The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link
subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link
subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link
subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link
subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link
subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link
subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link
subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link

Winj

 

Strangers On A Stage

 

 

 

Johnny Madrid stepped into the stage coach and settled himself with a smile of satisfaction at being the first passenger to enter. He had his pick of seats and he made it quickly, sitting next to a window where he slouched down and pulled his hat low, crossed his arms and hoped the coach wouldn't be full.

A moment later, he knew he shouldn't have hoped for a damned thing as the door opened and three men, one very tall, made their way inside. He pushed his hat back a little and took full stock of the three quickly. The priest decided to sit next to him. The tall man and a younger one who looked like ranchers sat opposite. Well, at least the tall one wasn't right across from him. He still had a little room for his feet.

The man sitting opposite him looked to be a little older than himself, blond and there was something about him Johnny was unsure of. He decided it wasn't worth the bother and pulled his hat back down to try for a nap as the stage jolted to a start. A few minutes went by before they started jabbering. He sighed to himself. Figures. He raised his head slightly to see who was talking. The older one. The mountain.

"I think this bull will be a real help to our herd. We need some new blood."

"I agree, Sir. He should reproduce sufficiently by next year to pay for himself."

Johnny nearly snorted. Reproduce sufficiently? What the hell kind of talk was that? Damned eastern dandy. He knew there was something about the man and now, he knew what.   Lowering his head again, he hoped that would be the end of their conversation but, somehow he doubted it.

Murdoch smiled at his son then glanced at the man who appeared to be sleeping before settling his eyes on the priest across from him. He nodded at the man with the serene look on his face. Murdoch often wondered about the expression he noticed on every priest he'd ever met. They all seemed to be smiling, like they had the answer to everything and they were at peace with it. It gave him some comfort in an odd sort of way. He pondered that as the stage hit a particularly deep rut and his son was thrown into him.

"Excuse me," Scott said as he righted himself. He gave his father a shrug then looked at the man across from him. The jolt hadn't seemed to bother him. He'd been wondering how anyone could sleep on a stage just before that hard dip and now, he wasn't sure the man was asleep. Maybe, he just wasn't the social type.

In the three months Scott had been at Lancer, he'd discovered a whole different kind of man than he'd been accustomed to knowing. Rough, hard, and blunt men who did not suffer fools and would as soon shoot one just for being bothered. Then there was the other type, the Day Pardee type. Scott didn't think much of gunfighters now. Of course, he'd never thought of them at all before coming west. Pardee had opened his eyes to the brutality he'd only ever seen as a common occurrence in the war. Murdoch had filled him in on the 'code of the west' and he was not impressed. Still, he'd also met civilized men who cared about their communities and their families. Scott smiled a little. The only difference between east and west, really, was out here they wore their guns on their hips. That thought caused his eyes to drop to the hip of the man across from him. He stared hard at the pistol. There was something different about it than others he'd seen but he couldn't put his finger on it. Scott discerned the man was Mexican by his dress and the color of the skin on his hands. He hadn't seen the face and again, he decided this man was just not the social type.

Johnny felt someone staring at him and he raised his head slowly to meet the light blue eyes staring at him. Those eyes widened then dipped for a second before meeting his gaze again. Then, he looked like he was going to say something so Johnny shot him a stern look and lowered his head.

Scott was surprised by the vivid blue eyes shooting fire at him. The man must have sensed he was being stared at. Scott felt a little ashamed of his rude behavior and was about to apologize when the man gave him an even harder look then put his head down again. He glanced over at his father but Murdoch was looking out the window. At least his father hadn't seen him being so rude. Scott almost laughed at that. When had he started worrying about Murdoch's opinion of him? A wry smile came to his face. Fairly early on, he'd admit to himself. Life was very strange. One day he hated his father for ignoring him all his life; the next, it seemed, he was fighting to save the man's ranch and his life.

Another deep rut wasn't missed by the driver and it was worse than the first. Johnny reached up and resettled his hat then shifted position a little. He kicked Scott's foot in the process and glanced at the man who was still staring at him. He wondered if the man was that stupid that he didn't get the message the first time. He mumbled, "sorry," then turned to look out the window.

"Quite alright," Scott replied. He got no response so he sighed and turned, noticing the priest watching him with an amused look on his face. He was curious about that look and what the priest found funny. He didn't ask, of course, as it wouldn't be polite.

"It seems the driver is trying to test all the ruts in the road," Murdoch commented.

"They often do."

Murdoch was a little surprised the priest had spoken though he wasn't sure why. For some reason, he had concluded the man was one of those monks who'd taken a vow of silence.

"Maybe he gets a bonus from the livery that repairs the stageline's coaches," Scott joked.

Johnny's mouth crooked at that. It was probably true but, he was surprised the gringo dandy would think it.

Murdoch quirked his lips then addressed the priest. "My apologies, Padre. We haven't introduced ourselves. I'm Murdoch Lancer and this is my son, Scott."

*

Johnny sucked in a breath and quickly wondered if they'd heard him. He pressed his forehead against the side of the coach as his gut knotted. Lancer? Murdoch Lancer? His ears started ringing and he closed his eyes, trying to get hold of himself. His eyes popped back open as he realized what else he'd heard. His son?

"I am Padre Felipe," the priest was saying.

"Are you heading for a new church, Padre?" Murdoch was asking.

"No, I am returning to Mexico from visiting my sister who was ill."

"I hope she's better."

"Si, she has healed, thank the Lord." The priest crossed himself then glanced at his seat companion. He leaned toward Johnny and touched his shoulder. The young man jerked a little and turned his head slightly but, he didn't look at the padre or anyone else. "Are you alright, my son? You look pale."

Johnny wanted to smack the man and he may have if he weren't a priest. He simply nodded his head and whispered, "Estoy bien, Padre."

"Seguro, el Campeón?"

Johnny's head snapped around and he looked closely at the priest who was smiling slightly. He relaxed and gave the padre a wan smile. The man knew who he was. He only hoped he'd keep it to himself. Truthfully, he did feel sick with the knowledge his own father was sitting across from him. He couldn't look at Murdoch Lancer. He shrugged at the priest then looked intently into the man's eyes. Somehow, he knew the priest would say nothing anyway; sure he would have called him Madrid otherwise.

Murdoch listened to the exchange, curious as to why the priest had called this young man 'the champion'. They hadn't appeared to know one another yet, something was going on between them. It was none of his business, of course. He looked over to find Scott was watching the two intently, as well. Murdoch nudged his son lightly with an elbow then frowned in disapproval. He felt a little embarrassed as Scott looked chastised since he was doing the same thing. A smile came to his face with the thought.

Johnny was paying them no heed, still watching the priest who finally just nodded his head and sat back. With relief, Johnny leaned back in his former position and looked out the window. His mind was still awhirl and his ears started buzzing again. How the hell had this happened? Of all the stages and all the towns, he had to get in one with his old man. Shit! And his son, no less!

Where had he come from? What had the old man called him? Scott? So, what, he had a white son and didn't need a half-breed hanging around, soiling his good name? A sneer came to his face as he glanced sideways at Scott Lancer. Oh, yeah. All educated and proper talkin. Johnny frowned at that. He didn't get that education out here. Now, he was curious about this situation. Still, not curious enough. Besides, Lancer probably didn't have a clue who he was but he was taking no chances. He didn't need this shit now. Or ever.

He'd just managed to barely escape a firing squad, headed north for a couple of months until things settled down a little and now, he was on his way home. He didn't have a horse, precious little money and he wasn't sure things really had settled down. Killing a rurale capitan was nothing to sneeze at but, the man had deserved it. Johnny closed his eyes for a second. Yeah, he sure had deserved it. Still, he knew he needed to get back to his friends.

He blinked and pulled his thoughts back the present. How far were they going? And, should he just get off and wait for the next stage? He wasn't one to run from anything or anyone but, he'd already run from the rurales and he sure didn't want to spend days on a stage with his sonofabitch of a father. Of course, he could just shoot the bastard like he'd wanted to do his whole life. That would solve it. He'd have to shoot the dandy, too, but so what? Neither of them meant a thing to him. But then, he'd have to shoot the priest, the driver, his shotgun rider. Screw it! Too many wasted bullets.

Johnny sucked in a breath and let it out slowly, still looking out the window and trying to decide if he should get off at the first stop. He didn't know how long until another stage came through and he really needed to get down below. He missed his friends and he needed to find out what had happened after he'd left and what was happening now. He turned his head enough so he could see Scott Lancer. The man was staring at his feet, it looked like. Probably as bored as everyone else. Well, at least they weren't talking. He didn't think he could stand to listen to Murdoch Lancer's voice any more. He felt the stage slowing and poked his head through the open window. Way station. Well, it wouldn't hurt to ask about another stage, he reckoned.

*

As soon as they came to a stop, he quickly got out of the stage and walked to the front. When the driver's feet hit the ground, he asked. "Is there another stage headed south coming through soon?"

The driver, an older man with gray hair and very few teeth, smiled at him. "Sure, sonny. Next week." When he saw the disappointment on the boy's face, he asked, "somethin wrong in the coach?"

Johnny looked at him then shook his head and lied. "No, just feelin a little under the weather. I'll tough it out. How long are we stopping?"

"Ten minutes. Hey, maybe the padree can help ya out." He shrugged his shoulders. "They're always prayin about somethin. Might as well be useful about it."

Johnny grinned at that then laughed softly. "It's fine, old timer." He thought to ask where the Lancers were headed but he knew that would make anyone suspicious so he turned and scanned the yard. They were standing over with the station master who was holding a bucket of water. He sucked in a breath, seemed he'd been doing that a lot, then walked over.

Murdoch turned and looked at the young man approaching then stepped aside so he could get a drink. Their eyes met briefly and he nodded but received a scowl in return.

Johnny ignored them as he walked up to the station master. He stood there and looked at the man expectantly while he was being appraised, it appeared. After a long moment, he got fed up. "Is there a charge for that water, mister?"

"No charge, just ain't got any for you."

Scott frowned at that. "What are you talking about? The bucket is full."

Johnny smiled slowly as he listened to the two of them. He started to take a step toward the stationmaster when his path was blocked by that mountain.

"My son is right. There's plenty of water." Murdoch took the bucket from the man's hands with some force and a glower then turned and offered it to Johnny.

This time, when their eyes met it was for a longer moment. Johnny looked curiously at him, wondering why he was bothering himself. Then, his pride kicked in. "I don't need your help, old man."

Murdoch cocked a brow at the cold tone then shrugged. "A man who stands idly by while injustice is done isn't much of a man, in my opinion."

Johnny thought about that all of a second then nodded. "And a man who can't stand up for himself ain't much of a man either ... in my opinion."

Scott smiled at the exchange then glanced at the stationmaster who was red-faced. He couldn't decide if the man was embarrassed or enraged.

Murdoch inclined his head. "You have a point. I should have let you handle your own affairs. Still, the water's here."

After a brief hesitation, Johnny reached into the bucket and grabbed the ladle then took a longer drink than he normally would have. All the while, he set his eyes on the stationmaster. When he finished, he sighed out and tossed the ladle back into the bucket then took the whole thing from Murdoch's hands. Johnny stepped up to the stationmaster, an inch from the man's face then leaned right in. "Thanks," he said then dropped the bucket on the man's foot. He turned and walked away, attuned to what was going on behind him. He heard the man cuss and Scott laugh and a smile came unbidden to his face for a second.  

*

As they got underway again, there was a heaviness to the air in the coach. Johnny sat facing Scott with his arms crossed over his chest. No one spoke for a long time then, it started.

Scott was growing curious about this gunfighter for, he was sure that's what the man was. The low-slung gunbelt, the cold demeanor all indicated as much and he'd been a little concerned at the station that things would get violent. Maybe Murdoch had sensed it as well and that's why he'd really intervened. Still, that kind of prejudice was intolerable to him and, he knew, to his father as well. When he'd seen the blue eyes of the man across from him earlier, he'd realized he was of mixed parentage but that was as far as the thought had gone. What kind of life was that when you couldn't even get a simple drink of water? His curiosity was becoming unbearable. "I'm sorry."

Johnny locked eyes with him, puzzled at first. "For what?"

Scott jutted his chin in the direction behind them. "That idiot."

Cocking his head aside, Johnny considered this man. "Did you tell him to be a jackass?" Glancing aside, he winced. "Lo siento, Padre."

The priest smiled and waved off the apology. He was intrigued that this young gringo was striking up a conversation with Johnny Madrid. Of course, he realized the man did not know to whom he spoke.

"No, of course I didn't but, I hate prejudice in any form."

Johnny looked back at Scott and shrugged. "Not somethin you have to worry about."

"That's not really true," Murdoch piped in. "It's everyone's responsibility to face prejudice and try to end it."

"You can't end it and if you think you can, you're a fool. Can't make a man feel what he don't feel or believe what you believe just because you want it that way. Besides, why would you care about a mestizo?"

Murdoch's face hardened and his jaw muscle twitched. "I don't like that word, young man. It's demeaning and hateful."

Johnny snorted at that but he refrained from cursing in front of the padre.

"Why wouldn't I care? We're supposed to care for our fellow man," Murdoch continued.

Johnny rolled his eyes at that one but he didn't get a chance to retort just then.

"You are a wise man, Senor Lancer. We are all brothers under the skin."

Why it hadn't occurred to him, he couldn't say but Johnny felt some shame just then as he turned to the priest. "Did you get any water, Padre?"

The man shrugged. "I was not thirsty."

"I wish you'd said something," Murdoch said.

Johnny slouched down in the seat, his ire rising to new heights. He was angrier with himself for not thinking of the padre than anything. He supposed he was so wrapped up about being this close to his father, he wasn't thinking straight. "Perdon, Padre. Debo haber consideradole."

Padre Felipe smiled and patted Johnny's knee. "De nada, el Campeón. De nada. Es un buen hombre."

Scott sighed loudly and everyone looked at him. He felt a flush comes to his cheeks. "I'm sorry. It's just a little frustrating when I don't know what you're saying."

"My apologies, Senor Lancer. He merely apologized for not thinking of me and I told him it was of no importance." He looked over at Johnny. "And I told him he is a good man."

Johnny's head lowered and he shook it very slightly. He'd never understand the way priests looked at things. He was a gunfighter and he was not a good man and he was pretty sure the padre knew at least some of the things he'd done. Yet, here he was trying to make Johnny feel better for slighting him.

Scott raised a brow at that, even more intrigued with this young man now. "Are you going to Morro Coyo?"

Johnny looked up at him and shook his head as he saw his in. "Mexico. You?"

"Yes, our ranch is near there. I'm Scott Lancer, by the way." He extended his hand.

Johnny paused, knowing he was expected to introduce himself now. He decided that wasn't happening. He didn't attempt to shake hands and flatly replied, "I heard earlier."

Scott looked oddly at him then sat back, letting his hand drop to his lap. Annoyed, he looked over at his father who wasn't looking happy, either. "You know, young man, we've been as pleasant as possible with you. I don't understand why you're being so difficult."

Johnny grinned at that. He damned near laughed in the man's face. "Was that a question?"

Murdoch found no humor in the situation. "It was."

"And you think because you took a bucket of water out of some pendejo's hands, I owe you somethin?"

"I think a little civility is in order since we're going to be on this stage together until tomorrow afternoon."

Johnny leaned toward him a little. "I didn't start a conversation with any of you. I think the civil thing would be to respect a man's privacy." With that, he fell back against the seat and stared out the window.

Padre Felipe shook his head sadly and shrugged at Murdoch Lancer.

*

There wasn't much talk for the rest of the day and they pulled into the overnight stop with more than a little relief. Johnny stepped out quickly and climbed atop the stage, grabbing his saddlebags. He stayed there until the priest disembarked. "Padre, anything up here you want?"

"Just the small bag, el Campeón, por favor."

Johnny nodded and turned to find the bag, rolling his eyes at the name the man insisted on calling him. Well, it was better than letting the Lancers know who he was. Still, he was curious how the padre would know he didn't want his identity revealed. Then again, nothing said his name would have any meaning to Lancer at all. He just hoped they would keep right on ignoring him. It might be a long night. He dropped the bag to the padre then hesitated and sighed. He grabbed the Lancers bags and lay on his belly, handing them down to Scott.

Scott took the luggage with some surprise. "Thank you."

"De nada." Johnny rose up, his head disappearing then, he leaned back over the side, a crooked grin on his lips. "That means it was nothing."

Scott quirked his lips. "Yes, I know that much."

Johnny shrugged then disappeared again, climbing down on the other side of the stage. He hit the ground and slung his saddlebags over his shoulder then looked around. There was a hill on the opposite side of the road that rose slowly to a tree line. A steady breeze blew through his hair and he looked skyward, letting the sun bathe his face. A smile came to his lips then, quickly disappeared as he felt someone watching him. Turning sharply, Johnny found Murdoch Lancer's eyes on him. He scowled and walked toward the way station.

Murdoch turned and watched him walk away. An odd feeling came over him and goosebumps erupted on his forearms. It was like a ... foreboding or something. He couldn't quite explain the sensation but there was a familiarity to this young man he just couldn't shake. Maybe it was his looks. He blinked and looked over as Scott called to him. Giving a reassuring smile for his son's concerned gaze, Murdoch walked over and put an arm around Scott as they headed inside.

"We'll be leavin at eight sharp in the mornin, folks," the driver called.

*

Scott kept an eye on his father, thinking he'd been acting strangely since shortly after the last stop. He couldn't really put his finger on the problem but Murdoch seemed ... distracted. As they stepped into the way station, Scott felt tension in the air. His eyes roamed the room then settled on who he assumed was the stationmaster. That gunfighter was standing beside him and the man looked scared to death. Great! Either the man was a similar jackass to the one they'd encountered earlier in the day or the gunfighter had just frightened him pale for some other reason. He looked at his father who was staring at the gunfighter. Scott saw the priest standing in the doorway of what he assumed were the sleeping quarters. The man didn't appear alarmed. The stationmaster, a tall, thin man with not a hair on his head, smiled tremulously and cleared his throat.

"Come in, gents, come in. I got a stew on the stove. Won't be but a few more minutes. You can put your gear back in the sleepin room."

Murdoch nodded and walked toward Padre Felipe who stepped aside for him. He stopped when he came abreast of the man and spoke in a low tone. "Is everything alright in here, Padre?"

"Of course, Senor. All is well. The bunks look fairly comfortable although they may be too short for you. Perhaps we can arrange something." Felipe slipped past Murdoch into the back room, still chattering.

Johnny shook his head as the three men disappeared then he trained his eyes back on the stationmaster.

Swallowing convulsively, the man attempted to smile through quivering lips. He whispered thickly, "I won't say a word 'bout who you are, Mr. Madrid. Not one word."

"Might help if you stopped calling me Mr. Madrid or Johnny or anything at all. Makes it easier not to slip up. Look, I don't want any trouble. All I want is to make sure no one knows my name, comprende?"

"Yessir. I won't even talk to ya!"

Johnny smiled and patted the man's arm. "That'll work fine. I'm going outside to see if the drivers need any help. I'll be back after everyone else has eaten."

The man nodded his understanding then dropped his tense shoulders and leaned heavily against the counter as Johnny walked out the door.

*

Murdoch watched the priest scuttle about the room and pull two cots end to end. He'd offered to help and so had Scott but the padre simply shook his head, smiled and told them it was nothing at all. Murdoch looked at the bemused expression on his son's face and had to smile.

"Now, that will make things much better for you, Senor Lancer." Felipe looked at his work and dusted his hands together.

"Padre, you didn't have to do that. I could have managed but, I thank you."

Scott smirked a little. "Yes, and now if you think your friend out there has had enough time, I'm sure we could all do with something to eat."

Felipe turned and looked at Scott with a most innocent face. "Enough time? I do not know what you mean. I'm sure the stew is ready now. Shall we?" Without waiting for an answer, he hurried past the Lancers.

"Hmmm. I get the distinct feeling the good priest is more interested in that gunfighter than our bellies."

Murdoch stared into space for a moment. "Yes, he does seem to be very fond of the young man. Well, we should get in there."

Scott took hold of his father's arm, stopping his move to leave the room. "What's going on? You seem very distracted."

Running a hand through his hair, Murdoch shook his head. "It's that gunfighter, Scott. I keep thinking ... that could have easily been Johnny. In fact, he reminds me a little of what Johnny may have looked like."

A raised brow met that statement then, Scott's face fell. "So, you're wondering if this man knew Johnny? Or, at least knew of him?"

"Yes, son. I want to ask him but ..."

"Not a good idea, Sir. He is not the chattiest fellow I've ever met. In fact, he's as laconic as most of the hands at the ranch."

Murdoch sucked in a ragged breath. "I know. It's just being around him, I suppose. I can't stop thinking about Johnny."

Scott sighed softly. He didn't know what to say or do to help his father. He knew Murdoch was still grieving and would probably do so for years. It would ease as time went on but, it had only been a few months since he'd found out his younger son was dead. Scott couldn't begin to know how that must feel. For his part, he felt the loss but he'd never known his brother and maybe that made it ... easier. He had no connection to his brother and that, more than his death, left him sad and even a little bitter, he supposed.

"Scott?"

He blinked and looked up. "I'm sorry, Sir. I was lost in thought. We should get in there."

Murdoch watched his son walk out of the room and wondered if Scott was feeling his brother's loss more than he let on. God knew, he felt it deep in his marrow every single day. He ground his jaw and braced himself before joining the others.

*

Padre Felipe was nowhere to be seen as the Lancers walked back into the main room. Murdoch nodded at the drivers as he walked to the table. He was about to ask the stationmaster about the priest when Felipe walked back in looking very unhappy. He went over and sat at the table wordlessly.

"Is everything alright, Padre?" Murdoch asked as he took a seat.

Felipe glanced at him and managed a small smile. He was reeling from the conversation he'd just had with Madrid. It was no wonder the young man did not want his identity revealed to these people. Still, he had trouble believing this man he'd spent the day with was the type capable of such brutality as Johnny had just described to him. He quickly decided to try to find out. "Si, Senor. Well, no, but I cannot discuss it. Perdóneme."

"I understand," Murdoch said but he wasn't sure he did. He figured the priest had been talking to the gunfighter and things hadn't gone well.

Once Padre Felipe said grace, the food began making its way around the table.

The stationmaster, Ted, Scott was able to glean, seemed more relaxed now, at least. Scott imagined the priest had something to do with that. Whatever the gunfighter had said to him had certainly shaken the man to his core. He must be pretty well-known to evoke such a reaction. Scott waited until everyone was served then frowned. "Where is our fellow traveler?"

"Oh, he said he'd be in later. He went outside. Biscuit?" Ted offered the basket to Scott with a slightly shaking hand.

"Helped us with the horses then just disappeared. Didn't even see where he went," the driver interjected.

Scott took the bread with a nod of thanks then passed it to his father. "I take it you know who he is?"

Ted lowered his head and shoveled a spoonful of stew in his mouth. He didn't answer.

Scott looked at the drivers who didn't appear to have a clue then he stared at Ted expectantly until he felt a nudge. He turned to Murdoch who shook his head. Scott frowned and sighed then began to eat, wondering why everyone was so close-mouthed in the west. The gunfighter wasn't the only laconic man he'd met out here. Seemed not many were the chatty type other than storekeepers whose livelihood depended on people liking them well enough to patronize their establishments.

"Senor Lancer, por favor, tell me about your rancho. Is it very large?"

Murdoch stopped eating and gave the padre his full attention. "Yes, it's one hundred thousand acres."

Scott saw Ted's head come up at that and he smiled a little.

"God has been generous," Felipe said with a quick bow of the head.

"He has in some ways, Padre, but not in others, unfortunately."

Felipe took in the growling voice but it didn't bother him as much as the pain that traced through Murdoch Lancer's eyes. "I am sorry to hear that. Still, you have your son home with you. Forgive me but I could not help but notice the eastern accent and I assumed he had spent much time away from California."

"I grew up in Boston with my grandfather," Scott supplied, puzzled as to how the priest could assume so much.

"But now you are home. A blessing, si?" Felipe turned his gaze on Murdoch.

"Having Scott home has indeed been a blessing, Padre." The priest just stared at him as if he expected more. How could he know? Murdoch thought this man knew a great deal. He sure could read a man. He felt uncomfortable under that gaze and his eyes flickered across Ted and the drivers. Suddenly, the stationmaster stood and picked up his bowl then walked to the sink.

"You folks take your time now. I gotta cut some wood. Been meanin to do it for a couple of days but, reckon I was just bein ornery about it. There's plenty more stew if ya want. Just leave some for ... the other gent." He smiled nervously and bolted out the door.

The stage drivers both pushed back from the table. "We turn in early folks so, we'll see ya in the mornin. Remember, eight sharp."

"We'll be there," Scott said, a little stunned the men were going to bed before it was even really dark outside.

*

It grew quiet once the men left the room but, Felipe was determined. "Forgive me, Senor Lancer, I cannot help wondering why you feel less than truly blessed."

Murdoch set the coffee cup down and leaned back in his chair. He drummed his fingers on the tabletop while he studied the priest. "I'm wondering why you're so interested in me, Padre."

Felipe bit his lip, feeling truly torn. His initial impression of this man had not changed; that this was not a man who would throw his wife and child to the streets because of their ethnicity. He was saved from trying to explain when the door opened and Johnny walked in. Felipe stood and walked over, taking Johnny's arm and leading him toward the table. "The stew is still hot. Sit and I will get you ..."

"Padre," Johnny said softly. "You don't wait on me. It's the other way around, or should be. Sit back down. I can get my own food." He smiled kindly at the short priest then walked around him to the stove.

Murdoch smiled a little at the young man's rare show of kindness. Maybe he'd needed some time alone to remember his manners. But then, he'd been kind to the priest all this way. Just everyone else he didn't care for, Murdoch supposed. He frowned as he looked at the man's sweat-stained shirt. Apparently, he wasn't the only one to notice.

"You look like a man who's been hard at work," Scott said.

Johnny turned and looked at the easterner flatly. He shrugged as he walked to the table and sat down, grabbing a biscuit from the basket. "Just chopped some wood til that old man ran me off."

Scott looked at him like he was crazy. "He ran you off? Earlier, he was scared to death of you!"

Johnny looked squarely at the man, his eyes hard and ungiving. He said nothing then turned his attention to his meal.

Scott rolled his eyes. This man irritated him and he didn't really know why. Maybe it was the lack of social decorum of any kind. "I didn't know gunfighters did manual labor."

Johnny sighed and dropped the spoon into the bowl noisily then looked back at Scott. "What you don't know about gunfighters would fill a canyon, I imagine." He stood abruptly and strode out the door.

*

Felipe scowled at Scott then, excused himself from the table. Hurrying out the door, he looked all around but saw no sign of Johnny. He walked over to Ted who was still chopping wood. "Have you seen him?"

"Seen who?"

"The one who does not wish his name called," Felipe said, wondering if the man wasn't enjoying all this subterfuge.

"Oh! He headed to the barn. Didn't look none too happy, neither." Ted stretched his back and took a step closer to the priest. "How come he's bein so secretive?"

"Perhaps, it is better not to ask questions, my son. Excuse me." Felipe shook his head a little as he walked to the barn. He pushed thoughts of the stationmaster away and concentrated on what he would say to his new young friend. He hoped Johnny would be easy to convince. That perhaps he wanted to be convinced. There was no denying the pain in the boy's eyes when he'd told his tale. The anger came soon after but it was pain he'd felt first. Felipe was sure of that.

He stepped inside the barn and looked around. Frowning, he chanced calling out softly but there was no answer. Then, he noticed the back door and that it was ajar. Determined, he headed out the back only to find himself alone. Madrid was nowhere in sight. Would he show again at all? How hard it must be for him to be anywhere near his father and a brother he had not even known about!

The priest lowered his head in earnest prayer. He knew what his mission was but he needed a little help with this one. He could see so many barriers to bringing Johnny together with his family.

*

Inside the station, Scott stared at the table top knowing his father was watching him. Finally, a small sigh escaped his lips and he looked up to find just what he'd expected. A disapproving frown. "What?"

"Was that necessary, son?"

"Was it necessary for him to ignore me? The man has no manners, Sir."

"And what was he supposed to say to that comment? Look, I know you have this idea about gunfighters. You see them all as Day Pardee. Some of them are like that but not all. Scott, you can't judge any man by the work he does." Murdoch raised a hand to stay his son as Scott opened his mouth. "No, I don't agree with gunfighting but I can't condemn a man because that's what he chose to do. Maybe, it's because of Johnny. Maybe, I need to believe that not every one of those men are animals like Pardee. I need to believe my son was not like that."

Scott felt some shame knowing he did measure all gunfighters by the one he'd battled. It hadn't occurred to him that Johnny was of that ilk. Or that it might be difficult for his father when Scott ranted about the profession. "Sir, I'm sorry, I didn't ... it never occurred to me. I suppose I've been trying not to think of what he may have been like. It serves no purpose but misery. I can see how hard it would be for you to listen to me go on about it. I'll never understand how anyone can make a living like that but, maybe, if I'd had the chance to know Johnny, I could have understood."

"I wish we could find out but I understand the impression you've been left with. Maybe it would be better if we didn't try to talk to him the rest of the trip."

"I'm all for that. It's a lost cause anyway. He doesn't have much to say to anyone but that priest." Scott turned in his chair as the door opened and Padre Felipe walked in.

"He is gone. I do not know where or if he will return."

Murdoch looked hard at the holy man, wondering why he seemed so terribly distraught by that. He knew something was going on between those two. Maybe the priest thought he could save this young man. Murdoch supposed it was the man's duty to try and, he probably believed it possible. "I'm sure he'll show up before the stage leaves in the morning, Padre."

*

Johnny climbed the small hill across the road and found a comfortable spot under the trees in the thick, soft grass. He sat against the tree trunk with a view of the way station directly below. Crossing his arms, he huffed and realized he was still hungry. He'd let that gringo dandy ruin his supper but he couldn't sit there and listen to his so-called brother putting him down. He wouldn't stand for that and if he'd stayed, he might've let something slip.

He wasn't really sure why he didn't just tell them who he was. Maybe ... maybe he was a little afraid of the reaction. The old man could easily turn his back - again. Johnny didn't think he could take that and allow the man to keep breathing. No, he was sure he'd plug him with a few holes if that were to happen. Then, he'd be in a fix. He'd never committed murder and had no intentions of starting now. Especially with the likes of Murdoch Lancer. His father had taken enough from him. Johnny would not allow the bastard to take his life, too.

He wished he hadn't told the padre about it, though. Wasn't really sure why he had. He guessed he just needed to get it off his chest. Lord knew, he was ready to hit something or someone. Not likely to hit a priest so, he reckoned that's why he'd told the man. But Padre Felipe hadn't taken it like Johnny thought he would. Then again, he was a man of God so he had to stay calm and look at all sides of a thing. He hadn't really said much and Johnny could tell he was pretty upset which puzzled him. Yeah, priests are compassionate and all that but still, it wasn't like it was his own family. Wasn't like he even knew the padre; had never met him before.

And that name! He wished the man wouldn't call him that. He was nobody's champion. He snorted at the thought. Well, tomorrow they'd be gone and he could relax the rest of the trip. Until they got closer to the border anyway. He still hadn't worked that out. He might have to take a job to buy a horse for the rest of his journey. He didn't like that idea much. So close to Mexico, someone might hear down there and then, he'd be in a fix. People never could keep their mouths shut which is exactly how he'd ended up in front of that firing squad to begin with. He needed to keep a low profile for a while once he found his friends again.

He let out a long, slow breath and decided he wasn't going to spend the whole night out here while they were all cozy inside. He'd watch the sun set then just go right in and straight to bed. And hope no one spoke to him because if they did, he wasn't sure how he'd react. Right now, he was strung so tight, a soft breeze might break him clean in two.

*

Padre Felipe stared into the dying fire, so many thoughts whirling in his mind. It could not be as Madrid said. Murdoch Lancer could not be the kind of man to throw his young wife and child to the streets. No, Johnny had been misinformed or, perhaps, misunderstood. Or worse, his mother had lied to him. It had to be because he knew he would not be here if the cause was hopeless. There was meaning to his mission and he prayed for the strength and wisdom to do what he must.

He started and turned quickly in the chair as the door opened. A smile came to his face as Johnny walked back inside. He watched the young man survey the room quickly. "Everyone has gone to bed."

Johnny walked over, taking his hat off and slapping it lightly against his thigh. "You're up late."

Felipe shrugged. "I have done nothing to be tired. Nothing but worry for you, that is."

A small smile lifted the corners of Johnny's mouth as he stood beside the man's chair. "No need for worry, Padre. Just figured it was best to lay low. Better than beatin the hell out of Scott Lancer, I guess."

"Senor Scott was out of line, this is true. Still, you have not given them any reason to think highly of you, el Campeón."

"Why should I?"

Felipe sighed and stood, still needing to look up at Johnny. "They are your familia, mio hijo. I have talked a little to Senor Lancer and he does not strike me as the type of man who would do as you believe. He is a private man, though. I could not get much out of him without appearing ..."

Johnny frowned and put a hand up. "Stay out of it. There's nothing you can do. Now, I'm goin to bed. You might want to think of doing the same. Tomorrow will be here soon enough."

The padre watched sadly as the gunfighter walked away from him and disappeared into the back room. He bowed his head and closed his eyes, praying for guidance.

*

Murdoch threw his bag up to the driver the next morning then climbed into the stage. Sitting in the same place as the day before, he nodded at the priest. "See? He wasn't going to miss the stage."

Felipe smiled weakly and nodded as Johnny climbed inside, glanced at the three of them then fell onto the bench beside the padre. A moment later, the stage lurched to a start and Johnny relaxed, leaning his head against the side of the coach and closing his eyes. With any luck at all, they'd finally get the message and just ignore him the rest of the day.

Felipe looked at Johnny then at the Lancers. Both men were sitting with arms crossed, staring at nothing and frowning. He shook his head at the lot of them. Strange how they could not see how similar they were. Of course, he had learned people had a difficult time seeing themselves as others saw them. He needed to start a conversation or ... something. He had to get these men talking. But, he knew he must be careful not to insult or get too personal. Wearing a collar only got him so far, he knew. Before he could think of anything, Scott saved him the trouble.

"Look, I'm sorry about yesterday. I was irritated but, you didn't deserve to be insulted."

Johnny opened his eyes and found Scott staring at him. He didn't say anything for a long beat then, he nodded his head once.

Scott felt like coming across the space between them and throttling this man. Suddenly, the man was smiling at him and Scott could only stare in amazement.

Johnny watched the frustration and anger grow on Scott's face and it tickled him how easily this one seemed to get riled. He smiled and damned near laughed in the man's face. But, he pulled himself together. "You want me to say somethin?"

"An acknowledgement would be nice."

"Huh! Let's see. You insult me and I'm supposed to be nice?"

Scott straightened his shoulders and tilted his chin up. "I apologized."

"And I heard you. Does that mean we're best friends now? I mean, is that how it works back east? You just say you're sorry and everything's fine and dandy?" Johnny laughed softly. He couldn't help himself. This one was a piece of work and, if nothing else, it was a pretty harmless way to pass the time.

"No, it doesn't mean we're friends. It does mean we could be civil to one another. It doesn't erase what I said but ..." Scott paused and glanced at the priest, "forgiveness is a virtue."

Johnny looked at the priest who was smiling and seeming to enjoy the hell out of this. He looked back at Scott and grinned. "Didn't you hear? I'm a gunfighter, I don't have any virtues."

*

Scott felt a bit defeated. Well, he'd tried. What else could he do? He could feel his father tense with the last statement by this arrogant stranger and he knew Murdoch didn't want to hear about uncaring gunfighters. He should have kept his mouth shut. Maybe, waited until they got to town to apologize for, he did feel it was owed.

"That is not true, el Campeón. You should not make such jokes. People may take you seriously."

Johnny laughed again and shook his head. "Padre, you are a good man. Yessir, you are. But, we ain't all good men, are we? Some of us are downright despicable and we don't even have to do anything to earn that. Ain't that right, Mr. Lancer?" His eyes grew cold as he locked onto Murdoch's gaze. He watched the man frown in confusion for a second.

"I don't agree with that, no."

"Oh? Because I think some people are just looked at like dirt for no good reason. Maybe, the color of their eyes or their skin or maybe, they're too short or too tall. Too fat or too skinny. Not good enough in some way or other. Maybe, because they're gunfighters. Hell, some folks just never should've been born."

"Enough!" Felipe shouted and everyone stared at him. He blinked and sucked in a breath. "Por favor, forgive my outburst but I cannot listen to this." He turned to Johnny. "I understand your anger but do not make the mistake of believing the prejudices and hate of others,

el Campeón. Do not fall into that trap of believing you are worthless because others can only see the outside of a man."

Johnny's eyes narrowed and he felt the heat on his face. "I don't think Lancer here answered me." He looked back to Murdoch. "Are you telling me you don't make assumptions about people based on what they look like or what they do for a living?"

Murdoch was still trying to grasp the padre's words when the gunfighter threw the question at him. He felt some shame for he knew he'd done that very thing and with his own son. He lowered his eyes briefly before looking back at this angry young man. "No, I'm not going to tell you that. I'd be lying if I did. I think we all make such assumptions but, if we're lucky, we learn not to be so judgmental. At least, we can try." He leaned forward a little. "But I will tell you this, young man. I do not make assumptions based on race."

"Sure, old man. Prejudice is prejudice. Either because of color or occupation, what difference does it make? Seems to me it's what a man does that matters. How he holds up to his obligations or throws them away like yesterday's garbage and says, oh well, that was a mistake, time to move on!"

Murdoch shook his head. "What the devil are you talking about?"

Johnny felt the rage controlling him. He didn't know how this had gotten so out of hand but he also knew there was no stopping it now. He had opened the door and he was about to step right into what was probably a big pile of manure. He opened his mouth, ready to speak his truth.

The stage dipped just then and it felt as if it left the road altogether. Everyone grabbed hold of something as the coach rocked violently. Johnny just knew they were going over and he cussed as they started to tilt sideways. He saw Scott lose his grip on the seat and, without thinking, Johnny lurched forward and grabbed hold of the man. Then, Murdoch had hold of Scott so Johnny let go and felt the padre slam into him. Wrapping his arms around the priest, he closed his eyes and tried to make his body relax before impact.

*

It was really quiet. That was the first thought Johnny had. Maybe he'd lost his hearing? No, there was a fly buzzing around nearby and ... yeah, some kind of bird was squawking. He took a long, deep breath in then slowly opened his eyes. It was pretty dark and he realized that was because someone was lying on top of him. Johnny shifted his weight and heard a soft grunt. He reached up with his right hand and felt the cloth, knowing instantly it was the padre. Shit! "Padre Felipe? Hey, you okay?"

Boy, his voice sounded weak and kind of caught in his throat. He realized he was thirsty and the image of the pendejo stationmaster flashed into his memory. He pushed it away then tried to move again. He didn't get far before he heard another groan somewhere near him. It wasn't the priest this time. His father? Johnny felt his heart start to race and panic tried to rear its ugly head. He pushed it all down, closed his eyes for a moment and pulled himself together. What the hell was that?

Murdoch groaned, he knew he had. His head throbbed and he opened his eyes cautiously. It took a moment to get his bearings then he remembered. He opened his mouth but no further noise came out. Swallowing hard, he cleared his throat and tried again. "Scott?" He waited what seemed like a lifetime but got no answer. "Scott!"

"Don't shout," Johnny called. "I think he's over here underneath me. Either that or this coach is lumpier than I thought." Damn but he couldn't help the sarcasm. The man was loud and his head hurt. There was no reply and Johnny thought maybe he'd passed out. Then, he heard the voice, softer and kind of shaky.

"Is he alive?"

Johnny closed his eyes a second. "I don't know. The priest is on top of me and I can't move. Hang on." Johnny started to reach behind him with his left arm and felt a fire ignite. "Madre de dios!"

"Hush, el Campeón. Do not curse."

Rolling his eyes, Johnny grit his teeth and bent his neck at an odd angle, trying to get a look at the padre. "You okay?"

"I think so. Just let me try and move."

"That would be good, Padre. Real good." Johnny grunted as the man half-rolled, half-stumbled off of him. He let out a sigh of relief when the weight was gone. He reached over and pulled his left arm up across his stomach as he watched the priest scrunch down in a corner and cross himself. "Ain't got time for prayers, Padre. I could use a little help. Lancer is under me."

"I'm coming," Murdoch said as he ground out a breath between clenched teeth. He moved slowly and carefully from the corner where he'd ended up which was pretty much exactly where he'd been sitting all along. "We seem to be upright at least."

"Yeah, that's great news," Johnny muttered. He wondered how they'd all ended up halfway on the floor and this one had kept his seat. Good thing he reckoned as that mountain would've crushed all three of them, he was sure. He watched Murdoch lean over him, trying to see around him and he lost any patience he may have had. "You know it would be a lot easier to see him if you'd help me move. I cut my arm or somethin and it don't want to work right now."

Murdoch focused on him and looked at the bloody sleeve. He grimaced. "Sorry. Wrap your right arm around my neck."

Johnny just stared at him a second then shook his head and followed the old man's directions. Murdoch lifted him fairly easily and moved him across from Padre Felipe who had already removed the belt to his robes and began wrapping Johnny's wound. Johnny paid him no mind and watched as Murdoch went to Scott. He held his breath waiting to see what shape the man was in. Murdoch was blocking his view and he couldn't stand it anymore. "Well, is he dead or not?!"

Murdoch turned his head aside, back toward the other two men. "Not. He's got a gash on his head, though. He's unconscious."

Johnny let himself breathe again, flummoxed as to why he was worried about a complete stranger. "We need to get out of here, get him to some shade and take stock."

Murdoch nodded his agreement. "If the two of you can get out, I think I can carry him."

*

Johnny stumbled when he hit solid ground and Padre Felipe took hold of him around the waist. Johnny stood very still for a moment then opened his eyes and nodded. "Bueno," he whispered then looked around. "Well, it could be a lot worse. At least there's plenty of shade."

Padre Felipe studied the landscape and nodded his approval. There was a copse of trees not twenty feet from where they stood. He turned and looked behind them then gasped. They had careened off the road, down a hill and come to rest at the bottom. Somehow, by the grace of God, they had landed upright mostly. The coach leaned as one wheel was destroyed. The second one on the same side didn't look like it would hold much longer.

Johnny looked at the man when he made a noise and followed the priest's eyes. His own eyes widened as he saw the path they'd taken. He didn't know how any of them were still alive. "Do you see the drivers anywhere?"

The padre shook his head. "I will check the hillside. Perhaps you could assist Senor Lancer with his son?"

Johnny pulled a face but nodded then walked to the stage door. "You ready?" he called.

Murdoch ducked his head and looked behind him. "I've got him if you'll talk me down as I back out."

"Yeah, sure. The coach is leaning this direction so it's a real short step down. Should hold, though." As Murdoch stepped down, Johnny put a hand to his back, ready to grab hold should the man falter. He stumbled a little but never lost his precious load. "Over here, there's some trees you can lay him under."

Murdoch seemed a little drunk to Johnny as he carried Scott over to the trees. Once Scott was on the ground, Murdoch kneeled next to him. "Do you think they have a medical bag or something for the stage?"

Johnny shrugged then winced as the pain in his left arm awakened. "I'll check. What's the matter with you? You were walkin funny."

Scowling, Murdoch glanced back at him. "Nothing. I just twisted my knee. I'm fine."

He rolled his eyes then walked toward the stage and met a sad-faced Felipe. He didn't have to ask but he did. "Dead?"

"Si, both."

"Well, the horses are long gone. I'm gonna check the stage, see if they have bandages and the like then I'll bury them. Are you sure you're alright, Padre?"

He smiled and patted Johnny's arm. "I feel as if I have been in an accident, very sore and ... eh, banged up? But, I will be fine." He looked out over the land as he spoke. "With all the trees and green grass, there must be water nearby, si? I will go look then I will help you."

Johnny smiled at the man. He must have come from sturdy stock. He watched the priest walk away just to ensure himself the man was walking straight. Of course, he didn't think a priest would lie to him but then again, it wouldn't be the first time. Blowing out a breath, he headed to the coach.

*

Johnny found bandages, blankets and, of all things, a cooking pot in the rear boot of the stage. He grabbed his saddlebags and the Lancers bags before heading back. Murdoch was sitting beside Scott now, staring at the man as if he could will him awake, it seemed to Johnny. "I've got some coffee and jerky in my bags. I don't guess either of you have anything?"

"No," Murdoch replied distractedly, "we didn't expect to have to camp out."

Johnny cocked a brow at that. "Always pays to be prepared for anything." He shook out his bedroll blanket and laid it across Scott before adding a second one then went about gathering wood for a fire.

"Where's the padre?"

"He's looking for water. The drivers are both dead; horses are gone, of course." He stood up and looked at Murdoch's back. "Do you know where we are exactly?"

Murdoch looked around then shook his head. "No, I don't. Somewhere between here and there."

Johnny smiled briefly. The man sounded exhausted and worried, naturally. He dropped his sticks in a pile and walked to the opposite side of Scott before kneeling down. He looked at the wound while Murdoch got his bandages sorted out. "Nasty lookin. Probably be out for a day or so."

"Thank you for that diagnosis, Doctor," Murdoch snapped.

Johnny looked at him coldly then stood and stalked away. He bent down to gather his firewood, snatching the pieces up when he heard the voice, sounding tired again.

"I'm sorry. I'm worried and ..."

"No problema," Johnny interrupted with a sigh. "Soon as the padre gets back, I'll make coffee. Maybe that'll make you feel better."

Murdoch turned at the waist and looked at him. The boy had his head down, looking for more wood. Feel better? Why did a gunfighter care how he felt? He'd been cold at best most of the trip. Still, he was awfully young, just like... Murdoch shook his head. He couldn't think of that right now. He needed to focus on Scott now. He turned back when he heard a noise to find Padre Felipe returning with a smile on his face.

*

"I found a beautiful stream very near. Do we have anything to carry the water in?" He paused and looked down at Scott, the smile fading and a frown coming to his brow. "How is he?"

"I'm not sure. It's a long gash. Your friend thinks he'll be out the rest of the day at least."

Padre Felipe knelt, crossed himself and said a prayer then stood back up. "Now, I will help the good Lord answer my prayers by providing for ourselves, eh?" He looked at Johnny then. "El Campeón, we have a canteen?"

Johnny had been watching the exchange, in wonder as always of how priests seemed to think praying was the answer to everything. "Yeah, I have a canteen and I found a cooking pot. I'll go with you, Padre. You shouldn't be roamin around alone."

The padre waited for him to approach then hooked his arm around Johnny's as they began to walk. "There is no one about, my son."

"Ain't just human critters you have to worry about, ya know. There's snakes, bears, wolves, all kind of predators in the woods."

Murdoch listened to their voices fade. His brain knew no one else had a reason to be worried about a complete stranger but it bothered him that neither of them seemed to think Scott's injury was serious. Were they seeing something he wasn't? Yes, there was a lot of blood but, head wounds bleed heavily. It was the size and depth of the gash that concerned him and the possible effects it could have on his son. Scott could have serious repercussions from this. Murdoch had some experience with head wounds when a ranch hand was kicked by a steer once. The man survived but he was a blithering idiot for the rest of his days. He couldn't stand the thought of that happening to his intelligent, reasonable son.

The practical part of him knew there wasn't a thing more he could do for Scott until they got some water so, he got himself to his feet and went about building a fire. It was the least he could do, he supposed. The gunfighter could have easily walked away and left them all to rot. Murdoch snorted. He didn't even know the man's name and he certainly wasn't going to call him champion.

*

When they returned, Murdoch noticed the displeased look on the priest's face. The gunfighter didn't look happy either but, he didn't think that was unusual. It was a bit unsettling to see the priest looking angry and his hackles rose as he stood. "Did something happen? You don't look very happy, Padre."

Felipe glanced at Johnny then sighed. "No, nothing has happened. Thank you for starting the fire."

Murdoch figured the young man had insulted the padre so he gave the man a look of understanding. "It was the least I could do."

Johnny squatted by the fire and thought that was the truth. The old man hadn't done much else. He went about heating water for Scott first. Swiping his forehead, he blinked. Damn! Why was everything so blurry? Must've hit my head harder than I thought.

Padre Felipe turned aside and lowered his voice to a whisper. "He would not let me clean the wound at the stream. He said it was of no importance and that we needed to get water to you for your son's injury. He is muy obstinado."

Murdoch raised a surprised brow at that then felt ashamed for his earlier thoughts. Apparently, the young man had some sympathy in him after all. "Have you seen any sign the wound is bad?"

"He will not even let me look. He says he will take care of it later." Felipe looked to the heavens and shook his head.

A smile tried to come out and Murdoch twisted his lips to quell it. He limped over to the fire and knelt down with a wince.

"Water will be hot in a minute then, I'll make coffee."

"Thank you, for everything you've done."

Johnny looked at him oddly. "I haven't done anything but get some water and wood for a fire. Nothing I wouldn't do for myself if I was out here alone."

Murdoch looked into the piercing cold eyes. "I see. I suppose we're all just lucky to have been around then."

A smile erupted on the young man's face and he laughed softly. "Yep, you're just plain lucky, mister. While you're waitin for the water, you could climb that hill and see if you recognize where we are."

Murdoch looked at the hillside and nodded then, with a grunt, rose to his feet.

*

Johnny shook his head and went back to his chore. He felt those soft brown eyes boring into him. "Leave it alone, Padre."

"Why don't you tell him, Johnny?"

He sighed and looked up at the priest hovering. "I told you why. I shouldn't have even told you who he is, dammit!"

"But you did because you needed to talk to someone. I am here, my son." The priest looked over where Murdoch was slowly making his way up to the road. "He does not seem the kind of man to throw his wife and small child away. He dotes over Scott as we see."

Johnny snorted. "Yeah, his gringo, fancy dan son with all the education. Why shouldn't he dote? It's enough to make a man just bust with pride, ain't it? But, how proud do you think he'd be with me, huh? Besides, whether you believe it or not, he did throw us out."

"Perhaps providence has arrived for you now. Watch him, talk with him and find out what kind of man he is before you decide he is not worth your trouble." Padre Felipe sat on the ground next to Johnny and took hold of his right arm, squeezing almost painfully. "I am begging you, Johnny. Take the time. It may be the only chance you ever have to know your father. And, if he turns out to be as you believe, what have you lost? But, if he turns out better, look at what you could gain."

Johnny bowed his head, unable to look into those kind eyes any longer. So much of his heart wanted to believe Murdoch Lancer was not the bastard he'd always believed him to be. But, if that were true then, Mama had lied. What was he supposed to do with that? Besides, there was no way in hell that old man would want anything to do with the likes of him. And he had his son now, if Scott lived. Johnny wasn't so sure he would. The man didn't look too good. He shook his head and went back to his chores.

Padre Felipe took that shaking head as a no and his heart broke for this young man. So much was within his reach yet, he would not hold out his hand. Everything he had heard about Johnny Madrid told him this was the man's way. He never asked for anything, never expected anything and always seemed genuinely surprised when kindness was offered to him. He'd heard many tales from his brothers in Mexico. Priests who had met and talked with Madrid and come to know him as well as anyone could, he supposed.

"You'll keep my secret?" Johnny asked quietly.

"I have already said I would, my son. Even if you are wrong."

Johnny looked at him with that and grinned.

Padre Felipe pulled a face at him. "What if he asks your name? Were you not about to tell him when the accident happened?"

"Yeah, well, that was then. Before Scott got hurt and I had a chance to realize how stupid it would be. I just wanted to see if the old man knew who his kid turned out to be. Then, the world turned over."

Felipe smiled and patted his knee. "Now, he is truly worried for Scott and you do not want to cause him further distress. And why do you think that is, amigo?"

Johnny sighed heavily. "You're gonna wear me out, old man."

*

"I would think even you would have more respect for a man of the cloth." Murdoch towered over them with a most unhappy expression.

Johnny's face went flat, the light in his eyes extinguished in a split second. He took to his feet and ignored the wave of dizziness that assaulted him. "Even me? What's that supposed to mean, Lancer?"

The priest got up and stepped between them. "Senor, he was only joking, making light of things. He would never disrespect me. You misunderstand."

Murdoch looked at the priest before settling his gaze back on the gunfighter. He decided the man was probably very good at his trade if that stare were any indication. But, he was not easily intimidated. "Perhaps I did misunderstand."

Not to be denied, Johnny spat, "I asked you a question."

Murdoch inhaled deeply through his nose. "I meant a gunfighter. I can't imagine you'd be too religious."

Johnny felt his temperature rise. "And why is that? You think we don't pray?"

Feeling a bit of a fool, Murdoch dipped his eyes. "Look, I ..." he paused and turned quickly toward Scott, sure he'd heard something.

Johnny heard it, too, and he waited to see if Scott was coming around. He'd be surprised by that but, a lot of things surprised him anymore. Still, he wanted to have it out with Lancer. Who did he think he was? He felt the hand of the priest on his arm, pressing and urgent. Johnny didn't look at him but, he gave in to the man's silent askance. He simply nodded his head then went to fetch the now boiling water. Cussing under his breath, he pulled the pot off the fire and added more from the canteen to cool it down.

When Johnny looked over, Murdoch was kneeling beside Scott, talking quietly to him. Johnny took the cooler water over, sat it beside the man and walked away without a word.

*

Still fuming, Johnny headed back to the coach and found a shovel in the rear boot. Seemed they carried everything back there. He headed up the hill and easily found the drivers. A grimace came to his face as he noted the angle of their heads. Both had broken necks but he figured, if they had to go, at least it was quick. He sighed and looked around. If he took them down the hill, they'd be too close to camp. Well, nothing for it. He dropped the shovel and took the first one under the arms, dragging him up the hill to the road. The opposite side was nice and flat and seemed as good a place as any to be lain to rest. Of course, the stage couldn't have crashed over there. That would've been too easy!

Damn that Murdoch Lancer. Arrogant bastard! Even you! Shit! He prayed all the time. Might not be like most people, might not be what the church would like but he'd never cottoned to organized praying. Sitting in mass all day long was not his idea of a good time.

An hour passed and, after he rolled the first man into his grave, he wiped the sweat from his brow and grimaced as the cut on his left arm burned. He rubbed at it lightly then thought better of that idea. He knew it was bleeding a little but, he needed to get this done. With a look upward, he felt a little defeated. "Well, that's just great!" he muttered as he noted the dark clouds heading right at them. Taking a deep breath, he blew it out then redoubled his efforts. The last thing he wanted was to dig in the mud.

Another hour went by before Johnny got the second grave dug. As he shoved the man the last few inches with his boot, he felt raindrops hitting his shoulders. Grunting loudly, Johnny hurried to cover the two men. He knew he was going to get soaked. He only hoped Lancer had enough brains to get them back into the stage coach. At least they'd stay dry. Hopefully, the rain wouldn't last long. He was already wet through and through with sweat. Well, at least the rain would wash off some of the stink.

As he patted the earth with the shovel for the last time, he blew out a heavy breath. Slowly, he straightened, his back and arm protesting. It was still only sprinkling and the darkest clouds were still off in the distance. Johnny turned to head back down then, paused and turned back. Bowing his head, he said a quick prayer, crossed himself then walked away shaking his head. Should let the padre do that. Maybe tomorrow if the rain wasn't too bad.

He trotted down the hill then slowed his gait as he saw the set-up. Had to be Lancer's handiwork. He'd taken the panels off the coach somehow and tied them to the low-hanging tree branches above Scott and rigged some covering for the fire, too. It took a second before he realized it was the shades from the coach strung up and pulled tight over the campfire between two smaller trees. Johnny's jaw tightened as he walked over, shovel still in one grimy hand. "Why didn't you just get back in the stage?"

Murdoch looked up, his eyes widening at the sight of the young man, dirt-streaked face, clothes damp and filthy, standing before him in an apparent fit of anger.

"What if the rain gets worse? Are you gonna put those panels back on the stage so we can have at least some shelter?"

The rancher's shoulders went up and he came to his feet, towering over the younger man. "If I have to then, yes, I will. But I think those rain clouds will move more to the east before the heavy ones arrive."

Johnny nodded his head, locking eyes with the man. "Yeah? Well, I don't. Matter of fact, I'll give it another hour before we're all swimmin!"

"Gentlemen!" Padre Felipe shouted as he walked up to them. Looking rather exasperated, the priest clasped his hands together. "One of you will surely be proven right soon enough. For now, there is hot coffee, el Campeón ."

*

He found a nice tree with a fairly smooth trunk and plenty of thick, leafy branches overhead. It was dry and that was good enough so he sat himself down, pulled his hat low, crossed his arms and tried to go to sleep for a while. He was exhausted and sore as hell and his arm was killing him. Stubborn fool! That's what he was. Why hadn't he just let the padre take a look? Well, it couldn't be that bad since it wasn't bleeding anymore. Maybe. After all that digging, it may well have started up again. Well, he'd rest a while then check it.

Johnny went quiet and listened to everything around him. It sometimes helped him calm down to do that but, what he heard wasn't very soothing.

The old man was talking to his son again and the priest was praying. Johnny could hear Felipe's quiet voice even from here. And Lancer was damned near begging Scott to wake up. Christ! He sighed heavily and leaned forward as he pushed his hat back. With a grimace, Johnny got to his feet and walked over to the trio. He looked down at Scott and shook his head. "He's not wakin up. Might as well give it a rest. Give him a rest, too. I'll find something to eat before the downpour starts."

Murdoch scowled as he looked up only to find himself watching the young man's back as he headed into the woods. When he turned back, Felipe was looking at him sadly.

"I think he is right. Perhaps, it is too soon. Still, we all heard the sound earlier. That is a very good sign, I think."

Murdoch's shoulders fell. "Padre, you are a man of peace and faith."

"Si, Senor Lancer, I am that. Perhaps, I should help with supper."

Just then, they both heard the shot and both started at the sudden sound.

"I think that's taken care of. At least, I hope that's what he's doing."

"Dios! You are as bad as him! Can you not trust a man's word when he says he is going to supply our meal?"

Murdoch was taken aback by the vehemence of the priest's words. He slowly got to his feet, casting a glance at Scott in the process. "Padre, I don't know him and he's a ..."

"Precisely, Senor. You do not know him. I do not know him personally but I know of him and what I know of is a good man. A man with a corazôn del oro. This is what my fellow priests say. You cannot know a man by what he does to earn a living."

"Earn a living? He's a gunfighter, Padre. How can you condone that?" Murdoch was a bit baffled by the words coming from his own mouth. Had he not just the night before preached to Scott about making such assumptions?

Felipe sighed and shook his head. "As I said, you cannot know a man by what he does to live. You can only know him by being with him, listening and watching with an open mind and an open heart, Senor. Did you not say in the coach you try not to judge? Are you so pious?"

Murdoch pulled his shoulders back at that. He opened his mouth but didn't have a chance to reply.

*

Johnny stepped out of the tree line with a big smile on his face and a huge turkey in his right hand. "Whooee! I couldn't believe it when I saw 'im. Ain't he somethin?"

Padre Felipe laughed and clapped his hands. "Si, el Campeón, he is a beautiful bird. We should give thanks God sent him to you."

Johnny's arm fell to his side, the turkey dragging the ground beside him as he slowed his gait. "Are you gonna try to tell me God made this turkey appear?"

"I am."

Johnny stared at him, eyes wide for a beat then he burst out laughing. "Okay, Padre, okay." He looked to the sky, raised the bird and spoke loudly. "Good job, God!"

Felipe walked over and smacked his side. "Nino! Now, *that* is disrespectful."

Johnny kept grinning but he lowered his head briefly. "Lo siento, Padre."

Felipe made a noise of disbelief then took the bird from Johnny and found a seat under the shelter so he could begin plucking. "It will take three hours to cook!"

Shrugging, Johnny sat on his haunches next to the man. "I guess. Maybe I should make the fire bigger."

Felipe looked into the shining eyes and shook his head. "Foolish boy. You should talk to Senor Lancer is what you should do."

Johnny looked over at Murdoch who'd gone back to his vigil beside Scott. "Why? Pretty plain what he thinks of me." He felt a cramp in his gut then ground his jaw in defiance. "Did he ever say if he knew where we are?"

"I forgot to ask."

Johnny grinned at the man. "You'd be happy to sit right here, wouldn't you? Well, I'm not. I'm looking forward to getting back below the border to some nice hot food and hotter ..." He bit his lip and felt a flush up the back of his neck. "Sun. Hotter sun." Johnny cleared his throat and got up. "Guess I will talk to him for a second, after all."

Felipe watched him walk away then shook his head and looked heavenward. "Ai yi yi. He is incorrigible, Father. Yet, you have brought him to this place. I pray his pride does not get in his way."

*

Johnny knelt opposite Murdoch and looked at Scott for a long beat. He felt an odd ache in his chest at the pale complexion and sunken eyes. When he looked up, Murdoch was watching him closely. "Did you figure out where we are when you were up there?" he asked, his eyes casting toward the road.

"I think so but, it's not good news. There's nothing around here, no ranches or farms or even a shack that I know of. We're miles from town."

"How many miles?"

Murdoch's brows drew together in thought. "Twenty, at least from town, ten or more from the waystation."

Johnny dropped his head and blew a breath out through pursed lips. "Long walk."

"Too long alone. I'm sorry, but I can't leave Scott and Padre Felipe..."

"Would do it in a heartbeat but that ain't happening either," Johnny interrupted. "I wouldn't ask you to leave your kid, anyway." He looked at the sky. "Wouldn't get too far before sunset but it'll be closer than we are now. I could probably make it there by dawn."

Murdoch shook his head. "You haven't eaten anything all day that I know of and you've got an injury to that arm which you won't tend to. Besides, you'd be heading east and those rain clouds ... I'm afraid you'd get out there and fall over."

Johnny recoiled at that notion. "Those clouds are either gonna rain down on the whole area or not at all. We're gonna get wet either way. When I have a job to do, I get it done, old man."

The cold tone was starting to annoy Murdoch and he bit back the initial retort that came to mind. "No one is paying you here so it isn't a job. Besides, what good would it do any of us if you did get sick out there alone? I think it's best to wait until morning."

Johnny stared at him a beat then looked down at Scott. "What about him? Is it best for him to wait til morning?"

Murdoch looked at his son, a deep pain growing in his chest. He shook his head slowly, his forehead furrowed in worry. "No, the best thing would be if there'd been a doctor on the stage but, sometimes we don't get the best. We have to make do with what's available." He looked back at Johnny. "He hasn't been living with me very long but, well, he's my son."

Johnny sat on his backside and crossed his legs, Indian-style. "He sounded real educated and eastern."

A small smile lit Murdoch's face briefly followed by a dour expression. "He was raised by his grandfather in Boston. Scott attended Harvard University. Yes, he's very intelligent. I shouldn't feel proud but I do."

"Why shouldn't you?" It was pain in the old man's eyes, that was easy to see and Johnny was intrigued.

"I didn't raise him for reasons I don't want to get into so, I really had nothing to do with how well he turned out."

Johnny canted his head. "Don't you think kids get something from their parents just by having their blood?"

Shrugging, Murdoch spoke softly. "I suppose so." He barked a laugh. "If Scott got anything from me it was my stubbornness. Of course, his mother had her fair share."

*

"What happened to her?" His voice was so sincere, so caring, he almost didn't recognize it himself.

Murdoch lowered his head and found a small pebble by his leg. He picked it up and started rubbing the smooth surface. "She died when Scott was born."

"I'm sorry."

The rancher looked up quickly, locking onto the blue eyes. "Yes, I believe you are. Well, thank you. It was a long time ago but, some days it feels like yesterday."

Johnny nodded then, he became thoughtful. "So, you lost your true love and never found anyone else?" Stunned and mesmerized by the softness that came over the man's face, Johnny focused all his senses on Murdoch Lancer.

"There was another. She was ... well, she was pretty much the exact opposite of Catherine. That was Scott's mother. This one was as beautiful but, dark-haired. She was Mexican and had the fire to match."

A lump formed suddenly in Johnny's throat. The man sounded like a lovesick puppy. Confusion settled in his mind as he tried to sort any sense from what he was hearing and seeing. What he heard next caused him to push all that aside and pay attention.

"We had a son, too. He was dark like his mother but, he's gone now."

He swore the man's voice was shaking. "Gone?"

Murdoch glanced briefly at him then shifted, wincing as if he was in pain. "Dead. He's dead. I need to move around a little." He got up quickly and walked away.

The buzzing was back in his ears and he felt really dizzy. He was sure he tilted to the side a little and he even put his palm flat to the ground to stay upright. Dead? He thinks ... Johnny closed his eyes, squeezed them shut and swallowed hard at that damnable lump. He thinks I'm dead just like a lot of other people do.

*

Padre Felipe attacked his mission like one of God's own archangels. He plucked and cleaned the turkey faster than one would think possible and all the while, he kept an eye on the two men deep in conversation under the trees. He could only see Johnny's face but what he saw gave him hope. The young man was really listening to whatever Senor Lancer was saying. Then, the older man got up suddenly and left. Felipe watched Madrid turn a little pale and he thought to go to the man but, he held back. It seemed to him Johnny was wrestling with something; as if he'd heard things that surprised him. Felipe prayed he'd found Murdoch Lancer to be a good man. He knew of Madrid's ability to read people well. It seemed only his own pride and fear were getting in his way with this particular man. Now, maybe that was changing.

His eyes then went to Murdoch Lancer standing in the drizzling rain at the foot of the hill, looking up. What was this man thinking? Felipe could see the side of his face and he was frowning. Then, his eyes closed and he appeared to be praying. Hope sprung in the priest's heart. Hope that all was not lost for Johnny Madrid. That, somehow, this 'chance' meeting would alter the course of the young man's life and bring him peace and love.

Murdoch stared into space then closed his eyes. 'Oh, Johnny. One day. One miserable day sooner and I would've had you home with me. Are you there, son? Could you look out for your brother? Help him be alright, please, hijo.' His eyes burned and he opened them then blinked several times. Foolish! With all that was happening, here he was feeling sorry for himself. He sucked in a breath and steeled himself to go back to Scott.

Scott. He'd been devastated to learn he had a brother he'd never get to know. Murdoch had been a little surprised at how hard Scott had taken the news. The smile that had lit the young man's face only to be dampened with sadness by the end of the story Murdoch had shared was heartbreaking. It had been days after that before Scott broached the subject again by sharing how he'd always wanted a brother. He'd asked about Johnny and Murdoch couldn't, wouldn't lie to the man. Scott's reaction to Johnny Madrid was fury, at first. Then, Murdoch handed him the Pinkerton reports. Scott spent the rest of the evening reading and it was close to ten o'clock before he closed the folder. And they'd spent over an hour talking about the report and Johnny. What he might have been like, what he might have looked like now. How worried Murdoch had been about bringing him home at all. He'd confessed that sin near midnight but he'd added his resolve to do that very thing. He had to at least offer the boy a different life.

Scott had been quiet for a while after then, he'd said he agreed. Johnny should have been offered the chance for a better life. But Murdoch could tell the truth was wearing on Scott. That his brother was of the same ilk as Day Pardee whom Scott despised for his actions. He'd wanted to argue that, tell Scott his brother was nothing like Pardee but he couldn't. He didn't know and now, he never would. His throat closed up and he shook his head then ran a hand over his face before turning back toward the camp. He looked over and saw the young man sitting next to his son and the boy didn't look well. Murdoch took a step and faltered a little as his knee flared. Digruntled by what he considered a mere annoyance, he limped back over and retook his seat beside Scott.

*

"Are you alright?"

Johnny looked up slowly from staring at the ground and simply nodded, unable to speak.

Murdoch didn't believe that for a moment. The man was pallid. "Why don't you let me take a look at that wound? It could be getting infected. You really don't look well."

Johnny let out a breath and ran a hand over his face then rubbed the back of his neck. "It's fine," he muttered then, struggled to his feet. The world tilted a little and he stood very still until it passed. "Need to help the padre."

He walked off slowly, as if he was finding the very act difficult. Murdoch watched until he made it over to Padre Felipe. He didn't think the man was going to be going for help. In fact, he decided this one would be needing some help of his own soon. They'd apparently just have to wait until he passed out to give it. "Mule," he mumbled then turned back to find blue grey eyes watching him.

"Scott!" Murdoch leaned down and laid a hand on the side of Scott's head. "Thank God, son. How's your head?"

Scott blinked a few times and wished Murdoch would speak more softly. He swallowed dryly and found a canteen pressed to his lips quickly. Once he'd sated his thirst he took a few breaths and cleared his throat. "It feels like it's coming off. What happened?"

"We had an accident. The stage went off the road. I'm not sure if the wheel broke first or the ride down the hillside broke it. Either way, both drivers are dead and the horses are gone."

Scott took it all in slowly. He felt like his brain was full of cotton. Finally, he spoke. "Anyone else hurt?"

Murdoch hesitated a moment. "That gunfighter cut his arm but, he's still on his feet. The priest is just a little bruised as am I. You got the worst of it, I'm afraid."

Scott nodded once and decided not to do that again. "Where are we?"

Shaking his head, Murdoch sighed out. "Not near any kind of civilization. I think Morro Coyo is about twenty miles from here and the waystation is a little closer. The gunfighter was going to start out walking in the morning but, he's not looking too good right now. I think his arm is worse than he's letting on but he won't let anyone look at it."

Scott wanted to roll his eyes but he knew that would be a mistake. Still, he wasn't one to lie about, either. "Can you help me try to sit up?"

"I wouldn't."

Murdoch craned his head to find the young man hovering over him.

Scott's eyes landed on the figure, his face cast in deep shadow by his hat. "You aren't me," he retorted.

Johnny smiled and shrugged then walked away, calling to the priest that his patient was awake and needed some praying over.

"He certainly is smug."

Murdoch turned back, a frown of thought on his face. "He still looks pale to me."

*

Padre Felipe hurried to Scott's side, a delighted smile on his face. "I see you have awakened, Senor. My prayers are being answered."

"Thank you, Padre, but please call me Scott."

"As you wish. Our supper is cooking although it may be hours yet. If you are hungry ..."

Scott raised a hand. "No, thank you. I don't think I'm ready for that yet. I would still like to try sitting up, though." His eyes went to his father.

"I don't know, son. You just woke up and you were out for a long time. You shouldn't push."

Scott's face turned to stone, a frown pulling his brows together. "I won't know until I try, Sir. I just need to gauge how bad it really is."

Murdoch looked at Felipe and threw his hands up. The priest only laughed at him and Murdoch knew he'd get no support there. "Alright but very slowly." He slid his arm under Scott's shoulders, using the crook of his elbow to support his son's neck. He felt Scott grip his other forearm as he slowly began to lift the young man's shoulders.

*

Johnny settled under his tree and watched the goings-on. He smirked as Murdoch started helping Scott sit up. Sure hope the padre can move fast. He just might get puked on. The smile widened as he thought of that then, faded quickly as he watched Scott's face get even   paler, if that was possible. Then, he looked a little green. Johnny sat forward as Scott's eyes rolled back in his head and the old man lowered him back to the ground. "Idiota!" he hissed through clenched teeth.

Suddenly, he didn't feel so well himself. His stomach flipped a couple of times and he leaned back, lowering his head and closing his eyes. He pushed his hat back and rubbed his forehead, blinking repeatedly. Shit! The nausea passed and he sighed his relief. Slowly, he opened his eyes and raised his head. No dizziness. He took his hat off and sat back, resting his head against the tree trunk and watching the three men through half-closed eyes.

Lancer pulled his kerchief out, poured water on it then wiped Scott's face down. Johnny couldn't hear what he was saying but, he could tell the man was talking. He looked at Felipe and noted the smile on the man's face. Like he was real pleased about something. Hell, not much displeased that man. Johnny pulled a face then watched Lancer again. Look at him, cooing and hovering like Scott was a little kid with a belly ache or somethin.

Johnny felt a little ache of his own in the pit of his stomach as he watched. It seemed as if some veil had been lifted and he was seeing clearer than he ever had. He watched in awe at the tender ministrations, the easy hand stroking Scott's hair, the gentleness of the old man's tone. He felt a stinging in his nose then, his eyes started to burn. His heart raced in his chest until he couldn't seem to catch his breath. Johnny looked away and stared at the ground, wide-eyed and panic-stricken. What the hell is wrong with me?

A shadow fell over him and he jerked his head up, stunned that someone had approached him without his knowing it. He watched as Padre Felipe knelt beside him and put a gentle hand on his arm.

"Try to take deep breaths, el Campeón. Let yourself relax. You are wound too tightly, you are upset. Just breathe."

The priest's soft, soothing tone helped and Johnny focused everything he had on that voice. Finally, he settled down, leaned back and closed his eyes. After a minute, he blew out a breath and looked at Felipe. "Thanks, I don't know what happened."

Felipe settled beside him and patted his knee. "You were watching your father comfort your brother. Perhaps, you realized you could be part of it if you choose."

Johnny's eyes flashed and he looked coldly at the priest. "I don't think so, Padre. Or don't you remember me tellin you how he threw me to the curb?"

Unfazed by the outburst, Felipe simply nodded. "And, if you will recall, I suggested that perhaps you did not know the whole truth. There are always two sides to a story, Johnny. People say things, words are misunderstood, misinterpreted."

Johnny deflated and looked away. "It doesn't matter anyway. He thinks I'm dead."

"Que?"

He glanced at the priest. "He was tellin me about Scott and his mother. Then, he told a little about mine and he said his son was dead."

Felipe sat still for a long moment. "Is that when he walked away from you before?" At Johnny's nod, he continued. "I was watching him and he was very upset."

A heavy sigh escaped the young man's lips. "You don't get it. He doesn't know his kid is Johnny Madrid. He can act as upset as he wants but deep down, I'll bet he'd be relieved. He wouldn't have to put on a front, act like he cared about a gunfighter."

Padre Felipe sighed then bowed deeply. "Forgive me, I did not realize I was in the presence of God. I did not understand you can read the hearts of men."

Johnny pulled a face at him. "No need to be sarcastic, Padre."

"And there is no need for you to make excuses when the truth of the matter is that you are afraid."

Slowly, Johnny sat forward, his face an inch from the Padre's. He opened his mouth but didn't get the chance to speak.

"I do not fear you, Madrid. My place in heaven is promised. When I get there is of no importance."

Johnny gave pause for that then he leaned back and burst out laughing. "I guess I've been outgunned, Padre."

Felipe laughed then grew solemn. "Por favor, talk to him. Tell him the truth. He will be so happy, I know it."

*

Both men looked up at the sound of footsteps. Murdoch slowed his gait as he approached. "I hope I'm not intruding but, I think the bird is getting a little crisp."

The priest jumped to his feet. "Ay yi yi! I forgot!"

Johnny laughed as the man ran to the fire, muttering in Spanish the entire time. He couldn't be sure but, he thought the padre actually cursed. He looked up when he heard a chuckle, surprised Lancer was laughing. "How's your son?"

Murdoch looked down at him and nodded. "He's sleeping. You were right, he shouldn't have tried getting up."

"Surprised he didn't puke on ya."

Murdoch smiled a little then sat down. "So am I. I wanted to apologize for walking away earlier. It was rude."

Johnny shrugged. "Nothing I'm not use to."

Murdoch stared at his hands, rubbing them together slowly. "I was wondering if I could ask you some questions about ... being a gunfighter."

Johnny's brows shot up at that and when Murdoch looked at him, he found himself nodding.

"I've only had direct dealings with one gunfighter and, well, he was ... an animal."

Jaw tight, Johnny managed to ask, "what was his name?"

"Pardee."

"Day. Day Pardee."

Murdoch looked hard at him. "You knew him?"

A wicked smile came to Johnny's face. "Oh, yeah. I know him. You're right, he is an animal." He frowned as something occurred to him. "Was? You said he *was* an animal?"

Murdoch nodded. "A few months ago he tried to take over the valley where our ranch is located. He came after us and we fought him off. Scott killed him in a battle."

Johnny stared at the man, flummoxed. "The dandy? Well, that's pretty impressive. Day was an ass but he was good."

"You aren't upset he's dead?"

"We weren't friends," he said with a shrug. "So, you want to know if all gunfighters are like Pardee? No, they aren't. Some are, though." He smiled again. "And no, I'm not like that."

Murdoch returned the smile. "I guessed that. I figure if you were, we wouldn't be sitting here talking. What I really want to know is ..." he paused, at a loss for a moment. "I want to know why someone chooses to be a gunfighter. It seems a lonely life aside from all the violence."

Johnny looked at the ground for a long beat. When he spoke, his voice was feather soft. "Yeah, it can get pretty lonely sometimes." He sighed and looked back up, his eyes devoid of emotion. "Why does anyone choose anything? Life, I guess. You do what you hafta do to survive one day to the next. And maybe, you find something you're good at. Might not be the best thing in the world or even a good thing at all but, at least it's yours. You know you're really good and so does everyone else. It sounds like a great way to live when you're a kid."

"And when the kid grows up?" Murdoch asked, intrigued.

A wry, crooked smile pulled at Johnny's lips. "IF the kid gets to grow up, maybe he sees it's not so great anymore. But, by then, it's too late. He's in the game and it's damn hard to get out of."

Murdoch winced at the hard words and the truth of them. "Don't you worry about being killed?"

Another shrug lifted Johnny's shoulders. "I don't know about anyone else but, no, I don't. See, I figure I'm living life as hard as I can. Sometimes, I have good times. I've met some nice people like the padre over there. No, I'm not afraid to die." Sometimes, he thought, it would be a welcome relief. Why was he pouring his heart out to this man?

"It sounds terribly lonely. No home, no one to care about you or for you. Nothing really to look forward to or work for." Murdoch stared off, trying to imagine his little blue-eyed spitfire facing a man down in the street. He felt cold chills go down his spine and shook himself. He realized the gunfighter was watching him closely and he gave a weak smile. "Have you ever heard of a gunfighter named Johnny Madrid?"

*

"The turkey is ready!" Felipe announced as he walked toward them, a grin on his face.

Johnny blinked and tore his eyes from Murdoch. He tried to clear his mind but it wasn't working. He knows. Dios, he knows who I am!

Felipe stared at him, a frown of worry on his face. "Are you alright, nino?"

Johnny shook his head and pulled himself together then rose to his feet. "Fine and I'm starvin, Padre!" He quickly walked to the campfire and sat down before he fell down. He would've groaned if he could but, his throat was closing up on him as it was. He grabbed a plate and that's as far as he got before Felipe knelt beside him and cut meat from the bird.

Watching Johnny from his periphery, Padre Felipe noted the sweat on his brow and the pallor of his face. The weather had cooled with the light rain so, he shouldn't be sweating. "You are ill?"

Johnny blinked and looked at him with surprise. He shook his head as his eyes traveled to Murdoch who was now back at Scott's side. "Later, Padre."

Felipe could only nod and wonder what Senor Lancer had said that so upset his young friend. He prepared dinner for the other two men, hoping Scott would feel up to eating a little something. The camp fell quiet as everyone ate. All but Scott who apparently decided sleep was the better course of action.

Johnny had just downed the last of his coffee when the rain started coming down hard. He slowly turned his upper body and sent a stare at Murdoch Lancer that cut straight through the curtain of water.

Murdoch looked skyward then felt the eyes on him. He met the stare without emotion. He wasn't about to back down from some smart-mouthed boy. Besides, they were staying dry and he almost smirked at that.

Johnny only shook his head at the man before returning his attention to the priest. "You should sleep in the coach, Padre. At least you won't float away."

Felipe chuckled at that. He wanted to let out a true belly laugh at these two men who were more alike than either could see. Johnnyâ€ôs next words took the mirth out of him.

"Might want to put him in the coach, too, old man. Unless you want him to get pneumonia!"

Murdoch glared at him. "He's perfectly dry right here."

"Yeah? In case you ain't noticed, the temperature is droppin like a rock!"

Padre Felipe saw the stubborn set of the older man's jaw and sighed. "Perhaps, el Campeón is right, Senor Lancer. It is getting chilly."

"I had noticed but it will be no warmer in the coach, Padre. In fact, it may be wiser to move him next to the fire. The trees are cutting the wind off and the ground is staying dry. If it gets worse, I'll put him in the coach."

Johnny mumbled under his breath and shook his head. He stood up and stalked off into the rain, headed to the coach.

*

He rummaged around the rear boot, the undercarriage and the top of the coach where he found a tarp used to cover the luggage in bad weather. Reckon the old man didn't think about that! He paused and sighed, forcing the whirlwind of thoughts away and focusing on the task at hand. Later. I'll deal with it later.

Johnny tugged the tarp loose and folded it before jumping back down to the ground. With a slight smirk on his face, he walked back over to Murdoch who had moved Scott near the fire with Felipe's help and dropped the tarp beside the man without a word. Johnny then went over, grabbed the Lancer bags and began rifling through them.

"What do you think you're doing?" Murdoch asked.

He paused to quickly glance up at the man. "If you're hell-bent on stayin outside, he's gonna need more than a blanket." He tossed his head toward Scott then, continued. "The rest of us could use somethin else, too, unless you want to charge us for it."

A heavy sigh of frustration came from Murdoch. "Of course not! You may not agree with me but, he's my son and I will say how he's cared for. It's much warmer here ..."

"By the fire. Yeah, so you said. Look, do whatever you want, it's fine by me." He pulled a jacket out of the bag and shook it out. Had to be the old man's, as big as it was. He tossed it to the priest. "Put that on, Padre. Those robes can't be too warm."

Felipe, who was trying hard not to laugh at their arguing, shrugged into the jacket. "Gracias, el Campeón. And gracias, Senor Lancer."

Murdoch winced with chagrin. "Of course, Padre, and forgive me for not thinking of it myself."

"You have nothing but your son on your mind, as it should be."

Johnny winced at that then pulled out another jacket, had to be Scott's, and a plaid shirt that could probably cover both him and Scott then tossed the items to Murdoch.

"What about you?" the rancher asked.

Johnny looked over at him and shrugged as he went back to his pilfering. "No long johns? Too bad," he mumbled as he continued searching. He pulled out another plaid shirt and grimaced but, beggars couldn't be choosers so he put it on. The arms hung past his hands a good four inches and the shirttail hung nearly to his knees. He glared at the padre when he heard the man snickering.

Finished with his thievery, Johnny walked back over and hunkered down across the fire from the rest of them. "Any coffee left, Padre?"

"I'm afraid not, nino. But, it was most generous of you to share with us."

Johnny snorted at that then looked out over the quickly dampening landscape. He'd never admit it aloud but, maybe the old man was right. The fire was their best bet unless the rain kept up all night. Would be his luck. The best thing to do would be to just get some sleep. Scott had his bedroll so he simply lay down as close to the flames as was safe and tucked his hand under his head.

Padre Felipe watched him, his amusement waning as he wondered how many times this young man had been in such a situation. Little to eat, no warm clothing and only a downpour to keep him company. "Pozo del sueño, el Campeón." (Sleep well)

Johnny opened his eyes and smiled softly at the priest. "Pozo del sueño, Padre."

*

Murdoch leaned against the small tree anchoring part of lean-to which covered their fire, his chin to his chest as he dozed. He woke every few minutes, it seemed, to check Scott then went back to his napping. There was no real rest, however, as his dreams were filled with nightmarish scenarios of how his son had died. It wasn't the first time he'd had these nightmares and he was sure it wasn't going to be the last. But, in their current situation it just seemed to make the visions worse. All he could see was great suffering by the faceless, dark-haired boy he could only remember as a baby.

He jerked suddenly, sitting forward, his breathing ragged and the thought that Johnny's name had been on his lips. He ran a shaky hand down his face and glanced at Scott but the young man hadn't moved. Still, he felt eyes on him and, with chagrin, he looked at the gunfighter and found the startling blue eyes watching him closely from across the fire. Those eyes. They were mesmerizing one moment, infuriating the next but most of all, they reminded him too much of his lost boy. He lowered his gaze then realized his back was wet. As he squirmed a little to try and unstick his shirt from his skin, he heard a soft laugh and looked back at the gunfighter.

"The rain hasn't let up a bit, in case you were wondering. I can hear that nice little stream from here now. I figure by dawn, we'll have one of our own comin down that hill." He sat up and scooted himself around to sit facing the fire, his knees drawn up toward his chest as he shivered a little. "The ground is gettin damp here, too. Of course, it's pitch black out there now so not much sense in tryin for the coach since we'd have to put it back together first." He held his hands out to the flames and rubbed them together.

"Alright, I get it! You obviously think I made the wrong choice. The ground may be a little damp but, it's still a far cry from a cold, damp coach."

The smile stayed on Johnny's face through it all. He glanced over at the padre and wondered if he was playing possum. Seemed to be the sort of thing he'd do. When he looked back at Murdoch, he grew solemn. "You were havin a bad dream."

Murdoch's shoulders tensed and he made a production of stirring the fire and adding wood. Finally, he spoke quietly. "My son. I was dreaming of my son. I asked you a question earlier but we were interrupted before you could answer."

Johnny's gut knotted. Why had he asked about the man's dreams? "What makes you think I would've answered in the first place?"

Murdoch looked over at him, eyes afire at the insolent tone. Then, he noticed something he had not earlier. The man's eyes weren't just shining from the firelight. He tilted his head to one side and leaned closer to the fire. "Are you sick?"

Johnny pulled back. "What?"

Wagging one finger toward him, Murdoch said, "your eyes are glassy. Are you sick?"

"Old man, you're seein things. Probably comes from no sleep. You know, if he ain't died by now, he most likely won't." Johnny held his breath and hoped he'd diverted the man's attention. It seemed to work as Murdoch looked over at Scott then moved closer, laying a hand on his chest and leaning in. Of course, Johnny knew Scott was breathing. He'd been watching the man most of the night whenever Murdoch would close his eyes for a few minutes. Murdoch straightened up, a look of pure relief on his face.

"He seems to be sleeping soundly."

"Lucky him. Maybe someone could hit me on the head and I could get some sleep, too."

Murdoch cocked a brow. "It would be my pleasure."

Johnny burst out laughing at that then slapped a hand over his mouth, afraid of waking the padre. Still, it was pretty damned funny. He must really be gettin on the old man's nerves. Once he managed to contain his humor, he stared into the flames and wondered at the way the old man coddled Scott. He was sure that only happened in bad circumstances. Lancer didn't seem the type to mollycoddle anyone.

*

"So, have you?"

Johnny blinked and looked over at him, a frown on his face as he shook his head slightly. "Have I what?"

"Ever heard of Johnny Madrid?"

He simply stared at the man for a beat, his heart racing before throwing it back at him. "Is that your son?"

Murdoch simply nodded.

Johnny leaned in a little as he saw his opportunity. "You must be soooo proud."

Murdoch frowned at the sarcastic tone and shook his head slowly. "I don't know. I never knew him. At least, I haven't known him since he was a baby."

Disappointed with the response and hoping for something more solid, Johnny stared intently at the man. "You're not gonna sit there and tell me you were willing to welcome a gunhawk into your home with open arms, are you?"

"I wanted to give him a chance at a better life. Yes, I wanted to welcome him home."

Johnny sighed and shook his head, fighting hard to keep his emotions neatly locked away but he couldn't stop the slight shaking in his voice when he next spoke. "What if he was just like Pardee?"

"He wasn't! I won't believe that!"

Eyes widening at the vehement response, Johnny stared at the man then, his anger grabbed hold. "Wouldn't be all that hard to find out but, you haven't even tried, have you? No, that would mean finding out the truth about your kid. Finding out he was just a gun for hire. Maybe, didn't have one lousy moral bone in his body. Maybe, finding out he was even worse than Pardee."

Padre Felipe could listen to no more of this. The pain he heard in Johnny's voice was too much. Did Senor Lancer hear it, too? "Or finding out he was better." He sat up and scowled at Johnny. "Either way, nino, it is up to Senor Lancer to decide how much he wants to know." Murdoch and Johnny both stared at him and he could only shrug. "Forgive me for intruding on your conversation."

Murdoch was unswayed by the interruption. "I do want to know but, you should surely know how hard it is to get information in those border towns. And I've been a little busy trying to deal with the loss of one son and getting to know the other one."

Johnny dipped his eyes then noticed the dawn was breaking and the rain had slowed down substantially in just this short time. He also noticed he was hot. He shucked the oversized plaid shirt happily. He had nothing to say to the old man's last comment anyway. "It's gettin light. I should head out soon," he said as he slowly got to his feet. The world was a little off kilter but he turned his back to them and closed his eyes for a moment.

*

He took two steps then found himself back on the ground, staring at someone's boots. He rolled onto his back and blinked as Murdoch knelt beside him. He rubbed a hand down his face then shook his head a little. "What happened?"

"El Campeón! Are you alright?" Padre Felipe was on his knees on Johnny's other side, a hand to the back of his neck for support. "Dios! Muy fiebre."

Murdoch found the priest's eyes drilling into his own and couldn't fathom why. It was as if the man expected him to do something. He saw the gunfighter trying to get up and took hold of his shoulder. He felt the heat coming off the young man then and gently pushed him back down. "That's not a good idea. You're running a good fever." Murdoch glanced around. "Let's move him back closer to the fire."

Felipe nodded and helped Murdoch carry Johnny under the make-shift lean-to. Once they settled him, the priest went for water.

Murdoch laid a hand on the young man's forehead and sighed then he untied the padre's robe belt from his arm. He took hold of the gunfighter's left sleeve and ripped it open.

"Hey!"

"Hush!" Murdoch admonished firmly.

Johnny looked wide-eyed at him but, he kept quiet, his eyes trained on Murdoch's every move until Felipe hurried back with a pan of water. He was surprised by all the fuss. Both of them busying themselves with who knew what while he laid there and looked back and forth between the two. Finally, he settled on Lancer who was looking hard at his left arm. Johnny swallowed dryly before asking. "How's it look?"

Murdoch met his gaze, searching for some sign of fear or worry but there was none in the deep blue eyes watching him. He let a hard breath out before answering. "Not good. It's swollen about twice normal. The infection has to come out. I'm going to have to cut it open." Again, he watched the young man as he appeared to comprehend what had been told.

Johnny thought about the problem and could see no other way so, he simply nodded his head. Murdoch moved away then and he watched the man head over to Scott. A soft sigh came from his lips as he rolled his head and looked skyward. "Reckon he has better things to do than bother with me." He felt Felipe grasp his right arm so he looked at the man.

"Tell him, Johnny. Tell him who you are now."

"Can't do that, Padre. Besides, he's too busy fussin over his kid."

Felipe ground his teeth and said a quick and silent prayer for strength. "Perhaps he knows he will be with you a while and wants to check on his son once more first? Is that not a reasonable assumption to make? Why must you always see the worst?"

Johnny laughed softly at that. "Because that's the most I see." He looked back at the slowly lightening sky and thought about his situation. He would've laughed his fool head off if he didn't feel so lousy. "I can't tell him now, anyway. If I don't make it, well, he already thinks I'm dead so no harm. And if he does give a damn, it wouldn't be fair to tell him right before he cuts into me."

The priest had to allow that last part was a good point. It would not be fair to Senor Lancer to make him do such a thing to his own son. Felipe believed he would still do so to save the boy's life but, he would perhaps not be as objective. "After then."

Johnny closed his eyes a moment, trying to hold his temper but the priest was wearing on his nerves and it was getting harder to be nice. When he did turn his head and look at Felipe, his eyes were cold as a glacier. "I'm not talking to you about this anymore, Padre. If I decide to talk to the man it will be in my own time and not because you keep hounding me about it. Now back off!"

*

"Still think he's a champion, Padre Felipe? It sounds to me like he needs his backside tanned." Murdoch stood a few feet away with a grim expression on his face.

"Any time you think you can get that done, old man, you just try it and see what happens," Johnny retorted.

"No, Senor Lancer. Perhaps, he is right. I have been 'hounding' him as he says and my timing could be better."

Johnny shook his head at the priest's patience. He knew he'd never met a man with more of that commodity and, of course, it worked. He felt guilty now. Plus the fact that Lancer was pissed and had a knife in his hand. He sighed and looked into the sad brown eyes. Reaching out, Johnny took hold of the man's arm and squeezed. "Lo siento, Padre. But you gotta back off me now, okay?"

"Si, I understand. You are too ill to talk of such things. We will make you better then, I will hound you."

Johnny laughed at that then grimaced as the numbness in his arm began to fade.

Murdoch didn't see his face. He smiled and wondered about this young man and his short fuse that spluttered out as quickly as it ignited. "Well, if everyone is ready, I'll heat the knife."

"Take your time," Johnny muttered and closed his eyes.

*

Scott frowned as he awoke. It took him a moment to remember what had happened then he recalled Murdoch telling him the gunfighter was sick and he'd be tending the man for awhile. Scott looked around and spied Murdoch and the priest hovered over the young man. Must be pretty serious. He rolled slowly onto his side then, gingerly rose up to rest on an elbow. A slight shiver coursed through him as he pushed the coverings off. It was chilly this morning. He had a hazy understanding that it had been raining all last night but, his moments of awareness were pretty limited. Mostly, he just remembered Murdoch being there each time he opened his eyes, offering the canteen and reassuring him. It had felt pretty nice, actually.

His headache was much better, just a dull throb now and there was hardly any dizziness. He smiled fleetingly at those good signs. He found a canteen beside him and took a few small sips. Feeling no nausea, he drank his fill and sighed out, sated. He wasn't so sleepy like before, either. Scott figured he was well on the mend and that the injury was, thankfully, not serious. Feeling rambunctious, he sat further up then slowly made it to his feet. He wobbled a little as he made his way to a nearby tree and leaned against it. Legs are weak but nothing I can't manage. I'll just rest a moment then see if I can help.

*

Murdoch hesitated with the glowing red blade hovering over the boy's swollen arm. He licked his lips then looked up to find the blue eyes watching him intently. "I need you to keep your arm perfectly still."

Johnny nodded and set his jaw but he never took his eyes off the man about to cause him even more pain. He pushed that thought away and concentrated on the moment. He saw Murdoch's hand move and closed his eyes, bracing himself.

Murdoch looked over to see the padre praying then the man crossed himself and took the gunfighter's right hand in his own. Murdoch saw the brown fingers curl around the priest's then he sliced through the young man's flesh. He expected to see a gush of blood but what he saw was infection mixed with a little blood. He shook his head, knowing he could cut no deeper yet. He laid the knife down and started expressing the pus with his hands.

Johnny was surprised he felt little pain as the knife hit his skin. It was hot but not unbearable. Then, Lancer was pushing on his arm and he couldn't stop a groan that leaked out between his tight lips.

Padre Felipe grimaced as Johnny squeezed his hand hard but he never faltered. He wiped the young man's sweaty brow and began whispering words of comfort in Spanish. He could hear Johnny's teeth grinding and he shook his head at the obstinance of men; too concerned with showing weakness to allow themselves the relief a simple scream would afford.

Murdoch prayed it would stop soon but the infection seemed to have pocketed mostly in one area. He thought that was a good thing considering but, it was costing this young man. He could see the corded muscles in the gunfighter's neck and the vein pulsing as it protruded. "I'm sorry, son," Murdoch whispered as he expressed the pus. The boy suddenly relaxed and he paused, looking hard at the man's chest.

"He is alright. I think he passed out," Felipe said.

Johnny moaned softly and his eyelashes fluttered.

"I wish he had passed out, Father. There's still more infection in there and if I don't get it all, this will have been for naught."

*

Johnny heard them talking, the voices sounding kind of far away. He'd heard something else before that, too. He'd heard his father call him son and for just a second, he thought Murdoch meant it. But, he knew that wasn't true and the knowledge made his heart skip and his chest tighten. He knew he'd made a noise, too. He didn't want them thinking he'd passed out from a little pain. Hell, it wasn't as bad as some he'd had. He forced his eyes open and looked at his boots but something wasn't right there and he blinked a few times. Eyes coming up, he saw Scott Lancer standing over him.

Murdoch watched the young man work through the pain and open his eyes. When he saw the look of surprise on the man's face, he turned his head. "Scott! What are you doing, son? Sit down before you fall down!"

Scott tore his eyes from the gunfighter's. "I'm alright now, Sir. A little headache is all. Can I help?"

"Si, Senor, by sitting down as your father asked. You do not look as well as you may feel." Felipe stood and went to Scott, taking his arm and guiding him to sit by Johnny's legs. "Por favor, one patient at a time?"

Scott smiled at the priest and acquiesced. "I didn't mean to interrupt. I'm fine, really, but I'll do as you ask. Just let me know if I can help."

Felipe nodded as he retook his place by Johnny. "Perhaps, you could hold his hand for me while your father continues? I'm afraid my fingers are numb."

"Sorry, Padre," Johnny muttered.

Felipe patted his arm. "No importante, el Campeón."

Scott scooted forward, feeling a little uncomfortable holding the hand of a stranger but he smiled at the gunfighter as he laid his hand over the younger man's. He felt the hand beneath his twitch but when he looked up, the man was watching Murdoch.

"How much more?" Johnny asked.

"A bit, I'm afraid. Do you need to rest more?"

Johnny shook his head. "No, just get it done and over with." After a beat, he added softly, "please."

Murdoch just nodded and went back to his job, concentration furrowing his brow.

Scott felt the hand twitch again then the fingers curled under his. He slid his hand beneath the gunfighter's and held on. He bit his lip when he felt the grasp strengthen. Damn, he's strong! It's a wonder he didn't break the priest's hand!

Johnny's entire body tensed and he focused all his efforts on not moving his left arm. The pain was getting worse now and he reckoned the old man was getting to the core of it. He wasn't sure he'd be able to take much more before well and truly passing out. It seemed hours had gone by when Murdoch finally released his arm. He blew out a breath and opened his clenched eyes only to find the man leaning low over his arm. Johnny cleared his throat and licked his lips. "How's it look now?"

Murdoch's head snapped up. "Don't you ever pass out? It looks like I got it mostly. There was a pocket of infection and that's good. Means it didn't spread into your blood as much. Still, you'll be sick for a while yet. I don't want to try and sew it up. It's best to let it drain until a doctor can look at it."

Johnny sighed and nodded. "Thanks but I won't need a doc. It'll heal up fine now."

"Yes, like it was going to heal up fine before? Do you have something against doctors, young man, or are you just that proud?"

Johnny raised his head up and opened his mouth then his eyes rolled back and his head hit the ground.

*

Felipe leaned over him for a moment then looked up. "He has passed out now, Senor. Perhaps that will make you happy?"

"No, Padre," Murdoch breathed out, "it doesn't make me happy. I just don't understand why he's so stubborn."

"You do not know him, Senor. It is hard to say what is in another man's heart, si? We cannot know another man's experiences."

Scott listened to it all with less patience than he normally had. "Can we stop discussing why he does what he does and just take care of the man? It's obvious he's still very ill. While you two are arguing the merits of his decisions, he's running a fever and that wound needs to be bandaged."

Both other men looked away, chagrined, then Murdoch took the gunfighter's saddlebags. "I think he said he had some extra bandages in here or something." He didn't really know that. He admitted as much to himself; that he hadn't really been listening to the man right after the accident. He was too worried about Scott to pay much attention. Murdoch paused as he opened the second flap and realized there wasn't much of anything in the bags. The gunfighter had already taken out the coffee and jerky he'd had, ready to share the meager supplies with the others. Aside from that, he didn't even have another shirt. Gun oil, ammunition and a small pouch Murdoch had no intentions of looking through were all that was left.

"I'll see what we have in our bags to make bandages from." He stood slowly, his legs numb by now, his strained knee stiff.

"Is there no more left from the stage supplies?" Felipe asked.

Murdoch glanced down at Scott then addressed the man. "No, it's all gone. I'm sure we have something that will work."

Felipe just nodded then stood himself. "I should get more water. You will stay with him, Senor Scott?"

Scott blinked, brought out of his thoughts by the sound of his name. "Of course," he mumbled then moved closer to the man's head once Felipe left. Murdoch had acted strangely when he was going through those saddlebags. Scott frowned, perplexed as to what his father was thinking. He reached over and took the saddlebags, looking through them quickly. Nothing. And, he realized, that's what had disturbed Murdoch. He shook his head slowly and turned his attention to the patient. Who was he? Scott found himself growing more curious about this young man, trying to understand his lifestyle but he knew he never could. Would never be able to understand what drove a man to such a life.

The gunfighter sighed softly and Scott leaned closer, touching his forehead and feeling the heat there. "I don't even know your name."

Murdoch returned with a shirt and started tearing it into strips. "Is he coming around?"

"I thought so but, I guess he was just settling. What's his name?"

Pausing, Murdoch frowned and shook his head. "I don't know. All I know is what the padre calls him. The champion."

Scott snorted at that. "I can just imagine what he's the champion of."

Murdoch had no reply to that though something told him Scott was wrong in a way. There was something about this young man that intrigued him. Whether it was because he looked like Johnny may have as a grown man or the way his mood changed in a flash, he couldn't say. It seemed he could be caring and selfless one minute, angry and cold the next. What triggered the changes was anyone's guess. But Murdoch couldn't believe the resemblance to Maria. The long eyelashes, a certain gesture or phrase all gave the rancher pause. Of course, his head told him his son was gone, cut down before he'd ever had a chance to really live. Still, his heart was having a much harder time accepting that truth.

The priest returned with the water and Murdoch went about cleaning and bandaging the wound as Felipe tried to cool the young man's forehead.

*

Padre Felipe sat next to his young charge for that was how he'd come to see Madrid. His fever was still much too high and he was restless at best, mumbling something the priest couldn't understand. He heard someone walk up behind him and turned to find Murdoch Lancer standing there. "He is no better, I'm afraid."

"Get some rest, Father. Scott's doing fine and I can sit with him," Murdoch said as he knelt down.

"You could not have rested much, either."

The rancher smiled a little. "We could debate who is more tired but I think it would be wiser to just go lie down a while."

Felipe chuckled a little at that. "I see why you are a successful man, Senor. Very well, I will rest then, you will rest, si?"

"Si, Padre, si." Murdoch took his place beside the gunfighter as the priest made his way around the fire. He felt the young man's forehead and shook his own head. "Well, we're a sight, aren't we? I was thinking now that Scott seems to be recovering well, I'd head out to find help. Now, I'm not so sure I shouldn't stay and help the Father. I could use your input, young man." He sighed to himself and wondered if he wasn't overly tired. Talking to an unconscious man, asking a gunfighter's opinion, it was all too insane.

Murdoch watched the man become restless again and start muttering. He leaned in close but the words were too slurred to understand until he heard a part of it. "Por que mentira, Mama? Por que?"

He pulled back and stared at the young man, sadness enveloping him. What kind of life had this boy had that he'd think his mother had lied to him? He took up the piece of shirt the priest had been using to cool the gunfighter's forehead and dipped it in the pan. "It's alright now. You're going to be fine," he whispered as he washed the man's face.

Johnny felt the cool cloth and heard someone talking but he didn't understand why or where he was. His eyes flew open with that realization, his arm coming up to bat the hand away.

"Easy, boy!" Murdoch grabbed his right arm and held it down to his side. "It's me, Lancer. Just take it easy. You're running a fever."

Eyes focusing, Johnny looked up at the man and frowned then nodded his head and felt the pressure on his arm relax. "I'm okay," he whispered.

"You're far from okay. You've been pretty sick."

He sighed and licked his lips. "I meant, I know who you are. I was just a little out of it at first."

Murdoch nodded and grabbed the canteen, helped him drink then wiped the sweat from his brow. "Well, maybe all that moving around helped. You're sweating so maybe the fever is breaking."

"That's good." He sighed out and closed his eyes. The last thing he wanted was to talk to this man.

Murdoch watched him. Knowing he was tired gave him pause but he decided to plunge in. "I was thinking of starting out for the waystation now that the rain has stopped."

Johnny opened his eyes and looked at the man. "Probably the best thing."

"I hate to leave everyone with you and Scott down."

"He's doin better, right? I mean, he ain't gonna die while you're gone. I'm sure the padre can pray us up some food."

Murdoch smiled at that. "I think that turkey will last one more day. Well, I'll let you rest." He started to get up then stopped when he felt the iron grip on his arm. He met the gunfighter's eyes with a raised brow.

"Be careful. There's highwaymen everywhere you go these days."

Murdoch slumped back and shook his head. "Just when I think you don't give a damn about anything or anyone, you say something like that."

Johnny dipped his eyes and swallowed hard. "Yeah, well, if you get yourself killed, I'll be stuck here with a priest and a dandy. Ain't much hope for me then."

The rancher rolled his eyes. "Right, that must be the reason." He shook his head and got to his feet. He turned and paused then looked back at the young man. His eyes were closed and Murdoch sighed lightly.

*

Johnny awoke slowly and carefully, allowing himself to think first this time. It all came to him quickly and he remembered his earlier confusion. He opened his eyes and found Felipe watching him, canteen at the ready. Johnny smiled a little at the man and accepted the cold water gratefully.

"Senor Lancer will be leaving very soon."

"He told me." Johnny saw the expectant look in those penetrating brown eyes. "That's all we talked about and don't you start on me now. We need to get out of this mess, Padre."

"And then what will be the excuse?"

Johnny raised his brows at the harsh voice then, his face turned to stone. "I don't need an excuse or to explain anything to you. Don't expect anything from me, Padre. It only leads to disappointment."

Felipe shook his head at the stubborn man. "I do not believe that, mio hijo."

Johnny pulled himself to a half-sitting position, propped up on his elbow. His head swam a little but it passed quickly enough. "Not my problem what you believe. You gonna give him that canteen?"

"He would not take it."

Johnny looked up at the man with that then he looked around the camp. Lancer was talking to Scott who was sitting against a tree trunk. "How's he doin?"

"Better but still a little dizzy. He says his headache is much better, though."

He nodded then sniffed the air. "That's not turkey."

Felipe laughed a little. "Senor Lancer caught fish this morning. I'm not sure he slept at all."

Johnny didn't like the sound of that and he looked back over at the two men. Scott had a frown on his face and he seemed to be arguing a little with the old man. Must not think him going for help was such a good idea. "Lancer!"

"Madre de Dios, el Campeón!" Felipe got up, shaking his head at the man's loudness as he walked away.

*

Murdoch looked at him with a deep frown then walked over. "What is it?"

"Padre says you won't take the canteen and I know you didn't sleep much last night."

Kneeling beside the young man, Murdoch shrugged. "I'm fine. I've gone with little sleep many times in my life. And, you're all going to need that canteen."

"We have the pan. You can't walk twenty miles with no water. Now that the sun's out it's gonna get hotter as the day goes on, ya know."

Murdoch's lips twitched. "And if I fall over, you're stuck here with a priest and a dandy?"

A crooked grin slid up Johnny's face. "That's right, old man."

"Well, I just got a similar lecture from my son. I can only hope his concern was for me as much as himself."

Johnny laid back down. His eyes were starting to jump around in his head. "Don't be so sure. He probably don't want to be stuck here with a priest and a gunhawk."

Murdoch reached out and tested his forehead. The boy jerked a little at the touch but he wasn't deterred. "I think that fever is rising again. You're warmer. Maybe, I shouldn't go."

Johnny looked at him like he was crazy. "Right. Just hang around here and let me die. There's a plan."

"Dear God, you are exasperating!"

A cheeky grin came to his face. "I know. Take the canteen, stay on the side of the road and in the shade as much as you can. Stop every hour and rest for ten minutes and ..."

"Do you think I've never been stuck out in the middle of nowhere before, boy? I've managed to survive a lot longer than you've been on this earth. I know what I'm doing."

Johnny stared at the grouchy man then shrugged. "Then, what are ya hanging around here for? And don't call me boy."

Murdoch actually growled then grabbed the canteen and walked away before he did something he probably would not regret, like tan that boy's hide. Audacious! That was the word. And, he still didn't know the man's name. He glanced over and saw Scott smiling at him like he'd heard every word. Maybe he had. "Padre, I'm going now. I'll be back as soon as I can. If that one," he tossed his head behind him, "gets too much, hit him over the head with that pot!"

Felipe laughed aloud at that. "Of course, Senor, but I'm sure we will be fine. Be careful and Godspeed."

Murdoch nodded, not as confident as the priest but, he waved at Scott and climbed the hill, disappearing down the trail.

*

Scott watched the gunfighter for a while then decided he could get up. Slowly he made it to his feet, pleased when the world didn't tilt. He walked toward the campfire slowly, testing his fortitude and finding he really did feel much better. His stomach did, certainly, as it growled for food. He walked up behind Padre Felipe and watched the man's fingers pulling the turkey from the bone.

"Senor Scott, you must feel better and you must be hungry. Sit, there is plenty of food."

"Thank you, Father." Scott sat beside the man and took the tin plate of meat offered. "How's your friend?"

Felipe glanced over at Johnny and sighed. "Not well. The fever continues to rise. His arm is not as swollen but it is red and still draining." He looked at Scott and smiled a little. "Forgive me. That is not a suitable topic for dinner, is it?"

"It's fine. I have a strong stomach. Do you think he's going to make it?"

The priest hung his head, somehow more saddened by Scott's apparent apathy than Johnny's condition, which was dire in his opinion. "Do you always speak so casually about men's lives, Senor?"

Scott paused, handful of turkey halfway to his mouth and dropped his hand back to the plate. "I'm sorry, Padre, but I don't know him and he isn't the most social being I've ever met. And, he's a gunfighter."

Felipe's head came up and he scowled. "Why does that matter? He is still a human being, Senor. Just because you do not approve of how he makes a living does not mean his life is worthless. Far from it."

Scott sat the plate down and, lacking anything else, he wiped his hands on his pants. "Look, I don't want him to die. But, what I've seen of gunfighters ..."

"You have seen many gunfighters, have you?"

"Just one but it was enough. His name was Pardee and he was an animal."

"I did not know of him but I do know of this one and he is nothing like what you have experienced. Of that I would stake my life."

Scott raised his brows at that proclamation. "You have strong feelings for a man you don't personally know. I can only assume you've been told good things about him."

Felipe smiled sadly. "You think I only know the good he has done. No, Senor, I know much more than that. I suppose my ability for forgiveness is greater than most men. Still," he looked over at Johnny and shook his head slowly, "I meant every word I have said. Perhaps, if you were to make more of an effort?"

Scott was taken aback by that suggestion. "I'll probably never see the man again, Father."

"We can never know for certain, Senor. If you will excuse me, my turkey broth is ready."

Scott watched the man pour a cup of broth from the pot and go to the sick man. At the moment, he was more curious why a priest was so adamantly defending a gunfighter than about the gunfighter himself.

*

Felipe knelt and felt Johnny's head, his eyes widening at the heat. "Senor Scott! Por favor, your assistance."

Scott dropped his plate and rushed to the gunfighter's side. "What is it?"

"He is burning up. Much worse than before. There is no sweating." All the while he spoke, Felipe was unwrapping the bandage, now too tight, from Johnny's arm. "His arm is more swollen now. Dios, por favor, no lo tome cuando èl es asï que cercano a tener se familia."

(Please, God, do not take him when he is so close to having his family.)

Scott looked at the priest but decided now wasn't the time for a Spanish lesson. Besides, it sounded like a prayer. He wet the cloth and started bathing the young man, pulling the blanket back in an effort to cool his skin. He shook his head, it wasn't enough. He unbuttoned the red shirt and pushed it back then froze as he stared at the man's torso. It was covered in old scars from bullet wounds, stab wounds, and some he wasn't sure of. "Dear God," he whispered.

Felipe looked over and paused then looked at Scott sorrowfully. "Is he still not worth your time, Senor? One who has suffered so much in such a short time?"

Scott said nothing. He closed his eyes briefly then focused on the task at hand. He began unbuckling the gun belt and felt an iron grip on his wrist. He jerked his head around to find the ice blue eyes glaring at him. "You're on fire. We need to get you cooled down. I'm just trying to get some air on your skin."

Johnny watched the man for a beat but he never released Scott's wrist. He shook his head and in a raspy voice, said, "leave it."

"Do not argue with him, Senor Scott." Felipe laid a hand on Johnny's chest and waited until the man turned to look at him. "Your boots, perhaps?"

"No!"

The padre patted his chest and nodded. "Si, I understand, el Campeón. We will do what we can, my son."

Johnny nodded, tried to show his appreciation to the priest with a smile then, he turned and looked back at Scott.

"Mind letting go of my wrist now?"

He barked a laugh and released the man. "Sorry, but you just don't start undressing a man when he's asleep."

Scott raised a brow. "Asleep? Nice euphemism for unconscious."

Johnny frowned. "I don't know what a euphemism is but I wasn't unconscious or I wouldn't have felt you trying to take my clothes off, now would I?"

Felipe chuckled. They sounded like bickering siblings. He shook his head and wished they *both* knew that was exactly the case.

Scott pulled a face then went back to trying to bathe down what he could of the man's body. "I would think you'd be more open to some help since you appear to be ready to burst into flames at any moment."

Johnny grinned at that. "Don't mind the help. Just don't want to be naked for it."

Scott stopped and looked at him incredulously. "I wasn't going to strip you, for heaven's sake!"

With a shrug of his right shoulder, Johnny replied, "you were tryin to take my gun. Same thing."

"Gentlemen, all this arguing is not helping. Por favor, let us do what needs to be done now. You are very sick, my boy."

"I know, Padre."

The surety of the man's voice caused Scott to look intently at him though he could only see his profile now.

Johnny looked at the priest pointedly. "Only if I die, comprende?"

Felipe opened his mouth then closed it. A look of pure fury crossed his face but, he nodded his understanding. Still, he couldn't help muttering, "obstinado."

*

Scott shook his head, clueless to what they were going on about. It wasn't his business but, for some reason, he wished his father were here right now. A moment later, he wondered if his head injury was worse than he'd thought. He could swear he heard Murdoch calling his name but that couldn't be. He'd only been gone a few hours. He looked over at Felipe and knew he wasn't crazy. The priest had heard something, too.

Both men looked up at the hillside and watched Murdoch walk hurriedly over and down the slope. Scott got to his feet and smiled widely. "Sir, that was fast!"

Murdoch had a smile on his face as he walked toward his son. "I found a search party. Well, the stationmaster, anyway. He was out hunting. He's gone for a wagon." He looked down at the gunfighter and the smile fell from his face.

"His fever has climbed, Senor. He is not doing well," Felipe reported.

Murdoch knelt beside the young man and felt his cheek. "Dear Lord! Why, he's burning up!" He took a deep breath. "Alright, as soon as Ted gets back we'll get him to the way station. We can send for a doctor from there."

Johnny opened his eyes, surprised the old man was back. "What happened?"

Murdoch looked down at the sound of the whispery voice and leaned closer. "I found the stationmaster out hunting. He's gone for a wagon and we're going to get you to shelter then get you a doctor. Just hang on until then, okay?"

"Yeah, sure. Thanks." Johnny sighed out and closed his eyes, pretty sure he wasn't going to make it until they found a doc out here in the middle of nowhere. Well, he'd always known it. Still, to go out like this, it was kind of embarrassing. A smile ghosted across his face then, he let the darkness come.

*

He was in a bed. Not the best in the word but it was a sight better than the hard ground. Where, was the question. Slowly, he let himself become aware. His left arm hurt but he didn't think it was as bad as before. He cracked his eyes open a little and took a look around then he remembered. The way station. That must be where he was. With his father of all people. Someone was here, too, in the room. He could feel it. He turned his head to find Padre Felipe with his head bowed and his fingers rubbing the cross around his neck. Praying again. He sighed softly and waited for the man to finish. Finally, Felipe made the sign of the cross and raised his head. "I bet God gets tired of hearin from you, Padre."

Felipe leaned forward, a small smile on his face. "He has not said as much. Perhaps, if he gets annoyed enough, he will answer my prayers as he just did by having you awaken."

Johnny rolled his eyes. "So, am I dyin?"

The smile faded from the priest's face. "The fever was very high and we thought perhaps we could lose you but, it broke last night. I believe you are on your way to a full recovery."

A smile graced Johnny's lips. "God tell you that?"

Felipe pulled a face then he grew somber. He poured a glass of water and helped Johnny drink his fill then leaned forward, placing a hand on Johnny's right arm. "The doctor told me. Senor Lancer and Scott are leaving on the stage very soon. Will you not talk to him now?"

His eyes widened at the news then, he frowned as a thought occurred to him. "How long have I been out?"

"Two days. Senor Lancer stayed to help but now, he says they must return home."

"So, let him go."

"Johnny," Felipe whispered fervently, "how can you say that? He stayed here when he did not have to. There was another stage yesterday morning but he did not go then."

"Padre, he doesn't know who I am. He was just being nice. Look, if he did throw Mama and me out then, I want nothing to do with him. If he didn't and she lied, well I'll have to deal with that. But, that means he really is a good man and he doesn't deserve a son like me. He's got Scott with all his education and manners. That's enough."

"Dios, por favor," Felipe said, eyes cast heavenward. He looked down at Johnny as he would look at a misbehaving child. "A man has two sons and one dies. Everyone says to him, at least you still have one left. The man says his pain and grief are no less than if his only child had died and that one son cannot replace the other. This is what Murdoch Lancer lives with. Pain and grief over a son who is not dead, who is right here within his reach but who refuses to acknowledge his own self-worth. Johnny, it is not up to you to say why one person loves another or even if that person is deserving. What the other feels is all that matters. Do you not see?"

Johnny sighed lightly and shook his head. "I get what you're saying, Padre. The thing is, I'm a gunfighter so that changes your rules."

"Hogwash! As the gringos say. You are taking his choice away from him. Or, perhaps you are afraid he will make that choice? That he will not want you after all? You are wrong, nino. So very wrong. I have talked with this man, I have seen his grief. It consumes him at times when he allows. Scott is a blessing to him but, he cannot forget the child he lost. No man could ever forget a lost child. He will mourn you the rest of his life. How can you do that to him?"

Johnny frowned deeply, partly because he couldn't quite believe the padre's words and partly because he could believe them. He didn't know which to listen to and he turned his head away from the man.

*

Felipe shook his head sadly when Johnny turned from him. How could he get the young man to understand? His head came up when the door opened. Murdoch Lancer walked in and hope sprung in the priest's heart.

Johnny stared blankly at Lancer. Schooling himself as he had to have no reaction to much of anything, he thought it was high time he got back into that habit. He was able to maintain the nonchalant facade but, it was a struggle, he'd admit only to himself.

Murdoch nodded at Felipe then focused on the gunfighter. "The stage just pulled up. We'll be leaving in a few minutes. I just wanted to wish you luck and thank you again for your help, young man."

"De nada," Johnny said then swallowed hard at the sudden lump in his throat.

"You're feeling better?"

"Yeah," he cleared his throat, "yeah, much better now, thanks. Hope you have a better trip this time."

Murdoch chuckled a little at that. "So do I. I, um, I never did get your name."

Johnny dipped his eyes briefly then looked back up at the man. "Better that way, I reckon. Vaya con dios."

Just then, Pete, the stagecoach driver walked into the room. "We're ready to go, Mr. Lancer. Scott's already aboard so ya best ..." he faltered as he looked at the man in the bed. "Uh, well, we're ready when you are," he finished then hurried from the room.

Murdoch frowned at the odd behavior then turned back and nodded. "Vaya con dios." He started toward the door then stopped and turned to Felipe. "Goodbye, Padre. It was a pleasure even under the circumstances."

"Si, Senor. It was my pleasure as well to have known you. I will pray for your safe journey home."

Johnny grinned at that. "Well, that puts it in the bank. Seems the padre has a direct line to God."

"Not always, nino. Not always."

He heard the sadness in the priest's voice and shook his head a little.

Murdoch was a little confused by the conversation but, he also knew there was a lot going on between these two men. "Well, goodbye."

*

Johnny made it out of bed later that afternoon. Felipe had left his room soon after the old man and hadn't come back. He figured he'd made the padre mad at him but, he couldn't help that. It was better this way. Better for Murdoch and Scott and, probably for him, too. He was pretty sure he couldn't handle being a cowboy and he knew he would never fit into a family. Never had any experience with that so, he was sure he'd ruin it. Better the old man do his grieving for the son he imagined than to know the truth of Johnny Madrid.

Still, he'd sent for him knowing who his son was. Probably because he didn't know the whole story. Yeah, Johnny was sure that was the reason. Anyways, now he could get on his own way, head back to Mexico and finally get some decent food. He smiled a little at that. Damned near died and all I can think of is jalapenos and tamales. But there were other, more important reasons he needed to get home.

It took quite a while to get dressed but he managed and now, as he sat in the chair by the bed he'd occupied, he noticed his shirt had been washed and mended. The padre, he supposed. Maybe he prayed for a needle and thread. A heavy sigh pushed through his lips. He scrubbed his face with his hands and wondered what to do now. He should go talk to the stationmaster and see when the next stage was coming in. At this point, he didn't really care where it was going as long as it wasn't north. Hopefully, they'd be offering a free ticket since he never got his full ride. His funds were pretty low and he wasn't so sure he could make it back otherwise. Might have to find a job. Maybe Lancer needed a hired gun. He snorted at that ridiculous thought then slowly got to his feet.

Damn! Still weak as a kitten. He stood still for a moment until the dizziness passed then, made his way out the door and easily found the big front room. A long table with benches on each side sat in the middle of the room, a stove and pantry against the back wall and a good sized hearth at the other end of the room with two overstuffed chairs was the extent of the furnishings. Something was cooking in a big pot on the stove and it smelled pretty good. His stomach rumbled a little and he was grateful to have his appetite back. Johnny headed for the front door, intent on getting some sun on his face first and foremost.

He looked around the familiar surroundings but saw no one about so he walked around the back, figuring someone had to be somewhere around this place and that's where he found Padre Felipe on his knees weeding a garden. A smile lit Johnny's face as he leaned against the structure and crossed his arms over his chest.

The tall, thin stationmaster rounded the other side of the building and pulled up short, surprise registering on his face when he saw the young man. He nodded and Johnny nodded back then jutted his chin toward the padre. "We have to earn our keep, I guess."

Ted laughed a little at that then scratched under his floppy brown hat. "Don't know about that but, the padree said he needed to work with his hands. Seems kinda upset about somethin."

Johnny sighed and lowered his head.

"Yeah, I figgered it was you."

His head came up and he saw the man smiling. "Reckon so."

"Well, can't please everybody, I always say. Sometimes, folks' good intentions can smother a man."

"Amen," Johnny smiled, somehow pleased the man didn't seem so afraid of him anymore. He supposed that was because he didn't have to worry about slipping up and saying his name now the Lancers were gone. "Well, maybe if I lend him a hand, he won't be so prickly."

The skinny man stepped in front of him as he pushed off the building. "Oh, I dunno about that. You just got over almost dyin. Might wanna take it easy, Mr. Madrid."

Johnny shrugged at that. "I'm alright. Well, reckon I should try to atone for my sins now." He stepped around the man and headed into the garden, careful of the crops.

*

"You must be feeling better."

Johnny stood behind Felipe and smiled. "Si, Padre. Much better. Reckon it's time to be moving on with the next stage."

Felipe nodded and sat back, dusting his hands together. "Si, for me as well." He turned at the waist and looked up at the young man. "If you think you can tolerate traveling with me again, of course."

Johnny hunkered down and sighed. "I'd be honored, Padre. You know, just because I don't agree with you doesn't mean we can't get along."

The older man nodded his head. "Forgive me, my son. I only want for you to be at peace. The thought of what you are going back to frightens me, I will admit."

Johnny reached down and picked up a clump of dirt, breaking it apart and letting it sift through his fingers. "It's what I do."

"If it is what you want, I will speak no further. Somehow, I do not believe that, however."

A grin spread across Johnny's face as he wiped his hand on his pant leg and stood up. "If I say it is, will you hush?" He extended a hand to the padre and helped him to his feet.


Felipe grunted as he got his feet under him. "Only if I believe you."

"I can be very convincing."

"I have heard that about you. Still, would you lie to a priest?"

"Been known to."

Felipe smacked him in the stomach and walked away, shaking his head and muttering under his breath. He heard an honest laugh from behind him and smiled despite himself.

*

Murdoch stretched his back as his feet hit the boardwalk in front of the Morro Coyo stage depot. He turned to find Scott nearly mimicking him and smiled. "Well, at least we stayed on the road."

"Yes, that's always a plus," Scott replied wryly. "I'll be very glad to get into a nice hot tub."

"Here ya go, Mr. Lancer!"

Murdoch looked atop the stage and extended his arms to catch the bag the driver was tossing down. Soon, he was thrown a second one. He set it next to the first as Scott went to lend the driver a hand down to the street.

Pete nodded. "Thanks, Scott. Bet you two are real happy to be home."

"Pete, no truer words were ever spoken," Murdoch smiled.

The driver nodded and grinned. "Bet you're even more glad to be shed of Johnny Madrid."

Murdoch's face darkened into a deep scowl. "What is that supposed to mean?"

Pete took a step back, eyes wide at the reaction. "Didn't mean nothin by it. Just that travelin with a gunhawk like Madrid couldn't've been real comfortable. Then, to get stuck out there with his like. Hope he wasn't too ornery."

Scott turned and looked at his father, his face a mask of confusion. He watched Murdoch's expression fall then his face paled.

Murdoch stepped up to Pete and grabbed his arm. "Are you saying that gunfighter was Johnny Madrid? That can't be. He's dead!"

Pete shook his head. "No, Sir. He ain't dead. That was Johnny Madrid, I'd stake my life on it. I done seen him in action twice and I ain't likely to forget the look of 'im. Sorry, thought ya knew."

Murdoch just stared at the man, trying to let the words sink in. "Are you sure, Pete? Absolutely sure?"

"Yes, Sir. A hundred percent sure. That was Johnny Madrid. Ain't another pistolero like 'im I ever seen." Pete waited a second then, hoping Murdoch was done with him, he eased out of the man's loosened grasp and fled inside the stage depot.

*

Scott watched his father, concerned by the look of pure shock on his face. He reached out and laid a hand on Murdoch's arm. "Sir?"

Murdoch blinked then looked at his son. "Dear God, Scott. That was Johnny! Go get us a couple of horses from the livery. I'll get supplies..."

"Wait! Just wait a minute," Scott interrupted.

"We can't afford to wait, Scott. He may already be on another stage. We have to go now or we'll lose him!"

"Murdoch, you need to think about this. He made a concerted effort to keep his identity from us. Why do you think he did that?" At the blank look on his father's face, Scott continued. "He knows who you are. He knows you're his father and he chose not to say a word. He didn't want to know you."

"Scott, I can't just let him leave. I have to at least talk to him. If he wants nothing to do with me, I want to know why."

"And then what, Sir? Bring him back here?"

"Of course!"

Scott sighed and turned aside, his head bowed for a moment. "I'm not sure that's such a good idea."

Murdoch watched his profile and shook his head slowly. "When I told you about your brother, you agreed he deserved a chance at a different life. Did you only say that because you knew there was no chance of it happening?"

Scott turned sharply to face him, his expression hard. "He's a gunfighter."

"I know that, son. But, he helped me with you. He thought of your care above his own needs. He shared what little he had with us without being asked and he kept going long after he should have fallen over from that infection. Every time I talked to him, he asked how you were doing. He could have walked away before he got sick. He could have left us all there to rot but, he didn't. Does that sound like a Pardee to you?" Murdoch watched the effect his words had on his son. He could see Scott was considering what he'd heard. "If a priest can have such respect for him, how can I turn my back? We have to give him a chance, Scott. You see that, don't you, son?"

Scott closed his eyes then nodded. "I didn't know all that. Yes, Sir. I see. I'll get the horses."

*

Johnny wasn't in the best mood the next morning. There would be no stage today. He stood on the porch and stretched then rolled his shoulders. He'd always healed fast and this was taking longer than it should. Still, his arm looked really good this morning. What he really wanted was ... the front door opened and Ted walked out.

"Mornin, Mr. Madrid."

He sighed. The man was three times his age if he was a day. Calling him 'mister' was crazy. "It's Johnny, Ted. Just Johnny. I don't suppose you have someplace to take a bath?"

The man screwed up his face as if Johnny had asked the strangest question. "Well, there's a lake over the hill out back and it's got a nice waterfall. You can stand right under it cause it's a real easy one. Sorta relaxin. I like to go out there on hot days like this sometimes."

Johnny smiled and tried not to laugh thinking Ted should take that trip more than 'sometimes'. "Thanks. I think I'll head on over there then. Feelin a little gritty after all the tumblin around."

"Oh, hey, that reminds me. Your stage ride is free, o' course. The padree's too. Stage line really hates what happened and all." Ted's face went sad and he sighed softly.

"The drivers were your friends, huh? I'm sorry, Ted. I didn't get to know them but I'm sure they were good men."

"Oh, they were, Mist ... er, Johnny, they were fine men." He screwed his face up again as he regarded the young man. "Ya know somethin? You ain't bad like folks say. You're a real nice young feller."

Johnny did laugh then and patted the man's arm. "I can be. Thanks."

*

He stood under the waterfall in all his glory and thought it was the softest water he'd ever felt. It fell onto his shoulders with just enough force to practically massage them. Johnny sighed as he started rubbing the soap over his body. He knew he stunk like a dead animal and he couldn't figure out how the padre managed not to. Well, he supposed the man did have access to soap and water when he hadn't, being so sick. All that sweating and just plain not bathing had him hating being around himself. He laughed aloud at that thought as he tried to reach as much of his back as he could.

He really needed to get some supplies. Hell, he didn't even have a spare shirt. A simple rag would be great about now. Well, nothing for it. He finished soaping up, the water rinsing the lather away almost instantly. He leaned his head back a little and rubbed the soap in his scalp, scrubbing hard. Damn, that felt good!

He stayed under the waterfall as long as he could; until it started to feel a little cold and his fingers pruned. He smiled as he carefully made his way to the bank. At least his clothes had already been washed. He never had thanked the padre for that. Too much on his mind for simple courtesy. He shook his head. No excuse, none at all. As he lay down in the grass to let the sun dry him, he vowed to thank the man as soon as he got back to the way station. He'd already decided to do what he could to help the padre's parish. Next job he got, that is.

Johnny awoke with a start. Son of a ... he'd fallen asleep! Out here in the middle of nothing and as naked as the day he was born, he'd fallen asleep. He sat up and looked around, suddenly all too conscious of his surroundings. A grin lit his face. Sure would be embarrassing to get caught with his pants *off*. A soft laugh followed as he got to his feet and started dressing. Well, he was surely dry now, even his hair was only a little damp which was a good thing, he was sure. He smoothed it down then walked to the water's edge, using the surface for a mirror.

Well, he didn't look too terrible, he reckoned. His hair wasn't sticking straight up anyway. He laughed again then headed back.

*

Murdoch pulled back on the reins and came to a stop. Scott went on a few feet before realizing it then, he, too pulled up and circled around to go back to his father.

"We shouldn't ride in fast. We don't want to alarm anyone," Murdoch explained.

"You mean we don't want to get shot before we ever dismount?"

Giving his son a sidelong glance, Murdoch simply said, "Scott."

The younger man smiled and shrugged then pressed his mount into a walk, his father falling into step beside him. "Do you think bringing the extra horse is presuming too much?"

"Maybe but, if I can get him to come home, I don't want to have to wait on a stage."

Scott nodded, fairly certain Johnny would not be coming back on that horse or by any other means. The man obviously wanted nothing to do with his sire. While Scott understood on one hand, he didn't on the other. He'd not wanted anything to do with Murdoch for most of his life, either. Things change and he had to wonder if Johnny Madrid could change. It worried him a great deal. He couldn't get Pardee and his actions out of his head. He wondered if it would ever go away. The sight of Gaspar hanging fron his ankles over his own barn and his wife ... Scott felt a shiver go down his spine at what those animals had done to the poor woman. That was what he knew of gunfighters. He let out a long breath and glanced at his father.

They walked the horses into the yard and dismounted by the corral, tying off the mounts. Murdoch pulled his shoulders back and set his jaw. Scott almost laughed. He looked like he was about to go into battle. He supposed in a way, the man was doing just that.

They were almost to the porch when the door opened and Ted stepped out with a pan of water.

"Well! Never expected to see you gentlemen back this way. Did ya forget somethin?"

"Yes," Murdoch said firmly, "we surely did." Before he could ask, Padre Felipe walked out.

The priest hesitated then walked forward, fighting back a smile. He bowed his head slightly. "What brings you back, Senor Lancer?"

Murdoch thought he heard a lot of hope in that voice. "My son, Padre. Where is he?"

Felipe's smile burst forth. "At the moment, he is at the river bathing but, he has been gone a while. He should be back soon."

"He shouldn't be out there alone, Padre. He's been too ill," Murdoch protested.

"He is surprisingly well now, Senor. And, if there is one thing I know for certain, he is muy obstinado."

Scott stepped forward. "Why didn't you tell us, Father? You knew who he was from the moment you saw him."

Felipe clasped his hands in front of him. "I am sorry, Scott. I could not. I promised him I would not reveal his identity. I did not agree with his decision but, I did promise."

"But ..."

"Scott," Murdoch started, placing a hand on his son's arm, "Padre Felipe can't divulge any confidence. You know that." He turned back to the priest. "Can you tell me why he hid who he is from me?"

Felipe shook his head. "I cannot say, Senor. You must ask him yourself. I can say this. Be firm but do not try to order him to tell you anything. Do not ... how do you say? Beat him over the head with your questions? He will respond badly."

*

Johnny pulled up before rounding the corner of the building. He spied the three horses tethered at the corral and eased forward, peeking around the corner. He pulled his head back, shocked to see his father again. What the hell was he doing here? He leaned in again to listen and heard Murdoch ask the padre why he hid from him. The response from the priest made him smile a little. Well, somebody told him, that was plain. Must've been the stagecoach driver. Johnny hadn't seen anyone else or, didn't remember it if he had. He reckoned he'd have to face them now. He wasn't about to skulk around and he was tired of watching everything he said. He stepped around the corner and stood there a moment before speaking softly. "You two didn't get enough of this place the first two times around?"

Murdoch turned quickly toward the voice, a smile threatened to erupt from his lips as he took the young man in. Why hadn't he seen it before? It was so obvious now. Well, maybe because you thought he was dead, fool! He walked slowly to Johnny and stood in front of him, simply looking him over head to toe.

Johnny felt uncomfortable as hell under that stare. What's he doin, sizin me up for auction? He sighed loudly. "Seen enough yet?"

Slowly shaking his head, Murdoch answered. "No, son. Not by a long shot." He stood there a beat longer before saying it. "Johnny."

His heart started racing the way the old man said his name like it was some precious word. And the way he'd said 'son' like he couldn't believe how lucky he was or how happy he was or whatever it was. He didn't know what to say to the man so he said nothing and looked away. Finally, he couldn't take standing there any longer. "Well, reckon we should go inside now."

Murdoch just nodded and stepped aside, letting Johnny take the lead and hoping the boy would actually talk to him. He seemed skittish as a new colt and Murdoch knew that wasn't this man's normal demeanor. Somehow, it gave him hope.

Johnny walked quickly toward the door, slowing his gait substantially when he came alongside Scott. He caught the man's stare and shook his head. "Dandy," he said and smiled then, walked inside.

Scott rolled his eyes and waited for Murdoch before following.

*

Johnny grabbed three cups and the coffee pot then settled at the table. He looked up at the two men staring at him. "Well, you want some or not?"

Murdoch walked over and sat across the table from him then glanced back at Scott. After a brief hesitation, the younger man came over to join them.

Johnny poured coffee all around then took a sip of his own. "Go ahead."

Scott's temper had been edging forward and now, it was up front and center. "Go ahead? That's it? Just go ahead? How about we start with why you kept your identity from us? You knew Murdoch thought you were dead."

Initially amused by the man's outburst, Johnny's face fell as did his eyes with the last sentence. He shrugged and said simply, "better that way."

"Better for who, Johnny? Not for me," Murdoch interjected.

He looked up and met the old man's eyes. "Yeah, better for you, better for him, better for me, too, probably."

"How long have you known I'm your father?"

"All my life. And you want to know why I never came visiting, right?" He sighed and glanced over at Scott. "It's kind of personal."

"You want me to leave, I take it. That's fine." Scott got to his feet. "Excuse me."

Johnny raised a brow at the man's exit then smiled ruefully. "I bet he wants me as far from Lancer as I can get."

Murdoch was aggravated with Scott but, right now, he needed to focus on this son. "Forget about Scott for just a moment and tell me why, Johnny."

He took another drink of coffee then said blithely, "was told you tossed Mama to the curb and me, too." He watched in fascination as Murdoch's hands clenched the table's edge, the knuckles turning white. He looked up at the stony face.

"That is a lie! She left, simply left without a word and in the middle of the night! I searched for months until I couldn't go on any longer." Murdoch stopped and took a breath, knowing he must sound like a raging bull. He looked in Johnny's eyes, expecting to see disbelief but, what he saw was pain. "I'm sorry, son. I didn't mean to blurt that out. I don't know why she'd tell you such a thing but, it isn't true, Johnny."

A sad smile came to Johnny's face. "Yeah, I've been working on that one myself and can't figure it, either. After talking to you, watching you with Scott and talking to the padre, I figured you weren't the kind of man to throw a woman and baby out like that. It doesn't matter."


"It matters a great deal, son. You could have come home when she died. You didn't have to ... to live by the gun."

Johnny laughed at that. "I still didn't have to do that, Murdoch. It's what I chose to do."

"Did you? Or was it simply the best way to get out of an untenable situation?"

"I don't know what the hell you just said but, the fact is, I am a gunfighter. You don't need that kind of trouble, old man. Even if you wanted it."

Murdoch reached across the table and laid a hand on Johnny's arm. "It's no trouble to me, John. Just to be clear, I want you home. I always have even after I found out who you were."

"Yeah, I bet that was a real proud moment for you." Johnny leaned back, pulling his arm away from the touch that felt like a hot poker.

*

"It took some getting used to and I won't deny it was hard to accept. But, I still wanted to give you the chance you never got. Come home, Johnny."

He closed his eyes briefly at the heartfelt invitation. "I can't."

Murdoch's face fell and he leaned forward, his arms extending toward his son atop the table's surface. "Son, I swear on my own life, I never threw your mother out."

Johnny sighed heavily and shook his head. "It's not that. Look, you thought I was dead. I'm guessing you thought that firing squad got me."

Murdoch swallowed hard, hoping to keep his voice level. He didn't quite succeed. "The Pinkerton agent arrived a day late and was told you'd been killed."

"Well, it was close and I can see the rurales not wanting to admit I got away from them. But, I still have to go back and finish what I started. My people are lost. Juarez ain't doin what he promised. He's selling the church lands to the highest bidder and the farmers are still dirt poor."

Murdoch shook his head slowly. "What can one man do?"

Johnny looked directly into his father's eyes. "Fight. Someone has to step up. Right now we don't have a leader but that might change any time. All I know is the rurales have everyone under their boots and we've had enough. The hacendados are the ones running everything and giving the rurales all their power locally."

"I know there's terrible poverty on the border. The government has to do something."

Johnny scoffed. "Yeah, but they're not. I'm not against Juarez exactly. In fact, I fought for him but, he's gotta do better than this. Until then, I have to help my friends."

Murdoch lowered his eyes and stared at the table for a long moment. "You feel a responsibility to them. You're their Campeón."

Johnny snorted lightly. "I guess. All I know is they're depending on me. They need my help. You know, they're just simple men trying to feed their families and hoping for a better life for their own kids. I teach them how to fight, how to use a gun well and ..." He bit his lip and wondered how much he could tell this man.

"And what?" Murdoch watched the indecision on his face. "I hope you know I'd never do anything to put you in harm's way, son."

He blew out a breath and shrugged. "All I know of you is what I've seen. It's just that the way I get hold of guns, well, you probably wouldn't like it." A slow grin spread across his face.

Murdoch put up a hand. "I get it and I'm sure I could guess." He looked long at Johnny, still trying to let himself believe the boy was really alive. For how long, he couldn't say. His voice hitched with fear when next he spoke. "I understand you feel the need to do this. I don't like it at all." Murdoch hesitated, swallowing dryly, his voice falling softer. "What if I really do lose you this time?"

Johnny watched him, saw the worry and, what? Fear for him? He was in wonder of it but he couldn't let any of this sway him from his path. "You don't even know me. I know, I know, I'm your kid and that's supposed to make you care but we're strangers to each other. You might find you really don't like me. I mean, you don't, right?"

"That's not really fair. I don't know you."

"That's my point but, you don't care for what you've seen so far. Yeah, I was prickly because of what I thought was true but, maybe I'm not so far from that all the time. Anyway, it doesn't matter. I can't walk away from Mexico. I won't."

Feeling slightly defeated, Murdoch knew he had no right to ask Johnny to walk away from the people he cared about so much. "I can't argue with that kind of commitment. I'd like to be selfish and convince you to come home but, I find I can't." He looked squarely at his son. "I am proud of you, Johnny. Of your determination. I doubt anyone would blame you if you never went back after what you went through. But, I would like to ask a favor."

He smiled a little, relieved the old man understood his position. "Go ahead."

"It all has to end sometime. Whatever the outcome, if you make it through, will you come to Lancer?"

Johnny lowered his eyes and scratched at the table top with a finger. He was quiet for a while. "Yeah, okay. I'll come for a visit."

"And, maybe to stay?"

He grinned, a soft laugh escaping. The old man sure wasn't letting go of this bone. "Maybe."

Murdoch let out a held breath. "How will I know if you get yourself killed?"

The grin fell away as he looked back at the man. "I'll make sure someone lets you know. Maybe Padre Felipe, even."

*

Scott sat in the rocking chair and watched the stationmaster currying a horse. He didn't know where the priest had gotten off to but, he appreciated the quiet. His mind was awhirl with all that had happened. He hadn't really thought about Johnny coming home. On the ride from Morro Coyo, his thoughts stayed on Murdoch and how he was going to fare talking to Johnny. Somehow, Scott just couldn't make the connection of 'brother' with this man.

Of course, he realized he knew nothing about the man other than his profession. And maybe that was the crux of it. He was bothered by the possible repercussions Johnny could cause in their lives. He was sure all Murdoch could see was his son the way he was the last time he'd seen him. A toddler at most. Scott wasn't sure how old Johnny had been when his mother ran off. He heard the front door open and tensed a little when Johnny walked outside. He watched the man amble around a little then take a seat on the top step, lean his back against the support post and look at him so seriously.

Scott just stared back not knowing what the man wanted if anything. After a moment, he grew tired of the game and frowned. He was surprised to see a smile come on Johnny's face. "Something funny?"

"Are you always in a bad mood or do I just bring out the best in you?"

"I'm having some problem seeing anything to be happy about at the moment."

The smile fell off Johnny's face and he looked out across the yard.

Scott winced, realizing how his words must have sounded. "I didn't mean it like that. Of course, I'm glad you're alive. It's just the situation that's difficult."

"Because I'm a gunfighter and you think I'm like Pardee."

Scott shook his head. "I don't know what you're like."

Johnny looked back at him. "No, you don't. And I don't know you. I gotta say what I've seen so far don't impress me, Boston. You've been a bear most of the time."

Scott cocked a brow. "Well, I did have a head injury and you weren't exactly being polite in the stage before that."

"I was minding my own business."

"And reeling a little, I'd imagine, once you heard our names?"

Johnny smiled a little. "Yeah, somethin like that." The smile widened and he wagged a finger at Scott. "I was about to tell you my name when we went on that little ride."

Scott smiled back. "I remember."

Johnny looked once more out over the land. He leaned his head back against the post and was quiet for a while.

Scott watched him, waiting to see what the man had on his mind. Somehow, he knew not to speak, that Johnny was working something out in his own head.

"Murdoch asked me to come back to Lancer with you."

Scott looked into the blue eyes staring at him and knew the man was waiting for his reaction. "Your answer?"

Johnny smiled briefly. "No. I have things I need to do in Mexico. There's a war going on down there and I need to go back."

Frowning in thought, Scott hesitated a fraction. "I haven't heard anything about a war. Who are you at war with?"

"The government, basically. It's a long story but things are pretty bad for my people. We don't have much choice but to fight now."

Scott nodded, flashes of his own war running through his mind. "Are you in the right?"

Johnny laughed a little at that.

"Yes, he is," Murdoch answered as he stepped through the open doorway. "Johnny has promised to come see us once he's done all he can in Mexico." He looked at his elder son expectantly.

*

Scott nodded, knowing what his father wanted and he had no right not to give it. After all, he didn't really know Johnny and, it appeared there was much more to his brother than first thought. He looked back at Johnny. "That requires you staying alive so, make sure you do."

"Yes, Sir!" Johnny gave him a half-assed salute and grinned when Scott smirked at him. Then, he saw something else cross his brother's face. He wasn't sure what it was and it didn't look like Scott was offering any explanation. Johnny got a strange, if fleeting, feeling of dread all the sudden. Like he might never see these men again and it saddened him more than he would have expected. "Well, my stage leaves in the morning."

"Take the horse, son. I brought it for you and you'll have more freedom this way."

Johnny looked warily at the man.

"Of course, I expect you to bring him back," Murdoch added as he took a seat beside Scott. "Sometime."

Johnny laughed at that. "Thanks, I will."

Murdoch nodded then wondered how he could go about what else he had in mind without insulting his son. It was obvious to him Johnny was a proud man which made him that much prouder of his son. It was killing him to let Johnny go like this but he also knew he couldn't stop the young man - and he knew he shouldn't even try. Then, he got an idea. "I'd also like to make a contribution to the cause. Maybe, keep you from obtaining those guns some other way."

Johnny was already shaking his head before Murdoch ever finished. "I ain't no charity case, old man."

"I believe I said for the cause. If it makes things easier and gets you home sooner, it's well worth it to me."

Scott smiled and wondered how Johnny was getting guns. He could just imagine. "I'd like to contribute as well. We have a lot of Mexicans working for us and I know many of them have family back home who would benefit from your success."

Johnny sighed out lightly and reluctantly nodded. Maybe they really did mean to make a donation. Maybe they weren't trying to say he couldn't afford to pay attention. He smiled a little at that for it was true enough. Still, he was perfectly capable of working to earn his keep. Always had, always would.

"You could ride with us as far as Morro Coyo. I'll go to the bank as soon as we get there."

Johnny looked over at Murdoch, his eyes wide with surprise. "Bank? I thought we were talkin a few dollars."

With a shrug, Murdoch said, "A few dollars won't go very far, son. I'm sure those guns and ammunition aren't cheap."

A grin spread across Johnny's face at that. No, they weren't cheap, they were free when you stole them from the very people you were fighting. But he wasn't about to tell the old man that. He saw the doubtful look Murdoch Lancer gave him and he almost burst out laughing. His attention was diverted by movement at the side of the building.

*

Padre Felipe smiled widely at the picture before him. These three men sitting together, talking to each other. He sighed quietly, content and knowing his work here was now done. He stepped closer to Johnny and nodded his head. "Gentlemen, it appears things are going well."

Murdoch stood from the rocking chair with a slight grunt and walked over to the steps. "Somewhat, Padre. Johnny has decided he's needed more in Mexico right now but he has promised to come and see us once he's done what he has to do."

Felipe raised his brows at that then drew them together in a frown. He worried his lower lip as he took in this information then, he addressed Johnny. "Is it truly necessary for you to go back?"

"I think so, Padre. The people know I'm not dead. They know the rurales lied about killing me but, I'm not so sure they'll band together without someone to kind of round them back up." A sadness crossed Johnny's face and he lowered his head. "Miguel was good at gettin people fired up but, they killed him."

Felipe laid a hand on Johnny's shoulder and squeezed gently. "I am so sorry, my son. If this is what your heart tells you to do then you must. But, you will go to your familia after, si?"

Looking back up at the priest, Johnny shook his head in wonder. "Don't you have a whole flock of folks to worry over? Why are you so bent on makin sure I go to Lancer?"

The padre shrugged. "I believe there is a reason for everything and the reason I was on that stage with all of you was to try and help you come back together again. Familia is most important, el Campeón."

"I couldn't agree more," Murdoch said firmly.

Felipe smiled and nodded at the rancher. "I will say goodnight now and, if for some reason I do not see you before you leave, adios, as well."

Johnny stood as the priest moved to go inside and put a hand on the man's shoulder. "I have to say I've never met anyone like you before, Padre. Not even another priest. Thanks for everything."

"All I ask is that you keep your promise to return to Lancer as soon as you can. Buenos noches, el ... Johnny."

Johnny smiled when the man corrected himself. "I always keep my promises. Buenos noches, Padre."

*

It grew quiet on the porch once the priest left them. Johnny looked down at his boots and wondered if he would ever see Lancer. What he was going back to was as dangerous a situation as he'd ever been in. Maybe, the most dangerous but he couldn't, wouldn't turn his back on his friends. He wanted Murdoch Lancer to understand that. It was important to him for some reason that his father know Johnny did believe his side of things. As hard as it was for him to think his mother had lied to him, it wasn't like it had never happened before. He reckoned that was why it was a little easier to swallow. He blinked out of his thoughts as he saw the boots before him then slowly raised his head to look into his father's eyes.

"I wish I could think of some way for you to help your friends without going back down there. I understand better than you might think just how dangerous it is for you to show your face in Mexico. I can't help thinking it could take years for the people to win this battle, if they ever win."

Johnny didn't know what to say to that at first. It wasn't like the idea hadn't crossed his mind. In fact, when he'd started this journey, he was almost certain it would end in his death and he'd accepted that - then. Now, it seemed there just might be more waiting for him than he could ever have imagined and, his heart hurt a little at that thought. He found himself speaking without much thought. "Sometimes, winning doesn't matter. Sometimes, a man just has to stand up and be counted." He watched as the old man's face got softer and his eyes brightened up with maybe something like ... pride? Johnny nearly scoffed at the idea.

"Yes, that's very true. Just remember, a wise man knows when to walk away as well." Murdoch dipped his eyes briefly. "Especially when he has people worrying for him."

Johnny cleared his throat and looked out over the yard. "I just need to get them organized again. I don't want one failure to crush their spirit, ya know?"

"I know exactly," Murdoch said quickly. "It can happen easily if you aren't careful."

It took a second for Johnny to realize what he was saying. "You didn't fail me," he whispered. The pain in Murdoch's eyes was easy to see. Johnny felt his heart pounding in his chest and, in that moment, he knew he had to make this man understand. In a stronger voice, he tried again. "I didn't want to be found by anyone, especially you. You did not fail me."

Scott got quickly to his feet and walked over to stand beside his father. One look at the man's profile told him Murdoch was struggling. He put a hand on the man's back and pressed. He looked at Johnny but he was completely focused on his, their father. Scott closed his eyes briefly.

"Do you get it, old man?" Johnny asked harshly.

Scott's eyes flew back open and he gawked at Johnny then he felt the tension in his father's back. He looked at Murdoch and saw the ire. Scott almost laughed as he understood Johnny's intent. It appeared it was working, too.

Johnny grinned at the glare he received, unmoved by the sudden flash of anger.

Murdoch sighed and rolled his eyes. "You are exasperating."

"Yeah, I know. Better get used to it, I suppose." Maybe, he thought but didn't dare say.

"Gentlemen, I expect we should all get some rest. Morning is soon enough to head out," Scott said, feeling a little put out with the both of them at the moment. He had a feeling these two were going to wear him out. If his brother ever made it home.

*

The next morning, Johnny stood at the corral and watched the horses he'd just saddled standing around doing nothing. He smiled a little and wondered what kind of life that would be. Then again, he didn't particularly care for the idea of someone riding his back every day. Boy, you sure can come up with some strange ideas, Johnny, he thought then laughed softly at himself. It was easier to think strange thoughts than face this day. He'd struggled all night, sleeping very little. He knew Murdoch and Scott hadn't slept much either. One or the other had sighed or grunted throughout the night. He'd learned long ago how to lie still and silent but at least their noises amused him for part of the long night.

The rest of those hours were spent driving himself loco. Warring with himself over the merits of ever going to Lancer. Asking himself what kind of fool he was not to take the old man up on the offer. Wondering if Scott could really accept him then wondering why he even gave a damn if the man did or not. Certainly, he had no loyalty or deep feelings for either of them. They were strangers to each other, bound by only one thing - blood. But, wasn't that the strongest bond? No, he shook his head, it wasn't.

Loyalty and trust were the strongest bonds to him. It would take a long time for him to have that kind of connection with the Lancers. A smirk came to his lips. He couldn't even associate himself with them, calling them Lancers, not father and brother. Well, he couldn't change his entire life in five minutes. He wasn't so sure he wanted to change it at all. The only thing he did want to change, and had for a long time now, was his profession. He would never apologize for his choices but there were things he would have changed if he could. Things he regretted. And he was tired in body and spirit.

The sound of a door closing grabbed his attention and he turned to see Murdoch walking toward him, two coffee cups in hand. A smile came unbidden to his lips then he turned back to the corral.

"Good morning," Murdoch called as he reached the young man and handed over a cup of coffee.

"Mornin and thanks."

Murdoch watched the soft-spoken boy. His head was down and, it seemed to him, Johnny did that a lot. He wondered why but knew it would take time to know anything about this son. "Breakfast is ready."

Johnny looked up at him and nodded then headed back to the way station with Murdoch.

*

"Ted, thank you. That was very good," Murdoch said as he drained his third cup of coffee.

"Mighty pleased ta hear it, Mr. Lancer. Reckon you folks are anxious to head home." Oblivious to much of anything that had occurred between all of these men, Ted smiled widely at the lot of them.

Johnny shook his head then stood up. "I'm ready."

Padre Felipe had been unusually quiet throughout the meal. In fact, he had not spoken since saying grace but now, he stood as Johnny did and walked over to the young man. Placing a hand on Johnny's shoulder, he led him to the door. He looked into the man's eyes with all seriousness and began speaking in a soft yet firm voice. "I believe God has a plan for every person. Most of us never know what that plan is yet, we live it as intended. It may be something as simple as being a kind person or an honest person. But I believe there is more purpose to your life than you could ever know. I believe this chance meeting with your family was not chance at all. I feel strongly that you must return to Lancer as soon as is possible. I hope I have gained your respect and trust and that you will heed my words."

Johnny listened intently to every word and he felt a chill go down his spine. The priest was so sure of his words, as if he really *knew* what path Johnny should follow. He swallowed hard and nodded, unable to find his voice for a moment. Finally, he took a breath. "Padre, I have the deepest respect for you and I count you as a true friend. I promise you I'll do everything in my power to return to Lancer."

Felipe's face lit in a smile, his eyes dancing with simple joy. He patted Johnny's shoulder and nodded then, bowed his head and said a prayer for their safe passage.

Johnny lowered his head for the prayer then crossed himself when the padre was finished. "Ya know, I never was one for goin to church but, that doesn't mean I don't have faith."

"I know that, el Campeón. It is why I have this strong feeling about your future. Now, go and do what you must then," he paused and wagged a finger at the young man, "go home!"

Johnny laughed and nodded his head. "Okay, Padre, okay. Hasta la vista."

*

Murdoch was the last to mount. He was dawdling, he knew. But, he also knew every step they took was a step closer to saying goodbye to his son for what could possibly be the last time. He felt a little sick to his stomach at that idea and tried to stomp it down in his mind but he wasn't having much luck.

"Anytime, old man," Johnny said with frustration. He needed to get going. The sooner he got back to Mexico, the better.

"Hold your horses, young man," Murdoch sniped back with a growl.

Scott sighed and turned his horse toward home. They could both sit there and snap at each other if they wanted. He'd had enough of the growling and posturing he'd seen the past week. He knew why Murdoch was so edgy. He only hoped Johnny had the same reason. That neither really wanted this parting of the ways no matter how temporary they all hoped it would be. It was that uncertainty that kept him from allowing himself to think too much on the prospect of having Johnny home. He wasn't so sure he could take losing his brother all over again especially now that he'd met him.

Scott realized his perceptions were changing. He knew he had been prejudiced against gunfighters because of Pardee and the carnage that man had been capable of. Now that he'd let himself understand that, he felt some shame for his own behavior. All that, combined with coming to see Johnny in a different light had left him a bit numb. After hearing Johnny speak so passionately about the war he was fighting, Scott recognized his brother really was a champion to those who needed him. It was clear that Johnny was caring and compassionate about his cause and his people. Scott smiled a little and wondered if he'd ever feel Johnny was his champion and vice versa. He felt the two men coming up behind him then saw one on either side of him. He forced a frown on his face and wondered why he didn't want them to see him smiling.

Johnny glanced over at the dandy with that serious look on his face. Did he ever smile? What was he really like? He shook his head and looked forward, feeling more than a little uncomfortable with this whole situation. He thought he knew why the old man was grumpy this morning. At least, he hoped it was because they would be parting ways soon. Hell, hope wasn't something he'd had much of most of his life. Seemed like he'd been hoping a lot lately, though.

No one spoke as they traveled along until they came to the crossroads. Johnny reined to a stop and the others followed suit. Murdoch walked his horse back to his son and looked questioningly at him.

Johnny leaned onto the saddle horn and readjusted his seat then pushed his hat back a little. "I think this is as good a place as any."

Frowning now, Murdoch asked, "for what?"

Johnny looked in his father's eyes and shrugged. "To say adios."

"I thought you were coming back to Morro Coyo with us. The bank ..."

"Look, I appreciate the offer but, if you want to spend your money on a cause, I'm sure there's an orphanage nearby you can give it to. I'd rather you do that than give it to me for guns. Just seems better."

Scott smiled a little at that as he moved his mount alongside his brother. "That does sound better. But, you also have to survive long enough to get back to Mexico." He leaned over and shoved some bills into Johnny's shirt pocket. "Call it a loan, brother. No interest."

Johnny looked down at his pocket with a slight smile on his face. "That's just what it will be ... brother." The word stumbled over his lips, so foreign it was to him yet, when he said it - brother - Johnny felt a flush wash over his face. He lowered his eyes, embarrassed by such a display.

Murdoch reached out and took hold of his hand, pressing more bills into his palm and bringing Johnny's attention to him. He looked into the blue eyes and felt his heart jump into his throat. "Remember your promise to Padre Felipe before we left this morning. I know you wouldn't lie to a priest." A tremulous smile crossed his lips.

Johnny laughed at that then, pulled back on the reins, turning his steed south. "I only lie when I haven't given my word." He turned to leave then paused and looked back, a small smile still on his face. Extending his hand, he waited until Murdoch accepted the handshake before speaking it. "My word. See ya!" Raising his arm in a wave, he spurred the animal into a ground-eating gallop.

 

 

~end~
2010

Want to comment? Email Winj