The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Scorned

 

 

 

"How many people are coming?" Johnny asked again.

With a patient smile, Scott replied, "Oh, I think it was twelve at last count."

Johnny sighed loudly. "Twelve. Twelve total strangers wanderin around our house for a week. I just don't get it."

"Johnny, it just makes things easier. Murdoch thinks it's too time consuming for everyone to travel back and forth from town every day. We're having meetings almost daily during the Cattlemen's convention. Besides, we have the room," Scott reasoned out once more.

"Yeah, yeah, I know. And his oldest friend since he's been in California is coming," Johnny's tone was one of boredom.

"Exactly. Someone he hasn't seen for almost twenty-five years."

"And someone who saved his life," Johnny finished sounding like someone reciting a story he'd heard a million times.

Once more, Scott gave a sympathetic smile and threw an arm around Johnny. "Well, look at it this way, Brother. You don't have to go to some big city and dress up to go to fancy restaurants for two weeks."

Johnny smiled at last. "There is that. Okay, I'll be good."

"How about trying to be charming and sociable?" Scott cocked a brow.

Johnny reciprocated the look. "Charming is easy but don't get carried away."

The brothers shared a laugh and went about their work. Inside, Johnny's gut was still in knots. He was never crazy about crowds, dreaded parties and now this. Actually having to play host to a bunch of cattlemen; most of whom he had never met.

The only saving grace was Murdoch's excitement. It tickled him to watch his father's enthusiasm as he anticipated not only hosting the annual association meeting, but seeing his old friend again.

Otherwise, he would have told the old man to give it a rest weeks ago. He could tell the story ver batim by now. How Buchanan had been his first neighbor. How, though he was only a little older, Buchanan was well established out here. How he had helped Murdoch so much, giving him advice about land purchases, crossbreeding and how to get the most out of his investments. And then the coupe de gras; how Buchanan had saved Murdoch's life when the last vestiges of the Miwok in this area had made a desperate attack, trying to drive the whites out.

Evidently, the Miwok had no problem with the Mexicans who'd inhabited the area forever. That was the part of the story that bothered Johnny for some reason but he hadn't been interested enough to ask for details.

Not that he wasn't grateful to this Buchanan for saving the old man, he just didn't buy that part of it. Shrugging the thoughts off as inconsequential, he focused his attention on the dry creek bed in front of him.

*****

Monday morning began normally. That was the extent of anything near normal for a good long while as the first guests began arriving. Johnny and Scott met ten men within three hours and Johnny knew he'd never remember any of their names.

He stood slightly behind his brother as they moved through the crowd gathered outside for a lunch barbeque, amused as Scott greeted each one by name. He shook his head more than once at his brother's manners and grace. The way Scott could converse with each one so easily fascinated him and he spent more time studying his brother than paying attention to the inane conversation.

The rest of his time was spent watching Murdoch crane his neck every five seconds toward the road. Johnny smiled, knowing the old man was anxiously awaiting the arrival of his old friend. Buchanan was the only one still unaccounted for as the eleventh guest had arrived only moments ago.

After an hour of smiling and nodding, Johnny decided no one would notice if he slipped away for a little while. He whispered in his brother's ear then disappeared before Scott could even turn around to stop him.

Stealthily, he made his way inside and up to his room, closing the door and leaning heavily against it with a relieved sigh. He hoped the old man hadn't noticed.

*****

Tom Buchanan handled the reins of the buggy loosely. His thoughts went back twenty-five years to when he'd lived in this valley. A smile came to his face remembering his good friend, Murdoch Lancer.

Murdoch had been so eager to begin building an empire in the war-torn land so recently won by the United States. He had to pat his own back for helping Murdoch gain the first parcel. It hadn't been all that easy, either.

The Mexicans were stubborn by nature. Even though they'd lost the war, they still insisted on fighting the battles. But, he wasn't about to let that stop him. His new friend; the first white man after him to settle in the valley; wanted that land and Tom Buchanan made sure he'd gotten it.

Shaking his head at the audacity of that Mex, he chuckled as he recalled how he'd cleared the way for Murdoch to buy the ranch. Well, so much for stubborn.  Didn't mean much from the grave.

Now, all these years later, he was going to see the full rewards of that effort. He'd been so pleased to hear Murdoch's boys were home. He'd kept in touch over the years and had offered his services when Murdoch was searching for the younger one. His old friend never wrote many specifics about his second wife and what she'd done. Tom figured Murdoch should've taken him up on the offer.

One thing about the Scot, he was a little too worried about the law and justice. Tom would have found the slut in no time. Would have made sure she never bothered Murdoch again and he would have had his boy all these years.

The news had been surprising, too. The now grown men had accepted their father, it seemed. It had been easy to read the joy in Murdoch's letters and Tom was truly happy for him.

A smile spread wide on his aging and craggy face as the arch came into view and he slapped the reins a bit to hurry his way along.

*****

Johnny sat by his bedroom window, just out of sight, and watched the goings on with some amusement.

The old man was really enjoying himself. Every now and then, he'd see Scott looking around and he chuckled, knowing his brother was looking for him.

His eyes went to the road as a surrey made it's way toward the house. He figured this had to be the one and only Tom Buchanan. He leaned forward, settling his forearms on the sill and resting his chin on them.

Murdoch turned at the sound, excusing himself quickly from the men he'd been talking with. Walking with a quick pace, he maneuvered through the crowd to the front yard and waited.

Scott saw his father and the latest arrival and waded his way to the rancher's side, noting the big grin on   Murdoch's face.

"Is that him?" he asked.

"That's him, son," Murdoch smiled, wrapping an arm around Scott as he awaited the guest.

"Tom Buchanan, you old snake!" Murdoch boomed as he approached the buggy.

Buchanan wrapped the reins round the brake handle and slid out of the buggy, showing himself to be Murdoch's own height.

"Lancer, you old buffalo skinner," he laughed.

The two men shared a quick hug and several pats on the back as they took each other's countenance.

Scott took note of the man, as well. He was as tall as Murdoch with graying hair, though thicker than his father's and bushy gray eyebrows. His face was worn, the sign of a hard working man. A slight pudge could be seen around his middle but that was easily from age and definitely not from inactivity. He had a pleasant smile that softened his rough features. He couldn't be called handsome but he wasn't unattractive either. Scott surmised he was a very tough man.

Taking a step back, Buchanan looked Murdoch square in the eye.

"You got old," he deadpanned.

Murdoch's face fell into a hard line. "The good news is, you'll always be older."

More laughter and pats on the back followed until Murdoch remembered his son.

"Tom, this is..."

"Ah! You don't have to tell me. This is Scott," he smiled.

"Yes, Sir," Scott extended a hand.

Buchanan slapped it away and gave the younger man a bear hug that Scott was sure would crack a few ribs.

"I'd know you anywhere, son. You're mother was a precious but confused flower," he said with a mixture of a smile and frown on his face.

Once he got his breath back, Scott asked, "confused?"

"What other explanation is there for her marrying this old derelict! The shame of it was, even after she met me she insisted on staying with the old goat!"

"Catherine had good taste, Tom. You're the confused one," Murdoch shot back.

Looking back and forth between the two older men and not quite sure how much either was joking, all Scott could think to say was, "I take it you knew her."

"I did, son. I did. She was an angel. In all seriousness, a remarkable woman," Tom replied, his expression indeed becoming serious as he placed a hand on Scott's shoulder. "You're the spitting image of her."

"Thank you, Sir," Scott smiled. As always, he felt uncomfortable when the subject of his mother came up. Having not known her at all, he felt at a disadvantage.

Buchanan scanned the area. "Good turn out. So, where's the other boy?"

"Ummm, he's around here somewhere," Scott covered.

"I'm sure we'll run across him soon. It's almost time to eat," Murdoch joked and grabbed his friend around the shoulders, leading him into the throng.

*****

Johnny watched the interaction though he couldn't hear what was said. He laughed when he witnessed the bear hug his brother received. He could just imagine the look on Scott's face. He didn't miss Scott's searching eyes either. He figured he'd let his brother off the hook pretty soon but, not quite yet.

With a soft chuckle, Johnny reckoned he could be pretty evil sometimes. Even though it was all in fun, somehow he didn't think Scott would see it that way.

He leaned back, resting his head on the cushion of his chair and closed his eyes. Just a little longer and he'd head down. Murdoch would skin him alive if he didn't show his face soon. He figured he'd just rest his eyes for a few minutes, is all.

*****

Johnny's eyes flew open and he sat up straight with a start. Looking around a bit dazed at first, he rubbed his face. Pulling out his timepiece, he sighed.

What was supposed to be a few minutes had turned into nearly an hour. He'd fallen asleep! Murdoch's gonna kill me, was his first thought.

Quickly, he rose and splashed cold water on his face, ran a hand through his hair and left his room. He figured his best bet was to sneak out through the kitchen. Maybe he could get away with it. Maybe Murdoch would think he had simply been lost in the milling guests. He knew that was improbable but he was willing to take the slight chance. It was a sight better than getting â€úthe look” from the old man.

With a bit of a sly grin, he walked into the kitchen only to be promptly put out by Maria. Chattering at him in rapid Spanish, she booted him out the back door amid his near groveling apologies.

She wasn't fooled and knew he was not sincere. Had she not so much love for him, she would have made him a new hat from the broom she'd grabbed to swat his backside.

Johnny closed the door still laughing at her antics. When he turned, he came face to chest with an imposing figure.

*****

Johnny's eyes made their way up to the stranger's face; the grin leaving quickly at the look he found awaiting him.

"I'm quite sure Mr. Lancer would not condone his hands sneaking around the kitchen, begging for scraps," the man spoke authoritatively.

Johnny took a step back, his eyes hardening. "Do't be so sure about that, mister," came the icy reply.

The large jaw tightened perceptibly. "I'm very sure he would not approve. Especially when he has guests and especially some low-life, half-breed. Do you even work here?"

Johnny had heard the name before so many times. Why it shocked him so much coming from this mountain of a man, he couldn't say. He opened his mouth to spew forth some rather choice words but he never got the chance.

"Johnny! Where have you been, son? You missed lunch," Murdoch called from behind him. "I see you've finally met Tom" The rancher smiled as he clamped a hand on his younger son's shoulder. He felt the tension in that shoulder and frowned. "Something wrong?"

Buchanan overcame his surprise nicely. "I'm afraid I made a mistake. I thought this young man was taking advantage of his employer's good will. I saw him coming out of the kitchen. Sorry, I didn't realize who you were"

Johnny had to hand it to him. He was a good liar. Remembering his father's affection for this man, he forced a smile. "No problem."

Murdoch smiled and patted Johnny's shoulder. "Well, no harm done. Why don't you get something to eat, son?"

"Sure,"Johnny mumbled, grateful to get away so easily.

Tuesday morning Johnny arose early and grabbed some leftovers, wrapping them in a cloth and making his way out to the barn. He wanted to get away before the ranchers started the day.

The meetings today did not require his presence so he was more than happy to get to work. As he saddled his horse, he thought about Buchanan's words to him. How Murdoch could be friends with that man was beyond him. Was it possible his father didn't know Buchanan was a bigot?

He supposed so. The man sure had covered himself easily yesterday. Johnny had stayed clear of him the rest of the day and evening, which wasn't difficult. Still, it bothered him beyond measure. And he was just as perplexed by his own reaction to the words.

Normally, his reaction would have been one of two things. Either, he'd stare the man down or knock the hell out of him. Shaking his head, he thought, make that three. Sometimes, especially as he'd grown older, he would simply walk away.

Once he tightened the cinch one more time for good measure, he rested his hands on the saddle and leaned a little into Barranca. Why had it shocked him so? He didn't know and he wasn't sure it mattered but it bothered him. He knew it would be on his mind all day and that just put him in a bad mood.

As he led Barranca out of the barn, he saw Buchanan walking toward him. Well, here we go. I guess he's gonna apologize now, he thought. So, he stopped and waited for the man to approach. He seemed taller than Murdoch though Johnny didn't think he really was.

"Mornin," he greeted flatly.

Buchanan nodded at the greeting. He stood with hands on hips and studied Johnny for a long moment. Long enough to irk the younger man.

"You got somethin to say, Mr. Buchanan? Otherwise, I have work to do," he spoke softly though one could hardly say there was any respect in his tone.

Buchanan sighed and turned to his left. "Yes, I do have something to say, Johnny. You won't like it, though."

Johnny's entire body went on alert and he readied himself for who knew what. "Go on."

Buchanan turned to face him again. "Murdoch wrote me about your mother leaving and how he'd searched for you all those years. We've managed to keep in touch though it's been hard. I even offered to help any way I could. What he didn't tell me was that she was Mexican."

Johnny shifted his weight to his left foot, reins dangling from that hand and cocked his head a bit. "Is that right?"

Buchanan crossed his arms over his massive chest. "Yes, that's right. In fact, he never really told me any specifics about you. I guess it just didn't occur to him. Last night we had a long talk about you and Scott."

More tension filled Johnny's body at the mention of his brother but he said nothing.

"I'm a plain spoken man, Madrid, so I'm just gonna say it. You got no business here. You'll bring nothing but trouble and grief to this family. Scott's a good man, an honorable man. You." He stopped here, looking Johnny up and down like something he needed to scrape off his boot.

"You are nothing. I've known Murdoch for a long time, boy. He'd never say it to your face but he feels the same way. You have nothing to offer but labor. That and the chance to get them all killed," he said, tossing his head toward the house.

Johnny felt like he'd been punched in the stomach. More than that, he was just plain irate.

"You think about it and you'll see I'm right. Best thing for you to do is hightail it back to Mexico where you belong."

Johnny dropped his head and nodded it briefly, then locked eyes with Buchanan. "You done?"

"Yes."

"Well, Buchanan, it's like this. I'm not goin anywhere. At least, not on your say so. My family is none of your business. If Murdoch doesn't want me here, he's man enough to tell me to my face." A sardonic smile crossed his lips. "You sure do like to swing your weight around. But you got no weight here. Best thing for you to do is shut your mouth." He ended his sentence with a lower and decidedly deadlier tone.

Both men turned their heads when Scott called out a good morning. Buchanan turned back before Scott could get within earshot.

"If you don't think I have influence with Murdoch then you are sorely mistaken. Before I leave here, you'll be gone," he smiled. Turning, he passed Scott with a pleasant good morning, leaving Johnny staring at his back and ready to explode.

"Morning, Brother. Care to wait for me?" Scott smiled.

Johnny looked up from his study of the ground, his face a mask of indifference. "Catch up with me. I need to take off."

Before Scott could inquire further, Johnny was in the saddle and halfway past the corral. The older man stared quizzically at the disappearing form and shook his head in exasperation.

Johnny waited until he was nearly out of sight before spurring Barranca into a mile-eating gallop. He was so angry he couldn't think and all he wanted was to ride the wind.

Fifteen minutes later, he pulled to a slow canter then slower as he winded Barranca down. He knew he'd ridden the animal hard but the palomino was the finest of stock. He was breathless but Johnny knew he was okay. He led his golden friend to the stream and let him drink before tethering him near the sweet grass.

Johnny walked to the water's edge and sat down, grabbing some nearby pebbles and tossing them carelessly into the water.

Buchanan's words screamed in his mind and he wanted to shoot the bastard. Closing his eyes, he tried to figure things out. Buchanan's words were not new to him. He'd had the same thoughts himself many times since coming home. But his family had made it clear his past was a nonissue.

But was it? Buchanan said he'd talked to Murdoch last night. He was so sure Murdoch wanted Johnny gone. Had the old man said something to his friend in confidence?

Johnny shook his head. No, Murdoch would have told him to his face. Wouldn't he? He slammed the rest of the pebbles in his hand onto the ground beneath his flattened palm. Why was he questioning his father's feelings toward him? They'd been through so much pain, so much trial to get to where they were.

And where they were was a good place now. A very good place. Or so he thought. But if Murdoch had doubts, it was natural he'd confide in a long time friend. Even if that friend was a cretin.

Rubbing his hands together to rid them of dirt, Johnny drew his knees up and rested his forearms on them, letting his hands dangle loosely.

*****

Buchanan smiled to himself over his coffee cup. He'd been sensible and straightforward with the breed. Had kept his own contempt at bay and stated the facts. He could tell his words had gotten through no matter what the boy said. When Murdoch had told him of Johnny's past last night, he'd been dumbstruck.

The Previous Evening:

"Finally! I didn't think those codgers would ever go to bed," Buchanan laughed.

Murdoch chuckled as he poured two glasses of his best Scotch. "They can wag their tongues but they're all good men."

"Yes, they are. So, tell me about Johnny. I've heard all about Scott. What about this one?"

Murdoch sighed a little as he settled into a chair near the fire. A slight smile lit his face. "Johnny. Tom, that boy breaks my heart."

Buchanan leaned forward with this statement. "He giving you trouble?"

"No, no, nothing like that. He's a good boy. Johnny's had a hard life, though. His mother died when he was ten. He's been on his own ever since."

Buchanan frowned and shook his head. "Why didn't he come home?"

Murdoch hesitated then took a long drink. "She told him so many lies, Tom. Told him I threw them both out. That I didn't want him. He's hated me for as long as he's had a memory. Oh, we worked it all through and he knows now it isn't true. Still, that kind of pain doesn't just go away. Johnny and I have had a rough time of it. But things are much better now."

"How did he survive all those years?" Buchanan asked.

Murdoch nodded as he swallowed. "Exactly. Survived. He, um, he was a gunfighter. He used the name Johnny Madrid."

Buchanan fell back into the cushion of the sofa at this information. "Hell, I've heard of him," he said mostly to himself.

"A lot of people have," Murdoch rejoined.

"Murdoch, I don't mean to be .... well, it's just. Hell, man, you know me so I'll just say it. Don't you think having him around here is risky?"

Murdoch's eyes shot up then narrowed. "I've thought about that and there have been a few problems. But, the longer Johnny stays here, the easier it is. People will forget, Tom. Sooner or later, they'll forget."

"I hope they forget before you or Scott end up dead." Raising a quick hand to ward off his friend's anger, Buchanan continued. "Don't tell me you haven't thought about it, old friend."

Murdoch conceded the point. "I have and we've discussed it. Scott was adamant from the start. He isn't about to lose his brother, period. I did have a hard time with it at first, I'll admit."

"Then there's the question of his race, or lack of it," Buchanan said casually.

"There is NO question about that!" Murdoch defended.

"Isn't there? Are you telling me the good people of the San Joaquin have welcomed him with open arms?" Buchanan retorted.

Murdoch dipped his head for a second. "We've lost some business over it. But that is something Johnny will never know," he stated pointedly, refusing to continue until Buchanan nodded his understanding.

"I don't want to do business with people like that anyway. They either accept my son or they lose Lancer business."

Buchanan had to smile at Murdoch's naiveté. "Old friend, you are living in a dream world. I'd be willing to bet you that half the people you do business with have no use for Johnny now. They only keep quiet because they don't want to lose that business."

"Then they're the smart ones. Why are you harping on this?" Murdoch asked suspiciously.

"I'm not harping, Murdoch. I'm just trying to understand how you could do it, is all."

Frowning, Murdoch shook his head slowly. "Do what?"

With a sigh, Buchanan stood up and walked to the sideboard. He picked up the decanter and hoisted it toward Murdoch who waved off a refill. After filling his own glass again, he returned to his seat.

"How you could jeopardize everything you've worked so hard for. This ranch, your family. Why, Murdoch?"

Murdoch stared incredulously at his friend. "What's the alternative? He's my son, Tom. I won't turn my back on him."

"Not even if you lose everything?"

"I haven't lost anything. I've gained more than I ever hoped for. Having my sons home means more to me than anything," Murdoch stated assuredly.

Buchanan shrugged. "I guess since I never had any kids, I can't relate."

"I'll never understand that, either. Why you never married," Murdoch said, an amused look on his face.

"Go ahead and laugh, my friend. But, I'll tell you one thing. I've never had to worry about a woman running off on me in the middle of the night." Buchanan's face dropped. "God, Murdoch, I'm sorry."

Murdoch gave him a weak smile. "It's all right. It is the truth. But, the good far outweighs the bad, Tom."

Back To The Present:

Despite Murdoch's protests, Buchanan had seen something in his friend's face last night. Pain and regret. He was determined to remove those hardships.

*****

"Hey, are you okay?" Scott asked as Johnny arrived at the creek bed.

Swinging out of the saddle and letting Barranca roam free, Johnny smiled a little. "Yeah. Sorry bout that. Sometimes I just feel like I need to take a ride, ya know?"

"Yes, I do know," Scott said as he straightened his back and climbed up the bank. "And it's always when something is bothering you. Did you have words with Mr. Buchanan?"

Johnny looked up. "Why would you ask me that?"

Scott sighed and put his hands on his hips. "Elementary, my dear brother. You were up before the chickens and even before Maria. You were talking to Buchanan this morning and I'd wager you hadn't seen anyone else yet."

Johnny placed his hands on his own hips and cocked his head. "That's pretty good, brother. I guess that education wasn't wasted after all." He grinned and began donning his black work gloves as Scott laughed and turned to sidle back down into the creek bed.

Then he stopped and shook his head. Turning back with a bemused look, Scott waited for Johnny to look up. "You didn't answer my question."

Johnny tugged the second glove satisfyingly over his hand and walked past his brother. "No, I didn't."

Scott hung his head and laughed softly. He did it to me again. Well, he'll talk when he's ready. Johnny time, he thought.

As they worked, Johnny contemplated Buchanan. At lunch, he decided to feel his brother out on the subject.

"What do you think of Buchanan?" he asked point blank.

Scott swallowed the food in his mouth and regarded his brother. "He seems very nice. He was very interested in Boston and the cavalry. Murdoch sure thinks the world of him."

Johnny only nodded.

"Johnny, did something happen this morning?"

He looked up and met Scott's eyes briefly. "No, I was just wondering what you're take on him was. That's all."

And that was all Scott got out of him the rest of the day.

That evening, dinner reminded Johnny of a Kansas whorehouse. Loud, smoky and crowded. The men were raucous but fairly well behaved. Johnny even found himself liking some of them. One in particular had gotten on his good side; a neat trick.

Clive Harper had a perpetual smile on his face and he was a toucher. That part bothered Johnny and Scott, too, for that matter. The man loved to pat you on the back and throw an arm over your shoulder for no reason and with no particular motivation. He was of medium height and rotund with a neat moustache and oily black hair.

Still, he was very affable and Johnny found himself gravitating toward Harper more than any of the others. Only problem was, everyone liked Clive so everyone gravitated toward him. But, Johnny had promised himself he wouldn't hide out this week. A promise he'd already broken on the very first day and was determined not to do again.

So they all found themselves outside in the yard as the evenings were too warm for so many people to be stuck in the living room. Johnny sat on the low wall with Scott leaning against the wall beside him and Clive telling tales that grew by leaps and bounds as the night progressed and the whiskey flowed.

Johnny found his sides hurting from laughing at the man's outrageous stories. More than once he and Scott had shared a nudge in the ribs as they watched Clive get drunk as a skunk.

But, Clive Harper was a smart man, too, and knew when to call it quits. He retired for the evening and the crowd grew substantially more quite.

Johnny noticed Buchanan staring at him several times during the night but he remained undaunted. He even lifted his glass in a toasting motion at the man once adding a grin that would melt butter.

For some reason, Murdoch had noticed that exchange and mistook it as being genuine. He was happy his son was being sociable and that he seemed to like Tom.

Murdoch cleared his throat and asked for everyone's attention. "I hate to be an old sack, gentlemen, but we do have important business to discuss tomorrow. If anyone cares to stay up, please feel free. I, however, am going to bed," he smiled.

The rancher said his goodnights as he weaved through the men, ending up next to his sons. "Goodnight, boys. Remember, I want you both at the meeting tomorrow."

"We'll be there, Sir. Goodnight," Scott smiled.

Johnny smiled charmingly at his father. "Sleep well."

With a quirk of his mouth, Murdoch eyed his younger son. "I will and you do the same," he replied, making his point without saying the words.

The brothers grinned innocently and Murdoch shook his head as he went inside.

*****

Wednesday morning, Johnny didn't bother getting up early. He knew he couldn't avoid the long and boring meetings the day held so he snuggled in and waited for his brother to trounce on him.

It wasn't a terribly long wait, not as long as Johnny would have liked anyway. He heard the door slide open almost silently; heard the soft patter as Scott tried so hard to sneak up on him. He didn't know how he managed to keep for laughing out loud, but he did. And he waited.

Calculating his brother's movements, he rolled over, throwing the blanket off his shoulder to expose his right arm and the Colt that he aimed straight at Scott.

"Johnny!" Scott exclaimed.

Johnny dropped his hand to his side and rolled in the bed, laughing so hard, tears sprung in his eyes. His laughter died down just a little as he noticed the look on his brother's face.

"Oh, come on, Scott. It ain't loaded!" he snorted and began to laugh again.

Scott did trounce this time, jumping directly on top of him, knocking the air from his already aching lungs. As they wrestled, one trying to steal the covers, one clinging desperately to them, they heard the oh so familiar voice.

Both young men stopped and looked toward the door where their father loomed.

"If you two are quite finished, we do have guests, gentlemen," Murdoch declared.

Scott bit his lip and disentangled himself, sitting on the edge of the bed. As he fought to regain his composure, he let out a very breathy, "yes, Sir."

With a firm nod, Murdoch closed the door. He heard the snickering on the other side and bit his own lip to keep from laughing as he headed downstairs.

*****

Johnny and Scott pushed at each other all the way down the stairs, stopping only when they made it to the landing just outside their father's eagle eye. However, they had forgotten about his hearing as well as that of the rest of the household.

With a chuckle, Clive Harper leaned toward Murdoch. "Bonny lads the both of them, Murdo."

Murdoch couldn't help but smile. He understood their need to roughhouse. Having been deprived of each other all their lives, there were times when he thought his sons had lost their collective minds. Still, he would have it no other way. The laughter they had brought into the hacienda and into his heart could not be denied.

But it was two somber young men who entered the dining room. Nodding and greeting the ranchers respectfully as they made their way to sit on either side of their father.

As breakfast wound down, Murdoch began.

"Gentlemen, shall we adjourn to the living room." He didn't wait for a response and when he rose, so did everyone else.

Johnny had to raise a brow at this. The old man sure swung a lot of weight and he felt pride in his father.

But as he stood, he saw Maria come in to clear the table and he noticed her downcast eyes and grim expression. He watched her but she would not look at him though he was sure she knew he was there. Before he could approach her, Scott had tugged on his sleeve and gotten his attention. When he turned back, Maria was gone.

Concern for the woman plagued him and he wondered if all this wasn't too much for her. With Teresa gone to Sacramento, she had the entire household to run. Though Murdoch had procured the help of the other women on the ranch, it was still ultimately her responsibility. He made a mental note to seek her out later.

He entered the room last and walked over to the fireplace, leaning casually against the mantle as he accepted a cup from his brother with a grin.

"Gentlemen, it's time to discuss the most important issue on the agenda this week," Murdoch began. He walked over to the map of Lancer and pulled down another map over it of California.

"Water rights. At the moment, many of us are paying year to year for those rights from the farmers and small ranchers who own them. Every year is a crap shoot. We can't rely on the same men agreeing to the same terms every year. What I propose is a long-term contract. At least ten years with every land owner agreeing to the terms."

There was a pause as each man considered this.

"Sounds like a good idea, Murdo. But, how do you get so many to agree to one contract?" Clive Harper asked.

"By making it worth their while," Murdoch answered confidently. "If we make the offer attractive enough, I believe everyone will sign on."

"And if they don't?" Buchanan asked.

"Do you have another idea, Tom?" Murdoch asked.

Buchanan stood up to address the association. "I do, indeed. I propose we buy those lands as an association. Each member will contribute a percentage equivalent to the size of their herd and holdings. That way, we never have to worry about water rights again."

"That's a wonderful idea, Tom," Henry Jackson agreed.

"What about the ranchers and farmers that own the land. What if they don't want to sell?" Scott asked.

"Then we take it," Buchanan stated.

Johnny pushed himself away from the mantle and stood straight. "Take it? That's it. Just take it."

"That's what I said, boy," Buchanan retorted.

The word 'boy' sounded like a dirty word to Scott's ears. He looked at his brother who was glaring at Buchanan, then to his father.

"We are not in the business of raiding ranches, Tom," Murdoch intervened quickly, shocked that his friend would suggest such a thing.

"Well, maybe we should be, Murdoch," Buchanan said, turning to address his friend.

"Look, men, the simple fact of the matter is this. Those sodbusters and so-called ranchers are sitting pretty and they know it. They've got us by the short hairs and it's about time we did something about it. Every one of us has the same problem. None of us, except Lancer has its own water supply. And even Murdoch doesn't have enough. Every year we have to contract with these .... people. Bend over backwards to cut a deal. It's ridiculous and unnecessary."

Silence permeated the room. Johnny looked incredulously at his father who was deep in thought. How could he even consider this as a good idea? He felt his heart go to his stomach as disappointment settled in. Why didn't the old man say something?

Finally, Murdoch looked up and realized all eyes were on him. He understood they were all waiting for his response. So he gave it.

"I think buying the land is a good idea and the percentage method a good way to decide who can pay what. But, it has to be all or nothing. Every one of those farmers and ranchers has to agree to sell at fair market value. If not, I think we should consider the ten-year contract. But, we will not just take it.

"This country was founded on freedom. My son fought for that freedom in the war. All three of us have fought to keep what belongs to us right here. Fought land pirates who believed they could just take what they want. Violence is never the answer. If we allow ourselves to stoop to that level, we don't deserve the land we currently enjoy."

Johnny smiled and breathed a sigh of relief. Berating himself at the same time for thinking Murdoch would ever consider such a thing. He supposed it was because Buchanan was such a good friend. He reckoned Murdoch didn't want to just dismiss him out of hand.

But something told Johnny they were headed for a showdown. If it wasn't plain to anyone else, it was plain to him. Buchanan hated Mexicans. He wondered if Murdoch had noticed that today.

The association voted 11-1 for Murdoch's proposal and they adjourned for the day.

Buchanan disappeared in a huff and the rest of the members meandered outside.

Scott leaned against the wall next to the fireplace with his arms crossed over his chest and regarded his father silently. His thoughts were in a whirl and he decided to stay quiet until he could sort them through.

"Well, I got work to do," Johnny mumbled and headed out the door.

Murdoch turned back to the map and Scott felt his anger start to simmer.

"We'll have to work out the details of the contract in case the other plan falls through," Murdoch sounded out.

"Of course it will fall through! How can you expect anything else?" Scott erupted.

Murdoch turned. "I don't expect anything else, son. Tomorrow, we'll sit down and work out the details," he said absently then turned his back once more.

Scott knew he'd just been dismissed. He drew in a breath and stormed out of the house in search of his brother. Something was going on between Johnny and Buchanan and he was determined to find out what.

Scott didn't get his chance. When he walked outside, there was much hooplah at the corral. Johnny was flying through the air, bouncing up and down like a rag doll. Scott smiled and walked over, crowding in next to Clive Harper.

"Oh, you missed it, Scott. Ya should've seen Johnny gentle that beast enough to get on him," Clive extolled.

With a laugh, Scott replied, "I have seen it once or twice."

Clive turned to look at him. "Well, I reckon you have at that, boy!" he guffawed and slapped Scott on the back - hard.

The younger man let out a soft cough as the air was knocked out of him by the enthusiastic rancher. Then Scott had a thought.

"Mr. Harper, may I have a word with you in private?"

Clive looked downright disappointed.

"I promise you've already seen the best part," Scott said, reading his face like a book.

Clive smiled and wrapped an arm around Scott, walking him away.

Johnny trotted the stallion around the corral a few times then motioned for a hand to take the lead rein. He slid off effortlessly to the applause of all present. Ducking his head, he waved a hand to acknowledge the praise and stepped through the fence rails.

He made his way quickly to the back of the house with one thought in his mind. But he came upon Scott and Clive in deep conversation in the garden before he got the chance to finish his mission.

The next hour was quite an education for the Lancer brothers. Clive Harper told them a story neither was terribly surprised to hear.

When Clive left them, Scott and Johnny were still for a while. Each with their own thoughts.

"Well, should we tell him?" Scott finally asked.

Johnny took a deep breath and let it out with a "No." At Scott's expression he smiled a little. "It's in the past, right?"

"Johnny, what is going on between you and Buchanan? And don't tell me it's nothing. When he looked at you in that meeting this morning, I could see the pure hate in his eyes."

With a shrug, he answered, "he's a bigot."

"That's it?" Scott asked.

"That's it, brother. He don't like me and the feeling is mutual. Don't worry about it, Scott. It don't mean a thing." Johnny patted his arm and walked away, forgetting what had brought him to the back of the house for now.

Scott watched him walk away, knowing it meant something and still unsure if he should stay quiet about what he'd just learned from Clive. He felt a tension growing in the air and an overwhelming sense of dread accompanied it.

For the next two days, Scott and Murdoch worked out the details of the contract. Going over every   conceivable problem that might occur. There were smaller meetings each day to discuss less pressing matters but these meetings were short.

Johnny spent the majority of his days working and the rest of the ranchers took the opportunity to tour the ranch and go into Green River.

Buchanan was quiet, even sullen, but no one paid him much mind. Even Johnny had dismissed him from thought. He figured Buchanan had been beaten so he concentrated on running the ranch while Murdoch and Scott played with their words.

Friday morning, Johnny stood out by the corral talking with two hands. The gaze of the men listening intently to his instructions left his face and wandered over his left shoulder. Johnny turned and saw Buchanan coming. Unperturbed, he returned to the men and finished the orders for the day.

One of them said something and the three young men laughed as Johnny slapped him on the back then turned toward the house. He nearly ran into Buchanan who was standing directly behind him.

"We need to talk," Buchanan said.

Johnny looked at him and shook his head. "I'm busy," he clipped and started around the bigger man.

Buchanan grabbed his upper arm in a vise grip. "In the barn," he hissed, jerking Johnny toward the building.

He jerked back with all his might and wrenched free.

"Don't put your hands on me again!" he said loudly as Buchanan turned back.

The tall rancher took one step and loomed over Johnny. "You listen to me, boy. You and I are going to have a talk. Now, we can do it right here in front of any of your friends happening by or in private. It's up to you."

A small smile caressed only Johnny's lips. "Right here would fine with me if I was plannin on talking to you. But I'm not. Like I said, I'm busy." He turned to walk away and felt the fist slam in between his shoulders.

Johnny nearly went to his knees. In fact, he wasn't quite sure for a minute what had kept him from doing just that. Then, he realized it was Buchanan. He'd grabbed him under the arm and turned him, practically dragging Johnny into the barn.

Johnny fought with everything he had to recover. He felt like he'd been hit with a sledgehammer. Buchanan got him inside and pushed him up against Remmie's stall.

His hands slammed against the wood in an automatic move to stop his momentum. Johnny took a minute to get some breath. Then he opened his eyes. Remmie was looking curiously at him. The deep brown eyes did nothing to soothe the young man's anger, though and Johnny turned on Buchanan.

Before he could open his mouth, Buchanan was on him. He grabbed Johnny's shoulders in a grip and squeezed. He was a big man and strong, too. Johnny bit his lip to keep from groaning, still reeling from the initial assault.

"I don't like repeating myself, breed. I told you to get out of here and that is exactly what you're going to do. Today. If you don't, you'll wish you had," Buchanan spat.

Johnny blinked several times then raised his head, craning his neck to see Buchanan's eyes. "Go to hell!"

The fist slammed into the side of his head, bouncing it off the nearby post. Johnny sank to his knees this time and Buchanan didn't try to stop it.

He knelt in front of Johnny and grabbed his chin, forcefully raising his head. "I'll have every gunhawk from here to Mexico on this ranch within three days. Every one of them after your reputation. Every one of them willing to kill anyone who gets in their way. You know the type, don't you, breed? None of this soft-hearted crap! Just stone cold killers. You believe that?"

When Johnny didn't answer, Buchanan grabbed him by the back of his hair, jerking his head back. "Do . You . Believe . That?" he spat.

Johnny could only nod, trying desperately to hold onto consciousness.

"That's what I thought. Since you're in pretty pitiful shape now, I'll be nice and let you wait. Sunday morning will be fine. When all the other ranchers are leaving, so will you. Quietly. No goodbyes, no notes, nothing. Understand?" he asked, shaking Johnny by the hair.

Johnny nodded again.

Buchanan released him roughly and Johnny sank further down to the ground.

Slowly, he pulled his legs from beneath him and sat down, leaning against the stall, legs straight out in front of him. He reached up and gingerly felt the side of his head that had smacked into the post. When he pulled his hand back, his fingers were covered in blood.

His head ached something fierce and he closed his eyes for a minute. Knowing he couldn't let anyone find him like this, Johnny slowly dragged himself to his feet. Leaning against the stall door, his head hanging over into Remmie's space.

The chestnut nudged at him but Johnny gently pushed him away. "S okay, boy. I'm okay," he breathed out. But, he wasn't so sure he was and he stumbled over to Barranca's empty stall. He splashed water from the watering bucket on his face and made it inside, sinking into the fresh hay he'd put down just that morning.

*****

Johnny opened his eyes and took several minutes to focus. He wondered why he was in a stall, then he remembered. Taking another feel of the side of his head, he sighed. Dried blood covered his hair.

Damn! How long have I been here? He took out his timepiece and squinted to focus on the small numbers. Eleven o'clock! The sarcasm in him made him wonder if it was day or night. But his eyes knew it was still morning. Slivers of light filtered through the cracks in the barn walls, showing the dancing dust mites in their glory.

Okay, all I have to do is get up, get into the house and up to my room without anyone seeing me. No problem, he snorted aloud.

Getting up proved to be more daunting than he thought. He slid up the wall as waves of dizziness pounded his head. He took two steps, making it to the stall door before losing his breakfast. That did nothing to help his throbbing head and he broke out in a sweat. Resting his head against the door, he took a minute before venturing further.

Slowly, he made his way to the barn doors and peeked outside. There were a few men working in the corral and two more working on a wagon wheel in the yard. Johnny sighed, pulled himself to his full height and plastered a small smile on his face.

He made it to the outside stairs only having to give one wave before he got there. So far, so good, he thought as he started up the stairs.

He knew he'd have to keep his gait steady, not stop, lest someone notice. And he did. Once at the top, he paused briefly, not daring to turn and look down. He continued on his way through the door and down the hall to his room as quietly as possible.

Once in the sanctuary of his own room, Johnny locked the door and slid to the floor. That's where he stayed until he heard someone knocking entirely too loudly.

Johnny opened his eyes and muffled a groan. Scott was yelling his name through the door.

"What!?" he yelled too loudly.

"I've been knocking forever. Open the door. Are you alright?" Scott called.

Johnny sighed and tested his fortitude. He found it a little easier to make it to his feet this time and he leaned against the door.

"I'm okay. Just a little upset stomach," he lied.

It was quiet for a long moment and he thought maybe Scott had left. But, he wasn't that lucky. The door handle jiggled.

"Well, open the door!" Scott commanded.

Closing his eyes, he knew he couldn't do that. He stepped away from the door so his voice wouldn't sound so close. "I'm, um, indisposed," he said.

"I'll wait."

Uh oh, I know that tone. He ain't goin anywhere. Resigned, Johnny walked over to the dresser and took in his countenance. Look like I've been in a barroom brawl, he thought sardonically.

Dried blood plastered his hair to his head on the right side. He leaned in and tried to prize it away, wincing as it stung. Grabbing a towel and wetting it, he started cleaning the wound. Knwing Scott was standing out there and picturing just how his brother looked at the moment, Johnny knew he couldn't dawdle.

Taking a deep breath, he bent over the wash basin and grabbed the pitcher, dousing his head.

Johnny's world turned upside down as he gripped the sides of the dresser in iron fist. Gritting his teeth so hard, he could hear them grinding, he rode it out until the pain and dizziness passed.

"Johnny."

"I'm comin!" he shouted and wished he hadn't.

Drying his head produced a pink-tinged towel and he cursed. He grabbed the basin and tossed the water out the window then stuck the towel in a bottom drawer. Checking in the mirror once more, he thought he might be able to pull it off as long as Scott didn't get too close to him.

He walked over and opened the door then went to the window to look out, making sure he kept his left side to his brother.

Scott stood in the doorway for a moment. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, just a little sick to my stomach like I said. Must've been somethin I ate."

Scott looked skeptically at him and walked in, closing the door behind him. He crossed his arms over his chest and stood expectantly.

"What?" Johnny asked innocently.

"How long have you been up here?"

Shrugging one shoulder, Johnny replied, "I don't know. What time is it?"

"Three o'clock."

He swallowed hard and turned to the window again to hide his surprise.

Scott walked up to him, way too close. "How long have you been sick?"

"Since this morning," he stated truthfully.

"Something you ate, you say," Scott inquired.

"Must've been."

"Johnny, look at me," Scott said, it was almost a demand.

Johnny turned his head halfway round and gave Scott the most innocent look he could muster. "What?"

"You've been up here all day?"

"No, I fell asleep in the barn for a while," he grinned.

"You missed lunch."

Johnny almost lost it again as his stomach roiled. "That's okay. Don't feel like eating anyway."

Scott stared at him for a long time and Johnny turned to look out the window again. "Guess I should try to do at least some work today," he said idly.

"Not if you're that sick. You should be in bed," Scott said, glancing at the piece of furniture and knowing it hadn't been touched since Maria made it that morning.

Johnny saw his reflection in the windows glass. "I fell asleep in the chair, I guess."

Scott nodded. "I see. Well, when you're ready to stop lying to me, I'll be downstairs," he said angrily and walked out.

Johnny hung his head and closed his eyes, leaning his head against the window glass. "Sorry, brother," he whispered.

He sat in the chair and tried to make his brain work. Guess the only part workin is the lying part, he thought bitterly. He hated lying to Scott for any reason. He wasn't even sure why he had. Why he hadn't just told his brother he'd been beaten up.

Johnny smiled. Because you're too damned proud, that's why. The smile left as he thought of Buchanan's threat. He was quite sure the man would see that threat through, too. He had two days to figure it out.

All he had to do was go to Murdoch, tell him what had been happening. That was all he had to do. Why did that idea not sit well with him? But he knew why. He had always taken care of his own problems. Never had he relied on anyone else. It was wrong and he knew it. Knew his family would stand behind him. That knowledge helped immensely in some ways. In others, it made him feel inadequate and weak.

Something else was weighing on him. Something he had put off for too long. Maria. Something was terribly wrong with Maria. He needed to speak with her. But not today. He wasn't up to do anything today that was for sure. He decided to wait until tomorrow. The sick stomach lie would get him out of any socializing tonight. He just had to lie to his father, that was all.

Johnny sighed loudly. He looked at the bed and figured as long as Murdoch didn't come around the far side, he'd be able to hide the wound from him, too. The lump on the left side was hidden by his hair so that wasn't a problem. So, he resigned himself to a day in bed. And he figured he'd best get in there because he was quite sure Scott would be sending Murdoch up as soon as he could.

Standing slowly, he began unbuttoning his shirt.

Saturday was the big event. A party was being held in honor of the association members and most of the valley had been invited.

Johnny cringed at the thought, wanting nothing to do with the "celebration". At least he was feeling better, that was something. Though his head was aching, the dizziness was almost gone. He could deal with it. If Murdoch had come to his room last night, he hadn't known it. That meant, he'd either fallen asleep and the old man didn't want to wake him or he simply hadn't bothered.

Johnny berated himself. Don't take it out on Murdoch. He doesn't know and that would be my fault. Sighing, he spent the morning checking fenceline and deciding what to do about Buchanan.

That afternoon, the hands were busy decorating the front of the house. They built a platform for dancing. The noise was a bit much for Johnny's head and he retreated to the house. Besides, there was something he had put off for far too long.

The kitchen was some sort of ordered chaos and he watched from the doorway with amusement for a few minutes. Maria was issuing orders left and right, stirring pots and marinating a side of beef and a pig for roasting.

Johnny watched her and knew something was wrong. As Bonita passed near him, he grabbed her arm gently and pulled her aside, asking her to take over for a few minutes.

Then he took a cleansing breath and entered the forbidden zone. She whirled around when he touched her, ready to toss him out on his ear again.

But Johnny was having none of it. He took her firmly by the arm and guided her outside into the gardens. He sat her down on a bench then joined her.

"Por favor, mamacita, que te pasa?" (Please, mamacita, tell me what is wrong)

"Que te pasa? Tener que millon cosas a hacer. En seguida para su tonteria," she said in near hysteria. (What is wrong? I have a million things to do. I do not have time for your foolishness)

Johnny shook his head. "No, algo ha estado en su mente por dias. Este todo ha sido demasiado pare usted? Usted necesita en descanso?" (No, something has been on your mind for days. Has this all been too much for you? Do you need a rest?)

"Nada es incorrecto," she stated stubbornly. (Nothing is wrong)

"Dicir el que le lastimar. Por favor, madre de mi corazon," Johnny implored of her. (Tell me who has hurt you. Please, mother of my heart)

Maria could no longer hold back the tears and they spilled down her weathered cheeks as she confided in her nino.

"Es ese hombre, Buchanan. Dicir cosa por otra. Cosas terribles. El llama a muchachas los nombres. El es un hombre muy malo. Diablo!" (It is that man, Buchanan. He tells lies. Terrible things. He calls the girls names. He calls me names. He is a very bad man! A devil!)

Johnny clenched his jaw tightly and managed to ask. "Que un nombres?" (What names?)

She looked around to make sure they were alone and in a whispered voice, she answered, then crossed herself. "Putas. Perras." (Whores. Bitches.)

Johnny felt his world reeling. The flush flew to his cheeks as he felt the most intense anger since before his mother had died. He reined it in for Maria's sake and wrapped an arm around her. "No se preocupar. No te molestes otra vez." (Do not worry. He will not bother you again.)

"No, Juanito. No causar problemas el amigo de su padre," she pleaded. (No, Johnny. Do not cause trouble with your father's friend)

But, Johnny shook his head vehemently. "Ningun amigo mia padre. Ne se preocupe, por favor. Yo quieres cuidar de usted." (He is no friend to my father. Do not worry, please. I will take care of you.)

She sank into his arms, leaning her head against his chest as she sobbed. "Gracias, mi muchacho. Usted es alegria de mi corazon." (Thank you, my boy. You are the joy of my heart.)

Johnny held her for a long time, quietly rocking her until her tears were all spent. She straightened herself and dried her eyes on her apron then excused herself before fleeing back to her kitchen.

He sat there for how long he didn't know. Rage built inside him the likes of which he had never felt before. Not with his mother, not with her men, not ever had he felt this intense and murderous hatred.

The sweetest soul who ever graced the face of this earth was Maria. No one who met her did not love her. Now, this ..... Johnny couldn't find a word vile enough to describe Buchanan. He sprung to his feet and began pacing, his fists clenching and unclenching as he thought how best to make the man suffer.

Man. He was no man. For no real man would disparage a woman who worked so hard, who loved so dearly, simply because of the color of her skin.

"Johnny?"

He whirled around, Colt in his hand before he even knew it. He stared at his brother in some sort of daze then dropped his right hand to his side, stumbling slightly backwards before regaining his equilibrium.

"Don't do that!" he yelled.

Scott said nothing, just watched as he calmed himself. After giving what he thought was sufficient time for both of them to settle, he asked.

Johnny told him what Maria had related and he wasn't sure but he thought his brother might be equal to taking on Buchanan the same way Johnny wanted to at the moment. But he knew that would pass and Scott's cooler head would prevail. Well, for Scott at least. Johnny had no intention of cooling down.

"We should wait until tomorrow," Scott finally said.

"What the hell for?!"

"The party, Johnny. Maria wouldn't want a scene made and people are already starting to arrive."

Johnny hung his head, feeling slightly defeated. But he knew he would have his chance tomorrow. And if Murdoch balked, well, too damned bad!

Scott opened his mouth then closed it and walked away. Johnny stared after him, awashed in shame. He knew Scott was disappointed in him for lying yesterday. But, right now, this problem was more important in his eyes.

*****

All night Johnny kept a close eye on Buchanan, making sure he didn't go anywhere near the kitchen. He had no reason to and Maria had said his abuse always occurred before meals when he could catch her and the girls alone. Cobarde!

He seethed all night, unable to pay much attention to the party going on around him. He watched Scott and could tell he wasn't having much fun either. Murdoch, on the other hand, seemed to be having the time of his life.

Enjoy it while you can, old man. Tomorrow all hell is gonna break loose around here, he thought bitterly.

Murdoch was indeed enjoying himself but he had noticed his old friend seemed to still be sulking. He sighed and thought he'd speak with Tom tomorrow morning. The rest of the ranchers were leaving then but Tom had planned on staying a few extra days. They hadn't had much of a chance to catch up and Murdoch was still bothered by Tom's proposal of a few days ago.

He couldn't believe his old friend actually thought that way. Something must have happened or he had some other worry on his mind. Murdoch had to think that was it. There was something troubling Tom and he would make sure he found out what it was.

Buchanan watched the gaiety but felt none of it. He was still nonplussed at Murdoch's answer to his idea. The man was getting soft. He knew Lancer would take some convincing but with that half-breed in the mix, it complicated matters. Knowing Madrid would leave tomorrow gave him some solace. He'd been watching and Johnny seemed to be feeling just fine now. A small smile flitted across his face. So much for the legend.

Buchanan sat in the shadows and worked out Johnny's leaving in his mind. How he would comfort Murdoch and at the same time, keep him from going after the breed.

*****

Sunday mornings were usually quiet at the hacienda but this was an exception. Eleven ranchers prepared to leave after breakfast. The mere scheduling of such a departure was akin to a cattle drive.

Johnny had arisen before dawn and sat himself at the kitchen table until everyone else, especially Buchanan, was seated in the dining room. He was determined the man had no chance to get near Maria this morning with his foul mouth.

Once breakfast was over, Johnny quickly said his goodbyes to the ranchers and went to the barn. He wasn't going anywhere, he just needed some time to think through what he was going to say to his father. He already knew what he was going to say to Buchanan but he wanted to be calm and collected. Like Scott, he thought with a smile.  

He groomed Barranca and coddled the horse for a half hour before he felt another presence in the barn. Turning, he saw Buchanan standing just inside the doors. Johnny sighed, gritted his teeth and returned his attention to his horse. He listened as Buchanan walked up to him and he waited.

"Everyone is just about gone, except you," Buchanan said.

"I wasn't planning on makin any trips today," he said tightly.

"You best reconsider that, Madrid," he replied more firmly.

Johnny stopped in mid-stroke and turned to place the brush in its place. He then stepped out of the stall and latched the door, turning to face Buchanan.

"Name's Lancer," he said softly.

Buchanan chuckled. "If you say so." He rested one arm on the stall that held Scott's horse. "You are obstinate, I'll give you that. But, it's time you left, Madrid, and you know it." His voice flattened.

"I don't know any such thing. And, for the last time, it's Lancer," Johnny replied, his tone equaling Buchanan's.

Shaking his head, the older man considered the younger. "Murdoch doesn't want you here. Now, I don't think you're really that stupid. Maybe you're just wishing it isn't true."

Johnny cocked his head to one side, placing his hands on his hips. "He tell you that, did he?"

"Yes, he did."

Johnny's expression never changed but inside, his stomach churned. He let his emotions overrule his head for a moment. Just for a moment, but it was enough.

"He told me how hard it's been with you here. How worried he is that your past is going to cause trouble. Maybe even get Scott killed. That part really worries him. That you'll end up taking away the son he loves so much. The son he's so very proud of. He told me it gives him nightmares sometimes. Losing Scott would destroy him. Then there's all the business he's lost because of you."

Johnny's head came up and he looked at Buchanan in utter confusion. The man smiled, knowing this was his ace in the hole.

"Maybe you are that stupid. You really didn't know how your being here has cost Murdoch; cost Lancer. People don't want to do business with a gunhawk and they sure don't want to do business with a half-breed. See, that's your biggest problem, boy. And the one you can't do a thing to change. Then again, maybe you don't care if you get them all killed. Well, just remember what I said the other day. I am a man of my word, Madrid."

He stopped and leaned in toward Johnny. "So, you tell me how your being here isn't a problem. Go ahead and tell me, boy," he spat the last word.

"Johnny!"

Buchanan whirled around and Johnny's head snapped round at the sound of his brother's voice. Scott had only heard the last thing Buchanan had said but it was more than enough. He strode up to them with an iron jaw.

"I told Murdoch we wanted to see him. He's ready now," Scott said.

Johnny nodded and walked around Buchanan but Scott didn't follow at first. He locked eyes with the older man.

"Stay away from my brother, Buchanan. In fact, stay away from ALL of my family. Murdoch will be wanting to see you soon enough. I hope you have your things packed." With that, Scott turned and walked out, his head held high.

Buchanan stared after Scott. He couldn't believe Johnny had told Scott about all of this. What were they going to talk to Murdoch about?

Johnny was waiting for him just outside the barn.

"What did he say to you?" Scott inquired.

Johnny shrugged. "Same old stuff. Come on, I want to settle this thing about Maria," he said, his voice steely with anger.

Murdoch was truly dismayed at what his sons told him. His first instinct was that he didn't want to believe it. But when Johnny told him the words came from the cook herself and were not just rumors, he knew it was true.

He stood behind his desk, staring out the huge window, hands clasped behind his back.

"Alright, I'll take care of this," was all he said.

Scott looked at Johnny and nodded but Johnny tossed his head toward the door indicating he needed a moment with his father.

Murdoch heard one set of footsteps and turned to find Johnny still there, head bowed, chewing his lip. He almost smiled but managed to refrain. "Was there something else, son?"

Breathing out heavily through his nose, Johnny looked up and nodded. "Did you know he's a bigot?"

"No, I didn't know that. Has he said something to you, John?" Murdoch replied.

Johnny stood, his hat in his hands, his back to his father. "Just know that he is and that's why he treated Maria so bad, that's all." He started out the door. He really was going to leave it at that but he couldn't. He turned back and looked into his father's eyes.

"One more thing. After you take care of Buchanan - and I expect that to mean he's leaving here today - there's something else I want to talk to you about."

Murdoch nodded but he was thoroughly confused by Johnny's solemn demeanor. "All right, son."

Johnny nodded, half-turned, then stopped. "I want Scott here, too." He left then, knowing he had to get out of there before he lost his patience and demanded an explanation. First things were first. And the most immediate problem was booting Buchanan off Lancer land. After that, he planned on taking care of Buchanan once and for all in his own way.

Johnny found Scott in the kitchen with a cup of coffee and joined him there, giving Maria an extra big kiss and hug. He promised her the problem was being handled at that very moment. Both young men wanted to stay close by just in case. Just in case of what they didn't know.

"Do you want to tell me what Buchanan said to you this morning? Or, at any time, for that matter?" Scott asked point-blank.

"Not really," Johnny mumbled and sipped his coffee. Seeing the look, he had to smile. "Once Murdoch takes care of that jerk, the three of us need to have a talk. I'll tell you about it then."

Scott nodded his agreement. At least Johnny was going to tell them. He saw that as a huge change for the better. That Johnny was willing to discuss his problems was major. Even though Scott considered that any problem Johnny had was a problem for the whole family and vice versa.

And so they waited quietly together. Both noticing Maria's sudden departure from the kitchen claiming she had laundry to do. They knew she was ashamed and that only further irritated both for she had nothing to be ashamed of.

"You think the old man will need help in there?" Johnny finally asked.

"I doubt it. He can handle himself."

Johnny nodded, his mouth opened to speak again when one of the hands walked through the door.

"Excuse me, Scott, Johnny."

"Jeff, something wrong?" Scott asked.

"We got a little problem and Maria said I should come to you. Said Mr. Lancer was busy," the young man explained. "One of the horses is down in the lower pasture."

Johnny almost bolted before he remembered that Barranca and Remmie were still stalled in the barn. He didn't want to leave the house. He felt a special obligation to Maria to stay nearby.

Sensing his brother's ambivalence, Scott smiled. "I'll go have a look."

"Thanks, brother. Let me know if you need anything. Might want to round Jelly up, too."

With a nod, Scott left the kitchen. Johnny looked around the huge empty room and sighed. Damn, but he hated being alone! He laughed at himself and got up to pour another cup of coffee when he heard the racket coming from the great room.

*****

Murdoch sat at his desk and twirled a paperweight around as he thought about what he'd just learned. Shaking his head, he thought he was starting to act just like Johnny - fidgety - and set the knickknack down.

The front door opened and he took a steadying breath as Tom Buchanan appeared in the doorway.

"Morning, Murdoch. Has the drive started," he chuckled.

Murdoch was not amused. "Everyone has left," he responded.

Buchanan didn't miss the tension in his voice. "Any coffee left?" he asked as he headed for the pot on the coffee table. Pouring himself a cup and taking a sip, he frowned. "Cold. Well, I'll just go"

"No, Tom. You won't. I don't want you in the kitchen. As a matter of fact, I don't want you anywhere on this ranch," Murdoch spoke in a civil tone yet his manner brooked no argument.

Buchanan stared at him curiously, wondering how much the breed had told him. He didn't want to say too much so he feigned ignorance.

"Well, what kind of way is that to talk to an old friend?"

Murdoch stood up and walked around the desk. "It's the way I speak to anyone who insults an employee of mine and, unless I miss my guess, my son," he cocked a brow.

Buchanan shook his head slowly. "What are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about Maria. The cook? How dare you speak to her like that? How dare you call her such disgusting names? That woman has worked here for years. She's part of this family!"

"The cook? You're upset about the cook? Murdoch, for heaven's sake, man! She's just a Mex!"

Murdoch's mouth fell open and he leaned back against the desk. Crossing his arms and knowing his fears had just been confirmed, he managed to keep his tone low. "And is Johnny "just a Mex" or something worse?"

Buchanan stared at him for a long beat. His own anger began to surface. "What did he tell you?"

"He told me what you said to Maria. What else should he have told me, Tom?" Murdoch asked, feeling his heart drop to his stomach.

Taking a deep breath, Buchanan spilled it. "Why do you put up with that, Murdoch? My God, man, the entire valley must be laughing behind your back. Taking that half-breed gunhawk into your home. Treating him like a person..."

"He IS a person and he is MY son! How dare you?" Murdoch bellowed.

Johnny stopped in mid-stride when he heard this. He quickly took in the two men, their stance and faces. It didn't take a genius to see that Murdoch was livid.

"Easy. Because I can see what you are obviously blind to. You told me yourself he's cost you business. That he's been trouble. Don't you understand that he's going to get Scott killed? Scott. Your real son. The one that deserves all this," he flagged his arms about. "The one that has some sense. The one that's purebred!"

"You make them sound like animals. Purebred? What's happened to you, Tom? You never used to be so prejudiced. Or did you?" Murdoch asked suspiciously.

"I am who I've always been, Murdoch. You are a fool to throw all this away on that ..... that," Buchanan stopped, a thought occurring to him and his face fell. "You're afraid of him, aren't you? You're afraid to throw him out. Afraid he'll retaliate."

Murdoch was floored. He couldn't seem to find his voice for a moment and he couldn't believe what he was hearing. "That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard! The only thing I'm afraid of where Johnny is concerned right now is what you've said to him."

"I told him the truth! That he needs to leave. That he's nothing but trouble. He's got no business here and certainly no right." Buchanan stared at a gawking Murdoch and lowered his voice to sound convincing. "Don't you see, Murdoch? Look at what he's already cost you. Think hard about what he may yet cost you. Scott. How much more of Lancer are you willing to give up for that half-breed?"

Buchanan saw Johnny then and rounded.

"This is all your doing. You don't deserve to be here. You stink up the very air! I told you how much you've already cost him but you don't care. Why should you? You're in it for the money. I wouldn't be surprised if you weren't planning on how to kill off Murdoch and Scott so you can take all of this for your own! And all because some Mexican slut got herself pregnant and trapped Murdoch," he sneered.

"Who the bloody hell do you think you are? You have no right to talk to my son like that. It's none of your business what happens here. You have no say in this family. None! GET OUT OF MY HOUSE!" Murdoch shouted at the top of his lungs as he pointed toward the door.

Buchanan looked at him and jabbed a finger in the air. "Mark my words, Murdoch. This little bastard will be the end of you!" With that, he turned on his heel and stalked up the stairs.

Johnny stood stock still for a long moment. He didn't know how his heart could be racing so and breaking at the same time as he watched his father trying so very hard to settle down. He was alarmed at the red face and heavy breathing. Johnny found his feet and moved to stand in front of his father.

Placing a hand on his arm, he spoke softly. "Take it easy, Murdoch. Just calm down."

"Calm down?! Did you hear him?!"

"Ssshhhh! Yeah, I heard him. I'm sure half the ranch heard him. It's okay, he's leaving now. Take it easy before you bust a gut, okay?" he soothed.

Murdoch looked in his eyes then and saw the genuine concern. He slumped his shoulders and attempted a small smile. "I'm so sorry, son. I don't believe I have ever been that angry in my life."

Johnny smiled back. "No kiddin? I thought you were really gonna lose it there for a minute." A grin slid on his face that had its usual affect on most people.

Murdoch laughed softly. "Maybe. But you and I need to have a talk, young man," he said meaningfully.

Johnny dropped his eyes. "Yeah, we sure do."

They both heard the thundering footfalls as Buchanan charged down the stairs. Johnny closed his eyes and sighed, relieved it was all over.

When he opened them again and looked at his father, he knew nothing was over.

Johnny turned around and saw the gun. He remembered his own was still on the hook by the door. He had never strapped it on this morning. So many worries plaguing him that he had simply not gotten around to it. He remembered Murdoch was unarmed as he usually was when at home. And he remembered Scott was in the lower pasture with an ailing horse.

All these things he remembered in that split second before he felt the way too familiar fire hit him. He heard his father shout "NO!" and felt himself being vaulted back against the big man, his head slamming into Murdoch's chest.

Johnny felt the initial momentum stop then continue as both he and his father went to the floor. He felt Murdoch wrap his arms around him protectively and was oddly comforted. Then, he felt and heard the thud of both of them coming to an abrupt stop.

The air was knocked out of him and he was sure it was worse for Murdoch who was lying beneath him. Darkness edged his periphery and he fought to hold onto consciousness.

Buchanan approached slowly and towered over them both. He cocked the gun again and aimed it at Johnny's head. With a sadistic grin, he spoke his last words to Johnny.

"Half-breed bastard!" he spat.

"Tom!" Murdoch yelled.

Buchanan blinked then his eyes moved to Murdoch who was clutching Johnny tightly.

"Don't. Please, if you truly are my friend, you won't do this," Murdoch said, his voice nearly trembling.

Buchanan shook his head and frowned. "Don't you understand that I'm doing this for you? You have no idea how much I've done for you."

"I don't want you to kill my son. I love him, Tom. Don't you understand that?" Murdoch tried to reason.

Shaking his head, he replied. "No, I don't understand. You'll thank me for this some day, Murdoch. I know it. I....." he trailed off then as a look of total surprise adorned his face.

Buchanan looked down at the knife plunged into his gut. His eyes locked on for a beat, mesmerized by the sight. Then, slowly, he traveled a path from the knife's hilt to the hand that still held it, down the arm and finally into the eyes of his attacker.

Johnny stared at him, unblinking as understanding registered on Buchanan's face.

His right hand waved, then tried to steady without success. Shaking badly, he raised the weapon crazily as he started to squeeze the trigger.

Johnny released the knife and with a strength he knew he shouldn't have right now, he lunged forward, snatching Buchanan's gun from his grasp.

Buchanan doubled over, grabbing at the knife then crumpling to the floor.

Murdoch grabbed the gun from Johnny and wiggled his way from underneath his son.

That's when he saw the blood pouring from Johnny's left side and he sucked in air between clenched teeth, clamping his hand automatically over the wound and pressing down.

*****

Murdoch sat by the window as the light breeze billowed the lace curtains just beside him. He watched as the sky turned from black to purple then slowly to blue. It was going to be a beautiful day.

The past week had been a nightmare as they fought with all they had to keep Johnny with them. The fever that wracked his body was persistent and unyielding until finally, mercifully, it had broken.

Now, two days later, Johnny was lucid; making sense. Something he hadn't been doing. Mumbling and sometimes yelling and cursing as the nightmares of his past gripped him as tightly as the fever had.

"How's it lookin?"

Murdoch turned to see vivid blue eyes watching him with amusement.

"It's going to be a pretty day," he answered as he moved to the bedside. "How do you feel?"

"Much better. A little hungry maybe," Johnny smiled when he saw his father's eyes light up with this response.

As he had done a million times it seemed in the past week, Murdoch reached out and felt Johnny's forehead. And as he had done so many times, he allowed his hand to slide down to Johnny's cheek and rest there for a second.

Realizing he'd done this while Johnny was looking right at him and totally aware, Murdoch moved his hand quickly and with embarrassment.

"It's okay," Johnny said softly.

Murdoch lowered his head and nodded it then stood quickly, heading for the door. "I'll get you something to eat," he said huskily.

"Murdoch?"

He closed his eyes briefly then opened them and turned to his son.

"We still need to have that talk. The one I wanted to have with you and Scott?"

Murdoch nodded. "When you're a little bit stronger."

Johnny shook his head. "Hoy." (Today)

Murdoch sighed. "After you eat," he countered.

Johnny laughed softly and nodded his head.

*****

"Not bad, brother. Not bad at all," Scott smiled as he removed the tray from Johnny's lap.

"Thanks. Glad I could please you," Johnny bantered.

Scott sat the tray on the dresser then returned to the bedside, perching at the foot of the mattress. "Do you want to rest a while?"

"No, I'm okay. There's something we need to discuss," Johnny responded with determination.

"Son, whatever it is...."

Johnny held a hand up to stop his father. "Can't wait any longer."

Murdoch gave up, seeing the look on his son's face that told him Johnny needed to get this out. He sat in the chair he'd pulled close to the bedside. "You've got the floor."

Nodding, Johnny leaned his head back against the pillows for a minute to gather his thoughts, then opened his eyes.

"When we agreed to the partnership, we all agreed that you called the tune. I didn't think that meant you would keep secrets from us."

Murdoch looked like he'd been slapped. "What are you talking about?" he asked, his ire rising.

Johnny looked him right in the eye. "How much business has Lancer lost because of me?"

"Whoa, wait a minute. What are you talking about, Johnny?" Scott interrupted, floored by the question.

"Every convincing lie has to have at least a little truth to it. Buchanan told me Lancer has lost business because of me and I believe him. So, how much?"

Scott looked at his father, awaiting an answer yet still trying to digest this revelation.

But Murdoch wasn't looking at either of them. He was staring at the floor. Tidal waves of anger at Buchanan's betrayal of his trust along with the knowledge that Johnny now possessed infuriated him.

"I suppose you never really can know a man," he said bitterly.

Johnny wasn't sure if he was talking about the businessmen of the area or Buchanan and he didn't care. He just wanted an answer so he kept quiet.

Murdoch looked up at him with regretful eyes. "I never wanted you to know about that, son."

"Why?" Johnny asked softly.

Murdoch shook his head slowly back and forth. "I didn't want you hurt."

With an exasperated sigh, Johnny regarded the older man. "The only thing that hurts is you lying to me."

"I didn't lie!" Murdoch defended.

"You didn't tell the truth either. It's the same thing, Murdoch. So, just tell me!"

Scott bit the inside of his cheek to keep quiet, stay out of it and try to remain impartial. Murdoch's stubbornness in answering wasn't helping with the impartial part.

"Not much, John. Not even worth mentioning," he said quietly.

Johnny cocked a brow at this. "Seems it was worth mentioning to Buchanan."

"He asked," Murdoch shot back.

"Sir, would you please just answer Johnny's question," Scott interrupted, trying to get back to the point.

"Three contracts with local ranchers that have driven to market with us every year for fifteen years. One Feed and Seed in Spanish Wells and a contract with the lumber mill," he recited quickly, hoping it didn't sound like all that much.

Johnny stared incredulously at him as did Scott who took to his feet.

"And you didn't think that was worth mentioning to your partners?" Scott asked, astounded.

"We ain't his partners, Scott. Just the hired help," Johnny said bitterly.

"You know that's not true!" Murdoch shouted. Taking a deep breath, he lowered his voice. "What purpose would it have served? I just contracted with someone else for the feed and lumber."

"Murdoch, with all due respect, this is something we had every right to know about. This is our livelihood as well, Sir," Scott said, emphasizing the 'sir'.

Murdoch was more surprised by Scott's reaction than Johnny's. "What would you have me do, Scott? Tell your brother we lost money because of his heritage? Make him feel miserable and guilty? Make him..." he stopped himself.

"Leave? Was that what you were gonna say, Murdoch? Make me leave?" Johnny shook his head sadly. "You don't have much faith in me, do you?"

"I have all the faith in the world in you, son. I just saw no purpose in hurting you," Murdoch said gently.

Johnny raised his eyes to his father's. "Don't you understand? They can't hurt me. I've heard it all, Murdoch. Things that would curl your hair. Things you probably couldn't even think of. That doesn't bother me. What bothers me is my father lying to my face!"

Murdoch moved from the chair to the side of the bed. He placed a hand on Johnny's arm. "You can show all the bravado you want, Johnny. You can tell me it doesn't hurt; it doesn't bother you. But, I don't believe that for a minute. You see, son, I've seen your reaction. Even if it was just a split second before that face went blank, I've seen it. So, don't you lie to me."

Johnny lowered his head and swallowed hard. "So what if it does sometimes? It's not near as bad as thinking...."

Murdoch's brows knitted together. "Thinking what?" When he didn't get an answer, he cupped Johnny's chin and raised his head. "Thinking what, son?"

The anguished blue eyes turned to steel. "Thinking you're ashamed of me," he stated flatly.

The rancher's jaw literally fell open. "Ashamed of you? Is that what you really think?" he asked, his hand dropping away from Johnny's face.

Though he kept his head up, Johnny lowered his eyes briefly. "Sometimes," came the whisper.

"I was trying to protect you, Johnny."

Feeling defeated, Johnny sighed but he didn't get the chance to answer.

"Protect him? He's not a child, Murdoch. Neither of us are. I think we are quite capable of handling the truth and Johnny is certainly capable of handling the bigotry he's dealt with all his life. I cannot believe you think us so unfit, so incompetent that you felt you had to shelter us!" Scott spilled out as he paced the bedroom floor, hands on hips. But he wasn't done yet.

"I mean, what did you think? Poor weak, fragile Johnny? It's laughable, quite frankly." Pointing his finger at his brother and jabbing it in the air, he went on. "Do you really, honestly believe that this man would crumple to his knees and weep because a few idiots pulled their business? And I suppose you thought I would run screaming back to Boston because someone was being mean to my brother!"

Johnny burst out laughing, holding his still tender side and sliding down in the bed.

Scott stared at him as if he'd lost his mind and Murdoch with his head down, was shaking hard and fighting to stay quiet. Unable to contain himself in the wake of Johnny's laughter, he too began to laugh aloud.

"What the hell is so funny?" Scott demanded.

Johnny had pulled his knees up to better quell the sting in his side as he was unable to stop laughing.

"You ... are... Scott," he managed.

Murdoch held up a hand, hoping to keep his older son from pouncing on him in a rage. "I'm sorry, Scott," he chuckled, settling down a little now.

"I can just .... see it now. Grandfather, those men ... were so ... mean to my brother," Johnny rolled again as the ridiculous picture came to his mind.

Scott realized what he'd said. He'd meant to be sarcastic but he could imagine how it sounded. A grin started, then spread into a smile. He walked over and grabbed a pillow, flinging it harmlessly at his brother. Then he plopped down on the side of the bed.

After a few minutes, Murdoch and Johnny found their composure and fell quiet.

"It's just that you can't say we're partners one minute then keep something important from us the next," Johnny spoke softly.

Murdoch took a cleansing breath. "I see your point. Both of you and you're right. Can you chalk it up to an old man trying to be a father?"

"As long as it doesn't happen again," Johnny said with a quirky smile.

Murdoch knew what he meant and smiled. "It won't. Now, as long as we're being so honest, why don't you tell us what happened to your head."

Johnny swallowed hard and nodded. By the time he'd finished telling his family everything Buchanan had said and done to him, both men were irate all over again.

"It's over," Johnny said quietly.

"Is it? How were you planning on dealing with him?" Scott asked.

Johnny looked up at him with hard eyes. "I was going to deal with it. Don't matter much now how. Besides, he's in jail."

Scott held the stare, knowing exactly what Johnny had intended and quite frankly, having no problem with it. And neither did Murdoch as he watched the exchange. He couldn't blame Johnny for his feelings. Not only had he been threatened, but his family as well. Murdoch knew that second part would drive Johnny to almost anything.

"Just promise me one thing, Johnny. That you won't ever lie to me again," Scott said in a soft voice.

"I'm sorry about that."

"You don't have to handle things alone anymore. And you certainly should never put up with that kind of treatment in your own home," Scott went on.

"Your brother is right. If you'd come to me when this first started, we could have avoided a lot of this," Murdoch stated.

"I know that. I knew it then. I just ....." Johnny sighed loudly. "I just didn't want you to lose your friend."

Murdoch grasped his arm firmly. "Do you really think I would want a friend like that? No, Johnny. No one who treats a son of mine so abominably will ever be a friend of mine. I understand you were trying to spare my feelings. But, I think I just learned a lesson about that and maybe you should as well."

Johnny smiled wryly. "I guess we've both learned some hard lessons."

There was a strained silence for several seconds before Johnny spoke again. "Scott? Would you mind giving us a minute?"

Scott gave him a sidelong look and Johnny knew exactly what he was thinking.

"It's private," he explained.

Looking between the two men, Scott could tell Murdoch didn't know what his son was thinking. He could also tell the rancher wasn't much looking forward to whatever it was. But, he trusted his brother so he nodded his head and left them alone.

"I can't imagine there's more," Murdoch said, almost hopefully.

"One thing. Something Buchanan said before he shot me. Something about my mother?" Johnny asked, watching his father's face closely.

Murdoch paled then blushed as he avoided Johnny's gaze. He stood and walked back to the window, staring out at nothing in particular. "What did you want to know?" he said softly.

"Is it true? Was she pregnant before you married her?" Johnny asked, thoroughly amazed his voice sounded so even.

Murdoch inhaled long and slow then let out his breath in the same fashion. "Yes."

Johnny leaned back and closed his eyes tight, fighting the emotions that were winning hands down. He swallowed several times, not trusting his voice now. "I see." It came out so softly, he wasn't really sure it had come out at all.

"I loved her, son." When Johnny didn't respond, Murdoch looked over at him. What he saw broke his heart. Johnny looked like he'd lost everything that mattered to him. Murdoch went to sit next to him on the bed.

He wrapped an arm around Johnny's shoulders and pulled him close, feeling the resistance. "I loved her so very much," he reiterated.

"I heard you," he whispered.

"It didn't matter, Johnny. I wanted to marry her anyway."

Johnny looked up, anger flashing in his eyes. "Of course it matters, Murdoch!"

"Why?" he frowned.

Johnny looked incredulously at him. Shaking his head, he found he couldn't say the words.

As if reading his mind, Murdoch's expression turned to shock. "No, Johnny. It doesn't matter. As long as we were married when you were born, it does not matter."

Swallowing hard and knowing the sound could be heard for a mile, Johnny shuddered out the words. "Are you sure?"

Murdoch tightened his hold. "Very sure. You are not illegitimate, son."

He could feel the young man trembling beneath his touch and wanted so very much for Johnny to believe what he knew was true. Please, God, let him believe me, he prayed.

"John?"

Johnny could only nod his understanding.

"I'm sorry, son. We didn't wait. I know it was wrong but ....."

Johnny looked up at him and smiled sadly. "But she was irresistible. I know."

"Are you alright?"

Johnny nodded his head but Murdoch wasn't convinced. It would take time to come to terms with this. Something else he never wanted Johnny to know. Murdoch thought bitterly that he would never confide in another living soul as long as he lived. He was beginning to think the only ones you could truly trust were your family.

"Johnny, I...."

"No, it's okay. Really. I understand why you didn't tell me."

"I never thought it made any difference. It didn't to me, I know," Murdoch imparted.

Johnny sniffed and Murdoch closed his eyes, knowing his son's heart was breaking at this very moment yet unable to stop it from happening.

"I need to be alone," Johnny whispered.

Scott tried everything he knew to try but he got nowhere. Neither Johnny nor Murdoch would tell him about the private conversation. All he knew for certain was that both men were hurting from that and all else that had transpired.

It wasn't idle curiosity. Scott wanted to help. He was most worried about Johnny but still concerned for Murdoch as well. It almost seemed as if there were a chasm developing between his father and brother. Both had come too far to allow that to happen.

Scott determined that, even if they wouldn't talk to him, they needed to talk to each other. And so, being a strategist, he began developing a plan.

Two days after that initial conversation, Sam had allowed Johnny out of bed. He sat by the window this glorious day and watched the ranch at work. It all seemed so normal. As if nothing had ever happened. Scott watched from the open doorway for a few minutes, sensing his brother's mounting restlessness.

Johnny felt him there but he didn't turn around. His chin cradled on his folded arms, he smiled. "Mornin."

"Good morning. How are you this fine day?" Scott asked, moving into the room and coming to stand behind his brother.

"Good. Real good. You?" Johnny replied.

"Very well, thank you. Now that we've been ever so polite, may I talk with you about something?"

Johnny chuckled and turned to look up at his brother. "You sure? I mean, I know you don't get much chance to show off them fancy manners. Now that the ranchers are gone..." Johnny stopped and dropped his eyes. I did it again, he thought.

Scott's smile faded as well. "Johnny, I'm not going to ask what's going on between you and Murdoch. I only ask that you talk it out with him. Come to some resolution. I'm worried about you two."

Johnny turned back to the window. "No need. We're fine."

"I don't think so, brother. Whatever this is, it's tearing you both apart. Does it have something to do with Buchanan?"

Johnny's shoulders tightened at the mention of that name. "No," he said too harshly.

Scott sighed and knew he just blew it. "Well, talk to him, okay?"

"Scott, there really isn't anything to talk about. We said it all already."

"I disagree."

Both young men turned to find Murdoch standing in the door listening. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to eavesdrop but Scott's right. We need to talk, Johnny."

"Scott's right? Well, somebody call the governor," Johnny said sarcastically. Immediately he was reticient. "Sorry, brother. Guess I'm not in the best mood."

Scott gave him a smile. "It's alright. I'm pretty sure I have something I need to be doing." He walked past his father, giving his arm a squeeze as he did.

Murdoch nodded his appreciation and closed the door behind his older son.

"What more is there to say, Murdoch?" Johnny asked quietly.

"I'm not sure, son. Do you have any questions?" he replied, sitting on the edge of the bed.

"Like what?"

Murdoch shook his head slowly. "I'm sure I don't know."

"Well," he sighed, "I don't have any questions. It's pretty cut and dried, after all."

"Well, I was thinking more of any questions about your ..... legal status," Murdoch said reluctantly.

Johnny turned to look at him then. "You said there were no problems."

"There aren't. I want you to understand that above all else, son. You have nothing to worry about."

Johnny nodded. He didn't know what else to say about the matter. What could he say? "Is there anything else - I mean anything else you need to tell me?"

Murdoch didn't answer right away. He had been thinking about that very thing but nothing had occurred to him. "I can honestly say that if there is, I don't know what it could be."

Johnny accepted that. "What about Scott? Anything you might need to tell him?"

Murdoch looked surprised. "Like what?"

Shrugging his shoulders, Johnny said, "I don't know. Anything about his mother or ...."

"No!" Murdoch cut him off loudly as he stood and walked about the room. "How could you even suggest such a thing?"

"What is it you think I'm suggestin, old man?" Johnny asked hotly.

"That Catherine and I .... that Scott's not ..."

"Legal?" Johnny cocked a brow.

"Catherine was a wonderful woman. Compassionate, kind and proper," Murdoch stated angrily.

"I see. And my mother was just a whore, right?" Johnny spat the words, pain of a different kind coursing through his body.

"That's not what I meant!" Murdoch said hotly.

Johnny came to his feet swiftly and turned to face his father full on. "The hell it isn't! You just said it. Catherine was proper, would never think of doing such a thing. Maria, on the other hand, couldn't wait to bed you, right?"

Murdoch's hand was in the air before he knew it. He saw Johnny jut his chin out and brace himself but the younger man never flinched.

Murdoch curled his hand into a loose fist and dropped his arm as he stared incredulously at his son.

And that's how they stayed for what seemed like an eternity. Neither looking away, neither giving an inch. Both with deep pain and remorse.

Johnny's body betrayed him. The emotions warring with the physical fatigue from his injury won out over his obstinance and his shoulders slumped. He swayed heavily and felt an arm around his waist, keeping him off the floor.

"I need to sit down," he breathed out.

Murdoch tightened his hold and guided his son to the chair, easing him down before releasing him. He knelt next to Johnny and watched with a deep frown of concern.

Johnny leaned forward, resting his elbows on his thighs and burying his head in his hands. He started rocking back and forth. Nothing dramatic, just a slight movement. But Murdoch had seen it before and knew his son was in trouble. He simply didn't know how to fix it.

Placing a gentle hand on the nearest shoulder, Murdoch spoke with surprising tenderness. "I'm so sorry, son. I never meant to disparage your mother. It was a different set of circumstances, a different world. And I needed her so badly."

Johnny stopped rocking and raised his head. Eyes filled with regret looked curiously at Murdoch. "Needed her?"

"Yes, son. I'd been alone so long and I missed Scott and Catherine so much. I was lonely and Maria lightened my heart. She made me laugh. I hadn't laughed like that in so very long. What happened shouldn't have - not yet. But it happened and I have never regretted it."

Johnny lowered his eyes. "Are you sure?" he asked in a whisper.

"I've never been more sure of anything."

"I'm sorry. I really didn't mean to imply Catherine would .... all I meant was maybe there were things Scott needed to know. I don't know what, I just don't want anymore secrets, Murdoch. I don't ever want to be ambushed like that again. Especially by somebody I despise."

Murdoch squeezed his shoulder. "I swear to you, Johnny. There is nothing more."

Johnny nodded and sat back, resting his head against the chair's back.

"Come on, son. You really need to lie down for a while. Maybe this afternoon, we'll go downstairs and sit on the veranda."

Johnny's eyes opened with this. "Yeah?" he asked hopefully.

Murdoch almost laughed out loud. Johnny reminded him of a child just promised some candy for being good. "Yeah," he confirmed.

"Okay. Guess I could use a nap," he grinned.

Murdoch settled him in the bed and sat beside him. "Are we alright, Johnny?"

He looked at his father and saw something different. No, not different, just .... more. Johnny felt calm; at peace and he smiled. "Yes, we are."

*****

Scott stopped on his journey across the yard to the house as he waited for the rider coming under the arch. He recognized Val Crawford and he felt an unease. Maybe he's just coming to visit Johnny, he thought. He wasn't able to convince himself of that once he saw the grim expression on the lawman's face. More grim than was usual for the crusty man.

He forced a smile as Val dismounted and approached him.

"Val. What brings you out here?" Scott asked amicably.

"Nothin good," he groused. "Johnny feelin better?"

"He is."

"Up for a visit?" Val inquired.

Scott took a deep breath. "I'm not sure. Is this social or business?"

Val winced and rubbed at his stubble. "Business, I reckon."

"Let's go inside, Val. Maybe we should see Murdoch first," Scott suggested.

The sheriff was all for that. He wasn't looking forward to telling Johnny his news. Not that it would be a shock. Still, it wasn't pleasant and Val simply would rather be hunting rattlers right now.

Murdoch greeted the man, noting the sour expression on Scott's face as well. Ever the host, Murdoch asked Maria for lemonade for Johnny's friend. Once they were settled and Val nearly drained the glass, Murdoch asked.

"It's that snake!" Val started with disgust. "He went up before the judge this mornin and pleaded not guilty. Judge set the trial for next Monday. Buchanan's lawyer's been here for a couple of days already. State attorney'll be out to talk to all of ya tomorrow." There. He'd said it. Now he just had to make sure he had a place to hit the dirt if need be.

It didn't seem to be necessary as Scott and Murdoch sat quietly. Neither had reacted as Val would have thought. He wasn't sure if that didn't make him madder than if they'd yelled at him.

"I'll tell Johnny," Murdoch said softly.

"Is there anything we need to know about the State's Attorney, Val?" Scott asked.

Looking back and forth between the two of them, Val realized something. The reaction he'd expected was one he'd have gotten from Johnny. These two - well, nothing much rattled them.

"He's a straight-shooter far as I know. Has a good record of convictions. Well, if ya need anythin just give a yell." He stood up and headed for the door.

Scott followed. "Thanks, Val."

"Sure, just give me a minute to get down the road. Don't want that ole nag of mine gettin all jittery when Johnny starts yellin." He managed a small smile but the man wasn't joking. He really wanted to be there for Johnny and he would be if needed. Right now, he reckoned his compadre needed his family more.

*****

"Well," Murdoch sighed out. "I promised Johnny I'd sit out on the veranda with him. I'll go see if he's up to it."

"Murdoch, is everything all right between the two of you?" Scott asked.

The rancher smiled and put a hand on his older son's shoulder. "Yes, son. We talked everything out."

Murdoch headed upstairs and Scott relaxed. He hadn't realized how tense he'd been. When this is over, I'm going up to the mountains for a few days, he thought.

Murdoch sat down slowly next to Johnny. He reached over and filled two glasses with lemonade, handing one to his son.

"Better?"

Johnny smiled as the sun warmed his face. "Oh yeah. Much better. Now, tell me what's on your mind."

Murdoch smiled and shook his head. "Is it that obvious?"

"Maybe just to me and, well, everyone else," Johnny laughed.

Murdoch settled back in the chair and stared out across the yard. "Val was here a little while ago."

Johnny tensed unconsciously. "What?" he clipped.

"The State's Attorney will be here tomorrow to talk with us. Tom's trial is set to start Monday morning."

"Trial? What trial?" Johnny asked with surprise.

"He pleaded not guilty," the rancher mumbled.

"Not guilty!? How the hell could he plead not guilty? Is he crazy?" Johnny exploded.

Several of the nearby hands looked over at him then quickly away.

"Calm down, son. We'll all have to testify."

Johnny sprang to his feet after slamming his glass on the table. "Well, ain't that nice! You and Scott are gonna have to testify. How tough for you," he sneered.

Murdoch came to his feet as well. "Now just a minute, young man. If you don't think this is tough for all of us...."

"I know it is, Murdoch. But you don't understand," Johnny said, still pacing.

"Then explain it to me," Murdoch replied calmly.

Johnny stopped and looked at him, crossing his arms over his chest. "Two white men talkin about another white man's prejudice. It's 'unpleasant' I'm sure. But, it ain't the same for me."

Murdoch stepped toward him. "I know that, son."

"Do you? I mean, do you really? I don't think so. You have no idea what it's like, Murdoch. None. Think about this. Me up there tellin all Buchanan did to me, to us. Tellin a bunch of white men what happened. How sympathetic do you think they'll be to him? How many of them are gonna be those friends of yours that turned their backs on you because of me? If you don't think Buchanan has a chance of gettin off, you're crazy. I should have gutted him like a fish when I had the chance."

"Johnny!"

"What?" he glared at his father.

"There's just as much of a chance that the jury will be good men," Murdoch said, not wanting to get into Johnny's last comment.

"Chance. Yeah, right," Johnny mumbled.

"My God," Murdoch whispered. "I had no idea this had affected you so much."

"What are you talking about?"

Taking a deep breath to calm himself, Murdoch answered. "I've just never seen you so .... bitter."

Johnny laughed caustically. "Bitter? You bet I'm bitter. Why shouldn't I be after all this? Why shouldn't I hate them as much as they hate me?" he asked then turned his back.

Murdoch couldn't believe his ears. Maybe he was crazy to think Johnny wouldn't react this way. "I suppose I just always thought of you as being so strong. That you could just shrug off anything. I should have known better. I should have realized you were in trouble."

Johnny turned back and stared at him. "I'm not in trouble," he argued.

"Oh, I think you are, son. You're starting to sound like those bigots you detest so much. But, Johnny, you're better than that."

Johnny swallowed hard and lowered his head. "How much do you think a person can take, Murdoch? How many years of putting up with this garbage do you think I can stand? Especially in my own home. I ain't made of steel." He shook his head. "No, I can't do this. I won't do it."

"You will do it."

Johnny looked up at the sound of his brother's voice.

"You'll do it because it's the right thing to do. And you always do the right thing, Johnny, no matter how much it hurts," Scott went on.

"Well, I tell ya what, Scott. Why don't you take this one for me and I'll owe ya," Johnny said snidely.

Scott shook his head. "I would in a heartbeat if I could but I can't. This one's yours, brother. You are the only one who can put that animal where he belongs."

Johnny's face fell as he regarded Scott. "I can't. Don't you understand that I can't, Scott?"

"You mean you won't. Because I know that you can. You disappoint me, Johnny."

"Too bad. And by the way, Scott, go to hell!" Johnny lashed out then turned and walked quickly around the side of the house.

"Was that necessary?" Murdoch chided.

Scott dropped his head and rubbed a hand through his hair. "I thought I could get him angry enough to take the challenge," he explained.

"I'm afraid he's too fragile this time, son," Murdoch said regretfully.

Scott nodded. "I'm sorry. I'll talk to him."

"No, not yet. Give him some time to think about things. You know Johnny. He needs to sort it out on his own first. He'll come to us when he has."

Scott looked up and smiled at his father. "You've come to know him well."

*****

Johnny stopped when he got to the garden and sat down heavily on a bench. He was enraged at his brother's behavior and he knew he wouldn't be worth a damn until he calmed down.

They didn't understand. They couldn't really. It wasn't their fault certainly and Johnny was glad of it. Oh, he thought he was tough as nails. Snorting loudly, he figured he was about as tough as a rose petal really.

He closed his eyes and rubbed his face. He was so tired of it all. All these years of dealing with hate and ignorance. How many times had he been beaten down and stepped on as a boy? How many times had he been called names? He couldn't begin to count.

Even after he'd made his reputation, it hadn't stopped. He'd simply been able to retaliate if he so chose. As a kid, all he could do was run if he got the chance. He'd really believed that with a gun in his hand, he'd earn some respect. All he had really earned was fear. They still hated him though not so many were willing to show it.

No, they just did it behind his back now. Except for Buchanan. Johnny felt sick every time he thought of that man and how much damage he'd done. How he'd made Johnny question his life here, his family and friends, his very right to exist even.

He just didn't think he had the strength to fight anymore. He was so tired of it all. So very tired. All the upheaval. All the things he'd found out about his father and mother. It was just too much for anyone, wasn't it? He wasn't indestructable after all.

Scott had really disappointed him. It hurt to think his brother could be so callous about all this. That he thought Johnny could simply just "do this". He realized Scott couldn't know. Yes, he'd seen the ravages of war spawned by bigotry and greed but for the first time, Johnny wondered how much Scott had really seen of it.

Knowing his brother spent a great deal of his army time in a prison, Johnny wondered if Scott had been on the receiving end of southern prejudice. Maybe, that's how I can get him to understand a little, he thought.

Of course, the anger in him reared it's ugly head, telling him he didn't give a damn if Scott understood or not. But, Johnny knew that was all it was; anger. He wanted Scott to see his point of view. He just didn't know quite how to explain something that was so personal, so much a part of who he was and always would be. Buchanan was right about that one. There was nothing Johnny could ever do to change who he was.

With a clarity that nearly shocked him, he realized he didn't want to change who he was. He had gained so much from both sides of his heritage. Johnny couldn't imagine ever not being Mexican any more than he could imagine ever not being white. He could be no less Mexican and white than he could not be Johnny Madrid. And as much as he had never been ashamed of being a gunfighter, he realized he'd never been ashamed of being mixed either.

It seemed so simple yet he'd never really sat down like this and thought it through. Taking a deep, cleansing breath, Johnny stood up and walked back around to the front of the house. He was determined to talk this out with his family calmly and rationally. With a quirky smile, he thought Scott would like that.

Murdoch and Scott sat on the veranda in quiet contemplation. As Johnny rounded the house, both men looked up hopefully.

Johnny smiled slightly as he stepped onto the tile. He walked over and settled on the low wall facing his family.

"Johnny, I'm sorry. I had no right to speak to you like that," Scott started immediately.

"No, you didn't but, apology accepted," Johnny said softly. He sighed tiredly then. "I don't know how to explain how I feel. I never was much good at that."

"Maybe if you just start talking, son," Murdoch suggested.

Johnny nodded but was silent for several seconds.

"Well, I guess I'll just tell you some of what it's like for me," he finally said and glanced up for their approval.

Receiving nods from both men and not missing the anticipation, he began.

"When I was a kid, the other kids would make fun of me or ignore me. Sometimes; a lot of times, I got in fights." He smiled a little. "I got to be a real fast runner and pretty good with my fists. My mother .... she tried to explain it to me. But it's hard to understand when you're a kid. Hell, I still don't understand it.

"Anyway, when I became a gunfighter I thought it would stop but it didn't. Maybe just got a little quieter is all. Most people kept clear of me. A few of the other gunhawks were never real quiet about it but the ones that shot off their mouths wished they hadn't pretty fast." His eyes darkened dangerously as memories assailed him.

"Since I've been here I haven't really run into it much. Oh, I could tell some people couldn't stand me. Whether it was because of Madrid or my heritage or maybe both, I don't know. But it was a lot better until....."

"If this is too hard for you, son...."

Johnny raised a hand to wave Murdoch off.

"Johnny, I know how much you've had to endure all your life but, shouldn't that make you want to show Buchanan for what he is now?" Scott asked.

Johnny looked at his brother and knew he simply did not understand what it was like. "When you were in that army prison, how did the guards treat you?"

Scott was shocked to say the least and not sure why Johnny had asked about something he knew Scott didn't ever want to talk about. But, if his brother was making this effort, he figured he could at least answer that one question. "Badly."

"Why?" Johnny asked immediately.

Scott shook his head and frowned. "I'm not sure I understand what you're asking, Johnny. We were prisoners of war. The guards hated us because we were on the other side."

"They hated you because you were a northerner."

Scott nodded.

"And that was the only reason?" Johnny pressed.

"Yes, that was the only reason."

"That's prejudice, Scott."

"Yes, I suppose it is in a way. I don't see the point, though," Scott said.

"The point is, you experienced that every day for, what? A year? Imagine experiencing it every day for your entire life only ten times worse."

Scott sighed softly. "You're saying I can't understand how you feel unless I've experienced it. I'm not sure I agree with that, Johnny. There is such a thing as empathy. Feeling badly for a person even though you haven't had the experience."

"I know what it means, Scott!" Johnny closed his eyes and took a breath to calm down. "I guess I'm just not sayin this right."

Johnny stood up and started to pace, wrapping his arms around himself in that familiar way of his. He chewed his lower lip as he struggled with the decision. Finally, blowing out his breath, he sat back down.

"In Mexico, especially in the smaller villages, if a woman gave birth to a half-breed, she'd wrap the baby in a blanket and take it to the river."

Scott frowned. "For Baptism?"

Johnny actually chuckled. "I guess that's a nice way to think about it. No, Scott. She'd throw the baby in and let it drown."

Scott actually gasped aloud then in a whisper, simply said, "no."

"Yes. Sometimes, if the mother couldn't do it the women of the village would take the child away. A lot of times, if the mother knew the baby was a breed, she'd end the pregnancy early."

Murdoch felt his heart fall into his stomach. He'd heard these rumors over the years but could not fathom them being true.

"How could a woman do such a thing?" Scott asked.

"Because she'd be treated like less than a dog if she had a half-white kid on her hip. She'd be shunned by everyone. Like my mother was," Johnny said the last in less than a whisper.

Murdoch didn't miss the comment and he moved to sit next to Johnny, wrapping his arm around his son.

"Kids like me were treated like nothing. I learned to stay away from river banks because someone might take a notion to throw me in." He felt his father's grip strengthen almost painfully.

"Did that happen?" Scott asked.

Johnny nodded then laughed. "At least I learned to swim."

"Don't do that. Don't joke about it, son. None of this is funny," Murdoch said gruffly.

"No, it isn't. Look, I'm just trying to make you understand what I've dealt with all my life. And why I'm just not sure I can sit up there and talk about it in front of the whole town. I ..... I don't think I can do that."

"Maybe you won't have to. Maybe my testimony will be enough. I think we should wait for the prosecutor and talk it through with him," Murdoch suggested.

"That would be good, real good," Johnny sighed, hoping it would be that easy.

"Now, I'd like to ask a question of you, Murdoch," Scott said.

Bracing himself, Murdoch nodded.

"Who are these people who refused to do business with us? I know it had to be Charlie Stone at the Feed and Seed and Kramer at the lumber mill. What about the others?"

Murdoch sighed and unconsciously pulled Johnny closer to him. He wasn't even really aware that he still had his arm around his son. "Calderone, Jones and Monroe."

"Great!" Johnny spat. "Low-down lyin snakes!" He stood up so quickly, Murdoch's arm jerked hard with the release.

"Monroe, huh? Didn't I just go see him two months ago about those horses? He was more than happy to do business then."

"I didn't know anything about that, Johnny," Murdoch said.

"You were in San Francisco. He sent word he needed some cuttin horses and I just went right on over there," Johnny explained, his arms flailing about. "He was real nice, too." He shook his head at the insanity of it all.

"Maybe he's changed his mind; realizes he was wrong," Scott considered.

"Or maybe he was in a bad spot and decided I was the lesser evil," Johnny spat. He'd had enough, more than enough he decided. "I'm goin to bed."

"It's not even six o'clock," Scott protested.

Johnny didn't answer him, he just went inside.

*****

State's Attorney Henry Clay arrived at the ranch precisely at nine a.m. He stepped out of the surrey and straightened his jacket, then smoothed down his brown hair. With a quick brush at his moustache, he walked to the front door. A tall and skinny man he was but there was an intelligence and understanding in his hazel eyes that usually put people at ease quickly.

Johnny had been sullen all morning, speaking only when spoken to and then in clipped answers. He was sure disaster was awaiting him. He couldn't dispell the feeling of dread that consumed him.

Scott and Murdoch kept a wide berth, leaving him be for the most part until the prosecuter arrived and they could, hopefully, put his mind at ease.

Scott jumped up at the knock on the door and hurried to answer.

Once the introductions were out of the way and Clay was settled on the sofa with coffee, he began.

"Gentlemen, I need you to tell me a story. In your own words what happened here with Mr. Buchanan?"

Eyebrows went up all around as no one was anxious to be the first to start. Clay sensed the unease and had certainly expected it. He smiled and addressed Johnny.

"Why don't you start, Johnny? Since you are the victim, I'd like to hear from you before the others."

Johnny had long since appraised the man and figured he was genuine. Then again, he'd been wrong about Monroe. That still stuck in his craw. So, he began at the beginning, describing the cattlemen's association arrival and ending with him lying bleeding on the very floor beneath them now.

Clay took several notes, not even trying to hide his disdain at the treatment Johnny had received. When Johnny had finished, Clay looked at him. All he saw was blue. No emotion whatsoever and that concerned him. He held his tongue for now and asked for Murdoch's version of events.

Once the rancher was finished and Scott had told the little he actually knew first-hand, Clay began asking his questions. Had he known what he was about to start, he would have done this individually and privately.

"Mr. Lancer, you had no indication prior to these events that Mr. Buchanan was a bigot?"

"No, the subject had never come up before," Murdoch answered.

"But, you said you corresponded with Buchanan over the years. He didn't know of Johnny's ethnicity?"

Murdoch shook his head. "I guess I never mentioned to him that Maria was Mexican. It never occurred to me and it certainly wasn't an issue as far as I was concerned."

Clay repositioned himself on the sofa so he could look directly at Murdoch. "Please understand that these next questions are geared toward what Buchanan's attorney may ask you on the stand. Now, are you telling me that for all these years you had no idea that your best friend held these beliefs?"

"That is what I'm telling you," Murdoch replied flatly.

"How can that be, Mr. Lancer?"

"Tom left the valley just a year after I arrived. He'd purchased a larger spread and was ready to move on. We kept in touch by letter only after that. Prejudice was never a topic of discussion."

Clay smiled. "Good answer."

"Mr. Clay, Johnny doesn't want to testify. Can we do this without him?" Scott asked.

Henry Clay stared at Scott for a beat then turned to Johnny. "Why wouldn't you want to testify?"

Johnny shrugged. "I don't wanna be put on display, Mr. Clay."

"Well, I understand but it really is imperative that you have your say, Johnny."

"Why? So Buchanan's lawyer can try to chew me up? You know as well as I do he's gonna throw my past in my face," Johnny said angrily.

"Your past?"

Johnny sighed. "I was a gunfighter."

Clay cocked a brow at this but it was the only indication of his surprise. "Well, there's nothing illegal about that and I can object if they go in that direction."

"What about the jury. Can you pick them, too?" Johnny asked sarcastically.

"Johnny is concerned that the jury will be comprised of men who think like Buchanan," Scott explained.

"Well, I certainly have some say in the jury selection but so does Buchanan's lawyer. I can't guarantee anything."

"Wouldn't my testimony be enough? I was right here through it all," Murdoch intervened.

"Yes and you are prejudiced. I mean that in the legal terminology. Johnny is your son so you're likely to paint things in his favor."

"So will I," Johnny countered.

"The fact is, gentlemen, that Johnny needs to testify as the victim. It will have an impact on the jury and the judge," Clay explained. "I will do everything I can to keep them from attacking you, Johnny."

"Good luck," Johnny mumbled.

"Now, is there anything at all that you can think of that you haven't already told me?"

Scott jumped up, nearly knocking the coffee pot off the table.

"Scott!" Murdoch chastised.

"I'm sorry. I just remembered something." Turning to his brother he said one word, "Clive."

Johnny's eyes widened then he groaned. "I completely forgot about that."

"Clive Harper? What about him?" Murdoch asked.

The brothers exchanged woeful looks and Johnny added a pleading quality to his. He didn't want to tell the old man but he knew they had to now.

Scott retook his seat. "Clive told Johnny and me a story when he was here. He said he had no proof but that a lot of the old-timers around here knew the story."

"What story?" Clay asked.

"The story of how Murdoch bought this ranch," Scott said, holding his breath.

"What are you talking about? I bought it from the government after the previous owner died. He had no family so the property was turned over to the state."

"It's not that, it's how the previous owner died that's the problem, Murdoch. Clive said Buchanan killed him so you could buy Lancer," Johnny added.

Murdoch looked like he may just pass out at any second. He sat in a silent stupor for several minutes. Scott stopped Clay from speaking when he saw the man make a motion do to so.

Johnny figured he should hear the rest. No more secrets and all that. So, as soon as he felt the old man could handle it, he went on. "He also said that Buchanan raided the Miwok village and used a Lancer branded horse, making sure it was left behind. I guess so it looked like you were responsible and Buchanan and his men just happened to be close by so he could save the day when they retaliated."

"Saving my life and making me feel obligated to him," Murdoch whispered. How could he have been so blind? So incredibly stupid? Murdoch rose and walked purposefully to his desk. After a minute of rummaging, he found what he sought.

"This is the original bill of sale for the ranch. The first one thousand acres. Scott, I want you to ride into town and wire the Pinkerton agency. Hire them to make sure Senor Alvera really doesn't have any living relatives."

"And if he does?" Scott asked.

"We'll deal with that when the time comes. There is no way I can continue living here knowing this may not really belong to us," Murdoch stated firmly.

"It's only rumors, Murdoch," Johnny offered.

"Son, after everything else I've learned about Tom Buchanan, I can easily believe it. And just when were you going to tell me about this?" he added the question almost as an afterthought.

"We weren't," Johnny said, ducking his head. "And I really did forget about it until now."

"As did I," Scott concurred.

"Gentlemen, this sounds like a family matter and I need to get going. But by all means, keep me informed of any developments. Johnny, will you testify?" Clay asked.

Johnny puffed his cheeks and blew out the air, tapping his fingers on his leg. "I guess I got no choice."

Clay smiled. "No, not really. I can and will subpoena you. Nothing personal but I cannot stand a bigot. Well, good day, gentlemen."

Scott saw him to the door then steadied himself for the next round in the Lancer Family truth or consequences.

"Before you say anything, just remember that this all happened before I got shot. We didn't think you needed to know because there wasn't any proof. And we really did forget about it," Johnny said.

"Yes, we really did forget with everything else happening," Scott backed him up.

Murdoch regarded them both with a stern visage. "Well, I suppose I can't really be angry about it, can I? At least, not with the two of you. Clive should have told me though. At any rate, we need to know the truth now."

"Will you give it back if Alvera does have family?" Johnny asked.

"If they want it or compensation and if you both agree. It's only a thousand acres but, unfortunately, it's this thousand acres," Murdoch pointed to the floor indicating that acreage included the hacienda.

"Well, let's not put the cart before the horse. I'll go to town right now," Scott said and hurried to do just that.

"I'm so sick of this," Johnny sighed.

Murdoch smiled lightly at him. "I know. Are you going to be able to do this Monday?"

Johnny regarded him. "No, but Johnny Madrid will."

Murdoch turned away then. He didn't want Johnny to see the disappointment on his face. Why must he always turn to Madrid?

"If that's hard on you, I'm sorry but I don't know any other way. Unless of course, you want to watch me go loco on the stand."

"I just wish you didn't have to use him, son. I wish ......"

Murdoch was surprised to feel the hand on his back. He hadn't heard Johnny move. "So do I but wishing doesn't do any good. It is what it is, Murdoch."

He turned to look at his son and nodded.

"Somethin else I been meaning to mention," Johnny said with a sly grin.

"What?" Murdoch asked warily.

"Well, when you were trying to keep Buchanan from shooting me again, you said something. I was listening," he grinned wider.

But Murdoch was clueless. He couldn't recall what he'd said only how desperate he'd felt.

"I feel the same way," Johnny said softly.

Murdoch frowned then his face relaxed into a smile. He'd told Buchanan he loved Johnny.

Scott caught up with Clay and rode into town with him, filling him in on some of the locals, especially those who had pulled their business because of Johnny.

By the time they reached Green River, Scott felt confident in the man. He still didn't know if his brother would testify though. Clay could subpoena all he wanted but Scott knew Johnny would do as Johnny saw fit.

After wiring the Pinkerton Agency and receiving an aknowledgement, Scott walked over to the jail to see Val Crawford. Knowing the sheriff would want updates. Of course, there was only so much Scott could tell him. It was up to Johnny to divulge any personal matters. Even though Scott figured Johnny would tell Val some or all of it, that was still his brother's call.

He walked through the door just as Val was coming from the cell area looking none too happy.

"Val," Scott greeted.

"Uh," the lawman grunted.

Scott ducked his head to hide the smile. "Problem?" he asked once the smirk was gone.

"Yeah, I got a problem. It's bad enough havin to deal with drunks and just plain ornery cusses but THAT!" he pointed toward the cells. "That is a whole nother rooster!"

Scott sobered. "I'm sorry you're having a hard time."

"Don't worry about it," Val sighed. "Little enough for what he done ta Johnny." After a brief hesitation, he spoke again. "Would ya mind lookin after things while I go get 'im some lunch? Ya don't have ta go back there."

"No problem. Go ahead," Scott said though he'd rather not.

Val nodded. "Won't be but a minute," he promised then grabbed his haggard hat and shoved it on his head. Mumbling about having to feed scum, he left the office.

Scott sighed and walked around the room, checking the coffee pot then thinking better of it. Johnny had long ago warned him off Val's coffee.

"Scott? Scott Lancer!"

Scott cringed at Buchanan's booming voice.

"Scott, please. I need to talk to you," he called.

Shaking his head, Scott didn't think so and he remained quiet.

"I have to tell you something, Scott. It's about Lancer and it's important!" Buchanan pressed on.

He took a deep breath and considered it. Then, with resolution, Scott walked over and stood in the doorway. He saw Buchanan standing at the cell door, grasping the bars and craning his neck to see.

Scott reached in and grabbed the knob, then closed the door with a resounding slam. A satisfied smile lit his face as he walked over and sat at Val's desk.

True to his word, Val was back in no time. "Give ya any trouble?" he asked, noting the closed door.

"No, it was just too noisy in here," Scott replied.

Nodding knowingly, Val hefted the tray on one arm and opened the door. He was back in a flash, slamming the door behind him.

Scott filled him in on the prosecutor's visit and Johnny's reluctance to testify. Val stated he could understand that and didn't blame Johnny a bit. In fact, had he not been a lawman, he might be planning a little necktie party for a certain person. But, Scott didn't hear that from him, he winked.

Scott finally headed back home thinking it was going to be a very long weekend. In the back of his mind, he couldn't help but be curious as to what Buchanan wanted to say to him. Even though Scott was sure it would just be more lies.

*****

The weekend wasn't as long as Scott thought or would have wanted. Before he knew it, Monday morning had arrived. He headed to the kitchen to find Johnny already there and just finishing his breakfast.

Scott cocked a brow at his brother's dress. One look from Johnny told him not to start. It was bad enough he was wearing a plain white shirt and plain black pants, not his style. But, he'd done it for Murdoch. As his father had explained, going to court was much like attending a social event and one should dress conservatively.

This is as conservative as it got and Johnny had drawn the line at a tie.

So, Scott gave a simple good morning and received one in kind. Soon after, Murdoch appeared. Not much conversation could be heard at the table and soon enough the three men readied to leave.

Maria asked Johnny for a moment and took him to the garden. She reached into her apron pocket and pulled out a cross on a thin gold chain.

"Para la proteccion," she explained. (For protection)

Johnny smiled down at her and kissed her cheek, then placed the chain around his neck. "Gracias, mamacita."

"De nada, nino," she smiled with tears in her eyes.

Johnny had to take a moment after she left him to pull himself together. What had he ever done to deserve this woman's devotion? he asked himself. Shaking his head, he knew he couldn't dwell on that right now. It would only tug at his already shaky emotions. He only hoped he could call up his alter ego before they got to Green River.

*****

Henry Clay straightened his tie and took one last look at himself in the mirror to make sure he was presentable. Satisfied he was the epitome of professionalism, he picked up his briefcase only to be stopped by a knock on his door.

"Mr. Clay?" the stranger asked.

"Yes, may I help you?"

"Nope, but I think I can help you. I have some information you're going want to hear," the man said, walking past Clay into the hotel room.

Turning his head to watch the man, Clay cocked a brow. This better be good enough for me to miss breakfast, he thought.

*****

The ride into Green River had been silent. No one even attempted to converse as the tension mounted with each passing step.

Murdoch reined up at the hitching post in front of the courthouse and dismounted. Scott followed but Johnny sat the saddle and stared down the street toward the jail for several seconds. With a resigned sigh, he slid off Barranca and tethered the palomino next to Scott's chestnut.

Murdoch took a glance at his timepiece. "There's still time. I'm going to check the telegraph office. Why don't you both meet me at the hotel? We can get a cup of coffee."

"Right," Scott answered crisply. He turned and walked away and Johnny smiled a little at his father.

"Guess ole Boston's a little tense."

Murdoch patted his arm. "Well, see if you can 'un-tense' him for me."

Johnny shrugged and doubted he could accomplish that task but he followed after his brother. Coffee was not what he wanted but he had to acknowledge it was way too early in the day for his first choice.

*****

Henry Clay sat in stunned silence, staring at the man sitting across from him.

"Will you testify?" he asked.

"Wouldn't have come otherwise. It's time for some justice the way I see it," the man answered.

Clay nodded and then grinned a little. This could not be any better. If he handled this just right, this whole trial would be over before it started.

Downstairs in the hotel restaurant, Johnny and Scott sat at a back table away from the windows and quietly sipped their coffee.

Johnny didn't know how and wasn't really interested in 'un-tensing' his brother. Scott was as tight as a drum and he knew why. But the knowing didn't make it any easier.

Oh, he could sit there all the live long day and talk to Scott about how there was nothng he could do to protect his kid brother. But it would do no good. Johnny knew Scott felt he'd failed him. That was just plain silly but Scott took this older brother business very seriously. Too seriously for Johnny's taste. He'd been watching out for himself all his life.

It was nice and felt really good to have someone he could depend on but that didn't mean he was going to just lay down. He had a quirky thought that he should rile Scott; make him mad at Johnny so he'd forget about all this protecting stuff. He knew it wouldn't work, though. Johnny sighed loudly.

Scott looked up from his coffee and only received a shy grin from his brother. He returned with a grin of his own then lowered his eyes once more. There had to be some way he could keep Johnny from having to take the stand. He'd been thinking about it for days and still had come up empty. He was letting his brother down and that disturbed him beyond measure.

Johnny was sitting back in his chair, legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. Seemingly not a care in the world but Scott knew better. Knew exactly how anxious Johnny was and exactly how his brother would handle that anxiety. Scott supposed he'd known it all along, really. But for some reason, he hadn't consciously thought about Johnny's most efficient defense mechanism until today.

Scott smiled slightly wondering how Mr. Clay and the other lawyer would react to questioning a very recalcitrant Johnny Madrid.

*****

Murdoch arrived in time for one cup of coffee and with no news from the Pinkertons as of yet. Scott wondered if he was this impatient with the agency before. None of them saw Henry Clay walk through the hotel foyer nor did he see them.

At ten minutes before nine, the Lancers walked to the courthouse and entered. Johnny sighed heavily at the roomful of people already gathered. Val approached and guided them to the front row on the right side. Directly behind Henry Clay's table.

The man was writing furiously in a notebook and didn't seem to be aware of anything going on around him. Johnny glanced over at the other side and noted the man sitting there preening himself.

He guessed him to be average height, stocky but not from muscle. He had almost no hair and what little there was shone red in the sunlight streaming through the window. Freckles dotted his face. He had to be about forty-ish, Johnny reckoned. Completely unimpressive in his dark brown suit, but Johnny knew looks could be deceiving.

He starting tapping his right thigh as the room seemed to fill to capacity and the noise level increased. Then, Val disappeared and Johnny knew it would be only moments before Buchanan was brought in. Part of him dreaded having to look at the scum again, part of him wanted to throw his very healthy self in Buchanan's face. He smiled a little at that thought.

Johnny felt a hand on top of his own and looked at his father who was smiling sympathetically at him. Dios, don't do that, old man. I don't need that right now! he thought. But he only smiled back and nodded his acceptance of the support. It did feel good.

The volume in the room lowered substantially then began to rise with whispered voices as the side door opened and Val walked through. Behind him was Tom Buchanan in shackles with a deputy following.

Val stepped to the side and took the bigger man's arm, guiding him into his seat next to his attorney who simply nodded at him. Val removed the shackles and gave Buchanan a contemptuous glare, the walked up beside the judge's bench and cleared his throat.

"All Rise!" he commanded loudly over the crowd.

Everyone stood as Judge Cameron entered from his chambers. Johnny could feel Buchanan's eyes on him and it took everything he had not to look over there. But he would give the man not an iota of satisfaction.

The judge banged his gavel as he sat down and told all to "be seated."

There was the usual courtroom legalities. Val read the charges, the attorney's introduced themselves and Johnny scanned the jury.

He knew some of these men well, others not so much and still others not at all. Crossing his arms, Johnny settled down lower on the bench figuring it would be a long day.

Clay made his opening arguments, the usual introduction of the events, the evidence and the accused's guilt. He had a strong and clear voice and he was impressive to hear for sure.

Warren Beringer stood to make his opening arguments then. He walked around the table and stood in front of the jury box. "Gentlemen of the jury, the state's evidence is circumstantial. My client is innocent of all charges. Thank you."

He sat back down and Buchanan glared at him but the man simply shook his head slightly.

The judge was a bit perturbed at the short statement as well but he shrugged it off and addressed the prosecutor. "Mr. Clay, you may begin."

Henry Clay stood and looked like the cat that swallowed the canary. He couldn't stop the smile that lit his face as he looked directly at Tom Buchanan.

"I call William Goodall to the stand."

There was much murmuring amongst the onlookers as no one seemed to know the name. But, Clay was looking at a red-faced and white-knuckled Tom Buchanan and he knew he'd just made his case.

There was only one other person in that room who knew who William Goodall was. Knew the proper name being used as well as the man's more casual moniker. Johnny's mouth dropped open as he turned in his seat, waiting to lay eyes on someone he never thought he'd see again.

The main doors to the courtroom opened and a tall, thin man with black hair and impeccable grooming walked in. He was dressed entirely in black except for his white shirt; black jacket and pants and black string tie. Silver-tipped black boots clacked against the wooden floor as the man strolled down the aisle.

Johnny grinned. Gentleman Bill. I'll be damned!

As he passed the front row, Bill Goodall glanced over at Johnny and winked though no one else saw it. Scott and Murdoch were having a discussion amongst themselves as to who this man was and what purpose he served.

Val swore Goodall in and he sat in the witness chair, allowing a glare in Buchanan's direction.

"Mr. Goodall, what is your profession?" Clay asked.

"I am a gunfighter," he stated simply.

"And how long have you been a gunfighter?"

Goodall thought for a moment. "All my adult life."

"Do you know the defendant, Tom Buchanan?" Clay asked.

"I surely do," Goodall responded with a distasteful grimace.

"And how do you know him?"

"He hired me some six months back."

The volume level rose in the courtroom until the judge banged his gavel down.

"What did Mr. Buchanan hire you to do, sir?" Clay continued.

"He told me he was planning on taking a ranch in the San Joaquin Valley. At first, he wouldn't give me any particulars. Initially, my job was to train his ranch hands in the fine art of sharpshooting," he grinned.

Johnny looked at him wide-eyed then smiled and shook his head. Murdoch was seething.

"Did he tell you which ranch he was planning on 'taking'?" Clay asked.

"Not at first. Two days before he left to come here he told me it was Lancer he was after."

The courtroom erupted and the judge banged his gavel several times and threatened to clear the room. Finally, the spectators settled down. All except for three who were quietly emitting steam from their ears.

"Objection, your honor. Hearsay!" Beringer stated.

"Overruled and you know it, Mr. Beringer. Continue, Mr. Clay," Judge Cameron admonished.

"Mr. Goodall, did Mr. Buchanan give you any specifics as to how he planned on taking Lancer?"

"All he told me was he had a plan to get rid of one of the Lancers. He said once that one was gone, he'd have a much easier time taking over the ranch."

Johnny snorted aloud at this preposterous notion.

"Why have you come here today, sir?" Clay asked.

"Because I heard Buchanan was in jail. When I got here I did some listening and found out who he tried to get rid of and how," Goodall explained, his face darkening with anger.

Clay frowned and shook his head. "Why does that matter?"

Goodall looked directly at Johnny. "Nobody messes with a friend of mine. Not like that. If you're going to face a man, face him. All this backstabbing makes me sick!"

Johnny had to smile at Bill. This would be the only reason, too. Gunfighters knew what they were in for and knew they may have to one day face a friend in some range war or other. But there was a code of sorts; an honor system. One did not backshoot and one did not play dirty little games. Gunfighters faced each other, plain and simple.

Johnny knew that had a true range war started, Bill would have fought for the side who hired him. And though they were indeed good friends, Johnny would have understood and accepted it for what it was; a job. Pride in the trade.

"So, you're here because Johnny Lancer is a friend of yours?" Clay was asking.

"I don't know Johnny Lancer. But, Johnny Madrid is a damned fine man and deserves better than being shot in his own home while unarmed. Only a coward does that!"

"Objection!" Beringer called.

"Sustained. The jury will disregard the witness calling the defendant a coward. And the witness will refrain from cursing in this courtroom," the judge admonished.

Bill looked at the aging man and smiled. "My apologies to the court, sir," he tipped his head.

Johnny almost laughed aloud. This is why they called him Gentleman Bill.

"Mr. Goodall, did Tom Buchanan ever tell you that he hates Mexicans?"

"Objection!"

"Overruled!"

"He did. He complained about them all the time. Said he would never have one working for him or anywhere near him. He told me his plan was to take over Lancer then get rid of all the small ranchers and farmers that lived on his boundaries. He said they were stealing his water."

"Did this bother you?" Clay asked.

Goodall regarded him for a beat. "It doesn't matter if it did or not. I wasn't being paid to agree with the man."

"So, let me get this straight. Had Buchanan started a range war in the usual way, you would have had no problem going up against your friend?"

"That's right," Goodall said.

Both Murdoch and Scott looked at Johnny but all they saw was understanding. Something neither could comprehend.

In fact, they were all having trouble comprehending any of this testimony; primarily due to the shock of the revelations. It was all Murdoch could do to keep his seat. He glared at Buchanan but the man was looking only at the witness chair with murder in his eyes.

"Mr. Goodall, were you aware that Tom Buchanan and Murdoch Lancer were long time friends?"

Bill snorted at this. "Buchanan said he'd kept up the so-called friendship knowing that one day he could use Lancer's trust against him and take control of the largest ranch in the area. He told me he'd made Lancer and now his own ranch was going under. He knew who Johnny was before he ever got there. He planned on getting rid of Johnny one way or the other."

Murdoch closed his eyes. He didn't think he could take any more of this. All the lies, from the get go. Acting so surprised about Johnny's past. Pretending to be so friendly to Scott. Acting as if he cared about Murdoch's standing in the community. Using everything he'd told the man in confidence to try and destroy him and his family.

"No further questions at this time, your honor," Clay said and sat down.

"Cross, Mr. Beringer?"

"Yes, you honor. Most definitely," Beringer replied and stood to approach the witness stand.

"Now then, Mr. Goodall. You have testified to what you say Tom Buchanan told you. How do we know what you say is true? How can we trust the word of a gunfighter?" he asked.

Bill smiled. "Well, you can believe me or not. But, there's someone else who can tell you the exact same thing."

Beringer turned to face him. "Really? Who might that be?"

"George Wilkins. Buchanan's foreman. He's waiting right outside," Bill grinned.

Buchanan was out of his chair in a heartbeat. He lunged toward the witness stand and grabbed Goodall by the throat.

A shot rang out and the crowd hit the floor. Silence resonated the courtroom as the acrid smell of gunpowder assaulted the senses and the smoke swirled upward.

Johnny jumped the railing that separated the prosecutors table from the gallery. Murdoch made a grab for him but his fingertips only caught a wisp of the fabric of Johnny's shirt.

"Goddamit!" Johnny yelled as he stumbled over the table then rolled over the top, landing on his feet and going forward from the sheer momentum.

Scott went through the gate two steps behind him, Murdoch one step further back.

Buchanan was slumped over the witness stand, his hands still cluthed Bill's throat. Johnny grabbed two handfuls of his jacket and yanked him backward, discarding him to the floor like so much trash.

He went to his friend and laid a hand on Bill's arm; eyes searching the other man's.

Val cursed under his breath as he kneeled over Buchanan. "Doc!"

"I'm here," Sam Jenkins called as he made his way to the front.

Scott knelt on the other side of Buchanan offering his assistance to the sheriff.

"I only meant ta wing 'im but he's bleedin like a stuck pig!" Val explained.

Indeed, Buchanan was leaving a pool of blood beneath him from the seemingly innocuous shoulder wound. Val scooted toward his head when Sam arrived to give the doctor room.

"You okay?" Johnny asked.

"Thanks to your sheriff," Bill said as he tugged at his shirt collar then straightened his tie.

"Mr. Goodall, I'm Murdoch Lancer and I'd like to thank you for your testimony," the rancher intervened.

Bill looked him up and down then turned to Johnny. "Your old man?"

Johnny grinned and nodded. "It's a long story."

"One I hope you'll tell me over a cold beer, amigo."

Clay joined the threesome, still obviously shaken from the whole ordeal.

"I guess Buchanan really didn't want to hear from his foreman," Johnny remarked.

"Yes, well," Clay said coyly.

"What?" Johnny looked suspiciously at him.

"His foreman isn't here, exactly. I just said that to get a rise from the old man," Bill grinned.

Johnny stared at him then glanced toward the judge who was paying none of them any mind. He was just sitting there staring into space.

He leaned in anyway. "You took a big chance, Bill."

Goodall shrugged. "What's life without taking chances? Anyway, Wilkins was too scared of Buchanan to ever go against him. He did tell me a whole lot more about Buchanan's plans than the old man had. Which is part of why I came here. I figured the old man was keeping me out of the loop and you know how I hate that, Johnny."

Johnny laughed softly. "Yeah, I know. Thanks," he added softly.

Murdoch was growing uncomfortable with the comradarie between these two but he tried not to show it. He remembered how Johnny reacted to his disapproval of Madrid. He had decided he would work hard to come to terms with that part of his son's life. Now was a very good place to start.

Suddenly, Scott had joined the little group. "He's dead. Sam said the bullet severed an artery."

"Good," Johnny spat.

"Well, gentleman, I'll clean up here. I'm sure the judge is about to dismiss the case," Clay said, raising his voice so Judge Cameron could hear him.

The elderly man seemed to come out of his deep thoughts and looked at the prosecutor then nodded. Raising his gavel, then simply tossing it on the desk, he made the announcment and retreated to his chambers.

"Is he alright?" Scott asked.

"I'll take care of him. Judge Cameron may be old but he's sharp as a tack. I know he's been talking about retiring. He's told me how tired he is of all the violence. Gentlemen," Clay nodded and returned to his table, collecting the scattered papers of his case.

Several men from the theater were recruited to carry Buchanan's body away and Val followed them, still cursing under his breath.

"I could use a drink," Scott sighed.

Johnny chuckled and squeezed his shoulder. "Join us, Bill."

"Don't mind if I do," the gunhawk agreed.

Johnny walked out with his friend as Murdoch and Scott fell back a little.

"Are you alright, sir? I know this had to be hard, hearing about Buchanan's true plans."

Murdoch looked pensively at his son. "It was but I'm alright, son. I'm just glad it's over. Most of it, anyway," he mumbled the last sentence as he headed out the door.

Scott knew exactly what he meant and sighed heavily.

*****

One week later, Murdoch received word that Buchanan's ranch had been foreclosed on by the bank. He could glean no satisfaction from this news as it only served to remind him of the entire fiasco.

Scott had taken Johnny on a short hunting trip after the trial and Murdoch found he couldn't object. In fact, he would have liked to go with them but someone had to run things. Especially with the cattle drive nearing so quickly.

He worried about his boys while they were gone but they both seemed in good spirits upon returning. He had to assume they had talked things through and come to terms with all that had happened.

One thing still hung heavy on the rancher's mind and he'd heard nothing from the Pinkerton's. More than once Johnny or Scott had stopped him from wiring the agency again. Scott said he was harrassing the poor men and to give them a chance. It wasn't easy to latch onto such a cold trail.

Murdoch had almost popped off before thinking but he left his thoughts unsaid. A glance at Johnny told him his son wasn't thinking about his own cold trail. At least, Murdoch hoped that was the case.

And so the uncertainty cloaked them all in a feeling of deep unease. Knowing that they could quite literally be homeless at a moment's notice. Murdoch had no worries about actually having a roof over their heads. There were plenty of line shacks and assorted cabins on the ranch. But none of them were home. None of them were the estancia.

This place where he'd started it all was dear to him. He knew every nook and cranny so well. Every hall and turn; every room. Johnny had been born in this house. He didn't think he could stand to lose it.

The brothers knew how much this was wearing on their father but they knew of nothing they could do to facilitate the waiting. Both had realized they should have taken the old man hunting with them and to hell with the work for a while.

*****

Sitting in the great room together after supper one night, Scott challenged his brother to a game of checkers. Murdoch looked on with amusement as they battled as if they were defending an entire country. Both were so competitive, he thought.

A knock at the door was ignored by the two warriors so Murdoch went to answer.

When he returned, he held a thin envelope and wore a frown.

"Somethin wrong, Murdoch?" Johnny asked.

Scott turned to see the expression and tensed.

"That was a message from the Pinkerton's. Alvera has no living family that they can find."

Johnny studied the old man's face. "Well, that's good news, ain't it?"

"Yes, I suppose so. I was just hoping...."

"Sir, none of this is your fault. You don't owe anyone anything. And you certainly would not have been legally bound to give the Alvera family anything had there been any family," Scott stated.

"It's not a matter of legal, Scott. It's a matter of right and wrong. Alvera was wronged in my name. I can't ignore that."

"Nor would I want you to. But I also don't want you to beat yourself up over something you had no control over," Scott retorted gently. A wan smile lifted his mouth. "You're beginning to act just like him," he said, tossing his head toward his brother.

"Hey!" Johnny slapped his arm.

Murdoch chuckled a bit. "Would that be so bad?"

Johnny dropped his head at the left-handed compliment, as anticipated.

"Well, at least we know we have a place to live. I think it really is time to try and put this all behind us," Scott said.

"Me too," Johnny mumbled.

Murdoch watched his younger son, what little he could see of the face. "Is it going to be that easy, Johnny? You've been through hell, son."

Johnny lifted his eyes to his father's. "Yeah, but I'm not there anymore. I'm right where I should be." Then, he grinned. That devlish wait-til-you-see-this grin. His hand went to the checker board but his eyes stayed on his father.

He moved his piece and laughed. "King me!"

Scott's head jerked to the board and he stared at his final piece being removed. Slumping his shoulders, Scott placed another black checker on top the new king and bowed his head slightly.

"Congratulations, brother."

 

 

One month later:

Murdoch cringed and bent his head down toward his shoulder trying to drown out the sound beside him. He thought he managed to protect his eardrum once again.

Johnny had taken an exceptionally deep breath for this one and the ear-splitting whistle resounded throughout the throngs of cattle and men.

As effective as it was in getting a cattle drive started, Murdoch forgot to get away from him first. Well, maybe I'll remember next year, he thought with a smile.

He saw the wicked grin on his younger son's face as he spurred his horse on, taking up alongside his brother.

Murdoch held back and watched with amusement as the two of them pushed and poked at each other, using their horses just as much in the play.

He looked to the heavens. "And they want me to treat them as grown-ups?" He laughed aloud and clucked his horse into motion.

The past few weeks had brought many revelations. Most disturbing the way he'd come to own this land.

There wasn't a thing he could do about it now. The former owner had no family which is why, when he'd died suddenly, Murdoch had been able to buy the ranch so easily.

It was going to take him some time to come to terms. To not want to explode every time he thought about Buchanan. And, he knew it was going to take some time to repair the damage inflicted on his younger son. For, whether Johnny admitted it or not   - and he wouldn't - Murdoch knew this whole episode had hurt him deeply.

Knowing Johnny even thought he might be ashamed of him had hurt Murdoch just as deeply. Yet, he couldn't blame his son. No, he knew exactly where the blame lay for that. And he was so grateful that, once again, his sons were giving him the chance to make it up to them.

Glancing upwards once more, he said softly. "Thank you, Lord."

 

 

~end~
2005

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