The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Why

 

 

 

It had been two weeks since the incident yet the words still rang in his mind and invaded his sleep. 'The only thing wrong here is you. Get off my land.' And all the rest. In his brain, he knew some of those words were spoken as a diversion. A way to make him leave and get him to safety. Still, he wondered. It seemed so easy for his father to spew those words at him so angrily. So insistently.

'I wish I had the time to break you in.' Why didn't he have the time? He seemed to take that time for Scott. He was always schooling Scott on ranching.

Johnny had been watching these past few days. Watching with fascination and, yes, some jealousy as his father warmed up to his brother. They were so easy together. And yesterday, the old man had actually thrown his arm around Scott's shoulder. He'd never touched Johnny other than to grab his arm that day.

That damnable day.

He shook his head and sweat sprayed off his forehead as he dug yet another post hole. It seemed his life had been relegated to this particular chore and he was more than sick of it. Guess that's all he thinks I'm good at. That and ...

He sighed heavily and stood up straight, leaning back and feeling his back crack. He wiped at the sweat with an equally sweaty arm and managed to only smear the moisture about. He was dripping with it, actually.

Now, as he stood there staring at the mountains, he had to wonder what he was doing and why he'd come back. 'You'll be dead before you're thirty. Never even leave a ripple.'

Those words had hurt, too. True or not, they'd hurt and especially coming from Scott. Oh, he knew what his brother was trying to do and it had worked. Not that he hadn't been thinking about it already. Hell, he'd been unable to think of much else since he and Wes had ridden away from Lancer that day.

Stupid was what he'd called himself. The best thing that's ever happened to me. That's what Scott had said and he'd been right about that as well.

Still, was it worth it? Was this all there was to it? Work and nothing more? What more did he want?

Stupid again, Johnny boy. You know what you want. Seems you ain't gonna get it though. Not very surprising but ..... disappointing. Yeah, it was that.

He didn't have to ask himself the why of it yet he did. It was plain to see. Murdoch couldn't stand him. Couldn't even look him in the eye sometimes. He'd noticed that, too. How the old man would avoid his gaze sometimes. Why? He has no problem eyeballin me when he's mad. Which is a lot. So, why just sometimes? Maybe I should pay attention to what's going on at those times. Maybe I can figure out what I'm doing wrong. Maybe those times are why he can't stand me all the time. Maybe I'm just plain crazy.

Will be if I don't stop letting these loco thoughts worry me to death. He don't like me. Period. Done deal. Nothin's gonna change it and there's no use even tryin. Is there? And why should he? The old man sure wasn't. Except he was with Scott. Just with Scott.

Johnny dropped the hammer and walked over to the wagon. He grabbed the canteen and uncorked it, pouring the water over his head and holding his face to the sun. He opened his eyes and blinked a few times then took a long pull of the canteen before setting it down.

Leaning against the tailgate, he looked back to the mountains. Sure are a whole lot of whys to all this, too. But, really, there was only one. Why do you hate me so much? That's what he wanted to ask but would never dare. Mostly because he didn't want to hear the answer. The truth.

Oh, he figured the old man wasn't real thrilled with his bein a gunfighter. He could deal with that and reckoned Murdoch could, too. Otherwise, he'd have never sent for him. That left just plain him. They just didn't get along. Still there had to be a reason, didn't there? Can't just not like someone for no reason. Especially your own son.

Son.

Another word Murdoch used with Scott but not him. He'd never heard Murdoch call him that. He would have noticed.

He never thought of himself as unlikable. Plenty of people liked him. But, they weren't ranchers. They weren't Murdoch Lancer. They weren't his own flesh and blood.

*****

He heard the horse before he saw it. Looking over toward the small rise, he waited for the rider to appear. When he did, Johnny's shoulders immediately tensed and he walked back over to his hammer. Picking it up, he went back to work.

Checking up. Making sure I'm not slackin off, no doubt. He sighed silently.

Murdoch reined to a stop and watched for a minute. He waited for Johnny to acknowledge him and when he didn't, Murdoch's anger rose.

Johnny felt the eyes on his back, burning a hole in him and he slumped his shoulders and turned around. He eyed Murdoch and waited to hear what he'd done wrong now.

When the older man didn't speak, Johnny became nervous. He didn't like it when Murdoch was quiet. Usually meant he was chewin something pretty big. He decided to break the silence as simply as possible.

"Hi."

"Johnny," Murdoch said in greeting. He dismounted then and walked over, eyeing the fence line critically. "Looks good."

"Thanks," Johnny answered and returned to the job.

"How much longer do you think this will take?" Murdoch asked.

"Should be done by dusk."

"You'll miss supper," Murdoch noted.

Johnny raised a brow and smiled. "Won't be much later than that."

"I'd rather you finish up in the morning than miss the meal."

Johnny stopped and turned to face him. The first question in his mind was why. "Well, if I finish today, I can do something else tomorrow. Don't make much sense to leave such a small piece undone."

And there it was again. That scrutinizing look. The one that both troubled and irritated him. Mostly because he had no idea what his father was thinking right then. Or what he was about to say. He could agree or put his foot down. Johnny just never knew and he hated it.

"Alright then. I'll tell Maria to leave you a plate in the oven."

Johnny relaxed a little. "Thanks."

Murdoch nodded but made no move to leave.

"Was there somethin else?" Johnny asked.

"Yes, I was going to talk to you about it tonight," Murdoch said, giving him a look that said 'you've ruined that plan'.

Johnny dropped his head and fought back his own anger. "If you want me home tonight, I'll be there," he said with a hint of irritation he just couldn't hide.

Murdoch gritted his teeth. "I would prefer to discuss this at the house."

"Fine. I'll try to finish up today but, if not, first thing in the morning," Johnny said, his voice softer now, without anger.

"I'll see you tonight, then," Murdoch gave a curt nod and headed back to his mount.

Johnny watched him go. Why couldn't he just say he needed to talk to me and to be sure I was there? As his father rode away, Johnny thought he hadn't missed the other reference. He'd said 'home' and Murdoch had said 'the house'.

You know, Madrid, if you keep picking on every little word he uses, you really are gonna be loco soon, he thought.

Another question popped in his head. What does he want to talk to me about? He didn't seem really angry about anything. Johnny was sure he would've lit right in if that were the case. Well, guess I'll find out soon enough. He went back to work increasing his efforts to finish today. He didn't want to come back out tomorrow or ever. He wanted to do something - anything other than lay fence.

*****

Supper went by and Johnny still didn't know what his father wanted to discuss with him. He watched Scott for a clue but found none. Not a surprise. He was still learning this one. Still trying to figure him. It wasn't easy either. Wonder if that's because he and the old man are so much alike?

That thought disturbed him. Scott wasn't like Murdoch. At least, not in the sense that he hated Johnny. He hadn't seen anything to make him think that. Scott was nice to him. Joked with him. Scott tried. Johnny liked that about his brother so he tried with Scott, too. It seemed to be working out pretty well.

Murdoch pushed back from the table and stood then walked into the living room. Johnny looked at his brother who only shrugged, wiped his mouth and went to join the old man.

Reining himself in tightly, Johnny followed figuring he was about to hear whatever it was the old man had to say.

Murdoch stood by the fireplace and watched the two of them settle on the sofa facing him. A frown of deep thought on his face.

"There's a cattle auction in Stockton next week. I need to be there and I want to take Scott along. He needs the experience. That will leave you in charge, Johnny."

Johnny almost swallowed his tongue but only nodded, his mouth suddenly dry.

Scott wore an expression of complete surprise but said nothing.

"I've already spoken with Cipriano. He'll help you with the day to day and any problems that may arise. Scott and I will be leaving day after tomorrow," Murdoch continued.

"How long do you expect we'll be gone, Sir?" Scott asked.

"About a week. Teresa is going to the Harrington's for a couple of weeks. She'll leave in the morning," he answered then turned to Johnny. "This is a huge responsibility, Johnny, but I have no choice. I expect you to listen to Cipriano and follow his guidance."

Johnny's eyes narrowed and his jaw tightened. "Why don't you just say it? You're puttin Cipriano in charge."

Murdoch's frown deepened. "He has more experience but you are an owner. You will have the last say."

They locked eyes and the mental battle ensued for long ticks of the clock. Murdoch finally turned and walked over to his desk. He picked up two brown books.

"Try to keep the ledgers up. I doubt there will be much to enter but you never know when you'll run out of supplies or something will come up. If you don't have time, leave the receipts in the book." He hefted the volumes into the air then sat them back down.

Johnny nodded his understanding. "Anything else?"

"I don't think so. Cipriano will fill you in if I forget anything."

Well, that's three times he's reminded me who's in charge, Johnny thought. He clamped his mouth shut though, knowing it would do no good to argue his case. No way the old man was going to leave him in control.

"Once you finish that fence tomorrow, I'll need you to work on that dry wash in the east pasture," Murdoch went on.

"I'm done," Johnny said.

Murdoch raised a brow. "I thought you said ..."

"I did. But, I pushed hard to finish so I didn't have to go back out there for an hour of work," Johnny interrupted with irritation.

"Fine," Murdoch replied through clenched teeth.

Johnny glanced up at him then stood. "I'm goin to bed. G'night."

Scott mumbled a goodnight to his brother and waited until he was out of earshot.

"Why are you taking me and not Johnny?" he asked immediately.

Murdoch sat in the blue wing-backed chair across from his son. "You need the experience."

"Did it ever occur to you that Johnny may need the experience as well?" Scott asked as politely as he could manage through a tight jaw.

"Yes," he sighed wearily. "But you need it more. He can go next time."

Scott nodded, unable to argue the point. Still, it irked him how callously his father handled the situation. He knew neither of them were ready to run the ranch alone. Still, Murdoch didn't have to keep reiterating Cipriano's role. He thought about going up to talk to his brother but if he'd learned anything about Johnny it was to leave him be when he was upset. And Scott knew his brother was definitely upset.

*****

Johnny was up and out early the next morning. He headed to the dry wash and began dispatching the debris with some vigor. By afternoon, he'd made a sizeable dent.

Good, he thought. Maybe the old man will cut me some slack. He shook his head. Maybe you should cut yourself some slack, Johnny. Maybe I am the problem. What do I expect him to do? Coddle me? Hell, I wouldn't stand for that. Yep, I'm acting like a big old baby and it's high time that stopped.

With a new resolve, he decided to give Murdoch a fair shot. Stop whining to himself about how the old man treated him and start acting in a way that garnered the man's respect and trust.

The more he thought about this the more sense it made. I've been a jackass. That's all. Been expecting him to hand me something on a silver platter. Why the hell would I do that? Never expected anything to be handed to me before. Maybe all this is gettin to me. All this land and wealth.

Yeah, that must be it, he reckoned. Well, enough of that. Time to earn my keep. Always have, always will. Nothing wrong with that and everything right with it. He nodded to himself and chuckled a little. Can't ever remember thinking so long and hard on anything before. Maybe that's because it matters so much.

That evening, he rode into the yard and dismounted with a grunt of exhaustion. He'd pushed hard again today. Never worked so hard, he thought then pulled up short. Same thing I said to him that day. That damnable day.

He shook it off, unwilling to go there again. He had a new attitude and he figured the old man would see that for himself.

He stopped at the wash bucket and splashed his face then dried off with the towel there. He was about to step on the porch when he heard his name shouted.

Johnny turned to find Murdoch striding toward him purposefully. He held his breath and waited.

"Hey," he said softly when the man was close enough to hear.

"How far did you get today?" Murdoch asked, not bothering to hail the greeting.

Johnny tensed then relaxed, remembering his new resolve. "About half-way done. There's a lot of pretty big tree roots in one spot. It's gonna take me all of tomorrow to get it cleared."

Murdoch seemed to relax himself and Johnny was a bit awed by that so he gave it a go.

"I was thinking. While you're gone I could get the barn roof fixed. I figured you'd want me to stay close to the house and it's been put off too long as it is."

The rancher stared at him, considering the idea. "Alright. And yes, you should stay close to the house in case the men need you."

Johnny smiled and nodded keeping his head up. "Was there anything else?" he asked neutrally.

"No. I just want to make sure the wash is cleared. The rains will be starting soon."

"Yeah," Johnny agreed. "I saw some dark clouds over the mountains this afternoon. Don't worry, I'll get it done."

Murdoch looked at him as if he'd never seen him before. "See that you do," he replied then walked inside.

Johnny stood there, still looking at the place his father had just been standing and wondering what the hell just happened. He thought he'd seen something soften in the old man only to get a smart-assed response like that. He threw the towel he was still holding against the bucket and sighed. Give it time, he thought. Just give it some time.  

*****

He hung around for breakfast the next morning so he could see his family off. Murdoch was in his usual mood and Scott seemed pensive. Maybe he's worried about spending that much time alone with the old man. I sure would be, Johnny thought with some amusement. He smiled and Scott saw it giving him a perplexed look. Johnny only shrugged.

"We should be going," Murdoch announced and stood.

The brothers joined him and walked outside together. Johnny patted his brother's chestnut on the neck as Scott mounted up.

"I thought I heard thunder last night. Make sure you get that wash cleared out today," Murdoch said from atop his steed.

"I will."

"You'll probably need materials for the barn roof," Murdoch went on.

"Okay," Johnny grinned. "Don't worry, I won't burn the place down while you're gone."

Scott laughed and reached down to slap his shoulder.

"I hope not," Murdoch mumbled and pulled on his reins to turn toward the road.

Johnny sighed softly and shook his head.

Scott gave him a sympathetic look and shrugged. "See you soon."

"Sure. Just be careful, Boston. Don't go lettin some pretty girl turn your head," Johnny called.

"Why not?" Scott called back and laughed as he spurred his mount to catch his father up.

Johnny laughed, too as he watched them grow smaller on the horizon. He looked to the east; to the mountains and saw the black clouds. He headed to the barn for a wagon. He'd need a shovel or two today. Maybe some dynamite to loosen those danged roots and some rope for sure.

*****

He was quite pleased with himself that afternoon. The wash was cleared and none too soon, either. He could smell the rain in the air and knew it would come that very night. They sure could use it.

He dismounted in front of the house and watched the big segundo stride up to him. Johnny nodded.

"The men have completed the repairs to the bridge, Johnny. Tomorrow, we can move the herd," Cipriano reported.

"That's good but it's gonna be a wet one," Johnny smiled.

Cipriano looked toward the sky, not yet clouded over, and sniffed. "Si."

"Well, guess I'll get washed up," Johnny said and started to walk away.

"Johnny."

He turned back. "Yeah?"

Cipriano hesitated a second then seemed to decide. "Perhaps you and I, we could talk sometime?"

Johnny cocked his head to one side. "Sure. What about?"

Cip shrugged. "Things."

Johnny grinned then laughed. "Sure, Cip. Things. See ya."

Cipriano watched him walk away, noting the confident stride Johnny possessed most of the time. It was when the boy lost that confidence that Cipriano became frustrated and that was whenever he was around his padre. Thunder rumbled in the distance and he looked to the mountains.

*****

Johnny awoke to a powerful storm sometime during the night. The wind was howling fiercely. Thunder boomed and lightning cracked and he figured he wouldn't be fixing the barn roof anytime soon.

He tried to go back to sleep but it was useless so he decided to get up for the day. He lit a lamp and fumbled the pocket watch open. Four o'clock. Well, it'll be daylight in a couple of hours anyway. Smiling, he thought he'd just fix himself some breakfast and give Maria a break.

He had just finished the last of the dishes when she walked in and stopped on a dime. Her eyes narrowed as she took him in.

"Buenos dias, Senora," Johnny smiled widely.

"What are you doing in my kitchen?" she asked sternly.

Johnny was surprised by her reaction and stared for a few seconds. "I ... I couldn't sleep. The storm .... I figured I'd save you the trouble of cookin," he answered and slapped himself mentally for fumbling over his words.

She looked him up and down then nodded and walked over to the stove, inspecting it.

"I cleaned up," he said, his voice strong now.

"Si, I see that. You did a good job," she said then smiled at him, her eyes sparkling.

Johnny shook his head at her. "I guess you think you're pretty smart, huh?" he grinned.

She laughed and walked over, kissing him on the cheek. "Try to stay dry today, nino."

"No chance of that. But, I bet I'll be needing something especially hot tonight to get me warmed up," he hinted gregariously.

She seemed to consider it, looking at the ceiling and tapping a finger to the side of her face. She wrinkled her brow and sighed. "Tal vez."

Johnny smiled and gave her a kiss, knowing he'd have a Mexican feast that night.

*****

Since he couldn't do anything to the barn as it was still pouring rain, Johnny decided to help move the herd. They'd need all the extra men they could get. Cows weren't the smartest animals on a dry day. He fastened his gun belt snugly, threw his poncho over his head and settled his hat before walking out into the deluge.

No one was in high spirits for sure as they pushed the herd along, spending more time than usual going after strays. The lightning had stopped but the thunder still rumbled, spooking the cattle from time to time.

Johnny soon found his poncho soaked and water ran off the brim of his hat. It reminded him of other rainy days spent on the trail. He didn't like it then either.

It took all day to get the job done. If there'd been a sun today, it would be well on it's way to setting by the time they finished. Johnny assigned two men to watch over the cattle then headed back with the rest of the crew.

He pulled up and whistled to Cipriano who reined his mount to Johnny's side.

"I'm gonna check the wash. Make sure it's not flooding," Johnny told him.

"Do you wish me to go with you?" the segundo asked.

"Nah. Won't take a minute. Besides, Maria'd have my head if I kept you any longer than necessary," Johnny grinned.

Cipriano smiled a little and shrugged then headed toward the house. Johnny reined to the left and rode off.

He sat astride the palomino as the water gushed down the waterway, sighing with relief that it was holding. Then, a branch caught his eye. He was sure it wasn't there yesterday. He dismounted and walked to the bank, grabbing it up easily. Must have come off the mountain with the water, he thought as he tossed it aside.

He took one step and felt his left foot slide then the ground beneath give. Johnny fell to his stomach and tried to grab the slick grass but it only slipped through his fingers as he clawed for purchase. There was none to be found and soon, he was plunging into the icy water, his head disappearing.

A second later, he emerged sucking air into lungs that didn't want to work. Johnny shook his head and blinked the water from his eyes as he frantically fought against the current. It was a losing battle he found. As he was whisked downstream he saw a low-hanging tree branch and reached for it. He grabbed hold with fingers so cold he could barely feel them. But he wouldn't let go.

He took a minute to catch his breath and improve his grasp then slowly, hand over hand, made his way to the water's edge. He had to pull himself up using the tree branch that was now higher and his arms felt like they were coming out of their sockets. Giving up was not an option however. It never had been for him.

Finally after what seemed an hour to him, he swung his legs over sodden earth and dropped to the ground, scrambling further away from the torrent. Exhausted, he rolled onto his back and laid there as the rain pelted his face for several minutes, coughing out the water he'd swallowed. He didn't care. He just wanted to breathe and rest.

Soon enough, the cold seeping deep into his bones made him move. He sat up slowly and looked around surprised he wasn't further away from his starting position. Barranca was there, fifty feet away and Johnny whistled to him. He rolled onto his knees and planted his hands on the ground to push up. It was then he noticed they were turning blue. He also noticed he was shivering uncontrollably. Never been so cold, he idly thought.

He made it up and Barranca stepped closer. "Thanks a lot. You could've said somethin," Johnny groused, knowing it was ridiculous but feeling the need to growl at someone.

He pulled himself into the saddle and headed for home, thinking about the fireplace and the meal awaiting him. This went a ways toward improving his mood but not all that far. Why does this stuff have to happen? Everything's been going pretty good. Well, except for not getting to the barn roof yet. Still, that wasn't his fault. This was, though. He'd been careless is all he could figure. Got too close and wasn't paying attention.

Might as well quit kicking myself for it. Nothing I can do about it now, he thought.

*****

Johnny pulled his poncho off on the porch and shook it out then laid it across a chair back. He was trying to figure out how to get upstairs without washing the floors on his way when the door opened.

Maria stepped out with a towel and gasped. "What happened?"

"I fell in the water. I'm okay, just cold," he mumbled, embarrassed now.

She tsked at him. "Go upstairs. I will have a hot bath readied for you."

"No, I'd rather just change and get by the fire, Maria. Think I'm pretty clean by now," he smiled wanly at her.

"Very well. Supper is almost ready. That will warm you as well," she grinned and winked.

It took dry clothes, a blazing fire and Maria's cooking to finally warm him up. That and a glass of Scotch. Johnny sat near the fireplace and watched the flames as his eyes drooped close. His head jerked and he sat up, rubbing his face and sighing. His throat felt scratchy so he downed the whiskey and stood up, swaying a little as dizziness assaulted him.

Whoa! Got up too fast, I guess.

Giving himself a minute, he headed upstairs and stripped his clothes, opting for no nightshirt since he was the only one home. He slipped under the covers and sighed as the thick quilt warmed him even more. He was still cold but he figured it would be better now.

Sleep took him in less than a minute.

He awoke feeling sore all over and he stretched his muscles out slowly before rising. Flinging the covers back, he shivered. Damn! Is it ever gonna warm up?

He walked over and looked out the window, relieved the rain had stopped. The sky looked pretty clear so far as the pink hues heralded the new dawn. He quickly washed and shaved then dressed, grabbing his heavier buckskin jacket on his way out the door.

Maria turned to greet him as he entered the kitchen then frowned. "Are you ill?"

"No," Johnny answered with some surprise. "Still a little cold is all. Looks like the sun's gonna be out today. I'll be fine."

She wasn't convinced as he looked pale to her but she said nothing. She knew this one did not like to be fussed over. What man did?

Cipriano appeared at the door and Johnny told him he'd be working on the barn roof today. "Any damage inside?"

"Some leaking but nothing was damaged. The stable boys have already cleaned out the wet hay," Cipriano answered.

"Good. I'll get on that first thing then," Johnny nodded and went to work on his breakfast.

"There is a section of corral fence that needs repairs. It looks as if a horse kicked it," Cipriano told him.

"Okay. I'll get that done, too. Murdoch wanted me close to the house anyway."

Cipriano nodded. "You are doing a fine job, Johnny."

He looked up at the segundo and smiled. "Thanks, Cip."

*****

Johnny took a look at the corral fence and figured it could wait. The barn roof couldn't especially after the rains they'd had. It would be even more damaged now. He walked to the shed and took inventory of the supplies there then grabbed a ladder and climbed to the roof. Satisfied he had enough to get the job done, Johnny went about the chore.

It was a good vantage point. He could see the surrounding area well and keep an eye out while he worked. He was barely an hour into it when he saw Cip riding up. What now? he thought, knowing the man wouldn't be there if there weren't a problem.

Johnny scuttled to the edge of the roof and looked down. Cipriano craned his neck and looked up.

"The north bridge collapsed from the rains last night," he informed the young man.

Johnny dropped his head and shook it. "How long to fix it?"

"Most of the day, nino," Cip answered.

Johnny cringed a little at the endearment but ignored it for now. "Need supplies?"

"Si, we are very low."

Of course we are, he thought. "Send Frank to town."

Cipriano gave him an uncertain look.

"What?" Johnny asked with chagrin.

"The stores. They will only allow a Lancer to charge supplies, Johnny. El Patron has arranged it this way."

Johnny scooted around and sat properly on his behind, his knees starting to ache. "Well, that's a great idea. Cause now, I can stop what I'm doing and ride all the way to town. Give the rain time to start up again so I never get the roof fixed!"

He glanced down at the man who's face wore no expression and smiled sheepishly. "Sorry. Not your fault," he sighed and started down the ladder.

Once he landed, he turned to find Cipriano right behind him.

"It is not that your padre does not trust the men. Some of the storeowners will not sell to ..... ranch hands," he explained.

Johnny nodded. "Ranch hands, huh? What makes him think they'll sell to me?"

Cip shrugged. "Your name," he smiled a little.

Johnny's jaw tightened but he said nothing and stalked into the barn to hitch up a team. He could feel the segundo watching him.

"You got a list?" Johnny asked.

"Si," he answered and handed it over.

"I'll be back as soon as I can," he sighed and led the wagon outside.

"Perhaps I can fix the corral while I am waiting?" Cipriano suggested.

"Sure. Might as well get somethin done today," Johnny replied and gave him a grimace.

*****

Johnny pulled up to the lumber mill and set the brake then jumped down smoothly. He stopped and grabbed hold of the wagon bed as dizziness hit him again. It passed quickly and he was starting to wonder if something was wrong with him. Shaking it off, he went inside. No time for that sort of nonsense, he thought.

No one was in the front of the store and he leaned against the counter, tapping his fingers on the surface. After a few minutes of this, he called out but got no answer. Frustrated beyond belief, Johnny walked through a door into the back. He could hear the mill saw working and made his way back.

Mike Farley was hard at it, slicing through the wood to form perfect two by four planks and Johnny had to watch for a minute. He made his way around to the front, knowing the man would never hear him shout out.

Farley looked up and nodded, finished the piece he had then stopped the saw.

"Howdy," he said as the whining slowed down.

"Howdy," Johnny greeted back. "Need some supplies," he added, probably unnecessarily as he handed over the list.

Farley took the list all the while scrutinizing the young man before him.

"You're one of Murdoch Lancer's boys, ain't ya?"

"Johnny," he answered and extended a hand.

Farley shook it briefly then glanced at the list.

"Can you fill it?"

"Don't know. Can't read it," the man said with some annoyance.

Johnny frowned and took the list back. He hadn't bothered to even look at it before. He smiled and shook his head then translated the Spanish for the man and once more asked if he had the supplies.

"Sure. Bring your wagon around here and I'll get started," Farley answered then walked away.

Johnny stared after him thinking he detected something in the man's voice he didn't like. Deciding it wasn't worth a fight, he walked back to the front and pulled the wagon round, backing it up to the loading dock.

Farley was watching him from the top of the dock and almost smiled.

"Gotta say, I've had more than not that couldn't get a wagon up like that. Most of 'em try to knock the dock outta the way."

Johnny laughed as he climbed down. When he got to the back, he saw what the man meant. "Looks like some got pretty close to doing just that," he nodded toward the sheared spots on the edge.

Farley looked at him again with that same studying expression. Johnny was just about to ask what the problem was when the man turned to go inside. Shrugging, Johnny followed him.

It didn't take long to load the lumber and the two men went inside the office to settle up.

"Just need ya to sign here," Farley said once he tallied the sum.

Johnny looked over the bill and, satisfied, signed his name. "I'll need a receipt."

Farley chuckled. "Yeah, I know. Murdoch loves his receipts."

Johnny had to laugh as well. His father was more than obsessive about those books of his.

"You ain't what I thought," Farley said out of the blue as he handed the paper over.

"Yeah? What did you think?" Johnny asked, stuffing the receipt into his shirt pocket.

Farley looked away and almost blushed. "Don't rightly know. Just not so ..... nice, I guess."

Johnny nodded and looked seriously at the man. "Guess a lot of people around here have ideas about me, huh?"

"Well, you do have a reputation," the man said a bit defensively.

Johnny only nodded and gave him a smile.

"What's your brother like?" Farley asked, hoping to turn the conversation a bit.

Johnny looked upwards as he thought about the answer. With a short laugh, he said, "smart."

"Mike, I'm beginning to think my hands are eating nails for supper. We're out again. I guess ...." the man standing in the door trailed off when he saw Johnny.

"Fred, maybe you ought to feed them boys more regular. Then they wouldn't have ta eat your nails," Farley rejoined good-naturedly.

The man glanced at Farley then his eyes went back to Johnny.

"Hang on and I'll get 'em," Farley said and disappeared into the back room.

Johnny watched the man watching him with as much vigor. He was about six foot, burly with a loud voice. Sandy brown hair showed around his hat that matched the moustache he wore. Rancher, that was easy to tell even without him mentioning 'his hands'.

The man walked fully into the room and right up to Johnny.

"Fred Saylor," he said while offering his hand.

"Johnny Lancer."

"I thought so. Didn't mean to interrupt before," Saylor said.

"You didn't. I'm done and I should be going. Nice to meet you, Mr. Saylor," Johnny smiled.

Saylor smiled back at him. "Nice to finally meet you, too. Hope to meet your brother soon, too."

"Well, he's in Stockton with Murdoch."

"Oh? You mean Murdoch Lancer left his ranch unattended? Hard to believe," the man laughed.

Johnny's back went up. "It's not unattended," he said flatly.

"Oh, I didn't mean anything, boy. Don't go gettin all pursed up. Just that Murdoch would rather lose an arm than a blade of that grass."

Johnny dropped his eyes for a second. "I know," he mumbled. "Well, I best get going."

"Sure. Look, Murdoch's a good friend. I really didn't mean anything," Saylor tried.

"I know. Sorry I got bent out of shape. It was nice to meet you," Johnny gave the man a genuine smile and left.

*****

By the time he got home, Johnny had forgotten all about Fred Saylor. He was sweating pretty good and that dizziness kept coming back. I'm not gettin sick, he kept thinking over and over as if the thinking would make it so. But he was and he knew it. He'd started coughing on the way back. A deep rumbling cough that worried him a little. Can't be laid up with Scott and Murdoch gone. He'll never trust me to run things again. Not that he's completely trusting me in the first place.

Stop that! It makes perfect sense to have Cip right beside me. He knows this ranch front and back and I don't - yet. But, I'm not giving over the reins either. The old man's gonna see I can do this. He'll be proud of me if it kills me!

He took a deep breath and coughed harshly as he pulled up outside the barn. Cipriano was heading toward him and heard it. He took Johnny's arm as he landed on the firmament.

Johnny looked up at him and Cipriano shook his head.

"You are ill."

"A little," Johnny confessed.

"You should be in bed, Johnny."

"No! I gotta finish the barn roof and you need to get these supplies to the men. I'll be fine. I'm going in for lunch now. I'm sure I'll feel a lot better once I eat something."

Cipriano stared at him then nodded. He climbed into the wagon and took up the reins. "Tell Maria to fix you her especial tea. It will cure anything."

Johnny smiled and nodded then stood there watching the man drive away.

Maria didn't need anyone to tell her Johnny was sick. She began brewing as soon as she saw him. He sat at the table and played with the stew more than he ate. He wasn't hungry. He was hurting - everywhere.

She sat the tea in front of him then joined him at the table, watching closely. "Drink," she ordered.

Johnny raised a brow at her command but did as she said. It was pretty foul but he knew it would be. Medicine was always foul no matter what form it came in.

"You have pneumonia," she diagnosed.

Johnny nearly choked on the tea he was about to swallow. Once he did get it down, he looked up at her. "Well, thanks, Doc."

"This is not a laughing matter, nino. You do need el doctoro. I will send for him."

"No, you won't. I know I'm a little sick but I'll be fine now that I've got your tea in me. I've got too much to do and no time to be laid up right now," he stated adamantly.

"And when you fall over? When your papa comes home to find you dead?" she persisted.

Johnny's initial thought was that he'd probably be relieved. Then, he kicked himself for thinking such horrible things and smiled at her. "Then, he'll be comforted to know that I finished the job first."

Johnny laid his hand over hers. "I feel better already. Really," he tried to assure her.

It didn't work but she knew she wouldn't win either. She only shook her head at him and went back to her work.

Johnny went back to work as well. As soon as he was gone, Maria sent a hand to town to invite the doctor to supper tonight. She hoped he would come because she was sure her nino was very ill indeed.

*****

How many times he'd damned near fell off that roof, he couldn't say. Johnny was never so glad to get a job done as he was this one. He'd considered tying himself off to something at one point but dismissed the idea out of hand. Now, the work was completed and he climbed slowly down the ladder. He stopped when he landed and leaned heavily against the ladder's frame for a minute.

Slowly, he opened his eyes and turned to make sure no one saw. But there wasn't anyone around and he was grateful for it. He cleaned up his mess and stored everything away before walking over to the corral and checking that fence. Cip had it fixed and he leaned against the railing, staring out across the expanse before him.

Movement caught his attention and he stepped on the lower railing to get a better view. Someone was driving up in a buggy. Johnny walked around the corral and watched.   He hung his head as his hands went to his hips.

"Hello!" Dr. Jenkins called as he waved.

Johnny waved back and walked over to the hitching post outside the house.

"Hey, Doc. What brings you out here?"

Sam Jenkins stepped down then turned to look at him. Surprise was written all over his face. "Well, I thought you did, Johnny. I got a message that I was invited to dinner. Was that a mistake?"

Johnny smiled a little. "You're always welcome, Sam. I think someone is tryin to set me up, though."

"Why's that?" Sam asked then looked closely at the young man. "Never mind. I think I can figure it out. You are pale, Johnny."

"Yeah, I'm feelin a little sick. Maria thinks I've got pneumonia," he laughed softly.

"Why would she think that?" Sam asked.

Johnny invited the man in and told him about his swim the day before. Sam immediately went for his bag.

"Well," he said as he snapped the bag closed, "Maria is right. You do have developing pneumonia and it's only going to get worse if you don't take care. You've got a pretty good fever going, too. Lots of rest and lots of fluids is what you need. That and Maria's tea."

"How did I know you were gonna throw in the tea?" Johnny grinned.

"Because it works. This is no laughing matter, young man. Pneumonia is very serious. You could die from it," Sam said firmly.

Johnny lowered his eyes and nodded. "I'll be okay."

"And you know this because? Johnny, you should be in bed. Now, am I going to have to wire Murdoch?"

"No!" Johnny yelled and was immediately regretful. "Sorry, Sam. I don't want Murdoch worrying about that. He's got enough to do in Stockton. Besides, he'll be home in a couple of days. It's just that I ..... I don't want to mess up. He left me in charge, sort of."

Sam sat next to him on the sofa. "Johnny, I know you want to make him proud and that's fine. But, it isn't your fault you're sick."

"Yes, it is. I was careless. I shouldn't have gotten so close to the bank," he argued lightly.

"And it shouldn't have rained and the grass should be greener and you should have accomplished miracles," Sam sighed in frustration.

"You are a stubborn one. When are you going to realize that the work you do here isn't as important as your health? Nothing is more important that that, Johnny."

He thought to argue that point but figured it wouldn't do any good so he said nothing at all.

"Well, let's get some food in you then it's off to bed," Sam said.

"I need to do the books tonight," Johnny responded.

"The books aren't going anywhere. Don't argue with me, young man," Sam stated with voracity.

*****

Sam wouldn't leave until he was tucked into bed. Maria had promised to stay the night since Johnny refused to have her send for Teresa. He knew why his father didn't want the girl in the house alone with him. Even though he was pretty sure Murdoch thought more of him than that, it just didn't look right. Not without Murdoch there.

Maria settled in though with her tea and cool water to help fight the fever. She still didn't think it was right not to tell Murdoch but she yielded to Johnny. She thought she yielded to him too much but it was hard for her to deny him.

He settled deep into the comfortable bed and allowed the attention. He figured it was a good trade off. Letting her nurse him kept her from sending for the old man. Johnny knew with all he was that Murdoch would be spitting mad if he had to cut his trip short. Besides, there wasn't anything he could do.

Then there was Scott. He'd rather face the old man than his brother when he found out about this. He hoped he could explain it good enough. He figured Scott would understand, though.

Of course, he had no intentions of staying in bed. There was too much to be done. Sometimes, he wondered how his father had managed on his own all these years. It was brutal work and a huge responsibility. If nothing else, Johnny had gained a new respect for Murdoch Lancer.

He reckoned by morning he'd be feeling a ton better anyway. He slipped into sleep satisfied with his plans.

*****

Johnny opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. The sun was shining brightly through the window and he was trying to make some sense of his situation. He blinked several times as his mind tried to work. He felt a cool cloth on his forehead and turned toward the touch.

Maria was smiling at him but there was worry in her eyes and he tried a smile of reassurance himself. He wasn't sure he'd pulled it off though for she only looked at him with sadder eyes.

"What time is it?" he mumbled.

"No matter, nino. You are very ill. Your fever is much worse. Por favor, drink," she spoke softly and picked up a cup, reaching behind him to support his neck.

He drank obediently of the tea he was coming to despise then plopped back heavily from the effort. His harsh breaths turned into even harsher coughs and Maria helped him sit up to ease the trauma.

Cipriano walked in during this and looked at his wife worriedly. She only nodded her head and he knew. He quietly left the room and headed for town. It was time for el patron to know about this and for the doctor to come back.  

By afternoon the fever was no better and Johnny was mumbling incoherently in his sleep. Mostly in Spanish though Maria could make no sense of it. She made out 'mama' but that was about all.

Sam came and did all he could. They got a bowl of boiling hot water and made Johnny breathe deep of the steam. It helped and he coughed up a great deal of infection. Maria and Cipriano would repeat this every two hours.

By the time the segundo sent the wire, Murdoch and Scott had already left Stockton on their way home. He was at once grateful but wishing he could have caught them first. He knew they would be in no great hurry and he felt the urgency for them to get home.

For not the first time this day, he wondered if Johnny would survive this. The doctor was not wholly optimistic with his prognosis. No one was sure how this would end for the youngest Lancer son. The ranch seemed to be holding it's breath as they waited for something to happen.

Johnny tossed and turned as the fever ravaged his body. He was getting harder to handle so Maria added whiskey to the tea she forced down him. It helped some and he became more settled. Still, she wished Murdoch would get home.

*****

Cipriano did as much as he could and still run the ranch. He sent Delores, one of the hands wives, to help with Johnny. Maria was ready to send her away for all the good she did. Delores didn't seem to want to be in the room let alone touch Johnny. Still, Maria needed the help no matter how much she had to cajole the woman for some assistance when needed.

By nightfall, Maria was exhausted but she would not leave Johnny. Cipriano sent a relieved Delores away and made his wife lie down in a spare bedroom for a few hours as he tended to Johnny. Sam returned to help out once he'd finished his rounds, leaving a note on his office door as to his whereabouts.

"You are muy obstinado, Johnny. Tomorrow, I send for Senorita Teresa. No arguments," he spoke softly knowing Johnny couldn't hear him in his fevered state.

"That's a very good idea, Cipriano," Sam agreed. "I don't understand this one at all. It's as if he's afraid of Murdoch."

"He is. Afraid of disappointing him. Afraid of not being good enough to be called Lancer," Cip said sadly.

Sam sighed tiredly. "Doesn't he know Murdoch loves him?"

Cipriano turned sad eyes on the doctor. "Does Murdoch know?"

Sam looked quizzically at him but he didn't get a chance to answer as Johnny became restless again. He was still talking in his delirium but now it was louder and more insistent.

Sam touched his skin and felt sick himself. "The fever is rising again. We have got to get it down and now."

"How?" Cip asked.

"We need to get him in a tub of cool water."

Cipriano moved fast for a man his size. He was down the stairs and out the door in a minute. Heading for the bunkhouse, he found a few men sitting outside. He instructed them as to his needs and they responded quickly.

Within fifteen minutes, the bath was full and Cip sent the men away with his gratitude.

Slowly, Sam and Cipriano eased Johnny into the water. He bucked as the cooler water caused him to shiver but he never even opened his eyes.

Sam used a cloth to run water over Johnny's exposed skin while Cipriano changed the bed linens. For two hours they kept him submerged until Sam said it was time. They had laid out towels on the floor and eased Johnny on them, drying him off and putting a fresh nightshirt on. They had just put him back to bed when Maria walked in.

She asked no questions but went to his side, helping position the pillows so he sat propped up to ease his breathing.

"Now, I will take over and you will both rest," she ordered.

"I know better than to argue with you, Maria, and I know Cipriano does as well," Sam smiled.

Cip placed his huge hands on his wife's shoulders and kissed the top of her head. "I will send for the Senorita at first light."

"Bueno," she smiled and leaned back against him for just a second.

*****

Cipriano kept his word and sent for Teresa straight away as dawn awoke the ranch. No one had to ask how Johnny was. It was plainly written on the segundo's face.

She ran into the room and quickly took in the situation. Giving Maria a quick hug and refraining from any berating she may have wanted to give, Teresa set about nursing Johnny. She sent Maria to bed and cleaned the room up then sat beside Johnny talking softly to him as he slept.

His fever was down they'd assured her but he still felt much too warm to her. She hurried downstairs to brew more tea then ran back to him. Murdoch and Scott should be home this afternoon, she placated herself.

Johnny became restless again but this time, he woke up. He looked around in confusion then his eyes settled on her. He smiled and sighed then coughed a little.

"Don't worry about anything, Johnny. You're going to be just fine. Scott and Murdoch should be home today," she soothed.

He raised up even more at this last information and tried to get out of bed. He wasn't hard to push back down being weak as a kitten.

"What do you think you're doing? Do I have to get Cipriano in here?" she asked.

"Gotta make sure everything's okay for Murdoch. Can't let him down," he said through short breaths.

"Oh, Johnny. Everything is fine. You aren't letting anyone but yourself down. Lie back and rest. You came very close to dying last night."

He looked up at her with surprise.

"Your fever shot up and they had to put you in a bath to get it down. You've been so restless and so weak. Now, you have got to rest," she said, brooking no argument.

"I just ...."

"No! You just nothing!"

"Is there a problem?" Sam asked from the doorway.

Teresa glanced over her shoulder. "Just the usual. He's awake so he's trying to get up."

Sam walked in and sat on the bed. "Johnny, can you hear me?"

"I hear you, Sam," he answered submissively.

"Then, you already know what I'm going to say," he smiled and turned to Teresa. "Anymore tea?"

"It should be ready. I'll get it I just didn't want to leave him alone," she replied as she headed for the door.

"A wise decision," Sam grimaced.

*****

Johnny was watching him closely. Something that always disturbed Sam for some reason. This one had a way of making you think he was looking into your very soul.

"She told you how bad it got last night?"

Johnny nodded.

"It could get that bad again, Johnny. Now, I really need you to drink a lot today. It's been hard getting anything down you. Tea and broth and water are what you need. And I want to use the steam again, too. I know it's unpleasant but we've got to get that infection out," he instructed.

"I feel better," Johnny tried.

"I'm glad to hear that but you are still a very sick man. This is nothing to fool around with," Sam warned.

"I know. Ain't the first time I've had pneumonia, ya know," Johnny replied tersely.

Sam stared at him. "No, I didn't know that. It would have been a nice piece of information to have though. When you do get better I want you to sit down and write down every illness you've ever had and your age at the time. And don't look at me like that. I'm not crazy. I need to know your history, Johnny. No one else will ever see it."

Johnny grimaced at this. "That might take some time."

"Then take the time," Sam stated emphatically.

Johnny looked down at the quilt, his hands playing with the fringe as he worried his lower lip.  

"What is it, Johnny?" Sam asked, softening his tone.

"I don't know. Feelin sorry for myself, I guess," he smiled wanly. "It's just that everything was going so good, ya know? I had everything under control. Then this happens. What's Murdoch gonna say?"

Sam closed his eyes briefly before finding Johnny's hands and watching them fiddle with the quilt. "Johnny, you did the job. And when you couldn't, Cipriano took over. That's how it works. That's how it worked before you and Scott came home and Murdoch fell ill. That's why you have a segundo in the first place."

"Yeah," Johnny breathed out. "Still."

"Still nothing. You don't really think Murdoch is going to take you to task for getting sick, do you?" Sam asked.

Johnny only shrugged. He honestly couldn't say how Murdoch would react. All he was sure of was that it wouldn't be how he wanted him to react.

"What time is it, Sam?"

The man shook his head and pulled his watch out. "Nearly three o'clock."

"Should be coming in soon then," he mumbled and leaned his head back, closing his eyes.

Sam watched him but could find no words of comfort. When Cipriano had asked him did Murdoch love Johnny, he'd been shocked. What had been going on out here to make them think such a thing? He knew his friend could be hard but to the point of making not only Johnny, but his own segundo question his feelings for his son? Sam decided he'd have to have a talk with Murdoch about this. Someone needed to and he knew Johnny never would. Cip either.

*****

Teresa bathed his face with cool water. The fever was much better but still there and she was worried. It was nearly five o'clock now and Scott and Murdoch hadn't shown. She knew Cipriano's telegram had missed them. She only hoped they hadn't decided to stop off somewhere on the way back. She tried to think of where that may have happened. Who along the way Murdoch might want to stop and visit with. But, her mind couldn't focus on that right now. All she could think about was Johnny at this moment.

The last steam treatment an hour ago had been horrible to watch. Johnny had fallen into a deep sleep after that and she was grateful for he needed the rest. He was so very pale still, save for the flush on his cheeks and his eyes were sunken, even haunted. He wasn't the only one worried about Murdoch's reaction. She had hoped he just needed time with Johnny but the more time that passed, the more worried Teresa became. They didn't seem to be connecting and it perplexed her.

In the time Johnny had been home she'd come to appreciate the gentle soul within this man. She had seen his heart and it was made of a soft gold.

The house was so quiet. She knew Maria was downstairs working with her herbs to find a better, stronger tea for Johnny. Cipriano was out with the men and Sam had gone on his rounds though he'd promised to be back as soon as possible.

She'd left the bedroom door open so she could hear if Maria or anyone called for her. Or to hear Murdoch and Scott coming in. That's the sound she wanted desperately to hear. For whatever reaction Murdoch might have, Scott would be here in a heartbeat. She knew the sound of his brother's voice would go a long way in healing Johnny. She smiled at how close they'd become in just this short while. In these few months they'd found a bond and a friendship and she was so happy about that. She felt they both needed an anchor with all they had to cope with. They'd found it in each other.

The sounds downstairs broke through her thoughts and her heart leapt as she heard hurried boots on the stairs. Scott was home.

Scott skidded into the room and pulled up short as Teresa stood and moved away. He took one look at his brother and went to his side, taking his hand and sitting beside him.

"Maria filled you in?" she asked.

"Yes. He should have sent for us sooner," he said, not really angry but worried.

"I know. He should have sent for me, too. He didn't want to go against Murdoch's wishes," she said, unable to keep a hint of irritation from her voice.

Scott glanced at her but had no reply for that just now. He wouldn't speak it anyway as he saw his father walk into the room.

"How is he?" Murdoch asked.

"Asleep now. He's exhausted. His fever is down but Sam said it could go back up at any time," Teresa answered.

Murdoch smiled at her. "When did you get back?"

"This morning. Johnny wouldn't let them send for me. After last night, Cipriano took matters into his own hands. He wired you, too, but you'd already left."

Murdoch nodded, "he told me. How did this happen?" he growled.

"Maria told us he fell in the wash, Murdoch. You know how hard Johnny pushes. He never takes care of himself," Scott responded tightly.

Murdoch stared hard at his older son, a perplexed look on his face. He looked as if he was going to reply but simply tightened his jaw instead. He walked over to stand by the window. "Cip said the bridge washed out again. They're working on it but something will have to be done. Every time it rains hard that thing washes away," he said as he looked out the window.

Scott was about to go off on a tirade when he heard the soft voice.

"Gonna hafta move it."

Murdoch turned around and stared at him as Scott's eyes fell on his brother as well.

"Hey there. Can't leave you alone for a minute, can I?" Scott teased.

Johnny turned his head away from his father and focused on Scott. "Guess not. Can't do anything right," he replied in a morose tone.

Scott frowned and squeezed his hand. "From what I hear, you did everything right, brother. You ran this ranch like an old pro. One accident doesn't erase all of that."

"No, I was stupid. Got to close to the edge," Johnny argued softly.

"Why?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny turned to him and his brows drew together. "Saw a big branch and wanted to move it out of the way. I .... it was careless," he mumbled and lowered his eyes.

Murdoch nodded almost imperceptibly when Johnny looked back at him and the young man turned away.

"Well, you're going to be okay now. Maria and Cipriano took good care of you," Scott tried to placate, not seeing the small movement of Murdoch's head.

"Sure did. Cip is somethin else. Best vaquero I've ever seen," Johnny tried to smile but a coughing fit hit him.

Scott pulled him forward as he hacked for several minutes. Murdoch took a step forward then stopped himself and watched as Scott and Teresa soothed Johnny's discomfort as best they could.

Finally, it passed and he flopped back against the pillows covered in sweat, his face white as a sheet. It took several more minutes to bring his breathing under control. Scott waited patiently with a glass of water ready.

Once Johnny drank, he placed a fresh cool cloth on his brother's head and spoke softly. "Time to rest now, Johnny. One of us will be right here when you wake up."

Johnny smiled softly at him and nodded then closed his eyes.

*****

The faceless man stood over his prone body wielding a sledgehammer. Johnny looked up wide-eyed as the hammer was brought down with crushing force onto his chest. He gasped as the air left his body with staggering speed. The only thing he could hear was the maniacal laughter.

He bolted straight up in the bed, searching hungrily for some air to fill his aching lungs. He sucked in deeply and quickly but it wasn't nearly enough. He was suffocating and he couldn't stop it.

A hand on his back then on his shoulder and he looked up into the stern face above him. There was nothing there to ease his fear and he could not calm himself. He could hear sounds - words - but they made no sense to him.

Scott ran into the room. "What's happening?" he asked as he took in his brother's panic-stricken face.

"He can't breathe!" Murdoch shouted.

Scott moved quickly to the bed, pushing his father aside. He grabbed Johnny by the shoulders and started talking.

Johnny looked into his brother's eyes and saw the fear there. Scott was talking to him so he focused on trying to understand his brother. Slowly, he began to relax and the breaths came easier.

Scott laid him back against the pillows and wrung out the cloth floating in a bowl of water. He wiped the sweat from Johnny's face, arms and chest as he kept up his mantra. "It's okay now. It's okay now."

Johnny watched his face, every change in expression, every subtle shift and smiled when their eyes met.

"Thanks," he breathed out almost silently.

"Anytime, brother, only let's not have another bout like that. You scared me," Scott said through a shaky voice.

Johnny laughed softly. "I scared you, huh?"

Scott smiled. "Yes, you did. Okay now?"

"Yeah, I think so."

"What happened?" Scott asked.

Johnny shook his head slowly. "I had a dream. Not sure now. I just woke up and couldn't breathe," he sighed.

"It'll be daylight in an hour. I'm going to send one of the men for Sam," Scott decided.

"Sam said he'd be here first thing this morning, son," Murdoch reminded him, speaking for the first time since Scott took charge.

Scott looked over at him, having completely forgotten the man was in the room and nodded.

"I'm okay now, Scott," Johnny reassured.

Scott wasn't convinced but the doctor was coming so he didn't argue. He turned to Murdoch. "Why don't you get some sleep, Sir?"

"Yes, I think I will. It's been a long night," Murdoch said distractedly then walked out of the room.

Johnny closed his eyes and let out a slow breath, turning his head away from his brother's watchful stare.

"Johnny?"

"I'm okay!" he yelled. "Sorry," he added quickly.

"No need," Scott mumbled. For he knew exactly what had upset his brother. For the first time he was seeing the problem. No, that isn't true, he thought. The first time I'm acknowledging there is a problem.

Murdoch's entire demeanor just then was reprehensible. Not only was he unable to take care of his son, he had completely ignored Johnny just now. Not even a 'see you later' or 'rest well'. Not one word to the sick man who, by Scott's account, had nearly died five minutes ago.

Scott felt the tension rising even more in his own shoulders. He could not imagine how Johnny was feeling right now. He was a smart man, an observant man. Johnny hadn't missed the dismissal. Scott had to wonder how many dismissals he himself had missed, though. How many times had his father reacted this way to Johnny and he simply hadn't noticed?

It bothered him beyond measure. Most perplexing was the reason which Scott could not fathom. What reason could there be? Even if Murdoch were angry with Johnny for some reason, that was no excuse. His son was sick, deathly ill. Yet, the man couldn't muster any sympathy, it seemed.

Now that Scott thought about it, Murdoch had reacted the same yesterday. More concerned with a damned bridge than the fact that his son had almost died the night before. What the hell is wrong with him? he wondered.

"Scott?"

His head jerked up and he stared in confusion at his brother.

"Boy, you were miles away," Johnny smiled.

Scott returned the smile and shook his head. "No, I was right here. I was thinking of how sick you were and still are," he lied.

Johnny shrugged. "Been sick before. I'll get past it."

"I hope so. Until then, you really should rest, Johnny."

"Yeah, I will," he mumbled and closed his eyes.

*****

Sam Jenkins sat at the kitchen table and listened closely to Scott recite the events of the early morning. His brow was furrowed deeply with concern. He nodded once or twice but he really couldn't say what had caused this attack. It could have been the dream were it vivid enough. From what little Murdoch had said, that dream had indeed been vivid.

He found it curious that Murdoch could not tell him much. He was there, afterall. But he simply agreed with Scott's recollections and nodded his head mostly.

Sam excused himself and headed upstairs, anxious to hear about this dream. Johnny hadn't told Scott but the older brother said he hadn't pushed either. Wise, Sam thought.

He opened the door enough to poke his head through. Johnny appeared to be resting well and Teresa looked up and smiled then stood as the doctor walked on in.

"He's been asleep since it happened," she whispered.

Sam patted her arm and smiled then walked over and sat at the bedside. He pulled out his stethoscope then just sat and watched Johnny sleep. Part of him thought he might witness another dream, part of him didn't want to. Scott had been explicit in his description and Sam wanted no reoccurrence.

He stared at the relaxed features and found himself smiling. This young man had been an enigma to him in the beginning. He'd been unsure of Johnny Madrid. Uneasy having him around the Lancers. Not that it was his call to make certainly. But Murdoch had been a good friend and he worried after Teresa, as well.

But very soon Johnny had both surprised and delighted the doctor with his sharp wit and easy smile. The badinage he found himself falling so easily into with Johnny had, quite frankly, stunned him. While all this was pleasant, the underlying current of unease would not leave him. The question posed by Cipriano about Murdoch's love for this boy and his own observances had him puzzled beyond measure.

Murdoch hadn't spoken of Johnny much once he learned of his identity. Sam had found out while he treated Murdoch's bullet wound courtesy of Day Pardee just who this young man was. He'd voice his own concerns to his friend about tracking the boy down. Now, he was very glad Murdoch had not listened to him then.

Will he listen now? Sam wondered.

He was brought out of his reverie by a soft sigh from the bed. Sam looked at the face now twitching out of sleep and waited. Soon, the sleepy blue eyes focused and rewarded his patience with one of those smiles.

"Hey, Sam."

"Hey yourself. Scott told me what happened this morning," Sam started right in.

Johnny stretched out and yawned then nodded his head. "Yeah, it was pretty bad there for a minute."

"Sounded like longer than a minute to me," Sam retorted.

Johnny only shrugged.

"Well, let me take a listen," Sam smiled and started his examination.

He closed the black bag and looked directly in Johnny's eyes. "Your lungs are much clearer. You still have some wheezing but it's mostly higher up. That's a good thing. The fever is being stubborn but it hasn't gotten any worse. All in all, I'd say you're well on your way to a full recovery."

Johnny gave him a brilliant smile for that news. "Great! When can I get out of bed? I need to move around."

Sam rolled his eyes and laughed. "Rest a little longer. This afternoon you can get up with help. You're going to feel weak and dizzy for a while but that will pass." He shook his head. "I've never seen anyone recover so quickly."

"Yeah, I heal pretty fast. Have to," Johnny said solemnly.

Sam didn't need to ask what he meant by that. "Do you remember the dream this morning?"

Johnny frowned and nodded then relayed what he could to the doctor.

Sam raised his brows. "Well, it sounds strange but I'm afraid I have no idea what it means."

"Me neither but I guess it don't matter now. It was just a dream," Johnny shrugged.

"How is he?" Scott asked as he popped into the room.

"Better. He can get up this afternoon with help for a few hours but don't let him overdo," Sam prescribed.

"No chance of that, Sam," Scott grinned wickedly.

*****

As promised, Scott helped Johnny downstairs that afternoon but the young man wouldn't be satisfied with the couch. He wanted out. Scott begrudgingly helped him to the veranda and deposited him there with a solemn promise not to move.

Johnny sat deep in the chair and leaned his head back, closing his eyes and relishing the fresh air. Now, if he could just get some strength back he'd be good as new. He knew he had to move about. It was the only way he healed from anything.

A frown crossed his face as he thought about Sam's insistence that he list all his past ails. There wasn't enough paper in the world, he thought wryly. But his mind did go to that subject and it didn't take long to tire him out. He dozed as the sun set before him.

Murdoch stepped onto the porch before noticing Johnny and pulled up short. He moved closer and watched the young man sleep.

Johnny felt someone watching him and opened his eyes. He smiled at his father.

"Hi."

"Hello. How do you feel?" Murdoch asked politely.

"Much better. Trying to convince Sam of it is the problem," Johnny replied with some humor.

Murdoch made a grimace that Johnny supposed was an attempt at a smile. The old man just couldn't hardly stand being there. It was easy to see the way his eyes darted about and he shifted his balance from one foot to the other.

"How long did he say you could stay up?" Murdoch asked.

"Didn't. Just said to not overdo. Whatever that means." Johnny kept the small smile, kept the facade going with determination.

Murdoch nodded. "Well, see that you follow his orders. Not much sense in moving around only to have a set back."

Johnny sighed and dropped his eyes to his lap. "Okay," he mumbled.

"I'm sorry?" Murdoch asked and leaned in.

Johnny looked up and repeated himself. "I said okay. I'll be careful."

Murdoch nodded again and walked inside.

He went back to staring at his lap and trying to figure this man out. He couldn't and he had to ask himself why he kept trying. It was like trying to figure where a person hurt without asking them. He had to ask but he wasn't sure he could. Wasn't sure he had that kind of courage.

What was he afraid of? Easy. Rejection. But wasn't that what he was getting now? No, he thought. Bare tolerance maybe but not rejection. Not yet, anyway.  

He thought once more of talking to his brother about this but shook the idea off quickly. This wasn't Scott's problem it was his. And he always solved his own problems one way or the other. Except this was so different than anything he'd faced before and he didn't know how. He simply did not have the knowledge he needed. Didn't know how to gain that knowledge either.

He wasn't stupid, he knew that. Had some sense anyway. He'd always been able to figure things out mostly. Those things he couldn't figure, he had left alone. But he couldn't leave this alone. He thought he could just let it go, just take things as they came. But not this. It was too important and too ...... fragile. And it was all he had.

Going back to his old life wasn't an option now. Now that he had people he gave a damn about. Scott and Teresa and yes, even the old man. They wouldn't allow it. And not because they'd try to stop him. He knew it was their faces, their voices, their very selves that would invade his thoughts from now to eternity. He'd learned that lesson when he'd tried to leave before. And no gunhawk could operate like that.

'Get off my land.' The words invaded his mind again. MY land! Only, it wasn't just his land anymore. Johnny felt anger rising and he pushed it away. It won't do you any good, Madrid.

Johnny leaned forward and rested his elbows on his thighs, burying his face in his hands. Madrid. I just did it again. Will it ever be Lancer?

 

"Johnny?"

His head came up slowly as his eyes found his brother's frowning face.

"Hey," he said softly.

"Are you alright?" Scott asked as he sat beside him.

"Yeah, just a little tired now. Guess it's time to go back to my cell," Johnny grinned.

Scott reciprocated. "Guess so. Come on, I'll lend a hand."

Johnny blew out a breath and stood up, allowing his brother to help with an arm around his waist.

He looked up into that face and smiled. "Thanks."

Scott nodded but he was watching carefully. He said nothing and guided Johnny inside.

Once his brother was settled in the bed, Scott perched on the edge.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"Nothin."

"Don't give me that. You look miserable," Scott pressed.

"Do I? Just tired is all, Boston. Just tired," he breathed out the last.

Scott studied him closely knowing that wasn't the whole of it. But, he knew he'd get nothing out of Johnny that Johnny didn't want out.

"I'll get you some supper," he offered.

"Not real hungry so take it easy, okay?" Johnny asked.

Scott's frown stayed on his face as he left his brother and went to the kitchen.

"Scott? Something wrong?" Murdoch asked immediately when he saw his son.

"It's Johnny. I just put him to bed but something's bothering him and he won't say what."

"Well, if he doesn't want to talk about it you should leave it alone," Murdoch advised.

For some reason, that statement irritated Scott Lancer. "Does anyone in this house ever talk about anything?" he asked in a raised voice.

Murdoch looked surprised. "What in the world are you talking about?"

"I don't know," Scott said in exasperation. "It just seems there's something going on between the two of you and neither of you want to give it voice."

"Well, you're wrong. Nothing is going on between Johnny and me," Murdoch stated adamantly.

"Maybe that's the problem. Maybe there should be something going on, Sir."

"Scott, I don't know what you're talking about."

Scott sat at the table to his father's right and rested his forearms on the surface. "You never talk to him about anything that doesn't have to do with this ranch. Why is that?"

"What is it you'd like me to talk to him about? Gunfighting?" Murdoch snarled.

Scott's jaw tightened. "Do you think that's all Johnny knows? If you do, you are grossly mistaken, Murdoch. You are also missing out on an intelligent and vibrant young man with a lot to offer."

Murdoch only stared at him and clamped his mouth shut then he stood and stalked from the room.

Scott stared after him wondering what was going on. Something was and all he really knew was that he didn't like or where it might be heading.

*****

Johnny was up, washed and dressed the next morning before anyone could catch him. He still felt a little weak but tons better even if he was breathing a little hard after pulling on his boots. He rested in a chair for a few minutes before pulling himself up and preparing for the argument from his brother. He was going back to work today if it killed him.

He knew Murdoch was upset that he was laid up and unable to put in his 'full days work'. He was determined to get his feet back under him and right now.

As he descended the back stairs he could hear voices. Murdoch's for sure and Teresa. No Scott though. Guess he hasn't made it down yet. Good.

Murdoch looked up in surprise as he walked in.

"Mornin," Johnny smiled.

"Good morning. What are you doing?" Murdoch asked.

"Goin back to work and you'd better hurry up and give me something to do before Scott or Sam catch us," Johnny laughed.

Murdoch wasn't amused but that didn't surprise the younger man.

"I'm really not in the mood to go ten rounds with the good doctor, Johnny. Maybe you should just wait for him. He'll be here anytime now."

Johnny sighed and slumped his shoulders. Can't win for losin, he thought.

"If that's what you want," he said softly.

"What do you think you are doing?"

Both men at the table looked up to find one angry man standing in the doorway with hands on hips glowering.

"Mornin, Boston. Can't a man have some breakfast?" Johnny tried.

Scott looked suspiciously at him. "Certainly. But when that man looks as if he's ready to do more, I have to question it."

He walked over to Johnny and took in his countenance. "You appear to be ready for the day, brother."

"Yeah, well, I am ready. Soon as you and Sam and Murdoch and the cows say it's okay," Johnny grumbled.

Scott smiled a little. "Well, I'm glad I'm not the only one. I'll speak to the cows as soon as breakfast is over."

Murdoch chuckled at this and Johnny shot him a look.

*****

Sam arrived just as the meal was winding down but all three men stayed and kept him company while Teresa fed him. He had said nothing of Johnny's presence or his appearance - yet.

Sam wiped his mouth and sat back, patting his tummy. "That was wonderful, Teresa. Now then, young man, let's go upstairs and talk about what you've been trying to pull."

Johnny grimaced and left the table without a word. Murdoch continued talking to Scott about the day's activities but Scott was watching the door the two men had just went through.

"Are you listening to me?" Murdoch asked.

Scott's head snapped around and he stared at his father for a beat. "I'm sorry, Sir. I'm just going to go upstairs. I want to hear what Sam thinks."

"Sam will tell us what he thinks when he's done. Scott, I need your attention here. This is important," Murdoch said with frustration.

"No, it is not. At least not as important as your son's health!" he exclaimed, threw his napkin on the table and stalked off.

"What the devil is wrong with him?" Murdoch grumbled.

"He's worried about Johnny and so am I," Teresa huffed and followed Scott.

"He looks just fine to me," Murdoch mumbled under his breath though no one was in the room.

*****

"Well, you sound clear now and the fever is gone but I still want you to take it easy another day or two," Sam said.

Johnny's disappointment was obvious. "What's taking it easy mean exactly?"

"It means no heavy lifting, no full days in the saddle and no running that horse at breakneck speeds."

"I heard that," Scott said as he walked in.

"Great! Now I have a babysitter," Johnny grinned.

"Make that two," Teresa said as she popped out from behind Scott.

Johnny lifted both hands, palms up and dropped them in defeat.

Scott laughed then turned to Sam. "What should we be looking for, Sam?"

"Shortness of breath, fatigue, sweating, his color. Anything to tell you he's sick because we all know Johnny won't tell!" Sam proclaimed.

"Yes, we certainly do," Scott agreed and Teresa nodded.

"You do all know I'm right here, don't you?" Johnny piped up.

Sam shot him a sidelong look. "This is serious, Johnny. I know you know that and I also know you either don't care or don't have the sense to pay attention. Which is it?"

Johnny dropped his eyes and didn't answer. Mostly because he had no answer. None he cared to mention, at least.

Sam shook his own head. "Well, I'll go tell Murdoch. Go slow," he wagged a finger in one final warning.

*****

Murdoch wasn't happy about the restrictions but he found something for Johnny to do. Paint the house. The younger man was not pleased with the chore but he couldn't complain. At least he was doing something.

Sam pulled him aside before leaving to remind him about that list he was supposed to be compiling. This gave Johnny something to think about he'd just rather not.

That evening after scrubbing his skin red getting the paint off, he settled in the great room with paper and pencil and a frown.

"Writing a letter?" Scott asked curiously.

"Nope," Johnny said simply.

Scott raised a brow and Johnny smiled and shrugged then went back to his chore.

Scott figured he must be incredibly bored tonight. He couldn't stop wondering what Johnny was doing over in the corner of the room. He watched his brother chew the pencil, then tap it on the side of his head then scribble something down only to repeat the process a few minutes later.

Whatever he was doing, it seemed to be hard, Scott surmised. Maybe he's studying? No, that didn't make sense. He had started with a blank piece of paper. What kind of studying could one do like that? Scott couldn't read his book. He couldn't stand not knowing. Why this was making him crazy he couldn't say, either.

"Johnny, what are you doing over there?" he finally asked.

Johnny looked up at him, surprise on his face. He stared at Scott for a minute before giving him a little smile. "Just writing some stuff down, brother. That okay?"

"Of course," Scott said. Then, "what stuff?"

Johnny laughed softly. "Are you that curious?"

"No, I'm that bored," Scott retorted.

"Well, if I told you what it is you'd still be bored, believe me."

Both glanced at Murdoch as they heard the heavy sigh of irritation. They looked back at each other and grinned.

"Wanna play checkers?" Johnny offered.

"No, I don't feel like it," Scott replied.

Johnny shrugged and went back to his thinking. Truthfully, it was giving him a headache and he would have rather played checkers or something with his brother than do this.

Murdoch cleared his throat and shifted the newspaper. "Scott, this will interest you. They're opening a new opera house in San Francisco next month. The opening opera will be The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart."

"Ah, Mozart. Now there was a true genius. I think you'd enjoy the opera, Johnny," Scott smiled whimsically.

Johnny raised a brow at this. "Don't know. Never heard any."

"Well, you should. Maybe the next time we go to San Francisco, we can attend."

"Attend? Sounds pretty fancy, Boston," Johnny said.

"Oh, it is. You have to dress up but it's worth it," Scott smiled.

"Why? Can't you listen to it in plain ole every day clothes?" Johnny teased.

"I suppose you could but you won't get into any opera house in plain ole clothes," Scott retorted.

"Well, then you have fun cause anything I have to be uncomfortable for ain't worth it to me."

Scott sighed. "Johnny, you should experience new things. It never hurts to broaden your horizons."

"My horizons are just fine, brother. I'll bet that music of yours ain't as pretty as that meadow out by Wilby Creek or the view from South Mesa."

"Maybe. But, I'll bet those views would be appreciated one hundred fold by a beautiful piece of music," Scott tried.

Johnny laughed. "I'll give you that one, brother. You get those musicians to come here and play on South Mesa and I'll listen to them."

Scott laughed at this and shook his head. "If I could do that, they'd be permanent residents."

Murdoch cleared his throat and gained their attention. "I thought we could go when we're in San Francisco in the fall," he said, looking at Scott.

"Why are we going to San Francisco?" Scott asked.

"The California Cattlegrowers Association Annual meeting is being held there this year. We will all be going," he announced, darting a look at Johnny.

"And what, pray tell, is that?" Scott asked with some amusement.

"What it isn't is a laughing matter, young man. The Cattlegrowers Association is very important. They lobby for laws to protect cattlemen's rights like fair market practices and give us a voice in the legislature."

Scott ahhed silently and nodded his head. Johnny just looked at his father with something akin to disbelief on his face.

"If I promise not to fall in another creek can I stay here?" he asked.

Scott dropped his head to hide the wide smile growing on his face.

"No, you may not. This is important, Johnny. You need to meet these people and learn about this side of ranching. Legislation is important to our prosperity," he fairly glowered.

Johnny sighed and dropped his eyes. "Never had much use for the law," he mumbled under his breath.

"What was that?" Murdoch said loudly.

Johnny looked over at him sheepishly. "Nothing. Nothing at all. Think I'll go to bed now."

"Goodnight, brother," Scott said, his head still down but the laugh could be heard in his voice.

Johnny swatted the side of his head as he passed and bade him an unenthusiastic goodnight before climbing the stairs.

After a few moments of quiet, Scott looked over at his father. "Maybe you should go over all that will take place at this convention with us, Sir. Just so we know what to expect."

"I will when it gets a little closer," Murdoch replied from behind the newspaper.

"Not at the last minute, I hope. I mean, I can't speak for Johnny, but I'd hate to go in there with the wrong impression."

Murdoch looked over the page at his son. "I'm sure you'll do fine, Scott. But, I do need to start introducing you to the ranchers in the area. You really haven't met many of them. Most will be going to the convention, as well."

Scott smiled. "That will take some doing, won't it? I mean, they're spread out so far."

Murdoch thought on it a minute. "Well, there's a dance in Morro Coyo at the end of the month. Most everyone will be there. It's as good a time as any."

Scott smiled but it turned to a frown quickly.

"What is it?" Murdoch asked.

"Johnny doesn't like parties, does he?" Scott asked.

"I'm sure I don't know."

Scott breathed out loudly. "Maybe you should ask him."

"He'll go and that's all there is to it. He needs to meet his neighbors and the businessmen of the community," Murdoch grumped.

Scott knew that was true but he was pretty sure his brother would prefer those meetings to be smaller events. The one party they'd had at the ranch found Johnny conspicuously standing in the shadows most of the night.

"Goodnight, Sir," Scott said as he stood and walked out. He headed straight for his brother.

*****

Johnny sat at the writing table and went over his list with a frown. He knew he was forgetting some things but he wondered if this wasn't overdoing it. Sam had asked for all his illnesses yet he'd listed every injury he could think of, too. It was getting a bit ridiculous. He thought maybe he'd just leave those off and keep only those times when he was actually sick. He didn't think the man meant a cold so he figured he didn't mean bullet holes, either. He'd have to rewrite this.

As he pondered this, he could hear his brother ascending the stairs. Then, a knock on the door.

"Yeah," he yelled.

Scott opened the door and smiled. "Was that Spanish for come in?"

"No, it was 'yeah what'ya want'?" Johnny laughed.

Scott stepped through and closed the door before walking slowly across the floor. "I was talking to Murdoch about this convention. I mentioned to him that neither of us know what to expect. He said he'd tell us closer to time but he wants us to start meeting more of our neighbors."

Johnny felt his chest tighten. Scott's voice was too casual. He was getting ready to spring something and Johnny knew he wouldn't like it.

"How?"

Scott dipped his eyes before meeting Johnny's stare again. Taking a deep breath, he plunged in, keeping his tone neutral.

"Oh, there's a dance soon in Morro Coyo. He wants us to go," he shrugged as he plopped on the bed.

Johnny shook his head and opened his mouth but Scott forged on.

"He said we had to go, Johnny," he said and watched his brother's back straighten, his shoulders tense.

"Really?" Johnny said, not really a question.

"I told him I didn't think you were crazy about parties. At least, that's how it seemed to me. He said we were all going."

Johnny's brows went up then he relaxed and his eyes started to sparkle with what Scott assumed was amusement. It wasn't.

"So, after all these years he thinks he's going to tell me what to do? He might call the tune as far as the ranch goes, but not any other time," he said in a hard voice.

Scott cringed inwardly as he prepared for battle. "In a way, this does have to do with the ranch. There will be businessmen there, as well. People we're going to have to deal with routinely. Maybe it won't be so bad. I'm sure there will be some lovely ladies there," he grinned at the end.

Johnny tossed the pencil on the table and sat back in his chair with a loud sigh.

"Why don't you like parties?" Scott asked.

"Never said I didn't. Just don't like my fun organized," he mumbled then glanced up at his brother. "Look, I just don't like crowds. Too many people to watch."

Scott stared at him, understanding taking hold. "You don't have to worry about that, Johnny. These are ranchers not gunfighters."

Johnny snorted. "Really? How do you know they don't have gunfighters on the payroll? And how are they gonna keep out any that just happen to be hanging around? Besides, don't have to be professionals. Any fool with a six-shooter and a belly full of beer can find the courage to die."

Scott didn't know what to say to that. He supposed it was true. But, he had to ask a question and he wasn't sure how to phrase it exactly.

"Do you ..... have you ...." he fumbled.

"Say it, brother," Johnny growled.

Scott's anger rose and he set his jaw. "Are you that good?"

Johnny stared at him for a beat then burst out laughing. "That's what you wanted to ask me?" he rolled forward and held tight to the armrests.

"It's not funny, Johnny! I'm trying to understand why you feel the need to always be on alert. Always be aware of every little thing and every one around you," Scott hissed.

Johnny's laughter died quickly as he regarded his brother. He thought how best to explain his situation. He sure didn't want to sound like he was bragging about it. His fingers tapped the armrest now as he considered how to say this.

"I have a reputation, Scott. I'm good, yes," he answered figuring simple was best.

Scott shook his head. "Do you mean good like Hardin or Slade?"

Johnny grinned. "Now, how do you know those names?"

Scott smiled himself. "On the train from Boston someone had left a couple of those dime novels on the seat beside me. I was bored so I read them."

"Must have made an impression if you remembered the names," Johnny cocked a brow.

"I suppose so. It was quite entertaining. Not that I believed half of it."

"That's good, brother because half of it is bull," Johnny chuckled. He grew quiet and thoughtful then. "But, yeah, like them."

Scott's eyes widened. He'd never really thought about Johnny's abilities before. The only time he'd seen him in action was when Pardee had attacked the ranch that day. He'd seen Johnny riding in, firing behind him. Watched as one man after another fell and then .... Scott shivered a little remembering his brother taking that awful spill. Remembered thinking he was dead before they'd ever had a chance to get started. More than a little surprised at the pain in his own gut at that moment.   He blinked and looked up to find Johnny watching him closely.

"So, if you're that good why do men come after you?" he finally asked.

Johnny shrugged. "Lots of reasons. Mostly for the reputation of killing me. If they can take me down their own reputation will grow. That's all a gunfighter has. His skill and reputation."

Scott was more befuddled than ever now. "So, they think they're good enough to win?"

"Yeah. How'd we get to talking about this anyway?" Johnny frowned quizzically.

Scott had to think a second himself. "The dance."

"Oh, yeah," Johnny groaned almost painfully.

"You're going to have to go, brother. Unless you want to hear the hounds of hell raising the roof off this place," Scott said wryly.

"I'll have to think about that. Don't know which would be worse," Johnny said grimly.

"Don't worry, I'll watch your back," Scott grinned then stood up.

"Thanks a lot, greenhorn!"

"Hey!" Scott protested.

"Sorry, Boston, but it's the truth. You handle a long gun real good but have you ever even fired that thing on your hip?" Johnny laughed.

Scott gave him a grimace but he didn't answer. Johnny already knew the answer. He'd had no reason to fire the pistol and he hoped he never would. He decided to change the subject when he spied the piece of paper.

"What is that you're working on, anyway?" he asked, his eyes going to the table top.

Johnny glanced over at his list and shrugged. "Nothing important, Boston, and something I'm done with."

Scott nodded and said his goodnights.

Johnny sat there for a long time thinking about Murdoch's 'order' that he attend this party. He didn't like it one bit and he thought through any arguments he could make. There weren't any that would convince the old man, he was sure. He resigned himself to the task but he also planned on not staying very long.

*****

Johnny never did figure a way out of the dance. He kept a low profile the next two weeks as he regained his strength and took on more work. Murdoch seemed pleased. As much as Johnny could gauge anyway. At least he hadn't yelled at him any. But now, it was Saturday and he had resigned himself to going to the dance and standing in a corner if he could.

He finished his work early as ordered and returned to the house to clean up. Scott was already there, just coming out of the bathhouse when Johnny walked up to the building.

"Oh good, you're here on time," Scott smiled.

"Yeah," Johnny grumbled and made to walk past him.

Scott grabbed his arm gently and gave him a sympathetic look. "It won't be so bad, brother. You might even have fun."

Johnny gave him a sidelong look. "I'm not bankin on it," he growled and walked past Scott.

The older man sighed and shook his head then headed to the house to finish getting ready. Scott was looking forward to the evening. He wasn't really sure what to expect but it couldn't be much different than any other party in the world. More rustic, he was sure but people were social beings after all. Civility may be a bit different but, really, how much different could it be? Most of these people had come from someplace else to begin with. Well, the older ones anyway.

Johnny shucked his clothes and settled in the water, splashing quite a lot over the edge as he soaped up then rinsed off. He dunked his head and came up shaking while wiping a hand down his face. He rubbed his cheek and sighed. 'Guess I'll have to shave too,' he thought morosely.

He didn't waste any time soaking since he was sure the old man would disapprove. Johnny smirked to himself. He's really gonna disapprove once we get there.

He dried off and rubbed the towel vigorously over his hair then threw on the robe Scott had loaned him. His brother had explained it was easier than trying to put on clean clothes in the bathhouse and it made no sense to put the dirty ones back on after bathing. Johnny didn't care one way or the other but it made Scott happy so what the heck.

Once in his room, he discovered clothes set out for him on the bed. He scowled as he picked up the plain white shirt and plain black pants. He nearly cussed when he saw the tie. He threw them down in disgust and walked over to the closet. Opening it, he found it virtually empty.

Teresa. He figured she was the culprit and his anger soared for a second. Then, he realized what she was doing. Making sure he dressed in a manner his father would approve of. Johnny hadn't given a thought to what he'd wear. So, he hates me and my clothes. Great, he sighed.

Resigned to misery, he put on the clothes she'd picked but he stuck the tie in his jacket pocket then headed downstairs.

*****

Scott and Murdoch stood near the fireplace enjoying a brandy as Teresa sat in the blue wing-backed chair near them. The conversation was low and he couldn't make out what was being said.

Teresa looked up and smiled at him then rose from her seat.

"Johnny, you look dashing," she said.

Murdoch turned and took him in, looking him up and down.

"I must admit, you do look good, brother," Scott imparted.

Johnny nearly blushed and dropped his eyes as he mumbled a 'thanks'.

"Where's your tie?" Murdoch asked gruffly.

Johnny looked up at him and pulled it out of his pocket. "Right here," he grinned, swinging it in the air.

"That's not where it goes. Put it on," Murdoch spoke flatly.

"I'm not wearing a tie, Murdoch," Johnny retorted with much the same tone.

The rancher sighed heavily and looked sternly at him. "All the men will be wearing ties and so will you, Johnny."

Scott looked from one to the other and quickly set his glass down, crossing the floor with some speed. He took the tie from Johnny's hand.

"Here, let me get that for you," he said as he effectively blocked the other two menâ€ôs field of vision.

As he proceeded with the chore he could feel the heat of anger coming from his brother. Scott's voice was low and soft.

"Just wear it until we get there. Once Murdoch's off talking cattle, you can take it off," he bargained.

Johnny looked into his brother's eyes. The argument so plainly on his face. The indignation coloring his cheeks. But he only nodded slightly and lowered his eyes, fighting for control of his emotions. By the time Scott was finished, Johnny had reined himself in fully.

"We should get going," Murdoch said as soon as Scott stepped back from his brother.

Johnny turned on his heel and walked out the front door leaving it open for the others.

"Take it easy on him, Murdoch. He hates this and he's only doing it for you," Scott said grimly.

"He's doing it for himself and the ranch. He needs to know these people and they need to know him. It's that simple, Scott," Murdoch shot back then walked outside.

We're taking the surrey, Johnny," Murdoch spoke out as soon as he saw Johnny leading Barranca over.

The young man's head came up and he glowered. "I'm going to the dance you want me to go to. I'm wearing the clothes you want and the tie you want. But, I am not riding in the surrey." He mounted his horse and sat still in the saddle, his eyes challenging his father.

Murdoch puckered his lips to say something then set them in a thin grimace. He said nothing but slid into the driver's seat and waited for Scott and Teresa.

There wasn't much conversation on the trip into Morro Coyo. Everyone was tense and ready for the explosion that may come at any time. From whom, no one was sure, not even the combatants. So, they arrived and pulled up in front of the livery stable.

Johnny dismounted and tied off his horse then waited as the others collected themselves. His eyes scanned the area, his ears moving past the music already playing to detect any other sounds. There was nothing else save the party-goers. He didn't relax, though. He wouldn't until he was home.

He noticed Murdoch staring at him again and wondered what he'd done wrong now. Not breathing correctly, he supposed with sarcasm.  

"What?" he asked with some frustration.

"Are you going to wear that inside?" Murdoch asked, his eyes going to Johnny's right hip.

The young man's eyes narrowed. "Are you going to order me not to?"

Murdoch's shoulders rose. "I'm asking you not to."

Johnny raised a brow at this. What was the trick here? he wondered. Trying to fool me by 'asking'? Not likely. He stepped up to his father and leaned in so he could speak softly.

"That's like asking me not to wear pants," he whispered so Teresa didn't hear.

Scott and Teresa stood aside and waited with held breath as Murdoch once more challenged his younger son. Scott was getting as sick of it as Johnny by now.

Murdoch's reaction was surprise at first then something Johnny couldn't quite name. He only shook his head and turned away taking Teresa's arm in his own as he escorted her.

*****

They walked into the saw mill and Johnny was surprised at the conversion. The last time he'd seen it, it was a mess. Must have taken some work to clean it up so nice, he thought. That's when he first noticed.

He'd stopped in the door like he always did, Scott was at his side. The music had stopped and everyone inside was staring at them. Johnny almost took a step back but caught himself. He glanced over at Scott who seemed mortified.

Suddenly, a loud voice spoke up. "Murdoch! You finally got here and we finally get to meet your family!"

Johnny recognized the man he'd met in this very room a few weeks ago. Fred Saylor.

The music started up again and some people went back to dancing. More stood and watched the Lancers.

Murdoch smiled. "Fred, good to see you again. I'd like you to meet my boys." He turned then as Scott, his shoulder just behind Johnny's, moved forward propelling his brother along.

"Johnny, good to see you again," Fred smiled and shook hands with the young man.

"You too, Mr. Saylor," Johnny smiled charmingly.

"You've met?" Murdoch asked.

"We ran into each other a few weeks ago when Johnny was in for some lumber. This must be Scott then," Fred explained.

"Pleasure to meet you, Sir," Scott smiled and shook hands.

"Don't be so quick about that, boy. It might not be a pleasure at all," Fred said then laughed raucously.

"And Miss Teresa. What a vision," Fred grinned widely at the young woman.

She smiled demurely and took his proffered hand as he kissed her gloved one. "Thank you," she said softly.

"Well, come on in and let's get you all something to drink. Have you eaten yet?" Fred blabbered on as he grabbed Murdoch around the shoulder and pulled him inside.

The rest of them followed and Johnny felt the eyes on his back. He saw the more blatant in the crowd openly staring but he ignored them.

Fred took them to an impressive spread of foods and drink and they all filled a plate. All but Johnny who chose a whiskey instead. Murdoch frowned at him but he paid no mind. He wasn't hungry. He felt like an animal on display in a freak show and somehow that didn't help his appetite any.

Very soon, Fred Saylor had Murdoch in conversation with a few other cattlemen who had been quickly introduced to the brothers.

Scott and Johnny moved away from them discreetly and stood near the end of the tables.

"Well, see anything you like?" Scott asked.

"Nope."

"Come on, Johnny. What about that redhead over there? She can't take her eyes off you," Scott grinned and poked him with an elbow.

Johnny turned to look at him full on. "In case you haven't noticed, brother, none of them can take their eyes off me," he scowled.

Scott stared at him then turned back to the crowd. Sure enough, most of those not dancing were eyeing Johnny critically. Some that were dancing as well. He shrugged it off.

"Well, they're all curious, that's all," he tried.

"Uh huh," Johnny said, unconvinced.

Two young men sauntered up then. "Hi," one grinned widely.

"Hello," Scott replied politely.

"I'm Dwayne Haskell and this here is Les Jones. We're out of the Circle K west of town," the young man explained.

"I'm Scott Lancer and this is my brother, Johnny," Scott introduced and shook hands as did his brother.

"We heard about ya comin home," Les said.

Scott kept his smile. "Yes, and here we are."

The two men nodded and silence fell.

Johnny looked around the room and at the ceiling as he waited for them to leave.

"Listen, I hope ya don't take this the wrong way but, well, we was wonderin....." Dwayne trailed off, suddenly unsure.

"Wondering what?" Johnny asked.

The man took a deep breath and forged on. "Well, we was wondering, is it true you done killed fifty men?"

Johnny stared coldly at him for a second. "That's a pretty big number. Can't say it's real accurate."

"Yeah, that's what we thought, too. Not that ya ain't good enough," he added the second part quickly then ducked his head momentarily. "So, how many have ya killed?"

Johnny felt Scott tense beside him and knew his brother was about to say something so he spoke up.

"Couldn't say. I never counted them."

Dwayne's eyes widened in surprise. "Really? I thought all gunfighters counted. I mean, don't ya have notches in your gunbelt or somethin?" he asked, his eyes dropping to the apparel.

Johnny laughed softly at this. "I think you read too many dime novels, mister. Why would anyone ruin a perfectly good gunbelt by hacking it with a knife?"

Dwayne cocked his head to one side as this thought entered his brain. Les mimicked his friend's action and the Lancer brothers bit their lips.

"That makes sense," Les nodded finally.

"Yeah," Dwayne agreed. "Still, don't ya ever wonder?"

Johnny inhaled deeply and held his temper in check. "No, I've never wondered."

"Excuse us, gentlemen. We need to find our father," Scott said and pulled Johnny away.

"Why'd you do that? I was just beginning to have that fun you were talkin about," Johnny smirked.

*****

They settled nearer their father though Johnny had to wonder why. The brothers started talking amongst themselves for a few minutes until Murdoch came up with a few men.

"Boys, I'd like you to meet some people," he said.

He introduced the five men standing there and Johnny shook hands with all but one who was standing near the back of the group. He didn't think anything about it at first. It would have been awkward to reach each other.

One began asking Scott about his time in the army and this led to a lively conversation about the Civil War. Johnny listened closely, hoping to glean some information about his brother's life back then but he wasn't terribly interested in the war itself.

"What were you doing during the war, Johnny?" the man who hadn't shaken his hand asked suddenly.

Johnny looked at him, a little surprised at being addressed. He could almost feel the old man flinch. But, he smiled a little.

"I was in Mexico mostly," he answered.

"Oh? Doing what?" the man pressed.

"Livin, Mr. Karlan," Johnny rejoined.

The man smirked at him and Johnny's eyes narrowed. Murdoch took it in and quickly led the conversation away from Johnny.

A young man appeared, about Johnny's age, and stood beside Karlan. He was introduced as Seth Karlan and Johnny immediately disliked him. The way Seth looked at him, as if he had some secret, made Johnny ill at ease. There was a knowing in those gray eyes and something else. Contempt. That was easy to see to anyone who looked.

Scott was engrossed in a conversation about cattle drives and felt his stomach drop a little at the stories of misadventures that were going around the group. Johnny smiled at the look on his brother's face.

"Have you ever been on a drive, Johnny?" Seth asked.

"A couple," he answered.

"Oh? When did you find the time?" Seth asked.

Johnny cocked a brow at him. "Was there something else I should have been doing?"

"Well, I just thought, with your reputation, that you kept pretty busy," Karlan grinned.

"Guess there are droughts in all lines of work," Johnny smiled but his eyes were cold. It didn't escape him that Seth's father was almost gleeful with his son's attitude. It was then he realized the elder Karlan had purposely not shaken his hand.

"Yes, well, I think this year's drive will be a good one. There hasn't been too much rain so the rivers shouldn't be swollen," Murdoch said tightly.

"Murdoch, Seth has some beautiful horses rounded up. You should come take a look. They're still a little green but my boy will have them whipped into shape soon," Albert Karlan said.

Johnny cringed at the term 'whipped into shape' and hoped it was only a phrase.

"I'd love to see them, Albert. I'll make it over there soon," Murdoch smiled.

"Johnny has a wonderful way with horses. I'm sure he'd be interested," Scott piped up and got a most unfriendly glare from his brother.

Mr. Karlan started to object but his son jumped in. "I'm sure he would be. Come on out, Johnny. We'll see what I can teach you."

"There's nothing you can teach me about horses," Johnny said flatly.

"Johnny!" Murdoch grumbled lowly.

"Maybe there's something I can teach you about manners," Seth said.

Johnny ignored his father and settled his gaze on Seth. "Only if there's something about them you've been holding out on tonight."

"Why, how dare you?" Mr. Karlan stated.

Murdoch was fuming and he grabbed Johnny's arm. "Excuse us, gentlemen," he said as he moved away.

Johnny jerked free of the grasp and turned on his father once they were in a corner.

"What the devil was that all about? How dare you insult my friend's son!" Murdoch growled.

"I guess it don't matter that he insulted me, does it?" Johnny growled right back.

"Insulted you? How?"

Johnny looked at him incredulously and shook his head slowly. "You can't be serious. That crack about my line of work and the way he kept lookin at me. Not to mention his old man refused to shake hands. But I guess you didn't notice all that."

"What I saw was someone making an inquiry as to your experience with cattle drives. I'm sure he didn't mean anything," Murdoch explained patronizingly.

"Then why bring it up at all? You really are blind, aren't you?"

"What is that supposed to mean?" Murdoch asked, towering over him.

If his intent was intimidate, it was failing miserably. Johnny was livid and he held his ground.

"Did you not see everyone staring tonight? You think they're all just curious? Yeah, they're curious alright. About how you could allow someone like me to live with you. To live around them."

"You can't expect them to not be curious, Johnny. You're being paranoid and I want you to apologize to Seth and his father," Murdoch stated sternly.

"I'm not apologizing for nothin! And don't you ever put your hands on me again!" Johnny yelled.

Murdoch opened his mouth then turned at the commotion behind him.

Johnny and Murdoch both made a beeline to the center of the fracas. Scott was in a fistfight with Seth Karlan and they pulled to a stop when they got there. Murdoch was mortified by the scene. Johnny was grinning.

Scott assumed a pugilistic stance as he laid blow after blow into Seth Karlan's face. The other man found his mark a few times but it was clear that Scott was on the winning end of this fight.

Johnny stood, hands on hips and scanned the crowd, making sure no one intervened. Unfortunately, he wasn't watching his own father.

Murdoch stepped in and grabbed Scott from behind, both arms encircling Scott's chest as he turned the younger man away from his opponent. Albert Karlan took hold of his son as well, seeing that the fight was over - for now.

Murdoch released Scott and he whirled around on his father.

"Why did you do that?"

"What do you think you're doing? Why are you fighting?" Murdoch retorted.

"Just get out of the way, Sir. I'm not finished yet," Scott raged.

Johnny put an easy hand on his brother's shoulder and Scott turned quickly to face him.

"You're finished, brother. He's done. Just take a look," Johnny said softly as he nodded toward Seth.

Scott turned to find the man being nursed by his father who was shouting for the doctor to render aid. He relaxed his shoulders and breathed heavily as he hung his head, indicating he was indeed done.

Johnny reached into his brother's jacket pocket and pulled out the kerchief, holding it to Scott's bleeding lip.

"You sure knocked him off his rocker, brother. Speakin from experience, you hit hard," Johnny grinned.

Scott tried to smile then thought better of it as his lip burned.

"It's time to leave," Murdoch hissed from behind them. He stalked off to find Teresa.

"Well, I guess he's upset with me," Scott sighed.

"Probably but he was already mad so don't take it personally," Johnny laughed. "I can't take you anywhere. Come on, let's go home," he added as he threw an arm around his brother.

"Lancer!"

Both young men stopped as one and turned at the challenging voice. Seth Karlan was stepping up, fighting off his father's grasp. His left eye was swelling shut and his nose wasn't as straight as it had been at the beginning of the evening. He stumbled a little then righted himself. He jabbed a finger in Scott's direction.

"I'm not through with you!" he yelled.

"Yes, you are," Scott answered calmly then turned to leave.

Johnny hesitated just a second. As he started to turn he saw it. Karlan went for his gun and Johnny shoved his brother aside with his shoulder as he drew.

Scott fell into the wall and fought to keep his footing.   Murdoch emerged from the crowd with Teresa in tow just as Scott had turned away.

Johnny crouched and fired and time stood still as smoke rose lazily upward. No one seemed to be breathing for an eternity. Then, Albert Karlan found his legs and moved to his son, kneeling down to the young man who had fallen to his knees. Seth was holding his right arm tightly to him with his head bowed.

Johnny straightened and Scott turned in time to see the gun drop from Seth's opening hand. He turned to look at his brother and was shocked at the sadness in those eyes.

Johnny didn't make any move, just stood there and stared at the two men. Then Sam appeared and began tending Seth, moving his father to the side.

Albert Karlan stood and shot hatred from his eyes into Johnny's.

"Do you all see now? Didn't I tell you all he's nothing but trouble? Nothing but a killer. A half-breed killer!" he shouted out.

His eyes took in the crowd still standing silently gawking. "Well? Come on. You've all said the same. You've all thought the same. We've all talked about it. Now you see for yourselves. Now we all know no one is safe with him around!" he raved.

Scott took one step forward. "Now just a minute! Seth drew first. Johnny just saved me from getting shot in the back!"

"How do you know? You weren't looking," Karlan argued.

"I saw it. Saw the whole thing. Seth drew after Scott turned away and Johnny was only defending his brother," Fred Saylor spoke out. "And as for that we business, speak for yourself, Karlan. I never talked to you or anyone else about Johnny. Any one here had that conversation with Albert?" he asked, looking about the room.

No one spoke up.

"You think they're going to admit it in front of him? They're all afraid he'll gun them down, too!" Karlan shouted.

Teresa squeezed Murdoch's arm hard. "Say something," she whispered.

"Yes, we've all wondered. We've all been curious but I've met Johnny and found him to be a nice young man. I'm not worried about being shot in my sleep by him," Saylor was saying.

"If you're all done talking about me like I'm not here, I'll oblige you by not being here," Johnny spoke softly. "Mr. Saylor, thank you," he nodded to the man and walked out. Scott was on his heels.

Murdoch started toward the door.

"You didn't have anything to say, Murdoch. His own father can't even defend his actions," Karlan spoke out.

Murdoch stopped and looked down at Teresa, nodding at her to go on outside. Once she had, he turned around.

"Albert, your son just tried to shoot my son in the back. Most everyone here including me saw that. Johnny defended Scott. There's nothing more to say. If any of you have a problem with that, well, it's just tough." With that, he turned and followed his family out.

Johnny was pacing in front of the livery, Scott watching him and not quite knowing what to say. It occurred to him he hadn't said what was really important.

"Thank you, brother," he spoke up.

Johnny stopped and looked at him, nodded then kept pacing.

"He never said a word. Not one word," Johnny said after a few seconds.

"I know," Scott responded quietly.

"What do you make of that?" Johnny asked.

Scott sighed and fingered his split lip. "Maybe he was in shock?"

Johnny stopped in front of him and stared. "Murdoch? Shocked speechless? Come on. A stranger spoke for me but not my own father. Oh no, not him. Do you know he wanted me to apologize to that ....." he trailed off when he saw Teresa nearing.

"Where's Murdoch?" Scott asked.

"Mr. Karlan said something to him and he sent me outside," she explained, still completely dumbfounded by the events of the night.

Johnny shifted and took two steps toward the mill.

"Johnny, wait," Scott said.

He turned to his brother. "He might be in trouble."  

Scott shook his head slowly. "He can take care of himself. In fact," he nodded behind Johnny, "here he comes."

Johnny turned to see Murdoch stalking toward them, his face granite.

"Why aren't you all ready to go? Come on," he growled and pulled up the weight for the surrey.

The three young people exchanged glances then Scott and Teresa climbed into the surrey and Johnny mounted up. His eyes were still on the mill and as they passed by, he moved Barranca between the doors and the surrey.

The ride home was as silent as the ride in had been. Johnny kept trying to see Murdoch's face but he couldn't in the darkness. He could only imagine the expression had not changed. He finally gave it up and stared straight ahead.

Scott was fuming by now. The more he thought about it, the angrier he became. The one person who should have come to Johnny's defense had not. Murdoch had said not one word even after those horrible names Karlan had called Johnny.

Cipriano stepped out of his small home and watched as the Lancers rode in. It was still early and he just knew something had happened. Everyone seemed to be intact as much as he could tell from his vantage point. He walked over to help take care of the stock. It was then he got a better look at Scott's face. The segundo grimaced but said nothing as he took the surrey.

Johnny started to lead Barranca to the barn but was stopped cold by his father's voice telling him to let a hand take the animal. He reluctantly gave over the reins and followed his family inside. Murdoch sent Teresa to bed immediately.

The rancher walked over to the sideboard and poured himself a healthy measure of Scotch then settled by the fireplace, one foot resting on the hearth.

Johnny pulled his tie loose but otherwise didn't move. He and Scott stood side by side.

"Are you alright, son?" Murdoch asked, not looking at either of them.

"Which of us are you speaking to, Sir?" Scott asked.

"He's talking to you, brother," Johnny mumbled.

Murdoch looked over and nodded his agreement.

"I'm fine," Scott clipped.

Murdoch only nodded again and took a long swallow of the liquor. "It's been a long night. You should both go to bed."

Johnny bowed his head and made to turn but Scott's voice stopped him.

"No, I don't think we will. We need to talk about what happened," Scott said in a commanding tone.

Murdoch's head jerked around at that tone and he leered at his son. "There's nothing to talk about."

Scott stared openly at him, his jaw gaping. "Nothing to talk about? There's plenty to talk about."

"Alright, Scott," Murdoch said, straightening his frame and turning to face them. "Suppose you tell me why you were fighting with Seth in the first place."

Scott squared his shoulders. "He insulted my brother again."

Johnny smiled a little but it soon disappeared.

"So you got into a brawl with him? I expect better of you, Scott," Murdoch declared.

"Do you? Why is that, Murdoch? When someone disparages someone I care about, I defend them. Especially when that someone is being a horse's ass!"

"What could he have possibly said?" Murdoch asked wearily.

Scott clamped his mouth shut and Johnny looked curiously at him.

"What did he say, Scott?" Johnny asked.

"He said ..... he called you a half-breed for one. He said you were a black sheep and that you were going to ruin Lancer," Scott answered though he didn't want to.

Johnny only nodded and looked at his father. "Pretty much says it all, don't it?"

"What does that mean?" Murdoch asked.

"It means, he's right, isn't he? I mean, that's what you think," Johnny challenged.

"Don't tell me what I think, boy," Murdoch said menacingly.

Johnny tensed at the pronoun. "Then why don't you tell me, Murdoch. After all, you were so quiet back in town I don't think I heard what you had to say. What happened after you sent Teresa out? Did you agree with Karlan and apologize for my behavior?" His voice was growing low with barely contained anger.

"Of course not! I told them all they could think what they like. That you were defending Scott, period!"

"That's it? That's all you had to say to a man who insulted your son so hatefully?" Scott asked, stunned.

"Scott, what was I supposed to say? What good would it do?" the father asked.

"No good at all, Murdoch. I think I will go to bed now," Johnny spat and turned to leave.

"Wait a minute. What does that mean?" Murdoch called.

Johnny stopped, his back turned and thought about whether he should. Whether he could, finally, ask the question. He felt a modicum more courage with Scott in the room but that only lent to his anger at himself. He turned slowly and looked at the older man.

"How much longer are we going to go on pretending, Murdoch? How long do you think you can stand it? Because, I gotta tell ya, I'm pretty much done, myself."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Murdoch replied, perplexed.

Johnny's hands went to his hips as he took in the man before him. Maybe he really doesn't. He glanced over at Scott and knew his brother knew what he meant.

"How do you think I knew it was Scott you were asking about a minute ago?"

Murdoch shook his head in confusion. "I assumed it was because he's the one who was hurt."

"I wasn't the only one hurt tonight, Murdoch," Scott imparted.

"I knew because of how you asked. You asked 'are you alright, SON'. I knew you were talking to Scott because you never call me that. You never refer to me as your son. You say 'your boys' when you introduce us. You say 'my son' when you introduce Scott. But that's okay, it really is. What isn't okay is how you treated me tonight. Asking me to apologize to that piece of dirt. That's not okay, Murdoch." The anger was there again, loud and clear.

"I didn't know how he felt..."

"You didn't? Your good friend's son and you didn't know he was a bigot? More than that, you assumed I was in the wrong. You never even asked me why I was acting that way. Right off you took his side. Well, that pretty much tells me what I already knew. You're ashamed of me and you hate my guts. Why don't you just admit it?" Johnny shouted.

Scott turned and looked at him in horror. Hated him? He never knew Johnny thought their father hated him. He knew there was friction between the two and knew it was most likely because of Johnny's past but, hate him? He was stunned silent.

Murdoch stared at him, too. Taken aback at the accusation. He found his voice and his own anger. "I don't hate you, Johnny. That's ridiculous!"

"Is it? I don't think so. You treat me like .... I was gonna say a hired hand but not even that well. You treat me like dirt when you bother to treat me any way at all. Look, I didn't expect roses and I sure didn't expect you to love me. I do expect you to respect me and to treat me like a human being!" His voice shook and he hated himself for it but his anger was out of control. More for the denial than anything else.

"I don't know what you're talking about! I treat you the same as anyone else," Murdoch defended.

Johnny shook his head in awe. "I'm sorry, Scott. If you don't want to get in the middle of this, you'd better leave now," he said in a low voice.

"I'm not going anywhere," Scott stated firmly. "Johnny's right, Murdoch. You do treat him differently than you treat me. You don't give him any benefit of the doubt. You constantly question his work and his whereabouts. You don't trust him."

"Why should I? How do I know he's not going to take off at a moment's notice? How do I know he's not going to turn back to his other life?" Murdoch glared.

"And there it is. At least, part of it," Johnny said. "It's the same old thing, right? I left and you can't forgive that. Never mind that you pushed me out the door. Never mind that I came back only to be told I wasn't wanted or needed."

"Now wait a minute. I only said those things to get you away from the Strykers."


"Yeah, I know. But, I have to tell ya, I haven't been able to get that out of my mind. But, it started before that and you know it. It started from day one. So why don't you tell me, Murdoch. Why is it you can't stand to even look at me sometimes?" The shaky voice was back but it had less to do with anger this time.

Murdoch set his mouth in a tight line and stared at Johnny. He started to deny it but he knew one of them would call him on it. He was outnumbered.

"You've always been the wildcard, Johnny. I never know if you're going to take off one day. How am I suppose to treat you? You tell me."

"Trust goes both ways, old man. But that doesn't answer my question. I didn't expect you to trust me right off. And yeah, I made some mistakes. This ain't the life I'm used to but I've been trying, Murdoch. I know you can see that. So, I'll ask you again. Why can't you stand to look at me sometimes?" Now, his tone was almost calm and even.

Murdoch's eyes fell everywhere but on Johnny.

"Like right now," the young man hissed.

Murdoch glared at him then.

"Say it!" Johnny pushed. He knew he was in dangerous territory. He knew he was about to hear something about his mother. His mother and her temper. But he never expected to hear what he heard.

"I'm not sure you're my son!" Murdoch shouted.

*****

Johnny felt the world tilt. He felt the hand on his arm, trying to be a steadying force but shaking badly, too. He blinked several times as sound seemed to distort around him. He heard Scott's voice but it sounded like it was coming from underwater. Muted and almost unintelligible. He felt himself being moved, forced to walk though he was sure his knees would give way any second. Then he felt those knees bend and found himself sitting on something soft.

Scott's face came into his line of vision and he stared at his brother's mouth. It was moving, the eyes were pained, but he still couldn't understand the words. He shook his head hard, trying to get his ears cleared, trying to get his mind to work then he closed his eyes and dropped his head. Squeezing those eyes tightly, he forced his way back to the world. A world he didn't really want to be in anymore. Not this world. A world of lies and deceptions. Of bitterness and regret.

Scott moved to the sideboard and poured a glass of whiskey, moving back to his brother quickly. He shot Murdoch a stare that should have dropped the older man then he turned his attention to Johnny.

He pressed the glass into Johnny's hand and nudged that hand toward his brother's mouth. Johnny instinctively drank the burning liquid and sighed out as it hit his turbulent stomach. He grimaced, unsure the liquor would stay put and swallowed hard to fight it down.

He stared into the glass, his mind trying furiously to work but failing miserably. The only thing that got through was his father's last words to him.

All this time, all these years he hasn't been sure? He shook his head slowly back and forth, trying to negate the ever consuming misery in his gut.

It was Scott who spoke first. "What did you mean by that?" he demanded.

Murdoch had been staring at Johnny the entire time, watching in some sort of daze at the younger man's reaction to his confession. He blinked and drew his eyes to Scott then sat down heavily in the nearest chair.

"I don't know if the Pinkerton's were right. One false clue, one wrong move could have set them down the wrong path. Leading them to the wrong conclusion," he spoke flatly.

Johnny's head came up. "That's what you're questioning? The Pinkertons?"

Murdoch frowned. "What else?"

"Oh, I don't know. Maybe that I'm just plain not yours," he seethed.

Murdoch's eyes widened at the thought. "No, Johnny. I know the child Maria bore was my son. I just .... how can I be sure?"

"You could have started by asking me, Murdoch! Or do you think I just decided this would be a good deal and played along? Do you think I don't know who you are? That I haven't always known your name?"

Murdoch stared at him, his gut turning inside out. "I can't even talk to you about the weather. How could I ask you something like that?"

"How could you not, Murdoch?" Scott asked as he settled in a chair beside his brother. "The very reason you can't talk to him is because of your doubts. How could you not clear the air about that?"

"Especially before I signed my name to a contract," Johnny added.

"Look, I didn't want to think that. I thought the feeling would go away but it hasn't," Murdoch said miserably.

"Then ask me what you want to know," Johnny said barely above a whisper. "Ask me the questions that will make you sure."

"Johnny, do you really want to dredge all that up?" Murdoch asked, knowing he himself didn't want to.

"I don't know how else you're gonna find out the truth, old man. Either ask me or throw me out cause I'm not livin like this anymore!" Johnny stated, his voice rising with each word. His body rose then as well. "Get it said, Murdoch, or throw me a nod to the door," he hissed, fists balled at his sides, ready for a fight.

"Alright!" Murdoch shouted, unused to being given ultimatums. "Sit down, please," he added in a lower tone.

Johnny did so and Murdoch glanced at him then to the floor. His brow furrowed as he thought.

"Maria had a favorite flower."

"Roses, but I ain't playing that game, old man. I can tell you how she hummed when she brushed her hair or the way she would dance around when she thought no one was looking. Just get to it. What will convince you?" Johnny clipped.

Murdoch shook his head back and forth slowly. "I don't know, Johnny. What did she tell you about me?"

The shoulders went up and the eyes narrowed. Johnny's mouth tightened into a grim line. He stood up and walked over near the French doors trying to peer out but seeing nothing but his own reflection in the glass. He didn't want to see that so he turned back to face them both. Scott was watching him with support shining in his eyes. Johnny thought he might go to the floor from that look so he tried Murdoch. That was better. Nothing much there but misery.

"She told me your name. She told me you threw us to the curb. That's all," he finally answered without emotion.

Murdoch was on his feet. "That is a lie! I never threw you out. Why the hell would she say such a thing!?"

Johnny stared at him coolly, knowing this would be the reaction. Not for any love the old man might have felt at one time but for the reputation he'd earned, at least by Johnny's reckoning, as a cold-hearted bastard.

Scott, of course, knew the story so he didn't react to it either. Knowing just as well how Murdoch would behave.

Murdoch glowered at Johnny. "Well?"

"If you're waiting for me to tell you why, I can't. I believed it until Teresa told me different," Johnny replied.

"Teresa?"

"Apparently, her father told her what happened. None of that matters right this minute, Murdoch. You're still not convinced that I'm yours," Johnny said, still wearing the cold facade.

Murdoch turned away, his breathing heavy and his mind awhirl at the lies she'd spewed. No wonder Johnny greeted him as he had that day. No wonder he'd never come home after she died. How could he still have questions? How could he still doubt that this was his son? Maybe, deep inside, he hoped this wasn't his boy. That his son had not turned to a life of killing.

He closed his eyes and labored for control of his emotions and thoughts.

Scott watched them both, uncertain what if anything he should do. This wasn't his talk, it wasn't his life but it surely involved him. Yet, he was lost as to any words he could say that would help either man at the moment. His concern for Murdoch was less than charitable right now, still hearing this had to hurt.

"Did she hate me that much?" Murdoch asked the air.

Johnny sighed and dropped his head. "I can't tell you what she felt or why she lied to me. Neither of us will ever know that now."

Murdoch turned to him. "Surely she said more?"

Johnny shook his head. "No, she didn't. I've told you this much. I've got no reason to hold back on you now, Murdoch. The question is, what do you believe?"

Murdoch stared at him unable to answer. Johnny was still standing in front of the French doors and Murdoch could see his reflection in the glass. A thought occurred to him. One that may well settle any doubts but before he could voice it, all hell broke loose.

The glass shattered and Johnny lurched forward, falling over the chair back and tumbling through a somersault as he crashed onto the coffee table.

Scott jumped to his feet and drew his gun, firing through the now destroyed French doors at someone he could not see. Murdoch made to the rifle case and grabbed a Winchester then followed Scott to the front door.

Keeping low, Scott moved to one of the columns and peered out, Murdoch at his back.

"I can't see anything," Scott whispered.

"Neither can I but here come the men," Murdoch noted as the ranch hands responded to the shot. "Cipriano!" Murdoch shouted.

The segundo appeared in the night. "We have spotted two men riding off, Senor. The men are after them now."

"Good! Send someone for the doctor. Johnny was hit," Murdoch ordered then hurried back inside, Scott on his heels.

Johnny lay on his back spread eagle across the coffee table, his head dangling off the end awkwardly. Scott took hold of his head and cradled it in his hands as he frantically searched for the wound.

"We'll have to move him. He was shot in the back," Murdoch ordered as he wedged his arms under Johnny's body. "Hold his head, son."

They laid him face down on the couch and both could see the red stain spreading from a point in his lower left back. Murdoch clamped a hand on it and looked up at the sounds of running feet.

Teresa came to a dead stop as she took in the scene. "I'll get water and bandages," she said and quickly retreated.

"We should take him upstairs," Scott managed through heavy breaths.

Murdoch nodded and together they carried the young man up to his room.

Scott removed Johnny's shirt with some effort and grabbed a towel, pressing it down on the wound. Meanwhile, Murdoch fought with his gunbelt and finally won, sliding it out and throwing it in a chair.

"Careful. He'd be mad if he saw that," Scott tried a little levity.

Murdoch only shot him an aggravated look and started working on the pants and belt.

"This would have been easier with the calzoneros," he grumbled.

"You didn't want him to wear them, remember?" Scott growled back. "A little too Mexican, maybe?" he added for a taste of sarcasm.

"A little too flamboyant," Murdoch chided.

Scott ground his teeth together and decided to pick his battles better. This was no time to get into Murdoch's foolishness.

*****

Teresa brought supplies and they cleaned the wound thoroughly and bandaged it tightly.

Murdoch went back to the task of undressing the young man once he was assured the wound was as under control as they could get it.

He sighed as he finally got the buttons undone. "Help me with this, Scott."

They pulled the clothing off as gently as they could and covered him with a sheet. Murdoch stared at him for several seconds before making the decision. He pulled back the sheet and tugged on the underwear.

"What the hell are you doing?" Scott scorched.

Murdoch glanced at him. "There should be a mark here," he explained. "A birthmark right below his waistline. Right ....."

He trailed off as he stared at the blemish. It was larger now, stretched out as Johnny grew. When he was born it had been so easy to see but now it was lighter and harder to distinguish. But still, it was there. Murdoch released the garment and sat back in the chair he'd pulled to the bedside, slinking into it as if it offered release from his torment.

Scott examined the mark. It looked like butterfly wings to him. He covered Johnny back up then sat on the edge of the bed and stared at his father.

"All these months all it would have taken was this. All you had to do was mention to him that he had a birthmark and Johnny would have confirmed it without so much as another thought on the subject. You could have so easily spared him all this pain and anguish. All this time he thought you hated him. That you hated your own son, Murdoch. How do you think that made him feel? Did you even care? Do you now?"

Murdoch stared at his lap and said nothing for long moments. "I'd forgotten about it. Had just thought of it right before he was shot. I was looking at his reflection in the glass but I never saw anyone there. They had to be close to use a pistol. That was no rifle shot. I was too busy wallowing to see them there; to see them and warn him in time."

He looked up with pure misery in his eyes and Scott could only stare. He didn't know what to say. It broke his heart. All of it. The miscommunication; lack of communication really. The fears and uncertainties of the both of them. They made it so hard when it didn't have to be.  

"So, you're convinced now?" he asked softly.

Murdoch nodded and looked down at Johnny. He leaned forward and laid a hand on the side of Johnny's head. "My son," he whispered with a tremble.

Cipriano came to an abrupt halt in the doorway. Once more Johnny lay ill and he thought he could stand no more of it.

"Did you get them?" Scott asked sharply.

"Si, Senor. It was Seth Karlan and one of his hands. Karlan is dead and the hand is injured. We have taken him to the guard house," Cip reported.

Murdoch nodded. He figured as much. "Do what you can for him. I'll send Sam out when he's done with Johnny."

"How is he, Patron?" Cip asked.

"I don't know. He's been shot in the back again!" Murdoch's anger unleashed finally but Cip wasn't fazed by it. He only nodded and left them.

"Johnny should have killed that lowlife," Scott mumbled then glanced up, embarrassed at voicing his vengeful thoughts.

"It's alright, son. I feel the same way right now. But, I'm more angry with myself for not defending him. He was right. I didn't say anything. I'm a horrible father," he moaned.

"Poor thing," Scott shot snidely. When Murdoch glared at him, he simply shrugged. "Stop feeling sorry for yourself and make it up to him!"

"I will. I swear it! I only pray to God I get that chance," Murdoch vowed.

Johnny moaned and breathed out heavily as he fought his way back to consciousness. Both men leaned in and held their breaths.

"Scott?" Johnny whispered.

"I'm here, brother. Take it easy," Scott soothed.

"Who?" Johnny asked weakly.

Scott and Murdoch looked at each other warily.

"It was Seth Karlan, son. The men got him. He's dead and the hand he had with him has been shot. Try to rest. You're safe now. We've got you, Johnny," Murdoch spoke softly.

Johnny raised his head off the pillow a little and looked at his father. "You called me son."

Murdoch closed his eyes briefly then smiled. "Yes, I surely did. Now rest. Sam will be here soon."

Johnny smiled back and lowered his head. Closing his eyes, he let out a soft sigh.

*****

Sam Jenkins descended the staircase as he took in the two men watching him closely. "He'll be alright."

Murdoch's shoulders dropped with relief and fatigue. Scott leaned against the back of the sofa and smiled softly, nodding his head.

"How long will he be laid up?" Murdoch asked.

Scott rounded on his father. "Is that what you're worried about? How long before he can get back to work?" he spat.

Murdoch looked stunned for a moment then found his own anger. "Of course not! I only meant how long will it take to heal!"

Scott glared at him, unconvinced by the words that still fell short of anything resembling concern for his son.

"Johnny will be down a week or so," Sam intervened in a calm voice. "The bullet only caught the fleshy part of his back. The tumble he took was the worst of it, actually. He hit his head on something but the concussion is a mild one."

"It seemed much worse, Sam. There was a lot of blood," Scott addressed the doctor, forcing his tone lower.

"I know. A vein was hit, one of the larger ones but he'll be fine. Now, you both need some rest. It's been a long night. Teresa is with him," Sam explained.

"I'll spell her in a couple of hours," Murdoch grumbled then headed up the stairs.

Scott shook his head slowly as he watched his father go.

"I take it things are no better?" Sam asked rhetorically.

Scott looked on the man with sad eyes. "I'm not sure. I thought .... he seemed," he sighed, unable to find the words.

"Scott, can you tell me about it? Did something else happen between them?"

The young man considered the idea. "Have a seat. This may take a while," Scott sighed.

Sam sat staring at Scott for long moments after the story had been told. Finally, he took a deep breath.

"I knew Murdoch had concerns about Johnny's past but it didn't stop him from sending for the boy. I never knew he doubted who Johnny was, though."

"I think it was his out. His way of giving himself an excuse if things didn't work. He could always convince himself that Johnny wasn't his anyway." Scott's tone was bitter.

Sam thought that sounded about right. Stupid, idiotic - but right. "I think the man has simply lost his mind. But, you said he saw the birthmark and that convinced him?"

"Yes, but after that little display a few minutes ago, I have to wonder if his doubts weren't an easier cover for the real problem. That he really doesn't want Johnny here," Scott said morosely.

*****

Murdoch walked into Johnny's bedroom an hour after he'd gone to his own. He couldn't sleep - that was clear. He sent Teresa to bed and settled in the comfortable arm chair she'd positioned at the bedside. He stared long and hard at Johnny as he lay sleeping.

He was on his back which told Murdoch his injury wasn't as bad as they'd first thought. He grimaced to himself. Sam had told him that. Why did he question everything and everyone? Why did he question Johnny?

He knew just looking at the young man that he was Maria's son. He didn't need Johnny reciting Maria's favorite this or that or how she groomed to tell him that. He didn't need the birthmark to tell him either. Yet he'd denied his son. Questioned his very existence.

'You've got your mother's temper.' The words sounded loud inside his head. The words he'd spoken to his son that first day. He'd been sure then just seeing Johnny. Yet, other things registered in his mind, as well. Pages upon pages of reports. Deeds done by and to his boy. Things no one should have to endure. And that was the very crux of it.

Johnny Madrid was his son. He'd wanted to scream it wasn't so when first told. He had questioned the Pinkerton agent for a solid hour hoping for some reprieve. Praying it wasn't true. Grasping at anything that would save him from this knowledge - this truth. He didn't want his son to be a gunfighter. He wanted both his sons to be respectable young men with integrity. Well-educated and ethical. But it wasn't to be.

Maria had seen to that.

He'd had so many plans for Johnny when he'd been born. He would send him to the best college, teach him all he knew about ranching. He'd envisioned it in his mind. His son standing alongside him as they surveyed their land. But she'd ruined that dream. Stomped on it and ground it into dust. And with that dream another was demolished. Scott.

Murdoch sighed heavily and rubbed his face. Why, Maria? Why did you do this? He could have been someone. He could have been a great man.

A moan disturbed his thoughts. He looked into Johnny's face and watched as he struggled to consciousness. Maria's long, thick lashes fluttering as eyes moved under the lids. Long, brown fingers curling into the bed covers, clutching at them in pain. Brows knitted together and a soft sigh escaped partly opened lips. Her lips. Her fingers. Her son.

Murdoch stood and walked to the window, pulling back the curtains and opening it to catch a breeze. Johnny liked the window open. He'd said so when he was laid up before. He liked to hear the outside world, feel the fresh air on his face and the sun warming the room. Only it was night now. But, he liked that, too. Listening to the crickets and the distant lowing of the cattle. The cooler night air on his skin. Yes, he liked that.

*****

Johnny blinked a couple of times to clear the blurriness then looked around the room. His bed, he knew. Was well acquainted with it by now. He felt cool air hit his bare arms and smiled a little at the feeling. Then, he saw Murdoch standing to the side of the window, peering out into the dark. What was he looking at? Anything but me, he thought sadly.

Should I let him know I'm awake? Or does he already? Probably why he's over there, avoiding me again. Johnny shook his head slightly. Hadn't Murdoch called him son earlier? Had that been a dream? Wishful thinking, maybe? He wasn't sure. It was all a big blur right now.

He moved a little and a groan escaped his throat. Murdoch turned to him then and walked back to the chair.

"How do you feel?"

Johnny looked at him, a frown on his face he was sure. "Hurts some," he whispered.

Murdoch nodded and turned to pour water. He supported Johnny's neck as he inhaled the liquid then eased it back. As he drank, his eyes never left his father's face but Murdoch was focused on the glass in his hand.

"Sam said you'll be fine. It wasn't as bad as we first thought. He said you hit your head, too, but the concussion is slight."

"How long?" Johnny asked.

"About a week."

He sighed, disappointed and perturbed, too. Hadn't he just gotten out of bed a few weeks ago? Now, here he was again.

"Never had so much bein sick all together before," he grumbled.

"You haven't?" Murdoch asked, genuinely surprised.

Johnny's eyes flashed. "I guess that's a shock to you, huh?" he asked angrily.

"You do seem to have a propensity for it," Murdoch replied flatly.

Johnny glared at him. "Not until I came here," was his retort.

Murdoch raised a brow. "Are you saying we're bad luck?"

Johnny's stare faltered, his lips twitched and he grinned. "Reckon so."

Murdoch nodded, a small and fleeting smile passing his own mouth.

Johnny frowned again, his eyes dipping briefly before finding his father's again. "I was dreaming earlier."

"Oh?"

"Yeah," he breathed out. "I thought I woke up and you ..... you called me 'son'."

Murdoch lowered his head. "That wasn't a dream."

Johnny's heart thumped in his chest. "Slip of the tongue?" he asked sarcastically.

Murdoch looked back up at him. "No, you are my son, Johnny."

He snorted at that. "Why? Cause mama liked roses?"

Murdoch's face squinched. "No, because you look just like her, act just like her and .... you have a birthmark just like hers."

Johnny's eyes widened. "Since when do you go lookin under my drawers, old man?" he hissed.

Murdoch laughed out loud at that. "Since you were born, young man."

Johnny fought the smile, he was not going to find any humor in this. "You coulda just asked."

"I should have asked. I should have done a lot of things," the rancher replied quietly.

"No shit!"

Murdoch's eyes narrowed. "There is no need for that kind of language, John!"

Johnny shook his head back and forth slowly. "Is that all you can say to me?"

"Johnny, it's been a long day and you need to rest. We should table this for another time," he said tiredly.

"Sure thing, Murdoch. Maybe next spring or the fall. Hell, maybe in ten years we'll get around to it!" He yanked the covers up around his neck and turned his head to the opposite wall, closing his eyes.

Murdoch watched him. He opened his mouth then closed it again. He stood up and just stayed still for several minutes, then turned and walked out.

Johnny opened his eyes when he heard the click of the door closing and stared at it for a long time before sleep took him.

*****

Murdoch walked into the great room, surprised to find both Scott and Sam still there.

"Shouldn't you two be in bed?" he asked as he headed for the whiskey.

"I thought you were," Scott answered.

"I tried but I couldn't. I was sitting with Johnny," he replied then took a long pull of the Scotch.

"Has he been awake?" Sam asked.

"Yes and he probably still is though he turned away from me." His voice was as flat as his expression.

Scott stood and sighed. "You talked to him?"

"I tried."

"Uh huh. Excuse me." Scott left the room, taking the steps two at a time.

"I take it things didn't go well. Scott told me about your doubts, Murdoch. Don't be angry with the boy. He's very worried. Are you convinced yet that Johnny is your son because if you aren't, you're a damned fool!" Sam sat still, his face the only thing in motion and it was anger that ruled the moment.

Murdoch glowered at him. "I beg your pardon!?"

"You heard me. Anyone with eyes can see that boy is a Lancer through and through. Good grief, man! He's so much like you it isn't funny!" Sam retorted.

"He is exactly like his mother," Murdoch groused.

"If that's true then you and Maria were a perfect match because Johnny has your stubbornness, your love for the land, your principles..."

"My principles?? That boy doesn't have a clue what responsibility is, what values are...."

"Hogwash! He ran this ranch while you were in Stockton. Ask Cipriano if you don't believe me. I'd wager you haven't even questioned the man on how well Johnny did while you were gone. He made all the decisions, assigned all the work, did everything he was supposed to do."

"He wasn't supposed to fall in a creek and get pneumonia!" Murdoch argued.

"Well, excuse me, I stand corrected. You're right, Murdoch, he isn't a thing like you. He isn't perfect!" Sam was on his feet now, more angry than he could ever remember being in his life.

"Are you going to deny that boy his birthright? Are you going to drive him away from here? I'd like to know ahead of time because if you don't want him, I do!"

Murdoch stared with mouth hung open at his old friend. He tried to speak but instead began resembling a fish out of water as his mouth opened and closed repeatedly.

"Yes, that's right. I would love to have Johnny live with me. I'd love to give that boy the love and respect he deserves. I could give him so many advantages he's never had before. Why, I might even send him to school. He'd make a fine veterinarian. He knows more about animals than most vets I've met." Sam raised his chin defiantly.

"Johnny is a rancher. He knows the land, he knows cattle and horses. This is what he was born for!" Murdoch shouted.

Silence reigned supreme in the great room as the two men faced off. Sam held his face impassive when all he wanted to do was smile. Maybe an "ah ha!" thrown in with an "I told you so" for good measure. But he didn't. He waited for it to sink into the stubborn Scot's head what he himself had just proclaimed.

Murdoch swayed a little then stumbled to the nearest chair. He plopped down, his whiskey splashing over the rim of his glass onto his hand. He didn't notice. He bowed his head and closed his eyes.

Sam walked over and laid a gentle hand on his friend's shoulder. "Do you realize now how much you cherish that boy? I pray to God you do because you're going to lose him, Murdoch. Mark my words, you are going to lose him if you don't wake up and right now." He paused as he thought he saw a small nod of the rancher's head. "I'm going to bed."

*****

Johnny awoke to the early lighting of the room. He could tell it was dawning outside and he sighed.

"Good morning."

He turned his head and smiled at his brother. "Morning. You sleep here all night?"

"I'm afraid I did nod off," Scott admitted, a little embarrassed.

Johnny laughed softly.

"How do you feel?"

He frowned and assessed his body. "Sore as hell but not too bad. Head aches a little."

"Well, at least you didn't say 'fine'," Scott grinned. "Hungry?"

Johnny frowned again. "Yeah, I am."

"I'll get you some breakfast," Scott said and stood up. He looked back at his brother and saw it. The darkening of the features as memories of last night returned. Scott sat back down and took his hand. "What?"

Johnny blinked and looked at him. "I was tryin to remember. Seth Karlan?"

"Yes, he's dead. One of the hands from his ranch was injured."

"Bad?"

Scott shook his head. "It was a flesh wound. He was so drunk he didn't even know where he was or why."

"Guess Old Man Karlan will be out for blood now," Johnny mumbled.

"Maybe but it doesn't matter. He's gotten enough Lancer blood. He'll get no more," Scott said tersely.

Johnny raised a brow. "If you say so, brother."

Their eyes met and they shared a smile.

"Okay, one breakfast coming up!" Scott declared and left the room.

Johnny stared at the ceiling remembering other things that had happened last night as well. Murdoch. He wondered how much longer he could stand it. He'd told the old man last night he was done. Was he? The revelations that had come to light had shocked him like nothing ever had before. He remembered well the dizziness that consumed him, his brother's support then the rest of the argument.

And later, Murdoch had said he did know the truth. Then all that other was what? A lie? Pipe dreams? Hope? Johnny closed his eyes as the thoughts assailed him. Did Murdoch hope he wasn't his son? Who wouldn't? Who would want him for a son? No one, he was sure.

Johnny felt someone watching him and his eyes popped open.

"Are you alright? You looked like you were in pain?" Sam asked as he neared the bed.

"Just a little sore is all, Sam. Just thinking too hard, I guess," he fairly whispered.

Sam sat down and checked his pulse and eyes. He felt around his head and found the small lump there. "Can you turn on your side?"

Johnny complied and he peeked under the bandages, satisfied with what he found.

"Well, no infection and no sign of serious head injury. Any double vision, dizziness?"

"Just a headache, not bad."

Sam nodded. "Now, tell me how you really feel?"

Johnny raised his brows and shook his head. "I ain't lyin to you, Sam."

"I'm not talking about physically, Johnny. I'm talking out in here," Sam explained, tapping a finger lightly over Johnny's heart.

He sighed and closed his eyes briefly. "Oh, that."

"Yes, that."

He shrugged and turned to look toward the window. After a long pause he finally gave an answer. "Confused."

"I can't blame you for that. If it helps any Murdoch has been given a lot to think about," Sam supplied.

Johnny looked back at him. "Yeah? Someone had to give him things to think about? That's not real reassuring, Doc."

"No, I don't suppose it is. But, I think he's gotten himself so befuddled he can't think clearly, John. I really believe Murdoch has gotten himself so worked up he's not even sure anymore what it was that caused it in the first place."

"That's easy. Me. I'm what caused it and that ain't gonna change. Nothin much left to do now," Johnny spoke softly.

"What does that mean?"

"It means, I told him I was done and I meant it," Johnny snapped.

Scott walked back in then and felt the tension in the room. He automatically looked around to find Murdoch and was surprised the man wasn't there. Johnny never had a problem with Sam. He quickly surmised Sam must have brought up the delicate subject they'd discussed.

"Your breakfast, Sire," Scott announced with a slight bow and smile.

Johnny smiled wanly at him. "Thanks, brother."

Scott shot a look at the doctor then sat the tray on his brother's lap once Johnny had scooted to sit upright in the bed. "Maria said there's plenty more."

"I'm sure there is but this is more than I can eat," Johnny said, staring at the heaps of food.

"That's more than a bull could eat," Sam remarked. "I'll leave you to it. Just remember what I said, son."

Johnny only nodded and started trying to make a dent in the meal. No matter how his heart and soul felt, his stomach was not going to be denied. He thought that ironic. That the body wouldn't tolerate skipping many meals even though a persons world was crumbling around them. He sighed without realizing it.

Scott stood by the window watching the hands at work for a while before sitting beside his brother and snacking off his plate.

"Didn't you eat?" Johnny asked as he nabbed a slice of bacon.

"Yes, but it looks so good," Scott grinned.

"Help yourself, Boston. Lord knows, we could invite the whole ranch to this plate. I reckon all women think food is the cure to most any ail."

"I think they just want to make sure we're strong enough to face those ails," Scott rejoined.

"Ain't enough food in the world," Johnny muttered then sat his fork down. He finished his coffee but he hadn't eaten much.

Scott thought about the remark but he didn't have an answer for it. He didn't think Johnny expected him to so he said nothing.

"Done?" he finally asked as Johnny was staring into space.

"Huh? Oh, yeah. Thanks again," he replied flatly.

"Why don't you try to sleep. I'll take this downstairs," Scott suggested as he lifted the tray.

"Sure. Nothin else to do," Johnny answered.

*****

Murdoch stepped softly into the room and watched from the doorway. Johnny was asleep and he didn't want to disturb him. No, you don't want to face him, he chastised himself. He still hadn't come to any conclusions and that infuriated him to no end. How was he supposed to find the answer when the question was vague? He didn't even know the question.

Could he accept Johnny into his life? That seemed to be it but it wasn't because the answer to that was yes. So what was it that worried him? What was it about this son that he had such trouble dealing with?

He sat down as gently as he could in the chair, satisfied when he made no noise. Leaning back, he rested his head on the cushion. What is it about you, Johnny?

Was he afraid? Afraid of Johnny or what he represented? Which was what, exactly? Danger. Death. Disappointment.

Murdoch frowned at the last thought. Disappointment? Where had that come from? Was he disappointed in how Johnny had turned out? His mind shouted yes. But, it wasn't the boy's fault. Still, that didn't matter. The outcome was the same.

He'd taken pride in Scott's Harvard education and military service. His son was strong and self-assured. A man he was proud to call son.

Johnny was smart, he knew that. But it wasn't the same. He had common sense but Murdoch had always noticed that Johnny never took part in their conversations about politics or world events. Johnny seemed to go inside himself whenever he and Scott started to discuss those topics. He could recall Scott asking Johnny's opinion once or twice and receiving a blank stare and some sarcastic quip.

He'd always wondered how much education Johnny had received. Not much, he knew. Couldn't have. Was that it? Was he ashamed of the boy? His family had always been intelligent people. His father a professor at University, his mother a grade school teacher.

He could remember his own father's disappointment when Murdoch announced his intentions to go off to the new world. To make his mark in America. The man had never understood it but Murdoch was not a man who could sit behind a desk in some cold classroom while the rest of the world lived. Ranching may have seemed an outrageous venture to his parents but to him it was perfect.

Land was where the wealth was, he knew. Raising cattle was something he'd been interested in since he was a lad and spent time in the highlands. The physical demands had appealed to him then and now. Though, now it was getting harder but he hadn't given it up completely. He'd be in his grave before that happened.

Shaking his head, he thought this was getting him nowhere. He sighed and stretched his back before his eyes rested on Johnny again. He almost gasped when he realized the boy had been watching him.

"Why didn't you tell me you were awake?" he asked gruffly.

Johnny shrugged. "You looked pretty deep in thought. Didn't want to bother you."

"I was thinking about my parents, actually," Murdoch explained.

Johnny's eyes lit up and he scooted to a sitting position. "Yeah? What're they like?"

Murdoch found himself a little stunned by the question. Neither of his sons had ever expressed an interest in that part of their family.

"Um, well, strict. My father was a professor of history and my mother taught grade school."

Johnny could not have been more surprised. "Your parents are teachers? Wow, that's pretty great, Murdoch."

"It is?"

"Sure it is. You don't think so?" Johnny asked cocking his head to the side with that expression on his face that always made Murdoch's heart skip a beat. That needy look, almost a hunger.

"Yes, yes of course. They were good parents. Strict as I said."

"So, why did you leave Scotland anyway?" Johnny asked, pulling his knees up and wrapping his arms around them.

"I wanted a different life. This life. My father never understood that. Why I would leave home and not follow in his footsteps."

Johnny laughed at this. "I can't picture you as a teacher. I can't picture you as anything but a rancher."

Murdoch smiled. "Neither could I which is why I left."

"So, your old man was pretty mad at you, huh?"

Murdoch nodded. "Yes, he was." There was a sadness in his voice.

"Did you ever set things straight with him?" Johnny asked, a slight tremble in his own tone.

"Not really. We wrote, of course. He said he did understand my decision and was glad I was happy. That was right after I bought Lancer and Catherine was with child."

Johnny nodded, a sadness overcoming his face. "I guess he was disappointed he wouldn't get to see his grandson."

"Yes, that was a disappointment to him."

"Still, he said he was glad for you. That's something, ain't it?" Johnny asked.

Murdoch chuckled a little. "For my father, it was huge."

"So, you did set things straight with him," Johnny concluded.

"Yes, I suppose I did," Murdoch said thoughtfully. He hadn't thought of his parents for a very long time. The pain of missing them so strong in him.

"Are they still alive?" Johnny asked gently.

Murdoch took a deep breath. "No, they both died several years ago," he breathed out.

"Oh. That's too bad. Guess I wouldn't have gotten to meet them anyway."

"You sound disappointed," Murdoch noted.

Johnny looked up at him with surprise. "Sure. They're my grandparents. Never had any of those."

You never had any of a lot of things, son, Murdoch thought but didn't speak.

"So, bein educated runs in the family. At least with you and Scott," Johnny said without emotion.

Murdoch stared at him and wondered if he dare broach the subject.

"I, um, I guess you never got much of a chance to go to school." It sounded almost like a question.

"Not too much, no," Johnny said and bowed his head.

"It's never too late, John. You could ...."

"I'm a little old to be sittin in a classroom with a bunch of kids," Johnny shot.

"Yes, that's true. But, I could get you a tutor," he offered, keeping the anger at the slam down.

"I get along just fine. Is that what you want to know, Murdoch? How stupid I am?" he asked, anger seething through his words.

"Johnny, you are not stupid. You may not have had much formal education but that doesn't make you ignorant," Murdoch said, trying hard not to allow Johnny's anger to infect him.

"What does then?"

"What do you mean?" Murdoch asked, confused.

"What does make me ignorant because you sure think I am. Maybe that's what bothers you so much about me. Maybe it ain't if you're sure I'm you kid. Maybe it's that I ain't good enough to be a Lancer!"

"I never said that," Murdoch replied without much conviction, his eyes dropping to the floor.

Johnny stared at him for a long, long time. His eyes were like ice, his mouth firmly closed, his jaw working feverishly.

"Get out," he finally hissed.

"Excuse me?" Murdoch said, stunned.

"You heard me. One of us is leavin this room right now, old man. And since it's easier for you, there's the door," Johnny tossed his head.

"Why, Johnny? What did I say?"

Johnny's mouth turned up on one side briefly but his eyes were still cold. "You didn't say anything, Murdoch. Now, get out!"

Murdoch ground his teeth together and glared at Johnny but he didn't move. "Tell me what I said!" he demanded.

Johnny returned the heated stare, his mind working overtime. "You are ashamed of me, aren't you?" he asked through barely parted lips.

Murdoch sighed and relaxed his shoulders in exhaustion. "No, of course I'm not ashamed of you, Johnny. It's just that I wanted so much more for you than ...."

"Than?"

"Than the life you've had to lead. I had so many dreams for you. Sending you to college, having you by my side here. Getting Scott back. It all seemed so possible when I held you in my arms." He let out the breath he'd been holding as he fought off the pain in his chest.

Johnny swallowed hard, his throat arid, his mind even more confused. "I know things didn't go the way you wanted but what I don't understand, Murdoch, is why you're throwing away the very thing you always wanted. You've got us both here now. Why are you doing this?"

Murdoch jumped to his feet and began to pace the room, his hands clenched at his sides. "I never got the chance. I never got to learn how."

Johnny tried but he just wasn't getting this. "Learn how to do what?"

Murdoch whirled to face him. "To be a father! I don't know how to be a father to you, Johnny, and it scares me!"

Johnny fell back against the pillows, his mouth hanging open in awe. Scared? Murdoch scared?

"Scott .... it's so easy with Scott. He never asks questions. He's so involved in learning ranching, that's all he's focused on. But you, you ask all the time and I don't have the answers," he explained, taking up the pacing again.

"I never asked you anything!" Johnny retorted.

"Of course you do! Every day you ask me with your eyes. That look on your face that almost begs to get those answers. Well, I don't have any answers for you, Johnny. I don't know a damned thing!"

Johnny almost smiled - almost. "What is it you think I'm asking you?"

Murdoch stopped, his back turned to his son. "Why I couldn't find you sooner. Why I let you live that life. Why I allowed you to be taken away. It's as if .... it's like you're accusing me."

He didn't think he could be more flabbergasted but he was. Johnny shook his head slowly as he tried to get a grasp on this. "So, that's why you won't look at me? You think I'm accusing you of something? You're wrong, Murdoch. Dead wrong. Ya know what I think? I think you feel so damned guilty, you're imagining things."

"Why shouldn't I feel guilty?"

"Because you didn't do anything wrong," Johnny replied calmly. And he felt calm. It was surreal but it was what it was. "I don't have any questions for you about the past, Murdoch. I know the truth and I know you couldn't stop her from leaving. No, I don't know the why of it but that doesn't matter anymore. Don't you see? None of it matters anymore."

"Oh, it matters, John. It matters a great deal to me. Not knowing why she left has driven me mad over the years. But, I didn't know you knew the truth or even what you had been told. I never knew you thought I'd thrown you out. How could you even walk in this house believing that?" he asked as he sat in a chair by the window.

Johnny sighed. "Honestly? I came for the money. I thought long and hard about blowin your brains out. Then, there was Scott throwin me for a loop. Before I could decide if I'd let you live, Teresa came along and told me what really happened. I believed her because .... I kind of remembered something. When she said he was a gambler, I remembered him a little and it made sense."

Murdoch stared at his feet stretched out in front of him.

"Are you really afraid to be a father to me?" Johnny asked quietly.

"I was afraid of not being a father to you and that's exactly what I've done. I've come up with so many reasons; so many excuses. I've lain it all at your feet. Blamed you for everything when all along it's been me. I knew I was pushing you hard. I meant to do that. I thought . ... I thought if I pushed you away first ....." Murdoch shook his head and sighed.

"That it wouldn't hurt when I did leave?" Johnny offered an ending.

Murdoch only nodded.

"Would it?" Johnny croaked out the question. "Would it hurt you if I left?"

Murdoch raised his eyes slowly and found his son's gaze. "It would kill me."

Johnny closed his eyes and dropped his head. He didn't understand all this craziness. All this illogical logic. Was this the truth of it? How could he be sure? And why wasn't he more angry at his father for heaping all this crap on his shoulders? He supposed he understood some of it. Still.

"I know just saying I'm sorry isn't enough, son. I don't know what would be enough. I have no right to expect you to stay here. No right to even hope you would consider it. But, I am asking, John."

He raised his head and looked at his father. "There has to be more than that. You have to try, Murdoch. You have to at least listen to me and respect me. I'm not askin for the world. I'm only asking for the chance you never gave me to .... come home."

Murdoch shook his head. "You shouldn't have to ask. I should have offered it openly. I should have meant it completely. No strings attached."

"No, that ain't right either. I mean, there were strings and I understand a man not just givin away what's his. If you'd been willin to do that, I wouldn't have had any respect for you. But, we have to clear the air." Johnny's voice hardened with the last sentence and Murdoch tensed.

"Alright. Go ahead," the rancher said unwavering. Inside, his stomach was flipping in on itself.

Johnny nodded. "All that stuff about not being sure I was your son. That was really about Madrid, right?"

"Yes," he mumbled. "I didn't want to believe your life had taken that road."

"And you really are ashamed a little, right?"

Murdoch's head jerked up and he looked long at Johnny, actually considering before he answered for once. "Ashamed is the wrong word, son. Disappointed that you didn't get the chances Scott had. That neither of you had the chance to know me or I you."

There was a silence after that. One that left Murdoch's heart thrumming.

"You said I was irresponsible," Johnny finally uttered.

Murdoch pulled a face but he wouldn't pull any punches. "That one time, yes, I believe you were."

Johnny accepted that.

"But, you offered to set things right and I wouldn't let you. I gave you an ultimatum and that was unfair," Murdoch added.

"You said you wished you had time to 'break me in'. Why didn't you have time?"

Murdoch chewed his lip. "I did. I thought you would know something about ranching. Scott needed a lot from me then."

"Yeah, he did but you assumed again, Murdoch. You assumed I knew something. Well, I know a little about ranch work but I don't know anything about runnin a ranch. You know there's a difference." Johnny sounded tense, as if his anger was about to show itself.

"Yes, I know. I was wrong, son, and I'm sorry. I don't know what else to say."

Johnny seemed to deflate after that. "I guess all I really want to know is if you can accept me and my past."

Taking a deep breath, Murdoch answered. "I want to. I do worry, Johnny, I won't deny that. I have reports on you and a lot of it is frightening. I'm not sure what to expect."

"Neither am I, ya know. It's all a crap shoot anyway, isn't it? Life, I mean," he sighed tiredly.

Murdoch considered this and found it to be true. Cynical but true. He looked back over at his son then got up and returned to the chair next to the bed. "You're exhausted. You should get some rest."

"Why didn't you say anything to Karlan at the dance?" Johnny asked, ignoring the suggestion.

Murdoch dropped his eyes once more. "I was angry with both of you. I was embarassed, truth be told."

Johnny bit the inside of his mouth to keep from laughing. It wasn't funny, really. "Scott embarassed you, huh?"

Murdoch pursed his lips and looked up. "He did. But, he was right. You were both right. He was defending you but it should have been me. I should have punched Karlan in the face. One more thing I turned a blind eye to," he sighed.

"What's that mean?"

"It means, every time you do something right, I try to find the wrong in it so I don't feel .... " Murdoch stopped before he said something sure to raise his son's ire.

"What, Murdoch?"

"Proud," he whispered. "So I didn't feel the pride that tried to come out."

"You know, I am pretty tired. I think I'd like to sleep a while," Johnny muttered.

"Son, I ....."

"Please, can we do this later?"

Murdoch looked at him, what he could see as Johnny had once again bowed his head. "Alright, son." He knew nothing else to say so he left the room.

*****


Four hours later, Murdoch eased into the room. Johnny was still asleep and he didn't want to disturb him. He thought things had gone fairly well earlier in the day but they'd ended not so good. When was he ever going to get this right? When was he ever going to be able to trust his own feelings about Johnny. Trust in his son.

He sighed softly and walked around the room, careful to tread quietly. Johnny's hearing was keen even in slumber. He spied a piece of paper on the table and walked over, idly fingering it. Something caught his eye about it. Dates were written there. Murdoch picked it up to have a closer look.

Thirty minutes later, he was slumped in the bedside chair, staring at the floor. The paper dangled loosely in his hand. He closed his eyes and tried to remove the words from his mind but they wouldn't go away. Shot, knifed, beaten, pneumonia, scarlet fever. Dear God, how is he still alive? he asked.

Johnny sighed softly and Murdoch's eyes went to him. So young! How could anyone so young have endured all this? His heart felt heavy, as if it were hanging onto the edge of a cliff - barely. Any minute it would fall, crashing down into nothingness. Broken into a million irreparable pieces.

He dropped his head and closed his eyes wishing to God he knew what to do with this mixture of feelings in his head and heart. He wanted to stop thinking about it. Wanted to just be still for a while. Just be quiet and not think about anything.

Johnny opened his eyes and watched his father's bowed head, wondering what the old man was thinking. His eyes dropped down and he noticed the paper in Murdoch's hand. It took a moment to register what it was.

Murdoch's head jerked up as the paper was snatched away. He found cold, unemotional eyes glaring at him.

"You always read other people's private letters?" Johnny hissed.

"It was laying out in the open," Murdoch defended angrily.

"It was in my room. You had no right!"

"Does it matter that I know, John?" he asked.

Johnny relaxed and repositioned himself so he was sitting up in bed. He only grimaced a little as the stitches pulled. "Don't reckon it matters one bit to you," he said quietly.

Murdoch watched the storm on his face. "That's a lot of injuries for someone so young."

"So?" he shot.

"So, nothing, I guess. Part of the profession, right?" Murdoch quipped sarcastically.

"That's right."

"Except the pneumonia and scarlet fever."

Johnny looked over at him. "The pneumonia was from bein laid up with a bullet wound so, no, only the scarlet fever, I guess. Don't know what causes that."

"How old were you?"

"Five, mama said. I don't remember bein sick just that she told me." A wry grin lifted the corners of his mouth. "Of course, that coulda been a lie, too."

Murdoch's mouth tightened into a thin line. "What made you write all that down?" he finally asked.

"Sam asked for it. I told him I'd had pneumonia before and he wanted to know every damned thing," Johnny said grumpily.

"I see."

It grew quiet for a minute before Murdoch cleared his throat. "Speaking of your mother...."

Johnny's eyes fired as he looked at the man. "What about her?"

"I .... I'd like to know how she died."

"Why?" Johnny asked, genuinely surprised.

"Because she was my wife," Murdoch replied in a monotone.

Johnny rolled his eyes at that.

"I loved her, John," Murdoch spoke with more conviction.

Johnny looked at him curiously. "Did you?" he whispered so softly, Murdoch almost didn't hear.

"Yes, very much," he answered in almost as soft a voice.

"Sorry I got so mad," Johnny said.

"No, I shouldn't have read it. I didn't realize what it was at first," Murdoch replied. "Did you feel up to talking or would you rather I left?" He kept his tone neutral, he hoped.

Johnny studied him. Something that always got under Murdoch's skin. It was those same eyes that were always so questioning. That he had thought were accusing him. Only now did he realize it was his own reflection in those eyes that was making those accusations.

"I was thinking about that day - the Strykers and all. That day you came back out to the fence line," Johnny said, trying to quell his anger and take this chance.

Murdoch nodded.

Johnny smiled despite himself. "That was a good day. Chasin them horses together."  

Murdoch looked up and smiled, too. "Yes, that was a good day."

"Sure do make sayin you're sorry tough, don't ya?"

Murdoch chuckled a little. "It's not something I'm used to doing, no."

Johnny's face fell then and he frowned. "Why do we have to go at each other so hard?"

Murdoch moved back in the chair and leaned into the cushion. "I wish to God I knew, son."

Johnny looked at his hands, picking at some invisible problem there. "I'm not dumb, ya know. I've read a lot of books. I know I don't act like it a lot. I'm just not used to having meaningful conversations. Not somethin that ever happened before. The people I've been around, well, it's just not anything that's ever come up. When I listen to you and Scott, I feel ....."

Murdoch leaned forward, a bit surprised by the sudden change in subject. "What do you feel?"

He sighed and picked at his hands harder. "I don't know. Out of place. I know what you're talking about a lot of the time. Sometimes, I don't but I never felt like you wanted me to be a part of it."

"I didn't think you were interested. You never seem to be."

"Guess I was just trying to be what you wanted only I never knew what that was," Johnny mumbled.

Murdoch studied the bowed head. "I suppose the real problem is that I don't know you at all."

Johnny looked up at him. "Do you want to? I mean, me and not who you want me to be."

"Yes, I'd like that. I'd also like for you to know me."

Johnny blinked. "I think I do some. I've watched you with other people when you didn't know I was there. I've seen how you act and think and reason things out. How .... compassionate you are even. I guess you wouldn't know that, but ....."

"What?" Murdoch asked, stunned at this revelation.

"Nothing. Just, that I wish you could be that way around me," he mumbled.

"I want to be. I really do, son," Murdoch said sincerely.

"Won't happen overnight, ya know."

"I know."

Johnny nodded, feeling some relief for the first time since he'd arrived at Lancer. It was a start but he knew they had so much farther to go. He pulled his knees up and shifted position, grimacing as the wound pulled. "Something's been worrying me."

"Just one thing?" Murdoch asked with a slight smile.

Johnny looked over at him and smiled, too, briefly. "Karlan. Have you talked to him?"

"No, and I don't intend to," Murdoch said gruffly.

"He'll be wanting revenge," Johnny said warily.

"Let him just try," the older man said with a dangerous tone.

Johnny smiled.

*****

Evening was nearly upon them. Johnny was surprised by the quick passage of the day. Then again, it had been pretty busy. His door had swung open so many times, he was beginning to think it was a saloon.

He was tired, bone tired, but he had thoughts of supper downstairs with his family. Maybe a nice, enjoyable one for a change. He laughed softly to himself. He didn't think they'd go for it, though. It had only been two days but it didn't feel bad. Sore, sure but Sam had said it wasn't a bad wound.

Sure, keep telling yourself that and maybe you'll buy it. They won't, though, he thought with chagrin.

"Are you in pain?"

He looked up to see Scott watching him closely.

"No, why?"

"You looked like it," Scott replied, entering the room with a tray in hand.

"Was just wishing I could eat downstairs, is all."

Scott stopped in midstride. "You are kidding, right? Johnny, it's only been ..."

"I know, I know. But, I feel alright," he interrupted.

Scott shook his head and continued on. He set the tray on Johnny's lap and removed the towel.

Johnny grinned widely at the tamales and chili. "Thanks, brother!"

"Thank Maria," he smiled back and sat down.

"Oh, I will." Johnny tucked into the meal with fervor.

Scott watched him, amazed at the appetite this one possessed. There were times when he wondered where Johnny put it all. There wasn't an ounce of fat on him. Then, he supposed his brother's restlessness took care of that potential problem. Other times, Johnny had no appetite at all. He could go all day without eating and it never seemed to really bother him. Those were times when he was upset with Murdoch. Scot idly wondered how his brother ever got anything to eat.

"Something troubling you, Scott?"

He blinked and looked up to find himself being scrutinized. "No, I was just thinking about things."

"Murdoch and I had a good talk earlier. Well, it ended good, anyway," Johnny grinned.

"Oh? Do tell."

Johnny laughed at the tone, pure curiosity and a little hope blended in. "He's agreed to try to get to know me."

"That's it?"

"That's huge, brother. If he can put aside what he thinks he knows and just let me be, I'll be happy," Johnny explained.

Scott nodded. "That makes sense. I just hope he follows through."

"He promised," Johnny said solemnly.

"And I know what a promise means to you, brother."

"Murdoch keeps his word, Scott. He's never given it and not followed through. I know that much about him."

"You're right about that. His word is his honor. Something else you have in common with him."

"Else? Can't imagine what I do have in common with him," Johnny stated then returned to his meal.

Scott openly gawked at the younger man.

*****

Johnny was sated and the tiredness increased tenfold. He yawned unabashed and Scott took the hint, removing the tray and bidding him goodnight.

Johnny snuggled under the covers and looked toward the window, grateful it was open. He listened to the livestock and insects until he fell asleep.

Later, he would realize it wasn't the clanging bell that had first brought him up from the depths of sleep, it was the acrid smoke. Johnny threw the covers off and bolted to his feet. He ran to the window, cussed then grabbed his clothes.

It took only a minute to throw on his pants and shirt, which he left open. The boots were giving him pause. More precisely the wound that made him slow down to get the boots on. He grabbed his gunbelt and started on that as he jerked his door open.

"Get back in bed!" Murdoch shouted as he darted from his own room.

"No way, old man," Johnny shot as he passed the man in the hallway.

Scott was right behind him giving Murdoch a sidelong look and a shrug.

The three of them headed to the barn. Johnny's heart nearly stopped when he saw the doors flung wide open. His eyes began to search for the golden coat. When he spied it on the other side of the corral, he almost smiled. Then, he turned his attention to the inferno.

It took an hour or more to extinguish the blaze. Dawn had begun to show herself as the last buckets of water were thrown on only to sizzle away. What was left of the support beams were charred, their skin scaly as that of an alligator.

The Lancers stood together, a son on each side, and simply stared at the ruined barn. Johnny tossed the bucket in his hand to the ground and sighed then coughed.

Murdoch was entranced at the sight then enraged. His mouth set in a grim line, his face covered with soot. Only the lines around his eyes showed white as they relaxed from the squinted expression he'd worn throughout the battle.

Scott looked up at his father and almost smiled at the sight. He had to look elsewhere or he just might burst out. Most inappropriate, he thought somberly. He focused his attention on Johnny, taking a step forward to see around the patriarch. He moved to his brother's side and took his arm.

Johnny looked up and smiled tiredly at him. "You're a mess, Boston."

"You're not exactly lord of the manor, brother," Scott retorted with a grin.

Their voices pierced Murdoch's thoughts and he turned to them. His eyes raking Scott over then Johnny. He took hold of his younger's arm and turned him around then lifted his shirttails.

Johnny moved away and turned to face him. "You sure do like looking at my bare skin, old man."

"Not particularly but it would be a more welcome sight than that blood-soaked bandage," Murdoch replied, anxiety dripping from his words.

Scott lifted the shirt then as Johnny's back was to him and he grimaced. "Come on, Johnny. You've ripped out those stitches. Sam will have your head."

"I want someone's head, too. How did it start?" Johnny asked, ignoring his brother.

"There was a broken lantern near the hottest part," Cipriano stated as he came up to them. "A horse could have kicked it."

"Wouldn't make it light unless the horse had a match," Johnny groused.

"Has Barranca taken up smoking?" Scott asked.

"This ain't funny, Scott. Someone set that fire and I think we all know who," Johnny spoke vehemently.

"Well, we have no proof right now, son. It's not important at the moment."

"Not important?" Johnny asked incredulously.

"Not as important as tending to your back. Cipriano, send for Sam," Murdoch stated authoritatively. He took Johnny's arm again, more gently this time, and guided him toward the house.

Johnny didn't balk. He was a little taken aback at his father's concern, actually. "I wanted to get out of the house but not like this," he muttered as he went.

*****

Sam sighed as he put in the last suture. "I suppose I shouldn't berate you, Johnny. I can't blame you for reacting as you did. It was an extreme circumstance."

"Thanks, Doc. I wasn't really thinking about it," Johnny said as he leaned back on the pillows.

"Did they get all the horses out?" Sam asked.

"Yeah, he's fine," Johnny grinned and Sam reciprocated.

"That's good news but I'm afraid mine isn't. This has set you back a couple of days."

Johnny closed his eyes and said nothing. It would do no good to rant and rave though he felt very much like doing just that. Not so much for his back but for the barn and the why.

"So, how are things otherwise?" Sam asked, trying to sound nonchalant.

Johnny cracked his lids halfway open. They were dancing. "I don't know, Sam. Murdoch has decided to try and get to know me. I'm thinking I should have let sleeping dogs lie."

Sam looked at him with mouth open then gave him a long glare. "Maybe you should have. I don't know that he can take that sarcasm of yours on a daily basis."

Johnny laughed softly.

"I'm very glad to hear you two are making some headway, John."

"Thanks, Sam. I'm just .... so mad right now."

"Try to relax some, Johnny. It will do no good to stew."

"Stew? We haven't even had breakfast yet," Scott grinned as he plopped on the mattress.

"Funny, Boston. Find anything?"

"No, I'm afraid not. No one saw a thing and any clues there may have been have literally gone up in smoke," Scott answered, his expression now serious.

"Sam, how is he?" Murdoch asked as he entered the room. He walked over and sat beside Johnny, leaning his back against the headboard beside his son.

Johnny's mouth hung open as he looked at his brother. Scott was smiling and dipped his head.  

"He'll have to take a couple of extra days, I'm afraid," Sam answered after a beat, trying to hide his own astonishment.

"I figured as much. Well, Scott and I'll have to go to town for lumber and supplies to start rebuilding."

"Dammit!" Johnny spat.

"What?" Scott asked.

"I just fixed that ... danged roof!" he answered, still boiling.

He felt his father's chest rumbling beside him then Murdoch burst out laughing. Scott and Sam joined him but Johnny found nothing humorous about it.

"Go ahead and laugh all ya want. I won't be rebuilding the stupid thing," he grumbled.

*****

Murdoch climbed up next to Scott in the wagon and took the reins. Scott laid a hand on his arm.

"Sir, I was thinking someone should watch the house. Johnny's not able to defend himself properly and if Karlan did this, he won't be satisfied with a burned barn."

Murdoch nodded. "Cipriano is staying with Johnny until we get back, son. He's safe."

Scott smiled at this and said no more. He leaned back and propped one foot up, grinning ear to ear. A week ago, Murdoch wouldn't have thought a thing about Johnny's well-being. The thought still disturbed Scott but he could see the man was trying. He seemed to be a different man when it came to his younger son. Whatever had really happened between them last night must have been pretty big for Murdoch's whole attitude to change like this.

Maybe the old man has finally realized what a treasure he's been throwing away, Scott thought.

Murdoch backed the wagon up to the loading dock and set the brake. Mike Farley was standing there watching with a small smile.

"Mike, we need lumber and a lot of it," Murdoch announced.

"Sure thing, Mr. Lancer. Hey, ya know you're almost as good at that as Johnny," Mile said, pointing to the wagon.

Murdoch cocked a brow. "Almost?"

Mike shrugged and walked inside.

"The whole barn?" Farley exclaimed when Murdoch explained the situation.

"I'm afraid so. We'll need lumber, nails and roofing, all of it," Murdoch sighed.

"I'm real sorry to hear about that. Was anyone hurt?" Farley asked.

"No, thankfully. Johnny tore his stitches out but he'll be alright."

"Yeah, that was something. I just couldn't believe Seth did such a blamed fool thing. Must've been drunk as a skunk," Mike said then walked out back.

Scott wanted to ask just how drunk a skunk might get but he didn't. Why he was in this whimsical mood, he couldn't say. He had nothing much to feel happy about with their home being threatened. Then, he smiled as he realized why. Johnny and Murdoch.

He jerked then blushed a little as his father shouted his name again. He followed the two men and began loading the supplies in the wagon.

Scott slid the lumber in the wagon bed then turned to find Albert Karlan and a man he didn't know standing right behind him.

"Good morning, Scott. Building something?" Karlan asked with an evil grin.

"Why, yes, Mr. Karlan. We're going to make several wooden crosses for grave markers. We'll be needing a lot of them. Lancer always feels the responsibility of marking the graves of their enemies who've fallen," Scott grinned right back.

Karlan's smile faded but the man beside him started smiling then. Scott took note of him and measured him a dangerous man. His eyes fell on the right hip and the low slung gunbelt. He looked back at Karlan with pure antipathy.

"This is Mr. Warren. He's recently come into my employ," Karlan obliged.

Scott glared. "Mr. Karlan, what are you doing? Are you really going to start a war with Lancer because your son got drunk and stupid?"

Karlan took a step toward Scott but was stopped by the bellow.

"Albert!"

He turned to see Murdoch Lancer approaching them and regained his composure.

"What is going on here?" Murdoch demanded.

"It seems Mr. Karlan has hired a gunfighter, Sir," Scott explained, completely baffled by his own calm tone.

Murdoch looked at the man then back at Karlan. "Have you lost your mind?"

"No, Murdoch! I have lost my son!"

"That would be his fault. He was a fool to go after Johnny."

Karlan shook his head. "I can't believe you would allow that .... breed to mix with decent people. Decent women!"

"Albert, I've had all I'm going to take of you disparaging my son. If you don't like Johnny being here then move! My son is not going anywhere!"

"Just straight to hell where he belongs," Karlan grinned and glanced at his gunman.

The veins in Murdoch's neck popped out as his ground his jaw. Then, he turned to the gunhawk. "Did he tell you who you're going up against?"

Warren glanced at his employer and shrugged. "Some kid named Johnny Lancer is all I know."

Scott held his breath.

"Johnny Madrid Lancer," Murdoch clarified.

Warren's eyes narrowed as he turned his attention to Karlan. "A helpful piece of information you seemed to have forgotten about, Karlan," he hissed.

He turned back to Murdoch. "How long's he gonna be laid up?"

"You don't really think I'm going to tell you that," Murdoch said.

"Tell Johnny when he's ready to send word to the Karlan ranch. IF I'm still around, we'll have a party," Warren stated then turned and walked away.

Albert Karlan grinned and followed the man.

*****

Scott said not a word on the trip home. He was sure he could see steam coming from Murdoch's ears. As they passed under the arch, he decided to feel his father out.

"When are you going to tell him?"

Murdoch's eyes darted to the side but he didn't look fully at Scott. "When he's healed. If we tell him now you know what he'll do."

"Yes, I know," Scott sighed. He hated lying to his brother. "You had better get yourself under control before you see him. He'll know in half a second that something is wrong if you don't."

Murdoch only nodded his understanding and pulled hard on the reins as they entered the yard.

They started helping unload the lumber when they heard the call.

"Hey!"

Scott searched the veranda then his eyes pulled upward. Johnny was leaning out his bedroom window.

"What are you doing out of bed?" Murdoch growled.

Johnny's head tucked back a little and for just a second, reminding Scott of a turtle.

"Why don't you move it back more, make more room in the corrals," Johnny suggested.

Scott watched the stare off with bated breath. He thought it was a good idea and wondered what Murdoch's reaction would be.

He stared into his son's eyes for long moments knowing with everything in him Johnny would not break contact until he got an answer. He fought down a smile.

"Good idea!" Murdoch finally called.

Johnny smiled fully and nodded then disappeared.

"That boy never listens," Murdoch mumbled.

Scott laughed and went back to work. The men were still cleaning up the debris and they wouldn't be able to start until morning. They piled the wood to one side and stored the roofing in a shed. By the time they were finished, lunch had come and gone. Scott was starving so he went into the kitchen and made a little snack. With a smile, he tripled the portion and headed upstairs.

As he predicted, Murdoch was sitting there frowning at Johnny who was frowning right back.

"I brought us a snack since we missed lunch. There's plenty for three," Scott said lightly.

"Thank you, son," Murdoch said flatly.

"I'm fine," Johnny glared.

"Sure you are, brother. That's why Sam told you to stay in bed. After all, you are invincible."

Johnny cocked his head and took in his brother. "You sure are in a good mood for someone who just lost a barn."

Scott stopped and looked at him then his brows knitted together. "I know. Odd, isn't it?"

"Yeah, well ..." Johnny just grinned.

Murdoch shook his head at them and grabbed half a sandwich.

It took a little longer than expected but Johnny's eyes starting closing of their own accord soon enough. They left him to rest - grouch that he was about it.

*****

Scott paced the great room, hands clasped behind his back.

"What is it, son?"

Scott stopped and looked at his father on the sofa. "What is it? Warren, that's what it is. He recognized Johnny's name, called him 'Johnny' in fact. That means, they know each other. Still, it didn't stop him from making the challenge. I'm just trying to understand and figure out a way to stop it before it starts."

Murdoch listened. He hadn't known the gunfighter's name and hadn't cared. Johnny would though, he was sure. Yes, the man knew his son but it didn't seem to matter. He'd said IF he was still around. Murdoch took that to mean he wasn't very happy with Karlan for not telling him who Johnny was. Murdoch had to wonder why Albert hadn't. He seemed more than anxious to throw his son's name around at the dance - and a few others, too. He wasn't sure he'd ever get over his shame at his own behavior. He hadn't said a word to Karlan when he spat his filth at Johnny. In fact, neither had Johnny.

He'd been very calm about it. Too calm, Murdoch thought. Why didn't he get angry at being called a half-breed? Dear Lord, was he that used to hearing it?

"Maybe he's angry enough with Karlan for not telling him about Madrid that he'll leave," Murdoch finally suggested.

"Somehow, I think his greed will overrule his displeasure," Scott sneered.

"Even if he does leave, Karlan will just hire someone else. We have to stop this, son. If Johnny takes Warren it won't stop Albert. There must be a way to stop that man!"

Scott thought there was one way and was stunned at himself for even thinking it. "Maybe, Johnny would know. He's surely had some experience with this type of revenge before. I'm afraid I don't know much about western justice aside from Pardee," he said glumly.

"I'd like to handle it before your brother is well enough to have to deal with it, Scott. I don't want him facing that man down. I've never heard of him but that doesn't mean he isn't good."

Scott nodded, remembering his conversation with Johnny about gunfighters. The man may not be good enough but anyone can get lucky, he thought.

"He's going to be very angry that we kept it from him at all," Scott said.

"Better angry than dead," Murdoch shot.

*****

There was more on Murdoch's mind than Karlan. He knew he should concentrate on the threat before them but he couldn't help it. He needed to know some things. Johnny had told him a very little about his past. Actually, he'd told him nothing but comments he'd made gave Murdoch some perspective. And that list of his for Sam had certainly been a revelation. He wondered, as he climbed the stairs later that evening, if Johnny had given Sam that list.

He opened the door slowly, hoping not to awaken his son were he asleep. He didn't have to hope for long.

"Come on in. I'm awake."

Murdoch swung the door on open. "I didn't want to disturb you."

"Please, disturb me. I'm goin loco up here!" Johnny stated.

The rancher smiled and sat in the chair. "I take it you feel alright?"

"Yeah," he breathed out. "Guess so just .... bored."

Murdoch nodded. "I could bring you a book or the newspaper."

"Thanks, that'd help."

"Anything in particular?"

Johnny thought about it for a second. "Just tell Scott to pick somethin out. He'll know."

Murdoch cringed a little but tried not to show it. Why should that upset him? It was true. Scott certainly knew Johnny better than he. And whose fault is that? he asked himself.

"You okay?" Johnny asked.

"Hmm? Oh, yes, I'm fine. Sorry."

"How long you reckon it'll take to rebuild?"

Murdoch thought about that. "Two weeks, I imagine. If nothing else happens."

"Yeah, about that. Where's my gun? I know I had it last night," he asked, looking around the room.

"I don't know. I think Scott took it off." Murdoch got up and went to the dresser, pulling open the top drawer and finding the weapon. He retrieved it and handed it to Johnny who hooked it over the bedpost.

"Thanks. Now, what did you want to talk about?"

Murdoch looked surprised and shook his head.

"You didn't come up here to just sit, Murdoch," Johnny called him.

He smiled a little, brushing a finger down his nose quickly. "No, I didn't."

"Well, if it's about Karlan, I'm glad. We need to figure out a way of stoppin that crazy old man."

"I know but how?" Murdoch asked, not telling his son he was wrong as to the reason for this visit.

Johnny shook his head in answer.

"I did want to ask you about something. That night when Karlan was spouting off about you. Why didn't you call him down?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny looked at him blankly. "What was I supposed to say? Don't call me a half-breed?"

"No, I should have said that."

"Don't," Johnny said sharply.

"Don't what? Apologize for my behavior or lack of it? It just seemed as if it didn't bother you."

"It doesn't," Johnny shrugged.

"I find that hard to believe," Murdoch said.

Johnny's mouth tilted upward. "Why? I'm used to it by now. Besides, I don't pay much mind to crazy people." His face darkened then.

"What is it, son?"

How could he tell his father that he had indeed minded a crazy person? He'd minded what she'd said to him for years. Believed every word. Why?

"Johnny?"

He jerked his head up and blinked then relaxed his face. "Nothing. Maybe you should talk to him, Murdoch. Maybe you can reach him. You were his friend."

"I thought I was but it won't help now."

"Why not? Something else happen?" Johnny asked, suspicious now.

"No, nothing's happened," Murdoch lied. "I just don't see how I can get through to him. Seth was his only child and he worshipped that boy."

Johnny snorted at that. "So, he can't be reasoned with. Well, there ain't no law around here so that doesn't leave much choice."

"What do you mean?"

Johnny looked hard at him. "All out war."

Murdoch bowed his head but he couldn't disagree. They'd only just recovered from the last threat and now this.

"I'm sorry," Johnny said suddenly.

"For what?"

"It's my fault. My bein here that's the cause ..."

"No! It is not your fault, John. You have every right to be here or anywhere else you want. This is a free country and Albert Karlan be damned!"

Johnny smiled softly. "Do you really think he's the only one?"

"I really don't know but we'll deal with it as it comes, son. That's all we can do."

"Is it?"

Murdoch looked at him with the same hard expression he'd received himself a moment before. "Yes."

Johnny nodded and leaned his head back, closing his eyes. Murdoch lurched forward a bit.

"Tired now?" he asked, disappointment in his voice.

Johnny heard it and opened his eyes. "No, I'm okay," he lied. Truthfully he was exhausted but he could tell Murdoch wanted something. Something more than what they'd already discussed. With sudden clarity, Johnny knew what it was and wished he'd told the truth just now. He didn't want to talk about her but he knew he couldn't avoid it, either.

"What did you want to know?" Johnny asked, trying not to sound put upon.

Murdoch relaxed back into the chair. "I'm sorry, Johnny, I just need to know why she lied to you."

"I have no idea. I've thought about it a lot but I can't figure it out. She was loco most of the time."

"John," Murdoch said paternally.

"I'm serious, Murdoch. She wasn't right. She ..... she went off on these tangents a lot of times. She'd curse and shout about the smallest thing. I don't know why she lied. Hell, I didn't even know she had lied til I came here."

Murdoch nodded. "I didn't think you'd know but I had to ask. You knew her better than anyone."

Johnny snorted at that. "Which wasn't all that much, believe me."

"How did she die, son?" Murdoch asked gently.

Johnny dropped his eyes, his left hand moving over his right.

"Did .... did someone hurt her?"

Johnny glanced up at him. "Plenty," he clipped.

Murdoch closed his eyes briefly. "And you."

Johnny nodded.

"And one of them killed her," it was a statement that Murdoch was sure would only be answered with another nod of the head.

"No," Johnny whispered. "No one killed her. No one but herself."

"I'm sorry?" Murdoch asked, sure he'd heard wrong.

Johnny bit his lip then sighed and made the decision. He released his right arm and held it out, palm up. "See that scar?" he asked, pointing to his wrist.

"Yes, I see it," Murdoch said though he had to squint to see the faded white line across his son's wrist.

"She tried to take me with her," Johnny said, pain in his quivering voice.  

Murdoch stared at him in horror. His throat slammed closed and he tried, but couldn't swallow. His Adam's apple bobbed up and down as he tried to find a voice. Though what he would say, he hadn't a clue.

"She cut her wrists really deep then she grabbed my right hand and tried to cut me. She did only it wasn't real bad. It didn't take long for her to grow weak so she couldn't fight me. And I was fighting. I pulled free and stood there just staring at her. Seemed like I couldn't move for a long time. Then she kinda slumped over the table and I ran."

"Ran where?" Murdoch managed to croak out.

"The one place she told me never to go. The church. There wasn't any doctor around so I went to find a nun only the priest found me first. I told him she was hurt and he came with me. But, when we got back, she was already dead. They wouldn't bury her. Had to get the undertaker to plant her in boot hill." Johnny's voice was flat and emotionless as he told the tale as if it had happened to someone else. Someone he didn't know.

"How old were you?" Murdoch asked.

"Twelve, I think," he frowned then shook his head hard. "Hell, I don't know, Murdoch. I don't even know how old I am now," he sighed.

"You're twenty-one just this year," Murdoch replied, holding back the surprise from his voice. How could he have been so incredibly stupid all this time?

Johnny nodded. "Eleven then."

Murdoch sat there in stunned silence. The air in the room grew heavier with each passing minute until he felt he couldn't breathe. He stood suddenly and went to the window, sticking his head out and breathing deep of the night air.

Johnny watched him, knowing how he must be feeling. Well, no, he thought. I can't imagine how he must be feeling. Just how I felt. Mad as hell. Still am.

Scott stepped into the doorway and saw his father leaning out the window. "Is he sick?" he asked.

"I imagine he is," Johnny said.

Scott walked over and put a hand on his father's back. "Murdoch, are you alright?"

He pulled his head back in and nodded to his son. "I'm sorry, I think I need ...... a drink," he mumbled and fled the room.

Scott watched him moving more quickly than he'd seen in a while. "What happened?"

Johnny was staring at him and Scott felt uncomfortable and tried to figure out why. Then he realized it was because of who he was looking at. Johnny's mask was on and Scott just knew this had something to do with his past. What could make Murdoch react in that fashion was a mystery, though.

He moved over to the chair and plopped down, waiting for Johnny to answer him.

"I was telling him how my mother died. I guess he was pretty surprised," Johnny said flatly.

"Surprised? He looked like he was going to pass out!" Scott exclaimed.

Johnny shrugged. "Can't blame him."

Scott studied him. The flat affect, the grim mouth, the cold eyes. "How did she die?"

"Killed herself," Johnny clipped, having no intention of going through the whole sordid mess again.

Scott gaped at him for a second. "I can see how that may upset him. Were you ....."

"Yeah, I was there but I want to talk to you about something more important, Scott. Karlan."

"Johnny, I think I really should see to Murdoch."

He sighed tiredly. "Yeah, I guess you should. We can talk about it tomorrow."

"I can come back if you need to talk some more," Scott offered.

"Not tonight. I'm tuckered," Johnny said and slid down in the bed.

*****

Murdoch stared at the cold fireplace, a glass of whiskey clutched in his hand. He would have never thought it. Why it didn't occur to him he couldn't say. Had she been so miserable? He couldn't remember her ever being that sad. Oh, there were times when she seemed melancholy. Who didn't from time to time? Mostly, Maria had fire in her eyes and her heart. She was emotional, yes, but not depressed.

What disturbed him most was that she'd tried to take Johnny. She had tried to kill her own son. His son. His hand tightened on the glass as he thought of her once again taking his boy away from him. This time permanently.

How many times over the years had he lain awake wondering if Johnny was even alive? How many prayers had he sent upward?

He sighed and rubbed his forehead. Had she given a thought to him? Had she even for one second considered sending his son home? Telling him the truth? If she was so set on ending her own life, why wouldn't she give Johnny that chance? The only answer he could come up with was that she didn't love Johnny. She couldn't have and try to destroy him.

For she very nearly had succeeded in doing just that in one way or another. He could not imagine what the boy must have thought watching his mother slit her wrists! And then, to grab him and try doing the same to an eleven year old child!

Murdoch's anger soared and he lifted the glass to his mouth, downing the contents in one swallow. He gave a thought to pitching the glass into the hearth but ended up sitting it on the table beside him.

Johnny had said she'd lost her mind. Murdoch understood now it wasn't a flippant remark. And his son had had to watch it. He was beginning to understand some things now. How Johnny had grown up and how he'd chosen the path he had. He felt no shame at all in his son's past. Nothing but ..... admiration. Yes, that was the word. Admiration. That Johnny could have lived through so many horrors and come out intact was a testament to the young man's resilience and, yes, stubbornness.

Shaking his head, he cursed himself to hell and back for treating his son so abominably. He wouldn't blame Johnny he if turned away from him forever. Murdoch knew with all he was Johnny had only stayed this long for Scott. Now, he had to convince his son to stay for him, too.

He still didn't know how to do that, though. Maybe, he thought suddenly, maybe Johnny can tell me. Of course! Who else? And how stupid am I? Johnny believed I thought he was stupid. No, son, I'm the ignorant one. I'm the blind one. But, no more! Never again!

Would they fight still? Yes, he knew they would. They were both just plain mule-headed at times but that was fine. He could do that. What he would not ever do again was treat his son as if he were invisible - or worse.

Murdoch stood up and straightened his shoulders. He resolved to begin making his son feel at home, finally. Giving him the care and support he needed and deserved. And to stop wallowing in his own self-doubts and self-pity and start taking the chances he should have known he'd have to take. The chances that would either show him as unworthy of being a father to either of his sons or that he could really do this. He was still unsure of his abilities in that area and he knew he'd faltered. But, he was certain he could do no worse!

*****

He awoke drenched in sweat. Rolling onto his back, he hissed a little then rolled back some. Swiping at his face he blew out a disgruntled breath. Why he thought he wouldn't dream about it he couldn't say. Wishful thinking, he reckoned.

But there it was in all it's glory. That night when she'd decided she was done with the pain. The night she'd decided he was done, too. Many was the time since then when he wondered if he shouldn't have just let her do it. Just go with her and be done with it all. Had he known what lay ahead for him, he just may have picked the knife up from where it had fallen and gone for it.

But then, he'd have never known Scott. Never known Murdoch. Johnny sat up slowly, testing his fortitude. Deciding it wasn't bad enough to keep him from the wash basin he craved, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood gingerly. No dizziness, just weak. He could make it. He always did. That thought caused him some disdain but he shook it off and wobbled on over to the dresser.

Splashing the water on his face helped immensely and he relished the cooling effects. He looked at his reflection and was shocked by what he saw. Damn! They coulda told him he looked like hell in a hand basket. He rubbed his bristled cheek then reached for the cream, wincing at the damnable pull to his back. Didn't I just do this? he thought.

He stopped with the razor in midair as he recalled the list he'd never given Sam. The one he wanted to revise first. The hell with it. Murdoch's already seen it now. What difference does it make? Sam could just scratch through anything he didn't deem important.

With that settled he began his shave and hoped no one would walk in on him. He was getting pretty tired of them just coming and going as they pleased. It was okay when he didn't have the strength to even say come in. But, now they were gonna have to back off. That's all there was to it.

He wiped the remaining cream away and thought he looked a little better. Nothing for those saddlebags, Johnny boy. Except for another week of solid sleep which wasn't going to happen any time soon. He leaned on the dresser and sighed.

He wondered how the old man had slept. Not well he was sure. Johnny felt guilty about that but, hell, he'd asked. He knew he must have seemed unfeeling to Scott, too, but he couldn't help that either. That's just the way it is. Just the way I deal with it - the only way I can.

Suddenly he felt like a dishrag and moved over to the chair by the window. He sat down heavily and leaned on the sill, feeling the stitches pull a little. Don't do it, Johnny. Don't rip 'em out again. I doubt Murdoch will be as understanding. He smiled.

He watched the gray turn pink then blue as the sun awoke the day. The sounds and smells of men and livestock wafted up to him. With a sigh, he realized he should probably put on some clothes so he did.

*****

Johnny felt brave so he made his way downstairs. Murdoch wasn't there which surprised him. He'd heard Scott moving around in his room but Murdoch was always up before the sun.

"What are you doing?"

"Maria, I swear to God, I'm so sick of hearing that question!" Johnny grumped tersely. He sat down and she placed a cup in front of him - hard. Then she poured coffee in it and stalked back to her stove, slamming pots and skillets about.

"Lo siento, mamacita," Johnny said quietly, yet loud enough for her to hear.

There was a pause in the slamming and he heard her walk up behind him. She bent over and kissed the top of his head then went back to work more quietly.

Murdoch walked through the back door and paused then continued on to his chair. "Good morning, John."

"Mornin," he said then sipped his coffee.

"You must be feeling better," Murdoch went on.

"Some, I guess. You okay?" he asked, glancing up from his cup.

Murdoch tensed a little then relaxed. "I suppose. The men are about to start on the barn."

Johnny nodded. "Sleep well?"

Murdoch looked over at him and could see he hadn't. "No, not really."

"Sorry," he said remorsefully.

"I asked," Murdoch commented.

Yeah, you did, Johnny thought.

Scott walked in and did his own double take. He said nothing and sat down, saying his good mornings as well.

"Ready to build a barn, brother?" Scott finally asked.

"Not really. Maybe I'll just watch," Johnny smiled a little.

"From your bed? That will be a neat trick," Scott shot.

"Want me to stay in bed forever?"

"No, just until you're well."

"Right, forever," Johnny retorted.

"Enough," Murdoch mumbled and they both looked at him. "Johnny can do what he wants. He will anyway. There's no point in going around with him. Just promise you'll not overdo, son."

Johnny nodded his agreement, fascinated by this turn of events. Murdoch was in a gloomy mood though he knew why. Still, the old man always found the gumption before to raise the rafters.

Then, the old man stood up and walked out, quietly excusing himself. Scott looked at Johnny who sighed and stood slowly, following his father into the great room.

"I'm sorry. I guess I should have made it sound ...... not so bad," he shrugged.

Murdoch looked at him from behind the desk. He was standing at the window when Johnny walked in.

"I don't know what you're talking about," he said stiffly.

Johnny dropped his shoulders and stepped closer. "I know you're upset about what I told you last night. I just didn't know any other way to tell it, I guess."

"It's alright, John. I know it had to be hard. Of all the ways I could picture her passing, that was not one of them."

"And you're wondering if it was maybe your fault? Don't because it wasn't. I told you she was loco. I wasn't being a smart-ass. It was the truth. Mama just got worse and worse as the years went on. She'd gone to talking to herself not long before that. Sometimes, I'd have to look around to make sure no one else was in the room. She seemed to be having a normal conversation only there wasn't anyone there."

Johnny sat in the chair in front of the desk and lowered his head.

"She never ...... she seemed fine to me," Murdoch faltered.

"That's good. I mean, that she was okay then. Sometimes, I've wondered if I'd end up like that," Johnny spoke his deepest fear.

He heard his father move but he couldn't look up. He felt the two big hands on his shoulders and leaned back into them.

"You won't, son. You're too strong."

Johnny leaned his head back so it was resting on his father's midsection and looked up at him with a ghost of a smile. "Cause I'm a Lancer."

Murdoch smiled broadly. "Exactly."

"You okay?" he asked again.

"I will be, son. I will be."

"No more keeping things from each other, then? Not that I want to get into all the details."

"No, I don't need that either." Murdoch frowned then. No more keeping things from each other. He took a deep breath and moved to sit in the chair beside his son. "No more keeping things from each other," he repeated.

Johnny saw the expression and his heart started pounding. Murdoch was about to tell him something he didn't want to hear. He steeled himself.

"I had decided to wait until you were well to tell you this but that isn't fair."

Johnny leaned to the side nearest his father.

"Yesterday, Scott and I ran into Karlan in town. He had a man with him by the name of Warren." Murdoch stopped as he saw the tension rise in his son's shoulders.

"I take it you know him. He seemed to know you."

"Yeah, I know him. So, Karlan hired himself a gun," Johnny mused.

"Yes, only he didn't tell the man who you were. I did. I'm sorry, I thought it might scare him off," Murdoch said.

Johnny only laughed a little at that.

"Warren said to tell you that when you're well to send a message to the Karlan ranch. He wasn't sure he'd still be around. He wasn't happy with Karlan for not telling him who you were."

Johnny nodded. "Don't matter. If not him then someone else."

"Can you take him?" Murdoch asked bluntly.

Johnny's eyes widened with the question then they sparkled with amusement. "I could before. Not so sure about right now. I've been feelin a little poorly lately, ya know," he grinned.

"Son, please," Murdoch almost groaned.

"Sorry," he said reticently. "Yeah, probably but it's always a gamble whenever you face off with someone. But, that won't solve the problem."

"I know. I don't know what will, either. I thought about talking to him as you suggested but I just don't see it doing any good. He hated you before all this. Now, it's only worse even though you aren't even the one who killed Seth."

"Someone might want to point that out to him," Johnny said angrily. "But, you're right. It won't matter to him. I'm to blame whether I pulled the trigger or not. The way I see it there are two choices. Either he dies or I do."

Murdoch cringed at the notion. It wasn't as if he hadn't thought of it himself but hearing aloud and from Johnny was disturbing. Something else about that statement was disturbing as well. The coldness.

"Do you put so little value on your life?" he asked, trying not to sound harsh.

Johnny looked up at him. "Not at all but it's a fact, Murdoch. That's all. Should I cry?" he finished and grinned.

"Have you ever?"

Johnny sat back at that question, stunned by it and wondering where it came from.

"Not for years," he answered in a hushed tone.

Then, the older man did something that had Johnny reeling. He reached out and placed that big hand on the side of Johnny's face and just held it there for a few seconds before letting it drop away. The sadness in Murdoch's eyes made Johnny want to amend his last reply. Not for years until just this minute. Damn you!

His anger surfaced and he stood up - too quickly. He groaned then cursed again to himself as he walked over to the French doors, blinking rapidly.

"Johnny?"


"Yeah?"

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing," he shuddered out the answer and wrapped his arms around himself.

Murdoch walked up behind him and rested his hands on Johnny's shoulders. He could feel the trembling there. "Did I do something wrong?"

Johnny inhaled deeply and let it out slowly. "No, not at all," he whispered.

Cipriano walked in through the front door and pulled up short when he saw father and son. He smiled widely and said nothing as he drank in the sight.

Murdoch finally noticed him standing there grinning like an idiot. "What?" he asked.

"Nada, Senor, nada," Cip said. "Ah, the men are laying the foundation for the barn," he restarted, remembering what had brought him there in the first place. "Perhaps you want to give some especial instructions?"

His intention was to ask to see Johnny but the sight he walked in on had him rethinking that now. Perhaps, el patron would have an idea. He could hope.

Murdoch stared at him for a long moment, perplexed by the statement at first. What special instructions could he have? Then, he saw Cip's eyes go to Johnny then quickly back to him and he almost let out an 'ah'.

"Yes, I think I might have a suggestion or two. Are we alright, son?" he addressed Johnny.

"Yeah, sure. Go ahead and make it pretty," Johnny grinned.

Murdoch smiled at him then joined Cipriano. As they walked toward the site, Murdoch spoke in a low voice.

"I suppose you think you're pretty smart."

"No, Senor, of course not," the old man smiled.

Murdoch gave his special instructions for two of the stalls then supervised the men as they rebuilt the barn.

Johnny watched his father from the French doors, awed as always by Murdoch's commanding presence.

"Everything okay in here?"

He turned and smiled at his brother. "Fine, just fine. Breakfast ready?"

Scott smiled. "For some time now."

*****

Johnny had napped. He was surprised after the turmoil of the previous night's attempt. Still, he reckoned that was more the reason for it. He was so tired of feeling so tired.

He sat on the edge of the bed and carefully stretched as much as he could. The days seem to fly by yet they didn't. How strange is that?

He was hungry, he knew that much. He walked over and splashed water on his face then took in his countenance once more. You look like hell, he thought. Shaking his head he went to the window and peered out. Afternoon. Maybe four, he reckoned. Well, they let me sleep through lunch. No wonder I'm hungry.

He decided to head for the kitchen and get a bite but he took the front staircase so he could check on the progress to the barn. That big old oak tree blocked part of his view upstairs now that they were moving the barn back some. No one was in the living room not that it surprised him. They'd be out there, in the world. He started to sulk a little then shook it off.

Johnny pulled up short as he heard voices, male voices and they were growing louder. His hand went to his hip and he pulled the gun, checked it quickly and slid it back in the holster.

He eased over to the French windows and peeked out. He could see Murdoch and Scott standing side by side. He could just see Karlan astride his horse and his blood ran cold. He reached out and turned the knob, letting the door open so he could hear what was said.

"Get off our land, Karlan." That was Murdoch, of course.

"Just tell that half-breed I'm waitin for 'im. If he don't show hisself by noon tomorrow, I'll be payin another visit and I don't much care who gets in my way."

Johnny's blood ran even colder at the voice. That wasn't Warren. Reckon he decided to skin out. But he knew the voice. Knew it all too well and hatred fired in his belly.

"If you show yourself on this ranch again, no one here will care much who gets in the way, either."

Whoa, Scott. You tell 'em, brother. Only, maybe not. Thorn was a cold-blooded, back-shootin bastard. Johnny was just about to step out when he heard the horses riding out. He looked through the glass and saw Thorn's back as he rode off. He moved then.

"Are you crazy?"

Scott whirled around at the voice and his heart stopped for a second.

"Dammit, Johnny, don't do that!"

"Don't you go threatenin the likes of Thorn, either. He's a piece of work, Boston. Don't much care which side of a man his gun is aimed at," Johnny spat.

Murdoch sighed and walked inside, Scott behind him and Johnny stepped aside to allow them in as he holstered his gun.

"He's awfully ugly," Scott said.

"Yeah? That's because his soul is black as tar," Johnny rejoined, still angry at his brother.

Murdoch sat in the nearest chair. "I guess Warren had second thoughts."

"Too bad, too," Johnny mumbled.

Scott looked at him closely. "Can you take this Thorn?"

"I don't know," Johnny stated matter-of-factly.

Murdoch's head came up then he stood and rounded to face his son. "What do you mean you don't know?" he nearly shouted.

"Just what I said, Murdoch! What is it you two think anyway? I ain't lightning. I can't outdraw every son of a bitch that comes down the pike!"

"Then we'll fight him together," Scott said.

"The hell you say," Johnny snorted. "That ain't how it works, Scott. If he calls me out it'll be just him and me and that's all," he slashed his hand through the air.

"IF? You heard what he said. Noon tomorrow. There's no way you're ready for this, Johnny!" Scott fumed.

"I guess I'll just have to get ready, won't I?"

"Alright, let's all just calm down!" Murdoch roared.

They both stared at him. If that was calm... The brothers shared a wary look.

"You aren't facing him tomorrow or any other time. I'll send a wire to Sacramento and get the US Marshall here."

"That'll take too long," Johnny said.

"Then, I guess Thorn will have to wait."

"Murdoch, you don't understand. If I don't show my face tomorrow, he's gonna start shootin!"

"Then we'll fight him, Johnny," Scott said.

"He can't take on the whole ranch. He's bound to know that. I can't imagine he'll ride in here and just start shooting," Murdoch reasoned.

"Oh, you can't imagine that. Well, I can. In fact, I don't have to imagine it. I've seen him do it! He's crazy, Murdoch!"

"What do you suggest we do, Johnny?" Murdoch shouted back.

"Leave him to me," Johnny said coldly.

The grandfather clock ticked the minutes away as Johnny faced off with his father. Murdoch's scowl only deepened with the passage of time. At long last, he sighed and sat down. Johnny relented fractionally and sat opposite him on the edge of the sofa. He rested his forearms on his thighs and addressed his father calmly.

Scott still stood where he was, arms crossed, anger marring his features.

"Look, I know this isn't what you want but I don't have a choice now. Thorn will be here tomorrow and he will kill anyone who gets in his way. I'm not about to let anyone die for me."

"If you take him Karlan will only hire someone else," Murdoch reasoned.

"I know that but I can't worry about it right now. I have to deal with what's right in front of me today. You can send for the marshal but that's not going to solve this problem." Johnny maintained his level tone.

Murdoch rubbed a hand over his face and nodded.

Scott exploded. "You're agreeing with him? Are you insane? We can't let this happen. Look at him. He's half-dead!"

Johnny turned to his brother, a small smile on his face. "I know I look like hell, brother, but I ain't that bad off. I can do this."

"You don't have to, Johnny. We'll tell Thorn you left. That you decided it wasn't worth the fight," Scott brainstormed.

Johnny stood slowly and faced his brother with fire shooting from his eyes. "I am

*****
not
*****
running away!"

"Forget about your pride for a moment, Johnny. Think about your life," Scott shot back.

"I am. If I run I'm a dead man. Word will spread like wildfire that Johnny Madrid has lost his nerve. Every two-bit with half a brain will be comin after me. Is that what you want, Scott?"

Scott faltered but his eyes never left his brother's. Another stand off ensued and Murdoch was fed up.

"What would you need to do this, Johnny?" he asked.

Johnny dropped his head and sat back down, his legs feeling like wet noodles. "Nothing but some space. When Thorn comes just stay out of the way. Tell the men to do the same."

"And if he kills you?" Scott asked.

"Then make it a pretty funeral, Scott. What do you want me to say to that? If he kills me, he kills me!" Johnny yelled. Taking a deep breath, he added, "I'm goin to bed."

*****

Scott spent the entire night trying to find a solution to this problem. One that didn't include his brother facing Thorn. Only two came to mind. Buy Thorn off or kill Karlan. He was pretty sure his brother would shoot him if he tried either. He showed up for breakfast tired and grumpy.

Murdoch was deep in thought and didn't even acknowledge his presence as he took his seat. He simply stared into his coffee cup.

"Come up with anything?" Scott asked.

Murdoch looked up at him and shook his head. "Nothing legal."

"I'm beginning to wonder if that even matters. We seem to be the only ones who care about the legalities," Scott jibed as he inhaled his coffee.

Murdoch nodded then froze. He looked at Scott with wide eyes. "Are we?"

Scott frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Remember what Fred Saylor said at the dance? How he denied Karlan's claim that they were all afraid of Johnny? How many of our neighbors do you think know what's going on?"

Scott was still frowning. "I'm afraid I don't know what you're getting at."

"Think about it, son. Fred was pretty indignant. I know I thought Albert was a friend but everyone can't feel that way. Peer pressure, son. If our neighbors will stand by us...."

"Snub Karlan? Refuse to do business with him? That's a tall order, Sir."

"Maybe, but it's worth a try. Johnny was right, the marshal wouldn't be able to get here for at least a week and that's being hopeful. We can't wait. When I go into town, I'll spread the word about what Albert's pulling."

"I hope you don't plan on leaving the ranch this morning," Scott said, a hint of bitterness in his voice.

Murdoch's face fell. "Of course not. But after Johnny takes care of Thorn, I'll take the body into town."

Scott smiled, he couldn't help it. "I'm glad you have so much confidence in his abilities, Murdoch." In almost a mumble, he added, "I wish I did."

Murdoch put a hand on his arm. "You've never seen him. I've never seen him, either, really. But I've read the reports, son. Objective reports from professional detectives and not exaggerated tales. He's very good."

Scott sighed, his shoulders relaxing as he remembered what Johnny had said to him, too. He'd admitted he was good but Scott had seen the hesitation and knew it for what it was. Johnny never thought much of his abilities in any area. He simply did what he did. He would never brag and especially about that.

The subject of their conversation walked into the room, noting Murdoch's hand on Scott's arm and wondering what was wrong now.

"Johnny, we've been trying to come up with a way to defuse Karlan and I think we might have one," Murdoch got right to it.

"Good morning to you, too," Johnny said as he took his seat.

Murdoch sighed with some frustration. Polite wasn't always necessary but he'd have that discussion another day - he hoped.

"Murdoch thought if our neighbors knew what Karlan was doing, they'd stand with us," Scott explained.

"That's nice but how's it gonna help?" Johnny asked as he raised his cup to his mouth.

"If we can convince the others to stop associating with him, stop doing business with him, maybe he'll back off," Murdoch went on.

"And if he doesn't he gets run out of the valley? Well, I have to tell you I don't think you'll get enough people to go along but that still doesn't solve today's problem," Johnny replied.

"No, I'm afraid it doesn't," Murdoch agreed glumly. "How do you feel?"

Johnny shrugged. "Not bad. At least the wound's on my left side. I'll be okay."

"Do you need to practice?" Scott asked.

Johnny looked over at him and saw that he'd accepted the inevitable. He smiled briefly. "No time but it's okay."

"Well, I'm going to send for Sam just in case you tear those stitches again," Murdoch said, his voice stunningly calm even to his own ears.

Johnny laughed softly. "I'd just as soon you do it than face Sam again."

"I'll bet but we've got him so we may as well use him."

Johnny only nodded and felt oddly comforted that his father had so much faith in him. He didn't. The truth that he would only admit to himself was, he wasn't sure he'd walk away this time. It was a mixture of things. Thorn was damned good, he knew. Plus, he felt like hell. Stiff and sore.

"I have to ask again that you keep everyone out of this. And, let me do what I need to do this morning to get ready. No questions and no harpin at me to take it easy."

Murdoch and Scott shared a look but both agreed to leave him be. Scott had wanted to spend some time with his brother this morning. Just in case. He hated feeling this way but he couldn't help it. Johnny's own words haunted him. Made him edgy and, honestly, scared. Scott was almost certain that, should his brother not win the day, he'd kill Thorn himself.

*****

Murdoch had a long talk with the hands and an even longer argument with Cipriano. He'd finally made his point with the segundo who was still most unhappy. Cipriano decided he would be very close by when the time came. Ready to extract retribution should things go badly. He only prayed Johnny was well enough for this.

For his part, Johnny took a long walk, away from the house and curious eyes. He found a crop of trees and disappeared into them. He stretched his muscles and practiced some dry draws, feeling the pull from his back and perfecting the ability to ignore it. How long had he been sick now? It seemed he'd just started feeling like himself again after the pneumonia before finding himself flat of his back once more.

An hour before noon, he walked back to the house and cleaned his gun. He was sitting on his bed, cross-legged with his eyes closed when someone knocked.

Scott opened the door after just the one knock and not waiting for a reply.

"I know you said to leave you be but I just wanted to make sure there's nothing I can do," he said.

"I'm fine, Scott. I'm ready," Johnny said.

"Are you sure?"

Johnny looked up at him and Scott could see he was ready. Johnny Madrid stared at him and Scott could only give one quick firm nod of the head before leaving his brother alone with his thoughts.

Johnny dropped his head again and went back inside himself, finding his center and giving only one last thought for his family. He drew a deep breath then let it out slowly, then stood up. His hand rested on the butt of his gun briefly before he straightened and walked out the door.

Johnny walked downstairs and on outside. He perched on the low wall of the veranda, his back against the cool adobe, one leg stretched along the ledge, one dangling down the side. His hands lay loosely in his lap and he stared out at the road. He waited.

Murdoch had walked over to the French doors and was watching him. He wondered if Johnny could feel him there. Feel the strength Murdoch was trying so hard to extend to his son.

They hadn't resolved everything. Hadn't talked much since the revelation of Maria's death. He wanted more, so much more. Yet, now, it may be too late. He berated himself for the thought but he couldn't deny the possibility that this may be the last time he ever saw his son alive.

Murdoch had to fight with everything in him not to go outside. Not to have one last word with his boy. What that word might be, he didn't know. What it should be was that he loved his son. But, he knew he couldn't do that to Johnny. No emotions right now. Only Madrid. That's what Johnny needed and that's what Murdoch would give him. Even if it meant never speaking to his son again.

He heard a soft click and turned to find Scott with a rifle in his hands.

"What are you doing?"

Scott looked up at him with cold eyes. "I'm going to kill Thorn if he kills my brother," he answered in a short, clipped tone.

*****

Johnny had been watching for several minutes as the rider appeared under the arch. He lowered his eyes when the man came to a stop in front of him.

Thorn dismounted, his eyes still scanning the area.

"Johnny," he nodded.

Madrid's eyes came up and he returned the nod. "Thorn. How've ya been?"

"Pretty good. I understand I can't say the same about you," he grinned.

Johnny smiled. "Is that what you heard?"

Thorn's smile wavered as he looked in Johnny's eyes. Yet, the man hadn't made a move to stand up, either. The smile returned, more wicked than before. "Yup."

Johnny nodded and shrugged then smoothly pushed himself to his feet. He stood relaxed, his left hip slightly lower than his right, his right hand poised over the Colt.

"Heard you were lookin for me and makin a lot of noise. You know how I like it quiet," Johnny spoke in a soft voice.

Thorn chuckled. "Yeah, I know you like your quiet, Johnny. Well, you heard me, at least. That was the point."

"Reckon so."

"You ready?" Thorn asked, his face falling flat.

Johnny's eyes lit up, a smile curved his lips. "I'm always ready."

Scott moved quickly around the side of the house. He stood at the corner, Thorn in his sights. He held the rifle to his side and waited, ready to make his move if need be. He heard Thorn ask if Johnny was ready and the reply that almost brought a smile to his own lips, then he held his breath.

Johnny stood still, unable to breath as he watched the smoke clear. He raised to his full height from the crouched position, gun dangling from his now relaxed hand. His heart thundered in his chest as he still felt the hot wind carried by the equally hot lead that had barely missed his head.

Finding some air, he walked over and knelt beside Thorn, tossing the man's gun afar. He reached over with his left hand and closed the man's eyes then stood back up. From his periphery, he saw movement and swung around, gun ready.

Johnny sighed as he saw Scott then his eyes narrowed at the rifle.

"What's that for?" he asked.

"Justice," Scott said simply.

Johnny grinned and shook his head then turned to go inside.

"Johnny," Scott called.

He turned and waited for his brother to come aside him.

"Good shootin," Scott grinned. "How's your back?"

Johnny looked at him questioningly for a minute. He'd actually forgotten about that. He shrugged. "Don't feel a thing."

*****

Murdoch sat in the blue wing-backed chair with a glass of Scotch in his hand. He hadn't touched it yet so it sat there in an iron grip. He stared into space as his heart thumped wildly, pounding in his ears after he'd heard the shots. He couldn't watch. Simply could not. So, he decided to wait for his sons. Prayed they both walked in that door.

He heard the French doors open and closed his eyes briefly, afraid to look. He felt a hand on his shoulder and forced his eyes up. He took to his feet immediately, the whiskey glass falling to the floor. Liquor spilled over the rug as the glass rolled away.

Murdoch embraced his son tightly and Johnny was flabbergasted by the display. He stood rigid for a second before relaxing. Then it was over all too soon.

Murdoch cleared his throat. "How's your back?" he asked.

"Okay, I guess. Didn't feel anything but then I wasn't payin much attention." Johnny grinned at him.

"Well, let's take a look then. Is he dead, good and proper?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny cocked a brow. "Is there an improper way?"

Murdoch gave him a long look and smiled. "Upstairs, young man," he managed a stern voice.

Thankfully, the stitches had held. Both Murdoch and Scott sat on the bed beside him and simply stared. Johnny felt uncomfortable and played with his hands.

"Well, I suppose I should get to town now," Murdoch finally said.

"I'll go with you, Sir," Scott offered.

"No, son. I want you to stay here. It won't take long for Karlan to hear the news."

Scott nodded and Johnny grinned. "I can take care of myself."

"Yes, so we've seen but, I want as much help around as possible. Just in case," Murdoch replied.

The rancher left the brothers alone. Scott fidgeted a bit then stood and walked to the window. "You won't be able to see much of the barn now," he commented.

"Poor me," Johnny laughed.

"That was pretty awesome, brother. I've never seen you face a man down before. I was impressed but I'm pretty sure my heart stopped beating for a second or two."

Johnny smiled widely. "So did mine."

Scott turned and studied him. "It did?"

Johnny turned serious. "Yeah, it was real close. Felt the bullet pass by my head."

Scott's eyes widened and he turned back to the window, leaning against it heavily and closing his eyes.

*****

Karlan hurled the book at his foreman's head, barely missing the man who had the foresight to duck.

"How could this happen? He's still recovering and he takes out one of the best? He's just a man - less than that! He can be killed," he raged.

Silas Miller stared at his boss with a slack jaw. He didn't want to point out the obvious but the boss had lost all reason.

"Mr. Karlan, Madrid didn't kill Seth."

Karlan glowered at the man. "It was because of him! This is all his fault!" His breathing was erratic as he stared down the hand. Then, without warning, he calmed.

Miller watched in fascination and fear as his boss controlled himself.

"More to the point, it's Murdoch's fault. He sired the bastard and brought him here to live alongside decent people. Murdoch is the one who's endangered this entire valley! Why the hell did he ever bring that breed back!? He was rid of him. He should have counted his blessing and left Madrid to rot!"

Karlan began to pace then, clasping his hands behind his back as he thought.

"Miller, saddle my horse. I'm going to town."

*****

Murdoch delivered the body to the undertaker and gave him enough to bury the man in a simple grave with a simple marker. He figured that was more than generous. He sent a telegram to Sacramento then stood on the boardwalk thinking of where to start. Nodding his head, he made his decision and headed to the saw mill.

Silas Miller rode up to the hacienda, his guts in a knot. He was about to lose his job but he figured that would be happening pretty soon anyway. He knocked on the door loudly.

Scott opened it and smiled, not knowing who the man was.

Silas removed his hat. "Scott Lancer?" he asked though he already knew.

"Yes, may I help you?"

"No, but I think I can help you. My name is Silas Miller and I'm the foreman at the Circle K ranch."

Scott's shoulders went back as his chin jutted out and his eyes narrowed.

"There's somethin you need to know," Silas went on before the man shot him.

Scott considered him, wondering if it was a trap. "Come in," he finally said.

Silas stopped in his tracks when he saw Johnny on the sofa.

"What is it you have to say, Mr. Miller?" Scott asked.

His eyes stayed on Johnny for a second before looking back to Scott. "Look, I ain't happy bout bein here but I like Mr. Lancer. Karlan's about lost it. He was rantin about Thorn and Madrid..."

"Lancer," Scott said sharply.

Silas sighed. "Whatever! Mr. Karlan's blamin Mr. Lancer now. He said it was all your pa's fault for bringing Madr ..... Johnny here in the first place. He's headed for town but I don't know what he's got in mind. He's gone plumb loco, is all."

Johnny was on his feet and headed for the door in a split second.

"Thank you for telling us, Mr. Miller. Murdoch is in town, too," Scott said as he herded the man to the door.

Silas felt that twisting in his guts again as he walked out with Scott. "I never much liked Seth but he never bothered me. I got no quarrel with the Lancers."

"We appreciate the warning," Scott smiled tightly. He just wanted the man to leave so he could catch up to his brother before Johnny took off on his own.

To Scott's surprise, Johnny led two horses out of the corral. He looked at Scott and shrugged. "Let's go."

*****

Murdoch walked into the saw mill office, relieved to find Fred Saylor there with Mike Farley.

"Murdoch! How's Johnny doing?" Fred asked.

After shaking hands with both men, Murdoch filled them in on all that had happened.

"Reckon Albert has just lost his mind since Seth died. Haven't seen him since the funeral. He was over at the saloon goin on about Johnny. I thought it was the grief talkin and he'd get past it," Mike told.

"And what was the general reaction in the saloon?" Murdoch asked grimly.

"Well, most everyone ignored him, Murdoch. He was drunk. There's always a few that'll side with whoever is lookin to start trouble. You know that."

"Yes, I do," Murdoch said distractedly.

"What can we do to help?" Saylor asked.

Murdoch sighed. "I've sent for the US Marshall but who knows how long that will take. Johnny got lucky today. He isn't well enough to deal with this. Albert isn't going to stop coming after him and I'm at my wit's end, gentlemen. The only thing we could come up with was asking for the help of our neighbors."

"What can we do?" Mike asked.

"Shun him. Refuse to do business with him. Drive him out of the valley. I know it's extreme but without any local law, there's not much else we can do."

"I gotta say you're bein more charitable than me, Murdoch. I'd put a bullet in him if he threatened my son," Fred Saylor growled.

"Don't think it hasn't crossed my mind more than once. But, I'd like to handle this legally if we can. If nothing that's happened in the past year can propel the people of this valley into demanding local law, I don't know what to think," Murdoch shook his head sadly.

"It's a lot easier to ignore when it's not happening to you. I guess folks just figure it's not their problem," Mike said sadly. "Well, I'll be more than glad to refuse him business, Murdoch, but I can't speak for anyone else."

"Can you get the word out, Mike?" Murdoch asked.

"Sure thing."

*****

Scott kept a close eye on his brother as they rode into Morro Coyo. Johnny's face was granite, his mouth a tight white line. Pain lines surrounded his eyes but Scott knew better than to say a word. He leaned back in his saddle and glanced at Johnny's back. He saw no blood but that didn't mean it wasn't there. Still, there was no stopping Johnny and no time to debate it anyway. They both knew that in Karlan's state, should he come across Murdoch, things would get ugly very fast.

As they rode down the street, both young men scanned for any sign of their father. Scott spied his horse tethered in front of the stage depot and pointed it out to his brother. They dismounted and walked inside.

Less than a minute later, the brother's stood on the boardwalk and wondered where Murdoch may have gone. They surmised his first stop would have been the undertaker and since he'd already sent his telegram, he'd have to be talking with the local storekeepers.

"Why don't you try Baldemeros and I'll head over to the saw mill," Johnny suggested.

Scott wasn't happy about splitting up but he knew it was the prudent thing to do so he nodded his head and turned to his right.

Johnny stepped off the boardwalk and started across the street.

Albert Karlan loped into town, still seething and still trying to decide which gunhawk to hire. His eyes widened then narrowed and a wicked grin split his face as he saw Johnny start across the road.

Murdoch walked outside the saw mill with Fred Saylor. His back was to Johnny who sighed relief when he saw his father. He called out and raised a hand in greeting.

Scott pulled up short as he heard his brother's voice then spotted Murdoch as well and headed that way.

Murdoch turned at the voice, a puzzled and worried expression on his face at seeing Johnny there. Then, Johnny stopped and turned to look down the street.

The horse was in full gallop and headed straight for him. Johnny shifted to jump away when he felt a mighty weight knock him backwards.

Dust descended on them as they lay near the boardwalk. Johnny blinked and coughed a little as he stared at the blue sky. Then, he heard a groan and felt the weight on top him shift.

Murdoch rolled to his side and sucked in a breath as Scott ran up to them both.

"Are you alright?" Scott asked as he pulled on his father's arm.

"I think so," Murdoch mumbled. "Johnny?" he asked as he bent over to retrieve his son from the dirt.

Johnny accepted the offered hand up then hissed loudly as his back exploded in fire. He stumbled into his father and grabbed the man's arm tightly.

Scott grabbed hold of Johnny from the other side and saw the blood he'd looked for earlier. He sighed loudly. "Here we go again, brother."

"Damn!" Johnny cursed.

"Murdoch!"

All three Lancers turned at Fred Saylor's shout. They looked up as Karlan tore toward them again.

"I've had enough of this," Johnny growled. He drew and fired at the man in one swift move.

Karlan's back arched and his hand jerked on the reins, causing the horse to pull up suddenly then rear on it's hind legs in displeasure. Karlan went flying and the horse lost it's footing, crashing down on top of him. The horse whinnied loudly and struggled back to it's feet, taking off down the street.

Several townspeople and the Lancers descended on Karlan as he lay still in the middle of the road. Murdoch knelt beside him on one knee.

Karlan blinked and focused on the man above him. "This is all your fault, Lancer," he hissed.

"No, Albert. It's your fault. I can't even blame Seth. You raised him to be the way he was. It's over now," Murdoch said, a certain tinge of sadness in his voice.

"At least, I .... raised my own .... son," Karlan made one last shot at his former friend before his last breath rattled from his body.

"Another notch for Johnny Madrid," someone in the crowd sneered.

Johnny's back tensed as he heard that and he looked at Karlan. The blood from the bullet wound in his right shoulder had stopped oozing now that his heart was no longer beating. Right in the shoulder, right where I aimed to put it, Johnny thought bitterly.

Murdoch was on his feet. "I don't know who said that and I don't care but I am sick of you people. Johnny helped save this valley from Pardee. He's done nothing to the Karlans except to save Scott's life when Seth tried to shoot him in the back. And now, Karlan decided to try and kill me and once again, Johnny protected his family. If that sort of behavior is disdainful to any of you then perhaps you should watch your own backs around your own families. Apparently, that kind of trust and loyalty are alien to the lot of you!"

Silence greeted the diatribe for several seconds.

"Amen!" Someone shouted and a roar of applause was heard in its wake.

Murdoch felt a hand on his shoulder and turned his head.

Johnny grinned. "That was real pretty. Don't know what the hell it means, but it was pretty."

Murdoch chuckled at him. "You know exactly what I said and what it meant."

"Murdoch, why don't you take your family home? We'll clean up this mess," Fred Saylor smiled.

The rancher smiled at his friend and nodded. "That's an excellent idea, Fred. Thank you."

The Lancers rode to the edge of town and Murdoch stopped. Both boys looked back at him. He simply jabbed a finger to his left and they looked in that direction. Johnny sighed and shook his head then reined his horse toward Sam's house.

*****

Scott guided his brother to the sofa, certain he wouldn't make it much further. What had started out as a simple wound had turned into a nightmare to the healing process.

Maria entered the room and looked at him, shaking her head and not saying a word about it. "Supper will be ready in ten minutes."

"Gracias, Maria. Say, you got anything for blistered ears? Sam did it so he wouldn't treat it," Johnny grinned at her.

"The good doctor is much too kind, nino. It is not your ears I would like to blister," she replied and stalked back to her kitchen.

Murdoch and Scott burst out laughing then Scott excused himself to clean up.

"Are you sure you wouldn't rather have supper in your room tonight, son?" Murdoch asked when they were alone.

"No, I think I can make it. I'm tired of bein in that bed," Johnny sighed heavily.

"I can imagine. So, you just jumped right in without a thought to your well-being."

Johnny looked up at him in surprise. "We told you what Karlan's hand said. He was after you and on his way to town. What was I supposed to do?"

"Oh, I don't know. Let Scott handle it?" Murdoch queried.

Johnny pulled a face. "I'm sure he could have. Just didn't think about it," he said softly.

Murdoch smiled. "Thank you."

Johnny grinned widely.

"Don't be too pleased with yourself, young man. Sam said you still had to stay down for a week."

Johnny rolled his eyes. "That week sure is lastin a long time."

"Yes, it is but that's hardly your fault."

Johnny dropped his head and played with his conchos. He swallowed hard and glanced up quickly. "So, you and me. I guess we got a lot to talk about still."

Murdoch sat down next to him. "We do but we don't have to do it all in one sitting. I think it would be a good idea to go slowly at first. Find out about each other and try to find some common ground."

"We have common ground. Lancer," Johnny replied softly.

"I, um, I hope we have more than just the land in common," Murdoch faltered a bit.

"Yeah, there's Scott and .... family. What you said back there in town was pretty incredible."

"It was true. You've done so much for this family, Johnny, and done it so willingly. I wish to God I'd been able to see that before now," Murdoch said, laying a hand on his son's leg.

"I'm still getting used to the way you are right now. Seems like you turned around completely." His tone had a questioning quality to it.

"I suppose I feel .... free. I don't know how else to explain it. When I finally told you my ..... fears, I felt like I could act the way I should have with you all along. The way I now know I could have if I hadn't been so ...... stupid." Murdoch's voice was tight with emotion's long pent up.

Johnny nodded. "I guess, in a strange way, it's good to know you would have been this nice to me all along."

Murdoch grimaced. "I have so much to make up for."

"We'll be okay, Murdoch. It's gonna take some time but we have that now. All the time in the world."

Murdoch patted his leg and prayed that was true. Prayed hard that he had many, many years with his sons. He prayed, too, that his heart would rule where Johnny was concerned from now on because he knew with all he was, he loved this man beside him more than life itself.

"Thanks for saving my life today and .... before," Johnny said.

Murdoch frowned. "Before?"

Johnny looked up at him with pain-filled eyes. "The firing squad."

Murdoch squeezed his leg and smiled at him. "I'm so grateful they got to you in time. So very grateful."

Johnny hung his head, unable to look into his father's eyes when there was so much emotion there. So much affection that simply took his breath away.

"Someday, I pray you'll be able to look at me without the pain," Murdoch said, his voice trembling.

Johnny sighed. "You aren't the one causing that, Murdoch. Not anymore," he whispered the last.

Murdoch moved his hand and put his arm around Johnny's shoulders. They sat just like that until Maria announced supper.

*****

Johnny sat on the side of the bed and just let himself be still for a minute. He was bone tired and wasn't sure he'd ever feel himself again. So many thoughts and emotions had been working on his nerves. And so many of those questions had been answered, Yet, now there were so many more.

Murdoch's epiphany had been wonderful, a breakthrough, but there was so much more he needed from the man. He'd apologized over and over but Johnny was still having trouble with it. Still unable to really understand how Murdoch could have been so terrible to him for all these weeks.

He wasn't sure there would ever be a good enough answer. That anything the man said would completely satisfy him. His thoughts went to his mother and her lies. Had she lived to see this, he didn't think any of her explanations would have been good enough either. But there was a difference. What is was, he wasn't sure. Maybe he just knew Murdoch meant what he said.

He'd seen the sincerity, the pain of his mistakes many times in the last couple of days. But, it had only been a couple of days. Johnny knew the only way this was truly going to be tested was with time and patience. Time he had, he'd never been big on patience. He smiled to himself a little but it quickly evaporated back into a frown.

He looked at his door and wondered. Why not? They'd been comin and goin through his door enough the past few weeks. He stood slowly and felt the pull, a grimace adorning his face and he sighed with frustration. Then, he walked out the door and down the hall.

Johnny stood there for what seemed hours just staring at the oak panels. He raised his hand then dropped it again. What would he say? How could he broach this without starting another argument? He didn't want that. No more fighting. No more keeping the truth from each other either. His words.

He braced himself and knocked firmly twice then waited. The footfalls grew louder as they neared the other side of the door. He watched the doorknob turn then slowly lifted his eyes.

Murdoch took one look at that face and stepped aside, opening the door wider to allow his son entry. Johnny stepped in and scanned the room. He'd never been in here before. It had always seemed as if entry to this domain was unobtainable for him. Now, he stood in his father's most private room.

His eyes fell on the dresser as he took a few more steps. Pictures sat there of his mother and Scott's. He almost made a remark then bit his tongue. There was another model ship, too. Smaller than the one downstairs. A small box sat near the back of the dressertop. Nothing much else decorated the room, save the curtains swaying in the gentle breeze from outside. He saw a chair and went to it, easing himself down gently.

Murdoch had said not a word as his son took his time looking around then finding a seat. He too, realized this was the first time Johnny had been in here. Scott never had, yet. He walked over and sat on the edge of the bed, hands clasped between his knees and waited for Johnny.

"I'm not really sure why I'm here," Johnny started softly.

Murdoch nodded his head. "You want to talk some more."

"Yeah," he breathed out. "I just don't want to fight."

"Why would we?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny looked up at him as he leaned back in the chair. "I know you've apologized to me a dozen times. I know you've meant it every time. But ......"

Murdoch shook his head slowly back and forth. "What is it, son?"

"I guess I'm just ..... it still seems too easy. All the sudden you're bein nice to me. Makes me edgy," he tried to explain it but the anger was there, just below the surface and he knew he'd made a mistake coming here.

"I tried to explain that, son. I know I've been very attentive but I thought that's what you want. It's what I want. For us to spend time together, get to know each other."

"I know and it'll take time. It's just not that easy to get over, Murdoch. The way you treated me all the time I've been here. It's .... look, I don't want to talk it death. I don't want to go over every single thing you've said or I've said. I know there's been times I've been .... disrespectful. I'm not sure what it is I want!" He gritted his teeth to fight back the frustration.

"You told me once that trust goes both ways and it's not easily given. I understand that completely. Johnny, I don't expect you to trust me, trust this right away. I know I'm going to have to prove myself to you as much as I expected you to prove yourself to me. And I can't do it by fighting off the likes of Pardee." Murdoch stopped and shook his head at his own foolishness.

"I asked you and your brother to prove you were men enough to keep this ranch. I offered you a partnership in exchange. What I didn't think about then was what that means. I wanted more than business partners but even if I hadn't, that still involves trusting the people you're in business with. I guess I just didn't think about what you would need from me. I didn't think either of you needed me anymore. That I'd lost the chance to be needed when you both reached manhood. But, I see now that isn't right."

"What do you need, Murdoch?" Johnny asked.

He looked up in surprise at the question. "I ... I need you and Scott. My family whole and happy. I'm just now starting to see that. I'm just now beginning to understand my own motives.  

"Johnny, I don't know what to say about the treatment you've received at my hands. I wish to God I could change it but I can't. All I can do is hope you'll believe me. Hope that you'll understand why I was so hard and cold."

"Because of my mother," Johnny said softly.

Murdoch inhaled deeply. "She's part of it, I admit. I've been angry with her for so long for taking you away from me. But, more than that, I've tried so hard to close off my emotions where you and Scott are concerned. I guess it was my way of being able to go on. To live my life without losing my mind with grief. When I got you both back, I didn't know what to do with you. As I said, Scott's been easier because he's focused his attention on learning the ranch. You've been .... well, more intense, I guess is the word. More there it seems."

Johnny cocked a grin. "Because of those questions I was supposedly askin with my eyes."

Murdoch had the grace to blush. "Because you kept looking at me so intently as if you expected something from me. I know you did and I was scared to death of what it was. I swear it seemed like every time I looked up, you were watching me."

"I was," Johnny admitted. "Tryin to see you, I guess. Tryin to read you."

Murdoch nodded. "I realize that now. But then, I was so guilty I let myself believe you were accusing me without saying the words. You are a fiercely passionate person. I was afraid you'd see right through me."

They fell silent for a while, each lost in their thoughts.

"What more can I say, son? What will put your mind at ease? Make you believe how much I want this to work?"

Johnny thought about that. He reckoned words just weren't going to be enough. The proof was in the living. "I told you before I think I know you a little by watching you with other people. I've never seen you give your word then break it. I've never seen you make a promise you knew you couldn't keep. I guess all I really need is your word, Murdoch, that you will treat me better and that you will try."

Murdoch stood up and walked over to the chair, standing beside his son and laying a hand on his shoulder. "I give you my word I will treat you with the respect you deserve so much and that I will do everything in my power to make up for hurting you so badly. I promise to work hard at building a relationship with you and your brother. A solid relationship that will stand against any trouble for the rest of my life."

Johnny stood then, too, and turned to face his father. "I promise to treat you with respect and, well, everything you just said," he grinned.

Murdoch chuckled a little. "I also promise that you and Scott are the two most important people in my life and to honor you both."

Johnny smiled softly and nodded his head. With a light tap to his father's arm, he said his goodnights and left the room.

Murdoch felt relief wash over him. It had gone better than he expected. He had a feeling Johnny wasn't completely at ease and couldn't blame him at all. The only question he'd had was if his son would come to him. He was thrilled Johnny sought him out this time. The gesture spoke volumes to the older man. Now, maybe, Johnny would feel he could come to him at other times when things troubled him. It would take time and he'd have to earn it, but he felt it was in his reach now.

*****

Two weeks passed and Johnny was back to work. The barn was finished and they had a party that evening with the hands to celebrate. Murdoch kept his sons away from the building until he received a sign from Cipriano. Then, with a big smile, he allowed them entry.

Scott and Johnny were impressed with the size of the place. Then, their eyes fell on the two stalls side by side. Scott saw it first and grinned as his hand went over the stall gate.

Johnny laughed aloud at the two simple but elegant signs. Each gate had a plaque noting who belonged to each stall.

Barranca and Remmie.

"Good thing those two get along," Johnny said.

Scott looked at him with eyes alight with joy and a little mischief. "Yes, it's a very good thing those two get along."

Johnny looked in his eyes and knew what he meant. He grabbed Scott by the neck and pushed him outside to the barbeque.

Murdoch could not be happier. His sons were home and cared so much for each other. He thought they were both slowly coming to care for him, as well. No, he didn't think it, he knew it. He could see it in their faces and their actions.

After the meal, music broke out and many began to dance. Murdoch was hornswaggled into dance after dance with Teresa and he was sure he'd drop dead soon. Scott rescued him after a time and the older man sat down gratefully.

He saw a glass appear before him and looked into the grinning face of his younger son. Murdoch looked over Johnny's shoulder to see Cipriano standing there looking a little uncertain. He smiled and accepted the beverage.

"I think someone wants to have a word with you, son."

Johnny looked around and saw the segundo. It was then he remembered Cipriano had wanted to speak with him those weeks ago. Curiosity piqued in Johnny and he walked up to the man.

"Should we talk about things now, Cip?" Johnny asked, his eyes dancing.

The segundo only nodded his head and walked away, expecting Johnny to follow and he did. They went to the man's quarters.

What Cipriano told him that night saddened and angered him. His mother had made a point of telling him he had no other family save his father who was, by all her accounts, a demon from hell. In the end, he found some peace in knowing that, at least as a child, she'd had some happiness in her life. Before whatever drove her to madness finally kicked in.

Johnny hugged the man who he know knew was his uncle and thanked him then left.

Murdoch saw him walk into the house with head bowed. He made to follow with Scott close behind him.

They spent the rest of the night talking. Some about what Johnny had discovered from his tio about his mother and father but, mostly about the future they now had together. A future that was most inviting.

 

 

~end~
2005

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