Starting Over

By D. B. Brisin

AR-Johnny and Scott come to Lancer to help their father save the ranch from Pardee, but they don't meet on the same stage. They arrive separately, a few days apart. Many of the lines from "The High Riders" used, either verbatim, or in a revised form are included.

Feedback welcome.

**Warning for Profanity/One Mild Sexual Encounter

Starting Over

By d.

Riding down the main street of Green River, he felt their eyes on him. Even in a town of this size, people noticed him. Then again, wasn't all that hard. Not many men wore red shirts. Didn't help that he had shiny silver Conchos down the sides of his leather pants. The gun tied low, well, that was a dead giveaway. It wasn't hard to recognize a gunfighter. Recognition was a big part of what being a gunfighter was about.

Brim of his hat pulled low, obstructing the view of others to his view, he continued. The town bustled with activity; its citizens busy ants hurrying and scurrying, intent on their endeavors. All the same, they parted for him like the Red Sea for Moses as he rode down the street, flowing open to allow his passage and closing behind him. All the while, he could feel it as their eyes rested upon him.

Coming to a rather large and ornate saloon, he stopped, taking his time, ensuring there was no danger to him. His eyes, ears, and even his nose, alert for danger, while he appeared relaxed and uncaring to anyone watching. Wound tight inside at the thought of how close he was to facing the man he had wanted to face down for all of his young life, his father.

Dismounting his coal black horse, he draped the reins over the hitching post. He never tied his horses. Horses that he had had for any length of time, he trained to stand and to come at his whistle, something that came in handy in his line of work. Taking one long last look behind him, he stepped onto the boardwalk and walked towards the entrance of the saloon.

He stopped at the batwing doors. Allowing his eyes to adjust to the darker interior of the saloon, he surveyed the layout and the occupants, committing it to memory in one experienced, sweeping look.

Seeing no immediate danger, he stepped inside, and made his way to a table in the back, the one that gave him the best defense and the best offense in case of trouble. It was late in the afternoon and the saloon was busy, but not so busy that the patrons ignored him. A silence fell over the large room as he proceeded to the back, the rhythmic "ching, ching" of his spurs filling the void.

As soon as he settled, activity resumed, the tension broken. A small red-haired saloon girl hurried over, ready to fill his needs of libation, libido, or both. He ordered a bottle of tequila and one glass.

Waving the girl off, he poured a shot, dipped his lime in the salt, took a bite, downed the shot, and poured another. After two, he poured a third, but slouched back in his chair and played with the glass, reflecting on the past, and wondering what the future would hold after tomorrow.

Tomorrow. What the hell would tomorrow be like? Facing his father, his sire, a man, he had hated for all of his short life. A man who had given his mother "the keys to the road and said what's your hurry? And don't forget buster here." A man he had vowed to kill. A man he had yet to have the courage to come to grips with and fulfill that vow, until now.

Now, or rather, tomorrow, he would face a conundrum. The man he hated with every drop of his blood, the man he planned to kill, had saved his life. Saved his life and offered him one thousand dollars for an hour of his time.

A month before, his short life almost ended. He was seconds away from death, standing in front of a Mexican firing squad. They had already killed one of his fellow revolutionaries and it was his turn. He had leaned over in his attempt to rise from a kneeling position, losing the ridiculous sombrero they had placed on his head.

Just as he had made it onto his feet, hands secured behind his back, the sound of a buckboard racing across the hillside rumbled towards them. For a moment, it seemed that the team of horses pulling the wagon was running away with the driver, a heavy-set, mustachioed man, dressed in a ridiculous suit and hat. However, the driver managed to stop right by the rurales who had been standing armed and ready to shoot him, distracting them.

Once the driver had their attention, he had indicated that he was looking for "Johnny Madrid" that the captain had told them that he might be one of their prisoners. Stunned by the arrival of this unlikely 'angel,' he had stepped up a little closer to the group and informed the man that he was Madrid. The out of breath 'angel,' with sarcasm in his voice said to him, "Well, finally found you!"

His 'angel' jumped down from the wagon and flashed a large wad of money at the rurales, telling them that the life of Señor Madrid was "muy importante, that it was muy importante that they not kill Señor Madrid" and that he was prepared to pay them to spare Madrid's life. When it seemed that the greedy and corrupt men understood and had agreed to this, the 'angel' gave them some cash, then came over and began untying his hands.

Confused, but grateful, he asked the 'angel' why he was doing "this" and the man told him, "I'm a Pinkerton Agent. Your father wants to see you. He's willing to pay you a thousand dollars for an hour of your time."

Shocked, all he could say was "Lancer?" He couldn't believe his ears. The man did not have time to reply, as by that time, he had overheard the rurales speaking in Spanish, a language, the Pinkerton man did not understand. They were about to go back on their agreed upon deal and were about to kill both he and the 'Pink.'

Fortunately, his 'Pink' was armed and he had just shaken his bindings off. He grabbed the gun from the man's holster and began firing, killing several rurales by the wagon. A couple ran for cover, but by that time, his rescuer had jumped back into the wagon and he had thrown his remaining compadre from the revolution, still tied, into the back of the wagon and they took off, with the 'Pink' calling out, "Shall I tell your father you're coming?"

By this time, he had vaulted onto one of the rurales' horses, and yelled back, "For a thousand dollars, I'd even go ta Hell." As the driver took off in the wagon with his friend, he fired a couple more times, killing another rurale or two and took off.

He had taken off on that horse so fast that it made his head spin, and for a moment, he had felt as if he would pass out from the dizziness. He was thin and out of shape, a result of the starvation and torture in the prison where they had kept him.

He rode to some trees and stopped. 'Where to go now?' Getting his breath back, he decided that he'd better try to meet back up with the 'Pink' and his cargo.

They had been outside of the village, and for now, it did not seem that anyone was coming to check on the shots or the goings on. The village people avoided this place, as they knew what happened here. No one trusted the rurales to leave them alone.

Checking one last time, he turned the horse and galloped off in the direction the wagon had taken. It was easy to follow the tracks; plus, he had a good idea where they were going. The man had to do something with his 'cargo.'

He caught up with them just outside of the village. They had pulled behind the hillside just before the village under some trees. When he caught up with them, the Pinkerton man was standing in the back of the buckboard, cutting the ropes from Javier's wrists.

When he stopped the horse beside the wagon, the agent looked at him with raised eyebrows. They were all panting from the adrenaline and exertion.

He cocked his head and said, "Thanks. But what's this about?"

"I told you pretty much all I know. We've been looking for you off and on for years at the request of your father. We just recently figured out that Johnny Lancer was Johnny Madrid when your father asked us to make this offer to you."

The agent had managed cut through the thick rope, freeing Javier, and the two exchanged looks and nods that said, "thank you and your welcome" without words.

Taking a deep breath, the agent had looked him up and down and said, "I was to offer travel expenses if needed. From the looks of things, you'll need some."

He pulled out his billfold and retrieved two hundred American dollars. "This should cover some new clothes, food, and transportation. I did manage to procure your firearm and other belongings from the captain at the prison. He handed a small bundle over along with his gun belt. With that, the agent, had crawled back over into the seat of the wagon, took up the reins and with a "Good luck, men!" he drove away without looking back, leaving Johnny and Javier in his dust.

Johnny pulled his Colt from the holster, examining it like a lost treasure. He flipped the chamber open and checked to see that it was loaded. It was. He put it on, noting that he had to tighten it on the last hole because he had lost so much weight. It was still loose. He tied the bundle of clothes onto the saddle. He then reached down to Javier, who took his hand and swung up onto the horse. Once he settled, Johnny had kicked the horse and they took off, headed for a small, secluded village where he could change clothes, grab some food, and leave his friend.

Now, here he was, just a few miles away from the most important showdown of his life.

Downing the drink, he motioned to the bartender who stepped over to him. He ordered dinner and paid for a room.

The saloon girl joined him while he was eating and he took her for dessert, to his room.

Chapter 2

Murdoch Lancer sat behind his desk in the great room of his large ranch house, referred to as the 'hacienda' by his vaqueros. In front of him sat his older and until two days prior, estranged son, Scott.

Scott's mother had died during childbirth after he sent her away from the ranch to protect her from the danger during a land war some twenty-five years prior. Her father, Harlan Garrett of Boston, who vehemently opposed their marriage in the first place, managed to take possession of his grandson, and took him back to Boston, where he raised him in the highest rankings of society.

Garrett had used his extreme wealth and power to blackmail Lancer into leaving Scott with him, and until two days ago, Lancer had learned that his son had never received any of the letters or presents he had sent to him in Boston. It was through a Pinkerton agent that he was able to contact his son in order to make him an offer he chose not to refuse, travel expenses and one thousand dollars for an hour of his time.

They sat with drinks in hand, looking at each other across the desk, still marveling at the sight of one another, still uncomfortable with one another.

"Scott, there's another matter that we need to discuss. I know we're just getting to know each other, and it will take time for us to get used to each other, but I need to tell you something that will further affect our relationship."

Scott Lancer maintained his erect posture and relaxed expression, reflective of his proper upbringing and military service, disguising his sudden tension.

"Two years after you and your mother were taken from me, I had to find a job away from the ranch. I worked as a deputy. Anyway, I had to go to Mexico. While I was there, I met a woman, a Mexican woman. She was . . ." he looked away, remembering, "She was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. She was just what I needed to get my mind off of my misery."

Scott stared at his father, remaining silent. 'So far,' he thought, 'not too shocking. It's only natural that Murdoch would become interested in women again.'

"Well, Scott . . . son . . . . . . . uh . . . . " Murdoch struggled. Scott grasped his glass and cocked his head just a bit, bracing himself.

"Scott, you have a brother."

Scott maintained his poise, but stood up and went straight to the liquor cabinet, returning to his seat with the bottle.

"A brother? I have a brother?"

Outside he was incredulous. Inside, his logical mind was at work. The man had remarried. He was excited as he had always wanted a brother, but at the same time, jealousy began to sink its poisonous teeth into him.

"Yes, his name is John."

He maintained his refined façade, thoughts and emotions ranting and raving inside. Motioning with his hand, he asked, "And where is this brother, uh, John?"

"On his way here, I hope."

"Oh, he's away on ranch business?" His stomach clenched at the thought of his brother having lived with their father all of his life. Also, where was the stepmother?

"Ranch business?" Murdoch shook his head, "How I wish that were true."

"I'm afraid I'm not clear on this, sir."

"Well, it seems my luck with women is not very good. John was conceived shortly after I met his mother, Maria. Two years after his birth, she took off with a gambler and took John with her. I haven't heard from either of them since."

Scott had no reply to that; at least not that he could verbalize. His family history was more interesting than those dime novels in the bookstores and on the train.

"Since you said you hoped that he was on his way here, I assume you employed the same method for contacting him as you did me."

"Yes, I did. But, I have had the Pinkertons looking for them off and on for the past seventeen years."

"Seventeen years?"

There was a knock on the French doors to the side of the desk, followed by its opening and a ranch hand leaning in, "Mr. Lancer?"

"Yes, Walt, come in." The hand took off his hat and nodded at Scott who nodded back.

Approaching the desk, he had a serious look on his face.

"Mr. Lancer, I think we have some big trouble."

Scott leaned over and poured his father another drink.

"What is it Walt?"

"Mr. Lancer, me and Hank were in Green River, gettin' the lumber you wanted. When we got through loadin' we went to the Spanish Lady for a beer. While we were sittin' there, well, you won't believe it, but Johnny Madrid walked in."

Scott looked at his father, who had a strange look on his face, an unreadable look.

"Johnny Madrid? Are you sure?"

"Yes sir. I know for sure it was him. I've seen him in two gunfights, one in Nogales and one in Sonora. I won't ever forget those. I ain't the onliest one who recognized him neither. Word's spread all over town. Everybody thinks he's here to work with Pardee."

"I see." Murdoch pondered and then looked at the hand, "What was he like?"

"He's the coldest son of a bitch I've ever seen, sir."

Murdoch looked down.

"Thank you Walt. Please instruct the men to stay away from him. Make no contact with him, and if they do have contact with him, they are not to discuss where they work or that they work for me. However, if he were to come to the ranch alone, looking for me, I want him sent straight to the house to see me. Understand?"

"Yes sir! Mr. Lancer."

"Is there anything else?"

"No sir. Goodnight, sir, Mr. Scott." The hand nodded and left out the same door he entered.

Murdoch took his drink and downed it, placing his glass on the desk and pushing it towards his son for another refill.

Scott lifted the bottle and poured, not sure which he wanted to hear more about first, the story about his 'brother' or the one about Johnny Madrid. Both had piqued his interest.

His father decided for him. "Well, back to your brother."

"After searching all these years, the Pinkertons were able to figure out that your brother was going by another name, not Lancer, and once they figured out who he was, it made it far easier to locate him. They found him about two weeks after you received your offer."

"Sir, you'll have to excuse me, but I'm at a loss for words."

"I understand. This has all been such a nightmare, and now, a dream come true, to have you and your brother both home."

"So you've not seen him since he was two years old?"

"No. After Maria took off with him, I was devastated. I lost two wives and two sons. I've put my life's blood in this ranch. I have a grey hair for every good blade of grass out there. I'll be damned if I let someone take it away from me now!" He slammed his hand down on his desk.

Scott flinched.

Murdoch stared into space. Scott stared into his scotch feeling less jealous now, and in fact, a little guilty for having had those feelings at all.

"Anyway, it seems your brother will be here soon."

"I can't wait to meet him. I must confess. I always wanted a younger brother growing up."

Murdoch turned a serious face to him and said, "You may not want this one."

Scott was dumbfounded. How could his father say such a thing? Did he think the same about him when he met him? While he had been dressed to the height of fashion from the East, it was clear to him that his clothes were out of place in the Wild West. Maybe his brother wouldn't want him.

"Sir, you can't mean that!"

"Oh yes, I can son. I want to have John home more than anything, but now that I know what's become of him . . . . . . . . . . I'm worried that I'm too late."

"Too late? Too late for what? I'm sure he'd want to know who his father is."

"It's not a matter of what he wants. It's a matter of who he is."

"Who he is?"

"Well, what he is."

"What is he?" Scott felt as though they were about to play a guessing game and he would just prefer that his father say what was on his mind rather than go through all this, but being new in this relationship, he didn't think it smart to say so.

"He's a gunfighter."

"A gunfighter? You mean like in those dime novels, like those men with Pardee?"

"Yes, except,"

Here we go again thought Scott, "Except?" He repeated.

"Except, well, he's famous. Notorious, whatever word you want to choose."

"Famous?"

"Yes, he's Johnny Madrid."

"Johnny Madrid? The one the hand just mentioned?"

"Yes; That Johnny Madrid. No one knows that he's my son with the exception of Sam Jenkins, the doctor who delivered him.

Chapter 3

Johnny awoke mid morning. The long red hair of the saloon girl spilled across his chest, while her head was nestled in his armpit. He lay there for a few minutes, listening to the sounds around them. He could hear snoring from a neighboring room, over the sounds of the town, its citizens well on their way to being halfway through the workday, floating in from the partially opened window.

'Yep, things sure were different in the daylight.' He felt sticky and stale from his overnight activities with the girl, Delilah, she said was her name. He took note of the contrast in their bodies, his dark skin and hair against her pale freckled skin and red hair. They were as different as night and day in looks, but their sexual needs matched up well.

He stretched out and Delilah turned to face him, opening her eyes. They were as green as spring grass. From his proximity to them, he could see that they had little yellow flecks in them. As he gazed into her eyes, he reached over and brushed the hair out of her face so that he could see them better. He thought he saw a touch of blue. However, the little yellow flecks became sparks as she sat up, putting her hand onto his chest.

She tossed her head, flinging the long red mane back behind her back, revealing large, firm, pale breasts. Her nipples were dark, flat, and soft against her pale skin. One glance at them and he could feel himself become aroused. Another glance lower, at the sight of her red pubic hair and he found himself reaching for her again.

It was a little before lunch when he awakened, having had another nap after cavorting with the girl again. She got up and dressed, taking the money he had laid on the table for her. She leaned over and gave him a kiss on the forehead before she left.

He used the pitcher of water to clean up a bit with, but just enough to keep his clothes from getting too grungy. He planned to have a bath after getting some coffee. He pulled on his gun belt, ensuring that it was tight, tying it down low on his right leg. He ran his fingers through his hair, looked in the mirror to assure himself that his unruly locks were tamed. With that, he left to go downstairs.

The saloon was vacant. The bartender stopped wiping down the bar to bring him a cup of coffee and left the pot. "We'll have some lunch cooked up soon." He offered.

"Thanks, but I think I'll get a bath and a shave before I eat anything."

"Bath house is right next door. If you want, you can go out the back door here and go in there without hitting the street."

Johnny looked back towards the door and looked back at the bartender, taking a long look at his eyes. Either he was trying to be helpful, or he was trying to set him up. The bartender looked back and Johnny recognized the uncertain expression on his face.

"I was just thinkin' Mr. Madrid, that you might not want the whole town to know you were in there, you know, undressed and in the tub and all."

Seeing the sincerity tinged with a bit of fear in the man's eyes, Johnny gave a half smile and nodded, "'preciate it."

After three cups of coffee, he picked up his saddlebags and slung them over his left shoulder. Tossing some money on the table, he decided to try the back door, but not without using caution. He opened it with his left hand, his right on the butt of the Colt.

There was nothing to fear, it was all clear. In fact, it was more like a passageway between the two buildings. Something to remember in the future, he decided.

He was able to secure a tub off to itself, near the back, giving him the position he wanted, but also some privacy, although for the moment, he was the sole customer.

The barber was quick and efficient in his work. Johnny appreciated the fact that the man was quiet. He hated making small talk. Since he was not seeking any information, not wanting to give away his reason for being in town, he relaxed in the hot water, knowing it was a short lived feeling, as he knew that the closer he got to riding out of town, the feelings of tension and nausea would besiege him.

"Well, that's that!" the barber was curt as he wiped off the razor with his towel. "Want me to cut yer hair?"

"Nope; like it, like it is."

"Yes sir." The barber took his tools and left him to dress.

Standing up and drying off, he felt much better. He stepped out of the tub and pulled on his black leather calzoneras and his white shirt with the double set of buttons down the front and the white embroidery that ran around the collar and down the middle, encasing the buttons. His boots and gun belt followed. He left some money for the services and left out of the front door.

He stood, facing the street, getting a sense of what was happening around him. Feeling no danger, he glanced up and down the street, his eyes coming to rest on a small cantina. His mouth watered at the thought of tamales, beans, and chili sauce. He strode across the busy street and walked the half block down to the little restaurant.

He entered, much as he had the saloon the previous day. He allowed his eyes to adjust to the dim light and to seek out any potential threats. Finding none, he proceeded in, moving through the diners, whom had fallen silent at his entrance, to the table in back.

An older heavy Mexican woman came over to him to take his order. He had pushed his hat back off his head, letting it drop to hang down his back, held in place by the stampede strings, which wrapped around his neck. The woman saw that he was of Mexican descent, she smiled, and smiled even larger when he flashed his blue eyes at her.

He leaned back in his chair. It had been the best meal he had had in quite a while. He had had two glasses of milk with it as well. After clearing his plate, the woman returned with a plate of limes, salt, and a bottle of tequila, along with a glass. He poured himself a shot, downing it, and then a second, which he lingered over, turning the glass and staring.

He still couldn't decide how to handle the situation with his father. 'Damn', how he hated being unsure. He knew he would go, stay the hour, collect the money, and leave. He had killed men, dangerous men, scary men, and had no second thoughts, no remorse. Now, here he was, questioning the vow he had made so many years ago that he would seek out his father and kill him.

Before, it had been simple. He would do it, with no looking back, except that now, he owed his life to his father. He would not be sitting in this chair, feeling full and thinking thoughts over a glass of tequila if not for that Pinkerton man.

DAMN!

It would be best to just get on out there and see what the man wanted from him.

He felt certain it was a job. The old man had figured out who he was and wanted to hire him. There could be no other reason to spend that much money for an hour. There was no way to prepare for something like this, meeting his father for the first time and under these somewhat cryptic circumstances. Frustrated, he finished his drink and left some money on the table. With a quiet nod to the old woman, he left.

Outside, he decided to check out the town, see if there was a gunsmith. He strode down the boardwalk for a few blocks and found what he was looking for. The shop was larger than he expected, with quite a variety of firearms and ammunition.

The gunsmith looked up from reading his paper with a wary eye that dropped to Johnny's low tied holster. Johnny knew the man recognized a good customer when they crossed his threshold.

Johnny left the gunsmith, depositing the boxes of .45 caliber shells in his saddlebags. He walked back up the boardwalk, headed for the livery. He had already passed the door to another, seedier, saloon, the Del Rio, when he heard the doors swing open and the familiar call, "Madrid!"

His Colt was drawn and in his hand at the first squeak of the batwings' hinges, so he turned and faced his opponent ready to pull the trigger.

"Whoa there! I thought you liked to fight fair." His challenger called with raised arms.

"Sneakin' up on folks is a good way t' get killed, Bing."

"I weren't sneakin' up on ya. I just didn't recognize ya 'til you passed."

"What d'ya want?"

"Ain't what I want, it's what I'm gonna do."

"And just what is that?" Johnny's voice was flat and bored.

"Kill you, Madrid."

"Bing, we don't have a beef."

"No, we don't, but that ain't what this is about."

"And just what is it about? You been practicin' and think you can outdraw me now?"

"Yep."

"You can't."

"Well Madrid, you're just gonna have to prove it."

"Well Bing, ya sure picked a pretty day t' die." Johnny dropped his saddlebags on the boardwalk.

The townspeople, all too aware of Johnny's presence, had already taken cover and were peeking from windows and alleyways. They were about to see Johnny Madrid in a gunfight in their town.

Johnny waved to the street with his left hand, indicating for Bing to step on out. The dirty, bearded man, a smug look to his face, stepped into the street.

Johnny stepped out to face him, about ten feet away. He took a deep breath and let it out slow, relaxing his body into the slouch he was famous for, right hand near the butt of his Colt.

As they stood facing each other, Johnny called out, "This is your dance Bing. You lead!"

Bing stared across at his opponent and into the deep blue depths of hell. His eyes revealed his uncertainty that this had been a wise move; but as the winner, he would be the most talked about gunfighter, as he would be the one who beat Madrid.

Johnny stood motionless, waiting for his sign to draw. He knew he'd see it in a prick like Bing. His dark blue eyes never left his opponent, searching for that sign, and then, there it was.

It was over before it began. Johnny drew and put a bullet between Bing's eyes before he cleared leather. While the awestricken townspeople remained in their hiding places, Johnny walked the ten feet to the dead man, just to make certain he was dead.

Satisfied with his findings and his work, Johnny retrieved his saddlebags from the boardwalk and headed for the livery in his cocky stride, spurs jingling, as though nothing had happened. Behind him, he heard the familiar call of someone to get the undertaker. Green River had no sheriff.

At the livery, he paid his bill, and had saddled and mounted his horse in minutes. He galloped out of town and towards the Lancer ranch.

Chapter 4

He reached the turn off to the ranch and pulled up. His heart was racing and he felt a little nauseous. It was hard to believe that a road sign with its simple statement, "Lancer Ranch" and an arrow indicating the direction could cause such feelings. He had just killed a man and ridden away, with no feelings, regrets, or remorse. Fact was, he felt little of anything anymore, so it was more than disturbing to him that he was experiencing so many conflicting emotions now.

After witnessing his mother's brutal death, and killing her killer at the ripe old age of ten, he had become a gunfighter as a means of survival, survival with one purpose in mind, to someday confront and kill the father who threw him and his mother out.

He had been burying feelings and people for most of his young life. It had been a nightmarish existence for him as a "half breed" growing up on the border. His Mexican mother forced to support them on her back, bedding men and singing in cantinas, while his white "gringo" father was a rich California rancher.

He had survived despite insurmountable odds. He had been fighting in the streets since before he was six years old. He had starved, been stabbed, beaten by his mother's men as well as strangers, and had been jailed for the first of many times, before he was twelve, for stealing food. Once he evolved as a gunfighter, people left him alone unless they had a death wish.

Now, at the end of this road, lived the man he held responsible for the hell that he and his mother lived. Hurtful feelings were floating to the forefront of his memory. However, for some reason, now he was unable to close the door on them as he usually did. He tried to close the door on them, but this time they seemed to be leaking under the sill.

He took a deep breath and tried to calm himself. Considering that it could be a trap, he decided to do a little reconnaissance before he rode into Lancer for the first time.

He saw guards posted at the ranch's large adobe archway leading up to the surrounding grounds of the ranch house. The archway had the "Lancer" name on the top. The ranch house was a huge sprawling multi-level adobe hacienda. It had several verandas, both upstairs and downstairs. The immediate grounds surrounding the house were of the greenest grass he'd ever seen. There was both a flower garden and a small vegetable garden in the back, near the kitchen. Posted in the bell tower located at one of the corners of the structure was another guard. There was a barn and another building he wasn't certain of, but it didn't seem to be used.

From the looks of things, either the old man was being cautious or he expected trouble. He felt certain it was the latter. Either way, he didn't think the old man would arrange to have him shot by a ranch hand, and decided to take a chance.

The waning late afternoon sun left him cold. He was used to the hot sun in Mexico. He pulled out his black bolero jacket with the silver trim and put it on. Out of habit, he checked his gun one more time and then mounted his horse.

Just as he had entered Green River, he proceeded at a slow walk down the middle of the lane leading under the archway. The guards there turned out to be Mexican vaqueros. 'Strange,' he thought, his father threw him out for being 'half Mexican;' yet, he seemed to have more Mexican vaqueros than gringo cowboys. They looked him up and down frowning and he knew that they recognized him as a gunfighter.

"What business do you have with Lancer?" their suspicion evident.

"Murdoch Lancer sent for me." He told them, sitting his stilled horse, resting his left arm on his saddle horn and leaning over a little.

"I'm Johnny Madrid." He stared them down.

The two vaqueros swallowed hard, looked at each other, and took a second look at him. Their uncertainty clear, but at the same time, given the trouble, it would seem obvious for the boss to want to hire a gunfighter. Everyone knew that Johnny Madrid was the best. Besides, they knew of Madrid's reputation. With solemn nods, they allowed him to pass under the archway.

He rode with the same steady walk all the way to the ranch house, all senses alert for danger, eyes taking in the massive house, the barn, and other outbuildings. It was a well-maintained property, which emanated wealth and power.

He stopped at the hitching rail outside of the massive wooden door. He closed his eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, and settled his churning stomach. He dismounted slow and confident, draping the reins over the rail.

Standing up straight, he walked to the front door, displaying far more confidence than he felt.

With another deep breath, he raised his left hand and knocked on the door. His right hand rested on the butt of his Colt.

The moment he had lived his life for had arrived.

The door opened, and despite his relaxed posture, he almost jumped out of his skin until he observed the small brunette girl standing in front of him. She was young and somewhat attractive, but still had some growing to do in his opinion. Her mouth dropped open and she looked afraid.

"May I help you?" She stuttered.

"Murdoch Lancer?" he questioned, giving her an up and down sweep with his eyes, a sullen expression on his face. Who was this?

He saw a trace of anger mixed with fear in the girl's eyes after his visual examination of her. He had to hand it to her, she forged ahead, "Might I tell him who's calling?"

"Johnny Madrid."

He wanted to laugh at the girl's expression when he gave his name. She had heard of him.

She motioned to the inside foyer and closed the door behind him.

"Wait here, please."

She scurried to the right and into another room. A few moments later, she returned and waved him towards the great room and disappeared without a word.

He strode into the room, the rhythmic "ching ching, ching ching" of his spurs on the slate floor the only sound other than the ticking of the huge grandfather clock sitting just inside the door of the room.

Feeling inside, as if he was ten years old, but outside, emanating masculine superiority and danger, he looked up to face his father, who rose from behind a large desk, their eyes meeting and maintaining contact even after the older man had made his way around to the front of the desk.

They stared at each other until Johnny came to a stop about ten feet from his father.

Murdoch Lancer rose from his desk, his hands trembling a little. He thought he was prepared for this moment, but he wasn't. He couldn't even remember what he had planned to do or say.

Say? He was speechless.

He stepped around from the desk, using it to brace himself, as in his anxiety, he had jumped up and started around before he had remembered the cane. He leaned, almost sat on the desk for support and stared, for the first time in seventeen years, into the deep blue eyes of his younger son, John.

What was that flash of emotion he saw in his son's eyes, just for a brief moment? Fear, sadness, pain? His son glanced down, removed his hat with his left hand. When those dark blue eyes came up to meet his again, the look he received almost sent him fleeing for a safer position back behind the desk. Pure unadulterated hatred and anger radiated from those deep dark eyes.

Standing before him was a most handsome young man, with wild black hair, a gunfighter's slouch, his gun hand near his gun, insolence and anger written on his face.

His eyes.

His eyes were the same dark blue that he remembered, but they did not hold the effervescent light that he remembered. This was not his baby boy anymore. This was an angry young man, known far and wide, for his success at killing.

He shocked himself when he managed to croak out, "John, welcome home son, please, come closer."

"Why don't you come over here old man?" Johnny's drawl was so soft, that he almost didn't hear him.

Challenging me already.

The thought saddened him, but the disrespect of calling him 'old man' to his face sparked his anger, but he decided to try to quell it with the truth.

"I can't son. I left my cane behind the desk." He turned however, to go back and retrieve it, deciding that it was going to be a man's battle and he didn't feel he could hold his own if he could not physically stand up to his own son.

When he retrieved his cane, he limped back around the desk and asked, "Drink?"

"I only drink when I know the man I'm drinkin' with."

"Well, I want a drink."

He started for the liquor cabinet and stopped in his tracks when he heard,

"Ol' man, you got somethin' to say; Say it." Johnny stepped forward.

This was going to be harder than he thought. He glared at the boy, and continued to the liquor cabinet and poured himself a drink. He wanted to gulp it down, but decided it would look too desperate. He limped back to the desk, sat his drink down, and pulled open a drawer, removing an envelope and slamming it down on the desk.

"A thousand dollars." He called out to his son and sat down behind the desk.

Johnny moved then, striding over with sullen confidence and picked up the envelope, opening it.

"Maybe you'd better count it." He suggested from his seat.

"I plan to." Johnny replied, busy looking at the bills, separating them with his thumb while leaving them in the envelope.

"I want no favors from you. We're strangers to each other, maybe that's my fault and maybe it isn't."

Johnny let out a disbelieving grunt and eyed his father, "Good thing ol' man, I don't do favors"

"If the air needs clearing, then let's clear it." He stood and made his way around the desk and around Johnny, trapping the boy between the desk and himself.

"I met your mother down in Matamoros. She . . . We got married. Two years after that, I awoke one morning, found her gone, and you with her."

"That ain't the way I heard it!"

"I don't care what you heard. It's past. Bad or good, right or wrong, it's past and gone. We're talking about now, what's happening out there, to this ranch."

"What's happening to the ranch?" Johnny clarified.

"Last fall, somebody made off with one of our horses, a stud horse. My Segundo and I, we trailed him to Morro Coyo. We walked right into it. O'Brien was killed and I ended up with this leg that's gone sour on me. Since then, my fences have been cut, beeves stolen, workers frightened off, burned out. Three months ago I had a hundred and fifty vaqueros, now I have eighteen."

"Well then, that's the ranch you're worried about, huh?" Johnny smirked, tucking his hands into the front of his waistband.

Murdoch turned and looked out the large window behind the desk.

"I love this ground more than anything God ever created. I've gotta grey hair for every good blade of grass that you see out there. They're trying to drive me off this place."

"Who?" Johnny looked down after he asked the question.

"You'll hear them called land pirates. That's close enough. Since I was hit, they've taken three other estancias. The only law we got here is pack law, the big dog gets the meat. By summer, they'll own half of this state."

"The big dog gotta name?"

"Pardee."

"Day, Day Pardee."

"You know 'im?"

"Yeah, Yeah, I know 'im. He's a gunfighter, like me, and he's pretty good. Yeah, I'd say you have some kinda trouble ol'man."

Despite his best attempts at imagining what his father would look like, Johnny was not prepared for the sight of him. Dios, he was big. Not just tall, but big. He had planned to walk up to the desk, but when the man stood and started coming around the desk, he stopped in his tracks, a little spooked at the size of him.

He didn't see any resemblance between himself and Lancer. The man had called him son. A word he had longed to be, but at the same time, those three letters fueled the anger that he was trying to hold back. How dare the old bastard.

He was even more outraged at the angry arrogant way the man waved away the past, as if it didn't matter; as if it was all water under the damn. Well, the damn keeping his anger back was ready to break. After all, it had turned out to be just another job offer, yet another range war, sure to be bloody and nasty as it was against an old associate, Day Pardee.

"So, old man, ya want me to help you save your ranch from Day Pardee?" He held the envelope of money in his right hand and slapped it against the palm of his left hand.

"Yes."

He was shocked at his sudden feelings of hurt and disappointment that it was a job offer. What the hell did he really expect?

"Now wait a minute, this is listenin' money. Now all of a sudden, you're talkin' 'bout gun money. Let me tell ya something,' that's extra, that don't come on no lunch."

"I want more than your gun."

"What more?"

"I want your arms and your legs and your guts, if you got any."

Johnny had to smirk at that, "All right, say I come up with all these arms and legs and guts yer talkin' about. What do you come up with?"

"One third."

"Of what?"

"Everything you see out there. One hundred thousand acres, twenty thousand head of beef, the finest compañeros de palominos in the San Joaquin."

Johnny turned to look out the window and then looked back at his father.

"One third, huh? You wouldn't mind puttin' that down on a piece of paper would ya? No offense."

Murdoch pulled out his wallet and withdrew a folded piece of paper. He handed it to Johnny who looked down at it and looked back up at his father.

"Who the hell is Scott Lancer?"

The bell in the tower sounded and there were shouts outside. Both turned and looked out of the French doors. Ranch hands were running and shouting. Johnny threw the paper onto the desk and they headed out the doors, located to the side of the desk.

The hands and other workers were running towards a burning field. Everyone able, men, women, and children, were out in the field trying to stop it from burning. He had no idea why he was helping, but Johnny did. He noticed that the girl who had answered the door was even out there. There was also another young blond gringo, dressed like dandy out fighting the fire as well.

It was soon clear that the fire was out of control and could not be defeated despite their best efforts. Murdoch halted the rescue efforts with a "Let it burn." He put his arm around the young girl, who he called Teresa, and they walked back to the house together. Scott and Johnny followed, each wondering about the identity of the other, but neither attempted to start an introduction.

Johnny was watching the fancy gringo out of the corner of his eye. He felt certain that he had to be Scott Lancer. He looked about his same age, and he was tall, like the ol' man, carried himself in an arrogant way like the old man.

Yep, that was it. The old man had had another son, one who was more acceptable to him, one he could be proud of and not a half breed. A son he had loved and cherished while he and his mother had almost starved in Mexico.

Scott had probably wanted for nothing, while he himself, lived in a nightmare of violence that ended with his being alone and on his own since the age of ten. He looked down at his boots, squeezing his eyes shut, hating himself for feeling hurt. He stole a second glance at the golden boy and wanted to throw up.

What's wrong with me? Why do I even care?

Once inside, Johnny and Murdoch returned to the great room. Scott went into the kitchen with Teresa, and took the backstairs to his room to clean up.

Scott felt certain the stranger was Johnny, but one look at him and he decided that he'd honor his father's request to wait and allow him to introduce them. His father wanted to speak with Johnny alone first, and he could see the fairness of it, he had had the advantage of such.

All the same, he couldn't help but wonder about the dark dangerous looking caballero. Was that boy really his brother? He looked too young to be a gunfighter. Now he understood what his father had meant the previous evening about wanting him for a brother. He had still felt an overwhelming urge to make his introduction, but hadn't.

"I think I'll have that drink now." Johnny threw his hat onto the sofa and walked straight to the liquor cabinet. He poured himself a whiskey after noting that there was no tequila. He downed it immediately, and then a second, and then a third with which he sat down on the sofa, pushing his shaggy hair out of his face with his hand. He wanted to get the details worked out so he could start planning, and get his mind off the feelings that kept working their way into his consciousness and unleashing disconcerting emotions.

Murdoch poured himself a glass of water from a pitcher on the corner of his desk and sat down in a large stuffed chair across from the sofa, contemplating his 'baby boy.' God, how he wanted to just wrap his arms around him and not let go, but one look into those eyes and he knew he'd best not even come close.

Maybe he'd made a mistake, but he had to know, and this was his chance. It was too late now. The boy had seen the partnership agreement. He couldn't go back on it, at least not for now.

"So, we left off with the piece of paper you were showing me."

Johnny leaned back against the sofa and took control. The whiskey and the exhaustion from fighting the fire had dulled his previous sensitivity.

"Well son, there's something else we need to discuss before that."

"Like what?" Here goes the catch, knew there was one.

"The other members of this family."

"Oh yeah, like who the hell Scott Lancer is, and of course, the little lady. Ya like 'em young, huh, ol' man?" He gave him a knowing grin and watched for reaction.

"Teresa's not my wife. She's my ward. She was O'Brien's daughter." Murdoch snapped. "How dare you make such an allusion."

Johnny gave a slight nod to acknowledge and waited. One down and one to go.

Murdoch stood up abruptly and hobbled to the bar to pour himself a whiskey. He returned to his seat with the bottle, setting it on the table between them.

Johnny watched him bring the bottle and decided that the news to come would not be to his liking. He crossed his right ankle over his left leg. With his drink in his right hand, he began spinning his spur with his left. It was an unconscious habit, but he looked up and could tell it was annoying Murdoch by the look on the older man's face. He continued the action for that very reason.

"I was married before I met and married your mother. My first wife, Catherine, she, well, she died during childbirth. She gave birth to a boy. He survived. So you see, John, you have an older brother."

Johnny did not move. Shit, shit, shit, he is my brother? Well, half-brother. Thinking a thing and knowing a thing were two different emotions he quickly learned. The knowing was a far deeper one.

During his younger years, he had yearned for a big brother to beat up all the bullies that had tortured him, and to watch his back. Now, he had no need for one. He watched his own back and took care of himself with no real need for help. Besides, his brother was the golden boy, living the life of a rich rancher's son as he was born, while, Johnny, the little black sheep, had been living the life everyone felt he deserved.

When he had control of his emotions, he looked up at his father, the heat from his eyes enough to melt the man to his seat. He sipped his whiskey, thankful for the burning that helped him remain in control. He took a deep breath and let it out before he spoke.

"So all this time I been down on the border, my brother's been living here?" he hated the way the question sounded, whiny, like a kid. This was hard, the unexpected pang of jealousy was about to overcome him. The feelings he had buried so long ago, were a rising tide against his resolve, the waves of emotion coming in higher, harder, slamming against barriers that seemed to cracking.

"No. . . . . . . No, Scott, that's your brother, was raised by his grandfather back east. Until two days ago, I have seen him once, when he was five years old."

Well, I'll be damned. He ain't raised either of his kids.

"I take it that fancy blond fella I saw outside is him?"

"Yes, that's Scott," It was the first time Murdoch smiled, "He's come home for the same reasons you have."

"The money?" Johnny stared at his father who looked gut shot at his statement.

Johnny looked down, staring at his drink, still twirling the spur. Dios! How had he let himself get into this mess? The hour was long gone and he was still sitting here and hadn't even confronted his father. Hadn't so much as thought about drawing his gun, telling him how he felt, how he didn't give a damn about this ranch, his brother, or even the old man himself.

"I see. Is that the only reason you came?" Murdoch was determined not to give up, not just yet, but he'd be dammed if he'd let this insolent little bastard intimidate him. Damn, if the boy hadn't grown up to look just like Maria. He had her mannerisms and there was no doubting he had her hot temper. She had a mouth on her as well.

"Why? You think I'd come out of love for you Ol' Man?" Johnny looked into his father's eyes. "I don't even know you. This is just another job for me. That is, if I take it." Johnny looked down again and ran his hand through his untamed mass of black hair. He looked up and at the same time, shook his hair out of his face.

Murdoch realized Johnny must be tired after traveling all the way from Mexico, and after fighting the fire, he was filthy. The boy didn't look all that healthy either. He was thin and hungry looking. After fighting the fire, he was tired himself, so it made sense.

"How' bout I show you to your room and you can rest and clean up some before dinner. We can talk about the agreement tonight, the three of us. You are planning on staying, I mean at least for the night?"

Johnny started to mouth off again, but decided that he would like to check things out. The best way he could do that was to stay. Besides, his curiosity was up and he was itching to know his brother's story. Seemed the old man had two sons he'd never taken care of. At least he wasn't making him sleep in the bunkhouse, or the barn. He let out a heavy breath before he answered.

"I guess so."

Murdoch hobbled beside his son as they headed up the stairs. He didn't miss the fact that Johnny waited for him on each step, even though he never touched him or offered to help him. He stood there sipping on his whiskey being careful to keep his distance from him. He felt sweaty just being near the boy, whose presence seemed to radiate heat.

Once on the second floor, Murdoch stopped by the first door on the right hand side. He pointed down the hall with his cane, "Your room is the next door down on this side. It's just how you left it seventeen years ago." With that, he opened the door to his own room, "Dinner is served at six sharp."

Murdoch entered his room and closed the door behind him, leaving Johnny staring at the door.

Johnny stood outside his father's door for a few more moments before he walked down the hall to his room. His cocky walk giving no indication at the feelings inside him after hearing his father say that the room was "how he left it." Dios, he had had a room here ?

For him, this visit to the house and with his father was like visiting for the first time with a stranger. To think that he had been born here, had lived here, and in the same room he was heading towards, gave him an uneasy feeling.

Stopping at the door, he stared at it for a moment before he reached out to turn the knob. He noticed a slight tremble in his hand. Damn, Madrid, get a hold on yourself. Grabbing the knob and turning it, he pushed the door open and stood on the threshold.

He wasn't sure what he had expected. No ghosts jumped out at him, but he was spooked for sure. He stepped in cautiously, then turned and closed the door, sitting his unfinished whiskey on the dresser. Turning back, arms akimbo, he took in the sight of his room. His room. He stared at the four blue walls, taking in the four-poster bed, the stuffed Queen Anne's chair in the corner, the dark dresser with a mirror, the armoire, and the washstand. For the most part, it was a man's room, but there were some hand carved toys sitting on the bureau.

He noticed his saddlebags resting over the chair. He supposed the hand that had put his horse up for him after the fire had brought them up. Removing his gun belt, he hung it over the bedpost for close proximity once he decided to lie down. He took off his jacket and threw it over the saddlebags on the chair. He sat down and pulled off his boots, spurs ringing as they bounced across the floor where he tossed them.

At the washstand, he unbuttoned his shirt and washed off as much soot as he could. When he was finished, he walked over to the bed and sat down. Again, he looked around trying to remember something, anything, about the room. He couldn't.

He also was unable to get the words out of his head, 'I awoke one morning to find her gone and you with her.' As much as he didn't believe him, the fact was, his mother had never been able to stay in one place too long, nor with one man.

He stood up and walked over to the armoire. Pulling the doors open, he felt as if Satan himself had grabbed him by the balls. He was hot, cold, numb, and nauseous all within the span of a second.

Hanging there were clothes. A little boy's clothes. His clothes. He reached in and pulled out a tiny white shirt. It had embroidery on the front, similar to what he was wearing. He drew his fingers across it, feeling its softness. He touched it to his cheek, and even sniffed it, yet no memories surfaced, just painful feelings.

Hanging the shirt back, he pulled open the top drawer with a trembling hand and swallowed hard. Stored there was a tiny pair of black cowboy boots with tiny silver Conchos on them.

Picking them up, he felt the softness of the leather. He turned them in his hands and saw the tiny initials, 'JL' burned inside the tops. He almost went to his knees he felt so weak. It was too much.

Overwhelmed with raging emotion, he threw the boots across the room and threw himself on the bed, clutching a pillow to his stomach, his breaths coming short and hard. He lay there rocking, trying to get control of himself.

Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck, what am I gonna do? When he saw those boots, he knew that something was wrong with his story. What had his mother done? What had really happened between her and the old man in the next room? Why hadn't she told him about his brother? Surely, she knew. If the old man had thrown them out, didn't want a 'breed' for a son, why would he keep his clothes? Why would he have Pinkertons looking for him for, did the agent really say, years?

He jumped up, anger and frustration trying to vent, with nowhere to go. He reached over to the bureau where he had sat his whiskey when he walked in the door. He downed it, sitting the glass back down, noticing a little wooden horse. It appeared to be hand carved and had a blonde mane and tail made out of horsehair; white blonde horsehair, like a palomino.

Picking it up, he took it over to the bed with him. He lay down and curled up on his side, pillow clutched to his stomach, the little horse in his other hand. He stroked its blonde mane, trying to remember, something, anything from his childhood at Lancer.

The loud knock and the door opening were simultaneous.

The sound awakened Johnny from his heavy sleep. Seeing the door opening, he sat up and snatched his Colt from the holster.

Although disoriented, he cocked and pointed the pistol with precision, at his father, standing in the doorway. The toy horse flew off the bed and hit the floor.

Murdoch stumbled backwards and almost fell as Johnny yelled out, "God damn it, ol'man! You scared the shit out of me!"

"Watch your language in my house boy! Just what the hell are you doing with that gun?" Murdoch roared, loud enough to make Johnny flinch.

"I, well," Johnny looked down, "nothin', I didn't know it was you, I was asleep."

He un-cocked the weapon and slid it back into its holster.

Murdoch drank in his son sitting on the bed. Half-dressed, fresh from sleep, hair mussed, the boy looked, well, wild. The reality was that his son was wild, as wild and dangerous as the mountain lions that roamed the ranch. God in heaven, what had he done, bringing him here?

Johnny looked up at his father. Murdoch saw a range of emotion in those eyes. He was not certain what they were, but he was certain it was not the hate and anger he had seen earlier, and for that, he was grateful.

Johnny rubbed his eyes and then ran his hand through his out of control hair. In that movement, Murdoch saw the two year old that he remembered and his heart grabbed at him.

"Well?" Johnny asked, staring at him, jarring him from his thoughts.

"I, well, I thought that you might want to join Scott and me for a drink before dinner. That way, I could introduce you two and maybe you'd be more comfortable at dinner."

"A drink, huh?" he paused, "Yeah, I reckon I could use one. I'll be down in a few minutes."

"We'll be waiting for you." Murdoch turned and pulled the door closed. Johnny remained seated on the bed, listening to the uneven steps of his father fading away.

Damn, that was close! He shook his head and laughed. Guess the old bastard won't be bargin' in here no more.

He stood and stretched. He felt a little better after his nap. He picked up the wooden horse, gave it another long look, and placed it on the bedside table. He liked it. He wondered if the old man had noticed it. He hoped not.

He picked up his shirt and noticed how sooty it was. He doubted he'd be welcome at dinner in that. He went to his saddlebags and pulled out his other shirt. It was his favorite of the two. It was bright red. He wiped his calzoneras and boots off as best he could with the brush he had in his saddlebags for his horse, and a wet cloth.

When he was finished, he washed his face, ran both hands through his hair, taming it a bit, and pulled on his boots and his jacket. He closed his eyes for a moment, took a long deep breath, and calmed himself. He needed some answers and the way to get them was to stay at Lancer, at least for a little while.

Murdoch and Scott were downstairs in the great room standing near the French doors when they heard Johnny's spurs keeping time with his walk. They heard him start down the stairs and could see him through the doorway from their vantage point, as he descended.

Scott turned to get a better preview. He had thought earlier that his brother was a flashy dresser, but never in his days had he seen a man wear a red shirt. Combined with the black calzoneras, and the jacket with the silver braid, his brother was a sight. The one thing plain about the boy was the smooth, well-oiled gun belt, buckled tight, and tied down low.

Murdoch watched his younger son as he descended the stairs, looking every bit the feared gunfighter he was. He couldn't read the expression on his face, but considered for a moment, that his son didn't have the dead eyes that most of the other gunfighters he had seen, had, even when he seemed to show no emotion.

His young son was a striking picture in the attire of a gunfighter. Johnny's reputation with women was also legend. For that reason, Murdoch and Teresa had had a long chat earlier in the afternoon about both of his sons, but Johnny, in particular. He was not about to allow a wild boy like this one sow his oats with his ward, not as long as there was a drop of blood in him. She would remain chaste until she married.

Johnny crossed the threshold into the great room taking in his family. Noting some similarities between the two besides their height, he felt like the black sheep in more than one way. That didn't stop his cocky walk as he strode across the room meeting them somewhere in the middle near the bar.

For a fleeting moment, the three stood poised in silence. Murdoch broke it with the introduction, "Scott I'd like you to meet your brother, John; John, your brother Scott."

Scott smiled and began to reach out for a handshake. Johnny looked at him and nodded, tucking his hands in his waistband. He made no move to shake hands. "John, I'm very, very happy to meet you. I must say, I was surprised to find that I had a younger brother."

Scott maintained his poise, despite his brother's refusal to shake hands. "Let me get you a drink." He moved towards the bar.

"Probably not as surprised as I was to find out I had an older brother." Johnny accepted the whiskey his brother had poured for him, giving his father a glare. "I go by Johnny."

"Well, Johnny, it seems we have something in common then." Scott said as he refreshed Murdoch's and his drinks. The two boys looked at their father, all with drinks in hand.

"Gentlemen, a moment like this calls for a toast. To my sons, home at last."

The three raised their glasses together, the two younger men, a bit hesitantly. Johnny and Scott, standing opposite of each other exchanged a look of mutual understanding, a tiny seed of bonding, planted.

Neither was certain of anything of the kind, and, despite their differences, they were on equal ground with the old man who had sired them.

Johnny looked up at the appearance of the young girl, Teresa, and an older Mexican woman, who came to the door of the great room. Murdoch saw his attention diverted, turned and greeted them, "Ladies come on in. I want to introduce you."

"Johnny, this is Teresa O'Brien, and Maria Sanchez. As I told you, Teresa is my ward, and Maria is our cook."

Johnny gave Teresa a sultry smile and took her hand, gave a small bow, and kissed it. Murdoch saw Teresa's blush and goose bumps appeared on her arms, and frowned.

Johnny turned to the older woman and reached for her hand. He looked into her eyes and saw tears streaming down her face. He took her hand in both of his and stepped towards her, pulling her hand against his chest. "Señora, don't cry. I won't hurt you." His voice was soft and tender.

"No, Juanito. I am not afraid. I have missed you. I have missed my niño so much. I am so happy you are home where you belong." She broke down. Johnny removed one hand from hers and pulled her to him in a hug, looking over her shoulder at Murdoch with a confused expression on his face.

"Maria was my cook even before I married Scott's mother. She was your baby sitter."

Scott pulled out a handkerchief and handed it to Johnny. By this time, Maria had gained some of control over her tears, and pulled away from Johnny's chest. He dabbed her face with gentle strokes, and flashed a wicked grin that grew as she took the handkerchief. Murdoch stood with his mouth open as he observed Johnny's gentleness with her.

Maria had gotten a hold on her emotions, and when she saw Johnny's impish grin, she stood tall, raised her head a little and said with arrogance, "Now, Juanito, you must eat! You are too thin!" She poked him in the ribs with her index finger and turned on her heel, headed for the dinning room.

Johnny jumped in reaction to the unexpected poke. Both Murdoch and Scott bit back chuckles at the expression on Johnny's face.

Teresa looked at the three of them. "Well, I guess Maria's ready to serve."

Scott motioned with his hand for her to proceed ahead of them. Scott followed with Johnny behind him.

Murdoch paused, watching his family makes its way into the dining room for the first time ever.

Dinner was still tense as the three men and one young woman were still new to each other, so they stuck to the one topic they could not ignore, Day Pardee and his prior attempts to take over Lancer.

Johnny was happy to have them discuss Pardee's actions, as he could ask a question and rake in a lot of food while Murdoch answered. Sometimes, Scott would ask questions too, giving him time to eat more. He was ravenous and ate his fair share of the prime rib, mashed potatoes, and the green beans.

He drank the wine placed in front of him with his dinner; however, what he wanted was a big glass of milk. He'd had enough alcohol for one day. He wasn't much of a drinker. Not only was it not a safe habit in his profession, but with so many feelings stirring inside him, he knew that mixed with his temper, the alcohol would be dangerous for all of them.

He had two pieces of the chocolate cake Maria had made for dessert, with a cup of coffee. He only thought he was getting away with eating so much. Everyone at the table saw how much food he put away.

Murdoch didn't know whether to be pleased or hurt that his son was so hungry.

Scott observed that while Johnny didn't have the worst table manners he had ever seen, he did see some room for improvement. His appetite and manners reminded him of some of the soldiers that had returned from the prison camps where they suffered from starvation.

Teresa saw how hungry he was and vowed that she and Maria would see that he got full for once in his life.

Back in the kitchen, Maria was humming; something she hadn't done in the seventeen years since the other Maria had taken her niño away. He was hungry and thin and she would fatten him like a calf.

Relieved when they got up to go to the great room, Johnny declined the after dinner brandy offered to him by his father. He wanted to get the details of his payment clarified. The old man sure wasn't gonna just turn over a third of this spread to him.

His head told him to say 'no' and ride out at first light, knowing there was nothing but hurt to come of this, but deep inside his heart, knew that he would not, could not, turn the old man down. If he did, Pardee would kill them all, and he'd have no chance to know the truth about what happened between his parents.

Like a moth to a flame, he felt himself drawn into the fire. The closer he got, the more he was burning, but he couldn't stop himself. It wasn't in his nature.

Murdoch picked up the agreement from his desk, "Equal shares to each of us, but I call the tune."

He handed it to Scott, who was seeing it for the first time. He and Johnny had settled on opposite ends of the couch. Scott was reclined in his elegant manner, drink in hand, reading the agreement.

Johnny was slouched in his corner, right leg crossed over his left knee, head resting on his right hand, his elbow propped on the arm of the couch, spinning the rowel of his spur, ignoring the look of irritation on Murdoch's face.

While he looked as if he could care less, he wanted to lean over and snatch the paper out of Scott's hand, and finish reading what he had started earlier.

When Scott did hand it to him, he tried to refrain from looking as desperate as he felt. He took his time reading it. It was straightforward and not difficult to understand. He could read and write English, but he hadn't much formal education.

If he and Scott helped their father defend the ranch from Pardee, he would divide the ranch into three shares and make them equal owners and partners. His eyes wandered to the bottom where the signatures were to be.

Holding the document up towards his father, he said, "You didn't sign it."

Murdoch stepped over and took the paper from him. "Nothing for nothing. You'll get your share of this ranch when you've proved to me you're man enough to hold it."

"When's that?" Johnny snapped.

"When you get the man that put the bullet in my back!"

"Pardee."

"That's the one."

"Well lemme tell ya ol'man, you wanna lot."

"Take it or leave it."

Murdoch was looking back and forth between the two of them. Scott stood, "I've already given you my answer."

"What about you, boy?" Murdoch looked at him.

Johnny slouched back on the sofa in aggravation, took a deep breath, and spun his spur rowel hard, letting out the breath with, "I'd hate to see my property go up in flames."

Murdoch and Scott exchanged looks and smiled.

"Gentlemen, this calls for a toast." Murdoch refreshed his and Scott's glasses, and poured a brandy for Johnny and handed it to him. Scott stood with his drink. Murdoch smiled and said, "To the future of Lancer, my sons!"

The three glasses met, Murdoch grinning like a Cheshire cat, Scott with a cautious smile, and Johnny, a glimpse of a smile. Everyone took a sip of brandy. As soon as he was finished, Johnny sat the half-full snifter down and looked at the two, "I think I'll turn in now. Been a long day."

He nodded at them and then headed for the stairs, his spurs marking time to the steady confident rhythm of his walk.

Upstairs, he closed the door to his room, leaned against it, looking down and shaking his head. Pushing off the door, he took off his gun belt and hung it over the post of the bed. He pulled off his jacket and shirt, tossing them over on the chair. Sitting on the bed, he removed his boots and socks and tossed them on the floor. He stood, removed his pants and tossed them on the floor as well.

He got into the bed and pulled the covers over himself. Leaning over to turn out the lamp, he looked at the wooden horse again. He ran his finger over the white blonde mane before reaching up and turning out the lamp.

Chapter 5

Johnny was up early the next morning by his standards, but he was eager to get things moving. It was risky waiting for the next attack. If Pardee had started burning the fields, it wouldn't be much longer before he came in for the kill.

It was time to find out what his brother was like. The best way to do that was to annoy him, push him. Goading was something in which he excelled. It was the main way to force a gunfight, win it, and walk away, all nice and legal.

Scott's room was across the hall from his. Hearing him stirring inside, he opened the door, smirking as he remembered the incident with his father the day before. Scott was shaving as he barged into the room, and turned with an annoyed look and told him, "Come right in."

He stood in the doorway, one boot on, shirt over his shoulder, and leaning against the doorframe, pulled on his other boot.

Scott approached him, crossing the room in a pair of plaid riding pants like nothing he'd ever seen before, and an undershirt. He pulled on his own shirt and he entered into the room.

"Sleep well?" Scott asked, seeing the dark circles under Johnny's eyes.

"I always sleep well." He lied as he walked towards a small reading table and spied a familiar gold piece placed on the table. He never slept well and certainly hadn't last night.

"Well now, will ya look at this." He picked up the coin and fondled it, "They're all over the place."

Scott questioned "What?" looking over his shoulder as Johnny continued to add, "This, this twenty dollar gold piece. Found one in my room too."

Showing it to Scott who was striding back across the room, wiping his face with a towel, "Like guest money, ya know, saves ya from havin' to ask for a loan." He held the coin towards Scott, who did not take it but looked at him and commented, "Nice custom," as he continued past him in his cool manner.

Uncertain of the meaning of Scott's reaction, he pulled his hand back towards himself.

"Teaches ya somethin'."

"What's that?" Scott continued to dress.

"Never pass up a twenty dollar gold piece." He flipped it up in the air a time or two, letting it land on the top of his hand.

"Help yourself, it's yours."

"Thank you." He tucked the money in his shirt pocket as Scott added, "A third of it anyway."

Seeing a strange looking hat with a leopard skin headband, Johnny couldn't resist picking it up. Scott sure has strange taste. People thought gunfighters were fancy dressers . . . .

"Talkin' 'bout that piece of paper he showed us?" Johnny asked.

Scott remained silent, so he continued to the mirror and tried the hat on sideways. "Let me tell ya somethin' 'bout paper, touch a match to it and it burns right up."

Scott was moving clothes into one of the drawers of his bureau from his valise, "You don't give the old man too much credit, do you?"

He leaned against the wall next to his brother, hat on his head, shirt still unbuttoned, revealing the St. Sebastian's medal against his bare chest. Looking down as he placed his hand on the top corner of the bureau, he added, "Well, I tell ya, I don't give anybody too much credit; saves a lot of disappointment."

He pushed away from the wall, and walked over to sit on the edge of the bed, putting the hat down and picking up a framed photograph. It was of Scott in a Union army uniform standing with another Union army officer.

"Well, will you look at that? Hey, who's this other officer all smarted up?"

Scott looked at him, "General Phil Sheridan. I was in his unit during the war."

"You're very pretty."

Scott left the bureau to walk around to the other side of the bed adding, "I photograph well."

Johnny rolled over on the bed to reach the other side, legs up in the air, careful to keep his boots and spurs off the bedcovers. "Yeah you are a pretty snappy dresser at that."

Scott sat down in the chair across from him to pull on his boots.

"What kind of a unit you say that was?"

The sudden opening of the door and Teresa announcing, "Good morning", interrupted them. Scott threw his boot up in the air. "Doesn't anyone around here ever knock when they enter a room?" He stood up, arms akimbo, trying to make her understand her lack of manners.

She continued barging into the room, ignoring his serious tone, "Oh, think of me like a sister."

"Hey, Cipriano's cut out some horses for you. He's waiting in the corral."

"You tell him, I'll be right down." Johnny looked back at her, talking over his shoulder.

She picked up a bowler of Scott's, fondled it, and while putting it down, added a disapproving look as she left, closing the door behind her, "We're gonna have to buy you some new clothes for living around here."

"What's wrong with my clothes?" Scott waved at his wardrobe draped across the chair.

"Well, I mean, if you're plannin' on stayin' in these parts," Johnny stood up and approached his brother, indicating the plaid pants, "well, that just ain't the style."

Grabbing up more clothes to take over to hang in the armoire, Scott told him, "Of course I'm planning to stay."

Looking down in thought, he crossed the room to the door, playing with his shirttails and stopped at the door.

"Well look, I tell ya," he started, his voice soft as he searched his mind for the right words.

"Get it said brother!" Scott interrupted.

Johnny looked up, surprised at the tone his brother used, "Just this, what I got in mind is pretty much of a one man deal."

With that, Scott smiled back, "Now you're gonna make me feel left out of things if you're not careful."

"Better left out, than in the ditch, with ants crawlin' across your eyeballs." He turned and smiled back, "That don't photograph too well."

Chapter 6

Johnny went downstairs to meet with Cipriano, his father's Segundo. His father had told him and Scott last night at dinner that he would give them each a horse. Johnny was anxious to see what he could find to replace the black horse. It had been a decent mount for the trip, but had some age on it.

In the main corral, the Segundo had close to ten horses. There was one tied outside the corral that Cipriano had told him was for Scott. It was a very quiet mount since Scott's riding ability was in question.

Johnny looked over the horses in the corral. All were very nice animals. However, a palomino stood out to him. The young stallion was in charge of the group and seemed very agitated.

"I like that one." He told the older man, who shook his head.

"Señor Johnny, that horse is not broken. He is in the corral by mistake. Señor Lancer told me to turn him loose. He thinks he is dangerous as several of my best men have been injured trying to break him."

"I still like him. Any reason I can't have him?"

"None, if you can break him."

"Well, you leave that to me." Johnny untied his holster and began unbuckling his gun belt with a practiced ease, while his eyes never left the horse. He hung the rig over a fence post while Cipriano indicated for one of the hands to catch the stallion.

The seasoned vaquero deftly lassoed the stallion and tied him to a post inside the corral, while another one opened a gate allowing the rest of the horses to move into another larger corral with more horses.

Johnny climbed the fence and took a slow walk towards the golden creature. The stallion flung his head, his white blonde mane as wild and untamed as Johnny's own hair. Stomping his front feet, he began snatching his head and pulling on the rope that attached him to the post.

As he neared the horse, it turned its head and looked at him with wide wild brown eyes. It raised its nose high in the air and let out an ear shattering challenge. A head toss and a snort followed by another paw at the ground.

Johnny stopped a few feet away and began speaking quietly in Spanish. Soon, he had the horse's complete attention and it had calmed. Its eyes turned soft and focused on him.

He continued to croon in his native language and moved closer to the horse. Standing next to it, he reached out and gave it a gentle touch on the neck. It flinched, but didn't move. His voice still soft, he began to slide his hand around on its body, taking his time and watching for any signs of fear.

By the time he was able to touch the stallion's head, a crowd had formed around the corral, vaqueros leaving their morning chores to watch him. Teresa had also joined them, sitting atop the corral fence, next to the post holding Johnny's gun belt.

Johnny had managed to pet the horse all over and it was butting him with its head when he stopped. Johnny freed the horse from the lasso and it took off running around and around the corral. The crowd by the fence grew and the vaqueros whispered to each other that the young gunfighter had 'the gift.' He was a horse whisperer, a mustañero.

Johnny and the stallion played a game of tag it might seem to some. Johnny chased the stallion and then would turn and walk away, causing the majestic animal to seek him and his attention.

Johnny nodded to a vaquero who stood with a saddle and bridle next to him on the fence. Johnny eased over towards the man, who handed it to Johnny in a slow and quiet manner.

Johnny and the stallion met up with each other again, the stallion moving towards him and dancing away at the sight and scent of the bridle. They continued to play the game, until the stallion decided to trust his new friend.

After sniffing and snorting over the bridle, he allowed Johnny to touch him with it and rub it around on his body, and with time, allowed him to touch his head with it. Moments after that action, the stallion allowed Johnny to slip the bridle over his head.

The stallion took off and ran around, the rope reins tied around his neck. He ran, bucked, and snorted until he became comfortable with the apparatus.

Johnny walked over to the vaquero and took the saddle from him. He carried it over to the middle of the corral and chucked it on the ground. Again, the stallion danced his dance of uncertainty, but did, in the end, come over and sniff the object on the ground. He continued to do this with Johnny's continued support of soft Spanish and soft touches.

Johnny lifted the saddle blanket and the horse jumped backwards, but came forwards just as fast, returning to sniff the object in Johnny's hands. From there, it wasn't long before Johnny was rubbing the animal all over with the blanket.

Next came the saddle. It was more difficult, but he allowed the horse to sniff it and it wasn't long before he had the saddle on the horse's back. After the final tightening of the cinch, the horse bolted off, bucking for all he was worth. He stopped, in the middle, next to Johnny, sides heaving.

While the stallion was getting his wind back, Johnny continued to talk in quiet tones and touch him with reassuring massages. He began tugging at the saddle, the stallion not moving, but flinching a few times.

After checking the cinch again, Johnny began by leaning on the horse, placing his arms over the saddle, leaning against the side of the animal. Johnny did this many times before he ventured to put the weight of his foot in the stirrup. He took his time, putting weight in the stirrup and then removing the weight.

Two hours had passed and the crowd was still growing, anxious to see what would happen when Johnny mounted the fiery animal. When he did, it was graceful and soft, indicative of the athleticism he possessed.

Johnny sat there on his golden horse quiet and relaxed, waiting. Waiting for the animal to realize what had just happened. He hadn't wanted to go so fast with the horse, would have liked to work with it for a few days at least before he did this, but he felt his time was short, as he needed to get down to business with Day Pardee.

It seemed as if nature had stopped. There was near complete silence as work around the ranch halted. All the hands were watching him, as well as Teresa, and Maria from the kitchen. Not a sound made nor a breath taken by his audience as they awaited the action to come.

Then it came, the moment that he and his audience awaited. He felt the stallion tense and then animal slung its head, rocked back on its haunches, and launched forward and up. When it landed, it was on its front feet and had managed to get its head down.

The stallion bucked hard. Johnny sat him, but did not try to spur him on. Around and around the corral they went, bucking, twisting, and leaping. During this time, Scott had come out to stand near Teresa at the fence.

Murdoch Lancer drove up to the corral in his buggy. He had seen the crowd as he neared the ranch and stopped to see what was happening. He was surprised to see his younger son was the center of attention and it wasn't a gunfight. He didn't know what to make of the scene in front of him and had mixed emotions about the event.

His lost boy was riding that crazy palomino that he had told Cipriano to get rid of. Any minute he expected the boy thrown and injured. At the same time, he felt an enormous amount of pride as the hands had gathered to watch and were cheering him on; cheering for Johnny Madrid. He knew that word would have spread like wildfire after he advised Cipriano of this fact last night.

As the horse stopped bucking, standing exhausted, sides heaving, it dawned upon him that his son was a damned good rider.

Johnny allowed a brief break and then squeezed the stallion, encouraging him to walk, then trot, and then canter about the corral. He rode over to where Teresa was sitting on the top rail of the fence, yelling, "That's wonderful, Johnny, you broke him." She was clapping her hands together, as Johnny dismounted the animal, and taking his gun belt from the post.

Scott made a comment and Johnny's response was that it was a fine animal. Scott climbed over the fence and mounted the horse as Johnny protested,

"Hey, whadya think you're doin'? I wouldn't do that if I were you."

Scott kicked the stallion into a gallop and headed for the corral fence. Two vaqueros ducked as the stallion jumped the fence. He then directed the animal towards a wagon and jumped it, turning and jumping back into the corral, stopping in front of Johnny who had a huge grin on his face.

Murdoch also witnessed this and wondered about his oldest. It was clear they had underestimated his ability to ride, but at the same time, jumping the fences and the wagon seemed more the kind of behavior he would have expected of Johnny.

Dismounting, Scott commented to Johnny, "You're right, it is a fine animal. And, in answer to your question earlier, it was a cavalry unit I was in."

"Well, I say one thing, Boston, you do know how to ride. You scared the pants off those cowhands. Didn't he?" He looked at Teresa, and then back at Scott, "But that don't make you ready for Day Pardee. You're liable to get a bullet in the back." Johnny's drawl was soft and serious as he put on his gun belt and placed his jacket in front of the saddle horn, across the horse's neck.

"There seems to be a whole lot of back shooting going around. What happened to the code of the West?"

"That's just it. Ya gotta do it to them before they do it to you."

Johnny turned back, grabbed Scott by the front of his shirt, and shoved him against the fence.

"Next time you touch my horse, I'm gonna bust you up real good. You could have fucked up everything I worked for today." Johnny's voice was as quiet, and controlled as it had been with the horse, but deadly in its tone.

Scott gave his new brother a look of understanding. "I hear you, brother, loud and clear."

His eyes maintained contact with Johnny's but something in his younger sibling's ice-cold deep blue eyes made a shiver run along his spine.

Johnny let go and mounted up. He steered the horse to face Scott and Teresa who had a frightened look on her face.

"I'll see you all later," he said as he reined the horse back.

"Where shall I tell Mr. Lancer you're going?" Teresa called out as he turned away.

He turned the horse back and replied, "Tell him I've gone to break up one of them twenty dollar gold pieces." He turned the horse and rode away, leaving behind a speechless Teresa and Scott.

Chapter 7

Morro Coyo was closer to the ranch than Green River. Murdoch had told him that Pardee was holed up there. He and Scott had agreed last night to call the old man by his first name since they were all adults and would be business partners. Father, Pa, or Daddy just didn't work for them.

Johnny snorted to himself. They had each already developed their own terms for their sire. Scott seemed to be in the habit of calling him "Sir" most of the time, while Johnny favored, "Old Man."

Riding into town, he noticed that the streets were rather empty. Many of the shops were open, but there were quite a few boarded up. As he made his way down the street, he felt certain that he had found Pardee. He heard shots and heard a Mexican voice begging.

He came upon the old man carrying two water buckets on a yoke. Dismounting his new horse, he reassured the man with quiet words. He took one of the water buckets and as he walked down the street with it, one of the men on the porch of the saloon shot it.

He stepped over and tied the palomino to the railing, hoping he would remain there. He had a ways to go to reach the skirmish, but felt it best to leave the horse in a quieter place.

He sauntered towards the group of men sitting and standing around the doors to the saloon like vultures in a tree. Seeing how they wore their guns and the brazen way they were treating the old man, he knew he had hit the jackpot. He didn't recognize any of them.

"Just what do you want?" A tall, solidly built, and neatly dressed man approached him.

"You got bad manners."

"Wanna teach us some good ones?" The one dressed in a black suit and hat smoking a cigar asked.

"Maybe." His voice soft.

Well, well, well, I do believe we got us a hard one here, huh?" A portly, bearded Irishman, sitting in a chair observed.

"Let's see how long it takes to make a good dog out of you." The unrecognized gunfighter spoke up.

"Okay." Johnny agreed.

"That's my water. Bring it here."

Johnny glared at the man who looked over at his bearded friend and laughed.

"Dog wont fetch, it's gotta be taught."

The gunfighter walked down the two steps and a few more, stopping in front of him.

"Now hand me that water Mister. I mean to have that for my tub."

"Doubt it."

"Oh do you now."

"Unless they got bathtubs in hell."

"What's that?" he started to speak but stopped, as Johnny threw the bucket of water at the man and drew, telling him, "You're dead."

"So are you sonny." The bearded man called back, his own pistol pointed at Johnny.

"Well, I picked a good day for it." He gave a slight smile and looked up and around as if he hadn't a care in the world.

"You better believe me sonny boy."

"I do, I do." Johnny ducked his head, and looked back up, his drawl soft and slow.

"Only question now, is how many of ya are goin' with me?"

"Take him down, Coley." His opponent yelled.

"I wouldn't." The Texas drawl called from the darkness of the saloon as Day Pardee eased into the doorway, hand up on the frame.

Johnny smiled and nodded in recognition, "Day."

"Long time, Johnny Madrid." Pardee drawled.

Johnny let out a short breath, raising his eyebrows with a chuckle, his eyes sparkling, "Yeah, long time."

"Care for a drink?"

"Yeah, sure." He walked towards the doors past his confronter, holstering his Colt.

As he entered the doorway, Pardee turned to him and asked, "Madrid, were you looking for me?"

He turned towards Day, "No, but I had a feelin' I'd find ya."

Pardee followed him into the saloon, "I heard you got yourself killed down in Mexico."

"Yeah, almost."

"Why, some kind of revolution."

"Yeah, somthin' like that." He sat down at the table and Pardee took a glass from the bar and sat it in front of him, while the Indian that had been outside with the other gunfighters came inside and took a position with his back against the bar, to watch Johnny, holding a rifle. Day sat down across the table from him and asked, "Do any good?"

"I met some nice people." He poured Day a drink and then one for himself.

"But no money?"

"No, turned out they didn't have any." He laughed, "That's why the revolution."

"Plenty of money here, Johnny."

"Yeah, that's what I hear."

"What is your business here?"

"Day, I'm just lookin'." His smile came so easy.

"For your best shot?"

"Somethin' like that, yeah."

"Well, ya found it. I can use ya Johnny."

He looked at Day and smiled again, "You let me think about it."

He knew Day was aching to add him to his team. They had worked together in the past. Day wanted him on his side, not so much because he needed him, but because he didn't want him on Lancer's side.

He dipped the lime into the salt and sucked it.

A troubled look passed over Pardee's face and he turned a suspicious eye to Johnny, "Hey, you ain't already tied up with somebody else are ya?"

Yep, Day knew that Lancer had the money to pay a big name gun hawk like himself. Along with Madrid, would come many other good gunfighters.

"No, I said I'd think about it and I will." He was enjoying himself.

"Take your time, John." Pardee stood up and walked away calling "Tequila!" to the bartender who acknowledged him and in response he yelled, "Por mi amigo" and indicated himself and the man nodded and said, "Si', Si', Pronto!"

Day rested his outstretched hand against a support post.

While they were waiting, the bearded man from outside came in and told Pardee "That girl from Lancer just drove in, got a fancy gent with her too."

The bartender had just returned with the fresh bottle and had handed it to Pardee. Turning the bottle in his hands he instructed, "Go lean on him a little, find out who he is."

Johnny knew it was not going to be a pretty sight, whatever they did to Scott. Funny, he felt like he should go fight for his new brother. Brother. Now that was something.

The man left after receiving his instructions and Pardee returned to the table and sat the fresh bottle down. With a heavy sigh, he looked down at Johnny, "Don't take too long John. You might miss all the fun. See ya around?" he smiled.

Johnny smiled back, "Yeah," and followed it with a more thoughtful, "Yeah."

Pardee left and he checked the label on the tequila, decent brand. Bartender was scared shitless he bet.

After a couple more shots, he figured he should wander outside to see what was happening down the street. Taking a seat in an empty chair by the rail, he leaned back and rested one foot up on a barrel.

It wasn't long until he could hear the sounds of a fight, and Teresa's screams. Moments later, she came running down the street yelling his name. He sat up and almost got up as she told him, "Johnny, Johnny, it's Scott!" She pointed down the street to the store where they had been.

He looked at her blankly, "Well that figures".

"Well aren't ya gonna help him?"

He readjusted his seat and looked at her "Nope."

She looked confused at first and then angry. With that, she turned and ran back down the street.

He felt bad about treating her that way, but he didn't want Day to find out Lancer was his ol'man either. He hadn't really made up his mind what he was gonna do yet.

By the time Teresa had gotten back to the store, he saw Scott flying backwards out of the doors and into the street. He stood up that time, an unfamiliar feeling of worry had taken over Johnny, but Teresa was there at Scott's side in an instant.

As Teresa helped him up, he could see three of the men come out of the store, looking pretty roughed up, having to readjust their clothing as they stopped in the doorway and then stepped into the street and walked around the couple in the dirt, ignoring them.

Ol' Boston's got some grit.

He saw Scott get up and go back into the store.

On his ride back to the ranch, he came upon Scott and Teresa stopped by the lake. Scott was cleaning up by the water. Teresa was playing with the new Stetson he had purchased.

As he approached, they stopped to look at him. Teresa gave him a heated glare and walked away while Scott looked solemn and curious.

"I told ya ta stay out of it, didn't I?"

"Well you did, anyway."

He dismounted his palomino and walked over to face his brother.

"Well, if you wanna get yourself killed, that's your business."

Scott said nothing, so he pointed at his older brother's face and said, "That's quite a bruise ya got there."

There was no response until Scott threw his coat down and punched him in the face. The unexpected blow sent him tumbling down the hill and almost into the water.

Scott followed him down the bank. "I just couldn't resist thanking you for your help," he paused, and with sarcasm, added the word "brother."

Anger overwhelmed him and he jumped up and charged the hill towards Scott.

"Don't you call me brother just because we share that old man's blood." He landed a punch to Scott's gut sending him against a tree.

"You mean nothin' ta me."

Teresa jumped off the wagon seat and ran over yelling "Stop it! Stop it! You hear me!"

She ran between the two of them as Scott had recovered and they had faced off ready to spar again.

She ran to Scott and looked at Johnny, "You oughta be ashamed, brothers fighting."

They stared at each other, Scott straightened himself and apologized, "Look, I'm sorry"

Johnny was confused and surprised at the apology. He turned in his frustration at what to do and picked up his hat, dusting it off and moved towards his horse. He could hear Scott behind him, "Look I'm sorry."

Scott followed him all the way back to his horse.

As he took the reins, Scott told him, "Look, we ought to be able to get along. After all, we came here for the same reasons."

He pulled out the twenty-dollar gold piece from his jacket pocket and held it up. "That's why I came."

"The money?" Scott's flat tone betrayed his disappointment. "My mistake."

Johnny mounted up and Scott turned away.

"Why do ya think I came? Out of loyalty and love for Murdoch Lancer? You wanna know what he did to my mother? He gave her the keys to the road one day and said, 'what's your hurry', and 'just a minute, don't forget buster here.'"

He turned the stallion and walked away. Teresa shouted at him, "That's not true, that's not true about Mr. Lancer and your mother. W' he never made her leave. She left of her own free will. She ran off with somebody."

That statement was a knife to his gut. He growled, "Now listen, you don't know what . . . ."

"He was some kind of a gambler or something. She just packed up and left with him."

God that sounded like most of life with his mother. .Mierda!

He stopped his horse and turned back to look at her, "Did he tell you that?"

"No, my father did, and it's true. "

She ran up to the front of his horse and put her hand on his leg.

"If anybody was done a wrong, Johnny, it was Murdoch Lancer. And there's something else you oughta know. . . "

This was too much, he started to spur the horse, but her words stopped him as she also grabbed his horse and his leg. He knew the old man would tear him apart if he ran over her or knocked her down.

"No, no, listen. When your father wasn't sure whether he'd live or die, I sat with him. And he kept saying your mother's name, Johnny, asking for her. So if you wanna hate him because he's, he's stubborn or wrong headed lots of the time, or proud, well, they're, they're faults, but don't hate him for your mother Johnny, because he loved her."

They heard and saw a vaquero riding hell for leather screaming "Señor Murdoch, Isidro."

Johnny spurred his horse towards the ranch. Scott and Teresa came in the wagon. Murdoch ran out of the house and into the yard. Upon all of their meeting up in the yard, the vaquero told them of the horror he had found at a neighbor's farm.

Murdoch joined Scott in the wagon, and Johnny and the vaqueros rode horses, escorting them to the nearby house. There, they found the burned barn, still smoldering. The neighbor, brutally killed, left hanging upside down from the hay lift.

Murdoch ran into the doorway of the cabin calling for the man's wife. He stopped in shock at the sight of her mutilated body on the floor, "My God."

About that time, Cipriano returned with a second vaquero to explain the easy to read trail that the outlaws had left, heading towards the San Bonitos Mountains. Murdoch advised Isidro to leave a man to take care of the dead, while the rest, including him, returned to the ranch.

Johnny lagged behind, and stared at the open door. He didn't have to see the woman to know that she had been brutally tortured and raped repeatedly. He had ridden with Pardee enough to know the man didn't care what his men did.

When he got back to the ranch, he found Scott in his room, racing about, changing into his new clothes, and getting ready to move into action with his own plan.

Hat in hand, he stood in the doorway and asked, "Don't you think we oughta talk about this?"

"We can talk on the way, while we're after them."

Stepping into the room, he asked, "Did you ever think that that's exactly what they want us to do?"

"The thought did cross my mind." He buckled the belt on his new, more appropriate pants, "but that trail could also lead us to their camp."

"Unless they double back through Morro Coyo, that way they can hit the ranch while we're miles away somewhere chasin' tracks."

Murdoch strode into the room, followed by Cipriano, who remained in the doorway, his size filling it, and interrupted their conversation.

"The men are all mounted up." He turned back and looked towards the Segundo, saying his name as a means of introduction, "You said you wanted to talk to him."

Scott approached the man, "Cipriano, you said the tracks lead to the San Benito Mountains. You know them well?"

"Like my hand, Señor."

"Is there a pass up there?"

"A steep one. And narrow."

"Can you find it?"

"With my eyes shut Señor."

Scott crossed the room pulling on his new jacked and looking at Johnny, "Ready?"

Johnny stared at him and then turned to their father. "You know what's gonna happen up there with a coupla cowhands and a tin soldier?"

Walking back to Scott, "That sun'll be coming down in about half an hour, and your gonna be stumblin' up there in the dark blowin' each others heads off.

Scott addressed their father, "You call the tune, what do you say?"

"I say you go."

Johnny threw his hat down in frustration.

Scott headed for the door, "Cipriano, tell the men we'll be right there."

He stopped in the doorway and turned back to Johnny, "Coming?"

Johnny looked down and said nothing.

Scott looked at Murdoch and Johnny, a look on his face that said he didn't want to be part of the impending fireworks, and left.

Murdoch glared at Johnny and growled, "Are you going or not?"

He turned to his father, "That an order?"

"There's only one man that's gonna run this ranch."

That was it! He was hot with that last comment! Fucker thinks I'm tryin' ta take over.

"Pardee is sucking you out in the open. He'll either cut your cowboys to shreds in that pass or go for you in this house when nobody's here. Now you got one chance, fort up here and wait."

"For what?"

"Till I find Pardee."

"Maybe you found him already."

Mierda! He knew then, that Scott and Teresa had told Murdoch about the incident in town.

"Well, go on!"

"What were you doing in Morro Coyo?"

The ol' man didn't trust him. He didn't blame him in a way, but it hurt all the same, and that made him more angry.

"Is that what you think of me?"

Shaking his head he replied, "I don't know what to think of you."

"Think what ya like."

"Where're you going?"

"I never was much good at takin' orders"

He waited at the saloon with some of Pardee's men for Pardee to return. It was in the wee hours of dawn when the outlaw arrived at the saloon. He dismounted his horse and was met by Johnny and the other men.

Pardee approached him, "Johnny, you made up your mind yet?"

"Yeah, I made up my mind."

"We'll be movin' out soon. We'll get breakfast at the Lancer ranch."

It was daylight when they arrived at the ranch. Pardee divided the men and gave assignments. Johnny stayed with Pardee and the Irishman, Coley.

He and Pardee were off their horses, under a small stand of trees, and Pardee was looking down at the ranch when Johnny decided it was time to make his move. He didn't like having to do it with Coley so close.

"Day?"

"Whatcha want, Madrid?"

"It's not Madrid."

"What?"

"This is my land, and I want you to get off."

"Yo' land? You another Lancer?"

He caught movement out of the corner of his eye. Coley was drawing his gun. Damn!

He drew and shot Coley, a fatal shot, and turned and caught Pardee, but only a minor hit. It kept him down long enough for Johnny to remount and take off, heading downhill towards the ranch, with Pardee yelling "Kill him!" the entire time.

As he hit the bottom of the hill, he looked back. All of them had mounted, and were following, and shooting. He turned and returned fire, hitting several of them. He sure hoped the palomino remembered jumping with Scott a few days before because they were headed straight toward the corral fence in the most direct line to the safety of the ranch house.

The surefooted animal never hesitated, taking flight as if born to, from a dead run. There was a small stumble on the other side, as he stepped on a rock upon landing, but Johnny stayed on and the horse regained his balance and they raced on to jump the next fence into the yard.

By this time, some of the other gang members were closer to the ranch, but Pardee had taken a different line. Johnny was almost to the house when the bullet hit him in the back and knocked him off his horse.

He lay there, stunned, breathless, and in extreme pain, but the voice in his head was yelling, 'Get up! Get up!' He caught his breath and opened his eyes just enough to check his surroundings. Pardee's men were everywhere, but he managed to sit up and take down several more.

He heard the report of a rifle, and suddenly Scott was backing towards him, firing away. The dandy was a good shot with the long gun.

Scott was joined by another vaquero, and together, they grabbed Johnny by the arm, and pulled him against a tree. Johnny saw movement to his left. Pardee was there and about to kill them both. "Look out!" He yelled to Scott, who turned and shot Pardee and continued shooting, moving away from Johnny, taking out a few more men.

Once the raiders realized Pardee was down, they began to flee. Scott approached him and looked down with a broad smile on his face.

He couldn't bring himself to say much, he was in so much pain, but tried to hide it by looking up at his brother with a smile, "That was good shootin'." He was also shocked at the Easterner's attempts to rescue him and keep him safe.

"Thanks brother, we'd just about given up on you boy." Scott told him.

"Well, you had your plan, and I had mine."

Scott attempted to help him up, but he pushed himself back against the tree and slid up it. The move caused a great deal of pain, but kept his pride intact.

"Take your time take your time." Scott offered.

"I can make it."

He started forward and could see the old man and the girl coming towards him, but suddenly the world began spinning. He weaved to the left and then the right, but continued, to move forward.

Everything went black.

Chapter 8

He came to, lying on his stomach on the dining room table. His back was on fire. Damn!

He tried to lift his head, but someone pushed it back down. He could feel a pair of large hands lift his arms, one by one, pulling his jacket off, and then he heard it hit the floor, the thud of the hideaway gun, loud on the tile.

Panic swept over him and he scrambled to get up. He almost made it before three sets of hands had hold of him, forcing him down on the table.

"Let me go." He hissed, "God damn it! Let me go!"

Brand iron hot, sharp pain burned through his back. He almost passed out as he twisted his torso, pulling the wound. "Fucking Christ!" he yelled before he blacked out from the pain.

He awoke to feel a pair of hands unbuttoning his calzoneras, while large hands grabbed the tail of his shirt and he heard the rip of the fabric as it was torn down the center and then pulled gently away from the wound, the separate pieces now, pulled off his arms.

He heard a gasp and realized that he was also now lying naked on the table, and those big hands were pouring something on his back, causing pain which he likened to the fires of hell. It brought tears to his eyes and he grabbed the sides of the table with both hands, a low miserable groan, uncontrollably, escaping his lips.

He felt the hands gently stroke his hair and heard the words, "I'm sorry son."

He faded out of consciousness.

He was vaguely aware of conversation.

"We don't have time for the doctor."

"The bullet has to come out."

"Who's gonna do it?"

"Have no choice."

Suddenly, they were forcing the leather into his mouth. He tried to get up again, but they had him tied down. He took a deep breath and tried to find a place in his mind where he could retreat from the pain.

His body began to shake involuntarily. Being tied down was something he had always had a morbid fear of. He grabbed the edges of the table with his fingers and held on as tight as he could.

He felt the hot, feverish feel of the steel blade cutting through his flesh. The blackness of his closed eyes filled with shooting stars and slivers of the pain's silver light. It reached an unbearable level and he let out his held breath in a quiet, pain-filled moan.

He wanted to scream at the torture he was feeling, but he had suffered this same pain, many times before and knew he could control it, more or less. Panting like an overheated dog, he could feel his heart beating in his ears. It distracted him enough to keep him from screaming. Besides, the less oxygen he took in, the faster he would pass out.

Drenched in the sweat that poured off his body, he was biting the leather as hard as he could, thinking any minute his teeth would break. Unstoppable tears of pain ran down his face, but he only made one other sound.

Realms of nausea surrounded him as he felt the knife probing in his flesh. He tried to keep that picture from his head. He felt the blade touch bone and sending him back into blackness.

Murdoch couldn't tell if the water droplets that ran down his face were sweat or tears. The pain of losing his son the first time didn't compare to the agony he was experiencing now. Faced with losing his precious boy once again, he had no other choice than to remove the bullet himself.

He was trying to be gentle and efficient, but his hands were large and unsteady. His distress made worse by the fact that his son wouldn't give in and pass out. What drove this boy? What made him choose to suffer like this?

When the doctor removed Pardee's bullet from his back, he had readily given in to the pain and passed out. He had no desire to know what this was like from the other perspective.

It was hard to keep Johnny still. If he wasn't struggling to get away from the blade, his heavy breathing caused motion in his entire body. He could see the determination and pain in the white knuckled grip of the boy on the table. Damn his boy was tough.

Johnny's moan was close to his undoing. He almost stopped. He was butchering his own child, but then he felt it. The tip of the knife touched the mutilated metal of the bullet. It was a nauseating feeling, but he took the long hemostats and felt his way down the blade with them until he could grasp it with them.

When he did, he removed the knife gently and pulled the remains of the bullet from his son's body. It made a metallic ting sound, as it landed in the pan in which he dropped it.

His work wasn't done by a long shot. Wiping the sweat from his face with the back of his forearm, he still had to stop the flow of blood coming from his son. Taking a deep breath, he took a swig of the whiskey from the bottle beside him, and poured another round into the wound.

Gratefully, Johnny sucked in a deep breath and stiffened against the pain.

He made quick work of stitching the wound up. It was a lot easier from both a technical standpoint, as well as an emotional one, when his patient was unconscious. When he finished, he took another swallow of whiskey and let out a deep sigh of relief.

He found a cloth and dipped it in warm water, rung it out, and began bathing Johnny down. His ministrations were slow and gentle as he familiarized himself with the many scars on his son's back, arms, and even legs.

Johnny's back told a story that would fill several volumes of books, there were so many scars. He had never seen anything like it. Some were obvious as to their cause, bullet wounds, and knife wounds. A few looked liked whip marks and more than one looked suspiciously like belt buckle marks. Others, he could not discern.

Son, what happened to you? Is this my fault? Feeling a tear run down his cheek, he prayed, God, please don't let me lose him now. Give me a chance to help him change his life.

Scott entered the dining room with a pair of long johns in his hand.

"I see you found something." Murdoch noted the undergarments.

"Actually, no, I didn't. All he had was one other pair of those leather pants, and that red shirt he wore and two pairs of holey socks. These are mine. I thought we could cut them off."

"Check with Teresa in the kitchen, she'll get you some scissors."

Murdoch pulled the sheet up over his son and shook his head. His son didn't even own a pair of underwear.

Scott returned with the cut off long johns and together, they slipped them on, only too happy that he didn't awaken while they were doing it.

After a couple of the hands helped them get Johnny upstairs, Murdoch and Scott settled him further in the bed, propping him with pillows so he wouldn't roll over on his back.

Teresa brought up a tray of coffee and sat it on the small table in the room. In the mean time, Murdoch had pulled the large stuffed chair over to the bedside and sat down.

Scott poured his father a cup of coffee and afterwards, himself one, before he pulled the chair from the table over next to his father's.

"Nothing to do but wait now, sir. I'll be happy to sit with him while you get some rest."

"Thanks, son, but I want you to get with Cipriano and work out a plan for getting the ranch in order. I'll be okay. I just don't know what that boy was thinking."

"Well, apparently, he had some kind of plan, at least that's what he said before he passed out!"

"Didn't look like much of a plan to me."

"Well, sir, he did draw the enemy out into the open."

"Yeah, but how reckless was that? He almost died. I wasn't sure at first if he was leading them in for us or against us."

"I guess we'll have to wait until he wakes up to find out. . . . . . Do you mind if I ask what happened after I left? I mean when you said earlier that he had left, I took it you meant for good, and that he wasn't coming back."

"No. We argued and he told me he wasn't good at taking orders and then he left. I thought he was gone for good. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw him riding in here like that."

"Well you knew he was on our side."

"No son, I knew no such thing. You see, this is the type of thing Johnny earned money doing. He could have easily worked for Pardee as for me."

"But he's your son."

"Yes, but he never explained what his reason for being in Morro Coyo was. He didn't try to help you with Pardee's men."

"Well, I think I'd rather believe that he still has some sense of family loyalty. After all, he did get up and keep on shooting, even after he was down."

"Yes, yes, he did."

Teresa re-entered with a tray of sandwiches. "How is he?"

"He's asleep I think now. He probably won't wake up for awhile." Murdoch replied.

Teresa stepped over to the side of the bed and looked at him. "He looks so young now."

"He's only nineteen." Murdoch replied.

She pulled the sheet up a little more on him and placed her hand on his forehead. She ran her fingers through his bangs to push them back.

"Teresa, I'd rather you not get too close to him until we get to know him better. I think it would be safer for you."

Both Teresa and Scott turned and looked at Murdoch.

"I was only checking for fever."

"Well, I would prefer that you let Sam, Scott and I look after him."

"But . . . . ."

"It's my final word young lady. We've already had a discussion about this."

"Yes, sir. I'll be downstairs if you need anything."

"Thank you dear." Murdoch gave her a loving smile.

After she left, Scott asked, "Why don't you want her around Johnny?"

"Scott, I'm afraid you have a lot to learn about the ways of people out here. Johnny may only be nineteen, but he is a dangerous man, and Teresa is an impressionable young girl."

"But you saw how gentle he was with Maria."

"All the same Scott, I would appreciate if you all would abide by my wishes."

"Certainly. You look tired, why don't you lie down for a bit. At least until the doctor gets here. I'll wake you."

"You know, I think I will. This sandwich has made me sleepy."

Murdoch rose and left the room. Scott took his chair and leaned back in it, staring at the dark form of his brother.

Chapter 9

It was late afternoon before the doctor arrived. During that time, Murdoch had managed to sleep and Scott had napped by his unconscious brother's bedside.

Murdoch escorted the doctor inside the bedroom. "Sam, this is my son, Scott. Scott, Dr. Sam Jenkins."

The small statured doctor shook hands with Scott. "I am truly happy to meet you Scott. I know you've made your father very happy by coming here. But, if you will excuse me, I have a patient."

"Absolutely sir."

Scott stepped aside and the doctor stopped and took in the picture of a grown Johnny. He turned and looked back at Murdoch. "Hard to believe this is him."

"I know Sam, I know."

Murdoch looked over and saw the puzzled expression on Scott's face. "Sam delivered your brother."

"Oh."

The doctor sat his bag down on the large stuffed chair and opened it. He withdrew a stethoscope. He placed this around his neck and he began his examination by placing his hand on Johnny's shoulder.

He expected him to wake up, but not fighting. Fortunately, Scott caught the flying doctor as Johnny sat up on the bed and shoved the doctor, moving his hand toward the bedpost where he felt for something that wasn't there.

Then the pain registered, and a litany of Spanish rolled off his tongue that made Murdoch and Sam blush.

"Enough of that language!" Murdoch shouted and went to Johnny's side and helped ease him back down into the bed from the twisted position he had taken.

"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph." The doctor regained his composure.

"Sorry, Sam, I should have warned you. He doesn't do well with surprise awakenings."

"You shouldn't just grab a man all sudden like that." Johnny ground out between clenched teeth. He had broken into a sweat, and his body was trembling, almost imperceptibly, from the renewed pain, and he closed his eyes.

"I'm sorry, Johnny. I thought you were unconscious."

"I was. . . Well, sort of."

Sam leaned over and pulled up Johnny's eyelids one at a time to examine his eyes. He felt of his forehead and checked his pulse and his heartbeat.

Johnny tried to roll over, but both Murdoch and Scott reached over to stop him at the same time he felt the pain flash again, and thought better of it.

"Hurts, huh, son?"

Johnny gave the doctor a glare.

He lifted the sheet and looked at the wound.

"Looks like you pulled a couple of these stitches. I'll have to sew you back up. This your handiwork Murdoch?" The old doctor looked at the patriarch.

"I'm afraid so Sam."

"Nice."

The doctor pulled out the needle and thread and a bottle of laudanum.

"Here, son, take some of this." He offered Johnny a small bottle.

"No."

"It's laudanum, for the pain."

"I don't need it."

"This will hurt, you'll need it."

"I said I don't need it." Johnny glared at the doctor who looked back into the boy's stormy, dark, pain filled blue eyes.

"Okay."

The doctor saw the relief in his patient's blue eyes suggested to him the boy might have a secret he wished not to share.

Sam turned to Scott and Murdoch, if you don't mind excusing yourselves gentlemen, I'd like to attend to my patient alone.

"But Sam," Murdoch questioned.

"Murdoch, you know I examine all my patients alone. You want company next time I have to look at you?"

Murdoch made a growling sound but followed Scott out the door.

The doctor turned back to the blues eyes again. "Well, Johnny, let's start over. I'm Sam Jenkins. I'm sure you don't remember me, but I remember you."

He could see the boy's eyes had changed. They held no emotion. They were glassy from the pain, but other than that, he saw nothing and the boy said nothing.

"I delivered you." He thought he caught a trace of emotion in the blue pools, but wasn't sure.

"If you'll turn this way, I'll get on with stitching you up."

Johnny did as was told, while the doctor took a long look at the many scars his patient had, and shook his head. 'Here's one more for you, my son.'

Chapter 10

The doctor left Johnny sleeping, and headed downstairs to the great room.

Murdoch and Scott were seated and having a drink. Making himself at home, Sam put his bag down, poured himself a whiskey, and joined the two near the fireplace.

"Well, Sam, what do you think?" Murdoch started.

"Seems to be a tough young man. You did a good job Murdoch. If it doesn't get infected and he doesn't develop a fever, and you can keep him still long enough, it should heal well. He's sleeping right now."

"I can't get over the scars." Murdoch shook his head. "Damn Maria for taking him like she did."

"You know he has about as many on his chest as on his back." Scott added. "I saw them the first morning we were here. He came into my room with his shirt unbuttoned."

"My God." Murdoch exclaimed. "What do you make of all those Sam?"

"Well, he was a gunfighter. I mean, there are a lot of bullet wounds. Those whip scars, I don't know, I guess he could have gotten those in that prison, but they look older than that. I did see a couple that looked like belt buckles. Those were very old. I suspect he got those as a child."

"So what the hell happened out here?" The doctor changed the direction of the conversation.

"Well, we were ready for the attack when Johnny came riding in like the devil was after him. I guess he was. Pardee and his men were all following him. He was turning and shooting at them. He is one hell of a marksman, he shot several off their horses at a dead run."

Murdoch looked at his drink and continued.

"He rode that crazy palomino straight at the corral fence, jumped in and then jumped out and into the yard. He was so reckless. He almost made it. When Pardee shot him off the horse . . . . . . I swear Sam, I thought he was dead." Murdoch's voice was almost a whisper when he uttered the last few words.

"But he sat up a few minutes later, and shot about three or four more." Scott bragged while Murdoch knocked back his drink.

Sam looked at them with eyebrows raised.

"And then he tells me, 'that was good shootin' like he was proud of me." Scott added.

"Well, where do you go from here?" Sam looked at Murdoch.

"Well, there's the matter of the partnership agreement."

"So you and he are staying here?" Sam looked at Scott.

"I plan to."

"I guess we'll have to wait until Johnny's well to decide exactly what to do." Murdoch added.

Scott and Sam both turned to look at him.

"You're not going to try renege on the agreement with him?" Scott sat up from his relaxed position on the sofa.

"No, Scott. No. I promised him one third and he will get his share. I mean he might not want to actually stay and work. He might want to be a silent partner. He never really agreed to live here."

"Scott, would you mind going up and keeping an eye on your brother while Sam and I talk? I don't feel comfortable leaving him up there alone. I want someone with him at all times."

"Sure." Scott knew when he was being excused.

As Scott left the room, Murdoch moved to take the whiskey bottle and indicated for Sam to follow. They moved from the sofas to two stuffed chairs near the fireplace.

"Well, Murdoch, it certainly seems to have been quite a week and quite a battle. What's it like with the three of you here together?"

"Sam, I just don't know. It's been nothing but tension. I thought I was ready for this, but, when I laid my eyes on them for the first time . . . . I was speechless. Especially when I saw Johnny.

Scott's a fine boy. Couldn't ask for a young man with better manners and taste. His grandfather did well by him in that regard. He's warmer than Johnny, but I can see the distrust in his eyes. He hasn't really asked me why I left him with Harlan. I'm sure he's curious. I have to say I'm afraid to ask him what his grandfather told him."

"Murdoch!"

"I know, Sam, but I can't think of a way to tell him about Harlan's scheme to blackmail me. I just can't bring myself to tell him."

"But he's agreed to stay?"

"Oh yes. He really didn't even seem hesitant about it."

"And Johnny?"

"Sam, he doesn't even own underwear." Murdoch shook his head. I sent Scott up to get something to put on him after we stripped him and he didn't have any extra underwear and wasn't wearing any. He only has two pairs of pants, and now, one shirt."

Sam stared at Murdoch.

"Before all of this, he was hostile, cold. He hates me, Sam, and I mean he HATES me. When he stepped into the great room, the hatred in his eyes nearly knocked me down. He walked right in here, angry and cocky as hell. He wasted no time telling me the money was what he called 'listening money' and that it would cost more for the actual work of protecting the ranch; like it was a business deal and nothing more.

The first afternoon he was here, Pardee burned one of the fields. He did come out and help, but when we came inside, he was right back to business."

Murdoch took a sip of his drink and continued.

"Afterwards I showed him to his room to rest and clean up before dinner. I went back up after a couple of hours to see if he wanted to have a drink and meet Scott before we ate. I guess I woke him too suddenly. He pulled a gun on me. Sam, I swear, I think my heart stopped for a few beats. The look on his face and that, that gun. It was one of the most frightening moments of my life."

"And how did you handle that?"

"I told him to put the gun up and he cursed at me, AT ME! Telling ME that I SCARED HIM!"

"And what did you do then?"

"Well I told him in no uncertain terms that he was not to use that sort of language in this house."

"Told him?" Sam eyed Murdoch suspiciously.

"Well, I guess I was loud, but he sure scared me."

"And how did he react to you yelling at him?"

"He put the gun up."

The doctor laughed to himself.

"When I took that bullet out of him, he tried his best to remain conscious. One time, he passed out and we tied him down. We had too. When he woke up, he was like a trapped animal trying to get away. "

The doctor nodded his head. "Have you talked about Maria?"

"No, there really hasn't been much time at all to talk. He's agreed to stay, I think, but I don't know how all this is going to work out."

"Murdoch, he's your son. He needs a father, a family."

"I'm not so sure it's not too late."

"He came didn't he?"

"Well, yes, but for the money."

"You think that's why? You don't think there wasn't some curiosity or longing to know, behind it? From what I've heard, he can get whatever he wants in fees."

"I haven't seen any curiosity or longing. Not in the way he acts."

"That's just it, Murdoch. The way he acts. You can't expect him to ride in here, with his reputation and allow himself to be vulnerable. After all, we don't know what she's told him about you, or anything else."

"Oh yes we do. It seems that he told Teresa and Scott that Maria told him that I threw her out and him with her. That I didn't want him."

"What did he say when you told him different?

"Well that's just it. Before we even had a chance to talk, all hell broke loose. We had a fight just before all of this and he left. For good, I thought, until I saw him riding in here with Pardee and his men behind him."

"Well, he's certainly proved himself to you now hasn't he?"

"I suppose."

"Murdoch Lancer, what the hell is wrong with you? I think he's proven his loyalty by taking a bullet for you."

"For ME, Sam? How do we know it was for me? We don't know what the hell happened, other than Pardee is defeated and Johnny's upstairs with a bullet in his back. That doesn't make him loyal to me. Maybe you think it's loyalty Sam, but I can't be certain."

"I'll say it again, Murdoch, the boy is your son. And if ever a boy needed a father, it's THAT one upstairs. He's a captive audience right now. Give him a few days to get a little stronger and a little more lucid and tell him the truth."

The two men sat in silence, Murdoch mulling over Sam's words.

Sam finally broke the silence.

"How're things with them and Teresa?"

"They all seem to be getting along. I've had a long talk with her about them, Johnny in particular. I simply won't allow him to ruin her! I plan on having a talk with him too."

"Murdoch, I don't think you have anything to fear for now. He's not up to doing much of anything." Sam laughed at his friend.

"Well, there's no time like the present."

"Murdoch, I don't think I have to tell you, he's had a rough life. God only knows what he thinks happened between you and his mother. Just use this time that he's down to get to know him. Don't give up on him yet. I've treated my share of gunfighters and something tells me he's different."

"Yes, he is different. He's got a mouth on him just like Maria, and foul."

"He does look like her doesn't he?"

"Yes, he does, too much. It's hard not to think about her when I look at him. He's hot-headed like her, too."

The doctor snorted.

"Well, it seems like the boys are getting along."

"I'm not so sure. Teresa told me that Pardee's men attacked Scott in town. She went to get Johnny, who was sitting outside the saloon, and he refused to help Scott. Later, they met up down at the lake near the road. Scott punched Johnny and they fought.

To be honest Sam, I wasn't so sure when he came riding in here, that he wasn't part of Pardee's gang. It wasn't until I saw him shoot two of them off their horses that I decided that he was on our side. When he was shot off his horse. . . I thought he was dead."

Murdoch stared into his friend's eyes, gripping his glass so tight, the doctor thought it might break.

"I was sickened that I even thought that he could be on their side."

"It's gonna take time Murdoch, especially with John. Just take it one day at a time. Like I said, use his down time to get to know him."

"I just don't know what to make of him."

Chapter 11

Murdoch watched anxiously as Sam examined Johnny, who was barely lucid, and burning up with fever. It had been three days since the incident with Pardee.

"It's not good Murdoch. We need to get the bandage off and take a look."

Maria stood by, eyes misty, waiting to help the doctor with his ministrations to the man she considered her niño. When she pulled the sheet back, she bit her lip at the sight of the scars on the young man she had last seen as a two year old.

As the doctor cut away the bandage, revealing the wound and the angry red signature of infection. There were a couple of torn stitches as well.

"As you can see, it's infected. We'll have to open it up, drain it, and see what the problem is.

Sam looked at Maria, "Some hot water, and some small basins? Please?"

"Si' Señor Sam!" Maria nodded with a slight curtsey and left to get the supplies.

Murdoch looked at Scott, who had been sitting on the edge of the bed, trying to keep Johnny on his stomach.

"Scott, stay with your brother a moment. Sam, can I talk to you outside for a minute?"

The two stepped into the hallway. The doctor raised his eyebrows up towards the towering rancher.

"Sam, he's having nightmares, terrible nightmares, screaming and crying out, tossing about. I suspect that's where those broken stitches have come from. Can't you give him a sedative or something to make him sleep through the night?"

"I'd rather not sedate him with a fever. You're just gonna have to do your best to keep him down and still until it breaks. I'm going to have to reopen the wound, so I will put him under for just a bit. He'll sleep pretty sound tonight I suspect. We have to get that fever down. . . . ."

Maria was coming up the stairs with the water, and behind her, Teresa with a large stack of clean towels and sheets. Seeing them, the two men re-entered the room, followed by Maria and then Teresa, banned from Johnny's room by Murdoch.

"I'll take those." Murdoch turned at the sight of her.

"I just want to help. It's not fair everyone else is in here, why can't I be?"

"It's not decent for a young girl like you."

"Not decent? I've seen lots of wounds."

"Teresa, I've said my piece. I don't want you in Johnny's room unless absolutely necessary."

She looked at him with big sad brown eyes, but he merely stood, blocking the door with his large frame, and raised his eyebrows at her, all the while holding the sheets and towels.

"Umph!" She stomped out.

Two hours after his arrival, Sam Jenkins removed a tiny piece of metal from the wound site. It had been a small fragment unseen by Murdoch when he was removing the bullet. He put in a tube to drain out any remaining pus and stitched it in. Johnny, still under the influence of the anesthesia, lay on his stomach looking extremely vulnerable.

While Sam cleaned his instruments, Maria was busy changing the bed sheets with the help of Murdoch and Scott. The two gently lifted Johnny from the bed as she removed the sheets soaked with sweat and stains, and replaced them with fresh ones.

Once they were finished, Johnny lay on his side, propped on the front and back with pillows, so that there was some tilt to his body and the remains of the infectious fluid would be encouraged to drain.

"It's gonna be hard to keep him on his side like that, Sam." Murdoch pointed out.

"You have to Murdoch, to keep the infection down. I know it's going to be hard. Someone will have to be with him at all times. I want the wound flushed three times per day." The doctor placed a wet compress on Johnny's head. "We've got to get this fever down and soon."

Johnny awoke feeling cool. He lay still, enjoying the feeling and trying to remember where he was. He could feel the wetness of the sheets and knew he was in a bed, a very comfortable bed, except for the dampness. He shifted just a little and realized he was on his side. He tried to roll onto his back, but some pillows behind him prevented the movement. The attempt sent a burning pain through his back.

He opened his eyes, blinking at the brightness of the light. They were blurry and crusty. He heard someone take in a breath as he moved his hand up to wipe away the effect of his heavy sleep. He rolled his head just enough to see above him and looked into the eyes of his father.

He slammed his shut again. Mierda! It all came back to him, hitting him like a sledgehammer.

"John, are you awake?" He heard his father's voice at the same time he felt that giant paw of a hand come down on his forehead. He couldn't help but flinch, but tried to cover it by turning his head. It was no use; his father had him pinned.

"Yeah, I guess."

"It seems your fever has broken."

Finally. He felt his father lift his hand and then heard him pour a glass of water. Then, he felt the man put his arm under him and lift his upper body just a bit so he could drink. Irritated with being babied, he opened his eyes and forced himself to sit up, all the way, pulling the sutures in his back and causing him to suck back a deep breath.

"Careful!" Murdoch's tone was sharp, "You'll pull those stitches out."

"It's okay ol' man, won't be the first time, or the last, I don't reckon."

Murdoch sat back down in the chair next to him, watching him drink. He looked like a cat waiting on a mouse.

He wondered what his father was thinking.

With an awkward look on his face, his father stood, "You'll need some dry sheets and a change of underwear."

Johnny looked at him, not sure what to say. He felt like a little kid who had wet his bed. Mierda.

Murdoch turned and walked to the door where he opened it and bellowed for Scott and Maria.

Scott appeared from his room across the hall, and Maria came up the backstairs from the kitchen.

"Johnny." Scott called to his brother as he stepped into the doorway, squeezing past their father.

"Scott." Johnny said flatly. What the fuck, I wake up and everyone's gotta know?

While he waited at the door for Maria, Murdoch turned to look back inside the room. "Scott, John needs some more underwear. Do you mind helping him with that?"

"Sure, I think Maria put the other pair of cutoffs here."

"Cutoffs?" Johnny questioned with raised his eyebrows.

"Well, it seems that you didn't have any long johns in your bags when you were hurt, so I, uh, we, cut off some of mine for you."

"Oh." Johnny's expression was still flat. "I don't usually wear them."

Both of the older men turned to look at him, the confusion evident on their faces. He bit back a smile as he saw their expressions. It wasn't hard when he felt the pull in his back.

Maria had made it to the door and Murdoch instructed her to fetch some clean sheets for the bed. While she left for the linens, Scott handed Johnny a freshly laundered pair of long johns.

"Do you need some help?" Scott offered.

"I been dressin' myself a long time."

Both Murdoch and Scott were suddenly faced with a completely naked Johnny as he stood tentatively, shakily holding on to the headboard of the bed and pushed the underwear down from around his waist and then gently eased down on the bed to remove them from his legs.

He repeated the process, in reverse, albeit, slow and careful, mindful of the straining stitches in his back.

By the time he had changed, Maria was back with the linens, and changed the bed quickly and efficiently, while he stood by, supported by his brother's long arm around him.

After she finished, she stepped over to him, "Back to bed niño!"

He glared at her, but she glared back and he submitted. Truth was, he felt better, but he didn't feel that damn good. He tossed a couple of pillows against the headboard and Scott helped him back into the bed in a sitting position. He leaned back against the headboard, but not before Murdoch, with amazing dexterity, placed two more behind him; one behind his shoulders, and the other, behind his head.

Maria began fussing with the covers, sort of tucking him in. He rolled his eyes and turned his head toward the window.

"Are you hungry?" Murdoch asked from behind Maria.

"A little." At the mention of food, his stomach growled loud enough for Maria to hear it. She smiled at him.

"Si', Señor Johnny, I bring you some lunch." She patted his leg before she left.

"Well," Johnny looked up at his two tall family members, "What'd I miss? I mean what happened?"

Murdoch sat back down in the chair. Johnny looked over at the water, Scott saw him, and immediately stepped over and poured him a glass of water and handed it to him.

"Thanks."

"Well, we were successful in defeating Pardee." Murdoch started out.

"Day's?"

"Dead." Scott answered.

Johnny stared at his hands, holding the glass of water, and gave a reflective nod.

"He was your friend?" Scott asked, quietly.

Johnny shook his head slowly. "No, no, not a friend. Just someone I've worked with, that's all."

"Worked with?" Murdoch bellowed, "That, that, butcher?"

"Yeah, worked with ol' man, a long time ago."

The sound that came out of Murdoch sounded like a disgusted growl.

"I tell you what, why don't you go downstairs and get my five thousand dollars out of the safe ol' man, and while you're doin' that, I'll get dressed and be on my way."

"What? What five thousand dollars? You're not leaving! You're in no shape to go anywhere!"

Shock was evident on Scott's face as he looked between his father and his brother.

"I never promised you five thousand dollars. I promised you part of the ranch!"

"Maybe I'd just rather have the money and be on my way."

Johnny flung the bedcovers back and eased his legs out, and turned to sit on the edge of the bed.

Grabbing the headboard once again, he stood and weakly moved towards the bureau where he saw his pants folded and lying on top.

"What the hell are you doin'? Settle down!" Murdoch stood and blocked Johnny's way.

"I'm gettin' the hell outta here, that's what."

"You're not going anywhere."

"Think you can make me stay ol' man?" Johnny turned ice-cold blue eyes up to meet those of his father.

"Enough! You two both need to settle down! I don't know what's going on here, but Johnny, you need to get back in that bed, and now!" Scott stepped between the two of them.

Johnny didn't flinch, "Just what the hell do ya think you're gonna do, Boston, punch me again?"

"If I have to. However many times it takes to get you back in that bed."

"I been shot in the back."

"I know, so it's you're decision."

Johnny knew Scott would do it. He had proven that at the pond. He watched as his father stalked out of the room without a word. He stood in defiance for a few moments more, and then returned to the bed. He didn't feel good at all. His back felt like he'd been stuck with the hot branding iron and his head hurt, the pain from each enough to make his breathing ragged.

Scott came downstairs to find his father sitting at his desk with a stuffed envelope sitting on top in the middle and nursing a drink.

Murdoch just stared at the envelope, ignoring Scott's entrance.

"What's that? I mean, if you don't mind my asking." Scott's Bostonian manners ever present.

"His money."

"You can't be serious. He's not serious."

"Oh, but I'm afraid he is."

"And you?"

"I don't know."

"Don't you think he at least deserves a chance to heal before he's forced into a decision? You said you've spent a lot of good money tracking him down."

Murdoch looked up, "You're not afraid of him?"

"Afraid of him? No. Well, in a sense, yes. I mean, I can see he is very dangerous, but I don't feel that he means any harm to me. Are you afraid of him?

"Of course not. I'm not afraid of a boy, for Pete's sake."

"Well then, what's the problem?"

"There's only one man that's going to run this ranch and it's me. I've sweated and toiled over every inch of soil. This land has cost me two wives and two sons and by God, I will call the tune here."

Scott stepped back at Murdoch's outburst. "I don't think you'll get any argument from either one of us on that, sir. I think Johnny and I would both agree on that."

"Really? I don't think you're brother sees it that way at all."

"What makes you think that?"

"He told me the day of the attack, just before he walked out, that he 'never was good at takin' orders.'" If he can't take direction, then it won't work.

"Well, I can't be certain about him, but I don't think he knows that much more about ranching than me. Has he ever worked on a ranch? I mean from what you say, he's been a gunfighter, good with a gun, making a living that way. Not chasing cows all over the place."

"You do have a point there, but don't you see how he challenges everything I say? And he's, he's so sullen and disrespectful. Not only that, but he's so dangerous. I don't know if we can trust him. I just don't think it's going to work out. It's too late."

"Too late? Too late for what? So what have you spent all these years and money for? To find him and show him the door because he's had to raise himself, and that he doesn't respect anyone? Why should he? The way I look at it, he was shot defending this ranch and you owe him at least a chance to change his life. He's still young. He needs a father if a boy ever did, don't you see?"

Scott stepped over to the bar and poured himself a drink. He couldn't believe he was defending the insolent gunfighter to their father. But it just didn't seem fair. The boy had pretty much been the primary cause of their victory, drawing Pardee in as he did. Otherwise, they could still be at odds with him and his men hidden up in the hills.

While he wanted to say that all boys needed their fathers, it would have been too close to the truth, and he wasn't ready to declare any feelings or needs to Murdoch. After all, they hadn't really broached the subject of why he had not come to claim him in the past twenty-one years.

Interrupting his thoughts was the sound of Maria screaming in Spanish and breaking dishes. At the same time, they heard Spanish rolling out in Johnny's voice.

Scott and Murdoch raced up the stairs, Murdoch seemingly forgetting about his leg. They reached Johnny's room at about the same time Teresa did.

Peering into the room, they saw Maria bending down to the floor, placing pieces of broken dishes onto the silver tray that she had carried Johnny's dinner on. Teresa pushed past Murdoch, and immediately went to Maria, handing her a towel and they began cleaning up the mess of oatmeal and porcelain.

"What in God's name happened in here?" Murdoch roared loud enough that everyone jumped a bit.

"Nothin' ol' man, just an accident, that's all." Johnny drawled from his position on the side of the bed. He had pulled himself up to a sitting position, his bare feet on the floor.

"Broken dishes are not 'nothing.' Something happened in here and I want to know what!"

"Maria?" The housekeeper's eyes darted fearfully at Johnny and then at her employer.

"Si' Señor Murdoch, it was an accident. I dropped the tray."

"Told ya." Johnny's insolence was written on his face as well as it was heard in his intonation.

Murdoch saw the look she had given Johnny first and turned to him, glaring, "Don't cover up for him, Maria. He may still be a niño, but he's too big for that."

"No, señor," Maria, was unable to finish as Murdoch roared over her. "John, I have your money downstairs on my desk. Get packed. I simply won't tolerate this sort of behavior in my home."

Scott saw the momentary glimpse of surprise and hurt in his brother's eyes before they became the dark, emotionless, blue that was unreadable. Before he could speak, Maria was off the floor and speaking rapidly in Spanish in front of Murdoch. He had no idea what she was saying, but it sounded like she was begging. Teresa stood up and started in on him as well, but in English.

"No Maria, I don't want to hear it. I want everyone out of here right now so he can get dressed."

The women became even more animated.

"OUT! Everyone!" Murdoch herded the women out and looked at Scott, "You too Scott!"

"No sir. Don't you think you're being unreasonable?"

"No I do not! Like I said downstairs, only one man calls the tune here and that's me. Understood? Now let's go."

"No! Someone has to help Johnny!"

"Suit yourself, but I want him out of here in ten minutes!"

Murdoch pulled the door closed behind him.

Scott could hear the women following his father down the hall wailing and begging.

He turned to see Johnny, wearing his unbuttoned shirt, sitting on the bed, trying to button the conchos on his pants. Scott saw and heard him suck in a deep breath and close his eyes from the pain as he leaned forward. Johnny's face seemed to lose its color.

He kneeled down in front of Johnny and placed his hand over that of his brother.

"Stop, Johnny. Just get back in bed. This is crazy. Murdoch overreacted. I'll go down and talk to him."

"No, Scott, I appreciate it, but he don't want me here. Never really did. He just wanted my gun. It's okay."

"No it's not okay, Johnny, you can't leave like this, you're in no condition to ride."

"I been shot up worse and ridden."

"I won't allow it!"

Johnny glared at him. "Boston, I don't know who the hell you think you're talkin' too, but I don't take orders from anyone. Got that! Not from that ol' man downstairs, and 'specially not from you! So either you help me button these conchos, or get the hell out. Either way, my ten minutes is almost up."

Scott began buttoning the silver discs while Johnny got a few of his shirt buttons. He helped Johnny with his boots. Boots on, Johnny stood and began strapping on his gun belt, sweat pouring off him, pain etched in his face.

Scott left the room to go downstairs to give Murdoch a piece of his mind. This was absolutely crazy and cruel even. He expected to see him in the great room, but he wasn't there. Through the French doors, he could see the palomino saddled and waiting for Johnny at the hitching rail. Murdoch doesn't waste anytime, he thought, as he moved through the house.

He heard crying in the kitchen and found Maria sitting at the table almost inconsolable as Teresa sat with her arms around the woman, crying herself.

Teresa looked up, "Scott, you have to help us. Murdoch wouldn't listen. Maria really did drop the tray. Please, don't let him make Johnny leave. He didn't do anything wrong."

"Is that true Maria?"

"Si' Señor Scott. I have the tray too close to the edge of the table. Señor Johnny no liked the food the doctor said for him to have. He complained and I told him he must eat it and he say 'no' and then I slam the cup on the tray and it fell. Señor Johnny did nothing wrong. Señor Murdoch would not listen to me."

"Where is he now?"

"Out back. Talking to one of the hands." Teresa responded.

"Okay, I'll go straighten things out." He stepped behind the two women and gave them each a squeeze on the shoulder.

The hand was just stepping away and Murdoch was turning to come back inside the house when Scott stepped out of the kitchen door. "Sir?"

"Yes? Is Johnny waiting for his money?"

"No, not yet, he's dressed and getting his things together."

"That shouldn't take long."

Damn his father could be cold.

"We need to talk, or rather, I need to talk and you need to hear me out for a moment."

Murdoch's head snapped up at the idea that Scott was standing up to him, "Well?"

"I just talked to Maria and Teresa. Maria swears she knocked the tray off the table. She swears Johnny had nothing to do with it."

"She swears, huh?"

"Yes. And I believe her."

Murdoch shook his head and entered the kitchen. It was easy to find the two women, still at the table crying.

Murdoch pulled out a chair and sat down.

"Maria, Scott tells me that you dropped the tray."

"Si' Patron. Señor Johnny say bad things about the food el doctor say he should have. He doesn't know what is good for him I tell him. He said he no eat it and I say he would. I slam the dish down on the tray, which I put too close to the edge of the table and it fell."

"You're not saying this out of fear for him?"

"No, Señor, I no afraid of Juanito."

"He didn't threaten you?"

"I swear Señor, it was not the niño's fault. It was me! Only me. Yo soy estupido!"

Murdoch, his arms resting on the table, let out a big sigh and closed his eyes. When he opened them, he said, "Well, looks like I need to stop him from leaving then."

He stood up, and accompanied by Scott, entered the foyer, only to hear the sound of hoof beats. They raced into the great room in time to see a flash of gold and red pass by the French doors, one of which was open. Through the great room window, they saw Johnny galloping away on his palomino.

Both looked towards the desk and saw the envelope with the five thousand dollars lying open on top of it, the bills sticking out where Johnny had picked it up and then tossed it back.

Chapter 12

Johnny took off at a gallop, but once out of sight of the hacienda, he pulled hard on the reins in order to stop the palomino, which was eager to continue running.

Damn he hurt. He could only take short, ragged, panting breaths, which made his eyes water. He knew he had torn some stitches loose getting on the horse. He reached behind and while not surprised that his shaking hand came back bloody, it was far more blood than he expected to see, and seemed to be flowing a little too much for comfort.

Well, not gonna go back there. Rather bleed to death. Maybe there was a doctor in Morro Coyo. It was closer to the ranch. The one that had come to the ranch was from Green River.

The sun was up and it was a pleasant late summer day, but he didn't notice because he felt cold inside, the chilling cold that a fever doled out, and the sun's rays set his skin on fire.

He rode for another mile or so, and despite his golden horse's soft flowing stride, the slightest movement of his body from the horse caused pain to flare throughout his body. This was crazy. I'm crazy. I should have stayed. Damn that ol' man! Damn me! I shouldn't have let him get to me like that. If I hadn't brought it up, he probably wouldn't have tossed me out. I could have at least stayed 'til I was healed up a little more.

He needed to get to town soon. He had stitched himself up plenty of times before, but he couldn't stitch behind his back. He was unaware that he was gradually slumping lower and lower, over the saddle horn. Dizziness and sleep slipped into control. The last time he had put his hand to his back, it had come back covered in blood and he was in too much pain to wipe his hand off.

It was getting harder to stay awake and the sweat from the pain alternated with chills. He pressed on, until he couldn't any more. By then, he didn't know Barranca had stopped and felt nothing as he slid down to the ground.

"Let him go, Scott. That's what he wanted, so let him go! He did his job. That's all this was for him, a job. Now he'll go take another one and do to someone else what Pardee was doing here, to us!"

Scott was torn. He wanted to go after his brother. He hadn't been treated fairly. But, could Murdoch be right? He knew more about Johnny than he did. How was Johnny going to survive being so injured? Well, if the scars were anything to go by, his brother was resilient.

He watched as his father collapsed into the chair behind his desk, picking up his drink and knocking it back. "Would you mind bringing that decanter over here?"

Scott picked up a glass and the decanter. He poured his father another and then himself one.

Murdoch turned his chair around to face the window, looking old and tired.

Scott slipped out to the veranda. He could hear the women in the kitchen beginning the evening meal preparation. He wanted to avoid being the one to tell them Johnny was gone. Let Murdoch do that. He wanted no part of it. He needed to think about his own next move.

The urgent calls of ranch hands woke him from deep thought. As he stood, he saw movement to his left as his father bolted out of the French doors, limping as fast as he could, having resorted to the use of his cane.

Standing in the yard was his brother's horse.

It took two of the ranch hands to corner and catch the palomino. Murdoch examined the horse and deemed him uninjured, but blood covered the back of the saddle and ran down the palomino's flanks. More blood spattered his rump.

He nodded to the hand that held the horse, indicating he could take the horse and put it away.

Turning to the other one, he told him, "Get some men and a wagon together."

Scott met his father's eyes, unable to read them. His father did look pale.

"Scott, you go with them. Find him, and bring him back here." He thought he detected a little wavering rasp in his father's voice as well.

"Yes sir."

He only hoped it wasn't too late.

Scott, the wagon driver, and two mounted vaqueros, hadn't gone more than a mile or so before they came across a buggy parked on the side of the road. They had been following not only tracks, but a trail of blood as well.

A head popped up from behind the buggy, parked under a large shade tree. "Thank God!"

"Hi Doc, what's the problem?" Scott was glad to see the medical practitioner, as he had a feeling that they were going to need his services as soon as they found Johnny.

"Well, aren't you looking for Johnny?"

"Well, yes, but . . ."

"Well get off that horse and help me!" he called out over the buggy, "He's right here."

Everyone dismounted and gathered around the doctor. Johnny was face down under the tree in the grass.

"Let me finish putting this bandage on to stop the bleeding until we get him back to the house. What the devil is he doing out here anyway?"

"He and Murdoch fought and he left."

"Left? What the hell made him think he was ready to leave?"

"Murdoch."

"Murdoch?"

"Well, first Johnny said he was leaving and then few minutes later when they'd settled down, they got into it again and Murdoch told him to go."

"In this condition?"

Scott could only nod.

The vaqueros placed Johnny gently in the back of the wagon. Scott tied his horse to the back of the wagon and got into the doctor's buggy to explain what had unfolded.

"Damn that Murdoch and his stubbornness! Sounds like this one's just like him! Just wait 'til I get this boy cleaned up and straightened out and then Mr. Murdoch Lancer and I are going to have a chat!"

When they pulled up to the front of the house, Murdoch hobbled out, followed by Teresa and Maria. One look at the women and Scott could tell that Murdoch would be lucky to get dinner; at least one without some hemlock in it.

Murdoch's face visibly blanched when he saw how pale limp Johnny was as the two vaqueros maneuvered him out of the back of the wagon under the doctor's direction. Scott thought he looked anguished, but didn't know him well enough to be sure. Maybe he did care.

As the two vaqueros carried Johnny to his room, the women went for hot water and bandages. Sam grabbed his medical bag out of the buggy.

Upstairs in his bed, Johnny looked even paler. The two vaqueros had quickly and efficiently removed his pants and put the pair of discarded long johns on him before the women arrived.

Murdoch and Scott stood by as the doctor pulled the temporary bandaging from the wound. All but one of the sutures was torn and the drain was missing. Blood smeared his back and was still seeping, but at a much slower rate, now that he was on his stomach.

Out of the corner of his eye, Scott glanced at his father. He couldn't read his expression. Hard to tell if he was blaming himself for this or if he was still angry with Johnny.

He heard his father ask, "Will he live, Sam?"

"Frankly, Murdoch, I don't know. He's lost a lot of blood, and it wouldn't surprise me if this became infected again. If you and Scott wouldn't mind leaving Maria and I alone we'll, get the wound cleaned up and stitched"

Teresa was in the kitchen finishing the dinner preparations while Scott and Murdoch sat glumly in the great room. His father was downing another drink and Scott decided to have another as well.

The whiskey decanter between them on the sofa table each lost in thought. The only sound in the room was the ticking of the old clock.

They waited.

It was an hour before the doctor descended the stairs. Scott watched as Murdoch poured himself two more drinks during that time. He had only nursed the one drink, preparing for the worst, when the doctor would finally lay into his father.

The doctor entered the room, picked up a glass from the bar, sat down on the sofa, and poured himself a double. Not a good sign.

Murdoch stared at the doctor. "Well?" His tone was angry.

"Yes, but no thanks to you. He's set back a good two weeks at least."

"Hhrumph!" Murdoch muttered.

Scott watched as the doctor took another good shot of his drink and then put it down.

"Murdoch, what in hell, happened out here to make that boy ride out like that, and don't tell me you don't know, because I know you had an argument!"

"It's no business of yours!"

"It damn well is, since I'm the one who's patched him up twice now. Not to mention all the talks we've had about him, and you seeking advice that you don't seem to absorb!"

The doctor unloaded on his father and Scott thought it odd that his father didn't get angry back, well, at least not much.

"Sam, that boy is a liability! He's disrespectful, sullen, angry, and frankly, I think it's too late for him to be any good! He's a paid killer for God's sake!" Murdoch slammed his glass down on the table, and sat up. "I don't know if I can deal with that!"

"Murdoch, he is your son, for God's sake. He's only a boy. It's not too late. He just needs some time to adjust and to get used to you. And you! You need to stop jumping to conclusions about him. You've spent all that damn money and time looking for him and you don't even give him a chance? He took a bullet for you man! You've given him no chance whatsoever!"

The doctor paused, partly to take a breath, and partly to let his words sink in before he continued in a more professional manner, "He can't afford to lose any more blood, but he's young. I will be spending the night to keep an eye on him."

"You do just that Sam." Murdoch's words slurred ever so slightly and he stood on unsteady legs, but left the room and headed for the stairs. Scott listened as he made his way up them, his limping footfalls resounding in a slovenly manner down the hallway.

With a groan, Murdoch collapsed into the chair at Johnny's bedside. The boy looked so much worse than the first time he was shot and brought up to this room. A boy not old enough to have shouldered or done all the things detailed in that Pinkerton report.

Murdoch sighed. This was his fault. He knew it. He didn't need Sam and Scott to remind him or to throw it in his face. He had a quick temper and it appeared that his son did too.

Johnny, Johnny, what will I do with you? Huh boy? What happened to that happy blue-eyed boy I used to love? What did your mother do to you? What have I done to you?

Leaning forward, he got close to Johnny's face. He examined every detail of it. It was a handsome face. It was Maria's face. Too much like her, to suit him. It was so hard not to see her when he looked at this one. She had betrayed him and he was afraid her son would also.

But Johnny wasn't just her son. He was his son too. His blood ran through the boy's veins. Generations of hardworking Scots and their lineage had helped form this boy.

Stallions might stamp their progeny, but the dam is the one who helps mold their behavior.

Where was his stamp here? Physically, the dark blue eyes of his grandmother were there. He had noticed Johnny's rather large hands before and thought about how much like his own they were.

Maria had been the one who had influenced Johnny in his formative years. Exactly what her influence was, he could only speculate. He suspected that Sam had tried to spare him his real thoughts on where some of those scars came from.

He had had no idea that Maria would run off with another man and take Johnny. That wasn't the Maria he had married and loved. What had happened to her? Had she given their boy any love? Cared for him at all? Had she let the men he read about in the Pinkerton report abuse Johnny? Most importantly, what had made Johnny pick up the gun and become a killer for hire?

Was it really too late? Was Johnny just a misguided young man, a lost soul, or someone who had no soul? He had seen gunfighters in action. He knew what they were. Dead men walking, he had always thought of them.

He had been devastated to learn what had become of his baby boy. His feelings of joy to learn Johnny was alive and well died when he learned his boy was a gunfighter, even more so, a notorious gunfighter.

He had gotten drunk that night. Alone in the great room with the letter from the Pinkerton Detective Agency, he had drunk himself into a stupor by the fire. Teresa found him the next morning still in his chair, the bottle on the floor.

She had sent for the doctor. When Sam arrived, he had confided in him. Since then he and Sam had had numerous conversations about Johnny, about both sons, but mostly about Johnny.

What signs had he seen that Johnny had wanted to change, that he had a soul; that he was worth trying to redeem? Sam and Scott seemed to think taking that bullet and being his son were all that he needed.

But he hadn't been sure that Johnny was on their side until it was over. In taking a bullet for Lancer, Johnny had betrayed his own kind, his own pack. Maria had betrayed him, would Johnny? Was whatever in her that made her leave him, in Johnny?

He knew he couldn't stand losing the boy now that he had seen him, interacted with him. In fact, after he had laid eyes on each of them, he knew he would sink as sure as ship in the sea, if either of them ever left him. It would be the end of him. He just couldn't take any more hurt and without them, there would be no reason at all for Lancer.

He had to make a decision, back against the wall. He could see that his son was all business, just as he was. There would be no emotion on Johnny's part if he left; at least that anyone would see. This incident had told him so.

There was no mistaking the hate and anger in those blue eyes that first day. The hateful way he had spoken those words that had burned through him like a hot knife, "you got somethin' to say ol' man, say it."

Nope, there was no doubt his boy was full of anger and hate. Other than those two emotions, he was ice cold, void of any apparent feelings.

Except.

That little flicker in the boy's eyes, much like the one he thought he had seen that first day, when they first looked each other over. When he told Johnny to leave, he had been staring right into those blue orbs, but had ignored it. He had been too angry to acknowledge it. That moment had been all about calling the tune. Winning at all cost. He had to. He was the father, the patriarch and he was the one who had lost everything to have everything, and by God, he was going to be the winner. Maybe that attitude was his mistake, but if he backed down, Johnny would run roughshod over him, or would he?

Is there any hope for you Johnny? Having Maria for a mother and me for a father?

When it came down to it though, Johnny was his son. Admittedly, a part of him had been comforted by the boy's experience with range wars and takeovers, like the attack on Lancer. It even turned out to be fortuitous in the end, that Pardee knew and respected Johnny.

It would have been so easy for Johnny to have acted on his hate and anger and help Pardee take Lancer. Surely, the boy thought of that possibility. Instead, he had traded on his kinship with the man, and betrayed him.

Was it indicative that Johnny couldn't be trusted? That he was capable of being a traitor?

Maria had betrayed his love, would Johnny?

Except.

He took a big risk, and almost lost his life in that reckless act that had saved Lancer.

Damn. He had to decide, now, before Johnny awoke and they had to face each other again.

He excelled at quick and efficient decision-making. He assembled the facts thought about the consequences of each and then determined the best course of action. Now, the most important decision he had ever made in his life lay before him and he had to choose.

Was it possible that Johnny was sincere in trying to make a life at Lancer? Or, was it his intent to collect a pay off and be on his way all along? He had brought up the subject of 'gun' money that first day.

Except.

He didn't take the money.

It was a gamble he knew, and he wasn't much for gambling. He preferred hard work and determination to luck and chance.

Murdoch Lancer rolled the dice.

Placing his large hand over one of Johnny's, he gave it a squeeze and whispered, "Get well son, I'm sorry."

Chapter 13

She lay on her back. Her long black hair surrounded her face. Her arms and legs splayed about in an unnatural pose. Her eyes no longer held that familiar light that had burned inside them. Her dress was torn and blood ran down her face. He grabbed her hand. It fell away, limp and heavy.

"Mami'!, Mami'! NO! Mami'! Ponerse de pie! Por favor, Mami'! NO!"

Johnny opened his eyes and Murdoch's heart almost stopped beating. He had never seen so much fear in a pair of eyes as he did those of this lost boy. Murdoch had one arm around Johnny and the other on his chest, trying to support him and stop him from pulling the stitches loose yet again as he fought to get away.

A hummingbird's wings would have difficulty keeping up with the pace of his son's heartbeat right now. He watched helplessly as the boy gasped desperately for air.

He nearly jumped out of his own skin when Johnny's bedroom door burst open and Scott appeared, completely disheveled. "What the hell?"

"He's having a nightmare!"

Scott stared at his brother, whose normally tan skin, already pale from blood loss, suddenly blanched.

"Watch out!" Scott dove for the basin and placed it on Johnny's lap barely in time.

By the time Johnny had finished throwing up, he was also fully awake and alert. Murdoch had a close-up view of his son's eyes as confusion, before wariness flooded them.

Scott handed him a wet cloth and put the basin outside the door.

Drenched in sweat, Johnny pulled the wet cloth away from Murdoch and wrenched away from him, "I'm okay. Just sick." He winced at the pain in his back when he tried to push his hair out of his face.

Murdoch had felt Johnny's body trembling before he pulled away.

"What can I get for you, John?" Murdoch's voice was soft.

"A shot of whiskey would be good."

Scott and Murdoch looked at each other. "I'll go." Scott turned to leave the room.

"There's a bottle in my saddle bags, or don't you remember?" Irritation was clear in Johnny's voice, as he wiped his face with the wet cloth.

Scott, stepped over, pulled the bottle out, and reached for a glass.

"Skip the glass. Give me the bottle."

Murdoch and Scott cringed at the thought of that long draw of whiskey pouring down into his empty stomach. Johnny wiped his mouth with his forearm and sat the bottle on the table when he finished as though he'd had a drink of water.

Murdoch eased back into his chair again. Johnny sat on the side of the bed, in the cut off long johns, still breathing hard, hands resting on his knees, and looking at the floor. The bandaging around his naked torso, barely whiter than his blood depleted skin.

He looked up with a wary look on his face, "Last I remember I was headed down the road. So how did I get back here?"

"Your horse had sense enough to come back without you. Seeing how he was covered in blood, it seemed we should go out to find you." Scott chastised his newly found brother with his best Boston attitude.

Johnny turned to his father, sitting in the chair, "That right ol' man? You tell 'em to do that?"

"Yes, I did. But that was a day and a half ago."

"Mierda!"

"John!"

Johnny ignored Murdoch and looked up at Scott, with a slight grin, "That the latest in fashion?"

Murdoch and Johnny both stared at Scott, who stood in a long purple and gold silk robe.

"It was a Christmas present last year, and yes, it is! You should be happy I have plenty, else you would be there 'au natural' instead of in long johns."

"You can have them back. Like I said, I usually don't wear them."

Johnny moved as if to stand but Murdoch leaned forward and put his hand on his shoulder.

"There'll be none of that, not with Teresa here." While his tone was light and nonthreatening, Johnny turned his head and looked at his hand, his eyes traveling up Murdoch's long arm to his face, coming to rest upon his eyes.

Murdoch maintained the eye contact, but did remove his hand. "Now that you're awake, would you like something to eat?"

Johnny leaned over and ran his hand through his long bangs, brushing them back.

"Yeah, I guess a little something. Is there any milk? I'd rather have that than anything."

"I'll get it, sir." Scott turned to leave when Murdoch stopped him, "No, Scott. I'll get it. I need to stretch a bit. Besides, I'm probably a little more familiar with a kitchen than you."

"Well, sir, I can't deny that. My only claim to the kitchen is sneaking food out." Scott made to bow as his father stepped past him.

Scott sat down in the chair next to the bed as he and Johnny listened to the hitching stride of their father. Their father. Neither could quite grasp that concept.

Johnny began to ease himself back into the bed again, with his hands flat on the mattress and scooting carefully back against the headboard. He winced and caught his breath a couple of times, shaking his head when Scott moved to help him. He managed to get to a position where he could lean back against the headboard with a pillow cushioning his lower back.

"So, the old man sent you to look for me? Where'd you find me?"

"Yes, he did. We didn't find you. Dr. Jenkins found you on the side of the road."

"Oh."

"You forgot your money anyway."

"No, no I didn't. Just didn't want it."

Scott stared at Johnny who was looking down at the bed, tracing a design on the sheet with his finger.

"After all that, you didn't want it?" Scott's raised voice caused Johnny to snap his head around to look at him.

"No, I didn't."

"Why not? I thought that was the point?"

"None of your business, Scott. I just didn't want it, Okay?" He leaned his head back against the headboard and squeezed his eyes tight, "You know that ol' man can't carry milk up the stairs."

Johnny's dismissive tone made it clear that he did not intend to discuss the situation further. Scott stood up and headed for the kitchen.

Scott found his father had stew heating in a pot, coffee brewing, and was at the table making biscuits by the time he got downstairs.

"Johnny okay? Still awake?" Murdoch questioned as he glanced back at Scott's entrance.

"Oh yeah, he's grumpy and uncooperative as usual."

Murdoch snorted. "Well, I guess that's a good sign. His mother was that way when she was sick."

And what about mine? Scott thought as he watched his father's big hands divide dough to make equally large biscuits.

"Would you mind getting him some fresh sheets and maybe help him freshen up a bit and change before we feed him? Might settle him down a bit."

"Certainly. How about I take him a glass of milk to keep the demons of hunger at bay until this is ready?"

Murdoch looked up from his biscuits and smiled, "Son, you're getting good at this big brother thing."

"Most of my friends had pesky little brothers."

They shared a smile at the comment.

Scott found the milk and poured a large glass. Replacing the pitcher, he took the glass and turned to go up the back stairs.

"Scott?"

"Yes, sir?"

"I know this is hard and I appreciate your cooperation."

"Thank you, sir. I think it will all work out with time." I hope, he thought as he left his father.

He pushed open the door to find Johnny holding the whiskey bottle and staring at it. Lost in thought, Johnny started at Scott's arrival.

Scott saw a flash of pain across his brother's face before it regained its impassive look.

"What happened to the ol' man?"

"He's making biscuits for you little brother."

Johnny gave him a look of disbelief.

"Yes, biscuits. I have to admit, they're a little larger than the ones Maria makes. I hope for your sake they don't come out like rocks."

Scott handed Johnny the glass of milk. "I've been instructed to help you freshen up and to change your sheets."

"I'm okay. No need."

"Oh come on. You can't be comfortable. You and your bed are all sweaty."

Johnny took a long swig of milk and Scott almost smiled at the milk mustache left on his face, but didn't think his brother would appreciate it.

"You're not givin' me another sponge bath."

"What are you talking about? You were awake when we did that?"

"So it wasn't a dream?"

"Dream?"

"Well, I wasn't sure. I couldn't tell. Guess it was the fever."

"You had a lot of dreams."

Johnny fell quiet. He placed the glass on the bedside table and began to try to ease himself to a position where he could get his legs over the side.

Touchy subject, Scott thought. He moved over and put his arm around his brother's shoulder and under his armpit and pulled him forward and up to alleviate the strain on his back. Well, no argument there at least.

Once up, he helped Johnny over to the small table in the room where he helped him sit and brought him the water pitcher, basin, and a washcloth.

While Johnny freshened up, Scott changed the bed sheets and presented him with a fresh pair of long johns, knowing he was going to have to pretty much deal with a naked little brother.

Johnny didn't seem embarrassed in the least about being butt naked in front of him, more embarrassed about needing the help. They had certainly been more intimate than either was comfortable with, but had survived the moment.

Once Johnny was dressed and back in the bed, he stared down at the quilt, pulling at a lose knot and whispered, "Thanks, Scott." He looked up and met his older brother's eyes. For that brief moment, they shared a warmth and understanding, a foreign feeling to both, before Johnny looked away

Scott smiled, "You're welcome, brother."

Murdoch's entrance into the room interrupted the tiny moment of bonding.

As he bumped his shoulder against the door, Scott rushed forward to take the large, heavily laden tray from him.

"Sir, I was coming down to help you with that."

"Nonsense, you were busy. Besides, my leg's feeling pretty good."

Funny, that seems to coincide with Johnny's state of health lately.

"That's good to hear, but still . . ."

Scott sat the tray on the bureau. He took the coffee pot and poured three cups, handing one to Murdoch who had settled back into the chair by the bed, and the other to Johnny.

Leaving the pot aside, along with one cup, he removed the dishes, from the tray, dipped a bowl of stew and placed it and some biscuits along with a spoon and dinner napkin on it. He crossed the room and placed it in Johnny's lap.

Johnny seemed shy when he looked first at his father and then up at his brother.

"Only been waited on like this once before. Fancy hotel in Tombstone. Indoor plumbin' and everything."

"You? In a fancy hotel? Sounds like a story brother. Care to share?"

Johnny looked up over his bowl of stew and picked up one of the large biscuits. He turned it in his hand a couple of times, contemplating it.

"Maria must have still been asleep when she made these." He gave his father a sideways glance.

Murdoch looked miffed. "Don't be ridiculous, Johnny. I made those."

Johnny knocked it against the tray, "Don't seem too hard, even though it looks like a rock. Reckon I could get three skips outta this one on that pond down by the road."

Scott saw an impish grin cross his brother's face and the scowl on his father's.

Johnny dipped it into the stew, took a tentative bite, and began to chew slowly. Nodding his head, he announced, "Not bad for an ol' man."

Murdoch made a disgusted sound and Scott laughed aloud, pulling a wooden chair from the table, placing it beside his father's before sitting down with his own cup of coffee.

"Here, Boston, try one." Johnny moved his tray towards Scott.

Scott stood and reached over and took a biscuit, biting into as he sat back down.

"You're right Johnny, these are light. Fluffy even!"

"You boys!" Murdoch gruffed with a laugh, enjoying the moment of light heartedness between them, even if it was at his expense.

Scott relaxed. It seemed the tension between his father and brother was gone and the fight over with and all forgiven, at least for now. Molding themselves into a family wasn't going to be easy, but it seemed everyone wanted to try, even his enigma of a little brother. He had a deep feeling that the role of mediator would be his, and that both his father and brother needed him desperately to help them find their way to a path of understanding. Yes, the role of big brother was there, waiting for him and he was ready to shoulder the harness.

His own need for understanding would have to wait until the chasm between his brother and father was bridged. In helping them understand each other, he hoped he would find a few answers himself.

Johnny became sleepy before he finished his stew and four biscuits. Scott and Murdoch helped him lay back down into the bed. Murdoch fussed over the positioning of the pillows while Scott picked up the dishes, smirking at his father's attentiveness to Johnny.

Johnny was asleep before they reached the door. Scott watched his father reached over and affectionately brushed his little brother's long bangs from his face, and turn down the lamp.

Chapter 14

Hmmm, feels so good.

He burrowed his face a little deeper into the pillow, relishing the moment, trying to remember where he was.

Soft bed, fresh smelling sheets, light warm breeze caressing the exposed part of his shoulder and face. He was on his side, his face buried in the pillows. He was at Lancer.

He began to roll over on his back, stretching his arm out. Hot pain seared through his back at the same time he heard Murdoch bellow, "John, no!"

The pain sent him into a fetal position and his father's hands grabbed hold to keep him from rolling over. He heard what sounded like a book and papers hit the floor, but he was breathless from the pain. Face buried in the pillow, eyes squeezed shut; he bit his lip to prevent himself from crying out.

Unable to move, he felt calloused hands rubbing him between the shoulder blades with unexpected gentleness.

The need to breathe won over the pain and he turned his head so that his mouth and nose were out of the pillow's folds. As he panted, he felt his father's hand move to stroke his head and brush his hair out of his eyes.

"There, there" he heard his father whisper. "Better now?"

Still speechless, he nodded into the pillow.

He opened his eyes as the pain subsided into a dull burn and saw his father stooping awkwardly to pick up the papers and ledger that had fallen on the floor.

More careful on his second attempt, he managed to tilt himself back a bit so he could face his father, who placed his materials in the chair and turned back to face him.

"Wanna sit up?"

"Yeah." He whispered, nodding slightly with his reply.

Murdoch stepped over and supported him under his armpits until he could roll over without any pain and then pulled him up gently, holding him with one arm and placing pillows behind him with the other hand. He helped him slide back, keeping them between Johnny's back and neck and the headboard of the bed.

"Much better, aye?"

"Yeah. Thanks."

"Would you like some coffee or juice?"

"Ya got coffee?"

"Certainly." Murdoch stepped across the room and opened the door, yelling out, "Maria, coffee for John, please!"

Johnny heard Maria's faint reply of "Si' Señor, un momento!"

His eyes watched his father turn and come back to his chair, watching the giant pick up his papers before seating himself again.

"Sam will be out here some time today to check on you."

"Sam?"

"Doctor Jenkins."

"Oh."

"How are you feeling?" Murdoch leaned forward and planted a large palm across his forehead. It left him feeling like a little kid, when his mother would check him for fever. Only he wasn't and he felt ridiculous.

"No fever."

"I'm okay. I feel good."

"Good?" Murdoch raised doubtful eyebrows towards him.

"Other than the obvious, I feel rested. How long have I been asleep for?"

"Just since about two this morning."

"Is that when I ate? Or was that a dream?"

"No dream. You ate this morning."

Unable to hold his father's steady gaze at him, he looked down at the bed.

"Sorry to be so much trouble. I reckon I'll be ready to ride in a day or two."

"Nonsense. The only thing you'll be riding is that bed, and maybe the couch if Sam says it's okay."

Johnny picked at the tiny knot at the corner of one of the quilt squares.

"Thought you gave me the keys to the road."

"I let anger make a decision for me. I shouldn't have. I . . . I . . . don't want you to go. I want you to stay here with Scott and me. Make a new start for yourself."

So much for 'I'm sorry.

"Pffft! Don't know that that's possible." He turned to look out the window.

"Of course it is. I didn't say it would be easy."

"Do you know who I am? What I am?" Johnny turned his head to look at his father, his eyes emotionless.

Murdoch's, light blue eyes stared into Johnny's dark blue eyes, looking for a clue as he answered.

"I know your reputation as a gunfighter, I know what the Pinkerton report says, but who you are really? What you are?" He shook his head, "No, I don't know. Like I said, we're strangers to each other, but you are my son and I want to give you the opportunity to turn your life around. To make something of yourself."

To save your soul, if you have one.

Johnny continued to stare into his father's eyes. I've already made something of myself. That's the problem.

Maria bustled into the room with a tray of coffee and juice. There was a plate with some fruit and cheese on it. Johnny watched as she sat the tray in his lap humming something that sounded familiar. He looked up into smiling brown eyes.

"El doctor say for you to eat whatever you like. You like some breakfast? Bacon? Steak? Eggs?"

"I don't wanna be any trouble."

"Juanito, you are no trouble. I make you breakfast, no?"

"Si', gracious." He managed a slight smile that sent her humming out of the room.

"Maria will have you fattened up in no time." His father smiled, watching her leave the room.

"Yeah? Well I guess I did lose some weight before I got here."

"You mean in the prison?"

"You know about that huh?" Johnny lifted his head slightly, but his eyes never looked up. They remained hooded and looking down at the tray in his lap."

"Yes. I know about the prison."

"You know where I was when the Pink found me?"

"Yes."

With a slight nod of his head, Johnny turned and stared out the window again.

"You're sure you want me to stay?" his voice was soft.

"I'm sure, Johnny."

"It's gonna be hard for people to forget what I am. There'll be trouble. People may come lookin' for me."

"We'll face it together, as a family."

"Scott okay with this?"

"He has no choice, really, but yes, he wants to get to know you, to have you for a brother."

Johnny half snorted.

"I don't think you know what you're getting into and I know he doesn't."

"I know. I'm finally going to be with my sons, that's what I'm getting into."

"Ol' Man . . ."

Johnny was interrupted by Teresa's barging into the room.

"Johnny! You're up! How do you feel? What can I do for you?"

She ran towards the bed and Murdoch saw Johnny shrink back against the pillows ever so slightly, and saw the quirk of pain in the corner of the boy's mouth.

He grabbed the exuberant girl's arm and laughed. "Teresa darling, slow down, you could hurt Johnny."

"But Uncle Murdoch!"

"Tereeesa." Murdoch cautioned.

"Oh, all right." She turned to Johnny. "I'm sorry, I'm just so excited that you're awake and feeling better. You look much better. Here, let me straighten your pillows."

Johnny held his hand up and gave her a weak smile. "I'm all right. The ol', I mean Murdoch's got me all fixed up, okay honey?"

"You're sure?" She gave him a look of disbelief.

"I'm sure."

Murdoch felt for her when he saw the crestfallen look on her face, and while he didn't understand much about Johnny, he could tell the boy didn't want to be bothered by her.

"If it's not too much trouble, you could open the curtains back, I guess." Johnny offered. He didn't like being in the darkened room.

"Sure."

Teresa all but skipped over to the window and pulled the heavy drapes back, allowing the sunlight to pour into the room. She looked back to see Johnny blink hard at the dramatic change in light. She pulled the sheers across, allowing the light in, without the blinding effects of the sun.

"There. Better now?" Her desire to please did not go unnoticed by Johnny.

"Yeah, thanks, querida."

With a big grin on her face, she announced, "Well, if there's nothing else, I'll go help Maria get your breakfast ready."

Once she was out the door and they could hear her making her way down the back stairs, Murdoch turned to Johnny, who was working on an orange slice.

"Sorry about that. She's just happy to see you feeling better."

Johnny shrugged his shoulders slightly, "I just ain't used to it, that's all."

"Well, she's a good girl, and I think lonely too."

"Lonely? Here?" Johnny could hardly fathom it. Lonely. What he'd give to have five minutes away from all the prying eyes and the constant fuss. He needed to think on things a bit.

"Well, she's got Maria, and some of the other women, but it's still not the same as family and living in the same house with two brothers."

"Brothers?" Johnny laid his orange rind down, and picked up the steaming cup of coffee. It was dark and strong, and black, the way he liked it. God, just to have some time to myself with this coffee.

"Well, that's how I've decided she should think of you."

I see. What you've decided Ol' man. Don't matter what Scott and me think or want.

"'Kay." He sipped his coffee, before continuing. "So what's goin' on outside?"

"Well, I've got you're brother working with Cipriano today. We've got most of the ranch cleaned up from the gunfight, so I'm letting him get a little feel for real ranch work, without killing him his first day."

Johnny snorted.

"I guess he's in for a shock."

Murdoch laughed with him. "Probably. What about you, Johnny, ever do any ranch work?"

"A little. Enough to know I didn't like it."

"I see."

"Well, do you think you'll like it better now?"

"I don't know. Hope so."

Murdoch's face darkened. "Well, I'm waiting for you to heal up so we can go into town to sign the partnership agreement. But . . ."

Johnny turned to look at him, swallowing his coffee.

"So you've think I'm man enough to hold on to it now?" He stared into Murdoch's eyes, but couldn't tell much, other than he'd pissed him off.

"What I'm saying is, if you don't want to be a partner . . ."

"Then I can take my pay and be on my way?"

"No, John, that's NOT what I'm saying."

Murdoch's raised tone, assured him that he had nudged the bear a little too much, so he waited, taking another sip of coffee, staring at the remains of the fruit and cheese he had all but inhaled.

"I'm trying to say, if you don't want to be a rancher we might come to some other agreement. I built this place for you and Scott."

Try-For us? Like hell. You did it without caring where I was and just didn't care to have him here.

"What kind of agreement?"

"I don't know, but something. You need to decide what you want to do."

"I thought I was gonna be a part owner in a big spread." He couldn't help himself.

"Well you just said you didn't like ranching!" Damn this boy is exasperating!

"That don't mean I ain't gonna do it." Johnny looked down into his coffee rather than to look into his father's angry eyes. "Yeah, well. Don't worry about it okay? I'll pull my share."

"That, you will boy, that, you will."

Maria bustled in with the tray, ignoring the tension in the room. She sat the new one down on the table in the middle of the room and removed the old one.

She placed the new tray on Johnny's lap and turned to refresh his coffee cup before placing it on the new tray.

"Es muy bueno. You eat. You want more, you ring this little bell."

Maria removed a small silver bell from the tray and placed it on the bedside table. Johnny looked at her as if she'd lost her mind.

Teresa came rushing in behind her with a glass of milk.

"Yes, Johnny, just ring the bell and we'll be right in!"

She received the same look from Johnny as she handed him the milk and stepped back quickly, unsure of its meaning.

Maria refilled his coffee and wiped her hands on her apron.

"Señor Johnny, you need anything else?"

Johnny looked at the tray on his lap. A banquet compared to most of the meals he'd had in his life.

"I can't eat all this." He looked up at the older woman beaming at him, who laughed at the statement.

"No worry. I come back later for the tray."

She grabbed the coffee tray with its plate of empty fruit rinds and handed it to Teresa.

"Out, Niña, you have no business in here."

"I wanted to read to Johnny."

"Darling, you know the rules." Murdoch's voice was firm.

"We go, now." Maria gave Teresa a little push and herded her out the door.

"Rules, huh?"

Johnny glanced at Murdoch as Maria closed the door behind her.

"Well, we've instructed Teresa to stay out of here."

"Scared the big bad gunfighter's gonna rape her?" Johnny laughed and shoved a forkful of eggs into his mouth.

"For heavens' sakes! No, it's improper for a girl her age to be in here with you not dressed."

"Right. Never thought about it. But you'll get no argument from me on that." He picked up a slice of bacon and took half of it into his mouth. As he washed it down with a gulp of coffee, he added, "she seems sweet, but I don't really want her in here."

Well, there's something we agree was relieved.

"Well, I'll leave you to eat and I'll come back to check on you in a bit." Murdoch rose slowly from his chair. Johnny watched out of the corner of his eye. The man would have made a hell of a scary gunfighter if he'd had any speed to him.

"Okay."

When the door closed, Johnny eased himself back and rested his head against the headboard of the bed. He closed his eyes and inhaled long and slow. Pushing his hair back against his head with both hands, he released it, and the tension, that had been building up in his head.

Mierda. How was he ever gonna stand this. Would he ever be alone again? At least the ol' man was keepin' the girl away, and had sense enough to let him eat in peace.

Well, for now, it would have to do. He needed to heal up good, so if he decided to leave, or he was thrown out again, he wouldn't end up like this, owing them all, and feeling humiliated.

Of course, he just had to piss the ol' man off. No, he never liked ranching. He hated cows, well, except on a plate. Horses. That's what he had wanted to raise. Well, the rare time or two he allowed himself to think about something as unlikely as a future. Still, he shouldn't have said that to the ol'man.

He hadn't had these kinds of meals in a long time. Only when he was flush with money had he eaten like this. Most of the time, he got by on tamales and beans. He didn't waste his money like the ol' man probably thought he did; just because he didn't have a lot when he got here. Hell, he'd been in prison and robbed pretty much of everything he had.

With a deep breath, he eased back up and started eating again.

Chapter 15

"Johnny, this is looking very good." Sam Jenkins said as he gently removed the pad of the bandage. "Very, very, good. I'm pleased."

The doctor squeezed his naked shoulder, as Johnny lay on his stomach, a pillow hugged under his chest, resting his cheek on it keeping an eye on the doc.

"A few more days in bed like this, and you'll be healed enough to get up a bit each day."

Johnny's sigh was an obvious objection to remaining bed ridden.

"I know this is tough for you."

Sam continued swabbing the wound and the area around it. He was surprised that the boy only flinched mildly from the sting of the antiseptic, which he knew was seeping down into the unhealed wound. Clearly, he had a very strong tolerance for pain.

From the looks of him, it was an acquired tolerance.

What the hell had Maria done, taking this boy away to let him be hurt like that? The look on Murdoch's face when he saw the old scars, well, it was a good thing Maria wasn't around. Murdoch would have killed her himself.

"If you do as I say for another day or two, you'll be well on the road to a complete recovery. Let's just press on and get this over with. If you don't stay down, you'll only set yourself back that much more. Understand?"

"I got it, Doc."

Sam Jenkins smiled to himself at the boy's soft forlorn reply. How could Murdoch resist this boy's charm? The expression on his face, with his lower lip puffed out reminded him so much of that two year old the two of them remembered. This boy might be a feared gunfighter, but really, he was just a boy, grown up too fast.

"There." Sam had finished cleaning and sanitizing the wound area. He took a light, but firm grip on Johnny's arm and helped him ease into a sitting position. He knew it hurt the boy to move, but he seemed to have a strong tolerance for pain.

"'Course, you're gonna have a scar."

Johnny gave him a sideways look. "It won't be the first or the last, I don't guess."

"Well, I certainly hope it will be the last. Hopefully you'll stop collecting these now that you're home."

"I can't promise nothin'. I hear ranchin's dangerous work." Johnny stared straight ahead, raising his arms as needed, while the doctor began wrapping the bandaging around his torso.

"Well, you do have a point. Have you ever done any ranching?"

"Very little."

"I see. Well, then, I guess you and Scott can learn together."

Johnny snorted lightly, "Yep, the gunfighter and the dandy. At least I can rope. Poor ol' Boston'll have to practice that one."

"Boston? Is that what you call Scott?"

"Sometimes. He hates it, but he'll learn to like it.

Sam laughed, Johnny was becoming attached to them and he didn't even know it."

He tied off the bandage neatly.

"There you are! All finished. I'll help you back down."

"Doc, you mind if I take a piss while I'm up?"

"Certainly not. Let me help you."

Johnny turned deadpan eyes towards him. "Sorry doc, you can help me up, but the rest I can handle. Some parts of me, only me and the ladies handle."

Sam laughed again and took hold of Johnny's arm to help him stand up. Johnny eased around the bed with tentative baby steps towards the chamber pot while the doctor put his medical bag in order.

Johnny crept back towards the bed and Sam helped him sit back against the headboard.

He pulled the covers up over Johnny, who adjusted them the way he wanted.

"Would you like some water or something?"

"I'm okay."

"Johnny, I want you to know that I'm not just your doctor, I'm your friend. I know things are gonna be hard for you, and sometimes it helps to talk it out with someone. I know you have no real reason to trust me, and I've known your father a long time, but I will keep your confidences. So if you ever need or want to talk, about anything, my door is always open."

Johnny looked into the doctor's eyes and saw the sincerity there. "Thanks, Doc."

"Now, are you ready for me to open the door and let these anxious people in?" He smiled.

"No, but go ahead. They'll bust the door down if you don't."

"I think you're right." Sam laughed.

Johnny watched as the door opened and Murdoch filled the frame and then stepped into the room, followed by Scott, Maria, and then Teresa. All had eager looks on their faces.

As they settled in standing positions around the bed, he saw the doctor nod to Murdoch.

"I'm very happy with his condition, very, very, happy. Keep it looking like this, and he can get up for small visits to a chair in another day or so.

"That's great news Sam."

"We'll fix you a nice soft chair won't we, Maria?" Teresa offered.

Johnny managed a small shy smile. It was hard to believe these people were so interested in his comfort.

"For now, niña, we will make him something to eat!" Maria put her hands on Teresa's shoulders, turning her about face, and escorted her out the door, leaving the men alone.

"So there's no sign of infection?"

"None whatsoever, Murdoch. The wound itself is healing and the stitches are still nice and tight. He's being a model patient."

Murdoch made a growling snort, "Well, we have done everything but tie him to the bed. So your prognosis is for complete recovery?"

"A few weeks away I'm afraid, but at this rate, I feel comfortable that we should not have too many bends in the road."

"Wonderful."

"But you, my friend, look tired."

"Well, I uh, I uh, was up late last night."

"I see. Looks like you've been sleeping in that chair again."

Johnny watched as the doctor managed to shrink his giant of a father down a size or two. He looked down, hiding the smile on his face.

"Well, I've been staying up with Johnny. Someone had to watch over him."

Johnny's head snapped up at that.

"So watching him sleep is better than getting sleep yourself?"

"Sam."

"Murdoch, let's have this conversation downstairs over a drink and let Johnny get some rest."

Sam put his hand on Murdoch's shoulder to encourage him to turn towards the door.

"Johnny, I'll be back in a day or two. Take it easy son." The doctor gave him a warning look before he turned away, medical bag in one hand and Murdoch's arm in the other.

"Yes, Johnny, get some rest. I'll be back to check on you after while." Murdoch turned back to him before leaving the room with the doctor.

As the doctor exited the room behind Murdoch, he turned with a smile and winked at Johnny before he stepped through the door.

Scott paused for a moment, alone in the room with his brother.

"Get well, brother." He offered somewhat awkwardly and nodded before turning to leave, closing the door behind him.

Alone finally, Johnny tilted his head back against the headboard, let out a whoosh of air and rubbed his hand through his hair. "Fuck, even when he was sleepin' they were in here. What was that about? The ol' man sittin' up with him?"

He rubbed his eyes.

Damn, it felt good to be alone in the peace and quiet of his room.

His room.

He still could not grasp the idea, that for all these years, this very room had been here, empty, waiting for his return. But was it his room? It was Johnny Lancer's room. But who was Johnny Lancer? Was he Johnny Lancer? Could he be Johnny Lancer? Or was it too late? Was he doomed to live and die as Johnny Madrid?

He stared out the window and could see cows grazing in the distance, set against the backdrop of the mountains. It was beautiful to look at. He'd never seen a more beautiful place. To think that he would be part owner of this was overwhelming.

Could he and the ol' man get along? Seemed Scott was more the ol' man's type. Educated, clean cut, tall and blond, Scott was his father's son. Not like him. Small, dark, not much in the way of schoolin', and a magnet for trouble, he had little in common with Murdoch Lancer.

Hell, was this gonna work?

Wanting to give up his life as a gunfighter and doing it were two different things. People were bound to hear about the battle over Lancer, how Johnny Madrid had gone home, and they would come for him.

They would come, wanting to kill him and take his reputation.

How was the ol' man gonna handle that? Shit, how was he gonna handle it? Murdoch was on him for every swear word, English or Spanish, how was he gonna deal with a gunfight in his yard?

No, he couldn't let that happen. He didn't want Maria and the girl to see it. Shit the ol' man would have his hide!

Maria and the girl, that was another problem. Would people use them to get to him? Hell, would they try to use Scott or the ol' man himself? Dios, this wasn't gonna work. It couldn't.

Oh yeah, 'we'll face it as a family' the ol' man says. Hell, he'll change that tune soon as bullets start flyin' that's for damn sure.

Face it Madrid. You hate cows, you hate crowds, and you hate takin' orders. There is no way in hell this is gonna work. No matter how much you want it to.

The door opened, startling him. His hand was on the gun stashed under the pillow before so much as a thought floated through his head.

Maria squealed when she saw the Colt pointed at her. She almost dropped the tray.

"Madre de Dios!"

He realized what he was doing and lowered the weapon, laying the Colt on the bedside table.

"You can't come barging in here like that!"

"I'm sorry Señor Johnny. I forget."

"I know. I didn't mean to scare you."

"Maria?"

They heard Murdoch bellowing from the bottom of the stairs.

"Si' Señor Murdoch, I am okay. No problema."

"You're sure."

"Si' Señor! All is well! Do not be concerned for a woman's silliness!"

"All right."

"Johnny, behave!" Floated up from downstairs.

Johnny rolled his eyes.

Maria sat the tray on the foot of the bed and helped him sit up a little more before placing it on his lap.

"Gracias."

"De nada." She smiled at him. "When you finish, you ring the little bell, Si'?"

"Si'."

She patted his knee. "Anything else?"

"No. This looks great." He smiled and picked up the steak sandwich.

"Good. Now eat!"

She turned and left the room, careful to leave the door cracked open enough to hear the bell from downstairs.

The sandwich was delicious. It was shaved pieces of steak cooked with onions and sweet peppers stuffed between hunks of freshly baked bread. There was a side of fried potatoes and again, some slices of fruit. He had a huge glass of milk and a slice of chocolate cake.

He couldn't quite finish the sandwich, although he tried. His stomach had shrunk so much from being in that damn prison. The milk went down cool and smooth.

He made a valiant effort with the chocolate cake and as he finished the milk, he wiped his mouth with the heavy napkin from the tray and pushed it over to the other side of the bed.

He looked over at the little silver bell. It reminded him of a whore he used visit. She had a little bell like that. She used to hide behind the changing screen, make him strip down and get in the bed. She liked for him to ring the little bell and then she'd come out dressed in a little costume with an apron. She did a little dance for him, unbuttoning the top of her blouse until her tits found their way out and into his hands and mouth, making him good and damn hard before she sucked him off.

His dick twitched and he saw the bed covers shift. Madre Dios! Need to let go of those thoughts. If Maria, or worse, the girl, came charging in, well, it wouldn't be good.

He took his time and scooted down in the bed. When he was far enough down, he rolled on his side, and eased down, reaching tentatively for the pillow and pulling it under his head. He removed the Colt from the bedside table and tucked it under the pillow. With that, he snuggled into the comfort of his bed.

Two breaths later, his long lashes brushed his wrist as his eyes closed and he descended into a sleep so deep, he never heard Maria come in and take away the tray.

He was mending the fence thinking about town and a cold beer. Murdoch had promised he'd unlock the cuff that attached the heavy iron ball and chain to his ankle as soon as he finished pounding the last nail.

Finally, he hit that last stroke and looked up at his father eagerly. Murdoch had a frown on his face. "Johnny, some cows broke through about a mile down the line. You'll need to repair that next."

"But what about town?"

"Johnny, this is a working ranch. Work comes before pleasure." Murdoch growled.

It had been this way all week. Murdoch would take him out to do his chores, the ball and chain attached to his leg. There was always the promise of release, but something always came up and he remained chained to the ball and to the ranch.

Course, it was better than Scott, who was chained to the ol' man's desk working the ledgers everyday.

Johnny woke with a start. Immediately, he knew where he was and knew that he'd been dreaming. Even though he felt rested, a sense of dread washed over him. He couldn't explain it.

It was a lot like how he felt in the Mexican prison.

He moved his hand under his pillow and felt the cold hard steel of the Colt. He rubbed his hand over it. Most of the time, this gave him a sense of peace and safety, but this time, he felt unsettled.

Downstairs, he could hear faint sounds of silver and china clinking. He looked towards the door and saw it was open a bit. Long shadows fell across his bed and his room.

They're eating dinner.

He eased himself over onto his side a little more and carefully, pushed himself up. Fortunately, it didn't hurt as much to do this as it had a few days before.

Sitting on the side of the bed, he yawned and ran his hands over his face and through his hair. He stretched carefully, as much as he dared, without straining his back.

Mierda, I feel low.

He stood gingerly, and baby stepped his way over to the window to look out. The sun was just about to dip behind the mountains, its slowly dying rays leaving the air cool and fresh. It perked him up a bit.

It sure was beautiful here. Enough to keep a man drunk with joy, but that dream had sobered his feelings about the ranch and his father for the moment.

He leaned his head against the window sash and looked down with a sigh.

Chapter 16

Murdoch stepped out of the barn as the sun was beginning to embrace the world with glowing rays. The morning was cool, clear, and fresh. He could smell the dampness of the night as it evaporated into the warm daylight. Not long 'til the fall round up and drive.

He looked upwards towards Johnny's room. Already out there on the balcony again.

He couldn't see him, but he could see puffs of smoke wafting up from the cigarette. Had he slept outside? The guards had told him they had seen the glow of a cigarette several times during the night.

The boy had been restless and brooding even after Sam cleared him to move around his room and balcony. There was nothing else for him to do he reckoned, but it was worrisome.

Maria had smoked when she was brooding. He always hated that, both the smoking and the brooding. The night before he'd found her gone; she'd sat outside smoking. They hadn't even argued that night.

Pain and numbness stopped him in his tracks, weighing him down now as heavily as it did all those years ago. The moment he had laid eyes on Johnny, all the hurt of that morning had washed over him and he hadn't been able to shake it off.

Every time he looked at the boy, he saw Maria, and he saw the happy toddler replaced by an angry young man.

The worst part though, was that he was scared. Scared that it wouldn't work out. He'd already lost his temper with Johnny once, proving that he was too willing to let him go, and that the boy was too willing to leave.

He knew he was afraid. He knew he was trying to protect himself. He had vowed never to let anyone hurt him like that again. No one had. No one had even had the chance until now.

He hadn't planned to give the boys that power over him, but they had it, nonetheless. Johnny, more so than Scott. Not that he didn't love his older son equally, but their relationship was different. He'd never even held Scott. A laughing, joyful, baby Johnny had been ripped from his arms, his life. Their relationship destroyed.

He couldn't breathe.

Grabbing the top rail of the corral, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. God give me strength.

A few calming breaths later, he straightened and pushed away the memories. He turned and headed toward the hacienda and breakfast.

The kitchen was bright and cheery, further removing the cold empty feelings Murdoch had experienced outside. Maria hummed while she fried bacon and eggs. Teresa bustled about, setting the table with a smile on her face.

Scott sat slumped over a cup of coffee.

He smiled. Poor boy didn't know what to think of these hours. They definitely weren't the hours of a Boston socialite.

"Good morning, son."

Scott squinted up at him.

"Morning, sir."

"It won't be long until your brother will be down here with you. I don't think he's used to these hours either."

"Scott snorted. That'd be one of the few things we have in common."

"Oh, I think you'll have a few more things in common once he starts working."

"Like blisters, cuts, and total exhaustion?"

"Exactly." Murdoch laughed at his son's dry and truthful humor.

Murdoch sat down and Maria placed a plate loaded with steak and eggs in front of him, while Teresa poured him a cup of coffee.

Scott, he noticed, despite his lack of morning appetite upon his arrival at the ranch, perked up with the arrival of a heaping plate of food. In fact, his fork was in his hand before the plate was completely on the table, and he watched him begin to eat with no hesitation. For some reason, it gave him a warm feeling deep down.

His knock was solid and curt. There was no response. He knew the boy was up. Damn him.

He turned the knob, entered the room to find the doors to the balcony were open. Outside, he could see a pair of bare feet, crossed at the ankles and propped up on the table. He took the tray from Maria and nodded her dismissal.

Stepping inside the room, he started towards the balcony. He saw the feet disappear from the table. Johnny eased into view, supporting himself on the doorframe. He had on his calzoneras, but was barefoot. He had pulled on a white shirt, but it was unbuttoned.

He stopped, looked down, and then up at his father. The corner of his mouth quirked, but it was hard to tell if the boy was hiding a smile or a grimace. His eyes were emotionless. Peeking out of the waistband of his pants was the butt of the Colt.

"Good morning, John. I saw you on the balcony and thought you might like some breakfast."

Murdoch moved toward the table and placed the tray there.

"You need some help?" he called over his shoulder.

"Nope. I can make it." Came the soft reply.

He did make it, his gait slow and hesitant, but graceful somehow. He didn't respond outwardly when Murdoch placed his hand on his arm as he eased himself down on the chair, but Murdoch felt him tense up at the contact.

Johnny pulled the silver cover off the plate and found steak and huevos rancheros. He smiled.

"I see you like your breakfast."

"Oh yeah. The ladies sure are puttin' one on for me."

"What do you mean?"

"All this food, three times a day."

Murdoch cocked his head.

"Well, Sam does want you to eat well."

Johnny nodded and stuffed his mouth full of eggs. Murdoch couldn't help noticing the boy continually glanced between the balcony doors, the door to the hall, and the windows. He too, was included in that look, suspicion and anticipation, the look of a prey animal.

"And sleep well."

"I always sleep well."

"I hope so, because it won't be long before you'll have to start keeping ranch hours."

Johnny ignored him as he quickly cut a slice of steak and crammed it into his mouth.

Murdoch poured them each a cup of coffee from the pot that had been on the tray.

"Make a cowboy outta Boston yet?" Johnny mumbled between bites.

"Not yet, but he's coming along. I think it will be a little easier when he has someone to share the misery with."

"You mean me."

"Yes, I think it won't seem so hard when he has someone learning right beside him."

Johnny's raised eyebrows were his speculative answer. He said nothing, as he continued to look down at his plate and chew his steak. Murdoch realized that if there were to be more conversation, he would have to initiate most of it. He glanced over at the books on one of the bedside tables that appeared unmoved from where he had laid them the day before.

He prepared to pose a question.

"So what ya got Scott doin' today?"

Johnny's question surprised him.

"Well, today, he's going with Isidro and they are clearing a creek bed in the north pasture. That should take most of the day. It's pretty jammed up with a dead tree."

Johnny nodded and continued eating, "I kinda figured you'd want him to handle the books, being that he's got all that schoolin'. "

Murdoch grinned. "No my boy, I feel certain he will excel at that, so no need to for him to do what he already knows how to do. He needs to understand what ranch work is, not just the profit and loss margins."

"You, my boy, you, will be working on the ledgers as soon as the doctor says it's okay for you to tackle the stairs." He laughed.

Johnny looked up, "Me? I don't know anything about paperwork."

"That's precisely the point. You need to learn that aspect of the business, and no better time than while you are house bound. Since you've done some ranch work, I think the physical aspects of it will be no problem for you once you've healed up."

Johnny stared at his plate while he sipped some coffee.

Murdoch watched him. It had never crossed his mind to wonder how much education this son had. Now the thought struck him with the force of a hammer.

God, what if he can't read and write? What did that Pinkerton report say?

He couldn't remember. His stomach tried to roll over on him.

Johnny looked up at his father and saw the deep frown that had taken possession of his face. Yeah ol' man, now that you're thinkin' 'bout it, not such a great idea, being that close to me, huh?

His appetite immediately left. He took another sip of coffee and pushed his plate forward.

Murdoch looked up in time to see Johnny drop his eyes. Oh God, please don't let it be true.

Johnny could feel his father staring at him and refused to look up. He didn't want to see that disapproving look on his father's face. No one had ever made him feel so worthless. For all the taunting and beatings he had suffered, he had never felt like he did with that first look from his father the day he arrived.

He was a disappointment. Compared to Scott, he couldn't measure up.

Why did he think this was going to work? Mierda. He really wanted, no, needed, this chance at a different life, that's why.

Quit thinking about 'family' and think about business partners. You didn't get along with everyone you worked with, but you managed to work with them. Just be business partners.

"Well, John, I guess I'd better get downstairs and get with Cip to give the men their orders."

Murdoch continued to look at Johnny, who was looking down and away and continued,

"I, uh, I uh, just wanted to see you this morning before the workday started."

Murdoch put his coffee cup down and pushed his chair back. He stood and paused before he moved forward. He took a moment to squeeze Johnny's shoulder as he passed by him.

The boy nodded, flinched at the touch, but never looked up.

Johnny eased out onto his balcony again, cup of coffee in hand. He leaned over the edge. The sun was up a little higher. A chill ran through him, fading as the warm rays enveloped him. He watched and listened to his father and Cipriano as they gave work orders to the hands that had gathered outside the back of the house.

There was no doubt, who was "calling the tune" at Lancer, as he listened to his father give instructions and directions to his Segundo and the rest of the men. The man's voice was strong and confident.

He was definitely the kind of man who demanded respect and was used to swinging his weight if he needed to. He must have swung a lot of weight to get me out of that prison.

He raised his eyebrows and snorted at the serious "Yes sir" he heard coming from Scott's mouth after Murdoch had ordered him with Isidro to the creek bed. Yep, ol' Boston had bought into this ranching thing lock, stock, and barrel.

He wasn't so certain himself. He wanted it, but the idea of it was a little overwhelming. To own one third of all this just seemed unbelievable. To be honest, it was a little scary.

The responsibility was enormous. He was a little grateful that the ol' man wanted to 'call the tune.' Hell. Who could blame him? After building up this place, nobody in their right mind would just turn it over to two strangers, especially him and Scott. Neither one of them had any idea of what they were doing. He damned sure didn't want that grizzly bear pissed at him for messin' up things.

He watched the men closely, trying to get a read on each one. Never hurt to have such an advantage. One thing was for sure, they were loyal to Murdoch Lancer. Of course, there were only a fifth of them left, according to the numbers the ol' man said he had before Day came to town.

How were they gonna take working with and for Johnny Madrid?

They were about half-and-half in kind. Half Mexican, half American. Maybe one Negro and one that looked a little like an Indian half-breed. What were the ol' man's true feelings on Mexicans? He reckoned the man knew they were hard workers. To have one as a son must have been more than he could stand; well, that, and a Mexican wife.

But was what Maria said true? If it wasn't, what would have been the point in taking him along if his father did want him? Why did it take so long for him to find him if he wanted him? Surely a man, a woman, and a baby wouldn't have been traveling that fast. Back then, there wasn't a train anywhere nearby to take and make a fast get away.

It changed everything if Maria lied. But why Mama? Why would you do that? Didn't you love me at all? If he really wanted me, why didn't you leave me here?

Finding the truth was gonna be hard when since mama was dead. Not to mention, the ol' man had pretty much laid down the law with that bit about 'the past is gone.'

Well, he never was one for staying behind lines drawn in the sand.

He watched as the men scattered. A jealous pang twisted his gut as he saw Scott mount his horse and move off with the older vaquero. Maybe if he could get out of the house and do something, anything, he'd feel better about things. Maybe show the ol' man he wasn't just a hired killer, useless to him, now the danger from Pardee was over and done with.

For now, he had nothing to do but sit around, bored out of his mind. He turned and headed inside for his saddlebags. At least he could clean his gun.

Again.

Chapter 17

Loud knocking on the door jarred him from his light doze in the sun. Damn!

"Johnny? Johnny?"

He heard the girl calling.

"Okay, okay, come on in!" Dios! He stood up and reached for his shirt as he headed inside.

As he stepped back into the bedroom from the balcony, the door opened, and Teresa entered from the hallway, followed by Sam Jenkins.

"Johnny, Doc's here."

"I see." He nodded at the doctor and dropped his shirt over a nearby chair.

"Hello, Johnny. I had to go over to the Conway's to set a broken arm, so I figured I might as well check on you."

"Okay." Johnny headed toward the bed. He glanced down and then up at the doctor, "I been doin' like you said."

"That's what I hear."

Sam placed his bag on the bedside table and opened it.

Before he sat down, he leaned sideways to look around the doctor at Teresa, still standing inside the doorway. The move drew the doctor's attention to her as well.

"No reason for you to stay, chica. 'Sides, the ol' man wouldn't like you bein' in here."

She frowned, but she left and closed the door behind her.

Johnny sat down on the bed and the doctor pulled his stethoscope out of his bag, placed it around his neck, and began a physical exam of his patient.

Sam took hold of Johnny's chin with his left hand, manipulating his head left and right, and up and down looking into his eyes and even shoved his thumb over Johnny's lip and raised it, looking at his gums.

"So is that what you call your father? Ol' man?"

Johnny's eyes darted up to meet the doctor's.

"Keep looking left."

Johnny complied. "Yeah. Well, and Murdoch."

"You call him ol' man to his face? Don't look at me."

"Uh huh."

"And he hasn't turned you over his knee?"

"He'd best not even try."

"It's disrespectful don't you think?"

"I don't know. Respect is earned."

"But he's your father."

Johnny remained quiet, looking away while the doctor leaned over and listened to his heart with the stethoscope.

The doctor stood up removing the instrument from around his neck.

"He calls you by your name."

"Calls me boy most of the time."

The doctor's mouth quirked at the corner as he hid a smile.

"Okay, let's look at that wound." He stepped back while Johnny stood and unbuttoned the top two buttons of his calzoneras and then turned and eased down onto the bed, lying on his stomach.

As he pulled the pillow under his head, he slid his right hand under it and he paused, resting on his elbows, a frown on his face. The Colt wasn't there. He'd left it on the table on the balcony.

"What's wrong?"

It's just the doc.

"Nothing."

"You sure? You didn't hurt yourself?"

"No, no, nothin' like that. I . . . I . . . just thought I left something under here, that's not here, that's all."

"You mean your gun."

"Yeah." He sighed and eased the rest of the way down onto the bed for the doctor.

"Where is it?" The doctor began cutting the bandaging. "I can get it for you."

"Out on the balcony."

The doctor turned away from him.

"No, no, doc. It's okay. It's best you don't mess with it. 'sides, I don't think you're gonna hurt me."

"No son, I wouldn't. Not intentionally, anyway."

With the bandaging cut free, Sam pulled the pad off and examined the wound.

He smiled.

The stitches were there, neatly intact.

Johnny lay still and relaxed as the doctor palpated his lower back around the wound, getting closer to the stitched area. He only winced when the doctor pressed lightly around the edges of the wound.

"Still a little sore there I see." What the doc couldn't see was Johnny rolling his eyes as he sighed into his pillow.

The doctor reached into his bag and pulled out a bottle, a rag, some salve, and some bandages, setting the bottle and salve on the table. He sat the bandages on Johnny's shoulder.

He took the rag and poured some of the liquid from the bottle onto it. Setting the bottle back down, he turned and began to swab the area of the stitches. Johnny didn't seem to flinch as he cleaned the area.

When he was finished, he grabbed the jar of salve and opened it, applying it liberally around the wound.

"Okay, you can sit up now." He patted Johnny's shoulder and gave it a light squeeze.

While Johnny made his way into a sitting position, he wiped his hands on the rag and tossed it on the nightstand.

He turned to face the boy who met his gaze with the tired look of a man who had no expectations.

"Okay. I'm going to wrap this back up, with just a little padding to keep from rubbing the stitches. But, I am going to let you start moving around the house today. Tomorrow, you can even go out in the yard. But no, and I MEAN NO, riding. No working, just reading, writing, stuff with your hands, but nothing to stress your back."

Johnny's face beamed back at him.

"Thanks doc. I thought I was gonna go loco in here."

"Like I said Johnny, just do what I ask and we'll get you back on a horse sooner, rather than later."

"I'm tryin'."

"I can tell."

"Just be careful the first few times you go up and down the stairs, okay? You're almost there."

"Okay. I will."

Murdoch rode up to the barn, dismounting stiffly. Nodding at the hand who took his horse, he leaned forward, reached back, and massaged a place in his back. Movement in the corral, next to the barn caught his attention.

A flash of gold trotted by and then again.

He stepped around the corner of the building to find Johnny standing in the middle of the corral, fully dressed, white shirt, calzoneras, boots, and the gun belt strapped on. Worn low and tied down, the universal sign of a gunfighter.

The palomino was standing in front of him, bobbing his head up and down and Johnny was teasing him with what looked like an apple. He heard light-hearted laughter and the horse flung its head, giving him a glimpse of Johnny's shy smile as he laughed at the horse's antics.

"Johnny! What are you doing out here?" He headed towards the corral, not missing the fact that his son's smile completely disappeared, his right hand was suddenly on his gun. That was going to have to stop.

In the fraction of time that it took Johnny to recognize his father, Murdoch saw his son's hand drop from the Colt and the other hand palmed the rest of the apple, feeding it all to the horse. He watched him reach up and pet the horse, staring back at him the entire time.

Johnny stepped away from the animal and ambled over towards the gate and his father.

As they met, Johnny looked down for a moment and then squinted up at Murdoch.

"Murdoch."

"Johnny." Murdoch admonished. "What are you doing out here? You should be inside resting."

"Nope. Doc said I could walk around now."

"Sam was here?"

"Yeah, said he was at the Conway ranch?" Johnny's face scrunched up as he thought he remembered the name correctly.

"The Conway Ranch?" Murdoch's face immediately expressed concern.

"Yeah. Something about a broken arm."

"It wasn't Aggie was it?" Johnny saw distress written all over the old man's face.

"Aggie?" Johnny smirked.

"Yes, Aggie. She's a widow and running a pretty big spread all on her own. We've been friends for years."

"No. He didn't say anything about any Aggie. Some hand or something."

"Hmmm."

"So he's letting you outside?"

"Yep. Man, I ain't never been so bored in my life."

"Well, I'm sure we can find something to keep you busy until you can ride. But right now, I could use a drink. It's been a long, hot, dry day. Join me?"

Murdoch opened the gate and Johnny came out and waited as his father closed the gate.

As they started forward, Murdoch moved to put his hand on Johnny's shoulder, but saw the boy stiffen and almost flinch away and so he withdrew it.

They headed toward the house and entered the big wooden front door.

Murdoch paused to remove his gun belt and hat and place them on the rack inside the foyer.

Johnny continued on to the great room and sat down on the sofa by the fireplace.

Murdoch frowned. He knew he had to say something. It was not acceptable for the boy to be armed around the house. But how do you tell a gunfighter, he doesn't need his gun?

He thought on it as he entered the great room. Johnny had not offered to set up a couple of drinks. He pulled down two glasses. "Whiskey?'

"Sure. Unless you have tequila."

"Tequila? Is that what you prefer?"

"Yeah."

Murdoch made a mental note to have some ordered.

"Well, there's no tequila, but how about a glass of the finest scotch on either side of the pond?"

"'K."

He poured two glasses and put away the decanter. He carried them over to the sofa and offered one to Johnny, who took it and nodded his thanks.

Murdoch stepped over and sat on the opposite couch.

"To your mobility." Murdoch raised his glass and gave a curt nod. He then took a long sip and sat back on his sofa.

He watched as Johnny took a sip and savored it.

"Uh, Johnny, I would appreciate it if you'd leave your gun at the door with the others. We don't wear guns in this house. You're safe here." He tried to make his request soft.

Dark blue eyes stared coldly back. "Ol' man, no one tells me where I'm safe or what to do with my gun. You need to understand that now. You don't have a clue about my safety."

Johnny tossed back his drink and got up a little too quickly. The pain in his back was unexpected and it flashed across his face before he knew what had hit him.

"Johnny!" Murdoch leaned forward quickly.

"Leave me alone." Johnny headed straight for the French doors and through them.

Murdoch leaned back against the sofa for a moment before he downed his drink in one swallow and stood up, moving towards the bar and a second drink. Damn!

Scott and Isidro rode up. Spying his newfound brother at the corral, both hands on the top rail, one foot on the bottom, and staring at the ground, he knew something was wrong.

He dismounted and handed his horse off to a waiting hand and nodded to Isidro. Wiping his face with the huge bandana around his neck, he moved towards Johnny by way of the water trough.

He grabbed the handle and pumped some fresh water over the bandana that he had removed.

"I see you're up and around. The doc and Murdoch know about this?"

Johnny turned his head for a partial glance back and returned to his former stance.

"Yeah. They know."

"Something wrong?" Scott softened his tone.

Johnny shrugged, "I don't know. I just don't think this is gonna work out."

"This?"

"This." Johnny stepped away from the fence and waved his hand in the air around him and towards the ranch house.

"This ranching thing. Living here."

"Oh. Why not?" Scott had finished wiping his face, neck, and arms, and stepped towards him.

"Why not? Johnny sucked in a deep breath and held it, looking away. A moment later, he exhaled loudly. At the same time, he dropped his head and closed his eyes.

"Because of this!" Scott hadn't had enough time to blink and the Colt was in his brother's hand and raised in the air beside his head pointing at the sky. It was a breathtaking move and he was in awe of the speed and elegance, but concern dictated that he not comment on it.

"This Scott! This is all the family I've had since I was ten years old! It is as much a part of me as my arms or my legs. It's all I'm good at! And when I say I'm good, I mean, GOOD! I worked hard to get where I am with this! I can't just give it up, throw it down, not overnight. Maybe not ever."

Scott wasn't sure what he meant by since the age of ten. Surely, he hadn't been alone since that age. From what little he knew of his younger brother, this outburst seemed out of character. The only time the boy ever showed much emotion about anything was when he and Murdoch had had a confrontation.

"Whoa, there brother. What's Murdoch done now?"

Johnny dropped his gun hand down by his side and turned his head towards Scott, staring at him. Scott stood still for the scrutiny, looking back into the dark blue abyss of his brother's eyes.

"He doesn't want me wearing my gun in the house."

Scott would have burst out laughing except for the expression on his brother's face as he turned back towards the corral, spinning the Colt back into its holster in an impressive manner and resuming his original stance at the fence.

Frowning, he put his hands on his waist and twisted his mouth for a moment as he thought about what to say.

"Well Johnny, being from the East, I do have to say, it would be out of place to wear a gun in the house. In fact, it is out of place for people to wear guns at all, as they do here. So I have to ask, out of my ignorance, what makes you feel that you need to wear your gun in the house?"

Johnny stood there without speaking. Head down, hands on the corral and foot on the bottom rail. He sighed and kicked at the rail before he turned to face his brother.

"It ain't just that. I can tell, the ol' man just don't want a gun hawk around. He don't need me now that Pardee's dead."

"Johnny, I have to be honest here, I think you're reading too much into this. I think Murdoch just doesn't think it proper, like wearing a hat inside. Tell me what your objection is to not wearing it."

"Look at me Scott. I'm a gunfighter. I'm a good gunfighter. Do you have any idea what that's all about?"

"To be honest Johnny, no."

Johnny saw he was sincere.

"It means I am never safe. Gun fighting is all about reputation. Mine is one of the top rep's out there. You fight your way to the top, and then you fight even harder to stay there, to stay alive.

I can no more put this gun down than you can just up and pretend you weren't raised by your grandfather back east. I'm not safe without it. Ever!"

Scott was at a loss for words, but Johnny was on a roll.

"We don't know who hired Pardee. We don't know if anything else is gonna happen. I damn sure ain't gonna be able to sit down and eat knowing that anything could happen and I couldn't defend myself or anyone else."

Scott was surprised. He'd not given any thought about who had hired Pardee. He'd just taken it at face value that Pardee was after Lancer. But, this was something to think about. As for wearing guns to the dinner table, well, maybe they should all be armed for the time being.

"You know. You have a very good point. Have you told this to our father?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"I don't know."

"What have you said to him?"

Johnny was quiet.

"Johnny?"

Johnny kicked at a rock on the ground. "Oh hell! Nothin'. He wouldn't understand."

"I think he would if you would explain it to him like you just did to me."

"Well, that's where we differ, Scott."

"Johnny, I think you have a very valid point about who was behind this and I think we need to discuss it with Murdoch. Now seems like a good time to me, because I am hot, tired, and in need of a drink. Join me?"

Johnny looked up and frowned. "You go ahead, Murdoch's in there having one."

Scott cocked his head and looked at his brother. Probably a couple if he and Johnny had tangled.

"I'll be there in a minute."

"Okay."

Scott turned and headed for the house. He was pleased that his brother had extended a tiny bit of trust to him. It was clear the boy was more lost than he was, when it came to their father. He, at least, had grandfather there for him.

Johnny, it seemed, had been alone.

Taking a deep breath, he opened the door and entered the house. It was quiet. He hung his hat on the hat rack and laid his work gloves neatly on the table by the door. Unlike Johnny, he wasn't wearing a gun, although he had been considering it.

Looking forward to a drink himself, the need was stronger as he moved towards the great room. He could feel the heavy angry mood of his father in the air as he entered the room and moved towards the whiskey decanter.

Murdoch turned to face him, a scowl on his face. That is until he recognized Scott, and broke into a smile.

"Scott, I didn't hear you come in! How was your day?"

"Well, how does physically stimulating, sound?"

Murdoch chuckled.

"Well, it won't be long before your brother will be out there with you. Sam's released him to be up and about some. Maybe he'll settle down some."

"Settle down?"

"Yes. He's been up there in that room brooding all week and when I asked him to not to wear his gun in the house, he had a temper tantrum and took off."

"Well sir, we did talk out by the barn."

"And?"

"Well, it seems he has had some thoughts that we need to discuss."

Murdoch's scowl returned.

"Such as?"

"Well, it seems he thinks that we are not out of danger yet, that we haven't answered all the questions that we need too."

"Questions? What questions?"

"Well for one sir, who hired Pardee."

Chapter 18

Johnny was still standing outside by the corral, watching his new horse, Barranca, run round and round. The horse was proud and cocky, running, bucking, showing off for his new friend. It seemed he was trying to lift Johnny's spirits.

He did manage a smile when the horse galloped full speed straight for him, sliding to a stop on golden hocks, a cloud of dust billowing from underneath him. The horse tossed his head up and down several times and curled his lips outward. He twisted his neck and turned his head sideways up in the air, nostrils flaring.

As quickly as he had stopped, the horse relaxed and casually walked up to Johnny, nudging his hands, with his velvety muzzle. Johnny snorted slightly and raised his hand quietly running it up the length of the stallion's head, stopping to scratch behind the stallion's ears.

"Sorry, boy. No more apple."

"JOHN!" Murdoch's bellow caused both of them to jump. Mierda!

He looked towards the house and saw Murdoch standing half in, half out of the French doors.

"JOHN!" Jesus, that ol' man bellows like a bull.

"Yeah?" He gave it his most recalcitrant tone.

"Come in here. We need to discuss what you told Scott."

He sighed and looked at Barranca, "We need to discuss what you told Scott." He mimicked to the horse, which nickered a laugh.

Feeling Murdoch's eyes staring a hole in his back, he stood there waiting, making sure the ol' man knew he would come when he was damned good and ready, and not a moment before.

When he pushed away from the corral, and turned toward the house, he saw several hands standing around. Their eyes darted away from his stare, but he had seen the looks of disapproval on their faces.

He carefully stretched his back, adjusted his gun belt, and headed inside, the swagger of his reputation in his stride, feeling the eyes of everyone outside on him.

By the time he made it to the French doors, he was prepared for whatever the ol' man had to dish out. He didn't know what it was about Murdoch that put him on edge like nothing else ever had, but the man did. He hated it too.

His father made him as raw as the bullet wound in his back from Pardee. But why? Fear? He wasn't afraid of any man. Or was he? Clearly the ol' man was big enough to rip him apart if he ever got those big old claws on him, but he knew that would never happen. He'd shoot him dead before he ever got his hands on him.

He found himself at the doors. He paused, looked down, and took a deep breath. Letting it out, he reached forward, took the knob and pulled the door open. He'd definitely overdone it, going outside for so long, but he would never show it, not to them. Not to anyone.

He stood there, much like he did at saloon doors, staring into the darker interior until his eyes adjusted. When they had, he saw Murdoch standing, drink in hand, at the empty hearth of the fireplace. Scott was standing at the table behind the sofa, a crystal decanter in one hand pouring himself a drink.

His older sibling looked up and waved the decanter towards him. "Drink, brother?"

He cocked his head. "Sure. Sure, I'll have a drink." His voice soft as his gaze returned to his father who was staring back at him.

Johnny stepped inside, took his glass from Scott and sauntered over to the sofa sitting against the wall. He wanted to flop down on it, but knew it would not be a wise move. He took his time, and eased himself down, daring his face to show any pain, one hand on the arm of the couch.

It was soft and comfortable. He was tempted to put his feet up on the table, but decided against it. The ol' man would probably reach down and snatch me up by the neck.

Instead, he crossed his right ankle over his left knee and took a sip of his drink, staring at his boot, ignoring Murdoch who stood across from him.

Scott joined them, sitting down next to Johnny. Murdoch moved away from the fireplace and sat down on the other sofa in front of the fireplace.

"Johnny, Scott tells me you are concerned that there is someone other than Pardee behind the attacks. Do you want to expound on that a little? I never really thought about there being someone backing him."

Johnny tilted his head a bit and pursed his lips. Expound? He sighed.

"Well, like I said before, I know Day Pardee. I worked with him some. Day hires, hired out" Johnny cut his eyes over towards his brother as he emphasized the word, "to big money. He wasn't into running a ranch. He liked to destroy things. If he had taken over Lancer, well, he would have killed everyone in his way. Then, after him and his boys had eaten all the food, drank all the liquor, and taken everything they wanted, they'd have either set the house on fire, or just left it. He was working for somebody. He told me in Morro Coyo there was plenty of money to be made."

Murdoch scowled, "But who would want Lancer?"

Johnny looked up at his father. "You tell me. Who's got enough money to pay top dollar to a bunch of gunfighters? Hell, if there was enough for me to get hired on, they got a lot of money. Day knows what my fee is."

"And just how much is that?" Murdoch stared at him.

Johnny shrugged. "It's getting' higher. This time, it was a third share in a ranch."

He smirked as he looked his father in the eye and then looked away, catching his father's bewildered look in his peripheral vision.

"So what you are saying, is someone who would have a lot of money and would be interested in Lancer?" Scott clarified.

"Yep. That's what I'm sayin'. So, ol' man, can ya think of anybody that would want the ranch? Anybody offerin' to buy it?"

Johnny looked Murdoch in the eye as he asked his question. He saw that his father was looking back at him and seriously considering his question. Well, finally the ol' man's givin' me some credit.

His father looked down and thought for a moment. Shaking his head, he looked back up, "No one. No one has made any offers to buy the ranch. The only interest anyone's had in it was a railroad representative who came through here about two years ago."

"A railroad man?" Johnny cocked his head again.

"Yes, but the railroad wouldn't do something like this."

"Maybe not directly. Who else knew about them bein' interested in Lancer?"

"A lot of people. Probably most anyone around back then. There was a lot of talk about the railroad development in the area."

Johnny shook his head. "Got any rich enemies?"

"Rich enemies?"

"Yeah, people who don't like you, who'd want to get their hands on the ranch and sell it themselves."

"You've got to be kidding me!" Scott leaned forward.

"Do I sound like I'm kiddin'?"

"That can't be Johnny. I mean really, it's preposterous." Murdoch added.

"Murdoch, it happens. I've worked jobs like that."

"Destroying and stealing a man's land so another man can sell it for profit?"

Murdoch's disgust was clear.

Johnny took a long sip of his drink and stared at his boot.

The silence in the room was deafening.

"Johnny, if that's the case, it could be any number of people. I wouldn't know where to start."

For the first time, Murdoch didn't seem so tough. He looked almost human.

"Well, with me here and Day out of the way, I imagine it'll take 'em a while to regroup, if they plan on it. For now, they know I'm here, and anybody they hire will think twice about the job knowin' that."

"Dinner's ready!"

Teresa glided into the room, startling the men from their intense mood.

Scott watched his brother and father during dinner. Johnny had headed toward the table armed, and Murdoch had said not a word. Teresa did her best to engage Johnny in some of her lighthearted chatter, but he sat silent, watchful. If he wasn't looking at them, he was looking around the room, towards the doors and windows. The lines at the corners of his brother's eyes seemed deeper and he figured Johnny was hurting, but Murdoch didn't seem to notice. He was too busy with a diatribe about the workings of the ranch.

He occasionally, nodded or responded with and 'I see' every now and then, just to make his father think he was engrossed in the conversation. However, he was more interested in watching the dynamics of Murdoch and Johnny.

They pretended to ignore one another. At the same time, when one wasn't looking, the other couldn't seem to tear his eyes away. Really, they ought to just sit down for a drink and take a good look.

He watched Murdoch watch Johnny eat. The boy still had a big appetite. His father had let it slip that Johnny had been in prison before he came home and that was why he was so thin and hungry. Murdoch hadn't given him any other information, such as for how long, or why the boy was in prison. Maybe that's where the nightmares came from. God did he ever want to know the details, or did he?

At any rate, he wondered if Murdoch felt any guilt about Johnny. It was clear he hadn't had a kind childhood, what with all the scars he had. He had overheard the doctor telling their father that some looked like they were from a belt buckle.

Even though Murdoch denied that he threw Johnny and his mother out, Johnny still seemed angry. Murdoch was angry that Johnny was angry. When it came down to it, he was angry too.

Why didn't Murdoch come get him or send for him? What had his father been thinking all those years?

Unlike himself, Johnny seemed to wear his anger right up there on those broad shoulders like one of those dogs he'd seen in the pits of the back alleys in Boston. It sat there, snarling, snapping, biting, and just waiting to be let go.

Murdoch was angry with Johnny too. It wasn't nearly as obvious, but it was there, just underneath that big tough exterior. He had seemed that way from the first day the boy had arrived, that is, until Pardee shot him off that palomino.

After that, he'd been almost in tears taking the bullet out of Johnny's back. He'd worn trails in the rugs upstairs during the doctor's visits with the waiting. Night after night he sat up in the room with him, watching him sleep. He'd seen Murdoch hit the Scotch after he'd settled Johnny from the nightmares that had come on when he was feverish.

Now that Johnny was getting back on his feet, Murdoch was burying himself in the ranch work again. His ire with Johnny had returned. Johnny seemed to sense this and it made him that much more uneasy and restless.

Johnny had worked with Pardee. He had admitted that he had done the same kind of thing to others as Pardee had tried to do to Lancer. Maybe he regretted sending for Johnny. Maybe he was afraid of Johnny, and of what he might do. Maybe he was trying to run him off without giving him a chance.

If that were the case, what kind of father was Murdoch Lancer? What kind of brother was Johnny Madrid?

Well, Murdoch had taken time to listen to Johnny's thoughts today and frankly, he, like his father, had never even thought about such a thing. Who or what, were they fighting, and why?

Would there be more? Was his brother just cocky, overconfident, or was it true that others would think twice before taking him on.

"Scott!"

Murdoch's voice jarred him from his thoughts. He realized he had drifted off into his own world.

Alert to his surroundings, he found everyone looking at him. Murdoch looked irritated, Teresa smiled her same silly sweet smile, and Johnny, had a wicked grin on his face for once.

He cleared his throat. "I'm sorry sir. What was it you were saying?"

He picked up his wine glass.

"I was saying that we need to look at the ranch map after dinner and talk about whether or not we should replant those alfalfa fields or plant elsewhere."

He glanced at Johnny as he sipped and almost strangled himself on the liquid when Johnny rolled his eyes. Wine spewed onto his food so violently that Teresa jumped back from the table. Murdoch stood, and with amazing dexterity began pounding him on the back.

Quickly he held up his hand lest he be pounded to death by his father. He panted, trying to catch his breath, Murdoch's well intended, but heavy blows, had pretty much beaten the humor out of him.

About to grab his water glass as Murdoch began to return to his seat, he heard a strange sound. It was a gentle, boyish sound, soft, like the nicker of a horse. Initially, he wasn't sure of the source of the sound, but saw that Johnny had his hand up in front of his face, but he could see the merriment in his eyes and the slight shake of his shoulders.

Murdoch seated himself, and grunted, "I don't see what's so funny about your brother nearly choking to death."

"Oh come on, Murdoch. You were beatin' on him as hard as I saw Maria beatin' on one of the rugs this afternoon." Johnny laughed.

Suddenly they were all laughing. Who would have thought such a somber boy could laugh like that. Clearly, this new younger brother had another side to him. He certainly hoped he stuck around for a while.

After dinner, Johnny retired to the great room with them. He accepted a scotch from Murdoch.

He retreated to the sofa again, although he removed his gun belt and laid it beside him. Guess he feels secure there, Scott thought.

Scott made his way over to the chair by the hearth, followed by Murdoch, who sat down on the sofa with Johnny. He saw his brother tense slightly when their father settled near him.

Teresa found her on place on the other sofa while Murdoch droned on about the alfalfa fields.

The instant relief on Johnny's face was unmistakable when Murdoch stood and walked over to the map.

"Here, I want you two to come and look at this and tell me what you think."

It took Johnny a minute to get up, but he did, hesitating just long enough for Scott to step in front of him taking the spot next to Murdoch.

He hardly heard Murdoch, he'd been so engrossed in watching the two of them. He was taken by surprise when his father stopped and asked, "So Scott, where do you think we should plant? Here? Or here?"

He saw Murdoch had pointed out two places on the map he felt certain he'd yet to see. "Well . . ." he hesitated and to his amazement, Johnny rescued him.

"You should plant here." Johnny indicated and even touched the map with his left, drink-filled hand."

Murdoch's brows scrunched down. "Why is that?"

Johnny ducked his head for a moment, but then looked Murdoch in the eye. "If you plant here," he indicated freely with the glass, the runoff from the mountains in the spring will flood the fields."

"Here, you would have to do a little digging, but you could divert some of the run off into a pond, and then irrigate the field and let the water out when you need too."

He had followed Johnny upstairs after the discussion on the alfalfa fields. They boy had described an ingenious plan to their father, who had stood there with his mouth hanging open for so long, he thought it had stuck.

Funny thing, though, as cocky and confident as Johnny was, he seemed almost embarrassed by Murdoch's compliment, and shrugged it off, saying he'd seen something like that before. Johnny was most likely all too aware of their father's surprise at his knowledge. It seemed clear that Murdoch didn't have high expectations where Johnny was concerned.

Still, he was grateful that Johnny had answered when he did. The good Lord knew he'd barely been listening. As for his own idea, it would have been to plant in the other area so they could use the run off in the spring, but he hadn't thought about flooding.

He had bid Johnny good night as they had reached the doors to their rooms. He had heard Johnny's soft, "'Night" in reply and it had pleased him greatly.

He snuggled down into his bed, not bothering to do any reading. Morning would be here all too soon. He wanted to be sure to see how Johnny would greet it, since Murdoch had informed him that he could come down and start learning the books tomorrow.

He would be expected to start rising with the rest of the house so that it wouldn't be so difficult to be on schedule when he was released to actually work.

Within minutes, Scott was asleep on his side, covers pulled neatly around him.

Chapter 19

"John. Get up. It's morning."

Johnny shot up, gun in hand when the pounding started on the door!

Fortunately, for both he and Murdoch, his father waited a few moments before he actually opened the door.

Mierda!

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing. It's time to get up."

Rubbing his left hand through his hair, leaving his right hand holding the Colt on the bed, he squinted through bleary eyes. Murdoch was holding a small lantern.

"It's not even daylight!"

"It will be soon. Come on, breakfast won't wait."

"'K."

He remained on the bed in the darkened room, his head down eyes closed. What the hell have I gotten into?

He was nodding off when Scott knocked on the door. His head jerked up.

"Rise and shine little brother. Welcome to the working world. Need some help?" Scott's voice was a decibel or two softer than Murdoch's.

"Nope."

Johnny rubbed his eyes with his fists.

"Seriously, Murdoch will come back up here if you don't show up."

"Okay, okay. I'm up." Johnny leaned over and fumbled for a match to light his lamp.

Scott waited, his hand still holding the knob, leaning in through the slightly opened door, for Johnny to light the lamp. Johnny left the wick low, but once there was a slight glow, Scott left, pulling the door closed behind him.

Punta del madre.

With a deep sigh, he stood, the bedcovers wrapped around him, dragging on the floor behind him like a bridal train, falling into a heap halfway across the room . Clad in the cut off long johns he'd inherited from Scott, he made his way to the washbasin, massaging his back as he went. The quick response to Murdoch's banging had left it throbbing.

He poured some water into the basin and stuck his face down in the bowl for a few moments. Coming up for air, eyes still closed, he blindly grabbed the towel and dried off.

On his way to the chair where Murdoch had kept his vigil, he shimmied out of the underwear and kicked them across the room. At the chair, he grabbed his calzoneras and pulled them on. They were starting to fit better now that he'd gained some weight back.

Over at his bureau, he pulled open the drawer and took his only shirt out. He pulled it on and stretched his back gingerly as he did so, trying to ease the pain he still felt.

Yawning, he buttoned the shirt, his fingers the only thing working quickly and efficiently so early. He sat down in the chair and pulled on his boots with care. He stood and stomped lightly to be sure his britches slid all the way down across the top of them.

Finally, he removed his gun belt from the headboard of the bed, and, with such practiced ease, he wrapped it around his slender, leather clad hips. He could have taken a nap, his hands worked so methodically. The tightening, the buckling, the tugging, tying and retightening, were so much a part of him, moves almost as natural as the way he tossed his head to keep the hair out of his eyes.

Picking up his gun from where he'd left it on the bed, he continued his ingrained routine of years, checking it despite knowing it was fully loaded, and then spinning it into its resting place in his holster.

He pulled it a couple of times and adjusted the tightness of the belt. Another couple of pulls, and he retied the string. Two more pulls and . . . perfection.

The barest amount of grey permeated his room from the window as he turned down the lamp. There was just enough light that he caught his reflection in the mirror. His hair was sticking out wildly in every direction, reminding him that he needed to tame it. He ran his hand through it on the way out and slung his bangs back.

Johnny's boots made no more sound than cat paws as he descended the back stairs. Bright lamplight assaulted his eyes when he entered the dinning room, causing him to squint as he moved toward his place at the table.

Murdoch was sipping his coffee and didn't see Johnny approaching from behind. Scott got first glimpse and almost snorted into his coffee. He looks like shit.

Murdoch glanced up and then back down as Johnny stepped around him to take his place at the table. As he pulled out his chair to ease himself down, Murdoch took a second look.

"Good morning, Johnny."

"Mornin'."

Johnny sat, elbows on table, head bowed and propped by the temples with his fingers.

Scott saw his father trying to hide a smile. He found it merciful that Murdoch reached for the coffee pot and poured some coffee in Johnny's empty cup.

Johnny nodded without looking up and took the cup with both hands, bringing it to his mouth and sipping it slowly, never looking up.

Scott noticed Johnny's eyes remained closed. Welcome to my world little brother. Just wait until you have to go out and string fence all day.

Maria placed a plate of food in front of the patron and he began to eat. Scott received his from Teresa and then Maria served Johnny.

Johnny didn't move. He sat his empty cup down and stared at the plate. Murdoch refilled his coffee cup again.

"Eat up, John."

"Aren't you hungry?" Scott chimed in.

Johnny shot them both a scathing look that would have sent any would be gunfighter calling for his mama.

Instead, they both snickered and continued eating.

Johnny had a third cup of coffee before attempting to eat his bacon. At that point, both Murdoch and Scott had finished their breakfast.

There had been little conversation over the meal, what there had been consisted only of necessary comments between Murdoch, Scott, and the women in the kitchen.

Pushing his chair away, Murdoch looked at Johnny picking at his breakfast. "Meet us out front in about five minutes, okay John? I want to introduce you to the men."

He slid his chair back with both hands on the table and stood. As he turned away, he patted Johnny on the shoulder and looked back at Scott. "Coming?"

"Yes sir."

Johnny knew Murdoch hadn't heard him step up behind him. It was obvious when every set of eyes looking at the patron suddenly cut to the left, to get their first glimpse of Johnny Madrid up close. He had to hand it to the ol' man. He never missed a beat. He just paused, glanced to the side, turned and stepped back behind Johnny, putting his arm around his shoulders, pulling him forward.

"Johnny. Come on up here."

"Boys, I want you to meet my son Johnny. I guess it's no secret now, that he goes by the last name Madrid, but he's come home to stay. The doctor hasn't released him to work yet, but he'll be joining you soon enough."

Mumblings of welcome and buenos dias accompanied the nods and stares. Johnny watched them all and gave one slow nod back. Some looked scared, most looked serious, and one or two smiled.

Unable to pull away from Murdoch's grasp, he stood there as his father directed Cipriano and Isidro. They were the Segundo and straw boss. The men listened to their directions, as to what was expected for the day with various crews.

The ol' man really had this organized. He essentially told his two foremen what he wanted to happen and they divided the men into crews and made the actual assignments, knowing which men were best at what. Murdoch, of course, remained to observe the assignments, listening and even joining in with the men as they joked and teased each other.

Johnny was finally able to escape his embrace as the men dispersed, but not before Murdoch gave his shoulder a good firm squeeze. It was hard to accept this casual show of affection from his father. First off, he never let anyone touch him but women and doctors, and secondly, he didn't know what it meant, or if it meant anything. If it did mean something, then what did it mean, and what was he expected to do about it?

He tucked his hands into the front of his pants and looked up at his father.

"Well, Johnny, ready to start on those ledgers?"

NO! But I guess I will be.

"Sure."

He was uncomfortable sitting in the big chair behind the desk with Murdoch standing over him. He didn't like it one bit. It just set him on edge having another man, especially one so big hovering over his shoulder. He knew he wasn't in any danger from his father, but at the same time, old habits, and lessons learned the hard way, don't vanish overnight.

Spread before him was a thick, leather bound ledger. He looked down and could see his father's neat handwriting on each line from top to bottom on the left, and his clear, neatly written numbers in the columns to the right.

"I've been saving up work to give you plenty of learning experience, so you would have some opportunity to make some mistakes and figure them out."

Great.

Murdoch pulled open a drawer to the right hand side of the desk.

"I keep the receipts in here until I'm ready to enter them."

Johnny looked down at the receipts bulging out of the drawer. Jesus, he must have been saving these up for months!

"What I'd like you to do today is simply enter the receipts in the ledger."

He nodded.

"As you can see here, I have different places for the various types of receipts."

It was hard to concentrate, Murdoch droning on about numbers, columns and rows, leaning over him, close enough to cover him up, and he was still so tired. He hadn't slept well at all last night.

Dreaming about Maria had ended with him sitting straight up in bed, soaked in sweat and breathing hard, gun in hand. After that, even a couple of shots of whiskey hadn't settled him enough to sleep. When he finally had, the Ol' Man had come banging on his door.

"Okay, John?" Murdoch was looking at him.

"Yeah, I think I got it."

"You want me to sit here with you while you get started?"

"No. If you don't mind, I'd rather you just leave me be for a bit."

"Are you sure? I'd like to see you get off to a good start rather than have to do it over again."

"I'm sure, OKAY?"

Murdoch look at him as if to say something, but kept his thoughts to himself.

"All right, but call me if you need me. I'm just going out to the barn for a few minutes. I'll check on you when I get back."

Johnny nodded impatiently. "Fair enough."

His father stood there a moment longer, hesitating, but turned and left, headed toward the kitchen. A moment later, he saw him leave through the front door.

He was still staring at the receipts and the ledger when Maria eased into the room with a silver tray with a pot, condiments, and two cups. There was bowl covered with a checkered cloth as well.

"Señor Murdoch say you might like more coffee."

He looked up. "Yeah, thanks."

"Is early for you, no?"

"Yeah, it's early."

"You will get used to it. It's hard to eat early when you have no need to. I put biscuits in here with bacon, eggs, and some with preserves if you get hungry."

He smiled. "Thanks, Maria."

"You are welcome Juanito."

Maria left and he stared at the books for a moment longer.

Might as well get to it.

He stood and eased over to the corner of the desk where the tray sat. He poured himself a cup of coffee. It was a fresh steaming pot, dark and rich like he liked. He smiled. When were they gonna stop treating him so good?

He eased back down in the chair, took a sip of coffee and ran his hand through his hair. Setting the cup down, he pulled the chair closer and pulled out a pile of receipts. Dios mio. What the hell am I doing?

Murdoch realized he had been away from Johnny much longer than he had meant to be. Checking his watch he saw it had been two hours, having started at the barn and ending at the guard house where one of men had reported some crumbling adobe that needed repairing.

The boy hadn't called him either. Dear God, please don't let me go in there to find he was too ashamed to tell me he can't read or write, or something worse, if there is. He headed directly for the house, entering through the French doors, which were open.

Stepping inside, he saw Johnny, head on the desk, asleep on top of the ledger book.

It took no more than the clearing of his throat and Johnny sat up, wild eyed. What is it with this boy?

Johnny wiped his eyes with the back of his forearm.

"I didn't mean to be away so long. Did you have any trouble?" He held his breath.

"A little. I think I got most of it right. I saved a few out just to be sure. Didn't wanna mess up your book."

He swallowed hard as he moved behind the desk. His heart pounding with mixed emotion. Desperately wanting to see and terrified to look.

Johnny pushed back his chair, giving Murdoch a closer position to the book.

Steeling himself, Murdoch looked down. To his amazement, perfectly legible, neatly written numbers appeared in the columns. Thank you, God. THANK YOU.

"I wasn't real sure what category these went under." Johnny pushed the little pile of receipts toward him.

He looked down. With his fingertips, he spread them out. The first one was from the undertaker, for the removal of the bodies after the battle for the ranch. There were two more receipts, each for one thousand dollars, one listed as paid to John Madrid, the other, Scott Lancer.

He also saw one from the Pinkerton Detective Agency for a "Final Report" on Johnny Lancer aka Johnny Madrid. He felt his face flush as he realized that these were receipts he hadn't meant for Johnny to see; or Scott for that matter.

As the last receipt, for the Pinkerton report was revealed, along with the $2000.00 amount, Johnny looked up and stared directly into his father's eyes. Murdoch felt a chill run down his spine at Johnny's raspy comment, "I'll bet you got your money's worth on that."

He had to look away. It was frightening how cold his son could be.

"As a matter of fact I did, because you are sitting right here."

He felt, rather than saw, Johnny look back down at the desk, and decided to carry on.

"Okay. Yes, these go into another book, he pushed the "listening money" receipts and the Pinkerton receipt to the side.

"Tell you what. Take a break for a few minutes and give me time to look this over. When you come back, we'll go over any mistakes or questions."

He could see relief on his son's face. He wasn't sure if it was from being released from his desk duty or getting away from him. Sometimes the boy was uneasy around him, almost nervous; and then, there were moments like the one they just had.

"Sure. I'll go check on my horse."

Despite his slow rise and gentle stretching of his back, Murdoch noticed that Johnny made a quick exit. He really couldn't blame him. He was young and had probably never done anything remotely like this. And, if he were honest, bookwork was a tedium that he himself didn't enjoy much. As for those receipts, well, he wasn't sure what to say about them.

Smiling, he poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down to review his son's work. At this point, he was so relieved the boy could read and write, he didn't care if he had to make a new ledger book if all the entries were wrong.

They weren't.

It wasn't perfect, there were some mistakes, entries in the wrong place, a couple of numbers transposed, but overall, a decent first effort. It was hard to take his eyes off the book. He was looking at his son's handwriting for the first time. It was like looking at a book report from school.

He blew on the inked entries to be sure they were dry. He traced some of the letters and numbers with his finger.

Johnny's handwriting.

It was the simplest of pleasures, but it warmed his heart tremendously.

Chapter 20

Murdoch watched from his large window in the great room as Johnny came out of the barn, his palomino saddled, sidestepping and prancing around him. No, John, don't.

He turned, intent on heading out the door to stop him, but in a movement so agile, it took his breath away, his son had swung up on the spinning horse's back, turned it towards the road out and urged it into a dead run.

He closed his eyes and let out a deep sigh. The last couple of days had been trying for both of them. Johnny wasn't doing very well with the books. He wasn't stupid by any stretch. It was clear that the keeping of the many business ledgers for the ranch was a foreign concept to him. The boy just didn't seem to be making the progress he'd expected him too.

Murdoch had tried every way he could to explain that he didn't expect perfection, that the book keeping was very tedious, but still Johnny made mistakes and it irritated the boy to no end. Today was the culmination of their mutual frustration. He had begun to think Johnny just didn't want to learn, especially after he had caught the boy out behind the empty bunkhouse one afternoon, practicing his draw.

That encounter had triggered an argument that resulted in Johnny heading upstairs to his room, slamming the door, and not coming downstairs again until dinner.

Today, well, Johnny had not wanted to work on the books at all. Instead of being patient with him and talking it out, he'd lost his temper and demanded that he sit down and get started as though Johnny was a child. Well that had set Johnny off on a tirade and he had had responded in kind, resulting in Johnny's storming out of the house, into the barn, and subsequently, down the road on his horse.

Johnny was so full of anger. Sam couldn't release him too soon for work in his book. Murdoch would put that anger to work, out with a small crew stringing fence. Maybe that would burn off some of the bitterness. Otherwise, he didn't know how he was going to handle the boy. He was volatile like his mother and it took very little to light him up.

Half asleep at the breakfast table every morning, Johnny clearly wasn't used to the early awakening. Murdoch had heard him stirring many times late in the night. Johnny had bad nightmares. Did those keep him from sleeping, or did he not have the discipline to go to bed?

Maybe the lack of sleep was keeping him from concentrating and learning. He didn't seem lazy. He attempted everything he was asked to do. He was also very good at math. That had been a pleasant surprise. When he had tried to compliment Johnny on his skill, the boy had shrugged, looking away, saying something about bullets and poker.

Well, no matter what Johnny's problem was, Murdoch was looking forward to next week. It was almost certain that Sam would release Johnny and then the boy could be outside more and maybe that would help his attitude. He'd work Johnny hard every day, the boy would be so tired, his body would make him sleep as well as put out some of the angry fires he saw smoldering in those dark blue eyes.

Scott stepped inside the front door, dusty, dirty, and weary. Shedding his hat, jacket, gloves, and gun belt, he bid good riddance to the dead weight. He took one look towards the great room and knew something was wrong.

He didn't know his father well yet, but he knew there had been trouble between his father and brother. Murdoch was staring out the large window by his desk, a scowl on his face. So far, the only time he had that look was when he and Johnny had argued about something. Lately, that had been almost daily.

Maybe their father had been too harsh on him, trying to teach him the books so soon. His brother didn't seem the bookwork type. Of course, if they were going to be ranchers, Johnny needed to understand the ledgers, just as Scott needed to learn the more physical aspects of ranching. Right now, the books seemed almost inviting.

Almost.

A drink was what he wanted. In order to get that drink, however, he was going to have to walk into that room with his father and inquire about Johnny. A daunting task, as his father, used to being the tune caller, was angrier when he and Johnny had gotten crosswise on an issue, than if one of the hands had not followed his instructions.

Resigned to his fate, he sighed and moved toward the great room.

Murdoch turned in his chair at the sound of Scott's steps.

"Scott. How was your day?"

"Scintillating?"

Murdoch snorted softly.

"Drink sir?" Scott held the decanter up.

"I have one." Murdoch raised his hand to reveal it.

"I see. Where's Johnny?"

"Gone."

"Gone, where? I thought he wasn't supposed to ride yet."

"Since when does he listen to anyone? We had an argument and he stormed out of the house. Next thing, he jumped on that crazy palomino and took off."

"Don't you think we should go after him? I mean, he's not fully recovered."

"Scott, as much as it pains me to say it, you're brother has been in much worse shape and ridden, so I doubt this'll do him any serious physical harm. My concern is he's on that half broke horse. He'll come back when he's ready. His mother was the same way. Temperamental. Like dynamite, a big blow up and then it's over."

Scott raised his eyebrows and shook his head as he poured his drink.

"If you say so, sir."

Johnny pulled Barranca up near the pond for a drink. When the horse didn't want one, he turned him and headed for the road at a walk.

It felt good to be outside and on the back of a horse. Being cooped up in that house and trying to learn to balance a bunch of books didn't interest him. Why couldn't it just be simple, like money in and money out? In the end, it was the same wasn't it?

The ol' man had a ledger for everything it seemed. All the adding, carrying numbers over, and keeping track of so many things, made his head spin like the chamber of his revolver. Some of it seemed so unnecessary and knit picking.

He was up to the main road now. There was a sign that said Morro Coyo to the left and Spanish Wells to the right. He'd been to Morro Coyo, the closest town to the ranch, and Green River was too far away, so Spanish Wells it would be. A good cold beer would go down well now, and give him some time to think.

Spanish Wells was bigger than Morro Coyo and much smaller than Green River. It was a thriving little town however. He noticed it had a sheriff's office and a couple of saloons. No bordello like Green River, but far more developed than Morro Coyo.

He could feel the townspeople staring at them as he and Barranca continued down the street. He could see them turn and whisper to each other. Yep, they knew who he was. He sat a little straighter than was comfortable in the saddle. Couldn't let anyone think he wasn't in top form. Although, he had regained much, if not all of his speed in his afternoon sessions, that is, until Murdoch had found him practicing.

The ol' man might believe him about possible additional attacks, but he didn't put the equation together that he had a top gun living in the house, a top gun who needed to practice to stay in shape.

This week had been miserable. He'd only gotten one decent night's sleep this week. For whatever reason, the nightmares had been coming on strong. He hated getting up so early. Never in his life had he done such a thing unless he was running from something. Most times he'd seen those hours was as he was headed off to bed.

He saw a mercantile with Spanish styled clothing in the window. Might as well. No one had said anything, but he had noticed them looking at him in the same shirt every day.

He eased his horse over to the hitching rail out front, feeling the eyes of the good citizens on him. What gossip could they conjure up from his buying a couple of shirts, he couldn't imagine, but he would bet that twenty dollar gold piece he'd gotten from Scott that whatever he bought today, would spread like wildfire throughout town.

He had to tie Barranca to the rail since he hadn't had time to teach him to ground tie yet. With a pat and a whispered, "Stay here amigo." He turned slowly, taking in the town and its citizens before stepping up onto the boardwalk. Funny, how their heads snapped in the opposite direction when he looked at them.

The door was open and he held back, letting his eyes adjust to the darker interior. Once inside, he noticed that the store was bright and cheery. Fortunately, the only other customer was at the counter paying for his purchases.

He spotted the men's clothing over to the left of the store, and wandered over looking for shirts. Nothing caught his eye. Mostly gringo work clothes.

The bell rang on the door as the customer left the store, and the proprietor immediately approached Johnny.

"Gunfighter ain't ya?"

Johnny stared at the man.

"The reason I ask is 'cause I know gunfighters and Mexicans like fancy clothes. I got some better stock over here. Follow me."

Johnny followed the man over to the back wall of the store and pulled open a large drawer. "I keep this stuff for special customers."

Peering down into the drawer, Johnny smiled. Lying before him was a drawer full of the fanciest shirts he had seen in a while.

The packages secured in his saddlebags, Johnny mounted Barranca and they headed further down the street, toward the saloon, fully aware they were the talk of the town.

He paused at the doors, taking his time to get used to the light and survey the scene in the saloon,. When he entered the rowdy saloon, it went deathly quiet, all eyes on him as he made his way to the table in the far back corner.

A pretty honey blonde girl came over to take his order. Once she returned with the cold beer and sat down next to him, the place seemed to return to normal. People only looked up briefly when the girl left the table to fetch a bottle of tequila, limes, and salt.

Hours later, Johnny headed down the stairs of the saloon. After a few go's with the blonde, he was feeling relieved of some of the stress that had built up over the week. On the other hand, his back was sore from riding both the horse and the blonde, and it was still a long way back to the ranch.

As he descended, the now crowded and rowdy room, lessening in volume as people began to notice him. Once he sidled up to the bar for a last beer, most of the activity resumed.

Despite the loudness of the crowd, he could overhear the conversation a big, loudmouthed cowhand was having with a couple of buddies.

"Madrid, huh. Look at him. He's nothin' but a half-breed, and little to boot! Without that gun, he wouldn't be nothin'. Probably run home cryin' to his rich daddy."

One in every crowd. Wasn't the first time he'd heard that shit. Wonder if he'll say that to my face?

He took long, slow sips of his beer and listened to the man talk trash about him, his new brother, and his father. All the while, the cowhand's friends glanced nervously over at Johnny, leaning on the bar, looking relaxed, sipping his beer.

Then the cowhand made his mistake.

"Yep, hear tell ol' Murdoch Lancer knocked up a Mexican whore and then thought that by marrying her, he could make her and that bastard respectable."

The slam of the beer mug against the bar silenced all bar conversations. Johnny stood up straight and in two lightning fast steps, was in front of the lout who was at least five inches taller and outweighed him by fifty or more pounds.

The man's audience scattered like dandelions in the wind, with someone calling out, "Told ya Ned!"

Without a word, Johnny grabbed hold of the man's shirt with his gun hand, and then punched him in the face with five rapid, hard blows with his left.

His victim fell back against the staircase, blood spewing from a broken nose.

Johnny stood staring at the man, who recovered quicker than he expected. Glaring through rapidly swelling, tearing eyes Ned pulled himself up and charged at Johnny. Blood poured from his nose mixed with his spittle and created a red froth around his mouth that spewed around the room as he inhaled and exhaled from his mouth.

The momentum of the charge sent the two of them crashing into an abandoned poker table and onto the floor. The table splintered into pieces. Poker chips scattered around and on top of them. Johnny was on his back with the cowhand on top of him.

Ned wrapped his arms around Johnny, but Johnny got his arms up so they couldn't be pinned down, despite being almost knocked unconscious from hitting the floor so hard.

Somehow, he managed to get his hands around the big man's neck to choke him, but not before receiving several blows to the head. He had to blink hard and fast to keep the blood and froth out of his eyes. Finally, he gave up, closing them, seeing stars, but concentrating all his energy in his hands.

When he had choked enough wind out of Ned to wiggle out from under him, the two of them rolled, stood, and faced each other. Ned threw a roundhouse. Johnny ducked out of the way and landed another left-handed blow into the man's gut. Apparently, this was a weak spot, as Ned doubled over, a 'whoosh' of air escaping his mouth.

Stepping forward, Johnny shoved him against the wall and began punching him repeatedly in the face and gut. Blood spewed from the man's lips, nose and ears.

"Bam!"

A gunshot sounded and two very large sets of arms grabbed Johnny and pulled him off the bleeding, and now unconscious, man.

Johnny felt someone slip his gun from his holster, but there was nothing he could do. The sheriff stepped in front of him.

"Don't ya think he's had enough, Madrid?"

Johnny stared, the feeling in his own face returning with vengeance, letting him know that tomorrow, he would look and feel worse than he did now.

The sheriff nodded and the two men escorted him outside and began walking him to the jail.

The sheriff didn't return until the two deputies had dragged the unconscious lout over to the jail and put him in the cell next to Johnny.

"So boy, you wanna tell me what set you off?"

Johnny stared back from his place on the cot. He had pushed it against the wall and had his bandana off, holding it against his bleeding nose as he tilted his head back.

"Well, that's all right. I gotta pretty good idea of what happened. But you almost killed him. I'm Sheriff Gabe Williams. Most people just call me Sheriff Gabe."

Johnny said nothing, taking in the small, middle aged, sheriff. He had brown curly hair and didn't look too much like a lawman in his white shirt, black pants, and brown leather vest. But the badge certainly stood out, and that's all that mattered.

"The doc's on his way over. I'll have him look you over after tends to Ned there."

"I'm gonna keep ya here overnight. You can go in the morning with no charges. I'm doing this as a favor to your father. I don't like gunfighters and I don't like trouble in my town. I reckon Ned deserved getting the stew beat out of him, but I can't condone it. You do something like this again, and I'll put you in front of the judge. You hear me?"

Johnny gave a slight nod.

"You need anything else 'fore the doc gets here?"

"Can you get somebody to put my horse up for the night? Palomino, front of the saloon."

"Sure thing."

Scott hurried downstairs. He had almost overslept, having awakened at every sound during the night, listening for Johnny. Downstairs, as he reached the kitchen and saw Murdoch at the table, he knew the older man had done the same thing from the circles under his eyes.

"Johnny over sleep?" he asked as he sat down and reached for the coffee pot.

"No. He didn't come home."

"Oh." The words fell flat onto the floor, along with his jaw.

"Want me to go look for him?"

"No. He'll come home when he's ready."

"Señor Murdoch, there is a boy at the back door." Maria stepped around the cooking hearth.

Murdoch raised his eyebrows. "Send him in Maria."

Twelve-year-old Jimmy Watkins, son of the telegraph operator, approached the kitchen table.

"Mr. Lancer, I have a message for you from Sheriff Gabe."

Murdoch and Scott exchanged looks, before Murdoch took the envelope containing the note.

Scott watched his father's face as he read the note in silence. He didn't need to see the grimace and scowl to know that it was about Johnny.

Murdoch laid the note down and reached into his pocket for a coin.

"Thank you, Jimmy. Just tell Gabe I'll be along after while."

The boy took the coin and gave him a big grin. "Thank you, sir."

After he left, Murdoch looked at Scott.

"Your brother's in jail in Spanish Wells. Gabe's not filing charges but won't release him to anyone but me personally."

"Want me to go with you?"

"No, son. No. This is something I need to handle alone with Johnny."

Chapter 21

He had almost dozed off when he heard the rattle of the keys in the big wooden door to the cell area. His opponent, Ned, hadn't made a sound, other than the gurgling breaths he took through his mouth. The man was still unconscious.

Johnny sat up as the door opened. Sam Jenkins walked in.

Just my luck. He must be the only doc around.

Sam came to the door of his cell and looked him in the eye. The doc's mouth and nose twitched.

Johnny looked away.

"Ned's down there." The deputy nodded past Johnny's cell.

Sam moved on without a word, and waited while the deputy unlocked the cell and allowed him entry.

Johnny curled back up in the corner of his cell on his cot, resting his back against the corner where the bars met the stone. From there, he could watch Sam ply his trade on someone else.

Good thing Ned was unconscious. Sam wasted no time grabbing hold and resetting his nose. Johnny cringed. He had been awake when he had experienced that procedure. It was no fun, especially when a boy was only eleven and the one doing the setting was thirteen.

The deputy fetched some hot water and Sam washed the blood from the man's swollen face and then inspected the rest of his body. He didn't watch when Sam undid Ned's pants and shirt to check the rest of him. That was more than he wanted to know about ol' Ned.

He was almost dozing again when the doc stood up, "He's pretty badly concussed, but otherwise, nothing else is too serious. He'll be bruised and sore, that's all. If he's not awake by tomorrow, send for me."

Johnny took a deep breath. It was his turn. He wasn't sure he really wanted to be on the bad side of the only doctor around. He'd survived with his own treatment, but having a real doctor on his side was always good.

He sat, nestled in his corner waiting for the doctor to return. Sam stared at him, unsmiling, until the deputy had the door open and he could come inside.

Once inside, he walked over and sat on the foot of the cot. Johnny unfolded his legs, and turned to sit parallel to the doctor.

"I really don't know what to say to you Johnny. I am completely baffled as to why you are here, when you aren't supposed to be leaving the house, much less, riding into town."

It was hard to look Sam in the eye because he knew the man was sincere. He looked down and shrugged. "I'm okay."

"No son, you are not okay." Sam reached out and lifted Johnny's chin, tilting it back to get a look at the blood clotted nose and eyes.

"I believe you may be slightly concussed. Did you hit your head?"

"Of course, I did." Johnny frowned. Sam sighed.

The deputy returned with a fresh pan of warm water and handed it through the bars to the doctor, who took it and began wiping the blood from around his face and eyes. His touch was gentle. It reminded him of the way his mother touched him when he was little and got hurt. Well, before she started drinking so much. Soft and firm, Sam's fingers and the cloth blotted his face until he didn't need a mirror to know his face was clean.

He had bad cut over and under his left eye. It was swollen and sore and Johnny couldn't help blinking when the doctor touched it during his examination and attempts to clean it.

At the end of the exam, Sam had him half-undressed, checking the bullet wound area.

"Well son, like I said, you'll have a scar, but I can't say you've done yourself any real damage there otherwise. Does it hurt?"

"Just stiff. Mostly from jumping up on my horse."

"Well, if you've survived all this riding and fighting. I guess I can just give you the go ahead to work, but lightly. Murdoch know you're here?"

"I don't reckon he does, but I heard the sheriff say something about sending someone to the ranch. He knows I ain't there."

"So he let you leave?"

"No, he didn't let me leave. He doesn't tell me what to do Doc, nobody does. You both need to get that straight. I go where I want to, when I want to. I ain't a kid."

"Johnny, I simply mean, I just can't believe he didn't try to stop you."

Sam looked up as he was applying some salve to the cuts around Johnny's eyes.

Johnny shrugged.

"Johnny?" Sam admonished.

"Doc, are you done now? I mean, ain't it time for you to go. I don't need nothin'."

"Johnny."

"I mean it."

The doctor frowned, but closed the jar of salve, wiped his hands on a towel, and began putting his instruments in the bag.

It was one of the longest rides Murdoch had ever made to Spanish Wells. Was this how it was going to be? A continuation of the wild and uncontrolled behavior so well documented in those Pinkerton reports? He didn't bring the boy home to be a menace to the community or to follow him around getting him out of trouble.

Damn him! What the hell was he supposed to do or say to Johnny? He wasn't exactly a boy. He couldn't see himself punishing him like a kid. He barely knew Johnny. What he did know of him was he was quick to anger and full of pride. He was going to have to rein that temper in, if he was going to stay at Lancer.

Hell, he didn't even know if Johnny had started the fight. Who could blame him for standing up for himself? From those reports, he'd learned to do that well. He also read where the boy was very skilled at goading others into losing their tempers.

Well, what difference? Either way, he wasn't planning on making too many more trips like this one. At least Scott was a gentleman. Johnny was just going to have to learn to be one.

God damn you Maria! Why couldn't you have left that boy with me, where he would have been safe, and raised in a home with a father?

Johnny awoke to the sound of loud voices. Judging from the light filtering through the tiny bars onto the floor, it was good and up into the morning. He hurt all over, but at least he'd gotten some sleep. Funny how he couldn't sleep in the soft comfortable bed at Lancer, but he'd just slept through the night without any dreams for the first time since he came to the ranch.

There was no mistaking his father's voice.

He was making payment for damages in the saloon. Guess he'll want his thousand dollars back.

Easing himself up, he felt his face begin to throb and his ankle was sore. Truth was, he felt damn bad, and now he had to face that big bastard. Some days, it just didn't pay to wake up.

He yawned, ran his hand through his hair and winced. Mierda. His head was sore, not counting the headache he had. He glanced over at Ned, who was snoring.

He didn't need to touch his face to know that it was swollen. The throbbing around his eye and cheek told him that much. Riding back out to the ranch was not something he was looking forward to, ol' man or not.

He could hear only the sheriff's voice now.

"Well, in all fairness Mr. Lancer, Ned's an ass. Pete, the bartender said they boy had put up with quite a bit of bad talk before Ned started in on his momma. No sooner were the words out of his mouth than the boy was on him like lightning. Said one second, he was leaned up against that bar all relaxed, ignoring Ned, and then he was on him and had hit him several times before anyone could say boo."

"I see." He could hear Murdoch reply.

"Being that he's Johnny Madrid and all, well, I just thought it might be best to lock him up and let him cool off. I hated to make you ride all the way into town, but I figured it would be best. People were feeling a little unsafe with him here all by himself and I didn't want no more trouble than I'd already had. I ain't too sure what Ned's friends would do. I mean, they ain't the kind to take on Johnny Madrid in a fair fight, if ya know what I mean."

Johnny didn't hear a reply. Murdoch was probably giving the sheriff that stern, puzzled look he was always on the receiving end of. He didn't have a clue what the hell was goin' on in the ol' man's mind when he was lookin' at him like that.

Still sitting on the bed, he leaned over gingerly, trying to stretch his back before they came in to let him out of the cell. Wouldn't do for them to know how bad he really felt.

Johnny was sitting on his cot, leaning back against the wall, when he heard the keys in the big wooden door. He sat there, looking relaxed and lazy as Gabe stepped inside and made his way over to his cell.

"Your daddy's here for ya." Gabe announced as he busied himself unlocking the cell door and rattling the keys. The sound bounced around in Johnny's head, making it hurt like a son of a bitch. There was a movement to his left and Johnny looked to see Murdoch standing in the doorway. Their eyes met and held, but Johnny looked down. Why couldn't he stare the ol' man down? He felt lower than shit on a boot heel when Murdoch looked at him like that.

It hurt like hell to stand up, but he'd done it hurtin' worse. Gritting his teeth, he got up from the cot making it look effortless. He'd pay for it later. With apparent ease, he headed toward the door. Gabe stepped back to allow him out ahead of him.

He grabbed hold of the bars of the doorframe and paused to look at his father again with a half smile, half frown. "Murdoch."

"John."

There was little emotion in his father's voice or in his expression. Seeing Johnny's face bruised and swollen had punched the anger right of him. That was his boy whose handsome face was marred.

An onslaught of images ran through Murdoch's mind. Again, he saw the younger Johnny he'd envisioned for almost twenty years, big blue eyes, blackened and angry. His misgivings wilted away with the heat of the guilt he carried for Maria's leaving with the boy.

Murdoch stepped back into the office and Johnny followed him, the sheriff filed in behind them, returning to his desk.

Johnny headed towards the desk. Gabe had unlocked a drawer, pulled Johnny's gun belt out and placed it on the desk, along with a knife and a small derringer. The last thing he placed on the desk was a small leather pouch with a drawstring.

Murdoch watched Johnny pull on his gun belt, tie it down tight and adjust it several times before it seemed that he was satisfied. Johnny put his foot up on the desk and unbuttoned enough of the conchos on the side of his pants to replace the knife in his boot. The derringer, he tucked in the back of his pants. After which, he readjusted the gun belt again.

Is there any hope for us? He watched Johnny carefully tuck the leather pouch just inside his pants, underneath his belt and tightened even more. Johnny unhooked the loop over the hammer of the Colt, and slipped the gun in and out of the holster, almost unconsciously as he addressed the sheriff.

"Sheriff, I owe anything for damages or bail?"

"Nope, Murdoch here took care of it."

"How much was it?"

"One hundred twenty seven dollars. Damages only. No charge for keeping ya overnight. I did that for your own protection."

"Sheriff, I don't reckon I have to tell you I can take care of myself." Johnny gave him a menacing half smile. It would have hurt to give him a full smile.

"I'm sure you can, Johnny, but it's hard to avoid being shot in the back."

Johnny gave the sheriff a long look and raised his chin in acknowledgement.

"Well, then, I guess you want me to thank you?"

"Nope. Just want you to stay out of trouble when you're in Spanish Wells is all."

"Ain't always up to me."

"Well, I think you and I understand what I mean."

Johnny snorted slightly and turned to Murdoch.

"I guess we'd better head back then."

Murdoch reached for Johnny's shoulder, but Johnny flinched back and Murdoch grabbed his chin before the boy could back away. WHY do you do that, boy?

"Yes, well, I think I'd like Sam to take a look at you first."

At the same time, Johnny and Gabe blurted out, "Doc was here last night."

Johnny twisted away from Murdoch.

"Well, I still think we need to stop by before we head out."

Murdoch looked towards the sheriff. "Thanks, Gabe."

Murdoch opened the door and held it open for Johnny to exit. Johnny stepped outside, but not before giving his father a strange look and not before pausing to check out the street before he set foot over the threshold.

"Did Gabe give you any breakfast?"

"No."

"Would you like to get some before we ride out?"

"I wouldn't mind some coffee."

"There's a place around the corner we can get some breakfast and coffee."

Johnny followed Murdoch to the small café. It was pleasant and homey. Inside, Johnny headed for the back corner table, as Murdoch headed for a seat closer to the window. They each pulled out a chair and then looked across the room at each other.

"This is my usual table, Johnny."

"Well, this is mine ol' man. Can't eat with people walking around behind me." Johnny sat down, his back to the wall.

The waitress was also the proprietor. She stopped serving a table with two older men and looked up, first at Johnny, and then at Murdoch.

Murdoch scowled, but acquiesced to sit at the table Johnny had selected.

"Good morning, Mr. Lancer." The waitress was there instantly with a pot of coffee and pouring into the cups that were already placed on the table.

"Good morning, Mrs. Tucker. I'd like you to meet my son, John."

Johnny looked into the woman's eyes. She seemed sincere enough in her reply, "Well, good morning, John. Welcome to Spanish Wells."

"Mornin'."

"How 'bout some breakfast?"

"Well. . . " Johnny looked at Murdoch.

"Yes, we have plenty of time. In fact, bring me a plate as well. I didn't eat much this morning."

All because of me, I'm sure. Great.

They sipped their coffee in silence with Johnny watching the patrons, Murdoch watching Johnny.

Their awkwardness with each other grew more apparent with the quiet.

"Do you want to tell me what happened?" Murdoch broke the silence.

"Not much to tell. I was having a last beer before coming back to the ranch. That chancho started running his mouth. I got sick of it, so I shut him up."

"I see." Murdoch frowned. Johnny hated that look.

"Shit. At least I didn't shoot him. Disappointed?"

"Of course not! I wish you'd quit that cursing. I just wanted to hear it from you, not some third hand version." Murdoch glared at him.

"While I'm thinkin' about it, here." Johnny pulled the tiny leather pouch from his waistband and pulled out a wad of bills.

"What's this?"

"One hundred and twenty seven dollars. Ain't that what the damages were?"

Murdoch looked confused.

"I pay my way ol' man."

"I don't want your money. Keep it. Besides," he sighed, "You were spoiling for a fight and I'm partly to blame."

"I wasn't spoilin' for a fight. I was over it." Johnny turned his head and ran his hand through his hair.

"Truth is, I was cooled off by the time I got to town." He blew out a long breath and gave his father a resigned look. He left the money on the table between them.

"Well, I'm glad of that. We've got to iron out our differences in a better way, that's all."

"Yeah." Johnny hung his head.

About that time, Mrs. Tucker arrived with two plates brimming with biscuits, bacon, eggs, and potatoes. Johnny leaned back to allow her to place the plate in front of him. For just moment, Murdoch saw the pain in the blue eyes of his boy who was too young to be so old.

Chapter 22

Breakfast had been lacking in conversation. When they were finished, Johnny stood to leave, with not so much as a glance at the bail money he'd placed on the table earlier for his father.

Murdoch looked down at it and back at Johnny who glared at him. Murdoch scowled at him, but counted out the bills and paid for the breakfast with it. He stuck the rest in his coat pocket and followed Johnny outside.

They stopped on the boardwalk and looked out at the town and its bustling citizens. Wagons and mounted riders moved up and down the street, while kids darted back and forth. Dogs could be heard near and far, conversing with each other.

"Sam keeps an office here. Let's see if he's still around."

"I told ya, I saw him last night."

"Yes, and I want you to see him again. I don't like the way that eye looks."

Johnny huffed, but even that seemed to hurt.

"Whatever."

He followed Murdoch back onto the main street and across the thoroughfare. Johnny felt the eyes of the town upon him. People were always watching him. He wondered if Murdoch noticed. Maybe not.

Murdoch generally had one thing on his mind it seemed. Ranching.

The man was all business. Well, now there was something they had in common. They both were all business when it came to their work. He laughed to himself. Ol' Murdoch wouldn't find that the least bit funny.

Murdoch turned down an alley and stopped beside a wooden door. Above it hung a small sign, "Sam Jenkins, M. D. and General Surgeon."

"Well it seems we've missed him." Murdoch stepped back and Johnny read the sign on the door that said "Green River."

Johnny shrugged, grateful that he wouldn't have to put up with the doc and Murdoch carrying on over him. He really just wanted to find some place alone and lick his wounds in private.

"Well, guess we should get your horse and head home."

Without a word, Johnny turned and headed toward the livery. He'd seen it the day before when he rode into town. Murdoch stood, watching him leave.

Johnny turned around, walking backwards, "I'll meet you in front of the jail."

He nodded his agreement and watched Johnny turn and continue toward the stable.

Johnny's usual swagger was just a bit off. Hard to believe the boy had beaten that big loudmouth cowhand. The man seemed to have deserved it based on Gabe's description, but it worried him a little that Johnny had beaten him unconscious.

Murdoch had just reached his horse, tied outside of the jail, when he noticed a change in the momentum of the town.

People were yelling and grabbing at their children. Others were hurrying up onto the boardwalks and most began crowding into stores.

He glanced over his saddle and saw a man standing in the middle of the street, legs spread and arms akimbo. Farther ahead, another man was tying off a golden horse. Johnny.

He saw Johnny lean against the hitching rail, looking so casual and relaxed. Something told him he wasn't though.

Clutching his saddle horn, his throat and mouth went dry. Dear God! Please no, not a gunfight! No, no, no!

He strained, but couldn't hear what was being said.

Johnny continued to look casual, but the other man seemed to become more animated, but he could see the man's hands stayed away from his gun.

Johnny was shaking his head. The other man kept talking.

Johnny shook his head again, motioned up to the sky with his left hand, and then looked down again.

The stranger became very still.

Suddenly, Johnny's head came up and he shifted his weight to the other foot. His hands, which had been resting on his hips, dropped down, his right hand, dangerously close to the butt of that Colt.

He closed his eyes for only a moment. When he opened them, Johnny was walking.

Stunned, he watched his son saunter into the middle of the street. When Johnny turned to face his opponent, Murdoch's stomach almost turned inside out. He looked towards the open door of the sheriff's office.

"Gabe! Gabe! Get out here!"

Gabe bounded out of the door immediately, but it was too late.

Two shots were fired. One man was down. Murdoch didn't think he had the strength to turn back and look, but he did.

"God damn it!" Gabe swore and called inside for a deputy, and jogged toward the man lying in the middle of the street. Murdoch followed, but at a much slower pace, his leg had suddenly gone sour again.

Murdoch couldn't tear his eyes off Johnny as he headed towards the scene. Johnny looked the part of a conquering warrior as he walked over to the body on the ground. He bumped it with his boot, and was about to kick the gun away when Gabe got to him.

"Put your gun away Johnny."

Johnny did as told, just as Murdoch reached them. By now, the townspeople were coming out of hiding and beginning to form a circle around them, staring and whispering. Johnny seemed oblivious to their comments.

Murdoch heard them. The one that stabbed him sharp and deep, "Killer."

It was obvious that the man was dead. The exit wound from a .45 caliber slug made large hole.

Blood oozed, thick and almost black.

Gabe and his deputy turned the downed man over and the crowd gasped. One single shot to the heart. "He's dead all right."

"Anybody know who he is?"

"Frank Bollenger. Did some jobs with him and Day."

"You know this man, Johnny?" Gabe looked up.

"Yep."

"He he call you out?"

"Yeah."

There were also some shouts from the crowd in agreement with Johnny, as well as "fair fight."

"Why?"

"Don't know, less he's takin' up where Day left off. Maybe he just wanted my rep, hard to say."

"You mean he didn't tell you?"

"Nope, don't reckon he will now either."

The crowd had grown and there was more murmuring.

"Lancer, you need to run that boy out of town!" came from the back of the crowd. More murmurs and then "Yeah! That boy ain't nothin' but trouble!"

"Shore nuff! Beat the near life outta ol' Ned, and now he's done kilt somebody, and it ain't even lunch time!"

"Damn right!"

"He's a killer!"

"Hired killer!"

"Town ain't safe with the likes of him around!"

"Send him back to Mexico!"

What initially seemed an ambivalent bunch was becoming hostile.

Gabe looked at the crowd and then at Murdoch.

"Mr. Lancer, best you get your boy out of here."

Too smart to argue with an angry mob of people, Murdoch kept his mouth shut. That was the only reason he nodded at Johnny to go. His temper was starting to boil. Not just with the people, but with himself, Johnny, at the whole world right now.

Johnny turned to get his horse. Murdoch watched as the crowd parted and saw both disdain and fear on the faces of the citizens of Spanish Wells. He turned to walk back to his own horse.

Before he reached the gelding, a flash of gold passed him. Moments later, Johnny was trotting down the street with Murdoch's bay in tow.

Murdoch looked up into cold hard set of Johnny's face and wondered, so this is what your life is like?

They rode past the body. Gabe and his deputy were running the onlookers away.

The undertaker had arrived with a cart to get his bounty.

They rode more than half way home in complete silence. Johnny, because he didn't feel well and he knew the ol' man was pissed at him. He'd seen Murdoch's face start to color up when people started calling him names. It wouldn't surprise him one bit to get back and have Murdoch show him the door. Not one bit.

"John?"

"Yeah?" He didn't bother to look at his father, he could tell by his tone that he was still mad.

"I need to be sure. You do want to change your life, right? What I mean is, you do still plan on being a part of Lancer, being a rancher?"

"I've already told you yes." Here we go again.

"Well, you understand that to do that, you have to put down the gun."

"I have."

"You just killed a man!"

"What was I supposed to do? Let him shoot me down like a dog? Are you crazy? I told you this would be hard."

"I know it's hard!" Murdoch roared and Barranca jumped. "But you have to stop involving yourself in gunfights!"

"Involving myself? Just what the fuck was I supposed to do?"

"How about talking the man out of it!"

"I tried. He wouldn't listen."

"You don't even seem upset that he's dead!"

"I'm not! He brought it on himself!"

"John!"

"What do you want ol' man? Huh? Are you embarrassed because those townspeople called me names? Worried I'm dirtying up the Lancer name?"

"Don't be ridiculous, John."

"It's Johnny! Can't you just call me Johnny?"

"Don't change the subject! I'm worried about you, about your wellbeing, your soul, John. I'm worried about your soul!"

Barranca came to a halt. Johnny felt like he'd been gun shot.

Murdoch's words had slammed into him hard.

He didn't understand. What does he mean? My soul? He'd always trusted his instincts and his instincts were telling him the ol' man thought the worst of him. Fuck! This isn't gonna work after all.

Without a word, he spurred Barranca into a dead run.

"Damn it!" Murdoch swore as he watched his son carried away from him once more.

Johnny and Barranca came to a skidding stop outside the barn. Johnny jumped from the horse's back and led him into the barn.

Murdoch rode up just as Johnny came out of the barn, clearly in a hurry to get to the house. He was limping and held his hand up towards his father shaking his head.

"Johnny!"

Johnny kept going. Murdoch dismounted as a hand ran out to take his horse. Murdoch limped behind Johnny, who headed straight up the stairs.

BAM! A door upstairs slammed and the sound of breaking glass resounded throughout the house.

Murdoch was at the bottom of the stairs and staring up to the next floor when Teresa raced into the foyer.

"Murdoch, is everything okay? What was that?"

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He let it out slowly, trying to quell his own desire to throw something.

"Yes, yes, darling. It will be all right. Johnny and I are just having a disagreement."

He turned and smiled at her.

"You sure seem to have a lot of those."

Murdoch read the concern in her eyes and opened his arms. She snuggled into them for a reassuring hug.

"Yes we do. That boy has a temper just like his mother! I'd forgotten how hot headed she was."

He snorted at a new memory of Maria. He'd spent so many years hating her for leaving and taking Johnny, he'd forgotten how funny and beautiful she could be when she was angry.

"I think he'll be okay in a bit. I suspect by the time dinner rolls around, he'll be ready to come downstairs and eat."

He kissed the top of the head and then held her away from him and looked her in the eye.

"So why don't you get back to the kitchen and make something that'll lure him down, aye?"

He smiled and in returned received a huge grin from the girl.

"Okay, but you're sure you're all right."

"Yes, I'm fine."

Damn! Johnny swore to himself when he heard the breaking glass outside his door. That's just great!

He leaned back against the door for a moment. Every part of his body hurt.

He snatched a wooden chair from the small table and shoved it under the doorknob. He had discovered some time before, that the lock was broken. If the ol' man didn't throw him out after today, he'd change that when he felt better.

Ensuring that the chair would hold, he sat down on the bed and pulled his boots off, flinging them across the room. He stood, unbuckled his gun belt, and hung it on the bedpost within handy reach.

Padding over to his armoire, he pulled open the doors and grabbed the bottle of whiskey he had smuggled from Murdoch's liquor cabinet earlier in the week. He pulled the top off and took a long pull.

It went down smooth, hot, and strong. Damn the ol' man had good taste. One thing for sure, life here was a damn sight better when it came to eatin', drinkin', and sleepin'. If only he could stay.

The next long pull went down even better as he wandered to the balcony doors, flung wide as he had left them the day before.

He took a third drink as he looked out towards the mountains. What the hell was mama thinkin' when she left this place? Seems like she could have had a man on the side or something, if, that was the trouble.

Murdoch, for all his macho behavior wasn't a woman beater. He could tell that. But he didn't doubt the ol' man wouldn't think twice about using his fists on a man. He was surprised that the ol' man hadn't already busted him in the mouth. Probably afraid he'd shoot him. Truthfully, he probably would have, at least the first week or so. But now, he didn't know.

He was so mixed up when it came to Murdoch. He hadn't been easy on his father, sometimes it was intentional, and sometimes not. Mierda, he hadn't been this torn up inside since mama got herself killed.

He wanted to stay here. He really did. God, to be able to have a room like this, to live in house like this, where every meal is a feast, the liquor is all top notch, and there's someone to wash your clothes.

Couldn't get much better than this.

Having a family had never been anything he'd thought much about. He'd always wished for one when he was really little, when Maria was still alive. But, after that, he'd tucked that dream away in the past. He couldn't afford to think about things he would never have, or feel sorry for himself. As for having his own wife and kids, well, he wasn't ready for that and wasn't sure he ever would be. But this, this seemed like it would be kind of nice, that is, if he and Murdoch could get along.

As for Scott, well, they sure were different, but he didn't seem like a bad guy, just a big dandy. Living out here would change that. If it didn't, he'd turn tail and run back to his abuelo back east. But then, something told him, that wasn't gonna happen.

He took another tug on the bottle.

If only they could leave him alone and let him work out this 'putting down the gun' thing on his own. He didn't know how to make them understand. It didn't help to lose his temper so much. He didn't know what had happened to the cool calm side of Johnny Madrid. Every time he got around Murdoch he just felt, felt. . . Hell, he didn't know what he felt, except that something about that ol' man set him off.

Truthfully, he was a little afraid of the son of a bitch. He was huge! Bet he punches like a mule kicks.

Maybe that's what it was, fear. He wasn't used to being afraid, not like that, not anymore.

There was more to it though. Something in him just made him want to buck and kick every time Murdoch spoke to him. What the hell? Maybe it was that 'tune caller' attitude of his.

Maybe it was just the way the ol' man assumed he could control him. Maybe he just didn't trust him.

Well, that was true for sure. He didn't trust him. There had to be more to the story between him and Maria than what he'd been told, by either of them.

He'd never be able to confront Maria now, to get the truth out of her, or at least her version, beyond what little she'd told him. Nope, there was just this ol' man, and he sure as hell wasn't talkin'.

I'll stick it out at least until I can figure out what happened, who was lyin'. Well, if he doesn't come up here and kick me out. After that, I guess it depends on the answers if I can stay here or not.

He began unbuttoning his shirt as he limped toward the bed. He sat down and took a last guzzle from the bottle before replacing the top and setting it on the bedside table.

God he hurt. Burrowing down into the bed, he maneuvered himself into a comfortable position, hugging one of the huge overstuffed pillows to his chest.

Thinking again, he reached up and pulled the Colt from its holster. He slid it under the pillow and snuggled back into position.

What the hell did he mean about my soul?

Chapter 23

Knocking on the door awakened him.

"Johnny? Johnny."

Scott's voice was soft.

"Hang on."

Damn, he was groggy. His head and eyes were thick and heavy, he was disoriented from sleeping too long in the daytime.

He pulled the chair from under the knob and opened the door. The chair in hand, he looked at his brother.

Scott glanced at the chair and then back at Johnny, the question written on his face.

"Lock's broke. I wanted to be left alone."

Scott raised his chin in understanding.

Johnny sighed, dragged the chair over to the table and straddled it. He invited Scott in and to sit with a motion of his hand.

"What's on your mind?"

Scott looked Johnny in the eye, taking in his brother's droopy-eyed condition.

"I guess that hurts." Scott put his hand near his own eye.

"Fucker hit like a train." Johnny rolled his eyes and shook his head slightly. "Like I said, what's on your mind, Boston?"

"You."

Johnny snorted. "Me?"

"Well, seems you've had a rough go the last two days."

"A rough go?" Johnny laughed. "I tell you Boston, you sure have a way of puttin' things."

"Not funny, Johnny. Seriously, I came to check on you. Dinner will be served in about thirty minutes."

Johnny gingerly rubbed at his puffy eyes.

"Shit. Guess I'd better clean up. I'm already on the wrong side of the ol' man. I'm surprised he didn't come up here and break the door down and send me packin'."

Scott laughed.

"It's not funny."

"So you've made up your mind you want to stay."

"I told you I planned to."

"Well good. Wanna tell me about the fight?"

"Nothin' to tell. I listened to about all I could stand from that bastard and then I beat the shit out of him. How was Murdoch when he found out?"

"Well. . . Let's just say, he wasn't happy. He didn't say much."

"Hmmph! Didn't have too. Bet he had that big ol' sour look on his face."

"Well, yeah." Scott nodded. "I offered to come with him, but he said he'd handle it. What'd he say to you?"

"Not much. Asked me what happened. Tried to make me see Sam, AGAIN, but he was gone. We went to breakfast and that was it, until the gunfight. After that, we had it out."

"I thought you were giving that up."

Johnny scowled at Scott. "It ain't that easy. I get called out, I gotta go. Simple as that. Like it or not, I don't care."

"The code of the West?"

"Somethin' like that."

"Well, all right. I'll let you get ready for dinner. See you downstairs."

Scott watched his father as they had their drinks in the great room. It seemed that was something of a habit their father had, drinks before dinner. Much like Boston. Maybe it wasn't as barbaric out here after all.

The old grandfather clock ticked on loud and clear, as if it were trying to bring attention to Johnny's absence.

Where are you, little brother? Funny, he barely knew Johnny, but he suddenly felt protective of him. He glanced at the clock and at Murdoch. He could tell by the man's posture against the mantel of the fireplace that Johnny was on his mind.

Personally, he was wondering if there were going to be fireworks at the dinner table between the two of them, but after seeing Johnny, it seemed the boy had calmed down some. He thought Murdoch had, but now, he wasn't sure.

The clocked chimed six o'clock, announcing the mandatory dinner hour. Taking a long slow sip of his drink, he glanced at Murdoch again.

The look on his face clearly said he'd made a decision. With a long sigh, Murdoch turned to him.

"Well son, let's eat."

They downed the rest of their drinks and placed the glasses on the coffee table. Scott stood and they joined Teresa in the dinning room.

They had just gotten seated and Teresa was about to begin passing the food, when Johnny appeared and tucked into his seat, mumbling toward Murdoch, "Sorry, I, uh, had problems shaving."

Scott hid his smile by busying himself with his napkin. Well, that's something at least.

Murdoch turned and gave Johnny an appraising look before he responded.

"You're excused, this time, John. All things considered, you look much better."

The expression on Johnny's face looked sincere. Murdoch not only looked relieved, but also seemed satisfied with the excuse.

Scott dared a glance at each of them as he turned to pass the bowl of mashed potatoes to Murdoch. Yep, he did look better, and in fact, he seemed to have acquired a new shirt. In view of things, it seemed best not to comment. It would draw attention to the fact that they had noticed he'd been wearing the same shirt over and over.

When Murdoch faced him to take the potatoes, his face had made a complete recovery from the bleak, almost scowling expression it wore in the great room. This was going to be interesting, this family thing. The tension between Murdoch and Johnny was like a thunderstorm. It built up, exploded with roof rattling thunder, even some sparks of lightning, and then, it would pass, leaving things calm and cool.

After dinner, they again retired to the great room. Johnny was his usual, quiet self, sitting over in the corner, back to the wall, whiskey in his hand. Teresa was in her chair, sewing tonight, on what looked like socks.

Scott and Murdoch both had newspapers, one from Green River, the other from San Francisco. They took turns reading various articles aloud. Scott found one that he thought might draw Johnny into conversation.

"Here's something you might be interested in Johnny. The headline reads, 'Gunfight in Abilene: Sterling Jim Conway killed by Brady Barker.' Do you know either of them?"

"Yeah. Know 'em both. Sterlin' cheated at cards all the time. Barker's just a plain asshole."

"Johnny!" Murdoch's admonishment was somewhat softer than usual.

Johnny gave his father an annoyed frown.

"Were they fast?" Scott was anxious to keep Johnny talking.

"If you wanna know if they were, are, faster than me. No, Scott, they ain't. I got no use for either of them. Too bad they didn't take each other out."

"I'm sure you saw that big scar on my right shoulder when I was laid up. Got that from Brady. Cobarde, shot me in the back outside of Nogales."

"What was his reason?"

"Didn't have no reason, other than he was just plain scared he'd have to face me."

Johnny stood and moved towards the liquor cabinet. He poured himself another shot and headed outside through the French doors.

Scott looked towards Murdoch and for once, was on the receiving end of his scowl. He shrugged his shoulders.

Johnny found a chair on the veranda and eased back, staring up at the stars. There were a lot of them out tonight. It was clear, not a cloud in the sky. It was a familiar sight, but somehow it felt different. He was looking at them from his birthplace. A place he'd spent two years of his life. He'd spent two years here and couldn't remember not even one tiny detail from that time. It was frustrating.

He'd been trying hard the last week or so, to remember anything, just anything, about this place. But nothing brought him memories of his time here. Maybe if he could remember something, it would give him a clue to what had really happened between his parents. As it was, the few bits of information he'd gathered while being here had pushed him off the banks of certainty into a river of doubt in his mind about the facts.

He was drowning and looking for a lifeline. The only problem was, his mother couldn't throw him one, and his father's didn't seem to want to. He wanted Johnny to swim to the bank while he waited, watching.

His room held nothing familiar, although Murdoch had told him that he had indeed carved the tiny wooden horse that Johnny had found in his room. Murdoch had even pulled hair from the mane of one of the first Lancer palominos, to make the mane and tail.

He didn't remember it, but he liked it a lot and left it on the bedside table, holding it every day, running his fingers along it, stroking the mane and tail, as if it were a magic bottle and rubbing it would bring back long forgotten memories of his home and his family.

The only family memories he had were of his mother and the many 'stepfathers' he'd had. They had moved around a lot. He only went to school here and there. He and Maria had moved a little less often the last two years before she died. He'd gotten the majority of his schooling then.

He mostly attended the mission schools run by priests. Pretty much the only schools a whore's kid could go to, without having to fight for his life. Still and all, he had fought many a fight within the confines of such places.

And not always with the other kids.

He and the priests had fought. Murdoch had commented on his writing. He wasn't about to tell him he had to write neat or have his hands ruined by the priests and their hard wooden rulers.

If he made a mistake, or didn't do a good enough job, they would smack his fingers and hands with those things until they would swell and sometimes even bleed. Then they would stand over him and make him write some stupid thing like "I will not cuss," over and over with his swollen, bleeding fingers.

He'd already made up his mind he was going to become a gunfighter, so he didn't want to risk having his hands mutilated by the bastards.

The same thing went for the reading. The main padre had decided that he was the devil and so the priests were hard on him. Beatings discouraged mistakes in his and the other children's schoolwork.

Father Lopez was the only one who took an interest in him. He was the only reason Johnny could even read. Mama didn't care what he did for the most part, as long as he was out of her way so she could service her men. That could be any hour of the day or night.

He had wanted to learn to read and write. He had been a smart kid, smarter than most of the ones he knew. Always staying in the background, he had learned a lot by being quiet and watching. The smarter gunfighters, the better ones, could read and write.

He had wanted to be the best, but the other kids were so dumb. He was bored and got in trouble. That had always been a problem for him. He was always quicker than most folk. Quicker with more than just his gun.

He had learned to read people at an early age, and caught onto them, and to the ways of the world, how things worked a lot earlier. His mama's men had taught him a lot of things, good and bad. Most of the more regular ones were gamblers. On the up side, he'd learned his sums before most kids his age, learning to deal poker from his many 'stepfathers' before other kids could count.

Yep, mama always had a weakness for a gambler. That's why when the girl said what she said, the truth of it rammed through him like one of those Indian lances. What the hell would a girl like that know about his mama? She did say her father told her. Wonder what else she knows?

"Johnny?"

Murdoch's voice was about as soft as he'd heard it yet. Johnny turned to see his father standing in the doorway.

"Yeah?"

"I'm about to turn in. Everyone else is already gone. I, uh, didn't know if you were ready to, or if you wanted me to leave the lamp burning. You do have an early start tomorrow."

Johnny snorted softly and reached up to scratch the back of his neck as he ducked his head.

"Yeah, yeah I do, at that."

He yawned and stretched as Murdoch waited, and stood up in good time.

Murdoch remained in the doorway after Johnny had stepped inside. He then pulled the doors to, and securing them, a habit he'd maintained for over twenty years.

Feeling rather awkward, Johnny waited near the door to the hallway for Murdoch to blow out the lamp and join him for the walk upstairs.

Together, they climbed the stairs, a task made difficult due to bullets from the same gunman.

Finally, they reached the top. Murdoch stopped at his bedroom door. Johnny headed toward his room. As he placed his hand on the doorknob, Johnny suddenly turned, still moving, but backwards, and whispered, "'night Murdoch."

"Good night, John."

Chapter 24

Scott was beginning to enjoy the breakfast dynamics of his family. They were the only thing that kept him from falling asleep at the table. Johnny had spent the last week working with Cipriano and Isidro, while his own apron strings had been cut, and he was out working and partially supervising, crews.

Working had certainly settled some of the tension between Johnny and Murdoch. Johnny still wasn't used to pre-dawn awakening, but Scott was beginning to adjust, mostly because he was so tired at night, he was asleep most of the time before his head hit the pillow.

They were beginning to slide into the routine of the ranch, and to form some habits. Like each morning, he took it upon himself to check on Johnny before going downstairs. Johnny didn't thank him, but he didn't tell him not to. That, in itself, was telling.

Murdoch still pounded on the boy's door first thing every morning until he heard a reply, his attempts at entry, now stymied by the lock Johnny had installed on his door. The first morning their father had found the door locked, he'd roared for Johnny to get up and open the door.

He laughed to himself at the memory.

It hadn't been so funny then, but now, in retrospect, it was. Murdoch had initially thought the door was stuck. He had banged and kicked on it, and was ready to shoulder his way in when Johnny had snatched it open. Murdoch had nearly fallen inside while Johnny stood there, his hair as wild as tumbleweed, an owl-like expression on his face, Colt in hand.

There had been a heated exchange, but Murdoch had conceded. He seemed embarrassed and unable to articulate a justifiable need to be able to enter Johnny's room at will.

A shadow traveling across the table brought his thoughts back to the current morning. Johnny slipped into the chair across from him.

Murdoch glanced away from his paper toward Johnny for a moment, uttering a "Good morning, John." He returned to his reading, a slight smile on his face.

"Mornin'." It was never more than a whisper, but Johnny was becoming civil in the morning. It still took him three cups of coffee or more to seem fully alert, but he was able to eat in the mornings, now that he was working.

The sudden snap as the paper closed jolted Scott and he saw that it did the same for Johnny. Murdoch folded the paper and laid it aside. "Well boys, today, you are officially going to become rancher owners." The smile on his face was broad. Scott returned it and Johnny's bleary eyes darted up and then back down to stare into his coffee.

The ride to Morro Coyo was filled with chatter from Teresa. She and Murdoch were in the wagon, and she was looking forward to having lunch in town, shopping, and seeing friends.

Scott rode alongside Johnny, whose palomino danced and played under him. Johnny was quiet, almost reflective as they rode some distance behind the wagon.

"You're awful quiet, brother. Not changing your mind are you?"

Johnny looked up from his thoughts. "Change my mind? Nope. I'm signing on like I said. 'Sides, I figure it's owed to me after taking that bullet in the back."

"Well, it's not owed to you. It's really your birthright."

"Not where I come from. The first born inherits where I come from, and that's you, big brother."

"Really? What about the rest of the family?"

"They have to make their own way."

"Well, you're only half Mexican. The American half has a right to this place as much as I do."

"I'm surprised the 'Ol Man ain't leavin' the place to the girl."

"She can't run it. She'll marry and move away. In case you haven't noticed, our father is trying to build a legacy."

Johnny snorted. "Come on."

"Really, Johnny. He's proud of this place, of what he's done, and he should be. It is quite impressive."

"Yeah, and where does that leave you and me?" Johnny stared at Scott, "Sounds like you've bought into that past is dead and gone bullshit."

"No, Johnny, I haven't. I'm just pointing out that he had to work hard to build a place like this."

"Yeah, ya got that right, brother. Building it for who? You and me? No Scott, he did this for himself."

"Boys, come up here. I want to show you something." Murdoch had stopped the wagon.

Johnny rolled his eyes at Scott and they urged their horses to pick up the pace a bit.

The rest of the ride to town passed in a similar fashion. Murdoch stopping to show them bits of the ranch and telling them how he acquired it and when. Pointing out why it was a good purchase and how he determined what to buy.

Scott enjoyed these glimpses into his father's thought process and business acumen. For Johnny, each stop was another nail through his chest, thinking about his father's strategy for buying land rather than coming for him.

Mr. Randall's office was small, dark, and smelled of leather. They were ushered immediately to his private office. Rather than take a position in the far corner with his back to the wall, Johnny liked the idea of being near the door, here. It was too small for his liking and then add big old Murdoch, Scott, and Mr. Randall, along with himself and even Teresa, well, he'd just rather be where he could get out.

He leaned back against the bookcase. The place had more books than the Lancer great room. Only these were all in fancy wooden cabinets with glass-fronted doors. It was dusty too, in here. Teresa was at his side. He couldn't figure that one out. She was always hanging around him.

Randall had shaken hands with Scott and Murdoch when they entered. He merely nodded at Johnny, who didn't offer to come forward and shake his hand. Scott was on the other side of the room and Murdoch in front of Randall's desk. Teresa was trying to nest next to him.

Murdoch, Scott, and Randall started in talking about stocks and investments as the lawyer pulled out the paperwork and spread it onto his desk. Johnny didn't realize he was chewing on the stampede strap from his hat.

Just a month ago, he was standing in front of a firing squad. Now, here he was, about to sign a legal document that made him a third owner of the largest ranch in the San Joaquin Valley, and one of the largest in the State of California.

Johnny Madrid, rancher. That was his future now. It was unsettling. His entire life had changed in these last few weeks, or had it? Could he be just a rancher? Already, he was feeling hemmed in with the 'tune calling' from the ol' man. Breakfast lunch and dinner were by the clock. Every day there was some long list of shit to be done. Not just chores. No sir, back breaking work. He'd never been so tired in his life!

Not a minute to spare. No time to practice his draw, and the truth of the matter was, no matter what he or the ol' man thought about it, he was gonna have to keep his edge. If he didn't, he'd be a dead rancher.

For the first time in his life, he actually had a choice about what he wanted to be. But, was it a choice? It was a certainty that he would die soon if he stayed in the game. Nobody could stay on top forever. Even if he did, he was destined to die by a bullet in the back like as not.

Hell, for that matter, plenty of men died in ranching accidents, accidents that made gun fighting look safe. At least, if he could live long enough as a rancher, people would forget about him and he could quit being so tense all the time, and really relax.

Murdoch signed the paper and then Scott was signing.

Randall turned to him, and said, "and now you, sir."

Well, here goes nothin'. He pushed up and off the bookcase, taking the stampede strap out of his mouth. Just as he was about to step behind the desk, Murdoch spoke.

"Oh, Mr. Randall, "

Johnny froze. Shit! What now?

"I should have told you, that name should read, John Madrid, not Lancer."

Murdoch was staring him down.

Damn you, ol' man!

He caught the slight strained expression on the lawyer's face as he fumbled, juxtaposed to his words of, "It'll be just a minute."

When it came right down to it, he was John Lancer, or at least that's who he was going to be, Johnny Lancer, rancher. If he was gonna make a change, it had to include the name. What the fuck did it matter, Madrid, Lancer? He was just the same old Johnny, and Johnny wanted to get the hell out of this dark little rabbit hole.

"No." He stopped the attorney from his fumbling. "Let it stand."

Randall immediately stepped back to allow him to sign.

He could feel their eyes on him.

Taking the pen, he looked down and saw his father's signature, Murdoch Lancer. It was a big scrawling, important looking signature. Underneath it, Scott's name, written carefully in a tall, thin, fanciful script. He took a breath, dipped the pen in the inkwell and then as careful as if the priest was standing over him with that wooden ruler, he wrote his name, with just the slightest hesitation in making the transition from a big M to a big L. It was the first time he'd written his name this way. It felt strange and looked strange. He'd given no thought as to writing his name special, like some folks, like Scott, had. Oh well, best just to get the job done.

He finished, letting out the breath he'd been holding as he'd carefully inked that foreign name on the paper. He took a moment to look at it, to compare it with the other two. Clean, neat, workman-like, just like his gun belt.

He looked up to see everyone smiling at him and before he knew what was happening, a shy smile slipped onto his face.

"Oh Johnny! I'm so happy for you!" Teresa squealed, and before he could stop her, she had her arms around him.

Shit! He looked to Murdoch, waiting to see that familiar scowl on his face, but it wasn't there. He was actually smiling at him too!

Mr. Randall finished with the papers, turned and shook each Lancer's hand, saying "Congratulations" to each of them. He did hesitate when he turned to Johnny, but Johnny made it easy for him, giving him just a little bit of a smile and extending his hand.

When he let go, Scott and Murdoch descended upon him, one on each side and put their arms around him as they walked out onto the boardwalk, grinning like they'd just fucked a five dollar whore.

They moved down the boardwalk that way for a few feet, Teresa in front of them, when Murdoch stopped.

"Teresa, why don't you go buy yourself something at Baldemeros, and then meet us in about thirty minutes at the cantina. I want to take the boys to meet a few people."

Murdoch pulled out his wallet from inside his vest and took out a couple of bills. Teresa's eyes got big as she took them with a grin big enough to show all her teeth.

She hugged him, "Thank you, Uncle Murdoch."

They watched the girl all but skip down the boardwalk toward Baldemeros.

"Boys, I think we should celebrate with a drink!" Murdoch put his arm around each of them, squeezed them playfully, patting their shoulders before letting his hands slide down to the middle of their backs to nudge them on ahead of him.

Johnny shot Scott a quick glance and saw that his brother was as surprised as he was as their eyes met in a brief moment of unspoken understanding. They headed toward the saloon, shoulder to shoulder, their father following behind.

As they approached the doors to the saloon, Johnny remembered his last time there, with Pardee. The bartender would be surprised to see him back, and with Murdoch Lancer.

Murdoch and Scott plowed through the saloon's batwing doors. Johnny hung back, catching the doors and stopping them from flapping back and forth. He took his time checking things out. Murdoch and Scott reached the bar and Murdoch was ordering before Johnny had even entered.

As he eased through the doors and made his way across the crowded room, Murdoch turned around in time to witness the stares of the other patrons in the bar.

Johnny gave them the show they were looking for as he crossed the room in full swagger to join his family. He saw a flash of emotion cross his father's face, but it was gone as soon as he stood next to him.

The bartender returned from the back, a bottle of tequila in hand. He placed three clean shot glasses down on the bar in front of them and the proceeded to pour. Johnny saw the label on the bottle and a smile broke out on his face.

"This place has better brands of tequila than whiskey." Murdoch told him.

Scott looked up. "Tequila?"

"Yeah big brother, tequila." The bartender pulled a plate of limes and salt out from under the bar.

With the biggest smile Johnny had ever seen on his father's face, Murdoch held his glass up and looked at him and then at Scott.

"Boys, this is one of the happiest days of my life. The happiest being the days you two were born. A toast to you, my family."

"Scott." Murdoch held up a lime slice, indicating Scott should follow his lead. He dragged the lime slice through the salt, as did Johnny, before sinking his teeth into it.

Scott's face wrinkled, but he followed suit, taking the lime in one hand and the glass of tequila in the other.

Johnny was speechless. He didn't know what to think of that statement, but Murdoch was looking a damn sight happier than he'd ever seen him. He ducked his head before looking up to clink his glass with that of his father and brother as he heard Scott's "Here, here."

They downed the shots as one, placing their glasses on the bar when they were finished. Scott made a face that gave way to his inexperience with tequila. Johnny was impressed with Murdoch, who didn't so much as blink after his, but then, this was good tequila.

Johnny wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Murdoch was watching Scott's reaction with a grin.

"One more, Señor?" The bartender asked.

Murdoch took a long look at Johnny and turned back to him, "Sure. Johnny? Scott?"

Smiling back, Johnny drawled, "Sure, I'll have another."

"Not for me." Scott was emphatic. "I'm afraid my delicate taste buds need to take it slow on this stuff."

Johnny snorted and Murdoch let out a deep rumbling sound at the statement.

The bartender poured two more shots. Murdoch handed Johnny his glass and took his own. "John." He nodded at his boy, partook of another salty lime and tossed the tequila back with no hesitation. "Ah." He sat the glass down on the bar hard.

Johnny finished his and leaned in between his brother and father to place it on the bar.

"Okay, let's get some lunch boys." Murdoch indicated with a nod that they should lead the way.

Johnny moved out first, taking in the looks of the people once more. He paused at the door before moving outside, where he turned and headed toward what he already knew was the only cantina in the small town.

Johnny walked ahead of Murdoch and Scott, unphased by the looks and stares he got from the townspeople. They weren't all angry looks. Plenty of people knew he was part of the reason that Lancer had survived the attack by Pardee, and now that Pardee was dead, they had their town back. But, they looked all the same, and he knew Murdoch would notice. Maybe it wouldn't spoil the ol' man's good mood; that, and the two shots of tequila had left him feeling pretty good about things.

He had just put his hand on the door when he heard his name.

"Johnny."

Chapter 25

"Johnny."

Johnny turned around. "Let's go in here first, I want you to meet Fred Martin."

Murdoch was standing there, holding the door to the bank open. Scott had already entered. Johnny shrugged and followed Murdoch into the bank.

I was a small bank, just two teller cages, which ran the width of the building, behind which stood a large safe. To the right of the cages was a little wooden gate to allow access from the lobby.

Wallpaper with deep a red velvet pattern adorned the walls. Combined with the rich brown wainscoting, it gave the room a lavish look. In the corners were plush chairs and rich dark sofa tables.

Along the wall, a long, tall table, with pencils and paper stacked neatly in the wooden cubbyholes.

On the lobby side of the cages, was an ornately carved, heavy wooden door.

It opened just as Johnny had crossed the threshold into the bank.

"Murdoch Lancer!"

A well-dressed man emerged from behind the door, wearing a crisp grey pinstripe suit, a navy silk vest, and a ruffled white shirt, collar, and string tie. It reminded him of some of the clothes he'd seen in Scott's room.

Johnny sidled up next to Scott, who was beside Murdoch.

The banker's big grin showed all of his teeth, as he grabbed Murdoch's hand and shook it profusely. "It's great to see you in town again!"

The man's eyes darted over to Scott and Johnny, taking them in, and then back to Murdoch.

"What can I do for you?"

Murdoch gave the banker a big smile. "Thank you, Fred. Actually, I just stopped in to introduce you to my boys."

Murdoch held out his arm to draw Scott and Johnny in closer.

"Boys, this is Fred Martin. He's the owner and President of the Bank. Fred, these are my sons, Scott and Johnny."

"Well, now," the banker's attention moved to the younger Lancers.

Scott stepped forward and shook hands with Martin. Martin looked him in the eye. "Scott, very pleased to meet you."

"Likewise."

The banker turned to Johnny with an appraising look, and paused before offering his hand. "I've heard quite a bit about you Johnny."

Johnny stared at him, making certain to have his full attention before proffering his right hand. He could see uncertainty and maybe even dislike in the man's eyes. Just the slightest hint of a smile flashed during the brief handshake.

The banker turned back to Murdoch.

"Gentlemen, let's have a seat in my office. I'll have Bess make us some fresh coffee. I've got some new Cuban cigars."

Murdoch grinned, "Well thank you Fred, but we're meeting Teresa in a few minutes for lunch. Maybe next time."

"Certainly."

"I just wanted to introduce you to the boys. I'm sure they'll be in to set up their own accounts later on in the week. We've just been over and signed the paperwork with Randall." He paused.

"You are looking at Lancer's new management. The boys and I own equal shares of the ranch now. We will have some business later on as far as the ranch accounts, but it can wait for now."

"Well boys," the banker had his arms akimbo as he spoke, his jacket open slightly. "Your father has been waiting for this day for most of his life. Congratulations to all of you, especially you Murdoch. I know this has to be a great day for you!"

"You can't imagine how proud I am Fred, to have my boys home with me now."

Johnny ducked his head a moment as Scott smiled and nodded.

Murdoch introduced his boys several more times to local merchants before entering the cantina. Teresa had already arrived and taken a table near the front. Johnny walked past her and headed for the back corner.

Teresa and Scott looked at Murdoch.

"Johnny prefers to sit in the back. For now, I guess we'll accommodate him. I'll explain later, and perhaps in time, we can go back to sitting anywhere."

Murdoch took Teresa's hand as Scott helped her with her chair, and they escorted her to the table where Johnny sat in the shadowy corner.

When they settled, a middle-aged Mexican woman approached their table. Her black hair was beginning to grey, yet her dark skin was smooth with only a few crow's feet around her eyes. Her full figure still held an hourglass shape, accentuated by the tight, short-sleeved red blouse and brown skirt, divided by a wide black belt, defining her waist. Humble in manner and dress, she smiled as she took in each of them in, before she turned to Murdoch.

"Señor Murdoch, Miss Teresa."

"Señora Patriciana." Murdoch replied as Teresa smiled.

"I see you have two handsome young men with you today. Would these be your sons who helped you conquer the banditos?"

"Yes, they are." Murdoch turned to Scott and Johnny, "Boys, this is Señora Patriciana. She is the proprietor here. She is also Mrs. Baldemero's sister."

"Señora, meet my sons, Scott and Johnny."

The boys smiled at her, Scott confident, Johnny a little shy.

"Welcome chicos. We are very glad to have you here and I know you're papa' is most happy."

"Thank you, ma'am." Scott replied while Johnny nodded.

"Today we have Guisado de Puerco con Tomatillos."

Scott raised his eyebrows.

"Don't worry, Scott; it's pork stew. It's not hot." Johnny laughed softly as he leaned back against the wall.

"Si' Señor Scott, I assure you it is very good, not hot." She smiled and turned away.

"Thank heavens for that. I need more time to get acquainted with all these peppers and spices."

"You'll get used to them. I did." Murdoch smiled.

"That's right! You came here from Scotland, didn't you?" Teresa chimed in.

While he didn't appear to be interested at all, Johnny was completely absorbed in Murdoch's story of how he traveled over from Scotland on the big ship. He'd been Johnny's age when he took passage on the Maggie McGuire, and all alone too.

He had to give it to the ol' man; he was a brave son of a bitch to do something like that. Johnny didn't know exactly where Scotland was, but he'd seen it in a book once, and he'd seen maps of the world and how big the oceans were compared to the land. He'd seen the ocean once or twice too. There didn't seem to be any end to it.

He wasn't so sure he'd get on one of those boats and travel thousands of miles in the water. Being trapped with all those people, nowhere to go but in the water if the boat came apart wasn't the worst of it. The worst would be getting eaten by those huge fish that lived there. Sharks and whales, they called them. Nope, he'd rather be gut shot than have something bite into him and take him apart while he was alive. Men were cruel, but nature was crueler.

He glanced at Scott. Boston was smiling and hanging on every word, asking questions, adding his own two cents on boats to the story, and experience, he had. Talking about schooners, whalers, sailboats and the lot, Scott and Murdoch had a lot in common there. Hell, they had a lot more in common than he and the ol' man.

It seemed big brother had had his own sailboat in Boston and raced it. The closest thing to a boat Johnny had been on was an old wooden ferry used to take supplies and horses across the Rio Grande.

Watching the two men, the idea that he had relatives popped into his mind like a bolt of lightning flashing across the sky. Scottish ones. He was half, what did the ol' man call it? Scot. He was half Scot.

The reality of this settled down and over him, wrapping itself around him squeezing him hard. He considered himself Mexican. It had never occurred to him that his other half was something that had as much tradition and distinction as being Mexican did.

He looked down, and raised his hand toward his face, but a movement caught his eye before he touched himself, and he put it down. Looking up at the Señora Patriciana, he whispered, "Tequila."

Conversation paused as his family all turned and gave him puzzled looks, before resuming the talk of ocean travel.

Moments later, a shot of tequila was set in front of him as the Señora dropped it off on her way to greet some other patrons. Johnny glanced across the cantina, taking in everyone in the place before he downed the shot.

The liquor did little to settle him. What would it mean for Johnny Madrid to not be just a Mexican half-breed? Did it make any difference? Now that he knew more about his heritage, would it make him any different?

What the hell was wrong with him anyway, thinking about shit like this?

Murdoch's hearty laugh brought him back to the conversation. He looked up and smiled; no clue as to what was so funny.

Looking around the table, it was like a dream. He was watching himself, but he didn't recognize himself as he interacted with strangers, two of which he shared his blood, and the other he was to 'think of as a sister'. This was his family whether he liked them or not, and now, he had signed a piece of paper accepting their relationship and his intent to stay.

It meant more to them than to him to sign that paper. It was just like he'd told ol' Boston that first morning. Touch a match to it, and it burns right up.

Murdoch couldn't help himself. He couldn't stop smiling. He hadn't felt this good since the day Johnny had been born. Here he was driving home to Lancer, sitting beside him, a girl who in every other way, was as much a daughter to him as his flesh and blood sons riding behind him. It was a day he never thought would happen.

Even after they came home, he feared that the boys would leave him. They hadn't. Today, they had signed the agreement. Now they were bound to each other by more than blood; they were bound by law, which for now, was probably a stronger tie from their perspective.

He didn't think Scott would break his word once he had given it, but Johnny. . . He was so afraid the boy was going to leave before they had a real chance to get to know each other. Johnny had signed the agreement. He even signed his name as Lancer. This counted for a lot in his book. Maybe the boy really did want to change his life. God only knew he needed to.

All the same, he couldn't stop that little niggling down inside that had started during lunch. Johnny hadn't joined in the conversation much. He couldn't tell if he was uninterested, distracted, or maybe just keeping vigil. His eyes had roamed the room constantly. He never missed anyone's comings and goings.

That shot of tequila had him concerned. It was out of balance. But then again, the boy had seemed more relaxed than he'd ever seen him today. He'd seen him smile and even laugh several times. He hoped he wasn't having second thoughts.

Murdoch glanced over his shoulder at his sons and over at Teresa. She beamed back at him.

It had to be much better for her to have the boys there as well. It gave her someone her own age to talk to, and even better, two big brothers to look after her in the event something happened to him. And, as much as he hated to admit it, young men wouldn't try to take advantage of her knowing that Johnny Madrid was concerned with her well being.

Now with the deed signed and the boys here to stay, there was so much to do. He needed to get them introduced to the neighbors, and that meant a party. Teresa would be in heaven. They still had to go to Green River and meet the bank manager and the other business owners. Then, he needed to concentrate on getting them working well enough to manage crews and be able to make sound decisions since most of their time would be working outside, while he managed things from the house. His leg and back were giving him too much misery to spend everyday in the saddle as he had before Pardee's attacks

Of course, there was the Cattlemen's Association too. He'd have to introduce them there. In fact, they had just had one meeting since the attacks on Lancer had begun. There was so much to do. The future looked brighter than it ever had, and busier!

Johnny and Scott rode side by side, each lost in their own thoughts about their futures. Johnny's horse danced and pranced almost every step. He seemed oblivious to it, lost deep in thought as he sat in the saddle.

Scott's horse maintained a well cadenced stride. The horse was so smooth; Scott caught himself letting his head sway to the rhythm.

He stopped himself and looked over to check on Johnny, as he did, Johnny looked back at him as if on cue. Both laughed softly at each other and shook their heads, thinking the same thing.

Yep, this family thing is gonna be interesting.

Chapter 26

Johnny's appearance at dinner said it all. The way he was dressed, his smile, and the manner in which he devoured his meal, all suggested that he was more than ready to head into town.

Scott found his brother's upbeat mannerisms welcome, but it was clear that Murdoch did not. Murdoch was a stickler for the family dinner each night, demanding they sit down at six sharp. Scott was used to such a custom, but Johnny, well, little brother just seemed to needle his father every night like one of those African voodoo dolls Scott had read about.

Rather than his usual tardy appearance, tonight, Johnny had descended the stairs, spurs jingling with glee, freshly shaved, bathed, and dressed like a peacock. Scott caught the disapproving look in Murdoch's eye as Johnny made it down in time to have a pre-dinner drink with them.

Shoving one last biscuit in his mouth, Johnny scooted his chair back.

"'Kay Boston, ya ready?"

Murdoch glared at Johnny. "The family has not finished the meal."

Johnny gave his father a puzzled looked. "The family may not be, but I am, and I'm goin' to town. You comin' or not, Scott?" Johnny flashed his brother an irritated glance and stood up.

"Where are you going Johnny?" Murdoch called over his shoulder as Johnny headed into the kitchen.

"Green River."

"Excuse me, but I think I'd better go with him." Scott wiped his mouth with his napkin and laid it neatly upon the table as he stood. "Teresa." He nodded. "Sir." He slid his chair forward under the table and turned to follow his brother.

"Scott?" Murdoch called.

He stopped and turned to face his father, "Yes sir?"

"Be careful. Keep your brother out of trouble."

"Yes sir."

The ride into town was long, but riding with Johnny and the hands made it seem shorter. The men were getting used to Johnny and he seemed to have struck up a bit of a friendship with one or two of them.

There was quite a bit of bantering back and forth, as they headed into Green River. It reminded Scott of prep school days and heading out for a holiday. It felt good. It was also his first night on the town with his brother.

"So what plans do you have for tonight, little brother?"

"Oh, first I'm gonna play a few hands of poker, and then have a little poke her!" he laughed.

"I tell ya, Boston, I've had enough of cows and fences. I wanna sit a few rounds, win some money, find myself a girl for a nice long fuck."

Scott snorted at his brother's blunt words. "I see. You've got it all planned."

"Well, I hear they got a bordello there. A good one too."

"Really?" Scott's eyebrows rose.

"Yep."

"Well now, that does sound promising."

"Ya know Scott, I like the way you put things!"

Green River was definitely the Saturday night Mecca for the ranches. It wasn't Boston, but it was as busy. They visited every saloon in town, and the reaction was always the same when Johnny entered, the activity stopped and everyone stared. Scott saw the power of the reputation and the awe people had for gunfighters. He also noted the sneers and hate-filled looks when his brother wasn't looking.

Scott found people were curious about him as well, wanting to see the Eastern bred Lancer, but they were a lot less worried about approaching him, or bumping into him. Several ranchers actually bought him drinks.

One advantage to having Johnny as a brother, it guaranteed a seat whenever and wherever they wanted. Anytime his sibling wanted a seat, always in the back of course, he simply swaggered over to the table of his choosing and stood, staring. Men cleared it, no matter if they were playing poker or drinking. They got out of Johnny's way.

On the other hand, his brother's smile drew people in like bees to honey. One flash of those pearly teeth and the women flocked all over him, and the men relaxed.

Johnny himself seemed much more confident and at ease in this environment, much more comfortable than he seemed around the ranch. He seemed happy, if that were possible.

It wasn't long before they settled into a poker game for big money. Beginning with three tables, whittling to two tables, much like a small tournament, with one final table of players left.

Scott made it to the second table, but cashed out before he lost all of the money he had brought with him. Some of the other men at the table were very good at the game, and very serious. He joined the bystanders at Johnny's table, a casual way to make the acquaintance of some of the smaller ranchers and ranch hands from the area.

Johnny played well and won the final big pot. Scott wasn't surprised since Teresa had mentioned that Johnny's mother had run off with a gambler. He had speculated more than once, that there had been more than the one gambler. Johnny had said little about his childhood, other than to say they moved around a lot, but Scott wasn't about to voice his thoughts.

After raking in his winnings, Johnny took a last shot of tequila and stood with a big smile on his face.

He draped his arm around Scott's shoulders and looked him in the eye. "Well Boston, how 'bout I treat us to a little soft, warm, female comfort!"

"Sounds like a good plan!"

Johnny patted him on the back and they made their way through the packed, smoky saloon, Johnny in the lead, the waters of the crowd parting before him. Scott shook his head. Yep, this brother thing sure was interesting.

They made their way down the street and around the corner to a place called "Wild Daisies".

The bordello had been the last place he had seen Johnny. They had picked their girls from a virtual bouquet of women of all types, tall, short, thin, full-figured, blonde, brunette, raven, and red. Johnny grabbed him by the shoulder and said, "You're on your own now, Boston. Go back when you want to, but don't wait on me to ride back with you. This is where we split up."

Scott left around 1AM to ride back to the ranch alone. He had not seen Johnny and Wild Daisies was in full swing downstairs as he had made his way down the stairs and out the door.

At first, he thought that getting only a few hours of precious sleep before getting up at the crack of dawn had been a worthy sacrifice for the good time he'd had last night. But the hot glare in his father's eyes, and the scowl on his face when Johnny didn't appear at the breakfast table had him re-evaluating things.

Murdoch asked about Johnny, but when Scott offered to go and wake him, Murdoch declined his offer and got up himself. Scott and Teresa exchanged looks while Maria paced around the table shaking her head. It hadn't been pretty the week before when Johnny had overslept and Murdoch practically dragged him out of the bed.

They could hear Murdoch banging on the door and shouting Johnny's name. It was enough to make them cringe. Then there was quiet. Sitting on the edge of his chair, he realized he was bracing himself for the bellow to come. When it didn't he got worried.

Murdoch's heavy steps on the stairs reverberated throughout the hacienda. Something was clearly wrong. Maybe Johnny was sick.

Murdoch jerked his chair back and sat down, scooting forward toward the table with such force, had there not been a carpet underneath, he felt certain the floor would have had gouges in it.

"He's not in his room." Murdoch announced. Before anyone could speak he added, "His bed hasn't been slept in."

Teresa gasped. "You don't think he's hurt do you?" She looked from Murdoch to Scott, who found Murdoch glaring at him.

"No, no, I'm sure he's not hurt. I mean, I don't think he is, unless something happened on the way home."

"You didn't come home together?" Murdoch's blue eyes met his.

"Uh, no sir."

"Why not? I told you to keep him out of trouble. I guess he's in jail again."

"No, Murdoch. I don't think he's in jail."

"Well, I guess you're right. Green River doesn't have a sheriff."

"Well where did you part ways, and why?"

Scott cut his eyes toward Teresa and back at Murdoch. It was bad enough to have to admit that they'd been to a whore house to Murdoch, but in front of Teresa, well, that wasn't going to cut it with the ol' man either.

"Well," he dragged out, "the uh, circumstances dictated that we separate." He looked directly at Murdoch and then at Teresa and then back at Murdoch.

"Circumstances?"

"Yes, in that we, uh, we found dates and went our separate ways."

Murdoch stared at him, unblinking. "Dates?"

Teresa squealed. "Oh, do tell, who?"

"I don't think you'd know these girls." Scott measured out, maintaining his father's eye contact, praying his father would understand.

Without looking away, Murdoch called the tune. "Teresa, go in the kitchen and help Maria make some more biscuits."

"But?"

"Teresa." Murdoch's tone brooked no other reply.

Sporting a pout, the girl left the table, but not without her own little flounce.

Once she was gone, Murdoch leaned back, picked up the pot and warmed his coffee, and looked at Scott.

"So?"

"The last place I saw him was called Wild Daisies."

The coffee pot banged down on the table.

"The sporting house!"

"Well, yes. We went inside and then, well, you know, we went our separate ways. He told me not to wait for him. To go when I was ready. And I did."

"Coming home at 3:30 AM?"

"I woke you, I'm sorry."

"I couldn't sleep. So, I take it he's laid up there."

"Well, that's one way of putting it."

Murdoch cocked his head and frowned.

At dinnertime, Johnny still wasn't back. Murdoch was so angry he was almost grinding his teeth when he wasn't actually chewing his food.

"I can ride back into town and get him." Scott offered softly.

"No. That won't be necessary. He'll come when he's ready and he'll just have to deal with the consequences. This is a working ranch. We can't waste manpower running after one irresponsible boy."

Sunday morning rolled around and still no Johnny. Murdoch was visibly angry, but Scott detected a look of worry in his father's eyes. He could think of nothing to say that would help matters, but he really wanted to give Johnny a piece of his mind because he was getting worried too.

The silence on the buggy ride to church was almost painful as he, Murdoch and Teresa drove to the church in Green River. Scott was torn as to whether he should excuse himself and go hunt Johnny down, or follow Murdoch's suggestion. From the murderous look on his father's face, he decided it might be best if he just attended church and said a prayer for Johnny, as it looked like the boy would need it when Murdoch got hold of him.

Murdoch didn't hear a word of the minister's sermon. His mind was on Johnny. On the one hand, he wanted to get up and go to the brothel himself, and drag Johnny out. But he didn't know for sure if the boy was there, and either way, it would certainly be the talk of the town.

But what if he wasn't there? Could he have been on his way home and had an accident? He would be beside himself if something had happened to the boy. His gut told him Johnny was just irresponsible.

He'd waited all this time, searched for the boy, nursed him back to health, and now he couldn't be respectful enough to come home when there was work to be done. Then again, maybe he thinks that he doesn't have to work all that hard since he's the son of the patron, or part owner of the ranch. Well, he has another thing coming there.

He glanced over at Scott. At least he was settling in. As much as he hated Harlan Garrett, he had to admit he'd done a good job with the boy: Education, manners, a sense of community. But then, he really shouldn't compare the two of them.

Johnny, after all, had had no real chance for an education. His mother had been well bred, but her wild streak led her away from her family and her decline into alcoholism had left the boy to fend for himself.

The things he'd read in that report about Maria and Johnny. Some nights he'd finished a bottle after reading some of them. They didn't get any better once Johnny became a gunfighter.

It sickened him to the core to read some of Johnny's exploits. He wondered if the boy really knew how many men he'd killed. The reports documented a seventeen-year-old Johnny leading grown men, killers, in raids and planned attacks on ranches. It was hard to believe.

Johnny had been living wild and hard before he found himself locked up in that Mexican prison. His rescue just moments before execution fit right in with that lifestyle. It left Murdoch breathless every time he thought about it.

Clearly, the boy had inherited Maria's wild streak, but how was he going to tame it? He hadn't been very successful with her. She'd left him after all, stealing away in the night with Johnny. Would Johnny leave him too? Had he already left him?

Johnny had signed those papers, and signed them with the Lancer name. But did that really mean anything to the boy? Maria had married him, taken vows before a Catholic priest, but she left anyway.

The surrey turned under the Lancer arch and they headed towards the ranch house. Suddenly, a flash of gold bolted across the pasture on the left.

Johnny's horse.

They headed a little quicker toward the house. Stopping out front, Murdoch tied the lines around the brake as Scott stepped down and turned to help Teresa off the buggy.

Turning to go inside, they spied Johnny sitting on the veranda cleaning his gun.

Chapter 27

Scott thought his father showed amazing restraint as Murdoch stepped around the buggy and headed for the porch. Personally, it was all he could do to stop himself from running headlong to his brother and strangling him.

Scott followed his father to the porch after helping Teresa down. He also took her arm to prevent her from racing up to Johnny as he feared she might. Together they watched as Johnny looked up at Murdoch with a soft smile and said, "Hey, Murdoch. Enjoy the sermon?"

The audacity of the boy! As if nothing was wrong!

Johnny's smile faded, "You okay?"

Scott heard his father inhale deeply and then exhale before he spoke. "John, we need to talk."

"Okay."

"Now."

"I'm listening."

"In the great room."

Johnny looked suspicious and angry. He shot Scott a glaring look before he looked back at Murdoch and stood up, tossing a rag on top of the gun parts lying on the table. He turned and headed into the house ahead of Murdoch. Scott noticed that he was still wearing his gun in its holster.

As he and Teresa followed Murdoch into the house, Scott noticed that the gun on the table was in pieces. Johnny had it completely broken down and it appeared he had actually been working on it with a file and some other tools.

He hadn't made it up three steps before the voices of the two men in the great room escalated into a full blown argument. Shaking his head, he continued upstairs to change clothes.

Johnny stood slouched against one of the chairs in front of Murdoch's desk. His arms crossed in front of him and his eyes glaring. He was turned slightly to the side, just enough so his gun and gun hand were exposed. He reminded Murdoch of a cornered dog.

"Where have you been Johnny?" Murdoch tried to control his anger, but it bellowed out anyway.

"What do you mean?" Johnny shot back at him.

"You've been gone almost forty-eight hours! Where have you been? What have you been doing?"

"What I do on my own time is my business ol' man" Johnny growled.

"You've been missing for a day and a half." Murdoch grimaced. He knew that everyone in the house could hear him.

"Missing? I went to town, to Green River, with Scott. You know that."

"Yes, well Scott came home and you didn't!"

"So?" The insolence dripped off his tongue, "I don't know what Scott told you, but I don't think you really want to know where I was."

"You were at that God damned sporting house all this time?"

Murdoch stepped towards Johnny and saw the boy flinch before his right hand dropped down near his Colt. The big rancher stopped in his tracks.

"Hell no!"

"Well just what were you doing in Green River all this time?"

"I wasn't in Green River."

"Well answer me, where the hell have you been?"

"After I left the, well, you know, I went to see the gunsmith. I found a gun for Scott and then I came back to the ranch and camped out up on that north ridge."

Murdoch stared at him. "Did you even once think about the fact that there was work to do here at the ranch?"

"I been workin' all week. Stringing God damned fence and pulling stupid cows outta the mud! Don't that count for nothin'?"

"Johnny, this is a working ranch. We have work to do every day. Just because you are part owner doesn't mean you don't have to work everyday. Now, because you weren't here yesterday, someone else had to do your work and we are already way behind schedule!"

"Oh, that's right, everything by the fuckin' clock!"

"I will no tolerate that kind of language in my house!"

"Don't forget I took a bullet for your house!"

"Yes you did, and that's another reason we were worried sick, thinking that something had happened to you!"

"Happened to me? Like what?"

Johnny's eyes lost their angry glare momentarily, his mouth partially open.

"Like you could have been injured, killed, kidnapped!"

"Kidnapped?" Johnny shook his head and looked down running his hand through his hair.

"Do you know who I am ol' man? Nobody's gonna kidnap me!"

"You can't be sure. You could have been shot. Anything could have happened to you! Johnny, we were worried!"

"Well don't be! I can take care of myself!"

"We're a family now. You have a family that cares about you! We worry about you."

"Worry? Sounds like you're more worried that I wasn't here to string some more fence line!"

"Don't turn this around on me boy! You were completely remiss and irresponsible in your actions!"

Johnny's head snapped up and he glared at his father. "So what's the bottom line, here? I have to work Saturdays and Sundays too? Is that it? Are we through?

"Johnny . . ." Murdoch shook his head slightly, his voice softening.

Johnny glared at his father. When Murdoch didn't say any more, he turned and headed out the French doors, slamming them closed behind him.

Johnny stormed towards the barn and through it out to the corral. He stood there, his arms spread, hands resting on the top rail of the board fence.

What the hell! He couldn't even have a day to himself now. Dios, he had no idea anyone would wonder about him. They all knew he'd gone to Green River. Didn't they know he could take care of himself? Always had, always would.

He really had pissed the ol' man off with that comment about needing him to string some more fence line. Shit, he thought that vein on his forehead was gonna rupture it stood up so. But he'd really been thrown by that big son of a bitch saying he was worried about him, suggesting that he could have been kidnapped. What the fuck?

He looked down at the ground.

The ol' man was right though. The whole ranch had been in a state of overtime work trying to right itself after Pardee's raids. The man and his henchmen had done a fair amount of damage to the place. It was gonna be all they could do to get things right in time for the fall drive. The cattle were scattered all over the place due to all the cut fences. There were burned fields, poisoned wells, and they needed to hire hands to replace the ones that had left or been killed.

Sighing, he put his hands on top of each other on the fence post and rested his chin on them while he looked out into the corral and watched his fancy horse strut around.

He watched Barranca parade around until his own anger had eased. Remembering the gun he'd left on the veranda, he stood up and stretched gingerly, a little stiff after spending the night on the ground. Already he was getting used to sleeping in a good bed.

Well, it was this or gun fighting. He sure didn't want to go back to that, but damn if this wasn't hard.

Dinner was on the table before Scott had a chance to catch up with Johnny. As the four of them sat down at the table, he wondered if it was going to be another tense meal. They took their places, and surprisingly, Johnny looked a bit contrite and Murdoch appeared relaxed, well as relaxed as he could be after arguing with Johnny.

Teresa started with her usual chatter and soon things fell into what was becoming their customary mealtime talk. Because it was Sunday, and they had attended church, there was quite a bit of news and gossip to cover before they settled on ranch talk.

Johnny was generally quiet during the meals, but Scott knew he was absorbing every detail of their conversations. It bothered him that Johnny always seemed to be watching his surroundings as he ate, as if any minute, they would be attacked, or worse, someone was going to take his food away. It reminded him of Libby.

"So John, while you were camped out on the ridge, did you notice how the water levels were in the creeks?"

Murdoch's question met silence, as Johnny paused in mid chew, his eyes rising to meet those of his father, assessing the situation. He finished chewing, swallowed and set his fork down on the table before he answered.

"They were a little low, I'd say, for this time of year."

"What makes you think that?"

Johnny looked down, then up, as he placed his forearms on either side of his plate.

"Well, the biggest creek was obvious. There was exposed bank up around the top. When I rode down, it seemed about right, but it wasn't moving very fast."

"So do you think we should still move that herd from the west over?"

Johnny shrugged. "I guess that depends on how much rain you expect to get. I don't know much about the weather up here, well other than it's colder than Mexico."

"Cold? Are you kidding?" Scott blurted out. "It's hot as hell out there!"

Johnny turned towards him, an offended look on his face, until Murdoch warned his oldest.

"Scott!"

Johnny's face contorted as he tried to repress a grin.

"Obviously, Boston, you've never been to Mexico."

"Actually, I haven't."

"Well, this ain't nothin' like down there. It ain't cold in the mornin' and at night like this."

"Little brother, you don't know cold until you come to Boston with snow up to your knees and the wind howling at your back."

"No thank you. I'll stick with the heat."

"Well, to answer your question, Johnny, we generally do have rains coming in this time of year." Murdoch redirected the conversation back to business.

"Then I guess you should move the cattle."

"Good. You and Scott and some men can start on that first thing in the morning."

Johnny nodded slightly looking down at his plate, and picking his fork back up, but Scott caught the frown that creased the corner of his mouth.

Scott found himself packing a bedroll, along with other items for overnight stays. He and Johnny had their horses tied outside the front door. He watched as his younger brother secured his belongings onto his golden horse.

It would be an interesting couple of days. He and Johnny were going to be working together on what amounted to a small cattle drive. Cipriano would be with them, and would be in charge, but Murdoch was beginning to ease them into their roles as supervisors.

While he was no stranger to being in charge, it was different. He really didn't have a clue as to what he was doing. He wondered if Johnny shared the same insecurity. If he did, the boy never showed it.

Johnny wiped his face with his bandana. A cold beer would go down good right now. They weren't that far from Morro Coyo. He could be there in about an hour. Yep, a cold beer or two, a bath, and a soft warm thing in a bed.

Barranca turned towards the town as if reading his mind.

"Whoa, amigo!" Johnny laughed. He knew that the horse had simply read his body language. "We can't go. We gotta stay here and find all the ol' man's cows."

He shook his head. What the hell had he gotten himself into? Until now, if he'd wanted a beer, he'd go get one. If he wanted to fuck, he'd find a woman and fuck. Now, he was like a trained dog, doing whatever the master told him.

He sighed and wiped his face one more time as he glanced to the west and saw Scott, off his horse and trying desperately to free a big steer from a bog. He had to hand it to ol' Boston. He didn't quit. He'd been bustin' his balls out there all morning long.

"Come on boy." He neck reined the palomino around and headed toward Scott and the steer.

"Looks like you could use some help?" He looked down at Scott, who had mud and sweat dripping down his face.

"Think you can do better, be my guest!" Scott shot back.

"Hey, I'm just tryin' to help. If you wanna do it all by yourself, go ahead."

Johnny turned his horse to leave.

"Hey, no." Scott stopped pulling and stood up. Panting, he removed one of his big, new, leather work gloves, and wiped his face.

Johnny stopped and looked at him.

"Sorry. I'm just hot and tired of everyone trying to babysit me."

"I ain't tryin' to babysit ya. I just know it's gonna take more than just you and that horse to get that big stupid bastard outta there."

Johnny stepped off his horse and tied him to a small sapling. He didn't trust him quite yet not to run off.

He checked the tie of the rope on Scott's saddle horn and then stepped down into the bog beside the tall blond. He resigned himself to the idea that he was standing almost knee deep in stinking slimy, sucking mud.

"Ready?" He looked at his brother.

"As I'll ever be."

"Okay."

Johnny shouted at Scott's horse who began pulling again, straining against the weight of the big bovine. At the same time, the brothers leaned in and began to push with all their might.

It seemed as if nothing was happening, but then there was a loud sucking sound. Before either could react, the horse went to his knees, scrambling to get back up as the steer was propelled onto the bank behind him.

The momentum shot both of the young cowboys forward. Johnny's athletic grace couldn't save him. His twisting turn only succeeded in just one boot sucked off before he fell flat on his back in the mire, the one remaining booted foot stuck in the mud, the other clad only in a sock, sticking straight up.

Scott fared no better. His long frame stretched as far as it would stretch with both his feet planted solidly in the unrelenting muck. He grabbed at a piece of brush, allowing him to splat down into the goo on his side, rather than on his face.

He didn't understand the string of Spanish phrases that rattled from his younger brother's lips, but he had a complete grasp of their meaning.

"Me too."

"What?" Johnny looked at him, still on his back, wiping mud from his cheek.

"I said, me too."

"I thought you didn't understand Spanish."

"I don't. But I have a good idea what you meant."

Johnny snorted and pulled his hat from around his neck as Cipriano and another hand rode up and tossed their lariats down.

Johnny plucked his boot from the bog and grabbed the rope offered by Cipriano. He could hear snickers in the background from some of the other hands, but figured he did look pretty stupid. In fact, he'd be laughing too if it wasn't him covered in mud.

They had eaten dinner and were sitting near the fire. It felt good to be clean, Scott thought. He couldn't ever recall being so disgustingly dirty, well, except during his stay in Libby. He could still smell the stench of the mud, even though he and Johnny had jumped into the creek fully clothed at first, and then scrubbed themselves and their clothes with the soap that the cook supplied.

They had hung their clothes off the sides of the chuck wagon, and they had dried in the late afternoon sun, but their boots were still wet and they could only hope the fire would dry them.

They had ridden in their socks for the rest of the afternoon to keep the tiny, but steadily growing herd moving.

Johnny suddenly stopped staring into the fire and pulled his saddlebags over to him.

"Hey Scott. I picked you up something in Green River."

"For me?"

"Yeah. It's time you get rid of that clunky piece of junk you got from Murdoch and had a decent gun. You'll need it out here."

Johnny pulled out a cloth wrapped bundle, holding it in the palm of his hand, allowing the fabric to slide away, revealing a gleaming Colt.

"You got this for me?" He leaned over and carefully took the weapon for inspection.

"Careful. It's loaded."

Scott shot his brother a look before returning his attention to the gift.

"What's wrong with the one I got from Murdoch?"

"Everything. For starters, this one is more reliable." Johnny took the weapon back, handling it with all the competence and grace of a professional. He opened the chamber to show that it was loaded.

Snapping the chamber back into place, he spun the gun in his hand several ways, much to Scott's secret delight of having read about such in a dime novel about gunfighters he'd read on the train, revealing the easy grip and perfect balance of the weapon.

"I replaced the grips and I had the gunsmith cut the barrel down some, and I worked on the trigger pull a bit. I cleaned it good too. When we get back into town, we'll find you a better holster for it."

Scott reached out and took the gun back and admired it. "Johnny, I don't know what to say. I mean other than thank you. Can I reimburse you for it?"

"No Scott, don't worry about the money. If you're gonna survive out here, you need a decent gun. I'll give you some pointers when we get back. It's what I'm good at."

Scott looked up and saw the seriousness in Johnny's expression.

"Thank you very much Johnny. I'll look forward to spending the time with you."

Johnny smiled at him and rifled through his saddle bags again, this time removing a small leather pouch and some rolling papers.

"Smoke?"

"No thanks. Can I offer you a shot of Murdoch's best Scotch?"

Johnny raised his eyebrows and smiled again. "Sure thing." He pushed his tin cup towards Scott.

Scott poured while Johnny rolled a cigarette. He lit it with a match, took a drag to be sure it was going good, released it, and picked up the tin of scotch.

Scott did the same. They raised and clinked their tins together before they downed the shots.

Johnny held his cup out for more as he took another drag from his cigarette.

Scott poured for them both and they settled back against their saddles enjoying each other's silent company.

Chapter 28

Murdoch and Johnny were arguing in the great room again.

Scott rolled his eyes and shook his head as he helped Teresa carry two large stacks of linens outside to the courtyard.

"I swear I just don't know what's wrong with them." Teresa sighed as she took the first of the stack and spread it open over one of the large wooden tables placed in the courtyard.

"They're too much alike." Scott answered.

"Well don't tell them that. They'll bite your head off." Teresa grabbed another tablecloth and began to spread it over a table.

"Who me? No way. I've already had my head bitten off by both of them. If Murdoch's not got his thumb on Johnny, Johnny's poking at him with a stick!"

Teresa laughed at the last bit, but stopped as they heard the familiar sound of the front door slamming, followed by the angry ching ching of spurs.

Scott glanced up to see Johnny heading towards the barn. He expected to see him charging out on his horse any second, but after watching and waiting several minutes, and no Johnny, he went back to helping Teresa by toting out the heavy silver candelabras for the tables.

The sound of a wagon attracted his attention. When he looked up, he saw Johnny steering the team towards the veranda. The boy was shirtless and gleaming with sweat. He stopped, applied the brake, and wrapped the lines around the post.

Johnny climbed over the back of the wagon, loaded with bales of hay, and with perfect balance, walked across them to the back of the wagon. There, he picked up a bale by the strings and dropped it over the side of the wagon. He then wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his gloved hand.

Out of the corner of his eye, Scott glimpsed Teresa staring at Johnny, wide eyed, her mouth partially open. Next to her, one of the young Mexican women seemed to be taking in the sight as well. He chuckled to himself at the idea of Johnny's young admirers. Murdoch wouldn't like Teresa gawking like that, but he found it funny. At the same time, he made a mental note not to run around shirtless in front of the girls.

Johnny returned to the front of the wagon, not bothering to sit down, and moved the team forward a few feet and repeated his former actions. He did this until there were about thirty or so bales scattered about. When the wagon was empty, he jumped down and began to stack the bales for additional seating.

Teresa hurried over to supervise him. There was no emotion on Johnny's face as he silently acquiesced to her bidding. He just stacked the bales, kept moving until he was done, then he jumped back into the wagon and turned the team back toward the barn.

Johnny stared at himself in the mirror. Bathed, clean-shaven, hair combed, and wearing his best, including his rig. He was tired of arguing with Murdoch. They just weren't getting along. Still, it was better than having to take his meals and drinks in the dark shadowy corners of saloons and restaurants. Creeping around in the dark, taking indirect routes so no one would know exactly where he was holed up or when. Sometimes it was so dangerous, he couldn't sleep at all.

As for standing in the middle of the street, facing down a man, well, that was the easiest part of being a gunfighter. It was the alluring part of the profession. As for the rest, well, gunfighters varied in their personalities, as different as night and day, but the one part they didn't speak of, the secret they all shared, was, being a gunfighter didn't free them to do as they pleased. It imprisoned them to a life of hiding in the dark.

Here, had clean clothes to wear every day. Stitched, washed and placed in his room, along with fresh bed sheets every week. Extra quilts for warmth when it was cold, and all the food he could eat. Three meals a day and snacks. Treats stashed in his saddlebags when he wasn't around, and apples for his horse. He could bath every day, and thanks to big brother Scott, whose demand for indoor plumbing guaranteed hot water for his baths, and no trips outside for more personal needs.

Yep, all he had to do was get up before dawn every day, work himself to exhaustion, and salute the old man and take his orders. The only thing, as much he loved all of this, he didn't feel comfortable around Murdoch. As for the work, well, he didn't mind the doing of it; it was the pressure of the deadlines for every chore that got to him. It never seemed to stop, job after job, day after day. Even Sundays had deadlines.

Sometimes, sometimes, he just wanted to climb on Barranca take off, ride over the mountains and never look back.

Knocking on the door brought him back to the present.

Scott.

Murdoch's knock was much louder, demanding. Scott had that firm, expectant, polite, gentleman's rap. He smiled as he turned.

"Come in."

"Well brother, you clean up well." Scott grinned.

Johnny let out a soft laugh as his eyes traveled up and down his brother's tall frame. "I could say the same about you, Boston."

His emphasis on the name Boston, was his compliment to his brother's finely tailored suit from his namesake hometown and ruffled shirt. His attire didn't mark him as much a dandy as the first suit Johnny had seen him in, but it did speak of a well to do gentleman.

"Cute, brother. Now do you think I need to arm myself as well?" He nodded toward the Colt, strapped tightly down against Johnny's leg.

"No, Scott. Remember, I'm the 'hired gun' as folks already know. Maybe they'll be so afraid of me, they'll leave me alone."

The look in Johnny's eye was serious with an undertone of hurt.

"Oh come on, Johnny, don't you want to get to know the neighbors? The lay of the land, so to speak?"

"It ain't that, Scott. It's . . ."

"I know. Murdoch."

"He just doesn't get it. I can't just pretend I'm not Johnny Madrid. I am. I may be going by Johnny Lancer, but nobody's fooled by that. At least not here, not now. I can't just go out there, without a gun, smile, shake hands and make nice with all these people. Most of them don't like my kind and they aren't likely to ever forget what I am."

"I thought that didn't bother you."

"It don't. But it will bother Murdoch. Here he wants to show us off to the neighbors and while you're something to be proud of Scott, I'm not. You're good at meeting strangers and makin' nice. Me? I'd rather not be thrown in their face."

"Johnny. Murdoch is proud of you. You're his son and you have every right to be flaunted in front of the neighbors as me."

"I don't like strangers and I don't like being forced into situations like this."

"Boys!" Murdoch's bellow came from the hallway.

"Coming, sir." Scott called out.

"Come on Johnny." Scott put his arm around Johnny's shoulders and squeezed. "Don't be so serious. Besides, there will be lots of young ladies to meet too!"

Pushing Johnny ahead of him, Scott followed his brother out, pulling the door closed behind him.

Downstairs, Teresa was all smiles and excitement. She had played hostess only once before at Lancer and she relished the role. Especially since, she had two older 'brothers' to show off and to be the source of information concerning their interests and habits to the other girls her age.

While Murdoch still called the tune on the party, he had let Teresa do most of the planning and organizing with some assistance from Maria. She was proud that he had pretty much gone along with her decisions on everything from the musicians, the food, to the decorations. This was a major event at Lancer and more important than the weekend the officers of the Cattlemen's Association spent at the ranch.

As Murdoch and the boys came down the stairs, her reaction to them surprised her. Something stirred inside. Suddenly she felt week and silly. She was attracted to them. She felt herself blush at the fleeting thought that she might one day marry one of them.

Biting her lip to keep her from grinning like an idiot, she headed to the stairs to greet them.

"Teresa, darling, you look. . . " Murdoch paused as he took time to choose the right word, "beautiful."

Both Johnny and Scott smiled at her. She almost melted into a puddle right there on the floor.

"Thank you." She beamed at Murdoch. He offered his arm and she took it, feeling like the grand dam of the ball as they moved inside to the great room. Scott and Johnny followed and while Murdoch escorted her to a seat on the sofa, Scott moved forward to pour them all drinks. Johnny eased over to the fireplace and leaned back against it.

Murdoch stepped over to a decanter, pouring a tiny amount of brandy into a glass, and handed it to Teresa before he took his drink from Scott. Once Scott had given Johnny his glass, Murdoch spoke.

"I'd like to propose a toast." All eyes upon him, he looked first at Teresa, then Scott, then Johnny, holding his attention. "To family."

Johnny looked down with a shy smile and back up quickly, nodding to Scott's "Hear, hear" and downed his drink, looking into the eyes of his father.

Teresa sipped her brandy as Murdoch had taught her. It was a rare treat for her to have a drink and the acceptance of the boys, well, she felt safe inside. Now she had a father, two brothers, and who knew, maybe a future husband here with her. Well, a girl could dream couldn't she?

Murdoch knew he couldn't trust Johnny during the party. Their argument this afternoon was evidence enough to him. Their disagreement had been about more than Johnny's gun. Johnny didn't want to attend the party, didn't want to be 'paraded' in front of the neighbors. He couldn't help but wonder if Johnny wasn't a bit insecure about his new position.

Johnny was right, although Murdoch would never admit it openly. The neighbors, he knew, were not going to embrace Johnny with open arms. The boy had been a hired killer for most of his young life, and once he had come to Lancer, well, the information had spread throughout the valley faster than fire in barn full of dry hay. It had even been in the newspapers.

However, Johnny deserved a chance to change, and by God, he was going to give it to the boy. He had wondered and worried himself sick all these years about him and now that he was here, Johnny was making progress. It wasn't as fast as he would have liked. He still feared that any day he would wake up and find Johnny gone again. He'd even dreamed about it a couple of times.

So far, there hadn't been any open incidents of aggression towards his son, but he had heard the not so soft at times, whisperings throughout the room. Most of the people were either socially polite or indifferent during their introductions to Johnny. Few would dare say something bad to Johnny, most likely out of fear of him, but also, they would not dare be disrespectful towards the boy in front of Murdoch.

Seeing Larson Langley of the Double L and Bill Stanton of the Bar-S, he wanted to introduce the boys to them. Scott was nearby, chatting with Aggie Conway and Abe Rainor. But where was Johnny? Of course, slinking around in the shadows of the veranda, back to the wall, right thumb hooked in his gun belt, drink in his left hand, watching. Damn that boy!

Letting out his frustration with a deep sigh, he headed toward his youngest. He saw the flick of Johnny's eyes as he made his way over. But it was only momentary. Johnny's deep blue eyes quickly looked away and back over the party.

"John," he admonished, "Don't you want to dance with some of the pretty girls?"

Johnny still didn't look at him. "Nope."

"Well come over here. I'd like to introduce you to two more of our Cattlemen's Grower's Association."

Johnny blew out a breath, pushed away from the wall with his foot and looked into Murdoch's eyes. Murdoch could see the unease and resistance there, but took comfort that Johnny was cooperating. As Johnny stepped even with him, he turned and squeezed his shoulder.

"You'll like Bill, he breeds horses along with cows."

Johnny remained silent, moving in front of his father, feeling his father's strong hand on his back guiding him.

Murdoch had caught Scott's eye and nodded him over. Scott excused himself and joined his father and Johnny in front of the two men.

"Lars, Bill, these are my sons, Scott," Scott leaned forward and extended his hand, "and Johnny."

Johnny merely nodded at the men.

"Glad to meet you, boys," the two men smiled.

"Johnny, I've heard you're pretty good with the horses." Bill started the conversation.

Murdoch watched as Johnny blinked, the only sign of emotion, as he assessed the man in front of him. The pause was so long that Larson was looking uncomfortable, and Murdoch was about to speak when Johnny took a slow sip of his drink and replied.

"We understand each other, I guess."

"Well, I hear you broke that last palomino stud that was runnin' wild."

"I did."

"You didn't geld him did ya?"

"No."

"Well good. I gotta couple of mares that I'd like to breed to him if you're of a mind to."

Murdoch, seeing his introduction had worked, that Bill had picked up the conversation, put his arm around Scott, and pulled him into a discussion with Larson.

Crashing sounds outside on the patio and feminine shrieks sent all three Lancer men out onto the veranda. There they found Cipriano, Walt Sr., and the foreman from Abby Conway's ranch trying to break up a fight between four young men. Two of the boys were sons of Cliff Hanks, another of the bigger ranchers in the area, one the son of Larson Langley, and the fourth a vaquero from Langley's ranch.

By the time they had made their way through the crowd, the Hanks boys and the vaquero stood restrained and the younger Langley, Langston, was standing alone.

"What's going on out here?" Murdoch demanded. His irritation reverberated across the crowd and all eyes were on him.

Langston looked away, the vaquero stood angry and silent. The Hanks boys looked guilty, but not remorseful.

"I won't ask again." Murdoch growled.

Langston and the vaquero stared at the brothers.

"It was nothin' Mr. Lancer, nothin'. I'm sorry this happened. It shouldn't have."

Murdoch stared at the boy. "Then shake hands and be done with it."

No one moved.

"If the four of you want to remain at this party, you'll shake hands and be done with it like gentlemen."

Still, no one moved.

"Aw just tell him Langston!" Landon, Langston's twelve-year-old brother pleaded.

Langston shook his head and gave his little brother a warning look.

"Joey and Jeb were arguing over who was gonna call out Johnny Madrid. Langston told them they were stupid to try and then they turned on him and said some real bad things about Johnny bein', well, mixed and all, and that's when Javier lit into 'em."

Murdoch was stunned. He never really thought about anyone local trying to call Johnny out. It was ludicrous. What had he started? As for the comments about Johnny's heritage, well, he personally wanted to take the heads off the two Hanks boys, whose father had begged off the invitation to the party citing illness. Murdoch suspected otherwise.

He risked a peripheral look at his son, slouched calmly and quietly to his right. He couldn't be sure, but from the looks on the faces of the two Hanks boys, Johnny was staring at them.

He took a calming breath and let it out before speaking.

"Very well. Jeb, Joey, you can apologize to these two young men, and shake their hands. When you're done, you can step over here and do the same with Johnny, and then, I'd like to have a word with you in private."

Johnny turned quickly to look at his father and waved him off, wanting no part of the situation. He downed his drink and took one last long look at the brothers before he turned and headed into the house.

Grimaces on their faces, the brothers, once released, gritted their apology through their teeth and shook the hands of their opponents whiled mumbling apologies, watched by all. When they made their way toward Murdoch, he motioned for the party to continue.

The boys walked past Murdoch, who then turned and put a hand on each of their shoulders as he escorted them further away from the crowd.

Chapter 29

Murdoch and Scott kept an eye out for Johnny the rest of the evening, but didn't see him. Both had separately and secretly, taken time to look for him. He still hadn't appeared by the time they were seeing their guests out.

When the last guest left, Murdoch closed the front door and turned to face Scott and Teresa. The looks on all their faces expressed the same feeling: Dead tired.

"Great party darling." Murdoch managed a smile. Teresa immediately snuggled under Murdoch's arm, practically cooing at the praise.

"Yes Teresa. You did a wonderful job." Scott added.

Beaming from under her guardian's wing Teresa asked, "Where's Johnny?"

Murdoch gave her a squeeze and a look to Scott. "Oh, I'm sure he's around somewhere. Probably already turned in, just as we need to do. I'm tired. We can talk about the party over breakfast."

Murdoch headed toward the stairs, his arm still around Teresa, while Scott turned down the lamps before following. The trio trudged up the stairs, two in front and one in the back. At the top, they stopped and bid Teresa goodnight.

When her door closed, Murdoch moved to his own door, across the hall and watched as Scott moved down to the next room and knocked on the door. He watched Scott gently grasp the knob and turned it very slowly.

As he opened the door, Scott stared into the darkened room and then opened the door a little wider, feeling more confident that Johnny was not in bed asleep. He knew what happened when his little brother's sleep was disturbed.

Light from the hallway spilled into the room and a sliver splashed across the made bed. Scott turned and looked back at his father. Murdoch knew Johnny wasn't in the room from the look on Scott's face.

He hoped Scott couldn't see the hurt he felt as they bid each other good night.

Tossing the bedcovers back, Murdoch sat up and rubbed his eyes. He couldn't sleep for thinking about Johnny. Where had he gone? Had it hurt his feelings to hear what the fight was about? How did he feel about people's reactions to him?

Introducing Johnny to the neighbors hadn't gone quite as planned. But, the fight, well, that was just a plain embarrassment. He couldn't believe those two kids had actually contemplated taking on Johnny Madrid.

Fortunately, he got them straightened out, in no uncertain terms on his feelings about their bigotry. As for calling Johnny out, the two had confessed that the look Johnny had given them had them almost wetting themselves. He still, however, excused them from the party.

Thoughts just kept running through his head. Wiping his face again, he stood and reached for his robe, pulling it on and finding his slippers. He tied the robe and headed into the hallway.

In addition to the soft glow of a few lanterns in the hallway, he had over twenty years of experience of making the trek downstairs in the dark. As he neared the kitchen, he heard soft sounds coming from it. Turning the corner, he saw light spilling from the large candle that sat in the middle of the table.

Stopping just outside the door, he saw Johnny moving quietly around the table, making himself something to eat. He watched and waited there in the shadows taking in the image of his son.

"Want me to fix you a sandwich, Ol' Man?" Johnny hadn't even so much as looked up.

A little embarrassed, he stepped inside the kitchen. "How'd you know I was here?"

"Easy as hearing a herd of buffalo on the plains."

Murdoch sniffed. "Yes, I would like a sandwich. Thank you."

He pulled out a chair and watched as Johnny cut two more slices of bread and began a second sandwich.

"So Murdoch, what's got you prowling around the house at this hour of the night?"

Johnny pushed the plate toward his father and turned to get another glass from the cabinet. He sat down and poured them each a glass of milk from the pitcher, which he already had on the table.

"You." Murdoch replied after Johnny had seated himself.

"Me? What now?"

"What do you mean what now?"

"Obviously I've done something to piss you off."

"I'm not pissed off as you would say. I couldn't sleep because I didn't know what had happened to you. You took off after the fight and you weren't in bed when we all turned in."

"Dios Murdoch, I just found somewhere quiet to watch the rest of the party from, that's all." Johnny took a large bite of his sandwich.

"I thought maybe you'd taken off."

Johnny sighed. "No. I just figured it was time for me to disappear. Keep the embers from flaming up again. That's all."

"I'm sorry that happened. Those two won't be attending any more parties at Lancer for some time to come."

Johnny shook his head. "No reason for that. I don't think they'll be lookin' to take me on anytime soon." Johnny snorted.

"Well, I don't hold much stock in bigots. I won't have them insulting my family on my property." He took a bite of sandwich, surprised at how good it was.

"This is good. What did you put on it?"

"Just some stuff I found in the pantry."

"Besides, I'm not too worried about them calling you out. The look you gave them scared them out of their wits." Murdoch couldn't help but chuckle.

"That was the point."

They finished eating in silence, sans the tension that usually accompanied their being alone together.

Murdoch finished his glass of milk and wiped his face with the napkin placed on the table along with the rest of the breakfast table settings by Maria every night.

Clasping his hands in front of him, elbows on the table, he looked at Johnny who wiped away the milk mustache with the back of his hand. Running his fingers through his long bangs, Johnny then rested his head in the palm of his hand, elbow also on the table.

"Well, son, I don't know about you, but that was just what I needed. I think I'm ready to turn in again."

Johnny stared at his father, the word 'son' mulling in his head. "You go on ahead. I'll be up after I put these things away."

They pushed away from the table, chairs scraping. Johnny immediately picked up the plates and carried them to the sink.

Murdoch paused for a moment before he decided to move on.

"Good night Johnny."

"Night, Murdoch." Johnny drawled as he headed for the pantry.

In the great room, Scott had lured Johnny from the shadows by inviting him to a game of checkers. Murdoch couldn't have been more pleased, sitting at his desk, discretely watching them from behind the newspaper. Teresa, sat on the sofa near them, cheering them both on.

A knock on the French doors caused them all to look up. Murdoch put his paper down and lumbered from behind his desk. Johnny's hand went to his gun, resting in its holster, lying beside him on the floor.

Scott and Teresa watched.

It was Cipriano, accompanied by a stranger.

"Cipriano. Come in."

Cipriano looked back at the stranger, silently communicating for him to stay and then entered the house. Murdoch closed the door behind him.

"What's up?" Murdoch asked as the vaquero took off his hat and held it in front of him.

"Señor, the man outside is asking for a job."

"Yes, well, you have the authority to hire anyone you like."

"Yes, but this man, this man say he is a friend of Johnny Madrid."

Murdoch felt his gut tighten. What was this? Some kind of trick? Was it trouble for Johnny? Or, was it trouble for the ranch?

"What do you make of him?" Murdoch looked to his Segundo to be honest with him.

"Señor, he does not look like a gunfighter. He looks more like a cowboy."

"I see. Johnny!"

Johnny stood up, bringing his rig with him and buckling it on as he moved across the room.

He reached the two men and Murdoch put his hand on his shoulder.

"Johnny, there's a man outside, asking for a job. He says he is a friend of yours. A friend of Johnny Madrid."

Johnny looked puzzled and suspicious. "Well, what's his name?"

"He says his name is Wes, Señor."

"Wes?"

Johnny approached the door, right hand on the butt of his Colt. Snatching the door open he stared out. Standing with his mouth open, was indeed Wes Gammon.

"Wes?"

"Johnny! It is true!"

"What are you doin' here? How'd you know I was here?"

"Well, my sister was gettin' married in San Francisco, and I heard it playin' poker."

"Damn, Wes, it's good to see ya." Johnny slapped at the visitor's stomach. "Come on in. Meet my family."

By this time, Murdoch and Scott had risen and were standing nearby. As Wes entered the house, Teresa put her sewing down and joined them.

"Wes this is my ol', uh my father, Murdoch Lancer, my brother Scott, and Teresa."

Wes stepped forward, removed his hat and shook hands with the men, and nodded "Ma'am."

"So Wes, Cipriano says you're looking for a job." Murdoch gave Wes an assessing look.

"Yes, sir. I been working cattle off and on my whole life. Grew up in Texas running longhorns."

"I see."

Johnny saw the puzzled expression on his father's face. "Wes and I worked together on a cattle drive a long time ago. After, we rode around together some." He stared at Murdoch, almost daring him to turn Wes down.

"Very well." Murdoch didn't really like the look of the man. He looked more like a saddle bum than a cowboy. But better than a gunfighter. "Johnny, would you like to show your friend the bunkhouse?"

"Sure thing." Johnny punched at Wes' shoulder, "We gotta lotta catchin' up to do. Come on." Johnny guided Wes out the French doors, leaving Cipriano and his family behind.

"Cip. Make sure he works. You can let him work with Johnny some, but not at first."

"Si' Señor. I will see that he does."

"Thank you Cip."

Johnny was slow to breakfast the next morning. Murdoch wasn't happy, but decided he couldn't fault Johnny for wanting to sit up and talk with an old friend. He just hoped the old friend wasn't going to be another reason for them to argue.

"Johnny, I told Cip to put Wes with some of the other men in the beginning. We don't want them to think he's getting special treatment because he's your friend."

Johnny looked up from over his cup of coffee. "Okay by me."

Murdoch was surprised at the response. "Good. But I rather thought you might be of a mind to have him work with you."

Suspicion dominated Johnny's sleepy face, "Makes no difference to me."

Johnny pushed back from the table and stood.

"We'll catch up on our own time." He called over his shoulder as he headed for the door.

Murdoch stared at the old grandfather clock standing sentry by the French doors. He didn't see how the boys did it. At least, how Johnny did it.

This was the second night this week that Johnny and Wes had gone to town. It had seemed that Scott and Johnny were bonding, but now that Wes was here, Johnny wasn't spending as much time with Scott.

He didn't want to complain, because Johnny had been working hard during the day time, but Wes' presence was beginning to interfere with time that Johnny needed to be bonding with his family, and settling down.

Wes on the other hand, was a less than stellar employee. He did what was asked of him and not one iota more. He never finished his work early.

He had started out pretty good, but now, he was beginning to slack off quite a bit. Surprisingly, Wes was a better worker when he worked with Johnny. Johnny, while he seemed to enjoy spending time with Wes, didn't seem to mind not working with Wes.

Murdoch suspected that was because Johnny had to work harder to make up for Wes' lazy ways. Johnny would never admit to that, but unless the boy was holding a gun to his buddy's head, he suspected Wes was even lazier when working with his son.

The clock struck twelve thirty and Murdoch decided he had waited up long enough. Standing, he prepared to blow out the lamp when he heard hoof beats and laughter outside.

"Oh, Johnny! We sure had a good time tonight!"

Murdoch recognized Wes' drunken drawl and sat down.

"Yeah, yeah we did, Wes. You go on to the bunkhouse. I'll take care of the horses."

"Wes, Wes!"

Murdoch heard a thump and cringed.

"Damn Wes!"

"Where'd my horse go?"

"He's right here Wes. Ya fell off. You okay?"

'Right as rain, Johnny boy, right as rain!"

"Okay. Here, take my hand."

Murdoch shook his head. No way did he want to look outside. He knew it would make him angry to see with his eyes, what he was imagining from the conversation.

A third voice chimed in.

"Señor Johnny, I will take your horses."

"Manuel, what are you doing up at this hour?"

"There is no school tomorrow. Tio Cipriano told me to wait and take your horses when you came in. I'm sorry, I fell asleep."

"No need for that, but thanks. I think I'll let you. This time. I need to get Wes to the bunkhouse."

"Si' Señor Johnny. I take good care of your horses. Especially Baranca. I have an apple for him."

"Good man, Manuel."

"Come on Wes, let's go."

Murdoch shook his head and sat back down to wait.

Chapter 30

Johnny was hot and it was getting harder to keep a lid on his temper. Wes could be so thick headed sometimes. Thick headed and lazy. Here Johnny was, part owner, son of the patron, and he was doing all the work and fucking Wes was running his mouth as usual from the shade.

It had been a long week already. Murdoch had really been putting the thumbscrews to him and Scott both for the last few weeks. Seemed like the workload got worse the longer they were here.

Scott got the easier chores though. The educated one. Truthfully, he'd rather be digging post holes than chained to that desk adding all those numbers, and trying to make the ledgers balance.

Dios did he hate that shit!

"Hold up Johnny." Wes stopped against the wagon and took off his hat, wiping the sweat from his brow with his forearm. "Man, I'm wore out. I gotta rest."

Johnny kept driving the post. "Later."

"Work any more and I'm gonna rest in my coffin. I swear Johnny, if we keep this up, we're gonna be too tired to hit that town. You listenin' Johnny?"

"Yeah Wes, I'm listenin'."

"You been goin' at it hard the last two hours."

"I know."

"So how come? What's the blasted rush?"

"To get done early."

"I must be missin' somethin' somewhere?" Wes took off his hat and scratched his head.

Damn!

Johnny stopped and leaned on the shovel handle to confront the lazy hand.

"Look, the only way to beat the system around here is to get ahead of it. Now is that right? Is that right Wes?"

He couldn't believe the vacant look on Wes' face as he answered, "Yeah."

"The only way to do that then is to work fast."

"Mmm where's the sense? That town ain't gonna start jumpin' 'til tonight. And we just bust our backs to get done early, and for what? What'll we do?"

Wes' drawl on that last word grated on Johnny's last nerve.

"Anything, just anything, as long as it don't have a deadline. Now come on, we ain't got much left."

"Man, they really broke you to the plow. You just think of all them things out there that you'll never see. You'll never again go ridin' over a hill without knowin' what's on the other side. You sold it all out for a row of post holes."

The words stung hard. He'd never thought of it like that. No more adventures. Nothing new or unexplored beyond the ranch, and he already knew most of that like the back of his hand.

"Shut up and get to work Wes. Okay? Let's just get this done before I bust you in the mouth!"

A movement caught his eye. Damn! Murdoch was checking up on him again. He had stopped his wagon about a quarter mile down the road. Murdoch always seemed to be 'in the area' wherever Johnny was working. The ol' man didn't trust him, not one bit.

He kept working, driving the fence post into the rock hard dirt until the team pulled up beside him. He stopped and looked at his father, angry that he was checking on him, angry that he'd found him working and Wes leaning on the wagon.

"Looks good." Murdoch, even when he was being nice, somehow made him feel uneasy.

"Thank you."

Murdoch jumped down out of the wagon with more agility than Johnny thought he possessed, considering that sour leg he harped on.

Wanting to finish, he started back driving the post into the ground.

"Come on, take a breather."

Shit. The ol' man wanted to talk. This couldn't be good.

Throwing down his mallet, he saw the canteen on the wagon, "If you don't mind, I think I'll have some water." At least it would keep Wes out of their business, although Wes pretty much avoided getting in between the two of them.

"Help yourself."

He climbed into the wagon and Murdoch took a position near the post, between him and Wes.

He didn't miss Murdoch's inspection of the fence line.

It felt good to sit down. He leaned forward to give his back a good stretch. He would never admit it, but the wound that Pardee had given him, still bothered him at times.

"Sore huh?" his father observed.

"Oh boy, I ain't never worked so hard in my life." He smiled and took a big gulp of water from the canteen. Just as he suspected, fresh and cold, not like the ones that he and Wes had. After sitting out all morning, their canteens were tepid.

"Well, it shows it. You'll have this gully all fenced in by Noon."

He poured some of the cold water over his face and into his hair. It felt so good. It felt good too, that Murdoch seemed to appreciate that he had worked hard and was ahead of schedule.

"Well, I thought I'd push hard ya know, and try and get a couple hours off before town tonight."

He put the stopper in the canteen and was putting it away when Murdoch came toward him, a confused look on his face. "Uh, Johnny."

"Yeah?" He didn't like the look on Murdoch's face.

"A couple of problems have come up." Murdoch stood next to the wagon. "I'm sorry."

"Like what?" Damn, what now? Maybe it was nothing.

"Well at two o'clock this afternoon, you have to help your brother with the surveying. That report has to go in by next week and tonight, we've got bookkeeping to do."

He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand, but felt like pounding it against a tree. Gritting his teeth, he looked at Murdoch. "Two o'clock, huh?"

Murdoch had that look on his face, the one that made him feel like he was a disappointment to his father when he nodded "Yeah."

Resigned to the fact that he'd worked his ass off for nothing, he jumped down from the wagon, knowing he had to finish now, just so he could go help Scott.

"And just how am I supposed to know when it's two o'clock?" He stared up at his father.

Murdoch dug his long fingers into his front pocket and pulled out a watch. Holding it up to show, he said, "Here. It's old, but it's still a good time piece."

He tossed it to Johnny who caught it and looked at it. He looked down and saw some worn engraving. He saw the name Lancer, but it was spelled different, spelled the way he'd seen it in an old Bible that Murdoch had brought with him from Scotland.

"I, uh . . ." Murdoch started to speak, but Johnny was so angry he cut him off, "What?"

Murdoch's jaw set. Johnny knew that look, the tune caller look.

"Nothing." Murdoch began to climb back into the wagon. "You just be back at the ranch at two o'clock. Scott will be waiting for you." With that, he picked up the lines, made a kissing sound to the horses, which moved off. Murdoch didn't look back.

He looked at the watch again, and placed it in the tiny pocket inside the front of his calzoneras. The will to work was completely knocked out of him. There was no way to get around all this. Every time he thought he would get some time to relax, or just five minutes of his own, there was always some crisis with the ranch.

He sighed and kicked some dirt into the posthole. There was nothing to do, but follow his father's orders. Frustrated, he headed to the wagon to retrieve his shirt.

Sympathetic, Wes jumped down from the wagon. "Maybe we can go next week, Johnny." The hand patted him on the arm. "That town ain't gonna go nowhere."

"It ain't the town Wes."

"I must be missin' somthin' again somewhere."

"Come on, let's get back to work." He picked up his shirt as Wes mimicked him, "Work."

The loud cry of a horse rang out and they looked out into the meadow. A big black stallion ran past them not a hundred yards away.

"Hey, look at that!" Wes called out.

Johnny pulled on his shirt trying hard to control his frustration.

Wes turned back to him. "You gonna pass that up? You're givin' all your life to work. When are ya ever gonna find a horse like that?"

He kept on with buttoning his shirt, ignoring the horse and Wes.

Wes tried to get his attention again, and when he failed, the hand turned from the wagon and went for his horse. Mounting up, he took off after the stallion.

Johnny watched his friend for a moment, remembering how much fun they used to have together. Looking at the tools in the wagon, he gave up. Fuck it. He deserved a break and to hell with everything else. Wes was right. He was working himself to death for nothing. He was nothing to Murdoch but a ranch hand with house privileges.

Snatching up his hat, he took off for his own horse and jumped on. With a tension releasing whoop, he took off at a dead run behind Wes and the stallion.

Along the way, the stallion's herd came up from behind. Laughing, they raced along with the horses for a bit before Johnny put the spurs to Barranca and took off for the stallion, while Wes stayed behind to try to corner the mares.

For a minute, he wasn't sure if he would catch up, but the stallion was tired and Barranca fresh, so eventually, he was able to lasso the big black horse, whose voice was loud and angry.

Once he had the horse stopped, he jumped down from the palomino, holding the rope and moving towards the stallion. The horse reared and struck out with his front legs, coming dangerously close to his face.

The animal was magnificent.

He walked his way up the rope and even managed to get a hand on him. The feeling lit him up inside.

No sooner had he gotten control of the horse, he saw three riders coming toward him. He didn't like the look of them. A pock faced older man and two younger men. He figured them to be family.

He had guessed right. As soon as they reached him, the man managed a smile that looked more like a sneer and greeted him with a "Howdy."

"Name's Stryker, Samuel Stryker, these are my boys, Eli and Davy."

He nodded.

"We sure are obliged to ya!"

"For what?" Where the hell they had come from? He and Wes hadn't seen a soul all day. Besides, they were miles within Lancer borders.

"For catchin' our herd. You know that black; he's a real cagey animal. He's more fox than horse. He's been givin' us the runaround for the last two weeks."

Johnny glanced back at the horse. So that was it. They wanted the horses.

"Well, we'll just be takin' 'em off your hands now and sayin' thank ya!"

"Well, these horses are mine." It did feel good to say that.

Stryker looked at him and cocked his head. "I, uh, don't think you heard me correctly. We've been chasing these animals for the last two weeks. Wild horses don't belong to nobody. Why we was just gettin' ready to drive 'em into a box canyon before you showed up. I figured I just didn't hear you right the first time and say thank you again."

He could feel the hair on the back of his neck stand up. "There ain't nothin' wrong with your hearing."

The older looking boy, Eli, turned his horse sideways as if to move around him.

"You havin' a hard time keepin' that horse still?" He glared at the boy, who stopped.

"You know, you're beginning to grip me." Stryker growled. "So I'm gonna lay it on the barrel head. I ain't lookin' for no trouble. But I want what's mine."

Where the hell was Wes when you needed him? He realized that he didn't have his gun. Damn. Maybe Wes was right. They'd broke him to the plow so hard, he'd forgotten his gun. But then he'd had worse odds.

"They're not yours for three reasons. One, they're on Lancer land, two, I broke my back getting' 'em, and three, you're lying. You see, there aren't any box canyons around here."

Stryker glared at him, but Johnny kept on, hoping he could stare them down.

"Now I don't know who you are," finally, he saw Wes riding up, "but I gotta pretty good idea what you are."

Once he saw that Wes had taken in the situation, and was at the ready with his rifle, he finished, "So you'd just better ride."

Stupidly, Eli pulled out his pistol awkwardly and pointed at him. "Seems there's only one way to settle this."

The sound of Wes racking a round into the chamber of the rifle caused the boy to look back.

"Hello, Wes!" Johnny waved to his buddy.

Wes tipped his hat.

Johnny looked down and laughed. Just like the old days. He took a breath before he looked up, trying to look serious, "Well, like I said before, you'd just better ride. Before you have to bury the only thing around here that is yours."

Damn that felt good. Been a long time.

Stryker glared at him. "Well, you've been real kind. We won't forget it."

Stryker turned is horse and left, his sons following.

Wes clucked and winked at Johnny, who laughed, his heart light again.

Chapter 31

The ride back to the ranch had been exhilarating. Johnny led the stallion and Wes kept the mares moving behind. As they approached the ranch, vaqueros waved and two ran to open the gates to the corral for the herd to enter.

Inside, he jumped off Barranca and tied the stallion to a post. As Wes dismounted, they heard Murdoch call from the house, "Johnny!"

Wes drawled out, "Oh-oh boy," he teased, "you're gonna get it now. He left you with a row of postholes and here you show up with a bunch of wild horses."

Out of breath, but feeling as high as a cloud, he smiled back, "Yeah? I think he'll understand."

Gloves and hat in hand, he approached Murdoch and Teresa, his walk a bit cocky, ignoring the scowl on his father's face. Smiling shyly, he handed his hat and gloves to Teresa and went over to wash his face and hands.

Just as he got to the bowl, Murdoch growled, "Where ya been Johnny?"

He bounced back over, "Look at that stallion, huh? I tell you, he's gonna outrun any horse on this ranch."

He moved back to the bowl and splashed the cool water on his face.

"I asked you where you've been." Murdoch had no emotion in his voice as he stared toward the corral.

Grabbing the towel, he wiped his face and hands as he approached his father.

"I been roundin' 'em up. How long since you seen a horse like that?"

Murdoch crossed his arms. "What about the fence?"

"Yeah, we'll wrap it up tomorrow morning." He smiled, remembering the watch, "I'll tell you what," he pulled the watch from safekeeping and opened it up showing it to his father, with a proud grin, "when that little hand's on six and the big hand's on twelve. Bright and early?"

"That's not good enough Johnny. You had a job of work to do here and you didn't do it."

That took the wind from his sails. Even worse, the ol' man talkin' to him like that in front of Teresa.

Biting his tongue, he tried to be civil. "I told you I'd do it tomorrow."

"This is a cattle ranch. We're not in the business of catching and selling wild horses."

Steam was seeping out from under his lid, but he was trying not to boil over. He could tell the ol' man was pissed. Murdoch wouldn't even look at him.

"Well we could be." He looked back and tossed the towel back towards the basin.

"Now I caught that horse and I wanna break him. You mind?"

"You can do that on your own time." Murdoch growled.

"When's my own time?" He snapped.

"When you've done your day's work, same as everybody else!" Murdoch yelled, making eye contact now. After looking him up and down, he added, "Just because you're my son, doesn't mean you don't carry your own weight around here."

Murdoch's words stung. Had he done nothing right? He'd more than carried his weight around here.

He looked at Teresa, who looked away, teary eyed. He looked at Murdoch, who refused to look at him, looking instead out at the horses.

If anyone else had talked to him like that, he would have punched him right in the mouth, but this, this was his father. He was lost. Before he did something he'd regret, he closed his eyes and walked away, headed inside.

He had barely gotten through the door, when the loud whinny of a horse sounded and he heard the tower guard yell down, "Riders Mr. Lancer."

He stepped back outside and couldn't believe his eyes. The damn Strykers were riding in. Would this day ever end?

Murdoch headed towards them. Johnny stayed back with Teresa momentarily, easing up behind his father as they introduced themselves.

"What can I do for you?" Murdoch asked.

"You can give me what's mine. One of your hired hands there," Stryker pointed at Johnny, "stole 'em from me."

Murdoch turned back and the look he gave him made Johnny feel lower than dirt.

"He's my son. What do you want here?"

At least the ol' man owned up to him.

"To give a man a fair hearin'." Stryker told him.

"Make it quick." Murdoch answered.

"We been dogin' them horses hard for the last two weeks and was all set to trap 'em when your son showed up and took 'em. Like I told him, I don't want any trouble, just them horses."

Frank rode up and interrupted. "Mr. Lancer, you want the men working on the bridge pulled off?"

"What?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny wondered what he meant.

"To help pull out the cattle?"

Before his father could answer, Stryker demanded, "What's it gonna be?"

"They're mine." He said quietly behind his father's back, hating every bit that it sounded like a whine.

Murdoch turned and stared a hole through him.

"Mr. Lancer?" Frank called out.

"Well?" Stryker demanded.

Murdoch looked back at Stryker, and back at Johnny and turned back to Stryker.

"All right, take 'em, and get off my land."

He couldn't believe Murdoch was taking Stryker's side. "Hey, I caught those horses, they're mine." He complained in his father's ear.

Murdoch looked down and back, pausing before he instructed Stryker. "Leave the stallion; take all the rest of them."

Well, at least the ol' man was letting him keep one. Letting him? What the hell?

He heard the older boy, the troublemaker, question his father, who told him to shut up. They turned and headed toward the corral.

"What'd ya let them get away with that for?" Johnny challenged Murdoch.

"There are more wild horses on this ranch than you can catch and break in a lifetime. Right now we've got more important things to think about."

He turned away in disgust and frustration. When he did, he heard his father instruct Frank to "Pull the men from the bridge. Take off the work crew from the north line camp."

"Right." Frank turned his horse and went into action.

Murdoch turned and walked past him as if he wasn't even there.

He watched as the Strykers gathered his herd. When he turned his back, he heard the stallion voice a challenge. He turned in time to see the stallion rear. Eli was trying to steal him.

Johnny ran to them, grabbed hold of the boy, and slammed him into the gate and onto the ground. "I said nobody's takin' that horse."

The boy looked more winded than hurt. Johnny turned to help Wes with the stallion when Eli jumped up and grabbed at him. He turned and landed a couple of good hard punches to the boy's stomach sending him back down onto the ground again.

Eli looked to his father, who was unsympathetic.

"You started it boy. Now finish it."

Still lying on the ground, the boy glared at his father and rolled to the side to get his hat.

Johnny turned back to the horse, but a movement caught his eye. Before he so much as knew he was reacting, he had drawn at fired at the boy, who had pulled his own gun. The kid hit the ground grabbing his shoulder.

Samuel Stryker climbed off his horse to attend to him. Johnny looked up and saw Murdoch running back.

He thought he had killed the boy, but when he sat up with some assistance from his father, Johnny holstered his Colt and stepped over to check on him.

He wasn't going to die, at least not yet, but Johnny could see it was a pretty nasty wound.

"Let's get him to the house." Johnny sensed Murdoch's presence and felt pressured to offer help. In his book, they deserved nothing but a point in the direction off Lancer.

"Nobody touches him." Stryker growled.

The elder man helped his boy up and to the horse, muttering something Johnny couldn't hear. After getting Eli on his horse, he mounted his own and turned back to Johnny and Murdoch.

"It don't end here Lancer. You'll see. Not here, not yet."

With that, he turned and led his son's horse away.

Johnny turned to look at Murdoch and then looked down. He could think of nothing to say. The ground didn't swallow him, leaving him lost as to what to do. He wasn't going to stand there and let the man shoot him on his own property, surely Murdoch could understand that.

"I'm sorry, Murdoch."

He looked back at his father's expressionless face. Murdoch turned and walked away, headed towards the bunkhouse.

Johnny slammed the front door and headed for the stairs, but stopped at the bottom. This wasn't going to resolve anything. He needed to talk it out with Murdoch and make things right. Murdoch was disappointed with him, and as much as Johnny didn't want to admit it, he was hurt by it.

Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath and went into the great room to wait for his father. He knew the ol' man would be back soon enough. When he came back, he'd fix things. But how?

He poured himself a drink to calm the emotions racing between his head and heart.

Slamming the whiskey back, he laughed at himself. No man upset him like Murdoch. No man. No woman. He didn't understand it, but he definitely was going to have to get a grip on himself. Trouble was, he couldn't figure out when he started giving a damn about what Murdoch Lancer thought.

He heard a rider head out and looked up from where he was half sitting, half leaning against the sofa table. Murdoch was crossing the yard coming back to the house.

Murdoch saw Johnny in the great room when he entered the front door. The boy looked repentant, standing against the table, his arms around himself as though he were giving himself a hug. It was something he'd seen Johnny do many times. He wondered if this was the boy's subconscious way of comforting himself, brought on by being alone as a child. It tore at his heart every time he saw it.

He headed into the great room afraid that he would say the wrong thing, afraid to say anything at all, for fear of what might come out. Letting his temper get the best of him was not what he needed to do right now. He needed to be calm, rational. It wasn't about the money they would lose on the dead cows, or the extra wages for the additional labor to get the remaining living ones out, and keep the ranch work on schedule. It was about Johnny. He had to find a way to get through to the boy, to make him understand.

Johnny had been here long enough to be settling down, but he hadn't. The statements friends and business associates had made about the boy raced around in his brain. "Don't do it, Murdoch. Don't bring that boy back. Don't keep him around. He'll tear your heart out. He's wild. Uncontrollable. It's too late for him. He's a hardened killer. He's been on his own too long. He'll never settle down. He'll always be trouble. We won't do business with Lancer anymore, not with that half-breed killer there. He'll ruin everything you've done, everything you've worked your whole life for. Turn him loose Murdoch, turn him loose."

It was easier said than done. Johnny wasn't their son. Johnny wasn't responsible for his childhood. Maybe he was responsible for choosing to live by the gun, but Murdoch couldn't help but feel that deep inside, it was his fault that Maria had taken Johnny and run. He awoke every morning, surprised that the boy was still there.

Johnny looked up at him with angry eyes, "What'd you keep lookin' at me for? You saw what happened. He drew on me. What'd you expect me to do?"

Shocked and hurt by the boy's tone, Murdoch turned away before he completely lost his temper which had flared with his son's insolence.

"What's the matter? Ain't that good enough for you?"

Johnny was pushing hard. Maybe it would be better to let him go. Maybe that's what Johnny wanted, for him to throw him out, to live up to the lies he'd grown up believing.

Drawing in a very deep breath, he turned back. "Scott's still waiting for you to help him with that surveying job. Maybe you'd better go join him."

Pleased that his words came out calm, he walked to the French doors to look out. Behind him, Johnny pressed harder, "I asked you a question. If it's about that fence, I told you I'd do it tomorrow morning, didn't I?"

Johnny just didn't get it and Murdoch didn't know what to say.

"If it'll make you happy, I'll go finish it right now."

Surprised that Johnny had given in, he turned to face him. He looked like a little boy, but not remorseful, just sorry he was caught.

"Now is too late. About fifty head of cattle strayed through that, that little hole in that section you didn't finish. What's left of them is now at the bottom of the south gully. That's what your time off cost."

Johnny looked incredulous. "How was I to know that was gonna happen?"

He decided to push the boy hard. It was past time. He was tired of Johnny being on the fence all the time, of his own emotions playing tug of war with him.

"Maybe you never will know. Maybe it takes twenty years of just living with this kind of land. Maybe it's not for you Johnny."

"Look, all right, I'm sorry about the cattle you lost."

He was surprised to hear Johnny apologize. Could the pressure be working?

"We lost, Johnny, not you. We. And all of the responsibilities that go with it!" He walked as he spoke. He wanted to get through to the boy that it was a joint venture, win or lose. He stopped in front of Johnny, who shoved away from the table and stood.

"I'd do fine, I'd do just fine if you just didn't push so hard."

Now he was getting somewhere. Johnny was backing off.

"I wish I had a chance to break you in easily, but I don't. You've gotta make up your mind who you are and where you belong, and if it's not gonna be here then I want to know it now."

There, he'd said it. It was up to Johnny. He was certain the boy was going to give in and be open to listening to him.

The French doors opened and Wes stepped inside. Ignoring him, Wes, interrupted.

"Johnny. Just stopped in to say goodbye."

Johnny stepped forward, "You leavin' for town, huh?"

"Nope. Quit. I figured two months was long enough to be locked up anywhere. I'm just gonna go out and take hold of somethin' and go wherever it takes me. You know what I mean, Johnny? Just gonna go out and ride free."

Murdoch was relieved that the man was quitting. He would have given him a bonus to leave if he could have gotten away with it. His heart stopped when he heard Johnny's words.

"Wes, you do me a favor? Get my gear together and wait up for me outside? I'm goin' with ya."

He heard the excitement in Wes' reply, "You bet!"

Johnny turned to him after he heard the door close. "Well, I guess you heard."

Murdoch wasn't sure he could move. He couldn't bear to look at his boy. This had gone all wrong, all wrong. Better now than later, or was it?

How could he be sure Johnny wouldn't go back to gun fighting?

He wondered how much he had in the safe, his brain addled by his emotions. His words were flat.

"You'll need some money."

"Only what you figure I got comin'."

Johnny's cold reply caught him off guard. He went to the desk and retrieved the ledger from it. He opened it up and looked through it. "Haven't drawn anything in two weeks. I make that to be twelve dollars."

Twelve dollars? He was going to send his boy out into the world with twelve dollars? Worse, that would almost ensure that Johnny would go back to gun fighting.

"Better sign it, receipt of wages." He put the book down on the desk and reached for his billfold.

The way Johnny sauntered over to the desk reminded him of the way he came for his thousand dollars that first day. The boy scribbled his name in the book and threw the pencil down.

Murdoch had at least two hundred dollars in his money clip, and added it to the twelve.

"Count it."

He wanted Johnny to know he wasn't a tyrant.

Johnny's face had taken on that same angry look from their first meeting. He tossed the money on the desk, not wanting to see that look. Johnny picked it up, leaving the extra, taking only the twelve, and giving him a steely glare, making him feel like a traitor.

He watched his son all but run out the door, spurs jingling with anger.

Murdoch realized his nightmare was happening. Johnny wasn't running off to work out his anger. He was leaving. Leaving for good and under the worst circumstance a parent could think of.

"Johnny?"

It was too late.

He heard the door close.

Outside, Johnny was in shock. What the hell was he doing? How did things get so out of control? He felt sick to his stomach and turned to face the cool wall. Just stay here for a minute, cool off, get control of yourself Madrid. Maybe it's not too late. Just get it together and go back in there.

"Johnny." Scott called out from the yard. "Wes tells me you're leaving."

Damn. With a duck of his head, his emotions reined themselves in. He turned and met Scott halfway in the yard.

"That's right brother. Guess you own fifty percent of the ranch, huh?" Grateful he hadn't lost his presence as a gunfighter, he rested his hand on the hitching rail and slouched nonchalantly.

He couldn't believe the look on Scott's face. What was that? Sadness?

"Don't do it. This'll all blow over in a couple of days. Give it a chance. Talk to Murdoch, square things."

"Naw, forget that." He heard the door and glanced back, thinking it was Murdoch and turned back to Scott, pride taking control of his mouth. "I got a lotta places to go before they box me in. You know, you belong here."

Before he could finish, Teresa raced over and attached herself to him, "Johnny, I don't want you to go." She was crying.

He choked up for a moment.

"Teresa, you gonna shed a tear for me?"

He couldn't stand to see her cry.

"I tell ya what." He reached inside his belt and pulled out the money he'd just gotten from Murdoch. "I want you to go out and buy yourself a new dress. Get yourself out of those jeans."

He gave her one of his best smiles and she could only stare at him. "And wipe your nose, will ya." He kissed her on the forehead.

He didn't think he was gonna make it without crying himself. What the hell was wrong with him? He turned to make his break, bumping shoulders with Scott. Not looking at his brother, choosing to pat him on the stomach instead. "Scott, I'll see you later."

He almost made it, but Scott grabbed his arm and pulled him back to face him. "Johnny, think about it."

He summoned the anger he had at the unfairness of the situation. "I already have." He reached down in his pocket for the money again.

He counted out a few bills. "Here, give this to the ol' man for the stallion's halter and don't worry about me. I'm gonna start livin' again."

He pulled away, relieved to get to his horse and away from all the emotion. Wes handed him Barranca's reins and when he mounted, he took the lead rope for the stallion and put the spurs to his own mount, needing a fast getaway.

Chapter 32

Scott came in from the range late and found Murdoch sitting at his desk, staring into the dark. In the dim lamp light, he saw the sadness on his father's face. But when Murdoch turned towards him, it was as set as a stone carving, with about as much emotion.

He figured there was no way around the subject, so he would just get straight to it. Tossing his hat on the table, he opened the topic as he took off his work gloves, "Well, what do you plan to do?"

He couldn't believe his ears when Murdoch started in about the ranch.

"After the strays are taken care of, we go over to the east mesa for surveying, and there's that wooden foot bridge that washed out last winter."

"You know what I mean. About Johnny."

"He made his decision."

"Did he? The way I heard it, he got some help."

"Anyway, the matter's closed. It's not open for further discussion."

"You don't give at all do you? All pride and Johnny's cut from the same mold. Not one inch of give."

Murdoch stood. "Want me to go after him? Beg him to come back here?"

Maybe he'd finally hit a nerve. "Is that so bad?"

"How long do you think it would last? If he's willing to let go that easily, if nothing here has gotten through to him, if he's not learned anything, if what he's running to out there is so important, then let it happen. Let it happen now."

"I don't believe this."

Scott through his gloves down and stalked out of the room.

Murdoch never even bothered to follow him to the kitchen. He found the plate left for him by Maria and poured a glass of milk. Stopping, he stared at the glass. It reminded him of Johnny. If only people knew how much big bad Johnny Madrid loved milk.

Well, if anything was going to change between Murdoch and Johnny, it was clearly up to him. He sat down and ate his dinner, unaware that it even had taste, so busy was his mind on what to do about his lost brother.

The town was wide open when they got there. The piano was playing "Golden Slippers" and raucous laughter was coming from the saloon. Johnny was beat, but Wes wanted a drink. Really, there was no reason not too. He could sleep in tomorrow. Tomorrow, and every other day now.

They pulled up at the livery and dismounted. Inside, they found the stable man. Johnny didn't know him, but suspected that the man knew exactly who he was. All the same, he seemed like a pleasant fellow.

"Evening. Wanna bed 'em down?" The man was eyeing the stallion.

"That's right, just for the night."

"It'll cost you four bits." He was still looking at the stallion, but as Johnny pulled out his money, the man glanced back, "Oh, you going to the saloon?"

"Sure."

"Then it'll be in advance." Smart too, Johnny thought as he handed him the rest of the money.

"Fine looking horseflesh. Wild, huh?"

"That's right."

"Thinkin' of sellin' 'em?"

"Oh no, uh, uh, he's not for sale."

"Give ya fifty dollars."

"Nope."

"Now wait a minute Johnny. How much money you got?" Wes jumped in.

"Oh, 'bout five, six dollars."

"Well I ain't got more'n three and we're gonna need some cash."

"I'm not gonna sell him Wes."

Wes paused for a moment and saw the watch in Johnny's hand, along with the cash. "Then what about the watch?"

He snatched it from Johnny's hand and gave it to the stableman. "It's gold."

"How much?"

The man turned the watch in the light, "Kinda old."

Johnny stopped counting his money and took the watch back. "That's not for sale either."

"Ten dollars."

"Nope."

"All right, fifteen, but that's as high as I'll go."

Wes leaned in, "Better shut up now Johnny, you can't push him up no more."

"I'm not trying."

Wes looked at him as if he was crazy. "You mean you really don't want to sell it."

"That's right."

"I swear sometimes, you just don't make no sense."

Wes put his hand on his shoulder. "When you ever gonna need a watch, and when's it ever gonna be worth more than fifteen dollars to know the time."

Wes was as conniving as a woman sometimes. "Come on Johnny, you ain't never gonna need it." He cooed.

There it was. The truth. He wouldn't need it. Not in the life he was going back to. But he wanted it; something that connected him to his family. Then again, it would only be a reminder of what he'd lost.

He changed his mind. Best to make a clean break.

He pulled the watch from his pocket as the stable man looked on, counting out the fifteen dollars.

"Fifteen huh?" he clarified.

"Uh, huh."

Johnny handed him the watch and he handed the money to Johnny. Wes reached in and tried to take possession of the cash, but Johnny pushed his hand away without looking at him.

Once again, the old man took the watch into the light, listened to it and looked at it. Johnny knew he was reading the inscription and knew he recognized the name on it. He looked back at Johnny who was taking one last look at it, the worn gold gleaming in the soft light.

Wes hit his stride when they got to the saloon. Buying drinks left and right for the girls had them crawling all over him. Johnny had run most of them off from himself. He didn't feel like drinking and he didn't feel like making out with any of the girls. The noise was getting on his nerves. He wanted to be alone and think things out, get his head straight. He couldn't do it in the noisy saloon.

Wes started in about it being just like old times. That was the problem. It wasn't. Not for Johnny. All he could think about was Lancer and what he'd left behind. Right now, he'd be sitting in the relative peace and quiet of the great room with a drink, listening to Murdoch or Scott reading parts of books or the newspaper. Teresa would be in her chair, mending one of their shirts, or knitting, whatever needlework women did.

He wondered what they were doing tonight. Were they carrying on as usual, or did they miss him. It hurt to think about the tears Teresa had shed, and the look on Scott's face when he'd left. The worst hurt was that Murdoch thought of him as a disappointment, a waste of time, a worthless gun hawk.

He gave his drink to the girl next to him and told Wes, he was getting some air. Wes acknowledged that he was a little off, but didn't seem to care. He was having too good of a time. Johnny knew Wes wouldn't look for him for a while.

Johnny made his way back to the livery. He'd always enjoyed being in a stable in the night time. It was one of his favorite places to sleep before coming to Lancer. The smell of leather and horses eased his mind. It was soothing to listen to them munching contentedly on their hay in the dark quiet of the night.

He sat there for over an hour, going over the day's events in his head. It didn't seem like what had happened was all that bad. Well, except about the cattle getting through the hole. Was it something they couldn't get past? If he'd just left and helped Scott with the surveying, Murdoch would still have been angry, but he wouldn't be sitting here now would he?

Why in the hell did he follow Wes and those horses? If only he'd just finished that damn fence like he was supposed to. But he knew why. He'd had enough of Wes, the heat, the pressure to get things done and move on to the next. All he'd wanted was just a little break. Just a couple of hours to himself. Dios, was that too much to ask for?

What was it that made Murdoch throw down on him like that? "If it's not gonna be here, then I wanna know it, and I wanna know it now!" He could still hear those words as clear as if Murdoch were standing in the barn.

Didn't the ol' man see he was trying? He had spent the last few weeks killing himself; doing everything that was asked of him, and more. Not once, not even one time did Murdoch remark on it or him. He was always telling Scott, "good job, son." But nope, not him. Maybe mama had lied about some things, but not all of them.

Life sure was easier when he was by himself. Worrying about people and their feelings and having feelings about them, it was crazy. This was crazy, sitting here brooding in a barn like a henhouse chicken. He had just gotten soft, plain and simple. He'd lived most of his life without that and he just needed to get tough again, that's all.

He could hear Wes coming from down the street. The man never could hold his liquor. God, what had he gotten himself into? Wes was obnoxious at best. But then, he'd saved Johnny's ass more than once, including today. He owed him friendship.

Wes stumbled into the barn and fell back against the door. Johnny laughed, and went to get him. As he helped his drunken friend over to the stall where they were going to bed down, Wes started in about breaking the horse. Johnny had to force him down to keep him away from the stallion.

Wes relented, but Johnny realized he hadn't been hiding his emotions that well when Wes asked rather pitifully, "Johnny, are you gonna be here in the morning?"

Sadly, he answered, "I'll be here Wes, come on now."

It was just after lunch and Johnny was having a beer in the saloon after finally getting some sleep. He'd given up last night. The thoughts and emotions running through his head were making him crazy. Wes was no help as a distraction, passed out in the back of the stall. Returning to the bar, he'd found one of the girls and taken her upstairs to get his mind off things.

Wes was playing poker over in the corner, accusing Johnny of brooding. Johnny wasn't brooding so much as he was thinking about the job he'd gotten for them earlier that morning. They'd have to head out tonight.

Sipping on his beer, his back to a center post, he looked outside. To his dismay, he saw Scott riding into town. He watched as his brother left his horse at the livery and made straight for the saloon. It figured. Hell would freeze before ol' Murdoch would come for him.

Still, he felt awkward and defensive, and hurt, that it wasn't Murdoch. That made him angry.

Scott entered the saloon, and pretended to be surprised to see him there.

He took his anger out on Scott. "You can a long way for nothin' brother."

"Then you won't mind if I sit down for awhile."

"No, go right ahead." He heard himself say. He pushed a chair out for his brother.

Scott looked around as he sat. "Yes, sir, I see what you mean. This is really a great life."

Johnny stared at Scott, and decided to ignore his brother's sarcasm. He looked back toward the bar. "This place does pretty good at night."

"I'll bet it does." Scott reached for the bottle.

"Did you get those cattle back?"

"No, it'll take a couple of days."

"Well what'd the ol' man do, let you off for good behavior?"

Scott held the bottle still. "He didn't send me."

Damn, sometimes Scott could be as stubborn as the ol' man.

"Oh yeah, before I forget, you know that small creek on the south side, you know where it narrows there, well there's some undergrowth there, been piling up. It's going to damn up on you if you don't clear it. I guess it'll take you, 'bout, about week."

"It'd take us a lot less time if you were there to help us. Never mind, I know. Forget it. You've got everything you want right here." Scott looked around.

"No Scott, I got other places."

"You know it's a funny thing, I was just riding through town. I never expected to find you here. I mean with all that talk about freedom. It's a funny thing to find you all jammed in between these four walls. "

"Well, Wes and I, we're gonna take off tonight."

Scott sipped his drink and then waved it in the air, "Just uh, taking off?"

"Yeah."

"Got any plans?"

Johnny looked down, hoping he could ignore the question.

"I said have you . . ."

Johnny looked up. "I heard you. Yeah, we're gonna head south. Range war brewing. Well, we heard they were hiring guns."

Well, the truth was out now. Scott was sure to start in on him.

"Just gonna kill time, amongst other things?"

"That's right."

Johnny steeled himself for what he knew would be another condescending remark.

"You'll be dead before you're thirty." Scott took a drink.

One thing about ol' Boston, he was a realist.

Johnny chuckled, "that comes to us all, doesn't it brother?"

"But when you go, you won't even leave a small ripple."

This conversation was headed down a road Johnny had no intention of going. Not with Scott, not with Murdoch, not with anyone. He'd do what he damned well pleased. Scott always had been a judgmental son of a bitch. Just like the ol' man. Reckon that's where he got it.

"That it brother? I mean uh, the sermon's over ain't it?"

"It's the only good thing that's ever happened to you in your whole life and you're gonna get up and walk away from it. And all for nothing. But I guess that's all you got going for you from now on."

Johnny just took it. There was no way to make Scott understand. He didn't give a damn about making a ripple. All he'd ever had was his reputation, and he guessed that's all he ever would have. Just surviving had been his ripple. Some people weren't cut out to be ranchers or to leave ripples.

"It's nice to have met you brother." Scott stood and offered his hand.

Johnny sat there staring at his lap, before looking up and taking his brother's hand and giving it a warm, hearty shake, and one of his best smiles. Scott had grown on him. Maybe they'd run into each other some time.

"Good luck." Scott whispered as he turned and left.

Wes had been watching the exchange from the table in the corner where he was playing cards. He knew Scott had gotten under Johnny's skin. He'd known Johnny too long, and knew that dark look.

He stood up and approached Johnny. "Don't let him bother you Johnny." He patted his friend on the shoulder.

Johnny looked up and shifted in his chair. "Wes, would you mind leaving me alone for a little while?"

"Sure Johnny. I think I'll go out and have that fun we talked about."

Wes left Johnny at the table.

Chapter 33

Johnny didn't know how long he'd been sitting there when he heard the challenging cry of a horse. Looking up and out of the saloon door, he saw Wes and the stallion across the street. Wes was snatching the rope recklessly and the horse was fighting him, rearing and pawing.

A flying hoof finally caught Wes and knocked him to the ground. The horse came down on all fours and reared again, planting his front feet directly onto Wes as he landed and went up again.

Johnny ran out of the saloon, covering the ground in only a few strides and jumped the fence.

"Hey Wes!"

The horse backed away as Johnny leapt into the corral running straight for him and grabbing the lead rope, moving him out of the way, securing him to the fence.

After he tied the horse, Johnny stumbled over to where Wes lay, kneeling over him. He put his hand on his partner's chest and felt no heartbeat. He leaned over, his ear to Wes' nose and mouth. Not even a whisper of a breath.

Leaning back, he unbuttoned Wes' shirt and saw the bloody mess the horse's hooves had made. The stableman kneeled beside him. "Is he dead?"

"Yeah, I think so." Johnny panted.

"Somebody go get the undertaker." The man called out and then turned back to Johnny. "Well, we'll keep his horse. It'll help pay for the burial."

Johnny looked down at the bloody body. What the hell were you trying to do?

Poor dumb Wes. He had been a friend. Maybe not the smartest, or much of a worker, but he'd been loyal. It was his fault that Wes was dead. He should have made him stay away from the horse. The dumb bastard never did have the right temperament to work with horses.

Kneeling there, looking at his dead partner, feelings of loss overwhelmed him, as dark as the stallion that loomed nearby.

His pain stood before him in the form of the black stallion. He leapt up and ran over to the horse, faced it, drew his gun, pointing it directly between the wild, but soft, eyes of the animal.

The crowd which had gathered around the corral, jumped back. They knew better than to interfere with Johnny when he was in a bad mood. Many closed their eyes at the thought that he would execute the animal right before them.

Man and beast, each with the power to destroy, faced off.

Johnny's index finger was on the trigger. The slightest touch would put an end to the animal.

Looking into the horse's eyes, he saw his own reflection. Fear, hurt, and anger, stared back at him. The stallion had only acted out for his own protection. Did he deserve to die, just because he stood up for himself? Johnny had learned to protect himself in much the same way. If Wes had only been gentler with the horse, or had let go of the rope, he could have earned its trust or it would have run away to save itself.

The parallel rushed over him like a wave. He had run to save himself from that disappointed look in his father's eye. Wes had cornered the animal and Murdoch had cornered him. Wes didn't intend to harm the animal. Maybe Murdoch didn't mean to hurt him either. He knew firsthand that it was easier to train a horse once it stopped bucking. Maybe it would be easier for him and Murdoch if he didn't buck as much.

Dropping his gun, he stared at the animal thinking about his relationship with his father. Ideas ran through his head and he made a decision. He looked up at the stableman.

"You still want the horse? You said you pay fifty dollars for him."

The livery owner shrugged and walked over to him. "That was before he turned killer. Better put a bullet in him. He'll always be wild."

"What if I broke him?"

"He might be worth somethin', but no fifty dollars."

"I don't want the money."

"What then?"

"The watch."

"You feelin' all right mister? That horse'll break your back before you can even get a saddle on him." the man laughed.

"Nah, you let me worry about that. Got a deal?"

The old man smiled, "Yeah, sure."

With the help of a couple of cowboys Johnny knew, he got the horse in a chute in the stockyard and tacked. He climbed into the saddle with grace and ease, hoping Wes hadn't completely ruined the animal.

He took up the rope reins as the men warned, "Watch out." "Watch 'em Johnny."

He nodded and the chute opened.

The horse powered out the chute, springing off all fours as if the ground were a trampoline. Johnny knew he was in for a long ride. The horse backed, turned and bucked, and bucked and bucked. Finally, he got his shoulder down just right and dropped Johnny face down in the dirt.

Johnny, grateful that he hadn't broken both his wrists on the awkward landing, was even more determined as he got up, caught his breath, dusted himself off, and mounted the tired animal from the ground. That in itself was a sign that the animal was beginning to give in.

For a second, Johnny thought the animal was done. It stood completely still after he settled in the saddle.

It was a fleeting moment. He felt the stallion's muscles tense, and the horse launched into a round of crow hopping around the tiny corral.

As suddenly as it started, it stopped.

He kicked the horse forward and it walked. He cantered it around to the opposite side of the corral where the livery owner stood.

Slapping the animal on the left side of its neck with his right hand, he pointed to one of the cowboys to come get the stallion. "Now you're just another horse."

Somewhere back in his mind he heard, and you Johnny Lancer are just another cowboy.

"Yes, smiled the old man, but now, he's of some use."

Yep, Johnny Lancer's just another cowboy, but he's got a purpose, the voice whispered.

Johnny gracefully removed his right leg from the stirrup and stepped forward and over the front of the horse, placing his foot on the top rail of the fence and jumping down on the other side to face the stableman. Pulling his rig from the post, he reset his hat, as the man presented the watch to him.

"Here's your watch. You earned it."

Johnny tossed his rig over his left shoulder and reached out to take the watch. Walking away, he fingered it with fondness, opened it to see the inscription inside, closed it and nodded, knowing now what he needed to do. With a last look at the animal, he headed to the saloon for a drink.

He knocked back two shots of tequila, one for himself, and one for Wes. After that, he headed to the undertaker's to arrange to have Wes buried.

It felt good riding back to Lancer, but his head spun with so many thoughts, he couldn't focus on what he was going to say when he got to the ranch. What if Murdoch wouldn't let him come back? He didn't think that would be the case, after all, the day of their fight, Murdoch was ready to send him off with Scott to do surveying. Besides, Scott would have said something in the saloon, wouldn't he?

At the edge of the property, he stopped Barranca and dismounted. There was a roll of barbwire and a wooden sign that said "Lancer" on it. Supplies dropped off by a work crew for the next day's job.

He picked up the sign and stared ahead. No sky bluer, no grass greener. But was it really what he wanted? He thought for a moment. Yeah, he had gotten used to it. All of it. He had missed his family and their meals and evenings together. Oh, he'd always need his fun, but the contrast of his two lives this week had left him desperate for the comfort, safety, and quiet of home.

Home.

It was something he'd always wanted. He just didn't know how to be a part of a family, to share. But, he'd gotten this far. If he tried a little harder, maybe he and the old man could work things out. Who knew, maybe ol' Murdoch would have changed his tune by now.

With a resigned sigh, he lifted the sign and stabbed it into the ground. Turning it, so that anyone approaching could read that it was Lancer land.

His land.

His name.

His home.

The ranched seemed quiet as he rode in, but then, if all the hands were out at the south gully pulling out cattle from where he and Wes had failed to finish the fence, well, it would be.

He heard a shot. One single shot.

What was that about? Just to be safe, he cut through some woods and headed in the back way. He tied Barranca in the trees and crept towards the house, careful to look for signs of trouble.

He opened the side door and hurried through the house to the great room where he ran smack into Murdoch first thing.

"How did you get in here?" Murdoch growled.

"I heard a shot. I came around the side."

"Who told you to come back?"

"I wanted to talk to you."

"I thought you did all your talking when you left. Now get out of here."

He stopped cold. This wasn't like Murdoch, not at all. He looked around.

"Where is everybody?"

"Out making up for all the work you refused to do, I suppose."

"Something's wrong."

"The only thing wrong around here has always been you. So get out while you still can."

He panicked. This couldn't be happening. Surely something was wrong. What did that mean 'while you still can?' He remembered Teresa. She'd tell him straight.

"Teresa." He headed for the kitchen.

Murdoch grabbed him by the arm and spun him around.

"In case I didn't make myself clear, listen, and listen hard. I don't need you; now or ever. Now get off my land."

He went numb and the tequila felt like it was going to make a second, unwanted appearance. He wanted to cry and that made him boiling mad.

Fuck Murdoch Lancer, Fuck Scott, Fuck them all to hell.

"All right!" He growled and pulled away from his father's strong grip. Exchanging glares with him before he turned and left.

He shoved the door to the kitchen and almost hit Scott in the head with it. Scott was pale and shaken, holding on to a table. He grabbed him and immediately helped him to the couch. Teresa was close behind.

Murdoch called the tune. "Teresa, get some hot water and bandages."

"I'm all right." Scott protested.

Johnny leaned in, "What happened?"

Murdoch, who had also leaned in to examine Scott stood and turned to Johnny. "It's no concern of yours."

"I have a right to know."

Teresa spun around. "Sam Stryker's boy died."

"Teresa!" Murdoch admonished his ward.

"He has a right to know. Stryker and his men are out front, just waiting for you to come back."

Johnny looked into his father's eyes.

Son of a bitch. He wasn't even gonna tell me. He was just gonna send me away. What if I'd gone out front? What if I'd come in the front? He knew the answer.

"Lancer!" Stryker called from outside. "Listen to me. We know he's in there. Send him out and the rest of you won't get hurt."

"Well, what's it gonna be?"

Johnny moved to leave, but Murdoch grabbed him again and pulled him to face him.

"Johnny."

The scenario triggered déjà vu of only moments ago. I don't need you, now or ever. The only thing that's ever been wrong around here is you.

He had been wrong. His father didn't want him after all.

"Look, it's my responsibility. I have a right to handle it in my own way."

He pulled to free himself and Murdoch let go.

Johnny headed for the front passing the girl. "Thanks Teresa."

Johnny peered from behind a shed. He could see Stryker and his men along the wall near the old guardhouse. The only way to deal with them was head on.

He took off running and they began firing. He dove under a wagon only to hear the younger Stryker boy behind him, "Lancer!"

The boy aimed and Johnny fired, hitting him in the shoulder. The boy screamed and went to the ground, his weapon lost to him.

Seeing his chance, Johnny ran under the shed row, grabbed the boy by the collar dragging him up and in front of him, gun trained on the boy's temple.

The shooting stopped as they ran forward watching Johnny and Davy.

"Stryker!" Johnny called out. "You lost one boy, you wanna try for another?"

The men stared at them.

Johnny broke the silence. "Tell your men to drop their guns."

Johnny nodded for emphasis.

Stryker nodded their surrender.

Satisfied, Johnny ordered, "Now get on your horses and get out."

They headed for their horses.

Murdoch strode out just in time to see Johnny press the barrel of the Colt against the boy's head. The boy, in tears begged, "What are you gonna do?"

The expression on Johnny's face was cold and dark. He was thinking about pulling the trigger, when Murdoch called out.

"Johnny."

He held on to the boy for a bit longer. What did he care now? He'd been wrong, Murdoch didn't want him. Maybe he should kill the boy right in front of Murdoch, watch the ol' man's eyes as he pulled the trigger on the boy.

Something inside stopped him.

He loosened his hold on the boy, pulling the Colt away from his head, and shoved him forward, toward ol' man Stryker who had remained behind. He had given up so easily, Johnny figured they'd never hear from him again.

Davy made his way quickly to his father who was mounted and holding the reins of his horse. He took them from his father and climbed aboard.

This time, when Stryker rode out, there were no threats.

Chapter 34

Johnny holstered his weapon and headed for his horse tethered in the bushes behind the house.

"Johnny!" Murdoch bellowed.

He kept moving, as fast as he could without running. He needed to get out of here fast. Now that the danger was over, he wasn't about to let them see how badly Murdoch's words had hurt him. To think he'd come back, hat in hand. Mama was right. Mierda! How could I be so stupid?

"Johnny, wait!" Murdoch yelled again.

Scott and Teresa stood on the front porch and watched, amazed, as they saw Murdoch take off across the yard with a ground eating stride. It was hard to believe the older man could move that fast.

Johnny vaulted into the saddle, spinning his horse away from the house. He was almost unseated when Barranca's head was snatched back, as the horse was pulled off balance.

Johnny whirled around to see Murdoch holding onto the bridle. "What the hell, Ol' Man?"

"I asked you to wait!"

"For what? You've said your piece and I'm going. Now let the hell go of my horse!"

Johnny was shaking now, the adrenalin in him flowing hard from his predicament.

"No son, we need to talk!"

"Son? I'm no son of yours. Let go, damn it!"

Johnny's words shot through Murdoch's heart and head like arrows. He knew then he'd gone too far. All he wanted to do was make the boy leave, but he'd lost control of his temper and some of the thoughts he'd harbored had slipped out. He'd thought those things, sometimes, when he was frustrated with Johnny, but there was no excuse for letting them out in a fit of temper. He probably had lost his son forever. How was he going to right this? If Johnny rode off today, he'd never see him again. He wasn't about to let that happen.

Barranca was struggling against Murdoch's strong hold, backing and pulling, almost sitting on his hocks. Johnny grabbed the saddle horn with his right hand and was about to spur the horse hard enough to make the palomino jump away, breaking Murdoch's hold, even if it meant his father hitting the ground.

Instead he found himself on the ground.

Murdoch's huge size was an advantage and he had used his long arms and weight to grab hold of Johnny and pull him unceremoniously off the horse. Scrambling for balance in a cloud of dust, the animal took off into the barn.

Johnny landed on his feet but his knee gave way and he went down on both knees, hard, but tried to get up. Murdoch changed his grip and locked Johnny's right arm behind his back. He didn't think Johnny would struggle too hard. He was always protecting that right hand. He didn't expect Johnny to stomp on his foot.

Johnny found out how tough his Ol' Man was when he ducked and twisted to break the arm lock. Murdoch let go, but grabbed him around the neck and lifted him off the ground. Johnny almost passed out.

The more he struggled, the harder Murdoch held him, putting pressure on his windpipe. He was dizzy. He reached for his Colt but couldn't get to it. Murdoch had his arm under Johnny's and he began lifting and dragging him to the house.

Johnny let out a string of obscenities in Spanish, but Murdoch tightened his grip and Johnny was unable to breathe.

"Shsssh. Johnny, Shssh." Murdoch whispered in his ear.

Scott and Teresa stared at each other. "How about a cup of coffee Teresa?"

"In the kitchen?"

"Yes."

They headed inside, via the back door.

Murdoch threw Johnny down onto the sofa. Free, Johnny leaned forward, trying to get up. Murdoch leaned over and shoved him against the back of the sofa.

"Stay there! Don't move until I've had my say."

Johnny gave in. He could hardly breathe and he knew Murdoch would just push him back down. He wasn't ready to shoot him and that was about all he was capable of right now.

He closed his eyes and put his hand around his throat, which was cramping. Murdoch stepped over to his desk and poured them each a glass of water. He returned and handed one to Johnny.

He drank the water. It tasted good, but his throat hurt.

"I have something I need to make clear to you. Then if you want to ride out of here, I won't stop you."

Johnny glared at his father and steeled himself for whatever was coming. He didn't think Murdoch had it in him to be crueler than he'd already been, but he'd show the ol' man. He'd show him how tough he was. He could take it, and would. Then, he'd ride out of here and never look back.

Murdoch managed to sit down on the coffee table in front of Johnny. He put his hand on Johnny's knee and winced inwardly as Johnny tried to jerk it away. The glare that he received chilled him to the bone.

Murdoch didn't let go. He squeezed his son's kneecap affectionately.

"It's vital that you understand that I didn't mean any of those things I said to you earlier. Vital. You are my son, Johnny. I don't think I can make you understand what it's like to be a father, but believe me, Johnny, if you never believe another word I say, believe me when I say that those were all lies."

Murdoch paused. Seeing that he had Johnny's full attention, he continued, "I can only imagine how it hurt to hear me say such things. I only said them because I knew they would hurt, hurt enough to make you leave and keep you safe. I'm sorry son."

Johnny said nothing. He stared at his father. The adrenaline rush had left him and he felt as limp as a dishrag. He took in his father's words, which had melted some of the barriers he had put up, but not all.

"Now. It seems to me that you said you came back here to talk to me. I'd like to hear what you have to say. But first, I think we need something a bit stronger."

Murdoch lumbered awkwardly up from the table and headed behind the sofa. Johnny heard the clink of the glasses behind him. "Tequila or Scotch?"

Johnny shook his head, and waved his lack of concern with his hand.

His throat was sore from Murdoch's arm lock.

Murdoch came back around and Johnny was surprised to see he had tequila. He felt certain Murdoch would have just poured two Scotches. In fact the ol' man had the two glasses in one hand and the two bottles in the other.

Murdoch first handed him his drink, and then the tequila bottle. He sat back down on the table, setting the scotch bottle beside him and looked at Johnny, waiting to hear what he had to say.

Johnny knocked back the drink and poured himself a second.

Where to begin? He couldn't remember a damn thing he figured out on the ride in. He heard himself blurt out, "Wes is dead."

"Dead?" Murdoch was shocked.

"What happened?" He placed his hand on Johnny's knee again.

Johnny told him about the horse, but left out the part about the watch.

"I'm sorry, Johnny. You know you're welcome to bury him here at Lancer. "

"I already made his arrangements."

Johnny took a long sip of his drink and looked down at his lap. Blowing out held breath, he pressed on.

"I came back to talk to you. Try to square things. Ain't makin' no excuses."

He looked up at his father's face, relieved to see a soft smile. Murdoch closed his eyes for a moment before he spoke.

"I was hoping that's what you'd say. Let's chalk this up to learning and put it behind us. In the past. Aye?"

Yeah, in the past, and he knew his father's feeling about that.

Dead and gone.

But it didn't take away the sting of those words. It would be a cold day in hell before he forgot that. Lies or not.

Johnny was back stringing fence, alone this time, when Murdoch rode up on his horse. He guessed the ol' man had reason to check up on him after what had happened last week, so he wasn't going to get upset about it.

"Hey." Murdoch called.

He watched his father dismount and ground tie his horse.

"I missed you when the crew came in at lunchtime."

Johnny looked down.

"Yeah well, I figured I'd pass up chow. Get a little jump on the job."

Murdoch nodded, "Nice day."

"Yep." He couldn't help but wonder what Murdoch's complaint would be, but tucked his head and waited.

"I saw a stand of wild horses along the Black Mesa this morning. How much longer do you think you're gonna be working here?"

Johnny felt sick. Did Murdoch really think he would do that again?

"I'm, I'm just gonna lay out a string line. That way, it'll keep the crew busy until dark."

Murdoch put his hand on his back and stepped around Johnny to look at the fence line.

"Good thinking." He moved under the shade tree and turned back, "You know, a man's life can sometimes be laid out like a row of post holes."

Here comes the lecture. Johnny stared at the ground.

"Sometimes, maybe that's not all good. Maybe there's a time when a man has to listen to the sound of a far away train whistle. Kind of break the pattern. Maybe there's even a time, when the most important thing in the world is to go out after a wild horse."

What the hell? Is he saying he wants me to round up those horses?

"Out by Black Mesa?"

"About forty of them, near as I can figure. No telling how long they'll be there. You know how a wild horse will move on."

"Yeah a wild horse'll really move fast when he's got a mind to." An uncertain smile crept across his face as he looked at his father, who smiled back with certainty. He understood then and smiled broadly at his father. Murdoch's grin widened as his son's face lit up with that special smile that Murdoch had seen, but never directed at him.

Johnny threw down his shovel, turned, jumped on his horse and took off. He was surprised when Murdoch appeared beside him, riding as hard as he'd ever seen him ride.

Chapter 34

Johnny holstered his weapon and headed for his horse tethered in the bushes behind the house.

"Johnny!" Murdoch bellowed.

He kept moving, as fast as he could without running. He needed to get out of here fast. Now that the danger was over, he wasn't about to let them see how badly Murdoch's words had hurt him. To think he'd come back, hat in hand. Mama was right. Mierda! How could I be so stupid?

"Johnny, wait!" Murdoch yelled again.

Scott and Teresa stood on the front porch and watched, amazed, as they saw Murdoch take off across the yard with a ground eating stride. It was hard to believe the older man could move that fast.

Johnny vaulted into the saddle, spinning his horse away from the house. He was almost unseated when Barranca's head was snatched back, as the horse was pulled off balance.

Johnny whirled around to see Murdoch holding onto the bridle. "What the hell, Ol' Man?"

"I asked you to wait!"

"For what? You've said your piece and I'm going. Now let the hell go of my horse!"

Johnny was shaking now, the adrenalin in him flowing hard from his predicament.

"No son, we need to talk!"

"Son? I'm no son of yours. Let go, damn it!"

Johnny's words shot through Murdoch's heart and head like arrows. He knew then he'd gone too far. All he wanted to do was make the boy leave, but he'd lost control of his temper and some of the thoughts he'd harbored had slipped out. He'd thought those things, sometimes, when he was frustrated with Johnny, but there was no excuse for letting them out in a fit of temper. He probably had lost his son forever. How was he going to right this? If Johnny rode off today, he'd never see him again. He wasn't about to let that happen.

Barranca was struggling against Murdoch's strong hold, backing and pulling, almost sitting on his hocks. Johnny grabbed the saddle horn with his right hand and was about to spur the horse hard enough to make the palomino jump away, breaking Murdoch's hold, even if it meant his father hitting the ground.

Instead he found himself on the ground.

Murdoch's huge size was an advantage and he had used his long arms and weight to grab hold of Johnny and pull him unceremoniously off the horse. Scrambling for balance in a cloud of dust, the animal took off into the barn.

Johnny landed on his feet but his knee gave way and he went down on both knees, hard, but tried to get up. Murdoch changed his grip and locked Johnny's right arm behind his back. He didn't think Johnny would struggle too hard. He was always protecting that right hand. He didn't expect Johnny to stomp on his foot.

Johnny found out how tough his Ol' Man was when he ducked and twisted to break the arm lock. Murdoch let go, but grabbed him around the neck and lifted him off the ground. Johnny almost passed out.

The more he struggled, the harder Murdoch held him, putting pressure on his windpipe. He was dizzy. He reached for his Colt but couldn't get to it. Murdoch had his arm under Johnny's and he began lifting and dragging him to the house.

Johnny let out a string of obscenities in Spanish, but Murdoch tightened his grip and Johnny was unable to breathe.

"Shsssh. Johnny, Shssh." Murdoch whispered in his ear.

Scott and Teresa stared at each other. "How about a cup of coffee Teresa?"

"In the kitchen?"

"Yes."

They headed inside, via the back door.

Murdoch threw Johnny down onto the sofa. Free, Johnny leaned forward, trying to get up. Murdoch leaned over and shoved him against the back of the sofa.

"Stay there! Don't move until I've had my say."

Johnny gave in. He could hardly breathe and he knew Murdoch would just push him back down. He wasn't ready to shoot him and that was about all he was capable of right now.

He closed his eyes and put his hand around his throat, which was cramping. Murdoch stepped over to his desk and poured them each a glass of water. He returned and handed one to Johnny.

He drank the water. It tasted good, but his throat hurt.

"I have something I need to make clear to you. Then if you want to ride out of here, I won't stop you."

Johnny glared at his father and steeled himself for whatever was coming. He didn't think Murdoch had it in him to be crueler than he'd already been, but he'd show the ol' man. He'd show him how tough he was. He could take it, and would. Then, he'd ride out of here and never look back.

Murdoch managed to sit down on the coffee table in front of Johnny. He put his hand on Johnny's knee and winced inwardly as Johnny tried to jerk it away. The glare that he received chilled him to the bone.

Murdoch didn't let go. He squeezed his son's kneecap affectionately.

"It's vital that you understand that I didn't mean any of those things I said to you earlier. Vital. You are my son, Johnny. I don't think I can make you understand what it's like to be a father, but believe me, Johnny, if you never believe another word I say, believe me when I say that those were all lies."

Murdoch paused. Seeing that he had Johnny's full attention, he continued, "I can only imagine how it hurt to hear me say such things. I only said them because I knew they would hurt, hurt enough to make you leave and keep you safe. I'm sorry son."

Johnny said nothing. He stared at his father. The adrenaline rush had left him and he felt as limp as a dishrag. He took in his father's words, which had melted some of the barriers he had put up, but not all.

"Now. It seems to me that you said you came back here to talk to me. I'd like to hear what you have to say. But first, I think we need something a bit stronger."

Murdoch lumbered awkwardly up from the table and headed behind the sofa. Johnny heard the clink of the glasses behind him. "Tequila or Scotch?"

Johnny shook his head, and waved his lack of concern with his hand.

His throat was sore from Murdoch's arm lock.

Murdoch came back around and Johnny was surprised to see he had tequila. He felt certain Murdoch would have just poured two Scotches. In fact the ol' man had the two glasses in one hand and the two bottles in the other.

Murdoch first handed him his drink, and then the tequila bottle. He sat back down on the table, setting the scotch bottle beside him and looked at Johnny, waiting to hear what he had to say.

Johnny knocked back the drink and poured himself a second.

Where to begin? He couldn't remember a damn thing he figured out on the ride in. He heard himself blurt out, "Wes is dead."

"Dead?" Murdoch was shocked.

"What happened?" He placed his hand on Johnny's knee again.

Johnny told him about the horse, but left out the part about the watch.

"I'm sorry, Johnny. You know you're welcome to bury him here at Lancer. "

"I already made his arrangements."

Johnny took a long sip of his drink and looked down at his lap. Blowing out held breath, he pressed on.

"I came back to talk to you. Try to square things. Ain't makin' no excuses."

He looked up at his father's face, relieved to see a soft smile. Murdoch closed his eyes for a moment before he spoke.

"I was hoping that's what you'd say. Let's chalk this up to learning and put it behind us. In the past. Aye?"

Yeah, in the past, and he knew his father's feeling about that.

Dead and gone.

But it didn't take away the sting of those words. It would be a cold day in hell before he forgot that. Lies or not.

Johnny was back stringing fence, alone this time, when Murdoch rode up on his horse. He guessed the ol' man had reason to check up on him after what had happened last week, so he wasn't going to get upset about it.

"Hey." Murdoch called.

He watched his father dismount and ground tie his horse.

"I missed you when the crew came in at lunchtime."

Johnny looked down.

"Yeah well, I figured I'd pass up chow. Get a little jump on the job."

Murdoch nodded, "Nice day."

"Yep." He couldn't help but wonder what Murdoch's complaint would be, but tucked his head and waited.

"I saw a stand of wild horses along the Black Mesa this morning. How much longer do you think you're gonna be working here?"

Johnny felt sick. Did Murdoch really think he would do that again?

"I'm, I'm just gonna lay out a string line. That way, it'll keep the crew busy until dark."

Murdoch put his hand on his back and stepped around Johnny to look at the fence line.

"Good thinking." He moved under the shade tree and turned back, "You know, a man's life can sometimes be laid out like a row of post holes."

Here comes the lecture. Johnny stared at the ground.

"Sometimes, maybe that's not all good. Maybe there's a time when a man has to listen to the sound of a far away train whistle. Kind of break the pattern. Maybe there's even a time, when the most important thing in the world is to go out after a wild horse."

What the hell? Is he saying he wants me to round up those horses?

"Out by Black Mesa?"

"About forty of them, near as I can figure. No telling how long they'll be there. You know how a wild horse will move on."

"Yeah a wild horse'll really move fast when he's got a mind to." An uncertain smile crept across his face as he looked at his father, who smiled back with certainty. He understood then and smiled broadly at his father. Murdoch's grin widened as his son's face lit up with that special smile that Murdoch had seen, but never directed at him.

Johnny threw down his shovel, turned, jumped on his horse and took off. He was surprised when Murdoch appeared beside him, riding as hard as he'd ever seen him ride.

Chapter 36

He had a few minutes before his stage left. Rather than sit in the hot office, Johnny opted for a cold beer. He'd finished the trip, had the signed contracts in his saddle bags and a delivery date for the stock. It had been two hard weeks of traveling, buying, and negotiating.

He was confident that the ol' man would approve. He'd minded his manners pretty good. At least he thought so, having to bite his tongue a few times while dealing with the ranchers. Most of them were pretty fair to him, but he'd heard whispers behind his back. It was clear they knew about his past. But it didn't seem to affect the business.

His steps were light, quick, and confident, as he made his way down the boardwalk of the bustling town. He was surprised at how much he was looking forward to getting back to the ranch. It was a new and strange feeling. Saddlebags over his shoulder, he pushed open the batwing doors and entered the saloon.

It was much dimmer inside. He stopped and took a look around before heading to the bar. There was an Indian just inside the doors to his right. A few cowboys sat a table next to the bar playing poker, two more sat back with their legs stretched out and watched.

On the left, he saw a man at a table reading a bible. He could have passed for a minister, except for the rig he wore, and the fact that he was in the saloon. Johnny recognized him instantly as an old acquaintance, Sexton Joe Hughes. They were not friendly, but had crossed each other's paths enough times that Johnny knew Sexton Joe wouldn't start any trouble with him, but wouldn't back down from it either.

Johnny couldn't tell who the other man was, seated with the gunfighter, as his back was to him. He only had time for the one beer, so he figured if he kept a low profile, he'd be on his way before Hughes would even notice him.

He walked right past the table, senses on red alert in the event Sexton Joe looked up, but he didn't. He laid his saddlebags onto the bar, leaned his elbows on it and was subtly checking his back in the mirror, when a loud noise erupted at the poker table behind him. He turned and looked back to see the pot winner scraping in some big money.

Turning back to the bar, he leaned over it again waiting for the bartender to come his way. He could hear the man talking to another customer at the end of the bar.

Something flew over his head from behind, coming from the direction where Hughes was sitting. His hand was on his gun and it was drawn just as the object, a glass, shattered against the back wall. The sound and his draw had everyone sucking back.

The man with Sexton Joe was facing him now, his hands up, and a big grin on his face as he called out, "Slow, Johnny Madrid."

He recognized the man as his old friend Isham. Isham began to laugh, hands still up, calling out, "Muy lento."

Hughes was staring at Isham.

Johnny waved his gun at his friend. "Isham, you know games like that are gonna get you killed."

He reached back and grabbed his saddlebags with his left hand, the Colt still in his right and moved toward their table. As he did so, he noticed the poker playing cowboys standing up.

He waved his gun at them, "Go on. Sit down."

They did.

As the bar activity resumed, he threw his saddlebags over an empty chair and asked, "How the devil you been?" He gave some light playful punches to his old friend's arm and jumped back laughing when his friend punched back at him.

"I'm gettin' by."

Isham looked over Johnny's shoulder and called out, "Bartender, two fresh glasses and they better be clean!"

Johnny sat down. "Where you been for a week? I been here. My stagecoach is leavin' soon now."

"You headed for Morro Coyo?"

"That's right."

"Then you must be headed for the same job we are. Me and that Indian over there, and Sexton Joe here."

Sexton looked up toward the door, his profile to Johnny, but never looked at him. Johnny's gut clenched up at the mention of his hometown.

"What's this about Morro Coyo?"

The bartender dropped off the glasses and Isham began to pour from the bottle on the table.

"Ah," the gunfighter rolled his neck, "cattle war brewin'. Things bust loose, it's gonna be another Johnson County fracas."

Isham took a big sip of his whiskey. Johnny's senses shot to high alert. He and Isham had been on the same side in the Johnson County war. It had been ugly and a lot of people died there.

He couldn't imagine what could have happened in his absence. Murdoch and Scott were to host a cattleman's meeting at home before they left to go to the regional one. What the hell could have happened to get this stirred up? Only one way to find out.

"Who's hiring guns?"

"Some big eastern big shot. He's been runnin' cattle on government range."

"Warburton." The name just rolled off his tongue.

Sexton Joe didn't even look up from his reading, "You know the man?"

"Yeah, by reputation." It was an honest answer. Murdoch had invited him to cattlemen's meetings, but the man never showed. Johnny had never run into him. "What's he need gun hawks like you for?"

"The small ranchers have gathered together against him. They wanna stop him from shipping his cattle to market." Isham explained.

Johnny took a deep breath and removed his hat, only to resettle it on his head as his mind began turning. "Why would he want to do that? I mean, he'll only drive the price lower."

"You seem to know a good deal about the situation." Hughes turned to face Johnny.

"I try and keep up."

"Then maybe you know the man who's leading the fight against Warbuton. A hard head named Murdoch Lancer."

Johnny recognized the threat in Hughes' tone and stared at him with the impassive deadly stare of a gunfighter. He almost couldn't breathe at the mention of Murdoch's name.

"What if I did?" He challenged.

Sexton's reaction was exactly what he expected. The man turned to face him and put his bible down. "Maybe you're planning on hiring out to Lancer. Don't. Warburton's bought himself an edge, and I'll see he keeps it." He sounded like the growling mad dog that he was.

Johnny didn't like where this was headed in the least. Sexton was threatening him and Lancer. Neither of them looked away.

Isham looked up and recognized their stare down for what it was; the foreplay of gunfighters.

"Hey, whoa, now." He slid his elbow across the table and bumped Johnny's forearm, resting on top a few times as he finished, "He wouldn't side against his own kind." He laughed, looking back at Hughes.

It didn't break either man's concentration.

He held the glass of whiskey he'd filled for Johnny toward him. "Come on now, put the fire out."

That didn't work, so he picked up Sexton's drink in the other hand and bumped the two of them simultaneously with the drinks. "Put the fire out."

Sexton's black eyes stared at Johnny as he quoted, "He that is not with me, is against me, the Bible says."

"He's got an idea Johnny boy. Come with us. Warburton'll sign you on quicker than you can say, Johnny Madrid." Isham smiled.

Neither Johnny nor Sexton Joe had blinked from their challenge.

Sexton spoke again, "Well, in or out?"

Johnny knew he needed to get an inside look at their plans, but damn, Murdoch would hit the roof. Well, better he hit the roof than be killed. Johnny knew how dangerous Hughes was, how dangerous Isham was, and how dangerous he had once been. Still was.

Without breaking eye contact, he reached over and took the glass of whiskey nearest him from Isham and poured half of it into the other glass that his friend held. As he did, he looked at Hughes and said with a smile, "I'm in."

Hughes turned back to his Bible, and Johnny turned to look at Isham as he took a sip of the whiskey.

The stage ride was a good distraction. Johnny and Isham caught up on old friends and enemies, as well as remembered some old times. Hughes kept his nose buried in the small Bible almost the entire trip. He only occasionally added a comment here and there.

As they approached the camp, Johnny could see that there was a lavish tent that seemed to be the center of things. Riders came flying through the stagecoach's path, some cut across in front of the stage, a few others, including a pretty young girl stopped, allowing the stage to go by and then waited to watch its passengers descend.

Johnny stepped out first, saddlebags in hand. He stood in the doorway of the coach stretching his legs, and to look around. He saw the girl and wondered how she fit into the picture. All this time and neither he nor Scott knew she was here.

He stepped down and walked towards her while his traveling companions exited and the drivers dropped down their saddles.

As Johnny got closer to the girl, she slung her hair back and commented, "Oh, there's four of you. Father expected only three."

Johnny noticed that despite wearing britches, she was riding sidesaddle.

"I'm odd man." He stepped up to her, noting the man waiting patiently for her to dismount so he could take her horse.

"The boys here told me the Warburton's put out a call for help. Thought I'd take my chances gettin' hired on."

He reached up and touched her horse first, then looked up at her and tipped his hat. "Johnny Madrid ma'am." He finished with one of his smiles that usually got him what he wanted from women.

She responded with a big smile and a laugh as she repeated his name. "Johnny Madrid. That's a wonderful name for, well, what would you call yourself, a soldier of fortune?"

He had to look down as he grinned. She talked a lot like Scott. "Yeah, somethin' like that."

They smiled at each other. She broke the silence, "Would you help me down?"

He dropped his saddle bags on the ground and as he stepped up to help her, she unhooked her leg, dropped her stirrup, and slid down. He caught her around the waist and eased her down.

When her feet hit the ground, she fell against him.

He smiled to himself. He liked it, but there was no time for romance, besides, she was a bit young.

"Oh, oh, I'm sorry. My leg fell asleep." She stepped back.

"Shouldn't ride sidesaddle." He offered.

"Oh well, it's the only way for a proper young lady. There are some advantages."

He figured she was referring to what just happened as an 'advantage.'

A well-dressed man in a suit and hat passed them. They parted and she called out to him.

"Father, uh, this is Mr. Madrid. He's come to see if you could use his services.

The man never looked at him. He simply addressed the girl, "I'm afraid not my dear. We've got a full company," and moved on.

The stage drove away as the man, clearly Warburton, reached Isham and Sexton Joe.

Johnny watched the stage and growled behind him. "It's a twenty mile walk to Morro Coyo."

Warburton turned and stared as did the other two gunfighters.

"Father, he came to help us, you know."

The man studied him and asked, "How good are you?"

Johnny took his time answering. "Good."

"It won't offend you if I ask for a demonstration?"

Johnny looked down and then up at him.

"There's a pennant, a small flag flying on the tent behind you."

Johnny turned his head, just enough to spot the flag in his peripheral vision.

"Knock it down and you're on."

He looked back at Warburton. Staring at him, Johnny unsnapped his Colt, drew, spun it into his hand, turned and fired, cutting the pennant's post into pieces.

As if they were one, he and Tallie turned back to face her father. The other gunfighters were watching and waiting for Warburton to speak.

"Splendid."

He pulled a watch from his pocket and checked it. "Well you'll have time to select your horses tonight."

Tucking the watch back in his vest pocket he continued, "Tomorrow morning, we'll see about arms and ammunition. For now, you can bed down in those tents over there." He pointed to them and walked away, calling his daughter, "Come along dear."

She followed him without a word.

The three gunfighters walked together toward the tent city that was set up for them. In the middle was a cook tending what looked like a hog on a big skewer.

As they looked at it, stomachs growling, Isham turned to Johnny. "Aren't you glad I talked you into this job? It's just like old times."

Johnny took a good long look at the meat and the cook, recognizing his face from the past, "Yeah, just like old times."

Sexton stopped to speak to the cook while Johnny and Isham pulled up. "What d'ya think Warburton's gonna want us to do?" Johnny asked.

"Protect his drovers."

"That's it? You don't think he wants us to bust a few heads, burn a few barns?"

Isham gave him a serious, questioning look. "Whatever needs doin'."

They looked around, taking in the tents and the other drovers.

Isham spoke first, "Hey, ain't that Bushrod Smith over there?"

Johnny looked at Isham and back at the men by the tent and then back at his friend.

"Hey Bushrod." Isham moved off to catch up with his old acquaintance.

Sexton Joe had been listening to their conversation and filled the empty space left by Isham. "Warburton's plans are no concern of yours. You dealt yourself in, you stay in."

Johnny turned and stared back at the dark eyed gunfighter, "Well I just like to know the game, that's all." He shifted his weight on his feet for emphasis.

"The game's what it always is, Johnny boy." Hughes sneered.

Chapter 37

Johnny waited that night until it was quiet. Most everyone had settled down. He had sat around the fire eating and drinking and reliving old times with Isham and a couple other hired gunmen that he had known before.

Now, he needed to get a horse and get over to Lancer and see what the hell had been going on while he was gone. He was saddling the horse he'd selected earlier, when Warburton's daughter came out of her tent and caught him.

"Are you taking a moonlight ride Mr. Madrid, or are you just stealing the horse?"

He let out a sigh. "Moonlight ride."

"Sounds like a good idea, mind if I tag along?"

He looked at her. "Nope. But your father might."

"Oh, no, he's not the protective sort at all. Not really, at least I don't think so." She came closer to him. "Actually, we just got acquainted. He's been roaming around the world and I've been away at boarding school all this time. Until last week, I just got to know him as the man who sent me presents at Christmas."

He stared at her. She was amusing, talking with her hands and touching her hair. He didn't want to deal with her, she was going to be a problem and so he just let her talk herself out.

"I'm a chatterbox aren't I?"

He felt bad, she was sweet. "No, no, I'm just thinkin' I just got to know my father too."

"Really?"

"Yeah."

"You know that makes us kindred spirits don't you?"

He just looked at her.

"Uh, au repore, the French say."

"That what the French say?" He couldn't help his amusement. She had a lot in common with Boston.

"Uh huh."

He turned to leave, the horse in tow.

"Oh, well, why don't you let me come along now, okay?"

How was he gonna get rid of her? She was attractive, but not that confident in her feminine ability.

He stepped up close to her. Close enough to kiss her. He could see she was almost shaking.

"Don't you know pretty girls and gunfighters don't mix?"

"You don't look very dangerous."

"I am." He sighed inside. She, Murdoch, Scott, Teresa, none of them knew just how dangerous. He hoped they never had to know.

"Boy, if your father had any sense, he'd send you back to boarding school."

"No, he can't. I have to help him finish his memoirs. About his life and travels, all around the world."

"Doesn't he know, the moment he tries to ship one steer, just one steer out of Morro Coyo, everything's gonna break loose?"

"It doesn't have to. Not if that Murdoch Lancer would just listen to reason."

He ducked his head and looked back at her.

"Well, I guess how it looks depends on where you stand."

She hugged her arms to herself and looked away.

"Cold?" He took off his jacket and put it around her shoulders.

"No, no, I mean."

"Go on, keep it. Make sure I bring the horse back."

Their eyes locked and for a moment, he wondered what it would be like to kiss those large full lips. She stood still as a statue as if she were waiting for him to.

He turned away instead and mounted the horse and rode out of the camp.

Only the lamp from the great room illuminated from the house that night when he reached Lancer. He should have figured Murdoch would wait up for him. He was supposed to be home in time for dinner.

Oh well, it wouldn't be the first time they'd locked horns. But he wasn't about to let Sexton Joe kill Murdoch and that was exactly what the bastard had planned. He'd been in the game a long time. Long enough to know.

He tethered the horse in the bushes to the side of the house and entered through the front door. The glow of the lamp on Murdoch's desk did not reach the hallway, but invited him in from the doorway.

He stopped in the threshold to see his father staring at the door. Murdoch's face was stone cold.

"Johnny. Everything all right?"

Johnny cocked his head. "I thought so, but it seems you've got some trouble ol' man."

"What trouble is that? Don't tell me you had problems negotiating the contracts."

"No, nothin' like that. Contracts and stock are all fine."

Johnny pulled the contracts from his jacket, neatly tied in their leather binder and handed it to his father.

While Murdoch pulled them out and looked them over, Johnny took off his gun belt and laid it on the table behind the sofa. There he saw the bowl of apples glowing softly in the light, almost calling his name. He turned around, placed his palms on the table and hiked himself up to perch there. He took an apple from the silver bowl and pulled his knife from his waistband and started cutting slices.

"These look very, very good son. I'm impressed."

Johnny shrugged as if it were nothing, although deep inside he felt relief and pride that his father acknowledged his work.

Placing the papers on the desk, Murdoch stood and stretched. Moving from behind the desk he spoke. "So John, what's this about trouble?"

"I thought you could tell me. I ran into some old acquaintances, as Scott would say."

As Johnny explained his situation and where he'd been, Murdoch paced the floor. When he finished, he continued eating his apple while Murdoch remained quiet. Finally, he came toward Johnny.

"That was a foolish mistake Johnny, letting yourself become involved like that."

"I had no choice." Johnny told him flatly. He resented being called foolish, and Murdoch clearly did not understand the tenuous situation between himself and the gunfighters.

Murdoch sighed. He walked over to the French doors and looked out.

"Well at least you were able to find out what kind of a man this Warburton is."

"Oh, I don't know. He didn't smell like brimstone. He didn't smell like cattleman either. Why does he wanna sell out in such a low market anyhow?"

Murdoch turned, his voice raised in ire, "Says he's bored with the cattle business. Wants to put all of his money in Bolivian tin mines, or castles in Spain. It's typical of the man."

Johnny recognized the expressions on Murdoch's face as the same ones he had for him most of the time.

"He's an adventurer, an irresponsible dreamer, who exploits and then moves on with no regard to the damage he's done."

Johnny almost laughed at Murdoch's speech like response. "You mean he don't wear his hat square on his head?"

"This situation lost its humor Johnny, when he started hiring guns."

"Murdoch, it seems to me like there are two sides. Are you sure yours balances out on the right?"

"Mine? Don't you mean ours?"

Johnny stared at his father a moment. It was still hard to think of the ranch as his. But his father was right. He also knew how upset it made his father, to have to remind Johnny that it was his too.

"Yeah." He looked down at his apple.

Shaking his head, he started, "Still and all, telling a man he can't sell his own property; that's swingin' a lot a weight."

"It's not a question of swinging weight. It's not even a question of keeping up the price of beef. It's a matter of principle."

Murdoch stopped in front of him.

"Such as?"

The words had barely left his mouth when Murdoch shouted, "Such as having a decent concern for your neighbor." Murdoch began walking around the room again. "When we settled this land Johnny, we realized pretty quick that you could not cut your neighbor's throat and survive! That's why we founded the association, to protect ourselves against lone wolves and spoilers like Warburton. Why he could destroy a dozen of the smaller ranchers, men who have put their whole lives into this land." Murdoch was animated with not only his voice and his steps, but his hands. Johnny was secretly relieved he wasn't directly angry with him.

"Don't you see why they have to stop him any way they can?"

Johnny was surprised to hear his father speak this way. It was not the Murdoch Lancer he thought he knew. Instead, he was more like the men Johnny had worked for during the range wars.

He had finished his apple, wiped his knife clean on his calzoneras, and clicked it closed. He laid the apple core behind him on the table. "What about legal means?"

Murdoch shook his head. "Scott's in Sacramento trying to get an injunction, but I don't believe we can defend it."

Johnny hopped off the table, pulling his rig with him. Stepping away from his father, he began to pull it back around his waist. "That's why I'm gonna be Johnny Madrid for a few days."

Murdoch stepped up closer. "What's the point?"

Pulling the buckle tighter, he turned and faced his father. "The point is, I'll be on the inside where I can learn their plans. Keep the lid on the pot if it starts to boil over." He looked down as he readjusted the belt.

He looked back up at Murdoch, "I don't know, maybe even get Warburton to be reasonable."

"If somebody should find out who you are? No, Johnny, I can't let you take the risk."

"Murdoch, you're running one too. I know how men like Sexton Joe Hughes operate, and sooner or later they go after the man at the top," he leaned past his father to pick up his hat from the table, "and that's you. Like it or not, I'm gonna be there where I can stop it." He turned way, embarrassed a little for expressing his feelings.

Murdoch stared at his back and smiled. Johnny turned to look at his father.

Murdoch looked down, his own sign of discomfort at what he was about to say.

"I'm uh, I guess I'm not used to having sons to worry about me. It's a new experience."

He smiled at Johnny and Johnny smiled back. "Get used to it."

Johnny moved to leave through the French doors, but turned around in the threshold.

"Oh, by the way, some of your rancher friends, they got hair trigger tempers, like Driscoll and Santee. You make sure they don't start no trouble."

"I'll do whatever I can, but Warburton has brought a show of violence to this land, and violence is like an ugly infection, it spreads and breeds more violence before it can be sanitized."

Johnny looked at his father. Damn if that man shouldn't have been a politician the way he could turn a cattle war into a speech making event. He had no response for this, knowing how true Murdoch's words were when it came to cattle wars. He wondered if his father really knew.

He turned and walked out, pulling on his hat as he went.

Chapter 38

Warburton was like an army captain. He wanted everything organized and just so. The men were lined up, sort of, passing the rifles back and forth. After they were inspected, they were passed back to Johnny, who sat on a bale of hay, cleaning them. The Indian sat nearby, working on his own stuff.

Warburton showed up to give the orders. "You men. I want you to take those targets down to the wash and set up a firing range."

Isham eyed Warburton like he was out of his mind, but acquiesced with "Sure thing Mr. Warburton, not that we need the practice."

Warburton passed Johnny and walked directly over to the other gunfighter. "It's not for your benefit. It's for theirs!" He nodded toward the mountains.

Isham turned to follow where Warburton was looking as the man announced, "Yes, there's a spyglass. We're being watched by those shirt tail ranchers."

Johnny stood up and walked over behind Isham.

"Want us to flush them out?"

"Nonsense, you're missing the whole point. The show is for their benefit. The marksmanship, pistol drill, rough riding."

"You really think you can keep 'em buffaloed into backing down, huh?" Johnny asked.

"I've done it before. Once in the Sudan. Our expedition was surrounded by Dervishes. A good display of strength put them to ground without shedding a drop of blood."

Isham turned back and looked at Johnny with a face that screamed, "This man is crazy."

"All right, get those targets down there."

The two gunfighters looked down at the bale of straw. They picked it up and tossed it into the back of the wagon they had been leaning against.

"Madrid." Warburton called him. It reminded Johnny of the way his father called him. It was still hard taking orders.

Johnny sauntered over to Warburton, much the way he did Murdoch and looked at him.

"Haven't you something to tell me?"

Warburton gave Johnny that look, much like the one Murdoch had. The one that said I already know what you've done and you are in trouble. But are you going to admit it?

"Like what?" His answer was snotty.

Warburton stepped away, expecting Johnny to follow him so the others would not be privy to their discussion.

As Johnny joined him, they circled each other like fighters assessing each other.

"You're not wearing your coat?"

Shocked that it was something so ridiculous, Johnny laughed with relief. He looked down and then back up at the man. "Tallie told ya, huh?"

"Nooo, she didn't. I have other eyes and ears in this camp."

Arms akimbo, Johnny looked away. "Sexton, huh." He stepped away, watching the other gunfighters loading the targets and the weapons.

"I bet he dressed up his report real good."

"He doesn't trust you. I'm not so sure I do either. Where'd you go last night?"

"Oh, 'bout a mile or so west. Found me a nice clump of trees and slept."

"My orders were not to leave this camp."

Damn. Warburton and the ol' man must be related.

"Warburton, you know, if I liked being told when to spit and when to polish, I woulda stayed in the army." He laughed at the memory before he added, "Meaning the Mexican army."

"Well, you've enough audacity for a full regiment." He looked away at the sound of footsteps, "I can see why Tallie's attracted to you."

Tallie arrived, stopping next to her father with a large envelope. She shook her long hair out of her face and looked at Johnny. "Buenos Dias, Mr. Madrid."

She looked up at her father. "Father, I've finished the notes, they're ready for the publisher."

He took the envelope from her. "Splendid. And when you ride into town, I want you to telegraph the railroad too, arranging the cattle car."

Smiling she looked at Johnny. "Can I pick my own escort?"

Johnny was uncomfortable with the girl's attention, but more so, with the idea of accompanying her to Morro Coyo. "I uh, I don't think it's a good idea to show my face around Morro Coyo."

"Nonsense. If they recognize you as Johnny Madrid, so much the better. It'll cause that much more fear and trembling." Warburton looked excited.

Johnny looked down at his boots, kicking a clod of dirt as Warburton instructed his smiling daughter, "Go fetch his coat."

They had just darted around the corner to avoid some ranchers that knew Johnny. He had hung around outside while Tallie was in the post office and the telegraph office.

He peered over the batwings of the cantina, not seeing anyone that he recognized.

"Let's get something to eat." He forged ahead, leaving Tallie in his wake.

"Why? What happened? Did you know those men out there?" Tallie's questions were coming at him too fast. He moved to a table and took a taste of the salsa. The mamacita cooking, knew him, but would never have reason to call him by anything but Johnny.

"I swear, ever since we came into town, you've been pulling that hat down and hiding behind a post all day."

"I just don't think it's a good idea to show my face around Morro Coyo." He moved toward the batwings again and peered out, making sure they weren't followed.

Tallie followed him like a zealous puppy. "Why? Dad thought it would be a great idea."

He turned and interrupted her. "Your father doesn't know the whole story about me and Morro Coyo."

Confident that they were not followed, his irritation was still showing when he looked at her. "Come on now, let's eat."

Before Tallie could do more than poke out her lip, the proprietress saw him and came over calling to him in Spanish. She had a tray and stopped to serve a man and told him it was the specialty of the house. Johnny followed with Tallie next to him. He greeted the woman in Spanish and began discussing his desire for some hot and spicy food.

The woman showed them to a table and lovingly pulled his hat off and pushed it back on his head, telling him how much he would like the food today. She explained that she didn't think the señorita could handle it. The woman, patted him on the back, and continued speaking Spanish to him.

When she left the table, Tallie scooted closer to Johnny while he straightened his hat.

"Care to translate that?"

"No, I wouldn't." He smiled shyly, almost blushing at what the woman had said about his companion.

"Well, she just said she'd make it a little hotter for us later on." He explained and smiled at Tallie.

He watched her reaction and was grateful for her complete ignorance of the Spanish language.

Johnny reached for the plate in the middle, its contents wrapped in a linen napkin not too far from the same color of his shirt.

"What'd she bring us?" Tallie's eyes were wide.

"Tortillas." He explained, opening the napkin to expose them.

He took one, put it on his plate, then, manners getting the best of him, he unrolled the silverware from another napkin of the same color and shook it open. He held it up and then placed it across Tallie's cheast, tucking it in at the collar, as a bib.

Her eyes wide open, never looking away from him, she watched as he explained the art of eating tortillas.

"Now, you take it, and you roll it." He had placed one on her plate and had begun rolling his own. "Do like I do."

He finished rolling the tortilla, "and then you stick it in here." He dipped it into the fresh salsa, and watched as she followed suit.

About the time that they were settled and about to enjoy their tortillas, a voice grumbled behind them. Johnny cocked his head and listened.

When the man yelled out, "Don't forget I got some change coming," Johnny knew for sure that it was Jelly.

He lifted his hat and pulled it down and then decided to take it off and block the view between the wooden spindles that separated the booths.

He hung it behind him and attempted to distract the girl. "How'd you ever get a name like Tallie?"

"Oh, it's short for Natalie."

"Oh, I's just wonderin'." He all but dove into the bowl of salsa in front of him.

"You're doing it again."

He glared at her.

"You're acting invisible."

Jelly appeared on the other side of the partition and peered in. Tallie saw him and then looked at Johnny. "You know that man?"

Johnny wanted to crawl under the table when he heard Jelly laugh over his shoulder.

"Hey Johnny!" The man yelled and then moved around the partition and stopped next to Johnny.

"He seems to know you."

Jelly came on around. "I missed ya out at the ranch." He moved behind Johnny, taking his hat down and holding it as he made his way between Johnny and Tallie. "Murdoch didn't tell me you was back."

"Murdoch?" Tallie's tone said it all.

Johnny took his hat from the old handyman and placed it on the table. Staring into his food, he growled, "Back off, will ya Jelly?"

"What ranch?" Tallie wasn't going to stop and Johnny knew it.

"What ranch? Why just about the biggest one there is." Johnny wanted to kill Jelly at that moment. He didn't have to look up to know that Tallie was all eyes and ears with Jelly.

"You mean this galoot hasn't introduced himself?"

Johnny watched for her reaction, knowing what was coming.

"Well allow me. This here's Murdoch's son, Johnny Lancer."

The glare she shot him was as cold as any gunfighter's. She snatched the napkin from her throat and jumped from her chair.

Johnny got up from the table and blocked the front way out.

When Tallie darted to his right to go around, he moved again and she turned, heading for the back.

Jelly turned to Johnny. "Well now what brought that on?"

"Go on, will ya Jelly." Johnny wanted to go to her, but Jelly stood there and sighed with his voice and his body.

"Go on!" Johnny shouted at him. Jelly looked offended and Johnny called out over his shoulder, "I'll talk to you later."

Jelly kept going and Johnny turned, hat in hand, knowing the girl felt betrayed and was trapped in the back corner. She had sat down on a barrel of flour. Squatting down beside her, she looked away from him.

"You gonna listen to me?"

"How could you ever get away with it? With Sexton Joe and Isham?"

"'Cause I used to be a gun hawk when they knew me. Tallie, it's a long, long story, but you see, I'm both, Johnny Lancer and Johnny Madrid."

She turned to face him and her question surprised him.

"Which are you most?"

"Lancer."

"Really?"

"Yeah."

Her entire demeanor changed. "Oh Johnny, that's wonderful." She turned her body around to him, open to him again.

"I knew you were different. I knew you couldn't be like those others with their cold eyes and everything. I could feel it."

He was a little embarrassed by her enthusiasm, and smiled at her, "Yeah?" as he looked down.

He looked up into her smiling shining eyes, "Kindred spirit, huh?"

He sighed.

"Tallie, you think if I go to your father, he'll listen to reason?"

"Oh I know he will. Oh, he's a little bit proud and a little bit stubborn, but if you approach him the right way, he'll listen to any reason."

She was beaming. He only wished that were true.

"I don't know."

"Oh, Johnny yes. He's an incredible romantic and the warring families, and you, as a prince in disguise on a mission of peace. It's like out of a story book. He'll love it."

Her confidence gave him some hope. "Well, let's hope so."

He stood up, placing his hat on his head and grabbing her hand. As he led her out the front way, he tossed a silver coin onto the table that landed with a clinking sound.

Chapter 39

They arrived back at the camp while Warburton was supervising the gunfighters in their target practice. They heard him yell out, "Commence independent firing."

During the volley of gunshots, Warburton came back to greet them as they dismounted their horses. Johnny jumped down and handed his off to a cowboy and then moved over to help Tallie down from her side saddle. She ran up to her father, long brown hair bouncing around her shoulders.

Johnny sauntered toward them, hands at his side, ready for anything and everything to bust open.

Tallie had no more than reached her father and exchanged greetings when his back arched and he fell, grabbing her and taking her down with him in an attempt to protect her.

At her cry of "Oh no," Isham and Sexton Joe glanced back.

"Bushwhacker up there!" Isham looked up and dropped down, taking aim with his rifle. All the gunfighters, including Johnny did the same.

Johnny stood in the open, protecting Tallie and her father as Isham, Sexton Joe and several of the others moved forward and took cover behind a wagon, all still firing at a target they couldn't quite discern.

When the shooting stopped, Tallie got up and cried, "No, no, no," over and over. Johnny rushed to her side and put an arm around her as the others crowded beside them.

"I seem to be a long way from the Sudan." Warburton tried to sit up. "Maybe I underestimated those savages. What a waste."

Johnny let go of Tallie and grabbed the man up by his jacket. He looked up and into the cold black eyes of Sexton Joe.

"Let's get him to the tent."

Sexton agreed and stood, Isham stepped in to assist him and pushed Johnny back out of the way."

"Easy with him, get his back." Johnny shouted as more men stepped in to help, leaving him with the hysterical Tallie.

"Johnny, your father just shot my father." She cried.

He hoped no one heard, but knew that they did. It didn't help that his first reaction was to grab her and pull her back. "He wouldn't do that. You gotta believe me."

She snatched away from him and took off running toward the men who were carrying her father.

He looked up toward the mountains where the shooter had been. He wondered which one of Murdoch's hot tempered rancher friends had done this. Stupid, cowardly bastard had probably just started a range war. This one was gonna be really bad and here he was, stuck in the middle. Just another reason for Murdoch not to trust him. Somehow this would all be his fault, for trying to right the situation and protect his family.

He had an idea though.

He grabbed a horse and took off up the trail to the area where he thought the shot had come from. It didn't take long for him to find the location. The dirt had been disturbed and there were the telltale shell casings. He picked them up and put them in his pocket.

He made his way back to his horse, went over the backside of the mountain to avoid the camp full of gunfighters, who, no doubt now knew what he'd been up to. With one look behind him, he took off for Lancer.

When he got to the ranch, he saw wagons, horses and buggies in the yard. This was gonna be good. The shooter had to be in the house somewhere. If he could figure out who, he was gonna rip their head off.

He burst through the door to find his father standing at the head of the dining room table. Every chair was taken by a rancher. Scott was seated at the other end.

Murdoch looked startled when he came in. "Johnny."

He paid no mind to the unusually affectionate tone of his father's voice. He only had one thing on his mind.

He walked to the end of the table, making his announcement. "Warburton's been shot."

When his father threw his papers down and took his seat, for a moment, he thought Murdoch knew. He looked at him, trying to discern if it was possible that his father would have done such a thing.

"Hurt bad enough to die." He kept his eyes on his father.

He could see the disappointed look he was so familiar with on his father's face and knew that he had not ordered the shooting. He turned to the silent table of ranchers, taking in each of their faces, looking for clues.

"Who did it?"

Scott leaned forward. "Now take it easy Johnny."

"Who hid behind that rock and put a rifle bullet in his back?"

At the same time he demanded an answer, he threw the shell casings on the table. They rolled all the way down to Scott.

Murdoch looked up at his son. "Are you saying it's one of us?"

"Who else had a reason?"

Driscoll who was seated to Murdoch's left looked up and around the table as he spoke, "Seems to me like Warburton's bound to pick up enemies, Johnny."

He face was indignant as he looked up at the youngest Lancer.

"It could have been anyone."

Down next to Scott, another rancher picked up on this. "Now that's pure fact. Maybe even one of those pistoleros."

"Who else had a reason?" Johnny wasn't buying into their cowardice.

The stupid rancher at the end stood up. "Don't go curlin' your mouth up at us Johnny. Nobody here is no back shooter."

"Anyway," Driscoll slapped the table with his hat and stood. "Whoever it was, did us a big favor."

Johnny figured then that it was most likely Driscoll. He grabbed hold of the rancher and threw him down in his chair.

"Where were you an hour ago?" He growled.

Driscoll answered with a punch to Johnny's gut, sending him backwards. Driscoll stood and punched him again, sending him face first into the door frame. Driscoll grabbed him, but before he could land another punch, Johnny spun and dealt two heavy blows of his own, sending Driscoll reeling backwards toward the table.

Murdoch stood, facing the doors and watching for Johnny to come after Driscoll. When he did, the big rancher caught him and pushed him back, grateful for the other ranchers who had grabbed hold of Driscoll.

"Let go!" Johnny cried out as he struggled with his father, Driscoll was pulling away from his captor and had his hands on Johnny's shirt.

Scott had managed to make his way around the crowded table and grabbed one side of Johnny while Murdoch had the other. Together, they half dragged, half carried the angry gunfighter back and away from Driscoll.

"Out the door." Scott managed and they continued out the open doors, to the porch where they slammed Johnny against a pillar.

Johnny continued struggling, but Murdoch's sheer size pushed against him as he directed Scott, "Keep the others inside."

"Right." Scott let go, leaving Murdoch to handle Johnny.

Shoving his boy back he yelled, "Are you settled down enough to listen?"

"Settled down?" Johnny ground out. "One of them is a bushwhacker."

Murdoch took his hands off the boy, his expression keeping Johnny at bay.

"I don't want to believe that, but even if that's true, that only makes one guilty and the rest are innocent." He spit the words out like bullets from a Gatlin gun. "You can't condemn the whole cause just because of one man."

"Murdoch, any cause that turns to back shootin's wrong."

Johnny leaned down and picked up his hat. As he stood, he added, "And that's all I know."

Turning on his heel he left the porch.

Murdoch followed him to his horse. "Where are you going?"

Johnny answered as he mounted. "Warburton's camp. I'm makin' it my personal business to see that those cattle get on that train."

He turned his horse and with a jab of the spur took off, leaving Murdoch with the ranchers.

Johnny rode into camp, passing the doctor on his way. One look told him Warburton was bad off.

He dismounted, taking in the stares from Isham, the Indian, and the other men outside the tent.

He was prepared for the icy reception. He sauntered toward the entrance without speaking, as if nothing had changed. He passed a quiet Isham, who turned in behind him and called him by his birth name.

"Lancer."

He turned around slowly. "You wanna make somethin' of that Isham?"

He knew Isham would back down. He always had in the past. They both knew who was faster. But then, Isham had been actively practicing and Johnny hadn't.

"You had plenty of chances to tell us whose pup you were."

"Yeah, I know I did. I'm not proud of it either, but uh, it don't matter no more. Me an' my ol' man bumped heads. "

It hurt more than he thought it would to say the next part. "Well, I'm Johnny Madrid again."

Isham raised his hand towards him. "You aren't still spying?"

"You think so? Well come on, if you think so, try crowdin' me."

One thing about Isham, he was a quick study. His jovial nature had saved him more than once. Johnny was relieved to know he wasn't going to have to kill one of the few people he had ever considered a friend.

"Oh, easy Johnny," he laughed, "No need to be such a porcupine."

Johnny turned and headed for the entrance again and came face to face with Hughes who was coming out.

They faced off.

"You know something Lancer?" Joe indicated with a toss of his head toward the tent. "He's still the boss. If he says kill you, you're dead."

Johnny knew that Sexton Joe was serious. He turned back to stare at Isham and returned to look into Hughes' eyes for a moment before he pushed his way inside, bumping shoulders with Hughes in a show of bravado.

Inside the tent, he stopped and watched Warburton, on what Johnny knew to be the man's deathbed. It was a shame that this had happened. He found the man interesting and a bit entertaining, despite Murdoch's dislike of his ways.

It bothered Johnny even more to think about Murdoch being shot now. His own life, he wasn't so worried about. He could take care of himself, but Murdoch, well, enough of that line of thinking.

Warburton looked up at him.

"What can I say?" Johnny whispered.

Warburton pointed toward the glass chandelier in the ceiling of the tent. "Light the lamp."

Johnny reached into his jacket pocket for a match, and striking it on the sole of his boot did so.

"Beautiful, isn't it? I picked it up in the Sudan, along with a spear wound that festered for months. But, I survived. The irony of it." He heaved. "War, fever, rebellion. I survived them all. But not this. I'm done for."

Head down, Johnny found it hard to face Warburton's truth, "No one, no one is that certain."

"And in this alien land. A stranger and afraid in a world I never made."

Johnny paced around, fidgeting.

"That upset you?" Warburton asked.

Leaning against a tent post, Johnny sighed, "Yeah. I was beginning to like you."

"You took a chance coming back here to tell me that. Or, was there another reason?"

Soft and quiet, Johnny moved over to sit down next to the bed, removing his hat, he whispered, "What about Tallie?"

"It haunts me Johnny. She'll have nothing, no one. Every penny I possess is tied up in these cattle." He spit the word out as if it were repulsive.

Johnny could see the concern in the man's face. "Don't you worry. I promise to take care of that."

Warburton snatched his head sideways to look at him. "You mean that? You'd stand against your own father?"

"It's not an easy thing, but I'm gonna do it." The nod of his head affirmed his words.

"Your hand on it."

Johnny reached out his right hand, Warburton wrapped his left hand around it and there was a moment of peace and understanding between them. Understanding that they both cared for Tallie, that they each knew what the other was sacrificing.

They were interrupted by the entrance of Sexton Joe. Slowly, their hands let go.

"Visitor just rode in. Your father, Johnny boy."

Murdoch barged in a moment later, Isham right behind him. Hughes moved forward as the two of them made a stance on either side of the big rancher.

"It's all right boys, get out." Warburton commanded.

There was silence until the two gunfighters left and Warburton had settled himself.

He looked up at Murdoch and laughed. "Empty handed? You might have brought flowers, or some home-made candy."

"I'm sorry." Murdoch removed his hat. "Deeply sorry about what happened here."

Warburton turned away, but Murdoch continued. "The man'll be caught and punished, I promise you that."

"Pretty words. But what have you really done so far?"

"The sheriff is out of town, but in the meantime . . ."

"HA!" Warburton's scoff cut him off.

Johnny stood up and walked past his father and looked at the notes on the desk. He couldn't even look Murdoch in the eye.

"Not that I expected you to make it any easier for me."

"Easy to do what?"

"To make one last attempt to repair our differences. How can I make you understand what you are doing? You're forcing men, good decent men, to choose between fighting your hired guns or losing the ranches they've spent their whole lives building. Either way, innocent men suffer."

"They've killed me. Why should I play the cavalier?"

Murdoch shrugged uncomfortable at Warbuton's point, and looked toward his son.

"Pity him Johnny."

Johnny glared at his father.

"A man who lives without principles, dies without principles."

Murdoch put on his hat, a sign to Warburton that the rancher was finished.

"Sexton." Warburton called toward the door.

When he didn't get the immediate response he expected, he raised his voice, "Sexton Joe Hughes."

The curtain of the tent was snatched back and Hughes appeared, ready to take action against Murdoch.

"Mr. Lancer is leaving. He has safe conduct out of camp."

Johnny looked up at Murdoch. He didn't want to leave the tent, but he didn't want to take a chance on someone outside taking a pot shot at his father, so, he stepped up and followed him outside to his horse.

Johnny stared at the ground as he followed Murdoch outside. Murdoch gathered his reins and said over his shoulder, "Come home, Johnny."

Tallie had come out of her tent and seeing Johnny ran up to him, in time to overhear Murdoch.

She stopped short as she heard Johnny's reply. "I can't. I made promises."

Murdoch mounted and turned to glare at his son. Tallie stepped up next to him for support. Murdoch took a look at her as well, before he left without another word.

They watched him ride away before Tallie turned to him, "Is that your father?"

He looked at her and away, when he saw the concern in her eyes.

"Yeah."

Chapter 40

They had another two days before the cattle cars arrived. Warburton was stable for the time being, so Johnny had ridden away from the main camp to find his own place. He knew the others didn't trust him.

He had a small fire going, his back against a rock, coffee in hand, when he heard the snap of a twig and the jingle of some slow moving spurs.

He sat his coffee down and drew his weapon, pointing it at Isham who appeared at the far edge of his camp.

"Easy Johnny."

He put his gun down at the sight of his friend and picked up his coffee again as Isham stepped into the light and warmed his hands over the fire.

"I wasn't sure I'd find you." Isham took a seat. "Figured you might've lit out for hearth and home. Wouldn't a blamed ya none."

"Just keepin' watch. Makin' sure those ranchers don't stampede the cattle."

"Spoke like Johnny Madrid."

"Truth between friends Isham, I don't like sidin' against my ol' man. It's got me ripped up inside. But well, you know, I just think Murdoch's wrong." He paused to scratch his shoulder and looked up at his friend who had helped himself to a cup of coffee. "I'm gonna be with ya until you get on that train, that's all."

"That's the way me and Sexton Joe and the others feel. We took a job, and even if Warburton dies, we're gonna finish it."

Isham stopped. Johnny could tell there was more.

"And?"

Isham looked him in the eye, "well, you're not gonna like this, but Warburton has put Sexton Joe in charge of things."

Isham took a long sip of his coffee.

Johnny's gut clenched. He knew there was more. Isham was his friend.

He leaned forward, over the fire, "What else."

"Well you know his way. Kill a snake by shootin' off its head."

Johnny jumped up so fast, Isham dropped his coffee.

"Sorry Johnny, I had to find out which side you'd pick when it comes to crunch."

Johnny glared at Isham. "Nobody's gunnin' my ol' man, nobody."

Isham shot Johnny a curious look and Johnny cocked his head indicating that meant him as well. He pushed past the gunfighter, set on finding Sexton Joe and having it out, when sparks exploded in his head and eyes. Just before he blacked out, he knew what Isham had done.

He was being tied to the post inside Warburton's tent by the Indian when he woke up. He looked around for Isham. "Isham, Isham?" He saw Tallie by her father's bed. "Tallie, where's Isham?"

"Well, he's gone. He and the preacher just rode out."

The Indian jerked the knot tight and Johnny pulled against it. As the Indian stepped over him to leave, Johnny tripped him. "They're gonna kill my father."

The Indian jumped up, pulled his knife, and grabbed Johnny by his long black hair.

"Noooo, leave him alone." Warburton yelled over Tallie's cry.

The Indian made one more attempt.

"You heard me, get out!" Warburton was half sitting as he commanded.

The Indian did as ordered.

Warburton fell back onto the bed.

"Are you all right?" Tallie brushed his hair out of his face.

"Tallie," Johnny pleaded. "Help me. They're gonna kill him. That fine father of yours has turned his wolves loose."

Tallie stared back at him, not believing, "No. He wouldn't."

She looked back at her father, "Tell him you wouldn't."

"It's necessary." Warburton caressed her arm.

She stared at him in disbelief. "No, you're not a murderer."

"I never intended for it to be like this. You have to believe that. It just happened. It was only intended to be a show of violence, but somehow, it got out of hand."

"Tallie," Johnny called, "help me before they kill someone."

Tallie started to leave her father's bedside.

"No," he reached out for her. "It's too late. It has to be."

Tallie shook her head no, "Daddy."

"It's all right so they can't stop us from shipping the cattle. The money, it's all I can leave you."

"What about this?" Johnny kicked over the tiny desk with the memoirs on it.

"Huh, Warburton? What's the last chapter gonna be? Tallie, she thinks you're some kind of a hero, who swaggered across the desert leading crusades, bigger than life and twice as brave. That's the way you want it to read isn't it?"

He paused for a breath. "But it's all a lie! Just like Murdoch said, a man who lives without principles . . ."

"It's for Tallie!" Warburton yelled.

"What's more important for Tallie Warburton? A handful of money, or a clean memory of her father? You decide. But you'd better make it quick."

Warburton closed his eyes and shook his head at Johnny's words.

Murdoch sat in the dark once again. Only the light of the desk lamp kept him company. That, and the photograph he had of Johnny. How many times was he going to have to do this? What was the answer between them? Johnny had barely been here a year. They had argued more times than not. It hurt to know that the hands and the house staff whispered behind their backs about their constant fights. Even though things had improved in recent times, here he was again, sitting alone in the dark, hoping against hope that his son was safe and would come home.

This time was a little different. They were really both on the same side. Johnny did seem to have principles, but why did they have to come at Murdoch's expense?

Over the last year, it was obvious to even him that Johnny seemed to champion the underdog. In fact, it was history, according to the situation he was involved in just before the Pinkerton found him. THANK GOD for that man's timing.

He should have gone to Warburton himself when this all started, or better yet, have sent Scott. He wouldn't have lost his temper. He would have tried to understand Warburton's point of view. And, he would have tried to find a way to work things out.

He had to admit, Johnny was right about Driscoll. He'd never live that one down. But how would things be when the association found out that Johnny sided against his own father and the association on this issue. He knew he was going to have to be there when they tried to load that cattle car, and probably all the Lancer hands as well as the sheriff, and maybe even the U. S. Marshall.

It was too late he knew. He loved Johnny more than his own life. He had tried not to, at least at first. He had tried to put up walls, but they were slowly coming down. He was scared when Johnny first came home. Scared of the look of the boy, the look in his eyes. Scared that what was in the Pinkerton report and what his friends were saying was all true. That Johnny would break his heart; that his boy was beyond redemption. But, he wasn't.

He had seen the kindness in the boy. Where it came from, he didn't know. Maria had doomed the boy to hell when she took him away that night. Murdoch's stomach turned every time that he thought about Johnny growing up the way he did.

Now there was hope, at least there was, until this. Johnny didn't look too concerned at the camp. In fact, he'd seen affection in Johnny's eyes for the adventurer, affection he'd never had directed at him.

Well, if they got through this, he would work to make a difference. Scott had been right about Johnny. He had a good heart and was a good man.

He heard a noise at the side door. Johnny? He thought he heard spurs. He turned to look.

It was the tall blond gunfighter he'd seen at the camp.

"No sudden moves." The man whispered.

"What are you doing here?" Murdoch stood.

"Surely it ain't hard to guess." The soft spoken manner of the gunfighter reminded him of Johnny. The words completely unnerved him.

There was a movement behind the stranger and they both turned to see the preacher enter from another door.

The blond moved quickly and quietly across the room to have a full view of all the entries.

The preacher approached him, bible in hand.

"You can see I'm unarmed." Murdoch wondered if that made a difference.

"We're not particular about being fair." The minister answered his question, "but if you'd like a moment for prayer."

"What I'd like, is to see Johnny." His actions were going to be based on their answers, "to try one last time to solve the riddle."

"What riddle's that?" the blond asked from behind the minister.

"Of Johnny himself. Perhaps you could help me understand him. After all, he was gunfighter, like you."

The minister answered. "We're fallen angels, brought down to hell the good book says. Men beyond redemption."

The blond spoke in reaction to Murdoch's expression. "If it's any comfort, Johnny never did quite hit the bottom."

"Maybe I prevented that. By bringing him here, giving him a choice between two lives."

"Isham, you or me?" Sexton Joe asked.

"Which?" He asked again when he got no answer.

Isham drew his gun and Murdoch knew he needed a distraction. "I'd like a bible."

The two gunfighters looked confused for a minute. Isham holstered his weapon after looking for the minister to take the lead. As the man, reached inside his breast pocket for the book, Murdoch slammed the picture of Johnny into the lamp, sending the room into darkness and to his tiny advantage.

After ducking down behind the desk and pushing the chair towards them, causing them to fire away from him, he scurried to the door and outside on the porch. He stopped behind one of the large stone pillars of the veranda.

He was trying to decide his next move. They were silent and he was trying to remember if they had fired enough that they were reloading or just waiting.

As if his heart wasn't racing fast enough, a slow moving dark figure materialized out of the fog. So ethereal, it was, but something about the catlike movement of the figure was earthly, familiar.

As the man stepped into the light, he recognized and heard his son's deadly whisper, "Sexton."

He wouldn't have believed it if he hadn't seen it with his own eyes. Johnny outdrew and killed Hughes, who already had his gun drawn. The other gunfighter came out firing.

There wasn't much time to think as suddenly, Johnny slammed into him, momentum almost taking him past the pillar. Murdoch reached out and grabbed his son, pulling him close. For that brief moment, he was comforted by the warmth of Johnny. But in contrast to his own heart, which was beating faster than a drum, Johnny's heartbeat was slow and quiet.

When the shooting stopped, Johnny called out to the remaining gunfighter.

"Isham, Isham. Let's call it off. I mean there's no point."

Johnny stepped back away from Murdoch. Murdoch was terrified. Johnny seemed to trust the other gunfighter. He was afraid that Johnny was going to make a huge mistake, when Isham answered back.

"Sorry Johnny boy. I gotta job to do."

Murdoch could see the confusion on his son's face. "I mean it's useless."

A clay pot shattered in the darkness against the house. Johnny and Murdoch turned. Shots rang out. Murdoch wondered at the calm way his son stood there.

Johnny leapt out into the yard and fired once. Murdoch gratefully saw the bullets intended for his son, hit the dirt behind him.

Johnny ran forward to his friend. He had hold of him before he even hit the ground.

Johnny eased him down as Murdoch watched from afar.

He heard Johnny plead, "Why?"

Murdoch heard the other one say, "pride in my trade."

He knew the man had died when Johnny grabbed him up and shook him calling his name.

Johnny sat back on his heels and moaned.

Murdoch squatted down beside him.

"That's all I ever wanted to be at one time. Johnny Madrid, good at my trade."

Not knowing exactly what to say, but wanting desperately to support his son, he spoke, "I guess you are Johnny Madrid. I guess part of you always will be."

"Tallie asked me, 'which are you most?' I didn't even have to think about it."

Murdoch didn't understand, "you're answer?"

Johnny's next words set his heart free.

"Well Murdoch, you've got a prodigal son, if you still want one."

Murdoch couldn't get the words out. He reached out with his left hand and squeezed Johnny's right shoulder and shook him with gentle affection.

Chapter 41

Running sounds caused them to jerk their heads up. Two older Lancer hands ran towards them with shotguns.

"Mr. Lancer, Johnny! You okay."

"Yes, boys, we're okay."

Murdoch stood up. "There's another body over there." He pointed toward the remains of Sexton Joe. An eerie chill ran down his spine at the memory of Johnny's taunting voice and lightning draw.

"Think you could manage to take care of these bodies? Get them stored for the night and take them into town to the undertaker first thing in the morning?"

"Yes sir, Mr. Lancer."

The men gave Johnny a strange look as he was still on the ground staring at the body.

Murdoch noticed the question in their eyes, and leaned over and placed his hand on Johnny's shoulder.

"Come on Johnny. Let's go inside. Let Joe and Manuel take care of this."

Johnny hesitated, but stood up. He gave Isham one last long look and shook his head. He made the same small moaning sound he had made earlier when he realized his friend had died. Murdoch gave the two men a look that said take special care of that one, and placed his arm around Johnny's shoulders and walked him into the great room.

Johnny was unlike Murdoch had ever seen him. He wasn't in shock, but he was grieving the loss of his friend. Murdoch guided him toward one of the couches by the fireplace. Johnny dropped into it without looking. He ran his hand through his long bangs and stared at the fire. For a brief moment, he had a glimpse of his son's vulnerability.

Murdoch left him and returned with a bottle of his best scotch and two glasses. He poured them each a drink and handed one to Johnny. "Here son, drink this."

Johnny stared into the fire and knocked back the whiskey. Murdoch did the same and poured two more. This time, he left them on the table to stoke the fire before he returned and sat down next to Johnny.

He leaned over and picked up Johnny's glass and handed it to him. "I'm sorry son. I heard you mention your friendship with that man."

"Isham."

"I'm sorry?"

"Isham was his name."

"I see. How long have you known him?"

"I met him, oh, 'bout six or seven years ago. We worked a couple a range wars together."

Murdoch didn't want to think about how young his son would have been then.

"He was always in a good mood. Always laughin', makin' jokes. Always tried to keep the peace."

"The peace?"

"Well, you know." He paused. "I guess you don't. When you got a bunch of hot headed, full of themselves gunfighters, on the same job and the same side, they like to challenge each other, fight, whatever."

"I know this is hard for you."

"No." Johnny looked into his drink and shook his head. "He made his choice. I had told him earlier, that nobody was gunnin' my ol' man. Not him, and for damn sure not that son of a bitch Hughes."

Murdoch remembered what Isham had told him about Johnny, that he'd never really hit bottom. He knew the man hadn't been trying to comfort him, so he must have been telling the truth. Otherwise, he wouldn't have bothered to answer. Murdoch tried to comfort himself with the idea that Isham had known Johnny longer, but it was an icy cold needle with nothing pleasant in that thought. Quickly, he put it out of his mind, hoping somehow he could fix things now.

"But it still hurts that you had to kill your friend."

Johnny sighed and a forlorn look came over his face.

"That's just it. Were we really friends? I mean, if he was willing to kill me over a stupid job, a job that was clearly over with. . ."

"What do you mean?"

"He tricked me. He came to me as a friend. I told him the truth. I didn't like sidin' against you. When he told me that Warburton had put Sexton in charge and that he was gonna come gunnin' for you. I told him nobody was gonna gun my ol' man. When I got up to go talk to Sexton, well, he knocked me out. I was still kind of conscious and he told me he had to know which side I would pick during the crunch."

Murdoch sat quietly, not sure what to say, just thinking if he waited, that he might hear more. He did feel proud at Johnny's defense of him. For once, he didn't feel offended to be called ol' man.

Johnny stared into the fire. "Isham told Hughes that he didn't kill me because he thought I'd come in handy as a hostage. They dragged me inside Warburton's tent and left the Indian to tie me up, so they could come here."

He looked down and touched his forehead with his fingertips.

"Tallie found out just how ugly her daddy could be."

He paused again.

"But then, in the end, he wasn't. He didn't want her to remember him that way. He just wanted her to have something left to go back to."

Johnny picked up his glass and took a sip. He looked into the fire and then downed the rest of the glass and sat it down.

Murdoch leaned over and refilled the glass quietly.

"So he let you go."

"Well yeah. He made the Indian cut me loose. Then he told me to look after her. I went over to shake his hand. He told the Indian I was in charge. He, he told me to look after Tallie and died, still holding my hand."

"Where's Tallie now? Do we need to send for her?"

"No. I killed the Indian. I sent the other two gunmen packin' and put one of the drovers in charge of the herd. They'll send for the undertaker in the morning. Tallie's okay. They'll look after her and things tonight. She needs some time to figure all this out."

Johnny's left hand fingers began to drum on the sofa, and he picked up the refilled glass with his right.

"You're gonna be pissed at me again."

"Why do you say that?"

Johnny shrugged, "Well, I told the drovers to bring the herd over here tomorrow." He glanced at his father and then back at the fire. He ducked his head and looked back at his father and then into the fire before he continued.

"I told them to bring Tallie over to stay too."

"I think that's a wonderful idea."

Johnny snorted. He nodded sarcastically before he took a drink. Leaning back against the sofa drink in hand, he shook his head.

Murdoch stared at his son, remembering Isham's words to him. "Johnny never really did hit bottom."

Isham was right.

Sitting before him was every bit the son, the man, he had ever wanted his blue eyed toddler to be.

Johnny jumped up and began to pace.

"I guess I just don't know what a friend is. Isham and I always looked after each other. I can't believe he'd let a stupid job, that he knew was over the minute I killed Sexton, come between us and end his life over it. He knew. He's always known that he couldn't beat me. He wasn't even close."

Murdoch stood and approached the fireplace. "You said yourself, that's all you wanted to be once, Johnny Madrid, good at your trade."

"Well, that I am. I proved it tonight. Killed a friend, or what I thought was a friend."

"But you had no choice."

"No. I wasn't about to let him gun you down."

"So you're not sorry you killed him?"

"Nope. He made me do it. He knew I would. I just, I just can't get over . . ." Johnny waved his hand in the air and then ran his fingers through his hair.

"Maybe you're not as much like them as you think you are."

"No, no. I've done some bad things Murdoch. Not that I wanna talk about them, but I'm no saint. I'm sure those Pinks told you all about me."

"Irregardless, you are not as much like them as you think. You have a soul and a conscience."

Johnny looked at his father as if Murdoch had grown two heads.

"I mean it. I've known all this time, but to be honest, but I've been afraid of you. Afraid being hurt by you."

"Murdoch, I would never . . ." Johnny shook his head, "No that's not really true."

He bowed his head.

"I don't mean physically. I mean the other way. I was afraid you were going to break my heart."

Johnny downed his drink again and stepped over to retrieve the bottle. He poured himself another.

While he was doing so, Murdoch knocked back his own and held out his glass for a refill.

Johnny refilled it and sat the bottle on the mantle. He stared at the fire licking his lips and sipping his drink.

Murdoch took a few seconds and another drink before he spoke again.

"Johnny, I owe you an apology. A big one. So big, that saying it sounds weak. I owe you more. So much more than words."

Johnny took another big sip of his drink, and stared into the fire.

"Tonight, when I was stalling for time with Isham and that preacher, I asked them to solve a riddle for me."

"A riddle?" Johnny looked up at him like he was crazy.

"Yes. The riddle of you."

"Me?"

"Yes, you."

"The preacher said that you were fallen angels sent down from hell. That was after he told me that they weren't particular as to whether or not they shot an unarmed man."

"Your friend Isham, seemed to think differently of you, and tried to console me."

Johnny continued to stare.

"Isham told me that for what it was worth, you never really hit bottom."

Murdoch watched Johnny's eyes for his reaction. Instead, his son looked down again.

"Tallie said something like that. She said she knew I couldn't be like them with their dead eyes."

"She's right John. You are nothing like them. Nothing at all."

Johnny cast him a doubtful look and bowed his head again.

"Johnny, believe me. I see it. I have seen it the entire time, but I was too afraid to admit it. I was afraid of being hurt, so I let your profession overshadow the man before me. A kind, honest, principled, caring man. But more than anything Johnny, you are my son. You are my son, and I am proud of you, proud of the man you are and will become given the opportunities you have now. But the most important thing, more than anything . . ."

Murdoch stopped and knocked back the rest of his drink. He sat the empty glass on the mantle and reached forward and placed a hand on each of Johnny's shoulders.

"Look at me son."

Johnny looked up into his father's eyes.

"I love you Johnny. I love you with all my heart. I always have and always will."

Johnny was speechless, but his wary side came emerged. "Even though we keep lockin' horns?"

"Even more so when we lock horns." Murdoch smiled. He moved in and embraced his son.

Johnny froze.

The contact felt good, like something he'd longed for and finally gotten. He remained still, soaking in the warmth. Then, with a sigh, Johnny relaxed and leaned into his father.

Murdoch felt the give and knew his son believed him.

They remained like that for several moments before Murdoch released him.

Johnny stared at him for a moment, and then his eyes lit up in the glow of the fire, sparkling with mischief, he held up the bottle to his father and asked, "Drink?"

Murdoch paused for a moment and then burst into a loud hearty laughter. Johnny began to laugh as well and filled his father's forthwith glass.