The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Third Time's Charm

 

 

 

It was midnight by the time he got home. Taking his horse into the barn, he gave him a quick rubdown, promising more attention in the morning. He walked to the front door and eased it open, moving quietly into the great room to be faced by two rather stern faces.

"Well? What do you have to say for yourself?"

"Excuse me?"

"Do you know what time it is? Don't think you'll be slacking off on work tomorrow either!"

"I think I'm old enough not to have a curfew."

"Maybe, but you have responsibilities here. Staying out until all hours of the night is not going to get it."

"Now, just a minute here!"

"All I want to know is, what's her name and is she pretty."

"This has gone on long enough. I don't need to explain myself to the two of you. What I do is my business. Now, I'm going to bed, I suggest the two of you do the same. I'm not the only one who has to work tomorrow."

"True, but we're younger, we can handle staying up late." Johnny couldn't do it any longer and he broke out in laughter, followed by Scott as they hung onto each other, enjoying the show they'd put on.

"You two think you're very funny, don't you?" Murdoch huffed.

"Come on, Murdoch. Tell us about her," Scott said.

"What makes you think there is a 'her'?"

"Because there's no other reason for you to stay out so late and for the third night this week," Johnny laughed. He walked over to his father and his expression became very serious. "So, will I have to call her mother?"

Scott joined him with an equally serious look. "We don't really have to do what she says, do we?"

"Stop it, both of you! You're acting like a couple of jackasses!" Murdoch growled and stalked up the stairs. Neither of them missed the tinge of red in his cheeks though and their laughter followed him to the second floor.

****

Murdoch did feel the previous night that morning as he fell out of bed. He groaned at the stiff muscles and lack of good sleep. Still, he didn't regret it. He smiled as he shaved, thinking about her. It was the first time since Maria left that he'd felt anything more than a passing fancy for a woman. She was a good woman, too. Strong and sensible, sweet and caring. He thought about the encounter with his sons the night before. He had to chuckle at the show they made, still they had hit a little too close. His thoughts had been straying toward a more permanent relationship, though it was a battle that raged inside him constantly.

Part of him told him he was too old for such nonsense but another part told him this may be his last chance for happiness. The kind of happiness that only came with the love of a woman. He daydreamed of what it would be like to have a wife again, and how it would change things so dramatically. Scott and Johnny had joked about it, but he wondered how they would really feel about it. He liked to think they would only be happy for him but he had to wonder. Johnny was still insecure about his mother and Scott, though steadfast and sensible, had never known the love of a mother.

And what of his own heart? Was the curse still there? The one that kept him from happiness time and again. He knew he couldn't take another loss. This, more than anything, is what kept him distant. And her, she had lost his husband and only son tragically. Was she ready for that kind of commitment? To come into a house full of men who's relationship was at times tenuous. How would she react the first time he and Johnny butted heads? He shook his head, so many 'what ifs'. Sighing heavily, he dressed for the day and headed to the kitchen.

"Mornin'," Johnny smiled, his eyes afire with mischief.

Murdoch gave him a warning look. "Good morning."

"Sleep well?" Scott asked with a grin.

"Not really," he replied grumpily.

Teresa placed a plate of food and coffee in front of him, giving him a kiss on the head.

"So, when are we going to meet the lady?" Scott asked.

"Never if you behave the way you did last night," Murdoch said.

"We'll be good, we promise. Come on, Murdoch, we want to meet this mystery woman," Johnny said.

"There's no mystery, Johnny."

"Then tell us about her," Scott prodded.

"Do you mind if I have my breakfast first?"

"Go right ahead, we'll wait," Johnny said, leaning his elbows on the table and cradling his chin in his hands as he watched his father.

He ignored them both, quite aware they were watching his every move. If he weren't in such a bad mood, it might have been comical. He finished his breakfast and savored his coffee for a while.

"I met her in Green River. She just moved there from Montana. She's a widow of three years. She's opened a dress shop. She's a few years younger than me and very attractive. Is that good enough?"

"What's her name?"

"Does she have any kids?"

"She had a son but he died and her name is Amanda Wilson."

"How'd he die?" Johnny asked.

"He and his father were killed in an Indian raid," Murdoch answered.

"How old was he?"

"Sixteen, why are you so interested in that?"

"I don't know. Woman loses a child it has to be hard," Johnny shrugged.

"She's had a tough time but she's a strong woman," Murdoch said, smiling a little.

"Are you in love, Murdoch?" Scott asked.

"I don't think that's any of your business, young man!" he shot.

"I think you hit a nerve, brother," Johnny grinned.

"Don't you two have some work to do?"

Scott and Johnny reluctantly left the kitchen and headed out. Teresa sat down with Murdoch after pouring him another cup of coffee.

"Are you in love?" she asked gently.

"I'm not sure, honey. I am very fond of her. I don't know, maybe I'm just too old for this kind of foolishness," he sighed.

"Nonsense! You are not old, Murdoch. You have every right to find love and happiness, more right than some, I'd say. Don't throw this away because you're worried about something that silly, or because of those two comedians. They are happy for you, even if they can't just come right out and say it. Why, they would be thrilled if you found someone," she said.

"Are you sure about that? I worry that they might resent her," Murdoch said cautiously.

"Resent her? Of course not. They love you so much, they only want you to be happy. If you're that worried about it, why don't you talk seriously with them?"

"Seriously? With those two?" Murdoch laughed.

"Well, you may have to take them on one at a time for that, but whatever you decide, I'm behind you all the way. I only want you to be happy," she said and reached over to kiss him on the cheek.

"Thank you, sweetheart. I'll think about it," he replied.

****

"How do you really feel about this, Johnny?" Scott asked as they took a break.

"Bout what?" Johnny asked, his eyes closed, hat pulled low on his face.

"Murdoch!" Scott replied in exasperation.

"Oh, that," Johnny smiled as he pushed his hat back and sat up. "I think it's great if he's found someone."

"What if he gets married?" Scott asked.

"Well, I guess that would make us pretty pathetic, brother. His third time and we haven't even done it once," Johnny laughed.

"Could you be serious for a moment?"

Johnny looked at his brother. "Hey, what's the matter with you? Don't you want him to get married?"

"I don't know. I think it would just be ... strange. Having a woman around, I'm not used to that," Scott replied, frowning.

"What about Teresa?"

"It's not the same, she's a girl."

"Yeah. Listen, I know you never had that, a woman in your life when you were growing up, but it's not like we're kids. I don't expect she's going to be trying to tan our hides about anything," Johnny smiled.

"What about when you and Murdoch go at it? Have you thought about that?" Scott asked.

Johnny shrugged. "That's our business."

"And if she makes it hers?"

"Then I guess we'll just have to have a little talk. Look, I'm not worried about this. As long as the old man's happy, it's fine with me. Besides, maybe he'll relax a little."

Scott's face brightened at that idea.

****

Murdoch rode into Green River later that day to see Amanda. She was working in the back room when he walked in and he heard her call that she'd be right out. He smiled at the sound of her voice.

"Murdoch! I didn't expect to see you today, though I'm not complaining," she smiled brightly.

"I was hoping we could talk a while, if you're not too busy," he smiled back.

"I was just about to close up for the day. Give me one minute," she said as she flitted into the back room once more.

Five minutes later, they were sitting in her living room of the small apartment over the store having tea.

"Now, what is so important," she asked.

"Well, I've been thinking about us. We've become quite close," he started.

She blushed a little. "I would say so."

"I, um, I was wondering if you'd like to meet my family," he stuttered.

Her eyes brightened and she smiled. "I would love to, Murdoch."

"Good! How about Sunday then? After church?"

"Perfect," she said.

****

Teresa was nervous. She had worked for the past two days making sure the hacienda was in perfect order. She had enlisted the services of several of the wives on the ranch to help her as the patron's lady friend was coming to visit. There wasn't much that was kept secret on the ranch and they had all heard of the new dalliance.

She and Maria fretted over the menu, knowing so little about the woman. They decided to make it simple, nothing fancy and hope it was enough.

Murdoch's nerves were steadily stretching tight as Sunday approached and no one wanted to be around him. No one except the bravest or most foolhardy, Johnny by name. He was relentless in his teasing and even Scott was heading for cover sometimes. Murdoch tried to endure the teasing, knowing his son was only showing his affection, but he was near the breaking point with Johnny. Saturday night, he reached it.

"I've had enough of this, Johnny. I know you're only joking but it's gone on long enough!"

Johnny looked bored and just stared at his father with that annoying half smile of his.

"Are you listening to me?"

He got up from the couch and walked over to where his father was making his stand. He put a sympathetic hand on the man's shoulder and gave him a heart warming smile.

"It's alright, Murdoch. We all get butterflies when our woman is around. We understand perfectly," he said.

Murdoch's face turned bright red and the veins in his neck jutted out.

Scott got up and grabbed Johnny's arm, pulling him away and out the French doors.

"Are you insane? Stop pushing him!" he hissed.

Johnny leaned against the wall and crossed his arms in front of him. His face was blank as he looked at his brother.

Scott glared back and gave him a suspicious look. "What are you up to?"

Johnny gave him a crooked grin and shrugged. "Nothin."

"No, you're up to something. Johnny, if you get him befuddled in front of that woman, I swear I'll knock your head off myself!" Scott warned.

Johnny laughed softly. "Oh, so now you're okay with it?"

"Well, I want to meet her. Why are you doing this?"

"He's tight as a drum, he needs to relax, so I'm gonna make him relax," Johnny said simply.

"How?" Scott asked warily.

"You'll see," Johnny replied and walked back inside. He approached his father who was sitting by the fire. "Murdoch, you okay?" he asked softly.

"Fine," Murdoch clipped.

Johnny smiled and sat next to his father, leaning close. "I know I've been pushing you but you've been so wound up. I just wanted to try and make you laugh. You know, break the tension? You're worried we won't like her or she won't like us, aren't you?"

Murdoch stared into the fire and didn't answer.

"Scary, ain't it? Caring about someone so much and then having to worry if your family will approve. It doesn't matter what we think, Murdoch. It wouldn't matter if we hated her, though I'm sure we won't. As long as you love her, that's all that matters," Johnny explained.

Murdoch dropped his head and sighed. "I feel like a schoolboy," he mumbled.

"I'll bet. Just remember one thing. Scott and I may not have grown up here, but we both got a lot from you, like good taste in women. If you like her, we'll like her. It's a given," Johnny shrugged.

Murdoch turned to look in his son's face. "When did you get so wise?"

Johnny smiled. "A long time ago about some things, not so long about others, but I've been thinking a lot about this. I've decided I'm going to like her. After all, she must be really somethin to have turned your head."

Murdoch wrapped an arm around his son's shoulder and squeezed tight. "Thank you, son."

Scott smiled as he leaned against the doorframe listening. He wondered when Johnny had gotten so wise as well.

****

Sunday morning was noisier than usual as people bustled about making last minute checks and getting ready for church. Johnny sat at the kitchen table amusing himself with the goings-on.

"I don't suppose I could talk you into going with us just this once," Murdoch said as they finished breakfast.

"Don't suppose so. Besides, someone has to stay here and make sure nothing tragic happens," Johnny laughed.

"Please don't start that again," Scott nearly begged.

"It's fine, Scott. Maybe he's right. I'd hate to come home to a burned down barn or something. Be just my luck," Murdoch replied, muttering the last sentence under his breath.

Teresa came up behind him and gave him a big hug. "It's going to be fine. She'll love us," she smiled confidently.

So they set out for church, leaving Johnny to keep watch. He waved them off then headed to the barn and Barranca. Saddling up, he rode out to the south pasture to check the herd.

Three hours later, the surrey pulled into the yard. Murdoch helped Amanda down as Scott assisted Teresa and they went inside. Teresa had already decided she liked this woman just by their conversation on the way home.

"Oh my! Murdoch, you didn't tell me it was so big and so beautiful," Amanda said in hushed tones.

Murdoch smiled at her then turned to Scott. "Think you could find your brother?"

"Of course, excuse me, Mrs. Wilson," Scott said and gave a quick bow of his head.

"Oh please, call me Amanda," she smiled warmly.

Scott returned the smile and nodded.

Scott returned in a few minutes with a most frustrated look on his face. "Johnny went out to check the south pasture right after we left this morning," he reported.

"It shouldn't have taken him this long. Maybe he found a problem," Murdoch frowned.

"I'm sure he'll be along," Amanda interjected.

"I hope it's soon or he'll miss supper," Teresa said.

An hour later, no Johnny. Murdoch decided they wouldn't wait any longer and they sat down for supper. He was very annoyed with his youngest and Amanda laid a gentle hand over his. "I'm sure it was important," she said simply.

Scott was impressed she could read Murdoch so well. She might be just what he needs, he thought.

They had just finished supper when they heard the front door open.

"Johnny?" Murdoch called.

"Yeah."

"Come in here. Where have you been? You know we have a..." Murdoch stopped and his mouth fell open as he saw his son. "My God, what happened to you?"

Johnny was covered in mud, head to toe. His face was a mask of filth, as much as could be seen. He kept it down as he stood before his father.

Scott suppressed a laugh and Teresa giggled a little, cupping her mouth over her hand in an effort to stop. Amanda took in the sight before her for a long moment then burst out laughing. This caused a chain reaction as they all laughed at the mess before them.

"Done?" Johnny clipped as the laughter died down.

"What happened?" Scott asked.

"A cow happened, Scott. Excuse me, I'd like to get cleaned up," he said and stalked out.

"Oh my, I'm afraid I didn't make much of an impression on him. I'm so sorry, I just couldn't help myself," Amanda apologized, though her eyes were still laughing.

"I'm not sure he even noticed," Scott said.

****

Half an hour later, Johnny walked into the kitchen and ate his supper that Maria had kept warm for him. He smiled gratefully at her. "What's she like?" he asked the wise woman.

"Ella es muy agradable. Ella esta en amor."

Johnny nodded his head and smiled. "Good, muy bien. Gracias, Maria."

He ate quickly, knowing they were waiting, then took a deep breath and walked into the living room.

"Now, that's better," Murdoch smiled.

Johnny smiled back and shot his brother a warning look not to start in on him.

"Johnny, this is Amanda Wilson," Murdoch introduced.

She stood up and turned to greet the young man, her face dropping when she got a good look at him.

"Pleasure, ma'am," Johnny smiled and nodded his head.

"It's nice to .. to meet you," she flustered.

Nobody seemed to notice her reaction, nobody except Johnny. He gave her a questioning look but she had averted her eyes from him.

The conversation was light and pleasant and before they knew it, it was time for her to go. Murdoch took her home and Scott commented they may not see him again that night, grinning like a cheshire cat.

"Now then, brother. Would you like to tell me what happened to you today?" he turned to Johnny still grinning.

Johnny didn't play along, he was deep in thought. "No, I wouldn't. I'm going to bed," he said glumly.

"Johnny, what's wrong?"

"Nothin, Scott. I'm just tired. Goodnight," Johnny said and walked away.

****

Johnny lay in bed and stared at the ceiling. He hoped he was wrong, prayed he was, but he had seen that look before too many times. Maybe she was just surprised, maybe Murdoch hadn't told her about his mother. Maybe she just wasn't expecting it. He tried to reason it out, give her the benefit of the doubt, but he knew in his heart if Murdoch intended to marry this woman, they would have to talk privately and soon.

To Scott's surprise, Murdoch returned shortly. "That was fast," he said.

"Yes, she, um, she said she was tired," Murdoch replied absently.

"Something wrong, sir?"

"I don't know, Scott. She just seemed so distant, cold almost. I don't understand," Murdoch said.

"Well, maybe she was just tired. It has been a long day," Scott reasoned.

"Yes, I'm sure you're right. Where's your brother?"

"He went to bed. He didn't seem himself tonight," Scott frowned.

"I know, he was very quiet. Maybe he was still embarrassed," Murdoch smiled a little at the memory.

Scott laughed a little. "It was quite a sight."

"Well, goodnight, son."

"Murdoch? I really like her," Scott said softly.

Murdoch smiled and gave him a squeeze on the shoulder, then headed upstairs.

****

When Johnny heard from Scott the next day that Amanda had seemed distant with Murdoch on the ride home, he was more convinced than ever. He had to talk to this woman, have it out and see what her problem was. He rode into Green River without telling a soul.

Johnny walked into the dress shop and received some curious stares from the two women customers. He smiled charmingly at them and tipped his hat. He waited patiently until they left, knowing she was eyeing him nervously.

"This is a surprise. What can I do for you? Something for Teresa?" she asked.

"No ma'am. I wanted to talk to you alone. Do you think you could close up for a little bit?" he asked politely.

"Of course," she replied hesitantly as she turned over the open sign.

"Mrs. Wilson, we need to have an honest talk. I saw your expression last night. I want to know if you have a problem with me," Johnny stated frankly.

"What kind of problem would I have? I don't even know you."

"Exactly. But maybe you have a problem with my heritage. Is that it?" he asked.

"I don't know what you're talking about, Johnny," she said, turning away from him.

"Then I'll put it real plain. Do you have a problem with me because I'm a half breed?" he said sharply.

She gasped aloud and turned back to him, sympathy showing in her eyes. "Is that what you think? Oh no, Johnny. No that isn't it at all. Please believe me," she pleaded.

"What then?" he asked more softly.

"You ... you look like my son," she said as her tears welled.

"I do?"

She nodded, trying to get hold of herself. "When I first saw you, well, there wasn't much to see but mud. When you walked into the living room, I nearly fainted. Ricky was dark-haired with beautiful blue eyes, like yours. You even have a similar build although he was thinner, just a boy. Oh, I'm so sorry you thought such a thing. I would never judge you for something so inconsequential."

He saw the torment in her eyes and believed her without question. "I'm sorry, it's just that I've ... well, it's something I've had to deal with all my life. I was hoping I was wrong, I'm glad I was."

"I'm sorry, too. I was just surprised," she smiled.

"Is it going to be too hard for you to look at me?" he asked, the pain evident in his eyes, knowing his father had the same problem at one time only for different reasons.

"No, Johnny. I was caught off balance is all. I'm alright, now. Sometimes, it's still painful to remember but more and more, the memories are only of the good times," she explained.

"I'm glad for that. It takes time but that's the one thing that heals, time. So, are you going to marry my old man?" he asked, the light back in his eyes.

"Well! He hasn't ask me yet," she replied, stunned by his directness.

"He will. It might take him some time to get up his nerve, but he will. One thing you have to know about me, ma'am, is I don't pull any punches. If I want to know something, I ask."

"That's a good thing to know. But I think I'll wait to answer that question until, and if, your father asks it," she said.

"Fair enough. I'm glad I came to see you," he smiled.

"So am I," she said and kissed him lightly on the cheek.

"What's this?" Murdoch asked as he walked in on them.

Johnny was blushing a little when he turned and faced his father. "We were just clearing the air," he explained.

"Clearing what air?" Murdoch asked.

"Johnny thought I didn't like him," Amanda explained.

"I don't understand," Murdoch frowned.

"Well, she looked at me kind of strangely last night when we met, well when she saw me and not the mud. I thought ..."

"He thought I had a problem with his ethnicity," Amanda intervened. "I explained to him that wasn't an issue."

"Is there an issue?" Murdoch asked.

"No, Murdoch. It's just that Johnny looks a little like Ricky. I was taken aback when I saw him," she explained.

Murdoch nodded his head understandingly. She had described her son to him and at the time he had thought of Johnny but he didn't realize the similarity was that great.

"Well, I better head back. Boss might get mad for me sneakin off," Johnny grinned.

"Ma'am, thank you," he said as he started to the door. He stopped beside his father and leaned in. "Marry her," he whispered.

Murdoch stiffened at his son's statement and closed the door as Johnny left. "I wish he had come to me first, instead of upsetting you."

"He didn't upset me, Murdoch. I'm glad he felt he could talk to me," she said.

"Johnny doesn't have a problem speaking his mind most of the time," Murdoch smiled.

"He's a fine young man," she said softly.

"Yes, well I should go," Murdoch smiled.

"You haven't told me why you came in the first place," she reminded him.

"Oh, yes. I just wanted to make sure you were alright. You seemed so distant on the ride home last night," he said.

She blushed lightly. "Well, I guess that question has been answered."

"May I call on you tomorrow night?" he asked.

"Yes, you may," she said softly.

****

The next two weeks, Murdoch Lancer was a happy man. He was easy to get along with, smiled all the time and even praised his boys for their work. Scott and Johnny were loving it and hoping he kept it up.

"When do you think he's going to ask her?" Scott asked one day.

"Soon, I hope. The more she's around, the better our lives are," Johnny replied.

"That's the truth!" Scott laughed.

They walked into the living room to see Murdoch quickly place something in his desk drawer. Not being a shy one, Johnny spoke up.

"What was that?"

"Nothing, how was your day?" Murdoch smiled.

Johnny returned the smile and walked over to stand beside his father's chair. "Fine, fine," he mumbled, staring at the drawer.

"Yes, we got the herd moved with no problems," Scott reported.

"Good! You two are going to be running this place without me before I know it," Murdoch grinned.

"Yeah, I mean if you were thinking of taking a trip somewhere, we could handle things. Right, Scott?"

"Absolutely, wouldn't be a problem at all," Scott agreed.

"And just where would I be going?" Murdoch asked suspiciously.

Scott and Johnny made eye contact and Scott knew what his brother wanted. He walked up to stand in front of the desk, averting his father's attention.

"Well, I don't know. All we meant was IF you wanted to take a trip, you wouldn't have to worry about the ranch," he said.

"Well, I have no plans to go anywhere young man so there really isn't anything to worry about," Murdoch said as he eyed his eldest.

"Oh? Then what's this for?" Johnny asked innocently as he held the box he had clandestinely taken from the desk drawer.

"Give me that!" Murdoch yelled as he snatched at the box.

But Johnny was too quick and he deftly moved away toward the fireplace. He opened the box and whistled loudly. "Well, will ya look at that? That's real pretty."

Murdoch came towards him and Johnny tossed the box to Scott who caught it easily. "Murdoch, this is a beautiful ring. Why didn't you want us to see it?"

"Because it's my business, that's why! Now give it to me!" he demanded.

"So when were you gonna tell us? After the honeymoon?" Johnny grinned.

"You know Johnny, sometimes that mouth of yours .... never mind. I thought it would be appropriate to ask the lady first. Just in case ...." he trailed off.

"Oh, she's not going to turn you down, Murdoch," Johnny said, still smiling.

"You're so sure about that?"

"Yep, I know it as well as anything. She's smitten," Johnny laughed.

"Smitten? Good one, brother," Scott laughed.

"I'm so glad you two are enjoying this," Murdoch grumbled.

Scott felt sorry for the old man and walked over to put his hand on his father's shoulder. "It's going to be fine, you'll see," he reassured.

"When are you going to ask her?" Johnny asked, emphasizing each word.

"Tonight."

Both boys whooped and hollered until they brought Teresa running from the kitchen. "What in the world?"

Teresa beamed at the happy news and hugged Murdoch's neck tightly. When she released him, tears of joy were streaming down her face.

"Figures, she'd cry," Johnny said.

"Leave her alone, she can cry if she wants to," Murdoch admonished.

Johnny threw his hands up in surrender.

"Well, what are you going to wear? I mean, you can't propose marriage in your work clothes," Scott said.

"Of course not! He'll wear his Sunday suit," Teresa said, effectively cutting Murdoch off.

"She's seen that," Scott argued.

"And she'll see it every week unless she wants to buy him a new one," Johnny declared. "What difference does it make what he wears?"

"Oh, Johnny it makes all the difference. A man wants to look his best when he proposes," Teresa said patronizingly.

"If you say so," Johnny shrugged.

Murdoch decided to go upstairs and get dressed before they all decided how else he should handle his own affairs.

****

They strolled along the boardwalk after supper at the hotel, looking in shop windows and chatting idly until they reached her store.

"Would you like to come up?" she asked sweetly.

"Yes, I would," he answered.

She made a pot of coffee and settled down beside him after pouring them both a cup. He took a sip, trying to find his nerve.

"You make the best coffee," he remarked. She smiled in reply.

He cleared his throat and began. "Amanda, we've been seeing each other for quite a while now and I hope you know how I feel about you."

"How do you feel, Murdoch?" she asked.

He hadn't expected her to ask that question and it threw him for a moment. "Well, I.. um, that is to say .... I .... I love you," he stammered.

"I love you, too," she answered.

He smiled lovingly at her and took her hand in his. "I haven't done this in a very long time. Forgive me if it isn't perfect," he said softly as he lowered himself to the floor on one knee. "Amanda, you've brought me such joy, such happiness. I never thought I would ever feel this way about a woman again. I want to spend the rest of my life growing old with you. I want to share all I have with you. I want you to be my wife. Will you marry me?"

Tears welled in her eyes as she smiled down into his blue-gray eyes. She found she couldn't speak for a moment and the unplanned tension rose in the room. She put her hand to her throat, hoping to massage it into working. Finally, she managed to whisper one word. "Yes."

His shoulders slumped in relief as he smiled at her. Taking the ring from his pocket, he slipped it on her finger. "I will do everything in my power to make you happy, darling," he promised.

****

The wedding was planned for six weeks hence. Teresa spent a great many of her days in consultation with Amanda, making plans. They had decided to hold the wedding at Lancer and the reception afterwards. The house had been transformed into what Johnny called a Kansas City railway. More people were coming and going than he could count. Truthfully, it made him nervous and on edge.

Murdoch was having a different type of dilemma. He knew he had to make a choice but how could he choose between his sons? Someone had to stand up with him. Whoever he chose, he knew the other would be hurt, though he also knew they would never let on. He voiced his problem to his bride to be.

Amanda considered it for a few moments. It was quite a problem and with no easy solution she could see. Suddenly, a thought struck her. "I know! Someone has to walk me down the aisle. I have no family nearby, so why not one of the boys?"

"That's a wonderful idea! But, which one?" Murdoch asked, relieved she was able to come up with an answer but still agonizing about another choice.

"Johnny. Johnny will give me away," she said, completely sure of herself.

"Why Johnny?" he asked.

"You know why. It's silly but he does remind me so much of Ricky, it would be wonderful to have him walk with me. Do you think he'll agree to it?"

"Only one way to find out. Let's ask him," Murdoch smiled and took her around the waist.

They found both boys in the living room trying desperately to stay out of the way.

"Oh, good you're both here. We need to talk with you," Murdoch said.

"We'll hang anything you want, go get any supplies just don't make us have to face Teresa," Scott grinned.

"No, it's nothing like that. We've been talking about the ceremony and well ..." Murdoch stopped, not sure how to proceed.

Amanda squeezed his arm and walked over to Johnny. "Do you remember that day you came to see me?" she asked.

"Yes, ma'am."

"Remember what I told you?"

He nodded his head.

"Johnny, I don't have any family here and I need someone to walk me down the aisle. I'd be so happy and honored if you would do this for me," she said softly.

Johnny hung his head, his cheeks a little red. "I'd be happy to, ma'am," he mumbled.

"Thank you, Johnny," she said and kissed his cheek.

"Well, now that Amanda's problem is solved, I have one. Scott, would you be my best man?" Murdoch asked.

"I'd be proud to, sir," Scott smiled, glanced at his brother and laughed with him.

"What?" Murdoch asked suspiciously.

"Well, we've already discussed this. We knew you'd have a problem asking one of us so we figured it out on our own. I was to be your best man," Scott explained.

"And how did you come to that conclusion?" Murdoch asked.

"Easy, I would've probably lost the rings," Johnny grinned.

"That wasn't it. Let's just say we worked it out between us and leave it at that," Scott interjected.

"I think that's wise," Amanda said.

******

The wedding day was upon them and Murdoch was as nervous as a young bridegroom. Scott was amazed, after all, he'd done this a couple of times before. He didn't understand what the fuss was about. He knocked on his father's door and peeked in.

"Come in, son," Murdoch said from the mirror. "I can't get this confounded tie right!"

Scott strode over to him. "Here, let me," he said as he took charge of the renegade tie. He kept glancing up at his father as he worked, chewing his lip.

"May I ask you something?"

"What is it?"

"Why are you so jumpy? It's not like you haven't done this before?" Scott asked.

"True, but that was over twenty years ago and I didn't have my sons attending my wedding. It's not getting married, Scott. It's the ceremony itself. I feel like I'm being put on display. It was the same way with your mother and Johnny's. I think it's something all men go through. You'll find out, soon I hope," Murdoch finished with a wary look for his eldest.

Scott only smiled in response. "There, that should do it," he said as he finished the tie.

Murdoch surveyed his handiwork in the mirror, nodding in satisfaction. "Thank you, son."

"What's a best man for if he can't tie a tie?"

****

Johnny stood in front of his mirror and scowled. He hated wearing a suit. He tugged at his collar, feeling himself suffocating already. Teresa barged in just then and he sighed.

"One of these days, you're going to get quite a surprise by doing that," he warned.

"Johnny, you look so handsome," she whispered in awe.

"Why thank you," he smiled.

"No, really. I ... I've never seen you look so good," she continued.

"Okay, I said thank you. What's wrong with you?" he asked.

"I, uh, oh Amanda wants to see you," she said, remembering why she came in.

"Okay, I hope this is over with soon. I'm chokin to death!" he frowned as he walked out.

Teresa found she could breathe again once he left her. When did he get so handsome? she wondered as she fanned herself with her hand.

He knocked lightly and heard her answer. Opening the door, he came face to face with his soon to be stepmother. His eyebrows went up as he looked at her.

"Wow! You look beautiful!" he whispered.

"Thank you and may I say you look very handsome," she replied, trying to hold back the tears. 'This is what Ricky would look like,' she thought.

Another knock on the door and Teresa appeared. "We're ready," she smiled.

"I can't believe you actually knocked. By the way, you look stunning," Johnny smiled.

She blushed and bowed her head then quickly recovered.

"Well, this is it. Any second thoughts?" Johnny asked as he held out his arm for her.

"Not a one," she smiled, taking his arm and squeezing tight. "Wait a minute," she said, stopping.

Johnny looked at her in surprise.

"I just want to make sure you and Scott ...."

"Amanda, you make him happy and that makes us happy. Besides, you're a great lady. I couldn't ask for a better stepmother and neither could Scott. Now, we'd better go before Murdoch thinks I ran off with you," Johnny smiled full on at her and she relaxed measurably.

The music started and everyone stood in the great room of the Lancer hacienda. Murdoch straightened himself and got a supportive smile from Scott.

Johnny and Amanda appeared in the doorway and began walking down the aisle to a resounding buzz that erupted in the room. Johnny thought there were some envious men there and he smiled at Amanda.

They made it to the end and Johnny smiled at his father, reluctantly releasing his hold on her and giving him a sideways look that said 'don't mess this up'.

He stepped back and waited for his cue as the minister asked who gave this woman to this man. With a soft "I do" he sat down, relieved his part was over.

The rest of the ceremony went smoothly, Scott didn't drop the rings, something Johnny knew he would have done. Amanda truly was beautiful and Murdoch ... Murdoch was in heaven.

The reception began immediately afterwards and was quite festive. Scott danced with every girl he could and Johnny stayed in the background watching his brother with some amusement.

"Don't you dance, Johnny?"

He turned to see his new stepmother standing behind him. She had changed into traveling clothes but she was still stunning. "Not much," he said.

"But you are going to dance with me, just once, aren't you?" she asked.

"Is that part of the job?" he grinned.

"Yes, as a matter of fact, it is," she said with a nod of her head.

He laughed at her exuberance. "Okay, just one."

He took her onto the dance floor and many mouths dropped open at the sight of Johnny Lancer dancing. But his moves were fluid and graceful and Amanda felt like she wasn't even touching the floor. She closed her eyes and imagined her beloved son dancing with her.

Scott and Murdoch watched in stunned silence for several minutes. "He's so good," Scott said.

"Yes, he is. I wonder why he doesn't dance more often," Murdoch replied.

"Maybe because no one has had a hold on him like she does. Something about her, Murdoch, she's a brilliant diamond," Scott noted.

Murdoch smiled widely. "I'm glad you like her, son. I'm relieved you both like her," he said.

"So am I. It would have been a little rough if we didn't but, like Johnny said, it really doesn't matter what we think. Will you look at him?" he said, shaking his head in amazement.

The song ended and Johnny escorted his dance partner to her new husband. "Thank you," he said with a slight bow.

"Thank you, Johnny. That was lovely," she replied in kind.

"Johnny, you're a wonderful dancer. Why do you hate it?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny's eyes darkened for a split second. "Never said I hated it. Excuse me," he said as he quickly made his exit.

"Leave it to me," Murdoch said, exasperated.

"Let it be, he'll be alright," she said.

"Well, I see some lonely ladies. If you'll excuse me," Scott smiled and bowed to Amanda.

****

Johnny stood leaning against a column on the veranda, staring at the stars. He hadn't meant to be rude. He hoped she wasn't angry with him, he was sure Murdoch was. He didn't want to get into it tonight of all nights. This was a happy day and he intended it to stay that way. He looked up at the heaven's and sighed.

"Penny for them," she said.

He whirled around to find Lisa McGuire standing behind him. "Not worth that much," he smiled politely.

"I saw you on the dance floor. That was really wonderful, Johnny," she smiled back.

"Thanks," he mumbled.

"I don't suppose I could convince you to try it again with me?" she asked.

"Sorry, I used up my one dance for the night."

"Only one? The way you move? That is a pity. I must say you look very handsome tonight. All the girls are talking about you. Their mouths dropped open when you walked into the living room today."

"Did they? Is that why they're all dancing with Scott?" he asked.

"Only because you won't. A girl likes to dance. But you know that, Teresa loves to dance," she said coyly.

"Yeah, she does."

She moved closer to him. "I don't care if I dance or not. I'd just as soon take a walk if I could find someone to go with me," she smiled seductively.

Ordinarily, he would take the overt hint but tonight he wasn't in the mood to play games and this girl was full of them. He had found that out pretty quickly at the last little get together they had both attended.

"Well, I hope you find someone to go with you," he smiled. "Excuse me," he added and walked in the house, leaving her huffing in frustration and anger.

****

Johnny stood in front of the fireplace and cocked his head to one side. Was that a cowbell? He walked outside to find his brother indeed ringing a cowbell.

"Well, it was the only way I could get everyone's attention," Scott announced.

The crowd laughed and agreed. Johnny walked up to stand beside Teresa.

"As the best man, it's my duty to propose a toast to the happy couple." He looked down at his father and said softly. "This is how we decided who would be best man."

Murdoch looked over at Johnny who smiled. Of course, Johnny would never want to be in this position.

"I find myself in a rather unusual position. I've never had to toast to my own father's wedding. It is strange but also an honor. You all know Murdoch, he's a hard man, tough yet fair. He's not the easiest person to get along with," he smiled and shot his father a glance as most of the crowd laughed in agreement.

"What you may not know is, he's had a hard life. Many losses. But, he's found someone to share his life with again, someone who, quite frankly, makes our lives around here a lot easier. Amanda, to many happy years of taming my father," Scott raised his glass as the crowd cheered.

"That was real nice, brother. Couldn't have said it better myself," Johnny grinned as he grabbed Scott around the neck.

"Scott, that was ... not bad," Murdoch smiled.

"Oooh, it was lovely. Thank you, Scott," Amanda said, chastising her husband.

"Don't you think you two should be getting out of here?" Scott asked.

"Yeah, it's about time to start the honeymoon. I'll go get Jelly," Johnny grinned.

****

Jelly pulled up in a brand new surrey, completely decorated by Teresa for the happy couple. Only four people in the world knew where they were going and that was only out of necessity. In case they were needed for some reason. Scott, Johnny, Jelly and Teresa could think of no reason to call them back from their trip and had made a vow to each other that it would not happen.

They climbed aboard the surrey, sitting together in the back as Jelly pulled away. The crowd of well-wishers yelled and whistled as they drove out of sight.

"Well, they're married. Can we make all these people go home now?" Johnny asked.

"Johnny! The party has only just begun. You haven't even danced with me yet," Teresa pouted.

"You can save that look for someone it works on, Miss Teresa. I have no intentions of doing anymore dancing tonight. In fact, I'm calling it a night. All this walking down aisles has worn me out," Johnny retorted.

"You can't leave, we're the hosts," Scott said.

"You're the host. Have fun, brother," Johnny smiled and waved as he walked to the house.

"I'll never understand that boy," Scott said, shaking his head.

****

Teresa took a deep breath the next morning as she surveyed the damage from the reception. The only thing that kept her mood light was the knowledge that Murdoch was happy.

"What a mess!" Johnny exclaimed as he walked outside.

"It certainly is. Well, nothing to do but get busy," she shrugged.

"Hold on there, girl. You ain't gotta do all that. Me and the boys is gonna clean up for ya," Jelly said.

"Oh, Jelly, really? Thank you so much," she said and kissed his grizzled cheek.

Jelly turned three shades of red and Johnny turned his head to keep from laughing in the man's face. Scott came out then looking worse for the wear.

"Whew! You must of had a real good time, Boston. You look like the bottom of a whiskey barrel," Johnny laughed.

"I'm glad you're so amused," Scott said wryly. "What a mess!"

"Yeah, but Jelly's got a cleaning crew so let's get to work. That is, if you think you can handle it," Johnny teased.

Scott was in no mood for teasing, his head felt like it was ready to come off. "Not today, Johnny. I'm not in the mood for your jokes," he warned.

"You should have thought about that when I wanted to get rid of all those people last night,' Johnny grinned.

Scott sighed heavily and looked at his brother patronizingly. "Johnny, in polite society, you do not throw your guest out."

"Wouldn't know about that. All I know is the bride and groom left, the rest of 'em should have had the decency to leave to," Johnny retorted, narrowing his eyes.

"All right, enough! Go to work both of you. I have enough to do inside the house. I can't stand here and keep you to from going at each other all day," Teresa proclaimed, hands on hips.

"Yes ma'am," Johnny tipped his hat and strode toward the barn.

"One of these days, I'm going to have to teach that boy some manners," Scott grumbled.

"Good luck!" Jelly chimed in.

****

Johnny walked Barranca out of the barn and saddled up. He walked the horse over to where they were all still standing and looked down at Scott.

"Look, I'm sorry. I know you don't feel too good," he said.

Scott smiled up at him. "Thanks, Johnny. Let's just forget it."

"Sounds good to me. I'll see ya later," Johnny smiled and rode toward the gate. He didn't get very far, only a few feet when he found himself falling to the ground. A split second later, he heard the report of a rifle.

Johnny lay on his back staring at the sky and wondering what had happened. He heard more gunfire and instinctively his right hand went to his gun. He didn't know what he would be shooting at so he tried to raise up, feeling the familiar burning in his left shoulder. He managed to get to a sitting position when he heard Scott yell at him to get down. That was the last thing he heard as another bullet slammed into his chest, sending him reeling into darkness.

Scott yelled out and, with a sudden rage, he bolted from behind the column and headed for his brother. By this time, several of the hands had joined in the fight and he zigzagged his way to Johnny. By the time he got there, everything had grown eerily quiet. There was no more gunplay, no birds singing, not a sound.

He picked his brother up quickly and headed for the house, not trusting the sudden calm and needing to get Johnny to safety.

Cipriano and several men headed for the area the rifle shots had come from as Jelly sent a man for the doctor. He helped Scott carry Johnny upstairs as Teresa began gathering the supplies she would need and setting water on to boil.

****

"What the devil was that all about?" Jelly asked as they undressed the unconscious man.

"I have no idea," Scott mumbled.

Johnny opened his eyes to a world of hurt. He focused on Scott's face until his vision cleared. "What happened?" he whispered.

Scott stopped what he was doing and looked into his brother's eyes. "You were shot. Before you ask, I don't know by whom or why."

"Okay," Johnny sighed and closed his eyes once more.

"Jelly, maybe you should get Murdoch back here," Scott said.

"No!" Johnny said firmly. They both looked at him quizzically. "Leave him be. Nothin he can do, just let him have his honeymoon," he said more softly.

"I guess you're right. There's nothing he can do, but you get to tell him it was your idea when he gets back," Scott said with a small smile.

"I will," Johnny said through gritted teeth.

"Easy, boy. Try to rest, Doc will be here soon," Scott cooed.

****

Doc Jenkins worked on Johnny for over two hours before he was satisfied that the damage had been repaired. The wound to his chest was the most worrisome but it hadn't hit his heart or lung. A minor miracle as far as the doctor was concerned. This boy must have some mission in life to have survived so much, he thought.

He went downstairs to give his report to the family and get a hot cup of coffee. "Teresa's with him. He's very lucky, no serious damage done and you got the bleeding under control nicely. He'll need to rest for several days before he starts moving around. Feed him well, make him drink plenty of fluids and hogtie him to the bed if necessary. I take it you are not going to send for Murdoch?" he finished.

"Johnny won't hear of it. He said there's nothing Murdoch can do anyway," Scott explained.

"Well, he's right about that. I'm sure you can handle it fine. No sense in ruining a man's honeymoon," doc agreed.

"I'm glad you agree, Sam because when Murdoch does get home and finds out about this..." Scott trailed off and an actual shiver ran down his spine at the thought of his father's reaction.

"How did all this happen?" Doc asked.

"Don't know. Bushwhacker got 'im as he was ridin out. Never got a look at the mangy dog. He lit out soon as we all started firin at 'im. If I get my hands on 'im," Jelly left the threat hanging in the air.

"Well, Val should be here soon. We'll let him worry about getting hands on him," Scott said.

Jelly grumbled under his breath but Scott chose to ignore him. "I guess we should take shifts sitting with him. I don't want him left alone, you know how hardheaded he is, he'll be trying to get out of bed," Scott added once Jelly had quieted.

"Reckon so. I'll take the night shift. You and Teresa need yer rest to run this place," Jelly concurred.

****

That week was a very long one for the Lancers. Johnny was getting restless after about four fever-filled days. His fever was gone now and he wanted out. Scott, Teresa and Jelly discussed the hogtying suggestion but it was dismissed out of hand. Doc made a bargain with Johnny on the fifth day which seemed to please the young man and he stopped his griping for which all were thankful. Scott was ready to shoot him himself.

The second week began with Johnny insisting on getting out of bed. He had kept his part of the bargain and as soon as Sam made an appearance he reminded him it was time to keep up his end. Doc agreed and helped him get dressed then Scott helped him downstairs to the sofa.

"Happy now?" Scott asked sarcastically.

"As a lark," Johnny smiled.

"Good, because you have exactly six days to get completely healthy again before Murdoch gets home. I don't want his new bride being welcomed by a sick man," Scott said firmly.

"Yes sir! I will be in tip top shape in five days. How's that?" Johnny said as he saluted.

"That will be just fine. Now, if you'll excuse me," Scott smirked.

"Hey, where ya goin?"

"I have work to do, Johnny."

"Can't ya hang around here? Work on the books. Come on, keep me company," Johnny said, sticking his lower lip out just a little.

Scott smiled at his brother but it wasn't a smile Johnny liked. "You bored? Well, I have just the thing." He walked over and retrieved the books from Murdoch's desk and sat them on Johnny's lap. "There, that should keep you busy."

Johnny's face dropped and he looked at his brother from under his lashes. "I'm not sure I'm up to concentrating that much," he tried.

"Oh, don't worry. I'll check them for you when you're done. See ya," he smiled and left the house.

****

When Scott arrived home later that evening, Johnny was asleep on the sofa with the ledgers draped over him. Scott smiled and shook his head as he gently eased the books away and looked them over. 'Not bad,' he thought. 'He puts on way too much that he knows nothing about books. Well, I won't fall for that one again,' he thought with some amusement.

He leaned over and gently shook Johnny's shoulder. Blue eyes opened halfway. "What?"

"Almost time for supper. Do you want to stay down here with us?" Scott asked.

"Yeah, I'm never goin back to that room again," Johnny replied with a half smile.

"That sofa might start getting awfully uncomfortable after a while. Come on, brother, let's get cleaned up," Scott smiled affectionately.

They sat down to supper and Teresa smiled at Johnny, placing her small hand over his. "So good to have you back with us," she said softly.

"Thanks, glad to be back among the living," Johnny said, returning the smile.

As they finished their meal, they heard a buggy drive up. "Must be Doc," Johnny surmised.

"It's a little late in the day, besides he was already here once today," Scott frowned.

"It occur to either of ya to get up and look," Jelly said as he walked to the front door.

Jelly opened the front door and his mouth dropped open. "Murdoch! What're you doin back?"

"We got rained out, Jelly. There was a terrific storm in the mountains, flooded everything. We decided it would be best to head home before we had to swim," Murdoch explained happily.

"Well, shore good ta see ya but I'm sorry yer trip got cut short. Ma'am," Jelly tipped his hat.

"Hello, Jelly," she smiled.

"Murdoch? What happened?" Scott asked as he came to the door.

"Why don't we get inside so I don't have to keep telling this story," Murdoch suggested.

"Inside? Uh, oh yes, well..."

"Scott, move out of the way. What's wrong with you?" Murdoch said, annoyed.

"Nothing's wrong with me," Scott mumbled.

Murdoch walked into the living room to find Johnny sprawled on the couch. The brunette jumped up when he saw his father and immediately regretted it. He swayed a little and Teresa grabbed hold of him.

"What are you doing here?" Johnny asked once he got his bearings.

"We got rained out. What's wrong with him?" Murdoch asked Teresa.

"He was shot, bushwhacked, the day after your wedding," she explained.

"Shot? My goodness, you shouldn't be up, Johnny. Here, sit back down," Amanda said as she went to his side.

"Thank you, ma'am," Johnny said gratefully.

"Who shot you and how bad?" Murdoch asked.

"I don't know and I'm alright," Johnny retorted.

"Murdoch, this is not the time to interrogate him. Has the doctor seen him?" Amanda asked.

"Yes, he was here today. He really is much better. He just needs more rest," Teresa explained.

"I should say so. Scott help your brother up to bed. I'll be along shortly," Amanda ordered.

****

"Well brother, it's out now," Scott said as he settled Johnny into bed.

"Yeah, damned rain," Johnny grumbled.

"Alright now, are you feeling better?" Amanda asked as she entered the room. She immediately felt Johnny's forehead.

"Yes, ma'am. I'm sorry," Johnny replied.

"For what? It isn't your fault you got shot by some unknown assailant."

Murdoch watched his new bride mothering his youngest son and he felt a warmth spread through him.

"You shouldn't be doin this. You just got home," Johnny tried.

"Hush. I want you to rest now. No more talk, young man," she said sternly, then leaned over and kissed him on the forehead.

Johnny was taken aback at the gesture and at a loss for words for a change.

"Johnny, does Val know anything about this?" Murdoch asked, feeling his son's discomfort.

"He knows, but he hasn't been able to find out anything," Johnny replied.

"Well, get some sleep son. I'm sorry if I was grumpy. I just wasn't expecting to find you in this shape," Murdoch said.

Johnny's eyebrows went up. "Uh, it's okay, really," he stammered.

****

Val stopped by the next day to check on his friend and was surprised to find Murdoch home.

"Have you found out anything?" Murdoch asked as they walked into the living room.

"Fraid not, Mr. Lancer. I've been all over the valley. Nobody's seen any strangers hangin around lately," Val said.

"Well, maybe it wasn't a stranger," Scott suggested.

"What's that mean?" Johnny asked as he made his next checker move.

"Is there anyone you've had a problem with around here lately?" Scott asked.

Johnny thought for a moment, then shook his head. "Nope, everybody round here loves me," he grinned.

"I'm glad you find this amusing, Johnny," Murdoch chastised.

"Well, I'll keep lookin but at this point, they're probably long gone," Val interrupted.

"Hope so, I'm ready to get back to work," Johnny said. "They won't let me outta their sight," he explained when Val looked at him strangely.

"I suppose we can't keep you locked in the house forever. But, I want you to be careful, Johnny," Murdoch said, wagging a warning finger.

"I'm always careful," Johnny retorted.

"Sure you are. I still think we should wait for Sam to give him a clean bill of health first," Scott said.

"Oh, he's not going anywhere until that happens," Murdoch agreed.

"Do I get a say in this?" Johnny asked.

"No!" they both answered.

"What is going on in here?" Amanda asked.

"They won't let me go out and play," Johnny pouted.

"Oh, I see. Well, you should wait for the doctor to say it's alright, Johnny," she said in mock sympathy.

"I told you," Murdoch voiced in triumph.

******

Sam released Johnny to go back to work as long as he took it easy for the first week. Promising to do just that, Johnny was up and dressed early the very next morning, chomping at the bit to get outside in the fresh air.

"Mornin, ladies," he smiled as he entered the kitchen.

"Good morning. I see you aren't wasting any time," Amanda replied.

"He's too stubborn. As for following doctor's orders, well, we'll see," Teresa chimed in.

"Aw, Teresa, you know I'm a good boy," Johnny teased and pulled the girl's hair.

"Keep that up and you'll go hungry," she retorted.

"Please be careful, Johnny. We still don't know who shot you or why. They could come back," Amanda said.

"Yeah, but this time I'll be ready. Don't worry, I'm used to taking care of myself. I'll be careful," he smiled.

Johnny ate a hearty breakfast and was out of the house before Murdoch or Scott came downstairs. He'd planned it that way. Dealing with the female's worrying over him was bad enough, he couldn't deal with his father and brother looking over his shoulder all day.

He saddled Barranca after a proper greeting and promised the palomino he would stay with him all day this time. Johnny mounted up and rode out to the south pasture, breathing in the fresh dew-moistened morning air.

"Already?" Murdoch asked in surprise when his wife informed him Johnny was gone.

"He was in quite a hurry. I guess he has cabin fever," she laughed.

"Scott..."

"I know, I know, Murdoch. I'll check on him throughout the day," Scott interrupted the already known request.

*****

Johnny spent the morning looking for strays. He'd found a few but it wasn't too bad and he was grateful. Though he would never admit it, he was still not completely healed. His strength was questionable and it was starting to leave him already. He hated feeling this way, vulnerable and needy. He sighed as he looked out over the meadow, a smile playing at his lips as he admired the pure beauty of the earth.

The hairs on the back of his neck went up and his hand fell to his side, resting easily on the colt. He turned Barranca a full 360 degrees, scanning the land.

"Up here, cowboy," he heard.

Johnny looked up in a huge oak to find a man pointing a rifle at him.

"Ya got good instincts," the man said. "Now, toss the iron to the ground, rifle too," he instructed.

Johnny thought his options over quickly and decided there weren't any. The stranger had him dead to rights. He shrugged and tossed both weapons to the ground.

The man climbed out of the tree with ease, keeping the Winchester trained on Johnny the entire time.

"Slide on off that horse, mister," he directed.

Johnny dismounted and looked at the man. "Now what?"

"Now, you tell me who you are," the man answered.

"Johnny Lancer, and you are?"

"Lancer? You wouldn't lie to a fella now would ya?" he asked.

"I might, but I don't see any reason to," Johnny drawled.

"Ever go by any other name?" he asked.

Johnny tensed though he didn't show it. "Nope."

"Ever heard the name Wilson?" he probed.

Johnny's eyes narrowed as he locked eyes with the stranger. "Maybe."

"Alright, I'll be straight with ya. I'm lookin for a man, well nearly a man. Name's Rick Wilson. Ever heard of him?"

Johnny thought for a minute, the name sounded familiar to him. Suddenly, he remembered. "Mister, the only Rick Wilson I ever heard of has been dead for three years."

The stranger stared at him for a long moment. "Sure about that?"

"Sure as I can be. Why do you want him so bad?" Johnny asked.

"It's personal."

"Reckon it ain't anymore, seein as he's dead and all. Look, it's a pretty common name. Maybe it's a different man," Johnny reasoned.

"This one's about eighteen, dark hair, blue eyes and about your height," the stranger described.

"You're the one that shot me, aren't you?" Johnny said, more than asked.

"Yeah, I'm sorry about that but from a distance..."

"From a distance? Mister, you might want to get your eyes checked or your facts straight before you go off shootin at people who look like someone you're after!"

"Look, it fit. I know his mother is at your ranch," the man said.

"I told you, that Rick Wilson has been dead for three years," Johnny restated.

"No, he ain't. I don't know what she told you but her boy ain't dead ... yet."

"Who are you anyway?" Johnny asked, trying to make sense of this.

"Name's Clark, Jess Clark. I'm from Montana and I been tracking Mrs. Wilson hopin to catch up with Rick."

"Why do you think he's not dead?" Johnny asked.

"Cause I seen him not eight months ago in Stockton. He was with his mother then. I figured he still was, reckon not though," Clark explained.

"Are you sure about that? It was her son?" Johnny asked.

"Dead sure. Look, I'm sorry I shot ya and I'm glad ya didn't die but if Rick ain't here, I best be on my way," Clark said.

"Wait a minute. Why do you want him so bad?"

"He's a murderer and a thief! He killed my brother and I'm gonna hunt him down if it takes the rest of my life. You better hope he don't come here, cause whenever he's in trouble, he runs to mama."

"She said he was killed in an Indian raid with her husband," Johnny said.

"Husband was killed alright, but not by Indians. He died protecting that no good son of theirs. Somebody else that thought it was a good idea to rid the world of Rick Wilson. That was right before he killed my brother," Clark said.

"How did it happen?" Johnny asked suspiciously.

"Shot him in the back. Shot me, too, but just in the leg. I saw it, Lancer. This ain't no vigilante hunt. He's wanted for my brother's murder and a few others. He's plain evil and he needs killin," Clark spat.

"Why did you ask me if I went by another name if you know this man so well?" Johnny asked.

"I knew you wasn't Rick but you look familiar to me all the same. Since I ain't never been in these parts before, I thought maybe I'd seen ya somewhere else. Maybe down south?" Clark asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Yeah, maybe," Johnny said softly. "Look, I'm sorry about your brother but if Wilson is wanted, let the law take care of it."

Clark went to his horse that he'd tethered in a stand of trees and retrieved a paper from his saddlebag. Handing it to Johnny, he spat, "That enough proof for ya?"

Johnny read the wanted poster, the description fit as did the name and location. "Can I keep this?"

"Sure, I don't need it."

"If Wilson does come to Lancer, Clark, know this, you won't kill him on this land. He'll be handed over to the law. Don't come back here again," Johnny warned.

"Sure Madrid, sure," Clark half-smiled, mounted up and rode away.

Johnny watched him ride away then retrieved his gunbelt and rifle. Sighing heavily, he wondered what he should do with this information. Should he go to Amanda or Murdoch? Figuring this was his father's problem more than his, he made his decision and headed for home.

Scott saw him riding toward him and waved. Pulling up alongside, he grinned. "I was just coming to check on you, brother. Murdoch doesn't want you overdoing it."

"I was heading back. You better come with me. I found some things out today that are gonna be hard on the old man," Johnny said quietly.

"What things?" Scott asked.

"Let's just get home. I don't want to have to tell this more than once," Johnny said and flicked the reins.

They rode in together and Murdoch stood in the yard watching. He thought Johnny looked too pale and knew he should have held a tighter rein on the boy.

"You did too much, didn't you?' he asked.

"Murdoch, come in the barn with us. I need to tell you something," Johnny said.

******

"I don't understand. Amanda said her son was dead. She wouldn't lie about a thing like that!" Murdoch said after hearing Johnny's tale.

"Maybe she would to protect him. He's wanted for murder, Murdoch. Not something easy to live with for a mother," Johnny reasoned.

"And this man, this Clark, he's the one who shot you?' Scott asked for clarification.

"Yeah, he said he thought I was Rick from a distance. I told him not to step foot on this ranch again," Johnny replied.

"What are you going to do, sir?" Scott asked.

"I'm going to have to talk to her about it. If this is all true, we need to know where the boy is," Murdoch said softly.

"He can't come here. You know that," Johnny said.

"Yes, I know that!" Murdoch yelled and stormed out of the barn.

"He's upset, Johnny," Scott said.

"I know, it's okay. I just..." Johnny fell back against the stall behind him.

Scott grabbed hold and held him steady. "Alright, to bed with you. You've been out too long today and had too much to deal with," he said firmly.

"I don't know if I want to go in there, Boston," Johnny said woefully.

"Neither do I but we're going to. You need to lie down, brother."

******

"Is it true?" Murdoch asked his wife.

Amanda stared out the picture window behind Murdoch's desk, tears streaming down her face. "Yes," she whispered.

"Why didn't you tell me? Why did you feel the need to lie to me?"

"I didn't want to, Murdoch. I didn't know what else to do. He promised to stay away from me when I left Stockton and he has. I thought it was best if I just told you he was dead. I'm so sorry," she cried.

"Amanda, that man Johnny talked to today, he's the one who shot Johnny. He said he thought it was Rick. My son could have died because of this and I didn't know a damned thing about it!" Murdoch groused.

"I didn't know he was after Ricky. My God, Murdoch, if I thought that I would have told you right away! I don't want Johnny hurt. I don't want anyone hurt," she said.

"He can't show up here, Amanda," Murdoch said, the warning clear in his voice.

"What would you do?" she asked.

"Turn him in," Murdoch said flatly. "Can you blame me?"

"No, of course not. But he won't, I'm sure of it," she promised.

******

Scott laid his brother down on top of the covers and Johnny sighed with relief.

"Thanks, Boston."

"You're welcome. If you don't mind, I think I'll just keep you company," Scott said with a grimace.

"You don't think this will break them up, do you?" Johnny asked.

"I hope not, but you know how Murdoch is about the law," Scott replied.

"Yeah, but she's his mother. You can't expect her to give him up," Johnny said.

"I just hope Murdoch can understand that," Scott countered.

"Understand what?" Murdoch asked from the doorway.

"That you can't blame her for wanting to protect her son," Johnny explained.

"You're awfully pale, John. How do you feel?" Murdoch asked.

"I'm just tired, is all. Can you? Forgive her, I mean?"

"I suppose I can understand. I just wish she could have trusted me," Murdoch sighed.

"Maybe, in time, she would have told you about it," Scott said.

"No maybes about it, I'm sure she would have," Johnny said definitively.

Murdoch smiled at his son. "You like her a lot."

"Yes, I do and don't you go making her feel bad for loving her own kid. Mother's love their kids no matter what they do," Johnny said.

"I know, son. I want you to get some rest before supper, though. Mothers aren't the only ones who worry about their children," Murdoch smiled.

*****

Johnny felt a soft finger stroking his cheek as he climbed out of sleep. He smiled in his still disoriented state. "Mama," he murmured.

He heard a gasp and felt the hand move away. Opening his eyes, he saw Amanda sitting at his bedside. "Hi," he said softly.

"Do you hate me?" she asked.

"Why would I hate you?"

"Because my son nearly got you killed, Johnny," she said, the tears welling in her eyes.

Johnny sat up in the bed. "Amanda, don't."

"I can't help it! My God, if you had died...." she cried.

Johnny hugged her to him and patted her back. "Listen to me. I didn't die, okay. You could think about all the what if's in the world but it doesn't change what is. I'm sorry about your son but I understand why you didn't tell us."

"I wish your father would," she whispered.

"He does, it just takes him longer to cool down. Believe me, I'm the expert on that," Johnny laughed.

She pulled away and looked at him. "Why couldn't Ricky have turned out like you?"

"Everyone's different. I'm no choirboy, Amanda. Do you want to talk about him?" Johnny offered.

"I'd like that very much. But right now, I'm supposed to be waking you for supper," she smiled weakly.

"Oh, well can't miss that! Anytime you want to talk, okay?" Johnny grinned.

She smiled back and kissed his cheek then left him to get ready for the meal.

****

Supper was a strained silent affair. Johnny watched his father's somber mood and it was making him angry. Amanda looked plain miserable and Johnny resolved to give his father a good butt kicking if he didn't wise up. Scott watched everyone and could see Johnny's reaction. He decided he had better try to lighten the mood.

"Jelly, how's that new mare coming along?" he asked.

"Real good, she's gettin nice and fat. Can't wait til she foals," Jelly said with a grin.

"I hope it's a stallion. Give Johnny something to do," Scott teased.

Johnny did not take the bait, he wasn't in the mood to play. He made no comment and the room grew quiet again.

"Murdoch, I was thinking it's about time to check the line shacks again," Scott tried.

Murdoch made a grumbling sound in response.

Johnny sighed and glared at his father. "The first time I killed a man I was fifteen years old. I called him out in the street and shot him dead," he said out of nowhere.

Murdoch was stunned at the outburst. "What brought that on?"

"Just thought you'd like to know I'm not perfect, I've done some pretty terrible things. Want a list? Maybe you could compare with Amanda here. See which son is the worst," Johnny drawled.

"That is uncalled for Johnny!" Murdoch growled.

"I just thought if you're gonna be so pious about this, you might want to take a look at your own situation," Johnny said, narrowing his eyes in anger.

"Please don't argue over me," Amanda interjected.

"I'm not arguing about anything. I just wanted to point out the obvious," Johnny shrugged.

"You are not wanted for murder, Johnny," Murdoch said.

"There but for the grace of God, Murdoch," Johnny shot back.

Murdoch's face turned beet red as he locked eyes with his youngest. Johnny didn't flinch under the glare and Murdoch stormed out of the room.

"You shouldn't have done that," Amanda said softly.

"I haven't even started yet!" Johnny hissed and followed his father.

"Johnny, wait!" Scott called out but his brother didn't stop.

"I'm not done talking to you yet, Murdoch," Johnny said as he walked up to his father on the veranda.

"This is none of your business, Johnny!"

"The hell it isn't. That woman is miserable because of the way you're handling this. Look, you can't treat her like you treat me!" Johnny yelled.

"What the devil are you talking about?" Murdoch retorted.

"I'm talking about the way you're shutting her out. Refusing to talk about it. Too damned stubborn to give an inch. Well, it's not me, Murdoch. You've got more to lose than a son!"

"What makes you think I ever wanted to lose you? I'm angry because you could have been killed!"

"Horse feathers! You're mad because she didn't tell you about it. Because she kept something from you. Hell, you stay mad at me for that reason and that's fine, I can deal with it, but she can't! It's not right, Murdoch and it's not fair. How much did you tell her about me?" Johnny shouted.

Murdoch glowered at the brunette. "I told her you were a gunfighter. I didn't try to hide anything!"

"That's it? That's all you told her? Well, good for you! That was really hard for you, I'll bet. You told her something she could have found out on the street!"

"Stop it!" Amanda cried out. "I will not be the reason that tears you two apart!"

"Amanda..."

"No, Murdoch. If you can't handle this, if you can't forgive me, tell me now and I'll leave," she said, bringing herself under control.

"Be careful, old man," Johnny hissed.

"Johnny, I need to talk to Amanda, alone," Murdoch said, bringing his tone down.

Johnny looked at her and she nodded. He went back inside and headed for the tequila.

Scott watched his brother take two shots before he came up for air.

"Feel better now?"

Johnny turned and glared at him. "Don't you start," he warned.

Scott held up his hands to ward of his brother's wrath.

"Well, I'll start. I'm right proud of ya, Johnny. Ya did the right thing and in the right way. Ain't no other way to make that man listen cept for yellin," Jelly said.

"I just hope it sunk in. If he messes this up, I swear ..." Johnny left the threat hanging in the air.

"I understand you're worried about their marriage, Johnny, but you just seem so ... over the top. I've never seen you so .... venomous toward Murdoch," Scott said gently.

Johnny sat down heavily on the sofa. "He's blowing it, Scott, and over nothing. It's not like she killed anyone. Hell, I wouldn't have told him either. I just don't want him to lose her. She's good for him," Johnny explained.

Scott smiled. "And you don't want to see him get hurt."

"Not by her, no."

*****

"Amanda, I'm sorry I've been so ... angry. I'm afraid I haven't handle this very well," Murdoch said.

"I can't blame you. I lied to you about something so basic. Please try to understand, I've been protecting him for so long, it's become a part of me," she tried to explain.

"Darling, you can't go on protecting him. You understand that don't you? You're not helping him or yourself. I don't want to lose you," Murdoch said softly.

"I don't want to lose you, either. You're right, I can't keep doing this. I have to let go of him. I have to set myself free. I've done all I could to help him and it hasn't worked. I don't want to see him again. I know that's an awful thing for a mother to say."

"No, don't put yourself down. There's nothing more you can do for him. He's the laws problem now," Murdoch said and pulled her to him.

She melted in his strong arms and smiled as his warmth engulfed her. "I love you so much," she whispered.

"I love you, too, darling."

They walked back into the house arm in arm, smiling.

Johnny grinned as he saw them, feeling quite pleased that his plan worked.

"What are you smiling at? I have some words for you, young man," Murdoch said gruffly.

"Go ahead, nothing you can say will make me mad now, though," Johnny said and continued to smile.

Murdoch walked over and sat beside him and Johnny actually cringed.

"These are the words. Thank you, son," Murdoch said as he wrapped an arm around Johnny's shoulders.

"You're welcome," he replied quite arrogantly.

"Don't get too proud of yourself, brother. There's a little matter of that statement you made at the table. The one about killing a man when you were fifteen?" Scott said wryly.

Johnny's smile disappeared and he swallowed hard. "Yeah, well that was just for effect. Whew, I'm tired. All this fightin was worn me out. Think I'll go to bed." He started to stand but felt himself being pulled back down by his father's strong arm.

"I don't think so, son," Murdoch said.

The room grew quiet as they all waited for Johnny to speak, but he had nothing to say.

"We're waiting," Murdoch said.

"Don't hold your breath," Johnny mumbled. He looked to Amanda with a pitiful stare.

"Alright, leave Johnny alone. He's still not fully recovered. He does need to rest, Murdoch," she reminded.

The look he gave her was enough for her to almost feel the hug of gratitude he wanted to give her.

"You're right. Okay, son, to bed with you," Murdoch smiled.

"Thanks. See ya in the mornin," Johnny said as he bolted from the room.

"Don't think I'm going to forget about this," Murdoch called after him.

******

Johnny managed to avoid the subject for the next month. It wasn't hard as Murdoch was quite busy adjusting to married life. Johnny smiled at his father's reactions to his new bride's attention. Murdoch seemed almost embarrassed by Amanda's fussing over him.

She was like a breath of fresh air at the estancia. Teresa was surprised and pleased at how well she fit in at the house. She'd had some private reservations about her place in the household but Amanda quickly put those to rest. Now, she could enjoy the companionship of another woman. A woman who could give her advise when she needed it.

Johnny and Scott rode in late one afternoon after a particularly hectic day. Setting foot on the ground, Scott stretched out his back and sighed.

"Tired, brother?" Johnny grinned.

"No, not at all, brother. You?" Scott retorted.

Johnny was about to reply when he turned to look down the road. He saw the rider coming, the dust kicked up by the horse's hooves. He was coming in fast and Johnny's hand went to his side in preparation.

"Do you recognize him?' Scott asked, straining to see.

"Nope, too far away yet but don't look familiar," Johnny said and Scott heard the coolness in his voice.

Once under the gate, the rider slowed to a gallop and headed into the yard. He dismounted and tied off his mount, then sauntered up to the two men.

"Howdy," he smiled.

"May we help you?" Scott asked, his voice tight.

"This the Lancer ranch?"

"That's what it says over the gate. Course, you were tearin in here so fast, I guess you didn't see it," Johnny said, his eyes narrowed. He didn't like this man.

The young man laughed. "Reckon not. I do like to ride fast."

"What can we do for you, mister ...." Scott asked.

"Well, I'm lookin for Amanda Wilson. Hear tell she got hitched up with this Murdoch Lancer fella," he smiled charmingly.

"Yeah? She said you promised to leave her alone," Johnny said coldly.

"Is that what she said? I don't remember that conversation," he smiled.

"I'll, uh, tell her she has a visitor," Scott said, shooting his brother a wary look.

Johnny nodded and kept his eyes on the man. "You can just wait right there, Rick," he said as the man started for the house.

Rick Wilson stepped back and shrugged, looking around the grounds. "Boy, this is some place. Must be worth a lot," he commented.

"Not for you," Johnny shot.

"You seem to have a problem with me. Do I know you?" Rick asked.

"No, but I know about you. Had a visit from a friend of yours a few weeks back. Name was Jess Clark." Johnny watched the recognition on the man's face and fear as well. He knew then exactly what kind of person Rick Wilson was and it made him sick.

"Never heard of 'im," Rick said, trying to cover.

"Uh huh," Johnny said, a faint smile playing at one corner of his mouth.

"You do look familiar, though. You sure we ain't met?" Rick asked.

"Very sure," Johnny clipped.

Johnny heard the front door open and he took a step towards Rick.

"If you do anything to cause her any trouble, you'll deal with me," he warned.

"Rick!" Amanda exclaimed.

"Hi, ma," he smiled sweetly and walked up to hug her.

She backed away from him after a quick embrace. "What are you doing here?"

"Now is that anyway ta say hello to your son?" he smiled.

"Rick, why are you here?" she asked again.

"I just came ta see ya, ma. Heard ya got married to some hot shot rancher. Whew, you really landed in it, didn't ya? So, what's he like?"

"Why don't you ask him?" Murdoch said as he walked into the yard and stood beside Johnny.

"Mr. Lancer, I'm Rick Wilson. It's a pleasure," he said, extending a hand.

Murdoch looked sourly at him but accepted the handshake. "This is my son, Johnny."

"Well, nice to have a name to go with the scowl," Rick laughed.

"You need to leave now, Rick," Amanda said softly.

"Leave? I just got here. You mean you ain't even gonna invite me in?" he asked, sounding like a hurt child.

From where he was standing, Johnny could see the look that came across her face. It was the look of a mother who had failed her child. A look he had seen many times in his own childhood. He stepped up to her side.

"No, she ain't gonna invite you in. But, I'm inviting you to leave, now," Johnny said flatly.

"You run this place, big mouth?" Rick shot back.

Johnny smiled at him. "You should always know the man you're facing off against, boy. Maybe you're just too dense to have figured that out yet. Makes me wonder how you've stayed alive all this time, but then, I already know that," Johnny smirked.

"You think so, do ya? Maybe I oughta show ya how I stayed alive so long," Rick hissed.

"Can't, my back ain't turned to you," Johnny clipped.

"That's enough!" Murdoch bellowed. He strode up to his son's side.

Rick sneered at Johnny, looking like the cat that got the cream.

"It's time for you to leave, boy. Don't step foot on this ranch again," Murdoch said, effectively wiping the sneer off Rick's face.

Rick shuffled his feet then looked at his mother. "Ma?"

"You heard him, Rick. You broke your promise to me. I never want to see you again," she said and ran back inside.

"Go on, Murdoch. I'll take care of this," Johnny said.

"No, there will be no gunplay here, Johnny. It's bad enough she has to deal with him. I don't want her to have to deal with burying him," Murdoch said.

"Hmmph! Pretty sure of you kid, ain't ya mister? Do you know who I am?" Rick smirked.

Murdoch smiled at him and stepped forward one pace. "No, I'd never heard of you until your mother mentioned you. Now, do you know who HE is?" he asked, nodding his head toward Johnny.

"Sure, nobody," Rick replied insolently.

"My son didn't always go by Lancer. For years he called himself Johnny Madrid," Murdoch informed him.

Once more the man's face fell but he recovered quickly. "You expect me to believe that garbage?"

"Murdoch, please let me kill him," Johnny begged in mockery.

Scott had been eavesdropping, staying out of sight in case Johnny needed back up. He stepped forward then to stand with his family.

"You had better believe it or it will be the last mistake you ever make," he said.

Johnny decided he'd had enough of his family using his name and decided it was his turn. He stepped up, past Murdoch to stand toe to toe with Rick.

"You ain't too good at this. You let too much show on your face. You can't ever show your fear and you've shown it to me more than once today. Boy like you won't last too much longer if you don't wise up. Nobody's ever heard of you and they never will. You're a coward, you run and hide behind your mother's skirts whenever things get too rough. Well, those skirts are gone now so you best find yourself another woman to hide behind. Try not to get her killed in the process, though."

"I ain't leavin til I talk to my mother again," Rick said, pulling his chest out on defiance.

"You really think she's going to save you? You really think I'd allow that? I don't use women and I don't hide behind them. You are leaving, only question bein, sittin in the saddle or slung over it," Johnny said, pointing his finger in Rick's chest to make his point. "Now, cobarde!"

Johnny pushed Rick back toward his horse until he was leaning against the saddle.

"You want to sit or lay?"

Rick swallowed hard and mounted up. "This ain't over Lancer," he hissed as he spurred the horse into a ground eating gallop.

******

Johnny was furious with no place to vent his anger. He started pacing the ground and Murdoch knew he was about to explode.

"Johnny, settle down," he said as he put an arm around his son and halted the pacing.

"I can't stand people like him," he spat.

"Try to get yourself under control, brother, for Amanda's sake," Scott said.

That helped quite a bit, although still angry, Johnny allowed himself to mask his feelings.

"He's on the run from somebody. He won't just go away, Murdoch. He's desperate," Johnny said, more calmly.

"Well, we'll just have to deal with that if it comes, son," Murdoch said.

Johnny looked at him bewildered. "You don't seem to understand what I'm saying. Murdoch, he's dangerous and he thinks this is his safe place. He won't give that up even if it means taking us all out, most likely with a bullet in the back!"

"What do you suggest we do, John?" Murdoch asked.

"Let me take care of it," Johnny said coldly.

"No, Johnny. I can't let you do that."

"I see. It's alright to throw the name Madrid around until it gets really serious," Johnny said sarcastically and walked away from them both.

*****

Johnny paced in the garden, trying to calm down, when he felt a presence near him. Turning quickly he saw her watching him.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"For what?"

"That he came here," Amanda explained.

"Not your fault. You believed his promise," Johnny said softly.

"You looked like you wanted to kill him," she said.

"I did and I still do. If you hate me for that, I'll understand," he said without remorse.

"You're trying to protect your family. I understand that, Johnny. I just wish ..... I wish he could turn his life around like you did," she sighed.

"You have to want to change, Amanda. He doesn't. He thinks he's some big shot outlaw and everybody should just quake in their boots at the sight of him," Johnny said a bit sarcastically.

She laughed a little at that description. "I've never been able to picture him as anything more than a child. A very disturbed and desperate child. I don't understand what went wrong. I did the best I could with him. He was such a sweet child," she said, the tears falling again.

"Yeah, we were all sweet children. Sometimes, people are just bad, nothing you did or didn't do could have changed that. I've seen it too many times," Johnny said.

"Thank you for that. I'm afraid I've given up on him."

"Sometimes you have to. You just have to let go. When you've done all you can and it doesn't make a difference, it's time to admit defeat and go on. People like Rick are always blaming someone else for their troubles. Nothing is ever their fault, someone made them do it. The thought of actually working at changing their lives never occur to them," Johnny explained.

"You certainly are wise for one so young," she smiled.

********

Johnny was up early the next morning. He had decided on a plan of action and he wasn't about to let Murdoch or Scott talk him out of it. He was gone before anyone else was up for the day.

He rode into Spanish Wells and headed to Sam's office. He figured the doctor would be the only one up this time of day and he might be able to finagle a cup of coffee.

He opened the door and strolled in, calling the doctor's name.

"Johnny? What's wrong?" Sam asked as he came out of the back.

"Nothin's wrong, Sam. Just stopped by to see if you might have some coffee brewing," Johnny said, flashing him a reassuring smile.

"A bit early isn't it," Sam said as he motioned his friend to the kitchen.

"Got some business to take care of with Gabe. I didn't think he'd be up yet," Johnny explained.

"I'm sure he isn't. Must be important to bring you out before the chickens are awake," Sam pried.

"Yeah, it is," Johnny said as he sat down to the inviting brew.

********

After successfully dodging Sam's inquisition, Johnny headed for the sheriff's office at a leisurely pace. He was aware of the town starting to awaken and everything else around him. 'Guess I'll never break that habit, but then, that's a good thing,' he thought.

"Gabe!" he called as he opened the office door.

"What!"

"Well, good mornin to you, too," Johnny grinned.

"Yeah, right. What can I do for ya?" Gabe grumbled.

"I wanted to know if you have a wanted poster on a man named Rick Wilson," Johnny said, turning serious.

"Wilson, Wilson. Well, let's see here," Gabe said, flipping through the newest posters on his desk.

"Friend of yours?" he asked as he looked.

"Not hardly," Johnny sneered.

"Well, here he is. Rick Wilson, wanted for murder in Modesto," Gabe read and handed the poster to Johnny.

"I figured as much. He was at the ranch yesterday and I'm almost positive he's still in the area," Johnny reported.

"Got any idea where?" Gabe asked.

"Near Lancer, unless I miss my guess."

"Never known you to. Alright, I'll start lookin for him right away," the sheriff promised.

"Thanks, Gabe. Oh, and be careful. I don't think he's got any problems with back shootin," Johnny warned.

*******

Johnny returned to Lancer and headed to the kitchen to snag some biscuits.

"Where have you been?" Murdoch demanded.

"Out," Johnny said, popping a cold biscuit in his mouth and shooting his father a look.

"Out where?" Murdoch persisted.

Johnny looked at Murdoch, then glanced at Amanda. "Nowhere special. I need to talk to you about something. In the living room?"

Murdoch followed him, still in a huff over Johnny's offhanded reply.

"I went into Spanish Wells to talk to Gabe," Johnny said quietly.

"Why?"

"See if Rick was wanted, he is, for murder in Modesto," Johnny said.

Murdoch sighed heavily and sat on the arm of a chair. "Did you tell Gabe he was here?"

"Yep, told him I figured he was hanging around on or near the ranch, too."

"What a mess!" Murdoch grumped.

"I know, but with any luck, Gabe will arrest him and I won't have to kill him," Johnny said.

"Johnny," Murdoch said paternally.

"What? Look, I know his kind and I know how he operates. He's a coward and he'd just as soon shoot you in the back as spit."

"I hope you told Gabe that," Murdoch said.

"I did. Well, I'm going to work now. Keep a close watch, Murdoch. I don't want him sneakin back in here," Johnny said and headed out the door.

********

"Where was he?" Amanda asked.

Murdoch stood up and walked over to his wife, sliding an arm around her waist. "Johnny went to town to talk with the sheriff. Rick is wanted for murder, honey. The law is looking for him now," he said gently.

She laid her head against his chest. "I hope they find him before he hurts anyone else."

"Stay in the house today, okay? You and Teresa," he said.

"He wouldn't hurt me, Murdoch!" she decried.

"Johnny thinks he's desperate. I have to bow to my son's experience in this, Amanda. I don't want to take any chances. I couldn't bear it if I lost you," he said.

"Alright, I'll tell Teresa. Thank you for not trying to keep this from me," she smiled weakly.

Murdoch walked over to the window behind his desk and stared out, deep in thought. The shot rang out and he dove for cover as the window exploded over his head.

*******

Johnny ran out of the barn, gun drawn and started a zig zag run to the house. Bullets skipped off the ground near his feet and he was thankful the idiot was a lousy shot. He only hoped he was a very lousy shot. He had heard the glass breaking and knew a shot had hit the house.

He came to a stop behind a column and caught his breath. Thinking over his options, he made a decision.

"Rick! I figured you were a coward! Let's settle this face to face. You want me? Let's dance," Johnny yelled.

"How do I know you won't cut me down as soon as I show my face!" Rick yelled back.

"You have my word," Johnny replied and heard the laughter. "I've been straight with you. No sense changin that now. What do ya say?"

"Alright, I'll come out, but you first, gun holstered," Rick answered.

Johnny knew it was a ploy, knew he was lying, but he decided to take the bait. He holstered his gun and stepped out in the open.

Rick stepped out and fired as Johnny drew and crouched, returning the fire. He felt the familiar burning in his shoulder and cursed under his breath. He jumped back behind the column and waited. He knew he'd hit Rick, he just wasn't sure how bad.

Murdoch opened the French door nearest Johnny. "Are you alright?" he whispered.

"Yeah, I hit him, don't know how bad," Johnny whispered back. "You okay?"

"Barely, a few splinters of glass, but that's all," Murdoch replied.

Johnny cursed to himself again. "I'm goin," he said and took off before Murdoch could stop him.

Johnny worked his way around to where he'd last seen Rick. Using a bush for cover, he peeked over the greenery and saw Rick laying on the ground. He wasn't moving. Johnny wasn't stupid and he was taking no chances. He approached cautiously, gun ready.

He kicked lightly at Rick's side and got no response. Kneeling over him, Johnny checked for a pulse and felt the fire explode in his side. He was propelled onto his back, but not before he fired again, this time his shot hit dead center of Rick's chest.

Johnny rolled to his side, clutching at the fiery wound. He could feel the blood oozing between his fingers. His shoulder wound was forgotten as he struggled to take a deep breath.

Murdoch ran to him, and kneeled beside his son.

"Check," Johnny said through clenched teeth.

Murdoch checked Rick, then returned to Johnny. "He's dead, son. Can you get up?"

Amanda stood frozen in place as she stared at her son lying motionless on the ground. Finally, she was able to move over to him. She stroked his cheek and bent down to kiss him tenderly. "Oh, Ricky, why?" she said in a strained voice.

"Murdoch," Johnny said, nodding toward Amanda.

Murdoch looked at his wife in her despair, then at his son in pain. "We need to get you taken care of, son," he said forcefully.

Murdoch's voice carried to her, breaking her paralyzing grief. She looked at Johnny for the first time and realized he was hurt.

"Get him to bed, I'll send for the doctor. Tell Teresa I'll be right there," she said, taking control of the situation.

Murdoch stood Johnny up and held him close, supporting most of his weight. "Can you make it?" he asked.

"Yeah, I can make it," Johnny said softly. He took a few steps and locked his jaw against the pain in his side. Trying a few more, he realized he wasn't going to make it.

"Murdoch," he groaned and crumbled against his father.

Murdoch picked Johnny up and carried him inside and up to his room. Laying him gently on the bed, he unbuttoned the shirt to get a better look. The wound to his side was pouring a steady stream of blood and powder burns encircled the opening.

"Point blank," he muttered under his breath as he grabbed a towel and pressed down hard on the wound.

Johnny groaned from the pain but did not awaken. He turned his head to the side and was silent again.

Teresa came in with water and bandages and looked at the site Murdoch was applying pressure to. "Is it bad?"

"Yes, honey, it's bad," he said gently.

She noticed the blood on his left shoulder and pulled his shirt back further. "This is just a flesh wound," she said, keeping her voice steady. "I'll put some water on to boil." She was gone before he could acknowledge her.

Scott skidded to a halt in the middle of the room and walked up slowly beside his father. He looked at the now blood soaked towel, then at his brother's steadily paling face.

He grabbed a towel from the pile Teresa had brought and put a hand on Murdoch's arm. "It's still bleeding," he said and offered the towel.

Murdoch exchanged bloody for clean and pressed down again on his son's right side.

"Rick?" Scott asked.

"Dead," Murdoch clipped.

*******

Murdoch's arm was growing numb and he cursed to himself. 'Where is Sam?' he wondered. He felt as if he'd been standing there for hours.

Scott could see the strain on his father's face. "Let me take over for a while, sir."

"No, I've got it."

"No, I've got it," Sam said as he entered the room.

"About damned time!" Murdoch cursed.

Sam raised an eyebrow at the outburst but said nothing. He was used to families taking out their fear and frustration on him and this one was no different.

"Step side, Murdoch. Let me get a look," Sam instructed. He removed the bloody towel and probed the wound, eliciting a few groans from his patient. He reached under and felt Johnny's back but there was no exit wound, though he did notice some swelling that worried him.

"Scott, come over here and keep pressure on the wound. Murdoch, take these instruments down to Teresa. She knows what to do with them. Tell her I'll need her very soon. I'm going to have to operate to remove the bullet and see what kind of damage was done," he instructed calmly.

******

Teresa brought the sterilized instruments back to Johnny's room, with Amanda carrying hot water. They set up a table by the bed and lit the lamps. Scott continued his job until Sam told him to step away. He and Murdoch stood against the wall and waited.

"I don't need an audience. All I need is Teresa, everyone else, out," Sam ordered.

Reluctantly, they all three made their departure and went to the living room where Jelly was twisting his cap in his hands.

"How's he doin?" he asked.

"Sam's operating, Jelly. We won't know for a while," Scott answered.

"I'm sorry," Amanda cried and ran from the room.

Murdoch watched her go, feeling completely helpless at the moment.

"Don't you think you show go after her?" Scott asked.

"And say what? It's alright that your son shot my son and tried to kill me!" Murdoch lashed out.

"How about it isn't your fault, Amanda. You have nothing to be sorry for!" Scott returned fire.

"And if I don't believe that?" Murdoch said, lowering his voice.

"Well, then I'd say you'll lose her," Scott replied calmly.

******

Three hours passed as they sat and paced and worried. Each man glancing at the clock every few minutes. Jelly made coffee which was left virtually untouched by all.

Murdoch stared out the picture window, replaying the scene in his mind. Johnny stepping out into the open, then going after Rick head on. His son lying in the dirt, her son across from him. It could have so easily been the other way around. It could have so easily been Johnny who was dead now.

And yet might be. He shuddered at the thought. So much blood and he couldn't get it to stop. Why hadn't he tried harder to stop Johnny? But he knew there was no stopping his son. Johnny was set on ending her misery no matter what the cost. He loved her, like he had loved his own mother, almost. Murdoch knew it and it had given him great joy, until now.

His musings were interrupted by the sound of footsteps on the stairs. He turned to watch Sam descend toward them and held his breath.

Amanda appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.

"Sit with me, all of you," Sam said.

Murdoch's gut clenched at his friend's tone. He didn't like the way Sam sounded. They all sat near him on the sofa and waited.

******

"The bullet nicked his renal artery. That's the artery that feeds blood to the kidney. That's why he was bleeding so profusely. I've repaired it and the bleeding has stopped but .... I'm concerned about that kidney. It lost it's blood supply for a good while. We'll have to watch him very carefully. He needs a blood transfusion."

"A blood transfusion?" Scott asked.

"Yes, Scott. He needs blood and you would be the prime candidate, Murdoch," Sam said.

"Is it dangerous?" Amanda asked.

"Yes, it can be, but more for Johnny than Murdoch. If he rejects the blood, he'll die almost immediately," Sam said gently.

"And without it?" Murdoch asked.

"He'll die," Sam said definitively.

"Do it," Murdoch said.

"Jelly, I'll need a cot or bed in the room. Something as high as Johnny's bed or even a little higher. Put it on blocks if you have to," Sam instructed.

"I'll get it," Jelly said and took off.

"Come on, Murdoch," Sam said and got up.

"May I come?" Amanda asked.

"Of course," Murdoch replied softly and smiled.

Jelly brought a cot in from the bunkhouse with two hands carrying pieces of wood to make it higher. They arranged everything to Sam's liking and Jelly sent the hands away.

"Alright, Murdoch, lay down flat of your back. Scott, I'll need your help in a minute," Sam said.

He inserted the needle into Murdoch's arm, then Johnny's, clamping the two tubes attached to the glass bottle he had Scott hold between them. He attached one tube to Murdoch's needle and released the clamp. The blood flowed through the tube into the bottle. When it was half full, he fed the blood into the other tube, then attached it to Johnny's needle.

Sam watched and calculated, measuring the amount of blood closely as it fed into Johnny's arm. He watched for any signs of shock. After fifteen minutes, he relaxed and smiled. Looking at Murdoch, he reassured the worried man.

"It's alright. If he was going to react, he would have by now," he said.

Murdoch sighed heavily and relaxed his tightened muscles but he never took his eyes off Johnny.

Sam finally called a halt to the transfusion, feeling Murdoch couldn't afford to lose any more blood. He dismantled the apparatus, binding the needle wounds tightly.

"Don't get up yet, Murdoch. Amanda, could you bring him some juice and cookies?" he asked.

"Of course," she smiled with relief.

**********

Murdoch ate and drank as instructed before sitting up on the side of the bed. His head spun a little but it quickly stopped and he rose to his feet without difficulty. He took the few steps to sit next to Johnny on the bed.

"How is he, Sam?" he asked.

"His heart rate and breathing are better. The blood helped a great deal. It didn't replace all he lost but it was enough to get him through the crisis," Sam explained.

"In English, Doc. Is he going to be alright?" Scott asked.

"Well, Scott, it's too soon for say for sure but he has a good chance as long as the kidney doesn't give him problems."

"And if it does?" Scott asked.

"Then it's beyond what I could do for him. He'd have to go to San Francisco to the hospital. But let's not get ahead of ourselves," Sam warned.

Murdoch listened to all that was said but he never took his eyes off Johnny. He stroked his hair and waited for his son to wake.

******

Hours past without a peep from the brunette and Murdoch wondered why he had not yet awoken. It wasn't like Johnny not to come around. He was harder to keep still than a June bug. Sam had told him it may be morning before he stirred but Murdoch hadn't believed it. He was beginning to believe it now, however.

He sat in a chair next to the bed and held Johnny's hand, stroking the back of it with his thumb and speaking softly to his son. At just past midnight, Johnny moaned.

Murdoch sat up straight, turning the oil lamp up to lighten the room and waited. Slowly, the young man became aware of his surroundings. His eyes fluttered open and he blinked several times.

Finally, he focused on his father and gave a small smile.

"Hey, there. How do you feel?" Murdoch asked.

"Tired," Johnny mumbled.

"I would imagine. You've been through the wringer," Murdoch said, trying to sound light.

"Tell me," Johnny said simply.

He knew better than to sugar-coat it. Johnny always wanted it straight. "Well, the bullet hit an artery and you lost a lot of blood. Sam had to give you a blood transfusion," he started.

"What's that?" Johnny whispered.

"He took some blood out of me and put it in you. Just enough to give you a fighting chance," he explained.

"You okay?" Johnny asked, frowning.

"I'm fine, son. Can't even tell it happened," Murdoch smiled.

Johnny nodded and sighed, sure his father would not lie to him. "What else?"

"Well, son. The artery that was damaged goes to your right kidney. Sam isn't sure if that kidney will be alright. He said the blood supply had been so low to it, but he's watching you closely," Murdoch explained.

"What happens if ...." Johnny's strength was nearly gone now, what little he'd had and he could feel himself drifting away but he needed to know.

"If it doesn't get better we'll have to take you to San Francisco to the hospital. Sam said he wouldn't be able to do anything for it," Murdoch explained quickly.

"It'll be okay," Johnny mumbled and closed his eyes.

"Sure it will, son. Everything will be okay," Murdoch said huskily as he watched Johnny fall into a deep sleep.

"How is he?" Amanda asked.

"Very tired," Murdoch said, feeling her hand on his shoulder.

"Will you lie down for awhile? I'll sit with him," she asked.

"Maybe I will. I just wanted to make sure he ...."

"That he woke up, I know, dear," she smiled. "Thank you," she added.

"For what?"

"For letting me help. I wasn't sure you wanted me anywhere near him," she said, her voice trembling.

Murdoch stood up and hugged her close. "It's not your fault, Amanda."

******

She sat beside him and stroked his soft black hair, tears slipping down her face as she thought of the 'if onlys'. If only she'd seen it sooner, if only she'd told Murdoch the truth before they were married, if only she'd been a better mother.

She felt him squeeze her hand and looked up at him through tear stained eyes.

"Hey," he smiled.

"Hey yourself. How do you feel?" she asked.

"Not bad," he lied.

"Right. Is the pain bad?" she asked, unconvinced.

"Nah, I've had worse," he said.

"I'm so sorry, Johnny," she said hoarsely.

"Not your fault, Amanda. It really isn't," he said, squeezing her hand to make his point.

"You should hate me, you should all hate me," she said.

"Well, sorry but we all love you so deal with it," he grinned. The grin didn't last long as a hot pain knifed through his back. He stifled the groan but she didn't miss the expression.

"Please take some laudanum."

Johnny shook his head and waited for the pain to ease. "Hate that stuff. Makes me feel funny."

*****

Sam came to see his patient the next morning. He asked point blank questions so Johnny wouldn't fudge with his answers. He knew this boy all too well. He palpated Johnny's lower back and did not like what he found.

"I don't like it, the swelling hasn't gone down and you're in too much pain." Turning to Murdoch he said, "you need to get him to the hospital in San Francisco. I don't have the equipment here to help him."

"Alright, Sam, if you're sure. What do you think is the best way for him to travel?" Murdoch asked.

"Well, by wagon to Stockton and the train from there. He'll need a private car so he can lay down. It'll be rough getting to Stockton but he certainly can't travel by stage. I took the liberty of getting the train schedule. There's one leaving day after tomorrow at 9 a.m. If you leave right away, you can make that train," Sam explained.

"Sam?"

The doctor turned to his patient and saw fear in the blue eyes.

"What are my chances?" Johnny asked.

"Johnny, I won't lie to you. I simply don't know how bad it is," he answered honestly.

"Okay," Johnny mumbled.

*******

Murdoch sprang into action. He had Jelly get a wagon ready and Teresa gather provisions. Scott packed for all of them and he stayed with his son.

"We'll get you through this, Johnny." Murdoch said, stroking the back of his hand.

"Murdoch, if I don't ...."

"None of that now, you're going to be just fine," Murdoch interrupted.

"Yeah, but just in case..."

"No, Johnny. You can't think that way," Murdoch said stubbornly.

Johnny gave up and closed his eyes, suddenly feeling very tired.

"Murdoch? Do you want me to pack for you?" Scott asked from the door.

"No son, stay with your brother. I'll take care of that," he replied and left the brothers alone.

Johnny opened his eyes and smiled at the blond. "Can I talk to you?"

"Of course, Johnny," Scott said, smiling yet furrowing his eyes at the question.

"Murdoch wouldn't listen to me but I guess you will," Johnny explained.

"Go ahead, I'm listening," Scott said and sat beside his brother.

"It's just this. If I don't make it, Scott, there's something you need to know. I have one of those safety deposit boxes in the bank at Green River. There's some stuff in there you'd need in case... Mr. Hamilton has a key and he knows to give it to you or Murdoch," Johnny explained.

"What's in it?" Scott asked.

Johnny looked sheepishly at him. "My will and some personal things," he replied.

Scott's brows went up in surprise. "Your will? Well, I have to say I'm surprised, Johnny, but I guess it is a good idea. I suppose I should do that myself."

"Yeah well, I got more reason to than you," Johnny grinned.

"When did you make out a will?"

"When I decided I wasn't gonna let Murdoch yell me out of here. Last week," Johnny laughed at his own joke.

Scott laughed with him until Johnny's expression changed to one of pain. "Easy, brother. Okay, good one but try not to move," he said, still unable to wipe the smile from his face.

"So, you'll take care of things for me?" Johnny asked, turning serious.

"Of course I will. Just one question; who did you leave your third of the ranch to?" Scott asked surreptitiously.

Johnny grinned. "Ain't tellin."

Amanda and Murdoch walked into the room and saw the smiles on the boy's faces.

"Well, for someone so sick, you're in a good mood," she smiled as she stroked his hair.

"Johnny just made a good joke," Scott explained.

"Do we get to hear it?" Murdoch asked.

"Don't reckon you'd think it was funny," Johnny laughed.

"Johnny, I wish I was going with you," Amanda said.

"Well, maybe not. Then you would see how he flirts unmercifully with those pretty nurses," Scott grinned.

"Hey, I didn't think about that! Thanks, Boston," Johnny grinned.

"Alright you two. Johnny, I'll be praying for you, honey," Amanda said, turning serious.

Johnny smiled up at her and squeezed her hand. "Thank you, Amanda."

Her eyes welled up and she kissed him on the forehead. "I can't lose you, too," she whispered and left the room.

"Wagon's ready, Boss. How d'ya wanna move 'im?" Jelly appeared at the door.

"We'll need some help, Jelly. Get a couple of men. I don't want to jostle him around anymore than necessary. I guess we'll use the bed sheet," Murdoch answered.

"Teresa's gonna be mad if you ruin her sheets," Johnny said.

"I'll buy her some new ones," Murdoch quipped. He worried that Johnny was making too light of the situation but then, it was Johnny's way.

Jelly returned with two hands and they lifted Johnny from the bed and carried him to the waiting wagon. Jelly had placed a mattress and several pillows in the back and with some positioning, they managed to get Johnny laid down. Unfortunately, it was not without consequences but Johnny gritted his teeth and kept quiet until they laid him down.

"God," he moaned through his teeth.

"Give it a minute, brother," Scott said, rubbing his hand.

After several minutes of deep breathing, Johnny relaxed and rewarded his brother with a small smile.

Murdoch climbed in the back to check on him. "Are you alright?"

"Yeah, I am now. Let's get this thing movin," Johnny said softly.

Murdoch climbed back out and Teresa climbed in. She kissed him firmly on the cheek. "Come home, soon," she said, tears rolling down her face.

"I will, miel," Johnny said. 'One way or the other,' he thought to himself.

"I love you," she smiled.

"Te amo, querida," he whispered.

Jelly popped his head in the back of the wagon. "I'm goin with ya ta Stockton so's I can bring the wagon back. Are ya ready, Johnny?"

"Ready as I'll ever be, Jelly," he smiled.

Jelly looked sorrowfully at him for a split second, then disappeared from view.

"God, I hate it when he looks at me like that," Johnny said.

"I know what you mean. Listen, I have a bottle of laudanum Sam gave me. I know you don't like it but just know it's here," Scott said.

"Okay," Johnny said quietly. 'Might need it pretty soon,' he thought.

******

The wagon lurched forward and Johnny grimaced. Even with the mattress and pillows, the jarring was already nearly unbearable. He closed his eyes and   sighed at the thought of the hell he was about to go through. The trip alone might just kill him and he had no idea what lay ahead at the hospital.

Scott watched him closely, knowing he was in pain and feeling helpless to do anything about it. He felt his breast pocket to assure himself the laudanum was there. He thought he might just have to shove it down Johnny's throat before the day was over.

Murdoch kept looking back at them checking and Scott quickly got used to giving his father little nods to ease his mind.

Jelly stared straight ahead as he drove the wagon. His mind whirled with the possibilities. He didn't know what was wrong with Johnny, none of them really did, but he was afraid. For the first time in a long time, he was afraid for his friend.

Teresa and Amanda watched as the wagon rolled down the road. Both with tears streaming down their faces as they clung to each other for support. Everything had happened so fast. Amanda had barely had time to bury her son and now, she may very well lose another one.

*****

Scott tried everything he could think of to keep the jarring to a minimum but Johnny's face told the story. He was failing miserably. An hour into the trip, Johnny looked up at his brother with a look that broke Scott's heart.

"Reckon its time for that laudanum, Boston," Johnny whispered.

Scott hid his surprise and his own pain. Johnny was actually asking for the medicine he hated. Scott knew what that meant. His brother could take no more. He reached into his pocket and pulled the brown bottle out. Unscrewing the cap, he placed it to Johnny's lips.

Johnny placed a hand over Scott's and tilted the bottle up, taking what was probably too much, but Scott didn't fight him. Johnny knew what he needed and what he needed right now was to be unconscious.

Placing his trust in his family, Johnny drank down the bitter liquid, enough to knock him out for the rest of the day, he hoped. He also hoped his brother understood. One look at Scott told him the blond did indeed. He smiled at his brother and closed his eyes in anticipation of some relief.

Murdoch turned around in time to see Johnny pull the bottle away from his mouth. Surprised wasn't the word for it but he figured Scott had somehow talked him into taking the medicine. He was relieved for it, too.

*****

They stopped for the night in a clump of trees, leaving Johnny in the wagon as it was more comfortable for him. He had been asleep for hours now and Murdoch was a little worried. He approached Scott.

"He asked for the laudanum, Murdoch. He took a pretty big dose, too. He'll probably sleep half the night," Scott explained.

This information caused Murdoch to go to his son. Climbing into the back of the wagon, he laid a gentle hand on Johnny's forehead, relieved when he found no fever.

Johnny opened his eyes and blinked. There was a blanket of stars above him and he stared in fascination at the beauty.

"Hey there, sleepy head," Murdoch said softly.

"Hey yourself. What time is it?" Johnny smiled.

"It's late. I'll get you some broth," Murdoch answered.

"No need, got it right here," Jelly said as he handed the cup over the side of the wagon.

"Teresa fill a canteen with that stuff?" Johnny asked, trying to laugh.

"That's exactly what she did," Murdoch said as he lifted Johnny's head and placed the cup to his lips.

He drank dutifully, though he wasn't the least bit hungry. But it quenched his thirst somewhat. Water was what he wanted and, as if reading his mind, Murdoch offered up a canteen.

"Thank you," he sighed.

"You're very welcome. We'll head out again at sun up. I think you might want to take another dose of that laudanum before we start," Murdoch said gingerly.

"My brother is a snitch," Johnny smiled.

*****

Johnny did take more laudanum the next morning before the wagon rolled on. He managed to stay in a stupor the rest of the trip. The next morning they arrived in Stockton and Murdoch went to the train station to acquire their tickets.

He walked out to the boardwalk with a sour expression.

"What's wrong?" Scott asked.

"They don't have anymore private cars. The ticket agent said a woman traveling alone had bought two cars. I'm going to try and find her. See if I can persuade her to give one of them up," Murdoch said grumpily.

"Do you want me to go with you? Unless you change that mood, you're not likely to charm that car out of her," Scott said warily.

"No, son. Stay with your brother. I'll handle it," Murdoch said, not giving in to the anger his son's statement evoked. He knew Scott was right and as he headed to the hotel, he made himself calm down.

He had no trouble finding the woman as she was sitting in the dining room awaiting departure time.

"Mrs. Ford?" he asked as he approached.

"Yes?"

"My name is Murdoch Lancer, ma'am. The ticket agent at the station said I might find you here. May I join you for just a moment?" he asked politely.

"Very well, Mr. Lancer. What can I do for you?" she asked.

He took quick stock of her. An older woman traveling alone. She must be a widow but it was obvious she was well off.

"My son is very ill and I'm taking him to the hospital in San Francisco. He isn't able to sit up on the train and I wondered if I might persuade you to sell me one of your private cars. There are no more available," he explained.

"I see," she said thoughtfully. "May I ask what's wrong with him?"

Murdoch squirmed at the question. It wasn't any of her business but he couldn't very well argue with her. "Well, he has a bad kidney from what our doctor has told us. He's in quite a bit of pain and he needs to lie down," he answered.

"How old is he?" she asked.

"Twenty-two, why?"

"I'm sorry. I don't suppose that makes a difference. I would be happy to give up my second car for such a worthy cause, Mr. Lancer," she smiled.

"Thank you. You have no idea how much I appreciate this," he said sincerely.

"I think I do, sir," she smiled.

"I'll be happy to reimburse you," he said, going for his wallet.

"Nonsense. I won't hear of it. I'm an old widow, Mr. Lancer, and I seldom get the chance to help others. Oh, I donate to charities but I never really get to see the effects of those donations. Not that you are a charity, of course. Just call it my contribution to the health of your son," she smiled.

"Well, I .... alright, but if you change your mind," he said.

"I will let you know. Now, let's see about getting this boy of yours situated."

Murdoch took her to the wagon. "This is my other son, Scott. He'll be traveling with us. This is Mrs. Ford, she's agreed to give up the car," Murdoch introduced.

"We are very appreciative, ma'am," Scott said as he took her hand and bowed.

"My, what lovely manners. Now, where is our patient?" she said.

"Jelly, how is he?" Murdoch asked as he pulled back the flap on the back of the wagon.

"Why don't you ask him yourself," Johnny said softly. "I'm alright," he added.

"Hello, young man. I'm Mrs. Ford," she said.

"I heard. Thank you, ma'am," Johnny said, trying to raise up to see her.

"You just lie still," she cautioned. "Will you need help with him? I could get the porter."

"No ma'am, we can manage," Jelly interrupted. "Jellifer Hoskins, ma'am. Most thankful for yer kindness," he said, tipping his cap.

They carried Johnny into the train before the other passengers were allowed to board. Mrs. Ford gave them the larger of the two cars and they settled Johnny in. She got her first good look at him then.

She leaned over him and smiled. "Now we can be properly introduced," she said and extended her hand.

Johnny smiled and shook her hand gently.

"My first husband was Latino, very stubborn breed," she said.

"Yes, ma'am, I'm afraid we are," Johnny grinned.

"It's a good thing, young man, a very good thing. Well, I'll leave you now. Good luck to you all," she said.

"Thank you so much, Mrs. Ford," Murdoch said, opening the door for her.

"Nice lady," Johnny commented.

"Yes, we were lucky," Scott said.

"How do you feel, son?"

"Tired," Johnny sighed.

"Do you need the medicine?"

"No, not right now," he replied.

"Well, reckon I'd better get off here 'fore I end up goin with ya," Jelly said, twisting his cap in his hands. He leaned over Johnny and smiled.

"You take care and make sure ya come home," he said.

"I will, Jelly."

"Johnny, I .... I love ya, boy," he said and quickly left.

*****

The train pulled out of the station ten minutes late and Jelly watched it until it was out of sight. He rubbed at his eyes and prayed it was not the last time he saw his friend.

Johnny closed his eyes and tried to sleep. The movement was much smoother but it still caused him discomfort. He thought about Jelly's last words to him and felt the sting of tears threatening.

"Johnny?" Scott called.

"Yeah."

"Are you alright?"

"I'm fine. Stop askin me!" he said harshly. "I'm sorry, Scott. I'm just tired of everybody lookin at me like I'm already dead," he said in exasperation.

"You're not dead and you're not going to die," Scott proclaimed.

Johnny didn't answer, he couldn't without an argument. He wasn't so sure he was going to make it this time. He could feel something very wrong inside. He knew his body well and he knew when something wasn't right. The slightest thing, from a cold coming on to the effects of a bullet. He knew this time he might not be so lucky.

******

They pulled into the station in San Francisco the next evening. Murdoch had discussed the situation with the porter and he was to arrange for transportation to the hospital. It would have to be by carriage but the man assured Murdoch it wasn't very far.

Once all the other passengers had disembarked, the porter came to their car to tell them the carriage was waiting.

Murdoch and Scott carried Johnny off the train to the waiting carriage and gently sat him in the seat. He groaned softly and Murdoch jumped in quickly and pulled him over so he was half laying on his father's chest.

"Thanks," he whispered.

"Not long now, son," Murdoch promised.

They pulled out and headed up and down the hilly streets for about ten minutes before they stopped. Johnny was quite sure it was the longest ride of his life. His back screamed in protest with each jangle of the seat.

Scott got out and went inside to procure some help. He returned quickly with two men and a stretcher. They lifted Johnny onto the stretcher and carried him inside to an examination room where they transferred him to a hard cold table.

He hissed with the movement and the hard surface but made no other sound. As the men left the room, a doctor appeared.

"Mr. Lancer, I'm Dr. Hodges. Dr. Jenkins wired me to expect you. He said you would have some medical reports for me," he said.

"Yes, they're right here," Murdoch answered and handed over the thick file.

The doctor raised an eyebrow but said nothing as he quickly perused the pages, concentrating on this latest injury.

"Right then, young man. Let's get a look at you," he said and immediately began his examination.

Johnny eyed the man suspiciously as he poked and prodded, glancing at Scott a few times. When he got to Johnny's back, he bucked.

"Easy there. I see I've found the sore spot," he smiled. "We'll get him admitted, take some blood samples and see what that kidney is up to," he reported to the family.

"I'll be back in a bit. I want to take a closer look at this report. In the meantime, the nurses know what to do," he smiled and left them.

"Scott, he sounds a little like your grandfather," Johnny noted.

"Yes, I think he's from Boston," Scott agreed, having noticed the accent himself.

A nurse appeared from nowhere and quickly set up her equipment. "Mr. Lancer, I'm going to put this needle in your arm and extract some blood samples. It will be a bit uncomfortable, much like a bee sting," she smiled quickly.

She drew her samples efficiently and quietly then left the room. Two men came in with another stretcher. "Time to go to your room, sir," one of them explained.

Johnny felt like he was in a hurricane. Everything was moving so fast, he could barely think straight. He didn't like this loss of control and he scowled openly.

Murdoch watched with some amusement as his son was handled by strangers, knowing full well what Johnny was thinking.

Once settled in his room, he sighed loudly. "Hope that's the end of the movin around. I'm worn out," he said.

"I think you should try to get some sleep, son. I don't know how long these tests are going to take," Murdoch suggested.

"Ain't like they'd tell ya, either," Johnny grumped.

"It's a lot different than the way Sam operates," Scott remarked.

The doctor appeared once more with a strange look on his face.

"Gentlemen, I need to speak with my patient privately," he said and held the door open. The look on his face negated any thought of arguing.

"We'll be right outside," Murdoch said.

"Well, young man. It looks like you've been through the wringer in your short life. You've been shot and stabbed, broken bones and God knows what else, more times than I can count. What's that all about?" he asked point blank.

"Is it important?" Johnny asked with narrowed eyes.

"It is if I'm to treat you," the doctor said firmly.

Johnny sighed and relented. "I used to be a gunfighter. Got in a few scrapes, okay?"

The doctor did not react. "I see, well you have had an interesting life. It seems you and pain are close friends."

"Had my share," Johnny clipped.

"Tomorrow morning we should have your test results back. We can decide from there what needs to be done," he said.

"Got any idea at all yet?" Johnny asked.

"I don't like to prejudge, Mr. Lancer. I want to have as much information as possible before drawing any conclusions."

"Okay. Doc, listen, I want you to be straight with me. Don't sugarcoat it, I hate that. No matter what, I want to know the truth," Johnny stated.

"Alright, I promise."

"And one other thing. Every time you call me Mr. Lancer, I look around for my old man. It's Johnny, okay?"

"Okay, Johnny it is. Well, Johnny, right now you need to rest. Do you need anything for pain?"

"No, I'm okay. I don't like medicine, either, so don't try to shove it down my throat. If I need it, I'll let you know," Johnny replied.

"Anything else I should know?" the doctor asked with amusement.

"Just one more thing. Those two men out there are kind of protective so if they get ... well, upset with you, don't take it personally," he smiled.

"I understand," the doctor smiled.

*****

Johnny spent a restless night worrying about the morning. He had managed to convince Scott and Murdoch to get a hotel room for the night. Now he wished they were here with him. He felt very alone and he didn't like it one bit.

The door opened and his hopes raised that his family had ignored his insistence. But it was only a nurse come to check on him.

"Can I get you anything?" she asked.

"Yeah, out of here," he smiled.

She returned the smile and fluffed his pillow. "I'll check on you again in a while."

"Got anything to read? I can't seem to go to sleep," he asked.

"I'm sure I could find you something," she smiled and left.

She returned some time later with a book.

Johnny grimaced at the title. The Three Musketeers. What the heck was that? He tried to read it but there was too much French and too much odd wording to keep his attention and he sighed and laid it on the table.

He closed his eyes and tried to sleep. It was a futile attempt as his mind wandered. He thought of Amanda and all she'd lost. Of how she was able to care about him even now that he had killed her son. He thought about Rick, cursed from birth it would seem, to travel that maddened road to it's inevitable end. It wasn't the first time he'd faced a soulless man but this time was different. He had wanted to kill him for the pain he'd caused her.

Johnny realized just how much he had grown to love Amanda. He felt closer to her than he had to his own mother. His mother, who had abandoned him herself. Cursed his father and made him hate the man for so many years. The times he had planned and even dreamed of the day when he would put a bullet in Murdoch Lancer's head. He shuddered at the thought. He knew how close he'd come to doing just that on that first day. If Scott hadn't been there, he well may have.

****

Morning finally came and he had drifted off only an hour or so earlier. Johnny awoke when the door opened and he saw his father and brother enter.

"Mornin," he said.

"Good morning? Did you sleep well?" Scott asked.

"Yeah, like a baby," Johnny lied.

"What's this?" Scott asked as he picked up the book.

"I asked for something to read and THAT's what I got," Johnny said, making a face.

"This is a great book, Johnny," Scott said.

"Then you read it. Too much funny talk for me," he shot.

"How about I just tell you the story. It's full of action and swashbuckling. You'd like it without all the 'funny talk'," Scott grinned.

"Sure, Boston, just don't bore me," Johnny said, returning the grin.

"Boston?" Dr. Hodges questioned as he entered the room.

"It's just a nickname, Doc. My brother here grew up in Boston," Johnny explained.

"I'm from Boston, as well," he said.

"I figured, ya talk funny like he did when he first came out here," Johnny smirked.

Scott shot him a scornful look and Murdoch chuckled as did the doctor.

"Well, young man, I have some information for you," Dr. Hodges said, turning serious. He glanced at Scott and Murdoch and raised an eyebrow.

"It's okay, Doc. Easier for you to explain it than me," Johnny said.

"Simply put, your right kidney is not functioning properly. There is only one way I can tell why or how bad it is and that's to get in there and get a good look," he explained.

"Surgery," Murdoch mumbled.

"I'm afraid so, Mr. Lancer. I won't be able to tell you anything for certain until I see what I'm up against."

"What are the possibilities, doctor?" Scott asked.

"Well, there could be a blockage that we could clear or the kidney may be beyond repair. In that case, it would have to be removed."

"Whoa! Removed?" Johnny exclaimed.

"You still have the other one, Johnny. A person can function quite well with only one kidney. There would be some other considerations in your case, however," he stated.

"Like what?" Johnny asked.

"Like your propensity for injury. With one kidney the potential for infection is greater and the ability to fight it off is greater as well."

"Is there any other way, doctor?" Murdoch asked.

"I'm afraid not. Have you eaten anything today, Johnny?"

"No."

"Then we'll operate in about an hour," he said and left them alone.

No one said anything for several minutes.

"Well, guess that's that," Johnny smiled.

"Yep," Scott smiled back.

"I hate not knowing what I'm gonna end up with or without," Johnny sulked.

"As long as you end up with your life, son, that's all I care about," Murdoch said gently.

Johnny smiled at his father and spoke volumes with his eyes. Scott speed read that look.

"Think I'll go see the nurse. Make sure everything's ready," he said and left the room quickly.

"Johnny, are you scared?" Murdoch asked as he sat down beside his son.

"Yeah, been scared for while now. I .... I knew something was bad wrong. I could feel it," he confessed.

"Why didn't you talk to me?"

"I didn't want to upset you. Besides, I tried to tell you a simple thing the day we left but you couldn't hear it," Johnny shrugged.

"Do you want to tell me now?" Murdoch asked, ashamed.

"Scott knows. It's just in case something happens to me. You don't have to worry about it," he said.

"I'd still like to know," Murdoch urged gently.

"Just that I made out a will and it's at the bank in Green River," Johnny said nonchalantly.

"When did you do that?" Murdoch asked, stunned.

"Long time ago. Figured since I had something of value now, I'd better take care of things. My former profession led that decision," he grinned.

"I don't care about wills, I just want you back home," Murdoch smiled.

"I will go home, Murdoch, no matter what," Johnny said, his eyes relaying his meaning.

Murdoch dropped his gaze, unwilling to even think of it, but he nodded his understanding.

"Nothin for you to do. I spelled it all out. Mr. Hamilton helped me with that," Johnny said.

"I don't understand," Murdoch said, clearly confused.

"The funeral arrangements. It's all spelled out for you," Johnny said nonchalantly.

"Funeral arrangements! Johnny, what..."

Johnny held up his hand to stop the tirade. "Murdoch, I just figured I ought to have a say in it. After all, it is my funeral. I'm not saying I'm going to die today, tomorrow or ten years from now. I'm just saying it's taken care of," he explained, then closed his eyes for a second, suddenly even more tired.

"That's enough talk about that. You're going to be just fine, son," Murdoch said, trying hard to convince himself.

The orderlies appeared then to take Johnny to surgery and Murdoch found he didn't want to let him go.

"Johnny, I...."

Johnny looked into his father's eyes and smiled. "I know, me too," he said softly.

******

Scott and Murdoch paced Johnny's room for hours, sometimes trying to talk, sometimes taking turns staring out the window. Scott tried to get his father to eat something but Murdoch refused. Scott couldn't blame him, he had no appetite himself.

"Did you know about his will?" Murdoch asked out of the blue.

"Not until the day we left to come here," Scott replied. "He said he tried to tell you but you didn't want to hear it."

"No, I didn't and I didn't want to when he told me today. I suppose that's cowardly of me," Murdoch grumped.

"I don't think anyone wants to face the idea that one of their children might die," Scott said sympathetically.

"It's an idea I've had to face too many times, son. Especially with that brother of yours and you too, more than once," Murdoch said.

"Have we driven you crazy yet?" Scott grinned.

Murdoch chuckled a little. "Almost."

"Good, then our job is nearly done," Scott shot.

Murdoch's retort was lost when the door opened and they brought Johnny back in. Both men stared at him and waited for them to settle him before approaching.

"The doctor will be right with you," a nurse said.

Murdoch brushed Johnny's bangs back and watched him closely. 'How could he look that young?' he wondered.

Johnny was pale and deeply asleep. All the movement to get him into bed had not disturbed him in the slightest. Scott picked up his hand and squeezed tight, grateful his brother was alive.

Dr. Hodges entered the room and got their full attention.

"Well, gentlemen, he still has his kidney," he smiled.

The relief on their faces was almost comical. "What was it, doctor?" Murdoch asked.

"His renal artery was partially occluded. The scar tissue built up rather quickly from the trauma he received. Plus the fact that Dr. Jenkins had to repair a nick in the artery. All these things combined to cause the problem. I've placed a stent, a piece of tubing, in the artery to keep it open. He shouldn't have any further problems but he is always going to have to be mindful of what his body is telling him," Dr. Hodges explained.

"But he will be alright?" Scott asked for clarification.

"Yes."

"When can we take him home?" Murdoch asked.

"Oh, I'm afraid not for quite a while. At least two weeks," the doctor replied.

"Two weeks! Well, I'm not going to be the one to tell him," Scott announced.

Murdoch gave his son a woeful look then turned back to the doctor. "When will he wake up?"

"Not for a few more hours. I should warn you, he's going to be in quite a bit of pain for the next few days. I've ordered morphine...." Dr. Hodges stopped his explanation when he heard a chorus of hmmph's from the two Lancers.

"I'm sorry, doctor, but you don't know my brother. He won't take pain medicine. He won't take any medicine," Scott explained.

"I think he will. This is going to be extremely painful," Dr. Hodges argued.

They didn't argue the point as they figured the good doctor would find out himself soon enough.

******

Johnny felt like he was in water, heavy and unable to move. Everything seemed so slow. He tried to open his eyes but they wouldn't obey him. He began to feel a prickling in his belly, then someone stuck a red hot fireplace poker in him and he gasped.

His eyes flew open to a world that was not his own. He looked up at the white ceiling and knew he wasn't home. He felt panic surge up in him as well as that damned fireplace poker.

"Johnny?"

Murdoch, that's Murdoch. Where are you?

Johnny turned his head slightly and focused as the image became clearer of his father standing over him. He tried to smile but only managed a grimace.

"Easy son, you're going to be just fine," Murdoch said gently.

"What did the doc say?" Johnny grunted.

"He said your artery was blocked by some scar tissue but he fixed it and you'll be alright," Murdoch explained.

"Didn't take nothin out?"

"No, nothing. Now, let me get the nurse to give you some morphine," Murdoch said casually.

"No!"

"Johnny, the doctor said this pain is going to be with you for a couple of days. Take the medicine, brother," Scott intervened.

"No," Johnny grunted again.

"Well, I told the doctor you wouldn't take it," Scott sighed.

"He will take it," Dr. Hodges said as he walked in.

"No medicine," Johnny said.

"Listen to me, young man. That pain is going to hinder your recovery. Now, you need the morphine and you will take it," he said firmly.

Johnny's eyes narrowed to mere slits as he locked eyes with the man. "I ain't takin it and if you try to make me, you're gonna be in for a real shock!" he hissed.

Dr. Hodges backed away in surprise.

"Johnny, calm down," Murdoch chastised.

"I'll calm down when he understands," Johnny clipped.

Murdoch took the doctor's arm and gently led him out of the room.

"I told you, he won't take it. You may think it will hinder his recovery but if you try to force it on him, he'll fight you tooth and nail. Do you really want that?" Murdoch explained.

"Why is he is so adamant?" Dr. Hodges asked.

"I don't know and he won't tell me. All he'll say is he doesn't like the way it makes him feel. Johnny doesn't like to lose control, doctor. He'll suffer through anything to maintain it," Murdoch answered.

"I've never had a patient look at me with such .... anger. He looked like he could kill me," he said, awestruck.

Murdoch bit his lip. There was no point in telling the man things he didn't need to know. "As long as you don't bring up the morphine again, he won't give you any trouble," he said instead.

"What about laudanum?"

"No, nothing," Murdoch said.

"Very well, but I don't like it," Dr. Hodges sighed.

"Neither do I but he's a grown man," Murdoch said.

"Is he? He certainly isn't acting like one," the doctor retorted.

******

"Well, brother, you've managed to alienate your doctor. Are you happy now?" Scott asked, more than a little perturbed.

"No, I'm not happy but I'm not gonna let him drug me either," Johnny replied tersely.

Scott sat beside the bed and took Johnny's hand. "Hang on to me, little brother. We'll get through it together," he said sympathetically.

"Thanks, Boston," Johnny whispered and managed a weak smile. He closed his eyes and sighed.

"Is he asleep?" Murdoch asked as he reentered the room.

"No, he's not," Johnny said.

"Well, Dr. Hodges thinks you're behaving like a child but he won't try and make you take anything," Murdoch reported.

"Good .... for him," Johnny said coldly.

"Can I get you anything?" Murdoch asked.

"No thanks. Just want to sleep."

And sleep he did for the rest of the day and most of the night before waking again. He hid the pain from them as much as he could but he felt like his insides were ripped out and laying on top his stomach.

A groan escaped and he bit his lip as Murdoch leaned forward in his chair. Taking Johnny's hand in his own, he squeezed lightly.

"I'm here, Johnny," he whispered.

Johnny tightened the grip on his father's hand and sighed. "What time is it?"

"It's very late, son. You slept a long time," Murdoch answered.

"You should be in bed," Johnny replied.

"Yes, dad," Murdoch teased.

Johnny managed a smile at that. "Where's Scott?"

"Right here, Johnny," Scott said, raising up from his slumped position in the chair opposite Murdoch's.

"Do you need anything for the pain, son?" Murdoch asked gently, carefully leaving any censure out of his voice.

"No, I'm okay. Still really tired, though," Johnny answered.

"Well, sleep is the best medicine for you right now, little brother. So you go right back to sleep," Scott smiled.

"Yes sir," Johnny mumbled as his eyes closed.

******

Eight days later, Johnny was up walking with help and sitting up more than he laid down. His strength was returning a little at a time and he felt he was ready to go home.

Dr. Hodges came to examine him and Johnny gave him a bright smile.

"Mornin, Doc," he gleamed.

"Good morning," Dr. Hodges answered warily. "How are you feeling?"

"Pretty good. I've been walking and sitting up a lot. Doesn't hurt at all anymore, just a little sore. Guess I'm ready to go home now, huh?" Johnny said, still wearing his most winning smile.

"Well, why don't you lie down on the bed and let me take a look at that incision," Dr. Hodges said, reserving judgment.

He examined the surgical site and was pleased it was healing so well. "I think we can remove these stitches now," he smiled. "I'll be right back."

Johnny grinned again, relieved he would soon be free of the hospital. He hated the place, the smell and the sounds. Scott and Murdoch arrived to see him grinning like a Cheshire cat.

"What's got you so happy?" Murdoch asked.

"Doc's gonna take the stitches out. He'll be right back," Johnny announced.

"That's wonderful, son."

"It sure is. I suppose you think that means you'll be getting out of here now," Scott teased.

"I suppose it does, Boston. In fact, I know it does," Johnny said, giving his brother a meaningful look.

"Oh, good, you're both here. I'm about to take out these stitches," Dr. Hodges said as he returned with a nurse and scissors.

He made quick work of the sutures and Johnny never even flinched. The sudden burning sensation only lasted a second with each pull and he barely felt it at all.

"Alright, young man, they're out," the doctor announced.

"Great. When can I go home?" Johnny asked.

"Well, I uh, I'd like to keep you here a few more days, Johnny. Just to make sure," he explained.

"Doc, I feel fine. I'm sure Doc Jenkins can handle it from here," Johnny protested.

"I'm sure he could once you get home. The trip is what concerns me."

"It's less than two days by train to Stockton and a couple days by wagon to Lancer. That's nothing," Johnny argued. He looked to his father for support.

"What do you think, doctor?" Murdoch asked.

"Well, I suppose if he's very careful, he can leave tomorrow," Dr. Hodges acquiesced.

Johnny's smile could not have been bigger as he felt he'd finally won a round with these people.

"Well, why don't I check the train schedules and send a wire home," Scott suggested.

"You do that, Boston. When you come back, how about bringing me a steak. They're starving me to death in this place!"

Scott laughed at the overzealous statement and promised to see what he could do for his poor emaciated brother.

"The trip home will be easier on you son, but it's not going to be fun," Murdoch warned.

"I know. It's still sore but I can handle it. I just want to go home. I miss everybody," Johnny said softly.

"Especially Amanda?" Murdoch asked.

"Do you mind?"

"Mind? No, son. It makes me very happy that you've gotten so close to her," Murdoch said.

"I just hope it's more than me reminding her of Rick. I don't think that's a good thing, especially now that I've killed him," Johnny said, his eyes dropping.

"You had no choice," Murdoch stated.

"Don't matter. He was her son, Murdoch. No matter how bad he was, she loved him. She couldn't feel any other way," Johnny mumbled.

"She loves you, too, Johnny," Murdoch reminded him.

"Does she? I mean, is it me or him?" Johnny asked.

Murdoch didn't have an answer. He hoped she wasn't transferring her emotions for Rick onto Johnny. That could prove to be a terrible situation. He could only try to give Johnny a reassuring smile and a squeeze on the arm.

******

The next morning at eleven o'clock, the train pulled out of the station in San Francisco with the Lancers on board. They had no problem getting a private car this time and Johnny was made to rest most of the trip.

In Stockton, a very happy Jelly Hoskins greeted them with a wagon and a horse for the trip home. He had laid out the wagon bed the same as he had when he'd delivered his precious cargo some three weeks before. This time, there were no sorrowful looks.

"Bout time ya got back. I was beginnin ta think you was gonna hand the ranch on over ta me," he grumped.

"Problems, Jelly?" Murdoch asked, not really worried.

"Course not! Not with me runnin things, anyhow. How ya feelin, Johnny?" he asked, turning his attention to his favorite Lancer.

"Much better, Jelly. Thanks for comin," Johnny smiled.

"Where else would I be? Well, come on, I got two real anxious women a waitin on you," he said.

"How are the ladies, Jelly?" Scott asked.

"Other'n bein worried sick about yer brother, they've both been fine as frog's hair. House ain't never been so clean. Seems it's all they could find ta keep theirselves busy whilst ya was gone," Jelly answered and slapped the reins.

The trip home was uneventful and Johnny was tolerating it well. He had to swear on a stack of bibles to convince Jelly, however.

******

Scott shook his brother's shoulder gently. "Hey, you'll want to see this," he grinned.

Johnny raised up in time to see the gate that announced Lancer just before they passed under it. His smile lit up the evening dusk. "Home," he whispered.

Murdoch smiled at the word. It had never sounded so good.

As they pulled into the courtyard, they could hear the shouts from the vaqueros arriving from their day's work, welcoming them all home. Johnny was reminded of that first day he came to Lancer and how cynical he had been.

"Johnny!" Teresa squealed as she climbed into the back of the wagon and hugged him tightly. "Thank goodness your home and safe."

"Easy there, miel. I missed you like crazy," Johnny laughed.

Murdoch dismounted and handed his horse off to a hand as Amanda approached him and hugged him fiercely. "Is he really all right?"

"Yes, he will be, thank God," he reassured her.

She walked around to the back of the wagon with Murdoch as Scott and Jelly were helping Johnny down. Once on the ground, they continued to hold onto him as if he were a piece of rare art.

"I've got it now, you can let go," Johnny said, a bit exasperated.

"How do you feel, Johnny? Tell me true," Amanda asked.

"Pretty good, a little tired and sore is all, honest," he said, raising his hand to swear to it.

"Alright, to bed with you," she said.

"Aw, Amanda, I just got home," Johnny protested.

"No buts, Johnny. To bed," she directed.

Scott snorted at the command and Murdoch tried unsuccessfully to hide the grin on his face. Johnny leered at them both.

"You just wait til it's your turn," he warned. Then he did as he was told and headed inside.

Johnny stood at the landing and looked up the staircase as if it were a mountain. He contemplated how he was going to manage climbing all the way up there when Murdoch walked up behind him.

"Ready?" he asked as if Johnny had been waiting for him all along.

He smiled appreciatively at his father and nodded his head. Together, they forged up the stairs without too much effort.

Once at the top, Murdoch let go and allowed Johnny to walk to his room unassisted. He opened the door and stood gawking.

The room had been freshly painted and new blue lace curtains hung on the windows. There was a matching blue quilt on the bed and the place sparkled. A new beige chair sat near the open window and a rocking chair in the corner.

Johnny raised his eyebrows and looked at his father who shrugged his ignorance. Behind them, they heard the giggles.

"Why?" was all Johnny could ask.

"We thought your room needed a little sprucing up," Teresa said.

"Blue is your favorite color, isn't it?" Amanda asked.

"Yeah, I guess so. I mean if I had to pick one, it'd be blue," he answered and walked over to the rocking chair.

"Teresa said you like rocking chairs," Amanda said.

Johnny smiled. "Yeah, I do."

"What's this?" Murdoch asked as he noticed the package in the other chair for the first time.

"Just a welcome home gift," Teresa shrugged.

"Well, I guess you should open it," Scott said as he took in the room.

Johnny walked over and picked up the package and sat down in the chair. It was soft and comfortable and the perfect height so he could look out the window. He opened the package carefully. Inside were new shirts with hand stitched embroidery. Four different shirts, four different colors, four different designs.

He swallowed hard as his eyes misted. "Thank you," he whispered.

Amanda walked over and knelt beside the chair. "Do you like them?"

"Yes, very much," he said softly, not able to look at her.

"I'm glad. I'm very happy you're home, Johnny. Very happy," she said as the tears welled up. She reached over and hugged him gently then kissed his cheek.

Johnny wasn't prepared for the emotions that were overpowering him and he shifted in the chair. "I, um, I guess I'm more tired than I thought," he said.

She smiled at him and nodded. "Well, we'll let you rest then. We'll call you for supper," she said as she rose and walked out, taking Teresa and Scott's arms to guide them out.

Murdoch stayed behind, worried about Johnny's emotional state.

"Are you alright?" he asked.

"Yeah, just wasn't expectin all this," he said with a soft laugh.

"Yes, it was a surprise. A nice surprise," Murdoch said, almost asking.

Johnny sighed heavily. "Yeah. Think I'd like to lie down for a while."

"What is it, son?"

"Nothin. I'm fine," Johnny said.

"No, you're not fine, Something's bothering you."

Johnny walked over and sat on the edge of the bed, running his hand across the new quilt.

"Why would she do all this?" he asked.

"Because she loves you and she was worried about you," Murdoch answered.

"I don't understand," Johnny said, shaking his head.

"It's what mothers do," Murdoch said.

Johnny looked up at his father, total confusion in his face. "She's not my mother," he whispered.

"No, son, but she wants to be like a mother to you. Is there something wrong with that?"

"I .... I don't remember. I ... mean I don't know how ...." Johnny shook his head, frustrated at his inability to say what he meant.

"You don't know how .. what?" Murdoch asked, not understanding.

"I don't understand why she did this! Why she gave me presents and fixed up my room," he said, raising his voice with his irritation.

"I told you why, son," Murdoch said gently. "Johnny, what's wrong?"

"My mother, she never did things like this. She never ... she never ...." his voice cracked and he hung his head.

Murdoch lifted Johnny's chin and saw the torment as well as the tears. He pulled his son close and rocked him back and forth.

"Amanda loves you, Johnny. You. She doesn't need a reason to show you how she feels. She does things for you simply because she wants to, for the pure joy of giving. I wish with all my heart you already knew what it was like to be loved that way by a woman, a mother. I don't know what your life with your mother was like. I'd like to, when you're ready to tell me. For now, just try to accept her love," Murdoch spoke softly, almost cooing to his son.

"It's just so .... so pure. She doesn't want anything from me. She's never asked me for one thing. I don't get that," Johnny said.

Murdoch closed his eyes and wondered what Johnny's childhood was like that he would be so overwhelmed by the simple gifts he'd been given by his stepmother. He held on tightly and continued rocking Johnny, trying to figure out what to say, how to make Johnny understand this was how it should have been all along.

"Some people have no trouble showing their affection. Others can't seem to show it at all. Still others can only show it in times of great distress or hardship. I think I'm the latter. I can't ever seem to show you how I feel unless your sick or hurt. I love you, son. I love you everyday, I always have and I always will. Amanda, she's one of those who has no trouble showing her heart. Teresa is like that, too. Maybe .... maybe your mother is in the middle of that. She couldn't show you her love," Murdoch said and held his breath, waiting for Johnny to defend his mother.

But Johnny remained quiet, seemingly content in his father's arms. He sighed lightly as he took in what Murdoch said. "Where am I?"

Murdoch was stunned by the question. He had expected Johnny to buck, to turn on him. "I think you show your feelings very well with almost everyone. I think sometimes you're afraid though. Afraid those feelings won't be reciprocated. Afraid to put your heart on the line. You're like that with me and I understand why. You don't always have to say the words, John. Your actions speak so much louder. The things you do to protect and take care of this family tell me more than any words how much we all mean to you."

"I do love you, Murdoch," Johnny whispered.

"I know you do."

"I love Amanda, too."

"I know that, son."

********

She stood outside the door and felt no guilt at her eavesdropping. Tears slid silently down her face as she, too, wondered what kind of mother Johnny had grown up with. Hearing him say he loved her, filled her heart with such joy she could barely contain herself. She wanted to run in there and take him in her arms, comfort him and show him what it was like to have a mother, a real mother.

She had failed miserably with her own son, she would not fail with Johnny. She made a vow that he would never again feel unloved.

Drying her eyes on her apron, she smoothed back her hair and stepped away quietly, then walked back toward the room noisily.

"Supper is ready, gentlemen," she said, a bit too bubbly.

"We'll be right there, dear," Murdoch smiled.

"Murdoch? Would you give me a minute with Amanda?" Johnny asked.

"Sure," he said and smiled at her as he left.

Amanda approached him and sat down beside him on the bed. She waited, holding her breath and hoping he didn't know she had been listening.

"I told you once that I don't pull any punches. What you did, this room, the shirts, I .... I really appreciate it. I love you," he said.

"Oh Johnny, I love you, too," she cried and hugged him for long moments.

Johnny pulled away a little and smiled at her. "Women, always cryin about somethin," he teased.

She laughed and sniffled and pulled out her hanky. "Well, it looks like I need to get you fattened back up. We had better get downstairs before your brother eats everything," she smiled and stroked his cheek.

"Thank you," Johnny said and kissed her hands.

"You're welcome, son," she whispered.

 

~end~
2003

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