The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Assumptions

 

 

 

Johnny sighed as he opened the windows leading onto the balcony of the second-floor hotel room. Finally some decent air! Well, as decent as he was likely to get for a while at least. The only problem was the noise that came with that air. He didn't know how Scott could stand city life. He hated all the hurry up, noise and air you could actually see. Plus the fact that folks were just plain rude in the city. Well, a lot of them anyway. He couldn't say all of them for he'd already met a couple of decent ones since their arrival two hours ago.

The train ride wasn't bad as far as train rides go, he reckoned. Still, he'd much rather be home sitting on the porch with a glass of tequila and some quiet. It was bad enough having to come here at all but, when Murdoch insisted he not wear his gun, he'd just about lost all reason. They'd argued, of course. And he'd lost, of course. Still, his rig was tucked in his bag just in case. The old man didn't need to know that, though. He snorted. He probably does know. Long as I don't strap it on, I guess he won't say anything.

Still, being in a strange city unarmed made him exceptionally edgy and he knew he'd let that spill out all over his father on the trip here. He'd been prickly most of the way. And, if he were honest, it wasn't fair to Murdoch either. This was important to him. Hell, it was important to Johnny, too. That his father might, probably would be, named Cattleman of the Year had made him surprisingly proud when he'd first heard the news a month ago. Now, the big banquet was very near and maybe, just maybe, he should be giving his old man a break. With a slight grin, he knew he should. The only downside was Scott missing it.

Stepping back into the room, he closed the doors behind him, the air chilling now that the sun was setting. Murdoch sat in a big brocaded chair reading the San Francisco Chronicle. He meandered around the room a little before setting his gaze on his father. "Too bad Scott's going to miss all this, huh?"

Murdoch didn't look up from the paper when he answered. "Yes, he would probably actually appreciate all this."

Johnny grimaced and sat on the settee near his father. "Look, I'm sorry I've been such a bear. I know how important this is for you; for all of us."

Murdoch let out a soft sigh and lowered the paper. "It isn't the banquet, Johnny. It's the meetings we need to attend. This *is* important to our future and the future of ranching in this state."

"I know." He raised his eyes, a hint of the devil gleaming in there. "Still, that banquet is special. Cattleman of the Year, Murdoch. You're gonna win."

Murdoch snorted and snapped the paper before raising it in front of his face. "There are plenty of good men nominated. I have no better chance than any of them."

"Well," Johnny grunted out as he stood and stretched, "I disagree. None of them deserve it more than you. Think I'll get cleaned up before supper."

*****

Murdoch's lips twitched as Johnny left the room. He wasn't a bragging man, never announced his accomplishments and usually accepted compliments about his achievements with dismissal. But, he thought he did deserve it this year. He and his sons had rid the San Joaquin of land pirates nearly single-handedly. Well, not nearly. They and their men had done it. Certainly none of the other ranchers had stepped up. The smaller ones he could understand but, there were plenty of men who could have made a stand with him even though they'd been run off their own land. Murdoch had asked them to stay with him at Lancer, asked them to stand and fight for what was theirs but not one of them had.

Now, he was once more nominated for what he considered a prestigious award. In past years, he'd been gracious in defeat. Able to admit the winners were most deserving. But, this year, he could think of no other nominee who warranted it more.

Johnny had annoyed him nearly to the point that Murdoch wanted to tell him to stay home. He'd complained about coming to San Francisco , about big cities in general and anything else he could think of for the past week. Yesterday and today, Murdoch had found himself very near the breaking point. He'd almost sent Johnny home at the train station on their arrival.

Scott had warned him before they'd left home. Told him how Johnny would react. And that look Scott had given him. One of askance. Of understanding. Well, Murdoch didn't understand Johnny and he was beginning to think he never would. Evidently, Scott did though. A miracle as far as Murdoch was concerned. Nonetheless, he'd given in to his son's entreaty and stayed his tongue somehow. Now, it seemed Johnny was making a turnaround in his attitude. Maybe, he finally realized how important this trip was for them all. And maybe, Scott knew he would eventually get there. How, was anyone's guess. Unless his older son was a mind-reader, he didn't know how Scott could have foreseen Johnny finally getting the point. He fervently wished his older son had not broken his leg and been forced to stay home. Of course, he didn't want Scott injured ever but, the timing was as bad as it could be.

He laid the paper down, unable to concentrate on the content any longer. He stood and walked to the balcony doors, staring out at the city. He didn't like it, either, truth be told. He much preferred the peace and quiet of ranch life. Compared to the city, it was as silent as a tomb back home. Still, it was a necessary evil when doing business to come to places such as this.

Johnny always bucked about business trips and Murdoch had never really understood why. He'd decided months ago Johnny just didn't like the business end of raising cattle. Well, he needed to learn. It wasn't as if Murdoch was going to live forever and it wasn't fair to expect Scott to take all that responsibility on his shoulders. Even though Murdoch had done that very thing himself, he knew what a burden it was and he wanted his sons to share equally the labor and the paper part of the ranch. Johnny's lack of formal education had worried him in the beginning but, it was clear, whatever he lacked in that area, he made up for with common sense.

And charm, according to Scott. Murdoch hadn't seen anything of charm from Johnny. More that irritating and sometimes wholly inappropriate sense of humor his son possessed. He was pretty sure that wasn't what Scott referred to as charm. Wherever it was, Johnny hadn't seen fit to show it to his father. Well, he couldn't stand here and worry about such things now. He could stand cleaning up himself. Tomorrow would be the beginning of a very busy week for them and Johnny would be right in the middle of it, even if it killed him. Murdoch had made that vow to himself.

*****

Supper was the longest meal of Johnny's short life, he decided. Every time they took a bite, it seemed someone else was coming up to the table to say hello to Murdoch. Then, he had to introduce his son to them all and talk for a few minutes about their families and ranches and why Scott wasn't there. It was all very polite but, sometimes, Johnny got the feeling he was on display. They looked him up and down like he was a prize bull or something in a freak show. It was irritating and embarrassing and he just wanted to go back to the room.

Finally, they managed to finish the meal. Just in time for another old friend to approach the table. This time, Murdoch was invited to the smoking room for brandy and fine cigars. Johnny's ears perked up as Murdoch showed quite an interest in a Cuban cigar proudly displayed by their visitor. He smiled as the idea concreted in his mind. He'd been struggling with a gift for his father. Now, he knew what to get his old man to celebrate his win. Fortunately, Murdoch didn't seem put out when he begged off joining them.

Murdoch settled in a leather chair across from Barney Fletcher. He leaned forward as Barney held a match to light his cigar. Puffing several times, Murdoch got a good burn then settled back and crossed his legs. With a satisfied puff, he nodded his approval of the smoke then sipped his Brandy.

"Well, Murdoch, looks like things are finally falling into place for you. Your ranch is safe, you have your sons back and, if my information is correct, you'll be Cattleman of the Year by the end of the week."

Murdoch smiled a little. "Well, don't put the cart before the horse, Barney. We don't know who has won yet."

Fletcher waved a dismissing hand. "Ah, you've got it and you know it. And if you don't know it, you should." He laughed a little then fell serious. "So, how are your boys settling?"

Watching the glow on the tip of his cigar for a beat, Murdoch considered the question. "It's not easy for them. Scott had never seen a cattle ranch before, I'm sure. He's doing very well, though. He takes to it like mother's milk."

Barney smiled and nodded. "And the other one?"

Shifting in his chair, Murdoch cleared his throat and took a long drink. "He's coming along. He had some experience before." His eyes shot up when he heard a snort from his friend.

"I'm sorry, Murdoch, but I can't imagine how much ranch experience a gunfighter could have."

He had to concede the point a little. "I said some. He worked a couple of drives, he told me. Being a rancher is much different, though, as you know. It takes time to settle."

"Seems to me like he'd have a harder time than even Scott. What with being used to just tramping around like he did. He must be pretty wild."

"He's still young, still restless a little, I guess. As I said, it will take time."

"Some of the other ranchers arenâ€t so sure."

Murdoch stared hard at his friend. "Meaning?"

Barney leaned forward in his chair. "Meaning, he's a gunfighter, Murdoch. And not just any gunfighter. He has quite a reputation and you know it. How can someone like that suddenly change everything he's ever known and become a rancher? It just doesn't seem too likely to us. I know he's your son but, surely, you've thought the same things."

Once again, Murdoch shifted in his chair. "Is that why you invited me in here, Barney? To tell me Johnny has no business being a rancher?"

"No, to tell you what I've just told you. We're concerned."

"It isn't your business."

"But it is, Murdoch. We all have to work together for the greater good. We have to be united if we have any chance of having a say in beef prices, rail spurs, water rights or anything else to do with our business. Johnny can't have had much, if any education. Are you seriously telling me he can become a businessman?"


Murdoch scowled at the man. How could he rebuke his friend when he'd had similar thoughts himself just this afternoon? Still, Johnny wasn't ignorant. That much he knew. "He can learn. He's a bright boy."

"I guess my question is, does he want to learn or is this just a gravy train for him? Can we trust him? Do you?"

Murdoch found himself unable to answer that question. He extinguished his cigar in the ashtray then stood up. "This conversation is over, Barney. Thank you for the cigar and the drink. Goodnight." He left the room with long, quick strides and made his way to their suite. All the while, he was asking himself those same questions.

*****

The next morning, Murdoch was already settled at the table in their rooms having his breakfast. He raised an eyebrow when Johnny walked in and poured a cup of coffee.

"Good morning," Johnny said quietly.

"Good morning. Did you get drunk last night?"

His shoulders went up at the accusatory tone as he slowly turned to glare at the man. "What makes you think that?"

Murdoch shrugged. "You're quiet this morning and I know you were still out when I went to bed."

Johnny shook his head and sat down. "Maybe but I don't make a habit of gettin drunk in the first place and especially not in a strange town where I don't know anyone." He knew his father was staring a hole through him but he just couldn't go another ten rounds this morning. "I thought I'd look around the city before the meetings this afternoon if that's alright with you."

"I need you to go with me to the stockyards."

Johnny looked up. The accusation was back in the old man's voice and he was getting tired of it. He curbed his tongue for once. It just wasn't worth the fight. He reckoned he'd get a few free minutes some time before the end of the week to find those cigars. Maybe, by then he wouldn't want to get the old man a present. If Murdoch kept this up, he knew he wouldn't. "Fine."

*****

The trip to the stockyards hadn't been a total waste of time. There wasn't a decent bull to be found but Johnny purchased a sweet little mare for Teresa's birthday. Still, he could have found those cigars if Murdoch hadn't been stubborn about looking at every other piece of livestock flesh in the damned place. Now, Johnny wondered if he'd ever get a minute to himself.

For three days, he found himself in a whirlwind of meetings, dinners, lunches and some very long-winded stories about 'the good old days'. Although he was intrigued hearing about his father's struggles in those early days of building Lancer, his mind was on one thing and one thing only. Finally, the afternoon before the banquet, Johnny decided he'd just have to piss the old man off. They were supposed to have supper with another one of his 'dearest and oldest' friends. Johnny didn't think anyone had that many friends but his father seemed to know every rancher in California by first name.

He geared up for the fight he knew he was about to have with the old man. Sucking it up, he walked into the main room of their suite as Murdoch sat with a drink in hand. He stood there in the middle of the room and waited to be noticed. Murdoch turned his head and smiled but it soon died as he saw Johnny wasn't dressed for dinner.

"Murdoch, I can't have dinner with you tonight. There's something I have to do and it can't wait any longer."

"Barney Fletcher is one of my oldest friends, Johnny. He's been looking forward to spending some time getting to know you. Whatever you have to do can wait."

"I'll see him tomorrow at the banquet. Surely, he can wait one more night."

The older man scowled, unconvinced and wondering what Johnny was up to. "What is so important? You don't even know anyone here."

"I'm not going to see anyone. It's just an errand and it needs to be done now. I would've done it sooner but we've been so busy, I didn't get the chance. Look, I'll probably be done in time to meet you for dessert. It won't take that long."

Murdoch blew out a breath and stared at his younger son for a long beat. "Be sure you're back for dessert."

Feeling like a kid being given permission to go out and play, Johnny smiled charmingly. "I will. Thanks." He took off out the door.

Murdoch frowned at the closed door and a strange feeling came over him he couldn't describe. Well, he supposed he had been running Johnny pretty good all week. It wasn't a big deal and, apparently, Barney wasn't all that comfortable in Johnny's presence, anyway. Again, he wished Scott was there.

*****

Johnny waited patiently as the desk clerk took care of a couple checking out. He slid up to the man when it was his turn and smiled. "I need to find some high quality Cuban cigars. Do you know of a place?"

"Yes, indeed, Sir. There's a fine smoke shop just two blocks from here. They sell Cuban cigars." The man leaned in. "They are a bit extravagant, though."

Laughing softly, Johnny said, " you mean expensive."

"Yes, Sir."

"How do I get there?"

The clerk wrote down the directions and Johnny thanked him then turned to go. As he neared the doors, a bellboy approached.

"Excuse me, Sir. I heard you ask about Cuban cigars? I know a place where they sell them much cheaper than that shop the clerk told you about. They're actually much better, too."

Johnny gave him a sidelong look. "Yeah? Then, how come he didn't tell me about it?"

"It's an out of the way place, Sir. Not many people on this side of town know about it. It's down at the waterfront."

Johnny thought about it. Thought about the twenty dollars in his pocket. Surely, he could get a box of cigars for that! But, he also knew how expensive things were in the city and, Cuban cigars were expensive anyway. "How far is it?"

"Only about a twenty minute cab ride, Sir. I can give you detailed directions. You can be in and out in no time."

He was still eyeing the young man. A boy, really. He had to be maybe eighteen. Fresh-faced and excited. Johnny wondered about that. Why would helping him get cigars excite this kid so much? Maybe he was just the helpful sort. Probably went to church regular, a choirboy, no doubt. He smiled a little and nodded then waited for the boy to write out the directions. A few minutes later, Johnny was on his way.

*****

"Well, I'm sorry Johnny couldn't join us," Barney Fletcher said.

Murdoch's jaw clenched tighter than it had been all night. He'd been fine until dessert was served. Then, he'd started looking at the doorway every minute. "Well, you'll see him tomorrow night for sure. He won't miss that banquet." He forced a smile. Inside, his guts were twisting. He could imagine Johnny sitting in some saloon, probably at a poker table or worse, with some saloon girl or at a brothel.

"I think I'll call it a night then. Have to be well rested so I can applaud when you win Cattleman of the Year." Barney smiled widely as he stood.

Murdoch took to his feet as well. "I'm sure you'll applaud whoever wins, Barney." He shook the man's hand and managed a smile.

"Of course. Just not as loudly." Barney laughed and winked.

*****

Johnny slowed his stride midway down the boardwalk as he spied the sign to the smoke shoppe just past the alley. He stepped off the planks and crossed the alleyway entrance. He had one foot raised to step back up onto the sidewalk when he felt the presence behind him - too late. A rather large arm wrapped around his throat and dragged him backwards. His right hand went to his side before he remembered he was unarmed. Johnny struggled against the attacker but, even though he couldn't see the man, he could tell he was pretty big. He could feel the large muscles as he tried to pry that arm away from his throat.

They stopped once in the darkened inner alley but Johnny didn't stop fighting against the mountain behind him. His breath was cut off and he knew he would die if he didn't get some relief soon.

"Stop fightin, boy!" Came the gruff voice above and behind him.

Suddenly, the pressure relieved a fraction and he sucked in a breath as a second man entered his line of vision. This one was his own height and build. Oddly, Johnny thought the man even looked a little like him. Black hair and blue eyes, brown skin but, when the man smiled the resemblance stopped. He had no front teeth and all Johnny saw was gums.

"Just take it easy, mister and this'll go a lot faster," the young man said, lisping his words.

"I don't have much," he tried. It was the truth or so he thought.

The man looked him up and down then actually rubbed his chin in thought. "Nice clothes. I like your boots, too."

He knew this was going to be ugly. Johnny elbowed the man behind him and was rewarded with only a slight grunt and a laugh. He struggled nonetheless as the beefy arm tightened around his neck. The man in front of him began throwing blow after blow to his face and body. Johnny leaned back against his captor and kicked out, making solid contact with the other man's thigh. He heard a grunt of pain but his satisfaction was short-lived. The pressure on his throat increased and black dots started dancing before his eyes. He felt his shirt being torn open and he glared at the man before him. The next thing he saw was a knife. He felt himself losing consciousness and, just before he passed out, he felt the sharp pain of the knife plunge into his chest.

*****

Murdoch stood on the balcony the next morning watching the streets below. The sun was just rising, the street lamps being extinguished one by one. He watched the man go from lamp post to lamp post and thought what a dreadful job that must be. His thoughts didn't linger there for long, however. He went back to his vigil, his ire growing with the sun's ascent.

He went back inside and ate his breakfast alone and glanced at the front door a hundred times. Where is he? He sighed loudly and wondered why he was surprised. Isn't this what he'd been wondering about all along with Johnny? And, apparently, what the rest of the cattle community was wondering about as well.

He supposed they'd all been proven right. Johnny just couldn't settle into a normal life with normal responsibilities. He knew they'd have to have a serious discussion about his son's future at Lancer - if Johnny ever decided to show up. Lord only knew what excuse he'd have. This time though, there'd be no interruptions. He would hold his temper and state the facts as he saw them and see what Johnny had to say for himself.

He thought back to that Stryker mess and knew he'd pushed the boy too hard that day. Well, he would just have to approach this like a businessman, now. One who had an employee who wasn't measuring up. It wouldn't be easy but, he had to do it. He had to know if Johnny was really serious about ranching. After six months, he still didn't know. True, the boy had worked hard all along but, when it came to the business end, Johnny always deferred to he or Scott. That wasn't going to work anymore. If he couldn't put one hundred percent into running the ranch, Murdoch didn't know where that left them.

If Johnny were just a hand, he'd fire him for poor job performance but, he wasn't. If the boy felt he just couldn't do the job, Murdoch thought he could teach him that or, find someone to. Johnny was smart and able to handle himself but, he wasn't a scholar and maybe he didn't think he could do it. Maybe he just needed some education.

Then again, Murdoch had seen his son dicker over a horse and knew him to be savvy at measuring a man. He knew Johnny was capable so it had to be disinterest. It was all he could come up with.

*****

"No identification on this one. Looks like he was robbed."

"Well, you found him down by the waterfront so that's a good bet, I suppose. If he's lucky, he'll come around and be able to tell us his name eventually."

"And if he isn't lucky?"

"I suppose, if no one comes looking for him, we'll send him to Potter's field. Another John Doe."

*****

Murdoch walked out of his bedroom brushing the coat sleeve of his suit. He glanced at the clock on the wall and puffed his cheeks, letting out an exasperated breath. Johnny, where the hell are you? He glanced in the mirror and nodded at himself. Not bad for an old man.

Johnny would have looked very nice in his suit, too, if he'd bothered to show up, Murdoch thought. Apparently, it didn't matter a lick to his son that he may receive a prestigious award tonight. One he had secretly coveted for years. His mood was no better now than earlier. In fact, it was worse as the minutes ticked by and Johnny stayed away. Whatever his reasons, if he was angry with Murdoch or simply that inconsiderate, it no longer mattered to the rancher. He decided he would enjoy this evening. Johnny didn't matter to him, either. He painted a smile on his face and opened the door.

He entered the ballroom and stopped just inside. The enormity of the event this year surprised even Murdoch. A band was playing waltzes and people were milling about talking and some dancing. The tables were set with silver and crystal with beautiful flower arrangements as centerpieces. The stage was decorated with red, white and blue banners and a huge one stretched across the back. Cattlemanâ€s' Association of California, it read.

As he made his way to the table near the front, Murdoch had to stop every few feet to shake hands. Many men slapped him on the back with knowing grins on their faces. Did they know for sure he was going to win? How could they? He tried not to let it sway him. He wanted this award and deserved it but, without his family to share it with him, the prize felt a little empty.

He finally arrived at his seat and Barney Fletcher was there, smiling and shaking hands. He looked past Murdoch, his eyes searching then, with a frown, he addressed his friend. "Where's Johnny?"

Murdoch's face fell and he took his seat. "I don't know." What else could he say?

"Well, I guess my question the other day has been answered."

Murdoch looked at the man and nodded. "Yes, I guess it was for both of us."

The music died down and the President of the Association took the podium. His speech was, thankfully, short as he read the itinerary for the evening. Dinner was served and a din grew as people began talking again.

Two more people joined them at the big table but one chair stayed empty the rest of the evening. Murdoch glanced at that chair from time to time. Every time he did, Barney could see a little more pain, a little more disappointment on the man's face. Each time Murdoch looked at that chair, the man found something to talk to him about.  

Finally, it was time to announce the Cattleman of the Year. The President talked about each of the three nominees, telling of their merits and why they were nominated for the auspicious award. Barney knew the other two didn't have a prayer given what this man was saying about them all. Murdoch had certainly done more than help pass a water rights bill in the state house. He'd saved an entire valley and countless ranches and livelihoods.

"This was not an easy decision to make. All three of these men have contributed to the welfare of the association and cattlemen in general over the past year. But, only one man can receive the award. This year, that man is ...."

*****

"If his blood pressure doesn't start coming up, I'm afraid there won't be anything more we can do. I've given him every medication I can think of. He just lost so much blood."

"I guess I can forget about getting any information from him about what happened then. Just another victim of the waterfront violence."

"He's pretty tough, though. He's survived this long and he really shouldn't even be alive. If it hadn't been cold out last night, he never would have survived that wound. It slowed the bleeding a lot."

"And you didn't find anything on him?"

"Nothing. They stripped him clean down to his longjohns."

*****

"This is an outrage!"

"Calm down, Barney. Flaherty was instrumental in passing that water rights bill. He deserves the award." Murdoch sat there, impassive. He didn't really care about the award now.

"He didn't save an entire valley. He didn't save dozens of ranches then help those ranchers rebuild and replenish their herds. He didn't give a breeding bull at no charge for anyone who wanted it's use. He didn't save other ranches from the same fate." Barney was livid and nothing was going to calm him down. He spied the president coming off the podium and took to his feet as the man neared.

"Barney, leave it alone," Murdoch warned, grabbing the man's sleeve.

Fletcher shook him off and stepped in the president's path. "This is highway robbery, Mike, and you know it. How could you slight Murdoch like this? You know he deserves that award."

Mike Haverty looked tiredly at the man. "I'm not the only one who votes on this, Barney. Not everyone sees things the same way you do."

"What else could they possibly see?"

Mike looked at Murdoch then lowered his eyes, his face flushing. Murdoch saw it and his curiosity got the best of him. He stood to face the man. "What else did they see, Mike?"

Haverty sighed and looked up at the taller man. "Johnny Madrid, Murdoch. That's what they saw. I'm sorry but a lot of the members are not thrilled with him being around. You're a major player, Murdoch, but your son ... he has a reputation."

"Murdoch is the one up for the award, not Johnny."

"I'm not arguing with you, Barney. I voted for Murdoch and I fought for him. In the end, I'm only one voice on a panel," Mike explained.


"And who else has a voice on this panel?"  


"It doesn't matter, Barney. It's over and done with and I would just rather call it a night. Flaherty deserves the award. Let's just leave it at that." Murdoch looked at the two men. "Goodnight, gentleman. If I don't see you before you leave, have a safe journey home. I'll see you next year." He walked out then, leaving an enraged Barney Fletcher in his wake.

"I told him. Madrid is going to be trouble for Lancer," Barney grumbled.


*

Murdoch tossed the napkin over his breakfast plate, mostly untouched then drained his coffee cup. He'd determined last night to find his errant son. At some point during the long night, the doubt started creeping in. Doubt that Johnny would show such disrespect. He'd allowed himself to look past the hurt he'd had so much trouble admitting to himself and realize Johnny wouldn't do this to him. He'd seen the look of pride in his son's eyes when he'd announced Murdoch was going to win the award. He'd been confident and seemed to even be looking forward to the event. Now, as an entire day and half had passed, he knew something was terribly wrong. Then again, maybe it was just as well Johnny hadn't been there last night. Lord knew what his reaction would have been.

Pushing his chair back, he walked to the coat rack and donned his hat then grabbed his jacket. He pulled the door open then stopped in surprise at someone standing there, hand raised to knock. Dread engulfed the rancher when he saw the uniform of a police officer.

"Murdoch Lancer?"

"Yes, what can I do for you, Officer?"

The man looked hesitant then gazed past him to the interior of the room. "May I come in?"

Murdoch sighed and stepped aside. "Of course. Please." He waved a hand and, as the man passed by, closed his eyes and steeled himself.

The man removed his hat and pressed it tightly between his fingers. "I'm Officer O'Daniels. I'll come right to the point, Sir. You have a son named Johnny Lancer?"

"I do. I was just going to look for him. He never came back from an errand night before last."

"Night before last, you say?" At Murdoch's nod, he lowered his eyes and seemed to nod to himself. "I'm afraid I have some bad news for you, Mr. Lancer. We've found your son. I'm sorry, but he's dead."

Murdoch froze, he stopped breathing and his mouth fell open. Slowly, he began to shake his head back and forth. At last, his voice croaked through. "No, it's a mistake. Surely, you've made a mistake."

"I wish that were the case, Sir. You see there was an accident down on the waterfront last night. A young man walked out in front of a supply wagon. The driver couldn't stop in time according to all the witnesses." He stopped when Murdoch raised a hand to him.

"Wait. Please, just wait a moment." He walked unsteadily to the small sofa and fell onto it. Leaning forward, he buried his face in his hands.

The officer stood silently and awkwardly waiting for him to pull himself together. After a moment, Murdoch glanced up then nodded at him. "All the witnesses say the man came out of a saloon and walked right into the street. He turned toward the wagon as the driver shouted at him but he never made any attempt to move out of the way. One man said he was smiling as the wagon hit him. I guess he was just too drunk to realize what was happening."

"Johnny doesn't get drunk," Murdoch mumbled. He looked sternly at the man. "My son doesn't get drunk, Officer. He's no saint but he never drinks to excess."

The officer just stared at him. "Well, it took some time to identify him after ... well, we had to clean him up and ..."

"What? And what?!"

Lowering his head, the man took a deep breath before facing the distraught father. "His face is unrecognizable, Sir. The wagon ran right over top him. His body is badly mangled."

*****

Murdoch stood and clenched his fists. "Then, how can you know?"

"We found a letter in his pocket addressed to you from the Cattlemen's Association and a bill of sale for a horse made out to Johnny Lancer."

Shaking his head slowly back and forth, Murdoch fought against this.

"Sir, if you want to view the body ... I'm afraid there's not much left. He was wearing a white shirt with embroidering down the lapels with a short-waisted jacket and black pants with studs down the sides. He had spurs on his boots. That's a bit unusual in the city."

A picture of Johnny as he left the hotel room that day flashed in Murdoch's mind. Those were the clothes his son had been wearing.

"The doctor also said he appears to be of mixed heritage."

The room moved. Murdoch was sure of it as he swayed right along with it. He felt a hand on his arm and looked over at the policeman, unable to understand how the man had gotten to be beside him now. He felt himself lowered into a sitting position and he put his head nearly between his knees. Denial slowly built inside him until it erupted and he sat straight up.

"I want to see. I have to see him. I'll be able to tell. I'll recognize my own son."

"Mr. Lancer, are you sure? Sir, I've seen the body and ..."

"I'm sure, Officer. I have to see him."

*****

Murdoch's stomach churned as he waited outside the hospital morgue. All the while he prayed there'd been a horrible mistake. Even prayed his son was sitting in jail after a night of ... something. It was true. He'd never seen Johnny drunk and his son had even said he abhorred being in that state. Murdoch knew why. It wasn't the hangover Johnny didn't like, it was being vulnerable his son could never afford in his past life. Especially in a strange city. Murdoch just couldn't see that. He could have been hurt before he walked in front of that wagon. He shook his head hard. No! This wasn't Johnny!

The door opened and a man in a white coat stood before him, sympathy in his eyes. Murdoch wanted to throttle him. The man said nothing, simply waved him in and walked to a metal table. Murdoch shivered at the coolness of the room. His steps faltered as he neared the form covered with a white sheet. The man held one edge of the sheet in his hand as the police officer came to stand beside Murdoch.

"Are you absolutely sure you want to do this?" the officer asked.

Murdoch looked briefly at him and nodded then set his eyes on that sheet. Slowly, the cloth was removed to reveal the head and upper chest. Murdoch sucked in a breath at the horror his eyes witnessed. It took him a long moment to gather a single thought and he stepped closer.

There was no face to speak of. More a swollen mass of exposed muscle and bone. The eyes were swollen completely shut. The lower lip torn away, exposing part of the mouth. Murdoch couldn't look at it. He focused on the chest but, it was no better. Large bruises covered the entire surface, nothing but a mass of black and blue. He turned away, unable to look at more. Staggering, he made it to the doorway and leaned heavily on the wall there, his fist pressed tightly to his mouth and fighting the growing nausea.

Someone was standing beside him as he opened his eyes. He turned to see the policeman holding a bundle of blood-soaked clothing. They were more easily recognized than the man on that table and Murdoch's eyes burned at the sight of Johnny's calzoneros. He'd know them anywhere. Then, the officer held up the boots and the rancher was given proof positive. Those spurs. He'd given them to Johnny as a gift not too long ago. He'd had his son's initials engraved on the outside of each strap. And there they were staring at him; daring him to argue the point any further. JL.

He remembered Johnny giving him an odd look when he'd seen the initials and Murdoch instantly regretted not adding the 'M' as the middle initial. Then, Johnny had smiled and thanked him and gone on and on about how fancy they were. His son had really liked the gift and Murdoch had felt a measure of pride for his choice. Now, they were being dangled in front of him as a death knell.

"Are these your son's belongings?"

He nodded numbly as he took the clothing, clutching them to his chest. "He ... he had an old pocket watch and he wore some jewelry. A ring and a medallion. Oh, and some beads, Indian beads."

The officer reached into an envelope in his hand and retrieved the bracelet. "This is all we found but I wouldn't be surprised if the other things were torn ... um, broke away. Maybe ended up in the street."

Murdoch fingered the bracelet then glanced back toward the table. "I, um, I'll make arrangements. To take him ... home." His voice broke with the last word and he turned back to face the wall.

 

*****

Pain was the first thing he felt. Searing pain in his chest and neck. Confusion came along behind that as he tried to find a reason for the pain. His brain didn't want to cooperate and he could only try to relax and let it come. He was in a bed but he had no idea where, who was there with him or how long he'd been out.

Slowly, his eyes broke open. That's how it felt. Like he'd cracked something just trying to see. His vision wasn't working all that well and he blinked several times, trying to open his eyes wider in case that might help the situation. He turned his head less than an inch and gasped at the sudden pain. His hand went to his neck and he felt the swelling. Memory came next and he closed his eyes and frowned as the events unfolded. Shit!

"Take your time, son."

Yeah, sure. Don't think I have much choice in the matter, he thought. He tried to swallow and felt the burn again. Dios! This must be pretty bad. He looked up to find a man standing over him. It wasn't hard to figure out it was a doctor from the stethoscope hanging around his neck. The question in his eyes was easy to read.

"Your throat is very swollen. You shouldn't try to talk."

He nodded ever so slightly then slowly raised his hand to his chest with a questioning gaze.

"The stab wound was bad but it missed your lung. You lost a lot of blood, so you're going to feel very weak for a while yet. We've been working very hard with you."

Again, he gave a slight nod but he couldn't figure a way to ask the next question without speaking. He was pretty sure he'd pass out if he tried to focus enough to write anything. He decided they'd tell him in time so he just tried to relax a little but, damn, he hurt! He ground his teeth together as the pain intensified for a moment.

"I sent the nurse to get you something for the pain."

He nodded, trying to show his gratitude on his face. His eyes searched a little but he wasn't about to try and move his head again.

"You probably have a ton of questions but, right now, the most important thing is to get well. There will be time enough later to ask."

He sighed a little and closed his eyes for a second. Looking back up at the man, he blinked a couple of times and frowned. He knew he couldn't look around but he didn't have to. Murdoch wasn't there, he could feel that. Maybe he's gone to get some rest. Yeah, that must be it. He had no idea how long he'd been here.

The doctor sat on a stool by the bed as the nurse arrived with a small cup. "It's going to hurt to swallow but you should be able to handle the liquids now." He reached up and picked a tube off the pillow. "We've been using this to keep fluids in you. As soon as the swelling goes down a little more, we'll take it out."

Johnny made a face when he saw the tube. He knew what it was and hated the very idea of it. No wonder his throat was sore with that thing stuck down it. Still, he coughed as he swallowed that small amount of bitter liquid.

*****

He didn't remember how he got back to the hotel. He didn't remember walking up the stairs or going into the room. All he knew was he was sitting in a chair by the balcony doors when he heard a loud knock on the door. Murdoch's head jerked up and he came to stand quickly striding to the door. His only thought; it's Johnny. It was a mistake and that's Johnny. He jerked the door open and his face immediately fell. "Oh, hello, Barney."

"Murdoch, my God. I just heard. I'm so sorry, old friend." Barney gripped his hand as he stepped over the threshold and guided Murdoch back inside.

"Thank you, Barney. I can't really believe it yet. I don't know what I'm going to tell Scott..." his voice faded as he thought of his older son. Scott would be devastated. He pushed it away, unable to deal with the thoughts just now.

Barney sat him down then poured him a drink, pressing the glass into his hand.

"I don't understand what he was doing down there," Murdoch mumbled then took a long swallow.

Sitting on the coffee table in front of Murdoch, Barney clasped his hands between his knees. "Well, as much as you'll hate this, the news is all anyone can talk about. I was speaking with the clerk and a bellboy downstairs and they told me Johnny was looking for a place to buy Cuban cigars. The bellboy said he told Johnny about a smoke shoppe on the waterfront. The boy was nearly in tears. He feels responsible for sending Johnny down there."

Murdoch looked up slowly. "Cuban cigars? Why would he want ... dear God! He was buying them for me, wasn't he?"

Barney gave him a sympathetic look. "I don't know, old friend. I don't think Johnny told them why. I can assume he meant them for a gift."

Murdoch leaned back into the sofa's cushion and took a deep breath. "I loved that boy so much, Barney. I never told him. I never showed it to him but I did love him."

"I'm sure he knew."

Snorting, Murdoch glanced at his friend. "How would he? I treated him about the same as you thought of him. As the association thought of him. Someone not to be trusted. Someone who could bring trouble to my house. But, at the same time, I wanted him there. All those years, I just wanted my son back."

Fletcher flushed a little and cleared his throat. "I don't know if I was right or wrong about the boy, Murdoch. Maybe, given the chance, he could have ... well. I am sorry. Truly sorry for your loss."

*****

During the long, sleepless night, Murdoch decided not to send a telegram. How cold would it be to break this news in a wire? He'd spent a short part of the night packing Johnny's bag. It took only a few minutes but he sat there for an hour, holding his son's shirt clutched against his chest before starting to pack it away. The bag was heavy when he picked it up and he frowned as he rooted through. Murdoch's heart stopped when he saw the rig folded carefully in the bottom of the satchel.

He pulled it out and looked at it closely for the first time ever. The worn leather felt smooth against his hand as he rubbed it, noting a few places were it was beginning to fray a bit. Removing the gun, he slid a finger down the barrel, the cold steel giving him an odd sensation. A shiver ran down his spine.

At first light, he started making arrangements with the hospital and the railroad to take his son home. At noon , Johnny's body was in a freight car and Murdoch lumbered into a passenger car as close to his son as he could get. They wouldn't let him ride with Johnny and he'd put up quite an argument over that. One that only ended as the time to board came. He was given a choice. Ride in the passenger car or not at all.

Now he sat one car away from his son and a lifetime separated. He pinched the bridge of his nose to keep the tears at bay. Tears he'd allowed to flow freely last night. He'd mourned heavily for his loss in the privacy of his hotel room. As dawn began to break, he'd managed to pull himself together to face the day's task. No man should ever have to bury his own child. That thought stayed with him through these long hours.

The ride to Cross Creek was pure agony. How many times had he walked that aisle, standing at the door that led to his son? Now, as the train came to a stop, he had an even harder task ahead.

With the porter's help, he rented a wagon and they loaded the simple pine box in the back, throwing a tarp over it. Murdoch thanked the man and tipped him well then set off for Green River . He couldn't just drive the wagon to the ranch with no advanced warning. No, he took his son to the undertaker, driving the wagon around the back of the building and making a discreet entry.

After discussing the details until he could hardly stand to be near the undertaker any longer, Murdoch left his son and sought out Sam Jenkins. He stood outside the doctor's office for long moments, trying to find the courage to tell someone who cared for Johnny what had happened. That Sam Jenkins did care for his son was evident shortly after their initial meeting. Johnny had won the physician over pretty quickly. He recalled that day as Sam left Johnny's bedroom, tears of laughter in his eyes. He'd shaken his head and simply said 'that boy is a pistol.'

Sucking in a breath, Murdoch opened the door and nearly left his skin as the bell over his head jangled. He grit his teeth and felt as if he'd simply melt into the ground any minute. A feeling that had been with him since he'd heard the news.

Sam walked out of his exam room and smiled at his friend. The smile evaporated when he got a closer look at Murdoch. Walking quickly to the man, Sam took his arm. "Good Lord, Murdoch, what's happened?"

His throat constricted near the point of breathlessness, Murdoch finally lost control in another's presence. Eyes brimming with tears, he choked the vile words out. "He's dead, Sam. My baby boy is dead."

*****

The doctor waited patiently for the laudanum to take effect. He watched the young man's face as he tried hard not to show his discomfort and wondered why he was using the energy. Finally, his patient's face began to relax and he knew the medication was working. "Better now?"

Johnny looked at him sleepily and nodded.

"Can you read and write?"

Puzzled by the seemingly inane question, Johnny could only nod a little.

Smiling, the doctor went on. "My name is Dr. Monroe. I'd like you to write your name for me." He held out a pen.

Johnny raised his hand halfway before stopping. They didn't know his name? That meant Murdoch didn't know he was here. Dios! He grabbed the pen and waited for the doctor to position a metal chart with paper atop it over him. He wrote his name and his father's and the name of the hotel. By the time he'd finished, Johnny was exhausted.

"Johnny Lancer. Well, we got it partway right. We were calling you John Doe. I'm afraid that's the name we give to anyone who comes in without any identification. Apparently, the men who accosted you took everything, even your boots. I'll send a message to your father immediately." Dr. Monroe started to rise when he felt a hand on his arm.

Johnny motioned for the pen again and wrote a question.

Inhaling deeply, Dr. Monroe answered. "You've been here four days, young man. You were brought in on the twelfth. It's the sixteenth now."

Johnny closed his eyes and seemed to melt into the mattress. He could only nod. He'd missed the banquet. Missed his old man's shining moment. Murdoch must think ... he didn't know what his father would think. He drifted off under the effects of the laudanum hoping his father knew he was in trouble.

*****

Early the next morning, Dr. Monroe leaned back after examining his patient and smiled. "Alright, Mr. Lancer, try just whispering."

Johnny closed his eyes briefly then braced himself. He opened his mouth and took his time. "Call me Johnny." He frowned at the sound of his own voice, raspy and cracking.

"That was very good. If it starts hurting, you'll need to stop for a few hours to rest your voice. Now, you look tired. Didn't you sleep well?"

Johnny shook his head a little, his neck still very tender. "Too noisy in here."

"Yes, I'm sorry about that. This ward is used for indigent patients. Those who can't afford to pay for their care. The city finances it and they aren't too thrilled with giving up funds to provide proper care. I'm afraid we have to house the sick of body along with the sick of mind."

Figures, Johnny thought. Half the night he'd listened to the sobs of grown men, the muttering and shouting, sometimes screaming that seemed to pierce his ears. Then there was the one who kept throwing something made of metal down the corridor. By dawn, Johnny had great sympathy for the nurses here.

"Throw aways," he said suddenly then looked at the puzzled expression on the doctor's face. He smiled a little. "People too hard to deal with, who have too many problems. The world just throws them away."

Dr. Monroe nodded his agreement. "I'm afraid we have a long way to go in that department. Well, we can move you to a private room as soon as your father arrives. Wouldn't want him to miss you in the transfer."

Johnny frowned a little. He knew it had been late yesterday when he'd finally come around but he would have thought Murdoch would've gotten here by now. He'd spent part of his night awake wondering what was going on; if his father had come and they simply hadn't let him in because of the late hour. He was about to ask but he didn't get the chance.

A nurse appeared around the curtain that separated the beds and whispered in the doctor's ear. He frowned at whatever the news was and stood up. "I'll be right back."

Johnny stared at the ceiling as he had most of the night and still wondered what the hell that stain was and how it got way up there. He swallowed and was pleased the soreness was almost gone. He still felt like hell and knew he was weak as a kitten. But, he also knew he'd heal and, hopefully, very soon. The initial soreness had a lot to do with the fact he hadn't moved in five days, he knew. But, he'd been slowly working his neck during the long night and now, he could deal with it. He couldn't wait to get out of here and go home.

Dr. Monroe reappeared with a mixture of sadness and anger on his face. He settled back on the stool and laid a hand on Johnny's arm. "I'm so sorry, Johnny. Maybe there was some kind of mix up but, the hotel says your father left for home yesterday morning."

Johnny's eyes widened and he shook his head then lowered his eyes lowered as he felt a stinging in them. He reached up and rubbed hard at his eyes but he didn't look back at the doctor.

"We'll move you as soon as possible."

"No," he answered quickly. Then, slowly, he looked back at the man. "No, I'm fine right here. I ... could you leave me alone now?"

Dr. Monroe was unsure if that was wise. "I could send him a wire."

"No. Just leave it alone. Just ... I'll deal with it, Doc. Thanks."

Dr. Monroe wasn't too sure about leaving him alone but he did as asked. There was another task for this young man to face. He sent the message to Officer Dubois at the local station. Now that Johnny could talk, the police would want his statement.

He stared at the ceiling, his mind a blank. Eventually, he had no choice but to think. Murdoch had left. Got on that train and just went home - without him. How could he do that? Didn't he know his son was in trouble? Didn't he care? Johnny shifted a little and grimaced from the pain shooting across his chest. His hand went to the wound but he only lightly touched it, knowing he'd do more damage if he rubbed at it.

How could he do that? The question kept running through his mind. It wasn't like they'd had a big fight or anything. He'd given his word he'd be there. But, he guessed his word meant nothing to Murdoch Lancer. Sure. Why would it? Nothing he ever said made a difference with the man anyway. Still, to just abandon him here in a place he knew Johnny hated, alone. He shook his head then rubbed hard at his eyes again. I ain't gonna bawl over you, old man. No way in hell.

He clenched his fists and pressed them into the mattress on either side, willing himself not to feel the pain. Looking at the ceiling, he closed his heart to it all. His heart and his mind. Madrid awoke and Johnny felt a little safer; a little calmer now.

*****

Two hours later, Johnny was still staring at nothing when the curtain pulled aside. His heart skipped a beat. Maybe it was a mistake and Murdoch had come after all. Quickly enough, reality showed him a stranger in the uniform of the law. Johnny frowned and realized he was in for some questions.

"Mr. Lancer, I'm Officer Dubois with the San Francisco Police. I'm the one who found you in that alley."

Johnny thought briefly that he wasn't so sure he should thank the man for that. He pushed the bitter thought aside and extended his hand. "Then I owe you my life. Thank you."

The young policeman accepted the handshake and settled on the stool. "Well, I don't know about that. I just got you here. The doctor's the one who saved your life."

"Wouldn't have one to save if you hadn't found me. Let's just say I owe you both." Johnny managed a smile, fleeting and sad as it was.

Dubois nodded and took out a small notebook. "If you're up to it, I'd like you to tell me what happened."

A heavy sigh pushed through as Johnny tried to reposition himself a little in the small cot. "Well, I was headed for this smoke shop. When I crossed the alley, someone grabbed me from behind. He was big, had his arm across my throat." He stopped and touched his neck then swallowed. "There was a second man and he's the only one I saw."

"Can you describe him?"

His mouth quirked. "My height and build, dark hair, blue eyes, no front teeth. Brown skinned."

"Brown?" Dubois asked.

"Yeah, not dark though. More like me. He was mixed but he didn't have an accent or anything. Not sure what he was mixed with."

Dubois scribbled on his paper. "What happened next?"

"Well, I told 'im I didn't have much. He looked me over and said he liked my clothes. About then, I got a little prickly. I kicked him and tried to get loose but whoever was behind me wasn't lettin go."

"Where did you kick him?"

"Thigh. I wasn't at a good angle to hit what I was aimin for. Anyways, he started punchin me and the other one was choking me. He ripped my shirt open and the last thing I felt was the knife goin in. I woke up here and that's it."

Dubois sat for a minute. "Did the other one, the one behind you, say anything?"

Johnny thought about that. "Once. He told me to stop fightin. He did have an accent but I couldn't place it. Wasn't anything I've ever heard before. "

"What did you have on you of value?"

He shrugged. "Twenty dollars, an old pocket watch, St Jude's medal. Nothing worth a whole lot. About the only thing they took worth a damn was my pride." Johnny gave a little smile with that.

Dubois smiled back at him. "Well, I'm afraid that's not much to go on. I'll check around, see if the watch or medal shows up but I wouldn't count on it."

Johnny shook his head slowly. "I'd like to have that watch back," he mumbled then wondered why he'd want it. Grimacing, he added, "it doesn't matter," then turned his head away.

Dubois frowned and wondered at that statement. With a light sigh, he stood. "I'll do what I can. I'm just sorry this happened to you. If you think of anything else or need to speak with me, Dr. Monroe has my information."

"Yeah, sure. Thanks for everything." Johnny turned back and forced a smile to his lips as he shook hands with the officer.

  *

Sam Jenkins sat on his back porch and stared at nothing. He'd made Murdoch lie down for a while before making the trip to Lancer. The man was inconsolable and Sam couldn't begin to conceive of what he'd been going through. Alone in a strange city to deal with such a loss was ... he shook his head and swiped his eyes. Johnny was such a joy to be around. Always with a quip or a grin, he was a charmer. His thoughts turned to Scott and he wondered how he'd be able to help this family.

Would Scott lose control or go inside himself? Sam didn't know. All he did know was the young man had been a handful. Sitting on him was as hard as sitting on Johnny when he was injured. Scott hated being forced into idleness but that broken leg was nothing to sneeze at and Sam was determined it heal correctly.

And Teresa. Good heavens, Teresa would be a mess. Well, they all would. So much for the big bad, deadly Madrid . He'd stolen all their hearts and held them dear to his own even as he gave his own to them to hold. Johnny trusted his family completely. Of that Sam was sure. It hadn't taken him long, either. Even Murdoch was highly respected by Johnny. Sam knew that truth because Johnny had confided in him. He frowned as he realized he needed to let Murdoch know that. It may bring him some solace.

He heard the jangle of spurs and his heart jumped in his chest. Leaning forward in his chair, Sam had the insane notion he was about to see Johnny walk around the corner. He bit his lip as Val appeared. Damn! I forgot about Val!

"Howdy, Doc." Val smiled at the man but he couldn't reciprocate.

"Val, come up here and sit down."

The sheriff cocked his head and frowned. "Can't. Just doin my rounds. I'll stop back by ..."

"Now, Val."

Taken aback by the uncharacteristic abruptness, Val shrugged. "Well, ain't you in a mood!" he griped as he took the chair next to Sam's.

"I'm sorry but I have some news and ... it's not going to be easy for you to hear."

Val was immediately on alert. He studied Sam closely and knew this wasn't some legal problem. The sadness in those eyes was almost too much to bear. "Ain't so sure I wanna hear it, Doc."

"You don't but that doesn't make it any less true. I don't know any other way but to just say it. Val, I'm so sorry but, Johnny was killed in San Francisco ."

He was out of the chair and in the yard in a breath, staring at the man as if he were insane. "What the hell kinda joke is that to be tellin!"

Sam stood and stepped into the yard, toe to toe with the sheriff. "It's not a joke. Murdoch's in my bedroom resting. He just brought Johnny home. He's at the undertakers." He put a hand on Val's arm and felt the trembling.

Val shook his head and turned away. "How?"

As Sam related the story, Val turned slowly back to him. "A wagon? A goddamn wagon?!"

Sam could only stand there, knowing the ludicrous situation was hard to fathom. "Murdoch said it was very bad. The details aren't important. I ... I'm just so sorry."

Val backed away from him and simply stood there for a few seconds. "Yeah, me too." It was all he said as he turned and walked away quickly.

Sam wanted to follow but he knew Val needed time alone. His own heart was breaking. He turned his head as the back door opened.

Murdoch walked out looking as bad as when he'd arrived. "I'm ready to go, Sam. I can't keep this from the family any longer. They have a right to know."

Nodding, Sam stepped back onto the porch. "I'm ready. Murdoch, I just told Val."

Closing his eyes, Murdoch lowered his head and rubbed a hand down his face. "I forgot about Val. Thank you for doing that. I don't think I can tell another soul. It's going to be hard enough ... well, we should go."

*****

"If you don't start eating better than this, you'll never get out of here."

Johnny looked up at the kind doctor and forced a smile. "Don't seem to have much of an appetite, Doc."

Dr. Monroe sat on the stool beside him and ran a hand through his brown hair. "I know your father's leaving is very upsetting. I can't imagine, quite frankly, what you're feeling. But, Johnny, you're a young man with your whole life ahead of you. Whatever happens with your family, you have to live for yourself."

Johnny dropped his eyes and whispered softly. "Can't seem to see past any of that right now. My old man figured keeping a tight rein on me would keep me in line. Only trouble with that is, tight reins make me want to buck. We've had more than our share of razing the roof, Doc."

"Sounds like a long history."

"No." He looked back up. "That's just it. See, I didn't grow up with him and I've only known him about six months now. He can't see past what I used to do for a living. He can't accept that and the way I lived before. So, now, he thinks he has to break me like I'd break a wild horse. I think he finally found the way to do that." He closed his eyes, a deep frown on his face before turning his head away.

Dr. Monroe took hold of his arm and squeezed tightly. "You can't let that happen, Johnny. You can't let anyone else control your life that way. You may as well be a slave if you do. If your father can't accept who you are then, I'm sorry for that. But, you can still have a life of your own. Do you have any other family?"

He wouldn't look back at the doctor but he nodded. "I have a brother. Half-brother. He lives with the old man. I didn't know about him until we both came home at the same time. But, we get along good. I miss him."

"Then contact him. Let him know you're at least alive."

He shook his head hard. "He broke his leg. That's why he didn't come with us. He can't move around too good and I don't want him trying to come after me. Whatever Murdoch tells him, maybe he'll stay put."

"What are you going to do? You don't have any money, no clothes and you don't even have any boots. Johnny, you can't just get up and walk out of here. You need some help."

Slowly, his head came back around and there was nothing in his eyes when he looked back at the doctor. "Been here before, Doc. I know how to take care of myself."

"But, you aren't doing that. I'm worried you'll leave here and just crawl in a hole somewhere the way you're feeling right now."

Johnny shrugged. "That'd be my business, wouldn't it?"

Dr. Monroe had never felt such anger toward a patient and he had no right with this one, he knew. Something about this young man and his situation appalled and saddened him. "No, young man. Not after all the time and effort I put into saving your life. You made reference to horses before.   Do you know a lot about them?"

Johnny almost smiled. "Yeah, I'm pretty good with horses. I break and train them at hom..." he trailed off, his eyes closing against the pain of memories.

"Then, I have a proposition for you."

*****

Warily, Johnny looked at the doctor. "What would that be?"

Smiling, Dr. Monroe leaned back a little and studied him. "I bought my son a horse for his twelfth birthday. Unfortunately, the animal is very nervous and won't let anyone get too close especially, with a saddle in hand. If you could train it and teach my son to ride, I'd pay you. I also have a small room over the carriage house where you can stay."

"You don't know anything about me, Doc. I could be some crazy killer or somethin."

Monroe laughed at that. "I've spent a lot of time with you, Johnny. I'm trained to spot crazy killers and you are not one. So? Do we have a deal?"

"I don't want your pity."

"You are stubborn, aren't you? You're doing me a service and I'm paying you. It's called a job, young man. That's all there is to it. Now, I can get you some clothes and a pair of boots and take it out of your pay. Is that agreeable?"

Johnny studied the man. He still thought the doc was taking pity on him but he didn't exactly have much choice. He could not abide the idea of walking out of that hospital in nothing but his longjohns. Aside from the fact he'd be arrested on the spot, it made him sick to his stomach just thinking about it. He really had no choice and he knew it. All he could do was make sure that was the best trained horse and this kid rode better than anyone around before he was done. He nodded his head and extended a hand.  

"Good! Now, you're going to have to eat and get your strength back. My son has been getting quite impatient with me about that horse."

*****

"Scott Lancer, stop that!"

Caught in the act, Scott could only look up sheepishly at his jailer. For that's how he'd started thinking of Teresa. She was always there, always stopping him from moving or, in this case, scratching under the damnable cast. "It itches!"

"You know what Sam said. It's just going to have to itch." She stood before him, one hand on her hip, the other held out expectantly as he begrudgingly handed over the small stick he'd been using.

"That's very easy to say, Teresa. Not so easy to live with. How would you like having an itch you can't scratch?"

She smiled a bit maliciously at him. "Women aren't allowed to scratch in public in case you've forgotten, Scott. I know very well what it's like."

Scott raised his brows and conceded the point. His retort lay silent as they heard a wagon pulling up. "I wonder who that could be."

"You just sit right there and I'll go see." Teresa gave him a stern warning glare before walking to the front door with a small smile of victory. She opened the door and her smile grew wider. "Murdoch!"

Scott scooted around on the sofa and watched Murdoch embrace Teresa. Then, he saw Sam just behind his father and rolled his eyes. "Sam, I don't think it's time for another examination unless, of course, you're here to take this thing off my leg."

Sam forced a small smile then looked at the floor. Scott's frown deepened at the odd behavior then, he saw Murdoch's face and his heart fell into his stomach. Teresa had wrapped her arm around her guardian's and was walking him into the living room. Scott kept staring at the door after they'd all moved away from it.

Teresa's chatter stopped abruptly as she frowned and looked behind her. "Where's Johnny? And why were you driving a wagon?"

Murdoch squeezed her hand and attempted to smile. "Sit down, darling. I need to talk to you both."

Scott knew something dreadful had happened but he held onto the hope that it wasn't as bad as his imagination was screaming it to be. He took possession of his emotions and tucked them away, his face a stoic mass of stone. He felt Teresa's hand on his own as she settled beside him on the sofa but resolutely refused to let it have any effect.

Murdoch sat in a chair across from them, Sam in it's match to his left. He glanced at his friend who gave him a nod of encouragement then he cleared his throat.

"There was an accident in San Francisco . Johnny ... Johnny was ..." he shook his head, lowering it to his chest.

Sam reached over and patted his arm. "Johnny was hit by a wagon. It was fully loaded and moving at a fair rate. He wasn't able to get out of the way."

"Oh, no!" Teresa exclaimed. "Well, is he going to be alright? Is he at the hospital there? Why did you leave him?"

Scott squeezed her hand to stop her litany of questions. He could already see what was going to be said and he moved to put his arm around the girl.

"No, my dear," Sam continued, "he's not going to be alright. I'm so sorry but Johnny didn't survive. He was killed instantly."

Scott flinched at the searing scream emanating from Teresa before pulling her to his chest. Murdoch's head snapped up at her reaction, the sobs which ensued breaking his heart all over again. Scott's face never changed as he held the girl and tried to comfort her. In his chest, a hole began that widened with each passing second.

They heard bootfalls running toward the house. Sam stood and went to the French doors, walking outside to stop the men who were reacting to Teresa's scream. He explained the situation to a stunned group. After a few minutes, he returned to the living room and a silence broken only by Teresa's now quieter sobs.

*****

"Where is he?" Scott asked in a whisper.

" Green River . Murdoch brought him home. He's at the undertakers."

Teresa's sobs increased and Scott hugged her tighter. Scott simply nodded at the information, too numb to feel and not wanting to. " Green River ." He looked at Sam. "Val?"

"I've told him. I saw him just before we left for the ranch."

"Thank you, Sam, for being such a good friend and helping Murdoch."

Murdoch was staring at his son in disbelief. "Well, Scott, it's so nice to see that your manners will never fail you no matter the circumstance. Maybe you didn't quite understand Sam. Your brother is dead!"

Teresa pulled away from Scott's chest and stared at Murdoch.

"I heard him clearly, Sir. I'm sorry if my reaction doesn't suit you."

"Reaction? What reaction?"

"Murdoch, stop!" Sam interceded. "It's obvious Scott is in shock. Everyone reacts to bad news differently. It's not up to anyone to say how a person can behave. Don't make the mistake of fighting with each other at the very time you need each other the most."

Murdoch continued to frown at his son but Scott wouldn't look at him. He huffed and sat back in his chair. After a moment of quiet, he spoke. "I thought that small hill behind the house would be a nice place. He used to go up there after supper sometimes and sit under that oak tree."

Scott bit his lip. All he wanted was to get out of that room but he couldn't. At least, not easily or quickly and probably not without some help. He knew he should stay with his family. They should grieve together but he wasn't one to show his emotions openly no matter the circumstance. All he wanted was to be alone with his misery. No, all he really wanted was his brother. His eyes began to burn and he leaned forward quickly, reaching for his crutches.

Sam moved over to help him and he leaned against the doctor as he got himself situated. Sam whispered in his ear, " it's alright to grieve with them, son. But, it's alright not to as well. Come on, I'll get you to your room."

*****

Scott sat heavily on the side of the bed, his head lowered. Sam set the crutches aside then sat beside him. "Try to understand Murdoch isn't angry with you. He's angry at the loss. And, he had to deal with all this alone. It wasn't easy on him, Scott."

"I know, Sam, I know." He ran a hand through his hair. "I understand. He wants to hit something, rant and rave. I don't blame him for that. I guess I'm still trying to even accept this. Maybe ... maybe if I ..." he swallowed hard, "saw Johnny."

"No, son. From what Murdoch told me, it was a very bad accident. Johnny is unrecognizable."

Scott's head came up and he gawked at the man. "Then, how can he know for sure?"

"It was Johnny's clothes, his boots and those spurs Murdoch gave him. Plus, that bracelet he always wore."

Scott's shoulders slumped in defeat and he could only nod. "Please take this cast off, Sam."

"You know I can't do that for another two weeks."

"I don't want to go to my brother's funeral like this!"

Sam rubbed the back of his neck. "I'm sorry, Scott. Johnny wouldn't want you to suffer, though. You know that."

"Why didn't he move, Sam? Why didn't he jump out of the way?"

"I don't know. I wasn't there. We'll never really know, I suppose. Now, why don't you lie down for a while?"

*****

There were over a hundred people sitting in the pews of the Catholic church in Morro Coyo. Murdoch, Scott, Teresa and Jelly sat in the front row with Sam and Val right behind them. Murdoch glanced around, surprised by the sheer number. The room was getting stiflingly hot and he felt his throat close up. He closed his eyes and wished this was over; that it wasn't happening at all. He felt the small hand squeeze his and looked down at Teresa beside him, giving him a tearful smile. He could only nod and squeeze her hand back, no words could shove past the knot in his throat.

His eyes lowered and he stared at the cast on Scott's leg, sticking straight out in front of his son. His only son now. He and Scott had barely spoken in the past couple of days and Murdoch knew he needed to change that soon. He'd been wallowing in his grief to the point of ignoring everything and everyone around him. Sam's words came back to him in that moment. Don't make the mistake of fighting with each other at the very time you need each other the most.

He took in a deep, stuttering breath and raised his eyes as the priest appeared. He hadn't known if this was the right thing to do. If Johnny would want a funeral mass performed. He didn't know what to put on the headstone at first. He didn't know a damned thing. But, he'd sought out Father Michael for advice and had been surprised to learn the man knew Johnny well. Had spent time talking to and advising his son. The priest wouldn't tell Murdoch what they talked about but he had a look in his eyes that told the rancher he'd been the topic of many of those conversations. Johnny just kept on surprising him even now.

This room full of people was an example. Murdoch didn't have a clue Johnny knew so many people here. When had he found the time? Or, and his stomach clenched at this thought, were these simply curious people or sick-minded ones wanting to see the funeral of Johnny Madrid? Anger flushed Murdoch's cheeks at that thought. Well, if there were any of that type here, they'd best not show up for the burial. He wouldn't let his son's funeral become a freak show.

Scott leaned back, letting his leg stretch out a little further. He wished he could push the throbbing aside completely but it wouldn't quiet. He was still angry with Sam for not removing the cast for him. He could have handled a splint. Something less constricting. As it was, his movements were clumsy and attention getting. He was being stared at enough, he thought. The cast just made it worse.

He looked over at Murdoch, staring straight ahead and waiting, he imagined, for this to get over with. He saw a flush of red ride up his father's neck to his face and wondered what Murdoch was thinking. Sadly, he hadn't a clue. He needed to talk to his father once this was over. They had to come to some sort of understanding or ... something. He hadn't been able to grieve with them and part of him was ashamed of that. But, he'd known this day would be nearly unbearable and he'd needed all his strength to face it.

The sheer number of people surprised him but he'd recognized most of them and knew Johnny had affected each ones life in some way or other. He knew those people were here to support the family and to grieve themselves. The ranch hands had come to him just yesterday in askance. Feeling their own numbers would crowd out other mourners, they'd ask if Scott would mind them waiting for the burial to pay their respects. The church was small and Scott had been surprised and humbled at their generosity of heart. Most of those men had become good friends with Johnny and they respected his brother a great deal. To bow out of the funeral itself told Scott how much they respected Johnny's family and other friends as well.

The priest began speaking and Scott sucked in a breath, praying he'd be able to hold himself together.

*****

Four days later, and nearly two weeks after the assault, Johnny walked out of the hospital sporting new clothes and boots - a prepayment for the work he'd promised. He inhaled the salt air like a starved man then looked over and smiled softly at the doctor. Before he knew it, a carriage was pulling up and Monroe walked to it. Johnny climbed in and crossed his arms over his chest.

"You can wear one of my old jackets when you're working with Honey."

Johnny's eyes came up. "Who's Honey?"

"My son's horse. That's what he named her."

A grin spread across Johnny's face and he laughed softly.

"How's your throat feeling?"

"Better. How long before my voice sounds right? I hate to even talk to folks soundin like a frog."

Monroe smiled. "I'm afraid it's going to take some time, probably another week. Will having to whisper interfere with training the horse?"

"No, should be a plus. Always talk softly to a skittish horse. Calms them down."

It was a short trip to the doctor's home. A large two-story brick structure near the hospital. Johnny was perplexed as to where this horse might be staying and wondered if it had it's own room. He almost laughed out loud at that until the carriage rounded the back of the house. A sprawling lawn greeted them and near the back stood a moderately sized barn, freshly painted and, from this viewpoint, clean as a whistle. "Real nice."

"Thank you. We like it. Come inside and meet my family." Dr. Monroe stepped out of the carriage and waited for Johnny then headed to the back door.

Inside felt like home. The kitchen was overly warm and the smells were mouth-watering. Johnny looked around the huge room and felt a little light-headed. He bowed his head and pulled himself together.

"Agnes, this is Mr. Lancer. He's going to be training Honey for us. He'll be staying over the carriage house and having his meals with us."

Johnny's head came up. "No need for that. I can eat in the kitchen. Ain't that where the help usually eats?"

Monroe looked hard at him and knew he was being challenged. This one wore him out, truth be told but, he knew Johnny was worth it. How he knew was a mystery but he didn't question his instincts. They had served him well in his life. "Yes, you're right about that. Fine, you'll eat in here with Agnes and the rest of the staff. Come with me and I'll introduce you to my family."

Johnny looked at the cook, a fairly large woman with a stern face. He figured she hadn't smiled in about a hundred years. He gave her one of his lop-sided grins but she only stared at him. The smile fell from his face and he followed the doctor.

*****

He found himself in a large but comfortable room with a huge fireplace producing enough heat to warm even the corners. A woman was sitting near the fire with her needlework as a young boy laid on a rug near her, reading.

" Stanley , you're home and you've brought our guest."

Johnny watched the woman stand and walk toward them. He could swear she was walking on air, she stepped so light and gracefully. She was a handsome woman, no doubt about it. Her blonde hair swept up and away from her face with stray tendrils caressing her long slender neck, cast her face in an almost angelic glow. Pale green eyes lit up and her smile seemed to make the room even warmer and more welcoming. He found himself smiling back.

"Anna, this is Johnny Lancer."

He tipped his head. "Pleasure, ma'am."

"And this is our son, Adam. Adam, come meet the man who'll be training Honey for you."

Adam lunged to his feet and ran to Johnny, extending a hand. "Pleasure, Mr. Lancer. I sure hope you can get Honey to behave. I'm not too sure she likes me."

Johnny leaned down so he could look the boy in the eyes. "She just doesn't know you yet. We'll figure out what's bothering her and make her feel to home. I'm counting on your help, too. She's your horse so she needs to get familiar with your smell."

"Oh, I didn't realize you'd want Adam to be around her," Mrs. Monroe said. "I don't think that's wise. She could hurt him."

Johnny raised back up and smiled at her. "No, ma'am. Not while I'm around, she won't. I'll need to work with her a few days alone anyway. Once I'm sure she's safe, the boy should approach her. I'll be right there. I won't let any harm come to him."

The look in her eyes told him she wasn't too sure about that but he held her gaze with confidence until she smiled a nodded her head.

"Well, I'll show you to your quarters now, Johnny. I would like you to at least have dinner with us tonight," Dr. Monroe said.

"Oh, yes, you must. I've already had Agnes set you a plate."

"Thank you, ma'am. It'd be my pleasure." Johnny nodded to her then followed Monroe out of the room. He wasn't uncomfortable exactly, but being around a family wasn't pleasant for him. He figured he could stand it for one meal, though, and he was too grateful to this man to slight him.

*****

"It's warmer than it would seem up here," Monroe said as he opened the door onto the quarters. "There's a fireplace, at least. Summer's almost here, though. It does come slower in this part of California than you're probably used to." He walked to the window and pulled the curtains back. "Anna spruced it up for you."

Johnny looked around the place and thought it was more than he'd expected. A nice sized room with a table near middle of the space and an overstuffed chair by the window. A standing lamp was placed by the chair and the fireplace took up half of one wall. A short hallway lead to another door where he assumed the bedroom was. "I'll be fine. It's really nice."

"Well, settle in. We eat in half an hour. Just come in the kitchen and Agnes will show you to us. Are you feeling alright?"

Johnny looked at him, puzzled for a second then, he smiled. "There's my doc," he laughed. "Guess I'm a little tired but, I'm okay. I'll be down soon. Thanks again for this."

"I'm happy to do it and you are doing me a big favor by taking that mare on. I tried two other trainers but they spent five minutes with her and left."

Johnny laughed at that. "I wouldn't call them trainers then. She can't be that bad. Where'd you get her?"

"The stockyards had an auction. She was very subdued at the time. Two days later, she was unapproachable."

Sighing, Johnny dropped his head and shook it. "Sounds like she was drugged so she'd behave. They do that sometimes. I'll work with her but if I don't think she's safe for the boy, I hope you'll take my word for it."

"I won't put my son in danger. I'd hate to lose her, she's really a beautiful animal but, it's not worth Adam's welfare."

*****

Johnny watched Adam at the supper table as his parents reported on how their day went. Once he was sure they were finished, the boy   started in.

"How long have you worked with horses, Mr. Lancer?"

"First of all, call me Johnny. I've been around horses my whole life."

"Are you a cowboy?"

Johnny paused with his water glass in midair then set it back down. "I have been."

Adam leaned over the table a little. "How come you talk so soft?"

"Adam!"

"It's alright, ma'am," Johnny quickly intervened. He smiled at the boy. "I hurt my throat and your father doctored me. That's how we met, in the hospital. He says my voice will get better in time."

Adam squinched his face up. "How'd you hurt your throat?"

"Two men robbed me and beat me up. I'm not proud of it but, there it is." Johnny paused and glanced at Monroe . "Your old man is a fine doctor. I've known a few docs in my time and he's been one of the best. Maybe, *the* best."

Adam looked at his father, his eyes shining. "I know. He was the doctor of the year last year. Bet he gets it again this year, too."

Johnny's face paled and he bowed his head over his plate.

Monroe smiled at his son. "Adam, I appreciate the confidence but, it's not polite to brag."

"Are you alright, Mr. Lancer?" Mrs. Monroe asked as she placed a hand on his arm. "Stanley, the young man is pale. Maybe he's not as well as he thinks."

Johnny glanced up at her. "I'm alright, ma'am. Guess I'm just a little tired, is all. If you don't mind, I'll turn in now. I'd like to get an early start, anyway." He stood up and sighed. "That was a fine meal. Thank you."

The three of them fell quiet when he left the room.

"What in the world?" Anna asked.

Monroe stared at the door and shook his head. "He's having a hard time. His father ... well, there's problems there. I think something we said may have reminded him. It's best if we leave him alone tonight."

*****

Johnny fell onto the bed and clasped his hands over his abdomen. He stared at the ceiling and tried not to think but it wasn't working. Adam looked at his father with so much love and pride tonight. And the doc gave it right back. Right there in front of a stranger, to boot. He didn't understand that kind of relationship. All he knew was it hit him like a gutshot and he had to get out of there. He hoped they didn't think he was being rude or anything. Truthfully, he was tuckered but he doubted he'd sleep anytime soon.

The same question kept coming back to him. What was he going to do? This job was temporary and that was more than fine with him. The sooner he got out of the city, the better. But, he needed money and he figured this was a real good set up. He'd lucked into it, for sure. But, once it was done, he'd be leaving. Where to was the question. Lancer kept jumping in his mind. He knew he'd have to go back just to see Scott and set things right. He didn't like his brother thinking he'd just left. He was pretty sure Scott wouldn't believe that but, the old man was real good at convincing people to go along with him.

The thought of going back made his belly ache. Seeing Murdoch again - he wasn't sure how he'd handle that. Part of him wanted to kill that old man. Part of him didn't give a damn and a bigger part knew he might just fall apart at the sight of his father. He had to hand it to the man. He'd finally done what he'd been trying so hard to do for six months. He'd broken Johnny Lancer. Maybe even Johnny Madrid. He couldn't think about that part right now.

The thought of going back to gunfighting didn't sit well with him. He figured he'd hire on somewhere as a vaquero. It wasn't a bad life. He knew the work. He had to get Barranca, too. He wasn't leaving his horse behind. And, he had some belongings, as well. Yeah, he had to go back for a minute but then, he'd be out of there forever.

He turned on his side and tucked his hand under the pillow. Forever. He had no home again. He should be used to that and he guessed he was but, it had been nice for a while. To have a room and a bed and three meals a day. Someone to take care of him. Someone to care. He'd miss that. He'd miss all of them. Except Murdoch. He didn't think he'd miss Murdoch. That nagging question came back to him as he closed his eyes and started to drift off. Was it a lie or had his father really tossed them out all those years ago?

*****

Murdoch sat on the veranda as the sun broke, staring at the land unseeing. It had been four days since the funeral and he couldn't stop thinking about it. His thoughts in the church that day had not come to fruition. Every person there, it seemed, had approached him after the burial to tell some story about Johnny. Whether it was simply an enjoyable evening they'd spent playing poker with him or he'd done something to help them out, everyone had a tale to tell.

He knew it was part of the process. People felt they needed to talk about the person they were grieving. To extol their virtues and deeds. And Murdoch had learned more about his son that day than he had in all the months since Johnny had come home. Months. Not years, not decades. A few short months was all he'd had with his boy. And he'd managed to miss so many opportunities to get closer to Johnny during that time, too. So many memories washed through him of moments. Simple moments in time when Johnny was open to him, willing to let him in and Murdoch hadn't seen them; hadn't seized them as he should have. Dear God, how he missed his son!

Tears burned his eyes and he blinked several times. Rubbing his eyes, he stood and took a few steps to stand in the yard and take some deep breaths. He'd mandated to himself that he would get back to work today, start trying to live again. But, now, he found he couldn't care about work or much of anything. He turned and walked around the house, heading up the hill.

Scott watched from the kitchen door as his father slowly climbed the small hill. His resolve to talk to Murdoch had dwindled in the face of the man's grief. He knew there was no good time but, he thought being with Johnny would make things a little easier. Scott swallowed hard and blinked his eyes several times before making the final decision. He grabbed his crutches, closed the back door quietly and headed after his father.

He found Murdoch standing over the freshly turned grave, staring at the headstone. Scott stopped a few feet from his father and stood silently.

"You never said. Did I do alright with the headstone?"

Scott raised a brow as he stepped up to stand next to his father. "I think it's perfect, Sir. Johnny would like it."

Murdoch sniffed and nodded.

"What he wouldn't like is how I've been behaving," Scott said softly.

Murdoch turned to face him, no expression on his face.

Scott felt gut punched but he had to do this now. "I can only say I'm sorry I've been so distant. I guess I felt ..." he stopped and lowered his head, shaking it slowly back and forth.

Murdoch laid a gentle hand on his son's shoulder and felt the trembling. "What, son? What did you feel?"

Hitching in a breath, Scott couldn't look at his father. "I felt if I grieved in front of you or anyone, I wouldn't be able to handle the funeral. I thought if I let it show before that, I'd just fall apart. I kept thinking you needed me to be strong but that was just my justification for staying away. I really think I just couldn't accept it had happened and maybe, if I didn't mourn, it wouldn't be true." Frustrated with himself and knowing he sounded like a complete idiot, Scott hobbled away a little. Away from the comforting touch. He rounded and stared into his father's eyes. What he saw was understanding and that surprised him.

"When the policeman came to tell me, I refused to believe it. I told him I wanted to see for myself. I knew I'd be able to stand there and say 'No, that's not my son'." He swallowed hard before going on. "But, I couldn't say one way or the other, Scott. There was nothing left to recognize and I ... I thought I was going to be sick. When they showed me his clothes, I ..." He stopped and closed his eyes. When he opened them, Scott was standing right in front of him.

"I went back to the hotel and someone knocked on the door. I just knew it was Johnny ready to tell me what he'd gotten himself into. But, of course, it wasn't him. It was Barney. He said the hotel staff told him Johnny had been asking about where to get Cuban cigars. You see, I think he wanted to buy me a present for when I won only I didn't win."

Scott stared at him openly. "I never even thought about the award. I'm sorry, Murdoch."

He waved a hand. "What difference now? Really, Scott, what difference at all? I was so angry with him for not showing up at the banquet. I was ready to tell him ... a lot of things, I guess. But, it didn't occur to me until later that something might be wrong." He looked sorrowfully at his son. "Why didn't I think something was wrong? Why did it take me all that time? Instead of thinking my boy might be in trouble, I thought he was boozing or womanizing. What the hell kind of father am I?!"

Scott gave himself a few seconds before answering. "I can tell you what Johnny's answer to that would be. You're a fine father. You're a bear and you growl a lot but, Murdoch, I know Johnny loved you. I know it as well as I know I love you."

Murdoch's head snapped up and he stared at his son for a long moment. Without warning, he grabbed Scott and pulled him into a hug, the crutches falling silently away onto the grass.

*****

Scott relished the contact he'd been deprived of all his life. He didn't care if anyone saw or that his upbringing was screaming at him. He shut that part of his mind off and hugged his father back ferociously. Eventually, they parted and neither man felt ashamed.

Murdoch cleared his throat then bent over and retrieved Scott's crutches for him. "Thank you, son. It's wonderful to hear that from you and I want to believe it was true with Johnny. I just don't know how he could have cared so much for me after the way I treated him."

Scott quirked his mouth. "You weren't always hard on him. There were enough times, Sir. Enough for Johnny to know you cared. We had talked about it many times, you know."

"I've been thinking a lot about the times I let slide by when I could have showed him so easily."

"You can't drive yourself mad thinking of the times you didn't get. All we can do is remember him and love him." Scott looked down at the headstone and smiled. "Look at that, brother. You've managed to get the old man to soften up after all."

Murdoch snorted a little then turned toward the grave, wrapping an arm around Scott and leaning into him close. In a voice husky with emotion, he spoke. "I'll let you spend some time alone with him. I was thinking I'd get back to paying attention to the ranch today then I thought not. But, I have to sooner or later. I'll be with Cipriano."

Scott just nodded as his father left him with his brother. He leaned over the grave and ran a hand over the headstone. "Yes, Sir. You did a fine job," he whispered.

Johnny Madrid Lancer

Beloved son and brother

Devoted friend

1848-1871

Scott wiped his face and straightened up. Saying a silent adios to his brother, he walked back down the hill.

*****

Scott pulled up short then made his way over to where Murdoch was standing and watching the road. "Who is that?"

"I don't know. I don't recognize them yet. They're leading a horse, though." Murdoch took a few more steps into the yard as he waited for the man to near. He still didn't recognize him.

The stranger dismounted and tied off both horses then walked up to them with a smile. "Good day, gentlemen. I'm looking for Johnny Lancer."

Murdoch seemed to turn into a statue and Scott took a step forward, his heart pounding. "What about?"

The man gave them both an odd look. "Well, he bought this mare near three weeks ago and I'm deliverin her like we agreed on."

Murdoch's shoulders fell and he closed his eyes briefly. "I completely forgot about that." He turned to Scott to explain. "Johnny bought her for Teresa's birthday while we were in San Francisco ."

The man nodded his head. "That's right and she was sent by train to Cross Creek. I was told to deliver her so here she is. Is Mr. Lancer ta home?"

Before either man could answer, Teresa walked outside. She nodded to the visitor then saw the horses. She inhaled suddenly. "Oh, my! What a beautiful horse!" Immediately, she walked over to the mare and stroked her neck. "Hello, girl. What's your name?"

Murdoch was pretty sure he couldn't stand there much longer. He felt like all the air had been sucked out of his lungs and someone was pulling all the blood from his body.

Scott walked up close to the man and leaned in. "We'll take the horse. My brother ... isn't available."

"Oh, I don't know, mister. I was told to deliver that mare to Johnny Lancer."

Scott cringed. Did the man not know how to be discreet? His voice carried nearly as loudly as Murdoch's best rant. Scott turned his head and saw Teresa staring at them.

She walked over and took Scott's arm. Her voice shook when she spoke. "This horse is for Johnny?"

"Yes, Miss. Johnny Lancer. I'm ta deliver her right to him. He ..." he stopped when he saw tears forming in her eyes and stood there with his mouth hanging open.

"Just leave the damned horse!" Murdoch growled and walked over, grabbing the man by the arm and leading him back to his own mount. In a lower tone but still with a growl, he said, "my son died after buying that horse so, if you don't mind, we'd rather not stand here and chat about it all day!" He didn't give the man a chance to apologize or say anything. Murdoch turned and walked back to his family.

Scott was holding Teresa as she wept and Murdoch's anger melted. "Sweetheart, Johnny bought that horse for your birthday. I simply forgot all about it."

She wiped her eyes and pulled away from Scott shaking her head. "My birthday isn't until next month. How was he going to hide a horse?"

Scott had to laugh at that. "You know he would have found a way. It's yours, honey."

"Johnny knew it was a perfect match for you. He said as much and I know it would have made him so happy for you to enjoy her," Murdoch said.

Sniffing, Teresa held her head high. "I will. I'll have to think of the perfect name for her. I ..." she couldn't say anymore and turned, walking quickly back inside.

Murdoch watched her go and found he couldn't chase after her. "Will it ever stop?" he muttered.

*****

Johnny blew on the steaming cup of coffee before taking a sip and hoping it woke him up. Last night, he'd done little more than toss and turn. Sleep came in the early morning hours but it was brief and disturbed by dreams. No, more like nightmares. Most of which ended with him watching his father turn his back and walk away.

He set the cup down and lowered his head. Hands intertwined, he rubbed his forehead up and down his thumbs and figured the headache would be with him all day.

"Didn't you sleep well?"

Johnny's head came up and he looked at the doctor standing in the kitchen doorway. He managed a small smile. "Guess not."

Dr. Monroe frowned and walked over to him. He leaned over Johnny and stared into his eyes, checked for fever with the back of his hand then pulled a chair out and seated himself next to the younger man. "I'm not sure you're well enough to take Honey on just yet. Maybe you should rest a few more days."

Johnny sat back and shook his head. "I'm alright. Just have a little headache. Soon as I get some more coffee in me, I'll perk up. Besides, I haven't even set eyes on that horse yet." The doc was staring at him and Johnny never much liked being stared at. Funny, he should be used to it but he wasn't; never had been. He was about to say something ungrateful and inappropriate when Monroe saved him from his own temper.

"Just promise me you won't overdo it. Adam has waited this long, he can wait a little longer. Besides, he won't be out of school for the summer until next month. There's plenty of time."

"Depending on what I find, I might need that time. If she's as much a skillethead as you say, it won't be a fast job. I hope that's alright."

Monroe smiled and stood, placing a hand on Johnny's shoulder. "As long as it takes, Johnny. You're welcome here. I hope you know that. Now, I have to get to the hospital. Is there anything you need? Any ... any messages you want sent?"

Johnny dipped his head before looking back at the man, his eyes empty. "No, thanks."

Disappointment colored the man's face but it was intermingled with understanding. "Oliver, the stableman, will help you. I've already told him about you and he's hopeful you can get through to Honey. As ill-tempered as she is, Oliver has taken a liking to her."

"I'll head down as soon as this coffee kicks in."

"And you've had a proper breakfast," Agnes interrupted by placing a plate in front of Johnny. "A healing man needs nourishment."

Monroe chuckled a little. "No use in arguing with her, either. You won't win."

Johnny smiled at them both. "I learned a long time ago never to argue with the cook. Go save some more lives, Doc. I'll be fine."

*****

He had to admit, he felt better after eating and, of course, downing half a pot of coffee. Johnny made his way to the barn with anticipation. As much as he'd heard about Honey and, the name did not fit as far as he could tell, he was anxious to set eyes on her. His hand was on the barn door when he heard the strong, graveled voice.

"Hope you got somethin them others didn't. All a bunch of pansies. Took off runnin not two minutes after gettin here."

Johnny turned to his right and watched the old man limp toward him. He held a shovel in one gloved hand, the other hooked in his belt as if holding his pants up as he walked. Short, slightly hump-backed and gray-headed - what hair he had - the man had crow's feet around his hazel eyes that seemed to just run right down his cheeks. Johnny thought he must be a hundred years old.

"Honey needs a steady and gentle hand, sonny. Best you remember that."

Far from being offended, Johnny appreciated the man's concern for the animal. He smiled a little and nodded. "I will. Johnny Lancer." He held his hand out.

Oliver grunted as he came to a stop and shook hands. "Just Oliver will do. I'm the only Oliver around so ain't like you'd confuse me with anyone. She's awake." He nodded toward the barn.

Johnny turned back to the barn door. "Does she let you close?"

"Enough to halter her and take her to the pasture or corral."

"Could you do that? Take her to the corral? I don't want the first person she sees this morning to be a stranger." He shrugged as he looked at the old man. "No reason to get her het up."

Oliver looked hard into Johnny's eyes, pleased when the young man didn't look away. He nodded and walked into the barn.

Johnny walked away, toward the side of the building, a small smile on his face. He liked Oliver so far. He was a straightshooter and, he sure seemed to care about the horse. He leaned against the side of the barn and crossed his arms as he looked out over the landscape. The tree line leading to the woods was about quarter of a mile away. Not much room to run a horse but, he'd manage. That was, if he could get on her. His smile widened as he pictured the mare getting the better of him. He wasn't sure it would take too much right now and he hoped he could focus on the job.

*****

Stanley Monroe walked into his kitchen at noon to find his wife and cook staring out the window. He walked up behind them and leaned in but neither woman seemed to notice him. "What are we looking at?"

Anna startled, her hand coming to her bosom as she stepped back. " Stanley ! You frightened the life out of me!"

Agnes swiftly turned and walked back to her stove, averting her eyes from her employer's.

Laughing, Stanley gathered his wife into his arms for hug. "I'm sorry, darling. Now, what is so interesting?"

She collected herself and gave him a stern look then turned back to the window. "We were trying to figure out what Mr. Lancer is doing. He's been standing out there for ten minutes at least, not moving. If that's how he works, I'm not so sure we should pay him."

Stanley leaned close to the window and saw Johnny standing in front of Honey. Just standing there, his head slightly bowed, not moving a muscle. He frowned then shrugged. "Maybe, it's some sort of hypnosis." Looking at his wife's profile, he asked, " you don't seem to like Johnny much?"

"I don't know him at all. He's a stranger and, frankly, I'm not happy about having him around Adam."

"He hasn't been around Adam unless we were right there. What is it, Anna?"

She turned and looked in his eyes. "I don't know. I just feel like he's troubled."

Stanley nodded, sadness taking over his features. "He's had a very rough time lately. You know I can't discuss it with you but, suffice to say, the young man has been hurt more than just physically. Give him a chance." He turned to the cook. "Agnes, how long do I have?"

"Ten minutes, Sir. If you're goin out back, you could tell Johnny and Oliver they have fifteen."

*****

Stanley walked up beside Oliver who was standing a respectable distance from the corral. "What's he doing?"

"Ain't sure, Sir. I think he's tryin to get her to trust him. Let her feel in charge." Oliver looked over and saw the skeptical look of his employer but all he could do was shrug.

"Well, lunch is almost ready. I'll let him know." Stanley walked up to the fence but before he could speak, Johnny's hand came around his back and waved him off. In a whisper, Monroe spoke. "Lunch."

Johnny slowly shook his head and let his hand drop. Then, he slowly crouched down, his head still bowed. After a few seconds, he looked up into Honey's eyes. She stared at him for what seemed several minutes then lowered her own head, snorted and walked away to the other side of the corral.

Johnny sighed and stood up. He walked to the fence and stepped through. "Can't interrupt me like that, Doc. She can feel the change."

"I didn't realize you were doing anything."

The side of Johnny's mouth quirked. "I'm trying to get her used to me. To feel okay with me being around and get my scent. It's gonna be a long process. She's real nervous. Someone treated her badly at some point."

Monroe 's shoulders went up. "Is she dangerous?"

"All animals are dangerous, Doc. I think I can gentle her, though. It's just gonna take some time. I can't rush her and I can't make her trust me until she's ready. Whatever happened, there are no scars on the outside, at least. She's beautiful." Johnny turned back toward the corral and his heart beat faster. She was beautiful. He'd buy her if he had any money. He'd take her home to breed with Barranca if he had a home. If he had Barranca. She was a perfect match. Palomino to palomino, she and Barranca would make gorgeous babies. He swallowed hard then turned back to the man. "Good name for her. She's the color of honey."

Monroe saw the change in Johnny and wondered about it but, he knew better than to ask. "Agnes says lunch is almost ready."

Johnny nodded. "Okay but, I can't stop with her just because it's time to eat. If I miss a meal, I'd appreciate it if no one interrupted us. I have to go by her schedule."

*****

Johnny knelt before the mare, staring intently into her deep brown eyes. Her lashes, so long and thick, reminded him of a girl he'd known once. He almost burst out laughing but choked it back down. This was not the time. Slowly, he extended his left hand. This was the hard part. The waiting, especially with a sugar coated hand that itched from fly bites and ants crawling over it. It was a trick but he wasn't above one. If she liked his taste, he was halfway there.

Slowly, the golden neck extended then pulled back then extended again. She stretched, her nose so near he felt her breath on his skin then she pulled back. Once more, her head ventured forward and this time, he felt the wetness of her tongue on his palm, quick as lightning. Then, she did it again, giving him a full lick. Johnny smiled widely, his head bowed and spoke softly to her, praising her with singsong tones.

His right hand came up, reaching slowly toward her muzzle and his fingers connected; one soft stroke. She balked a little then came back for more and he knew he had her. He raised his head and once again looked into her eyes. They both held the stare as he eased to stand. Her head followed him, eyes never leaving his as he took one step closer. Close enough to stroke her neck and she allowed it.  

Encouraged, Johnny took another step and leaned his head closer until his forehead touched her cheek. He felt her press against him and he relaxed even more, hoping she would, too. She did and he scratched under her chin, then her ear. She was nearly his now. All he had to do was get her to follow him. Let the saddle touch her back. Sure, that's all, he thought sarcastically and allowed another small smile.

It had taken the better part of three weeks to get her to this point but, he thought things would go faster now. As he stepped out of the corral, he felt a nudge and turned to find her nose in his face. Johnny laughed and petted her. "It's alright, sweetheart. I'll be back, I promise." He walked away and heard her whinny. Maybe this wasn't so good. She was getting attached to him. He thought he should introduce her to Adam very soon. Tomorrow was Saturday so it was a good time to meet her true owner.

*****

Johnny stood in the doorway of the living room and watched the family for a few seconds before tapping lightly on the door facing. He waited for Monroe to approach him then he stepped back into the foyer. "Sorry to bother you but Honey's ready to meet Adam. I thought tomorrow?"

Stanley raised his brows. "Are you sure? I don't want him frightened."

"She's doing well and she let me pet her today. I know that don't sound like much but, she's gettin sort of attached and I think it's best she knows exactly who her owner is. I won't let anything happen to him."

"Well, you're the expert, Johnny. I want to be there."

"Sure. Bring him around in the morning, then?"

Stanley smiled and nodded. "I'd better not tell him tonight. He'll be so excited, he won't sleep. Thank you."

Johnny shook his head. "She's still got a ways to go but, she needs to get Adam's scent. The only thing I worry about is if he'll be scared."

Monroe looked toward the living room thoughtfully. "I'm not sure how he'll react. Wanting a thing and getting it are different. I never want him to be afraid of anything but, that's not practical. I suppose we'll just have to see how it goes." He looked back at Johnny. "How are you feeling? Agnes tells me your appetite is sound."

He grinned and let out a soft laugh. "She's a good cook. I feel fine. Not even sore anymore."

*****

Scott rode slowly into the yard, dismounting near the barn. He walked around to the front of the horse and stroked its nose. "That was a good run. I bet you've really missed that. So have I. Wish we could've raced like we used to. Remember, Barranca?" He smiled and leaned in closer to the palomino's ear. "I know you won't believe this but, I used to let you two win. Otherwise, I'd never have any peace."

Barranca tossed his head then shook it furiously as if arguing the point. Scott laughed at him and patted his neck. "You know I was just joking. Sort of."

Scott looked the animal over. He had worked up a good sweat but he was already drying off. "Come on, boy. Let's get you taken care of." He led the horse into the barn and started toweling him off then let him drink a little. Scott curried Barranca until he shone then stood back and admired the animal. "You sure are a beauty. Johnny loved you like crazy."

His voice cracked and he choked on the words. When would he ever be able to say his brother's name without getting emotional? Never, he figured. Hitching in a breath, he set the brush down and picked up a hoof pick. He bent over to pick up Barranca's left hindleg when he felt a nudge on his backside. Scott stopped and turned. "I'm doing it. Don't be so impatient."

Again, he started to clean the hoof when he felt the nudge again, a little harder this time. Scott sighed and turned around, glaring at the horse. "What? What am I doing wrong?"

"Gotta start on the right hind leg. Johnny always did the right side first."

Scott looked up to see Jelly watching him. He shook his head. "Are you kidding me?"

Jelly shrugged and walked over, leaning against the stall. "I'm just tellin ya what he's atryin to tell ya."

The younger man rolled his eyes heavenward then moved to the right hindleg. Barranca made no more objections and Scott laughed a little. "I can't believe how spoiled this animal is. I mean, what difference does it make which side you start on?"

Jelly gave a little chuckle. "That one Barranca'll have ta answer."

"If he does, he won't get his hooves cleaned by me. I'll be out of here."

Jelly didn't say anything else but he watched as Scott cleaned each hoof meticulously. Once finished, Scott walked out of the stall and latched the gate then walked over to a shelf. Picking up a jar of something no one had ever been able to identify, he reached in and pushed a board back, retrieving a small burlap sack. Inside the sack, he pulled out two sugar cubes and fed them to Barranca.

"Didn't think anyone else know about Johnny's stash," Jelly observed.

"Neither did Johnny." Scott smiled as Barranca licked his palm clean. He then filled the horse's bin with oats and ensured his water was full before stepping back and leaning against a wall.

"It isn't getting any easier, Jelly." His voice was soft and melancholy and Jelly didn't have to ask what he meant.

"Ain't been that long, Scott. But, I don't reckon it's gonna ever be easy again. Leastways, I don't think it will. You, you're a young man. You can bounce back a little better but still, takes a long time ta get over somethin like this."

Scott bowed his head, his arms crossed over his chest. "Age has nothing to do with it. I saw Val the other day and he couldn't even look at me. It's been almost three months since ..." he sighed and shook his head.

"You can't count it by the calendar, boy. Three months or three years, it's still gonna hurt. 'Specially with someone so young and somethin so danged stupid!"

Scott looked up and felt relief which puzzled him for a second. "I'm glad I'm not the only one who's angry at the way this happened. I'll confess to you, Jelly, I'm angry with Johnny, too, for letting it happen. IF he let it happen. We still don't know what caused this. Why he walked out into that street and just stood there. I'll never believe he was drunk. I think that makes it even harder, if that's possible. Not having any answers." He lowered his head again and spoke more softly. "I could almost understand a gunfight or even an accident here on the ranch but, this ... this is just ..."

Jelly walked over and laid a hand on his arm. "I know. Your pa is feelin it, too, I'm sure. Reckon, for him, it's always been a not knowin thing when it come to Johnny."

Scott realized that was true. Not knowing why Maria left. Not knowing if his son was even alive for all those years and now, not knowing why he died. It was so totally senseless and that's what ate at Scott every single day.

*****

Johnny knelt in front of the boy, his hand gently on Adam's shoulder. The boy was looking intently at Honey over in the corral so Johnny gave him a little shake until his eyes came back to Johnny's face. "Are you afraid of her?"

"No, I'm just worried she won't like me."

He smiled. "She'll like you. Just stay right beside me and take my lead. If I say move, you move. Understand?"

Adam nodded his blonde head.

"Okay, here we go." Johnny stood and put a hand on each shoulder, walking behind the boy. He could feel the father right on his heels and he almost laughed out loud at the protectiveness. Darkly, the thought washed through him - 'it must be nice to have a father who cares'. He sighed and shook it away, focusing on Honey and Adam. He couldn't let his feelings get in the way. Honey would sense it and everything would be ruined.

He stepped through the fence and reached a hand out to bring Adam into the corral. The boy stepped in and clung to his hip as Honey made her way closer. Johnny smirked at her. Still playing it like that, huh? he thought. She was being very cautious but he knew it was the new presence. He wrapped his arm around Adam and pressed him closer to his side, hoping she would see them as one person.

"Adam, stay this close to me until I say different, okay?"

"Okay. She's coming over."

Johnny squeezed his shoulder. "Don't get excited now. You'll make her nervous. Just be real still and calm. There's plenty of time once she trusts you to play."

Honey got within ten feet then moved to her right. She circled and came toward them once more then moved off again. Johnny sighed. Maybe he should have tried the sugar again. She was one careful female. In a soft voice, he called, "Honey."

Her ears twitched and she turned her head, looking directly at him. He called her name again and she moved over to his left shoulder, away from Adam. Damn! he thought. Well, just have to play her game, is all. He stood very still as she nudged his shoulder with her nose then he brought his left hand up and scratched under her chin. She nickered and he almost laughed aloud.

"Girl, you sure are persnickety. Okay, Adam, reach out slowly with your right hand."

Adam brought his hand from around Johnny's waist and extended it slowly. Honey saw the movement and looked at the hand, reaching down to take a sniff. Adam giggled a little when her wet nose touched his palm and she bobbed her head back then licked him.

Johnny grinned. "She likes you. Now, I want you to take one step forward." The boy moved and Johnny kept his hand on Adam's shoulder. "Go ahead and pet her real easy."

*****

Stanley Monroe finally breathed. It wasn't from relief, he just realized he'd been holding his breath too long. He heard a snicker beside him and gave Oliver a rueful glance then went back to his torture. Watching Adam so close to the animal, he was beginning to doubt his own sanity. What Johnny had said about her being mistreated made his heart thump painfully. He hated any animal being abused but he hated his son being so close to one more. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea.

"He'll be alright. Johnny won't let her hurt him. 'Sides, she wouldn't anyways. She's a lot better since he's been workin with her. She ain't tried to bite me in two weeks. That young fella has a real gift, Doc. Yep, a real gift."

"That's good to know, Oliver. It doesn't make this any easier to watch, though."

Oliver snorted and shook his head. "What would? You'd be like this if she was a newborn foal."

Stanley frowned then had the grace to blush a little. "I suppose so. He's the only son I have, you know. Not that it would matter if I had ten. I guess I'd still be this way." He turned to look at the wise old man. They'd been together since Stanley was a boy himself. "Do you think I'm overprotective? I mean, to the point of causing him harm?"

"Doc, that boy worships you. He ain't no pansy and he ain't gonna be one. He's tough as nails as far as city kids go. Ain't like he's goin into the cowboyin business or plannin on bein a gunhawk or such. He'll do just fine."

"Thank you, Oliver. It's so nice to be reassured my son won't turn out to be a gunfighter," Stanley snorted.

"Someone's son has and will, though. Reckon you can count your lucky stars you ain't one of them fathers. Anyhow, look at him." Oliver nodded his head.

Stanley turned and gawked. Adam had both his hands on Honey's face, rubbing her cheeks. It was as far as he could reach but the boy had a smile that would light up the entire city at night. His own eyes stung a little at the sight of his boy so happy. He looked at Johnny who couldn't have smiled wider if he tried and Stanley knew , he owed this young man a huge debt.

*****

As soon as Adam was clear of the corral, he took off running toward his father with Johnny trailing at a much slower pace. Adam flung himself at Stanley and wrapped his arms around his father's waist. "Did you see, dad? She likes me. She really likes me! She let me pet her and she liked it, too!"

Stanley laughed boisterously. "Yes, son, I saw. It was a wonderful sight. I'm glad she's warming up to you."

Adam pulled back and looked up at his father. "Johnny says another couple of weeks and I can ride her. Just in time for summer break. Won't that be perfect?!"

Stanley looked at Johnny who had just reached them and smiled, nodding his head. "Yes, son, the timing is perfect, all right. Have you thanked Johnny?"

Johnny laughed. " Boy, has he! About chewed my ear off doin it."

"Aw, Johnny, I didn't," Adam protested.

"Very well, let's go inside and get cleaned up for lunch. You can tell your mother all about your success." Adam took off like a bullet but Stanley lingered. "I don't know how to thank you, Johnny. It would have broken his heart if we'd had to give her up."

Johnny bowed his head and toed the dirt with his boot. "Well, I'll tell ya. If you'd decided to do that, I would've had to buy her from you. She's a good girl. She just needed someone to trust in."

"As do we all. Well, I'd better make sure he washed up. His mother will not be too trusting of me if I don't." Stanley clapped his shoulder then left him with Oliver.

"They're good people," Oliver said as he watched the doctor's retreating back.

"I know. Doc's been real good to me and he didn't have to be. I mean, saving my life was enough. He didn't have to take pity, too."

Oliver turned and glared at him. "Ain't pity, boy. The man knows a good deal when he sees one. He didn't hire ya cause he felt sorry for ya. He trusts people, maybe too much sometimes. But, you told him you could work Honey and he believed ya. I'm just glad you ain't some slick tryin to milk a good man."

Johnny grinned and laughed softly. "Me, too, Oliver. Me too."

*****

Johnny rocked back on the chair's back legs as he looked into the night sky. Sitting outside the carriage house in the evenings was becoming a ritual he enjoyed. It was quiet but, the stars weren't as bright. Too much city light dimmed them and he longed for the wide open spaces. Quiet was pretty relative, too. He could hear the neighbor's dog barking every single night and had thought more than once of going over there and giving him a reason to bark. Surrey 's clopped by at a surprising number on the street out front and the sound reached all the way back to him.

Suddenly, a cat screeched and a clatter of noise followed. Johnny's gun was halfway out of the holster before he realized what it was. He didn't wear his gun while working with Honey but, at night, when he sat out here in the dark alone, he strapped it on. Made him feel more secure, anyway. Not that he'd even fired the weapon to this point. It was used and all he could afford right now but, he simply had to have one. He felt naked otherwise. Besides, there was a lot of crime in the city, too. He could attest to that personally. God, he had to get out of here!

He heard footsteps on the gravel path and strained to see who was coming. Must be Oliver only the old man usually turned in by this hour. He wasn't terribly concerned for they weren't trying to be quiet by any means.

"Not many people wear a gun in the city." Stanley came to a stop a few feet from him.

"I'm not from the city."

The brightness of the striking match lit his face briefly and Stanley saw something like suspicion there. He laid the flame to his pipe and puffed it to life before flicking the match to the ground.

"Easy way to start a fire around a barn," Johnny drawled lazily.

"Yes, it's a good thing I'm not around the barn. You sound a little ... tense tonight." His voice was nonchalant but firm at the same time. Stanley lit the gas lamp at the corner of the building then walked over and leaned against the side.

Johnny figured he was right though he wasn't sure why he was so tense. He also didn't like having someone hovering over him so he stood up and joined the man. "Just thinking about how much I miss the quiet."

Stanley looked over at him. "I think it's very quiet here at night."

Johnny laughed at that and crossed his arms over his chest. "I guess it depends on what you're used to. It's a whole lot quieter away from the city, believe me. Take that damned dog for instance. I'm of half a mind to go over there and shut him up permanently." He was surprised by the snort he heard coming from the doc.

"I didn't hear that and I never heard that so, if something happens to poor Bruno, I can claim my ignorance. He is a pain, though."

Johnny smiled at that. He really did like this man. "Listen, I don't think I ever really thanked you for takin me in. I know it's a job and all but, you didn't have to do anything and well, I appreciate it."

"Two weeks ago I would have said you're welcome but now, I'm the one indebted. You've pulled off a miracle as far as I'm concerned. Oh, I know it's probably not that big a deal to you since you work with horses a lot but, Adam is still smiling and talking about Honey."

"I'm glad they got along. Relieved, too."

"Do you really think you can have him riding her in two weeks?"

Johnny shrugged. "Sure. I plan on saddling her tomorrow. Let her get use to the weight before I ride her. She won't like it at first but, I think she'll be alright."

Stanley turned fully to look at him. "Just don't end up back in my hospital, young man. I'd never forgive myself."

"I'd never live it down, either. A city horse takin out Johnny Madrid? I'd have to move to Canada !" The smile fell from his face as he looked at the doctor's shocked expression. He was confused at first until he realized what he'd just said. Surely the man hadn't heard of Madrid this far north. He sucked in a breath and waited.

"I thought you said your name was Lancer."

*****

The voice was hard-edged and Johnny could just imagine what was running through the man's mind. Who was this person living at his home, working for him and being so close to where his family lived? He sighed. "I told you I didn't live with my old man until a few months ago. Before that, I didn't want his name." He stopped and winced. "Guess I'm not real happy with it now, either. I used Madrid before." He hung his head and said softly, "reckon I'll be goin back to that now."

Stanley nodded, only half satisfied. "The way you said that ... the name like it meant something or people knew it." He stopped, unsure what he was asking, exactly.

Johnny pushed off the building and walked away a few paces before turning to face the man. "I wanted something different. I wanted ... my family, I guess. I never had that much. My mother died when I was about Adam's age and I was on my own until I went to Lancer. I guess maybe I should've told you but it didn't seem to matter. At least, I didn't think about it mattering." He took a deep breath. "Aw, hell! I'll pack up in the mornin, if that's alright."

"Wait a minute. Pack? Why, Johnny? Who are you?"

He started to say he was nobody because he didn't have a clue who he was anymore. What he was. He hadn't let himself think about it while he'd been here. Working with that palomino had given him so much pleasure, he'd pushed everything else away as much as he could. Especially the past he knew he had to go back to now. "I was a gunfighter, Doc. A pretty good one down around the border. People know my name there. I have a reputation. I'm sorry. It just never occurred to me to tell you about it."

Stanley stared at him for a long time, trying to wrap his mind around this information. He shook his head slowly. "Your father. Is that what he couldn't deal with?"

"Yeah, I'm sure that's a big part of it."

"I don't understand, Johnny. Gunfighters are ... evil or, so I've heard. That's not you. You can't have been one of those men."

Johnny laughed a little at that. "Evil. Well, I've known some evil bastards, Doc. Not all of them were gunfighters. Some aren't so bad. It's a job like any other - sort of. Anyway, I'll leave in the morning."

Monroe took a deep breath and let it out slowly as he considered this young man and remembered his earlier thoughts about his own instincts. "No. I mean, it's not necessary. You've done a good job here and Adam is looking forward to learning to ride. I can trust you won't mention this to him and I know you don't wear that around him." Stanley 's eyes went to Johnny's hip. "I was just so surprised."

"I'm sorry. I should've told you I just didn't think about it."

"Maybe, that's because you don't think of yourself that way anymore?"

Johnny lowered his head. "Not for a while but, looks like I'm gonna have to. I don't have that many options."

"What about ranching?"

His head came up and he winced. "Tell the truth, there's a big difference between owning the land and cowboyin. See, cowboys tend to wander from ranch to ranch. They have no stock in the places they work. It ain't like they don't care, exactly, but when you own the land , it's ... special. You get to loving it and you're willing to do anything to protect it. Bein a cowboy is kind of like being a gunfighter. You just roam around, no place to call home. No place to set down roots. No one to ..." he stopped and looked quickly up at the man then turned aside.

"No one to care about? To love? I understand that part. But, Johnny, you're so good with horses. I'm sure you could get yourself set up anywhere and make a good living."

He smiled wanly. "I wanted to run horses at Lancer." With a sigh, he ran a hand through his hair. "Takes money, Doc, and lots of it."

Stanley puffed on his pipe as he considered everything he knew about this man which wasn't much. "Didn't you say 'own the land'? You own Lancer?"

"A third. It was a partnership. A three way split only Murdoch called the tune. Screeched it, more like." The bitterness in his voice was hard to listen to.

"Then, he owes you for your third."

Johnny snorted at that. "It would take a decree from the Pope to get one acre away from Murdoch. Anyway, I don't want to go through that. It's easier to just make a clean break."

"But, you haven't done that and you can't. You have a brother to consider."

Johnny looked up with a sadness the doctor wasn't prepared to see. "I don't know what he thinks right now. I won't until I see him again. See? That's why I can't just send him a wire. I have to be able to see Scott's face."

"And when you do?"

He sighed and lowered his head. "I'll know what he thinks of me and if he wants to still be my friend. Part of me hopes so but part of me doesn't. I mean, I can't stay at Lancer. How are we gonna be brothers if we can't see each other?"

Stanley thought about that. He didn't know a thing about Scott Lancer other than the little Johnny had told. He quirked his mouth. "If he's any kind of a man, he'll hear you out and come to his own conclusions."

Johnny's shoulders went up. "Don't talk that way about Scott. He's the best man I ever knew! He's smart and kind and he's a real gentleman. He went to Harvard. He ..." he stopped his tirade when he noticed the man smiling at him. Johnny huffed then put his hands on his hips. "Think you're smart, don't ya? Okay, so I'm feelin sorry for myself. I just don't want Scott caught up in the middle of this."

"I don't see how he can avoid it, Johnny. This is his family, too. Whatever he decides to do, he has a right to know what happened to you."

*****

Johnny was quite pleased with Honey. She'd balked for a while after he put the saddle on her and he didn't miss Oliver and his eagle eye watching the entire time. Johnny didn't mind, in fact, he was glad the old man was so protective of the horse. He knew Oliver was as protective of this family.

He'd led her around the corral for an hour with the saddle and had her calm. Then, came the defining moment for them both. Would she let him mount her or throw him off like a pesky fly? He'd grinned as his foot settled lightly in the stirrup. A quick glance over his shoulder saw Oliver gripping the fence and leaning in.

Oh, she'd had a time. She definitely didn't like even more weight on her back. But, if she could handle Johnny, Adam would be easy. She'd finally settled enough for him to try some moves. She was a stubborn gal for sure but, he'd made some headway with her. Tomorrow, he knew he'd get more out of her. Especially when he made sure she got her reward. An apple and some sugar for her performance. Yep, a week maybe less and she'd be ready for Adam.

"Reckon ya know what you're a doin, alright." Oliver leaned against the side of the barn as Johnny walked out.

A smile tugged Johnny's lips. "With horses, anyway." He stretched his back and bent at the waist. He may have accomplished a lot today but he could feel it deep in his muscles. He hadn't worked that hard in a long time. Not since he'd left ... he pushed the thought down.

"Did you do too much?"

Johnny straightened and gave a raised brow toward the doctor. "Kinda early for you, ain't it?"

Stanley walked up and gave Oliver a glance which sent the old man on his way. "I finished up early . I need to talk to you."

"Change your mind?"

"What?" Stanley asked.

"About me leavin," he shrugged.

"No, nothing like that. Officer Dubois came to see me. He found your pocket watch at a pawn shop. At least, he thinks it may be yours. He wanted to know if you were still interested. The owner of the store wasn't able to tell him where it came from, though. Apparently, his clerk bought it but he doesn't work there anymore and can't be found."

Johnny sighed and looked at the ground, thinking hard. Finally, he shook his head. "No, I don't want it. Got no need for tellin time anymore."

Stanley reached out and touched his arm causing Johnny to look at him. "The medallion is there, too."

"That I'd like to have back."

"Come on, I'll go with you."

*****

Johnny stepped out of the carriage and looked around. He didn't recognize the area and was surprised how relieved he was this place wasn't near the smoke shop where he'd been attacked. Still, he didn't relax at all as he and Monroe met up with Officer Dubois on the sidewalk.

"Thank you for coming, Mr. Lancer. I suppose the good doctor told you we probably won't be able to trace whoever sold the pieces."

"Yeah, he told me. It's fine. I just want my St. Jude back."

Dubois raised his brows but said nothing else as he turned and walked into the shop. The owner was evidently ready for them and pulled the watch and medal out, displaying them on the counter. Johnny walked right up and picked up the St. Jude, turning it to look at the back.

"This is mine."

"And the watch?" Dubois asked.

Johnny sighed and looked at the watch, opening it and then snapping it shut. He simply nodded then looked at the shop owner. "How much for the watch?"

The man shook his head. "They belong to you, Sir. I couldn't charge you for them."

"No, I meant how much would you take for it?"

The owner stared at him openly then cleared his throat and glanced at the policeman. "Well, I've already lost money on it and it hasn't sold. I'm afraid I wouldn't be interested in buying it again."

Johnny smiled a little. "I guess that doesn't make much sense, huh?" He shoved the watch in his pocket then slipped the medal around his neck, feeling much better when he felt the coolness of it against his skin. He looked at the office and nodded. "Thanks."

"I'm just sorry the trail has gone cold."

"I can't believe you were still tryin, to tell the truth. What's it been, a couple of months now? Anyways, thanks again." He turned and walked out, waiting on the sidewalk for Monroe .

*****

Inside the carriage, Stanley had to ask. "Doesn't the watch have any meaning for you?"

Johnny looked sidelong at him. "It did once. My old man gave it to me. Now, it's just rubbing a raw place, ya know?"

Stanley nodded but he didn't really know what Johnny was feeling. He fell quiet as the carriage made it's way to his home.

"About another week and I'll be out of your hair, Doc. Saturday, I'll put Adam in the saddle. Honey will be ready for him by then."     

"Friday is his last day of school. Are you sure, though? I mean, I could help you find work here and ..."

"No way," Johnny interrupted. "You and your family have been real kind to me and I won't ever forget it, Doc. But, I have to get out of the city. No offense, it's just not the life for me. I need a lot of space."

Smiling a little, Dr. Monroe patted his leg. "I know, Johnny. We will miss you, though. I suppose you'll be going home to see your brother."

Johnny nodded, his eyes darkening. "Soon as I can figure a way to get there. Reckon I'll take the train then buy a horse. Can't show up on foot."

"Too much pride?"

"Not enough boot leather. Lancer's a long walk from any place. One thing I'll be glad of is gettin my own clothes." And my own gun, he thought but didn't say. He figured he'd sell the one he had for a horse once he got to Cross Creek and just chance nothing else happening to him before he got to Lancer. It wasn't like he had a lot of money. He'd saved every penny. Other than the second-hand gun, he'd bought nothing else and once he'd paid Monroe back for the clothes, he'd started keeping his pay hidden in his room. Not that he didn't trust the doc, but the city had proven itself to him and he chanced nothing.

Once he got to Lancer, he couldn't bet nothing would happen, though. His stomach turned at the thought of seeing Murdoch again. If he was really lucky, the old man would be off on some business trip. The less he saw of Murdoch, the happier he'd be. He really just wanted to know what the man had come up with as a reason for his 'disappearance'.   

If he were honest with himself, he really wanted to know why his father had abandoned him when he needed the man most. Why he just up and left without even trying to find him. Johnny knew if Murdoch had really looked, it wouldn't have been hard. If he'd gone to the police and checked the hospitals like any normal and concerned person would, he'd have found Johnny quickly enough.

He leaned against the side of the carriage and let out a soft sigh. While he wanted to see Scott and check how much damage Murdoch had done, he dreaded it at the same time.

*****

Adam watched wide-eyed as Johnny led Honey into the corral. He licked his lips and leaned into his father a little. Stanley looked down at him and frowned.

"Son, if you don't want to do this..."

"I do, dad. I'm not scared. I'm just a little ... worried, I guess. But, Johnny said she wouldn't hurt me."

Stanley smiled and hugged him closer. "Yes, that's what he said and he's a man of his word."

Johnny motioned Adam into the corral and the boy moved slowly as instructed. "Okay, before we get you in the saddle, I want you to talk to her a little. Pet her and let her see you."

Adam walked around to face the palomino mare and slowly raised his hand to stroke her face. She leaned down and nuzzled his head. Johnny couldn't be prouder of the boy. He'd given no hints to Adam on how to approach her and that was on purpose. He wanted to see if the boy could manage without Johnny standing right there. Adam would have Oliver to help him but he needed to be comfortable approaching Honey on his own. He grinned when Adam started talking to Honey in a soft voice.

"Okay, time to mount up, kid."

Adam took in a deep breath then put his foot in the stirrup. With a helping hand from Johnny, he swung into the saddle. Honey never moved.

Stanley exhaled and his shoulders dropped two inches as he walked up to the corral fence. Oliver shook his head and joined the man as they watched Johnny lead the mare around the corral. Then, he opened the gate and handed the reins to Adam. In one quick and smooth move, Johnny mounted up behind the boy.

"Take her out, Adam. Let's see if you know how to ride."

The boy was grinning ear to ear as he kicked the horse's sides and trotted her into the open field.

Stanley stood on the lower rail and watched his son guide the mare. Shaking his head, he finally spoke. "I'm glad we kept up his riding lessons at the stables."

"Yep, that was good. Now, he can handle her on his own. Reckon that means Johnny'll be leavin soon."

Stanley stepped back down and turned to the old man. He swore he heard disappointment in that curmudgeon's voice. "If I didn't know better, Oliver, I'd say you're going to miss Johnny."

He made some sort of noise and shrugged. "He's a good boy. Got some problems, for sure. But, yeah, I am gonna miss him." Oliver glared at his employer. "Got somethin to say about that!?"

"No," Stanley replied quickly. "No, Oliver, I'm going to miss him, too."

*****

Johnny looked at his saddlebags and shook his head. A gift of sorts from Oliver, the saddlebags were worn but still sturdy. He smiled a little at the old man's attempts to not embarrass himself when they'd said their goodbyes last night. Oliver had simply told him he didn't need an audience when he said goodbye to a friend. Johnny had nearly blubbered himself, truth be told. Now, he was ready to leave this place and he made a solemn vow to himself to never again set foot in San Francisco . He picked up the bags and headed outside.

Stanley, Adam and Anna stood in the yard with Agnes several feet behind them and wringing the life out of a dish towel. Johnny smiled as he walked up to them.

"Well, Adam, you're a fine horseman. Remember what I told you about riding every day."

"I will. Thank you, Johnny. I love Honey and I'll take real good care of her for the rest of her life."

Johnny reached out and ruffled the boy's hair. "I know you will, son."

Anna stepped up and took his hand in hers. "We're indebted to you, Johnny."

"No, ma'am. I'm the one indebted and I never forget a debt."

Stanley looked behind himself and waved. "Well, Agnes, the man is leaving. Did you want to say something?"

She sneered a little at his back then walked up and handed Johnny a tied cloth. "Sandwiches for your trip. You're still too skinny, boy. Make sure you eat regular." She leaned in and kissed his cheek and Johnny bowed his head.

"Yes, ma'am. Thank you."

Stanley wrapped an arm around his shoulders, smiling. "Come on, I'll walk you out front. The carriage will take you to the train station." He leaned in and spoke softly. "You can put on your gun on the way."

Johnny smiled and laughed a little. "What I did here is no where near what you've done for me, Doc. If I end up in one place, I'm gonna let you know. If there's anything I can ever do for you, just send for me."

They stopped by the carriage door and Stanley turned to face him, pressing an envelope in his hand. "My address is in there. What I'd really like is for you to let me know how things work out with your brother. Johnny, I know you feel indebted to me but you aren't. What I did for you is my job. What you did for Adam and Honey was much more personal." He raised a hand to stay the young man. "Now, we can argue about who owes whom what but, you'll miss your train."

Johnny laughed softly and nodded. "I will let you know how things go with Scott. I promise. Thank you again."

*****

Johnny settled on a bench and waited for the train to pull out. He sighed a little and felt his stomach lurch. He was going back to Lancer - briefly. He only hoped Murdoch wouldn't try and give him a hard time about taking Barranca. Because, he *was* taking Barranca no matter how he had to do it. The horse was a gift as far as he was concerned. He smirked a little and figured he'd give the watch back in trade.

He closed his eyes as the steam hissed and the train jerked forward. Home. No, it wasn't home. Not anymore.

His stomach rumbled and he reached over, grabbing the sandwiches Agnes had given him. She was a hard woman to figure but she'd warmed up to him pretty quickly. He shifted in the seat and the envelope crinkled in his pocket. He hadn't thought about it at all until now but, there was more than the doc's address in there. He pulled it out and opened it.

The letter was short. Thanking him again and asking that he keep in touch as much as possible. But there was more. As Johnny unfolded the end of the letter, a bill fell out. Frowning, he picked it up and cursed under his breath. One hundred dollars. The end of the letter explained it was a 'bonus' and practically dared him not to use it. He shook his head. Yeah, okay, Doc. You win this round but, I'll be payin you back.

*****

Murdoch smiled as Teresa rode in on her mare. She slid off and tethered the animal then walked up and hugged her guardian. "She's got the gentlest gait I've ever seen. She's perfect!"

"Have you named her yet?"

Teresa nodded and looked up at him. "Her name is Princesa. She just seems so ... royal ."

Murdoch chuckled and rubbed her back. "Well, it fits her. What's wrong, darling?"

Teresa's smile had vanished. She looked back up at him with deep sadness. "I just wish Johnny could have seen me ride her. I wish he could have helped me name her. He would have come up with the best name."

Nodding, the rancher tried to smile. "Well, I think Princesa is the perfect name for her. Why don't you get cleaned up? I'll take care of her highness for you."

The smile returned to her face and she reached up and kissed his cheek.

Murdoch walked over to the mare and rubbed her neck. "Well, Princesa, you're helping that young lady whether you know it or not. Come on, girl."

*****

Johnny waited until the last passenger before him disembarked then he slipped off the train and around a corner, lost in the crowd. He didn't want to run into anyone he might know though, the chances were slim. He made his way to the livery just before they closed.

With Dr. Monroe's hundred dollars, he was free to buy a decent horse and tack. One quick stop for trail supplies and he was on his way. He took his time and got used to the horse and saddle. He wasn't in any great hurry to see Lancer again. Well, to see Murdoch again, anyway. He was anxious to see his brother and everyone else. More than that, he was dying to know how Murdoch had explained his disappearance.

It was already late when he'd arrived in Cross Creek so he only got a couple of hours trail time in before having to find a campsite. He figured if he took it slow, he'd arrive at the house in the late afternoon. Which meant a higher possibility of seeing the old man. That was okay, though. Somewhere along the line he realized he wanted to see Murdoch. Wanted to talk to him, to hear his lies and finally and truly know the man he'd thought he loved.

Love! How the hell could he have possibly loved that old man? He'd told Scott in so many words not too long before he left for the city how he felt about Murdoch. Scott's face was priceless and he'd asked Johnny how, with all the strife between them, he'd managed to get to that point.

As he settled by his campfire, Johnny thought about his answer to his brother. He'd never expected the old man to welcome him with open arms. Had never really expected much of anything. The truth was , Murdoch could have tossed him out on his ear without so much as a how do. He wouldn't have blamed the man. What kind of son could he have been? Well, as the months had passed, Johnny thought he'd been a good son. A little rebellious at first, yes. He'd had a hard time adjusting to that life. It wasn't the work, it was the family part. But, with Scott and Teresa, it had been easy. They'd made it easy for him and he was grateful to them both.

That made dealing with Murdoch easier and Johnny had come to think of his father's bark as just that. A whole lot of noise. Murdoch yelled sometimes when he was upset and it didn't necessarily mean he was upset with the person he was yelling at, either. Johnny had seen through all the bluster a little more every day. He also started noticing something else. It was when Murdoch was worried about one of his kids that he yelled the loudest. When one of them did something or found themselves in the middle of some mess was when the old man shook the rafters. It was his way of showing he cared.

Or so he'd thought. How could he have been so wrong? How could he have misread the man that badly? He knew they'd been growling a little at each other in San Francisco but he'd thought Murdoch was past it. Seemed like the man was almost okay with Johnny. Well, other than not being too happy about him missing dinner that night. Still, they'd compromised and Murdoch had been agreeable. Of course, that was before Johnny was a no show.

Had Murdoch really thought he simply hadn't bothered to keep his word? Maybe, Murdoch didn't know him at all. That thought caused him some pain, too. He'd never lied to his father. Not even when it would have been easier to do so. Surely, the old man knew that much. He frowned as he looked up at the mass of stars covering the night sky. God, he'd missed this. Being able to see them so clear, so close and the quiet around him. It calmed him and he found the anger draining away. Found himself able to try and figure out what the old man was thinking - obviously. For that's what he'd been doing for the past several minutes. He smiled a little and shook his head.

Okay, Johnny, so maybe he was pissed you missed dessert and you know he was pissed you missed the banquet. His brows drew together. He was pretty pissed about that himself. He didn't even know if the old man had won. Surely, he had. But, he could sure see Murdoch's face at that fancy dinner. All scowl and stone, then forcing a smile as he accepted his award with grace and humility. Johnny could see him so clearly just then. See him finish his speech and excuse himself as fast as possible then go back to the hotel room and ...

He took a deep breath and let it out harshly. Yeah, old man, I can see how hurt you would've been. Still, bad enough to just up and leave me? Bad enough not to even think I might be in trouble? Or, had he assumed Johnny was in trouble and simply decided he'd made his own bed. Probably never occurred to him I might be hurt. But, it should have. As a parent, it should have and that's what caused him so much grief.

That's what he'd been doing the past three months. Grieving the loss of his family. It was like they'd all died, that's how it felt. He couldn't believe it had been three months already. Honey had taken longer than he'd expected but he'd also taken his time with her. Partly because she needed it, partly because he did. He needed to heal physically and emotionally. Hell, he hadn't gotten to that emotional part, yet. He smirked at himself. Sound like a lovesick pup or somethin.

He turned on his side and stared at the dying fire. His right hand slid under the saddle and he wrapped his hand around the Colt. It was cold comfort but it was the only comfort he had now. Maybe, the only kind he could ever really expect. Closing his eyes, he drifted off to sleep.

*****

It was late morning by ranch standards when Johnny awoke to the sun filtering through the trees above him. He stretched out then got to his feet. Taking care of his morning needs, he made a quick breakfast but dallied over his coffee, savoring it as if he'd never get another cup. Probably, he thought, because I know I won't get anymore today. Resignedly, he broke camp and headed out. In a few hours, he'd be facing his old man and he needed to prepare himself for that meeting. He needed Madrid and it had been a long time.

He spent several hours bringing his past back from the shallow grave where he'd partially buried it so many months ago. The landscape was becoming more and more familiar and he felt himself slipping. His heart ached a little more with each step the horse took. He sucked in a breath and chastised himself. This ain't gonna cut it. Have to be a lot tougher than this!

An hour before he would reach the rise that overlooked the hacienda, Johnny stopped and looked around. He reined the horse to the west and down into a small valley, across the meadow and into the woods. There, he found the brook he sought and he dismounted, walking over and cupping his hands to splash the icy water on his face. He refilled his canteen and took a long pull before leading the horse to the water's edge and letting it drink.

Johnny walked a few feet away and stared into the forest around him, listening to the sounds and trying to pull himself together. It wasn't working totally and he cursed himself, his brother and anything else he could think of that was causing his heart to feel so heavy. Scott was the major player here. The one he felt he could never turn away from. He might have to leave this place but, he'd never be able to leave his brother. At least, not in his heart and mind. It would be up to Scott to say if Johnny had a place in the man's own heart now. The fact that he didn't know if that would be the case caused him more pain than he was prepared for.

Well, just have to face it like a man, is all, he thought as he mounted up and reined the horse, leading it through the woods. He'd decided to come around the side of the house. He didn't want to deal with the hands before ever seeing his family. Since he had no idea what Murdoch had told any of them, he didn't know what kind of reception he'd get. Trouble was the last thing on his mind. At least, the kind of trouble that would get him in a fistfight with someone. Not yet, anyway.

He stopped near the side entrance and dismounted, pleased no one was about. He could hear the men out in the corrals but he was hidden from their view. As he approached the side door, his anger got the better of him. Johnny stopped and took a deep breath then turned and headed toward the front door.

*****

Johnny walked in and pulled up, hesitating just a few seconds before moving into the living room. It was empty and he was happy about that. He wanted the element of surprise. At least, with Murdoch. No chance for the old man to hem and haw, just get it said. All of it.

Teresa walked in through the dining area with a vase of flowers. She looked up and stopped, frozen in place when she saw him. Her entire body began to tremble as she stared at the apparition standing there staring back at her. Her hands shook uncontrollably and she made to bring them up toward her mouth, forgetting the vase even as it shattered on the floor in front of her.

Johnny wasn't prepared to have Teresa see him first and when she went pale, he felt raw fear for what she might have been told. He saw her lose her grip on the vase and he started toward her. Suddenly, her eyes rolled back and he rushed to catch her. Kneeling on one knee, he held her half sitting up and hugged her close, patting her face gently. She was out cold.

Scott and Murdoch stepped onto the veranda together when they heard the loud crash inside. Pulling his gun, Scott went through the front door first, Murdoch one step behind him. Both men stopped in the middle of the living room when they saw a man with his back to them leaning over Teresa, his head bowed low. Scott cocked his gun.

"Get away from her," he commanded.

Johnny's heart nearly stopped at the sound of his brother's voice. Then, the words seeped in and his heart raced again. Did Scott really think he'd hurt Teresa? Maybe, he doesn't know it's me, he thought. Rather, he prayed that was the case. But he found he couldn't move and, besides, if he did, he'd drop the girl. Another voice sounded and his impairment vanished like magic.

"You heard him. Get away from her, now!" Murdoch barked.

Johnny's shoulders went straight up to his ears but before he could say a word, Teresa started coming around.

Scott took one step then stopped when he heard Teresa moan. He couldn't chance this stranger hurting her any further but he was ready to put a bullet in the man's back if he didn't move away.

Teresa's eyes fluttered and she looked up into the concerned blue eyes. She inhaled sharply, causing both Scott and Murdoch to take another step forward. Her next words stopped both men.

"Johnny! Oh, my God, Johnny!" she gasped and wrapped her arms around his neck.

Johnny held her tight, relieved she was actually happy to see him. Shocked but happy. God only knew what Murdoch had told them, he thought. "It's alright, querida. It's alright." He whispered the words, not knowing what else to say. He moved to stand, bringing her up with him as she wasn't letting go of his neck. Once on her feet, Teresa did move to wrap her arms around his waist and bury her head in his chest.

Now that he was on his feet, he could turn and face Murdoch and Johnny did just that. The look in his eyes was harder than anyone had ever seen before. "What did you tell her?"

*****

Murdoch could not move. He simply wasn't able to get his body to obey him. He wanted to. Wanted to go to his son but his mind was whirling and his heart denied what was being screamed. He could only stare, mouth hanging open.

Scott managed to get himself together a little better and he walked over even as the gun fell from his hand with a thud upon hitting the floor. As he neared, Teresa saw him and reluctantly pulled away, knowing Scott needed this.

Johnny wasn't quite sure what to make of any of them. They all seemed to have lost their minds and he wasn't sure Scott wasn't going to belt him. As his brother neared, he stiffened and prepared himself, hopefully, for whatever was about to happen.

If Scott noticed the reaction, he didn't show it as he stepped up and reached out. His hand cupped the back of Johnny's neck and pulled him roughly into a hug that could compete with any grizzly.

Teresa moved over to Murdoch and squeezed his arm as hard as she could, hoping to bring him out of his daze. It took a few seconds but it finally worked. He blinked and glanced down at her then his eyes went back to his sons, afraid if he stopped looking too long, Johnny would vanish.

The words Scott was whispering in such a low voice finally reached Johnny's ears. He kept saying the same thing over and over. "Thank God, Thank God, Thank God." Johnny knew something was very wrong with this situation but he couldn't figure it out. Eventually, Scott gave up his hold and pulled away a little, still gripping Johnny's arms.

Murdoch moved then. He walked over but Johnny took a step back. His eyes had changed to that look Murdoch had first seen on his homecoming so many months ago. Hurt and anger but, so much more intense now. He reached out but Johnny took another step away.

"Johnny, dear God, Johnny," he croaked.

Johnny didn't know what to make of this but again, he stepped back, away from the man trying to close in on him. He shook his head. "Stay away from me."

Murdoch frowned and reached out again, barely hearing the stinging words. "Son, please. My God, they told me you were dead!"

The words were but a whisper but Johnny heard them and his mouth fell open. Then, he saw something he would never forget the rest of his days. Murdoch had tears in his eyes. He shook his head slowly back and forth. All he could say was, "what?"

"It's true, brother. They, the police, told Murdoch you'd been killed. They showed him a body." Scott's throat was so tight, he wasn't sure he was even making sound.

Johnny looked at his brother then back at his father. A bolt hit him and he thought he might understand a little. Maybe, but he'd need the whole story first. All he could do was look at his father and realize what the man must have gone through. His own eyes got a little misty and he blinked then cleared his throat as his body sagged, the tension draining out through his toes, it seemed to him. Weakly and miserably and, unnecessarily, he said, "I'm not."

Murdoch blurted a harsh and quick laugh then stepped toward him again. Johnny didn't move this time. In fact, he was waiting and when his father took him in his arms, any ice remaining in Johnny's heart melted as he returned the hug.

Scott stood there grinning like an idiot until he thought the two of them were melded together for all time. He coughed loudly into his hand even as Teresa walked over to give him a hug. With one arm around the girl, Scott figured he was being a little too subtle. "Alright, you two, do I need to call in the minister? Why don't we all sit down so Johnny can tell us what happened to him?" Scott knew he needed to sit down, and soon, before he fell down.

*****

Murdoch's muffled laugh was followed by a sniff. He pulled away and swiped at his eyes with the back of one hand as the other rested on Johnny's shoulder. He guided his son to the sofa and sat him down, making sure he was as close as he could get to the young man.

Johnny tried to be nonchalant about wiping his own eyes but, in the end, he didn't really care about that. His father hadn't abandoned him and that thought was the only one in his head - and his heart. They all fell quiet as Teresa ran into the kitchen to get some drinks and tell Maria the miracle news. The three men leaned forward when they heard the rapid Spanish screams.

Johnny stood up, knowing what was about to happen and he made sure he was in a clear path from the kitchen. It took two seconds for Maria's bulky frame to show itself and she didn't stop until he was in her arms. Johnny hugged her, having to bend over, and he rocked her back and forth. "Lo se, mamacita, lo se."

After the cook had covered his face in kisses and promised him the best meal he'd ever had, she hurried back to her kitchen, nearly bowling Teresa and her tray of lemonade and cookies over in her rush.

"I imagine you'll be getting a lot more receptions like that soon, brother," Scott said and shook his head. He hadn't stopped smiling but he couldn't believe he was sitting here looking at Johnny.

Johnny smiled back. "Yeah? From who, the hands? Cause if that's the case, maybe I'll just light out now."

Murdoch wrapped an arm around him and pulled him closer. "No chance of that, son. You aren't getting out of my sight again. Ever!"

Far from being chafed, Johnny only smiled wider at his father's statement. The smile wavered as he spoke. "Tell me what happened."

Murdoch's face fell and he settled against the cushions, his hand still on Johnny's shoulder. He looked over at Scott who gave him an encouraging nod then began his story.

Johnny didn't say a word during the telling. His stomach had turned a few times as his father described the condition of the body he thought was his son. Johnny couldn't imagine what the man had gone through. What made it worse was Murdoch was all alone to deal with it. All this time, he'd never imagined anything like this had happened and he felt ashamed of himself. The touching part for him was the funeral. It was nice to know so many people thought that highly of him. He leaned into his father when Murdoch finished.

"I'm so sorry you had to go through that."

"Where were you, Johnny? What happened to you?" Scott had leaned forward, having positioned his chair so he was nearer the couch, and touched his brother's leg.

*****

Johnny started his own tale haltingly. He had never been one to talk about himself but this was needed. He faltered when he told about finding out Murdoch had left the city and he was honest in saying how he felt about the situation and what he believed his father had done. When he started talking about Dr. Monroe and Honey, Johnny's smile came back.

He finished with, "I owe the man a lot more than that hundred dollars."

Scott nodded solemnly. "So do we all. But, how did you get that back?" Scott looked pointedly at the medal around Johnny's neck.

Reaching up to finger the necklace, Johnny gave a small smile. "Oh, yeah. The policeman found it and my pocket watch. He was pretty determined but he never found the robbers. Reckon we know what happened to at least one of them."

Murdoch was shaking his head. "Maybe if I'd looked closer. Maybe if I'd insisted on looking for scars I knew you had or ..."

Johnny stopped him, unwilling to let his father blame himself. "God, Murdoch. Who could've done that? I mean you had my clothes, my boots. I'd never expect you to start inspecting a dead body. It's a wonder you didn't puke right there anyway."

Scott saw the look on his father's face. It was unconvinced so he added his own two cents. "I agree. No one blames you, Sir. We can't even really blame the police. They followed the evidence they had. The only ones to blame here are the men who robbed Johnny and nearly killed him."

"Still, I should've known. I should have ... felt something," Murdoch argued lightly.

Johnny heaved a mighty sigh and turned to face him fully. "I would've done the exact same thing you did. So would Scott. No one could've done more than you did, Murdoch. Give yourself a break. You went through hell." Johnny grimaced and looked at Teresa. "Sorry, querida."

She smiled and shook her head. "You're doing fine, Johnny, and you're both right. We all believed the same thing, Murdoch. We never thought it wasn't Johnny after everything we had showing us it was."

Murdoch gave her a small smile and nodded his head. Still, it would haunt him for a very long time, he knew.

"Well, I'd like to see my grave."

"Johnny!" Three voices chimed in unison.

He looked at each of them. "What? How many people get to see their own headstone?"

Murdoch gave him an exasperated look. "Before you go strolling around outside, I think we'd better tell Jelly and the hands."

Scott stood up. "I'll tell Jelly then bring him in. I don't think his heart could take just seeing you like we did. I thought you were a ghost!"

"So did I !" Teresa resounded and fanned herself at the memory.

*****

Scott went to talk to Jelly and Teresa went to help Maria, leaving father and son alone on the sofa. Murdoch had put his arm around his son again at some point and Johnny leaned over, resting his head on his father's shoulder. He couldn't believe all that had happened and what they'd gone through. Again, he felt ashamed of himself.

"I'm sorry for thinking such bad things about you," he said quietly.

"I don't blame you, son. I haven't exactly treated you well."

Johnny sat up and frowned at him. "I know we butt heads a lot of the time, old man, but I know you care about me. I figured you out. I just let myself forget that while I was in San Francisco . I let myself forget a lot of things. I guess I just felt abandoned again."

Murdoch cocked his head to one side. "What do you mean, you figured me out?"

Smiling, Johnny shrugged. "Just that when you're yellin at me, mostly it's because you're worried. And sometimes, it ain't me your mad at. Sometimes, you yell at me because somethin else is bothering you. I don't mind so much. Well, most of the time."

"Sometimes, I yell at you without any just cause, son. That's wrong and it won't be happening again." Murdoch took a deep breath. "I was very angry with you when you didn't show up for the banquet and, I'll admit, I was hurt. I had a lot of unkind thoughts about you and whether you were able to fit in here. I was wrong about that, too.   But, that night I started realizing that you just wouldn't do that to me. I was on my way out to look for you when the policeman showed up."

Johnny nodded then looked slyly at his father. "So, where is it?"

"Where's what?"

"You prize or award or whatever it is you got at the banquet."

Murdoch grimaced and averted his eyes. "I didn't win."

Leaning back away from his father, Johnny gaped. "What'ya mean you didn't win? What skunk stole it?"

Murdoch had to laugh at that but the memory of that night and the reasons he was given for losing would forever be kept his secret. He would never tell Johnny or anyone else why the association didn't think he deserved to win that award. They were dead wrong and it was never clearer to him than right now. "Jack Flaherty won for getting the water rights bill passed."

Johnny growled at that. "Ain't as much as what you did. What's wrong with them? Are they stupid?"

"Son, it doesn't matter. It really doesn't. I got the top prize. I got you back."

He smiled but he was still upset. He settled back against his father and griped. "I went through all that to get you a present and you didn't even win!"

"I figured that's why you were looking for Cuban cigars. I do appreciate the thought, son. I just wish none of it had ever happened."

"Me too," Johnny sighed out. "I need to let you know something else right now. I'm never going back to San Francisco again."

Murdoch pulled a face. "Neither am I."

Johnny craned his neck and gave his father a suspicious look.

"I mean it. I never want to see that place again. Any business that needs done there, well, your brother will just have to handle it."

"Yeah, Scott can take care of the city stuff. He's good at that." He smiled and snuggled down a little.

*****

Johnny's comfort didn't last long as the front door flew open. He was on his feet in a second, hand on hip and ready for anything. Johnny relaxed his shoulders and smiled at the old man staring at him. Jelly's eyes were brimming as he walked slowly toward the young man.

"I'm not a ghost, Jelly. Here, pinch me." Johnny offered up an arm.

Jelly smacked it and hugged the young man tightly. "I can't believe it. The good Lord's done answered my prayers. God bless ya, boy. God bless ya."

Johnny swallowed at the lump in his throat, once again overwhelmed. He patted Jelly's back not wanting to hug him back too hard. Once the old man took a step back, Johnny gave him a hard glare. "Best be tellin me all about how well you took care of Barranca."

Jelly pulled out a kerchief and swiped his eyes then blew his nose. "Wish I could but I can't take the credit. Scott's the one took care of 'im. He's shiny as ever and clean as a whistle, though. Scott's been riding him a few days a week and givin him good runs."

Nodding and smiling and trying not to start bawling, Johnny had nothing to say to that. At least, not to Jelly. His brother was another matter and he owed Scott big for this. "Where is Scott?"

"Talkin to the hands. Reckon the whole valley needs ta know."

Murdoch stood up with a slight groan and Johnny turned quickly to him. "I'll send someone for Sam and Val. They both took it hard."

Johnny lowered his eyes and wished he could make this all go away. Every minute, it sank in deeper and deeper how many people had been affected. He still couldn't believe it ever happened at all. "I hate to ask but, could it wait til tomorrow? I'm tuckered and I just want to be with my family, ya know?"

"Course it can wait! I'll go out and tell the hands to keep their mouths shut another night. Near dark now, anyhow. Ain't no sense in raisin the dead..." Jelly stopped, his mouth hanging open and Johnny burst out laughing.

Red-faced, Jelly exited the house quickly, passing Scott on the way. Scott turned to watch the man go and heard him mumbling to himself. All he could make out was 'big mouth'. "What's wrong with Jelly and where's he going?"

"He went to tell the hands to keep quiet until tomorrow. Johnny needs tonight," Murdoch explained.

"As for what's wrong with him..." Johnny grinned devilishly, "same old thing, Boston . Same old thing."

Scott walked up to his brother, smiling. "I never thought I'd miss hearing you call me that." He hugged Johnny again and felt his brother's arms encircle him.

"Thanks for taking care of Barranca so well."

Scott turned him loose. "My pleasure but, I have to tell you, he really misses you."

"Why don't you go see him, son? Maybe, he's one that can't wait until tomorrow."

Johnny looked at his father and saw the teasing glint in his eyes. "Why don't you go with me?" He didn't want his father out of his sight, either, truth be told and they walked outside with their arms around each other.

*****

Barranca put on quite a show when he got a whiff of his master. He pranced and whinnied loudly, shaking his head then bobbing it up and down. And that was before Johnny got within ten feet. Once he was close enough, Johnny reached out and received a wet tongue on his palm in greeting. He moved forward, wrapping his arms around the palomino's neck and Barranca laid his chin on Johnny's shoulder, snuffling and nickering softly.

"It's okay, boy. It's okay. I know. I missed you so much. I had to come back for you, Barranca. You know that, right?" Johnny leaned his head against Barranca's neck and they both stilled, just relishing the contact for long moments.

Murdoch watched them as he leaned against the next stall, his arms crossed over his chest and a smile on his face. When Johnny pulled back, he kissed the horse's nose and Murdoch shook his head. "You'd think he was the only horse in the world."

"He is - for me, anyway." He looked over at Murdoch and shrugged. "First thing you ever gave me and the very best."

The rancher lowered his eyes for a second then looked back. "Better than the spurs?"

Johnny laughed at that then turned and rummaged on the shelf nearby. He pulled out the burlap sack and reached inside, frowning. "Only two left. Who's been sneakin into my stash, Barranca? Never mind. It was Scott, wasn't it? Well, that's alright. He's allowed." He smiled as Barranca took the treat.

Murdoch moved closer and put a hand on the back of Johnny's neck, massaging the tense muscles there. "What is it, son? You're stiff."

"Tired, is all. Been a long day with everything that's happened. Plus, my brother almost shot me in the back."

Raising a brow, Murdoch couldn't deny that Scott was close to shooting the stranger he thought had hold of Teresa.   He said nothing and kept rubbing Johnny's neck.

"We'll go for a ride tomorrow, Barranca. Too tuckered now. You get some rest, though, cause I'm gonna wear you out." Johnny patted the horse's neck and walked away as Barranca nickered goodnight. He stopped and extended his arm toward his father, hand open and waiting. Murdoch slipped his hand into Johnny's and they left the barn together.

*****

Outside the barn, Murdoch stopped when his son did and watched Johnny's face as he stared toward the back of the house. "You don't have to go up there."

Johnny lowered his head and turned it to the side. "I want to." He didn't wait for further debate but headed up the small hill.

Murdoch sighed and followed. He decided Johnny would react one of two ways. Either his son would make some quip about the headstone or it would really hit him - and hard. Neither thought was inviting and he found no way to prepare himself. When he caught up, Johnny was standing very still, staring at the granite. Murdoch said nothing but his hand found it's way to his son's back, resting easily between the shoulder blades. He found he didn't want to lose physical contact though he knew it was impossible to keep.

"That's really nice, old man. Simple and easy. I like it." Johnny sucked in a breath then turned to his father, his eyes haunted. "Now, take it down."

Again, he lost that contact when Johnny turned, his hand forced to move away. "First thing in the morning, son."

Johnny shook his head and turned back. He stepped atop the grave and leaned all his weight on his left leg which was slightly behind him. He raised his right leg and kicked the headstone as hard as he could. It only moved about an inch so he tried it again and again. The kicks increased in severity and Murdoch watched his face turn frantic. He moved to his side and grabbed his arm but Johnny didn't seem to notice.

"Son, enough! I'll get a sledgehammer or something. Johnny, stop! You'll break your foot!" He shook the young man's arm hard until Johnny did stop.

Stumbling back a little, he found his balance. His face was red with the effort, sweat running from his temples. He heaved air in and out, profound anger painting every inch of his expression. After a few seconds, he glanced up at his father then turned and walked away several steps. "Sorry, I just ... what he put you through. What he put us all through. I just can't stand the thought of him layin in there, ya know?" He turned back, the anger still apparent. "I want him off this land."

Murdoch walked over to him, making himself stay back a little. "And he will be, son. But, it's almost dark now and we have to wait until morning. I promise you, he will be moved tomorrow."

Nowhere near satisfied but allowing the logic to sink in, Johnny could only nod his head.

"Come on. You've had a very busy day. Let's get some supper and some sleep. I'll fix everything tomorrow," Murdoch said gently.

Johnny started down the hill then pulled up short and stared at his father's hand. He hadn't noticed it before and he felt a strange gallop in his chest as the idea concreted in his mind.

Murdoch was watching him, his head bowed and felt a little fear for what might be going through his son's head.

Suddenly, Johnny reached out and took his left hand in his own. With his other hand, he pushed Murdoch's sleeve back a little, a haunted smile on his face. "Stealin from me, old man?"

Frowning, Murdoch looked down then a soft smile lit his face. He stared at the beads and, in a soft voice, said, " it made me feel closer to you." He pulled his hand away and started to remove the bracelet.

"You can keep them if you want. I mean, it ain't your style but ..." Johnny just shrugged. He knew what he wanted to say but the words wouldn't form.

Murdoch stopped and looked at him as Johnny raised his face. "Thank you, son. That means a lot to me."

*****

Johnny watched every move like a hawk as the coffin was exhumed. Four men had been selected from the throngs who had volunteered for the job. They worked fast and dug the grave up within two hours time. When they pulled the coffin out, Johnny's frown deepened at the expense he knew had gone into the damned thing. It was just a wooden box, after all. Still, he understood and part of him was touched by his family's thoughtfulness. Part of him wondered how any of them could have thought at all. He figured he never would've been able to pick out a casket if it were Scott or Murdoch.

The men practically threw the box into the back of a wagon and two hands jumped onto the bench, driving away toward Morro Coyo; toward Boot Hill. Better than he deserved, Johnny thought as he turned to stare back at the hole. He jumped a little as Frank swung the sledgehammer, busting the granite headstone apart. Then, Cipriano took a mighty swing and took the rest of it down, save the very foot.

Someone was standing behind him and Johnny turned slowly to find Scott watching him closely. He forced a smile and Scott tried, too but, wasn't any more successful.

"I sent Walt to Green River to ask Val and Sam out."

"Thanks," Johnny murmured then turned back to watch the stone being hauled away.

Scott stepped up beside him, hat in hand and twirling it a little. "I see you've found your belongings." His eyes went to Johnny's hip, the rig snuggly in its rightful place again.

Johnny looked at him then saw what Scott was looking at. "Yeah, feels much better to wear your own things."

Nodding, Scott grinned and glanced sideways at him. "For future reference, was the inscription okay?"

A smirk came to Johnny's face. "Actually, no. Coulda been a little more fancy. Maybe some of those high-falutin scrolls I've seen. The Lancer brand woulda been a nice touch, brother." He elbowed Scott in the ribs.

"Wish I'd thought of it." Scott smiled as he rubbed at his side. He grew solemn quickly. "I wasn't really thinking clearly at the time."

Johnny's face fell and he nodded. "Reckon not." He turned to his brother then looked down at Scott's leg. "How is it, by the way?"

Frowning questioningly, it took Scott a moment. "I'd nearly forgotten. The leg is fine. Having to hobble around during your funeral was no thrill." He turned and started down the hill as Johnny fell in beside him. "Murdoch was a mess and I didn't help matters."

"What's that mean?"

Scott sighed heavily. "I didn't accept it, Johnny. I guess I didn't really react at all at first. I suppose Murdoch thought I should have broken down like Teresa did. She screamed." He winced at the memory, glancing to his side and seeing the same expression on his brother's face. "It wasn't pretty."

"Old man yell at you?" When Scott didn't answer, Johnny threw an arm around his shoulders. "It's his way, ya know. When he's upset or feelin out of control, he yells. Me, I ride it off. And you? You get all quiet and thoughtful and usually read or walk it off."

Scott pulled up and stared at him. "I do?"

"Uh huh. See, I figured it out. The way we all handle things we don't like. Ain't always that way but, usually it is. Anyway, I've decided half the time, Murdoch ain't really mad at me at all."

Scott was impressed and smiled. "And the other half?"

Johnny grinned and pulled him a little closer. "He's mad at you."

*****

Sam Jenkins pulled back on the reins then set the brake of his surrey. He watched as Val dismounted and turned to him looking as grouchy as he had when Walt had told them their presence was requested. Val didn't want to come and he'd made no secret of it - at least to Sam. The doctor knew why. Val hadn't dealt with Johnny's death well at all and he needed no reminders of his friend's passing. Val was a hard man to figure most of the time but, Sam knew exactly what was going through his mind now.

"Reckon what's so all-fired important."

Sam steeled himself as he spoke his mind. "Maybe they have some more news on how Johnny ... how the accident happened." The frown he got was no surprise but the murderous glare was. Sam almost took a step back.

"What's it matter now?"

Sighing, Sam shrugged. "I don't know, Val. Maybe they thought we'd want to know. Maybe they need some support from their friends. We won't know until we go in so come on."

Val didn't move a muscle except his eyes as they roamed over the land. "I ain't too good at givin support."

"That's hogwash. Anyway, I think you could use some yourself. You look like something the cat dragged in, Sheriff. When's the last time you got any decent sleep?"

Val gave him another glare then narrowed his eyes. "The night before you told me my best friend was dead, Doc!" The pained look on Sam's face defused him quickly. Val winced then shifted his feet. "Well, come on. Let's see what they got to say."

*****

Johnny watched them ride in from the French doors and called to Murdoch and Scott.

â€You should wait in the kitchen, brother. We donâ€t want to shock them.”

Johnnyâ€s mouth turned up. â€If it wasnâ€t so serious, that might be fun.” His face fell when he went on. â€Val looks pretty bad.”

â€He is, son. He took it very hard.” Murdoch squeezed his shoulder even as he ushered his son from the room.

As they disappeared, Scott heard the knock and went to answer, trying to keep his face impassive. He showed the men in, offered them coffee and got two very tense noâ€s.

Murdoch walked back in and fairly ordered them both to sit. Once everyone was settled, he wasnâ€t sure how to say it. Scott had already been the one to deliver the news to Jelly and the men so he felt it was his place. Happy news it was but he knew both men would be floored and maybe even deny the truth of it.

â€Well, what weâ€ve got to tell you is very good news but, for some reason itâ€s hard to know exactly how to start.”

â€We could all use some good news, my friend,” Sam said with an encouraging smile.

â€Usually best ta just spit it out, whatever it is,” Val grumped.

Scottâ€s mouth twitched but he held back and bowed to his father.

â€Yes, Val, youâ€re right. The news is that there was a horrible, horrible mistake made. Gentlemen, Johnny is alive.”

Silence reined in the room for about five seconds before Val Crawford came out of his seat. It took him that long to see the serious expression on both Lancers faces and to realize they werenâ€t the kind to play sick jokes. His voice was stronger than he would have thought possible. â€Where is he?”

The voice, so soft, so familiar, so damned cocky, came from behind him. â€Right here, amigo.”

Val turned quickly, ready for a fight though, for the life of him, he didnâ€t know why. He stared at the man before him and felt out of place and vaguely like he was floating on air or something. The room narrowed, blackening in his periphery as he stared at Johnny.

Sam seemed to take it all much easier as he stood and walked over to Johnny. He said not a word, simply embraced the young man with moist eyes. â€Lord in heaven, itâ€s a miracle,” he whispered.

Johnny heard him and smiled. He even hugged the man back but he never took his eyes off Val. He was worried Val might just pass out. He seemed to go kind of pale like all the life was drained from him. Johnny tore his eyes away long enough to look at Sam and pat his shoulder. â€Itâ€s a long, long story, Sam. Iâ€ll tell you all of it in a minute.” With that, he headed for Val.

Val seemed to snap to and he blinked then rubbed a hand over his face. Johnny was coming nearer and he still wasnâ€t sure what was going on. Until his friend touched him, he would not believe it. He saw in Johnnyâ€s face that he knew what Val was thinking. That alone should have reassured him but it didnâ€t.

Johnny smiled and gave him a tap on the cheek then rested his hand on Valâ€s shoulder. â€You told me once you donâ€t believe in ghost, amigo. Well, itâ€s a good thing.” He squeezed Valâ€s shoulder.

â€Shit!” Val said and grabbed him roughly. He patted Johnny hard on the back as he hugged him then let go. It all took about two seconds.

*****

Everyone was quiet once the stories had been told. Val kept glancing at Murdoch and wondering how he felt about what Johnny had said. As usual, his friend held nothing back and told his thoughts about his father during the past three months. Now, the air was cleared but Val wondered. Thereâ€d always seemed to be some left over anger and resentment in that relationship. Now, even more had been added to the pile. When Johnny spoke, he damned near jumped out of his skin.

"Want to walk outside with me, amigo?"

Val looked him in the eyes but simply nodded. Hell, yes, he wanted to walk outside! He bunched his hat in his fist and headed out the door.

Once outside, Johnny headed around to the garden where it was more private. Then, he hesitated a little. Head down for a moment, he finally looked at his friend. â€Whatâ€s with you, Val? You look like hell. All drawn around the eyes. Ainâ€t ya been sleepin?”

Val stared wide-eyed at him. He swallowed and found his voice. "Oh, nothin's wrong, Johnny. Not a thing in the world. Just been goin along, mindin my own business, doin my job. Not a thing out of the ordinary happenin around here!" He shook his head in frustration and the slight smirk he was getting. Grabbing Johnny around the neck, he pulled him into an embrace, longer than the first.

Finally, they separated and Johnny gave him a sheepish look from under his lashes. "Sorry. I just hate this." His face fell and he turned his profile to his friend. "All this time, I was trying so hard to hate Murdoch again. I just couldn't really get to that place. I mean, I was mad, believe me but ... well, I wanted an explanation more than I wanted to yell at him. I told myself I just wanted to hear what kind of story he'd come up with but, that ain't the truth."

He stopped and inhaled deeply, trying to find some way to say what was on his mind. "When I saw him, that's when it all came back. Not the hate so much as the anger and ..."

"And the hurt," Val finished. "You can say it, ya know. Least ways, with me you can."

Johnny turned back and gave him a small smile. "Yeah, the hurt. I just couldn't believe he left me there. I know why now but I didn't then and I swear, Val, I couldn't figure it out. We'd gone at each other a little but by then, we seemed to be gettin on alright. So, it didn't make any sense to me."

"I reckon the question is , can you get past that? Feelin hurt by 'im, I mean."

"How can I not? He didn't do anything wrong even though, he wants to blame himself for not looking that body over."

Val grimaced and shook his head. "From what I heard, there wasn't much left to look over. I can see him not wantin to do that. Reckon it's natural for him to blame himself after knowin you were left all on your own with nothin but your longjohns." His lips twitched and Val turned away quickly.

Johnny eyed Val's back, shook his own head then walked over and cuffed the back of his head. "It ain't funny!"

Cringing a little at the assault, Val looked at him, his laughter turning more vocal as his eyes shined from the unshed tears. "Oh, yes it is! Come on! Johnny Madrid shucked down to his drawers; no gun, no boots. Not even a saddle to call his own ."

A quiver of the lips. That's all it was at first and Johnny was fighting it hard. He wanted to be angry; indignant even but he couldn't pull it off. Val kept chuckling at him and he found himself unable to hold back. He laughed outright as he swung an arm around his friend's shoulders. Finally, the two of them settled down and the seriousness of the situation returned.

"Just do me one favor. Next time you decide to get yourself killed - don't!"

"Yes, sir," Johnny grinned and saluted. He shook Val's shoulder. "You okay?"

"Course, I'm okay. Why wouldn't I be? You think you comin back to life means I can lollygag around here?" Val turned and walked away, still smiling, his heart still pounding with sheer joy.

Johnny looked to the heavens, threw his arms up in defeat then, followed his friend back around the house.

*****

Val did lollygag around Lancer all day. He, Johnny and Scott went for a ride and the brothers had a race which Johnny won. As Scott dismounted afterwards, he walked over and looked Barranca square in the eyes then winked. Johnny watched this curiously but he was sure he didn't want to know what it was about. Apparently, Scott had gotten attached to Barranca during the past few months. A smile came to the younger man's face. As strange as everything that had happened was, it was a comfort to know his brother would take care of what Johnny valued. To rub at his brother, he walked over to Remmie and gave him a sugar cube then made over the horse.

Val watched it all with amusement. His heart was full and it had been a long time since he felt this happy. He didn't want it to end, never wanted to feel that kind of pain again. Part of him had always known the chances were good he'd outlive Johnny but he'd never truly accepted that. When Johnny had found his family, Val's thinking on that changed quite a bit. Now, he didn't know how things would turn out for them and that was probably just as well.

The three of them sat under a tree at the lake, growing quiet as they enjoyed the world around them, the sun on their faces and simply being alive. Val was leaning against the tree trunk, his head back. He suddenly jerked forward, snorting loudly and looking around. He rubbed his face, irritated with the laughter coming from the brothers.

"Need a nap, Val?" Scott snickered.

"Aw, shut up. Can't a man have a little siesta?"

Johnny grinned widely at the both of them then looked out over the water, his expression turning thoughtful. "Hey, Val, remember that time in Sonora with them two gals?"

Val's face lit up. "Oh yeah. They were some real nice fillies. What made ya think of that?"

Johnny looked over at him, a slight smile on his face. "I don't know. It was just a real nice time."

Scott watched his brother's face, concern on his own. He stretched his leg out and nudged Johnny's with his foot. "You alright, brother?"

"Sure. Just thinkin, is all."

The smile he gave his brother was genuine and Scott saw no sadness there yet, Johnny's voice sounded sad. To say he was perplexed would be about right. "We should head back. It'll be time for supper soon."

All three stood and made their way to their horses but Scott fell back a few steps and watched his brother. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary but he had a peculiar sensation he couldn't shake. Suddenly, Johnny stopped in his tracks and turned, catching his eyes and smiling at him as if to say 'I'm okay'.

*****

Back at the house, Sam was enjoying a pre-dinner sherry. He watched the faraway look on Murdoch's face for several minutes before speaking. "You must feel like you've been run over by a bull."

Murdoch blinked then looked questioningly at him.

"You've been grieving for so long, you're not sure how to stop."

Inhaling deeply through his nose, Murdoch nodded. "I suppose so. I'm so happy yet, I don't know, Sam. I feel a little ..."

"Uneven?"

"Yes, and more than a little angry."

Sam sat forward and frowned at that. "With Johnny?"

Looking up quickly, Murdoch frowned. "Johnny? No, heavens, no! I'm so grateful to have him back. How many second chances does a man get? Seems like I've had quite a few. No, I'm angry with the way everything happened. When I think of what he went through, it's like thinking about his childhood all over again. The loneliness, the suffering and pain he went through. No one to help him or to care a lick. It breaks my heart, Sam."

The doctor nodded his head and set his glass on the table. Clasping his hands between his knees, he looking steadily at his friend. "Have you told him you love him?"

Murdoch lowered his eyes and shook his head. "Not yet but I'm going to."

"When?"

Looking up sharply, he frowned.

"Don't give me that look, Murdoch. I know you. You'll wait and wait for the 'right time' until there's no more time left. Isn't that what you did before? And when you thought Johnny was dead, I'll just bet you wished you'd told him. Don't wait. There is no right time. Any time is the right time, my friend. That boy loves you and he knows you love him but he needs to hear it at least once."

Swallowing hard, Murdoch found he couldn't argue the point. Sam had hit the nail on the head - again. "Scott told me Johnny loved me. Then he said he loved me, too. I told Scott. I don't know why I haven't told Johnny. I guess I'm still in shock. Still reeling from it all. But, you're right. I need to do it. I want to." He leaned back and closed his eyes briefly. "I swear, part of me keeps thinking this is all a dream. I'll wake up and the nightmare will be what's real. Johnny will be gone."

"It's not a dream. It's very real, Murdoch. You've touched him, talked to him. You aren't asleep. Tell him. Tell him tonight."

*****

The Lancers stood in the yard and watched their friends make their way down the road. Murdoch was a step behind and to Johnny's right and he spent more time watching his son than Val and Sam. He wanted to reach out and touch Johnny but he got the idea his son may feel crowded and he knew Johnny didn't like that. It was odd, really. How much he *did* know about this son when he'd thought he knew nothing.

Scott turned and smiled at them both. "By breakfast, everyone in the valley will have heard the good news if they haven't already." He reached out and tapped his brother's cheek then, a thought occurred to him. "You know, brother, there are going to be some very relieved females around just waiting to get a look at you. Just to make sure the rumors are right."

The wicked gleam in Scott's eyes ignited a similar one in his brother's. Johnny laughed softly. "Good point, Boston . I should try to make it to town soon." There wasn't much enthusiasm in his voice and Scott gave him a puzzled look.

"I'm sure those ladies will wait for you, John. No need to rush yourself. Besides, I'd like to be selfish just a while longer. Keep you to ourselves a few more days." Murdoch gave into his need and settled a hand on his son's shoulder.

"Yeah, sounds good to me. You know, I need to write that letter to the doc. I don't want to keep him waiting. He deserves to hear the good news. Think I'll head upstairs and do that."

"Want some help?" Scott asked.

Johnny gave him a crooked grin. "Nah, I'll figure it out. See ya."

Scott frowned at his back as Johnny retreated inside.

"What is it, son?"

Looking up at his father, Scott shook his head. "I'm not sure. He seems ... different or something. Today, he had this look in his eyes. Like he was sad almost. And just now, I saw the same thing. It's like he's ..."

"Mourning?"

Scott frowned. "Yes, actually. I don't understand it."

Murdoch released a sigh and shoved his hands in his pockets. "I'm not sure I do, either, but I feel a little like that, too. Sometimes, I think it's all just a wonderful dream and he isn't really here. Maybe, he's feeling that way, too. A little off kilter. We all need some time to get used to things again, I suppose."

Scott lowered his head and crossed his arms over his abdomen. "I can understand that. After what he must have thought about you then to realize what you went through. I imagine you're feeling some guilt, too. I wish you wouldn't." He looked up, a little surprised to hear a light laugh.

"Son, when you become a parent, guilt goes with the territory. It doesn't have to make sense or have any root in the truth. It just is. I think with a little more time, we'll all settle down and things will start to get back to normal."

"Normal? Here?" Scott laughed and wrapped an arm around his father's waist as they headed inside.

*****

Johnny frowned more deeply when he heard the knock on the door. Tongue stuck out the side of his mouth and pencil tapping his temple, he was trying to finish this letter. It was a lot harder than he thought. So much to tell. Distractedly, he called "come in."

Murdoch's eyes fell on his figure, hunched over the table and he smiled a little. "Is it that hard?"

Johnny looked up then his face relaxed into a smile. "I guess so. It's a lot to tell. I was thinkin it would make a good story for one of those dime novels or somethin."

Cocking a brow, Murdoch walked over and sat across from him at the small table. "I'm not sure I like the idea of that. I know it's a lot but, do you have to go into detail?"

Inhaling deeply, Johnny thought about that as he let the breath out slowly. "Yeah, I owe it to him. He saved my life more ways than one."

Murdoch nodded, trying to hide the wince he felt forcing its way onto his face. "Maybe, if you take a break, it'll come easier. Sometimes, that works for me."

Johnny needed no further encouragement and he tossed the pencil down, leaning back on the chairs back legs and rocking slowly. His hands lay loosely across his belly as he looked at his father, an amused expression on his face. "What's on your mind?"

"Is it that obvious?"

Shrugging, he let the chair land back on all four legs and rested his forearms on the table top. "Figured there was a reason for you comin in here. There always is."

Murdoch hmmphed lightly then relaxed back into the chair. This was all wrong, it really was. One shouldn't schedule a time to tell their child something like this. "Just checking up on you, I guess. Wondering how you're feeling."

Raising his brows, Johnny stared at the older man a moment. "Feeling? I feel fine."

"Scott seems to think you're sad about something."

Johnny laughed aloud at that. "Scott shoulda been one of those head doctors. He likes to try and figure out what people are thinkin." His face fell flat and he stared at his hands. "Truth is, I don't really know. I mean, I feel kinda strange sometimes. It just comes over me then it's gone like it never happened. I guess I just need time to get used to things again."

"It isn't like you'd had much time to get used to it before, you know. We hadn't been together that long and we were both still trying to figure each other out, I suppose."

"You think this is like starting all over again?" Johnny raised his eyes to his father's.

Nodding lightly, Murdoch thought about that a moment. "Yes, I think we are. The only difference now is , I don't feel so awkward around you. I have no doubts about you, Johnny. Any problems we may yet have, I know we can work them out. I'm confident of that now."

*****

Johnny stood up and walked around the back of the chair, leaning against the wall and staring out the window. Softly, he asked, "why?"

"Pardon me?"

"Why are you so confident we can work out our differences?"

Murdoch stood and walked over to him, standing close. "Because I was given a very hard blow then a miracle happened as far as I'm concerned. Sometimes, it takes a tragedy for us to see what was staring us in the face all along. To make ourselves admit what we've always known."

Johnny frowned and looked up at him. "What are you talkin about?"

"You, son. And me. How much I love you and how much I always have. So, you see, no matter what happens from here on out, I will never do anything to drive you away from me."

He stared openly at the man, his mouth slack as he listened to what he never thought he'd hear. Johnny turned away suddenly, his eyes burning with emotions he wasn't sure he could handle. He swallowed hard but the lump in his throat wouldn't budge. He tried clearing his throat but that didn't help either. Closing his eyes, he shook his head slightly.

Murdoch wasn't sure what his son was thinking and he was almost afraid to ask. Was Johnny rebuking him? He didn't think so. The boy was overwhelmed, he was sure but he wasn't going to make the mistake of assuming he knew what Johnny was thinking or feeling ever again. He waited for his son to gather himself.

When he finally did speak, Johnny's voice was thick and husky. "I didn't know. I mean, I wasn't sure." He sighed in frustration.

"Take your time, son."

He turned to the man but he couldn't lift his head, couldn't look into his father's face. "I was wondering to myself on the way here how I could have ever loved you. It hit me pretty hard to realize I hadn't stopped. I wanted to hate you again. You said you've always loved me but, I haven't, Murdoch. I haven't always loved you. I hated you most of my life. So, when I figured out I didn't anymore, I wasn't sure how to deal with it." Slowly, his head came up, his eyes meeting his father's. "But, I do. I do love you. And, I'm so sorry you had to go through all this."

Murdoch reached out and grabbed him, pulling him close and pressing Johnny's head against his chest with one hand. "It wasn't your fault, son. None of this was your fault. I know you're sorry. So am I. Dear God, I am so sorry this happened. We have to let go of that part, son. We can't let it hold us back. Not after everything we've gone through to be together again."

Johnny's arms had immediately gone around his father's waist. He sniffed and nodded. "I know and I will. I just need a little time to get used to this bein real. It's a lot to take in for all of us."

Resting his head atop his son's head, Murdoch smiled. "We'll make it. We have to."

*****

The next morning, Johnny handed the letter off to a vaquero who was heading into town then started making his way to the barn. He could hear Barranca before he ever got inside. Curious about the sounds the animal was making; sounds usually reserved for their grooming sessions; Johnny walked slowly inside and toward the stall.

The blond head appeared suddenly and Johnny heard his brother talking softly to his horse. A wry grin spread across his face as he placed his hands on his hips and stood in front of the gate. "Well, this is how it's been, huh? You two been cheatin on me?"

Scott paused, looked over his shoulder with a scowl then went back to his chore. Johnny immediately tensed at the look he'd received. 'Well, it took 'im long enough', he thought. Taking a deep breath, he unlatched the gate and stepped inside. As Scott brushed Barranca's hind quarters, Johnny stroked his palomino's neck then scratched his ear.

"I've spent a considerable amount of time around horses all my life, you know. Aside from being in the cavalry, I always rode and learned to groom horses from the time I was about nine years old." Scott stopped brushing, walked up to his brother and looked him square in the eye. "But, I have never in all my days seen a horse as spoiled as this one." He grabbed Johnny's hand, pushed the brush into it then walked out of the stall.

With a heavy sigh, Johnny patted Barranca's neck then stepped out, latching the gate. He tossed the brush into the air and caught it a couple of times before approaching Scott, now sitting on a hay bale. He wasn't sure how to start this conversation. All he knew was , he didn't want to have it at all.

"You have to start with the right hind hoof. He won't let you start on the left or the front right. It has to be the right hind and there's an order. Oh, yes. Right hind, right front, left front, left hind. A circle, I guess." Scott looked up, disbelief on his face. "What difference does it make?!"

Johnny laughed softly then shrugged. "That's how I was taught. I guess that's what he got used to. But, you're not mad at Barranca. You're mad at me."

Scott didn't respond at first, instead he dropped his eyes and stared at the ground. Finally, he nodded then looked up. "I want to know why you didn't try to get in touch with me. If you believed Murdoch just abandoned you there, why didn't you send me a wire?"

Now, Johnny dropped his head, toeing the straw at his feet with a boot. "I was mad at him. I figured he'd sell you a bill of goods and I figured with your leg and all, it was just best to let you believe what you believed."

"Did you think I would have believed some story he came up with? More than that, did you really think Murdoch would do such a thing?"

"Yeah, Scott, I did." Johnny glanced at his brother and didn't like what he saw. Anger, yes, but hurt and disappointment moreso and that twisted his guts. "You know how we are together. We weren't much better in the city. He wasn't happy with me pretty much the whole time. I gave him cause at first but I *was* trying once we got there. That last night I thought we were doin okay but when I found out he just left ... I mean, if he'd tried to find me he would have, right? He would've checked the hospital and the jail. Jail first, I guess." A quirky grin came to his face but died quickly.

Scott came to his feet, nowhere near satisfied. "What about me, Johnny? What did you think I would do if Murdoch came back and said you'd taken off?"

Shrugging again, Johnny stared at a wall. "Leave it be , I guess."

"Is that what you really believe?"

Johnny looked slowly toward him and nodded his head.

Scott's face hardened, his lips pressed tightly together for a second. "Well, you were wrong."

"What would you have done?"

Taking three steps to stand face to face, Scott put his fists on his hips. "Hunted you down and dragged your sorry ass home. That's what I would've done. You are the most thick-headed man I've ever met. Why can't you trust me?"

"I do trust you!" The words flew from his mouth before he could stop them, even if he'd wanted to and he didn't. Johnny felt the flush of heat rise from his neck and he turned away. "I do trust you, Scott. It's just that I didn't expect you to turn your life upside down *if* I had just taken off. That's not what I want."

"I would hope if you ever came to that decision, you would find a minute to inform me." Scott grabbed his arm and turned Johnny back to face him. "Never, brother. And I mean not ever will you attempt anything that foolhardy without discussing it with me, first. Do I make myself perfectly clear?"

Eyes wide with astonishment, Johnny felt the anger start in his gut. He pushed it down and allowed a more dominant reaction to come to the fore. He laughed. Hard. He pulled away from Scott and bent over, laughing for all he was worth. When he managed to look back up, he saw Scott's mouth twitching and relief washed through him as the laughter died. It was a ridiculous 'order' to him but he hadn't been so sure Scott was joking. He may not be but Johnny wasn't about to take him seriously.

Johnny pulled himself together and sobered. After a few quiet and uncomfortable minutes, he spoke. "I'm sorry. It wasn't fair to do that to you. I didn't know you thought I was dead, though. Still, I should've got in touch with you. Doc pushed me about it a couple of times. I guess I was just too mad."

"I'd like to meet this doctor someday."

"You will. Murdoch and me - we're never goin back to that place. So, it's all on you, Boston ."

Scott gave a small smile then put a hand on Johnny's shoulder. "Things are good between you and Murdoch right now but, Johnny, I do want a promise from you. Don't ever just up and leave. Promise you'll talk to me before making any kind of decision like that."

"I promise, Scott."

"And while you're making promises, promise me if you're ever hurt again, you *will* find a way to send word. No matter what you think our reaction will be, I want to know, Johnny."

He took in a deep breath then nodded his head. "Yeah, I will. That was pretty stupid of me."

Scott nodded. "I understand you were wrapped up in your hurt at Murdoch but he isn't the only family you have."

Bowing his head, Johnny felt the shame resurface over his mistreatment of his brother. He hadn't considered Scott much at all and it pained him to admit that to himself. "I'm sorry, hermano. Truly, I am. I swear I'll never leave you hangin again."

Shaking his head then grabbing his brother around the neck, Scott pushed him toward the barn doors. "I know your word is your bond, brother, and I'll hold you to it."

*****

Stanley Monroe settled in his favorite chair with a relieved sigh. It had been a long day at the hospital but coming home always rejuvenated him. Watching Adam ride Honey was a joy. Boy and horse had melded and a lifelong friendship had evolved. He couldn't be happier with his son's riding skills which improved daily.

He picked up the mail and started weeding through, coming to a surprised stop when he saw Johnny Lancer in the return address. Frowning curiously, he noted the town of Morro Coyo . He didn't hesitate in ripping the thick envelope open. The first thing he saw was a one hundred dollar bill flutter down onto his lap. Rolling his eyes, he placed it on the side table and began to read.

Hi, Doc,
Guess you didn't expect to hear from me so soon but I wanted to let you know what was happening. I owe you that much and a lot more. I'm sure you noticed the money. Nice try and it was appreciated but, like I said, I always pay my debts. I sure hope Adam is doing well with Honey and that he's riding her every day. I think he's gonna be one fine horseman. He already has a great start. Hope the wife is doing well and Oliver and Agnes. I miss you all. Well, I guess I should tell you the story. It's gonna be hard to believe but here it goes.

I went back to Lancer to have it out with my old man. It was pretty tense and a lot happened all at once but the short of it is , he didn't just leave me. See, one the them rattlesnakes that robbed me looked a lot like me. You know he stole my clothes and all. Well, seems he got himself run over by a wagon and no one could recognize him. Since he was wearing my things and had some letters of mine on him, the law up there figured it was me. They told Murdoch I was dead and well, he had no reason to doubt it. So you see, Doc, my father thought I'd died. Can you imagine?

All the time I was wanting to hate him and I was so mad at him and he was mourning me! My whole family was. Matter of fact, I hear the funeral had a really good turn out. Didn't know I had so many friends. Anyway, you can imagine he about had a fit when he saw me. Scott, too. And Teresa fainted! She's okay though. We're all okay now.

I told them all about you and your family and how much you helped me. Scott and Murdoch want me to say right here how grateful they are to you and they won't ever forget what you did, either. Maybe, some day you can meet them. Of course, you'll have to come here. Like I said, I'm never goin back to the city and Murdoch says he's not either. Can't blame us any, I guess.

Right now we're all just trying to get back to living. It's been a little hard. Kind of like bein in a dream. You're not sure what's real. Murdoch is havin a hard time lettin me out of his sight. Truth is , I don't want to be either. He told me he loved me. Said it right out. I reckon you can imagine what that was like. But, I did okay. I told him I did too and I was really honest with him about how I felt all that time I was away. How I thought he'd left me and how mad I was at him. At the same time, I couldn't hate him. I guess I was just hurt, ya know? Hey, don't be showing this letter around. I have a reputation to think of ya know!

Oh, Scott's leg is just fine. No limp or anything. He'd been riding my horse for me and taking good care. I never told you about Barranca did I ? Well, if him and Honey could meet up, they'd make some fine babies. He's a palomino, too. Bein with her sure made me miss him a lot. But, he's fine and happy to have me back. I guess I'm rattlin on now. Just wanted to let you know I'm okay and I'm with my family and we're all doing well now. Still, sometimes, it's sad to think of what everyone went through just for a few dollars and some clothes, ya know?

One good thing came of it. I got to meet you and your family. I'll always be grateful to you, Doc. And now, you know where I'll be so if there's ever anything I can do for you, don't think twice about askin. I don't care if it's ten years from now. I never forget a kindness, Doc. Never. Might be the only reason I could ever step foot back in that city was if you needed my help. Well, I hope your family is well and I'll stop this letter now. Never was much good at writin anyway. This is the longest letter I've ever written for sure. Thanks again.

Johnny Madrid Lancer

Stanley 's smile was ear to ear by the time he finished the letter. He leaned back and closed his eyes, happy for Johnny and sad at the same time. He could understand that feeling. They'd been through so much, it was so unfair. Sometimes, the injustice of a thing hurt deeper than the actual thing. He hoped some day he would meet Murdoch and Scott Lancer. He thought they must be fine people. He opened his eyes as his wife walked in and waved her over to tell her the news.

 

 

~end~
2008

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