NOTES: Writing is such a solitary journey and it's thrilling when other people enjoy the end product. Thanks so much for all the wonderful comments on our story. We appreciate everyone who took the time to read. :)

PART 9 - Epilogue

Murdoch massaged his aching back as he dropped to the ground, bemoaning that the buckboard ride to Maria's seemed to take longer every time he made the trip. There was a time when he'd barely noticed the distance. The Lancer fiesta had finally come to pass and Maria had done more than her share of the cooking and serving despite everyone's vehement objections. He knew that she and the other workers always looked forward to the party, but this year it had been even more special for everyone. . . held in celebration of the survival and recovery of Scott and Johnny. Murdoch had put off holding it until he - and more importantly Sam - had felt his sons were well enough to join in the festivities.

At this thought a flit of parental worry entered his mind as he remembered how worn out they'd seemed when he finally called an end to the gathering, though neither of them would admit it. Scott had issued a mild objection to Murdoch's decision to take their exhausted cook back home tonight instead of in the morning, but relented when Murdoch insisted she wouldn't get any rest if she stayed at Lancer. Now his weariness and the stiffness in his bones made him almost regret his decision.

Stepping into the foyer, he quietly closed the door behind him, not yet wanting to alert his family he was home. Though he'd left before the festivities had wound down completely, it was still very late so it was conceivable that either or both of his sons had already gone to bed.

Shucking his coat off his shoulders; his hat and holster soon followed and were neatly hung up next to those of his sons. Murdoch smiled. It never ceased to amaze him how just the sight of his sons' belongings, in their rightful place next to his own, brought him such contentment. As did the light laughter he now heard emanating from the family room.

Soundlessly he made his way toward the room, leaning a shoulder against the jamb, his arms crossed comfortably in front of him as he took in the scene before him.

Jelly and Scott sat facing each other, both hunched over the chessboard on the floor in front of the hearth. By the light of the fire and the lamps softly illuminating the room, one would never have guessed how seriously hurt Scott had been. How close Murdoch had come to losing him - again. But here he was, whole and hale. And home. The bruises marring his handsome face and lithe body were long gone; the bandages encircling his head just a haunting memory. Though Murdoch knew his older son still had weight to regain and his pallor could use more time spent in the sun, the young man currently tormenting Jelly with repeated false moves of his rook, was all Scott Lancer. In body and mind, and Murdoch would forever be grateful.

Murdoch smiled warmly then turned his attention to his younger son; sitting on the sofa, his splinted leg awkwardly thrust to the side. Yet he seemed the picture of relaxation as he softly played the chords of a vaguely familiar Spanish tune on his guitar. Though Murdoch had no idea where the instrument had come from, he'd become infinitely grateful for its presence. It was an ideal distraction for a restless young man convalescing from severe injuries. At first, Johnny had clearly been reluctant to let anyone other than Scott hear him play, often setting the guitar down beside him the moment his father walked in the room. Over time though, perhaps as his confidence with the instrument grew, Johnny would continue to play. And though Murdoch realized he was far from ready for a solo concerto, the hours his son had spent honing this new talent had definitely paid off. Something his elder brother was doggedly determined would not go to his head.

"Give it up, Johnny, you'll never master it." Murdoch caught the wink Scott sent Jelly's way and smiled fondly.

"Better go 'n rinse out your ears, Scott. You're obviously not hearin' right." Johnny's strumming never waned.

"There's nothing at all wrong with my hearing, brother," Scott said smugly. "Though I am beginning to question yours. . ."

"Jealousy just don't become ya, Boston."

"Jealousy. . .?"

"Jes' you leave 'im be, Scott," Jelly chimed in, effectively cutting off the rest of Scott's retort. "Least ways he's keepin' the night critters away from the herd."

"Hey!" Johnny's indignation was tempered by the grin he wore and the fact that his playing only grew louder. Despite the lack of intended sting in any of the words being bandied about, Murdoch was sorely tempted to step in, unable to rein in the paternal instincts that had been released for all eternity. With Johnny still bearing evidence of his wounds, Murdoch's compulsion to come to the defense of his weakest child was now as natural as breathing. He needn't have bothered though, ever loyal to her latest patient, whichever brother that might be, Teresa beat him to it.

"Oh, that's not true and you both know it!" She scolded. "Why Johnny plays just beautifully."

Before another round of teasing could start, Murdoch decided to make his presence known. "I wouldn't go that far, but it sounded quite pleasant to me."

"Murdoch!" The delight in their combined greeting sent tendrils of warmth throughout his tired body. He didn't think it possible to feel any more welcome in his own home. Teresa quickly set down the stack of dishes she'd been gathering and found her way under his arm. Scott stood, pausing briefly to checkmate a flustered Jelly, before crossing the room to pour his father a drink.

"I see the party still hasn't finished." Murdoch said. "I would have thought you'd all be asleep by the time I got back."

"Oh, don't let them fool you. We were waiting up for you." Teresa confessed.

"I have no idea what she's talking about." Scott said, handing Murdoch a snifter of brandy.

"Just makin' sure you made it home." Johnny said, the irony not lost on Murdoch. "So, you gonna make me get my own drink, brother?" Johnny teased as he fumbled with his crutches, both feet now on the floor in an obvious effort to join the impromptu family reunion.

"Stay put!" His protectiveness came through more harshly than intended and Murdoch could have groaned at the flash of temper that crossed Johnny's face. Murdoch softened his voice in an effort to make amends. "Please don't get up, Johnny. Let Scott get it."

Brilliant blue eyes met his then and Murdoch felt himself being pulled into a familiar clash of wills he had no desire to partake in. Before he could try to break the stalemate though, much to his relief, a crack appeared in Johnny's mask. Softening his expression, the dark head dipped and, when father and son made eye contact a second time, those sapphires were dancing and a warm grin was spreading across Johnny's face. "You sure do make a lot 'a noise."

Murdoch knew the smile overtaking his own face mirrored Johnny's and he couldn't refuse taking the playful bait. "Just trying to get your attention, boy."

"No need to try so hard, old man," Johnny drawled, his lips still quirking with good humor. "In case you didn't know it, you're kinda hard to miss."

Scott's bark of laughter triggered one of his own and Murdoch shared a smile with his eldest before Scott made his way back to the bar.

"Now, that definitely calls for another drink," Scott said as he topped up his glass and filled another for Johnny. Reaching for a third snifter, he gestured toward Jelly. "Are you joining us?"

"Uh, none for me, Scott," Jelly replied, then turned his attention to a puzzled Murdoch. "I'm gonna go n' stable that ole black, Boss. Then, I think I'll call it a night."

"No need, Jelly. Emilio has him."

Jelly was shaking his head even before Murdoch finished speaking. "Naw, that Emilio means well but, I swear. . . there are days where he don't know which end needs feedin', so I think I better jes go 'n give him a see to."

Murdoch would have argued further but he could read the determined set of his friend's jaw, saw the insistence and emotion in his eyes and knew immediately that Jelly's reluctance to join them was his gift to Murdoch. The gift of spending a quiet moment with his sons after the day's celebrations. "You're a good friend, Jelly."

Seemingly flustered for a moment, Jelly recovered quickly. "That's what I keep tellin' ya." Hooking his thumbs around his braces, he puffed out his chest and Murdoch could have laughed as the image of Dewdrop strutting around the estancia suddenly came to mind. "And dontcha forget it," the bewhiskered little man continued, and then left the room and headed out for the night.

"Don't you worry, Jelly. We never will," a beaming Teresa called after him. "Sweet dreams," she added as the others wished Jelly a good night.

"Not that he'd ever let us forget it," Scott smirked, as he made his way to Johnny and handed him his drink.

"Nor should we," Murdoch said, receiving a nod of agreement and understanding from his elder son. They raised their glasses in unison, in a silent toast to their friend.

The solemn moment was quickly broken by his ever-vigilant ward. "Come, sit down, Murdoch," Teresa insisted, steering him toward his chair. "You must be exhausted and I bet you haven't eaten anything since this afternoon, have you?"

"I'm fine, honey."

"Oh, nonsense," she insisted. "Let me just heat something up for you, it won't take a minute." Murdoch decided retreat was his only option. Squeezing her hand affectionately, he uttered his thanks and watched her hurry off back to the kitchen.

Taking a sip of his brandy, Murdoch finally turned to his boys, Johnny's legs once again raised on the couch and Scott, half sitting/half leaning casually against the armrest. Unsurprisingly, they were both doing their damnedest to contain their grins but when they dared look at each other, laughter followed and though Murdoch tried to present a serious front, his own mouth quirked up on its own accord.

Addressing his brother, Johnny said, "Remind me sometime to talk to Teresa would ya? Get some pointers on how to bend six foot five to my will like that."

"You'll have to get in line, Johnny."

Murdoch chuckled lightly. "It's nothing your mother hadn't mastered when she was Teresa's age, Scott," he added, the memory adding a softness to his voice. Turning to Johnny, he continued. "Maria, I'm afraid, was too much of a whirlwind to practice the art of subtle persuasion-"

Scott coughed then, words akin to "little brother comes by it honestly" tumbling out under his breath after his gasps subsided.

"Oh, you think so?" Johnny lifted a brow and then, wearing an expression of pure mischief, shoved his sibling with his good leg, nearly hard enough to supplant Scott from his perch. But, with the grace and balance of a cavalryman, Scott not only managed to retain his seat but also salvaged the brandy precariously lapping the lip of his glass. Seeking a less hazardous position, Scott expertly looped his free arm around Johnny's ankles and moved his legs aside so he could sit squarely on the couch.

Murdoch watched in amusement as Johnny grunted at the mistreatment then shifted to allow Scott more room. Crossing his arms and settling them atop his chest, he exhaled an affronted huff and met his father's gaze. "Help me out here, Murdoch. Before I'm roped and branded too."

Their eyes still connected, Murdoch read a hint of apology there. No doubt concerned that their antics had interrupted Murdoch's momentum and that the opportunity to talk about Catherine had been lost. Before the accident that nearly cost him both sons, he might have retreated, allowed the distraction. Hell, if he was being honest with himself he'd have to admit the opportunity wouldn't have arisen at all.

But this was now. He wasn't hiding from them any longer. Though the Lancer ranch was a significant inheritance to pass on to his boys, he knew they deserved so much more. And the memories of their mothers were high atop that list.

Settling back into his chair, Murdoch smiled at Johnny, sending him a brief nod of understanding and acceptance. "Sure, John. Now what was I saying?" He paused, sorting his thoughts and settling on one of his most cherished memories of Catherine and her determination to participate in the first roundup at Lancer.

Just minutes into the story, Johnny's eyes began to droop, his still healing body unable to ignore the call for rest. And although Scott should have been just as exhausted, his eyes danced in the firelight as Murdoch recalled his mother's participation in the early days of the estancia. As more images of his first wife resurfaced Murdoch no longer felt the urge to push them back into the recesses of his mind where they'd been hidden away for so long. He let himself remember. For Scott's sake at first, but as the words flowed from his lips, the pictures came to life again. And, as he looked into the eyes of his son, he could see Catherine's smile, and felt the warmth of her touch on his shoulder. Goosebumps rose on his arms as he imagined her watching over them now and his voice ebbed into a quiet stillness.

Scott seemed lost in his own thoughts, the empty glass dangling from his fingers as he smiled, his gaze glued to the waning fire. Murdoch had so much more to say, but he didn't want to overwhelm Scott; or his own emerging emotions. There would be other times, other nights after dinner with just his boys and he would share similar stories with both of them.

Murdoch took the last swig of his drink, his eyes moving from Scott to Johnny. He smiled at the sight of his younger son; softly snoring, his body sprawled loosely across the pillows, one foot in his brother's lap, the other pressing Scott against the arm of the sofa.

Oblivious and unconcerned with his surroundings.

It wasn't just exhaustion from the day's activities or contentment in the aftermath its success. Johnny's peace came from some place deeper, the feeling of family, home and safety that he'd been deprived of for far too long. And Murdoch was so grateful to have been able to finally provide it for him.

But, if he was being honest with himself, Murdoch would have to admit that Johnny's sense of sanctuary came in large part from the young man wedged in beside him. The only evidence that Scott had even been aware of his predicament was that he'd absently removed the Indian blanket from the back of the couch to drape over Johnny while Murdoch had still been talking. The gesture spawning only a shrug and quirked lips when meeting his father's amused gaze.

Two brothers, so comfortable now in each others presence.

A contented sigh escaped Murdoch's lips; he was damn lucky to get a second chance with his sons. The time he'd spent sitting between them, watching over them and listening to their quiet breaths during their recovery had sealed that gratitude and finally started to push aside the guilt. As heartbreaking as losing them now would have been, never having known them at all would have been even more tragic. It had taken a few months after they'd returned home before Murdoch had allowed himself to realize how much he'd almost lost. His firstborn could have grown into a bitter and spiteful image of Harlan or been killed in battle or in that God-forsaken prison camp without ever knowing how much his father longed to know him or how much he loved him sight unseen. And Johnny. Murdoch was still haunted knowing how close he'd come to losing his boy to that firing squad; or the countless times before that. How close his child had been to dying without knowing he'd never been abandoned or forgotten.

The chime of the grandfather clock shook them out of their trances and Scott softly slapped Johnny's knee to awaken him. "Time to go to bed, brother. Lord knows you could use the beauty sleep."

Murdoch grinned as he watched Scott struggle to his feet, extending a hand to help his brother off the couch. Yes, the fates had certainly been kind to him, but more importantly they'd allowed his boys to survive their pasts and find each other.

It had taken two decades to bring back the family he'd lost, but they were together now, safe and whole despite their recent brush with tragedy. Testament to their resilience, with each trial Lancers grew stronger. . . in spirit and in their bond. Like steel forged from fire.


March, 2008

This story is dedicated to Annie and Tucker, beloved pets who spent hours keeping company with us during the writing of this story but sadly crossed over the Rainbow Bridge before we were able to see it through with them to the end. They will remain in our hearts forevermore.