The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Worlds Collide

 

 

 

Prologue

Green River, California
June 22nd, 1872
10:15 a.m.
Murdoch Lancer stepped out of the bank and looked across the way. Waving to Val Crawford, he stepped into the street, intent on speaking to the man. He was two feet from the other side of the road when he felt a force propel him forward. He fell to the dusty street, face first, the searing hot pain in his back the last thing he remembered.

 

South Pasture, Lancer Ranch
June 22nd, 1872
10:17 a.m.
Johnny Lancer dragged the tree limb from the creek bed and up a small incline, going to one knee as he dropped the debris. He gave himself a minute to catch his breath and catch a breeze then stood straight. Turning, he started back down to the creek when he stumbled over a small root. Hopping on one foot to regain his balance, he hit the ground hard as his left leg was shot out from under him. He rolled to his side and tried to crawl to the shelter of a sapling ten feet away. Another shot rang out and he went still.

 

East Pasture, Lancer Ranch
June 22nd, 1872
10:22 a.m.
Scott Lancer looked up from his surveying equipment, his eyes squinted against the morning sun. Pulling out his paper and pencil, he entered his measurements then, shoved the paper back in his shirt pocket. He walked to the edge of the small hill then turned and went back to the tripod. As he started to lean down, his head suddenly exploded with a brilliant white light. He dropped to the ground, rolling onto his back with a steady stream of blood pouring from his temple.

 

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June 1st, 1872
Lancer Ranch

Johnny rode slowly into the yard of his home and reined to a stop near the corral. He crossed his right leg over the saddle and leaned forward a little as he watched the action. Suddenly, his shoulders went up and his back straightened as he witnessed his brother go sailing through the air. Under his breath, he whispered, "tuck."

As Scott rolled to a stop near the gate, Johnny slid from the saddle and walked over to the fence, crossing his arms over the top rail and resting his chin on his forearms as he watched the older man stare at the sky from his position flat of his back. "You might want to think about moving before that stallion decides to come over here and stomp you."

Scott lolled his head to the side and gave his brother a frown then sighed loudly. With a grunt, he sat up and gave himself a minute before turning to one side and working his way to his feet. Rolling his shoulders then dusting his britches, he gave a glance behind him to the stallion on the opposite side of the corral before walking slowly to his brother. "Good afternoon."

Johnny laughed softly. "Well, good afternoon. How has your day been?"

Oh," Scott paused and stepped through the rails then leaned against them, "fine, just fine."

Johnny smiled widely and shook his head. "I thought you were gonna wait for me."

"I did wait for you. And wait for you then, I decided if I wanted to get this done, I probably shouldn't wait any longer."

The grin stayed on the younger man's face as he turned toward the sound of a rider approaching. "Yeah, well, this ain't my doing. I'm just puttin that out there right now before the old man starts in."

Scott moved to his side and slapped him on the back. "It'll be fine, brother."

"You think so? Do you see his face?" Johnny was getting a very bad feeling and he suddenly didn't think Murdoch's stony expression had anything to do with Scott's introduction to horse breaking.

The rancher dismounted from his big bay and walked over to his sons. Without breaking stride, he said, "inside now, boys."

Scott raised his brows and gave his brother a discerning frown. Then, he straightened his shoulders and followed Murdoch, determined to defend his actions, even though, he saw no need.

The brothers walked into the great room to find Murdoch standing at the hearth, watching them. They shared a glance then slowly advanced further into the room.

"Somethin wrong, Murdoch?" Johnny asked.

"Yes, there is something wrong."

Scott took another step. "Look, I know you didn't want me working in the corral without Johnny but, I ..."

"This isn't about that, Scott. Although, we will discuss it at some other time. No, this is a bigger problem. Quinn."

Johnny sighed and put his hands on his hips. "What's that sonofabitch done now?"

Murdoch gave him a sharp look. "His cattle broke through the fenceline again. He claims the fencing was already down and said we should take better care of our land."

Johnny walked closer to his father, his face implaccable. "I just repaired that whole section last week. His hands saw me out there, too. Probably exactly why they tore it down."

"I know you did, son. I pointed that out, too."

"And?" Scott asked as he stepped up to his brother's side.

Murdoch winced and hesitated. "He made some comment about shoddy work and ... laziness."

Johnny's eyes turned hard as diamonds as he paced away, hands clenched at his sides. "I'll show him laziness when I punch his face in."

"Easy, brother."

"That won't accomplish anything, son, but I don't blame you. It took everything I had not to do that very thing."

Johnny turned toward them, still fuming. "Why didn't you?"

Murdoch managed to maintain his composure. "Because, as I said, it won't accomplish anything."

"This is ridiculous," Scott started. "This feud has been going on between the two of you for years. What even started it?"

Murdoch snorted. "He moved in. From day one, it seems, he's had something against me."

Scott moved to sit on the arm of a chair, wrists crossed. "How long has he been in the valley?"

Murdoch shook his head slowly. "Not long after Maria ... left. The fact is, he doesn't like Scots."

Johnny's mouth quirked as he looked over at his brother.

"I mean people from Scotland," Murdoch clarified, though he knew his son understood what he'd meant.

Scott, deciding against falling into his brother's snare, focused on his father. "That's a pretty lame reason to hate someone."

Murdoch ran a hand through his hair then crossed his arms. "Not if you're English. It's an ages old feud."

"I know the history, Sir. It's still ridiculous."

Johnny sighed. "Well, I don't but, it's the same old story, right? Hate doesn't have a time limit."

It was quiet for a moment after that comment, then Murdoch sucked in a breath. "Well, I don't want anyone working out there alone anymore."

Scott came to his feet. "Why? Did he threaten you?"

Waving a hand, Murdoch answered, "he's always threatening something."

Scott studied his father closely. "No, it's more than that. Since we've been here, that feud has been going on. Even with Pardee, he never gave an inch. Now, suddenly, you don't want anyone out there alone? What did he say, Sir?"

Murdoch gave his son a most exasperated look. "Sometimes, you're too smart for your own good, son." He glanced at Johnny. "He insinuated, is all."

"About me?" Johnny asked. "Let him try it."

"He didn't specify one person, Johnny, and I don't want any trouble started. The easiest way to avoid that is to do as I ask."

"You think one man or two or ten will make any difference to him? His men ain't any better, either. I'm not gonna tuck tail, Murdoch. That ain't how I work."

"Neither do I, but, Murdoch is right. There's no sense in going looking for trouble, brother." Scott turned back to Murdoch. "Why Johnny?"

Frustrated by his son's stubborness, Murdoch threw his hands in the air. "It wasn't just Johnny. He included the whole family in general terms. We didn't discuss the finer details!"

"Maybe, we should."

Both men turned to look at Johnny and he shrugged. "Seems to me, you two have been goin at each other for nearly twenty years and you've never really talked about the problem."

"There is no way that man would ever have a civil conversation with me, son. It's a nice thought, but it will never happen."

A scowl came to Johnny's face. "Then, don't tell us to change the way we do things here. We don't always have the men to spare for bodyguards and neither one of us needs one, anyway. This is our land and no one is gonna tell me where I can go on it. I ain't gonna hide."

"Johnny, I'm not asking you to hide, I'm asking you to be cautious. Now, we need to go over the supplies list for tomorrow. I want you two to get an early start into town." Murdoch walked to his desk and settled in with paper and pen, effectively closing the subject.

 

 

June 2nd, 1872

The next morning as they set out for Green River, Johnny's mood had not improved. Scott was keeping an eye on his brother today. He'd already promised himself the moment he'd seen Johnny at breakfast. He could tell his younger brother was spoiling for a fight. Scott let out a quiet breath and hoped they'd not run into any of Quinn's men today. The odds were not in their favor as they usually saw a few on the monthly trip into town. He decided he might be able to divert Johnny's attention given the right subject. A smile came to his face.

"I wonder if Jessica Hardy is back from her aunt's yet."

Johnny pushed his hat up from where it was settled over his face then sat upright in the seat. "I hope not. She might not like what she'll see if Quinn's men are in town."

Scott sighed more loudly this time. "Johnny, you heard Murdoch. We're supposed to avoid trouble."

"I heard him. I also know if any of those cowboys are around, they'll start runnin their mouths and I'm not gonna stand for it. That's all."

"Maybe, I should stop at Val's office and let you off."

"Won't do you any good. Val ain't gonna sit on me, either." Johnny crossed his arms over his chest. "I'm not gonna start anything, Scott. I'm not gonna take anything either. I don't know why you aren't as mad about this as I am."


"I am as angry, Johnny. I just don't see what good it will do to get into a brawl."

Shrugging, Johnny said, "might let off some steam for all of us. Beats lettin it build up until it gets so bad, somethin worse happens."

Scott frowned in thought at that idea and looked over at his brother's profile. It made sense in a Johnny sort of way. A small smile crossed his face as they entered town.

*****

Johnny jumped from the seat and landed soundly on the boardwalk then waited for his brother. All the while, his eyes were scanning the streets. He saw none of Quinn's men and, he admitted to himself, he was a little disappointed. Well, he thought, it's still early. He walked into the store with Scott, letting the older man enter first.

Scott glanced back at him with this unusual move. Johnny always liked to go into any building first. Scott realized suddenly, Johnny was protecting his back. He shook his head a little before giving Burt, the storekeeper, a greeting.

After an hour of loading supplies onto the wagon, Scott was ready for a cool beer and to relax for a while before heading home. He wiped an arm across his forehead then looked skyward, estimating it was close to noon. He then looked at his brother tying down the tarp over the wagon bed.

"I don't want to hear it, whatever it is."

Scott was about to protest he'd said not a word when he heard another voice replying to his brother.

"Then, I ain't gonna say howdy. What's got you in such a pretty mood?" Val leaned against the street side of the wagon and scowled at his friend.

Johnny glanced down at him then gave the rope another good tug before satisfying himself it would hold. He jumped down and landed at the back of the wagon where Val and Scott both converged.

"Val, good day."

"Well, good day, Scott. Nice to see you. How've ya been?'

Johnny rolled his eyes and crossed his arms over his chest as he leaned against the tail gate.

Scott smirked a little. "Very well. I am getting a little hungry, though. Gentlemen, can I interest either of you in some lunch?"

"Yeah, I could eat. Don't know about sourpuss, here." Val glared at Johnny.

Scott studied his brother who looked to have no intentions of speaking anytime soon. "He's a little put out. Quinn has been mouthing off again."

Val sighed and took his hat off, slapping it against his thigh and producing a small cloud of dust before resettling it on his head. "What's new about that?"

"Not a thing other than he apparently made some veiled threats to Murdoch about us."

Val stiffened at that. "How veiled?"

"Too veiled for you to do anything about, Val. Murdoch didn't want to get into the particulars." Johnny finally spoke then pushed off the tailgate. "Cantina okay with you two?"

Both men nodded and they headed to Johnny's favorite restaurant in the valley.

As they settled at a table, Val crossed his arms on the surface and leaned toward Johnny. "If you're looking for trouble, don't."

Johnny glared at him for a second. "I ain't lookin but I ain't hidin, either. I'm just sayin, Val."

"That's been his mantra all day," Scott supplied.

"Just statin the truth, is all. I still don't know why you're not as mad about this as I am, Scott."

"I think I already told you, I am. There's just no point in letting it ruin the day. Now, why don't we have a nice lunch and a beer or two."

Val sat back, still ruminating on all he was hearing. "Sounds like a damned good idea to me. Hey, mamacita!"

Scott winced as the sheriff shouted and wondered if he'd ever get used to the less than polite manner of westerners.

Half-way through the meal, Val asked, "what's that all about with Quinn and your old man, anyway?"

Scott wiped his mouth and sat back. "Murdoch is Scottish, Quinn is English."

Val stared at him a beat then shrugged. "So?"

"It's a long and heated history, Val. The two countries do not get along."

"Oh, kinda like how Johnny feels about Frenchies." Val grinned toothily then leaned over and jabbed his friend in the ribs.

Scott tried not to laugh and pulled it off but he couldn't keep the smile from his face. Johnny was not amused.

"I don't go around threatenin them, either. Besides, it's the governments, not the people. Same as with Murdoch and Quinn, the way I see it. It ain't like Murdoch fought in some war."

Shrugging, Scott said, "if men used logic all the time, that would make the world a better place. Of course, there'd be fewer wars, too. The fact is, there is prejudiced everywhere in the world that I know of. In fact, that is one of the reasons my grandfather never liked Murdoch. Grandfather's family is from England originally "

Johnny rolled his eyes. "One problem at a time, Boston. We ain't gonna change Quinn's mind even if we tried. Still, there has to be a way to get him to stop all this foolishness."

Scott leaned his elbows on the table and studied his brother. "You've had some experience with this. Any ideas?"

"Shoot the sonofabitch," Johnny said then popped a pepper in his mouth.

"That ain't funny, Johnny, and don't even think about bein serious," Val warned.

Johnny started to say something when his attention was diverted by two men who walked into the restaurant. He sat up, his face turning to stone.

It was hardly a subtle change and both Scott and Val looked at the entry. Scott's heart dropped when he saw Quinn's hands walk in. He turned back and leaned to his left to block Johnny's view and gain his attention. "Remember what you said. You aren't going to start anything."

Johnny leaned back, his shoulders fell and he slouched in the chair, crossed one leg over the other with his hands loose in his lap. He simply shrugged.

"Lunch is over. Let's go." Val looked at his friend, knowing that posture well. No matter what Johnny said, what he was doing belied any words or gestures he may make to his brother.

Scott stood and pulled some bills out, tossing them on the table and putting a hand up as Val made to pay for his lunch. "I've got it, let's just go."

Slowly, Johnny stood, his eyes still trained on the two men. Then, he smiled and grabbed his hat, walking out as he settled it on his head.

Val rolled his eyes and Scott relaxed a measure as he headed to the door behind the sheriff. He stopped and turned back to get his own hat then started to the door again only to find his way blocked by a leg stretched across the path. "Excuse me, gentlemen."

The man looked him up and down. "Ain't sure that's possible, dandy."

Scott's jaw twitched. "I'm not looking for any trouble and you don't want any, either, I'm sure. You haven't even had your lunch yet so, why don't we just ignore one another."

"The way I hear it, you and that half-breed ain't nothin but trouble. Sometimes, a man has to clean up the trash; make sure trouble is squashed before it gets outta hand."

He stood up, all six feet, three inches of him, and Scott braced his legs for whatever may come. The rest of his body he relaxed then, Scott smiled. "I'm sure your information is inaccurate but, if you are trying to start a fight, by all means." He waved a hand in invitation just as the fist swung around.

Scott ducked easily and delivered a blow to the man's gut.

*****

Johnny looked back at the door with a frown then, stepped into the entryway just as Scott hit the cowboy. In two seconds, Johnny was flying through the air at a second man about to break a chair on his brother's head. He tackled him and they rolled across the floor, chair clattering to the side, fists flying.

Val walked back in and growled a little then shouted at them all to stop. No one paid him any mind. All the customers had moved strategically aside but still in a position to watch the action. Val saw Scott take a blow to the jaw and he winced then, he looked over in time to see Johnny on the floor send the man atop him flying with a sound kick to the gut.

Pulling his gun, Val fired a shot into the ceiling and everyone stopped and looked over at him.

"I said that was enough!" He walked in and grabbed the one Johnny was fighting with, pulling him up by the collar. "Scott, let go of him."

Scott, his hands full of the cowboy's collar, released him with a shove then stepped back, breathing hard and swiping the blood from his lip.

Johnny rolled to his side and got to his feet then went to check his brother, giving Scott a squeeze and shake to the nape of the neck. "Alright?"

Scott nodded. "Sure, no permanent damage." With a glance at his adversary, he added, "Unfortunately."

Johnny grinned then found Val standing in front of him. "What? I was just helping my brother out."

"How'd it start, Scott?"

"What'ya askin him for?"

Val sighed and turned to the tall hand. "I'll get to you in a minute, Walsh. Just stand there and wait your turn!"

Scott explained the fracas then Walsh chimed in. "That's a load of bull. We was just sittin there and he comes over making threats against Mr. Quinn. We had ta defend our boss. It was a matter of honor!"

Scott snorted at the lies and Val shook his head. "Anybody see what happened?" he asked the onlookers.

It was quiet for a few seconds until the crowd parted a little and a diminutive woman pushed her way through. She pointed at Walsh. "He started it. He blocked Senor Lancer's way as he tried to leave then called him trash. He called Johnny names and then stood and tried to hit Senor Lancer." She smiled a little. "Senor Lancer avoided his fist then hit him."

"You gonna listen to that Mex bitch?" Walsh bellowed.

Johnny moved too fast for anyone to stop. He went at Walsh around the waist, knocking him against the wall then smashing his fists into the man's nose before Scott pulled him off. Struggling against his brother's hold, Johnny pointed at Walsh. "You ever say anything like that to her again, you're a dead man!"

Walsh had both hands to his nose, tears popping into his eyes as he shook his head. "He broke it. He broke my nose! You'll pay for that, Lancer!"

"Enough!" Val shouted. "Walsh, you and Fisher are goin to jail for fighting." He turned to the Lancers and pointed at Johnny. "You calm down! Scott, take him home. Nobody is gonna kill anybody!"

*****

Johnny paced the boardwalk in front of the general store. Scott watched for a moment before speaking.

"Let's go, Johnny."

"Can you believe what he said to her?"

Scott sighed and looked at the ground for a beat. "It was crude and awful and he deserved what he got but, it's over now. You need to calm down, brother."

Johnny stopped his pacing and stared at his brother. "I don't think so."

Scott looked sidelong at him then stepped in front of his brother. "What are you thinking?"

Blowing out a breath, Johnny shook his head. "I'm thinkin you're gonna have a nice bruise tomorrow. Come on, let's go home before Val changes his mind and tosses us in a cell."

Scott stayed where he was briefly while Johnny climbed atop the wagon. He had a very bad feeling about all this. After all these years, it seemed things were coming to a head between Lancer and Quinn and, he knew it couldn't end well. At least, he thought, it hadn't happened while Murdoch was here alone. At least, he and Johnny would be here to face it with their father. The only problem with that was, he worried about his brother's explosive temper. Especially after today. He shook his head and headed to the wagon.

*****

Murdoch's face was grim as he listened to his sons' report of the fight. He'd been stunned it was Scott who was the first involved. Then, he realized that was probably purposeful. Quinn had already proved he underestimated the older Lancer son with his snide remarks. Remarks Murdoch would never repeat to either of his boys. Once they'd finished, he stayed silent for a moment.

"You threatened to kill him?" he asked, looking at Johnny.

"I was mad."

Murdoch sighed through his nose. "I understand, son."

"I'm just surprised they went after Scott."

"I'm not. From what you said, he called you a dandy. He obviously thought you were the lesser threat."

Johnny grinned at that. "Reckon he found out how wrong that thinkin was."

"Brother, you get more joy out of a brawl than anyone I've ever met." Scott leaned forward on the sofa and stared at the floor for a moment. "Murdoch, this is escalating now. It seems things are getting much worse suddenly. Is there any reason for that?"

Shaking his head, the rancher lowered himself into a chair opposite his sons. "None that I know of but, you're right."

"Maybe, it is time to try talking calmly to Quinn."

Johnny snorted and crossed his arms.

"It was your idea, Johnny."

"That was before his hands tried to beat the hell out of you, Scott."

A slight smile crossed Scott's face. "Weren't you the one who said something about governments starting wars and causing bad blood? Same goes for individuals. Just because his hands took it on themselves to start a fight doesn't mean Quinn sent them into town for that reason."

"Don't mean he didn't, either," Johnny groused.

"Whether he did or not, I agree it's time we tried to talk this out. I'll send a message but, I'm not sure it will do a bit of good," Murdoch said.

 

 

June 15th, 1872

Murdoch's message never received a reply and two quiet weeks later, the Lancers rode into town for the annual picnic to benefit the orphanage. Throngs of people milled about Green River but, Johnny's eyes were too busy to notice the gay atmosphere.

Scott was optimistic that, even though Quinn didn't respond to Murdoch's request, things were more settled since nothing out of the way had happened since the fight. Maybe, it really was just two men looking to cause trouble. He dismounted Remmie and walked over to help Teresa from the surrey she and Murdoch rode in. He watched Johnny from his periphery as the younger man slid to the ground and tied Barranca off, his head turning slowly back and forth.

"I'm going to check with Father Michael," Teresa announced.

"We'll catch up with you for lunch, darling." Murdoch gave her a quick hug and a smile.

Johnny caught her arm as she started past him. "Be careful, honey. Don't talk to anyone from the Quinn ranch."

"Oh, Johnny, it's a charity event. No one is going to cause trouble today." She smiled and gave him a peck on the cheek before going on her way.

Johnny shook his head at her.

"Will you relax? Try to enjoy yourself, son."

Turning to his father, Johnny gave him a big smile. "Sure. Just no sense in letting our guard down, right? I'm gonna go find Val. Comin, Boston?"

"Oh, yes. I'm not letting you out of my sight, brother." Scott gave his father a nod and, what he hoped was a confident smile as he hung an arm around his brother's shoulders and headed down the street.

Murdoch watched them for a moment then sighed and prayed all would go well today. Teresa was right. It was a charity event and he was fairly certain Quinn would keep his men under control. He turned and headed for Sam's office, knowing the man would spend the whole day stationed there for the cuts and bruises the children always managed to sustain at these things. He was determined to get the good doctor out of his office to enjoy the day's festivities.

After some fancy talking and urging, Murdoch managed to get Sam to come to the party - for a while. It was a compromise Murdoch intended to take full advantage of since Sam never seemed to get the opportunity to enjoy himself. They watched the three-legged race and applauded the winners then moved on to the pie eating contest for a while. Sam watched carefully, sure he was about to have a patient or two.

Murdoch gently manuevered him away with a smile and a shake of the head. As they walked down the street, he spied Quinn with his young daughter. He mulled over trying to approach the man.

"You'll get no better chance, my friend," Sam said.

"I know but, I don't want to ruin the day for anyone. Not even Quinn. Besides, things have been quiet."

Sam was well aware of the feud that existed between these two men and Murdoch had updated him on the most recent events. Of course, he knew about the fight, having set Walsh's broken nose two weeks ago. He'd been subjected to the man's venomous tongue until he grabbed his nose and jerked. After that, Walsh didn't have much to say about anything.

With a sigh, Murdoch decided against trying, until he saw what happened next.

Rebecca Quinn was not the most attractive young lady in the valley. In fact, she was rather plain and, if reports were true, a little slow minded. Murdoch watched as she walked over to the table which held pies and cakes for the best baked goods competition. Teresa was running the table and, he saw Rebecca talking to his ward. Then, Quinn walked over and grabbed his daughter's arm. He couldn't hear what the man said to Teresa but, he did see the girl trying hard not to cry.

Sam saw the vein in Murdoch's neck start pulsing faster and held his breath as the big rancher strode purposefully toward the trio.

"... stay away from her!"

That's all he heard but, he saw Teresa's pale face. Murdoch walked up and stepped between Quinn and Teresa. "What is going on here?"

Reginald Quinn had arrived in California basically directly from England. He didn't look much like a rancher at first but, the sun and hard work had toughened and tanned his skin, caused his crow's feet to be more distinct and muscled his five feet, eleven inch frame. He stood with perfect posture with the only true sign of aging, his gray hair, peeking out from under the Stetson he wore. Where Murdoch had lost his Scottish brogue, Quinn's English accent was very distinct.

"It's alright, Murdoch. Just a misunderstanding," Teresa tried.

He didn't look at her. He knew not to because he could hear the tremble in her voice and if he looked into her eyes, he'd lose any reason he had left. He glared at Quinn as Rebecca shrunk behind her father.

"I was telling this person to stay away from my daughter, Lancer."

"I saw your daughter approach Teresa so, perhaps you should be speaking to your own if you don't want her talking to someone." He leaned a little closer. "Don't you ever speak to her like that again, Quinn. She has nothing to do with whatever your problem with me is."

"You still are under the delusion that you run this valley, I see."

Murdoch shook his head. "I run my family and my ranch. If you're unable to behave like a gentleman to a lady, you should stay away from others."

Quinn harrunphed. "I find it amusing

*****
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would attempt to instruct me on propriety, Lancer."

From behind Quinn, Murdoch heard the small voice. "Father, please, I'd like to go now."

Teresa came around the table behind Murdoch and tugged on his arm. "Please, don't ruin the festival for everyone. It's for the orphanage."

He sighed and closed his eyes briefly. "She's right. This isn't the time or the place. I sent you a message, Quinn. Obviously, you aren't man enough to face me for a civil conversation. Very well. If you're so determined to continue this ridiculous feud of yours, there's nothing I can do about that. But," Murdoch paused, his eyes growing dark, "if you hurt any of my children, there won't be a corner of hell you can hide in where I won't find you."

Quinn glared at him then turned and took his daughter's arm, pushing her through the crowd.

Murdoch felt Teresa's grip on his arm relax and he turned, taking her in his arms. "I'm sorry, darling. I never wanted any of this to ever touch you."

"It isn't your fault. Thank you."

He pulled away and looked down at her. "Don't tell Johnny or Scott about this. It will only anger them."

She stared, stunned, at him. "They have a right ..."

"No, Teresa. You know how they are. Johnny will go crazy and Scott will ... well, Scott has a temper, too, you know. He has a long fuse but, it's just as volatile as his brother's when it does explode. Promise me."

She nodded but, she didn't agree with his decision.

*****

Johnny shouted his encouragement as Scott took his turn at the shooting game. Beer in hand, he sat on a hitching rail and smiled, knowing Scott would easily win the rifle competition.

"He's got a good eye," Val said.

"Yeah, he's got this hands down."

Val looked up at him and sighed. "Anything been goin on lately?"

Johnny smiled briefly and looked down at him. "It's been quiet. No trouble from Quinn. Murdoch sent a note, wantin to sit down and talk but he never answered. Coward!"

"Sorry I asked."

Chagrined, Johnny slid off the rail. "Lo siento, amigo. I just get riled every time I think about it. I mean, it's just plain stupid!"

"It almost always is. How many range wars have you been in where the biggest problem was two roosters crowin at each other?"

Johnny laughed at that and nodded his agreement then focused back on his brother as Scott took deadly aim. The smile stayed on Johnny's face as he watched Scott's concentration. He couldn't see his brother's face clearly but, he didn't have to. Scott would have that serious expression going, that little crease between his eyes as he sighted the target and, he could see the relaxed, confident posture his brother possessed. Yep, Scott had this easy.

"Ever wondered which of ya is better with a rifle?"

Johnny turned to look at his friend as the shot resounded, a frown coming to his face. "Thanks, Val. I missed the shot! And, no, I've never wondered."

Val grinned toothily and leaned into Johnny. "Not even a little curious?"

Sighing, Johnny jabbed him in the ribs then looked up as Scott made his way through the crowd, smiling at the pats on the back.

"Congratulations, Scott."

"Thank you, Val. It was close."

"No, it wasn't." Johnny grinned and smacked him in the gut.

"Well, I gotta do my rounds. See ya later."

Scott nodded at the sheriff. "Bye, Val." Turning his attention back to his brother, he grinned.   "So, it's your turn."

Johnny shook his head. "Nah, that's okay."

Scott frowned. "Come on, Johnny. You're bound to win."

"Yeah, well, that's just it. I mean, it wouldn't be fair and besides, there's a lot of good shots signed up."

A gleam came to Scott's eye. "Ah, I see. Don't want to chance ruining your reputation by losing to some local, huh?"

With a smirk, Johnny grabbed him around the neck. "Smart ass."

*****

"Five minutes! Five minutes to the gun competition!" came the call.

Johnny leaned against the hitching post and sipped his beer. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw trouble coming and he sighed.

"What's the matter, Lancer? Can't you hit a target if it ain't human?"

Johnny looked at Fisher and smiled. "Don't know. Why don't you go stand in front of the target and let's see if I can."

Scott nearly choked on his beer then laughed softly.

Fisher gave him a puzzled look then shrugged and walked off.

"Are you going to let him get away with that?" Scott asked.

Johnny stared after the man then looked over the others waiting to start. He sighed and handed his beer to his brother. "I guess not. Save that for me. This is thirsty work."

Scott grinned and settled in to watch the show. He heard several groans when Johnny walked up to the table and signed his name.

Johnny turned and grinned at them all. "It's for charity, fellas."

"What's going on?" Murdoch asked as he walked up behind his older son.

Scott waved toward the street with his beer glass. "The gun competition. I won rifle."

"Congratulations, Scott!" Sam said.

"Hi, Sam and thank you. I'm surprised to see you anywhere but your office today."

The doctor leaned against the hitching post and shrugged. "Murdoch threatened me. Is this really fair?" he nodded toward Johnny.

"There's no guarantee he'll win. Besides, he was sort of challenged."

Murdoch stepped into the street to face his son. "By whom?"

Scott dipped his eyes then focused back on the game without answering the question. "They're starting."

Johnny had to admit, Fisher wasn't too bad with a pistol. With a grin, he thought he wasn't all that good, either. He stepped up to the line and nodded at the target placer who stepped away behind his shield of a hay-laden wagon.

"Just one shot, Johnny!" someone in the crowd shouted.

He laughed and nodded then, drew and fired and turned to step away from the line without waiting to see where the target was hit. He reloaded as the judge announced 'bullseye'.

"The winner is Johnny Lancer!"

There were a few cheers but more grumbling as the judge walked up to hand Johnny his twenty dollar prize. "Give it to Father Michael, Ray. That's what we're here for."

Murdoch smiled with pride as he heard his son's words. Johnny looked up and smiled back. "Between me and Scott, we'll have that new roof for the orphanage in no time."

Murdoch turned to his elder son and nodded.

Shrugging, Scott said, "If it had been a new Winchester, I may have had a moment's pause."

Chuckling, Murdoch put an arm around each son. "Come on, boys, Sam. Let's have some lunch."

*****

Walsh stepped out of the alley and nudged Fisher. "That was stupid, challenging Lancer like that."

"Don't matter. He can be as good with a gun as he wants. Ain't gonna make him bulletproof."

Walsh gave him a curious stare. "I hate 'im, too, Fisher. Don't do anything stupid, though. Somethin happens, they're gonna look right at us first."

Fisher looked at him and shrugged. "They can look all they want. Can't prove nothin even with the sheriff in Lancer's pocket."

"It's the Lancers I'm thinkin about."

"Why? The old man is all about doin everything legal, right? Thinks he's some kind of pillar of society? He ain't gonna do nothin about it. Nothin but bury the breed and move on. Hell, might even be doin him a favor."

Walsh shook his head. "I don't mind havin a good brawl but, don't look at me for murder no matter who it is. Besides, if ya miss, you won't have to worry about the old man. It'll be Madrid's gun you'll be runnin from."

*****

The Lancers caught up with Teresa and settled down for a picnic lunch under a grove of trees. Johnny's eyes kept scanning the entire time he ate and Scott was as frustrated with his brother as he could ever recall. He understood why Johnny wanted to be cautious but, sometimes, his brother overdid things. He thought to try starting a conversation to divert the younger man's attention.

"Where did Sam get off to?"

Murdoch sighed as he wiped his hands. "Back to his office. He thinks no one will be able to find him if he's not there."

"Yeah, it's not like nobody knows who he is or anything," Johnny smirked. He looked over at his family, his eyes alive with humor until he found Teresa's sullen face. "What's wrong with you, honey? You look like you just ate a whole pickle."

Teresa shrugged and glanced at Murdoch. "I guess I'm just tired. I'll be fine with a few more minutes of rest."

Not buying that for one minute, Johnny looked at his brother and saw Scott wasn't believing it either. A look at his father told him something was going on between he and Teresa. And, he knew, if Murdoch had told her to stay quiet, she would. At least, as long as the old man was around. "Well, I'm done restin. What about it, Scott? Ready to see what kind of trouble you can get into?"

Scott managed to look indignant. "Me? I'm not the one who finds trouble."

"Yeah? I guess your memory faded with that bruise you had on your jaw." Johnny grinned and stood up.

"Boys, I do want you to stay out of trouble, especially today."

Scott smiled widely at his father and gave him a bow of the head. "We'll be fine, Sir. I'm sure I can distract Johnny in

*****
some
*****
fashion."

Johnny wrapped an arm around his brother's shoulders. "As long as that distraction in wearin a dress, I'm sure you can, brother. See ya."

With that, the brothers were gone, leaving Murdoch to face one very upset girl.

"They should know."

"Not today, Teresa. I'll tell them after we get home."

She sighed and shook her head. "What are you going to do about Mr. Quinn? He's such a mean man."

Murdoch looked out over the crowd thoughtfully. "I don't know, sweetheart. I just don't know. It's hard to reason with an unreasonable person."

*****

Johnny and Scott rounded the corner to the saloon just in time to see Val Crawford kick someone into the street then step off the boardwalk and grab them by the collar.

"Well," Scott sighed as he recognized Walsh, "you have to hand it to him. He is consistent."

"Must be hard work bein that stupid." Johnny wasn't amused. He was sick of seeing the man's face already and wasn't unhappy he was being carted off to jail. Maybe they could relax now. Unless ... he didn't finish the thought. His gun was in his hand in a flash and he fired.

Val turned quickly toward the gunfire, Walsh's collar still clenched in his fist, and stopped. Gun just clearing leather, he turned back to see Fisher holding his bloody hand, his gun lying at his feet. Scott was already on his way to Fisher, kicking the gun away and grabbing him by the arm. "That was stupid, Fisher. Trying to shoot the sheriff in the back?"

Through gritted teeth, Fisher glared at him. "That's a lie!"

"Yeah," Johnny drawled as he stepped up. "You were just gonna shoot a fly, right?"

Val pulled Walsh over to the boardwalk. "I've had as much of the two of you as I'm gonna take. Start walkin, Fisher. You oughta know the way better than I do by now."

Fisher opened his mouth then shut it tightly and started walking toward the jail. "Thanks, Johnny," Val grumbled.

"Any time, amigo."

"I'll go with you, Val. An injured bear is more dangerous than a hungry one," Scott said.

"Yeah, sure, thanks and, Johnny, get Doc, will ya?"

He started to say no but, he saw Val was in no mood so he simply nodded as he watched the two men carry their cargo off. Johnny sauntered down the street in the general direction of Sam's office. He was in no hurry.

*****

Murdoch happened to be heading to Sam's to talk the man into coming back to the party when he saw his son heading inside. Stomach dropping a little, he increased his pace. He barged into the front room, scowling.

Johnny turned and almost groaned when he saw his old man. "Like I was sayin, Sam," he started again as he turned back to the doctor, "it's probably not too bad. I just clipped him."

"Clipped who and why?" Murdoch demanded.

"I'll get my bag and go right over," Sam said as he disappeared into the other room, anxious to avoid another Lancer family roof razing.

"Fisher. Val was arresting his buddy, Walsh, at the saloon and Fisher walked out. He was gonna shoot Val in the back so, I shot him first."

Murdoch sighed and ran a hand through his hair, slapping his hat on his thigh. "I am so sick of this. Can't Quinn handle his own men?"

"I ain't so sure he's trying very hard, Murdoch. Seems to me, those two do whatever they want. If Quinn has said anything to them, it hasn't made a dent."

"Where's Scott?"

"He went to help Val get them locked away."

"Let's go get him and go home before something else happens."

Johnny gave him a sidelong look. "Like what? Somethin is going on with Teresa. What happened, Murdoch?"

Turning on his heel, Murdoch opened the door. "We'll discuss it later, at home."

Johnny stared at him a beat then sighed and walked out.

*****

When Murdoch opened the door to Val's office, he was met by an irate son staring down Reginald Quinn. Val was standing behind his desk, resting his clenched fists on the top as he leaned forward. Johnny stepped around his father who seemed to be frozen in his spot then, he saw why.

"Just tell me what the fine is, Sheriff," Quinn was saying.

"Fine? There ain't no fine for tryin to kill a lawman, Quinn. Walsh can go in the morning once he's slept it off but, Fisher ain't goin anywhere. Least, not until the circuit judge comes through. You can talk to him about it."

"And when will that be?"

Val shrugged. "Couple of weeks. Don't hold your breath, though. Might as well get used to the idea of hirin a new man."

Quinn's face turned a deep rubor and he pointed toward Johnny. "If you'd take care of the real problem around here, these things wouldn't happen."

Murdoch took a step but Johnny grabbed his arm. When Murdoch looked at him, Johnny shook his head and gave his father a wink. Perplexed, Murdoch looked back and waited to see what was going to happen. All this took place in a few second's time. Long enough for Val to come around his desk and stand toe to toe with Quinn.

"Johnny didn't pour a bottle of rye down Walsh's throat or make him start a fight in the saloon and he sure didn't force Fisher to try and shoot me in the back! I got the right men in jail, Quinn. If you're stupid enough to defend two cowhands that ain't worth a plug nickel in the first place, well, go ahead. But the Lancers didn't have nothin to do with this."

A smirk came to Quinn's face. "Of course, you'd defend them. How much does Murdoch Lancer pay you to keep his breed from the hangman's noose?"

Johnny moved quickly, before Val even twitched and grabbed his arm as he pulled it back. "That's what he wants you to do, Val. Don't let him get to you."

Val stared Quinn down another minute then relaxed and nodded his head. "Get out of here, Quinn. If I see you hangin around, I'll throw you in that cell with your good buddies."

Pulling his shoulders back, Quinn looked at the sheriff. "On what charge?"

"Loiterin," Val sneered and walked to the door, opening it. "Out!"

Quinn settled his hat back on his head and stormed to the door. When he came abreast of Murdoch he stopped and looked up at him. "For someone who wanted to talk things out, it appears you've made your move, Lancer. I suppose we'll see what happens next."

"What I said to you earlier, I still mean, Quinn. My sons are not responsible for your men's stupidity. You are. If you're hellbent on starting a fight, Lancer will protect its own."

With a snort, Quinn said, "I'm sure you'll try but, since you have so much to lose, you may want to rethink."

Murdoch cocked his head to the side, a little perplexed. "You have just as much to lose."

Quinn glared at him then stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

"What the hell did all that mean?" Johnny asked.

"I have no idea but, then I don't know what he's talking about most of the time." Murdoch looked over at Scott who shrugged.

It was quiet for a minute then, they all heard Val grumbling. "Pay me to keep him from hangin. Horseshit!"

Johnny crooked his mouth. "Sure, Val. Everybody knows it's the other way around."

Val turned and frowned at him then, his moustache twitched a little.

"What was said before we got here?" Murdoch asked.

"Nothing much. We were telling him what happened and he demanded to bail his men out. He pretty much ignored me even when I spoke directly to him. That man is an ass."

Johnny laughed softly at his brother who rarely used such language. He fell serious as a thought occurred to him. "Why is he so hellbent on gettin those two out? I mean, they're just hands, right? It's not like they're related to him."

"Good question. I can't see a man like Quinn caring that much about his hired hands." Scott frowned in thought. It was very odd. "If he's that adamant, he may try something foolish."

"Such as?" Murdoch asked.

"Such as, tryin to break them out of here. You should get some help, Val." Johnny walked over and sat on the edge of the desk.

"Probably not a bad idea. I can get Steve to help out, Shep, too."

Johnny nodded then looked over at his father. "You gonna tell us what was said earlier. It's pretty plain you and Quinn talked before. Is that what's got Teresa upset?"

Murdoch clenched his jaw then nodded. "As I said before, we'll discuss it at home which is where we need to head. I'll gather up Teresa if you two think you can get to your horses without shooting anyone else."

"Is there someone else left to shoot?" Scott smirked.

"Why don't ya all get outta here and stop botherin me?" Val griped.

*****

Teresa kept eyeing the couple as she helped clean up from the picnic. She didn't like what she was seeing but, it wasn't her place to approach the girl especially, after what had happened earlier. She felt a chill just thinking about that awful Quinn and his filty mouth. If Murdoch had heard what he'd said, she was sure one or both of them would be in Sam's office now; or jail. Shaking her head, she wrung out a cloth and wiped the table down.

Still, Rebecca wasn't exactly world-wise and Teresa didn't recognize the young man fawning all over her. She wasn't exactly pretty either but, he was talking a mile a minute. She couldn't hear his words but, she could see Rebecca's face. She was eating it up. When he touched the girl's arm, Teresa stiffened and turned directly toward them. She waffled, knowing what could happen and knowing Rebecca would never be able to handle any aggression from a man. She cowered from her own father. She wondered where Quinn was now that Rebecca really did need him. With that thought, she looked all around but, she didn't see the rancher. When she turned back to the couple, the man had put his arm around Rebecca's shoulders and seemed to be urging her to walk away with him. Decision made, Teresa dropped the cloth in her hand and walked over.

"Hello, Rebecca. I hope you enjoyed the party."

The girl, naturally pale and wearing a hat to protect her from the sun, squinted at Teresa. Her mouth opened but no sound came out at first. "Yes ... yes, it was fun."

Teresa smiled, watching the painfully shy girl as she kept glancing at her beau. She didn't seem overly afraid, just her normal self which was always a little on the jumpy side. She looked at the young man, younger than she'd first thought. He was handsome with blond curly hair and pale blue eyes. His smile was not right to her, though. It seemed forced. "I don't believe we've met," she said to him.

"Nope, don't reckon we have." His voice was flat and she could swear there was a flash of something ... dangerous there. A long silence ensued as she realized he wasn't going to introduce himself.

"Well, I was hoping you'd help us clean up, Rebecca. You've been such a help to the orphanage."

The look of surprise that came over the girl's face was genuine as she'd not helped at all. Teresa wanted to smack her. She wasn't understanding at all. "I'm sure your father will be along soon to take you home." She emphasized the word father and looked meaningfully at the girl.

A look of understanding finally crossed Rebecca's face and, impossibly, she seemed to pale even more. "Um, yes, he will, I'm sure. I should go now."

The man's grip on her shoulder increased and his face fell stony as he glared at Teresa. Turning back to Rebecca, he said, "Go? But, we ain't finished talkin yet. I'll keep ya company until your daddy shows up."

"Oh, no! I mean, my father wouldn't like it ... I should..."

"Now, don't you worry about your pa. I'm sure me and him will get along just fine, sugar." He gave her a most charming smile.

Teresa could easily see Rebecca was falling for the attention. She sighed inwardly and wondered how she could get the girl away. She knew for sure now, he was up to no good. "I doubt that. Mr. Quinn doesn't like anyone talking to his daughter. Especially a stranger. I'm afraid you'll find yourself with more trouble than you may think."

Slowly, he turned his head toward her and let his hand slide off Rebecca's shoulders. He turned to fully face her, towering over her diminutive frame. He took one step so there was less than an inch of space between them. "Why don't you mind your own business, lady? You go around interferrin with things that got nothin to do with you, ya might find yourself hurt."

A deep baritone voice chimed in. "Sounds like good advice to me. You'd do well to take it yourself."

Teresa whirled around to find Murdoch standing there, fists clenched at his sides and she breathed with relief. "I was just telling Rebecca her father will be here soon to get her."

Murdoch nodded then, walked up and took Teresa's arm, pulling her aside and stepping up to the young man. "These young ladies are ready to go home now. I think you'd better say goodbye."

"Maybe that one's ready but, Becky here, she ain't said she wants me to go anywhere, mister. So, what's your stake in it?"

Murdoch took his measure and found it lacking. "Rebecca, does your father know you're talking to strange men?" His eyes never left the man as he asked the question.

"No, Sir."

The stranger turned back to her and Murdoch was able to get a full look at the girl. She was trembling, holding her arms tightly with tears welling in her eyes. "Then, perhaps you'd better go find him before someone tells him. It's always best to hear things directly from your children rather than hearing gossip that may not be true."

She blushed then and lowered her eyes as the man took hold of her arm. "You ain't gotta go, honey. These people ain't your kin, are they?" When she shook her head, he shrugged. "Then, seems to me like they're the ones interferrin. Come on, let's take that walk now."

She raised her eyes and looked at him then glanced at Murdoch.

"I can't stop you, young lady. Just realize you are going to have to face your father." He stopped then looked at the man. "As is he."

Teresa stepped around her guardian. "Rebecca, you don't even know him. He's a stranger. Why would you go off with him? It's dangerous."

"Now look here. You folks act like I'm some kinda louse or somethin. How's a man supposed to get to know a gal if they don't talk? Besides, like I said, it ain't your business."

*****

Johnny stopped short when he heard the words just spoken and took in the scene. He wasn't sure what was going on but, he could guess by the way his father was glaring at the stranger holding onto Rebecca Quinn. He thought through his options quickly then decided on his best course of action. Play it like Scott would. With a quick grin for himself, he sauntered over.

"Hey, looks like the party is still goin on." His smile couldn't have been any wider then, he took off his hat and bowed a little. "Miss Rebecca, you're looking very pretty today. Where have you been hiding yourself? Why, I haven't had the privilege of seeing you at all."

If the girl could have turned any redder, everyone would be amazed. She swallowed audibly then pulled her arm away from the young man. "Hello, Johnny. I'm sorry we missed each other and thank you."

"No, ma'am. Thank you for gracing my presence for even a moment. Sad to say it's only a moment. I just saw your father and he's searching everywhere for you. He seems a little worried, too. I'd hate for him to get in a tither when you're obviously in very fine form." He used one of his special smiles, the crooked one that made him look younger then, he lowered his eyes, looking back at her through his lashes.

Murdoch nearly rolled his eyes and he wasn't sure the girl wouldn't faint at any second. Her hand went to her bosom and he could see her breathing growing faster.

In a trembling voice, she whispered, "Yes, I should find him. I wouldn't want him to worry."

"No, Miss, you surely wouldn't. He's over by the tent the Widow Hargis set up. It was a pleasure to see you."

She dipped her head, gathered her skirts and literally ran off. Johnny turned to watch her for a minute and, when he turned back, the smile and boyish charm were gone. His eyes were hard as granite when he looked at the stranger. "Mister, I don't know what kind of death wish you've got but, you're lucky Quinn didn't see you with your hands on his daughter."

"He's not getting off that easy, Johnny," Murdoch said. He stepped closer to the man. "I don't know who you are and I don't want to know. If I see you anywhere near this girl again, I'll kill you. Am I making myself perfectly clear?"

The young man nodded, his eyes cast toward Johnny then, he slithered away.


"What did he do to you, Teresa?" Johnny demanded.

Teresa took his arm and squeezed it. "He made a threat. I was trying to get Rebecca away from him. I could tell she was in over her head. I don't know what he thought he was doing."

His jaw twitched. It was the only sign he gave. "I know what he thought. I'll be back."

Murdoch grabbed Johnny's arm. "Let it go, son. I think he got the message loud and clear. Let's just go home. This day isn't getting any better."

*****

Scott was quiet for several minutes after hearing all the events of the day he'd not been privvy to. Finally, he looked over at his brother riding alongside him and smiled a little. "How did you know you could charm that girl away?"

Johnny smiled back. "I just took a lesson from my older brother."

Teresa turned around to look at them. "She has it bad for you, Johnny. The first thing she asked me earlier was if you were there."

"Yes, about that. What did happen? We never got to hear that part," Scott asked.

She lowered her eyes and turned back around and the brothers shared a concerned look. Scott nudged Remmie alongside the surrey. "Teresa?"

"We'll talk about it at home, boys," Murdoch decreed.

"Ya know, old man, you keep sayin that and you're gonna turn into one of those talkin birds Scott's trying to convince me exist."

"Myna birds," Scott supplied, "and they do exist. I showed you the pictures."

Shrugging, Johnny smirked, "pictures don't talk, Boston. I still say you're loco."

"Boys," Murdoch said tiredly.

Both young men heard the weariness plainly in his tone. They looked at each other, worried expressions wiping the smiles away.

Scott decided they'd be better off with a little distance until they arrived home. No sense in awakening Murdoch's ire. "It seems we're getting on our father's nerves. Race?"

Johnny's smile spread slowly across his face as he pressed his hat more firmly on his head and nodded. They took off like a shot across the pasture leaving Murdoch and Teresa in their wake.

"You are going to tell them, aren't you?" Teresa asked as she watched the brothers disappear on the horizon.

"Yes, I just want them where it won't be too easy to make rash decisions, sweetheart. I don't want to keep anything from them. Maybe, you should tell

*****
me
*****
what Quinn said before I walked up."

Teresa bit her lip and nodded.

*****

Murdoch was surprised his sons had waited until supper was over to expect a conversation. He supposed they were both too hungry to worry with anything but their stomachs. Now, as they sat side by side on the sofa, he wasn't sure how they would react. Oh, the initial response would be easy but, once they'd had some time to settle and think it through ... that was what worried him.

"I ain't gettin any younger, Murdoch." Johnny stared expectantly at his father, had been staring at him for a while now, waiting for him to spit it out. Now, his patience was quickly leaving him. The longer Murdoch hedged, the worse his imagination ran wild. He got the expected reaction, that frown that told him to watch his mouth. Not this time, old man, he thought.

"Quinn's daughter approached Teresa at the picnic and was talking to her. Quinn didn't like it much, I guess. I saw him talking to Teresa and she looked frightened so, I went over there. All I heard him say was to stay away from Rebecca but, I didn't like his tone."

"I don't like anything about him," Scott supplied, crossing his arms over his chest and frowning deeply at the news.

"I told him to stay away from my family and if he ever talked to Teresa like that again, well, he wouldn't like it."

Johnny's mouth quirked. He could see Murdoch now, all pissed off and ready for a fight. Still, he wasn't happy about Quinn. "Well, I think we're in for a battle one way or the other. He's gonna make sure of that. The question is, do we sit back and wait or do we do something?"

"Like what?" Scott asked.

Johnny looked at his brother and shrugged then, elbowed him lightly in the ribs. "You're the soldier man, Boston. You tell me. I mean, I know what I want to do but, Murdoch ain't gonna like it much."

Murdoch sat across from his sons and looked pointedly at Johnny. "No, I won't, so don't even think about it. I'm afraid there isn't anything we can do. He hasn't done anything - yet."

"That's my point. Why wait for him to make a move?"

"Because, Johnny, this is not going to end up in a range war. I won't have it."

Leaning forward quickly, Johnny matched his father's stare. "You might not get a vote, Murdoch. If Quinn is dead set on fightin Lancer, he's gonna do it. You can't stop that but, there has to be something we can do besides crawl under our beds!"

Scott looked at each of them in turn and shook his head. He stood up and paced toward the hearth. "Fighting amongst ourselves isn't going to help, gentlemen. I agree with Murdoch, though. If we start something, we're no better than Quinn. That doesn't mean we hide. What we do is be ready at any time for trouble and react quickly and decisively."

"I like that idea," Johnny said, falling back against the sofa cushion. "Strike back quick as a rattler. I still think we shouldn't wait for Quinn."

Aggravated, Murdoch asked, "what do you suggest, Johnny? Go over there and stampede his cattle, cut his fences, burn his barn?"

A grin came to Johnny's face. "Okay."

"He isn't serious, Sir," Scott said, knowing if he didn't stop this, they'd have a war of their own going.

Johnny cocked a brow at his brother but he said nothing.

"Scott's idea is the wisest course of action. I'll talk to the hands and tell them to keep a sharp look out for anything out of the ordinary."

"Just be sure to tell them not to take matters into their own hands unless their lives are at stake," Scott advised.

Murdoch stood and nodded. "I'll talk to them now then, I'm going to bed. It's been a long day."

The room grew quiet when Murdoch left. Johnny stood up after a minute and ambled around the room, his head down, rubbing his fingers together. Scott watched him closely.

"What are you thinking, Johnny?"

Looking up at his brother, Johnny shrugged. "Nothin. I'm goin to bed, too. Nite, Boston."

Scott watched him head upstairs but, he suddenly got a bad feeling like Johnny had a plan in mind and, he knew he wasn't going to like it a bit.

*****

Johnny sat the saddle on the high hill as the sun broke completely over the mountains, its rays gently glowing on his cheek then, warming slowly to a full white light. He watched the activity in the yard below as the ranch came to life. He'd been sitting there since before dawn, unable to sleep well last night. Too many thoughts whirled in his mind and he knew he needed answers. He wasn't sure he was going to get them but, he had to try for his father's sake.

His patience was rewarded when he saw Quinn walk out of his home and talk to a hand for moment then, saddle up and head west alone. Johnny pulled on the reins and turned Barranca westerly, riding down the side of the hill out of Quinn's sight. He increased his stride, intent on making it to the road before Quinn got to the area where he'd appear from the woods and relieved the man was heading this direction. It was the only way he knew to get a minute with the rancher without getting shot by his hands.

He moved into the wooded area as the hill sloped down into the flatter land of the valley and picked his way through the heavy undergrowth. If he timed it right, he'd come out just past the turn in the road that led to Green River before Quinn got there.

Johnny emerged from the woods just where he wanted. He looked back down the road to the east then he looked west. From his position he would see Quinn if he'd already passed by. There was no sign of the man yet so, he settled Barranca in the middle of the road and waited. It wasn't a long wait.

A minute passed, no longer, when Quinn appeared on the trail. He pulled up quickly and stared at Johnny in stunned surprise.

"Mornin, Mr. Quinn."

Looking all around, Quinn could see no one else. "What do you want?"

"Just to talk to you for minute. I'm alone."

"Is that supposed to reassure me, Mr. Madrid?"

Johnny sighed and shook his head. "I don't really care about reassurring you. I just want to talk. You can talk to me, can't you?"

A smirk came to Quinn's face. "I can, I'm just not sure I want to talk with you."

Johnny didn't fail to notice the emphasis the man put on certain words and he knew Quinn was trying to belittle him. Scott did that, sort of repeated what he said to teach him proper English. The only difference was, Scott was kind about it and didn't make him feel stupid. He smiled a little. Quinn could never make him feel stupid but, he sure was tryin to get an upper hand here. It wasn't going to work, though. "What will it cost you to spend a few minutes talking to a neighbor?"

"You tell me, Mr. Madrid. What are your intentions?"

Okay, Johnny thought. He might not make me feel stupid but he sure is testin my patience. He made sure his voice was calm and smooth. "Mr. Quinn, I've told you my intentions. To talk to you as a man. If you think you could get down off your high horse and do that, I'd appreciate it. So, how about just tellin me straight. Will you talk to me or not?"

Quinn stared at him, obviously weighing his options. Eventually, he shrugged. "Very well. What do you want to talk about?"

Johnny almost sighed loudly with relief. "Mind if we dismount? I've been sittin the saddle for a while now waiting for you." He didn't wait for an answer, just slid to the ground and walked Barranca off the road opposite the woods. The pasture land here was lush and didn't belong to anyone. Neutral territory, he thought as he dropped Barranca's reins. He turned back, half expecting Quinn to bolt but, the man dismounted and walked over to him.

"If this is about yesterday ..."

"It's about everything, Mr. Quinn. It's about what's been going on since you came to this valley, apparently. Murdoch thinks you hate him because he's from Scotland. Is that true?"

"It doesn't help," Quinn spouted.

Johnny laughed softly at that then walked slowly to a nearby bush and plucked a leaf, popping it in his mouth. When he turned back, his face was contemplative. "I've lived with prejudice my whole life. It never made sense to me and still doesn't. But, I just don't think that's the whole of it. See, I think there's somethin else goin on here. I can buy you never had any use for my old man for that reason all these years but, lately, things seem to be gettin worse. So, I'm just wondering what's happened to cause that."

Quinn shifted his weight from one foot to the other and looked out over the pasture. He didn't say anything and Johnny watched him closely.

"Look, things are gonna get real ugly if you keep going like this. If you attack Lancer, we won't sit on our hands. You know that. You know what happened to Pardee and, I'd wager, you know a lot about me. Or, you think you do. Seems like you're just hellbent on pushin us and, I can't figure out why." Johnny stepped closer to him. "Mr. Quinn, I'm not making any threats but, I've seen a lot of range wars and, I know innocent people get hurt. People like Rebecca and Teresa. They don't deserve that and it's not fair to them. Just tell me what it is you want from us?"

"You don't have anything I want, young man." Quinn turned to look at him. "What I'd like is that you never showed your face in this valley. That your father had never come here. That's what I would like. Unfortunately, it's not up to me. I've heard enough. I'll be on my way now."

Johnny stared at him as he started to walk away. "If you don't like people, the easiest thing is to stay away from them." Quinn stopped walking and kept his back to him. "Cuttin down fences and straying cattle is the first step to something you won't be able to stop if you let it keep goin. I've seen it, Quinn. I've seen men get a hunger about this kind of thing. They get to a point where they won't stop no matter what you order them to do. Fisher is a prime example of that. How far are you gonna let this go? Because, I have to tell you, if the rest of your men are like Fisher then, it's gettin real close to that point where you can't turn back."

Quinn turned back quickly. "My men will do as they're told."

"Will they? For how long? Did you tell Fisher to shoot the sheriff in the back? I don't think so. He's out of control and you can't even admit that much. So, you'd best ask yourself something. Is he a lone wolf or, are the others as bad?"

Shaking his head slowly, Quinn gawked at him. "You stand there and act so innocent, so righteous! Well, Lancer started this, Madrid. We shall see if you can finish it!"

"What are you talkin about? We didn't start anything!"

A sneer came to Quinn's lips. "No? Ask your so-called father about that. Ask him and see if he tells you a thing. He won't because he wants to appear the bigger man. Too good to ever do anything less than honorable. Well, Murdoch Lancer has no honor."

Johnny took a step toward him then, stopped himself. "What is it you think he did, Quinn? If you're so sure he won't tell me, maybe you'd better."

Quinn opened his mouth then turned toward the road as horse hooves could be heard. Johnny looked up and cussed to himself for the interruption.

"Well? You gonna tell me?"

Quinn turned back after recognizing the rider. "No, I'm not. Ask Lancer." With that, he walked to his horse, mounted up and headed down the road toward town.

*****

Val looked at him as he passed by but, Quinn stared straight ahead. Not much surprised the sheriff but, seeing Johnny talking to Quinn sure did it. He dismounted and walked over to Johnny. "What was that all about?"

"Just trying to talk to the man, Val. See what his problem is."

"And?"

Johnny sighed and threw the leaf he was shredding away. "And nothin. He hates Murdoch but, there's more to it than just where they were both born. I don't know. Some of what he said didn't make a lot of sense to me. He said Murdoch didn't have any honor."

Val cocked a brow at that. "And you didn't belt him?"

Johnny smiled a little and ducked his head. "I came close. Murdoch said he doesn't know why Quinn hates him." Looking back up at Val, his eyes soft with something close to pain, he asked, "do you think that's right?"

Crawford swallowed hard. He hated it when Johnny looked like that. Like someone just crushed him. He knew the thought of his father lying to him would be one of the few things to cause such a look. "Ain't known your old man to ever lie, Johnny. He might not want to talk about a thing but, he'll say so."

His shoulders fell and Johnny nodded. "Yeah, that's true. So, I guess that means Quinn thinks Murdoch should know what the problem is, but he don't. This whole thing is crazy." He walked over and grabbed up Barranca's reins. "What are you doin out here?"

"Headin to the Winters' farm then, I was comin to see you. I let Walsh go this morning and he said he was leavin the valley. Don't know if he's tellin the truth but, he sure seemed like he didn't want nothin more to do with any of it."

"Well, that's one down. Fisher is the hard case, though."

"He ain't goin anywhere but prison if I can help it." Val turned thoughtful. "Wonder if that's where Quinn's headin now."

"Maybe you should head back. Want some company?"

Val made a face at him. "Don't need help, thank you very much! Besides, you need to talk to Murdoch. You are gonna tell him about that chat you just had, right?" Leaning forward a little, Val jutted his chin and gave Johnny his sideways look for emphasis.

Johnny laughed softly then turned and mounted up. Reining Barranca steady, he tipped his hat. "Oh yeah. I'm definitely gonna have a talk with my old man. Be careful of Fisher, Val. See ya." With that, he turned and headed back down the road.

Val sighed and put his hands in his hips as he watched his friend's disappearing back. Then, he mounted up and headed back to town at a fast clip.

*****

Murdoch's frown deepened as Johnny finished reporting his conversation with Quinn. Scott stood beside his father's desk, arms crossed and looking just as displeased.

"I asked you to stay away from Quinn, Johnny."

"Yeah, Murdoch, you did. But, that's not gonna get us anywhere. We can't just ignore the man. Now, whatever he thinks you've done to disgrace yourself is what we need to know." Johnny sat in a chair before his father's desk, slouched and apparently relaxed.

"I have no idea, son, and that's the truth. I can't imagine what he's talking about."

"Well," Scott sighed, "it's obviously something that happened years ago for him to carry the grudge this long. The question is, what's happened recently to ignite his ire again."

Murdoch shook his head. "Nothing. I mean, you boys have been home for almost two years now although, that shouldn't matter to him."

"He did call me Madrid the whole time," Johnny shrugged. "Don't know if that means anything or he was just tryin to goad me."

"That makes no sense. Maria was already gone when he came here."

"What about after that? I mean, was there anything going on?" Scott asked.

Murdoch slammed his hand on the desk top then stood and paced away, shoving one hand in his pocket and running the other through his hair. "No! I don't know. This is beyond frustrating."

Johnny stood slowly and rolled his shoulders. "Well, you best be finding out. You need to talk to him, Murdoch. Ask him straight out what his problem is."

"I can't do that if he won't talk to me, son."

"He talked to me."

"You waylaid him, Johnny. He was surprised, I'm sure," Scott pointed out.

A grin came to Johnny's face then disappeared. "I gave him the choice. He could've rode on. I never threatened him in any way. Something else you should know. Val rode up on us. He let Walsh go this mornin and he said he was leaving the valley."

Scott's arms fell to his sides. "Well, I can't say that hurts my feelings. Still, it doesn't bode well. What if he knows something is about to happen and decided he doesn't want to get involved any further?"

"Yeah, I was thinking the same thing." Johnny walked over to his father. "We have to find a way to get Quinn to talk to you before somebody gets hurt, or worse."

Murdoch looked hard at his son then nodded.

 

 

June 18th, 1872

Murdoch stared at the letter he'd written last night and wondered if Quinn would even read it. He hadn't been polite in the pages but, he'd been firm and pointed out the ridiculous situation which, he felt could be stopped if only he knew what the hell was going on. With a sigh, he stuffed the letter in an envelope and addressed it. It was useless to him but, he'd told the boys he'd tried. The last message had been short and succinct. He hoped his words now would be more enticing. A smile flirted across his lips as he thought of how adamant his sons were about resolving this issue without violence. They were so protective of him, it still surprised him.

He sat back in his chair and thought about everything that had happened over the years that Quinn might be involved in somehow. But, other than being a jackass every time their paths crossed, he could think of no specific event. It wasn't as if they'd ever been friends so, he knew nothing about the man. He didn't even know Quinn was married or, what happened to his wife. He just heard the man had a daughter and she had to have been a year old when that news was relayed to him. He couldn't remember now how he'd heard it.

Maybe that's my problem, he thought. Maybe, my memory is failing me.

Grimacing at that idea, he sighed and ran a hand over his face. This was useless, he knew. A letter wasn't going to help. He couldn't exactly ride up to Quinn's door, though. He was sure the man would have him shot for trespassing. He wasn't thrilled with the idea of sending one of his hands to deliver it, either. Still, he'd sent one message so, maybe they wouldn't bother a mere messenger. If they did ...

He let that thought trail off. No sense in looking for trouble or letting his imagination run wild. Just to be on the safe side, he'd make sure a different man was sent this time.

He was still angry and befuddled with what Quinn had said to Teresa.Trying to make him sound like some sort of pervert for taking care of the girl, for giving her a home. How dare he? He felt his face heating up and fought to qwell the anger. It would serve no purpose. But, if Quinn could do nothing more than disparage him to his children, this would be a fruitless conversation. If it ever even happened.

With a grunt, he stood and walked out the French doors, hailing one of his most trusted hands, Walt.

*****

Scott watched his father at the dinner table looking sullen and being uncharacteristically quiet. A glance at his brother showed he'd noticed, too.

"Sir, is everything alright?"

Murdoch blinked and looked over at his elder son. "Hmm? Oh, yes, fine. I sent a letter over to Quinn today. Walt reported back that he'd gone to Modesto and wouldn't be back for two or three days."

Scott shrugged. "Well, at least he's not around to cause trouble. Maybe, he'll actually respond this time."

"I know, son. I was just hoping to get this resolved sooner rather than later."

Johnny leaned back in his chair. "So, we have to wait a few days. If he doesn't give some kind of answer, we'll all go over there."

"Go over there? I'm not sure that's a good idea, brother. He might have us shot."

"He can try," Johnny said flatly. "We have to force his hand soon."


"Why, son?"

Johnny looked at his father hard. "Because, he's on the edge, I think. That's what I came away with the other day after talkin to him. He really hates you, Murdoch, and something has caused him to act on it now. Makes me wonder what he's doin in Modesto."

Murdoch raised his brows. "I hadn't given that any thought. Business, I assume."

"I hope that's all it is. I'm just sayin, we can't sit on our backsides on this." Johnny picked up his wine glass and took a healthy swallow.

 

 

June 21st, 1872

The Lancers stood in the yard early this morning and watched the rider coming down the road. No one recognized him but they were curious enough to keep them from the day's work a few more minutes. The man stopped near Murdoch and handed him an envelope, never spoke and barely acknowledged the man he was there to see. With a nod of the head, he turned his horse and rode back out.

"Chatty fellow," Scott clipped.

Murdoch opened the envelope, surprise all over his face as he read the content. "It's from Quinn. He's agreed to meet me tomorrow in Green River at one o'clock."

"I'll be damned. I never thought he'd go for it. So, you ride in tomorrow and Scott and I'll give you thirty minutes head start, and ..."

"No, Johnny. I'm going alone. I told him that's what I wanted, just the two of us and I'm keeping my word. Besides, we'll be in the hotel restaurant. He won't try anything there."

"Murdoch's right. And why would he even agree to meet in the middle of town if he was going to pull anything?" Scott pointed out.

Johnny put his hands on his hips. He didn't like it much but, they both made sense. He knew they had to tread easy here so, he nodded. "Well, at least he's willing to talk. Just don't let him go until he tells you what this is all about."

"Right. I'll rope and tie him."

Johnny smirked at him. "You should go in early and let Val know what's goin on." Putting his hands up, he added, "just to be on the safe side."

"Alright, son. I have to go to the bank anyway. And, you two need to get to work."

 

 

Green River, California
June 22nd, 1872
10:15 a.m.

Murdoch Lancer stepped out of the bank and looked across the way. Waving to Val Crawford, he stepped into the street, intent on speaking to the man. He was two feet from the other side of the road when he felt a force propel him forward. He fell to the dusty street, face first, the searing hot pain in his back the last thing he remembered.

South Pasture, Lancer Ranch
June 22nd, 1872
10:17 a.m.

Johnny Lancer dragged the tree limb from the creek bed and up a small incline, going to one knee as he dropped the debris. He gave himself a minute to catch his breath and catch a breeze then stood straight. Turning, he started down to the creek when he stumbled over a small root. Hopping on one foot to regain his balance, he hit the ground hard as his left leg was shot out from under him. He rolled to his side and tried to crawl to the shelter of a sapling ten feet away. Another shot rang out and he went still.

 

East Pasture, Lancer Ranch
June 22nd, 1872
10:22 a.m.

Scott Lancer looked up from his surveying equipment, his eyes squinted against the morning sun. Pulling out his paper and pencil, he entered his measurements then, shoved the paper back in his shirt pocket. He walked to the edge of the small hill then turned and went back to the tripod. As he started to lean down, his head suddenly exploded with a brilliant white light. He dropped to the ground, rolling onto his back with a steady stream of blood pouring from his temple.

 

 

Val Crawford drew his gun and scanned the street opposite as he knelt beside Murdoch. He yelled for someone to get the doctor as Steve Watkins ran up to him. "Stay with Murdoch, Steve. I'm goin."

"Be careful, Val," the man shouted at his back as he checked Murdoch's pulse then pulled out his bandana and pressed it to the wound. He looked up at the crowd gathering and saw his helper, Todd. "Go to Lancer and let the boys know what's happened, Todd. If they ain't at the house, make sure someone goes and finds them."

Todd nodded, slightly pale but wanting to help more than he wanted to pass out. He ran back down to the livery to saddle a horse.

*****

Todd tore into the yard at Lancer, yelling for Johnny and Scott. Teresa ran out of the house, wiping her hands on a towel.

"What's wrong, Todd?" she asked, her heart pounding with fear.

"Where's Scott and Johnny?"

"They're working. Why? What's happened!" she demanded.

He hesitated then, remembered his instructions as Cipriano ran up to him. "Mr. Lancer's been shot in town. I need to let the boys know."

Teresa's hand went to her breast as she looked to Cipriano.

Cipriano pulled his shoulders back and frowned deeply. "We will tell them. Por favor, stay here with Senorita Teresa a few minutes."

Todd nodded and dismounted, unsure what he could do to help the girl. He felt awkward enough around her on a good day. He tipped his hat. "Miss, did you wanna sit down or somethin?"

Teresa blinked then looked at him like he was crazy. "What I want is for you to saddle a horse for me. The mare in the barn. I'm going to get changed. Murdoch will need me."

"Oh, I ain't so sure that's a good idea, Miss Teresa. I don't know that the sheriff caught whoever done it."

"I'm sure the shooter isn't hanging around town, either. Please, do as I ask, Todd. I'll be ready shortly." She turned and walked back into the house determinedly.

*****

Frank galloped toward the area where Scott was supposed to be surveying and saw Remmie grazing on the hill top. He saw the tripod as he grew a little closer but, he saw no sign of Scott. As he topped the hill, he reined in quickly. "Lord, have mercy," he whispered and dismounted, running over to the young man.

Taking a deep breath, Frank pressed his fingers to Scott's neck and sighed out his relief. Suddenly, he looked up, drawing his gun and looking all around. The bushwhacker was surely long gone as the blood on Scott's face was partly dry but, Frank was taking no chances. He saw and heard nothing so, he reholstered his gun and thought through how to get Scott home the quickest way.

*****

Jose rode over the hill and down the slope to the creek bed where Johnny was working. He saw Barranca with his head down and assumed he was eating so, he headed his horse into the creek. He saw no sign of Johnny, heard no splashing of water nearby so, he called out.

Barranca whinnied loudly and tossed his head up. It was then Jose saw the red shirt. "Madre de Dios!" he proclaimed as he rode quickly over and jumped from the saddle. He pushed Barranca back a little and knelt beside Johnny, putting a hand on the man's shoulder. Then, he looked up and all around, seeing nothing.

"Por favor, Dios," he said then checked to see if Johnny was breathing.

"That you, Jose?"

The man startled, pulling back a little then blowing out a breath. "Si, Johnny. How bad is it?"

"Not too bad, I think. I was playin possum. Didn't know where the shot came from or if they were hangin around to see if I was dead."

"There is no one around. Can you get up?"

Johnny rolled onto his side and looked at the man. "Yeah, just in my calf but, he didn't need to know that. He threw a second shot and I acted like it hit me. I might've passed out a minute." He stopped and frowned. "What are you doin out here?"

Jose swallowed and put a hand on his shoulder. "News came from town. The Patron has been shot."

Johnny flew to his feet and ran to Barranca, limping badly then, he froze a second. Turning back, he asked, "Scott?"

"Frank went to get him."

Johnny hesitated then made his decision. "Go back to the house. If something's happened to Scott, send someone for me. Either way, set up guards all around the house and keep Teresa safe."

"Wait, amigo," Jose said as Johnny settled in the saddle. He walked over and removed his kerchief, wrapping it around Johnny's wound and tighening it. "It is not so clean but, until you get to el doctoro, it will do. Por favor, be careful. We will all be praying for El Patron."

Johnny nodded his appreciation then dug his spurs into Barranca, taking off like a bullet.

*****

Frank managed to keep Scott upright on the saddle in front of him most of the way home. Now, as they passed under the arch, Scott appeared to be coming around. Frank sighed and tightened his hold, his arm feeling full of pins and needles. With relief, he saw some of the hands taking notice and riding out to meet him.

Cipriano pulled up alongside and looked closely at Scott's face.

"He's been out cold until now. He seems to be comin around a little. Can you take him, Cip? My arm's about broke."

Cipriano nodded and two hands dismounted and handed Scott off one horse and onto the other as carefully as they could. Frank shook his arm to get some feeling back. "What about Johnny?"

"He has not come in yet. Jose went after him," Cip reported. "We will get this one in the house. Fred, go for the doctor."

The hand nodded and flung himself into the saddle, taking off down the road. Frank moved his horse to keep in step with Cipriano as they rode toward the house. "Doc probably won't be able to come right away what with Mr. Lancer bein shot, too."

The grim-faced segundo only nodded his head, too angry to speak for the moment.

"Reckon Miss Teresa will take good care of him, though," Frank went on.

"She is not here. She went to town to see Senor Lancer."

Frank raised his brows at that, knowing the boss wouldn't like it one bit. She should be here, safe in the house. He thought to ask why they'd let her go but, he knew the answer. Short of hog-tying the girl, they couldn't have stopped her. He just hoped the boss knew that. More than anything, he hoped the boss would be around to know that.

Scott was no more than just settled on the bed when Jose ran into the room and reported what he'd found and Johnny's instructions. The three ranch hands stood at the bedside discussing the plan as Cipriano began issuing orders. None of them realized Scott was waking up.

*****

His head felt as if it were about to explode and he wondered if it hadn't already. Scott suppressed a groan as he realized there were voices around him. Lying still, he focused as much as he could on who was standing over him. Once he recognized the voices, he slowly opened his eyes, testing for further pain. He took in the fact he was in his bed, there were cowhands standing over him and his family was nowhere nearby that he could tell. This was all wrong. Then, he heard Cipriano ordering guards and telling someone to go to town and find Johnny.

Town? Johnny wasn't in town, was he? He sighed lightly as two men left the room. Then, he heard softer footsteps. Must be Teresa. Now I'll get some answers. But, his blurry vision fell on Maria and he was even more confused.

"What happened?" he managed to whisper.

"Ssssh, nino. You are hurt. I will take care of you." She stroked his cheek and smiled warmly at him.

Scott wasn't in the mood to be mothered. He frowned deeply then, looked past her. "Cip, what's going on? Why is Johnny in town and why do we need guards?"

Cipriano gave a wary look toward Maria then stepped up to the bedside. He knelt down so Scott wouldn't have to work so hard on seeing him. "Senor, you must remain calm. You cannot move around. You have been shot but, I do not think the bullet went inside. It is a deep graze to your head, Senor."

Scott's hand went to the side of his head and he felt the rough crust of dried blood. He sighed and nodded then waited for the rest.

"Remember you are hurt," Cip reiterated then put a hand on his shoulder in anticipation. "Your father was attacked in town. Shot down. Johnny was also shot but, he is not hurt so bad as you or your papa. He has gone to town. He does not know you are injured. He left instructions to guard the house and we have sent a message to him."

Scott's shoulders were rock hard with tension as he listened to the telling. His first thought was to get to Green River but, he knew he was in no condition. "Where's Teresa?"

Cipriano lowered his eyes and shook his head. "When we got word about El Patron, she went to Green River."

Scott did raise up with that then, grabbed his head and fell back against the pillows. Through gritted teeth, he spoke, "alone?"

"With the boy who helps at the livery."

"Todd? He's no protection. Cipriano, make sure she made it to town." He grabbed the man's arm. "That is your first priority, understand?"

"Si, Senor. I will send someone to catch up to Jose. Now, you will let Maria take care of your wound?"

Scott grimaced at the pain in his head. "Yes, thank you, my friend."

*****

Johnny tore down the main street and didn't stop until he reached his destination. Pulling back hard on the reins, Barranca's hooves slid two feet before the animal could stop. When he did stop, Johnny was already out of the saddle and busting through the door to Sam Jenkins' office. He went straight through to the examination room, breathing hard and praying harder.

"Easy, Johnny," Sam said as he met him at the doorway. "He's alive, son. Just slow down and catch your breath."

Johnny bent over and let out a sorrowful sound as he sucked air in and out then, he stumbled over to the table where his father lay. Leaning over the man, he placed a gentle hand on Murdoch's chest and damned near cried when it rose and fell under his touch. After a moment, he said in a choked voice, "tell me."

"He was shot in the back right in front of Val. I got the bullet out and, the blood loss wasn't life threatening. Barring infection, he'll recover."

"Where is Val?"

"I haven't seen him. Steve Watkins said he took off in pursuit of the shooter." Sam moved a chair over as he was speaking and gently bumped Johnny's legs with it. The young man fairly fell into the seat yet, he never took his eyes off his father. "Where's Scott?"

"I don't know. I mean, someone went to find him." Finally, Johnny did look away, turning a little to see Sam. "He might be hurt, too, Sam. I was shot this mornin. Murdoch was shot this mornin. Somebody planned this out real well."

Alarmed, Sam started looking closely at him. "Where? Where are you shot, Johnny?"

"Left calf. It's not that bad but, I couldn't move. Didn't want to chance them thinkin they'd missed. I must've passed out a while because Jose was there all the sudden and I never heard him ride up."

Sam knelt down, frowning. "Passed out? And it's not a bad wound?"

Johnny heard the unconvinced tone. "Well, there was this rock I was usin as a pillow."

Sam's head snapped up and he glared at his patient. "Anything else? Rattlesnake bite, knife wound? Some other little detail?"

"I had to get here, Sam! My head don't really even hurt. Just a little and I'm not dizzy or anything. Just patch me up, okay?"

Sam straightened his leg and looked closely through the torn calzoneros. "You're going to have to unbutton your pants so I can get to it. Let me get another chair to put your leg on. I'm too old to be kneeling on the floor."

"Well, you've lost a chunk of meat but the bullet didn't go in. Luckily, these assassins are lousy shots."

Johnny grimaced at that word - assassins - as Sam bandaged his leg. In a flash, his gun was in his hand when he heard the front door open.

Sam stood straight and put a hand up to stay him then, walked into the outer room. He was back in a second with Teresa in tow.

"Johnny! How did you beat me here?" She asked as she went to the other side of the exam table.

"Rode like the devil was after me. What are you doin here, Teresa? You shouldn't be out alone."

"Todd came to tell us about Murdoch and I came to help care for him. Sam said he's going to be alright."

"And so will Johnny," Sam interjected. "He was shot this morning, too. It's not great but it could have been much worse. Seems to be some sort of epidemic."

"I was hoping you'd be home, honey. It's not safe for you to be out. Now, you're gonna have to stay here until this thing gets squared away."

"Who's doing this?" she asked as she laid a hand on Murdoch's forehead.

Johnny sighed and shook his head. "If I had to guess, I'd say Quinn. Murdoch was supposed to meet him here this afternoon. Right now, I'm more worried about Scott. If Murdoch and me were hit, it's a sure bet he was, too."

Teresa stared at him, growing a bit pale. "I should have stayed home to take care of him. What if ..." she didn't get to finish as the front door opened.

"Busier than a Kansas City ..." Johnny trailed off, glancing at the young girl across from him.

Sam sighed and walked back out. He was starting to feel the same way as Johnny. And, he was afraid for his friends. He came back with Jose and Fred and, this time, Johnny came to his feet.

"Scott?"

Fred nodded solemnly. "He's alive but, he's been shot in the head."

Teresa gasped and grabbed the table for support. Johnny looked over at her but, Sam was beside her in an instant.

"I am glad to see you safe, Senorita. Cipriano has posted guards and Senora Maria is caring for Senor Scott," Jose said.

Johnny sat back down and nodded, rubbing a hand down his face.

"I'll go. Murdoch will be alright. He needs rest more than anything right now. He won't wake up for a few hours yet."

"Thanks, Sam. Boys, take Teresa and Sam back to the ranch."

"What about you, Johnny?" Teresa asked.

"I'm stayin here with Murdoch and I want to wait for Val. See what he found."

She moved around the table and looked down at him. "Murdoch can't be left alone. What if whoever did this tries to come back? I should stay here."

"No way, honey. Murdoch would have my head if I didn't keep you safe. You'll have plenty of guards at the house." Johnny stood up and took her small shoulders in his hands. "Please, Teresa, don't fight me on this. Knowing you're safe will help me a lot."

She lowered her head and nodded.

"Jose, get them home safe then send me twenty men."

Sam gawked at him. "What are you planning to do?"

"Whatever I have to do to make sure my family is safe," Johnny said, stonily.

*****

Maria frowned deeply as she matched each of Scott's slow steps around the bedroom, waiting for him to keel over.

"I'm alright, Maria. A little dizzy but I have to work it out, is all."

"You cannot work out dizziness, Senor. You have been shot and the doctor has not even seen you yet."

Scott stopped and turned slowly to her. "I'm sure Sam is busy keeping Murdoch alive." His voice faltered at the end. He wasn't sure of that, of anything at the moment and he hated feeling this way. Desperation drove him. He had to get to town, to his family. What was Teresa thinking? He took a deep breath. She didn't know the rest and, naturally, her only thought would be getting to Murdoch.

Cipriano walked back into the room looking like a bear awakened too early. "Your horse is saddled and the men are waiting, Senor. Por favor, I ask again that you wait to hear from Johnny."

"And if he's in no shape to be heard from? I don't even know if my family is alive! I can't wait for messages to be sent back and forth. Whoever did this is out there, Cipriano. They're out there and they have a bigger plan."

"What plan?"

"I don't know," he sighed, "but, I intend to find out." He stepped closer to the man and took his arm. "Lancer is in your hands for now. Bring in all the men. No one works until they hear from us. Everyone takes shifts on guard duty and no one, I mean , no one we don't know gets through that arch. Understood?"

Cipriano pulled his shoulders back and raised his chin. "I will not fail you, Senor."

"You cannot ride a horse. Por Favor, Scott, take the surrey," Maria tried.

"That will take too long. I'll be fine, Maria." Scott headed for the door then stopped and turned around. "I guess my hat is still out on the range." He walked to the closet and grabbed another one. As he passed the woman, he gave her arm a squeeze and mustered a smile for her.

Scott walked outside to find the twenty-five men he'd ordered to be ready all mounted. He noted the grim and angry expressions and nodded his head once. They were all feeling it, too. The anger and indignation of the attack. But, he was feeling a whole lot more than that. Feelings he couldn't afford right now. He pushed down the thoughts and focused on the saddle before him.

As he settled his weight, pleased he hadn't passed out, he turned Remmie to face the others. "You all know what's happened today. You all know we're riding into town to protect my family and to do whatever needs to be done. But, we also need to remember there is law in Green River and we must respect that." He paused for a moment and thought of Val. "However, I am ready to do whatever I need to protect my family and Lancer. If that includes gunplay, so be it. Any man not willing to take up that fight can dismount now."

No one moved and Scott could feel the anxiousness from them all to get moving. An intense feeling of gratitude swelled in his chest as he turned and pressed Remmie into a fast lope.

They'd marked five miles when Scott saw a dust cloud past the bend in the road. He put up a hand then reined to a stop, his hand resting on the butt of his gun. He heard rifles cock behind him. He didn't relax until he saw the first man round that curve. "Jose!"

Jose had his gun pointed in their direction then, quickly he lowered the barrel. "Senor Scott, we have the doctor and Senorita Teresa!"

Scott pressed Remmie forward as Sam's surrey appeared with Teresa riding her horse alongside him. His relief was short-lived. "Tell me."

"Murdoch and Johnny are both injured but alive. Murdoch is in my office and Johnny is waiting for more men from the ranch and for Val. Your father should be fine, Scott. It will take him some time to recover. Now, what the devil are you doing on a horse?" Sam's anger was an almost tangible thing as he'd quickly taken in the white bandage under Scott's Stetson.

Scott raised a brow. "I'm going to help my family, Sam." He turned his attention to Jose. "What did Johnny say?"

"He wants twenty men in town."

"Well, I have twenty-five. Has there been any more trouble?"

"No, Senor. It has been quiet all the way here."

Scott sighed then looked at Teresa. She was pale and, even from where he sat, he could see she was shaken. But, her lips were pressed together tightly and she was trying hard to put on a brave front. He gave her a tender smile. "Take Teresa home and keep her safe. Sam, do you want to come back with us?"

"I suppose there's no reason not to. All of my patients will be in my office for a change!"

Scott suppressed a smile and nodded then rode over to Teresa. "Hang in there, Teresa. Everone is alive and we plan on staying that way."

She smiled tremulously at him. "Please, be careful."

*****

Johnny alternated between pacing and sitting with his father, more sitting, though. His leg hurt like hell but he was trying hard not to pay it any mind. He was about to go loco waiting for Val to show up. He was considering finding someone to stay with Murdoch so he could go in search of the sheriff then, he heard the front door open.

Gun drawn, he limped to the doorway and leaned against the wall. The curtain opened and he saw a gun then leveled his own as a head popped through the opening.

Val froze then growled a little as Johnny sighed and lowered his weapon. "About damned time you showed up, Val. Did you get him?"

Stepping further inside, Val glanced over at Murdoch. "How is he?"

"Alive and I plan on keepin him that way," Johnny groused as he limped back over to his father.

Val looked at his legs. "You were hit?"

"Yeah, so was Scott. Seems we were all ambushed right about the same time this mornin."

Val sighed and shook his head. "Well, I tracked him into the foothills but I lost him. Must be using one of those old mines. It'd take a year to go through all of 'em."

Johnny wasn't happy about that and it showed on his face. "It ain't like we don't know who's behind this."

"You

*****
think
*****
you know. You can't go around accusin ..."

"The hell I can't! Quinn set up a meeting with Murdoch this afternoon right here in town. He knew exactly where my old man would be. And where is he? It's well after one o'clock. If he came to town, he woulda heard what happened."

"Maybe, he has. I don't know. Where were they gonna meet?"

Johnny deflated only slightly. "At the hotel restaurant." He looked up as the door opened again.

Val stepped to the curtain and waved. "Come on in, Steve."

"Glad you're here, Steve. Can you guard Murdoch for me? I need to check some things out."

"Not alone, Johnny."

He glared at the lawman. "I know! Look, I've sent for men from the ranch and Sam's gone out to check on Scott. But, I can't sit here and wait to hear if my brother was as lucky as me today. I can't just sit here, Val!"

Crawford took in the fast breathing and that face that told him Johnny was ready to chuck it all and let the devil pick up what was left. "Alright, amigo, alright. Let's go to the hotel and see about Quinn."

Steve Watkins stared at them both for a second then cleared his throat. "Todd brought Miss Teresa in."

Johnny ran a hand through his hair. "I sent her home with guards. Thanks for doin this, Steve."

The man simply nodded once and took up the chair beside Murdoch.

*****

Johnny stepped out of the doctor's office and scanned the people on the street. Most of them were staring back at him, curious, he was sure. A few wouldn't make eye contact but, those few didn't surprise him. There was no one there he didn't know. No one from Quinn's ranch lurking. He was almost disappointed at that. "Fisher still in jail?"

"Yeah, probably should check on him. Shep's over there. We have to walk by, anyway," Val shrugged.

Johnny nodded and, together, they started to Val's office. They were almost there when the wagon pulled up in front. Reginald Quinn sat in the driver's seat looking like he'd aged twenty years. His face was pale and drawn and he was staring at his hands. He didn't move, just sat there.

Val glanced over at Johnny and was glad to see no rage on the man's face, more curiosity than anything right now. He approached Quinn and looked up at him as Johnny walked toward the back of the wagon. Quinn still made no move to acknowledge Val's presence.

Johnny watched the man's back even as he peered into the bed. There was a tarp covering something and he almost reached in to pull it back when he saw the shoe sticking out the end. A small, female shoe. He backed away and felt lightheaded for a minute. In a whisper, he called, "Val."

Crawford walked back to him and leaned over the tail gate. He closed his eyes and sighed then went back to the front of the wagon. "Mr. Quinn? Come on, now. Climb on down and let's go inside and talk."

Quinn blinked, seeming to suddenly realize Val was there. All he could do was nod his head as he started climbing down. His legs gave out a little and he stumbled, falling into Val who kept him out of the dirt.

Putting an arm around the man's shoulders, Val guided him. "Okay, I got ya."

Quinn started around the back of the wagon then, he looked up and saw Johnny. Suddenly, he became alert and, before Val knew it, the man was out of his hold.

Johnny was watching, sympathy all over his face as Quinn started toward him. Then, he found himself on the ground, blocking the blows Quinn tried to deliver to his face and head.

Val ran over and pulled Quinn off, stumbling back and onto his backside but, he never lost his grip. "Stop it! He didn't do it! Quinn! Lancer was attacked this mornin, too!"

Johnny raised up and pushed away from the man, unwilling to be his scapegoat but unable to defend himself against a grieving father, either.

Val's words seemed to get through to Quinn after a moment and he stopped struggling. His eyes went to Johnny's leg and he could see a bandage through the torn pants. He looked into Johnny's eyes. "You were?"

Swallowing hard against the dust in his throat, Johnny nodded. "My father was shot here in town. I was hit out on the range. My brother ..." he dipped his eyes, "I don't know how bad my brother is, yet."

Slowly shaking his head back and forth as if he wasn't understanding any of it, Quinn asked in a mournful voice, "Who?"

"We don't know. I had one of em's trail but I lost him. Come on, Mr. Quinn. Let's go inside and you tell me how it happened." Val got to his feet and hoisted Quinn up as Johnny stood pecariously on his own two feet.

Val sat the man down then moved quickly around his desk, opening a drawer and pulling out a bottle of whiskey and a glass. Pouring a full measure, he sat it on the desk then slid it across to Quinn before taking his seat.

Johnny sat in the chair next to Quinn, hat in hands and waited for the man to speak. He was more confused than anything but, he knew soon enough, his anger would return. Just not in the same direction it had been ten minutes ago.

Quinn took the glass in a shaking hand and raised it to his lips as the amber liquid sloshed over the sides. He inhaled it then coughed once before setting the glass down and wiping a hand over his face. "I was out in the yard talking to Rebecca. She was telling me about some dance or something. I ... I wasn't really listening. I needed to check the herd before coming to town to meet with Lancer. She was so excited." He sighed shakily then sucked in a breath. "I gave her a kiss on the cheek and turned to walk away when the shot rang out. I hit the dirt and drew my gun, looking all around but, I couldn't tell where it was coming from. I remember shouting at Rebecca to get in the house. She didn't answer but, I thought nothing of that. I thought she'd done as I said."

His eyes landed on the glass and Val grabbed the bottle, pouring half as much this time. Quinn sipped the liquor then continued. "I got to my knees as some of my men came running over. I heard one of them say something about my daughter and ... I just knew. In that second, I just knew. I turned and she was lying there in the dirt, so still." He downed the rest of the whiskey.

Johnny bowed his head and shook it slowly. "What time did this happen," he asked in a whisper.

Quinn thought for a moment. "Around ten, I think. Yes, that's right. Why?"

Johnny looked up to find Quinn's eyes locked on him. "Same time I was shot."

"Murdoch, too," Val offered. "Just a little after ten."

Johnny came to his feet quickly and limped about the room, playing with the brim of his hat. His entire body was coiled with tension.

"What about your brother?" Quinn asked.

"I don't know. I'm waiting to hear from the doctor. One of our hands found me, told me about Murdoch and I came straight here." He slapped his hat against his thigh. "This makes no sense. Why attack both ranches at the exact same time?"

Val leaned back in his chair and rubbed his chin. "Landgrabbers, maybe. Someone with a grudge against both ranches?"

"Someone wanting to stir the pot. Maybe, they never intended to kill anyone. Maybe, they hoped we'd blame each other only, something went wrong." Johnny's eyes landed on Quinn.

Quinn stood up and turned to face Johnny. "Yes, something definitely went wrong. I will find out who did this and they will pay." He looked back at Val. "No matter what."

"We don't know anything for sure, Mr. Quinn. If they don't make another move, we might not ever know. They might figure out they messed up and light outta here."

"Val's right about that. We need to search those foothills where you lost that bastard. I've got twenty men on the way."

"I'll send for my men, too. We'll section off the area, map out grids. Your brother would do well to lead that. He was in the army, was he not?"

Johnny made a sharp turn to his right and walked to the window, peering out. In a husky voice, he said, "I don't even know if he's alive."

"Mr. Quinn," Val called in a surprisingly soft voice, "You need to take care of your daughter now."

*****

Val watched Johnny's back as he continued to stare out the window after Quinn had moved the wagon away to the undertaker. He knew what the man was looking for and he wished it would come. Good or bad, someone from Lancer had to show up soon with news about Scott. Then, he saw Johnny's shoulders tense and he stepped away from the window and to the door. His back was still to Val so he couldn't tell what expression his friend was wearing. He followed quickly, a small smile spreading across his own face as he stepped on the boardwalk.

Scott rode up to the hitching post with a scowl on his face, the Lancer hands stopping a few feet behind him. He didn't dismount, but stared at his brother's impassive face. "What are you doing here?"

Johnny didn't answer for a beat, his heart trying to slow down and his relief well contained. "Had some things to take care of."

"Who's with Murdoch?" Scott asked, the scowl deepening.

"Steve Watkins. He's okay. Hasn't come around yet but, Sam said he'd be alright. What about you?"

Scott was clearly unhappy with the answers he was getting. He glanced at Val before fixing his stare on Johnny again. "We can discuss all of this at Sam's." He turned Remmie and rode off toward the doctor's office.

Johnny didn't move, just stared after him with some surprise and more confusion. He felt Val just behind him.

"He's got a bee in his bonnet."

Johnny turned a little and looked at him. "He's got somethin stuck up his ass. Reckon we should go find out if it's anything more than we already know."

Val stepped off the boardwalk with his friend and muttered, "we don't know nothin."

As they approached the house, Johnny heard Scott giving the men orders to surround the building and keep a watchful eye for Quinn's men. "But not Quinn. If he comes here, let him in." Scott turned on his heel but, Johnny put a hand up to stay his protest. "It's alright, Boston. I'll explain inside."

*****

Sam straightened up from where he'd been leaning over Murdoch as the brothers and Val walked in. "He's still holding his own."

"Why hasn't he woken up yet?" Scott asked.

"I sedated him for the surgery. He should start coming around in a couple of hours. Now, I'd like to get a look at that head, Scott."

Scott ignored that and went to his father's side, sitting down and taking Murdoch's hand.

Sam frowned and turned to Johnny, the entreaty clear on his face. Johnny could only shrug and walk over to stand behind his brother. He tried to look at the bandage under Scott's hat but wasn't having any luck so, he took the hat off.

Scott grabbed at the Stetson but Johnny moved it away. "You need to let Sam take a look, Scott. It won't take long and you can sit right there. You can tell me about it at the same time, too."

"Fine," Scott said sharply. "It's just a graze, though. Maria cleaned it up. The dizziness is all but gone."

"And the headache?" Sam asked, knowing he had to have a whopper going on.

"Very much there." Scott looked up at his brother as Sam started removing the bandage. "I was surveying and someone shot me. I didn't know a thing until I woke up in my bed with Cipriano, Frank and Fred standing over me. They told me about Murdoch and where you went and that Teresa had come to town."

"Did you see her?"

"We met up with her and Sam on the road. I sent a couple of extra men back with her. She'll be safe at the house." His eyes roved quickly over his brother. "You don't seem any worse for the wear."

"He's got a chunk missing from his left leg," Sam informed.

"I got off lucky. The second shot missed but I let them think they got me. I cracked my head on a rock when I went down and blacked out a few seconds later. Jose found me and told me about Murdoch and I came straight here." He stopped as Sam started looking closely at Scott's wound.

"Well, Maria did a good job. As long as you keep it clean, it should be fine. I can't stitch it, there's too much of a gash. But," Sam paused and looked into Scott's eyes, "you most likely have a concussion and you should be in bed."

"I'm afraid that isn't an option, Sam. Our family is under attack. I can't lie around."

Johnny warred with himself. Grateful to have Scott at his side, he was still concerned over his brother's health. "Any chance of him passin out, Sam?"

"Yes, there's a good chance and it could happen anywhere and at any time. You might want to keep that in mind, young man. You can't go gallavanting all over the countryside and expect no repercussions."

"I understand, Sam. Now, tell me the rest of it, Johnny."

Pursing his lips, Johnny looked around and grabbed another chair, pulling it close to the bedside. He glanced over at Val leaning against the wall, before sitting down. "Be glad to, brother. Right after you cut it out. I didn't shoot you and I didn't make this happen so, knock it off."

Scott's eyes widened in surprise and he shook his head slowly.

"I know you're mad; so am I, but don't take it out on me," Johnny explained.

After a pause, Scott cocked his head and nodded once. "I didn't realize I was. What happened to Murdoch?"

Sam sighed as he held the end of the bandage. "Hold still, boy! I can't wrap this if you keep moving all over the place."

Scott grimaced but said nothing.

Val pushed off the wall and walked over. "He was walkin over to talk to me when someone bushwhacked him. Shot him in the back. I went after 'im but, I lost the trail in the foothills."

"There's more, Scott. Quinn was attacked at the same time. Near as I can figure, all of us were shot around ten this mornin. Only ..." Johnny sighed and dropped his head for a second. "Quinn's daughter was hit instead of him. She's dead."

"Oh, God," Scott groaned, looking from Johnny to Val. "Does he think we did it?"

"He did. He brought her into town, saw Johnny and went at him. I pulled him off and explained how it wasn't Lancer. He told us about what happened at his ranch then, took his girl to the undertaker."

"He's ready to work with us, Scott. He's gonna get his men together so we can search the foothills and all those mines. Try to find the bastards that did this. I'm thinkin they didn't mean to kill anyone. I think they wanted us to blame Quinn and him to blame us; start a war."

Scott nodded. "Sounds right but, why? And who?"

"That, I got no answer for, yet." Val looked at both of them then sucked in a breath. "What I don't want is a bunch of vigilantes out there. I don't think Quinn ought to be goin with us. His men are gonna be hard enough to control."

Johnny and Scott looked at each other then both looked at their father. Johnny stood up and turned to his friend. "I understand you have a job to do, Val. But these people killed an innocent girl. I think any posse you put together would be hard pressed to rein it in."

"I know that! That's why I don't want Quinn out there eggin his men on. Look, I'll take the help as long as they understand they ain't fightin Lancer and they can put all that aside and listen to me. Otherwise, they can stay behind."

"My men will do exactly what you tell them, Sheriff. I guarantee it." Quinn stood in the doorway, hat in hand. "I don't want the culprits gunned down by a posse. I want to watch them hang. I want to stand there and watch them piss their pants as the noose is put over their heads. I want them to know what it feels like to

*****
know
*****
you're about to die and there is nothing you can do about it. I want them to try looking me in the eye."

Val lowered his eyes briefly before looking at the man. "If you can guarantee that, Mr. Quinn, then I'm fine with it."

"Why don't we have this conversation in the other room," Scott suggested, finally free of Sam's ministrations. He stood and walked out before anyone could answer.

"Firstly, I am very sorry about Rebecca. I didn't know her but, she seemed to be a lovely girl."

Quinn nodded. "Thank you, Scott. I'm glad to see you're in one piece mostly. I was telling your brother earlier that we could use your military training in this endeavor."

"We should get a map and lay out grids then, assign small squadrons to a methodical search of every inch of their grid then, report back if they find anything or not."

"I've got maps in my office," Val said and moved to the door.

"My men should be here within the hour," Quinn stated as he followed Val.

Scott brought up the rear then stopped and turned to find Johnny standing there, watching them. "Are you coming?"

A small smile came to the young man's face. "Why don't you get started on that? I'm gonna sit with Murdoch a few minutes and talk to Sam. I'll be over soon."

Scott stared at him a beat then nodded and left the office.

"You wanted to talk to me, Johnny?"

A small laugh came out as Johnny turned to the man standing just inside the doorway. "Sam, are you eavesdroppin these days?"

"Well, it is my office so, no, I don't think it's eavesdropping. I did notice you were quiet during the discussion. You don't agree?"

"Oh, sure. It's a good plan. They just don't need me right now and ... well, I think my leg started bleedin again when Quinn jumped me."

Sam scowled and took his arm, pulling him back into the exam room. "How long ago was that? Never mind, too long, obviously. Sit down and let me see."

Johnny sat down and put his leg on the second chair and all the while, he watched his father. He laid his arm on the table, his hand resting on the side of Murdoch's head as he stroked his thumb down his old man's temple.

Sam was muttering to himself as he gathered more bandages. When he turned and saw Johnny, he stopped griping and went about his work silently. After cleaning the wound again, he sighed lightly. "I'm putting a salve on this but, it could easily get infected if you don't keep it clean. Johnny, are you listening?"

"Yeah, Sam. Keep it clean. I heard you. Is there any way you can wake him up so I can tell him what's going on? I'd hate for him to come around while we're gone."

"I can tell him."

Johnny smiled and looked at the physician. "You know how he is, Sam. If he doesn't lay eyes on us himself, he won't be satisfied."

Sam conceded that point easily enough since it was true. "I can give him some smelling salts. He's going to be in pain but, that will happen no matter when he wakes up."

*****

Sam laid a hand on Murdoch's shoulder as he passed the smelling salts under the man's nose. After the second pass, Murdoch frowned and groaned. On the third pass, his eyes flew open. Sam pressed down on his shoulder. "Easy, old friend. Don't move now. You were shot but you'll live."

Murdoch blinked and focused on the doctor. He swallowed and licked his lips then nodded. Sam helped him drink then stepped away as Johnny slid back into the chair beside him.

"Hey, old man. Can't you even have a simple meeting without gettin in all kinds of trouble?" He smiled softly as he laid a hand on his father's arm.

"Johnny," Murdoch breathed out.

Bowing his head a second, Johnny cleared his throat and looked back up. "Yeah, it's me. Are you awake enough to understand? I need to tell you what's goin on."

"I'm fine, son. My back aches some is all."

Johnny heard Sam snort and his grin widened. "Well, Sam, now you know where I get it."

"I always knew that. I just didn't think you'd believe it. Well, I'll warm some broth while you two talk." He left the room quickly, wanting to get back before Murdoch tried to come off that table.

"What happened, son?"

"First of all, Scott's alright and so am I. You were shot in the back out on the street. Scott and I were shot right around the same time but, it's nothin serious." He pressed Murdoch's arm as he felt the man tense up. "Easy, Murdoch. We're fine, I swear."

"Where? Where were you hit?"

Johnny sighed. Damn! I knew he was gonna ask that one. "In the leg. Just took a little chunk out of my calf. Scott, uh, Scott has a graze to his head."

"His head!" Murdoch raised up then groaned and fell back onto the pillow.

"Dammit, old man! I said we were fine! Scott's over at Val's office right now helpin him plan out a search for the posse. He's got his wits about him. Might have a headache but, he's okay." I hope, Johnny thought to himself.

Murdoch took a few breaths and nodded then looked back at his son. "There's more? Teresa?"

"She's fine. She's home and under guard. The thing is, Quinn was shot at, too. Right about the same time as us. Seems this was well organized and timed."

"Is he hurt?"

"No, but ..." Johnny ran a hand down his face. "His daughter ... she was killed."

Murdoch's mouth fell open, his throat constricting with the shock. Finally, he whispered, "oh, my God."

"Yeah," Johnny breathed out shakily. "He thought it was us at first but, I talked to him and now, we're all working together. He's got his men coming in to help with the posse and he said he'll keep them in line. Seems he really wants whoever did this to swing. Can't say as I blame him."

Murdoch nodded, still trying to wrap his mind around Rebecca Quinn's murder. "Who would do this?"

Shaking his head slowly, Johnny said, "I don't know but, I'm thinkin someone wanted us to blame each other. I don't think they meant to kill anyone, just make us think the other did it and start an all out war. Might've worked if Rebecca hadn't been in the line of fire."

Murdoch closed his eyes and shook his head, deeply saddened by the girl's death. "Senseless. As senseless as this feud. If you're right, all this could have been avoided if Quinn wasn't so bullheaded. If there was no feud, no one would have a reason to pit us against each other."

Johnny raised his brows at that. He hadn't considered it, but, Murdoch was right. "Well, right now, we need to find out who's behind this and stop them before they do something else."

"What else can they do? They must know their plan failed. If they don't, they will when they see Quinn and Lancer hands riding together."

"Maybe," Johnny muttered. "I'm leaving a couple of men here with you. I imagine we'll be ready to ride soon."

"Johnny, don't ..."

Leaning forward, Johnny looked quizzically at his father. "Don't what?"

With a sigh, Murdoch smiled a little at his son. "You have a propensity for going lone wolf. Work with your brother and Val. Don't go off on your own, son."

Johnny smiled. "I won't. Ya know, it's been a while since I ... felt like I had to do that."

"That's true but, I also know if you don't agree with a plan, you're more likely to go your own way than argue your point." Murdoch took hold of Johnny's arm and squeezed. "Argue your point, son, and accept it if you're outvoted."

Johnny made a face at that then laughed softly. "Yeah, okay. I understand. I'll be a good boy."

*****

When Johnny walked into Val's office, he saw Scott and Quinn with their heads bent over a map and Val sitting behind his desk leaning in. Scott looked up with a question clear on his face.

"He woke up. He's hurtin some but, he's okay. I told him everything," Johnny reported. "Might want to poke your head in just so's he believes it's still on your shoulders." He gave his brother a weak smile with that.

Scott nodded. "I'll go now. We have everything mapped out. We're just waiting for Quinn's men. They should be here any time now."

"What about Fisher? He's one of the best trackers I've ever seen," Quinn said.

"No way in hell he's gettin out of my jail, Mr. Quinn. Besides that, he's unpredictable on a good day."

Johnny managed to hold his tongue about Fisher - barely. "You'll have plenty of trackers out there, Mr. Quinn. Val's no slouch, either."

"You got a good eye, too, Johnny. Plus that other," Val threw in.

Scott stopped his trek to the door and turned. "What 'other'?"

Johnny shook his head but Val spoke up. "You know, his instincts, you'd call it. Johnny's got the best I've ever seen."

"Oh, yes, that. Well, it's true, brother. Don't worry, we will find them. I'll be right back."

Quinn remained quiet as Scott left, his eyes taking on a distant look. After a moment, he sighed and shook his head. "Rebecca was just starting to come into her womanhood. Just starting to notice young men as something other than cowboys. It scared me to death."

A light laugh came from Johnny. "I reckon most men would feel that way, Mr. Quinn. Maybe now, you'll tell us the real reason you hate my father."

Quinn's face turned to stone. "We have better things to do at the moment." His head turned to the door as several hoofbeats could be heard outside. "It sounds as if my men have arrived. I'll talk to them, let them know the plan."

"And, that they ain't gonna shoot first and ask questions later," Val reminded him.

"Yes, especially that part," Quinn replied determinedly as he placed his hat on his head and stepped out the door.

"Reckon, I'll make sure we got plenty of supplies. It's already gettin late. We'll be out there a day or so."

"Val, if we are, I'm gonna come back or, have Scott. You know, to check on Murdoch," Johnny shrugged, feeling embarrassed for some reason.

Val's mouth twitched. "Yeah, sure."

"Hey, Sheriff!"

Val rolled his eyes as he turned his head toward the back room. "What?!"

Johnny's lips twitched as he turned in the direction of Fisher's bellowing.

"Need to talk to you. It's important!"

"This should be good," Val muttered as he headed to the back room. He pulled up short and turned to find Johnny right behind him.

Johnny shrugged. "What? If he's got somethin to say about all this, I think I deserve to hear it."

"Just stay at the door. He might not be too inclined to chat if he sees you."

Johnny nodded and leaned against the door frame, out of Fisher's sight.

Val walked in, put his hands on his hips and glared at the man who'd tried to kill him. "Yeah?"

"What's goin on? I heard Mr. Quinn and he didn't sound too good."

Val thought to tell him to go to hell then, reconsidered. "Well, Fisher, looks like Quinn has an enemy that ain't got the last name Lancer. Both ranches were attacked this mornin. All the Lancers took a hit. Quinn's bushwhacker missed him but, he hit Rebecca Quinn. She's dead. What do you know about any of it?" He watched in some fascination as Fisher grew pale, eyes wide then, fell back onto the cot.

The man leaned forward, forearms on thighs as he bowed his head and shook it slowly back and forth. "Wasn't supposed to be like this."

Val stepped up to the bars and grabbed them in tight fists. "What wasn't? Do you know who did this?"

Slowly, Fisher looked up at him in misery. "The girl wasn't supposed to be hurt. That was promised."

Johnny stepped into the doorway and stared hard at the man but, Fisher didn't notice him.

"Who promised? Just tell me everything, Fisher," Val demanded.

"They said nobody would die. I didn't care about the Lancers but, they promised Mr. Quinn wouldn't get hurt bad. Just a graze at the most."

"Who?!" Val shouted.

"I ain't sure of all their names Just the one that was in charge but, he wasn't the head man. I don't know who that is. He paid me to set everything up. Start the feud back up and get the Lancers all het up and after Quinn and him after them. Me and Walsh let them know where the Lancers would be workin, you know, kept an eye on them."

Val managed to unclench his jaw. "So, Walsh didn't leave the valley? Cause it had to be him that told 'em where everyone would be this mornin. You've been right here."

Fisher nodded. "Yeah, Walsh is still around or, he was this mornin. Might've lit out by now. He wasn't too happy about doin it but, it was good money." He stood up shakily and took a few steps toward Val. "I swear on my mother's life, they said no one would die."

"Where are they hold up? Give me names."

"Like I said, I only knew the one's name, Mac, it was. Just Mac. They've been campin up in the foothills."

Val nodded, his mind turning things over. "Was I a target, too? That why you tried to kill me?"

Fisher winced and shook his head. "No, not kill you just ... put ya out of commission."

*****

Scott settled at the bedside and put a hand lightly on his father's arm, watching as Murdoch awoke. "Sir?"

"Scott! Thank God. Are you alright?" Murdoch's focus went immediately to his son's bandage swathed head.

"It looks worse than it is. The headache is almost gone already."

Murdoch wasn't happy about any of it, especially this. "I think you should stay here, son. You could get dizzy or pass out, you know. It's dangerous work for a healthy man."

"I can't do that, Sir. It's my plan and, I need to see it through. Besides, I want to be there when we catch them. Rebecca Quinn didn't deserve this." The anger in his voice was easy to discern and he saw the strange look his father gave him. "I didn't even know her, it's true. Still, she was just a young, innocent girl with a mule-headed father. I'm sorry, I don't want to sound maudlin but, it could have easily been Teresa."

Murdoch's face paled a little even though he'd already considered that fact himself. "I know, son. I'm so grateful she's safe. I can't imagine what Quinn is going through."

Scott sighed and ran a hand over his face. "Right now, all he's focusing on is finding the men who did this. It's probably the best thing for him. It will hit him much harder later. I understand he attacked Johnny when he saw him."

Murdoch's brows drew together. "He didn't tell me that part."

A huff of air escaped Scott's lips. "Of course he didn't. Well, he's alright. Listen, I have to go but, one of us will come back if it looks like this is going to take more than a day or two."

"Good. I want to know what's going on."

"Your job is to stay right there, listen to Sam and get better."

Murdoch took in the authoritative voice and face and almost laughed out loud. His lips pursed then he tightened them, trying hard not to chuckle at his son playing the father role. Finally, he managed to speak. "Yes, Sir."

Scott sat back a little with surprise at the response then, he laughed. "Well, now you know how Johnny and I feel." Placing a gentle hand in his father's arm, Scott patted it lightly. "Take care of yourself."

"I will, son. You do the same and, take care of your brother. Don't let him go off on his own. He promised he wouldn't but ..."

"But, in the heat of the moment he may forget that promise? I'll remind him, Sir."

*****

The forty plus men wasted no time getting to the foothills. Val led them right to the spot where he'd lost the assassin's trail. By this time, the sun was fading, casting the group into deep shadow under the looming mountains above them. Scott turned his horse to face them all.

"Alright. Everyone has their assignment. It's vital we all stick to our grids. It may be tedious, gentleman, but it is a proven successful way to ferret out the enemy. Are there any questions?" He watched Quinn's men closely. They hadn't been happy with their boss' instructions, every one of them seeking justice for the sweet girl who never got the chance to become the woman of the house. He understood their angst but, he also knew discipline would be the key to their success in this situation. Thinking of patience, his eyes ran over his brother. Johnny wanted his own vengeance but, he knew his brother would be able to rein it in when the time came. Oddly, Johnny had an ever so slight smile on his face and Scott wasn't sure why. He shook it off and looked to Val in askance.

Val moved forward and came alongside Scott, facing the men. "Scott here has a lot of exprience with military manueverin so, he's in charge of this search. But, if anybody finds anything, signal for me. Three shots, just like we said before. Understand?"

Everyone nodded or shrugged and Scott nodded firmly once. "Alright, move out!" As the men dispersed, Scott walked Remmie over to Barranca. "Something about this amuse you, brother?"

Johnny's smile got a little bigger before he shrugged his shoulders. "Just like watchin you, Scott. Shows me how you were in the cavalry. Not bad, Boston." He winked then headed out after his crew.

Scott heard Val behind him. "He has a unique ability to see humor in almost any situation."

"Yeah, it's annoyin as hell. You ready?"

Scott turned in the saddle and smiled then nodded as he pressed Remmie into motion.

*****

Night fell a little more than an hour later and campfires erupted in the night. No one saw the point in trying to hide their presence. It was impossible to keep forty men invisible. And, there was always the possibilty their sheer numbers would cause their prey to make a mistake, Scott had pointed out. But, even though most everyone stayed with their own groups, Johnny had found his way to his brother and Val's camp. He settled beside Scott on the ground before the small fire. He held his tin cup out and shook it a little in semblance of a request. Scott smiled and canted his head toward the coffee pot. Johnny smiled and filled his cup, settling back down as Val arrived.

"How's Quinn holdin up?" Val asked.

"Good for now. Don't know how well he's gonna be able to keep to his word if we find 'em." Johnny sighed as he swallowed a drink.

"Well, we didn't cover much ground today," Scott remarked.

"Won't cover much tomorrow either doin it this way."

Here we go, Scott thought. "You have a better plan, brother?"

"Nope. But, I do have an idea." A grin widened his mouth.

"If it involves you going off on your own, forget it. You promised Murdoch."

Johnny's smile evaporated as he frowned. "I promised I wouldn't go off on my own without the rest of you agreeing. That doesn't mean we can't make some adjustments to the plan."

Scott opened his mouth to argue but got cut off by Val. "What did ya have in mind?"

Johnny crossed his legs Indian-style and leaned forward. "Well, if they are still up there, they have to know we're down here, right? But, there's no way they can keep track of every man so, if I were to work my way around and up to the top, I might get a bead on 'em and flush 'em right out and to you."

Val nodded his head. "I got one problem with that thinkin. They might not be able to keep track of every man but, don't ya reckon they'd notice a Lancer missin? I mean, they're after Lancers and Quinn so, that's who they'll be keepin the closest eye out for."

"Val's right about that, Johnny."

"Maybe, but, if you're thinkin you should do it, the same argument goes, amigo. They'd notice the sheriff suddenly disappearin." Johnny studied the problem a minute, playing with his conchos then, the thought struck him. "They can't be able to see that clearly. I mean, what if I changed my clothes? Wore somethin plain and get one of the boys to wear my clothes."

"A decoy? I don't know about that, brother. It's still a big chance to take."

"What chance? Even if they do figure it out, what are they gonna do, attack you? That's kind of what we're hopin for, isn't it? This way, at least one of us will be in a position to set them up in a crossfire. Look, our position down here is about the worst it could be. They have the advantage up there. Plus, we need someone who's good with a gun. That's me." He smiled at the last.

"I'm no slouch with a gun, either, Johnny."

"No, you ain't, Scott. But, I'm still worried about you passin out. That would be a death sentence for you up there. Besides, I'm gonna have to do some climbin."

"What about your leg?" Val asked.

"It's not even bothering me, Val. So, what do you think, Boston?"

Scott sipped his coffee then looked at his brother. "I think no matter what I say, in the morning, I'm going to find you gone."

Johnny dipped his eyes then remembered his promise to his father. "If you don't go along, I won't do it."

Val leaned back away from his friend in shock then, looked at Scott's face wearing a similar expression to his own.

"I mean it. I did promise Murdoch to argue my point then go along if I get shot down."

"Did ya have to put it like that?" Val groused.

Johnny smirked at him then looked back at his brother.

Scott sighed and looked to Val who nodded. Of course, he'd agree with Johnny. "You'll have to find a volunteer, and I mean a volunteer, to wear your clothes. He has to know that we are bigger targets out here than any of the men."

Johnny shrugged. "Jose will do it."

*****

The only thing Scott hated more than his brother being out there alone was the fact he couldn't even try to keep an eye on his progress without giving Johnny away. Jose had been willing to play decoy for his friend but, Scott wasn't so sure just how much volunteering had been involved. Johnny had the ability to coerce people into doing what he wanted. Evidence of that was how he'd finagled his way last night. Scott still thought it wasn't the best idea but, it was an idea and, hopefully would speed things up. He just prayed it wasn't at his brother's expense.

As much as he knew Johnny was more than capable and adept at this type of warfare, the man was not invincible and he certainly couldn't outrun a bullet. Especially with a bad leg which Scott hadn't forgotten about, either. Johnny had said it didn't bother him but, Scott didn't buy that either.

Val admitted to himself he didn't know Scott Lancer all that well but, he thought he had a good line on the man. As they rode side by side, searching the ground for tracks, he spoke offhandedly. "He's good at this kind of thing."

"I know."

"He's been in more tight spots that you can shake a stick at. Always manages to get out of it fine or, mostly fine."

Scott sighed.

"I'm just sayin ..."

"What, Val? Don't worry? Aren't you worried?"

Val grimaced. "Yeah, I reckon it comes with the territory where Johnny's concerned." He snorted. "Maybe, I'm tryin to convince myself."

Scott smiled a little. "You aren't doing a very good job of it."

"I know. Ain't exactly my specialty; making folks feel better."

Scott laughed softly at that. He would have guffawed if the circumstances weren't so dire. In fact, he thought he'd have a good belly laugh over this memory once all was well again. IF all was well again. That thought caused the laugh to die quickly. "It's alright, Val. You have many other talents."

Snorting again, Val said, "like what?"

"Keeping Johnny out of prison, for one."

Val's head snapped up and he glared at Scott who was wearing a slight smile. "That ain't funny, Scott. Johnny ain't never broke the law. Least ways, not anything that matters."

Stunned, Scott looked over at the man. "It was a joke, Val."

"Wasn't funny."

"Look, I..." Scott didn't finish his sentence as gunfire erupted from above them and both men dove off the horses for cover.

*****

Johnny moved nearly silently up the mountainside, stopping occassionally to catch his breath and get his bearings. His leg was throbbing and he tried to ignore it as best he could. Sure, it really was fine last night like he'd told Scott. Figures, he talked it right into botherin him. He would've laughed if he wasn't hurting.

He'd been following the faint scent of smoke for the last ten minutes or so, knowing he was close and surprised they were this near to the posse. Must be just sitting there waiting for us to get close enough to pick off. That had always been Johnny's greatest concern about this whole thing. The vantage point these asses had. He had better words for them but, he was saving that for a face to face. For not the first time, he wondered who was running this outfit. Now, he also wondered how they thought they could take out forty men. Maybe, they were just planning on taking out the ones they needed to, figuring if they killed Val, the Lancers and Quinn, the rest would hightail it. He snorted softly. Another mistake they'd made.

The scent was stronger now and he decided to stop and get a good rest before moving on. He wanted to be as fresh as possible when he found them for, find them, he would. He settled with his back pressed against a tree trunk, legs bent at the knees and drawn up. After a few minutes of slowing his heart rate and breathing, he studied the pants he was wearing.

Not calzoneros. No buttons along the sides for easy access. He needed to take a look at that wound. Carefully, he laid the saddlebags and canteen he'd brought on the grass beside him then pulled the pant leg as far as he could which, wasn't very far. Just enough to get to his boot, though. Pulling out the knife, he slit the pant leg up to his knee and grimaced. Reckon Cal would be wantin those replaced.

He sighed as he saw the dark stain on the bandage then leaned his head back against the tree for a moment. Resignedly, he flipped the saddlebag open and pulled out the bandages. Sam would be pleased he'd even thought to bring extra. He'd tell the man about it, too, just to see the doc roll his eyes. He laughed almost silently.

It took only a few minutes to clean the wound and rebandage it but, it was angry looking and he figured it was infected like Sam said it might. One thing about Sam Jenkins, he was a helluva doc. Best Johnny had ever seen and he'd seen a few in his time. After securing the bandage, he took a long drink of water then wiped the sweat from his eyes. Shit! Scott would've probably been in better shape even with a chunk out of his head. Well, no sense in thinkin that way. He didn't want his brother out here alone anyway. It didn't matter that he knew Scott was more than capable and would probably take however many men there were single-handedly. Scott was his brother and he wanted no more harm to come his way.

Anger seized him and he was grateful for it. It gave him energy and renewed his purpose. Using the tree, he pushed himself to his feet. No dizziness, no blurred vision. Thank God for that. His eyes went upward briefly and he smiled. Then, he decided to leave the saddlebags and canteen behind. He grabbed up his rifle and pushed on.

He hadn't gone more than a few hundred yards when he heard voices. Crouching down, Johnny moved slowly forward, following the sounds and smells of men camped out. He knew this area and there was a cave up here but, he didn't think they were inside, not from the voices that were becoming clearer. Yep, they were up here just waiting for the posse to get in range. Wouldn't be much longer, either, if he reckoned it right.

He stopped and stood sideways behind a huge tree as he spied their camp. He counted four and that seemed right. Four attacks, four gunmen. Still, there was a leader, had to be, and he didn't know if it was one of these men or someone else. He stayed perfectly still and listened to their conversation, sparse as it was. No one spoke any names and his frustration was building. He'd just decided to break up this little party when something remarkable and totally unexpected happen. Johnny looked out through the trees and couldn't believe what he was seeing.

*****

A bear! Now? Are you kidding me? These thoughts sailed through his mind and he pushed them away as he tried to think of what to do. The camp, the smell of the coffee had surely been what brought the bear this way. Sonofabitch! It would've been funny if he wasn't between the bear and the camp. He would have sit back and howled with laughter as that big ole brown bear came thunderin out of the woods at those yahoos. But, he was the yahoo and, maybe, he was about to be lunch.

Johnny licked his lips but, otherwise didn't move. There ain't no way in hell that bear ain't gonna see me, he thought. No way. Then, he relaxed a little as an idea formed. A crazy idea, for sure but, he didn't have a whole lot of options. Taking a deep breath, he decided to go for it. Johnny moved his foot a little, just enough to make a soft shuffling sound in the dying leaves near where he stood.

The bear stopped his trudging and looked up then sniffed.

Johnny rolled his eyes. Come on, you stupid shit. I'm right here, start roarin or whatever the hell you're gonna do. No sooner was the thought made than the bear stood up on its back legs and growled at him. Johnny took a quick step forward, antagonizing the beast further and it responded by coming back down on all fours and barreling toward him.

"Shit!" He couldn't help it, the word just came out. Then, he took off straight for the camp, yelling at the top of his lungs. "Bear! Bear!"

The men in the camp were startled to say the least as the man came running toward them shouting and waving his arms. None of them missed the rifle in his right hand and they brought their arms to bear.

Johnny kept right on running through the camp, still yelling and pointing behind him. "Bear! Get 'im!" He spied a boulder and flung himself behind it then scooted around, rifle at the ready. He didn't know who or what he'd be shooting but, by God, he was gonna shoot something!

The men stared after him then turned as the grizzly stormed into the camp. Frozen with shock for a mere second, they paused before every one of them let loose with a barrage of gunfire at the behemoth.

Johnny watched and counted then, smiled widely. The bear roared and kept coming another ten feet or so before succumbing to the multiple gunshot wounds. One of the men finally pegged him between the eyes and the ground shook as the massive animal fell to the earth.

It was dead silent in the camp as the dust settled. Each man looked at the other, sure the rest were as shaken as they. It took them all a moment to realize they had another intruder to deal with. Slowly, they began to turn around.

"Don't move, don't turn around. Drop those rifles then the gunbelts. The first man to so much as twitch is dead then, the rest of you will be just because I ain't in the mood."

They hesitated then dropped the rifles. Two unbuckled their gunbelts and tossed them away.

Johnny frowned. "Don't even think about it, fellas. I'm very, very good with this rifle. I'm even better with a pistol."

"Lancer?" one asked.

"That's right. Johnny Lancer. I'll catch your names after you drop those gunbelts. Ahora!"

*****

Scott groaned and opened his eyes halfway to see Val kneeling over him. His hand went to his head and he tried to sit up a little.

"Easy, Scott."

The softness of Val's voice caused Scott more alarm than the ringing in his ears at the moment. He shook his head a little and decided not to do that again. "What happened?" he asked in barely more than a whisper.

"Gunshots and we both dove for the dirt. Reckon you finally passed out."

He squeezed his eyes shut then opened them wide and it helped clear his vision. "I'm alright now, I think."

Val snorted and repositioned so he could get a look at the direction the gunfire had come from. Scott peeked out from behind the large rock then shrugged. "I don't hear anything."

"Don't see nothin, either." Val's heart was in his stomach. This wasn't a good sign. It had been ten minutes since the shooting had started. It hadn't taken him long to figure out no one was shooting at them. That meant they were shooting a Johnny. When it got quiet and no signal was received from Johnny, Val started thinking the worst. Of course, he wasn't about to say it.

"He hasn't given the signal," Scott said, his voice betraying his fear.

"Don't mean nothin. Johnny goes by his own rules. Might not have wanted to waste the bullets in case they tried somethin." Sure, that's it, Crawford, you ass! He looked around at the rest of the men he could see. No one was moving.

Then, they heard a sound that was like music. One that usually had Scott cringing from it's treble. They exchanged a look then they both smiled and got to their feet. Johnny was walking out of the treeline with four men in front of him. He kept his Colt trained on them as he raised his rifle-laden left hand in greeting.

"I'm going to kill him," Scott said, not meaning a word of it.

"Might want to let your old man get a look at him first. Just so's he knows who done the killin." Val's grin couldn't have been much wider as he let out a small hoot then headed toward Johnny.

The four desperados were quickly taken into custody, Johnny was given a cursory looking over with a promise of more to come when he looked into his brother's eyes. Then, Quinn walked up and the tension rose tenfold. Val moved over to the prisoners as Quinn stood facing them.

"Which one of you were assigned to me?" he asked.

None of the men answered, all looking at the ground.

"I asked you a question! If you hope to survive the trip back to Green River, I suggest you answer!"

Val took a step forward but, Johnny grabbed his arm and shook his head when Val glared at him. He hoped he knew what Quinn was doing. He hoped.

One man who appeared younger than the rest raised his head, his eyes going to the man beside him.

Quinn walked over and stood directly in front of that man. "You? It was your assignment to shoot at me?"

The man looked up, his eyes wide. "You know we wasn't aimin to kill ya?"

"We deduced as much." When the man looked funnily at him, Quinn sighed, his rage barely contained. "Yes, we figured it out. So, you were the one who shot at me? You are the idiot who could not hit the side of a barn ten paces off?" He grabbed the man's shirtfront. "You are the one who murdered my sweet, innocent daughter?!"

"Huh? No! No, I wasn't aimin at her! I mean, I ..." He didn't finish as Quinn's fist plowed into his open mouth.

Scott moved over to the injured man, kneeling over him partly to protect him from Quinn, partly to make sure he didn't try to escape in the melee. Johnny watched the other three, gun still trained on them.

Val moved as Quinn started toward the man again. He grabbed the rancher's arms from behind. "Alright, Mr. Quinn. He surely deserved that but, remember what ya said. You want to see him hang. Remember all that you said? Watching him knowin he's gonna die and not bein able to stop it? Just keep thinkin about that."

Quinn struggled at first then, he stopped as Val's words sunk in. He let out a heavy breath and nodded. "Yes, I remember. I'm alright now."

Val slowly released him then watched him closely as the man straightened his jacket and turned away, his entire body shaking. Val turned with him, looking past the man to his hands. He didn't know which of them had any kind of relationship with the man, if any. One older man stepped forward and put a hand on Quinn's shoulder, guiding him away. Val sighed and ran a hand through his hair as he turned back to the prisoners. "Alright, let's get mounted up and headed back. You can tell us how ya managed this on the way, Johnny."

Johnny grinned. "Wasn't me."

*****

Val was very glad Quinn's men had talked him into returning to his ranch because he couldn't have stopped himself from laughing if he tried once Johnny told his story. He looked over at Scott and saw tears in the man's eyes, he was laughing so hard.

"Well, brother," Scott started once he'd regained some of his decorum, "that story will go a long way in cheering Murdoch up."

To their surprise, they saw even the prisoner's shoulders shaking with laughter. Johnny's mood fell as he witnessed this. His voice turned hard and cold. "Reckon finding out who was behind all this will make the old man feel better than that."

Silence fell on the group, the prisoner's heads turning to look at each other.

Johnny pushed. "Whoever it is, they sure aren't gonna break a sweat trying to get this bunch free, I guarantee it. Man like that wouldn't waste his time on the hired help. If it was me sittin up front there, I'd be mighty pissed about that. Wouldn't feel a speck of loyalty to a man who'd lead me to slaughter like that."

"You'd know, Johnny. Seems to me, somebody tried that once with you a few years back. It was a sight what you done to that man."

"Hell, Val, that was the fun of it. Gettin even. I gotta tell ya, I hate people like that. I might even be convinced to help a man out that got treated like sheep. If I knew who did the shearin, that is."

Scott smiled tightly as he listened to the two of them play psychological warfare with these men. The youngest one would break, he was sure. He already had by giving up his partner to Quinn. All they had to do was push him far enough. Scott figured it wouldn't take much to begin with.

Val's face revealed absolutely nothing as he continued the game. "Sure, I'd give a man a break if he was led by the nose. Boss man had to know they'd get caught. Don't see him around here anywhere. Sometimes, a man's promised things then those promises are broke. That's when he realizes he's been played the whole time. Worst feelin in the world."

"Only one thing worse, Val. Feelin that rope slip around your neck."

Scott looked over at his brother, studying the hard jaw line and tightly pressed lips. He saw Val wince and dip his head.

They fell silent until they entered Green River, the townspeople stopping to stare.

"Scott, head over to Doc's? I'll be right there."

"Sure, Johnny. Right there, okay?"

Johnny looked over and smiled then nodded.

*****

Once the prisoners were secured, Johnny walked out of Val's office where the Lancer hands were waiting. "Boys, you can head back now. Send three fresh men to help guard Murdoch. I want to know how things are at the ranch, too."

"Sure thing. Say, Johnny ... what happened to my pants?"

Johnny looked at Cal with a smirk. "Sorry bout that, Cal. I'll replace them."

"You okay, Johnny?" Frank asked. "You look a little pale."

He stared at the man, still surprised after all this time at the loyalty and genuine friendships he'd developed with these men. It was a good feeling, knowing they would back him and his family no matter what. He smiled softly. "Tired as hell, Frank. My leg is botherin me a bit. Reckon Sam will have somethin to say about that. I'm going over there now. You boys go home and get some rest. I don't want anyone workin on anything that ain't absolutely necessary until this thing is sorted out. There's still someone out there after us."

"I hope we find out who it is soon. I'd like to take a bite out of that rattler," Frank said with conviction.

Johnny nodded then watched as the men mounted up and headed for home. Home. Boy, he sure would like to be there right now. Sighing, he stepped into the street and walked over to Sam's. When he opened the door, he heard his father's laughter and he smiled. Reckon Scott couldn't wait to tell him about that bear.

"Johnny! I understand we're going to have a new bear rug for the living room." Murdoch was smiling ear to ear and Johnny had to laugh.

He sat in a chair as he took his hat off. "Fraid not, old man. That poor animal's got more holes in him than ..." he stopped and screwed up his face. "Can't think of anything with more holes in it."

Murdoch chuckled again.

"You must be feeling better," Johnny half-asked.

"I am, son. Still very sore and Sam won't let me up." The smile was replaced by a frown.

"Well, we still don't know who was behind it all."

Scott smiled. "Oh, I don't think we'll have to wait long for that answer. You and Val did a good job on those men. That younger one is ready to talk, I'm sure."

Johnny nodded and played with his hands. "Where is Sam?"

"In the kitchen making coffee, bless him," Scott replied.

Johnny nodded and stood up. "Think I'll go say hi and sneak a biscuit or somethin."

Scott watched him head to the door. "Hey, what happened to your pants?"

Murdoch raised his head and saw the torn trousers.

Johnny sighed and turned around, backing out of the room. "Needed to change the bandage. It got dirty. These things ..." he looked down, "no conchos." He shrugged and disappeared through the doorway.

"He looks pale," Murdoch observed.

Scott, still frowning at his brother's exit, nodded his agreement.

*****

Johnny leaned against the doorjamb to the kitchen, hands hanging loosely at his sides as he watched Sam. "Hey, Doc."

"Johnny, I hear you have a new partner."

He smiled as the doctor laughed. "Yeah, we worked real well together. I'll miss him."

Sam chuckled again then turned, the smile falling from his face. "You're pale."

"It's the clothes."

"No, it isn't. I don't even want to know why you're wearing that, though. Come over here and sit down."

Johnny sighed and fell into a chair. "I had to change that bandage. It was leaking some more. Pretty red, too."

Sam frowned as he eased Johnny's leg onto another chair and removed the bandage. "Oh, my boy. It's infected, I'm afraid. I'll have to clean it thoroughly."

Johnny tensed, knowing what 'thoroughly' meant. Pain. He made himself accept the inevitable and simply nodded. "Could sure use a cup of that coffee before you get started."

He suffered through the scrubbing with carbolic acid, gritting his teeth and holding the chair arms in a vise-like grip. Finally, Sam finished and applied a salve that soothed the heat of the wound. Johnny relaxed a little and sighed as Sam applied a bandage. "I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't make a big deal out of this with Scott and Murdoch. We all have enough on our minds."

Sam paused in his wrapping and his shoulders sagged. "You're a grown man, so you say. I can't say anything if you don't want me to."

Johnny made a face at him though he didn't see. "Thanks, Sam."

"So, you don't know who's behind the attacks?"

"Not yet but, one of those idiots over at the jail will talk. I need to get some clothes. Tell Scott I'll be right back." He got to his feet and limped around a little, shaking his head.

"Would it matter if I said you're developing a fever? Because, you are."

"I know, Sam. Ain't bad yet. I'll lay down in a while. Shouldn't be much longer before this whole thing is finished. Soon as I find out who did this."

Sam looked curiously at him. "When

*****
we
*****
find out, you mean. You and Val and Scott, right?"

Johnny glanced up at him. "Yeah, that's what I meant. Unless Quinn finds out first then, ain't nothin gonna stop what will happen. Can't blame the man, either." He turned from his test walk and looked at the doctor. "Murdoch seems to be doing a lot better."

"He's doing remarkably well, Johnny. He'll be able to go home tomorrow, in a wagon, of course."

Johnny smiled sincerely at that news. "Well, I'm goin over to the mercantile. Be back in a few minutes."

Sam chuckled. "You just can't stand it, can you?"

*****

Val stared at his prisoners from his seat on the bench. He hadn't spoken since he walked into the cell room. His eyes were hard and menacing, his right hand soundly on the butt of his gun, as he watched them. After five full minutes of silence, the youngest man stood up and walked to the bars, grasping them tightly.

"What? What'ya want, Sheriff?"

"Shut up, boy," one man said.

The boy turned back to Val, eyes wide with desperation. "Are we gonna hang?"

"I said shut up!"

"You shut up!" Val fired back. "Where's your pal, Walsh?"

The other man snorted. "Long gone. Lit out first thing this mornin before anything happened."

Val looked back at the boy and simply nodded his head, unsurprised when he saw tears welling. "You sure got yourself in a fix, didn't ya? Bet he told you it was gonna be easy money. Just shoot a man and make sure you don't kill him. No problem, right? Only, that idiot over there missing his teeth couldn't follow directions too well."

The man in question looked up, guilt written all over his face then lowered his head again.

"You really want him to get away with that, boy? You gotta want to see him pay."

"He won't pay. You can't touch him. You can't catch him. Nobody can," the boy said.

Val stood up and walked over to the cell. "How about you let me worry about that. I've got a secret weapon."

The boy looked oddly at him. "What weapon?"

"I told you to shut up, kid!"

The young man turned to his cellmate. "What difference does it make now, Mac? We ain't gettin outta here. He ain't gonna help us, just like they said. Sheep to the slaughter." His voice hitched as a sob tried to escape.

Mac stood up and walked over, surprisingly, laying a hand on the boy's shoulder. "Sure, kid. That's right. What difference now?" He looked at Val. "I'll tell ya who it is, Sheriff. Like the kid said, it don't matter. Nobody can touch him, it seems."

More than curious, Val waited to hear the name.

*****

Johnny stepped out of the mercantile at the same time as Mac was spilling his guts to Val. He stretched his back, glad to have decent clothes on again. He just had to break them in, was all. He smiled at that then stepped off the boardwalk just as a hat came sailing through the air, dropping at his feet.

His heart skipped a beat as he looked at the bowler hat briefly then raised his eyes to take in the man standing a few feet in front of him.

"I told you we'd meet again, Johnny Madrid."

Johnny's lips turned up as he took in the man. "So you did, Weir. So you did. Is it time, finally, for our dance? Or, are you gonna play with smoke and mirrors some more?"

Weir grinned wickedly. "No more games, Johnny."

He nodded once and stepped into the street, backing away a few feet and making his stand.

Weir matched him step for step as they faced off. "It would seem this valley has a curse on me."

Johnny smiled brilliantly. "And yet, you keep comin back." He squinted his eyes a little then, they brightened. "Lookin a little scorched around the gills, there. How long did it take to get over that lightning strike?"

Weir's eyes grew dark, a scowl on his face momentarily. He stopped himself from reaching up to the scars on his neck then, he smiled. "A few months, I must say. Did you get my goodbye gift?"

Johnny frowned and shook his head.

Weir cocked his head to the side. "No? Scott didn't tell you about it? Well, that is interesting. I would think he'd be sure to tell you I left my calling card for you. Perhaps, he didn't think you were worth the bother."

Johnny laughed softly. "Nice try. If Scott forgot to mention it, he must've thought it was of no importance."

Weir laughed. "Of course."

"Just out of curiosity, what did you think you were gonna get from this range war you were trying to start?"

Shrugging, Weir kept the smile on his face. "It amused me. I didn't realize Quinn hated Murdoch so much. I discovered it on my many visits to your fair town and his ranch." He paused as he got a slight reaction from Johnny. A flicker in the eyes was all but, it thrilled him. "Oh, yes, I've been around for several weeks, watching all of you. Congratulations on winning the gun competition although, there was hardly any doubt, was there? Scott is very good with a rifle, as well. I dare say, not as good as you."

Johnny sighed and shook his head. "And Rebecca Quinn? Was she just collateral damage?" Weir just looked at him, impassive and unfazed by the girl's death, it seemed. Johnny felt his anger rising and pushed it down hard.

*****

Val tore through Sam's front room, stopping on a dime in the sick room as he took in the three men. "Where's Johnny?"

"He went to the mercantile to get some new clothes. What's wrong?" Sam asked.

Val hesitated as he looked at Murdoch.

"For heaven's sake, man! I'm not an invalid. What's happening?" Murdoch demanded.

Val took a breath. "I just found out who was behind this. Absolem Weir."

Scott flew out of his chair and took off out of the room, Val hot on his heels.

Murdoch fell back in the bed then, flung the covers off. Sam was on him in a heartbeat.

"Don't even think about it, Murdoch. If Val and Scott can't help, there's nothing you can do. Let them handle this. You won't make it to the door!"

Scott pulled up short when he got to the front door. Quinn was standing there looking wide-eyed at him.

"Has something else happened?"

Scott looked at Val then sighed. "Yes, we know who was behind it all and, unless I miss my guess, he's about to make his final move. I don't have time to explain any further, Mr. Quinn. We have to find Johnny right now. He's in danger." He shouldered past the man who stepped aside as Val went past then, Quinn followed them.

*****

Johnny felt the hot sun beating down on his head and, it occurred to him, Weir was stalling. He suddenly laughed aloud.

"Something amusing you, Johnny?"

"Oh, yeah. You are. You think I'm gonna melt into the dirt if you make me stand here long enough. I ain't sick, Weir. Let's get this over with. You've been itching to do this since the first day you slithered into our home. Let's find out, once and for all, which of us is gonna walk away from this."

Weir grinned again. "You're a smart man, Johnny. That is why you've survived for so long, of course. But, as you have said so many times, there is always someone faster. Still, I do enjoy our little games so much. I hate to see it end but, end it must. Now, I'm going to have to find someone else to play with." He paused and looked skyward for a fraction. "Perhaps Scott would like to play with me. Of course, it won't be nearly as much fun."

Val and Scott slowed down as they turned the corner and saw Johnny and Weir in the street. Val grabbed Scott's arm. "Nothin we can do now."

Scott frowned deeply and, hating it, nodded his head. "I know. One of these days, Val, they'll make it illegal to gunfight in the street."

Val rolled his eyes. "Yeah, when I'm too old to give a damn anymore." He moved onto the street, leaning against a hitching post as Scott joined him.

Quinn caught up to them and stared down the street. "Who is he?"

"One bad hombre, Quinn. It's a long story and we ain't got time right now," Val said with some venom.

"Why aren't you doing anything, Sheriff? Can't you stop this?"

Val looked at the rancher but he didn't get a chance to answer as Scott spoke up.

"If we interfere now, it could distract Johnny and, that could be deadly for my brother."

Quinn stared at him then looked back at the scene being played out on the street. He never had understood gunfighting and never thought much of Johnny Madrid coming to this valley. Now, he was torn between hoping Johnny killed this man and wanting to kill the stranger himself. He understood all too well though, he was ill equipped to handle this odd looking man. All he could do was wait like the others and listen to this strange conversation.

*****

"You might be bitin off a lot there, Weir. Scott's smarter than either of us."


"Really? Then why didn't he know it was me all along?" He laughed heartily. "When will you learn, Johnny Madrid? You can't stop me."

Johnny lost his sense of humor, his eyes growing cold as he stared at the man. "How about right now," he said even as he drew and fired.

Weir reacted, drawing and firing almost simultaneously.

Scott moved as soon as Johnny did and ran toward the two men, Val at his side and moving past him when he stopped beside Johnny. He knelt down and closed his eyes for a second before touching his brother's shoulder. "Johnny?"

Slowly, he focused his eyes and looked up at the man hovering over him. "Christ! My leg gave out on me. Is the bastard dead?"

Scott fell onto his backside beside his brother and let out a harsh breath before looking down the street.

Val pulled the gun from Weir's hand as he knelt on one knee beside the man.

"Sheriff Crawford," Weir grunted. "So nice to see you again. I'm glad to see you survived that rather fortuitous lightning strike."

Val shook his head. "Might've been for you. I didn't much like it. I'd ask if ya wanted a priest but I think I'd get struck again."

Weir laughed, then coughed as he choked on the blood in his throat. "Most likely, Sheriff, most likely," he gurgled out.

"You never quit, do ya?"

"No, I don't. I am, I must say ..." he paused several seconds to breathe, "I'm shocked at the outcome. I always knew I was faster than Madrid."

Val snorted at that. "Reckon ya don't know everything after all, Weir. I saw the whole thing. You never came close."

Weir ignored that and raised his head, trying to look down the street but he couldn't manage it. "Did I hit him?"

Val didn't want to answer that, didn't know how bad off Johnny was and, besides, he didn't want to give Weir the satisfaction. Then, he saw a shadow fall over him.

"Nope, you missed, Weir. My leg gave out on me is all. Since you ordered the shootin that caused that, I guess somehow you're responsible." Johnny knelt in the dirt beside the man, his eyes devoid of any emotion.

"That's very generous of you, Johnny Madrid." Weir sucked in a breath and paled even more.

Johnny shook his head as he rested his forearm on his thigh. "It's Lancer, you miserable son of a bitch." He leaned down closer to whisper. "Save me a spot in Hell."

Weir looked up at him, his eyes gleaming as he nodded then, he closed his eyes and sighed out for the last time.

Val checked for a pulse and was relieved to find none. "About damn time. Man takes forever to die."

*****

Scott watched his father closely as they stood at the graveside. Johnny was standing on the other side of their father and, he knew, was keeping a close eye as well. Neither thought it was a good idea for him to be here. Sam had ranted and raved but, there was no stopping the big Scot. He'd hear nothing more about it. He was going, period. And, here they were.

Scott looked over at Quinn, his heart going out to the man who stood stoically as people walked past in a parade to offer their sympathy and unasked for advise. Quinn took it all well, which surprised Scott a little, frankly. The man was a bear on a good day. He could only surmise Quinn was as devastated as he should be, too much so to balk at the mourners telling him time would heal.

Murdoch waited until everyone had approached Quinn before starting over to the man. He felt a hand on his arm and looked down at his dark-haired son, smiling briefly at the concern but, shaking off the hand all the same. He saw the sharp look Johnny gave him and ignored it as he slowly made his way to Reginald Quinn. Extending his hand, he knew Quinn hadn't a clue who stood before him.

"Maybe, we could stop all this fighting now."

Quinn looked up quickly, surprised at who was before him. "We'll talk soon, Lancer. Just not now."

"Of course," Murdoch nodded then moved away.

Quinn glared at Johnny when he offered his hand and, he knew the man blamed him for all of this. Well, that talk was going to include him, he thought as he dropped his hand and moved away.

Scott watched it all and, though he knew the man was grieving, he simply walked past without making the effort to shake hands. He took exception to the slight to his brother and he had no give for a man who couldn't see his own part in this tragedy. Besides, he wanted to get to Murdoch. If he faltered, it would take both he and Johnny to manage the man.

"Bed, no arguments," Johnny said as he drove the surrey toward Lancer.

Murdoch's mouth quirked. "Are you talking to me, son?"

"I am."

"Same goes for you."

Johnny's eyes flickered sideways. "Yeah."

Scott smiled at them. Since the gunfight with Weir, Johnny's infected leg had worsened for a few days, causing a high fever and more worry for he and Murdoch. He'd been put to bed as soon as they got Murdoch home for he adamantly refused until that happened. He still had a slight fever but, as he'd said, if Murdoch was going to the funeral, so was he. And Scott was left with two stubborn mules. Still, Johnny had fared better than Murdoch who was looking rather pale at the moment. Scott himself had, thankfully, had no ill effects from his head wound which he found to be a minor miracle. He did have a not so lovely scar but his hair covered it for the most part and, it was still not completely healed, still puckered a bit.

All in all, they'd been lucky. Luckier than Quinn, anyway. He thought briefly of broaching that subject then negated the idea. Later.

*****

A week later, Murdoch and Johnny were both out and about, both still on restriction but, at least they were out of the house. This day, they watched Scott breaking horses. Murdoch's knuckles were white as he grasped the corral fence. Johnny leaned casually against the fencing but, inwardly, his guts were in knots. He kept silently instructing Scott which was loco since the man couldn't hear him.

"He's doin great, Murdoch. He's doing everything exactly how I showed him."

"Yes, he's only hit the ground a few times," the rancher shot back.

Johnny laughed lightly. "I do that all the time. He has to learn sometime."

"I know, Johnny," he sighed. "It's just ..."

Johnny bowed his head and toed the ground with his boot. "He ain't gonna break. I know you'd rather he be doin the books or somethin."

Murdoch frowned and turned to his son. "I didn't mean that at all."

Looking up quickly, Johnny cocked his head to one side. "I thought you didn't think he could do it because he's a cityslicker. Or, he was one."

Raising his brows, Murdoch smiled. "I'm well aware your brother is most capable. But, it hasn't been that long since he was shot. I know, he's all better now." He smirked at that last. "It's just a father thing, Johnny. Watching your son do something dangerous the first time ... or the hundredth. It's never easy. You wouldn't know this but, I can hardly stand to watch you do this either. As proud as I am of your abilities, both of you, that doesn't make it any easier on me."

Johnny smiled brightly at that little gem of information then, turned his head when he heard the shouting of the vaqueros. Scott was no longer being bucked around like a rag doll. He was working the reins on the now settled horse. "Whooeee, Boston! Good job!"

Scott was grinning ear to ear as he motioned for the handler to come in. He dismounted and handed off the reins then walked over to his family.

"Good job, son," Murdoch said as Scott stepped through the rails.

Johnny grabbed him around the neck and pulled him in. "You're an old pro now, brother."

Scott worked free of his brother's hold and slapped him on the back. "Thank you, both of you. I must say, that's the hardest thing I've ever done." His smile faded as he noticed a rider coming down the road. "Well, I'm surprised he actually came."

Murdoch turned to see Reginald Quinn riding toward them.

Quinn's face was grim as he dismounted and faced the Lancers. Murdoch approached him as the brothers hung back.

"Welcome to Lancer."

Quinn nodded once and accepted the proferred handshake. "I thought it was time we talked since it no longer matters."

Murdoch looked puzzled but, he swung a hand out and toward the house. "Let's go inside, then."

Inside the house, Murdoch offered the man a drink as Scott and Johnny walked in. Quinn frowned at their presence. "I would prefer this be a private conversation, Lancer."

"We've all been affected by this, Mr. Quinn. I think Johnny and I have a right to hear what you have to say and, I think you need to hear what we have to say, as well. Especially, about Weir."

Quinn sat forward in the chair. "It wasn't easy for me to come here, Scott. I don't want to hear about some vendetta that man had against your brother."

"The vendetta was against this family. Yes, his main focus was Johnny but, had it not been for the feud between us, he would never have involved you," Murdoch explained rather firmly as he handed off the whiskey. "If you want to blame someone, you could start there and tell me what it is you think I've done to you."

"Think? I don't think it, I know it." Quinn stood and paced the living room, his agitation felt by all.

Johnny sat on the arm of the sofa and sighed lightly. "Why don't we just start with what you have to say and take one thing at a time."

Quinn stopped and turned to face them all. Taking a long drink of liquor, he nodded then, frowned in thought. "Is Teresa here? She shouldn't hear this."

Surprised, Murdoch shrugged. "She's in the kitchen. Why shouldn't she hear it?"

"Because, it involves her to a degree. It's about my Rebecca." His voice faltered at the mention of his daughter's name and he cleared his throat. "About Rebecca and her mother, Angel."

*****

Dead silence filled the room as each Lancer gawked openly at Quinn. No one seemed able to move for several beats. Finally, Murdoch shook his head hard to clear it and spoke in a hushed tone. "Angel? Angel Day?"

Quinn looked sourly at him, anger reddening his neck. "Don't pretend to be affronted, Lancer. Don't pretend you didn't know!"

Murdoch came to his feet, his fists clenched at his sides. "I didn't know and I'm not sure you aren't completely mad, Quinn! There's no way ..."

"Murdoch!" Scott finally came to his senses and realized his father's voice was growing in volume, loud enough to be heard throughout the house if he didn't rein it in. Scott nodded toward the kitchen and reminded his father with one word, "Teresa."

Aggravated at the interruption then grateful for it, he simple gave his son a curt nod and lowered his voice. "Explain, Quinn. How could Angel have given birth and Paul not know about it?"

Quinn stared at him, perplexed by the seemingly genuine outrage the man exhibited. "He

*****
did
*****
know. She left before she started showing but, O'Brien knew she was with child. He knew it wasn't his, too."

Murdoch fell back into his chair and stared at the man, simply stunned. "He never said a word."

"Who the hell could blame him?" Johnny shot, coming to his own feet and walking around the back of the sofa. He put his hands on the cushions and leaned forward. "So, you're mad at Murdoch for what, exactly, Quinn? You bed another man's wife, knock her up and you got the cajones to blame my father? What the hell is wrong with you?"

"I don't blame him for that! Angel and I were in love but, because of O'Brien and Lancer, she couldn't stay with me. She had to leave town in disgrace. I caught up with her right before she delivered Rebecca two months early." He stopped and took a breath, the memory of that night clear in his mind. "She was so small, so incredibly small. We weren't sure she'd survive. And Angel almost didn't survive. It took two months for them both to recover. Rebecca was still too tiny but, the doctor said she was making good progress. Angel was to come home with me. We were going to be a family."

"Let me guess. She told you to take the baby and go on ahead and she'd join you only, she never showed up?" Scott asked, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

Quinn dropped his head and nodded. "I tried to find her but, I had an infant to care for and I couldn't leave her for long periods."

"You are a fool, Quinn," Murdoch said.

"She was afraid of O'Brien and you. She said you'd never leave us in peace. Then later, I find out O'Brien told his daughter her mother had died. Put up a headstone."

"She was dead in his eyes. I knew she left him but, I had no idea it was because of another man. I thought she was dead set on her 'career'. That's what Paul told me."

"I don't blame him. What man would want to ..." Johnny bit his lip then lowered his eyes, unwilling to finish his thought. He briefly wondered if Angel Day was related to his mother. Shaking his head, he looked back at Quinn, carefully avoiding his father's eyes. "You think you would've been any different if the tables were turned, Quinn? You think you'd want your little girl to know her mama was beddin every man she came across? What makes you think Paul would ever want Teresa to find out somethin like that? It would've broken that girl's heart. Better she think her mama was dead than a whore."

Quinn advanced on Johnny who stood up straight just waiting for him. But, Scott stepped in Quinn's path, a breath away from the man. "He's right and you know it. What I want to know is why you would blame Murdoch? Even if he had known, it's not his doing. You and Angel made your bed."

Quinn took one step back, fists still clenched at his sides. "Because! He helped O'Brien run her off and he could have told me she came back! I didn't know until after she was gone again."

"Well, it wouldn't have done you any good. She already had another husband," Johnny shot.

Quinn just stared at him, pain in his eyes at the news.

"It seems you've been living your life on half-truths and gossip, Quinn. You'd rather believe something you heard from an outsider than bother to come to me and simply ask. If I'd known any of this, it would have made a huge difference. The saddest, most pathetic part of all of this is, Teresa had a half-sister and she never knew her. Now, she never will."

Murdoch's voice was soft and the full impact of his words hit Johnny and Scott hard. In turn, they looked at each other, wondering the same thing. What if it had been too late for them? And, would they want to know now, after it was too late? Would Teresa? Should she?

"I only wanted to see her, talk to her. Ask her why she abandoned her child."

"Same reason she abandoned the first one. She never wanted to be a mother," Johnny said. Then, he looked closely at Quinn. "You're still in love with her."

Quinn turned his back on them and walked over near the hearth.

"Is there anything else we need to know, Quinn? Please say no," Murdoch asked, tiredly.

"I want to know about that man, Weir."

"I doubt that."

He turned and looked at Johnny flatly. "I have a right to know about the man who had my daughter killed."

"It won't make you feel a bit better, Quinn. He was pure evil. He liked to make people think he was the devil or somethin. Went to a lot of trouble over it, in fact. And, yes, he wanted to face me but he wanted to play his games more. From the time I first met him, he tried to push at me, play with my head. When it didn't work, he went to playin with taking Lancer, shootin up my family. He found out about how much you hate Murdoch. He didn't know why but, if he had, I don't want to think what he would've done with that."

"He probably would have kidnapped Teresa and Rebecca, for starters," Scott surmised. "The point is, none of this is Johnny's doing. Weir was always intent on drawing him out no matter how he had to do it. You made it easier for him when you decided to increase your aggression toward this ranch. It's a miracle more people didn't die."

"So, it's my fault. Is that what you're saying?"

Scott shook his head. "No, Sir. It's Weir's fault."

Murdoch stood up and walked over to Quinn. "Scott's right. That man was a menace. The last time he was here, he was sentenced to hang. I'm surprised you didn't hear about it."

Quinn glanced up at him. "I've made it clear to everyone who works for me to never mention the name Lancer unless I bring it up first. I'm sure my men knew about it."

Shaking his head sadly, Murdoch studied the man before him. "I am terribly sorry about Rebecca but, I see nothing I can do for you now. Maybe, if you'd come to me, talked to me before this got so out of control ... I just don't know."

Inhaling deeply, Quinn squared his shoulders. "I have a lot to think about. If you'll excuse me, I'll be going now." He gave Murdoch a quick bow of the head and headed for the front door. When he came to the sofa, he stopped and turned to Johnny. Opening his mouth then, closing it again, he shook his head and walked out the door.

*****

Each of the three men blew out a breath and found a seat. They all stared at the floor for long moments.

"Are you going to tell her?" Scott finally asked.

Murdoch blinked and looked at his son. "I promised her when Angel came back there would be no more secrets. It will hurt but, she has the right to know."

Scott nodded then looked at his brother who was watching him. They smiled weakly at each other knowing Murdoch was right. Their own answers found in that one look. Yes, they'd want to know they had a brother even if there was no chance of knowing him.

All three men turned in their seats as they heard a soft noise from the dining room. Murdoch closed his eyes briefly then stood and walked to the corner where Teresa stood, head bowed and a lace handkerchief pressed to her mouth. He immediately took her in his arms and she fell apart, sobbing loudly.

Murdoch guided her into the room and Scott and Johnny stood from the sofa to make a space. Easing the girl down beside him, Murdoch pulled her into his chest as she continued to sob. All he could do was hold her until she could stop.

Johnny looked miserably at his brother who looked completely lost. The sounds from Teresa were foreign to their experience with the girl. They'd seen her cry a few times but, usually, she was quiet about it, tried to be strong even as tears rolled down her cheeks. She'd never cried aloud like this and neither of them knew what the hell to do so, they just stood there.

Eventually, her sobs eased into sniffles and hitched breaths and then, she pulled away from Murdoch a little, wiping her eyes. Scott's senses returned and he offered her his clean handkerchief wordlessly. She took it and blew her nose but, she never looked at him or anyone else.

Murdoch waited a while longer before speaking. "How much did you hear?"

Teresa shook her head and looked at him, the tears building again. "All of it. Every word out of that awful man's mouth! How could he do that, Murdoch? How could he keep my sister away from me?" She buried her head in his chest again, ranting in a muffled voice, "I never even knew her. I only talked to her a couple of times. He wouldn't even let me talk to her!"

Johnny and Scott both knelt in front of Murdoch and Teresa. Scott put a hand on her shoulder and felt her tense so, he let it slide away. "We're so sorry, honey."

She jerked upright and looked to him, then Johnny before her eyes settled on Murdoch. "You should have beaten him down, made him suffer!"

Surprised, Murdoch stared at her for a beat before replying. "I think he has suffered, Teresa. He's lost his daughter."

The anger slid off her face as she dropped her eyes and swallowed hard. In a whisper, she said, "yes, you're right. I just wish ..."

Johnny reached out and took her small hand. "I know it's hard, honey. You have every right to be mad and hurt and it's alright that you want Quinn to pay. Just remember one thing." He stopped and looked at the other men in turn, "You always have us."

*****

For three days, Teresa spent most of her time alone. She visited Rebecca's grave every day and laid fresh flowers by the headstone. The Lancers watched her closely but didn't crowd her. One of them would always check in on her at some point during the day and they all knew where she went every morning after they went off to work. One of them would always follow a respectable distance behind, making sure she was safe. If she knew they did this, she gave no sign but, each of them suspected she was aware of their presence several yards from the gravesite.

On the third day, she sat on the grass beside her sister just staring at nothing and imagining what it would have been like to share their lives. She had nothing to measure it against. Johnny and Scott's relationship didn't help because she knew, it wouldn't be the same for two girls. Her head came up as she heard a rider approaching and wondered why they'd decided to show themselves this day. She was well aware they watched her and it was heartwarming to know.

She turned at the waist and put her hand up to shield her eyes from the sun. When she saw who the visitor was, she came quickly to her feet, anger rushing into her cheeks.

Quinn dismounted by a small bush and tied off his mount before walking over, removing his hat as he did. "What are you doing here, girl?"

"What am I doing here? What do you think? I'm visiting my sister. I'm trying to think what it would have been like to grow up with her or, at least know her. The secrets we could have shared, the fun we could have if only you weren't such a ..." She stopped and bit her lip and she saw him grow pale.

Quinn lowered his head, a sigh heard escaping his lips. "Yes, of course. Perhaps I should have confronted Lancer years ago. I just didn't want to give him any access to Rebecca. I didn't want him spinning some tale about how things had been. And, perhaps, I didn't want her to know you. I thought you'd be just like your father."

Jutting out her chin, Teresa proclaimed, "I am just like my father. A good person. An honest person. Not someone who would take what belongs to someone else then have the nerve to act like the victim!"

*****

Johnny stood beside a tree, trying to decide if he should go over there. He could hear some of what they were saying, well, what Teresa was saying when her voice got loud. She was holding her own and Quinn didn't look like he was going to get too close. If he did, Johnny would move. For now, she was doing alright. For now. She wasn't crying and she looked thoroughly pissed. He smiled a fraction. She was a force to be reckoned with when she was of a mind to be. Looked to him like she was of a mind right now.

*****

"I loved your mother, Teresa."

"So did my father. You had no right to come between a man and his wife. No right at all. Oh, I know Angel now. I know she never wanted to be a mother. She wouldn't have stayed with you, you know. Even if you'd convinced her to live with you, she never would have stayed long. She would have left you just like she left us. You didn't lose anything back then, Mr. Quinn. You gained a daughter." Tears sprung into her eyes and she turned away from him.

He turned aside and looked out over the land, a distant quality to his gaze as he remembered. "She was so tiny when she was born. I couldn't believe how small she was. How could something so frail live? But, she did live. That's why she was a little slow, the doctors said. Because she was born too soon. It was a miracle, they said, that she'd progressed as well as she had. But, I always knew she'd never have a normal life. I didn't care about that. I just wanted her with me. I just wanted her to be happy."

Teresa wiped her eyes and looked back at him. "Was she? Was she happy?"

He glanced at her and nodded. "For the most part, yes. But, she was just starting to notice young men and that frightened me." He let out a small laugh. "I suppose it wouldn't matter if she were perfectly normal, I still would have worried over that."

She grimaced, remembering the stranger who'd tried to take advantage. There was no reason to tell Quinn about that now. Then, she recalled how the girl had made moon eyes when asking after Johnny and how she'd reacted when he'd showed up and gotten her to leave. A small smile crossed her lips. "You'll hate this but, I think she had a crush on Johnny."

His head snapped up and he looked incredulously at her. "You aren't serious?"

"I'm afraid so. That's what she asked me at the picnic that day. If he was there."

His face reddened a bit at that. "I do apologize for treating you so shamefully, Teresa. I had no right to speak to you that way. I suppose I've let my anger and bitterness rule me for so long, I don't quite know how to make it stop even now." He hesitated a moment. "Did he know?"

She smiled a little. "Johnny? I'm not sure. I said something about it later, on the way home and, he didn't seem surprised. He never would have taken advantage of her."

Quinn gave her a woeful look.

Once more, her chin came up. "He wouldn't have. You don't even know him. A man's reputation doesn't speak of the man. Until you've spent time with someone, you can't really know them."

Quinn put a hand up in surrender. "Yes, you're right. I've spent many years believing wrongly about Murdoch Lancer. I refused to hear a good word about the man. After thinking about it, I realize that meant I didn't want to even hear his name mentioned. And believe me, I've done little else but think of all that's happened recently and over the years."

She looked sidelong at him. "So now, you understand Murdoch didn't know anything about any of this?"

"Yes, I do. That doesn't mean he and I will become best friends but, I have no ill feelings toward your family." He almost smiled. "Not even Johnny."

She did smile and even laughed softly before growing serious again. "You don't have to be friends as long as you aren't enemies any more. All any of us wants is peace."

Quinn nodded his head then donned his hat. "That I can do, young lady. I'll leave you to your visit. Good day."

*****

Teresa watched him ride away and, as he disappeared over a hill, she heard someone behind her and turned.

"You okay?" Johnny asked.

"Yes, I think so. He was ... pleasant, I guess you could call it."

Johnny looked toward the Quinn ranch though he could see nothing of it. "That's a good start."

"He doesn't want to fight anymore. I told him we just wanted peace and he said he could do that."

He looked down at her and smiled then dropped Barranca's reins and walked over, putting an arm around her shoulders. Teresa wrapped her arms around his waist and hugged him tightly.

"It's so strange to miss someone you barely knew. I just feel like I've lost a part of me."

He closed his eyes as he rested his chin on her head. "Yeah, I know that feeling. I've been thinking about how I would've felt if Scott had told that Pink to go to hell. Knowing I had a brother out there and never even meeting him; I think that would be hard to deal with."

Teresa pulled away and kissed his cheek. "You would have found a way to meet him, Johnny."

"You think?"

"I know. You're too stubborn not to. Scott's the same way."

Johnny smiled a little then wandered off a few paces. "Maybe. Anyway, we're all pretty worried about you." He turned back to look at her.

"I know and I know you've been following me out here. I don't mind. It's nice to know how much you all care. I just ... I'm not sure what to do with all of this." She sighed out and wrapped her arms around her abdomen.

"Feel it then tuck it away, Teresa."

She looked up at him, her head cocked to one side. "Is that what you do?" When he nodded, she went on. "Is it so easy to tuck away what Weir put you through?"

He lowered his head and shook it slowly back and forth. "He put us all through a lot and I'm not a bit sorry he's dead. Not sorry I'm the one that killed him, either. The man was evil, is all." He looked back at her, his face dead serious. "If that makes me a bad person ..."

"It doesn't," she interrupted. "He never would have stopped, Johnny. You had to kill him. Everyone knows that. I think everyone is resting a lot easier knowing he'll never come after this family again."

His shoulders relaxed and he looked over at the grave. "Well, now that you've talked to Quinn, I guess I can leave you be here."

"I'm ready to go home. I can't keep wondering 'what if' or I'll just make myself crazy."

"Yeah, I know what that's like, too."

She smiled and walked over, hugging him tightly. "I know you do. I'm very lucky to have you all. I know how blessed I am and I should just be grateful for all I have." Releasing him, she looked into his eyes. "And I am, very grateful. Let's go home."

He nodded and walked her to her horse, putting his hands on her waist and giving her a hand up. "Home. It's about the best word there is."

She laughed lightly. "It's in my top three."

Johnny patted the mare's neck as he looked up at the girl with a smile. "Yeah? What are your other two?"

She shrugged. "Family and love."

Johnny bowed his head for a second before looking back at her. "Yeah, that sounds right."

"Come on, I'll race you."

Almost before he could step back, Teresa took off at a gallop. Johnny watched her for a second before grinning widely and running for Barranca. He sailed into the saddle and took off after her, knowing she was going to be just fine.

 

 

~end~
2009

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