The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

The Thin Line

 

 

 

Johnny strode across the yard toward the house at a leisurely gait. He was tired but feeling fine as he thought of his stomach about to be satisfied. Slowing, he looked out at the road then came to a stop. He recognized the rider instantly and threw up a hand in greeting.

"Hey, Ben."

"Johnny," the young man called as he pulled an envelope from his shirt pocket. "Got a telegram for ya."

Johnny reached out for the missive. "For me?"

"Yeah, it's for ..... Johnny Madrid," the younger man said, dipping his eyes to his saddle horn.

Johnny grimaced slightly then nodded. "Stay for supper?" he offered.

Ben looked back up and smiled, relieved his friend didn't seem upset. "Can't today but thanks anyway. Pa and me are headin out first thing in the mornin to do some huntin." His smile widened at the prospect and Johnny could do nothing less than return it.

"Have a good trip then."

Ben nodded and turned his mount back to the road. "See ya!" he waved as he dug in his heels and took off.

Johnny watched him for a minute, his stomach no longer growling with hunger. It was in a fine tight knot now. A telegram for Johnny Madrid. He glanced at the envelope, sucked in a breath and tore it open.

He stared at the few words for a full minute before moving again. When he did, he walked onto the veranda and slumped into a chair, stretching out his legs and crossing them at the ankle. He crumpled the note in his fist and stared out over the land, trying to make a decision. That's where Scott found him half an hour later.

"Supper's ready," Scott called from the French doors but Johnny made no gesture that he'd heard.

Scott stepped on out and rounded the chair his brother sat in, watching the stony face looking at nothing. "Johnny?"

Blinking twice, Johnny's eyes came up slowly as he looked at his brother. "What?"

"I said supper's ready."

"Okay," he simply said and went back to his staring.

Scott frowned and watched him a bit longer. "Well, are you coming?"

"In a minute, Scott," Johnny mumbled, a hint of irritation in his voice.

Scott only nodded curtly and headed back inside. If he wants to starve that's his business, he thought grumpily.

*

Dusk came and went and Johnny had not moved. His mind was still working over what he should do. This time, he heard the door open and his head came up slightly.

"You missed supper," Murdoch said with concern as he took the chair next to Johnny's.

"Not hungry," he shrugged.

Murdoch cocked a brow. "A man who works hard all day but isn't hungry must have something important on his mind," he surmised.

"Guess so."

Murdoch laid a hand on his arm. "What is it, son?"

Johnny blew out a breath that parted his lips with it's force then he looked at his father. "I need to make a trip. Should take about two weeks, I guess."

"Where?"

His shoulders tensed as he considered whether to answer that question. Murdoch did not miss it.

"Where are you going?" he asked again, more firmly now.

Jaw tightening, Johnny answered stiffly. "Mexico."

Murdoch's light hand on his arm suddenly clamped down harder. "Why?" his voice growled.

"Got some unfinished business, is all," he replied flatly as he moved his arm from the restraint.

Murdoch retrieved his own hand and placed it on the arm of the chair. "Let it go, Johnny. Whatever it is, it's in the past. It doesn't matter anymore."

Johnny looked at him with fire in his eyes. "That may be how you feel, Murdoch, but it's not how I feel. Some things can't be forgotten or forgiven," he said through clenched teeth.

Murdoch studied him, his brows knitting together. "Forgiven? What's this about?"

Johnny shook his head slowly. "An old debt. That's all you need to know."

"Is this old debt going to get you killed?" the rancher asked, his anger rising with each passing second.

Johnny snorted. "Not likely."

"Why don't you just tell me what this is all about?"

The younger man stood and walked to the low wall. He perched one foot on it and rested his forearms on that thigh. "Nothing you'd be interested in," he finally answered, anger still burning in his tone.

Murdoch stood and walked up next to him. Only then, did he see the clenched fist and something white within. "What's that?" he asked, nodding toward the fist.

Johnny looked down at his hand and tightened the grip. "Nothin."

Murdoch heaved a sigh and sat on the wall so he could look into his son's face. "Can we stop the question and answer session and just talk about this? I don't want you to go, that should be obvious. But, if you just explain it to me ....." he trailed off, seeing the stony expression come across his younger son's face.

He pushed off and stood straight, locking onto his father's eyes. "This is my business, Murdoch, and I'd appreciate it if you would back off. I'll be leaving in the morning." He turned and walked inside using the front door so he could head straight upstairs.

Murdoch stared after him, a feeling of unease consuming him. Whatever this was about, it was causing Johnny more pain than anger.  

*

When Murdoch recited his odd conversation with Johnny to Scott, the other man was as perplexed as his father.

"And he wouldn't tell you anything else?" he asked for clarification.

Murdoch shook his head thoughtfully. "Just that it was an old debt."

"That could mean anything," Scott mumbled. He looked toward the stairs. "I'll try to talk to him. Maybe he'll open up to me."

Murdoch nodded, hoping that was the case. If Johnny would confide in anyone, it would be his brother.

Scott stopped by the kitchen and pulled the plate from the oven that Teresa had readied for Johnny. Throwing a towel over it and grabbing some lemonade, he headed upstairs.

Johnny's door was ajar so, hands full, Scott kicked it lightly with his foot. Standing in the doorway, he smiled.

"May I?"

Johnny turned back to the window he perched in front of. "Sure."

Setting the food and drink on the dresser, Scott advanced into the room. "I thought you might be hungry. This may be the last decent meal you have for quite a while, I understand." He kept his voice light.

Johnny turned his head toward his shoulder and tossed out a 'thanks.'

"Do you need to talk?" Scott asked.

"Nope."

Scott clamped his mouth shut tightly to keep anything from coming out in that second. He was sure any words said by him in that precise moment would ruin his chances of getting Johnny to explain.

He took a deep breath and sat on the edge of the bed. "Murdoch's worried."

"No need."

"Well, you would be the only one who knows that for certain," he snipped.

Johnny dropped his head and his shoulders for a second before turning to face his brother. "I'm not gonna tell you, either, so you might as well go."

"I see. Some big mystery, is it? Some cloak and dagger mission?" Scott asked sarcastically.

Johnny smiled softly. "Yeah, that's it exactly."

"How did this all come about so suddenly?" Scott pressed.

"Got a telegram. I know you're just dying to read it. Sorry to disappoint you but I burned it," he informed his brother while placing his hands on his hips in a defensive stance.

"Johnny..."

"Scott," he interrupted, "this is my business, okay? I don't need any help and I don't want any. I have something to take care of and that's all I'm sayin."

"Very well. How will we know if you get yourself killed?" Scott retorted.

"The same way you'd know if I got myself killed going to Modesto or Sacramento or anyplace else, I reckon," Johnny shot right back.

Scott stared at him for a beat then stood abruptly and left the room, slamming the door behind him.

*

Johnny relaxed his shoulders and shook his head. Why can't they just let it be? he wondered. But he knew why. He wasn't giving out any information but he couldn't. He couldn't because he wasn't even sure he wanted to do this anymore. There was a time in his life not so long ago that it was one of a very few things that kept him going. Kept him living day to day. The knowledge that someday, maybe he'd get this chance. Now, it was here and he wasn't so sure it was that important anymore. But a very big part of him knew that he'd never be able to answer that question if he didn't go to Mexico and right now.

He stood up and walked over to the dresser, flipping the towel off the plate. He smiled and took his supper to the small writing table. As he ate, he held back the memories, knowing it would only serve to ruin his appetite. Scott was right, he'd have nothing this good to eat for a while.

He figured he'd have to camp out some nights as there were areas where a town was few and far between on this journey. And no one in any town could cook as good as Maria or Teresa, he was sure.   He thought about the trip, mapped it out in his mind even though he knew it by heart.

With a sigh, he pushed the plate away, only half-eaten and downed the lemonade. Then, he started to pack. Light and easy, no baggage, he thought with a sardonic smile. Here we go again was the next thought and it stopped him in his tracks. He sat down heavily on the bed and wondered what the hell he was doing.

Leaning over to rest his arms on his legs, he hung his head. What are you doing? Is it even worth the aggravation? Is it worth upsetting the whole family over? But, how can I not? I have to go if for no other reason than to be sure it really doesn't matter anymore.

He knew with all he was that answer could not be found here. Until he came face to face with this part of his past, he would never truly know. Never truly feel the weight of this burden lifted. The incredible weight that had planted itself on his shoulders so long ago and never left. Not even now.

He went back to his packing then readied himself for bed. Sliding between the sheets, he lowered the lamp and laid back, exhausted suddenly. Hands cradling his head, he stared at the ceiling and wondered if he'd sleep at all. Part of him said to just go on and leave now. Part of him knew he couldn't do that. He would have to face them all again once more in the morning. He only hoped they would respect his privacy and not ask any more questions. Not a bet he'd likely place, he thought with a smile.

*

He hadn't slept well but he'd slept a few hours, anyway. Johnny went out and saddled Barranca before breakfast, tying down his saddlebags and sheathing his rifle. He sucked it up and walked back inside to find his family just sitting down. He slid into his spot without a word.

"Murdoch tells me you're going on a trip this morning, Johnny. I hope you won't be gone long," Teresa said brightly.

"Couple of weeks, honey," he answered then sipped his coffee.

"We hope," Scott mumbled.

Johnny shot him a look then went back to his breakfast. He didn't look at his father, didn't want to see the glare.

"Scott, you'll need to pick up the slack while Johnny's gone. I'm sure he'll return the favor when he comes back," Murdoch stated with just a touch of cynicism.

"I'm sure he will," Scott mimicked the tone.

Johnny dropped his fork and raised his head, looking from one to the other. "Look, I know neither of you like this but it's something I have to do so I'd appreciate it if you'd just try to understand."

"Perhaps we could if we knew what it was we were supposed to understand, brother," Scott said in that clipped tone of his.

Johnny eyeballed him. "If I wanted you to know, I'd tell you. Do you tell me everything? It's personal, Scott."

"There's a big difference here, Johnny. My personal does not mean the same as yours."

Johnny leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms. "What does that mean?"

"It means," Scott started, laid down his own fork and leaned in, "that your personal is dangerous."

Shaking his head and trying not to smile, Johnny answered. "Why's that?"

"You know why," Murdoch interjected.

He turned to his father and just stared for a few seconds. "Well, it doesn't matter. I mean, whatever difference there is, it's still my business," he fairly hissed, tired of being attacked. With a sigh, he stood up. "Now, if you don't mind, think I'll get started."

He made it to the door before Murdoch caught up.

"Johnny, wait. We're worried, you know that. Please, just ..... be careful."

Johnny nodded his bowed head. "I'm always careful, Murdoch. This is just something I have to do. I know you can understand that at least."

"Yes," he admitted. "I can understand that. Just come home as soon as you can."

Johnny looked up at him and smiled. "I will. Don't be mad at me, okay?"

Murdoch smiled back. "I'm not. Really," he added the last for emphasis.

"What about Scott?"

Murdoch shrugged. "I can't speak for him but you know he never stays mad at you for long."

Johnny laughed softly. "Yeah, I know. I'll see ya." He opened the door then stopped. "I *will* be careful."

"Thank you for that, son."

*

As he rode south, Johnny thought about the morning. Murdoch was right, of course. Scott never could stay mad at him for long. He wondered why that was. Seemed his brother's temper was always a fleeting thing. Almost always, that is. Toward him at least and he was grateful for that. He hated being at odds with Scott. It always made him feel ..... lost.

But Scott was angry with him and he knew it. He was a little curious as to why his brother had not come after him as Murdoch had. Johnny's head came up and he pulled on the reins, coming to a stop.

With a slight smile but more annoyance, he pulled off the road and settled behind a stand of trees. And he waited. Shouldn't be more than half an hour he figured so he dismounted and settled in the shade. Grabbing a blade of grass, he popped it between his teeth.

Twenty minutes later, he heard the hooves moving at a good clip. Johnny smiled and shook his head, then stood and leaned against the bark. As the rider past, he watched silently wondering if he shouldn't just let him go. He chuckled at that then stepped onto the road.

Scott pulled up sharply when he heard the shrill whistle. He turned Remmie to find Johnny standing in the middle of the road, hands on hips. He had the grace to blush and hoped his brother was too far away to see it. He rode back and dismounted.

"Where ya goin?" Johnny asked.

"Oh, I thought I'd take a ride into Green River," Scott answered casually.

Johnny nodded. "Uh huh. Wrong road. Did you forget how to get there?"

Scott dipped his eyes and stared at his boots, then looked up and to his right. "Well, I thought I'd take a different route."

Johnny bowed his own head briefly then raised it again. "You don't even know where I'm going, Scott."

"Yes, I do. Mexico," he replied, sounding a bit defensive.

Johnny cocked a brow. "Yeah? Where in Mexico?"

Scott opened his mouth then closed it. Then, "I figured I'd find you when I got there."

One side of his mouth lifted in a grin. "That's kind of like sayin I'm following you to America and I'll find you when I get there."

Scott smiled. "Yes, I suppose it does."

Johnny took the five steps to come face to face with his brother. "You're not going with me, Scott. And if you try to follow, I'll lose you."

"I can help, Johnny," Scott argued.

"No, you can't!" he spat then turned sharply on his heel. He walked back to the trees and grabbed the reins, leading Barranca back to the road and mounting up.

He looked down at his brother with steely eyes. "Go home, Scott. Where I'm goin you can't follow. I don't want you with me."

Scott walked over and grabbed the bridle. "Why? What is it that you just *have* to do alone?"

Johnny breathed out heavily through his nose. "You know what kills me? If things were the reverse, you'd have my head for pullin a stunt like this. Leave it alone, Scott. It don't concern you." His voice dropped an octave as he spoke the last sentence, making him sound cold and unfeeling.

Scott let go of the reins and stepped back, still staring as Johnny spurred Barranca into a gallop. He stood there for several minutes after he could no longer see his brother, hoping this wasn't the last time they ever spoke.

*

Scott mounted up and started to head home then changed his mind and decided he would indeed go to town. Maybe he could sweet talk the telegraph operator into telling him something. It was a long shot. In his experience, Vern took his job very seriously. That was a good thing, he knew, but still.

He thought about Johnny's behavior last night and today. He couldn't tell if his brother was more angry or hurt by whatever this ... thing was. Maybe that was because Johnny was too angry with him and Murdoch. He could have handled it differently he supposed but what else was he to do? When Johnny got like this, there was no reaching him.

He wasn't even sure why he tried. Shaking his head, he chastised himself. Of course he knew. Madrid. Plain and simple. Something from his brother's past and he didn't know how much of a threat it was. Murdoch had told him Johnny said he wasn't likely to get killed but, that was Johnny. He'd dismiss the idea off-handedly if ten men were standing in front of him with guns drawn and cocked.

He made straight for the telegraph office and walked in smiling. "Good morning, Vern. I'm sorry I missed you yesterday."

Vern Harmon looked up with confusion. "Morning, Scott. Missed me?"

"Yes, when you brought the telegram out to Johnny," Scott explained.

"Oh, that wasn't me. Ben delivered it."

"Oh, Johnny didn't say so I just assumed it was you," he said, still keeping that smile plastered on his face. "How is Ben?"

"Fine, fine. Gone hunting with his pa today. The boy was all excited about it," Vern chuckled.

Scott hid his disappointment. He'd had a shred of hope that Ben could help him and he'd get the information much easier from the boy.

"Well, I'm sure they'll have a fine time. It's not often Johnny gets a telegram from Mexico," he fished as nonchalantly as he could.

"Never has before that I know of," Vern replied and just stared at Scott.

In that instant, he knew he would get nothing from this man. "Well, I just stopped in to say hello. Have a good day."

"You do the same, Scott," Vern said, now eyeing the older Lancer brother with suspicion.

Scott nodded and walked outside, placing his hands on his hips as he thought. Just then he thought of someone who might have an idea what was going on. He stepped into the street with renewed purpose and hope.

*

"Good morning, Sheriff."

"Mornin, Scott. How're ya?" Val Crawford asked.

"Fine, fine. You?" Scott tried to hold onto his patience as the civilities were exchanged.

"Can't complain and I don't reckon it'd do any good if I did," Val smiled as he moved a stack of papers from one side of his desk to the other.

Scott smiled and sat in the chair opposite the lawman.

"Somethin on your mind, Scott?" Val asked, knowing the young man wouldn't just stop in, especially without Johnny.

"Yes, Val, there is. Johnny received a telegram from Mexico yesterday afternoon. He left this morning to go there. Do you know anything about it?"

Val cocked a brow and scratched an unshaven cheek. "No, can't say as I do. Why'd ya think I would?"

Scott sighed and tossed his hat on the desk. "I don't know. I was just wondering."

"I take it he wouldn't tell ya about it?"

"No, he wouldn't. He said it was an old debt and it was personal," Scott relayed.

Val nodded and leaned forward, resting his arms on the desk and clasping his hands. "So?"

Scott looked up at the man incredulously. "So? He's riding into Mexico to settle an old debt and you don't think I should be worried?"

"Didn't say that. Just sayin if Johnny wanted your help, he'd've asked for it," Val replied calmly.

"Would he? I doubt it," Scott spat and stood up, pacing the floor.

Val watched him for a few seconds and rubbed the back of his neck. "I don't know what you want from me, Scott. I ain't seen Johnny since Saturday night."

Scott stopped and turned to face him. "You've known him a long time."

"Yep, I have. Don't mean I got a clue what he's doin or why or with who for that matter. Scott, look, Johnny's been takin care of hisself for longer than even he can probably remember. Don't ya think he can handle this, whatever it is? Or do ya think he's got soft since comin home?" Val smiled a little with the last.

"Maybe he has gotten soft, Val," Scott argued lightly.

"He ain't," Val stated with certainty. So much certainty that Scott was surprised at the surety of the man's claim.

Val stood and rounded the desk to stand before Scott. "Go home and wait. That's all ya can do. And don't even think about goin after him unless ya want him mad at ya for the rest of your life. Johnny can hold a grudge, Scott. Forever if he thinks it's bad enough."

Scott lowered his head. "I already tried that this morning. He caught me out."

Val chuckled at this. "Did ya think he wouldn't? Well, that right there should tell ya he ain't gone soft. That man's got the best instincts I ever seen, Scott."

He smiled as he looked back up at his brother's friend and nodded. "I suppose I don't have a choice. Thanks, Val."

Scott grabbed his hat and left the office. Val's smile slid off his face as the young man disappeared. He frowned, trying to think of what would make Johnny go back to Mexico. What would be important enough for him to make such a trip?

*

Johnny stopped in a town the first night and camped out the second. Now, on the third day, he reckoned he'd hit Nogales near midnight and he decided that wasn't a good idea as he didn't want anyone recognizing him right off the bat. So, he found a camp site and settled down once more.

As he stared at the stars his mind wandered back over the years. He didn't want to think about it but he had little choice. It was the reason for being here, after all. Crossing the Rio Grande had brought a surge of emotions to the forefront. Some good and some bad - very bad. Anger, mostly but other feelings, too. Good memories. But, he fought those back because he had to focus on the problem at hand. He still wasn't sure what he'd do until he faced it once more.

He rubbed a hand over his face and pinched the bridge of his nose. Dios! Why did this have to happen now? Or at all? He thought he'd have been okay if he never knew this information. Never knew for sure. But, he did know and he couldn't ignore it any longer. Not that he'd ignored it all these years. It was always there in the back of his mind. Eating, gnawing at him like a persistent mosquito sucking out his very life's blood. Or his soul.

And still, he was unsure. It had been so long. Did it really matter now? His mind screamed yes! His heart ached with uncertainty. Could he even do it now? He had no answer for that. Not yet. The only thing he was fairly sure of was that he would know when he got there. When he faced it again.

He closed his mind off to the thoughts, knowing he'd never sleep if he didn't. And he had to sleep. He had to be rested to face this. It would take a huge toll on him, he knew. Maybe not physically but emotionally. He looked up at the velvet sky and almost reached out to touch the stars.

He smiled. He used to do that when he was a kid. Reach out and try to touch them. He didn't understand then that they were so very far away. Sadness engulfed him. When he was a kid. When was that again? The sadness was quickly replaced by bitterness and he tried to shove it away.

He nearly leapt to his feet, pacing the campground and trying to push all thought from his mind. His fingers tapped his holster almost melodically as he walked back and forth. Head down, breaths coming harder now, he squeezed his eyes shut. Stop it, dammit! Stop thinkin!

He laid back down and closed his eyes, willing his mind to obey the command. Slowly, he relaxed and drifted off.

*

Johnny's eyes flew open and his gun was instantly in his hand. Dawn was almost breaking but that wasn't what had awoken him. He'd heard something. He sat up silently and listened intently to the sounds around him. There were none. No rustling as critters moved about, no night sounds at all. He stood and moved quickly to Barranca, stroking his nose as he pressed his back against the tree. His eyes scanned the area but he saw nothing. He waited.

A twig snapped to his right and he turned to the sound, Barranca at his back. He crouched down and strained to see through the brush, the new light barely rising now. Something or someone was moving but he couldn't quite make it out. A flash of black or maybe brown, then white.

He held his breath as he watched the figure emerge, filling into it's natural form now. His eyes went beyond though, behind the figure to see if there was another. He stood up straight and leaned against the tree, watching with some amusement.

The boy crept into the camp and inched toward the smoldering remains of the campfire. He stood on his toes as if this would help him see and peeked at the bedroll. And he knew he'd made a mistake.

"Lookin for something?"

The boy whirled around, his heart stopping as it lurched into his throat. His eyes fell on the gun still in Johnny's hand and that's where they stayed.

A crooked smile lit his face as he holstered the weapon but he wasn't stupid. "Hands up, hombre."

The boy's eyes found his and he cocked his head, a questioning frown appearing on his face.

"Manos para arriba," Johnny said.

His hands flew into the air and Johnny pushed away from the tree, walked over and frisked the boy. Satisfied he wasn't armed, he simply nodded to indicate the boy could now lower those quivering arms.

Johnny eyed him thoroughly. He was skinny as a pole, wearing the white linen most peons wore. His black hair was dull and dirty as was the rest of him. He could smell the kid a mile away.

"Hambriento?" (Hungry?)

The boy only nodded.

Johnny smiled softly and stirred up the dying embers of the fire. Soon enough, he had beans warming and coffee brewing.

He dished out two plates and filled the boy's cup with water, pouring himself a cup of coffee.

"Cafe, por favor," the boy said in an almost mumble.

Cocking a brow, Johnny nodded and replaced the water with coffee.

"Es su nombre?" Johnny asked.

"Frederico. Rico," he answered.

"Hola, Rico. I'm Johnny."

"Usted mestizo." It was a comment, not a question and Johnny only nodded in agreement.

"Un problema?" he asked.

"No, Senor."

"Bueno."

That ended the conversation for the moment as the boy dug into his food and seconds. Johnny didn't think he'd ever stop eating.

But he did, finally and burped - loudly. Johnny gave him a grimace but he only smiled widely.

"Adonde usted va?"

The boy looked at him and shrugged. "Con usted."

Johnny shook his head. "Oh, no. You ain't goin with me, kid." Sighing, he tossed his head toward the plate. "Quitar." (Wash)

Rico jumped up and grabbed Johnny's plate and cup as well, heading for the small brook nearby. He watched the scrawny boy and had the feeling of deja vu. Shaking his head hard, Johnny determined not to get sucked into this kid's problems. No way was he tagging along.

The kid reappeared and showed Johnny the clean dishware. "See? I do good. You need me. I do all the work."

Johnny's eyes narrowed at the broken English - not really broken at all - and cocked one brow. "I don't need a housekeeper, kid." Rico started to give him that innocent look so he added,   "and you know what I said."  

"You can't con a con." Johnny muttered, stood and kicked dirt over the fire to make sure it was out then went to saddle his horse. He could hear the small bare feet following him.

"I can do that."

Johnny turned on a dime and glared. "No! Go on your way now. You ain't comin with me!"

Rico backed away several paces but never turned. He watched Johnny the entire time he readied himself to ride. As he turned with reins in hand, he looked down at the boy. "Salga!" (Leave!)

The boy shook his head. "I help you mucho. You need me."

Johnny took a deep breath and let it out slowly as he curbed his temper. "Donde padres?"

Rico bowed his head. "Muerto," he whispered.

"Familia?"

The boy shook his head.

Swallowing hard, he whispered, "Orphanage?"

Rico's head jerked up and he glared. "No!"

Bringing up a quick hand, Johnny said, "okay, okay. Nogales."

The boy grinned widely.

"And that's it!" Johnny sliced through the air with one hand and Rico nodded enthusiastically. He studied the face for a minute. "How old are you?"

"Doce," Rico answered with some pride.

*

Johnny kept looking down at the small hands wrapped around his waist. The fingers were downright bony. He was sure Barranca couldn't even tell the extra weight on his back and he felt a lump in his throat. Still, there wasn't anything he could do about it. He wasn't this kid's salvation certainly. Hell, he couldn't even save himself. Otherwise, he wouldn't be here.

"Nombre?"

Johnny turned his head toward his shoulder. "I told you my name. Johnny."

"Johnny what?"

A grin threatened but he bit his cheek. "Lancer."

The boy fell quiet again and after a few more minutes, Johnny felt the small head resting on his back.

He closed his own eyes for a minute. Twelve? The kid looked no more than ten. But he didn't doubt Rico. The boy would probably be a lot bigger if he'd had a decent home and three meals a day.

How many times had he sneaked into a campsite himself? Knowing he could get himself shot down depending on the inhabitant's nature. He shook it away. He had other things to deal with. He sure didn't need this excess baggage!

As he entered Nogales, he headed straight for the livery. He held out his left arm while the boy grabbed hold and was lowered easily to the ground, then slid off himself. After a quick exchange with the owner and a couple of coins, he turned and looked down into the expectant face. Pulling a face of his own, Johnny jerked his head to the right then started walking, knowing full well the kid would follow him.

Johnny smiled a little as he heard the soft patter of bare feet in the dirt road. He strode casually toward the east side of town, ears and eyes wide open. The cantina was exactly as he remembered it but he passed by and headed down the side alley to the back door - his usual.

The door was open as it always was and he leaned on the frame watching the old woman whose back was to him.

"Smells good," he called softly.

Her head came straight up and she froze for an instant before setting the stirring spoon down. Slowly, she turned to him, her hand going to her bosom as she heard the voice she never thought she'd hear again. Her face was dark and lined with the wrinkles of age. Yet, her brown eyes were knowing and, at this moment, burning brightly with a smile. Her mouth opened and the name came whispered past her lips.

"Johnny." She stood there, eyes welling as she allowed her brain to register what her sight told her. "Johnny," she said just a touch louder then ran to him.

Johnny's smile widened as he held out his arms, swooping her up and stepping inside then swirling her around. "You look beautiful, as always, mamacita," he laughed as he set her down lightly, placing his hands on each side of her graying head.

The tears tracked down her worn face but she stepped back and swatted him on the arm. "I thought you were dead!"

Johnny cocked a brow. "Disappointed?" he grinned.

"Hush, nino! Do not talk that way. Come in here and let me feed you."

"Well, I, uh, have a friend with me," he said hesitantly, never quite knowing how she'd react to a stray. Her affection for him was something that had always puzzled him. So many other street urchins she turned away.

She looked past him and eyed the boy with suspicion before nodding and turning back to her stove.

*

Rico figured he'd died and gone to heaven. He hadn't eaten this good since before his mama died and he really couldn't remember that time too well anyhow. His stomach hurt from being so full but he was happy. And sleepy. His eyes drooped several times but he fought stalwartly to keep them open. Afraid if he fell asleep, Johnny would leave him behind. He wasn't so sure this old woman wouldn't throw him to the curb if that were to happen. He knew it was only by Johnny's grace he'd been allowed in here. He should know. He'd tried enough times to get a morsel from the woman.

He watched Johnny grow quieter as he ate. He seemed to get .... darker. Rico wondered what he was thinking about. It sure was making him mad. Or was that sad? He couldn't tell.

"How have you been, nino? Where have you been?" she asked.

Johnny smiled and pushed his plate away before leaning back in the chair. "California with my father," he grinned, waiting for the reaction.

Her eyes narrowed more dangerously than anything Madrid could muster he was sure and he couldn't help but laugh.

"It's not like that. What I thought, well, it wasn't true." The smile was gone, replaced by a sadness she couldn't miss.

"And it is a long story," she said knowingly.

The smile was back now. "Yeah, very long, Esperanza. Have you seen Eduardo lately?"

She raised her brows. "Si. How did you know he was here?"

"Oh, he sent me a telegram. I need to see him. Where is he?"

"I do not know right now but he comes here every night to eat," she said, her concern unmasked.

Johnny nodded. "Still got rooms upstairs?"

She glanced at the boy and pulled a face then nodded. "Si, come, I will show you."

Johnny thanked the woman profusely before she left them alone. He scanned the small but comfortable room, then the boy. Hands on hips, he eyed him fully.

"You need a bath."

Rico looked up at him and shook his head - hard.

"You wanna hang around with me, kid, you will take a bath. If not, leave now," Johnny said firmly.

Small shoulders slumped in defeat and he only nodded. Johnny smiled and left the room to make the arrangements.

*

Johnny left him to it once he was sure the kid had actually submerged himself in the tub. He headed for a store and bought the boy some better clothes after stopping for a bottle of Tequila at the saloon. She wouldn't like it, never did, but that was too bad.

Esperanza made a career of shooing orphans like himself away from her back door when he was a kid. She was mean and ornery and he never figured out why he kept coming back. He was the only one that did. The only one in the crowd that wasn't a new face. And she had noticed that.

Then, one night she had shooed them all away but he'd seen the way she looked at him and hung back as the others ran. She smiled at him then and he knew it was alright. Knew he'd have something to eat that night. It was a good thing, too. He wasn't sure he could have left that alley under his own steam. By then, he was so weak and tired he could barely stand. But he wouldn't fall down in front of her. Never.

He smiled as he remembered her practically spoon feeding him that night. Left on his own, he would have gorged himself and surely lost it all again more quickly than he'd consumed it. She told him that but he'd been so hungry, he couldn't control it. So she had done the controlling and, though it took her almost an hour, his belly was full and he wasn't sick from it.

She'd made him a bed in the storeroom and sworn him to secrecy. He had never broken her trust. To this very day, he'd never told a soul how she saved his life. And she had, he was certain. Since then, they'd become friends and any time he was in Nogales, he stayed with her.

She had been less than thrilled about his chosen profession but she never preached to him about it. She gave him advice when she could and a safe place and he would be forever grateful for her kindness. Enough so that he'd never questioned her about why she ran the street kids off. Why she had chosen him and none of the rest. Though it bothered him, he couldn't look a gift horse in the mouth.

He walked in the back door to find her wiping away the last of the remains of her cooking from the table. Pots and pans steaming and ready for the dinner hour. He almost laughed out loud at the scorching look she gave first the Tequila bottle, then him. He only shrugged and headed upstairs.

*

Rico was wrapped in a towel and sitting on the bed when he walked in. Johnny looked at the tub, scum formed on top the water and he nodded. He figured the boy wasn't as clean as he could be but it was much better than before. At least he could stand to be around him now. He said nothing and tossed the package to the kid then sat heavily in the only chair in the room.

Rico tore the package open and smiled in delight at the new clothes then frowned.

"What?" Johnny asked.

The boy looked around the room, then at the bed he sat on then at Johnny. "I don't do that."

Johnny frowned with confusion. "Do what?"

Rico looked over his shoulder at the bed again and Johnny's teeth ground together.

"No, you don't. Ever. Understand?" he nearly spat the last word.

The boy's shoulders relaxed and he smiled widely.

"But, if you think we ain't sharin that bed, forget it. I need to get some proper rest and so do you. There's plenty of room," Johnny added gently.

"What are you going to do?"

"Never mind about that. Just get in that nightshirt and in the bed. I'll be back in a while and I'll bring you something to eat."

"I will go with you. I can help," he argued.

Johnny sighed. "Ya know, it's just amazing how much better your English is all the sudden. I don't need any help. I'm going to see a friend. Now, get to bed," he pointed his finger adamantly.

The boy stood up and glared at him. "Turn around."

Johnny nearly bit a hunk from the inside of his cheek but he did as he was ordered and turned in the chair to stare at the wall. He waited several minutes until he heard the bed squeak and a lot of rustling noises before turning back. He stood up and walked to the bedside, turning the lamp down low.

"Sleep, nino. I'll wake you when I come back."

"Promise?" he yawned.

Johnny laughed softly. "Yeah, I promise." He swiped the kid's head then walked out of the room, closing the door softly behind him.

*

Downstairs, the cantina was filling up. Johnny sat in a corner and nursed a cup of coffee while he waited for Eduardo. With his luck, his friend would decide to eat elsewhere tonight.

No sooner was the thought formed than he saw the man walk in, slowly surveying the room. He was about Scott's height with coal black hair and dark brown eyes. He wore a moustache but no beard like many Mexican men did. His clothes were unassuming, simple and utilitarian. He was muscular but not overly so. He wore his rig as a man in his profession did. Low-slung on the hip. It took only a few seconds for him to spy Johnny and he held back a smile as he sauntered over. He sat in the chair Johnny had pushed out for him, his own back to the kitchen.

He laid a brief hand on Johnny's arm squeezing tightly then releasing quickly. "So good to see you, mi amigo."

Johnny smiled softly. "Good to see you, Eduardo. How are you?"

"Ah, you know, the same. And you?"

"Muy bien," Johnny nodded.

Ezperanza's niece appeared with his usual and Eduardo gave her a playful wink and smile. She blushed furiously and backed away. Johnny laughed and he shrugged.

He waited for the man to eat. It was torture but he wasn't impolite, especially with an old friend. Still, he wanted to ask desperately and Eduardo seemed to understand. Either that or the man was starving as he wolfed down his supper.

Leaning back, Eduardo wiped his mouth with his napkin and sighed. "Now then, amigo, he is still here."

The answer to the unasked question knotted Johnny's stomach but his face remained passive. He simply nodded. "Where?"

Eduardo shrugged. "Here and there. No place especial. He is a drunk, Juanito. A sorry excuse!" the man nearly spat on the floor before remembering where he was.

Johnny's eyes were wide with surprise. Never would he have believed it. "Are you sure it's him?" he whispered.

"Si, I am sure. I knew him before, remember? It took me a while to recognize him but I am positive. You will be, too," he spoke with surety.

Dropping his head and staring at the table top, Johnny tried to come to terms with what he was hearing. How could the man be a worthless drunk? He remembered him as being so big and strong and .... mean.

"What will you do, Johnny?" Eduardo was asking.

Shaking his head, he sighed lightly. "Not sure. Nothing tonight. I could use a good night's sleep."

"That, mi amigo, is plain," he smiled. "I am going to the saloon. I will let you know if I see him manana."

"Gracias, Eduardo. Buenos noches," Johnny smiled and shook his hand.

Eduardo made a show of leaving the small cantina as he bowed theatrically to the young girl who'd served him. Johnny smiled at his performance and the rather large tip he'd left on the table. He asked the girl for two plates on a tray and went upstairs once the food was ready. His mind was still whirling with the information. He couldn't quite believe it though he knew Eduardo would never lie to him.

*

Balancing the tray in his left hand, Johnny eased the door open and stepped in closing it quietly. Rico was fast asleep and he struggled with waking him. But, he had promised the boy and knew the kid had to be hungry. There wasn't enough food in Nogales to fatten this one up, it seemed to him.

He sat the tray on the dresser and went over to the bed, kneeling down. He watched the boy sleep for a while. So innocent! Closing his eyes and willing away the memories, he sighed lightly then shook the small shoulder.

"Wake up, Rico. Supper's here," he said softly.

Brown eyes flew open as his head came up with a start. Wildly, he looked around before remembering where he was. Johnny gave him the time, knowing the feeling of disorientation all too well.

Rico rubbed at his eyes and sat up in bed then smiled shyly at Johnny.

"Come on, let's eat then you can go back to sleep."

Through it all, Rico never spoke. Too busy was he at stuffing every morsel in his mouth. More than once, Johnny had to berate him to slow down so he wouldn't get sick. Finally, it seemed the bottomless pit was full enough, another loud burp indicating the kid was done.

"Your mama teach you manners like that?" Johnny growled.

The look of pain on the boy's face caused him to instantly regret the chastisement. He grimaced at the lowered head then reached over and gave the black hair a shake.

"Come on, time for bed."

"Johnny?"

"Yeah."

"Why are you being so nice to me?"

Johnny stopped midway across the floor and turned to face him. He studied the features of Rico's face for a long moment before answering. "You remind me of someone."

"Who?" he asked, head cocking to the side.

Johnny smiled. "Me. Now, come on, bed time."

Rico jumped up and made a run for it, flying onto the mattress with a satisfying bounce. Johnny laughed at his antics and covered him up then sat on the side.

"Listen. Tomorrow I've got something to take care of. You stay right here in this room, comprende?" He saw the mouth open in objection. "Or, you're on your own."

A seriously raised brow convinced the child he meant every word so he could only nod and close his eyes, turning on his side and sliding one hand under his cheek.

Johnny extinguished the lamp altogether and walked around to the other side. He removed his gunbelt, looping it over the bedpost then lying on top the covers on his back.

*

He stretched out before ever opening his eyes the next morning. Having allowed himself time to awaken before ever moving. He hated traveling now more than ever. Before, he was always on alert but now, it seemed he had to make himself remember how to behave. He guessed that was a good thing overall but not when it was happening. Not when it was a necessary thing.

Slowly, he opened his eyes and looked over, seeing the boy still fast asleep. Johnny rose from the bed as gently as he could so as not to disturb the child. He quickly shaved and dressed. Rico's assertion the night before that he didn't "do that" had edged on Johnny's mind ever since. He had been adamant himself but he wanted the boy to know for sure he would never try anything so disgusting.

Somewhere along the line the kid had been exposed to that sort of filth. Otherwise, how would he know anything about it? Johnny knew all too well the very blackness of that existence. Nothing ever changed for these unfortunates. He reckoned they never would.

He heard the bed creak and looked over from the chair where he was donning his boots. "Mornin."

Rico looked at him grouchily and scratched his head.

"Well, ain't you just all sunshine and light? Get dressed and we'll get some breakfast," he chuckled.

"Si, then I must stay here."

"Si, then you must stay here," Johnny agreed firmly.

Rico was not happy about the situation and he stayed unhappy throughout breakfast. Esperanza glowered at him for his rudeness but the kid was oblivious. Johnny had to laugh at it.

Once Rico was finished Johnny sent him back to the room and smiled the whole time as he heard the thumping of angry little feet and the slamming of the door.

"Why do you put up with that nonsense, Johnny? That boy is a stranger to you."

He looked at her with a mixture of surprise, sadness and curiosity. "Why did you put up with me? More than that. Why'd you pick me, mamacita? Why me out of all those boys?"

She was a bit surprised herself at the questions. She shook her head thoughtfully then lowered her eyes and her voice. "I do not know, nino. I saw something in you. Something especial."

Johnny snorted. "Yeah? You saw a gunfighter," he said flatly.

She smacked his arm - hard. "Do not say such things. Are you still a gunfighter? No! And you did not need to tell me, I can see that something has changed. Something good, si?"  

He smiled after rubbing his arm a bit. "Si, mamacita. Something very good. Except ....."

"What is it, Johnny? Why have you come back here?" she asked with concern.

His face darkened and she watched his eyes change color. "Got an old debt to pay, is all. Speaking of which," he sighed and stood up, grabbing his hat.

She stood with him and gave him an anxious look. "And if you do not come back?"

He smiled softly at her. "From what I hear there's no danger of that. Not from this man anyway. May not even find him so early in the day."

*

And he didn't find the man he sought. Johnny wandered around town for a while noting the new structures and the old. He saw the mission and shivered a little as memories flooded his mind again. He leaned against a support post outside the general store for a few minutes before deciding to head to the saloon. It was early but that had never stopped him before.

He smiled a little thinking about the bottle of tequila he hadn't touched back in the room and the boy he hoped was where he'd sent him. Who knew if he'd be there when Johnny got back? He wasn't so sure he would have been at that age. He supposed it depended entirely on if the kid trusted him.

He hesitated a split second before walking on through the door, noting only one other person in the room and he was passed out. He sidled up to the bar as the barkeep eyed him languidly. Johnny considered the time of day and his own desires and settled for a cup of coffee for now.

He sat at a table near the back and watched the steam rise from the cup for a few seconds before raising his head and taking in the room. It wasn't much not that it surprised him. There was a battered piano on the other side of the bar and stairs leading to rooms where he reckoned the working girls made a living. The perpetual mirror hung behind the bar, several cracks telling the story of upheaval. A small smile flirted on his lips as he tried to remember if he'd caused any of those cracks. He didn't think so. At least, not in this saloon. The smile widened a little.

Then, his eyes settled on the drunk at a table near the door. He was slumped over, arms crossed on the table and head cradled within. Johnny shook his head. He could never understand living like that. It was then the thought struck him with a force that nearly made him dizzy.

The bartender walked over with the coffee pot and refilled his cup.

"What's his story?" Johnny asked, nodding toward the drunk.

The barkeep shrugged. "Who knows? Been hangin around a couple of weeks now. I let him sleep it off until the place starts filling up then toss him out. He always comes back a few hours later. Don't know why people bother to give these guys money when they know they'll just drink it," he shook his head.

Johnny gave him a little smile. "Guess it comes with the territory. He got a name?"

"Reckon so but I couldn't tell ya what it is. They're all Joe to me."

He nodded and kept watching the man. It could be him. Could not. There was nothing to say this town didn't have more than one drunk. Lord knew, there were probably tons of them. He fought a long war with his emotions and finally won the battle. He slipped quietly into the mindset and waited patiently.

He thought briefly of Rico but knew Esperanza would feed the boy for him. He'd still like to know why she'd taken him in and why she was so mean to the others. He'd never questioned it before but now, for some reason, it mattered.

Letting out a soft slow breath, he settled in as the noon hour approached. He ate a quick lunch of tamales and beer then leaned back on the two back legs of his chair and rocked slowly back and forth. The man had yet to move. He wondered idly if he was dead.

*

A few men sauntered in and out for the next two hours. Mostly for lunch and some just stopping by for a quick beer before heading back to work. The bartender apparently decided since there was more than one customer, he'd roust the drunk.

Johnny watched him walk over and kick the man's leg. He mumbled unintelligibly until he was kicked a second time - harder. The man's head came up a little and he mumbled some more. It was pretty obvious that the bartender didn't want to touch him. Johnny couldn't blame him. The man simply reeked.

After several minutes the drunk finally found his feet, well sort of, and stumbled outside. Johnny followed after a brief moment and watched the man stagger toward the livery. More curious than anything at this particular moment, he continued to trail and watch as the drunkard found what he'd been looking for.

He dropped to his knees and dunked his head in the horse trough. Johnny raised a brow wondering if he was going to drown himself. But he finally came up for air, sputtering loudly and coughing deeply.

By now, the predator had moved to the small corral and was leaning against the rail, unable to hide his disgust and not trying to either.

The drunk gasped for several minutes before slowly raising his head and squinting against the bright sunlight. He saw a form to his right and turned his head slowly, looking the man up and down.

"What do you want?" he asked in a voice graveled by booze and cigars.

Johnny actually felt a chill engulf his entire being as he heard that voice again. So many years later. Now, he knew for sure this was the man he sought. What he wasn't sure of was what he wanted to do. He could only stare at the skeleton of the man he'd remembered as being a giant. Unshaven and definitely unkempt, this was not the same man he'd known.

"Well?" the drunk demanded.

"Well, what?" Johnny asked softly.

"I asked you what you want?" he repeated angrily.

"Nothing from you," Johnny replied coldly.

"Good because I have nothing to give," he spat and stood clumsily.

Johnny crossed his arms over his chest and cocked his head to one side as he watched.

"Do I know you, boy?" he asked as he leaned first to one side then the other before finding some semblance of equilibrium.

Johnny nodded. "You did once. A long time ago. Hard to believe what's become of you, Cesar."

He snorted and it was an ugly sound. "What do you know about it, boy? Nothing, that is what. Well, if you want nothing then leave me be." He hesitated and softened his tone. "Unless you want to buy me a drink, that is. For old time's sake?"

Johnny laughed. "You don't even know who I am, old man." He shook his head in disgust.

*

Cesar shrugged and walked into the barn to find a suitable bed. Johnny followed him, not quite finished watching the display. It fascinated him. This man who he had once feared so much. This man who once seemed indestructible was now nothing. Less than nothing. He found it satisfying beyond measure.

"I guess you don't do much thievin anymore," Johnny said.

Cesar turned to find him at the barn door, leaning casually against the frame, arms still crossed. "Who are you, Senor? What do you know about me?"

"I know you're a thief and a murderer, Cesar. That's what I know." His voice was no longer cold. It held a fire that burned off him in waves.

The drunk staggered closer and Johnny wrinkled his nose at the vile stench.

He squinted his eyes, trying to focus then shook his head and wished he hadn't. "I do not know you."

"Oh, I'm sure you don't remember. It was a long time ago. Ten years ago to be exact," Johnny said.

He harrumphed. "Ten years. You had to be just a nino then. Hell, you cannot be more than ....." he trailed off, his eyes widening with remembrance and understanding.

He backed away shaking his head slowly. "It cannot be. I killed you," he whispered.

Johnny gave him an icy smile. "Not quite. Almost, but not quite."

"So what? You want to kill me now. Go ahead. What do I care?" he shrugged.

"I was going to kill you but I'm not so sure now. I think maybe I'll just leave you in this hell you've made for yourself," he smiled again.

"I have made? I have made!" he spat. "I did not make this hell, boy. Your mama made it for me!"

Johnny took two menacing steps toward him only to be countered by two steps backward from Cesar. "You piece of dirt! You killed her. Shot her down in cold blood. How dare you blame her for this?!"

"She made me do it. You were too young to remember it maybe, but it was her fault. She should have kept her big mouth shut! She ran that mouth off about my business to anyone who would listen. She made sure the rurales found out about that job. I had all that gold and all she had to do was shut up about it. But, no. She had to brag about all the things I would buy her. How we would never want for anything again. How *you* would never want for anything. She just had to go on and on telling anyone who would listen. It is no wonder they found the gold and me!"

His chest heaved from the effort of his tirade but he found enough air to go on, feeling more sober now. "I spent five years in prison because of that perra! Five years! By the time I got out I had nothing! No amigos, no reputacion, no cuadrilla, nada!"

Johnny listened incredulously as the man ranted and raved. He stood there stunned for a long beat. "Five years? They should've hung you for what you did to her!"

"Ha! Nobody cared about a dead puta or her mestizo brat!"

Johnny moved too quickly for him. Before he knew it, he was lying in the dirt bleeding from his mouth. His wiped at the blood with the back of his hand but he only managed to smear it along his cheek.

"You got exactly what you deserved, you son of a bitch! Killing you would be too easy. It would be merciful and I've got no mercy," Johnny ground out.

Cesar sat up then. Deciding to change tactics, he reached out a hand. "Juanito."

"Don't call me that!" Johnny shouted.

He cringed a little at the loudness then tried again. "Johnny. We were a family then. We could have had everything if only." He stopped, knowing blaming Maria would not help his case. He struggled to his feet before continuing.

"I know where we can both get some money, Johnny. Big money. I know someone you would be very interested in finding," he said surreptitiously, exposing two missing front teeth with an evil grin.

Johnny narrowed his eyes and said nothing.

Cesar chanced a couple of staggering steps closer and lowered his voice conspiratorially. "I know where he lives. I know where your father lives, Johnny."

Johnny stared at the widening grin, hatred oozing from his pores.

Mistaking that look as not being directed toward him, Cesar decided he'd hit paydirt. "I know who and where Murdoch Lancer is."

A smile of sorts coupled with a grimace of pure antipathy adorned Johnny's face. Then, he relaxed that face and his entire being. "Yeah?"

Cesar nodded, nearly salivating at the prospect. "He has a big rancho in California."

"How do you know that?"

"I have always known. When Maria told me who he was I decided to find out about him. Back then, the rancho was beginning to thrive. It must be worth a lot by now. He has fifty thousand acres. Surely, he has prospered. It is worth a look, is it not?"

Johnny feigned a thoughtful expression, glancing at Cesar a couple of times as he paced back and forth in the small space. "What's the deal?"

Cesar grinned and rubbed his hands together. "I will take you there. Show you where it is. We can watch and decide the right time to make our move. Maybe ..... maybe find out when he pays his vaqueros. Si, with all that land he must have many men working for him. Plus, whatever he keeps in the safe. You could go to him and pretend you want to come back."

"Why would I do that?" Johnny asked, almost amused.

"Ah, to get inside the house," Cesar explained.

"He threw me out. No reason he'd want to see me now," Johnny reasoned.

Again, that hideous grin. "Well, he did not exactly throw you out. Maria only told you that to keep you away from him. She was afraid if you knew the truth you would want to go home."

Johnny swallowed hard but kept an impassive face. "She tell you that?"

"She did."

"And what exactly is the truth?" Johnny asked, fighting to maintain control of himself.

Cesar rocked his head back and forth on his shoulders as if considering. "She ran off with another man. She did not want to be the wife of a rancher. She said it was too hard. Maria did not like to work," he laughed at the end.  

"We will need some men," he added, hoping to get the younger man back on track.

Johnny glanced up at him then smiled. "You haven't even asked me what I've been doing all these years."

"Well, you caught me by surprise."

"Yeah, I guess so. Guess you thought I was being dead all this time," Johnny said harshly.

"I am sorry, Johnny. Truly, I am. I panicked. I did not mean to kill her. It just .... I was angry and then she scratched my face and I lost all reason," he shrugged.

Johnny didn't say anything, just stared at this despicable excuse for a human being.

"So, what have you been doing?" Cesar asked, a nervous tremble now in his voice.

"Gunfighting," he stated simply.

Cesar cocked a brow at this. "Are you any good?"

"Ever hear of Johnny Madrid?" he grinned.

The man's mouth fell open then closed and opened again. "You?" he breathed the question.

Johnny nodded once.

Cesar paced a little on unsteady legs as he thought about this development. He turned and looked at Johnny with something unrecognizable in his eyes.

"I suppose we would not need any extra men then."

Johnny breathed out heavily through his nose and shook his head. "You're a pig, Estevez. *We* don't need anything. There is no *we*. I should kill you just to put an end to this conversation. But I think I'll stick with my first idea and let you drink yourself to death. Looks like you're well on your way." He turned to walk away then.

"Wait! Do you not realize what you are turning down? Lancer must be worth muy dinero by now. Do you not want to know?" he asked desperately.

Johnny turned back and smiled. "I already know. I don't go by Madrid anymore. I go by Lancer now. I've been living with my father for over a year. So you see, Cesar, your pathetic little plan was a waste of breath. It was kind of funny to watch what's left of your brain try to work, though. Better men than you have tried to take Lancer and they failed. Just like anyone who ever tries to take anything from me again will fail."

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a coin, tossing it to the man. "Here, have a bottle on me. It's the only friend you have left. Better stay real cozy with it."

Johnny turned once more and walked away without a backward glance.

Cesar stared after him for a second then stooped and picked up the money, shoving into his pocket. Johnny Madrid. Surely, that information was worth something to someone.  

He hadn't really meant to kill Maria. That part was true. He had loved her once but her mouth had ruined it all. Still, he could have forgiven her if she'd only done as he'd asked. If she'd only left the mestizo behind. He was always in the way. Always ruining every plan Cesar made.

Whenever he spoke to her about the grand life they could have her first question after his musing would be 'what about Johnny?'

He sneered at the thought. What about Johnny? Well, he'd shown her what about Johnny. He frowned then. No, he hadn't shown her because she was already dead. She never got to see what he thought about her precious Johnny.

Then again, he thought, had he not talked her out of sending the boy home his troubles would have been over. He only kept the mestizo around to keep her in line. It had backfired on him horribly. Now, Madrid was in his face but he, Cesar, would have his revenge.  

*

Johnny was filled with rage and he stalked down the street toward the saloon. He slowed his gait and changed direction, heading for Esperanza's. He figured Cesar would make a beeline to the saloon and he couldn't stomach the man for one more second.

He stopped just outside the back door and paced the alley for several minutes, calming himself before facing the woman. Someone else he wanted the truth from, he thought.

When he walked in, Rico was sitting at the table eating. Johnny closed his eyes briefly. He'd forgotton all about the kid. Forcing a smile he joined the boy.

"Looks good," he commented.

Rico nodded enthusiastically and, mouth stuffed, he managed to mumble, "churros."

"Do not talk with your mouth full, chico," Esperanza chastised.

Johnny raised a brow at the endearment but made no comment about that. "Has he been behaving himself?"

"Si, mostly," she smiled.

"I'll be leaving in the morning, mamacita," he announced.

Rico looked up at him and swallowed then took a drink of his water, his eyes asking the question that Johnny had to ignore for now.

"So soon?" Esperanza asked, clearly disappointed.

"Yeah," he sighed. "Rico, I need to talk to Esperanza. Why don't you go on upstairs?"

The boy considered balking but figured that would get him nowhere so he simply nodded and went quietly.

She sat at the table and folded a kitchen towel over before clasping her hands atop the surface.

Johnny drew circles on the table top with his fingers as he worked it out in his mind. "I want to ask you something and I want the truth," he said, glancing up at her.

She nodded.

"Why me?"

Shaking her head she blew out a breath. "Does it matter, nino?"

"Yes, it matters. I need to know," he responded a bit harshly.

She didn't react to the tone. "Very well. I knew your mother. I was not sure it was you at first but after seeing you time and again, I noticed the resemblance."

Johnny stared at her for a second. "Why couldn't you just tell me that?"

"What good would it do?"

"Did you know about my father? Did you know he didn't throw us out? That he did want me?" he threw the questions.

Her eyes widened in astonishment. "What are you talking about? I knew nothing of this! She told me her marido did not want her or .... you," she whispered the last word hesitantly.

Johnny sighed with relief. At least Esperanza hadn't lied to him.

Sensing his thoughts, she spoke. "Had I known your padre wanted you back I would have sent you to him, Johnny."

"Gracias, mamacita," he smiled.

"What has happened, nino? What has made you come here?" she asked.

"Doesn't matter anymore. I found what I needed and now I'm going home," he said tiredly.

"And the boy?"

Johnny's shoulders slumped. "I don't know what to do with him."

"Leave him. He is not your responsibility," she remarked.

He looked up at her, suddenly angry again. "You are a cold woman."

"Why?" she asked in surprise. "Because I know I cannot feed every orphan in the world? Or in this town for that matter?"

"Because you could have made a difference for him. You made a difference for me."

"Did I? How? By watching you become a pistolero?" she retorted.

"That had nothin to do with you. I could have died or been somethin a lot worse than a gunfighter!"

"Johnny, you know I have never had children of my own. I am not the motherly type," she defended.

"That's bull. You were good to me. You treated me like a son," he argued. "I think you're afraid to let anyone get too close. The one time you tried it was a disappointment."

"No! I have never been disappointed in you, nino. Nunca! You are a good man. You have always had a good heart," she stated adamantly.

"Why do you think that is, mamacita? A lot of that was because of you," he said, softening his voice.

She blushed and found she had no words.

"Look, he's not your responsibility either. I'll figure out something," he sighed and stood. He left her and went upstairs, knowing he had to face the boy and not wanting to.

*

Rico sat on the very edge of the mattress with a small white bag beside him. Johnny recognized it as the sack the boy had carried with him all along. It looked a bit fuller now and he smiled softly.

"What time are we leaving?" Rico asked.

Johnny's smile widened at the insinuation. "We?" he asked.

"Si," the boy nodded with conviction.

Johnny wandered about the small room and wound up at the window. "What makes you think we are going anywhere?" he asked as he leaned against the wall and studied the boy.

Rico's eyes betrayed his uncertainty but his voice held onto his hope. "We are a team."

Johnny walked over and sat beside him. His weight on the mattress caused Rico to shift a little so he didn't fall on the floor. "Look, kid, I can't take care of you. I wouldn't know how. You should be in an orphanage. And before you say anything, I don't mean here. There are some good ones across the border in California."

The boy lowered his eyes and stared at his feet dangling off the bed. He clamped those eyes shut tightly to hold back the tears. "Near you?" he whispered.

"If you like."

He nodded. "You will take me there?"

Johnny smiled. "Sure. It'll be nice to have some company on the ride."

He brought his head up then with a huge smile. This would give him more time to work on the man. More time to convince him of how handy he could be to have around. He would work hard and convince Johnny that he was necessary.

"We'll leave first thing in the morning. You better get ready for bed," Johnny said.

"Where will you be?" asked Rico.

"I'm going downstairs to see my friend then I'll be back. I expect you to be asleep by then. Your belly should be full of churros by now," he grinned.

Rico laughed the laugh of an innocent child for the first time that Johnny had heard. For some reason, that tore at the young man's heart. He tousled the boy's hair then went to the door. Giving one last warning look, he stepped into the hall.

*

It was late by the time he went down to the restaurant. With relief he spotted Eduardo, having hoped he wouldn't have to go to the saloon to find the man. He was determined to keep his distance from Estevez. As he approached, however, he noticed the angry look on his friend's face.

"What's wrong?" he asked as he took a seat at the table.

Eduardo shook his head in disgust. "I take it you saw the man?"

"Yeah, we had a chat," Johnny replied with sarcasm.

"You told him who you were." It was a statement of fact that cause Johnny's gut to clench tightly.

"Yeah."

"Johnny," Eduardo sighed heavily.

"What difference does it make? He can't hurt me."

"No, not he himself. But, giving him information can hurt you. He has been at the saloon drinking and talking loudly about Madrid being in Nogales."

Johnny shrugged. "I haven't been hiding, amigo."

Eduardo raised his brows. "Have you forgotten that the rurales are not exactly in love with you? If they hear of this they will come for you."

Johnny dropped his eyes to the table. No, he hadn't forgotten but he hadn't thought about it either. He gave himself a mental kick and a smirk.

"Well, I'm leaving in the morning."

"That is good, compadre. Very good. Not that I will not miss you," Eduardo said the last with a grin.

Johnny smiled. "I'll miss you, too. If you ever decide on a change in career, come see me."

Eduardo laughed raucously and slapped him on the shoulder.

Johnny lay awake, staring at the ceiling. So many thoughts running through his head. So many emotions churning in his gut. A gut afire with pain. The memories would not stay away no matter how severely he commanded. Tonight, his brain was not listening to him. He had been sorely tempted to put a bullet in Cesar. Payment in kind. But, looking at what he'd become. Knowing this was all he would ever be and it would only get worse. That gave him more satisfaction than the man's death.

He sighed and turned on his side facing the wall. He could hear Rico's soft breaths behind him. At least he doesn't snore, he thought with a smile. He knew he needed some sleep. Hadn't got much last night or any night lately for that matter. He'd have to be sharp tomorrow until he crossed the border at least. He closed his eyes and willed sleep to come.

*

Johnny was up before dawn. He dressed silently and slipped out of the room. At the livery, he saddled Barranca and led him out and to the alley behind Esperanza's, ready to go once he roused Rico and fed the boy.

He headed upstairs and managed to get a sleepy and grumpy kid up and dressed and downstairs in what he figured was record time. He wasn't in the best mood himself and didn't want to hear a bunch of whining. Esperanza fed them, all the while watching warily.

"So, you are a father now?" she finally asked.

He looked up at her with surprise then relaxed his face. "I'm taking him to an orphanage near where I live. It's a sight better than any around here. He'll have a decent chance anyway," he explained.

She nodded, evidently satisfied with the answer.

Johnny shook his head, still unable to fathom the woman's attitude. He wiped his mouth on his napkin and looked at the boy. "Ready?"

All he got was a nod and Rico stood up and walked outside.

Esperanza grabbed him and hugged him tightly. "Be careful, nino. Have a good life."

He smiled. "I will, mamacita. Gracias, for everything."

When he walked outside, Rico was trying his best to get his foot in the stirrup. Johnny chuckled and pulled him away by the shoulder. He mounted up and held out an arm which Rico took begrudgingly. Once the boy was settled, Johnny adjusted his hat and turned Barranca into the street.

They were almost to the edge of town when it happened.

His nerves sang to him and his eyes widened in alert. Right hand going to his hip as he took the reins in his left.

They rounded a corner. Three of them. Johnny cursed when he saw the clothes of the rurales. He focused on the middle one, locking onto the man's eyes and keeping the others in his periphery. They all three drew nearly at the same time.

Johnny drew and fired five shots before shouting at the boy to hold on tight. When he felt Rico obey, he kicked Barranca into a gallop. He took off in a cloud of dust, pummeling through the injured men falling from their saddles and leaving the shouts to die behind him. Hoping that wasn't the only thing he was leaving behind.

He knew he'd hit all three just not how badly they were injured. He couldn't think about that right now. He needed to get as far away as he could. To the border. He couldn't stop until he crossed the Rio Grande and he was thankful Barranca had had a nice long rest. It wasn't really that far and he knew the horse could do it. He leaned into the palomino's neck, feeling Rico lean with him.

He shouted back at the boy. "Are you hit?"

He got a healthy "no!" in return and gave thanks.

As they reached the river, Johnny slowed the palomino to an easy lope. He chanced a look behind him but could see no sign of pursuit. Not relaxing for a second, he eased the horse into the water and crossed easily. Up the slight embankment on the other side, he once again spurred the animal into a ground eating pace, anxious to put as much distance between himself and Mexico as possible.

During this entire time, Johnny cursed and mumbled under his breath and in his head, angry with himself for being so careless. If it had been just him, there would be no problem. But it wasn't. He shivered a little as he thought of how easily Rico could have been killed back there. And it wasn't over. It wouldn't be over until he got safely home.

Sitting straighter in the saddle, he winced. Getting safely home wasn't feeling like an option either. The world began to spin and he clamped his legs tighter around the horse's sides, grabbing the saddle horn in an iron grip.

*

Rico was beginning to think he'd never stop panting. That his heart would never stop pounding loudly in his ears. For that was all he could hear. No other sound would penetrate, not since Johnny had shouted out to him. He did manage to loosen his grasp around the man's waist about five miles this side of the border.

Never had he experienced anything so frightening. Yet, at the same time, it was exciting. He smiled a little, thankful to be alive and happy to be with this man who gave more thought to his well-being than anyone had in a very long time. Rico felt secure for the first time in ages.

His hands slipped down a little as he relaxed and he frowned. He felt something wet and warm. Pulling his left hand back, he gasped at the red staining his fingers. He leaned to his left, trying to see Johnny's face but he couldn't. He wasn't sure he should say anything. Surely the man knew he'd been shot. Rico didn't want to touch the wound again so he figured out in his mind where his hand had been and where the wound was located. He shivered, thinking it was a very bad place to get shot.

While he was considering what he should do, he noticed the horse slowing down and Johnny leaning forward and slightly to the right. His head was dropping more and more with each step the animal took. Rico knew Johnny was about to fall. He grabbed him by the right shoulder in a tight fist and shook as hard as he could.

Johnny's head snapped up and he blinked several times. Shaking his head to clear the cobwebs, he turned to look back toward the boy, knowing he wouldn't be able to see his face. He nodded then surveyed the surroundings, trying to get his bearings. Glancing up at the sky he realized they were headed northwest. A good thing.

He sucked in a breath and grimaced at the fire in his side. "Canteen," he said softly.

It appeared around him and he took it, drinking deeply and sighing out as he handed it back.

"There's a town about twenty miles or so ahead. We'll stop there," he spoke.

"Can you make it that far?" Rico asked.

"I can make it," Johnny replied softly and a small smile lifted his mouth.

"We should stop. You are hurt," Rico argued lightly.

Johnny shook his head slowly. "Nothing you can do, kid. I just hope there's a doc around." He knew there wasn't much he could do either. He pulled out his shirt tail and stuffed the end into the wound, allowing a grunt and a hiss of pain. Then, he continued toward the town.

*

Rico kept a close watch on his new amigo. Anytime Johnny seemed to falter, he'd give his right shoulder a shake. It quickly became a sign between them. Rico saying wake up, Johnny responding with a jerky nod.

They entered the small town of Greenville, Arizona as casually as possible. Johnny scanned the streets and alleys, the storefronts and especially the saloon. He saw a sheriff's office and further down, a doctor's office. His shoulders slumped in relief. He didn't know what he would have done if there'd been no doctor. Died, he reckoned with a small snort.

He pulled to a stop directly in front of the small porch with it's weathered shingle announcing the office of Charles Canton, M.D.

Rico made a precarious jump off the back and landed without much grace. But he scrambled and kept his feet under him then tethered Barranca to the hitching post.

Johnny never moved. He sat still in the saddle and Rico looked up at his glazed eyes. He frowned, knowing he couldn't get Johnny down then ran inside to get help.

In short order a man of medium height with a slightly bulging middle appeared and grabbed his arm. Johnny jerked away and the man found himself staring down the barrel of a Colt .45. Eyes widening in fright, the man backed away.

"Johnny, this is el doctoro. El doctoro, Johnny," Rico explained with urgency.

Johnny blinked and focused on first Rico then the doctor. He nodded and slipped the gun in its holster then started to dismount. He got one foot on the ground and fell the rest of the way. Dr. Canton caught him up and dragged him inside, his eyes darting around the street a little frantic that no one was about.

"I can walk if you'll stop pullin on me," Johnny insisted gruffly.

"I doubt that, young man. We're almost there anyway. Save you energy to get on the table," the doctor's voice was low and a bit gravelly. He reminded Johnny a bit of Jelly.

"Sorry about the gun, Doc. I'm a little out of it," he apologized.

Dr. Canton heard the sincerity in his voice through the gritted teeth and he smiled to himself a little. Feeling much better about his new patient. A hardened killer would not apologize for his rudeness. Plus the fact that he was traveling with a young boy. Though the doctor wasn't so sure what that was about. At the moment, it didn't matter. It was evident this man was in serious trouble.

Johnny hefted himself onto the table somehow but his face was crimson from the strain. Dr. Canton eased him down and quickly began his examination. Finding the problem was the easy part.

After probing for a few minutes, he straightened himself and sighed. "I need to get some water on to boil and prepare you for surgery." He hesitated and glanced at Rico.

"Perhaps the boy could take your horse to the livery?" he suggested.

Johnny opened his eyes and nodded. "Yeah, take care of him for me, Rico. Okay? Tell the livery man to give him the best feed and turn him out in the corral every day." He reached into his pocket with some effort and tossed the coins to the boy. "Give him this and tell him there's more to come."

Rico nodded and accepted the money but he didn't want to leave. Still, he knew doing this would help his friend so he went, slowly.

Dr. Canton pulled up a chair and looked Johnny directly in the eye. "Is that your son?"

"No!" he exclaimed. Then softer, "No, we just kind of hooked up in Mexico. I was taking him to an orphanage near my home."

Canton nodded and smiled. "Where's home?"

"California," Johnny sighed out.

"Do you have family there? Because I think you should send for them."

Johnny's eyes locked onto his and he read the thoughts easily. A slow grin brightened his face. "Tryin to tell me somethin, Doc?"

The older man frowned. "This is quite serious. That wound is deep and you've already lost a lot of blood. Sticking your shirt tail in it didn't help. It's infected as well. Mister ....." he stopped, realizing he didn't even know the man's name.

"Lancer. Johnny Lancer."

"Charles Canton," he replied. "Mr. Lancer, there is a very real possibility you won't survive this surgery. Of course, I'll do all I can but there are no guarantees," he said.

"Sure aren't," Johnny mumbled then went into his own head.

Should he send for them? He could just hear Scott now. I told you so. It irked him to even think of the words coming from his brother. And he knew those exact words wouldn't be uttered but something like it. Something real close, he was sure. Still, they had a right to know.

Scott's words came back to him. 'How will we know if you get yourself killed?'

Johnny closed his eyes for a second, so very tired all the sudden. He nodded his head and gave the doctor the information he would need to wire his family.

Canton jotted it down and made to stand when he felt a hand on his arm. He settled back in the seat and looked expectantly at his patient.

"Got an extra piece of paper? I'd like to write a quick note to my father just in case," he smiled a little and shrugged.

*

Rico was proud of how he'd handled the livery man. He walked back to the doctor's office with the smile sliding off his face. He knew when he was being sent from a room so he didn't hear something bad. His mother used to do that all the time. He also knew Johnny was bad hurt and he was scared. For Johnny and for himself. What would happen to him if Johnny died?

Berating himself for being selfish, he decided it just wasn't going to happen. Johnny had made it this far and he would be just fine. He kept thinking this over and over as he walked back. But, when he entered the office, his bravado faded and his fear returned. He stepped hesitantly into the back room.

The doctor was gone and Johnny's eyes were closed. Rico wasn't sure if he was awake or not. He walked to the side of the table and just stood there staring.

Johnny felt the eyes on him and opened his own. He smiled at Rico who returned it, albeit with a waver.

"I'm gonna be okay. Doc's gonna send a telegram to my family so they'll be coming in a few days. Don't worry, kid. If anything happens to me, they'll make sure you're taken care of."

Rico's chest puffed out. "I can take care of myself. I do not need you or anyone!"

"Sure, kid. I know you can. Just let them help though, okay? Makes them feel good to help people. Promise me you'll go to that orphanage like we talked about. It's a really good place. Clean and warm. Promise, okay?" Johnny's voice was fading and he was having a hard time keeping his eyes open but he did. He stared at Rico until the boy acknowledged him.

"I promise."

"Good," Johnny breathed out. "Now, you wait in the other room. You don't need to be seein this."

*

Murdoch stepped off the boardwalk and started across the street only to be stopped by someone shouting his name. He turned to see Vern waving frantically at him and he strode over to the telegram office.

"Glad you were in town, Murdoch. I just got this," Vern said breathlessly.

Murdoch frowned at the man's anxiety and felt some of his own. He read the missive and found himself a bit breathless. Closing his eyes briefly, he calmed himself and nodded curtly to the man.

"Thank you, Vern."

"I'll send up a prayer, Murdoch," Vern said worriedly.

Murdoch smiled at him. "Thank you. I hope it isn't needed but it never hurts."

Once more he headed for his original destination. Val's office. Scott was there waiting for him and visiting the lawman. Murdoch knew he was probably haranguing poor Val for information the man did not possess. Murdoch wished to the heavens he possessed no knowledge either. Scott was going to be very upset about this.

"I knew it!" Scott shouted as he slammed his hat against the nearest wall. He placed his hands on his hips and glared into space. Breathing seemed to be a problem for him so he concentrated on that for a few seconds.

"No idea how bad it is?" Val asked.

"Not really. It just says we should come," Murdoch replied, his own voice much quieter and calmer than the other two.

"Well, what are we waiting for?" Scott snapped.

Murdoch gave him a sidelong look but didn't chastise him for his tone. "We'll send word to the ranch, buy some supplies and head out," he said instead.

"Wish I could go with ya but ..." Val trailed off, hating that Johnny was hurt bad and he couldn't be there.

"We'll let you know as soon as we do, Val," Murdoch said.

"Thanks. I'll keep an eye on the ranch and run messages for ya if need be."

Murdoch could see Scott getting ready to bolt so he ended the discussion with Val with an apologetic smile that wasn't required by the sheriff.

But Murdoch thought before they got very far out of town he was going to have to sit on his elder son to calm him down. Scott kept muttering under his breath. Though he couldn't hear his son's words, Murdoch was sure they weren't very charitable. Well, he thought, let him get it out now instead of in Arizona.

*

Dr. Canton washed his hands of the blood covering them with a worried frown. The young man had made it through the surgery though he didn't know how. So much blood on top of what he'd already lost. From the scars he'd seen on that torso, though, he wasn't surprised at the sheer willpower of his patient.

Seems this one had been through the wringer more than a few times. He wondered once more at the initial greeting he'd gotten. He hadn't even seen Lancer go for his gun yet there it was in his hand. And he still didn't know how or where this had happened. Well, it wasn't his business. He'd let the sheriff deal with that. If he got the chance that was.

Lancer's pulse was weak, his breathing shallow and fast. His heart was working too hard with the little blood it had to go on. He had to get some fluids into the young man and he figured he'd best get to it before this one came round. He had a feeling his patient wasn't easy to get along with when it came to medicine. How he knew this was a mystery. But, he supposed after all these years he could read a person pretty well by now.

He opened a cabinet and pulled out a length of tubing then set about the chore, grateful to do it whilst Johnny was unconscious.

As he finished administering the fluids he heard the front door open and sighed. Hope it's not an emergency, he thought. I don't want to leave him.

The curtain moved and a large man with a brown moustache and browner eyes stepped through, glancing around the room and settling his gaze on the unconscious man on the table.

"How's he doin?"

"It's touch and go right now, Clem. I've sent for his family but it will take a few days for them to get here, I'd imagine," the doctor responded.

"Reckon that means you've got a name for me," the sheriff half-asked.

"Johnny Lancer from Morro Coyo, California."

Sheriff Adkins moved closer to the bedside and studied the man. "Lancer, huh? I don't think so, Doc."

"What do you mean? He gave me all the information," the bewildered physician asked.

The sheriff shrugged. "Don't know what he's callin himself these days but, that's Johnny Madrid."

Rico stepped into the room, his mouth agape as he heard the legendary name.

"Are you sure?" Dr. Canton asked.

"I'm sure. I've seen him before a time or two. That is definitely Madrid," Adkins claimed.

"Well," the doctor sighed, "it doesn't really matter. He's badly hurt and he may not survive. If he does have family in California, I hope they come."

Rico backed out of the room and slumped into a chair in the front office. How many stories had he been told of Johnny Madrid? Pistolero with a heart of gold. Hero to the peons. Hated by the rurales.

Rico sat up. The rurales! That's why they were after him. He hadn't been able to figure that out. Now, he knew. Johnny had done nothing wrong that he knew of. But, he didn't have to for the rurales to try and kill him. He knew the tale of the firing squad. How Madrid had escaped, taking down those rurales as he did. Striking a blow for the ordinary people like him.

A frown furrowed his young brow. Now, they may well have killed him. Finally may have killed the great Johnny Madrid. No! He refused to believe that would happen. They couldn't win against Madrid. They just couldn't! Rico knew those three back in Mexico were dead or near it and he was glad of it. All his young life he had been subjected to the cruelty of the rurales. Men who used their power to steal and kill. To threaten and berate.

But not Johnny. He had made them pay whenever he could.   Some said he made it his personal business to ensure their lives were made intolerable. To keep them from enjoying their spoils.

Well, Rico thought, this sheriff - this rurale - would not harm his amigo. He would protect Johnny himself until his familia arrived. A curious expression graced his face. He had never before heard of Madrid having familia. Never heard of him being in California. Well, it didn't matter. Johnny had been sure his family would take care of Rico so they must be good people.

He stood and walked back inside and right up to the table where Johnny lay. He scowled at the sheriff and nudged him out of the way so the man wouldn't be any nearer Johnny than necessary.

Sheriff Adkins raised a brow at the boy then smiled a little.

"Keep me up to date, Doc. I'd like to know what happened. Unless you can tell me boy?" Adkins directed his attention to Rico.

The boy looked up at him with the same hateful scowl then went back to watching Johnny.

"Guess not," the sheriff mumbled then left.

*

For two and a half days Scott had spoken little and slept less. Murdoch was growing weary of his son's attitude and decided it was time to rein the younger man in.

As they sat by the campfire having their breakfast and anticipating reaching Greenville by noon, Murdoch started.

"I hope you aren't planning on greeting your brother with this demeanor," he said casually.

Scott looked up with a frown on his face. The same frown he'd had since the telegram had arrived.

"Son, we don't know how badly Johnny is hurt but I have to think it's pretty serious. Otherwise, he wouldn't have told this doctor how to contact us. He would have simply given himself five minutes to heal and been on his way home," Murdoch reasoned.

Scott dropped his eyes as he considered this. "I hadn't thought of that," he said softly.

"You haven't thought of anything other than how angry you are with Johnny. It won't do any good, you know that."

Scott stood and tossed the rest of his coffee on the fire. "I know that, Murdoch. But, I knew he'd get himself in trouble. Why does he have to be so stubborn!?" He clenched his fist and slapped them against his thighs.

Murdoch suppressed a smile. "He comes by it honestly. I highly doubt he intended to get shot, though. We don't know what happened, son. It may be prudent to wait until we hear the story."

Scott snorted at this. "Do you really think he'll tell us? He wouldn't before."

Murdoch pondered this for a few seconds. "No, he wouldn't. But, maybe now that he's done whatever he needed to do, he'll explain."

Scott turned and looked down at his father with wonderment. "I can't believe this is you talking. You've seldom given him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his past."

Murdoch sighed and stood up, stretching out a bit. "You're right. But I saw his face that morning he left. Whatever this was, it was painful for him. I guess I'm learning that I can't hold such a tight rein with Johnny. He'll only buck if I do."

Scott smiled at that. "Very true. Shall we go? I'm still angry with him but I want to get there and make sure he's okay."

*

For three days, Rico had barely left Johnny's side. And for three days the man had only come round for short periods. Each time he did, the doctor was there to examine him and pour something down that ugly tube in Johnny's nose. Rico didn't know what it was but he didn't think it was hurting his friend. Johnny's color seemed better to him. He wasn't so awfully pale now.

That gringo sheriff came back yesterday but he didn't get to talk to Johnny. Rico thought that was a good thing. He was sure the man had nothing good on his mind. He was going to protect Johnny until he could protect himself again.

Rico hadn't had much experience with guns but he knew how to load one. So, he did just that. Reloaded Johnny's gun and slipped it under the pillow. He'd moved Johnny's hand there once when the man was awake to let him feel it. Johnny had smiled sleepily at him and Rico knew he'd done good.

At noon, the doctor came to get him like every day and made him go eat. The kitchen was only a room away but Rico didn't like it. He wanted to be where he could see Johnny. So he ate very fast and always felt a little sick afterward but he shrugged it off and hurried back to the sick bed.

When he came back today, two men were there. He heard the older one say "Another stray."

*

Murdoch and Scott rode up to the doctor's office and dismounted quickly. Hurrying inside, they felt an urgency to lay eyes on the youngest Lancer.

The doctor greeted them and filled them in on the young man's injury. Two glum men walked into the back room.

Murdoch went to his son's side, Scott taking the other side. Both took a hand and held on as Murdoch began calling to him.

"He's so pale," Scott noted.

"He's better than he was. His heart rate and breathing are better as well," the doctor informed them.

"Do you know how it happened?" Murdoch asked.

Dr. Canton shook his head. "No, he rode up to my door and the boy came and got me."

Murdoch turned then. "Boy? What boy?"

"His name is Rico and your son said they hooked up somewhere. That's really all I know except the child has barely left his side. He's eating lunch right now but he'll be back any minute. He's never far away," the doctor said with a hint of amusement at the hero worshipping boy.

Murdoch sighed. "Another stray," he said under his breath.

Scott heard him and smiled a little, squeezing Johnny's hand tightly.

*

Rico walked in hurriedly. "Who are you?" he demanded.

Both men looked him over quickly.

"I'm Murdoch Lancer, Johnny's father. This is his brother, Scott," the rancher announced.

Rico took them in and wasn't convinced. "He is not Johnny's hermano. He is demasiado blanco."

Murdoch chuckled and Scott's eyes narrowed.

"What did he call me?" he asked defensively.

Murdoch cleared his throat. "He said you're too white." He turned back to the boy, instinctively knowing this had to be handled carefully. "Scott and Johnny had different mothers, Rico. I understand you've been taking care of my son. I'll never be able to repay you." His voice was now sincere as were his words.

Rico studied the information and lowered his eyes. "De nada. Johnny is mi amigo. He took care of me and I take care of him."

Scott smiled. Johnny had a way with kids, with strays.

"I'm very grateful to you as well, Rico," he added.

Rico eyed him, still unsure of the gringo. Either of them really but the big one seemed alright. A sigh from the bed garnered all their attention.

"Johnny?" Murdoch called.

Black lashes fluttered once, then again and went still. After a few seconds, they started again. Johnny was working hard to awaken, it was easy to see. At last, he managed to open his eyes.

He blinked at the thin curtain marring his vision and the image cleared somewhat. Johnny sighed softly and tried to smile but he didn't think he'd pulled it off.

"Hey," he said in a cracked and dry voice.

"Easy, son. Take some water," Murdoch spoke quietly and helped him with the fluids.

He took several breaths as the exertion of simply swallowing took its toll. Johnny closed his eyes and fought fiercely for control, eventually winning.

"Sorry," he breathed out.

Murdoch frowned. "For what?"

He glanced around the room quickly. "This. All of it."

Murdoch rolled his eyes a little. "Stop it, son. You surely didn't get shot on purpose, did you? Don't worry about that. Just focus on healing. That's your only job right now."

Johnny nodded and his forehead creased. "Scott?"

"Right here, brother."

Johnny slowly turned his head toward the voice and found his brother smiling at him. He was relieved Scott didn't seem angry but that could be a put on. He could be hiding it for now. Johnny was pretty sure Scott was still spittin mad. He was only taking a break because Johnny was hurt. Yep, he thought, that's probably it. He smiled a little at his brother then turned back to his father.

He tried to lift his head but that wasn't a good idea. "Where's Rico?" he asked, his voice still so weak.

"Here, amigo," the boy answered, promptly edging up to the bed.

Murdoch scooted back a little, amused at the boy's protectiveness.

"I see you've met my family. Let them watch out for you til I'm better, okay?"

Rico scowled at him. "I do not need anyone to take care of me."

Johnny gave him a most exasperated look. "Just do what I say, okay? Don't argue with me. You promised." Somehow, he'd managed a stronger tone for the boy.

Rico dropped his head and nodded, not wanting to upset his friend. "Muy bien," he mumbled.

Johnny nodded and closed his eyes feeling the weight on them and unable to hold back any longer. A grimace stole onto his face.

"Gentlemen, I need to take care of my patient," the doctor interrupted.

Johnny's eyes flew back open and he took in the physician. "No more laudanum," he said briskly.

"You need it. And you need the rest it provides," Canton argued.

"No, I don't need it. I'll rest just fine. No more medicine, comprende?" he cocked a brow and gave the doctor one of his most menacing stares.

"Johnny doesn't like laudanum, Doctor. It's best if you don't try to force it on him," Scott intervened.

Dr. Canton looked between the two and shook his head. "If you want to suffer that's your decision. I do need to give you other medicines for the fever, though. They won't make you sleepy."

Johnny nodded and closed his eyes again, drifting off as his family watched.

*

"Is there a hotel in town?" Murdoch asked the doctor once he'd finished caring for Johnny.

"Yes, but the boarding house three doors down is nicer and closer."

"I'll get us some rooms and take care of the horses," Scott offered and stood. "Rico, do you want to come with me?"

The boy shook his head and kept staring at Johnny.

"Johnny asked us to take care of you, son. I don't take that lightly. I think it's best if you go with Scott and get settled in. Then, you can both come back," Murdoch said paternally.

Rico's deep brown eyes penetrated Murdoch's gray-blue ones. He looked at the man for long seconds then, finding what he needed there, he nodded and walked out the door.

Scott gave his father a shrug and went after the kid, wondering what it was about him the boy didn't seem to like.

They walked to the boarding house and procured two rooms then to the livery to stable the horses. Rico went straight inside as Scott spoke with the owner.

"Johnny wants him turned out in the corral, Senor," Rico stated as he came back out.

The owner chuckled at the boy. "He's been in the corral all day, kid. Don't you worry about that animal. I'm takin good care of him. I'll take good care of these, too."

Scott smiled and was beginning to see the deep attachment the boy had formed with his brother. "We appreciate that, don't we, Rico?"

The boy shrugged indifferently and followed Scott after he'd removed the saddle bags and slung them over his shoulder.

Once in the room, Scott studied the boy who stood in the middle of the floor. "You don't like me much, do you?" he asked pointedly.

Rico looked up in surprise then shrugged.

Scott sat on the end of the bed and leaned forward, resting his forearms on his thighs and clasping his hands together. "I am grateful to you for helping my brother, Rico."

"He is mi amigo," the boy said simply.

"Yes, you said that before. How did you two meet?" Scott asked, suppressing the smile that threatened.

Rico's mouth clamped down, his lips pressed together tightly and he just stared at Scott.

"Well, if you don't want to tell me that's okay. Johnny will when he's better," Scott said nonchalantly.

"If he wishes to tell you that is his business," the boy said snidely.

Scott straightened his posture and looked pointedly at the child. "Perhaps. But in the meantime, I expect someone somewhere along the line has taught you some manners. You need to use them right about now."

Rico's mouth opened but he didn't get a chance to reply.

"My brother is very sick and I have no intention of listening to your smart mouth. I have enough to worry about. It's your business if you don't like me but I expect you to respect my relationship with Johnny. Do we understand one another?"

The boy's face reddened substantially but he simply nodded at Scott, crossed his arms over his chest and turned his back melodramatically.

Scott smiled a little and hoped he hadn't been too harsh with the kid. He was tired and aggravated and very worried for his brother. He knew his temper was short right now but he couldn't seem to help himself. He wanted to know what had happened to Johnny and it was obvious Rico wasn't going to supply any information. How does a boy so young get such an attitude? he wondered.

Standing, Scott went to the door. "Shall we?" he asked as he opened it and waved a hand in front of himself.

Rico turned and stomped out of the room and Scott chuckled to himself.

*

The adults decided they needed to break into shifts. Scott managed to argue his father out of taking the first one and sent him packing to get some much needed rest. Murdoch took Rico with him, albeit not without some finagling. Still, the boy seemed to respond better to the patriarch than the son.

Murdoch insisted Rico take a bath which turned into a major battle. The older man was sure he'd never had such a time convincing anyone they smelled bad. What pulled at his heart was the boy's insistence on complete privacy. He saw a look in those brown eyes that told him more than enough as to the reasons.

So, he patiently allowed the boy his space and indulged in a bath of his own before procuring some supper for the both of them.

When Rico finally emerged looking and smelling ten times better, his food was awaiting him. A smile broke out on his face as he saw the tamales alongside a piece of steak and he plopped into a chair at the small table in the room.

"Those are nice clothes," Murdoch commented between bites.

The boy grinned at him. "Johnny bought them for me."

Murdoch nodded, figuring as much since they were obviously brand new. "Why weren't you wearing them earlier?"

"I did not want to get them dirty."

Sounds reasonable, he thought. Probably hasn't had new clothes in a very long time.

"Don't you have any family, Rico?" he asked trying to keep his tone conversational.

The boy shook his head as he chewed. "Muerto."

"How long?" Murdoch asked.

Rico stopped chewing and squinted up his face as he thought. "Dos anos?"

"And you've been alone for those two years?"

"Si," he shrugged.

Murdoch sighed softly and thought of his own son lying so ill down the street. "How did you meet Johnny?"

Rico dropped his eyes then and swallowed. "I tried to sneak into his camp and steal food."

Murdoch chuckled and the boy looked up with a small smile.

"I take it you weren't successful."

Rico laughed too, now. "No, he was hiding in the trees and caught me. He must have heard me coming." A frown came then as he thought about that night. "He was not upset though."

"No, he wouldn't be," Murdoch commented.

The boy's face brightened then. "We became compadres. We take care of one another."

Murdoch smiled. "Yes, I've seen that and I'm grateful to you. I'd hate to think of Johnny so badly hurt and alone."

Rico seemed to forget about his food as his face wore his excitement. "You should have seen him. Three rurales appeared as we were leaving Nogales. Three! They drew their guns and Johnny shot them all. Bang, bang, bang! Like nothing! Then, he rode right through them so fast, I almost fell off! He did not slow down until we reached Rio Grande. I have never seen anyone so fast!"

His eyes burned brightly with the telling then, suddenly, the light died. "Then, I moved my hand and felt the blood. He never said anything about being shot. He never said anything at all except to ask if I was hurt."

He cocked his head to the side, a quizzical expression now worn. "Why would he not say? Why did he only ask about me?"

Murdoch had been fascinated and disturbed by the tale. He blinked, taken aback a little with the question. "Johnny always thinks of others above himself. It's his nature," he answered quietly.

"Si," Rico nodded. "That is what all the people say about him."

Frowning, Murdoch asked, "What do you mean?"

The boy shrugged. "About Johnny Madrid. How he always helped the poor people. I did not know who he was until we arrived here. The sheriff knew, though. Why does he not use Madrid now?"

Stunned, Murdoch didn't answer right away. "He .... it's a long story, Rico. Johnny didn't grow up with me. But, he came home and we're a family now. He's claimed his rightful name and his place in life."

Rico chewed on that for a minute. "Then, he did not grow up with his hermano?"

"No, he and Scott didn't know about each other." Murdoch smiled. "Another long story."

"How long has Johnny lived with you?"

"About a year and a half now. Why?" Murdoch asked.

The boy shrugged and went back to his supper.

"Rico, do you know how the rurales found Johnny?"

"No," he answered, mouth full. "He was in a hurry to leave that morning but he did not say why."

"Do you know why he was in Nogales?" Murdoch probed.

The boy only shook his head as he continued his meal.

With any luck at all, Johnny will tell me - finally, Murdoch thought.

*

Scott stared at the relaxed face for long moments. Holding Johnny's right hand loosely in his own, he pondered this enigma before him. He was still angry but anger was set aside for now. Johnny's health was of the utmost importance. Anything else was secondary right now. Still, he was determined that, at some point, he'd have his say.

He felt the hand twitch a little and watched the fingers curl then relax. His eyes went to his brother's face as the expressions flew across it. A face no longer relaxed with restful sleep. A face contorting with pain and anguish.

Scott squeezed tightly of the hand and leaned in, speaking softly in his brother's ear. It usually worked, that calming voice of Scott's. But, not this time. Johnny couldn't seem to settle and Scott was on the verge of actually waking him when he heard the front door close.

Thinking his hard-headed father had returned, Scott took to his feet only to find himself face to face with the law. He wasn't terribly surprised.

"I'd heard Madrid's family was here," the man stated.

"His name is Lancer and I'm his brother, Scott, Sheriff," the man said with some irritation.

"Sheriff Adkins," he nodded, ignoring the tone. "Has he come around yet?"

"For a few minutes earlier. Why?" Scott positioned himself between the sheriff and his brother.

"I want to know what happened to him and if I need to be lookin for trouble," Adkins said flatly.

Scott stared at him for a long beat. "When he wakes up, I'll ask him."

"I'd like to do that myself, if you don't mind, Mr. Lancer," Adkins replied.

"I do mind, Sheriff. My brother is very sick and he doesn't need to be harassed right now. I'm sure if there was any danger, Johnny would have told us first thing."

Sheriff Adkins smiled at the young man before him. "Maybe. But, it's my job to question him when he's able. It's that simple."

Scott had to acknowledge the truth of the statement but he wasn't going anywhere. No way would he let the lawman question his brother without someone there to referee. He didn't want Johnny upset.

"Scott?"

Scott whirled around and took his seat, leaning in close to Johnny. "Hey, there."

"Who're you fightin with?" Johnny asked drowsily.

"Me? I don't fight, Johnny. I debate," Scott grinned.

Johnny tried to laugh but ended up with a soft cough instead. "Who're you debatin with then?"

"I'm Sheriff Adkins, Mr. Ma .... Lancer. I'd like to ask you a few questions," the man interrupted.

Scott shot him a most unpleasant look.

"Not much to tell, Sheriff. Happened across the border. Nothin for you to worry about," Johnny spoke softly.

"Maybe. Maybe not. Any chance whoever did this would come after ya to make sure the job was finished?" Adkins asked.

Scott was ready to pounce but he felt a hand on his arm, squeezing lightly.

"Doubt it, Sheriff," Johnny answered.

"Are you sayin they're dead?"

"I don't know. Didn't hang around to find out but they won't cross the border," Johnny stated.

Adkins stepped to the end of the bed, tired of looking over Scott's head. "How can you be so sure?"

Johnny eyed him then shrugged a little. "Rurales never cross the border. And before you ask, no I'm not wanted for anything."

Adkins eyebrows rose. "Then why'd they shoot ya?"

"Because they don't like me and the feeling is mutual," Johnny grinned.

"Got anyone to back that story up?" Adkins persisted.

Johnny's eyes narrowed. "Nope."

"What about Rico?" Scott asked and received an evil glare.

"The kid? He saw it?" Adkins jumped in.

"No, he didn't see anything. He was behind me the whole time," Johnny stated firmly.

Adkins watched him, saw him tiring and believed him. "Okay, Madrid. As long as nothing else happens," he warned.

"It's Lancer," Johnny sighed and closed his eyes.

Scott watched his brother after the sheriff left, wondering if Johnny had drifted back to sleep. He didn't have to wonder long.

"Leave the boy out of this, Scott."

"I wasn't trying to get him in trouble, Johnny. If he can back up your story, what's the harm?" Scott asked, perturbed at the berating tone of voice.

Johnny cracked his eyes and looked at his brother. "No harm, I guess. Just that he's been through enough."

Scott nodded. "He seems pretty tough."

A small smile flitted across Johnny's face. "Yeah, seems that way. He's just a kid, though."

"Like you were?" Scott raised a brow.

"Maybe," Johnny mumbled. He didn't know if Rico was like him or not. Something told him not. That he was just an orphan with no choices and no chances in life. That he'd seen things, had ugly experiences, Johnny had no doubt. Abuse though. He didn't think so. Hadn't seen that *look* in the boy's eyes. The haunted look he recognized so easily.

"Exactly what are you planning on doing with the boy?" Scott asked.

Johnny's eyes came up, leaving his dark thoughts behind momentarily. "I was going to take him to St. Michael's in Green River. Orphanages in Mexico aren't much more than prisons. No kid has a chance in one of those places." His eyes darkened to almost black as memories assailed him.

He felt Scott's hand on his arm, the pressure increasing slightly and looked at his brother once more.

"You still mad?"

Scott smiled. "Yes, but that can wait until you're better."

"Can wait a lot longer than that for my part," Johnny smiled and closed his eyes.

"Get some rest, brother. Tomorrow will take care of itself." Scott leaned back in the chair and crossed his ankle over his other knee. He watched Johnny go and smiled as the younger man relaxed again. Hopefully, it will last longer this time, he thought.

*

Murdoch was in a foul mood the next morning. He had awakened with the dawning and it took mere seconds for him to realize that Scott had done it to him again. Let him sleep the night away while he sat up with Johnny.

Rico wasn't sure what to make of this grouchy man. He'd seemed nice yesterday. Maybe he's always like this in the morning, he thought. Hedging his bet, he decided it best he didn't speak to the man.

They ate breakfast in the dining room of the boarding house. There were no other customers at the moment and Murdoch was happy about that at least.

Silently, they headed to the doctor's office together.

Murdoch strode through the back door, pushing aside the curtain with more force than necessary. The frown on his face weakened slightly as he saw Scott with his head on his chest, lightly snoring. He walked over and laid a hand on his son's shoulder.

Scott jerked his head up and looked around before settling on his father. He grimaced a little and rubbed at his stiff neck.

"Go get some breakfast and some proper sleep, son. We'll discuss your problem with keeping time later," Murdoch said none too gently.

Scott started to object but thought better of it. He dropped his eyes and saw Rico smiling at him. Scott pulled a face, seeing the boy enjoy him getting in trouble, then he smiled.

"All right, then," he said and stood slowly and stiffly. "I'll see you later," he added as he ducked out of the room, giving his brother one last look.

Murdoch settled in the chair and watched his boy sleep.

Rico walked over to the other side and leaned against the table as the doctor walked in.

"Good morning, Mr. Lancer. I trust you slept well," Canton smiled.

Murdoch growled a little and nodded. "How soon can we move him? That table can't be too comfortable."

"No, I don't suppose so. He looks better. Let me examine him," the doctor said and went about the job.

After examining the wound and changing the bandages, Dr. Canton addressed Murdoch.

"His fever is all but gone and the wound is healing nicely. I think it's safe to move him to the boarding house but he's going to be on bedrest for several more days."

Murdoch sighed a little. "Good luck with that. Johnny doesn't like being still for long."

"If he wants to heal, he's going to have to be. He came very close to dying that first night. I'm not sure what kept him alive other than sheer willpower on his part. He's still quite weak. It's going to take some time to regain any strength," he diagnosed.

Murdoch's blood ran cold at the words. He fought against shivering and won. "We'll make sure he stays put, Doctor. Thank you for all you've done."

"You're welcome. You can move him this afternoon. Now, I really have to get to my rounds. I haven't felt comfortable leaving him until now. But keep him here until I get back. There's broth on the stove. I want him to be able to handle at least that before I remove that tube."

Murdoch nodded his understanding and sat back to wait for Johnny to awaken.

*

An hour later, the young man began to stir. Rico looked at Murdoch and received a nod then went off to the kitchen to warm the broth.

Johnny had no problem opening his eyes this time and they landed on Murdoch immediately. He smiled.

"You look better, old man."

Murdoch hmmphed. "I suppose you do, too. A little anyway. The doctor said we could move you to the boarding house this afternoon but you have to stay in bed, son. And, you need to handle some broth before he'll take out that tube."

Johnny grimaced a little. "I hate broth."

"It is not bad. I tried it," Rico said as he brought a cup in the room.

"Hey, kid. Looks like someone at least threw you in a river or somethin," Johnny grinned.

"He took a bath without too much fuss," Murdoch smiled.

Rico just looked at them both with a blank stare. One Johnny had come to recognize as saying he was unimpressed. He tried to laugh but grabbed his side with the effort.

"Easy, son. Think you can sit up just a little and take some of this?"

Johnny nodded and let his father hold him up as he sipped the chicken broth. It was pretty good, actually. He wondered why Teresa's never tasted like this. After a few minutes he shook his head and Murdoch eased him back down.

"Not bad. Think Teresa's been making it taste bad on purpose all these times?" he asked his father.

"Probably. That's how women get us, you know. Through food," Murdoch joked back. Turning serious, he asked. "how's your stomach?"

Johnny waited a few seconds to determine the answer and shrugged. "Okay." For this he received two big smiles. "Where's Scott?" Johnny asked.

"I sent him to bed. He didn't wake me up last night," Murdoch growled.

Johnny smiled. "You really think he would?"

"I can keep hoping, I guess," the rancher replied and adjusted the covers over his son.

"He's still mad at me," Johnny frowned.

"He said that?" Murdoch asked, a little surprised.

"I asked," Johnny shrugged.

"Well, that can wait until you're on your feet again."

"Yeah, guess so."

Murdoch saw Johnny go inside himself. Knew he was remembering whatever had taken him to Nogales in the first place. He tried to get his son's attention back.

"Rico here is quite impressed with you," he commented.

Johnny looked up at him then at the boy. "Why's that?"

"Well, to hear him tell it, you gunned down an army single-handedly," Murdoch smiled.

"I did not say that. I only said what happened," Rico defended.

"He's just joking with you, kid," Johnny smiled.

"You should have told me you are Johnny Madrid," Rico frowned with displeasure.

"Was and why should I?" Johnny asked.

The boy looked at him then shrugged, not having a good answer for that.

*

Dr. Canton returned and noted Johnny's improved color. He removed the tube after receiving the report that his patient had held down the broth. He released Johnny into Murdoch's care, stating he would check on him daily.

By the time they were ready to move him, Scott had rejoined them. After considerable argument, Johnny was allowed to try and make it on his own two feet. They reached the front door of the doctor's office before he swayed to the left. Murdoch caught him, wrapping an arm around his waist.

Scott opened the door and the two other men stepped out but Johnny pulled up short for a beat, scanning the street. He didn't want anyone seeing him so debilitated. Especially since the sheriff knew who he was. He figured it was all over town and he would just as soon not have trouble waiting for him.

Murdoch allowed the small hesitation, knowing it for what it was. It still rankled him but he couldn't begrudge his son. Not when he'd nearly lost him a few short days ago. He was still astounded by Johnny's recovery time. Though, he wasn't convinced at all that Johnny wasn't putting on a brave face for them. So unnecessary. He wondered if it would ever change.

Satisfied, Johnny allowed his father to guide him to the boarding house, trying to look as casual as possible. Once inside the establishment, Johnny nearly melted to the floor.

Scott grabbed a chair and positioned it behind his brother as Murdoch eased him to the seat. Rico stood on his right waiting.

"I'm okay. Just need a breather," Johnny told the anxious faces.

No one spoke. What was there to say? After a minute Johnny nodded, indicating he was ready for the stairs.

"I don't think so, son. We're out of view now so let us carry you," Murdoch stated.

Johnny looked up at him, then at Scott and relented some. "I can make it if you both lend a hand."

Scott rolled his eyes and took Johnny's right side as Murdoch took the left. Rico walked ahead of them and had the door open and the bedclothes pulled back by the time they got there.

Johnny was sweating pretty good now. His breathing was labored as well. As he was eased onto the bed, Rico poured him a glass of water.

"Gracias, amigo," Johnny smiled at the boy who gained enormous pleasure from the simple acknowledgement.

"Alright, let's get these clothes off and into bed," Murdoch ordered.

Johnny swatted his brother's hand away from his belt with fervor. "I can do that! And everything else."

Scott raised his hands in surrender and stepped back then crossed his arms, waiting for Johnny to pass out.

But he didn't and he managed to shuck his clothes without too much trouble. He had never been especially shy so it didn't bother him to have three sets of eyes on him the entire time.

Murdoch at least got to lift his legs to the mattress and cover him up.

Johnny was asleep within two minutes.

*

The days passed with little conversation passing between the Lancers. Whenever Johnny was awake, Rico chattered up a storm to him. Otherwise, the boy was quiet. It didn't lend much time to getting any information from the younger Lancer son about what had happened and why he'd gone to Mexico. The more Johnny's health improved, the less patience Scott seemed to have.

The doctor removed the stitches ten days after he'd put them there and announced Johnny could travel in two days time. Johnny was not pleased. He'd been ready to go for days now but he wouldn't speak it. Knowing he would only get an argument for his trouble.

That evening, he sat on the porch of the boarding house in a rocking chair and watched the town start to close up for the night. Murdoch walked out and handed him a glass of lemonade then joined him.

"Nice night," the rancher said.

"Yeah."

Murdoch rocked for a few more minutes, stealing glances at his son's profile. "Are you ready to talk about it?"

Johnny's eyes dipped then went back to staring at the street. "It's not that easy, Murdoch. I'd rather wait til we're home to get into it."

He could hear his father's teeth grinding and he grimaced a little. Nothing upset him more than disappointing Murdoch Lancer.

"I suppose that's reasonable," Murdoch finally said.

Johnny looked at him quickly then turned his eyes down the street. "Thanks. It's just that ...." he trailed off then as he stared toward the saloon.

Murdoch couldn't see his face and he leaned forward a little, trying to see what Johnny saw. All he saw was an old drunk staggering down the boardwalk.

"Son?" he called but the young man didn't hear him.

Johnny set his glass down, stood up and stepped over to a support column, leaning against it in that casual stance of his, arms hanging loosely at his sides.

Murdoch's nerves screamed at him and he walked up behind his son. He could only make out Johnny's profile but he seemed totally focused on the figure making toward them. He could see very well that Johnny's shoulders were taut, his fingers curling and relaxing, curling and relaxing.

"Hola, Johnny!" the drunk slurred out loudly.

Johnny didn't answer and Murdoch stepped up beside him.

"I see you are well," Cesar said breathlessly, the walk having about done him in. He hung his head and caught his breath before looking back up with a sickening grin.

"And who is this?" he asked, his eyes leveling on Murdoch.

"You know who it is," Johnny said coldly.

"Si. What a beautiful sight. Father and son sitting together enjoying the evening," he cackled then coughed.

Johnny smiled slightly. "Need some money, Cesar? Ain't drunk enough yet?"

The man laughed again. "I am never drunk enough, Johnny."

The smile stayed where it was as Johnny shrugged lightly. "Well, I'm all tapped out. Sorry," he said though his tone indicated no remorse.

Murdoch watched the exchange with more curiosity than anxiety at the moment.

"How can that be, Juanito? You, the son of a rich rancher," Estevez grinned.

Johnny's eyes narrowed. Icy slivers cut directly into Estevez' heart and the man shrank back a little.

"I told you not to call me that," Johnny spat.

Cesar swallowed and licked his lips. "So you did. Perdonme. A mistake on my part," he bowed.

Johnny snorted, knowing it had been no mistake. Knowing this man was toying with him. He desperately wanted to get Estevez away from here, away from his father before he started spouting off.

So he smiled again and, without taking his eyes off the drunk, addressed his father. "Got a dollar, Murdoch?"

Murdoch was snapped out of his trance at hearing his name and, feeling totally befuddled by the strange exchange, dug in his pocket and handed Johnny the money.

Johnny tossed the coin into the dirt at Cesar's feet. "You can go now," he clipped.

Estevez stared at the money, sorely tempted to grab it up but he didn't. He looked back at Johnny, still grinning.

"Go? But, I have not been properly introduce to your papa. That would be rude, Juan...Johnny."

"If my son wanted to introduce us, Senor, he would have done so. I'm quite sure I don't want to know you," Murdoch spoke in a flat tone.

Johnny smiled again, this time with humor. "No rurales around here to rat me out to, Cesar. Nothing to gain except what's laying at your feet. You better take it. It's all you're gonna get out of me."

Cesar shrugged and stooped to pick up the money. As he straightened, he looked narrowly at Johnny. "Your reputation was earned, Johnny. That is certain. I watched you gun down those three men. It was most entertaining."

"Yeah? I'm sure you were disappointed, too."

Estevez shrugged. "No matter. There is always another way."

Johnny pushed off the column and stood straight. "If that were true, old man, you wouldn't be the pathetic piece of trash you are now. Get out of my sight before I change my mind."

Cesar laughed. "You will not. You would not shoot me down in front of your father. Or on this side of the border, for that matter."

Johnny's expression was missing. "Don't have to shoot you. The way I figure, It wouldn't take much for you to have a real bad accident."

Murdoch nearly gasp aloud at the threat and the tone which brooked no uncertainty. Johnny meant every word he was saying. Deciding now would be a prudent time to get his son away from this man, he laid a hand on Johnny's shoulder.

"It's time for supper, son. Let's go in."

Johnny nodded once then turned on his heel and stalked inside. Apparently unconcerned with any danger this man may invoke. Murdoch followed him, giving a backward glance to the drunk before closing the door.

Johnny headed straight for the dining room and plopped into a seat, his head hung, arms crossed on the table top.

*

Scott and Rico walked into the room and Scott instantly knew something was amiss. He walked over to the table and sat opposite his father and to Johnny's left. This left Rico to sit across from Johnny as Murdoch was on his right.

"What happened?" Scott asked immediately, taking in the pallor and quick breaths from his brother.

"I'm not sure," Murdoch answered him then turned to Johnny. "I don't think this can wait now, son."

Johnny glanced up at him, tidal waves of pain coming from the two blue oceans. But he didn't balk. He sat back and sighed.

"Scott, can you get Rico fed? Me and Murdoch need to go upstairs for a while," he said softly.

The older brother was immediately on the defensive. "I'd like to hear this, too," he said firmly.

Johnny gritted his teeth and held back his anger. "I know you would but, like I told you before, it's got nothing to do with you."

Scott's face glowered. "And it has to do with Murdoch?"

Johnny closed his eyes for a second before answering. "In a way, yeah."

Murdoch caught Scott's eyes with his own then shook his head slightly. Scott grimaced but acquiesced.

"Very well. I'm sure Rico and I will have a fine supper," he said through his teeth.

Johnny stood up suddenly and walked out and up the stairs.

Murdoch held back. "Don't do this, Scott. You'll only alienate him."

Scott opened his mouth but ended with only a curt nod of his head.

*

Murdoch found Johnny pacing the bedroom, arms wrapped tightly around himself and he slumped his own shoulders. He closed the door with a loud click and settled himself in a chair.

Johnny was wishing he had a drink about then. He stopped pacing and looked at his father.

"Where are my saddlebags?"

"They're in the closet," Murdoch answered, wondering why the question had been asked and if he wasn't about to find himself blocking the exit.

Johnny walked over and rummaged for a second before pulling out the bottle of tequila he'd bought and never opened in Nogales. He grabbed up two water glasses and sat at the table with his father. He poured two shots then downed his own in one gulp before refilling it.

Murdoch watched it all, feeling his stomach churn with what could possibly make his son need a drink before talking to him.

Johnny twirled the glass in his hand for a moment, watching the clear liquid dance inside. His eyes were hooded and haunted.

"Cesar Estevez," he said the name and bile rose in his throat. He took a drink.

"I don't know how else to say it except to just spit it out," he went on and looked up at his father.

Murdoch gave a slow nod of understanding and braced himself.

"He killed my mother," Johnny said softly.

Murdoch's hand tightened substantially around his own glass as his jaw clamped down.

"I swore that if I ever found him I'd kill him. The telegram I got was from an old friend telling me Cesar was in Nogales." He stopped as he watched the big hand across the table tighten then relax then tighten again.

"I never expected him to be a drunk. When I knew him he was a thief and a gambler. I remembered him being a big man but I guess that was because I was just a kid. When I saw him again, like that, I figured he was already in hell and I didn't need to help him get into a pine box for it."

Johnny took a drink and released the glass. Standing and walking to the window, he pulled back the curtain and looked out.

"He had a big payday. A lot of gold or so he says. Mama talked about it. Too much. He said she was the reason the rurales found the gold and locked him up. Before they could do that, though, he killed her. They got in a big fight that night. I didn't know what was going on. All the sudden, she hit him across the face. I guess her nails scratched him. That got him pretty mad and he threw her against the wall."

He stopped and let out a shuddering breath. "Then, he drew his gun and shot her in the chest."

Murdoch closed his eyes and lowered his head, shaking it slowly. "What did you do?"

Johnny glanced over at him, Murdoch's eyes now back on him. "Nothing. I mean, I stood there, froze up. I didn't know what to do. I couldn't seem to move. I wanted to go to her but ..... it was plain she was already dead. It was a killing shot." His voice quivered then and he cleared his throat.

"All the sudden, I looked over at him and he turned to me. The gun was still in his hand and his eyes were blank. Like he wasn't really there. Then, he pulled the trigger again."

Murdoch sucked in a breath at this, thinking his heart just stopped beating. "What happened?" he managed.

Johnny turned his profile to his father, leaning against the wall with his head down, and shrugged. "He shot me in the gut. Next thing I remember, I woke up in a mission with a priest hovering over me prayin. He told me it had been two weeks."

Murdoch felt the room spinning around him, blackness edging his periphery and he hoped he didn't just fall over. He never knew how Maria had died but he always suspected Johnny had been there when it happened. To find out his son had very nearly met the same fate that day .... he was just a boy!

"By then, Cesar was long gone. I didn't know it then but he was in prison."

Murdoch heard the words but didn't register them just then.

Johnny finally managed to look at him and he was shocked at what he saw. He hurried to his father's side and knelt beside him, placing a hand over Murdoch's own.

"Hey, you okay?" he whispered.

Murdoch blinked several times and felt his hand being lifted. Then he felt the cool glass at his lips and drank long of the liquor.

Johnny watched him closely, unsure if Murdoch wasn't going to pass out. Their eyes met and Murdoch saw the worry there. He smiled weakly.

"I'm sorry, son. I .. I guess I'm just in shock. That man shot you. A child!"

Johnny smiled a little himself. "Now you know why I didn't want to tell you about this." He stood and walked back to the window.

"Anyway, I saw Cesar in Nogales and ... well, I messed up. Told him I was Johnny Madrid. He ran his mouth off and the rurales caught wind of it. Or, he went straight to them, maybe. Either way, they caught up to me as I was leaving town. Rico told you the rest."

It was quiet for a long time then. No sound but their breathing could be heard. That and Murdoch's teeth grinding. Johnny stood tense and waited for his father.

"Why the hell didn't you kill that bastard?" Murdoch spurted out suddenly.

Johnny looked wide-eyed at him. "I told you why."

Murdoch took to his feet and began to pace the room himself. It seemed as if he was working something out in his mind. Then, he started.

"I will never understand that woman. Why, in the name of all that is holy she didn't send you home - or leave you at home - is beyond me. She put you in harm's way, nearly got you killed and for what? So you could end up alone? So you could turn to the gun to make a living? She made sure you wouldn't come to me, that's clear. She never gave a minute's thought to what she was doing. To the kind of life she was exposing you to. To what might become of you should anything happen to her. Of course not! She never gave a thought to anything but her own selfish needs!"

"Murdoch!"

He stopped and whipped around at the sound of his name. Realizing what he'd just said and to whom, he faltered.

"Don't talk about her like that. Not to me, old man. She loved me. She did the best she could," Johnny spoke in a trembling voice.

"Did she, Johnny? I don't think so. The best she could have done was leave you with me. The best she could have done was stuck it out and worked on our marriage instead of running off with the first man she could find!"

"Look, I know she messed up. And I'll never know why she lied to me about you. But, no matter what happened. No matter what she did, she was my mother and I loved her. Don't you *ever* talk about her like that again!" Johnny stood with his fists clenched at his sides, rage filling his eyes.

Murdoch stared at him for a long beat then relented. "I'm sorry, son. You're right. I should never have said those things. I'm so angry about what happened to you. My God, Johnny. You couldn't have been more than, what? Twelve?"

"I was ten," he said, his own voice softening.

"Ten. Ten years old and gut shot," Murdoch's voice cracked between the last two words. He turned away as emotions welled inside him, threatening to spill over as his mind's eye saw the whole thing as Johnny had described it.

Johnny slumped his shoulders and hung his head, hating himself for doing this. For telling the whole thing. Why had he? Why hadn't he just told Murdoch the very basics and left out his own pain? Because you needed to tell someone, he thought. He walked over to his father and placed a hand on his back.

"I'm sorry, Murdoch. I shouldn't have told you all that. I guess I just needed to let it out."

Murdoch took a deep breath and faced his son. "Yes, you should have told me and I'm glad you did. I want to kill that sonofabitch. But, I think you're right. He's already in hell."

Johnny dropped his eyes and frowned. "Yeah, well, there's more."

Murdoch couldn't believe it. He wasn't sure he could stand anymore but he also knew Johnny needed to tell it.

"Can we sit down?" Murdoch asked with a slight smile.

"Sure," Johnny mumbled and returned to the table. He took another drink and a deep breath before starting.

"When I talked to him in Nogales, he told me some things. I don't know how much is true but he was trying to work me. He said he knew about you back then. He knew who you were and where you were and that you didn't throw us out. He said she told me that so I wouldn't leave her. I'm not sure I believe that but I thought you should know. He tried to scam me into going after Lancer. That's when I told him I'd come home and about Madrid." Johnny shook his head at his own stupidity.

Murdoch sighed. "Do you think he'll stop now? Stay away from you?"

"I don't know. He did follow me here. Of course, he ain't too smart," Johnny smirked. "He can't hurt us, though."

"I really don't want to take that chance."

Johnny looked at him. "You want me to arrange an accident?"

Murdoch's brows raised as he looked into his son's eyes. Johnny was dead serious.

"No, son. I suppose there's nothing we can do about him."

Johnny snorted, knowing that wasn't true. "I wish I'd never gone to Nogales. I almost didn't but I didn't think I could act like everything was fine. I had to know for sure and I knew the only way was to face him."

"Had to know what for sure?" Murdoch asked.

"If I could kill him or if I could let him live. He was one of the reasons I fought so hard, ya know? Hating him kept me going through some pretty rough times." His voice was so soft, Murdoch leaned in to hear.

"And hating me."

Johnny glanced up and shrugged. "Yeah, that too."

Murdoch reached across the table and laid a hand on Johnny's arm, squeezing tightly.

"Anyway, at least I know why he killed her. Doesn't help any but I know."

Murdoch nodded then frowned. "There is something else, son. Scott."

Johnny leaned back and closed his eyes briefly. He nodded but wouldn't look up.

"Are you going to tell him about this?" Murdoch asked.

"No." The response was quick and decisive.

"May I ask why not?" the rancher inquired.

"Because it's none of his business, Murdoch. I've been thinking about it a lot. I knew I had to tell you but that's because you had a right to know. You're my father and her husband. This has nothing to do with Scott."

"I understand what you're saying, son, but he's your brother."  

"Half brother."

"Johnny!"

"I'm not saying that makes a difference any other time. It's just that, well, there's parts," Johnny frowned.

Murdoch shook his head, not understanding. "Parts?"

"Yeah. There's a part that's us. You, me and Scott as a family. Then there's the part that's you and him and Garrett. Then there's the part that's you and me and mama. I know I'm not saying this right but sometimes, those parts have to stay separate."

"Why do they have to stay separate? All those parts include us all, don't they? Shouldn't we .... meld them together? Isn't that how we stay strong?" Murdoch queried.

Johnny didn't answer right away. He wasn't really sure how to explain it but he knew Scott would get it. "Okay, would you ever tell me what happened with you and Garrett? What he did to keep you away from Scott?" he asked.

Murdoch lowered his eyes.

"Exactly," Johnny said. "Scott won't talk about it either and that's okay. I understand that. I always have. It's got nothing to do with how the three of us are together. That old man tried some pretty low down tricks when he visited but Scott never would talk to me about it. Again, I understand. And I know I asked you but I shouldn't have. What I don't get is why he thinks he's allowed into my life so completely. It ain't about - well you won't tell me so I won't tell you. It's about the parts."

Murdoch leaned back in his chair, a little stunned. How it made sense to him, he hadn't a clue. But it did and he couldn't argue the point.

"Well, son, I see what you mean. I just hope your brother does. He's very protective of you."

"Yeah, I don't get that either. I mean, it's not like I haven't been taking care of myself forever," Johnny said grudgingly.

"I think you do get it whether you agree with it or not," Murdoch cocked a brow.

Johnny smiled. "No, I don't agree with it at all. I guess we do need to talk then."

"Maybe we should go down and get some supper before it gets too late," Murdoch suggested and stood.

Johnny got up as well. "Hey. You okay?"

Murdoch smiled warmly at him. "Not really but I will be now that you're almost healed."

*

Scott rested the side of his head on his fist as he leaned his elbow on the table. A perplexed look adorned his face. How any child could eat this much was what had him entranced. It was better than thinking about what was going on upstairs, he supposed. Still, he couldn't figure this out as he watched Rico put it away.

He thought of Johnny and how sometimes, he ate like that. Like a starving man. Scott frowned and wondered if it was because of the childhood Johnny had had that made him eat so fast and so much sometimes. He wondered, too, if Rico wasn't the key to understanding Johnny's past.

His quandary was alleviated by the appearance of his family. He watched them walk in looking the worse for wear.  

Rico smiled at Johnny. "Try the chicken. It is very good."

"Boy, if I have to tell you one more time not to talk with food in your mouth, you ain't gonna be able to sit a saddle," Johnny growled, hiding the smile from his mouth but not his eyes.

Rico focused on the eyes and knew. He shrugged and stuffed another bite in.

"And slow down. It's not going anywhere," Johnny reprimanded much more softly.

Murdoch ordered for them both as Johnny grabbed a piece of bread from his brother's plate.

"Why yes, I am finished. Please, help yourself," Scott said sarcastically.

"Why, thank you, brother. So nice of you to offer," Johnny retorted.

Murdoch chuckled and sipped at the coffee he'd poured from a pot. Scott reached over and filled a cup for his brother who repaid him with a dazzling smile.

Johnny swallowed the bread then looked between the two Lancers. "I'd like to leave in the morning," he said casually.

"The doctor said two more days, Johnny," Scott reminded him.

"Then one day won't make a difference. I feel okay," he shrugged.

Scott regarded him closely then looked to his father who was considering the idea.

"I don't suppose it would make any difference," Murdoch finally decreed. He looked over at Rico then. "Is that agreeable to you, young man?"

The boy lifted his eyes and realized he was being addressed. "Si, Senor," he smiled.

They ate in relative silence, Scott fidgeting a bit. Johnny tried to hide his irritation but he wasn't doing a very good job. He knew what Scott was waiting for and it irked him that his brother assumed he was going to get what he wanted.

Johnny pushed his plate back and relaxed into his seat. "That was good. Thanks for the recommendation, Rico."

"De nada," the boy answered. He'd been unusually quiet, sensing the tension in the air and not liking where it came from. He still didn't like Scott Lancer. Though, he wasn't sure why. It was plain the man cared for his hermano. Still.

His thoughts were interrupted by the focus of them.

"Johnny, would you like to go outside with me for a while?" Scott asked.

"Sure, Boston," Johnny smiled.  

"Rico, let's you and I go upstairs and pack. We'll be leaving early in the morning," Murdoch said and left with the boy.

Johnny settled into a rocker after taking a look down the street. Scott sat next to him but kept his chair still.

The creaking of the rocker was getting on the older man's nerves as they sat quietly.

"Are you going to tell me?" he finally asked.

"Tell you what?" Johnny asked.

"Don't do that, Johnny. You know what I'm talking about," Scott shot with irritation.

Johnny sighed and nodded. "Yeah, I know. And no, I'm not going to tell you."

"Why not?"

"Because, like I've said before, it's got nothing to do with you," Johnny repeated himself.

"Johnny, I only want to help."

The younger man's shoulders tensed at the patronizing tone. "I know that, Scott, but there's nothing you can do. I talked it out with Murdoch and everything is fine now."

"I see," Scott responded tightly.

"It's not that I don't trust you and it sure ain't because I can talk to Murdoch better. It's just something he had a right to know about, is all," Johnny explained.

"And I don't have a right to know."

"No."

"Very well. Goodnight, Johnny," Scott said tersely and rose.

"Hey, Scott," Johnny said, grasping lightly at his brother's arm as he passed.

But Scott evaded the touch and went inside leaving Johnny on his own.

*

He sat there quiet and still as he thought about his brother. He wasn't so sure now that Scott would understand his thinking about those parts. Maybe Scott was only able to see that Johnny was shutting him out. No, he thought, that's not how Scott thinks. He decided he would try to explain it to his brother tomorrow sometime.  

His thoughts turned to Cesar and his insane plan to make a run on Lancer. He knew the man no longer had the gumption. He also knew Cesar knew people who did. And he might even give it a try if for no other reason than to make Johnny's life harder. Then there was Madrid. Until he got home, he wasn't about to let his guard down. He figured he'd been lucky so far as no one around here had come calling. Now that Cesar was around, that could change. The man had a knack for riling a man beyond reason.

He smiled wanly at that thought. For the hundredth time he reconsidered allowing the man to live. But, even after all he'd done and all the pain he'd caused Johnny, he realized Cesar was nothing. Less than nothing. He certainly wasn't worth hanging over. Nor was he worth wasting anymore time or energy.

The only thing that kept nagging at him was that Cesar knew he was alive and exactly where to find him now. It was a risk he wasn't sure he was willing to take. Not for himself but for his family. He wouldn't have that man causing any pain for Scott or Murdoch. He'd done enough.

Johnny stopped his rocking as he watched a man approach the porch and step up.  

"Evenin, Sheriff," Johnny said, his head down, a smile playing at his lips.

"Evenin," the sheriff grunted a little as he took a seat beside Johnny. "Doc tells me he gave you two more days before you could ride."

Johnny didn't look up but the smile got wider. "That's what the man said."

"I can assume that means you'll be leavin us soon," the sheriff stated.

Johnny bit his tongue. There was no reason to irritate the sheriff even though the man was sure irritating him all the sudden. "Reckon that'd be about right," is what he settled for.

"Good. This is a nice quiet little town and I like to keep it that way."

His head rose slowly as Johnny turned it toward the lawman. "Don't recall makin any noise, Sheriff."

Adkins looked him square in the eye. "You ain't. Yet. I'd like to keep it that way."

Johnny sighed through his nose and shook his head slowly.

"Your choice, gunhawk. Don't go gettin indignant when people react to it," the sheriff said.

"Guess I couldn't expect them to understand. Not that I give a damn what any of you think, Sheriff."

"Yeah? Then why the look?" Adkins retorted.

Johnny looked out over the porch railing at nothing. "Because I don't like prejudice of any kind." He stood then and walked down the steps heading toward the saloon.

Adkins watched him, wondering what the hell that meant and where Madrid was going.

*

Johnny stood to the left of the batwings and peered inside. As he expected, Estevez was hanging onto the bar with a bottle in his hand. He watched the drunk for a few seconds then walked on down the boardwalk. He came to a corner and stopped then turned back.

"Somethin I can do for you, Sheriff?" he asked, his voice showing his frustration with the man.

Adkins caught up to him. "Just wonderin where you were going, is all."

Johnny looked up at him. He was almost as tall as Murdoch. "Are we best friends now or is it against some law to take a walk?" he drawled.

The sheriff shrugged. "Just interestin you picked this direction."

"Why's that?" Johnny asked, cocking his head to one side.

He jerked his head backward a bit. "Saloon."

Johnny put his hands on his hips and stared at the man. "I have a feeling you would have wondered why I went the other way when all the stores were closed, too."

Adkins chuckled. "Maybe. Ain't nothin down this way but an old shack where the drunks hole up."

Johnny smiled and shook his head at the man. "Thanks for the tour information. Now, if you don't mind, I'd like some time to myself."

The sheriff stood there for a beat then turned and walked away. Johnny watched him until he was well beyond the saloon. Angry now, as he'd done nothing to provoke suspicion. It was always like this, though. He should be used to it by now. Maybe he had been at one time but not anymore.

He pushed the thoughts away and continued his walk.

He made it to the edge of town, not a difficult task considering there wasn't much town to begin with. He saw the broken down shack the sheriff had mentioned. Where all the drunks sleep it off. The drunks. Johnny sighed.

What propelled him to the shack he hadn't a clue. He walked across the weed covered yard and nearly fell as he stumbled over some planks. Regaining his balance, he peered at what had caused his misstep.

The full moon cast brightly in the unshaded yard so he saw the wood easily. Shoving it away with his foot, he discovered a hole in the ground. He pushed the tumbleweed next to him aside and saw the remains of adobe brick. A well.

Johnny raised a brow. Someone could get hurt easily if they fell through that rotted plank. Someone.

*

Scott was still out of sorts the next morning. He'd gone to the livery to saddle the horses taking Rico with him. The boy wasn't thrilled with going along but he was eager to be on their way. This town didn't suit his needs. He needed to show Johnny how useful he was.

Murdoch and Johnny settled at a table for breakfast, waiting for the third Lancer and the kid to return. Murdoch watched his son closely. Something was wrong with Johnny this morning. Something ..... more.

"Did you sleep any last night?"

Johnny's head came up at the question, surprised out of his thoughts. "Sure."

"Doesn't look like it," Murdoch probed.

"Gee, thanks, old man. You look handsome as ever, too," Johnny shot with a playful grin.

Murdoch was about to throw a rejoinder when Scott and Rico returned. Scott sat down and poured coffee without a word.

"Good morning, son."

"Good morning," Scott said unenthusiastically then sipped at the hot beverage.

Rico reached for the pot only to be stopped by Scott's hand.

"Milk," the man ordered.

Rico glared at him.

"Coffee will stunt your growth at your age," Scott explained harshly.

Rico's eyes went to Johnny who only shrugged. Inside, the young man was seething at his brother's attitude. It was fine if Scott wanted to be mad at him but he'd have a talk with his brother about taking it out on the boy. In private.

The rest of the meal was eaten in silence until Murdoch decreed it was time to leave.

*

Johnny glanced down the street as he stepped into it, smiling when he saw the sheriff watching intently. His attention was diverted by a not too happy voice.

Dr. Canton walked up to him. "I said two more days."

Johnny looked at the man as if he were crazy. "I heard you. I'm gonna feel the same tomorrow as I do today, Doc. No sense puttin it off. Besides, your sheriff is almost smiling down there," he grinned and tossed his head toward the lawman.

Canton glanced toward his friend. "I don't care if he is or not." Changing tactics, he turned to Murdoch who was next to them checking his cinch and staying out of it. "Mr. Lancer, when I said two days I was being optimistic. Ideally, your son should rest for another week before traveling such a distance."

"Doctor, I understand and appreciate your concern. Johnny knows himself better than we do. If he thinks he can handle it, I can't argue the point," Murdoch said diplomatically.

"Don't worry," Johnny said as he mounted up without so much as a grimace. "The doc back home will lecture me good and proper for ya. I can promise that."

Murdoch chuckled, knowing it was true, and mounted up himself. "We'll take good care of the patient, Doctor. Once again, thank you for all you've done. I am grateful." He extended a hand and Dr. Canton took it grudgingly.

"I suppose it's out of my hands now," he mumbled.

The four of them reined their steeds toward the west. Johnny tipped his hat at the sheriff as they rode past, grinning ear to ear.

Once outside town, they fell into pairs. Johnny and Murdoch in front, Scott and Rico in back.

Scott watched the boy ride. "You handle that horse well, Rico," he commented.

"I can handle any animal, Senor," the boy said loud enough for all to hear.

Johnny smiled a little but he didn't look back.

They stopped for lunch just past noon at a small stream. Everyone settled down under shade trees to eat. Everyone but Johnny who had wandered off downstream a ways.

Murdoch got up and took him a sandwich. He found his son staring across the water.

"Here, son," he offered the food.

Johnny glanced at his extended hand and shook his head. "Give it to Rico. I'm not hungry."

Murdoch studied his profile, his own hand dropping to his side. "There's plenty."

"Not for Rico," Johnny laughed.

Murdoch relaxed a little. "That's true. I think he's trying to convince you to keep him."

The smile faded from Johnny as he bowed his head. "I know," he said softly as he picked a leave off a nearby bush and played with it.

"From what I've seen you've been straightforward with him, son. Any fancies he has are just that."

Johnny looked up at him with sad eyes. "All he knows are the orphanages in Mexico. I don't think he really believes me when I tell him it's better at St. Michael's."

"Once he sees it, he'll know," Murdoch countered.

"I just worry he'll take off before then. Especially if Scott doesn't ease up on him," Johnny said, anger in his voice.

Murdoch raised a brow. "Well, he was a little rough on him this morning," he allowed.

"He's mad at me and he's taking it out on that kid. I'm not gonna stand for that."

"I don't think he realizes he's doing that, Johnny."

"Then I'll point it out to him," the young man stated emphatically.

Murdoch smiled. "Why don't you let me?"

"Yeah, sure. Maybe he'll listen if it's you," Johnny replied and walked away.

Murdoch watched him walk, his shoulders bowed as was his head. He knew that walk. Something was troubling his son deeply. Something Johnny would not talk about. He knew that, as well. He only hoped at some point his son would come to him. The rift between his sons was utmost on his mind but there was a buzzing in the back of his brain. This wasn't about Scott or the past. Whatever was eating at Johnny was a whole other problem.

Murdoch had spent a long night thinking about all Johnny had told him. He was ready to kill Estevez with his bare hands. He had to wonder if the man wasn't a threat to them all. If eventually he wouldn't make his way to California and wreak havoc on Johnny's life. His son had been through enough and he'd seen the way the drunk looked at Johnny. Nothing short of pure animosity painted the man's face last night. He took a deep breath and steeled himself. This isn't over, he thought glumly.

Rico slipped back to the lunch area after hearing the conversation. Now, he was certain he did not like Scott Lancer. He didn't like anyone who hurt his amigo and it was pretty plain Johnny's hermano was doing just that. Rico didn't know the why of it and he didn't care. He wouldn't put up with it no matter the reason.

*

Murdoch decided to wait until they stopped for the night to talk with Scott. This wasn't going to be a pleasant conversation and he would just as soon not have it then be made to continue riding in an even heavier silence than they already endured.

Johnny picked out a spot, turned to Rico and asked his opinion and received the biggest smile he'd ever seen in return. He squelched a laugh and went about caring for the horses until he was stopped.

"I will do that. You are not well enough yet. El Doctoro said," Rico explained as he took the reins from Johnny.

He stood there, hands on hips, as he watched the boy lead the animals off to the tree line. Raising his hands, palms up in defeat, he went about gathering firewood.

Scott took the other two horses and joined the boy in the task quietly.

Murdoch built a fire ring of stones and set out the equipment to prepare the meal as he awaited the wood. His mind on other things.

Unpleasant tasks that lay ahead. He only hoped Scott would be receptive and listen. He wasn't in the mood for an argument. He was a little surprised at his thinking as this was Scott, not Johnny. He never had a problem arguing with Johnny, he thought with a smile.

He jumped a little when the wood was deposited next to him.

"Sorry," Johnny smiled as he knelt beside him. "You okay?"

"Yes, I was just thinking," Murdoch replied.

Johnny started to ask then thought better of it, for he knew exactly what his father was thinking about.

Just then, Rico ran back into the camp, straight to Johnny and flung himself in the man's arms.

"What's going on?" Johnny asked as he saw his brother approach looking very angry.

"He," Rico sucked in air and pointed an accusing finger at Scott. "He was going to hit me!"

Scott pulled up short and gawked at the boy. "I was going to do no such thing, young man!"

"He has been mean to me since he arrived, Johnny. He hates me!" Rico shouted.

"Alright, that's enough!" Murdoch bellowed, sending a curtain of silence down on the group. He turned to his elder son. "What happened?"

Scott took a deep breath. "I was merely trying to explain to him that Johnny would want his rifle left in the scabbard. He became belligerent and told me I didn't know what Johnny would want. I calmly explained to him that I indeed did know and he kicked me in the shin!"

Johnny laughed aloud then stopped on a dime at the glowers he received from both men. He composed himself and turned Rico to face him, hands on the boy's upper arms.

"Well?"

"Well what?"

"What do you have to say for yourself, Rico?" Johnny said in a no nonsense tone.

The boy looked up at him wide-eyed. "You believe him?"

Johnny's expression was just as stunned. "Yes, I believe him. Why wouldn't I?"

"El le odia!" Rico stated.

Johnny's grip tightened a little. "Why would you think that? He's my brother. He doesn't hate me."

"He does. He is always muy enojado," the boy jutted his chin out in defiance. (very angry)

Johnny sighed and dropped his head for a second before looking back at the kid. "Rico, whatever problems me and Scott have, it don't concern you. Don't put yourself in between us. It's not your business. Comprende?"

The boy looked uncertain, wondering if Johnny was only saying these things because his papa and hermano were here.

"I mean it," Johnny emphasized.

He nodded his head before tearing free of the grasp and running off into the trees.

Johnny turned at the waist and watched him go before standing to pursue.

"Give him some time, son," Murdoch advised.

"What he needs is a good old fashioned spanking," Scott imparted.  

Johnny turned quickly. "Yeah, Scott. That's exactly what he needs. Lord knows, he hasn't had near enough hurt!"

"I think Scott and I need to have a talk," Murdoch said before tempers got out of control.

"No, Murdoch. I don't need anyone speaking for me. Not Rico and not you. It's high time me and Scott had a talk of our own," Johnny said firmly.

"I thought you didn't have anything to say," Scott shot.

The father looked at both his sons as he tried to gauge how good an idea that might be. "Boys, remember how you feel about each other. And Johnny, remember how you explained it to me. I'll see to Rico," Murdoch cocked a meaningful brow at them both before setting off after the errant boy.

Johnny glared at his brother who reciprocated in kind.

"Don't take your anger at me out on that kid, Scott," Johnny seethed.

"I'm not!"

"Yes, you are. You did it at breakfast and I'd lay odds you weren't all that kind just now. You're mad at me so leave it on me," Johnny argued.

Scott stared at him, his face flushed with ire. "Fine," he ground out.

Johnny relaxed his shoulders and his stance. "Why are you so mad at me?"

"I would think that obvious, Johnny."

"No, it isn't to me, Scott. I don't understand how you can be so angry just because I won't tell you something."

Scott dropped his eyes and frowned as he sought the words. "We're brothers. We confide in each other. When one of us has a problem, we always help the other with it. Why is this different?"

Johnny chewed the inside if his cheek as he paced off a little to the right. "I told you it has nothing to do with you."

"Are you trying to protect me?" Scott asked, his own voice calmer now.

"No," Johnny breathed out. "It's nothing like that. It's just a part of my life I don't want to share."

"Right. But just with me. I'm the one you don't want to share it with," Scott said, a hint of pain noted in his voice.

Johnny turned to look at him. "I didn't want to share it with anyone but Murdoch had a right to know. That's all there is to it."

"Then, this has to do with your mother?" Scott surmised.

Johnny only nodded.

Scott took the few steps that separated them. "Why can't you let me in, Johnny?" he asked as he laid a hand on his brother's arm.

Johnny jerked away and took a step back. "Like you let me in, Scott?" he asked incredulously.

Scott, open-mouthed, only shook his head at the outburst.

"What happened to you in Libby, brother?" Johnny asked harshly.

Scott's mouth clamped shut, lips tightening into a thin line.

"Exactly, Scott. Exactly," Johnny said and started to walked away.

"Wait a minute," Scott called.

Johnny turned on his heel. "For what? What am I waiting for, Scott? For you to tell me you don't want to talk about it? You know something? That's okay with me. It's alright that you don't want to talk about the war. It's alright if you don't want to talk about your grandfather or what he tried to do when he came out here. I've never tried to worm that out of you. I've never pushed you about anything, Scott. You know why? Cause I figured if you wanted me to know you'd tell me. And if you didn't then I'd mind my own damned business!"

"It's not the same, Johnny," Scott replied softly.

"Yeah, you keep saying that only it is the same, Scott. It's exactly the same," he retorted as he walked back up to his brother. "I don't know what it is with you. I really don't. Why you think you have the right to know everything about my life but I don't have the right to know about yours, is beyond me. It really is. I told Murdoch it was about parts. Parts of our family. Yours, mine and ours. That some things just didn't touch the others. Have nothing to do with each other. But I'm starting to think that you're just plain nosy."

"Look, I only want to help you, Johnny. I only want to be there."

"Fine. Be there when I ask you to be, Scott. Not until then, though."

"When you ask me? When have you ever asked me for anything, Johnny? I have to pull everything out of you. You make the simplest thing seem like a burden. I can't even ask you about your friends without feeling like I'm intruding in your life. Do you have any idea how it feels to find out more about your brother from the local sheriff than from that brother himself?"

Johnny's eyes narrowed. "You got any idea how it felt to find out you were in prison from someone else?"

"It never came up!" Scott hissed.

"Neither did my mother's murder!" Johnny shot back.

Scott's face fell then as he stared into his brother's pain-filled eyes. "Murder?" he whispered.

Johnny turned away, wrapping his arms around himself. "You got no right, Scott. No right to expect me to talk about those things," he mumbled.

Scott laid a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. He was at a loss for words at that moment.

"I would never tell you about that. Murdoch either if things hadn't happened like they did. There are just some things I can't talk about, Scott. Why can't you understand that?"

"I can, Johnny. It's just so hard being on the outside with you all the time. I thought we'd grown close but we haven't," Scott said.

Sighing heavily, Johnny turned to him. "Yes, we have. From the time we met, we have. Why can't that be enough?"

Scott shook his head slowly. "Because, the past won't die, brother. You know that as well as I do. We both know Murdoch is wrong about that. Neither of us have gotten the answers we want and need."

Johnny grimaced a little. He had his answers. As many as he figured he'd ever need or get. But he wasn't going to tell Scott that. Not now.

"Maybe it matters more to you than me. Maybe that's because you have a chance to know and I don't. I'll never hear my mother's side from her. But, you can still find out. All I know is I have to let it go, Scott. I'll go crazy if I don't. The thing is, I can't tell you what you want to know."

Scott watched him and thought about the words. His face relaxed as he realized something. "You're right. Murdoch is the one I should be talking with. It's always been so much easier to talk to you," he smiled softly.

Johnny shared the smile. "I know. He's a pain sometimes."

The brothers shared a laugh and stood there quietly for a moment.

*

Murdoch stepped out of the bushes guiding Rico in front of him with two big hands on the small shoulders. Johnny watched the boy's face and decided he was alright.

"Is anyone else hungry?" Murdoch smiled, still testing the air.

"I am," Scott smiled and went about starting the campfire supper.

They sat quietly after the meal, each in their own thoughts. Rico kept glancing over at Johnny for several minutes until he finally scooted closer.

"I can handle any tack. I can brush down a horse and clean his hooves. I can saddle any caballo. I can clean stalls and feed and water stock."

"Why are you telling me all this?" Johnny interrupted the list of abilities.  

Rico shrugged. "I work hard and I do not complain. I would work hard at your rancho."

Johnny glanced at his father before turning to the boy. His legs crossed Indian style, Johnny faced the child. "We had an agreement, Rico."

"Si, but we can change it."

"No, we can't. You need schoolin and--"

"I know all I need to know," Rico interrupted caustically.

Johnny raised a brow. "Evidently not. You don't know not to interrupt someone when they're talking. You don't know how to show respect to your elders. Can you read or write?"

Rico dropped his head, a flush of shame coloring his cheeks. Johnny swallowed hard, feeling some shame of his own for belittling the boy.

"Look, you need an education. A clean, warm place to live. You need to be a boy. You'll be a man soon enough, Rico. Enjoy this time. Make friends, go fishing, play. Be a kid," Johnny finished, his tone soft and lulling as he swatted the boy's knee playfully.  

"You are my friend," Rico mumbled.

"Si, and I always will be. You'll see me. Scott and I go to the orphanage all the time to help out. Teresa's always got clothes and such to donate. The roof always leaks somewhere. You'll see me."

Rico's head came up but his eyes were still sad. "Promise?"

"Promise," Johnny said and smiled. "Now, time to sack in. Tomorrow's gonna be a long day."

Scott spoke up as the boy made for his bedroll. "Rico, I want to apologize to you for the way I acted today. Not for what I said but the way I said it."

The boy gave him a discerning look and nodded then fell into his bedroll.

Johnny almost burst out laughing at the look of disappointment on his brother's face but he said nothing and only grinned.

*

The foursome made good time the rest of the trip and three days later, they rode under the Lancer arch. Rico's eyes were wide with dismay. He never imagined anything this grand. He doubted he could stay here even if Johnny let him. It was too much for the likes of him.

As the Lancers dismounted in front of the house, Rico stayed in the saddle. Johnny looked up at him.

"Well? Thought you could handle a horse," he grinned playfully.

"I will go to the orphanage now," Rico said solemnly.

Johnny cocked his head to the side and placed his hands on his hips as he frowned. "You don't have to go right now, kid. Come on in the house. We ain't gonna bite you .... on your first night."

Murdoch chuckled at this. "Come on, son. I know it looks overwhelming but it's just a house." He challenged the boy by lifting his arms as if to assist him down.

This got Rico's attention and he glowered at the man as he dismounted of his own accord, proving himself a fit horseman in his mind.

After meeting Teresa who made much fuss over Johnny before Murdoch finally assured her the young man was well, Rico was shown his room.

He plopped down on the side of the bed and bounced a few times. Shaking his head, he sighed at the wonder. A frown found his face as he thought of Johnny's padre. He had called Rico 'son' today. He hadn't called him that before. Maybe the patron liked him. Maybe he could be Johnny's hermano. He would be a much better one than the gringo.

He thought of the tall man's words that first day on the trail. How he'd explained Johnny and Scott were just having a bad time right now. How they were really very close and cared a lot about each other. How either would lay down their life for the other. Rico figured Johnny would do just that but he still wasn't sure about Scott. He wasn't sure he ever would be.

That would not deter him though. No one had ever treated him as well as Johnny had. No one had ever trusted him like Johnny did. No one had shown him the kindness and respect that Johnny showed. Not since his mama and papa died. Even before that, no one had treated him like a man. Johnny did though.

Rico grinned as he began to plot out a plan to stay at Lancer for as long as Johnny stayed. Forever, he hoped.

*

"Well, he seems like a very sweet boy. It's just so sad," Teresa commented once Rico's presence was explained.

"He's a good kid. Just needs a break," Johnny said.

Murdoch looked at his younger son. He sounded tired. More than tired. That 'something' was there again. Whatever was wearing on his son's mind was never too far from the surface. Johnny hid his feelings well when he wanted. Sometimes, though, they snuck through in his tone of voice or a fleeting expression, should one catch it.

"You sound tired, son. Why don't you go to bed early," he suggested.

Johnny looked at him and smiled. "I'd like a nice long bath more."

"I think we'd all like that for you, brother," Scott grinned.

"You trying to tell me something, brother?" Johnny raised a brow.

Scott brought one hand to his chest and with a sincere look, asked, "Who me?"

"Alright, you two. It is good to be home," Murdoch laughed.

"I'll bring you some clean clothes to the bathhouse," Scott offered.

Again, the raised brow. "No need. I can get them myself but thanks for the offer," Johnny said and stood up.

"No trouble," Scott persisted.

Johnny turned a frown on him. "Whatever you're planning, Scott, I wouldn't," he said, trying to sound mean and missing by a mile.

Scott only smiled and shrugged and left it alone. He knew Johnny was more than tired. He'd been through some kind of hell from his past that Scott now knew he'd never have knowledge about. It still bothered him but, as Johnny said, he was going to have to let it go. He only hoped his brother could.

*

He grabbed hold of the sides of the tub and slowly immersed his sore and tired body into the steaming water. Hissing a little as each new area of bare skin hit the hot water and allowing each part to get used to the change for a few seconds; longer for the more sensitive places.

Finally he was down and he leaned back, resting his head against a folded towel on the edge. He sighed the sigh of an exhausted man.

Johnny closed his eyes as the steam opened his sinuses and allowed him to breathe clearly. He tried to relax completely. To let each muscle go but there was no doing it. Every time he tried, he would notice the tension, mostly in his shoulders and neck.

Damn! Let it go, Johnny. Just let it go.

But he couldn't. He sank under the water then reemerged, shaking the water from his hair and pushing the black tendrils back from his face. One hand trailed down his face as he opened his eyes and blinked.

Trying once more to sit back and relax, he rested his arms on the sides, hands dangling over the edges.

He was almost asleep when the knock came.

Mierda! was the first thought as he jerked forward. "What?!" he shouted aloud.

The door opened, allowing cooler air in and he sank down under the now tepid water a little.

"You've been in here a long time. Are you alright?"

Johnny craned his neck to find his father's face and smiled a little. "Must have fallen asleep. I'm getting out."

"Supper's almost ready. How's your side?" Murdoch asked.

"It's fine. Don't even feel it," Johnny replied and waited for the man to leave.

"Good. Well, I'll see you inside then."

Johnny could sense the ambivalence and knew his father had something on his mind. He didn't want to hear it but he couldn't not ask either. "Somethin wrong?"

"No, no," Murdoch mumbled and walked over to sit on the bench positioned on the opposite wall.

Fighting back a smile, Johnny regarded the man. They stared at each other for a long beat.

"I'm coming," Johnny said meaningfully.

Murdoch started then arose. "Right. See you," he said then strode to the door only to stop again.

"Johnny, about that man ...." he hesitated.

"He's not gonna be a problem," Johnny said, his voice cold.

"How can you be so sure?" Murdoch asked, uncertain if he wanted an answer.

Johnny chewed his lip. "Just trust me on it."

Murdoch felt his stomach flip but he didn't pursue it. Not now, he thought and left the room.

Shaking his head, Johnny figured that went well. He stared into space for several minutes then pushed it all back down again before pulling his body out of the water.

*

Rico tapped his foot against the chair as he waited for the food, and Johnny, to appear. Soon enough the man he sought showed himself and slid into the chair next to him.

Teresa had set her place beside Scott tonight, Murdoch having told her how Rico worshipped Johnny. She thought it sweet and well deserved.

"You look better," Scott smiled.

"Feel better, too," Johnny answered, throwing his napkin in his lap.

"We were beginning to think you'd turned into a fish," Scott retorted.

"Not a good idea. You might decide to try my kind of fishing," Johnny laughed and the other adults joined him.

Rico frowned at the odd remark then dismissed it.

Maria appeared with the food and the boy's hand snaked out, fork in grasp, before being restrained.

"Wait," Johnny said.

Scott dipped his head and made a sport of straightening his napkin. Murdoch hid his smile by taking a sip of wine. Rico only scowled.

Johnny leaned over to him. "You wait until the food is on the table then you ask for something to be passed to you," he explained softly. "Watch Scott. He's got the best manners around these parts," he added and winked at his brother.

Rico clenched his jaw and decided he wasn't going to watch Scott do anything. But he said nothing and only nodded.

As the meal progressed, conversation turned naturally to ranch work. Murdoch had already gotten a report on what had happened while they were gone. He was handing out assignments until dessert arrived.

"That stream clogs every spring and fall," Johnny complained.

"I know but it's essential to that area, son. We have to stay on top of it," Murdoch reasoned.

"I know. Don't mean I have to like it," Johnny smiled at him.

Murdoch returned the smile then thoughtfully spoke. "It's going to take a couple of weeks to get caught up. School doesn't start for another month or so. Maybe Rico could stay here for a little while. Just until we get everything back under control."

Scott snorted softly. "Then he'll be here forever. Since when has anything been under control around here?"

Johnny laughed. "Well, that's true enough but it's a good idea. What'ya say, Rico? Want to hang around here? You can show me all those talents you have."

The boy could not have smiled any wider and he nodded enthusiastically. Johnny ruffled his hair and grinned.

*

For the next week, Johnny had an extra appendage, usually right at his hip though it did move from time to time. The rest of the family may have thought it was 'cute' but Johnny was getting concerned over the boy's attentiveness. He knew that eventually Rico would be leaving them. The thought saddened him but he knew it was the best thing for the child. There was no way he was ready to be a father.

To his credit, Rico tried very hard and did a good job. Johnny had to laugh at his enthusiasm.

This day, the two of them settled under a tree for lunch. Rico had been quiet all morning. An unusual event to be sure.

"Somethin on your mind?" Johnny asked between bites of his apple.

Rico chewed and swallowed before answering. Though he'd never admit it, he had watched Scott for the those lessons in manners.

"We are compadres, si?" he asked.

Johnny nodded. "Si."

"We have become close. Like brothers?" Rico probed.

Johnny looked at him and smiled softly. "Sure. Like brothers."

Rico laid his sandwich down and turned to face Johnny. "Your papa, he likes me."

"Murdoch thinks you're a fine boy."

Rico smiled. "Then, he can adopt me."

Johnny choked on the piece of apple he was attempting to swallow. He coughed for several seconds before downing some water and collecting himself. Once settled he turned a surprised look on the kid.

"Rico...."

The boy took to his feet and faced Johnny. "I have been good, Johnny. I have not caused trouble. I would never cause trouble."

"Hey," Johnny said, taking his shoulders gently. "Slow down. What's this all about?"

"I do not want to leave you. I want to stay here and be your hermano. I will be the best hermano ever. I will never be angry with you. I will never yell at you. I will never be mean to you like Scott." Tears filled his eyes as he spilled out his hopes.  

Johnny squeezed the small shoulders and pulled the boy down beside him, wrapping an arm around him. "Rico, Scott's not mean to me. We had an argument, that's all. It's over now."

"He talks down to you," Rico argued.

"No, he doesn't. I think you hear what you want to hear. I know you don't like Scott but that's not really fair. You haven't given him a chance."

"I will, I swear. I will like him and be a good hermano to him, too," Rico bargained.

Johnny didn't know what to say to this plea. He felt some panic about it, as well. This was way beyond his field of expertise to be sure. He held Rico silently for a few minutes then sighed softly.

"Come on. Let's get back home. I need to talk this over with Murdoch," he said.

Rico looked up hopefully.

"I don't know what to tell you, kid. I'm not promising you anything one way or the other," Johnny stated, hoping the boy didn't misread anything.

Johnny's stomach was in a knot by the time they rode up to the estancia. He didn't have a clue how to handle this and only hoped his father did. They dismounted and he walked over to the boy.

"Go up to your room and let me talk this over with Murdoch," he instructed.

"You will tell him what a good son I would be?" Rico asked.

Johnny flinched a little. "I'll talk to him. Now, go."

*

"What are you doing here?" Murdoch asked as Johnny entered the great room.

The younger man walked toward him, removed his hat and slapped it against his thigh. "We have a problem."

"The fence?"

"No, Murdoch. It's a bigger problem than that," Johnny sighed as he sat down across the desk.

Murdoch watched him and waited a bit impatiently. Then he thought maybe Johnny was going to tell him what had been troubling him so. Johnny still got that far away look in his eyes when it was quiet, usually at night. The pain was so easy to see at these times. Murdoch was at his wit's end and wondering if his son would ever tell him what was wrong. He was pretty sure now what the trouble was but he wanted Johnny to come to him.

"It's Rico, Murdoch. He wants you to adopt him."

"He what?!" Murdoch bellowed.

"Keep your voice down!" Johnny shot.

Murdoch balked a little but managed to curb himself. "Where did he get a crazy idea like that?"

"I don't know. He said he wanted to be my brother. That he'd be the best brother in the world." Johnny's small smile was a sad one.

Murdoch's shoulders relaxed. "Well, it's obvious he's quite taken with you. Still, adopt him?"

"I know. I told him I'd talk to you but I couldn't promise him anything. I didn't know what else to say. He was so ..... hopeful," he sighed.

"Well, I'll have to think about this before I talk to him. I don't know how to let the boy down easy," Murdoch said pensively.

Johnny glanced at him then lowered his eyes. "Is it totally out of the question?"

Murdoch's head came up and he gawked at his son. "Johnny, I can't."

"Why not?"

"Because!" Murdoch raised his voice.

Johnny smirked. "Well, there's a good answer."

Murdoch took to his feet and paced behind his desk. "I'm too old to start raising a child," he reasoned.

"He's pretty much grown."

"He's hardly grown, son. He needs a lot of attention and ...."

"Love?" Johnny asked.

"Yes, and discipline. I just can't see it happening," Murdoch said, now peering out the window behind his desk.

Johnny ground his teeth together. "Fine. But, you have to tell him."

Murdoch turned, his face a mask of horror. "Me?"

"You're the one he wants to be his daddy," Johnny smirked.

"Only because he's so enamored with you," Murdoch retorted.

"It ain't my fault you're so afraid of being a father!" Johnny spat as he took to his feet.

"I am not afraid!"

"What then, Murdoch? No experience?" Johnny glowered.

"How dare you? That was certainly not my fault!" Murdoch shouted, the vein in his neck jutting out.

"Nope, it sure ain't," he clipped and turned on his heel, walking out and slamming the door behind him.

Johnny leaned into that closed door with his head down, trying to catch his breath. Why did I do that? he wondered.

*

"Johnny?"

He turned to see Scott approaching, concern etched across his face.

"Hey, brother," he gave a smile.

"What's wrong?"

"Oh, nothin much. Rico wants Murdoch to adopt him so we can be brothers," Johnny sighed out.

Scott's brows went up at this. "And you were discussing that with Murdoch?"

"Discussing? No." Johnny frowned.

Scott nodded in understanding. "How badly did he take it?"

Johnny laughed softly. "Bad enough. Said he couldn't do it then ..... then I said something stupid."

Scott cocked his head to one side. "You? Hard to believe," he smiled.

Johnny found no humor in the situation. "I shouldn't have. I should have just told Rico myself it wouldn't work. Guess I was bein a coward. Murdoch doesn't owe that kid anything. I know it's a big responsibility."

"And one he's never fully undertaken," Scott said, knowing exactly what his brother was thinking.

"Yeah," he mumbled then turned and stepped onto the porch. "Thing is, I expected him to say no. Why'd I get so mad at him for it?" he asked himself more than his brother.  

"Maybe it struck a chord," Scott reasoned.

"Sure it did. Still, it's different with Rico. He's not even blood," Johnny shrugged.

Scott bit his lip and said nothing. There was no use in being petty at the moment. Especially when his petty thoughts were directed toward his father, not Johnny.

"Guess I should apologize or .. somethin," Johnny mumbled.

"That's not necessary."

Both young men looked up to find their father had stepped through the French doors to join them.

"I didn't handle things very well, either," Murdoch continued.

"Still, it's not your responsibility, Murdoch. I didn't really expect you to agree. Guess I just didn't expect you to get mad about it."

"I wasn't really. Just shocked. Johnny, I really don't know what to say to the boy. He seems to think it's easy to join a family."

Scott laughed at this. "I'm sure any one of us could set him straight on that subject."

Johnny smiled at his brother but Murdoch was not amused.

"Well, I brought him here. I'll talk to him," Johnny said after a moment of uncomfortable silence. He turned to go inside only to be stopped by his father's hand on his arm.

"Sometime, I'd like to talk to you as well, son."

"About what?" Johnny asked, wondering what he'd done now.

"About what has been weighing so heavily on your mind lately and don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about," Murdoch replied in a no nonsense tone.

Johnny just looked at him for a moment before walking into the house leaving the older men alone.

"You're going to push him?" Scott asked.

Murdoch donned a pensive expression. "No, I just hope he'll open up. Something is bothering him. Something other than that mess in Mexico."

Scott nodded, knowing it was true. Not that he would ever ask. He no longer felt free to probe Johnny like he once did.

"I'd like to talk to you as well, Sir. At some time."

"What about?" Murdoch asked.

Scott looked at the ground before finding his father's eyes. "My mother."

Murdoch kept the stare, trying to read any emotions but Scott had them well hidden. "What did you want to know, son?"

Scott was a bit taken about. He fully expected Murdoch to buck so it took him a few seconds to find his voice.

"Well, what was she like? What sort of person was she?" he asked.

Murdoch smiled softly and that warmed Scott's heart. The rancher crooked a finger to indicate Scott should follow him as he found a chair and lowered his frame into it. Scott sat next to him with breath held.

"You've seen pictures of her so you know how beautiful she was. What the pictures can't tell is how strong-willed and independent she could be. She never took any nonsense from anyone including me. She was also soft-hearted. She would cry over a simple act of kindness or raze the roof with indignation at an injustice. She was a woman to be reckoned with. Your mother was not a wilting flower by any means, Scott. She was tough and strong. She had a deep sense of right and wrong. You are very much like her."

Scott listened to his father's description with some surprise. This was not the perfect angel his grandfather always described. This was a real woman. A person. A human being and he finally felt a connection to her. His father's tone did not go unnoticed either. It was full of respect and love and the pain of loss.

Scott thought back to the way Harlan Garrett had always spoken of his daughter. As if she were some precious porcelain doll that would break at the least pressure. Someone who had no idea what she was getting herself into by coming west with this man. Someone who had died long before taking her last breath. Scott knew instinctually that the description he'd just heard was the right one.

"May I ask why you left me in Boston?"

Murdoch's shoulders tensed at the question, knowing it may come but always praying it wouldn't. Yet, it was a direct question and one he could not ignore.

"You know the initial reason. Once the danger was over I contacted your grandfather but he wouldn't bring you home. I couldn't afford to go to Boston at that time. It was a very long journey back then and the ranch was still recovering. It would take some time to recoup my losses. In the meantime, I met Maria. I thought I was doing well, building a solid foundation of family so I could bring you home. When she left ..... after some time ....."

Murdoch stopped and Scott thought he wouldn't continue. He wasn't sure he wanted his father to go on.   If he was about to tell him it was because Johnny's mother had broken his heart, Scott didn't think he could take that.

"I came on your fifth birthday to get you. Harlan said he'd take me to court, drag it out for years. He reminded me he had the funds to do just that and that I didn't. I met you but I suppose you don't remember that. Well, I couldn't do it, Scott. I didn't have the money or the influence he had."

Scott felt as if he'd swallowed his tongue. No, he didn't remember ever meeting his father! His grandfather had told him specifically the man had never bothered with so much as a letter let alone a visit.

"I thought about it over the years but I convinced myself you hated me and wanted nothing to do with me. Maybe that was wrong. Maybe that was cowardly. I just don't know, son. Every year on your birthday I'd think, maybe this year. But, it just never happened."

Scott put a hand on his father's arm to stop him from talking. He needed some time to sort this through. To comprehend that his grandfather had lied to him. And if he'd lied about this, what else had he been untruthful about?

"Scott, I'm so sorry. Are you alright?" Murdoch looked at the pale face.

"Yes, Sir. I just need .... some time. This is all .... I've never heard any of this before. I need some time to deal with it. Excuse me," he stood and walked quickly into the house and up to his room.

*

Johnny heard his brother's door close and found it curious Scott was upstairs. But, he wasn't exactly breaking a sweat working either. Or was he? So far, he'd managed to say not one thing to Rico and still, he hadn't a clue how to tell the boy.

"Did you talk to him?' Rico finally asked, tiring of Johnny's silence.

Johnny walked over and sat beside him on the bed. "Yeah, I talked to him. It's not a simple thing, Rico. Me and Murdoch and Scott are all still getting to know each other. We didn't live together, ya know. Scott grew up back east and I grew up in Mexico. Neither of us knew our father. So, this whole family thing is still pretty shaky. Taking on another person just isn't possible right now."

The boy dropped his head and stayed quiet. Johnny's heart broke for him but he didn't know how to fix it.

"You never know. Someone else might adopt you," he tried.

"No, it will not happen. I am too old," he whispered.

Johnny knew that was true. He had hoped the boy didn't know it though.

Rico leaned toward him and Johnny wrapped an arm around him, hugging him close. "I'm sorry, Rico. I really am."

"I know. I should not have asked."

"It's alright to ask. I just wish it could be different. You still have a decent place to live and there will be other kids there. You'll make a lot of new friends and get a proper education." He held the child tighter. "Shucks, before you know it you'll be saying Johnny who?" he laughed.

Rico pulled away and glared at him. "No! I will not! I will never forget you!"

"Okay, okay," Johnny assuaged. "I'm glad to hear that. And like I said, you'll still see me."

"Si, I remember. Johnny, I am ..... scared," he admitted.

Swallowing hard, the man drew a shaky breath. "I know, Rico. Believe me, I know how scared you are. I promise you, though, it will work out."

*

Supper was quiet. No one seemed terribly interested in the food set before them. Teresa watched them all with wary eyes. Something was wrong. They never lost their appetites unless there was a problem.

Johnny waited what he thought was an appropriate amount of time then excused himself and walked outside. He found a chair and plopped into it, crossing his ankles and clasping his hands across his belly. He leaned back and closed his eyes wishing things could be different for Rico. And for him.

He heard the door open and the footsteps draw near yet he didn't move. A soft sigh broke the night quiet as the chair creaked slightly under the weight. No words were spoken.

Johnny began to rock gently, his mind working things out.

"Have you ever done something that maybe wasn't legal but it was justified - at least to you?"

The answer took a minute in coming. "Yes."

"How'd you deal with it?" Johnny asked, still in the same relaxed position.

"I buried it."

"How's that workin for ya?"

Scott laughed quietly. "About 70/30, I'd guess."

Johnny opened his eyes and looked over at his brother with a smile. "I'll take those odds. You okay?"

Scott nodded. "I had a good talk with Murdoch today. He told me some things I didn't know and some things that were surprising."

"Good or bad?" Johnny asked.

With a hint of hesitation, Scott answered. "Both. But, I did a lot of thinking. I've come to the conclusion that I know enough."

Johnny smiled widely. "That's good. So, we can go forward from here then?"

"If that's what you want, brother," Scott said meaningfully, remembering Murdoch's words to Johnny earlier about that something that was bothering him. Scott reasoned it was whatever Johnny was referring to in this conversation.

"Works real well for me, brother," Johnny said and closed his eyes again.

"So, if you ever did want to talk...." Scott offered.

"You'd be my man. I didn't .... you can ask me anything, Scott. It's just ....," Johnny said, looking over at his brother's profile.

"Don't get offended if you don't answer?" Scott cocked a brow.

"Yeah," he breathed out.

"Same here," Scott said, a hint of a smile showing.

"I might take you up on that."

"And I might answer," Scott replied.

"Or not?" Johnny grinned.

Laughing softly, Scott said, "or not."


Epilogue

Sheriff Adkins grumbled under his breath as he walked down the street. The hot sun burning onto his wide shoulders. At least ten people had complained about the smell. Well, what did they expect from a broken down old shack that housed every saddle tramp in Arizona?

As he neared the dilapidated building, he wrinkled his own nose. Okay, maybe there was something to it. Sure did stink to high heaven. He moved slowly toward the building, pulling his kerchief from around his neck to cover his mouth and nose.

He stopped as he saw the hole in the ground. A pretty big hole with some rotted wood scattered and splintered near the mouth. He peered cautiously into the darkness.

The sun was at its apex and shining directly down so he could just make out the form. Or what was left of it. It was a man, his skin blackened with decay, his face turned upward, mouth and eyes open as if he were crying out for help. Large splinters of the dead wood lay across his chest and scattered about his legs.

The sheriff's stomach turned at the sight and the stench. He walked away ten or so yards, not that it helped much. It wasn't hard to figure what had happened. The cracked, dead wooden planks told the story. Considering whether to bother with pulling out the remains or not, his thoughts were interrupted by a stranger riding toward him.

He watched as the man mimicked his own earlier movements and pulled a bandana over his face.

"Hola, Sheriff. What is that smell?" the man asked.

"Death, mister. Got a fella fell down an old well or somethin here. Looks like he's been there at least a week."

The man nodded and gave a quick sympathetic smile that the sheriff couldn't see. "I am glad I do not have your job, Sheriff. Pulling him out will be most unpleasant."

"Yeah, well, was just wondering if I should bother. Nobody but drunks and tramps use this place. Probably ain't got no family."

The man's eyes locked onto the hole, a niggling thought in his mind. He looked back at the lawman. "I was looking for an old friend. I had heard he passed this way. Johnny Madrid?"

Sheriff Adkins straightened himself and stared at the stranger. "He left here a good week ago. And don't ask me where he was goin."

"I was not going to," the man said flatly, glad his amigo had left the area. "I only wonder if he was well?"

"Yeah, he was fine when he left," Adkins sneered a little.

Eduardo nodded.

"Well, reckon I'll go get some help with this. Could be a neighbor for all I know," Adkins said unenthusiastically. He stopped and turned back to the horseman. "Reckon you'll be moving on since your 'friend' ain't around?"

Eduardo simply nodded and watched him walk away until the man was no longer in sight. He climbed out of the saddle and walked to the hole, peering inside. The corpse was barely recognizable and maybe only to someone who knew the person in life. A smile came to his face as he crossed himself and sent up a prayer for Johnny Madrid.

 

~end~
2005

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