The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Suspicion

 

 

 

Murdoch watched his son walk out of the barn and head toward him, anticipating a positive report of the days work. Scott seemed in a good mood so he surmised all had gone well at the bridge. When his son was within ear shot, he asked.

Smiling, Scott bowed his head for a second so as not to laugh in his father's face. Sometimes, the old man could be so edgy. "It's done. Everything went as planned, Sir."

A smile erupted on Murdoch's face as he reached out an arm which Scott stepped right into. "We can start moving the herd tomorrow, then."

"I've already told the men."

With a nod, Murdoch glanced at the sky. "You're just in time for supper."

Scott gave him a cheeky grin. "As I had planned all along."

Murdoch chuckled and started to turn until he saw the horse riding under the arch.

Scott noticed, looked as well and frowned. "It's a little late in the day for a visitor."

"Yes, I don't recognize him, though." Murdoch stepped further into the yard as the man dismounted and brushed dust from his jacket.

Six feet tall, give or take, he had a rugged complexion with just graying brown hair. He appeared to be trim though well-muscled ,   clean shaven and well-dressed though not overly so. Not dandified, Murdoch thought and almost laughed as he heard his younger son's voice in his head. When the man looked directly at him, Murdoch was taken by the bright blue eyes. Alive and friendly, they smiled at him as the man approached.

"Mr. Lancer?"

"Yes, I'm Murdoch Lancer and this is my son Scott."

He extended his hand. "I'm Eric Michaels. I just bought the Harrison ranch at your south border."

Murdoch shook hands with him. "Welcome to the valley, Mr. Michaels."

"I'm surprised anyone bought that place. It's pretty rundown." Scott smiled and offered his own hand.

"It is but I like to look at it as a challenge, Mr. Lancer."

"It's Scott, please. Would you like to come in?"

"Thank you, I would. Beautiful home you have here." He was still smiling as his eyes went upward and took in the structure.

Once inside with drinks in hand, the men settled in the great room.

"Yes, a lovely home. I hope to have mine in as good a shape before long."

Scott said nothing but raised a brow as he brought his glass to his lips.


"That's an ambitious undertaking. I haven't seen the place in a while but it was in sorry shape," Murdoch said as diplomatically as he could manage.

Michaels laughed and nodded his head. "Well, I've been here for a month now so I've made a dent, at least. The building itself is sound. Only some minor repairs had to be done. The interior has been the challenge. I've employed several women of the area to the task of cleaning. I've already ordered some furniture from Philadelphia."

"Is that where you're from?" Scott asked.

"No, I've never been there but the reputation for quality craftsmanship is well-known to me. I see you've gone with a more traditional decor. I can't say I care as much for the Spanish influence."

"To each his own," Scott raised his glass in a toasting motion.

Murdoch felt a little put off for a second but dismissed it. It wasn't a crime not to like Spanish architecture. "We were about to have supper, Mr. Michaels. Would you care to join us?"

He shook his head and waved a hand. "Oh, I don't want to be an imposition. I should have sent a letter of introduction before showing up at your door."

"It's no imposition. We always have plenty. Maria can't seem to cook for less than an army," Murdoch assured him.

Michaels paused, a frown flashing across his face before the smile returned. "Well, if you're sure, I'd be delighted."

*

Conversation at supper centered around Michaels plans for the ranch remodeling. He told them, in detail, the furnishings he'd ordered right down to the types of rugs and drapes. Scott was beginning to think that's all the man cared about. When he stopped for more than a breath, Scott plunged in.

"Are you planning on raising cattle?"

Michaels set his wine glass down and looked at Scott squarely before answering. "No, horses. I plan on having the finest horse farm in the state. Ambitious, I know, but what point is there in having ambitions if you don't set your goals high? The good news is, we won't be in direct competition not that I don't enjoy such. As a matter of fact, I hope we can do some business once I get a good string together."

Scott smiled tightly. "Lancer breaks it's own horses for the ranch, Mr. Michaels. We have plenty of wild horses on our land. I'm afraid we won't be potential customers but there are many ranches in the area that would benefit from well broken and trained horses."

"Well, that is good news. I'm sorry we won't be able to work something out, though."

Murdoch watched his son and wondered why Scott seemed upset. "What kind of horses are you going to have?"

"Well, I'm in business so I don't plan on getting fancy," he laughed. "I know working horses are the commodity here. What I really need is a good bronc buster or two. I don't suppose you'd be able to suggest anyone?"

Murdoch smiled. "I'm afraid not. We have a good one here but I'm not giving him up."  

Michaels eyes danced in amusement. "Well, perhaps I could sway him. I've been known to haggle quite well and get what I want."

Scott looked at his father and they exchanged a knowing grin before Murdoch turned back and assumed a more businesslike demeanor.

"I'm afraid you'd be wasting your time, Mr. Michaels. You see, my man is quite content here. He's grown very attached to Lancer."

Frowning, the man regarded Murdoch and spoke in a cunning voice. "Then, you wouldn't mind if I gave it a try? Just to test your theory, of course."

Murdoch chuckled. "You're welcome to but he isn't here right now. He's on a business trip."

"I didn't realize mustangers went on business trips."

"My father is talking about my brother. He's the best there is."

Michaels set back in his chair and gave an unconvincing grimace. "So, you were toying with me. Getting my hopes up. Not very hospitable." A smile erupted on his face and the three of them shared a laugh. "I suppose I was being a bit arrogant."

"Not at all. My apologies but maybe John could recommend someone when he returns," Murdoch smiled.

"A recommendation from the best would be most appreciated. When do you expect him back?"

"Another week or so."

"Well, in the meantime and as soon as the place is presentable, I intend to invite the Lancers for supper. A thank you for your warm hospitality." He raised his glass in a toasting motion.

*

Three days passed and Eric Michaels showed up at the Lancer ranch again near the supper hour. Again, he was invited to the meal and accepted, apologizing the entire time for his impolite behavior.

Murdoch assured him it was no slight and the three men spent an enjoyable evening. Then the telegram arrived from Johnny stating he'd been delayed another week. Michaels seemed only a little disappointed by this.

"I'm sure he'll be back well before I'm ready. The corrals are still being built and the house isn't furnished yet. I must admit, I'll be glad to get the bed I ordered. Sleeping on that old army cot I found has been hard on my back."

"Why don't you stay here until the house is ready? We have plenty of room and it's a short ride to your place." Scott's invitation was received with surprise from Michaels.

"That's an excellent suggestion, son. There's no sense in going without sleep, Eric. I know very well what it's like to suffer from back pain."

"Well, I don't know, Murdoch. I don't want to impose."

"It's no imposition, Mr. Michaels. We'd be glad to have you." Scott smiled warmly at the man.

"I suppose for a few days. I'm sure the furniture will be here soon. It's been four weeks now. And only on the condition you call me Eric." He raised a brow toward Scott who smiled and nodded.

Murdoch raised his glass in a toasting motion. "While you're here, I'd like to show you some of the horses that run Lancer. I've been thinking that we might be able to do business, after all."

*

Eric sat on the ridge overlooking Dell Canyon and gawked at the beauty below him. Murdoch watched the man's face and smiled with pride, just waiting for him to find his voice.

"They are amazing animals, Murdoch. Look at them! I almost can't see the ground for all of them."

Murdoch knew that was a slight exaggeration but it didn't hurt to see the man appreciate the fine horseflesh Lancer had available. "John says all you have to do is throw a rope in the air and you're bound to lasso something."

Michaels turned his head slowly to look at the man. "I hear a great deal of pride in your voice, Murdoch. Is that for the horses or this son I have yet to meet?"

Chuckling, Murdoch shrugged. "Both, actually."

"I have to wonder why you've never taken advantage of the wealth you have here."

"I raise cattle, Eric. That was my dream when I first arrived here and it still is. John has voiced some interest before but the cattle take all our time."

"Well, I suppose that's a good thing for me. I take it you didn't bring me out here just to brag." He laughed a little.

Smiling, Murdoch shook his head. "No, I didn't. I was wondering where you thought to get these horses you want to use. I thought we could strike a deal for those animals down there, if you're interested."

"I'm definitely interested. I had planned on the men I've yet to hire catching some horses. Of course, I suppose I could pay John to do that. At least, bring them to me if I can't convince him to work for me."

Murdoch looked sharply at the man and wasn't sure he was joking. "He stays pretty busy."

Michaels smiled at him. "Well, what kind of deal were you thinking about?"

"Why don't we go back to the house for lunch and talk?"

As they rode, Murdoch realized something he'd neglected to mention. "I should tell you any deal we make my sons will have to agree with. We're partners in the ranch."

"Oh? I didn't realize that. Something you did as a coming of age sort of thing with them?"

Murdoch frowned. "Something like that."

*

The next two weeks, Eric stayed with the Lancers and they were all quickly becoming friends. Scott enjoyed the man's company but there was something not quite right. Every time he tried to being up the man's personal life in some fashion, Eric managed to change the subject without answering. Scott realized he didn't even know from where the man hailed.

Still, it wasn't as if they'd poured their hearts out, either. Certainly, the Lancer family history had not been disclosed to this man. Maybe, in time it would come up but Eric must have simply assumed Scott and Johnny had lived their entire lives on the ranch.

He spent most days at his own home supervising renovations then returned to the ranch around the same time as Scott and Murdoch rode in each evening. He gave them reports on his progress with an air of excitement as the day he could officially move into his new home grew closer.

That day came on a Tuesday when he returned from town smiling ear to ear. His furniture had arrived and was being delivered the next morning.

At supper that evening, Eric reminded Murdoch of the agreement they'd reached.

"All I'm waiting for is John to come home."

"Me, too. I can't wait to share all the wonderful work with my brother again." Scott smiled.

Murdoch chuckled. "I know it's been rough, son. I'm sure he'll pitch right in."

"Well, as soon as everything is in place, I want you all to come to my home for supper. It's the very least I can do and I may even have the chance to meet this invisible brother."

Scott laughed at that, remembering the invisible friend he'd imagined at the ripe old age of six. "I assure you, you will know when he is around."

"Maybe he can give me some advice on my corrals. I'm not sure I like how they turned out."

Murdoch lowered his eyes to his plate. He liked this man but there was something niggling in his mind. Some ... thing that worried him and he had no idea what. Maybe it had nothing to do with Eric at all. Maybe, he was just missing his son. He smiled a little to himself. Yes, he supposed that was it.

*

Johnny sat on the veranda and stared at the stars, happy as a lark to finally be home. Though the trip had been successful, it had taken longer than he'd hoped and had been exhausting. He breathed deep of the clean cooler air and smiled a little. Tomorrow, he was supposed to be meeting the finest man in the world from his family's description. He laughed a little at that then fell solemn.

Boy, he'd been irked when the old man told him about the deal he'd struck. Ready to throw balls of fire at Murdoch's head, he was. But, he'd allowed himself to calm down before speaking. Must have been really tired, he thought with amusement.

He'd realized what he'd known for a while. Any plans he had to work with horses was going only as far as the need Lancer had for the animals. He'd given that dream up a long while ago and replaced it with another. It was more important to him to have this family than to fight with his old man every other day about something that, as much as he would have enjoyed doing, didn't matter as much in the long run.    

Scott's face was funny, though. He'd really expected Johnny to lose it and he could see his brother bracing himself for the onslaught. But, the look on Murdoch's face made it worth keeping his cool. Appreciation. Simple as it was, it was effective against any of Johnny's armor. It still surprised him how much he wanted his father's approval and affection. Seemed to him, he was getting that a little more every day.

But, then, he reckoned he'd changed quite a bit since coming home. He wasn't as keen to think his ideas were the only ones worth considering. That his needs and wants were all that mattered. That's how it had been for a very long time so it took him a while to realize there were other people, other things to consider in his life now. He had responsibilities past himself; obligations to the people who worked and lived here. He figured it was a fair trade for what he was getting in return.

Smiling again, Johnny figured he was becoming a pretty good businessman on top of it all. Compromise. Sometimes, you had to give a little for the greater good. Sounded like something his brother would say. Well, maybe I'm getting carried away here now if I'm starting to think like Scott. He snickered.

"Something funny?"

He craned his neck to look at his brother standing behind him in the light coming through the French door. "I doubt you'd think so, brother. Come on out."

Scott gave him a wary look but decided not to pursue the subject. He sat next to his brother with a sigh. "Good to have you home finally."

"Really good to be home. Didn't think I was gonna make it before Christmas." Johnny laughed and settled back. "So, I'm gonna meet this saint of a man tomorrow."

Scott cocked a brow. "Is that how we've made him sound? Well, he's very nice. I like him."

Johnny looked over, something in Scott's voice didn't sound right. "But?"

"But nothing. He's just not been very open about his past. I don't even know where he's from. I know , it isn't as if I told him my life story, either. I think he thinks I grew up out here."

"So? Can't expect to tell him everything. You've known him what? A couple of weeks?"

"Yes, about that. You're right. I suppose I'm just being ... I don't know what I'm being." He laughed a little at himself. "Well, I'm sure you'll draw you own conclusions."

"Right about that. Think I'll turn in. Something tells me my brother has a full day ready for me tomorrow."

*

Johnny flew through the front door and was halfway up the stairs before Murdoch's shout stopped him. He sighed and turned on the step.

"I know, I know. I got busy and lost track of time. I'll be a minute."

"It will take more than a minute to get a bath, young man. Your brother drew you one half an hour ago."

"Well, I guess it won't take me as long, then. Look, I'm sorry, Murdoch, I'm goin." He held his father's eyes for a second then vaulted up the stairs.

Murdoch shook his head and went back to the living room.

"It's his first day back. There was a lot to get caught up on."

"I know, Scott, I know. Maybe we should have postponed this dinner. He just got home and already he's having to rush off to a neighbor's."

Raising a brow, Scott regarded his father. "Perhaps, you could tell him that?"

Murdoch gave him a glance and a scowl. "Perhaps, not."

Scott chuckled and sat down.

Fifteen minutes later, Johnny hurried down the stairs, hair still damp and clothes clinging to his still damp body. "I'll dry on the ride," he explained.

"I'm sorry, son. We should have waited a week or so to go over there. Eric is just anxious to repay us for letting him stay here and he wants to meet you. I should warn you, he's going to try and hire you."

Johnny's eyes widened and he took a step back. "Hire me for what?"

"To bust broncs . He's been teasing Murdoch about stealing you away," Scott explained with a grin.

Johnny blew out a breath and relaxed his shoulders.

"What did you think I meant?"

He looked sheepishly at his father from under his lashes. " Nothin . Nothin at all. Well, let's go if we're goin."

*

Murdoch was surprised and impressed by the house as they drew near. The fresh paint and replaced windows made the place look almost new. The grounds were groomed and flowerbeds lined each side of the porch. It was a simple clapboard two-story house but it had been a nice place. Eric had made it even nicer.

Johnny gave an approving nod to the house then rode over to the corrals and dismounted. He pulled on the fence and scanned the area. Looked good to him.

"Well, what do you think?" Scott asked as he dismounted beside his brother.

"They're well-spaced and sturdy. Don't know what he was worried about."

"Let's go ask him." Scott threw an arm around his brother's shoulder and they walked toward the house together.

Murdoch waited for them on the porch, a smile on his face as he watched his sons. He turned and knocked on the door when they joined him and an older woman answered.

She led them to the living room and informed them Mr. Michaels would be right along.

"I have to admit, he was right waiting for this furniture. It's beautiful." Scott ran a hand over the highly polished end table.

Johnny walked around the room, looking at the art work on the walls. The scent in the room was vague but familiar. Whispers entered his mind; whispers of memories he couldn't quite latch onto. He frowned as he tried to pull them forth and wondered why they were there at all. He ended up next to the door they'd entered, his head down as he thought.

Eric walked in, seeing Murdoch first. "Well, what do you think?"

"It's beautiful, Eric."

"Yes, very nice. Very posh," Scott grinned.

Johnny's head jerked up and he stared at the man standing mere feet from him. Michaels' back was to him but he didn't need to see the man's face. He'd heard the voice, recognized the body build and knew instantly where the scent had come from.

"Eric, I'd like you to meet my son, Johnny."

Eric Michaels turned to his left, a smile on his face. When he saw the young man, he sucked in air and froze.

Johnny's mouth opened but no sound came forth for a moment. He swallowed dryly and croaked. "Papa?"

*

"Johnny? Dear God in heaven. Johnny!" Eric took the three steps and grabbed Johnny into an embrace, his arms squeezing the young man so hard, he couldn't breathe. Not that he could have anyway.

Murdoch just stared at them both, his mind a blank. Scott looked at his father then back at the two men. Johnny's arms had come up and encircled Eric tightly.

Time suspended for everyone in the room. After long moments, Eric eased his grip and pulled away a little only to move his hands to hold Johnny's face within them. His eyes glistened as he drank in the sight before him.

Johnny's face was pure agony. Panic, or something like it, erupted in him. His breathing increased with his heart rate even more.

"I thought ... they said you were dead," Eric managed.

The words seemed to bring Johnny back to himself and he stepped away from the hands and the man. He shook his head slowly, trying to negate what was most certainly before him.

Eric stepped forward. "Son?"

"No," Johnny breathed out shakily. "No, no, no!"

Scott saw it then and he struggled with himself. Should he stop Johnny? He knew his brother was about to bolt, could see the look in his eyes. To his surprise, Eric moved quickly and grabbed Johnny's arms.

"Don't. Just sit down for a minute. Please, son, just give yourself time."

Johnny was still shaking his head then, his wide eyes turned to Murdoch with a desperate plea unspoken yet resounding. The rancher finally found his mind a little and moved to them. He took Johnny's hand and the young man stepped up to him.

"Sit down, son, before you fall down. We'll work it all out, I promise." Murdoch's voice was like nectar to a starving man. He led Johnny to a chair then knelt beside him. "Scott, get your brother a drink."

Scott moved stiffly to the liquor table and poured a full measure of whatever his hand landed on first. He passed the drink to his father with a shaking hand then sat in a chair near them.

Eric walked over, pulling a chair close to Johnny and sat down, watching him closely as Murdoch fed the whiskey to him.

Johnny kept his eyes down at first then darted a look at first Eric, then Murdoch. He sighed and shook his head, indicating he wanted no more liquor. His hand went to his forehead and he rubbed hard then rested his head within his palm.

"Who the hell are you?" Scott demanded.

*

Johnny bolted from the chair, heading for the door. His gait slowed when he heard the combined voices of his fathers call his name simultaneously. He didn't stop though and slammed the door behind him.

Murdoch rounded on Eric, rage on his face. Staring the man down, he spoke in a gritty voice. "Scott, see to Johnny."

The young man needed no further plying, he took off like a bullet.

"Explain yourself!"

Eric pulled his shoulders back and raised his head. "My name was Art Chase. I was married to Johnny's mother for years. He's my stepson."

Murdoch staggered back a little then sat down hard. Eric took a seat and waited.

"Why did you lie?"

Michaels sat back and sighed. "I changed my name, I didn't lie. I got into a little trouble down around the border a few years ago and had to leave. I've been roaming all over since then. I was panning for gold in northern California and struck it rich. Well, rich enough to get the hell out and do what I've always loved. Raising horses."

"You had to know who I was."

Eric shook his head, frowning. "No, I didn't. Maria never told me your name. Johnny wasn't allowed to speak it. All I knew was you were a rancher. There are plenty of them around. I didn't know, Murdoch. I swear it.”

*

Scott stepped off the porch, his eyes targeting his brother immediately. Johnny was resting his hands against the corral fence though his body was a foot away. He was leaning in, as if he were retching. Scott thought he probably felt like it. Slowly, he approached his brother. He watched the bent back heaving as the air was sucked in and blown out hard. He could hear Johnnyâ€s breaths ragged and sharp and was unsure of getting any closer. Even this upset, Johnny was not one to crowd. Strike that, he thought. Especially when he was this upset. He decided to wait, knowing Johnny knew he was there.

After a few minutes, the younger man seemed to be calming but had yet to indicate he was aware of his brotherâ€s presence. Scott took in a deep breath and opened his mouth.

â€Leave me alone.”

It was husky and low and shaky at best; hard to hear but heâ€d heard it. He decided to pretend he hadnâ€t and took a step. One step.

Johnny turned quickly and glared. â€Are you deaf? I said leave me alone!”

â€Iâ€m afraid I canâ€t do that, Johnny. Youâ€re in no shape to be left alone. Let me help you.”

â€I donâ€t need your help!” He spat the words then walked to Barranca, vaulting into the saddle and jerking hard on the reins. He took off at a gallop and Scott turned his head away from the dust kicked up.

Waving a hand in front of his face, Scott watched his brother thunder down the trail for a few seconds before heading back inside. He was determined to hear the truth from one of them.

*

Murdoch stood when his son came into the room. â€Where is he?”

â€He took off. Said he wanted to be left alone. Actually, he yelled at me to leave him alone. He said he didnâ€t need my help.” Scott turned his attention to their host. â€Would you care to explain what the hell just happened here?”

Eric's eyes darted from Scott to the door. He struggled with going after Johnny but, with a bolt of understanding, he realized he no longer had that right. Resigned, he walked over to the liquor and grabbed a bottle and three glasses. Turning back to face the remaining Lancers, his voice fell flat. "Gentlemen, let's sit down. This will take a while."

Scott looked at his father's pale face and stepped up to the man. Placing a light hand on Murdoch's arm, he gained his father's attention. "Sit down, Murdoch."

Nodding and numb, the older man lowered himself into a chair. Scott grabbed the nearest one and dragged it closer to his father then seated himself. Four eyes turned to Eric.

He set the glasses on a table in front of them and poured three whiskeys then settled on the sofa across from them. "I met Maria when Johnny was five years old. She was working in a small cantina, serving food. She was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen." He stopped and smiled at a memory then his face fell as he went on. "Our courtship was brief and we married four months later. Johnny was ... a handful. Put plainly, the boy was a holy terror. Maria had lost control of him at some point and it took a long time to regain.

"No," he shook his head. "No, that's not entirely true. We never fully regained it. Johnny was wild and, though he did settle some and minded me, that wildness was always there under the surface. Eventually, he came to trust me and love me. I'll never forget the first time he called me papa."

A strange noise stopped him and he looked at Murdoch who appeared ready to commit murder. Swallowing a long drink, he unsteadily continued. "Maria told me her husband threw her out. She said he didn't love her and didn't want a mixed child. She never told me your name and I never asked. I saw no reason to. Johnny never mentioned you at all. There was one time when the topic came up. I don't even remember now how but Maria and I were talking and Johnny threw a fit. He shouted at us to shut up, to not talk about ..."

Murdoch's head came up and he stared hard at the man. "Not talk about what?"

Inhaling deeply, Eric spoke. "To not talk about that gringo bastard ever again."

*

Silence permeated the room for a long moment.

"I still don't see how you couldn't have known. Maria's last name was Lancer," Scott said.

Eric shook his head. "No, it wasn't. She told me her name was Ruiz."

"Her maiden name," Murdoch supplied with chagrin.

"Why is he here? I don't understand , he hated your guts."

"Because his mother lied to him. Murdoch never threw her out. She ran off with a gambler in the middle of the night. Stole Johnny and disappeared." Scott's voice was edgy, his worry and anger warring for supremacy.

Eric sat back on the sofa and gawked at him. "She wouldn't do that." It came out as a whisper.

"Well, she did, Eric. That's what Johnny has believed all his life and it's a lie. He could have come home when she died. Instead, he had to fend for himself. And, by the way, where the hell were you?" Scott's hand tightened around his glass.

"How did she die?" The question was asked so softly, Scott had to look at his father to assure himself that's who had spoken.

"I'm not sure of the details. I wasn't there. I'd gone hunting wild horses and when I returned, Maria was dead and Johnny was gone. I looked for him for a while but he simply vanished."

"How old was he?"

"Fourteen. He had begged me to take him along and I almost did. I wish to God I had now. He loved working the horses with me and he had an amazing talent with them. He could talk to them. That was when Johnny was his true self; when he was with the horses."

"What do you mean, his true self?” Scott asked.

Eric looked sadly at him. "I told you he was a wild spirit. Always did have a wanderlust . It was hard to keep him home. He was always exploring, always looking for something. I never knew what that was exactly. It wasn't that he was unhappy at home, he just needed something. I don't think he even knew what that something was. But, when he was with the horses, Johnny was gentle and caring. He seemed to be at peace. He loved the animals and they returned that love unconditionally."

Scott nodded and now knew where Johnny's love and knowledge of horses had come from.

"And Maria?" Murdoch asked again.

"She was murdered, there's no question. When I asked around, no one would talk. I knew, though there was no proof, it had to be the rurales. None of the people would speak against them and especially not to a gringo. The only thing they would tell me for sure was that Johnny was there when it happened."

Murdoch closed his eyes tightly and lowered his head.

"They said he ran away and the rurales went after him. I was sure he was dead but I searched anyway. When I couldn't find him, I knew he couldn't have survived. To see him now ... it was as if the years just fell away. But, he's all grown up." Raising his eyes to Murdoch's, he asked, " what happened to him?"

*

"Johnny Madrid happened to him. That's who he's been for the last six years, Eric. A gunfighter." Murdoch's voice was cold and accusatory.

Eric came to his feet quickly and walked around the room, keeping his back to them both. He blinked furiously but it was no use. The tears welled and he cursed himself. He stopped in front of the fireplace and lowered his head, working to regain his decorum.

Scott watched him with his mouth hanging open. The movements, the gestures, he could see it now. So much like Johnny it made his heart ache and his stomach churn. He forced the emotions away for a moment and allowed his brain to absorb and weed through the information. "You loved him."

Eric turned back and smiled a little at the young man. "I still do. I never stopped loving either of them. We weren't rich, far from it. But, we were happy and we did alright. That boy never went hungry and he never went without a roof over his head unless he stayed out all night. He did that several times. It didn't matter what I did to punish him, he'd still do it."

"Why?"

"He said he just wanted to be outside, Scott. He said he 'needed' to be outside. I never understood it, really."

"He doesn't like to be hemmed in. He likes the wide open spaces. He'll buck if you try to keep him down." Murdoch looked up, blinking and a little surprised he'd spoken.

Eric smiled a little. "Yes, he likes his freedom. Like I said, a wild spirit." Growing solemn, he asked, " so , I guess he believed your side of things?"

Scott glanced at his father and decided Eric didn't need to know Murdoch had never actually explained anything to either of them. He saw his father's face turn to stone and spoke for him. "Yes, he believed it. Johnny's been alone a long time. He needed us as much as we need him."

"He never knew about you, did he? I mean, he would've said something to me about a brother."

Scott's face hardened. "No, I suppose Maria didn't feel the need to tell any truth. And, no, I didn't know about him, either until we both arrived here."

Eric grimaced, still unable to fathom his wife lying to her son about something so important. Why would she do such a thing? Did she hate Murdoch so much? He couldn't understand that. He had to admit to himself, he liked the man and thought him a decent sort. He couldn't imagine this man throwing a young mother and baby out on the street.

"He's happy here? Settled?"

"Yes, he is." Murdoch's tone was firm and a little confrontational, as if he expected an argument and would win.

"I can't imagine what he must be thinking right now," Eric mused, ignoring the tone and understanding the protectiveness.

Scott stood up. "Neither can I but he's had a little time now so, hopefully, he's calmed down. We should go, Sir. He'll head home eventually."

Murdoch nodded and rose. He looked pointedly at Eric. "You and I have a lot more to discuss." With that, he turned and strode out.

*

The ride home was made in complete silence, both men lost in their thoughts and staring straight ahead. As they dismounted near the barn, Scott headed inside unsurprised Barranca wasn't in his stall. Sighing tiredly, he walked back out and simply shook his head at his father. They walked into the house together and sat in the great room glumly.

Scott watched Murdoch's face, the myriad of emotions flashing across the rugged features, until he could stand it no more. "At least we know he had a good life for a while."

"Oh, yes. We should get down on our knees and thank the Lord he was safe for a minute."

Rolling his eyes heavenward, Scott let out a sigh. "I know it was only half of his life but it's better than what I've imagined."

"Which is?"

Lowering his eyes, Scott spoke softly. "That he was alone all the time. That she ignored him at best, abused him at worst. Eric really seems to love him, Murdoch. I know how hard this is for you but at least he had something good for a while. All I'm saying is , if this had to happen to him, it could have been much worse."

The older man just stared into space as he thought through his son's words. Yes, he supposed he should be grateful Johnny had a father figure in his life. Someone who obviously taught him things. Someone his son loved. Someone his son called papa. His stomach cramped at that idea, at hearing those words come from Johnny's mouth. Words he had not heard in nearly twenty years. Johnny had just started saying papa when Maria left. The words once music to his ears now seemed like the screeching of a banshee.

"He'll come home soon."

Murdoch blinked and looked at his son. "No, I don't think we should expect to see Johnny tonight, son. Wherever he is, that's probably where he'll stay until tomorrow. It's just his way."

Scott nodded. "Well, I'll see if I can scrounge something up for dinner." Seeing the protest beginning to form on his father's lips, he held up a hand. "We have to eat, Sir. There's no point in suffering anymore than we have to."

*

Johnny sat on the hill and looked down on the great hacienda he called home. The place that had always been his home, had he just known he was welcome. All the old fears and anger welled up inside. All the old insecurities, as well. When he'd first come here, he almost couldn't stand being in his own skin. Almost couldn't take the truths he'd learned.

Had papa known the truth? If so, why would he come here and befriend Murdoch? He shook his head and blew out a breath. He is not my father. Not my papa! He'd always known that but the man had treated him as a son, called him son and reprimanded him enough times. He had begun to think of Art as his father as much as he could.

But, he'd always known the truth. That his real father was out there and even though he didn't want Johnny, it was still that man's blood that ran through his veins. That man's blood that tormented him, drove him, haunted him every damned day of his life.

And now that he knew the truth if not the why of the lie, he could accept Murdoch was not a demon from hell. In fact, his old man was the finest man he knew. And he loved him.

And he loved Art. Or was it Eric now? Frowning, he wondered about the name change. Again, did he come here knowing who Murdoch was? He had to talk to the man, obviously, but not tonight. Maybe not tomorrow either. Or the next day.

He knew he was talking himself into avoiding this but a bigger part of him knew he had to face it and find out what was going on. But first, he had to face his family and their questions. And he was sure they had a ton of those to throw at him. He felt bad for yelling at Scott and knew he had to apologize to his brother.

Had Art known about Scott? Gritting his teeth, he closed his hands into tight fists and pressed them against his thighs. Dammit ! Why had this happened? Why now? Why ever?

He took some long, deep breaths and tried to calm himself down. He'd been shocked but happy to see the man. Thrilled he was alive. But, then the memory of that day flooded his mind and he had to run. Did Art know what had really happened to him and his mama? He prayed not. He prayed no one ever found out for he would never speak it. Not ever.

His entire body trembled as the memories once more invaded his mind. He couldn't make them stop as much as he wanted to and he clenched his eyes shut, shaking his head and wrapping his arms around himself. He sat there, slowly rocking back and forth as the sounds and pictures came alive in his mind's eye.

Suddenly, he jolted, his eyes flying open and one word forced from his throat. "NO!" Johnny blinked and looked around wildly but there was no one there. Shaking and sweating, he slowly got to his feet and walked in a small circle.

Please, God. Make it stop. Make it go away again.

Finally, he stopped his pacing and looked back down at the glowing lights of the house. Johnny shook his head and vaulted onto Barranca, taking off in the opposite direction.

*

Murdoch jerked his head up and looked blearily around the great room. Slowly, he straightened his back from where he'd fallen asleep at his desk, head resting on his arms across the surface. His eyes went to the French doors and he could see the dawning just beginning. Looking at the clock, he confirmed the time to himself.

He stood and stretched then bent at the waist to loosen the kinks from his back. When he stood back up, he saw Scott splayed out on the sofa. A soft smile came to his lips as he watched his son but it soon faded. Instinctively, he knew Johnny wasn't home. He could just feel his son's absence.

As he walked to the French doors and opened them, he looked toward the road, the little he could see, and sighed. Rubbing a hand down his face, he stepped out for a better view. The ranch was coming to life in the fresh new day but he couldn't appreciate the beauty around him this morning. For his son was lost and in some horrible pain Murdoch knew he could not even begin to imagine.

It killed him to think of Johnny out there alone, dealing with this somehow. He knew his son worked this way but he'd never liked it. Today, he hated it. It wasn't right and it wasn't fair. Why couldn't the boy just be allowed to have a good life? Why couldn't the damned past leave them alone? What had he done so horrible that his son should suffer so?

He looked upward as if he would receive some answer but all he saw was a lone hawk circling in search of its breakfast. With a harsh sigh, he headed back inside to find Scott slowly coming to wakefulness.

"Good morning."

Scott squinted as he gave a glance then rubbed his head. "Is Johnny home?"

"No."

"Then, it's not a good morning. I'm going after him."

"Leave him be, Scott. He'll come home when he's ready."

Standing and stretching his arms, Scott regarded his father irritably. "I'm not so sure about that. I'm not so sure he isn't over at Michaels' place right now."

Murdoch stiffened at the thought then forced himself to relax. "If he is, do you blame him? I'm sure he needs some answers from the man, too."

"Not until we talk to him first. That's just the way I see it, Murdoch. Johnny needs to be with his family now. That's all."

Cocking a brow, Murdoch surveyed his older son. "You're grouchy this morning."

Galled, Scott rounded. "Don't you think I have the right to be a little grouchy? My brother is out there all alone dealing with God knows what and you stand there all calm and collected! Why aren't you trying to find him?!"

"Stop it." Johnny spoke softly from the doorway as he watched what he feared most. That this whole business would tear his family apart.

*

Scott and Murdoch both turned quickly to him. Murdoch walked to him, taking his arm gently. "Are you alright? Are you hungry?"

Johnny smiled a little. "Yeah, sure. I could eat."

"Have you? Eaten, I mean," Scott asked.

Shrugging and stepping further into the room after a quick glance at his father, Johnny answered. "No, I forgot but I could sure use some coffee."

Following his son, Murdoch put his hand on Johnny's shoulder, feeling the need for physical contact. "Come on, let's all go get some breakfast."

Scott watched them both walk toward the kitchen then shook his head. How could they be so calm?

Throughout what Scott considered to be an inordinately long meal, he kept watching his brother for some sign of what he was feeling. Johnny would look at nothing but his plate, however and Scott's frustration and worry were mounting.

"I'm sorry I yelled at you yesterday, Scott. It was uncalled for."

The sound was so sudden, it seemed deafening though the words were spoken softly. Scott hesitated a second. "It's alright, brother. I understand."

Johnny looked at him and smiled then lowered his eyes again. "I guess there's a lot to talk about."

"Why don't we take our coffee in the living room," Murdoch suggested.

Johnny shook his head. "I should get to work. There's a lot to do today."

"It can wait. This can't." It was Murdoch's no nonsense tone even though it was more subdued than usual.

Scott smiled and got up, heading for the living room and anxious to talk to his brother.

Once they were all seated, the room grew quiet.

*

"What did he tell you?"

Murdoch frowned and relayed the story as Eric had told it, including the fact he claimed to have no idea who Murdoch was to Maria. When he'd finished, Johnny just sat there staring at the floor.

"Well, that sounds right. I wasn't sure if he ever knew your name, though. I'm glad he didn't. I mean, I'm glad he didn't come here knowing it, if that makes any sense."

"I don't know him well, Johnny, but just because he claims he didn't know doesn't make it true."

"Everything else he told you was the truth, Scott."

"What he didn't know was exactly what happened to your mother or you. He said he assumed it was rurales because the people there wouldn't talk about it."

Johnny looked at his father and nodded but he said nothing.

Murdoch kept the stare and waited but when nothing happened, he grew impatient. "What happened, Johnny?"

His eyes went back to the floor. "They broke in, robbed us and killed her when she tried to stop them."

"What did they do to you?" Scott asked.

"Knocked me out ... after ..." he shrugged.

Murdoch closed his eyes briefly. "You saw it then."

"Yeah, I saw it. They made me watch. I don't want to talk about that anymore." He stood up and began to pace the room, fingers drumming against his thighs.

"It's alright, son. You don't have to. Are you going to see him?"

He stopped and faced his father. His father. Yes, that's who he was alright. A good father and a good man. "I have to."

"I know, son."

"Do you want some company?"

Johnny smiled at his brother. Sometimes, Scott wasn't very subtle. "No, I need to do this alone. I'll be back later." He turned and walked toward the door. Stopping at the doorway, he picked his hat up off the table there and glanced over at them. "I'll be back."

*

Scott hung his head when the door clicked closed and let out the breath he'd been holding.

"You heard him, Scott."

"Yes, I heard him. What he didn't say was what kind of shape he'll be in when he does come back."

"He seems to be doing alright with everything."

"Murdoch, I've been thinking about this," he started and locked onto his father's eyes. "What if Eric is lying about knowing who you are? What if he has some scheme? More than that, what if he tries to get Johnny away from here?"

"Son, I know you're worried. So am I. But, honestly, do you really think your brother is going to leave here?"

Sorrowfully, Scott answered. "I don't know."

"Well, I do. I saw his face, his eyes and he's not going anywhere."

*

Johnny sat the saddle and stared at the hitching post for a long moment. With a weary sigh, he dismounted slowly, almost painfully and wrapped the reins around the post.

"I think you're too young to be dismounting like that."

He looked up into the man's eyes and smiled a little. "Didn't get much sleep."

"I imagine not. Come inside, son." He extended an arm and Johnny stepped into it. "Have you eaten?"

"Yeah, at home."

Eric smiled tightly and led him inside. Once in the living room, he embraced Johnny as fiercely as he had the previous day. The younger man allowed it, relished it actually and returned it.

"I have to tell you I almost fainted dead away when I saw you."

Johnny laughed softly. "Yeah, me too."

"You look good. All grown up and filled out. You're a good looking man, son."

Johnny bowed his head, his cheeks flushing a little. "Thanks."

Eric chuckled and gently guided him to the sofa. "Sit and have some coffee with me. Tell me all about Lancer."

He sat down and leaned forward, resting his forearms on his thighs. "I'd rather hear about you right now. Why the different name?"

Eric's face fell. "There was some trouble. I was accused of stealing a string of horses. The previous owner wasn't exactly an honest man. The bill of sale wasn't made out properly and, fool that I am , I didn't bother to look at it. Anyway, that was in Texas and you know how they are about horse thieves down there."

"Same way they are about them anywhere."

"I suppose but the law wasn't listening to me. I was a stranger to them and this man wasn't. I barely got out of there with my life and nothing else. I wandered around, did some odd jobs wrangling then struck a gold mine up north."

"Murdoch told me that part."

Eric looked at his profile. "You call him by his first name?"

Johnny sat back and frowned. "Didn't seem right to call him anything else at first. We didn't know each other. Now, it's just habit, I guess. I call him old man sometimes."

He nodded and smiled shortly. "How did it come about? Coming home."

*

Johnny stood up and walked around the room. "Did Murdoch tell you about Madrid?"

"He did."

"Well, he hired the Pinkerton's to find me, offered me a thousand dollars for an hour of my time. Hell, I would've walked over hot coals barefooted for that kind of money. Didn't hurt that they found me about one minute before I was to be executed."

Eric came to his feet. "What?"

Johnny turned and smiled at him. "It was a revolution sort of. The rurales captured me. They were pretty happy about that. Anyway, I made my way here and ran into this eastern dandy on the stage. Turned out to be Scott."

"So, he sent for both of you at the same time?"

"Yeah, there was a range war goin on. Someone did a lot of damage to this valley and Murdoch was in a pretty bad place. Most of his vaqueros had quit and the smaller ranches around were wiped out. He wanted our help and offered us a partnership in exchange."

Eric shook his head, trying to make sense of this. "Are you telling me the only reason he sent for you was to save his ranch? Is that what you're telling me, Johnny?"

He tensed at the tone. One he recognized well. Papa was mad and wanted an explanation and he would have one, too. Johnny felt obliged to answer him where he may have told anyone else to go to hell. "That's what he said but it's not what he meant." He stopped, smiled softly and lowered his head before finding the man's face again.

"See, that's how Murdoch is. He has a hard time showing he cares. Or, he did then. You just have to get to know him then you can tell it's all a lot of hot air. He's a lot better now, though. Guess he was worried we'd hate him or something. He was right to worry about that."

"I'm a little surprised you didn't blow his head off, quite frankly."

"I came close, no doubt. He was a real jackass that first day. Then, I found out the truth and ... I don't know. I figured I'd give it a chance. Besides, I had this new brother and this ranch and it was a lot more than I'd had for a long time. Seemed the best choice to make."

Eric walked over and cupped the nape of Johnny's neck, a warm smile on his face. "We had a good family for a while, didn't we?"

"Yeah, we did." Johnny moved away, rebuking the touch.

Eric's hurt was visible on his face even if Johnny didn't see it. "Son, I wish to God I'd been there to protect you and your mother."

"You'd be dead, too, if you had. There was just too many of them." He turned back to the man, his own pain unhidden. "What are you gonna do now?"

*

"Do? What do you mean?"

Johnny stared hard at him and long enough for the man to become uncomfortable under that scrutiny. He was seeing something very different from the boy he'd known and loved. This was a man, a dangerous man and he was surprised at the fear he felt.

"Did you really not know who Murdoch was or is this some kind of scheme?"

Stunned by the accusation, he felt as if he'd been slapped in the face. "Scheme? What are you talking about, son? I told Murdoch I didn't have any idea who he is and I meant it. I came here to raise horses, train and sell them and that's what I intend to do."

Johnny nodded, satisfied with the answer then he sighed heavily. "This is gonna be kind of tough."

"It doesn't have to be, Johnny. I know what you're saying but, we can still have a relationship. No matter what has happened, you're still my stepson and I still love you."

He lowered his head and mumbled, "me too."

Eric walked over and cupped his chin, raising his head and smiling at him. "You still do that. Still hang your head like a lost pup. There's no shame in a man saying he loves another man, Johnny. We're family."

"It's just ... it's been a long time and ... I don't know if I can ... there are so many memories; bad memories."

"Then try to focus on the good ones. There were a lot more of those. We were happy, Johnny. We may not have been wealthy but we were happy and that's what's most important in life. I know you've had a hard time since your mother died and it kills me knowing it. I can't begin to imagine what you've been through or what made you pick up a gun. I'm here if you want to tell me but I understand if you don't. All I want is to be a part of your life. Do you think there's room enough for me?"

Johnny smiled softly at him. "Yeah, there's room." His face darkened and he pulled away. "It's just that I can't call you papa anymore. It's not right. It's not fair to Murdoch."

Eric's face fell and he frowned deeply. "I understand. I don't like it but I understand. There's just one thing, son. I'm not Art anymore. I'm Eric Michaels. Can you try to call me that?"

"Sure. It's not like I ever called you by your given name anyway." He looked up, the pain still etched in his face. "I guess you shouldn't call me son, either."

He sucked in a deep breath. "Maybe, once in a while, in private?"

Johnny smiled and nodded.   "Well, I have to go now."

"So soon? I did want to talk to you about the horses."

"Murdoch told me about that. I wasn't real happy with the idea but now, since it's you, I guess I can make an exception."

Eric looked into the sparkling eyes and recalled that mischievous look. How could he still be the same person after all he'd been through? "If he still wants to go through with it, that is."

Sighing, Johnny walked around the room a little. "Guess we all need to sit down and talk about that. It's business and Murdoch tries to keep business and personal separate." He frowned as he turned back to the man. "When did you get all fancy?"

He chuckled and shrugged. "I figured since I hit the mother lode, so to speak, I should spend it. You can't take it with you. I've had enough of sleeping on the ground and in flea-ridden hotels, Johnny. I expect this venture will keep me comfortable."

"You must have done really well in those gold fields. That's nice. Guess it is about time, huh?"

Growing solemn, Eric regarded the young man. "You know, it never bothered me before - not being well off. When we were all together, I was happier than I'd ever been. Family is what's important. Loving and providing for your family. I hope someday, you have that experience for yourself."

He rolled his eyes. "You sound like Murdoch. Anyone gets hitched around here, it'll be Scott. I got no plans to get married any time soon."

Eric smiled. "You're still too young, in my opinion. But, that will change as it must. Life goes on whether we want it to or not."

Johnny bowed his head and nodded then sucked in a breath. "Well, I'll talk to Murdoch and Scott about the deal and I'll help out here as much as I can."

"Thank you, son. Please, come over anytime at all for any reason."

*

Johnny walked into the house and tossed his hat on the table. Rolling his shoulders, he stepped into the living room to find his father and brother sitting at Murdoch's desk. They both stared at him as he came nearer. He plopped into the chair next to Scott and flashed a quick smile.

"Are you alright?"

"Yeah, sure. Are you gonna sign that contract with him?" Johnny's eyes bore into his father's.

Murdoch glanced at Scott then looked at the papers on his desk. "Is everyone in agreement?"

"No." Scott spoke emphatically. "At least, not yet. I'm sorry, Johnny, but I just have a bad feeling about this."

"It's business, Scott. It's got nothing to do with who he is to me. If you're still worried he came here with some plan, you're wrong. I came right out and asked him and he told me he didn't know who Murdoch was. I believe him."

"I would expect you to given your feelings for the man."

Johnny stood up and stared down at his brother. "Are you saying I can't judge what's right for this ranch anymore?"

Scott didn't like his current position so, he stood as well. "I'm saying your emotions are very high right now and maybe you aren't thinking clearly. I'm not saying he's up to something, I'm saying I don't know."

"What difference does it make anyway? The contract spells it all out, Scott. No matter what else *might* be going on, he can't cheat us on this deal."

"What happened that he had to change his name and leave wherever he was?"

Johnny clinched his jaw. "He was accused of horse thievin but he got snookered. The law wouldn't believe him so he took off before they hung him. I know this man, Scott. He ain't no horse thief."

Scott raised a brow and looked at Murdoch for support. "What do you say, Sir?"

Murdoch stood as well and sighed loudly. "I think Johnny is right. The contract is very clear. Whatever may or may not have happened in the past, there is no way we can be cheated in this deal. I don't like the idea of the man being wanted, though."

"He ain't wanted here. It was in Texas."

Scott threw his hands up. "Well, that makes it alright then!"

Johnny turned on his heel and walked away before he did something his brother might regret. He didn't think he'd regret punching Scott in the jaw right about now. After a few seconds, he faced them. "I'm thinking it's not my emotions that are running high here, Scott. I'm thinking you're the one who has a problem with my stepfather being here. If you do, get it said, brother. I'm not gonna put up with all this. Say whatever is on your mind and let's get it hashed out right now."

*

Scott considered his brother then decided he would indeed get it said. "Very well. I'm angry with you, Johnny. You don't seem to be taking our feelings into account here. Especially, Murdoch's."

"Scott."

"No, let him talk," Johnny interrupted his father then turned back to his brother.

"I realize this is a wonderful thing for you. To find your stepfather again after all these years. But, you have a family now. Your true family and we should come first."

Johnny raised his brows in surprise. "Who said you didn't? Because I defend the man, that means you don't come first with me? Scott, there are all kinds of families. Blood ain't always the deciding factor. He was good to me and I would've thought you'd at least appreciate that much. He didn't beat on me or mistreat me in any way. I'm real clear on who my old man is and where I belong. That doesn't mean I'm gonna ignore him. Doesn't mean I'm not gonna spend time with him, either. So, if that's your idea of loyalty, then we have a real problem." Johnny turned to Murdoch. "Is that a problem for you? Me spending time with him?"

Murdoch dropped his eyes. "No, son, of course not."

It didn't sound very sincere to Johnny and he stared in disbelief at his father. It hurt that Murdoch couldn't understand this and he didn't know why his father didn't. "How come I'm not convinced?"

"Maybe I need more than a day to deal with this!" Murdoch blurted out. "It's not as if I knew anything about him. I didn't even know he was still alive! Is it alright with you if I take a minute?"

Johnny took a step back, stunned by the voracity until he allowed himself to hear the words and what lie beneath.

"Don't you think I wanted to be the one to teach you about horses? That I would have liked to be the one you looked up to and respected all those years? Forgive me if it doesn't sit well that another man took my rightful place with you for all those years!" Murdoch stormed out of the room, leaving Johnny with his mouth open and Scott fuming at his brother.

Scott watched the anger come to his brother's face and he reached out, grabbing his arm. "Don't do it, Johnny."

"Stay out of this, Scott!" He followed his father into the kitchen, disregarding the fact they weren't alone. "You didn't seem to have any problem letting another man take your *rightful* place with Scott all those years, old man! It ain't my fault you weren't there! Ain't his fault, either. What did you want me to do? Sit around and wait for a man who I thought hated my guts to come to the rescue? If you want to be mad at someone, be mad at the right person. Don't take your crap out on me! You oughta be grateful to the man for doing your job for you!"

*

The sound wasn't really loud unless it was right next to the ear which is where Johnny heard it. His cheek flamed red as his head snapped to the side. Caught off-guard, he stumbled to find his balance, ending up against the counter. Somewhere in his mind, he realized he heard someone gasp loudly.

He leaned his elbow against the counter and just stood there what seemed an hour. Slowly, he raised his eyes to his father who was staring at him in mortification. The rest of his face turned the same color as his cheek.

At that moment, standing in the doorway, Scott wished he could rip his own tongue out. He never should have started this.

Murdoch took a step forward only to be countered by Johnny taking a step back and holding his hand out to ward the man off.

"I'm sorry, son. I'm so sorry." It was all he could think to say. It was all he felt in that moment.

Scott, who was behind Johnny, stepped forward and put his hands on his brother's arms but Johnny jerked away from him and glared.

"Happy now, Scott?" He spat the words then skirted around his brother and stalked away. A few seconds later, they heard the front door slam.

Staring at his father, Scott didn't know what to say or do. He watched as Murdoch lowered his head and slumped his shoulders in a gesture of defeat. Angered by the sight, Scott turned and went in search of Johnny, figuring he was heading straight for Eric.

He found his brother in the barn sitting on a hay stack. Scott was surprised and relieved but he still didn't know what to say exactly. He figured he'd start with what he was thinking in that moment and go from there. "You shouldn't have brought me into it, Johnny."

"You started it. What's the matter, truth hurt?"

"You know he searched for you."

"Yeah, after I got here. What was I supposed to do, Scott? Hate the man? Who the hell are you to tell me how I should live my life anyway?"

"All I wanted was for you to have a little consideration for our father!"

Johnny jumped to his feet. "Funny, all I wanted was to talk about a damned contract! You're making more of this than it is, Scott. Ya know , he didn't have to take care of me. He didn't have to be nice to me and he sure didn't have to love me. But, he did and I don't know why that sticks in your crawl so much."

Scott scowled, his fists on his hips. "Because it reminds Murdoch that he *couldn't* be there for you. How do you think it makes him feel knowing how much you care about that man, hearing you call him papa?"

Shaking his head slowly, Johnny lowered his voice. "I'm sure it makes him feel bad some. But, I don't know what you want me to do, Scott. You want me to tell him to leave? You want me to stay away from him? Tell him I don't care? I can't do that. All I can do is hope we can all get along but it looks like you ain't too keen on that idea. Seems like you're the one who wants him out of my life."

"What I don't want is for you to choose him over us."

He stared wide-eyed at his brother, his mouth open a little. "Choose? Who the hell said I had to choose?"

Scott shook his head with frustration. "I have a feeling that's what it will come down to."

A heavy sigh escaped Johnny's lips. "You have a feeling. Well, good for you! Boy, thanks for all the faith, brother. I can see just what you think of me now."

"Johnny, that's not what I meant. I don't want you hurt and I don't want Murdoch hurt."

"Too late for that!" He turned and walked away a few paces.

*

Scott stared at his back, at a loss. Nothing was coming out the way he intended. He wasn't even sure how to say what he was feeling. "You saw the look on his face after he slapped you. Quite frankly, you pushed him to it. Was it necessary to once again throw the man in his face?"

Johnny picked at the wooden wall and swallowed hard. "No, it wasn't," he whispered. "I lost my temper. I shouldn't have to defend this, Scott! Dammit , I shouldn't have to be fighting with you about this!"

Taking in a breath and letting it out slowly, Scott agreed. "No, we shouldn't be fighting about this. I wish I could just say everything is fine but I can't."

"You liked him before you knew who he was."

"I also said there was something not quite right."

"And now you know what that was."

"Maybe."

Johnny lowered his head then turned to face his brother. "It wouldn't matter if he'd become a priest. You ain't gonna like him because of who he is to me. That's the truth of it."

Scott frowned at this idea. "That's not the reason, Johnny."

He shrugged. "Whatever you say."

Sighing, Scott asked, " are we alright?"

"No, brother. No, we ain't alright. Not by a longshot ." He walked past Scott and out of the barn only to find Murdoch pacing in front of the doors. Sighing wearily, he tried to avoid his father but it was not to be.

*

"Son, talk to me."

Johnny stopped on a dime and turned to the man. "I'm talked out."

Tensing up, Murdoch stared hard at him. "Why can't you understand... "

"I do understand, Murdoch. I'm sorry for what I said and I know you're sorry for belting me. I just don't know what else to say about it. Maybe there isn't anything left to say. Whatever it is you want , I'm not sure I have it."

Sighing and running a hand through his hair, Murdoch conceded that point. "Maybe you don't. Maybe Eric is the one I should be talking to."

Shaking his head slowly, Johnny said, "I don't know what he can tell you that you'd want to hear. Do you really want him to tell you about being with my mother?"

Murdoch grimaced. "No, I want to know what my son was like as a child."

Johnny crooked one side of his mouth. "A hellion, pretty much."

Murdoch chuckled a little. "I can believe that." Solemnly, he said, "I'll talk to Scott about the contract."

"I'll tell ya what. From now on, you talk to Scott about any of it. I'm done talkin to him."

He took two steps closer, relieved when Johnny didn't back away. "We can't let this tear the family apart."

"The only one doing that is Scott. I'm not a fool, Murdoch. If pa... Eric is up to something, I'll find it out but my memories of the man are of an honest and hard-working one. I guess people can change but I haven't seen that in him." He sighed and threw his hands up. "Do what you want about the horses."  

Murdoch watched him walk back to the house. He could sense Scott near him. Without turning around, he spoke. "We all three gave our word to agree to the sale. The papers may not be signed yet but, I'm a man of my word. I know you are, as well, son."

Scott lowered his head and sighed lightly. "Yes, Sir. I just hope this isn't a mistake."

He turned to his son then. "You need to ease up on Johnny. Whatever I'm feeling about this, I'll deal with it. I appreciate the concern, son, but your relationship with your brother is on the line more than you know. Don't alienate him. Don't push him away."

*

Eric rode up to the hacienda early in the morning with partial dread. It had been two tension filled days as he waited to hear from Johnny. The note from Murdoch had been a surprise but, apparently, they were ready to make this deal. He knew he had his son to thank for that. He shook his head. He's not your son, fool! But he knew he would always think of Johnny that way. No matter he hadn't sired the boy.

He dismounted with grace and lightly stepped to the door. Sucking it up, he knocked.

He smiled at Scott. "Good day."

Scott forced a small smile of his own. "Eric, come in."

The tension in the living room matched his own mood recently and he looked warily from one Lancer to another. His eyes found Johnny and he smiled warmly, relaxing quite a bit when Johnny reciprocated.

Murdoch stood from his desk chair. "Eric, the contract is ready for you to read and sign if you agree."

All business. Well, that's what he was here for. He sat across the desk from Murdoch and began to read. Scott stood behind his father as Johnny leaned against the wall by the fireplace, his arms crossed over his chest. The silence was distracting.

Finally, he looked at Murdoch and smiled. "It's agreeable to me. Do you have a pen?"

After all four men signed the contract, the tension increased once more. Eric looked at Johnny, a worried frown on his face as he noted the young man's stance. He was upset, that was clear. With whom, Eric had no idea. "The only thing left is a recommendation. Murdoch told me you could give me some names, Johnny, of some good trainers."

"Well, I have work to do," Scott said and headed out the door.

Johnny looked sharply at his brother then turned his attention back to Eric. "Yeah, sure. Let's walk outside and talk about it."

Eric stood and extended a hand. "Murdoch, thank you. I hope this is profitable for all of us."

Murdoch shook his hand and held it a little longer. "Sometime very soon, you and I should sit down and talk."

"How about tomorrow night at my place?"

"That would be fine."

Johnny rolled his eyes and walked outside with his stepfather.

*

Out in the yard, Eric eyed Johnny warily. "What's going on, son? Everyone acted as if they were about to explode."

"Don't worry about it. Murdoch wants to hear stories of me as a kid or some nonsense like that. Just tell him something funny and he'll be fine."

Eric took hold of his arm and Johnny faced him. "Tell me what's going on."

He sighed and looked out over the yard. "Just me and Scott got into it."

"Over me."

"Yeah. He doesn't trust you. Thinks you're up to something. And he really didn't like it when I told him about Texas."

He grimaced and let his hand slide across Johnny's shoulders. "I wish you hadn't said anything about that. I can see why he'd have trouble trusting a man accused of being a horse thief."

"You ain't a horse thief. I explained all that. He's just ... I don't know what he is. Afraid I'm gonna hurt Murdoch's feelings, I guess." He snorted at the last.

Eric gave the younger man a sidelong look. "Don't dismiss that, Johnny. I can easily see your father being upset about all this. He wanted to be the one to raise you, to love you and be loved back. This is hard on him, I'm sure."

Johnny lowered his head and scuffed his boot in the dirt. "I didn't make it any better, either. Yelled at him some. It's okay now, I guess."

"You guess?"

He shrugged. "Things have been a little prickly."

Eric chuckled. "You do have a way with understatement, son."

He grinned. "Guess so. Anyway, I'm pretty mad at Scott."

He stared at the boy's profile for a few seconds then looked around. "Let's sit down for a minute." Once seated on the veranda, Eric thought how best to proceed. "Scott was raised by his grandfather?"

"Yeah," Johnny said as if he'd just tasted something rancid.

"Suppose that man came here and Scott fell all over him, hugging him and defending him and telling you all how good he was to Scott."

Johnny closed his eyes. "He did come here last Spring . Tried to blackmail Scott into going back to Boston. It almost worked, too. Scott doesn't have as much contact with him now. He's still pretty mad at the old goat. Thing is, I was glad he was comin out. I was looking forward to meeting him, ya know? But, he was a bastard from the get go, papa. Didn't think much of me. This is different. You got to know them a little first and they liked you. I don't understand why Scott's acting like this."

Eric sighed and figured that example was shot to hell. "Alright. Suppose things had gone differently. That he was wonderful and charming and you really liked him but then he asked Scott to come home and maybe Scott was thinking about it."

"It's not the same. You're right here. You ain't asking me to leave my home." Johnny looked into the man's eyes. "You'd never ask me to choose between you and them."

"No, I wouldn't. I guess it's not so easy to compare the two of you. What I'm trying to say is Scott may be feeling a little insecure. He may be worried I'm taking your affections away from him."

"No, I don't believe that. Scott's not that kind of person. He's very secure, always has been. He doesn't want Murdoch hurt. I just don't know what he expects me to do and he won't come out with it." Johnny's shoulders were tense again as he frowned in frustration.

Shrugging, Eric suggested, " has it occurred to you he may not understand himself? He may not have any answers only questions? I can see him worrying about Murdoch. I'm sure he's worried about you as well. I don't know how I can make him feel any better if he can't trust me."

"I reckon trust is earned anyway. Maybe all it'll take is some time. I'll tell ya what, though. If you can get Murdoch to be okay with this, Scott will come around a lot easier."

He reached over and patted Johnny's leg. "I'll do my best to put your father at ease, Johnny. I like the man."

"Yeah, I like him, too." Johnny grinned then stood up. "Now, about those horse trainers."

*

Murdoch stood at the French doors and watched his son with his stepfather. It was ludicrous, really. There was no way Eric and Maria were legally married. He saw no reason to point that out to Johnny. He didn't think it would matter to his son and he may already know anyway. He resolved to talk to Eric no matter how painful it may be and settle things between them.

He hated this entire situation but, at the same time, he *was* grateful to the man for taking care of his son for as long as he did. It was obvious he loved Johnny and Johnny loved him. He knew his son well enough to know Johnny didn't sugarcoat anything and he didn't have selective memory. If the man had treated him badly, Johnny's initial reaction would have been much different than what he'd witnessed that evening.

The plain truth of it was , he was jealous. Pure and simple. He should be glad Johnny's childhood wasn't any worse. It was bad enough, he was sure. He had no idea what had happened those first three years before Maria met this man. Nor did he know exactly what happened to Johnny after she was killed. He had to make himself believe it was those in between years, the ones with Eric, that had kept his son from going over the edge into an abyss from which he never would have arisen.

To have a stabilizing force in his life for those nine years had probably kept Johnny's heart open. He didn't want to think of what his son's life would have been like if Maria hadn't found a good man.

He also needed to talk to Scott. His son had to stop this. No matter what his feelings about Eric, to keep dismissing the man let alone disparaging him to Johnny was going to end in disaster for his sons' relationship. That he could never let happen. As soon as he talked things out with Eric and got a clearer picture of the man, he would sit Scott down. He only hoped he could get through to his sometimes mule-headed son.

Murdoch smiled a little. Johnny was stubborn, yes, but Scott, good Lord, Scott was a whole other rooster. He had to chuckle at that. Once that man made up his mind, it was very hard to change it. He knew Scott's reactions were out of concern for him mostly. It felt good to know how much the young man cared for him. Still, this was dangerous ground to be treading. As much as he hated to admit it, what Scott was doing was trying to come between a parent and child. That never worked out well for anyone.

*

Johnny rode out to the fence line and took in the men hard at work. He saw his brother in the middle of the line and wondered if he should try. No, not now. Not in front of the men. They knew something was going on between the brothers, obviously. Johnny didn't want to air any more dirty laundry, though.

He dismounted and ground tied Barranca then walked up to Frank at the end of the line. Slipping his work gloves on, he nodded at the man. "How's it going?"

"Real good. We're making great time." He stopped and glanced over his shoulder. "Scott's showin us all up. He's workin like a devil."

Johnny smiled a little then set to it, all the while thinking of what Eric had said. He supposed he could understand Scott worrying about the old man. Still, he didn't seem to give a damn about Johnny's feelings on the subject. He decided he wasn't going to think about this right now and he let his mind wander to less explosive topics. Soon, the lunch bell clanged and he straightened up and wiped his forehead.

Out of sheer habit, he searched for his brother and saw him walking toward the chow wagon. Well, reckon I'll go ruin his lunch. He smiled to himself and walked over.

Before he could get a plate, Scott had settled on a fallen log with some of the other men. Johnny sighed and walked over, waiting for his brother to acknowledge him. When he didn't, Johnny's anger rose. He's actin like a school kid, he thought. Well, fine. Don't want to talk to him anyway. Still, he ain't gonna run me off, either. He sat down right next to Scott and started eating.

The hands kept shooting each other wary glances, wondering when the fireworks would start. No one spoke. After ten minutes, Scott got up and took his plate back to the cook then wandered off toward the stream. Johnny watched him from his peripheral vision then sighed and got up.

When he topped the small rise, he saw Scott skimming stones across the water. He walked down and grabbed a couple of rocks and began the game.

Scott tensed his shoulders and tossed his rocks down then started to walk away. Johnny waited until he was by his shoulder.

"Is this how you solved problems at Harvard or was it earlier than that?"

Scott turned quickly. "Excuse me?"

Johnny faced him and shrugged. "Well, it kind of reminds me of how a school kid acts. The silent treatment; pretending I don't exist."

Scott puffed up. "If I have nothing to say to someone then I have nothing to say."

Johnny cocked a brow, a faint smile on his lips. "Finally you have nothing to say?"

Sighing heavily, Scott asked, "what do you want, Johnny?"

"I just want to talk to you, brother. If you're of a mind to listen."

He thought about it, not really in the mood but eventually, he nodded his head.

*

Johnny dropped the pebbles and rubbed his hands together. "The thing is , I get that you're worried about Murdoch. He's goin to Eric's tomorrow night to talk. Lord knows why but that's what he wants to do. I think he's trying to deal with it, Scott. You aren't making things any easier. I know you don't trust him but I don't know how to change that. That doesn't mean I'm gonna stay away from the man."

"I can't help the way I feel, either. I don't know where that leaves us but, as much as I know you trust him, I just don't."

Johnny nodded though he hated the words he was hearing. "Mind telling me what makes you not trust him?"

Scott locked onto his brother's eyes. "For one thing, he lied to us about his name. I know he explained that but the explanation is as bad. He's accused of being a horse thief. I know you believe his story and I'm not saying I don't, exactly. I'm saying I don't know."

"Does the fact that I know the man mean anything?"

Scott sighed. "How long has it been since you've seen him? Seven years? People change."

Johnny lowered his head for a second before looking back at Scott. "I know that but, I don't think he has. I haven't seen anything that tells me he has. He's the same man I remember."

Scott shrugged. "So I should just take your word for it?"

Johnny averted his eyes and swallowed hard. In a quiet voice, he asked, "you don't trust me?"

Scott turned and faced the water. "I do, Johnny. But, in this case, I think you're too close to it. You can't see things as clearly."

Anger threatened to swell inside him but Johnny maintained his calm. "So, that's how it's gonna be from now on? You're not even going to give him a chance?"

"I didn't say that."

"No, but that's how you act. You bolted this morning as soon as you could. You can't give a man a chance if you ain't around him."

Scott didn't say anything for a long while, he just stared out over the land. Johnny watched him for a few seconds then turned the opposite direction. Backs to each other, they stayed that way until Scott sighed and walked around his brother to face him.

"If it turns out I'm right, how will you deal with that?"

Johnny crossed his arms over his chest. "I don't know. Depends on what happens. If it turns out you're wrong, will you expect me to forgive you?"

Scott raised his brows at that. "Yes, I suppose I would."

Johnny nodded his head. "Can you think of it this way? If this was Murdoch we were talking about a year ago, could I forgive you for trying to turn me away from my father? Because, that's what we're talking about here."

Scott looked at the ground between them and his mind imagined it opening up wider and wider into a canyon he could not traverse. He drew his brows together, disturbed by the image. Looking back up at his brother, he smiled softly. "I see your point. I'll try, Johnny."

"Thank you," he said sincerely, his arms relaxing back to his sides. "Guess we should get back before the hands think we've killed each other."

Scott laughed a little and took the chance of putting a hand on his brother's shoulder, more than relieved Johnny allowed it. He still didn't trust Eric but he wasn't willing to lose his brother over it.

*

Murdoch sat the saddle once he'd reined to a stop in front of the house and just stared at the door for a long moment. Doubt crept in and he wondered what he hoped to achieve here. What this man could tell him that would make him feel any better. Nothing, he was sure. He was about to turn around when he saw a curtain move in one of the closed windows and knew he had no choice. Well, not if he didn't want to look like a fool. So, slowly, he dismounted, taking his time as he tied off his horse.

The front door opened before he could reach it and Eric stepped into the threshold, a tight smile on his face. "Murdoch, welcome."

"Thank you," he muttered as he stepped inside and removed his hat.

Eric closed the door and turned to him, taking his hat and waving an arm toward the living room. Once Murdoch was settled in a chair, Eric poured two stiff drinks and joined him, handing one off as he sat in a chair opposite the rancher.

Silence filled the room, thickening the air and choking both men who tried to wash it away with the whiskey in their glasses. Eric squirmed a little to find a more comfortable position and Murdoch stared at his boots.

"Well, this isn't going too well, is it?" Eric asked, still with that tight, forced smile.

"No, I suppose not." Murdoch's frowned deepened. "I was wondering to myself what I thought I could gain by coming here."

"You want to know what Johnny was like as a child."

Murdoch shook his head. "I want to know when his lot was cast. That moment when it was inevitable he become Madrid. I'm not sure you can answer that."

Eric looked away from the pale blue eyes trying to drill a hole through him. He focused on a vase off to Murdoch's left. "No, I don't think I can. Looking back, Johnny was restless as I've said but I never considered for a moment he'd turn to the gun for a living. I always thought he'd be a horseman. He's so good at it." His forehead creased. "I suppose it was when his mother was killed. When he took off on his own. I can't imagine the anger and hatred he must have felt."

Murdoch sighed. "That's pretty much what I've concluded, too."

Eric turned his eyes back to Murdoch. "Why don't you ask him?"

"He won't tell me. He won't tell me a damned thing! He couldn't even tell me about you!"

Cocking a brow, Eric stared warily at the man. "Sounds as if Johnny wasn't the only one with a lot of anger."

Taking to his feet, Murdoch paced the room. "Of course, I'm angry. I think I have a right to it. She took him from me in the dead of the night. Stole away like a thief! And what did she give him? A life of pain and anger. A life filled with hating his own father. Of dreams of revenge against me, no doubt."

"It wasn't always like that, Murdoch. There were good years for Johnny." Eric spoke softly, hoping to calm the man.

He turned and glared. "Years he should have spent with me." Taking a deep breath, he tried to calm down. "I should be appreciative and I am. You didn't have to take a child in who was nothing to you. You didn't have to care for him but you did. I am grateful he had some good but it's the rest of it, Eric. Those years when he was all alone, no one to trust and no one to help him that ..."

Eric swallowed hard. He knew exactly how the man felt. He still had a hard time believing Maria had lied to Johnny and to him about her husband but, having spent time with this man, he was beginning to see the reality. " That drive you mad? That keep you up at night? Yes, I know, Murdoch. When I came home and saw what had happened, I went crazy. I looked for him everywhere until I was told he'd been caught and killed by those men. Believe me, I grieved heavily for the boy. I saw it as the biggest waste of a human life I'd ever known. Johnny was full of life, full of the devil at times, too. But, he was a loving boy. He adored his mother and did everything he could to please her. It was just that ... that *something* inside him that drove him. Call it his blood singing out to him, if you want. There was something he was looking for. I think now, it was Lancer he was longing for even though he didn't know it."

Murdoch wanted to believe that. He desperately wanted to believe Johnny was longing for home. It seemed to him that was the case. But, in the beginning, he didn't know what drove his son. Sometimes, he still didn't. And, sometimes, it scared him. "I suppose it doesn't really matter now. He's home and that's where we have to start from. Where we have started from."

Eric stood up slowly, hesitant to speak his mind but knowing he had to. "I hope that can include me, as well. I know he's your son but, for years, I loved that boy. I reared him as well as I knew how and I'd like to be in his life again."

Murdoch lowered his head, ostensibly to place the whiskey glass on the table but he took his time. "That's for Johnny to decide and I think he has. He wants you to be part of his life and I certainly can't begrudge him that. He's a grown man now. I can't make him do anything." He looked up at the chortle of laughter and frowned curiously at Eric.

"I think you give yourself too little credit, Murdoch. Johnny would do anything you told him to - almost."  

A small smile lifted the rancher's mouth. "It wasn't always that way but, we've both had some 'growing pains', I guess. Well, thank you for talking to me."

Eric watched from the porch as Murdoch rode away. The smile faded from his lips as the man disappeared. Frowning now, he turned thoughtfully to head back inside.

*

Johnny paced before the French doors, his arms wrapped around his abdomen, his head down. Occasionally, he would raise his head and look through the glass panes then go back to his pacing.

Scott watched him, almost painfully as the young man waited for their father to return. He couldn't imagine all of what was going through Johnny's head but he had some idea. More than once he'd caught himself before telling his brother to settle down. It would do no good and only elicit a scornful glare from his brother so, Scott watched with almost as much trepidation as Johnny.

Finally, the young man stopped for more than a second and peered out the door. Murdoch's home, Scott surmised easily enough. He stood up. He liked to be on his feet when trouble may be brewing. There was no sound in the room as both young men waited for a storm.

The front door opened and Johnny was right there, facing it and ready to face his father as Murdoch stepped inside. He came to a quick stop as he eyed both his boys. A small smile found it's way to his mouth and Scott, for one, relaxed a little. Murdoch continued on into the room, passing Johnny and making his way to a chair.

Frustrated, Johnny turned to watch the man settle then he put his hands on his hips and stared at his father. "Well? Did you two get everything told?"

Murdoch looked up slowly. "Told?"

"Yeah," Johnny shrugged. "I mean, all the cute little stories and such." There was nothing humorous in his tone.

"No, son. We didn't tell cute stories. We talked a little and I realized I didn't need to hear about your youthful escapades. He only told me what I already know and that's the kind of person you are. Since we had nothing much to disagree about, it was a short visit."

Scott was impressed with his father's calm and deliberate tone and he sat back down on the sofa.

"Nothing *much* to disagree about?"

Murdoch ground his teeth. Johnny had a remarkable ability to latch on to the subtlest of things. "Nothing of importance. What we did agree on is that whatever you want to do, it's your decision. I told him I was sure you'd want to continue having him in your life and I'm fine with that."

Scott almost groaned but managed to keep his mouth shut. As Johnny's shoulders relaxed, he found doing so much easier.

Letting his hands fall from his hips to his sides, Johnny cocked his head to one side. "You sure about that?"

Murdoch looked at him for a long beat. "Son, he was - is - important to you. I know your heart is at Lancer and that's all I need to know."

Johnny let out a soft breath and nodded his head. He smiled gently then glanced at Scott for the first time. "Well, we held supper for you."

*

The next day as his sons were out on the range, Murdoch struggled with the decision. No matter how affable Eric was, he couldn't get past the fact the man was wanted for horse stealing. He knew any inquiries he made would throw up a red flag to the Texas Rangers. He also knew he'd have to talk to Val about it and he'd rather not. Somehow, he figured Val knew all about Eric, or Art, rather. It always rankled him a little that Val Crawford knew more about his son than he did. Now, there was another man who knew more, as well. He hoped that was the end of it. No more surprises waiting to be sprung on him. He'd almost asked Johnny about it last night but common sense had prevailed. Now, he was of two minds how to proceed. As he pondered, he heard the front door open.

Turning his chair from his position facing the huge window, he waited to see who had come inside. He glanced at the grandfather clock and was surprised by the lateness of the hour. Had he really been sitting here all this time doing absolutely nothing?

Scott walked in and gave him a tired smile as he sat in a chair in front of the desk.

"Hard day?"

The younger man shrugged. "Not too bad other than the fact I couldn't seem to keep my mind on what I was doing."

Murdoch nodded. "How did Johnny seem today?"

Scott thought about that for a minute before replying. "Himself. He wasn't upset or anything." He looked warily at his father before continuing. "Sir, I'm worried about Eric and this horse business in Texas. I'm still not convinced he's telling us the truth."

"Neither am I, son. I've been thinking about it all day. There's not much we can do."

Raising a brow, Scott asked, " isn't there?"

Murdoch leaned forward and clasped his hands on his desk top then fixed his son with a pointed stare. "Scott, if we dig into this, it could bring the law down on Eric. How do you think Johnny will react to that? He won't thank us and the results could be disastrous."

Scott sat back in his chair and nodded his head slightly. "You're right. I just hope it doesn't come back to bite Johnny."

Murdoch was satisfied with that response, he settled back and glanced at his son wryly. "You two seem to have solved your differences."

A slight shrug was Scott's first reply. "Well, we've agreed to disagree, sort of. I still don't trust Eric completely but I won't bring it up to Johnny again."

"I suppose that's a good compromise. I just hope you're wrong about him for Johnny's sake."

"So am I," Scott sighed out tiredly. "Anyway, you're right. We should just leave it alone."

*

Johnny headed for home then reined to the south. Something had started niggling at him a few minutes earlier and he had no idea what it was but he heeded his instincts. He pressed his spurs to Barranca's sides and increased his speed, anxiety growing at an alarming rate. It had always perplexed him; these feelings he'd get. They weren't exactly dead right every time and, sometimes, he didn't feel them when he thought he should have. Seemed to be a random thing but, usually, something was wrong when he got that twitchy feeling. Now, as he rode into the yard of Eric's home, he could see that feeling was right again.

Eric was holding a shotgun in front of him yet, he wasn't pointing it directly at the man standing there holding the reins of a chestnut in his left hand. Johnny didn't miss where his right hand was, just above his hip. He let his own right hand rest on his thigh as he slowed Barranca to a walk. His eyes took in the man.

There was nothing remarkable about him other than his aggressive stance. Brown, curly hair poked out the edges of his tan Stetson. He had a sun-worn face but Johnny could tell nothing else about him at the moment. He was staring Eric down though, not a flick of fear on his face. Then, Johnny saw Eric relax just a little but his stepfather's eyes never left the stranger.

Johnny dismounted and sauntered over to the two men, coming to stand beside Eric. "Problem?" His voice was silk.

A slight twitch came to Eric's lips. Still, he didn't look at Johnny. "The gentleman was just leaving."

Johnny cocked his head to the side a little. "Yeah? Don't seem to move real quick, does he?"

The gentleman in question decided to involve himself in the conversation. "We haven't finished yet. We got business to discuss."

"The only business you're going to get from me is the business end of this shotgun if you don't ride out right now and stay out. If I see you again, I won't wait to chat."

Johnny looked sideways at his stepfather, amused and impressed with the man's machismo. The stranger ground his jaw and seemed to consider his odds. Johnny watched him closely, his right hand moving slowly to the butt of his gun where it rested lightly. A smile curved his mouth when the man looked at him. The smile stopped just short of reaching his eyes as he pinned the man with them. In a soft drawl, he said, "you heard ' im ."

"I got no quarrel with you, mister."

"Well, now, that's where you're wrong. See, any quarrel you have with him you have with me. Now, I ain't gonna tell ya again." Johnny straightened his stance, his hand never moving from his gun, his eyes turning smoky.

The stranger's face fell in defeat. He backed up alongside his horse and mounted up. He looked as if he might have something else to say until Johnny took one step toward him. Pulling back on the reins, he turned and galloped out of the yard. Both men stood and watched until he disappeared from view.

"Who was that?"

Eric finally looked at him then dropped his eyes. "Come inside. You look like you could use a cool drink. It's hot out here today." He turned and walked away as Johnny stared at the horizon a few seconds longer then joined him.

*

When Johnny walked into the living room, Eric was pouring lemonade for them both. He settled in a chair and waved a hand at Johnny to sit. He stared thoughtfully into his glass for a while before looking at his stepson. "What brings you here?"

Johnny smiled a little and shrugged. "I'm not sure. I got a bad feelin ."

Eric returned the smile more fully but briefly as his brow creased once more. "Johnny, have you been checking up on me?"

Perplexed, Johnny only stared for a beat. "It was just a feelin ."

"No, son. I mean, have you been asking around about Texas?"

"Why would I?" His eyes widened and he sat forward. "Was that a Ranger?"

Eric waved a dismissing hand. "No, no. I'm not sure what you'd call him. A bounty hunter, maybe. I just don't understand how he could have found me."

Fear surged quickly through Johnny before he found his center. He leaned forward and set the glass on the table. "Is there a bounty on your head, papa?"

"It's not from the law. At least, there wasn't one last time I checked. But, a bounty doesn't have to be legal. You know that."

Johnny nodded. He did know that very well.

Eric glanced at him before staring into the glass again. "You don't think Murdoch ..."

His head snapped up and he immediately shook it in the negative. "No, he wouldn't do that. And, if he did, he'd tell me first."

"What about Scott?"

Johnny paused to consider that then shook his head again. "No, Scott wouldn't either."

"I had to ask," Eric said a little sheepishly.

"I know but they wouldn't, papa. They wouldn't go behind my back like that. Somebody must have found out somethin , though. You want me to take care of him?"

Eric's eyes widened as he stared at the young man.

Johnny smirked a little, he couldn't help it. "I mean, scare him off. Let him know you're under my protection."

It was Eric's turn to smirk. "I doubt telling him I'm under the protection of Johnny Lancer will have him quaking in his boots and don't even think about telling him Madrid. That part of your life is over, son. I won't be the one to bring it back, no matter what."

"I don't mind," Johnny said softly.

"Well, I do. Now, go home and stop pestering me."

Johnny laughed at that and stood up. "At least, let me send some men over. You don't have enough yet to post guards."

Eric came to his feet and considered it for a moment. "Alright, son. As long as Murdoch is fine with it."

*

"Why does he need guards?" Scott asked from his position by the hearth.

Johnny looked across the room from the sofa at his brother's stern visage. "Seems this bounty hunter was sniffin around today. That rancher must've put out a bounty on him in Texas."

"Are you sure it isn't the law, son?"

His eyes went to his father. "He said last time he checked there were no legal warrants."

Scott bit his lip - hard. Was Johnny this naive or only with this man? He watched their father walk over and sit beside Johnny.

"Son, I don't want you to get angry but, have you considered Eric may be ... glossing things over for your sake? That maybe he doesn't want to look bad in your eyes?"

Johnny dropped his eyes and shrugged. "He's never been like that before. Look, I know this is a mess and I'm not asking for anything more than a couple of men until he can hire some."

"Good men who could get hurt or killed if this bounty hunter decides to come back," Scott imparted. "I'm sorry, Johnny, but whatever the situation, it isn't fair to ask our men to step into the line of fire."

"Scott's right, son. This is Eric's problem and he needs to handle it."

Johnny came to his feet and walked around the back of the sofa, his head down as he thought. "Okay, I understand. I'll see you in the morning, then."

Scott straightened his shoulders. "Where are you going?"

Johnny turned and looked at his brother. "To protect my ..." he glanced at his father, "Eric. I'm not going to leave him all alone over there, Scott."

Murdoch stood and faced his son. "I'll come with you."

"No!" Scott blurted out. Chagrined, he walked closer to the two men. "I'm sorry but, this is getting out of hand. Eric needs to get this taken care of legally. Otherwise, he'll never see any peace and neither will you, Johnny."

"Maybe you're right about that, Scott. But, for tonight, I'm goin over there - alone. I don't want or expect you to get involved in this, Murdoch."

"And I don't want you over there alone. What if something happens?" The crease in Murdoch's brow deepened as he spoke the question.

"I'll be fine. I can handle this. It's not your fight and, if something happened to you, I ..." Johnny stopped and bowed his head, taking in a deep breath. "Just trust me, okay?"

Murdoch couldn't help a small smile, the warmth of feeling his son's concern for him filling him and warring with his own worry. "Be careful."

"This has to end, Murdoch." Scott stood just behind him as the front door closed.

Murdoch turned to Scott and sighed. "I know. I think we're going to have to check into this ourselves, after all. I'll ride into town tomorrow and talk to Val."

"Johnny will be angry."

With a scowl, Murdoch eyed his son. "Better angry than dead. I can't let this go on now. Someone knows where Eric is and it's only a matter of time before this turns ugly."

*

Johnny stood just outside the batwings of the Green River saloon and peered inside. A slight smile crooked one side of his mouth as he found the man he sought. A man who, bounty hunter or not, had seemed familiar to him. Not this particular man, maybe, but the way he carried himself. Johnny knew the type and this one had it pouring off him. Lawman. Or, at least a one-time lawman. Not any more, he was pretty sure but that breed had a defining quality about them. He didn't have any exact words to describe it; more of a feeling about the man's very presence.

He stepped inside quietly and walked directly toward the table where the man was staring a hole through him. "Mind?" He nodded his head toward a chair and received a nod of agreement. Settling, his eyes found the bartender's and he called for a beer.

"You here to warn me off?"

Johnny smiled. He'd heard it earlier but that Texas drawl was a little more prominent now. "I want to know what it's about but first, I like to know who I'm talkin to."

"Yeah, so do I ."

A sigh of irritation slipped between his lips as Johnny eyed the man. "Lancer. Johnny Lancer."

"Whittaker."

Johnny quirked his mouth. "Ranger?"

Whittaker's lips curved into an almost sneer. "Not anymore."

"Yeah, I figured. So, what do you want with Eric Michaels?"

The man shrugged. "Not a thing. I'm after Art Chase but, you already knew that."

Johnny made no indication whether he did or didn't know that. "What do you want with him?" His voice took on a slight edge this time.

Sitting forward and resting his arms on the table surface, Whittaker locked eyes with Johnny. "Man has a price on his head in Texas."

"So, you're a bounty hunter?"

" Somethin like that."

"Is it legal?"

Whittaker sat back a little and pulled a folded and wrinkled paper from his shirt pocket. "See for yourself," he said as he tossed the paper on the table.

*

Johnny stared at it, unsure if he wanted to read what was there. His heart raced and he wanted nothing more than to walk out of there but, he didn't. Slowly, he reached out and took it, unfolded the paper and rubbed a hand over it to flatten out the wrinkles some. He read it three times before tossing it back on the table. He stared at it, drumming his fingers on the surface, his forehead creased in contemplation.

"What's Chase to you?"

He looked up quickly, his reverie broken by the question and simply stared at the man for a long beat. "If I were you, I'd head on back to Texas, Mr. Whittaker. You're not gonna get what you want here."

"Is that a fact? And who's gonna stop me?"

Johnny relaxed, his eyes lit and a smile brightened his face. "Me."

Whittaker chuckled a little then leaned back in his chair, clasping his hands over his abdomen and rocking back on two chair legs. "Well, Mr. Johnny Lancer, that don't impress me none."

"Then, you should think a little longer on it." He scooted the chair back and stood up then leaned over the table, splaying his fingers and balancing on the tips. A cocky grin came to his face. "Might want to ask around before makin any permanent decisions. See ya." Johnny stood straight, turned his back and walked out.

Whittaker frowned at his words then waved the bartender over. "Who was that man? I mean, who is he really?"

Ben the bartender gave him a hard look and didn't answer.

"Man said I should ask around so I'm askin ," Whittaker pressed.

Ben looked at the door then back at the bounty hunter and shrugged. "Johnny Madrid."

Whittaker raised a brow then nodded at the man, waving him off. 'Madrid, huh? Well, should be interestin .'

*

Once out of Green River, Johnny tore through the countryside, anger racing through his veins. He didn't slow down until he got almost to the yard. Pulling to a stop, he sprang from the saddle, tossed the reins somewhere in the vicinity of the hitching post and stalked to the door. Not bothering to knock, he walked through and into the living room, his face a mask of outrage. "You lied to me!"

Eric came to his feet, the newspaper in his hands falling to the ground. He took in the face, the rapid breathing, the clenched fists and walked to his son. Chancing touching Johnny, he placed one hand on the young man's arm only to have it jerk away. "You need to calm down and tell me what you're talking about. I can't answer until I know what the question is. Come over here and sit down, son." He walked over and retook his seat, giving Johnny a look of expectation.

Johnny faltered. The man was so calm. Maybe ... he took a deep breath and walked over to sit opposite his stepfather. " That man - that bounty hunter. He showed me a wanted posted. It was legal, papa. You need to explain."

Eric raised a brow momentarily then sighed heavily. The look on Johnny's face right now was breaking his heart. Betrayal. "Then, it's finally happened. He finally got the law to take out a warrant. Son, I wasn't lying to you before. I said the last time I checked there were no legal warrants for me. I admit that was almost a year ago."

"You need to take care of this. That man, his name is Whittaker, he ain't goin away."

"You spoke to him?"

Johnny shrugged. "How do you think I found out? He showed me the wanted poster. He was a Ranger once, too. That makes him real dangerous."

Eric frowned deeply as he thought it through. Warily, he asked, "what did you do, Johnny?"

Sighing heavily, Johnny plopped back in the chair. "I told him he wasn't gonna get you and that I'd stop him. I didn't tell him who I was but I did tell him to ask around."

" Dammit , Johnny! I specifically told you to stay out of this! Do you think it's going to make a bit of difference to him? It won't. He's a crazy bastard. He doesn't care what he has to do to get his man and he'll go right through anyone who stands in his way. He's not above shooting a man in the back, either!"

Johnny leaned forward, mere inches from Eric now. "How do you know so much about him?"

Eric lowered his eyes, his anger draining away as he took to his feet. He walked to the sideboard and poured them both a drink then stood there, facing away from Johnny. "I recognized him this afternoon. I didn't say anything because I wanted you to stay out of it." He turned back around, desperation on his face. "Johnny, if I go back to Texas, I'll hang. There won't be any trial. Not a real one anyway. This man is very powerful there. He runs the town and the law. There's no way I can win even though I'm innocent."

Johnny listened with his head bowed. He scrubbed his face with his hands then stood up to face Eric. "What's his name?"

"Pendleton."

*

He felt dizzy. Very dizzy and he must have swayed or something because the next thing he knew, Eric had hold of him and was sitting him back down. Johnny leaned back and closed his eyes, rubbing his forehead as his ears rang. He felt a glass being pressed into his hand and his hand being raised to his mouth. He took a long swallow of the liquor and sighed as it stung his throat. Opening his eyes, he blinked and looked at the man who had been like a father to him for nine years. A man who had tried so hard to help him grow into a man himself. A man who had succeeded to a degree in that effort. And the man who had taught him most of what he knew about horses. Had loved his mother and made her happy and, made him happy as much as he could be back then. He looked into the eyes of a man who he knew was lying to him now.

Could people change that much? Of course they could and he knew it well. Maybe, though, maybe Eric hadn't changed so much. Johnny was never allowed to be a part of his bargaining for horses back then. Papa always said he wasn't ready but, what if that wasn't the real reason? What if he didn't know this man at all?

No! He knew the heart of this man. He knew his papa loved him. He *knew* it. Johnny sat forward and took a few deep breaths. His heart was slowing back down now and the ringing was gone in his ears. He looked at Eric now sitting in his chair again, that concerned frown on his face but he found he couldn't give the man any reassurance. He cleared his throat. "Was this in west Texas?"

"Yes, why? Are you alright?"

"No, I'm not. Tell me exactly how this all happened, papa. Tell me all of it."

Eric leaned back, still confused as hell about why Johnny had reacted as he had. "I made a deal with him for ten horses. All good quality. I went out with his foreman to pick them and he cut them out and put them in a separate pasture. I went back to the house and paid the man. He handed me a bill of sale and I shoved it in my pocket. I picked the horses up the next day. I just went in and got them. I saw no reason to bother Pendleton since I'd told him I'd be out to get the animals. The next thing I knew, a posse rode up on me. They said I'd stolen six horses. I pulled out the bill of sale and read it for the first time. Pendleton had written four horses sold! I tried to explain there'd been a mistake but they were already talking about a lynching."

"How did you get away?" Johnny's voice was soft and, he knew, a little weak. He frowned in discomfort at the sound to his own ears.

"They had ten horses to handle. When we got to a place where the trail narrowed, I caused a ruckus and got away while they were trying to settle the horses down. I headed straight into Mexico then came back up through California a few months later."

"So, you never tried to talk to Pendleton again?"

Eric shook his head. "There was no way I was going back there. They would've hung me on sight."

Johnny sighed and stood up. He ambled around the room, clenching and unclenching his fists as he thought hard. It was a simple mistake of some kind. That's all there was to it. All there could have been to it. He wished he could talk to Pendleton but he couldn't leave with Whittaker sniffing around. His head came up as the solution sprung into his mind. "I'm gonna stay here tonight in case Whittaker tries somethin . Tomorrow, I'll ride into town. I have an idea of how we can get this straightened out if you'll trust me with it."

Eric stood and walked over to him, a small smile on his face. "I trust you with my life, son. At this point, I guess I can't say no to any help offered. What about Murdoch? What will he think of all this?"

"I don't know," Johnny sighed out. "I'll talk to him after I talk to a friend in town. I'm goin outside to take a look around. Try to get some sleep, papa."

*

Johnny walked around the perimeter of the house, his gut uneasy as he found a dozen ways to get inside. He headed out to the corrals, taking Barranca with him. He unsaddled his horse and curried him quickly then let him loose in the corral. "I need your help, amigo. You hear anything, you give a yell, comprende ?"

Barranca snorted and walked over to the water trough. Johnny smiled at him then he sighed into the night air. This was wrong. Plain wrong. Pendleton was a good man. He knew that, trusted it because it had been Val who had made him see the truth. That range war was probably the best thing that had happened to him in a long time up until he came home. That's when he first met Val Crawford. It was the strangest thing but it had turned out well. They'd been kind of drawn to each other somehow. Neither could ever explain it and, after a short while, it didn't seem to matter anymore. They were friends. Amigos para la vida , and Johnny had never trusted another person like he trusted Val. Not even papa.

He shook his head. He had to stop calling him that so much. Even in private because that would make it easier to slip out when he was around Murdoch. He'd almost done it this very evening. And he'd seen that look on Scott's face when it had happened. His brother had not been happy with him. He had to wonder if his family had sniffed around about Eric. He couldn't believe they would do that without telling him, though. He trusted them not to go behind his back. They'd had the perfect opportunity to tell him tonight anyway. Even if he raised the roof about it, Murdoch would still tell him and still go right ahead and do it if he was of a mind.

He knew he'd be getting no sleep tonight but he couldn't be angry with his family, either. They were right. He couldn't ask the hands to put their necks on the line for a man they didn't even know. And, if Eric was lying, that made it even worse. He prayed it wasn't so. Prayed Pendleton had simply made a mistake. He couldn't believe that man would deliberately alter a bill of sale. Pendleton was tough as nails but he was a fair man. In fact, he reminded Johnny a little of Murdoch now that he thought about it.

Pendleton had hired guns, it was true but, he was protecting his land. He'd allowed that scum Carson to go after Johnny but he'd admitted he didn't like it much. Men would do a lot to keep what was theirs and Johnny had never begrudged the man that. He'd been in the right and had tried to solve the problem but Locke wasn't buying it. Of course, he wouldn't since he was trying to steal the man's water rights. It hadn't ended exactly as Johnny would have liked but, he got Val in the bargain. He grinned a little as his sarcastic side wondered what kind of a bargain that was. But, he knew it had been the very best kind.

He looked out over the land, now dark as pitch and figured all this woolgathering would do nothing but get him in all kinds of trouble. He walked back to the porch and settled in a rocking chair. His rifle lay across his lap as he began to rock back and forth.

*

Dawn broke slowly as Johnny stood and stretched, yawning widely and blinking rapidly. He rubbed his eyes and walked over to a water trough, priming the pump until the cold water flowed. He washed his face and rinsed his mouth then scanned the landscape. It was quiet so far so he headed inside in the hopes of finding a cup of coffee.

Eric was sitting at the kitchen table, a cup and coffee pot in front of him. An extra cup sat to his right and Johnny slid into that chair, pouring the coffee before he ever got settled.

"If I'd known you were going to stay up all night, I would have brought you a pot."

Johnny sipped the brew with appreciation. "I'm okay."

Eric watched him and figured that was wrong. "I can't cook, if you'll recall, but Sally will be in soon to make breakfast."

Johnny inhaled the rest of the coffee and shook his head. "I'll get somethin in town. I want to get goin. It's quiet out there but keep your eyes open." He started to rise then stopped and settled back when the strong hand landed on his forearm.

"Tell me what you have planned."

"I'm goin to see a friend. A man I trust. I'm hopin he can help us out. I know Pendleton a little and so does this man. I can't believe he duped you on purpose so I'm gonna ask Val to contact him and talk to him about it. Maybe, we can get this whole thing cleared up before it gets out of hand."

"How do you know him?"

"I worked for him for a short time."

Eric, clearly surprised, asked, " you were a ranch hand?"

Johnny smiled a little. "No, as a hired gun. He was havin some trouble. It's kind of a long story but he was in the right and he just didn't seem like the kind that would snooker a man on a deal. I keep thinking there was just some kind of mistake made. Anyways, I'll be back later."

"Thank you, son, for believing in me."

He stood up and looked down at the man, resting a hand on his shoulder and squeezing lightly. "I know you'd never lie to me and I'm sorry I accused you of it. I was just ... surprised and mad."

Eric pushed his chair back and stood up. Wrapping his arms around Johnny, he pulled him into an embrace. "I love you, son. Please, please be careful."

Johnny returned the hug and patted the man's back. "I'm always careful, papa."

*

Johnny slowed Barranca as he approached the sheriff's office. His eyes narrowed as he took in the two men standing on the boardwalk in what looked like a serious conversation. They saw him and both looked a little like they'd been caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Johnny dismounted slowly and tethered Barranca then stepped onto the boardwalk and stood toe to toe with his father. "What are you doin here?"

Murdoch took a deep breath. "Trying to find some answers."

Johnny searched his eyes for a long beat then nodded. "Me too. I have a few. I need more. Come inside and I'll tell you all about it." He glanced at his brother then walked around them both. As he opened the door, he spied Val at the pot-bellied stove pouring a cup of coffee.

"Well, Lancers so early in the mornin . How come?"

Johnny grinned at his irascible friend as he took his hat off and tossed it on the desk. He perched on the corner of that desk and waited for everyone to settle. "Need some help, Sheriff. Ain't that what you're here for?"

"Nope. Just keepin the cobwebs away. What'ya want ?" Val sat down with a grunt and slurped his coffee as Scott and Murdoch took the remaining two chairs across the desk from him.

Val nodded to both of them then turned to Johnny. Immediately, his instincts reared up and his mood changed to a more serious one. "What is it, Johnny?"

He closed his eyes for a second then looked at Val. "It's a long story so get comfortable." Johnny alternated between sitting on the desk corner and walking the room as he told his tale. When he finished, he was looking out the window and he knew he didn't want to see their faces.

Val looked at Scott and Murdoch and saw the same unconvinced expression he was sure was on his own face.

"Anyways, I was hopin you could help me out, Val. You know Pendleton and I can't leave with Whittaker hangin around."

"I ain't too sure I should leave, either, Johnny. What he's doin ain't illegal, you know that. Still, if there's gonna be trouble..."

"If there's trouble, it'll be at Eric's ranch. That's just outside your jurisdiction," Johnny interrupted.

Val's eyes narrowed and he leaned toward Johnny, resting his elbow on the desk top. "Did I say anything about jurisdictions?"

He knew he'd made a mistake as soon as it was out of his mouth. Johnny bit back a laugh as he tried to hold the man's gaze. "I need you more in Texas."

The sheriff considered him for a long moment then scratched his jaw and settled back in his chair. "Yeah, I reckon ya do at that. Gonna take some time to get there, though. I'll go as fast as I can and I'll send a wire when I know for sure."

Johnny nodded, a small smile playing with his lips. He looked at his father in askance.

Murdoch took the hint and stood up, tapping Scott on the shoulder. "We'll wait for you outside. There's still a lot to discuss."

He waited until his family was gone before addressing his friend again. "Thanks, Val."

"Don't thank me yet. You might not like what I find out."

Johnny sighed and stood back up, ambling around the room purposelessly. "I know. I keep hopin it's all just a misunderstanding. Figures wrote down wrong. Somethin like that but, Pendleton seemed square to me last time. I don't reckon a man can change that much."

Val cocked a brow at that. "Are you sayin your stepdaddy hasn't changed?"

His shoulders tensed visibly but Johnny didn't explode. He stood with his back to his friend for a long time before answering softly. "I don't know." He turned around then, seeming to be asking for understanding with his eyes. "I never got involved in his business back then. He never would let me and I always kind of wondered about that. I mean, I know I was still a kid but not by much. I ... I don't want to think badly of him, Val. I don't ..." he stopped and shook his head, lowering it at the same time. He didn't know what the hell he was talking about. He heard the chair scrape across the wooden floor and the bootsteps approaching him. Slowly, Johnny looked up as his friend stood before him.

"It ain't easy when family's involved. Best you do let me talk to Pendleton and get the truth of it. I think I'll be able to tell if he's lyin . But, Johnny, if he ain't, I got no choice."

"I know," Johnny said quickly. "I know you'll have to bring them back here. That's why I'm not tellin Eric you're a lawman. All I want is the truth, Val. No matter what it costs. Just send a wire how we used to, huh?"

Val smiled a little and nodded. "Sure, amigo. You try to sit on this while I'm gone and, if ya can't, keep your fool head down."

*

Johnny stepped into the bright sunshine where his father and brother were waiting for him. He saw Whittaker leaning against the corner of Val's office, turned and walked over to him. He felt more than heard his family join him.

" Wastin your time, Madrid. Ain't nothing illegal about what I'm doin ."

"Maybe, maybe not. If you're huntin an innocent man, then I have a problem with that. Look, Whittaker, the sheriff is gonna find out what really happened in Texas. I think we should all just wait for him to do that before somebody gets killed." Johnny could swear he heard his father's jaw clamp shut but his eyes never left Whittaker's.

The bounty hunter seemed to be sizing him up or, thinking it over. Either way, he simply stared at Johnny for more than a long beat. "Might just be the reasonable thing to do if there's a question about all this."

"There is."

"How come?"

Johnny let out a little sigh. "I know this man and I know the one in Texas, too. Seems to me this is all just a big misunderstandin . It'd be a crime to hang a man because of a few wrong numbers written on a piece of paper. I'm bettin , bein familiar with the law, you'd agree with that."

A smile tugged at Whittaker's mouth, his moustache twitching a little. "Just make real sure you want to be gettin in the middle of this, Madrid. Man could get himself killed taking on other's problems." He leaned in a little. "Especially, if they're not facin the right way at the right time."

Johnny's right arm swung out to block his brother's approach. Sometimes, he had to wonder at how he just knew the way Scott would react to something. "Anytime you think you're man enough to try it, I'm game." He took one step closer to the man and spoke in a low voice. "Maybe, that's the only way you can get the job done."

Whittaker's shoulders went back as he pushed off the building. His hands went to his sides in clenched fists.

Johnny felt his father's hand land on his left shoulder and almost cussed.

"We need to go, John. There doesn't seem to be much point in continuing this."

Whittaker snorted at that then sneered at Johnny and he came very close to punching the man in the mouth. Instead, he cocked his head to the side a little and grinned. "No, I guess there ain't no point. We can all just wait until the sheriff finds out the truth."

"And when he does are you gonna hand that man over?" Whittaker asked.

Johnny took a deep breath and held it then blew it out with his words. "Yeah, to the law." He didn't miss the fire in the man's eyes as he turned and walked away, Murdoch's hand still on his shoulder.

*

As soon as they were clear of town, Johnny reined to the side of the road and dismounted. He waited for his family to join him and tried to keep himself under control. Murdoch and Scott stood before him waiting curiously and he almost lost that control again.

Still, he maintained an even voice as he spoke. "Don't ever do that again."

"Do what?" Murdoch asked.

"Get in the middle of me and anybody, Murdoch."

The rancher shook his head. "There was no point in getting into a fist fight with the man."

Johnny put his hands on his hips. "Sometimes, there don't have to be a point. Look, I know you meant well but it makes me look weak and I can't afford that."

Murdoch scowled then. "You mean Johnny Madrid can't afford it. How did he find out who you were?"

"It ain't a secret, old man. And it don't matter if it's Madrid or Lancer. Either way, it makes me look weak. Now, he's gonna think you run roughshod over me. That takes away my advantage."

"Johnny ..."

"Murdoch, he's right," Scott interrupted. "Neither of us intended to do that but, Johnny is right. We shouldn't have interfered. Neither of us would have liked it if the tables were turned."

He looked at his older son with aggravation but he knew Scott was right. Johnny was right. He hated the whole thing. He looked back at his younger son. "Alright, I'm sorry. Right now, we need to talk about what's happening and what your plans are."

Johnny wasn't terribly convinced but he didn't want to keep arguing about it. "I'm gonna stay with Eric. Whittaker ain't gonna like seeing his bounty disappear and, if Val ..." he stopped and took a deep breath. "If Val brings the Rangers back, that's what will happen."

Murdoch looked in his eyes and saw the anguish he was trying so hard to hide. It broke his heart to see his son hurt again. In that moment, he hated Eric Michaels or whatever the hell his name was, more than any man he'd ever met. It didn't take him long to make the decision. "No, Johnny. I won't let you take this on alone. Bring Eric to Lancer. We can protect him better there until Val gets back."

Scott stared openly at his father but he didn't get a chance to speak as Johnny replied. "I thought you didn't want anyone else involved in this."

"I don't but I also won't leave you to the wolves. Bounty hunters aren't terribly scrupulous on a good day. I don't know this man but I saw the same thing you did. He won't let go of that money easily. I'll talk to the hands and let them know it's completely up to them if they want to fight should the need arise. No one will be thought less of if they don't."

Johnny sighed and glanced at his brother, saw that Scott didn't much like this idea but, he couldn't think of a better one. He could handle Whittaker, he was sure. But, if Eric were at Lancer, the man would think twice about trying something. It was a good idea in his mind. Still... "Say it, brother."

Johnny and Murdoch both looked expectantly at him and Scott felt a little on the outside. It helped knowing Murdoch didn't really want to do this but not by much. "I don't like it, Johnny. I also don't like the idea of you taking this on alone. I know he's only one man but anything can happen. What worries me more than any of that is how you'll react if it turns out Eric did steal those horses."

He bowed his head and scuffed his boot against the grass. "Well, Boston, we had this talk before. If that's the way it is then, I won't stop the law. I ain't gonna let him run, either." He swallowed hard and looked past them both, squinting in the now midday sun. "Well, I best get over there and gather him up." He headed to Barranca and flung himself in the saddle.

Murdoch and Scott joined him and Murdoch pulled alongside Johnny. "We're in this together, son. Scott and I will go with you to get Eric."

*

Eric stood from the rocker on the porch as the three men rode in, a rifle in his hands. He frowned at seeing Murdoch and Scott with Johnny and wondered what was happening now. He watched Johnny dismount but the others stayed their saddles.

"What's going on, Johnny?"

Johnny took his hat off and slapped it against his thigh causing a small dust cloud as he stepped onto the porch. "Well, that friend of mine is goin to Texas to see what he can find out. I saw Whittaker in town and I told him what we were doin . He wasn't real happy about it."

"You shouldn't have done that, son. He wants that bounty money."

"I know. That's why we think it's best if you come to Lancer and stay til this whole thing is worked out. There'll be more people around and he won't be so eager to try anything there."

Eric watched him closely, saw the weariness and strain this was putting on his boy. He hated every minute of it but he didn't want to go to Lancer, either. "We think it's best?" His eyes went to Murdoch and Scott.

Johnny smiled a little. "It was Murdoch's idea."

Eric nodded his understanding. "He wants to protect you. I can't blame him for that but I don't want to put innocent people at risk, either."

"Don't worry about that. I really don't think he'll try anything at the ranch. It's for the best."

He sighed heavily and nodded. "Alright, son. I'll just grab a few things and be right back."

"I'll saddle your horse." Johnny turned and headed to the barn before any more words could be spoken. Eric met Murdoch's eyes and found he couldn't hold them. He walked inside.

Scott shifted in his saddle, not speaking until both Eric and Johnny were out of earshot. "This is a bad idea."

"What would you have me do, son?"

"I think locking him in Val's jail until we hear something would be best."

Murdoch looked over at him. "I thought about that but Johnny would never go for it. I doubt Whittaker would let that stand, either."

"This is going to kill him, Murdoch."

"Are you so sure Eric's guilty?"

Scott locked eyes with his father. "Yes, Sir, I am. I think Johnny knows it, too. He just won't admit it to himself."

*

Johnny threw the saddle onto the black stallion's back then leaned into the animal a little. He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths before going back to the chore. His mind kept going into the past. Back to the days when he had a family and was sort of happy. He pulled a face at that thought but, he had to admit, he'd never been content then. Not like he was at Lancer now. There was some ... thing that was always missing inside him when he was a kid. Something he couldn't identify even to himself. And he'd take off for days at a time when that pull got so strong, he couldn't stand his own skin.

His mother would alternate between raging at him and coddling him when he did come home. He could no more explain it to her than he could to himself, though. It was as if something was physically pulling him away from her. He could *feel* the ache, the longing in his entire being. He never told her where he went because he went nowhere, really. He'd simply head out in a direction and stop when he got tired, find a good campsite and stay there a few days. The feeling would ease and he'd head back home. Usually, with some dread for her reaction.

Never knowing if it would be good or bad kept him on his toes around her for several days after one of his jaunts. Art would always be angry with him when he came back. Had even taken a belt to him a few times until he got too old for such things. But, he'd always give him a hug after the punishment and tell him it was only because he loved Johnny that he punished him. He snorted. Art. Eric. It didn't matter now what he called himself so might as well use his given name.

His stepfather was in a real mess and Johnny wasn't sure how to get him out of it. If, indeed, he could do anything. There was a very big part of him that knew what Val was going to find. He kept thinking about Art. How he ran his business back then. There had been times when men would come at odd hours to buy or sell horses and Johnny wondered about that. Had even asked once and got a look that told him to never ask again. And he hadn't.

He dreaded going back out there and facing his family. They knew, of course. He credited his brother for not throwing it in his face. Of course, Scott would never do such a thing. But, it wasn't right to get them mixed up in this and, if it came to gunplay, he was going to have to think of some way to take it away from the ranch. He wouldn't let anyone or anything from his past harm his family. Not even his papa.

Johnny choked back the lump rising in his throat and turned to the wall, leaning into it and trying to find some balance before going back out there. It took too long and he wondered if he'd be able to think clearly through all this. He didn't think he'd done a very good job of that, so far. How he'd treated his father was a good example. Would he ever be able to make that up to Murdoch?

His head came up when he heard Scott calling out to him, his voice too close to still be waiting in front of the house. Johnny inhaled deeply and pulled himself together. He grabbed the horse's reins and led it out of the barn.

*

His stepfather kept looking over at him as they rode toward Lancer. Johnny kept his focus on his surroundings, falling back a little now and then to watch their backs then rejoining Art. Scott and Murdoch rode ahead of them and no one was talking. He knew he'd really messed things up this time but his father's insistence he not face this alone helped soothe him a great deal. It also worried him.

When Johnny had walked out of the barn with Art's horse, Scott had been standing there. The look his brother gave him told more than words. Johnny had almost laughed, knowing Scott was about to ask a dumb question. That question that no one could ever really answer fully in a bad situation. Are you alright? Of course, the answer was no. So, why ask it? And he'd seen all that go through his brother's head in that split second. A small smile had forced it's way on his lips as he'd passed his brother.

Now, he was dropping back again. He knew he'd made a mistake telling Whittaker he wouldn't hand Art over to anyone but the law. The man had rankled him and he'd let his feelings for his stepfather win out. He knew he couldn't afford to do that again. The results could be disastrous for his family.

As much as he did love the man, Lancer was where he belonged and Lancers were his family. He loved them fiercely and knew he'd give his life to keep them safe. And he now knew what that pull all those years ago was - pulling him toward home. To the place where he'd always belonged.

*

Val tied off his saddle bags even as he gave one more wary look at his deputy. He wasn't thrilled with leaving the young man to his own devices but things had been pretty quiet lately. And, Johnny was right. If something was going to happen, it would happen outside his jurisdiction. He could fight alongside his friend but he knew he better served Johnny taking this trip. Even though, in Val's estimation, it was a waste of time.

He walked back onto the boardwalk and saw Whittaker coming out of the telegraph office. "Keep an eye on him while he's in town."

"Want me to follow him, Sheriff?"

Val fairly growled. "What did I just say?"

Dennis Flaherty dropped his head and muttered, " while he's in town."

Val nodded and looked the kid over. At nineteen years old, he was too skinny and carried a shotgun because he couldn't find a gunbelt that would fit around his hips. Hell, he didn't even have any hips. Val had never pointed out that he could probably customize a gun belt. He figured the kid did just fine with that shotgun. He'd hit what he aimed at mostly, at any rate. He almost burst out laughing when the boy raised his head to meet his eyes. Green as new grass, those eyes asked every question under the sun, it seemed. Always eager, Dennis tried hard. His lanky frame kept anyone from taking him too seriously and that too short blond hair made him look even more like a school kid. But, Val knew, with a little growing up, the boy would turn into a fine man some day. He was intent on making sure that happened.

"If there's any trouble, go get Sheriff Gabe ."

" Yessir ."

Val leered at him. "Do NOT try to take anything on yourself. I expect to come back and find you without any new holes, got it?"

Dennis grinned widely and nodded his head. He knew Val liked him though it was hard to tell for a long time. " Yessir . We'll be fine."

"I'll be sendin a wire to Johnny Lancer in four or five days. You make sure he gets it. I done told Fred to bring it directly to you."

"I'll make sure I put it right in Johnny's hand, Sheriff."

Val sighed an unconvinced sigh but he didn't have much choice. He'd covered everything with the kid and let Gabe know he'd be out of town for a while. The Spanish Wells sheriff had promised to drop in on Dennis when he could so Val figured that was all he could do. He walked out to his horse and mounted up then looked back down. He couldn't think of any more warnings or instructions to give so, he tipped his hat.

"Bye, Sheriff. Bye, Milagro."

Val rolled his eyes and reined his horse to the south.

*

Johnny leaned against a column on the veranda and watched the bunkhouse door. A few men were still straggling in from the long day but he thought they were all back now. Murdoch had said he'd talk to the hands but Johnny felt it was his place since it was his mess. And, he figured they'd be more likely to tell him to go to hell than the old man. He smiled a little at that thought. The smile faded when he felt someone watching him. He lowered his head and tucked his thumbs in his waistband and he waited.

"We haven't had a chance to talk."

Softly, Johnny responded. "There's only one thing I want to hear."

Art walked around to face him and waited until Johnny looked up at him. He shook his head back and forth. "I've told you everything, son."

"Have you? Because, if you haven't, right now is the time, Art. Not tomorrow or the next day. Understand?"

He balked at the harsh tone, the cold eyes and realized he was looking into the face of the gunfighter. It sent cold chills down his spine. He wasn't afraid of Johnny but he was seeing a glimpse of the life his boy had led. "I understand," he said briskly.

Johnny felt an overwhelming sense of disappointment and he knew it showed on his face. He didn't care about that. He only cared that this man he'd thought of like a father might be standing here lying to him. So, why was he still so willing to help out? Simple. If there was even a small chance Art was telling the truth, Johnny needed to give him the benefit of the doubt. If he didn't and it turned out Art was in the right, he'd never forgive himself. There was still a place in his heart that screamed at him to believe. "I need to talk to the hands."

Art sighed heavily. "Do you want me to go with you?"

"No, this is Lancer business."

*

Johnny paused with his hand on the doorknob and wondered if he could really ask these men to fight for a stranger. At the same time, he knew some of them would be offended if he didn't. Even if they turned him down, he knew they would want the right to make that decision. And, he reckoned they had more than a right to know what was happening anyway. He pushed the door open and stepped inside to a room full of smoke and chatter.

Slowly, the noise died down as they noticed him standing there. All eyes were on him and Johnny walked into the center of the room. He looked at their faces, so attentive and wondered exactly when he'd gained their respect. He knew he had it and it was one of the best feelings in the world. Now, he had to explain something he'd rather not. It was personal, after all.

" Fellas , there's something goin on you need to know about. I want to say that whatever each one of you wants to do, no one here will think any different of you." He took a deep breath. "Some of you know Eric Michaels, the man that bought the old Harrison ranch."

Several men nodded their heads.

"Well, that's not his real name. It's Art Chase and he ... he used to be, I mean I guess he still is my stepfather." Johnny eyed them all, seeing the surprise on their faces and giving them a minute to take it in. "Thing is, he had some trouble down in Texas and there's a bounty hunter in Green River that wants to take him back. Val Crawford's gone down there to get things cleared up so, until I hear from him, Art will be stayin here.

"This bounty hunter ain't real happy with the prospect of losing that money so, there might be some trouble. Any man who doesn't want to fight, it won't be held against you at all. This ain't got nothin to do with any of you or the ranch so, no one expects you to get into a scuffle over it."

Silence met his statements and he stood there waiting to see what would happen. Frank stood up and hesitantly took a few steps. "What're they sayin he did?"

Johnny kept the man's stare. "He's accused of horse stealin . He says it was a mistake. Some problem with the bill of sale. The man he had the trouble with is someone Val and I both know. That's why he's gone down there."

"What do you think, Johnny?"

He sighed and rubbed his forehead. "I don't know, to tell the truth, Frank. I want to believe him but this rancher in Texas was fair when I knew him. Look, there might not even be any trouble. That's what I'm hopin for. If there is, I don't expect any of you to get tangled up in it but you need to know what's goin on."

"If you need us, we'll be there," Frank stated assuredly.

Johnny looked around the room and saw a couple of dozen heads bobbing up and down in agreement. He also saw some that were still as a stone and others who wouldn't look him in the eye. "Anyone who feels that way, it's appreciated. Anyone who don't , it won't make any difference in how you're treated here."

*

He walked into the living room to find Murdoch and Scott waiting for him. Johnny headed to the sofa and plopped down with a tired sigh. "Well, I told them."

"And?" Scott asked, crossing his arms and leaning against the back of the sofa.

"And, several said they'd back us up and the rest didn't say anything. I told them it didn't matter one way or the other as far as them workin here. It's not up to them to deal with this."

Scott nodded, satisfied the men felt no pressure. He knew Johnny would make it clear but you never knew how any man would react when the bullets starting flying. He fervently hoped it wouldn't come to that but, he couldn't see Whittaker taking this lying down. Still, he wondered what the man thought he could do alone.

Johnny craned his neck and saw the nod then looked over at his father sitting quietly in a chair opposite him. "That goes for you two, ya know. I don't expect you to start throwin lead if it comes to that."

The look his father gave him almost had Johnny leaving the room. He dropped his eyes and picked at his hands and waited for Murdoch to say whatever was on his mind.

Murdoch watched him with a fire growing in his own gut. He pushed down the anger as he understood Johnny only wanted to protect them from what he saw as his problem. He took a deep breath before speaking. "When I asked the two of you here, it was to fight for this ranch that neither of you had any vested interest in at the time. It was my problem and you didn't have to stay and fight. For your own reasons, both of you did stay and I'm eternally grateful for that." He rubbed the back of his neck and found his guts. "The words I used that day still sting in my own mind. I know I was tough on you but I didn't have the luxury of taking the time trying to feel you out; to get an idea of the kind of men you are. I threw you both in the fire and you came out only a little singed, thankfully."

Scott's face broke into a wide grin. He looked at Johnny and saw a smile threatening. He wondered idly why his brother was trying to fight that smile off.

Murdoch shifted in his seat. "Since that time, with a few struggles along the way, we've grown closer and we've supported each other whenever trouble came to call. It doesn't matter whose trouble it is. What I'm trying to say, Johnny, is that family sticks together through the good and the bad. If we didn't have troubles, we wouldn't appreciate everything else we have. I don't care who's to blame though, quite frankly, it isn't you. Scott and I will stand beside you no matter what. And that is the end of that discussion." He ended his speech with that tone; the one that said there will be no arguing the matter. There will be no bringing it up again.

Johnny nodded his head though it was still bowed. He knew that tone and, as usual, it didn't make him shut up. He had things to say to his father and he knew he had to say them now. He looked up at Scott. "Mind givin us a minute?"

"Not if you're going to argue with Murdoch, because he's right."

Johnny smiled wanly. "Ain't he always? We're not gonna argue."

Scott threw a glance at his father then stood straight and gave his brother a curt nod before leaving them to themselves.

*

Murdoch waited for his son to gather his thoughts. He wasn't sure at all what Johnny wanted to say. He only hoped the young man was indeed not intending to argue the point any further.

Johnny rubbed his hands together and stood up, his fingers thrumming against his thighs as he meandered around the room. He glanced at his father sideways and gave a small smile then ended up sitting on the coffee table in front of the man. Hands on knees, he leaned forward a little. "I understand everything you said and I'm grateful for the help. But, there's something I need to say."

"Go ahead," Murdoch said softly.

"It's just this. I'm really sorry for the way I've been treating you. For fighting with you about all this and for the things I said. It was disrespectful. I was hateful and you didn't deserve any of it."

"I didn't handle things too well, myself, son."

"I never gave you a chance to handle it. I never gave you a minute to take it all in. I guess ..." he stopped and ran a hand though his hair then rested his forearms on his legs, causing him to lean even closer to his father. "I guess I was just surprised that it bothered you so much. I don't know why, exactly."

"It was a shock, son. I can admit to feeling some jealousy but I came to the conclusion that having Eric in your life was a blessing. The thoughts of what could have become of you were much worse. No matter if he's done this thing, he was a father to you and you love him. I can't begrudge you that. He taught you and tried his best to be there for you."

Johnny looked at his father with new eyes. Ones that saw this man so much more clearly. How could he have not seen it before? Maybe he had and simply hadn't realized it. Yeah, that was it, alright. He knew who Murdoch was but he'd blinded himself to it for some stupid reason. Maybe, he just couldn't let himself believe the man could care for him. But, he did and Johnny knew that more surely than ever right now. He'd been such a fool. Going along in life like he had all the time in the world. Never stopping to consider this man or what he'd been through in his life. "I'm a selfish bastard."

Murdoch leaned forward a little in his chair. His face inches from Johnny's. "You are not selfish, far from it and, you are definitely not a bastard. You are one of the most caring people I've ever met, son. Why can't you see what everyone else sees?"

Johnny pulled a face. Isn't that what he'd just been thinking? Only not about himself. "I didn't think about you or how this was hurting you. All I could think about was keeping Art in my life. I guess you should call him by his real name, by the way. Still, I was wrong to treat you like that. That's what I'm saying and I'm sorry. Really sorry." He hung his head and felt the hand on his shoulder, gently rubbing.

"If you feel the need to apologize then I'll accept it, son. I'd like us to move past this and just work on clearing up this whole mess. What worries me is how you'll deal with it if Art is guilty."

Johnny slowly raised his head and looked at his father despondently. "Don't I already know the answer to that?"

*

Scott wandered toward the corrals deep in thought. Mostly about what Johnny and Murdoch might be talking about. He hoped Johnny was apologizing to their father. He felt it was needed at some point. His crime was hardly a felony but the air needed clearing, as Murdoch would say. He smiled a little remembering that first day and Murdoch's attitude. Since that time, Scott had come to understand his father's behavior back then.

He reached the corral fence and leaned into it, taking in the fresh, cool air of Spring . The nights still had a bit of a nip to them and he enjoyed this time of year. Warm days, cool nights. It was just the right combination in his estimation. His reverie was interrupted when he heard footfalls from behind him. Scott turned slowly, wondering if 'the talk' was over already. He was surprised and a little irritated when he saw who was there.

"Scott," he nodded.

He didn't answer, simply turned back around.

Art raised an eyebrow then joined him, uninvited. "Nice evening." Again, there was no response and he sighed a little. "I think you and I should talk. We haven't. Not since you found out who I am to Johnny."

"You are no one to Johnny. Not anymore."

"I'm sure you'd like that to be true but it isn't. Have you turned your back on your grandfather since coming out here? Somehow, I doubt it. Johnny may not be of my blood but that's never made a difference to me. I love that boy."

Scott turned aside to face the man, his eyes hard and cold. "If this is how you show love, Eric - Art - whatever your name is, then I feel very badly for my brother having ever known you at all."

"You're so convinced I'm guilty, aren't you? Rather, I think you're hoping I am. That way, you wouldn't have to share Johnny with anyone else. Oh, I know how close you two have become and I know it didn't take very long, either. But, somehow, I don't think you really know Johnny at all. You don't know what's in his heart."

"How dare you?" Scott ground out the words even as his fists clenched at his sides. "What is between my brother and me is none of your business. Don't try to make me believe Johnny has confided that much in you because I *do* know my brother very well."

Art maintained his calm, relaxed stance. "No, of course he hasn't told me everything but he doesn't need to. You see, I can tell what he's thinking just by the way he acts. I know when something is troubling him and arguing with you over me has troubled him a great deal. You were ready to condemn me before you knew anything about this business in Texas. You didn't want him around me. All the sudden you didn't trust me when we'd been getting along well before Johnny returned." He leaned in a little. "You're threatened by me, Scott. You can't stand the idea of Johnny being closer to someone than he is to you."

Scott took one step before he was stopped by the soft voice calling to him in the dark.

"Scott?" Johnny walked up slowly, eyeing both men closely. He hadn't heard what was said but Scott's stance was all he needed to know things weren't civil here. "What's going on?"

Scott continued to glare at Art for a moment longer before stepping back and facing Johnny. "Nothing, brother. Just a difference of opinion."

"Uh huh." Johnny came closer and stood before both men now looking at him. Scott was pissed and Art was ... too calm.

"How are things?" Scott asked, more than anxious to find out how the talk went and just as anxious to divert Johnny's attention.

Johnny looked into his brother's eyes for a beat then smiled crookedly. "Much better now. Someone want to tell me what's happening out here?"

"Like Scott said, just a difference of opinion. Would you take a walk with me, son?" Art reached out and touched his arm lightly. He felt Johnny tense at the touch and his heart skipped a beat.

Scott looked off to his left and stifled a sigh. "Well, I think I'll turn in for the night. Did you post guards?"

Johnny frowned and shook his head then looked back at the house. He saw a man on the roof then he turned back and saw two more at the arch. He smiled a little. "Frank must've done that."

"He's a good man. Well, goodnight." Scott patted his brother's arm as he walked past.

*

Johnny watched his brother walk away for a few seconds then turned back to his stepfather. "What was that about?"

Art shrugged. "He doesn't think much of me. It's strange since we got along so well in the beginning. Of course, that was before any of us knew."

"Scott's been havin a lot of trouble with all of this."

"Yes, and before he knew about Texas. Johnny, I think Scott would have had trouble with me even if that weren't an issue. It seems he doesn't want to share." Art smiled, tried to sound light about it but Johnny gave him a searing look.

"He's not like that. It was Murdoch he was worried about and I gave him cause for that. Even if I didn't realize I was doin it at first. You need to be straight with me, Art. What's my friend gonna find in Texas?"

Art's face fell flat soon to be replaced with some anger. "A vindictive man. I hope this friend of yours is a good judge of character."

"He is." Johnny stared into the man's eyes long enough for Art to look away and, in that moment, Johnny was almost one hundred percent sure. Almost, and that was what nagged at him.

"I was thinking about all the trouble I've caused you and if it wouldn't be better if I just left here." He stared off into the distance, past Johnny's shoulder.

Bowing his head, Johnny thought hard and came to a decision. "I wish you wouldn't. I'd like to get this cleared up. Once we do, things will settle down and we can go back to living our lives - together."

"And what happens if your friend can't get it cleared up?"

He raised his head and looked at the man, a slight smile playing on his face. "He's pretty good at convincing people to see things his way."

Art smiled widely and patted him on the back. "Alright, son. We'll wait for your friend, then. I think I'll turn in as well."

"Sleep well, papa."

Art looked at him for a long time then embraced Johnny briefly before leaving him to retire.

Johnny watched the man until he went inside the house then walked over and leaned heavily against the corral fence. He thought he might throw up. Was it so easy to lie to a man who had been a father to him? Apparently, it was. He'd let Art believe Val would do what was necessary to make this go away.

After several minutes, Johnny pushed away from the fence and headed to the arch. It was a bit of a walk but he needed it to clear his head. Once he got there, he instructed the guards to make sure Art didn't leave the ranch alone. Then, with the weight of the world seemingly bearing down on his shoulders, Johnny made his way back to the house. All the while, he prayed he was wrong.

*

Val looked down the hill at the big house. Lord, had it really been all those years ago? The first time he'd met Johnny Madrid was in that little town he'd just rode through on his way to that range war. He'd been surprised by Johnny. His age, for one and his ... gentleness, he guessed was a good word ... for another. All calm and soft-spoken until he got riled. Then, it was best to step out of his way. Val chuckled a little at that. He'd never admit it to a living soul and certainly not to Johnny but, he'd been impressed with the young gunfighter. He'd never been afraid of him, though. Something that seemed to bother his friend a little at first.

He kept the smile on his face as he rode down the slope and toward the yard. He could see the place was still prospering. He'd eyeballed a slew of cattle as he crossed onto the property and they didn't seem to be dwindling in number here in the pastures closer to the main house. There were many vaqueros out working in the fields and several around the barns and outbuildings. Val was reminded of the beehive that was Lancer. Always seemed to be something goin on around there, too.

He received some curious and wary stares as he rode in but he detected nothing like trouble in the air so he remained relaxed, slouched in the saddle as he reined to a stop in front of a hitching post. Dismounting, Val stretched his back and figured he was getting too damned old to be traipsin all over the countryside like this. If it wasn't so important, he'd be home relaxing in his big leather chair.

He made it onto the porch before the door swung open and the man himself stepped out. Hat in hand and ready to don, he paused when he saw he had a visitor. It took him a few seconds and he still wasn't sure but he gave Val a long, perusing gaze as he tried to remember.   Brow wrinkled in thought, his eyes suddenly sparked. "Crawford, isn't it?"

"That's a real good memory ya got there, Mr. Pendleton. Nice to see ya again." Val extended his hand and shook with the man. "Sorry to just drop in like this but I need to talk to you if ya got a minute."

Pendleton nodded, smiled and pushed the door open. "Of course. I'm sure I have more than a minute for a man who saved my ranch. Come in, please."

Val took his hat off as he passed over the threshold then waited to follow the rancher into the large living room. It hadn't changed much since last he'd been here and he thought again of Lancer.

"Have a seat. Is it too early for a drink?" Pendleton waited while Val settled in a chair.

"Never has been but, no thanks."

"What can I do for ..." he trailed off as he got a look at Val's chest. With an amused gleam in his eye, he finished, "Sheriff?"

Val smirked a little. "Yeah, got a whole new line of work these days. I'm the sheriff in Green River, California now."

"Impressive."

"It's a nice town. I'm here about Johnny."

Pendleton frowned again. "Madrid? I haven't seen him since you were both here last."

Val smiled at that. "I know but I have. He's not Madrid anymore. He's hooked up with his old man and a brother. He lives near my town and he's a rancher now."

The man actually laughed a little. "That's hard to imagine but I didn't know him at all. Only that he did the right thing."

"He usually does. This is a little uncomfortable, Mr. Pendleton, but I need you to tell me about a horse trader name of Chase and some kind of trouble you had with him?"

*

Pendleton's face turned red and his hands curled into fists as he pressed them to his thighs. "Horse trader? Try horse thief, Sheriff. He came in here all smiles and charm talking about making a deal. He was real slick, alright. I showed him several animals and he picked out ten. We were supposed to meet to make the final cut of four the next afternoon. That morning, one of my men rode in to tell me all ten horses were gone."

Val felt his gut clench. "What did ya do?"

"I called in the law. We had a decent sheriff then but he moved on not long after that. What we have now is a joke. Anyway, he formed a posse with some of my men and went after that thief. They caught up with him and he started tryin to say I'd cheated him!"

"Can I ask why you gave him a bill of sale before the final cut?"

Pendleton squirmed a little in his seat. "I'm ashamed to admit to being snookered but that's what happened. Somehow, he convinced me to go ahead and finalize the deal the day before. He paid me for four horses and I gave him the bill of sale. Still, that paper was right."

Val nodded his head. "I pretty much know the rest. He managed to cause a ruckus on the way back and get away."

"That's right. I think that's part of the reason the sheriff quit. It was an embarrassment to Whittaker."

Val's eyes came up and he leaned in. "Whittaker?"

"That was the sheriff's name. I heard he joined the Rangers but that it didn't last long. I don't know what became of him."

Val nearly growled. "I do. He's a bounty hunter and he's in my town right now after Chase."

"Good! There's been a warrant out for him since it happened but he disappeared. So, he's in California?"

Again, Val nodded. His head was spinning about Whittaker. This was personal for the man and that was never good. He'd be hellbent on getting Chase back to Texas. Not just for the money but to redeem himself .

"What does this have to do with Madrid?" Pendleton asked.

Val looked at him and considered a long while before speaking. "Just that he knew Chase a long time ago and was on good terms with him then. Seems Chase is real good at snookerin people." His voice took on a sarcasm built on bitterness.

Pendleton raised his brows. "I can attest to that. He's a real charmer and a real snake. Are you going to bring him in?"

"Nope. I'm gonna find some Rangers. See if they'd be interested in goin back with me to get him. I can't bring him back but they can long as I'm agreeable."

Pendleton stood up and shook hands with Val as he, too, rose. "I hope that happens. He needs to pay for this."

"He needs to pay for a whole lot more than stealin some horses. Anyways, I best get goin. I need to send a telegram." Val's face fell as he thought about sending that one word telegram to his best friend. There was no way he could get into Whittaker's part of this in a wire. Johnny was well aware the man was dangerous. No sense in makin him madder than he already was.

*

Dennis Flaherty looked on from the boardwalk outside the sheriff's office with great interest and some confusion. He'd counted twenty men ride into Green River this morning. All of them headed straight for the hotel. Now, he was watching as that Whittaker fella walked toward him. Normally a congenial young man, Dennis wasn't feeling any warmth in the smile directed his way by the bounty hunter so he just stared openly.

"Howdy, Deputy," Whittaker hailed as he stepped onto the boardwalk in front of the young man.

"Howdy."

Whittaker laughed a little. The boy was trying hard and he gave him credit but he was no more a lawman than the dog yappin at them from the corner. "Sheriff's not back yet, huh? Well, Texas is a long ride."

"Those men that rode in this mornin here to meet you?"

"Well, you're smarter than I gave you credit for, son. You just might make a sheriff someday, after all." Whittaker slapped a big hand on the kid's shoulder and choked down a laugh as the boy's eyes widened. "I don't want you to worry about those men. See, nothin is gonna happen in your town, Deputy. I can give you my word on that."

Dennis didn't quite know what to say to that. He had to admit to himself, he was relieved and hoped the man wasn't lying to him.

"I was a lawman once myself, ya know. I'm kind of partial to seein that nobody wearin a badge gets killed if I can help it." He smiled as the boy's shoulder relaxed under his hand. Too young not to be scared shitless, he surmised.

"Dennis!"

Both men turned toward the wiry little man hurrying down the walk waving a piece of paper in his hand. Fred stopped in front of them, breathless from his jaunt. "I just got this from Val. He said to give it to you and you'd know what to do with it." He handed the envelope to the deputy.

"Thanks, Fred. I'll take care of it." Dennis waited for the telegraph operator to leave then turned to head inside. Suddenly, the missive was snatched from his hand. He turned and scowled, reaching out to retrieve it as it was snapped away again.

Whittaker moved his hand back and looked at the name, then grinned widely. "No need for you to make that long trip to Lancer, boy. I'm goin that way myself. I'll make sure Mr. Madrid gets this message."

"It ain't Madrid, it's Lancer and the sheriff said for me to deliver it. Hand it over, mister!"

He laughed but kept his hand out of reach. Suddenly, his mirth died away and his eyes darkened. "Me and you were gettin along just fine, Dennis. Let's keep it that way. Now, I'm tellin you I will make sure Johnny whatever-name-he-goes-by-now gets this message and I am a man of my word. You don't want to push me, boy."

Dennis stopped his little dance of trying to reach the envelope and stared wide-eyed at the fierce man before him. He swallowed hard and shook his head. "It's my job." He tried to sound tough but didn't make it.

"And you're delegatin that job to me. Besides, you shouldn't leave the town with all those strangers hangin around. What if they got all rowdy? There'd be no law to protect the good citizens." Whittaker put his hand back on Dennis' shoulder. "Don't play the hero, son. You don't want to be buried today."

Dennis stilled and stared at the man. He knew he was defeated and he knew he wouldn't be able to face the sheriff. His days as a deputy were soon to be over. At least in this town. There was nothing he could do about it and he knew it. He took a step back then raised his chin. "Just make sure Johnny gets the message."

Whittaker grinned. "Consider it done."

*

For four days, Johnny avoided his stepfather as much as possible. The man was in good spirits and that did nothing to help him feel better about any of this. The only good thing was there'd been no sign of Whittaker. Although, Johnny wasn't so sure that really was a good sign. He couldn't quite believe the man would give up on a bounty he'd traveled this far for.

He'd never understood that profession. Riding all over God's creation, hunting men. Dead or alive and, most times, they preferred dead. Made it a lot easier on them hauling back a carcass than dealing with a live and desperate man. It turned his stomach, frankly.

This afternoon, as he walked toward the house, he saw Art standing on the porch looking at him. Johnny sighed and slowed as he neared the man.

"Hello, son. You look done in." Art smiled and patted his arm as Johnny stopped in front of him.

"I'm okay."

The smile faded as he looked into the troubled face. "You're far from okay. What is it?"

Johnny looked at the man as if he were crazy. Was he really so convinced nothing would come of all this? Was Johnny so sure nothing good could come of it? He'd been struggling for days between what he felt in his gut and what he wished to be. Knowing Val's telegram would arrive at any time now didn't really help quell the nausea he felt a lot of the time when he allowed himself to think about it. Much of the time, he tried very hard to think of anything else.

He realized the man was waiting for an answer but he wasn't obliged to give one. Not an honest one, anyway. "Guess I am just tired. I need to get washed up for supper." He made to step around the man when he was stopped cold.

*

"Madrid!"

Johnny stepped back and turned toward the voice. Whittaker sat the saddle fifty yards away, just outside the corral gate with a couple of dozen men. He felt more than saw Art step back into the shadows and he sighed as he took a couple of more steps out into the open. He didn't answer, just stared at the man.

"Ready to hand that horse thief over yet?" Whittaker shouted.

Johnny put his hands on his hips. "Not to you!"

"Well, at least ya didn't argue the charge! Ya might want to reconsider. See, I have all this help with me now."

Johnny's eyes scanned the men, all looking ready for a fight. "I have a little help, too." He heard Whittaker laughing.

"Not for a while, boy. Seems you had a little stampede over to the north. I'm thinkin those cowboys will be a might busy for several hours yet."

"Shit!" Johnny muttered. He turned his head to the side and saw his father and brother walking out through the French doors. Both joined him, flanking him and he felt ... hell, Johnny, no time for all that now! "Did you hear that?"

"Yes. I don't know how true it is," Murdoch answered.

"Oh, I'm sure it's true," Johnny said in exasperation.

"We still have a crew heading in from the east. About a dozen men," Scott informed them. "Should be anytime now. I'm sure Whittaker knows that, too."

"What do you want to do, son?"

Johnny looked at his father then turned and looked at Art standing there barely visible from behind a column. He sighed and drummed his fingers against his left thigh. "I want to have some supper but I guess that ain't happenin ." He turned back to face Whittaker. "I think we'll wait to hear from the sheriff, Whittaker!"

Art sucked in a breath then got bold and stepped out to stand behind Johnny. "Sheriff? Your friend is a sheriff?"

"You got a problem with that? Step back!" Johnny snapped. Before Art could answer, Whittaker called out again.

"The wait's over, Madrid! That nice young deputy gave me a telegram for you from Sheriff Crawford. I told him I'd deliver the message and he was real relieved by that."

"If you hurt that boy..." Johnny started.

"He ain't hurt," Whittaker cut him off. "But, I thought the wire was real interestin . It's just one word. Did ya wanna hear it?"

No! Johnny's voice screamed inside his own mind. He was strung so tight, he thought one touch, one gentle breeze and he'd snap right in two.

Of course, Whittaker didn't wait for him to answer. With quite a flourish, he pulled the paper from his vest pocket and snapped it open. He gazed at it with a malicious grin then cleared his throat. " Apurado !"

Johnny felt the world tilt and he wasn't so sure he'd be on his feet in another minute. He felt his father's hand on his arm and prayed he hadn't made any kind of stupid move to give away how he felt to Whittaker. That would be a deadly mistake. He had his head bowed a little and when he turned it to Murdoch, he didn't raise it, just whispered. "Did I show it?"

"No, son. I only knew because I know you."

Johnny looked up slowly into his father's eyes and thought he might bust out cryin . He cursed himself then bit the inside of his cheek. The pain refocused him and he sucked in a breath then turned back to Whittaker. "And?"

"And that means Chase is mine."

Johnny shook his head slowly back and forth in an almost imperceptible movement.

Scott turned to his brother, stepped out to face him and block Whittaker's view of Johnny. "Brother, you need to be very careful, here. It's obvious Val has proof of some kind now. We can't stand against the law."

Johnny kept his voice low so Art didn't hear. "I'm not standin against the law, Scott. I'm standin against a bounty hunter. He's got no legal right to be here and we don't have to hand anyone over to him. Val will be back in a few days and he'll handle this."

Scott didn't move, just stood there and scowled at him. Johnny's patience was wearing thin. He was back in control of himself and pushing everything aside but what he felt was right. "Are you gonna get between me and him again, Scott?"

The older brother's face fell and he gave a light sigh. "No, brother. No, I won't do that." Scott returned to his place alongside his brother and pulled his shoulders back.

"Murdoch?"

"It's your call, son. I agree with you if it matters."

"It's just about all that does matter ... pa." He looked up a little sheepishly at his father and grinned. Then, he winked and Murdoch tensed even as he returned the smile, ready for the fight that was sure to ensue and more than curious as to how Johnny would handle this. Johnny had one more thing to take care of before giving Whittaker his answer. Without turning around, he raised his voice a little. "Stay back and out of the way, Art. If you were of a mind, you might slip inside and get us some rifles and ammo." He heard the front door open softly then sighed and took one step.

*

"I'm waitin , Madrid!"

"I hope you like it cause we ain't handin him over to nobody but the law." Even from this distance, Johnny could see the man's face turn red. He smiled, he just couldn't help it.

"I'll take him to the law."

"Yeah? In what shape? He ain't been convicted of anything yet, Whittaker. You and your friends need to move along, now." His smile widened into a grin. "You're trespassing and that's illegal."

Scott snorted a little then shook his head at his brother's audacity. Leave it to Johnny, he thought. But, he knew the longer Johnny could stall the man, the better the chance that the work crew would be riding in. It was perfect really as that crew would be coming in from behind the house. They wouldn't be caught out in the open, in the middle of a firefight and, better yet, Frank was heading that crew today. He'd convinced his father to give the man a raise not very long ago. Although, it hadn't taken too much convincing, he was happy to say. He shook his head and made himself concentrate. This was no time to daydream.

Whittaker had been conversing with one of his men during this time so they all waited to see if he'd come to his senses. Finally, he turned back to them. "I'm takin Chase in, Madrid. Best thing you can do is stand aside."

Johnny felt his veins pulse. He knew the fight was imminent. There was no stopping what was about to happen and he had to wonder if it was really worth all this trouble. Maybe, it never really mattered about the man in question. Maybe, all that really mattered was the principle of a thing. He knew with certainty his father and brother believed that, too. "You really don't want to be tryin that here, Whittaker. Cause , if you do, this is where you'll die. All of you. That's my guarantee to you."

"I don't know why you're protectin that scum and I don't care but you just made the last mistake of your life, Johnny Madrid."

He'd seen the movement even as Whittaker spoke. If he thought he'd distracted Johnny, he was sorely mistaken. Johnny drew his gun and fired at the man near the end of their straggled line even as he pushed his father backward. The Lancers all took cover on the veranda as all hell broke loose.

Art was crouched behind the low wall and passed out rifles to the three men as they descended on him. His eyes met Johnny's briefly but his son had no time for him now. He raised his own rifle and began firing. And he watched Johnny. The way he moved, the way he fired that rifle was magic in motion. He wished he had time to appreciate the boy's prowess more but a bullet whizzed past his head and got his attention.

Ten minutes, no longer, but it felt like an hour. Ten minutes passed until the Lancers heard gunfire from a different direction - behind them. Scott looked at his father and smiled. "The cavalry's here."

Johnny grinned and moved. He pressed his back against a column where he could see their men as they rounded the corner of the house. They rode in and dismounted, quickly taking cover and shooting the whole time. He found Frank near the corral and nodded his head. Even if he could talk to the man, what could he say? Thank you? It seemed lame to him now. He shook off the remorse before it got him killed. Time enough for that later - maybe.

*

Johnny stood behind the column and took in the situation. It wasn't pretty. The hands were giving it their all and Johnny's heart sank at the thought of one of them dying because of him. Anger surged in him and he dashed into the yard, firing and running then diving behind a wagon.

Murdoch lurched forward as his son took off but Scott's firm hand stayed him. "What the hell?"

"It's the way he works, Murdoch. You know that. All we can do now is keep fighting." Scott's heart was in his throat and he figured he'd be strangling his brother when this was all over. He sure hoped he'd have that chance.

Johnny raised his head then went back down quickly as the wood of the wagon splintered an inch from his face. He cussed then took a deep breath and took off again. He made it to the corral and dove, rolling to a stop behind a water trough.

Why he noticed the rain heavy clouds above him, he couldn't say and it didn't really matter. Rain wasn't going to stop this fight. Nothing was going to stop this now. He resigned himself to the fact he no longer controlled the situation, never really had and that would be Art's fault. Gritting his teeth, he raised up and started firing.

The attackers were closing in, using anything in their path as cover. Rifles were not the optimum weapon now so the vaqueros started using their hand guns. Still on the veranda, Scott and Murdoch continued using the longer ranging weapons and Johnny hoped they would stay right there, too.

His mind was a flurry of scenarios. They would run out of ammunition at some point. They had to. He knew they were probably well supplied, though. This could go on for a while. He looked to his brother, wishing they were in closer proximity. He, himself, would run out of bullets soon and he realized he was going to have to get back to the house.

With a sigh born of frustration as much as anything, Johnny took off at a dead run, making his way to the estancia. Scott saw him and provided cover fire as Johnny ran onto the porch, nearly bowling Murdoch over. He got to his feet, breathing heavy.

"Need ammo." He explained his presence quickly then darted into the house. He poured cartridges into his jacket pockets and shoved them into his pant pockets before loading the rifle. Johnny turned slowly when he felt the presence. "Got no time for this."

"Son, please. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." Art stood near the French doors, gripping the rifle in his hands like a lifeline.

Johnny paused then slid the last cartridge into the rifle. "Like I said, I got no time for this." He crossed the room and headed for the front door when Art intercepted him, grabbing his arm.

"You have to know how much I love you."

"Shut up! I don't want to hear anymore of your lies." He took a deep breath and his eyes died. "But, let me make you a promise. If *anything* happens to my father or brother or any of those men out there fighting for *your* sorry ass, I'll put a bullet in you myself!" He shoved past the man and headed outside.

"Johnny!" Murdoch caught up to his son even as he dodged a bullet. "Stay here, son."


"I can't, Murdoch. I do better out there. It's just how I work." He lowered his eyes briefly. "I ... I'm sorry." He didn't let his father say anything else as he took off, low and in a zigzag as Scott covered him again.

*

The battle raged on as the sun began to set. The rain had stayed away but the clouds remained, heavy and nearly black. The temperature was dropping as if readying for the oncoming storm. Brief cessations occurred as reloading and shifting of positions took place. Scott watched it all and knew all they could do was fight. Whittaker's men were good, several of their hands had been injured but, so far, no one had died. He knew Johnny would not forgive himself if that were to happen. Scott thought Art should be the one with remorse. He'd had precious little time to observe him and, each time, the man was simply fighting for all he was worth. Why couldn't he have fought as venomously for his 'son'? Scott wondered bitterly.

Night fell and the battle eased. Johnny hoped most of them were dead by now. It seemed that way but he couldn't really see all that well. He turned toward the house when he noticed his own shadow. Lights were coming on inside. Most likely, the ladies all gathered there for security, were readying themselves to tend the injured, he imagined.

It had been with held breath that he'd watched the parade as Cipriano guided the women to the back of the house amidst flying bullets. He only breathed again when he saw the segundo give a sign that all was well.

Now, the place glowed from several lamps but he saw no shadows cross the windows. He smiled a little, knowing Maria would keep them all safe.

He decided he needed to make a move. Find out just what they were still up against. He scanned the area and thought about where the shots were coming from. They all seemed to be concentrated more now. He reckoned they'd gathered their dwindling company for one last push. Closing his eyes briefly, Johnny inhaled deeply and positioned himself, then ran along the outside of the corral, firing.

Scott lurched forward only to be stayed by his father's strong grip. "What's he doing?"

"Flushing them out, I think," Murdoch replied, his eyes watching everything at once.

"God, he is crazy," Scott whispered.

Another barrage erupted and the cacophony almost sounded like canon fire to Scott, so loud and fierce it was. He couldn't see Johnny now and his heart thumped painfully. Suddenly, it was deathly quiet. Scott stood straight and peered into the darkness. Then, he saw him.

*

Surreal. That was the word that immediately came to Scott's mind as he watched his brother.

Though light was pouring from lamps in the hacienda onto the ground outside, only the faintest of its rings reached where Johnny was standing. That, and the soft glow of the cloud-hidden full moon was all that illuminated him.

His profile was to Scott who could see his head hanging down. Steam emitted in quick harsh bursts from his mouth as Johnny pulled air in and blew it out. His shoulders were slumped, his posture telling of his exhaustion. His gun dangled from his right hand loosely. Sweat dripped off his chin in slow, small droplets that just caught the light enough to highlight them.

Then, slowly, his head came up but he did not turn toward the house. He only stood there, staring into the night. Staring at something only he could see. His breathing hadn't eased.

It seemed to Scott there was no color to the world in that moment except gray. The pale light and fine mist seemed to glow about Johnny, casting his face in deep shadow, little of his features distinguishable.

Still, Johnny stared, his breathing unchanged. His right arm swung out casually and the gun was tossed to the ground a few feet away. And just as Scott thought to go to him, Johnny moved.

Only it wasn't toward his brother that he turned. It was away. Away from Scott and Lancer and slowly, awkwardly, he disappeared beyond the light's reach.

Scott's heart thundered in his chest as he stepped into the yard. He opened his mouth yet no words would come. His throat locked so tightly, he couldn't even whisper his brother's name. He tried; tried so hard but it was in vain. So he closed his mouth and stepped forward, intent on following his brother until a voice stopped him.

*

Johnny staggered to the farthest end of the corral fence and fell against it. At that moment, the skies opened, finally releasing the promised rain from the day. He didn't move, still trying to ease his breathing and compose himself. Still trying to understand and decide.

Mere minutes passed before he was drenched, his clothes clinging uncomfortably, rain dripping from his bowed head. Bangs fell over his forehead; water dripping, dripping. Water and something else he knew, but he couldn't think about that right now. Couldn't think about anything, it seemed.

He could hear the voices near the house, loud and insistent; barked orders and urgent replies. He closed his eyes and rested his head on his arm which lay across the railing. They didn't need his help. Certainly didn't need *his* help. He'd helped enough, he knew.

He raised his head to the heavens and let the water saturate his face, his eyes still closed against the pelting drops. It was so cold, he thought idly but didn't care. Never mind that now. Never mind any of it now. It was over. Well and truly and finally. And lightning illuminated the world briefly, casting his shadow short and slumped onto the earth.

Now, they would be safe. Now, they no longer needed to worry. He was done, they should be done with him as was ...... right, he supposed. Yet, it felt so wrong. Still, they'd stood by him and it had left him feeling more loved than he ever had in his life. But, it was all his fault, after all. His past, his trust misplaced.

He lowered his head and turned, leaning his back against the rough wood and slowly, sliding to the ground. No one came. He knew they wouldn't. Knew this was how it would happen. Alone. It was meant to be. He'd always known it, had always accepted it. Had never questioned it. Until now. And he had no right now. He knew that, too. It was what it was. A sardonic smile crossed his face. What a time to start feelin sorry for myself!  

He could feel the puddle beneath him, the mud slicking his clothes, mixing with it all. Mixing with his life's blood and turning it back into the muck it had been for so many years. Yes, this was right. This was as it should be. Estar muerto de cansancio . He was most certainly done in. His chin lowered to rest on his chest and he breathed out heavily, eyes sliding shut with one last longing thought - 'Murdoch'.

*

"Scott!" Murdoch moved quickly to his son. That last barrage had been intense and he hadn't been able to keep an eye on at least this one son as he had all afternoon. He looked Scott over head to toe.

"I'm alright. I have to find Johnny."

"What do you mean? Where is he?" Murdoch looked out into the night, squinting to try and see through the pouring rain.

"I don't know. I saw him walk away toward the corral a while ago. I thought he was checking someone but he hasn't come back. He was ..."

"What? He was what, Scott?" Murdoch asked impatiently.

"I don't know! Not ... right. Something was wrong with him," Scott answered, knowing it was inadequate but unable to supply more.

Murdoch wanted to ask more but something told him to let his son go now. "Find him and bring him inside, son. I need to get the men organized and send for Sam." He gripped Scott's arm almost painfully. "Bring our boy home."

Scott swallowed hard and nodded. "Yes, Sir. I will."

Murdoch watched him for a second before heading back inside to the living room where Maria had set up a kind of hospital. Even as they'd been fighting for their lives outside, she'd been moving furniture out of the way, laying in supplies and making pallets of blankets. Murdoch reckoned she had more pallets than they had men, sum total. "Did someone go for the doctor?" he asked as he helped ease a wounded man onto a pile of blankets.

" Shorty went a while ago," Frank answered.

Murdoch looked at one of his long-time hands, his shirt covered in blood with red smears across his cheek. "Are you alright?"

Frank nodded. " Ain't mine."

Murdoch looked as if he wanted to ask a question, almost did, then Julio called out for him. He kneeled beside the wounded man and placed a hand on his chest.

"Is Johnny alright?" Julio asked through gritted teeth.

Murdoch leaned back a little, surprised by the question. It took him a few seconds to answer. "I haven't seen him yet. It's been pretty chaotic."

"Did Scott go to see after ' im ?" asked Red, standing behind him.

"Yes," Murdoch answered as he craned his neck to see the man.

Red nodded. "I thought he took a bullet. Seemed like it but everything was happenin so fast, it's hard ta tell."

Murdoch stood and rounded on the man. "How sure are you?"

Red shook his head slowly. "It sure seemed like it ta me, Mr. Lancer. I hope he's okay."

*

Scott raised the lantern high over his head. He was soaked to the bone in just this short time but he barely noticed. He was so cold but he cared nothing about that. His only focus now was finding his brother and trying, somehow, to fix this mess they were in.

He stood where he'd first seen Johnny in the yard, swung the lantern out and saw the gun lying in the mud. He called out but there was no answer. He turned as Johnny had and walked toward the corral. The wind picked up a little and he had to duck his head to keep the rain from his eyes, lowering the lantern to his side. He kept calling out, shouting his brother's name as he walked along the corral fencing. Suddenly, he stopped in his tracks, fear clutching his heart with an iron fist.

Scott found his feet and moved forward slowly, afraid of what he might find. Kneeling down, he set the lantern aside and lifted his brother's head in both his hands. Johnny's eyes were closed, his skin icy as a glacier. Scott took a breath and let it out, the steam lifting upward.

With a profound clarity, he realized there was no steam coming from Johnny. Shaking fingers reached the cold neck, feeling, feeling to no avail.

*

Murdoch closed his eyes and bowed his head for a silent moment. Defeat warred inside him but he refused to let it win. Not yet. There was still hope. When he opened his eyes, he took in a deep breath and steeled himself against the very notion his son was not alright. He looked past Red who was watching him with sympathy and his eyes landed on the reason for this whole mess. Rage rippled through his veins as he took long strides to reach the corner where Art hovered.

"Did you hear that?" he demanded. "Johnny could be hurt!"

Art shook his head. "No, not Johnny. He's too good, too smart. He just went to check on someone, that's all."

Murdoch nodded his head but it was not in agreement. "The only problem with that theory is that every man has been accounted for except my son!" He grabbed Art by the jacket and shook him until his teeth rattled. "If anything has happened to him, Texas won't have to worry about you anymore."

Art grabbed his hands and tried to pull free but it was an impossible task. Murdoch had a death grip on him. "No! Johnny's alright. He has to be!"

"He has to be?" Murdoch bellowed. He released the man with a shove that sent him slapping his back against the wall. "No, Art, he doesn't *have* to be just because that's what you want. Look at them!" He stepped aside and grabbed Art's shoulder, pushing him forward a few steps. "Look at these men who stood and fought for us. Not for you. They fought for Johnny. Because he asked them and they didn't care why. All they cared about was Johnny needed their help. Take a long, hard look at them, Art. This is your doing. Your lies that brought this hell down on our home!"

Everyone in the room who was able was staring at Art Chase. He swallowed hard, an apology on his lips that wouldn't push through from his closed throat.

Murdoch shook his head. "Frank, I'm sorry to ask one more thing of you."

Frank stepped up and waited for his orders.

"Could you take ... him out to the guardhouse and lock him up until Sheriff Crawford comes back? I'm quite sure Johnny won't want to have to look at him."

"Sure thing, Mr. Lancer." Frank stepped forward and drew his gun, pointed it at the man and simply said, " let's go."

Art, head hung like a dog, obeyed the order without a sound.

*

Scott refused to believe his own senses. He leaned closer and lifted Johnny into his arms. He nearly fell in the mud as he struggled to his feet with his precious load. Jostling Johnny a bit to gain better leverage, he winced when his brother made not a sound; his arm dangling limply toward the ground. He didn't even know where Johnny was shot, for that must be the problem, but he didn't think he could do any further harm to his brother at this point. He didn't even mind the rain that soaked his face now as it hid the saltier moisture coursing along his cheeks.

"Damn you, boy," he whispered then tightened his grip, bringing his brother's cold, lifeless body closer to his own. He turned and headed to the house, unable to allow himself to think of Murdoch's reaction to this. He stifled a sob and forced himself to stop the emotions running roughshod over him. He's not dead, he kept thinking over and over as he trudged through the mud to take his brother to his father's arms.

The wind whipped the rain into his eyes and Scott ducked his head, bringing his cheek in contact with Johnny's. A shiver coursed through his entire being and he bit his lower lip until it bled. And he kept walking.

"When you get warmed up, the bleeding will start up again. We'll have to work fast before that happens. Don't worry. Maria is in charge until Sam arrives so you know she'll take especially good care of you. I don't know what you did to that woman but she loves you as if you were her own. I swear you could charm her out of her stockings if you wanted to." Scott sniffed and shook his head, trying to get the stray strands of wet hair out of his face. He only succeeded in plastering more of them there, though.

He was almost to the house when he stumbled a little then righted himself. "You get to explain all this to Murdoch, you know. How you just had to go out there on your own. How I couldn't have stopped you if I'd tried." He paused and hitched in a breath. "Why didn't I try? Why the hell wasn't I out there with you? I should've had your back, like always. I should have ..." His throat closed and he could no longer speak. He thought that was just as well because it didn't lend to getting himself under control before facing Murdoch. Dear God! How was he going to face Murdoch?

Scott stretched his neck and jutted out his chin then he closed himself off like he used to back in prison. He'd found a way, somehow, to shut off his emotions then and he'd remembered that tool. This was the first time he'd truly had to use it again in so many years but Murdoch was going to need him and he would not let his father down. His arms were trembling under his brother's weight and so much more. He stepped onto the veranda and took a deep breath then, kicked the French doors open.

*

Murdoch startled then whipped around. He heard Maria's gasping cry and took in the sight before him in one second. Scott, drenched to the bone, holding his brother in his arms and shaking uncontrollably. It took him that second to react and he hurried to his sons, taking Scott's load from him and pressing Johnny's body close to his own.

"He's so cold, I couldn't feel a pulse." Scott's voice shook as he spoke and Murdoch knew it was nothing to do with the cold. His heart fluttered and his chest constricted. He couldn't seem to get a decent breath but he pushed it away as he carried his young son to the hearth.

Maria was there, blankets held in her hands to cover Johnny as he was gently laid on a pallet close to the fire. Murdoch knelt next to him, taking his hands and rubbing them between his own. Johnny's skin was unnaturally white, his lips with a bluish tinge to them. He ignored it all, refused to see it and pulled the blankets back to find what had done this.

He ripped the shirt open and found the small hole in Johnny's left side easily. That wasn't all of it, he knew. He rolled Johnny over and found the blood-saturated shirt where the exit wound was located. Hands were there now. Small, feminine hands began probing the wound, eliciting a few drops of blood as she pushed. Maria sighed and shook her head then began bandaging the area.

Murdoch pulled Johnny to a sitting position, his head bobbing about like a rag doll. He pulled his son's head forward to rest on his chest as Maria tightly wrapped the wound. His hand rested on Johnny's wet hair, stroking it gently.

"We must warm him up before el doctoro arrives," she said in a trembling voice.

Scott stood behind them and watched it all. Maria's words cut him like a knife. Warm him up? He almost lost his self-control but he managed to find his voice. "Murdoch."

"I can feel his breath on my chest, Scott. It's barely there but it *is* there." Murdoch's voice held such surety, Scott's heart surged. He knelt beside his father as Murdoch laid Johnny back down. Scott reached out and took his wrist but he still couldn't feel anything.

Murdoch turned to him and saw the pain so visible there. "You're freezing, Scott. You couldn't feel your own pulse right now." He turned a little more and took hold of his older son's shoulders. "I'm not relying on false hope, son. Johnny is alive. I swear."

It was the last thing Scott heard for a while. Murdoch grabbed him as he collapsed and eased him to the floor. He didn't have to ask. Red was there, blankets in hand and took over Scott's care. After a few minutes, he reported, "he's just wore out, Mr. Lancer. No wounds. He's just plain tuckered, is all. He'll be fine."

*

The first thing he was aware of was that he was warm. The second thing was pain. His lips parted and he sighed out a moan. It was the most pathetic thing he'd ever heard, he was sure and he felt his cheeks flush from embarrassment. That he wasn't alone, he well knew. He cracked his eyes open and saw the blurry vision of his father leaning close to him. He tried to smile and hoped he had. He felt the glass touch his lips and drank slowly.

"How's that?"

Johnny cleared his throat. "Better, thanks." His voice was a whisper and a cracking one at that. He figured he was damned lucky to be talking at all no matter how it sounded. "Everyone okay?"

"You were hurt the worst," Murdoch replied and thought that was the truest statement he'd ever made. "A few of the hands were injured but nothing life threatening. Not like you." He looked pointedly at his son and Johnny knew then, he'd be okay. "You scared the hell out of us, son."

"Sorry."

Murdoch smiled a little. "I know it wasn't intentional but your brother ... well, he had a rough time. He's the one that found you and he , um, he thought you were already gone."

Johnny closed his eyes and frowned at that. God! Scott must have lost his mind. "Where is he?"

"Working."

He opened his eyes again and looked curiously at his father. It took a few seconds to understand then he sighed and asked with dread, "how long?"

"Four days."

Johnny shook his head then reached up and rubbed his eyes. After a few minutes, he spoke again. "Val back yet?"

"No, we expect him any day, though. I had Art locked in the guardhouse. I'm sorry, son, but there was too much going on and I couldn't keep an eye on him."

Johnny waved his hand then dropped it to his side. "I know. I can't worry about him anymore. It's done now."

Murdoch nodded then eyed him. " Apurado ? And if it wasn't trouble?"

He smiled despite himself. " Seguro . Safe. Simple but effective. We thought about makin it real mysterious but we figured that was just silly."

Murdoch chuckled and shook his head. "Are you hungry?"

Johnny frowned. "Yeah, actually, I am."

*

His progress was remarkable but it didn't surprise Sam Jenkins. Once Johnny woke up, he started eating and regaining his strength in just these short couple of days. He was far from ready to ride herd or even get out of bed but, he was doing very well. He put his stethoscope back in his bag and snapped it shut. "Guardian angel. That's my explanation. You're doing very well, Johnny. You can get up tomorrow for an hour or so. Just sitting, nothing spectacular."

Johnny grinned. "You don't have to worry about spectacular, Doc. Normal would be real good as far as I'm concerned."

Sam chuckled and patted his arm. "Well, I'm off. Seems everyone wants to have babies in the Spring . Very odd."

Scott pushed off the wall where he'd been leaning while Sam examined his brother. His crossed arms unfolded and dropped to his sides as he ambled to the bedside and plopped on the mattress by Johnny's feet. "How are you feeling? Truth."

Johnny let out a small sigh and shrugged. "Not bad, really. Sore as hell."

"It's a wonder you didn't get pneumonia."

"Way I hear it, it's a wonder you didn't." He raised a brow and eyed his brother.

Scott dropped his own eyes and stared at the blanket.

"I'm sorry, Scott. Seems that's all I can say anymore."

Scott looked at the sad eyes and smiled a little. "You have nothing to be sorry for. Seems that's all I say anymore. But, I'll keep saying it until you believe it." He put a hand on Johnny's leg. "He's been asking to see you. Asking, pleading, demanding ."

Johnny closed his eyes for a minute then looked toward the window. "Okay." Nothing much surprised Scott, he'd be the first to say, but this did. He gawked at his brother until Johnny finally looked back at him. "I know you don't understand. I'm not sure I do, either. But, I have some things to say to him and he's gonna damned well listen."

Scott's face closed and he simply nodded then stood and walked out of the room.

*

Half an hour passed before Johnny heard footsteps outside his door. He took a deep breath and tried to prepare himself for this. He watched the door slowly open and the man reveal himself with a guilty expression. Johnny figured that was about right.

Art walked in and stood in the middle of the room, unsure for the first time in Johnny's presence. He saw the blue eyes glance at a chair at the bedside and took the invitation to sit. "I..."

"Don't. Don't say anything," Johnny interrupted. "I don't want to hear how sorry you are. I don't want to hear any sad tales about how it all went wrong and how you were misunderstood. How it was all just a terrible mistake. You knew exactly what you were doin and you lied to me every step of the way. Fool that I am , I wanted to believe you. Even when I knew you were lyin , I wouldn't let myself believe it completely. Now, a lot of good men have been hurt and I damned near died. Murdoch or Scott could've died and twenty men who really never did a damned thing to any of us *have* died. And for what? Some horses?"

Art just looked at him blankly.

Johnny raised up in the bed and glared at him. "Well?"

"You said you didn't want to hear my story. There's nothing I can say to you to make it any better, Johnny. I did what I did and I tried to get away with not paying for it. I tried to get you to fix it for me and you let me believe you would. I could have been long gone before any of this happened if you'd just told me."

"Told you what? The truth? I guess I wasn't raised to tell that! Let me tell you what I know. I gave my word to a good friend that I would hand this over to the law if need be."

Art's face pinked as he leaned forward. "A friend? I'm your father! You'd side with a friend over me?"  

"You ain't my father. Get that through your head! Val Crawford, on the other hand, has saved my hide more than once when he didn't have to. He knows more about me than you ever will. I trust him with my life and I'd never go back on my word to him. If I was ever gonna help you get away from here, I wouldn't have gone to him in the first place. I wouldn't have given him my word because that's all I had for a very long time - my word - and it means everything to me." He fell back against the headboard, breathing heavily as his heart raced.

Art sat back and stared at the young man before him. "I can't believe how ungrateful you are. I put a roof over your head, boy. I fed you and taught you and treated you like my own. This is how you repay me? By letting me swing?"

"You did the crime, Art. You pay for it. You think I want this to happen? You think I want you to die." He cursed to himself. His voice was shaking now and he hated that. He reined it in and tried to calm down. "I am grateful for everything you did for me. You didn't have to do a damned thing. I wasn't your responsibility no matter what you and mama were to each other. But, you made that choice just like you chose to steal those horses." Johnny's face turned to stone as he eyed the man. "Maybe, you were just doin what you know best."

"What does that mean?"

"It means, I've been rememberin how you were about your business back then, Art. How you never would let me be around when men came to trade with you. I kept wonderin why that was. Maybe, you were stealin horses then, too?"

He said nothing, just looked at Johnny for the briefest second before his eyes fell to stare at the floor.

A long silence ensued and Johnny watched the top of his head. Pain ripped through him that was nothing to do with his wound. With more insight than he'd ever had concerning this man, he knew deep in his bones. He knew and he swallowed hard, the words barely audible as they spilled from his lips. "They were after you, weren't they? The rurales were after you. They killed her in your place."

Art came out of the chair and started pacing the room. "Johnny, I was desperate. I had nothing. It took me months to scrape up enough cash for those horses. Four horses wouldn't do me a lot of good. I needed more than that. I knew I could get back on my feet then, I was going to pay Pendleton back."

He sat straight up in the bed, unable to hide a grimace as his wound pulled but uncaring of the discomfort. "Answer me!"

Art glared at the younger man. " Dammit , boy! I deserve more respect than this from you of all people."

Johnny shook his head slowly back and forth. "I would've done almost anything to help you and all this time ... all this time it was you that got her killed." Disgust flew onto his face and he laid back once more, unable and, maybe, unwilling to get into too much detail about this man's role in his mother's death. He knew enough now from the unanswered accusation. "You and me are done."

"Just like that. You turn your back on me after everything we've been through together."

Johnny stared at him in utter amazement. "Just like that? What's the matter with you?"

"The matter is I'm gonna hang, Johnny!" He advanced on the bed bound man and grabbed his biceps in a strong grip. "You have to help me! I can get away but it has to be right now before that sheriff gets back. Please, son. Don't let them kill me over a few horses."

"Take your hands off him."

*

Art turned but he didn't release Johnny. He glared at Murdoch then let go and stood straight as the taller man strode toward them. "This is a private conversation, Murdoch."

Murdoch ignored him and shouldered past to sit beside Johnny who seemed to be dazed. "Are you alright, son?"

He simply nodded. His voice seem to have left him as he struggled with so many things.

Murdoch stood and turned back to Art. "You seem to think you have some control in this house, Art. That somehow you can call the shots. Well, let me tell you there is nothing here you control. Least of all Johnny. Nobody controls Johnny."

The man in question heard this and raised his head, staring at his father's back with some amusement. How he could think any of this was funny was beyond him and he supposed he didn't really. But, it tickled him to hear his father defend him. Warmed his heart to hear how well his father knew him.

His father knew him. Yes, he did. His face fell. Art didn't know him, not at all. He knew a kid. A troubled kid at that. One who couldn't be satisfied with his life at that time. One who had needed so much more than Art could ever have given him. He knew that now more clearly than ever. If he even had known it before. Maybe, he hadn't. His head snapped up when he heard the rest of the conversation.

"How would you know anything about Johnny. You certainly weren't there when he needed you. I'm the one who taught him right from wrong. I'm the one who wiped his tears away. I'm the one who held him when he asked why his father hated him. I'm the one he calls papa! You're nothing more than a quick roll in the hay!"

Johnny actually sucked in an audible breath with that. He stared widely as he watched his father's hand curl then his arm raise. He gawked in fascination as Murdoch punched Art in the jaw and the man went flying across the room. He thought his ears might start bleeding with all the venom he'd heard spewed at a man who no more deserved such hatefulness than the man in the moon. His entire body ached to get out of that bed and finish what Murdoch had started but he didn't get the chance.

Murdoch stalked across the room and picked Art up by the lapels. Once he was somewhat on his feet again, Murdoch belted him once more sending him sprawling out into the hallway.

Johnny threw the covers off and slowly, slid off the bed. His feet hit the floor and he pushed himself up onto wobbly legs. Staggering forward like a drunk, he somehow made it to the doorway where he leaned against the frame and watched.

"You sonofabitch ! How dare you speak that way about my wife! "

"She was my wife longer than she was yours!" Art said and connected his fist to Murdoch's jaw.

Johnny nearly went to the floor with that one. Murdoch was so angry about that? He would've thought something else entirely but he couldn't say a word. He couldn't believe he was standing here in his nightshirt at all, watching his fathers duke it out. Art had gotten a punch in but it barely registered with Murdoch, that was obvious. He'd feel it later, maybe, but he was too mad now. Johnny knew all about that kind of mad.

"She wasn't your wife at all, you idiot! You think your marriage was legal?" Murdoch took another swing, making contact with Art's midsection. The man doubled over and fought for a breath.

Johnny simply melted to the floor and sat with his legs splayed out in front of him, staring into space.

Art was on one knee, holding his stomach as he looked back up at Murdoch. He sucked in long breaths as his lungs started working again. "What do you mean, it wasn't legal?"

Murdoch was out of breath as well but he stood tall and glared at the man. "I never divorced her."

Art caught a movement in his periphery and turned to see Johnny sitting there shaking his head back and forth. Murdoch followed his gaze and groaned then went quickly to his son. They all heard loud thumping as someone ran up the stairs.

*

Scott came to a stop in the middle of the hallway and took in the scene. Art, still kneeling and with a bloody nose. Murdoch on his knees next to Johnny with a cut lip and Johnny just sitting there. "What in the *hell* is going on here?!" he demanded as he went to his brother.

"Help me get him into bed, son."

"What's he doing *out* of bed?"

Murdoch shook his head and got behind Johnny, wrapping his arms around the young man's chest. Scott grabbed his legs and they carried him back to bed and got him situated. They checked his wound, relieved it hadn't opened up. Art stumbled to his feet and walked into the bedroom then plopped in a chair near the window.

Scott sat next to his brother who was being unnaturally quiet and took his hand. "Johnny, are you alright?" Johnnyâ€s eyes met his brother's then he burst out laughing. Scott looked at their father. "Did he hit his head?"

"I don't know. We didn't hit him. I didn't even know he was ..." he faltered then closed his eyes. Johnny had heard it all, of course. Why was his son laughing about this? "It isn't funny, Johnny!"

Stifling his mirth, Johnny held up a hand. "Oh, but it is, Murdoch. It's really funny." He looked at Scott. "He never divorced her," he said as if this would explain everything to his brother.

Scott was completely befuddled by his brother's antics and ready to call in more than Sam Jenkins.

Johnny then pointed to Art, still chuckling. "He thought they were married all that time. See?"

"I see, brother. I just don't understand why you find it so amusing."

Johnny settled down and leaned his head back against the headboard. "Hell, Scott, if I didn't laugh about it, I'd have to shoot someone." His face fell then and he stared at the ceiling.

Scott winced then looked at Murdoch and tossed his head toward the door. Murdoch nodded back and glared at Art who came to his feet slowly and headed out the door. Once they were both gone, Scott addressed his brother in a gentle tone. "Who is it you'd like to shoot?"

Johnny's lips quirked and he lowered his eyes but not his head so it looked as if he was half-asleep. "My mother. She made this mess with all her lies. She suckered them both in, see. I mean, you can't really blame them. You didn't know her, Scott, but she was a looker. She could bewitch a man with just a smile. Make his knees shake and his belly quiver. She wasn't above doin that to a man even when she was with Art. He'd go off on one of his business trips and she'd go to town on some poor slob."

"Did he know?"

"Hell, no! He wouldn't have put up with that. Well, maybe not. Who knows? She could drown a man." His eyes held a distant gaze as he looked back up at the ceiling.

Scott felt extremely uncomfortable with this conversation but he knew Johnny had to get it out. So much had happened and his 'papa' had been ' decannonized ' in Johnny's eyes. It had to hurt. "You must be angry with her."

Johnny snorted and closed his eyes. "I hate her." He frowned a little then. "I always have I think. If I was a really vengeful type person, I'd tell him all about it."

"But, you're not a vengeful type person."

Johnny opened his eyes again and lowered his head so he was looking straight on at his brother. "I can be."

Scott showed no reaction and that pleased him. He pulled the covers up over his brother. "I think you need to get some rest. Sam would have your head if he knew what happened here today. Not that I blame you."

"Don't blame Murdoch, either. He didn't start it."

"I'm sure but ... he finished it." Scott grinned and Johnny started laughing again.

*

Murdoch had avoided his son's room the rest of yesterday and so far this day. He was embarrassed by his lack of control and moreso , that Johnny had heard any of that argument. Scott had told him Johnny was doing 'okay' which translated into his son was avoiding dealing with the situation. He knew they needed to talk but he just wasn't ready. Truthfully, he was still angry and still wanted to kill one Art Chase. He shook his head as he looked over a contract or, tried to. How could Johnny laugh about it? Well, he supposed it was as the boy had said. He either laughed or shot someone. Or, probably more correctly, laughed or cried.

He looked up when he heard the front door open. Scott walked in followed by Val. Murdoch took to his feet and rounded the desk. "Val."

"Mr. Lancer. Heard there was a lot of excitement around here. My deputy is ready to thrash himself."

"It was nothing of the boy's doing. He was right not to get involved."

Val took off his hat and blew out a breath. "That's what I told him. How's Johnny?"

"He's doing alright. Have a seat, Val?" Scott answered.

"I'd just as soon talk to Johnny if ya think he's up to it."

"I'm sure he is. Maybe we should all go." Scott looked to both men.

Murdoch looked visibly uncomfortable but he wanted to know what Val had discovered. "Well, we'll go up. If Johnny doesn't want us there I'm sure he'll have no problem telling us."

Val snorted at that truth and followed Scott up the stairs.

They found Johnny propped up on pillows reading. His face brightened a little when he saw Val then, just as quickly, went flat at the sheriff's expression. "Welcome back, amigo."

"Thanks," Val said as he took the chair beside the bed. "Sorry about Dennis."

"He's okay?"

"Other than feelin useless, he's fine."

Johnny smiled a little. "Well, just jump right in and tell us what you know."

Val nodded then glanced at Murdoch and Scott who had settled by the window, trying to be unobtrusive.

*

Val completed his report and found three thoughtful faces staring into space. It was Johnny who looked back at him first and smiled a little. "So, Whittaker is the one he got away from. Reckon he had more reason than the bounty to get Art back."

"I reckon his pride was a might bruised. I can see that but not the rest."

"No, not the rest," Johnny mumbled.

"I got two Texas Rangers in town waitin for me to bring Chase in."

"He's in the guardhouse. How come they didn't come with you?" Johnny asked.

"I asked ' em not to. I didn't know what the hell I was gonna find out here." He dropped his head. "Figured it might be too personal for them to gawk at."

Johnny scowled at that and shook his head. "Not anymore. Anyways, Murdoch beat the hell out of him yesterday."

Val cocked a brow and looked over at the rancher who he could swear was blushing. He looked at Scott and saw him trying not to laugh. "I was wondering where ya got that lip. Long time comin , I'd say."

"Yes, well, you'll be wanting to take your prisoner, Sheriff." Murdoch stood and headed for the door.

Johnny smiled a little then looked back to Val. "If he says he wants to see me again, tell him I said no. And, Val, he'll try to run on ya."

The sheriff stood up and grinned. "He can try anything he wants. Ain't gonna happen. Not on my watch. Anyways, I'll come back out when you're feelin better so's I can annoy the hell out of ya."

Johnny gave him a brilliant smile. "Thanks, amigo. That sounds real delightful."

Val sneered at him then shoved his hat on his head and walked out with Scott following, his head down and his fist pressed to his lips. Murdoch stood in the doorway, uncertain then made to leave.

"Murdoch? Can we talk a while?"

He closed his eyes briefly then turned and smiled at his son before closing the door and taking a seat.

*

Scott stood guard on Art in the yard as Val prepared a horse for him. They were both silent and Scott had no intentions of changing that.

"I'd like to see Johnny once more," Art said.

"He doesn't want to see you. He just told us that very thing."

He turned to look fully at Scott. "I'm sure that makes you very happy."

Scowling, Scott's jaw twitched. "Nothing about this mess makes me happy, Chase. The only consolation I have is that Johnny will forget about you soon enough." He watched as the man looked stricken and for a split second, Scott felt sorry for him. It evaporated quickly, however.

"I do love the boy, Scott."

"What you can't seem to get through your head is Johnny isn't a boy anymore. He's not the same person he was back then. He's grown and changed and become a fine man. Maybe you did have something to do with that. We'll never know for sure but what you did here erases all of that. You betrayed him and lied to him. You used him to try and get away with a crime. That's not love. I don't know what that is."

Val walked up and heard the last part of Scott's diatribe. He sighed and wondered how much his friend was covering up. "Time to go."

Art faltered and looked up at the house, towards Johnny's bedroom. With a sad shake of his head, he turned and walked out to the horses. Val placed the shackles on his wrists and clamped them shut and Art mounted up.

"Scott, hold the reins for me?" Val asked then handed them off. He went to his own horse and grabbed his rope then slipped Art's right leg through the lasso, tightening it.

"What are you doing?" Art asked.

" Makin sure you don't do somethin stupid that I have ta shoot you for," he explained as he wrapped the rope around his own saddle horn. He looked back at Art. "You try to take off, you'll come right outta that saddle. Better to dust your pants than me havin to explain to Johnny why I had ta kill you."

The man scowled at him then glared at Scott who had started laughing.

"Very ingenious, Sheriff," Scott complimented.

"Thanks. Picked it up from an old friend." Val winked.

Scott shook his head. "Of course." He grew solemn then as he looked up at the prisoner. "I hope what you've done here hasn't scarred my brother too much. He has enough scars to last ten lifetimes."

Val mounted up and pulled on the lead rein of Art's horse then slowly, set out for town.

*

Murdoch scooted around on the chair trying to find a comfortable position. It wasn't happening. Johnny watched him with some amusement but more concern.

"Did he hurt you?"

Murdoch looked up into the vivid blue eyes. "What?"

"You look like you're in pain."

"No, no. I just, well, I suppose I'm still angry but no, son, he didn't hurt me."

Johnny nodded. "I didn't really think so. You're too tough for that."

Murdoch smiled a little then stared at his hands.

Johnny sighed. "You mad at me?"

"Of course not," he answered, looking back up at his son. "I'm ashamed of my actions, Johnny. I lost my temper."

"You had every right. If you hadn't belted him, I would have. Might've taken me a little longer." He grinned a little.

Murdoch chuckled at that. "I'm the one who's sorry, son. Blurting out that I never divorced your mother. It was thoughtless of me."

Johnny reached out and took his father's arm. "Murdoch, it doesn't matter to me. You think her livin in sin with Art makes a difference? It doesn't. She did enough sinnin before and during her so-called marriage to him. That part was the least of it. Besides, it ain't like I thought he was my real father. I always knew he wasn't. What burns me is what he said to you. It's not true. I don't believe that for one second. I know she meant more to you than that."

The older man's shoulders slumped in relief. "I'm very glad to hear that because it's true, Johnny. I loved her very much."

"I know. I really do. Look, it's over now so can we just move on?"

Murdoch gave him a long and unconvinced look. "It's not over and you know it. You need to deal with how you feel about all this, Johnny. You love that man."

"I did just like I loved her once. It's dead now. Dead as she is." He muttered the last sentence.

"Just like that?"

He shook his head and frowned. "No, not just like that. I think it started when Whittaker showed up and I found out about the warrant. I think I knew then, somewhere inside, that he was lyin to me. I just didn't want to face it, ya know? But, those days leading up to the fight, it just hit me more and more. I asked him straight out that first night we brought him back here and still, he lied to my face. That's when the trust died and, if there's no trust, there can't be any love. Leastways, that's how I see it."

Murdoch wasn't buying any of it. He knew Johnny was angry and hurt and the loss would take time to settle in. "That's pretty remarkable. You seem to be taking all this well."

"Yeah, guess I'm used to it by now."

Murdoch frowned. "Used to what?"

Johnny looked up at him and forced a smile. " Bein trampled all over by people who claim to care for me. Seems there's only a few people I can trust with that now. Maybe ... maybe now that I see what it's really like, I can do better with givin out my heart." His lower lip quivered and his voice trembled but Johnny bit his lip and sucked it back down.

He wasn't fooling his father though and Murdoch wondered if his own heart hadn't just broken in two. He was certain he felt a hard thump in his chest and maybe even heard it as well. He moved to sit on the edge of the bed. "I'm very happy to hear you say it like that, son. That you can still have feelings for us and that you're not going to try and close yourself off from the people who care most for you."

He inhaled deeply through his nose. "Well, Murdoch, you've pretty much proven to me that I can depend on you. And, if I ever need someone's ass kicked, I know who to call." A grin spread across his face and widened as his father laughed then gathered him up in a hug.

*

Johnny sat on the veranda and watched the world around him. He smiled at the mama dog leading her pups around, pushing them along when they tried to get out of hand. Barranca had been prancing around in the corral earlier, showing off for him until Frank took him to the lower pasture for some sweet grass.

He watched as Julio, with his arm in a sling and Jose, with his leg propped on an old bucket, argued over a game of checkers and wondered if it was about to come to blows. Soon enough, they were laughing at each other's foolishness, though. And he gave thanks that none of these brave men had lost their lives over a horse thief who didn't deserve or appreciate their sacrifice.

His eyes now went to the road as he saw someone approaching. He leaned forward a little until the pull on his back reminded him not to do that. He settled back as Val approached. He knew instinctively why the man was there. Glad as he always was to see his friend, he didn't want to hear this news. His gut clenched up.

He heard Val grunt a little as he dismounted and had to smile at the muttering going on. "Time to annoy the hell out of me already?"

Val stopped and looked at him strangely then remembered his quip last time he'd seen Johnny. Smiling a little, he sat beside his friend. "Always time for that, ain't it?"

"I reckon so. Help yourself." Johnny waved toward the pitcher of lemonade Maria had set out for him along with extra glasses in case Murdoch or Scott wandered by.

Val grunted a thank you and poured a glass, downing it in two gulps. He sighed and sat back, looking out over the land.

It was quiet for several minutes and both men enjoyed it until Johnny felt he could ease a lot of the load off his friend by asking a simple question. "When?"

Val lowered his head a little. "Yesterday."

Johnny nodded slowly. "Okay."

"Sorry."

"I know but there's no need."

Val sighed. "How's the back?"

"Still a little sore. Doc's got me down the rest of the week. Said I was lucky it was so cold and rainy that night or I woulda bled to death before Scott found me."

"Lucky ya didn't get the pneumonia."

Johnny frowned. "That's me. Mr. Lucky." He glanced over and saw the concern on Val's face. "Sorry. Slips out sometimes."

"No need ta be sorry, Johnny. Hell, I'm surprised ya ain't half crazy."

He grinned widely. "I am. You already knew that."

With a quirk of his lips, Val shrugged. "Well, I meant the other half."

Johnny laughed and slapped his leg. "Come in for a game of checkers and stay for supper?"

"Sure, Dennis has the night shift."

Johnny looked over at him and raised a brow.

"I talked him outta runnin for the hills," Val explained then, grumpily added, "don't know why the hell I bother!" He stood up and waited for Johnny.

Slowly, Johnny got to his feet with only a slight grunt. "Me neither, Val. Me neither. I reckon you're just an old softy."

Val reared back. "You can play checkers by yourself, ya know!" He huffed into the living room.

Johnny grinned at his disappearing back and shook his head. "Yep, an old softy," he said quietly and walked inside.

*

Scott leaned against the column, his arms crossed and a slight smile on his face. He'd been very worried about his brother's seeming disinterest in Art's short future. He knew this news would affect Johnny, was affecting him, more than he let on. Still, at some point, his brother would talk to him about it, he was sure.

Johnny liked to put on a brave front. Never show any weakness. But, Scott had heard the snide remark about being Mr. Lucky. He'd heard the ever so slight tremor in Johnny's tone and he knew his brother was not invincible. He also knew that between him, Murdoch and Val, they'd get Johnny through this. Time and patience was all it would take. And some understanding which Scott had some difficulty with, frankly.

For he was unaffected by the news of Art Chase's demise. It had made no dent in him at all. So, he'd have to show his support by knowing Johnny was indeed hurting and not bothering with thoughts of the man who had caused that hurt. It didn't matter what he'd done. He had been a big influence on a young boy who had needed a good role model. Art had provided that even if it was all an act. Scott couldn't be sure of that. In his heart he believed Art had loved Johnny as a son back then. But more recently, the man had simply been out to save his own neck by any means necessary.

Loss had a way of turning a person bitter and selfish and maybe that had happened to Art. He was most grateful it had not happened to his brother. So, Scott was certain he would have no problem pushing aside what Art had done here in order to support his brother through the grief Johnny was denying. It would hit him and hard and probably at the most unlikely of times. Such was the way of grief, Scott had learned.

He tilted his head as he heard the sounds of laughter coming from the house. He smiled again. Val was good for Johnny as unlikely a pairing as it was. He didn't know the particulars of their friendship and he didn't need to. Johnny trusted Val and vice versa. It was all Scott needed to know.

He pushed away from the column as he saw Murdoch riding in and went to greet his father and tell him the news. Scott almost burst out laughing as the image of Murdoch pummeling Chase came to his mind. He wished he'd seen the whole thing, as macabre as that may sound. Certainly, the man deserved it and long before Murdoch had dished it out, in his estimation.

Sometimes, Scott forgot how formidable his father was. And, whenever Murdoch did something to remind him of it, Scott found himself proud of his old man.

Murdoch listened to the news with a heavy heart. He reminded himself of Johnny's own words to him a week ago now. His son was going to be fine, he knew that. But, he had to grieve and Johnny didn't always do that so well. He'd push it away, stay busy, act as if nothing were wrong. But, Murdoch knew Johnny had some way of dealing with it. Otherwise, his son would be stark raving mad by now, surely.

He wrapped an arm around Scott's shoulders as they walked to the house. When they opened the front door, they heard the ruckus.

*

"Crawford, you cheated. Just admit it."

"I ain't admittin nothin cause I didn't cheat and ya know it!"

"Gentlemen!" Murdoch said as he walked into the room and took in the scene. Johnny was on the sofa and Val was in a chair across from him with a checker table between them. Murdoch raised a brow. "What's going on here?"

"Our fine sheriff is cheatin at checkers, is all," Johnny groused.

Scott walked away from them all. He knew Johnny was being a brat. Well, something like that. He was messing with Val and he was a little surprised the sheriff couldn't tell.

"Johnny Lancer, you know good and well I don't cheat. I don't have to!" Val was indignant about the whole mess.

Scott walked over with a glass for each of them and passed them off. "Perhaps, the best way to deal with this is to start the game over."

"But, I'm winnin !" Val pointed at the board then paused. Slowly, he turned his head from Scott to Johnny and narrowed his eyes. "You sonofa ..."

"Val!" Murdoch said, then chuckled. He tried to frown again but another laugh escaped. That was the end of Murdoch as he cackled merrily.

Johnny was grinning ear to ear as he watched his friend's face turn three shades of red. Val stood up and Johnny put up a hand. "I'm injured!"

"Not yet. Not by a long shot!" Val proclaimed as he took one step.

Scott stepped in front of him and put a hand to his chest. "Now, Val, you know how he is. I don't know why you let him get to you. That's all he's after, anyway. He just likes to get you riled up and ..." Scott choked and pretended to cough then schooled his features as he tried to finish his sentence. "And it works every time." He snickered and stepped away, bending over as he laughed until tears sprung up in his eyes.

Val glared at each of them in turn then focused back on Johnny. "You think you're real funny, don'tcha ? Do yourself a favor. Next time you think about comin to me for help - don't!" He turned and headed for the door.

Johnny jumped off the sofa, hissing as he grabbed at his back and followed his friend. "Val, wait! Come on back. You know I didn't mean anything. We're always foolin with each other. Come on back now."

Val scowled at him for a long moment then his face relaxed a little.

Johnny seized the opportunity. "Maria's makin tamales." He made his voice sing song, enticing Val shamelessly.

"Tamales, huh? With her special salsa?" He licked his lips even as his stomach rumbled.

A grin erupted on Johnny's face. "Of course!"

Val twisted his mouth and scratched his jaw. "Well, I reckon I've eat with worse than *you*!" He rounded Johnny and went back to his seat, leaving his friend with a grin on his face and some contentment inside.

*

After supper, Johnny sat outside with Val, enjoying a whiskey and the quiet of the night. The only sound was the creak of Val's chair as he leaned on the two back legs and rocked gently.

"You know it ain't this easy."

Johnny dropped his head and sighed lightly. "Just had to start, didn't you?"

"I'm all for jokin around and makin light of things but, in the end, you're gonna have to deal with this and ya know it. That's all I'm sayin ." Val never lost his rhythm as he rocked his chair. His voice was easy, as if he were discussing the weather.

Looking up, Johnny stared into the dark. "I know. I just don't know what else there is left, Val. I was so mad at him and seems that's all I can feel now."

"Now. But, later on ... all I'm sayin is, when you're ready you can come on over and we'll get good and drunk one night. Shoot up the moon like we used ta."

Johnny smiled softly, remembering those nights out on the trail with his friend. Nights when it all got too much and they'd go a little crazy. It didn't happen often. They never could afford to allow it at all but, sometimes, they just had to or go mad. Seemed to Johnny as if it was always in turns. Neither of them outdid the other for problems that became overwhelming. He reckoned that's how it should be with friends. And, he knew no one else would ever know about those nights - as it should be. "Sounds like a fine idea to me."

"Well, best be gettin back. I reckon Dennis is still in one piece or I'd've heard about it by now." Val eased his chair back down and rose to his feet.

Johnny chuckled as he joined his friend. "He's a good boy. Just needs to do some growin , is all. Goodnight, Val, and thanks for everything."

Val shrugged. "No need. See ya soon."

Johnny watched as he mounted up and disappeared into the night. He felt the presence behind him but didn't turn around.

"He's a smart man."

A small smile twitched at Johnny's lips. "You should give him a raise."

Murdoch walked up beside his son, staring into the same blackness as Johnny was. "I'll bring that up at the next meeting. How are you really?"

Johnny sighed long and bowed his head. "Don't know. But, I'll be alright, Murdoch." He felt the hand land on his shoulder and it felt so natural and right. Still, it hit him hard inside. When would he ever get used to this?

"I know you will, son. Just don't ..." he stopped and Johnny looked up questioningly. Murdoch glanced at him then stared straight ahead again. "Don't let it fester, son. If you want to talk about anything ..."

"I know. Right now, all I'd really like to do is sit with my old man and enjoy a quiet night." Johnny turned to his father and smiled.  

*

A week later, Johnny was out at dawn, anxious to do something besides sit on his backside. Maria had fed him early though she'd given him a lecture with his bacon and eggs. He'd nodded in all the right places and hoped to placate her maternal fussing. Sometimes, when she went on like she did, it bothered him more than he was prepared for. This morning was one of those times. There were other times, though, when it felt good to have her care so much. He was never sure why she'd grown so attached to he and Scott and he wasn't about to question it. For once, he had accepted another person's concern with gratitude.

Now, as he pushed the cattle along a dusty trail to the south pasture, he tried hard to focus solely on his task. It wasn't easy since the cattle seemed to be behaving this morning. Too early to kick up a fuss, he reckoned. It left him with no immediate problems to deal with which allowed his mind to wander. It didn't wander far, of course. Just the past month or so.

He'd been stupid enough to really believe something good had happened. 'No, I ain't goin there anymore. Good things do happen to me. Proof of it is my being here right now.' But, it was hard to remember that when the bad came along. When the hurt started up again and the memories returned. What he'd done quite well over the past two weeks was avoid thinking of the one thing he dreaded thinking about at all. Scott.

He figured his brother was just waiting for him to be back in the saddle. Well, here he was so he reckoned Scott would lay into him soon. Or not. He wasn't the type to rub salt in an open wound - or even a closed one for that matter. But, Johnny could hardly blame him and he had a right to it. Scott had pegged the whole thing from the word go. He'd known Art wasn't to be trusted and, Johnny knew, it was because of his closeness to the situation he couldn't see it himself. Just like Scott had said.

Even when he'd been shown the truth, known the man was lying to him, he still tried to ignore it. Making up fairy tales about mixed up numbers on a piece of paper. Anything to make this all not have happened the way it had. Truth be told, he was angry with himself more than anyone including his stepfather. He'd been snookered good and proper. Been handed a bill of goods and just accepted it without ever thinking it could hold a pile of manure inside. He hadn't wanted to believe it. Still didn't. Still couldn't really think about it too much because it just hurt too damned bad.

Maybe he should've tried to talk to the man one last time. He shook his head. No. That would only get him more lies and more begging and he couldn't take that.

*

He turned sharply and went after an errant steer, turning it back into the herd. " Wakin up now, are ya? Well, too bad. Let's just get where we're goin without any trouble, alright?" Under his breath, he muttered, "stupid-ass animals."

He settled back into his spot at the rear of the herd then chuckled as he recalled Murdoch lighting into Art. It was pretty funny to see his old man mad enough to come to blows. Murdoch didn't do that very often but he always felt a measure of pride when his father beat the hell out of someone. He was pretty sure there weren't many men in this world who could take his father on and come out well. He'd always been a scrapper himself and never backed down from a fight. Now, he knew where he got that from. The smile faded.

What did he get from his stepfather? He couldn't begrudge the fact the man had taught him a lot. Now that he was clear of the whole situation, he could see the changes in Art. Oh, they were subtle but there. Seemed like he wasn't as tough as he used to be. Or, maybe, a younger Johnny simply thought the man hung the moon. No man had ever treated him the way Art had. Not even Murdoch, truth be told. At least, at first. But, Murdoch wasn't the kind to be all touchy with a person. If he put an arm around you, it was a huge show of love.

Art had always been a hugger. Johnny smiled wanly. He wouldn't let the man near him for the first year. Gradually, that had changed. Little by little, he'd allowed a pat on the back, a tap on the arm, then a ruffle of the hair. Finally, he'd allowed a hug and he'd never forget that day. Seemed Art hugged the hell out of him after that. He laughed aloud then fell somber. It was true, he'd been a good stepfather back then. Had punished Johnny when he felt it was warranted and, he had to admit, he had deserved every whompin he'd gotten.

Hurt and loss changed a person, he knew that all too well. Most of the time it wasn't a good thing and maybe that's what happened to Art. But, Johnny would always remember the good in the man. He would always remember what had happened here, as well. He could only hope to find some balance between the two. Be grateful for what had been given him and forgive what had been taken away.

He reached the south pasture and turned the cattle through the open gate, closing it behind him with a sense of satisfaction. Looking skyward, he realized it was past noon. He reckoned he was pretty lucky things had gone so well. He wasn't paying any attention to what was going on around him, for sure. He looked around now and realized how close he was to Art's ranch. For the first time, he wondered what would become of it. At least, Lancer hadn't had time to hand any horses over yet so they hadn't lost out there. He turned at the sound of a rider approaching and gave a chagrined wince as he watched his brother near. Time to face the music.

*

Scott reached down and opened the gate, passing through and securing it. He walked Remmie the rest of the way to his brother, all the while trying to think of a way to get Johnny to talk to him. "Well, I came to lend a hand but I can see you didn't need it." The smile, he knew, was forced.

Johnny looked at him long and hard then relaxed his face and shrugged. "Guess there's some things I can do without messin up."

Scott grimaced and sighed out. He didn't know what to say to that but he didn't get a chance anyway.

"Though I'd ride over and see about the place. You wanna come?"

"Sure." He nodded and pressed Remmie into a walk as he came alongside his brother. Scott glanced over but there was nothing to see. Yet.

It didn't take long to reach the ranch that Art had never named. Johnny had never thought about that before now. He was curious as to what name the man would have come up with. Crooked something or other would've been about right. He set his mouth tightly as he stopped and dismounted, slapping the reins over the hitching post.

Scott joined him in the yard as Johnny stared at the front door. "Are we going in or just admiring it?" He received a sharp look for his comment before Johnny stomped onto the porch and pushed the front door open. Scott hesitated a second, wanting to kick himself, before joining his brother.

He found Johnny in the living room staring at nothing Scott could see. He removed his hat and wandered around the room, wiping a hand over the now dust covered furniture. "It's a shame for all this to go to waste. Did he have any other family?"

Johnny sucked in a breath and answered, "I don't think so."

Scott nodded, uncomfortable with his brother's silence. He stopped at the desk and stared at the envelope, debating with himself. Realizing it wasn't his call, he picked it up and turned to Johnny. "This is addressed to you."

Johnny took the letter and stared at his name for a long moment before opening it. He read it then stood there still as death for a while. He couldn't say anything so he past it off to his brother then turned away.


Scott read it and raised his brows. "Well, seems he was fairly sure things wouldn't turn out well for him. I'm sure this is legal. Looks like you own a horse ranch."

"Have Murdoch sell it, will ya? We can use the money for a seed bull."

"Are you sure, Johnny?"

He turned back around quickly, a scowl on his face. "I think he owes Lancer that much after the hell he put this family through. I know it's the least I can do!"

Scott didn't react, worked very hard not to, in fact. He knew this was coming and he hoped he was as ready for it as he thought. "None of this is your fault, brother."

"That's a load of bullshit and you know it, Scott. You said it yourself!"

*

They stared at each other for a long beat before Scott took three steps to stand before his brother. "I didn't say it was your fault."

"No, but you knew. You knew he was trouble and you tried to tell me but I wouldn't listen. So, what's that say about me? I was too blind, didn't want to see it, didn't want to believe it. The whole damned time, I didn't want to believe it even when the truth was starin me in the face!" He turned and walked away, ending up by the liquor stand. Johnny picked up a decanter and threw it against the wall.

Scott cringed at the loudness of the heavy glass shattering and took a steadying breath. "That doesn't make what he did, how he lied , your fault, brother. Of course you wanted to believe him. I was wrong to try and warn you, anyway. It wasn't right for me to come between you."

Johnny turned back toward Scott but he kept his head down. "You were right."

"It doesn't matter, Johnny. You loved him and that's what counts. He had to have been a good man at one time otherwise, you wouldn't have stood up for him at all. I had no more right than you would have had to come between me and my grandfather. You didn't do that, didn't even try and I know that must have been hard."

Johnny raised his head slowly and a grin sprouted on his lips. "Yeah, that was *really* hard." The grin died and he walked over to Scott. "Look, maybe you came on too strong but you did have a right to say your piece, Scott. I know it was for Murdoch and I feel really bad about everything that happened."

"He's alright with it."

"Yeah," Johnny sighed out. "But, he wasn't at first and that's easy to understand. I should've been more patient but I just felt like you were both against him and I ... I didn't think I could handle that. You could've rubbed this in my face, ya know. But, you didn't and I appreciate that."

Scott put a hand on his shoulder and gave him a gentle shake. "I think you've suffered enough, brother. Why don't we go home and I'll take care of this for you." He waved the letter in the air.

Johnny pulled a face and nodded. "Yeah, home sounds real good right now." He walked out the door without a backward glance.

Scott stood there a little longer, staring at the doorway and hoping his brother would be able to put this into perspective. He didn't like Johnny blaming himself for someone else's actions. They'd made a good start today, he knew. Time and, maybe a few more bottles of whiskey to smash, would hopefully bring his brother back round. Scott looked forward to the day when he could see the acceptance of what had happened on his brother's face. He knew that would be his indicator and not any words Johnny might say to any of them. With Johnny, it was always in the face. If only one chose to look.

With a sigh and holding onto the promise of that day coming soon, Scott grabbed his hat and settled it on his head before joining his brother outside.

 

~end~
May 2008

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