The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

The Story

 

 

 

The short, plump man disembarked the stage coach and stepped onto the boardwalk, attempting to knock some of the dust from his brown suit. He removed his bowler hat to reveal cropped brown hair as he wiped his face with a handkerchief. Brown eyes, alive with intensity, scrutinized the small town of Morro Coyo before turning their attention to the baggage being deposited on the ground. Picking up his valise, he squared his shoulders and turned to a passerby, inquiring as to accommodations.

The rough looking cowboy grunted his response, spit tobacco juice then headed on his way. The small man smiled, unperturbed by what would be considered extremely rude behavior in some areas of his home city of New York. He headed toward the small hotel at the end of the street, all the while scanning the town, memorizing each storefront as he passed by.

An hour later, the stranger walked back outside and directly toward the cantina across the road. This was always the best source of information regardless of where he happened to be in the west. He patted his breast pocket. An old habit to ensure he had what he almost always kept there. Occasionally, he gave a thought to this seemingly odd habit but never really allowed himself to delve into the quirk.

He entered the establishment and raked over the small room. He would have laid a bet as to the description before ever entering the door. They were virtually all the same, save those larger western cities which seemed to believe the darker the velvet drapes, the more sophisticated the business. He strode casually to the bar; a long wooden plank that someone had actually sanded down and painted. Impressive, he thought wryly.

As soon as the beer was in his hand, he turned and leaned against the bar giving a quick thought as to if it would hold his weight. It did, and he relaxed as he took in the patrons. It was early yet so there were only a few men milling about. A woman stood near the stairs, leaning against the banister and looking incredibly bored and half asleep. He smiled a little at her. Not much, just enough to show respect yet not enough to garner unwanted attention. Female company was not what he sought today.

He slipped his pocket watch out and glanced at the time. Just past noon. He would nap in a while and be refreshed for the evening. It was Friday so he wasn't sure what he sought would present itself tonight. Saturday was the busiest night for these saloons. Wasting time never sat well with him but he'd learned patience long ago in his profession. Learned, but not appreciated and, at times, unabided. A shortcoming of his, he mused as he sipped the warm beer.

The door opened a moment later and his curiosity and instincts rose as he watched the young man walk casually into the room. He took a seat to the left of the bar and the stranger turned slightly to keep an eye on him. He watched as the man removed his hat, revealing blond hair, a straight aquiline nose and square jaw. He wasn't a cowboy, he quickly decided. Fighting back a smile, he knew instinctively. Rancher.

Still, his posture and the way he held his head were indicative of a higher society background. He was intrigued. Normally, he did not allow anything to sway him from his self-assigned duties but, he had the time. He walked over boldly and smiled at the young man.

"May I join you?"

Scott Lancer looked up, a bit surprised at the man standing before him. He didn't recognize the stranger but he was smiling and seemed friendly. "Please," he replied while waving a hand at the empty chair.

"Scott Lancer," he introduced, extending a hand.

"Jock Steele," the man reciprocated as he accepted the handshake.

"Are you passing through, Mr. Steele?"

The man laughed amicably. "I suppose it's obvious I'm not a local. Yes and no. I have business then I'll be moving on. I'm originally from New York. And you, Mr. Lancer? You're not from around here, are you?"

Scott paused as he considered that answer. "I was born here but I grew up in Boston."

"Ah. How long have you been back?"

"A year, give or take," Scott replied then sipped his beer. The accent was a bit harsh and nasally and he wasn't sure exactly where in New York the man hailed from but he supposed that didn't matter.  

"And do you like California better?"

He looked at the man, uneasy with his inquisitiveness. It all seemed like simple, polite conversation designed to while away a pleasant afternoon. But, Scott's alarms were ringing for some reason and he heeded them.

Steele sensed the uneasiness and laughed lightly. "Forgive me for being so curious. I'm afraid it's my nature. I'm a newspaperman."

Scott nodded and relaxed a little. "I see. That must be a fascinating profession."

"It can be. It can also be infuriatingly frustrating," he laughed. Still smiling, he added, "I'm going to guess you as a rancher."

Scott nodded. "Very good. May I ask how you came to that conclusion?"

Steele settled back in his chair, beer mug in hand as he considered the other man. "The way you carry yourself, mostly. Your posture, the way you hold your head, the way you walk, the intelligent eyes and speech. All marks of a sophisticated man with sophisticated tastes. Yet, there's an easiness to you, as well. You're relaxed and comfortable in your surroundings. So, I surmised you are an educated man and since this is cattle country," he shrugged.

"Impressive, Mr. Steele. Do you read everyone so easily?" Scott was impressed and, a bit disturbed for some reason.

"Not always but usually, I get an idea of a person quickly. I'm not often wrong."

"What brings you to Morro Coyo of all places?" Scott asked.

It was Steele's turn to be uncomfortable. He didn't care for lying but sometimes, it was necessary to get what he wanted. He didn't need anyone knowing his assignment until he was ready and he wasn't ready.

"I'm scouting towns for a suitable newspaper office. I'd like to settle down and run my own paper. Something small and - homey, I suppose is a good word," he smiled.

Scott nodded but he doubted the man would find what he was looking for here. "Have you been to Green River? It's a bit larger than Morro Coyo though still a small town and may be better suited to your needs."

"I'll remember that, Mr. Lancer. Thank you for the advice."

"Well, I should be going," Scott said and stood to leave. He picked up his hat then paused in consideration. "Mr. Steele, if you're going to be around a few days, why don't you come to supper at our ranch Sunday? I think my father would be very interested in the idea of a newspaper office in the valley."

"Thank you, Mr. Lancer. I would enjoy meeting your family."

Scott gave him directions and a time then left him with a slight bow at the waist. Steele smiled to himself. He really was a lucky man. He would never understand how these things just fell into his lap but he wasn't about to question it. Meeting a Lancer and being invited into the home? He grinned more widely then finished off his beer. Standing, he settled his hat on his head and left the cantina in search of a restaurant. At least he wouldn't be spending the evening in a smoky, crowded saloon.

*****

Johnny was cautious to say the least. His questioning of his brother had not given him any comfort. Scott told the story and why he invited this complete stranger into their home yet, Johnny didn't like it. Of course, they wouldn't understand the why and he wasn't good at explaining it. That much was obvious since he'd tried so many times in the past year to explain to them why strangers made him wary. As predicted, both men shrugged off his concerns as paranoia generated by the past.

Johnny didn't care what they called it except that it made him sound crazy. All he knew was he didn't like it and he was going to be on high alert the whole evening. A total waste of a Sunday if anyone were to ask him, which they didn't. A newspaperman.

Well, at least it didn't sound threatening. It seemed completely innocent and maybe it was. He just felt, if Scott wanted them to meet the man, they could have had supper in town with him. No reason to invite him into their home. He knew he was the suspicious sort. He knew his father wanted him to be more sociable. The only problem with that was, it had never brought him anything but grief.

He stood on the veranda and stared into the night. Memories of gay music and laughter filled his head. All interrupted brutally by the sound of gunfire. It was supposed to be a happy event. The marriage of two young people and the whole village was, of course, invited. Friend and stranger alike were welcomed like family. That's how it was in Mexico. And, it was usually a joyous event. But not that time. Not the one time he'd tried to be sociable.

"Nice night."

Johnny jumped and turned quickly to find his father watching him. He grit his teeth to keep from snapping the man's head off. Why does he always have to be watching me? he wondered.

"Yeah," he settled for and turned back.

"I didn't mean to startle you. I didn't think it was possible, actually," Murdoch teased as he stepped forward.

Johnny didn't find it funny. "Well, it is."

The older man's smile faded and he sighed lightly. "He's just a newspaperman. A city slicker from what Scott says."

"I know, I heard him."

"Johnny ..."

"I know, Murdoch, I know. I shouldn't be so suspicious. I shouldn't be so distrusting. I need to relax. I've heard it all, okay?"

"But have you listened? Really listened?" Murdoch retorted softly.

Johnny turned to face him, eyes smoldering. "I listened to you as much as you listened to me." With that, he walked back inside.

*****

Sunday morning, Murdoch and Teresa went to church and the silence of the past two days continued to reign in the great room.

Scott watched his brother stare into his coffee cup, sitting in the corner, until he couldn't stand it any longer.

"Am I to have no friends, Johnny? Is that what you want?"

The younger man closed his eyes for a second before looking up. "No, that's not what I want, Scott. But, he's not your friend, either."

"And he never will be if we don't get to know each other," Scott pointed out.

Johnny's lip twitched, he just couldn't help it. "Maybe you should've invited him on a picnic, then."

Rolling his eyes, Scott threw his hands in the air. Johnny laughed softly and stood up, setting his cup down as he went.

"Look, I'm sorry. I know it's unreasonable and I'm trying. I just wish ..."

"What?" Scott asked, his eyes boring into his brother's.

"I just wish you'd all at least try to understand a little. It's not like I hate everyone in the world. I just can't throw my arms open and welcome everybody that walks through that door into my life."

"I'm not asking you to. All I'm asking is that you give him a chance and be courteous."

"That's fine but every time this happens, you act like I'm trying to be difficult."

Scott's eyes shined. "I know you aren't trying, Johnny. It's a natural phenomenon with you."

Johnny looked sidelong at his brother. He knew he'd just been ribbed but he wasn't sure how. "Well, I'll try to do better. Is that okay?"

Scott smiled. "That's just fine, brother. Just fine."

*****

Steele regaled the family throughout supper and afterward with gregarious stories of his adventures. Each one seemed to grow in hubris and outrageousness. Johnny found himself liking the man, laughing at his stories and feeling a little ashamed of himself. Still, there was that niggle, those hairs on the back of his neck and he just couldn't ignore that.

"You've done a lot of traveling, Mr. Steele. Sounds like you've gotten yourself into some fixes," Johnny remarked casually during a break in the storytelling.

"Please, call me Jock and, yes, there have been some heart stopping moments. Fortunately, I've often found myself in the company of charitable men willing to come to my assistance."

"Well, it certainly sounds like an exciting life. Why would you want to settle down?" Teresa asked.

He smiled at her. She was a beautiful girl and he'd found himself censoring his language several times out of respect for the mixed company. "Well, my dear, I'm simply worn out, I suppose. Traveling by stage is not a pleasant experience."

Groans and murmurs of agreement were heard about the room.

"Those roads are positively ancient!" he continued.

Johnny laughed softly. "They get a lot of use, I reckon."

"Some of them feel like deer trails," Scott interjected with a laugh.

"How long were you planning on staying in the area, Jock?" Murdoch asked.

"I don't really know, why?"

"Well, I thought you might enjoy staying here with us for a week or two. Get off that road for a while. It will give you a chance to see Green River, as well, and you'll be more comfortable here at the ranch than in the hotel."

Murdoch smiled at him but he couldn't help casting a glance at his younger son. Johnny's face was unreadable, however, but Murdoch took that as a good sign.

Steele was surprised to say the least and his face showed it. He did not, however, allow them to see the excitement such an offer brought. "I'm most grateful for your hospitality, Murdoch. I humbly accept."

"Good! I'll drive into town tomorrow and pick you up." Scott grinned, pleased with the offer from his father.

"Excellent plan. Well, until then, I should be going. It is a bit of a ride back and I'm afraid I'm still tired," Steele said even as he stood.

They all joined him and bade him goodnight, watching as he drove the surrey down the road. Scott walked over and flung an arm around his brother's shoulders.

"Well, what do you think of Mr. Steele now, brother?"

Johnny bit the inside of his cheek and refused to let Scott have his moment. He shrugged and said, "he's a good storyteller. Well, g'night."

Scott's arm fell to his side as he watched his brother walk away. He opened his mouth then closed it tightly, shaking his head in frustration. He heard Murdoch chuckling and turned to him.

"He really gets your goat sometimes," the rancher said and headed inside as well.

Scott stood there, his shoulders slumping in defeat. With a smile, he nodded his agreement with his father's statement and walked into the house.

*****

Jock Steele was positively glowing with his good fortune. It was a plus that he really did like the Lancers. The evening was thoroughly enjoyable and he was sure there would be more of the same - for a while anyway. He didn't like to deceive people but he knew this would be impossible if he let his true intentions be known. For his subject would surely refuse to cooperate.

It wasn't as if he meant any harm, though. He never understood the close-mouthed attitude of this particular breed of men. Well, he'd dealt with the type before and he'd deal with this. He would get his story and it would be as successful as the last.

He began to devise a plan - one of pure subtlety. He had to be careful with this one. He'd heard the tall tales and knew them to be just that. But, with every tall tale there had to be a modicum of truth. A seed on which the story grew. This one was more tight-lipped than any, he surmised. And if half of what he'd heard was true, he could certainly see why.

The family couldn't know all if it, of course. Could they? Maybe. He'd have to find that out as well. That could well turn the tale in a different direction altogether. Either way, it would be fascinating, he knew. He felt the excitement grow now. This would be quite different than past assignments. The whole path was now changed. And why would he mind talking about it now? It was all behind him. He'd walked away from it all, seemingly, without a backward glance.

He frowned. No, that wasn't true for he'd heard those stories as well. The past had not died so easily. Had not died at all, really. It was, in fact, very much a part of him. He'd been watching all night, saw the wheels turning, saw the suspicion upon his arrival. The standoffish attitude at first. Then, he'd relaxed and Jock knew he had him. And he'd been careful not to tell certain stories that might bring on recognition. He couldn't show his hand yet.

He hurried to his room, grabbed up pen and paper and began to write all that had happened tonight. He started with the description, somewhat surprised at how accurate his sources were. Usually, he got seven different ideas of what a man looked like and usually, none of them were right. This one, though. This one stood out in a world where your face was not exactly what people noticed.

He stopped, pen in midair as he pondered that thought. Shaking it aside for the moment, he continued with a vivid and precise description of the man. That was the easy part. Now, he had to get inside his mind, learn how he thought and why. That was paramount. The stories, the adventures, would come later.

He would write this story. He would get the truth. He would tell the world just exactly who and what Johnny Madrid was.

*****

Scott secured the bags in the back of the surrey then, he and Steele climbed aboard. He flicked the reins and started out, circling in the street and heading home.

"I hope someone will have the chance to show me around Green River soon," Steele remarked.

Scott smiled a little. "Well, I'm sure one of us can spare the time."

"I know ranching is a huge responsibility and a lot of work. I don't want to put anyone out, Scott. I can make my own way, if need be."

"Murdoch is very interested in the possibility of a newspaper office in the valley, Jock. I'm quite sure he won't mind sparing one of us."

Steele considered this and the man beside him. "Your father is obviously successful and, I dare say prominent in the community."

Laughing, Scott agreed. "Oh, I'd say Murdoch swings a lot of weight, to paraphrase Johnny."

"You two are like day and night but, I did notice a camaraderie between you. It's almost as if you're one part of each other. Like the sun and the moon."

Scott cocked a brow as he considered the analogy. "I suppose it may seem that way. Johnny and I have very different views of the world, though. I suppose I'm more ... optimistic than he."

"Oh? How so?" Steele asked, completely intrigued.

Scott looked sideways at him before turning his attention back to the road in contemplation. "Well, I like to give people the benefit of the doubt whereas my brother would rather assume they're up to no good and wait to be proven right or wrong. I suppose it's the difference in our upbringing."

"I assumed since you said you're from Boston, that the two of you didn't grow up together. I've found that people out here are a little less likely to have that optimism you spoke of."

"Yes," Scott sighed out. "Johnny grew up in Mexico and the border towns. I understand why he thinks the way he does, I just don't usually agree."

Steele smiled a little. "That is a very hard place to live, let alone be raised in. At least, you're able to see why he reacts the way he does."

Scott didn't say anything for a while and Steele could see he was thinking hard about the conversation they were having. It seemed the young man needed some gentle prodding to continue.

"What is it, Scott?"

"Nothing."  

Steele bit the inside of his cheek. He could see this wasn't going to be easy. He thought Scott liked him still, it would take more than one dinner for the young man to open up. He did believe he could get to that point, though. They had something in common being from the east though he was quite sure their circumstances were nearly as different as Scott and Johnny's.

It was easy to see, of course. Scott was intelligent, well-spoken and well-read. It was obvious he'd had a fine education. All the comforts had been afforded him. Now, he was out here in the 'wild west' and Steele was sure it was a struggle for Scott. "I can imagine this hasn't been an easy adjustment for you to make. I know it was quite a cultural shock for me when I arrived out here."

Scott snorted. "Yes, quite an adjustment. I still have trouble with it. I've seen the ugly side of men but, this is ... different. It's a way of life."

"These men came out here and cut a life out of nothing but wilderness; fighting off the elements, Indians, wild animals and the land itself. It's something they had to learn and passed on to their children in the process and out of sheer necessity. I see a change beginning, a move toward a more civilized world, but it's going to take some time."

"And in the meantime, a lot of good men are dying for little to no reason."

Steele stared at his profile. He could see the jaw muscle tightening, the grim expression - almost an anger, it seemed. "Have you lost someone?" he asked quietly.

Scott turned and looked at him, baffled at first then, he relented. "We've lost some good hands but, no one I knew personally or well - yet." He added the last word through clenched teeth.

"You're worried about losing Johnny, perhaps?"

He didn't answer the question, at least not verbally. Steele turned his eyes to the road but his mind was working fast. There must be a substantial reason for Scott to worry over his brother. This young man didn't seem to be the type to worry over what might happen. So, he surmised, there had been a real threat or threats against Johnny. That was good for him. He may get the opportunity to actually see Madrid in action. That would be a coup!

They pulled into the yard, Steele surprised at how quickly the time had passed on the trip. He hadn't gleaned much useful information from Scott Lancer. He hoped, though doubted, Johnny would be open to him. He had no illusions of how hard this would be. He remembered another man with a closed mouth. Still, he'd found out quite a bit about that one by just observing and insinuating himself into the lives of he and his friends. He saw no reason it wouldn't work the same here.

*****

Murdoch walked out to greet them. "Welcome, Jock. We're glad you'll be staying with us."

"Thank you, Murdoch. I'm sure it will be much more comfortable than a hotel and with better conversation." Steele smiled as he shook hands with the rancher.

"Well, we hope so. I'll show you to your room."

"I'm off, gentlemen. Enjoy your day," Scott said.

"Off? Already?"

"Well, as you said, Jock, ranching is a big job," Scott replied with a smile.

"Johnny will need some help with that creek bed, son."

"I'm on it," Scott stated even as he walked toward the barn.

"I hope I'm not keeping you from anything, Murdoch," Steele said.

"Nothing that can't wait. I'm more than anxious to hear your plans for a newspaper. Why don't you get settled then we'll have some lunch in a while?"

"Excellent idea!"

Steele was more than satisfied with his room. It was spacious and comfortable. He unpacked then opened a window facing the front of the house. It was much better than any accommodations he'd had since leaving San Francisco, actually. But, he wasn't tired and a bit restless so he left his room and walked down the hallway. Idly, he wondered which Lancer occupied the other rooms on this level. Part of him thought of peeking inside those rooms and making a guess just by the overall appearance. He chuckled to himself. Ever the investigator.

Of course, he didn't do that. Getting caught snooping would bring his stay here to a quick end. He reached the end of the hall and saw the doorway leading outside. Walking out and down the stairs, he examined the architecture of the hacienda with interest.

"Somethin I can do for ya?"

Steele turned to find a short, older man watching him critically. He smiled. "Just admiring the craftsmanship. Jock Steele," he introduced, extending a hand.

"Jellifer B. Hoskins."

"A pleasure. You work here, I assume?"

Jelly snorted. "Course I work here. Wouldn't make much sense to be hangin around if I didn't!" He tucked his thumbs in his suspenders then rolled back on his heels. "Murdoch says you're a newspaperman. Gonna start a paper in these parts."

"Well, I haven't decided where my offices will be yet, but, I am interested." Steele regarded the small man, though taller than himself, with suspicion. He seemed overly familiar, using Murdoch's first name, so he quickly deduced Hoskins was close to the Lancers.

Jelly was studying him just as hard until the bell rang. "Time fer lunch," he said simply then walked away.

*****

Jelly joined them for lunch like he normally did. Murdoch's quick explanation that Jelly was part of the family validated Steele's assumptions. Most of the conversation centered around the newspaper and Murdoch was most inquisitive as to the kind of journalism Steele proposed to print. He seemed satisfied with the answers he received. Not wanting some trash can liner newspaper invading the valley, he was happy to hear Steele intended to report the news seriously and noted his own disdain for 'yellow' journalism.

The afternoon passed leisurely as Murdoch had work to attend. Jock took a long walk around the grounds, in the barn and ending up in the garden where he met up with Teresa.

"You have a lovely garden, Miss Teresa."

She looked up from her vegetable weeding and smiled at him. "Thank you. I'm very proud of it."

He sat on a bench under a willow tree and watched her weed. "My, but those tomatoes are near perfect! I hope these gentlemen appreciate your green thumb."

Teresa laughed lightly and sat back, brushing a stray strand of hair from her face. "I'm sure they don't notice. They just inhale the food. Well, except for Johnny. He always makes sure he compliments Maria and me."

"Ah, a man with proper manners. Now, I would have thought Scott would do better." He frowned his disapproval while his eyes held a teasing light.

"At first, he did all the time. I suppose his manners have toned down over time. Oh, it isn't that he's not polite. I guess I've just told him often enough it isn't necessary," she shrugged.

"But, Johnny doesn't pay that any mind?"

"Johnny does what Johnny wants to do," she laughed.

Steele laughed as well then drew his brows together. "It's remarkable to me that he has such good manners and respect considering where he grew up."

Teresa looked blankly at him.

"Scott told me a very little. It was obvious the two of them didn't share a childhood. He simply explained Johnny grew up in Mexican border towns," he explained, sounding as nonchalant as possible. It worked as she relaxed her shoulders.

"It's remarkable to me, too, Mr. Steele. But then, Johnny is a remarkable man."

He didn't miss the light of admiration and, maybe a little puppy love? in her eyes. He decided not to press at the moment. He felt Teresa would be a good source of information if he played his cards just right.

"At any rate, my dear, I believe you should be selling those vegetables to your neighbors. They'd go for a pretty penny, I'm sure."

*****

Steele anticipated the evening meal when he could talk to Johnny. Provided Johnny was in a mood to talk, of course. He knew this would be a difficult venture, just not sure how difficult. He figured he'd find out tonight.

As they settled at the table, Jock smiled at all of them. "May I just say, without sounding too, er, emotional, that it is most pleasant to sit down with a real family to dine. It's a luxury I've not experienced for quite some time."

"We're very glad to have you, Jock." Murdoch smiled as he raised his wine glass in a toasting fashion.

After everyone had filled their plate and, as if on cue, Murdoch started. "How does that creek bed look, boys?"

Scott sighed and Johnny rolled his eyes.

"It looks like a nightmare. There's a few tree roots the size of your head at the bend. We got the rest of it cleared but that's gonna be rough," Johnny reported.

"How long do you think it will take?"

"Probably a couple of more days," Scott said.

Murdoch wasn't happy with that answer and showed it on his face. Johnny grinned.

"If you need me for something else, I'm sure Scott can handle it."

Scott nearly choked on his wine before swallowing but his father was quicker to the draw.

"That's very magnanimous of you, son. But, I suppose I can manage - barely - without both of you for a few more days." A cocked brow greeted Johnny's smirk.

"I'm so impressed with your generosity, brother. To offer yourself for some worse fate, why it's positively saintly of you," Scott sneered.

Johnny gave him an innocent look. "Just trying to do my part, brother. You wouldn't want me slacking off when there's something more important I could be doing."

"No, I wouldn't want that!"

"Alright, gentlemen," Murdoch said gruffly, throwing a glance at their guests.

"Please, don't stop on my account. This is entertaining," Steele laughed.

Scott was undeterred by his father, no matter their guest's remark. "I don't know, Murdoch. You might want to rethink. Isn't there an outhouse needing to be dug?"

*****

Johnny weighed the biscuit in his hand against his father's possible reaction then took a bite out of it. He smiled at Scott. A smile full of promise and Scott swallowed hard.

Steele chuckled then, laughed outright. "Are they always like this?"

"I'm afraid so," Murdoch grumbled.

"You must laugh all the time then, Murdoch."

The rancher gave him a wary look. "Yes, it's just a riot around here."

Scott smiled widely at that. "When were you planning on going to Green River, Jock?"

Johnny's eyes sparkled with the change in subject, still eyeing his brother and plotting his revenge.

"As soon as Murdoch can spare one of you or himself, though I'm in no hurry. It's nice to just relax with good company."

"I'm sure it will only be a day or two," Murdoch replied.

"I hope you choose to stay here in the valley, Jock. We could use you. Most of our news comes from Sacramento and it's always at least a week late," Scott pressed gently.

"I get all my news from the women here at the ranch. More reliable than any paper," Johnny quipped.

Steele chuckled. "I agree, Johnny. Where do you think I find all the good stories?"

Scott rolled his eyes and Johnny smirked at him.

"Well, I need to check Teresa's mare. She was favoring her front leg this mornin," Johnny said and stood, tossing his napkin on his plate. "If you'll excuse me," he added more softly.

Scott frowned and wondered at Johnny's sudden departure. He laid his napkin over his plate and stood. "If you'll excuse me, I'll help Johnny."

*****

"Brandy, Jock?" Murdoch offered as they adjourned to the living room.

"Yes, thank you. I'm sorry, Murdoch, but is everything all right?"

The rancher gave him a small smile. "Fine. Teresa is so fond of that horse. Johnny has taken it upon himself to make sure she's in tiptop shape at all times."

Steele nodded and took the glass from his host but he was curious. Of course, Murdoch wouldn't divulge any strain between his sons to a stranger but he thought he'd give it a try. It seemed Johnny was upset or ... something. Maybe there was something else going on there. Another clue, he thought as he sipped the fine liquor.

Settling on the sofa, he regarded the man sitting across from him. "You must be a proud man. Those young men are high quality."

"They're both fine boys and yes, I am proud."

"Still, I'll bet they give you a run for your money," Steele laughed. "But, then, don't all boys?"

Murdoch relaxed and chuckled. "Jock, you have no idea. Especially, Johnny. He can find more trouble sometimes."

"I can see that just from the gleam in his eye. That is a man who enjoys life. I see a bit of devilment in him," he grinned.

"Hang around a while. You'll see more than just a bit," Murdoch replied then lowered his eyes for a second. "You're an observant man, Jock. I suppose you've noticed Johnny isn't too comfortable around you. I hope you don't take it personally. He's like that with strangers."

"Scott told me where he grew up. I understand, Murdoch. I've been to the border towns. It's a frightful place," he sighed out. "I can hardly blame Johnny. I'm sure he'll relax after a time. I've been told I'm quite likeable," he laughed.

*****

Johnny rubbed a hand down Chocolate's right front leg and nodded with satisfaction. As he stood, he saw Scott standing near the barn doors.

"What's wrong?"

He stepped out of the stall and latched the gate then leaned his side against it. "What are you talkin about?"

Scott walked up and stood before him. "You all the sudden had to check on that horse? Did something upset you?"

Johnny smiled at him then pushed off and walked over to a bale of hay, plopping down. "Nah. I just wanted to get out of there for a while. Steele seems nice but he's ... I don't know. Nosy. I feel like he's watching me all the time."

Scott laughed as he joined his ever restless brother. Sometimes, he felt like he spent half his time just following Johnny. "Hazards of being a newspaperman, I suppose. He doesn't mean any harm but, I admit, he can ask a lot of questions. I feel like I've given him my life story already."

A cocked brow met this statement. "What did you tell him?"

"Well, nothing much really. Just where I grew up but somehow, he makes me feel like I've spilled my guts. It's strange and I can't really explain it. It's like he asks and, even if you don't answer, he figures it out. He's a smart man."

"Makes him a dangerous man, too. If he was of a mind to be, I mean."

"He seems sincere," Scott said lightly.

"Yeah, he does. He's alright. I just hope I don't end up spending a day in Green River showin him the sites."

Scott dropped an arm around his brother's shoulders. "Now, Johnny, you know it won't take a whole day."

Both men laughed at that as they walked back to the house together.

*****

Jock was becoming restless and bored. He wasn't one to sit around all day, even though his portly form might indicate otherwise. He wandered around the great room, looking over the collection of books then made his way to the kitchen. Teresa was there, hands in dough and he smiled at her. "Good day, Miss Teresa."

"Oh, hello. Did you need something?"

"No, I'm just looking around. I thought I'd take a ride a little later if I could borrow a horse," he said as he sat at the table.

"Of course. Jelly will pick one out for you."

"It must be a monumental task taking care of a house this size."

She smiled and shrugged her small shoulders. "It's been a lot more work since Johnny and Scott came home."

"How long have they been back?" he asked casually.

"About a year now. It was hard at first but things are more settled now." She laughed a little and shook her head. "There've been times when I thought the roof was coming off this place."

"Oh? The brothers or father and sons?"

"Both, I suppose but mostly Johnny and Murdoch. They're so much alike and neither can see it. But, they're mule-headed and never back down. That leads to a lot of arguments." She reached into a bowl and grabbed some flour, sprinkling it onto her dough.

"That does sound like difficult times. But, they seem to get along well now."

"Oh, things are much better between them. I'm not sure if they've actually come to an understanding or just got tired of being hoarse." She smiled and placed a cloth over her dough, sitting it aside and going to the sink to wash her hands.

Jock chuckled at that as he watched the girl move efficiently around her kitchen. She dried her hands and grabbed two cups and the coffee pot then walked over and set them down. Grabbing a plate of cookies off the counter, she placed it on the table and took a seat.

"Thank you," Jock said as she poured. "Johnny seems so quiet, it's hard to see him raising his voice."

She gave him a sidelong look of disbelief. "I suppose to a visitor, it does seem that way but, he has quite a temper."

He frowned as he sipped the brew. "Surely not a dangerous temper?"

Teresa looked into her cup for a few seconds before answering. "He'd never hurt any of us."

"What about others?"

She sighed lightly and shrugged. "He's very protective. He has a strong sense of right and wrong as he sees it. Johnny wouldn't hesitate to protect this family in any way he needed to."

"I see," he said with a raised brow. "Well, aren't most men like that? I'm sure Murdoch and Scott would do the same."

"Yes, they would. It's just that Johnny is more ... passionate, I guess is a good word. He doesn't suffer fools. Scott has a long fuse. It takes a lot to get him worked up."

"He does seem very calm," Jock stated with a gleam in his eye.

Teresa smiled. "Seems, yes, but, Scott is as protective as Johnny. He just has a different way of doing things, is all."

"He thinks things out logically then comes to a plan of action."

"Exactly."

"And Johnny tends to want to take care of it right then and there," he continued.

She cocked her head to one side. "You're very good at reading people."

"I don't want to brag but I believe I am, yes. It's a very handy tool to have. But, you've lived at Lancer all your life, isn't that right?"

"Yes. My father was the foreman here for years. I was born on Lancer. I never want to leave it," she said softly.

"No reason you should, my dear. It is abundantly clear you are the apple of these menâ€ôs eye," he smiled and patted her hand. "Where is your father now?"

Her eyes dropped and the smile disappeared. "He was murdered when land pirates tried to take Lancer from Murdoch a year ago. Murdoch was shot in the back. That's when he sent for his sons - to help him fight."

"And he got his family back in the bargain," he surmised, his mind whirling with the possible scenarios.

"He's always wanted that but, well, there's a lot of reasons why the boys didn't grow up here. A lot of people bent on making Murdoch's life as miserable as possible." The bitterness could not be hidden as she began her tale.

*****

Teresa looked up, startled at the passage of time. "Good heavens! I need to get supper started."

"I'm sorry, my dear. I've kept you away from your work all day, it seems," Jock apologized as he glanced at his pocketwatch, surprised so much time had passed.

"It's my own fault, Mr. Steele. I should have paid more attention. But, I have time if I get started now."

"I'll leave you to it then. And, Teresa, thank you for talking with me. It makes me feel so welcome here."

She smiled at him. "I'm glad of that."

He excused himself and headed for his room. He grabbed pencil and notepad and began writing furiously. She'd told him the entire family history, it seemed. He now had tons of details for background. The Lancers were a story unto themselves and he decided he would write a second book, exploring the family dynamic. It would make an excellent follow up on Madrid's tale. What he really needed were details of Johnny's life before coming to Lancer.  

He shook his head, astounded and infuriated by the deeds done to these people. From Scott's grandfather to Johnny's mother, it seemed Teresa was right. Other people had been interfering with this family almost from the word go. It seemed Murdoch had some sort of curse on him. Twenty-five years of hell. He stopped writing for a moment and smiled. That would be a good subtitle for this book.

The Lancers. Twenty-five Years of Hell.

Yes, he liked that. With determination, he went back to his writing. He had the memory of an elephant and had always prided himself on that. Still, things were fresher upon first hearing them. He wished he'd been able to write as Teresa spoke. He frowned at that as he continued writing down the facts. She had seemed to need to tell this to someone. He could imagine it wasn't a topic of conversation around the supper table.

Teresa was a good character. Born and raised here, her father murdered, Murdoch becoming a surrogate father. Then to have her world turned upside down once more with the arrival of two grown sons. Goodness! He almost laughed. Maybe this will be three books. He still thought she had a crush on Johnny, though. Her face changed whenever she spoke of him. It was almost maternal but she was too young for those types of feelings, he thought.

Something else to explore. For the moment, he needed to get this written down. He made himself stop thinking of the possibilities that lay ahead, intent on transcribing everything she'd said.

*****

Two days passed and the brothers happily reported during supper, the creek bed was clear.

"I got a message from Ralph Martin today. He really needs those horses. Johnny, get started on that first thing in the morning. Scott, that surveying still needs to be finished," Murdoch mandated.

"Sure, anything beats that da ... that creek." Johnny smiled as he shot a glance at Teresa and curbed his tongue.

Murdoch gave him a stern look then turned to their guest. "I'm afraid it will be another day or two before one of us can make it to Green River, Jock."

"That's perfectly fine, Murdoch. Mr. Hoskins has been most entertaining these past days."

"Who?" Johnny asked then grinned.

"Well, he hasn't offered to have me call him by his Christian name, yet. I have a feeling that is purposeful," Jock relayed.

Scott laughed a little at that. "I'm sure it is."

"He's a good man," Murdoch offered.

"He has some wonderful stories to tell. I've been fascinated by everything he's experienced," Steele smiled.

Murdoch lowered his eyes and wondered if he should tell the man Jelly's stories were mostly just that. He decided not. It did no harm and it made Jelly happy.  

"He's done a lot of livin, that's for sure," Johnny was saying.

"Has he told you how he came to be at Lancer, yet?" Scott asked.

"Oh, no. We haven't even gotten past his thirties, yet."

They all laughed at that.

Steele's eyes fell on Johnny. "Are you going to break horses tomorrow?"

"Train 'em. They're already broke. Just need to teach them a thing or two."

"Do you mind an audience? I've seen some bronc busting but I've never seen anyone train."

Shrugging, Johnny smiled. "Sure."

*****

Steele looked out his window the next morning just in time to see Johnny heading for the corral. He sighed and hurried to finish dressing. He thought he'd gotten up early enough. Evidently not. Or, maybe, Johnny had risen earlier than usual. Sometimes, he felt like the young man was testing him. A smile broke out as he slipped on his jacket.

He was never in enough of a hurry to miss a meal but he ate quickly then made his way to the corral. He thought he could learn a lot by watching Johnny at work. Something he'd had no opportunity for until now. He sidled up to the fence and found a comfortable position.

"Watching Johnny today, huh?" Jelly asked as he walked up.

"Yes, he's training horses. I've never seen it and good morning, Mr. Hoskins," he tipped his head slightly.

"Yeah, mornin. Well, I got work ta do," Jelly said flatly. A look of disappointment crossed his face quickly.

"I'll catch up later. That is, if you don't mind?" Steele placated.

Jelly gave the look of an inconvenienced man. "I reckon I can let ya hang around some later," he gruffed and walked away.

*****

"Good morning, Jelly," Scott called out pleasantly.

"Yeah, mornin."

"Something wrong? You don't seem your usual chipper self."

He looked like he could growl at the younger man. "I'm same as I always am. Listen, Scott. What'ya make of that Steele fella?"

"I think he's quite affable. A good storyteller. Not as good as you, though." Scott was quick to add the last sentence.

"Hmmph! Awful curious sort if ya ask me. Always askin questions."

"Well, that is his business," Scott shrugged then his brows drew together. "What sort of questions?"

"Bout Lancer and the family. Bout you and Johnny a lot."

Scott looked over at the corral pensively. "I see," he answered distractedly. "Well, have a good day, Jelly," he went on, patting the man on the arm as he started for the barn.

*****

Scott wasn't getting very far. He kept having to recheck himself. His mind wouldn't stay on the business at hand, kept straying back to his talk with Jelly this morning. He asks a lot of questions. Yes, he does that. Heretofore, Scott had shrugged it off as part of the man's character. Maybe that's all it is, he thought. Maybe.

He just seemed very curious about the family. It all seemed very innocent, very innocuous. Maybe that's just the way the man operates. Weren't many conversations full of questions? He supposed that was true now that he thought about it. Scott laughed at himself. He was getting as bad as Johnny.

He remembered that day when he'd told Jock about his brother's suspicious nature. He'd been surprised at himself for divulging the information. Jock had a way of putting a person at ease. He was very pleasant and his appearance certainly didn't pose a threat. Something about him compelled a person to answer. Well, most people. Scott was quite sure Johnny would tell him to mind his own business. Of course, it was his business. No, that wasn't true. The news was his business and there was certainly nothing newsworthy going on at Lancer.

If that was the best Jock could do, his paper would be very boring, indeed. He supposed it was a matter of training and practice. Conditioning himself to always question everything so he could find the truth of a thing.  

Scott sighed heavily, annoyed with himself. He needed to stop this and concentrate on his work. He'd never finish otherwise and Murdoch would want to know why he hadn't completed the simple task of the day.

Shaking his head as if this action would rid his mind of anything other than what he should be doing, Scott went back to his surveying.

*****

"Where did you learn to work horses, Johnny? You're very good."

He looked over the dipper he was drinking from at the short man smiling at him. "Lots of places."

"Well, you seem to know exactly what the horse is thinking," Jock said, still smiling.

Johnny's mouth quirked a little. "He's thinkin how tired he is of me botherin him and maybe, if he does what I ask, I'll leave him be."

Jock laughed raucously at this. A little over the top in Johnny's opinion. But then, almost everything about this man seemed over the top.

"Must have been a good joke," Murdoch smiled as he approached them.

Steele turned to him and Johnny rolled his eyes. Murdoch suppressed the urge to chastise his son and kept the smile on his face.

"Johnny has a wonderful sense of humor," Jock was saying.

"Yes, sometimes," Murdoch quipped and Johnny smiled widely at him. "How much longer do you think it will be before those horses are ready, son?"

"They're in good shape now. Rest of the day to work out some kinks since I had to leave 'em for a while."

"Good. You can take them over to Martin tomorrow," Murdoch said then paused for a moment. "Actually, you can take Jock with you then head on into Green River. I'm sure you must be ready to see something besides this ranch, Jock."

Johnny dropped his head heavily and let out a quiet breath.

"Of course, that would be grand, Murdoch." He couldn't believe his luck. All this time he'd been trying to have some time alone with Johnny and now, the opportunity was upon him. He knew the young man wouldn't say no to his father. Well, he was pretty sure, anyway.

*****

Patience was not a virtue Johnny Lancer held in large supply. He paced the yard as he waited for the easterner to get a move on. Steele hurried out of the house, donning his bowler.

"My apologies, Johnny. I'd forgotten it's early to rise on a ranch," he smiled.

Johnny only nodded. "I saddled your horse." He stopped then turned fully to the man. "You can ride, right?"

"Oh, yes. Well, I'm not an expert but, I can get where I'm going." He was still smiling. He was on cloud nine but he knew he needed to rein it in. He'd gotten off on a bad foot already by being late so he thought hard of a way to assuage Johnny.

"That is a beautiful animal," he commented as Johnny swung into the saddle.

A smile crossed the young man's face. "Thanks."

It was quiet for a few miles. Steele looked all around at the scenery before attempting to strike up a conversation. "Stunning. That's what it is, simply stunning."

"What's that?" Johnny asked softly.

"All of it. The land."

Johnny looked over at him, impressed the man had even noticed. "Yeah, it is that."

"I don't know how you can stand even going inside at all. I'd sit out here and ... just look at it all the time."

He laughed a little at that. "Well, so would I, except when it rains."

"Yes, that could be a deterrent," Steele laughed. "I suppose you're surprised I can appreciate the outdoors," he noted with amusement.

"Truthfully? Yeah, I guess I am. I didn't figure city folks noticed that sort of thing."

"Well, I've been out here a while and it still impresses me. When I first passed through the Rocky Mountains, I was awestruck. I've been in love with the west since that first day."

Johnny gave him a sidelong glance then, chewed his lip for a second or two. "What made you decide to come out here?"

Steele smiled. "Well, back east, there are many articles and stories about the 'wild west'. Many a young man has ventured forth to claim his fortune out here. Now, I'm hardly a young man anymore but, I wanted to see it. I wanted to know if the stories were true."

"And are they?"

Laughing, the older man shook his head. "Some are, some aren't. Oh, I didn't expect the men to be ten feet tall. But, if you think about it, they are - at least, they appear to be when on horseback. There are a lot of exaggerations in dime novels and newspaper reports alike. I suppose that's why I needed to prove or disprove it. The newspaperman in me was just too curious."

Johnny grimaced a little. "Those dime novels oughta be outlawed. Kids come out here thinking they can be a hot gun and end up dyin before they get any dust on their boots."

Steele looked at his profile, could see the anger and wondered how many of those kids Johnny had sent to their maker. "Yes, most of them are exaggerations and some plain lies but, outlawed? I think that's a bit extreme. Freedom of speech is a precious right."

"It's also a responsibility, Mr. Steele. One those writers don't take seriously."

Steele couldn't disagree with that but he had his arguments. Ones he couldn't voice to this man, especially. He knew many of those books were written by men who had never even seen a cowboy, let alone been west of the Mississippi. He used to be one of those men.

"It sounds as if you've had some personal experience?" he ventured.

Johnny's jaw tightened and he kept his eyes straight ahead. He said nothing and increased Barranca's pace a little, tugging on the string of ponies behind him.

*****

Soon, they arrived at the Martin ranch. Johnny headed to the corral and a hand opened the gate for him. He led the string in then backed out, dismounting by the gate. Steele had stopped near the house and walked over to meet up with him.

"Well, that was uneventful. What now?"

Johnny watched the hand take charge of the horses for a second. "I need to see Mr. Martin," he said tersely.

Steele cocked a brow. "Is that a hardship?"

Johnny had to grin. "You'll see soon enough, I guess." No sooner were the words out of his mouth than they heard the graveled voice.

"Well, I see ya finally got them animals ready." The lanky rancher strolled toward them, his black stetson pushed back on his oily dark blond head.

Johnny held himself in check - again. And wondered why he bothered - again. But, he knew why. Martin always seemed to need horses and, regardless of his obvious distaste for Johnny, he always bought from Lancer. It was business.

"Mr. Martin," Johnny nodded. "Seven horses just like you wanted."

Martin made some sort of noise in his throat as he entered the corral and looked the animals over thoroughly. At last, he came back out. "They're kinda puny, ain't they?"

"No."

Steele nearly gasped at the almost unrecognizable tone Johnny was using. He would swear ice was forming on the hot California air.

"Every one of those animals is in top form. Lancer doesn't sell anything less," he went on, his voice still hard and unforgiving. His eyes held Martin's gaze, seeming to dare him to argue the point.

"Uhmph! Well, I'll get your money," the rancher said and walked away.

Jock started to follow him but Johnny grabbed his arm and shook his head. Once Martin was at the door, he explained. "The man has never invited me in his home and he'd have a fit if I tried."

"Why, may I ask? And why is he being such a jackass? Even I can see what magnificent animals these are."

Johnny shrugged as he leaned against the corral fence, crossing his arms. "He don't like me in case you didn't notice." With a short laugh, he added, "the feelin is mutual."

"You don't have to like a man to be civil to him. If he feels that way, why does he buy from Lancer?"

"Oh, he's got nothing against Lancer. He's all smiles with Murdoch and Scott. I'm the one he can't stand. He don't like Mexicans and he really hates mestizos." He frowned then looked at Steele. "That means ..."

"I know what it means. It's as disgusting as Mr. Martin. Why would Murdoch put you in such an unpleasant position?"

Johnny lowered his head for a moment then stared at the house. "He doesn't know and I'd be obliged if you didn't mention it, Mr. Steele. My father isn't exactly friends with Martin but they do a lot of business. If Murdoch knew, he might stop having anything to do with the man. That's not good for business."

Jock stared at him, at a loss for words momentarily. "Just exactly how much of yourself are you willing to give up for your family, Johnny?"

The blue eyes fell on him, a curious expression lighting his face. "No skin off my nose. It's not something I have to put up with often. I can take it. Hell, this ain't nothin."

Steele paced in front of him, hands clasped behind his back, his head bowed in thought. "I should write an article on prejudice," he muttered, his anger unabated.

Johnny smiled a little at that but said nothing.

"How long does it take to get that money?" Steele finally asked after another five minutes had passed.

"He likes to make me wait. He thinks he's puttin me out. Truth is, he's usually just keepin me from doin chores. Don't exactly break my heart," Johnny grinned.

Martin reappeared just then. He walked over and thrust the wad of bills at Johnny then gave him a bill of sale. Johnny looked the bill over thoroughly, nodded then stuck it in his pocket.

"See ya," he smiled and walked to his horse.

Steele watched the man turn a nice hue of red then hurried to retrieve his mount and catch up with Johnny.

*****

"I still say you should tell your father about that man," he said after a few miles.

Johnny laughed a little. "Yeah? I should run home to daddy and tell on him?"

Jock laughed, too, and shook his head. "Well, not exactly like that but you shouldn't have to put up with that sort of nonsense, either. Johnny, a man has to take a stand."

He looked over at the man with a small smile curving his lips upward. "I pick my fights, Mr. Steele. I know when it'll do any good and when it won't. That doesn't mean I always win, or that I shouldn't walk away sometimes instead. Men like Martin never come right out and tell you what they think of you. They do it sneaky-like. That way, they can deny it. See, they're cowards, every one of them."

"Yes," Steele murmured thoughtfully. "I see what you mean. It's most frustrating."

"That it is," Johnny agreed.

A few minutes later, they were entering Green River.

"I'm surprised. It's bigger than I imagined," Steele noted.

"Yeah, this is as big as it gets around here. There's a few empty buildings that might suit you." Johnny turned and stopped at a hitching post.

Steele cocked a brow when he looked at the building they were in front of. The sheriff's office. He dismounted gracelessly and nearly harrumphed as Johnny alit on the ground without a sound.

"Well, reckon we can just walk around and take a look see."

"That sounds like a plan to me," Steele smiled affably.

Stopping two buildings down from the Sheriff's office, Johnny gestured toward the door. "This one is pretty good sized. There's a big front room and an office at the back. Used to be a land office til the owner got himself in some trouble."

"Oh? What sort of trouble?"

"Well, he tried to cut corners. Wanted to make it big. He was barely gettin by and his wife was sick. It's a shame, too. He was a nice man. Just got too desperate, I reckon."

Steele noted the sadness in Johnny's voice and wondered if the man was a friend. Johnny walked on inside and he followed, looking around and trying to appear interested. He had no intentions of starting a newspaper. That wasn't his chosen profession but he had to make it look good. "Not bad, not bad."

"Breakin and enterin now? In case ya didn't know, that's a crime."

Johnny didn't turn around but Steele did, quickly. He stared at the sheriff in the doorway. "Well, we were just ... I'm interested in ..."

"Ain't nobody breakin anything, Sheriff. You see anything broke in here?" Johnny drawled.

Crawford stepped on inside and looked around, his eyes squinted in concentration as he took in the room. He scratched his jaw and sighed. "Don't reckon I do. Still, ya entered," he replied with a raised brow.

Johnny walked over to him and held out his hands. "Ya got me, lawman," he deadpanned.

Val rolled his eyes and slapped the hands away. "Ya know, one of these days I'm gonna slap them irons on and you ain't gonna be so uppity then, Johnny."

He laughed and patted the sheriff's back. "Just lookin around, Val. This is Mr. Steele. He's lookin to maybe start up a newspaper here. This is Sheriff Crawford," Johnny introduced.

Jock looked back and forth between the two, perplexed. He could see they were friends but it made no sense to him. A gunfighter and a sheriff? He shook the hand offered him and pulled himself together. "Pleasure, Sheriff."

"Reckon this town is ready for their own paper?"

Johnny shrugged. "Murdoch thinks so."

"Well, that's it then," Val snorted and Johnny laughed at him.

"Come on, I'll buy ya both a beer. This is the best place, Mr. Steele. Not much sense in looking at the others. They're all a lot smaller. Reckon you'd need a lot of space."

"Yes, I would. Well, I trust your advice, Johnny. But, please, call me Jock."

Johnny thought not but he kept his face impassive and simply nodded.

Once settled in the saloon, Val winced. "Jock Steele. Why's that name sound familiar to me?"

"Perhaps you've read some of my articles, Sheriff. I've been published in the San Francisco Chronicle."

Johnny snorted then sipped his beer as Val glared at him. "Reckon that's it," the sheriff muttered.

"This town seems to be thriving, very profitable on first look," Steele said, hoping to distract the sheriff's inquisitiveness.

"Oh, it is. It is, Sir. Green River is quickly growing into a substantial city. We hope to have the railroad come through in the next couple of years."

Johnny sighed and Val groaned as the fat little man at the bar intruded on their conversation.

"This here is the mayor," Val said flatly.

"Uh, Mayor Higgs," his honor formally introduced himself, shooting the sheriff a look of disgust.

"Jock Steele, Mayor. An pleasure to meet you, Sir," Steele replied with a handshake.

Higgs sat down uninvited and Johnny could only lower his head to hide the grin. Val glared but it did him no good as usual. Steele explained his presence and Higgs nearly salivated.

"Exactly what this town needs. Exactly! Why a newspaper would really give us the kind of respectability we need. Not that we aren't respectable. Oh no! But, that would certainly put us over the top, as it were."

"Well, I've made no decision yet, Your Honor. Merely looking at the possibilities," Steele was quick to put in.

"I certainly hope you seriously consider us, Mr. Steele. I'm sure we could accommodate any needs you might have. Are you staying at the hotel? I would relish a chance to give you the full tour of our fair town."

"Actually, I'm staying with the Lancers. They've been most gracious."

Higgs looked at Johnny who raised his head and smiled widely. "Oh, I see. Well, still, I'm available anytime. Anytime at all."

"I'll keep that in mind," Steeled bowed his head once.

Higgs kept grinning at him and Val sighed loudly. "Ain't you got a store ta run?"

Puffing out his chest, the mayor replied. "It is my store, Sheriff. I think I know how to run it."

"Ain't runnin it if you're in here runnin your mouth," Val shot back.

"Maybe we should get goin, Mr. Steele," Johnny intervened in the ongoing arguing between the sheriff and mayor. It was never going to end and no one was ever going to win and he didn't want to hear it today.

Outside, Johnny rounded on his friend. "Do you ever stop?"

"Does he?" Val retorted.

Johnny rolled his eyes. "How many times have I told you ..."

"How many times have I told you. He can't fire me and I don't give a rat's ... behind what he thinks even if he could!" Val turned to Steele. "If ya need anything, I'm around. Nice ta meet ya." With that, he turned and walked away.

"Ahem. Do you two always go at each other like that?"

"Yeah. He's an old grouch. Been in a bad mood as long as I've known 'im!" Johnny grumped.

"And how long is that?"

The blue eyes turned on him and Steele almost took a step back. "A while."

Jock blinked and nodded then took a deep breath. "Well, would you mind showing me the rest of the town? I don't think I could stand spending that much time with the mayor."

That garnered him a soft laugh from Johnny and he relaxed. "Sure, come on."

Two hours later, they sat in the cantina for a late lunch. Johnny knew he had a wicked sense of humor and he wanted to test the man's taste buds. Steele had assured him he could handle spicy foods. Johnny wanted to see for himself if it were true.

Steele knew he was being sized up. If he could pass this seemingly meaningless test, he hoped he could gain some respect from Johnny. He resolved, no matter how hot, he wouldn't respond badly. It was true, he'd had Mexican food but he didn't much care for it.

Johnny bit into a jalapeño pepper as he watched Steele working on his lunch. He had to hand it to the man, he put on a good show. But, Johnny had seen the ever so slight grimace, the hesitation to take another bite. He smiled a little as he watched the man suffer through it. To his credit, Steele finished the meal without downing a gallon of water.

"Ready?"

Steele cleared his throat. "Yes, yes, I'm ready." He nearly bolted from the building.

Johnny decided to take pity on the man. "I'm gonna run over to the stage depot and check the mail if you wanna look around some more. I'll catch up with you."

"Very well. I won't wander off far," he smiled, more for the relief. As soon as Johnny was out of site, he headed back into the cantina and drank several glasses of water. Once sated, he walked back out wondering where all the rough types were in this town. It was a quiet place and that didn't seem right to him.

He literally ran into the man who could tell him. "I'm so sorry, Sheriff," he apologized as Val righted him to keep him from spilling onto the boardwalk.

"That's alright, Mr. Steele. Johnny still with ya?"

"He's checking the mail. I must say, Sheriff, I'm impressed. Many of the towns I've visited have much tougher types hanging around, looking for trouble. I haven't seen any of that sort here."

"Oh, they're around. Usually don't show theirselves til nighttime, though. We get our share. Ain't as bad as, say, the border towns, but there's bad everywhere ya go, I reckon."

"Very true, Sheriff. Very true. Well, you must be doing something right if they aren't hanging at every corner."

"Who's hanging at the corner?" Johnny asked as he rounded one and looked back at it with a grin.

"Funny. Ain't you done? Time ta get home to papa, ain't it?" Val teased.

Johnny smirked at him. "Reckon I can tell time, Val. You ready, Mr. Steele?"

He started to tell Johnny, once again, to call him Jock but he was quite aware Johnny was doing this purposely. Why, he wasn't sure. "I am. It was a pleasure meeting you, Sheriff."

Val nodded as Steele walked around him then, he gave Johnny a curious look. The younger man only shrugged and smiled then left the sheriff staring at a wall. Val sighed and headed on his rounds wondering why he ever put up with Johnny Madrid Lancer.

*****

Steele knew he had to push a little now. They were half way back to the ranch and he doubted he'd ever get this good a chance with Johnny again. He'd gained some insight but those stories were still eluding him.

"Is there someplace high up where you can see more of the land?"

Johnny glanced over at him. "South mesa. You can see every acre of Lancer from there."

"Is it far?"

Once more, he looked at the small man, knowing he was going to ask. He sighed inwardly, knowing his father wouldn't like it if he were rude to a guest. Johnny figured he'd pressed it as far as he could. It wasn't that he didn't like the man. He seemed alright. But, he didn't trust him and that was more important. Then again, he thought, I'm not gonna know if I can trust him if I don't give him a chance. It irked him that his brother's voice was in his head now. He could just see Scott smirk at him.

"Not too far. Come on," he replied and turned to the right.

Steele grabbed hold of the saddle horn and leaned forward as the path roughened and became steeper. He looked over at Johnny who was unbothered by the change in landscape. He bit his lip and vowed not to protest. He'd asked for it and Johnny had given it to him. He almost laughed. He was realizing this would be a test of wills. One he wasn't too sure he'd win. He wasn't pompous enough to believe he would always come out on top but, he usually got what he wanted in one fashion or another. He adapted. That was the key.

Mercifully, the land evened out and he realized it was because they'd made it to the top. He couldn't help thinking about the return trip. It would be no better, he was sure. He followed Johnny down a path and around a hill to discover a building before them. Johnny had slid to the ground and he sucked in a breath to dismount. He was not a horseman, he'd already confessed and grace was not a word he associated with himself on a good day. Johnny just made it seem so much worse somehow.

"I take it this is a line shack?" he enquired.

"Yeah, but this is what you want to see," Johnny said, hooking a finger then walking away.

Steele caught up as Johnny settled on the ground, cross-legged and chewing on a blade of grass. He turned his head to Steele.

"Out there," was all he said.

The man stepped up near the edge of the mountain and sucked in an audible breath as he gazed upon the beauty before him. For once in his life, he was speechless.

Johnny smiled, knowing the feeling and figuring the man couldn't be all bad if he appreciated this place so much. Steele sat down next to him, still able to view the panorama.

"God's work," he whispered reverently.

Johnny nodded his head then stretched out his legs, leaning back on his elbows and crossing his ankles.

They sat there for long moments just enjoying the quiet sounds of nature. The breeze wafted around them, butterfly wings flapped lightly and bees buzzed about the flowers nearby. Steele closed his eyes and listened as he'd been taught by a Chinese holy man he'd met once. He allowed the world around him to soak into his skin and felt peace.

*****

Suddenly, his head jerked and he realized he'd nearly fallen asleep. Smiling with embarrassment, he turned to Johnny but he wasn't there. Steele looked all around but couldn't see the young man. He climbed to his feet and walked back toward the horses. He stopped at the clearing and watched as Johnny petted his horse, speaking soft words Steele couldn't hear. He knew he'd made no sound yet, Johnny paused in his strokes and bent his head to one side.

"Ready?" he asked softly.

Steele took two steps then found himself on the ground, the air rushing from his lungs. He sucked in a breath and tried to figure out what had happened. He saw Johnny's hand on his arm and looked up into the concerned eyes.

"You okay?"

"I ... I think so. What happened?" he flubbered.

Johnny smiled a little. "You tripped over a pretty big rock. Come on." He extended a hand.

Steele got to his feet with assistance but when he put weight on his right leg, he nearly crumpled again. Johnny grabbed him around the waist and held him up.

"My ankle. I must have twisted it," he explained with a grimace of pain.

"Okay, let's get you inside. Can you hop a little?"

"Yes, I think so."

With much ado, they made it inside the cabin. Johnny eased him into a chair then knelt in front of him, gently removing his boot. Unfortunately, it wasn't gentle enough as he hissed with the pain.

"Sorry," Johnny mumbled as he continued his task. He sat back a little after seeing the ankle. "It's swelling already. I think you sprained it but I doubt it's broken."

"Well, that's good news, anyway. I'm sure it will be alright. I can ride."

A soft laugh came from the younger man. "Maybe. But, you should rest a while first. There's a mountain stream not far. The water's real cold. I'll get some and try to bring down the swelling," He spoke even as he rummaged for a pot.

Before Steele could acknowledge the statement, Johnny was out the door. He sighed and looked at the ankle, wincing at the size of it already. Settling back in the chair, he decided this might be a good thing. With some luck, Johnny would suggest they spend the night. He shouldn't bring it up, though, he thought. It would have to be Johnny's idea.

*****

After half an hour of cold compresses, the ankle seemed no better. Johnny rewrapped the icy cold cloth around it then sat in a chair at the table and sighed. "Well, it's not goin down. I don't think you should ride with it like that. Best stay here tonight. There's plenty of provisions."

Steele looked duly remorseful. "If you think it's best but won't your family worry?"

Johnny grinned. "Nah. They won't start worryin until tomorrow afternoon. If you're not any better by mornin, I'll get Doc to have a look. Well, reckon I'll bed down the horses then see about some supper."

"Thank you, Johnny. I'm sorry. I know this is an imposition for you. I hate keeping you up here like this."

"It was an accident, Mr. Steele. Don't worry about it. They happen a lot around here."

While Johnny tended the horses, Jock reflected on the young man he'd spent the day with. It was impossible for someone to change that much in such a short amount of time as Johnny had been at Lancer. He wasn't sure it was possible for a man of that creed to change at all. That only left him wondering what kind of gunfighter Johnny had been. The stories, the legend was not to be dismissed. His sources were varied and he trusted only a few but those few had told him things that raised the hair on the back of his neck.

Yet, he'd seen a modicum of Madrid today. When Johnny had turned the cold, hard eyes on Martin and himself he'd seen it. Could he be these two totally different men wrapped within the same frame? It didn't seem likely unless he was a madman and he certainly wasn't that.

The door opened and it took him by surprise, so lost in his thoughts was he. He turned quickly and inadvertently put weight on his leg. Hissing and biting his lip, he turned back.

"Not a good idea," Johnny chided.

"No, it certainly wasn't. You just surprised me. I must have been daydreaming."

Johnny said nothing and walked to one of the bunks, grabbing a pillow then pulling a chair in front of Steele. He gently lifted the man's leg and positioned it on the pillow in the chair seat to keep it elevated.

"Better?"

"Much, thank you," he sighed out.

*****

It was beans and bacon but it was delicious, Steele thought. He'd eaten trail food many times but never with the luxury of a real stove. He should be tired and, he supposed he was, but he fought it off. All this time and he'd not gotten much from Johnny. Nothing much in his words but, volumes in his actions. Confusing volumes. Contradictory volumes. It was giving him a headache.

He could remember only one other man who'd left him in such a state. It was irritating and intriguing all at once. And it was motivating. He saw a cup appear before him and looked up at Johnny who was grinning.

"There's not supposed to be any liquor in the line shacks but, I won't tell if you won't."

Steele laughed and took the cup. "My lips are sealed."

He sipped the whiskey and watched Johnny surreptitiously. The young man stared into the cup as if he sought something from the liquid fire within.

"You don't talk much," Steele said.

Johnny looked up lazily at him. "No, I reckon not."

"I suppose I talk enough for the both of us."

Johnny's lips quirked for a second but he didn't reply.

Steele laughed aloud. "It's alright, I know I do. I guess it's the nature of the business. Ever talking, ever asking. I am curious about so many things. Right now, I'm very curious about you."

"Why?" Came the soft question.

"Well, you seem to be two different people. The soft-spoken rancher, dedicated to his family and the land. Then, there's the glimmer of something ... harder that I've seen today. Someone who isn't a rancher at all. Someone who perhaps, didn't always feel as if he belonged anywhere."

Johnny smiled a little, back to staring into his cup. "You one of them crystal ball gazers, Mr. Steele?"

"Hardly," he laughed. "I do study human nature, though, and I am fascinated by you, Johnny."

He stood up so suddenly, the older man pulled back in his chair. Johnny grabbed the dishes and took them to the sink then leaned his hands against the counter, his back to Steele.

It was quiet in the shack for a while, neither man moving. Steele knew he'd struck a nerve but he was unsure how far to push this man while so far from anyone else. Madrid could see to it he had an 'accident' easily and go about his business like nothing ever happened. He didn't know if the man was capable of that. He was a paradox and Steele wasn't so confident that he'd chance it right now.

"I'm sorry if I said something to upset you, Johnny. There are some people who are more interesting than others. You're one of those people. In fact, your brother is quite intriguing as well."

Johnny sighed lightly, rolled up his sleeves and started pumping water into a large bowl in the sink. He washed the dishes as he spoke. "I don't like talking about myself. Neither does Scott."

"May I ask why?"

"Reckon we've both had some tough times. Talkin about it does no good. Besides, it's nobody else's business." The last sentence, he nearly spat out.

Steele turned around a little in his chair, looking at Johnny's back. "Sometimes, when you've had a bad experience, it helps to talk it out. I know that's been the case with me."

Johnny grabbed a towel and dried the dishes. He didn't speak again until he'd finished the chore. He walked back over and sat down, slowly rolling his sleeves back down and buttoning the cuffs. "That might be true but, if I was gonna talk to anyone, it wouldn't be a stranger."

Steele nodded. "Your brother. The two of you seem to be polar opposites. The operative word being seem . I think you're more alike than people give you credit for."

Johnny was shaking his head before the man even finished. "I don't think so. Scott's a lot different than me. We don't see eye to eye on much other than what we'd do for family."

Smiling, Steele said, "yes, I believe you both would do anything for your family. You would know better than I, having only just met you both. It's a challenge for me, a game if you will to try and figure people out before I get to know them. Then, I compare what I first thought to what I've learned."

Johnny laughed softly. "Got a lot of time on your hands, don't ya?"

Steele bellowed, his round belly shaking from the effort as his eyes lit up like a candelabra. "I suppose my work isn't as physically challenging as, say, ranching. Nor, as time consuming. I do work at my own schedule, it's true."

"Nice way to make a livin, I guess," Johnny replied softly.

Steele only nodded, knowing Johnny had, at one time, been free to take his own time about when he wanted to work. Near the end of his heyday, Madrid was highly sought after. He could pick and choose his jobs.

"Well, best get some rest. I'll help you to the cot and get some more cold water for that ankle. Might as well keep it elevated and the swelling down."

Steele lay in his cot watching Johnny go about readying for sleep. The young man locked the door, set a lamp beside his cot, removed his gunbelt then took the Colt from the holster and slid it under his pillow. He looked from the bed to the door, ensuring a clear path, Steele imagined, then finally settled without bothering to undress. Every move was memorized and Steele longed for his notepad. But, he'd remember it, he knew. He closed his eyes and waited for sleep to come.

*****

Jock opened his eyes, confused. He blinked and rubbed a hand over his face as memory invaded his sleep-befuddled mind. Other senses awakened as he smelled the coffee, heard the bacon sizzling and he smiled as his stomach reacted.

"Mornin."

He turned his head toward the kitchen area of the small shack and found Johnny busy at preparing breakfast. "Good morning."

"How's the ankle?"

With a held breath, he tested the appendage. It was a little sore but easily bearable. "Not bad, I think," he reported as he pulled the blanket off and took a look. "No swelling. Thank you, Dr. Lancer."

Johnny laughed at that. "Anytime. You should get a start. Breakfast will be ready in a minute."

Jock pulled himself out of bed, gingerly applied his boots then put weight on the ankle and smiled with pleasure as it barely pained him. Still, he limped, unwilling to press his luck as he went outside and took care of business. Soon, he came back in scratching at his whiskered face.

"There's no razor but you can use my knife if you want," Johnny offered as he set the food on the table and took a seat.

"Thank you but it can wait until we get back to the ranch."

"Suit yourself," Johnny shrugged and tucked into the meal.

Jock sat back in the chair with a satisfied sigh. "That was delicious, Johnny. You have many talents. Rancher, doctor, businessman, cook. Does the list ever end?" he teased.

Johnny grinned at him as he stood and cleared the dishes. "Don't forget horseman."

"Oh, yes. I can't forget that one. Speaking of which, where did you get that palomino?"

Johnny glanced over his shoulder, the grin still there. "Murdoch gave him to me when I first came home. We broke each other, sort of. Anyway, Barranca is about the best horse I've ever had. He's smart as a whip, too."

Jock raised his brows as the young man gushed over a horse. More questions bombarded his mind. More doubts, too. Was this really Johnny Madrid? His reverie broke as Johnny clanged the pots back in place and dried his hands.

"That should do it. You ready?"

"I am. Once again, thank you, Johnny."

"It wasn't that much but, you're welcome."

*****

Scott walked out of the house as they rode in and waited for them. "I was starting to worry."

"No need, no need. I was in good hands," Steele called.

"Oh, I wasn't worried about you, Jock. My brother, on the other hand, could find trouble in a church," he grinned.

"Shows how much you know, Boston. Mr. Steele here is the one that got himself in trouble," Johnny retorted.

"Trouble, Jock? What happened?" Murdoch asked as he joined them.

Johnny and Jock dismounted and both other Lancers immediately noticed the shorter man favoring his right leg.

"I'm afraid I twisted my ankle. I talked Johnny into showing me a better view of the ranch and I tripped over myself," he explained jovially.

"He tripped over a rock up at South Mesa. We spent the night up there," Johnny clarified.

"Do you need a doctor?" Scott asked.

"I had one. Johnny took very good care of me."

"That wasn't the trouble I was talking about, though," Johnny grinned mischievously. "He met the mayor."

"Ohhh," both Murdoch and Scott said in chorus then, they all laughed.

"I can't wait to hear about that," Scott said.

"Val was there, too," Johnny continued, thoroughly enjoying the memory of the conversation.

"Maybe we don't want to hear it, then," Murdoch joked. "Well, come inside and take it easy on that ankle."

*****

With no serious damage done to the ankle, Jock insisted on going upstairs and cleaning up more efficiently. Johnny poured a cup of coffee and inhaled it.

"No supplies up there, brother?" Scott asked with a grin.

"Plenty but Teresa's coffee is better than mine. What's on for today, Murdoch?"

"Aren't you forgetting something, son?" Murdoch asked, one brow raised.

Johnny frowned at him for a second then dropped his head and shook it. "I clean forgot about that," he said, a quirk to his lips as he fished the payment and bill of sale from his pocket.

"Did you have any problems with Martin?" Murdoch asked, depositing the money in the safe as he spoke.

Jock walked back into the room just then and Johnny's eyes fell on him as he answered. "No, no problems." He saw the man's jaw set and gave him a subtle but pointed shake of the head.

Scott took it all in, wondering what the big secret was. One look at his brother told him not to bring it up, though. He had noticed Johnny seemed more relaxed around Jock now. He smiled a little at that, feeling somewhat of a victory was his this day.

"Gentleman, I wonder if I could impose upon your hospitality even further," Steele spoke out.

Murdoch stuck the bill of sale in his ledger to be entered later then looked over at the man. "Of course."

"Well, with all my travels, this is really the first time I've stayed on a cattle ranch. I must say it's been enlightening. I'd like to write about the inner workings of ranch life. Give it the real grit it deserves. I think it would make an interesting piece."

"Don't know why anybody would want to read about that," Johnny said.

"I'm not sure what exactly you're asking, Jock," Murdoch said, ignoring his son's comment.

"I'd like to spend some time out on the range with your sons, Murdoch. Get some background and a real feel for the work they do."

Murdoch was surprised by the request. He didn't see any harm in it, though. "Well, I have to warn you, it is hard work. I'm afraid no one will have much time to show you the ropes."

"Oh, I don't want to get in the way or try to rope a steer or anything like that. If I could just stay in the background and watch. Maybe, interview some of the hands on their off time, that sort of thing."

Murdoch nodded slowly, still in thought. "What do you think, boys?"

Scott smiled with bedevilment. "Don't ask me. I won't be here."

"Why not?" Johnny asked.

"I have to go to Sacramento tomorrow to get the cattle sale contracts signed."

"Yeah, I forgot about that," Johnny muttered, clearly unenthusiastic.

"Seems you're forgetting a lot of things lately, Johnny. Maybe you should take it easy, old boy," Scott teased.

With no hint of even a grin, Johnny walked over and put a hand on his brother's shoulder. "If I'm old, Scott, you should be in a rockin chair."

Murdoch cleared his throat, seeing a long bout coming on and not wishing to hear it at the moment. "Johnny, it's up to you, then."

He looked at his father then into the hopeful eyes of their guest. He didn't see the point, thought it was a waste of time but, he also didn't care. "As long as you stay out of the way, Mr. Steele, and do exactly what I tell you, I'm fine with it."

"Agreed," Jock smiled widely. His luck was holding strong now. With Scott gone for a while, he didn't have to finagle a way to spend the days with Johnny.

"Don't get too excited, Jock. I need Johnny in the north pasture. That means you'll be camping out for about a week," Murdoch warned.

"I've spent plenty of nights staring at the stars, Murdoch."

"Yeah, unless it rains," Johnny grinned.

*****

Jock sat outside after supper, taking in the sights and smells and the quiet around him. He heard the front door open and looked to his right. "Beautiful evening, isn't it, Scott?"

"Yes, it is. I hope the weather holds for you," Scott answered as he took a seat next to the man.

Steele laughed. "So do I, but I promise not to complain."

"That's good. Johnny might shoot you if you do. He doesn't hold with whining. I really came out here to tell you how hard this will be. I don't think you fully understand the difficulties of staying out on the range."

"I appreciate your concern, Scott, but I will have a horse. I suppose if it gets too much for me, I can always come back."

Scott only nodded and figured the man would find out for himself. He had a feeling this one wasn't to be told what he could or couldn't do. He had to experience it for himself. Which, he supposed, was a good way to get a story. "I have to be honest. I don't see why anyone would be interested in reading about life on the range."

"That's because you're used to it. I think you've forgotten what it's like to be a city slicker, Scott. There are many people back east who love to read about cowboys and Indians and such. It's the down-to-earth life they lead that intrigues the city dwellers so. And, many times, compels them to strike out on their own to see this glorious land."

"Are you talking about yourself, Jock?" Scott asked with amusement.

"I am and many others. I've never regretted it for a minute. I was simply born in the wrong place."

Scott laughed at that and it grew quiet for a time.

"Johnny is very pleasant once he opens his mouth," Jock spoke out.

Again, Scott laughed. "He is charming when he wants to be."

"I must admit, I was surprised. I wasn't quite sure what to make of him, at first."

"Well, I told you he doesn't trust easily."

"Yes, Murdoch said the same thing. I'm sure he still doesn't completely trust me but at least he's talked to me," Jock smiled.

"Maybe this will be a good opportunity for you both, then."

Jock nodded and knew it would, indeed, be a golden opportunity for him.

*****

Johnny didn't stop until Scott was far enough away from the yard not to hear him. He'd teased his brother unmercifully all morning. Warning him about the evils of the big city and the ladies of questionable repute he should stay away from. Scott found it all a bit exasperating after the first half hour but he bore it well and smacked his brother - hard - on the arm before mounting up. That didn't deter Johnny in the least.

"If you've finished, son, you should get going," Murdoch said with not a little of his own exasperation.

"Ya know, Murdoch, it just occurred to me. You're gonna be here all alone. I don't think that's right. Maybe I should stay here and keep you company," Johnny said, his brow furrowed.

Murdoch looked blankly at him for a second. "I'm sure I'll survive; quite nicely in fact. It will be peaceful around here for a change."

Jock walked out with his carpetbag in hand just then. "All ready?"

"Where are you going?" Johnny asked, his eyes on the bag.

"Why, with you, of course."

"You packed?"

"Well, I'll need a change of clothes and my notebooks and shaving gear."

Johnny looked at his father who only shrugged. He sighed and nodded. "Alright, let's go."

Jelly pulled up in the wagon. "Ya can ride with me if you want. It's a long ways ta sit a horse."

Jock considered this and nodded. Though he'd told Scott he could simply ride back to the ranch if he felt he couldn't handle things, he had no intentions of doing so. "Thank you, Mr. Hoskins. That is most kind."

Jelly took his bag and put it under the footrest. "Reckon ya can call me Jelly. Ain't no call to be so formal," he offered as he rolled his eyes.

Murdoch chuckled at this. "Be careful and Jock, please remember, Johnny is in charge so what he says goes."

"I'll remember, Murdoch. Thank you again for the chance to go along."

*****

Jock couldn't believe half the day was gone and they still hadn't stopped. Were they headed for the ends of the earth? "Why are they bringing the extra horses?"

"In case one goes lame, gets sick, that sort a thing."

He nodded. "And this is a chuckwagon?"

"That's right. I'm the cook on this trip."

"Ah, I understand that is a position of highest priority," Jock smiled.

"Darn tootin! Nobody messes with the cook! If'n they do, they'll find theirselves with a empty belly," Jelly proclaimed.

"How much further is it?"

"About an hour. I'll fix lunch soon as we get there."

"Lancer is much larger than I'd first thought."

Jelly only nodded, he had no intentions of discussing how much land the Lancers owned. He figured Steele knew better than ta ask, too, cause he didn't. Maybe he wasn't so dumb about ranch life, after all.

Jock watched Johnny leading the way, noting once again how he sat his horse, how he seemed to move as one with the animal. He recalled Johnny's passion when speaking of the palomino and he smiled a little. None of it melded with his idea of Madrid and he was more intrigued than ever. He wondered if he could ask Jelly about it. He decided against that for now. He'd wait and see how things went before trying the old man.

Finally and thankfully, Johnny came to a stop. Jock had begun seeing cattle scattered about fifteen minutes ago and figured they were almost there. He watched Johnny issue orders with ease then set about working on the campsite. He, himself, helped Jelly set up his wagon as much as he could.

"Soon as the boys eat, we'll start rounding them up."

Jock startled as he turned quickly to find Johnny behind him.

"Sorry," the young man smiled.

"You are quiet," Jock remarked.

"Won't be but a minute. Already had some lunch ready. Just gotta get it out then they can come ahead," Jelly said.

Johnny nodded and looked back at the men finishing stringing off the remuda. "I told the boys why you're here and that you might be askin them some questions," he started as he turned back. "I also told them they didn't have to answer. Just to be polite about turning you down."

"And I'll respect their wishes, Johnny."

"Good enough."

"Grub!" Jelly hollered.

*****

Jock studied the men standing and squatting around as they ate. He took note of those talking and laughing and those who looked like they wished they were anyplace else right now. He figured both sets could give him different insights. He saw Johnny standing off by himself, staring out at the land and he walked over. "Something wrong, Johnny?"

"Huh? No, why?" he asked, turning to face the man.

"You seemed so deep in thought," Steele shrugged.

He smiled a little. "Guess I was. Just planning out the rest of the day. Listen, most of these men don't talk much so I hope you don't expect too much out of them."

Jock smiled. "I've found even the most laconic cowboy will talk if given the right subject."

"Such as?" Johnny asked, wondering how he knew about cowboys.

"Their horse and women."

He laughed and nodded. "Reckon so but I thought you said you hadn't been around many cowboys."

"No, I said I hadn't spent much time on a ranch. Those I've met have been in saloons for the most part and usually, in cow towns."

Johnny looked at him for a long beat then nodded his head again. Jock's heart stopped beating in those few seconds as he thought he might have made a mistake with Johnny. But, he was telling the truth so there was no reason not to be believed. Johnny seemed to and he sighed silently.

"Alright, boys, let's start this roundup. Herd 'em all at the waterhole half a mile back. Gather round, now," Johnny called out.

Jock watched as he paired off the hands and sent them in all directions, looking for strays. Soon, there was no one left in camp but he and Jelly.

"What can I do to help you, Jelly? I want to be as useful as possible."

Jelly gave him a sidelong look. "Wahl, we're gonna need a lot of wood for the campfires and the cookin. The boys usually help me out after they get back but it'd be nice ta give 'em a break on that chore."

"Then, let's gather a forest for these hard-working men," Jock smiled and removed his jacket and tie.

*****

It was dusk before the first of the men started staggering in, tired and hungry. Jock helped ladle out the stew, all the while his eyes searching for Johnny, but he was the last man to ride in.

Everyone settled around the two campfires built and Jock made his way to the one Johnny was sitting by, notebook and pencil in hand. His eyes moved over each man, peering through the dancing flames as they licked at the very air that fed them. They were of varying ages, some with wizened faces, lined with experience. Some much more youthful, eagerness sparkling on their peach-fuzzed cheeks. Everyone wore weariness like an old friend.

Steele was mesmerized by the quiet, an almost knowing possessed by each hand as they stared into the fire or to the ground or at each other. Tin cups filled each man's hand, the nectar they required to stay energized. Even in the waning of the day, they sipped it as if it were mother's milk.

Soft noises could be heard as men shifted and scratched. Then, louder sounds as they belched their compliments to the chef and began teasing each other over who was the loudest.

"Gentlemen, I trust your day went well," he smiled.

"Yeah, so far so good," Johnny said then sipped his coffee.

"You always say that, Johnny. You're just waitin for somethin bad to happen," Frank said and they all laughed.

"If ya wait for it, it's less likely to come," Johnny quipped in his defense.

"That don't make sense," a young, red-headed boy said.

"Don't worry about it, Jim. I'll worry for you," Johnny smiled.  

"How often do you do this type of thing?" Jock asked.

"Twice a year. Usually, Scott and I trade off but, since he snuck off on me, I got both this year," Johnny said, trying to sound slighted.

"Well, I certainly won't ask which boss they prefer," Jock laughed.

"Thanks. We'd hate ta get fired," Frank said then gave Johnny a toasting motion with his cup.

Johnny laughed and settled further back against the log he was resting his back on. "Hey, Ben, did you bring that guitar? Maybe Mr. Steele would like some," he stopped and snapped his fingers a couple of times as if searching for a word. "ambience. Ain't that the word?"

"It is and I'd love to hear you play, Ben," Jock said.

For the next hour, they listened to Ben play some of the saddest music Jock had ever heard. He eventually stopped and just plucked at the strings.

"Why are cowboy songs so sad?"

No one answered Steele for a while.

"Reckon it's because it's a lonely life a lot of the time," Frank spoke up.

Jock nodded his head, understanding that to be true. "I remember hearing a song once that gave me shivers. Let me think now. Oh, I remember. The Streets of Laredo. Do you know that one?"

Johnny sat up suddenly and threw the rest of his coffee into the fire. "About time to relieve the night herd shift, Pete, Walt. Rest of us should get some shut eye." With that, he stood and walked away.

Jock stared after him, confused at the sudden change. The men began to disperse, all but Frank who stayed behind for a moment.

"Johnny don't like that song, Mr. Steele. Best not to ask it be played around him."

He only nodded his understanding but, he didn't really. He went to his bedroll still thinking it over.

*****

Jock stared at the stars above him as he recalled the words to the song. It was certainly a sad tune. Maybe it reminded Johnny of someone. Yes, that must be it. He looked over at the man, tucked into his bedroll, and noticed his right hand under the blanket. It was a very warm night and he pondered that, too, until it struck him why.

"Can't sleep?" Jelly asked as he lay down near the man.

"No, I suppose not. But, then, I haven't been herding cattle all day," Jock replied then frowned. "He is an enigma."


"Who?"

"Johnny."

"Oh. Yeah, I reckon so."

"Do you know him well?" Steele asked.

Jelly sighed as he lay on his back and tucked his hands behind his head. "Reckon I do. Night."

"Goodnight, Jelly," he sighed. That was it, then. He'd get no direct information from Jelly Hoskins. He'd figured as much, though. He was very close with the Lancers.

He laid there a while longer until he knew it was useless. He got up and went back to the fire. Taking out his notebook, he began to write. The men came and went as they changed night herd riders but none of them came to join him. They all went straight to their bedrolls. Yes, it must be a lonely life and a hard one, at that.

*****

The next two days passed mundanely and Jock was beginning to think he'd never have a chance to speak to the men without Johnny's presence. He knew they wouldn't say anything in front of him. He also knew they may not say anything period. Frank had seemed the most chatty which was a sad statement considering he said barely anything at all. But, at least he'd warned Jock about that song. It was a breakthrough as far as the man was concerned.

Tonight, he caught a break as Johnny assigned himself night herd duty. He thought that rather odd since he was the boss and voiced his opinion at the campfire.

"The Lancers don't believe in puttin on airs. They work as hard, if not harder than any hand here," Jim spoke up.

"I can imagine you were all unsure of the brothers at first," he fished.

"Sure, 'specially Scott. Bein a city slicker and all, none of us thought he'd be worth a damn," Jim chuckled and the others nodded in agreement.

"It took 'im a while but that's ta be expected. Don't reckon he'd ever seen a cow up close before lessen it was on the supper table. But, he does real good now." This was Walt.

"Well, he's a smart man. I can see how he'd catch on quickly. I'm sure he took the bull by the horns, so to speak," Steele smiled.

"Not so ta speak, he done it," Walt laughed and some of the others joined him.

Jock raised an expectant eyebrow and some of the newer hands leaned in, wanting to hear the story as well. Walt set his coffee cup down and clasped his hands between his knees.

"Well, reckon he'd been here about two months. Johnny had 'im out in the lower pasture with this old bull they had. Mind you, that bull was about ready to lay on down, he was so old, and he weren't inclined to move much on a good day but Scott didn't know that. Johnny," he stopped and laughed at the recollection then settled down. "Johnny told 'im he needed ta lead the bull where he wanted 'im ta go. Told Scott ta take him by the horns. Well, ole Scott pipes up and says he's heard that expression. Johnny looks him dead in the eye and asks where he thought it come from in the first place.

"I was there and I gotta tell ya, Scott wasn't real sure if his leg was bein pulled or not. Course, at that time, he didn't know Johnny real well and he kept lookin in Johnny's face. But, Johnny never flinched and never strayed so Scott just figured he was tellin it like it was. So, he takes hold of this bull's horn and Johnny stops 'im. 'no,' he says, 'ya gotta take hold of both horns.' and Scott did.

"Reckon it was fifteen minutes or so Scott kept pullin on that bull's horns. He never got one hoof ta move. He's standin there, sweat pouring, gruntin and groanin and still pullin. Well, Johnny's done walked over to where we was all standin, a good space away, and we was all laughin so hard, thought my sides would bust. But, we had ta be quiet about it so's Scott didn't hear so we're all holdin our hands over our mouths. Then," Walt was laughing so hard by this time, he had to stop for a minute. Everyone waited for him, some chuckling, some smiling, all waiting for the end.

"All the sudden, there's this loud voice. Not hollerin but loud enough for Scott ta hear. 'Son, what in the world are you doin?'. Well, ya could see Scott's shoulders come up and he lets go of the bull then turns to his old man. None of us could stand it any more and we all just fell out, howlin our heads off. Johnny was laughin so hard, he fell on the ground."

Walt had to wipe at his eyes before he could go on but it didn't matter. Everyone at the campfire was howling with laughter. Eventually, they all calmed down a bit and Walt continued his story.

"Scott looked at us then back at the old man, pulled them shoulders back and walked over." Walt cleared his throat and did a pretty good impression. "He says, "I'm trying to move that bull, Sir.' Mr. Lancer looks at him then at the bull then at him and says, 'Why?' Calm as ya please. Scott looked at him real funny then turned to Johnny who finally got up off the ground and Scott says, 'I have no idea.' Well, that set us all off again."

Jock got himself under control and asked, "What did Murdoch do?"

"Well, nothin that I know of. Looked ta me like he was tryin real hard not ta laugh. He just says, 'I see." and walks off," Walt chuckled.

"I hate to think what Scott did to his brother," Jock remarked.

"Nothin that I know of. Leastways, not right then. He just walked off, mad as can be. I reckon he was pretty embarrassed, too. His face was red as a tomata." Walt stopped and frowned. "Come ta think of it, Johnny got real quiet then and went off after Scott."

Jock jotted something in his notebook, he'd been writing through his laughter during the tale. He looked up then. "Well, no permanent damage done. They get along very well."

"Yeah, reckon Scott can take a joke pretty good," Walt grinned.

Several of the men decided to turn in after the story, leaving Jock alone with Walt and Jim.

"I've seen how they joke with each other. Still, those early days had to be hard," Steele said.

"They do get along good," Jim agreed.

"I think it's wonderful how Johnny has been able to walk away from that life." Jock looked at both men with that statement. Neither said a word. "I know who he was, gentlemen. It isn't like it's a secret."

"No, ain't no secret. He's a good man," Walt said.

"Yes, that's why I have a hard time reconciling him with the legend."

"What legend?" Came the soft voice from the dark.

Jock closed his eyes briefly and sighed. Damn! he thought.

*****

Walt and Jim both came to their feet and said a quick and quiet goodnight. Johnny walked out of the shadows and to the fire, pouring a cup of coffee and settling on an old log. "What's this about a legend?"

"Oh, we were just telling stories. Myths and legends, that sort of thing," Steele lied. "Walt told a wonderful story about Scott and a bull."

Johnny grinned then laughed a little. "The boys like to tell tall tales."

"It isn't true?"

"Yeah, that one's true. At least, I guess it is. Didn't hear what he said."

"It was hilarious. You really got your brother's goat on that one."

"Guess so. He paid me back, though," Johnny smiled.

"How?"

He glanced over at Steele before looking back at the fire. "Reckon I should see if Jelly left me anything to eat. Then, I'm gonna sack in. Goodnight, Mr. Steele."

"Goodnight, Johnny," he said in an obviously disappointed voice. That had to be the most frustrating man he'd ever encountered! Still, he'd managed to elude a potentially disastrous moment. If Johnny had heard anything else he'd said, he'd have a lot of explaining to do and he wasn't ready for that.

*****

Johnny walked over to where Jelly was rummaging in the back of his wagon and tapped his shoulder. The old man nodded toward the pot still simmering and Johnny ladled out some stew. He leaned against the side of the wagon and took a bite.

"Don't you know how to make anything besides stew?" he asked quietly.

"Don't eat it if ya don't like it!" Jelly huffed and went back to his rummaging.

"Didn't say I didn't like it. Just asked a question."

Jelly stuck his head around the corner. "Seems there's a lot of that goin on."

"What?"

"Askin questions. That Steele fella can't have a conversation without he's askin a million of 'em."

Johnny smiled, his head down as he took another bite. "Scott says it's part of the profession."

"Hmmph! Then let 'im ask Scott." Jelly stopped his digging around and came up alongside Johnny. "He asks a lot of questions about you. All real innocent soundin. Asked me last night if I knew ya well."

Johnny raised his head at this and looked at the older man.

"Told 'im yes and went ta sleep," Jelly supplied.

Another smile was his reward. "He's after something more than writing about life on the range."

"No kiddin! Can't figure what though."

Johnny sighed out through his nose and just shrugged.

*****

The rest of the week was full of more stories but none about the Lancers. The hands regaled Steele with tales of cattle drives, mishaps on the range and cow towns. Though it was all interesting and he wrote it all down, Jock was disappointed. Every time he tried to lead the conversation to the Lancers, the hands turned it around on him. He quickly figured out they were protecting the Lancers and, in particular, Johnny. He just wasn't sure why.

Maybe it was instinct on their part not to divulge too much information about the men who paid them. Maybe it was something else. He took note of the respect Johnny received from them and knew it to be genuine. They really didn't see him as a gunfighter, rather as an employer. He still refused to believe a man could change that much.

They were packed and ready to go early the last morning. Jelly dallied a little as the rest headed out. He explained if they didn't want to eat dust for lunch, it was best to stay a bit back as the men pushed the cattle closer to home.

Jock watched in fascination as the drive proceeded. They were a mile behind but he could see the massive cloud of dust and hear the thunderous sounds. The lowing of the cattle and the shouts of the cowboys, along with shrill whistling could almost be heard from the house, he imagined.

Though the trip was not as successful as he'd hoped, he had to admit, he'd gotten some good background. And, he supposed, the adventure could be a story in its own right. He was beginning to think that was the only story he was going to get. He was getting nowhere with Madrid.

He made some crude sketches of the scene before him as they jolted along. It kept him occupied and seemed to keep Jelly from rattling on about his life. Jock was over Jelly's ruminations and, he was sure, out and out lies about his adventures. He looked up at one point and realized the sun was setting.

"We're camping out again?"

"Didn't expect ta get all these cattle back in one day, did ya?"

"Well, we got there in one day," Steele shrugged.

"And we didn't have two hundred head to push, neither. They're a might slow, in case ya didn't notice," Jelly said in his usual sarcastic tone.

Steele grimaced and sighed to himself. He was looking forward to a soft, warm bed tonight. Once again, he helped Jelly set up camp though it wasn't as arduous a job this time. "One more night, then, Jelly?" he asked hopefully.

"Ougtha be home by tomorra afternoon."

*****

Johnny waited until the men were all eating, as usual, before coming up to the cook's wagon.

"How're they lookin?" Jelly asked.

"Real good. They all look healthy."

"Your friend was a might disappointed at not gettin back today," Jelly smirked.

"Yeah? Did he think we'd make the same time?"

"Yep, he did."

Johnny laughed at that and grabbed a cup of coffee before making his way to the campfire. He heard the laughter as he approached.

"Alright, alright. I never said I was a cowboy, gentlemen. It does make sense, though," Jock was saying.

"Hey, Johnny. Ole Jock here was expectin to be sleepin on downy tonight," Jim laughed.

"So I heard. Sorry to put you out, Mr. Steele. We'll be home tomorrow as long as everything goes smoothly."

"I'm not complaining, mind you. Scott told me you shoot whiners," he smiled.

Johnny looked over at him, somewhat surprised at that then he smiled a little, just a little. "Been known to," was all he said.

The men laughed in appreciation at the statement. Jock forced a laugh, too, but he wasn't sure it was a joke. He didn't like being unsure of a man. He thought he'd gotten a handle on Johnny but, he was understanding he knew nothing at all about the man. He was beginning to wonder how he'd ever get to the truth.

"Dammit it all ta hell, anyway!"

They all turned as Burt walked up scowling and limping.

"What happened?" Johnny asked.

"Damn heifer stepped on my foot!" he reported and received no sympathy but plenty of chuckles.

Johnny forced back a grin. "Sit down and let me take a look at it."

"I got it!" he stated, still ticked off as he hobbled over to his bedroll.

Johnny shrugged and went back to his supper.

"Shouldn't someone help him?" Jock asked.

"If he wants help, he'll ask for it, I reckon."

"He's about the prickliest man I ever come across," Jim said.

"Ain't been around much, have ya?" Johnny grinned.

Jim grimaced at him then laughed. "Maybe not but I don't reckon there's many in such a bad mood all the time. Ain't never seen that man crack a smile."

Johnny only nodded, realizing that was true. Burt was pretty sore all the time. He supposed the man was just the miserable type.

"Well, I hate to see a man suffer alone. I'll see if I can't cajole him," Jock said and headed off.

Jim snorted, "good luck."

Jock walked casually over to the grumbling man who was rubbing his bare foot. "I've had a little experience with sore ankles in the recent past. I'd like to help if you'll allow."

Burt scowled up at him. "You're that fancy pants what's been hangin around, ain't ya?"

Jock raised a brow and nodded. "I am. There's no reason for you to suffer, Burt, isn't it?" He didn't wait for an answer and knelt down beside the man. "We should wrap that up tonight but first, I'll get a cold compress so it doesn't swell on you."

Burt, still scowling, only nodded at the man.

Jock returned quickly with a cold cloth and bandaging he'd procured from Jelly. As he placed the compress, he glanced up at the man. "May I ask why you didn't want Johnny to help you?"

The man clamped his mouth shut and Jock wasn't sure if it was stubbornness or pain. "Anything you say to me will be kept in the strictest confidence."

"Huh?"

"I won't repeat a word," he clarified.

Burt seemed to consider this then nodded and leaned in, lowering his voice. "Ain't no halfbreed gonna touch me, is all."

Jock wasn't surprised. Heaven knew, he'd run across plenty of prejudice in his lifetime. "I see. Why do you work for him, then?"

Burt snorted. "Don't work for him. I work for Murdoch Lancer. Don't need no breed ta tell me how ta do the job."

"I take it Johnny doesn't know how you feel?"

"I ain't stupid, mister. If'n he was anybody else, I wouldn't have a problem tellin him where ta go. But, I ain't no match for the likes of Johnny Madrid."

Jock smiled to himself. He'd just hit paydirt.

*****

He spent the entire evening talking alone with Burt. No one seemed to pay them any mind and he was grateful. He didn't know how much of what he heard was true but he knew some of it had to be. Now, he had some basic facts to go on. Burt gave him the lowdown on everything that had happened since Johnny returned to Lancer. He sprinkled it all with a healthy dose of hate and snide, sometimes crude, comments about Johnny. Jock thought his hand might fall off before it was all said and done.

He heard the soft guitar music then, later, laughter from the main campfire and felt a twinge of regret. He liked these men and enjoyed their company. Well, except for Burt. He was surly as they came and he didn't hold his tongue. Every other word the man used was a profanity. Jock mused it was probably a good thing, else he might miss writing down the good stuff.

Still, his anger flared more often than not during the conversation. He ended the evening wanting to punch the man in the face. How could people like that live on this earth? Nothing but ignorance and hatred filled their veins. This one was the worst of the worst.

He was actually relieved when Burt was called for his turn at night herd. He shook his cramping hand as the man walked away and heard soft laughter behind him.

"Must have been some good stories."

He turned and saw Johnny behind him then made his way to his own feet. "It was ... interesting. Sometimes, I really don't like this job. Not when I have to endure so much stupidity," he said tersely.

Johnny raised his brows at that.

"That man is a menace," he said ruefully.

Johnny smiled sympathetically. "Yeah, he's a jackass, alright. Can't stand me but I guess he told you that."

Steele turned aside and stared at nothing. "I'm afraid I couldn't say. People won't talk to me if they know I'm going to repeat every word."

"Ain't that what you do, though? I mean, you write those stories," Johnny shrugged.

"Yes, but I don't normally use direct quotes unless it's an official source. Otherwise, people hold back the truth. Of course, there are times when they embellish their stories so much, it's hard to find any truth in them."

Johnny quirked his mouth. "Sometimes, a good story is better than the truth of it as long as nobody gets hurt."

Jock smiled and turned back to face him. "Yes, but I don't write fiction. Is that what you like to read, fiction?"

"I don't read much. Not like Scott and Murdoch. I guess I'd rather be outside than with my nose stuck in a book."

"Ever thought of a compromise? Sticking your nose in a book outside?"

Johnny laughed outright at that. "Well, no, I haven't."

"Well, something to consider. You lead an interesting and full life here but sometimes, it's nice to escape into a fantasy world."

Johnny's face fell dark and he lowered his eyes. "Thing like that could get ya killed," he mumbled. With a sigh, he looked back up, his face softer now. "Well, goodnight."

*****

The next morning, everyone was more energetic knowing they'd be home by the end of the day. Even Burt was grumbling less. Jock once more helped Jelly and they set off after the herd. He took out his notebook and started flipping through to find a clean page.

"What's that?" Jelly asked, looking over at the book.

"What?"

Jelly reached over and turned the page back, staring at the likeness. "That's a purty good picture of Johnny."

"You think so? I'm not sure it quite captures him."

"Didn't know you could draw," Jelly said.

"Well, it's not Rembrandt, but I try," Jock smiled.

"Draw anythin else?" Jelly asked, still glancing over at the book.

Jock bit his cheek. "No, not yet, but I'm sure I'll get the notion to draw some more likenesses." He turned a little in the seat and looked at Jelly. "You have an interesting profile, Jelly."

The old wrangler jutted his chin out and raised his head. "Been told so," he boasted.

Steele was saved from laughing in the man's face as Johnny rode back to them.

"Creeks up a little, Jelly. Must've rained in the mountains."

"Bad?"

"Bad enough for a greenhorn but you can handle it. Just wanted to let you know ahead of time," Johnny grinned and spurred Barranca on.

"Reckon we might get wet. Just hang on when we get there," Jelly advised his passenger.

Jock's eyes widened when he saw the swollen creek. It more resembled a river now. He swallowed hard and clamped down on the side of the seat. "Up a little? That looks treacherous!"

Jelly rolled his eyes. "Just hang on like I told ya. I'll get ya to the other side in one piece."

He wasn't so sure then, he saw Johnny on the other side waiting for them and relaxed a fraction. Suddenly, they lurched forward as the wagon's front wheels entered the water and he sucked in a breath. The wagon rocked side to side as Jelly urged the horses onward. Jock's notebook began to slide off his lap and he grabbed at it but he couldn't get to it fast enough.

He let go of the bench and leaned forward as the book made its way to the floorboards. He heard Jelly shouting at him to hang on but he couldn't lose that book. It had everything he needed in it. His fingers were almost on it when he felt himself sliding sideways. Hands flailing about, he tried desperately to grab hold of something but found only air.

"Son of a bitch!" Johnny exclaimed as he saw the man tumble out of the wagon. He dug his heels into Barranca and entered the cold water.

Steele was floundering, unable to get his feet under him. The water wasn't that deep but, he was drowning all the same. He came up and sucked in a lungful of air before slipping and falling backwards again. Panic-stricken, his arms flailed every which way as he lost his sense of direction. He couldn't find the surface and he was almost out of air.

Suddenly, he felt hands on him, hauling him up roughly. Johnny stood him up but his legs were rubbery and he leaned heavily against the slimmer man.

Johnny held onto him and turned him around, taking his hand and throwing it up until he felt the saddle horn. Steele grabbed hold and breathed raspily, coughing and sputtering water. Johnny knew he couldn't ride them out of there, would never get the man on Barranca so, he grabbed the lead rein then dipped his left shoulder, taking Steele's weight.

Barranca pulled them to the shore and up the slight incline then Steele fell to the ground like a limp dishrag. Johnny pushed at the horse's side until he moved away a little then sat down heavily next to the man.

He felt a blanket covering his shoulders then saw Jelly round him and do the same for Steele.

"Damn fool! Tryin ta git yerself killed?" Jelly berated.

"I ... I'm sorry," Steele choked out. He looked up, blinking the water from his eyes as he stared at Johnny. "Thank you."

Johnny coughed once and nodded then hauled himself to his feet. "You alright?"

"I think so."

"Come on. Let's get ya in the wagon and get this trip over with," Jelly said, still disgruntled and feeling guilty for nearly getting his friend killed. He should have grabbed Steele but he couldn't let go of the reins without losing the whole wagon. If Johnny had been hurt, he'd never have forgiven himself.

Steele could only nod as Jelly helped him up. When he looked around for Johnny, he saw him riding off after the herd.

The rest of the trip was made in total silence. Steele clutched at the blanket for an hour before he was warm and dry enough to release it. It was then he saw his book still on the footrest and he picked it up. Sighing at his own stupidity, he tucked it into his carpetbag.

When they saw the Lancer arch, Jock sighed with relief. He didn't know how he was going to repay Johnny but he'd find a way.

*****

Murdoch watched as the cattle were pushed into the larger corral. A slight smile adorned his face as he saw they were all healthy. Johnny rode over to him once the gate was latched and dismounted.

"How many?" Murdoch asked first thing.

"Two hundred and two," Johnny smiled.

"Tired?"

"Yeah, I sure am." His voice had taken on a disgusted tone but he didn't look at his father.

"Did something happen, son?"

Johnny glanced up at him but didn't answer as the chuckwagon rolled up. Jock wasted no time in saying what he'd wanted to say before and with more sincerity. He climbed down and walked up to them.

"Johnny, I want to thank you. You saved my life."

"You're welcome," he mumbled. "I'm gonna get cleaned up and maybe lay down for awhile before supper." He looked at his father. "Unless you need me for something."

Murdoch was studying him closely. "No, go ahead and, son, good job," he smiled.

Johnny returned the smile and nodded. "Thanks."

Murdoch immediately turned his attention to Jock. "What happened?"

He actually blushed a little as he thought of the telling of this story. He'd been a fool and Johnny should have let him drown for it. He sighed and walked in the house with Murdoch, explaining as they went.

"If Johnny hadn't been there, I don't want to think what would have happened," he finished.

"Well, I'm glad he was there. I'm sure he isn't angry about it," Murdoch tried.

"He should be. Jelly told me to hold on and I knew I should have. It was such a silly thing compared to what could have happened. It's just a notebook, for heaven's sake!" he exclaimed, angry with himself.

Murdoch smiled a little. "Sometimes, in the moment, we don't think about what could happen. Later, it becomes abundantly clear we'd made a foolish mistake."

"A mistake that could have cost you your son, Murdoch. I don't know how I can ever really thank Johnny or make this up to any of you."

"Jock, it wasn't intentional. Everything worked out alright so try not to beat yourself up for it. I'm sure Johnny won't think another thing about it."

*****

At supper that night, Johnny gave his father a full report on the round up. Murdoch listened to the mundane telling with a nod of the head here and there. Once his son was finished, he gave him a surreptitious look.

"So, the only excitement was taking a swim."

Johnny grinned and looked across the table at Jock. "Well, that and Burt's foot."

"All of your trips should go so smoothly," Teresa imparted with a slight nudge to his ribs.

"I don't know what you're talkin about, Teresa. I never have any problems."

Murdoch and Teresa just stared at him for a beat then, almost in concert, rolled their eyes.

"Well, I will be forever grateful, Johnny. I did a stupid thing and you should have just left me in that creek," Steele said remorsefully.

"Nah, Murdoch would've been mad at me for letting another guest die." His face was blank as he looked at the man.

Jock stared then swallowed hard until he heard Murdoch chuckle and Teresa start laughing into her napkin. "Very funny," he said dryly.

"When is Scott due back?" Johnny asked, wanting to change the subject. It wasn't a big deal to him. He was there and did what needed doing. Anyone would have done the same.

"Tomorrow if all goes well. I haven't heard from him so I'm taking that as a good sign."

"Don't worry. Scott will be fine. He manages to stay out of trouble," Teresa said.

"Keep it up, querida, and that pony of yours won't look so shiny," Johnny barbed.

She wrinkled her nose at him but said nothing more. Murdoch chuckled at them both and Jock relaxed.

*****

Jock awoke the next morning feeling sore all over. No small wonder, he thought as he tried to stretch out his muscles. He coughed and was surprised it felt so deep and rumbled so loudly. Cautiously, he swallowed and found his throat sore. Great! I can't be sick now. Staggering over to the mirror, he examined himself. Bags puckered under his eyes which were bloodshot and his color was paler than usual. He pressed gingerly at his neck and winced in pain. Sighing resignedly, he decided he could ride it out. He proceeded to get dressed and shave and, with each passing minute, his strength drained a little more.

It was late morning by ranch standards, he knew. He finally pulled his jacket on and didn't bother with a tie today. It would probably just strangle him, he thought morosely. Anger crept up his neck, giving him at least some color. He frowned at himself in the mirror then resolved to get on with the day. Opening the door to his bedroom, he placated himself with the thought he'd not see any Lancers in the kitchen. They'd be long gone by now and all he had to contend with was Teresa.

Soon enough, Jock found that contending with Teresa was far worse than facing even Madrid's gun. She had appraised him quickly and started fussing in an instant. Before he knew it, he was on the sofa with a throw cover across his legs and a pillow tucked under his head. Arms crossed in the only defiance he had left, he scowled at the situation. He didn't need a doctor, he kept saying - to himself. He couldn't say it to anyone else because Teresa wasn't listening to him and had, in fact, left him there to start a pot of soup.

Begrudgingly, a smile lifted his mouth as he recalled his own mother's ministrations when he was a boy. At the first sign of cough, sneeze or fever, she'd start her routine. Rest, chicken soup and plenty of love was her recipe for health. He had to admit, it always worked. Of course, as a child, he didn't mind her fussing. Now, it rankled him a bit. Well, he thought, just a bit. It had in fact been a long time since anyone had coddled him and he actually missed it a little. Not that he would ever admit such.

He'd just nodded off, or so it seemed, when he felt a nudge on his shoulder. Opening his eyes, he blinked Teresa into focus. Such a sweet girl, he thought.

"Come on, now. Your soup is ready and the doctor should be here soon."

Jock levered himself into a sitting position with some effort. His muscles were still quite sore and he grunted despite himself. "I will reiterate, Miss Teresa, I do not need a doctor. I'm sure I'll feel much better by tomorrow."

Teresa pulled a face and studied him. "You men always say the same thing and it's never true. You should trust a woman's instincts about such things, Mr. Steele. You do need a doctor. Why, you nearly drowned just yesterday! It's no surprise you're sick. Now, take this soup and eat every drop." She passed him the bowl then put her hands on her hips to make her point.

He knew better than to even try arguing. He really did. A master of women's emotions, he wasn't. But, he had sense and he'd learned long ago to never argue with a woman when she's nursing a sick person. So, he caved and gave her an obedient smile as he spooned the first bite.

*****

It was afternoon before Sam Jenkins arrived at the hacienda. He pulled to a stop and stepped to the ground just as Murdoch and Johnny rode in. Concerned immediately, Murdoch strode to the doctor, the question on his face easy to read.

"Murdoch, Johnny," Sam nodded. "I understand your houseguest is under the weather."

"I didn't know that. He was still asleep when we left this morning but I suppose I'm not surprised. He took a swim yesterday." Murdoch pushed his hat back and glanced at his son, frowning at the small smile on Johnny's face.

A smile that disappeared quickly in the face of his father's disapproval. "I'm sure Teresa's takin good care of him, Sam," Johnny offered.

"Well, let's just go see."

Murdoch made to follow Sam when he noticed Johnny wasn't moving. He turned and watched the lowered head for a few seconds. "What is it, son?"

A loud sigh escaped before Johnny looked up at his father. "Nothing. Just hope he's okay. I mean, I didn't think ..."

"It's not your fault, son. We told Jock it could be dangerous. He's lucky all he did was get wet, frankly. If you hadn't been there, he could have drowned. There's no way Jelly could have gotten to him quick enough."

"I'm not blaming myself, Murdoch. Just kind of wish he'd never come here at all." Johnny turned aside, knowing the look he'd receive but he couldn't be anything less than honest with his father.

Murdoch hesitated before saying, "that's not very charitable."

Johnny had to smile. He looked back at his father. "I guess not. He's just so danged nosy! Always askin questions about everything and everyone. I get the feeling he's after something more than setting up a newspaper office."

"Like what?"

Shaking his head slowly, Johnny shrugged. "I don't know exactly."

Murdoch looked out over the land as he thought about Johnny's words. "Have you asked him?"

Johnny raised his brows then a grin spread across his face. "Well, no." He laughed lightly then stepped up to his father. "Always shoot straight, huh?"

Murdoch smiled and wrapped an arm around his son's shoulders. With a cocked brow full of meaning, he replied emphatically, "Always!"

*****

"Well," Sam started as he leaned back and removed the stethoscope from his ears, "it's not pneumonia. You have a simple cold and a sore throat. But, you need to take care so it doesn't get worse. Teresa will nurse you back to health."

Jock was not a happy man. "How long will I be ill, Doctor?"  

Sam nearly rolled his eyes. It must be this house, he thought. It just brings out impatience. "As long as it takes, Mr. Steele."

Both men turned as they heard the soft laughter from across the room. Johnny stood leaning against Murdoch's desk looking like he was enjoying this a little too much. Sam shot him a nasty look then turned his attention back to his patient and, his nurse standing behind the sofa. "Teresa, a poultice for his chest at night and plenty of fluids, soup, you know the drill."

"I'll take care of him, Sam."

Murdoch walked up beside his ward and gave her a quick hug. "We know you will no matter how difficult a patient he may be." The look he gave Jock conveyed a direct message.

Appropriately chastised without a word spoken to him, Jock swallowed and nodded his understanding. "I simply hate to be even more of an imposition to you all. You've been so gracious already."

"Don't worry about that, Mr. Steele. We're very used to sickness and injury in this house." Teresa shot a look right at Johnny who grinned his most charming grin at her. "I'd best get supper ready. Excuse me." She gave a quick bow of the head before making for her kitchen.

"A remarkable girl," Jock murmured.

"That she is." Murdoch's eyes had a distant quality to them for just a beat before he blinked and addressed Sam. "Stay for supper?"

Sam stood up. "Thank you, I will. Maybe I can give Mr. Steele some local color for his newspaper."

*****

Jock joined them at the table and managed some softer foods on his sore throat. It wasn't so sore he couldn't speak, however. During a lull in the conversation, he looked over at Johnny and smiled. "You never told me what Scott did to get back at you."

Johnny looked up from his plate with a questioning gaze before he realized what Steele meant.

"What's this?" Sam asked.

"One of the hands was telling me a story about Scott and bull," Jock explained and heard chuckles around the table.

"Ah, yes. The infamous splinter ordeal."

"Sam," Johnny said, a warning clear in his tone.

"Oh, come on, Johnny. Even you have to admit, it was funny."

"Not at the time," Johnny muttered.

Sam smiled and turned to Jock. "Well, Scott was quite embarrassed by that bull debacle. It took him, ohhh, about a month to get his revenge."

Johnny groaned and sunk down in his chair. Sam was one man he could never intimidate and he hated that right now. He glanced at Teresa who was leaning forward on her elbows, awaiting the retelling. Then, he looked at Murdoch, a little surprised the man seemed to be anticipating the tale, too. Steele was all ears. He was sunk.

"Scott and Johnny were working in the barn, you see. Scott had played the whole bull thing down and that made Johnny relax. Well, they didn't know each other very well yet so, Johnny couldn't have known it was a ploy." Sam gave Johnny a gleeful glance. "Anyway, Scott had apparently been up late the night before setting his brother up."

Johnny grabbed his wine glass and downed it.

"They were making repairs in the loft and there was a long board they were using to slide some junk down below. Scott pipes up out of the blue and tells Johnny how he used boards like that to slide down as a boy. He told Johnny he would slide right down just like sliding down a banister which Johnny had shown a propensity for doing. Now, I have to admit, it took some convincing on Scott's part as Johnny is naturally a suspicious man. But, eventually, Scott persuaded his brother to give it a try."

"Smooth talkin eastern dandy," Johnny muttered then reached over and grabbed the wine bottle.

Murdoch actually snickered at him.

"Well, what happened?" Jock asked.

"I spent a very long evening getting more closely acquainted with Johnny's backside than I ever cared to," Sam said then burst out laughing.

The laughter died down and Johnny stared into his wine glass. Jock watched him and wondered why he seemed so glum. He could understand being embarrassed by such a tale, such an event but, this seemed more somehow. "Well, if you think about it, that wasn't really fair. By the account I heard, Scott sustained no injury other than to his pride. It doesn't seem the punishment matched the crime in this case."

"In all fairness, Scott was mortified. I guess he didn't really think about the repercussions. He just thought Johnny would get one splinter, maybe two. He confessed he felt very badly about the whole thing," Murdoch imparted.

Johnny looked up slowly at his father. "He did?"

"Yes, son, he did. But, he just couldn't tell you that. You were very angry with him if you recall."

Johnny smiled a little. "Guess I was. Well, that was a long time ago."

Sam snorted. "It was only about a year ago."

"Long time to some, Sam. Anyways, taught us to do our teasin with our mouths instead. If you'll excuse me, I'd like to get some air." Johnny scooted his chair back and felt a hand on his arm giving him a quick squeeze. He smiled at his father to let him know all was well.

"He doesn't like to talk about himself at all, does he?" Jock asked quietly once Johnny had left.

Murdoch let out a sigh. "He's just cautious."

Nodding, Steele said, "unless it's just family. That's completely understandable."

"Mr. Steele, I believe it's time for you to call it a night. You need plenty of rest," Sam stated.

"It's been a long time since I've been sent to my room, Doctor. Thank you for your expertise. I am very tired. Goodnight, all." Jock stood and swayed a little. He felt a strong grip on his arm almost immediately. When he opened his eyes, Murdoch had hold of him and Sam was standing by.

"I'll get that poultice ready," Teresa said and was off in a flash.

"Alright, let's get you upstairs." Sam guided the two men to the staircase and watched closely as Murdoch helped Jock navigate the steps. The man was more pale now and sweating. Sam decided another examination was called for and, perhaps, he'd stay the night.

*****

Johnny walked slowly toward the barn, kicking at stones in his path. He stopped just inside the door and looked up at the loft. Suddenly, he burst out laughing. Leaning over and holding his belly, he walked over to a bale of hay and plopped down, still chuckling. It

*****
had
*****
been funny - after the pain in his ass went away. He started chortling again.

Scott had felt bad, he knew that. He guessed it wasn't so much the splinters as the fact he hadn't been able to read Scott. He'd looked hard in the man's eyes, trying to find something to tell him Scott was pulling his leg. But, he couldn't and that bothered him more than anything. He'd never met a man he couldn't read at least some. Not his brother. Not at first. Scott was a closed book. Hell, he was one of those fancy safes they used in banks back east. Shut so tight, not even a wisp of air could get in.  

Then. Not now. Now, he could read Scott and he knew his brother could read him, too. That would have bothered him in the past but not anymore. In fact, it was kind of ... reassuring. Yeah, that's it. Scott had his back and he could relax once in a while now. A small smile stayed on his face even as he recalled the pain that little stunt had caused.

Yeah, it was more than a splinter or two for sure! More like a dozen. Boy, that hurt like crazy! And the look on Scott's face was ... well, even with that, it had taken him a while to forgive his brother. But, it all worked out. This was exactly why he didn't like telling stories. Even ones that seemed harmless never really were. He knew it was just a quirk of his but that didn't mean it was wrong.

He stood up and walked back outside, staring at the house and wondering when Steele would leave. He didn't know why exactly but, he got the feeling the man wouldn't be staying for the long haul. Something about him made Johnny tense. He didn't dislike the man but he didn't trust him, either. No matter what his father and brother might say, Johnny felt he had given the man a chance and he'd come up short.

Nice, funny, likeable - yes, he was all those things. Too much so. Which was the exact reason Johnny felt as he did. Steele was trying too hard.

*****

Jock sat up in the bed, warm whiskey in hand, staring at the walls. How could he ever repay the man? His conscience niggled at him, telling him he knew how. But, he wasn't too keen on the idea of giving up on his story. Maybe, he could .... no, the truth was the truth. But, he was beginning to see the truth wouldn't be so adverse.

Johnny Madrid Lancer was, by all accounts except one, a good man. At least, so far. He'd seen no evidence to the contrary and was beginning to wonder if the man really was the cold-hearted killer he was acclaimed to be. Hero to the peons on the border, devil to those he'd crossed. But, wasn't that true of any man who stood up for what he believed in? No one was liked by all people. Someone had to hate the man but, the reasons were becoming inane to him.

Still, there were those stories of gunfights, killings and raids that held fast in his mind. Things done to others that weren't so kind and caring. But who were those people? Other gunfighters, outlaws, greedy men. Did that excuse it? Probably not. But, that world was so far removed from what most people knew and were comfortable with. To many, Johnny would seem cold and deadly. But, if he wrote it right, he could show the real man behind the legend.

Jock took a long swallow of his whiskey and sighed out. Tomorrow, he would go to Green River and talk to some people, ill or not. See if the townsfolk were as happy with Madrid's presence as his family seemed to be. Then, he might just come clean with the Lancers. With a rueful smile, he knew he'd best have his bags packed when they had that conversation.

*****

Johnny was still tired the next morning but he hauled himself out of bed and down the stairs grumpily. He half-listened as Jock informed them of his plans to go to town and waved off the offer of an escort, saying he wouldn't be crossing any creeks. Johnny gave a small smile for the quip. At least the man could laugh at himself.

He wasn't so bad, Johnny guessed. Just nosy. Not something Johnny cottoned to in anyone but, Steele made it seem innocent enough. His thoughts of the previous night began to enter his mind but he pushed them away. Maybe Scott and Murdoch were right. He should try harder to be accommodating. Not judge so quickly and ease up on people until he knew if they could be trusted or not. A wry smile came to his face as he decided he'd fry in hell before he'd ever admit it to either of them.

"Son!"

His head jerked up and he stared at his father, perturbed by the loud voice.

"I called you four times. Are you alright?" Murdoch asked, slightly annoyed himself.

"Sorry," he mumbled. "Just thinkin. What did you say?"

"I need you to check the progress of that footbridge then head over to the east pasture."

Johnny nodded and drained his coffee cup. "See ya later," he nodded at his father then Steele.

"Have a good day, Johnny," Jock called and smiled. It seemed the young man was warming up to him a little. "If I could impose on Jelly to ready a surrey, I'll be off as well."

"Of course, if you're sure you're feeling up to it."

"I feel much better, Murdoch. Thanks to Teresa and Dr. Jenkins." He smiled at the young woman as he stood.

Soon enough, Jock was on his way to Green River. He thought he'd approach the mayor. With a grimace, he didn't relish the idea but it was plain the man was a talker and he didn't have any problems voicing his opinions. Well, it was the price he paid, he thought with amusement.

*****

Val Crawford was one tired lawman. He kept the rifle trained on the Jacksons until they were all in the prison wagon. The three brothers had come to town just over a week ago. Val had recognized them right off and was set on getting them behind bars before they had a chance to wreak havoc on his town. They were wanted for breaking out of jail after being sentenced to twenty years for bank robbery down in San Diego.

It was divide and conquer. He watched from the back of the saloon as, one by one, they'd paired off with the saloon girls and headed upstairs. Then, he'd simply walked in, clobbered each of them over the head and hauled them off to jail. The telegram was sent urgently that very night. He wanted them gone as quick as possible and he'd gotten what he wanted, too.

Now, as the wagon rolled out of town, he sighed and relaxed for the first time in a week. As he sat in the chair outside his office, he saw Steele drive down the street to the general store. The sight of the man invoked his curiosity again. He knew he'd heard that name before and he scratched his head as he tried to remember.

Jock was curious about the prison wagon but not enough to stray from his mission. Obviously, whatever the problem was, it had been solved. He saw the sheriff sitting there looking exhausted, a rifle lying across his lap but he didn't stop. Val Crawford was the final name on his list to talk with. Mainly because he knew once he did talk to the lawman, the cat would be out of the bag.

As he walked into the store, he was nearly assaulted by the mayor who was grinning widely. He plastered a smile of his own on his face and greeted the man. After dodging inquiries about the newspaper he had no intentions of starting, he turned the conversation to the Lancers. Luckily, the store wasn't busy and his clerk could easily handle the few customers that appeared.

Mayor Higgs invited him into his office and poured coffee for them both. He settled at his desk, the chair creaking under his weight. "Are you enjoying your stay with the Lancers?"

"Oh, yes. And, I'm eternally grateful to Johnny," he said then went on to describe his near drowning.

Higgs nodded, frowning in the appropriate places and smiling at the end. "Johnny is handy to have around," was all he said.

"Yes, I've seen how capable a rancher he is," Steele said, eyeing the man over the rim of his cup as he sipped the coffee.

"Rancher? Yes, I suppose so, but, I'm talking about his abilities in other areas," Higgs said slyly.

"Ah, yes. As a gunfighter. Well, I haven't witnessed any gunplay. Is he really that good?"

The mayor's face lit with excitement and he spent the next few minutes regaling Steele of stories about Madrid - none he'd witnessed, he pointed out but, he was sure of his sources.

Steele was disappointed. There was nothing new here. But, he hadn't come here for more stories. He grabbed a chance when the mayor stopped to breathe for a second.

"Does it bother the good people here? I mean, to have a notorious gunfighter in their midst?"

Higgs frowned and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Well, some yes and some no. There are some people who were worried he'd attract a bad sort. Some thought it would keep rough types away. I can't see it's made a difference one way or the other. Of course, I was worried about him at first but, he hasn't caused any trouble."

"Still, there must be those who don't want him around?"

Squirming in his seat a little, the mayor looked most uncomfortable. "There has been talk in the saloon and from the women of the social club that he'll cause trouble eventually."

"A diverse group, to be sure," Steele quipped.

"Well, it's mostly old maids and widows with nothing better to do than gossip."

"And the saloon patrons?"

"I think they're mostly afraid of him," Higgs admitted.

Steele quirked his mouth but refrained from smiling. "Well, Mayor, thank you for a most pleasant visit. I really must be going now. I'll see you again very soon, I'm sure," Steele said as he quickly stood and made his way to the door. He ignored the protestations of the mayor and the question as he closed the door. What about the newspaper?

*****

He checked his pocket watch as he stood on the boardwalk. It was noon. He headed to the saloon, happy to see several men in the establishment. It didn't take long to get them talking. All he had to do was tell them he was writing a story, not even the subject, and needed background information on some of the locals. After a few beers, many men had no problem opening their mouths.

It took all of ten minutes to get to the subject at hand and he heard an earful. He calculated over half the men in that room had no use for Johnny Madrid Lancer. After some heated arguments, a fight broke out and Steele found a safe corner from which to watch the proceedings.

When he saw the sheriff enter, he slipped out the back way, slid into the surrey and headed to the church down the street.

Val walked into the saloon and sighed. He pulled his gun and shot it into the ceiling to stop the fight. When he finally found out what all the hullabaloo was about, he was stunned. He threw everyone out of the saloon much to the chagrin of the bartender/owner. One man who hadn't participated in the melee, walked outside and mounted his horse, riding quickly out of town with a grin on his face.

When Val looked for Steele, he was nowhere to be found. Outside, his eyes scanned the streets but the surrey was gone, too. Val sighed and shook his head. He decided he'd ride out to Lancer tomorrow and talk to Mr. Steele about his shenanigans.

Steele spoke with the reverend and obtained the name of the president of the Ladies Guild and her address. Soon enough, he was sitting in the parlor of one Mrs. Standish, listening to the evil that was Johnny Madrid.

Jock was, quite honestly, floored by the woman's vehemence and the overall impression he'd gotten of Johnny's standing in this community. When he'd been here with Johnny before, no one showed any outward distaste for the man. Quite the opposite, in fact. So, he surmised, they were all cowards and backstabbers. Maybe they were the scourges, as Mrs. Standish had called Johnny.

He knew Johnny couldn't know about this. Surely, he couldn't. And what of Murdoch or Scott? Did they have any idea how these people really felt? Mrs. Standish was very sympathetic to Murdoch's plight and felt so sorry for 'that nice Scott Lancer'.

*****

Jock stopped a few miles from the house and climbed out of the surrey. He was disgusted by his trip to Green River. He was sure most of those people had no idea who Johnny really was. He'd decided against talking to the sheriff what with the brawl he'd inadvertently started. Being thrown in jail was not in his plans.

He walked over to the shade of a tree and leaned against the bark. Did he know Johnny? No, was the answer. And yes. He knew something of the man's character and he couldn't reconcile that knowledge with what he'd heard today. They were bigots. Fearful of a man they didn't know because of what they thought he

*****
might
*****
be capable of. Then, there was the prejudice simply because of his heritage. He'd heard that, too. Johnny couldn't be trusted if for no other reason than he was half-Mexican.

He truly liked Johnny. That was a sudden realization for he hadn't even thought of the possibility before. He was used to standing back, an outsider observing other's lives. Detached, uninvolved. Then, he thought of his last story and knew that was when it started. When he started caring for his subjects. That one man out of seven who wanted nothing to do with him or his story was the one who'd gotten under his skin the most. His heart went out to the man now as it had then.

His heart was going out to Johnny now, too. Maybe he should have stayed back east and written fanciful ideas instead of trying to find the real men of the west. For, find them he had and, it was wearing on him. It was affecting his objectivity but, was that such a bad thing? Did he expect to feel nothing? He didn't know and he felt very tired just thinking about it all.

Glancing at the sky, he noticed the sun just starting to dip toward the west. With a sigh, he got back in the surrey and started on his way. He just wasn't sure he should tell them all he'd discovered in Green River. Still, they deserved to know the truth. At least, Johnny did. Maybe, he'd just tell Johnny what he'd learned. The man could then decide if he wanted to share that knowledge with his family.

When he drove into the yard, he saw Scott and was glad. He hoped the level-headed man could be a buffer. He was quite sure Johnny would take his head off given the chance.

*****

Jock went to his room and packed his bag. Leaving it next to the door, he walked downstairs, relieved yet a little disappointed they were all in the great room.

"How was your trip to town, Jock?" Murdoch asked.

"Educational," he said quietly and accepted the glass of whiskey from Scott. "How was your trip?"

"Fine. Are you alright? You look upset," Scott asked with concern.

He took a long pull of the whiskey, glancing at Johnny standing near the fireplace as he swallowed. "I have something to tell you all and I don't think you'll be very happy about it."

Johnny sighed to himself. He knew there was more going on here. Well, so much for being distrustful. Sounded to him like it wasn't such a bad idea after all.

"Sit down and tell us," Murdoch said.

"If you don't mind, I'll stand," he said nervously and paced over near the French doors. He saw Johnny smile at him but it didn't relax him. The glint in the young man's eyes was not friendly or amused.

Scott settled on the sofa as Murdoch took a seat in a nearby chair. Johnny didn't move.

"Well, the fact is, I've been less than truthful with you all. I never had any intention of starting a newspaper." He looked at each of them, seeing curiosity and confusion. "I am a writer but, not exactly a journalist. At least, not the way you might think. I write stories. True stories about the west and the men who live here."

"Dime novels," Johnny said and his family looked over at him.

"Yes, that's what they're called for the most part."

There was a silence in the room for several seconds.

"I don't understand, Jock. Why didn't you just tell us that?" Scott asked.

"Because, you wouldn't have invited me into your home if you knew who the subject of my story is," he said and swallowed hard, unable to look at Johnny.

Scott looked at his father who looked back. Understanding took hold and they both looked at Johnny but he was staring at Steele.

"Find out anything interesting?" Johnny asked softly and bitterly.

"I did but not what I really wanted. Today, I realized I never would the way I was going about this. I thought to get some background first. Get to know you and how you live now. I was having a hard time of it, I admit."

Johnny crossed his arms over his chest and stared at the man. In a hard voice, he said, "I think you'd better leave now."

"I'm already packed. I ... I'm sorry, Johnny. I don't usually approach a story this way. I'm usually very upfront but everything I'd heard about you before coming here told me you wouldn't talk to me. That you wouldn't give me the time of day."

"So you thought you'd snooker me. Well, that worked real well." Anger colored his face and his arms fell to his sides as he stood straight.

"I don't know what else to say. I would love to write about you, get your side of things. Get the truth about Johnny Madrid. I suppose that's out of the question now, though."

"It was out of the question from the get go, Steele. Jelly can drive you to town."

"I do need to talk to you, Johnny. Alone. I realize you want nothing to do with me but there are things you need to know," Steele said, glancing at Murdoch and Scott.

Johnny ground his teeth together. "Write it to me."

Steele grimaced. "Please, I owe this to you."

"Maybe you should, Johnny," Scott said. He didn't like the implications of this. If Steele had been talking to people in the valley, maybe he'd found out something Johnny really did need to know. He looked at his brother's stunned face and shrugged. "It could be important."

"It is. Please, believe me. I could have gone on with this charade but I decided to tell you now for a reason," Steele explained.

Johnny sighed harshly then nodded his head. "Outside."

Once on the veranda with the doors closed, Steele hesitated.

"Get it said, mister!" Johnny commanded as he watched the man. He figured he was going to try to weasel his way out of this somehow and he wasn't in the mood to hear it.

"I talked to several people in Green River today, Johnny. I even inadvertently started a brawl at the saloon. I was asking about you, you see. A great many of those men had unkind things to say about you. The mayor told me a lot of people didn't like you living here. Those men were afraid, that was obvious. But, I also talked to a Mrs. Standish." He stopped when he saw a smirk come across Johnny's face at the mention of that name.

"I can see you already know she doesn't care for you. It seems the Women's Guild spends a great deal of time disparaging you in their so-called meetings. She called you a scourge and said you were a plight on Murdoch, a bad influence on Scott. I thought you should know how these people feel about you. That didn't seem the case when you and I went to town."

"Yeah, they'd never say anything to my face. I know how people feel about me, Mr. Steele. I didn't live this long not knowing how to read a man, or a woman for that matter. Now, why'd you bother to tell me this?"

"Because it made me sick! Those people smile at your face and cut you down behind your back. But, you can bet if there were trouble, they wouldn't mind having you around!"

Johnny shrugged at this and Jock gaped at him.

"How can you shrug this off? Doesn't it upset you at all?"

He turned his back on the shorter man and paced away. "I can because I'm used to it. Things are no different here than anyplace else I've been." He turned back to face the man. "You should've been straight with us. I didn't trust you at first but I was beginnin to like you. You wouldn't have been any worse off than you are now, either."

Jock dropped his eyes and sighed. He was starting to like me. Well, I like you, too, young man, he thought. "I am sorry, Johnny. I hated lying. It's just that the last story I did was very difficult and I thought it was because one of the men I was writing about was a gunfighter. Now, I realize what I should have known then. It isn't the profession as much as it is the man. Some men just don't talk about their lives and they don't talk about their experiences."

"That's because it's hard, Mr. Steele. It's real hard to live with some of the things we do."

"I rode with those men. I experienced some of what they live with and that's how I got the story."

"I'm not a gunfighter anymore. There's no adventure for you to go on with me. And I'm not gonna tell you about it, either."

Jock looked at him. "Maybe that is the story. How you walked away from it and changed your life."

Johnny's eyes hardened. "I don't want you to write about me. Leave it alone. Leave me alone. It's hard enough to leave it all behind!"

*****

His head jerked around as he heard the horse riding up. Johnny stepped out into the yard, his eyes steely, his jaw tight. The man dismounted easily and walked nearer, stopping ten feet from him.

"Hello, Madrid," he grinned.

Jock stepped from behind a column.

"Hanks," Johnny nodded.

"I was at the saloon feeling real put out when I heard some interestin information. Heard you was layin low at this ranch."

Johnny wanted to turn around and punch Steele's face in but he didn't move. "Ain't layin low. Just livin," he replied.      

Hanks laughed. "Not for long."

Johnny smiled a little at him. "No call for this, Hanks. I got no quarrel with you. I don't do that anymore."

"Well, Madrid, that's too bad - for you. My friends got themselves caught and, besides, ya still got a name down around the border. It's real sickenin to hear them peons goin on about you."

Steele swallowed hard and managed to speak. "Should I do something?"

"Yes. Stay out of the way," Johnny spoke.

"Well, who's this? Ain't you the fella that was stirrin everybody in the saloon up?" Hanks laughed. "He sure had 'em all goin, Madrid. All your admirers talkin trash about ya."

Johnny smiled. "Yeah, that's what I hear. Why don't you go on and ride out? We can forget this ever happened."

Steele frowned, unable to figure out why Johnny was trying to get this man to back down. Was he afraid? He certainly didn't seem to be. In fact, he looked like he couldn't care less.

"Don't think so. Ya lose your nerve, Madrid? Get soft playin cowboy?" Hanks grinned and his confidence grew by leaps and bounds.

Johnny sighed. "I guess we're about to find out."

*****

Scott heard the voices, raised at times but he couldn't make out the conversation, not that he was trying to. But, he was worried about what Jock had to tell Johnny. He frowned and stopped pacing as he realized there was another voice now. He looked out the window.

"Murdoch, you'd better come over here."

The rancher walked over, standing behind his son and peering outside. "Who's that?"

"Trouble," Scott said flatly and opened the French door.

Murdoch and Scott stepped outside and came to a stop next to Jock. Scott leaned closer to the man and spoke softly. "What's happening?"

Steele looked nervously at the younger man. "I'm afraid I was asking questions about Johnny in the saloon today and this man overheard. He's calling Johnny out. I'm sorry, Scott. I didn't think..."

"No, you didn't think!" Scott hissed. "Do you have any idea what you've done?"

Murdoch stepped up behind Steele, towering over the much smaller man and glowering at him. Jock moved a little so Murdoch was to his side.

"I didn't think it would come to this. I just wanted information on him."

"Well, I suppose you got what you wanted, then," Murdoch ground out.

Steele shook his head in the negative but never got the chance to reply. All three men turned at the words heard next.

"This is your dance, Hanks. Make your move or ride out. I'm gettin hungry."

It was that defining Madrid drawl Scott had come to recognize and, though he couldn't see his brother's face, he just knew Johnny was smiling that crooked smile. The one that lit his eyes as if he'd just heard the funniest thing. He took a bracing breath and waited, watching as the adversary's face turned red with anger.

Before anyone could say another word, it was over. Johnny crouched and fired then waited. He watched Hanks bend over, a surprised look on his face. He walked quickly to the man before he hit the ground and grabbed the gun from his hand then eased him down. By the time he lay in the dirt, he was dead.

Johnny bowed his head and closed his eyes briefly then, stood up and walked away a few feet.

"Who was he?" Murdoch asked.

Steele, still shocked by the speed he'd just witnessed, replied in a hushed tone. "Hanks was his name. He said he figured Johnny had gone soft living here."

"I guess he found out that was wrong."

"I've never seen anyone move so fast. It was like a blur," Steele said with admiration in his tone.

Scott turned on him, fists clenched at his sides. "I hope you got what you came for because you've just cost my brother a great deal." Without further delay, he walked away, heading toward Johnny.

Murdoch stared at the man on the ground for a moment before turning to Steele. "I'll have Jelly take you both to town," he said and walked away.

*****

Scott walked up beside his brother and stared out at the landscape. "You okay?" He got no answer and looked at his brother's profile. Johnny was breathing hard, a little too hard. He laid a hand on Johnny's shoulder but he wasn't prepared when the young man went to his knees. Scott knelt down, unsure what was happening. Johnny would naturally be upset but this was more.

"Talk to me, brother," he implored softly.

Johnny shook his head and took a slow breath. "Can't just now. Don't make a big deal of this, Scott, but he clipped me."

Scott sat back, away from him for a few seconds in astonishment before fully taking in his brother's words. "Where?"

Johnny moved his left hand and showed him the blood on it then pulled up the side of his shirt. "Ain't bad but it stings like hell."

Scott leaned in to get a better look. It was a deep graze and he thought it bad enough. He felt chilled thinking how much worse it could have been. And for what? A stupid story? "Are you ready to stand up?"

Taking a deep breath, Johnny let it out slowly then looked over at his brother. "I guess. If I have to."

The older brother sighed and put a hand under Johnny's arm, easing him slowly to his feet.

Johnny raised his head and stared straight ahead. "I get so damned tired of this, Scott," he whispered.

"I know, brother, I know. But, right now, we need to get you taken care of. Then, we'll discuss what Steele has done."

Johnny looked over at him with a mixture of anger and disappointment. A look Scott easily read. He knew Johnny was starting to like the little New Yorker. And he'd been betrayed - again. Scott decided at that moment he would never again berate his brother for not trusting.

"Think we can get past the old man?"

Scott actually laughed aloud at that. "Not a chance and I'm not even going to try. Come on."

Johnny's shoulders sagged as he walked back to the house, his brother's arm around him. He didn't need the support, he felt alright but, he also didn't mind it.  

Murdoch was just coming in from the back way when the brothers walked in the front door. He pulled up short and narrowed his eyes to inspect the situation. "Why didn't you tell me you were shot? Let's get him to bed and send for the doctor."

"It's not that bad, Murdoch. Really. It's bleeding a bit but it's just a graze," Scott tried to reassure.

Murdoch looked like he could actually growl at that moment and Scott dipped his eyes.

They each sat on a side of the bed, Scott seemingly relaxed, Murdoch tense as he stared at his younger son. Johnny wasn't looking at either of them, just playing with the fringe of the bedspread.

"I'm okay," he finally said.

"You will be. You should have said something, son." The rancher's voice was much gentler now.

Johnny glanced up then lowered his eyes again. "Didn't feel it at first."

Murdoch's frown deepened at this statement. He was sure Johnny didn't feel it. He had so many other feelings to deal with; whatever Jock had said to him, the idiot that had tried to kill him and whatever else went through his son's head when he was troubled. He sighed aloud without realizing it.

The soft throat-clearing noise sounded like a cannon in the silent room. All three men looked at the doorway as Steele stood there, hat in hand and looking incredibly embarrassed.

"I just wanted to see if you were alright before I leave. Again, I'm sorry. I handled this all wrong," he said with true remorse.

Scott stood so quickly, Johnny's head snapped up to watch him.

"Sorry? You're sorry?" Scott began as he rounded on the smaller man. "You claim to have learned so much about the west; expounded on your adventures and you've learned nothing? You knew who Johnny was before you ever laid eyes on me. You knew what causing such a commotion in the saloon could do yet, you did it anyway. And all because you

*****
had
*****
to have your story. Nothing else mattered. No one else mattered."

He stopped to take a breath but he wasn't quite finished. "You could have gotten my brother killed but that would have been alright with you. In fact, I'm sure it would have made a much better story for you!"

"You're right, Scott. I didn't think of anything but getting my story. That's all I've ever thought about. It's been my only objective ... until now. I know you won't believe me but, I truly am sorry. I never wanted anything to happen to Johnny or any of you." His voice was level but that only leant to Scott's ire.

"No, I don't believe you. I'm sure you'll be on your way to the next gunfighter. Maybe you'll have better luck with him! Unbelievable! Johnny saved your life and this is how you repay him. Get out!"

Steele looked at the other two men in the room, both giving him an equally hard glare. He swallowed hard and nodded his head then made to turn. Hesitating, he tried one more time. "I am grateful. I know I haven't done a very good job of showing that. Thank you for being so hospitable. Goodbye." He got no response so he walked away.

Silence filled the room for a second until Scott began pacing, his boots thumping against the wood floor. Hands clasped behind his back, he made a great effort to calm himself. "Think he learned anything?"

"I hope so," Murdoch replied.

Johnny shook his head and sighed then laid his head back against the pillows.

"I'm sorry, Johnny. I'm the one who brought him here," Scott said.

He rolled his head to the side to look at his brother and smiled a little. "I was startin to like him a little. I can see where you would right off. He lied, Scott. You couldn't know that."

Scott could only nod his head, still feeling a measure of guilt.

*****

Johnny was up the next day. Though Murdoch forbade him from working, he managed to keep occupied pestering Jelly most of the morning. At least, it brought a smile to his face. He walked into the yard as Val rode up and waited for the lawman to dismount. Val rummaged in his saddlebag before greeting him.

"Hey, Val."

"How ya feelin?"

"Fine. Wasn't anything."

Val nodded. "Steele told me all that happened and how he'd been lyin all this time. Got on the first stage this mornin, Higgs hollerin at him the whole way."

Johnny smiled a little at that image.

"Anyways, I knew I'd heard that name before." He handed Johnny a book.

Johnny looked at the cover for a long moment before laughing softly.

"Ya know, it's a pretty good read and it ain't all that far off. Might be a little flowery in some places but, it's pretty much true," Val reported.

"Wonder how they felt about this?" Johnny mused.

Val shrugged then grinned and looked at Johnny who returned it. In a second, both men were laughing.

"Come in and have some coffee." Johnny said then looked over at Jelly. "Hey," he called out and the old man looked over with a frown. Johnny tossed him the book. "You'll like this," he said and walked inside with Val.

Jelly gave him a puzzled frown then looked at the book. He quirked a brow and smiled.

The Magnificent Seven   by Jock Steele

It did sound good he thought as he shoved it in his back pocket and went back to work.

*****

Scott wiped his brow and licked his lips then he smiled. Nothing had ever looked so good as the white hacienda. The cattle drive had lasted three weeks and his back felt like a board, so stiff it was. When he looked over at his family, he could imagine similar thoughts were running through their minds.

No one spoke as they made their way up to the house. Then, a small tornado released its fury as Teresa ran out to greet them all with hugs and kisses. Yes, it was very good to be home.

She chattered for several minutes about the happenings in their absence and they let her. Each one finding a comfortable seat and melting into it with tired sighs and grunts. Finally, she lost her steam and left with the promise of lemonade in just two shakes.

The room fell quiet then and they all relished the soundlessness. Johnny closed his eyes and figured he could fall asleep right where he was. But, he heard a loud groan and looked up to see his father rising from his seat and heading to his desk. His eyes then went to Scott and locked on, sharing a grin, both men shaking their heads. Murdoch never stopped working.

Still, neither young man felt inclined to tease him about it. Both were too tired for the effort. Instead, they watched him shuffle papers around, pull out the ledger and start going through the mail. There was no point in telling him to stop.

Teresa returned with the lemonade and simply shook her own head at her surrogate father then rolled her eyes for effect. Johnny laughed to himself, Scott a bit more vocal in his chuckle but the old man didn't seem to notice.

*****

Jelly walked into his room and let out a tired breath. He wasn't sure he was going to be able to go on many more cattle drives. Maybe, this had been the last one. He wouldn't miss it, for sure. But, he would miss the boys and the camaraderie of the drive. Everyone pulled together as a team and no one was left to fend for themselves.

Oh, he fussed at them all as they straggled in for their meals. He always had something to say but, they expected it from him and he knew they liked to tease him right back. Especially, Johnny and Scott. Those two he could do without!

He chuckled to himself, knowing that was a flat out lie. He pulled his suspenders off his shoulders as he walked across the room, letting them hang from his waist. Pulling up short, Jelly eyed the large envelope lying on his bed with curiosity.

"Well, wonder who'd be sendin me somethin that big," he mused aloud. He picked it up, raising a brow at the weight then looked at the return address. Immediately, a scowl came across his face as he mumbled, "New York City. Hmmph!"

Sitting on the bed, he ripped the envelope open and looked at the dime novel in his hands. As he opened the cover, a piece of paper fell onto his lap. Jelly laid the book aside and opened the paper.

'Jelly, I hope this makes up for some of the damage I caused to your family. I'm not sure how much good it will do but, maybe it's a start.

Sincerely, Jock Steele.'

Once more, Jelly harrumphed then picked the book back up and scooted onto the bed, resting his back on the headboard and staring at the cover for a minute. It was a good drawing of the house and he wondered about the fact the Lancers were not on that cover. He settled in to read with some dread.

Lancer: An Empire of Dreams by Jock Steele

An hour later, Jelly's shoulders fell in relief as he read the last paragraph:

'It was not the end one would expect for such a prolific gunman. Perhaps, it will even be thought of by some as an undignified end to a life lived fully. Others may see it as some sort of poetic justice. The simple truth is this: Johnny Madrid Lancer was a rancher, a retired gunfighter, a son and brother and a man respected by all who truly knew him. Johnny Madrid Lancer died doing what he loved on land he loved and surrounded by the people he loved. No man can ask for a better, albeit too soon end, to their life.'

Jelly closed the book and grinned. He jumped from his bed and bolted out the door. Running through the front door of the hacienda, he shouted Johnny's name.

 

 

~end~
Revised August 2008

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