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Winj

 

The Wolf

 

 

 

This story refers to the episode The Lawman and is based on events therein. Hopefully, I've sufficiently recapped that episode so anyone who hasn't seen it can still follow along.



Scott opened the door and looked expectantly at the stranger, taking in his appearance quickly. He was six feet two inches, Scott guessed with a full head of sandy brown curly hair with matching moustache and hazel green eyes. He wore a small but distinguishable scar on his left cheek; noticeable but not terribly unattractive. Scott reckoned him to be in his early forties with just a hint of gray at his temples. He was dressed in black pants and shirt with a blue bandana around his neck and a light tan coat. He held his brown Stetson in his left hand.

Scott felt rather than heard his brother come to stand behind him and the strangerâ€s eyes raked Johnny over as efficiently as they'd raked over Scott seconds before.

"May I help you?" Scott asked.

"I'm lookin for Murdoch Lancer," he answered and Johnny smiled a little at the easy Texas drawl.

"He's not home but we expect him any minute, mister?" Scott replied.

"Northup. Asa Northup."

"Scott Lancer. This is my brother, Johnny."

Johnny nodded at the man who looked hard at him. His eyes went back to Scott. "Mind if I wait? I've come a long way."

"Of course, please come in," Scott smiled and stepped aside.

Northup walked into the living room, taking it in with a raised brow.

"What'ya want with Murdoch?" Johnny asked in a soft voice.

Northup turned and looked at him, seemingly deciding whether or not to answer. "We're old friends. Thought I'd look him up," he answered shortly.

Johnny gave him a hard look, not caring for the tone then Scott stepped closer. "Well, have a seat. Would you like a drink?"

"Thanks. Whiskey," he said and took a chair.

They all settled and the room was quiet for a while.

"Where did you know Murdoch?" Scott asked, trying to sound friendly. He wasn't sure what was going on or what this man wanted but he was ill at ease with the whole situation. He knew his brother was as well.

"Texas."

Johnny sighed softly, barely heard and Scott glanced over at him but, his brother's face was closed.

Finally, Scott tried a different tactic. "If it's important, I could find him," he offered.

Northup frowned and shook his head. "No, it's not important. Like I said, just thought I'd stop by. We haven't seen each other in nearly twenty years."

Johnny's eyes brightened as he put it together but the look vanished before anyone saw it. "You the law?" he asked.

"Mostly."

Johnny's mouth quirked. "That when you met Murdoch? When he was a deputy in Texas?"

"Know about that, do ya?" Northup asked with some amusement.

"Yes, we know about it," Scott answered and now knew why he felt uncomfortable.

"If you're here about Joe Barker ....."

"I'm not. Well, not really. Shame, is all. He was a good lawman once. Never can know what drives a man," Northup interrupted Johnny and his voice sounded a little sad at the end.

"Usually greed or hate," Johnny clipped.

"Or love," Scott added.

Johnny looked over with a smile. "Love, hate, it all ends up the same when things go wrong."

Northup chuckled a little and sipped his whiskey. "Reckon that's true enough."

They all relaxed a little yet the tension was in the room. The kind that comes from being with strangers and unsure of what or how much to say.

The door opened and all three stood expectantly and with some relief.

****

Murdoch hung his hat and removed his gunbelt with a satisfied sigh, glad to home at the end of a long day. He stepped into the great room and stopped short. A grin exploded on his face as he moved forward with hand extended.

"Asa Northup! How the devil are you?" he exclaimed as they greeted each other.

Northup smiled and nodded. "Good, Murdoch, real good. You're lookin spry."

Murdoch chuckled. "It's an illusion, I'm sure. I see you've met my boys."

"I have."

"Well, what brings you here? Sit down," he motioned and took a seat himself.

Johnny walked over and poured his father a drink, handed it off and sat back down.

"Oh, I'm just doin a little travelin. Found myself headin north and figured I'd stop by. I hope that's alright."

"Of course, it's fine. You'll stay a while, I hope?"

"Wouldn't mind gettin outta the saddle for a spell, Murdoch. Thanks," Northup replied, making a toasting motion with his glass.

"Well, I'll tell Maria we have a guest," Scott said and excused himself.

"He's got a lot of manners," Northup grinned.

"Yes, he went to Harvard," Murdoch beamed. Johnny rolled his eyes.

"That what they teach there?"

Johnny grinned at that but kept his head down so Murdoch didn't see. But the old man chuckled and shook his head.

"Tell me what you've been up to."

"Well, nothin much the past couple of months. Quit San Antonio and just been wanderin a while."

"Quit? Why?" Murdoch asked with a frown of concern. Scott walked back in on this.

Northup sighed and shrugged. "Reckon I got tired of it all, Murdoch. I got an offer from the Rangers but I ain't decided what I'm gonna do."

"That's a pretty elite group," Scott noted.

"Bunch of tough hombres," Johnny fairly challenged.

"They're both of those things alright but, I don't know. I'm gettin a little long in the tooth for that sort of thing. Might be best to leave it to the young pups."


"Nonsense. They'd benefit from your experience, Asa. It would be their loss if you don't take the job," Murdoch smiled.

Northup shrugged but had nothing to say. He kept glancing at Johnny and the younger man was fully aware of this.

"Well, why don't I show you to your room. I imagine you'd like to rest a while before supper," Murdoch offered.

Northup stood. "I would. Thanks, again, Murdoch."

The two men headed upstairs chatting away.

"What do you think?" Scott asked.

Johnny let out a soft breath. "I think I'll keep a close eye on him. Don't want nothin else like what happened when Barker was here."

Scott nodded, remembering well Sheriff Joe Barker. Murdoch's old friend. One he'd offered half of Lancer to at one time. One who turned his back on his duty for the promise of fast cash from a prisoner charged with murder. A prisoner who Johnny had known. One who had manipulated the situation to his own advantage and nearly gotten away with it, leaving Johnny staring a murder charge of his own in the face.

He'd felt the distrust for that man almost immediately, as had his brother. Scott smiled a little. That they'd both been wary of the man had fortified his belief in their relationship. One that was still growing at the time. Barker had let Evans go free and a deputy had been killed in the process. Barker had set Johnny up to take the fall and tried to convince Murdoch to let the young man escape back to Mexico 'where he belonged'.

Scott had often wondered what Barker's plan was for getting rid of him had he been successful in his plans for Johnny. It was clear to both brothers this was the goal. Get them out of the picture and take that half of Lancer Murdoch had promised. He supposed it was the circumstances that had changed Barker's idea of taking the money and letting Evans go free. When Johnny stumbled upon the escape, Barker knocked him out and set him up. Scott figured he'd decided Lancer was a much more profitable prize. Even if his brother hung for it. His anger surfaced and he clenched his jaw.

Johnny was thinking of that time, too. But, part of his memory included some fond moments. Murdoch had complimented him on being a top hand after correcting Barker's assumption that was all he was. Then, Murdoch had offered him the chance to run. But he hadn't been angry with his father. He'd been astounded that this man who so valued law and order would offer him his freedom. But, Johnny knew it was his father's belief in his innocence that compelled him to make the offer. And he only had Johnny's word that he was indeed innocent. That had spoken volumes to the young man about how Murdoch felt toward him.

Now, this man had appeared on their doorstep and Johnny had to wonder what he wanted. Was it as simple as looking up an old friend? He wasn't sure. Northup's initial demeanor hadn't been very friendly but then, maybe he was sizing them up. Trying to figure out how much they knew and how much he should say. It did make sense. Still, Johnny also had a very strong feeling the former lawman knew exactly who he was. Well, it should be interesting to say the least.

***

Johnny inhaled deeply of the fresh morning air as he stretched out his back. He heard the front door open and glanced back at his brother.

"Good morning. I suppose those two will be sleeping in. They were up half the night," Scott grinned.

"Mornin. Don't know about Northup but I wouldn't lay odds on Murdoch sleepin in ever."

Scott cocked a brow. "Oh? How are those odds?"

Johnny turned to look at him fully, sizing him up. "Two to one the old man is already awake."

"Two to one on what?"

"Ten?" Johnny shrugged.

"You're on, brother," Scott smiled. It didn't last long as his face fell.

Murdoch strode across the yard from the barn. "Good morning, boys."

Scott gave his brother an accusatory look. "That was unfair, Johnny. You already knew he was awake."

Johnny just grinned. "You didn't ask me that, brother. Pay up," he said, his palm out expectantly.

"What's this all about?" Murdoch asked with amusement.

"Oh, just that Harvard education showin again, is all," Johnny smirked.

Scott growled a little as he dug a twenty dollar gold piece from his pocket and begrudgingly handed it over.

Johnny flipped the coin in the air, caught it deftly and tucked it in his pocket. "Thank you."

Murdoch shook his head at them and walked inside, not caring what they were up to. He was tired but he felt good. He'd enjoyed reminiscing with Asa last night. It was nice to have someone his age around to talk with. Sometimes, his sons' ideas of fun were lost on him. Like just now.

***

Asa didn't sleep in and joined them at the breakfast table.

"I thought we'd take a ride today if you're not too tired of the saddle. I'd like to show you some of the ranch," Murdoch offered.

"Sounds good. Will you boys be joining us?"

Scott smiled. "I'm afraid we both have a lot of work to do."

"Oh, that reminds me. How are those ponies looking, Johnny?" Murdoch asked.

"Real good. Should be done by next week."

"Ponies?" Asa asked.

"Johnny is breaking and training cow ponies for us. We never seem to have enough," Murdoch explained.

Asa looked rather surprised by this and Scott didn't miss it.

"Is something wrong, Mr. Northup?" he asked.

Johnny looked up from his food then.

"What? Oh, no. Sorry, I didn't know you broke horses," he answered, directing his gaze at Johnny.

The young man smiled, understanding the implication but he said nothing.

"Why would you know that, Asa?" Murdoch asked.

Northup looked at Murdoch and opened his mouth.

"Reckon Mr. Northup's used to a different kind of horse wrangler. Bein from Texas and all," Johnny said. "Anyway, best get to it," he added and wiped his mouth then dropped his napkin on his plate. "See ya," he grinned.

Murdoch didn't think that sounded very reasonable at all but he didn't get the chance to say so.

"Yes, I should get going as well. Have a good day," Scott smiled and followed his brother who he caught up with outside. "What was that all about?"

Johnny shrugged and kept walking toward the corral. "He knows."

"Knows what?" Scott asked.

Johnny stopped and looked at his brother. "About Madrid," he stated.

Scott ahhed and nodded. "But, you didn't want Murdoch to know he knew. Why?"

Johnny sighed. "No sense in bringing it up, Scott. Have a good day." He gave his brother a light tap on the arm and headed into the corral.

***

Murdoch was pensive as they began the tour. Not one to hold his tongue, he spoke. "You know about Johnny, don't you?"

Northup looked over at him. "I recognized him yesterday. It was a surprise."

"And?"

Northup pulled to a stop and Murdoch followed.

"And I'm curious is all. Why is he here?"

Murdoch shook his head slowly. "He's my son."

Sighing, the Texan looked hard at Murdoch. "He's a gunfighter. You sure you need that kind of trouble?"

"Was a gunfighter. Johnny has worked hard to change his life. He's settled here and he's happy. And for once in his life, he's safe. As safe as he'll ever be, that is. That boy has been through hell, Asa. I intend to make sure he never has to go through it again. This is his home. It always has been."

"Then how come he stayed away?" Northup threw back.

Murdoch dipped his eyes briefly. "That's a long story. He had some misguided beliefs but we've straightened it all out now. He's a good boy and a good rancher."

It was Northup's turn to shake his head. "Murdoch, that is no boy. Johnny Madrid is notorious and he didn't get that way by being a rancher. He's done a lot of things...."

"It's in the past. He did what he had to do. You don't know him, Asa. You don't know what a fine young man he is. You're right, he's no boy but he's *my* boy. I won't have anyone talk down about him," Murdoch stated, jutting his chin out a fraction.

Holding up a hand, Northup surrendered. "If you say he's changed, reckon that's good enough for me." I just don't believe it, he thought but didn't say.

They continued the tour but the air was strained between them. They stopped for a break near a stream and Northup thought to ease the tension.

"Look, I'm sorry and you're right. All I know is the reputation. He seemed like a nice fella last night. Reckon I shouldn't judge what I don't know," he offered.

Murdoch smiled and shook his hand. "Thank you. I'm sure once you've spent some time with him, you'll see what I see."

***

They returned to the ranch and walked over to watch Johnny work the horses. Murdoch smiled broadly as he rested his forearms on the rail.

"I think this just might impress even you, Asa."

Northup gave him a sidelong look and a smile then settled in to watch.

After an hour, Northup had to admit he was impressed. He would have never guessed Madrid had the gift. He had to wonder where he ever found the time. Seemed to him, once Johnny Madrid had appeared on the scene six years ago, his name was a topic of daily conversation around the border. That didn't make him anything more than what he was, though.

Still, he needed to stay on Murdoch's good side. Besides, he had no real animosity toward Madrid other than his profession, former profession, he quickly revised with a small smirk. He wouldn't have any problem being cordial to Madrid, he decided.

Johnny was ready to mount the black and he glanced over at his father, wishing the old man wouldn't watch. He hated it when Murdoch watched him work. He still felt like he was being graded, sized up to see if he was worthy. He sucked it up and put his foot in the stirrup.

Murdoch held his breath, just like he did every time Johnny did this. His son had made flying through the air an art form even if it didn't happen all that often.

Northup saw Murdoch grip the rail, his knuckles white and he chuckled a little. Murdoch glanced over and saw his friend looking at his hand. He relaxed his grip, a little embarrassed.

This was one of those times. Five minutes in, Johnny left the saddle involuntarily. He landed, tucking his body instinctively and rolling toward the fence. The stallion bucked across the corral and Johnny got up quickly, a frown of anger on his face. He took a breath and headed for the black.

Murdoch nearly went over the fence but managed to restrain himself. He couldn't do that to Johnny in front of the men. His son would skin him alive for such an act.

Northup lowered his head and tried not to bellow with laughter. He didn't want to spook the horse any further but watching Murdoch Lancer have a conniption fit was the funniest thing he'd seen in a long time.

Johnny managed to get back in the saddle and start the dance again. Scott rode up and joined his father.

"How's it going?"

"He just got thrown but he seems alright," Murdoch answered, never taking his eyes off the corral.

Scott smiled and shook his head, his eyes meeting Northup's and sharing the silent laughter.

"That horse is loco," Frank said as he sidled up.

"What do you mean?" Scott asked.

"Just that, Scott. He's been real edgy ever since we brought him in. I don't think Johnny's gonna do so good with this one."

Scott frowned and turned back to watch. Frank was a top hand and well trusted and a fine horse wrangler in his own right. He knew horses and his assessment had Scott edgy.

If Scott was edgy, Murdoch was ready to shoot the horse from beneath his son. The black was a fierce combatant. He was giving Johnny all he had and then some. The longer Johnny stayed on him, the more panicked the horse became. Murdoch saw the signs and opened his mouth. He was about to order Johnny to stop when it no longer became necessary.

Johnny came off the saddle again but this time, he didn't tuck and roll. His spur caught in the stirrup for just a second. Just long enough to throw him out of his tuck and he landed flat out, rolling into a corral post.

Murdoch felt his stomach turn when he heard the impact, unsure if there was a cracking sound in there.

One of the hands opened the corral gate and the black took off as several men ran to Johnny. Scott was the first to reach him.

Johnny had impacted the post with his back. He'd arched it in pain then went still. Scott laid a hand on his shoulder and leaned over to see his face. He was out cold.

"Let's get him in the house," Murdoch said.

"No. Wait for him to come around," Northup disagreed. "He hit his back, Murdoch, wait til he can say what hurts," he explained.

Murdoch nodded grimly. "Frank, send for the doctor."

"Already did, Mr. Lancer. Soon as he's ready, we'll carry him inside," the hand replied.

Scott removed his gloves quickly and laid a hand on Johnny's face, patting lightly. "Water!" he barked out and received a canteen from his own horse. He wet his kerchief and wiped Johnny's face. The younger man moaned.

Murdoch was kneeling in front of him. "Johnny?" he called softly.

Johnny moaned again and opened his eyes, blinking rapidly. He looked up at Murdoch and grimaced.

"Easy, son. Where does it hurt?"

Johnny shot him a look. "Everywhere," he snipped.

Biting his tongue, Murdoch managed to stay calm. "Can you move?"

Johnny nodded and slowly raised up on his elbow. He grunted a few times then bent his legs much to everyone's relief. "Give me a hand," he breathed out.

Murdoch took one side, Scott the other and they got him to his feet then let go. Johnny took a step and winced, then another and faltered.

Scott grabbed him around the waist. "Okay, let's get you inside."

He nodded. "Might have messed up my leg," he told.

He was limping badly all the way inside. They decided to put him on the sofa so he didn't have to try the stairs. That was fine by Johnny. He felt like he'd been run over by a stampede.

He sighed heavily as they eased him down.

Murdoch unbuttoned his conchos to get a good look. He pressed gently over the bone. Johnny stiffened and hissed but never yelled out.

"I don't think anything's broken," Murdoch murmured.

"Nah, just bruised up is all. I'll be okay."

He looked up into his son's eyes and saw the pain there. He gave Johnny a smile of reassurance. "Well, Sam will be out to check you. In the meantime, stay put."

"No problem there," Johnny grinned.

"What about your back? You hit that post pretty hard," Northup ask.

Johnny frowned. "It's pretty sore, too, I reckon but I can walk. Good enough for me."

"It's not good enough for me. Like I said, until Sam looks ...."

"I know, I know. Stay put," Johnny groaned.

Northup chuckled a little then happened to glance at Murdoch. The smile slid off his face at the other man's scowl.

"Maybe you should put somethin cold on that hip. Looks like it's gonna be a whopper of a bruise," he suggested.

"I'll see what Maria has," Scott said and started to the kitchen.

"No! Don't tell her! Get Jelly," Johnny insisted.

Scott turned slowly, a bit dramatically, as he cocked a brow. "I'm sorry, were you talking to me?"

"Don't give me that, brother. Just get Jelly. I can't deal with no mother hen right now."

Scott grinned. "Then why should I get Jelly?"

Johnny narrowed his eyes, not in the mood for jokes. Scott looked chagrined and headed out the front door.

"Well, nothing is broken but you are going to be very sore for several days, I'm afraid," Dr. Jenkins diagnosed as he covered Johnny's legs.

"Maybe he should soak in a hot tub," Scott suggested.

"No, that will make the bruising worse. Cold compresses and this ointment are the best thing for it," Sam countered as he handed the jar to Scott.

"Let's get you upstairs then, son," Murdoch said, a scowl on his face.

Johnny's face held the same expression. He was no happier about it than Murdoch but he was sure, at some point, he'd get an earful from the old man. He only nodded and started to get up very slowly. Scott took hold of his arm and helped him sit. After a minute, Johnny nodded to indicate he was ready and Scott pulled him to his feet, wrapping an arm around his waist for support.

"Thanks," Johnny breathed.

Northup watched closely as the brothers made their way to the staircase. Johnny was limping badly and he was sure he'd never seen such a deep bruise before. He looked over to find Murdoch watching as well, a pensive look on his face.

"Scott might need a hand, Murdoch," he chanced.

Murdoch looked over at him and shook his head. "He's got it. Johnny doesn't like a lot of people hovering over him."

Northup shrugged but wondered how two was a lot of people. Especially family. He was beginning to wonder if all Murdoch's speech this morning was genuine. He didn't seem in any hurry to be around Johnny now that he was hurt. He started to wonder if he shouldn't be focusing more on Scott. He seemed to be the one Murdoch held in such high regard. Well, he'd have to wait and see. Hard to tell after only one day. There could be something going on here he wasn't aware of.

It shouldn't be too hard to get Murdoch to open up about either of his sons. At least, he'd had no problem today when they were alone. Yep, he'd just have to ask the right questions was all. Should be pretty easy.

***

Johnny sighed heavily as he eased onto the bed, keeping his left leg extended.

"That hip must hurt like the devil," Scott said sympathetically.

"It does. Hey, I bet you never saw a bruise this bad before," Johnny grinned.

Scott looked at him dumbstruck then narrowed his eyes. "I'm not taking that bet, brother. You sound like you're proud of it."

Johnny shrugged. "Anything worth doin is worth doin all the way."

Scott laughed and shook his head. "Alright, let's get you in bed and get this ointment on then I'll get you a compress."

"Thanks, Scott," Johnny said softly as he started unbuttoning his shirt.

Scott recognized the tone of voice but wasn't surprised by it. It was Johnny's 'Murdoch did it again' voice. Their father's initial concern had waned in the face of Johnny's forced infirmity. Scott could just hear the man. Now they'd be a man short and who was going to pick up the slack and those horses need to be broke and on and on and on. He let out his breath in a harsh burst.

"What?" Johnny asked as he shucked his shirt and tossed it to the foot of the bed then started on his pants.

Scott gave him a sheepish look. "Nothing, I was just lost in my thoughts."

"Thoughts about what?"

"You are tenacious, brother. I was just thinking about Murdoch," he answered and gave Johnny a surreptitious look.

As Scott could have easily guessed, Johnny's head went down. He seemed intent on his belt buckle, fiddling with it for a few seconds then pulling it out of the loops and tossing it on top the shirt.

"Help me up," Johnny said, holding out an arm.

Scott did so, holding him under the arm as Johnny pulled his pants over his hips, hissing as the cloth rubbed against his left hip.

"Shoulda unbuttoned the sides," he ground out then sat back down.

Scott said nothing and pulled off his boots and socks, placing them at the end of the bed. He stood back up.

"Can you manage those while I get that compress?"

"Sure, Boston. I'll be all tucked in by the time you get back." And the grin was there, easy and soft.

Scott returned it, knowing Johnny would not speak his feelings about Murdoch's behavior. But Scott would. Only not to Johnny.

***

Scott came back downstairs and walked over to the sideboard. He glanced at the two men. Seeing their glasses were fine, he poured himself a whiskey and settled near the fireplace.

"How is he?" Murdoch asked.

"Asleep."

The rancher looked at his son's profile, the tension in his voice causing the older man to frown.

"What is it, Scott?"

He looked over at his father with an angry frown, then glanced in Northup's direction. "Nothing. Nothing at all."

Northup saw the look and stood up. "I could use a walk before supper. Gentlemen," he nodded at them and walked out the front door, stepping quickly into the shadows of the veranda near the open French door.

"What's on your mind, son?" Murdoch asked.

"Johnny."

Murdoch was getting tired of the clipped responses and terse tone. "What about him?" he growled.

Scott stood up and turned to his father. His demeanor changed to a more relaxed one. "Just that he's going to be laid up a while. We'll have to pick up the slack for a week or two."

Murdoch nodded, his own irritation squelched by the change in Scott. "From the looks of those bruises, it will be more like two weeks. I was hoping to have those horses ready before then. Well, we'll have to manage."

Scott had been waiting for the growling anger. When it didn't come, he deflated inwardly. Satisfied, he smiled briefly. Still, he thought.

"Well, those compresses will help. We'll have to change them again tonight," he said, hoping he didn't emphasize the *we'll* too much.

"How bad is it really? You know he'd never show it in front of a stranger," Murdoch asked.

Scott saw the true concern and sat back down. "Johnny bet me I'd never seen any worse. He's almost proud of them," he said with amusement.

Murdoch chuckled a little. "It's really not funny. It could have been much worse but this is bad enough. That one on his hip is really nasty."

"It is," Scott agreed, sobering. "He was limping badly and I had to help him stand to take his clothes off. He couldn't lift his leg to the bed without help."

Murdoch frowned, he didn't like the sound of that. "I'll check on him tonight and change the compress. He needs to take this seriously and stay off that leg as much as possible for at least a day or two."

Scott raised a brow. "Good luck."

Northup sighed. Well, so much for that theory. He reckoned Murdoch really thought Johnny didn't want him hovering. Guess he knows him pretty well by now. Or does he? Does he really know what Madrid is capable of? Murdoch had cut him off earlier today when he'd started talking about Johnny's exploits. It was clear he didn't want to hear about it. Well, he's *going* to hear about it. One way or the other.

Scott was pretty smooth, too. He was going to be tougher than Madrid. Where Johnny lived by instinct and emotion, Scott was logical and calm. He figured it wouldn't take a great deal to upset Murdoch's relationship with Madrid. Scott was another matter. He'd have to give that one some thought. He may just have to come up with a more permanent solution for Scott Lancer.

***

Murdoch eased the door open and slipped inside the room carrying a tray.

"I'm awake."

He stopped and turned to look at Johnny then smiled. "I brought your supper and another compress."

"Okay."

Murdoch's shoulders stiffened at the flat tone and he sat the tray on the dresser then moved to brighten the bedside lamp. He took a good look at Johnny and found him exactly as he knew he would - sullen.

"I know how hard it is for you to stay down, Johnny, but there's not much choice," he said gently.

Johnny glanced up at him, a scowl on his face that relaxed as he nodded.

"Okay, let me take a look," Murdoch said, knowing his words offered little comfort but having nothing else to assuage his son. He pulled the covers off Johnny's left leg and bit his lip. It seemed even worse now though it was hard to tell.

"You would have won," he murmured.

"What?" Johnny asked, completely confused.

"Scott said you bet him he'd never seen such a bad bruise," Murdoch explained.

Johnny laughed softly even as he winced at the light touch. "Well, I was on a winning streak. Figured I'd go for broke," he commented through clenched teeth.

"I know it hurts, son. I'm being as gentle as I can." Murdoch applied a thin layer of ointment then laid the compress over the hip, covering that with a dry towel then repositioning the bedclothes.

Johnny let out a breath and closed his eyes as he laid his head back against the pillows.

"Would you like to tell me why you don't have on a nightshirt?"

Johnny opened his eyes halfway and regarded the man. "Blanket is bad enough. It rubs."

Murdoch nodded and quirked his mouth then bit his lip. "Well, I'll get your supper."

"Not hungry."

Murdoch was half standing when he heard this and he sat back down. "Since when?" he smiled.

Johnny just gave him a look and shrugged then grimaced at the movement.

"No, I don't suppose you feel like doing much but sleeping," the older man sympathized.

"Not really, no. I'm sorry," Johnny said whisper soft.

"It wasn't your fault, son. The animal was a little off, Frank said."

"He told me but I didn't see it. Thought maybe he was wrong. I should've known better but I figured I could break him."

"Johnny, no one blames you. I'm just grateful you didn't get hurt any worse. You could have broken your neck," Murdoch said, fear making his voice hard.

"Guess so. I'm really tired, though," he sighed.

Murdoch knew he was still kicking himself. He sighed lightly and pulled the covers up. "I'll be in first thing to help you. Don't even think about trying to do anything alone tomorrow. You won't be able to move much and you'll only make it worse."

Johnny nodded, a little perturbed at the issued orders but he was too tired and hurt too bad to argue. Wouldn't do him a bit a good anyway.

***

Northup eased down the hall and into his own room. He sat in the chair heavily and rested his chin on his fist. His mind turned over one scenario after another. He knew what the easiest thing to do would be but that might get him hung. And it wouldn't be as satisfying as watching Murdoch lose his sons all over again.

He smiled at that thought. No, he wouldn't kill them outright unless he had to. But he would draw it out as long as possible. Maybe even make Murdoch watch. That would be sweet. He started to envision various forms of torture. Each one designed to inflict the most pain with the least chance of a quick death. His mind could conjure all sorts of punishment. He knew the human body could take a lot before it gave in.

In Johnny's case, right now would be the perfect time. While he was stove up and barely able to move. Right now, all he had to do was put the word out that Madrid was down. But, he didn't want anyone else doing this. It was his and his alone. Still, he thought, taking Johnny now would be a good idea. Using torture on an already banged up man would make the task easier. But, he wasn't lazy. He'd let Johnny heal while he made firm plans.

He knew the longer he stayed the more he could ingratiate himself into their lives. He'd win the brothers over with a little time and effort. Not too anxious, though. No, they'd get suspicious if he all the sudden wanted to be a second father to them. Slow and easy was the way to go.

They'd be more open to him since he and Murdoch were such good friends. His stomach rolled at that thought. But, he could keep it up as long as he needed to. And when he did make his move, it would be so much better. Murdoch would be mystified. He chuckled at that. The rancher had no idea who he'd messed with. But Northup would make sure he knew before it was over. Before he completely destroyed the two people Murdoch Lancer cared most about as the old man looked on.

Yep, Murdoch wouldn't know what hit him until it was too late to stop it. Of course, to Northup's way of thinking, it was too late the minute he set foot on this ranch. He grinned.

***

Johnny was quite sure he was paralyzed. Then, he knew he wasn't. He knew because he felt every bruise, every tightened muscle and every sore spot on his body. Still, he couldn't move - well, could barely move. He could turn his head a little each way. He could raise his hands but not his arms. He didn't even try the legs. The hell with that.

The door opened and his father appeared. Johnny tried to smile but that must be bruised, too. He couldn't even pretend he felt alright. The pitiable look he got pissed him off but the anger didn't help his mobility one bit.

Murdoch set the tray down and walked over to perch on the side of the bed. Johnny ground his teeth together at the jarring.

"Really bad?"

He let out the breath he'd been holding. "The worst."

Murdoch looked like he could 'tsk' any minute and Johnny almost felt like laughing - almost.

As Murdoch prepared the washbasin for him, Johnny sucked it up and forced himself up on his right elbow. He started to rise further when he felt the arm around his back pulling him up. Finding this much easier, he sat on the side of the bed, the covers pulled across his lap.

"Thanks," he whispered.

Murdoch sat on his left and pulled the blanket away. "I didn't think it could look worse, but it does."

Johnny looked at his hip and shook his head disbelievingly.

"Oh, John. You're back is pretty bad, too. Especially that shoulder," Murdoch noted as he examined his son.

"It's all bad. Not gonna get any better layin around. If I don't move around a little now, I never will," he grumped.

Murdoch couldn't disagree and he ended up practically dressing his son. Johnny wrapped his right arm around his father as they stood as one. He could barely stand any weight on his left leg and he limped around the room, hanging onto Murdoch for dear life. After a few short minutes, Murdoch eased him into the chair, noting Johnny sat more on his right hip. He served his son breakfast and sat with him.

"I really think it'll just be a couple of days," Johnny mentioned casually as he finished his coffee.

Murdoch smiled a little. "Sure, son, but Sam gets the last say."


Johnny slumped his shoulders. "You know he's always too cautious, Murdoch. You'd think he knows me well enough by now. I can't sit around here too long. That ain't how I heal."

Scott's head popped though the door followed by the rest of him, a look of dismay on his face. "Why is he up?" he asked tersely.

"Why don't you ask him?" Johnny shot.

Scott pulled a face and walked over, sitting on the bed across from them. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised but I didn't think you'd be able to move."

"I'm not much. Murdoch did most of the movin part," Johnny grinned.

"He's already started," Murdoch informed his other son.

"Of course he has. Did you expect any less?" Scott smirked.

"I'd be worried otherwise."

"You do both know I'm right here," Johnny said flatly.

Scott ignored the statement and studied him more closely. "How's the hip?"

"Worse than last night if you can believe that. His shoulder is pretty ugly, too."

Johnny sighed and rolled his eyes. He reckoned he must be invisible.

"Well, I'll get some compresses. Sam should be here in a while," Scott said, stood and headed downstairs.

"Why do you do that?" Johnny asked.

"What?"

"Talk about me like I'm not even in the room. It's annoying as hell."

"I'm sorry, son. We didn't mean to," Murdoch said, trying to sound remorseful.

"Maybe *you* didn't," Johnny grumped. "Anyway, if you'll help me with the stairs, I can sit on the sofa for awhile," he added, his eyes brightening.

Murdoch shook his head. "Compresses won't stay on unless you're lying down, son. Back to bed now. Don't argue, John. You'll lose and you know it. Come on."

Johnny surrendered for now. He figured he'd make it downstairs before the day was over. And if he didn't, he'd just loosen up right here in his room. One way or the other, he had to move no matter how much it hurt.

***

It took two more days before Johnny made it downstairs. After much arguing, shouting and coercing, he'd convinced Sam to cut him loose a little. In the end, common sense and past injuries had won the day. Johnny finally managed to make the doctor understand how he felt and why. Sam wasn't happy but he had to concede Johnny knew himself very well even if he didn't always heed what his body told him. This was the part that made the physician so obstinate with this particular patient. Johnny pushed too hard and ignored the warning signs.

Johnny walked the floors until the shine was coming off, he reckoned. His limp wasn't much better. Murdoch was at the desk watching him closely under the guise of bookwork. Johnny knew it and he was frustrated.

"Where's your friend?" he asked after an hour.

"He rode out with Scott this morning. Said he felt the need to work up a sweat."

Johnny only nodded at this. "Seems nice."

"He's a good man. He and Joe Barker were pretty close at one time. When Asa took his own sheriff's job, Joe took it pretty hard."

Johnny stopped and looked across the room at his father. "Why?"

Murdoch shrugged, tossed his pencil down and sat back in his chair. "I'm not sure. I guess Joe didn't want to lose a good deputy." He smiled wanly before continuing. "Joe was like a father to Asa. I suppose it's always hard for a father when his 'son' spreads his wings."

This information disturbed the younger man. "You'd think what happened to Barker wouldn't sit well with Northup then. But, he acts like it don't bother him."

"Oh, I'm sure it bothers him, son. But, he's had time to deal with it. I can't imagine how difficult the news was for him but he seems to have accepted it. We haven't talked about it at all."

"Maybe you should. Just in case he's got any bad feelings over it," Johnny advised.

Murdoch considered this. "You may be right. I'm sure he hasn't really talked it out with anyone." He smiled just a little then. "Are you ready to go outside?"

Johnny stopped. He'd been inching toward the door all this time. He bowed his head and grinned before looking up from under his lashes. "I knew I was gettin soft. I gotta tell ya, I'm startin to feel like a lump."

Murdoch chuckled and stood, rounding the desk. "Well, let's go see what trouble we can get into."

"I could refit some of the tack," Johnny said, breaking the silence between them as they watched the new ponies in the corral.

"Sounds good. At least, it will keep you off that leg," Murdoch answered, giving him a sideways glance.

Johnny grinned as he turned to face his father's profile. "Can't let it stiffen up."

"And you don't want to make it worse," came the counter.

Nodding, Johnny looked at the ground for a moment. When he raised his head, Murdoch had turned to him. "Might have to do somethin drastic."

The rancher seemed to consider this statement for quite a while as he nodded his head slowly. "So might I," he settled on.

Johnny laughed and leaned against the fence. "Like?"

"You don't want to know. Suffice it to say, your hip wouldn't be the only thing bruised."

The grin almost did Murdoch in but he held fast to his stoic demeanor. And he waited.

"Wouldn't want ya bustin your hand. Then we'd be two men down."

"True. But who said anything about using my hand," Murdoch replied, his right hand patting his belt.

Johnny howled at that and leaned over in laughter. Pain shot down his hip through his leg and his mirth died suddenly. He clenched his teeth and gripped the fence.

"Johnny?" Murdoch called softly as he laid a hand on his son's shoulder.

Johnny took several deep breaths before looking back up, pale and breathing hard. "I'm okay now. Just shouldn't have bent that leg."

"Why don't we have lunch then, if you feel like it, you can work on that tack," Murdoch suggested.

Johnny nodded and sighed, hating feeling so weak and vulnerable. It was better, he kept telling himself, and he'd just have to deal with it a few more days. Then, he'd be himself again.

***

Northup reined to a stop beside Scott and pushed his hat back a little. "Hot one."

"Hotter than Texas?" Scott asked with amusement.

Northup chuckled. "Well, maybe only when you're workin."

"We should be done today. I've got a little easier job tomorrow though more boring."

"Boring sounds good. What is it?"

Scott looked over and rolled his eyes. "Surveying."

Northup grimaced then smiled. "Yep, that's pretty boring."

"Ready for a break?" Scott asked.

"I sure am," the older man sighed.

They rested under an oak tree as the cattle milled about their new pastureland. Northup was still trying to figure this one out. He thought it wouldn't be out of line to use a direct approach. Curiosity, he could claim.

"This must be a whole different world for you," he said as he casually stretched out his long legs.

Scott smiled a little. "Yes, I would have never believed I'd be a cattle rancher. Not exactly what I studied at school."

"Murdoch said you went to Harvard? Pretty fancy."

"It's one of the best and I did enjoy my time there."

Northup nodded and scratched his head. "I know it's none of my business but I'm just real curious. What makes a well-educated city boy with more money than God give all that up to punch cows?"

Scott laughed heartily at the description. "Well, first of all, my grandfather is the rich one. Oh, I suppose I would have inherited his business and money and would have made a good living in Boston. As to why I gave it all up? It wasn't my intention. I only came here out of curiosity and ...... well, things weren't as I imagined them to be. Once I met Johnny, I couldn't consider leaving. At least, not until I knew if we could stand each other."

"Seems you stand each other pretty good. I can understand. Findin out you have a brother and all; wantin to know him. Maybe knowin Murdoch, too. Couldn't have been easy."

"Sometimes, it's still hard. Oh, I'm used to the work and I actually enjoy it most of the time. This family business is ...... taxing," Scott smiled at the word that fit so well.

"Well, you're settled. I can see you're a capable man, Scott. Bein educated is a real plus, too. Wouldn't want ya to get swindled," Northup laughed.

Scott smiled. "I'm not sure education has much to do with that. I must admit I've been had a few times. Johnny has warned me more than once I'm too trusting of people."

Northup inhaled this information with satisfaction. "I'm sure you learned a lesson."

"I did. But, it wasn't to listen to my brother. At least, not all the time. Johnny is pretty cynical," Scott said and wished he hadn't.

"Can you blame him?" Northup asked, a little stunned at the observation and the tone that made it seem to be less than an asset. "I mean, he's lived in some rough places. I know his old stompin grounds real good. I gotta say, he's come out pretty well."

Scott looked over at him, studying the man thoughtfully. "What is it really like down there? Johnny doesn't talk about that time in his life much."

Northup stood up and paced off a few feet before turning back to Scott. "I'm not sure I can describe it good enough, Scott. The border towns are poor places. Shambles for buildings, old adobe houses falling apart. No roofs on half of 'em, no doors. They use blankets for doors and curtains if they got blankets. The saloons and cantinas are filthy, take your boots right off your feet when ya walk on some of them floors. The stench is god-awful. But it's the worst for regular folk. If ya ain't a thief or a con man, you try and scrape by best you can. It's mostly farmers, dirt scratchers, with a ton of kids and no way ta feed 'em. Then the rurales or bandits come along and take what little they do have."

"What about the American side?" Scott asked.

Northup shrugged. "Well, depends. Bigger towns ain't as bad. There's still a lot of crime but at least they got law. The smaller towns are worse, about as bad as the Mexican side. Soap ain't a big commodity down there and disease is a big problem on both sides. The cities just hide their crime behind gamblin houses and bordellos - all gussied up with pretty paint, some with carpet and drapes. All ready to steal a man's pay with fixed games and fancy women."

Scott's brows were knitted together and he felt cold fingers run down his spine. He tried to imagine Johnny in the middle of all that but he couldn't. "How does a man come away from all that with any decency?" he asked.

"Decency is somethin inbred, I think. Reckon it depends on who raised ya, too. Some parents don't pay no mind to their kids, let 'em run wild," Northup answered with disgust at that last part.

"What about a child who raises himself? Where does he find his decency?" Scott asked, his throat tight.

Northup looked at him and actually felt some sympathy. He walked over and knelt in front of Scott. "Ya gotta have somebody in your life to show ya the way. Show ya right from wrong. Nobody can survive down there without someone to guide them, set 'em straight on life. Make 'em see their own soul."

Scott looked into the man's eyes and saw concern. He smiled and nodded. "Then, Johnny must have had someone like that in his life, right?"

Northup shrugged. "Either that or he's a saint. Now, as much as I like your brother ......" he left it there with a cocked brow and they both laughed at the thought.

****

Johnny limped out of the tack room just as Scott and Northup rode up. He joined his brother as he dismounted and wrapped an arm around Scott's shoulder.

"Good day?" Johnny asked.

"Not bad. Not bad at all, brother. We got the herd moved."

"Are they happy little heifers?" Johnny grinned.

Scott laughed and slapped him in the gut. "Happy as lambs."

Murdoch walked out and took in the two laborers. "Asa, it looks as if you got your wish. You look done in."

Northup slapped his hat on his leg and sighed. "Murdoch Lancer, that son of yours is a hard taskmaster. He about ran me into the ground today," he growled.

Scott's eyes widened as he looked incredulously at the man. The rest of them burst out laughing and Scott smiled.

"Someone has to take up Johnny's slack and that means working just as hard as he does," Scott remarked.

"Good answer, brother," Johnny said and pulled Scott toward him, shaking his shoulder.

The supper hour was comprised of more jokes and stories from Murdoch's time as a deputy. Johnny noticed Northup edged away from talk about Joe Barker. When they retired to the living room, Johnny nudged Scott and nodded toward the door. The brothers walked outside under the guise of getting some fresh air.

"How did it really go today?" Johnny asked.

"It went well, Johnny. He takes to ranching. I think he's had some experience with it. We had a good talk."

"About what?" Johnny asked, eyeing his brother.

Scott ducked his head and walked over to a column, leaning against it and staring out into the night. "Oh, he asked about Boston and we talked about how different my life is now. That's all."

Johnny walked slowly around his brother until he was standing in front of him. "Anything else?"

"Sure, we talked about Texas," Scott smiled.

"He tell you how Joe Barker was like a father to him?" Johnny asked.

Scott pushed off the wall and stood straight. "No."

"Well, that's what Murdoch told me today. Said Northup and Barker were thick as thieves. Makes ya wonder."

Scot frowned at this. "What do you think it means?"

"I don't know," Johnny sighed. "Murdoch said they haven't talked about Barker. I told him maybe they should. Just to get a feel for what he thinks of the whole thing."

"We had a good talk today, Johnny. I haven't seen the first hint of anything but a nice man with good intentions," Scott said.

"Maybe. Barker seemed real nice, too - at first."

"True," Scott dragged out the word. "But, I never felt at ease with him at all. Not from the moment we met. Northup isn't the same. He's relaxed and well, nice."

Johnny smiled a little. "You trust too easy, brother."

Scott's shoulders tightened. "And you don't trust enough, brother."

Johnny looked at him, a little surprised at the harsh tone. He cocked his head to one side. "I thought we were gonna keep an eye on him."

"And we will. But, so far, he's been nothing but gracious," Scott stated firmly.

Johnny nodded his head. "So far. Look, I'm not sayin he's a snake but I'm not sayin he's a mouse neither."

"He's certainly not a mouse. He looks like he could take the head off a rattler without even getting winded."

Johnny laughed at that characterization. "Well, they do grow 'em mean in Texas, brother. Grow 'em wiley, too."

***

Murdoch smiled as he took a seat opposite his friend. "Tired?"

Northup looked up from his whiskey glass a little taken aback by the broken silence. He smiled and sighed. "A little but it feels good to be doin somethin again."

"Well, Asa, you're welcome to stay here for as long as you like. Even permanently," Murdoch offered, raising his glass in toast.

"I appreciate that, Murdoch. I'm not sure what I'm gonna do just yet. It's nice to have a place to roost for a while, anyway. I like your boys. Real fine young men," he smiled.

"Yes, they are. I'm proud of them both," Murdoch replied, then glanced at the other man, as if trying to make a decision.

"You've done real well for yourself here, Murdoch."

"Thank you, Asa. It hasn't always been easy. I've been lucky to have good men working for me over the years."

"Had to be tough without your sons. But, they're here now. Just in time to take the load off your old shoulders," Northup grinned.

"Old? I'll have you know I can still rope and ride herd with the best of them!" Murdoch grumbled.

Northup laughed and shook his head. "And you'll be saying that til your 90!"

Murdoch grinned at that, knowing it was true enough. His face turned pensive then. "I hate to say I made a mistake when I offered Joe half the ranch. But, at the time I was positive I'd never see my sons again. I guess I needed a friendly face around. Someone I trusted." The last sentence was said glumly.

"I was wonderin when you were gonna bring that up," Northup said in a flat tone.

"I'm sorry, Asa, but, it can't be easy on you. Joe was a good friend to you. I know how special you were to him," Murdoch said gently.

"That's all true enough. But, it also ended when he did what he did. I still can't believe it. If he was in such a tough spot, why didn't he come to me?" Northup sounded like a wounded pup for a second and Murdoch's heart wrenched for him.

"I suppose he never got over that last falling out the two of you had. I'm afraid we didn't talk about it when he was here."

Northup stood and walked over to the fireplace. "How could you? You were too busy trying to keep one son from hangin and the other from gettin killed by an ambush! That damned Evans!"

Murdoch rose and turned to face him. "Evans may have made the offer ...."

"I know he ain't all ta blame, Murdoch, but he gets some of it," Northup cut him off.

"I just wish Joe had told me how things were. He had to know I'd help."

"Pride can kill a man. Did kill this one," Northup said softly. "Anyway, it's done with now. Best to let it rest. Think I'll head on up. Reckon Scott'll try ta finish the job on me tomorrow." He turned and grinned at Murdoch who smiled back.

"Good night, Asa."

***

Scott's mind wouldn't rest. He lay in bed thinking of what Northup had told him about the border towns and about his brother. He was convinced Northup was right. Johnny had to have had a mentor sometime in his life. Someone who made enough of an impact to keep him from crossing that line into darkness and evil.

Scott had known evil men in his life. Some in the cavalry had a blood lust. Men who killed for the pleasure of it. He shivered as he thought of his brother ever being one of those men. Scott could not imagine that.

He sat up and threw the covers off, sliding off the bed onto his feet and grabbing his pants. He pulled them on then threw on a shirt, not bothering with the buttons. He walked across the hall then stopped and hung his head. Johnny was probably fast asleep by now. It could wait, should wait. In fact, he had almost convinced himself he shouldn't ask at all lest he incur the wrath of Madrid. Scott chuckled softly at that thought.

Just as he was about to go back to his room, he heard a soft noise in the hall and turned to find Johnny watching him, a glass of water in his hand.

"Did you need something?" Johnny asked in a whisper as he came closer.

"I was just .... well, I couldn't sleep and thought maybe ..... then I figured you were asleep," Scott said.

Johnny smiled at him. "Huh?" he teased. Jerking his head toward his door, he walked to it. "Come on in, Boston."

Scott sighed and shook his head at himself. Could he have sounded anymore like an idiot if he tried? The answer was no. He walked in and waited as Johnny moved to the table and lit a lamp in the near-pitch black.

"How do you do that? I know my room but I'd probably walk right into something," Scott smiled.

Johnny shrugged as he blew out the match and turned up the wick. "Just see it in your mind. Now, what's on *your* mind, brother?" he asked as he slowly eased into a chair and drank his water.

Scott closed the door with a soft click and meandered around, ending up near a corner. "Nothing, really."

Johnny watched him and said not a word as he waited for Scott to spill it.

Scott looked at him and decided the hell with it. "I told you Northup and I talked some today. He was describing the border towns and the people in them to me."

Johnny's face never so much as twitched and he kept quiet.

Scott scowled a little then pushed on. "He said some of the men in those places were pretty evil. He told me about the living conditions, too. I tried to see you there but I couldn't. We got to talking about what makes a young man, a boy, turn bad or good. He said that person must have someone to guide them at some point in their life. Someone to show them the right path."

Scott stared at his brother, refusing to say any more and knowing Johnny understood perfectly what he was asking.

Johnny looked at him for a long beat then stared at the glass still in his hand. "And you want to know what exactly?" he asked softly.

"Who that person was for you, Johnny."

The younger man closed his eyes briefly before looking back. "What makes you think there was anyone?"

"Because you couldn't have come out of a hellhole like that with the principles you have without someone teaching you at least the basics. Right and wrong," Scott said firmly.

Johnny smiled. "Principles, huh? You think I have principles?"

"You know you do, Johnny. Don't joke about it. I'd like to know who helped you," Scott shot, his frustration rising.

Johnny shrugged one shoulder and drained his water glass. "My mother."

"No, I don't believe that. I can believe she taught you but after she died, you were on your own. No one to stop you from falling into the trap of that life. It would have been incredibly easy."

"It was," Johnny mumbled. He looked over at his brother, all tall and straight and smart, and sighed. Not about this, though. Scott wasn't bein smart about this. He stood up, setting the glass on the table as he did and walked over to Scott.

"Why are you askin me about this? You know I don't like to talk about it."

"I know you don't like to talk about the bad things, Johnny, but I would think this a good thing. A fond memory you could share."

Johnny looked at him as he would look at a misguided child. He walked to the bed, then turned, leaning against the post and folding his arms over his chest.

"Have you ever seen a man do something that was so bad, so ugly and evil and hateful that it made you throw up? I mean actually throw up?"

Scott frowned and thought about it for a second then nodded, grimacing at a memory.

"And you knew it was wrong. It was so much more than wrong but there wasn't a worse word to describe it. That was how I got my education on right and wrong, Scott. By seeing the very worst men can do to each other." Johnny's voice shook with emotions long ago buried. He hated this, absolutely hated it and in that moment in time, he hated his brother for making him remember. The anger came forward and he stalked over to Scott.

"There aren't any warm memories, Scott. There wasn't anyone there to tell me anything. I learned by living it, feeling it in my skin. In my soul. But, if you want to concoct these crazy stories about some angel rescuing me from myself, you go right ahead. Just don't include me in your fantasies."

Scott swallowed hard. He could think of nothing to say except, "I'm sorry."

"Go be sorry someplace else. I'm goin to bed. Get out of here," Johnny shot.

Scott nodded and left the room feeling like the biggest ass on the planet. How could he make this up to his brother? He only hoped Johnny would understand and his anger would subside.

***

Scott walked into the dining room for breakfast the next morning with a wary glance at his brother's bowed head. His eyes met Murdoch's and he could tell Johnny was in a foul mood. He gave his father a weak smile and took his seat.

"Well, Scott, I guess you'll teach me about surveying and why in the world anyone would want to do it," Northup said cheerily.

Scott forced a smile for the man. "Sure."

Northup cocked a brow and his eyes went from one brother to the other.

"Is something wrong?" Murdoch asked either of them.

Scott looked at Johnny, catching his eyes for a heartbeat before Johnny looked down again. He felt very warm under that piercing glare.

"No, nothing is wrong, Murdoch," he answered unconvincingly.

The rest of the meal went on in silence then Scott and Northup left for the day. Johnny walked into the living room and headed for the front door.

"Just a minute, son."

Johnny sighed and turned back. "I'm just going to finish the tack."

"That's fine but I'd like to know what's going on with you and your brother. It's obvious the two of you had a falling out," Murdoch said steadfastly.

Johnny lowered his head. "It's nothin. It'll pass."

"Which one of you did the pissing off?"

Johnny's head came up with a jerk and a grin came over his face at the words his father used. "He did. Surprised?"

"Should I be? More to the point, what did he say?"

Johnny pulled a face. "I really don't want to talk about it, Murdoch. I'm sure I'll get over it soon enough. Won't hurt for him to suffer a while."

"Teach him a lesson, huh?" Murdoch smiled, convinced the rift wasn't too serious. But Johnny's face fell.

"Yeah, something like that. Well, best get to it," he said and started out again.

"One more thing. How's the hip?"

"A lot better. Sam comin out today?"

"He said he would."

"Good. Maybe I can get him to free me," Johnny smiled then walked out before his father could grill him any further.

***

"What's got you so happy?" Northup asked Scott as they set up the surveying equipment.

Scott scowled at him. "I took what you said to heart and ask Johnny who had influenced him in his past. He wasn't very happy with me."

Northup shook his head slowly, not understanding the problem.

"No one was the answer. Seems he learned by seeing the very worst man can do to man. He was, no, is angry with me for bringing it up and I don't blame him." Scott sighed and walked a way a bit, lowering his head. "I just thought that would be a good memory for him. But, he told me there weren't any good memories. No angels that came to save him."

Northup stared at his back. "I'm sorry, Scott. I guess that theory was shot to hell. You can blame me if you want."

Scott smiled and turned back to him. "I'll talk to him tonight. He'll have cooled off by then. Johnny never stays mad very long unless it's well-deserved."

Northup returned the smile and wondered if he hadn't just found the key to his plan. Turn brother against brother and destroy Murdoch in the process. Get them so angry with each other there'd be no way to fix it. So angry that maybe, just maybe ..... it could work. With Johnny's legendary temper and equally legendary prowess with a gun; yes, that could work very well. Only he'd have to find the trigger. Something that would enrage Johnny to the point he wasn't thinking straight.

What would do that? He'd have to work on that part. What he really needed to do was spend some time with Johnny. He knew the younger Lancer brother was wary of him. Knew he would suspect any questions Northup might ask. He was going to have to play this very carefully. And he had the time now.

His heart to heart with Murdoch last night had been perfectly played. All righteous indignation at what Joe tried to do to his boys. Just enough sorrow to garner sympathy and a standing invitation to stay as long as he liked. It really was perfect. And he found it wasn't hard at all to play this role.

He decided to glean as much information from Scott as he could until Johnny was well enough to work again. It was so easy to get this one to talk. Scott was starting to trust him. Hadn't even blamed him for the argument he and Johnny had obviously had. It was going very well for him.

***

The days passed and Johnny's limp grew less and less noticeable. His frustration was another matter. He roamed the rooms and halls of the hacienda, walked the paths of the garden and trudged back and forth from the barn. He'd repaired all the tack and oiled every squeaky hinge on the ranch. And he was about to lose his mind.

He decided to take a look at the storage shed out back. Something he'd never had time for until now. Murdoch had always said it was full of junk mostly and needed to be sorted out. Well, he thought, might as well do that, too. He knew if he didn't at least look like he had a mission in mind, someone would assign him a less than desirable task. Like washing windows or, even worse, helping out with laundry and such. His reputation couldn't handle that. A smile lit his face with that idea as he opened the door, shoving at it the last foot or so as crates blocked full entry.

One look told him this was a bad idea. He reckoned the old man never threw anything away. With a sigh, he decided to plunge in and get busy, stay that way, too. At least Sam was coming out tomorrow and he knew, just knew, the doctor would cut him loose.

Three hours later, Johnny sat on a crate staring at nothing, trying to think of nothing as he held the object in his hand, his fist tight enough to break a more fragile piece. He closed his eyes tightly and strained his mind then, trying to grab hold of anything. A glimpse, a fragment, any memory at all. But all he managed to get was a headache so he let out the breath he'd been holding and opened his eyes again.

His right hand went to his forehead as he rubbed lightly then pulled his hand through his hair; emotions too near the surface for his liking. Near enough for him to rub his eyes vigorously to drive them away. Should have kept to not thinking at all, he decided.

A voice startled him to movement. He jumped up and crammed the object into the crate before inhaling deeply and bracing himself. Then, he turned just as Murdoch stepped into the shed.

"Making any progress?" the older man smiled.

Johnny couldn't look at him so he turned toward the back of the shed. "Not much," he said and winced at the huskiness of his voice.

Murdoch frowned and stepped closer. Johnny heard him and cleared his throat.

"Just a lot of dust," he said, hoping it was a good enough explanation for what he knew his father had heard.

It was, as Murdoch's face relaxed. "Well, I guess I should have done this a long time ago."

"Yeah. Don't think I'll get much done before Sam gives me the go ahead to work."

"I know you're chomping at the bit and that you've been avoiding Maria like the plague," Murdoch smiled.

Johnny laughed softly and turned, ready now to face his father. "I don't think I could handle folding laundry or washing dishes."

"I doubt she could either," Murdoch said, joining his son's mirth. But, he thought he saw something else in Johnny's eyes; brief, fleeting sadness. "It's almost supper time."

"Okay. I'll be right there," Johnny nodded and turned, placing the lid on a crate.

****

Murdoch watched him like a hawk all through dinner, even while carrying on a conversation with the others. Johnny wasn't sure he liked that his old man was starting to know him this well. To know something had upset him in that shed, Murdoch had to have read his face and he'd only seen it for a few seconds. This disturbed Johnny but also pleased him. He started feeling that headache again and figured he was just thinking it to death. Not his usual way.

He slipped outside after the meal and leaned against a column, breathing deeply of the night air with its jasmine and rose fragrances. The light breeze pulled around the house from the garden keeping other, stronger scents at bay. But he liked those, too. Smells he was most familiar with and comforted by when his mind was troubled.

Why it was troubled, he wasn't sure. But the discovery in the shed had bothered him a great deal. He could have guessed there would be mementos somewhere of his short time here before. Though, he'd never seen any indications and that in itself had him wondering. He supposed he could make himself pretty crazy if he tried hard enough. He lowered his head and smiled at the ground.

The smiled faded when he heard the door open. He sighed softly, irritated at the interruption. He just wanted some time to himself. It was a precious commodity around here. He figured Murdoch was done wondering and had come to just ask, like he always did. A more straightforward man Johnny had never met.

"Nice night."

His shoulders tensed a little then immediately relaxed as he turned his head to the side. "Yeah," came the soft answer and, puzzlingly enough, he was disappointed.

Northup ambled over to him and looked up. "Clear."

"It's gonna rain soon," Johnny informed him.

Northup glanced over at him then back at the sky. "How can ya tell?"

Johnny shrugged. "Smells like rain."

The older man smiled wanly and nodded. There was stillness between them for a while.

"Bet you can't wait to be set free."

Johnny smiled a little as his eyes rested on the corral. "Sure can't."

Northup chuckled. "You don't talk much."

Johnny didn't have an answer for that so he said nothing.

The Texan turned to face him. "You don't like me."

Slowly, Johnny turned his head and looked the man in the eyes. "I don't know you well enough to say one way or the other."

"Seems like you don't have much use for me." Northup's face was relaxed but his eyes were like steel, challenging.

Johnny returned the gaze. "Does it?" he answered and saw the man's jaw twitch.

"Guess I'm just tryin to figure out why, is all. Your old man is a good friend and I'd like to get along with his sons."

Johnny pushed away from the column and stood directly in front of the man. "Like I said, I don't know you. I've got no reason to like or dislike you." He wanted to add 'yet' to that but he was well aware of his father's friendship with the man. If he was wrong, it would be better to have tread carefully from the get go. If he was right, it wouldn't matter.

"Maybe we can change that," Northup said.

"Okay."

Northup sighed and shook his head. "You are exasperatin."

They both turned toward the laughter behind them.

"Are you just figuring that out?" Murdoch asked as he walked up.

"Afraid so. He don't say much," Northup smiled.

Murdoch looked at his son before turning back to his friend. "Only when he has something to say."

Johnny smiled. Yep, he's gettin to know me a little too well. But then, that wasn't a bad thing.

"Then, you can't shut him up," Murdoch added, a glint in his eyes.

"Keep it up, old man," Johnny teased.

Murdoch put a hand on his shoulder, the smile fighting with something else now. "Scott's in his room. He'd like to see you when you have a minute."

Johnny lowered his eyes and nodded. "Guess I've got one now," he muttered and walked inside.

"I hope they work out whatever it is," Northup said.

"You noticed."

The man turned back to his friend. "I'd have ta be blind not to. But, brothers fight sometimes, Murdoch. Can't help but to."

"I suppose. I don't like it, though."

***

Johnny stood outside the door for a while trying to talk himself out of going in there. He didn't want to talk about this and he didn't want to fight with Scott. But, in the end, he knew they'd have to say something to each other about it so they could let it go.

He knocked twice and stopped himself from opening the door before being asked. A grin lifted his mouth. No sense startin out on the wrong foot.

Scott opened the door and stood back to let him in. His face was unreadable and Johnny hated that. There were times when Scott was still a mystery to him. He only hoped his brother didn't know that.

Johnny walked in and across the room before stopping and turning around. He leaned against the wall and let his hands dangle loosely at his sides. "Murdoch said you wanted to see me."

"Yes, I do," Scott started then faltered. He'd rehearsed this all day but now he was unsure and that only leant to annoy him. He sucked in a breath and faced his brother.

"Johnny, I wanted to apologize for assuming the other night."

"Why did you?"

Scott stared for a few seconds, not expecting the question. He paced over to the bed and sat at the foot, wrapping his arm around the bedpost. "I suppose I wanted to believe there was someone good in your life back then. Someone who cared."

Johnny nodded. "Because of what Northup said."

"Yes, it sounded reasonable. It still does, actually. I just wish it had been true for you." Scott watched his brother's hands clench into fists and wondered what he'd said now.

Johnny pushed away from the wall and paced in front of him.

"I guess that is reasonable but if you keep looking at me with that pitiful face, I'm not gonna be held responsible for bashin it in," he said through clenched teeth.

Scott leaned back a little, stunned by the anger. "I wasn't looking at you any kind of way," he defended.

Johnny stopped and faced him. "Yeah, you were whether you know it or not. Don't feel sorry for me, Scott. I don't want it and I don't expect it. And I sure as hell don't deserve it."

"Why not? Why don't you deserve it? I am sorry for the life you had to live, Johnny. Why is that wrong?"

"Because!" he shouted then reined himself in. In a lower voice, he started again, "because, there are a lot of people worse off than I was, Scott. A lot of people who deserve your pity but you know what? They don't want it either. Life is what it is. You either take what's thrown at you and deal with it or you curl up in a ball and die. As you can see, I dealt with it.

"So, I had it hard. So what? Am I supposed to expect somethin special for that? Am I suppose to think I deserve to be pitied and doted over? Well, I don't expect it and I don't want it so stop doin it! I'm not some little kid for you to take care of. Someone you have to watch out for so he don't skin a knee. Someone for you to protect from the bullies. I'm a grown man, Scott. I do my own protectin and I take care of myself the same as you. Understand?" Johnny had his hands on his hips by this point, leaning over his brother a little as he berated the older man.

Scott looked at him and bit the inside of his cheek. All he could do was nod at the question. His mouth twitching apoplectically.

Johnny saw it and his eyes widened in disbelief. "What?" he asked, his hands flailing from his sides.

Scott couldn't hold back any longer and lay back on the bed, howling with laughter. Johnny took a few steps back, staring at his brother, simply stunned. Annoyance took over and Johnny grabbed a chair, sat down and waited for the fit to be over, his arms crossed over his chest.

Finally, Scott seemed to pull himself together and sat up, wiping at his eyes with his handkerchief. He sniffled and shook his head, a few more spurts of laughter escaping.

"I'm sorry," he gasped out.

Johnny only glared.

Scott walked to the dresser and drank a glass of water before returning to his seat, more in control now. "I really am sorry, Johnny. I didn't mean to laugh. It's just that .... well, that was the most impassioned speech I've ever heard," he grinned.

Johnny's face was granite. He saw no humor in the situation.

The smile slid from Scott's face and he sobered. "And you're right. I wish it could have been that way. I wish I could have been a big brother to you. That I could have beat up the bullies and kept you out of trouble and harm. That's how it should have been and I suppose I want it to be that way. Sometimes, I know I'm overprotective of you. I have no right but I guess I'm trying to compensate for the time we lost."

Johnny listened to the words and the sincerity of the voice and relaxed. His arms uncrossed and fell into his lap and he smiled just a little. "That would have been great but that's not what happened. You have to stop that, Scott. You're my older brother, not my big brother. There's a difference," he said softly.

"I know," Scott agreed in a painful voice. "But, Johnny, you are still so young. I know you've lived more than a man three times your age but that doesn't help when I see ....." Scott stopped and swallowed hard, wishing he could bite his tongue out.

"When you see what?"

"Nothing," he shook his head. "I don't want to get you angry again."

Johnny gave him a suspicious look. "Say it. When you see what?"

Scott looked up and sighed. "Sometimes, when you think no one is around or when you're having fun, I see that young boy in you. The boy you should have had the chance to be. And, sometimes, I see the pain in your eyes."

Johnny stood up quickly, startling Scott a bit. "It's your fault. You and the old man. I'm gettin soft," he grumbled as he paced to the window.

"Is that so bad?"

"Yes," was the fast answer, followed more slowly with, "and no."

Scott stood up and walked over to stand behind him. "I promise I'll try to remember you're grown. I'll try not to be such a ..... big brother."

Johnny turned his head to the side. "Thanks."

***

The two men went back inside and sat quietly with drink in hand. Northup watched Murdoch brood for a while then made a decision.

"They'll work it out."

Murdoch looked up slowly. "I hope so. They haven't really had any major arguments. Oh, they've disagreed on things before but they always respect each other's opinions. They always manage to work it out between them."

"You've never had to intervene?"

Murdoch shook his head slowly, a small smile lighting his face. "No, I have to say I never have. They're both good men and they care for each other."

"That must have been a relief."

Murdoch frowned and looked quizzically at his friend.

"Don't tell me you didn't think it. That the two of them might not get along when they came home?"

His face relaxed as he nodded. "Yes, I admit the possibility occurred to me. I don't know what I would have done in that case. Fortunately, I don't have to worry about that."

Northup cocked a brow. "Well, I know you said they get along and I can see that for myself but, things happen. I mean, you hope they don't but, those two are so different."

"They are in a lot of ways but not so much as you'd think. They have different experiences, different upbringing, but they both have principles and morals. And they would both lay down their lives for the other."

Northup stared at the floor for a while before forging ahead. "What did Scott do in Boston anyway?"

Murdoch glanced at him, a scowl on his face. "He was in the cavalry and attended Harvard as I told you. He was working with his grandfather after that."

"Oh yes, the bastard," Northup grinned wickedly.

Murdoch's mouth twitched as he fought back a smile. He remembered the night he and Asa had gotten so drunk and he'd spilled his guts about Scott and Harlan Garrett. He'd been mortified the next day but Asa had never so much as mentioned the conversation again. Until now.

"Come on, Murdoch. It's just us. I know that old man put you through hell."

"He did but he also raised Scott," Murdoch said, fidgeting in his seat.

"And you don't want Scott to hear you badmouthin the man. I can understand that. Makes you the better man in my book. I'll bet Garrett never gave the same consideration for you."

"I wouldn't know," Murdoch muttered, a tinge of bitterness in his voice. "Anyway, his attitude hasn't seemed to affect Scott. He's his own man."

Asa chuckled. "He is that. A fine young man, too. Johnny is the hard one. He doesn't give anything away."

Murdoch sighed. "That is the truth. You have to pull it out of him and that's never easy. I've found the best way to deal with Johnny is to watch and learn. Eventually, he'll give himself away if you can keep him still long enough."

"Yeah, he gets that from his Mexican side. Emotional people. Hot-blooded and hot-tempered," Asa smiled.

"He's a lot like his mother. Emotional and restless," Murdoch said softly, a distant look in his eyes.

Northup watched him knowing he was thinking of the past and Maria's betrayal. He fought back a grin. "Are you worried he'll leave?" he asked gently.

Murdoch blinked and looked over at him. "Yes," he replied honestly.

****

Northup yawned and stretched out his arms as he watched the sun appear over the mountains to the east. He was pleased with the information he'd garnered from Murdoch last night and felt better about his overall plan. He just about thought he had it nailed. All it would take was time and he had plenty of that.

He turned toward the barn to see Johnny walking Barranca out and he frowned. The younger man slowed a little when he saw Northup but continued to the hitching post near the corral then made his way to the house.

Northup had a small smile on his face. "Caught ya."

Johnny grinned at him. "Guess so. You gonna rat me out?"

"I doubt I'll have to. That palomino ain't exactly hard to spot."

"No, it isn't."

They both turned to find Murdoch standing there looking ominous.

"What do you think you're doing, Johnny?"

Johnny took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Just gettin ready for when Sam says go."

Murdoch raised a brow and stared at him until Johnny looked away.

"Well, I smell breakfast," the young man said then hurried inside.

Northup burst out laughing and leaned against a column. "That kid is sneaky," he finally said.

Murdoch chuckled. "You have no idea. Come on. I smell breakfast, too."

Scott was already there, a subdued expression on his face. He wasn't so sure things were alright with Johnny but his brother seemed fine. Murdoch took his seat, his eyes settled on his younger son.

"Sam won't be out for a couple of hours," he reminded the young man.

"I know. Just like to be ready, is all," Johnny shrugged and stared at his plate.

Northup leaned over to Scott. "He saddled his horse this morning," he explained to an obviously puzzled Scott.

Scott looked at him then at Johnny and knitted his brows. He opened his mouth then froze when he saw the consternation on Johnny's face. Scott sighed and picked up his fork. 'I guess that was a big brother moment,' he thought.

Murdoch was stunned by Scott's silence and wondered exactly what had transpired between his sons last night. Neither looked ecstatic but neither looked miserable, either. Well, he supposed he shouldn't get in the middle of it unless it got worse. He'd just have to keep an eye out, he decided.

****

Northup went out with Scott again after breakfast, determined to find out what had happened between the brothers the night before. Finding out Scott had been in the cavalry was a blessing and he intended to play that one to the hilt. Subtly, of course, he smiled.

At noon, they took a break and settled for lunch. Northup thought all this work might just do him in before he got his chance. Well, it was tough but so was he.

"You've been quiet this morning," he noted.

Scott glanced over. "Sorry. I just have a lot on my mind."

"Meaning Johnny. You two didn't work things out last night?"

Scott stretched his long legs out. "We did mostly. I'm not to treat him like a 'little brother' anymore."

Northup cocked a brow at that. "How are you supposed to treat him?"

Scott shrugged. "Like a man who can take care of himself. Can, but won't most of the time," he added the last with a grumble.

"Ah. Well, Scott, he has been on his own for years now. Can't be easy to all the sudden have people hoverin over you."

"I realize that. I know he's had a hard time adjusting to having a family. Still, he has to let us in or this won't work. We've been together for a year now. It's better but sometimes, it's frustrating!" Scott spouted the last in his exasperation.

"You're used to things being nice and orderly, ain't ya?" Northup observed.

"What makes you say that?" Scott asked as he turned to face the man.

"Well, Murdoch told me you were in the cavalry. Army man is used to discipline," he said then chuckled a little. "I remember well those days. Suck in that gut and pull out that chest, soldier."

Scott laughed and nodded. "You were in the army?"

"For two years during the war. I was never so glad for somethin to be over in my life," he sighed.

"Me too," Scott mumbled.

Northup ducked his head to try and see Scott's eyes but the younger man had them firmly rooted to the ground. "Scott?"

When Scott wouldn't look at him, a thought struck. "What happened, son?"

Scott only shook his head and turned it away.

Northup waited but Scott said nothing. "Were you wounded?"

"It wasn't bad."

"But, something happened. I mean, something really bad," he surmised.

Scott sighed softly and turned back. The pain in his eyes surprised the older man and he knew. Just knew.

"You were captured," Northup stated.

Scott nodded. "Libby," he whispered.

Northup gave him a look of genuine sympathy and laid a hand on his shoulder. "How long?"

"Almost a year."

"Good Lord. I'm sorry, Scott."

Scott blinked and pulled his shoulders back. "Thank you, but I managed," he said crisply.

Northup's eyes hardened at the terse tone. "You don't have to be strong all the time, you know. A man has to get some of that pain out now and then. I'm not much more than a stranger but you should talk about it, Scott."

The younger man smiled a little. "I'm sorry. It's just not something I like to think about much less talk about."

"I understand that. It might help. It's pretty clear it still bothers you and it should. I know a little about what you're going through. I wasn't captured but I was there. It might do you some good. Anyway, if you want to talk, I'll be glad to listen."

"Thank you, really. I'll think about it but right now, we should get back to work."

***

Johnny kept his jaw clenched as Sam poked and prodded his bruises. It hurt but he could stand it and he was determined to do just that. Even more determined the doctor would see he was fit to return to work.

Sam stood straight and looked thoughtfully at him. "Well, as long as you take it at least a little easy, you can go back to work. BUT, I do mean take it easy, Johnny. Be mindful of that hip and shoulder," he warned, actually wagging a finger at the young man.

"I will, Sam, I swear it," Johnny vowed, his eyes alive again.

"Any other precautions, Sam?" Murdoch asked.

The doctor looked over at him with a small grin. "Yes, no horse breaking for another week."

Johnny came off the sofa and glared at the physician who didn't back down one inch.

"I mean it, Johnny. One more week. You're lucky you didn't break your neck!" he berated.

Johnny stared for another few seconds then faltered, lowering his eyes and giving in. It was better than nothing and he knew very well how lucky he'd been. "Okay, I promise."

"You promise what?" Sam pressed.

Johnny looked sharply at him. "I promise no bronc bustin for another week!" After a beat, he begrudgingly added, "Sir."

Sam smiled and patted his back. "Good man. Now, I have to be going. Hopefully, I won't be seeing you anytime soon," he snipped and walked to the door with Murdoch.

Johnny mumbled under his breath but no one heard what he said. It was probably a good thing, too.

"Well, I reckon I'll ride out and see if I can give Scott a hand," he said as soon as Murdoch returned.

The older man studied him for a second then nodded. "Alright."

Johnny waited for more warnings of doom and gloom but he received none. He smiled at his father and hurried out the door.

***

Scott stood up straight and turned toward the rise. He climbed out of the dry wash and waited. Northup saw this then heard what Scott had heard seconds before. He joined the man with his hand on the butt of his gun, his stance readied for trouble.

The golden horse tore over the hill then down it at an alarming rate of speed. Scott closed his eyes and turned away, unwilling to see what his mind's eye conjured. Dammit! If he thinks I'm going to keep quiet about this, he thought then turned back.

Johnny pulled to a stop and slid out of the saddle, strolling over to the two men. "Hey."

"Hey, hell! I'm sure Sam's instructions did not include riding like a mad man! Do you have a death wish, Johnny, or do you just enjoy tempting fate!?" Scott lashed out, hands on hips.

Johnny stared at him, slack-jawed, then his eyes narrowed.

"And don't give me any of that 'big brother' nonsense. It's plain common sense, Johnny," Scott went on.

Johnny glanced at Northup who was staring a hole through him then settled back on Scott's glower. "You expectin me to say somethin?"

Scott let out a sigh and shook his head. "Of course not. What are you doing out here?"

"Came to lend a hand but I can see it ain't needed. Reckon I'll just ride over to the south pasture and check the crew," he answered then stalked back to Barranca.

"You might want to let that horse rest," Scott shot out.

Johnny stopped abruptly, turned on his heel and strode back to face Scott. "I think I know my horse well enough to know what he can take, Scott. Back off!"

The older brother glared at him then threw his hands in the air and turned his back. Johnny walked away, mounted up and took off at a gallop.

Scott paced back and forth for several minutes as he worked on calming himself.

"You were right," Northup said quietly.

"That doesn't matter if he doesn't listen. He *never* listens. If I say right, he says left just to argue. It's like he has to challenge me at every turn!"

"Has it always been that way?" Northup asked, his tone still quiet.

"No. That's what I don't understand. We've never been like this. We've always gotten along. I don't know what's wrong with him lately," Scott admitted.

"Maybe you should talk to Murdoch about it."

"I can't. Johnny would be livid if I told Murdoch about this. He'd look at it as a betrayal. If there's one thing my brother won't tolerate, it's that."

Northup's eyes brightened though Scott didn't see. He was too busy pacing and ranting to notice the other man's reactions.

***

Johnny sat on the veranda watching the sun set and listening to the muted sounds from the bunkhouse. At that moment, he wished he were in that bunkhouse playing poker or joking with the men. Then again, he didn't feel much like having any fun right now. He was still angry with Scott who hadn't made it home yet.

He was actually starting to get a little worried about that but he refused to treat his brother like a child. That was the difference between them. His anger surged again at the thought.

Then, he saw the two of them riding in. Northup seemed to be stuck to Scott like glue lately and Johnny still didn't trust the man. He didn't know what the Texan was after but he was after something. Of that, Johnny was certain.

A few minutes later the two men walked out of the barn. Johnny watched as Northup put an arm around Scott's shoulder. His brother laughed at something the other man had said and Johnny felt his stomach tighten.

Scott looked up, spotting Johnny and slowed his gait a fraction, the smile sliding from his face. Northup gave him a gentle shake on the shoulder then let his hand slide away. He said something else to Scott who nodded and went inside. Northup turned direction and walked onto the veranda.

He sat in a chair opposite Johnny and folded his hands in his lap. Johnny didn't look at him, just kept staring out over the land.

"There was no call for that outburst earlier," Northup spoke.

Johnny turned his head slowly and eyed the man narrowly. "Ain't none of your business, Mr. Northup."

"Maybe not but that don't change what is. Scott's been real upset ever since it happened."

Johnny uncrossed his ankles and sat up straight, leaning forward a little. "I don't know what your game is but don't come between me and my brother. If Scott has a problem, he can come to me just like he always has. He don't need you speakin for him." His voice was low and icy.

"You are a stubborn cuss! Why can't you see he's only worried for you? That's what family does, Johnny. They worry and care about each other. I know you're not all that used to it but I'd think after a year, you'd get a clue!"

Johnny came to his feet suddenly, startling Northup with his speed. The Texan stood to face him.

"Like I said, it's none of your business. Don't stick your nose where it don't belong. You won't like the results!"

"What's going on out here?" Murdoch asked from the French door.

Johnny's eyes never left Northup.

"Just a little disagreement, Murdoch. Nothin to worry about," Northup replied, his voice calm and smooth now. "Think I'll go get cleaned up," he added and walked inside.

"Johnny?" Murdoch called.

The young man took a deep breath and turned to face his father, fire in his eyes. "You keep that man away from me, Murdoch. And tell him to mind his own business."

"What happened?" Murdoch asked, trying to stay objective.

Johnny shook his head. "I don't know what he's up to but he's got no call speakin for Scott. If my brother wants to talk to me he knows where I am."

Murdoch looked quizzically at him then tried again. "You're not making much sense, John. Why would Scott have a problem? Didn't you two settle things?"

Johnny turned and walked over to the wall. "I thought we did but apparently not. He got all mad at me today for riding fast. Sam didn't say I couldn't but Scott laid into me and in front of Northup." Johnny turned back to his father then. "I don't appreciate bein treated like a child and especially in front of a stranger!"

Murdoch raised a brow at this. "Asa isn't a stranger."

"He is to me," Johnny replied, jutting out his chin in defiance.

Murdoch dropped his eyes for a second before looking back. "Yes, I suppose that's true. I can see why that would upset you, son. But, I have the feeling you'd still be angry with your brother even if Asa hadn't been there. Am I right?"

"You're damned straight! Who gave him the right to tell me what to do or how to live my life? I'm sick of it, Murdoch. That's all there is to it. I told him that last night and he acted like he understood but I guess that don't mean squat to him. Nobody talks to me like that. He's lucky I didn't knock his head off." Johnny had begun pacing during this rant, his arms folded across his chest. Now, he turned to face his father to see the reaction he'd get.

Murdoch was frowning, a deep ridge in his forehead as he thought about the situation. He didn't like what he was hearing from Johnny and he wasn't sure how much of it was anger or how much was being blown out of proportion. Johnny didn't usually exaggerate, though.

"Will you sit with me and try to calm down so we can talk about it?" he asked.

Johnny deflated and nodded his head, stalking over and plopping down. Murdoch sat next to him and stayed quiet for a few minutes, giving his son time to settle.

"The problem as I see it is this. You feel Scott is being overprotective of you and maybe he feels he's just watching out for you. Where's the line, John? When does it become overbearance and when is it showing concern?"

Johnny thought about this before answering. "I guess if he just asked me how I'm doing or what Sam said, that'd be fine. But, he lit into me right off. Like I was a kid caught skippin school or somethin."

Murdoch fought back a grin. "Or maybe that's how it made you feel? Was he really that bad?"

"Yeah, he was," Johnny sighed.

"Well, I'll talk to him."

"No. I'll talk to him. We have to settle this between us, Murdoch. It's the only way," Johnny said with determination.

"Alright, son. But, I'd like to give you a piece of advice. Try to talk to each other and not at each other. Otherwise, neither of you will see the other's position. And, I think it's as important for you to understand how Scott feels as it is for him to understand how you feel."

Johnny looked over with a small smile and nodded. "Yeah, I get it. Don't act like a ravin lunatic."

***

The tension at the supper table was as thick as the stew. No one attempted conversation and the only sounds were the clinking noises as they all ate. Johnny's shoulders were almost touching his ears, he was so wound up. Scott was faring no better. Mercifully, Murdoch stood and excused himself, giving the okay for the rest of them to leave the table without having to even say an 'excuse me'.

Johnny headed upstairs as Scott and Northup joined Murdoch in the living room.

The rancher poured three whiskeys and handed off two then stood near the fireplace studying his older son. "Scott, your brother would like to speak with you in private. I've asked him and now I'm asking you to keep a civil tongue and listen to one another's perspective."

Scott drained his glass and set it on the table before standing. "I will if he will."

"Scott," Murdoch sighed out.

"Yes, Sir," Scott mumbled then headed upstairs.

Murdoch turned his attention to his friend who looked ready to pounce on something.

"Asa, it's pretty clear you've grown fond of Scott and I'm very glad about that. However, it isn't your place to try and mediate problems between my sons. That's my job," he said gently.

Northup looked dutifully reticent. "I know and I'm sorry, Murdoch. Scott was just so upset about what happened today. I felt bad for him. I shouldn't have said anything to Johnny."

The rancher smiled and sat down then grew solemn. "I don't like what's going on between them. I think they're both right and they're both wrong a little. I can see Scott's position but I can also see Johnny bucking. I suppose it's a fine line for Johnny. He's not used to someone caring that much about him."

"Scott's not all that used to it, is he? I mean, from what you told me, Garrett couldn't have been all that fatherly."

Murdoch wondered about that, though. "Well, I'm not so sure about that. Harlan and I will never see eye to eye on anything, I'm sure. But, I do believe he loves Scott. As for my son, he has a great sense of duty and I know how much he cares for Johnny. He's a take charge type of man. I suppose he's used to issuing orders and he has a commanding presence." He smiled a little at that description.

Northup smiled as well. "He does at that. Well, I'm sure they'll work it all out. Hopefully, without any broken furniture."

Murdoch chuckled a little and raised his glass.

***

Scott knocked and waited what seemed too long before the door opened wide and Johnny walked over to the window. He stepped in and closed the door, his heart thundering in his chest. He hated fighting with his brother but he hated Johnny's recklessness even more.

Johnny leaned against the wall by the window and crossed his arms. "We have to come to an understanding, Scott."

"Yes, I agree."

"The first thing I want to say is that I don't appreciate you lighting into me in front of Northup. I don't like it at all but especially in front of a stranger."

Scott frowned a little. "He's Murdoch's friend ...."

"He ain't my friend," Johnny cut him off. "Would you have yelled at me like that in front of one of the hands?"

Scott stared at him then dropped his eyes. "No, I wouldn't have. I'm sorry about that."

"Sorry he was there or that you yelled at me?"

Scott looked back at him then paced the room a little. "Sorry he was there."

Johnny sighed and let his hands fall to his sides. He kept tight rein on his anger, remembering Murdoch's wise words.

"So, you think it's alright for you to light into me any time you want. Is that it?"

"It wasn't like that, Johnny. When I saw you come tearing over that hill, I could just see you falling." Scott actually felt a shiver down his spine at the thought.

"If I had it would have been my fault, my responsibility," Johnny returned.

"That doesn't make watching you break your neck any easier to take, brother," Scott answered softly.

Johnny hung his head and shook it slowly. "I'm not very good with words. With explaining how I feel about things. I'm trying to make you understand that you aren't my father or my mother. You don't get to rake me over the coals, Scott. You don't get to tell me how to live or what to do. Did you treat your friends like this in Boston? Did you treat your grandfather like this?"

"Of course not," Scott said sharply.

"Then, why do you do it to me?"

"My friends and Grandfather cared about their own welfare, Johnny. They weren't reckless with their lives. They didn't act like they don't matter. You don't care what happens to you."

"Says who?" Johnny asked, stunned at this revelation.

"It's obvious to anyone with eyes. You take too many chances with your life."

Johnny stared at him for a long moment. "If I didn't care about my life, Scott, I'd have been dead years ago. If I hadn't fought with everything I am, I wouldn't be here right now. What you think is reckless is fun to me. It's living. Being careful all the time, watching every step I take, hell, I'd be bored to death by now.

"Maybe I do joke about it but that's all it is. I thought you knew that. I thought you understood. My God, how do you think I've survived all these years? Luck?"

"I think you have been very lucky, Johnny. Gifted but lucky. Look, I only know what I see. And I see someone who cares little for himself," Scott said, firmly sticking to his beliefs.

Johnny flung his arms out to his sides then put his hands on his hips. "Well, excuse me. I never realized before I've been in the presence of God all this time. You have no idea what's inside me, Scott. No idea how I think. Sometimes, I wonder if you look at me like some stupid idiot who can't put his own boots on. I don't know how I managed to live all these years without you to tell me how it's supposed to be done."

"There's no reason to be sarcastic, Johnny," Scott berated.

Jaw clenched, teeth grinding, Johnny stared at him, his mind fighting his mouth. "Maybe not," he ground out. "But, I'll tell you one thing. You're a snob, Scott Lancer. You think your way is the only way and anybody who doesn't live like you think they should is a fool."

"That's not true! I don't want to lose you. Can't you get that through your head!" Scott shouted.

Silence hung thick in the room as they stared at each other. Johnny's ears buzzed as the thoughts whirred in his head. Then, his stubborn kicked in.

"I get that, Scott. But you need to get this. I'm not gonna live my life for you or anyone else. I did that and I didn't like it. So, do whatever you gotta do to come to terms with that but you're gonna have to accept that you don't get a say. You never will." His voice was even and calm even as his heart thundered. A previously unknown sense of warmth spread through his body and he wasn't sure what was causing it. All he knew was, although he was still pretty pissed off, it felt good. It felt ..... nice.

Scott took a deep breath, not ready to give up the fight. "Maybe we have different ideas of what's butting in and what's showing concern."

Johnny nodded. "Yeah, we do."

"So, care to enlighten me?" the older man asked, perching on the bed.

Johnny shook his head. "I can't make a list, Scott. I don't really know how to say it. It's like, well, today for example. If you'd asked me how I was doin or what Sam had said, that woulda been fine with me. But, you lit into me like I was your kid or something. That's not gonna cut it, brother."

Scott lowered his head, nodding thoughtfully. "I was wrong and I'm sorry, Johnny. I'm not usually so ..... overwrought. You just seem to bring it out in me."

That garnered him a smile as Johnny's eyes lit up. "Yeah, I have a way of bringing out the best in people."

The smile faded and Johnny sat next to his brother. "Just treat me like anyone else. It's not that I don't want you to care, I do. But, you have to let me breathe, Scott. I'm used to a whole lot of room to do that in."

"All I can do is promise to try. It won't be easy especially with someone who's a magnet for trouble."

Johnny leaned back away from him. "Who me?"

Scott laughed and grabbed him around the neck, pulling him in roughly. "Yes, you and you know it. And I'm pretty sure you love it."

Johnny gave him a cursory smack on the leg and Scott let go of his neck.

"There is something else we need to talk about. Northup," Johnny said seriously.

Scott shook his head. "I've spent a lot of time with him lately and I like him, Johnny. I understand your suspicions. I had them as well. But, I think we were wrong. He seems genuine to me."

Johnny stood and paced back to the window then turned to face Scott. "I saw the way the two of you were today. Real friendly. But, did you know he came up and tried to get in my face about you and me?"

Scott's face dropped with surprise. "I had no idea. He shouldn't have done that."

"No, he shouldn't have and I told him as much. He was acting like he was your old man or somethin. I still don't trust him."

Now, Scott stood and walked closer. "You haven't really spent any time with him, Johnny. You haven't given him a chance."

Johnny watched the anger in Scott's eyes and heard the defensive tone of his voice and he knew it was too late to convince his brother.

"Okay, Scott. I'll give him a chance," he said softly.

Scott relaxed and smiled. "I'm sure once you've gotten to know him, you'll like him, too."

I doubt it, Johnny thought but didn't say. He only nodded at his brother and smiled. What else could he do? He was fed up with fighting with Scott but he had a sinking feeling in his stomach. If he found out Northup was indeed up to something, would Scott believe him? Would Murdoch? Johnny wondered how he would handle it because he was positive it would come to that. He wasn't a fool and he wasn't stupid and his instincts were screaming at him to take heed. He planned on listening to those instincts just like he always had.

Whatever Northup was planning, Johnny wasn't about to play. He had no proof, he knew. But, he would be watching and waiting to see how things developed with the Texan. For right now, things were better with Scott. Although the man hadn't actually promised to stop, he had promised to try and Johnny reckoned that was the best he'd get for now. Why his brother felt this need to mother him, he hadn't a clue.

***

Two more days passed quietly. Johnny had made no effort to give Northup a chance nor did he openly display any malice toward the man. He was polite and even pleasant but he engaged in no conversation with the man one on one.

Johnny sat on the stoop braiding horsehair, his hands moving quickly and deftly, when he heard the front door open. He didn't look up, unconcerned with who might be stepping out for a breath of fresh evening air.

Northup stood just behind and to the right of him, looking over his shoulder for a few seconds before lowering his frame onto the low step.

"That's nice work."

"Thanks," Johnny said softly.

Northup smiled. "Quick hands."

Johnny looked up at him, saw the smile and could swear the man was teasing him. "Guess so," he replied with a small smile of his own.

He tied off the ends and handed it to Northup who inspected the intricate work closely.

"That really is fine work, Johnny. You like working tack?" he asked and made to hand it back.

"Yeah, I used to spend a lot of time around livery stables. Kept me out of mischief for a minute or two. Keep it," he replied.

"Yeah? Thanks. Is that where you learned about horses?" Northup asked as he played with the mecate.

"Yeah, mostly."

Northup studied his profile. He didn't know how he was going to get this one to open up much. Johnny spared few words for him in a good moment. And this was one of those moments. He decided to try the direct approach, feeling Johnny would appreciate that.

"You still don't like me, do you?"

Johnny looked at him, his eyes unreadable, and shrugged. "Like I said before, I don't know you."

"And you're not exactly bending over backwards to, either."

"Some reason I should?"

"Some reason you shouldn't?" Northup threw back.

To his surprise, Johnny laughed quietly. He pulled his legs up to rest his forearms on them as he gazed toward the corral. "I don't trust you," he said suddenly.

Northup bristled at that. Even though he knew Johnny had every reason not to, he'd been a lawman for so many years, he'd come to expect people to trust him without question. "Why?"

"Not exactly sure. It's not something I do easily anyway. Maybe it's because of Barker." Johnny turned to look him in the eyes when he said the name. He saw those eyes flicker then calm.

"I'm not gonna pretend I'm not angry about what happened with Joe. But, that wasn't your doin."

"Wasn't my old man's either. Barker came here with his own ideas. He could've killed me and Evan's almost killed Scott. He tried to get Murdoch to make me run off to Mexico. I don't know what kind of man he used to be but I can tell you what kind of man he became."

Northup didn't miss the agitation in Johnny's tone. He bit the inside of his cheek and took a breath before answering. "Then, I'll tell you. He was the best lawman I ever seen. Honest and trustworthy. Any sheriff around needed help, they'd always come to Joe. He was tough and brooked no nonsense but he was fair. I don't really know what happened to change him. Maybe gettin older and not havin much to show for it. Maybe he got scared. I just don't know and I never will now."

"That must be hard. The not knowin," Johnny said, his own experiences shining through in the husky tone.

"It's the worst part. But, there's nothin I can do about it now. I know what happened here and I know he betrayed Murdoch. I'll never understand it. No matter how desperate he was, stabbin a friend in the back like that ..... well, there just ain't no call for it."

It was all he could do to hold in the indignation and rage he felt. Yes, there had been backstabbing alright. But, it wasn't Joe's. No, Murdoch Lancer was the backstabber and he would pay for it dearly.

Johnny took in the words and the surety of the tone. He felt Northup was being honest with him but there was still something there. Something in the back of his mind that told him to beware. Was he being overly cautious? Were his own past experiences clouding his judgment? He wasn't sure but he refused to dismiss the feelings this man evoked in him.

"I guess we've all had that happen to us at some time or other. Being betrayed," he said gently.

Northup blinked and looked at him, coming out of his reverie with some irritation. He fought it down and wondered how much longer he'd be able to keep up this act. He wasn't ready to let go of this opportunity, though.

"Sounds like you know somethin about that?"

Johnny let out a soft breath and looked back at the corral. "Yeah," was all he said.

Northup waited but no more information was forthcoming. Still, he believed he'd made a dent in the armor that was Johnny Madrid.

"Well, think I'll turn in. That brother of yours is still tryin ta kill me," he chortled.

Johnny laughed and shook his head. "Night, Mr. Northup."

He stood and paused, a little taken aback. It was the first time Johnny had bade him goodnight. It might have seemed an insignificant gesture on the surface, but Northup thought not.

"Goodnight, Johnny."

***

Scott felt more at ease with Asa Northup than he had with anyone outside his family in a very long time. They spent long days together and talked for hours at a time. Asa, as he'd insisted Scott call him, was genuinely interested in his background and Scott was happy to have someone he could share his wartime experiences with. Someone who truly understood what it had been like to stand on a battlefield of blood.

It also pleased him that Johnny seemed more relaxed around their guest. It had taken some time but Johnny was at least talking with the man now. Scott had seen them last night as they chatted on the front stoop. He could tell by Asa's face - the only one he could see - that things were going well. He noticed Johnny had even given Asa the mecate he'd been working on for a few days now.

As the two men rode up to the estancia, Scott had a small smile of contentment on his face.

Northup knew he had Scott right where he wanted him. He was a little surprised but very pleased with the progress he'd made. Scott trusted him now, he was sure of it. Things were falling into place nicely. Johnny was starting to thaw but he knew it would take more than last night to melt him completely. Still, he felt confident he could accomplish that goal. Then, everything would start to fall apart at Lancer. He smiled to himself as he dismounted.

They walked in to find Murdoch and Johnny with their heads together on the sofa. Scott strode over, noting the map Murdoch held as he traced a finger along it. Johnny was nodding and speaking softly, as usual.

"Gentlemen," Scott greeted.

Johnny looked up with a light in his eyes. "Where?"

"Very funny. I'll revise that, gentle*man* and Johnny," Scott grinned as he took a seat. Northup sat in the matching chair.


"What are you two so serious about?" Scott asked.

"We're looking at that area the two of you are so interested in opening up for grazing," Murdoch answered.

"In the foothills? Great!" Scott smiled.

"Yes, there's an old shack up there we may be able to use. Johnny is going to take a wagon of supplies up and see if it's reparable. If it isn't, we'll need to build a new one before we do anything else."

"Yeah, the hands won't be too happy if we don't give 'em a roof over their heads," Johnny laughed.

"That sounds like a big job," Northup noted.

"It could be. That shack hasn't been used for years," Murdoch said.

"And you're going alone? I should go with you, Johnny. That's too big a job for one man," Scott interjected.

"I need you here, son. Morrison is coming Saturday to look at those cattle," Murdoch reminded him.

"Right. I'd forgotten. Well, someone needs to go with him. You know how he is, Murdoch," Scott teased.

Johnny just rolled his eyes.

"I'll go. That is, if Johnny doesn't mind," Northup chimed in as he saw his golden opportunity.

All three men looked at him but he was watching for Johnny's reaction. The young man considered it for a long beat then shrugged.

"I can't ask you to do that, Asa," Murdoch said.

"You didn't. I volunteered. Besides, I could use some good mountain air," Northup argued gently.

Murdoch frowned then looked at Johnny who gave him a slight nod. "Alright, if you're sure."

"I'm sure."

"Okay, we leave at dawn," Johnny said then stood up. "Think I'll get cleaned up for supper," he said.

"We appreciate that, brother," Scott said glibly.

Johnny looked down at him. "We'd all appreciate it if you would take my lead on that subject, brother," he shot back then walked out of the room whistling.

***

Johnny washed up quickly then plopped into a chair by the window. He wasn't thrilled with this but he figured it would give him a chance for some uninterrupted time to size Northup up and find out what he was thinking. He'd noticed Scott calling the man by his first name and had been surprised. Then, he'd gotten angry.

Northup had weaseled his way right into the family and Johnny just couldn't understand why they didn't see what he saw. Well, he reckoned he'd find out soon enough if he was right. He really didn't want to be for Murdoch's sake more than anything. But, the man was just too friendly, too easy going, too eager to Johnny's mind. It was all an act and he was determined to find out what was really going on here.

He couldn't say a word to Murdoch about it, though. And now, he couldn't even talk to his brother. That part really tore at him. He leaned forward in the chair and rested his forearms on his legs, his hands dangling. Was he jealous? No, he shook his head. No, Scott had plenty of friends he didn't have anything in common with. Just like some of his friends weren't Scott's cup of tea. He chuckled a little at that turn of phrase.

No, it wasn't something as inconsequential as jealousy. It was as simple and basic a thing as could be. Johnny felt threatened. More than that, he felt his family being threatened. It was as if a malignancy had developed in their home and continued to grow silently in the shadows, waiting for the perfect time to release it's poison. He had a good idea of the why. It was the how he wasn't sure of.

Because, if Northup thought he could tear this family apart, he was sorely mistaken. At least, Johnny hoped that. It pained him he wasn't as sure as he'd like to be. But Scott's attitude about Northup was clear. He would hear nothing negative about the man. Still, Johnny thought Scott would always stand with him no matter how he felt about a 'friend'. Blood mattered. It really was that simple.

He blew out a breath and pulled himself to his feet. Looking out the window, toward the San Bernardino Mountains, Johnny reflected on the trip tomorrow. He didn't know how this would work out but his gut feeling had him worried and tense. He couldn't show it, couldn't speak it and that made it even tougher.

Well, he thought, guess I have no choice. I'll just have to figure it out alone.

***

Johnny led the palomino up to the hitching post and flipped the reins around then walked inside for breakfast. The wagon was loaded and ready and he'd added a few of his own items to the burgeoning load.

The kitchen was empty and he sighed then gave Maria a small smile and a kiss on the cheek.

"The gringo is late," she said quietly.

Johnny looked up at her face as she poured his coffee. "You don't like him, either?"

She shook her head vehemently. "Muy mal. He is, how do they say, sneaky."

Johnny chuckled at this but the woman's face was full of concern.

"Por favor, Johnny. Be careful."

He took her hand and kissed it. "I will, mamacita," he said confidently.

She wasn't terribly convinced with his bravado but said no more about the matter.

Johnny was half-way through his breakfast when Northup entered the room. He said nothing, simply raised a brow.

"Sorry. Guess I was pretty tired last night," the older man said in a sleep-graveled voice.

"I thought I'd ride my horse if you'll handle the wagon. That way, I can ride ahead and check that trail when we get there. See if it's passable," Johnny said, ignoring the explanation.

"Sure, sounds like a plan." He smiled at the stern woman pouring his coffee. He nearly rolled his eyes at her consternation, knowing she had no use for him.

"Well," Johnny said, then wiped his mouth and dropped his napkin on the table, "I'll check everything over one more time while you finish." He didn't wait for an answer and walked out the back door just as Murdoch and Scott walked into the room.

"Good morning," Murdoch said, his voice sounding a little reserved.

"Mornin. And yes, I overslept. Sorry. I'll be ready in a minute," Northup said a bit grumpily.

Scott laughed. "It happens."

Maria scowled at the top of his head as she placed a plate in front of him. Murdoch didn't miss it but couldn't fathom the why of it. He decided not to press the issue. It was too early.

"Was that Johnny?" Murdoch asked.

"Yeah, he's giving everything the once over," Northup said the stood, draining his coffee cup and wishing he had time for more.

"We'll walk you out," Murdoch said.

Johnny tightened Barranca's cinch and grit his teeth as he glanced at the sky. The sun was well on it's way now and he wasn't happy with the delay. He sucked in a breath and shook it off. He explained Barranca's presence to his questioning father and received a smile of approval for the idea.

"Well, guess we should get goin," he said as he took hold of the reins. Northup climbed onto the wagon seat and waited.

"Be careful, you two," Scott smiled and shook his brother's hand.

Murdoch placed a hand on Johnny's shoulder and walked him away from the others. "I just wanted to say I hope you'll take this opportunity to really get to know Asa. There will never be a better time."

Johnny kept his shoulders relaxed though he didn't know how. He smiled and nodded at his father. "That's the plan, Murdoch."

***

It was nearing dusk and Northup wondered if Johnny intended to keep going through the night. He'd squelched thoughts of saying something to the young man more than once but now, it was almost dark.

Johnny pulled to a stop and let him catch up. "Should find a campsite."

"I was thinking that myself - half an hour ago."

Johnny looked at him for a long moment then turned and spurred Barranca forward. Half a mile up the trail, he found a suitable site near a small stream and surrounded with shrubbery and trees. He dismounted and began removing his saddle as Northup reined to a stop.

"You want to build a fire while I take care of the stock?" Johnny asked.

"Sure," the man replied but he stayed in the wagon seat a minute longer watching Johnny remove his saddle, seemingly without conscious thought.

Once the fire was going and the animals bedded down, they ate in silence. Johnny stared at his plate for a long time after he'd finished and Northup could tell he was deep in thought. Most likely about him he imagined and he wondered when the younger man would start in.

With a sigh, Johnny stood and tossed the rest of his beans in the fire then held out his hand for Northup's plate.

"I'll do that."

"I've got it," Johnny answered, took the plate and walked over to the stream.

Northup watched his every move, how he walked and knelt, how his hands moved especially and the expression on his face. He could see only his profile but he committed it all to memory. He decided they were like water, Johnny's movements. Fluid and easy without any effort at all, it seemed to him. He blinked, realizing he'd been openly staring as the younger man returned to the fireside.

"We should be there by noon tomorrow if that trail is any good. Late afternoon, otherwise," Johnny mentioned casually. He knew Northup was watching him and he felt uncomfortable under the scrutiny but he showed no outward sign.

The Texan only nodded and eased into his bedroll. "Do you think the shack is salvageable?"

"Couldn't say. Never been up there," Johnny shrugged and removed his gun belt. He stuffed it under his saddle, near his head with the butt of the gun pointed toward his right shoulder.

***

Northup awoke sometime during the night to a noise. He laid perfectly still, his hand curling around the pistol at his side. He held his breath and waited until he heard it again. It sounded like a moan of pain to him. Raising up on his elbow, he looked at Johnny across the fire. The embers glowed red casting the man in a soft eerie light.

Johnny's face was alive with expression as he dreamed. Northup watched in fascination as he let out a heavy sigh and mumbled something indecipherable. He sat straight up abandoning the firearm and leaned closer, trying to hear.

Johnny turned his head toward the sky, a frown creasing his forehead as his breathing became more labored, trapped in some nightmare or other. Northup thought to wake him then decided against it. He pulled the blanket off and moved almost silently to his feet then around the fire ring. He knelt beside Johnny and leaned toward his face.

"No mas," the young man breathed out gutturally. "Por favor, no mas."

'Come on, boy. No more what?' Northup thought as he held his hand just above Johnny's shoulder.

Just then, Johnny sucked in a breath and his eyes flew open. The Colt was under Northup's chin, cocked and ready to turn icy cold steel into fiery hot lead.

"Easy boy. I was just gonna wake you up. You were dreamin," he spoke softly.

Johnny blinked and stared at him then closed his eyes briefly and lowered the weapon. "Sorry," he muttered.

"No problema. You looked like you were havin a nightmare," Northup said through the knot in his throat. His heart was pounding in his ears.

Johnny's eyes came up. "Did I say anything?"

Northup shook his head. "Just 'no mas'."

The young man sighed and nodded then rubbed a hand over his sweaty face. "I'm okay. Sorry I woke you."

"That's alright. Think you can go back to sleep?"

"Yeah, sure," Johnny said but he didn't think so. Northup didn't have to know that though.

"Well, I'm just gonna step in the bushes for a minute then," the older man said then broke out in a grin.

Johnny laughed and nodded as he walked away. He grew solemn quickly though. Damn! Why did he do that? He sure didn't want Northup hearing him mumblin in his sleep. He didn't think he'd had one of the really bad ones, though. Those always had his heart thundering and his ears ringing. He reckoned he'd woke up before it got bad. Johnny knew he could show no weakness to this man but he sure couldn't control his dreams. He knew that from experience.

Maybe once they got to the shack and started putting in some long, hard days, he'd sleep more peacefully. He laid down on his back, the Colt still in his hand, and stared at the stars. He reckoned there was still a few hours before dawn and he sighed, knowing he'd be watching that event unfold. There was no way he could go back to sleep now even though he wanted to.

***

They got an early start the next day. Johnny was quiet all morning until they reached the turn off to the higher trail. He stopped and turned Barranca back toward the wagon.

"Wait here and I'll ride up, see how it looks."

Northup pulled on the reins and set the brake. "I'm not goin anywhere," he said cheerfully.

Johnny gave him a quick, small smile and spurred his horse up the trail.

Northup sighed and shook his head. 'Guess he's just tired.'

Thirty minutes passed and Northup was beginning to wonder if Johnny had decided to leave him high and dry. The sun beat down on his back and he was tired from the interrupted sleep and raw fear of the previous night. It had taken him a while to settle down after feeling and seeing the stormy eyes of Johnny Madrid.

But, he'd also seen the pain in those eyes, brief and shining. He knew he could use that to his advantage and began thinking of how he could draw Johnny out of his protective shell.

He was deep in thought and didn't realize Johnny had returned until he was nearly alongside the wagon. He gritted his teeth at his lack of attention.

"It looks good. I think we can make it," Johnny announced.

"Lead the way," he smiled though it was forced.

It was just past noon when they entered the clearing. On first look, the shack didn't seem so bad but they both knew that could be an illusion. They checked the barn first, finding it functional and taking care of the stock. They decided to leave the supplies in the wagon bed until they knew what they were facing.

The front door squeaked noisily when Johnny pushed on it, putting his shoulder into the chore as the door protested after an inch or so.

He looked back at Northup and grimaced.

"What a dump!" Northup proclaimed when he walked into the room. The air was stale and foul with animal scents of all kinds. Most noticeable was the odor of excrement.

Johnny looked at the ceiling and spied several places where he could see the sky.

"This is gonna take some doing," he said grumpily. "Well, reckon I'll check out the roof."

"I'll take a closer look in here. Get these windows open hopefully," Northup said, crinkling his nose.

***

Four hours later, the shack was aired out and Northup had swept the floor, finding more disgusting remnants as he went. He'd never felt so dirty in his life. He thought he could feel things crawling all over him and he scratched at his arms.

Johnny had replaced the shingles on the roof of the shack and barn. At least if it rained, the animals would be dry. He wasn't sure yet if they'd be able to sleep inside tonight. He'd mucked out the stalls and used the bale of hay they'd brought with them, spreading it out and hoping they wouldn't be fighting the horses for a spot in it.

He walked out of the barn picking straw from his hair when he saw Northup scratching his arms. Johnny grinned as he sauntered up.

"There's a pond through those trees. Don't know about you but I'm ready to jump right in."

Northup turned, his face lit in delight. "Sounds like heaven to me. I think I got half the filth all over me."

When they got to the bank, Johnny pulled off his boots, socks and gunbelt then walked right into the water. As soon as he got to a deep area, he started swimming out to the middle. Northup wasn't far behind him, figuring his clothes needed the wash as well.

For thirty minutes, they stayed in the water before Johnny decided he'd survive now. He walked out, moving slowly as the weight of his clothes dragged him. He fell to the ground and rolled on his back, arms extended to his sides as he let the sun begin to dry him.

Northup took his shirt off and rung it out then laid it in the soft grass. He laid down as well and chuckled.

"You just do whatever, don't ya?" he asked.

Johnny, his eyes closed against the sun's rays, shrugged. "What'ya mean?"

"Well, most people would shuck their clothes before takin a swim or, they'd shuck 'em afterwards. You just take things however they come."

"Clothes were dirty, too. Don't see any point in takin 'em off after. They gotta dry same as me. 'Sides, didn't see you shuckin anything," Johnny replied, turning his head to look at the man toward the end.

"Guess you're a bad influence on me," Northup grinned.

Johnny turned his head back to the sky and said nothing.

"What did I say?" Northup asked, raising up on his elbow to look more closely at the younger man.

"Nothin. Nothin at all," Johnny mumbled.

***

The mattresses were trash but the frames seemed in good condition. They brought in the new mattresses and the rest of the supplies they'd need inside before pulling the tarp over the wagon bed.

Johnny checked the stove then lit it and started cooking a stew. Northup made up the cots and lit the fireplace before checking the small table and chairs and finding them lacking but hopefully, sturdy enough to handle a couple of bowls and cups - and of course, the two of them.

They didn't talk much, just what was necessary as they went about their tasks. Johnny grinned as he threw peppers in the stew and figured Northup could handle it, being from Texas.

The older man took a big spoonful of stew then his eyes widened. He swallowed hard and wiped his mouth then took a long drink of water.

"Damn, Johnny!"

Johnny bit his cheek and tried not to laugh. "I figured you'd be used to it."

"I am but give a man some warning!" he glared.

Johnny dropped his eyes to his bowl, the grin still threatening. "Sorry."

Northup eyed him stonily. "Somehow, I doubt that."

Johnny's eyes came up, hard and cold until he saw the flicker then a broad smile cover Northup's face. He laughed softly.

"What's on for tomorrow?" Northup asked once he'd regained his decorum.

"Well, these walls are in pretty bad shape. Don't think we'll have to replace too many boards, though. Just mud 'em up. Gets pretty cold up here in the winter from what Murdoch says."

"I'm not a fan of cold," Northup commented.

"Me neither. Never got cold much down south. Even at Lancer it gets pretty chilly sometimes. Scott thinks I'm crazy. He's used to eastern winters with ice storms," Johnny smiled and shook his head.

"That the only reason he thinks you're crazy?" Northup quipped.

Johnny grinned. "Nope. Just one of many," he replied, raising his coffee cup to his lips.

***

Johnny spent a dreamless night though Northup couldn't have said. He'd fallen asleep almost immediately and felt a ton better the next morning. He also knew he needed to make more of an effort to get Johnny to open up before he found his time running out.

They worked side by side replacing a dozen or so boards then Johnny made a mud pit, throwing straw into the mix and using a tree limb to stir it.

"There's a better way," Northup commented as he stood to one side.

"Listen, if you wanna jump in there and trample around in mud, you go right ahead."

Northup grimaced, not too enthusiastic with the idea but it would be quicker. Deciding they really weren't on any kind of schedule he just shrugged. "I think you're doing a fine job."

Johnny burst out laughing and continued with the chore. His biceps straining as the mixture thickened, having shucked his shirt an hour earlier. Northup sat on a tree stump and watched him break a sweat, more than a little surprised at how hard Johnny worked. He didn't think it would be a good idea to mention that thought, though. He glanced up at the sky then.

"I'll go throw somethin together for lunch."

Johnny only nodded. When Northup was out of sight, he stopped and leaned against the limb for a few minutes taking some deep breaths and wiping his brow. Damn, it's hot! he thought. He went back to work, his mind on something other than mud. He was unsure of Northup. The man seemed to be pretty straightforward but there were times when Johnny would see something in his eyes or his demeanor that sent alarms going off in his head.

He hated this. Part of him was beginning to doubt his instinct about the man. If nothing else, Johnny had to admit most of the time, he was a likeable fella. It was all just too easy. How he'd wormed his way into Scott's life was what bothered Johnny the most. That he'd used Scott's time in the Army to wheedle his way in. That's how he still thought of it. But, Scott was falling all over the man and didn't that say something about his character?

Johnny grimaced as he negated that idea. His brother was just too trusting sometimes. Maybe he wasn't trusting enough but life was a harsh teacher and Johnny had learned his lessons well. He was seldom wrong about these things but what worried at him most was just that. Seldom, but not never. He had made mistakes about people before. Not often, but it had happened. Which was why this was so difficult for him.

If he only knew what Northup really wanted. He'd thought about asking for he wasn't shy. He'd told the man he didn't trust him and Northup had accepted that. But one thing kept nagging at him. Why did the man volunteer to come up here with him? Why would he want to be around someone who didn't trust him? The only answer he could come up with was that Northup wanted to gain his trust.

And again, he questioned the why and the what. What the hell do you want with us?

***

Lunch was quick, the mud wouldn't wait long. They set about the task with their spackling spades and had two sides patched in short order. Johnny looked up at the sky and sighed. He wasn't sure they'd finish the other two sides today. That meant making more mud tomorrow. His arms were already feeling the constant stirring of the gunk. He was pretty sure he wouldn't be able to raise them in the morning.

As if reading his thoughts, Northup spoke up. "We ain't gonna make it."

"I know," Johnny sighed out.

"I'll mix it tomorrow. Your arms are probably give out."

Johnny looked over at him, annoyance rising up for some reason. He bit his lip and nodded. "Sure."

Northup backed away several feet to take a broad view. "We did a good job, I'd say."

Johnny smoothed out the last section at the corner before standing up and mimicking the other man's moves. "Yep, looks good. Should hold for a while."

Northup looked over and laughed. "You're a mess, boy."

Johnny looked down at himself. His chest was nearly covered in mud, his pants not faring much better and his boots were done for. He laughed, too.

"Reckon another dip in that pond would feel pretty good."

"Go ahead. I'll clean up here and meet up with ya," the Texan offered.

"Thanks." Johnny tossed the spade aside and stretched out his back then rolled his shoulders before heading to the water.

By the time Northup made it to the pond, Johnny had rinsed out his pants and underclothes and had them laying on a rock to dry and was swimming leisurely in the middle of the water. He laid the towels he'd brought on another rock.

"How is it?" he called out.

Johnny looked over and grinned. "Perfect," he called back.

Northup looked suspiciously at him. It was the same grin he'd received last night with his stew. He was beginning to be able to tell when Johnny was messing with him. He shucked his clothes and gingerly stepped in. It was fine at first, until he got in deeper. Then, he felt the chill in the depths of the water.

"Perfect, huh? A little cool to me," he griped.

Johnny shrugged. "You'll get used to it in a minute."

And he did as long as he was moving. But if he were to be truthful, he was still cold and wondered how Johnny could stand this. He decided he'd had enough after ten minutes and made for the shore.

"Somethin wrong?" Johnny asked as he moved closer as well.

"Too cold for me."

The younger man frowned at that. "You okay? I mean, it's really not bad."

"Maybe it's my older bones," Northup smiled back then made it to dry land. He grabbed a towel and dried off quickly then dressed as fast. He was chilled now.

Johnny went back to his swim, diving under the water and coming back up, his hair slicked back as he blinked water from his eyes. He wiped at his face and looked for Northup but he was gone. Curious, Johnny headed for shore. His pants were still damp so he wrapped the towel around his waist, grabbed his clothes up and headed for the shack.

When he walked in, Northup was huddled by the fire, his arms wrapped around him.

"Hey, what's wrong?" Johnny asked softly.

He shook his head. "Can't seem to get warm."

Johnny knelt and looked at his face. His cheeks were flushed so he tested the man's forehead. "You have a fever."

"I know. Just can't figure out why."

Johnny studied him a minute then stood up. He grabbed one of the cots and pulled it closer to the fire. "Lay down and I'll fix up some soup. More than likely, you caught a cold."

Northup nodded and moved to the cot, hurriedly getting under the blanket and pulling it to his chin. Johnny raised a brow at that then got dressed.

An hour later, he ladled soup in a bowl, grabbed some bread and walked over to the cot. Northup was sound asleep though and Johnny considered waking him. But, he figured sleep was needed more than soup so he took the food to the table and ate.

Mumbling brought his attention back to the sick man and he watched as Northup became restless. Johnny moved over and pulled the chair next to Northup. He leaned in to try and hear what the man was saying.

"I'm sorry, Joe. I gotta do this. I can't turn it down. I'm sorry," Northup groaned pitiably.

To Johnny, he sounded almost like a child apologizing to a parent for being bad.

"Can't turn it down, just can't," he went on. "I'll make 'im pay, Joe. I swear I will. He won't get away with stabbin you in the back. I'll kill 'em both. Real slow. He'll wish he never brought 'em home."

Johnny sat back, stunned at the admission and having no doubt who Northup was referring to.

"If it wasn't for them, you'd have a home now. If it wasn't for *him*." Northup continued his rant, weak as it was, and grew more restless as he continued.

"I'll make him pay, Joe. Murdoch'll pay."

Johnny stood quickly and moved across the room. Folding his arms over his chest, he turned back and considered the sick man. Anger rose from deep inside and that protectiveness that had so confused him when first experienced over a year ago. Protectiveness toward Murdoch. It had surprised him when he'd first felt it but now, it was as natural as those same feelings he seemed to have always felt toward Scott. Well, almost always.

So, now the truth comes out, he thought bitterly. You lyin bastard! You sucked my brother in and now it's gonna be hard on him finding out the truth. Johnny's anger consumed him for long moments as Northup began mumbling incoherently. It took a while for him to rein it in and start thinking straight again. He walked back over and sat by the bed trying to figure out how he should handle this.

Would Murdoch believe the ramblings of a fever-stricken man or would he dismiss it as delirium? Johnny already knew the answer. This man was a supposed friend. Murdoch would need more than dreams to convince him Northup meant them harm. Scott, too, he grudgingly admitted to himself.

He looked up to find Northup staring at him, his eyes glazed and confused. Johnny sighed and knew he couldn't ignore the man. He walked over to the stove and poured a cup of the tea he'd prepared. Maria always sent a little care package with them when they traveled far from home. It contained a roll of bandages, some kind of salve - for which the use was unknown to Johnny - and willow bark tea. He reckoned that about covered it.

He settled back beside the bed and put a hand behind Northup's head, idly considering strangling the man. But, instead he put the cup to his lips and simply said, "drink."

Northup did and watched Johnny closely the whole time. He grimaced at the bitter brew but he managed to get it all down.

"It'll help with the fever," Johnny explained.

"I know. Just tastes bad," Northup said in a raspy voice.

"Throat sore?"

"A little. Head aches some, too. Can't imagine what got hold of me."

Johnny looked coldly at him. "Don't know," he said and took the cup to the sink.

"You mad at me?" Northup asked.

Johnny hesitated for a second before turning to him. "Got no reason to be. Ready for some soup now?"

"I'll try," he answered, unconvinced Johnny wasn't angry. He was certainly hostile.

Johnny helped him sit up then had to feed him as his hands shook badly from the chills he still suffered.

"Ain't felt this bad in a long time," Northup commented once the soup was gone.

"Try to sleep. Best thing for ya. I'm gonna run check on the stock," Johnny spoke in clipped tones. He grabbed his gunbelt and slung it around his hips then set his hat on his head and turned back. "Won't be but a minute."

Northup watched him go, closing the door harder than necessary and knew Johnny was pissed about something. What, he could not fathom. Maybe, he just don't like takin care of sick people, he surmised.

Well, I'll be fine by mornin, I'm sure, he thought, more aggravated with himself and Johnny than he cared to admit.

***

Johnny sat next to him through the night. He didn't want to but he felt obligated. Why, he couldn't say. Maybe because he knew he'd need better proof of Northup's intentions. Maybe he'll die and I won't have to worry about it, he thought.

He'd made the decision to confront Northup once he was well and right here at this shack. Away from his family. Away from anything that could distract either man. He wanted nothing to interfere with this interrogation. Northup may have been a sheriff but Johnny could garner information, too, when he really needed it.

The Texan stirred as the black sky began to lighten. Johnny lit the stove to warm the tea and put on a pot of coffee. He decided to wait on breakfast until he knew how the man was feeling. His fever was much better but that didn't mean he'd be feelin real chipper anytime soon.

Northup stretched out then sighed heavily as he opened his eyes and rubbed his face. He looked around and found Johnny watching him.

"Feelin any better?" Johnny asked.

He took stock quickly and smiled a little. "Yeah, I do as a matter of fact. That tea must've done the trick."

"Fever's way down. Think you can handle some breakfast?"

The smile reappeared. "I'm starvin, actually."

Johnny nodded once then went to stove, retuning with the tea. "You're still a little warm so it won't hurt to drink this."

Grimacing, Northup took the tea and downed it quickly, preferring not to prolong the experience. He kept a close eye on Johnny as he prepared the meal. Thinking he'd wait until after breakfast, he said nothing about the younger man's foul mood.

He sat on the side of the cot and tested his strength, pleased to find no dizziness or nausea had beset him. He made it to the table with a little effort and sat down with a thud.

Johnny turned and glanced at him then filled a plate and brought it over. "Coffee?"

"Please," he answered gratefully.

Breakfast went quietly and Northup managed to make a decent showing. He pushed the plate away a little and sat back in his chair. Johnny stared into his coffee cup, his mind working furiously.

"You don't like takin care of sick people, I guess."

Johnny looked up, confused at the remark and shook his head questioningly.

"You sure seem to be put out," Northup shrugged.

"It's got nothin to do with that," Johnny said coldly.

"Then, you are mad at me. Why?"

"How're you feelin?" Johnny diverted.

"Much better, thanks."

"Take it easy today. No sense pushin yourself. I'll finish up the walls."

Northup nodded. "I'll do the dishes. Reckon I can handle that much."

"Fine," Johnny said and stood up. He walked to the door and grabbed his hat.

"Johnny? Whatever it is, I hope we can work it out," Northup called, never turning in his seat.

"One way or the other," Johnny answered mysteriously then left.

It only took a few hours to finish the walls. Anger had a way of making Johnny work fast and furious. The more he thought about the situation, the faster he worked.

Just past noon, he was done and cleaned up his mess and himself before going inside.

Northup had lunch ready and the shack cleaned up. He smiled when Johnny walked in.

"Have a nice day, dear?" he joked.

Johnny shot him a look and hung up his hat. He sat at the table and tucked in without a word. It didn't escape his notice that Northup had donned his gunbelt. Habit, maybe. Maybe not. Johnny was on full alert.

He ate quickly then sat back and stared at Northup who hadn't eaten much.

"Feelin bad again?" he asked softly.

"A little tired, is all. I'm okay. No fever," Northup said then sat back himself. "Well, what is it?"

Johnny remained silent as he studied the man before him, trying to figure out why Northup thought Murdoch was in any way responsible for Joe Barker's stupidity.

Northup's patience was nearing an end. He didn't feel good and his normal ability to wait a man out was not serving him now.

"Just say it, boy," he finally shot.

"Don't call me boy," Johnny replied coolly.

Northup frowned at him, remembering the day he'd told Murdoch Johnny Madrid was no boy. He had a sudden insight that this was who he was dealing with now. Madrid, not Lancer. Fascinated, he kept the eye contact.

"Alright," he answered the demand.

"You got me real curious, Northup. I told you before I don't trust you and after last night, I know why. What I don't understand is why you think Murdoch is in any way to blame for what Barker did."

"I told you I didn't blame Murdoch," Northup defended, his own instincts screaming at him.

Johnny nodded his head slowly. "Yeah, that's what you told me only I don't believe you. Not after last night. You were talkin a lot. Talkin out of your head. Or maybe, your real feelins were talkin with your defenses down."

"What did I say?" he asked, his heart thundering.

Johnny looked at the table then met his eyes again. "Said you were gonna make Murdoch pay for backstabbin Barker. That you were gonna make me and Scott pay. That we'd die real slow. That if Murdoch hadn't brought us back, Barker would've had a home." He leaned forward then, crossing his arms on the table top.

Northup stared wide-eyed at him, his mind racing to come up with a plausible excuse. He let his shoulders relax and donned an embarrassed expression. He lowered his eyes and shifted in his seat then swallowed hard and cleared his throat.

Johnny watched it all and was unimpressed.

"I did think that way once, Johnny. I admit that. When I first heard what had happened to Joe, I was mad. Real mad at Murdoch. I didn't have all the facts then, though. I went to Sacramento to see him but he'd died only two days before I got there. They said they just found him in his cell dead. I reckon he plain gave up. Too humiliated to keep goin, I suppose. But, I read all your statements and the trial transcripts. I talked to the deputy who was here and looked into Evans' background, too. And there was one thing that kept staring me flat in the face. Joe did this to himself. He let his pride get in his way. All he had to do was tell Murdoch he needed a little help. Hell, he could've told me. But he didn't or maybe, he felt he couldn't. Either way, nobody else was to blame.

"All the way there from San Antone I kept thinkin - how could Murdoch do this? How could he turn his back on a friend? But, he hadn't and I shoulda known he never would. I'm ashamed of that and more ashamed to have to tell you about it. But it's like I told you before, I don't blame Murdoch. Not now. That's part of the reason I came to Lancer, I reckon. To face him and to make sure I was at peace with it. And I am. Whatever I said last night was just ramblin."

Johnny watched him. He was good, he had to admit. But he wasn't buying it, not for a second. Still, he had no proof. Just his own gut and he knew his father wouldn't believe that. It hurt to admit that to himself but he could do nothing else. He realized Northup was waiting for his reaction so he gave it.

"That was real sweet, Northup. Only, I'm havin a hard time believin it. Murdoch said Barker was like a father to you. Just don't seem right that you could turn off that anger. I got nothin but your word so I'll just say this." He stopped and looked deep into the other man's eyes.

"You ain't never known trouble like you'll know if you try to hurt my family."

Northup swallowed hard again but it was genuine this time. He watched the blue eyes grow darker until they were almost black. He thought he could feel the heat emanating from the younger man across the table and he was shocked at the feelings that stare and those hard-edged words evoked.

"You won't believe this, I guess, but I'm really glad to hear that. I'm glad Murdoch has someone who'd do anything to protect him." His voice shook and he hated himself for it but he could only hope Johnny took it as something other than what it was - fear.

But the younger man only nodded once and stood up. "I'm going to check the stock and take another look at the outside of the shack and barn. Unless I find something else, we can head back in the mornin." He stopped at the door and turned. "After that, I expect you'll be feeling the call of the trail again."

Northup sat where he was for long moments, his hands clasped tightly atop the tables surface, knuckles white as he tried to keep his hands from shaking. When had he lost his nerve? A no account gunhawk could never have scared him like this. And, as much as he hated to admit it, he was afraid. Afraid of Johnny Madrid.

His anger rose as his humiliation multiplied. He released his hands and slammed one down hard on the rough surface. No! That half-breed ain't gonna run me off! I will get what I came for and you, Johnny, are at the top of my list, he thought as he settled his emotions.

Johnny had just told him to leave. Just told him to get out. Well, nobody told him where to go or when. Especially not a piece of trash. So much for befriending the ingrate.

He stood and paced the small room, stopping at the fireplace and leaning against the wall. Can I repair this rift? The answer shouted in his mind. It was a definite no. Johnny was done and Northup knew it. There was no way he could fix this. No way ..... unless.

A smile flitted across his lips and he realized there was only one thing that would make Johnny beholding to him. One way he could assuage the gunfighter's ire and mistrust.

Scott.

It would have to be something monumental. More than just Scott vouching for him for he knew the man already had and it made no impact on Johnny. No, that wouldn't work but he knew what would. He grinned as he began to work it out.

Johnny repaired the hitching post and the barn door. He made one last close inspection of the shack and was satisfied it was sound. He stayed outside until after dark had fallen, unwilling to be in the same room with the man who threatened his family.

He sat on the porch and thought through how he could convince Murdoch that one of his oldest friends was a threat to them all. Another old friend, he grimaced. First Barker and now Northup.

He was still unsure if his father would believe nothing more than feverish ramblings and Johnny's own gut instincts. Northup's story was good he had to admit and he knew it would ring true to the old man. Maybe Northup would leave when they returned to the hacienda. Johnny had his doubts, though. He knew what Northup knew. Johnny didn't have a leg to stand on.

***

The trip home was made in complete silence. Each man took a task for the night they had to camp out but neither spoke. An hour from the house, Northup pulled the wagon to a stop. Johnny looked back and sighed then rode alongside and just waited.

"I know you don't believe me, Johnny, and I'm sorry about that. I'm telling you the truth. And I know you aren't gonna like what I'm about to say, either but, unless Murdoch asks me to leave, I'm not ready to yet."

"Don't reckon ya are since you haven't done what you came here to do," Johnny drawled.

Northup sighed and shook his head. "I don't want to hurt any of you!"

"Then leave. What's keeping you at Lancer?" Johnny asked.

"Just my friends. I like spending time with Murdoch and Scott. I'm sorry if that's not to your liking but too bad. I'm not gonna leave just because you can't accept a man can change his mind once he has all the facts." With that, he flicked the reins and started out again, anger coloring his cheeks.

Johnny watched him for a spell and turned the man's words over in his head. Once again, he began to doubt himself. He shook his head and firmed his resolve. He may not be able to make Northup leave right now but he could damned sure keep a close watch on him. Maybe have a talk with his brother about all this, too.

He spurred Barranca on and decided to stay behind the wagon. No sense tempting fate, he thought sourly.

Their arrival home was noisy. Smiling faces greeted them both and Johnny had to plaster a smile of his own on. He got through it and the report he made to Murdoch about the shack. Other than needing a new table and chairs, they'd completed all the repairs and the rancher was a happy man.

Johnny's gut knotted as he watched the easy interaction between Northup and his family. The Texan was already talking to Scott about working with him the next day. Johnny's back went up.

"Might want to rest a while longer, Mr. Northup. You just got over bein sick."

"What's this? You were ill, Asa?" Murdoch asked with concern.

"It was nothing, Murdoch. Had a fever but it went away overnight. Johnny nursed me right back to health," Northup explained with a smile.

"When was this?" Scott asked.

"Day before we left," Johnny answered.

"I think Johnny's right, Asa. You had that long trip right after. You should take it easy for a day or two just to make sure you're fully recovered," Murdoch decreed.

Northup thought to argue but he didn't want to raise suspicion. He shrugged and nodded his acceptance. He saw Johnny lower his head and knew he was smiling. He also knew Johnny was trying to keep him away from Scott. Well, that won't work.

***

Johnny found his brother the next afternoon and rode toward home with him. Scott could tell something was on his mind, he was too quiet.

"What is it, Johnny? Something is worrying you."

Johnny looked over and smiled at his brother. "Can we stop? I need to tell you something."

Scott smiled and nodded then found a shady tree.

Johnny paced in front of him, his hands clasped behind his back as he thought of how to start. He was as straightforward a person as there was so he figured he'd just get it said.

Scott waited patiently for him to gather his thoughts, leaning against the tree, he crossed his arms over his chest and relaxed.

Johnny took a breath and turned to face him. "Something happened at the shack when Northup was sick."

Scott frowned. It hadn't escaped his notice that Johnny still would not call the man by his first name. "Go on."

"He had a fever and was talkin in his sleep," Johnny began and recited what he'd heard and the talk he'd had with Northup afterward. He told Scott his disbelief in the man's sincerity and that he'd told him to leave Lancer and of Northup's refusal. He did his best to make Scott understand what his gut was telling him about this man.

At some point in the telling, Scott had lowered his head. Johnny waited for him to think it all through, knowing it would do no good to press Scott until he was ready to speak. At long last, Scott's head came up and Johnny's heart dropped.

"His explanation seems reasonable to me, Johnny. I can understand his initial feelings but he's a lawman. He's used to looking at the facts and drawing his conclusions. That's exactly what he did. Why are you so adamant about this? What is it you have against the man?"

Johnny's disappointment was easy to see. He sighed and shook his head, his hands going to his hips. "I can't explain it any better than I have."

"Have you considered that your instincts may be wrong?" Scott asked flatly.

"I have. I've been goin round and round about this. I can't deny I have questioned myself, Scott. But, I keep comin back to the same thing. Something just doesn't add up."

"It must have been a rough trip if you spent the entire time suspecting him."

Johnny looked at him, knowing there was a question in there and knowing what it was. "I ain't sayin he can't be nice. He can be pretty funny, too. We joked around some before that night. Which is why I was having a hard time with it. But, I can't help how I feel, Scott."

"You haven't said anything to Murdoch, have you?" Scott asked, almost accused.

"No. It won't do any good. He won't believe me any more than you do," Johnny replied, hurt mixed with anger in his tone.

"Then, why did you tell me?"

"Because I though you'd trust me, Scott. I thought you'd believe me over a stranger. Reckon that was pretty stupid of me," he shot then turned and walked back to Barranca. He jumped into the saddle, not bothering with the stirrup and looked back down at his brother. "Just forget about it," he said then took off.

"I will," Scott said in a normal tone, knowing Johnny couldn't hear him.

***

Murdoch kept looking between the brothers through supper. Something was going on there, he could feel it in the air. Johnny just got back and already they're at it again, he thought. Perturbed with the ongoing animosity between his sons, he decided they needed to hash things out. He'd thought they were doing alright when Johnny left but apparently whatever was between them had resurfaced.

Johnny headed toward the door after the meal but was stopped by his father's voice. He turned to face the man and didn't like the look he received.

"Asa, I'm sorry but could you excuse us? I need to have a private word with my sons," he requested.

Northup looked from one to the other then nodded his head and walked outside, a small smile coming across his face as he opened the door. He stepped silently to the French doors and stood in the shadows.

"Is there a problem?" Scott asked.

"Is there?" Murdoch retorted. "Something is going on between the two of you and I want to know what it is. I thought you had resolved your differences before Johnny and Asa left but I guess I was wrong. So, what is it?"

Scott looked at the floor and Johnny blew out a breath.

"Well?" Murdoch demanded.

"Just a difference of opinion, that's all," Johnny said softly.

"Yes, that's all," Scott said.

"Well, it's nice you can agree with each other on something. That isn't, however, the answer I expect. What is it you're disagreeing about?"

Johnny looked at his brother and could see Scott making his decision. His eyes narrowed in warning and he shook his head slightly. Murdoch saw this and his anger increased.

"Johnny...."

"Look, Murdoch, don't worry about it. We don't need any help with this. We can solve it ourselves," Johnny stated.

Murdoch's jaw tightened and he looked to Scott. "Well, Scott? Do you think you can resolve this between yourselves?"

"I believe we can agree to disagree on the subject," Scott said tightly.

"That would be fine as long as you can also get past it and be the brothers and friends I know you are."

Both young men looked reticent and more than a little ashamed. They both nodded their heads but said nothing.

"Good! I expect to see a change by morning," Murdoch stated.

A crooked grin slid up Johnny's face at the order. For once, he managed to hold back a retort. When he looked at Scott, he saw a similar expression. It hit him hard at that moment. He quickly excused himself and went upstairs, taking two steps at a time.

***

Johnny leaned against the bedroom door and closed his eyes. What was he doing? Why was he arguing with his brother about this? He had no proof. Nothing solid at all. Only mist and shadow, opinion and suspicion to go on. Northup had done absolutely nothing to indicate he had ulterior motives. Maybe he was telling the truth

Johnny wanted to believe that. He truly did. So, why couldn't he? Why did he always look for the worst? Maybe because that's all he'd ever seen before. But this wasn't *before*. This was now and that life was behind him. Still, he couldn't just ignore years of training and experience.

He heard the soft knock and smiled a little. Reaching behind him, he turned the knob and stepped away, walking to the middle of the room before turning.

To his surprise, it wasn't Scott at his door.

"What do you want?" he asked, unable to hide his unease.

"It's what I don't want, Johnny. I don't want you fighting with Scott because of me. That's what all that downstairs was about, right? You told him what happened at the shack and evidently, he believes my explanation." Northup stood just inside the door, the knob still in his hand.

"Eavesdropping?" Johnny asked with annoyance.

"No, but I was a lawman. I'm not stupid. Everything was fine last night and this morning. So, you must have told him today. If you had left out my explanations, I think Scott would have been ready to shoot me, too. So, I have to assume that being the fair man you are, you gave both sides of the story." His voice was calm and soothing and Johnny hated it.

"Don't worry about me and Scott. We work out our own problems," he said.

"I hope so because I'd hate to be the reason the two of you are at odds."

"It really is something for my brother and me to work out, Asa."

Northup turned to find Scott standing behind him. "I'm sorry I just don't want to come between the two of you."

"You can't," Johnny stated with a surety he hardly felt.

Scott smiled at that as did Northup.

"I'll stay out of then. Goodnight," Northup bowed slightly and went to his room.

Scott stepped inside and closed the door, noting how Johnny relaxed once Northup was gone. A thought occurred to him and he voiced it.

"Johnny, does he remind you of anyone?"

Surprised, the younger man raised a brow. "Like who?"

"I don't know. Just anyone," Scott shrugged.

"No, not that I can think of. Why?"

"Oh, I thought maybe that's why you react the way you do around him. Maybe he reminds you of someone you don't like," Scott explained.

Johnny looked disbelievingly at his brother. "That was a crappy thing to say. You think I'm that shallow that I'd judge a man because he reminds me of someone else?"

"If you didn't realize it, you might. I had a professor at Harvard that I could not stand. It wasn't until after I graduated that I realized why. He looked a little like one of the guards at Libby. He was southern, too."

Johnny frowned at this. "Well, he don't remind me of anyone and I already told you why I don't like him. You don't want to believe me, that's your business."

Scott sighed and sat on the edge of the bed. "Can we get past this? I don't like being at odds with you, brother. Unless Asa does something, I really don't see how you can judge him at all."

"The only problem with that, Scott, is by the time he does something, it'll be too late. But, don't worry about it. I have a feeling I'll be his first target." Johnny's voice was surprisingly calm and steady. His heart was anything but. He hated this. Hated Scott wouldn't believe him.

Scott stood and glowered at him. "That was a crappy thing to say, too, brother. Why would you be the first?"

"Cause I'm the one who don't trust him," Johnny shrugged, ignoring the first sentence.

Scott rolled his eyes and looked heavenward. "Why must you be so cynical? Why can't you have any faith in people?"

"I place my faith carefully, brother. Don't pay to do otherwise. Maybe you never had to learn that lesson but I have," Johnny said crisply.

"I'm glad I haven't learned that, Johnny. I'd hate to go through life suspicious of everyone and everything. It must be very lonely." Scott turned and walked out, slamming the door behind him.

Johnny's knees were shaking. He made it to the chair and fell into the cushion. Closing his eyes he lowered his head. "You have no idea how lonely, Scott," he whispered.

***

Northup convinced Murdoch he was completely recovered and the next morning he rode out to the south pasture with Scott. Both older men could see the brothers had not come to an understanding. While Murdoch was worried, Northup was almost gleeful though he hid it well under a facade of concern.

Johnny lingered at the breakfast table, glad to have a few moments without the tension his brother's presence created. Murdoch watched him push his food around for a while.

"If you're done, John, you should catch up with Scott."

Johnny's head came up and he looked darkly at his father. "Thought you wanted that creek bed cleared out."

"I do but it can wait until tomorrow. We need all the help we can get to move the herd today."

Johnny's gaze flickered then he nodded and tossed his napkin down. "Fine," he mumbled.

Murdoch reached out and took hold of his arm. "I'm right here anytime you want to talk, son."

Johnny smiled and nodded his appreciation before leaving to face another day of torture.

As he rode toward the pasture, he wondered if he shouldn't just shut the hell up already. Just accept Northup being there and accept the bullet in the back he was to receive. Or whatever the man had planned. Maybe then, Scott would believe him. No, he thought sardonically, only if Scott saw Northup pull the trigger. Otherwise, it would be his fault.

Scott's words last night came back to him in a flash. It was the tone that hurt more than the words. That condescending tone Scott got sometimes when he was goading someone.

Suddenly, his gut clenched painfully and he sucked in a breath. Damn! What was that?

At that moment he topped the rise just above the south pasture and realized why he'd had that pain. Only later would he think about the implications of it. Below him was a nightmare in progress. One he knew he could not stop - no one could stop now - even though it was just beginning. He didn't think about why it was happening. That, too, would come later. All he could think about and all he could see was Scott.

***

Johnny spurred Barranca into a gallop, unable to call out or even fire a shot in warning. That would be disastrous. But, he didn't think the men below were quite aware yet. From his vantage point he could see the gathering, the slow almost surreal movement that had begun. The dance that was just starting. By the time he was half-way to his brother, any noise he made no longer mattered.

Scott looked up from where he stood checking Remmie's left back shoe and saw Johnny coming in fast. He was shouting something that Scott couldn't make out. He saw Johnny pointing and he turned in time to see it. His eyes widened and he froze for half a second.

By now, all the men had seen Johnny and all understood what was happening. The vaqueros went to work, surrounding the herd but it was too late. They were moving much faster now and they were headed straight for Scott. What started out as a dozen skittish head turned into the whole herd quickly.

Johnny knew he wouldn't reach his brother in time. He pulled his rifle from the scabbard, never slowing his pace. He looped the reins around the saddle horn and pressed his knees tightly to Barranca's heaving sides. He brought the rifle to bear, ready to shoot as many steers as he could before they could trample his brother.

Remmie bolted, leaving Scott completely vulnerable. He knew he couldn't outrun them. He turned to look at his brother with regret in his eyes. He saw the rifle and smiled at the effort but knew it would do little good. He knew Johnny knew it, too.

Without warning, Scott felt himself being lifted by a strong arm. He reached out and hung onto the saddle horn as he was bumped and jolted to safety.

Johnny didn't have time to feel relief. He could now fire the rifle and he did so, over the heads of the herd coming straight at him. It worked for they turned to the left and headed off down the valley, the vaqueros giving chase as he turned to the right and to his brother.

Scott was sitting under a tree in a grove nearby, his head between his knees and he fought the nerves that sang inside him. He was shaking badly from the adrenaline rush. Northup stood beside him, leaning heavily on the tree with his own head hung as Johnny got there.

He jumped off the horse and ran to Scott's side, dropping to his knees and putting a firm hand on his brother's shoulder. "Scott?" he asked shakily.

The older brother looked up at him, his eyes still wide with disbelief at what had just happened. "I'm okay," he breathed out. "Just shaken up."

Johnny nodded and found he could now breathe albeit heavily. He sat down on his backside and crossed his legs. He looked up at Northup then.

"You okay?"

Northup opened his eyes and looked down at Johnny then nodded and walked away a bit. Scott started to rise and Johnny grabbed hold of his arm to help him up on shaking legs.

"Thanks, Johnny. Thanks for the warning, too," Scott said in not much more than a whisper. His eyes then landed on Northup's back and he walked over.

"Thank you, Asa. You saved my life."

The Texan turned and smiled a little then nodded. "Just glad Johnny saw what was happening and called out."

"Yes, we're all grateful for that but you're the one who grabbed me up. I still don't know how you managed that feat," Scott said.

Northup began to shake out his right arm. "Wasn't easy," he grinned then laughed. "You're a lot heavier than you look."

Scott laughed, too and Johnny could only stand back and watch. He was grateful, too, very grateful but at the moment, his voice didn't seem to work. He swallowed a couple of times then walked up to them, his hand extended.

"That was somethin to see. Thank you," he said.

Northup shook his hand and slapped him on the shoulder. "Boys, I think I could do with a little less excitement the rest of the day."

"As could I," Scott wholeheartedly agreed.

"I think you should both go on home. I'll help with the herd," Johnny offered.

"No, I....."

"No arguments, Scott. You came this close to gettin killed. I think that deserves the rest of the day off. Both of you," Johnny interrupted, holding two fingers close together to make his point.

"He's right, ya know. You need some time. Hell, I need some time," Northup said.

Scott sighed and nodded then looked back out at the pasture, his face falling. "Remmie."

Johnny turned and headed to Barranca. "Stay here. I'll find him. He can't have gone far."

It took about ten minutes to find the horse, a little longer to settle him but soon enough, Johnny returned with Remmie in tow. Scott looked him over and found no injury. Then, he shook his head as he remembered.

"His shoe is loose."

Johnny fished in his saddle bag and produced the needed tool then went about the repair without a word. "All done," he said after a minute.

"Thanks, brother," Scott smiled.

"Anytime. Go on home and tell Murdoch I'll be back soon as I know what's what."

Scott nodded and mounted up. Northup hesitated a minute and they both looked at him.

"Asa?" Scott asked.

"Huh? Oh, yeah, I'm comin," he said distractedly. He turned to Johnny. "Good thing you saw that."

"I had a good vantage point up there," Johnny replied, looking at the rise in the distance. He watched them ride away and wondered. He thought Northup wanted to say something else. He shook his head and rode off to find the herd and the men.

Northup had saved Scott's life. What was he supposed to do with that? The man could have easily let Scott get trampled and no one could have blamed him, not even Johnny. He'd come out of nowhere, it seemed.

Johnny held his breath. Out of nowhere is exactly it. Where had he been? Johnny couldn't remember seeing him anywhere near Scott. He would have noticed anyone else in harm's way, he was sure. So, where had he come from? He went over the scene in his mind. There was only one place he could have been and that was with the herd. Johnny reined to a stop and frowned deeply.

He rode back to the pasture and up the rise then sat there, scanning the area. Shaking his head, he knew he was right. Northup had to have been near the herd when they started stampeding. Yet, he'd said nothing to indicate he was. In fact, he'd said nothing about it at all. Johnny realized Northup was trying to gauge what he'd seen. Trying to find out if Johnny had seen him. But, he hadn't and he couldn't accuse the man who just saved his brother's life. He may as well pack his bags if he did that. Sighing and rubbing a hand over his face, he headed out again.

***

When Johnny walked into the living room, he was greeted with a bear hug from his father and a huge smile. He looked up in utter awe at the man and Murdoch bellowed with laughter.

"I'm proud of you, son. I'm a little upset that you rode straight toward a stampede but I certainly understand why," Murdoch explained, trying to sound gruff and missing.

"Thanks," Johnny mumbled, still stunned by the display made so openly and in front of other people. Scott was on the sofa beaming and Northup sat in a chair smiling at him.

"We got the herd back. Only lost one heifer. The men did a great job," he reported.

"I'll make sure and thank them," Murdoch said.

"Yeah? Not like you did me though, right?" Johnny grinned.

"Well, I don't know," Murdoch said, brows raised and eyes shining with mischief foreign to Johnny's experience with the man.

"You been drinkin?" he asked.

They all laughed at that.

"Asa told the story, Johnny. He made you out quite the hero," Scott interjected.

Johnny's face fell then he looked at the Texan. "I didn't do anything. Mr. Northup's the one who deserves the thanks," he said then plunged in.

"I don't know how you got to Scott so fast. I never even saw you. I'm just glad you did," he commented, sounding sincere.

"So am I, Johnny. Although, I don't think I'll be using this arm anytime soon," Northup chuckled.

Johnny smiled as he walked over and sat next to his brother. He wanted to growl as the man easily avoided the question he hadn't really asked.

"Well, I'm grateful to both of you," Scott smiled as he slapped his brother's knee.

"I thought you were gettin pretty good at this cowboy thing, Boston, but if it takes two men to save your sorry hide, I just don't know," Johnny said ruefully.

Scott's mouth fell open as the other two men roared with laughter. His eyes narrowed then as he looked at Johnny.

"I'll get you for that one, brother. Guaranteed."

***

Johnny sat on the veranda, his eyes closed as he thought once more about the day's events. The more he thought about it the more he had to wonder if Northup had started that stampede. Why? That was the question he kept asking. If his intent was to kill Scott, why did he save him? Was it because he hadn't expected Johnny to show up? That didn't make sense. All he had to do was stay out of sight and say he couldn't get there in time or he didn't see what was happening. Johnny was no closer to any answers than before and his frustration was almost palpable.

He stood up and wandered to the bunkhouse. Entering, he found it unusually quiet. He took in the men sitting on their bunks or playing cards or reading.

"Boys," he called.

A host of murmured responses met him and he frowned.

"Not real lively in here tonight. Somethin wrong?" Johnny asked.

Silence and averted eyes met his enquiry.

"Frank?" Johnny asked.

The hand stood and walked up to him.

"What's wrong with everyone?"

Frank shrugged. "Guess we're all just tuckered after the stampede, Johnny. It was a hard day."

"You all did a great job. I made sure Murdoch knew it, too. But, why do I feel like there's somethin else stewin?"

Frank only shrugged and sat back down. "Is Scott okay?"

"He was pretty shook up at first but he's fine now," Johnny answered, still feeling the heavy air and more worried than ever.

"If someone has something on their mind, speak your piece," he said in a no nonsense tone.

Jose stood up and Frank glowered at him. The young man waffled and started to retake his seat.

"If it needs to stay here, it will," Johnny told them.

Frank sighed and stood again, coming face to face with Johnny. "We all like Scott a lot and we hate what almost happened."

"But?"

The man fidgeted, shifting from foot to foot and Johnny's patience was growing thin.

"We can't help wonderin how it got started, is all."

Johnny sighed. "Been wonderin that myself. If anybody has any ideas, any at all, I'm listenin."

Still, no one would speak.

"Does it have anything to do with Northup?" Johnny asked and felt the tension in the room rise.

"It ain't nothin any of us knows for sure, Johnny. It's just that he was around the herd just before it happened and we can't figure out how they got spooked. Nothin was goin on. Wasn't no bad weather, no gunshots, no wild animals, nothin," Frank said quickly.

"Still, he saved Senor Scott," Jose said.

"Yeah, he did that," Johnny mumbled. He looked back at them all, sensing the disquiet that wouldn't go away for quite a while. "Look, if anyone sees anything strange, anything out of the way, I want you to tell me. But only me, understood? No one will ever know who told me."

"You don't trust him, do you?" Frank asked.

Johnny considered the man and his question and answered. "I honestly don't know, Frank."

***

As he made his way back to the house still deep in thought, Johnny felt someone watching him. His head came up and Northup was standing at the edge of the veranda. Johnny tried to stay relaxed.

"Evenin," Northup greeted.

"Evenin."

"Everything alright?"

Johnny glanced at him then leaned against the column. "Yeah, just checkin on the boys. They're all pretty tuckered after today. None of us can figure out how that stampede got started though."

Northup shrugged. "Does it matter?"

Johnny looked at him. "Yeah, it matters. If there's something out there spookin the herd, it matters. Until we know what, we can't fix it so it doesn't happen again."

"That makes sense. Wish I could help but I didn't even know what was happenin until I heard you shoutin down the devil. Could have been a fluke."

"Could've been," Johnny mumbled. "I didn't see you at all."

"You said that before," Northup replied.

Johnny considered whether to ask it or just keep his mouth shut. It would look like he was ungrateful and he really wasn't. "Well, if you think of anything you might've seen, let me know."

"Let you know what?" Scott asked as he stepped outside.

"We were just talking about how the stampede started. No one can figure it out," Johnny answered.

Scott nodded as he joined them. "I've been thinking about it, too. But, I'm not a real cowboy so what do I know?"

Johnny laughed softly and shook his head.

"Did you see something, Scott?" Northup asked.

"No, but I was taking care of that loose shoe. The men didn't see anything?"

Johnny shook his head. "I just talked to them. They're as confused as we are. Just doesn't make any sense. Well, I'm goin to bed."

"Night, brother."

Johnny paused in front of Northup and looked the man in the eye. "I just wanted to say thanks again. That was some real fine ridin."

"Thanks, Johnny and you're welcome. I was pretty impressed with you, too. Just wish I'd had time to stop and watch," Northup grinned.

Johnny smiled and nodded then went inside.

"I think he's warming up to you," Scott noted.

"I hope so, Scott. I hate the tension between us," Northup said sincerely.

***

It was another hot night. August was upon them fully now and the weight of the air felt almost crushing. There wasn't much breeze to lend a hand. Johnny lay on top the covers staring at the ceiling and simply melting. His chest glistened with sweat and fine beads covered his face. He'd given up on wiping it away only to have it reappear seconds later.

He sat up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed and sighing. He knew he'd get no sleep tonight. He reached over for the water pitcher only to find it empty. With a growl, he grabbed his pants and pulled them on then went downstairs to the kitchen.

After pumping a glassful of cold water and downing it, he figured if it felt that good on his throat it might help the rest of him. He bent over the sink and pumped the water over his head. Pulling his hands through the black strands, he grabbed a kitchen towel and wiped his face then threw it across the back of his neck. He walked outside to the garden and smiled a little at the slightly cooler air.

Johnny took a deep breath of the scents surrounding him then wandered through the maze of flowers and vegetables. He stopped short, his nerves edgy and looked around.

"Who's there?" he asked quietly.

"You scared the life out of me!" Murdoch walked around the large oak tree that was the centerpiece of the garden and frowned.

"Sorry. Guess you can't sleep either," Johnny grinned.

"No, it's too hot in my room."

Johnny nodded. "Need more windows upstairs," he offered.

Murdoch looked him up and down and Johnny nearly fell out laughing.

"Well, there's always a sledgehammer," he offered, unable to contain a chuckle.

Murdoch's shoulders relaxed and he smiled a little. "We'd wake the whole house."

"Like they're asleep," Johnny snorted.

Murdoch leaned against the mighty oak and crossed his arms. "What's going on with you and Scott?"

Johnny looked up at him, unable to completely see his face in the shadows. He let out a breath and shook his head.

"I told you ...."

"Yes, you both told me you'd resolve it but you haven't, have you?"

"We ain't gonna agree about it so there's no point talkin it to death," Johnny said tersely. "Besides," he added more quietly, "after today, it doesn't seem so important right now."

Murdoch nodded. "Yes. Sometimes, it takes something tragic or near tragic to make us realize what's important."

Johnny agreed wholeheartedly with that but this wasn't really one of those times. He still felt threatened by Northup and Scott's close call did nothing to ease those feelings. As grateful as he was to the Texan for saving his brother's life, Johnny still didn't trust him. He figured Murdoch thought he meant the reason for the argument wasn't as important but he didn't. He meant the argument itself. He hadn't changed his mind and neither had Scott. Neither would until proven wrong. So be it.

He thought to raise the question with Murdoch and glanced up at the man a few times.

"What is it, son?"

Johnny grinned a little at being read so well. The smile left quickly though as he began to pace in a tight circle before his father. Hands behind his back, head down, Johnny thought of how to broach the subject.

"Did Northup talk to you about Barker?"

Murdoch raised a brow at that, surprised at the subject. "He did."

Johnny stopped and looked at him expectantly.

"He had a hard time coming to terms with what Joe did but he has, Johnny. He understands and he was really upset with what Joe tried to do here."

Johnny tightened his jaw but nodded. "That's good."

"Is that what you're worried about? Asa?"

He heard the defensiveness in his father's tone and wished he'd kept his mouth shut. Well, in for a penny. "Yeah, I am worried, Murdoch. And before you ask, I can't say for sure why. It's just a feeling I have about him, is all."

"Did something happen at that shack?" Murdoch asked. He wanted to give his son the benefit of the doubt but he was having a hard time with this.

"Yeah. When he was sick he started talkin. Said he'd make you pay and he was gonna kill me and Scott."

Murdoch closed his eyes and breathed out. "He had a fever."

"I know."

"Did he explain?"

"Yeah, he did and it sounded good but .... I don't know. I just don't trust him, Murdoch. I'm sorry."

"He saved your brother's life today," Murdoch reminded him.

"Nobody knows how that stampede started and some of the men say they saw Northup near the herd right before." And he heard it. The teeth grinding together. Johnny braced himself.

"So what? Wasn't that where he was supposed to be? How can you accuse a man ....."

"I'm not accusing him of nothin!" Johnny cut him off. "I'm just telling you what I've been thinkin, that's all."

Murdoch took a calming breath before he spoke again. "Johnny, I know you've had a lot of experience with the worst men can do. I know it's made you cynical and hard and distrusting. But, that life is gone now. You need to be more open to people. More willing to give a man the benefit of the doubt."

"I know all that, Murdoch. I also know what my instincts are telling me. I can't ignore that."

"Why not? Haven't they ever been wrong?"

Johnny looked at him with a painful expression. "Yes, they have and it cost me. Don't think I haven't been worryin myself crazy over this. I don't want to believe he's up to anything. I really don't. He can be real nice and friendly. I know all that. It's just that he's a little too friendly and too focused on Scott."

Murdoch's eyes widened. "Surely, you're not jealous."

"What? No!" Johnny clenched his fists and paced away again. "I don't know why I even said anything about it. I should have known you wouldn't believe me."

"You haven't given me any reason to think he's anything more than what he is, a good friend," Murdoch said flatly.

"Then, I'm wrong. Fine, I can live with that. In fact, I want to be wrong. So, let's just forget I said anything."

Murdoch watched him for a minute. He was worried about this. Not so much for Johnny's suspicions as for the fact it was always like this. He didn't trust people easily, especially strangers. Murdoch had to wonder if Johnny would ever be able to let go of the life he'd led for so many years. He knew it wasn't easy to do but he also knew Johnny could make himself miserable if he didn't stop this.

"I don't want to forget it, son. I want to know what it will take for you to be able to let go and be comfortable here."

Johnny's head came up slowly, a perplexed look on his face and he shook his head. "I am."

"No, I don't think so. Are you aware you always do this whenever someone you don't know comes around? You're always suspicious of everyone. They have to prove you wrong before you'll accept them and most aren't able to. I swear I have to wonder how you ever made any friends."

Johnny took a step back, feeling as if he'd been slapped in the face. That face turned to granite suddenly. "Sorry, I didn't know I was so hard to live with," he said sarcastically.

"That's not what I meant. You don't seem to have any problem with family. God help everyone else, though."

"I'm only trying to protect you," he defended.

Murdoch took a step forward. "And I appreciate that, son. I truly do but there's nothing for you to protect us from. Can't you see that?"

Johnny kept staring at him and slowly nodded his head. "Yes, I see that. I see perfectly. Goodnight." He turned and walked quickly back inside as Murdoch called after him.

***

Johnny made it to his room and closed the door, leaning heavily against it. He blinked his eyes several times and shook his head in befuddlement. Pushing off, he walked over to the window and leaned against the sill as he took a seat. Lowering his head he rested it on his folded arms.

So, I can't make friends and I was lonely. Well, good for them for finally figuring that out! It seemed to him the very people he was trying to protect didn't think too highly of him.

What did they really think? he wondered as he raised his head and looked into the night. So far, not much he could see. They were wrong. Well, partly wrong. He had plenty of friends. Maybe some of them weren't 'fine stock'. Murdoch would hate some of them and Scott would have no use for them either but he did.

God! What the hell am I doing? Why did I ever open my big mouth?

He took a deep breath and blew it out. Okay, they want to walk around blind and dumb, let 'em. He was done trying to convince anyone of anything.

Trust? What about their trust in him? There was none he could see. Well, that's was alright, too. The hell with it. He wouldn't say another word about Northup. He'd smile and be nice and friendly as you please. Right up til the minute he caught a bullet from the man. Yep, that's what I'll do.

Northup was slick and Johnny knew he wouldn't be able to convince either of them the man was a danger so why worry about it at all? Let them worry about it when the time came. He'd be dead. Screw it!

He tried to calm down, knowing he'd never sleep in this state. But, he figured that was alright, too. Who cares? He stood up and looked around the room trying to figure how to pass the time. He sure wasn't going to pass it thinking about Asa Northup anymore. He decided he'd just go about his business as usual, do his work and smile at every damned body.

Johnny paced the floors for a solid hour before he was settled enough to try for a nap before dawn. He flopped onto the bed and crossed an arm over his eyes then let his mind go blank.

***

Sleep never came for Johnny and he had Barranca saddled well before breakfast. He'd put on a pot of coffee and drank half of it while downing some day old biscuits. He wrapped up a few more to take with him and was about to leave when Murdoch and Scott walked into the kitchen together.

"You're up early," Scott said with a smile.

Guess the old man hasn't enlightened you yet, Johnny thought. "Never went to sleep. Too hot. I'm headin for that dry wash. See ya."

Scott stared at the door his brother had just bolted through then looked at his father.

"What's the matter with him?"

Murdoch shook his head and grabbed the coffee pot. "I'm sure he's just tired since he didn't sleep any."

"You don't look too well rested, either," Scott observed.

"No, it was too hot for me, as well. Let's try and get that herd back on track today."

Scott sipped his coffee and grimaced. "Did he use any water?" he asked of the thick brew.

Murdoch chuckled. "It is strong, even for me."

Scott turned pensive then. "Have you noticed anything about Johnny lately?"

Murdoch glanced over at him then lowered his head in thought. "I talked to him about Asa last night. I don't know why he's acting this way. I think I got through to him, though."

"I hope so. I don't like arguing with him but he's wrong, Murdoch."

"I know, son. I think Johnny is so used to suspecting everyone of being a bad seed, he can't appreciate it when someone genuine comes along."

"That's what I thought, too. But, how do you change lifelong lessons like those?"

Murdoch sighed heavily. "Time and practice, I suppose. Let's try to cut him some slack, son. This isn't easy for him."

"I know. I feel badly for arguing with him but he's so stubborn!"

Murdoch burst out laughing and Scott followed suit. Northup walked in on this and smiled.

"That's a good way to start the day."

"I agree. Asa, I'm going to town today. Would you like to come with me?" Murdoch asked.

"I think I will. You know Scott is still working me to death. I don't know why you let him get away with that," he grinned.

"Well, today you get a reprieve," Scott smiled and shook his head at the outrageous accusation.

"Where's Johnny?" Northup asked.

"Already out and about. He didn't sleep last night. Too hot."

Northup nodded. "It was a hot one but I reckon I'm used to it. He must be gettin soft livin here," he laughed.

Both men smiled but both wished it were a little true. That Johnny could relax now.

***

Johnny worked up a sweat before the sun could fully yawn. He shucked his shirt before he ever started, knowing it would be this way. Last night's heat was only intensified in the dawn of the new day. When had it started bothering him? He stopped and stood up straight to catch a slight breeze passing his way. It was then he realized it wasn't the heat that bothered him; wasn't what had kept sleep away last night. He knew well what had caused his insomnia and it wasn't getting any better. In fact, it seemed to be getting worse.

Northup was now the hero of the hour. Johnny snorted a little at that. It wasn't easy for him to reconcile what the man had done yesterday with what he felt deep inside him. Nothing to this point had convinced him Northup's intentions were on the level. If anything, he was more suspicious of the man.

Was it really him? Was he really the problem as Scott and Murdoch seemed to think? He had to admit their words had stung. If they truly believed him so distrusting, so incapable of making friends, he wasn't sure where he stood here anymore.

His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a rider approaching. Johnny climbed out of the wash and watched his brother ride up. Part of him was grateful for the distraction, part of him annoyed. But, he planted the smile on his face and waited for Scott to dismount and announce the reason for his presence.

"Good morning," Scott said cheerfully.

Okay, Johnny thought, I can't be that damned pleasant. "Mornin," he said simply.

"Thought I'd give you a hand here."

Johnny nodded and looked past his brother at the landscape. "Where's Northup?"

"He and Murdoch went to town," Scott replied with a frown.

Christ! What did I say now? "Somethin wrong?" he asked instead.

Scott shook his head slowly. "No, I was just wondering .... it isn't a big deal, it's just ...."

Johnny sighed and put his hands on his hips. "Spit it out, Scott."

"I was wondering why you still call him by his last name," Scott did spit out.

Johnny raised a surprised brow at this and shrugged. "Ain't invited me ta call him anything else. Now, I'd think a Harvard man would have better manners than to presume so much."

There was a light in his eyes that Scott had missed without even realizing it and he smiled back.

"Touché , brother. Well, shall we?" he asked, waving a hand toward the dry wash.

"I suppose we shall unless we want to hear about it later," Johnny grinned, bowed deeply at the waist and waved his own hand. "After you."

***

Northup thought it a valuable trip to town. He'd scoped out the town and found it to be well-stocked with about anything he might need and Murdoch hadn't even been aware of it. He smiled to himself as they made their way to the house. It dawned on him then that they weren't returning the same way they'd come.

"Where to?"

Murdoch shrugged. "Scott and Johnny are working nearby. I thought we'd stop and see if they can come home for lunch."

Northup smiled and nodded. He was anxious to see if Johnny was still beholdin to him for saving Scott. Time had a way of changing a man's outlook and he figured Johnny's would change quicker than most.

They found the brothers just taking their lunch break, having not even settled yet. Johnny's tensed shoulders relaxed before anyone could see and he turned with a slight smile on his face. Not too much, just enough to get by.

"Boys. Having any luck?" Murdoch greeted.

"Oh, I'd say we're making good progress," Scott replied.

"How about comin to the house for lunch?"

Johnny walked over, resting his hand on the buggy seat. "Well, if we stay put we can get a lot more accomplished. We can probably finish this up in a few days then get to work on that bridge you been so worried about."

Murdoch looked in his eyes and saw basically nothing. Johnny gave nothing away which told Murdoch his son was still upset with him. He had every right to be, too. The rancher had wanted a moment alone with his son but it seemed it wasn't to be. At least, not right now.

"I have to agree it makes sense. Alright, we'll see you both tonight then," Murdoch smiled.

Johnny returned it briefly and backed away so his father could turn the surrey. He hadn't looked a Northup at all but he knew the man was boring a hole through him the whole time. Scott came alongside him and they waved as the men disappeared.

"A few days? You have a lot of faith in us, brother," Scott grinned.

"Well, sure. I'll bet ya we get this done in two days," Johnny returned the grin with a dazzling smile.

Scott shook his head, holding his hands in front of him as he backed off. "Oh, no you don't. I'm not falling for that one again."

"You don't watch where you're goin, you're gonna be fallin for somethin," Johnny noted as he glanced behind Scott.

"Right. And pigs will fly by in a ...." Scott didn't finish as his legs hit the tree branch and he fell backwards, landing hard on his derriere.

Johnny howled with laughter then walked over to lend a hand. Scott swatted it away and, face flushed, made his own way to his feet.

"Someday, maybe you'll listen to me," Johnny grinned then turned away as Scott dusted himself off. He closed his eyes and sighed softly then walked over to the horses to retrieve their lunch. All the while hoping Scott hadn't noticed. It was a lot harder than he'd thought to keep up the facade with his own family. Well, he'd just have to work harder, that's all.

***

Johnny's prediction came true and they cleared the wash two days later. As they both strolled into the house that evening, tired but proud, Johnny grabbed his brother around the neck and pulled him in.

"Told ya."

"You think you're so smart but I'm the one who wouldn't take the bet," Scott countered as he released himself from the grasp.

"Yeah, right before you fell over your own two feet!"

"If I hadn't been ...."

"Boys! What are you going on about?" Murdoch bellowed to gain their attention.

"We were just discussing the dry wash, Sir," Scott replied, straight-faced.

"What's the problem?"

"No problem," Johnny said as he plopped onto the sofa. "Just that I'm smarter than him."

Scott leered at him and Murdoch chuckled.

"At any rate," Scott went on, shooting another disparaging look at his brother, "we're done."

"Good! Johnny, I need you to take a close look at that bridge tomorrow. We need to get on top of that while the water level is low in that river. Scott, I need you to go to Green River with me tomorrow."

"Okay, but we won't have a lot of time, either. Saw some dark clouds over the mountains today," Johnny told.

Murdoch frowned and nodded thoughtfully. "We really need to make sure it's sturdy before the river swells."

"I'll get out there first thing in the mornin," Johnny promised.

Northup stayed in the hallway as he listened to the plan. Finally! he thought. Finally, I'll get my chance. All I have to do is get out there tonight.

Once Murdoch had shown him the bridge two days ago, the plan had developed quickly in his mind. With a little luck, it would rain heavily in the mountains tonight making the plan perfect. Even if it didn't, he was confident it would work. He'd acquired all the equipment and even managed it hide it near the bridge yesterday. Now, he wouldn't have to use the other part of his plan to keep Scott from going with Johnny.

He'd thought he might go mad waiting for the opportunity to arise to exact his revenge. Now, the moment was at hand he felt almost lightheaded at the prospects. He could envision the whole scenario playing out in his mind. An evil grin slid up his face as he licked his lips in anticipation.

***

Murdoch walked outside that evening after supper to find his younger son. Blowing out a breath, he walked to the barn, figuring that's where Johnny would be. And he'd guessed right. He watched from the door for a minute while Johnny groomed Barranca and talked to him the whole time. A smile crossed the older man's face as he heard the soft, gentle tone - if not the words - used.

He realized Johnny had stopped talking yet he still brushed the palomino's already shining coat. Johnny knew he was there. Sucking in a breath, Murdoch advanced.

"I'm surprised that animal has a hair on him as much as you brush him," he smiled.

Johnny never broke stride and didn't reply.

Murdoch choked down a rush of anger at being ignored. "Son, I've wanted to talk to you for days now."

"Bout what?" Johnny asked quietly.

"About what I said to you the other night in the garden. It was callous of me and I'm sorry."

Johnny's hand stopped in midair and he sighed then turned and laid the brush on the shelf before patting Barranca's neck and stepping out of the stall. He latched he gate and turned to his father.

"Sorry you said it or sorry you meant it?"

Murdoch was surprised at the question. "I didn't mean it, Johnny. I was upset and I didn't handle things well."

Johnny lowered his eyes and nodded. "Well, don't worry about it. It's over now."

"Is it?" Murdoch asked, trying to see his face.

"Yeah. I'm sorry I brought it up and you and Scott are right. Northup hasn't done a thing to hurt any of us. Guess I'm just the suspicious type," he shrugged.

"I'm glad you can see that, son."

Johnny fought with everything in him to stay reticent even as his entire self screamed otherwise. He inhaled deeply and looked up at his father. "Well, guess I'm just a slow learner."

"Nothing could be further from the truth," Murdoch argued gently.

"Can we just move on now? I'm tired of worryin about things that ain't happened. I just want to get along."

Murdoch smiled and laid a hand on his shoulder. "So do I, son. Are you and Scott okay?"

"Sure. We're fine. But, I think I should head up. Got an early mornin," he smiled and just wanted to get away. He hated lying and especially to his old man.

"Eat in the morning before you go. It'll be a long day."

"I will," Johnny gave a small salute and smile and walked out.

Murdoch watched him go and felt peace settle over him.

***

He waited until midnight to head out, knowing he was cutting it close but wanting to be sure everyone was asleep. He saddled a horse and walked it half-way to the arch before mounting up. He waited until he was a mile from the house before increasing his speed. Still, it was a half moon so he couldn't risk going too fast.

He'd already made his excuses for the next morning, complaining of a rare headache and begging off early. He only hoped they wouldn't bother to check in the morning if he didn't show for breakfast. It really was all about the timing and he knew exactly how long it would take him to return, sneak inside and up to his room without being discovered. If all went well, they'd never know he'd been gone at all, he thought with a smile.

***

Johnny moved quietly around the kitchen as he put on a pot of coffee and scrambled some eggs. He had decided to focus on the day ahead and not worry about anything else. Hopefully, he'd pull that one off. He made short work of his breakfast and ran water in the skillet, hoping Maria wouldn't have his head for not cleaning up fully. He grinned and figured he'd just sweet talk her later.

Giving the kitchen one last glance, he headed to the front hall and grabbed his hat and gunbelt then went to collect Barranca.

It was nearly an hour ride at an easy gait and he took his time, figuring he'd get there just after the sun rose. Johnny noticed the quiet just before dawn and appreciated the solitude a little more this morning. Once he reached the river, he turned north and followed it a short way to the bridge.

The support beam that was his task today was in the middle of the river. Thankfully, those rains had not come yet but he wasn't too optimistic about the chances of it holding off much longer. He looked at the mountains and shook his head. Black clouds still lingered over the peaks.

Resigned to surveying the damage, he dismounted and looped the reins loosely over the saddle horn allowing Barranca to roam as he pleased. He removed his gunbelt and hooked it on as well before deciding to leave his boots and jacket on. It was hot but the water wouldn't be.

He stood on the bank and craned his neck to see the bridge some twenty feet above him then gave himself a minute before stepping into the water. As he'd predicted it was quite chilly as he got nearer the middle. It was no more than three feet deep right now but it was treacherous footing. Rocks slipped and slid beneath his feet and he used his arms to balance himself, holding them out away from his sides.

He grabbed the support and leaned against it as he made the last foot or so. Once there, he gave himself a minute before taking a close look. It was as bad as he'd thought when he first noticed it in the Spring. At that time, the river was too deep and rapid to even think about repairs. But now, they'd almost waited too late.

The bolts were rusted and the wood split. He sighed and knew they'd have to replace the whole thing. Would have to put up a new one then tear this one down. There was no other safe way. He quickly figured what supplies they would need and turned to head back to shore with more than a little relief.

He took one step.

Northup watched from the hill opposite where Johnny had approached. Crouched behind a huge boulder, he waited for the perfect moment. When it came, he smiled widely and, with a flourish, pushed down on the plunger.

Barranca whinnied and reared up on his hind legs at the sudden noise then took off like lightning across the field.

Johnny looked up quickly then automatically ducked. Instinctively, he turned toward the wood beam and pressed himself against it, shielding his head with his arms. The very earth beneath him moved even as debris began to shower down. He felt slicing pain in his right arm and it fell, leaden, to his side. His feet began to slide and he grabbed hold of the beam with his left arm, trying to stay upright.

Something hit the back of his head, knocking it against the support beam, smacking his forehead hard. He saw stars as he clutched at the beam. Then, he fell, his left side leaning heavily against the structure, half sitting in the water.

It was as if the laden clouds over the mountains were waiting for this very event as they burst open and released their rainy burden far away from the bridge.

It was eerily quiet, he thought as he slowly opened his eyes. Johnny tried to raise his head but he didn't get very far as pain screamed throughout his being. He slumped further down and managed to rest his head against the support beam. After a minute, he opened his eyes again and slowly took in his circumstance.

He was wet. That much was obvious. His head was busting with pain, making it difficult to focus but he pushed through. The next thing he noted was his right arm. Specifically because he couldn't feel it at all. Fear increased his heart rate as he gingerly turned his head. Relief flooded over that fear as he saw his forearm resting on his lap. He tried to move it to no avail.

He ignored that problem for the moment and continued his examination. His eyes took in the pile of debris covering him from waist down. Hoping against hope, he tried moving his legs and was rewarded with more searing pain. He laid his head back and closed his eyes again while he worked down the panic threatening to consume him.

Johnny swallowed hard and once more, opened his eyes. Looking around as much as he could, he saw nothing of use to him. His throat felt as if it were closing off and he tried to call for his horse. The name came out in less than a whisper. Even as he tried this, he knew Barranca was gone. Driven away from the explosion by fear and the inborn need to run from a threat.

The world wasn't upright for him. The more he tried to clear his vision the worse it got. Everything was cock-eyed and he couldn't decipher the why of it. Blackness whispered, beckoning him seductively and he gave in to it willingly.

***

Northup didn't wait for the end result. As soon as he set the charge off, he headed to his horse, mounted up and galloped away at top speed. He cut through the woods and around the hacienda to the back where he quickly unsaddled the horse and turned it out in the lower pasture. Hiding the tack at the base of a large tree, he moved stealthily to the side of the house and up the outside stairs. He eased through the door and into his room then sighed with relief.

He washed up and changed then gave himself a few minutes to breathe. Once he felt ready, he walked downstairs to the kitchen with a smile on his face. It wasn't even eight o'clock yet.

The kitchen was empty of Lancers. Maria stood at the sink washing the breakfast dishes. She turned when he walked in and went to the stove, a frown of displeasure on her face for the late arrival. With no enthusiasm, she set a plate in front of him and poured coffee then went back to her chore, still scowling.

Northup grinned at her back, knowing the woman never had liked him and not giving a damn.

"There you are. Feeling better?" Scott asked as he walked into the room.

"Mornin and yeah, I feel a lot better. Thought you'd be gone by now," he answered cheerfully.

"Well, the best laid plans and all. We were about to head out but we could wait if you wanted to come along."

"No, I don't need anything. Think I'll just hang around here. What time is Johnny due back?"

Scott sat at the table for a minute. "Not for a couple of hours yet. Knowing, Johnny, he may just leave the bridge and head out to the work crew in the south pasture."

"He'd better not," Murdoch said from the door. "I told him I want a detailed report on that bridge so we can get started on repairs. I can see the rain clouds over the mountains from here."

"Well, then, I expect he'll be back soon enough," Scott replied, giving Northup a wink. "We should get going," he added and stood.

"I'll see you later, then," Northup said, eating slowly so there would be no repeat invitation. He wanted to get the tack back in the barn and make sure his tracks were well covered while he had the chance.

He waited a full hour before meandering around the house and toward the woods. Most of the men were out in the pastures but there were a few around the house working. It took some tactical maneuvering, but he got the tack put away without being spotted. He checked on the horse and was pleased it had cooled down well. There was no indication it had been ridden hard that morning. He sighed satisfyingly as he felt things falling into place.

***

Johnny blinked then his eyes shot open as he took in his surroundings. A few minutes passed before he put it all together. Groaning, he let his head loll to the right as he took in his arm. It was still there and he still couldn't feel it. That was okay, he reckoned, he couldn't feel much else either. Except for his head which was still pounding.

He tried again to move his legs only to be reminded why it didn't work the last time. He grunted against the pain and was actually a little thankful for the feeling. He leaned back, resting again when it dawned on him something was different. He frowned as he tried to figure out what it was.

Then, he knew. He looked back down at his waist. The water was higher than it had been. His eyes went to the bank and he could tell it was indeed rising. Anger surged forth so suddenly, it surprised him a little. He gritted his teeth and tried to move his right arm, thinking if he could just reach his gun, he could fire off a shot for help. Then, he stopped as he remembered he'd taken it off before getting in the water. Dammit!

How was he going to get out of this mess? When he didn't show up at home would they be concerned? The answer was no. They'd probably assume he'd gone off to work on something else first. But, Murdoch was expecting him to come straight back. Still, it may be hours before they thought to come looking. And in hours, he knew he'd be dead - if not sooner.

The blood trickling from his forehead didn't concern him much. It was what he couldn't see that bothered him. What might be bleeding beneath all that rubble or his arm for that matter. He could only see his forearm, couldn't turn his head enough to see the rest. Lord only knew what was happening there. He could only assume it was bad since he couldn't feel it.

So, he'd either bleed to death or drown. It must have started raining in the mountains. It wouldn't take much of a downpour to raise the water level in the river enough to submerge him. He couldn't move. He was trapped and panic once more reared its head. He found it harder to quell this time but he managed to talk himself down. It was a miracle to him that he could think at all. But, as long as he didn't move his head, he could tolerate the pain.

Slowly, he went inside himself, searching long and hard for what he needed. Unconcerned that it took more time than before to find. His body relaxed, his mind calmed and he sat quietly staring at the water all around him. He knew he was cold, shivering in fact. Something else to ignore but that was alright; he could do that, too.

In this place in his mind was Madrid. The place where he stored that part of himself. It was here that he felt no fear. No worries. It was here where he'd learned to accept death as inevitable and to not fear it. For Madrid did not fear death and had, in fact, welcomed it a few times in his life. Even prayed for it on an occasion or two.

He held fast to that part of himself for he would, as he'd always known it would be, die alone. As it should be, he thought. Only now, there were regrets. Now, there was a sense of loss. Even of mourning. But, he accepted that as well and felt peace fall over him like a shroud.

***

Scott let the reins hang loosely from his hands as he half-drove the surrey. He smiled as he thought about the horse before him. Zanzibar was the best trained horse on the ranch apart from Barranca. No, he revised. Zanzibar would respond to anyone's commands. Barranca was a one man horse. A chuckled threatened to escape at that thought.

Murdoch looked sideways at his son, smiling at the smile he saw on the handsome face. He was a proud man and today he wouldn't think about what part he hadn't played in their lives. He wouldn't think about the credit he couldn't claim for how they'd turned out. Today, he was simply happy. Scott had been politely tenacious with Rollings, cutting a lucrative deal for the cattle drive next Spring. Murdoch had simply sat back and nodded in all the appropriate places, letting Scott do all the talking.

Rollings had even turned expectantly to him a time or two as if he thought Murdoch would disagree or correct Scott's proposals. But, he'd simply smiled a little at the man and remained silent. Now, a chuckle did escape him.

"What?" Scott asked.

"Oh, I was just thinking of how you handled Rollings. You did a great job, son."

Scott beamed. "Thank you. He's a tough man but I'm glad he saw reason."

Murdoch laughed outright at that. "It's the first time, I can tell you."

That comment made Scott's day even better. He turned back to the road then suddenly pulled back hard on the reins. Zanzibar came to an immediate stop. Murdoch frowned as he looked at his son then followed Scott's gaze. His heart went to his throat when he saw it.

Scott set the brake and slid out of the surrey. Slowly, he approached the golden horse grazing on the side of the road. Barranca felt the presence and balked a little. Scott shushed him and reached out, grabbed the lead rein then the bridle. He ran a hand down the horse's side and checked the saddle.

"He seems alright. His gear is all here," he reported as he felt Murdoch behind him.

Murdoch looked the horse over quickly as well then sucked in a deep breath. "Let's ride over to the bridge."

***

Johnny awakened and, this time, it took less for him to remember his situation. There was more to remember now, though. Or, maybe, to notice. He was weaker, his strength nearly drained and he knew why; knew this feeling well. He was bleeding to death. His eyes went down and he saw the water was up to his lower rib cage now. He could only sigh and shake his head slowly. Well, at least it doesn't hurt so much anymore, he thought. His mind knew that was a bad thing but he didn't care anymore. He'd accepted the inevitable and the only question for him now was when.

He chanced raising his head up and was pleasantly surprised when it didn't fall off his shoulders. He looked at the water beside his right arm and saw it had a pinkish hue. Yep, it's my arm bleedin. Probably other places, too. Well, that's what I get for .....

He stopped and frowned then chuckled. What I get for what? I didn't do anything. This thought amused him a great deal and he laughed again and louder. Perfect! he thought. Here I am, mindin my own business, doin my work and this happens. Not a gunfight in some dusty street. Not a bullet in the back from some bushwhacker. Bein a rancher did in Johnny Madrid.

He laughed again and figured he was just about gone now. He was thinking crazy thoughts and he knew it was from the blood loss. Probably got a fever, too, from this cold water. More laughter accompanied this idea. Then, he sobered and thought about his family and his life.

His biggest regret was his family. Arguing with them was always hard and he felt badly that these past few weeks had been the worst. He'd felt separated from them for a while now even though they were under the same roof. He hoped they would feel no guilt about that but he was pretty sure they would. Part of him hoped they would, he admitted to himself.

He looked up at the clear blue sky above and smiled. "Hey, mama. Are you waitin for me? Are you up there? Probably not." Melancholy hit him hard just then as he wondered where he'd end up. He was almost certain it wasn't where he wanted to end up. With a wry smile, he looked upward again. "Is it too late? Guess it is. Just want you to know I am sorry for a lot of things I've done. Not all of them but a lot. No sense in tryin to pull a fast one on ya now, is there?" Another laugh escaped him before he closed his eyes once more and waited for angels or devils.

***

On first sight, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. But, as Scott drew nearer to the bridge, he could see the gaping hole up above. His gut knotted painfully as he slapped the reins hard.

Murdoch was on the ground before Scott could come to a complete stop. He ran to the water's edge and nearly sank to his knees. He didn't have a clear view but what he saw was more than enough. One arm splayed out from the side of the bridge support. One red-sleeved arm.

Scott came alongside him and saw the same thing. Without a thought, he walked right into the water, fighting hard to keep on his feet as he slipped and slid. He went to one knee once before making it to his brother's side. He could hear the splashing water behind him and felt comfort knowing his father was with him.

Scott squatted beside Johnny and immediately noted the pale skin, the gash in his forehead and the debris covering the lower half of his body. A shaky hand went to Johnny's face and felt the cold skin. Scott bit his lip hard and placed two fingers at Johnny's throat.

Murdoch knelt behind his older son and waited what seemed a lifetime for Scott's shoulder's to relax and his head to nod.

"Johnny," Scott called as he leaned in close to his brother. "Johnny!"

Lashes flickered then blue eyes opened slowly, blinking rapidly. Johnny frowned. He couldn't tell if the voice was angelic or demonic so he waited to hear it again.

"Johnny?"

Surprised, Johnny slowly turned his head and smiled. "Hey, brother. Thought you might be an angel," he whispered.

Scott cocked a brow. "Not yet," he grinned.

"Scott, let's get him out of this mess," Murdoch said roughly. He stood and made his way gingerly to Johnny's other side. That's when he saw the right arm and winced. His eyes sought his older son's and he shook his head.

Scott could say nothing, unsure how bad it was and not wanting to alarm Johnny any further.

Murdoch got hold of a large piece of timber resting almost sideways against the beam near Johnny's head. It was situated in such a way as to block any attempt to move Johnny as it was a mere two inches above his right shoulder. He started to move it then stopped as he heard the beam itself groan with the strain. He shook his head then focused on freeing Johnny's lower body. Scott joined him and they managed to remove enough to see Johnny's legs.

His left pant leg was ripped open as was his left leg. The cold water had slowed the bleeding substantially but it still bled.

"Wait, Scott. Let's think this through. We need help here. Take Barranca and ride back to the ranch. Get the men and some equipment. We'll have to shore that beam up before we move him and we'll need a wagon to get him home. Send someone for Sam, too."

"Yes, Sir," Scott replied and half ran, half swam to shore. He untied Barranca from the back of the surrey and took off.

Murdoch continued to remove debris from his son's legs and made sure it was out of the way. It wasn't long before he had a clear path then, he didn't know what to do with himself.

He'd thought Johnny had passed out again but when he looked, his son was watching him with that hawk's eye of his.

"How does it feel, son?"

Johnny stared at him. "Hurts some," he whispered.

Murdoch nodded and looked around, cursing himself for not thinking of grabbing a canteen. He wasnâ€t about to leave his son's side now, though. He pulled out his kerchief and leaned behind him to where the water was clear and dipped it in. He put it to Johnny's lips.

"Here, son, drink. It's clean," he assured the young man.

Johnny sucked on the kerchief, relieved at the coolness in his dry throat. Murdoch had to wet it a second time before Johnny was sated enough.

"How did this happen, Johnny?"

He looked up at his father and frowned. Well, that was the question, wasn't it? He hadn't even thought about how he'd come to be in this fix. He shook his head as he thought it through.

"Explosion, up above," he replied, his eyes going up.

Murdoch craned his neck and took a long look at the ragged edges of the bridge. Explosion? How?

"How, son?"

Johnny tried to shrug but ended with only a grimace. "Don't know. Just heard it and ducked."

"You were right here?"

He nodded. "Yeah, was about to get back to shore."

"That's strange," Murdoch mumbled, forehead creased in thought.

"Murdoch, the river is rising," Johnny said, bringing him back to the present.

"I know, son. We'll get you out of here, soon," he said and patted Johnny's right arm then cringed as he realized it. But, Johnny made no sign he'd even felt the gesture and Murdoch drew pensive again.

***

Scott tore into the yard bringing several hands to his side from the odd arrival. He quickly explained the situation and barked out orders even as he was handing Barranca off.

Northup ran outside and listened, slightly surprised but pleased that Johnny was still alive. He'd be joining the rescue efforts. He'd be right there while Murdoch watched his second born, his precious lost boy, die slowly and painfully. He suppressed a smile and replaced it with a concern frown.

He jumped right in, loading the wagon and offering to drive to the site. He took a moment to put a supportive hand on Scott's shoulder. The younger man gave a weak smile of appreciation. Northup figured this was going to be even better than he'd planned.

In less than thirty minutes, they were ready to go. Julio had been dispatched for the doctor within two minutes of Scott's arrival. Now, the young man was impatient to get back to his brother and brooked no delays.

***

"Johnny, stay with me," Murdoch said softly.

Johnny opened his eyes and pulled them wide to stay awake. "I'm trying, old man. Tired," he sighed.

"I know, son, I know. Just hang on. Scott's on his way with help. Listen, I'm going to the surrey to see if I can find something for a bandage for that arm and leg. I'll be right back."

Johnny only nodded and closed his eyes again. Murdoch was wont to leave him even for that short time but he needed to tend his son's injuries before the men arrived. Johnny was incredible weak already and he knew he had to get that bleeding stopped altogether.   

As he trudged through the ever rising water, he thought of what he wanted to say to his son in these precious few moments they had alone. He couldn't help feeling it may be his last chance to say the words he'd never been able to utter. Somehow, he couldn't bring his heart to even think about this possibility but his head knew better. And he'd always been able to listen to his head easier than his heart.

Murdoch rummaged around and found an old shirt stuck under the bench. He made his way back and rinsed it out as much as he could before tearing it into strips. He bandaged the three wounds he could see and prayed there were no more. Though Johnny's head had stopped bleeding for now, it could start again when they moved him. He watched his boy closely as he went about the tasks. Johnny winced when he applied the leg bandage but had no response to the arm.

"Murdoch."

"I'm here, son," he answered as he tried to settle in the cold water.

"I was thinkin about dyin and wondering where I'd end up."

"You don't have to wonder about that, Johnny. You aren't going to die," Murdoch replied gruffly.

A grin crossed the pale lips. "Than an order?"

Murdoch's frown relaxed. "A request. A plea."

Johnny opened his eyes again and brought them up to lock onto his father's. "Ain't mine to give. Anyway, I figured I had a fifty fifty shot."

"Please don't talk like that."

"It is what it is, old man. Just wanted to tell you, I'm not afraid."

Murdoch closed his eyes briefly before looking back into the sincere and searching eyes of his young son. "I'm glad you're not afraid, Johnny, but I am. I'm scared to death of losing you. I have been since you came home."

"I know," was the simple response.

"You do?" Murdoch asked, stunned.

"Yeah. Why else would you act like a jerk? I figured if you didn't want me around, you would've said it, so that's what I came up with. Anyway, seems to me like you've settled down about that."

Murdoch couldn't help but smile at his son's insight. "Yes, I suppose I have 'settled down' about that some. At least, I know you won't leave me of your own volition." His smile faded then. "Don't leave me, period, okay?"

Johnny shook his head slightly and breathed out hard. "I don't want to and I'm tryin as hard as I can."

"I know, son. I .... it's just that ....."

"Me, too, old man. Me too," Johnny smiled and closed his eyes.

Murdoch took a deep breath and was about to say the words when he heard the horses riding in fast. His shoulders slumped with relief for the help. Now, he could get his son home.

***

Scott waded through the water, appalled at how much it had risen while he was gone. It was now to Johnny's chin as he reached the men. "How is he?"

"Fadin fast, Boston," Johnny answered.

"Then, slow down. What's your hurry," Scott quipped then placed a hand on his left arm. "Don't even think about giving up, Johnny."

The younger man sighed and nodded, knowing it would do no good to argue. He wasn't up to the task anyway.

Scott turned back when he heard the wagon and watched as Northup started giving instructions to the hands. He held out a hand as a rope was flung to him then tied it off to the beam. Frank rode across to the other side and repeated the process as Murdoch tied off another rope. Between them, they tightened the ropes and tied them off to trees on either side, hopefully securing the beam for now.

Northup and three more men wrestled through the water with a piece of lumber ten feet by four. They passed the Lancers and moved to wedge the lumber between Johnny's beam and the next one, further supporting the weakened structure. Northup made his way to Murdoch's side and leaned in.

"Let's try moving this one now," he said, indicating the large piece of debris just above Johnny's right shoulder.

Murdoch nodded and moved into position. Johnny opened his eyes and watched Northup but the man didn't look at him. Just look at me, you sonofabitch. All I need is one look to know, he thought grimly. And Northup did glance down, caught Johnny's stare for a few seconds. Just a few seconds.

The debris gave a little and both men put their backs into it. Before long, it was loose and they flung it back, watching as it floated for a second before coming to rest behind Johnny's beam and out of the way.

"Not long now, brother," Scott told him.

"I don't know any other way but to just pick him up, son," Murdoch said as he stood over them.

"I'd rather but him on a board so we can carry him easier, Murdoch. Less chance of jolting him about. It's not going to be easy to walk through this," Scott countered as he nodded toward the water around him.

"I'll go see what we've got," Northup offered and moved to the shore. He hadn't gotten a good look at Johnny's injuries but he'd seen the pale face and bluish tinge to the lips. It was fine with him if they got Madrid home first. He wasn't gonna make it, that was obvious.

"Just another few minutes, son," Murdoch said as he retook his place.

Johnny looked up at him then frowned. Listening closely, he closed his eyes and sighed. "I don't think so. Get out of here."

"What?"

"Get out now!" he managed to shout.

Before either of them could fathom his words, they heard what he'd heard. Scott and Murdoch looked up at the same time and saw the rushing water tearing toward them from upstream. As one, they moved. Each man took a side and lifted Johnny, taking debris along with them. Johnny shouted at them to leave him but they weren't listening.

From the far shore, Frank saw the trouble coming and kicked his horse into the water. He moved alongside and called to Murdoch. Both men stopped and, with only a slight hesitation and a glance between them, hefted Johnny onto the back of the horse.

Johnny shouted in agony as he found himself seated behind Frank. He wrapped his left arm around the man's waist out of sheer habit as Frank forged through the water.

With little energy left, Johnny yelled at the man. "You damned well better get my family out of there!"

Murdoch grabbed Scott's arm and pulled him through the rapidly rising water. The current pulled at both men with increasing ferocity. Scott felt his father's grip loosen then tighten again with resolve. He grabbed Murdoch's sleeve and together, they flung themselves at the shore, several hands grabbing at them and hauling them the rest of the way out.

Johnny felt people grasping him and pulling him to the ground. He knew he couldn't hold out much longer. Knew he'd soon be unconscious. He turned his head just in time to see his father and brother kneeling in the grass then, he passed out.

Scott gave himself a full ten seconds before struggling to his feet with help. He was soaked through and his legs felt like rubber but he staggered to his brother's side. Murdoch felt a hand on his arm, pulling at him. He looked up at Asa and nodded then climbed to his feet as the man helped him to his family.

Scott had his hand on Johnny's face calling to him and getting no response.

"Get him in the wagon," Murdoch ordered and pulled Scott back out of the way.

They both watched as the men loaded Johnny onto the hay and blankets spread out in the wagon bed. Scott climbed in beside him and covered him then slumped down beside him, exhausted. Some internal conditioning made him look up at the sky, reckoning the time to be about three o'clock.

Murdoch managed to crawl onto the bench and turn around to see his sons. Northup jumped in and grabbed the reins as they started out with a jolt.

***

Sam paced the living room as he waited for them to bring Johnny home. His mind went through all the possible injuries until he had to stop himself. He knew better than to guess about such things. He only wished he could be as objective about this particular patient as he was about the rest. Johnny got to him and he had never been able to figure out why. He'd given up on that long ago and simply accepted how he felt about the enigmatic young man.

His head came up and he moved to the front door, swinging it open and moving quickly to the yard as he watched the wagon pull up. He saw Murdoch first and wondered how many patients he'd end up with. Then, he saw Scott and his calculations went up.

Scott moved to the front of the wagon bed and positioned himself at Johnny's head. Murdoch moved to lift his feet. Northup came up and stopped him.

"I've got him, Murdoch. Support his back when we pull him out, okay?"

The rancher looked tiredly at his friend and nodded, a small smile of appreciation on his lips.

Once they had him in bed, they had to strip the sodden clothes. Scott quickly unbuttoned the sides of the conchos as Murdoch worked on the shirt with trembling fingers. Sam gently pushed him aside and simply ripped the shirt open.

"I'll cut it the rest of the way. I need to get a look so we can start warming him up. Scott, get the bedwarmer ready. In fact, get a couple. I'll need that hot water Maria has waiting," Sam instructed.

Once Scott returned with the hot water, he asked, "now what?"

"Now, stand back until I need you," Sam replied, his face stone as he went about his work.

Murdoch and Scott stood side by side against the wall as Sam worked. Northup stood by the door ready for anything. He was certain Johnny hadn't seen him, though. Still, he wouldn't let his guard down.

Sam cleaned and stitched the leg and arm wounds then did a methodical examination of the rest of Johnny's body. He found only minor cuts and some nice sized bruises but nothing was broken which surprised him. At last, he pulled the covers up and glanced over his shoulder.

"Ready for the bed warmers now."

Scott pushed off the wall and removed the two objects from the fireplace, handing one to Sam and sliding the other under the covers. Sam cleaned the head wound and deemed no stitches required there then opened each of Johnny's eyes and checked them. He could feel the lump on the back of the young man's head but he didn't think the concussion was too serious. More good news.

"Well, I've done all I can for now. He needs to warm up and wake up. Then, I can finish checking him," the doctor relayed.

"Sam, he said he couldn't feel or move his right arm," Murdoch reported.

"The cut was to the bone. I'm not surprised there was nerve involvement but there's no way I can tell how bad for a few weeks."

Scott grimaced at this, that knot returning to his stomach. Why did it have to be his right arm? He knew Johnny would have a very hard time with that. He should just be grateful his brother was alive and he was, eternally grateful. Still, Johnny might not see it that way.

"We'll sit in shifts. I don't want to leave until he's awakened," Sam continued.

***

To no one's surprise, two hours later Johnny began to stir. Murdoch leaned forward and watched as he came out of unconsciousness. His hand went to Johnny's forehead out of sheer habit. It was too warm for his liking and he quickly walked down the hall to Sam's room.

The knock was sharp and loud, bringing Scott to his door. He looked out and saw his father then went to Johnny's side. Northup also heard the commotion and stood outside Johnny's room as the two other men entered.

"He has a fever," Murdoch explained to Scott.

Sam listened to his chest for long moments, watching as his face twitched and wondering if he wasn't dreaming. Johnny didn't seem to be really waking up to him.

"His lungs are starting to fill. He has early pneumonia. We'll have to start getting him to drink as much as possible and now. With the blood loss he can ill afford a fever and infection." He shook his head. "Why does everything have to be so hard with you?" he asked in a whisper.

Slowly, Johnny became aware of his surroundings. His head was pounding and the rest of him hurt pretty good, too. His face felt hot but the rest of his body was too cold. He frowned as memory returned. Opening his eyes, he focused on the first thing he saw. Sam. A slight smile, he hoped, was offered up.

"Well, young man, you sure do like keeping me busy," Sam smiled.

"Yeah, keeps ya young," Johnny whispered hoarsely. He watched as Sam looked at someone outside his line of vision and made some motion with his hand. Johnny wasn't about to move his head, it was coming off at the moment.

He felt the hand behind his neck then the glass was put to his lips. He drank slowly and with effort but the water was cold and delicious.

"Thanks," he breathed out once allowed to rest again.

"You need to drink a lot, Johnny. Water and tea mostly. As much as you can stand and then some. You lost a lot of blood and you have a fever."

Johnny nodded his understanding. "Infection?"

"Yes, pneumonia, I'm afraid. But, it's in the early stages so let's fight it off before it gets any worse."

Johnny had to smile at that. "Okay, *let's* do that." The smile faded and he knew he wouldnâ€t last much longer but he needed to know. "Tell me."

Sam sighed, knowing the question would be asked and not wanting to answer it at the moment. "You have a concussion, a deep cut to your left leg and right arm, both of which needed stitches. The cut on your head isn't bad. You're scraped and bruised just about all over."

"My arm?" he asked in a shaky voice. "I can't feel it, Sam."

"Murdoch told me. It was a deep cut, John. Probably injured a nerve but I won't be able to tell you anything for a couple of weeks. Nerves heal very slowly."

"Or not at all," Johnny said, rather than asked.

Sam could only nod sadly. "I know it's hard but try not to focus on that. You need to heal, Johnny. You need to get strong again to fight off the rest."

"Okay, Sam. Tired now," he said even as his eyes slid shut.

***

A week passed and they'd managed to keep his fever down. No one mentioned his arm to him or each other. No one wanted to think of the implications for the young man. By day three he was able to take broth and sit up in bed for half an hour. His color was returning and he seemed in less pain.

Murdoch set the empty bowl on the bedside table and handed him a glass of water. He noticed a grimace on Johnny's face but waited to see if the young man would speak it.

"Tired now?"

Johnny nodded. "A little. Doesn't take much to wear me out."

"How's the breathing?" Murdoch asked, knowing Johnny struggled and got short of breath easily.

"Better, I think. No coughing either. Guess I'm getting well but it sure don't seem like it," he answered, giving his father a small smile.

"I know, son. But, you're making wonderful progress. The pain is better, I can tell."

Johnny lowered his eyes and stared at the blanket. His eyes cast toward his right arm held in a sling. "Not with everything," he muttered.

"Takes time. Remember what Sam said. Let's get everything else fixed first."

Johnny closed his eyes when all he wanted to do was scream. Anger rose and he bit his lip but he just had to get some of it out. His eyes came up, flashing. "It's a little hard to forget about when I have to use my left hand for everything! That ain't easy, ya know. You should try it sometime."

Murdoch tensed at the tone then made himself relax some. "I'm sorry, Johnny. I don't know what to say to make you feel better."

Johnny opened his mouth to tell his father exactly how he could make it better when the door opened after one quick knock.

"How's he doin?"

Johnny tensed at the voice and lowered his head again.

"Better," Murdoch clipped then sighed as he turned to give his friend a quick smile.

Northup stepped inside and walked to the foot of the bed. "That's good news. You'll be up and about again in no time, Johnny."

Slowly, he raised his head, his eyes hard and cold. He only stared the man down and said nothing.

"Well, I'll leave you to rest then," Northup said and walked out, leaving the door slightly ajar.

"Son, I know you're upset but try not to take it out on everyone else," Murdoch chastised lightly.

"Close the door, please," Johnny said in a husky voice.

Murdoch did as requested but didn't see Northup slide further down the hall, cursing to himself.

Johnny waited for him to be reseated then thought through what he was about to say. He sucked it up and started.

"Someone blew up the bridge."

Murdoch frowned. "You said that before. Did you see anyone?"

"No, but I've got an idea who it was and you won't like it."

"Johnny, don't make accusations you can't back up."

The younger man cringed a little at the harsh tone and knew this was going to be even harder than he'd thought. "I saw his eyes out there, Murdoch. He looked at me and I knew as surely as if he'd admitted it."

"He was right here, John. He didn't even get up until late," Murdoch stated.

"How do you know? Did you go to his room that morning?"

"No, but how could he have blown the bridge and gotten back here without anyone seeing him?" Murdoch countered.

"I wasn't out there long before it happened. It wasn't even seven o'clock yet, I'd bet. He could've easily had time to get back. As for no one seeing him, by then the crews would've been gone and he could've slipped in. This is a big house, Murdoch. It's easy to come and go unnoticed. I know."

Murdoch shook his head. "He had no reason."

"He had plenty of reason," Johnny shot back.

"What do you want me to do, Johnny? Ask him?"

"He ain't gonna admit it, Murdoch. I want him gone," Johnny said, flatly.

Murdoch stood up and paced the room. "You want me to ask him to leave based on your suspicions? You have no proof, Johnny. How can you expect me to throw a friend out without an ounce of proof?"

Johnny watched him pace, watched him get worked up and it only served to anger him more. "I told you I saw it in his eyes. I know there's no proof other than that but you have my word. Or, is that not good enough?"

Murdoch stopped and turned to him, his face set in stone. "For me to tell him to leave? No, it's not good enough."

Johnny stared at his father for a long moment, his jaw tight, his eyes searing into the other man. "Will you at least tell him to stay the hell out of here? Am I allowed a say in who comes in my room?" His voice was low and tight with emotions he wished weren't there.

Murdoch sighed heavily. "Yes, I'll tell him to stay out of here."

"Thanks," he sneered and started scooting down in the bed. Murdoch made a move to help but Johnny's glare stopped him cold.

As the older man opened the door, Johnny's soft voice stopped him.

"If it's not too much trouble, I'd like to see Jelly."

Murdoch ground his teeth together before answering. "I'll tell him."

***

Johnny stared at the ceiling as he replayed the conversation in his mind along with Murdoch's demeanor. It was plain to him he was still being dismissed. He could hear Scott now. Paranoid. His brother liked that word.

The door opened and Jelly stood in the doorway, cap in hand as he looked to see if his friend was awake.

"Come on in, Jelly."

"How ya doin, Johnny? Seems evertime I come by, you been asleep," Jelly asked as he sat beside the bed.

"Better, I guess. I need a favor and I need it to stay between us."

Jelly knew from the start he wasn't going to like this but he nodded anyway.

"I need to see Val but I want him to just act like he's comin to visit. Will you ride into town and ask him?" If Murdoch was so high on the law, he'd let the law handle it, Johnny thought bitterly.

Jelly gave him a sidelong look. "How come ya don't want Murdoch or Scott ta know?"

"It's a private matter and that's how I want it to stay. If they knew I'd asked for him, I'd never see any peace and you know it," Johnny half-lied.

Jelly considered this and found it to be true. "Alright, Johnny. I'll go get 'im."

"Thanks, Jelly and remember, *no one* else can know," Johnny said, giving him a pointed stare.

"Ya ain't gotta say it twice," the older man huffed.

"Sorry, it's just that you might have to tell a little white lie to Murdoch, is all."

"Wahl, reckon it's for a good cause," the handyman smiled. "Don't you worry none. Val will be here soon as I can get to 'im. Now, you wanna tell me what's really goin on and who's tryin ta kill you?"

Johnny had to smile at the direct old man but that smile faded as he thought of all that had happened. "I can't get into it right now, Jelly. Maybe I can tell ya about it later. Right now, seems no one wants to listen to me anyway."

Jelly reached over and laid a hand on his arm then pulled back as he remembered Johnny couldn't feel that touch. Embarrassment colored his whiskered cheeks. "I'll always listen to ya, Johnny. Ya ain't never lied to me and I know ya ain't never gonna."

The younger man's gratitude shone in his eyes and he had to look away. Figures. Jelly was the one person he could count on. He knew there was another, as well. He painfully admitted to himself, neither were blood family. Family. He supposed it was made up of people who trusted each other. If that were true, then maybe he didn't have the family he'd thought he had.

"Johnny? Ya alright?"

He blinked and looked over at Jelly. "Sure. Thanks, Jelly. It means a lot to have you on my side."

Jelly nodded and stood up, patting his knee as he did. "Be back in two shakes."

***

Johnny wondered 'two shakes' of what and grinned a little. Jelly and his sayings. The old man always warmed his heart no matter how cold it felt. Right now, it was downright frozen with grief. Had he been so blind all this time? Had they always dismissed him so easily? Had they ever believed a thing he'd said when it really counted? He wondered and, as much as it hurt, he had to admit maybe they didn't trust him. Maybe they never really had. Maybe they'd just been keeping his feathers smoothed.

He slammed his left fist into the mattress but it didn't help to be met with little resistance. He'd like to smash his fist into something a lot harder and less giving. He closed his eyes and tried to calm himself but it wasn't easy. All this anger and disappointment was wearing on him, frazzling his nerves or what was left of them. Why couldn't they understand?

He groaned when the knock came, wondering who was about to let him have it now. Scott, he imagined. He didn't answer. Maybe they'd go away. Fat chance of that, he knew and just waited for whoever it was to let themselves in. It wasn't as if he had a say in that either.

Scott opened the door and walked in, closing it tightly and firmly. His face told the story. Murdoch had told him of Johnny's concerns. He almost smiled at that. Concerns? He was sure that wasn't how it had been referred to.

"Don't start on me, Scott. I ain't in the mood," he began.

"Too bad. How can you still think Asa is up to something?" Scott asked angrily as he sat down and crossed his arms over his chest.

"How can I not? He damned near killed me!" Johnny shot back, the anger giving him energy now.

"Someone may have tried to kill you, Johnny, but it wasn't Asa," Scott stated.

Johnny raised his brows at that. "How do you know? Were you there and what do you mean *may have*?"

"I mean, the bridge collapsed when the flood hit it. We don't know how it fell."

Johnny's mouth fell open in unadulterated shock. He looked in Scott's eyes and could see the man believed every word he was saying. Johnny knew in that moment it was a lost cause.

"You know what, Scott, go to hell. But, before you do that, get out of my room. I'm done bein called a liar!"

It was Scott's turn to look surprised. "No one is calling you a liar."

"The hell you're not! I told you it was an explosion. I guess you think that dynamite or whatever it was got on the bridge by itself. Maybe detonated itself, too. Maybe it was a fairy or a ghost. Never mind. It ain't important, anyway. Just leave me alone."

"Gladly!" Scott shot and stood up.

Johnny glared at his back, then called out. "Scott ...." he raised up then hesitated a second as the older man stopped but didn't turn around. "Whatever you think you know; whatever you believe just .... watch your back."

Scott's shoulders tensed then he yanked the door open and slammed it shut again. Johnny fell back against the pillows exhausted.

***

Val Crawford was curious as all hell. He was also feeling ashamed he hadn't been out before now to see his friend. He'd thought he should wait a while. Doc had been giving him updates, just telling him how Johnny was getting a little stronger every day. The physician had confided in him about Johnny's right arm, feeling the lawman should know. If word got out, Val shuddered to think of the hell that would break loose. He'd done everything he could to keep it quiet. Folks were naturally curious when there was a bad accident, some worried for a friend, some just gossipmongers. It was that second group that worried Val so he'd told them all how lucky Johnny had been and even called it a miracle he hadn't been badly hurt. He didn't care if it was a lie. It was told to keep a friend safe and that meant it didn't count in his book.

He dismounted in front of the hacienda that always made him a little uncomfortable. He didn't consider himself clumsy, yet when he went into the Lancer home, he felt like he was all thumbs. Today, however, that feeling was missing for he knew something was very wrong. Otherwise, Johnny would never have asked Jelly to sneak around for him.  

He knocked on the door and took his hat off as he waited. The door was jerked open and he met Scott Lancer's fierce expression. Then, he knew something was really wrong. Val plastered a smile on his face, just a little one.

"Scott, thought I'd stop by and see Johnny if he's up ta visitors."

Scott managed a slight smile of sorts. "I'm sure he'd be glad to see you, Val. Go on up," he said with tight politeness as he opened the door wider.

Val passed him then raised a brow at the tone and demeanor. Yep, this is bad, he thought as he started up the stairs. He didn't bother to knock, never had, so he walked right in then stopped cold for a heartbeat. Gathering himself, Val walked quickly to the side of the bed and grabbed Johnny's left arm.

"What the hell do ya think you're doin?" he berated.

Johnny's face was white as a sheet as he sat on the side of the bed. His breathing was harsh and short and he shook his head. Val gave him time to get himself together. He tried to push Johnny back down but received a hateful look for his efforts so he simply sat beside him.

After several long minutes, Johnny looked at his friend. "You gotta get me out of here, Val. Right now."

"And where am I supposed ta take ya? You can't even sit up, Johnny. Look at ya. You're near to passin out right now."

"I don't care! I can't stay here and be slaughtered like cattle." Johnny grabbed Val's shirt. "I'm not playin around, Val. If I stay here, I'm dead."

"And if you show your face anywhere with that arm banged up, you're dead," Val countered. "Just hang on a minute," he said, putting up a hand. He needed time to take this in, what he knew of it which was precious little. Val walked over and closed the door then returned to his previous seat.

"Alright, tell me everything."

Johnny took a breath and told him about Northup and everything he knew and suspected. He realized during the telling that he, indeed, had no proof. That didn't change the fact that his family should at least take him seriously.

Val listened objectively. A talent Johnny had always admired in the man and one of the reasons he was such a good lawman. Val would always look at both sides of a thing and Johnny knew he was in for some questions. So, it surprised him when Val asked none.

"Alright. I'll have Jelly hitch up a buggy and I'll grab ya some clothes. I think it'd be better if ya stayed with Doc, Johnny. That way, you'll have him if ya need 'im. Besides, no one goes there unless they're sick."

Johnny looked incredulously at him. "You ain't got no questions?"

"Got plenty of questions and I'll ask 'em. I ain't real happy that no one bothered ta tell me about an attempted murder! Right now, you don't feel safe in your own home and that tells me a mountainfull. Now, what're ya gonna tell Murdoch and Scott?"

Johnny's eyes narrowed. "The truth," he stated flatly.

***

Murdoch watched from the French door as Jelly pulled the buggy close to the front door. He twisted his mouth as he wondered what the old man was doing. Ordinarily, he wouldn't think a thing about Jelly's actions but there was nothing ordinary around there anymore. Scott had told him of his 'talk' with Johnny and that Val was upstairs. A light went on in his head and he strode purposefully to the front door, jerking it open just as Jelly was about to grasp the handle.

Jelly gave a start as he righted himself and looked up into the rancher's eyes.

"What's the buggy for, Jelly?"

Without faltering, Jelly answered. "Val asked for it."

"Why?"

"Don't know, didn't ask," the man replied shortly.

"It's for me."

Murdoch turned quickly to find Johnny being practically dragged down the stairs by Val. "What the hell do you think you're doing, Sheriff?" he bellowed.

Val rolled his eyes and kept on going. "Helpin out a friend, Mr. Lancer."

"Helping him do what? Kill himself?"

"You don't have to bring the roof down, old man. Had enough garbage dumped on me to last a lifetime," Johnny ground out.

"Johnny, where are you going? Sam will have your head for this," Murdoch asked, the meaning of Johnny's words lost on him.

"Don't matter where as long as it's away from here," Johnny answered, more than a little disappointed.

Murdoch sighed tiredly. "Don't you think this is taking things a little too far, John? You've made your point now get back to bed."

Johnny pulled back and Val stopped as they stood in front of Murdoch. Johnny was barely hanging on but determined to get out the door. He looked into his father's eyes to make sure the older man understood his intent.

"I'm not trying to make a point, Murdoch. I'm trying to stay alive. I don't care anymore who you believe. I'm just trying to keep from getting killed. I'm not safe here and I'm leaving." He made sure to speak his words clearly and pointedly then started to the door again.

Murdoch stepped in front of them and Val had no choice but to stop.

"Mr. Lancer, don't make me move you. Johnny's asked for my help and I aim ta give it. As the law, I'm protectin a citizen. Now, step aside," Val said icily.

Murdoch was taken aback by the tone and the look in Val's eyes. He'd never seen this side of the sheriff and he did as he was told.

Jelly waited for them at the buggy and helped Johnny onto the bench, thinking he'd be better off with a wagon for the young man to lie in. Johnny was pale and sweating but he dismissed Jelly's suggestion.

Scott walked around the house with Northup and took in the scene with disbelieving eyes. He walked up to Murdoch.

"What's he doing?"

"Leaving," Murdoch stated the obvious.

"But ..."

"Scott, let it go. Johnny's made up his mind that he's not safe here. There's nothing we can do."

Scott looked at his father, then at Northup then at Johnny. He strode over to the side of the buggy and laid a hand on the seat.

"Are you this pigheaded?" he asked.

Johnny looked over at him, feeling a little drunk. "Whatever, Scott. Step back so I can go."

"Johnny...."

With a surge of anger, Johnny put his left hand on Scott's chest and shoved him back. He looked at his brother with dangerous eyes. "Stay away from me," he hissed.

Jelly decided now would be a very good time to move so he flicked the reins and tried not to jostle Johnny around too much. Val mounted up and followed behind them.

Scott stared after the buggy, his mouth agape.

***

Northup sat on the porch and blew cigar smoke lazily into the air, a satisfied smile on his face. This was working out better than he could have imagined. He figured if Madrid hadn't left on his own, Murdoch would have tossed him out once he was well enough. Now, with his right arm dead, Northup only had to sit back and wait for the news that Johnny Madrid was dead. His smile widened at the thought. Madrid had played this whole thing all wrong. He knew the gunhawk had lost his edge. Had started feeling secure in his family and new home. That was his biggest mistake and Northup had played him like a fiddle. He almost laughed aloud. He leaned forward as the buggy rolled into the yard, his expression turning into a frown of concern for anyone who might look his way

Murdoch walked outside and waited for Jelly to step down. "Where is he?"

Jelly looked up at him then turned to walk away. Murdoch grabbed his arm and turned him back.

"I asked you a question. Where's my son?" he growled.

Jelly jerked his arm loose and jutted out his chin. "The only one you give a hoot about is up there in the house, I reckon. Now, if you're a talkin bout the liar, I ain't got nothin to say."

Murdoch's face reddened with ire. "Johnny isn't a liar, Jelly. He's just mistaken."

"You're the one who's mistaken, Murdoch. What I can't understand is how you could believe a man you ain't exchanged a word with for twenty years over your own flesh and blood. That's what I can't understand!" Jelly turned and walked away then turned back. "Even if Johnny was wrong, you're more wrong for turnin your back on your own son." With that, he walked to his room.

Murdoch stared after him, his anger refreshened by the older man's words. Words that hit hard at his core. For all his posturing about how much Johnny had changed and how well he was doing now, he didn't believe his boy. He bowed his head and wondered, for the first time, why that was. Someone had blown that bridge up. That much was obvious and he'd done nothing about it, opting to focus on getting Johnny better. He began to wonder if something was wrong with him. What the hell was he doing?

"If you want me to leave, just say the word."

Murdoch turned to find Northup behind him.

"Personally, I think that boy needs a trip to the woodshed for pullin a stunt like that but it ain't my place ta say," he drawled on.

Murdoch straightened. "He's a little old for that and it's not your place to say." He walked past his friend and into the house.

Northup cocked a brow and tossed his cigar to the ground. He looked toward Jelly's room and wondered if he hadn't miscalculated a little. It seemed as if Jelly's words hit hard with Murdoch. Maybe he'd have to have a little talk with the old wrangler. As these thoughts went through his head, Jelly emerged with a carpet bag in hand. He slowed a little when he saw Northup, gave him an ugly look and continued on his way to the barn.

A few minutes later, Jelly rode out.  

Scott walked out as Jelly reached the arch. "Where's he going?"

Northup shrugged. "To Johnny, I guess. Scott, I need to talk to you."

***

Val rode up to the bridge, or what was left of it and eyed the remains. Splintered wood hung precariously from the structure, most of the middle simply gone. He could see pieces of it lodged near the banks but a lot of it was most likely to the Rio Grande by now. He moved his horse through the water to the other side and dismounted.

With seasoned eyes he scoured the area, deciding on the best vantage point. A large boulder sat half-way up the hill and he made his way to it. As he suspected, he found the plunger along with some stripped wires. He followed the wire attached to the plunger all the way down to the bridge and his eyes followed the rest of the way up to where it stopped. With a yank, the wire fell to the ground before him.

Val picked it up, examining the end though he knew what he'd find. He grabbed the plunger and looked it over as well then packed it all in his saddlebags and headed back to town.

He wasn't a man given to quick judgment when it came to investigating a crime but he'd been around long enough to know a few things. One thing he knew with absolute certainty was Johnny. He would never lie, never just throw accusations around. Johnny knew the truth and Val had seen it when he looked in his friend's eyes. He'd seen something else, too. Something that pissed him off to no end. Pain.

He was so tired of seeing that in Johnny's eyes he could spit. Val couldn't recall a time before Johnny came home when he saw that look more often or any deeper than he'd seen today. What Murdoch and Scott had done, to him, was the last straw. He saw no way for Johnny to forgive this. Especially if those two couldn't even see it themselves.

Murdoch hadn't put up much of a fight not that it would've done him a bit of good. Seemed to him, Murdoch never put up much of a fight when it came to Johnny. And Johnny was always the one who let it go, overlooked it, shrugged it off.

Scott was the surprise. Val always figured Scott would back Johnny in any play. But not this time. For whatever reason, Scott was bein as blamed fool-headed as their old man. He knew that had to hurt Johnny more than anything. Not that he'd ever admit it to anyone. Oh no! He wouldn't admit he had a head if he thought it'd make him look weak.

Val grimaced as he thought of that arm. If Johnny didn't get the use of it back, he was as good as dead. He didn't know how to help with that. Didn't think anyone could. If word got out ..... if!? He knew it would eventually. Something else he guessed Johnny's family didn't understand. He wondered at this point if either of them had even given it a thought.

Well, ain't my business, he thought. Only if Johnny wants it ta be. Then, well, he'd deal with all of them then.

When he arrived in town, he headed straight to the survey and land office only to find it closed. Looking up, he realized it was nearly six o'clock. He took his evidence back to his office and locked it in the safe then headed to the telegraph office.

***

Sam scowled again as he regarded his new boarder. He'd never turn Johnny away but it was disheartening to find the young man at his front door asking for a place to 'bunk down'. More disturbing was the state he was in, pale and weak as a kitten. Sam could have torn Jelly's ears off but Johnny stopped him from doing it.

So, he settled Johnny in and examined him, making him drink some tea with a mild sedative mixed in. Johnny fell asleep quickly, his gun in his left hand. Sam thought to remember that the next time he went to wake Johnny.

There was still no feeling in that arm and no movement. Sam was truly worried but he had more patience than his young charge. He reassured and cajoled Johnny but the young man wasn't having it. It was as if he'd given up on ever getting the use of his right arm back. Sam knew all too well the implications for this particular man. He didn't know what Johnny would do if it did turn out to be a permanent paralysis.

He also didn't know what Johnny was going to do, period. Would he go home? Sam had been too focused on caring for his physical self to question the reasons Johnny left. He had to think something extraordinary had happened. He knew there was tension between the Lancers but had no idea it had gotten this bad.

He couldn't imagine what would drive Johnny to leave home when he was so ill and so very vulnerable. Val's face had told a part of it, as well. The sheriff had said not a word but Sam could see he was mad as a hatter about the whole situation. That he would even help Johnny do this told the doctor there'd been little choice for Johnny. For he knew Val would never do anything to put Johnny in harm's way.

He sat in a rocking chair beside the bed and watched his patient sleep until he heard his office door open. With a sigh and some aggravation, he walked out front.

The aggravation dwindled then turned into relief when he saw his visitor.

"Reckoned I'd just sack in with Johnny for a while, Doc. Watch over 'im while you're out and about. That alright?" Jelly asked in a tone that said any answer other than yes would be an insult.

"It's not only alright, Jelly, it's much appreciated. I was worried about leaving him alone," Sam replied then stepped aside for Jelly to enter the inner sanctum of his home.

"Do you know what's going on?" Sam asked once Jelly had set his bag down and gotten a look at Johnny.

"Whole lot of nonsense from what I can tell. Johnny thinks Murdoch's friend is the one what tried ta kill 'im. Murdoch and Scott don't believe 'im."

Sam was more than surprised by this. "What do you think?"

Jelly turned to look him square in the eye. "I think Johnny's got more sense and honor than ta accuse a man unless he was real sure. I think Scott and Murdoch have just plain lost their minds. Told Murdoch as much, too!"

***

Northup walked around to the garden behind the house, Scott following along and waiting to hear what the man had to say. He turned to face Scott and clasped his hands behind his back as he regarded the younger man.

"There's been a lot of upset around here, Scott. I told Murdoch I'd leave if he wants but he didn't answer me. I never wanted things to be like this. I was hopin Johnny would come around and ease up on me but that didn't happen. I know he thinks I'm the one who hurt him." He stopped and shook his head sadly. "I just don't understand what I did to that boy to make him so suspicious. Anyway, I'll ask you. Do you want me to leave?"

Scott stared at him for a long moment before turning and walking away a few feet. "I have to say I don't honestly know what's wrong with Johnny, either. You haven't done anything to him or any of us. It's not fair to ask you to leave, Asa. It's not right. I like having you here. You've been a good friend to me and Murdoch. I know you've tried with Johnny. I just wish he could see what we see. I wish he didn't always look for the bad before the good. Whatever my brother feels, I can't in good conscience ask you to go. It feels like he's trying to blackmail me."

Northup smiled widely until he saw Scott move. His face fell into a frown as Scott turned to face him.

"I'm not so sure Murdoch looks at it the same way but I have to agree with you. It's like he's askin you to choose and for no reason. It would be different if I'd've done somethin to hurt him. I don't know him but I thought you did and even you can't figure out why he's actin this way. Maybe with some time and distance he'll see what he's doin."

Scott gave him a small smile. "I hope so but I have my doubts. I think this has gone beyond his feelings towards you. It has to do with how he lived before and, I hate to say it, but I thought he'd changed. Now, I'm not so sure. I think he wanted to but in the end, Johnny will always be a pessimist. He'll always be suspicious of strangers. I've always known he doesn't trust easily but I thought he trusted me. But he doesn't. I see that now." He hung his head when he finished.

Northup walked over and laid a hand on his shoulder. "It must be hard but I guess it's better to know the truth about a man even if he's your own brother. Maybe if he'd grown up with you he'd be a different person. More open."

"Maybe," Scott mumbled. He raised his head and looked at Northup. "I'll talk to Murdoch. I'm sure he's just feeling hurt and he didn't mean to shun you."

"He's lost Johnny again. I can understand that. Don't worry him with my nonsense, Scott. Give him some time."

***

Johnny sat on the back porch of Sam's home looking out at the woods that bordered the small yard. It was quiet and peaceful and secluded. It was exactly what he needed. Jelly had fussed over him all morning but he'd finally gotten the man to leave him be a while. He needed to think but he didn't want to. Didn't want to face the possibilities of what his life would be like now.

He had pretty much given up on his arm. After almost two weeks, it was no better. He knew he wouldn't survive ten minutes once word got out. Where could he go and be safe? Certainly not south. North or east, he thought. And do what exactly? What could he do with one good arm? He couldn't bust broncs, couldn't do ranch work. He hated bookwork and never thought he was much good at it.

He'd have to learn to use his left hand for everything now. Eating was already a chore. He hadn't attempted shaving himself, allowing someone else to do it for him. But, he'd have to learn. He'd just have to. Still, he didn't think he'd ever be as good with a gun left-handed. Maybe he could get by but getting by wasn't good enough for Johnny Madrid. And that was who he was now - again - and forever more.

Lancer was history. A dream that he had awakened from. Awakened into the cold brutal reality of life once more. He sure wished he could have kept on dreaming. But, wishes would get him nowhere. He'd wished his family had come to him and that hadn't happened. He'd wished Asa Northup had never darkened their doorway. He'd wished a lot of things in his life. When would he ever learn that wishes were pocketsful of nothing?

Slowly, he eased himself out of the chair and walked over to lean against the wooden railing. Three steps led out into the yard where a glider and table sat under the elm tree. He wondered if Sam ever got the chance to come out here and just relax. Somehow, he doubted it. He stepped down onto the soft grass, still with a slight limp, and walked over to the glider. He hesitated then continued on into the woods, leaning against a tree and staring into space.  

After a few minutes, he straightened and let out a breath. Time to stop feelin sorry for myself and just get on with it. Whatever *it* was going to be. First thing was to get well, as well as he could get anyway. Then, he'd have to start learning all those things. Then ....... then he didn't know what. Maybe he'd figure it out as he went. Play it loose for a while. He wasn't in any big hurry after all.

It was a nice try and he'd almost pulled it off but he knew deep in his heart he couldn't leave them hanging. Couldn't just walk away completely while Lancer was still under threat. Scott was especially at risk. He wondered what Northup's plans for Scott were. He'd played it tight and Johnny knew he'd played it all wrong. He'd let his emotions get the better of him and rule his head. Northup was so close to Scott now, he could do about anything before Scott would ever see it coming.

His darker side shined through momentarily as he pictured Scott with eyes wide in shock as Northup stood over him, delivering that last fatal blow. Scott, totally bewildered by the turn of events and still not believing it was real.

Johnny sighed and shook his head. That was not something he'd ever want to happen. It wasn't something he would let happen either. Only, he didn't know how to stop it short of killing Northup. He had no cause for that at the moment other than self-satisfaction. Everyone else would call it murder.

He wondered where Val was and what he was up to. Hopefully, his friend could come up with some convincing evidence. Johnny figured it would take quite a bit to convince Murdoch and Scott. Something like a smoking gun.

***

Breakfast was silent save the clinking of dishes and cups. The three men stared at their plates and looked nowhere else. Scott pushed his food around for a while before giving up and concentrating on his coffee. Earlier that morning as he'd left his room, he'd walked straight across the hall. His hand was on the door knob before he remembered Johnny wasn't there. That had pretty much ruined his appetite.

Now, he swirled the black brew around, staring into it as if it held the answers he sought. His conversation with Asa yesterday had been disturbing. He'd done little else but think about it all night. He was angry with Johnny but he wanted his brother back. Still, it didn't sit well with him to give in to what he could only describe as a temper fit. Johnny had left because he didn't get his way.

Murdoch chanced one glance at his son as he tried to eat. Scott's head was down but Murdoch could see he hadn't eaten much either. Jelly's words kept ringing in his head - ringing with some truth. He remembered that day he'd been showing Asa around and they'd talked about Johnny. He'd been proud as a peacock and sure of his son.

When had that changed? What had happened? Johnny had voiced his opinion the way he always did; with conviction. Murdoch still could not believe any of it but so what? If Johnny felt that uncomfortable with Asa here, why didn't he simply tell the man to leave? Instead, his son felt the need to leave. Johnny didn't feel safe in his own home. Something Murdoch had spouted about that day. How Johnny was finally safe.

But he wasn't. Especially with his arm out of commission. Murdoch's stomach turned at the thoughts that ran rampant. Scenarios played out rapidly in his mind. Men coming out of every gopher hole more than anxious to kill his boy just for a reputation. An undeserved and unearned reputation at that. Of course, he knew the particulars wouldn't matter as long as they could claim the 'honor' of killing Johnny Madrid.

Anger took hold and he threw down his napkin then stood up and regarded Scott. "I'm going to town. I don't know how long I'll be."

"I'll go with you," Scott said and stood as well.

"No, son. I'm going alone. Besides, you still need to check those mines up by South Mesa. We can't wait any longer. " Murdoch's tone brooked no argument and he didn't wait for a response.

Scott sat back down with a sigh.

Northup fought back the grin. He'd thought for a minute Scott's plans were going to change. Now, he could finish what he started and with Murdoch going to town, it couldn't be more perfect. He was already set for this part and all he'd been waiting for was Scott to actually have time to go check those mines. He closed his eyes and took control of himself before looking over at Scott.

"I'm sure he knows what he's doing," he offered sympathetically.

"I'm glad one of us does. If you'll excuse me, I need to get to work," Scott said tersely and left the room.

***

Murdoch led his bay out of the corral and tethered it to the hitching post before going back inside. His mind was so busy, he'd left his hat behind. He ran into Scott standing there buckling his gun belt. They locked eyes for a few seconds before Scott turned to grab his own hat.

"I just need to talk to him alone, Scott."

"I understand. I'm sure he'd feel like we were ganging up on him if we both went, anyway."

Murdoch nodded thoughtfully. "Isn't that what we've been doing all along?"

Scott's head snapped up as he looked at his father with surprise. "What does that mean?"

Murdoch shook his head slowly. "I've been thinking about this, Scott. All Johnny has done is disagree with us. That's no crime yet we've treated him like there was something wrong with him. I know I said some things to him I regret. Your brother felt he had to leave here to be safe. Leave his home, Scott. Right or wrong, that should never have happened."

"Murdoch, he's acting like a child," Scott scowled.

"Why do you say that?"

"Because, he's having a fit. If we don't do what he wants, he'll just leave. That's his answer to everything. He didn't get his way, period."

Murdoch could not have been more stunned and he stared hard at his elder son. "Is that what you really believe, Scott? Do you really think Johnny is that petty?"

"I think he's been used to doing things his own way for so long he doesn't know how to compromise," Scott stated.

"I think you're wrong. Johnny has compromised a lot since he's been home. You don't understand what his life was like before. It's not that easy to change, Scott. I was hard on him at first and that was the wrong way to handle things. I learned that lesson. You're the one who helped me see that. Why are you being so hard on him now?"

Scott sighed. "And I think you're so afraid of losing him that you'd let him walk all over you. You can't just throw up your hands when things get tough and say "oh well". You have to stick it out not walk away."

"He didn't leave because he was angry with us, Scott. He left because he didn't feel safe. Whether that's true or not doesn't matter. Don't you see? It's what Johnny believes is true so, for him, it's very real. That bridge didn't explode on its own. Someone did it. We dismissed that and shrugged it off. We shrugged Johnny off and I can't leave it like that."

Murdoch grabbed his hat and walked back outside, more than stunned at Scott's attitude. Asa walked around the side of the house and pulled up short.

"Thought you'd be gone by now," he smiled.

"Just leaving," Murdoch said flatly.

***

Scott watched his father ride away then headed for his own horse. Northup knew his time was running out if Murdoch's attitude was any indication. Maybe Lancer was starting to doubt him or maybe he'd do anything to keep Madrid around. He didn't understand why but he didn't have to. He waited until Scott was out of sight before mounting his own horse and leisurely riding out.

Northup headed toward South Mesa keeping far enough behind Scott not to be spotted. He'd already found another trail that turned off and led up the other side. He just had to get that far without being seen then Scott would never know he was there. He'd be above the mines and all he had to do was wait for Scott to walk into his trap. His grin broadened as he thought about it.

Buried alive. It really was perfect. It would give the man something to think about while he slowly suffocated. Maybe he'd even come to the conclusion that Johnny had been right after all. His face brightened as another idea came to him. He might just have to find a way to make sure Scott knew that.

That would be sweet. Let Scott stew about how wrong he'd been.

***

Murdoch reined to a stop on the road as he saw Val. The look on the lawman's face gave him pause.

"Sheriff, is everything alright?"

"Will be in a few minutes," Val answered.

"What's happened?"

"Found the plunger and wiring used to blow that bridge. I took it to the land office and Tucker confirmed Northup bought two plungers, the wiring and ten sticks of dynamite. Seems them plungers have serial numbers and ever since Tucker sold the equipment used in a bank robbery a few years back, he keeps real good records of who bought what. Only question left is where's the rest of the dynamite."

Murdoch stared at him for several beats then closed his eyes and shook his head. "I suppose there's no point in asking if you're sure. You wouldn't say it otherwise. Does Johnny know yet?"

"Ain't seen him today. Is Northup at the ranch?"

"He was when I left. I'll ride back with you," Murdoch said glumly.

Val nodded and spurred his horse on as Murdoch fell into step. When they rode in, Val stopped Murdoch from going inside first.

"This is my job, Mr. Lancer, and I plan on doin it."

Murdoch could only nod and let Val go in first. He followed and they searched the house without success. Murdoch walked out to the corral and asked Frank.

"Seen him ride out right after Scott left, Mr. Lancer. Was headin south so I figured he was goin to catch up," the hand reported.

"Why wouldn't he just ride out with Scott?" Murdoch mused.

Frank could only shrug but Val nearly growled. "Reckon I know where the rest of that dynamite is now. He's probably gone to finish the job. He got Johnny now he's after Scott!"

***

Northup settled in next to his equipment and watched as Scott rode up. He checked the first two mines and Northup was growing impatient. This was taking too long but then, he didn't have anything better to do. He almost laughed at that. He figured once Scott was taken care of, he'd finish off Madrid. Seems the man was a little harder to kill than he first thought. Well, that was alright. The look on Murdoch's face when Johnny left was priceless and he figured this was killing the old man. With Scott dead, Murdoch would just lose his mind.

Scott took notes as he investigated each mine looking for any potential problems for the pasturelands and water supply below. Run off could always be a problem even thought the mines hadn't been used for years. Actually, he thought it was a minor concern but his father didn't so here he was. He sighed, frustrated beyond belief. He wanted to talk to Johnny, have it out once and for all and make his brother see how wrong he was.

He stood at the mouth of the third mine staring off into space as he pondered how things had gone so wrong. Finally, he decided he'd better pay attention to what he was doing. He walked inside.

Northup licked his lips and held his hand on the plunger. Just give him a minute to get deeper in. He didn't want Scott killed right away. That wouldn't do at all. He figured Scott might be able to hear him through the rubble afterwards and, even if he couldn't, it would feel damned good to say the words out loud finally.

He was right on top the mine practically. He had to stifle a laugh. Scott had never asked him what he did in the Army. He figured the man had assumed he was just a lowly foot soldier. He wasn't about to explain his expertise with explosives, though. He mentally patted himself on the back for his foresight. Then, he decided enough time had passed.

Northup situated himself, braced against a large rock in anticipation of the concussion then, with great deliberation he pressed down on the plunger.

***

Val and Murdoch tore up the trail to South Mesa. Suddenly, they heard a huge explosion and both horses reared back nearly unseating their riders. It took a minute to regain control and they shared a concerned glance then headed out again.

Northup laughed aloud as he sat back against the rock. He even let out a hoot for his brilliance. He knew he had plenty of time to take a stroll down to the mine opening so he sidled down the hill.

He walked back and forth before the debris covered entrance still chuckling to himself. He kicked at the rocks then leaned into them and shouted Scott's name. He heard nothing at first though that didn't surprise him. He waited a few minutes and tried again and thought he heard a faint response.

"Can you hear me, Scott? I hope you can cause I wanted you to know Madrid was right all along. I wanted you to think on that while you sit in there and wait to die. No one is gonna find you in time. I've got that covered. Now, you can sit in there and think about how gullible you are. How easy it was for me to use you and your old man. I want you to die knowing your own brother hates your guts because he does, Scott! You turned your back on him. You betrayed him and you told me yourself he won't ever forgive that. How does it feel, Scott? How's it feel knowing you're gonna die and knowing Johnny hates you?"

Val heard the shouting and pulled up raising a hand to Murdoch. "Let's walk from here," he said softly.

Northup never heard them approach but Murdoch heard a lot of what he was saying and his blood boiled.

"No one messes with my friends! Murdoch made the biggest mistake of his life when he turned on Joe. And he really thought I'd forgive that?! Now, he's gonna lose everything he cares about again! Madrid will hate him more than ever now cause he got you killed and he'll still hate you for lettin me stay around. Can you hear him, Scott? Can you hear what Madrid would say to you? I'm sure he'll be relieved your dead and he won't be able to stomach bein around Murdoch. Hell, he might even kill the old man!"

"The only one ta be killed is you, Northup," Val said icily.

Northup whipped around and stared at the two of them for a split second before his right hand moved.

"Oh, please do it," Val sneered.

Northup thought twice and raised his hands out to his sides. Murdoch was on him before Val could move. He grabbed Northup's shirt and slammed him against the wall twice before pressing him into the rock.

"Why?" he asked through gritted teeth.

"You have to ask?" the man threw back. "After what you did to Joe, you really hafta ask me that?"

Murdoch released him and stepped back. He shook his head in disbelief. "All this time you've been lying through your teeth. All this time you've been playing us for fools."

Northup grinned a little. "You are fools, the both of you. Madrid had me pegged from the word go but you two - you two were easy as pie. You and Scott gave me all the ammunition I needed to rip this family wide open!"

"How dare you? You know nothing about this family!" Murdoch retorted.

Northup actually cackled at that. "I know everything, Murdoch. I think I did a great job of bein the kind and understanding *friend*. Madrid was the only obstacle. His feelings for the two of you is what destroyed him. I'm surprised he left since I hadn't gotten around to Scott yet."

"You sonofabitch!" Murdoch ground out as he advanced on the man again.

Val stepped between them then. "Just back off, Mr. Lancer. I know how ya feel but we got other things ta do just now. Scott needs help."

Murdoch came to his senses and looked at the rock wall separating him from his son.

Val took Northup's gun and shackled his right wrist then found a fallen log. He pulled the man over and wrapped his arms around it then shackled the left.

"Ride back to the ranch and get help, Mr. Lancer," Val instructed.

Murdoch nodded and headed quickly to his horse. Val looked at Northup with disgust then started moving rocks away from the mine entrance. He heard Northup laughing but kept going.

"You're too late, Sheriff. If the blast didn't kill 'im, he'll run out of air before you ever make it though that pile."

Val stopped and turned to look the man square in the eye. "Northup, it ain't never been that important ta me to be a lawman so it wouldn't take much for me to shoot you right between the eyes. 'Sides, I can always say you were tryin to escape. Ain't like Murdoch Lancer wouldn't back me up. So, shut your trap!"

***

Scott opened his eyes and groaned as his hand went to his head. He could feel the sticky fluid but he could see nothing. He blinked his eyes but that didn't help. He raised up slowly as he recalled what had happened. He heard an explosion then felt it then everything went black.

His head spun and he found it an odd sensation in the total darkness. Then, he thought he heard someone calling to him. He felt his way around on his knees and his hands went up what he first thought was a wall. It didn't take him long to figure out it was the mouth of the mine. He leaned against it as his head throbbed mercilessly.

He heard Northup ranting. Sometimes, the words weren't clear but most of them were. The meaning was crystal clear and he thought he might just throw up. His heart sank and despair engulfed him like a shroud as he realized what had happened. Then, the ranting stopped but he could hear nothing else. Maybe he left, he thought.

Scott sat where he was for a few minutes allowing himself to wallow before his anger surfaced. No! He would not allow this to happen. He had to get out of here. He dug in his pocket and found some matches then stood and struck one. It was poor light but it was better than none. He looked around and decided to go further into the mine. Maybe there was another way out.

He took one step and almost went to the ground again. His ankle screamed with pain. Righting himself, Scott limped down the corridor. He'd gone one hundred feet by his reckoning and used three matches when he had to use a fourth. He only had six. He was beginning to think this was impossible but as the flame flared then settled on the small stick, he saw it flicker. He held his breath and stood perfectly still as the flame continued to sway.

Scott licked one finger and held it up then smiled as he felt the slight breeze to his right.

***

Val knew it would take time for a crew to get there. He moved slowly and carefully as he removed each stone. He could hear Northup chuckle every now and then but he ingored the man for the now. As angry as he was with Scott right then, he knew he had to get Johnny's brother out of there. He shook his head at the foolishness of it all. He didn't know all the details but he knew enough to convince him Northup had played them real well.

The sound of a horse galloping in caused him to pause and wait. He needed no further surprises. But he saw Murdoch and watched the man dismount and run to him.

"The men are on the way but I rode ahead. Have you heard anything?"

"No, but I ain't been calling to him. Figured I should save my breath for diggin."

Murdoch had to agree. As much as he wanted to hear from Scott, he knew the sheriff made perfect sense. Without further conversation, they started to work. It had been a good hour since they had first arrived on the scene and Murdoch was feeling some panic though he fought hard against it. That wouldn't help Scott. He could fall apart later thought he hoped it would be from sheer relief.

Northup had grown quiet when Murdoch returned. He watched with amusement as the two of them continued their fool's errand. He caught movement from the corner of his eye and turned then sucked in a harsh breath.

Val glanced over at him then stopped when he saw Northup staring at something around the side of the mine. Curious, Val walked over but Murdoch paid no attention and kept going.

Val stopped cold and just stared at the apparition. Then, he broke out in a grin.

"Mr. Lancer! You can stop now," he called.

Murdoch turned and look at him as if he'd lost his mind but Val was smiling at him then pointed at something Murdoch couldn't see. He walked cautiously toward the sheriff, afraid to dare hope. His heart surged and he ran to his son.

Scott was leaning against the side of the mine, exhausted and bloody.

"Dear God! How'd you get out?" Murdoch asked as he examined the man.

"Found an air shaft and climbed up," Scott said in a short, gaspy voice.

Murdoch placed a huge hand on each side of his face and lifted it so he could get a better look. He saw the gash on Scott's forehead and thought it might need stitches. "Where else are you hurt?"

"My ankle but I don't think it's broken," he grimaced.

Murdoch closed his eyes for a second then refocused. "We need to get you to Sam."

"Yeah, and I need to get him to jail," Val said tersely.

Both Lancers turned, one had forgotten Northup was there, the other a little surprised. That surprise didn't last long as Scott's face hardened. He limped toward Northup but Murdoch caught his arm.

"Leave him to Val, son. We need to get you seen to. Do you think you can ride?"

"I can ride," Scott said, his eyes never leaving the Texan.

***

Val had every intention of keeping both eyes glued to Northup but he couldn't help a glance to his right now and then. Murdoch was riding beside him with Northup ahead and Scott behind. Val chewed his lip and wondered if he should even try. Probably not, he thought. Especially in front of Northup. He wanted to give the man no more satisfaction than he'd already gained because, truth be told, he figured Northup was right. That Johnny was probably through with the Lancers.

Murdoch stared a hole in his former friend's back. His eyes never leaving the Texan. "How is Johnny really?" he asked quietly.

Val grimaced. "Ain't seen 'im today and I didn't get a chance to talk to 'im last night. Doc had 'im in the bed pretty quick. Reckon it didn't take much."

Murdoch could only nod. His heart was in his throat as the enormity of what he'd done crashed into him over and over. He'd remember one thing, then another that had happened the past month or so. Times when he'd dismissed Johnny's concerns. Times when he'd simply closed off and not listened to what his son was even saying.

Northup strained to listen but he couldn't hear what they were saying. His eyes scanned the landscape, his mind mapping out what was ahead. He made his decision and waited.

Ten minutes later, his chance came when they had to form a single line as they passed an area with a rocky cliff to the right and a steep hill off the left.

Val had fallen in behind him followed by Murdoch then Scott. Northup pulled back hard on the reins, his horse rearing up on its hind legs. Val's horse, caught by surprise, reared back as well, causing a domino effect. As the men tried to settle their mounts, Northup pulled to the left and went down the hill.

Val cursed and tried to get his horse to follow but the animal was having none of it.

At the back of the line, Scott had an easier time controlling his horse as he backed down the path. He saw Northup go and pulled his rifle from the scabbard. Scott dismounted and hopped to the edge of the hill. He searched the area for what seemed forever until he spied Northup come out at the valley floor. Bringing his rifle to bear, Scott lined his sights and squeezed the trigger then cocked the rifle again and repeated the action.

He watched in rage as Northup continued across the meadow at a dead run. Growling a bit, Scott made it back to his horse and mounted up.

"Hold on there, Scott! Get to town. I'll go after him," Val ordered.

"You'll need help," Scott countered.

Val glared at him. "Not since I was ten. I ain't got time ta argue about it. Just get to town!"

"He's right, son. You're in no condition to give chase," Murdoch piped in. To Val, he said, "As soon as we get to town, I'll send some men out to catch up with you."

Val only nodded and headed down the steep embankment.  

***

Sam watched for several minutes as Johnny sat under the elm tree and stared into space. From his vantage point, he could see the Colt sticking out of Johnny's pants. He took a breath then walked out in the yard.

"It's quiet back here," he noted.

Johnny smiled softly. "Do you ever get a chance to enjoy it?"

Sam chuckled a little. "Every now and then. I guess that's what makes it special. If I got to do it all the time, I wouldn't appreciate it as much."

Johnny only nodded.

"It's getting to be supper time. Mrs. Foster said you missed lunch."

Johnny leaned forward, resting his forearms on his thighs and hung his head. "Another mother hen," he mumbled but Sam heard it.

"Why is it, do you suppose, that all these people are so bent on helping you?"

Johnny looked up at him, his head cocked to the side. "I don't know," he answered sincerely.

Sam walked over and perched on the table next to the young man. "Well, I know. It's because they know you'd to the same for them; have done the same for them. Mrs. Foster hasn't forgotten how you fixed her roof after that storm last spring. She never asked you, never told you it needed fixing. You saw it, knew she lived alone and went on with the job without a word. I could tell you a lot of stories exactly like that, John, but I wouldn't be telling you anything you don't already know. The one thing you can't seem to understand is that people appreciate what you do. They remember it, too. You deserve their gratitude and I cannot understand why you don't think so.

"And before you say it's 'no big deal', it is a very big deal to people who would otherwise have to pay someone to do what you do for nothing. People who can't afford to pay for those jobs, either," Sam went on.

Johnny grinned crookedly. "You think you know me, don't you?"

"Yes, I think so. Oh, I may not know every detail of your life but I don't have to. What you do tells me all I need to know, Johnny. What you do is what counts, not what you say."

Johnny sighed. "Well, reckon I should just keep my big mouth shut then, huh?"

Sam pulled a face. "No, you should never do that. You have every right to speak your piece, just like anyone else."

Johnny stood slowly, adjusting the pistol in his waistband. "Why? Nobody listens."

Sam stood as well and faced him. "That's not entirely true but I understand what you're saying. Some of us listen, just not those you want. Those who really matter the most."

"Sam, what am I supposed to do? If I can't use this arm, I'm no good to anyone, especially myself. I've been thinkin about it and I just don't know what kind of life I could have anywhere with a bum right arm."

"You can learn to use the left but we don't know that's the case, yet," Sam gently reminded him.

"Yeah, but the more time that passes, the more I think it is the case. And sure, I can learn to do a lot with my left arm but not this," Johnny said as he patted the butt of his gun.

Sam nodded, knowing this was Johnny's greatest concern and knowing why. "I wish I had some answers for you, son. I just hope you aren't thinking of leaving here."

"How can I stay? I'll never have a minute's peace if I stay here like this. I won't have too many minutes, period," Johnny said sharply.

"Fewer than you think."

Johnny turned quickly, his hand on the Colt.

"Ah, ah, ah. Just toss it down real easy like," Northup grinned. "Not that you could do much else," he added with a sneer.

Johnny did as he said, a million thoughts running through his head.

"That sheriff friend of yours is pretty damned good, Madrid. He tracked me down but it didn't last long."

Johnny's eyes narrowed as he took a step forward.

"Back off, Madrid! Besides, your buddy ain't hurt. Least he wasn't last time I saw him."

"When was that?" Johnny asked, not believing Northup.

"On the way to jail. I got away but that brother of yours came real close with his Winchester. Can still feel the burn," he laughed as he rubbed lightly at his neck.

So, they finally knew the truth, Johnny thought. "So, why didn't you just keep on ridin?"

Northup cocked his head to the side and regarded the younger man. "I ain't finished what I came here to do. After that, don't much matter what they do to me."

"Good grief, man! What possible good could come of destroying yourself?" Sam asked, fear causing his voice to harden. Fear for Johnny.

Northup glanced at him as if just realizing he was there. "I'm sorry, Doctor. I hate that you got caught up in this but those are the breaks. Now, we're all gonna go inside and wait for the cavalry to show," he laughed at his 'joke'.

Northup took them to the front office and stood by the window, peering out every few seconds. Johnny leaned against the wall opposite him with Sam standing to his right.

"What are you waiting for?" Sam asked.

Northup looked at him with a smug expression. "I told you, the cavalry. The Lancers and Crawford should be here anytime now to warn our friend here."

Sam looked at Johnny but could see no reaction from the young man who was staring coldly at Northup.

"What makes you think they'd come here?"

"They will and when they do, I'm gonna finish this once and for all. I would have preferred to carry on with my plans but Crawford ruined that."

"What was the plan, Northup?" Johnny asked.

The Texan leaned against the window pane and grinned. "Well, havin them turn on you was perfect. Better than killin ya outright. It all fell in place real well with you, Madrid. You played right into my hands."

Johnny ground his jaw, knowing it was true. "But Val caught you out. Now, there's no escape for you."

"Don't matter none. Once I kill Scott, my mission is done."

"So, you don't care what happens to you?" Sam asked.

"Hell, Doc, I got nothin left to live for now."

"Guilt will make a man want to give up, Northup. That's what's been eatin at your guts. You feel guilty for turnin your back on Barker. For takin that job and walkin away," Johnny drawled.

"Shut up! You don't know what you're talkin about!" he barked.

But Johnny gave him a crooked smile and relaxed his face. "Yeah, I do. Guilt like that'll make a man go loco. Make him look to put the blame on someone else cause he's too much of a coward to face what he's done. That's you, Northup."

Northup took two steps toward Johnny then stopped when he heard the riders outside. Johnny looked at the window and felt the urgency. "Is that what you are, Northup; a coward?" he pushed. "Yeah, that's how I pegged you from the start. You ain't got the guts to face what you did. How you betrayed Barker and made him feel like he didn't have no one to turn to. That's why he came here in the first place. You drove him to it!"

Scott and Murdoch came through the door together with Scott hanging onto his father. Both heard the click as the gun was cocked. Both froze in their tracks.

"Come on in and close the door, gentlemen. Looks like everyone's here now."

Scott looked to his right and saw the gun aimed at his head. He felt Murdoch's hand in the small of his back, urging him forward. Murdoch looked at Johnny, saw the paleness and the glistening face and knew his son was in more trouble than was obvious.

"What happened?" Johnny asked.

"He tried to blow me up in a mine," Scott answered unable to look in his brother's eyes.

Johnny almost laughed and would have if his brother didn't look so pitiful.

"Well, you've got us all here, Asa. Now what?" Murdoch asked.

Northup moved to stand in front of the door, a grin splitting his face. "Now, we end it. Things didn't go exactly as planned thanks to the sheriff, but that's alright. You still get to watch them both die."

Murdoch's face hardened with anger. "Why can't you understand I had nothing to do with Joe's death?"

Northup glowered at him. "You coulda let him go. You coulda helped him but instead, you turned him over. Had him locked up like a common criminal!"

"That's what he turned into, Asa. He tried to take the easy way. All he had to do was come to me but he didn't," Murdoch replied calmly.

Northup shook his head. "You don't get it, do ya? A man like that; a man revered and feared could never come beggin with hat in hand."

"Then, how could I know he was in trouble? He never said a word about owing any money or that he was about to be fired," Murdoch countered.

"Just shut up and get against the wall, both of ya!" Northup shouted, waving his gun between the two of them. He took a deep breath as they did as instructed then relaxed his shoulders.

"Now, the way I planned it, these two were gonna go real slow; suffer a good long time. I might not get to see it but you will, Lancer. You get to watch 'em both die," he grinned. "The only problem is the doc here. Sorry, but I can't have you fixin these two up, Doc. Seems you're pretty good at that. Madrid oughta be dead; would be of it wasn't for you."

Johnny's eyes widened as he realized what was about to happen. He never took those eyes off Northup but he felt Sam tense up beside him. Northup turned his gun on the doctor, his eyes turning dark and cold. What happened next would remain a blur for all involved for a long time to come.

Johnny didn't really make a decision, he simply reacted. He moved when he saw Northup's finger tighten on the trigger. He shifted his weight and slammed into Sam Jenkins as hard as he could, sending them both sprawling to the floor as the report exploded in the room.

Scott moved forward, throwing himself at Northup as the man cocked the gun again, ready to take another shot. He fired once more as Scott knocked him off balance, the bullet hitting the wall above Sam and Johnny, and they both slammed into the wall. Murdoch was there, grabbing Northup's right arm and smashing it into the wall with crushing strength. Both Lancers heard the loud groan and a cracking sound. Murdoch took one step back and smashed his fist into Northup's jaw. He went out like a light.

Sam lay stunned and breathless beneath Johnny. He'd heard the young man atop him shout out in what sounded like pain as they hit the floor. Sam wanted to move, wanted to see what was happening but he couldn't breathe for a moment. Then, the weight was lifted off him.

Once Northup was out of commission, Murdoch eased Scott to a sitting position and checked him quickly then moved to his other son. He quickly pulled him off Sam, leaning Johnny back against his chest. Sam moved slowly as he regained his decorum and filled his lungs. He turned to check Johnny and saw the red stain on his right side. Cursing silently, he got to his feet.

"Get him in the other room and on the table," he ordered.

Murdoch scooped Johnny up and carried him away.

Sam shooed them both out of the way as he pulled Johnny's shirt tail up to get a good look. "It doesn't look too bad. Just a graze though a deep one. The bullet didn't go in."

"Why is he unconscious?" Scott asked.

Sam stopped and turned to look at him incredulously. "I suppose it could have something to do with the fact he hasn't recovered from the last attempt on his life," he growled uncharacteristically. "Now, go sit down until I can take a look at you," he added more softly.

Before Scott could react, they heard the front door open. Both he and Murdoch ran out to make sure Northup hadn't managed to escape again. But it was Val tearing into the room, gun drawn and ready for anything.

"I knew I shoulda checked here first," the sheriff said as he looked down at Northup. "Who walloped him?"

"I did," Murdoch replied. "I think his wrist may be broken," he added without concern.

Val nodded then looked around. "Where's Johnny?"

"Northup shot him but it's just a graze. He was aiming for Sam."

Val cocked a questioning brow at that. "Reckon ya should just tell me what happened."

Murdoch did so and Val's face turned harder as he went on. He looked down at the man on the floor. "Help me cart him inta the doc."

Sam glanced up when they carried Northup in and half-laid him on a bench. Val shackled his left hand to the iron armrest then walked over to where Johnny lay. "How's he doin?"

"I've about got it stitched up. I suppose if he had to get shot it was better to do it in a doctor's office," he sighed and shook his head. "Did they tell you how he saved my life?"

"Yeah, heard all about it. I'm sorry, Doc. I shoulda been here."

"Can't be everywhere at once, Val. I'll take a look at *him* when I'm done with Johnny and Scott," Sam tossed his head toward Northup.

"No hurry," Val growled then turned back to the other two Lancers. "I'll need statements from both of you and Doc when he has time."

"Now?" Scott asked.

"Soon as Sam's had a look at ya. Best to get it done while it's still fresh in your minds."

"I doubt either of us will forget it for a while," Murdoch muttered.

Val only nodded and thought they might never forget it, nor should they.

Johnny moaned just as Sam finished with the bandage, rolling his head back and forth as he regained consciousness. Sam laid a hand on his head and leaned down to speak quietly to him. He knew Johnny would bolt if he was unsure of his surroundings.

Blue eyes opened and blinked then a frown creased his forehead as Johnny found Sam's eyes.

"It's over, Johnny. Everyone's safe now," Sam reassured.

Johnny gritted his teeth and forced the words out. "My arm, Sam. It's on fire."

The doctor recovered from his suprise quickly enough as he pulled the shirt back to take a look. There was no obvious injury and no swelling. He smiled. "That's a good thing, Johnny. You're getting the feeling back."

Johnny looked confusedly at him for a second then smiled a little and nodded, his eyes closing as he sighed out.

It seemed as if everyone in the room breathed out in relief. Johnny would regain the use of his right arm. The only remaining question was how much use. For now, Murdoch was just grateful he was alive. But, he knew it was far from over. Northup had been right - his family was torn apart and he didn't have a clue how to repair it.

Fortunately, Scott's ankle wasn't broken but it was badly sprained. Sam wrapped it and gave him crutches to use then sewed up his head. He told them Scott could go home as long as someone watched him closely the first day or so.

***

Scott signed his name to the statement as Murdoch looked on, having already given his accounting. Val collected the papers, blew on the ink and shuffled them about.

"Can we go now?" Scott asked tersely.

Val's patience chose that moment to leave him. He stood up, his chair scraping back and hitting the wall. "You can do whatever ya want, Scott, but if you got any notions about goin over there and worrying Johnny with your problems, ya might want ta think real hard about it."

Scott's shoulders went back as he looked hard at the sheriff. "That's none of your business."

"You're wrong about that but I ain't gonna explain the why. All I'm gonna say is this: Johnny's in a world of hurt right now. And I ain't just talkin about his injuries. He's gonna need some time alone to sort things through. Havin you in his face is only gonna make him go inside hisself." Val stood his ground and looked stonily at Scott, waiting for whatever the man had to say.

"He's right, Scott. We have to give Johnny time and you know it," Murdoch intervened.

"Time to do what? Leave? I'm won't let that happen," Scott argued.

"You won't let that happen? Seems ta me that's been your problem all along. Everything has ta be your way," Val said tightly.

Scott turned back to him. "Look, Sheriff, I know you and Johnny are friends ..."

"That's right, we are friends. Been knowin 'im a helluva lot longer than you have and I know if he's of a mind ta leave, nothin you do or say is gonna stop 'im. Might get yourself a fat jaw for your trouble but ya ain't gonna get what ya want," Val interrupted. "Whatever the hell it is you do want," he added with a touch of sarcasm.

Scott's jaw tightened and his mouth set in a tight thin line.

"Scott," Murdoch called then touched his arm to gain his attention. "We'll check with Sam on Johnny's condition then we're going home. Sam can send for us when he feels Johnny is well enough to talk."

"Perfect! He'll think we don't give a damn!" Scott scowled.

"Then we'll make sure Sam tells him that we're only trying to give him what he needs. We'll make sure he understands we want to give him the chance to come to us. We have to do it Johnny's way, Scott. Don't you see that?" Murdoch stated, his conviction more firm than his voice at the moment.

The younger man struggled with the truth of his father's words until he finally gave a short nod and limped out of the sheriff's office.

"Thank you, Val. Johnny's lucky to have a friend like you," Murdoch said then started for the door.

"Ya got that backwards, Mr. Lancer. I'm the lucky one. Some day, maybe you'll see that," Val responded, unable to resist taking one last shot at making the rancher understand what he was about to lose.

Murdoch kept his back to the lawman and simply nodded then left.

***

Johnny had listened to Sam as he relayed in detail all Murdoch had said and how Scott really was. For the next three days he slept, ate and thought about his father's message. It helped that the old man seemed to understand he needed distance from them. He had to wonder at what Scott thought about it. He was sure his brother didn't like the idea of staying away, of not getting his say, so he had to feel grateful to Murdoch for calling this tune.

He was at least back on his feet now, not that it helped much. He couldn't stay up for long periods yet but every day, he worked his arm exactly like Sam told him. This was one thing he would not harp about taking too long. He knew all too well what the consequences were and he wasn't ready to die at the hands of some third-rate gunfighter.

He spent most of his awake hours in the back yard. Sam smiled as he thought it got more use in the past week than in twenty plus years. Johnny was looking much better and Sam could tell he was feeling better, at least physically. He hadn't balked about his arm and the doctor knew why. Still, there was a sadness so deep in his eyes every time Sam looked there, the older man felt like crying.

Jelly stayed the whole time but kept his tongue in check for a week. Then, he started talking to Johnny quietly. They spent hours under the elm tree with Jelly talking and Johnny listening. No one would ever know what the old man said to him but Sam thought it was making an impact. Whatever the words, they were healing for Johnny. Val came by most evenings and spent a couple of hours in his room, as well.

Monday morning, a week and two days after Northup was arrested, Johnny dressed and shaved and put his gunbelt on. It was a chore but he finally managed without asking for help. Something he always had trouble doing anyway. After breakfast and without a word to anyone, he stood walked out to the front office and put his hat on. Then, he took his arm out of the sling.

Sam and Jelly watched from the doorway. Sam opened his mouth but Jelly laid a hand on the man's arm and shook his head. After Johnny walked out, Sam asked.

"Reckon he's goin to face the devil. Somethin he's gotta do, Doc. He won't be able ta rest til he talks to Northup, faces him again."

***

Johnny stood on the porch of Sam's home and sucked in a breath. He smiled a little thinking about Jelly, Sam and Val and how they'd all tried so hard to help him through this. With a slight amount of bitterness he reckoned he had a few friends after all. Murdoch had apologized for his hurtful words but Johnny still heard them loud and clear in his mind from time to time. But, it was the day in his bedroom when Murdoch had refused to toss Northup out that Johnny thought of most of the time. That and his conversations with Scott. He didn't know if they could ever get past all that had happened. Shaking his head, he stepped down into the street and headed for the jail.

Val looked up from the wanted posters when the door opened. He wasn't surprised by who it was and sat back in his chair to regard the man. "Mornin."

"Mornin, Val," Johnny replied as he pushed his hat off his head and sat across from the sheriff. "How're things?"

"Quiet."

Johnny nodded and looked into his eyes. "Mind if I visit your prisoner?"

"Nope, just leave the rig."

Johnny stood and pulled the Colt, laying it on the desk and trying to hide the grimace of pain lifting the heavy object caused, then followed Val to the cell room.

Northup stood when he heard footfalls. It wasn't time for lunch and the sheriff only came back there to deliver meals. He was surprised to see who was walking toward him.

Johnny locked onto his eyes as he settled on the bench across from the cell. Northup took up a stool and sat as well. His eyes went to Johnny's right arm.

"Who're ya tryin to fool, Madrid? Anybody with eyes can see that arm is dead," he smirked.

Johnny smiled a little and raised his arm. "You mean this arm?"

Northup's face fell for a second then his eyes lit up again. "How's your daddy feel bout that?"

Johnny kept the smile though it was wearing thin. "Just wanted to stop by and say goodbye in case I don't see you again before you swing."

Northup laughed. "Well, that was real neighborly of ya. Reckon you'll be spendin some time gettin that arm back in shape before headin back ta Mexico."

Johnny cocked his head to the side. "Got no plans to go anywhere, Northup."

"Move in with the doc, did ya? Come on, Madrid. We both know there's no way in hell you can go back to Lancer now."

Johnny stared at him for a long time before his eyes darted to Northup's right arm. He smiled a little at the splint. Northup saw it and glared.

"Well, don't reckon it matters for you now, anyway. No reason to worry about that wrist healing up," Johnny drawled.

"All that matters is that I won, partly."

Johnny shook his head slowly. "You haven't won anything, Northup. You think I'm gonna walk away from Lancer? You really are loco if you do. No way I'd ever do that." Johnny stood and headed for the door. Without turning, he added, "see ya in hell."

***

Jelly was sitting on the glider whittling and waiting when Johnny walked around the house.

"Feel better?" he asked.

Johnny sat beside him with a sigh and stretched out his legs. "Not really."

"Did ya think ya would?"

A smile flitted across his face. "Don't know exactly. I didn't go there to feel better anyway."

Jelly nodded and continued working the wood.

"Reckon you could drive me out to the ranch?" Johnny asked after a moment of quiet.

Jelly never stopped his whittling nor raised his head but the smile was big enough for Johnny to see from his profile. "Reckon I can do that," he answered, closed his knife and stood.

"Reckon how long you'll be."

Johnny raised his eyes to survey the man's face and shrugged. "Depends, I guess."

Jelly looked at him longer than Johnny was comfortable with. Whatever he was thinking, he decided to keep to himself. He simply turned and walked away. Johnny went inside to talk to Sam about this trip. In the time he'd spent with the physician, he'd been a better patient than usual. Johnny had come to understand some things about Sam Jenkins and one of them was, the man cared about him. Not just as a patient but as a close friend. For some reason, Johnny had never really thought about his relationship with the doctor. Seemed he never saw him unless there was an injury or illness or some social function.

Now that he had spent some real time with the man, Johnny could say he was a true friend as much as Val or Jelly. He'd always trusted Sam but never thought to confide in him with personal matters. That was all changed now and he felt comfortable with the man.

"Physically, you aren't as strong as I would want you to be. I think you'll find this drive harder than you think. I can see that won't dissuade you so just take it slow and easy. Stop and rest of you need to. It's just Jelly so no need to put on that face." Sam said, a hint of frustration noted with the last sentence.

Johnny grinned at him and nodded.

"About seeing Murdoch and Scott, I wish I had some advice for you, Johnny. Just try to listen to them and get them to listen to you. Nothing good will happen if you all get angry and close off. If you can't hear what each other is saying, how can you hope to understand how they feel?"

"Sounded like pretty good advice from a man who says he don't have any," Johnny smiled.

"I hope you'll take it."

"I will, Sam. You want to come out and tell them the same thing?" Johnny asked, only joking a little.

"I will if they act like horse's ..... behinds," Sam growled.

Johnny laughed at that and slapped him on the back. "I'll do my best."

"You always do, John."

The younger man gave pause at that then walked outside still thinking about the statement. Did he always do his best? He wasn't so sure.

"Ya know, Scott probably won't be at the house," Jelly noted as they rumbled along.

"It's the last Friday of the month," Johnny reminded him.

Jelly ahhed silently. This was the day Murdoch sat aside for paper business. The day they all stayed home and went over any contracts, pending sales or purchases and bills. Johnny called it Black Friday and always hoped there'd be something urgent that needed his attention out on the range. There hardly ever was, though.

"Besides, his ankle's banged up," he added and wondered for the thousandth time how his brother was healing.

Jelly pulled the surrey off the road under a tree and reined to a stop and Johnny looked curiously at him.

"Need to stop for a minute. I'll be right back," he said as he slid down and disappeared into the woods.

Johnny grinned and shook his head but, truthfully, he could use a break, too. Those ruts were getting to him. He hated that he was still so weak and knew he shouldn't be out anywhere yet. But, he'd waited long enough to do this and he couldn't stand it any longer. His stomach was torn up most of the time and he'd lost a little weight. Sam told him it was the tension and worry working on him and he could believe that.

He fingered the sling in the seat beside him, unwilling to wear it out in public. The weight of the Colt was comforting though it was a false comfort for he knew he couldn't fire it yet - not with his right hand. He'd thought about sticking it in his waistband but that was a dead giveaway.

His head jerked up and he blinked rapidly a few times as he oriented himself. He glanced up at the sky but couldn't discern how long he'd been asleep. He couldn't believe he had fallen asleep in the first place. He looked around and found Jelly sitting under a tree with his whittling.

"What are you doing? Why'd you let me fall asleep?" he asked harshly.

Jelly stood and walked over, sliding onto the bench after securing his wood and knife. "Figured ya needed a break. Doc said this might be rough on ya and he was right."

Johnny gave him a frown and fairly growled but he said nothing as they started on their way again.

"Don't be actin all mad, boy. Least this way you'll be rested when ya get there," Jelly commented casually.

He could hardly argue that point but he still shot the older man a look then crossed his arms over his chest.

***

Scott stared at the same contract most of the morning. By lunch, he'd given up on it and sat listening to Murdoch drone on about something or other. It wasn't until he heard the man mention his brother's name that his ears perked up. Murdoch gave him an aggravated look and repeated his litany about the Army contracts and needing Johnny to finish breaking the horses.

"What makes you think he'll even be here?" Scott asked morosely.

"Nothing, but I can hope. Business-wise, we need him," Murdoch stated then added in a lower voice, "and every other wise."

Scott heard it all and grimaced a little. He was still certain Johnny was more upset with him than their father. Either way, it wasn't going to be easy to convince him to stay. He'd thought through his arguments and his apologies and it all sounded so inadequate. What could he really say?

Murdoch stood and walked to the French doors, a smile bursting onto his face. "It's Johnny and Jelly."

Scott felt a knot form in his throat. He was here. Finally, he was here and Scott had no idea what to say to the man.

Murdoch moved quickly to the front door and stepped out as the surrey pulled to a stop.

"Howdy, Boss," Jelly called.

"Jelly," Murdoch nodded as he walked to the side of the surrey. "Hello, son."

"Hey," Johnny said and tried to smile but just couldn't manage it. He stepped down and felt Murdoch too close to him. He had no place to go though unless he crawled over the surrey to the other side. As usual, Jelly saved him.

"Alright, back up and let me get 'im situated. Don't forget the sling. We're here now so ya can put it on," the handyman prattled.

Johnny said nothing as Jelly arranged the sling and gently eased his arm inside. He looked at the old man with gratitude and Jelly gave him a quick smile. He leaned in close to Johnny and whispered.

Johnny shook his head slightly. "Just stay nearby," he answered in kind.

When Jelly stepped back, Murdoch moved up again. "Alright now?"

"Yeah."

"Come inside, son. I'm so happy to see you," he smiled and wrapped an arm around Johnny's shoulders. He felt the tension rise but was too selfish to remove the tenuous hold. It may be the last chance he got, he thought sullenly.

Scott paced unsteadily in front of the fireplace working himself to near frenzy as he waited to face his brother. He heard the door open and took a breath then turned to wait with a tight smile.

"How's the arm?" Murdoch was asking.

"Gettin better. It's just slow."

"That's wonderful news, Johnny. I know it'll be just fine," he replied a little too enthusiastically.

He's trying too hard, Johnny thought and wanted nothing more than to leave this place. He stopped short when he saw Scott. He knew his brother would be here but seeing him was another thing.

"Hello, Johnny. How are you?" Scott tried.

"Doin alright, I guess. You?"

"I'm okay," Scott replied then glanced around the room. "Have a seat. Would you like something to drink or eat? We just had lunch but Maria can get you something."

Johnny almost groaned out loud. Another one tryin too hard. Only Scott made him feel like a guest in his own home. He swallowed his anger and kept a civil tongue, remembering Sam's advice.

"No, I'm fine," he answered simply and took a seat in the wing-backed chair near the hearth.

They all sat, Scott on the edge of a cushion on the sofa, Murdoch in the matching chair beside Johnny's. Silence reigned supreme for several ticks of the clock.

Murdoch cleared his throat then. "You look a little thin."

"Yeah, I've lost a few pounds but it's nothing."

"What does Sam say?"

Johnny grinned and Murdoch's heart lept. He hadn't realized how much he'd missed that.

"Says I worry too much but otherwise, I'm healin fine."

"And the arm?" Scott asked.

Johnny looked down and made a loose fist. "Gettin there. How's the ankle?"

"Almost healed."

He kept staring at his hand as he frowned in thought. He had no idea how to do this or what to say. How to start a war in his own home? He didn't want any of it but he sure hadn't brought it on. He just had to finish it.

"You both know why I'm here and maybe I should've given you some warning but I figured we should just jump right in. Only now, that don't sound like much of an idea."

Murdoch smiled a little but it faded fast. "I suppose none of us is in too much of a hurry to start."

"I don't know what to say other than I'm sorry, Johnny. I know it doesn't sound like much. I know it doesn't begin to cover everything that happened. I wish I'd listened to you from the beginning and never trusted him," Scott said.

"It doesn't matter that I was right, Scott. What matters is that neither of you trusted me enough to listen to me. That's what gets me. Every time I tried to talk to you about it you shut down like that," Johnny snapped his fingers. "Seems like you just couldn't hear anything I had to say."

Scott clasped his hands together between his knees and nodded. "I know. I just thought you weren't giving him a chance. That you were judging him too quickly. I know you're used to having to make snap decisions but ....."

"Stop!" Johnny yelled then lowered his voice. "That right there is what I'm talkin about. You don't know, Scott, and that's the problem. You keep sayin you understand why I'm so suspicious of people but you don't. You think it's because I was a gunfighter but that's not all of it. Maybe it helped me be able to read a man fast but I had a life before gunfightin. You throw everything I do and say into one barrel and call it my life. To you, Johnny Madrid is the end all be all of who I am."

"Now wait a minute, Johnny. I never said that," Scott retorted.

"Am I wrong?" he challenged.

Scott only stared at him.

"Yeah, like I said," Johnny shot. "Look, this is what bothers me about the whole thing. I wanted to be wrong, hoped I was. I waited a long time to say anything else. Too long as it turns out. What I want to know is why you both just shrugged me off."

"I wanted you to be wrong, too, son. I didn't want to believe another old friend had betrayed me like this. That someone else I trusted would want to harm my family. I've thought a lot about it and I'm ashamed of my actions, or lack of action. When you told me you didn't feel safe in your own home, I should have done something right then. Whether you were right or wrong, I should have considered how you felt. I can't tell you how much I regret that. Even if nothing had happened. Even if Asa had been innocent, I should have had more respect for you. I was on my way to see you about that very thing when Val showed up."

"It still bothers me, Murdoch. I can't say it doesn't. All of it. I know you apologized for that crack in the garden but I can't shake it loose.

I don't think you know me very well. You or Scott. Sometimes, I wonder what you really think of me and how I lived before. What I know or what you think I don't know. Sometimes, I wonder if you two don't live in some world the rest of us can't see. Where everything's always good and easy and nothin bad ever happens inside your own home. You forget about the world out there and how ugly it can be. How ugly people can be." Johnny's voice had grown low and husky and he lowered his eyes.

"I suppose we don't like to think bad things can happen in our home. It's the one place we should all feel safe. That didn't happen and I hate my part in it. I hate what I did, son. I don't know what else to say. What can we do, Johnny? How can we make it alright for you?"

His eyes came up slowly and he looked at his father then settled his gaze on his brother. "By respecting my opinion and that I've had some experience in this world. I've seen bad things but I've seen good, too, and I know the difference. And it didn't all happen when I picked up a gun. What I want more than anything is for you to trust me."

"I understand what you're saying, Johnny. But, does that mean you expect us to agree with you all the time?" Scott asked.

"No, I don't expect that. I do expect to not be dismissed. I expect you to talk to me and not shut me out because I say something you don't like. And I expect to be treated like a member of this family and not be target practice for your sharp tongue," Johnny scowled.

"I had no right to say those things to you. I was angry but that's no excuse," Scott replied with remorse.

"No, you didn't have a right. You also don't have the right to run my life or tell me what to think or do. We had this talk before but it didn't seem to do any good, Scott. I don't know what it'll take for you to start treating me like a man. Do you have any idea how it makes me feel when you make those cracks about me growing up?"

"I didn't mean anything by it. I just think of you as young and you are, Johnny."

"I'm way older than my years, Scott. I may *seem* reckless to you but I'm not. I might not have gone to Harvard or served in your Army but that don't make me stupid."

"I don't think you're stupid! I do think you're reckless, though, and I worry about you. Why is that bad?"

"You can worry if you want but keep it to yourself. I'm not spending the rest of my life being your *little* brother, Scott."

"What do you want, Johnny? How do you see us treating you?" Murdoch asked, fearing the growing tension between his sons was about to get out of hand.

"The same way you treat anyone else. The same way you treat Scott and Scott treats you. That's all I want, Murdoch. Is that so much?"

"No, I don't think it is and I promise I'll do better. My question is, will you stay?"

Johnny looked a him for a long beat. "I don't want to leave, I never did. But, I can't live under this roof the way things have been," he said and looked at his brother.

Scott sighed and stood up, walking over to the sideboard then turning back. "You and I had a good relationship before Northup came along. I don't think everything that happened between us was his doing. I don't believe he had that kind of power. I want things to be the way they were but it sounds to me like you had some problems with me before this."

Johnny nodded his head. "I guess everything just came to a head when we started disagreeing about him. But, you're right, there are things that bother me. I should have said something sooner but I kept thinking you'd get over it; get tired of tryin to babysit me."

Scott smiled fleetingly at the description. "I only want you to be safe and happy, Johnny."

"That's all I want for you, Scott."

"I'll try my best not to 'brother' you. Just promise to tell me when you feel I'm being overbearing."

"Okay, I promise. Just stop trying to control everything, okay?"

Scott raised a brow at that, started to reply then gave himself a minute. He had to admit, he did like order and control in his life. Had he been trying to control Johnny? His cheeks flushed as he realized he indeed had tried to do that very thing. All he could manage at the moment was to nod.

"I don't think we need to go over every word said. Just that what you both said wasn't deserved or true,"Johnny continued.

"I know that, son. I know how many friends you have. You've made a lot more since being here. Val sure knows you well."

Johnny raised a brow but decided not to ask. He probably would either be angry or start laughing at whatever the sheriff had said.

"Does that mean you'll come back home?" Murdoch asked hopefully.

"It won't be easy. I mean, I know there's a lot of hurt feelings to go around. Just don't expect us to kiss and make up in two seconds."

"Does that mean we're on probation?" Scott smiled.

"All of us are, I guess. I don't expect to be treated with kid gloves."

Scott held up a hand. "I won't make that mistake again." He grew solemn then added, "I guess this family business is a lot harder than we wanted to admit."

Both other men nodded their agreement to that statement. Then, Johnny sucked in a breath.

"I saw Northup this morning."

"Why?" Murdoch growled.

"Because I needed to say some things and I didn't want him thinkin for one second he'd won," Johnny shot.

"How did it go?" Scott asked, still pained whenever he heard that name.

Johnny shrugged. "I don't know. It doesn't really matter. I just felt like doin it."

"You just wanted to get in his face. I can certainly understand that," Scott said.

Johnny smiled briefly then lowered his eyes, his brow knitting together.

"What?" Scott asked.

"I don't know. I guess I'm just wondering why, is all. Why you trusted him so much," he spoke softly.

Scott bowed his head as he considered then walked back over and sat down across from Johnny. "He made it easy. You said yourself he was nice and funny sometimes. That's what I saw. A kind man who seemed to genuinely care. A friend."

Johnny said nothing but he couldn't deny the truth that his brother trusted a virtual stranger above him. He was beginning to wonder if this really could work at all. He knew only time would tell and he wasn't all that patient a man. Still, he had other considerations. Murdoch and everyone else at the ranch. People he had come to respect and admire. People he called friends. Plus, he needed time to get his arm working again. That was always on his mind no matter what else was happening. Maybe he'd get well enough to perfom his chores at the ranch but never regain the speed and agility he once possessed. It was a constant and painful reminder of all that had transpired here.

His head came up and he looked questioningly at Scott. "I'm sorry, what?"

"I said I'll regret it for the rest of my life," Scott repeated with a look of worry for his brother.

"We all will but we have to find a way to move on. If we don't, he really will have won," Murdoch spoke.

"Time will tell, I guess," Johnny murmured then looked back to Scott. "I guess a person can forgive a lot when the stakes are high enough. But, that only goes so far, too. There comes a point when you can't take any more ...... disappointment. Then, you have to walk away no matter how hard it is."

"We'll have to make sure none of us ever get to that point. I think the best way to do that is by telling each other when we think there's a problem and respecting each other's opinions," Scott said with some embarrassment.

Johnny nodded. "Yeah, especially that last part."

***

Two weeks passed quietly and Scott had healed enough to resume his chores. Johnny was still working diligently on his arm and he could see the progress. He wouldn't get too excited though. Not until he had it completely back.

Val rode out one afternoon and sat on the veranda with him just watching the world around them. Johnny knew his friend had something on his mind but Val wasn't very chatty.

"What?" Johnny finally asked in a soft voice.

Val sighed through his nose and shrugged. "Thought ya might wanna know the judge was in three days ago."

Johnny sat up. "And?"

"And Northup pleaded guilty. Was right proud soundin when he did it, too. He'll hang come Monday."

Johnny leaned back and let out a breath heavily. "Well, reckon that ties it all up."

"Does it?" Val asked with a touch of aggravation.

"Don't start on me, Val."

"I ain't. Reckon ya know what you're doin. Just don't know how ya can be so ......"

"Forgiving? I guess that's what family does. I let them know I wouldn't let it go again. We had a good talk, Val. I think we all learned some things."

"Hope so. Anyway, ain't my business."

Johnny smiled softly. "Ain't it? Murdoch said somethin that had me wonderin. What did you say to those two?"

Val gave him a sideways look and shrugged. "Nothin."

"Uh huh."

"Nothin they didn't need ta hear," he expounded.

"Well, whatever it was, thanks."

Val fought back a smile. "Didn't do nothin. Anyways, best be gettin back. Got a platform building to supervise. You gonna be there?" he asked as he stood.

Johnny stayed where he was, leaned back in the chair with his eyes closed. "Nope."

"Good. Well, I'll see ya."

Johnny opened his eyes and looked up at his friend. "You don't need a reason to come out here, ya know. Just visitin would be fine."

"Ya think I don't know that!" Val huffed then turned and strode away.

Johnny laughed softly at his disappearing back and shook his head.

"What did Val have to say?"

Johnny cocked his head and looked over his shoulder at his father. "Northup's gonna hang on Monday. He pleaded guilty."

Murdoch winced a little then moved around to sit next to Johnny. "He could do little else. At least there won't be a trial."

"Yeah. Val said he was real proud about it."

Murdoch sighed softly and looked out at the yard. He didn't say anything and Johnny felt bad for him.

"I'm sorry you lost a friend," he said quietly.

"He was no friend, son. He never was. Not if he could turn on me like that. But, I appreciate the sentiment."

Johnny stared at his lap. "Sometimes, a person can turn bad. I believe good people can go bad, Murdoch. Things happen and they get bitter and resentful. All that anger turns into hate and it doesn't have to make sense to anyone else as long as they can justify it to themselves."

"Did someone turn on you like that?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny's head came up slowly and he stared at his father. "A few. Maybe that's why I'm so skeptical."

"I ..... I guess that's true enough. No one can know what's in another person's mind or heart."

Johnny thought he was going to say something else, was sure of it but he was also sure he didn't want to hear it. And maybe the old man knew that. He smiled a little.

"Only if they tell ya," he grinned.

Murdoch frowned and shook his head slowly. "I'm not so sure about that. Sometimes, you can hear the sincerity in words but I think mostly, it's what a person does that speaks the truth."

"Sam said somethin like that, too. He said a man's actions told more about him than any words could."

"Sam is a wise man," Murdoch smiled.

"Yeah, he is. He helped me a lot. I never spent any real time with him before. I'm glad I had the chance to talk to him like that."

Murdoch was glad, too. He only wished the circumstances had been different. "What about Scott? Have you two talked any more?"

Johnny shook his head.

"I wish you would, son."

"Takes more than talk, like we just said. Takes time and work, too, I guess. Don't worry so much, Murdoch. Scott will come to his senses sooner or later." Johnny looked him in the eye as he spoke.

"He really is struggling with this. He feels so guilty I don't know how to help him."

"Just let him work it out in his own head. That's all you can do. In the end, a man has to make up his own mind about things. Has to forgive himself before he can accept anyone else's forgiveness."

Murdoch rolled that idea around and nodded. "You're right but that doesn't make it any easier to watch him torture himself."

Johnny sighed and looked out at the yard. "If it means that much to you, I'll talk to him again."

"It would mean a great deal to me, son. Thank you."

Johnny only smiled then watched as Scott rode in. He did look pretty miserable at that. "No time like the present."

Murdoch stood and walked back inside without another word, a smile on his face and hope in his heart.

Scott walked up and nodded. "How was your day?"

"Might better than your's by the looks of you. Have a seat," Johnny motioned with his hand toward the chair.

"Why did Murdoch go in?" Scott asked as he settled.

Johnny smiled crookedly. "He wants me to absolve you."

Scott looked at him. "Of what?"

"Of the guilt you're feelin over Northup," Johnny replied flatly.

Scott sighed and leaned back.

"It's not mine to give, you know. You have to forgive yourself, Scott. Learn whatever you think you need to learn and move on. And you need to be gettin on with it before you worry the old man to death."

Scott looked harshly at him. "I'm doing the best I can, Johnny."

"I know that and I know you don't want to talk about it but Murdoch, well, he has other ideas."

"And he thinks you can get me to 'get on with it'?"

Johnny laughed softly. "Yeah, I guess."

Scott relaxed back into his chair and stared at the ceiling. "I thought I saw Val on the road."

"He was here. Northup hangs on Monday."

Scott closed his eyes. "I don't care."

"Me neither. See? We agree on something. Guess that's progress," Johnny grinned.

Scott gave a short laugh. "I suppose so. I hate this, you know. I hate what I did and what he did and I hate that you got hurt most of all."

Johnny laid a hand on his arm and Scott looked over at him. "I know that, brother. Let it go, Scott. Just let it go."

"Have you?"

Johnny took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "For the most part, I have. Some things are harder but it'll come in time."

"Like what I did."

Johnny shook his head in exasperation. "Yeah, that's part of it and what I did and what everybody did. I know it's not easy but we have to do it someway or other. Else, we should all just pack up and leave."

Scott cocked a brow at that. "I can see Murdoch doing that."

"That'd be something, huh?" Johnny laughed.

They fell silent for a while, each in their own thoughts.

"It'll be okay, Scott," Johnny said quietly.

"Will it?" the older man asked and Johnny heard the pain in his voice.

His heart broke for his brother but he'd been right before. Scott had to forgive himself.

"It will. Trust me," he answered with a cocky grin.

Scott didn't laugh nor did he smile. He looked steadily at his brother. "I will. I swear it."

Johnny dipped his eyes before looking back out over the land. He said nothing and only hoped Scott's words were true.

 

 

~end~
2006

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