

Murdoch smiled, the pride showing on his face. "That's what I wanted to hear."

Sam listened to the exchange and his concern grew as he watched Johnny. He sat gingerly on the side of the bed and pressed Johnny's left arm to get his attention. He waited for his patient to turn to him then smiled. "I know how you operate, young man, and I'm not saying it's wrong. I just don't want you to sit on things this time. It's important, Johnny. More important than ever to let it out at some point. This was bad but you know it could have been much worse. Still, whenever you want to talk, talk. To me, Scott, Murdoch, whoever you feel comfortable discussing it with. And don't give me that look," he said and smiled as Johnny's face turned to stone. "I know we don't like to talk about our feelings," he went on with an exaggerated flair, hands waving dramatically in the air, "but, this time, you have to."

Johnny's face broke into a grin at Sam's shenanigan's then he fell somber. He did know what could happen, had seen the effect a gutshot had on some men. Still, it hadn't been a direct hit so he felt fairly certain he'd be alright. Sam wasn't going to let it go, though. None of them would. He took a deep breath and made a sort of promise. "I'll do my best, Sam."

Patting his arm, Sam replied, "that's all any of us can do. For right now, you need a lot of sleep and a lot of fluids. So, let's get some water in you then I want you to rest."

*****

After giving Cipriano a very brief explanation of what was going on and instructions on posting more guards, Scott left for Green River with some dread. He'd known, hadn't he, what his father's reaction would be? Still, those last words had cut deep, he admitted to himself. He was only trying to save their lives. The threat had been immediate and that was all he'd been able to come up with at the time.

Sure, he could've tried double-crossing Winston but Scott had the distinct impression the man enjoyed his work a little too much. In fact, it seemed as if Winston almost hoped he'd try something. He simply couldn't risk it. Especially since he had to leave the ranch for town. One false move and Winston would have beaten him back home. Scott was convinced the man had planned this out well, knew the inside of the house and almost certainly had a good lay of the land. He had to have done his homework to even get inside the house so easily. It still turned his stomach to think Winston had been there all along, waiting and listening to their conversations.

Scott took a deep breath and concentrated on finding Val. What Winston had done was only the beginning in his mind and he highly doubted Murdoch would get any information out of Santee. Scott didn't think of himself as a boastful man but he was practical and practicality told him Santee didn't have a chance of taking over Lancer. Legal or otherwise. Just what did he hope to gain? And was that comment Winston told him just a ruse? Had Santee even said it and, if he had, was that what he was really after?

He did regret letting Winston go but he still believed he'd had no choice in the matter. It was water under the bridge now. His task lay ahead, not behind. Scott entered Green River and rode slowly up to the sheriff's office. Milagro was tethered at the hitching post so he knew Val was there. That meant he hadn't been able to track Winston but Scott had already figured that would be the case. The man was like a ghost.

Slowly, he dismounted knowing Val would be about as happy with him as his father had been. Well, there wasn't a thing he could do about that. He walked inside, removing his hat. He stopped on a dime, doorknob in hand, when he saw Val wasn't alone. What he heard puzzled and infuriated him. Martin Santee was standing in front of Val's desk looking as if someone had stuck a bee down his pants. He turned toward the door when it opened and pointed a finger.

"There's one of 'em, Sheriff. Lock him up!"

Scott raised a brow at the demand then his eyes narrowed in his own fury. Slowly, he closed the door behind him and tossed his hat on the peg by the door. "Funny, I was just about to ask Val to lock you up, Santee."

"Me? I ain't the one what's been knockin down my fences, lettin my cattle stray to Kingdom Come and dammin up my water supply!"

Scott was more than a little confused but the accusation riled him more. "Neither has Lancer. We don't operate that way and you know it."

"Maybe not before but this is just the thing a gunhawk would do to start a range war."

Scott advanced on the man and heard the scraping of Val's chair. He ignored it and grabbed Santee by the collar, shaking him hard. "Is that why you hired an assassin to come after my brother?" He shook the man even harder. "Well, is it?!"

"Scott!" Val shouted as he pried the younger man's fingers away from Santee and pushed him back a little. Val stepped between the two men, one hand on either's chest.

Santee was a little breathless. "What the hell are you talkin about, Scott? I wouldn't do that! Besides, I couldn't afford no hired gun."

"Alright, both of ya just settle down! Santee, sit down and Scott, move away from him." Val glared at both men until they obeyed him. He sighed heavily and ran a hand through his hair. "Now, suppose we start with you, Scott. How do you know Santee hired that gunman?"

"Because he told me." Scott went on to tell of his encounter with Winston. He kept looking between the two men. Val's face was growing redder all the time and Santee just sat there, stunned with his mouth hanging open. Once Scott had finished, the room grew quiet.

In a much softer voice, Santee asked, "is Johnny gonna be alright?"

Scott glowered at him but he caught Val's stare; the question in his eyes as well. "We don't know yet. He's hanging on but Sam can't say for sure."

Val lowered his eyes and turned half around, still standing nearly between the two men.

"I didn't do it, Scott. I swear on my mother's grave, I didn't do it. I got no reason to go after Johnny. I thought he was comin after me. I've been through this before with your father. We know how them highriders operate and this is exactly how it started with Pardee. Johnny's the only one around here with that kind of experience. And ..."

Scott ground his jaw and clenched his fists.

Val looked down at Santee. "And what?"

Santee dipped his eyes before looking at the sheriff again. "And I was told it was Lancer."

"By whom?" Scott snipped.

Val waited, too, as Santee seemed reluctant to speak. He took one step toward the man then stopped himself. "Answer him," he hissed.

Inhaling deeply, Santee met Scott's glare. "Red Burton. Tim Jackson's hand. He said he saw Lancer hands pullin down my fence but was too far away to do anything."

"Then how'd he know it was Lancer men if he was so far away?" Val asked.

"He said one of 'em was a negro. Murdoch's the only one around here that's got a negro workin for him."

Scott shook his head. "Frank is not the only negro in California, you jackass. And, he would never do anything like that no matter who told him to."

"Ya know it coulda been a Mexican," Val mused. "Anyways, man shouldn't be makin accusations when he's not able to see a man's face proper."

"And it could have been that Burton didn't see anything," Scott added. "For all we know, Jackson's the one behind this and had his man lie. Or," he stopped and glared at Santee again, "they're both in it together."

"Hang on, Scott. I know you wanna find out what's behind this but, you can't be throwin accusations either. Especially on the word of a man who just shot your own brother."

The words Val didn't say cut into Scott's mind as clearly as if he'd spoken them. The look in the sheriff's eyes said it all and Scott also heard his father's voice. He allowed himself a few seconds to wonder how Johnny would take this before forcing his mind back to the present situation.

"I can't imagine Murdoch's real happy ya let that murderer ride off," Santee said flatly.

Val bit his tongue on that one and paced a little. He was fairly certain they wouldn't kill each other now. He turned back to Scott. "Which way did he head?"

"East but, Val, I told you what he said."

"I don't give a rat's ass what he said. It's pretty plain he ain't the trustworthy type. I ain't never heard of him. And this all happened this mornin?" At Scott's nod, he nearly cursed. "Probably long gone by now. Unless it was all a set up and he's still around, still workin for whoever hired him. Describe him to me again. Everything you can remember."

Scott perched on the edge of the desk and clasped his hands together. "My height, brown hair and eyes, early thirties, I'd guess. A thin white scar down his left cheek."

"Any accent?"

"Not really. Maybe a faint southern sound. He wore black spurs." Scott frowned and wondered why he hadn't thought of that before. It was unusual. He looked up at Val. "His eyes were dead, Val. But, when he smiled, they seemed to come alive."

Val gave him an odd look with that. "Well, I'm goin out to Jackson's place and talk to him."

Scott stood up. "I'll go with you."

"No, you won't. You're too hotheaded right now, Scott. Go home and take care of Johnny. I'll be out to see him soon as I can." He turned to Santee then. "You go home, too. I got a sneakin suspicion you've both been set up. Don't start no trouble. If anything more happens, send for me." Val walked to the front door and opened it then paused and turned back. "If either of ya, and that includes your pa, Scott, starts a war with the other, I'll throw all of ya in my jail."

*****

Scott stared out the small window, watching as Val rode off. He could hear Santee breathing, it was so quiet.

"I didn't do it, Scott. I swear it. I know me and Johnny don't see eye to eye a lot but, I got no reason to kill the boy. Besides all that, I ain't got that kind of money. I'd imagine it'd take a lot to hire someone to kill Johnny Madrid."

Scott turned sharply. "As far as I could tell, Winston had no idea he was Madrid. He was too far away to get a good look at Johnny even if he would have recognized him on sight. If you're telling the truth as you profess, you'll keep that information to yourself, as well."

Santee stood and picked up his hat. He nodded once. "I won't say a word. Tell Murdoch I'm real sorry to hear about Johnny. I don't reckon he's gonna be too trustin of me until this thing is figured out."

"I doubt it but, Val seems to believe you."

"I hope that's worth somethin to ya seein as how him and Johnny are so close."

Scott leaned back and shook his head slowly. "You know, Santee, if you really knew my father that well, you'd know he'd never start a range war. He doesn't back down but he would never do something like this."

Santee dropped his head and stared at his boots. "I was just so riled when Jackson's man told me what he saw, I come tearin in here to see Val. Didn't let myself think at all."

"I'm sure that's exactly what whoever is behind this was counting on," Scott said, realizing Val was most likely right. Santee was not their man.

As he rode toward home, Scott felt like a fool. He'd been had by a gunhawk. He wondered if Johnny would've been able to tell Winston was lying. He was sure his brother would have handled things differently. Not necessarily right but, differently. He found himself wishing he had his brother's insights right now. Johnny knew more about this 'game' than he did. And maybe, just maybe, someone else knew that. Johnny would have seen something else and that would have made the plan too precarious. Plus the fact that whoever this was probably figured getting Johnny out of the way would make things easier for them.

Well, Scott thought as he took a deep breath, they're not going to get away with any of it. Whatever the plan was and, he was certain it involved taking Lancer, he wouldn't let it happen.

Suddenly, Scott's spine began to tingle and he brought his senses to full awareness. He felt someone watching him and scoured the landscape from under the brim of his hat. Calculating the most likely place for an ambush, Scott rode along a few more feet then, with a sudden jerk of the reins, headed into the woods to his right. He saw a bullet plunge into the tree not two feet from him and lowered himself across Remmie's back, making his way through the trees easily and quickly.

He'd been right. The shooter had to have been positioned in the rocks to the left of the road. A good vantage point as long as the target was unaware. The bushwhacker wouldn't be able to get down from those rocks in time to catch up with him but he was taking no chances. As soon as he was clear of the trees, he galloped full out toward home.

Scott didn't stop until he was in the yard. He jumped from his steed as Cipriano came running toward him, Isidro in tow. Scott felt a little out of breath but he forced the words out. "Someone tried to ambush me about three miles out. I cut across country. I doubt they'll follow this far but I want the guards doubled, Cip. There's no doubt now. Lancer is under attack."

He watched the segundo's face redden with anger. Eyes flitting to Isidro, Scott saw the same reaction. Both men pulled their shoulders back as Cipriano answered.

"We will be ready around the clock, Senor. Do you know who this devil is?"

"Not yet. Val's working on it. I don't believe it's the man I first thought but we have an idea. I need to speak with Murdoch. Take care of my horse, please."

"Of course, Senor Scott. Por favor, tell Johnny we are praying for him," Isidro said even as he crossed himself.

Scott gave pause. What with dodging a bullet and running for home, he'd nearly forgotten his fallen brother. Somberly, he nodded and patted the man on the shoulder before heading inside.

As he reached the foyer, Murdoch was coming down the stairs. "What's all the commotion."

"In the living room, Sir. There's a lot to tell."

Scott settled in a chair and started with his arrival at Val's office and ended with his race cross country.

Murdoch sat still, taking it all in, his brow creased in thought. His hands clenched at the chair's arms as he listened. "Tim Jackson. I haven't been having any problems with him. We haven't been having any problems with any of our neighbors. I don't understand any of this."

"Neither do I, Sir. Val's gone to talk to Jackson. He thinks Winston may not be gone at all and that Santee was a diversion."

Murdoch came out of his chair. "Oh, you mean the hired killer may not have been completely honest with you?"

Scott closed his eyes and tried to hold his temper. He wasn't completely successful. "Look, whatever you may think of how I handled the situation, we have to focus on what's happening

*****
now
*****
. Johnny is still vulnerable, we're all vulnerable until we know who's behind this. I've doubled the guards. All we can do for now is wait on Val."

Murdoch gave him his most frustrated look before turning away. After a few minutes, he spoke again. "I can't sit with Johnny like I want now. I need to give this my attention. I want a guard in Johnny's room at all the times and one outside his door. Only the best. Men who are willing to shoot first and ask questions later. Johnny can't defend himself at all."

"I'll talk to Cipriano," Scott said and stood up.

"Why don't you go visit your brother? I'll talk to Cipriano. You've barely been in there with all that's been happening." He turned then to face Scott. "I don't know how many more chances you might get to be with him."

Scott felt his knees buckle a little. "He's not ..."

"He's very weak. I just don't know, Scott." Murdoch couldn't look him in the eye and he simply walked outside.

*****

Scott sat at the bedside and gently took his brother's cold right hand in his own. Frowning, he squeezed and rubbed the hand, trying to warm it up. His other hand reached out and felt Johnny's forehead, finding it just as cool. The shallow breaths scared Scott and he stared, fixated on Johnny's chest for a long moment.

"Come on, Johnny. I know it's hard. The hardest thing you've probably ever had to do though, I'm sure, you'd disagree. You've had worse, right? Still, brother, I need you to get better. We have a lot to do and we need your help, your expertise. I ... I did something I don't think you'll like very much. Murdoch certainly doesn't like it. I just hope you'll understand but, right now, I'd rather you were angry with me than ..." Scott lowered his head, unable to speak his fear.

A soft sigh emitted from his lips as Scott looked back up at the pale face. Not even a twitch of pain or a movement under the eyelids. Nothing. It was as if Johnny were already gone. He shook his head, refusing to believe it to be true and resolving within his heart and mind to punish whoever was responsible for this. He stiffened a little when he heard the door open.

"Any change?"

Scott turned to look at his father, a glimmer of hope and more than a little fear reflected in the gray depths. He could only shake his head, though and watch as the hope died like the flame of a candle in the wind.

Murdoch bowed his head a little. "I was hoping hearing your voice would bring him around."

"So was I but, so far, nothing. He's so cold."

"Sam said it was from the blood loss. We've been forcing fluids but it's a struggle to get even a little in him."

Scott straightened his shoulders a little at this. "Then, he has been awake?"

"Well," Murdoch sighed as he sat on the edge of the bed, "Once and briefly then ... I'm not sure I'd call it awake exactly. Conscious enough to swallow, though."

Both men gave a little start as they heard boots thumping down the hallway, closing in. Scott stood, hand at his right hip and waiting. It wasn't until he saw Val poke his head through the opening that he relaxed.

"How's he doin?" the sheriff asked softly.

"Not very well, I'm afraid, Val."

Crawford frowned and stepped up beside Scott, his eyes widening in shock at the visage before him. "Damn! I didn't realize ..."

Scott stood and moved away. "Talk to him, Val. Maybe he can hear you. We haven't had much luck."

Cocking an unconvinced brow, Val took the chair and laid his hand over Johnny's, surprised by the coolness of his skin as much as his pallor. He cleared his throat and leaned in a little. "Hey, amigo. It's Val. Reckon ya knew that. Seems you've gone and done it again, Johnny. Damned if you can't get inta more fixes. Well, the only news I got for ya so far is, it's got nothing to do with Madrid. Leastways, nothin from your past far as I can tell. Can't say what exactly is goin on but, I'm sure about that part. Thing is, I'm gonna need you on this one, pal. Murdoch and Scott, too. Course, they always need ya. Not like me." Val grinned a little at his joke then his face fell again, as did his head. He turned that head aside, toward the other two Lancers. Not meeting their eyes but, still asking.

Murdoch stood and rounded the bed. Catching Scott's eye, he jerked his head toward the door and they left quietly.

"Ya know, that old man of yours seems to just know what you need these days. That's pretty incredible, don't ya think? Anyways, Johnny, I'm serious about this. I don't want to worry ya more but I know you and you'd want to know no matter how bad off ya are. Thing is, I think someone is startin a range war with Lancer. So, the sooner you can pull yourself out of this mess, the better. That don't mean I expect ya to saddle up and ride or even pick up a gun. But, I'm gonna need your help with plottin and plannin, like we used to.

"Now, I know what you're gonna say. It ain't my fight and it's out of my jurisdiction. But, I don't give a rat's ass about that and you know it. You're gonna need all the help you can get and I'm gonna give it. I know Murdoch and Scott's got some experience but not like we do. So, all you really need to do is get a little stronger so's we can all talk things out."

Val watched him for a while then dropped his head. He didn't know why Scott thought he could get through to the man. Then, he felt a twitch in the hand under his own and his head snapped up. He watched as Johnny frowned and let out a soft sigh. Watched as his eyes moved under the lids then the lashes started fluttering. A smile broke out on his face and he thought to call for Murdoch then, he decided to wait. Could be the boy would just drift right back off. No sense in giving the man hope without evidence.

After a few seconds, the eyelashes started up again and Val felt Johnny's hand curl into a fist under his own. A frown creased the younger man's forehead and Val looked over at the table, seeing the brown bottle there. He turned a little and measured out the laudanum then mixed it with a very little water. Easing his hand behind Johnny's neck, he put the glass to his lips and fed him the drug.

Johnny swallowed then grimaced and tried to turn his head away but, it was too late. He'd already swallowed it and Val had to give a little grin. "Damned fool," he whispered.

"Val." The word was breathed out as Johnny slowly turned his head back toward his friend and opened his eyes half-way.

"Hey, buddy. I'll get Murdoch and Scott."

"No, wait." His voice was strained, the words ground out through the pain. "Tell me first."

"Too long a story, amigo. Ya got shot and it was bad, Johnny. Left side near your gut. You been out for a couple of days and ya lost a lot of blood. It's gonna be a long time before you heal up."

Johnny listened with some chagrin then only nodded. "I know that much."

"Then, why'd ya ask? Anyways, I'll get your folks." Val stood and went to the door, figuring, rightly, the Lancers were nearby.

*****

Murdoch made a beeline to the bedside, taking Johnny's hand in his own as he waited for the blue eyes to open again. He was rewarded mere seconds later. "Son," he whispered, his other hand stroking Johnny's hair from his forehead. Realizing he was not alone, he cleared his throat and smiled. "No fever."

Johnny would have laughed if he could. "That's good," was all he could think to say, though.

"We've been so worried."

Johnny thought he saw something in his father's eyes when he'd spoken those words. Some flicker of ... something. He dismissed it, figuring he was so sick, he was probably seeing things. "I'm sorry."

"It wasn't your fault, son. You didn't do a thing wrong. Do you need something for the pain?"

"I gave him somethin as he was wakin up," Val piped up.

Frowning, Johnny added, "Sneaky like, too." It wasn't until then he saw his brother standing at the foot of the bed. There was something wrong here. Something he couldn't quite place. "Hey, brother."

Scott's eyes raised from staring at the footboard and he offered a small smile. "Hey, yourself. Welcome back."

"Thanks, though I ain't too sure how back I am yet. Who did this?"

Silence met that question as each man tried to think of the best answer. Murdoch finally spoke it. "Don't worry about that, son. You're safe now and that's all that matters."

"Safe? How can I be safe if there's a range war about to start?"

Murdoch turned his most fierce glare on Val Crawford but the sheriff didn't flinch. "I ain't never lied to him. Ya told me to talk to him and that's what I did. He's got a right to know what's goin on."

"He's too sick and too weak to be worrying about anything but getting better. How much did you tell him?"

Johnny squeezed his father's hand. "Don't yell at him, old man. He's right. I want to know what I got shot for."

"We're not really sure who is behind it yet, Johnny," Scott said. "We're still trying to figure things out. It seems we were led down a false trail and Val has been looking into it."

Murdoch literally bit his lip to keep from saying what he wanted to say. Johnny didn't need to know about Scott's payoff right now; maybe never if he could help it. But, he saw his son relax a little as he was told the news.

"Well, keep me updated," Johnny said, as he blinked rapidly several times.

"Alright, son, but you have to rest now. You're still very weak. But, here, try to drink some more before you go to sleep. Sam said you needed a lot of fluids."

"Sam's always tryin to drown me," Johnny griped but he drank the water offered then sighed heavily before drifting off again.

As soon as Murdoch was sure Johnny was asleep, he stood and gave the other two men a glowering look, jerking his head toward the door and stalking out. He pulled up and nodded at Frank, standing guard outside the door with Walt.

*****

As soon as the three of them reached the living room, Murdoch started. "Sam didn't want him upset, Val. Why the hell did you tell him about the range war?!"

The only sign Val Crawford gave was a slight tightening of his grip on the hat he held in his hands. "First of all, Johnny's the victim here. Second, he's a grown man and he deserves to know the truth. Didn't look all that upset to me."

"He's too weak to show it. Val, for the love of ... surely, you above anyone knows how Johnny would react to this."

"Yeah, Mr. Lancer, I do. He'll think it through and keep his head." He wanted to say 'unlike some people' but he managed to refrain. "Look, I'm not in the habit of lyin to people and I've never lied to Johnny. I ain't gonna start now."

"Instead of arguing with each other, maybe Val could tell us what he's found out," Scott interjected calmly.

Murdoch frowned at the casual demeanor and shook his head. "Maybe you should tell the sheriff about your near miss."

Scott sat down and relayed the bushwhacking attempt as he'd returned home. Val listened and nodded his head as he thought.

"Well, Jackson denies knowin anything and says he'll talk to this Burton. Says Burton ain't been with him all that long. A couple of months now."

"Does Tim know anything about the man?" Murdoch asked as he fell into a chair.

"Nope. Just a cowboy far as he knows."

All three men stood when they heard a buggy from the open French doors as it entered the yard.

"It's Sam," Murdoch sighed out with relief.

"The guards are posted, Sir." Scott pointed out.

"Yeah, most highriders don't attack from surrey's, either," Val quipped as he walked to the front door and let the doctor in. "I'll be leavin now. I want to go back to Jackson's and talk to this Burton myself. Should be back from the range by the time I get there."

Scott walked over to the door and nodded to Sam as he approached. "Thank you, Val."

Settling his hat on his head, Val tossed him a sideways glance. "It's my job, Scott. Once this is over, me and you will sit down and talk about the finer points of dealin with gunhawks."

Scott's mouth tightened into a thin white line as Val walked away. He stepped aside to allow Sam entry as Murdoch joined him at the door.

"Sam, he was awake a little while ago. Val got some laudanum down him and he talked for a minute or so before going back to sleep," Murdoch reported.

Sam nodded as he removed his hat. "I'll go right up. Why are there guards outside?"

"You'll find more at Johnny's room. We're still piecing things together but it looks like someone is attacking Lancer. Unless it's absolutely necessary, Sam, I want this to be your last visit until things settle down."

The doctor stared at his oldest friend for a beat then shook his head. "I'll be here as long as Johnny is in critical condition and if anyone else needs doctoring. That's my job, Murdoch. No arguments. Now, excuse me." He didn't wait for the debate and headed up the stairs.

*****

Johnny watched Sam through half-closed eyes, struggling to stay awake until the doctor decided to finally speak. Sam's brow was furrowed more deeply than usual and Johnny was worried enough without seeing that.

"No fever which is always a good sign. You're still very weak, of course. It takes time to replace the blood you've lost. You need to drink plenty of fluids and broths to rebuild your strength. It's going to take a few weeks."

Johnny didn't even listen. He'd heard it so many times before in his young life, it was like a mantra. When Sam stopped talking, he cleared his throat. "What else?" The doctor didn't speak right off and his patience left him. "It ain't like I can lay here all day waiting, Sam. I'm barely staying awake. Just tell me all of it."

"The bullet didn't hit center, it was off to the left which is very good. It missed your actual stomach. I did have to take a piece of your intestine but, you'll never be able to tell it."

He took as deep a breath as he could and let it out gently. "Okay. I figured as much. How long before I can at least sit up a little in bed?"

"A week, probably. You're going to be very sore and I want you to take the pain medicine, Johnny. It's important that you stay as relaxed as possible and you can't do that if you're fighting pain."

"I'll take it, Sam. I know how much it hurts, believe me. I just hate being down when so much is happening." He stifled a yawn.

"Leave that to your family for now. I know it's hard but, it will also help them a great deal to know you're doing what you need to do to heal. The less they have to worry about, the better." Sam reached over to the table and poured a measure of laudanum. "Take this and rest. Murdoch or Scott will keep you informed, I'm sure."

Johnny swallowed the bitter liquid then made a noise. "I'm not sure. You tell them to keep me informed, Sam. Tell them it'll hinder my recovery to worry over things." At the wary look he got, Johnny shrugged a little. "It's the truth, isn't it?"

After a thoughtful moment, Sam nodded. "You have a point. Alright, I'll tell them." He stood and grabbed his bag. "Get some rest, Johnny."

"Thanks, Sam, for everything."

The doctor smiled at him from the doorway, watching as his eyes slid closed even before he'd finished speaking.

*****

"He's doing better than I would have thought, actually. I also promised him I'd tell you to keep him up to date on what's happening."

Murdoch scowled. "I don't want him to worry about that."

"How can he not, Murdoch? If you're straight with Johnny, he'll accept this a lot easier. Keeping things from him will only make him worry and I do not want that young man worried about anything right now. He needs to be as relaxed as possible. Now, I know that's asking a lot, especially right now, but do it anyway." Sam climbed into his surrey and frowned at his old friend.

Murdoch ran a hand across the back of his neck. "I guess that does make sense. I'll let him know what's going on. I can't thank you enough, Sam, but I meant what I said. If Johnny needs you, you know I'll send but until then, please don't come back here. It's not safe."

Jenkins rolled his eyes. "Johnny or anyone else, Murdoch. I'm still the only doctor around and no one is going to keep me from my duties. Besides," he added with a cocky grin, "everyone wants the doctor in good health."

Chuckling a little, Murdoch admitted that truth to himself. He watched Sam ride off then his eyes took in the landscape. Their ranch. His and his sons, now. How many more times would they have to fight to keep it? How much more luck would they get? Johnny could so easily be dead right now. A cold shiver ran down his back. He sighed and shook his head before walking back inside. He hated waiting but it was all he could do until Val returned. Hopefully, the man had some news for them.

He stopped when he stepped up on the tiles and turned back, watching Scott and Cipriano, their heads together. He hadn't allowed himself too much time to think about Scott's actions in all this. He really didn't want to because, as it stood now, he was very disappointed in his elder son. He wondered what Johnny would think of it but, he was pretty sure he knew. With any luck, the young man would never find out. Murdoch felt that was the best outcome for the brothers.

Just then, Scott's head came up and he looked over at his father. Murdoch simply nodded then turned and walked inside to wait.

*****

It was a very long hour of sitting at his desk staring at nothing and trying to think of who could be after Lancer now. He heard the front door open and his head came up, back straightened as Val and Scott walked into the great room. The look on both men's faces was not encouraging.

"Burton's gone. Jackson's foreman says he just rode off while they were out on the range this mornin and never came back." Val sat down across from Murdoch and slapped a hand on his knee. "Jackson swears by all that's holy, he don't know a thing."

"Do you believe him?" Murdoch asked.

"Yeah, I do, Mr. Lancer. I'm beginnin to think someone is tryin real hard to get all the ranchers in the area at each other's throats."

Scott sat down next to Val. "Why?"

"Because, while we're all infighting, whoever it is can swoop in for the kill. We'd be so busy pointing fingers at each other, they could go about their business and we'd still be blaming each other."

"That's right," Val spoke up. "By the time it was over, no one would have anything worth fightin over."

Scott sat back and shook his head. "Would that really work? It seems such a big risk."

Val's lips twitched and he ducked his head. "It works like a charm most times. Of course, I ain't never seen nobody try to do it with more than two or three ranchers involved."

Murdoch stared hard at the man, suspicion running rampant in his mind. "And just who have you seen pull off such a thing, Sheriff?"

Val's eyes came up and the glint there told Murdoch before the man ever answered. "Your son. He's real good at that type of thing." His face fell then as he frowned. "But, Johnny never bushwhacked anybody to get the job done. Might have taken some shots but, he never done nothin like this."

Murdoch only nodded. He would never voice it but he was impressed with Johnny's ingenuity. He startled a little as Scott leaned forward quickly.

"This doesn't help us at all. We still don't know who is behind it."

"Might not for a while yet," Val shrugged.

"Do you have any suggestions, Val?"

The sheriff looked at the rancher, a little surprised he was asking. "Yeah. Call a meeting of all the locals. Let them know what's happening and that you all have to stick together. Make them all agree to report everything that happens to me and to not go off half-cocked."

Murdoch nodded. "I'm pretty sure we can count on the bigger ranches but, I'm not so sure about some of the lone wolves out there. Some of those men want nothing to do with anything organized."

"This won't work if you can't get everyone on board. It's those smaller ranches they'll go after most if they ain't already."

Scott stood and walked off a few paces. "We should send some of the men to deliver the messages and get answers from everyone. Those who refuse, maybe you should talk to personally, Sir."

Murdoch nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, I'll make a list and we can start first thing in the morning."

"How's Johnny?" Val asked, his voice substantially softer.

"Sam thinks he's doing better than expected but that's not saying a lot. He's going to be down a few weeks."

Well," Val grunted as he came to his feet, "tell him I'll be out ta see him. Might want to think about that time line. As Johnny gets better, things will heat up. If they can't get to him again, they might get a little more desperate. Seems like takin him down was the start of all this so there's gotta be a connection there somewhere."

"They won't get anywhere near him," Murdoch said with determination.

"Val, do you think this might have to do with Madrid, then? I mean, why target Johnny?" Scott asked.

Sighing heavily, Val shrugged. "Could be someone who knows him and wanted him outta the picture. Could be they think he's your ace and it'd be easier with him gone. Johnny was a master at this kind of attack so it might be someone who knew him or how he operated. They coulda reckoned he'd figure it out."

"They must not know you and Johnny rode together, then," Murdoch surmised. "Otherwise ..." he stopped and looked at Val squarely. "You might be a target, too, Val."

The sheriff merely shrugged at that. "Yeah, could be."

"Well, don't look so concerned, Val!" Scott shot.

"What'ya want me to do? Go upstairs and hide under Johnny's bed? I always watch my back, Scott."

The younger man's face was tight with concern. "Just don't get yourself killed. Johnny would never forgive any of us."

*****

Murdoch sent his men out in all four directions the next morning, their instructions explicit. Drill the importance of this into each ranchers head and get an answer from them before leaving. He thought by nightfall, they'd know who they could count on. He took nothing for granted anymore. When Pardee attacked the valley, Murdoch was shocked by the number of men who pulled out. Moreso, by who those men were. Men he would have thought would fight to their dying breath for their land. But, it hadn't been so.

His biggest concern there was Aggie. Buck Addison wasn't the easiest man to get along with on a good day. He was a stubborn and prideful mule. Murdoch could just see him balking at the idea of banding together and more for who was asking than the reason. Well, if he refused, Murdoch would ride over there and talk to Aggie. At least, try to convince her to stay at Lancer until it was over if her husband wasn't going to protect her. He figured that would get Buck's attention quicker than anything. A slight smile crooked his lips briefly.

Scott had headed for Green River first thing to talk to Val again. Why, Murdoch couldn't say but he was sure it was so he could avoid his brother - and his father. He couldn't help it, he just wasn't able to let go of what Scott had done and he had to wonder where this Winston was now. He'd told his son to be careful. Someone had already taken shots at him but Scott was not dissuaded. Murdoch wondered if he thought he had something to prove now.

He headed up the stairs to check on Johnny, hoping the young man was resting himself like he should. The guards had assured him Johnny hadn't stirred all night, even when they changed up. That concerned him, though. It didn't take much to wake Johnny unless he was dog-tired or, half-dead. He sighed heavily as he ascended the staircase.

He was half-way up when the knock on the front door came. Disgruntled by the interruption, Murdoch walked back down and jerked the door open.

Isidro stood there, agitated and red-face. "Someone has stampeded the herd, Patron."

Teeth grinding, he asked, "where?"

"The north pasture. The fences are cut and the cattle scattered."

Murdoch's shoulders slumped. "Gather a crew and go round them up and, Isidro, tell the men to be on alert. If there's any trouble, forget the cattle and get back here."

"Si, Senor," he agreed but made no move to leave. Hitching in a breath, the vaquero looked back up. "Who is the devil dog doing this, Patron?"

"We don't know, yet, Isidro. We're still trying to figure that out. Tell the men to be careful." He closed the door and leaned against it for a moment. So it begins again, he thought then headed upstairs.

*****

Johnny was still asleep, deeply asleep and Murdoch worried. He hadn't made a peep since Sam saw him last evening. He knew Sam had given him laudanum but, that wouldn't keep him out this long. He touched Johnny's forehead lightly and his shoulders relaxed a little when there was no fever. At least something is going right. He was shocked by it, actually. That kind of wound was ripe for infection so, Sam must have done one hell of a job.

He pondered waking the boy but, he found he couldn't do it. Murdoch stood and walked over to the window, wondering what the next move would be. As he leaned back, more against the wall, he got his answer. A shot rang out and he dove for the floor as glass shattered above his head.

Keeping low, Murdoch scuttled quickly to Johnny's side as the door burst open and Frank came in, crouched, rifle at the ready. He made to the window and peeked out carefully.

Murdoch covered his son's body with his own and felt Johnny moving beneath him. "It's alright, son. No one is hurt. We've got it just, don't move." Immediately, and to Murdoch's great surprise, Johnny stilled.

"Can't see anyone but the boys are heading out," Frank reported. He turned a little to see Murdoch pull himself off Johnny. "You want me to stay here?"

"No, go on and let me know. I'll protect Johnny."

Frank nodded once and moved out the door as Murdoch pulled his sidearm and held it in a firm grip.

"Who?"

He looked down at his son and shook his head. "I didn't see them, son. The men are going after him, or them."

"This is gettin ridiculous," Johnny sighed then frowned. "Where's Scott?"

"In town with Val, I hope."

"What'ya mean, you hope?" Johnny said, his voice stronger now.

"Easy, son. That's where he went this morning. He's been gone quite a while. I'm sure he's fine."

Johnny didn't hear any conviction in that tone. "Murdoch, I want my gun and I want someone to go find Scott soon as it's clear."

"I'll get your gun as soon as it's safe and yes, of course, I'll send for Scott. Just try to relax as much as you can, Johnny."

"It's me, Mr. Lancer," Frank called out before he ever got to the door. He opened it and stepped inside. "Couldn't find them. Found rifle casings but they're long gone. Looked like just one man."

Murdoch grunted his aggravation then got up and went to the dresser, pulling Johnny's Colt and placing it in his son's right hand. "Frank, send someone to town to get Scott. Send two men."

"Yes, Sir," Frank replied and left quickly.

"Now, tell me what more you know," Johnny said.

Murdoch looked at his face closely, saw the fine sheen of sweat and pulled the covers back. Peeking under the bandage, he was relieved to find the wound clean. He'd never forgive himself if he'd caused Johnny more harm than good. He then poured a glass of water and helped his son drink before getting him as comfortable as possible.

"Laudanum?"

"Not yet. Tell me first."

Murdoch nodded then settled back in the chair. He told Johnny their theory and what they were doing about it. He saw the recognition register on his son's face as he saw the ploy.

"That," he pointed at Johnny, "is why Val thinks they shot you. They knew you'd see right through their plan."

"So would Val," he muttered then, his eyes came up.

Murdoch put a hand on his arm quickly. "He knows, son. Val's well aware."

"Don't let him go off on his own. Sometimes, when Val's mad, he don't necessarily stop to think."

Running a thumb down his nose, Murdoch looked sidelong at Johnny. "Is that when you'd step up and rein him in?"

The surprise was evident on the young man's face then, appreciation replaced it. He smiled softly. "Yeah, worked both ways." After a beat, he sighed. "So, someone is copyin me. Couldn't come up with their own brilliant plan." He grinned at that for a second. "Won't work if you can get the other ranchers to understand what's happening."

"I'm afraid it only takes one or two not believing to make things worse."

"Maybe they shouldn't buy into it."

Murdoch sat back, stunned speechless.

"Don't have a cow. What I mean is, if we can make them think we're all fallin for it, that'd flush them out. What's the point of ruining their plans if we don't catch them? They'll just try again. They're already tryin to kill off the Lancers as it is. We'll never know if or when this will happen again, Murdoch."

Nodding, he looked at his son suspiciously. "What did you have in mind?"

"Well, have your meeting. Get everyone to agree if you can. Those who don't, toss 'em out then get everyone else to play along. Have 'em all leave here yellin and fightin and carryin on. Someone is watching so you have to make it look good. You also need to get the word out that I'm at death's door. If they think I'm recovering, it'll make it harder to do this. They'll want to come after me again."

Murdoch bit his lip. He almost told that they already had come after him again. He lowered his head, nodding it at the same time. "It's a good idea."

"If things get tight, you can always have a funeral."

His head jerked up at that. Immediately he started to negate that idea. Johnny's hand on his arm stayed him and he realized how much this was all taking out of his son.

"Just for show."

"Maybe, son. Right now, you need to rest. You're exhausted."

"Yeah," he breathed out. "But, let me know Scott's okay when he gets back." He closed his eyes and muttered, "not like he'd bother to tell me himself."

Murdoch said nothing, letting his son drift off to much needed sleep. But, the words had stung and he knew Scott had been avoiding Johnny's room. Guilt, he supposed but Scott was just going to have to suck it up. He wanted nothing to interfere with Johnny's recovery. Nothing.

*****

Val dismounted before his horse even stopped completely. He was almost to the door when it opened.

"He's alright," Murdoch assured the man.

The sheriff stopped and sucked in a breath then nodded as he glanced back at Scott, the younger man's face relaxing, too.

"Are you alright, Sir?"

"I'm fine, Scott. Go see your brother. He's very worried about you."

Scott hedged a little. "I don't want to wake him."

"Do it anyway," Murdoch groused and glared at him.

Face turning to stone, Scott stormed in the house and up the stairs.

"They fightin?" Val asked.

"Not yet. I guess Scott doesn't want to tell him what he did."

Val studied the man, he looked tired. He shook his head as he walked into the house behind Murdoch. "Don't think he should tell him."

"Neither do I. Sit down, Val. As soon as Scott comes back, we'll talk. Johnny has an idea and I think it's a good one."

*****

Scott opened the door to find a rifle pointed at him, then it moved away. He nodded at Frank. "You're putting in a long shift."

"Short-handed. The men are roundin up the herd from the stampede."

Scott's eyes widened then he clenched his jaw.

"He's been asleep since your father left him a couple of hours ago," Frank informed him.

Scott nodded and sighed softly then walked over to the bed. Johnny seemed relaxed and he didn't want to wake the man. His father's voice resounded in his head and he grimaced then laid a hand on Johnny's arm. He almost smiled when Johnny stirred, grateful his brother was reacting a bit more normally. It took several minutes and a few gentle shakes of that arm but, eventually, Johnny's eyes opened.

"Hey, brother. I hear you wanted to see me."

"Just wanted to make sure you're okay," he mumbled sleepily. "Val?"

"He's downstairs and fine."

Johnny nodded. "Things are heatin up. Best not to go off alone right now."

Scott patted his arm. "I'll take that under advisement."

Johnny's eyes flared. "Ain't no time for jokes, Scott. Murdoch almost got his head shot off today."

His face fell and he nodded solemnly. "Sorry, brother. Just trying to ease things up. We all know how dangerous the situation is, Johnny. No one is taking this lightly."

Johnny nodded again, his eyes growing heavy. "Tell Val to stick around tonight and have him come up a little later, okay?"

"Sure. Get some rest, brother. You've had a busy day."

His eyes slid closed and he sighed out softly. Scott hung his head and took a few breaths before leaving the room and, hopefully, the thick air, behind him.  

*****

Once Murdoch told of all the excitement and of Johnny's idea, the room grew quiet for a few minutes. Each man contemplated the merits. Val finally nodded his head and spoke.

"It's a good idea and it might just work. Thing is, I think Johnny was right about that funeral thing, too. I think we should go ahead with that. It'll have them celebratin and give us a minute to breathe. If we don't do it soon, it won't seem too convincing that he lingered so long."

Murdoch shuddered at the very thought of even pretending to bury his son.

"Sam will have to be involved," Scott said quietly.

"He'll play along," Val stated. "Of course, that means, no more guards on Johnny. They have to have seen that happenin. Men comin and goin from the house ain't a usual occurrence."

"I don't like the idea of that," Murdoch said immediately.

"I know but if we convince 'em he's dead, they got no reason to come after him." Val leaned forward in his chair. "You're both gonna have to be real convincin, too. Think you can pull that off?"

"All I have to do is imagine that I never went out to talk to Johnny that day, Val. If I hadn't, he would be dead." Murdoch's voice fell a little weak at the end and he cleared it loudly.

Val nodded, swallowed dryly then looked over at Scott. "What about you?"

Scott looked up at him and nodded. "Yes, I can do it. Can you?"

Grimacing, Val nodded, knowing he could come up with a scenario or two when he'd been close to doing this by himself. Burying his best friend.

"We need to send the women away somewhere. Stockton, maybe, to the Barkley's," Murdoch said.

"I'll make those arrangements first thing in the morning."

"Take them with you under guard, son, and have the other women on the ranch sent away, too."

"While you're doing that, we'll send someone after Sam real urgent like," Val commented. When they both looked at him, he shrugged. "It's now or never. And there's one other thing. Your hands need to believe it, too."

Murdoch scowled at him. "Our men are loyal, Val!"

"I ain't saying they're not but, if just one of 'em says the wrong thing at the wrong time, it's all over. If they even talk about Johnny like he's still around, that'll be the end of the game. That's just too many people knowin. Teresa don't need to know anything about it, either. She'll be gone anyhow."

Murdoch blew out a breath. "This is getting complicated."

"That's how it's gotta be if you want to work it this way. If ya don't, say so now and we'll try to figure something else out."

"I've been thinking of nothing else, Val, and I don't have a better idea."

Scott leaned back in his chair. "I think it will work. Someone needs to tell Johnny. He wanted to see you tonight, Val."

The sheriff nodded and stood. "Well, reckon he's had his beauty sleep. I'll head up before those ranchers get here."

"I'll tell Teresa and Maria they're leaving in the morning," Murdoch said as he, too, stood.

Scott glanced at his father then stared at the floor as the two men left him.

*****

Val settled in the bedside chair after convincing Paulo to wait in the hall. He watched Johnny and thought his color was a little better. Hesitantly, he reached out and felt the man's forehead, smiling a little as Johnny twitched from the touch. Yep, must be doin some better. After a few more minutes, Val sighed and took his arm, shaking a little and calling his name. Johnny's eyes opened slowly then widened as he focused on his friend.

"Hey."

"Hey yourself. Been talkin to your old man."

"And?"

Val sat back and crossed one leg over the other knee then folded his arms across his chest. "And, what'ya want on your tombstone?"

Grinning, Johnny let out a soft laugh. "Let me think about that one."

"Think fast. You're dyin tomorrow."

Astonished, Johnny stared. "Already?"

"I figure it's gotta be soon. They won't buy it if ya linger on and on."

"Yeah," he nodded. "So, how's this gonna play out?"

Val described the plan and Johnny was satisfied everything had been covered. He was a little taken aback at how much better he felt but he wasn't ready to do a jig, for sure. Still, he wasn't falling asleep while people were talking to him anymore. That was good enough for now. When Val finished, he was quiet for a bit.

"So, Murdoch and Scott think they can pull it off? Convince everyone I'm dead?"

"You old man said all he had to do was think of what woulda happened if he hadn't gone out to see you that day. Pretty sure I saw goosebumps on his arm when he said it."

"This is really takin a lot out of him, Val. I'm worried."

"He's tough, Johnny. Real tough. Yeah, he looks tired to me, too. But, he'd been sittin with you until they realized what was goin on and, I don't reckon he's had much rest since."

"If this is someone I knew or, knew me, well ... you need to be careful, too."

"You know me. I'm always careful."

Johnny scowled at him. "Unless you got a burr under your saddle. Just don't get mad until it's over, Val. I can't be with you and I hate that."

"Not as much as I hate it. Your family can handle themselves but, it ain't the same as knowin what a man is gonna do before he does it." Val lowered his eyes. He reckoned that was as close to tellin Johnny how much he cared that he'd ever get. When he looked back, Johnny was smiling. Soon enough, that stopped.

"What about Scott? Is he ready?"

"He's fine."

Johnny snorted at that. "Sure he is. That why he can't stand to be in the room with me? He blames me, doesn't he?"

Val sat forward with that, astonishment on his face. "Blames you? Hell no, he don't blame you! You got that all wrong, Johnny."

"Then, what is it, Val? I know something is eatin at him."

Squirming a little, Val leaned back. "Don't rightly know," he lied. "Whatever is eatin at him, he'll tuck it away when he has to." He decided he needed to look at something else so, his eyes went to the window. Suddenly, he frowned. "You always leave your window open?"

"Most of the time. Why?"

"We'll have ta move you to another room. Maybe, on the other side of the house. We'll have to close this one off. No light, no open windows. You know, out of respect." A grin crossed his face.

"Yeah, thanks," he sneered. "Ain't like I could close it now, anyway." He turned to look at the window that no longer had glass. A stark reminder of the near miss his father had just that morning.

*****

The Lancer great room was filled with noise and smoke as the ranchers of the San Joaquin Valley mingled and talked over one another, each vying to be heard over the others. Murdoch listened to it all for twenty minutes before deciding to start the meeting. He'd rather be upstairs with his son than deal with any of this but, he knew it had to be done. Glancing around, he found a heavy bookend on the hutch and used it as a gavel, banging it loudly against the dining room table top to bring some order.

Eventually, the men quieted and gave him their attention, some sitting, some standing, all with a drink in hand waiting.

"Gentlemen, I've asked you here because there is a serious threat to this valley from some unknown source. As most of you may know, my son, Johnny, was ambushed the other day while out on the range. My other son, Scott, was shot at on his way home from town and there have been some accusations thrown around. Sheriff Crawford has been informed and has been helping us try to figure this out.

"We believe someone has quite an intricate plan to pit the local ranchers against each other. While we're all infighting, we think they will take advantage and sweep down on this valley like a plague. So, we've come up with a plan we hope will work but, the only chance we have is if every man in this room agrees." Murdoch stopped and waited for them all to take in the information.

"How is Johnny, Murdoch?" Micah Townsend asked.

Scott, standing near his father, looked away from the men. Murdoch's eyes flickered downward briefly then, he took in a long slow breath. "Not very well, I'm afraid, Micah." He cleared his throat and straightened his shoulders before continuing. "Does anyone have any questions so far?"

"What did you have in mind, Murdoch?" Buck Addison asked.

"We think we should give them what they want. By that, I mean, we should let it appear as if we're all fighting amongst ourselves when, in reality, we're pulling together."

Murmuring began, growing louder as the men discussed this idea amongst themselves. A loud voice rang out over the rest of them.

"How exactly would you see this working? I'd like to know the details," Addison shouted.

Everyone settled down and turned their attention back to Murdoch as he answered. "Everyone of us needs to have at least two men who we trust beyond question. These would be our runners. If one ranch is attacked, those men would ride to the nearest ranches for backup. Until we know who we are dealing with, all we can do is be prepared to fight together for this valley."

"Do you have any ideas on how to find out who is behind it?" Micah asked.

Murdoch glanced at his son before answering. "We have had a couple of near misses getting information but, right now, no, we don't. Tim there had a man working for him who has disappeared. He spread lies that Lancer hands were cutting Santee fencelines. But, the sheriff didn't get the information soon enough to find him. If any of you have hired any new hands in the past month, you should keep a very close eye on them."

Buck Addison stepped closer to Murdoch and Scott. "They're going to know we've banded together. How will that be to our benefit?"

"Because, when you leave here tonight, you're all going to be bickering, shouting and fighting with each other. We need to put on a good show to make them believe Lancer tried and failed to unite the ranchers."

Addison nodded then stared at the floor for a moment. "I'm in. It's a good plan until something breaks and we can find out who is doing this."

"One more thing. I'm sending Teresa and the rest of the women on the ranch away. Now, Lancer has been their main focus so far so, I don't think that would raise any suspicion. You all need to decide if and when you do the same."

"What do you think of this plan, Sheriff?" Santee asked.

Val looked up from his position near the dining room doorway leading to the kitchen. A slight smile appeared on his face. "I think it's a great idea."

Scott smiled a little and shook his head.

Murdoch took a deep breath and nodded to them all as they started heading out the front door. The men began arguing, a few even shoving at each other as they all headed for their horses. Murdoch shouted after them that they had to stick together but, none of them seemed to be listening. It was quite a show and Val was impressed with the men. He figured whoever was watching, and he knew someone had to be, they'd be convinced Murdoch had failed to bring the cattlemen together.

*****

Early the next morning, Scott loaded the women into a surrey and, with two guards riding alongside, headed out for Morro Coyo. Murdoch watched from the window behind his desk until they disappeared from view then turned his attention to the rest of their plans. He wasn't so sure he could pull this off, after all. He had two hours to work on it, having agreed to give Scott enough time to get the women safely on their way to Stockton with their escorts before sounding the alarm. He was about to make one of his worst nightmares seem true and a shiver ran through him.

Val watched from the dining room as the man worked through his thoughts. This wasn't going to be easy for any of them but, they had to be convincing. He was sure he could do it. He just hoped the Lancers could. He cleared his throat then walked into the living room.

"Scott's underway."

"I know. I saw 'em. Just glad Maria fixed breakfast first. Did ya eat anything?" Val settled in a chair across the desk from Murdoch who was nodding his head.

"Earlier. I suppose it will be the last decent meal we have for a while. I can handle myself in the kitchen, I just don't know when I'll get a chance."

Val smiled a little, hiding it by raising his coffee cup to his lips. "Well, reckon we should go ahead and move Johnny outta his room. Get that much done."

Murdoch didn't say anything, just took to his feet and headed to the stairs. Val looked heavenward and hoped Johnny could talk to his father. If he was up to it, that was. He didn't like having to move the man but they had no choice. He knew Johnny was trying to act like he felt better than he did. That was his way. Show no weakness, not even to family. Stubborn mule!

*****

"We'll change the bandages after you're settled, son," Murdoch was saying.

"Did anyone tell Sam about this?"

Val walked in and sighed. He knew he'd forgotten something. "Not yet. Didn't have the chance but I'm sure he'll go along."

"Yeah, he will. Well, let's get this done."

Murdoch looked at his face, seeing the anger there and wondering at it. Was it all that was happening or something specific that was upsetting the boy? He never could guess what would anger Johnny and what he'd simply shrug off. He decided not to press the point right now. This move was going to be hard enough on Johnny.

"Reckon we should just each take an end," Val said as he studied his friend.

Johnny grinned at him. "Maybe one of you should take the middle. That's where it hurts, ya know."

Rubbing a hand down his cheek, Val nodded. "Yeah, right."

Murdoch looked between the two of them and shook his head. "Val, why don't you make sure Johnny maintains his dignity while I carry him down the hall? It will be a lot simpler than trying to negotiate the doorways with two of us jostling him about."

Johnny turned and looked up at his father, a slight flush coloring his cheeks. "How the hell is that gonna maintain my dignity, old man. You carryin me around like a rag doll and all."

"Johnny, no one else is here and we can't take the chance of making that wound worse. It won't take long and it's the easiest solution."

"Don't listen to him, Mr. Lancer. We'll be standin here arguin over it all day if ya do. Just grab him and let's go." Val smirked at his friend as he walked over and opened the door as wide as it would go then came to stand beside Murdoch.

The rancher couldn't agree more and he lifted Johnny into his arms easily. Val held the blankets and kept them from slipping off as they headed for the new bedroom.

Johnny kept his eyes down, his chin on his chest. His head felt heavy and hard to hold up or down. All he wanted was to lean over and rest it on his father but, Val was there so he couldn't do it. Thankfully, it only took a minute to get him to the room and lay him down. He sighed and closed his eyes as his head nestled in the pillows.

"Are you alright, son?"

Keeping his eyes closed, he replied. "Yeah, just harder than I thought, is all. Just need a minute."

*****

Johnny needed more than a minute as he'd slipped off to sleep. Murdoch decided the bandages could wait until Sam arrived. He sat downstairs with Val for an hour, neither man speaking much and waiting for the time when the show would start.

Val alternated between staring at the rug on the floor and looking at the clock. Finally, he could stand the silence no more. "Think Scott can pull this off?"

Murdoch's head came up and he shook it slowly, creasing his brow. "What?"

"Pretending Johnny's dead. I mean, I think you can but, can he?"

"He said he could."

Val heard the defensiveness and leaned forward. "I don't know Scott all that well, Mr. Lancer. I'm just askin. He don't seem the sort that can lie too easy even if it's for a good reason. Not sayin you're a liar, either, but I think you'd do whatever it takes to keep safe what's yours."

Murdoch smiled a little at the convoluted logic. "Thank you, I think. We'll all do what we have to do, Val." He looked at the clock and sighed. "It's time."

Val stood and nodded then took in a deep breath. He waited for Murdoch to go upstairs then he stood by the front door and rolled his shoulders before grabbing the knob and jerking the door open. He took off outside and ran to the first ranchhand he saw, sending him urgently for Sam then, he ran back inside and slammed the door shut. A bit breathless, Val took a minute before walking slowly up the stairs.

*****

They hadn't counted on this and Murdoch had to wonder why they'd not thought of it. There must have been a hundred or more people in and out of the house all day following the funeral this morning. Most of those people had attended the graveside service, as well. They lucked out with the tradition of bringing food for the bereaved family as they had no one to cook for them. The women of the valley had taken over that chore with a vengeance. Murdoch figured Maria and Teresa could be gone a month no problem.

Scott had the foresight to lock the bedroom door where his brother rested quietly. There were too many people to watch and they were coming out of the woodwork. He was exhausted from this charade but, he was also touched by the outpouring of support from their neighbors and friends. Guilt also enveloped him and he wondered how they'd take it when they found out the truth. He didn't suppose his father or Val had thought of that eventuality, either. He knew he hadn't. The ramifications of this little ploy were multiplying in his mind rapidly. It all leant to his fatigue which, in turn, helped make him seem pretty pitiful, he was sure. A good thing for keeping up this farce but, it was wearing him down.

He'd been a little surprised when Sam had gone along relatively easily with the plot. The doctor's conscience had obviously nagged at him but, he also understood the circumstances, having been very much a part of the happenings at Lancer. Sam was keeping a low profile now, though. Scott supposed the man's understanding only went so far. He'd relegated himself to the kitchen most of the day, likely and rightly assuming not many people would hover in that room.

For his part, Val stayed in a corner most of the time with a scowl on his face, watching all of them and trying to figure out if anyone in the house was behind all this. He figured they'd expect just this reaction from him. Mad as hell and not about to show anything else. It was Murdoch who was getting most of the sympathy as the father who'd finally lost his younger son. Val couldn't believe how many times he'd heard that in one fashion or another today. 'Just found him only to lose him again'. 'Saved him from that life only to have him plucked away so soon.' Plucked away? Was Johnny a chicken now? That one almost had him snickering but he'd managed to hold on.

The bad part was, they all seemed to mean it. They all seemed real sympathetic. Not a one of them had he caught grinning or smirking or looking like the cat that got the cream.

It was well after dark when the last mourner finally left the house. The first thing Murdoch did was head to the kitchen to fix his son a meal. Johnny had been left alone all day as none of them had been able to leave long enough to check on him. He was truly worried over his son's condition and grateful Sam had stayed on.

Now, as he entered the room and saw Sam sitting beside Johnny, he set the tray down on the dresser and asked.

"He's hungry but, otherwise, he's in good shape," Sam reported then moved to give Murdoch space.

"I'm sorry, son. There were just too many people around. We couldn't take the chance," he explained as he set the tray on Johnny's lap.

"That many, huh? Guess I should be flattered." His grin was all the forgiveness the father needed. "So, did anybody stand out?"   he asked as he spooned the soup in his mouth.

"Not one damned person," Val groused as he walked in and plopped in a chair.

Johnny grimaced at that then took another bite before asking, "Anyone missing?"

"What do you mean?" Sam asked.

"Well, I mean, was there anyone not here that you would've expected to show up?"

Everyone thought on that one for a while, running through the many people they'd seen and talked with. Johnny watched them as he inhaled the soup, pleased his appetite was returning. He could go for seconds, truth be told. He suddenly thought of someone missing now and his stomach no longer felt half-full. Anger filled the void as he screwed up his face. "Maybe Scott noticed something. One of you could go ask him; wherever the hell he is."

Murdoch clenched his jaw and left the room without a word.

Val shook his head a little then had a thought. "There is one person I'd expect to show his face at any gatherin. Mayor Higgs. I didn't see him."

"Neither did I now that you mention it," Sam added.

Johnny snorted at that. "Well, we know he ain't no shooter and he sure ain't no mastermind. He was probably worried about his store goin unprotected."

Val nodded at that, knowing it was the truth. He couldn't think of anyone else, anyone important enough to have bothered showing up who didn't.

*****

Murdoch found Scott in the great room, drink in hand and staring into the cold hearth. "Johnny was wondering where you were."

"How is he?"

"Hungry, which is good. He ate all of his soup. We were trying to think of anyone who didn't show up today. He thought you might have an idea about that."

Scott looked briefly at him and nodded. "I'll think on it. A work crew will come in and clean up this place in the morning. I told Cip not to bother with upstairs as it was fine. We'll need to be careful when they're around."

Murdoch walked over to stand beside him. "Alright. Come upstairs and let's talk this through."

"I can't think of anyone, Murdoch. There were a lot of people here. People who we're going to have to explain this little play acting to when things are settled."

The frown on the rancher's face deepened as he regarded his son. "It seems you're more concerned about that than you are your brother. Scott, no matter how guilty you may feel, Johnny expects you to visit him as he would you if you were laid up. How do you think it makes him feel when you ignore him like this?"

The younger man turned and glared at his father. "I've been a little busy, Murdoch!"

"Rubbish! You're avoiding him and it's time you stopped. Either deal with it or tell him the truth and get it out in the open, Scott!"

Eyes widening, Scott shook his head. "He isn't well enough."

"Then, take hold of yourself. Do whatever you have to do but, go see your brother."

Scott slammed the glass down on the mantelpiece and stormed past his father, taking the stairs two at a time.

He slowed his steps and took a few calming breaths before entering Johnny's room. Scott managed to remove the frown from his face as well, as he stepped across the threshold. "Murdoch says we're trying to think of anyone who didn't show."

Val turned from his position at the foot of the bed. "Yeah, so far just the mayor have come ta mind."

Scott settled in a chair. "Well, I am a little surprised Higgs didn't exploit the opportunity. Isn't it almost time for him to run for office again?"

"In a few months," Val muttered then looked at Johnny. He sighed as he stood. "Doc, how about helpin me do some damage to all that food in the kitchen. Reckon we'll think better on a full stomach."

Sam looked curiously at the sheriff then realized what he was doing. "I wouldn't say no to another slice of Emily Warden's apple pie." He stopped at the doorway and turned back. "I'll check in before I go to bed, Johnny."

"Thanks, Doc," Johnny replied but his eyes were on his brother who was staring at his leg. Once alone, he didn't hesitate. "Whatever the problem is, Scott, spit it out."

Slowly, the older man looked at him. "I don't know what you mean."

"I mean somethin is eatin at you. Somethin that makes you stay away from me. You can't hardly look me in the eye and I want to know why. Val said you didn't blame me for any of this."

"Blame you? Of course I don't blame you, Johnny. Someone is after the ranch, not just you."

He let out a breath and rested his head back on the pillows. "Then, what is it?"

"Brother, I'm just trying to work things out in my mind, that's all. I didn't want you having to worry over this but I know we couldn't keep you in the dark. I just hate that you're the one they targeted."

"So far, Scott. So far. You and Murdoch got shot at, too, and don't think that's over. Whoever is doin this wants Lancer at any cost. Besides, someone is using my own game against me and that really pisses me off."

Scott smiled a little at that then stood and walked over to the window. "Well, the view is pretty nice. You can see the garden. I think the hardest part of all of this is going to be pretending you're not here anymore."

"Don't know why that should bother you. Ya been doin that since I got shot."

He turned from the window and glared at his brother. "That's not true, Johnny. A lot has been happening, you know. I can't sit up here with you all day and night."

"Don't expect you to but every time you've been with me, it's like you can't wait to get out. Look, whatever is goin on in your head, you don't have to tell me but, that don't mean you have to stay away, either."

Scott lowered his eyes and leaned against the wall. "I know and I'm sorry I haven't been more attentive." His eyes came up and locked onto his brother's. "Are you really feeling that much better or just acting like you are?"

A soft laugh emitted from Johnny. "Well, I do feel better than I would've expected but, truth is, I feel pretty lousy most of the time. Weak as a damned kitten."

"And in pain."

"Yeah," he breathed out, "yeah, that, too. Mostly, I just feel pretty useless."

"You aren't. The most important part of a battle is strategizing, Johnny. That's where you're most needed in this instance. I know you're usually out there in the thick of the fight because, well, because it's what you do. But, it's not

*****
all
*****
you did when you were a gunfighter and I'm just starting to realize how much goes into that. I think you would have made one hell of a strategist from what Val's been saying."

Johnny lowered his eyes, a grin appearing on his face. "Yeah? Well, thanks. It does take some thinkin. Val's good at that, too. Keep that in mind, okay?"

"I will, brother. For now, I don't know what else we can do or how your death is going to affect their plans now."

"I have a feeling we'll know in a couple of days. They'll take tomorrow, maybe even a few days to rework things then hit again and hit hard. We need to be ready for a full on attack, Scott. At least, that's what I'd do."

Frowning, Scott asked, "wouldn't they go ahead with that now, though? I mean, hit us when we're still grieving?"

"That depends on who we're dealin with and we don't know that. I said that's what I'd do. They might strike at dawn for all we know. But, if they know anything about Murdoch, they won't. They'll know he'll be ready no matter what shape he's in so, they'll need to get themselves ready. Especially, if this changes their plans and, it should. The hardest part of all of this is that we don't know the enemy."

"And, if we don't know, then we have to be prepared for any eventuality," Scott concluded.

"Exactly." Johnny smiled again. "You're good at this, too, ya know. If you can get your head out of your ass about whatever is on your mind, that would be a big help."

Scott smirked at him. "Consider it out, brother. I should talk to Cipriano tonight. Make sure the men understand."

"Good idea. Let them act like they're doin the job but, not really doin it, ya know? They need to be out there on the range and some real close to the house."

"I'll take care of it. You need to get some rest."

Johnny nodded and scooted down in the bed, grimacing as he went. "Keep your eye on the prize, brother. G'night."

*****

Murdoch sat in the bedside chair and watched his son sleep. It was heartening to see a more relaxed expression on that face. An occasional frown showed when he'd shift a little in the bed but, mostly, he seemed to be getting some real rest. He knew they'd all need that and he should be in bed himself. But, since the men thought Johnny was dead, they couldn't exactly post a guard and, whether it made sense or not, Murdoch felt a need to protect his son.

It was ridiculous unless someone didn't buy that Johnny was dead. He hated even thinking such a statement but, Murdoch was a pragmatist at heart. If, for some reason, these people or person found out Johnny was alive, he was sure his son would still be in danger. Even though he seemed to be doing much better than anyone would expect, he wasn't and Murdoch knew it.

The fact that he knew it eased his mind a great deal, oddly enough. He knew Johnny much better now and had been able to relax about this son settling down. Still, as much as that helped, Scott's behavior had him reeling a bit. He would never have thought Scott would pay off a hired assassin. So, did that mean he really didn't know either of them? He prayed not. He prayed it was the extreme circumstance that caused Scott to react as he had. Otherwise, Murdoch didn't know what the hell to think about anything anymore.

In his anger, he hadn't been able to talk rationally with Scott about all this. He still wasn't ready to do that but, at some point, they'd have to. When this was all over and, hopefully, they were the victors, he knew he'd have to sit Scott down for a serious talk. Funny, he never would have guessed something like that would be necessary with his usually level-headed son. Whatever had propelled Scott into taking the actions he had, well, Murdoch had to believe there was much more to it than he'd been made aware of so far.

He sighed and rubbed a hand down his face then stretched his neck muscles. When he looked back, Johnny was watching him with a frown on his face. He leaned forward and put a hand on his son's arm.

"What are you doin?"

"Just sitting with you a while, son."

Johnny rubbed a hand over his eyes and shifted a little. "You should be in bed, Murdoch. The next few days are gonna be busy."

"Scott told me about your talk. I, um, I'm glad you two could work things out." He hoped it didn't sound too much like a question.

"Well, don't know that we worked anything out but, we managed to stay clear on what's most important right now. Whatever is botherin him, it's gonna have to wait."

Murdoch relaxed his shoulders and smiled a little. "You're right. And, you're right, I should be in bed. But, just in case, well, your gun is right here." He patted the pillow.

A small smile crossed Johnny's face. "I know. Didn't figure my head was that lumpy."

Murdoch chuckled. "Do you need anything before I go?"

"No, I'm fine. Go to bed."

*****

It started just before dawn. The fire bell cut through the false serenity of the household creating an eruption of activity from every corner of the hacienda. Murdoch shoved his clothes on then ran to Johnny's room just in time to keep his son from doing something foolish. He pushed Johnny back down on the bed as the young man struggled to get up.

"Stop that! You can't help and, anyway, you're not supposed to be here."

"Where's the fire?"

Murdoch went to the window and stuck his head out, craning to the left and right before returning to the bed. "Looks like the east pasture. At least there are no cattle there now."

Johnny groaned his frustration then grabbed his father's arm. "This could be a smokescreen to get most everybody away from the house then attack."

"That's what I figured, too," Val said from the doorway. His hair was going in ten different directions and his shirt was buttoned wrong, what few buttons were fastened. "Tell Scott to send maybe half a dozen men and have the rest act like they're headed out then tell 'em to hide out close by."

Murdoch liked the idea then, looked back at his son and received a nod of agreement. "I'll be back."

"Shouldn't you go, too?" Val asked.

Murdoch hesitated as he reached the man. "I'm too grief-stricken to care, remember?" With that, he hurried out the door.

Val sighed and walked over to the bed, plopping into the chair. "Well, this is it, I reckon."

"Yeah. I wasn't sure if they'd wait or not. I wish they had. At least another day or two." Johnny eased himself into a sitting position but it cost him. "I need to be in a good spot, Val. Downstairs by the French doors, I'd say."

Val was shaking his head even as Johnny spoke. "No way, amigo."

"I ain't gonna lay up here while my family is fighting for their lives, Val. Now, either help me or I'll get down there myself. You know I will so stop gripin!"

"Alright! Ya wanna go in your longjohns or should we get ya dressed first," the sheriff sneered even as he moved to the dresser.

Johnny sighed and closed his eyes, praying he had the strength to do this.

*****

Scott was in the process of organizing a fire brigade when Murdoch found him at the bunkhouse. He quickly relayed Val and Johnny's thoughts.

"Yes, I figured that, too. I'm sending ten men straight out. The rest will ride that way then double back once they're out of sight of the house. Five men will stay in the bunkhouse, rifles at the ready and the guards are still in position. I sent our runners to the Santee and Conway ranches." Scott sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "I wish that crew wasn't still out on the range."

"Send one man to get them. He can ride out with the rest then circle around to the south range."

"Good idea. I thought I'd ride out with them then lead the rest back."

Murdoch nodded, trying not to smile in case someone was watching. Of course, in the predawn light, they'd have to be very close but, he took no chances. He wasn't supposed to be smiling about a damned thing right now. He did reach out and squeeze his son's arm. "Be careful. I'll stay in the house. No one would question my not going under the circumstances."

Scott sighed, relief washing over him. Ridiculous considering all that was happening, he knew but, this was the first time since Johnny was shot his father had indicated any concern for him. It was juvenile of him, he supposed but, he'd been under a tremendous amount of pressure. That one touch and that one simple sentence - 'be careful' - made him feel a ton lighter.

He mounted Remmie then looked back down at his father. "Watch out for our friend. He might do something foolish." Not waiting for a response, he pressed his heels to his steed and led the men to the east.

Murdoch watched them go, a deep frown etched in his forehead. Johnny wasn't able to do anything foolish. Not without some help. His face fell then he cussed and headed back to the house, knowing with everything he was who that help would be.

*****

"Will you let me just carry ya? You're gonna wear yourself out before we even get down the stairs," Val griped as he held onto Johnny.

The younger man stopped, sweat already glistening on his face and chest, his breathing ragged. He took a slow breath in then let it out. "Yeah, okay, you're right. But, if anyone asks..."

"You made it under your own steam, I know!" Val growled as he bent and picked Johnny up with a grunt. "Damn, you're heavy! Stubborn jackass."

"Just get me down there before someone sees us! Might think we just got hitched." A grin crept on his face and Val just growled again.

Once downstairs and by the French doors, Val eased Johnny to his feet then leaned him against the wall. "Hang on," he said then grabbed the nearest chair, dragging it over and sitting Johnny down.

"Get me a rifle and some ammunition."

Already headed to the gunrack, Val threw a retort over his shoulder. "Bossy, ain't ya?"

Johnny leaned his head back and closed his eyes for a moment, unsure if he was going to stay conscious much longer. His eyes flew open, his Colt aimed as the front door slammed shut.

Murdoch took one step into the great room then froze for a second. "Dammit to hell, Johnny!"

"Hush! Someone might hear you, like the devil himself," Johnny shot.

Ignoring the quip, Murdoch advanced on Val Crawford as he pulled three rifles off the rack.

Val turned just as Murdoch reached him. "Here," he said as he handed off a rifle and box of bullets. "Ain't no need to start yellin at me now, Mr. Lancer. He would've done it by himself if I hadn't helped him. Now, you coulda babysat him all day or you can fight. Which?"

A low growl of frustration emitted from the rancher as he took the rifle and ammo. "We'll discuss this later if any of us are still alive." Turning around, he went to the French doors and pulled the curtains closed part way. "Anyone coming onto the porch can see you," he explained.

Johnny grinned. "Be too late by then. Scott got things under control out there?"

"He'd already come up with the same plan by the time I found him. He'll lead most of the men back in a few minutes and we sent men to get the crew from the south range and to the nearby ranches for help."

"That'll take a while."

"I'm hoping we won't need them but you can't be too careful." Murdoch looked meaningfully at his son with that.

"While you two are snipin at each other, I'm headin to the kitchen door. Might wanna lock all these entrances up." As he handed off the firearms to Johnny then headed toward the dining room, Val muttered, "More ways into this place than a whore's bed."

*****

Dawn arrived silently, the ranch appearing to still slumber. Pink and purple hues stretched across the yard, tendrils reaching toward the east bedroom windows. Johnny watched the awakening with some longing. She always woke him first with her soft glow; the sun. But, he no longer had that luxury. Well, after today, if he lived, he'd be back in his own room again. Living through this was beginning to feel like a pipe dream. His belly throbbed with each beat of his heart and he'd wiped away enough sweat to fill a pond by now, he was sure. Yet, he sat as still as death itself as he waited for the assault, wondering why it hadn't happened yet.

Were they being tested to see what their reaction would be? Or were the attackers simply unwilling to approach without the benefit of light. In his experience, it was best to go just before dawn. Mostly because people were asleep but, also because of the shadows afforded. It was easier to hide in those shadows but, that only worked if you knew the place you were attacking well. Obviously, that wasn't the case here. He knew now for certain they'd been led down false trails. Made to believe a neighbor was the aggressor. This was no neighbor. This enemy was unknown which made them even more dangerous.

It started simply enough. A single gunshot resounded through the valley followed within seconds by a cacophony. Johnny leaned forward enough to pull the curtain aside as Murdoch made for the doors, throwing them open and running out to the veranda. Johnny caught himself before trying to follow, knowing he'd do no one good by pulling that stunt. He was already dizzy and rubbed viciously at his eyes to wipe the blur away.

The gunfire came from every direction, he realized. He scanned the room, noting the doors and knew Val was right. They might as well hang a saloon sign out front, as easy as access was. He made the decision to watch all entries as well as his father's position to ensure Murdoch was safe.

Soon enough, the sounds of rifle fire increased and he knew Scott was back with the men. No more than two minutes, less, had passed. He smiled a little as he pictured his brother out there, riding into combat like the cavalry man he was. He didn't allow the luxury for more than a fleeting moment as the side door crashed open. Johnny merely pulled the trigger of the rifle he had aimed in that direction then fired again with the Colt at the second intruder. That put an end to that - for the time being.

Johnny looked out the door and saw his father pinned down. Murdoch was hunkered behind the low wall as bullets pummeled his position. Just stay where you are, old man. Just stay where you are, he thought. But, his father didn't hear his silent pleas and tried to raise up and fire.

"Stay down!" Johnny shouted but he wasn't heard over the noise of the firefight. Dammit, where is Scott? Suddenly, the window nearest his right exploded and he jerked out of instinct. Fire spread through his belly as the pain ignited full force. Johnny dropped to the floor and scooted against the wall, grunting with every breath, it seemed.

Wiping at the sweat from his eyes, he opened them wide to stay focused as a man flew through the opening made in the window. He rolled and came up on one knee. Johnny fired his pistol and, just before the man fell, he saw recognition and surprise in his eyes. Swinging his gun around, he released the pressure just in time as Val came rushing in.

The sheriff slammed against the wall next to Johnny then slid down. "You okay?" At the nod which he didn't believe, he explained his presence. "Got two of ours at the back door now. Looks like you've had visitors."

"Yeah, uninvited. You know how I feel about folks just droppin in like that."

Val smiled a little but the weakness of Johnny's voice, the slight tremor he heard, concerned him more than the bullets flying around.

"Check Murdoch. He's pinned down but that don't seem to matter to him."

Val nodded and rolled to his right to peer out the door. "Looks like he's got the upper hand right now. If you're really alright and not just lyin to me again, I'll go give him a hand."

Johnny glared at him. "Did you see Scott?"

"Oh yeah. He's out there making mush outta them bastards." Val looked down at him again. "Told you not to move now I'm really tellin ya not to move anymore."

"Go, Val. This ain't no time to mother me!"

*****

Scott felt familiarity rush over him as he crouched behind the big oak tree where he'd stood and killed Day Pardee what seemed a hundred years ago. Once again, he fought for this ranch, for this family. This time, it meant a great deal more to him, though. And, this time, the opponent seemed more vigilant. He'd stopped trying to count them but there had to be forty men coming at them from all directions. Thankfully, their ploy had worked and they matched that number, so far.

Three of their men had gone down but he didn't think any had died, yet. He prayed they didn't but it was a short prayer as he didn't have time to dally. He could see the house, see Murdoch on the veranda. His father had been pinned down at one point and Scott had focused his attention on helping ease that situation. Now, Murdoch seemed to have his position back so Scott focused on everything else.

He wasn't so far away he couldn't hear gunfire from inside the open French doors, either. He assumed it was Val since he hadn't seen the man but, now Val was next to Murdoch. He had to believe they'd found a way to protect Johnny for he didn't have much time to dwell on that at the moment.

From the moment they'd heard the first shot and headed back to the house, there'd been precious little time to think about anything other than staying alive. As he fired at another two men gaining yards on the house, Scott wondered if their numbers would ever dwindle. It seemed as if just when he fell one, another came to take his place. An unending supply, so it seemed.

Of course, he knew logically that wasn't the case but battle always felt that way to him. As if it would never end. But it always did eventually. How many times in this short amount of time had his heart seemed to stop? He'd seen men slipping around the side of the house, seen the one crash through the window and had been unable to stop them. Val had though. He surmised the sheriff had turned the position inside the house over to some of their hands so he could help Murdoch.

Val was a good man to have on their side, he thought, just as a bullet drilled into the tree trunk an inch from his head. Scowling, Scott fired at the menace trying to remove his face.

*****

"Goddammit!" Johnny hissed as the burning in his stomach increased, adding cramps to his problems. He had enough of those, thank you very much, without this damned wound adding to the mix. He scooted to one side a little hoping for some relief but, nothing seemed to help. He wished he had a drink of water then laughed softly at the idea. Whiskey would be better. Hell, at this point, he wouldn't say no to some laudanum.

Resting his head against the wall, eyes darting from one side of the room to another, he slowed his breathing and wiped his sweaty palms on his legs quickly before grabbing up his armaments again. With his luck, he figured that would be the second another one broke through a door, while his hands were not on his protection.

The damndest things went through his mind at times like this. Like wanting water or sweaty palms being his undoing. He smiled a little. Always found this type of situation a little funny, too. Yeah, he figured he always lost his mind a little during a fight. Had to or he wouldn't pull half the crazy stunts he'd pulled in his time. And they were crazy, he knew that. He just never could seem to explain to anyone why he did them. Always, they seemed the best course of action at that time.

He squeezed the trigger of the rifle then followed immediately with his Colt as two more men came through that damned side door.

Later, after the fight and when people would ask him what the hell he'd been thinking, all he could ever do was shrug and smile and say 'it worked, didn't it?'. They'd just look at him and shake their heads, call him loco or, mutter it so he wouldn't hear. But, he did hear at least, some of the time. He could guess it was the same those times they said nothing. He chuckled at that. It was alright. It gave him an edge if people thought he was crazy enough to do anything.

Maybe, that's why they'd tried to take him out first this time. Because they knew he'd do whatever it took. He coughed a little and promised himself he wouldn't do that again as the pain increased and he squeezed off another round at the jackass who'd just climbed through that same window. Hadn't they seen what happened to the last idiot that tried that? He guessed not.

*****

"How's Johnny?" Murdoch asked as he ducked behind the wall again, adobe dusting his head.

Val fired then crouched down. "How do ya think? He's sittin on the floor shootin at anything that moves. Almost shot me."

Murdoch snorted then raised up and took two more shots. "How many do you think?"

"Thirty or forty. Hell, don't matter. Just keep shootin til they stop shootin back." Val turned and sat properly on his butt as he reloaded.

Murdoch watched him for a second, noting how calm he seemed. "This doesn't seem to ruffle your feathers, Sheriff."

Val cackled a little at that. "Hell, Mr. Lancer, this is nothin I ain't used to. Tell ya the truth," he stopped and glanced at the man, "I kinda miss it sometimes." He turned and raised up, taking a couple of shots before sliding back down. "Then again, I usually don't. Miss it, that is."

"I got your meaning," Murdoch said then fired off three rounds. He settled back and reloaded, eyeing Val a few times. "I suppose Johnny misses it, too - sometimes."

"You'd have to ask him that. Duck!" Val aimed over Murdoch's head and took out an assailant.

"Dammit! How'd he get so close!"

Shrugging, Val scanned the area. "Some always get close when there's this many to deal with. Gotta expect that. We can't watch 'em all."

"How much longer can Johnny hold up? He has to be spent."

Val sighed and looked the man in the eye. "As long as he has to, I guarantee it."

*****

It had to be three hours now since the battle began and the shooting was starting to wane, it seemed to Scott. He could hope, anyway. The sun was still climbing to its apex. He was tired, hot and, oddly enough, hungry. And, he was worried about his family. Though he knew this was the best position for him to be in, that didn't help when Murdoch was so far away and Johnny was so defenseless.

He scanned the area he could easily see and noted no enemy. They were still firing but, it seemed more concentrated now. He saw that as a good sign. He wished they'd just give it up already. They still had no idea who was behind this or, really, why. He didn't know how they'd find that out unless they managed to keep at least one of the gunmen alive to talk.

Vic Winston was never far from his mind, either, and he'd been looking for the man through all the smoke and dust this whole time. Scott didn't believe for one second the man was gone. Not now. Now that he knew this was bigger than a run of the mill range war. He smirked a little. He was starting to sound like Johnny. Run of the mill? No war was ordinary.

He glanced over at the house and saw Murdoch still at it, Val at his side and wished it was him over there. Well, soon enough, he thought then peered around the tree trunk only to be rewarded with a bullet whizzing past his head. As he pulled back, he could have sworn the man behind that rifle was very familiar to him.

Scott's anger rose to new heights and he stood up and stepped from behind the tree, firing repeatedly at Winston's position. Please, let me be the one to take him down, he thought.

*****

"What the hell is he doing?" Murdoch asked.

Val watched Scott move from behind the protection of his tree then his gaze swung to where the man was firing. "Seems to me, Scott might've just found our hired assassin out there."

"So he's going to get himself killed?" Murdoch was incredulous but not enough to stop him from helping his son by laying down some cover fire.

Val stood as well and used a column as cover, firing at the same position as the Lancers. He saw the man ducking for cover behind the corral fence. It wasn't nearly enough to hide him from the barrage they were throwing at him. He was a little impressed with Scott, too, as he watched the young man run zig zag nearer and nearer to the gunfighter's position. Then, he thought of Johnny inside and unable to see what was going on. His friend would never forgive him if Scott got killed so, Val stepped into the yard and fired repeatedly.

Murdoch watched from his periphery as the ranch hands all emerged from their positions and mimicked Scott, advancing on the perpetrators while shooting. He saw the stragglers start to take off, running for the hills or the few horses further out in the pasture. Then, he saw a most welcomed sight. From beyond the attackers, men were riding fast toward the ranch and he recognized Buck Addison in the lead.

Val fell in behind Scott and to his left as they made their way to Winston's position. By now, all the man could do was cower behind a fence railing.

"Toss the rifle and the gun, Winston," Scott ordered as he bore down on the man still huddled. "If you even cough wrong, I'll put a bullet in your head."

Val raised a brow at that but he didn't doubt Scott would do just as he said. He watched as the gunman shoved the rifle still in his hand away then slowly reached to his holster.

"Believe me, you'll never make it," Scott said.

The pistol clanged against the rifle as Winston slowly came up on his knees, hands in the air as he faced Scott. A smirk came to his face. "Looks like you found some balls after all, Lancer."

Val wrenched the rifle from Scott's hands after he'd butted Winston into unconsciousness. "Was that necessary?"

Scott never took his eyes off the man. "Yes, it was. This is the man who shot Johnny."

"I kinda figured that, Scott. But, that don't give you the right to coldcock an unarmed man."

Scott rounded on Val, glaring at him. "Did you not hear me?"

Unimpressed, Val kept his gaze steady. "Yep, did you hear me?" He took a breath and thought to divert the man's attention. "Might want to go inside and check on your brother. He's in the livin room."

Scott's eyes widened then, the scowl returned. He turned sharply on his heel and stalked back to the house.

*****

Murdoch eased down beside his son only to find the business end of a Colt in his face. "It's me, Johnny."

The young man released the hammer and dropped his hand to his side as his eyes slid closed. "Is it over?"

"Yes, son. It's all over now."

"Okay. Could I have a drink of water?"

Murdoch sighed as he took in the pale, sweat soaked face. Johnny's shirt was saturated, as well. He stood and moved quickly to the sideboard, surprised it was still in one piece, and poured a glass of water. Returning to his son, he put a hand behind Johnny's neck and held the glass for him as he inhaled the liquid.

A loud sigh came after he swallowed the last drop. "Thanks, that was good. Been wantin that for a while now."

"I'm sorry, son. I should have thought ..."

"No time for nursin, Murdoch. Sometimes, things just have to wait. Anyway, I'd like to go to bed now."

Without hesitation, Murdoch lifted his son in his arms. Johnny rested his head on his father's chest with a soft sigh that sounded a lot like contentment to the worried father. With a slight smile of bemusement but more concern, Murdoch headed up the stairs only to be stopped by the front door swinging open.

Scott took in the scene quickly, his face falling as he saw his brother's condition. "When he's better, I'm going to kill him. Why did you let him fight?"

Cocking a brow, Murdoch turned and headed up the stairs as he spoke. "Let him? As Val said, he would have come down under his own steam if left alone. I'm fairly sure that would have made things much worse. Besides, he kept the house safe while we were outside. I need you to check on Sam, Scott. Make sure he's alright then get him up here."

Scott took in the bodies in the great room before he followed his family upstairs. He counted six dead men and shook his head.

*****

Murdoch eased Johnny onto the bed then started unbuttoning his shirt. Slowly, he moved the material away, praying he would find a clean bandage beneath. Sighing with relief when the cloth showed to be white, he covered the young man then poured water in a wash basin and began washing Johnny's face.

The blue eyes fluttered open and Johnny blinked rapidly a few times. "Did I pass out?"

"A little," Murdoch mumbled as he continued his task. "I'd like to tan your hide, boy, but I can't."

"Too old for that."

Murdoch stopped, wash cloth an inch from Johnny's face. Raising his brows sternly, he rebuked that statement. "Too sick."

The younger man's lips twitched a little but he said nothing, too tired and in too much pain to tease his old man, much as he would have liked to. He watched his father drop the cloth in the water then pour a glass. He licked his lips in anticipation.

"I'm putting laudanum in here and I don't want to hear one word about it."

"Okay."

Murdoch stopped and looked over at him briefly, a pained expression in his own pale blue eyes. He sighed softly then helped Johnny drink the entire contents of the glass. It was as he sat back that he noticed his son's fists clenched at his sides. "How bad is it? And tell me the truth."

Johnny swallowed once more then looked up at his father. "Bad as it's ever been. Worse, I guess."

"Finally, you haven't had worse? I'm shocked, brother," Scott clipped as he walked in the room with Sam.

Murdoch took to his feet and rounded on his older son. Through clenched teeth, he hissed quietly, "get out of here."

Scott took a step back, his mouth falling open as Murdoch advanced on him. "If all you can do is belittle him then, get out, Scott. He's in agony and he doesn't need to hear your smart mouth!"

*****

Sam moved quickly to Johnny's side when Murdoch stood. He leaned over his patient, blocking Johnny's view of his family. "Well, now. It looks like you've been up to some shenanigans, young man. Let's just see how much damage you've done here." The doctor began his examination and hoped Murdoch and Scott would leave the room with their argument. He had been stunned by Scott's remark, too. In fact, Sam had been ready to smack the young man.

"I think it's pretty bad, Sam. Hurts like the devil," Johnny was saying.

"You need something for the pain."

"Murdoch already gave me some laudanum. It burns inside."

Sam looked into his eyes and frowned at that declaration. He'd never seen Johnny anything but nonchalant about an injury before. It was unsettling to hear this patient being so honest with him. Johnny was worried, that was plain to see. Gently, he palpated the abdomen, soliciting hisses from his charge. The last one had Johnny arching his back and Sam could hear his teeth grinding together.

Softly, Sam spoke. "Alright, that's enough of that, isn't it?" He didn't get an answer and didn't expect one as he pulled his stethoscope out and listened to Johnny's heart. It was a long time before the physician leaned back, his forehead furrowed in concentration.

"Sam?"

He blinked and looked up at Johnny then forced a small smile. "I need to talk to your father for a minute, Johnny. I'll be right back."

Johnny grabbed his hand but the grip was nowhere near what he was normally capable of. "I want to know."

"And I'll tell you but, I need a moment." Squeezing the hand encased in his own, Sam smiled again. "I'll be right back, I promise."

Johnny released him and let out a breath. "Yeah, okay. Are you alright?"

A smile flashed across Sam's face. "Me? I hid in my bedroom the whole time."

Giving the physician his most serious look, Johnny said, "exactly what you should've done." With that, his eyes slid closed.

*****

Sam wasn't surprised to turn and find the room empty. In fact, he was glad of it. When he walked out into the hallway, he found them waiting for him. Murdoch was standing next to the door and Scott was leaning on the wall several feet away. Val was standing nearly between them looking perplexed.

"He's exhausted. He wasn't in good shape to begin with. I want him on complete bed rest and sleeping most of the time. He does need plenty of fluids, broths and the like. You know the drill. No upset, just complete peace and quiet. If he has a hard time resting, we'll give him sleeping draughts and the laudanum."

"Did he damage anything, Sam?" Murdoch asked.

"I don't think so. He's very tender but I'd expect that. I don't see any sign of further bleeding. I know he's pale but, he's been through a lot and, he was pale before. He should start to get some color back once he's rested a good while. He's already feeling the pain medicine." Sam stopped and turned to Scott, walking up to the man. "I'm going to believe that you were only trying to tease your brother in there like you two do so much of the time. I can't impress on you strongly enough how much Johnny needs to be relaxed and free of any worry. He was already worried about you before, Scott. Whatever it is, tuck it in or stay away from that room."

Scott lowered his head and nodded his understanding.

Sam put a hand on his arm. "I, on the other hand, am always available if you need to talk it out with someone..." he stopped and leaned in, lowering his voice, "Aside from your father."

Scott glanced in Murdoch's direction, seeing the stern expression. "Thanks, Sam. I didn't mean anything by it, really. I didn't realize ..." he stopped and sucked in a breath. "I think I'll see Cipriano about cleaning up this mess." He turned and headed down the stairs.

The hallway was silent after Scott left. Sam shook his head and turned to his old friend. "What's wrong with you? Scott and Johnny are always going at each other like that. I'm sure he didn't understand how sick Johnny was."

"He's been acting that way toward Johnny since this began, Sam. Scott's own guilt is causing him to lash out at the one person who doesn't deserve it."

"Guilt about what?"

Val growled lowly then headed for the bedroom. "I'm pretty sure goin around about this again ain't gonna help anybody. Least of all Johnny." He stopped at the doorway and lowered his voice even more. "Besides, Scott don't feel guilty, Mr. Lancer."

*****

Murdoch watched the sun set from Johnny's new bedroom. He couldn't believe how long this day had been. That his family and hands were all in one piece astounded him but, he was very grateful. They still didn't know who was behind this but, he found he couldn't really concentrate on that. Johnny had been asleep for hours now and he expected his son to awaken soon. He hoped, anyway. If he didn't, Murdoch knew he'd have to wake the boy so he could get some nourishment.

He had managed to cook a chicken soup for them all, putting aside a good amount of broth. Val was still here, still watching over Johnny even when he wasn't in the room. A small smile crossed Murdoch's lips replaced quickly by a scowl as he thought of Scott. But then, he admitted to himself that Scott's quip earlier had been in jest and that he hadn't realized how ill Johnny really was.

The problem was, Johnny always said he was fine. But, this time, he hadn't. He'd taken the medicine without argument. In fact, he'd seemed grateful to get it which only leant to Murdoch's worry. Of course, Scott wasn't in the room when that happened.

No, his anger for his elder son stemmed from his actions with that killer. He would never understand it or approve of it. Once again, he wondered what Johnny would think. Most of the time these past days, he decided it was best the young man never found out what his brother had done. There were times, though, times when his own anger shined through and he wanted Johnny to know. It was selfish, even petty and the thought evaporated quickly every time. Still, it was there.

He heard the sigh from the bed and went to his son, watching as the young man came out of the healing sleep. He wished Teresa were here but, the danger was still very real and he just couldn't risk it.

Johnny opened his eyes, blinking until his vision cleared then focused on his father with a small smile of greeting.

"You slept a long time. That's good."

"I feel better."

Murdoch raised a brow at that.

Johnny's smile more closely resembled one of his more brilliant efforts. "Well, about like I did before the fight so, I guess I'm not down any."

"That's good news, I suppose. I'm going to get you some broth. Sam said you needed to get something in your stomach."

"Okay. Where's Scott?"

Murdoch stopped and turned back. "I'm not sure. He was dealing with the aftermath all day. I'm sure he's still at it. I'll see if I can find him for you."

"No, no," Johnny waved a hand. "Don't bother him."

Murdoch nodded then hesitated. Turning, he went back to the chair. "Earlier, Scott said something about finally not hearing you say you'd had worse."

A soft laugh followed by a grimace and a hand laid lightly on his wound, Johnny's eyes shined. "I guess it was bound to happen sooner or later."

"So, you weren't angry with him?"

Surprised, Johnny shook his head. "Some reason I should be?"

Murdoch only shrugged. "No, I guess not. I'll be right back."

Johnny watched his father leave the room and wondered what was going on. Scott had been avoiding him a lot since he'd been shot and now, Murdoch was acting strange. They were keeping something from him, he knew it. He just hadn't felt well enough to deal with finding out. Now, he wondered if he shouldn't just suck it up and get to the bottom of things. Seemed to him, his family was falling apart all around him. Eyes growing heavy, he settled back to await his broth and, hopefully, some answers.

*****

Scott stood before the cell door and glared at the unconscious man. He'd waited all day yesterday for Winston to come around and he still hadn't stirred. He knew he hadn't hit him that hard so, he had to assume the man was playing possum. He felt Val next to him and it irritated him. He didn't need any help with this.

"Well, I don't recognize him," Val stated.

"I think he's had enough time to recover, don't you?"

Val smirked. "Sure, he's awake. Has been for a while now."

Scott turned and looked at the sheriff with annoyance before turning back and placing the key in the lock. He stepped inside, Val shouldering in with him. "I don't need any help with this, Val."

"I think you got that backwards, Scott. I'm the law here, not you. Any ideas you got about beatin the truth out of him, you can just forget about. We're doin this my way."

Scowling, Scott opened his mouth to argue the point just as the cot creaked.

Val stepped toward Winston and gave the leg of the bed a swift kick. "You can stop the act, Winston. We know you're awake. Got some things to talk over with ya and we've waited long enough."

The dark eyes opened, a gleam in them that didn't surprise Scott at all. The man seemed to enjoy his games.

"As soon as you press charges against Lancer here for assault, I'll be happy to help you out, Sheriff."

Val grabbed the small stool and settled beside the man, leaning in but making sure his right side was away from Winston. "Man has a right to protect his property any way he can. Besides, that's not gonna work with me. Now, I want to know who you're workin for and why they're after Lancer."

Winston sighed then scooted up, leaning against the wall beside him with a slight grimace. He rubbed a hand down his face. "What makes you think I'm not working for myself?"

Val snorted at that. "You're hired help, that's plain to see. Your boss is good, I'll give him that. I'll even give that you're good, too. But, it didn't work so, now what?"

Winston shrugged and just smiled at him.

Scott stepped to the foot of the cot, fists clenched at his sides. "You will tell us what we want to know."

"Or what? You gonna kill me right in front of the law, Lancer? You ain't got the guts."

Val sighed and drew his gun even as he called for Pedro who was guarding the prisoner tonight. "Take my gun and Scott's," he ordered the man. He noticed Scott had no problem giving over his weapon. That told Val a few things and he was starting to worry but, he didn't show it.

"Now," he started again as he leaned closer, "I need to tell you some things you might not know about me."

Winston repositioned himself more comfortably against the adobe wall and crossed his arms. "I'm intrigued, Sheriff. I will confess, I know nothing about you."

Val liked that. He liked it a lot. "Thing is, Johnny Lancer was my best friend. Now, Scott here, he ain't known his brother very long but, me and Johnny go way back. So, if it comes down to upholdin the law or gettin justice for my friend, I guarantee, you ain't gonna like my choice. As it stands right now, I'm still abiding by the law but, that smartassed mouth of yours is gonna push me right over the edge. I got little patience on a good day."

Both of them watched Winston take in this information. Scott was anxious to see if the ploy worked. But, he wondered if it was a ploy. Even though Johnny was alive, Val was fiercely loyal to his brother. Scott was curious to see how far Val would go to help Johnny now. The gunman's face twisted as he thought about Val's words and Scott knew he was playing them.

"Well, Sheriff, I have a problem, you see. If I tell you what you want to know, my reputation won't mean much."

"If you don't, you'll hang - if you're that lucky," Val shot back. "See, here's the thing. I'm not the only person on this ranch who admired and respected Johnny. All these vaqueros? They were all his friends. How long do you think it would take for them to tear you apart once they know you're the one that killed him?"

Scott perked up a little as he saw Winston finally show some discomfort. He knew the man would save his own hide. He just needed the right incentive.

"I can ride out of here and go back to town, none the wiser. It would be a real sad story these men told of how you tried to escape and, oh, I don't know, maybe got caught up in a stampede or trampled by a wild stallion." Val stared a hole through him to make his point and to make sure the man could see he was telling the gospel truth, because he was.

*****

Scott twirled his hat between his hands as he stood in the yard with Val. "That was very impressive, Sheriff."

Val gave him a glance. "Yeah, and I didn't lay a hand on him."

"There's always a downside to everything. I just want you to understand something. If he really had killed my brother, that man would be dead right now."

Turning to fully face Scott, Val nodded once. "Yeah, he would be. But now, we got bigger problems."

Sighing, Scott lowered his head. "Yes, we do, if he's telling the truth."

"I think he is and it makes sense."

"Well, we had better tell Murdoch. He's going to hit the roof over this."

Val grinned a little. "When don't he hit the roof?"

A pained expression crossed Scott's face briefly. "Before we go in, I need to ask you something. It's about Johnny."

"You wanna know how he's gonna take what you did."

Nodding, Scott looked in the man's eyes.

Val's moustache twitched as he considered his words for once. "Not good, Scott. Not good. Matter of fact, if I were you, I wouldn't tell him at all. But, if you gotta, don't do it until he's back on his feet and I mean a hundred percent."

"So he can kill me?" Scott quipped.

Val grinned just a little. "No, so he don't have a set back."

Lowering his head again and turning aside, Scott asked softly, "that bad?"

"You asked me. I'm just tellin ya how I see it."

"You weren't there, Val."

"No, I wasn't. No one was there but you and him. It's just that there are things a man stands up for, Scott. You know that because you stand up for what you believe is right all the time. I don't know what was goin through your head. I can maybe understand you makin the bargain but, to go through with it, that's what Johnny won't get. You got principles and your word means a lot to ya but, keepin your word with scum like that ... I'm just sayin, lying to a man like that don't count."

"Val, I thought ..."

The sheriff held up a hand. "You don't need to explain it to me. But, if it don't sound right in your own head, don't say anything to Johnny until it does."

*****

Murdoch set the empty bowl on the table, pleased with Johnny's performance. He reached over and took the napkin off his son's chest, a smile on his face.

"Did I pass?" Johnny asked, bemused.

"You get an A, son. A plus, in fact. Now, how do you feel?"

"Like I never want to hear that question again. I'm alright. Maybe a little tired and sore."

"Sore? Is the pain as bad as it was?"

Murdoch's attentiveness tickled Johnny but, it was also starting to annoy him. He understood it, even appreciated it more than he would ever be able to express, still... "No, nothing that bad."

Satisfied with the answer, Murdoch relaxed a little. "You should get some sleep."

"I will after you tell me what's going on."

A frown creased the rancher's forehead. "I don't know what's going on. We still don't know who is behind this."

Shaking his head, Johnny moved a little on his pillow and settled back. "No, I mean with you and Scott. Seems he's still avoiding me and you're mad at him about something. What did he do to tick you off so bad?"

"I don't know what you mean." Murdoch lowered his eyes and studied the quilt pattern, fingering the stitching with seeming great interest.

Johnny watched him and almost laughed. He would have if he didn't know how bad it would hurt his wound. "I think you do or you'd be able to look me in the eye."

With that, Murdoch's head came up and he scowled. He started to say something, anything to change the subject when they were interrupted.

Scott and Val walked in and Johnny's eyes immediately fell on his brother who wouldn't look directly at him for very long.

Val came to stand just behind Murdoch and he smiled. "Looks like you at least ate somethin."

"If you can call broth eating, I guess I did. Looks like you two have some news."

Val nodded, bending the brim of his hat in his hands. He walked around the bed and settled on the mattress at the foot. "Yeah, we do and, it ain't good."

Murdoch turned in his chair so he could see Val but neither he nor Scott seemed in any hurry to talk. He caught his older son's eyes for a brief moment, and smiled.

"Are we supposed to guess or are you gonna tell us?" Johnny asked with exasperation.

Scott settled himself at the end of the bed near Val, leaning a little on the bed post. Was that regret he'd seen in his father's eyes? An apology? Refocusing, he looked at Johnny. "It's apparently some sort of consortium. Three men in business together have decided Lancer is going to be prime land for the railroad to purchase. They want the ranch to sell it at a higher price."

Murdoch came to his feet at this. In a strained voice, he asked, "who?"

"Well, that's the problem. We ain't sure of the names. We have 'em but we don't really know if they're real names or aliases. Seemed the fella wasn't too clear on that."

"What fella?" Johnny asked.

Val looked at Scott who was eyeing him right back. Val sighed and shook his head. "The man who shot you. We've got him locked up in the guard house."

"Since when and why wasn't I told about this?" Murdoch demanded.

"Since the fight yesterday. Scott knocked him senseless and he just now came to," Val replied.

"What did you do to him, Val?" Johnny asked with suspicion.

"You should have seen him, brother. He was smooth as silk." Scott gave a small smile of admiration.

Johnny wasn't so easily impressed and he looked between the two of them. "Does he still think I'm dead?"

"Yeah, wouldn't have been as easy if he hadn't. I told him how he'd meet his maker if I turned him over to the ranch hands and told 'em he was the one that shot you."

"Yes," Scott started, "Val came up with some interesting scenarios for him."

"Anyway, he finally spilled his guts."

"Do you think he was telling the truth, Val?" Murdoch asked, sparing a quick glance at Scott.

"Yeah, I do, Mr. Lancer. Thing is, these men are operating out of Modesto of all places. Reckon they wanted to be close to the ranch but not too close. I figured me and Scott would head up there tomorrow."

"Did you?"

Johnny looked at his father and could practically see the steam coming from his ears. He braced himself as much as he could.

"Well, think again, Sheriff. I'll be going with you."

"Murdoch..."

"No, Scott," Murdoch interrupted. "I'm going with Val. That's the end of the conversation. I'll get my things together and be ready at first light." He turned back to Val then. "Do you know the sheriff in Modesto?"

"Not much."

"Well, I do and have for a long time. He's a good man and he'll help us all he can."

"I don't guess anyone would go for me going with Val," Johnny chimed in, hoping to ease the tension in the room which he still had no idea what was causing.

All three men looked at him as if he had two heads and Johnny grinned a little. "So, these men aren't actually with the railroad? Just trying to drive up the price of land? Makes you wonder if they're trying or have already gotten hold of any other ranches in the valley." He looked at all three in turn. "Maybe, while Murdoch and Val are gone, Scott could look into that."

"We do know Santee had some problems but the ranchers were all here for that meeting," Scott supplied.

Johnny frowned. "How did you know Santee was having trouble?"

Scott turned aside and stared at his hands. "We thought at first he might be behind the attack on you based on some wrong information. He thought Lancer was cutting his fences and Tim Jackson had a hand who said he saw Lancer hands doing just that. Of course, that man has disappeared."

"We know they were trying to turn the ranchers against each other. But, why change tactics, then? Why not keep going with that?"

"Good question. Something changed. Maybe it was you dyin that made 'em get more anxious to close the deal. I figure they'd think Murdoch and Scott were too upset with that to protect the ranch."

Johnny nodded but it wasn't falling into place for him so easily. Things just seemed off somehow. "Wonder how they found out any information about us. I mean, someone must have told them about Lancer. At least, enough that they sent a gun after me."

No one spoke for a while, all of them pondering on Johnny's musings.

"Someone had to know who would make a good patsy - using Santee like that. He'd fall for those lies easily, and he did," Murdoch said.

Scott nodded. "Right. I mean, they could've tried the Conway ranch, it's closer, but they went for Santee because they knew he was weaker."

"Yeah, and everyone knows you and Buck Addison have made up," Johnny grinned. "They'd know better than to try pullin anything on a man like that, anyway."

"So, they got 'em a stool pigeon." Val's frown deepened as he thought of who it might be. "Reckon I need to have another talk with my prisoner."

*****

This time, Val had no intentions of letting Scott go with him. He handed his gun over to Pedro then unlocked the cell door and stepped in. Winston was lying flat of the cot and didn't make any move to sit up. Val sat on the stool, across the room from him and just stared.

"Something else I can do for you, Sheriff?"

"You knew he was Johnny Madrid." Val watched the man's face. It was easy to see he wasn't surprised to hear the name. A smile threatened Winston's lips but he said nothing. "Who's your informant? Someone in this valley had to be givin you or your bosses information on the Lancers. Who?"

Winston grunted a little as he sat up and leaned against the wall again. "It strikes me odd that you think I'd tell you anymore than I already have."

"It strikes me odd," Val started sarcastically, "that at this point, you'd give a damn what else we know. You already gave up the men payin you so, what difference does it make if you spill all you guts - so to speak."

The gunman gave him a strange, uncomprehending look and just shook his head.

Val glowered at him. "You gutshot Johnny and ya know it! Just so we're clear, remember I rode with the man for years."

Winston understood the implication of what Val didn't say. If he rode with Madrid, that meant he was a gun for hire at one time, as well. A dangerous man. A rival even, if he'd stayed in the game. He nodded his head. "I have to admit, Sheriff, you are formidable and very focused. You don't let your anger rule you very much at all. I admire that ability as I possess it myself."

Val fought down a sigh of irritation. "You should be well and truly pissed, Winston. See, your bosses don't care what happens to you. Well, that's part of the life, we both know. But, since you're already done for, ya might as well have a little payback for it. Believe me, I can get that for you."

The man smiled brightly. "Yes, I believe you can. Alright, Sheriff. It's no skin off my nose and, besides, I can't stand the weasel anyway. But, be very sure you want to know his name before I give it."

"Oh, I'm sure. You can bet on that!"

*****

Val stormed back to the house, more than a little surprised he'd been able to stay calm when Winston had given up his informant. Right now, all he could see was red - no, make that blood. He didn't stop until he reached the bedroom.

Johnny watched from his position sitting up in bed, pillows piled high beneath his head and shoulders, as Val paced the width of the room, fists clenched at his sides. He sighed lightly and wondered when the man would calm down. He understood Val's anger, he felt it himself a little. "Are you sure, Val? I mean, that he's not lyin?"

"Oh, I'm sure! Why would he lie now and how would he even know the name unless him or them others have been in my town talking to the sonofabitch!?" Val never stopped his stalking across the floor. "Of all the people, ya know? I didn't think he'd have the guts!"

"Neither did I which makes me wonder if he even knew what he was doing."

Val stopped and turned to look at Johnny.

"Well, come on, Val. You know he runs off at the mouth about anything and everything. It wouldn't take much to get him to tell what he knows. He probably thought he was sellin the town to new businessmen or somethin."

"He sold it alright - sold it out! Still, at some point, he had to wonder why they were so interested in you and Lancer."

"Wouldn't take much to snooker him," Johnny shrugged.

Val was not ready to even consider letting the man off the hook. He finally sat down beside the bed and leaned forward. "Then, how come he didn't come to your funeral?"

Johnny raised his brows at that question. "I don't know. He don't much like me." A grin flittered across his lips.

"Exactly!" Val stood back up. "He's gonna tell me and he's gonna tell me all of it." As he headed for the door, Johnny's voice stopped him.

"Take it easy, amigo. It won't be hard to make him fold like a bad poker hand. Just make sure you don't end up breaking some of them laws you're supposed to enforce."

Val turned back as he settled his hat on his head. "Yeah, I'll take it however I can to get the truth out of him. And, he's gonna help us with this, too. He just don't know it, yet. One way or the other, I figure Higgs' days as mayor just came to an end." With that, he walked out, leaving Johnny to wonder how far Val would go.

The sheriff had never gotten along with the mayor of Green River. The man was an ass on a good day. Still, Johnny couldn't quite believe he was devious enough to be part of this plan. Whether he was or, had simply gotten taken in, Val was right. His days as mayor were done. He closed his eyes and leaned back into his pillows, wishing he felt better so he could help more with this mess.

*****

Val rode slowly down the main street of town, his face revealing nothing of his ire. His eyes took in the townspeople and he nodded to some as he passed them by. Reining to a stop in front of his office, he dismounted and slapped the reins around the hitching post. All the way into town, he'd thought of how best to approach Higgs. His first instinct still sounded like the best one. Just strangle the idiot.

He found he didn't have to seek out the mayor. His shoulders went up when he heard that whiny voice.

"Sheriff Crawford, so nice of you to finally join us. We'd begun to think we no longer had any law in our fair town."

Val turned slowly and stepped onto the boardwalk. A grin broke out on his face. "We? Come in my office, Mayor Higgs. I've got something important I need to discuss with you."

Higgs puffed out his chest, causing his head to draw back and exposing all three chins. With an air if importance, he strode into the office. He settled in a chair and tugged at his coat lapels. "Alright then, Sheriff. What seems to be the problem?"

Val hung his hat up then walked over to sit behind his desk. Folding his hands atop the surface, he looked straight into the man's eyes. "Been a lot of trouble the past week or so. Ranches bein attacked, men bein murdered."

Higgs cleared his throat and nodded. "Yes, I heard about Johnny Lancer. Tragic. Simply tragic."

"Family missed you at the funeral."

His cheeks reddened. "Well, I, uh, someone had to stay here and keep an eye on things. I know you lost a friend, too, Val. I just thought I'd better serve the public by staying behind in case of trouble."

"That was real thoughtful of ya, Mayor. Tell me, were you that thoughtful when you were telling that stranger all about Lancer and Johnny Madrid?"

Higgs' eyes bulged and he looked as if he'd swallowed a frog. "What man? What are you talking about, Sheriff?" Indignant now, he had that look Val knew well. The one that told he was about to go off on a tirade.

"I never said it was a man. I said it was a stranger and you damned well know what I'm talkin about, Higgs!" Val took a breath and lowered his voice. "Light hair, dark eyes, a small white scar on his face. Sound familiar?"" He saw the look of recognition come to the man's face and forged ahead. "You told him all about Madrid and all about the other ranchers in the valley, too. Told him who was strong and who wasn't. Told him how Johnny would be his biggest threat. Told him killin Johnny would destroy Murdoch and Scott."

"I did no such thing! How dare you accuse me of such atrocities!?" He pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his sweaty brow. "I merely talked with the man. He wanted to start a ranch here and was interested in the other cattlemen. Yes, I mention Lancer as the biggest ranch in the valley." He dipped his eyes then swallowed loudly. "I ... I may have mentioned Johnny's past."

Val leaned halfway across the desk. "May have?"

"I didn't intend to ... to ... it just came up in the course of conversation. I never thought he would hurt anyone. Sheriff, you must believe me! I never meant for Johnny to die!"

Val sat back and sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. "What all did you tell him about anything?"

Higgs wiped his forehead again and tried to slow his breathing. After a minute, he'd composed himself. "I did tell him the Lancer and Conway ranches were the strongest and that Santee and Jackson were much weaker and smaller. I told him how Buck Addison had married Aggie and about the animosity between Murdoch and Buck. But, I made sure he knew that was no longer the case. That they had resolved their problems and were able to work together now." Higgs nodded as if he'd redeemed himself somehow. One look at Val told him different.

"What else?"

"Well, just about Scott."

Val rolled his eyes then glared at the man and spoke each word clearly. "What ... did ... you ... tell ... him?"

"That Scott grew up in Boston a wealthy young man and that he had served in the cavalry but had spent a great deal of his time in a prison camp." He looked away, his face growing red. "I told him I didn't think Scott was very acclimated to life out here yet. He's so used to getting what he wants or needs without working very hard for it."

Val raised a brow at that and envisioned Johnny punching this man right in the mouth. He almost smiled but he didn't want Higgs thinking that meant he agreed with the man's assessment of Scott Lancer. He drilled the man with his eyes to indicate he continue.

With a heavy sigh, the mayor continued his confession. "Well, I may have mentioned that I thought Murdoch was closer to Johnny than Scott. You now, because he's better suited for this rougher country."

"Uh huh. Go on."

"That's all, really."

Val stood up and noticed Higgs recoil. He smirked at the man then paced about the room a little, thinking things through. "Besides the Lancers, what else did you tell him about?"

"Just about the other ranchers as I've already said. That they were nothing to worry about as far as business. I mean, if he had the funds, he could easily attain better land."

Val stopped and looked at him. "Better land? What's that mean?"

"He was interested in actually buying one of the smaller ranches. I had assured him Murdoch and Addison would never sell out but, they might sell a parcel. I told him I wasn't at all sure about that, though."

"Ya mean there's somethin you weren't sure about? The only thing you got right was who Johnny used to be." Val turned and leaned over the little man, getting an inch from his face and lying through his teeth. "Thanks to you, he's dead now. I ain't so sure I believe you, Higgs. I ain't so sure you're not in on this whole deal." He straightened up and walked away.

"What deal? What are you talking about? I'm not in on anything, Sheriff. I swear on all that is holy!"

"Did this man introduce you to any partners he might have?" When Higgs didn't answer right away, Val turned quickly to look at him shaking his head vigorously. Scowling, he walked back over and sat at his desk. "I'm goin to Modesto tomorrow. You know why?"

Higgs swallowed hard again but just shook his head.

Val sighed heavily then made a decision. "If you have any sense in that head of yours, you won't tell a livin soul about this. Anyone finds out, you'll be run out of town on a rail and don't think for a minute I'd stop it. That is, if Murdoch Lancer don't find out first and come lookin for your hide."

"You ... you haven't told him?"

"No, and I'm not gonna. Leastways, not yet. Until I get the men really responsible for killin my best friend, your stupidity is safe. Now, get out of here. I got things to do!"

*****

Scott stretched his muscles as he dismounted in front of Val's office. He was exhausted and sore from all the strain of the past week. He noticed Mayor Higgs scuttling off, looking over his shoulder at him and he shook his head. The man was a moron of the highest order. Shrugging it off, he walked into Val's office to find the man frowning and in deep thought.

"None of the other ranches have been hit. I was closer to here than home and I figured you might have come back to town by now."

"Yeah, sit down, Scott. I've got somethin to tell ya and it's a mess."

Scott simply stared, stunned beyond words as Val laid out the mayor's involvement in all of this. Finally, he found his voice. "Do you believe him?"

"For a while, I did but, not now. Just the way he acted when I asked if he'd talked to any of Winston's associates. I could tell he was lyin. I expect, at sundown, he'll light out of town and I'll be followin him. We're gonna have to put off that trip to Modesto."

"I doubt it. That's probably exactly where he'll run to. I can't believe he'd do this."

Val raised a brow. "Why not? He's a greedy bastard and he'd do anything to earn a buck. He probably figured he could make a pile of cash and get rid of Lancer in the bargain. You know, it's got to eat at him that the cattlemen make all the important decisions here and he's pretty useless. Murdoch is the big dog in these parts so, he reckons getting rid of him will make life a whole lot easier."

Scott shook his head. "That does make some sort of twisted sense, I suppose. So, he doesn't think I'm cut out for this life, eh? I'm sure that gave you a chuckle."

Val gave him an odd look. "I almost laughed in his face but, not because I agree with him. All I could see right then was him sayin that in front of Johnny and gettin his head taken off. You - you woulda been pissed but you can control your temper a little better. Especially, if it's you gettin badmouthed."

"Like Johnny. He'll take anything you say about him but, say something against his family ..." Scott grinned.

Laughing, Val nodded. "Yep, you two are alike in that way."

Scott's smile fell away as he sighed out. "I should go with you, Val. If Higgs runs to Modesto, you'll need help."

"Yeah. Your old man is gonna be mad but we don't have time to get back to the ranch. He could just run but, I think you're right. I'll send a message to Murdoch."

"Is that safe?"

"Yeah, Todd can take it out for me."

Scott bowed his head. "Is there anyone else you can send? Todd worships Johnny. It would hard on the boy to go to the ranch."

Val groaned. "I forgot about that. Yeah, I can send Steve out."

*****

Murdoch crumpled the message in his fist, his face a mask of anger. He stalked up the stairs to Johnny's room to tell him what was happening.

Johnny listened to the tale, noticing his father's discontentment with the situation. "I know you wanted to go, to face them, but I can see how they wouldn't have the time to get back here. I still can't believe Higgs, ya know? It's just crazy."

"Neither can I but, I trust Val's instincts."

That statement garnered him a warm and affectionate smile from his son. "So, go after them. You could catch up before they make it to Modesto."

Murdoch looked warily at his son. "I can't leave you alone."

"Why not? Everybody thinks I'm dead."

"Exactly. Who is going to take care of you?"

Johnny grimaced at that. "Sam can look in on me, feed and water me a few times a day."

A soft chuckle escaped Murdoch. "And if you get into trouble? If you take a bad turn? You're nowhere near out of the woods yet, son."

"Murdoch, I really feel a lot better. It's been a week." He reasoned.

"You lost a lot of blood, John. Sam said it would be a long road."

"Yeah, but that doesn't mean I'll be down the whole time. Besides, we can trust Cipriano and Frank for sure. One of them can stay in the house. You can say it's to guard the place while you and Scott are gone. They won't give me away and you know it."

Running a hand through his hair, Murdoch thought it over. "Val said the less people who know the better."

"And he's right but, everyone else that knows is gonna be gone so, that's really only one person. Well, two countin Sam and, if you and Scott are gone, he shouldn't be comin out here anyway. Unless, you know, I get in a bad way."

"Then, all bets are off and this charade is over."

"Agreed," Johnny nodded. "So? You goin or what?"

Murdoch gave him a sidelong look. "It should be Cipriano since he's segundo. Makes more sense he guard the house."

Johnny smiled widely and nodded.

*****

"Que!?" Cipriano's deep voice resonated through the great room.

"Calm down, Cip. I'm sorry we lied to you but it was necessary that everyone believe Johnny was dead."

The man fell into a chair, his mouth hanging open as the news sunk in. Finally, it did and he closed his eyes, bowed his head and made the sign of the cross.

Murdoch waited for him to finish his prayer and to speak. This had been something he didn't look forward to. Telling anyone they'd pulled such a stunt and especially, this man.

"Patron, I think I understand why you did this to keep Johnny safe. It was most important. I am just ... upset that you felt you could not trust me with this."

"It had nothing to do with trusting you. Of course, I trust you. Val thought the fewer people who knew, the less chance of someone slipping up and saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. It was hard enough with just the family and Sam knowing. Now, I am placing one of my most valued possessions in your hands, mi amigo. My son's life. I need you to stay in the house under the guise of protecting it while Scott and I are gone. I need you to protect Johnny."

Cipriano stood up and pulled his shoulders back, pride shining through the man. "I will protect him with my life, Senor. Lo juro."

Murdoch smiled and patted the man on the back. "Now, don't let him out of that bed. Sam said complete bedrest after that firefight."

Eyes widening, Cip asked in a hushed tone, "Johnny fought?"

"Do you really think he would lay in bed calmly during something like that? He made Val bring him downstairs and he sat on the floor, shooting anyone who made it into the living room." Murdoch stopped and took a breath to calm his nerves. Just thinking about how he'd found Johnny made his heart race. "He was in sorry shape after that but he's bouncing back. At least, back to where he was before. He's still weak but he's taking broth and soup well. He needs lots of fluids."

"I will make sure he has all he needs and does nothing foolish. Trust me, Senor. Johnny will be well taken care of."

"I know, my friend, I know. Well, I'm all ready to go so, I'll leave you to it. I've already said my goodbyes to Johnny. He should be resting. Oh, we moved him to the last room on the right upstairs. He has his gun, too, so be careful when you go in."

*****

Scott and Val stayed silent as they tailed Higgs out of town. Right on schedule, the mayor had locked up his store and gone home only to leave within twenty minutes with two big carpetbags thrown in the back of a surrey. Val stifled a snicker, figuring the fat bastard would take everything he could with him. It was pretty plain, he had no intentions of returning to Green River.

That would be fine by the lawman if he wasn't headed straight toward Modesto right now. Of course, he could turn off and go toward Spanish Wells and the stage but, as the night went on, Higgs passed that turn off. Val knew for certain now where he was going. The sounds the surrey made drowned out their horses hooves so they weren't so concerned with being heard trailing the man. Val knew he wouldn't spend a night camped out and would keep moving until he made it to the town.

Still, they didn't chance speaking and, instead, any conversation needed was made with hand signals and some kind of game of charades. Val missed having Johnny with him on something like this but, he knew he could count on Scott. That young man had something to prove and Val figured he was proving it to his old man. He didn't care as long as it kept Scott sharp.

Suddenly, Scott pulled up and looked hard at Val then pointed behind him before cupping his ear to indicate he'd heard something. Val nodded and moved off the road into a clump of trees, drawing his gun. Scott went to the other side of the road and dismounted, crouching behind a long ago fallen boulder.

The horse was moving at a walk, not in any hurry, it would seem. Still, both men knew not many would be out riding this time of night. As they each peered down the road behind them, holding their breath, they waited to see who would appear.

Scott's shoulders slumped and he stepped slowly from around the boulder as the horseman came to a sudden stop. Peering into the dark, he, too, relaxed as he recognized his son.

Val appeared, on foot now as Murdoch dismounted to join them. "What the hell, Mr. Lancer?"

"I got your note," he simply said.

"What about Johnny?" Scott hissed.

Murdoch scowled. "Cipriano is with him. I told him everything and he'll stay in the house. No one would think a thing about it with both of us gone. Simply that he's protecting the house for us." He was still receiving angry glowers, so he sighed and added, "it was Johnny's idea."

"And just where are you two supposed to be?" Val asked.

"On our way to Stockton to see Teresa. That's what Cip will tell the men in the morning. Now, where's Higgs?" With the last, Murdoch's voice lowered into an almost growl of anger.

"Just ahead in a surrey with a couple of large bags. We don't think he'll be returning," Scott reported. "Following him hasn't been a problem so far."

Murdoch nodded with satisfaction. "Well, let's get going. I don't want to lose him in town. We aren't sure where these men are staying."

*****

By dawn, they reached the outskirts of Modesto and came to a stop on a rise above the town. Higgs was easy to detect so early as no one else was about. They watched as he drove the surrey past the hotel and onto a side street just below them. Val grabbed Scott's arm and hunkered down, bringing the younger man with him and hoping Murdoch would join them. He did, knowing all Higgs had to do at this point was look up and he'd see them.

None of them spoke as Higgs came to the last house at the end of the lane and pulled to a stop. He stepped down and hurried to the door. They could just hear his loud knocking even from their position above. It was long moments before the door swung open and Murdoch craned his neck to see who answered but, they didn't come outside, only allowed the mayor entry before closing the door.

"I'd like to be a fly on the wall when Higgs tells 'em what he knows or, thinks he knows," Val grumbled.

"Well, we know where they are if not precisely who they are. So, what's our next move?" Scott looked between the two men as they all settled more comfortably on the ground.

"I think this would be a good time to visit the sheriff and see if he knows anything about who lives in that house. Seein as how he's such a good friend of yours, Mr. Lancer, maybe you should be the one to do the talkin first off." Val looked at the man expectantly.

"Yes, fortunately, he lives on the opposite side of town. I just have a hard time believing Higgs is involved in all of this." He grunted as he made his way to his feet.

"So am I, frankly. I didn't think he had it in him." Scott walked back to the horses and mounted up, settling Remmie while the others joined him.

"Well, I'll tell ya, I've seen men do things I didn't think they were capable of if the reason was good enough in their own mind. Might be he's tired of bein a mayor where he don't have any real power. Might be, he's just a greedy bastard and they're payin him well. Either way, the little weasel's mine when this is all said and done." Val turned his horse and headed back down the trail into town.

*****

Johnny kept an eye on Cipriano as the man did the same to him, making sure Johnny ate every bite of his soup. His gaze was an amused one even if Cip's was pretty harsh. He figured the segundo was pissed and, he didn't blame him, either. He finally made it through the last spoonful then leaned back, blowing out a breath.

"Thanks, that wasn't bad. I tell ya, though, I'm sick to death of soup."

"If I were you, I would not use the word 'death' so loosely, niño."

Johnny pulled a face then resigned himself to a lecture, or worse. "Go ahead, tio. I know you're chompin at the bit to have your say."

Cipriano shrugged as he settled back in the chair. "What is there to say? Your papa made a decision that will anger some and relieve others."

"It was my idea. We had to force things along otherwise, we coulda been at this for a year. I've spent enough time lookin over my shoulder, Cip. I won't do it anymore."

The segundo smiled as he stroked his thick moustache, nodding his understanding of the vehement statement made. "And whose idea was it not to tell me?"

Johnny lowered his eyes, fingering the edge of the blanket. Softly, he answered. "Val's. It was a good plan and it did work. We know a lot more than we did. With any luck, Murdoch, Scott and Val will come back with this whole thing settled. I am sorry," he went on, raising his eyes to his uncle, "that we didn't tell you. I hated everyone thinking I was dead and havin to go through that."

Cipriano sucked in a deep breath. "I am glad Senora Maria and Senorita Teresa were not here for the funeral. It was very sad, Johnny. Many people are still grieving."

Johnny made another face which turned quizzical. "I was pretty surprised so many people showed up but, I reckon they came for Murdoch mostly."

Dark, thick eyebrows pulled together as Cipriano sat forward. "That is not true, sobrino. Those people came out of respect for you. Ah!" He waved a hand at Johnny, "you always think so little of yourself!"

"No, I don't, but most of them were ranchers who've known the old man for years. I didn't mean anything by it. Wasn't puttin myself down or anything. No need to get all prickly."

Cipriano smirked at him then relaxed again. "You seem to be feeling better, si?"

"Yeah, I don't feel too bad, actually. Still stings like hell but, I feel stronger." He leaned his head back against the pillows, looking at Cip through half-closed eyes. "If anything happens, it we're attacked, I'd like to try making sure no one sees me. That means you'll be in charge. I know you can handle it but, I won't stay up here and sit on my hands, either."

"Si, since it worked for you so well yesterday. You could have died. Had the battle gone on longer, you probably would have."

"Nah, I was okay. Coulda used a nap, is all." Johnny's grin spread slowly across his face, widening even as the segundo's frown deepened.

*****

Sheriff Nate Callahan hadn't slept well the night before. Cowboys had ruined his evening, coming into town and causing quite a ruckus at the saloon. He had five of them sleeping it off in his jail right now and all he really wanted was another few hours sleep himself. That wouldn't be happening today, though. His deputy was only part-time and he had another job to get to this morning. So, he sat at his kitchen table and worked his way through a pot of coffee and a couple of scrambled eggs. It wasn't really helping much so far.

What he didn't need, really hoped would not happen, was more trouble any time soon. If Mason Pearl came into town, bellowing about his hands being locked up, Nate decided he'd throw the old man in the hoosegow right along with his precious employees. If he didn't want them locked up, he should keep a better rein on them.

He scowled at the knock on his front door. It was just too damned early. He figured it was his own fault for even thinking about wanting to have a good day. Irritated, he stomped into the front room and jerked the door open. His surprised was evident as he took in his visitor. "Murdoch! Well, I never expected it to be you. Come on in."

Murdoch removed his hat and stepped in. It was then Nate saw the two men with him.

"I'm afraid this isn't a social call, Nate. This is my son, Scott, and Sheriff Crawford from Green River."

Nate shook hands with them all. "I've heard of you, Sheriff. All good things."

"Heard of you, too, Sheriff. Mr. Lancer here thinks a lot of ya. That's good enough for me."

"And, this is one of your boys, eh? I heard they were back. News travels faster than a prairie fire, ya know." He smiled at Scott but the young man was obviously struggling to be polite. Nate could see the tension in his face and, when he looked closer at the others, he saw the same. "Well, this does look important. Come on into the kitchen. Might as well have some coffee while you tell me about it."

Nate Callahan kept his head bowed as he listened to the three men tell this long and frustrating tale. He didn't miss the anger in all their voices and he didn't miss something else in Scott Lancer's voice. Hesitation. Seemed the young fella was struggling with the telling. Well, he reckoned they were all exhausted. Finally, they finished with the reason they were in Modesto. He sat back and took another sip of his coffee.

"Well, that sure is some complicated plan they came up with, alright. I guess it might have worked on some." He looked directly at Murdoch with a slight smile. "There are three men stayin in that house. They rented it out a couple of months ago and I haven't seen any of them doin a dime of work since they got here. I've talked to one of them a couple of times. He says they have some business deals going on and once that's finished, they'll be movin on. The other two don't come out of the house much. They have had one visitor I didn't like the looks of. He's been there several times but he never stays. He's a gunfighter."

Scott leaned forward with this. "How do you know?"

Nate shrugged. "When you've been a lawman long as I have, you get to where you can just tell, Scott. The thing is, none of them have broken any laws I know of so, catchin them ain't gonna be easy."

"Why not? We already know they're behind this. We have that gunfighter and Mayor Higgs," Murdoch pointed out.  

"Yeah, and both of them are in cahoots with these men. A jury won't take the word of a hired gun and, this mayor of yours sounds like he'd just take off if you look at him wrong."

"That's exactly what he did when I looked at him," Val said. "Higgs will spill his guts if it saves his hide but, gettin him to stick to a story will be the hard part. He denied bein in on this, said he was just bein friendly and talkin up the town. But, as soon as he left my office, he was packing to get here. Sheriff Callahan is right, though. Even if Higgs would testify, his word alone won't be enough. Besides, any lawyer worth his salt would break that fool down in two seconds flat."

"Call me Nate. So, what'ya think, Murdoch?"

The rancher looked at him, his forehead deeply wrinkled in thought. "I think we should confront these men and let them know we're onto them. That alone might be enough to make them stop."

"Only problem with that is, they'll just do it again to someone else," Nate said.

Val tapped his fingers on the table top. "We need to get them involved; get their hands dirty."

"How? They've been very careful so far. Being defeated yesterday will only make them gunshy, so to speak," Scott stated.

Val nodded, his mind turning over the possibilities. He could think of nothing at the moment. "We'll have to come up with somethin." He looked at Murdoch warily. "Johnny might have some ideas." The scowl thrown at him didn't surprise or daunt the sheriff.

Scott didn't like the way this was going at all. "So, we just leave Higgs here? You know he'll run, Val."

"He ain't the most important factor in this, Scott. Yeah, I'd like to string him up by his toes and, maybe I'll get that chance some day. But, sometimes, ya gotta let that little fish go so you can catch the shark."

"I'll keep a closer eye on them for you. Let you know if I notice anything unusual going on. That's the best I can do right now."

"Thank you, Nate. I guess we'll head back to the ranch. I don't want to leave Johnny alone any longer than we have to. If they make another run at us ..." Murdoch didn't finish the sentence, didn't want to think about what might happen. He stood and grabbed his hat.

Sheriff Callahan walked them out and stood in the porch. "Go around the back here and up the hill. It'll take you right to the road so you won't be seen in town. No sense in lettin them know anymore than they do."

*****

Sam pulled to a stop in the Lancer yard and stepped out of his surrey. He saw Cipriano coming from the house and his concern heightened.

In a loud voice, the segundo hailed him. "El doctoro, Senor Lancer and Senor Scott are not here. They have gone to Stockton to see Senorita Teresa." Once he was nearer, he lowered his voice. "No one should know the true reason you are here, si?"

Sam gave him a knowing look. "Well, I guess that ride was for nothing. I was hoping to check in on them, see how they're holding up, you know."

"Por favor, come inside for a cool drink and rest before heading back." Cip took the man by the upper arm and guided him into the house.

Once inside, Cipriano let him in on what little he knew.   Sam headed straight upstairs with Cip on his heels. "Why the hell did they leave him alone?"

"He is not alone, Senor."

Sam stopped and turned, looking down at Cip below him. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that the way it sounded. It's just that Johnny has a lot of tricks up his sleeve and Murdoch has learned most of them."

The segundo smiled and nodded. "Si, this is true, but, I, too, know mio sobrino. He is like a fox but I am a good hunter."

Sam laughed at that then proceeded to his patient. As he walked through the door, he was relieved to see Johnny resting in bed, as he should be.

"Hey, Sam. You shouldn't be here."

"Cip told me a little. I'm glad you aren't trying to pull any stunts." He sat beside the bed and pulled the covers back to begin his exam.

"I promised I wouldn't. Besides, it's been quiet. We're hopin they get this settled in Modesto."

Sam looked up at him. "You don't sound all that hopeful."

"Well, nothing is ever easy, Sam. I keep thinkin there's something we're missin here but, it won't come to me. Anyway, I've been a good boy. Been eating all the soup in the world and drinking an ocean."

Sam chuckled at that then pulled the covers back in place. "The wound looks wonderful. Another two days before the stitches can come out, I'd say. Are you still feeling so weak?"

Johnny shook his head. "Not near like I was. Getting a little stronger every day. I've been awake a lot today. That's a good sign, right?"

"A very good sign. You know something, Johnny? You constantly defy medical science or even plain old logic. You should be dead. The wound was enough to kill you. If Murdoch hadn't been right there when it happened, I doubt you'd be with us. Then, you go and get into a firefight and, still, you seem to be bouncing back quickly. I don't know where it all comes from."

"He has an angel on his shoulder," Cipriano said.

Johnny cocked a brow at that then laughed softly. "Somehow, I don't think that's the explanation, tio. But, I don't have a better one, either. I always have healed fast. Guess that's been a plus in my life."

"Well, I'd like to be more clinical than angels. You do have a fast metabolism come to think of it. As much energy as you usually have and the fact I've seen you eat. You should weigh three hundred pounds yet, there's not an ounce of fat on you." He smiled and patted Johnny's leg. "Whatever it is, we're all grateful for it, at any rate."

"Me, too, Sam. Otherwise, I would've been dead long ago."

"Alright, I won't come back for a few days. Hopefully, Murdoch and Scott will be back by then so we won't raise any suspicion." He stood and grabbed his bag then headed for the door. Pausing, he turned back. "It will be a glorious day indeed when we don't have to keep up this farce any longer. There are at least a dozen young women in Green River alone who are mourning your passing."

Johnny's eyes brightened. "Yeah? Could you write down their names for me, Sam?"  

A belly laugh erupted from the doctor as he shook his head and walked out.

"I wasn't kidding," Johnny muttered to himself.

*****

Scott was fuming as they rode home, their gait faster now they had no one to trail. Val reached over and handed him a piece of beef jerky. He took it and pulled a piece off with his teeth, surprised he was so hungry. But, then, they hadn't eaten since yesterday. So intent on trailing Higgs and for nothing, it had turned out. He tried to come up with a plan to catch these men, to pull them into the fray so they could be caught red-handed. A thought suddenly occurred to him.

"You know, Winston and Higgs made it sound like these were really businessmen. Not terribly scrupulous but, businessmen nonetheless."

"What are you getting at?" Murdoch asked.

"Well, you're a businessman, Murdoch. You keep ledgers and contracts, all kinds of paperwork. They probably do, too."

Murdoch's face brightened at that and he nodded.

"That's all well and good but how do you propose we get our hands on it, Scott?" Val asked.

Scott gave him a sideways look and smiled deviously.

Val shook his head. "Won't hold up in court. Won't be admissible."

"At this point, Val, I don't much care about courts and evidence," Scott scowled.

"We have to, son. No matter what they're doing, we need to stay within the law, here. Otherwise, we're no better than them," Murdoch advised.

Scott sighed. "I know you're right. Still, if we can get our hands on them, at least there might be something in that house to hang them with. Once they're arrested, even on suspicion, we'd be able to get those records. Right, Val?"

"That's right. But, only if the judge thought it was important to the case. I mean, if they got locked up for fighting in the saloon, it wouldn't hold water."

Scott pulled back on the reins, coming to a halt.

Both Murdoch and Val stopped a few feet ahead of him then turned and walked their horses back.

"What if one of them turned it over? Turned state's evidence to save their own hide?" Scott asked, eyes bright with the prospect of ending this without more bloodshed.

"Like who?" Val asked then, enlightenment came to him and he smiled widely. "He'd have to be given immunity. We wouldn't be able to charge him with anything."

"It's worth it, isn't it?"

"Do you really think Higgs has enough guts for that?" Murdoch asked, intrigued by the idea.

Val smirked. "I think I can convince him."

All three men sat still for a brief moment before turning and heading back to Modesto.

*****

Hunkered in the trees across the road from the house, Val thought he'd go crazy if he didn't get some coffee, at least, and pretty soon. None of them had eaten more than jerky since yesterday and now, the sun was setting. Maybe Higgs was gonna stay the night. The thought almost made him growl. Of course ... "Ya know, they might've killed the fat bastard," he whispered the idea.

Murdoch shook his head. "We'd better hope not. If they did, we're back to square one." Just as the words came out of his mouth, the front door opened and all three of them tensed.

Higgs walked out and hurried to his surrey with another, smaller bag clutched in his hands.

"Payoff, I'll bet," Scott whispered.

"We'll let him get out of town them catch up to him," Murdoch said and they started backing out of their hiding place and heading for their horses.

"Shouldn't be too hard to convince him," Val said, actually looking forward to this.

"We'd better make sure they don't follow. They could decide to kill him on the road so the sheriff won't be alerted."

Val stopped checking his cinch and turned to Scott. "Ya know somethin? You're pretty good at this."

Scott dipped his head then smiled. "Thanks, Val. I've had some good teachers in my time. Not the least of which is my brother."

"Yeah, he's pretty damned sneaky, too."

Grinning widely, Scott said, "I'll straggle behind and keep an eye out while you two catch up with Higgs."

"Be careful, son. Any sign of trouble, give us the sign." Murdoch squeezed his arm then saddled up and headed out with Val.

Scott sighed, a warmth spreading through him. Maybe, his father was easing up, letting go of what he perceived as a major faux pas on Scott's part. He shook the thoughts away and concentrated on the task at hand.

*****

It didn't take long to catch up with the mayor but Val wanted to lag behind until he was well away from the town. If these men were planning on following, he wanted to give Scott time to get into a good position. The sun was nearly gone, casting long shadows across the trail but, the moon was almost full and rising. They'd have no problem seeing but, Val figured Higgs would. He wasn't exactly used to traveling this way or at night. He figured they had all the advantages. Of course, anything could happen. Lord knew, he'd seen it enough times.

He glanced over at Murdoch and saw the determined set of his jaw. A smile crossed his face as he thought of how many times he'd seen that exact same thing on his friend. When Johnny was mad, he was a force to be reckoned with. So was Murdoch Lancer.

Five miles out Val gave a sign and they turned off the road, heading up the small hill and working through the forestry until they were half a mile ahead of Higgs. Val turned and headed down just past a curve in the road. It was perfect. Higgs would never see them until he was right on top of them. He drew his gun and sat the saddle, posture relaxed, left hand resting on the saddle horn as he waited.

Murdoch kept his gun holstered. This was Val's play and his history with Higgs would make a huge difference in how this worked out. He knew his part and he was definitely up to the challenge. They heard the jangle as the surrey came near.

Higgs pulled back on the reins hard, causing the sorrel to do a little dance of dissatisfaction for the harsh treatment. Murdoch dismounted and walked quickly to the horse, settling it down. The last thing they needed was a runaway.

"Murdoch! What in the world are you doing here? Why, I was just returning from visiting a sick friend. You nearly gave me apoplexy!" Higgs reached into his coat and pulled out a handkerchief, dabbing his brow as his eyes settled on Val Crawford.

Val dismounted slowly and swaggered over to the side of the surrey. Placing his left hand on the rail, he leaned in. "Howdy, Mr. Mayor. Need ya to step on down from there now."

"Step down? Why? What is going on? Has something happened?"

"Was something supposed to?" Murdoch asked, his heart beating a little faster.

"Get down, ya weasel!" Val grabbed his arm and pulled him out of the surrey, nearly landing him face first in the dirt.

Higgs staggered then managed to right himself before jerking his arm free. "What is the meaning of this?"

Val stood before him. He pushed his hat up with the barrel of his gun then ran it along his cheek, scratching an itch. "Games over, Higgs. Now, it's time to pay for what you've done. We been talking it over and we've decided to give you a break. I ain't gonna throw you in jail and, we might even be convinced to let you keep bein mayor."

Murdoch hid his surprise at that last statement. No way in hell was that happening but, he let Val play the game. He stepped over to stand beside the sheriff.

"I don't know what you're talking about. I was visiting ..."

"Yeah, yeah. We know exactly where you were because we've been followin ya since you left Green River. Had a nice long talk with the sheriff in Modesto, too. We know who's livin in that house you been hold up in all day. Only thing I'm wondering is," he hesitated as he reached around Higgs and grabbed up the satchel, "what's in here?"

Higgs grabbed at the bag. "Give that back! That belongs to me. You have no right!"

Val ignored him and opened the latch. He whistled when he got a look inside. "That's a lot of money, Mayor. What's it for, store supplies?"

"Exactly!" Higgs proclaimed the wiped his forehead again.

"Val," Murdoch grumbled softly and impatiently.

The sheriff glanced at him and nodded. He threw the satchel into the seat. "Higgs, you're in a heap of trouble and ya know it. Now, you can get yourself out of it, keep all that money and your reputation back home if you play along with us."

"We know you're partnered with the men after Lancer. We know you've given them all the information they need." Murdoch stepped closer, towering over the diminutive man. "We know," he ground out, "you told them who Johnny was and that got my son killed. Believe me when I tell you it's taking everything I have not to rip you apart right now. The only reason I haven't is because I know you're not in charge of this ... consortium or whatever you want to call it. I want the main men in charge. If I don't get them, I'll settle for you."

Val let him do it, knew he needed to and it was necessary to scare the living hell out of Higgs. But, he heard real emotion in those words and part of him started to worry if Murdoch could hold back. He only hoped the man remembered Johnny wasn't really dead. He shouldered his way between the two men.

Higgs was pale as the moon rising above them, shaking so badly, his teeth chattered. Val knew they had him now. "All you have to do to get yourself out of this mess is go back to that house and get us what we need."

"I ... I can't go back. They told me never to come back."

"Well, we'll figure up a good reason for it but you

*****
are
*****
goin back!" Val pointed a finger in his chest.

"But, what do you want?"

"Paperwork. Any and all paperwork they have in that house. I don't care what it's about, just get it all and bring it to us."

"I can't do that, Murdoch. How am I suppose to just walk in there and take such a thing. They'll kill me!"

"Not if we get them out of the house," Val said, an idea forming in his mind. He looked at Murdoch and just nodded. "Get back in that surrey. We're goin back to Modesto. We'll head to Sheriff Callahan's."

*****

Dawn finally broke and all three men had finally gotten a decent meal thanks to Nate Callahan. He'd listened half the night to their idea and they'd eventually convinced him to go along.

Scott stared openly at Val who was staring into some distant place. He'd always been curious about the friendship between his brother and the sheriff. After spending so much time with Val, he was starting to see why Johnny had such high regard for the man. He may not look like much but, he was smart, very smart. Scott had been impressed with the sheriff's plan and now, he was anxious to get started. But they had to wait a while longer, just to make it convincing.

Murdoch looked deep into his coffee cup as if it held the answers to every question he'd ever had. He smiled a little to himself as he had that thought. No cup was going to unravel the mystery that was his sons. It wouldn't help him understand how and why they did the things they did. He thought he'd come to know them but, every day, he saw something else, something ... more about their personalities. He used to think they had similar views on life. That's how it seemed to him as they usually agreed on everything. He realized now that wasn't always the case and that, sometimes, they were just disagreeing with him. That made it appear as if they both felt the same way about an issue but, that wasn't true. Usually, each had his own take on a thing and it was entirely different from the other, or his own.

He sighed heavily as he came to the understanding that Johnny and Scott were very different on how they viewed life. They had principles, no doubt. It was how they approached things, how they upheld those principles that was so very different.

Val went through the plan over and over in his head, thinking of alternatives if things didn't pan out like they hoped. He imagined what Johnny would do or say about what he had in mind and he felt his friend would be on board with this. Of course, Johnny's first thought would be to strangle Higgs, just like him. But, he'd let that out then move on to something that would actually help the situation. He heard a loud snort and his head jerked up, glowering at the man on the cot in the corner. Higgs sure wasnâ€t losing any sleep over this. As far as he knew, he'd gotten Johnny Lancer killed and that seemed to be just fine by him.

Val's fists curled up as he watched the jackass sleep like he didn't have a care in the world. It would be his immense pleasure to ruin this man's life and he intended to do just that. He may not go to jail for, Val wouldn't go back on his word that much but, he'd make sure Higgs left Green River before it was all said and done. Matter of fact, he'd be leaving the valley.

Nate had managed to get some sleep and he stumbled over to the coffee pot for the fourth time. Sighing after taking a long drink, he cleared his throat. "Reckon we should get this show on the road. Someone want to wake that coward up?"

No one moved, hoping someone else would do the honors. Finally, Val growled and stood, walking over and kicking the cot as hard as he could.

Higgs snorted and snuffled then coughed as he came quickly out of sleep. Wiping a hand down his face, he frowned at the sheriff before seeming to remember where he was and what was happening to him. He slowly managed to get himself sitting up.

"Get yourself together. It's time to go," Val ordered then went back to the table.

*****

Nate Callahan walked up to the front door of the small house and knocked loudly. He had no idea if these men even awoke at a decent hour and he didn't really care. He was about to do something he wasn't so sure about but, the alternative didn't sit well with him. The thought of these men getting away with all they'd done made his stomach turn. The door opened and he plastered a somber look on his face.

"Mornin, Mr. Gillespie. I hope it's not too early."

"Not at all, Sheriff. What can I do for you?"

Callahan took him in once more. Just under six feet, he had to be about fifty. Always well-dressed, today was no different. He had a lot of hair, most of it gray with some dark strands still peeking through but it was always combed and in place. The hazel eyes were beady and set too close together. "Well, Sir, I'm afraid it's not good news. I'm here about that friend of yours that was visitin yesterday?"

He watched the man's shoulders stiffen, his eyes narrow even more. "Friend?"

"Yeah, that short fella I saw leaving last evenin in the surrey?"

Gillespie eyed him closely. "Oh, yes."

"Well, I'm afraid there's been an accident. His horse must've got skittish and run off with him. I found him about five miles outside town. Well, I didn't find him. A cowboy did. Anyway, I'm afraid he's dead."

The man's eyes widened then he rubbed his chin. "How tragic. He wasn't really a friend but an associate. I don't suppose you saw a satchel he was carrying?"

"No, don't think I did. Was payin more attention to the body, though, so there coulda been one. Thing is, I don't know who he is and I didn't want to rifle through the man's things unless I had to. You know, out of respect."

"Of course, Sheriff. I'll take care of the arrangements, myself. He's at the undertakers, I assume?"

"That's right. I'll send someone out this afternoon for the surrey. Just don't have the help until later. I'll drop his belongings off to you then."

"Thank you, Sheriff. You've been most kind."

Nate tipped his hat and walked away, breathing a quiet sigh of relief. He raised his hat then resettled it on his head, giving the signal all had gone well.

*****

From the trees where they'd waited the previous day, Val nodded then stepped deeper into the woods. "Okay, they bought it."

"What if all three of them don't go?" Scott asked.

"I figure for the kind of money in that bag, they will. If they don't, we'll set the house on fire."

"What?" Higgs gasped loudly.

"Shut up, ya damned fool! All you hafta worry about is gettin them papers," Val said.

"I don't see why I have to get them. Why can't you go do it?"

The three men looked at each other and silently agreed. Murdoch looked down at the little man. "This is your mess, Higgs. You have to clean it up."

"Well, lookee there," Val said as he pushed his hat back.

All eyes fell on the house as the three men rode around from the back, heading out at a gallop. Eyes that strained to get a good look at the men to no avail.

"Alright, let's go," Scott said and grabbed Higgs arm, pulling him along.

When they reached the front of the house, Murdoch stopped only briefly. "I'll go around back just in case you decide to do something stupid," he said to Higgs.

"Alright, grab anything that looks like paperwork or maps. Go!" Scott pushed him forward and the mayor stumbled up the three steps to the porch. Glancing behind him, he opened the door and disappeared.

"Think he'll figure it out?" Val asked.

"No, he's too stupid and too scared," Scott shot.

*****

Johnny sat on the side of the bed, Cip's hand on his shoulder. After another few seconds, he raised his head and nodded. The segundo helped him to his feet then wrapped an arm around his waist. Around and around the room they walked slowly. Johnny's legs were shaking and he stuttered out a laugh.

"Must be how babies feel when they're first learnin to walk."

"Si, you have been in bed a long time, sobrino. You are doing very well."

"Thanks, tio. How's our prisoner, by the way?"

Cipriano shrugged. "Quiet. He is fed, he does not speak to the men. He has not tried to escape."

Johnny frowned at that information even as he passed a hand across his sweaty forehead. "Seems like he would, ya know? I mean, knowing what's waitin for him."

"Perhaps, he knows this is not the time or place. The men are very careful with him."

"That's good. Let's get to the chair."

Cip eased him down into the chair seat then knelt beside him so he could see the young man's face. He was pale and sweaty and maybe, a little gray, too.

Johnny closed his eyes as he rested his head. "I've been thinkin," he started then opened his eyes to a wary look. A grin came to his lips. "They should've been back by now, don't you think?"

Shaking his head, Cip negated that. "No, I do not. These men, they are like the fox, si? It will take time to flush them out. Your father and brother can take care of themselves, sobrino. And, Senor Val, he would look after them, si?"

"Si, he will. I just hate not knowin what's going on."

The segundo got off his knee and sat in the chair across from Johnny. "It is difficult when you are not kept informed."

Sighing, Johnny looked at the man. "Still? You're still pissed about that?"

"Do not curse, Johnny. No, I am not angry. Disappointed, perhaps."

"Yeah, I know. I'm sorry, tio. I hate that any of this happened. We're all just doin the best we can. It's been quiet. Maybe, too quiet. Makes me itchy."

Cipriano laughed at that. "It is time to feed you again. I will return soon."

Johnny grabbed his arm as he passed by, causing the older man to stop and look down at him. "Please, be careful. Don't take anything for granted. I couldn't stand it if something happened to you."

The big Mexican ran a gentle hand over Johnny's head, smiling at him. "You have always been the heart of our family, Johnny. Always. I will stay well if only to ensure you do, sobrino."

*****

"That's all I could find," Higgs proclaimed as he emerged with a folder full of papers.

Val whistled and Murdoch appeared from the back of the house. "Best we light out of here, now. We can look this stuff over when we get back."

"Agreed. We've been gone too long as it is," Murdoch said, his voice rumbling with worry.

"What about me?" Higgs asked.

Scott turned quickly and glared at the man. He bit his lip hard not to speak his thoughts. "You're coming with us. We'll keep you under guard at Lancer until it's safe."

Val snorted. "Yeah, besides, we might need you for somethin else. Who knows? Maybe you can tell us what happened to Old Man Finnegan!"

Scott snickered at that. The old miner who had disappeared into the hills years ago had been the stuff of myths and legends in the valley. Some thought he'd hit the mother lode and been kidnapped. Others thought he'd just been killed outright, his body dumped somewhere in the abandoned gold mines. Still others told he'd found the woman of his dreams and run off. The stories were outrageous and some mystic. He'd started hearing about it almost as soon as he'd arrived out here. Murdoch had said the man simply went back home to Ohio but, no one wanted to believe something as mundane as that.

As Val managed to get Higgs in the saddle of the horse they'd bought for him, Scott leaned into his father. "I hope Cip has been able to sit on Johnny."

"I have every confidence, son. He's the only one who could, though."

Scott nodded and headed for his mount. "We should be home late tonight if we can get a good pace going."

Murdoch sighed as he looked over at Higgs holding onto the saddle horn. As he mounted up, he made a promise. "We'll make sure we do."

"What about Callahan? Do you think he'll be alright once those men find out the truth?"

"Well, Scott," Val started, "from what I've seen of the man he can handle himself just fine. Besides, we did leave the satchel for them to find. Somehow, I doubt they'll care much about burying this weasel. Probably just hand over a few bills to the undertaker like we thought and that'll be the end of it."

"Yes, and if he does have a problem he promised to send for us," Murdoch added.

"Alright, let's get home," Scott said and pressed Remmie into a lope.

*****

After eating his soup plus the bonus of a sandwich, Johnny's eyes started growing heavy. Cipriano watched in bemusement as the young man's head dipped lower and lower toward his chest.

"Alright, sobrino. It is time to sleep now. Tomorrow, we will walk some more and you will have your strength back before you know it."

Johnny blinked rapidly then looked up at the man with a smile. "Sounds good, tio. Real good. Maybe, I'll even be on my feet when Murdoch and Scott get back."

"Well, we will see about that. For now, we will take one step at a time, comprende?"

Johnny looked up at the man as he swayed a little on his feet. "Sure, tio. One step at a time. One day at a time." He frowned at that then sighed and started back to his bed. He made it two feet before the fire bell began clanging.

Cipriano came to a stop then looked back toward the window. He felt Johnny pull away from him and turn back.

"Make sure someone stays with the prisoner. Gather the men and get ready. If it's a fire, it may be another trick. We'll stand our ground here if it's not too bad." He made it to the bed and pulled his gun from under the pillow.

Cip looked at him, saw the color in his face and knew it to be anger. He nodded then headed downstairs to find out what was happening. As he slowly opened the front door, he immediately saw the problem and his heart raced. Moving cautiously, he stepped onto the veranda and saw the men already fighting the barn fire. He felt the presence behind him more than heard it and turned quickly.

"No, Johnny, no!" he said as he halted the young man's progress.

"Barranca," Johnny whispered.

Cip heard the mournful word and squeezed the young man close to him. "Go back inside, protect the house. I will make sure things are under control. Por favor, Johnny. We must protect you and ourselves."

Johnny nodded, his eyes fixed on the barn as the fire intensified. He could hear the horses screaming and his heart broke. Hanging his head, he turned and went back inside.

He closed the door behind him then leaned against it, closing his eyes briefly before finding his iron. Lifting his head, Johnny's eyes were afire as he headed to the gunrack and retrieved two rifles and a box of shells. Adrenaline pumped through his veins and he felt no pain, no weariness, nothing but pure, raw rage.

*****

Cipriano advanced on the barn as he took in the surrounding landscape. He came quickly upon Frank, heading the brigade.

"No one has started shootin' and we didn't see anyone around," the hand reported.

Cip scowled. "Someone was around, amigo, to set the fire. Try to get Barranca out, por favor."

Frank gave him a puzzled look then nodded and headed back to the fire as Cip found another man to take care of a potentially worse problem. "Isidro! Make sure the prisoner is being watched closely. He must not escape, comprende?"

"Si, Paulo is with him but I will go check."

"Stay with Paulo. If there is any trouble at all, fire your gun. I do not care who it may be pointed at, except Paulo, of course."

Isidro nodded and took off. He would have laughed at the words had the situation not been so dire.

Cipriano watched the men briefly before heading quickly to the corral fence. He stepped on the lowest rail and studied the land again. He could see nothing in the waning light. The sun was nearly set but not so much as to impede his vision yet. There was no one around. He still didn't like it. He walked back to the fire fighters and pulled Frank aside.

"Take twenty men and ride a perimeter. If anyone sees anything at all suspicious, give the signal. Tell them not to hesitate for a second. Even if it turns out to be nothing, it is better to be safe."

"What about the rest of the men?" Frank asked.

"We will double the guards around the house once the fire is out and stay that way until the Patron returns." He grabbed Frank's arm as the man started to leave. "Barranca?"

Frank smiled and pointed. "He's in the lower pasture. We got all the horses out."

"Bueno. Gracias, amigo, muchos gracias."

Frank nodded, he supposed losing Barranca would be a big blow for the boss. He could understand, as much as Johnny had loved that horse.

Cipriano walked back inside the house after the fire had been extinguished and the guards had been posted. He'd checked on Winston and found him still where he should be. Everyone was on alert and he was satisfied they'd done all they could. They hadn't been able to save the barn, though. As he stepped into the great room, he pulled up short - the Winchester pointed squarely at his chest.

Johnny sighed and raised the barrel toward the ceiling. He relaxed back into the chair then said, "tell me."

Cip walked over and sat next to him, patting his knee. "All the horses were saved, sobrino. Barranca is in the lower pasture and he is fine."

Johnny dropped his head and forced stupid emotions down. "The barn?"

"Gone. We could not save it but there was no attack, as you know. The prisoner is still in his cell, as well."

"What the hell, Cip? Why burn the barn now? I mean, they've already attacked us once, they have to know Murdoch and Scott ain't home. Why not take the ..." he stopped and sighed. "There's no prize. Murdoch and Scott aren't here to kill. They just want us to know they're still around."

Cipriano nodded, it made sense to him.

Johnny's head came up, his eyes narrowing. "Damn," he whispered then leaned forward. "Until Murdoch and Scott get back, they're gonna keep hitting us. They'll run the hands ragged, wear them down. Make them so tired, they won't be so good in an all out fight. We'll be weaker and easier to take when my family does come back."

"They cannot know how long that will be."

"Don't matter, they'll use this advantage as long as they can. Make sure the men are posted in shifts, tio. Make sure they all get rest. We may have to do with less when the fight comes but, they'll still be sharp."

"Si, and we can always send for reinforcements from the Conaway ranch."

"Yes! Send two men over there now and ask Addison to send his men to us. We'll have them bunk down, lay low so no one knows they're around. That'll give us an edge."

"I will have them come around through the woods, not the road, so they are not seen."

Johnny nodded then relaxed back into the chair.

"You must rest, as well. We will need that cunning mind of yours."

Johnny's eyes came wide open as he stared at his uncle. A grin erupted followed by a soft laugh.

*****

Scott's prediction didn't hold true. Higgs made it impossible to keep the horses going as he complained and whined the entire time. Mostly, they'd had to stop for a few hours in the middle of the night for the horse's sake. The mayor's girth wore the animal down quicker than it would normally tire. Scott's irritation was reaching new heights with this man and he wasn't sure how much longer he could contain himself. It was already noon and they still had an hour or so at this before reaching the ranch. He looked at the sky and sighed for the hundredth time, it seemed.

Val moved to his side, a slight smirk on his face. "Try to stay calm, Scott. Won't do much good now to get crazy on him."

"You'll be sure to tell me when it will be a good time for that, won't you, Val?" Scott shot him a sidelong look and shook his head. "I didn't get a good look at those men, did you?"

"Nope. Don't recognize the names either, but that don't mean anything. Dressed like cityslickers but, they can be just as dangerous as any other man."

Scott nodded his agreement. "Sometimes, worse. I've noticed more honesty from men out here than those I knew in my grandfather's circle. They were always looking for an angle and would say anything to get what they wanted. Most people out here just tell you they're going to take what's yours."

Val laughed outright at that. "Well, we got our liars, too. Don't worry about that. Plenty to go around."

"Lucky us," Scott quipped. "We should at least pick up the pace now. We're almost there and I think his horse can handle it."

"Sure, I'll take his lead rein so he keeps up," Val agreed then moved up front to let Murdoch know the plan. It didn't escape his notice, the man was quickly agreeable. Val knew Murdoch wanted to get back to Johnny and he liked seeing this side of the hard-assed rancher. He fell back and took Higgs lead rein. "Just relax, Mr. Mayor, and hang on. We're gonna get a little speed goin here. Won't be long before we reach Lancer."

"I don't think I can go any further without a break, Sheriff. Can't we relax for a while under those trees over there?"

Val ground his teeth as he watched the man swipe sweat from his face. "No, we can't. Don't know what's goin on back at the ranch and the Lancers need to get there before the year's over with. Hang on and stop your belly-achin!"

Scott stayed in his position at the rear when all he really wanted was to gallop full out until he reached home. He was worried about Johnny, the ranch and everything else in the world, he guessed. And, he was anxious to get a look at the papers Higgs had confiscated. On top of all that, those men had to know by now what was missing. He was certain they'd be sending someone after their possessions. Especially, if those papers were as valuable as Scott hoped they were.

He knew Val and Murdoch were well aware of that fact but, he also knew Higgs didn't have a clue. He was a sad and pathetic man to be sure. So hungry for power and respect he'd neither earned nor deserved. Scott would never forget what this man had done and he was going to make sure the entire valley knew, too.

Now, he had to watch the backside of the man bounce around in the saddle as he held onto the horn for dear life. Under other circumstances, it would be hysterically funny but, Scott didn't find much to laugh about these days.

*****

They wound their way through the woods on the north side of the hacienda. Unwilling to openly announce their return home, Scott moved up to his father's side. He could feel the anxiety dripping off the man. The need to see Johnny palpable on the man's very skin. Scott sucked back a smile, only the edges of it pulling at his lips. As soon as they cleared the trees, that curve turned into a slack-jawed gape.

Murdoch pulled back hard on the reins though it wasn't necessary and the horse let him know that. As he settled the animal automatically, he stared at the ruins of the barn. "Dear God," he whispered, his throat closing tighter.

"Damn," Val cussed softly as he came abreast, Higgs just behind him and panting so loud, everyone could hear.

"Easy, Mr. Lancer. Let's just ride around the back real quiet like. We don't want to cause a ruckus."

"The guards have been doubled. I'll go first to let them know it's us," Scott said, even as he pressed Remmie into a walk.

Murdoch gave him a few yards lead then followed, his face set in grim determination. Yes, those were their guards so, at least the house hadn't been overrun. But, what about Johnny? His gut had been telling him about this all day and half of last night. He hadn't known the what but he did now.

Scott gave an all clear signal and Murdoch increased his gait to make it to the back of the house. Val kept stride with him and they dismounted together.

"Go ahead in. If there's trouble, I'll back you up but I hafta get fats here to the ground and put him somewhere," Val said.

"If the kitchen is clear, we can lock him in the pantry for now. Should make him happy, anyway," Scott retorted then drew his gun and opened the door quietly.

Higgs said nothing and hurried into the pantry, gratitude on his face for the safe haven. Val just shook his head as he slid the bolt home then followed the Lancers toward the front of the house.

Somehow, Murdoch had gotten ahead of Scott and he was still trying to figure how that had happened as they stepped into the living room, welcomed by a Winchester and two Colts pointed at them.

*****

"Murdoch!" Johnny called, his face relaxing into a smile. He eased back down from his position leaning over the back of the sofa. "Glad you're all back. Everyone in one piece?"

"We are. Are you?" Murdoch nodded at Cipriano then hurried to his son's side.

Val was grinning and Scott was too relieved to do much but stand there for a second then, he joined his family.

"He is well, Senor, but too stubborn to return to his room."

"What happened?" Scott asked.

"Somebody burned down the barn, Boston. The boys got all the horses out. They didn't attack, though. Not one single shot."

"Tryin to keep the men busy, wear 'em all down," Val piped in.

"Yep, that's what I figured, too. Still, it's been quiet all day. No stampedes or nothin. But, we sent for some Conway hands. They're hunkered down in the bunkhouse so no one knows they're here."

Murdoch sighed as he took it all in. "And you didn't go outside?"

Johnny lowered his eyes before looking up at his uncle. "I tried but, tio stopped me. Good thing, too. When I saw the barn on fire, I ..." he cleared his throat, "well, I was worried it would reach the house."

Murdoch chewed the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. When he thought he could, he spoke. "Very responsible of you, John."

"He was very much in charge, Patron." Cipriano's pride shined in his eyes. "El doctoro came by but it was not a problem. He will be back tomorrow, perhaps."

"Said the stitches could come out next time he's here," Johnny reported.

"How are you really feeling, brother? Tell me true." Scott sat on the coffee table in front of the sofa and watched to see if his brother would buck.

"Not bad. Still tired and all but, better than I woulda thought. Been eatin good, haven't I, tio?"

"Si, muy bueno, in fact. He will be fat, soon, I think." Cip smiled widely. "He has walked very short distances, as well."

Murdoch raised a brow. "Well, that's excellent news."

"What news have you three got?" Johnny asked as he settled a little more on his pillows.

"Did you spend the night down here? Let's get you in bed first, then we'll tell you all about it."

Val suddenly remembered. "Reckon I should let Higgs outta the pantry? Don't know where to put him."

"What's he doin here?"

"All in time, brother. All in time. Murdoch's right, you need to get to bed. We can put him in one of the rooms down here, Val. I'll have a guard posted. And remember, Higgs doesn't know Johnny is alive."

"Neither do the men, Senor Scott. I will have someone guard him then, I will check the range."

"Cipriano," Murdoch said as he rose to his feet and faced the man. "Thank you for protecting Johnny and the ranch."

Cip accepted the handshake and looked at his nephew. "With my life, Senor. With my life." He nodded then turned and walked out.

Johnny sighed and lowered his head, embarrassed at the open show of emotion. Not something he'd gotten from his mother's side so much. At least, not that mushy stuff. A small smile graced his lips.

*****

Once Higgs was taken care of and Johnny was settled in bed, Scott brought the file upstairs to his brother's room. He, Val and Murdoch spent half an hour telling Johnny what they knew then, they started going through the papers.

Johnny held a sheet of paper in front of him, a frown on his face. "They'll come after this if it's important. Probably already on their way or very near the house."

"I'd thought of that. We have guards everywhere plus your reinforcements," Scott said.

"Yeah, I'm just sayin, if this stuff will hang them, they'll do whatever they have to do to get it back. That little party the other day ain't nothin if that's the case."

"Reckon we should see if there's anything here before worryin about that," Val said in his usual gruff manner.

Johnny quirked his mouth then turned his attention back to his work.

Ten minutes passed before Scott stood up, still staring at the papers in his hands. "Well, I'd say I found something. Take a look at this, Sir." He handed the paperwork to his father.

Murdoch read it and no one had to ask his opinion. The granite visage transformed his face into anger and determination.

"Well, what is it?" Val finally asked.

"Plans, payroll, names of their hired men, maps of Lancer and detailed notes on how to attack the ranch step by step."

"You're kiddin," Johnny deadpanned and reached out for the plans.

Val settled on the bed at his shoulder and they looked through everything together. Johnny would point to something and they'd both snicker.

Scott watched it all and was reminded of two boys reading something they shouldn't and laughing because they didn't understand what it was, only that it was forbidden. That last part, of course, fell short. Val and Johnny knew exactly what they were looking at.

"Hey, Val, can I keep these? I mean, I might need them someday if I ever have to go back to the game. It'd be reeaalll helpful."

"Hell, we oughta get it published." Val waved his hand across the air in front of him as if seeing something. "How to steal land and hire gunfighters. Good title, ain't it?"

Both of them fell out laughing as Murdoch and Scott watched them. Murdoch wondered if Johnny had a fever and Val had caught it. "What the devil is so funny?" he demanded.

"Well, Murdoch," Johnny chuckled, "I've just never seen anybody write all this out before. I mean, is it that hard to remember? Hell, if I did this, I woulda spent all my time writin instead of gettin a thing done."

Scott huffed and smiled. "I told you, they're businessmen and they like to keep orderly records, like our father." He spared a glance at Murdoch.

Johnny laughed even more at that. "Hey, you keep records on what time we come in, how much work we did and what you think it's worth?"

"Of course not!" Murdoch growled then, his lips twitched. "But, it's a good idea."

That set all three younger men off and Murdoch thought it was good to hear them all laugh again, after all. Still, they needed to get serious now.

"Gentlemen, we need to discuss our own plans," he said in his business voice.

The three of them settled down and got to the problem at hand. Val scratched his head and sighed.

"Well, I'll need to wire the US Marshal and get them down here. I'm sure they'd be interested. We got the papers which were legally obtained from one of their partners and we got Higgs."

Johnny snorted. "You think he'd testify? I mean really, Val. That coward? Besides, I get my hands on him he won't be in any shape."

"You ain't gettin your hands on him, Johnny. We need him like it or not. After that, I don't care what happens to him. I'll ride back to town and send that wire."

"Take some men with you, Val." Murdoch raised a hand when the sheriff pulled his shoulders back. "Anyone can get ambushed. Just ask Johnny. We need you now more than ever. It's imperative you get word to the Marshal. And, maybe Nate has sent some word, too. He said he'd let us know if anything out of the ordinary happened with those men."

Val deflated but he was still insulted. "Yeah, okay. I'll be back in a few hours."

"Meanwhile, why don't you look over that list of employees closely and see if you recognize any names, brother? It might be helpful if we know who we're up against and how they operate since Winston is out of the picture."

"Good idea, Scott," Murdoch said.

"Okay, I'm out of here. Keep an eye out for anymore attacks and, keep an eye on this one. He's still sneaky," Val shot as he strode to the door.

Johnny grinned at that. "Some things won't ever change, amigo. Just make sure you keep your head on your shoulders and don't come back here with any holes ya didn't leave with."

*****

Murdoch headed to the kitchen to find something they could all eat. He started a stew and made some biscuits and thought how he missed doing this from time to time. His sons had never really eaten a full meal he'd cooked. Maybe, when this is all over, I can do that for them, he thought.

"Smells good in here. I can't remember the last time we had a real meal." Scott stood in the doorway, leaning against the jamb with his arms crossed over his chest.

"I was just thinking I'd like to cook a real meal sometimes. This is just stew."

"I'd look forward to that." Scott pushed off and came fully into the room, heading for the coffee pot on the stove. "Johnny seems remarkably better. Do you think he really is?"

Murdoch put the butter on the table then headed for the bowls. "It occurred to me he might be trying to convince us but, no, I think this wound really woke him up. He's been honest about how he's feeling all along."

"That's what I thought, too. He does heal fast."

"Yes, that's a good thing. We're going to need him soon, I think." He stopped as he placed the bowls on the table and shook his head. "I don't want him out in the middle of a gun battle, though. No matter how he feels, he's still weak and shaky, at best."

Scott sipped his coffee and sighed. "Agreed. Still, as much as I hate to admit it, he did a good job the other day. Just don't tell him that or he'll be out rounding up Barranca."

Murdoch chuckled then laughed more exuberantly. "Did you hear him in there? He was worried about the house?"

Barking a laugh, Scott set his cup down. "He loves that horse."

"I knew that palomino was a fine animal when we got him."

Scott lowered his eyes, his smile fading a little. "You do know it's not as much the animal as the fact it was you who gifted it to him? He loves that horse and he bonded with it because of you."

Murdoch looked at him in disbelief then his face fell and he lowered his head. Scott would know better than anyone, he supposed. His heart thumped a little at the thought. That Johnny, at that early stage of their relationship, would take such a thing to heart. Clearing his throat, he tried to shrug it off. "It was just a horse. You both needed one."

Shaking his head, Scott walked over to the table beside his father. "It's the first thing you ever gave him that he can remember. Maybe, right at that moment, he didn't realize it but, it didn't take him long. He told me that's why he takes such special pride in Barranca. He's had horses before and they meant something to him but, none of them meant as much as that palomino. Johnny would have run into that burning barn last night if he'd been able, to save Barranca."

Murdoch sniffed. "Well, I need to check the stew."

Scott smiled as his father moved quickly to the stove then, he walked out the back door into the garden.

*****

Johnny sighed heavily then gave himself a mental pat on the back. He'd made it to the chair by the window without any help and it hadn't been too bad. Sore, sure but, he could handle sore a sight better than how it was before. A shiver ran over him thinking of the pain after that gunfight. That was worse than the original wound in his mind. Well, it's getting better so no sense worryin on it.

He thumbed through the pages of the file until he got to the list of names. Chuckling again at the stupidity of supposedly smart men, he went slowly down the list, thinking of each name carefully before going to the next. Sometimes, a name jumped out at you and sometimes, you knew it but had to think a while before placing it. He didn't want to miss anything that might mean the difference for his family's lives.

Vic Winston was at the top of list so, Johnny figured he was their best. A good thing since he was now out of commission but, that didn't mean they hadn't replaced him already. He raised a brow at the price they'd apparently placed on his head. "Ain't all that damned good," he muttered then went about his task.

The curtain blew in the soft breeze, covering the papers. Johnny pushed it aside with some annoyance but it just came right back. Sighing, he took hold of the thing and pushed it back behind the chair, hoping it would stay put. If not, one of them was going to have to move and he figured it would be him. His eyes roved across the ground below and he spied his brother walking about the garden. Johnny smiled and thought of calling down to him but, Scott would just holler about him being out of bed.

Still, something about the way his brother was walking and how his shoulders were slumped grabbed Johnny's attention. Scott never walked like that, his head down, his hands shoved in his pockets. He looked ... sad. Yeah, that was it. Sad. Frowning, he wondered at the way his brother had been acting since the shooting. They never had talked about it. Scott wouldn't. He believed Scott didn't blame him and he didn't really think now that was the problem. Something was weighing heavy on the man's shoulders. He wished Scott would talk to him. Maybe he would now that Johnny was feeling better. Maybe. Sometimes, Scott closed up so tight, air couldn't even get in there.

He sighed again and went back to his list. The third name down drew his attention. That was one he knew but, he wasn't all that good. Wondering briefly if this list was made up from importance of just by who was hired when, he decided to write down the names he knew. He reached to the table nearby and grabbed the pencil and paper kept there. Why it was there, he didn't have a clue. This was a guest bedroom so maybe, Murdoch thought some guest might need it. A nice idea, he guessed. His father was a considerate man. Johnny smiled a little as he thought of how the old man had been treating him. It felt really good to know how important he was to his father.

That thought flew out the window when he heard the footsteps that came to an abrupt halt. Well, guess I'm in for it now.

He looked over at the door with a sheepish grin. "Hey."

"Did Scott help you up?"

Johnny lowered his head and looked back at his papers. "No."

"Cipriano?"

"No," he dragged out. "I did it myself and I wasn't anywhere near passin out or anything. It's sore, is all, like I've told you."

Murdoch grimaced even deeper then set the tray on the table near his son. "I made some stew and biscuits."

"Yeah?" Johnny's eyes brightened. "I am kind of hungry now that ya mention it."

Murdoch smiled. "I'm glad to hear that. Put those away for a while and eat. Have you found anything yet?"

Johnny laid the papers in the chair beside him. "One name I know but, he's no hot shot. I'm still lookin. I don't know if they're by order of who's best or by when they were hired so, I figured I'd have to go through the whole thing."

Murdoch pulled the table nearer then sat down across from his son. "There are a lot of names."

He heard the concern in his father's voice. "Yeah, but a lot of them are probably dead now, ya know."

"I'm sure they'll be replaced."

"Sure, but that takes more time than they've had. Now that we know how damning this stuff is, I'm betting they come at us again even if they ain't ready." He took a bite of the stew and chewed a few times before stopping. Eyes wide and raised to his father, he proclaimed, "this is good, Murdoch. Really good!"

"Thank you, son. I actually enjoy cooking."

"You should do it more often."

"Slow down, it's not going anywhere and don't talk with your mouth full," Murdoch admonished. He was surprised by the response he got. Johnny put the spoon down and lowered his head, obviously chewing and swallowing his mouthful.

Once done, he mumbled, "sorry. Guess I was pretty hungry."

Murdoch felt like an ass and he tempered his tone. "You'll make yourself sick eating so fast. That's all I meant. You're doing so well, we can't have any setbacks."

Johnny smiled and looked up at him. "Sam says I have a fast ..." he stopped and frowned, then recalled the word, "metabolism. Don't know what that is, exactly but, he said it's why I heal fast and don't get fat."

Murdoch chuckled at that. "It's nice to have some explanation, I guess. I'm just grateful for it."

"Mmmm, good biscuits, too!"

"They sure are. That was a wonderful meal, Sir. I hope you'll cook more often." Scott walked in smiling. Gone was the sadness of earlier when Johnny had watched him. "Look at you, sitting up."

"He did it himself."

"Snitch."

Scott rolled his eyes. "Sam's here. He'll be right up."

*****

Sam waited indulgently while Johnny finished his meal. Murdoch and Scott caught him up on all that had been going on. His worry for this family increased as he heard the details on the depths of this attack.

"Well, I can only hope you'll be able to get those men to justice and that there's no more bloodshed. Come on, Johnny. Show me how you're moving around by getting back in bed."

Johnny made a face at him then hauled himself to his feet. He didn't try to fool anyone, moving slowly but steadily as he made his way. Once on the side of the bed, he only paused a few seconds before lying down.

"I'm impressed, young man."

"Thanks, Doc. I aim to please," Johnny grinned, unabashed.

"Alright, let's work on taking those stitches out now. Tell me about last night when you were gallivanting around. Any dizziness? Double vision?"

"Nope. Weak and slow movin. I got tired pretty fast but, once I got to sit down, I started feelin better."

"And just now?"

Johnny shook his head. "I feel okay, not real weak or anything. Not sleepy."

Murdoch smiled at the report, knowing Johnny was being straight with Sam. His son was recovering well and his prayers had been answered. He felt Scott beside him and looked over to see the wide grin on the man's face.

Johnny hissed a couple of times as the thread was pulled through his skin but, otherwise, he tolerated the procedure well. "Never made any sense to me how pokin more holes in your skin can heal another hole."

Sam laughed as he pulled the last stitch out. "Miracles of the body, Johnny. They are many and mystifying. You can move around as much as you feel like but don't overdo, rest when you need to and listen to what your body is telling you. And, of course, you are no where near ready to ride a horse or even a buggy."

He made a pfft noise at that then shrugged. "I'm gettin itchy, Sam."

"I'm surprised it's taken you this long. Walking around the house will be enough. I'm sure you'll agree once you start doing it."

"Oh, that may be a problem," Scott said and they all looked at him. "Well, he's supposed to be dead."

"Damn! I forgot about that. Well, I'll stay upstairs for a bit and besides, do we really need to keep that up now?"

"I think it's best, son. They haven't attacked again yet and that has me a bit puzzled, frankly. You could be our best defense."

Johnny cocked his head to one side and looked quizzically at his father.

"Surprise, brother. It's always the best defense."

"I thought the best defense was a good offense," Johnny retorted.

"Well, while you all debate that, I'll be going," Sam said and stood. He didn't get far as they heard a ruckus outside.

"Stay here!" Murdoch ordered Johnny as he and Scott took off out of the room.

Johnny pulled his gun from beneath his pillow and checked it then, sat up, scooting up to rest against the headboard. "Anything happens, if you hear even one shot, you get in a corner and hunker down, Sam."

The doctor only nodded, going to window but he could see nothing but the garden.

"I wish I was in my room. I can see the front of the house from there."

"And the front of the house can see you, too," Sam pointed out.

They didn't hear any shots fired but soon there was a lot of noise in the hallway. Johnny tensed and glared at Sam who shrunk into the corner behind the door. Johnny trained his gun on the doorway then, he heard Val turning the air blue. Unwilling to relax, he waited to see what was happening.

Murdoch and Scott half-dragged the man into the room, Val grumbling all the way.

"I said I was alright! Ya act like I'm on death's door!"

"We wouldn't know, Sheriff, since you won't let anyone take a look!" Scott shot back angrily.

"What happened?" Johnny demanded.

Val stopped and looked at him, surprised he was in Johnny's room. "Got ambushed on the way back here. They didn't catch up until then, I reckon. I sent for the Marshal and Callahan sent word the three men left a few hours after we did. Not that we didn't already know that. Anyway, they shot at us two miles down the road. Got a scrape on my arm, is all."

Sam appeared from the shadows and grabbed his right arm. "Sit down over here and show me."

"Anyone else hurt?" Johnny asked.

"Nope, just me. Your hands are fine and they're all on alert now. I figure they'll hit us soon."

"Might wait til dawn."

"You would but I ain't so sure about them now. We got 'em by the short hairs and they know it," Val replied.

Johnny nodded his understanding. "Well, Sam said I could move around. Best get dressed and ready."

"Slowly, son. I'll help you." Murdoch went about gathering his clothes as Johnny sat on the side of the bed. "Scott, you should ..." Murdoch turned and stopped. "Where did he go?"

"Out where he should be, old man." Johnny smiled a little. "Sam?"

"He's okay. It really is just a scratch. I'll have it bandaged in no time."

"Told ya! How come you're always here when there's shootin to be done, Doc?"

Sam glanced up at his patient. "Just lucky, I guess. For all of you, anyway."

"Stay upstairs, Sam. Hide under a bed if you have to."

The physician stood up straight, turned and glared at Murdoch which caused Johnny to burst out laughing. The indignation on the man's face was just too much.

*****

Johnny pulled himself together and got fully dressed. "Val, pull those papers out of the chair by you and start readin those names off to me," he said as he tugged his boots on.

Val managed to get the file straight with one hand while Sam still worked on the other arm. He started at the top and worked his way down. Johnny kept shaking his head when Val would look over after identifying a name he knew. It was frustrating not knowing who their main gun was now. Maybe, they didn't have one.

"Who would step up with Winston out of the way?" Val asked.

"No one on that list. If they're smart they wouldn't let any of that bunch take over, anyway. They're either runnin this show completely on their own or, they hired someone new."

"Well, they ain't got their list to go by so, they might just be lost in the woods."

Johnny laughed softly at that then stood and wrapped his gun belt around his hips.

"Is that going to be a problem, son?" Murdoch asked, looking at the belt.

"Nah, it wasn't that low. Can't feel it. I'm fine, Murdoch. You need to believe that and focus on what's gonna happen out there now."

Val got to his feet, finally free of Sam's ministrations. "Well, you need to stay inside anyway. What about Higgs?"

Murdoch rolled his eyes. "I forgot about him. We'll make sure he stays put. I hate wasting a man on guarding him but, we have no choice."

"Whoever is with him, you'd better tell them I'm alive. They might think they're seein a ghost. Sam, stay in here and away from the windows. This side of the house is safer for now but that might change."

"Johnny, be careful. You're not one hundred percent yet," Sam advised.

"Yeah, I know," he grumbled then gave the doctor a smile. "I'm always careful, Sam. You know that."

"Can we go now?" Val asked even as he started for the door.

*****

It was quiet outside and in. Johnny paced the living room, peeking out the French doors from time to time. He knew they were going to wait until dawn. No gunhawk worth his salt was stupid enough to attack an unknown stronghold in the dark. Murdoch and Val stayed on the veranda where they could see the entire landscape spread out before them. Johnny knew they had men all around the perimeter of the house and beyond. Yet, he was still edgy. Just like always before a big fight. He knew he'd calm down when the time came but, it was this quiet time before that just about drove him loco.

Val stepped inside and looked around.

"I'm over here," Johnny said as he stepped out of the shadows.

Val sighed and walked over. "They're waitin."

"Yeah, I know and I hate it but, it's the smart move."

"I reckon they'll just come right at us if they come at all. They know I made it through and that we'll be expectin them."

"And they might decide keeping us up all night is better than comin straight at us. Wearin us down again."

"That's my guess but, that's all it is. We have to be prepared at all times and they know it."

Johnny ran a hand through his hair. "This sucks, Val. We need to do something. We need to find them and attack."

Raising a brow at that, Val asked, "how ya reckon we do that?"

Johnny lowered his head and chewed his lip as he thought. Then, his head came up, his face bright with an idea. "We got the best right here. Why didn't I think of it before?"

"What? Think of what?"

"Scott. We need reconnaissance, right? Scott can find them for us."

Val gave him a wary look. "And you're willing to send your brother out like that?"

"No, I'm not willin but, we don't have a lot of choice. While we're sittin here on our hands, they're plannin out their best shot. Scott will pick our best men to go with him. He knows who'd be good at this. Bring him and Murdoch inside."

Val walked toward the door. "He's gonna take the roof off this place. We won't hafta worry about gettin shot, he's gonna kill us."

*****

"No! Absolutely not!" Murdoch shouted.

"It's an excellent idea, Sir." Scott stood beside his brother and faced the wrath. "I am very good at this and I already know who to take with me. It's always best to gain the upper hand. Like Johnny said before, the best defense is a good offense."

"I thought you said surprise was the best," Johnny said out of the side of his mouth.

Scott rolled his eyes. "Let's not quibble, both are. Anyway, we can't stand around here. They are going to try wearing us down so why not take the battle to them? They'd never expect it." He leaned toward his brother. "That's where the surprise part comes in."

Johnny made a silent 'oh' with his mouth then smiled.

"What if they catch you or worse?" Murdoch asked.

"It's a risk I'm willing to take, Sir. I can do this."

"I know you

*****
can
*****
, Scott. I just ... I can't condone this. Not my son."

"You ask us to fight for this land when we first came here but now, you can't ask it? Murdoch, I'm volunteering for this assignment. I'm going."

Murdoch glared at him then at Johnny. He ground his teeth together for a moment. "Fine but, be careful!"

"Yeah, be careful. I forgot to tell you that part of the plan, Boston."

"Anything else I should know, brother? In case I forget all that military training."

Johnny clapped a hand on his shoulder. "One more thing. Don't come back with any holes ya didn't leave with." He glanced over at Val. "Maybe someone will take that advice this time."

*****

Scott took Frank and Isidro with him knowing both men had excellent tracking skills and he'd hunted with them before. Of course, that time the prey had been deer, not men. They rode through the north woods, intent on circling around to where Val had been shot and picking up a trail, with any luck.

No one spoke as they moved cautiously along, leaving the woods and riding along the valley floor, staying close to the foothills. The sky was lightening ever so slightly but the shadows would protect them should anyone be about. Scott turned and headed up into the foothills, leading his small band around and down onto the location where Val was sure the bushwhacker had been.

Silently, Scott dismounted and held up a hand to stay his men. He methodically searched the area for men then, began a search of the ground. As day began to break with pinkish purplish hues, the tracks were easier to define. Scott squatted down and ran a finger around one hoof print. He looked to his right and saw a spent cartridge. Picking it up, he examined it and noted it was a Winchester. Nothing extraordinary about that.

He stood and began circling the small area, careful of the prints then, he nodded and mounted back up. "Only two were here but the tracks are easy to follow. They should lead us right to the whole group, if we're lucky."

"Will we take them, Senor?"

Scott shook his head. "I doubt it will be that easy, Isidro. I'm hoping we find their base camp then, we'll gather our forces and go on the attack."

Frank readjusted his hat and sighed. "I like the sound of that. Gettin tired of bein shot at all hours of the day and night."

Scott gave a curt nod of agreement then reined his horse to the east. There were a couple of places to set up a sizeable camp in the area he was thinking of and, it was an easy ride to the hacienda. He knew he didn't have to worry about the men with him, they knew what they were doing. His best case scenario at this point was, the enemy was hurting without their top gun and weren't as prepared.

He'd known when Val only received a graze that whoever the ambusher was, he wasn't one of the best. He couldn't imagine those 'businessmen' allowing for anything less. If he was right, that meant their company was sorely compromised. A smile flitted across his face at the thought.

*****

Murdoch paced the great room in its entirety for several minutes. Johnny watched him from the sofa, having decided he may as well rest while he could. Suddenly, the big man stopped on a dime and turned to look at him. Johnny's eyes widened then narrowed in suspicion.

"How do you feel?"

Looking to the heavens, Johnny let out a harsh breath. "A little tired but I'm okay. Ya know, you might want to go get Sam out from under the bed." His face broke into a wide smile.

Murdoch smirked at him. "Maybe." He walked over and sat near Johnny's feet. "What made you think of this plan?"

Lowering his eyes, Johnny shrugged. "It's what I'd do. Turn things around on them, give myself the upper hand if I could."

"You should have been in the army, son."

"I was," he said then looked around the room. "We should probably eat while we can."

Murdoch was staring hard at him. He couldn't let that one go. "When were you in the army?"

The blue eyes swung around and locked onto his own. "I was about fourteen, I guess. Didn't do a lot of fighting. Mostly grunt work, makin runs for ammunition for the soldiers and the like. It got old real quick. I was there maybe five months before I just took off one day."

Sitting back on the sofa, Murdoch's mouth fell open. "You just left? Isn't that desertion?"

Johnny laughed softly. "Mexican army's a little different, Murdoch. They had a lot of kids they used like that. They fed us but that was all. Ain't like I was gettin paid or that they even knew my name."

He shook his head slowly. "Why did you do it?"

"It was Juarez. I mean, I wasn't

*****
with
*****
him but, he was close and it was his fight and a lot of us were fighting for him."

Murdoch nodded. "I remember that. Many of my vaqueros left the ranch to go and fight with Juarez."

"Yeah, he's a good man. He's got a lot of problems to deal with down there. Anyway, we've got our own problems."

Murdoch stood up, his mind still whirling with this new information. "I'll get Sam and warm up that stew. I hope your brother isn't gone long."

Johnny wasn't counting on seeing Scott tonight, himself. He hoped he didn't anyway because that would mean Scott hadn't picked up their trail.

*****

He waited until they were well away from the canyon before stopping near the river and dismounting. Scott slowly fumed at the sight of those marauders camping on Lancer land. His mind began developing plans of action, attack scenarios and counting munitions.

"I don't know how they managed to get so many replacements this fast," Frank commented. "Must be at least forty of them down there."

"Yes, I counted forty-four. They were probably already around, in reserve. They underestimated us once, they won't do it again," Scott said as he paced along the water's edge, his hands clasped behind his back.

"They do not seem in a hurry to move, Senor Scott. This is good for us, si?"

Scott stopped and looked at Isidro, nodding his head. "Yes, it's very good for us. Come on. We need to get back and start planning."

*****

Johnny hadn't slept much but he didn't feel bad, either. He sat or laid on the sofa most of the night, listening to his father snore in the overstuffed chair in the corner. Sam and Val were the only ones sensible enough to actually go to bed but, Johnny had no intentions of having to haul his ass back down those stairs again.

He stood and stretched carefully then walked to the French doors, peering out through the drapes. The sun was rising now, the soft hues of very early morning gone with only the bright yellow ball of heat left to slowly ascend into the cloudless sky. Letting the drape fall back, he walked over to the large map of Lancer on the wall and studied it, tracing the location of Val's ambush and figuring his brother's path in his head. Scott should be back any time now. He figured he should get some fresh coffee brewing for his brother then, hopefully, Scott would get a few hours sleep.

As he clanged around the kitchen, Johnny heard a loud voice in the hallway and stopped to listen. Paulo hollerin at Higgs. He kept forgetting the mayor was here. Maybe, he should show himself to the man. Might give the old buzzard a heart attack. He grinned at that thought as he waited for the coffee. The idea of cooking breakfast flew briefly through his mind but, he reckoned they'd had enough fires already. He smiled as he heard his father stagger into the room. In a soft voice, he spoke. "Mornin, coffee's almost ready."

"Good, I could use some. I didn't sleep much."

Johnny turned and gawked at him, his mouth hanging open. Shaking his head, he decided it wasn't worth the effort to point out the man had peeled the paint off the walls with his snoring last night. "Thought about cookin."

"No!" Murdoch said abruptly. "I mean, I'll do it as soon as I've had some coffee."

Laughing softly, Johnny carried cups to the table then retrieved the cream and sugar. "Scott should be back any time now."

"I hope so. If he isn't, I'm going after him."

"Sure, he'll love that."

"I don't much care if he does or not," Murdoch shot.

Johnny raised a brow. His father was in a sour mood this morning. Well, it's not like he's got no reason. It was nice that he worried about them but, it was hard, too. Hard to be the man you are when your father still wants to raise his kids. He let out a puff of air then went to the stove to get the coffee pot.

Sitting next to his father, Johnny poured for them both then took a sip, sighing in satisfaction at the strong brew. He had that in common with his old man. They both liked their coffee strong enough to walk out on it's own. Staring into his cup, he let his mind go to that which he'd been avoiding. "Whatever is going on with Scott, is it something between the two of you?"

Murdoch sat perfectly still, holding his breath and thinking hard for an answer. Finally, he came up with, "Partly."

Johnny snorted at that. "And he'll tell me when he can or when he's ready, right?"

Looking over at his younger son with sad eyes, Murdoch nodded. "I'll get breakfast started."

*****

Scott stood in the doorway and smiled a little. "I see my timing is perfect."

"Hey, brother. Yep, you're just in time to sit down. Murdoch went a little crazy with all this food."

"I thought our guests might want to eat, too," Murdoch quipped.

"Then, they should get down here." Johnny stood and grabbed a cup for his brother, filling it two thirds full. Scott and his cream and sugar. He smiled, knowing the mud they drank wasn't so easy on his brother.  

Scott took his seat and inhaled the coffee, not bothering to doctor it. He saw his brother's raised brows and laughed a little. "I needed that. Maybe I should wake Val. He needs to be here for this."

"I'm here. Just give me that coffee pot and tell me what ya found."

Sam shook his head from behind Val as he entered the kitchen. "Johnny, you seem to be feeling much better. Scott, glad to see you in one piece."

Johnny eyed the man, thinking he was a little too calm. "I am, Doc."

"Sit down, Sam," Murdoch said.

"No, thank you. I need to get going. Now that Scott is back and Johnny is moving around - more than he should, I might add, I have other patients to see. I'll come back ..."

"If we send for you. I mean it this time, Sam. Things are going to heat up and I don't want you getting caught in the middle of this," Murdoch said forcefully.

"He's right, Doc. Folks wouldn't be too happy to lose you. Might even take it out on your good friend here." Val sipped his coffee unashamed of his low blow.

Johnny grinned and shook his head as the doctor gawked at Val Crawford.

"Fine. Send if you need me."

Scott shook his head and waited until everyone else was seated and filling their plates. He told them what they'd found and, as they ate, each man pondered the information.

"Well, we can get up on 'em pretty easy, like Scott did. Kind of stupid to set up camp in a canyon," Val observed.

Scott nodded in agreement. "I'm sure, if they had someone leading them who knew anything, they wouldn't be there. This has to be their biggest tactical error yet."

"It's not - an error, I mean," Johnny said. He raised his eyes and saw them all looking at him. "That canyon is easy to get out of and there's a back trail on the south side. I'll bet they were camped closer to the south, weren't they?"

Scott nodded. "I didn't know there was a back trail there."

"I've spent a lot of time in that canyon. Know it like the back of my hand." Johnny frowned and pondered that. "I don't think it was Winston who knew my moves that well. I ain't never heard of him before."

"Are you saying he was a front?" Murdoch asked.

"I think he was hired to kill me and fight but not to run things. He would know more than most of their men because of that."

"Then, there's a name missin off that list because none of the men I know on it could pull this off," Val said.

Scott stopped with his fork in midair. "Not all the names were on that list. Those three in charge wouldn't have put their names down."

Johnny pointed his fork at his brother. "That's right and we still don't know who they are. I don't believe for a minute the names we got from Winston are real."

"Someone we know?" Murdoch asked.

"Someone

*****
I
*****
know, anyway," Johnny answered.

"Could be it's someone right here in the valley. Someone who's been watchin you, Johnny." Val expected the glare he got and he waited.

"You think someone could follow me around and me not know it, Val?"

Shrugging indifferently, Val said, "who knows you practice in that canyon?"

Murdoch looked at the sheriff in surprise then at his son. "That's what you do up there?"

"What else, old man? You think I'm up there watchin the grass grow?"

"This is getting us nowhere. We need to get a good look at those three," Scott said.

"That'll be a neat trick, Boston. Why don't you invite them to supper?"

Murdoch sighed and set his cup down. "I think I need to gather the ranchers again. Maybe, they have some ideas we aren't thinking of. Maybe, it really is one of them and we can flush them out."

"I disagree, Sir. We know where they are and that they have an escape route. We should attack now, before it's too late."

Johnny nodded. "I agree with Scott. We can figure it out later. Right now, it's more important to take care of them than find out their life history."

Murdoch sighed out through his nose then looked over at Val. "What do you think?"

The sheriff looked hard at him. "I gotta go with the boys on this one, Mr. Lancer. Strike while the iron's hot and all that."

"And what if they spotted Scott? What if they've moved and we leave the house wide open to attack?" Murdoch pointed out.

Johnny tossed his napkin on his plate. "We have to make a decision. We can't keep sittin here like cattle waitin to be slaughtered. Scott said there were about forty of them. Take thirty men and leave the rest here plus the Conway men are still hole up in the bunkhouse. They oughta be pissed enough right now to take on the devil himself."

Val nodded but his eyes were glued on his friend. "Yeah, and you can stay here and take charge if there's an attack on the house."

Johnny pulled a face. "You don't have to remind me I can't go with ya, Val. But, I do have somethin you can use. There's still some dynamite left from when we closed up those mines." He grinned widely.

The sheriff broke a grin at that, his eyes lighting up. "Now, that might just be useful."

"Let's go in the living room and look over the map," Murdoch said, still not liking the plan. He didn't want to leave the house open and he didn't want Johnny having to be put in this position. No matter how well he said he felt, Murdoch was still reluctant to put his son in harm's way again and again. He had a bad feeling about all this.

*****

Johnny lingered at the table as the others headed into the great room. Val made it to the doorway last then stopped and turned around. Shaking his head, he headed back to the table and sat beside his friend. "How long are you gonna be on your feet?"

With a weary sigh, Johnny looked over at him. "I don't have to be on my feet. Just have to be able to hold a gun."

"Hurtin?" Val barked.

"Some," he smiled, "I can handle it, though. Really."

Val sat back a little and studied him openly, looking him square in the eye before deciding he was telling it straight. "Ya know, if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I'd a never believed your old man actin like he is. I mean, I know he cares about ya, I just never thought I'd see him lookin all doe-eyed at ya."

Johnny smacked his arm hard. A retort was on his lips, ready to spew forth until he realized it wasn't something he could say to this man. He decided the hit on the arm was enough. Val wouldn't take any smart-assed remark about his own old man well and Johnny didn't blame him for it.

Val was grinning and waiting but Johnny said nothing. His smile faded a great deal. "I can stay here. Murdoch and Scott can ..."

"No! No, Val, I need you with them. I know they can handle themselves but, I'd just feel better if you were there. You know the game."

"Yeah, yeah, alright. Well, let's get in there before the old man sends out a posse for ya." Val stood and waited until Johnny joined him, noticing how slowly his friend was moving. He was guarding that left side. "Anybody been in to talk to Higgs or Winston, for that matter?"

"Not that I know of. Don't know what else they could tell us, anyway." Johnny took a second to gather himself before heading out of the room.

"Not sure but I'd like to take another crack at Winston before we leave, anyway."

"Help yourself, amigo. You seem to be able to get him talkin. He must like you." Johnny grinned at that.

Val snorted. "Yeah, I'm a regular sweetheart!"

*****

Scott and Murdoch were studying the map of Lancer when Val and Johnny joined them.

"Where is this trail, son? I can't find it."

"It's not on the map but, it runs right through here." Johnny traced the route with his finger. "If you divide the men, you can cover both entrances and catch them in the crossfire. Still, I'd say howdy with that dynamite first. Should get their attention."

"Yes, I imagine it would," Scott said and grinned.

"Val wants to talk to Winston again. See if he's been holdin out on us. Might as well get that dynamite and the men together while he's doin that."

Scott's shoulders tensed then he consciously relaxed them. "I'll talk to Cipriano and gather supplies."

Murdoch had noticed Scott's reaction if no one else had. Occasionally, he'd forget about what Scott had done and things like this just brought it all back to the fore. He simply nodded at both men then they took off to their appointed duties. He put a hand on Johnny's shoulder and guided him toward the sofa.

"Wait a minute, Murdoch. I want to rearrange the furniture."

"Now?"

Johnny shot him a look. "Just want easy access. Can you help me move the sofa?"

"No, Johnny, I certainly can not. I'll move the sofa. Just tell me where you want it. You can't lift anything yet."

Huffing out a breath, Johnny gave in. Seemed he'd been doing that a lot lately. Shaking the thought away, he guided his father to situate the sofa so it faced the French doors. "Now, move that - whatever it is - against that side door."

"It's a credenza but, the door opens the opposite direction."

"I know but it'll give them something to climb over and me time to stop them. Besides, I plan on havin a little surprise for anyone coming in that way so, tell the men not to use that door for anything."

Murdoch rolled his eyes and shoved the heavy piece of furniture against the door. "What about the kitchen?" he asked between breaths.

"Nothin much we can do about that. Just lock that door. Won't stop them but, at least I'll hear them."

He leaned against the credenza for a moment. "You're taking this all very calmly, Johnny. This is a lot of area to cover alone. I think you should have some help in here."

"Most of the fighting will be outside, anyway. If they overrun the house, well, all I'll be doin is putting off the inevitable," he shrugged. "Don't give me that scowl, old man! There's no point in actin like it can't happen." He walked over and eased onto the sofa, leaning back and closing his eyes. "Let Val lead you on this. Let him call the tune. He knows exactly what to do."

Murdoch walked over and joined him. "I will, son."

"And make Scott, too. Sometimes, my brother thinks he knows best when there's a better way." Johnny opened his eyes and looked at his father, laughter shining in the blue depths. "Just sometimes. Usually, he's reasonable."

"Usually," Murdoch muttered then got up and went to lock the door between the dining room and kitchen.

*****

Johnny sat there and watched them all load up on ammunition and rifles, taking their time. He puffed out his cheeks then let the air escape. "They'll be in Mexico by the time you all get goin."

"I think we should wait til sundown, anyway," Val said.

"Time you get there and get in position, that's exactly what time it will be, compadre. You never said. How'd it go with Winston?"

Val's eyes flashed with anger. "He didn't feel obliged to talk. Said he didn't know anything else."

"Did you believe him?" Scott asked.

"Hard to tell this time. He's pretty ornery now after bein locked up so long. I wasn't in the mood to push at him, either. Like Johnny said, we can get it all straightened out afterwards."

"We should get going. The men are waiting around back," Scott said.

Murdoch walked over to the sofa and sat on the edge of a cushion, laying a hand on Johnny's knee. "Send someone for us if there's trouble."

"Oh, don't worry, I will," Johnny grinned then fell solemn. "Just do like I asked, huh? Let Val lead you on this."

Murdoch glanced at the other two men then looked back at his son. "We will, son. That way, I can blame him if it doesn't go well."

Johnny barked a laugh at that then tapped his father's arm. "Go on, get. I've got some plans of my own. Oh, and remember, no one who wants to stay alive should come through that side door."

"Who could get through it?" Scott quipped then walked over and pressed a hand to his brother's shoulder. "Don't let me come back and find you with any holes I didn't leave you with."

A slow grin lifted Johnny's lips and he saluted his brother. With one meaningful look, Val conveyed his own message then, the three men finally left.

Johnny slid off the sofa and headed to the gunrack, selecting a shotgun. He went about setting his traps and hoping they wouldn't be needed. It took a little doing to get the shotgun rigged to the knob of that side door but, it was worth the effort. Anyone coming through there would end up with a hole in their middle if it didn't blow them clean in two.

*****

Cipriano shook the young man's shoulder, his other hand wisely on Johnny's right wrist. As he began to stir out of sleep, that hand tried to come up. "Lento, sobrino, it is me."

Johnny blinked and sat up, looking around at the growing shadows in the room. "Damn! What time is it?"

"Six o'clock. The sun is setting and it has been very quiet."

With a sigh, he ran a hand through his hair then stood slowly. Being still so long stiffened that side. Even with the stitches out, it was sore. He reckoned it would be for a while yet. He headed around the sofa to the sideboard and filled a glass with water, inhaling it then refilling and walking over to the French doors. Pulling the curtain aside a little, Johnny peeked out then let the fabric go.

"They should have arrived at the canyon by now," Cip said.

"Yeah, Val will have them in position, just waitin for the right moment."

The segundo walked over to him. "And how will he know the right moment?"

Johnny smiled and shrugged. "He just will. It's an instinct, I guess you'd say. Just knowin when the timing is perfect to strike. Kind of like our enemy has been doin."

Cipriano stroked his moustache. "You know, if they had realized you are still alive, the barn would not be the only thing burned last night."

"Yeah, I know, tio. None of them know, do they?"

"Other than Paulo, standing guard over Higgs, no one."

"He been there this whole time? Someone should relieve him. He's gotta be tired."

"Si, I suppose but, our numbers are fewer and most of our best men went out with your papa."

Johnny frowned at that. "Are you saying there's no one left you trust to keep my secret?"

Rolling his head side to side, Cipriano considered. "Perhaps, Vernon or Raul."

"Raul. He likes me." Johnny grinned at that then fell serious. Lowering his head, he paced about the room a little.

"Johnny, we must have faith."

"Never had too much of that, tio. I try, I do but, just never seems to work out."

"It works out as it is meant to, sobrino. Like you coming home when you did and Senor Scott, as well." When Johnny didn't answer he sighed aloud. "I will get Raul then, I will keep you company awhile. You should eat."

*****

Val scooted to the edge of the canyon just before dawn and spied the camp below. He shook his head and wondered what the hell they were waiting for. They'd been here two days now, at least, by his reckoning. Were they gonna build a damned house? Most of them seemed to be gathered around campfires, some tending the horses and some on guard. It was the tent that grabbed his attention most. He scooted back and found Scott.

"Was that tent here this mornin?"

Scott frowned and shook his head. "There was no tent."

"Well, guess we know what they were waitin for, then. Maybe our three friends or maybe a new gunhawk to take charge. Either way, there's a tent now."

"It has to be those three. A gunfighter wouldn't insist on a tent, would he?" Murdoch asked.

"None I know of. Frank should be in position soon."

Murdoch opened his pocketwatch then snapped it closed. "Two more minutes."

Val nodded and headed to his horse, untying the saddlebags and cautiously carrying them back near the edge. He set them down easy then fished matches from his pocket. Laying the sticks of explosive side by side on the ground, he spread the matches out beside them.

"I'll hit them with a few of these first. Have the men ready to start firing as soon as the first one goes off. You two keep track of where they scatter and how long it takes 'em to get their act together. And pay special attention to anyone comin out of that tent. I'm gonna try to get as close to it as I can."

"Why do we care how long it takes them to react?" Murdoch asked.

"Because it will tell us how well trained they are and if they're easily rattled," Scott explained.

"Yep," Val said then stood straight with three sticks in his hands. "Guess it's time to start the show."

Scott signaled the men to get into position then he, Murdoch and Val edged closer to the abyss.

Val turned his back on the ledge then struck a match, ignited the fuse then stood and launched it into the canyon below. He dropped to his knees quickly to repeat the process. Rifle fire erupted from the Lancer hands as the gunmen below reacted. Some simply stood for a few seconds, dumbstruck but, most dove for cover. Val had hit within fifty feet of the tent and he aimed the next missile in the same direction.

Scott watched the melee below him and was impressed. "Most of them are reacting well under pressure. They're starting to fire back now," he reported then took aim.

Murdoch laid down a barrage of rifle fire even as he watched the tent. He saw no one come out as the second stick of dynamite exploded twenty feet from the front flap. Then, he saw them. "They're going out the back of the tent! There's three of them." He leveled his rifle and took aim.

Val only nodded as he launched another explosive toward the main group of men.

"They're starting to head to the south entrance. They've got some of the horses," Scott said and fired at that group.

"They're gonna get a surprise," Val grinned and retrieved his rifle. "I think that's enough dynamite. Never know when you might need it later."

The battle raged on and, as the gunmen sought to escape south, they rode straight into a wall of bullets. Panic seemed to erupt now. Frightened horses unwilling to obey the commands of their rider, tossed them off or ran right into the canyon walls.

Murdoch searched the area of the tent, frustrated. "I can't see the three leaders. There's too much smoke."

Val trained his eyes on the area and scanned in vain. He couldn't see much of anything either but, the return gunfire had waned measurably. "They can't get out. We'll find them, don't worry. Might be a good time to cease fire and see if they'll give up."

Murdoch made a hand signal which traveled the length of their offensive line. A minute later, a single shot from a Colt was heard - the signal for the men to the south to stop fighting. It took some time before silence reined in the canyon.

Murdoch took a deep breath. "You men down there! Lay down your weapons and come out! It's over!"

It seemed as if every man was holding his breath, waiting to see if the fight was truly over. Slowly, a man appeared below them and tossed his rifle, his hands above his head. Then, another and another showed themselves and gave up.

"Climb up here! If anyone down there is holding out, It won't do you any good. We're going to destroy that canyon with this dynamite once you've all given up!"

Val looked over at the rancher, wide-eyed.

Murdoch shrugged. "It just came to me."

The sheriff broke out in a grin and shook his head. "Spoke like Johnny Madrid."

A grin threatened as Murdoch's lips twitched and, though he'd never admit it to a living soul, he was flattered at being compared to his son.

*****

With all the gunmen rounded up and under the guard of the Lancer hands, Murdoch, Val and Scott eyed each man. Occasionally, Val would nod or say hello to someone he recognized. Scott just shook his head. He saw no need to greet the enemy.

Val stood before one man in particular. "Is everybody out down there?"

The man just shrugged. "Far as I know."

Val nodded and went to retrieve his dynamite. He struck a match and started chucking the sticks into the canyon, the echo deafening in the now-still air. Once finished, he returned to the man. "Reckon they're all out now."

"I reckon so, Val." The man lowered his eyes for a second. "Sorry to hear about Johnny."

Val's jaw twitched. "Yeah, sure ya are, Red. Sure ya are. So, who hired ya?"

"Winston."

"Who hired him?" Val persisted.

Red sighed and looked away. "Don't know their names. Just call 'em mister or boss. Don't reckon I'll be callin 'em anything now. They were in that tent."

"We know that, Red. Are they dead? Did you actually see them?"

"Nope, was a little busy," the man scowled then smiled slightly. "Ya know, for a minute there, I thought Johnny was up here with ya."

"He was," Val said and walked away.

Murdoch quizzically looked after the sheriff then eyed his son who shrugged. Both turned their attention to Red.

"Where were they from? These three men?"

Red frowned and shook his head. "Three? There was four of 'em. All actin real important. Always wearin suits. Look, mister, I only saw 'em a couple of times in Modesto. Shocked the hell out of me when they showed up here. I'm just hired help. I don't run anything. Only reason I'm talkin to you at all is ..."

"What?" Scott asked.

Red cleared his throat and shrugged. "I liked Johnny."

Murdoch waved a ranch hand over and he took Red away, loading them all up to take into Green River. He sighed and ran a hand over his face. "Four? How could there be four? Nate only ever saw three and Winston said there were three."

"So did Higgs." Scott frowned in thought. "Could the fourth man have hidden so well?"

"He must have." Murdoch looked around. "Where's Val?"

Scott didn't see him either and he walked around a bit, glancing over the edge into the canyon below. He stopped and leaned over then cursed. "He's down there!" he told and started scrambling down the side.

Murdoch watched, his heart in his throat, as his son traversed the rough incline to the canyon floor. He heaved a sigh of relief when Scott landed on fairly level ground and drew his gun. His eyes swung around as he saw riders entering the canyon to the south then, he relaxed when he recognized Frank. Feeling only a little better that they had more help down there should anyone have managed to survive, he headed for his own horse.

"Isidro, you men take them into town and lock them up. Tell the deputy Sheriff Crawford will explain it all. Don't talk to anyone or tell anyone what's happened here. This isn't over. When you're done, head back to the ranch."

*****

Val moved slowly through the debris, the air still filled with smoke and impeding his vision. He used all his senses as he searched for survivors. He didn't know how anyone could still be alive but, stranger things had happened - and to him. He took no chances.

Whirling around and cocking his gun, he growled as he saw Scott approaching him. "Make some noise, would ya?"

"I didn't think that was wise. I'm not fond of being target practice for desperate men."

"You were almost target practice for me!"

"In that case, I should tell you Frank and his crew are riding in from the south." Scott looked in that direction. "They're searching that end."

"Good. We need to find those men."

Scott took hold of his arm. "Val, your friend Red said there were four leaders, not three."

Val took the information in his stride and went back to his search. "Reckon your old man will be ridin down here any minute."

"I'm sure. He won't want to miss out if we find any of them alive." At that moment, they both looked up to see Murdoch heading toward them. It only took that split second of spying him to watch as he was knocked from the saddle.

The sound of gunfire reverberated off the canyon walls followed by the sound of horses galloping toward them as the Lancer hands reacted.

Scott took off running toward his father then felt himself hit the ground, a heavy weight on top of him.

"Stay down, ya damned fool! Ya want a bullet, too?" Val hissed.

"Get off me, Val. Murdoch's shot!"

Val relaxed a little, causing more weight on Scott. "He's alright, boy. Look."

Scott raised his head and saw his father had rolled over behind a fallen boulder, crouched and with his gun drawn. He relaxed himself and nodded. "Okay, but get off me anyway."

Val rolled away and came to one knee then grabbed Scott and helped him up. They both moved quickly to safer ground, behind a half-blown up wagon. "Shot came from over there." He pointed with his gun toward the rock facing of the east canyon wall.

Nodding, Scott was already working out the path of least resistance. "I am so sick of this."

Val smiled a little and thought it was a good thing Scott was mad. Of course, he hoped he didn't have to rein him in. "You work your way around from the south and I'll draw their fire."

Scott nodded and took off as Val starting shooting in the general direction.

*****

Left arm bleeding, Murdoch grimaced in pain then fear as he saw his son take off. He started firing at the area along with Val.

Frank made his way to Val's position and helped pin the enemy down with rifle fire. Val only nodded his approval, firing and watching Scott at the same time.

Moving from boulder to scrub brush to whatever he could find, Scott maneuvered his way to the south then made it to the east wall. Slowly, he inched his way to a blind curve and hoped Val didn't shoot him by mistake. A quirky grin flew across his face then, he rounded the curve. "Don't move!"

He froze, gun in hand and aimed at Murdoch's position. His black suit was covered in dust, his hat askew on his head and that's all Scott could see of him at first. He also saw three dead bodies in close proximity and reasoned these as the partners in this plot.

"Drop the gun now!"

Slowly, the hand relaxed and the gun slipped to the ground in a puff of dust.

"Murdoch, Val! I've got him! Come on in!" Scott lowered his voice. "Put your hands up high. If you so much as twitch, you'll be joining your friends over there, I promise you that." He heard footsteps hurrying toward his position and raised his eyes. When Murdoch appeared around the back of the tent, Scott felt relief wash through him tempered with concern. "Are you alright, Sir?"

"Just a scratch, son." Murdoch turned his attention to the man crouched before him. "Stand up and show me your face!"

Slowly the man came to his feet, his head still bowed. It wasn't until he was fully erect that he raised his head, a smirk on his face and humor dancing in his brown eyes.

Murdoch almost took a step back, shocked by the realization of who stood before him. Quickly, he found his fortitude and his anger. "I'll be damned!"

Scott rounded the man so he could see his face clearly then, his jaw dropped. "Weir? Absolem Weir?"

Val looked at each Lancer man then back at the apparent source of all the problems in this valley. He didn't know who the man was but, the name sounded familiar.

Weir bowed his head slightly to one side. "Did you think you would never see me again, Mr. Lancer?"

"Why? Why did you do this?" Murdoch asked.

Weir shrugged. "Lancer is worth a lot of money, especially when the railroad comes through this area. And," he paused, his eyes dancing with merriment, "I never did get the chance to go up against Johnny Madrid the last time."

Scott took a step toward him only to feel Val's hand clamp down on his forearm. "You didn't get the chance this time, either. You had him bushwhacked, you coward!"

Weir chuckled. "I was hoping he'd survive. Such a tragic end for one so young and with so much potential." He made a tsking noise then grinned again.

"Who is this varmint?" Val piped up. He realized this was no one from Johnny's past yet, somehow that past was tied to the goings on. He was more than tired of seeing that stupid smile on the man's face, too.

Murdoch managed to rein himself in and focus on the moment at hand. "We'll explain it later, Val. You need to take this man in yourself. Take some of our hands with you. He has a talent for disappearing seemingly into thin air."

Val raised a brow then it clicked. Now, he remembered Johnny telling him the story. He snorted loudly. "This is him, huh? The one that tried to convince everyone he was the devil. Well, Mr. Devil, you're comin with me." Val grabbed his arm and received a searing glare from the man which he didn't react to. "Yeah, I'm real scared now, devil man. Let's go!"

Scott sighed heavily as he watched Val haul Weir off. He waved Frank over and asked him to take two more men to escort the sheriff and his prisoner. He didn't want to give that man any chance to escape.

"Come on, Scott. We need to get home and check on Johnny."

"He's going to come out of his skin when he finds out who was behind this."

Murdoch inhaled deeply through his nose. "Well, we'll just have to sit on him." He glanced at the sun. "I can't remember the last time I had a decent night's sleep."

"Neither can I," Scott agreed. "By the time we get home, it will be well on its way to noon. I never could sleep in the daytime."

"Somehow," Murdoch started, then wrapped an arm around his son's shoulders, "I think you'll manage this one time."

Scott smiled and fell into stride with his father. They made it a few feet before Scott pulled up and stepped out of Murdoch's hold. "Let me see that arm. It had to be more than a scratch to knock you out of the saddle."

"Caught me by surprise, is all. It might be a graze but the bullet didn't go in."

"Then, it won't take a minute to check it and wrap it up. Look at that," he said as he leaned in closer, "it's still bleeding."

"Scott ..."

"Murdoch, if I walk in that house with you bleeding, Johnny will take my head off."

Sighing his frustration, Murdoch showed his annoyance. "Fine! Just make it quick. I want to get home."

*****

Cipriano had managed to feed Johnny more than he probably should have but it paid off. He wanted the boy to go back to sleep and he had, all night. He knew Johnny would come fully awake should trouble start so, he wasn't concerned as much with that as with his sobrino's health.

Like Murdoch, he had worried over the young man all his life. It was a joyous day for him when Johnny came home. Of course, he couldn't show it, not until the trouble was over and Pardee was dealt with. When he'd seen the brothers arrive, he somehow knew, just felt, as if the tide was turned in their favor and they would win the fight.

But, Johnny had been shot and so, again, he waited for him to heal, to sign those papers that gave him his birthright. Only then had he sat Johnny down and explained their relationship. His heart had been full when the boy had welcomed him with open arms. It had been his fear that Maria had so tainted his heart, he would be unable to allow his tio - his mother's blood relative - into his life. Especially once he'd learned from Senorita Teresa of Johnny's beliefs all his life.

Some would say she should not have divulged that information but, Teresa knew Johnny was his nephew so, it did not matter. It was family business. Now, he sat and watched the boy - no, no longer a boy - the young man, start to awaken and a smile softened the segundo's worn features.

Johnny sighed then opened his eyes, knowing someone was with him, watching him and knowing that someone was not a threat. He focused on his tio and gave the man a smile then, slowly he sat up on the sofa. Scrubbing his scalp with his hands, he yawned widely. "What time is it?"

"Just after dawn. It is still quiet."

Johnny looked up at him and frowned. "They should be back by now."

"We must wait for word. Someone would have come for us if things had turned bad."

"I hope so," Johnny muttered then came to his feet. "I'm gonna wash up and shave."

Cipriano came to his feet as well. "Do you need help with the stairs?"

Johnny stopped and took stock. His brows relaxed and he shrugged. "Feel pretty damned good, tio. I'm hungry, too."

A wide smile lit the man's face and he patted Johnny on the shoulder. "I will prepare breakfast while you wash. Then, we will discuss things."

"Si, tio. We need to decide what to do." Johnny headed for the stairs, all the while wondering what was happening and why no one had sent word. He was worried, no doubt about that but, he had to believe in his family and Val. He had to believe they'd be alright. He supposed that was the faith his uncle had mentioned last night.

*****

Johnny sat at the kitchen table and scooped up the last bite of his breakfast then leaned back. "I think Sam was wrong. I keep eating like this, I am gonna get fat." He patted his flat belly as if there were something there to pat. "I want you to send someone to that canyon, tio. I need to know what's happening."

"I already have, sobrino."

Johnny looked over at him then grinned. "Sly dog."

"Respect, nino. Respect," Cipriano scowled.

Holding his hands up to ward off his uncle's ire, Johnny laughed. "It was a compliment." Soon enough, the smile faded as the worry invaded his heart again.

"Something else is on your mind, perhaps?"

"Tal vez," Johnny muttered then sighed sadly. "It's Scott and whatever has him so wrapped up. I get the feeling it has somethin to do with that Winston character."

Cipriano only nodded as he sipped his coffee. "I do not know, Johnny. But, I think we need to do something with that man. He has started pacing his cell like an animal. I think he knows we are winning this fight and he is worried now."

Johnny considered that and thought it was about time he laid eyes on the man who had almost killed him. Time he called him a coward to his face and, maybe, even give him a chance to stand up like a man. "I'm done hidin out, tio. I feel much better and I'd like to get some sun on my face. And, I want to see Winston."

"I am not sure that is wise, sobrino. We do not yet know how things went at the canyon."

Johnny locked eyes with him. "If it went badly, it really doesn't matter anymore. If it didn't, it still doesn't matter. Maybe you should go tell the men I'm alive before I take that stroll."

Cipriano looked deeply into those eyes and let out a puff of air. He simply nodded and came to his feet. "Give me ten minutes before you show yourself."

Johnny sat back, his coffee cup resting on his thigh, and rocked on the back legs of the chair. He was restless now, anxious to do something. It had taken a long time for this feeling to return; longer than it ever had before. Truthfully, he'd been a little worried about that but, now it was here, it gave him some solace, strange as that was. He decided he could at least clear the dishes off the table. That should take ten minutes or so - maybe. He shook his head and let the chair fall back down on all four legs before pushing back and standing.

As he went about the chore, he thought of Maria and Teresa and realized how much he missed his family being whole and here with him. He couldn't imagine his life without them now and, again, the worry returned.

*****

Johnny ended up giving Cipriano twenty minutes. He'd cleared the dishes but his restless nature didn't include dish washing so, he'd cleaned his gun and strapped on his gunbelt. Now, as he stood by the front door and settled his hat on his head, he braced himself for walking out that door for the first time in what seemed like months.

He walked out into the yard and looked at the men standing around. Every one of them had a smile on their faces and he relaxed, grateful they didn't seem angry with the lie. He smiled back and nodded to them all then headed for the guard house.

Cipriano was standing outside the building when he walked up. "How did they really take it?"

The segundo shrugged. "Shocked then, perhaps disappointed. Once I explained it all, they understood and were just happy you are alive. You have a great many friends here, sobrino."

Johnny bowed his head and nodded. "Who's guarding him?"

"Jerry. I have not told him. I was not sure you wanted Winston to know. I will call him out and send someone else in."

"No, just call him out here. I don't need an audience. I'm fine, Cip. I feel good."

He looked into his nephew's eyes then took in his stance, his face, every inch of him and nodded his satisfaction. Johnny stepped around the building so as not to give Jerry a fit before Cip could explain things. He watched the segundo lead the hand away from the building then, quietly, Johnny slipped inside and closed the door.

"Are you finally going to feed me? I was beginning to think I'd worn out my welcome. Of course, if that's the case, please don't let me stop you from tossing me out. I'd hate to overstay. It just causes such bad blood between friends, don't you think?"

Johnny listened to the voice and couldn't place it. He didn't know this man. All he knew was Winston couldn't see him yet. He looked around the room and didn't see any guns. Johnny took the key off the hook by the front door then stepped alongside the cell and unlocked it. He pulled the cell door open then moved to stand near the front door.

Winston didn't appear and Johnny knew why even before the man spoke again.

"So, you're going to shoot me as I attempt to escape? Not a very inventive plan, Lancer. It must be you out there, Scott Lancer. Am I right?"

Johnny said nothing.

"I can assume you've won the battle and have come to seek your revenge. I suppose that sheriff finally rode out and left me to you. He's not a very law-abiding lawman, is he?"

Johnny heard him laugh but he also heard a tremor in that tone. He smiled but said nothing.

The toes of Winston's boots appeared at the edge of the doorway. "It's like I told you before, Scott, it's a job. I had no bad feelings for your brother. For any of you but, I was paid well. Madrid would understand that better than ..." his voice trailed off as he finally ventured out the doorway.

"Yeah, I do understand, Winston but, Scott, well, he don't see things the same way." Johnny grinned at the slack-jawed man. "I just have to know one thing. Are you relieved it's not Scott standin here or are you wishing it were?"

The man slowly shook his head then, his shoulders relaxed and a smile came to his face. He gave a curt bow of the head. "I have been thoroughly duped. Congratulations, Madrid. At least, I finally get to meet you."

"Is it as much a let down for you as it is for me, Winston? Cause, I gotta tell ya, you ain't exactly the type of man that would have me shakin in my boots."

Winston laughed lightly at that. "From what I hear, no man could make you shake in your boots, Madrid."

Johnny cocked his head slightly aside. "Well, ya got me there." His eyes hardened when he saw the wicked gleam in the man's eyes.

"I can't say the same for your brother, though. I believe I scared the piss out of him."

"I doubt it."

Cocking a brow, the man replied, "you shouldn't. Or, didn't he tell you how he paid me off?"

Johnny's shoulders went back and he assumed a stance reminiscent of a big cat ready to pounce. "Lyin to me ain't gonna help you."

The gunman leaned against the doorjamb and crossed his arms over his chest. His smile widened and the gleam in his eyes intensified. "Oh, this is rich! No, of course he wouldn't tell you about it. I suppose you've been laid up most of this time, healing. But, it's true. Scott Lancer paid me five thousand dollars to," he held up his index finger, "one, leave his family alone." He held up a second finger. "And, two, tell him who hired me. Of course, I lied about that but, then, that was the plan."

Johnny stared at him, his mind refusing to accept this information. Scott would never do such a thing. Never.

"You see, I rattled him good. I was sitting on your staircase while the doctor and your daddy were upstairs wringing their hands over if you'd live or not. Scott walked in and," he stopped and laughed, "he was not a happy man. I convinced him he'd never make it if he drew on me then, I told him I was coming back for you, if you lived. Oh, and that I'd take out the rest of the family, too. His solution was to pay me off." He shrugged. "I wasn't about to go away but, five thousand dollars, well, I wasn't going to say no."

Johnny made himself snap out of it. He'd deal with that later. Right now, he had to deal with this man. "You would have given him that name anyway. That's why you were here. To get the ranchers to infight. Santee, wasn't it?"

"You are good, Madrid. That's why you had to be put down, you see."

He nodded. "Yeah, I see. So, who really hired you?"

"You don't know?"

Johnny saw an almost hopeful glitter in the man's eye. "Not yet but, Murdoch and Scott will be back soon so, I don't really need you to tell me."

"And all of this is what? You showing me you've got guts? I already knew that."

At that moment, Cipriano stepped into the room. Johnny never even flinched when the door opened. "Are things alright in here, Johnny?"

"Things are just fine, Cip. I do need one favor." Johnny glanced at the man for a second before eyeing Winston again. "Give Mr. Winston here your gun."   Addressing the man, he added, "Let's see if you're any good up close and personal."

Winston pushed off the doorjamb, his hands falling to his sides and clenching into fists. "My pleasure, Mr. Madrid."

"No, Johnny. This is not wise," Cipriano said, his voice betraying his shock.

"I didn't ask," Johnny snipped. "We're gonna do this, Cip. You don't want to give him your gun, I'll get him one. Bring him outside." He turned and walked out of the building.

Cipriano glared at Winston then, he realized it was futile to deny Johnny. He was intent on this thing. He gave a jerk of his head for Winston to come outside. The man moved quickly, anticipation all over his face.

"I don't know why you're being so kind, Madrid."

"I'm a nice guy," Johnny quipped as he stood in the yard, posture slouched and left hip slightly lower than his right. He looked at his tio and nodded.

Cipriano jerked his gunbelt off and handed it to Winston then backed out of the way.

Swinging the belt around his hips, the gunman asked, "Mind if I make sure it's loaded?"

"Is it loaded, Cip?"

"Si, Johnny, it is."

"Good enough for me. That man don't lie - not for anyone."

"How quaint," Winston retorted snidely then smiled. "I'm afraid I haven't had the opportunity to practice but, then, neither have you. I suppose that makes us even."

Johnny grinned at him. "If you think so."

The smile fell from the gunman's face, his eyes grew dark and his expression was missing. Silence fell in the yard. It seemed as if even the birds were holding their breath.

Cipriano looked at each man, his heart thundering in his chest. He knew Jerry was there, rifle at the ready but that wouldn't matter if Johnny lost. He made the sign of the cross and waited mere seconds before the silence was shattered by gunfire.

*****

Scott kept watching his father as they rode home. He made sure he was on Murdoch's left so he could see the bandaged arm and ensure it hadn't started bleeding again. Technically, he supposed it was a graze but it was much deeper than he'd been led to believe and it would need stitches.

"Will you stop that?" Murdoch groused.

"What?"

"Eyeballing me, Scott. I'm not going to fall over from a little wound."

"It's not that little and it bled too much for my liking. You need stitches."

Murdoch harrumphed at that idea. "I still can't believe Weir was behind all this."

"Neither can I but, it makes sense. He would know how Johnny operated back then. Still, we don't know who his partners were or, for that matter, if it was just the four of them."

"I can't imagine he'd want more than that in on his plan. He seemed the type to work alone. All that smoke and mirrors nonsense at the Hackett's just so he could steal a boy's home and try to corrupt him was sickening. He must have needed the financial backing."

Scott nodded his agreement. "He may never tell us but, I suppose all we can do is hope there's no one else out there ready to take up where he left off."

"No one but the two we still have to deal with at the house. I suppose Val will come back out to take charge of them. I'm not so sure we should leave him alone with Higgs."

Frowning, Scott said, "I'm not so sure you should leave me alone with Higgs. I can't believe he would pull this."

"Scott, some men are so greedy, so self-important, they think they can get away with anything."

"He is an arrogant pile of dung, isn't he?"

Murdoch chuckled a little at that. A small smile stayed on his lips as they broke through the trees to see the hacienda looming just ahead. His pleasure didn't last long and he pulled to an abrupt stop. "Dear God," he managed to whisper through the lump in his throat.

Scott's eyes followed his father's then widened in sheer shock. Before them, Johnny stood in the yard facing off with Winston. In the blink of an eye, it was over and Scott pressed Remmie into a gallop.

*****

Johnny saw the eyes grow dark, the face fall flat and knew the moment was at hand. All he needed now was that one extra sign that Winston was ready. And he got it. The man's eyes shifted for just one second but, in that second, Johnny saw it all and drew his gun.

He crouched as the gun leveled then, with his left hand fanned the hammer even as he squeezed the trigger, releasing the projectile. Sometimes, very rarely, he wished he could watch the bullet from the moment it left his barrel until it struck home. Those were times when he wanted to kill the man he faced, when he needed that justice even if it was his own kind. This was one of those times. But, of course, he couldn't see that, only the result so he placated himself by watching Winston jerk then bend ever so slightly at the waist.

Then came the inevitable look of disbelief on the man's face. Why did they all look like they just couldn't believe they'd lost? Johnny stood where he was, his gun still raised but not aimed. He watched as Winston's gun slipped from his fingers, thudding to the ground in a puff of dust. Watched as the man's eyes moved downward and his right hand moved up to cover the wound. Watched as he fell to his knees then, the other inevitable in these slow deaths. Winston looked right at him, eyes wide as if unable to comprehend he was dying. He just couldn't grasp the notion.

Johnny stood, still watching, unsympathetic as this one finally got it. Finally understood it was over and, finally started to feel the burn. Winston bent over more, clutching his gut as he, seemingly in slow motion, fell over on his left side. It was only then Johnny moved. He walked over and kicked the gun further away from the man then, crouched down and looked him in the eye.

The last thing Vic Winston ever saw in this world were the cold, hard, unforgiving eyes of Johnny Madrid.

Johnny heard Cipriano walk over, felt the man kneel beside him but, he couldn't look at his tio right now because, he heard something else. Horses riding in fast. The fact that Cip was unworried told Johnny who it was. He stood slowly but, otherwise, he didn't move.

Scott jumped from the saddle, dropping the reins and rushing over to his brother. He'd seen the gunfight and Johnny showed no sign of injury but, he wouldn't be satisfied until he saw for himself. He glanced over as Murdoch joined him, both now slowing to a hurried walk. Scott stood behind his brother and waited a few seconds but, Johnny didn't appear to notice them there so, he reached out and touched his brother's back. "Johnny?"

Slowly, the young man turned to face him and Scott almost took a step back when he met those eyes. His own face asked the question he couldn't seem to shove past the knot in his throat. He never saw it coming.

Johnny looked into his brother's concerned eyes, saw the question there then holstered his gun with little thought. His right hand curled up and he drew it back then let fly, punching Scott right in the face.

Scott went to the ground, his hand covering his left cheek as Johnny walked back to the house without a word or a glance. Getting up on one elbow, he watched his brother a second before he felt his father's hands on his arms, helping him to his feet. "What the hell was that for?"

Murdoch pulled Scott's hand from his face and decided it wasn't serious then, he gave an almost aggravated look to his older son. "Do you really have to ask, Scott? I'm sure Johnny had a nice chat with Winston before he gunned him down."

"They talked alone for several minutes before I checked on them. Then, Johnny asked me to give the gringo my gun."

Scott turned quickly on Cipriano. "And you just handed it over?"

Shrugging, the segundo replied, "As he said, if I did not, he would get one elsewhere. He was determined, Senor Scott, and I found I could not blame him for it."

Murdoch looked at his friend and shook his head. "Why did you even leave them alone together, Cipriano? And what about the men? They think Johnny's dead."

"I told them the truth before Johnny came outside as he asked. There was no point in keeping up the lie, Patron. Johnny asked me to give him time with Winston. I did not know then what he planned."

Murdoch sighed and rubbed a hand through his hair. "I swear, if that boy asked you to cut off your own head, you'd do it."

Cip smiled and stroked his moustache. "Not without serious consideration first."

Murdoch smiled a little then looked at his son. Scott's head was down, staring at the ground. "Would you take care of this mess, Cip? Scott and I need to talk to Johnny."

Scott's head jerked up and he stared at his father then blinked. "What am I supposed to say to him?"

"I don't know. All I know is you've had plenty of time to think about it. But, first, we need to let him know about the canyon." Murdoch turned on his heel and headed to the house.

*****

Johnny dismantled his shotgun trap before something ugly could happen then stored all the weapons in the gun rack. He figured since they were back and didn't look like the hounds of hell were after them, things were taken care of. The fact Val wasn't there was another clue. He was glad for that part. He wouldn't want to put his friend in a bad situation. Not that Val would've cared. Besides, he had no jurisdiction on Lancer. He sighed and shook his head, wondering why he was even thinking about that. But, he knew why. It was easier than thinking about what Winston had told him.

He thought about moving the credenza then figured the hell with that. He was tired and it was too heavy to fool with so, he headed over and poured himself a glass of whiskey, not caring it was still morning. He figured they'd be coming in anytime now so, he walked over and settled on the sofa, getting comfortable and waiting for the show. He didn't move a muscle when Murdoch walked in followed seconds later by Scott.

Murdoch took in his son, the glass in his hand, but said nothing about it. "You won't believe who was running this little show."

"Try me."

Scowling at the gruff tone he was getting, Murdoch managed to bite down his irritation. "Absolem Weir."

Johnny stared at him then raised a brow. "Not a name I would've come up with in a million years."

"I know. He was one of the few that managed to come out alive. There were four of them, it turns out. The other three are dead but Weir isn't being too talkative about that. He did say he was sorry you died."

"I'll remember to thank him for the sympathy," Johnny said, then sighed. "Any of our men hurt?"

"No, we were lucky."

Scott spoke for the first time. "Murdoch was shot."

Johnny flew off the sofa and went to his father, looking him up and down.

"It was just a graze in my arm," he explained, looking down at the appendage.

Johnny saw the bandana then, wrapped tightly around his upper arm and raised it up a little. "Might need a few stitches there. Might have wanted that to be the first thing you told me."

"It's nothing, son."

"Yeah? Would it have been nothin if it was one of us?"

Murdoch cocked a brow at the loud voice he was getting. "Calm down, Johnny."

"Don't tell me to calm down, Murdoch. I'm no where near 'calm down'! Come in the kitchen so we can at least get a proper bandage on it."

His first reaction was to rebuke that idea but, Murdoch negated that, seeing a way to delay if not stop altogether the confrontation that was coming. Besides, it seemed as if Johnny really

*****
needed
*****
to do this. "Alright. I'd appreciate that."

As Johnny began to clean the wound, he spoke in a softer tone. "Tell me about the fight."

"It went well. Frank and his men covered that south end and Val ... well, Val was enjoying his fireworks display. He threw the first stick of dynamite then we started firing down on them as he threw a few more. They were definitely caught off guard but, I have to admit, they fought back hard. We saw a tent when we first got there and it wasn't there before so, we deduced the bosses were there. We did see them scatter out of that tent when Val hit close to it but then, we lost sight.

"After it was over, or, we thought it was, Val found one man he knew. He called him Red." Murdoch stopped here and waited for Johnny's reaction. All he got was a nod. "He's the one who told us there were actually four men in charge. He also seemed genuinely sad that you'd died."

Johnny's mouth quirked. "Red's alright. Never did have much sense in choosin his jobs but, a decent fella. Then what?"

"Well, before I knew it, Val was working his way down the side of the canyon. Scott went after him and I, being the only one with any sense, rode my horse down."

Johnny stopped his ministrations and looked down at his father. "Must be why you're the only one who got shot."

Murdoch grimaced. "Yes, well, it knocked me out of the saddle. Frank and his crew rode in, everyone firing at the position where the shot came from. Then, Scott worked around the back side and got the drop on him. He called us in and when we got there, we saw it was Weir."

Johnny spared a glance toward his brother who was standing near the doorway. "I'll bet he was all smiles, too."

"Yes, he was. Val and some of our men took him into town."

Johnny tied off the bandage then stood up straight. "So, I can stop bein dead now." He pointed toward Murdoch's arm. "That should be alright with or without stitches."

"It feels better. Thank you, son. Now, I don't know what all you've been up to but, it looks like you could stand some rest."

"Slept all night thanks to Cip. I don't need any sleep. I..."

"Well, we do. Scott and I have been up all night and he's been up longer than that. We're going to lie down for a few hours." Murdoch stood and faced his older son with 'the look'.

Scott straightened himself and nodded curtly, not anxious to have this conversation with his brother. He looked at Johnny and saw the anger simmering but, truthfully, he was exhausted. "I could use a little rest."

Johnny sighed but, he knew it was the truth. They were both done in. All he could do was nod.

Murdoch started toward Scott then stopped. "Damn! I forgot about Higgs."

"Don't worry about him. I plan on havin a nice little talk with the weasel. Might as well do that while you two sleep."

"Alright, son, just don't call him out, too."

Johnny narrowed his eyes. "Why not?" He turned and walked out toward the living room.

Scott closed his eyes briefly then turned and headed up the back stairs.

*****

Johnny wandered around the room for a while, glancing at that credenza and the sofa and thinking about moving them again. Right now, he probably could with no problem but, he'd pay for it. Instead, he thought about Higgs. Never a pleasant thing. He did want to talk to the man. Hear what he had to say for himself and what else he knew that he was maybe too afraid to say before. Resolved, Johnny headed for the hallway.

He greeted the guard. "Raul."

"Dios, gracias," Raul said softly as he made the sign of the cross. "It is so good to see you, amigo."

Johnny smiled a little. "Thanks, amigo. Good to be seen. Is he awake?"

"Oh, si. He has had his breakfast, mucho breakfast." Raul rolled his eyes.

Johnny laughed softly at that. "Think I'll say howdy. He might pass slick out when he sees me but, don't let anyone disturb us, okay?"

Raul nodded solemnly and stepped aside.

Taking a deep breath, Johnny opened the door and walked inside. He almost cringed at hearing that whiny voice.

"This is outrageous! I asked for a bath yesterday. Why can't I have a simple bath? Is it such a burden? I haven't been convicted of anything, you know. You can't prove I did anything wrong. What was all that shooting about, anyway? If those Lancers think they can get away with kidnapping me, they've ..." Higgs stepped from behind the dressing screen and stopped, his mouth still open, his eyes nearly popping from his head. Slowly, he stepped back, shaking his head. "No, you're dead," he whispered.

"It would appear not. Or, maybe I'm just haunting you." Johnny stepped further into the room and closed the door. "Sit down, Mayor. Me and you are gonna have a little talk."

"But, but ... Scott said ..."

"Shut up and sit down!"

Higgs stumbled over and fell into a chair.

Johnny grabbed a straight back chair and turned it around, sitting in it backwards as he rested his arms over the back. "Close your mouth, old man. It was a lie, as you can see. We wanted them, you, to believe I was dead."

Higgs swiped his face with a shaky hand and nodded then swallowed audibly. "I ... I see. Well, wasn't that smart of you?" He laughed nervously and Johnny felt his stomach turn.

"Yeah, whatever. So, now that it's all over - oh, and it

*****
is
*****
over - you can tell me everything you know of your recently dead friends."

Shifting in his chair, the mayor had a hard time looking Johnny in the eye. "The sheriff said no charges would be brought against me."

Johnny ground his teeth together and simply nodded once.

That one action seemed to relax the man and his breathing evened out. "The man I talked to was named Gillespie. At first, he was just a businessman interested in the valley."

"What kind of businessman?"

Higgs frowned then his cheeks reddened. "I don't believe he ever really said. He wanted to know about the people who live here, the more prominent members. Well, of course, Murdoch came immediately to mind."

"Of course," Johnny shot. "And me? When did I come to mind, Mr. Mayor?"

The rubor in his face deepened as Higgs tucked his chins. "He asked about any dangerous types. I only mentioned you to show how good this valley was for anyone. I mean, if you could change, anyone could." Again, he laughed a little, his hands twisting within each other.

Johnny took it all in and wondered if he wasn't about to pull his fingers right off. "Go on."

"Well, he was very interested in Lancer and the ranches that surround it. I told him all about you and Scott and how you'd both rid the valley of Pardee."

"Uh huh, and how Scott wasn't cut out for this kind of life?"

"Uh, yes, I may have said that. He was very easy to talk to, you see."

Sighing heavily, Johnny shook his head. "Anyone who stands still for more than two seconds is easy for you to talk to. So, you told him all about my family, all about Madrid and then, what? You said that's how it started but you knew where they were staying in Modesto and when you were found out, you ran straight there."

"They promised me so much. They said they'd be able to stop the cattlemen from making all the decisions for the town. That I'd be able to appoint the sheriff, pass the laws and no one would be able to interfere. That's how it should be. I am the mayor, after all. They said once they were in position, my store would thrive. Once the railroad came through, our town would grow overnight!"

"And all you saw were dollar bills."

Higgs looked away and said nothing.

"When did you meet the rest of them?"

Higgs blinked and shook his head. "It was about two weeks after I met Gillespie. Once he started telling me about the railroad, he introduced me to his partners. Mr. Brown and Mr. Cummings were both most agreeable with Mr. Gillespie's ideas about my involvement."

"And the other one?"

Drawing his brows together, the mayor looked oddly at Johnny. "What other one?"

"Weir, Higgs. Absolem Weir. He was the fourth partner."

"I never met any Mr. Weir. Only the three I told you about. They had another partner?"

Johnny smiled pathetically at the little man. "He was the ringleader, no doubt, and you were played, Higgs. There was never going to be anything in this for you but trouble." He sighed and stood up. "No less than you deserve for what you've put my family through." Johnny pushed the chair out of his way and leaned over Higgs, resting his hands on the arms of the man's chair, his face less than an inch from the mayor's. "I don't give a rat's ass what Val or Scott or anyone else promised you. I didn't promise nothin!"

As he straightened and walked to the door, Higgs followed him, grabbing Johnny's arm. "Please, they lied to me. I ... I'm as much a victim of this as you are!"

Jerking his arm free, Johnny swung around on the man. "When you've had a bullet dug out of your gut,

*****
then
*****
you'll be as much a victim. Until then, old man, you're nothin, like you've always been nothin." He pulled the door opened and walked through, making sure he slammed it hard behind him.

*****

Johnny glanced at Raul before storming away. He ended up in the living room but that wasn't going to cut it so, he headed outside. Finally free to roam as he liked, he found no pleasure in the ability. He looked around the yard then past it to the landscape but, he found no driving desire to ride the land like he usually did when he was upset. In fact, he didn't know what to do with himself. Still, he pushed the very thought of his brother away, unwilling or, maybe, unable to think on it too much. The horse galloping down the road caught his attention. He stiffened his shoulders as he waited for Val.

The sheriff saw him long before he could get a good look at Johnny's face. But, he wasn't prepared for the anger he saw there. Part of him knew the why but, he decided to wait and see if he was right. Never one to shoot off his mouth about anything important, Val dismounted and simply walked over to face his friend.

"Weir's locked up along with Red and three others that survived."

Johnny said nothing, just stared at him.

"Figured I'd come out and get Winston and Higgs off your hands." Val waited again yet, Johnny remained mute. He knew then for sure but, he still wasn't going to be the one to bring it up.

"You'll only have one of them to worry about. Winston's dead. I called him out and killed him."

The frown on Val's face deepened. "How'd that come about?"

Shrugging, Johnny's entire demeanor changed. He relaxed his shoulders, paced off a few feet then turned, his whole body relaxed, his face almost innocent looking. "Wanted to have a word or two with him. I figured I should meet the man that almost killed me. I made Cip hand over his gun and we had ourselves a little dance. He was more than willin." He cocked his head to the side, a puzzled expression coming to his face. "Wonder how come they always look so damned surprised when they lose?"

Val watched every nuance, every change and his stomach dropped. Johnny was protecting himself - from Val. That hurt, he had to admit to himself. "I don't know. I don't see any reason for 'em to believe they can do anything but lose against you."

A crooked smile graced Johnny's face for just a moment then, nothing. Just a blank stare as he sized up his friend. He knew there was no reason to be angry with Val. The man knew, that was plain but, it wasn't his place to tell Johnny about this. Not about his family. He understood that but, part of him was still pissed. "Talked to Higgs, too. He was useless as always."

"Is he still breathin?"

"He was when I left him. Course, he might've dropped dead after that. Couldn't say."

"Cut it out, Johnny. I know you know that I know so just, cut it out. It's plain Winston spilled his guts." The slow, genuine grin that grew on Johnny's face surprised the sheriff.

"He sure did. Right over there." He pointed to the spot where Winston had fallen. A large brown stain could be seen, the only remnants of the copious amount of blood the man had lost was now absorbed into the ground. "So, tell me, amigo. What did you think when you found out what Scott did?"

Val sighed and scuffed the dirt with the toe of his boot. "You know exactly what I thought. Ain't ya talked to him about it yet?"

"Nope. Murdoch rushed them both off to bed. I reckon they were pretty worn out so, I've just been chattin with the mayor and walkin around out here, enjoying the day."

Rolling his eyes, Val then scowled at Johnny. That damned sarcasm he used so well as a weapon wore thin on this particular man. "I reckon you're mad as hell at him and I don't rightly blame ya. I don't know what to tell you, Johnny."

"Nothin for you to tell, Val. I know it ain't your doin but, you gotta know I don't think I've ever been so mad in my life. Not ever. So, if I take it out on you, well, you don't have to stand here and listen to it."

"Don't you think I will, either!" Val reined himself in then, and rubbed a hand down his face. "But, I ain't goin no where so, if ya need to talk it out with someone before ya see Scott, I'm right here."

Johnny finally allowed himself to feel something besides rage and he took in his friend's countenance. Shaking his head, he walked over and took Val's arm. "Come on. You're dead on your feet. Might as well have a little siesta, too. Higgs ain't goin anywhere."

Val allowed him to take this lead. "Reckon a couple hours would do me some good at that. I ain't lookin forward to seein that man again."

Once they entered the house, standing at the landing of the staircase, Johnny turned back to Val. "He said you and Scott promised not to bring charges. I guess that's so he'd talk. Well, I told him I didn't promise anything and I mean it. He's gonna pay for this, Val. Maybe not in jail but, he will pay for it."

"I know, Johnny, I know. Had to tell him somethin to get him to open up. Don't think I'm not gonna tell everyone in this valley what he did. They'll take care of him for us."

Johnny nodded, satisfied with that. Running Higgs out of town, losing his store, was the best revenge against a man like that. "Go on up stairs. Use that room I was stayin in. I'm goin back to my own when I go."

"Wouldn't hurt ya none to go now."

"I'm too wound up, Val. Maybe later or not. I can't settle down right now."

Val nodded and patted his back then headed upstairs knowing there wasn't a thing he could do to help Johnny with this. He wasn't so sure it could be fixed.

*****

Scott awoke abruptly, his head coming off the pillow and looking left to right. He sighed then relaxed back and stared at the ceiling. The dream was fading fast already but he knew it was about Johnny. He and Johnny more precisely and something about a gun. He shook off the thought then arose from the bed. Washing his face and changing his shirt, he thought about the conversation he was soon to have with his brother. He hoped he'd be able to find the words for Johnny to understand his thoughts.

Scott still believed he'd done the only thing he could at the time. Maybe it was wrong to pay Winston off but, in that moment, he couldn't take the chance. He would stand by what he'd done but, he knew it may well drive a wedge between he and Johnny so deep, it may never heal. He'd taken the risk that day and he'd have to take the risk now. It was all he could do.

He stood by his window and looked out on the land, allowing his thoughts to go through all that had happened, avoiding thinking of what might yet happen. His father's reaction had hurt, he admitted but, it seemed Murdoch had let go of it to a degree. At least, they'd been able to work well together. He would never wish that sort of work to bind them but he'd also not had much opportunity to work alongside his father, either. A part of him relished the time at the canyon, not for the violence, but for the time with Murdoch.

Somehow, he'd always known his role as the older son. He was expected to be levelheaded, reliable, strong, honorable and he thought he'd measured up to those standards well. Johnny had always needed more from their father, it seemed to him. Or, was it that Murdoch needed more from Johnny? Maybe, that was it. Maybe, Murdoch was the one who needed some sort of absolution from his younger son. A deeper relationship due to the fact that Johnny had lived with a heartbreaking lie most of his life. Had been made to hate his own father; had believed Murdoch did not want him.

Still, hadn't he believed the very same things? His grandfather had never told him such brazen lies, never talked about Murdoch much at all except to say he was more interested in building his ranch than having his son home. Scott believed that was the truth to a degree but, when he allowed it, he understood he really had been lied to as much as Johnny had. A lie of omission was still a lie and Grandfather had never told him the whole truth of the situation.

He also knew the fact he grew up privileged led his father to believe he needed less from him. That he'd had all the comforts when Johnny had none was a driving reason for Murdoch's attentiveness to his younger child. Scott was all for that, he really was but, sometimes when he was completely honest with himself, he knew he needed as much as Johnny did. Murdoch didn't know how lonely his life had been. How deprived of the warmth of a parent's love he'd been. Grandfather didn't believe in demonstrative displays of affection publicly or privately.

Most people believed those who were wealthier had no right to complain but, money didn't buy happiness. Scott knew that very well. It didn't buy true and real love, either. It didn't make him feel safe and unafraid when the monsters came at night as a child. It didn't keep him from crying out for a mother he never even knew when the nightmares came.

Sucking in a stuttering breath, Scott turned from the window and brought his thoughts back to the present. He would rather do about anything than face his brother right now but, he didn't shirk his responsibilities so, with resolve, he headed out his bedroom door.

Scott checked the kitchen and the living room then wondered if Johnny had gone to bed for awhile. As he passed the French doors, he saw boots sticking out away from a chair and braced himself. He opened the door and stepped onto the veranda, unsure how he should start this.

"Sleep well?"

The soft voice sounded menacing and Scott knew he wasn't imagining it. "Mostly." His eyes raked the yard. "Is Val here?"

"Yeah, he's upstairs gettin some shuteye."

Rounding the chairs, Scott walked to the low wall and leaned against the side of a column, crossing his arms. "Did you tell him about the gunfight?"

Johnny didn't answer for a long moment. He appeared relaxed in the chair, his feet stretched out, his hands laying lightly in his lap. "I've been sittin here for a little while thinkin about things. Took me this long to settle down." He spared a glance at Scott. "I just don't get it, though. I figure you're gonna have to tell me the whole of it so I can understand."

Scott let out a soft breath then nodded. "Alright."

"Let's go inside." Johnny came easily to his feet, seeming to glide right out of the chair then headed into the great room.

Scott closed the door behind him then walked over near the fireplace as he watched his brother settle on the sofa which was still out of place. He looked to the sideboard then quickly decided against a drink.

"I'm ready," Johnny said as he crossed one leg over the other knee.

Scott nodded then took in a deep breath. "Murdoch and Sam were upstairs with you right after the surgery. I went outside for some air and to tell Cipriano what Sam had said. When I walked back in the house, he was sitting on the staircase. I went for my gun but he said I'd never make it. When I looked in his eyes, I knew he was right."

Johnny nodded here, knowing that was the truth after witnessing the man draw.

"He said he was waiting to see if you were going to pull through; to see if he needed to finish the job. He talked about your wound like he'd been listening to everything Sam had told us in the hallway upstairs. I realized he'd been in the house the whole time and we never knew it. I was irate of course but I knew he hadn't just popped up out of nowhere and decided to bushwhack you so, I asked him who hired him."

"And he wouldn't tell you."

"No, he wouldn't. So, I asked him what it would take to make him tell me then disappear. He didn't answer straight away so, I offered him five thousand dollars."

Johnny nodded, already knowing that part. "And just where, brother, did you get that money?"

Scott gave him a sidelong look. "You know where I got it."

"What's one third of that come to, Harvard?"

Grinding his teeth for a moment, Scott decided to play along and let Johnny get some of it out. "About seventeen hundred, give or take."

"Go on."

"He agreed and we set up a meeting for the next morning. I went to the bank and got the money. He said if I talked to the law, he'd beat me back here and kill you and Murdoch and anyone else in the house, including Teresa. I didn't doubt him."

"Uh huh. So, that's what you did. Then what?"

"He met me outside town and told me Santee had hired him. Then, he took the money and left."

"Don't forget the part about warning you what he'd do if he saw the law trailing him."

Scott looked quizzically at him. "How did you know that?"

Johnny let his leg drop to the floor and sat forward, resting his forearms on his thighs. "Pretty run of the mill chatter when you're threatenin someone. Is that it?"

"Yes, that's all." Scott readied himself for the yelling or, whatever Johnny was going to do. It was still in the room for several beats before he heard his brother breathe out harshly.

"I'm trying to understand this, Scott. I can get why you'd make the offer but, why go through with it? You could've told Murdoch or Cipriano. Hell, you coulda told Mr. Hamilton at the bank."

"He was here, Johnny. Right in this house listening to everything we said. He was watching me every minute and, I wanted to know who was behind this."

Johnny shook his head and stood up, putting his hands on his hips. "There were a lot of things you could have done to get that information, Scott. Payin off the man who put a bullet in me ain't one I woulda thought of but, I guess you're used to havin money to throw at people."

"I thought it was more important to know who was behind it, who was going after Lancer."

"Well, that didn't work out for ya, did it? Let me clue you in on a little something you might not know, Scott. Gunfighters ain't real moral characters. But, I'm glad to know where I rate on your scale of what's important."

"That's not fair, Johnny. You weren't there."

Slowly, he lifted his eyes to look at his brother, his hands dropping to his sides. "Yeah, that is a shame. But, don't worry, I took care of him for you. He won't be bothering you anymore."

Scott's eyes lit with fire as he stepped closer to his brother. "I was not afraid for myself, Johnny. I was worried about this family. Murdoch wasn't armed, you were in no shape to do anything, I had no choice!"

"I get that, Scott. I get that first part, I really do. It's what you did after that I have a problem with."

"It wasn't your call to make."

Raising a brow, Johnny shook his head. "Are you sayin I don't have a say in how to handle the man that shot me? Is that what you're sayin to me, Scott?"

"Of course not! I'm saying you weren't there to have a say at the time!"

"And since you'd already given your word to a hired killer, you couldn't back out of it? I think that's takin this gentleman thing a little far."

Scott looked heavenward before reining himself in. "I still didn't know who had hired him, Johnny. That's what I was trying to find out."

"Sure. And he was real honest with you about that."

"He'd been honest with me so far. I saw no reason for him to lie after getting his money."

A crooked smile came to Johnny's face. "That would be

*****
the
*****
time to lie, Scott. Any gunfighter worth a damn don't tell who hired them unless that man wants it told. No one else would ever hire the man cause they couldn't trust he'd keep his mouth shut. You were led by the nose."

"I suppose I'm not an expert on lying gunfighters or the games they play, Johnny. I was just trying to avoid a war."

Val stopped short at the doorway and held his breath. He wondered how long this had been going on. A good while if Scott's tone was any indication. He was pretty pissed by now. Of course, when he wanted, Johnny could piss a man off in about two seconds flat.

"No, I guess you ain't an expert but you do know about war, Scott. Tell me, does it ever work out when you pay off the enemy?"

Scott just stared at him, unable to answer the question.

Val raised a brow at that little gem then decided to announce his presence. He stepped further into the room. "Boy, that was just what I needed. A good nap. Wide awake now. Reckon I should take Higgs back to town."

Johnny turned his back on them both and stared at the wall. "It's pretty late now. Might as well wait til mornin."

The sheriff glanced at the clock, surprised by the lateness of the hour. "Didn't realize. I reckon it can wait one more day. Steve's got things under control in town. Might as well look around the kitchen, see if I can find us somethin to eat."

"Don't you dare," Murdoch said from the doorway.

All three men turned to the man as he entered the room.

"Johnny has told me about your cooking, Val. I'll take care of the meals. I suppose we should send for Teresa and Maria tomorrow. It will be nice to get things back to normal." Even as he spoke, Murdoch eyed his sons and knew they'd talked. It wasn't pretty, that much was plain. "Scott, would you check the wood bin for me?"

Scott looked blankly at him for a moment then simply nodded and left the room.

"Well, if I'm stayin the night, I best get Milagro bedded down." Val made a hasty exit out the front door.

Murdoch watched his son who had turned back to his earlier position staring at the wall. His arms were wrapped around his abdomen so he walked over and put a hand on the young man's shoulder. "Is that wound bothering you, son?"

Johnny's head came up and he turned to his father. "No, it's fine. That ain't what's botherin me."

"You talked to Scott."

"I don't get it, Murdoch. I'm never gonna get why he did that."

The rancher quirked his mouth. "Neither do I, son. I suppose there's nothing we can do but accept what's happened. Scott did what he thought was right at the time. We don't agree with his actions but, what else can we do?"

"Make him understand why it was wrong so he doesn't do it again. And, if he can't find that five thousand dollars, he owes me seventeen hundred. I don't know how you feel about that."

Murdoch's brows drew together. "I doubt it's the money that has you upset."

"That's a part of it, I'm not gonna lie. It's a lot of money, old man. Money we all broke our backs for." He sighed heavily. "But, no, that's not the biggest thing." Johnny turned and walked away, Murdoch's hand sliding off his shoulder. "He doesn't think it was wrong. I guess that's the difference between us. Maybe, he's used that sort of thing but, I'm not."

"What sort of thing?" Murdoch asked as he perched on the arm of the sofa.

"Throwin money at a problem. I can see where he'd think that was alright with how he grew up and all but,"

"I don't think throwing money around solves anything, Johnny." Scott stood in the dining room, his face stone as he watched them.

"Then, I guess I don't understand a thing, Scott. Seems to me, that's exactly what you did."

"Sometimes, money is useful but, I don't make a habit of paying people off."

Johnny thought about that for a moment. "You're not sorry at all. You don't think what you did is wrong, do you?"

Scott stepped into the room shaking his head. "I took a gamble and it didn't pay off."

"What if it had?" Johnny asked.

"If it had, we wouldn't have gone through everything we just did. It would've been worth it."

Johnny lowered his head and closed his eyes for a second then sucked in a breath before looking back at his brother. He couldn't hide the hurt in those eyes. "It would've been worth letting Winston go?"

Scott swallowed hard and knew what his brother was thinking. He had to make Johnny understand. "He was just the tool, brother. Don't you see? It wasn't him, it was the men who hired him. You should know that better than anyone."

"Yeah," he said as he cocked his head to the side, "out there in the world where no one gives a damn about anyone else, I do know that, Scott. But, here ... here, I thought it mattered."

"It does matter, Johnny. You matter. But, I had to think past that. I had to be analytical about it. I couldn't let my feelings get in the way."

"You did. You said you were afraid for us so, you did let your feelings get in the way."

Scott sighed, tired of going around and around. "Fine. What would you have done?"

"I would've killed the sonofabitch but that's because I could. And, yeah, I might have made that offer, too, Scott. The difference is, I would have turned it around on him."

"It's very easy to say that now, after the fact."

"Boys!" Murdoch decided this was going nowhere good. "I think we need to all take a step back and give this some time. Nothing is going to be resolved in one night. Now, I'm going to fix some supper. Is anyone interested in helping?"

Scott took a breath. "I'm afraid I'd be more hindrance than help in the kitchen."

"I'll help. Maybe I can get something with some spice to it if I do," Johnny said, then strode from the room.

Murdoch nodded as Johnny passed him by then, waited until he was gone. "You're going to have to give him some time, Scott."

"I know, Sir. I suppose I'm going to have to give you both some time because, you're still upset about it, too."

Murdoch lowered his eyes for a moment. "Yes, I am, I won't lie. The difference is, I've known it a lot longer and, while I don't agree with what you did, I'm not willing to stay angry over it, either. I know I was ... it wasn't you out there, Scott. It was seeing that gunfight that upset me. Now, I think we just need to move on. I'm hoping Johnny will get to the same place. Sometimes, people don't see things the same and important issues can't be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. I think he just wants you to understand his perspective, too."

Scott nodded thoughtfully. "I do understand, Murdoch. I know Johnny or you would have done things differently. But, does that make me wrong?"

Murdoch opened his mouth then closed it for a second. "That's something you'll have to decide for yourself, son."

*****

Johnny had the stove going and peppers in a skillet when Murdoch walked into the kitchen. "What are you cooking for that?"

"Not a thing. You're the cook, remember? But, whatever it is, these will go with it."

Murdoch chuckled at that then checked the stores. "Chocolate cake?"

"Funny."

The rancher heard the flat tone and walked over to stand beside Johnny. "Give yourself some time with this, son. Think it through before you talk to Scott again. I'd hate for you to say something you'll regret later."

"Can't imagine anything I'd regret saying right now." He stopped stirring the peppers and sighed. "I know what you're saying. Besides, I'm done talkin for now, Murdoch. It's pointless."

"I hope not. At least, not forever."

"Forever's a long time, so I hear." Johnny started stirring again. "What're we having?"

"How about some ham?"

Johnny shrugged. "Okay. I talked to Higgs earlier. He didn't have anything new to say. He claims he didn't know about Weir. That's somethin else I guess we need to talk about."

Murdoch went back to the pantry. "It can wait a while, too. At least until we get some supper together." He glanced at his son's back. "You, um, you haven't said how you're feeling lately."

Johnny grabbed a towel and moved the skillet off the fire then wiped his hands. "Yeah, it's been what? A couple of hours now?" He walked over and sat at the table where he was handed a bowl of potatoes and a knife. He picked one up and started peeling. "I'm better, Murdoch. What do you want me to say? I don't feel myself yet. Don't have as much energy, I guess. But, for just bein around the house, it's fine."

"No pain?"

"Nah, just aches a little from time to time. Nothing bad."

Murdoch nodded as he started on the carrots. "What about ... feeling sad or overly emotional?"

Johnny stopped peeling his potato and looked over at his father, understanding dawning in his eyes. "No, nothing like that. I mean, I think being pissed off is pretty normal. How do you want these cooked?"

Murdoch smiled at that. "Fried. I'd say it's normal. But, if you do start to feel anything like that, I want you to tell me."

He began slicing the potato. "Sure, old man. I'll come crawl into bed with you and weep on your shoulder."

"Let's not get carried away." Murdoch gave him a hard look that softened almost immediately into a wide smile.

*****

Supper was made up of clinking noises, swallowing and a grunt here and there. No one was anxious to speak. Val watched them all chewing and not just on the food. He figured nothing good had come from the brothers talkin and he wasn't surprised about that. Johnny didn't look any worse for the wear but, Scott did. Seemed to him, that one was pretty pissed off. Maybe Murdoch had been there, too. Val figured the old man wouldn't stay quiet and Scott probably felt a little ganged up on. Well, it wasn't his business much but he couldn't blame the two men for how they looked at things. He agreed with them and that left Scott odd man out. Not a place he was used to being, no doubt.

Of course, there was a small matter he hadn't brought up and probably wouldn't. What Scott did was illegal. Maybe not the crime of the century but, he had bribed a man and interfered with the law.   A judge would most likely have him pay a fine maybe, even a few days in jail but that was the last thing any of them needed. He had to wonder though. If Scott wasn't Johnny's brother, would he have looked the other way? It was dangerous ground for him. He'd have to think on this some more. His head jerked up as the sound reached his ears.

"Val!"

"What?" he growled.

Johnny grinned and shook his head. "I asked if you wanted more coffee."

Raising a brow, the sheriff looked at each man in turn. "Reckon I wasn't expectin anybody to talk. No, thanks."

Murdoch wasn't very happy about the forward comment but, he was beginning to realize Val was getting to be part of the family. He didn't know how the hell that had happened. "We should discuss Weir and what charges we can expect to be brought."

Val shrugged as he sat back in his chair. "Attempted murder, attempted robbery, assault." He paused and looked upward for a second "I wonder if bein a jackass is illegal."

Johnny laughed softly at that. "Better not be or you'd have to lock yourself up some days."

Murdoch smiled at that and glanced over at his older son. Scott's head was down and he didn't seem amused with anything. Murdoch didn't know how to deal with that at the moment. "What kind of prison sentence do you think he'll get?"

"Well, that's not for me ta say, Mr. Lancer, but, it should be a good long while."

"Unless he vanishes into thin air again." Johnny's mood had sobered and he stared at his plate. Sucking in an audible breath, he looked back at Val. "I want to see him."

"You're in no condition to ride into town, Johnny. Sam hasn't released you," Murdoch pointed out.

Turning to look at his father, Johnny's expression was a little baffled. "I think after helping hold off an attack on the ranch and bein in a gunfight, I'm fit enough to go to town. Besides, I never said I'd ride."

"You don't need to be showin your face around until the word spreads that you ain't really dead, though."

"Yeah, I forgot about that. Maybe you could find someone to do that for me, Val? But, make it fast because I am gonna face that man again."

*****

Scott stepped out onto the veranda after supper and gazed at the stars. Leaning against a column, he crossed his arms over his chest and looked for constellations but, he couldn't concentrate for long. Johnny seemed almost relaxed at the table, like none of it bothered him. He knew his brother did that to hide his true feelings from people but, it still bothered him. They all talked as if nothing had happened. As if there were no rift between the three of them. He wondered if it would always be there now. Hearing the front door open, he stiffened just a little.

"Had to sneak out while Murdoch was in the kitchen," Johnny said as he walked over and settled on the low wall.

"He's been a mother bear about you since you were shot."

"Yeah, it's nice but ..." Johnny left it there, just shrugging.

"Gets old after a while, I'm sure."

Johnny nodded then looked at his feet. "I don't think you and me are ever gonna be able to agree on this thing, Scott. I don't think either of us can see the other's side."

"Apparently, no one can see my side."

Hearing the anger in his brother's voice, Johnny looked at him. "Just not the way most people out here do things. My problem is, you should know that by now. I mean, I just figured you were more westerner than easterner by now."

Scott lowered his head, a small breath blown out. "I'm not sure it has to do with east or west just, how a person sees things."

"And none of us were there."

"That's right, Johnny. None of you were there."

Johnny pushed off the wall and came to his feet, walking over to his brother. "You and me ... we don't usually agree on

*****
how
*****
to do things but, we've almost always agreed on the end result."

"I've noticed."

Smiling a little, Johnny bowed his head for just a moment. "So, I guess all I can think is your end result was to stop whatever was starting no matter what it cost."

Scott's arms fell to his sides as he looked hard at his brother. "No, not at any cost, Johnny. Sometimes, you have to give up a little ground to gain back the whole in the end."

Johnny nodded but he knew nothing Scott ever said would satisfy him. No explanation would be good enough for him to agree with what Scott had done. And, he also realized this may not be the only time they came across something like this. "I guess my problem is that it wasn't about ground. I'm goin to bed."

Scott watched him walk back inside, a frown on his face. He sighed and shook his head, knowing Johnny would never understand. None of them would. He only hoped they could move past it.

*****

The next morning, it seemed as if the past two weeks had not happened. That Murdoch had not been the attentive, doting father to his son and that Johnny had not been the compliant, obedient patient. Anyone looking in from the outside would think business was as usual as the two stubborn men faced off after breakfast.

"I'm goin."

"No, you are not! We did not spend the past weeks keeping you alive so you could do more damage!"

Johnny pulled his shoulders back and narrowed his eyes. "I've done everything that was asked of me." He faltered a little at the disbelief that adorned his father's face. "Except for that one time and that don't count, Murdoch. We were bein attacked! Anyway, ridin in the wagon won't kill me."

"It might. We don't know if this is truly over yet, Johnny. What if some of Weir's men are still out there, waiting to take us down?"

Rolling his eyes, Johnny threw his hands up. "We may never know that. Are we supposed to hide here forever?"

Murdoch ground his jaw then decided on a different tactic. "You haven't given Val a chance to spread the word you're alive. What will people think when they see you?"

"I don't give a damn. Besides, this is the fastest way to spread that news and they're gonna be mad we lied to them anyway. What difference does it make?"

"No more difference than you waiting another day. Just until Sam can get here and check you out again. Weir isn't going anywhere, son."

Johnny turned quickly and wrapped his arms around himself, bowing his head. Softly, he spoke. "I'm going crazy hanging around this house, Murdoch."

Sighing, the rancher walked over and put a hand on his son's tense shoulder. "Then, take a ride with me in the surrey. We can check out the herd."

Johnny opened his mouth then decided against saying anything. He simply nodded and walked toward the door.

*****

Murdoch tried to watch his son and drive the surrey at the same time but, Johnny had pulled his hat low and had his arms crossed over his chest revealing nothing. "Did you and Scott talk again last night?"

Johnny never even twitched. "Some."

"And?"

"And nothing. Nothing's changed. I don't like what he did and he thinks he's right. End of story."

Murdoch reined in his temper. "So, what? You're never going to speak to each other again?" He was surprised to hear laughter from that question.

"It ain't that bad, I don't guess. I don't like it but, Scott's done things I didn't like before. I'm sure he doesn't like a lot of what I do so, the only thing left is to get on with it." Johnny pushed his hat back and looked at his father. "What about you? Seems you weren't too happy with him, either."

"No, I wasn't. I'm still not but, he's my son. What can I do? I told him what I thought, like you."

"Guess he's feelin a little jumped on," Johnny commented.

"I'm sure your brother can handle that. Scott stands behind his principles even when no one agrees with him. For that, I can be proud of him."

Johnny nodded, done with this conversation. "Are you really worried about this not being over or was that just to keep me home?"

Murdoch's lips twitched then he set them in a tight line. "Both, actually. Until Weir talks, if he does, we won't know for sure how many men were in this consortium of his."

"Don't seem like him, ya know? I mean, I know we don't have a lot to go on but we found out some things about him before. Didn't look like he'd ever partnered up with more than one man before."

"And he killed that man to keep him from talking."

Johnny grimaced, remembering when he'd found Chinese Charlie in that mine, dead with a ring of fire around him. All real spooky. He guessed Weir was trying to rattle him. Truth is, he had but, Johnny would never admit to it. His head came up and he looked at his father as they came to a stop under a grove of trees. "What're we doing here?"

"Just stopping for a few minutes to enjoy the day," Murdoch said nonchalantly then slid out of the surrey.

Johnny gave him a wary look but, he followed his father and walked down to the pond.

Murdoch stared at the water for a long moment. "When you were a baby, we'd come out here for picnics. I used to dip your toes in the water. You loved that."

Johnny's head went down and he toed the earth. "Don't remember."

Looking over briefly, Murdoch nodded. "I'm sure you don't but, that doesn't mean it didn't happen. Just because we don't see a thing or, remember seeing it, doesn't mean it wasn't there."

Turning aside, Johnny looked at his father, a little concerned. "You alright?"

Murdoch chuckled then turned to face him. "I'm fine, son. Sometimes, I forget there are good memories to look back on. When you were so sick, I remembered those times. It helped to ... pass the time." His eyes flickered away.

Johnny smiled, knowing what his father meant to say but couldn't. "Yeah, that would help to ... pass the time, I guess. You remember when Isham and Sexton came after you?"

Murdoch nodded, a pained expression coming to his face. That wasn't all he remembered about that time but, he had no idea why Johnny was bringing it up now.

"Well, when I ran toward you by that column, you reached out and pulled me in. I never have forgotten that. it was the first time I really felt like ..."

"What?" he asked quickly. "Felt like what?"

Johnny sighed then looked up at him through his lashes. "Like you ... cared about me."

Cocking his head to one side, Murdoch frowned. "The first time?"

Nodding, Johnny looked back down and shrugged. "I mean, I thought you ... you might but, that was the first time you'd really ... I mean, it was almost like a ... hug." He turned quickly to the side, embarrassed and wondering why the hell he'd brought that up.

Murdoch let out a heavy breath. "Oh, son. Then, I hadn't done a very good job, had I? It's hard for me ... for both of us, I know, to show how we feel. It's nearly impossible to actually say it."

Johnny barked out a laugh and turned back. "You got that right."

A tender smile came to the big man's face as he reached out and cupped a hand on the nape of Johnny's neck. "I always wanted you, son. You and your brother meant the world to me then, now and always."

He knew it would hurt his father if he looked away but, he could feel the heat rising from his neck. He wasn't good at things like this and, he knew Murdoch wasn't either. So, for his father to admit this to him was huge. Johnny swallowed hard and forced himself to maintain eye contact, a trembling smile on his lips. He opened his mouth but the words seemed stuck in his throat. Words he didn't need to think about but, damn his own self!

"You don't have to, son."

"No, I want to. I just ... I'm worse at this than you are," he replied with a laugh then, he sobered. "But, I do, Murdoch. I haven't always. I hated you most of my life or, the idea of you, anyway. But, you mean so much to me now." He raised his hand and rested it on the arm held out to him.

Both men broke contact at the same time as they heard a horse approaching. Johnny looked to see who it was then lowered his head and brought his emotions under control. He heard his father clear his throat and could see the man without looking. Making sure that stone face was in place, his eyes hard again, all the softness of a moment ago gone and, he realized how much alike they really were. Well, thinking like that ain't gonna get you in shape, Johnny, he thought to himself. He still hadn't pulled it off when he heard his brother's voice.

"Is something wrong?"

"No, son. I was just getting Johnny out of the house. He's getting a little restless."

Scott nodded and looked curiously at his brother's back, wondering why Johnny hadn't turned to face him. Was he that upset? With that thought, his brother did turn and Scott saw it for an instant. He felt uncomfortable immediately, knowing he'd come upon a private moment between father and son. His heart cramped just a little. "Well, I was heading back for lunch."

"Is it that time already? Guess we should go back too, then. Won't get anything to eat if the old man here is out gallivantin." Johnny had gotten himself completely under control now and headed for the surrey. Once past them both, he closed his eyes briefly and sighed.

Scott looked into his father's eyes and forced a smile. "He's right about that."

Murdoch moved beside him and wrapped an arm around his shoulders, pulling Scott to him as he walked them both back. "I think it's time I taught you boys a few things about the kitchen. Johnny only knows how to fry peppers and peel potatoes so far. What about you?"

"Well, I'm an expert on licking the cake icing bowl."

He laughed gregariously at that and squeezed Scott even closer, forcing the young man to lean on him a little lest he lose his balance.

Scott smiled widely at that, keeping his head down just a little so no one would see the warmth on his cheeks.

*****

The Lancer men walked into the living room after lunch, neither son having learned much about cooking as Murdoch decided to keep that lesson for another day. Ham sandwiches were on the menu and that didn't take much talent. The banging on the door stopped all of them, three hands going to three guns as Murdoch went to answer.

Micah Townsend didn't wait for an invitation, he barged right past Murdoch and stepped into the room, his eyes landing immediately on Johnny. His shoulders sagged when he saw the young man. "I thought it was a horribly bad joke. What the hell is wrong with you, boy?! Pretending to be dead, upsetting the whole valley! Why, I ought to ..."

"Micah!" Murdoch shouted to gain his attention. "Calm down and come inside. We'll explain it all to you."

Johnny simply gawked at the man, stunned at the anger. He knew people would be upset with them for pulling this stunt but, he never expected to be berated by a man who wasn't even related to him. He stepped into the sitting area where Micah had plopped into a chair. "Ought to what?" The man looked at him and simply shook his head. "You said you ought to ... something."

Still in a snit, Micah leaned forward in his chair. "I ought to take you to the woodshed, young man. That's what!"

Johnny grinned widely then snickered at the thought but, Micah wasn't joking. He was clearly upset. Johnny became serious and walked over to sit near him. "I'm truly sorry, Mr. Townsend. None of us wanted to do that but, we felt like we had to." He had no idea why this man was so distraught but, it touched him deeply.

The man settled a little but, he wasn't willing to give up his ire just yet. "Why?"

Murdoch sat on the sofa with Scott and began to relay all that had happened since Johnny's shooting that their neighbor didn't know, leaving out some details. Once he'd finished, Micah blew out a breath.

"Well, I can see why you felt the need but, I must tell you the valley is upset with you all. They feel like they've been betrayed in a way. I'll see what I can do to ease their minds. You've saved us all from a lot of pain and damage so, I'm sure, they'll understand. Still, some aren't going to take this so easily."

"Why do they care?" Johnny asked.

Micah looked at him as if he had three heads. "Don't you know how many people like you, Johnny? Oh, there are some who were dancing a jig when they heard you were dead, I know but, a great many people here do like and respect you."

Johnny gave him a sidelong look. "I appreciate you sayin that but, I'm pretty sure most of those people showed up at my funeral because of Murdoch."

"Is that what you really believe?" Scott asked. "You're wrong, Johnny. Very wrong. After we first got here, I'm sure that would've been the case but, brother, there are a lot of people who genuinely like you for you; not because you're Murdoch Lancer's son."

Johnny smiled at his brother. "I don't need my ego stroked, Scott."

"No, you need it overhauled," Murdoch scowled. "I know you don't think so little of yourself, John. You need to appreciate that other people don't either. When you earn respect, that's a remarkable thing. Don't dismiss it because it makes you uncomfortable."

Looking at his father, he grinned. The old man sure did know him pretty well. He didn't really know what to say to that, though. "Okay."

Micah laughed and stood up. "Alright, I had to see for myself and now that I have, I'll get going. I'll spread the word, too. Just don't do that again." He turned to Johnny and put a hand on his shoulder. "More people care about you here than don't. Remember that. And, on behalf of most of those people, I want to thank you all for saving this valley - again." Micah sighed and ran a hand through his hair as he headed for the door. "I swear, it never gets any easier, does it?"

Murdoch clapped a hand on his shoulder. "It doesn't seem so."

Micah opened the door then stopped and turned back to Murdoch. "Those two boys of yours are a treasure, Murdoch. And, they are both very brave young men, too."

"I know, Micah, but, thank you."

*****

There was silence in the great room after Townsend left. Johnny sat on the arm of a chair, his brow creased in thought. Murdoch resumed his seat and watched both his sons for a moment.

"Well, I guess that means I can show my face now."

"Tomorrow is soon enough to go to town, son."

"Why are you so against me seein Weir?"

Murdoch sighed and stood up. "I'm not against you seeing him, Johnny. I am concerned that you aren't physically up to it. You know it will wear on you, facing him. Why put yourself through that until you're ready?"

"I'm ready now, Murdoch."

"I'd like to hear Sam's opinion on that," Murdoch retorted.

Johnny stood up, a slow smile coming to his face. "Then, I'll go see Sam first."

Scott laughed a little. "He's got you there, Sir."

Aggravated as he always was when his sons made more sense than he did, Murdoch scowled at them both. "Fine, but we're all going."

Johnny shrugged. It made no difference to him if he had an audience.  

Murdoch pointed a finger at Johnny. "And if Sam doesn't think you're up to it ..."

"He will."

Murdoch turned his head aside, giving Johnny a warning look. "You can't intimidate Sam."

"Noooo," Johnny drawled, "but, since he must love and respect me, too, I'm sure he'll do what I ask."

Throwing his hands in the air and bristling a little as his sons laughed, Murdoch walked toward the front door. "Well, come on if you're coming!"

*****

Johnny swore on all that was holy, he'd never ignore Sam or his father again. If they told him he wasn't ready to do something, he'd believe it as the gospel truth. A slow smile came across his face as they jolted along in the surrey. He knew, of course, he would break that solemn vow but, at the moment, it was very genuine. The smile didn't last long, replaced by yet another grimace as they hit a nice rut in the road. He felt like a dishrag. He wasn't sure why his side still hurt, though. The stitches were out, the wound closed so, why the hell did it ache so much? He let out a heavy sigh, glad his father wouldn't hear it with the jangling and bouncing going on. He'd closed his eyes a million times, he'd wager, since they started out. But, he'd make it. He always made it.

The surrey came to a stop and Johnny looked up, pushing his hat back and surprised to see Sam's house before him. Thank God!, he thought as he moved to get to the ground. One foot on the dirt, then the other foot hit the ground and he was pretty sure all of him would be hitting the ground next. Just as the reality of that thought registered, he felt a strong arm around his waist. Johnny looked up only half-way, sure he'd faint dead away if he did more than that. No words were spoken and he found himself being guided to Sam's door.

He saw another set of boots on his left. Scott, of course, with a hand out to catch him if need be. He almost laughed at the idea of how this must look then, he pulled up short as he indeed realized how it might look. Sucking in a deep breath, he pulled his shoulders back and pushed gently at his father. He felt the hand release him then he stared straight at the door and hoped he'd make it there.

Well, even if he didn't make it, he knew they'd catch him then growl at him a little for his foolishness. But, it wasn't foolishness to him and he knew they'd never understand. It didn't matter, it would always be like this for him and that was alright. He just couldn't let people see him weak. That was all there was to that. He grabbed the doorknob and turned it, half pushing, half falling into the room.

*****

Murdoch closed the door quickly behind them then grabbed Johnny up again, guiding him to Sam's exam room as Scott went in search of the doctor. "One of these days, son."

"Don't yell at me right now, Murdoch, please. Later, okay?"

The big man pulled a face but acquiesced. He could do little else after hearing that particular tone of voice his son only used when he was just completely done in and couldn't take another thing. "Alright, just lie down here on the table then."

Johnny managed to push himself up and lie down, Murdoch covering him with a sheet for the time being. He sighed then a small groan escaped through his clamped jaw. "Just need to rest. I was okay until I got down."

"Oh, yes. Of course you were. I could tell you were feeling fine, brother. Ready to dance a jig, weren't you?" Scott stood at the foot of the table and scowled at him. "Sam's in the back. He'll be right here."

Johnny looked at his brother through half-closed eyes and grinned. Sam had chewed him out. Johnny would bet a month's wages on that one. Of course, he was about to get the same so, the smile died pretty fast. About as fast as Sam appeared.

Storming into the room, he wasted no time. "Of all the lame brained, idiotic stunts to pull! The lot of you are daft! What do you mean bringing him to town and don't you dare say he would've done it on his own, Murdoch! As long as you keep indulging that boy, he'll get away with murder!" Murdoch opened his mouth but that's as far as it went. "Don't you understand you have to lay down the law with this one? Throwing up your hands and giving into his whims are not the way to handle Johnny."

"Sam."

The physician turned to his patient. Johnny hadn't yelled, had not even used a normal tone, just that one soft word stopped him dead in his tracks. He realized what he'd just said and one look in those blue eyes told him he'd overstepped. Sam took in a breath and walked to the side of the examination table. "You bring out the worst in me, Johnny. You know that, don't you?"

"Don't mean to, Sam," he said just as softly but, the anger was still there.

Sam smiled down at him. "I know. You also bring out the best so, what am I to do with you? Tell me, Johnny. Tell me why you are so intent on hurting yourself."

Johnny sighed and shook his head slowly. "Don't mean to do that, either. I thought I could handle it. Murdoch took me for a ride earlier and I was fine."

"And now?"

"I'm better now. Just need to rest a spell. You all think I'm gonna break in two all the time and I don't understand that. So, I guess we all have a hard time of it."

Murdoch ventured forth to stand opposite of Sam. "Maybe it's because we worry about you, son. Sam's right." He eyed the doctor. "He might have been completely out of line but, he was right. I do let you get away with too much."

A chuckle came from Johnny's throat. "Let me? I don't know how long it's gonna take for all of you to get that I'm grown and no one

*****
lets
*****
me do anything. Anyway, can we have this talk - again - some other time?"

Sam gave up and gave in. "Let me take a look at you. Maybe Scott could get you some water."

"Of course and, just for the record, I do know you're grown, brother. It would be helpful if you acted that way all the time instead of just most of the time." With a quirk of his lips, Scott headed to the kitchen.

"No fun in that," Johnny muttered.

"No real damage done. You just weren't ready for that kind of travel yet. You'll need a good rest before heading home." Sam slipped his jacket back on then eyed his friend. "Murdoch, step into the other room with me."

"Hey, if you're gonna talk about me ..."

"Not everything is about you, Johnny," Sam interrupted then left the room.

Murdoch shrugged and followed him into the front office.

"I wanted to apologize, my friend. The things I said about handling Johnny, it wasn't my place. I'm sorry."

Murdoch didn't know whether to laugh or be upset as he had every right to. He ran a hand through his hair and sighed. "Sam, I know how fond you are of my boys and I'm very glad for it. Johnny is ... well, he's proud, too proud sometimes. He's been so good with this injury. For the most part, he's done exactly what we've told him to do and that isn't easy for him. I think it scared him."

"Yes, I think it did, too. I understand he's proud and has a hard time letting anyone help him. Still, at some point, he has to get it, doesn't he?"

"Maybe, but, it may take him years. I'm willing to wait."

Sam frowned and lowered his head in thought. "I just hope he has those years because, if he keeps going like this, Murdoch, I'm not too optimistic."

The rancher grimaced at that, knowing it was true but, really, what could he do? "It isn't as if he's a child. I can't send him to his room or take him to the woodshed. All I can do is keep talking to him and hope he listens."

"Well, I know he does listen to you even if he acts as if he doesn't. Between you and Scott, he ought to feel more settled by now."

"He ... he and Scott are having some problems right now. This whole mess with Weir has thrown everyone off track."

Sam felt and heard the frustration in Murdoch's voice and he sympathized with his friend. "Is that why he's here? To see Weir?"

"I'm afraid so. He thinks ..." Murdoch didn't finish as the front door burst open and Val Crawford stepped into the room looking like he'd gone a couple of rounds with a rattler.

"I figured when I saw Scott's horse. Did he manage to kill himself gettin here?"

"He's in the back resting, Sheriff. There's no point in haranguing him about it, either."

"I know but, that don't mean I'm ain't gonna just the same, Mr. Lancer." Val walked past them both, fierce determination on his face.

*****

"What'cha gonna do if I tell ya you can't see him?"

Johnny looked up, stunned for a second then, he relaxed and rested his head back on the pillow. "Wait, I guess."

Val stood there, the wind knocked out of him. He saw Scott trying to hide a smile and that just irritated him. Taking his hat off and slapping it against his thigh, he closed in on Johnny. "One day there ain't gonna be no one around to stop you, Johnny."

"Yeah, there's always hope."

"Might be today if you don't curb that sharp tongue."

Johnny half-heartedly sneered at him then sighed. "One day, maybe, you'll all just accept this is who I am."

Murdoch and Sam walked back in on that statement and found themselves being drilled by those eyes.

"I don't know if there's a cure for it, but I'm sick of hearing all this. By now, you should know it ain't gonna change a thing. If none of you want to deal with it, then don't. I didn't ask you to come."

"You never ask for anything, brother. That doesn't mean we aren't always going to watch your back. Isn't that what we're all supposed to do for each other? It's not okay for you to do that and us not to. It isn't fair and it won't wash with us. So, if us being around aggravates you then, get used to being aggravated."

Johnny watched his brother as he spoke and saw no anger, only sincerity in the firm voice. He fought off a smile just because he figured Scott would expect to get one. He 'was' aggravated with them. Not for being with him, though. "It's not that I don't want you with me, Scott. it's that you don't seem to think I can do anything unless you are. Yes, I got sick and I needed to rest. Yes, it was too soon for me to ride all this way. It doesn't matter. I would've rested without you and I would've come without you knowin it would make me sick. You can call it whatever you want but, this is who I am and I'm not about to change."

Murdoch stepped closer to the bed. "We don't want you to change, son."

"Yes, you do or you wouldn't harp on me about it all the time. I can stop the gunfightin, Murdoch. I have no problem with that but, that ain't all I am and it never has been. No matter what name I go by, this is me. Johnny, just Johnny and I'd like a little acceptance of that if you can manage it. If you can't, well, I don't know where that leaves any of us. All I do know is there are things I believe in and things I do and just because you don't agree with it, don't make it wrong." He stopped and closed his eyes a second, the epiphany hitting him hard.

"And, I reckon that's what Scott was tryin to tell me, too. I'm never gonna agree with what he did but, does that mean I can't live with him? I can't still be his friend and brother? No, it doesn't."

Scott's shoulders sagged and he shook his head at this remarkable young man. He looked over at his father and saw the light going on there.

"That was ..." Murdoch stopped and cleared his throat, "very clear, son. Very poignant and I understand now. I just want you to understand why I react the way I do when you go off ... when you make the decisions you make."

Johnny smiled a little. "I know why, old man. Same reason I act stupid when you get hurt or do somethin I don't agree with. But, I'm still here."

Murdoch smiled back and reached out, squeezing his arm. "I'm very glad you're both still here."

"Good. Now," Johnny turned his attention to Val, "can I see the hombre or not and what are you smilin about?"

Val's face fell back into it's usual scowl. "Nothin

*****
you
*****
said. I reckon if ya think you can walk your sorry ass that far, you can see 'im."

*****

Johnny did walk himself that far and he entered the sheriff's office with renewed purpose. He waited for them all to get inside and somewhat settled as he removed his gunbelt. "I'm used to people starin at me but, that was ridiculous."

"It's not every day you see a ghost, son." Murdoch patted his back then walked over and sat in a chair by Val's desk. "How long do you think you'll be?"

"Depends on him. If he's in a braggin mood, it might take a while."

Scott walked over to stand in front of him. "Are you going to goad him?"

Johnny's eyes widened then, he stuck his lower lip out just a little. "Would I do that?"

Smiling, Scott ducked his head a second before looking back at his brother. "No, not you, Johnny. Just be careful of your temper. And, when we're done here ... when we get home ..."

Johnny's face softened sincerely. "Sure, Scott."

Val stood by the cell room door and watched the two of them. He wasn't sure he'd ever get that relationship but, it wasn't his business. Not the kind of man Johnny would have ever given the time of day to before. Then again, Scott wasn't just anybody. He pushed the thoughts away as Johnny walked over and nodded. Val grinned and opened the door, stepping aside.

It was darker in this room but, Johnny knew that so he was prepared. He blinked rapidly a few times to adjust his vision then walked further in. At first, no one noticed. It wasn't unusual for the sheriff to check on them. Then, someone bothered to look up.

"Holy Mother of God!"

Johnny laughed softly as he stopped by the first cell and nodded. "Red."

Red stood closer to the bars and grinned. "I'll be damned. I reckon ya ain't never pulled that one before." He extended his hand through the bars and Johnny shook with him.

"No, wish I had thought of it. Works pretty good."

"Yeah," Red laughed, "I'd say so. Glad it ain't true." His face fell then and Johnny felt a tinge of regret.

"Thanks, Red. Sorry you got busted."

"Always a possibility, I reckon. But, I don't guess you're here to see me." The smile was back. Red was always smiling no matter what kind of mess he was in.

Johnny shook his head and looked to the next cell. Weir was lying on his cot but, Johnny knew he was well aware of his presence. "I'll see ya, Red," he said as he moved on to the next door.

"It's been a while, Johnny Madrid."

He thought to correct the man on his name but, it didn't matter. He wasn't going to let Weir get to him. He said nothing and waited for the man to stand and face him. He refused to talk to him like this.

Weir smiled at the silence then sat up on the side of the cot, grinning wider as he looked at Johnny. Standing, he moved to the bars. "My, my! You are good at playing dead."

"And you're good at all kinds of games, Weir."

Laughing, the man's eyes danced in the ambient light from the small window behind him. It was eerie how that light still managed to catch his eyes. "I do try, Johnny Madrid. I do try. Well, to what do I owe this immense honor?"

Johnny shrugged. "Just wanted to say howdy and, well, see you behind bars." The grin started slowly then spread across his face when he saw Weir's eyes grow dark for a split second.

The smile returned quickly enough. "And how is dear Silas? Still trying to farm that dead piece of land?"

"He's fine, just fine. I'm a little surprised at you, Weir. You don't seem the type to take on so many partners."

"Well, Johnny my boy, sometimes, a man needs a little assistance. Financially, I mean. But, look at you. Healthy as a horse. You fooled us all, Johnny Madrid."

He didn't react outwardly but, it had always made his skin crawl when Weir said his name like he did. All ... evil and shit. He took a little deeper breath, the smile still easy on his face. "Reckon it's easy to fool a man when he hides in the shadows."

Weir laughed then shook a finger at him. "This is the second time you've ruined my plans. What am I going to do with you?"

That made Johnny laugh. "I think you best worry about yourself, Weir."

He shrugged indifferently then eyed Johnny. "How is your dear brother? Has he recovered from his shameful cowardliness? Winston was absolutely delighted with his little windfall."

Damn! He knew he'd let something come to his face with that. He'd expected it but, still, he'd let it happen. He moved away from the bars, circling around then coming back. "I don't think he's too delighted anymore."

Weir tsked. "Made him give it back?"

"Nope. I killed him."

Johnny watched in fascination as Weir's face fell, his eyes turned nearly black and even his skin seemed to get darker. But, it was the anger; the fire in his eyes that caught Johnny's attention. He'd seen it once before when Weir had attacked him with that cane of his. It didn't frighten him but he was sure that was the intent. He was more curious at the reaction than anything and an idea formed. He decided to see if he could get the man to make another mistake before he brought himself under control again.

"What? Was he your girlfriend or somethin? Seemed the type to me." He grinned at that.

Weir's hand snaked between the bars, reaching for his throat but, Johnny moved too quickly then laughed. "Whoa! I think I must've hit a nerve there, Weir. Sorry about your loss, well, not really. He wasn't much of a challenge for me. Didn't take a second to put a bullet in his gut."

The man's face turned deep red, a vein in his temple throbbing and he shook the bars violently. In a low growl, he spoke. "I will kill you, Johnny Madrid. The hounds of hell will chase you down and eat you for supper. Your eternal soul will roast in Hell for all time. You will suffer more pain than you could ever imagine exists."

Johnny raised a brow at that then looked upward and sighed. Hands on hips, he looked back at Weir with a crooked grin. "Tell me somethin new, old man." Remarkably, Weir began to laugh, his face returning to normal, his eyes lighting. Johnny knew the man was crazy, just not this crazy. Then, he stopped. Just stopped and stared at him for a long moment.

"You always joked about going to Hell but, it was all in jest. But, it isn't, Johnny Madrid. No matter what you do, how many people you help, it won't matter. It will never make up for the lives you've taken."

"From devil to preacher in two seconds flat. Pretty impressive, Weir, but you need to make up your mind which. It's gettin boring." Johnny glanced at the door and sighed. "Well, reckon I'll be goin now. Just wanted to stop by and say howdy."

"You aren't going anywhere."

Johnny turned to face him, his face flat, his eyes devoid of emotion.

"You haven't found out what you want to know, Johnny Madrid. Are there any more of us? Do I have men out there waiting to free me or to come after your family? That's what you came here for."

Shaking his head, Johnny smiled. "Sorry to disappoint you, Weir, but it's not. If there is anyone else out there, I'll deal with it. I've lived my whole life dealing with it so, this ain't nothin new for me."

"And your family?"

He shrugged. "They know it, too. See, what you don't get is that I wouldn't ask you for a drink of water in the desert, old man. You got nothin I want and now, you got nothin at all." He smiled brilliantly. "See ya." As he walked out the door, he heard that almost ghostly voice of Weir's.

"You'll be back, Johnny Madrid. You'll be back."

*****

Johnny walked back into the main office and grabbed his gunbelt, strapping it on.

"Did he tell you anything?" Murdoch asked.

"No, and I didn't ask him. Let's go home."

Murdoch walked over and stood in front of him as he tightened the belt once more. "What's wrong?"

Johnny sighed and looked up at his father. "Nothing. He's just crazy, is all. He didn't tell me anything. I just want to go home now."

"Are you up to it, Johnny? The ride in was rough on you," Scott asked with concern.

"Yeah," he breathed out. "I'm worked up enough right now to beat you back on foot." He relaxed his shoulders as they all stared at him. "Look, he gets to me but I don't show him and that makes him mad. He tried all that devil stuff on me again, is all. It's stupid."

Murdoch nodded. "But, something he said did bother you."

"A lot of what he said bothered me but, there's one thing. I don't know that it matters anymore but, when I told him I killed Winston, I thought he was gonna bend those bars to get at me."

Val got in on the conversation then. "That might be important. I'll try again to get some information on Winston."

"Hell, Val, we don't even know if that's his real name."

Shrugging the sheriff replied, "can't hurt ta try. Go home and stop bothering me now."

Johnny looked over at him and smiled. "Sure."

*****

Once out of town, Johnny relaxed a little more and settled lower in the seat. He chuckled a little and looked over at Murdoch. "Just Weir. When he started talkin about me goin to hell, it was pretty funny. Sounded like a preacher for a minute."

Murdoch was not amused. "What did he say that got to you?"

Johnny lowered his head, the smile gone. He looked over his shoulder to find Scott behind them. Softly, he answered. "Called Scott a coward. I shouldn't have ... I mean, I knew he'd probably say somethin about it but, I just couldn't help it."

"I can understand that, son. You two are so protective of each other." Murdoch licked his lips then shifted in the seat. "What you said back at Sam's, I want you to know I heard you and it makes sense about both of you."

"It's funny, I was talkin about myself and wasn't really thinkin ahead about what I was gonna say. It just came out but, as soon as it did, I got it. I still don't agree with him but, it doesn't matter anymore."

"Is it going to be that easy?"

"Easy? No, it's not gonna be easy, Murdoch. Especially, since he wants to talk about it some more. Sometimes, Scott talks things to death and back."

Murdoch chuckled. "I know but, it's just his way. He's logical."

"Hmmph! Thinks he is." Johnny looked over and grinned. He heard Remmie close in and laughed softly.

"Are you two talking about me?"

Johnny looked over at him. "Why? Your ears burnin, Boston? Yeah, we're talkin about you. How logical you are and all."

"Uh huh. I do want to talk to you, Johnny. I think ..."

"Murdoch, stop," Johnny interrupted his brother, his eyes on the pasture to their left.

Murdoch pulled back on the reins and Scott came to a stop as well, both seeing what Johnny had spied.

A black stallion stood in the field, full tack on as he grazed.

"Could we be that lucky?" Scott asked.

"We? You'd be the lucky one, brother. If that's Winston's horse, his saddlebags are still there."

"You think he'd carry all that money in his saddlebags?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny shrugged. "Only one way to find out. Ain't likely he'd leave it in camp or chance burying it somewhere. Sure as hell wouldn't put it in a bank."

Scott rode over and dismounted a few feet from the stallion who was eyeing him. Slowly, he approached the animal, speaking softly. He put a hand on its neck and the horse allowed it. Scott took hold of the reins then untied the saddlebags, throwing them over his shoulder. Then, he mounted up and led the horse to the back of the surrey, tying it off.

"They're heavy," he reported. He opened the first saddlebag flap and found trail provisions. The second one revealed something more substantial. To be sure, Scott opened the envelope he'd given Winston and smiled. Thumbing the bills, he remarked, "looks like it's all here."

"I guess our luck is finally changin for the better. You got out of owin me seventeen hundred dollars, Boston."

Scott grimaced at his brother then laid the saddlebags across his lap. "I think we should get home."

*****

Murdoch stopped the surrey as close to the front door as he could get it and saw the look Johnny threw at him. He smiled a little then stepped out, dropping the weight and hurrying around.

"I'm okay. Not like earlier at all." Johnny stood by the surrey and gave himself a minute to make sure that statement was true. But, he felt no dizziness, no nausea, he wasn't sweating so, he figured he was ahead of the game. He looked up into his father's anxious eyes and smiled then nodded.

Scott walked up and looked him over then headed to the front door, opening it and waiting for them to join him.

"Well, might as well get this over with."

"You don't have to right now, Johnny. He'll wait for you."

"Yeah, I know. I'll tell ya," he finally headed for the door, "I'm feelin pretty hungry. Maybe you could fix somethin really good?"

Murdoch saw the sly grin his son was trying to hide and shook his head. "What would you like, Senor Lancer?"

A small bark of a laugh came from Johnny's throat. "Something spicy. Chili?"

Nodding his head, Murdoch put a hand on his back. "I happen to make very good chili."

"I think you're enjoying that kitchen more than Maria. You'd better be careful when she comes back. She'll beat you with one of her spoons."

Murdoch stopped in front of his older son. "It sounds to me like you've had some experience with Maria's spoons, son?"

Scott lowered his eyes and shrugged. "It was Johnny's fault. I didn't know what she was saying and he told me she wanted me to taste her cooking."

Johnny was laughing before Scott ever finished and Murdoch joined him once he heard the whole tale. "Well, I promise not to assault you with a spoon but, you're right. That kitchen had better be pristine when she returns. Come on, boys."

*****

Murdoch headed straight to the kitchen as Scott locked the money in the safe. Johnny fell on the sofa then frowned and looked around the room.

"Reckon tio got the furniture back in order."

"He must have," Scott said as he locked the safe soundly then stood and walked to the liquor. "Drink?"

"No, thanks."

Scott looked over and saw his brother leaning back, his eyes closed. "Are you really okay?"

"Just tired. Seems I'm always tired. Getting sick of it. Hand me those saddlebags. I want to see what Winston packed around with him."

Scott picked the saddlebags up and walked over to sit next to his brother, the bags between them. He sipped his whiskey as he watched.

Johnny pulled out a shirt and pants then, a bottle of rye. "Figures he'd drink rye," he muttered.

"Is that significant?"

Shrugging, Johnny went about his pillaging. "Just that he wasn't what he seemed. Acted all educated and refined but ... look at this. Dime novels." He waved the two books in the air. "No self-respecting gunfighter would waste his time readin this garbage."

Scott took the books and looked at the titles. "They aren't about you, at least. That would be a little ..."

"Yeah, it would," Johnny said, then opened the other flap. "Well, this might be somethin." He pulled out an envelope and opened it. "Well, I figured something was up between those two."

Scott frowned and leaned a little closer. "What does it say?"

Johnny waved the letter in the air. "It's from Weir, askin Winston to meet him in Modesto for a job. Calls him nephew." He paused at that. "I never figured Weir to have any family."

Scott leaned back against the sofa cushion. "I can't imagine."

Shaking his head, Johnny dropped his hand to his lap and looked the missive over again. "Says he has to repay a debt and that Winston would find it 'amusing'. Reckon he meant me?"

"Probably. It's over now, though."

"Is it?" He looked over at his brother. "I mean, maybe Winston's kin won't be too happy."

Scott's head came up with that idea. The very thought of more Weir's out there made his stomach turn. "Maybe Val can find out. Now that we know they were related, he may have more luck. Where was the letter sent to?"

"Arkansas. Little Rock."

"I'm sure his parents, if they're alive, won't much like any of this."

"Boy, you sure are ..." Johnny stopped and shook his head.

"What? I'm what? Concerned? Thoughtful?"

"Yeah, sure. What makes you think the whole damned lot of them ain't as bad as Weir?" He sighed and shook his head. "This ain't Boston, Scott. Nothing near it."

Scott's face turned to stone, his lips tightened and his jaw firmed. "I'm well aware of what people are capable of, Johnny. I just don't think everyone is bad."

"No, they're not but, there's no sense temptin fate, either. All I'm sayin is you act like there's good in everyone. But, there's not, Scott. Some people are plain bad news."

"How do you know which is which if you never give anyone a chance?"

"I've spent a considerable amount of time watchin folks. I can mostly tell when a man or a woman has a black heart. I don't have to invite them in and have supper with them to tell." Johnny went back to his search of the saddlebags, knowing this debate would never end.

"And you've never been wrong?"

"Sure, but I'm right more than I'm wrong and I figure that evens things out."

Scott thought about that for a moment. "You could have missed out on knowing some fine people."

"I do alright, Scott. If I missed out on anything then it wasn't meant to be anyway."

Raising his brows, Scott considered that. "You believe in fate, Johnny?"

He glanced over at his brother. "I believe in this." He pulled the pistol out and held it in the air, twisting it back and forth as he examined it. "Not a bad piece." He leaned over and set it on the table.

"There's more, Johnny. People can't be all bad or we'd all be nothing more than animals."

"All I know is when I made a remark about Winston, Weir tried to get through that cell door at me. Never seen a man so damned mad before. That was animal enough for me. I figured then they were kin or somethin. Of course," he grinned wickedly, "I did kind of ask if Winston was his girlfriend."

Scott leaned back, appalled. "That is disgusting! And wicked, brother." A smile threatened his lips. Soon enough, he fell serious again. "I thought you were coming to terms with what I did but, it seems as if you're still angry with me."

"I am. I also said I'd never agree with what you did. But, that's who you are. It's just that sometimes, I worry about you, Scott. Sometimes, you don't seem to get that people will use you for whatever they can get then shove you off or kill ya when they've got it."

Shaking his head slowly, Scott frowned. "I think I view things differently than you. I don't automatically assume people are bad until they prove me wrong. I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt in most cases. I don't think that's wrong. You spent your life around some very bad people, Johnny. I haven't. How we grew up makes us who we are."

"Did you ever think you might be able to learn somethin different? I mean, I know it's the pot callin the kettle black," he grinned a little at that, "but, maybe if you were a little less open to people, you wouldn't be so disappointed a lot of the time."

"And maybe, if you were more open, you'd discover a whole other world where everyone isn't out to shoot you in the back."

Johnny sighed and leaned back again. "Somewhere in there is a middle ground. Hard to see it, though."

It was quiet in the room for a time as both men thought about all they'd said and heard. Scott set his now empty glass on the coffee table and leaned back, crossing his ankles and lightly clasping his hands across his belly. "There are some people you seem to trust implicitly and I can't imagine they didn't have to earn that. So, what was different?"

Johnny didn't answer for a minute then, "you talkin about Val?"

"I am."

He opened his eyes and rolled his head to the side to look at his brother. With a shrug, he answered with one simple word. "Fate."

Scott nodded thoughtfully. "So, he didn't have to earn your trust?"

"Sure, he did but, he earned it pretty fast. Saved my life when he had no cause. Matter of fact, it would've been to his benefit not to. When we first met, it was just strange. Like ..."

Scott sat up straighter, anxious to finally hear this story. He waited impatiently for Johnny to find the words.

"Like meetin someone you already knew, just hadn't laid eyes on, yet. I don't know how else to explain it."

"Where did you meet?"

Johnny smiled fondly. "In some two-bit saloon in some two-bit town in Texas. There was a range war and we were on opposite sides."

Intrigued, Scott gave a smile of encouragement to continue.

"We talked a while before we figured that part out. Still, we told each other good luck and went our own way. Then, he up and saved my hide. I asked him why but, he said he did it because he didn't like the other guy." Johnny laughed softly. "I didn't believe it but I guess he couldn't figure it out anymore than I could. After that was over, we just fell into ridin together."

"How long?"

The smile left Johnny's face, replaced with a sadness. "Nearly two years. A lot of people couldn't believe I was ridin with anyone. I never had before, never have since. He decided to get all law-abidin on me. Took a sheriff's job down south."

"Down south? In Mexico?" Scott asked in surprise.

"Mexico? Hell, no, Boston. No gringo could be a lawman in Mexico. No, but it was near the border here, in California."

Scott nodded then cleared his throat. "That must have been tough, parting ways with him."

Johnny heard the real question and just nodded. "Yeah, sure. But, well, you know, he needed to get out. Bein an old man and all." The grin was back as he recalled teasing Val about his advanced age. All of eight years his senior.

Scott laughed aloud at that. "I'm glad you had a friend like that. I'm also glad you and I are doing alright."

Johnny looked over at him and nodded. "I'll tell ya, Scott. There's not much you could do that I can't get past. Don't really know that you'd be capable of doin anything that bad bein as how you got this heart of gold, and all."

Scott smacked his arm. He was about to probe deeper into that statement for future reference when Murdoch called them to the kitchen. He never did get around to it after that.

*****

Things settled down around the ranch over the next week. Teresa and Maria returned and Murdoch was booted out of kitchen duty. He didn't complain. Cooking because you wanted to was a lot different than cooking because you had to so, he was happy to give up the pots and pans.

He watched his sons as Johnny got back to work and was relieved they seemed to have worked things out. He knew part of him would always keep what happened in the back of his mind and that bothered him. He never wanted to doubt his son's ability to make decisions and he never had before. Not Scott. Ashamedly, he admitted to himself, he had doubted Johnny in the past. But, it was the differences between them that clouded his judgment in that area, he now knew.

If he thought about it, and he had over the past days, Johnny was the one he should have trusted to make those calls more easily. He was the one used to this land and the men who ruled it. But, he'd not done that, opting to seek Scott's opinion more often than not. Trusting Scott's opinion more, too. It was wrong and he wondered if Johnny was aware of it. Not much escaped his young son's notice so, he couldn't imagine the boy hadn't seen it. Still, he wouldn't bring it up now. There was no reason to cause bad blood between them for something that wouldn't be happening again. He made himself that vow.

Today, though, he had other things on his mind as well. It was Johnny's first day out on the range with the men. Granted, it was only half days, not joining the crews until after lunch. Reduced to barn and tack room chores, Johnny had scowled at him more the past week than since he'd arrived home. Murdoch chuckled at that.

As evening was coming, he waited with some anxiety for his boys to ride in together. They weren't late but, he supposed he'd never stop worrying about them. He'd done it for twenty-five years so he figured he was a professional at that task now.

Murdoch perked up when he saw a rider coming in. Quickly, a frown knitted his brows as he realized it was a lone rider. He stepped out the French doors and into the yard, his stomach dropping when he recognized Val Crawford. The sheriff never just stopped by to say howdy. He held his breath as Val dismounted and tied off his horse.

"Sheriff," he greeted tightly.

Val nodded as he walked up. "Mr. Lancer. Johnny and Scott home?"

"Not yet but any time now. Come inside." Murdoch turned and led the way into the great room. He knew this was about Weir. Had to be.

Val took his hat off as he crossed the threshold. "Figured I'd ride out and let ya know, the trial starts Monday mornin. Don't reckon it'll take too long. Weir don't have a lawyer. Said he was gonna represent hisself."

"Will this ever end?" Murdoch muttered as he poured two whiskeys.

Val heard it but he didn't figure the man expected an answer. He settled in a chair and crossed his leg over the other knee.

*****

Ten minutes of uncomfortable chitchat ended when Scott and Johnny walked into the house. Val sighed his thanks and stood up.

"Val, what's goin on?" Johnny started right in.

"Trial's Monday. You'll all need ta testify. Starts at eight o'clock."

"What can we expect?" Scott asked as he walked in and sat down.

They all settled in chairs or on the sofa before Val replied. "Whole lot of nonsense. Weir's gonna be his own lawyer. Oughta be a hoot!"

Johnny cursed just loud enough to be heard.

Murdoch gave him a warning look then studied him more closely. "How was today?"

"Fine until now. So, he's gonna turn this into a circus."

"I doubt it. Judge Reston don't like a lot of foolishness in his courtroom." Val took a drink then looked at Scott. "You're all gonna have to get up there and tell your side of things. All of it."

Scott shrugged and nodded then saw Val's grimace.

Shifting in his chair, Val looked right into his eyes. "I wasn't gonna say nothing, Scott. Wasn't gonna do nothin and I'm still not. The judge might have other ideas."

"What are you talking about, Val?" Murdoch asked.

"I'm talkin about the laws Scott broke. Obstruction of justice bein the big one and bribery."

Scott leaned forward and gawked at the man. "You can't be serious!?"

"Who's gonna tell? Winston's dead. No one else was around. It's all hearsay now, right?" Johnny sat relaxed in his chair.

"Weir will tell 'im, Johnny. He'll make a big deal outta that, I guarantee it. Just because there's no proof don't mean Scott can sit up there and lie under oath."

"I have no intentions of lying, Val." Scott stood and walked over to pour himself a drink. "If the judge sees fit to charge me, so be it." He turned to face them and took a sip of his drink.

"What kind of ... sentence would something like that bring?" Murdoch asked. He didn't think Scott was taking this very seriously.

"Could be a fine, some jail time. Hard to say. I'm sure he'll take everything into consideration." Val looked over at Scott. "Sayin you were wrong and maybe out of your mind with worry might help."

"Don't even look at that five thousand, brother," Johnny quipped.

Murdoch sighed heavily. "This isn't funny! It's serious! Scott could go to jail."

"I'm not going to say I was wrong, Val. I will admit to being worried about my family. That's the truth. Whatever happens, it won't be nearly as bad as what Weir is facing."

"Well, as long as he gets more prison time, it's fine!" Murdoch threw his hands in the air.

Scott pulled a face. "There's no point in worrying about it now. We can't know what will happen."

"Besides, with any luck, Weir will hang. That's what he deserves. The man is a murderer, after all." Johnny looked at all three of them. "I'm just sayin, man like that, the judge wouldn't take much of what he said too serious."

"I'm not going to lie, Johnny," Scott said determinedly.

*****

Val begged off supper after the brothers filled him on Weir and Winston's connection and, after he left, the great room fell silent. Each man kept his own counsel and none were too anxious to hear the others thoughts on the subject. Finally, Scott stood up and excused himself to clean up.

Murdoch sat in a chair, his head resting on his fist as he watched his younger son. "Are you feeling alright, Johnny?"

Eyes flying open, Johnny raised his head from the chair back and looked at his father. "I'm fine. Tired, is all." He saw the look and growled, "just like any other day, Murdoch."

The rancher gave no reaction to the anger. "You know, son, denying everything isn't the equivalent to disagreeing with something."

Johnny shook his head. "What?"

A smile tugged at Murdoch's lips. "If I say you're in pain, you don't have to say you feel perfectly fine to counter me if it isn't true. Just saying you're hurting some would be okay. It wouldn't mean you were on death's door."

"Yeah? You sure do act like it. I feel like I can't even cough around you anymore."

Murdoch's face fell at that and he lowered his eyes a moment. Scooting around in his seat, he leaned forward some. "Have I been that bad?"

Johnny felt like kicking himself as soon as the words left his mouth. "No, you've been that good. It's just that, I'm not so sick anymore and you don't seem to be able to let go of it."

Murdoch conceded the point with a nod. "You scared me. No, it wasn't your fault at all but, seeing you like that was hard, son. Very hard."

Johnny stared at his lap. "I've been sick before."

"Not like that. Never that bad."

"I get it, Murdoch. I really do but, it's over now and I need some breathin room."

Chuckling a little, Murdoch stood and stretched his back. "I'm trying, believe it or not." He did get a look of disbelief for that one. "I wanted to walk over and pull you onto the sofa, lie you down and cover you up when you walked in."

Johnny raised a hand in defeat and smiled. "Okay, you're right. You are trying. So, how about trying a little harder with Scott?"

Murdoch's face fell quickly and he turned to pace away. "I'm trying not to think about it."

"That's not workin. We both see it. You know, you're hurting him. He'd never admit it, but you are."

Shaking his head slowly back and forth, Murdoch turned back to face his son. "How did you do it? How did you forgive him?"

"I didn't. It's not a question of forgiving, it's a question of accepting. He did what he did and he thinks he was right. You do that every five minutes, old man. We don't always agree with that, either but, we don't treat you like you got the plague."

"This is a little more serious than a business decision, Johnny."

"Murdoch, it's not like he caused me to get shot. Yes, I agree with you one hundred percent but, how long are you gonna hold onto this? Forever? Because, I hafta say, I'm tired of all the tension in this house. And, I'm tired of seeing that sad puppy dog look on my brother's face every time your name comes up or he sees you." Johnny leaned forward. "Talk to him. Get it aired out like him and me did. You're not gonna resolve this but, at least you can close the subject."

Murdoch's lips twitched for a second then he sighed. "You're right. I'll talk to him tonight. Now, I want a promise from you."

"Dios, what?"

"Promise me you will pay attention to how you feel and not push yourself. This trial is going to be difficult and you need to be as well and rested as you can."

Plopping back in his chair, Johnny blew out a hard breath. "I promise and when this is all really over, I want you to promise to stop hounding me."

Murdoch shrugged. "Avoid catching bullets and I won't bother you."

He laughed at that then lowered his eyes. Softly, he said, "you don't bother me."

*****

After supper, Johnny went to bed, making sure he announced that intention loud and clear. Giving his father a poignant look, he headed upstairs, leaving Scott and Murdoch alone.

Scott stared into the fireplace, a book in his lap, untouched. He thought about retiring himself so he could relax and maybe actually read. He knew he wouldn't be able to do that with Murdoch around. He soon found out, that wasn't to be.

"Scott, we need to talk."

Closing his eyes briefly, the young man took in a sharp breath. "Alright. What about?"

"Winston."

Scott looked over at him, just noticing Murdoch had moved the chair so he was facing his son directly. His stomach dropped then, his anger surfaced a little. He kept himself in check and waited with a simple nod.

Murdoch watched him take it all in and prepare himself. He wondered what was going through his son's mind. Well, only one way to find that out, he thought. "I would like you to tell me what you were thinking."

"Again?"

"There's no need for sarcasm, son. I'm trying to understand."

Scott dropped his eyes and sighed. "I'm sorry. I'm just a little tired of the accusation I keep seeing every time I look at you."

"Yes, I was told I've been doing that."

A smile erupted on Scott's face, soft laughter following it. "I see. And what else were you told?"

Murdoch looked at him squarely. "That I'm hurting you." He was a little surprised at the suddenness of the move. Scott was out of his seat and pacing the room in one second. His hands clasped behind his rigid back, he kept his chin slightly jutted, his jaw tensing and relaxing over and over. "He's worried about ... us."

"I know," came the clipped reply.

"Sit down, please, Scott. I can't talk to you when you're marching around like that." Stopping abruptly, Scott did an about face and Murdoch wondered if he was going to click his heels together. After a moment's hesitation, he walked back over and resumed his seat.

"I don't know what else I can tell you, Sir. He'd gotten into the house, had been here and listened to Sam talking to us. It rattled me, I'll admit. I didn't think I could take him and the prospect of finding out who was behind this was more important at the time. I didn't tell you after he left because I hadn't made the deal yet and you were so worried about Johnny, rightly so. I felt if I could get this taken care of quickly, we wouldn't have to worry about any further attacks."

"Did it occur to you he might lie?"

"Of course it did. I took a calculated risk. Money is a great motivator, Murdoch. I thought his greed would overcome any loyalties and, besides, he didn't seem the type to be loyal to anyone." Scott sighed and leaned forward. "Look, I know the code of the west is to shoot first and ask questions later. To protect what's yours no matter what but, sometimes, there's a better way of doing that than picking up a gun. You and Johnny think I degraded myself or, maybe that I was a coward but, that's not how I see things."

Murdoch was shaking his head. "I know you aren't a coward, son. I've seen you stand up for what you believe in no matter the odds. No, I don't believe in paying off hired killers to change sides or to go away. I know you wanted the information, I just think there were other options."

"Like what? Lie to him, set him up? I didn't have time to develop a sophisticated plan and that's what it would have taken. I think, at the time, you're reaction would have been to go gunning for him. That wouldn't have given us anything."

Murdoch raised a brow then thought about it. "Yes, I suppose you're right about that. With Johnny in such bad shape, I did want justice for my son. I'd like to think I wouldn't have gone through with it but, I can't say that for certain."

"In the end, having Winston alive helped us," Scott pointed out. "Of course, I couldn't have known that would be the end result but, it was nonetheless."

"You make some valid points, son. I can't say I agree with your actions but, I think I understand them better now."

Scott smiled a little. "If you and I can be at that place, where Johnny and I are, I'll take it."  

Murdoch leaned forward and patted his knee. "I could never turn my back on you, Scott. There's nothing you could do that would make me stop loving you."

Stunned, Scott stared at his father openly, his mouth hanging agape.

Murdoch chuckled. "You look like Johnny did."

Blinking, he frowned, not understanding then, he remembered coming upon them at the lake. Now, he knew what had been going on between the two of them. He felt the heat rising up his neck and sought a diversion. "About Johnny and what he did."

Murdoch sat back and shook his hand, not understanding.

"Do you really think it was alright for him to let Winston out and give him a gun so he could kill the man?"

Brows knitting together, Murdoch thought about it. "He gave the man a fair chance. No, I don't suppose it was right but, I also know he wouldn't have just gunned Winston down. If he had refused, Johnny would have locked him back up, I'm sure."

Scott nodded but, there was still something fundamental here. That difference between him and his family. Murdoch and Johnny thought alike but, he'd always thought he and Murdoch did, as well. In business and in life choices. He was beginning to see that wasn't always true. He'd always felt a bit separate from them, having no experience in this way of life, but that seemed to be getting much better. Maybe, there would always be those differences. He didn't think he could ever change the way he looked at things and, he supposed his family couldn't either. A man stood for what he stood for and, it was life that taught him what was most important. On that, they all agreed. It was the methods that differed and, apparently, differed greatly. His head came up and he stared blankly at his father for a moment, realizing the man had called to him.

"Are you alright?"

"Yes, Sir. I was just thinking."

Murdoch nodded. "I don't think we need to talk about this anymore, do you? I understand your line of reasoning now."

"No, I don't think we need to discuss it further. Thank you for listening."

Smiling, the rancher got to his feet. "I'm going to bed. Goodnight, son."

*****

Monday morning came before they knew it and the Lancers rode to Green River with trepidation. That Weir was representing himself left them all wary of the result. The man had a smooth tongue and liked to use mind games. Johnny was especially worried he might not be able to hold his temper. As they entered the packed courtroom, all three groaned at the crowds. Val stepped up and led them to their seats behind the prosecutor's table.

All three men greeted the attorney who had spent considerable time with them the past several days. He seemed competent but, they weren't sure he knew what he was up against. Johnny eyed the jury and was satisfied with the choice of men sitting there.

Soon, Val led Weir in and sat him at his table with a deputy standing near him, rifle laying across his arms. Weir turned and looked at Johnny then winked. Johnny stared at him for a second then turned his head.

Prosecutor Hanson made his opening arguments, his voice droning as if he'd repeated the same speech a hundred times. Scott stifled a yawn and blinked to stay awake. This did not bode well for a satisfying outcome. The man would have to do better.

To everyone's surprise, Weir waved his opening arguments and the prosecution began its case.

*****

Murdoch stretched his back as he stood on the boardwalk outside the courtroom then nodded at a few people who greeted him as they walked by. He turned to find his sons standing nearer the door, talking to Val. He waited for them, curious as to what they were discussing but not enough to go over there. He was sick of this entire mess and very glad it was almost over.

The trial had lasted four long, grueling days and Weir had tried to pull a lot of tricks out of his bag. He claimed he'd only been visiting that tent in the canyon the day the Lancers went on the offensive. Murdoch shook his head, recalling Weir swearing he'd been meeting, for the very first time, Gillespie and the others on business. Murdoch had looked at the jury in that moment and seen the look of disbelief on their faces. Murdoch had to admit to himself, the man had made a compelling case. If he didn't know the facts, he may have been hard pressed not to accept the sincerity Weir had managed.

His downfall was on the prosecutor's direct. When Hanson brought up Weir's relationship to Winston, introducing the letter into evidence, Weir had been visibly affected. The look he'd given Johnny in that moment had made Murdoch's skin crawl. After that, there wasn't much he could say other than to get that one last jab in - at Scott. Fortunately, the judge had been unimpressed and had decided Scott had suffered enough from the whole ordeal. No charges were brought against his son.  

He straightened his shoulders as Johnny and Scott walked toward him, more than ready to go home.

"Val says they'll get the platform built over the weekend so they can hang him Monday," Johnny reported.

"Talk about the swift hand of justice," Scott remarked.

"I'll be very glad to see that swift hand in this instance. I'll be more glad to get home. Are you boys ready?"

"Oh, yeah," Johnny said as he headed for Barranca.

Scott held back a little, a slight smile on his face that he turned into a frown when his brother looked down at him from the saddle. "I was just thinking, you should really see Sam first, Johnny. I mean, you're riding more than you probably should and, well, you've not been taking it easy like he said." The look he received from his brother was a new one in Scott's experience with the man and he had no idea what it was. All he did know was he'd swear he felt a cold breeze.

"I think maybe you should mind your own business, Scott." Johnny's voice was flat, no anger heard as he kept that look going.

Murdoch's mouth twitched as he hauled himself into the saddle. "Johnny, are you feeling alright?"

"Feel fine."

"Then, let's go home, boys, because, I'm the one who needs to take it easy."

Disappointed his father didn't take the bait, Scott shrugged then walked over and mounted up. He was still very puzzled about that look of Johnny's and, as they headed out of town, he pondered it. Not anger, not Madrid. He really couldn't put a name to it other than ... dark. Again, he thought of a cold breeze then, he blinked and looked up, realizing they were talking.

"I plan on bein there."

"Is it necessary, son? He'll get what's coming to him. That's all that matters."

Johnny listened to the reasonable voice of his father and, if it were anyone else, he'd avoid the hanging. "I just need to make sure it happens, Murdoch. You know how slippery he is. Can you believe he tried to say he wasn't in on any of it? Who has a business meeting in a tent in a canyon on someone else's property?"

"Eminence grise," Scott said suddenly. When both men turned and looked funnily at him, he shrugged. "The man behind the scenes with all the power and influence. That's Weir. Eminence grise."

Johnny rolled his eyes and turned his attention back to the road. "If you say so, brother. All I know is I'm gonna be there to make sure his grise gets cooked."

Murdoch bit his lip and dipped his eyes, wondering how those two ever managed to form a friendship. They were so different. He'd thought at one time their differences only supported the other. Like two sides of a coin but, with all that had happened, he wasn't so sure of that anymore. "We should just be glad it didn't work and, that the judge didn't care to file any charges of his own."

"That's right and it means you don't get out of the Fall drive, Scott." Johnny turned and grinned at his brother.

"And here I was hoping to be spending the next few months lazing about Val's jail."

"That'd get old real quick, brother. You ever tasted his coffee?"

Scott grimaced. "I'm afraid I have." After a thoughtful moment, he went on. "I keep thinking of what Val said about Winston. That Weir practically raised him after his parents died."

"It's no wonder he turned out like he did. It makes me sick to think of what he might have done to Silas Hackett, given the chance," Murdoch said.

Johnny swallowed hard, his own stomach turning at the idea. "Well, he won't get any more chances to turn another kid now."

*****

Johnny spent the next few days continuing to rebuild his strength. By Saturday, he'd managed to talk his father into letting him spend full days out on the range with the work crews. Sunday night, he was paying for it. He sat slumped on the sofa, resting his head on his right fist and staring at the fireplace. The room was quiet and peaceful. He'd missed that these past weeks. He was about to doze off when the front door opened. Jerking his head up, he turned to find Scott walking in.

"The sky is pretty dark. Looks like we'll have a storm. Do you think they'll postpone the hanging?"

"If they do, I'll save them the trouble."

Murdoch looked sharply at his younger son. "You'll do nothing of the sort." Addressing Scott, he added,   "it depends on how bad the weather is, I guess."

Scott walked over and sat next to his brother on the sofa. "Want to play checkers?"

Johnny glanced at him and shook his head. "I don't feel like it. Think I'll turn in early."

"That wouldn't have anything to do with the past two days, would it, son? I don't want you pushing."

Johnny stood and sighed. "Murdoch, you have to actually put in an effort to push anything. I haven't done much but sit the saddle and round up strays."

"That's hard work and you know it. Since you're so bent on going to town in the morning, it won't hurt to have Sam check you out one more time. Just to be on the safe side."

Johnny quirked his lips but refrained from commenting. Murdoch had been incredible with him since he'd been shot and he didn't want things to go back to the often tense rhetoric they seemed to fall into with each other. He glanced down and saw Scott smile a little. As he passed his brother, he knocked against Scott's knees.

"Hey!"

Johnny smirked at him then shrugged. "Sorry," he mumbled insincerely. A wider smile crossed his lips as he headed for the stairs. Things were better with Scott and him. He reckoned they'd be able to get past it all after tomorrow, for sure. His brother was trying hard, Johnny knew. Evidence of that was Scott kept trying to get him in trouble with Murdoch. Well, not trouble, exactly. But, Scott was picking at him and that's how things should be. He kind of regretted that look he'd given him in town the other day. Kind of. A soft laugh escaped as he landed on the first step. He stopped and looked back for a second then headed to his room.

*****

Monday morning, a mere week since Weir's trial had started, the Lancers headed into town to watch justice meted out. Murdoch kept a vigilant eye on both his sons. Johnny was wound tighter than a drum and Scott was more pensive than usual. There had been no bantering at the breakfast table. In fact, there was little conversation at all as they prepared themselves for the day.

He hated these things, necessary as they were, he supposed. People seemed to use a hanging as an excuse to celebrate. Murdoch could find nothing celebratory about the ending of a life no matter whose life it was. He wanted Weir to pay, no doubt about that. He'd put them all through hell, Johnny especially. He had seemed very focused on Johnny the last time he was around. Calling him Madrid, fairly challenging him right at their own table. Murdoch's lips pressed tighter as he tried to push the thoughts from his mind.

Scott kept his eyes straight ahead, wishing this was over already. Just when he felt things settling down, returning to normal, something happened to remind him of all they'd endured. It felt good to joke with Johnny again and, his brother seemed accepting of it. Well, except for the last time they were in town and, Scott supposed his timing hadn't been the best. He chanced a glance at Johnny and sighed. Well, should give Weir a thrill to see Johnny Madrid one last time but Scott wasn't as enamored with the legend.

Johnny tried focusing on what the day would bring. An end to Weir would make his life easier. He'd never forgotten how the man had disappeared seemingly into thin air last time. And, today seemed eerily similar weather-wise. That storm had held off so far but the wind was gusting and the clouds were black and getting closer to the ground. He wouldn't be surprised if the heaven's opened any minute. He figured there should be plenty of sunshine and birds chirpin since the devil was getting hung today. He smirked a little at that thought.

All three men reined to a stop as they entered Green River. Johnny was instantly on edge as he took in the empty streets. His eyes settled briefly on the hangman's platform then he pressed Barranca forward toward Val's office.

Murdoch looked warily at Scott as they followed Johnny down the street. Chills ran through him then he chided himself. It was the weather keeping people indoors, that's all. The wind was really starting to howl now and he was reminded of the day Weir first came into their lives.

Johnny was waiting outside the sheriff's office for them and, together, they walked inside.

"Hell of a day for a hangin, ain't it?" Val greeted as he poured a cup of coffee. Holding the pot up in gesture, he shrugged when all three men shook their heads.

"I'm surprised there isn't a party in the street, Val. Isn't that how these things usually go?" Scott took his hat off and ran a hand through his hair to give it some semblance of order.

"Usually," the lawman answered as he settled in his desk chair, "but, I reckon the weather has got folks huddled inside. Ain't like it's freezin out. Just a little wind."

"It's gettin pretty bad out there, amigo. Think you'll have to cancel?" Johnny perched on the edge of the desk, swinging one leg back and forth.

"Well, we'll try it, see how it goes."

"Has he said anything else, Val?"

The sheriff looked at Murdoch and frowned. "Like what?"

"I don't know. Like why he targeted Lancer?"

"We know why, Sir. The railroad," Scott reminded him.

Murdoch shook his head, his brows knitted together. "I wonder if that really is the reason, Scott. There is no indication the railroad plans to come through that direction. How would they know that, anyway?"

"Those papers Higgs got for us had it all mapped, literally. I suspect they had someone on the inside feeding them information," Scott said.

"It doesn't matter, anyway. It's over now." Johnny had his head bowed, watching his foot swing.

"He ain't said a whole lot of anything to me except ..." Val trailed off and took a sip of his coffee.

"Except what?" Johnny asked.

Sighing, the sheriff looked at his friend. "Every time I go in there to take him food, the only thing he asks me is how you are. Wants to know if you're healin up okay. I don't never answer him. Figured I'd let him wonder if it's so damned important to him." Val sat up and leaned forward. "Hey, ya reckon he likes you?"

Johnny smacked his arm then stood up and paced the room.

Murdoch watched his son and wondered what Johnny was thinking. Then, another thought occurred to him. "What about Higgs? We've been so focused on Weir, I hadn't thought of him."

"He's been layin low. Hasn't opened the store or even showed his face in town."

"You sure he's still there?" Johnny asked.

"Yeah, I see the lights on at night when I make my rounds. I thought I'd get Weir out of the way then, take care of Higgs."

"How do you plan to do that?" Scott asked.

Val's face darkened, his scowl deepening. "He's leavin this town one way or the other."

"You need any help with that, let me know," Johnny said, his tone just as determined as Val's.

Scott shook his head. "You know, he's probably betting on things dying down and going back to business as usual. I mean, that's how he thinks. Like he hasn't done anything wrong."

"Yeah, you should've heard him tellin me how they used him. Made me sick to watch him sweat and shake. That's the worst kind of man there is. Either stand up or run away but don't cower there and beg." Johnny made a disgusted face then walked over to the stove and poured a cup of coffee. "What time is this thing gonna get started?"

Val checked his pocket watch. "I'll take him out in about fifteen minutes. By the time the hangman gets ready and I get him up there, it'll be ten o'clock. Judge likes things to be right on time."

"Are you going to need any help, Val?" Scott asked.

"Thanks but, my deputy will be here. Matter of fact, he shoulda already been here." Val walked over and peered out the window. Dust swirled through the air as the wind blew straight down Main Street. "There he is. Boy's so skinny, he might get blown away."

"Well, we should get out of your way then," Murdoch settled his hat back on his head and looked expectantly at his sons who mimicked him.

*****

Johnny stood at the door inside the hotel and watched Val's office. He wasn't about to miss this. Hangings were his least favorite thing but, this one he needed to see for himself. Weir was plain evil. The perfect man to try and pull off some plot to make people think he was the devil. Johnny had never believed it, of course but, every time he thought of Silas Hackett, he got riled. What Weir had tried to do that boy made his skin crawl. He knew now that's what had happened to Winston. Weir had got hold of him when he was just a kid and turned him into what he was. A man without remorse, who seemed to enjoy killing. He shook his head to rid himself of the thoughts then, straightened as he saw Val's door open. "They're comin," he called to his family then stepped outside.

Johnny heard Murdoch and Scott following him as he walked down the street toward the platform. No one else was out and, once more, that eerie feeling came over him. Just like the last time when Weir disappeared. He knew he'd shot the man, he knew it. But, somehow, he'd managed to vanish. Not this time.

The Lancers stopped, three abreast, before the gallows and watched Weir walk up the thirteen steps. The man's face showed no sign of his thoughts, his hat still on his head despite the strong wind. Val had given his hat up, handing it off to his deputy at the bottom of the steps as he guided Weir. Once on the platform, the sheriff had to shout to be heard over the wind as he asked the hangman if he thought they could go through with this today.

Solemnly as ever, the undertaker nodded grimly then grabbed hold of the noose, pulling it over Weir's head and tightening it at his neck. It was only then that Absolem Weir's head came up, his eyes immediately locking onto Johnnyâ€s. He smiled then winked.

Johnny's face showed nothing. He simply stared at the man, determined to give him no satisfaction. Not even a smirking smile.

Val leaned in close to the man. "Ya got anything to say?"

Weir nodded, his eyes still on Johnny as he opened his mouth. His voice rang out over the howling wind, strong, deep and foreboding.   "Johnny Madrid! You and I will meet again and the next time, we will truly see who is the better man!"

Johnny nodded his head once but said nothing in return.

Murdoch and Scott both looked at him then back at Weir. Scott's immediate thought was to punch the man in the face but, he knew that wasn't an option. Weir was still trying to play his little mind games, right up to the last possible moment.

When the undertaker offered the hood, Weir shook his head and, still, kept his eyes locked on Johnny's. It was as if there was no one else in the world. "You'll pay for Winston!" he shouted.

At that, Johnny had to smile. Just a small curve of the lips. The same smile he used when he faced a man in the street. Somehow, he knew Weir would recognize it and, from the dark rage he saw growing in the man's eyes, he knew he was right about that.

Val stepped back and nodded at the undertaker/hangman.

Murdoch held his breath and he felt Scott tense beside him. He said a short prayer as they waited for Weir to die.

Absolem Weir looked to the heavens then back at Johnny. His eyes seemed to have a light in them and Johnny cocked his head to one side as he studied the man. He heard the thunder erupt but was undaunted, waiting to see if Weir would say or do anything else.

The hangman pulled the lever and the trap door opened. Weir fell through at the precise second a bolt of lightning streaked across the sky. Johnny felt himself being knocked to the ground, a heavy weight atop him.

Stunned, with the air knocked from his lungs, Johnny took a long, deep breath and took stock. He was fine, he thought, then wondered at the pressing weight on him. Suddenly, he realized it was his father and he struggled to get free. "Murdoch? Murdoch!"

"I'm alright, son. Just winded," Murdoch grunted as he rolled to the side and stared at the dark sky.

Johnny got to his knees and leaned over his father, taking him in and making sure he was alright. Then, he searched the area for his brother.

Scott was sitting on his backside a mere three feet from them looking slightly dazed then, his eyes found his family and he scrambled over to them. "Are you alright?"

Johnny sighed his relief. "We're both fine, just ... what the hell happened?"

"A lightning strike," Scott breathed out. "A very close one."

Johnny nodded then pulled himself up straighter. Turning at his waist, he looked at the platform then saw the blackened oak tree beside it. "Dios, Val!" The words were but a whisper as his throat closed up. He got to his feet and ran to the platform, unable to see his friend.

Scott helped Murdoch to his feet and the bigger man stumbled a bit. "I'm okay, son. That was ..."

"Electrifying?" Scott asked with a cocked brow.

Murdoch shot him a look then headed toward the platform. He saw Johnny kneeling again and his heart thundered as he dropped down to the earth once more. "John?"

"He's out cold but, I think ..."

Johnny's voice shook badly and Murdoch put a hand on his shoulder then leaned in to get a look. Val was lying on his back but, he was breathing. Then, they heard a groan.

Johnny lurched forward and slid a hand under his neck. "Hey, amigo. Come on, that's it, wake up. Lento, Val. Lento."

Val opened his eyes and blinked then focused on Johnny. "What the hell?"

"Lightning. It hit right beside the gallows. You're damned lucky, Crawford."

Val sat up with Johnny's help and looked around. "Sonofa ..." He stopped then pulled himself together. "What about Henry?"

Scott walked over then and answered that question. "He's a little singed. He has some burns. Your deputy is alright and he's taking Henry to Sam." He paused, hating to tell the rest. "Weir's gone."

"I'm sure he is," Murdoch muttered.

"No, Sir. I mean, I can't find him."

Johnny stood quickly and ran to the gallows, searching underneath and all around. He walked around the oak tree then tried to spy any prints but the wind had blown the dusty ground too much. Putting his hands on his hips, he sighed. "There is no way in hell that man walked away from this."

*****

The Lancers sat quietly in Val's office as the sun set. An hour after the lightning strike, the clouds had rolled out and the sun once more shone brightly. They had searched the entire town and had even ridden out, each man taking a direction but, there was no sign of Absolem Weir.

Scott slumped in his chair and took a sip of coffee, grimacing as he swallowed with some effort. "I think we should head home before my stomach is eaten away." He set the cup down disgustedly.

"I warned you," Johnny said softly.

"So you did, brother. Murdoch, are you ready?"

"Hmmm? Oh, yes, son. I just don't understand it. He couldn't have gotten far."

"Maybe not but he got hid real good." Johnny stood up and stretched his back. "He had to have help." He looked over at Val. "Did you check Higgs place?"

"Yep. He damned near run under the bed but, I searched the house, the cellar and the barn. No sign and he swears he didn't see Weir."

Johnny only snorted at that. "Well, he'll turn up eventually."

Scott finally got out of his chair. "Why do you say that?"

"You heard him, Scott. He said we'd meet again."

Murdoch looked up at his son and saw the darkness in Johnny's eyes. Coming to his feet, he walked the few feet between them. "I don't think you have to worry about that. If he shows his face again, he knows what's waiting for him." His eyes went to the desk and the burned remains of the hangman's rope.

Johnny stared incredulously at his father but, he said nothing. Sometimes, Murdoch could bury his head in the sand. He turned to Val. "Let us know if you hear anything and if you need any help gettin rid of Higgs."

Val waved him off. "If I need help with that weasel, I might as well hand in my badge now."

*****

ONE MONTH LATER:

Johnny tossed the sack of flour into the back of the wagon then went for another, passing by his brother who was carrying sugar. Neither man had spoken since they started the chore, both too focused on getting done and getting to the saloon for a beer to waste time with idle chatter. He heard the jangle of spurs and smiled to himself.

"What was that, Sheriff? Sure, I'd love some help." He turned and pushed the flour sack at Val's chest.

Crawford made no effort to take the sack and glowered at Johnny. It was then the young Lancer realized Val wasn't alone. He pulled the sack back and repositioned the weight in his arms before taking it to the wagon. "Well, fine, then. Don't expect me to help you ... do whatever it is you do."

Scott stepped onto the boardwalk. "Val," he nodded.

Val looked flatly at him. "This here is the newly elected mayor."

Smiling tightly, Scott said, "yes, I know. Congratulations, Mr. Mayor."

Jelly still had a wide grin on his face, one that hadn't left since the election results had come in.

Johnny joined them then and smiled widely. "Reckon you can keep a tighter rein on our sheriff, here?"

"I don't think he needs one, Johnny. Val does a fine job if he's allowed to do it." Jelly, in his brand new gray suit, tucked his thumbs in his vest and rocked back on his heels.

Raising a brow and seeing the smirk on his friend's face, Johnny stepped up and wrapped an arm around the mayor's shoulders. "Well, then, I reckon it's my civic duty to inform you of a few things about our good sheriff. Seeing as how you missed all the action around here lately, you should know just what he's capable of. Why don't we go get a beer and discuss it," he said as he led the man toward the saloon.

"Wahl! That'd be fine, just fine. Only, don't think you can sway me, Johnny Lancer. I ain't playin favorites." Running a hand along his freshly trimmed beard, he eyed Johnny sideways. "If you're thinkin I can keep Val from lockin ya up, think again!"

Scott leaned against a post and crossed his arms over his chest as he watched the spectacle. "Don't worry, Val. Johnny would never say anything really bad about you."

"Yeah, he would but, I don't care neither! Besides," Val's face broke into a smile, "Mayor Hoskins ain't gonna listen to his caterwallin."

Scott laughed at that, still more than a little befuddled that Jelly was now the mayor of Green River mere weeks after returning from visiting his sister. He shook his head as Val walked off in pursuit of his brother, no doubt. Things would definitely be interesting in this town for the next year. A softer smile adorned his face as he thought how proud Jelly had been to win the election. Not that he'd had much competition but, that didn't matter. He just hoped it didn't go to his friend's head like Jelly let things sometimes. He knew Murdoch had had a long talk with the man and, he hoped it had helped. Well, time would tell.

Scott sighed then frowned as he realized he'd been left to finish loading the wagon. Scowling, he started devising payback for his brother. He grabbed another sack and turned to the wagon then, stopped dead in his tracks.

Sitting atop the flour sacks was a black bowler hat. Scott looked all around but saw no one. Licking his lips, he laid his sack on the wagon and picked the hat up, examining it closely. Weir always wore a bowler. Had, in fact, been wearing it the day he disappeared. Scott turned the hat over and saw a piece of paper stuck inside. Pulling it out, he unfolded it then sucked in a breath.

'For Johnny Madrid. Until we meet again'

That's all the note said and Scott stood there for a moment before making his decision. He walked over and tossed the hat down an alleyway then crumpled the note and tossed it as well. No need to upset his brother with this. Johnny had not forgotten Weir and he never would. Not until they finally played that endgame.

 

 

~end~
November2008

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