The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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

Winj

 

The Trap

 

 

Rated PG-13 for language



Scott Lancer looked at the pot, then he looked at the other three men at the table. Finally, he took one last long look at his cards. With a sigh of regret, he laid the hand face-down on the table. "I fold."

Jess McCall fought back a smile until the others followed Scott and folded as well. He let loose his grin as he raked in his winnings. "Fellas, it's a pleasure."

"This hand, Jess. Let's see how pleasureable the next hand will be," Scott threw back with a smile of his own.

Jess laughed. "Scott, you're gettin good with that poker face but not that good."

"What does that mean?" Scott frowned.

"Means, I think you'd better get Johnny to give you a few more lessons," the ranch hand chuckled.

Scott grimaced. "I don't need any lessons from my 'little' brother."

Roy chuckled himself. "You call him that to his face; little?"

"Sure," Scott shrugged.

Roy and Jess gave each other a knowing look. Both knew Scott was the only person who could get away with referring to Johnny Lancer as Scott's 'little' brother.

"Where is he anyway?" Roy asked.

"I don't know. He was supposed to be here by now. You know Johnny; he has his own schedule," Scott smiled.

"That's the truth! Probably ran inta some filly," Roy grinned as he dealt the next hand.

Scott suddenly realized the fourth player wasn't talking much. "I'm sorry. I guess it's hard to follow the conversation when you're new in town," he smiled affably.

"Don't worry about me, fellas. I'm just here to play a little poker. Don't need to know your life stories," he said. His voice was light but there was no friendliness in his face or demeanor.

Scott nodded and flashed a look at the other two men. One rolled his eyes and the other shrugged.

"Well, at least we can introduce ourselves. I'm Scott Lancer. This is Jess McCall and Roy Jackson."

"Nice ta meet ya," he answered, volunteering nothing himself.

Scott cocked a brow and turned his attention to his hand.

******

Out in the street, four men rode up to the saloon and dismounted. They stood on the boardwalk and took in the small town of Morro Coyo. A tall sandy haired man nodded in satisfaction. They split into groups of two and headed in opposite directions.

"Looks perfect," Amos Coltraine noted.

The sandy haired man snorted. "Ain't nothin perfect. Let's pay a visit to the sheriff," he grinned.

"Sure thing, Ford."

Finding the sheriff's office empty, they stopped a local on the sidewalk and inquired as to the lawman. They were informed Gabe was out of town and not due back for two days. No, he didn't have a deputy.

Lester Ford smiled widely. "Now that's closer to perfect. Alright, let's get this town locked up."

Thirty minutes later, the four men met up again outside the saloon. With nothing more than nods between them, they entered the establishment and settled at a back table. A nonchalant nod was given to the man playing cards with Scott Lancer.

"What about this bunch?" Coltraine asked, indicating the patrons of the bar.

"They won't be a problem. Oscar'll let us know what's what here in a minute," Ford replied.

Within five minutes, the stranger excused himself from the poker game and sauntered casually to the bar. He ordered a beer and took a table next to the four men. He leaned back in his chair and spoke quietly.

"He's due any time now. Blond fella over there's his brother."

Ford cocked a surprised brow. "Brother? Madrid ain't got no brother."

"Well, he does now. Those two with Lancer are friends of his and Madrid's. Rest of these men are locals and ranch hands. Nothin we can't handle," Oscar reported.

Ford nodded, still perplexed over this brother business. Well, it didn't matter. Not really. "Okay, let's do this."

The five of them rose and took positions in each corner. Ford at the batwings. He drew his gun and shouted.

"Alright folks, listen up! Nobody make any sudden moves and you'll all live to see mornin. Me and my friends here are takin over the saloon for just a little while. Everybody lay your guns on the tables real easy like," he ordered.

******

Scott Lancer took in the situation quickly. He noted all five men and saw they were surrounded. His eyes went through the rest of the customers. Recognizing them all, he concluded his count was correct. Five men. At least, in the saloon. He slowly reached down and removed his gun, laying it on the table top.

Two of the men began gathering the guns and laid them on the bar, forcing the bartender out into the room and sitting him at Scott's table. This went on for several minutes. All the while, Scott was trying to figure out what they could possibly want. It couldn't be a bank roberry. That made no sense.

Once they had settled down, he spoke. "What's this all about?"

Ford walked over and stood in front of Scott. "Stand up."

Scott did so, slowly. Ford looked him up and down, shaking his head. "I just don't get it."

"Don't get what?" Scott asked.

"You, mister. You can't be Johnny Madrid's brother."

Scott felt his heart skip several beats but he revealed nothing. "Well, I am."

Ford snorted. "You sound proud."

"I am proud to call Johnny my brother," he replied, jutting his chin out slightly.

Ford laughed outright at this. "So, what's the story there?"

Scott's sense of humor was missing in action. "That's none of your business."

Ford stopped laughing, his eyes narrowed and the vein in his neck popped out. "I asked you a question, Lancer. You will answer it or die," he hissed.

"Scott, just tell him," Jess said softly.

Scott took the man's measure, decided he would indeed kill him on the spot and shrugged. "We're half brothers."

"He didn't know about ya, did he?" Ford asked.

"Nor did I know of him."

"Nor did I know of him," Ford mocked. "Ain't you a dandy? Where are you from?"

"I grew up in Boston, not that it's your business," Scott answered.

"Sit down, dandy. Madrid must be embarrassed to hell and back with you," he spat.

Scott glared at him and stood his ground. "What do you want with Johnny?"

"Not much. I'm just gonna kill him. Now, sit down!"

Scott did sit down. More for his weakened legs than because of Ford's order. His mind raced, trying to figure some way of warning Johnny. He knew his brother was walking into a trap. One he couldn't have any inkling of. Scott couldn't just sit there and watch. He had to do something. Some sort of distraction. Some warning when Johnny rode into town.

He laid his forearms on the table top and leaned forward, speaking softly. "We have to do something."

"What, Scott? If we try anything, they'll shoot us down," Jess said.

"I don't know! We have to warn Johnny some way. He'll be here any time," Scott spoke softly but harshly.

They fell quiet, each man thinking hard of an idea.

Ford watched Scott, thinking hard himself. He motioned Coltraine over and gave him an order. Coltraine grinned and nodded. He went outside then returned with a coil of rope. Wordlessly, he walked behind Scott and began tying him up.

"What're ya doin that for?" Jess complained.

"Mind your own business, cowboy. Else ya might find yourself in Boot HIll," Coltraine smiled.

Scott locked eyes with Ford, a contest of wills emerging between the two men. Ford looked out the door and Scott got a small sense of satisfaction that he'd looked away first. It didn't last, for he knew it was petty. He felt the ropes bite into his wrists and bit back a wince of pain. Coltraine had him secured fast to the chair.

Scott's eyes then went to his friends. An expression imploring them to help him help his brother. He knew these men. They would not fail him. If there was any opportunity, they'd grab it.

Scott saw it then. Ford tensed and his eyes locked on something outside. Scott's heart lept once more. He knew it had to be Johnny. Frantically, his mind whirled. His eyes darted between Jess and Roy. Both men were looking around the saloon, looking for something; anything to cause a ruckus.

"If anybody moves, even scratches their nose, shoot them!" Ford ordered.

Something happened then that perplexed Scott. Three of the men pulled their rifles up and took positions at the windows. One man kept watch on the saloon patrons, his own rifle at the ready. Scott's eyes widened as he realized with acute clarity what the plan was. They had no intention of waiting until Johnny walked into the saloon.

Ford raised his rifle and cocked it quietly as three others followed suit. He rested the barrel on the batwings and crouched down to take the sights.

"Johnny!"

*******

Johnny rode at a canter into town. He scanned the streets as was his habit. Something was wrong. It was too quiet. There was no one walking the sidewalks. No shops open. He knew it was late but not that late. Baldemeros should still be open but the doors were shut tight.

Johnny's senses went on high alert. His right hand went to his thigh as he continued slowly down the street. His thoughts were on the saloon and his brother waiting for him there. Barranca felt his tension and showed his own anxiety by tossing his head and side-stepping a bit.

"I know, boy. I know," Johnny spoke quietly to the palomino. "Come on, let's find Scott."

As he drew very near the saloon, Johnny heard his name being shouted. He knew it was his brother and he knew it was a warning. Before he could react, he felt the white hot pain as a bullet pierced his right thigh.

Gritting his teeth, Johnny drew and fired. Another bullet found it's mark in his right side and his body jerked in reaction. Barranca balked and circled on him before Johnny could rein him in. As he turned, a bullet ripped through his upper left back and he was nearly knocked out of the saddle.

Holding on for all he was worth, Johnny rounded and fired again. Glass shattered in an explosion as his bullet found its mark and he heard the shout of pain. Before he could feel any satisfaction, another bullet found its way into his right shoulder.

Once more, he held onto the reins and fired back. However, he knew he could do nothing but retreat. He was outnumbered and wounded badly. He dug his heels into Barranca's sides and took off at a gallop.

****

Scott dove for the floor, taking his chair along with him as he heard a bullet whiz past his head. Then a volley of shots resounded throughout the room. The rest of the customers took to the floor as well. Jess moved quickly to Scott's side and untied him but they still couldn't move. The fifth man was spraying a volley of his own over their heads to keep them at bay.

Suddenly, it fell quiet. Scott thought the silence deafening to his ears. The first sound he heard was Ford cussing. He closed his eyes and prayed that meant Johnny was still alive.

"Goddammit! Lets go! We can still catch him," Ford shouted.

"Ross is dead," one of them reported.

Ford just glanced at the fallen man and shrugged.

Coltraine walked over and stood over Scott, his rifle aimed directly at the man's head. "What about him?"

"We ain't got time!"

"He's Madrid's brother. That outta be worth somethin," Coltraine grinned viciously.

Ford grabbed his arm and turned him. "My fight's with Madrid. I don't take my problems out on people who ain't got nothin to do with it! Now move out!"

Coltraine glared at him for a second, then walked outside. Ford knelt beside Scott. "Reckon I can't blame ya for what ya did. Don't mean I'm gonna forget it, Lancer. If we cross paths again...."

"I'll put a bullet in your head," Scott finished.

Ford stared at him for a long moment then nodded. "Fair enough."

Scott jumped to his feet and ran to the bar. He grabbed his Colt and a rifle. Jess and Roy were right with him.

"Let's get them rattlesnakes," Roy spat.

Scott nodded, then stopped short. "Wait. We need to think about this. Johnny will head for Lancer. If we cut across the mountain pass, we can make it there about the same time."

"What if he don't go home, Scott? What if he can't make it that far?" Jess asked.

Scott swallowed hard and dropped his eyes.

"We'll head out on the south road. Scott, you take Roy and Jess through the pass."

Scott looked up into the eyes of Micah O'Donnell and smiled gratefully.

"Nobody shoots up our friend and our town!" Micah stated, as if he needed to explain.

A resounding chorus of yeah's followed his declaration. Scott had no words at the moment, nor the time to express them. All he could do was nod and know he would not forget this.

Johnny felt the darkness edging in on him. He leaned across Barranca's neck, holding onto the mane. He knew he didn't have time for this. Knew he needed to move faster. But the only thing he could think about was his brother back in that saloon. Was Scott alright? Had whoever did this taken their vengence on his brother for warning him? Johnny shuddered at the thought and knew he could do nothing about it.

That thought boiled his blood. With a surge of anger bringing on energy, he straightened as much as he could in the saddle and asked Barranca for a faster gait.

The horse responded and his canter turned back into a gallop as he headed for the only refuge he knew. And the only place he could get help for his brother. Home.

Johnny raced down the hill to the estancia. More from momentum than anything else. He had to get to Murdoch before he passed out. Had to get help to Scott. He bounded into the yard and saw Jelly. Relief enveloped him as he reined the horse to a stop.

"My God! Murdoch!" Jelly shouted at the top of his lungs as he raced to Johnny's side. He just caught the young man as he slid toward the ground.

Murdoch came running out of the house and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw his son covered in blood. He shook himself out of his trance and went to help Jelly. "Let's get him inside."

"No! Scott ..... Scott needs help," he rasped.

"Where, Johnny?" Murdoch asked, his heart plummeting even further.

"Town. The saloon. Ambush," he clipped the words, knowing he could do no more. "Help him," he whispered as he looked into his father's eyes.

"What happened, Johnny? Who ambushed you?" Murdoch asked, totally confused.

Johnny only shook his head. "Scott. Help Scott!"

Murdoch's attention was diverted toward the Lancer arch. He closed his eyes in brief prayer as he saw his elder son riding toward them.

"Scott's coming, Johnny. He's coming right now."

Johnny pulled away and turned. Relief flooded him when he saw his brother, seemingly intact. He refused to move an inch until Scott dismounted and ran to his side.

"Scott...."

"I'm alright, Johnny. But they're coming after you. We cut across the pass. Some of the neighbors are following on the road. Let's get you inside, brother," Scott was breathless from the ride but determined to help his brother.

"Jelly, get the men. Set up a perimeter. No one we don't know gets past," Murdoch ordered, then took a firmer hold of Johnny and guided him toward the house. "Alright, son. Scott's here and safe. Now, let's get a look at you."

Johnny nodded and glanced up at his brother, the question heavy in his eyes. Scott ignored it for now, more concerned with the amount of blood his brother was losing.

He made it two steps before collapsing into his father's arms. Murdoch grabbed him up and carried him inside, ignoring the screaming protest from his own lower back.

Murdoch shook his head. It seemed Johnny was bleeding everywhere. And none of the wounds were minor.

"I don't guess anyone thought to send for Sam."

"Yes, I did. I sent someone to Green River," Scott answered, a bit annoyed Murdoch would think such a thing.

"I"m sorry, son. Of course, you would think of that. I just ..... I don't know where to start!"

"You start on that side and I'll get this side. We can meet in the middle," he said.

There was no sarcasm, just a simple tactical approach to the situation. Murdoch knew very well his son was fighting with everything he had to stay calm. And he was doing a much better job than his old man.

Teresa appeared with an armload of bandages, sat them down and went after hot water. She said nothing but went about her chores with grim determination. Once she returned with the water, they set about cleaning the wounds and applying pressure bandages.

An hour later, they were still working when they heard gunfire. Scott ran to the window. "It's them!" he exclaimed and took off downstairs. Teresa took over Johnny's care and tossed her head at Murdoch, indicating he go with Scott.

He met his son at the landing and was tossed a rifle. Scott's face was granite as he went out the door, crouched low and ready to fight.

They took positions behind the low wall of the veranda, then moved further out as they saw the hands holding the attackers at bay. The gunplay continued for ten minutes. Scott spotted Ford and moved to take him down.

'I said I'd put a bullet in your head,' he thought as he brought the rifle to bear. He squeezed the trigger and Ford's head jerked back. He fell to the ground and moved no more. The other three were taken out in similar fashion by the many vaqueros protecting their family.

The dust began to settle as the ranch hands approached the intruders who had threatened their patron's sons. They had only been told of Johnny's injuries and the manner in which they'd been received. Anger at the injustice and cowardess had fueled the men into action.

Scott stood over Ford's body, staring emotionless at the man. "Why?" he whispered.

He felt Murdoch's hand on his shoulder and turned to his father. Murdoch was taken aback by the pain in the slate blue eyes. Never had he seen such deep emotion from this son.

"Why?" Scott repeated.

"I don't know, son. I only pray Johnny will be able to tell us. Let's go take care of your brother," he responded softly.

*****

Sam arrived soon after the carnage and began caring for his friend. He was aghast at the amount of injuries. The fact that Johnny had ridden home with them quite simply stunned the man speechless. He worked tirelessly for hours to repair the damage.

Scott and Murdoch paced the living room, waiting for any word from upstairs.

"Can you tell me what happened, son?" Murdoch finally asked, unable to stand it any longer.

Scott walked over and poured two large glasses of Scotch. He handed one to his father and sat down. "They walked into the saloon and disarmed everyone. They had no qualms about what they wanted. I thought ..... I thought they would wait for him to come inside. But, they ambushed him as he rode down the street. They hid in the saloon and just started shooting him! They had sent one man in first. I played poker with him. They found out I was Johnny's brother and tied me up. But I managed to call out to him. I didn't know what was happening. I couldn't see Johnny at all. When it was over, I at least knew he was still alive. That's when they left to go after him and we went after them."

"Cowards!" Murdoch hissed.

"Yes. It was the leader, Ford, that wanted Johnny. I don't know why. I just felt so .... helpless!" Scott threw back the Scotch and swallowed hard.

"You did all you could under the circumstances, son. All Johnny would say was we needed to help you."

Scott shook his head slowly. "I can't imagine how he felt having to leave like that. But he had no choice, sir. They would have killed him. He didn't stand a chance."

"I know, son. It was an impossible situation for both of you."

Murdoch stood up at the sound of footsteps. Scott followed him, feeling an overwhelming fear before he ever saw Sam.

"He's alive, barely," Sam said first off.

Both men relaxed their shoulders a degree. "What are his chances, Sam?" Murdoch asked.

"If it were most anyone else, Murdoch, I'd say none. He's lost so much blood. Individually, the wounds would have been bad enough. But, he was shot four times. Then riding all that way," Sam shook his head. "I just don't know. It's up to Johnny for the most part."

"Sit down, Sam. You must be exhausted," Scott offered.

"I am, Scott. I'll stay the night at least, though. I want to keep a close eye on him."

"I'll get you something to eat," Murdoch said and went to the kitchen.

"What happened, Scott? Ralph said it was an ambush?" Sam asked.

"That's right. I can't go through it again right now, Sam. I want to go sit with Johnny."

Sam watched the young man walk to the stairs. He'd never seen Scott so dejected.

*****

Scott met Teresa in the doorway as she carried out the remnants of Sam's surgery. They locked eyes momentarily then she skirted past him. Scott pulled a chair beside the bed and took his brother's cold hand.

"I'm sorry, Johnny. I tried but there was nothing I could do. It all happened so fast and so ..... wrong. I never dreamed they'd bushwhack you like that. I thought they would wait for you to come inside. You should have seen those men in the saloon when it was over and Ford left to follow you. They were ready to fight for you, brother. They were spitting mad about it, I can tell you. You should have seen the fire in Micah's eyes." Scott smiled a little.

"You have a lot of friends, brother. More than I even knew. Jess and Roy came with me and the others followed. I'm just glad you came home. I was worried you'd hold up somewhere and I wouldn't find you in time. God, Johnny! Please, you have to make it. I need you to fight, okay? We all need you to fight. Besides, you owe me an explanation, young man. I want to know why this happened."

Scott stopped talking and just watched his brother. Johnny was so pale, his hands so cold. Scott held his right hand between both his own, trying to warm the limp limb. He reached up and pushed Johnny's hair off his brow, testing for fever and finding none. He prayed that would remain the case. Johnny had enough to deal with.

"I should have thought of something. I should have come up with a plan. I'm good at that, you know. I always had a plan in the army. But I couldn't think of anything. I didn't want to get anyone in the saloon hurt or killed. Then, you showed up and it all happened so fast. Forgive me, Johnny. Forgive me for failing you," he choked out.

"You didn't fail anyone, Scott."

He dropped his head, unable to meet his father's eyes. Murdoch walked in and lay a gentle hand on Scott's shoulder. "You called out to Johnny. You couldn't endanger all those other people, just like you said. I'm sorry for eavesdropping, son, but I figured you were feeling guilty."

"Why shouldn't I? I failed him when he needed me most," Scott said angrily.

"Failed him? You called out to warn him, Scott. What more could you have done? I'm quite sure you put your own life at risk doing that."

"I .... I could have rushed them."

"Didn't you say they tied you to a chair?"

Scott only nodded.

"Well, unless you're a magician, I don't see how that could have happened."

"Stop being so reasonable. I want to feel guilty. Do you mind?" Scott shot.

"Yes, I do mind. And so would Johnny. In fact, he'd be telling you the same thing if he were awake. He'd also tell you to stop beating yourself up for something you couldn't control. Scott, I know you hate being out of control. I know because I'm the same way. But, listen to me, son. If there's anything I've learned in this life, it's that there are some things you simply cannot control. Other people's actions is one of them. Please don't let this eat you up."

Scott swallowed at the lump in his throat. "I know everything you say is sensible. But, it doesn't help, sir. Look at him!"

"I am looking and it's killing me."

Scott suddenly looked up, realizing what he was doing. "I'm sorry. You shouldn't be having to deal with my garbage right now."

"You're my son. I will deal with your 'problems' when they arise. It's not garbage. I can't do anything for Johnny right now. Nothing but be here with him. Now, is there any chance I can get you to lie down for a while? Sam said he would sleep through the night from the anesthesia."

Scott took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I doubt I can sleep but I'll try. I want to be here for him when he wakes up. You'll call me if he does something outrageous like the exact opposite of what Sam says?" Scott asked, just a twinkle of his old self sparkling in his eyes.

Murdoch chuckled. "You don't mean it? Yes, son, I'll call you. I promise."

*****

The first indication Murdoch had was a hissing sound as Johnny sucked breath in through his clenched teeth. He leaned forward and took his son's hand, waiting for his eyes to open.

He watched as Johnny struggled for full consciousness. It was almost fascinating to watch the young man's fight against the darkness Murdoch was sure bade him. Slowly, the long black lashes fluttered, then he saw the blue. Murdoch smiled.

"Here, son. Take some water," he said as he held the glass to Johnny's lips.

He took a few small sips then shook his head.

Murdoch sat the glass down and picked up a brown bottle and a spoon. He filled the spoon and held that to Johnny's lips as well. Johnny opened his mouth and took the bitter medicine without protest. He made a face as the taste awakened on his tongue. Murdoch gave him another sip of water and Johnny sighed heavily.

"How bad?" he whispered.

"You should be dead," Murdoch replied honestly.

"Ain't the first time for that," he breathed out.

Murdoch bit back the questions. "You were shot four times. Alone, any of them would have been bad enough. Sam said he didn't know how you made it home."

"Mad."

"I'm sorry?" Murdoch frowned.

"I was mad ... and worried about Scott," he explained in a sleepy voice.

Murdoch nodded. "I see."

"Who did this?"

"All I know is the leader's name was Ford."

Johnny's eyes flew open and he looked at his father. Murdoch saw a deep-seated anger rising in the cobalt depths and he spoke quickly to defuse his son.

"He's dead. They came here and we fought them. They're all dead now, Johnny."

"Anybody hurt?"

"No, son. None of our people were hurt. Now, you need to sleep."

"Okay. Where's Scott?"

Murdoch blew out an exasperated breath. "He's in his room, sleeping I hope."

Johnny nodded as his eyes closed.

Murdoch leaned back in his chair and marveled, not for the first time, about the deep connection between his boys.

The sun crossed over his eyes and Scott squinted and turned his head to get away from it. Clear thought slowly crept into his mind. He sprung from the bed and looked around a bit disoriented. Giving himself a moment, he closed his eyes and settled himself. Johnny. Yes, he needed to check on Johnny.

Grabbing his pants, he slipped them on quickly, then his shirt. He buttoned it on his way out the door and across the hall. He was still working on it when he entered his brother's bedroom. Murdoch was asleep in the bedside chair and Scott smiled a little. His eyes fell on his brother then and the smile widened.

"Good morning," he said softly so as not to wake their father.

"Mornin," Johnny whispered back.

Scott crept to the other side of the bed and knelt down. "How do you feel?"

"Hurts pretty bad," he grimaced.

Scott frowned and moved around the bed. He took the brown bottle and spoon then returned to his previous spot. Pouring a spoonful, he held it to Johnny's mouth without a word. The younger man hesitated only a second before taking the medicine.

"Thanks."

"You're welcome. I expect Sam will be in here soon. He spent the night."

Johnny nodded almost imperceptibly. He felt so tired and he hurt so bad. Before he could say anything, the door opened and the doctor appeared. The hinges squeaked as Sam opened the entryway wider and Murdoch jerked in his sleep, then awakened.

"Good morning. How are you feeling?" Sam asked as he went right to work.

Scott stood and moved out of his way. He opened the curtains and the window, knowing Johnny liked the fresh air.

"Feel pretty lousy, Sam," Johnny was saying.

"Do you need the laudanum?"

"Scott already gave me some," he replied, missing the surprised look on Sam's face.

"You must have a guardian angel sitting on your shoulder, Johnny. You're not out of the woods yet, though. You need to drink lots of fluids. You lost a lot of blood so it's important. Broth, too, if you can handle it," Sam ordered.

"I'll try."

"You'll do more than try, young man," Sam retorted sternly.

Johnny gave him half a smile as his eyes closed of their own volition. The laudanum was working.

"Is there anything special we need to do, Sam?" Murdoch asked.

"No, the fluids are the most important thing. He should recover, Murdoch, barring infection or Johnny himself," the doctor gave a knowing look.

"We'll sit on him, Sam," Scott promised.

The doctor nodded and bade farewell, stating he would return the next day unless they needed him sooner.

"Why don't you get some proper rest, sir? I'll sit with him," Scott suggested.

"I think I will lay down for a couple of hours, son," Murdoch agreed, a frown creasing his brow. "I just wish we knew what this was all about."

"Johnny will tell us when he's stronger."

"Will he? I wonder," Murdoch mused then left the brothers alone.

*****

It took a week. A record as far as Scott was concerned. Johnny was getting very grumpy and hard to handle. He decided his younger brother needed a diversion so he started reading to him.

Johnny didn't respond as Scott hoped so he decided a different tactic. He started acting out the book. This brought much entertainment to the younger Lancer and he laughed as much as he could without hurting himself.

Murdoch and Sam walked into the room to find a swashbuckling Frenchman wielding a deadly broom handle in the air. They watched unseen for a minute. Both older men fighting hard not to laugh. Murdoch finally found his composure.

"What the devil is going on in here?" he bellowed.

Scott started and dropped his sword/broom, whirling around to face his father. His cheeks blushed red and he bent over to pick up the weapon and the book he'd dropped. But Murdoch scooped the book up first and looked at the cover.

"The Three Musketeers?" he cocked a brow.

"Yeah, it's a great story and Scott does it real well," Johnny grinned.

"Son, I didn't know you were an actor."

"Yes, well, I did a few plays at Harvard," Scott mumbled, keeping his back to them as he busied himself placing the broom in the corner with great care.

"Well, if Act I is over, I'd like to examine my patient," Sam said, unable to hide his mirth.

"I'll just go ..... somewhere," Scott said and made a hasty departure.

Johnny cackled. "He's pretty good."

"Be careful of those stitches, Johnny," Sam laughed. He proceeded with his exam, trying to regain his professionalism.

Murdoch slipped out and went to the kitchen still smiling.

"Murdoch, please don't tease me," Scott beseeched before the man could say a word.

"I won't, son. It was nice of you to keep Johnny occupied and he was enjoying it."

"I think he's doing so much better," Scott said, hoping to change the subject.

"Yes, I think it's time we had that discussion. Has he said anything to you?"

"No, sir. Not a word."

*******

Sam announced he could get out of bed the next day and start moving around a bit. The stitches were still in so he had to be careful. But at least he wouldn't be driving everyone else crazy. Murdoch decided the next evening would be a good time to talk so he made sure he stayed home during that day to keep Johnny from overdoing.

He sat with them for supper, trying to keep his discomfort hidden. He'd missed meals with the family and he didn't want to be banished if Murdoch caught even a wince from him.

Finally, the meal was over and he walked slowly to the living room.

"Are you alright, son?"

"Sure, a little tired is all," Johnny smiled.

"Feel up to talking?" Scott asked.

Johnny tensed. He knew this was coming. They weren't wasting any more time. He was just surprised they'd waited this long. "Guess so," he murmured.

"Who was he, son?"

Johnny sighed. "Nobody. Just someone I tangled with before. Look, he was just someone who didn't like me. I know that's hard to imagine," he ended with a quirky grin.

"Just didn't like you? He closed up the town to make sure no one interferred. Then, he proceed to ambush you with no warning. I think there's more to this than what you're saying, brother."

Johnny kept his eyes lowered and said nothing.

"What are you thinking, Johnny? The man is dead. There's no revenge to be gotten," Murdoch pointed out.

"Wasn't thinking that."

"Then what?"

Johnny looked up at his father, no emotion in his face. "I was thinkin of going to bed. I'm tired." He stood slowly and started out of the room.

Scott and Murdoch shared a look. Neither believed something else wasn't going on in Johnny's head. They also knew there was more to the story than Johnny gave. Once he'd made it up the stairs, Murdoch stood and began to pace.

"I told you he'd close off."

"I don't know what to do, sir."

"There's nothing we can do, Scott. It's over. Johnny just needs to recover and get back to work. That always helps him get things straight in his mind."

*****

Sam wasn't terribly surprised. Johnny was recovering quickly. By the second week, he was chomping at the bit. Sam would have none of it, though. He'd just removed the stitches and had no intention of letting Johnny go back to work yet.

Murdoch walked into the living room to quite a sight. Sam standing over Johnny with an exasperated look on his face. Johnny sitting on the sofa with grim determination.

"Battle of wills?" Murdoch asked, a bit amused.

"Yes, and I am going to win," Sam said forcefully.

"You think," Johnny muttered.

"What was that?"

"Nothin, Sam, nothin. Alright, you win. I'll stay out of the saddle another day or two," he sighed.

"You'll stay out of the saddle for at least a week. Longer if you get any cute ideas."

Johnny rolled his eyes and looked at his father.

"Don't look at me, Johnny. Whatever Sam says goes," Murdoch stated.

Johnny threw his arms in the air in defeat. "Fine! Just start throwin dirt over me and be done with it."

"Don't even joke about that! We came very close to doing that very thing. It is not funny, young man!" Murdoch bellowed.

Both Sam and Johnny stared at the outburst. Johnny dropped his eyes, feeling foolish for making such a remark.

"Sorry," he said.

"So am I, son. I just don't want to hear you talking like that."

"Just rest, Johnny. I know it's hard to be idle but if you do it now, you won't have to worry about a relapse," Sam explained.

"Okay, Sam. Think I will lay down for a while," Johnny smiled softly and headed upstairs.

******

It took longer than normal and he knew he was moving slowly. He also felt the pull of the fresh scars and it irritated the hell out of him. Still, it didn't matter. Johnny stood in the middle of his room and sighed. Well, no sense in puttin it off. Done that too long, already.

He walked to the corner and picked up his saddlebags then went to the dresser. He stuffed a shirt and a pair of pants in the bags. He decided to wait on his shaving gear. Scott would spot that in a heartbeat. He smiled at the thought. Not much got past Scott. Just him. He would have to get past Scott.

He knew they'd both be spitting mad but there was no choice. They both thought it was over. Johnny knew, it had only just begun. This was only the first wave. He had to put a stop to it before the next one came. He was sure his family wouldn't be so lucky next go around.

He figured he'd snag some food at supper so that was taken care of. One last thing. He opened the bottom drawer and pulled it almost all the way out. Reaching underneath, he pulled the envelope from where he'd stashed it so long ago. He opened it and took one hundred dollars, replacing the rest. Should be plenty.

Stuffing the money in his pant pocket, he looked around. He didn't think he'd need anything else so he patted down the bulge in the saddlebags and put them back where he always kept them. Johnny walked over and laid on top the covers. He figured he'd better get that rest now. He wouldn't have anymore until this was over.

Kicking himself, he realized he should have taken care of it years ago. Now, it was back to haunt him. Worse yet, to put his family in danger. He would not allow that.

Something had been bothering him but he didn't know how to find out without drawing suspicion. He should have asked a week ago but now, well, he thought it would seem unusual. But he had to know. And he had to know tonight. With that thought weighing heavy on his mind, he drifted into light sleep.

******

He felt someone shaking him and his eyes flew open.

"Just me, brother. Supper's ready," Scott smiled.

"Supper? I must have been more tired than I thought," he responded sleepily. Sitting up he rubbed his face vigorously. "Be right down."

Scott shook his head. "And this from the man who wanted to go back to work tomorrow," he laughed and left Johnny to ready himself.

Johnny smiled after his brother, but it left his face quickly. He thought he should write a note. Let them know his plan. At least let them know he wasn't running off and that he'd be back. If he was able. He sighed and got up. Splashing water on his face, he grabbed a towel and rubbed hard to wake himself fully.

Patting his pocket to make sure the money was still there, he headed out the door and downstairs.

Johnny decided it was too risky to filch food from the table so he decided to wait until the meal was over. He volunteered to help clear the table, explaining he was ready to do any chore at this point.

Murdoch was skeptical but only shook his head at his son's restless nature. Once he'd gotten his food, Johnny slipped up the back stairs and deposited it in his saddlebags. He then returned the same way and walked into the living room. He was trying to think of a way to bring up the subject but wasn't having much luck. Scott helped him out unknowingly.

"I don't suppose you want to talk any more about Ford?" Scott asked out of the blue.

Johnny seized the opportunity. "Ya know, something has been bothering me about that. How'd he know you were my brother?"

"He didn't. Remember I told you I was playing cards with one of them? Jess, Roy and I were talking about you. Ford was very surprised to find out about it."

Johnny sighed inwardly with relief. Outwardly, he grinned. "That's what you get for talkin about me behind my back."

Scott grinned as well. "It was all nice things, Johnny. I swear," he vowed, holding his right hand up.

"Uh huh."

They fell silent, realizing Johnny was going to offer no more information. Scott took up reading his book and Murdoch was reading the paper. Johnny wondered how long they planned on staying up. He knew he'd have to stay down here until they were ready to retire.

Three hours passed and Scott closed his book and rubbed his eyes. "Think I'll head up. Goodnight."

"I'm going, too. It's been a long day," Murdoch smiled.

"Might as well make it three. Funny, I slept all that time today and I'm still tired," Johnny said and feigned a yawn.

"Maybe you'll listen to Sam from now on? He does know what he's talking about, son," Murdoch admonished.

Johnny grinned. "Maybe."

*****

He sat at the small desk in his room with pen and paper, unsure exactly what he should say. He worked it out in his mind, then wrote it down. He knew it was lacking but he coudln't get into it. He couldn't let them follow him.

Johnny finished packing and grabbed his rig. Wrapping the gunbelt around his hips, he adjusted it then tightened it again. He took the Colt out and checked it, making sure it was fully loaded. He smiled, Scott must have cleaned it for him.

He sat on the edge of the bed and stared into space. His thoughts went back over the years. Back to that time in particular. Stupid! That was it. He'd felt something he never should have then; sympathy. Now, it was biting him in the backside. He knew as well as anything, there can be no mercy. But he'd shown it, given it, and what had it gotten him? Four bullets, that's what. And the very real danger of losing his brother forever.

No more. He would settle this old debt one way or the other. Whatever happened, at least the family would be safe. He was grateful Ford didn't know about Scott before coming here. That meant he didn't know either. He must figure Johnny worked for Murdoch. That was a very good thing. If things didn't work out like he planned, at least no one would be seeking revenge on his family.

Johnny waited until three a.m. before leaving his room. He eased down the steps and silently out the door. Once in the barn, he saddled Barranca quickly.

"We have to go on a trip, boy. I hope we won't be gone too long," he whispered to the palomino. He led Barranca out of his stall and the barn.

Johnny put his foot in the stirrup and felt the pull on his left thigh. Cursing silently, he hauled himself into the saddle, feeling every inch of it. Taking a deep breath, he looked back at the house once more. He turned and walked Barranca away, praying he would be able to return to his family.

Scott walked into his brother's room the next morning and stopped cold. Johnny's bed was still made and he knew his brother didn't do it. He moved on into the room and scanned it. He saw the missing shaving kit and saddlebags and swore under his breath. He was about to go get Murdoch when something caught his eye. Walking to the dresser, he picked up the folded piece of paper.

Murdoch and Scott,

There's something I need to take care of and I'll be gone a week or so. I know you're mad about this but it can't be helped. You were right, there is more to what happened in town than I told you. I can't explain it now but I have to do this. Don't try to find me, you won't be able to. I've made sure of that. If you don't hear from me in two weeks, think the worst. I'm sorry.

Johnny

Scott stared at the words, reading them three times. Trying to glean some information from the short missive, but there was none. He headed to the kitchen, madder than a wet hen.

"Read this," he clipped and handed the note to his father.

Murdoch stood as he finished the note. "Saddle our horses, son."

"And go where? You read it. He said he made sure we couldn't follow."

"Tell Cipriano to get ready. We'll need his tracking skills. Johnny is very good at disappearing. We'll need an expert," Murdoch continued as if Scott hadn't spoken.

The younger man stared at him for a second, then walked outside, shaking his head and mumbling to himself.

******

Johnny had spent most of the predawn hours and half the morning covering his tracks. He was pretty confident they wouldn't be able to track him; even with Cirpriano. He smiled. Knowing how his father thought surprised him a little but it felt good.

What didn't feel good was his body. He was sore from inactivity and tired from riding so many hours. He knew this wouldn't do and he'd have to rest well before he reached his final destination. A destination he never thought he'd see again.

How many years had it been? Three, he thought. Yes, three years. Sighing out loud, he made himself think of other things. There would be plenty of time for reminiscing when he got there. He decided to take a short break when he spotted a grove of trees with a small stream running by.

Johnny dismounted slowly and led Barranca to the water's edge. He knelt down himself and took long drinks of the cold water, then splashed some on his face. He had to stay awake. He could sleep tonight. He figured he'd be close to Preston Point by nightfall. At least he could sleep in a bed tonight. He didn't think he'd be able to after that. Not if he wanted to get there before Christmas.

Hell, he didn't want to get there at all. He had to. He laughed a little as he wondered if the man even still lived there. That would be funny. Ride all this way and he's moved!

He stood up and stretched his back muscles slowly. Rummaging in his saddlebag, he found some biscuits and dug in; more hungry than he'd realized.

He took a few minutes to enjoy the quiet. The breeze wafting softly through the trees; the bumble bees buzzing about in the field; the water lapping at the shore.

Knowing he needed to move on, Johnny mounted up and clucked at Barranca.

*****

"These tracks, they go in circles, Senor. Juanito has been most careful," Cipriano explained.

It was after noon and both Lancers were frustrated. They had indeed been going in circles.

"What do you suggest, Cipriano?" Murdoch asked.

The vaquero scratched his beard and thought hard. "We will go on. I have an idea of the game he is playing."

"This is not a game!" Murdoch bellowed.

"Easy, Murdoch. You know he didn't mean anything," Scott cajoled.

"I'm sorry, amigo. I'm a little ..... tense," Murdoch apologized.

"Lo se, Patron. But, it is a game. One Johnny learned well. A game the sons of hunters play to hone their tracking skills. The nino thinks he can outsmart me," he grinned, more than a little proud of Johnny's ability.

"I'm not a hunter," Murdoch muttered.

Scott heard it but said nothing. They didn't need more of the past in the way right now.

They headed out again with Cipriano taking a substantial lead and still smiling.

By the end of the day, they were pretty sure he was headed east. Pretty sure, Murdoch thought. And if we're wrong? It will be too late. One sentence of Johnny's note kept running through his mind time and again. 'If you don't hear from me in two weeks, think the worst'. Murdoch swallowed hard. Whatever was going on, he had no intention of letting his son face it alone. No matter what Johnny wanted.

He knew it was probably wrong. His son was a grown man. Had been for more years than he should have been. But he just couldn't help himself. He wanted to be a part of his sons lives. And that meant all of their lives - good or bad.

******

Johnny rode into Preston Point just as dusk was settling. It was a small town, much like Morro Coyo. All the necessities of life were available but not much else. Well, he didn't need much anyway. A bed and a meal would be just fine.

He rode slowly down the main street, spotting the livery at the other end. He scanned the darkening corners and alleyways. It was almost surprising how quickly he slipped back into those habits. But then, had they ever really left him? Maybe just dimmer now. That thought disturbed him. He had to make sure that never happened. That he kept himself sharp for he was starting to understand; it would never be over for him. At least, not for a very long time.

Not until every last enemy was dead or had forgotten him. Every young gun had decided he wasn't worth the effort. Johnny prayed for that day to come quickly. The day he no longer had to be sharp as a tack. The day he could truly relax and enjoy his life. The day he really started living as Johnny Lancer.

Dismounting outside the livery stable, he whistled and waited for someone to appear. Soon, the blacksmith emerged from the barn. It was a short conversation with money exchanged and a goodnight pat for his horse. One enquiry and he was off to get a room for the night.

As he approached the hotel, he noted the saloon two doors down. Johnny hesitated, considering if he should. Deciding he needed food and rest more than a drink, he proceeded into the hotel.

It wasn't much but the bed was very comfortable. He smiled lightly as he lay atop the covers. Thinking he'd been spoiled in the last year or so. His muscles ached and the scars stung but soon his eyes were sliding closed.

******

"East. He is headed east now," Cipriano announced with certainty.

"How can you be sure? I'm dizzy from all this running around and back tracking," Scott grumped.

"I am sure, Senor Scott."

Murdoch was sure as well. Cipriano would not be so abrupt if he weren't completely certain. "Well, it's too dark to go on now. We'll set up camp and start out in the morning. Maybe he's taking his time."

"He'd better be. He hasn't healed yet," Scott clipped. The more he thought about the situation, the angrier he got. Johnny was so bull-headed, he wondered if the man would ever let them in totally.

They made quick work of the campsite and soon, the three men were sitting around the fire with their coffee. All three deep in their own thoughts; all about the same thing.

"Why does he do this?" Scott suddenly spoke.

"I don't know, son."

"It is his way," Cipriano offered.

Scott looked at the older man quizically.

"Juanito has lived by his own rules for many years, Senor. It is not easy for him to ..... to ..... abrase' -- open up to anyone."

"We aren't just anyone. We're his family," Scott defended.

"Si, something he has not known. It is hard for him, Scott. He wants to protect you from his enemies. He does not want what he has done before to touch you."

"I understand that, Cipriano. But he has to understand that he can't just take off and expect us to do nothing."

"But that is exactly what he expects, Senor."

"Then he should show us the same respect he wants us to show him," Murdoch interjected.

"Exactly. If he expects us to just sit and wait, he needs to explain. Not take off like a thief in the night," Scott agreed.

"I did not say it was right or wrong, Senors. It simply is what it is. Johnny is Johnny. He will not change."

*****

He was up at dawn and regretting every second of it. Johnny felt like he'd been beaten to a pulp. There wasn't a spot on him that didn't ache. He stretched out as much as he could but it didn't help much. He figured another day in the saddle would only make it worse. He would have to do something before he faced his past once again.

He ate a quick breakfast and retrieved Barranca then headed out again. He rode east for another two hours before turning southeast. His destination a day and a half away. He was crazy to do this, he knew. Already the temperature had risen substantially. It would only get worse as he neared the town.

But this was not the first time he'd made this journey. No, definitely not. Of course, then, it was in the opposite direction. Away from what he'd left there. That unfinished business that he knew, even as he left the place, should not have been left. It was a mistake he had not repeated and never would. Now, this problem had come back to haunt him. It was enough. He would end it one way or the other. And if it was the other, well, he never figured on living all that long anyway.

Only now, he would have regrets. Something he never had to think about before. It had always been just him and no one would have cared about a dead gunhawk. Plenty of those around. He thought about Murdoch and Scott. He knew they'd be angry and would try to follow. He only hoped Cipriano wouldn't be able to pick out his trail. There was a pretty good chance he could. By then, he hoped, it wouldn't matter. It would all be over.

He shuddered a little at the thought of his family riding in and finding he'd been killed. But he couldn't tell them about this. Not and expect they'd stay out of it. No, they never would have sit still for this. Which is exactly why he was so close-mouthed about his past. No sense in getting them all upset at him for things that couldn't be changed. But this could be changed. Or, at least, finished.  

He pulled up alongside the road and took a long pull from his canteen. He knew where the last water would be before he entered the desert. He also knew he'd be fine once there. At least until he reached town. He decided he needed to stop thinking about his family and start figuring out how he would handle this.

As he headed back out, he did just that.

*******

"Arizona?" Murdoch guessed.

"Si, it seems so," Cipriano agreed.

"He's heading into the desert. Why?" Scott asked.

"I don't know, son. There are several places he could be going. Tempe, Tucson, Phoenix, Yuma," Murdoch rattled off.

Scott swallowed the dust in his throat. "We'd better make sure we have plenty of water."

"How far behind him do you think, Cipriano?" Murdoch asked.

"One day, a little more, perhaps."

"Maybe...."

"What, son?"

"Maybe he's headed for Mexico," Scott said with some dread.

"Si. Sonora or Nogales."

"I hope not. If he's heading for the border, we need to catch up with him. It's too dangerous for him there," Murdoch said.

Scott snorted lightly. "Wherever he's heading will be dangerous. That's the whole point!"

"I know you're angry, son. So am I. But, right now we need to focus on helping Johnny with whatever this is. We can yell at him when it's over."

"I just hope we get that chance," Scott mumbled.

*****

They didn't want to, but there was no choice. The moon was only half full. Not knowing the area, they had to stop for the night. Scott was still in a foul mood and Murdoch didn't think it would improve until he got his hands on his brother. Well, five minutes after that. If Scott didn't strangle him, Johnny would talk his way out of that strangling and the brothers would be alright.

The connection between his sons quite simply awed Murdoch. He didn't understand it. They couldn't be more different. But they respected each other and cared deeply about each other. He was quite sure either would lay down their life for the other. It was more than simply a blood connection. It had to be. Not for the first time, he wished he could understand it; know it. Have that same connection with each of them.

He thought things were so much better now than a year ago. They were both more relaxed with him now. Scott didn't call him 'sir' quite so much. And Johnny seemed settled now. Seemed. But was he really? Murdoch knew this was about an old ghost. He knew Johnny was doing this to protect them all. It just seemed like he'd made the decision so easily. No thought of discussing it. In fact, he had steadfastly refused to discuss it.

His sons were still a mystery to him. Just when he thought he had them figured out, they would do something ..... crazy. Or something that made him swell with a pride he knew he had no right to feel. No one could have ever convinced him Scott would rob a train. And he could not picture Johnny helping a sheep herder of all things. Yet it had happened and he'd been proud of the stance they'd taken. They had done what they thought was right. No matter what anyone said or did.

Murdoch settled into his bedroll, saying a silent if lengthy prayer for his son's safe return to them.

******

Johnny dismounted and walked through the desert. Barranca needed a break badly and he knew the walking would help work out the stiffness he felt. He had to get himself feeling better and soon. Even on foot, he'd be ready to enter the town at daybreak, just as he'd planned.

He stretched out his back, arms and legs repeatedly as he walked along. He even ran in short sprints. It was tiring, especially in the hot desert sun, but he could feel the effects. He would sleep tonight, that was certain.

He stopped at regular intervals to rest them both. At these times he would think through what he was about to do. He never had known for sure what happened after he left. He could pretty much guess now, though. There'd be no reason to come after him if things had gone well. But he'd had no choice. Leave or pay for something he'd had no control over.

He used the water from his canteen for Barranca; finding suitable cacti for himself. Barranca would not take the cactus, he was quite sure. "Spoiled rotten," he mumbled to the horse.

He removed his hat and wiped his sweaty brow before resettling it firmly on his head. He looked out over the expanse before him. Nothing but scrubbrush, sand dunes and Indians. He hadn't seen any Indians but he knew the Apache lived out here. He hoped he'd have a bit of luck and not run into them.

Sighing heavily, his thoughts went back to Lancer. He could actually see his brother's face. That disapproving frown, the grimly set lips, the tightening jaw, flexing as he worked to keep his temper in check. Johnny smiled. One thing he was unsure of was Murdoch's reaction. That was nothing new. His father could surprise him sometimes. Just when he thought the man would blow the roof off, he didn't. And when he was sure the old man would understand, the shingles would rattle.

Well, whatever Murdoch's reaction, he'd deal with it later. Hopefully. For the first time in his life, he cared about the future. He'd never had a death wish but death wasn't something he was afraid of either. He'd faced it too many times to feel fear. There was a time when it would have been a relief. One of those times was just over a year ago. He'd almost welcomed the firing squad for he felt his life had come to a point where there was no reason to go on.

Shaking his head, he marveled. Twenty years old and ready to die. Rousing himself from those dark thoughts, Johnny mounted up. It was time to get going a bit faster. He wanted to be outside Phoenix by nightfall.

Johnny camped two miles outside Phoenix that night. As predicted, he was asleep before his head hit the ground. As the sun began its ascent into the sky, his senses awakened. Stretching out, he rose quickly. Not lighting a fire the night before to keep any unwanted visitors from straggling in had done nothing to help the soreness in his body. He stood and began a methodic stretching of every muscle. It took a while but at last, he felt he could move with his usual agility.

He decided to forgo coffee and dined on beef jerky and stale biscuits. His water supply was almost depleted but he was too close to town to worry about it. He filled his hat with water and let Barranca drink his fill. He broke the meager camp and saddled the horse in no time. Before dawn had truly broken, he was ready to ride.

The town was still asleep when he rode in. He headed for the livery which was locked up. Still, there was a corral and a trough and he took care of his horse as best he could for the moment.

Johnny walked down the main street, taking in the new shops and businesses. They had a newspaper now and a sheriff. That could prove a problem but he couldn't worry about the law right now. He found a rocking chair outside the newspaper office and settled in to wait.

He didn't have to wait long. A man walked down the boardwalk toward him and Johnny studied him closely. Medium height, wearing a bowler hat and no gun. He saw the man's hands stained with ink.

As he approached, he slowed his gait, spying the stranger."Good morning," the man smiled.

"Mornin. You the newspaper man?" he asked, knowing the answer.

"I am. Morton Kline."

"Mr. Kline," Johnny nodded and shook hands.

"And you are?" Kline asked.

Johnny looked hard at the man. "Johnny Madrid." There was no unusual response and he breathed a sigh of relief.

"What can I do for you, Mr. Madrid?"

"Could we go inside?"

"Of course, forgive me. I'm not used to having company first thing in the morning," Kline smiled affably.

He unlocked the door and entered, heading for the windows to open the blinds and let the light in. Johnny looked around the room. It smelled of ink and paper and he wrinkled his nose a little.

Kline walked behind the desk that ran half the width of the room and sat on a stool. He waved a hand toward a nearby chair.

"No thanks. I need some information about a local rancher," Johnny declined the seat.

"I see. Who?"

"Alan Brady."

Kline stared at the young man standing before him for a long moment. "What did you want to know?"

"Well, first, if he still lives here. I can tell by your face he does. Second, anything you can tell me would be appreciated."

Kline stood and leaned against the desk. "I'm not sure what you're after. Mr. Brady is well-respected around here. He's quite powerful, as well."

Johnny nodded. It sounded like things hadn't changed. "I take it his spread has grown."

"Oh, yes. He owns most of the land around Phoenix now," Kline nodded. "He works very hard to keep it growing."

"Tell me, is he a law abiding man?"

Kline raised a brow at this question. "Yes, I would say he is; as long as it favors him."

"Yeah, that's what I thought. Thanks for your time," Johnny smiled and started for the door.

"Mr. Madrid, may I ask a question?"

Johnny turned to face the man and nodded.

"Why do you want to know about Brady?"

"He a friend of yours?"

"No, not really."

"That's good, Mr. Kline. That's real good," Johnny said and walked out.

Kline stared at the door for a long time; puzzled by the visitor. The name rang a bell in his head but he couldn't place it. He shrugged his shoulders and went to work, figuring he'd hear about it soon enough.

*****

Johnny headed to the hotel and checked in. He signed the register Lancer without even thinking and shook his head. Right now, all he wanted was some breakfast. A hot bath wouldn't be bad either. He figured he had time so he indulged in the bath after a hearty meal.

The heat from the water did wonders for his aching muscles and he felt more like himself than he had in weeks. But he couldn't dawdle and soon enough he was dressed and leaving the hotel.

At the livery, he tossed the smithy some coins. Seems the man had discovered his new customer on arrival and taken care of the horse. Johnny only spoke his thanks to the man before mounting up and riding south.

The closer he got to Brady's ranch, the tighter his stomach became. This was the only way. Face him head on. He knew it was a risk but he wasn't playing games. Most of the hands would be out on the range, so he hoped there wouldn't be too much trouble. Of course, if he were really lucky, there would be no trouble. Sure, Madrid, he thought wryly.

As he approached the ranch house, he noted the changes. Brady had built on. The house was almost as big as Lancer now. He dismounted and tied Barranca to a hitching post. With a deep breath, he walked up the steps onto the porch. He stood before the huge oak door and hesitated as memories washed over him. Closing his eyes and bowing his head for a second, he gave himself time to make the transition.

When he looked back up and knocked on the door, his eyes were cold as steel, his face a blank page.

An older woman answered the door and simply looked at him.

"Mr. Brady in?"

"Yes. May I say who's calling?"

"Johnny Madrid," he answered flatly.

The woman nodded and opened the door wider to allow him entry. The foyer faced a wide staircase. Off to the right were double oak doors. The left opened onto a sitting room. Johnny removed his hat.

"Wait here, please," the woman instructed and entered the oak door to the right.

She had left the door slightly ajar so Johnny heard the loud "what?" from Brady. He had to smile. He turned to fully face the door as he heard the heavy thumping of boots.

The door swung open and he faced the man who had been like a father to him.

"What the hell are you doing here?" Brady demanded.

Johnny only looked at him. He seemed much older now. His face lined with creases, his hair graying. This was not the man he'd known three years ago. Bringing himself to the present, Johnny simply walked into the living room without a word.

Brady turned and watched him, slamming the door behind the woman who made a quick exit.

He took in the room he'd spent so many evenings in. The huge fireplace that was only lit at night when the heat of day finally dissipated; the sofa where he'd spent those evenings embroiled in checker matches; the desk that was perpetually covered in papers. Not like Murdoch's, which was always orderly. It seemed like home and Johnny felt a sadness he wasn't prepared for.

He stepped around the desk and picked up the picture.

"Put that down!"

Johnny looked up at the man then replaced the photograph.

"What are you doing here, Madrid?" he repeated.

"Are you surprised I came or that I'm alive to come?" Johnny asked softly.

"I take it that means Ford did find you."

"He did and now he's dead," Johnny replied icily. He lowered his eyes then, trying desperately to keep his emotions in check. "Dave didn't make it?"

"If you'd hung around, you would have known he didn't," Brady said stonily.

"If I'd hung around, I'd have been hung," he shot back.

"You're damned right!"

Johnny sighed and looked sorrowfully at the man. "You know I didn't do it."

"I know nothing of the kind," Brady stated, straightening his posture as if to brace himself.

"Dave was my friend."

"If that's how you treat your friends...."

"I didn't kill him!"

"That's not what everyone else said," Brady reminded him.

"Yeah, I know what they said. I also know none of them were there. It was an ambush, Brady. Pure and simple."

"An ambush that you miraculously walked away from unscathed?"

"I got lucky. Dave didn't. I still can't believe you'd think I could do it," Johnny shook his head.

"You turned on me, Madrid. You backed the wrong player."

"No, I didn't. That was part of Coleman's bluff. He wanted you to think I betrayed you. He wanted you to either kill me or turn me out. That was the whole point. Kill Dave and get rid of me in one clean sweep! And you bought right into it!" Johnny began to pace the room, feeling the anger and hurt all over again.

Brady watched him. For the first time, he began to have doubts. He began to allow his heart to come into play. All he could think of at the time was that his son was dead and Johnny had been there. Fingers were being pointed at Johnny by his own men. Men he'd trusted. Men he thought loyal.

"I just couldn't believe you could accuse me. After everything we'd been through together. After everything I did for you," Johnny went on, allowing himself this time to vent all those old hurts. He stopped his pacing and looked at Brady. "How could you do that?"

Brady looked at the young man who had been his son's best friend but suddenly, all he could see was Dave. "Three years later you come here with this explanation. Why is it you didn't say all this then?"

Johnny raised both arms in the air beside him, stunned. "You wouldn't listen! You couldn't hear me. I understood that. What I can't understand is how you could send five guns after me now. Why now, Brady?"

"Because I should never have allowed you to live this long! You took the most important person in the world from me. Some said you wanted to take Dave's place with me. It's been three years, Madrid. Exactly three years since my son died!" Brady shouted.

Johnny stared at him, watching as his anger unfurled; the emotions racing across the man's face. His own heart was breaking as well.

"I loved him, too," he whispered.

Brady couldn't seem to move; couldn't seem to breathe with that statement.

Johnny saw it and took the opportunity. "We were best friends. Like brothers. Dave gave me so much. You both did. You took me in and gave me a chance. You know me, Al. You know I would never turn my back on you or Dave. I understood then. You were grieving; not thinking straight. I should have come back. I should have talked to you." He shook his head. "But it hurt too much. Knowing you thought so little of me after everything...." he stopped and swallowed hard.

Brady walked stiffly to a chair and sat down. Johnny moved to the liquor cabinet and poured him a whiskey. Walking to the man's side, he knelt down and offered the glass.

"It's a bit early but you need it," he explained softly.

Brady took the glass and drained it. He continued to stare ahead at nothing. "He was my only son. My only child," he finally choked out.

"I know. I'm sorry."

Brady turned to look at him then. "There was a time when I thought of you as a second son. Sometimes I'd forget you weren't mine. You fit in so well here."

"I loved it here. It was one of the best times of my life. It felt like ..... family," he sighed lightly.

"Look me straight in the eye, Johnny. Tell me you didn't kill my son."

Johnny looked up at the man and locked eyes with him. "I did not kill your son."

*****

Morris Kline couldn't get the young man who'd greeted him this morning out of his mind. He decided to do a little digging so he headed to one of his best sources. The bartender at the Silver Dollar saloon.

"Johnny Madrid? Sure, I remember him," Harry said as he wiped out a glass and set it under the bar.

"Tell me about it, Harry," Kline knew that was all he had to say.

Harry set his cloth down and poured two cups of coffee. He then walked around the bar and settled at a table where Kline joined him.

"It was about three years ago. Madrid started working for Alan Brady. See, there was a range war brewing and the other fella, Coleman, was hiring guns. So, Brady got one of his own. Only thing is, Madrid and Brady's son hit it off. Those two were like two peas in a pod. Never saw one without the other. Seemed like Johnny was one of the family. Brady took a real shine to the boy. Then, Dave - Brady's son - was shot out on the trail. It was just him and Madrid and a lot of folks started saying it was Madrid that shot him. I never believed that, though. Seen those two together too many times. Anyhow, Brady about lost his mind. Dave was his only kid and he loved that boy like crazy. Well, Brady let all that talk get to him and pretty soon, he was accusing Johnny, too. Now Dave was still alive, though barely, at that time. But, talk of a hanging started and Johnny decided it was best if he skinned out. He left one day and that was that. Dave died the very next day."

"And nobody could ever prove Madrid was innocent or guilty?" Kline asked.

"Seems to me nobody tried. They all decided he must be guilty because he ran. Never even thought about it being someone else."

"But you don't think Madrid did it, Harry?"

"Nope. Didn't then and still don't. Like I said, those two were real close. How come you're asking about this?"

Kline sighed and looked at his friend. "Johnny Madrid is in Phoenix."

Harry's back straightened. "When?"

"I saw him this morning. He was asking me about Brady. I got the feeling he was planning something."

"Not Johnny. I mean, he wouldn't be after Brady. Unless..."

"Unless what?" Kline asked.

"Unless Brady's gone after him. If he did that, Johnny would come straight to him about it."

Kline nodded his head. He had to wonder why Brady would wait three years and he voiced that to Harry.

"Couldn't say. Wait! That's it. It has been three years. Almost exactly. Let me think now. Yep, three years this past month. Maybe Brady decided it was time for revenge."

"Maybe he's been looking for Madrid the whole time," Kline supposed.

"Could be. Wouldn't be surprised. Alan Brady ain't the kind of man to let anybody get away with taking from him."

*****

Murdoch and Scott rode into Phoenix just after noon. After much discussion and some argument, it was decided that Cipriano would return to the ranch to help out while the family was away.

After securing their horses at the livery, the two men looked around town. As they walked past the saloon, Scott looked inside. Shaking his head, they proceeded to the hotel.

Murdoch approached the clerk and smiled tiredly. "Two rooms, please."

The clerk nodded and turned the register toward him. The pen wavered in midair as Murdoch saw the familiar signature. He nudged Scott and showed it to him as well.

"Excuse me. When did Johnny Lancer arrive?" Murdoch asked.

"I'm sorry, sir, but I can't give out information about our clients," the man smiled sourly.

"You don't understand. He's my son. I just wasn't expecting him here so soon," Murdoch half-lied.

The clerk glanced at the two new names and nodded. "I see. He arrived this morning, sir. But he hasn't returned."

"Returned?" Scott asked.

"Yes, he had breakfast and a bath then left the hotel late this morning."

"You wouldn't happen to know where he was going?" Murdoch asked.

"No, I'm afraid not," he answered as he handed them the keys.

Murdoch thanked the man and they went to their rooms. Scott only threw his saddlebag on the bed before going to his father's room.

"Where to?"

"The saloon. He'll probably show up there eventually," Murdoch said.

****

Scott and Murdoch sat in the saloon and watched the locals come and go. Both nursing a beer, they were beginning to wonder if they were wasting time.

Just as Scott was about to suggest checking with the sheriff, he overheard something that gave him pause.

"Back for more stories, Morris?" Harry the bartender asked of the man approaching the bar.

"I just had a couple of more questions, Harry. Do you have time?"

The bartender looked around at the room. "Sure. Not much going on in here."

"You never told me what happened to Coleman."

"Oh yeah. Well, that was the oddest thing. Seems he was found dead in his house. Had a gun in his hand and a surprised look on his face," Harry chuckled.

"No kidding? Any ideas?" Kline asked.

"Well, this is just speculation. But, I think it was Madrid. I think he knew Coleman ordered the ambush on Dave Brady and he went to get his own justice."

Murdoch and Scott both turned their heads at this.

"Makes sense. That is, if your theory is right and Madrid had nothing to do with Brady's death," Kline was saying.

"I'd stake a wager on it, Morris. Madrid was a good kid. Oh, I know he had a reputation. But, I spent some time with those two. They were good friends. And if there's one thing everyone knows about Johnny Madrid; it's that he's loyal to a fault."

"Excuse me, gentlemen. We couldn't help but overhear your conversation," Scott interrupted as both Lancers approached the bar.

"And?" Harry said.

"You know Johnny Madrid?" Scott asked.

"If I do, mister, it's my business." Gone was the friendly barkeep. In his place was a suspicious man eyeing the Lancers closely.

"It's our business, too. Johnny is my son and we've been looking for him. We think he might be in some trouble," Murdoch intervened.

"That's quite possible. I'm Morris Kline. I run the newspaper."

"You've seen Johnny?" Scott asked.

"I spoke with him very early this morning. He was asking about Alan Brady," Kline offered.

"Where can we find this Brady?" Murdoch asked.

"His ranch is ten miles south of here. You can't miss it, but...." Kline didn't get to finish. The Lancers were out the door.

******

Alan Brady stared into the blue depths. He saw only what he had always seen. He blinked several times then dropped his head into his hand. Shaking it slowly, he fought back tears of grief and regret.

"I'm sorry, Johnny. Dear God, I'm so sorry," he mumbled through his hand.

Johnny relaxed and dropped his own head. He laid a hand on the man's quaking shoulder. "I know."

"I just thank God they didn't hurt you," Brady said and immediately felt Johnny's hand tighten on his shoulder. He looked up at the young man. "Did they?"

"They ambushed me. I was shot four times," he responded flatly.

Brady's eyes widened. "Oh God," he groaned. "It's a wonder you're still alive!"

"Yeah," he sighed out.

"Johnny, I don't know what to say."

"Nothing to say. I'm just glad we got things straightened out. I hated thinking you still blamed me," he said as he stood up.

"I'm a fool. One that very nearly made the biggest mistake of my life. I don't know how you could forgive me."

"It's over now. It was .... hard; knowing you had sent them," he said softly.

Brady came to his feet then. "There is something I've always wondered about. Coleman."

Johnny dropped his eyes and walked away from the man. "I knew he set us up. I took care of it before I left."

"They say he was killed in his home," Brady fished.

Johnny turned to face him. "I gave him a chance. He lost," he said coldly.

Brady nodded. "Thank you. I'm sure I couldn't have fought him off. Not after losing Dave. I was a mess," he sighed.

Johnny looked at the man and felt a pang of something he hadn't felt for this man in a long time. "I used to pretend you were my old man. I didn't figure my own gave a damn so I liked to think you were him. Crazy, huh?" he smiled a little.

"No, Johnny. It's not crazy at all. You really were like a son to me."

"Yeah, just not enough for you to believe in me," he said softly, dropping his head.

Brady walked over and put his hand on Johnny's shoulder. "That's my shame, son. My regret. And I will always regret it. I hope you can forgive me someday."

Johnny looked up into the eyes of the man who had meant so much to him. He'd been all of eighteen then. A man and still a boy. "You lost your only son. I can understand that. It doesn't matter now."

"It does matter, Johnny. It matters very much to me. I wish ..... I'd like you to stay. Would you consider that? Staying here and working alongside me?"

Johnny's pain-filled eyes raised to meet Brady's. "I can't," he whispered.

Brady nodded sadly. "I understand. I can't blame you."

"No, it's not that. It's just that - things have changed. My life has changed. I....." He didn't get to finish as the door burst open and two armed men entered the room.

Johnny's Colt was in his hand before he knew it. Brady drew as well. Johnny heard the gun cock and looked into the eyes of his father. From that point, everything seemed to move in slow motion. Later, he would remember it vividly.

Brady turned to face the intruders as Johnny stepped around him. Scott's eyes fell on Johnny but Murdoch saw Brady, gun in hand and too near his son.

Murdoch raised his gun and that's when everything went horribly wrong. The two ranchers drew down on each other before Johnny could say more than one word - No!

His left arm slammed down on Brady's right, causing the gun to point to the floor. Then, he flung himself in front of Brady and felt the hot sting in his right side. Brady instinctively wrapped his arms around Johnny as he fell forward into the man.

Murdoch's voice shook the rafters as he shouted his son's name and dropped his pistol. Both he and Scott moved to Johnny who Brady had eased to the floor. He held the young man in his trembling arms.

"Don't, Johnny. Please don't," he whispered.

"I'm okay. Just help me up," he grimaced.

"Oh God! What have I done?" Murdoch moaned in a voice no one recognized.

Johnny reached out and grabbed his father's arm. "I'm okay! Help me up," he said forcibly.

Brady eased him to a sitting position and Scott moved quickly to check the wound. The bullet had only grazed him; taking a chunk of hide. It was bleeding steadily but didn't look serious.

"My cook is in the kitchen, through there," Brady jerked his head. "Tell her what's happened. She'll get what we need."

Scott was up and gone as Brady's words trailed after him.

"It's bleeding pretty badly, son," Murdoch said in a guilt-filled voice.

"It's not that bad, Murdoch."

"Let's get him on the couch," Brady said.

Murdoch nodded and they carried Johnny the few feet, lying him on his left side. Scott reappeared with the woman who had let Johnny in the house. She was carrying a basin of water and Scott an armload of towels.

Johnny grinned. "Ain't that bad, Boston."

"No jokes, Johnny. Not now," Scott said, his own voice trembling.

They all fell silent as Murdoch cleaned and bandaged the wound tightly, staunching the flow of blood. Once Johnny was wrapped, he insisted on sitting up. Brady poured them all a stiff drink and sat heavily in a chair across from Johnny.

"Who are these men, Johnny?" he finally asked.

"My family," he answered simply.

Brady's eyes widened. "Your what?" he managed to croak out.

"I'm Johnny's father and this is his brother."

Brady's eyes narrowed. "You shot your own son?"

"I was aiming at you!" Murdoch defended.  

"Stop it!" Johnny shouted. "Please, just settle down," he added in a softer tone.

Brady was staring at Johnny. Emotions he wasn't familiar with engulfed him and he was trying to sort them out.

"We thought you were in trouble," Scott offered, still a little shaky.

"Who was after you, son?"

"He was but it was a misunderstanding," Johnny answered, nodding toward Brady.

"A misunderstanding? He sent five guns to kill you and it was a misunderstanding?" Scott was ready to explode all over one Alan Brady. He turned his attention to the man in question. "Do you have any idea what my brother went through because of you? He was shot four times! I suppose now you're going to say you're sorry!"

"Scott! That's enough," Johnny said in a raised voice. "You don't know what it's about," he continued, lowering his tone.

"I don't care what it's about, Johnny. All I know is you nearly died. Shot down like a dog in the street. Never even given the chance to defend yourself. Did you know they laid in wait in the saloon and ambushed him as he rode into town?" Scott went back and forth between the two of them.

"No, I didn't know that," Brady answered quietly.

"Johnny, what is this all about?" Murdoch asked calmly.

He sighed heavily. "It's a long story, Murdoch."

"We heard some of it in town from that newspaper man, Kline," Murdoch said.

"Guess he got curious," Johnny smiled. "I'll explain it all. Right now, I need to talk to Alan for a minute. Could you wait outside?"

Scott just stared, slack-jawed at him. Murdoch looked at Brady and saw something he hadn't noticed before. He had a strange feeling in his chest but he couldn't name it.

"Alright, son," was all he said.

"Excuse me?" Scott said.

"Let's wait outside, Scott. Come on," Murdoch said, taking Scott's arm and guiding him out the door.

"Your brother is very angry," Brady noted the obvious.

"Yeah, he doesn't get that way too often," Johnny smiled.

"You were about to tell me about this, I take it?"

"Yeah. That's another long story."

"Johnny, you told me your father threw you and your mother out," Brady said, thoroughly confused.

"That's what I was told. Turns out it wasn't the truth. My mother ran off. Murdoch's been looking for me a long time. He found me about a year ago and brought me home."

"Somehow, I don't think the story is that simple."

"No," Johnny laughed. "We're still getting to know each other. It's not been easy. There's a lot of garbage to get through."

"What garbage?"

Johnny shrugged. "This. My past. Seems it's always showing up and causing me grief."

"I see," Brady said tightly. He stood and began to pace the floor.

Johnny watched him and waited. He knew the man was getting himself under control. He just didn't know why it was needed.

"So, he gives you a hard time about your past? Maybe if he'd kept you at home, he wouldn't have to worry about Johnny Madrid!"

"Alan, don't. It wasn't his fault. Besides, nobody forced me to pick up a gun."

Brady walked over and put a hand on each of Johnny's shoulders, looking him square in the eye. "If he's making things too hard on you. If he doesn't realize what he has....."

"He's my father. Whatever is between us, we'll work it out," Johnny replied gently.

Brady nodded and squeezed his shoulders. "You always have a home here, Johnny. I wish I could take back everything..."

"The past can't be changed, Alan. God knows, I wish it could. Thanks for listening to me," he smiled and stood up slowly.

"You can't ride like that."

"Sure, I can. It's not that far. Besides, Murdoch will want me to see a doctor," he sighed.

"You're sure? You can stay here for a while."

"I'm sure. They'll take care of me."

Brady cringed slightly. "It really is good to see you again, Johnny. Try to keep in touch?"

"Sure. I promise," he smiled again before receiving a bear hug. Alan had always been affectionate with his son and Johnny had envied that. Until the first time he'd hugged Johnny. Then, he was as embarrassed as Dave had always seemed. But it was alright now. More than that, he needed it. Johnny was a bit disturbed with how much he needed that show of affection.

"You okay?" Brady asked, seeing the odd look on his face.

"Yeah. I better get going."

"Johnny, what is it?" he pressed.

He lowered his eyes and cleared his throat. "Nothing. I have to go," he mumbled and headed quickly for the door.

*******

Outside, Scott was pacing a trench in the dirt. Johnny tensed when he saw his brother had not calmed down. He couldn't read Murdoch, as usual, and he sighed to himself.

Setting his hat on his head, he walked over and stiffly mounted his horse. Looking down at the two of them, he simply asked, "you comin?" and rode off.

He heard them galloping up behind him and his stomach dropped a little. This was not going to be easy. He really didn't want to talk about Dave and Alan Brady. But he knew they deserved an explanation.

They pulled up on either side of him and fell into Barranca's gait.

"Are you alright?" Murdoch asked.

"Sure."

"How do you feel?"

Johnny looked at his father. "Oh, you mean the wound. It's fine," he shrugged.

"You need to see a doctor. That might need stitches," Scott said in a flat voice.

"I know," Johnny replied in kind. He was not in the mood for his brother's tirade. He was quite sure Scott had worked himself into a lather on the way here.

No more was said as they rode slowly down the road. It took longer to get back and Johnny was feeling the exhaustion settle over him. All he wanted was to sleep. But he knew that was a fanciful wish as they headed straight toward the house with the shingle hanging outside.

*****

"It could have been worse. I think you'll be fine with rest and proper care," the doctor smiled as he dried his hands.

"How soon can he travel?" Murdoch asked.

"Travel where?"

"California."

"Well, I'd give it a couple of days, Mr. Lancer. I wouldn't want the wound to open back up on the trail."

"Thank you, doctor," Murdoch nodded, already planning their stay.

Johnny finished buttoning his shirt and tucking in the tail as he listened to the men discuss his very near future. Soon, he and Murdoch were headed back to the hotel where Scott was waiting.

"I'll be ready to leave in the morning. That doc is being too cautious," Johnny said casually.

"It doesn't matter if he is or not. He said two days and two days it will be," Murdoch replied paternally, a hint of guilt thrown in as well.

Johnny sighed but figured he'd get his way later. "So, how mad is Scott?"

Murdoch gave him a sidelong look. "Very."

"Great. I guess he's about ready to bust by now."

Murdoch stopped as they stepped onto the boardwalk. "Son, that note you left was pretty disheartening. Especially the last part. Scott feels you don't trust us enough to open up and talk about your problems. I can't say that I blame him for that."

"It's not that I don't trust you," Johnny started. "Maybe we should just wait until we get upstairs. Might as well have both of you at me."

"No one is going at you, son. We were worried. But, you're right. Let's go find your brother."

******

"Well?" Scott asked as soon as the hotel room door opened.

"Well what?"

"Johnny, don't make me have to ask questions. You know what we want!"

"I know, Scott. It's just not that easy," he answered and walked a few paces into the room.

"We know there was a man named Coleman and it's believed you killed him. And that this Brady is somehow the cause of the ambush on you. You need to fill in the blanks," Murdoch spoke. His voice was even and calm which only served to unnerve Johnny.

He looked back and forth between them then wandered over to the window. "I met Alan Brady in Tuscon. He came down there looking to hire me. There was a range war brewing between him and Coleman. The money was good so I agreed. I met his son, Dave, when I got here and we hit it off. We were the same age. We got to be really good friends in a short time. I spent a lot of time with them. After a while, it seemed so ..... easy. Comfortable. Then, one day Dave and I were riding back from the range. The trail narrowed at one point with high boulders on either side. They started shooting and we fought back but then Dave went down. All the sudden they took off. Just left." Johnny stopped as memories of that awful day assaulted him.

He leaned his left shoulder against the wall and stared at his boots. "I had to bring him home. He was hurt bad but still alive. I put him on my horse and rode him to the house. Alan took him and I went for the doc. When we got back, Alan started yellin at me. Accusing me of shooting Dave." He shook his head sadly.

"I couldn't believe it, ya know? He was like a ....." he paused and glanced briefly at Murdoch. "I knew it was Coleman and it didn't take much to figure out he'd set us up. I figure he even got some of Brady's men to start him thinking it was me. So, I went to see Coleman and he laughed. Boasted about how well his plan had worked. I just lost it. I was so mad. I saw his hand go under the desk so I drew on him and I killed him. Then I left Arizona." He finished and stared out the window at nothing.

No one spoke for long moments. Finally, Murdoch understood the look he'd seen on Brady's face. The look of a father whose son is hurting. And he realized what that feeling was he'd had - jealousy.

"You left before you knew what happened to Dave?" he asked quietly.

Johnny nodded. "Some of Brady's hands were talking about a lynching. Figured it was best if I lit out. I never knew for sure about Dave until today. But, I figured he wasn't gonna make it. It was a bad wound. There was a lot of panic." He had a faraway look in his eyes as he spoke. Then, he smiled a little. "Dave was a real character. Good lookin guy. All the girls were crazy about him. He was a real charmer. Smart as a whip, too." Johnny's voice began to tremble as he spoke of his friend and he knew he had to stop.

"So, all this time Brady believed it was you. He never once thought it could have been this Coleman?" Scott asked.

"He thought I'd turned on him. Dave was his whole world. He loved that kid and he showed it, too. I guess he just about lost his mind."

"And it took him three years to decide he wanted revenge?" Scott continued.

Johnny shrugged. "We didn't really get into it that much. I guess he figured he'd waited long enough."

"I'm sorry, Johnny. I'm trying to understand this. All it took was you telling him you didn't do it to change his mind? That just seems too easy."

"This is the first time we've really talked since then, Scott. I never got a chance to tell him my side of things before. I never got to look him in the eye until now."

Scott shook his head slowly, still unable to accept all of this. "So, you're telling me this man has believed you killed his son for the last three years, sent men to kill you and now it's okay because you told him to his face? Why would he believe you?"

Johnny looked at his brother and knew he wouldn't stop. Scott was tenacious on a good day. This was not a good day.

"I told you we got close. I was like a member of the family."

"Evidently more a distant relative. If it was so easy for this man to believe you could kill his son, he couldn't have cared that much," Scott shot sarcastically.

Johnny's anger flared then. "You don't know what you're talkin about, Scott! Alan was good to me. He took me in. He asked me to stay on after the fight and be a part of his family. He was like a father to me!"

He felt like he'd swallowed his tongue and wished he had before he spouted off. This was what he wanted to avoid. He didn't want to hurt either of them. He didn't want them to think someone else had been that important in his life before them. Johnny knew it was probably foolish to think that way but he couldn't help it. This family was too fragile and he didn't want to throw a bull into the mix. But it was out now and all he could do was face it - and his father. So he did. He turned to meet Murdoch's gaze.

He waited for what seemed an hour for the man to say something, anything. He thought he saw hurt in the old man's eyes but he couldn't be sure.

"I'm glad you had someone to care about you, son. And I can understand why you didn't want to tell us about all this. But, Johnny, taking off in the middle of the night .... especially after being so seriously injured. You had to know we'd follow."

He was surprised but he covered well. "Where is Cipriano anyway?" he asked with a gleam in his eyes.

Murdoch smiled. "We sent him home after he got us on the right trail. It wasn't easy either. He's quite proud of you. But, you're avoiding the subject," he cocked a brow.

Johnny bowed his head and nodded. "I wanted to take care of it before he sent anyone else after me. I couldn't take the chance that you'd be so lucky next time."

"All you had to do was tell us, Johnny," Scott said.

"You would have wanted to come with me."

"Would that be so terrible? We're family. We're supposed to be there for each other. But, every time something from your past comes up, you go off on your own as if we don't even exist."

"There's a reason for that, Scott. My past has nothing to do with you."

"So what? The only time we're allowed to help is if it's something that's happened in the past year? That's crazy!" Scott spat.

"Johnny, we want to help you. We want you to be able to come to us when you're in trouble. That's what families do," Murdoch said.

"I didn't want to tell you about this. It was too hard."

"It's always too hard. It's either painful or something you think we will be ashamed of. The point is, you don't trust us," Scott stated.

"That's not true. I do trust you. I just ....." Johnny sighed, unable to figure out how to explain himself.

"Son, we all have things in our pasts that are painful. Things we wish we could forget. Sometimes those things come back to haunt us. You make it so hard on yourself, Johnny. It doesn't have to be that way. Don't you see?"

"Come on, Murdoch. The past is the past. Right? That's what you said. Why would I want to throw it in your face?" Johnny said angrily.

"You're right, I did say that and I was wrong. I wanted it to be in the past because I didn't want to talk about it. But I've learned it just doesn't work that way. We can't ignore it. Were you worried you'd hurt my feelings?"

Johnny turned his back on them and didn't answer.

"Well, to be honest, it does bother me a little. Knowing you thought that much of someone else. Knowing he was a father figure for you when I couldn't be there. But, I should be grateful you had someone like that in your life. Even if it was for a short time."

Johnny turned back to face his father. "I've thought about him more than once since I've been home. You remind me a little of him. There are some differences."

They looked at each other for a long moment, both searching and finding what they needed. Scott watched silently as they came to some sort of terms. But he wasn't satisfied. Not yet.

When they finally broke eye contact, he started. "This is very nice but it doesn't resolve the issue. Johnny, you can't keep taking off on your own like this. It isn't fair to us or you."

"I know, Scott. I'm sorry if I worried you."

"IF? Of course you worried us! Especially that sweet little part of your note about thinking the worst. You can be the most infuriating man!" He started pacing again and Johnny found it amusing for some reason.

"One of these days, brother. One of these days we aren't going to come after you. Then, you'll see. Then you'll realize you really do need us," he ranted, still pacing.

Johnny couldn't help the grin that slid across his face. "Hey, Scott. You keep that up and you're gonna need a new pair of boots by the time we get home."

Scott stopped and turned to him, appalled at his attitude. "This is not funny, Johnny!"

Johnny frowned as he stared at his brother. "Take it easy."

"No, I will not take it easy. Not until you promise me on MY life that you will never take off like that again. That you will never decide we are better off not knowing what's going on. That you will never be so flip about your life or take ridiculous and unnecessary risks," Scott stopped, hands on hips and waited for an answer.

"All that? You want me to promise all that?"

"Yes."

Johnny looked at him and cocked his head. "I can't, Scott."

Scott's face dropped. "Why not!?" he demanded.

"Because I can't remember eveything you said I had to promise," he grinned.

Murdoch chuckled at the two of them. He walked over to Johnny and put a hand on his shoulder. "Just promise one thing. When trouble comes, you'll let us help. You won't try to solve everything on your own and you'll be honest with us."

Johnny nodded and smiled at his father. "Okay, but I'm gonna remind you of this talk." He sighed then and walked over to face Scott. "Look, I am sorry I worried you. I knew you'd be angry but this was just really hard for me. Coming back here and facing Alan again. It brought up a lot of memories. I guess I just didn't think I could share that with you. I'll try to do better, Scott. It's hard for me to open up, you know that. It's just as hard for you. I guess we still have some work to do on this family business."

Scott relaxed his shoulders for the first time in what seemed like months. "All I ask is that you try, Johnny. That you acknowledge that we matter."

"You matter, Scott. You don't know how much you matter to me. Can we go home now?"

"No, we cannot. The doctor said two days rest. As far as I can tell, you haven't had much rest in the past several weeks," Murdoch stated.

"I'm fine," Johnny sighed heavily.

"Well, I'm not. I could use a break. Besides, we aren't done yet. I still want to talk about Brady," Scott imparted.

******

Murdoch and Scott left Johnny to get some rest. They were both exhausted themselves. But Scott was still troubled and about more than Johnny. He ended up in Murdoch's room.

"I have to ask why you're being so understanding about all this, sir?"

"What would you have me do, son?"

"Well, for one thing, not be so nice about Brady. The man almost killed your son!"

"I know that, Scott. But Johnny has feelings for him and we have to be careful. We can't start calling the man the devil. Johnny won't hear it." He walked over to the window and opened it.

"Alright, I see your point. But, you have to see that man is not now, nor has he probably ever been, good for Johnny," Scott made his stance clear.

"I do see that, Scott. Brady definitely has problems with trust and loyalty. He demands it from others but doesn't give it himself. It was too easy for him to turn on Johnny back then. Even with his son mortally wounded, if he'd cared about Johnny; trusted him, he never would have listened to those accusations."

Scott sighed in relief. He had been worried his father was not seeing the big picture. He sat down in a chair and relaxed. "So, how do we get Johnny to see that?"

Murdoch shook his head ruefully. "I'm not sure we can. All we can do is come to him with the facts. Leave the emotion out of it if we can. Maybe then he'll see the truth."

"And if he doesn't?" Scott raised a brow.

"If he doesn't, he doesn't. We can't force him to see things our way."

"He's going to be hurt again," Scott said softly.

Murdoch turned and looked at his elder son. "I know. And we have to be there for him this time."

*****

 

Johnny awoke the next morning feeling sore and stiff again. He was beginning to wonder if he'd ever feel any other way. He stretched out cautiously as he measured the damage this latest assault had done. It was sore as all get out but he could manage.

Throwing the covers off, he sat up slowly and rubbed his face. He figured he could probably sleep a few more hours given the choice. But the memory of Scott's tone and expression last night told him he didn't have that choice. He went about his morning rituals a bit lethargic. Coffee was what he craved. That and a meal. He realized he had not eaten since breakfast the morning before and his stomach wasn't having any qualms about reminding him either.

He had just pulled the second boot on when the knock came. Almost groaning aloud, he went to answer the door.

"Good morning. Ready to eat?" Murdoch smiled a bit too much.

"Uh, yeah, in a minute," he mumbled and walked back to the bed. Johnny strapped his gunbelt on and grabbed his jacket. "Where's Scott?"

"Getting us a table downstairs," Murdoch replied, still wearing that smile.

It was grating on Johnny's nerves already. 'He's tryin too hard,' he thought. Still, he managed a smile of his own and followed his father to the restaurant.

They joined Scott who was not smiling overenthusiastically. "I ordered for you."

"Good. I'm starvin," Johnny replied and grabbed the coffee cup in front of him.

They ate in relative silence, no one making eye contact. Johnny felt the air around him and idly thought of slicing through it with his knife. A small smile graced his lips at the thought. It faded quickly as the weight of what was about to happen consumed him again. He knew there would be more talk, more explanations expected. And he was pretty sure Murdoch was not going to keep up this nice act much longer. Not that he doubted his father's sincerity but the man wasn't a statue. He could only take so much getting slapped in the face and Johnny knew very well what he'd done.

He delayed it as long as possible but after four cups of coffee, there wasn't much left to do but surrender the table. None of them seemed terribly anxious to get on with it, though. Johnny sure wasn't going to make any suggestions.

It was Scott who got the ball rolling, of course. "Gentlemen, shall we?" he asked, dropping his napkin on the table before him and rising.

Johnny said nothing and stood, following the other two out into the lobby. They were almost to the stairs when he heard his name being called. When he turned, his face showed his surprise.

"Alan, what are you doing here?"

"I was hoping I'd catch you. I wanted to talk to you, Johnny," Brady answered as he removed his hat.

"Well, I, uh...."

"Johnny has other business to attend to right now, Mr. Brady. Perhaps he can talk with you later," Scott said icily.

Brady looked stonily at Scott. "I don't have much time."

"Then it can't be too important. This is," Scott retorted.

"Are you coming, Johnny?" Murdoch asked.

He looked at Murdoch, then Scott, then Brady. "Maybe later, Alan. I need to talk to my family."

Brady's face fell and he tried to cover with a smile. "Alright, Johnny. I'll be in town for a few hours." He turned on his heel and strode out.

"Was that necessary?" Johnny turned to Scott.

"Evidently, it was. Can we continue this upstairs or should we do it in front of strangers?"

Johnny glared at his brother and stormed up the stairs, brushing past both men. Scott and Murdoch shared a woeful look, knowing this was going to be a battle.

He headed for his room and left the door open for them as he tossed his jacket on the bed. When he turned to face them, the anger was gone. He simply stared.

Murdoch took a seat at the small table in the room. Scott stood in the middle and tried to think of how to start.

"Johnny, I have a problem and I need your help," he began.

Johnny's face took on a puzzled look. "What's wrong?"

Scott began to pace the room. "Well, I have a friend who is in real trouble only he doesn't know it."

"I see," Johnny said stiffly.

"He has this friend but he isn't really a friend, you see."

"Go on."

Scott chanced a glance then went on with his pacing. "Look, let's just be straight. I don't know any other way. We can't beat around the bush," he sighed and looked at his father who nodded.

"Johnny, we're worried about you. We think you are too loyal to Brady. The man tried to have you murdered," Murdoch said.

"I explained that...."

"That's the problem, Johnny. You explained it all away very nicely. What you don't seem to understand is; it was all too easy. Brady wants something from you. Something he thinks is owed him," Scott said.

"Like what?"

"A son to replace the one he lost," Murdoch said bluntly.

Johnny stared at his father for a second then shook his head. "No, he knows I have a family."

"Yet he still wants you to stay here. He did make that offer, didn't he, son?"

"Yeah, but I told him.... I mean, he knows ......"

"Johnny, listen to me. He doesn't know. And until you tell him flat out, he won't give up. Why do you think he's here now? To talk you into staying," Scott pointed out.

"Is that what you're worried about? That I'll stay here? Well, don't because I have no intentions of staying," Johnny stated emphatically.

"That's wonderful to hear, son. But you need to tell him that. I think you'll be surprised by his reaction."

"Why?"

Murdoch and Scott looked at each other, neither knowing how to say the words.

"Johnny, I don't know what Brady was like three years ago. He may have been a different man. And maybe losing his son has changed him. But the man I saw yesterday is obsessed. He's used to having his own way and he won't stop until he gets it." Murdoch held his breath after making that observation.

"You're right. You didn't know him then and you don't know him now. How can you make a judgment like that after spending all of ten minutes with the man?"

"Because we can see him objectively. You can't. You see the man who was kind to you. The man who offered you a new life."

"And what do you see, Scott?" Johnny asked flatly.

"I see a man who hired five gunfighters to cut you down in the street! I see a man who has let his anger and grief fester for three years. I'm more concerned that he's leading you into a trap than that he actually cares about you!"

Before Johnny could respond, Murdoch was on his feet to intervene. "Don't you think it's a little strange that he was so remorseful all the sudden? That he is so ready to take you back into his life after hating you for three years? Johnny, think about it. If this were anyone else, you'd be more than a little suspicious."

He only stared at his father. Murdoch could see it was sinking in but Johnny was fighting it with everything he had.

"We don't want to take away the good memories you have, son. And maybe Brady really is sorry for what he's done. But, this was no accident, John. He purposefully and meticulously planned your murder not a month ago. Now, suddenly, everything is alright? It doesn't make sense."

Johnny turned his back on them and they waited. "I need some time to think," he said softly.

Scott walked over to his brother. "While you're thinking, remember this. I have never lied to you. I have always given people the benefit of the doubt. You know I try to see the good more than the bad. You've even said I'm a pushover. So, if I'm this certain, I hope you'll take that into consideration."

Johnny nodded and they left him alone, albeit with trepidation.

Out in the hall, Scott let out a breath. "I think I need some air."

"I know I do," Murdoch mumbled.

******

Johnny stood where he was for a long time, his mind refusing to think. Or maybe, he wasn't allowing it. He sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly before walking to the bed and plopping down. He scooted himself to the headboard, grabbing the pillows as he went. Once he was comfortable, he began to think.

His mind went back three years to Tuscon where he'd first met Alan Brady. His impression of the man then was not great. He was hard and seemed cold. Once they got back to the ranch, the change was very noticeable. Once he'd gotten back to his son. Johnny had never seen such an outward display of love from one man to another. Though Dave was only eighteen, he was certainly a man. A good man, too.

Johnny recalled his friend fondly. Dave could be tough when he needed to be, yet gentle as well. He remembered a mare foaling and having a lot of trouble. Dave had been patient and gentle with the beast, soothing her nerves and helping her give life. He'd been awed at the scene.

Another memory flashed through his mind. One he had totally forgotten until now. When Alan had come to the barn that night and seen Dave working so hard, Johnny was certain the man would be proud. But he had been gruff and hard, telling Dave to get on with it or put the mare down. Johnny remembered Dave's face. He'd been livid with the old man. He never said a word back to his father, but Johnny knew, he could have punched Brady right then and there.

More memories of Alan's harshness began to reveal themselves. Johnny had always thought it was just his way. That he'd worked hard all his life and had to be tough with his men and his son. He'd never been that way with Johnny, though. He couldn't recall a time when Alan had said a harsh word to him.

Maybe ..... maybe he was afraid. Maybe he didn't want to test the temper of a gunhawk. One he needed desperately at the time. He shook his head and closed his eyes, feeling very heavy and tired.

 

"Think the old man's gonna be mad?" Johnny grinned.

"I'd bet a month's wages on it," Dave replied glumly.

"Aw, come on. It wasn't your fault."

"Maybe, but he won't see it that way."

Johnny reined to a stop and Dave followed suit. "There was nothing you could do, Dave."

The young man looked intensely at him. "Johnny, I know you like the old man but sometimes ..... well, he can be ......"

Johnny watched as Dave's expression changed to one of pain. "He can be what?"

"Unforgiving," Dave said quietly then flicked the reins again.

Johnny frowned and watched his friend's back for a moment, then dug his heels in to catch up.

He stood outside the room and listened as Brady went on a tangent. He was screaming at his son, calling him everything in the book and Johnny thought to break it up. Just as he was about to go in, he heard a sound that he was very familiar with.

Dave bolted from the room, his head down. But, Johnny saw the red cheek.

 

He sat straight up in the bed, breathing heavily. Perspiration beaded on his forehead and he wiped it away with the back of his hand. How could he have forgotten that? And there were other times, too. Now that he really thought about it, he remembered many times Alan had called Dave down. The man wasn't stingy with the back of his hand, either.

Throwing his legs over the side of the bed, Johnny sat on the edge. Bent over, his forearms on his thighs and his face in his hands. 'Guess I didn't think it was so wrong then. Not like I had much to compare it to. I got the same from my stepfather so I guess I thought it was normal'.

He realized he had thought that was how fathers behaved. Not until he'd come home did he truly understand it wasn't supposed to be that way. He'd allowed all the good memories in and withheld the bad. That was something he was very good at doing. He'd perfected it in his younger years.

He stood up and paced a bit, trying to control the anger he felt. More for himself for being such an idiot. For falling for Brady's talk. He was about to go find the man when there was a knock on the door. Johnny swung the door wide to find Alan Brady standing there wearing a smile.

Johnny's jaw tightened as the man let himself in without a word. He held onto the door knob until his knuckles were white.

"I see you're all done with your family meeting," Brady smiled, though his words had a sarcastic taste.

"Yeah, all done," he mumbled and released the knob, letting the door swing closed of its own accord.

"You look upset, son. Did your father say something?"

Johnny could not look at the man right that minute. "He said some things I didn't particularly want to hear."

"Ah, you argued," Brady nodded.

"No, Alan, we didn't," Johnny shot.

"You sure are testy for someone who hasn't been fighting," Brady raised a brow.

"Well, I've been doin a lot of thinking. A lot of remembering, too," he shot a surreptitious look at the man.

"Oh? About what?"

"You and Dave and the time I spent with you."

Brady's smile returned. "I'm glad, Johnny. I was hoping you'd remember how good things were then. How good they could still be."

"No, they can't. I don't belong here. I belong at Lancer. I always have."

Murdoch stopped cold and held a hand up to warn Scott. They leaned in to listen at the door left ajar.

"You can't be serious? You told me you don't get along with your father!"

"I never said that. I said there was some stuff between us, that's all. We get along most of the time," Johnny retorted.

"He can't deal with your past, you said. I don't have a problem with it, Johnny."

"I know you don't. In fact, it's an asset, isn't it?" Johnny cocked his head to one side.

Brady looked quizically at him and shook his head.

"Come on, Alan. Having a fulltime gunhawk would be great. That way you wouldn't have to hire any to go kill people you're mad at."

"I thought we talked this out. I said I was sorry, Johnny. I said it was a mistake."

"A mistake? Yeah, it was a mistake alright. But I made a bigger mistake by believing you. I must be some kind of idiot. Taken in so easy." His anger was rising and he began to pace.

"Johnny, just calm down and we can discuss this. This isn't you talking. This is Lancer. He jealous, that's all. You can see that? He doesn't know what he has. He doesn't know what it's like to lose a son. He...."

"Yes, he does. He lost two of them for twenty years. And you can stop talking about him behind his back, too."

"Yes, you can. If you have something to say to me, Brady, say it to my face," Murdoch growled as he let the door swing open and stepped inside.

Johnny turned to see his father and brother standing in the door. His eyes fell on Brady who was glaring at Murdoch.

"Alright, I will. Maybe you don't know how your son grew up. He raised himself, taught himself. He grew up in some of the worst places you can imagine. Yet, he turned out to be caring and loyal. I certainly hope you don't take any credit for that, Lancer."

"You seem to know a lot about my son, Brady."

"He's told me some things."

"I know all I need to know about Johnny," Murdoch declared.

"Sure. He's a gunfighter. That's all you need to know," Brady sneered.

"I don't care about that. I never have."

Johnny looked at his father as if seeing him for the first time.

"Does he know that? Or are you just saying it to impress him? It seems to me you've spent a lot of time harping on him about his past."

"It's odd you seem to know so much about our family, Mr. Brady. Something tells me Johnny isn't your source of information," Scott interjected.

"All I know is what he's told me."

"I haven't told you anything, Alan," Johnny pointed out.

Brady turned to him. "You told me there were problems between Murdoch and you."

Johnny shrugged. "And from that you get that Murdoch is a lousy father? Well, he isn't! You only hear what you want to hear. Only see what you want to see." He moved closer to Brady. "But let me make this much real clear. He is my father, not you. So stop trying to come between us. Stop puttin my old man down!"

"Johnny, you aren't thinking this through. Don't you think that if he'd really wanted you, he could have found you in twenty years? Come on, son. That's stretching it a bit, don't you think?" Brady kept his voice level.

Shaking his head slowly, Johnny sighed. "No, I don't think it's stretching anything. You don't know what you're talking about, Alan. And even if you did, it's not your business."

"You are my business," he stated assuredly.

"No, I'm not. Not anymore."

"Blood doesn't always count so much, son."

"Maybe that's true. But it counts here. Just like it counted with Dave when you let it. I've been remembering some things, Alan. Things I made myself forget about you. I didn't want to remember the bad stuff. All I wanted to remember was that you were good to me. Maybe that's because most people weren't, I don't know. Maybe I just didn't know there was any other way. But, I know now. I know how a real father acts."

"You know how I was with you, Johnny. That's a real father."

"No, I don't think so. I never had anything much to compare it to. You and a few others. But, Murdoch is different. He doesn't parent with his fist."

"I never laid a hand on you!" Brady defended.

"No, you didn't. But you laid one on Dave and more than once. I figured it out. You were afraid of me then. Dave was a good man but you never let up on him. Oh, you showed him affection when he pleased you. But if anything went wrong, you were all over him. Whether he had anything to do with it or not. That's not love, Alan. That's control. Nobody controls me."

Brady stared at him for a long moment and Johnny held the gaze.

"I think I was wrong about you. You're not worth the effort."

Johnny nodded. "Sure, Alan."

Brady set his hat on his head and moved for the door. Scott opened it eagerly for the man. Before he left, he turned back to Johnny.

"I still believe you about Coleman. You have never lied to me." He turned then and walked out.

Johnny's shoulders sagged and he turned to stare out the window. A hundred different thoughts and emotions running through his mind. The room was quiet. The only sound was the breathing of three men.

"Man like that; never know what he's gonna do next. Like a rattler. He might bite you, he might slither off," Johnny spoke softly.

"He does seem to go from one extreme to the other quickly," Scott agreed with a gentle voice.

"Reckon he's just plain loco. Funny the things you'll let yourself remember and forget."

Murdoch walked over and stood behind him. "I'm sorry, son. I wish things were different."

Johnny turned and looked up at him. "Different how?"

"I wish Brady was the man you remembered."

"That's generous, Murdoch. Too generous. I said you reminded me of him. That's not true. You're nothing like him and I'm glad."

"I suppose you're pretty angry with me," Scott said.

Johnny looked past his father, setting his gaze on his brother. A gaze that was impossible to read.

"Some reason I should be?"

"Maybe you think I was too hard on you?" Scott shrugged.

"Maybe. But I won't break. I should thank you for making me see him for who he is."

"I just hope he leaves you alone now," Scott smiled softly.

"He will. Once he sets his mind about something, there's no changing it." Johnny dropped his eyes and turned back to the window.

"What is it, son?"

"Nothing. Just .... nothing."

Murdoch bit his lower lip and took a chance. "You still have feelings for him, don't you?"

Johnny picked at a paint chip on the sash. "I can't just turn it off so easy."

"No, you can't. You wouldn't be the man I know if you could. A man I'm very proud to call son."

Closing his eyes briefly, Johnny shook his head. "Proud of what? That I got snookered?"

"You didn't get snookered, Johnny. You followed your heart. You hoped you'd found a family. There's nothing wrong with that. You were the one who was let down, son. But, I hope you know that will never happen again. I hope you know this family will always be here for you."

"I do know that, Murdoch. Just like I knew you'd follow me here." He turned back to face them again. "I'll do better, I promise. I'll try to let you help me. It's just not something I'm used to. I never could count on anyone much. That's a hard habit to break."

Scott joined them and laid a hand on his brother's shoulder. "Put your trust in us, Johnny. You'll never regret it."

Johnny smiled and lifted his own hand to Scott's shoulder as Murdoch laid a hand on each son.

"Boys, let's go home."

 

~end~
2004

Want to comment? Email Winj