The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Surrogate

 

 

 

First of the Surrogate series, followed by Adjustments


Murdoch Lancer rode at an easy gait toward his home. Returning from Green River on a bank errand, he took in the beautiful spring day with a smile. The sun warmed his face and the blooming flowers filled the air with their fragrances. Bees buzzed about and the butterflies flitted in front of him from time to time.

He was no more than two miles from the hacienda when a voice stopped him cold.

"That's far enough, mister!"

He pulled to a stop as he squinted to see a figure looming just behind a tree. The only thing he was certain of was the barrel of the Winchester aimed at him.

"What's this about?" he demanded.

A second, maybe two of silence followed before the figure stepped into the light of day. "Just get down off that horse real easy. No sudden moves."

Murdoch dismounted and stood holding the reins. He took countenance of his robber. Short but not done growing, he had dark hair that was too long and blue eyes. His face was broken out but not terribly noticeable. His fingers were longer than his hands, it seemed. He was lean, almost skinny but the potential was there to fill out. He was also filthy. He couldn't be more than fourteen, Murdoch surmised.

"Alright," the boy said, "hand over your wallet."

Murdoch tried to hide the smile by rubbing a quick thumb down the side of his nose. "What makes you think I have a wallet?"

The boy seemed hesitant for a fraction then smiled a cocky smile. "Fancy horse and tack, nice clothes. Look like a rancher ta me. Now, hand over all the money ya got," he demanded, wavering the rifle a little to make his point.

Murdoch nodded and reached into his back pocket.

The boy jabbed the rifle toward him. "No sudden moves," he warned.

Holding up one hand to ward off an attack, Murdoch said calmly, "I'm just doing what you asked, young man. Just getting my wallet." He pulled it out and tossed it on the ground a good ten feet in front of the boy.

"Now, throw down your gun - real easy-like," he instructed.

Murdoch sighed and pulled the pistol out with two fingers, tossing it aside.

"Hey!"

"Oh, I'm sorry. Did you want that thrown to you?" the rancher asked, still a bit amused by this obvious novice.

The boy frowned angrily. "You makin fun of me, mister?"

"No, no. I would never make fun of a man pointing a gun at me," Murdoch said seriously, holding up a hand again.

The boy nodded and stepped closer to retrieve the wallet. He lowered the barrel of the rifle to the ground and bent over. Murdoch saw his opening and lunged forward with surprising speed. He knocked the boy to the ground and grabbed the rifle, flinging it far and wide. Then, he sat astride the young man and held down two wildly swinging arms.

"Settle down!" he commanded harshly.

The tone of his voice startled the boy and he stopped moving, looking up in wide-eyed terror at the man now in control of him. Breathing heavily, he fought to master himself.

Murdoch could feel the tremors run through the boy's body and watched in fascination as he struggled to stop it.

He released the arms and pointed a finger in the kid's face.

"If you plan on making a career of this sort of thing, you're going to have to be much better at it. Never get that close to your intended victim and always be very specific about what you want done. Also, never show any fear or uncertainty." Having finished his speech, the rancher worked his way to his feet and dusted himself off.

The boy scrambled to his own feet and looked frantically around for his rifle.

"AND, don't ever give away your thoughts like that!" Murdoch added. Calming himself, he lightened his tone. "Now, if you want a real job; an honest job, you can come with me."

The boy cocked his head to one side and studied him. "What kind of job?"

"Ranch work. It's hard and takes a tough man. Think you're up for that?" he challenged.

He watched the kid straighten himself and pull his shoulders back. He didn't even seem aware he was doing it. "Short time?"

Murdoch shrugged. "However long you want. Why? Do you have a pressing engagement?"

"Huh?"

Murdoch stifled a laugh. "Do you have something better to do?" he clarified.

"Maybe. But, not right now. Reckon I could use the work but it won't be for long," he cautioned.

Murdoch nodded. "I see. Something big in the works?" Why he was pressing he couldn't say but there was something about this boy. Something he couldn't quite put his finger on.

The cocky grin that filled out his face was a comical sight. His next words held no humor whatsoever. "I'm gonna be a gunfighter. The best ever!" he proclaimed.

Murdoch's heart squeezed tight in his chest. He immediately regretted the job offer as a thousand thoughts and scenarios played out in his head. His face held a disapproving look.

The boy pulled his chest out. "You got somethin ta say about that, old man?"

Murdoch thought he might just fall over and he knew now why he'd been so interested in this boy. He tightened his jaw and spoke in a clearly controlled voice. "I might but it's not my place. Get your horse and let's go." No matter what, he was a man of his word. He'd offered a job and it had been accepted.

*

Johnny rode into the yard two days later, three days overdue. He felt every minute of it, too. As he dismounted, he heard Jelly's granite voice as the old man huffed about on the side of the house. He smiled. Good to be home.

He pulled the papers from his saddle bag and strode into the house and right into the middle of a fracas.

He stood in the doorway to the great room and leaned against the wall watching his father have a fit. Who he was fitting over was news to Johnny. A boy stood in the middle of the room and from what little Johnny could see of his face, he was livid.

"As long as you work here, young man, you will do as you're told! No more sneaking off and lazing about!" Murdoch was hollering.

"I wasn't lazin about," the kid spat.

"I don't care what you were doing. It wasn't what you were supposed to be doing, was it? Well? Was it?!"

"Mebbe not. Mebbe I've been here too long already. Time to be movin along," he rejoined.

Johnny watched in fascination as Murdoch's demeanor changed dramatically. He calmed down and lowered his voice. "That's not necessary, is it, Peter? You could have a good life here if you just tried."

"I told you what my plans are. I ain't changin 'em for you, old man!"

That was it and Johnny stepped into the room. "You better change your tone when you're talking to my father, boy," he said in a cold voice.

Peter whipped around, caught off guard by the stranger.

"Johnny, welcome home," Murdoch said quietly.

Johnny noted a sound of relief in the man's voice and wondered what the blazes had been going on.

"Thanks. Sorry I was late. Bad weather in the mountains," he explained.

"Did you get the contracts alright?"

"Yeah, got 'em right here. Now, who is this and why is he yelling at you?" Johnny asked, unwilling to let go of the issue at hand.

"Johnny, this is Peter. Peter, my son, Johnny. Peter hired on here for a while," Murdoch explained.

"Yeah, too long," the boy mumbled.

Johnny stepped closer, the strained air reverberating the jangle of his spurs. He looked closely at the boy and reckoned him to be about fourteen. "Then leave," he said flatly.

"Johnny!" Murdoch exclaimed.

Looking at his father with something akin to disbelief, Johnny asked, "what?"

Murdoch took a deep breath. "Peter is having a bad day. I think he understands what's expected of him now. Don't you, Peter?"

The boy looked unsure but shrugged. "Guess so. Reckon I'll get back to work now," he said sarcastically and made a wide berth around Johnny as he walked out.

*

"What the hell was that?" Johnny asked once alone with his father.

Murdoch walked over and sat behind his desk. "He tried to rob me on the road a few days ago. I offered him a job."

"He tried to rob you and you gave him a job? Are you crazy?" Johnny asked, clearly stunned and confused.

Murdoch shook his head slowly. "He's all alone. He needs help, son. He needs guidance and a chance at a good life."

Johnny perched on the edge of the desk, tossing the contracts in front of his father. "Guess he's not so good at robbin people?"

Murdoch smiled then chuckled. "No. It didn't take long to get his rifle away from him. You should have seen him out there. So cocky yet scared to death. I could tell he didn't have a clue what he was doing."

"Too young to have a clue," Johnny mumbled. Sighing, he added, "where's Scott?"

"I sent him to Sacramento."

"Thought you were goin," Johnny noted.

"I was but, well, I thought I should stay here. Peter would have been long gone by now."

"So? His choice," Johnny shrugged.

"He's fourteen years old, Johnny! He doesn't get to choose!"

Johnny stood up and held his hands out. "Whoa, old man. What're ya yellin at me for?"

"Because, if anyone should understand, it should be you, Johnny. Do you know what that boy's aspirations are? He wants to be a gunfighter. The best there ever was," Murdoch shot the last sarcastically into the air.

Johnny stared open-mouthed at his father. Dawning took hold and he dropped his head. "I see. I'm going to get cleaned up," he said softly and walked out. He didn't stop when his father called after him. He didn't want to be around the man right then.

*

Johnny sank into the hot water and leaned his head back against the rim. He stared at the ceiling as steam rose and curled around his body on its way upward. He couldn't believe this. Murdoch had gone over the edge, he reckoned.

Taking that boy in was like a slap in the face to him and he was positive his father didn't even know it. He supposed Murdoch was trying to do for Peter what he hadn't had the chance to do for his own son. Still, letting that kid stay here was ..... well, it was crazy for one thing. And dangerous. He had a hell of a temper, that was plain to see. He wouldn't last a second out there.

Maybe that's why Murdoch took him in. Maybe he saw that, too and ... yep, and he was trying to save the kid. Johnny sighed sadly.

Well, if someone had done that for him at fourteen maybe things would have turned out differently. Still, he didn't think it was right. He didn't like it one bit.

He turned his head to the side and started to close his eyes when he spied something lying on his pillow. Sitting up, he realized it was an envelope. He reached out and snagged it up, recognizing Scott's handwriting immediately.

He dried his hands and ripped it open, curious as to why his brother would be leaving him a note.

Johnny,

    By now, I'm sure you've met or heard about Peter. Watch out for him, brother. He has a mean temper and Murdoch seems to be blind to that. I'm also sure you've figured out why Murdoch took him in. I'm sorry, Johnny. I tried to reason with him but you know how he is once he's made up his mind. Peter refuses to give any information about himself. He won't even say if his parents are alive or where he's from. I tried to talk with him but got nowhere. I'll get home as soon as I can but in the meantime, keep a close eye on Murdoch. I'm afraid of what lengths he'll go to try and save that boy. As optimistic as I usually am, I'm really worried the boy will do something to hurt Murdoch. Just remember, brother, this stray has claws.

                                                                                                         Scott

Johnny smiled at the last sentence. His brother knew he had a propensity to take in a stray. But Scott was right, this one definitely had claws - and teeth.

Sighing heavily, he tossed the letter on the bed and leaned back in the tub. What the hell was he supposed to do about it? If Scott couldn't get the kid to open up, how could he? Why should he was the question that shouted in his mind. It was petty and he felt the bitterness in his heart. It wasn't fair but he couldn't help it. Dammit, Murdoch! I never again want to hear a word from you about a damned stray dog!

*

There wasn't much conversation at supper that evening and Johnny retired early. He had nothing to say to his father at the moment and he wanted to get a better feel for this kid when Peter wasn't so angry. If there ever was a time he wasn't, that is. He figured he'd talk to the hands and see what kind of job he was doing. Couldn't be all that great. He was, after all, still a kid. He wasn't really strong enough for any real ranch work, Johnny reckoned. He wondered if the men had been giving him a free ride for the boss.

Johnny was up early the next morning, hoping he was ready to face whatever the day may bring. He sweet talked Maria into some early biscuits and swore he'd eat a big lunch. He decided to talk to Jelly first, knowing the man would give him the real low down on what was happening.

Jelly always rose early and Johnny found him in the tack room, still savoring his coffee.

"Mornin," Johnny greeted cheerily.

"Hmmph! Did ya get the Boss ta give that kid the boot?"

Johnny cocked a brow. "Was I supposed to?"

"Yes! He's trouble, Johnny. Real trouble."

Sitting on the bench that ran along one wall, Johnny hitched his leg and planted one foot flat on the seat in front of him. "How's that?"

"Ya seen 'im yesterdey. He's a pole cat! Always mad about somethin. Ain't had a kind word fer nobody," Jelly complained.

Johnny smiled as he took a bite of biscuit. "He hurt your feelins, Jelly?"

The older man turned and glared at him. "This ain't no joke, son. That kid is trouble, I'm tellin ya. I know ya all think ole Jelly's jest a funny old man but I seen things in this world. I know fer a fact that boy is gonna hurt somebody. He's too quick-tempered. Caint even joke with 'im. The boys stopped tryin after the first day. Somethin or somebody's put a world of hurt in that boy. Ain't no reachin him, Johnny."

Hearing Jelly say the things he'd read from Scott and thought himself made Johnny rethink his position. He found himself growing angry with Jelly for giving up so easily on a child.

"Ain't like you to throw in the towel on a kid, Jelly," he remarked, making himself stay calm.

"Outta tell ya somethin, don't ya think?"

Johnny stared at the half-eaten biscuit in his hand and frowned. Sighing, he said quietly, "maybe." He stood and walked out, tossing the biscuit to the ground for the birds.

*

He headed to the bunkhouse and found the men nearly ready for the day. He sought out Frank, an old-timer at Lancer and a top hand.

"Nobody wants to work with him, Johnny. I've been passing him around like an old coat but it won't be long before I can't do that anymore," the man explained.

Johnny nodded and smiled. "You let him work with me, Frank."

The hand sighed his relief and nodded his appreciation but he didn't think Johnny would have any better luck. Still, maybe if a Lancer spent the day with the kid, they'd finally give him the boot out of there.

Peter came out of the bunkhouse with a scowl on his face. He walked his horse over to where Johnny was checking Barranca's cinch.

"Old man says ta work with you," he sneered.

Johnny never looked up. "Seems everybody around here is an old man to you. Just don't go callin me one. I might take exception," he responded coolly and mounted up.

They rode for a while in silence before Peter spoke again.

"What are we doin today?"

"Today, you got it easy. I've been away a while so I want to check all the work crews and see what's what," Johnny replied lightly.

"So, we're just gonna ride around all day? Cause, there's things I'd rather be doin," Peter said, a hopefulness in his voice.

Johnny grimaced. "Yeah? Like practicing your draw?" he asked as he looked directly in the boy's eyes.

Peter's eyes turned hard. "That's right."

Johnny nodded. "Okay, maybe after lunch."

The boy gawked at him, unsure suddenly. "You're funnin me."

"Nope, not at all," Johnny said nonchalantly.

*

True to his word, after lunch, Johnny took Peter to one of his practice areas. A perfect spot. A copse a trees formed a ragged circle wherein lie several boulders that told the tale of the hours Johnny had spent here. There were tin cans lying beside the boulders and Peter took in the scene suspiciously.

"Somebody else come here ta practice?" he asked.

Johnny let a small smile caress his lips briefly but the boy never saw it. He ground-tied Barranca and sat down under a tree, picking a blade of grass and popping it in his mouth. He shrugged at the boy as an answer.

"Go ahead. I'm just gonna sit here and ..... rest," he grinned.

Peter wasn't sure he liked that grin. In fact, he wasn't too sure of this man at all. He seemed to go from one extreme to the other in a flash. Peter couldn't read him and he hated that. Still, he was getting a chance he seldom had in the week he'd been here so he lined up the cans and set his pace.

Johnny watched surreptitiously. He stretched out on his left side, propping himself on his elbow as he crossed his ankles and got comfortable. His eyes never leaving the boy, noting every move his body made. Watching as he walked, still too gangly, not near grown enough. There was no grace there but Johnny saw the potential for it and knew it would come in another year or so. He watched Peter set his stance and shook his head now that the boy's back was to him. Shoulders too tense, like a cat ready to pounce. Then, it happened.

Peter's shoulders relaxed and he drew. Six shots followed by six metallic pings resonated through the once still air.

Johnny cocked a brow. He's good. Real good, he thought. Fast and accurate alright. He sat up and crossed his legs as he kept his vigil.

Peter never looked at him as he went to set up more targets. When he turned to walk back, Johnny could see the dissatisfaction on his face and he had to smile a little. It's never good enough, is it, kid? he thought wryly.

More shots exploded in the air and again, the boy hit what he aimed at. Johnny watched him for over an hour and he saw the pattern emerge as he knew he would. A pattern that made him sad but more than that, apprehensive.

"How about takin a break?" he called.

*

Peter joined him begrudgingly and plopped onto the grass.

"Thumb sore?" Johnny asked casually.

"Nah, that don't happen anymore."

Johnny nodded. "How long you been at this?"

Peter looked at him and considered then figured it wouldn't do any harm. "Ten months or so."

Johnny nodded once more and leaned back against the tree's trunk. He regarded the nearly young man before him.

"So, what part of Texas are ya from?" he asked as he chewed a new blade of grass.

Peter's head snapped up and his mouth hung open. "How'd you know I'm from Texas?" he demanded.

"The drawl, kid. Hard to hide that particular drawl," he laughed softly. "Is it some big secret? You some kind of spy?" he teased.

"Hardly," the boy snorted.

Johnny leaned forward and rested his forearms on his thighs. "You sure got a mad on. Whatever happened, let it go or it'll get you killed one of these days."

The boy's eyes flared, his face turned to stone. "Ain't your business what happened or didn't!"

Johnny never flinched, never blinked. "I didn't ask and I don't care. Just sayin, it'll get you killed. That's all."

"What would you know about it?" Peter sneered.

He shrugged his shoulders. "Whatever, kid. You're good but you're too young to start gunfightin. Don't matter how fast you are, nobody is gonna take you seriously yet."

"They will when I show 'em what I can do," he replied, pulling his shoulders back.

Johnny laughed softly at this. "Okay, if you say so. Boy, you sure don't take advice or anything else from anybody, do ya?"

"Didn't ask for your advice and you got nothin I want."

Well, he'd had enough of the attitude for one day. Enough to last ten lifetimes. Johnny decided he'd make his point and let the rest take care of itself. He uncrossed his legs and scooted closer to the kid. Close enough to get in his face. He leaned forward, his eyes like blue granite, his voice even harder.

"I'm going to say this one time only. No matter how good you are, you are not good enough. If you do anything. And I mean *anything* to hurt my father, I'll kill you myself. Now, if you find out one thing about me it's that I'm a man of my word. My old man took you in for his own reasons but that don't mean you can run roughshod over him. If you stay here you will do your work when you're told and for as long as you're told and stop bitchin about it. And if you *ever* speak to my father like you did yesterday, I'll show you just how grown up you ain't!" He accentuated his point with a finger in Peter's chest.

Johnny stood up and strode over to Barranca, patted his neck then mounted up and looked back down. Peter was still sitting there, staring into space with his mouth agape.

"You comin?" Johnny asked, his entire demeanor relaxed and calm.

Murdoch paced the living room then went to the French doors and looked out again - for the thousandth time, he imagined. He didn't know what Johnny had in mind but he knew his son. He knew Johnny would talk to the boy. He only hoped his son could get through where he had failed so miserably.

It did not escape him that he had indeed failed Peter. Just like he'd failed Johnny. No, this was worse because he *had* Peter right here and still, he couldn't seem to get through to the boy. He'd try everything he could think of from being hard-nosed to a more gentle approach. He'd threatened and cajoled beyond what he thought his own endurance was. Yet, the boy had not so much as flinched. Not one pebble of the wall had crumbled.

What had happened to make him so hard so young? So angry at the whole world?

Murdoch could only imagine the life the boy had. He pictured all manner of abuse. Everything from a father who beat him to a mother who abandoned him to no parents at all. Much the same as he'd tried so many times to imagine what Johnny's life had been like. How his own boy had survived the brutality that was life sometimes.

But Johnny had survived it and remarkably intact. There were times when he saw the pain. Times when it was almost a tangible thing in the air. But it was gone before he could ever reach out and grab it. Usually, so was Johnny.

His son had been angry yesterday, hearing Peter shouting like that. Murdoch smiled at the protectiveness Johnny had displayed. He'd been home now for almost two years and yet the rancher was still dumbstruck at times at how both his sons watched out for him.

He could not fathom why. Even though they got along well most of the time now, it really hadn't been that long. And it seemed to him as if that sort of 'mothering' had begun fairly early in their relationships. He shook his head at the complexities of life and love.

He heard the horses approaching and rushed to the door then made himself stop. He pulled it together and applied a passive expression even though his heart was thumping a mile a minute.

*

Murdoch walked outside as Johnny dismounted in front of him. Peter had headed to the barn.

"Hi, son. How was your day?" he asked, trying with everything he had to sound normal.

Johnny shot him a look that made his heart drop. Not good, he could tell.

"Let's go inside and I'll tell you about it," Johnny replied flatly.

Murdoch nodded as Johnny passed by him. He glanced out at Peter but the boy was paying him no mind. In fact, he looked deep in thought. Sighing slowly, he turned and walked into the house.

Johnny was standing by the fireplace, one boot propped on the hearth as he rocked gently back and forth, his right hand balancing on the mantle.

Murdoch came near and waited, knowing his son would begin in his own time.

"That kid must think the world owes him something pretty big," he sighed. Turning to look at his father, Johnny's eyes were a storm of emotions. None of which Murdoch could pin down.

"You talked to him?"

"I tried and I got nowhere. Well, almost nowhere. Look, I took him out and let him practice after lunch. I wanted to see if he was any good," he fessed up.

Murdoch bit back his initial reaction. "And?"

Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, Johnny decided Murdoch needed to know the truth. "And, he's good. He's very good for his age. He still needs some practice and a whole lot of polish. But, if he's patient with it, he could be one of the best."

This was not what Murdoch wanted to hear at all. He prayed Johnny would tell him the kid was all talk and pipe dreams. "I hope you didn't tell him that," he mumbled.

Johnny shot him an aggravated look. "No, but it wouldn't have mattered if I had. He wouldn't listen anyway. And that, Murdoch, is what's gonna get him killed. He's too angry about whatever to hear anything. I did tell him one thing I'm positive he heard."

Murdoch waited but Johnny didn't seem to want to tell him about it. "What did you say?" he asked more harshly than he'd intended.

Johnny looked up at him but there was no anger as Murdoch expected.

"I told him if he hurt you I'd kill him," he replied coldly. "I also told him if he's gonna stay here he needs to do as he's told and stop whinin about it!" There was a challenge in those words and Johnny's hands went to his hips in anticipation.

Murdoch didn't know whether to laugh or yell. A smile threatened to win out but he held onto it, barely.

"I see," was all he could think to say.

Johnny deflated when he didn't get the argument he'd expected. His shoulders relaxed and he dropped his hands to his sides. "Well, I'm gonna go get cleaned up then," he said softly.

"Johnny?" Murdoch stopped him. "Thank you, son."

Johnny turned halfway around and simply nodded before walking upstairs.

*

Another supper passed quietly for the two men and Johnny retreated outside afterward. He hated that he felt he couldn't talk to Murdoch about this. But, the truth was, he didn't want to get into it. Didn't want to bring his own experiences to the fore. Damn! He wished Scott were home. He could talk to his brother so easily. Tell him things and know Scott wouldn't push him for more. Wouldn't judge him for what he did say.

He was torn about telling Peter how he knew the things he knew. Part of him thought it might help; that the boy would listen to Johnny Madrid. Part of him knew all too well that this kid would seize such an opportunity and call him out. That was what worried him. He knew the kid wasn't good enough to take him - yet. In a couple of years, yes. But not now and not when he'd showed Johnny everything he had today.

And if he ended up having to kill Peter, what would that do to Murdoch? Johnny stood up and began to pace. Somehow, it always helped him think if he was moving. His hands went unthinkingly to his hips, fingers drumming just below the hip bone.

He stopped his pacing and his head came up. A smile played.

"Nice evenin," he said softly.

"Who are you, mister?"

Johnny closed his eyes for a second then turned and faced the boy. "Already been introduced. Or is your memory not too good?"

Peter shook his head. "No. The way you move, the things you said today, the way you wear that rig," his eyes went to the gunbelt. "Who are you, really?"

Johnny allowed a smile to lift the right side of his mouth. "I'm Johnny Lancer and I always have been."

Peter nodded thoughtfully. "Who did you used ta call yourself?" he pressed.

Johnny sighed a little. "You're smart, kid. You'll do well in a year or so. But not now. You ain't ready yet and if you think you are, you're gonna die and soon. I'm just telling you the truth is all."

Peter stepped closer, out of the shadows he'd found for himself when he watched Johnny pacing earlier. "The truth accordin ta who?"

Johnny had to laugh at the tenacious youth.

*

But Peter wasn't laughing or smiling, he was dead serious and tired of not getting an answer. "I asked you a question," he said harshly.

Johnny's face fell flat and he locked eyes with the boy. "I heard you the first couple of times. Just because you ask that don't mean you'll get an answer. Are you that used to getting what you want?" A thought occurred to him, too ridiculous to consider really. He pushed it aside for the moment as he watched for the kid's reaction.

Peter dropped his gaze briefly then locked on again. "Usually," the smug reply came.

Johnny grinned. "Well, count this as one of those unusual times."

"You know I'll find out," he said cagily.

Johnny shrugged. "Probably but not tonight and not from me. Not yet."

"Why? What does it matter if it's tonight or tomorrow or next week?" Peter asked in frustration.

Johnny could swear he heard a bit of a whine in there. He sometimes forgot how young the boy was especially when he was being such an ass.

"My father has taken a shine to you though I can't imagine why," Johnny half-lied. "What I told you today about hurting him, I meant."

Peter cocked his head to one side. "And hurting you would hurt him," he stated as fact. When Johnny didn't answer, he went on. "And hurting me would make you hurt him," he surmised.

Johnny only nodded.

Peter dropped his head for a second then looked back. "Why does he care what happens to me?"

*

Johnny sighed and knew he couldn't completely answer that question. Partly because it would give him away and partly because he wasn't so sure himself. What Murdoch thought he could accomplish here was beyond Johnny.

"He wants to save you from yourself. Maybe make up for some things he couldn't do in the past. See, Murdoch knows you're headed on a one-way trip to hell, kid. Once you start down that road it's nearly impossible to stop."

"I don't want to stop," Peter argued lightly.

"You don't have any idea what you want or what you're doin!" Johnny lashed out. He began pacing again then stopped in front of Peter.

"Listen, you got no idea what that life is like. You might think it's all glamorous and fun but it ain't! It's hard and lonely and scary as hell! You can't trust nobody - ever. You can't turn your back on who you think is your best friend. Especially if you're really good. If you make a real name for yourself you'll never have any peace. I know at fourteen you got no clue how valuable peace is but I can tell you it's worth more than all the gold in the world!"

Johnny stopped his tirade and quickly mastered his emotions. He glared at Peter as though he could burn the words he'd spoken into the young boy's mind.

Peter stared at him for a beat. "Who were you, Johnny?"

He dropped his head and slumped his shoulders, sighing as he realized this was futile. The kid knew he'd been a gunhawk, that was clear. Still, he wouldn't listen and Johnny reckoned he never would. Peter was set on being a professional and Johnny knew right then there was nothing any of them could do to stop it.

He only hoped he could convince his father of that. He didn't really give a damn what the kid did. He just wanted Murdoch to be okay.

"Why does it matter? You know I was in the game. You know I know what I'm talkin about. But you haven't heard a word I've said or it doesn't matter to you." He raised his head and looked sadly at the boy.

"If you're so dead set on doing this. If nothing I've said has made one bit of difference, then so be it. If that's the life you want, who am I to try and stop you. But it comes at a price, Peter. Right now, that price is that you're fired. Pack up first thing in the morning and get off this ranch. Don't come back here no matter what."

*

"You can't fire me! I ain't done nothin wrong!" he blurted out.

"You ain't done nothin right, either. And I *can* fire you. I just did."

"What's the old man gonna say about that?" Peter smirked.

Johnny's eyes narrowed dangerously. "It don't matter. He'll back me for one reason. We're family and you ain't," he said in an icy tone.

Peter backed up one step then cursed himself for it. "I'll find out who you are. Don't matter if I'm here or not."

"I reckon that's true. But remember one thing, boy. I watched you today. I know your moves. I knew them before you made 'em. I know you can't take me. So if you want your first gunfight to be your last, you go ahead and call me out." Johnny stepped around the boy and walked out into the night with a confident stride.

Peter watched him go and wondered who the hell this man was. He'd seen that confidence a dozen times since they first met yesterday. The way Johnny walked and moved. The grace he possessed that Peter had been so envious of. The way he wore his rig told the boy he'd been right even if Johnny had denied it. But he hadn't. He never told Peter who he was but he never denied he was *somebody*.

Peter felt a rush of adrenaline go through his veins at the prospect of not only finding out who Johnny was but of testing his skills on the man.

He surmised Johnny was no longer as good as he professed. Otherwise, he'd still be doing it. He must have lost his nerve but that didn't seem right. He had too much guts. Maybe it was his edge he'd lost. Being here and having a family to worry about. How he'd talked of the loneliness and not being able to trust anyone. Yeah, he'd lost his edge. That edge every good gunfighter needed to make it. He cared about somebody now.

Well, Peter cared for no one and never would. He'd realized a long time ago it just wasn't in him. He didn't think of himself as evil exactly, just ..... soulless. He just didn't feel anything but disdain for people most of the time. Anyone he found himself liking in the slightest, he would turn it into the anger that had served him so well all these years.

That anger had kept him at arm's length and even further all his life and it suited him fine. Those bleeding hearts who thought he needed their help had all found out quickly just how much he *didn't* need anybody. Johnny Lancer would find that out, too.

*

Johnny spent a good hour in the barn with Barranca. He went over the conversation in his mind again and again. More than that, he went over Peter's reactions to all he'd said. His reaction wasn't much and Johnny had watched the boy's eyes. They were dead. No feeling there at all. Except for one second, one brief second of fear he'd seen there.

Now, he had to tell Murdoch he'd fired the kid. He had to somehow explain what he'd discovered to a man who he knew would not want to hear it. Maybe wouldn't be able to hear it. But if Murdoch overruled him on this, he knew he'd have no weight with the men ever again.

"You about done lovin up on that horse?"

Johnny laughed out loud. "Yeah, Jelly, I'm about done."

"What're ya doin out here anyways?" the old man asked.

Johnny patted Barranca's neck and stepped out of the stall then locked it back. He turned and leaned against the gate as he regarded his friend.

"Well, just gettin up the nerve to tell Murdoch that I fired Peter tonight."

"Well, praise be! I figured you could do it, Johnny. That boy is nothin but trouble!"

"I'm afraid you're right, Jelly. But Murdoch ain't gonna be so easy to accept it."

Jelly walked over and patted his arm. "You'll make 'im see the light."

Johnny raised a brow. "Since when?"

"Aw, come on, now. He listens to ya. And he'll listen to this cause he knows you got more experience in this particular area," Jelly said as he rocked back on his heels and hooked his thumbs in his suspenders.

Johnny smiled at the old codger. "I hope so. Well, no time like the present. Oh, and, uh, he knows I used to be a gunfighter."

"Wahl, what'dya tell 'im that fer?"

"I didn't tell him anything. He figured it out. Asked me who I was but I didn't tell him."

"How come? Might've had 'im shakin in his boots," Jelly proclaimed.

Johnny laughed at this. "Not this kid, Jelly. All it would do is make him wanna call me out. And that's somethin I really don't want. Murdoch would hate it and blame himself."

Jelly bit his tongue. He wanted to say the boss had no one but himself to blame for this mess. And if Johnny got hurt over it, Jelly would tell the man exactly that!

*

Johnny walked back inside slowly, scanning the great room and trying to gauge his father's mood. Something that was always hard for him. Murdoch was sitting by the fireplace, a pensive expression on his face. Johnny sighed softly and waded in.

"Oh, there you are," Murdoch said distractedly.

"Yeah," Johnny sighed shakily as he sat on the ottoman at his father's feet. "I need to tell you something and you won't like it," he warned.

This got Murdoch's attention and he shifted a little in his chair. "What is it, son?"

"I was talking to Peter outside. He figured out I used to be a gunhawk. He wanted to know what name I used but I wouldn't tell him."

"I see," Murdoch said tightly.

Johnny glanced up then lowered his eyes again. "The thing is, we talked for a while and .... well, I fired him."

Murdoch's shoulders tensed and he leaned forward. "You did what?!"

Johnny grimaced at the loudness so close to his ear. He scooted the ottoman back and stood up, walking to the fireplace. "Will you listen to me?" he asked quietly.

Murdoch had taken to his feet as well and stood with fists clenched. When he heard the quiet pleading in his son's voice, he relaxed a little. "Yes."

Johnny swallowed and looked over at him. "It's what he wants and all he wants. This is no childish fantasy, Murdoch. Peter *is* going to be a gunfighter. There's nothing you can do to stop it and you need to let it go."

"He's a fourteen year old boy, Johnny," Murdoch argued.

"That don't make no difference, Murdoch! I saw it in his eyes. He's not going to stop. He won't be satisfied until he's drawn blood!" Sighing, Johnny stepped up to his father.

"Try to understand this. Peter doesn't care about anyone but Peter. He never has and he never will."

"What did he tell you?" Murdoch asked.

"Not one thing but he didn't have to. I saw it for myself. I saw the .... need," Johnny dropped his head again.

*

Murdoch stood stock still for long moments trying to understand what Johnny had just said. Need? Was that what it was, then? A need? It made no sense to him. None at all.

"Why is it a need, Johnny?"

Johnny turned away and walked over to the sideboard. He poured a double whiskey. "Want one?"

"No, thank you."

He lifted the glass and took a long pull before speaking again. "When you don't have anything or anyone to count on. When there's nothing else in your life that matters. That's when it becomes a need. And it doesn't matter if someone reaches out to you then. Your mind is made up. Call it stubbornness if you want. You're so focused on achieving that goal. So .... completely wrapped up in it, nothing else matters to you." He turned to look at his father. "No one matters to you."

"But, if we stay with it, if we just keep showing him a different life....."

"It won't matter. If he stays here, one of us is going to die," Johnny stated factually.

Murdoch took a step backwards. "What?!"

"You heard me. He knows I was a gunfighter. All he really wants to know now is who I was. If he finds that out while he's still here, he'll call me out. Maybe, if he leaves first, it won't seem so important to him. He'll move on."

Murdoch shook his head. "I can't accept that, Johnny. I can't accept that there's no getting through to him. He's a human being. He has feelings."

"No, he doesn't. He stopped having them a long time ago. He *made* himself stop. I know you don't understand this. And I know I can't make you understand. But, you're going to have to trust me on this, Murdoch. You're going to have to let this go."

Murdoch stared at him, his mind refusing to believe Johnny's words. He knew his son had the experience. He knew Johnny could read a person better than anyone he'd ever seen. But, he had to be wrong this time. He just had to be.

"I can't give up on him, son. You see that, don't you?"

*

Johnny stared at him in disbelief. "So you're gonna do what exactly? Unfire him? Well, that's just great, Murdoch! If you do that, you'll undermine any authority I have with those men out there. Those men who deserve to not have to put up with this nonsense!"

"You're right. He's not a very good hand anyway. But, he can stay here with us as our guest," Murdoch replied.

Johnny's anger had just reached the threshold of containment. He turned to the fireplace and launched the whiskey glass at it. A million shards of glass exploded into the hearth. He then turned his wrath on his father.

"I just told you what would happen if he stays here but you don't seem to care. Just so I'm clear on this, though. Do you want me to let him put a bullet in my head? Should I just stand there while he draws down on me? I mean, let me in on the plan here, old man!"

"Calm down! It won't come to that! I won't allow it," Murdoch yelled back.

"Oh, you won't allow it. Well, I'll sleep better now. Tell me somethin. Exactly who is it you're doing this for? It ain't that kid out there. He doesn't want your help and he won't accept it. Oh, he'll move right in here until he gets what he wants. Then you can bet he'll hightail it so fast your head will spin! Murdoch, you can't make up for the past. You can't turn it all around by saving this kid. Even if you did stop him, turn his life around, what would that solve? Not one thing!" Johnny pointed a finger at him.

"I'm not trying to ...."

"The hell you're not! I'm telling you right now if you let him stay here, one or more of us is gonna end up dead! That kid is not me, Murdoch! Get that through your head!"

"What is going on in here?"

They both turned quickly to find Scott standing in the doorway gaping at them.

Johnny sighed openly with relief but he needed to get out of there. "I'm telling you this is it, Murdoch. You know I would never do this but I'm doing it now. That's how much I know I'm right. If you let Peter stay in this house, you can say goodbye to me."

Johnny stormed past his father, mumbled a 'welcome back' to Scott and bolted up the stairs.

Scott stared at his back then turned narrowed eyes on his father.

"He didn't mean that," Murdoch said feebly.

"Oh, yes he did. I don't know what's been happening here but whatever it is, Johnny meant every word of what he just said. My question would be are you going to choose a complete stranger over the son you profess to care so much about?" Scott shot angrily.

"Of course not! Johnny will calm down."

"Yes, he will calm down. As soon as he's gone from here. I'll know that because I'll be with him. Think about it, Sir. Think about what this guilt of yours is costing you," Scott stated then hurried up the stairs to his brother.

Scott found it unnecessary to knock on Johnny's door because it was left standing wide open. Johnny was pacing the length of the room with his arms wrapped tightly around him.

Scott stood just inside the door and waited for his brother to start.

"I don't know what he thinks he's doing. I spent the day with that boy and I know what I know. I fired him tonight and now Murdoch wants to take him in. Next thing ya know he'll adopt the little brat!"

Scott raised a brow at this but remained silent.

"He figured out I was a gunfighter and now he's dead set on finding out who I was. He'll call me out, I know it."

"Can you take him?' Scott asked quite seriously.

Johnny stopped pacing and looked at his brother. He saw the sincerity of the inquiry and nodded. "Yeah. He's good. He'll be really good in a year or so but right now, he's not a threat to me. Just to Murdoch. He knows the old man is invested in him and he's trying to milk it. Plus the fact that I fired him. What are the men gonna think when Murdoch moves him in here?"

"That our father has lost his mind, no doubt," Scott quipped but he wasn't really joking. "So, you spent the day with him and found out how good he is. How did that come about?"

"I let him practice part of the day. Figured I could get a better sense of him that way and I did. Tonight, he came up to the porch and asked me who I was." Johnny shook his head. "See? He's smart, Scott. He really does have what it takes. He's just too young yet. I told him that but of course, he knows everything already!" Johnny's hands flew into the air in a gesture of complete frustration.

Scott smiled wryly. "And he told you he would call you out?"

"Yeah, said he wanted to know who I was. He was like a dog with a bone about it. Said he'd find out one way or another. I told the old man that! Hell, I guess he just don't give a damn," he sighed.

"He does give a damn, Johnny. Whatever is driving Murdoch has blinded him to reason."

"We both know what's driving him, Scott. That's why I can't understand him just shrugging off everything I told him. God! I got so mad at him!" he said through clenched teeth.

"Yes, I saw that and I don't blame you one bit. I take it Peter hasn't deigned to tell you a thing about himself either?"

"All I know is he's from Texas and I only knew that because of his drawl. His back went up even with that. And something else," Johnny frowned as he remembered an earlier thought.

"What?" Scott asked as he finally came fully into the room and sat on the bed.

"Something about the way he said somethin tonight. I almost got the feeling he was used to getting anything he wanted. Like a spoiled rich kid. But, that doesn't really add up."

"Why not?" Scott asked.

Johnny shrugged his shoulders. "Other things he's said. The way he talks, like he's had about as much schoolin as me," he grinned.

"Well, you don't have to be rich to expect things to be handed to you," Scott replied.

"Reckon that's true enough. Some people just think they're owed something." Sighing, Johnny looked at his brother closely. "Sure am glad you're back. You look done in."

"I am tired," Scott smiled.

"Not much of a welcome home, huh?"

"No, was yours any better?"

Johnny frowned. "I walked in on Peter goin off on Murdoch. Set him straight pretty quick. I didn't even know who the hell he was," he laughed. "Oh, and I got your note. Thanks for the warning."

"I hated leaving the way that boy was behaving but Murdoch insisted he could handle it," Scott explained.

"Yeah, well, maybe he'd do better without us around gettin in the way," Johnny stated bitterly.

Scott took to his feet and put a hand on his brother's shoulder. "You know that's just your anger talking. He does care about us, Johnny."

"Dammit, Scott, I know! That's what's so frustrating. It's like he can't even see what he's doing."

"Well, nothing is going to get resolved tonight. Hopefully, he'll think it through and realize what a bad idea it is," Scott smiled. "At any rate, I'm exhausted and I'm going to bed. Try to get some rest, brother."

Johnny slapped Scott in the gut and smiled back. "Goodnight and it really is good to have you home."

Scott laughed. "You only say that because you won't have to fight Murdoch alone now."

"That's not the only reason," Johnny spoke sincerely.

*

Murdoch sat in front of the cold ashes in the fireplace. It was too warm tonight to light the logs. He stared at the glass shards.

Why couldn't they understand what he was trying to do? He only wanted to save the boy from the same fate his own son had been forced to live with. Wasn't he?

Johnny's words screamed in his mind. 'That kid is not me' he'd said; no shouted. He didn't think he'd ever seen Johnny so angry before. Never had his son put on such a display. It had absolutely floored him. Maybe that was because Johnny felt he was right. Or maybe he was trying to avoid the inevitable?

Murdoch shook his head and refused to believe that. He knew he could get through to Peter with time and patience. The boy needed someone on his side. Someone to fight for him. Murdoch had the distinct impression he'd never had that before in his short life.

And that very fact was what gnawed at his guts. Fourteen. Johnny had been fifteen when he killed for the first time as Johnny Madrid. At least, as far as Murdoch knew. That's what the Pinkerton report read. And that was all he'd ever had to go on.

That would be his fault as well, he supposed. He never could talk to Johnny about the past in a civil tone. Always, the anger, resentment and hurt overcame him. No matter how many times he vowed to himself he would not allow it.

Would not allow it. The very words he'd said to Johnny tonight. He would not allow Peter to go gunning for his son. But, could he stop it if the boy was hell-bent? The only solution to that was unthinkable to Murdoch. He didn't want the boy hurt anymore. But how could he risk his own son's life?

He couldn't and he knew it. As much as he knew he couldn't just let Johnny leave and Scott with him. They had both given him an ultimatum tonight and Murdoch Lancer did not like ultimatums. Still, they had every right and he knew that, too.

He sighed tiredly as his mind whirled with thoughts. He would talk to Peter first thing in the morning. Really talk to him. Get to the bottom of what the boy was thinking and what, if any, chance he had.

If he continued to wear that angry mask, Murdoch would send him on his way and pray for him. It was all he could do. He knew that letting Peter stay here was very much a slap in the face to Johnny's authority. Plus the fact that this was their home and their ranch. They were his sons, not Peter. There was no choice. Johnny and Scott came first, period.

No, he could never let them go like that. He would explain that to them both as well.

Murdoch supposed he should go to bed what with all the explaining he had to do tomorrow. In his heart he knew it was a lost cause but he had to give it just one last try. But even if he were successful, he'd have to make other arrangements for Peter. There was too much bad blood here now; too much danger. The boy could never stay on.

He stood up and stretched his back muscles then went about extinguishing the lamps as he made his way upstairs.

*

Murdoch woke from a fitful sleep an hour before dawn. Sighing, he knew he'd best get up as the day promised to hold more tension. He made quick work of dressing and made his way downstairs. He walked outside to watch the dawning.

"Mornin," came a soft voice from the corner of the house.

Murdoch turned and craned his neck. "Good morning," he answered, wondering if the boy would show himself.

He did a second later. Peter walked around the corner with a slight smile on his face.

"You're up early," Murdoch noted.

"Figured I'd get an early start seein as how I got a lot of miles to make," he shrugged.

"Where are you headed?"

Peter looked at him for a beat then turned to stare out over the yard. "South." Hearing the sigh, he decided to go a little further. "To the border, in fact. I heard there's always somethin happenin down there."

"Yes, that's what I hear," Murdoch mumbled.

There was several minutes of silence as both of them were lost in their own thoughts.

"Peter, what would make a difference? What would make you change your mind about this life you seem so desperate to lead?"

The boy looked at him without emotion. "Nothin. Why does it matter to you what I do? I ain't nothin to you."

"That's not true. I know you don't understand but I want to help you. I want to stop you from going down that road. It will only lead to an early grave and a great deal of suffering." Murdoch heard the tremble in his own voice but he couldn't stop it.

"Boy, you sure got a lot a guilt, old man. Is Johnny that important to ya?"

"Johnny? This isn't about Johnny but, yes, of course he's important to me. He's my son."

"You must think I'm real stupid. I might be young but I ain't dumb. This is *all* about Johnny and that life. What happened? He take off and ya couldn't stop 'im? Reckon ya should be happy he decided ta come back."

"It wasn't like that. Johnny didn't have a choice. He was all alone and he didn't know I wanted him to come home. I suppose I will always feel guilty for not being able to find him for so many years. But, the life he lead is exactly what you're headed for. He can tell you it's no life at all," Murdoch spoke gently.

"Yeah, so he said. But, I figure he just couldn't cut it. Couldn't make the grade as a real gunfighter. I reckon he hightailed it here quick as he could cause he was scared," Peter grinned.

"Johnny is not afraid of anything! He was one of the best and he walked away because he wanted more. He wanted a home and a family and a chance to live past twenty!" Murdoch growled.

Peter wasn't fazed in the least. He looked solemnly at the man. "Sounds like you're almost proud of him bein a gunfighter."

"I ..." Murdoch slumped his shoulders. "I am proud of my son. He didn't have to stay here. He could have gone back but he made the choice. And I'm grateful for his skill. It's kept him alive this long. The point is, Peter, that you don't have to go through that. If you'll let me, I can find you a good home. A home with people who will care for and love you."

The boy snorted distastefully. "What makes you think I didn't have a home? Look, old man, I don't want a family. I don't want to care about anybody. I do a lot better on my own. Always have and that's how I like it. Stop tryin to save me. I don't want to be saved." His voice was hard as rock and sincere.

"Why? What was so terrible that you would turn your back on the whole world?" Murdoch asked, lowering his voice even more.

Peter turned back to staring at the yard. "What makes you think anything happened? Why can't you just get that this is how I am. I ain't got it in me to care for nobody." Turning back and looking directly in Murdoch's eyes, he added, "and that includes you."

Murdoch could not begin to fathom the boy's words much less accept them. Everyone needed someone. At some point in his life, Peter had or would need someone to care about him. Murdoch was as sure of that as he was of his own name.

Shaking his head slowly, he paced a few feet away before turning back. "I don't believe that, Peter. You will need someone at some point. Then what will you do? Once you've alienated the entire world around you, who will you turn to then?"

The kid smirked at him. "The devil, I reckon."

Murdoch took three steps and grabbed the boy's arm shaking it hard. "Do you think this is funny, boy? This is your life we're talking about!"

"Oh, what fresh hell is this?"

*

Murdoch released his hold and turned to see Johnny standing at the French doors, Scott just coming up behind him.

"Your old man's tryin to save my soul," Peter snipped.

Johnny eyed him briefly then dismissed him which infuriated Peter.

"And how were you planning on doing that?" Johnny directed to Murdoch.

Murdoch walked over and stood near his sons as he turned back to Peter. "By offering to find him a good home and a good family."

Scott, for one, sighed in relief. He had hoped their father had come to his senses before the new day. It appeared he had. "I take it Peter is not interested," he surmised.

"You take it right," the boy quipped.

"Well, then I guess there's nothin keeping you here. See ya," Johnny smiled quickly and stepped off the porch.

"Just one thing. You," Peter said coldly.

Johnny stopped and turned slowly toward the boy as he too stepped into the yard.

"Don't let me stop ya, kid. You and me got no business," Johnny said with a flat tone.

"Well, that ain't entirely true, is it, Madrid?" Peter smirked.

The only reaction Johnny had to the name was on the inside. He allowed his eyes to smile, however. He could feel the tension coming off his family as they stood nearby.

Peter's own eyes lit up. "I'm right, ain't I? I *knew* it!" He was almost giddy with excitement.

"Well, I did say you were smart. Didn't I say that, Scott?" Johnny raised his voice a little.

"Yes, you did say that, Johnny. Just last night, in fact," Scott confirmed, though his own voice was not nearly as light as his brother's seemed to be.

"How'd you figure it out?" Johnny asked.

Peter shrugged. "Little things but mostly I remembered stories about you when I was a kid."

"Give yourself a little time and you'll do alright," Johnny advised, not feeling up to pointing out that Peter still was a kid.

"I think I've had enough time as it is," Peter replied quickly. He didn't want his prey to start walking away now. No, not now that he knew for certain.

"Johnny, don't," Murdoch almost pleaded.

*

Peter turned to him with a quizzical look. "What is it ya don't want him to do?"

Murdoch looked hard at the boy. "Kill you."

Peter laughed for the first time any of them knew of. "You got a lot of confidence in him. Let's see how much that's worth." He spat the last sentence, anger once more ruling him.

"I ain't gonna fight you, kid. I've got no reason," Johnny interrupted.

"Sure you do. Reason bein, if you don't, I'll shoot you down where you stand."

Johnny heard the ice in the voice, saw it in the blue eyes and knew it for what it was. He almost shook his head at the gall but he knew that gesture would be misunderstood. But, the kid had guts and he knew the game well enough. Yeah, if he lived out this day, he had real potential. Peter had already made his stand and was ready for the dance. Johnny sighed and faced him full on.

He noted the posture, the tension in the shoulders and the steel in Peter's eyes. His own posture was relaxed, almost bored but his eyes were hard.

Peter locked onto those eyes, unable once again to read Johnny. He felt a modicum of uncertainty but shook it off quickly. He could do this and he knew it. He could take Johnny Madrid. And once he did, he'd be on easy street.  

Scott stood like a steel rod as he watched the familiar face-off. Too familiar, he thought sadly. Yet, he knew there wasn't anything he could do about it. He had learned a long time ago not to interfere in these situations. Johnny would not appreciate it and it could well get his brother killed.

Murdoch had a look of desperation, almost panic on his face as his mind turned over possible solutions. He had to stop this and now.

"Johnny, walk away. He won't shoot you in the back. He knows he won't get a reputation like that," he reasoned.

Johnny's lip curled up a little. "He knows that, does he?" he asked, never moving.

"Yeah, do I?" Peter echoed, knowing it was true but hoping Johnny didn't believe it. He wasn't a backshooter. He wasn't a coward.

Murdoch made a last ditch effort. One that had worked in other situations with his son and one he hoped would work now. "Johnny, I am telling you not to do this!"

It did work but in a million years, Murdoch Lancer would not have suspected it to work so horribly wrong.

Johnny knew it was a mistake the split second he made it. He glanced at his father. He saw the motion in his periphery and turned back to Peter, drawing his gun as he did. Johnny crouched and stepped to the left as he fired.

Scott had grabbed Murdoch's arm when he shouted at Johnny but it was too late then. There was nothing he could do.

Both older Lancers stared in shock as the scene played out before them. Two shots, two swirls of smoke mixing into the acrid scent of gunpowder then silence. The deafening silence that only follows tumult.

Scott found his legs and moved to his brother.

Murdoch went to Peter and pulled the gun from his hand. Blue eyes fluttered open and the boy stared at him.

"Did I get him? Did I get Madrid?" he asked in a hushed and strained voice.

"What?" Murdoch asked in disbelief.

"Did I do it? Did I kill Johnny Madrid?" He asked with a sense of urgency.

Murdoch's mouth gaped open then closed then repeated the process twice more. His face then hardened and in a steely voice he answered. "No, you did not."

Peter stared openly at him then his eyes rolled back and closed.

Scott pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it against the chest wound. He felt rather than saw Jelly run up. He heard the old man say he'd send for Sam. He heard the bustle of activity as the hands came upon the scene but his eyes never left his brother.

Johnny was staring at the sky in a daze. A small smile came on his lips as he blinked and focused on his brother.

"He snookered me," he whispered. "He didn't let me see how fast he really was." Then, he coughed a little and wheezed with the effort. His breaths came harsher as he struggled for them.

"Easy, brother. We'll get you inside and fixed up. Don't worry, you'll be fine," Scott soothed.

Johnny didn't argue. He couldn't and breathe, too. But he wasn't so sure about that being fine part. He knew where he'd been hit and it wasn't good at all. He could only nod and close his eyes, wondering where his father was.

*

Murdoch knelt next to Peter in shock. His mind was a blank page. He couldn't form a single thought and so he simply stared at the boy.

He felt a hand on his shoulder. Firm at first then increasing in strength as someone shook him hard.

"Mr. Lancer?"

He looked up into Frank's face and only blinked.

"We'll take care of him. Don't you want to go to Johnny?" Frank asked, completely stunned by the man's behavior.

"Johnny?" he whispered. A frown formed then. "Johnny?"

"Johnny's been shot, Sir," Frank informed him.

This information instilled life back into the man and he leapt to his feet. "Shot? Where?" he asked as he looked around.

"Scott took him upstairs. Miguel's gone for the doc."

Murdoch shook his head hard to clear it then headed inside.

The men laid Johnny gently on the bed then disappeared quietly. Scott began to unbutton his shirt then sighed. It was a useless chore. The shirt would have to be cut off. Johnny couldn't stand being moved that much.

Scott became aware of Jelly standing on the other side of the bed.

"I need scissors, Jelly, and more pillows."

"I'm on it," the man said and fled the room, nearly running smack into Murdoch.

Scott glanced up at his father and turned his head in disgust, once more concentrating on his brother.

"Nice of you to join us," he quipped.

"I didn't know," Murdoch explained.

"How could you? I'm sure you were quite busy," Scott continued in the same tone.

"I ... I just assumed Johnny would take him down clean," Murdoch fumbled.

Scott whirled around. "I'm sure he could have had he not been so distracted!"

Murdoch stood aghast but found he had no words.

Scott's attention on him didn't last long as he heard a gasp from the bed. He turned and knelt beside his brother.

*

Johnny's eyes opened slowly and his breathing increased in rapidity. Once too shallow to be visibly seen, his chest now rose and fell too quickly.

"Scott," he croaked out. "Can't breathe."

"I know, Johnny. I know it feels that way but you are breathing, brother. Just keep doing it," Scott said softly.

Jelly reappeared with the pillows and they propped him up higher. It seemed to help some and Johnny sighed softly.  

"Lung," he whispered.

"I'm afraid so," Scott said forlornly.

"You just listen ta ole Jelly right now, Johnny. That lung has more'n likely collapsed on ya but ya got another one right over here," he patted Johnny's chest gently. "You'll be alright til the doc can get out here and fix ya up. You jest keep concentratin on that breathin. That's all ya gotta do. That's your job."

Jelly knew it was a lot of hot air on his part but if it helped Johnny stay calm, he'd tell bigger whoppers than that!

Johnny nodded and appreciated the attempt but he wasn't a fool. He decided not to let Jelly in on that just now. If it made the old man feel better, there was no harm in it. Besides, he didn't have the strength to argue.

He sucked in air between his clenched teeth, curling his fingers into the blanket. "Hurts," he exhaled.

"Hold onto me, brother," Scott said and grabbed his hand.

Murdoch watched the interaction feeling completely inadequate. He closed his eyes and forced himself to think rationally. He turned and walked out without being noticed.

Soon, he returned with a pitcher of cold water and a towel. He wet the towel and wrung it out then handed it to Scott.

"Put that on his chest. It might help the pain," he explained. "Make sure that wound is covered tightly so no air gets out," he went on, starting to feel some control return to his frazzled mind.

Murdoch walked around the bed. Gently pushing Jelly aside a little, he knelt beside his son.

"Johnny, I know you don't want to hear this right now, son, but I'm so sorry. It never occurred to me you'd been hit. And I should have kept my mouth shut."

"Got that part right," Johnny whispered but he wouldn't look at his father. He couldn't and keep any semblance of control over his emotions.

He closed his eyes and concentrated on breathing and mastering his pain. It was all he could do. He fought hard against the darkness, afraid to let go. Afraid he would never find his way back again. And he wanted to talk to his brother. Wanted so badly to talk with him right now.

*

Murdoch noticed Frank standing in the doorway to Johnny's room looking very uncomfortable. He twisted his hat in his hands as he waited to be seen.

The rancher got up and walked over to him.

"We put the kid in a bedroom downstairs. Figured once Doc was done with Johnny, he could take a look."

Murdoch's brows went up. "He's alive?"

"Barely but he's fightin hard," Frank said with disdain.

Murdoch sighed and nodded. "Have someone stay with him, Frank. I don't want him alone for a second!"

Frank nodded and left but he reckoned the kid was done doing any more harm for quite some time. If he survived, that is.

"What did Frank want?" Scott asked.

"It's nothing, son. Just details," Murdoch said, not wanting to face anymore wrath at the moment. He knew what he'd done and what it might cost him and he felt sick to his stomach.

Johnny opened his eyes at the voices. He found Scott's face and smiled weakly, squeezing his brother's hand.

Scott returned the smile but it was pretty pathetic he was sure. Johnny was incredibly pale and struggling so hard for air. He put his free hand on his brother's head which was soaked with sweat. Scott looked into those eyes and knew Johnny wanted to speak. He was against that idea but he saw the urgency forming. He leaned down so his face was a breath from his brother's.

"What is it, Johnny?" he asked in a whisper.

"Stay," Johnny replied.

"I won't leave you."

Johnny shook his head a little. "No, stay here," he said.

Scott pulled back and frowned then understanding dawned. He leaned back in. "And why would I think about leaving you?"

Johnny gave him a knowing look. One that would have brought Scott to his knees if he weren't already on them.

"No, Johnny. You aren't going anywhere. Don't leave me," he stated emphatically, though his voice broke at the end.

"I...."

"Promise me, brother," Scott interrupted.

Johnny gave him a sad smile and knew he could not make that promise. "I promise I ...." he stopped and took several breaths. "I'll try."

Scott's head dropped but he nodded his understanding. It was the best his brother could give him and Johnny was trying so hard to tell him that. Taking a deep breath, Scott looked back up.

"Okay. I'll take it," he smiled.

"Te amo," Johnny barely made the sounds.

Scott wrinkled his nose and blinked a few times before answering in a cracked voice. "Te amo, hermano."

Murdoch watched it all through blurred eyes. The tears formed there but had stubbornly refused to fall. He wanted to tell Johnny he loved him but his son wouldn't even look at him. Who could blame him? He had done the very thing he'd been trying to avoid this morning. He'd put his son's life at risk.

*

The scene was disrupted by quickly nearing footsteps and a second later, Sam entered the room.

Scott quickly told him what had happened and about the injury. The doctor took in the information with a scowl. He began barking orders, many of which had been anticipated by Jelly who took control of readying the room.

Sam sent Murdoch for more lamps and Johnny grabbed the man's hand when he saw his father leave. Sam leaned down close.

"Don't let me ..... die yet," Johnny struggled out.

"I'll do everything I can, Johnny. You know that," Sam tried to assure him.

"I have to have time to talk to Murdoch before..." he couldn't finish but he felt Sam understood.

The doctor swallowed hard and nodded, patting his arm then returning to setting up his operating field. All the while wondering what had happened between father and son that would make Johnny say such a thing. As if he'd let him die if he could help it. But he knew Johnny and he knew the young man had always accepted that death was inevitable. Whether it be at so young an age or as an old man, Johnny had never feared it. Sam suspected there was a time when the young man would have gladly accepted, even embraced death.

He shook these morbid thoughts away and concentrated on what was required to reverse the pneumothorax. There was no doubt in his mind the right lung had indeed collapsed. The bullet was in there somewhere as well.

He was ready to begin and as much as he hated it, he knew he needed some help. He never liked the family to be in the room when he operated. But, he had no choice this time.

"Murdoch, you have experience with ether. I'll need you to take care of putting him to sleep," he explained.

Murdoch flinched at this but nodded his head. He accepted the bottle and mask from the doctor then looked down at his son. Johnny was watching him closely and he took the opportunity.

Leaning close he said, "forgive me, son. I was so very wrong. I love you, Johnny."

A single tear escaped down Johnny's face and he nodded almost imperceptibly.

"I have to put the mask over your face now. Just let it happen, son. Don't fight it. I'm right here. I promise I won't leave you alone," he swore as he swiped at the tear with his thumb.

His voice was so gentle, Johnny closed his eyes and allowed the anesthesia, feeling a warmth surrounding him. He knew it wasn't this easy but he also knew his father meant what he said. If he survived this, there would be much to discuss. But, right now, when he knew he was so close to death, he accepted the comfort of the words.

Scott stood next to Sam waiting for instruction. He used the back of his hand to wipe at his eyes and he prayed harder than he ever had in his life.

*

For three hours, Sam Jenkins worked diligently until he had repaired the damage. He held his own breath as he commanded the lung to move, to pink up and expand. So hard did he concentrate, he felt the pulse in his temple throb.

Then it happened. The lung regained its normal, healthy color and expanded as air filled it once more. Sam wouldn't allow himself to rejoice just yet, though. He waited a full minute. Waited and watched before he felt confident the lung would hold and the immediate danger was past.

He then blew out the air he'd held in his own lungs and nodded with a grim satisfaction. He had to suture the wound still. But he allowed a glance at Murdoch who was staring into Johnny's chest cavity, wallowing in some sort of hell Sam knew nothing about.

"It's working," he said in a normal tone.

Murdoch blinked and looked at him with confusion.

"His lung is working. It's holding its own. I just have to stitch him up now," the doctor explained.

Murdoch allowed a fleeting smile and nodded his head then went back to his private world.

Scott sighed with relief and allowed his shoulders to relax for the first time. He continued his duties as Sam's assistant until the last bandage was secured. During all of this, he never spoke other than to reply to Sam's requests or ask a question if he didn't understand one of those request.

Scott's mind was in turmoil. He'd watched his father and had not a clue what the man was thinking or feeling. He prayed fervently that Murdoch really did love Johnny as much as he professed. Thinking of all that had transpired since Peter had come into their lives, he was left with lingering doubts and he hated it.

"He needs to stay still for at least two days. That shouldn't be too hard. He'll sleep through today and most of tonight probably. Then, he won't feel like doing anything else anyway. After that, we'll see how well he progresses. It will take a couple of weeks before I'm satisfied he's completely out of danger. That lung needs time to heal," Sam was saying.

"Change the bandages once a day and send for me if there's any drainage or signs of infection. I'm going to have to leave this chest tube in for a day or so and you'll have to be very careful with it. If it gets pulled out, that lung will collapse again instantly. Don't let that happen."

Sam looked at them both. "Are you listening to me?" he asked with some anger.

"Yes, Sam. Don't pull the tube out, change the dressings every day and let you know if there's signs of infection," Scott repeated dully.

"And?" Sam raised a brow.

Scott looked at him and smiled softly. "And don't let him move about until you say so."

"Good! Now, I could use a cup of coffee," the doctor sighed.

Murdoch looked up then and sighed heavily himself. "You may have another patient downstairs, Sam. If he's still alive, that is."

"He's alive?" Scott asked in dismay.

"He was earlier. I told Frank to have someone stay with him," Murdoch replied without emotion.

"Who is he?" Sam asked.

"The one who did this!" Scott spat as he pointed at his brother.

Sam rolled his eyes to the heavens and shook his head. "Well, I suppose I'd better take a look."

*

He entered the downstairs bedroom to find Jelly tending his patient.

"How's Johnny?" the handyman asked immediately.

"Alive and he has a good chance," Sam replied, glad, as always, to give good news.

Jelly nodded, even smiled a little before his face went flat again. "This'n is holdin on though I don't know how. Got a bullet in his chest."

"Seems to be the order of the day. Jelly, what the devil happened here?" Sam asked as he approached the bed then pulled up short. "My God! He's a child!"

Jelly snorted loudly. "Ain't that young. Old enough ta be stupid. He called Johnny out. Wouldn't give 'im no choice. Thought he was a bigshot!"

At Sam's cocked brow, Jelly became even more indignant. "He wouldn't've made it this far if Murdoch had stayed out of it. He distracted Johnny and got him shot!"

"Murdoch? Why would he do such a foolish thing?" Sam asked, totally dismayed with this news.

"Hmmph! Why dontcha ask 'im. Ain't none of us been able ta figure out what's got inta him lately. He brought this boy here and danged near let 'im kill his own son! Johnny told 'im but Murdoch wouldn't listen. Thought he could save thisn's soul!" Jelly proclamated.

Sam made an ahhh face to show he understood. Well, partly understood. It would have to do for now. He needed to take care of the boy. Everything else would have to wait.

*

Scott cleaned up the mess from the surgery quietly. Murdoch sat next to Johnny holding his hand and staring at his pale face.

Once the elder son was finished, he settled in a chair opposite his father. "I'll sit with him."

"I'm fine," Murdoch replied.

"Are you sure? Don't you want to see about your protégé?" Scott shot sarcastically.

Murdoch's head jerked up. "I'm not leaving Johnny," he stated.

Scott shook his head. "As usual, Murdoch, your insight has come a little too late where Johnny is concerned."

"What does that mean?"

"It means that you should have listened to him in the first place," Scott said, his voice even but far from a calm tone.

"Scott, I know I made a mistake with Peter. I was sending him away. I was only trying to keep him from ..."

"Getting himself killed? You never once considered how you were putting Johnny at risk, did you?"

"No, I didn't. Johnny said he wasn't good enough yet," Murdoch defended.

"And he wouldn't have been if you hadn't ...." Scott stopped and took a calming breath. "What the devil were you thinking, Sir? Why would you yell at Johnny at that moment?"

"I was hoping to defuse the situation, Scott!"

"Then you should have yelled at the one who instigated it, Murdoch!"

"I know that!" he shouted. Giving himself a second to calm, he went on. "I know that now. Don't you think I am fully aware this is all my fault? Don't think for a second I don't know that, Scott. All I can do now is take care of Johnny and pray he can find a way to forgive me."

"You might want to think about what it is he has to forgive you for, Murdoch," Scott reminded him.

The rancher frowned and looked quizzically at Scott.

Sighing, the younger man tried to explain. "Bringing that boy here was an insult to Johnny. It was as if you were trying to replace him."

"That's not what I was trying to do!"

"Isn't it? Think about it, Murdoch. Was all this really a way to try to assuage your own guilt for not finding Johnny? For not stopping what happened to him? Or was it a way for you to finally know what life would have been like without a gunfighter for a son?"

Murdoch felt as if he'd been stabbed in the heart. He stared at Scott, refusing to believe for a second any of it was true. He shook his head slowly back and forth in denial but Scott's accusing eyes never wavered from his own.

Those eyes that held such knowledge and understanding. Such insight into the way people worked and the things they felt and why they did what they did. Scott had always been astute. In fact, he was far more p erspicacious than his young years could account for.

"I honestly don't know what I was trying to do anymore," Murdoch answered tiredly. He wasn't up to this argument right now. He surely didn't want his own son taking him to task. Especially when part of him knew Scott was right. At least about some of it.

*

Sam finished the surgery and simply stared at the young face. Not even old enough to shave yet, he thought morosely. He instructed Jelly on the feeding tube he'd inserted much to the wrangler's chagrin and insult. Jelly informed him he reckoned he'd been around long enough to know what was what. And, anyway, he hoped he wouldn't have to deal with it for too long.

"How long before he can travel anyways, Doc?" Jelly asked.

"Travel where?"

"Anywhere away from here! He ain't got no business in this house or on this ranch! I want 'im outta here and you can bet your bottom dollar, Scott and Johnny want the same!" he announced with surety.

Sam didn't react, he couldn't blame any of them. "Well, I'm afraid it will be at least five days, Jelly. When he's ready, I guess you can bring him to me."

"How bout the jailhouse? That's where he belongs!"

"That's up to the sheriff but if that is where he's headed, it should be alright. Val keeps an amazingly clean jail considering," Sam noted with a bit of amusement. If the sheriff of Green River would only keep himself as tidy as he kept his jail, he might catch himself a woman one of these days.

Sam poured the much craved cup of coffee and sat down with a groan at the table. Scott walked in with a water pitcher to fill and smiled weakly at the man.

"How's the boy?" he asked as he pumped the water into the container.

"He has a chance. I'd give him 50/50."

"Oh, joy!" Scott said snidely.

Sam nearly choked on his coffee. "I've never known you to be so vindictive, Scott."

Scott dropped his shoulders and sat at the table. "I've never met anyone so pococurante, Sam. That boy doesn't care about anything or anyone except making a name for himself."

"Ah, so that's the story behind the story. Jelly told me a little. Mostly, he cussed about Murdoch. So, the boy was after Johnny's reputation?"

"No, he was after one of his own. He just happened to decide to start right here and now. He figured out who Johnny was though I don't know how. I'm quite sure no one here would have told him. He's been quite a little jackass since he arrived," Scott explained.

"Doesn't sound like something Murdoch would put up with for one second," Sam thought aloud.

"No, it doesn't, does it? Yet, he dragged the boy in here. Trying to save him. Or maybe trying to undo what he couldn't undo in the past," Scott explained.

Sam sat his coffee cup down a bit harshly. "Are you telling me Murdoch was trying to make up for Johnny with that boy? Please don't say that is the reason for all this misery."

"I wish I could tell you different, Sam. But, I believe that is the most compelling reason Murdoch had. I've had other even less charitable thoughts about it."

"Such as?"

"Such as my insane father was trying to replace the son he has," Scott spat the words angrily.

"I usually sit here and tell you how I really feel about you when you're too hurt and unconscious to hear me. But, I'm not going to do that this time, Johnny. I'm going to wait until you can hear me to tell you how much I love you. Maybe by then, I'll have sorted out what I was thinking about Peter. One thing I know for sure is that I was not trying to replace you. No one could ever replace you, son.  

"I guess I saw you in Peter. Saw what you were like at that age. How you grew into Johnny Madrid. I wanted to find the moment, the time when that could have been changed. When someone would have made a difference in the path you took. But you told me that time had already passed for Peter. That it was too late for him.

"I just couldn't allow myself to believe that, Johnny. I couldn't believe that, even then, no one could have reached you. That need you talked about couldn't have been so strong in a fourteen year old boy. I know you were doing the same thing as Peter when you were that age. Practicing and learning.

"When did it start, son? When your mother died or even before that? When was your fate set in stone? What event caused you to go down that road? Was it even one thing or a lifetime of hurt and disappointment? I have so many questions about it. I want so much to know. I don't suppose it would make one bit of difference but it's a need I have, son.

"One I could never talk to you about. And maybe that's because I was afraid to hear the answer. I didn't want to hear that my failures caused the life you had to lead. That because I couldn't keep your mother happy, you were forced to make those choices for yourself. Or that her lies to you about me had caused it. I've tried to understand, Johnny. I've tried to ignore the past, pretend it doesn't matter. But, when I see the pain in your eyes, I know it does matter. And you would never tell me about it, would you?

"No, you wouldn't and not because it would hurt you but because you thought it would hurt me. And it would. But I'd rather feel that pain than not know the truth. I should have told you all this long ago. I should have tried so much harder with you. But I was a coward. Too afraid you would blame me deep down.

"And now, I've come very near to losing you forever in one way or the other. I never would have chosen him over you. I want you to know that and I will tell you that when you can hear me. I just had to try once more with him. But I knew no matter what, he couldn't stay here. I couldn't lose you and Scott again. I'm so very sorry I hurt you, son. I hate it more than you could ever know.

"You've called me a proud man before. But, I'm more of a fool, I think. Stubborn and defensive. Too hard-headed to listen. It's true that I don't listen to yours or Scott's opinions like I should. I always think I know best. I guess because I'm older and supposed to be wiser but we both know that isn't always true.

"I have to be right because to be wrong would be to lose control. That's something else I'm afraid of losing. So, I hang on like a dog with a bone regardless of who it hurts. How many times have I hurt you and not even realized it, Johnny? How many, I wonder? Well, I think it's long past time for this old dog to learn some new tricks. Maybe, you and Scott could teach me some?

*

Jelly stood in the doorway, unashamed of his eavesdropping. Why did it take this for the boss to come to his senses? He didn't know and he was too tired to worry on it. He was just glad it had happened. Wiping at his eyes, he composed himself before letting his presence be known.

Clearing his throat, Jelly bounced through the door. "Sawbones says Johnny's gonna be right as rain."

"Yes, that's what he said," Murdoch replied.

"Says the kid's got half a chance. Says if he does alright, he can be moved in bout five days."

"Moved?" Murdoch asked distractedly.

"Yep. Sam says he can take him at his place or the jail." Jelly waited for the reaction.

"Alright. Thank you, Jelly."

The old man raised both brows nearly off his head. "That all ya got ta say about it?"

Murdoch looked up at him. "What do you want me to say? He nearly killed my son!"

"That'd be what I wanted ya ta say," Jelly replied calmly then turned and walked out. He headed for the kitchen and Scott to tell him what he'd heard and what Murdoch had to say to Jelly's own news.

Scott wasn't elated but he was at least happier than he had been. Hopefully, Murdoch would keep his word and talk to Johnny when his brother could hear and respond to him. It was easy to say all those things and make all those promises to an unconscious man. Scott reserved judgment until Johnny was lucid.

*

Johnny did wake up the next morning - briefly. He faded in and out most of that second day. Too tired and in too much pain to try more than drinking the water they forced on him. He started the third day with staying awake ten full minutes but soon enough, he was soundly sleeping again.

Murdoch stayed by his side as much as he could. Only leaving to sleep and eat. He pushed the fluids and ignored the looks Johnny gave him. His son wasn't ready to hear him yet. He had to be patient though it wasn't something he was used to being. But this wasn't about him and he had finally understood that.

He had not asked about Peter. He assumed someone would tell him if the boy died. He hated feeling this way but the kid had brung it on himself. He had been completely dumbstruck when Peter, lying on the ground with a bullet in his chest, had only one thought on his mind. Had he done it? Had he killed Johnny Madrid?

Murdoch shook his head at the audacity of the boy. Asking those questions of Johnny's father. The excitement; the bloodlust in Peter's eyes had chilled Murdoch to the marrow. He'd half expected the boy to start salivating with anticipation that he'd been successful.

Closing his eyes and trying to erase the image and words from his mind, Murdoch didn't notice Johnny awaken.

He stared at his father, head down, eyes clinched tightly and wondered what Murdoch was thinking. Was he really sorry or was he worrying about Peter? Johnny didn't like having such ugly thoughts but how could he not?   He hadn't wanted any of this yet it was thrown on him anyway. Now, he didn't even want his father near him. He didn't want to hear the apologies and the excuses. All he wanted was to get well and get the hell away from here for awhile. Go somewhere he could think and sort it all out. Someplace quite. Someplace where Peter wasn't.

Oh, he knew the kid was still here. Had heard Jelly and Scott talking about when he could be moved. He could hear the frustration in both their voices as Sam had told them another week. That the kid wasn't doing as well as he should. Tough! Johnny thought. If he hadn't been so distracted, the kid would be six feet under by now.

He also knew none of them had considered that as long as Peter was alive, Johnny was in danger. He supposed it just hadn't occurred to them. But as soon as he had a second alone with his brother, he would make sure Scott understood. He didn't think there was much they could do about it. As long as he was flat on his back, he was a sitting duck. The only saving grace was that Peter wasn't exactly dancing a jig either.

He had time to recover some, it would have to be enough, before the boy could come after him again. For Johnny knew with everything he was, that was exactly what Peter intended to do.  

*

"I ain't goin!"

"Oh, yes you are!"

"Ya can't make me!"

Scott took a deep breath and tried very hard to hang onto what was left of his temper. "You listen to me you little maggot! You are not staying here one day longer. This is MY home and you WILL leave it today. Now, you can do that in the back of a wagon where you'll be fairly comfortable OR you can try and sit a horse. The choice is yours. Ultimately, your sorry hide is off this ranch today!

"Perhaps you aren't familiar with the law so I'll explain it to you. You are not allowed to stay on someone else's property without an invitation. You were fired and you tried to kill my brother. Now, you want to be Mr. Tough, fine! Suck it up and get a move on!" Scott stood, hands on hips and glared at the boy in the bed.

Jelly stood beside him listening with joy as Scott let him have it. He then moved forward and tossed Peter's clothes at him.

"This family's been more charitable to ya than ya deserve, fer sure. After what you done, they coulda let ya lay out there and bleed ta death. Ever think a that?!"

Peter glared at the old man but said nothing more. He grabbed angrily at his shirt and shucked it on, wincing at the pull from the stitches.

Scott watched him suspiciously. "How sick have you really been this week?"

Peter glanced at him. "Doc said I couldn't go nowhere so I didn't! Ya gonna watch me put on my pants, too?"

"Yes, I am. Nothing I haven't seen before. In fact, I'm not letting you out of my sight until I can no longer see your dust from the road," Scott promised.

Peter just gave him a disgusted look as he struggled into his pants. He pulled on his boots and stood shakily, grabbing the bedpost to keep himself righted.

"Well, have you decided? Wagon or horseback?" Scott asked.

"Wagon, I reckon. But that don't mean I'm leavin my horse behind!" he growled.

"Of course not. We wouldn't want any more reminders of you than we already have!" Scott shot right back. He turned and opened the door, then waved a hand for Peter to move it along.

He took two steps then stopped, narrowing his eyes. "Where's my rig?"

"Oh, I have it. Don't worry, it's by the door," Scott said. A smile lifted his mouth when Peter walked by.

*

Murdoch was standing out on the porch waiting for the boy's departure. A very disgruntled Jelly stalked out and climbed into the wagon seat.

Peter stopped by the front door and waited expectantly. Scott opened a drawer in the table by the entranceway and pulled out his rig, handing it to him.

Peter swung the belt around his slim hips and buckled it quickly. Then, he pulled the Colt out and checked it. His face reddened with anger.

"It's empty," he said.

"Yes, it seems to be," Scott replied.

"Where's my bullets?"

"Ah, well we took them as partial payment."

Peter cocked his head. "Partial payment?"

"Yes, for room and board while you've been recovering. Oh, and any pay you had coming was also used as payment for services rendered by Dr. Jenkins. You really didn't think you were going to get a free ride, did you?" Scott asked, hardening his voice with the last.

Peter gritted his teeth, his jaw muscles twitching. "Ain't nothin free."

"That's right, Peter. The only things that are free are the air you breath and love. We all know you are quite incapable of the latter."

Peter frowned as he tried to figure out what the hell Scott just said. He figured it was an insult and he was gettin mighty tired of those. He decided he'd get out of here and lay low until he could figure out his next move. He turned and opened the door, stepping out and into the yard.

Murdoch walked up to him, stared him down, then turned and walked back inside.

Peter only glared back and climbed into the wagon bed, barely settling before Jelly took off.

Scott stood there, as promised, until he could no longer see the dust made by the moving wagon. Sighing, he walked back inside and hoped that was the last they ever saw of Peter ..... he shook his head. He didn't even know the boy's last name and, he found he didn't care.

*

Scott stood in the doorway of the great room uncertain. Murdoch was staring out the picture window and wasn't aware of his presence he was sure. He turned and headed up the stairs.

"Thank God!" Johnny breathed out in relief.

"What? Did you need something?" Scott asked as he hurried to the bedside.

"Yeah, I've been needing to talk to you alone, brother," Johnny replied in all seriousness.

Scott nodded and sat down.

"I want my gun," Johnny stated.

Scott cocked a brow. "Alright. I'll get it for you. May I ask why?"

"Do you have to?"

"Jelly just drove Peter to town," Scott informed him.

"Don't matter. He's still breathin and he's up and about. I need my gun, Scott."

"Do you think he'd come back here?" Scott asked, floored by the idea.

"I do and I ain't gonna be caught with my pants down, so to speak," Johnny said a bit wryly.

Scott smiled briefly. "I made sure he didn't have any bullets when he left. He doesn't have any money either," he said, hoping that would help.

"Yeah, well we both know he ain't above robbin a body to get a few dollars. He'll lay low a while then he'll be back to finish me off," Johnny spoke harshly.

Scott almost shivered at the brutality of the words. Why hadn't it occurred to him that Peter would want to finish this?

As if reading his brother's mind, Johnny spoke. "Didn't think you would consider the idea. Did you think he'd learned his lesson, brother?" he asked, a hint of humor in his voice.

Scott gave him a sidelong look. "Honestly, I didn't think about it at all. I just assumed he'd leave and that would be the end of it."

"It don't work that way, Scott. It was a draw and he won't be able to leave it that way."

"A draw? You were both nearly killed!" Scott exclaimed.

"One of us has to die. That's the way it is. It's that simple, brother," Johnny sighed tiredly, fed up with being sick and tied to this bed. He knew it was almost over, though. Sam said two weeks and by his reckoning, that time was just about up.

Scott saw it and almost smiled. But Johnny's words kept that from happening. What kind of life was that?

*

Sam came that afternoon and said he could get up the next day. Even sit outside if he was very careful and wasn't around a lot of dust. That translated to the garden but that was fine with him. As long as he got out of this room, he didn't much care where they sat him.

The next morning after breakfast, Scott helped him dress and get downstairs.

As he sat on the bench, Johnny let out a breath. Smiling up at Scott's concerned face, he laughed softly. "Feels good."

Scott joined him and stretched his legs out. "Does that gun make it better?"

Johnny looked at the pistol he'd insisted on taking with him. Nodding, he answered. "Yep, it does."

"Feel like talking a while?" Scott fished.

"Bout what?"

"Oh, your father," Scott tried to sound casual.

"My father, huh? How come he's not *our* father?" Johnny asked as he turned a little in his seat to look at Scott.

"I'm not sure I care to claim him these days," Scott replied sadly.

"And you think I do?" Johnny shot back. "Sorry," he said quickly.

"No, you're right. If it helps, I think he understands what he did now."

"It doesn't help, Scott. Not coming from you. Seems he's been steerin clear of me ever since Peter left," Johnny said bitterly. His anger had waned over the passing days as anger inevitably will. Still, there were things he needed to understand. Answers he needed to hear directly from his father. Murdoch's sudden absence hadn't helped any.

Scott knew his father had been conspicuously absent from Johnny's room but he hadn't put the two together. Dear God! Was he still pining over that little snot!?

"I'm not sure what that means, Johnny. We don't talk much these days," Scott tried to make light of what he hoped was a coincidence.

When Johnny didn't answer, Scott looked over at him. He was sitting with his head back and his eyes closed. The sun danced through the trees onto his face, lighting different angles and planes. Scott smiled despite himself.

*

"That looks comfortable."

Johnny opened his eyes and craned his neck back to see Murdoch standing just behind and to the left.

"Feels pretty good," he replied softly.

Murdoch smiled thinly and looked extremely uncomfortable himself. Scott fought a brief war with himself then decided if Johnny was up to it, he'd leave them be. He looked at his brother and got a smile.

"Well, I'm sure I have something to do. If you'll excuse me," he said, made a slight bow of his head and left them alone.

"May I join you?" Murdoch asked immediately.

Johnny shrugged. "Sure."

Murdoch sat next to him and clasped his hands in his lap. He looked out over the garden with appreciation. The flowers were all in bloom and he could catch a scent of each different type's fragrance when the breeze shifted about. The trees above lent shelter from the hot sun which danced through the leaves at its leisure. It was quiet here and peaceful. A beautiful day.

"I like the roses best," Johnny commented.

"So do I," Murdoch replied.

They fell quiet again but the air began to feel strained between them and Johnny shifted on the bench.

Thinking this was a sign his son was about to leave, Murdoch plunged forward.

"I need to talk to you, son."

"Yeah? About what?" Johnny asked lazily though inside he felt anything but.

"About Peter and why I brought him here," Murdoch said, working hard to keep the annoyance from his voice. Already, Johnny's laid back attitude was working his frazzled nerves. Tough, old man! he thought to himself.

"I already know why," Johnny was saying.

"I don't think you do. I think you have an idea as to why but that's not the reason. I really was trying to help him. But, more than that, it was plain selfish of me. I wanted to know how and why it happened."

Johnny turned his head and looked at his father's profile. "What are you talking about?"

Murdoch inhaled deeply and let it out slowly. "I wanted to know how you became a gunfighter. I wanted to see at what point it became too late for you."

"Why?"

Murdoch looked at him. "I just needed to know when it started. Was it after your mother died or before? Was it because you left here or because of what she told you about me?"

Johnny leaned forward and rested his forearms on his thighs. He shifted again and cleared his throat. "What difference does it make?"

*

Murdoch felt the need to stand, to pace, and so he did. "I'm not sure I can explain it, son. You talked about the need you felt when you made that choice. And that it was at that point when there was no turning back. I guess I wanted to know what made that need for you."

Johnny watched him pace before him. It made him nervous and he wished the old man would stop. He dropped his eyes and thought about it.

"I'm not sure what you're asking me, Murdoch. I mean, it's pretty plain I didn't have nobody then. I told you when a person doesn't have anyone or anything is when it happens. I guess that was after my mother died."

"And you believed you didn't have a home here," Murdoch offered.

"Yeah, that's right," Johnny spoke softly.

Murdoch did stop his pacing and he stood before his son. "Did you ever consider coming home, son?"

Johnny looked up at him, squinting against the sun. "No. I did think about coming to see you a time or two but that was later."

Murdoch sat back down, seeing the strain looking up at him was causing Johnny. "Why didn't you?"

Johnny grinned. "You wouldn't have wanted to see me then, old man. My reasons weren't very nice."

"You're wrong, Johnny. No matter the reason, and I know what you're saying, I would have wanted to see you at anytime."

"You haven't the past two days,"   Johnny whispered.

Murdoch closed his eyes briefly. "I know. I've been trying to build up my courage for this talk."

Johnny looked at him. "Not because Peter left?"

Murdoch sat back and stared at him. "No! Is that what you think?"

Johnny shrugged. "Made sense."

"No, Johnny. No, it had nothing to do with Peter. I finally understood that boy has no soul. I saw that the day he shot you. I've done a lot of thinking and most of it that day and the next while I sat with you. I realized I was using Peter to gain some insight into you and what you'd been through."

"Why didn't you just ask me, Murdoch?"

Murdoch's lips tightened then he sighed loudly. "Oh, Johnny, because I was afraid. Afraid you wouldn't talk to me but more afraid you would. Afraid of the answers, too. I wanted to understand your life then. I thought it would help me understand you and the pain I see in your eyes sometimes when we argue."

Johnny dropped his head. "Maybe I wouldn't have talked to you about it. I don't know."

"When I first met the boy he reminded me so much of you. He was cocky and self-assured. But, it didn't take me long to see he was nothing like you. I've never met anyone so angry and bitter. And that doesn't come from being a gunfighter."

"No, that starts way before then. Drives a lot of men, too. I had my anger, Murdoch. A lot of it. Anger and hate. Maybe not as strong as Peter's but it was there all the same. I grew up believing so many things that just weren't true. Mostly that people were the same all over. That everyone was only looking out for themselves. That nobody gave a damn about anybody else. It took a long time for me to see that wasn't right. I guess I had to see more of the world than what I grew up in to learn that. But, that's all I knew as a kid. People were just plain mean."

"Didn't anyone ever treat you with kindness?" Murdoch asked one of the many questions he had.

"Not for a long time. Except for mama, of course. The rest of them just ignored me if I was lucky." Johnny suddenly felt his own need to be on his feet. He rose slowly and saw the outstretched hand but he waved it off. He walked over and plucked a rose from the bush, picking the thorns off.

*

He held one thorn up. "This was my life then. It was a long time before I ever saw this," he pulled off a soft petal. "By then, I couldn't trust it. So, it was even longer before I could see what was real and what wasn't. The truth is both. There are people who will always be thorns and people who are petals." He laughed softly. "Then there are people who are a little of both, like you."

Murdoch smiled and figured that was true. "What changed things for you?"

Johnny played with the flower as he considered this. "It wasn't one thing. Lots of little things, I guess. I saw stuff. I'd have jobs where families were around. I'd see how they were with each other. I don't know," he sighed. "I guess it just sunk in slowly."

Johnny wagged the flower at his father as a grin slowly stretched out. "You won't believe this but I was a real bastard at one time."

Murdoch chuckled. "You're right. I don't believe it."

"It's true," Johnny said sincerely. "I had no use for anyone pretty much. I just did my job and moved on. I had acquaintances but no real friends. The first true friend I had, I must have been about seventeen." A sadness shadowed his face.

"What happened to him?" Murdoch asked.

"Dead," Johnny replied flatly and turned his back.

"I'm sorry, son."

Johnny nodded as he worked on control. He needed to sit back down but he hesitated a little longer. Finally, he tossed the flower aside and walked back over to the bench.

"Do you need to stop?" Murdoch asked, concern flooding his face.

Johnny shook his head as he leaned it against the adobe wall, closing his eyes.

Murdoch watched him, he had to clench his hand into a fist to keep from stroking Johnny's face, of comforting him in some fashion. He wasn't sure how that would be received but he didn't think well and he didn't want to cut short this talk.

"So, anything else you need to know?" Johnny asked, his eyes still closed.

"Everything, I guess. Mostly, would it had made any difference if I had found you then? Or, when would it have made a difference?"

Johnny opened his eyes and looked over at his father. "Before mama died. That's the only time it would have made a difference. After that, I wouldn't have believed anything you said to me without her there to tell me it was true. I don't know why she told me all that stuff, Murdoch. I've thought it to death and I just don't know."

"So, what changed, son? You came home. You've stayed. I have to think that's because you believe me now."

"Teresa told me the truth," he replied.

*

Murdoch turned himself around on the bench and looked directly at his son. "Teresa? What would she know about it?"

Johnny chuckled briefly. "Evidently, a lot. She told me how my mother left with a man. It wasn't until I heard that he was a gambler that I started to remember some things that just didn't add up. She told me when you were shot by Pardee, you kept calling out for my mother, wanting her. She made a good case for you. You ought to thank her. She might've saved your life," he raised a brow.

Murdoch raised a brow of his own at that statement. "What things did you remember?" he asked with hope.

Johnny frowned and dropped his eyes. "I sort of remember him or, I guess it was him. He was always playin with a deck of cards. Always dressed up and out every night. None of this is real clear, just images I have in my head."

"You were very young then," Murdoch said in almost a whisper.

"Yeah, I don't know how long he stayed around."

Murdoch cleared his throat. "Do you, um, do you remember anything else from that time or ... before?"

Johnny looked sadly at him. "No," he answered apologetically.

Murdoch knitted his eyes and nodded.

"So, you took that brat in for this? All you had to do was talk to me, Murdoch. Like this, like we are now. It shouldn't have taken a bullet to get us here. I just never knew you wanted to know about it or wanted to hear anything about that time."

"I'm so sorry, son. I never thought when I brought him here it would end like this. But, why would you think I didn't want to know?" he asked.

Johnny's eyes widened in surprise. "It's in the past?" he quipped.

Murdoch had the grace to drop his eyes and almost blush.

"Seems there's something you're not tellin me, though. Why are you so focused on that particular time in my life? That particular age?" Johnny asked.

Murdoch stood up again, unable to look at his son for a moment. Finally, he turned and locked onto Johnny's gaze. "I had a choice then. I could have restarted the search for you. It was an off and on thing. Whenever I had the money, I would contact the Pinkerton's again. This one time, I had the money but ..."

Johnny cocked his head to the side. "But what?"

Murdoch bit his lip then forged ahead. "But, I had the opportunity to buy a prize bull for a very good price. I needed to infuse some new blood into the herd. It was getting to be a desperate situation. I made the decision to buy the bull." Shaking his head, he continued. "I guess when I saw Peter, his age, and he told me so proudly that he wanted to be a gunfighter .... Well, I didn't consciously think about it then but ..." he shrugged.

*

Johnny bit the inside of his jaw until he thought it might bleed. A laugh escaped and hard as he tried, another got out. Soon, he was holding his sides and laughing his head off.

"What the devil is so funny!?" Murdoch demanded.

But Johnny couldn't answer him. Tears streamed down his face and he couldn't, just couldn't stop.  

Murdoch stood with his hands on his hips and waited for Johnny to gain control. It took a few minutes as the younger man seemed to be winning, then would lose it again. At last, he wiped his eyes and chuckled a few times, then calmed.

"Well?" Murdoch asked.

"Well, Murdoch, I guess you made the right choice buying that bull. Would've been a shame if you used that money to find me and bring me home to a bunch of puny heifers. I think I would've been pretty mad about that," he grinned.

"You think this is funny, Johnny? What if that had been the time; the one time when they found you?"

Johnny shook his head and sighed loudly, still fighting back a laugh. "How many times did it take, Murdoch? How many bulls didn't you buy? I can't believe you feel guilty about that! It wouldn't have mattered. Don't you see? You found me when you were supposed to find me. At fourteen, I wouldn't have come here. And if they did drag me, I wouldn't have stayed. I hated your guts. I wouldn't have listened to a word you said. I was too young and too immature then. Don't you understand?"

He stood up and faced his father, taking hold of the man's arm in a firm grip. "Don't you see that?"

Murdoch looked in his eyes. He understood what Johnny was saying and maybe he even believed it. Still, this was his son, his flesh and blood. He swallowed hard and shook his head sadly.

"Murdoch, you saved my life when that Pink found me. I would never have appreciated that at fourteen. I really believe I was meant to live exactly as I have. Call it fate if you want but I've thought a lot about this. I've done things I'm not proud of. I've had things done to me. But, not once did I wish I had my father there. I couldn't appreciate that then."

"It's just that I've missed out on so much of your life, Johnny. I feel like I could have saved you from so much pain. I wanted so badly to do that," Murdoch spoke softly.

"That's because you're a father and that's what father's want to do. But you can't save me from life. People get hurt, that's the truth of it. You can't measure it in degrees or even in scars. There's more to it than that. Yes, my life would have been a hundred times better if I'd grown up here. But, I'm much more grateful for what I have now. I love this place more than I might have then. Maybe I had to have that bad stuff happen so I could be thankful for all the good I have now."  

Murdoch shook his head slowly. "I don't know how you managed to come out of all that so.... smart," he smiled.

Johnny smiled back. "I learned a lot. I know how lucky I am. Look, I could blame the world for how I lived but I made the choices. And yes, I was young but so what? I knew a lot more at fourteen than most kids. The point is, we have this now. Right here and now and tomorrow and forever. We're doin alright, aren't we? Things ain't so bad."

Murdoch took hold of his arms gently. "No, things aren't bad at all. And it's not just that one time I feel guilty about, son. It's your whole life. I guess I'm selfish. I wanted it all."

Johnny laughed a little. "Yeah, we all want it all. But, ya know what? We have it all."

Murdoch inhaled deeply and reached out, squeezing his son's shoulder. "I know I have it all now. I surely do."

Peter huddled closer to his small campfire. It had taken him about a minute to flee the doctor's place. No way was he stayin there. That old man had started preachin to him from the get go. How good a person Johnny was. What fine people all the Lancers were and who did he think he was. Blah, blah, blah. Peter had had enough. So, as soon as the doc left on his rounds, Peter had hightailed it. Well, after he'd rummaged around and found some money, that is.

Now, with a full supply of ammunition, he sat within the copse of trees where Johnny had taken him that day to practice. Tomorrow, he would begin working on his draw again and getting it back where it was. He still had some tenderness in his chest but it was nothing he couldn't ignore. He'd ignored a lot worse pain that that before.

As the owl began it's nightly song, he thought about the old man. The way he'd looked at him this morning. Hate glowered in the man's eyes. Peter snorted loudly. So much for wantin ta help. Soon as things got messy, he'd booted him right out. Same as always. Same as everybody else. Murdoch Lancer was nothin special, for sure.

As soon as he was ready, he'd show them all what a mistake they'd made. Well, the old man had made anyway. Them others had known. Johnny had known.

Man, he was fast! Peter had to wonder if the old man hadn't yelled at him just in that split second, how different things would have turned out. He reckoned Madrid was as fast as him. He smiled a little thinking how he'd fooled Johnny. He hadn't let him see everything that day out here. He wasn't stupid. Never show your all to anyone. Always keep 'em guessin til it was too late.

He went over that fraction in time again and again. Playing it out in his mind so vividly. Johnny had glanced at his father. Peter had seen the look on Madrid's face. The man himself had known he'd messed up. But he sure had recovered quick enough. So, did that mean Madrid was even faster when he was on his game? Peter thought so. He'd have to spend a lot of time practicing before he faced the man again.

That suited him, though. He didn't want any special favors. He wanted Madrid in full form, no distractions. He had to know if he could take the man; the legend. And if he couldn't, well, better ta know that now than later. If he could take Johnny Madrid, nothing could stop him.

This time, though, he'd make sure the old man wasn't around. Scott wasn't a problem. He seemed to know to stay out of it. A smile broke out on his face. Maybe Scott Lancer didn't care all that much for his brother. Shaking his head, he dismissed that. No, he'd seen Scott and heard him loud and clear. He was mad as a wet hen this mornin. Told Peter what was what real good.

*

Sam rolled to a stop in front of the hacienda as the sun set behind him. He made quick work of getting out of his buggy and making for the door which opened before he could knock.

"Sam? A little late, isn't it?" Murdoch asked.

"I suppose it is but I thought you should all know," Sam replied as he walked past Murdoch and into the great room.

Johnny was sitting on the sofa with his head back and eyes closed. Scott sat in a chair near him reading.

"What should we know, Sam?" Murdoch asked as he joined them.

"Well, I didn't think the boy was well enough. I guess he was pulling my leg. He's gone. I had to make my rounds and when I got back, he was just gone. He took some money, too."

"How much?"

"I thought you were asleep," Sam noted.

Johnny smiled a little. "How much did he take?" he asked again.

"Twenty dollars, why?"

Without another thought, Murdoch pulled a gold coin out and offered it to Sam. "There's no need for any of this to cost you, my friend."

Sam rolled his eyes. "I didn't come here for reimbursement. I came to warn you all."

"And we appreciate it, Sam. But Murdoch is right. This shouldn't cost you," Scott emphasized.

Sam, thoroughly disgusted with the lot of them, grabbed the coin and shove it in his pocket. "Now that that nonsense is settled, perhaps you'd like to concentrate on the real problem."

"I assure you, we will. Now, it's getting late and I'm sure you haven't eaten. Stay the night?" Murdoch offered with a pat to the man's back.

"I do want to check you out, Johnny. No sense in traipsing all over the countryside again," Sam sighed.

He took Johnny upstairs and examined him. "You're doing well. Just remember what I said. I still want you to take it easy a while longer."

"How long is a while?" Johnny asked as he buttoned his shirt.

"At least a week before you try any work then nothing that requires heavy lifting or strain."

Johnny laughed. "In other words, no work."

Sam smiled. "Well, I'm sure you could do some laundry or something. Seriously, Johnny, where do you think the boy went?"

Johnny frowned at the question. "Unless I miss my guess, he's close by. Just waiting and practicing."

"To come after you again," Sam said sadly.

"Yeah. But, this time, there won't be any interference." Johnny's voice turned to ice.

*

That evening after supper, Johnny retired early. He was just about to turn out the lamp when a soft knock found his hand in midair. A soft 'come in' was followed by his father opening the door.

"Oh, I just wanted to check on you," Murdoch said hesitantly as he saw Johnny was already in bed.

"It's okay, come on in."

Murdoch stepped inside and shut the door with a soft click. He then walked to the window and fussed with the curtain. Johnny watched him as he sat up in the bed, knowing the old man had something on his mind.

"What is it, Murdoch?" he finally asked.

Murdoch looked over at him briefly. "Well, I just .... Son, I know Peter is still somewhere nearby. Scott told me you said he would be waiting for you."

Johnny only nodded.

"I don't want you to have to face him again," Murdoch said, his voice stronger.

"He won't give me a choice," Johnny replied just as firmly.

"Maybe if I could find him ...."

"No!" Johnny interrupted.

"No, son. I meant to get him to leave here," Murdoch clarified quickly.

"No," Johnny repeated with a hard edge.

Murdoch looked puzzled and shook his head.


"He'll use you to draw me out, Murdoch. You can't put me in that position again!" His initial anger resurfaced and it surprised him a little.

"I ....." Murdoch trailed off. He didn't know what to say to that.

"Why did you do that!?" Johnny demanded.

"Son, I wasn't thinking. I was trying to stop it. I didn't want you to have to kill him."

Johnny threw the covers back and got to his feet. "You weren't thinking? I don't buy that, old man. I think you were thinking plenty. Like how you could keep Peter alive!"

"No! I mean, yes. I didn't want anyone to get hurt, Johnny," Murdoch said in frustration.

"You know as well as I do there comes a time when you can't stop a thing from happening. When two men are facing off is one of those times, Murdoch," he explained, resentment dripping from his words.

*

Murdoch stared at him, watching the anguish once more. The hurt and anger come to the fore. The disappointment in his son's eyes and something else. Something just below it all that Murdoch didn't want to see.

"You're right. I should have known better. I guess I thought I still had time to stop it," he spoke quietly.

"Do you know what I thought when you went to him? Do you know how that made me feel?" Johnny threw the questions, turning his back with the last one. His voice quaking a little.

Murdoch went immediately to him, hesitantly placing his hands on Johnny's shaking shoulders. "I don't know how I can make this up to you, son. I want to. I want so badly to. I wish to God I'd sent that boy on his way that first day. Johnny, I swear on all I hold dear, I *never* meant for you to get hurt. I *never* meant to interfere or put you at risk."

Johnny sighed loudly and pulled away, turning back to face his father. "But you did and I told you what would happen."

"I kept seeing you, son. I looked at Peter and kept seeing you at that age. Watching him being shot, watching him fall, seeing him bleed," Murdoch shook his head. "I felt like I was watching it all happen to you."

"You would have if you'd bothered to turn around!" Johnny spat. He sidestepped Murdoch deftly and went to his window. He leaned his right hand against the wall nearby and leaned forward, head down.

Murdoch hung his own head, ashamed of himself for so many things. "How can I make it up to you, son?"

"I don't know. I swear I don't, Murdoch. You said this was all about me but it wasn't. It was all about you and your guilt," he spoke barely loud enough to hear.

Murdoch inhaled deeply. "Yes, that's what it's been about."

Johnny turned to look at him once more. "Over what exactly? Was it that you couldn't find me or that you lost me in the first place? Or maybe you just regret ever meeting my mother."

Murdoch's brows went up in astonishment. "That is not true, Johnny. I loved your mother and I think you know that. I have never regretted meeting her because that would mean regretting having you as a son. And I don't; will *never* regret that!"

He strode quickly to his son and took hold of his upper arms, squeezing almost painfully. "You had better believe that, Johnny. I love you. Do you understand?"

Johnny looked up at him, a brief smile threatening to erupt. "That an order?" he asked softly.

Murdoch relaxed and smiled at him. "A request, a plea."

Johnny let the smile come then, soft and crooked. "That's better. And for the record, I love you, too, old man. Just promise me something."

"Anything."

"When I tell you something, listen to me," Johnny spoke in a firm yet soft voice.

"I promise," Murdoch vowed, even placing a hand over his heart.

*

Another week passed in peace. Johnny was released and his first chore was going to town with Scott for supplies. No one had heard a peep from or about Peter. Johnny was keeping himself on high alert, though. Especially today. It was the first time he'd been further from the house than the barn. He knew exactly what the boy was waiting for. To get to him when Murdoch wasn't around.

Johnny knew how Peter thought. And this would be the perfect time for the kid. In the middle of town, nobody getting in the way. Nobody trying to stop it. Just the two of them but plenty of witnesses. Peter had to know if he was good enough to take Madrid and Johnny wasn't going to disappoint him.

He had long since stopped thinking of Peter as a boy. Too young for this or that. It wasn't true anymore than it had been true of him. When you're alone, you grow up fast. How many years you've been on this earth made no difference. It was how old your mind was that mattered. Peter's mind was well old enough.

So, he had no qualms about taking the boy down. He knew he'd have no peace as long as Peter was alive. The kid would not stop until he got what he wanted. Johnny would be damned if he'd serve it up on a platter. It ain't that easy and Peter was going to find that out the hard way.

"Kid'll most likely show himself today," he mentioned casually as Scott drove the wagon.

"I'd considered as much," Scott replied with the same tone.

"And I know you'll stay out of it," Johnny said.

"Whether I like it or not, yes," Scott answered in a hard tone.

After a long moment of silence, Scott ventured, "I see you and Murdoch have been doing pretty well."

"I told you we talked."

"Yes, you did. I guess I was just waiting to see if it could stand the test of time," Scott smiled a little.

Johnny chuckled. "Ain't been that long. Besides, almost had to tie him down the way he was actin about me going to town. "

"I know but you know why, too," Scott said softly. "He's very good, you know."

Johnny nodded, a smile lifting one corner of his mouth. "I've been doing some practicing myself in case you were wondering."

Scott's shoulders relaxed. "I was wondering that very thing. Good to hear it, brother."

They said no more until they reached town. Johnny scanned the buildings as they passed but saw nothing unusual. He knew the kid wouldn't ambush him. He had too much at stake for that. Johnny figured if he could have gotten past all that anger and hate, he'd make a damned good gunfighter. It was too bad, really. He wasn't one to judge a person's choices. He figured everyone had the right to do what they wanted with their lives. If Peter wanted to sell his gun, good for him. But this was personal and had nothing to do with hiring anything out. The kid wanted his life and he wasn't giving it up easily.

*

As Johnny threw the last sack of sugar on the wagon bed, he leaned against the side and looked around. So far not a sign. He wondered if maybe Peter had decided to just head south. Hell, he could hope, couldn't he?

Scott sidled up next to him and smiled. "Beer?"

Johnny grinned. "Best idea I've heard in a month, brother."

Throwing an arm around the older man's shoulders, they stepped onto the street together. Then, it all came to a stop.

"Madrid!"

Johnny sighed and turned slowly toward the young voice. "Yeah?"

"I've waited a long time for this," Peter said.

Johnny had to laugh. "Patience is a virtue, I hear tell."

Peter grinned cockily. "Not for me."

Scott stood just behind his brother. He turned toward the sidewalk and patted Johnny's back then stepped out of the line of fire, praying the whole time.

"Just you and me this time," Peter said.

Johnny only answered with a nod as he sized the kid up. Gone was the tension in the shoulders, the wide-eyed excitement. Peter had been working on his mask along with his draw and Johnny smiled with appreciation.

"Your call, kid," he drawled softly.

"I don't want to interfere, really. I just wanted to ask one question, Peter," Scott said from the sidewalk.

The boy's eyes never left Johnny, nor his the boy's. "What's that?"

"Well, your last name or whatever name you've decided to go by," Scott replied.

Peter seemed to think about this for a second. "Hardin. Done now?" he sneered.

Scott bit his tongue. "Yes, that was all. Please, by all means, proceed," he used his own sarcastic tone. God help him! He hated this little twit!

*

Johnny listened to the exchange with some amusement. His eyes danced with humor.

"Somethin funny?" Peter asked.

"Nope," he clipped.

"Good, can we do this now? Finally?"

Johnny only shrugged.

Peter noted the stance, the relaxed posture, the hand hanging loosely beside the Colt, the picture of boredom. He's so good! I'll be that good soon. I'll have that look. The look of a man who knows he's gonna win. This brought a frown to the kid's face and he considered losing for the first time.

Johnny watched as thoughts poured through the boy's mind. He wondered what Peter was thinking but that pondering was brief as he focused on the task at hand.

"Change your mind?" he asked.

Peter tensed a little, then relaxed again. A smile split his mouth then he grew solemn. "Just wanted ta say that I respect you, Madrid."

Johnny nodded. "Appreciate that, Peter. Nice to know you're capable of respect."

A crowd had gathered now. Watching curiously as Johnny Lancer stood in the street with some young man. Whispering began about how young the boy was. Scott ignored it for now. He would set them straight about this 'child' when it was over - he hoped. He knew anything could happen in these next few seconds. He was fully aware he could be watching the last moment of his brother's life. He thought he might just throw up but he fought it back - and he prayed again.

How would Peter react if he were the victor? Scott had seen Johnny's reaction many times. Always there was regret and always there was a respect for the man who died. A respect he showed by walking away quietly and not wallowing in the victory. Scott didn't think Peter possessed that kind of grace. And he might just have to shoot the kid himself if he started bragging. He shook his head to drive these thoughts away. Johnny would win. He had to. He just had to.

Suddenly, Scott noticed the silence. It seemed to wash over then consume his very being. He felt detached from the scene before him. As if he were watching a play on stage.

*

Peter took a deep breath and let it out silently. He was ready for whatever happened now.

He went for his gun, had the hammer cocked before he cleared leather. Had the pistol almost level; almost. Suddenly, he was on his back staring at the huge white clouds above him. He blinked and tried to comprehend what had happened. The gunfight wasn't over, was it? He hadn't even squeezed the trigger yet. It couldn't be over.

He saw a shadow cross over his face, then Johnny was looking down at him. He had a sad look in his eyes. Peter felt the gun being lifted from his fingers. They were so cold. Why were his fingers cold? They'd been warm a second ago; afire, in fact.

He stared at Johnny with a confusion that seemed to make the other man that much more melancholy.

"You really could have been one of the best, kid. The biggest lesson you just couldn't learn. To listen to other people's advice. It was a good try, though. You came real close," Johnny spoke softly, almost as if he were gentling a wild animal.

Peter tore his eyes from Johnny's and looked down. Blood was spreading across his chest at an alarming rate. He felt so very cold then. His whole body felt as if he'd been plunged into an icy river and he began to shake.

Johnny grabbed his hand and held tight. "Look at me, Peter. Look at me," he implored and Peter did.

"You snookered me," the boy whispered.

Johnny smiled gently. "Yeah, well, you did it to me."

Peter smiled back. "Yeah," he laughed a little then coughed only briefly as the action ignited a fire in his chest. He felt Johnny's hold on his hand strengthen.

"Just look at me, kid."

Peter did and he never looked away again. "Guess I wasn't good enough," he whispered.

"There is always someone faster, Peter. Always," Johnny said.

He nodded his head. "Why're you doin this? Why're you stayin with me?"

Johnny sighed. "No one should die alone," he answered in a shaky voice.

Peter nodded slightly and smiled a little. "Thanks," he breathed out and closed his eyes for the last time.

*

Johnny bowed his head for a moment then brushed the boy's hair back from his face. He gently laid Peter's hand over his stomach and stood up on rubbery legs.

Scott placed a hand on his shoulder and held tight. "I was talking to Val just now. Let's go home, brother."

Johnny nodded but he didn't look up. He walked to the wagon and climbed aboard, never raising his head, never noticing the people staring at him. Some in horror, some in understanding.

Scott clicked his tongue and slapped the reins. They moved away and he turned the wagon toward home as fast as he could.

He pulled up in front of the house instead of taking the wagon to the barn. As soon as he saw Jelly coming up with a growl waiting to be unleashed, Scott quickly put one finger to his lips.

Jelly stopped and looked at Johnny who was climbing down. He walked to the house with his head still bowed, knowing he had to tell his father.

Murdoch looked up when the French door opened. He took to his feet when he saw his son. "What happened?" he asked, fear knotting his gut.  

"Peter called me out in town," Johnny mumbled and headed to the sideboard.

Murdoch closed his eyes and dropped his own head with a sigh. "I'm sorry, son. I was afraid that would happen. Is he dead?"

Johnny nodded then threw a shot of whiskey back, refilling the glass.

"I'm goin to my room," Johnny said, taking the glass with him and not saying another word.

Scott stood on the door and watched him go.

"He stayed with Peter, talking to him to keep his mind off what was happening," he explained.

Murdoch sat back down heavily. Pinching the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger, he shook his head.

"A lot of people were talking in town about how Johnny could face down a young boy like that," Scott went on as he walked over and helped himself to a drink.

"They have no right to judge Johnny!" Murdoch burst.

Scott looked at him with a touch of amusement. "I'm sure once the whole truth is known, they'll understand. I spoke with Val about everything. There will be no problems there."

Murdoch nodded. "How is Johnny really?"

"I honestly don't know. He didn't say a word on the way home and I didn't want to push him. I'm sure he feels badly for the boy but I'm also sure he knows he had no choice. Peter would never have stopped coming after him."

*

Johnny sat in the chair by the window. He felt drained. He stared out over the land and wondered if there really had ever been hope for Peter. Second-guessing himself was not something he was used to doing. His instincts had served him well over the years. Those instincts had told him almost from the first that this boy was headed straight for hell.

He hadn't thought he'd be the one to send him there, though. Not then, anyway. He knew none of this was his fault but that didn't make it any easier to take. He'd killed a fourteen year old boy. End of story. Wasn't it?

It wasn't Murdoch's fault, either. Not really. Johnny knew his father would never have brought the boy home had he known the risk to his son. If he'd doubted that before, he didn't now. The talks they'd had cleared some air. He knew it was only the tip of the iceberg, though. A beginning that was long overdue.

Johnny had never once thought of his father as being afraid of anything. But Murdoch had admitted that very thing to him in the garden. Afraid of and for his son. It was an incredible realization. The rancher rarely showed any emotions other than anger. He could be pretty self-righteous sometimes, too. Something that had always irked Johnny.

A smile flitted across his face. Not the only thing that had irked him, for sure. His father was a hard man to understand and he didn't think he ever truly would know him well. He didn't think anyone could. But, he also knew he had to try. They both had to do a whole lot better with each other. It was simply going to take time and patience.

More than any other reason, it all kept coming back to one thing for him - one person. His mother and her actions. Her lies that had kept him away. He had never dealt with it. Since finding out the truth, he'd pushed it away. Always finding some other thing to worry about. That wasn't like him either. He'd never hedged a problem before but this was different. It involved more than just his relationship with her. It involved something he knew nothing about and had no right to know about. His parents relationship.

He also knew Murdoch would never discuss that and he didn't expect him to. It was no more his business than anyone elseâ€ôs. The relationship between a man and his wife was private and even sacred. Johnny snorted softly at that choice of word. Sacred?

Bitterness began to rise up and he pushed it back down. It would do no good and serve no purpose other than make him angry again. He was angry with her and had been for a long time now. Long before he came home. Why had he never doubted her word about Murdoch before? God knew, she'd told him more than one tale in his life.

The knock on the door brought his reverie to a stop. He thought not to answer, maybe they'd go away. He wasn't sure which of them it was but he didn't want to talk about Peter anymore.

He heard his father call through the door. Damn! Sighing he called out to enter and went back to his staring.

Murdoch walked in hesitantly. Johnny sounded annoyed. Still, he had to make the effort.

"Are you alright?" he asked lamely.

"Dandy," Johnny replied.

Murdoch chewed his lip as he stepped slowly closer. "I, um, Scott filled in the blanks for me. It was ... incredibly nice of you to stay with Peter."

"No one should die alone," Johnny restated, feeling that emptiness in his heart. Knowing that he came very close to dying alone on more than one occasion in his life. A feeling he wouldn't wish on his worse enemy.

"Did he have any regrets?" Murdoch asked softly.

"Of course he did. He regretted being the one dying!" Johnny shouted then took a breath. "He said he respected me," he added in a lower tone.

"Well, I guess that's something. I'm sorry you had to go through that, son. I'm sorry for everything," Murdoch said morosely.

"I know you are. I really do," Johnny replied, turning to look at him for the first time. "I was just thinking about you and the talk we had."

Murdoch sat on the edge of the bed. "Oh?"

"Yeah. I was thinking maybe it was a good beginning," Johnny said cautiously, just a hint of a question in his voice.

"Yes, it was a good start. Do you feel up to talking some more now?"

"Honestly? All I feel like doing right now is sleeping for maybe a week," Johnny sighed out.

Murdoch leaned closer. "You do look done in, son. Why don't you lie down and I'll wake you for supper."

"Thanks. I think I will. Murdoch? I ..... I don't ever want you to feel like you can't talk to me or ask me something. Ya know? I might not answer but it's okay to ask."

Murdoch smiled as he stood up. He patted Johnny's shoulder. "Fair enough, son. And it's a two way street."

*

El Paso, Texas

John Wesley Hardin crumpled the telegram in his fist as he walked into the saloon. He ordered a whiskey and sidled up to the bar. Flattening out the missive once more, he read the words again.

Peter Hardin killed Green River, California, by Johnny Madrid. Stop

It was signed by a man Hardin had once rode with. He vaguely remembered the man. Hell, he vaguely remembered his kid brother.

Well, boy, I reckon it was a fair fight. Johnny wouldn't kill you for no good reason, he thought as he swallowed the last of his drink.

 

 

~end~
2005

NOTE : For those who may not know, John Wesley Hardin was a real gunfighter. He killed for the first time at the age of 15 and didn't stop until he was killed himself in his 40's. He was touted as killing a man once because he snored too loudly. At fourteen, he stabbed a school mate. I figured it ran in the family. {g}

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