The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Amazing Grace

 

Rated PG for mild language

Johnny sat on the low wall outside the estancia with a grin on his face. He watched the barn door in anticipation, waiting not so patiently. Finally, he was rewarded as his brother appeared and began the trek across to the house.

Scott locked onto that face and his stride slowed to a hesitant gait as he approached with caution. He knew that look and why it was there. Sighing, he resigned himself to some teasing.

"Johnny," he nodded in greeting.

"Scott. Was wonderin if you'd bother comin home today," Johnny replied, trying to be serious.

Scott stopped a foot away from him and pushed his hat back from his forehead. Placing his hands on his hips, more to brace himself for the onslaught, he asked the question he knew Johnny wanted him to ask. "Why is that?"

"Oh, I don't know. Thought maybe that gal had done tightened that ball and chain to you," he grinned as he swung his dangling legs.

Scott smiled back, ducked his head, then met those twinkling eyes again. "Not yet, brother."

A cocked brow accompanied the amusement on the younger man's face. "Yet?"

Scott shrugged. "You never know, brother." With that left hanging in the air, he proceeded inside.

Johnny sat where he was for a few seconds. A frown appeared on his brow and he turned his head toward the direction Scott had taken. Unwilling to let that comment go, he followed.

"What does that mean?" he asked as he entered the great room.

Scott looked around from his position in front of Murdoch's desk. "Exactly what I said."

"What are you two going on about now?" Murdoch asked, trying to sound stern.

"Oh, Johnny was trying to tease me about my date."

Murdoch nodded and smiled slightly. "I see. Maybe he's teasing you because he didn't have a date of his own."

"Hey! I'll have you know I would have a date if I wanted one, thank you. Besides, this ain't about me." The twinkle reappeared as he walked closer to them. A heart-melting grin slid on his face.

"So? When are we gonna meet the next Mrs. Lancer?" he asked, nearly laughing the words out.

Scott faced him squarely, his face a mask. "Tomorrow after church, actually. I've invited her for dinner." Turning back to his father, he added, "I hope you don't mind, sir."

Murdoch stood from his chair. "Not at all, son. I'd love to meet her."

 

******

 

Scott endured the good-natured teasing from Johnny the rest of the evening. Grounded as it was by Murdoch and Teresa's light scolding. But reality was nagging at him and he hoped, no prayed, they really would like her. She had become more important to him as the weeks and months had passed. He was almost positive she was the one. But, he couldn't confide that to any of his family yet. They at least deserved to meet the young lady first.

Sunday morning, Scott was nervous. He fiddled with his tie for twenty minutes before being satisfied it was straight. He descended the stairs into the kitchen to the sound of a low whistle.

"Don't you look pretty," Johnny grinned.

"Don't start with me today, boy. I may have to teach you those manners I haven't gotten around to," Scott warned.

Johnny laughed and, as Scott passed him, he deftly reached up and pulled the string tie loose.

"Johnny! It took me forever to get that tie right! Now I have to start all over again!" Scott's face blushed with anger, much to everyone's surprise. He stomped into the living room to find a mirror.

Johnny's mouth hung open as he watched his brother's back disappear. "Well, what's the matter with him?"

"He's nervous, son. Go easy on him today. I have a feeling this girl is very important to him," Murdoch explained.

Johnny lowered his eyes and nodded. With a sigh, he stood up and excused himself quietly, then went to seek out his brother.

He leaned against the corner where the dining room met the living room and watched Scott repair the damage he'd done. "Hey, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to get you all riled up," he spoke softly.

Scott glanced at him then went back to what he was doing.

"I guess this gal is somethin special, huh?"

This made Scott stop and take a breath. "I think she is, Johnny. Do me a favor...."

Johnny held up a hand. "I'll be on my best behavior, brother. Promise."

Scott shook his head. "No, you'll have to do better than that."

Johnny looked into the blank eyes for a heartbeat before he saw it. A smile widened on his face, then fell quickly. Looking a bit like a lost puppy, he glanced up at Scott then back at the floor. His fingers played with a shirt button. "I'm not sure I can. Maybe you'd rather I stayed away."

Scott bit the inside of his cheek. "Maybe so." With a grin he could no longer hold back, he grabbed Johnny around the neck and pulled him toward the kitchen.

 

******

 

Murdoch was sure the man would break his neck craning it so hard. Scott searched the crowd congregated outside the church with an eagle eye. A smile told Murdoch he'd found who he sought. The rancher could hardly contain his laughter. Scott was acting like a schoolboy with a crush. It tickled the older man to see his son so happy.

As Johnny lifted Teresa off the surrey, Scott's hand clenched his arm. He turned and followed his brother's gaze to a woman approaching them.

Johnny turned full around. She was stunning. Dark blonde hair swept up tastefully, tendrils framing her oval face. She wore a simple but beautiful blue dress with lace at the cuffs and neckline. A small turned up nose and full lips. Deep blue eyes that would melt a man's heart. Petite in figure but not in stature, she was almost as tall as Johnny. She smiled and he saw the line of straight pearl white teeth in the most disarming smile he'd seen in quite some time. Johnny felt his heart flutter and he chastised himself quickly. Still, he couldn't help it. No man could help appreciating God's talents in this girl.

He quickly plastered a blank expression on his face. A polite smile was all that could be seen as she came near.

Scott took her hand and turned to face his family. "I'd like you all to meet Grace Milton. Grace, this is my father, Murdoch, my brother Johnny and Teresa," he said simply.

Everyone said their hellos rather quietly and the woman nodded and reciprocated with a soft musical voice. There was a hint of an accent that Johnny couldn't quite place but he didn't ask.

"I'm so please to finally meet you all," Grace spoke.

"As are we, my dear. We're happy you'll be joining us for dinner as well," Murdoch replied with a grin that seemed perpetually plastered on his face now.

A church bell rang down the street and Johnny looked toward it. "Well, I'll meet you all here later. Grace," he nodded and walked away.

"Isn't he joining us?" Grace asked with a frown.

"Johnny attends Catholic services down the street," Scott explained and she nodded. He took her arm and led her inside.

 

******

 

They spent a pleasant hour on the ride to the ranch discussing the ministers sermon and soon, the estancia loomed near. Johnny had brought Barranca for the ride back as the surrey only held four. He offered to care for the stock as the rest of the family retired to the house.

As they settled at the table, Murdoch began polite conversation. Soon enough, the questions started.

"Where are you from, Grace?" he asked.

"Louisiana originally. My family moved to Arkansas when I was younger then to Texas. My father was in the cavalry."

Johnny smiled. Ole Boston must have gotten that information early on. "How'd you end up in Green River?" he asked.

Her eyes met Scott's and they shared a laugh. "Well, it's quite a story. I was on my way to Sacramento. The stage stopped over in Green River and, while I was waiting, someone stole my valise. All my money was in there. Well, as you can imagine, I was panicked. Then, this handsome man came to my rescue," she smiled adoringly at Scott.

Johnny nodded, straight-faced. "Val?"

Scott reached across the table and swatted at him, missing by a mile. Murdoch cleared his throat at the display, giving Scott a look of consternation but Grace was laughing.

"While the sheriff did try to help, I'm afraid I wasn't referring to him," she went on. "Scott offered to pay for a hotel room while I figured out what to do. With the robbery, I'd missed my stage and the stageline wasn't inclined to give me a refund."

"That's terrible. They just left you stranded?" Teresa asked.

"I'm afraid so. But, I really should thank them," she said, once more looking to Scott who smiled and dipped his eyes.

"So, you decided to hang around here. Must be the hotel's cookin," Johnny grinned.

"How did you know?" she asked, appearing serious.

"Well, it couldn't have been the locals. You only just met me," he bantered.

She laughed, a beautiful sound, and continued. "I don't know how I managed to miss out on that for so long."

"Luck," Scott shot.

"Anyway, I got a job at the dress shop and, well, here I am," she shrugged slightly.

"And we're very glad you are," Murdoch added.

Johnny had to fight from rolling his eyes. He could just imagine what the old man was thinking. Grandchildren.

After dinner, they retired to the living room for coffee. The time flew by and soon, Grace had to leave. Murdoch tried to convince her to stay the night but she charmingly declined.

As Scott drove the surrey down the road, the family watched until they were mere dots on the horizon.

"She's beautiful," Johnny said.

"She is and charming," Murdoch agreed.

"I like her," Teresa stated with a firm nod.

"Well, that tears it. Scott has to marry her now. She has Teresa's seal of approval," Johnny laughed.

"Go ahead and joke all you want. I think Scott will marry her. That is, if he has a brain," she responded, turned on her heel and went inside.

"Do you really think he'll marry her?" Johnny asked his father.

"If he has a brain," Murdoch rejoined and followed Teresa.

Johnny stood there looking at where the surrey no longer was. A grin slid on his face and he joined his family in the house.

 

******

 

For three more months it continued. Scott's free time was consumed by Grace. So much so that Johnny had spent no time with his brother. He missed their talks together; the late evening kitchen raids and story telling. He knew with everything he was, Scott was in love. While he was happy for his brother, Johnny couldn't help feeling just a pang of jealousy.

Grace had joined them for several dinners and picnics and they'd begun to know her better and better. The more they found out, the more they liked her. It seemed all were just waiting for Scott to let er buck.

Johnny felt she was right for Scott. Once he got past her outer beauty, he found he genuinely liked the woman and could see her fitting in at Lancer easily.

It was Saturday and Scott was preparing for a picnic with Grace. Johnny bounded down the stairs into the kitchen.

"Brother, you're gonna turn into fried chicken," he grinned.

"I know but it just seems to be the proper picnic food," Scott laughed. Turning from the basket, he asked, "what do you have planned for today?"

"Oh, I thought I'd go pester Val. Haven't done that in a while," he grinned.

"Sorry I'll miss it," Scott said and turned back to his food packing.

"Me too," Johnny mumbled. He didn't intend for Scott to hear that but the tension in his brother's shoulders told him he'd failed.

"I know I haven't spent much time with you lately," Scott spoke softly.

Johnny felt like kicking himself. "No worries, brother. If I had a gal like Grace, you can bet you wouldn't be seeing me," he grinned and slapped Scott's shoulder.

It seemed to work and Scott perked up. He picked up the basket and turned with a smile. "Well, see you later."

"Have fun," Johnny called out to the disappearing figure. He sat down at the table and sighed lightly.

"Something wrong, son?"

He looked up to find Murdoch in the doorway. "Nope."

The rancher smiled. "You look like you lost your best friend."

Johnny stared at the table top, scratching at the wood. "Scott just left."

Murdoch nodded and sat beside him. "You two haven't spent much time together lately."

"We haven't spent any time together," he sighed. Looking up, he laughed a little. "I sound like a bratty little brother."

Murdoch smiled sympathetically. "Well, this is something new and different. Scott's in love. By all accounts, except his own, he'll be marrying Grace. Things will definitely change around here."

"They already have. I'm not complaining. Well, maybe a little. I know things will never be the same with us. Scott's gonna be starting his own family. I guess I just have to get used to the idea."

It all sounded very logical to Murdoch's ears but he heard what wasn't said. Johnny was sad. He knew this young man would want what made his brother happy. Still, change was hard and Johnny had dealt with so many changes in the past two years.

"You can always hang out with me," he said and laid a hand on his son's shoulder.

Johnny looked up with the most surprised look Murdoch had ever seen. He swallowed hard and opened his mouth but nothing came out so he closed it again. Murdoch burst out laughing.

"Well, don't look so horrified. I won't bite."

"You sure?" Johnny smiled.

 

******

 

It was a perfect spring day. The morning had started off with just a bit of a chill. But it was soon replaced with the sun's warm rays. The sky was a deep blue and no clouds could be seen. A light breeze lifted the new leaves on the trees and made the new grass wave. Scott looked out over the small hill where he stood, a smile caressing his face.

It was all so perfect. The sweet smell of flowers drifted to him and he inhaled deeply. The sun warmed his face and he felt almost a glow of light surrounding him. Closing his eyes, he tilted his head up slightly in appreciation. He felt two arms wrap around his waist and his hands came up to cover them.

"Penny for them," she said softly.

He turned and pulled her close. "It's a perfect day."

She smiled and laid her head against his chest, tightening her hold. "Yes, it is."

Scott stood there for a minute longer, just relishing the feel of her against him. Taking in a breath, he pulled back and smiled down at her. "Sit with me."

They settled on the blanket and he took her small hands in his. He stared at the delicate fingers, rubbing a thumb gently over the back of her hand. Then, he interlaced his fingers with hers and looked at her.

"I wanted to tell you some things. I know you've never lived on a ranch. It's hard work and long hours sometimes. But the satisfaction of completing a job, of seeing what you've accomplished day after day is ...... well, it's indescribable, really. It makes me proud and I love Lancer. I've only been here two years but it feels like forever. My family is so important to me. The land is so important to me. Now, I feel like my life could be complete. There has only been one thing missing until now. I wasn't sure I'd ever find it but I have. I found it when I found you. Grace, I love you more than words can say. I want to spend the rest of my life growing old with you. I want you to be the mother of my children. I want to give you everything I have, everything I am. Will you marry me?"

Scott finally breathed but was wont to look into her eyes. When she didn't speak, he made himself look up. Tears were brimming there, just ready to spill. She was smiling and it seemed she was trying to say something. He grabbed a nearby wine glass and offered it to her. She accepted and took a healthy drink, sighing and nodding her thanks.

"I've never heard anything so beautiful. I know how much Lancer and your family mean to you, Scott. And I'm not afraid of hard work. I want nothing more than to spend my life making you happy. Yes, I will marry you."

He smiled so wide he thought his face might crack. Grabbing her up, he held her tightly in an embrace. Pulling back, he kissed her softly, then more deeply as they melted into one another.

Johnny flopped his cards on the table. "Fold."

Jake raked in his winnngs with a grin and a thank you. Johnny gave him a glare followed by a smile of his own.

"One more hand?" Jake asked.

"Nah. Think I'll head home," Johnny said and scooted his chair back.

"Home? But you still have money left. That ain't like you, Johnny," Jake teased.

"Well, this is the new me," he shot back and flicked a finger at Jake's hat.

Johnny stood outside the saloon and looked at Barranca. Then he looked down the street. Deciding he'd see if Val was in yet, he headed toward the man's office.

He opened the door and stopped midway through as a stranger turned toward him. Flicking his eyes to the man's chest, he smiled. "Sorry, Val. I'll come back."

"No, come in, Johnny. This is Ranger Alcott from Abilene. Johnny Lancer," Val introduced the men.

Johnny shook hands with the tall, dark-haired man. He looked like he'd been on the trail for a while. Bedraggled and unshaven with dark circles under his eyes.

"Long way from home, Ranger," Johnny said.

"Too far away," he replied in a graveled voice.

"He's lookin for a murderer. A female," Val cocked a brow.

Johnny mimicked the look and turned to the man. "No kiddin? Who'd she kill?"

"Her father. Her name is Alicia Martin. Blonde, five foot six, small frame, big blue eyes," he described.

"Could be a lot of women," Johnny shrugged.

"Yep. That's why I'm so far from home. Got a good lead on her in Tucson. She's been headin west. Figured she couldn't get any more west than California. She's a looker. Turn a man's head easy. One thing, she has a birthmark on the back of her neck. Kinda shaped like a butterfly." He indicated the spot with his own finger pointing to the nape of his neck.

"Well, I'll keep my eyes open. You gonna hang around?" Val asked.

"For a day or two. I need to get off the trail. Thanks for your help, Sheriff," Alcott nodded to both men then left the office.

 

******

 

Johnny perched on the edge of Val's desk. "A woman. Ya just never can tell," he remarked.

"Why not? They'll kill ya one way or the other," Val snorted.

Johnny grinned. "How would you know?"

Val ignored the quip. "What're ya doin here and where's Scott?"

Johnny looked at his boot, which was swinging from his perched seat. "Scott's out with a gal. I just dropped by to say hi on my way home."

"Hi and bye," Val grumped.

"You're in a good mood. Those Indian kids swindle ya again?" he laughed.

"Oh hush up, why don't ya? And speakin of that, when are ya gonna buy some more blankets?" Val asked, leaning over his desk and cocking a sideways look at his friend.

Johnny rolled his eyes and sighed the sigh of a put upon man. "Well, reckon I could buy a couple more." He perked up then. "They'll make good wedding gifts."

"For who?"

"Scott," he shrugged.

Val sat back down in his chair - hard - and gawked at Johnny. "Scott's gettin married?"

"Well, it ain't official yet but we figure he'll get up the nerve any day now," Johnny laughed.

"Who is she?"

Johnny looked at him and shook his head. "Do you ever know what's goin on? I don't know how you manage to do your job. Everybody in town knows about Scott and Grace."

Val frowned and gave him a look of ignorance.

"The girl from the stage that got robbed? The one Scott got a hotel room for a few months back?" Johnny tried to jog his memory.

Enlightenment adorned the other man's face. "Oh yeah. Boy, she sure was a looker," he grinned.

Johnny stood up then. "She still is. Well, guess I'll head home since you're in such a good mood. See ya," he grinned and sauntered out the door.

Something was nagging at him. Something in the back of his mind. As Johnny rode home the feeling only grew. He hated it when that happened. It was like trying to remember a name, knowing you know it, yet unable to pull it out of your memory. Whatever it was, he decided if he tried not to think about it, it would come to him. So, he concentrated on his brother and how happy he'd been lately. Happy. That didn't being to describe it. He'd never seen Scott so ..... alive. Yes, that was the word. Alive. Johnny grinned.

 

******

 

As he dismounted, he heard his father call out from the veranda. Sighing, he wondered what he'd done now. Hell, he hadn't been home two seconds. He allowed a hand to take Barranca and strode to the house.

"Come inside, son. Your brother wants to talk to you," Murdoch said grimly.

Johnny frowned and went into the living room wondering what was wrong.

They were all there. Scott, Teresa and Jelly. Murdoch stood behind him and he didn't think he liked it. Not at all. Johnny moved casually into the room, away from his father so he could watch his back.

"What's goin on?" he asked.

Scott walked up and stood toe to toe with him, a serious expression on his face.

"Well, brother, we were just talking about you. I have a job for you and I'm not sure you're going to like all it entails."

Johnny watched for any hint of teasing but there was none. "Okay," was all he could think to say.

"I need you to ......" Scott hesitated long enough to make Johnny fight to keep from running out.

"To what, Scott? Spit it out!"

Scott frowned at him and cleared his throat. "I need you to be my best man," he continued firmly.

Johnny searched his eyes in stunned silence. A grin appeared, just a flicker, but Johnny saw it and grabbed his brother into a hug. Slapping Scott hard on the back, he pulled away and shook the older man's shoulders.

"Well, it's about time, brother," he laughed.

"I didn't know I was on a schedule," Scott laughed back.

"Well, ya was and...." Jelly paused, reached into his pocket and retrieved a wadded up piece of paper. "Well, I'll be durned! Johnny, you won," he proclaimed.

A whoop emerged from Johnny as Scott looked at them all uncomprehendingly. "Won what?"

"We had a bet on how long it'd take ya to pop the question ta that filly. Johnny guessed closest," Jelly explained as he pulled an envelope from his pocket and handed it over.

"Thank you," Johnny beamed. "Oh, and it wasn't a guess at all. I just know how Scott works," he shrugged.

Scott looked at them all and shook his head. He wasn't the least bit upset. It seemed they all knew him pretty well.

 

******

 

The Ranger took his long awaited and much needed bath at the barber shop followed by a haircut and shave. He felt ten times better. Make that a hundred, he thought. He sought a room at the hotel and questioned the clerk on duty about the woman he hunted.

"Well, sounds like a lady who was stayin here but her name ain't Alicia whoever," the clerk said, rubbing his jaw.

"What lady?" the Ranger asked, his interest finally piqued.

"Well, she's a sweet thing. Couldn't be who you're after. Name's Grace Milton."

The Ranger nodded and seemed deep in thought. "You said was stayin here. She leave town?"

"Oh no. She's still here. She works at Warren's dress shop," he said then grinned. "She's been seein young Scott Lancer real regular, too."

"Lancer? I met a Johnny Lancer today."

The clerk nodded. "That'd be Scott's brother. Thick as thieves, them two."

"Where do they live?"

"They got a ranch west of town. Lancer. Ya can't miss it. The place is huge," the clerk replied.

Alcott nodded thoughtfully again. "And you say this Grace works at the dress shop?"

"Yep, ever day."

"Thanks." He took his saddlebags and headed to his room. Now, why would Lancer not say anything? Well, if his brother's seeing the girl, it'd make sense he'd keep quiet. Then again, maybe he just didn't connect the two. No reason for it. He hoped. And if he didn't make the connection, there'd be no reason to tell his brother about it. He wondered what kind of people the Lancers were. Would they help her escape? Hell, man, ya don't even know it's her. Still, it could be.

He never thought he'd find her in a small town like this. He figured she head for the big city and lose herself in the crowds there. But, if this Lancer fella had turned her head, maybe she would stick around. He chuckled to himself. It was almost always love or infatuation that fell these criminals.

 

******

 

Grace couldn't wait to marry the man she loved. That and get out of this storeroom forever. She smiled at that. It wasn't that she minded work at all. She just had never been the type to go crazy over fancy clothes. Working in a dress shop only served to maintain that stance. She thought about Scott as she unpacked the new deliveries. A smile stayed on her face.

He was everything she could want. Caring, considerate, generous, loving and very easy on the eyes. He had a wonderful sense of humor, too. Anything else could be worked out or avoided. She frowned at that thought but knew from where it sprung.

Johnny. She barely knew him but there was something about him. Something that made her wary of the man. It wasn't that she thought he wanted her. But the word that most often came to mind when she thought of him was trouble. For whom, she did not know. But he seemed dangerous beneath that easy grin and soft voice. There was something hidden there that only rarely had made an inkling of itself known.

She wondered if it wasn't Scott she worried about. They were very close. Especially considering they hadn't known each other long. She knew Scott would do anything to help his brother. She had the feeling that could be dangerous for her fiance. She also knew she dare not say anything about it to Scott. He would defend his brother and she wanted no quarrel with him.

"Some people in this world are just plain strange," complained Lizzy Warren as she walked into the storeroom.

"Why is that?" Grace asked.

"There's a man standing outside the door. He keeps peeking through the window. He's been out there a good ten minutes that I've noticed. If he doesn't come in soon, I'm going to run him off." At fifty, the widow Warren was a force to be sure. She brook no nonsense in either work or home. Her children had learned that lesson well. One becoming a minister, the other a teacher. She was a handsome woman but she had made it clear to any potential suitors that she was not interested in marrying again. She'd had her one true love and felt that would sustain her for the rest of her earthly days.

"Did you recognize him?" Grace was asking.

"I've never seen him before. He must be a stranger. Oh dear, whatever am I going to do once you run off and marry that Scott Lancer?"

Grace smiled at her. She'd been saying that for about two months now. Grace had not yet told her that it was about to become a reality. Her curiosity got the better of her and she leaned around the door to take a peek at the lurker. She moved back quickly into the storeroom and leaned against the wall.

"My dear, what is wrong? You're as pale as a ghost!" Mrs. Warren exclaimed as she felt the girl's forehead.

"I.... I don't feel well. I think I should go home and lie down," she whispered.

"Of course! You go this very minute. Shall I send the doctor?" Mrs. Warren asked as she collected Grace's things for her.

"No, I'm sure it will pass. I'll be alright. I'm sorry. I .... I'll see you tomorrow." She grabbed her belongings from the woman and nearly ran out the back door.

 

******

 

Scott was beginning to become annoyed. He'd taken the good-natured ribbing from the work crew all morning. Now, as noon approached, it was getting tiresome. He promised himself to properly thank his brother for spreading the good news faster than a firestorm.

He settled under a tree with Johnny for lunch, noting the silly grin still on his brother's face.

"Did you have to tell everyone?" he asked between bites of his sandwich.

"Don't you think they'd figure it out when Grace moved in?" Johnny laughed.

"That would have been soon enough for me," Scott replied a bit glumly.

"They wouldn't ride you so hard if they didn't like you. You know that."

"I know and it's all in good fun but, enough already," Scott sighed.

Johnny looked up and cocked his head a bit. He waited for the horse he'd heard to appear. A grin spread as he sighted the rider. "Looks like it's only just beginning brother. Especially when they get a look at her," he said, pointing toward the hill.

Scott was surprised to see Grace out here but it was a pleasant surprise. He stood and walked toward her as she reined to a stop. Reaching up, he helped her down and heard the rumbling behind him.

The noise stopped in an instant and Scott glanced back to see his brother giving them all a warning look. It was all that was needed to silence the crew.

"This is a nice surprise," he smiled as he turned back to her.

"I felt like taking a ride and this is where I ended up. Odd, isn't it?" she teased.

"Oh, yes. I can't imagine how that happened." Scott's smile faded as he looked closely. "Are you alright? You look a little pale."

"I'm a little tired is all. I didn't sleep well last night. Too excited, I suppose. Can we sit down?"

Scott guided her to the tree where he and Johnny were sitting. His brother had joined the crew to finish his lunch. Once settled, he gave her another concerned look.

"I really am alright. I did want to talk to you though," she tried to reassure him.

"Okay. Talk," he smiled.

"It's about the wedding. I'd like it to be as soon as possible. I can't wait any longer, Scott. I've wanted this from almost the moment we met. I know that sounds strange but it's true. I want to go away with you. Someplace where we can be alone," she rambled.

"Slow down, sweetheart. You're talking a mile a minute. I thought you would want a big fancy wedding with all the trimmings?"

"I don't care about that. All I care about is being your wife," she answered and he thought she seemed a little desperate.

"If that's what you want, we can be married tomorrow. But, are you sure?"

She hugged him, not caring who saw. "Yes, darling. I am sure. We can go away. Maybe San Francisco...."

"Wait a minute," Scott interrupted. "That is a problem. I can't leave now, Grace. This is one of the busiest times of year for us."

"Surely Johnny and Murdoch can handle things without you for a few weeks," she said a bit breathlessly.

"I'm sure they could but that's not really fair of me."

 

******

 

She looked at him and thought she may burst into tears at any second. She was frantic to get away with him. Her eyes darted as she thought. Then, she saw Johnny and was on her feet before Scott knew what was happening.

Grace walked quickly to Johnny who stood up when he saw her. She grabbed his arm wordlessly and pulled him away from the men.

Scott watched her then walked toward them, stunned by her behavior.

"Johnny, you tell him it's alright to go. Tell Scott you don't need his help," she pleaded.

"What are you talkin about? Go where?" Johnny asked. He saw the look in her eyes and knew it for what it was - fear.

"On our honeymoon. We want to get married right away," she explained quickly.

Johnny looked at her then at Scott who was just now joining them. "Well, brother, I gotta hand it to you. When you sweep a girl off her feet, you go all the way. What's this about gettin married right away?"

"I told Grace it was a bad time for me to leave on a trip," he explained, just as puzzled as his brother.

"It's not a trip, it's our honeymoon," she said as she turned to Scott.

The breeze picked up substantially and her loose hair blew wildly about her head. Johnny stared at the back of her head and felt all the air leave his lungs. His legs felt like water and he was pretty sure he was about to fall down. His eyes widened as they fell on his brother.

"Grace, what's gotten into you? You're not yourself. Now, what's happened to get you so upset?" Scott asked, using his calm and rational voice.

"Nothing is wrong. Can't a girl just want to get married? Just get away with her husband?"

"Well, sure, but this is all so sudden. And, you look like you're afraid of something," Scott reasoned.

Johnny backed away a step and came to his senses. "I'm gonna leave you two to talk this through. I just remembered I need to talk to Murdoch about somethin really important," he said almost automatically.

Neither of them paid much attention, both focused on each other. Johnny vaulted onto Barranca and thought he might lose what little lunch he'd just eaten. He spurred the horse into a gallop and headed for home.

He had to stop about a mile from the house. He dismounted and ran to a nearby bush where he lost the battle with his stomach. Johnny grabbed his knees and leaned over, taking slow deep breaths to quell the rolling.

It couldn't be. Please God, don't let it be. It'll kill him. He prayed hard in those few minutes. Then, he headed to the only place he could get help. His father.

Johnny galloped into the yard and was off Barranca before he could stop completely. He ran into the house shouting for his father. Murdoch came tearing out of the kitchen.

"What's wrong?" he demanded.

Johnny was breathless from the hard ride and he worked to slow his breathing. Murdoch walked up and took his shoulders.

"Is someone hurt?" he asked.

Johnny shook his head no and held up a hand indicating he needed a minute. He walked over and sat in a chair, burying his face in his hands.

Murdoch was beside himself. He knew nothing that would reduce Johnny to this behavior except Scott. Stealing himself, he asked once more. "Johnny, is someone hurt? Is Scott hurt?"

"No, not yet," he whispered.

Murdoch sat on the ottoman in front of him and looked into his eyes. "Son, what is it?"

"I don't know what to do. I .... I can't ......" he shook his head and took a deep breath. "It's Grace. She's not who she says she is, Murdoch. She's wanted for murder in Texas."

The big man leaned back away from this news. Shaking his head in disbelief, he stared at Johnny. "Tell me all of it."

Johnny told him about the Ranger. About the charges and the description. But the most telling was what he'd seen on Grace's neck. A birthmark much like the Ranger had said - like a butterfly. He went on to explain how Grace had come out to the range and why and how he'd seen the birthmark then.

Murdoch listened to all of this damning news in a fog. He didn't want to believe it. There must be a mistake. Even if she were this Alicia person, there had to have been a reason for her killing her own father.

"Does Scott know?" he finally asked.

"No! God, no! I couldn't tell him. I can't believe it myself. Murdoch, if this is true, it'll destroy him," Johnny said miserably.

"Yes, it will." Closing his eyes, Murdoch pulled on his reserves and settled himself. "Alright. I want you to go back out there and bring them both to the house. We need to get this straightened out now."

Johnny nodded but his stomach tightened again. He took off without wasting another minute. He didn't know if he wanted Grace to still be there or not.

But she was and he was beginning to think his gut would stay in a knot forever. He rode up and didn't bother to dismount. "Murdoch wants to see you. Both of you."

"Both of us? How did he know Grace was here?" Scott asked, confused beyond measure.

"I told him. We need to go now, Scott. RIght now." Johnny's tone held for no quarter and Scott thought he sounded a lot like their father just then. It was enough so that he simply nodded and walked Grace to her horse. He wanted to get her away from the crew and prying ears anyway.

Johnny sat rigid in the saddle as they rode and Scott had an overwhelming sense of foreboding at his brother's unusual seat. He glanced at Johnny's face and saw the same expression there as in his posture. Grim eyes, hard set mouth and twitching jaw muscles told him something was very wrong.

Scott suddenly felt like bolting. He knew he didn't want to hear whatever this was. But he held his own composure, ready to face the problem, whatever it may be.

 

******

 

Murdoch was waiting for them in the living room, pacing the entire space. He looked up and clenched his jaw as his sons entered the house with Grace.

"Alright, we're here. What's the problem, sir?" Scott came right to the point.

"There is something we need to set straight, son," Murdoch started. His eyes fell on Grace and he walked up to her. "I think you have something to tell us, my dear," he spoke softly.

She looked up into his eyes with real fear portrayed on her face. Tears began to brim and she blinked hard to keep them at bay. "How did you know?" she barely whispered.

Murdoch sighed softly and shook his head. "Does it matter?"

"Would someone mind telling me what is going on here?" Scott asked, his voice firm and angry. He had a feeling deep in his gut that he was about to lose something precious.

Grace turned to look at him, her eyes glancing over Johnny's face and knowing he knew as well. "It's a long story," she stalled.

"Why don't we sit down and you can tell us what really happened?" Johnny suggested.

She heard it in his voice. He didn't want to believe the worst of her. She smiled wanly at him and nodded.

Once everyone was settled, Scott by her side, she wavered. "I don't know where to start."

"There's a Texas Ranger in Green River. Why don't you start there," Johnny suggested.

"A Ranger? What does that have to do with Grace?" Scott asked, eyeing his brother.

"Scott, please. I'll try to explain everything but you have to be willing to listen," Grace said. At his nod and his hand slipping into hers, she smiled a little.

"It started a little over a year ago. My father was killed and I was accused of the murder."

Scott felt a coldness creep up his spine and engulf his entire being. "There must be some mistake," he managed to say.

"I wish there were, Scott. I really wish there were," she replied in a trembling voice.

 

******

 

"Maybe you should tell us how your father died, Grace," Murdoch suggested.

She nodded but hesitated in the telling. Unsure even now if she could speak the words she swore she never would.

"I have a brother; Michael. He's a little younger than I. He and father were always at each other's throats. They never agreed on anything. Michael was rebellious. Father wanted him to join the army; be like him, but Michael wanted nothing to do with it. He did everything he could to shame my father. He drank and caroused, ending up in jail most Saturday nights. Father would always bail him out then swear it was the last time." She stopped and shook her head at some memory.

"It was Sunday morning and Michael had a hangover as usual. Father had decided not to go to church. He'd had enough and was going to throw my brother out if he didn't promise to straighten out his life. Michael was nineteen and had no purpose in his life. Father insisted I go on to church without him. I did leave but I came back. I was afraid things would get very ugly. I'd never seen him so angry. It was as if he'd given up on Michael and I know it was killing him.

"Anyway, I came in the back door and could hear them in the living room yelling at each other. I heard glass breaking and went in. Michael had evidently thrown something against the wall, shattering it. Everything seemed to happen so fast after that. Father grabbed Michael and threw him against the wall." She stopped and took a breath.

"He'd never laid a hand on either of us before that. Michael seemed stunned and almost went to the floor. I watched my father's face, the pure horror at what he'd done. It was as if he couldn't move. He was frozen in place. Then, Michael suddenly lunged forward and hit our father. He staggered back against the wall from the blow and Michael grabbed his gun." Tears poured down her cheeks by this point and Scott handed her a kerchief. She glanced at him and started crying harder.

"I didn't realize what was happening. The sound was so loud! The smoke and the smell ..... it was ....." she began to sob even harder and Scott took her into his arms, rocking her gently and making soft shushing noises.

He looked at his father with a pain so deep in his eyes, Murdoch almost gasped aloud. His own heart was breaking for what this young woman had witnessed. The room was quiet except for Grace's cries, which softened as time passed. Finally, it seemed she had some control and pulled slightly away from Scott.

"Michael dropped the gun and ran out of the house. I went to my father and knelt beside him. I don't know why but I picked up the gun. I was kneeling there when the sheriff ran in. It was so horrible. Everything was a blur to me. I guess I was in shock. They took him to the doctor but it was too late. He was gone." She sniffed and wiped her nose. "Suddenly, I found myself in a jail cell. I'm still not sure how it happened. But when the sheriff asked me, I couldn't ...... I just couldn't tell him the truth! I never thought anyone would believe I had done this!"

 

******

 

Johnny sprung to his feet and paced off to the fireplace. Arms wrapped around himself, he hung his head and stared at his boots. "So you took the rap for your brother," he said quietly.

"I kept thinking it was all just a nightmare. That someone would come to my aid. Someone would believe me. But, Father was so well-respected, so loved by everyone. The whole town felt his loss and I suppose they needed someone to blame."

"Grace, didn't anyone think your brother may have done this? After all the problems the two of them had?" Murdoch asked.

Her painful expression and silence told him the truth. "You denied Michael was involved, didn't you?" he asked.

She could only nod.

"What about your brother? Why didn't he come forward to help you?" Scott asked.

"I don't know where he went. I think he must have gone to Mexico. No one has seen or heard from him since that day," she replied quietly.

"How did you break out of jail?" Johnny asked.

"I didn't. They released me on bail. I guess they didn't think a woman would run. But the more I thought about it, I decided it was all I could do. They were going to hang me. I had to leave," she answered, her hands making quick work of the kerchief she twisted between them.

Murdoch inhaled deeply and let it out slowly as he regarded both her and his son. "You'll have to turn yourself in and face this. You have to tell the truth."

"No! You heard what she said. They'll never believe her. Especially since she ran," Scott exclaimed.

"She can't run for the rest of her life, brother," Johnny spoke gently.

Scott got to his feet and stared at his brother. "Why not? We can leave the country. Go to England or somewhere."

Johnny pushed away from the wall he was leaning against and regarded the older man. "Well, that's a dandy idea, Boston. The two of you on the run. Why, I'll bet your grandfather would even help you out. Pay your way while you do what exactly? What will you do, Scott? What kind of life will you have?"

"Whatever life I have, Johnny, at least we will be together," Scott scowled, placing his hands on his hips.

He felt a light touch on his arm and turned to find Grace standing behind him. "No, Scott. Johnny's right. I can't let you ruin your life. I have to turn myself in."

He turned and took her arms. "And if they hang you?"

She dropped her eyes and began to tremble. Scott pulled her in and held on tightly.

"No one is going to hang her. We'll get her a lawyer and get this mess resolved. It's time to get your life back, young lady," Murdoch stated assuredly.

 

******

 

Johnny rode into town bedrudgingly. He'd been 'volunteered' by his father to retrieve the Texas Ranger and bring him out to the ranch. He didn't put up too much of a fuss, though. The alternatives were piqued curiosity from the hands or making Scott do it. The latter was not an option. He couldn't believe the hand his brother had been dealt. To find love only to have it threatened by so many variables. Johnny decided right then he would do whatever he could to lower the odds against his brother. Part of that may mean taking on the Texas Rangers. Well, so be it then. The reputation of that elite group did not send shivers down his spine as it did most people. He'd dealt with a lot of tough men and some plain evil ones.

He dismounted in front of the sheriff's office with a grunt. He was tired, bone tired and wished fervently this would all just go away. But, being the realist he was, he knew that wasn't about to happen. He sucked it up and walked in the door.

As he expected, or rather hoped, the Ranger was there sharing a cup of coffee with Val. Now he wouldn't have to traipse all over the place hunting the man down.

"Mr. Lancer," Alcott nodded.

"It's Johnny and I need to talk to you," he answered brusquely.

"I thought you might. Was just askin the sheriff here about you and your family."

Johnny sighed and glanced at Val who was frowning furiously. He closed the door and removed his hat, slapping it against his thigh.

"Yeah, well you're doin your reputation proud, Ranger. What you're lookin for is out at our ranch. Might as well come with me. She's waitin."

Val rose then and stared slack-jawed. "I didn't wanna believe it," he said.

"Me neither, Val, but it's the truth. She told us what happened. She didn't do it, by the way," Johnny directed his last comment at Alcott.

The Ranger smiled as he stood and picked up his hat. "None of them ever do."

Johnny's eyes hardened as he locked onto the other man's. "I believe her. I think you will, too."

Alcott held the gaze as he sized up the younger man. Nodding, he set his hat on his head. "Whether I do or not, don't much matter. She's got to go back."

"She knows and she'll have company. My brother won't let her go without a fight."

"What kind of fight," Alcott asked suspiciously.

Johnny smiled a little. "The legal kind, Ranger. The legal kind." With that, he donned his own hat and walked outside.

 

******

 

All the way to the ranch, Johnny squirmed. He was thinking hard about this situation and had come up with his own ideas on how to help Grace. At first, he'd felt she betrayed his brother with this secret. Now, he could understand why she kept silent. Still, it would have been a lot easier if she'd told the truth in the first place. Then again, if she had, Scott would never have met her.

Fate. What a witch! Johnny smiled to himself.

Alcott was watching him closely under the brim of his Stetson. He'd figured it out the night before as he lay in his hotel room. He knew who this man was, or used to be. He wondered if this one was on the level. The sheriff had only referred to him as Lancer. Either he didn't know or didn't care. Alcott needed to find out which.

Val was also watching Johnny. He wanted to talk to his friend privately about this mess. Wondered how Scott was handling it all. Not real good, he'd wager. How could he? It was a raw deal as far as the lawman could see. Johnny said he believed the girl and that was good enough for Val. He respected Johnny's ability to size up a person, tell what they were made of and either accept them or shun them based on that evaluation. He idly wondered what Johnny had thought of him upon their first meeting. A crooked grin appeared momentarily on his face.

"How far is this ranch?" Alcott asked after an hour.

"We're on it. The house is about a mile over that hill," Johnny said, nodding his head to the rise before them.

"How long you lived here?" The Ranger asked.

Johnny smiled and looked over at the man. "Two years."

Alcott nodded. "Seemed you just dropped of the face of the earth there for a while."

"Did it?" Johnny asked noncommittedly. His face was a blank now, revealing nothing.

Val decided to change the subject quickly. "How's Scott doin with all this?"

"Well, he's pretty worked up, Val. But, he's gonna stand beside her." With a smile he added, "just like I knew he would."

"Never heard of you havin a brother," Alcott intervened. Val gritted his teeth. Man's like a dog with a bone.

"Didn't know I had one til I came home," Johnny replied a little sharply. He reined up at the top of the rise. "That's it."

Alcott looked down the hill and almost whistled. "Looks like you hit the jackpot."

Johnny shot him a dangerous look and clicked his tongue, setting Barranca toward home.

 

******

 

Scott and Murdoch had spent this time strategizing. Scott had insisted Grace lie down and rest. She was exhausted and he knew it was only the beginning. Once they started for Texas, things would only get worse before they got better. He was determined that they did get better.

They had decided to contact Murdoch's San Francisco attorney for a referral. Hoping the man would know a good lawyer in that state. Scott had insisted on going with her, not that Murdoch was about to argue. But, the younger man knew it was a rough time of year to take time off. He felt guilty for that but it couldn't be helped. It was that simple.

They both looked up at the sound of spurs as the French doors opened. Johnny walked in looking none too happy, Val and another man right behind him. He quickly introduced his father and brother to the Ranger, then plopped down on the sofa.

"Sit down, gentleman. Would anyone like some coffee?" Murdoch asked, trying to ease the tension in the air.

"I'll get it," Johnny sighed and headed to the kitchen, feeling put upon.

"Well, where is the young lady?" Alcott asked.

"She's resting upstairs. I'll get her," Scott replied.

While his sons were out of the room, Murdoch took the opportunity to clarify some things. He got much the same story from the Ranger as he had from Grace, at least the mechanics of it. Her version was, of course, more personal.

Johnny returned to the room in an even fouler mood. "Maria threw me out. Said she'd bring the coffee in," he reported.

Murdoch had to smile but his heart was worried. Scott was holding up well but he knew this was tearing his son's heart out. They all stood as Grace entered the room.

Scott introduced her to the Ranger and they were all seated once more.

"Just to make it clear, Miss. You are Alicia Martin, daughter of Jedediah Martin?"

"Yes," she spoke softly.

"Well now, Mr. er, Johnny, tells me you have a story for me," he smiled.

"It's not a story, it's the truth!" Scott interjected.

"Easy, son. Just let Grace tell the Ranger what she told us," Murdoch intervened in a calm tone.

Grace smiled warmly at her protector then turned to the Ranger, her face falling as she began.

After she'd finished, Alcott leaned back in his chair and sipped at his coffee. "Well, Miss, that sounds pretty logical. From what I was able to gather, your daddy and you got along real good. Which makes your version easier to take, if you know what I mean."

"I don't. What do you mean?" Scott asked.

Alcott cleared his throat and looked uncomfortable. "Hangin women ain't real pleasant, Mr. Lancer."

 

******

 

Murdoch saw to sleeping arrangements for Val and Alcott. He made sure Grace was comfortable as well. Then, he joined his sons back in the living room, albeit, warily.

Both seemed angry and he understood that. He just hoped they didn't take it out on each other as they sometimes did.

"Well, have you two come up with a plan?" Johnny asked.

"Yes. Murdoch is going to find a lawyer for Grace and I'm going to Texas with her. From there, I'll talk with the local sheriff and see about finding some evidence to clear her," Scott spoke in a monotone.

Johnny studied him, knowing he was exhausted. "Sounds good. I'll meet up with you there," he said casually as he sipped his coffee.

"Meet me there? Where are you going?"

"Mexico," came the flat reply.

"No, sir! That's not going to happen," Murdoch spoke up.

"We have to find Michael, Murdoch. It's the only sure fire way to get Grace out of this mess," Johnny argued.

"No, Johnny. I'll go to Mexico and find him," Murdoch countered.

Johnny eyed his father with a mixture of anger and amusement. The anger won out, as usual. "Gee, Murdoch, I don't think I'll get lost. Look, it's the obvious choice. I know the country. If he did go there, I'll have a better chance of finding him."

"You are not going to Mexico, Johnny. It's too dangerous. I'll go," Murdoch bequeathed.

"Right. Because you've had so much luck in the past," Johnny shot sarcastically.

Murdoch's jugular vein throbbed as he glared at his son. Scott saw it but he was just too tired and worried to get in the middle again.

"That's hardly fair, Johnny."

Johnny was immediately reticent and lowered his eyes. "No. No, it wasn't. I'm sorry. But, I am going, Murdoch. You can come with me if you insist, but you'll only slow me down. I can take care of myself. Mexico isn't any more dangerous for me than any other place. In fact, it's less so. I still have a lot of friends and connections there," he spoke softly.

"He's right," Scott spoke up and they both looked at him. "Johnny has the best chance of finding Michael and you know it, sir. He's the logical choice."

"I don't give a hang about logic! Are you so willing to put your brother's life at risk?" Murdoch nearly shouted.

"What are you talking about? He isn't wanted for anything," Scott shot back with his own anger.

"No, he isn't. Just for his reputation. How many men will he have to fight through just for the chance. The chance, Scott, of finding this man?"

"That's enough. There's no need to argue. I'm going to Mexico in the morning. Right now, I'm goin to bed. If you two wanna take each other's heads off, that's up to you." Johnny walked quickly out of the room, his head down.

"That was wonderful, Scott. Just perfect," Murdoch growled.

"What now?"

"You practically told him he wasn't worth worrying about! It's perfectly fine with you if he goes down there. Scott, it's only been two years. How many people do you think will recognize him down there?"

Scott came to his feet, his jaw tightening. "He's a grown man, Murdoch. He's managed to survive without us all his life. If Johnny's not worried, why should I be?"

Murdoch shook his head and turned his back. "No reason at all, Scott. I hope you get what you want out of this. For my part, I just hope I get my son back - alive."

 

******

 

He was up before dawn and had Barranca saddled. Johnny went to the kitchen just as Maria was starting the morning meal. Silently, he went about packing his saddlebags with trail supplies as she watched.

"Where are you going, Juanito?"

"Just got to make a little trip for Scott, Maria. No big deal," he replied.

"Where?" she asked feeling dread in the pit of her stomach.

Johnny's shoulders slumped as he turned to face the woman. A smile hinted at his lips. "Mexico."

She gasped and her hand went to her bosom. "No, you cannot. It is too dangerous. Muy pistoleros....."

Johnny took her arm to stop her lecture. "Listen to me, mamacita. I have to go. Scott's lady is in trouble and I have to find her hermano. He's the only one who can help her. And I'm the only one who can help Scott. Comprende?"

"Senor Scott knows this?"

"Si, he knows."

She shook her head and sighed. "I hope he also knows the love you hold for him."

Johnny dropped his head at this. "Guess so," he mumbled and returned to his task.

She made the sign of the cross and said a prayer for her nino. Then, she hurried to make his breakfast, insisting he eat first. She won out in the end and he sat down resignedly.

He was almost finished when Murdoch walked in, a frown on his face.

"Mornin," Johnny said.

"I doubt it. Are you still going?" he asked flatly.

"Yes, Murdoch, I'm still going. In fact, right now," he answered as he drained his coffee.

"Johnny," he reached out and took his arm. "Please be careful. Don't take any chances."

Johnny smiled and nodded his head. It lightened his heart to know his father cared so much. The load he'd been carrying since last night had felt nearly unbearable. Scott had not sought him out as he'd hoped. He wanted to talk to his brother about all of this but it wasn't to be. He reckoned he wasn't even going to see him this morning. He headed out the kitchen door after planting a kiss on Maria's cheek.

She dabbed at her eyes with her apron and gave Murdoch a sympathetic look.

 

******

 

Johnny checked the cinch then grabbed the lead rein. As he turned to move Barranca out of the stall, he saw Scott watching him from the barn door. Johnny grinned at the stance. Arms folded over his chest, leaning against the door with a scowl, Scott reminded him of a schoolteacher about to punish a wayward child.

"Mornin, brother. Was wonderin if you'd sleep the day away."

"I'm wondering if you slept at all," Scott retorted.

Johnny bit back the sarcastic remark and just smiled.

Scott's expression softened as he walked up to his brother. "You know how much I appreciate you doing this. I know you'll be careful."

Johnny ducked his head for a second before meeting his brother's gaze. "You know I will. I know what I'm doin, Scott. Better than most."

"I just don't want you to think I'm not grateful or that I don't realize what this is costing you."

Johnny swallowed hard. That burden had just been released. His brother knew and that was all he really wanted. That validation. "I know. And I'll do everything in my power to make sure Grace comes home to Lancer where she belongs."

Scott took a deep breath and placed a hand on Johnny's shoulder. "Where she belongs. Thank you for that."

"No need, brother. I speak the truth - always," Johnny winked and made a move toward the door.

"Just one more thing. If you can't find him in a week, I want you to come to Texas. I don't want you spending too much time down there."

Johnny cocked his head to one side and looked thoughtfully at Scott. "Ya know, the way you and Murdoch say "down there" makes it sound like I'm riding into hell. It's my home, Scott. Or it was for most of my life."

"I didn't mean it like that. I guess I just connect Mexico with Madrid," he shrugged.

"As well you should, brother," Johnny grinned. "See ya in Texas," he called as he headed out of the barn.

Johnny sighed and shook his head, thinking he'd never get on his way. Grace walked up to him hesitantly.

"I wasn't sure what to make of you, Johnny. I felt like there was something different about you. Now I know what it is. It's your heart. It's a big as Mexico itself. Thank you for doing this. I don't know much about you but it seems this is a big sacrifice on your part."

"It's not, Grace. Scott and Murdoch, they just worry is all. I'll be fine."

"Would you promise me something? That you won't hurt him?"

Johnny looked into her eyes and saw the fear. "I'll do everything I can to bring him back safe and sound. That's the best I can promise."

She nodded her understanding but he knew she didn't really. She couldn't know to what lengths he would go to save his brother. Whether it be Scott's life or his heart, Johnny would do anything to keep pain from his brother.

Murdoch watched from the porch as he rode away, saying another prayer for his son's safe return.

 

******

 

Alcott had agreed to wait one more day before leaving for Texas. Giving Grace time to pack her things and prepare for the long journey. They made their travel plans. Although he wasn't thrilled with Scott Lancer coming along, he couldn't fault the man. If he had a looker like that for his own, he wouldn't let her out of his sight either.

The train would take them to Sante Fe but from there, they would have to go by horseback. Scott worried about Grace on such a journey. Unsure if she could handle life on the trail. It wasn't for everyone and he didn't know a single person who actually thrived on it. Even Johnny hated the trail. That got him thinking about his brother and the sacrifice he so willingly made. A sacrifice that Scott had brushed off at first as being no big deal.

He knew though, in his heart and mind, what this could cost Johnny. And he knew he'd never forgive himself if his brother were hurt, or worse. He'd been so torn this morning between telling Johnny to stay and letting him go. He wasn't sure it would have done any good to try and stop him but part of him wanted to try. Another part of him, the part that was so deeply in love, wanted to hug the man with gratitude. Wanted to wish him a safe and prosperous journey and the devil with the consequences. This was the part that was ashamed.

With this burden wearing on his soul, Scott departed Green River with the Ranger and his fiance. As they travelled, he began to weigh the pros and cons of going on to Mexico himself. Just to watch his brother's back. Just to be there. Just in case.

Grace had watched him since her confession. She had noted the tight lines around his mouth, the firm set of his jaw so often and the tiredness in his eyes. She ached knowing she was the cause of it all. She wanted to apologize but anything she thought to say seemed inconsequential and meaningless. The best she had managed was a smile or a squeeze of the hand. She wanted to run again but she had so much more to lose now.

Alcott watched them both. Once they got on the train, he relaxed a little. He sat on the bench across from them, swaying with the movement of the train.

"That brother of yours must come in mighty handy," he said out of the blue.

Scott was immediately on the defensive. "What does that mean?"

"Nothin. Just that havin Johnny Madrid around comes in handy," he shrugged.

"Johnny Madrid?" Grace asked in wide-eyed surprise.

Scott looked at her and smiled a little. "Yes, Johnny Madrid - once but no longer. He's Johnny Lancer now. My brother. Period," he shot a look at Alcott.

"Still, if anybody can find this brother, it'll be Madrid. Course, the Rangers can't legally go down there. All I'm sayin is, he comes in handy."

Scott scowled at the man but didn't respond. He didn't want to get into a debate about his brother's past in front of Grace. This was something he had wanted to tell her in his own time. Now, it was out but he wasn't going to discuss it in front of Alcott.

 

******

 

Johnny made good time. It took three days to reach the border. He knew he could have done better but he saw no sense in punishing his horse. He'd taken this time to plot out a plan. If Michael had fled to Mexico, he'd probably crossed at either El Paso or Socorro, possibly Palomas. That was fine with him.

He stopped this side of the border on a small nondescript town he was well acquainted with. He sought out an old friend and put out the word. Within two hours, he had a lead. Palomas or Socorro were his best bets.

Since Palomas was nearest to him, he crossed the border there. It hadn't changed much since he'd last been through here. A few new buildings here and there. He headed for the cantina and settled in. It was just past noon and he was starved. Some real Mexican cuisine was what he craved and this was the place to get it.

He ordered tamales and tequila, his usual, though no one here would know that. It seemed he hadn't been recognized so far. Still, it was early in the day yet. He smiled as he dug into the meal. As he ate he thought. Now, how was he going to go about asking after this gringo? Not an uncommon commodity in the border towns. A man could get lost in these towns and villages. He knew that too well, he'd done it enough times.

The young woman who served him placed a plate of jalepeno peppers on the table. Johnny looked up and smiled charmingly at her. "Gracias, Senorita."

"De nada," she answered, a tinge of unfriendliness in her voice.

He studied her for a second. "Would you have a minute, por favor?" he asked as he waved toward a chair.

She shrugged and sat down, folding her hands on the tabletop and looking expectantly at him.

"I'm looking for a man. A gringo. He's about my height, blond hair and brown eyes. Maybe with a moustache."

"Many gringos come and go, Senor. I pay little attention," she answered.

Johnny nodded. He knew this was not going to be easy. "I guess it would be hard to keep track of them. A little easier to notice a mestizo, si?" he grinned.

She fought the smile that threatened her lips and simply nodded her agreement.

"I'm afraid I'm gonna have a hard time finding this fella," he sighed.

"He is your amigo?"

"No, es hermano un amigo," he replied.

She nodded once more.

"Gracias, Senorita," he said and she left him.

Johnny sat back and sighed. He knew it was going to be a near impossible chore. He wished he knew more about this Michael. All he knew was the man drank a lot and liked to cause trouble. Maybe he should check the local jail. Sure, Johnny, just walk right in and ask the rurales. He laughed softly.

 

******

 

Sheriff Joe Horner was a no-nonsense lawman. He didn't put up with a lot of hullabaloo in his town. Abilene was thriving and he intended it to keep right on. When he received the telegram from Ranger Alcott, he was relieved. Finally, this Martin mess would be settled. Jedediah had been a good friend and he'd hated to lock his little girl up, but she'd given him no choice in the matter. Horner was almost positive the boy had done the killing. But without her testimony, his hands were tied.

He was an honest and decent man. Nearing fifty, he'd lately begun to think of his options. He was getting too old for this job, he reckoned. But, he cared about the town and found it hard to let go. As he stood outside the jail, all six feet, three inches of him, he considered Alice Martin.

She had been a darlin girl. He'd never let on, but he'd been devastated by Jedediah's loss. His first thought had been for the girl. To make sure she was looked after. But, finding her with the murder weapon in her hand, blood on her clothes and speechless, he'd had little choice. Oh, he could have let her go. If only she'd say something; anything. But she wouldn't even defend herself.

Sighing heavily, he watched as the threesome rode slowly down the main street toward him. He watched as the young stranger helped her off her horse and held her as she stumbled. Legs numb, no doubt, he thought.

"Sheriff Horner, I'm Ranger Alcott." The man extended a hand of greeting. "This here is Scott Lancer and I reckon you know this lady."

"Well, Alicia, I'm mighty disappointed in ya. Let's go inside and sort this out," the sheriff said.

Once Scott's presence was explained to the sheriff, he decided he wanted to know a lot more about this young man. Even though she was charged with such a heinous crime, the sheriff still felt an obligation to his friend for the welfare of this girl. The irony was not lost on the man.

Grace told her story haltingly to the man as Scott held her hand throughout. She was exhausted from the trip and the emotions and it were wearing on her.

Sheriff Horner just kept nodding as she made her way through the telling.

"Why couldn't you tell me this at the time, Alicia?" he asked once she'd finished.

"I was trying to protect Michael," she explained.

"Well, I understand that, darlin. But puttin yourself in his place sure didn't help you none. Now, I'm afraid I'm gonna have to lock you up."

"What? Sheriff, she just told you everything. Why is that necessary?" Scott spoke up indignantly.

Horner eyed him, noting the cut of his clothes, the posture and the speech. Dandy, he thought. "Well, Mr. Lancer, it's like this. Even if she's innocent of the killin, she jumped bail, lit out of here and that's against the law."

Scott rolled his eyes. "That's ridiculous. She came back of her own free will. She's ready to face this. I see no reason to make her suffer through another incarceration."

Horner almost laughed in his face but managed to hold on. Scratching his jaw in a manner that reminded Scott of Val, he drawled, "well, I reckon that's true enough. But, you'll hafta stay at the hotel and I'll hafta put a guard on ya."

Scott relaxed measurably.

 

******

 

Johnny thought it wasn't such a bad idea after all. Well, maybe not stroll right into the jail but he could check things out. Luckily, it was Saturday. So, if Michael was here and held true to form, he'd be in this or some other cantina. He decided to get a room and catch a few hours of sack time before starting his vigil.

As he came down the stairs, the party was already on. Loud voices, smoke and body odor filled the air. Johnny winced a little. He'd forgotten how rancid some of these places could be. He remained as invisible as possible as he took up a table in the back. Quietly, he ordered a bottle of tequila and leaned back in his chair. He waited.

For an hour he watched them drink, gamble and make fools of themselves. He sighed heavily and decided he'd check out some other places in town. Slipping out the back, he left no sign he'd ever even been there.

He spied a saloon and moved to the doors. Taking the place in within a breath, he eased through the batwings and walked to the side of the bar. He leaned against it, pulled his hat low over his eyes, faced the door and ordered a beer. Lord, if he kept this up he'd be too drunk to see this guy. That brought a smile to his face.

Hoping his luck would change just this once, he kept up his vigil for another thirty minutes. If he had to go through all the border towns, he'd be here for a year. Glancing toward the ceiling and knowing it was just poor taste, he said a little prayer anyway. Just let him be in Palomas, God. Please.

Either the Lord was listening or it was Lady Luck, he wasn't sure, but in the next minute a group of men entered that perked him up. It was a mishmash of Mexicans and whites. There was one with blond hair about the color of Grace's. He watched surreptitiously until he could get a look at the eyes. Yep, brown. Well, that sure didn't mean anything but at least it was a change.

The men sat at a table near the middle of the room and started drinking and playing poker. Johnny tuned his hearing to that spot and waited for anything that might be a clue. After the first poker hand, he got his wish.

"Miguel, your luck must be changing," a Mexican said to the winner.

In a slow and easily distinguishable Texas drawl, the man answered back, "Bout time, don't ya reckon?"

Johnny moved to the back of the room and sat down in the shadows. He watched the game go on and on. It seemed to be pretty even and he wondered if he'd be here all night. He just wanted to follow the man and find out where he was staying. Tomorrow would be soon enough to confront him. But it looked like 'Miguel' was in no hurry to leave. In fact, he was getting pretty belligerant.

Johnny leaned further into the shadows as the two rurales walked in. They approached the table he was watching and spoke to 'Miguel'. Johnny was sure there would be a brawl. The look on the gringo's face said he wasn't ready to stop having fun. Just as quickly, one of his compadres leaned over and spoke quietly to him. The gringo nodded and went with the rurales.

Johnny's curiosity got the better of him. He once more slipped out the back and moved through the shadows of the alley. He spotted the three men on the main street as he moved from building to building. They were headed for the jail and he sighed. Damn! He'd have to wait for morning now. He followed, though why he couldn't say.

He made it to the corner of the building across from the jail. The three of them stood on the boardwalk and spoke for several minutes. Then, 'Miguel' walked away. Johnny frowned, wondering what was going on. He waited for the rurales to go inside and followed the gringo.

 

******

 

Scott could tell she hadn't slept much, if at all. When he knocked on her door with the breakfast tray in hand and a smile on his face, he was greeted solemnly.

He watched her as she stood by the window, staring into space. He walked up and wrapped his arms around her slim waist.

"Good morning," he whispered in her ear.

"Good morning," her reply came softly.

"I know you're worried but try to eat, darling. You need to stay strong," Scott urged.

She turned in his arms and searched his eyes. "Scott, I didn't know your brother was Johnny Madrid. I don't think I want him looking for Michael."

Scott's brows went up. "Is that what you're worried about? Grace, Johnny knows what he's doing. He's not going to just gun Michael down. He'll find him and bring him back."

He moved away from her, turning to the table. "I was thinking I might go to Mexico myself. Give Johnny a hand."

"I'm not sure what to say. Part of me wants you to go yet part of me needs you to stay," she answered with a tremble in her voice.

Scott looked at her and smiled. "I'm staying. I realized I have no idea where Johnny started or where he may be. We could miss each other completely or I could be covering old ground. It's pointless to go now."

Her expression eased into a soft smile. "Good. I think I need you here with me. I just hope...." she trailed off, afraid to express her worries.

"What is it, Honey?"

She took a deep breath and braced herself. "I just hope you'll still want me when this is all over." There. She'd said it. She'd given voice to her worst fear.

Scott grabbed her into a fierce embrace. "Of course, I'll want you. I love you, Grace. With all my heart and soul, I love you."

 

******

Johnny sat in his room and thought about what he'd discovered. He was almost sure this was the man he sought. But, if Michael had it in good with the rurales, this was going to be tougher than he thought. He couldn't be sure they wouldn't recognize him. If they did, it could mean his death. He'd killed their own two years ago and the rurales never forgot anything.

Michael had gone into a boarding house last night, stumbling most of the way. It was easy to follow him and Johnny wondered how he'd managed to stay alive this long. Now, at close to noon, he was about to go face this man. Hopefully, he felt some loyalty to his sister.

Johnny had given him the morning, figuring he'd be in no shape to listen. He got up and donned his jacket and gunbelt. Grabbing his hat, he sighed and left the room.

He moved silently down the stairs and outside, scanning the streets for any sign of authority. Seeing none, he made his way to the alley and headed to the livery. Luckily, it was near the boarding house. With Barranca and a second horse in tow he walked to his destination and tied the reins off. Ever alert for anything out of the ordinary.

Getting there was easy. Getting to Michael may not be. He prepared himself for a battle. Of wills or fists, if necessary. He walked right in and waited for someone to notice his presence. Soon, an older woman appeared wiping her hands on her apron.

"Si?" she said simply.

"I'm lookin for a friend. Miguel? He's staying here," Johnny explained.

The woman eyed him caustically. "Room 2 upstairs. No trouble, Senor," she warned.

"No trouble," he smiled and headed up the stairs. Too easy, he thought grimly.

There was a grunt from the other side of the door when he knocked. A few thumping sounds and a curse later, the door opened wide and the man headed back to the bed without even looking to see who was there.

Johnny stepped in and closed the door quickly. He leaned against it in a slouch and waited.

Michael sat on the bed and rubbed his face vigorously. "What time is it?"

"Noon."

His head jerked up at the unfamiliar voice. His hand reached toward the bedpost but stopped in midair at the sound of a hammer being cocked.

 "I don't mean you no harm. I just wanna talk," Johnny said.

Michael looked back at him and took in his full measure. "Who are you?"

"Name's Johnny Lancer. And you are Michael Martin," he replied, the Colt unwavering from its target.

"Well, now that we both know who we are, what do ya want?"

Johnny walked over and pulled Michael's gun, snugging it into his waistband. He then holstered his own weapon and sat in the chair by the window. "I want you, amigo. There's somebody who needs your help."

Michael snorted loudly. "Who would that be?"

"Your sister."

Again, his head jerked and he stared at the man. "Alicia? What's the matter?"

"What's the matter? She's charged with murderin your old man. That's what's the matter! She's been on the run for almost a year because of you. Now, she's in Texas and facing charges. Charges that are your's to face, Michael," Johnny spoke angrily.

He shook his head in disbelief. "Nobody'd believe Alicia could kill anyone."

"They would if she refused to tell the truth. She was tryin to protect you only it backfired on her. Now, you have to go back and clear her name," Johnny explained to what he was beginning to see as a dense immature boy.

"I can't go back. They'll hang me!"

"No kiddin. They'll hang her if you don't. Which is more important, Michael. Her life or yours?"

He seemed to get some sense about himself. "Why should I believe you, mister? I don't know you from Adam."

"Look, boy, that girl is gonna die if you don't own up to what you did. Now, I'll ask you again. Who's life is more important to you?" Johnny spoke in a hard, icy tone. His eyes pierced into the other man's.

When Michael didn't answer, Johnny leaned forward in the chair. "You're comin with me, kid. Now, it's up to you how."

Michael dropped his eyes and nodded. He stood up slowly and went to the chest of drawers. Johnny was on his feet in a split second and grabbed the man's hand as it reached the knob.

"I'm just gonna pack," he explained.

Johnny released his grip. "Make sure you don't have any surprises in there for me," he warned as he pulled his gun once more.

As they descended the stairs, Michael in the lead, Johnny couldn't get rid of the nagging feeling in his gut. This is just too damned easy.

Outside, Michael was surprised to see the two horses ready and waiting. "You come prepared," he commented.

"Let's just get goin. The Palomino's mine," Johnny said tightly. The sooner he was clear of town the better he'd like it.

Michael tied down his saddlebags and mounted up as Johnny did the same. They headed northeast out of town but Johnny tensed just as something whistled past his ear.

 

******

 

With lightning speed the gun was in his hand and he was firing back. He yelled at Michael to go and they galloped off amid a spray of bullets. One chanced glance behind him told Johnny the rurales were on his tail.

Cursing to himself, Johnny gained on Michael. The blond seemed to be slowing down. Johnny reached over and slapped the bay's rear end, causing him to increase his speed. Johnny leveled off beside the other man.

In a voice filled with anger, he yelled, "ride or die!"

Terror was seen in Michael's eyes and he leaned into the horse to increase his speed.

Barranca rode for everything he was worth and Johnny knew they'd have to stop soon. He kept watching behind them but saw no sign of being followed - yet. He called to Michael to slow down and they fell into a canter.

Johnny scanned the countryside and nodded his head. "Over there," he said, indicating left. He maneuvered Michael's horse with his own, never allowing the other man to be behind him.

They rode through thick brambles for a while until there was suddenly a clearing. Johnny lead them to a small brook.

"Get down and take care of that horse," he ordered and Michael obeyed.

Johnny rubbed Barranca down as much as he could, feeling deep regret for running his friend so hard. He spoke softly to the horse, words for Barranca's ears only.

"I don't understand. Why were they after us? I've always had it in good with the rurales," Michael said.

"Yeah, well, I haven't," Johnny said sharply. "Look, we need to get out of Mexico. The border is only about ten miles from here."

Michael studied him hard. "Why would they be after you?"

"That is something you don't need to know," he spat. He reckoned someone had recognized him. Maybe that old woman at the boarding house. She didn't look too friendly. Yep, he knew it had been too easy.

He gave them ten minutes that they didn't really have then told Michael to mount up. Johnny pointed the way and stayed behind his companion. If somebody was gonna get shot, it wasn't going to be this kid. He was delivering this package unharmed and ready to confess.

His hackles rose again and Johnny urged Michael into a faster gait. The younger man saw and heard nothing but he got the distinct impression he'd do well to listen to this stranger.

 

******

 

As they topped a hill, Johnny could see the border just below. No more than a hundred yards. He almost smiled but thought better of testing his luck. He moved forward, following Michael, when he felt the fire in his left shoulder.

Johnny stayed in the saddle somehow and spurred Barranca on faster. "Don't stop! Keep riding!" he yelled to Michael. He knew the rurales couldn't cross the border but their bullets could. Johnny leaned into Barranca's neck as the fire spread to his arm.

They kept going for a full mile on the other side before Johnny called a halt. Michael dismounted and ground-tied his horse near a tree. Johnny slid off and let Barranca roam.

"That was too close," Michael said breathlessly.

"It sure was," Johnny grunted. Cradling his left arm to his side, he turned his back to get his canteen.

Michael saw the crimson stain spreading on his jacket. "You're hit!" He exclaimed as if this was news to Johnny.

"No kiddin? I thought it was a bee sting," he sneered. Suddenly, he was in no mood for this. He shucked the jacket and unbuttoned his shirt, doffing it as well.

"Well, are you gonna help me or not?" he asked.

Michael nodded and took the canteen. Johnny grabbed a shirt from his saddlebags and started ripping it into bandages. Michael took a piece and wet it. His stomach turned as he saw the old scars on Johnny's back. He swallowed down the bile and cleaned the wound then wrapped it as tightly as he could.

Johnny picked his shirt up and looked at it in disgust. Ruined! He didn't have another as he was wearing part of his extra. A white shirt appeared from behind him and he turned.

Michael shrugged. "Should fit."

"Thanks. We might as well set up camp here. Most of the days gone anyhow."

 

******

 

They sat quietly beside the fire, each nursing a cup of coffee. Johnny stared into the flames and thought about his brother.

"Who are you, mister?" Michael asked.

"I told you my name," he answered without looking up.

"Yeah but, who are you really?"

The kid was persistent. Kid. Johnny snorted. He was only a year or so younger than he. Yet, he acted so much younger. Or was it that Johnny felt so much older than his years? At this moment, he felt ancient. He knew the wound was still seeping some. There was nothing he could do about it. Just keep drinking plenty of water, Johnny. It'll be fine.

"You gonna answer me?"

Johnny looked up, his reverie broken. "I did answer you. I'm Johnny Lancer. That's all you need to know. What about you? How is it yuou have it so good with the rurales?"

Michael grinned and in a voice filled with pride, explained. "We have an agreement. They don't mess with me and I give them half of everything I ....." he trailed off, realizing he'd said to much.

Johnny narrowed his eyes. "Everything you steal?"

Michael only shrugged.

"Just exactly who is it you steal from?" he probed.

"Mostly the Patrons," he said softly.

Johnny nodded, somewhat satisfied. But he had the feeling this kid was in so deep, he couldn't see the light of day. The sad part was, he didn't even know it. He tossed the dregs of his cup into the fire.

"We should make Abilene in two days. Can I trust you to stand watch for a couple of hours?" Johnny asked.

"With what?" Michael asked, patting his empty holster.

Johnny grinned, pulled his Colt and held it in his hand across his chest. "You just wake me if you hear anything." He settled in his bedroll and closed his eyes. Hoping against hope that this wound wouldn't slow them down.

Michael watched him for a while then stared into the fire. His thoughts went back to that day. A day he had worked so hard to forget. He hadn't meant to pull the trigger. Only to scare the old man. But his rage was out of control and his finger tightened on the trigger before he realized it. Then, it was too late. He couldn't take it back.

His words he could always take back. Always apologize to the old man later. But this. This was something he couldn't apologize away. He'd run of course. Scared witless, he'd made for the border. Sure they'd be after him. All this time, he thought he was a wanted man. But it was Alicia who had paid for his mistake. Why would she do such a thing? But he knew why. Because she loved him. More than their father had, Michael was sure. She was the apple of both men's eye and had always been the mediator. The cushion that kept them from ever really hurting each other. Until that day. There was nothing she could have done that day. Michael knew it was all his fault, too.

He felt a hand on his arm and jumped a foot as he turned.

"Where were you, kid?" Johnny asked.

"Just thinkin," he shrugged.

Johnny looked warily at him. "I sure hope I don't have to depend on you too much. Your thinkin instead of watchin is gonna get us both killed. Lay down and get some sleep. It'll be light in a few hours."

 

******

 

Michael snuggled down into his bedroll and Johnny stirred the fire to life. He was cold and it wasn't from the air. It was a hot night so he knew he had a fever. Not a surprise but very much an annoyance. He stood up and swayed a bit, closing his eyes until the dizziness passed. Taking a deep breath, he walked around the camp, stretching his legs and trying to keep himself awake.

Just a couple of hours and we can get moving again, he thought. I'll be glad to get this kid off my hands and get into a warm bed. Scott's gonna be mad at me for gettin shot. He grinned at that. As if he'd done it on purpose. Sometimes, his college educated brother didn't make much sense. Usually it was when Johnny managed to get himself hurt somehow. Then, Scott could rant and rave with the best of them. Even giving Murdoch a run for his money a time or two.

But he knew why Scott got so out of sorts and that thought provided him some warmth from inside. With a chuckle, he thought maybe he'd just keep thinking about Scott and stay warm all night long. Cocking a brow, he figured there were other thoughts that could keep him warm, as well. And they had nothing to do with his brother.

At the very least, these crazy thoughts passed the time and before he knew it, the sky was getting lighter. Johnny started a quick breakfast and saddled the horses with some effort. He knew he could do it with one arm but it was a chore. It took twice as long, too. But, finally, and after breaking a good sweat, he had everything ready. Everything except Michael.

Sighing heavily, Johnny walked over and kicked the kid's leg harder than he probably had to. For some reason, this one annoyed the devil out of him.

"Rise and shine. Breakfast is ready. Let's go," he spoke in a loud tone.

Michael groaned and rolled onto his side.

"Come on, boy. The day's a wastin," Johnny urged, giving him another swift kick - not to his leg this time.

"Hey!" Michael protested.

"Hey, nothin. Get up! Now!"

Grumbling under his breath, the younger man rose and headed to some bushes. He returned soon and squatted by the fire accepting a cup of coffee.

After taking a few sips, he looked at Johnny. "Are you always this agreeable?"

Johnny fought back the smile that threatened. Instead he gave the boy a hard look. "Yep."

Before Michael could finish his second cup, Johnny was breaking camp. He sighed heavily and extinguished the fire.

They mounted up wordlessly and headed on their way once more.

 

******

 

"I just don't know how much longer we can hold off. That's all I'm saying, Joe. You know the townsfolk have already heard Alicia is back. People want justice," Judge Cameron explained.

Sheriff Horner nodded his understanding. "This Lancer swears his brother is gonna bring Michael Martin back any day now."

"I don't know how. After a year the boy is going to be impossible to find," the judge sighed.

"Well, either this Lancer is the best tracker ever or his brother has too much faith in him. I ain't been able to figure out which it is yet," Horner smiled at the vehemence in which Scott Lancer had spoken yesterday.

On cue, Scott walked into the sheriff's office with Grace.

"Nothin yet," Horner answered the yet to be asked question.

"Young man, what makes you think your brother can find Michael Martin?" the judge asked.

"Your Honor, if anyone can, it's Johnny. He knows the border towns like the back of his hand. He knows where and how to look," Scott explained, tired of having to reassure these people. "My problem is, sir, that you both seem ready to believe Grace, yet you won't drop the charges against her."

"I told you before, it ain't that easy," Horner said.

"Might be a good idea if you started calling the young lady by her natural name, too. People hear you callin her Grace, reminds them that much more of what she done," the judge suggested.

Scott dipped his eyes then looked at his fiance. "That will take some getting used to."

She smiled and squeezed his hand. "We should hear something from Johnny soon, shouldn't we?"

"I'm sure he'll let us know something when there's something to know," Scott smiled back.

"He'd better. I'm setting the trial date for Thursday," the judge said.

"That's three days from now. Judge, you have to give my brother more time. Who knows how many towns he'll have to go through," Scott protested.

"Exactly my point, young man. He may be on a fool's errand. We can't stop the wheels of justice forever."

 

******

 

Johnny kept eyeing the sky. He reckoned Lady Luck had abandoned him. Guess she's done all she could do for you, Johnny boy. Figures, he thought. I'm in Texas where it hardly ever rains and it looks like the biggest thunderstorm of the year's about to hit. Yep, just my luck.

"Sure looks bad," Michael noted.

"Yeah, looks like we're gonna get wet. Just keep movin."

"How's your shoulder?"

Johnny looked over at him. "It's fine." After a minute of thought, he spoke again. "Look, if somethin was to happen. I mean, if I can't keep goin, I want you to head on to Abilene."

"You mean you just want me to leave ya out here?" Michael asked, not trying to hide his surprise.

"That's what I mean. Just tell my brother to come haul my carcass home," he grinned.

"Why're ya doin this?"

Johnny sighed. "My brother and your sister want to get married. Now, that can't hardly happen if she swings."

Michael swallowed hard at the image those words evoked. "You did all this because your brother is in love with Alicia? I kind of figured it was you that was sweet on her."

Johnny shook his head. "I'm not gonna let anything or anyone hurt my brother. That's something me and your sister have in common. Only difference bein what we're willin to do to make sure of it."

"What's that mean?" Michael asked.

"Grace, I mean, Alicia was willing to give her life for you. Me, I'm also willing to take a life for my brother." His voice was matter-of-fact. As if he'd just made an innocuous comment on the weather. Michael stared at him and once again wondered who this man really was.

That's when the rumbling started followed by a deluge the likes of which Johnny hadn't seen in quite some time. It reminded him of Corpus Christi and the hurricane he'd been so lucky to get caught up in. The wind howled and drove cold sheets of horizontal rain at them in alarming intensity.

Johnny thought they might have to seek shelter if it didn't ease up some. He couldn't see ten feet in front of him and the rain kept blowing in his eyes forcing him to keep his head turned to the side.

Barranca lowered his head against the onslaught as well, not happy with the situation. Fortunately, he was a damned fine horse and trudged onward. Michael's bay, however, was not so well-trained and he fought hard to keep control of the frightened animal.

Johnny watched the battle for a few minutes before reaching down and grabbing the bay's lead rein. His shoulder screamed at the movement and he groaned loudly. He wrapped the rein around his own saddle horn, giving enough play for the horse to keep going without taking off on him.

His skin was soaked through his shirt and jacket. His pants a sodden weight now. He'd never been so cold in his life he was sure. His hands were white and trembling, his fingers numb. He wished he'd brought his gloves but he'd only thought to bring the one. Just in case. And it wasn't designed for warmth, nor would it do him a fat lot of good if it were wet. That glove was specially made for one thing only. Designed to fit his left hand perfectly snug. He'd always taken special care with it. Never allowing it to get wet to keep the leather from shrinking.

Johnny shook his head. Stop thinking about that, he chastised himself. He knew he was getting sick; very sick. But he was determined to make it to Abilene. After that, it didn't much matter anymore.

Mercifully, the wind died down though the rain continued in a heavy downpour. At least it wasn't blasting them from the side. Johnny considered finding a town but then decided against it. He didn't trust this kid. He was sure he'd sneak off and get drunk at the first chance. It was a sad statement of the boy's life but that's all Johnny knew of him. He wasn't inclined to learn any more, though. He reckoned the kid would be dead pretty soon.

Instead, he found the best thing he could. As what little light there was faded, Johnny spotted a huge oak tree with a rotted out trunk. The tree was dead as dead could get and most of it had fallen away some years before, he imagined. But it was big enough for them to get into and protect them from the rain somewhat. A fire was what he wanted. That and some hot coffee.

He'd started feeling that irritation at the back of his throat about an hour ago. The vague scratchy feeling that told him he was getting sick. Not that he needed a reminder. He felt like hell. The water had been cascading off him, feeling like a river down his back. What he didn't know was the color of that water; a dark pink from the blood that mixed with the rain.

He let Michael tend the horses while he started a fire and put the coffee on. As the younger man joined him, Johnny handed off some jerky and a steaming cup.

"Ah, that's good," Michael commented after his first sip.

Johnny said nothing. In fact, he hadn't spoken for a long time and Michael was starting to worry. Had he said something to upset the man? He was certain he didn't want this guy mad at him. Whoever Johnny Lancer was, Michael had figured out he didn't want to be on his bad side anymore than he already was.

Johnny was clutching his cup in white knuckled hands and staring into the fire that was not warming him in the slightest.

"You okay, mister?"

Johnny looked up at him with glazed eyes and nodded.

"You're sick, ain't ya? That wound is infected," Michael surmised.

"Just remember what I said, kid. You get to Abilene no matter what," Johnny spoke in a husky raw voice.

Michael nodded but he wasn't so sure about this. "And what's your brother gonna do to me if I show up without ya?"

Johnny laughed but it turned into a deep chested cough. One that lasted entirely too long.

"I should check that bandage. There's still some of your shirt left," he offered.

Johnny only nodded and Michael pulled the material from the saddlebag. He helped Johnny remove his jacket and shirt, then the bandage and held back any reaction to what he saw. The wound was definitely infected. The edges were fiery red and the surrounding flesh was white from too much moisture. He swallowed hard and replaced the wrapping with fresh ones as quickly as he could.

"Ya know if we keep goin, we could be there by noon tomorrow," Michael suggested once he'd finished.

"And the horses?" Johnny asked in a whisper.

"An hour of rest should hold 'em."

Johnny considered this. It was probably best if they did move on. "Okay, an hour."

 

******

 

“Why'd you shoot your old man?” Johnny asked after a few minutes.

Michael dropped his head and stared at the fire. He was quiet for a long time. “I “I didn't mean to,” he finally answered in a whisper.

Johnny took as deep a breath as he could manage. “Why'd you run then?”

“I got scared. I didn't… I wasn't even sure if he was dead. I only meant to scare him! To keep him from puttin his hands on me again!” His voice rose an octave with a mixture of anger and pain.

“Did he hit you a lot?” Johnny asked, keeping his voice soft.

Michael shook his head. “He never hit me. Not even that day. He shoved me against the wall. I guess I was so shocked that he'd actually do that, ya know?”

Johnny nodded but he didn't really know. His stepfather never stopped at shoving. He reckoned this kid had had a pretty easy life.

“I guess it sounds pretty pathetic. It all just happened so fast. We'd argue all the time but it was never that bad before. I'd never seen him so mad,” Michael shook his head again.

Johnny looked at him, catching his eyes. “If you're waitin for sympathy from me, don't hold your breath. Sounds to me like you had it real good all your life. Nobody ever made you take responsibility for anything. That was your old man's fault, I guess. Still and all, a man can only take so much garbage, Michael. Then it's time to make a stand. Maybe he didn't mean to push you. Maybe you didn't mean to shoot him. But it happened just the same. A man has to own up to his mistakes and face the consequences.”

“I know that,” he replied softly.

“No, I don't think you do. Else you wouldn't have run away. I can see you getting scared. I can even see you takin off. But you stayed away. You never even bothered to find out if your old man made it. You took off like a coward. No, I don't think you have any idea what being a man is all about.”

Michael stared at him for a long beat, then dipped his eyes toward the flames once more. “My father was a real man. Wonder how come I turned out so different,” he mused.

“I don't have an answer for that, kid. All I know is it's time to go.”

It stopped raining near dawn but a fog formed over the land; swirling around the horses legs as they trudged through the mud. Johnny didn't know if it was warming up or not. His entire focus was on staying in the saddle at this point. He'd resignedly given over control of the situation to Michael though it was unspoken between them. Certainly, it was unwanted.

Barranca kept a steady, even gait, leading the way of his own volition. Michael kept a wary eye on Johnny. He'd figured out from what little the man had said that he'd better show up with Johnny Lancer or he wouldn't have to worry about the law. Scott Lancer would kill him first.

 

******

 

Scott walked out of the telegraph office wearing a scowl. Still no word from his brother. He looked at the blue sky, gauging the sun's position to be right at noon. Two more days before the trial. The lawyer that had been recommended seemed to know what he was doing. He was confident he could get Grace acquitted. Alicia, Scott chastised himself. He'd never get used to calling her that. Grace fit her so well.

A smile crossed his face as he walked toward the hotel. Yes, Grace fit her well. She was beautiful certainly and charming. Her smile could thaw a glacier. When she moved it was like watching a ballet. Subtle shifts of fabric which gave the appearance she was floating. She walked so softly, quietly. She reminded him of Johnny - the feminine version. She was much softer though and he was very grateful for that. Scott almost laughed out loud.Â

Why the sound of horses would seek his attention he didn't know. But Scott felt the need to turn around. A smile came to him but left quickly as he noticed the way his brother sat the saddle. Something was very wrong with this picture. He stepped off the boardwalk just as Michael pulled to a stop. Barranca walked right up to Scott and dropped his head.

"Johnny?" he called. Turning to Michael, he asked, "what happened?"

"He's been shot and I'm pretty sure he's got a fever. Been coughin like the dickens, too," the younger man spoke quickly as he dismounted.

Scott reached up and took Johnny's right arm. The touch brought the other man around. Johnny looked at his brother through glassy eyes and smiled.

"Hey, Scott. Guess we made it." It was the last thing he said before falling out of the saddle.

Scott grabbed him on one side as Michael took the other. They mostly dragged him into the hotel. Scott barked at the clerk to send for a doctor as they passed the desk.

 

******

 

Grace stared at the pages of the book, knowing she couldn't concentrate on the words. She finally gave up the pretense and closed the tome. Standing, she paced the room thinking she would go mad soon. The door flew open and she gasped.

Scott and Michael put Johnny on the bed and she went to his side. "What happened to him?"

"He's been shot and he has a fever. Where's the wound?" Scott explained, turning to Michael with the question.

"Left upper back. Just above his shoulder blade. I bandaged it but we didn't have much to work with," he explained then backed away.

The sound of the voice she had not heard for a year broke her stare. She looked at her brother and tears filled her eyes. She ran around the bed and flung herself into his arms.

"Michael. Oh, Michael," she cried.

"It's okay, Sis. I'm here. You're gonna be okay now," he said softly.

Scott removed his brother's sodden clothes, ignoring the two of them and focusing on the hot pale flesh he worked with. He moved the bandage away and nearly lost his lunch. The wound had festered. It was red and swollen and infection oozed from it. Scott's face burned as he whirled toward Michael.

"Who did this? And why the hell did you let him travel in this condition?!"

Michael glared at him. "The rurales shot him as we were leavin Palomas and he wouldn't stop. He told me if he couldn't make it to come by myself."

Scott's chest heaved as he fought for control of his anger. "Why did they shoot him?"

Shaking his head, Michael answered in a lower tone. "I don't know. I told him I was in good with them. All he said was he wasn't. I didn't understand it then anymore than I do now."

Scott understood though. He pieced together what he thought probably happened. The details weren't important at the moment. "Where's that damned doctor!?" he swore under his breath.

Grace filled a basin with water and began cooling Johnny's brow. He was too still and his breathing was too shallow. She felt deep guilt consume her. She knew if Johnny died, Scott would never forgive her.

 

******

 

"Well, I'll have to get that bullet out. There's no choice there. He has pneumonia as well," Doctor Robbins stated after his examination.

Scott felt his legs grow weak and he grabbed the bed post. "What are his chances?"

"Depends a lot on him. He has two infections warring inside him. I just don't know, young man. I'll do everything I can."

"Scott, should we send for Murdoch?" Grace asked.

He looked at her blankly for a moment until her question seeped into his mind. Before he could answer there was a knock at the door. Scott went to answer and found the sheriff.

He opened the door wider and waved the man inside.

Horner took in the room quickly and his eyes landed on Michael. "Well, boy, you ready to talk to me?"

"Yes sir," he answered quietly.

Horner nodded then looked at the doctor standing over his patient. "How's your brother?"

"He's very ill. He was shot and the wound's infected and he has pneumonia," Scott answered flatly.

Horner gave him a sympathetic nod and walked to the end of the bed. His eyes widened and his mouth fell open. He rounded the bed and sat on the edge of the mattress, taking the unconscious man's hand without even thinking about it.

"Johnny," he whispered.

Scott was beside him in a heartbeat. "You know him?"

Horner nodded then looked up at him. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"Tell you what?" Scott asked, perplexed.

"Why didn't you tell me it was Johnny Madrid? And why did you say he's your brother?" Horner was becoming angry and Scott had no idea why.

"He IS my brother and he's not Johnny Madrid anymore," he rounded.

"Johnny Madrid?" Michael breathed. "That explains a lot."

"Sheriff, is this a problem?" Scott asked.

Horner stood up and faced him. "Problem? No, it's not a problem. Just a good friend layin here about dead is all!" He took a deep breath and got himself under control.

"I had no idea," Scott said softly.

"No, don't expect you did. I'm sorry, it was just a surprise. Doc, you do everything you can for him. Understand?" Horner said with a meaningful cock of the brow.

"I will if you will all get out of my way," the doctor replied in a voice of authority.

 

******

Horner took Michael to jail and took his statement. Grace went with them and asked her lawyer to take his case and the man agreed. Scott stayed with his brother, waiting in the corner of the room out of the way. He felt dazed by all this. How could this be happening? All he wanted was to marry the woman he loved. To start a family of his own and to keep the one he already had.

It was taking forever to take that bullet out, or so it seemed to him. More than once he had to stop himself from asking the doctor how much longer. Finally, the physician stood up straight and stretched his back.

"Well, the bullet is out and I've cleaned and stitched the wound. It looks much better. Now, we need to sit him up higher in the bed. It will help his breathing."

"I'll get some extra pillows," Scott said and ran down to the front desk. He was back in less than a minute, not wanting to leave his brother at all.

Once they had Johnny positioned to the doctor's satisfaction, he gave Scott instructions on his care and promised to return in two hours time. He left a bottle of laudanum at the bedside.

Scott pulled a chair near and took Johnny's cold hand in his own. "Come on, brother. You can fight this, I know you can. You sure make things hard. Just a simple little chore. Go get Grace's brother. And you come back half ...." He stopped there, unwilling to even speak the word.

Scott watched the shallow breaths until there was nothing else in the world around him. Nothing but Johnny's breathing. That was the only thing that mattered. He thought as long as he kept watching, those breaths wouldn't stop.

The doctor came and went and Scott had no perception of time passing. Shadows fell in the room but he was unaware. Suddenly, he felt a hand on his shoulder and jerked around.

"I'm sorry. I called out but you didn't hear me," Grace said.

"It's alright. He's still breathing," Scott answered.

She frowned, thinking that was an odd response. "Are you alright?"

"No, Grace, I'm not alright. My brother is not alright," he said tiredly.

She swallowed back the tears and tried to keep her voice strong for him. "Let me sit with him, Scott. You need to rest."

"No, I'm not leaving him. Don't ask me to do that."

She nodded and walked over to the window, staring into the night, unseeing.

 

******

 

Dawn broke and Johnny had not stirred. The doctor was there, saying he was holding on. It was not what Scott wanted to hear. He stayed where he was, unwilling to move from his brother's side. He had talked off and on throughout the night, hoping Johnny could hear him. Praying his brother would awaken.

Grace had slept in a chair all night. She'd been unsuccessful in her attempts to get Scott to eat or sleep. Once more, she thought of Murdoch.

"Scott, I'm going to send a wire to your father," she spoke softly.

He only nodded his head, his eyes fixed firmly on Johnny's chest.

She opened the door and took a step back, startled at the presence there.

"Murdoch!"

Scott turned at this, breaking his vigil and staring at his father. Relief washed over him and his shoulders slumped.

Murdoch walked grimly into the room and to his sons. "How is he?"

"How did you know?" Scott asked.

Murdoch shook his head. "I didn't. I came because I decided it was best to be here. I stopped at the sheriff's office and he told me." He walked to the other side of the bed and sat on the edge. Taking Johnny's left hand in his own, he held tight.

"He has pneumonia. He hasn't moved since he got here," Scott reported miserably.

Murdoch leaned in close. "Johnny? I'm here, son. Wake up now." His voice was soft and gentle and Scott thought he might lose it. He dropped his head and fought the stinging in his eyes.

"Come on, son. Time to wake up, Johnny," Murdoch tried again.

A soft moan whispered through partly opened lips and Scott's head shot up. Everyone in the room held their breath and waited. Slowly, eyelashes fluttered and eyes moved beneath pale lids.

"That's it. Wake up for me, son."

Johnny opened his eyes and blinked several times, trying to focus. His eyes rested on his father and he smiled a little. "Murdoch?" It was more of a croak than anything else.

Murdoch motioned to Scott for water and helped Johnny drink, encouraging him to take as much as he could. But the effort tired him quickly and he sighed, closing his eyes as his head rested once more on the pillows.

Murdoch laid his hand on Johnny's cheek, softly stroking his face with a thumb. "Okay now?"

Johnny nodded then began to cough. He raised up and went right back down as the pain in his back awoke.

 

******

 

Murdoch reached behind him and pulled him up, laying Johnny against his own chest as he coughed harshly. He rubbed wide circles on Johnny's back, careful not to touch the wound.

When it was over, he laid Johnny back and saw the grimace of pain. "There's laudanum, son."

"No," he breathed.

"Johnny, please. It will help," Scott implored.

He shook his head weakly. "Can't."

"We're here, son. We've got your back. No one will hurt you. Please take the medicine," Murdoch nearly pleaded.

Johnny opened his eyes and found his father. "I can't," he whispered.

"Why, Johnny?" Murdoch asked.

"It makes me have nightmares," he sighed out then closed his eyes.

Both men were speechless at this admission. They had always assumed Johnny would not take laudanum because he was afraid of losing control. Afraid of being defenseless. Scott had even suspected he may have had a problem with overuse at one time. But, never would he have suspected this.

"Is that a side effect?" he asked his father.

"I don't know but it must be for Johnny," Murdoch said, almost relieved at the revelation. At least he knew now that it wasn't because Johnny didn't trust them. No, it wasn't that at all.

Johnny fell back into blessed sleep as the two men watched silently. Scott leaned back in his chair and sighed heavily, pulling a hand through his mussed hair. A knock on the door gave them both a start as Grace went to answer. Sheriff Horner walked into the room and nodded to the Lancers.

"Just wanted to see how he's doin," he explained.

"He's holding on, Sheriff. He was just awake a moment ago," Scott answered.

Horner nodded then turned to Grace. "That lawyer fella's with your brother. He wants ta talk to ya about your testimony."

"When is the trial?" Scott asked dully.

"Tomorrow morning," Grace replied then excused herself to gather her things from her own room.

"Are you going, son?"

Scott looked surprised by the question. As if he hadn't even considered it. The truth was, he hadn't. "No, I don't want to leave Johnny."

"I'm sure he'd understand," Murdoch replied.

Scott jumped from the chair and began to pace. "Yes, I'm sure he would. In fact, I'd lay odds on it. The problem is, I don't understand, Murdoch. I don't understand how I could have let my brother go to Mexico alone. Mexico! Of all the places in the world. And I just sent him on his way with a 'good luck'." His hand flayed in the air as he shook his head at his own failure.

Murdoch watched him but said nothing. What could he say? He couldn't deny the truth of Scott's words. It was just sad that it took this for Scott to see it for himself.

"I knew how dangerous it could be for him. I just kept telling myself he'd survived for years down there. That he could take care of himself. Never once did I think of all the suffering he endured in those years. Never once did I bother to consider what could happen. All I could think about was how he could help Grace," Scott continued his rant.

He stopped his pacing and turned to face his father, eyes tormented. "Why? Why did I do that?"

"Because you are in love, son. And because your fiance was in danger and you didn't want to lose her," Murdoch's words were soft but his heart pounded.

"Instead I lose my brother? That is not a trade I'm willing to make!" At this declaration, Scott stopped himself. He suddenly felt nausea overwhelm him. He didn't have to turn around. He knew she was standing there and had heard every word.

 

******

 

But Scott did turn and face her. Her eyes were full of tears as she looked forlornly at him.

"I'm sorry," was all she could think to say. She fled the room, running down the stairs and out the front door.

Scott stared at the open door, unmoving for a long moment. Finally, he turned to his father.

"Go," was all Murdoch said and Scott nodded then followed after her.

"What kind of people were they before all this?" Murdoch asked the sheriff after a moment.

Horner sighed and sat in the seat Scott had vacated. "Jedediah was a fine man. Honest and decent. Alicia was the same. She was always helpin others. Always involved in one charity or another."

"And Michael?"

Horner grimaced. "That boy never grew up. I don't know if it was his mama dyin when he was ten or what. Seems like he was always just a bad seed," he sighed.

Murdoch tensed at that. How many people had thought of his son that way over the years? But Johnny was never like that. Murdoch shouldn't be able to think that. After all, he hadn't known this young man at that time. But he could think it and with certainty because of the man Johnny was now.

"Jedediah tried but I reckon he just didn't know how to deal with the boy. Maybe the problem was he never took Michael to the woodshed, if ya know what I mean. Kids need some hard lessons sometimes and a way to remember 'em. I told him that myself a few times. Especially when he'd have to come get the boy out of my jail."

Murdoch looked up at the man.

"Well, he liked his drink but it never much liked him. He was a mean drunk, too. You know the kind," Horner explained.

"Yes, I know the kind. I suppose none of us really know how to be parents. It's not something that you get schooled on," Murdoch said.

"Oughta be. Ain't got none myself but, this one," he nodded toward Johnny, "came pretty close."

"What do you mean?" Murdoch furrowed his brows.

"Well, he wasn't no more'n seventeen when we met up." Horner began to laugh. "Brash, cocky and a real smart mouth. I liked him right off."

Murdoch chuckled as well. He would never admit it to a living soul but Johnny's mouth had impressed him even that first day. Even though it had also irked him.

"You rode together?" the rancher asked.

"Yeah for maybe six, seven months. Then, we parted ways."

"Why?"

Horner shrugged. "Not the kind of business that requires a partner. Johnny had his jobs, I had mine. But that boy left a lastin impression."

Murdoch smiled softly. "Yes, he has a way of doing that."

 

******

 

Scott walked briskly to the jail, his mind in turmoil. Had he really meant it? No, not the way it sounded. He wouldn't give up his brother but he wouldn't give her up either. There was no reason to even make a choice. Not now. But he should have chosen back home. He should have gone with Johnny. He knew all he had to do was insist on it and Johnny would have given in. He knew because he knew his brother.

Opening the door, he was met by a deputy who stood quickly from the desk chair. He seemed to already know why Scott was there and poked his head in the cell area to announce the man's arrival.

Instead of waving him in, the deputy held up a stalling hand. Grace appeared then, eyes red and swollen.

Scott walked up and took her in his arms. "I'm so sorry. I really didn't mean that the way it sounded. I'm just so worried about my brother."

She held on tightly and tried to stop crying. "I know. I'm sorry I ran out on you. You don't need more worry laid on your shoulders." She looked up into his eyes. "Scott, I don't want you at the trial. You need to be with Johnny and I need to be with Michael."

"You need me, too," he pointed out.

"Always," she smiled wanly. "But, right now, we both know what's most important. I have enough guilt without taking you away from your brother again."

Scott frowned. "Again? You never took me away from Johnny."

Sighing heavily, she walked to a chair and sat. "No, but I wanted to. God forgive me for being so selfish! I told myself it was because I sensed he was a danger for you. The truth is, I was jealous of your relationship. For so many reasons, I suppose, but mainly because of Michael. I lost him the same day I lost my father." She shook her head in self-disgust. "I know it makes no sense, Scott. Maybe I didn't realize just how close the two of you are. What Johnny did for you was ..... just amazing."

"No more amazing than what you did for Michael," Scott replied as he knelt in front of her, still reeling from this confession. "I had no idea you felt that way about Johnny."

"I know you didn't. I'm sure he didn't either. I was pleasant and friendly but every time I felt myself liking him, I conjured up some horrible thing to make me dislike him. I think I'm just plain evil," she said forlornly.

Scott had to smile at this. "Let's not be so machiavellian. You're hardly evil, Grace."

"I'm hardly wise either. All I had to do was look to see what an incredible family I was gaining with you."

"Was? You talk as if it's over," Scott said, holding his breath without realizing it.

She looked into his eyes and tears welled again. "How could you want me in your life after all of this? How can you not turn your back on me?"

Scott grabbed her arms firmly. "Because I love you. Never doubt that. Yes, you should have told me the truth. You should have confessed to me before my father had to ask. But you didn't and I understand it was because you were afraid. You've been running from this for far too long, Grace. Not just from the law, but from the truth of what happened. The truth that your brother killed your father."

"He didn't mean to, Scott. It was an accident. He told me everything," she said quickly.

"That's good that it wasn't intentional. Nevertheless, you have to face it and whatever happens to Michael. You have to be prepared to move on with your life. Can you do that?"

 

******

 

Horner left and Murdoch resumed his full focus on his son. He stared openly at the pale face before him. The soft, shallow breaths taken through partly opened lips. The eyelids that moved constantly as he dreamed.

"I hope it's a good dream, son," Murdoch whispered as he laid a hand on Johnny's forehead. He closed his eyes and prayed again for what seemed the millionth time. When he opened his eyes again, he was caught in the deep blue stare.

"Hi," Johnny whispered.

"Hi. How do you feel?"

"Lousy," he breathed out.

Murdoch frowned and poured some water then helped Johnny drink.

"You'll have to do better than that, Johnny."

"Can't. Hard to breathe."

Murdoch clenched his jaw to control his emotions. "Sheriff Horner was just here."

Johnny frowned and shook his head.

"Joe Horner?" Murdoch prodded his memory.

A smile graced Johnny's lips followed by a soft chuckle. "Sheriff?" he laughed then began to cough hard.

Murdoch held him up as he fought the hacking. "Easy son, take it easy," he whispered.

Finally, it ended and Johnny laid back against the pillows, exhausted and breathing hard. It took too long in Murdoch's opinion for his breathing to ease. He watched anxiously as Johnny worked on control.

"Better?"

Johnny nodded and opened his eyes. There was a gleam there that made Murdoch's heart skip a beat.

"Sheriff, huh? This I gotta see," he grinned.

"I'm sure you'll get that chance," Murdoch returned the grin.

"Where's Scott?"

"He's at the jail with Grace. He'll be back soon."

The tone of his father's voice worried Johnny and he studied the now so familiar face. "What?"

"Nothing, son. They'll work it out. I don't want you worrying about anything but getting well. Understood?" he gave his most stern look.

That look was greeted with another smile as it no longer had the desired affect on him. The smile faded however, replaced by a frown. "He said it was an accident. That the gun went off and he didn't mean it."

Murdoch inhaled deeply. "Well, he has a good lawyer, son. Don't worry about Michael."

Johnny dropped his eyes and stared at his hands. "Seems like some kind of common thing. Fathers and sons not gettin along."

Murdoch watched the pained expression. Even though he couldn't see his son's eyes, he knew what Johnny was thinking. "Yes. Sometimes things work out well and sometimes they don't. I'm just grateful things worked out for us."

Johnny looked up. "Me too. Only, you don't know how ....." he stopped, unwilling to speak the words. Unwilling to tell his father how close he'd come to killing him that first day. Unwilling to even admit it to himself fully.

"What is it, son?" Murdoch asked. But Johnny didn't finish as the door opened and his brother appeared.

 

******

 

Scott's expression immediately brightened as he saw Johnny awake. "Hey, welcome back," he smiled.

"Hey, how's Grace?" Johnny asked in a creaking voice.

Scott crossed the distance between them quickly and sat beside his brother. "She's holding up. How are you?" He felt a stab of guilt. Johnny was still more worried about his happiness than his own health.

But the younger man only shrugged in reply.

Murdoch frowned at that response and was more verbal with his own. "He feels rotten, it's hard to breathe and he just had a bad coughing spell."

A grin caressed the ill man's face. "Like I said," he shrugged again.

Scott smiled but it was fleeting. With a crease across his forehead he looked intently at his brother. "Johnny, I'm so sorry. I should have gone with you."

The smile was now gone from Johnny's face as well and he dropped his eyes. "You would've just slowed me down," he mumbled.

"You know that's not true."

Murdoch cleared his throat and stood. "I'm going to stretch my legs. I'll be back," he announced and left quickly.

Scott waited until he heard the soft click of the door being pulled shut. "I should have been there to watch your back. I thought about following you but I didn't know where you'd started or where you might be." It sounded lame to his own ears and he couldn't look at his brother.

Johnny sighed softly. "It was just a turn of bad luck, brother. Two minutes sooner and we woulda been home free. Besides, Grace needed you."

Scott quirked a smile at that. "You needed me too. We swore to always have each other's back and I let you down."

Johnny looked up then and met the pale blue eyes. "Yeah, but women complicate things," he said with a smirk.

Scott laughed softly and briefly. "Will you accept my apology and my promise that I will never let you down again?"

"No need to apologize, Scott. And you didn't let me down," Johnny insisted stubbornly.

Scott stood up and paced to the window, arms crossing over his chest. He leaned against the sash and regarded his brother. "Why can't you just admit that I DID let you down and I DO owe you - and not just an apology, either."

"You owe me, brother. No doubt about that. But what I did, I did on my own. I didn't ask for your help and I didn't expect it. Grace needed all of us to stand behind her. This was the one way I knew I could help her."

Scott opened his mouth then closed it again; taking a moment to gather his thoughts. "She's jealous of you," he admitted softly.

 

******

 

Johnny frowned and looked hard at him, sure he'd heard wrong. "What?"

Scott walked back over and sat down. "I said she's jealous of you. Of our relationship. She admitted that to me today. She said she thought to keep us apart so she wouldn't have to share me with you. She regrets those feelings now."

Johnny had no answer for this. He was stunned that she had felt that way. Shock waned and anger replaced it. His eyes smoldered as he clenched his jaw. Closing his eyes, he fought back the ire but it was costing him. In his body and soul. He tried to take a deep breath and regretted it immediately as his body began to shake with yet another coughing jag.

Scott grabbed his shoulders so he was more upright and rubbed his back as he'd seen Murdoch do. It had seemed to help before but not this time. Johnny gasped for air and Scott began to feel panic rise within him. His eyes darted around the room and he prayed someone would come to help. He couldn't leave Johnny yet he needed the doctor desperately. His brother couldn't breathe.

Finally, Johnny cleared the obstruction that was suffocating him. Scott grabbed a nearby towel and he spat the foul infection into it. But the coughing continued, though much less harsh, for several minutes. At least he can breathe, Scott thought.

At last, Johnny stopped and slumped back against the pillows. Sweat covered his red face and ran down from his forehead. Scott wet a cloth and soothed the hot brow. Then he offered his brother water which Johnny drank greedily until he pulled it away.

"You'll get sick," he warned.

Johnny barked a laugh at this ridiculous statement. "Ya think?" he shot, though it was just a whisper. His throat was sore and his voice hoarse.

Scott ignored the jab. "What happened? You seemed to be ...... I don't know," he trailed off, unsure what it was he'd seen on his brother's face before the terrifying spasm.

Johnny looked down at his hands in his lap and considered if he should speak it. After a lengthy debate within his own mind, he figured the hell with it.

"I got mad because of what Grace said. She doesn't even know me and she was plannin' on trying to come between us. Why would she do that?" he asked as he raised his eyes to meet his brother's.

Scott dropped his own gaze. "I don't know, Johnny. She said she fought liking you. She said she was jealous and made herself believe you were a danger to me." His voice was soft and reticent, as if he hated speaking the words.

Johnny thought about this for a bit before speaking again. His hands clenched and unclenched the bedcover. "I'm a danger to you? That's rich!" he finally vented. At the perplexed look he received, he continued. "Who's laid up with a bullet hole in the back and pneumonia? Maybe she should've thought about what a danger she is to me!"

"Johnny, please don't hate her," Scott pleaded.

"I don't hate her, Scott. It takes a lot for me to hate someone. But, she hurt you and a lot of other people by lyin. So, you'll forgive me if I'm not her biggest admirer." He sighed and shook his head slowly. "I'm too tired to talk about this anymore." With that, he leaned his head back and closed his eyes. This conversation was over - for now.

Scott watched him for a few seconds then leaned back in the chair and closed his own eyes. He couldn't blame his brother. He wasn't sure what he felt anymore. He loved her but Johnny was right; she had hurt a lot of people.

 

******

 

"Do you think he'll forgive you?" Michael asked.

"Would you?" Grace countered.

Michael stared at her for a long moment. "I don't know, Sis. If someone had treated you the way you treated Johnny, I'm not sure I could forgive them."

She stood and paced the small confines of the cell area. Three paces to and three paces fro was all the length she could gain. It wasn't enough. She wanted to run, scream, cry.

"He's dangerous. He's Johnny Madrid," she argued.

"You didn't know that until just recently."

She scowled at him then her face dropped. "No, I didn't. I talked myself into disliking him. Why did I do that, Michael?" Her question was more of a desperate plea and it nearly broke the young man's heart to see her in such a state.

"Might wanna ask yourself that question, little girl."

She turned to see Sheriff Horner leaning against the door jamb.

"I have asked it; a million times. I never have an answer," she said disconsolately.

He cocked a brow as he studied her. A smile tugged at his lip as an idea struck him. Twitching his mouth to one side of his face then the other, he considered whether to voice his observation.

"Maybe you ain't been askin the right part. Maybe you should be askin your heart, not your head," he suggested.

She frowned at him in total bewilderment.

Horner sighed and looked at her with something akin to pity. "Have ya got feelins for the man or not?"

Her eyes grew as wide as an owl's as her mouth fell open. It moved, trying to give voice to her thoughts, but it took several seconds for the sound to reach outside her throat. "That is ridiculous! I love Scott!"

Horner laughed a little and nodded his head. "I know ya do. Seen how ya are with him. That don't mean you can't have feelins for his brother."

She sat - no plopped - onto the chair where she'd earlier been perched. Still wide-eyed, she considered the sheriff's theory.

 

******

 

Dr. Robbins listened for a long time before unbending his tall frame from over the bed. "Well, you sound better. That infection you coughed up last night did a lot of good. You do need to keep coughing, young man. Get it up and out of there."

Johnny grimaced, remembering the aftertaste of the foulness.

Dr. Robbins laughed a little. "I know it's quite unpleasant but necessary. Now, how do you feel overall?"

Johnny shrugged then his father locked eyes with him. He grinned boyishly. "Better but still weak; tired."

"Your fever is way down. I'd say you have a good chance for a full recovery," Robbins announced.

"How long before I can go home?" Johnny asked.

"Oh, I'd say about a week yet. I know that isn't what you want to hear but I can't, in good conscience, release you until I feel you're ready."

Johnny scowled at him, started to ask him if he knew Sam Jenkins, then just looked away.

Murdoch thanked the doctor and saw him to the door then turned to face the wrath. But there was none as Johnny stared quietly into space. Murdoch frowned and looked to his elder son who could only look away himself.

Sighing, the rancher sat on the bed and laid a hand on Johnny's knee. "What is it, son?"

Johnny looked at him and shook his head. "Nothin. Just wanna go home."

Murdoch looked at him, then Scott, then back at Johnny. "Did you two have a disagreement?"

"No, Sir. No disagreement," Scott quickly answered.

"Then what?" the older man persisted.

"It's nothing, Murdoch. We just have some things to talk out," Scott replied tightly.

Sighing, Murdoch shook his head. "Well, get them talked out then. I'd like a little peace for once." He stood and walked to the door. "I'm going to see about some lunch for us then take a walk. Get to talking," he stated with an ascetic look and a firm voice.

Neither man wanted to start. Neither wanted to discuss it any further. The room fell silent as Johnny stared at his lap and Scott stared out the window. For long moments it remained this way.

"Johnny, I ...." Scott was interrupted by a knock at the door. Frustrated by the intrusion but grateful as well, he answered.

 

******

 

Johnny looked up to see Grace standing there staring at him. His face turned to stone and he looked away.

She felt her resolve weaken when she looked at the fierceness in his eyes; knowing Scott had told him her fears. Summoning her courage, she turned to Scott. "May I have a few moments alone with Johnny?"

Surprise wasn't the word for it. Scott cocked a questioning brow at his brother who simply nodded.

"I guess I'll catch up with Murdoch for that walk," he said lamely and left them alone.

She felt claustrophobic all the sudden. The walls were closing in and the room was too small. There was no air to her though the lace curtains billowed in the breeze.

Johnny watched as a look of panic consumed her. A quirky smile crossed his lips.

"Don't worry, I ain't gonna shoot you," he spat.

She jerked her head around to stare at him. As if just now realizing he was there. Blinking several times, she took a deep breath and walked closer. "I know," she whispered.

"What do you want?" he asked harshly.

"To talk to you. To try and figure out why I .... what made me ..... " The words were gone now. The ones she'd so carefully thought through. The ones she had practiced in her head. In the face of his anger, she lost her nerve.

"Ain't hard to figure. You've been running for so long, jumping at every shadow, afraid to relax for even a second. Makes it hard to trust. But you trusted Scott, fell in love with him and it scared the hell out of you. You figured if you got him away from us, the two of you could run together. Though, I doubt you woulda ever told him what you were runnin from. I guess you thought he'd just follow you like a lost pup or somethin. Waggin his tail just because you smiled at him." Though his voice was soft, almost melodic, the emotion was clear.

"You have every right to hate me, Johnny. Every right to be angry with me."

"Gee, thanks," he snorted.

"But, you're wrong about something. I never intended to try and take Scott away. To run with him. I wanted to set down roots, start a family, be happy. Yes, I was terrified of being caught. But, Scott made me less afraid. I felt safe with him and I knew he'd protect me," she explained as she ventured to sit in the chair by his bed.

"Then you just don't like me. That's fine. You don't have to. But you had no right to plot and plan on takin my brother away from me," he spoke with more venom now.

"No, I didn't. I had no right. I keep asking myself why but nothing makes any sense. Sheriff Horner," she stopped, embarrassed to voice the lawman's opinion.

"What? Sheriff Horner what?" he asked, curious as to what his friend might have said about this.

She dropped her eyes, her cheeks flushing with heat. "It doesn't matter. It's ridiculous. I don't know what made him even say such a thing," she muttered.

"Say what?" he pressed.

Looking back up at him, her eyes could not quite meet his. "That I might be attracted to you and that's why I avoided you. Why I wanted to stay away from you which meant keeping Scott away from you as well."

Johnny stared at her for a beat then burst out laughing.

She watched, fury rising in her as he laughed harder. "It's not funny!" she demanded.

Johnny got himself somewhat under control. Still chuckling, he managed to say, "Oh, but it is. It's hilarious. Joe always did have a warped sense of humor," he said, still smiling.

The mirth died down as he regarded her. "I think you are one messed up lady, Grace. I don't know why you did all the things you did. All I know is, you need to figure yourself out before you marry my brother. If that's what you both still wanna do."

When she didn't answer him, he leaned toward her. "You do still want to marry Scott, don't you?"

"I don't know that he still wants me. He says he does but how can he?" she asked softly.

"If he said it, he meant it. Why don't matter. Love makes no sense," he said and leaned back.

She had to smile at this. It was very true. Why Scott Lancer loved her was unfathomable. But he did and she was sure of it. She also knew he meant what he said and didn't lie - ever. So was it herself she questionedd? Did she still want to marry him? A very loud YES screamed in her mind. The real question was: would they be able to have a life together after all this?

"I don't think I can marry him until you and I come to an understanding. I don't want any ill feelings between us, Johnny. I know this is all my fault. All of it. And maybe you're right. Maybe I am very messed up. I used to be such a nice person," she sighed at the last sentence.

"Then find that girl again. A person can turn themselves hard, cold and mean when they have to. Sometimes, it's near impossible to find that other person, that good person inside," he said in a distant, hollow voice.

She cocked her head and considered him. "Are you talking about me or you?"

He blinked once and looked at her. "Anybody."

"Did you ...." she bit her lip but decided to press on. "Did you like being a gunfighter?"

Johnny smiled a little. "No." It was a simple answer and all he was inclined to give her.

She accepted it and smiled back. "Do you think we can get along, Johnny? I mean really get along?"

Taking a deep, slow breath, he let it out just as slowly. "I liked you, Grace. From the start, I liked you. Now, I don't know if it was the real you or someone you made up to impress Scott's family. I think we're gonna have to start from scratch. But, don't let that keep you from the alter. Scott wants you and that's all there is to it. I won't stand in his way."

"You are an amazing man, Johnny Lancer. Is there nothing you won't do for Scott?" she asked.

"Nothing," he answered simply once again.

 

******

 

Scott paced outside the general store, waiting for his father to purchase a few items. He was worried, strained to the point of breaking something inside himself. Were they talking or arguing? Would Johnny be able to forgive her? It was a lot to ask, he knew. He wasn't sure how easily he himself could put this behind him. How could he expect his brother to?

He sighed and looked through the window impatiently. What had caught Murdoch's eye? They were simply walking past when his father suddenly stopped and darted inside. Calling behind him that he'd be just a minute. Well, a minute was long past now. Scott wanted to get back to the hotel. Wanted to make sure they were both all right.

He knew, certainly, Johnny would not hurt her. But his brother had been angry and rightfully so. Still, Scott knew Johnny's tongue could cut as sharply and swiftly as a well-honed knife when he wanted.

Murdoch appeared with a large, wrapped package and simply nodded to indicate he was ready. Scott turned back toward the hotel with staggering speed.Â

The bigger man smiled at his son's impatience. He didn't know what was happening or why Grace wanted to speak toJohnny. He imagined at first it was to thank him but one look at Scott's face told him that was not the case. More unsettled than before, Murdoch began to question whether this girl would be a good addition to his family.

What she had done, he could forgive. Lying to them all about it and putting his son's life in danger was going to take a lot more. He hadn't demanded an explanation - yet. Too much was happening and Johnny needed him too much right now. But, sooner or later, he would get answers.

 

******

 

"What's happening with Michael's trial?" Johnny asked.

She sighed and sat back in the chair. "There were a lot of motions and other things going on this morning. I expect to testify tomorrow. The lawyer thinks he can get the charges reduced. Maybe he won't hang," she dipped her eyes and shuddered at the thought.

"He told me what really happened."

She looked up, surprised at this.

"I told him he needed to be a man and face what he's done," he continued.

She nodded. "That must be why he seems so different now. He seems to be taking that responsibility. You must have made an impression on him."

Johnny grimaced. "The only impression I wanted to make was on his backside. He's a spoiled brat and so are you," he spoke angrily.

"How dare you? You don't know anything about us," she slammed.

Johnny's eyes narrowed as he looked at her. "I know a lot about you. Now, anyway. Him, I had pegged in two seconds. You know what your problem is? You never grew up. Either one of you. Your daddy did all the worrying and decision making for you. Neither one of you had to lift a finger or work a day in your life for what you had. You don't know what it's like to be hungry or really alone. You have no idea how hard life is, Grace. And let me tell you one more thing," he said and leaned forward to make his point. "If you think marrying Scott and living at the ranch means you don't have to work, you're in for a big surprise. Think about that long and hard before you go any further. Don't marry my brother and then decide it's too hard and run off again."

She stared speechless at him. The vehemence in which he spoke startled and frightened her. "You have a lot of anger in you," she finally said.

"May be. But I know what I'm talkin about," he answered, leaning back against the pillows. His tirade had worn him out and he sighed heavily.

"It's not going to work, is it?" she asked in a small voice.

Johnny opened his eyes and looked at her. Everything in him wanted to shout NO. But it wasn't his decision to make. If Scott married her, he would deal with it. If she hurt his brother again, he'd deal with that, too. He never answered and the door opened, revealing his family.

 

******

 

Scott's eyes darted between the two of them. "Is everything alright in here?" he asked hesitantly.

"Fine, brother. We're done here," Johnny said in a tone that left no room to argue.

She sighed and nodded her head then rose and walked to Scott. "I'll see you later," she whispered and left the room.

There was a long silence in the wake of her departure. Murdoch broke it by handing Johnny the package he held.

"What's this?" Johnny asked.

"Just some things you need. A new shirt, that sort of thing," he shrugged.

Why this simple gesture struck him so hard, Johnny couldn't say. He swallowed and looked gratefully at his father before opening the package. His face lit in delight at the blue shirt with intricate embroidery. He fingered the artful stitches delicately.

"Thank you," he whispered.

"You're welcome, son. Lunch should be here any time now."

They ate in silence, a curtain of tension draped over them all. Murdoch watched his sons brood and almost asked. But he wanted to wait and see if they would talk it out.

Johnny made a valiant effort to eat but it was too much a chore. He leaned back, closed his eyes and drifted away.

He awoke to the feel of a large, calloused hand on his forehead.

"You nodded off," Murdoch smiled.

"Guess so. How long?" he asked sleepily.

"Just a few minutes. Your fever is still down. Try and get some sleep, son."

Johnny looked past him to see Scott watching. He knew his brother wanted to talk but he just wasn't up to the task. He simply closed his eyes again.

 

******

 

When he opened his eyes again, the room was darker. Low light flickered from a lamp across the room. Scott sat in the chair beside him, head on chest, breathing evenly. He scanned the room and found no evidence of his father. Probably sleeping, Johnny thought.

Sighing, he reached out for the glass of water on the bedside table but it was just out of his grasp. Frustration poured in and he felt like cussing. Grinding his teeth, Johnny reached further. His fingers barely touched the glass and he fell back in the bed feeling useless.

"Need a hand?" Scott asked.

"That'd be nice," he clipped.

Scott handed the glass to him and replaced it once Johnny was finished.

"You might want to put that where I can reach it this time," Johnny said sarcastically.

"I might but then I'd have nothing to do but sit here," Scott retorted with a grin.

"Don't have to sit there. Not on my account."

"You are grumpy this evening," Scott frowned.

"Some reason I should be in a good mood?" Johnny glared at him.

"Not if you're feeling worse. Are you?"

"No, I'm not feeling worse. Feel better, I guess. Not so hot and I can breathe pretty good," he answered, changing his tone to a softer one.

"Do you feel up to telling me what you and Grace talked about?"

Johnny looked at him in consideration. "That was between us, brother. If she wants to tell you, that's fine. I'm sure she will anyway. At least part of it."

"I don't understand," Scott replied.

"Just that I wasn't very polite," Johnny said, then looked over with a cocked brow. "I hope you weren't expectin me to be."

"I don't know what I expected. I certainly didn't expect her to come here the day Michael's trial started."

"She said it was a lot of lawyer stuff today. At least, this morning," Johnny sighed.

There was silence for a long moment before Scott spoke again. "Do you want to talk?"

"About what?"

"About us, Johnny. About how I treated you."

"We already talked about that, Scott. Nothing more to say."

"Nothing's been resolved, brother," Scott reminded him.

Johnny looked at him for a long time, studying his face, his expression, and seeing the concern there. "Look, what happened wasn't your fault. None of this is your fault. You got nothin to be sorry for, Scott. I'm not mad at you, I never was."

"And Grace? Are you mad at her?"

"Oh, yeah. I'm plenty mad at her. She lied to you. She lied to all of us. I can understand her protecting her brother but she shouldn't have pulled anybody else into it the way she did."

Scott nodded. He couldn't disagree. Though he would never regret knowing her, he wished she'd been honest with him before accepting his marriage proposal. His thoughts began to drift back in time to another engagement and he shook his head to keep it at bay.

"So, where are we now?" Scott asked.

"Abilene. Ain't you been payin attention?" Johnny grinned. The smile faded as he turned serious. "Right where we always were, brother. I never expected you to go with me. I didn't want you to. I knew what might happen. It was my decision. That's it and that's all." he said, cutting his hand through the air with finality.

Scott smiled a little at the stubbornness. "I still owe you."

A devilish grin spread across the younger man's face. "Yeah, you sure do."

 

******

 

Scott walked into the courtroom just before the proceedings started. He found Grace sitting behind Michael and joined her with a smile and a finger to his lips to shush her questions.

"Johnny insisted," he whispered as the sheriff called for all to rise.

The morning began with Grace's testimony. Scott's heart broke as he listened to her recall the events of that terrible day. By the end, she was sobbing.

She retook her seat and he held her, trying to console her. Michael turned in his seat, eyes wet with held back tears. He'd caused it all and there was no way he could ever make it up to her.

It was a simple trial really. The most pressing issue was intent. Michael's attorney presented a believable closing argument. The jury began deliberations and all they could do now was wait.

Grace and Scott sat in a small room with Michael while they awaited a verdict.

"Scott, I want to apologize to you and your family for all the trouble I've caused," Michael suddenly said.

The older man was a bit taken aback but kept his composure. "It's your sister you need to apologize to," he said flatly.

"I have, many times," he replied, giving her a small smile.

Sheriff Horner came in thirty minutes later. The jury was ready. No one knew if this was a good sign so they went back into the courtroom holding their collective breath.

 

******

 

Scott walked Grace out of the courthouse and they stood on the boardwalk a few minutes. She let out a soft sigh and looked up at him, trying hard to smile.

"I don't know what to do," she said.

"Let's go see how Michael's holding up. Maybe, then you'll feel like eating something," he suggested.

She squeezed his bicep as she slipped her other arm through his.

Sheriff Horner was ready for them. He simply hooked a thumb toward the back room when they walked in, remaining in his seat.

Scott pulled out a chair for her and she sat beside the cell bars as Michael sat a foot away from her.

"Are you alright?" Scott asked as he leaned against the wall behind Grace.

"I'd say I'm pretty lucky. Prison will be hard but it beats hanging," he said, trying to sound cheerful.

Grace began to cry softly and he reached through the iron bars, taking her hand. "Don't, Sis. Really, it'll be alright."

Scott suddenly felt out of place and he stood up straight. "Why don't I wait for you outside? Give you two some time alone," he smiled then bent down and kissed her forehead before disappearing.

"You got a good man there, Sis."

She frowned and dropped her eyes. "Yes, I know. Too good. He deserves better than I've given him."

"Alicia...."

"No, Michael. It's the truth. Scott and his family deserve so much better. And I was thinking something else. You're going to be locked up in that prison all alone. You'll need someone nearby to come visit you. Someone to keep your spirits up," she sniffled.

He looked incredulously at her. "No! I'm not gonna be the reason for you to lose anything else!"

"Listen to me, Michael. I can't marry Scott. I love him too much. I'm afraid. I don't think I'll make a very good wife for him. All I ever wanted was to be with him but, it's impossible," she sobbed openly.

"Why, Sis? He wants you," Michael asked, trying to understand.

"I know," she cried and wiped her eyes. Taking a deep breath, she composed herself. "You need me. We're family. It's that simple. Scott will understand."

"I doubt it. I think you're makin a big mistake, Alicia. I hope you know what you're doin. Just don't use me as an excuse, okay? I've been on my own for a year now and I can handle it."

Scott paced the sheriff's office until Horner was ready to throw him out. Just as he was about to do that very thing, Alicia walked out and he sighed in gratitude.

"Get him out of here, girl. He's drivin me crazy!" Joe ordered.

Scott grimaced at him and opened the door for her.

Joe sighed and went to check on his prisoner once before he headed off to finally, hopefully, visit with Johnny.

 

******

 

"Easy, son. Just a couple of more steps," Murdoch urged gently.

"I've got it," Johnny said and grunted heavily as he sat in the chair. He closed his eyes and gave himself a minute to rest before looking out the hotel window. Something besides four walls to look at. Dios, gracias!

Murdoch watched his face and chuckled as he sat across from his son.

"What?" Johnny asked.

"Nothing. It's just that you'd think you were born outside as much as you prefer it."

Johnny smiled. "What's not to prefer?"

Scott walked in, hat in hand. His eyes went first to the bed, then with concern darted about the room before finding his brother. A smile lightened the dark expression of his face. "You're up."

"I am. What happened?" Johnny came to the point.

Scott's face fell and he turned to put his hat down before facing them again. "He got fifteen years."

Johnny whistled lowly and Murdoch sighed.

"Grace has decided to stay here so she can be close to the prison and visit him," he added much more softly.

Murdoch stood and walked to his son, placing a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry, son."

Scott nodded. "Thank you. I suppose it's for the best."

"Is it?" Johnny asked softly.

Scott walked over and sat on the arm of the chair Murdoch had occupied. "It must be. It's hard but, somehow, it doesn't hurt as much as I thought it would."

"Maybe you both just need some time and distance," Murdoch suggested.

Scott nodded. "Maybe. So, I assume the doctor said you could get up?"

"Nice try, brother, but if you want to talk," Johnny smiled and left the invitation open.

 

******

 

Johnny wasn't convinced it didn't hurt so much. Scott was good at keeping his emotions in check. Must be a family trait, he thought sardonically. He sat in the chair by the window in anticipation. Joe was coming and he was, for once, awake to see his old friend. A smile crossed his face, thinking of the man. Sheriff! He had to hear this!

Soon, the man himself arrived and they were left alone to visit. After several handshakes, pats on the backs and you look goods, they settled across from each other; both with big smiles.

"So, what's this about you thinkin Grace was attracted to me?" Johnny started right in.

Joe laughed heartily. "It was just a thought. All the gals used to fall all over ya. I figured she weren't no different."

Johnny grinned wickedly. "Well, those were different sorts of girls."

"True enough, amigo. Now, tell me all about this family business."

Johnny knew it wouldn't take long for him to ask so he told his friend the whole story. He was a bit winded by the end of his tale.

Joe whistled softly. "That's somethin, Johnny. I'm real happy for ya."

"Thanks. Now then, *sheriff*" he cocked a brow.

"What? I'm a respectable man," Joe laughed. "Ah, hell, Johnny. You know I'm gettin up there in years. Couldn't keep up with all them young pups always comin up. Just happened ta be in the right place at the right time, is all. I like it, though."

Johnny smiled. "I'm glad to hear it, Joe. Maybe you could tell me somethin?"

"Sure, what is it?"

"It's about Grace; I mean Alicia. Whatever her name is. She's stayin here."

Joe nodded. "I heard. Told her it was stupid. So did her brother but she wasn't hearin it."

"I don't understand, is all. If she loves Scott like she claims, why would she give that up?"

"Johnny, that girl has been messed up since her daddy died. She was his pride and joy and yeah, he spoiled her. I don't reckon she's ever give herself time to grieve over 'im."

Johnny thought about this for a long time. "Seems to me she's lookin for a way out. That it's too hard for her to work on a marriage. If that's the case, it's best to break it off now. No sense in gettin hitched if she's just gonna run out on him." There was anger in his voice and resentment.

Joe studied him and knew it wasn't Alicia he was thinking about. "Did you ever know why your mama lied to ya?"

Johnny's head jerked up, stunned by what he thought was a change in subject. "No, I never figured it out."

"Seems you're puttin her and Alicia in the same place. Alicia ain't like Maria."

"I know that!" Johnny sighed and gave Joe an apologetic smile. "At least, I hope not. I just don't want to see my brother hurt anymore, that's all."

Joe smiled. "Your brother. Ain't that a hoot? You two seem real close."

"We are. We fight sometimes but nothin too serious," Johnny laughed.

"And your old man?"

A soft sigh escaped Johnny's lips. "It was pretty rough at first. Wasn't sure it was gonna work out. But, well, we're doin real well now."

"I'm glad, Johnny. You always was different from them others."

"Yeah? So were you," Johnny grinned.

They talked about old times and old friends. Johnny told Joe about Wes and Isham. Joe didn't think either was a great loss but he didn't speak it. He knew Johnny was loyal to his friends and would not speak ill of them even if it was warranted.

Finally, the sheriff had to leave and Johnny sat in the chair, staring out the window. For the first time in a long time he was alone. No one hovering, no one telling him to take it easy. He smiled as he thought it was a bit lonely.

A knock on the door pulled him from his thoughts. He called to come in and turned to see who was there.

"It's good to see you up."

"Thanks. Feels good," he replied.

She walked over and sat across from him. "Where are your nurses?"

He smiled at that. "I don't know. Joe was just here."

"He said you two were good friends," she commented.

"We are. So, you're dumping my brother," he stated.

She shook her head slowly. "You are blunt. Yes, I broke the engagement."

"Forever?" he enquired.

She shrugged and dropped her eyes. "Michael needs me," she whispered.

"Uh huh."

"You were right, Johnny. You were right about me. I'm selfish and petty and wrong for Scott," she blurted out, standing to pace the room.

"I said all that?" he asked.

She turned back to look at him in contrition. "No, I did. I'm wrong for him. I love him more than anything in this world. Enough to let go. I only came here to tell you how sorry I am that you were hurt helping me."

"You came to make sure I'd look after Scott. But, you already know I will. He'll be alright, Grace. Oh, it'll take some time but eventually, he'll be okay."

She nodded and smiled wanly. "I hope he finds someone worthy of his love. Someone who will take care of him and put him above all else."

"That's all I want for him, too," Johnny spoke softly. "I think you're doin the right thing, if that helps."

"It does. Thank you for everything. I'd better go before he comes back. I don't think I can face him again," she said, tears welling in her eyes.

Johnny reached out and took her arm as she passed by him. She looked down at him expectantly.

"Take the time to grieve for your father, Alicia. Take some time to grow up," he said gently.

She smiled and nodded once, then left him.

 

******

 

Four days later, Johnny pulled himself into the saddle, feeling every inch of his forced inactivity.

"Alright?" Murdoch asked with some amusement.

"Keep smilin, old man. I'll remind you of it next time your back goes out," Johnny retorted.

"If you two are finished I'd like to get going," Scott said tersely.

Both men sobered at the tone and grew silent. They rode out of town and Johnny waved once more at his friend, Joe as they passed.

The sun beat down but it was nothing compared to the oppression surrounding Scott. Murdoch and Johnny exchanged several worried looks. By late afternoon, Johnny was ready to stop for the day. His muscles screaming for rest.

He rode up ahead and found a campsite. Wordlessly, he began to set up, waiting for the others to catch up to him. He had Barranca unsaddled and some wood gathered when they arrived.

Again, without a word, he took their horses as Scott and Murdoch finished with the fire and other necessities. Murdoch started to object but figured Johnny wouldn't listen anyway. He had watched this son as well and knew he was spent.

Sitting by the firelight they enjoyed a last cup of coffee before turning in. The silence was more uncomfortable than one could imagine. There was nothing easy in the air. As if they all expected something to happen. What, no one could say. Except for Johnny.

"How long you gonna brood about this before talkin?" he asked softly.

"Are you speaking to me?" Scott asked tightly.

"No, I'm talkin to that wolf out there. Yes, Scott, I'm speaking to you and you can cut the attitude while your at it," he retorted.

"Easy, boys," Murdoch said. It was only two words but it was effective nonetheless.

"I'm sorry but I'm not brooding. Is it alright if I take some time?" Scott asked.

"Yeah, it's alright. You don't have to cut us out, though. We're sorry, Scott. Real sorry. That's all I'm tryin to say," Johnny spoke with regret.

Scott inhaled deeply. "I know, brother. I'm sorry I was so short with you. I guess I'm angry with her."

Johnny laughed out loud. "Just now? You're just now angry with her?" he asked, mimicking his brother's voice.

"I don't see anything funny about any of this, Johnny!"

"I think you both need to settle down. Johnny, let your brother deal with this in his own way," Murdoch inserted.

Johnny snorted softly at this. "That would be by locking it up inside, right? Must be in the blood," he mumbled the last sentence.

He immediately regretted the barb and chanced a look at his father. The grim expression told him all he needed to know.

"I just need a little time, is all," Scott said quietly.

"Look, I'm sorry. I just don't want you lettin this eat you up inside is all. And I'm sorry for that smart remark, Murdoch," Johnny said remorsefully.

"It's alright, son. Grace made a lot of mistakes, there's no denying that. We can talk about what she should have done all day long. The fact is, she did the best she could in a difficult situation. Her only real crime was lying."

"I'm the one who handled this whole thing wrong from the first. I never should have let Johnny go to Mexico alone. There was no real need for me to go with Grace. The Ranger would have made sure she arrived safely. I should have been there for you, Johnny. This whole thing has been about sacrifice. What siblings will do for each other. I failed miserably," Scott's voice grew husky as he spoke, full of remorse and regret.

"I told you I didn't want you to go with me. This was my decision. My way to help you. Like I said before, it was just bad luck, brother."

"And we all should have known it would happen," Murdoch spoke and received odd looks from his sons. "Well, come on. If there's trouble to be had, the Lancers shall have it!"

They both stared at him for a long beat until Murdoch burst out laughing. Soon, the night air was filled with the sounds of their mirth and they all knew, sooner or later, things would be alright again.

 

 

~end~
2004

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