The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj


Bitter Heart

 

 

 

Scott watched Jelly talking to the stranger in the front yard and smiled at the old man's posture. It was obvious, Jelly was feeling his oats today. He walked over to the two men and heard Jelly saying they weren't hiring.

"Jelly, what's going on?"

"Hey, Scott. I was just tellin this young feller we ainâ€t go no openins right now. He's lookin for work."

Scott looked at the man then changed his mind. He was little more than a boy, really. Too skinny, he had a hungry look in his eyes. About Johnny's height, he had dark brown hair and tan skin but, it was those green eyes that were startlingly vivid. "I'm afraid Jelly is right about that. We'll be hiring drovers next month but, right now, we don't have anything permanent." He hesitated as he saw the disappointment on the young face. "But, if you just need a few dollars to tie you over, I'm sure Jelly could find some handiwork for you today."

The young man, hat in hands, looked squarely at Scott. "I would appreciate that, mister. As long as I earn it."

Scott thought he heard a faint Mexican accent in the voice. Not surprising since the boy looked mixed with that light brown skin and green eyes. His thoughts went to his brother and he smiled. "Oh, you'll earn it. Jelly is a hard task master. Two dollars for the day's work and meals." He looked over at Jelly. "Is that alright with you, Jelly?"

"Huh?" Jelly said, stunned by Scott's generosity. The look he received from the elder Lancer brother explained a lot and the old man nearly huffed before reining himself in. Charitable folks, the Lancers, he thought. "Oh, yeah, sure. I can find lots for him to do right around the house." Rolling back on his heels, Jelly jutted his chin out a little.

"Well, I'll be off then." Scott nodded to them both and headed for his horse.

"Oh, hey, Scott. Heard anything from Murdoch and Johnny?" Jelly called.

Turning, Scott started walking backwards. "They'll be leaving Modesto in about a week. Everything is going fine, so Murdoch's wire said."

Jelly nodded then turned back to the boy. "You got a name?"

"Anthony. Who are Murdoch and Johnny?"

Jelly rolled his eyes. "Who're Murdoch and Johnny? Why they'd be the other two thirds of Lancer, is all. Scott's daddy and brother. Now, come on. I got some stalls for you to muck out fer starters."

******

Johnny and Murdoch walked down the hallway of the hotel, stopping at their respective doors next to each other.

"Ten minutes?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny smiled. "Make it five. I'm starving."

Chuckling, Murdoch nodded his agreement and unlocked his door, stepping inside just as Johnny opened his door. The younger man never took that step inside.

Stopping at the threshold, eyes wide with surprise, Johnny held out his hand and opened his mouth but the words weren't spoken. The force of the bullet propelled him backwards, across the narrow hall. His back hit the wall hard and he stood there a second, just staring at the ambusher. Slowly, he shook his head as he slid down to the floor, ending in a sitting position, his legs collapsing like wet noodles.

Murdoch ran out the door, gun drawn as Johnny slid to the floor. He took one step toward his son then saw the gunman walk out and point his pistol at Johnny's head. Without a thought, Murdoch fired just after he heard his son call out a weak 'no!'

Hurried footsteps were heard on the stairs as Murdoch moved to the gunman, pulling the Colt from his limp hand then going to his son. He leaned over Johnny, pulling his shirt away from his chest to examine the wound. Looking up, he saw the hotel clerk standing there, mouth agape. "Get the doctor and the sheriff!"

The man moved away quickly as Murdoch pulled out his handkerchief and pressed it to the wound.

Johnny groaned and opened his eyes, searching immediately for the fallen man. "Is he dead?"

"I don't know and I don't care. Just take it easy, son. I need to get you in the bed. The doctor is on his way."

Johnny pushed his father's hands away and tried to move, to go to the man who'd shot him. "He can't be dead."


"Johnny, stop. Don't move." Murdoch looked into the desperate eyes of his son and was completely perplexed but, he could see the obvious distress. "Okay, just stay right there and I'll check." He waited until Johnny slumped back and nodded then stood and walked to the other man.

Johnny watched his father check for a heart beat, his own heart thundering loudly in his ears. He blinked several times, determined to stay conscious. When Murdoch said the words, 'he's alive', Johnny sighed and fell to his side.

******

Murdoch stared at his son's chest, mesmerized by the rhythmic rise and fall until he blinked and found he'd nearly fallen asleep. He sighed and checked Johnny's forehead for fever again, relieved he was still of normal temperature. The doctor said it was a close call and Johnny had been lucky the bullet wasn't an inch more to the right. It would have struck him directly in the heart. He shuddered at the thought then, again, wondered who the man who'd shot his son was and why Johnny was so concerned that he live.

It galled Murdoch that the man was just two doors down, too ill, the doctor had said, to be taken to jail yet. He was under guard but, Murdoch wouldn't rest until he was behind bars. His head came up as he heard a soft moan from the bed. Leaning forward, he waited for his son.

Johnny's eyes slowly opened a little before closing against the pain. Sucking in a slow breath, he tried again with better results. Blinking several times, Murdoch came into focus. He saw the smile on his father's face and figured he was going to live. He opened his mouth to speak but nothing happened.

Murdoch's hand slipped under his neck and he felt the cool touch of a glass to his lips. He knew better than to gulp it down and wasn't sure he could have anyway so, he slowly sipped the water until he could take no more. Clearing his throat, he tried again. "Hey." Well, it was better than nothing.

Murdoch's frown of concern lessened. "Hey, yourself. How does it feel?"

"Hurts like hell. Is he alive?"

Grinding his jaw, Murdoch nodded and watched Johnny's face relax. "Who is he, son?"

Johnny shook his head slowly. "Can't talk about that right now. Too tired."

Murdoch managed to hide his disappointment by fussing with the covers. "Alright, son. Get some rest. Scott's on his way."

Closing his eyes, Johnny smiled a fraction. "Think I was gonna die, did ya?"

"No," Murdoch replied gruffly. "I thought he'd like to know his brother

******
almost
******
died, though. The doctor said one more inch ... Johnny, I know you need to sleep but we will have to talk about this."

Cracking his eyes open a little, Johnny stared at his father for a beat then nodded and let himself drift off.

******

Murdoch stood outside the room where his son's assailant lay healing. The sheriff had given him permission to talk to the prisoner as long as the deputy was in the room. He was well aware of that deputy watching him now, probably wondering if he was ever going to open the door. Murdoch glanced at the man then sucked in a breath and rapped once before opening the door and stepping inside. He walked to the foot of the bed and took in the brilliant green, yet hooded eyes watching him curiously. Turning his head to find the deputy settling against a wall, he nodded then looked back at the man, no, boy, he realized. He couldn't be more than eighteen if that.

"I'm Murdoch Lancer."

The sick man just stared at him, dark brown hair tousled and sticking up in all directions.

"And you are?"

"Damned near dead, thanks to you."

Murdoch raised his brows at the audacity. "You'll survive, from what I'm told. At least, the gunshot wound."

Narrowed eyes regarded him. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Shaking his head slowly back and forth, Murdoch answered. "Attempted murder is a hanging offense, boy."

The young man leaned forward then winced, grabbed his side and settled back against the pillow. "He's alive."

It wasn't a question and there was profound disappointment in his tone. Murdoch felt his gut clench. "Yes, he's alive and he's going to stay that way. Now, since you've nothing to lose, why don't you tell me why you tried to murder my son in cold blood."

A snort sounded from the bed. "Cold blood is all he left me with," he mumbled. His eyes came up and he locked onto Murdoch. "How long has he been with you?"

"What makes you think you can ask me questions when you refuse to answer any?" He got nothing more than a glare for that. "I don't understand why Johnny was so worried about you. It seems he cares more that you're alright than about his own injury. Who are you?" A flicker from the eyes, just a flicker but, Murdoch could swear that was pain he saw.

"Don't matter who I am and it don't matter if I hang as long as I take him with me."

"Well, that's not going to happen so get used to the idea." The boy smiled and it changed his appearance dramatically. He looked younger now to Murdoch. Younger and ... almost innocent.

"We'll see about that. I got nothin to say to you and I can't believe he ..." he closed his mouth tightly and looked away.

"Can't believe he what?"

Slowly, the green eyes found Murdoch's again. With pure venom in his tone, he spat, "that he didn't blow your brains out the minute he set eyes on you."

******

Murdoch leaned against the door in Johnny's room after shutting it gently. He closed his eyes and blew out a breath. That boy was so full of hate and anger ... had Johnny been the same way when he'd known this boy? Who was he? That question kept running around his mind most. Who and why did he want Johnny dead so badly?

"You look like you're about to pass out."

Murdoch's eyes flew open and he pushed off the door. "I didn't realize you were awake, son." He walked over and sat next to the bed. "How's the pain?"

Johnny looked warily at his father. "Better. What's wrong?"

"I just talked to that young man or, I tried to."

Johnny tried to sit up then grabbed his chest.

"Easy, boy! You're as bad as he is!"

Taking hold of his father's arm, Johnny let Murdoch help him settle back onto the mattress. He took a moment to control himself before asking. "What did he tell you?"

"Not one thing. Not even his name. Who is he, Johnny, and why does he hate you so much?" To his utter surprise, he swore he saw tears well in his son's eyes before Johnny turned his head away. After a moment, the soft, husky voice was heard.

"I'll take care of it, Murdoch. Don't go see him again, please. It won't do any good and it can only make things worse."

Squeezing Johnny's arm, Murdoch was rewarded when his son turned back to him only, there was nothing in those eyes now. "I want to help, son. It's obvious that young man means something to you. I hate to tell you but, you don't seem to mean anything to him. He still wants you dead."

Johnny sucked in a breath. "He has every right to want me dead."

******

Scott reined in quickly, jumping from the saddle and slapping the reins around the hitching post as he hurried into the hotel. It took only a second to find out the room number and he vaulted up the stairs. Slowing as he spied a man with a badge, he glanced at the room number, relieved it wasn't the one he sought. For the three days it had taken him to get to Modesto, he'd been worried beyond measure and curious as hell. He tapped lightly on the door and it opened quickly.

Looking up at his father, he nodded as Murdoch stepped aside for him to enter. His eyes went immediately to the bed and his feet followed. "How is he?" he whispered.

"He'll make it. The doctor said he was lucky. It was close range and ..."

Scott turned and looked at the man when he stopped talking. He could see the grimace and what was behind it. "Too close?"

"Way too close," Murdoch sighed out. "The man who shot him is two doors down."

"I saw the deputy. What happened?"

Scott listened intently as Murdoch explained the sequence of events, including the talk he'd tried to have with the prisoner down the hall. Frowning at Johnny's reaction to all of this, he shook his head when Murdoch finished. "It doesn't make much sense. I can't believe Johnny thinks he deserves any of this."

"I know but, that's what he said. That the man ..." Murdoch paused and sighed, "he's not even a man, a boy. He said the boy had every right to want him dead."

"Some gunfighter's son wanting revenge?"

Murdoch shook his head. "I don't think so. Johnny wouldn't even let me take care of him until I checked the boy after I shot him. He was more worried about him than his own wound. No, I think they know each other." After a brief hesitation, he gave Scott a weary smile. "I'm just glad you're here."

With a simple nod and a look of commiseration, Scott said, "you're lucky I was in town when the wire came. I was trying to hunt down a young man I'd hired for some day work last week. He took off that first night with Jelly's pay."

"How much?"

"Jelly says it was thirty dollars. His entire month's pay. He was planning on buying some new boots for the dance next month." Scott sighed and looked at his brother. "It's not important now. I want to see this boy."

Murdoch nodded his agreement about Jelly. He thought he's just reimburse the man when they got home. "Johnny asked me not to talk to the prisoner again."

Turning to look at his father with a fierce determination on his face, Scott ground out the words. "Well, he didn't ask me."

Johnny listened to the conversation, not wanting to deal with the questions his brother was sure to ask. Now, he couldn't stay still. "I'm asking now, Scott." He watched the man turn back, his face relaxing into a sort of smile. "Stay away from him, okay?"

"Why, Johnny? Who is he?"

Johnny looked in his brother's eyes. He'd known all along he'd have to tell them. He also knew, it wouldn't be easy and that he wasn't up to it right now. "I'll tell you everything when I'm feelin a little stronger."

Scott laid a hand on his arm and nodded. He couldn't very well press Johnny. His brother looked pale and he could see how weak he was. "Alright, brother. We'll wait for you, then."

******

Two days later, the doctor sat back on the side of the bed and wrapped his stethoscope up before shoving it into his bag. "Well, I'm impressed, Mr. Lancer. You're healing very well."

Murdoch smiled at that news. "He's been eating."

"Good, good. Still, you need to keep resting, keep those stitches clean."

"I will, Doc. How's the boy?"

Scott and Murdoch exchanged glances, both refraining from rolling their eyes.

"He's healing, too. He's not a very pleasant young man, I must say." The doctor paused, seeming to consider something. "I think he's faking just a little. He should be doing better than he's telling. It wasn't that bad a wound, just took a hunk of meat out of his side."

Johnny smiled at that. "He knows where the next stop is. Can't blame him for wantin a soft bed instead of a jail cot as long as possible."

Scott couldn't let that go. "No, of course not. Why, we should have him moved to the Presidential Suite!"

"Scott," Murdoch said softly and shook his head.

Johnny frowned at his brother but he said nothing.

The doctor raised his brows and stood. "Well, I'll check on you in a few days unless you need me sooner."

"One more thing, Doc. When can I get up and move around just a little?"

Murdoch bit his lip to stay quiet.


"You can move around today, just short distances. Sit in a chair for a while. Just ease into it. Don't push yourself. When you get tired, go back to bed."

Johnny smiled and nodded and purposefully avoided looking at his family. As the doctor left, he pulled the bed clothes back.

"You heard him, Johnny. He doesn't know you like Sam does. Just the chair," Murdoch admonished as he moved to help his son.


"I know, I know. I feel pretty good, though."

"Well, you won't once you start moving around and you know it. Don't even think about leaving this room today, either."

Johnny stopped and frowned at his father then dropped his eyes and let it go. He didn't want to argue with them though, he figured that would come soon enough. Once he told them his decision, they'd be all over him. But, there was nothing to decide in his mind. He could only hope they'd understand.

Once settled in the chair by the window with a blanket thrown over his lap, Johnny leaned his head back and looked at the blue sky outside. The room was quiet for a minute. He was surprised it took that long. Not so surprised by who brought it up.

"Since you're feeling so much better, maybe you could tell us about the boy now." Scott settled on the side of the bed, looking expectantly at his brother's profile.

******

A smile lifted Johnnyâ€s lips briefly and he simply nodded but, he didn't speak for a while, trying to find the right words. Eventually, he turned to find them watching him, waiting for him. Scott on the bed, Murdoch in the chair beside it, turned to face him. He almost laughed at the serious looks on their faces but, this wasn't funny. Not at all.

"Well, I don't really know where to start except the beginning."


"Always the best place," Scott said tightly.

"Before I start, I just want to say there's a reason I never told you before this. I mean, we've only been together five months or so and, well, it ain't like it's been easy getting along."


"I think we're doing much better with that, son."

Johnny nodded, a soft smile for his father. "Yeah. I've been thinking about it a lot lately, in fact. Wanting to talk to you about this, Murdoch. It's something that's been on my mind the whole time I've been here. Something I should have done long before now only, there never seemed to be time. Maybe, I just told myself that, I don't know." He sighed and rubbed a hand down his face. "Sorry, this is hard."

Murdoch leaned forward a little in the chair. All he could do was give his son a nod of support.

"His name is Anthony and, he's my ..." he bit his lip, "my step-brother only, to me, he's my brother."

Silence filled the room and Johnny could easily see the shock on their faces. He figured he may as well go on with it. "His father didn't know about him for the first few years of his life. Then, I'm not sure how it happened but, all the sudden, he was there with us. Mama said his mother had died and he was going to live with us, be part of our family. My stepfather seemed real happy about it. I wasn't at first. I mean, all the sudden I have this kid brother? He was only about three and he was a whiny thing. Of course, I didn't understand then that he was missing his own mother. Mama explained it to me, though."


"How old were you?" Scott asked, surprised he could even think let alone make an inquiry.

"I was six at the time."

Murdoch held up a hand. "Wait. Just wait a minute. I'm trying to understand this. How could this man have a son three years old when he'd been with your mother for almost five years by that time?"

Johnny frowned, not understanding at first, then, it dawned on him. "Antonio can't be the man my mother left Lancer with, Murdoch. I don't know what happened to that ... man. I was about five when they got married."

"Antonio?" Scott asked.

"Antonio Madrid was my stepfather's name. Anthony was named after him. I'm not real sure about his mother and Antonio, what happened there. I do know Antonio had no idea he had a son until Anthony came to live with us. I found that out later, when I was older. I never asked about Ant's mother. I don't know ... didn't seem to be my business and mama never seemed upset about her."

"Ant?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny laughed a little. "Well, he was a baby and annoying so, that's what I called him at first. It sort of stuck for a long time. I'd still catch myself calling him that. He hated it." The smile fell from his face. "Like he hates me now."

******

Murdoch sighed and ran a hand through his hair, flummoxed beyond measure. "Why does he hate you, son?"

Johnny blinked, coming out of some distant memory and looked at his father. "Antonio died when I was eleven. A horse stomped him. Mama died the next year. I promised her I'd take care of Anthony and, I tried. For almost three years we stayed together." He shook his head sadly. "I tried so hard but, we were both starving. I figured if I didn't do something, the kid was gonna die. So, I took him to an orphanage just north of the border. I figured he wouldn't have such a hard time there bein mixed."

He lowered his eyes and stayed quiet for a long while then, his hand came up and he rubbed at his eyes. "He begged me not to leave him. He said he could help take care of us. But, he was just twelve then and, he never was any good at stealing." He looked at his father and saw the displeasure on his face. "I worked when I could, muckin out stalls, sweepin floors, anything I could find but, most of the time, there wasn't any work for someone like me. It wouldn't have been any different for him."

"Is that when you started being a gunfighter?" Scott asked gently.

"I'd been working on it off and on for a while by then. But, yeah, once Anthony was gone, I pretty much did nothing but work at that. I figured if I could get good, I'd make decent money and I could support him. Maybe even set him up with a home of our own. Someplace where he'd be safe and I could leave him on his own sometimes. It was a stupid idea but, I didn't understand then."

"Understand what, son?"

Johnny looked hard at his father. "That gunfighter's can't have family. I sent money to the orphanage whenever I could for his care. I went to see him but, after a while, I could tell he was starting to hate me. At first, he'd always expect me to take him with me when I left but, I guess after so many times, he realized it wasn't gonna happen. The last time I saw him ..." he stopped and turned aside in the chair, staring out the window.

Scott looked at his father with a miserable countenance. He received the same expression in kind. Neither man knew what to say, what to do. They needed to hear the rest of it so, they waited until Johnny was ready.

When he spoke again, he didn't move, just kept staring out the window. "The last time I saw him, he was seventeen. I was on my way to that revolution in Mexico. He told me then he hated me and he'd kill me when he got a chance. I tried to talk to him but, he didn't want to hear it so, I gave the priest some money and left. I promised him I'd be back before his eighteenth birthday because he'd have to leave the orphanage then. But, I never went back."

"You couldn't, Johnny. You were in that revolution then, you came here. You were shot and dealing with a whole new life. It hasn't been that long."

"That all sounds real nice, Scott, but he won't care about that. He's been out of the orphanage for three months now. I guess he's been looking for me all that time." He continued to stare out the window as he asked, "did he say anything about why I didn't kill you, Murdoch?"

Surprised by the question, it took a few seconds for Murdoch to respond. "He said he didn't understand why you hadn't killed me, yes."

"Sorry about that. He knows the same story I knew. We shared everything, including the hard stuff, ya know?"

Murdoch swallowed hard. "Johnny, I'm sorry, I truly am, but the judge isn't going to care about any of this."

He finally turned back to face them. "I'm not pressing charges. I can't do that."

******

"I understand that, John, but the sheriff may have other ideas."

Johnny sighed through his nose. "I been thinkin about that, too. I'm sure he hasn't said a word to the sheriff. I'll just tell them it was an accident. That he was showing me the gun." He looked at his father's face and saw something unusual there - guilt.

"The deputy was in the room when I talked to the boy, son. He heard Anthony say he wanted to kill you."

Dropping his head and closing his eyes, Johnny ground his jaw for a moment. "Well, as long as we both say the same thing, there's not a lot they can do, right? He may hate my guts but, he'll go along to keep from hanging."

"And what keeps him from taking another shot at you, brother?"

"I do, Scott. I need to talk to him, spend some time with him. I have to get through to him."

Scott stood and walked over to his brother, kneeling in front of the chair. He kept his tone soft and even. "And if you can't? You need to think about that, Johnny. You need to think about what happens if you fail with that boy. Will you defend yourself if he comes after you again?"

Johnny looked into his brother's eyes and found he couldn't answer that last question. He couldn't imagine shooting Anthony, moreover, he couldn't even consider killing him. He shook his head, swallowing dryly.

Scott took that as a no and frowned angrily. "If he tries to kill you, you'll have no choice! You can't sacrifice your life because he's having a temper fit! I won't let that happen."

"It ain't up to you, Scott. This is my family. I'm sorry but, he's my brother, too. It would be like shooting you, I can't do it. But, I don't have to let him know that, either."

"Johnny..."

"Scott, leave your brother alone. This is pointless. It may well be that once he talks to Anthony, they can settle things between each other. I'm sure, if the boy gave it a chance, he'd remember how much he cares for Johnny."

Both brothers looked at Murdoch, Scott with disbelief, Johnny with gratitude.

"Thanks, Murdoch. I'll talk to him tomorrow."

******

Scott stood outside the hotel room door with his brother and father, wary and worried. "I still don't know how you managed to get the sheriff to let you in there alone."

"I told him what I said I would. He ain't buyin it but, I can be convincing when I want." Johnny stared at the door, not wanting to go in. "Just don't come in no matter what you hear."

Scott turned and walked across the narrow hallway, leaning against the wall and crossing his arms over his chest.

Johnny couldn't deal with his brother right then. One was plenty to handle at the moment. He looked at Murdoch instead and got a nod. Sucking in a breath, he opened the door and walked in, closing it quickly behind him.

Anthony opened his eyes when the door opened and sat up. He turned and grabbed the glass off the table, launching it at Johnny's head. "Get out!"

Ducking the projectile easily, Johnny walked quickly to the bedside, hoping his family would do as he'd ask. The crash of glass was loud enough to wake the dead, he was sure. He pulled the table out of the boy's reach. "Knock it off, Ant."

"Don't call me that, you sonofabitch!"

"Watch your mouth, boy. Now settle down and sit back! We have a lot to talk about."

Huffing, Anthony glared at him through the bangs hanging in his eyes.

Johnny sat on the mattress and reached out, pushing the bangs back as the boy jerked away from the touch. "If you want to live, you'll listen to me."

Anthony stilled at those words then, leaned back against the headboard, defiantly crossing his arms and continuing to glare at Johnny.

Johnny stared at him, taking in the sight he'd had no time to see the last time they'd met. Anthony looked the same, pretty much, as the last time he'd seen the kid at the orphanage. He smiled a little. "You need a haircut."

"Kiss my ass!"

Before he realized what he was doing, Johnny slapped the boy across the face. Immediately, he regretted the action but, amazingly, the boy settled, bowing his head. "I'm sorry, kid. I'm sorry about a lot of things. But, I need you to listen to me now." He waited but got no response. Sighing, he went on. "I told the sheriff it was an accident. That you were trying to show me a gun and it went off. He's not convinced but, I think, as long as we both stick with that story, he'll let you go."

Anthony nodded but didn't look up.

"We need to talk about what happens after that. You can't keep tryin to kill me, Anthony. It's gonna get real tiresome real quick, you know."

"What are you doin with Lancer?"

Johnny closed his eyes for a second. "Well, that's a long and sad story. Seems my mother wasn't exactly truthful with me about my father. He didn't throw us out. She ran off with a man. I'm not happy about it but, there it is."

The boy's head came up. "That ain't true! She wouldn't lie like that."

A sad smile came to Johnny's lips. "I didn't want to believe it, either. But, I've spent the last five months with Murdoch and he's a good man, Anthony. A real good man. He wouldn't lie about that. He wouldn't lie about anything. And, then there's Scott."

"Your

******
brother
******
," Anthony sneered.

Johnny made a face at him. "Yeah, he's my brother, like you. Only, we happen to have the same father, is all. He's a good man, too."

"I met him."

Johnny leaned in a little. "Excuse me?"

The kid gave him a cagey look. "Met some blowhard named Jelly, too. Worked at Lancer for a day and earned a few dollars. That's how I found you. Heard them say you and the old man were here."

"You went to Lancer?"

"I couldn't believe you were really there. I figured it was a wild goose chase but, I reckoned I could at least get a look at the bastard. Didn't think I'd be meetin a whole damned family."  

******

Johnny's eyes narrowed as he took this in. "Stop cussin." It was all he could think to say at the moment. Seemed Anthony had learned a few things from him, after all. He wasn't very happy about it, though. The kid was sneering at him again. "Didn't you learn anything at that orphanage?" Damn, he shouldn't have brought that up.

The anger was back in a flash. "Oh, yeah. I learned not to depend on anyone but myself! I learned family will stab ya in the back in a heartbeat!"

Johnny took hold of his shoulders and shook him a little. "I didn't stab you in the back! I was trying to save your life. We were dying, Anthony. You were dyin. I couldn't let that happen. Don't you understand that?"

"You were tired of me and wanted to get rid of me!"

Johnny let go and sat back. The pain in his chest was building with all this moving around but, he couldn't think about that right now. "Is that what you really think? What's the matter with you? I tried, kid. I tried to keep us together like mama wanted but, I couldn't do it. I know I failed. It killed me to leave you there." His voice was starting to shake and his throat was closing up. Johnny stood quickly and walked to the window. "It killed me. I died inside that day and every day I visited and you asked me to take you, it killed me more. There wasn't anything left, Anthony. I didn't have anything left to give you. The only thing you could have ever become if you'd been with me is a pistolero."

Anthony swallowed convulsively as he watched and listened to his brother get emotional. In a whisper, he spoke. "That would have been fine by me."

Johnny turned quickly and stared at him. "Well, it wouldn't have been fine with me. It's a lousy life, kid. I had all these ideas and plans for you once I got a name for myself but, you know what? I was a fool. Having you with me would have put a target on your back then."

"So, it's okay for your real family to have targets on their backs?"

"I quit gunfighting. Yeah, sometimes, it comes up but, no one is gunning for them because I got out." He walked back to the bed and sat down. "And now, it can be that way for us. We can be together now."

Anthony snorted at that. "Now that you got all respectable, right? What makes you think I want that? What makes you think I didn't become a gunfighter after all?"

Johnny gave him a crooked grin. "Because, you're a lousy shot, boy. You missed at five feet!" He reached out and ruffled the young man's hair as Anthony jerked his head away. The smile faded quickly enough. "My life is a lot different now. I have something worth a nickel. I can provide for you now. I couldn't then."

"You sure weren't in any hurry to share it. You been there how long?"

Johnny sighed. He'd forgotten how stubborn this brat could be. "Five whole months and I spent almost two of them recovering from a gunshot to the back. Did you think I'd forgotten about you? I never did. There's a lot you don't know, Anthony, and I'll tell you all of it if you're willing to listen. But, you have to be willing and you can't be trying to shoot me all the time."

A smile flittered across the boy's face and he fought against it. Johnny watched, hoping he'd lose that battle but, he didn't. This was not going to be easy. "I love you, brother. That's why I left you. That's why I'd never let you ride with me as Madrid. Please, Anthony, come home with me. Come back to Lancer."

******

Johnny walked out of the room with his head down. He leaned against the wall once he'd shut the door and sighed.

Murdoch walked over and put a hand on his tense shoulder. To his complete surprise, Johnny leaned into him.

"I need to talk to you alone," he said in a whisper.

Murdoch wrapped an arm around his shoulders and walked him to their room. He glanced back at Scott who nodded.

Inside the room, Johnny's knees buckled and Murdoch took his weight, fairly dragging him to the bed. He sat Johnny down and made to lift his legs onto the mattress.

"No, I need to sit for a minute."

Against his better judgment, Murdoch gave in and sat beside him. He heard a sniff come from his son and felt completely lost.

"I love that kid so much. I always have. I tried so hard to take care of him. I don't think I'd ever be a very good father."

Murdoch put his arm back around his son. "That's not true, son. You didn't have the means then to take care of Anthony. Now, you do. Now, you have a good life and you would make a wonderful father. Did he turn you down?"

Johnny leaned his head against his father's shoulder. "He didn't answer me. He's got so much hate and anger in him, Murdoch. Just like I did. I don't know how to get through to him. I don't know what else to say."

"Maybe, he just needs some time to let it sink in, son. To let go of the anger." Murdoch rested his cheek on the top of his son's head, relishing this rare moment.

"I hope so because, I can't give up on him."

"I wouldn't expect you to."

Johnny sighed and shifted a little, raising his head and forcing Murdoch to relinquish that contact. "Scott does."

The pain in his voice wasn't lost on Murdoch. "I think Scott's first concern is you, Johnny. He needs some time, too, you know. Come on, you need to lie down."

******

Scott watched his brother and father go inside the room. Johnny looked ... crushed. Anger seized the older brother and he turned to face Anthony's door. With little thought, he barged into the room. One look at the boy pulled him up short. "You!"

Anthony stared at him a second then relaxed. "Surprised? Johnny didn't tell ya out there?"

"He's talking to our father at the moment." Scott recovered quickly and walked to the foot of the bed, studying the young man. "He didn't look too good but then, I wouldn't expect him to even if he hadn't insisted on speaking to you. He hasn't recovered from nearly dying as it is."

Shrugging, the boy just stared for a second. "So, what do you want?"

"To turn you over my knee, quite frankly." Scott moved across the room and grabbed a straight-backed chair, settling it at the bedside and sitting. "But, I'll reserve that until I talk to you. From what I understand, you're angry with Johnny for leaving you in an orphanage."

"It's none of your business, mister," Anthony spat.

Raising a brow, Scott managed to stay calm. "That's where you're wrong. The moment you put a bullet in my brother, it became my business. That won't be happening again, by the way." Scott leaned in. "If you try to hurt him again, I'll take care of you myself. I hold no feelings past animosity for you, Anthony. I won't allow you to kill my brother."

He waited to see if his words had made an impact. From the scowl on the boy's face, he could see they had. "The ideal outcome to all of this is for you to get over yourself, understand that what Johnny did was a sacrifice

******
for
******
you and accept that life dealt you both a tough hand. That can all change now. You and I can get along fine as long as you treat Johnny with respect."

"Just like that? I should just 'get over it'?"

Scott sighed and shook his head. "Look, I know it was hard for you being left behind. But, what I know of Johnny's life as a gunfighter, it was very, very hard. And very dangerous. I can easily see him wanting to spare you that. His life has been very lonely, Anthony. Now, you could argue it wouldn't have been if he'd had you with him. However, I can't see him staying alive very long if you had been. He would have been so worried about you, it would have cost him his edge. Johnny was very good at what he did and that's because he has the ability to push everything that matters to him away when he's in a fight. Can you imagine him being able to do that with you watching? He would have been dead long ago."

Anthony dropped his eyes, a crease forming between them.

Scott watched as understanding took hold but, he wanted to divert any arguments the boy may come up with. "Of course, no one forced him to be a gunfighter. But, a fifteen year old boy with a younger boy to support can get desperate. You well know Johnny didn't have a lot of choices because of his heritage. A heritage you share with him so, you should understand the prejudices he faced. Gunfighting was the way he found to make money to support you."

Anthony's head snapped up. "Support me? He didn't have to feed me. He left me!"

Scott cocked his head to the side. "He sent money to the orphanage to provide your care. You didn't know that?"

The boy's mouth opened then closed and he slowly shook his head before dropping it.

God! He does it just like Johnny, Scott thought. "Maybe you don't know him as well as you thought. Or, maybe, you've been angry with him for so long, you don't want to remember what a good man he really is. Think about that. Remember the brother you knew, Anthony. Then, tell me you really want to see him dead." Scott didn't wait for a reply. He stood and walked out the door without looking back.

******

Murdoch pulled the covers up to his son's chest then laid his hand on Johnny's brow, a frown of concern deepening on his face. "You're too warm."

"I thought it might've just been from all the movin around."

"Maybe, but let's not take any chances. I'll send for the doctor."

Johnny pulled a face. "I don't need that, Murdoch. Just need to rest up some, is all."

A heavy sigh escaped the rancher's lips as he sat beside the bed. "Why is it always a fight with you? Can't you just accept the help that's readily available and be glad for it?"

Johnny's frown matched his father's. "I could if it was necessary but, it's not."

Murdoch nearly growled, he might have if the door hadn't opened at that moment.

Scott walked in looking even more put out than either of them. He pointed back toward the door he'd just closed. "He was at the ranch a week ago looking for work."

"He told me. That's how he knew where to find me." Johnny grinned. "Feelin snookered, Boston?"

"This isn't funny, Johnny. That boy is very angry and I'm not so sure someone shouldn't still be guarding him."

The smile slid from Johnny's face as he shrugged. "He's not armed now. It would take some doing for him to find a gun. I'm hoping he'll think about things first."

"And if he doesn't, son?" Murdoch asked gently.

Johnny glanced at his father then stared at his hands resting on his chest. "I don't know. I don't know what to do with him."

"I do. Take him to the woodshed," Scott scowled.

Sighing heavily, Johnny closed his eyes for a moment before looking at his brother. "I know you're mad, Scott, but you need to try and understand..."

"I do understand, Johnny," Scott interrupted. "I realize he's hurt and angry but, that does not give him or anyone the right to commit murder." Taking a steadying breath, Scott calmed himself. "I see why you dropped the charges and I can see why you want to take him home with us. The only problem I have is making sure he's kept away from anything he could use as a weapon until or unless, he sees the error of his ways."

Murdoch listened to his sons with a worried heart. The last thing he wanted was to have this cause a rift between these brothers. While he completely understood Scott's reaction, he knew they couldn't go at Johnny like this. It would only make him dig in his heels if Anthony wouldn't accept Johnny's reasoning. "I think that's enough for now, boys. Johnny needs to rest." He reached over and felt the young man's forehead again then smiled. "You're not warm now. I know, you told me so."

Johnny grinned at his father then quickly, it switched to a frown. "We need to keep him locked up until I can get back on my feet."

"Maybe, you shouldn't have been so quick to drop those charges, son." Murdoch stood up. "I might have an idea, though. I'll be back."

******

The room fell silent when Murdoch left. Scott stood at the foot of the bed, rubbing his index finger back and forth over the oak footboard, a frown on his face as he wondered what his father had in mind.  

Johnny watched him for a moment then closed his eyes, letting out a soft sigh. He needed to sleep but his mind wouldn't slow down. The memories assailed him. Memories of the good times and the bad. Anthony had always been a bright kid, picked things up really fast. If he was told something, he knew it forever, it seemed. Except when it came to real life, what was right in front of them, he had trouble dealing with those problems. Of course, he was just a kid then. Still was a kid to Johnny's mind. He knew what he wanted to do. Just what his brother had suggested - the woodshed. But, that wouldn't solve this problem.

Scott saw his brother close his eyes and, he supposed, try to go to sleep. But, he also saw those eyes moving under the lids and knew his brother wasn't settled. Johnny wouldn't be settled until Anthony had a change of attitude. Scott had trouble abiding the type of behavior that boy had shown. Yes, everyone had anger in them at some time in their lives. And, many people, he was sure, felt disappointment in a family member. He had so, he wasn't unsympathetic. Still, the boy was now a man or near it and Scott thought he should be better able to handle his anger. Had the priests and nuns at the orphanage failed so miserably with the boy? He thought it wouldn't be a bad idea to find out what kind of trouble Anthony got up to through his growing years. It might give them a better clue as to how to handle him. For he was sure his brother didn't know and, had in fact, said as much.   He suddenly straightened his posture and moved to the side of the bed when Johnny frowned deeply. Sitting down, he reached out and laid a hand on his brother's arm.

Johnny opened his eyes and found his brother watching him closely. He tried to smile but his body wasn't having it.

"You're hurting."

He bit his tongue to keep the sarcastic quip at bay, knowing Scott was only concerned. But, when he was in pain, he tended to be a little prickly. He settled for, "yeah, some."

Scott looked at the bedside table and saw the brown bottle. A small smile and shake of the head was followed by a cocked brow as he turned back to his brother.

Johnny smirked at him and shook his head, hearing the sigh from Scott and knowing his brother didn't understand. He opened his mouth to speak but never got the chance as a noise was heard in the hallway.

Scott went to the door, perturbed by the discourteous interruption. He yanked the door open and stepped out to find the sheriff dragging Anthony toward the stairs, Murdoch standing at the boy's door with another man. Quickly closing the door behind him, he approached his father. "What's going on?"

"He's going to jail for disturbing the peace. The sheriff said I could bail him out whenever I felt like it."

Scott raised his brows, more stunned that Murdoch seemed to be enjoying this than anything. "Well, that should keep him on ice."

"Precisely, son. Your brother can concentrate on healing now and not whether he's going to be shot at again any time soon." Murdoch turned to the other man. "Thank you, Mr. Reynolds."


"My pleasure, Sir. I feel just awful that your son was attacked in my hotel. As I said earlier, his and your rooms will be complimentary for as long as you require them." With that said, the man gave a quick bow of the head and followed the sheriff and a very angry Anthony down the stairs.

******

When Scott and Murdoch went back inside Johnny's room, they found him sitting on the side of the bed with his right arm wrapped tightly around his abdomen. Murdoch hurried to his side. "Nothing to worry about, son. Anthony is going to spend a few days in jail for disturbing the peace. He'll be safely tucked away and you can get better." The entire time he spoke, he was putting his son to bed, covering him up and sitting beside him.

"Nothing more than that?" Johnny asked.

"Nothing more. I spoke with the hotel owner and the sheriff who was not very happy. He asked us to make up our minds about the boy. Anyway, he's going along with it mostly, because he's been on the receiving end of your brother's sharp tongue."

Johnny had to grin at that. Anthony did have a mouth on him, always had. Something they had in common, for sure.

Scott walked over to stand beside his father. "So, now that Anthony is safe and secure, you can take a small dose of laudanum."

A sneering face greeted that idea but, Johnny wasn't a stupid man so, he simply nodded his agreement. After swallowing the bitter liquid, he settled under the covers and looked at his family. He should say something but, he didn't know what.

"I've been thinking," Scott started, uncomfortable with the silence. "Maybe you should write to the orphanage and ask them how Anthony behaved there. See if there were any problems and how they may have handled him. It may help to get an outsider's perspective."

"That wouldn't hurt. Sometimes, it's hard to see the whole picture when you're so close to it," Murdoch agreed.

Johnny studied on it for a moment then shrugged his left shoulder. "Write it for me, Scott? I can't use this arm too much right now."

******

The next three days were quiet and Johnny was healing well. Scott had written the letter for his brother, received his approval of the content and Johnny was able to sign his own name, at least. He'd given the ranch as the return address, knowing it would take weeks to get an answer. He only hoped it wouldn't be too late by then. Now, he was waiting impatiently as the doctor examined him again.

"Well, it's looking very clean. No sign of infection. The stitches are holding well. As long as you go easy and don't do any lifting, you can go home. But, you'll need to ride slowly."

Johnny smiled brilliantly at the man. "Thanks, Doc. I'm sure Doc Jenkins can take it from here."

Scott snorted at that but smiled when his brother scowled at him.

Murdoch thanked and paid the doctor then saw him out the door before addressing his son. "Scott or I will handle caring for the horses on the trail so don't get any ideas about that. Now, before we get too happy about this, we need to figure out how to get Anthony back to the ranch in one piece."

Johnny's smile faded. "Well, I need to go talk to him again. Maybe he's settled down some."

"I haven't been over there, son. I didn't think it was a good idea."

"You're right about that. Be hard enough on the trail with him. He's had plenty of time to think. Anyway, I should do that now so we can leave in the morning."

"Mind if I go with you?" Scott asked. Holding up a hand to stay his brother, he added, "just for support in case you feel sick or something."

"Sure, brother. Just know he won't like you one bit."

Scott smirked. "I already know that."

"I'll make arrangements for us to leave in the morning, then." Murdoch walked to the door then, turned back as he said with conviction, "and, Johnny, sometimes sparing the rod really does spoil the child."

******

Sheriff Amos Franks was not in a good mood. Had not been in a good mood since he'd locked the brat up. That's what he'd gone to calling him. The Brat. He was too young to be called an asshole, the sheriff supposed although, it fit. He looked up when the door to his office opened and almost smiled. Maybe, he was about to get rid of The Brat.

Johnny and Scott walked in and nodded to the man who stood up quickly.


"You here to take the ... boy?"

Scott bowed his head as he smiled. The man sounded so hopeful.

"I need to talk to him, first, Sheriff. We'd like to pick him up in the morning, if that's alright," Johnny said.

The disappointment was clear on the lawman's beleaguered face. "Yeah, sure. Go on back. Just leave the guns on my desk."

"Oh, I'm not going back," Scott said. "I'm just here as a good brother."

Johnny shot a look at him then shook his head as he laid his Colt on the sheriff's desk. "You might want to just ignore anything you hear in there, Sheriff. He has a habit of throwin things."

"No kiddin! He's already bent two tin cups and broke a plate and a stool!"

Johnny dropped his head and sighed. "I'll pay for that."


"Yeah, you will. Go on. It'll be nice to have him yellin at someone else for a change."

Scott watched his brother disappear through the doorway to the cell area with some hope of his own but, the sheriff's words didn't bode well.


"I'm a little confused by all this, Mr. Lancer. If that kid is your brother's brother, how come he ain't yours?"

"Providence," Scott clipped then smiled. "He's Johnny's step-brother. Johnny and I are half-brothers. It's a bit complicated."

The sheriff gave him an odd look. "Sounds like. A step-brother and he's goin to all this trouble?"

Scott stiffened at that jab. Then, he realized maybe he'd been thinking the same thing somewhere deep down. It didn't put him in a very good light even to himself and he was ashamed of that. He didn't think he'd made any remarks that weren't true to how he believed the boy should be handled but, had he been overly belligerent with Anthony? He shook the thought away for now and looked at the sheriff who seemed to be expecting an answer. "Family bonds aren't always made of blood, Sheriff."

******

Johnny walked into the room removing his hat. He spied Anthony in the second cell and was grateful the other one was empty. He walked over to the bench against the wall and sat down. He knew the kid knew he was there but, Anthony just laid on his cot and stared at the ceiling.

"You about ready to get out of here?"

That got his attention and he turned his head then sat up, swiveling his legs around to the side of the cot. Leaning forward, his hands gripping the side rail, he asked, "why? Are you ready to die now?"

Johnny's jaw twitched and he glared at the youth until Anthony dropped his head. "I'm taking you back to Lancer with me."

"I ain't goin."

"Oh, you're goin, boy. You're going and you're going to behave yourself and we're going to talk. Really talk and get this settled between us." Johnny stood up and walked to the cell, gripping the bars with his left hand. "Just because the orphanage won't keep you past eighteen doesn't mean you're grown. You're still underage and I'm your guardian."

Anthony stood and walked over to face his brother. "I don't want to be around that bastard that threw mama out!"

"He didn't! Dammit, boy!" Johnny's knuckles whitened as he gripped the bar then, he took a deep breath and looked at Anthony. "You're afraid to find out she lied, aren't you? Well, I didn't want to believe it, either. But, once you've spent some real time with Murdoch, you'll know the truth, too. Besides, it's not your call to make. He's my father and if I believe him, that's all that matters.   I'm offering you a life, Anthony. A good life with good people. If you don't want to work on a ranch, that's fine. We'll figure something else out. But, you have to try a thing before you know if you'll like it or not."

Anthony turned his back and walked to a corner of the cell.

"Would you rather stay in here? Or, be a saddle tramp? At least give it a try. Give me a chance to make things up to you, Ant. I never wanted to leave you but, I had to do it to save your life. And, if you hate me forever because of it, so be it. But, at least you're alive."

Johnny waited to see if the boy would answer. When Anthony didn't, Johnny's temper started to rise. "I'll be here first thing in the morning to get you. If I have to tie you to the saddle, you're going with me. Did you have a horse?"

"I reckon you could call it a horse if you stretched things."

Johnny smiled at that then let out a little huff of a laugh. "We'll get you something that'll carry you. Maybe a nice mule."

Anthony turned his head to the side briefly but, long enough that Johnny saw his lips were curled up. He grinned and felt some hope. "I'll see you in the morning, then. And, Anthony, stop giving the sheriff such a hard time? He's only doing what he was asked to do. Seems to be a good man to me. He could've charged you whether I pressed charges or not but, he didn't. Remember that the next time you want to throw a plate at the man." Johnny settled his hat on his head as the boy turned to stare at him.

******

Johnny stood outside the sheriff's office the next morning with his family and took in their apprehensive faces. He licked his lips before speaking. "You don't have to deal with him. I'll handle everything."


"You're supposed to be taking things easy, son. Riding is going to be a little harder on you than you may want to admit. You'll be tired. We can all watch over the boy. I just have to tell you, I don't intend to take any guff from him."

Johnny lowered his head. "You shouldn't have to, Murdoch. I'm sorry about all this."

"Never apologize for taking care of your responsibilities, son. Just know if I feel the boy needs disciplined, I won't think twice."

Scott smiled at that. "Are you thinking of how deprived you were of tanning our backsides, Sir?"

Murdoch laid a hand on his older son's shoulder. "Nothing says that can't still happen."

Johnny let out a bark of laughter as Scott's face fell then, they all grew solemn again.

"Well, guess I'll go get him now."

"This is ridiculous. We all act as if we're heading to the gallows. He's one boy. I'm sure between the three of us, we can handle anything he throws our way." Scott's confidence may have been well vocalized but, inside, he wasn't so sure. He'd told the kid he wouldn't allow him to hurt Johnny again. Just how far he'd have to go to ensure that was what worried him.

Johnny gave him a weak little smile then walked into the sheriff's office.

Sheriff Franks jumped from his seat, keys already in his hand. "Ready?"

Biting the inside of his cheek, Johnny nodded then smiled widely when the man turned his back. "He give you anymore trouble, Sheriff?"

"No, not since you talked to him. Whatever you said worked - in the short run, anyway." Franks waalked into the back room and unlocked the cell.

******

Murdoch and Scott ambled around in sort-of circles on the boardwalk as they waited for Johnny. Neither was inclined to talk much or make any observations and neither was much looking forward to the three day trip home.

Scott frowned and wondered if it would only take three days. They could be out on the trail for weeks if Anthony misbehaved. He almost snorted. Misbehaved. Well, the boy was acting like just that - a boy. He wasn't so sure any of them were equipped to handle such a beast as that. He looked up when he heard the door to the sheriff's office open.

Johnny pushed Anthony outside, his hand full of the back of the boy's shirt. He growled gutturally yet, loud enough for all to hear. "Don't give me that shit, boy. Just settle down or you'll be riding slung across the saddle of that mule I got you."

Murdoch winced at the language his son used in public and glanced around to make sure no ladies were within earshot. Now was not the time to chastise his son, he realized but, a quiet word at some point would be had. He looked Anthony up and down and found him fit to travel if the scowl on his face was any indication.


"You did not get me no mule to ride!"

Johnny smiled from behind the kid and let go of his shirt. Immediately, the boy turned to glare at him. Face stony now, eyes flat, Johnny shrugged and nodded toward the street. "Maybe not but, only because it would slow us down. Let's go."

Murdoch and Scott stepped into the street and to their mounts as Johnny walked behind Anthony, ready to grab him if he had to. The boy walked out to where the four horses were tethered and picked his mount.

"Whoa, there, Ant. Not that one." Johnny grinned and shook his head. "You've got a good eye I see but, the palomino is mine."

Raising his chin defiantly, Anthony said, "who says?"

Johnny was ready for that woodshed now. He puckered his lips for a minute then shrugged. "I'll tell you what. First time we stop for a break, if you can stay on, you can ride him home."

For the first time, Anthony smiled genuinely and nodded his head. "You're on." With that, he walked to the chestnut beside Barranca and vaulted into the saddle.

Johnny glanced at Scott who had his head down but, he could see the man biting his lip and trying not to laugh. With a soft laugh of his own, Johnny mounted up and reined his horse south.

******

It was quiet as they rode, Murdoch and Scott in front with Johnny and Anthony riding behind. Johnny knew his father had maneuvered their positions this way for a purpose and he figured it was a good idea. If the kid tried to bolt, it would be harder to stop and turn than run straight ahead. He looked over at his step-brother and saw the sour expression as he stared at Murdoch's back. This was not going to be easy, he thought.

After a few hours, Scott turned to his father and, trying not to laugh, asked, "how about a break?"

Murdoch's lips twitched as he scanned the area and found a nice brook alongside some lush, soft grass and shade trees. He nodded and reined off the road. As he dismounted, he saw the smile on Anthony's face.

As soon as Johnny dismounted, Anthony started. "Well?"

Turning to the boy, Johnny gave him a quizzical look then, remembered. "Oh, right. Well, Anthony this is Barranca. He's fast and he's strong. Let's see if you can handle him."

More than ready, Anthony mounted the horse easily then looked down at Johnny with a grin. "You made it sound like I wouldn't be able to get on. Well, here I am."

"I said, if you can

******
stay
******
on, not get on."

Anthony made a 'pfft' noise and turned the palomino toward the road. He hesitated for a moment then, without looking back, said, "vaya con dios." Digging his heels in, he urged Barranca into a fast canter. Just as he set himself for a full out gallop, it happened.

Johnny, hands on hips, waited until he was about twenty yards away then, let out a piercing whistle and called for his horse.

Barranca dug in his hind legs and skidded to a stop, turning his head back toward his master. Seeming to realize Johnny was not atop him, he started to buck.

"Whoa! Whoa! Stop, horse!" Anthony shouted then, he sailed through the air, landing unceremoniously on his rump as Barranca trotted back to his owner.

Scott burst out laughing and Murdoch turned aside, now facing his younger son. He saw the sadness on Johnny's face along with some serious anger. It was incredible to him how the man could carry so many expressions on his face at once. His own desire to laugh faded quickly as he watched his son take hold of Barranca's reins and sooth the horse.

Johnny stroked the palomino's mane and calmed him in soft tones but it was a struggle. He sighed and dropped the lead rein then walked over to Anthony who was still staring at the sky. "You okay?"

Anthony blinked a few times then looked at his sibling. Grunting, he pulled himself to a sitting position and shook his head then, slowly got to his feet. He rejected the outstretched hand of help as he dusted his pants. Finally, he spoke in a mutter. "You cheated."

"No, I didn't. You got too big for your britches and now, they're covered in dirt. You should always know at least something about the animal you're riding. Take a minute to say hello and let 'em get your scent before taking off like a bat outta hell."

Anthony looked wide-eyed at him. "Say hello? It ain't a person. It's a dumb animal!"

Johnny quirked his mouth. "Not too dumb. He comes when I whistle and he'll buck anyone off that I don't want riding him. Sounds kind of smart to me. Come on, chivato. Let's get out of the sun."

Anthony shook off the hand Johnny had laid on his arm and marched back to the brook, facing the water and crossing his arms over his chest.

******

"That boy is full of vinegar as Jelly would say," Scott remarked.

"I think it's piss and vinegar, Boston," Johnny sighed out as he hunkered down on his haunches and watched Anthony.

Murdoch eased himself onto the grass next to his son and picked at a few blades. "About that, son. I understand you're frustrated with the boy and he's not easy to handle, but, I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't cuss where women might overhear you."

Johnny looked over at his father, frowning and shaking his head.

Scott joined them, sitting cross-legged. "You said a bad word back there in front of the sheriff's office."

"I did?"

"You did," Scott affirmed with a nod of his head.

Johnny looked at the ground for a beat. "Sorry, I didn't even realize it. He brings out the worst in me, it seems." A pained expression flew across his face just then.

Murdoch exchanged a look with Scott then took a deep breath. "Do you think he'll try to run off again?"

Johnny found a twig and was drawing lines in the grass. "Probably. I'll talk to him tonight. Maybe I can get through to him. I don't know."

Scott thought his brother sounded very tired just then. Tired and ... old. He didn't like that at all. Johnny was full of piss and vinegar himself more often than not and he hated seeing the life seemingly drained from his brother's spirit. "You're going to have to give it time, brother. Don't give up the first day. This may be a long battle but, if you want to, I know you can win it."

Looking at his brother, Johnny shook his head slowly a few times. "What do you mean, if I want to?"

Shrugging, Scott looked directly into Johnny's eyes. "I'm not sure. I mean, you're angry with him and that's natural. It just seems like you're accepting defeat before you even start. You're awfully dejected, Johnny."

Taking in a deep breath, Johnny stood up and looked down at his brother. "I'm not sure what you're trying to say, Boston, but I'm not giving up on the boy. Not until I've drawn my last breath. I just wish I knew what the hell I was doin, is all."

Murdoch rose to stand beside his son. "Do you want us to stay out of it?"

Johnny looked up at his father, an overwhelming need to say 'no!' clinging to his tongue. But, that wasn't what he said. "Yeah, for now, anyway. I'm sure I'll need the help but, if we gang up on him, it'll never work."

Murdoch laid a hand on Johnny's shoulder and squeezed. "We should get going, then."

******

Johnny walked up and stood beside Anthony who was looking out over the water and to the trees beyond. "I'd like you to give me a chance to talk to you tonight, Ant. Don't try to take off until you've heard me out. That's fair, isn't it?"

"Nothin fair about bein held prisoner," Anthony mumbled.

Raising a brow, Johnny smiled slightly. "Well, it beats a jail cell, at least. You could be starin at four walls instead of being out here in God's country. Smells better, too. We need to get goin."

Anthony turned to look at him. "You changed."

Turning his head to look into his brother's eyes, Johnny nodded once. "Yeah, I have. I grew up and it took a lot of hard knocks to get here. Come on, kid." He turned and started to walk away.

"Johnny?"

"Yeah?"

"Stop callin me Ant." He walked past Johnny with that and headed for his horse.

Johnny grinned and followed, shaking his head. "Not likely, kid. Not likely," he said softly.

******

The first night went without incident. Johnny kept a watchful eye on Anthony but, the boy had curled into his bedroll right after eating and didn't stir until the next morning. So much for talking. Johnny knew he'd done it on purpose to avoid any such conversation. Well, it would only work once. To say he was tired would be an understatement but, Johnny didn't want his family to know he'd been up all night, too worried about the kid to sleep. Now, near the end of their second day of travel, he was blinking more and struggling to keep his head up.

Murdoch reined to a stop and turned so he could see both his sons. "How does this look, boys?"

Scott nodded and Johnny looked around then nodded, too. Anthony scowled at them all.

Soon, the three Lancers had a camp set up and Murdoch put on a pot of beans. Scott settled the horses as Johnny took Anthony to find more firewood for the night. No one spoke much, just what was necessary as they went about the chores. It was a repeat of the night before to this point. Johnny figured not much else would be the same once they ate. As night fell fully, Murdoch spooned up the beans and handed them off with some hard tack and coffee. The only sounds were of men eating and a fire crackling.

Johnny watched Anthony inhale the food and it occurred to him the kid may not have had too many decent meals lately. He scraped the last bite from his own plate a little amused Anthony had already had his second plate by then.

Scott smiled as he watched Johnny watching Anthony. He thought about teasing his brother when things were more settled about how Johnny was always resistant to Scott's 'big brothering'. Now, he was a big brother, too. Or, more to the point, a big brother again. Now that he thought about it, Scott figured Johnny should have been more accepting of his own efforts to help his younger brother out from time to time since he'd done the same for Anthony. That thought aggravated him a little. Anthony was a brat but, maybe that was because he'd learned his lessons well from Johnny. He stared hard at his brother then, almost laughed at his own crazy thoughts. Standing, Scott walked over and held out his hand for Johnny's plate.

Johnny looked up then smiled and handed his plate over, watching as Scott moved on to Anthony who didn't seem to want to give up the dish for a second. He did hand it over but cradled his coffee cup as if Scott might snatch it away, too.

Heart cramping a little, for he knew why Anthony was protective of his food, Johnny scooted back and leaned against his saddle, crossing his ankles and resting his hands on his belly. "That was good, old man."

Murdoch looked up from his cup where he'd been deep in thought and smiled a little. "Thank you, son."

Grinning, Johnny regarded his father. "I don't know how you manage to make dry beans taste like anything worth a dime."

"Well, I can't give away my secrets."

Both men looked at Anthony as he snorted.

"You got somethin to say, boy?" Johnny asked firmly.

Before he could answer, Murdoch got to his feet. "I think I'll help Scott with the dishes and wash up a bit."

Johnny nodded, hoping his gratitude was easy to see and hoping he wouldn't regret his father leaving them alone.

******

"Well?" he asked more softly once Murdoch was out of earshot.

"Well, what?"

Huffing a breath, Johnny leaned forward and crossed his legs. "What was all that noise about?"

Anthony sneered. "Just don't know how you can even talk to that man let alone give him compliments on his cookin! You sure are all nice and cozy with him."

Johnny heard the accusation in the words easily. "I told you things weren't like I thought."

"I don't believe mama would lie about somethin like that."

"I didn't want to believe it, either. In fact, I had a real hard time with it. But, like I told you, I was shot not long after going to the ranch and I had a chance to talk to Murdoch, watch him. I didn't see the monster I always thought he was. What I did see was one tough hombre but, a fair man. He cares. It's just not so easy to show. I'm the same damned way, ya know." Johnny lowered his head. "The more time I spend with him, the more I see how much like him I really am."

Anthony came to his feet swiftly and glowered down at Johnny. "He's foolin ya, is all. He's actin like somethin he ain't."

Johnny came to his feet. "Now, why do you think he'd do that? If he didn't care, why would he bother?"

Anthony opened his mouth but nothing came out at first. Then, a smug expression appeared on his face. "He just wants a gunhawk around so he can keep his ranch safe. Rich man like that, I'll bet he pinches every penny til it squeals then pinches it some more. Sure, he's got that dandy, a white man, for his first-born. He don't need the likes of you for nothin more than your gun."

Johnny swallowed hard. How many times had he thought that very thing himself early on? He took a deep breath and shook his head. His voice was whisper soft when he spoke. "I don't believe that."

"Don't sound too convinced of it, Johnny. Maybe, you just don't want to admit it. What would that do to your fine family, huh? You're still just another breed to him. He still don't think you're worth the time of day. He was probably hopin you'd die from that bullet."

Johnny lowered his head and closed his eyes. Damn, this kid could ...

"That is enough, young man!"

Johnny's head jerked up and Anthony whirled around as Murdoch stood, fists clenched at his sides, glaring at the boy. He strode purposefully toward them, stopping and towering over Anthony.

******

"Murdoch, he..."

"No, Johnny. Anthony and I need to get some things clear here. He thinks he can spend a couple of days with this family and know me? No, I don't think so." Murdoch took his gaze from Johnny to Anthony. "First of all, boy, it's none of your business. Johnny is

******
my
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son and how we are with each other is not your concern. Now, I realize there were lies told and you had no more reason to doubt them than Johnny did. But, he and I are coming to an understanding. We're getting to know each other and it hasn't been easy. We're both proud and stubborn men. However, we
******
are
******
both men and we will deal with our situation. It isn't for you to say. Don't you dare imply I don't care about this man. He's my blood. I searched for him for years never knowing from one moment to the next if he was even alive. I don't give a hang about his gun!"

Johnny watched with some alarm as his father became more enraged. There was a big vein jutting out in the old man's neck and he was worried Murdoch might fall out any minute. He wasn't sure what to do because he'd never seen his father like this. He looked past Murdoch and wondered where Scott was and how he could not hear this even if he were back at Lancer. Then, Murdoch seemed to calm down some or, at least, he lowered his voice a little.

"I don't know why Maria told Johnny what she told him but it isn't true. I don't even want to try to figure that out. We're never going to know now, unfortunately. The point is that this, right now, is what we have. There's no point in living in the past. It can't be changed but, it can be learned from. You want to be angry with your brother for leaving you at an orphanage? How angry would you be with him if he'd kept you and let you starve to death? Let you be cold and filthy, in tatters for clothes. How kind would that have been, boy? Johnny did the only thing he knew to do and it broke his heart. He didn't have to tell me that. Just watching him when he told me who you were and what happened was enough for me to know. He saved your life and maybe it wasn't the best place in the world but, I'm sure it was better than some others he could have taken you to. It's time for you to grow up, Anthony. Be a man."

Murdoch stopped and took several breaths, his heart racing. Never had he been so outraged as when he'd heard the venom Anthony was spewing at his son. Watching Johnny take it, watching his son's face then seeing him bow his head had nearly driven him insane. He was actually shaking, he was so angry. Anthony's face had grown pale at first then, slowly began to glow pink then, red. Murdoch waited for the boy to either let it sink in, or let him have it.

Johnny had nothing to say to any of it. He couldn't see Ant's face and that bothered him. He didn't know how the kid was taking it. He didn't have to wait long.

"Well, ain't them pretty words? Why don't ya just tell him you love him and you missed him somethin awful?"

The sneering sarcasm had Johnny's shoulders to his ears as he stepped up beside his brother.

"It's real easy to say all that now, mister. Now that he's here in your face. Funny thing is, how could you not find him right where we were livin for years? It ain't like we moved around."

Murdoch sighed heavily and shook his head. "And what name was I supposed to be asking after, Anthony? I had no idea Maria remarried or to whom. You want to blame me? You go right ahead. I can take it. But, none of this is Johnny's doing. He made a decision. He decided to give me a chance and I'm grateful he did. As much as you hated being in that orphanage, at least you were safe. At least you didn't go hungry. At least you weren't completely alone with no one to trust, no one to confide in. At least you didn't have to become hard and cold just to survive. I thank God every day Johnny was able to get out of that Hell before it was too late. Now, you have a decision to make. You can accept that your brother did the best he could for you at the time and be thankful you have him in your life again. Or, you can continue to behave like a jackass and drive him away from you. It's your choice."

"I don't care what he does! All I wanted was to kill the bastard and I wish I had!" Anthony shouted then, ran off.  

******

Johnny stared after the boy, wrapping his arms around his belly, his shoulders tightly coiled. He felt his father's hands on those shoulders, trying to knead some of the tightness out of them.

"I'm sorry, son. I said I'd stay out of it but, I just couldn't let him say those things to you and let it go."

Johnny turned his head to the side. "It's alright, Murdoch. I appreciate you trying and I appreciate everything you said to him. I guess I've been so worried about hurting him, I couldn't talk to him like I should have."

"Do you think he'll come back?"

"No," he sighed out. "But, he won't get far. He ran away from the horses." Johnny pulled away and turned to face his father. "I'm not going to keep dragging him all over creation. If he doesn't want to come home with us, I won't make him."

Murdoch gave him a sidelong look. "Son, he is still a minor by law."

Shrugging, Johnny smiled sadly. "Yeah, well, the law don't give a damn about minors like us. Excuse me."

Murdoch watched him walk away in the opposite direction Anthony had run. He heard a twig snap and turned to find Scott standing behind him.

"I couldn't decide whether to show myself or not. I've never seen you like that, Sir. I was worried, I don't mind saying. I could see Johnny's face from the shadows and he was worried, too."

"I'm sorry, son. I didn't mean to worry you. I just lost control, I suppose."

Scott smiled a little and stepped closer. "I don't believe I've ever seen that, either. It was something I'll not soon forget, though. If it's of any help, I agree with you. He needed to hear a few truths and, I think Johnny needed to hear it, too."

Murdoch nodded. "It does help. Thank you. I just hate Johnny giving up on the boy."

Both men turned when they heard the noise. Johnny walked across the campsite leading the chestnut Anthony had been riding fully saddled. His head bowed, he looked more dejected than either had ever seen. Of course, they hadn't known him very long so, they couldn't be sure but, circumstances would surely suggest Johnny had never been so low.

Murdoch sighed and shook his head. "This is wrong."

"I know but, maybe Johnny has something in mind."

Looking at his elder son, Murdoch smiled a little. "You have a lot of faith in your brother."

Scott shrugged. "I've seen him operate. I'm just hoping I'm right because, I've never seen him like this before. If anyone else had said the things Anthony said to him, they'd be picking their teeth out of the dirt right now."

******

Johnny walked a good quarter mile under the full moon until he heard a noise just off the road. He walked off into the trees a little ways and found Anthony curled up against a tree trunk. He heard a sniff and closed his eyes, swallowing hard against the emotions. Clearing his throat, he waited until Anthony turned his head just a little.

"I brought your horse. If you want to leave, go your own way, I won't try to stop you."

Anthony wiped his face on the sleeve of his shirt and stood up but, he wouldn't look at Johnny.

"What else can I do to convince you?"

"Nothin. I don't want nothin from you and I sure as hell don't want nothin from that old man! Who does he think he is?"

Johnny dropped the reins and put his hands on his hips. "My father and if he thinks someone is hurting me, he's not going to just stand by. Just like I'd do for you."

"You ain't my father! You're nothing to me!"

Anthony turned to walk away but Johnny snaked his left arm out and caught the boy by the bicep. Before he could utter a word, Anthony jerked free and shoved both hands into Johnny's chest. Gasping, Johnny staggered back, his left hand going to his chest as he leaned over, fighting the pain. His legs went limp and he fell to his knees.

Anthony stared at him for a long beat then, ran off.

Johnny couldn't see or hear anything for a long time. He tried to concentrate on controlling the pain but, he wasn't doing much of a job of it. Sucking air in through his clenched teeth, he leaned to his left and fell onto his hip. Refusing to go all the way down, he slid his legs under him a little so he could sit better. Right arm pressed close to his side, he blinked at the stinging tears in his eyes. Damn! he thought.

Eventually, his head cleared and he looked around, unable to hear or see the boy. Taking in a very deep breath, he steeled himself then managed to work his way to his feet, stumbling a little before gaining his balance. In the light of the moon, he pulled his shirt back and cussed. Murdoch's gonna kill me, was his first thought. The second was, Scott was going to kill him. Hell, everybody wanted to kill him it felt like.

He turned back toward camp and started walking.

******

Scott and Murdoch nursed their coffee, neither really wanting it but, needing something to focus on. It was quiet in camp, save the crackle of the fire. Scott glanced over at his father and took in the pensive face.

"At least we haven't heard any gunfire."

Murdoch gave a quick half-smile. "That's something, I suppose." Just then, his head came up and he stood, squinting out into the darkness.

Scott got to his feet, as well, and took a few steps forward, relaxing when he saw Johnny walking in. The relaxation didn't last long as he took in his brother's bowed head and the fact he was alone. Suddenly, Johnny stopped and fell to his knees. Both men moved quickly to his side.

Murdoch laid a hand on his back and leaned in, trying to see his son's face. "What is it, son?"

Slowly shaking his head, Johnny whispered, "he shoved me ... in the chest."

"Dammit!" Scott blurted out as he positioned himself to help his brother up. "Can you stand?"

"I think so."

Murdoch didn't think so but, he'd let Johnny try. They ended up dragging him more than anything as they got him to his bedroll. "Where is he?"

"I don't know," Johnny breathed out. "He took off again." His jaw clamped shut then.

Scott unbuttoned his shirt and gently pulled it back. "The stitches are torn. I'm going to kill that boy."

"Not if I get to him first," Murdoch muttered as he turned to grab a canteen. "Scott, get my saddlebags. The doctor gave me some bandages." He turned back quickly when he felt the hand clamp down on his arm.

"Just let him go, Murdoch. He's too mad to listen to anything right now."

"I wasn't going to go after him, son. I'm sorry but, you're my first priority. It's that simple."

Johnny struggled to understand and, he did. Anthony was his problem and he couldn't expect his family to take care of the kid for him. All he could hope for was that he'd be able to find his brother when he was well and, that Anthony would be alright until then. Of course, nothing said he wouldn't come back with a gun or knife. He'd gambled and lost this one. He thought if he gave his brother the choice, Anthony would back down and stay with him. Johnny closed his eyes against these thoughts and concentrated on the pain. It was much easier to deal with than Anthony Madrid.

******

Scott tightened the cinch on his horse once more for good measure. His anger hadn't abated during the long night of watching Johnny for any more problems. His brother had slept soundly, exhausted, Scott was sure. Of course, Johnny insisted this morning that he could make it home. Scott hoped so. They were less than a day away from the hacienda but, that didn't mean Johnny could get there. He just wished he could push away the anger and find some sympathy for Anthony, for Johnny's sake.

Patting Remmie on the neck, he grabbed Barranca's reins and led the horses out to the camp and ground tied them next to Murdoch's big bay, Nessie. Scott smiled a little. Every time he asked about that name - Nessie - Murdoch would just chuckle and say he named the animal that because of his size. Scott didn't get it and it seemed to be some sort of private joke to his father. He only rode the animal on business trips. Rarely for day to day things and never on cattle drives. Shaking the thoughts away, he walked over and helped his father finish breaking camp. He kept glancing over at Johnny sitting on a log with his eyes on the ground and his anger would seethe under the surface again.

Once he was sure the fire was out, Scott walked over to his brother. Slowly, Johnny's head came up to meet his brother's gaze. "Are you sure about this, Johnny?"

Getting to his feet, the younger man shrugged slightly. "Won't know til I try. I feel alright, Scott." He walked away, leaving his brother to wonder about the truth of that last statement.

Johnny grabbed Barranca's reins and walked him back over then, stepped up on the log and settled himself in the saddle. His mouth quirked. If anyone else had been around besides his family, he never would have mounted that way. Funny, how he was already that comfortable with them. He waited for them to join them then, three astride, they headed for home.

The road was wide enough in most places for them to ride side by side and Johnny kept himself on the outside closest to the tree line. His eyes constantly scanned for any sign of his little brother. But, as the hours passed and nothing happened, his worry grew by leaps and bounds.

Murdoch would have to be blind not to notice his younger son's demeanor. He knew of no way to alleviate the boy's worry unless ... "it would almost be funny if we rode up to the house and Anthony was sitting there waiting for us."

"Oh, yes. I'm sure that would just split my sides," Scott quipped.

"Beats the hell out of him sittin in those trees waiting to shoot me."

Scott frowned and looked over at his brother. "He doesn't have a gun."

"Right," Johnny clipped. "Guess I'm just plain lucky."

Murdoch sighed softly and shook his head. "Once we get you home and settled, I'll send out a search party for him. But, Johnny, we can't ..."

"I know, Murdoch. You can't look forever. I know. Look, I'm sorry about all of this but, I can't just forget about him."

"I don't expect you to, son. I know how you feel and I know how hard it will be to find him if he doesn't want to be found."

Johnny leaned forward so he could see his father around Scott, a quizzical look on his face. "Did you think I didn't want to be found?"

"It was one of the many thoughts I had, yes."

Johnny leaned back, flummoxed that his father would think such a thing. Then again, how could he know what was going on with his own kid? That bit of information required some chewing on, he decided. He blinked and looked up, a smile coming to his face unbidden. The Lancer arch loomed in the distance and he had to stop himself from pressing Barranca into a gallop.

"Don't even think about it, brother."

He looked at Scott and grinned. "I wasn't. Well, I was thinking I couldn't as much as I want to."

Scott laughed and shook his head at that, resisting the urge himself.

******

Murdoch didn't have a clue what they were talking about. Sometimes, they did that, knew what the other was thinking. It disturbed him for some reason. Probably because he had no idea what either of them was thinking - ever. Well, almost never.

As they entered the yard, Johnny tensed. Something was off here. He glanced at the sky and figured someone should be around the house working at this time of day. Some of the crews should have been back in by now, too. It was nearing five o'clock. He followed his family to the corral where they all dismounted. "I think you'd better let me go inside alone."

"I don't think so, son. In fact, I think you should stay out here with your brother. He won't be as likely to shoot me."

Johnny looked up at his father in astonishment. "Are you kiddin me?"

"He's right, Murdoch. I'm going. I am the least likely target of the three. Besides, I want first crack at that woodshed." Scott didn't wait for an argument, he walked toward the house determinedly.

Johnny leaned against the corral fence and crossed his arms. "Boy, when he gets his feathers ruffled, there's no stopping him."

"I know. Well, come on. He's got enough of a lead on us."

"That kid better not even try to hurt Scott," Johnny groused then pushed off the fence and headed to the house with his father.

******

Scott walked in the front door and then into the great room without breaking stride. He quickly glanced around and saw no one but, he wasn't stupid. "If you even think about not dropping that gun and showing yourself right this minute, you will regret every second you hesitate, Anthony. Now, come out. Right now!"

The boy appeared from behind Murdoch's desk like some puppet appearing on the small stage. A deep crease of anger on his forehead as   he glared at Scott.

Without pause, Scott walked directly over to him and held his hand out expectantly. "This is ridiculous and it will stop right this minute! This isn't a game, boy. You don't have any idea what it feels like to take a man's life - any man. Now, hand it over." When Anthony hesitated, Scott leaned in, grabbed the gun pointed directly at him, and wrenched it from the boy's grasp.

"Dammit, Scott! Are you crazy?" Johnny stood in the doorway with his father, horrified by what he'd just witnessed.

"No, brother, I'm fed up," Scott replied then grabbed Anthony by the arm and pulled him into the middle of the room.

"Where are my men?" Murdoch demanded as he towered over the boy.

Jutting out his chin, Anthony met the rancher's eyes then smirked. "Somebody started a stampede from what I hear. Dangedest thing."

Johnny's eyes narrowed and he stepped forward only to be stopped by his father's arm swinging out and blocking his path. "Well then,

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someone
******
is going to have to work off the damages."

"Yeah? Reckon that'd be him since it's his fault," Anthony nodded his head toward Johnny.

"What isn't his fault, boy? The rain? Drought? Brother, I didn't know you were so powerful." Scott smirked then grabbed the kid's arm again. "Come with me, boy." He started dragging the young man toward the door.

Anthony pulled and yanked but he couldn't free himself from the vise-like grip. "Hey, let go of me! Where you takin me?"

"Exactly where you need to be. Now, stop fighting me. You aren't going to win." Scott yanked the door open and disappeared with Anthony.

"You think he's really going to the woodshed?"

Murdoch frowned then shook his head. "No, son. The barn. We don't have a woodshed."

Johnny bit his lip then walked over to the sofa and fell onto the cushions, resting his head. "I'm sorry."

"Stop saying that and let me take a look at that wound."

******

Scott did head for the barn, quickly realizing there was no woodshed and wondering why the hell not. He'd rectify that situation as soon as he could, though. Dragging Anthony inside, he pushed the boy into the middle of the room. As the young man staggered and fought for his balance, Scott took off his gunbelt, then his pants belt.

Anthony turned and glared at him, his eyes going to Scott's hand. "You ain't gonna whup me, mister. I'm grown!"

Cocking a brow, Scott smiled. "When you start acting like a grown man, we'll reconsider this type of punishment. Until then, I have one question. Do you want to lean over that hay bale or do you want to make this even harder - and worse?"

******

"Well, the stitches look pretty good. There doesn't seem to be any infection and you don't have a fever. I'd say you're pretty lucky."

Johnny had watched his father the entire time Murdoch unbandaged, checked then rebandaged his wound. He was sore and tired and would like to just go to bed but so many things were on his mind. Not the least of which was this man. "You really thought I wouldn't want to be found? I mean, how could you know I hated you then?"

Murdoch leaned back and considered his son. "I didn't

******
know
******
anything for sure. When I found out your mother had died and, you hadn't come home, I considered it was because either you didn't want to or you didn't know who I was. I suppose a big part of me hoped you didn't know."

"Because, if I did know that would mean I didn't want to be around you."

"Precisely. At the time, I couldn't fathom why. It never occurred to me you would think I didn't want you but, you may have hated me for simply not being there."

"You'd be surprised at how many reasons I could come up with for hating you, old man. Not one of them was true, though." A small smile crossed Johnny's lips. "Some of them didn't even make any sense."

Murdoch patted his knee. "Like Anthony isn't making sense? Because, he isn't, son."

Johnny lowered his eyes and spoke softly. "How do I get him to see that?"

Inhaling deeply through his nose, Murdoch let the first words out with his breath. "I'm not sure. I keep saying he needs to listen to you but, I don't know how to make him do that. If nothing I said to him out there made a dent, I don't know what would."

Johnny looked up from under his lashes with a gleam in his eyes. "Maybe, not bein able to sit down for a week will open up his ears."

Murdoch chuckled at that then looked up when the door opened.

******

Scott guided the boy back in, not needing to drag him now. Anthony had his head down and shuffled his feet.

Johnny stood up and walked over to the boy, ducking his head to try and see his brother's face but, Anthony lowered his head even more. "Well, looks like you lived through it. Do we need to lock you in a room for the night to keep you here?"

Anthony sniffed but he refused to look at anyone. "I reckon so cause I'm not stayin here."

There wasn't much conviction in his tone, Murdoch noticed but, that didn't mean he wasn't serious. "Well, I have just the room for you, then. Until you turn twenty-one, young man, Johnny is your guardian. You

******
will
******
stay here until such time." Looking at his older son with amusement and pride intermixed, he said, "Scott, you know the room I'm referring to?"

"I do indeed. Come on, boy. We may or may not feed you supper in a while. Until then, you're under house arrest." Taking Anthony's arm, Scott led him away.

Johnny watched it all and sighed. "Thank you. You don't have to put up with any of this."

"This is your home, son, so, I'm afraid I do."

Johnny turned quickly and looked at his father, seeing the smile in his eyes. He gave one of his own. "We can't keep him locked up for three years."

"No, but, it will give us time to figure something out, at least. Now, come on. I'll bet Maria has been so occupied with her cooking, she didn't even know the boy was in the house." Murdoch wrapped an arm around his son's shoulders and led the way toward the kitchen.

"Good thing. For Anthony, that is."

******

Maria took most of it in her stride though she was quite surprised by Anthony's very existence. However, when she learned of what he'd tried to do to Johnny, any sympathy she may have for the boy went out the window. She'd taken a long, careful look at Johnny Lancer then sent him directly to bed, promising to bring him his supper tray and, maybe a surprise if he did as he was told. Though Murdoch was amused, Johnny was not and muttered about not liking surprises even as he made his way to his room.

He slid under the sheets and sighed with relief. It seemed as if every inch of him hurt in some form or fashion. Aches and pains, tender spots, they all complained. If he were honest with himself though, he'd know the worst pain had nothing to do with the bullet wound or the long ride home. The worst pain came from his brother's complete uncaring. Anthony knew he was still healing yet, he'd hit Johnny right on that wound. A wound he'd put there in the first place. Not once had the kid shown any remorse for any of it. Johnny was beginning to wonder if he'd turned the boy into a sadistic bastard without even realizing it.

Still, he sighed heavily, he knew Ant had been crying the other night when he'd found him in the woods. He reckoned a person could be so mad, so completely hurt that nothing would get through those walls. How had he done it? How had he let go of it all? But he knew how. He'd believed Teresa. Believed his mother had lied. He had to if he wanted to live.

His thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door. Slightly aggravated, he called out to enter and saw his brother balancing a tray. Johnny held his breath as he scooted up in bed, watching Scott maneuver the tray toward him. With the way his luck had been going, his brother would spill that hot food right in his lap.

Luckily, Scott had good balance and he placed the tray, intact, on his brother's legs then walked to the window and grabbed a chair, settling beside the bed.

"Aren't you gonna eat?"

"I already did. The sick get fed last. Didn't you know that?"

Scott's smile gave Johnny's sore heart a lift and he tried to reciprocate. He looked at the food and grimaced a little, pushing it around the plate with his fork.

"Eat, brother. I know your heart's not in it but, you have to get your strength back."

"I know," he mumbled then looked up. "Did you tan his hide good?"

Scott grinned wickedly. "I did and I don't mind saying I rather enjoyed it." When Johnny didn't seem happy with that, Scott grew serious. "It won't kill him and he needed it."

"It's gonna take more than that to get through to him but, I guess it's a start. Thanks for even giving a damn."

"I give a damn about you, Johnny. Anthony may take some more time. I don't want to sound callous but, that boy ..."

Johnny held up a hand. "I know, I know. And, you know why he's acting this way. It's just not so easy to get him to see things straight."

"But, you have the experience with that. I'm sure you can make him see the error of his ways."

"That'll only work if he'll listen to me. Anyway, I'm pretty tired."

Scott nodded then paused. "Not yet, brother. You have to eat something. Come on, now."

Johnny laughed and shook his head. "Some day, Scott," he paused as he forked a piece of steak, "you'll make a great mother."

******

Murdoch decreed the next day as a day of rest for the family. Which meant Scott caught up with Jelly on ranch activities and Murdoch went over the books. Johnny wasn't allowed to do more than sit and watch and, for once, the younger man didn't complain. His attitude was more worrisome to Murdoch and Scott than any bellyaching he could do.

Once Scott received his report from Jelly, he gave his own. He thought he was ready for Jelly's reactions to all that had happened and, he was as prepared as he could be to head the man off from a tirade. But, Scott Lancer had never seen Jellifer B. Hoskins truly angry; until today.

Jelly didn't say one word to him. He simply walked away and headed straight for the house. Once inside with Scott following closely behind, he spied Johnny on the sofa and walked over, sitting beside his friend and glaring at him.

Johnny stared at the old man for a beat then shrugged. "What, Jelly?"

"What, Jelly? What, Jelly?! What'ya think? Have you lost your ever lovin mind, Johnny? You bring home a person who shot you and damned near killed ya? That's takin that whole strays thing way too far!"

"Jelly, I told you who Anthony is," Scott reminded the man.

Jelly turned and looked up at him. "I heard ya. What difference does it make? I'd be sayin the same thing to him if it'd been you that shot him

******
on purpose
******
!"

Murdoch sighed and walked over to join them all. He glanced at Johnny and saw the anger seething in the man and he knew the only reason Johnny had yet to speak was because he understood why Jelly was so upset. "I think you need to calm down and listen, Jelly. This hasn't been easy for Johnny and, maybe, Scott didn't tell you everything." He looked at his older son questioningly.

"I didn't get the chance. He turned three shades of red and stormed in here," Scott replied.

Jelly puffed out a breath then turned to Johnny. "Fine. What else is there to know? He's your stepbrother and he shot ya."

Johnny gave the man a small smile then leaned back against the cushions, suddenly tired again. He told the story once more but, his tone was flat, as if reciting something he'd read in a newspaper article or some dime novel. When he finished, he rolled his head to the side and looked at his friend. "I know he stole from you and I'll pay you back. He'll earn it by working here."

Jelly had calmed quite a bit with the telling. Truthfully, his heart broke for Johnny and, maybe a little for Anthony, too. At least, for the young boy who'd lost everything he'd ever loved. He could understand the anger and bitterness but, not the result. "Don't you worry about that, Johnny."

"I ain't worried about it because it's already done. Murdoch's got your money and I know you've just been waitin for those new boots so you can cut a rug at the dance next month."

Jelly saw the wicked little grin come to Johnny's face and it settled his heart to know the boy still had some spark to him. It had seemed to him Johnny was all washed up. He couldn't manage to smile back, though. "What's to keep him from goin at you again? He's already started a stampede. You really want him workin the ranch?"

Murdoch decided to answer that one. "He's acting out now. He'll need close supervision but, I think we can make sure he's too tired to do anymore damage."

******

Jelly groused under his breath the next morning as he waited for the boy to show himself. He already knew Anthony was capable of work because he'd done a fair job when he'd been there before. Well, Jelly had just the job for the boy now.

Anthony walked outside with Scott, looking like a rattler ready to strike. Scott looked like he could strangle that rattler right about now. Jelly rolled his eyes and waited.

"Are you sure about this, Jelly? I can send him out with the boys."

"Last place he needs ta be is around the cattle. Don't you worry none, Scott. I got everything lined out. Come on, kid. We got a real important job today."

Anthony looked at Scott, a scowl on his face then, followed Jelly slowly.

Scott sighed and wondered if the boy was capable of any other expression on his face. Maybe, it was a permanent fixture. He heard Jelly telling Anthony to get a move on and, Scott smiled then shook his head and headed back inside.

"Are ya deaf all the sudden? I said come on. Done wasted half the day waitin on you, boy. Pick your feet up!"

Anthony stopped in his tracks, shovel in hand and glared at the old man before starting up the hill. "Don't know what kind of important job there is to do on top a hill," he muttered. He finally looked at something other than Jelly as the older man stopped. Anthony's eyes widened then, narrowed as he turned his gaze back to Jelly.

A grin split Jelly's face as he nodded. "Right here, kid. Start diggin."

He walked up and stood in front of Jelly. "A outhouse? You want me to dig a outhouse?! THAT was what's so important?"

Jelly raised his brows. "Purty important when ya need one, don't ya think?"

******

Anthony threw the shovel down. "I ain't doin it!" With that, he turned and headed back down the hill.

Jelly grabbed the shovel and hurried after him. He reached out, handle first and tripped Ant who tumbled a little ways down the hill before stopping. Like lightning, the boy was on his feet, fists clinched as Jelly stared at him.

"You are gonna do it. Now let's get ta work. No job is worthless when a man takes pride in what he's doin."

Anthony froze, feeling a little lightheaded as the words struck home. He lowered his head and stood there, breathing hard, fists still clinched.

Jelly watched the boy go a little pale then walked down to him. "What is it, boy? Ya sick? Now, lookee here, playin sick ain't gonna get ya outta this job. Could be worse. Could be cleanin out the old outhouse."

Anthony only half heard him. What he'd said about a job was so close to what his father used to say to him and Johnny. Papa had always said any job was worth doing as long as a man did his best. Then, he could take pride in the smallest job well done. He could almost hear the man's laugh, feel him tousle his hair and try do to the same to Johnny but, his brother would always duck away quick. But, Johnny never meant it. He knew that. Papa would always get him later on and Johnny would laugh. His eyes stung with the memories and he shook his head hard to quiet them. He felt Jelly grab his arm and he jerked his head up.

Jelly let go of him at the look in the boy's eyes then, he pulled himself together. He hadn't seen that look in a long time. A lost and wounded boy, scared to death with nowhere to go. He heaved a sigh and gave the boy an understanding look. "Come on, Anthony. Let's get this job done."

******

Jelly sat in the grass and watched the boy dig. He sure had somethin stuck in his craw if the way he was goin at that hole was any indication. He still couldn't get over the look he'd seen in Anthony's eyes earlier. Toogie had had that look when he'd first found the boy. But, he'd been so young! Still, he reckoned age didn't have a thing in the world to do with hurt. He'd seen somethin like that in Johnny before, too. Only, Johnny was tryin real hard not to show it so, it wasn't as ... intense, that was the word.

All of his boys had that look to some extent, he figured. Every one of them was lost and alone. No family, no one to love 'em. But, Anthony did have someone. Of course, he'd been alone too long now so he done forgot what it was like. Jelly nodded his head, deciding that was it, alright. He suddenly realized the boy had stopped digging and was watching him. Jelly gave him a bug-eyed look then quirked his lips. "What?"

"Do I get any water, boss?"

Jelly looked sidelong at him for the sarcasm then, picked up the canteen and tossed it to him. "No need to be so prickly, boy."

Anthony took a long drink then, let the water run down his face before recapping it and throwing it back. "I thought this was

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our
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job."

"Reckon ya thought wrong. I'm just babysittin. You're allowed ta take a break, though."

Anthony laid the shovel down then hauled himself out of the three foot hole he'd dug. He walked over and plopped on the ground near Jelly, under the shade of a tree and stared at the limbs above him. "How long you been here, old man?"

"Not long. A couple of months, now. The Lancers helped me out with somethin and I just kind of stayed on."

Anthony turned his head toward the man. "So, you don't know Johnny real well?"

Jelly sighed and looked at him. "I've known Johnny all his life. I've known you, too. Or, boys just like ya. See, I had me a passel of boys, all orphans I took care of. Just sort of adopted 'em. Course it wasn't all legal or nothin. The Lancers helped me find good homes for every one of 'em, though. Especially, Johnny."

"Well, that was real nice of him!"

******

"Boy, you just don't give nobody a break, do ya? I reckon if we was all perfect, there wouldn't be no worries, no hurt, no one dyin. But, people ain't perfect. I'll tell ya one thing. You were better off in that orphanage than runnin the border towns with Johnny Madrid. He know'd it, too. Seems to me, Johnny's the one that got the short end of the stick. While you was all warm and fed in your bed every night, he was still scroungin for what he could find, practicin with that gun of his and sellin his soul right down the river."

Anthony just stared at him for a long time, a frown on his face.

"Didn't think of that, did ya? No, I don't guess you did. I know it's hard when the person you love most in the world leaves ya but, he didn't have no other choice."

Anthony swallowed hard and sat up, head bowed. "He could've stayed with me."

Jelly made a noise at that. "Johnny? You know that weren't ever gonna happen. He can't be caged, can't be broke. He's gotta have the wind and the sun. Took Murdoch a while to see that. Might be, he ain't all the way to seein it, yet. But, he's doin better."

"He give Johnny a hard time?"

Jelly took in the anger and saw a look of protectiveness come to the boy's face. He had to fight a smile as he leaned forward. "Why do you care? You want him dead."

Anthony leaned back at that then, his face closed. He didn't say anything at first then, "yeah, that's right."

"Don't sound too convinced, boy. Ya know, if you was to forget how much ya hate your brother, ya might remember how much ya love 'im. Anyways, time for us to get back to work."

Anthony looked over at him and smirked. "Us, old man? Do you

******
do
******
anything around here besides blow hot air?"

"Why, you little ... don't you worry about how much I do around here. Why, that bunch wouldn't know which direction ta go every day if I wasn't around ta tell 'em!" Jelly leaned forward again, pointing his finger at Anthony. "You just remember your manners, boy, and respect your elders, is all! Ya ain't got the sense God give a goose. Shootin your own brother like that! If I'd been there, you'd still be in the hoosegow, I guarantee it!"

Anthony scowled at him then grabbed that finger and bit it.

"Owwwww!!!! Heathen! Let go!"

He did let go then, jumped to his feet and took off running down the hill. He could hear Jelly still barking. He turned to see if the man was chasing him but, Jelly was just heading down. When he turned back, he ran headlong into a mountain.

******

Anthony bounced off Murdoch then staggered back and lost his balance, landing on his backside. He looked up at the man, stunned.

Murdoch just stared at the boy, a grim expression on his face. Then, he looked up to see Jelly making his way down the hill. "Did you finish the job already?"

The boy blinked then, simply shook his head.

"Then, I suggest you get back to it. Now, why were you running away from Jelly?"

"I'll tell ya why. He bit me!" Jelly wagged his finger in the air as he made it the rest of the way to Murdoch. "Look at that! Near bit it in two!"

Murdoch grabbed Jelly's hand so he could look at the injury. His mouth twitched a little at the teeth marks as he let go. "I think you'll live, Jelly." He turned his attention back to Anthony. "I'm not even sure I want to know why you bit Jelly but, I am your employer and I don't tolerate foolishness on the job. Now, get off your behind and get back to work."

Anthony got to his feet and brushed the seat of his pants. "I bit him because he was waggin his finger in my face."

"He was bein disrespectful!" Jelly shot back.

Murdoch sighed and ran a hand over his face. "Gentlemen, less talk and more work will rectify the situation. Anthony, you still have several hours of daylight left. I expect that hole will be six feet deep before you're finished for the day. Now, you should both get some lunch then get back to it."

Jelly's mouth was hanging open as he watched Murdoch walk away from them. When he turned back, Anthony was sneering at him. He reared back on his heels and pulled his shoulders back. "Well, you heard 'im!"

******

Two days later, Sam came out and removed Johnny's stitches. The tearing he'd experienced at Anthony's hands hadn't done much damage since the wound was healing so well. Sam only cautioned him to go slow and build up to full days. In these past two days, Johnny had not seen Anthony. He hadn't said a word to him about biting Jelly. He was pretty sure Jelly probably deserved it. As much as he understood Jelly cared for him and was grateful for it, the man could sure get persnickety.

Now, the boy was relegated to working with the crew who'd gone to the line shacks with Frank in charge. Murdoch knew Frank Jackson would put up with no nonsense and would make sure the boy worked so hard, he wouldn't have the strength to try and run off.

Johnny sat on the low wall of the veranda and watched Sam drive off, rubbing lightly over the still tender scar tissue forming. Another scar, he thought with chagrin.

"How's it feel?" Murdoch asked as he stepped back onto the porch from seeing his friend off.

"It's okay. Itches a little. When will Frank's crew be back?"

Murdoch's lips twitched. "This evening if all went well."

Johnny sighed and swung his feet out, gently tapping his boot heels on the wall as they came back down. Head bowed, he spoke softly. "Not sure it was such a good idea to send him out there."

"Well," Murdoch shrugged and leaned against the wall, sticking his hands in his pockets, "we'll find out soon enough. It beats having him fight with Jelly. I was hoping hard work would do him some good."

Johnny smiled then laughed as he looked up at his father. "That's your cure for everything, ain't it? Hard work?"

"Well, it doesn't hurt. I'm not sure you're quite ready for battle, son."

"I can't wait forever, old man. We need to get things settled for everyone's peace of mind. Maybe, he'll be so tired, he'll listen."

Murdoch laughed a little then looked out over the land. "I guess we'll find out soon. Here they come."

Johnny followed his father's eyes and saw the wagon lumbering toward them, full of hands. He couldn't spot Anthony at first, then, as they came closer, he saw the lowered head of the boy sitting on the end of the wagon, legs hanging off the back. Still needs a haircut, he thought.

Frank, on horseback, walked the chestnut over to the Lancers and nodded.

"Frank, how did it go?" Murdoch asked.

"Good, Mr. Lancer. All the repairs are done. We can take the supplies up whenever you're ready."

Murdoch nodded, happy with the news then, he gave Frank a sly look. "And, uh, was there any trouble?"

A wan smile came over the man's face. "Not much, Sir. He was a little prickly at first but, once I got him working, he got quiet. Too tuckered to stir up any dust, I reckon."

Johnny smiled at that then nodded toward the wagon just coming to a stop near the barn. "I wasn't sure if he was mad or asleep back there."

Frank looked over and shrugged. "Asleep, I think."

Johnny stood up and regarded the man. "He disrespect you?"

Frank dipped his head then looked back at Johnny steadily. "Nothing I can't handle."

Sighing out through his nose, Johnny put his hands on his hips. "I'm sorry, Frank. It won't happen again."

The man just nodded then turned his horse and walked it to the barn, passing a subdued Anthony on his way.

******

Johnny watched the boy walk toward them, head still down, and wanted to box his ears. He managed to restrain himself as Anthony came to a stop in front of them, looking at Murdoch.

"Am I supposed to go back to jail now?"

"Yep," Johnny clipped and found those green eyes glaring at him.

Anthony ignored him then and turned back to Murdoch, waiting for his answer.

Murdoch clenched his jaw then released it. "You heard the man."

Anthony turned on his heel and stomped into the house.

"I swear, that kid ..."

"Easy, son. He's testing you. Surely, you can see that?"

Johnny looked at his father with surprise. No, he didn't know that. He shook his head. "I don't know what I'm doing."

Murdoch looked at the ground then paced around in a small circle for a moment, his forehead creased in a frown. "Maybe, the problem is, you're trying to be a father to him. Try being his brother. Try to remember how things were between you before. Did he do what you told him?"

Johnny nodded, "yeah, he did. He followed me around like a pup. Thought the sun rose and set on me. That's all changed now, though."

"Only because he's hurt. If he didn't love you so much, he wouldn't care, Johnny."

Johnny turned away from his father and closed his eyes. He felt the hand on his back and turned his head slightly to the side. "Thanks. You're right. I need to treat him like I would've back then."

"Maybe that could wait until this evening when you've both had a rest and he's had time to settle down."

******

After supper that evening, Johnny gathered his thoughts and went to his brother's room. He smiled a little as he knocked then, immediately turned the key in the lock. He hated locking the boy up but, he knew Anthony would be gone if he didn't. Or, more likely, get a gun and come to his room to finish the job he'd started some two weeks before. He found the boy sitting by the window, staring out through the bars.

"This place used to be a real prison, or somethin?"

"No, it's always been a hacienda and you know it's the style to put bars on the windows." Johnny walked around the stark room and settled for leaning against the dresser. "Did you have supper?"

Anthony only nodded and kept looking out the window.

"We never got to finish our talk that night. Just so you know, I'm all healed now so, you can't pull that crap again."

Anthony turned and looked at him, a grimace flashing briefly across his face before turning away again. "I got nothin to say to you."

"That's good because I don't want you to talk. I want you to listen, really listen to me, Ant. You need to hear me and I'm not gonna take any shit from you so just sit there and hear me!"

He turned and glared at Johnny but, he found himself met with icy cold eyes and determination. He dropped his eyes and sat there.

Johnny sighed and walked over, grabbing the other chair and sitting down, leaning in close to the young man. "It's this, see. If you can't accept I did the best I could well, then, that doesn't really leave us any room. You're here. You keep coming back here so, I think you really do want to be with me. But, if there's something better out there, something more meaningful to you than me, than a real home, then I reckon you should go find it. I can't imagine what that would be but, I'm not you." He waited for the boy to say something. He didn't so, Johnny tried again.

"You know, when I came here, I was so full of hate. Matter of fact, I spent a good part of my life hatin. You know that, though. The only good thing I ever had was you and, I couldn't keep you. I don't reckon I'd be a very good father. Maybe, if I spend enough time around my own, I'll learn some things. You would, too, if you'd just try. Might even learn something from me, if you wanted. The thing is, Ant, I don't know what to do with you. I mean, I want you to be with me but, if you're so set on killin me, well, it wouldn't make much sense for me to hand you the opportunity every minute of the day. There was a time not so long ago when I wouldn't have minded dying."

Anthony's head came up sharply and he stared, wide-eyed at his brother.

Johnny smiled briefly. "That's right. When Murdoch's man found me, I was about half a minute from facing a Mexican firing squad. But, before that, I spent about a month or so in a prison cell. A Mexican prison cell. Ain't like it is here, Ant. You live with cockroaches and lice and, if you get hungry enough, you don't mind so much that they're crawlin around in the mush they feed ya." Johnny looked away, his eyes distant and dead.

"Yeah, I was wishing for that firing squad way before it came. I'd accepted it was gonna happen and I was glad for it. I didn't have a thing in this world to look forward to because, I knew if they didn't kill me, I'd stay in that prison the rest of my life. If they'd known how much worse that would've been for me, they might've done just that. I don't know." He blinked then laughed sharply.

"I've made some enemies but, no one hates me like the rurales." He face fell serious as he looked at his brother. "So, I'm much better off now and, I think you can see, the old man does care. I've never seen him as mad as he was that night with you."

He waited and watched to see if any of what he'd said had made a difference to his brother. Anthony stared at him and Johnny could tell he was thinking hard. "I love you, boy. I always have and I always will. I'd love to have you with me at Lancer. You've never seen a more beautiful place, have you? Never will meet better people. Never have a better life. But, if you don't want all that, I don't know what else I can do. I'm offering you the world. A world I could never have offered you before. I got lucky. Will you?"

Anthony lowered his head and turned aside. He worried the buttons of his shirt as he stared at the floor. Finally, he sighed heavily and looked back at Johnny. "I'm still mad at you. I ain't sure I can stop but ... I got no place better to go right now."

Johnny smiled and put a hand on his shoulder. "It's not easy getting over being mad for years. Takes time. As long as you're willing to try, so am I. Now, can I interest you in a piece of pie?"

Anthony smiled a little. "That mean I'm out of prison?"

Johnny pulled a face. "It does. What you do now is up to you." He stood and Anthony came with him as they started toward the door, his hand still on the boy's shoulder. He pulled up just before reaching that doorway.

"Just one thing. If you disrespect my father again, Ant, you'll deal with me."  

He sucked in his cheeks and nodded but, when Johnny pulled gently on his shoulder, he didn't budge. "Just one thing. If you don't stop callin me Ant, you'll deal with me."

Johnny burst out laughing and wrapped his arm around Anthony's shoulders. "I'll try. That's all I can promise. It'll take some practice."

******

Half an hour later, Murdoch and Scott walked into the dining room to find the two young men at the table, a pie plate in front of each with an accompanying glass of milk.

Murdoch did a good job of hiding the smile. He glanced over at Scott and caught the younger man's eyes. Twisting his mouth, he spoke quietly. "Looks like success."

Scott nodded, more relieved than anything. "That looks good. Did you manage to leave any?"

"A crumb or two, Boston, on the counter in the kitchen." Johnny gave him a smirk as the older man headed off in search of pie then, he tapped Anthony on the arm, nodding toward his father. "You have somethin to say?"

Surprised, Anthony looked at him then pressed his lips together for a second before giving in and focusing on Murdoch. "Sorry, if I was disrespectful." He felt a painful squeeze to his arm. "I mean, I'm sorry I

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was
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disrespectful."

Murdoch bit the inside of his cheek and nodded, stalling to ensure he could actually speak without laughing. "Apology accepted."

"And?" Johnny prompted the boy with another, lighter squeeze.

Anthony sighed out through his nose. "And, it won't happen again."

"I take it that means you've decided to stay here at Lancer with us. Good! Now, why don't you go help Scott slice a piece of pie for an old man." A quirk of the brow was enough and Anthony nodded then quickly departed their company.

As they watched him hurry to find Scott, Murdoch had to ask. "How did you manage?"

"I'm not really sure. I was straight with him. I told him how I felt and what I wanted then I gave him the choice. I can't believe it worked."

Murdoch put a hand on his son's shoulder. "Well, I'm glad you got through to him."

Johnny looked up at his father. "I didn't have a clue what I was going to do, Murdoch. And, I don't know how to handle him any better now."

Letting his hand slide away, Murdoch sat down and fully faced Johnny. "That's not true at all, son. You did it just now by having him apologize to me and in the right way. You didn't say hardly anything but, he understood what you wanted him to do."

Johnny raised his brows and cocked his head to one side. "Yeah, I guess I did. It was pretty natural. Like the way it used to be. Maybe, if he can let go of some of the hurt and anger, we can be that way again all the time."

Murdoch nodded his agreement, all the while assessing his son. "I haven't forgotten either. You're not one hundred percent. How is it?"

Johnny dropped his head and sighed heavily. "Sore. I am pretty tired, I guess."

******

Scott looked over his shoulder as he went about slicing the pie. When he saw Anthony, he stopped and turned to him.

"Your pa said I should help you."

"I never turn down help." Scott stepped aside and waved his hand in invitation. "Be my guest."

Anthony walked past him and began the chore as Scott found a counter to lean against. "I guess Johnny finally said something that made you think."

The boy didn't say anything at first, concentrating on a task he was unfamiliar with. "Reckon I just saw my brother, finally, instead of Johnny Lancer."

Scott frowned at that. "I don't understand. Is there a difference?"

Anthony carefully laid a piece of pie on a plate before turning to face Scott. "Yeah, he's changed a lot. When he's around you, he acts different. When it's just us ... I don't know."

Scott was perplexed by this and pushed off the counter, taking the three steps to stand before the young man. "Maybe, he acts differently around you because your relationship with him is different. Don't forget, we haven't known each other very long. We're still finding our way so, maybe he's more relaxed around you, more at ease."

The kid nodded. "That bother you?"

"Should it?"

"I don't know. That's why I'm askin."

Scott chuckled at that. "You're straightforward, like Johnny. He calls it shooting from the hip. To answer your question, no, it doesn't bother me."

Anthony studied the man before him for a beat. "Where you from? Johnny called you Boston?"

"Yes, I was raised there by my grandfather though, I was born in California. It's a long story."

"Funny, the old man couldn't keep either of his sons around."

Scott's face fell then he frowned. "That isn't something you need to concern yourself with, Anthony. There are things you don't know. Things Johnny and I don't know. As I said before, we haven't been together very long."

Anthony dropped his head. "I guess throwin me into the mix don't help matters."

Shrugging, Scott's face softened and he smiled a little. "The more the merrier, I say." Turning serious once more, he added, "it seems you're fine with him now."

Anthony shrugged, hearing the question unasked. "Well, I'm not. I guess I'm just willin to give it a chance. Beats bein alone."

Scott had to lean forward to hear the soft spoken words. He sighed, hoping Anthony wasn't just giving in because it was too hard to stay that angry. "A chance is all he'll need. Maybe, you should remind yourself that he's your family. It might make it easier for both of you." He waited as Anthony nodded his bowed head. "There is one thing I'd like to talk to you about. You realize Johnny is still healing. The doctor took out the stitches today but, he's still not back to himself and it will take a while. I'd like you to keep that in mind."

Anthony looked back up at him, a pained expression on his face. "Yeah, I did forget about that before. He didn't look sick. I won't aggravate him anymore. Least ways, not til he's better."

Scott watched a crooked little grin appear on the boy's face and broke out in a wide smile, himself. "You know, between the two of us, we could really aggravate him. Once he's healed, that is. Come on, I'm sure Murdoch will be bellowing soon if he doesn't get his pie."

He watched the boy take the plate to the dining room. Scott felt a glimmer of hope when Anthony revealed he'd forgotten about Johnny's injury when he'd shoved him. Maybe, there was something worthwhile about this kid.

******

Johnny spent most of the next day with a frown on his face and discontentment in his entire being. He sauntered around the great room, out onto the veranda and back until Murdoch was ready to kill him. He'd already had Johnny help him with the ledgers and fix a squeaky floorboard but he couldn't honestly find anything else to occupy the restless young man that didn't entail strenuous labor.

"Need me to do anything, Murdoch?"

He ground his teeth then looked sharply at his son. "Do you have any idea how many times you've asked me that today?"

"Seventeen." At Murdoch's surprised look, Johnny smiled a little and shrugged. "It's not like I have anything better to do than count things."

Murdoch pursed his lips and sucked back a laugh. "Scott and Anthony should be riding in soon. Why don't you go out on the veranda and wait for them?"

A snort emitted from the younger man and he continued his pacing. "I know I'm getting on your nerves."

"And, you were hoping I'd get fed up and send you out to work? I'm sorry but, that isn't going to happen. Not until ..."

"Sam says so," Johnny interrupted. "I know. I feel fine, though."

"Johnny." Murdoch said the name with as much warning in his tone as he could muster.

He held his hands up and looked at his father as if to say 'what?' but neither man got a chance to speak again as the front door flew open and Anthony ran into the room. Johnny spun around, his right hand going to his empty hip as the boy headed straight for him.

Anthony grabbed his arm then stepped behind Johnny as Scott entered the house looking like a hungry bear. He pointed his gloved hand toward the boy.

"I said I was sorry!"

Johnny rolled his eyes and put his hands on his hips, hoping the kid didn't knock him down as hard as he was pressing against his back. "What's goin on?"

Scott stepped closer to his brother and shook his head. "That boy needs to learn some manners."

"No kiddin?" Johnny clipped. Then, he leaned toward his older brother. "What did he do?"

Scott pressed his lips together then, seemed to notice Murdoch for the first time. He sighed lightly and dropped his head, removing his gloves deliberately.

Johnny raised his brows, knowing Scott was stalling, reining in his anger to be more civilized. He smirked and waited to hear what offense the kid had committed.

Finally, Scott looked back up, the anger well contained but still very much there. "There are certain things a man just doesn't do, Johnny. One of them is that he doesn't steal another man's horse."


A voice piped up from behind Johnny. "I didn't steal 'im! I just borrowed 'im, is all. It was just a joke, anyways. Geez, Scott, can't ya take a joke?"

Johnny bit his lip, trying not to smile or laugh. Looking at Scott didn't help him with that.

"It's no joking matter, young man! You just don't mess with a man's horse!"

"Yeah, Anthony. That's worse than messin with his woman," Johnny said as he turned quickly and grabbed the boy, pushing him across the room and sitting him in a chair.

Anthony looked up at Johnny with wide-eyed innocence. "You mean if I was to mess with his woman, he wouldn't be near as mad?"

Johnny cleared his throat and managed to frown. "That's right, kid. Next time you want to play a joke on Scott, ask his girl out on a date."

"I don't have a girl - at the moment. This isn't funny, Johnny. He could have hurt Rembrandt."

******

Murdoch pushed back in his chair and stood, ready to stop this before something went awry. "Alright, boys. Just settle down and, Scott, tell us what he actually did to the horse." He walked over and sat in the chair next to Anthony as Johnny settled on the arm of the chair.

Scott took a deep breath and sat on the sofa, watching Anthony carefully. "Well, he just took off on Remmie while I was talking to one of the hands. I turned around and they were just gone. I didn't even hear him and no one else heard or saw him, either."

Johnny grinned and looked at the boy, something akin to pride in his eyes. "You haven't forgotten a thing, have you?"

Grinning wickedly, Anthony looked up at his brother and shook his head. "Nope. Pretty good, huh?"

Lightly tapping him in the gut, Johnny laughed. "Not bad at all, Ant ...thony."

The frown that had instantly come to the boy's face disappeared when Johnny corrected himself.

Scott's mouth fell open as he gawked at the two of them. "You taught him how to steal a horse?"

Johnny turned his head to Scott, still grinning. "Well, yeah, Scott. We used to do it to my stepfather all the time. Drove him loco."

Scott threw his hands in the air and looked to his father, stunned the man was laughing silently. "Sir?"

Murdoch's eyes gleamed then, when he saw Scott's face, his own face fell and he frowned at Anthony. "Yes, well, a joke is a joke but, let's not take things too far,

******
boys
******
. No more taking horses without permission. I'm sure Scott didn't know where you'd gotten off to and, I'm sure he was as concerned for your welfare as he was for his horse." Murdoch looked back at his older son meaningfully.

Scott snorted at that. "No, I wasn't. Besides, Johnny, you wouldn't think it was so funny if he'd taken Barranca."

Johnny thought about that for all of a second before turning hard eyes on Anthony. "Kid, you ever touch Barranca, there will be hell to pay."

"If the three of you are quite clear on horse thieving, I need to talk to you about ranch business."

Johnny leaned back on the chair arm and crossed his wrists loosely as he leaned into Anthony. "Sure, old man. What's up?"

Murdoch gave his son a wary look then, repositioned himself in his seat. "The line shacks are ready to be supplied and we need to get that done soon. I've decided we should take on that task for a few days. Jelly can watch over things here while we're gone."

"All of us?" Scott asked, knowing it didn't take four people to stock line shacks.

"That's right, Scott. All of us. It will be a good opportunity for Anthony to learn something and maybe, if you're all very lucky, we can get some fishing in."

******

Johnny drove the wagon though he wasn't happy about it. That had taken up a good portion of the early morning - arguing with his father about riding instead of driving the team. Murdoch's arguments were valid which only made Johnny angrier. He slapped the reins to move the horses along a little, jostling Anthony hard as they hit a rut.

"Ya know, I bet there's part of this road that ain't tore up. Think you could find it?"

Johnny came very close to pulling back on the reins and stopping so he could smack the kid. "Anytime you want to take over, boy, just let me know."

That's all Anthony needed and he grabbed the reins from Johnny, grinning and settling into the seat. Johnny snorted and slouched down. Crossing one leg over the other knee, he pulled his hat low over his eyes and folded his arms across his chest.

Murdoch and Scott were riding behind the wagon and they exchanged a knowing smile. Murdoch tossed his head and Scott nodded as they moved around and got ahead the wagon.


"Hey!"

Johnny jerked and sat up, pushing his hat back and looking around. "What's wrong?"

"How come they took the lead?"

He turned in the seat and glared at Anthony. "Don't yell like that unless there's something really wrong. I reckon they didn't think you knew where you were goin!"

The boy lowered his eyes for a second then focused back on the road.

Johnny growled a little then a slight smile threatened but he bit it down. Anthony seemed to be doing so well and, so fast. He knew the boy was trying hard, teasing Scott like he had with Remmie. Of course, Scott didn't realize it was Anthony's way of accepting him into his life. Still, it had all come about so suddenly after that one talk, he didn't trust it. He didn't believe Ant was trying to snooker them; that the boy really was trying but, he wasn't convinced a person could just get over all that anger so fast. He worried Ant was pushing it all down and, if that was the case, it would just all blow up and probably at the worst possible time. Still, he was going to use it to his advantage and work at the boy, make him really see what he could have here. He resumed his previous position, slumped in the seat with his hat over his eyes and that's where he stayed until they stopped for lunch.

******

Murdoch walked over to where Johnny was laying on the grass next to a brook, his head back, catching the sun on his face. The rancher knelt down. "Feel good?"

Johnny smiled a little. "Yeah, I was getting pretty pale."

Chuckling softly, Murdoch said, "you do know I'm only concerned for your health?"

He opened his eyes and looked over at his father with a squint. "Yeah, I know. I don't mean to be so prickly. Guess I just can't help it. I always did hate being laid up."

"Well," Murdoch grunted as he took to his feet, "I'm sure we'll find something for you to do when we get there. Come on, we should get going. I'd like to make the first cabin before dark."

Johnny got himself up and brushed off the seat of his pants. "Anthony's doing pretty good." He saw the sidelong look his father gave him and shrugged. "Well, considering how he was a couple of weeks ago."

Murdoch wrapped an arm around his shoulders and walked him toward the wagon. "Yes, he hasn't tried to kill you for days and days."

******

By the end of the week, they had the line shacks in the eastern section of the ranch fully stocked for the coming round-up. It escaped no one's noticed that Anthony had become more relaxed, actually talked civilly to everyone and even laughed with Scott.

Saturday came and Murdoch took them all to a river near the last shack for some fishing. He watched as Anthony stared at the fishing rod he'd given him to use. He walked over and nonchalantly took the pole. "Here, let me fix this up for you. This old pole can be tricky."

Anthony watched closely as Murdoch prepared the pole for him. "We just threw the line in when I was a kid. Never had a pole. Sometimes, we'd find some big sticks to tie the string to but, mostly not."

"Did you catch much?"

"Sometimes. Just depended. Johnny'd always get frustrated with it."

Murdoch laughed softly. "Then, he hasn't changed in that respect." They both looked over just in time to see Johnny throw the pole on the ground and draw his gun. Scott was there instantly, talking to his brother until Johnny put the gun away.

Anthony laughed and shook his head then, fell quiet and thoughtful. "He has changed, though. I guess he's been through a lot, huh?"

Murdoch pursed his lips and blew out a breath. "You have no idea, Anthony. Well, here, try this. Let's see if we can't catch something and put your brother to shame." A grin crossed his face as Anthony nodded eagerly.  

Within fifteen minutes, Anthony started whooping and jumping up and down. Murdoch moved to his side quickly and settled him, talking him through bringing the fish to shore. Johnny and Scott sidled up to watch with grins on their faces as Anthony pulled in the trout.

"Whooee! Will ya look at that? I don't believe I've ever seen a bigger fish," Johnny embellished.


Anthony gave him a doubtful look. "Cut it out, Johnny. It's just normal size."


Scott stepped up and hefted the fish in his hands, seeming to weigh it. "I don't know. He's pretty big. I'd wager he's fatter than any Johnny or I have ever caught. Murdoch?"

The patriarch gave them his most serious expression as he considered the catch. "Yes, Scott, I think you're right about that. However, it's not the biggest fish I've ever caught. I remember once when ..." he trailed off as he watched Johnny drag Anthony away, Scott leading the way. Putting his hands on his hips, he watched the young men laughing and fairly running away. His face split in a smile and he shook his head.

******

Johnny huffed again as he cut into the final fish. "Don't know how I got stuck with this chore. Scott pulled somethin. I just have to figure out what and get him back."

"Did you say something, son?"

Glancing up at his father with an irritated expression, he went back to cleaning the fish. "Nope, just thinkin out loud, is all." He looked around for the first time since getting snookered into the job and frowned. "Where's Scott and Anthony?"

Murdoch picked up a few more sticks for his fire. "Oh, I think they went to cool their feet in the water."

Slumping his shoulders, Johnny looked up at his father. "You mean to tell me while we're doing all the work, they're off playing? Don't sound like you to let them get away with that, old man."

Murdoch straightened up and adjusted his bundle of firewood. "Really? You mean like how I never let you get away with calling me 'old man'?"

"That's different," Johnny groused.

"How so?"

He didn't answer and put considerable more attention into his job than he had.

Murdoch watched him for a moment then, knelt down beside him. "How so, John?"

Knife paused in the air for a beat, Johnny considered answering truthfully then, with a grin, he stabbed the fish in the tail before looking over at Murdoch. "You let me get away with it because I let you get away with calling me John."

Murdoch raised his brows at that one then nodded. "I see. I'm so glad you

******
let
******
me get away with something, son." Using Johnny's shoulder as leverage, Murdoch got to his feet and walked back to his cook fire.

Johnny's grin faded as he considered his father and why it was he did call him 'old man'. Did Murdoch really think it was disrespectful? Worrying his lower lip between his teeth, Johnny pulled his knife out of the fish tail and cleaned it off then stood and started over to Murdoch. Before he could get there, he heard Anthony.

""Cut it out, Scott!"

******

Johnny rolled his eyes. Seems that was the only thing the kid knew how to say. Cut it out. He watched them walk toward him, Scott grinning and Anthony trying to look mad. He almost asked but, decided Scott would be pretty disappointed if he didn't so, he closed his mouth and turned his back. To his chagrin, Murdoch did ask.

"Oh, nothing, Sir. Just trying to explain our brother to Anthony, here."

"Oh? I'd like to hear that myself."

"Why?" Johnny asked. "He's just gonna get it wrong. You two might want to make yourselves useful if you want to eat any of this fish."

"I caught it. I did my part," Anthony protested.

"That's right, so did I," Scott agreed.

"Gentlemen, I suggest you listen to your brother's advice. Anthony, I need a little more firewood. I saw some nice pieces in those trees by the river. Scott, you can get the dishes ready."

Johnny smirked at both of them as Anthony trudged off and Scott looked like he was seriously considering physical retribution. One look at their father convinced him to do as he'd been told and he gave a charming smile before bowing and heading off after Anthony.

"Maybe, I could explain you to your brother a little."

Johnny turned and looked questioningly at his father. "How's that?"

Murdoch smiled a little. "That you can only take so much teasing."

A soft laugh came from out. "Guess you do know some things about me, huh?"

******

After supper, they sat around the campfire just before the sun began to set, everyone quietly full. It didn't last very long before Anthony was on his feet, walking to the river. The Lancers watched him skim stones across the surface for a while before Murdoch grunted and stood.

"Are you going out to play, Sir?"

Murdoch looked down at his older son. "Yes, Scott, I believe I will. It looks like fun."

Scott grinned. "Just be home before dark."

Johnny laughed softly at that as he stripped the bark from a piece of tree limb.

Murdoch walked past Scott and smacked him lightly on the head which caused Johnny to laugh more vigorously. Scott shot him a look which did him no good.

"So, you think you know me, huh, Boston?"

"More and more every day, brother."

Johnny nodded, still working on the limb. "Some, I suppose."

Scott leaned forward and picked up a piece of bark lying by Johnny's feet. "It bothers you. Letting someone know you well."

He sighed heavily and tossed the limb away before looking steadily at his brother. "Hard to say. No one has for a long time and, not since before the gunfighting. Anthony doesn't know me now at all."

"He said you've changed. He also said you act differently around Murdoch and me than you do around him."

Johnny dropped his eyes and thought about that for a while. "I guess I do."

Scott nodded thoughtfully. "Is that something you do? I mean, act according to the situation you're in?"

"Doesn't everyone?"

"I suppose but not consciously. It seems you think about it."

Johnny smiled at that. "Always pays to think things through, Boston. Sometimes, you just have to do it faster than others."

Scott didn't smile back. Instead, he frowned. "Have you talked to Anthony about Madrid."

Johnny shook his head then turned it toward the trees fifty yards away. He got to his feet quickly, his right hand hovering over his gun.

Scott came to his feet as well and looked across the way but, he couldn't see anything. Then, he heard the sound of horses being walked, twigs snapping under their hooves and he tensed. Looking toward his father, he saw Murdoch watching them. Anthony was still skipping stones, unaware. "Johnny."

"Just relax, Boston. We don't know a thing yet."

******

Three men rode out of the tree line and stopped ten feet from Johnny and Scott's position. "Evenin."

"Evenin," Johnny replied and his hackles rose as he took in the three. Trail worn with scraggly beards, none of them looked like they'd seen soap in a month at least. Their horses looked worn down to the hocks and, he knew what they wanted. Saw it in the eyes of the one who'd spoke. Plus, he couldn't see the right hand of the man to his left and that made Johnny itchy. The third one was looking past them, obviously checking Murdoch and Anthony out.

"We was ridin by and saw your fire. Was wonderin if we could share a cup of java with ya."

"Sorry, we're all out."

Scott looked at his brother, a frown on his face. He knew they had plenty of coffee to share and, he knew it was customary to do just that with fellow travelers. He also knew Johnny wouldn't turn anyone in need down and these three were definitely in need. He'd seen the man to his far left who kept his hand hidden but he hadn't been sure at first. Johnny's reaction solidified his own suspicions.

"Well, that's a shame. Yessir, a real shame," the man was saying. "Reckon we'll just have to settle for your money and gear." He smiled widely, displaying a row of yellowed and broken teeth. His compadres snickered as the one finally showed his hand, bearing a Colt, and   cocked the hammer.

Johnny glanced at him then pinned the speaker with a steely glare. "I don't think so."

The man's face fell and he frowned. "Maybe, you didn't understand me, mister. Take them gunbelts off and toss 'em over here. You, too," he called to Murdoch.

"I heard you plain and my answer is still the same," Johnny pressed.

Scott wanted to talk to his brother, tell him the money wasn't worth this but, he couldn't let these men see them disagree. That would definitely cause a problem. Whatever his brother was thinking, Scott didn't see this turning out well at all.

Johnny stared at the apparent leader, a glint in his eyes as he slowly shook his head back and forth. "If you want to live past the next minute, you'll turn those nags around and ride out of here."

The man leaned onto his saddle horn a little and quirked his mouth. "Is that a fact?"

"Yep."

He laughed sharply, then his face fell serious. Without twitching, he said, "Lem, take this loud mouth out."

Johnny smiled fleetingly then, a shrill whistle emitted from him.

The horses reared back from the sudden and loud sound and all three robbers worked to get them under control. Two of them trying to draw their weapons at the same time.

In that second, Murdoch pushed Anthony behind him before drawing his own weapon.

Johnny drew and fired at the one whose gun was already in his hand and who was trying desperately to get a bead on him. The man fell to the ground, under the hooves of the frightened horse.

The other two had their guns drawn by this time and their horses fairly under control as Johnny turned to the leader and fired. He heard a shot to his right and saw the third one come out of the saddle as did his partner. From his peripheral vision, he saw Scott's gun still aimed at his target.

Smoke rose slowly toward the evening sky as the horses ran off, leaving an eerie silence in their wake. Johnny walked over to the leader and leaned down, tossing the man's weapon afar as he checked his condition. He saw Scott come to stand on the other side of the man and Johnny rose to face his brother.

Scott was angry, no doubt about that but, he didn't get a chance to speak it. Johnny heard his name being shouted, recognizing his little brother's voice and the fear in it. He spun around, gun still drawn and pulled the trigger just as the third man lying prone on the ground, fired at him.

No one moved for a long beat then, Johnny straightened up, took two steps and staggered. He fell to his knees as his father reached him.

******

Murdoch grabbed his son's shoulders as he knelt in front of Johnny and pressed his lips together when he got a good look. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled his bandana out and pressed it to the freely bleeding wound to his son's right temple.

Anthony fell to the ground at Johnny's side and saw the large amount of blood streaming down the side of his face. He grabbed his brother's arm and squeezed hard.


"Lento, Anthony. Esta bien," Johnny whispered.

"It ain't alright. You're bleeding bad."

Johnny turned his head and smiled at the boy. "Head wounds always bleed like crazy. It's nothing. Right, Murdoch?"

The father took a stuttering breath. "I couldn't say right now, Johnny. We need to get you back to the line shack so I can have better light. Scott? Give me a hand."

******

Murdoch cleaned and bandaged the wound once he got the bleeding under control. Johnny had been right. He had a chunk blown off his scalp but, it would heal. He adamantly denied any dizziness and only hesitantly confessed to a headache. A glass of strong whiskey helped the pain immensely.

Anthony had not left his side the whole time, watching his every move. Johnny noticed the boy's hands trembling more than once and felt heartsick that his brother had witnessed the fight. As they sat around the hearth, he patted the kid's arm. "I'm sorry that happened, brother. I hate you seeing it."

"I didn't mind. I mean, I was worried about you. I couldn't figure out why you didn't just give 'em what they wanted."

"I was wondering the same thing myself." Scott finally got to verbalize his own frustration. "What was the point of pushing a gunfight, Johnny?"

Looking directly at his older brother, Johnny answered in a soft yet firm tone. "The point was to stay alive. They didn't just want our money and gear, Scott. They weren't about to leave us breathin."

"How could you possibly know that?"

"Years of experience." Johnny leaned forward a little in his chair. "Mind telling me why you didn't check your man?"

Scott's face darkened as he matched Johnny by leaning forward in his own chair. "I was trying to check on my family or did you forget there were other people involved in this besides yourself."

Johnny's jaw twitched. "No, Scott. I didn't forget. If I had, I wouldn't have wasted so much time jawin with those idiots. I would've just shot them down!"

"Enough!" Murdoch bellowed.

Anthony jumped two feet in his seat then leaned closer to Johnny.

Inhaling deeply through his nose, Murdoch attempted to calm down for the boy's benefit. "I'm sorry if I startled you, Anthony, but these two don't seem to be able to hear very well when they're arguing with each other. I'm not spending the rest of the night listening to you two go at each other. It happened. There's nothing to be done about it now."

Both brothers retreated in their seats and stared at the floor for a time. Anthony watched them both now and wondered if they'd stay mad at each other very long, like he had with Johnny. Today, he'd seen Johnny Madrid but, he wasn't afraid. In fact, he thought it was about the greatest thing he'd ever seen a man do and he really wanted to talk to his brother about it. But, he sensed Murdoch and Scott wouldn't be too happy about that. Did they want Johnny to stop being who he was? His head jerked up and he stared at Johnny blankly.

"Where'd you go? You were miles away."

"Just thinking," he shrugged.

Johnny looked closely at him. He didn't seem too wound up and had, in fact, settled down quite a bit. Still, he needed to talk to Anthony about what he'd seen today. This would be a tough talk to have. He'd never wanted the boy to see him like that but, it couldn't be helped. He glanced over at his father who was staring into the low burning fire and wondered what Murdoch really thought about the days events.   This is stupid! Anger suddenly welled up inside him and he got up and walked to the table, pouring a glass of whiskey and taking a long pull. "We gonna sit around here like statues or get it said?"

******

Murdoch blinked then turned to look at him. "Get what said?"

"Whatever it is you're thinkin, Murdoch. What I did out there."

"I think I said there's nothing to discuss."

Johnny snorted at that and took another drink.

"I'd like to talk about it," Scott said then, joined his brother at the table and poured his own drink. "Sir?" At Murdoch's nod, he poured another glass.

Accepting the drink from Scott and waiting for him to sit back down, Murdoch took a sip. "What did you see?" he asked without looking at Johnny.

"Hunger."

Anthony sat up straight and looked quizzically at his brother. "If they were hungry, why didn't we feed 'em?"

A small, sad smile crossed Johnny's face. "Not that kind of hunger. The kind a man will kill to feed. They wanted everything we had. Horses, money, food, the clothes off our backs. They've killed for it before and they were ready to kill for it again."

"Did you know them, Johnny?" Anthony asked.

"Sure, kid. I've seen them, their kind, a hundred times all over. It's a look in the eyes. Not somethin you ever forget once you've seen it."

"So, you're saying all men with a certain look in their eyes should be killed?" Scott asked, the sarcasm in his voice hard to miss.

Johnny walked back over and sat down. "Still think you know a goddammed thing about me, Scott? I'm sayin just what I said. I can't explain it any better than that. Call it a gut feeling, experience, whatever you want. If they didn't have killin on their minds, why did they ride in here gun drawn and hidden? Why didn't they move on as soon as I told 'em we didn't have coffee? Why was the very next thing out of his mouth to hand over our money?"

"You weren't wrong, Johnny. Not this time but, you were ready for trouble before we even saw them."

"I'm always ready for trouble, Scott. Keeps me breathin."

"How'd you get so good?" Anthony blurted out.

******

All eyes turned to Anthony and he lowered his head for a moment before finding his brother's eyes. Waiting expectantly, he saw no reason for Johnny not to answer him but, maybe he was wrong. The man didn't seem too happy with that question.

Johnny thought about his options. He could yell at the kid, tell him that was a stupid question only, it wasn't. He could ignore it but that would only delay the inevitable. Pushing a puff of breath out, he stood up. "Come outside with me, kid." He didn't wait for an answer or an argument, he turned and walked out the door.

Anthony stood slowly and looked over at first Murdoch, then Scott. Neither man would look at him, staring at the floor. Frowning, he shrugged then followed his brother. Johnny was in the small yard, leaning against a hitching post and staring into the distance. When Anthony approached him, he pushed off and meandered further away from the shack.

"I practiced a lot. That's how I got so good." Johnny turned to look at the boy. "Tell me what you thought about all that."

Anthony shoved his hands in his pockets and walked over to his brother. "I didn't understand why you were so mad, at first. I mean, I didn't see what you saw." Feeling a little embarrassed, he pursed his lips then went on. "Reckon I didn't know what to look for, though. Then, your old man, he kept steppin a little in front of me. Like he didn't want me to see or somethin."

"He was protecting you," Johnny explained.

Anthony nodded then scuffed at the dirt with his boot. "I've never heard you talk like that before. I mean, I've heard ya when you're mad but, this was different. You weren't yellin at all. I almost couldn't hear ya, you were talking so low and ... cold as ice."

Johnny turned away and closed his eyes briefly, his gut knotted and twisting. The kid was good at noticing some things, it looked like.

"I couldn't believe it when you told 'em they were gonna die even when that man was pointin a gun right at you! I mean, that takes cajones, brother!"

Johnny heard the excitement in Anthony's voice and turned sharply to face him, eyes narrowed and hard. "That make you happy, boy?"

Anthony's face fell and he frowned at the sudden change. He shook his head. "I'm glad you could take care of them cobardes. And, yeah, it was somethin to see, Johnny. Why is that a bad thing?"

"Killin is always a bad thing, Ant. Don't matter if they push you into it. Don't matter if you do it to save your own life or someone else's. It's still bad even when it's necessary."

Shaking his head slowly back and forth, Anthony asked, "then why are ya mad about it? You had to do it. You know you did, Johnny. Yeah, maybe it's bad but, like you said, it was necessary. So, can't nobody blame you for it."

Scott could, Johnny thought but, didn't say. He knew his brother didn't blame him exactly. He still didn't know what had Scott so hot under the collar about the whole thing but, at the moment, he didn't care much. "I guess I just don't want you thinking gunfighting is something good."

"It's somethin you're good at. If you hate it, why'd you do it?"

Johnny sighed heavily. "Because, I didn't think there was anything better for me out there. I thought it would be a great life, ya know? People afraid of you, stepping aside, showing respect. Something we never had, you and me. But, it was all a lie, Anthony. It's a pretty lonely life. There's not too many people you can ever count on to watch your back and, it's a real easy way to get yourself killed. I've come close more than once. I don't miss it at all and I don't ever want you thinking it's something you could do with your life."

Anthony looked at him with surprise. "Never thought about it."

Johnny smiled and grabbed him by the nape of the neck, shaking gently. "Good."

"So, how come Scott and the old man are all bent out of shape over this?"

A small laugh emitted from Johnny. "Well, I guess they just don't like being reminded of that life. I guess it worries them. Come on, let's go back inside. My head's hurting."

Anthony immediately took hold of his arm and starting walking him toward the shack. Johnny looked at him as if he were crazy then, shook his head and let the kid take the lead.

******

Johnny sat on the small porch the next day, leaning against a support post and staring at nothing. Murdoch had decreed they would stay at the shack one more day so Johnny could heal even though, he'd protested as much as he could. Truthfully, his head did still hurt a might. Nothing he couldn't manage, though. The old man could sure dig his heels in. He sighed lightly as his thoughts turned to Scott. Nothing more had been said last night. He figured Scott had said his piece and that was the end of it. It was sure the end as far as he was concerned because he could find no more words, no different way to explain what he knew. It would blow over like their arguments always did. That didn't stop him from feeling bad about it. He never liked going at it with Scott. They were both too stubborn to give. Matter of fact, he thought with a slight smile, it was a lot like going at it with Murdoch.

The scratching noise hadn't registered with him and he wondered now how long it had been going on. It was one of those things where, you knew it must've been there but, it just didn't sink into your head you were hearing it. Frowning, he stood and stepped off into the yard then headed around the side of the shack, following his ears. When he reached the back of the small building, he found the source of the sound. Anthony was sitting in the dirt, hunched over something. Johnny walked over, curious as to what the boy was scratching at and what he was using to do that scratching.

Anthony's head came up when the shadow fell over him and he smiled at his brother before returning to whatever he was doing. Johnny squatted beside him then smiled, too. "There's easier ways."

"I don't have any paper." Anthony looked up and shrugged. "No pencil, either."

Nodding, Johnny pulled lightly at the boy's arm so he'd move his hand then, he raised his brows. "Planning on building a house? It's kind of small."

"It's a line shack. This one's in pretty poor shape, if ya ask me."

Johnny glanced sidelong at him then studied the rendering in the dirt. Looked to him like the kid didn't need paper or pencil. The stick he was using did a fine job. A smile of memory came to his lips. "I didn't know you still drew."

"Some. Not like I used to, though. Do you still?"

Johnny stood back up. "Not much. I don't have a lot of time for it anymore." He laughed softly. "Well, I usually only have time for it when I'm laid up."

"Whatever "it" is, you must do a lot of it, brother."

Johnny turned to find Scott standing behind him with that smile he got when he thought he'd made a good joke. He made a face at his brother. "Funny, Boston. Look at this. Anthony always did have talent."

Scott walked over and looked at the dirt drawing. "That is impressive." Kneeling on one knee, he pointed. "I believe you're better than Johnny at drawing."

Anthony wiped the drawing away with one hand then, stood and wiped his hand on his pants. "I'm better with stuff like that but, he's better at drawin people and horses and such."

Johnny smacked the boy on the arm. "Now, why'd you do that? I wanted Murdoch to see it. Might've changed his mind about tearing this old place down and rebuilding."

Anthony gave him a look of disbelief and shrugged. "It's stupid."

"No, it isn't. It was very good. In fact, I'd like it if you'd draw it on paper when we get home. Johnny's right. If Murdoch could actually see a rendering, it might motivate him."

Anthony sighed heavily and looked at Johnny. "What the hell did he just say?"

Johnny grinned. "He said just what I said. Might make Murdoch change his mind. Come on, I'm gettin hungry."

Scott shook his head at both of them. "You're always hungry."

******

As they ate the stew Murdoch had prepared, Scott pondered on what Anthony had drawn. It wasn't just a picture, it was more like plans. He wondered where the boy had learned something like that. He looked over at his father who was watching Johnny eat. Scott smiled and shook his head. Parents. "Sir, you should have seen what Anthony drew out back. It was very good."

"Oh?" Murdoch answered distractedly. He turned to look at Scott when Johnny looked up.

"Yes, it was a line shack rendering but, it was very detailed. I've asked him to draw it on paper when we get back. I think the boy may be a natural architect."

Anthony narrowed his eyes. "What'd you call me?"

"An architect. It's someone who designs buildings."

Deflating, Anthony said, "oh," then looked at Johnny.

"Johnny draws sometimes, too," Murdoch ventured. "If you're as good as he is, I'd be interested in taking a look."

"He's better than me, Murdoch. He always did like drawing more than I did. When he was a little kid, he'd rather draw than play a lot of the time."

Anthony bowed his head, embarrassed at the compliment and uncomfortable talking about his childhood. "It ain't nothin."

"I disagree," Scott said firmly. He was beginning to wonder if Johnny and Anthony weren't related by blood. They had many of the same mannerisms. "Why don't we let Murdoch decide?"

Anthony looked at him blankly then shrugged. "Fine by me."

"What are you thinking, Boston? Has to be more than him drawing a picture."

"That's because it was more than a simple picture, brother. The boy has real talent. It could even be a profession, if he were interested."

"Profession?! You mean, people pay for stuff like that?"

Murdoch and Scott both chuckled. "Yes, Anthony. People pay, and pay well for stuff like that."

"Scott's right. Especially in cities, people don't just throw a house or office building up. They have an architect design it for them," Murdoch added.

Johnny lowered his head, a frown creasing his brow. Suddenly, he stood up and quietly excused himself from the table. Stopping at the door, he looked back, realizing how it might seem to his family. With a smile, he said, "it's hot in here, don't you think? I'm gonna check on the horses. Be right back."

Scott went back to talking to Anthony but, Murdoch wasn't convinced his son was fine. He wondered why Johnny had left so suddenly. It made no sense to him so, he figured there was only one way to find out. Quietly, he left the table as the two young men talked about architecture, Scott telling Anthony about some of the more famous structures in history and the boy listening intently.

******

Murdoch headed directly to the small barn and found his son exactly where he said he'd be. Checking the horses. He smiled a little as he joined Johnny. "Missing Barranca?"

"Sure. It's been a while since I've had a chance to ride." Johnny patted his father's big bay then stepped over to Remmie, scratching him behind the ear.

"What's on your mind, son? I know it isn't the heat or the horses."

Johnny smiled as he grabbed a brush and started currying Remmie. "Sounds like Scott's trying to find a new career for Anthony."

"If he's as talented as you both say, it could be an option for him."

"Ranching isn't?"

Murdoch crossed his arms, and almost said 'ah ha' as he realized what was troubling his son. "Yes, it's another option. It's up to the boy, of course. I know you'd rather have him with you."

Johnny stopped brushing the horse and set the tool down. He turned to his father, his eyes almost haunted. "We haven't even had a chance to get to know each other again and Scott's ready to send him off to the city."

"I don't think that was your brother's intention, Johnny. I think he's just trying to encourage Anthony to explore his talent. There's nothing wrong with that, is there?"

"Depends," Johnny muttered. He walked over to the door and leaned against the jamb. "It killed me to leave him. Now, I've got a second chance and I'd like some time with the kid, is all."

Murdoch walked over and put his hand high up on the wall beside Johnny's head, leaning in a little. "No one is planning on putting him on the next stage out of here, son."

Johnny let out a harsh breath and leaned his head against the wood. "I guess. I don't know what's wrong with me, Murdoch. Think maybe I'm goin loco."

Murdoch laughed at that. "I doubt that." His expression fell serious. "Speaking of hot, it's a little warm in here. Mind taking a walk with me, if you feel up to it?"

Johnny nodded and rolled to his right, off the door jamb and outside. Murdoch quirked his lips and hoped he wasn't about to make a fool of himself. He found Johnny waiting for him to choose a path so, he headed down to the river.

"Returning to the scene of the crime?" Johnny smirked.

Murdoch stopped and turned to look at him with his 'that wasn't funny' look then, proceeded to the water's edge.

Bowing his head, Johnny berated himself and followed his father. Lord only knew what the man had on his mind but, he wasn't too sure he was going to like it. He glanced over at the three mounds of dirt up the small hill and shook his head.

******

Murdoch stood and stared across the river for a while before starting to speak. "When I sent for you and Scott, I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know if you'd accept my offer or tell me to go to hell. I'll confess I was hoping you'd both stay but, I had nothing to base that hope on. I thought a great deal about that as I waited for you both." He turned and looked at Johnny then. "I never expected you to both show up at the exact same time."

Johnny grinned. "YOU didn't expect it?"

A small chuckle emitted from the older man before he went back to his musings. "I wondered what I'd say or do or think if one or both of you rejected the offer. I had no illusions of a warm family reunion but, I hoped we could have a new start. My point is, I understand what you're feeling, son. If you'd turned away from me then, it would have ..." he stopped and turned back to the river. When next he spoke, it was low and hard to hear. "It would've broken my heart."

Johnny did hear him, though, and he bowed his head. Reaching down, he grabbed up some small stones and rubbed them in his palm. He didn't know what to say to this ... confession.

Murdoch cleared his throat. "So, you see, I have thought about this subject. Even though it's a little different, the sentiment is the same. But, son," he paused and looked at Johnny, "if you wanted to leave Lancer to pursue some new career; something you really wanted to do, I wouldn't hold you back. It would be hard; very, very hard, but I'd like to think I'd be supportive."

He thought about making some smart-assed remark about gunfighting but, for once, he stayed his tongue long enough to think. This was serious and nothing to make light of. What Murdoch had just said to him, he knew was really tough for the old man. He knew because it was tough to hear it. Emotions were damnable things. He also knew Murdoch was waiting for him to say something. He looked up at his father and nodded his head. "That's good to hear, old man. It's just that, commiseratin doesn't make it stop. Besides, if you let me walk away without puttin up a fight, I'm not sure I'd like that much."

Murdoch dipped his eyes. "Yes, I did that not so long ago and I regretted it from the moment it happened. But, that wasn't to do with starting something new. Of course, that should have made me fight even harder to keep you from going back. I am sorry about that day, Johnny. I was trying too hard to rein you in too fast. I didn't know you and I made a mistake."

Johnny took a step back and stared at his father. "You really need to stop now. I don't think I can take you bein this ..."

Murdoch smirked a little. "Human?"

Rolling his eyes, Johnny said, "no, fatherly." As soon as it was out of his mouth, he wanted to suck it back in. "I didn't mean that the way it sounded. I'm just not used to gettin advice from anyone and, I ..." He stopped, knowing he was about to make a bigger mess.

"Johnny, it's alright. I understand what you meant. I think. We haven't really had a serious talk like this before. Not with something this important." Murdoch put a hand on his shoulder to try and ease his obvious discomfort. "I've held back because I didn't think you needed or, maybe, wanted me to 'father' you."

He opened his mouth then closed it then opened it again. "I'm not sure I do and I'm not sure I don't. I mean, sometimes, it would be nice to talk to you about things. I guess it's just that we don't know each other all that well yet. Maybe, in time we could, you know, talk more." He sighed and shook his head at his own foolishness. "Damn it, Murdoch. You're turning me into an idiot!"

Murdoch chuckled then, full out laughed. He stepped away and tried to control himself but, it wasn't working too well. He watched as Johnny's face turned a little red with anger and, maybe, embarrassment before his son suddenly burst out laughing, too.

******

Anthony stood beside the tree and watched his brother talking to Murdoch Lancer. It seemed pretty serious to him then all the sudden, the old man started laughin and, pretty soon, so was Johnny. He wondered what was so blamed funny, anyway. Johnny didn't look all that happy when he left the shack. Seemed like he didn't want to hear Scott sayin how talented Anthony was. He knew his brother couldn't be jealous of

******
him
******
but, he couldn't figure out what was goin on inside Johnny's head. Of course, that was nothin new. He never had been able to figure that out in his whole life.

It looked like they were settling down now. Just grinnin real stupid, if anyone was to ask him. He sighed and wondered if he should go over there; if they were done talkin about whatever the bother was. He heard footsteps and turned to find Scott practically on top of him.

"Spying?"

Anthony shrugged. "I was gonna talk to Johnny but, I think him and your old man have gone loco. They were talkin all serious then, they started laughin like fools."

Scott frowned about so much of what Anthony had just said. "Where did you learn to talk like that, Anthony? I mean, that accent and the way you say things?"

The boy frowned. "In the orphanage in Texas, that's how most of the kids talked. I was the only half-breed there. The rest were all white. I didn't know why that was but I think I figured it out."

Scott leaned against the tree and crossed his arms. "And what did you decide?"

"The only reason I got to be there at all was because of Johnny. I reckon he put the fear of God in those priests."

Scott bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing at the boy's choice of words. Finally, he simply said, "I see."

"Yeah, Johnny bein a famous gunfighter and all, I'll bet he made sure the priests and nuns treated me alright."

Scott saw no need to point out that Johnny hadn't been a 'famous gunfighter' when he'd first put Anthony in the orphanage. "So, you were treated well, there? As angry as you were with Johnny, I assumed part of the reason was because of the conditions at the orphanage."

Anthony sighed and leaned against the tree next to Scott. Resting his head on the bark, he looked up at the taller man. "There you go again."

Scott did laugh a little then. "I guess what I'm trying to say is I thought the orphanage was a bad place. That maybe that was the reason you were so mad at Johnny."

Lowering his eyes, Anthony nodded. "I can see where you'd think that. It wasn't so bad a place, I reckon. They treated me alright and they didn't let anybody pick on me because I'm a half-breed." Teeth grinding could be heard to his left and Anthony looked back up at Scott.

"I really hate that word, Anthony. By the way, didn't they teach you proper English in that place, or teach you anything at all?"

The boy smirked a little. "Well, I'll tell ya, they tried, I suppose. I mean, they did try but, I wasn't interested. I mean, all I could think about most of the time was how mad I was and how I hated bein there. I guess, maybe, if I didn't have no one, it woulda been an okay place to be."

Scott nodded, saddened that the boy had passed up an education because of an unjustified anger and resentment toward the only person in the world who loved him. There was no point in saying as much. Scott knew Anthony now understood why Johnny had left him. At least, he was fairly certain the boy did. Maybe, he should find out. "Are you still angry with him for leaving you?" Anthony shrugged and Scott began to see it as one of his little mannerisms he didn't necessarily share with Johnny.

"Truth? Yeah, I guess so. I get it now or, I'm tryin to. Still, when I see him happy and settled here, I don't know. Maybe, I'm jealous 'cause he has a real brother now and his old man ain't a bastard, after all."

Scott smiled at that. "You are his brother, too, Anthony. I have no problem accepting that. You and I have been getting along well, haven't we? So, I have to assume it is Johnny you have a problem with." He reached out and tugged at the boy's sleeve a little. "Settle it with him now. Don't let this fester all over again. It's best to say what's on your mind, don't you think?"

******

Anthony nodded then looked back toward where Johnny and Murdoch had been standing. They were now walking toward him, arms around each other, all happy and ... he felt a strange flutter in his chest then, he pressed his lips together and made himself stop. He could feel anger coming on, it was easily recognized and familiar and, he was getting sick of it.

Johnny slipped out of his father's hold and walked over to the boy, a smile on his face and that light in his eyes Anthony always knew meant he was about to get teased or something.

"Take a walk with me, kid. We have some things to talk about."

The boy looked past Johnny at Murdoch but couldn't tell what he might think about any of this. He said nothing and started walking toward the river until he felt Johnny's hand on his shoulder, guiding him away, toward the trees. Johnny's arm slid easily around the young man as they walked but, he said nothing. When they stepped into the small wooded area, he let go and leaned against a large oak's trunk.

Anthony meandered around for a moment before stopping and simply facing his brother.

"I figure you've got a real talent for this architecture stuff Scott was talking about."

"Ah, I don't know, Johnny. Seems kind of crazy to me. Goin off to school and all."

"What you need to do is decide what it is you want for your life, Ant. What do you want to do for a living?"

Anthony shrugged and bowed his head, not answering.

Letting out a soft sigh, Johnny crossed his arms over his chest. "Do you even know?"

"I like drawing stuff. I ain't never really done nothin before. How am I supposed to know if I'd like it or not?"

Johnny pursed his lips as he considered that sensible question. "I'll tell ya what. When we get home tomorrow, Scott will start looking into this school business. In the meantime, I want you to work with me every day until we hear something about school. If, at the end of that time, you decide you like ranching more than drawing, then you stay here. But," he paused and pushed off the tree, standing toe to toe with the boy, "if you still like drawing more than ranching, you go to school. And, Anthony, you have to be completely honest about what you want. This is your whole life we're talking about here."

Anthony felt his heart start beating faster and sweat popped out on his forehead. He felt a little dizzy and couldn't understand what was happening. All he knew for sure was what he blurted out. "I don't want you sendin me away again!"

******

Johnny watched as the boy went pale and started sweating. Concerned, he reached out as Anthony spoke then grabbed the boy and pulled him into a hug. He rubbed Anthony's back slowly up and down as he spoke softly. "I'm not sending you away. I'm giving you a choice and a chance. Nothing has to be decided right this second. I won't ever make you go away, Anthony. I swear it on my mother's grave."

The boy pulled back and walked away a few paces. Keeping his back to Johnny, he mumbled, "promise?"

"I said so, didn't I? You will always have a home at Lancer as long as I do." Johnny watched the kid's shoulders sag a little and he felt as miserable as he ever had. How could he tell this young man he didn't want him to leave? He couldn't because, if he did, Anthony would stay whether it was truly what he wanted or not. "You know I love this ranch. I love working it and protecting it and being with my family - all of my family. But, sometimes, people don't want the same things out of life. Sometimes, there's a different calling they have to listen to. I guess if everyone stayed put, we'd still be in Mexico, huh?

"The thing is, I wouldn't trade Lancer for anything. But, that's me. That's what I want. Might not be for you. And that's okay, too. But, no matter what happens, if you do go to school, we're still a family, Anthony. Nothing can ever change that. I love you, kid."

Anthony turned back and grabbed Johnny, clinging to him like a lifeline. They stayed that way a long time until the boy was able to pull himself together. He stepped back and sniffled, his head down. "I don't know what to do. I reckon workin with you until we hear somethin is the best plan. It's just ..."

"What?" Johnny took hold of his chin and forced his head up. "It's just what?"

"I'm not really smart, Johnny. What if I can't even get into that school or, I get there and they toss me out?"

Johnny's lips quivered as he let go of the boy then, he broke out in a grin. "Don't pull that shit with me, kid. I know you're puttin on an act a lot of the time. Yeah, you could talk better and I know you know how to but, you don't because you want everyone to think you're just some poor orphan."

Anthony's eyes widened as he stared at his brother, his jaw slack.

"Did you forget who taught you, boy? I also remember how you latched onto everything. If you were told it or showed it once, you knew it. You were reading, and well, at five years old! Don't stand there and tell me you ain't smart. Maybe you should've paid more attention in school but, I'm betting some of it sunk in. Now, tell me I'm wrong."

The boy dropped his head for a second. When he lifted it again, there was a mischievous smile on his face and his green eyes were alight with humor.

Johnny laughed and grabbed him by the nape of the neck, pushing him toward the shack.

Suddenly, Anthony stopped and pulled back.

Johnny turned back, nearly losing his breath at the look on the boy's face. He wasn't sure what to call that look. Definitely, there was pain there and, something else. "What is it?"

Anthony blinked twice then swallowed hard. "I never said. I ..." He dropped his head and rubbed his eyes before looking back at Johnny. "I'm sorry."

Cocking his head to one side, Johnny looked quizzically at the boy then, it struck him. He'd been waiting, hoping for this but, he still had to hear it. "Sorry for what?"

Anthony's shoulders sagged. His throat was nearly closed and he wasn't sure he could speak. When he did, it was but a whisper. "I'm sorry I shot you. I'm so sorry, Johnny."

Johnny closed his eyes briefly and sighed then, smiled at the boy and wrapped an arm around him. "Thank you, Anthony." When Anthony leaned into him more, Johnny quickly laid his cheek on the boy's head before straightening and giving him a little shake. "Come on, let's get back before they send a posse for us."

******

At some point during their quick breakfast, Murdoch had started counting. He decided Johnny still had six of nine lives left. In the short time the boy had been home, he'd been shot three times. Twice within a few weeks. He refused to count anything prior to that because then, he'd really be worried. These silly thoughts at least kept him from thinking about what his son was going through with Anthony. It was painful, he'd only admit to himself, to watch his boy struggling. Mostly, because he was struggling himself. How did one 'father' grown men? Should he even try? Johnny hadn't even been sure about it. If his son didn't know if he wanted a father, how the hell was Murdoch supposed to know?

Patience. The word leapt into his mind unbidden. But, it felt right. Patience and maybe, some good timing along with a lot of luck might just get him through these difficult first months. He almost snorted. Months? Try years, probably. Well, he didn't have anything better to do. There wasn't anything better, to his mind. He had his sons and he was so very grateful for that. All he had to do now was figure them out. He did snort at that thought.

"Something on your mind, Sir?" Scott had been watching the expressions fly across his father's face the past couple of minutes and was very curious.

Murdoch gave him a wan smile before his face went blank. "Always, son, always. Where is your brother? We need to get going."

Back to the gruff rancher, Scott thought with a grin as he turned toward the barn. "He's coming now."

Murdoch grunted and stepped off the small porch to his horse. Mounting up, he turned the big animal and walked it over to the wagon. "Was there a problem?"

Johnny looked over at him with a flat expression. He wanted to laugh at the old man's grouchiness but he simply shrugged. "Should there be?"

Murdoch pressed his lips together and said nothing more, taking the lead as they headed, finally, home.

Anthony watched the man then turned curious eyes to his brother. "What's got him so happy?"

A grin broke out on Johnny's face. "Well, I'll tell ya, kid. That's just his normal self. Get used to it because he's not going to be changing any time soon."

Anthony settled into the seat and crossed one leg over the other knee. "Don't he get tired bein so grumpy all the time?"

"I don't know. Why don't you ask him?"


"Hell, no! I don't wanna get smacked!"

Johnny flicked his arm, stinging the boy with a quick slap to the chest. He ignored Anthony's protesting 'ow' and simply said, "watch your mouth, boy."

Scott, riding behind them, smiled and shook his head. His vivid imagination could conjure a similar picture only, it was him in Johnny's seat and Johnny in Anthony's. Growing up on the ranch, arguing and teasing each other all the time. That would have been heaven to him. And, he would have known his younger brother inside and out in that case. Johnny had been right about that. Scott didn't know a goddammed thing about his brother and he hated it.

Usually a patient man, he found it difficult to find that particular virtue when dealing with Johnny. He wanted to know everything about his brother's life. But, he also knew he was being unreasonable because, there were things he never wanted to talk about, either. Still, Johnny never wanted to talk about

******
anything
******
and that wasn't going to get them very far. One of these days, they were going to have to sit down and have a real discussion. Not these fly by the way chats which were all they managed now. Scott blinked and realized Anthony had turned in his seat and was staring at him.

******

He stared back for a beat then, when Anthony offered no conversation, Scott made a face at him. The boy smiled and, Scott suddenly realized he was a handsome kid. Great! One more thing to worry about. Girls. He wondered if Anthony had any experience in that arena. Maybe, he should mention it to Johnny. See what his brother could find out. It certainly wasn't a topic Scott had any intention of entertaining with this young man. Finally, the boy opened his mouth.

"You never said where those schools were."

Scott saw Johnny's shoulders tense slightly and he dipped his eyes briefly. "I'm not really sure, Anthony. Out here, that is. I'm sure San Francisco has something available. If you really want, I can check into it for you."

The boy nodded his head even as his eyes slid to the side. "Yeah, it can't hurt to check, right?"

"No, it can't hurt. It's always a good idea to explore all the options available to you." Scott saw a grin come to the boy's face as he poked Johnny in the ribs. Johnny shoved back gently but, Scott could tell his brother was smiling. "What now?"

"Scott, if I do go to this school, will I start talkin funny, too?" He barely got the words out before he fell into a fit of laughter.

Scowling at him then, realizing Johnny was laughing as hard, Scott pressed Remmie to move alongside the wagon. "It would do you no harm, young man. Just like that woodshed I intent to build - tomorrow - will do you no harm." With that, Scott moved ahead to join his father.

******

As he came alongside Murdoch, Scott glanced over, the scowl still on his face as he muttered, "kids!"

Murdoch's lips twitched. "Which one?"

"Both of them!" Scott exclaimed then, laughed.

Murdoch chuckled as well, then glanced behind him before speaking softly. "It's going to be hard on Johnny if Anthony decides to go to school."

Scott's humor vanished and he sighed. "I know, Sir, but if it's what the boy wants..."

"Johnny understands that. It doesn't make things any easier. He wants what's best for the boy. He was just hoping the best would be Lancer."

Giving his father a sidelong look, Scott ventured into unknown territory. "May I ask what you think of all this? I mean, Anthony even existing and coming here?"

Murdoch stared straight ahead for a long moment. "I hold no ill feelings for the boy. He needs a home, he needs Johnny. I have to say I am proud of that young man for accepting the responsibility for a child then and now. As for his living at Lancer, no, I have no problem with that, either."

Scott nodded and, somehow, he knew that would be his father's answer. It seemed he was doing a better job of getting to know Murdoch than Johnny. While he was pleased about the progress with his father, Johnny was still a sore spot. Patience, Scott, he reminded himself; patience.

******

"I didn't know we were so close to the house," Anthony said as they drove under the arch a few hours later.

"Yep. Don't know why Murdoch insisted on staying another night. I would've been happier sleeping in my own bed."

Anthony looked over at his brother. "Reckon any bed is better than what we used to have."

Johnny nodded as he pulled the team to a halt. He set the brake and turned to look fully at his brother. "That it is, kid. What's on your mind?"

A smile flew across the boy's face, replaced quickly with a frown. "I've been thinkin about this school business. I mean, I ain't so sure it's a good idea after all. Don't know what kind of work I'd be able to get in the city to pay for it. All I know how to do is fix-it stuff."

Johnny laid his arm across the back of the bench and considered the boy. He was dead serious and Johnny wanted to laugh but, that wouldn't be fair to Ant. "Well, I'll tell ya what I'll do. If you decide you want to go to this school, I'll pay for it. You can always pay me back by coming here in the summer and working it off."

"Ain't that a lot of money?"

Johnny shrugged. "How much can it cost to teach you something you already know? Don't worry about it, hermano. It'll all work out."

Anthony looked hard at him for a long beat. "It's been a long time since you called me that."

Johnny's eyes softened and he smiled a little. "I know. How long has it been since you've spoken any real Spanish, Anthony?"

The boy shrugged. "A good while."

"Well, you need to get back into practice. You can hang out with the vaqueros and you'll be back to it in no time."

Anthony turned and climbed off the wagon then, waited for Johnny to do the same and walk around to him. "What for?"

"Because, it's important. You're half Mexican and that's nothin to be ashamed of, kid. It honors your father."

The boy's head bowed and he nodded. "Didn't think about it like that. You're right. Papa would want me to honor our heritage."

Johnny smiled and wrapped an arm around Anthony's shoulders. "Come on. Murdoch's over there scowling at me. He probably wants me to take a nap or something." As they walked, Johnny pulled the boy to him briefly. "There's another reason to speak Spanish. Maria really likes it and, when she's happy, she cooks Mexican food."

******

Murdoch stared at the letter in his hand for a while. He'd forgotten about the missive to the orphanage but, he was curious as to it's contents. Still, it wasn't his to read. Of course, Johnny would share what was written there but, he knew he'd have to wait for his son to do so. A small part of him argued that this had to do with the ranch, really. Then, he chuckled to himself.

"What's funny?"

He looked up to find his younger son standing by the sofa watching him. He extended his arm, letter in hand. "This is for you. From the orphanage."

Johnny frowned then remembered. He walked over and grabbed the letter, sat in front of the desk and ripped it open. A smile was on his lips as he read then, it turned to a frown. With a sigh, he dropped his hand to his lap and looked at his father. "Says he's very intelligent but he doesn't try. Then, it talks about him acting out, getting into trouble. Nothing surprising."

"He's doing much better now, though."

"Yeah, I hope so," Johnny muttered. He looked at his father and smiled a little. "I told him I'd pay for school. How much do you think that would run?"

"I really don't know, son, but, I'll be glad to help, too."

Johnny stood up and shook his head. "No, this isn't your responsibility. You've already done more than most would."

"Johnny, I don't think of it as my responsibility. Call it my contribution to furthering a young man's education." He paused then leaned forward in his chair as he clasped his hands atop the surface. "I'd be more than happy to do that for you, too. If you wanted."

He stared at the man like he was crazy, his own mouth hanging open, simply stunned. He heard the front door close and turned to find Scott walking in.

Scott took one look at his brother's face and slowed his progress. More cautiously, he approached the desk. "Is something wrong?"

Murdoch knew he'd stuck his foot in his mouth but how could he not at least broach the subject? "We were talking about Anthony's schooling and the cost. I offered to help out."

Scott smiled, wondering why Johnny seemed struck dumb all the sudden. "I'd be glad to contribute, too." He turned to his brother. "Why is that such a shock to you?"

"It's not. That's not ..." he shook his head and turned to his father then sucked in a breath. "No, thank you." It was all he could say and he turned on his heel, walking quickly out of the house.

Murdoch sighed and shook his head as he studied his hands. When he looked back up, Scott was staring at him. "I offered to pay for Johnny to go to school."

Scott made an ahh sound then sat down. "I can see how that would make him speechless."

"I hope he didn't think I was implying he was ignorant."

Scott raised a brow at that. Johnny could very well think that. Sometimes, he found his brother was a little insecure about certain things. Other times, he was way too cock sure. "Would you like me to talk to him? Feel him out?"

Murdoch relaxed his shoulders. "I'd appreciate that, son. I wasn't ... I just wanted him to know I'd do that for him - if he wanted."

Scott smiled as he stood. "I'll try to explain it to him." Better than you just did, he thought.

******

Scott found his brother sitting on the low wall of the veranda, shoulders hunched and head down. He sighed lightly and walked around to stand facing the younger man and waited for Johnny to look up. When he didn't, Scott got a little impatient. "You know, if he'd never offered you more education, you probably would've been upset about that, too."

The dark head came up and Johnny looked blankly at his brother for a beat. "No, I wouldn't."

Raising a brow, Scott sat beside him. "Are you so sure about that?"

"I'm sure. I didn't think I needed anymore learning. Figured I did alright."

"You do fine, brother but, we can all benefit from more education."

A sigh escaped as he pushed himself to his feet. Johnny turned to his brother, his expression still missing. "Then, you go, Scott. Go back to school if you want. I'm not stupid, you know. Maybe I didn't get much schoolin. Maybe, I can't do more than add and subtract but, I can read and that's more than a lot of people I know. I get along fine."

"No one is disputing that, Johnny. Murdoch just wanted to give you the opportunity if you wanted it. He never meant for you to feel stupid or that you weren't good enough."

Cocking his head to one side, he shrugged. "He didn't. I knew how he meant it. I just wasn't expecting it, is all."

Scott got to his feet and rolled his eyes. "Then, why are you sitting out here looking like your feelings are hurt?"

"What?" Johnny looked at his brother with surprise. "I was just sitting there thinking. I wasn't ..." he stopped, eyes widening. "Does he think he hurt my feelings?"

Scott noticed the slight sarcastic hint to that last sentence. "He thinks you're upset, yes."

Johnny snorted and shook his head.

"Well, if you aren't, then what was all that about being able to read?"

Shrugging, he said, "I thought you think I need to go back. I mean, I thought you were tryin to talk me into it."

"No, I was just ..." Scott stopped and smiled then, shook his head. "Maybe we should start over here. Are you okay?"

Johnny grinned. "I'm fine, Boston."

"Then, maybe you should let him know that."

The grin left and Johnny nodded. "You know somethin? This family stuff is damned hard."

Scott smiled and put a hand on his shoulder. "And it isn't even supper time yet."

******

As they sat down to the evening meal, Johnny watched Anthony who was seated beside Scott across the table from him. He knew he needed to talk to the boy about the letter but, he didn't want to ruin the meal, either. It was bad enough that he felt his father's eyes on him. He hadn't gotten the chance to tell Murdoch he wasn't upset about the offer of more schooling. In fact, it had made him feel good that his old man would even think to make that offer. He knew Murdoch didn't think he was stupid. How he knew that, he wasn't really sure of but, he wasn't going to think it to death. He turned his head and looked directly at the old man then smiled.

Murdoch's shoulders relaxed as he returned his son's smile. Sometimes, he wondered where his mind was when he spoke out like that. It didn't happen often but, he hated it. He never liked being out of control but, he'd found people sometimes just blurt things out without thinking. He'd noticed that trait in this son in the past few months they'd been together. Well, at least he takes something after me, he thought.

Relieved his father seemed alright, Johnny took a drink of water before speaking to his brother. "Usted resto mano?"

Anthony looked over at his brother and nodded. When he received a glare, he replied verbally. "Si, muy bien, gracias."

"Usted hablo espanol a Maria?"

"Si, un poco."

Johnny nodded. "Bien. Habla con los vaqueros manana."

Anthony nodded then ducked his head. He'd been surprised and embarrassed when he'd talked to Maria earlier. It had taken him a minute to understand what she was saying. He hadn't realized how long it had been since he'd spoken his native tongue and, he had to admit, Johnny was right. He needed to practice. It was obvious that, even living here with these gringos, his brother hadn't lost his own ability. Still, Johnny had only been here a few months. He'd been at that orphanage, the only Mexican there, for years. At first, he had refused to speak English but, that didn't last long. If they couldn't understand him, they couldn't know what he wanted. It had always bothered him that Johnny had stuck him there. Why couldn't he leave him in Mexico? The anger started to resurface and he made himself think of something else.

Scott listened to their conversation and caught enough of what little was said to get the gist of it. He surmised Anthony hadn't been speaking Spanish for a while and Johnny wasn't very happy about it. He thought it was a good idea for the boy to get back into practice although, he wouldn't be able to speak Spanish at school. "I'll be sending off those enquiries about schools tomorrow, Anthony."

"Okay. I still ain't sure if I want to go, though."

"Well, it's hard to make a decision without all the information. Once we find out your options, you can think long and hard about it."

The boy shrugged. "Seems like they wouldn't just let me in on your say so. I mean, don'tcha have to be pretty smart to get into a place like that?"

Johnny saw his opening and quickly decided. "Seems like you're smart enough, hermano. I got that letter from the orphanage today. They said you were very intelligent but that you didn't try. Said you were too mad all the time."

"No kiddin? Wonder why that was?" Anthony shot. "Seems to me, if you wanted me to speak Spanish, you woulda left me in Mexico."

Johnny stared at him for a beat. "Where, exactly, in Mexico should I have left you? The orphanages there were more like prisons. Would you rather work dawn to dusk or learn somethin useful?"

Anthony slammed his fork on the table. "I would rather have been with you! But, that was just too much of a bother, I reckon."

Johnny sat back in his chair and sighed. "I thought we were through with all that."

"You thought wrong," he replied icily.

Murdoch listened to them both and knew this was about to get ugly. "Boys, I think cooler heads should prevail here. You both need to settle down before something gets said that you'll regret. You can discuss this later."

"Nothin to discuss," Anthony spat and stood up, scraping his chair noisily across the floor before storming out.

Johnny stared after him then felt a hand on his arm. He turned to his father.

"Let him cool off, son."

"No, I don't think so." Pushing his own chair back less violently, Johnny stood and followed after the boy.

******

Anthony paced the yard, arms folded tightly across his chest. He kicked a few stones, sending them skittering across the dirt.

Johnny wasted no time as he approached the young man with purpose. He positioned himself so that Anthony would either have to stop his pacing or run right into him. The boy did stop, looked at him then, turned to leave. Johnny grabbed his arm and jerked him back around. "How much longer is this gonna go on? If you don't let go of this anger, it's going to kill you, Ant."

Jerking free of the hold, Anthony backed away a little. "What do you know about it? You weren't there. You were never there!"

"That's not true and you know it! Look, I did the best I could for you. I'm not going to keep apologizing for saving your hide. And, I know a lot about anger, kid. I spent most of my life angry and you know it! So, don't tell me I don't know what it's like. Believe me, you had the easier part."

Anthony glared at him, his eyes darkening to a deeper emerald. "Easier? You think it was easier living with strangers? Havin to live by their rules, their customs? You want me to speak Spanish, you shoulda left me at home!"

"You didn't have a home! What you did have was a chance. A chance to learn, to have friends, to live! But, you threw it away because you were havin a temper fit for six years! Well, it's time for you to grow up, boy. It's time you knew what real life is all about. Because all this stompin off mad ain't gonna cut it around here or anywhere else!" Johnny took in a breath and tried to calm himself down. He knew he was very close to losing all reason and that could lead to nothing good. He turned his back and walked away a few paces, pulling himself together and calling on his reserves. After a moment, he turned back to find Anthony watching him.

"I spent those six years in hell. I spent all my time learning to use a gun and getting a reputation. All it ever got me was a whole lot of nothing. You don't know what it's like to kill a man but you came real close. Believe me, if I had died in that hotel, it would have been the end of you." He walked closer to the boy. "You may not think so because you never had to feel it. Well, I've felt it, Anthony. I've felt it more times than I want to think about. But, it doesn't ever go away. Not really. Oh, you go on and try to live but, it's always there. It haunts you every day and night of your life. If your lucky, real lucky, you learn something from it.

"Remember, I know you better than anyone and you haven't changed down deep inside. I know you're still able to feel something besides hate. I know you can still feel joy and love because I've seen it. But, if you don't find a way to get rid of all this anger, you won't ever really be able to feel the rest. And what kind of life do you think you'd have? You're eighteen years old. Eighteen! You ain't even started livin yet." He stopped and put a hand on each shoulder, squeezing gently. "Let it go, hermano. Let it go."

Anthony stared at him, his eyes beginning to glisten as he shook his head. Softly, almost whispered, he said, "I don't know how."

Johnny dropped his head for a second then looked back up. "You have to forgive me and yourself and, most of all, you have to forgive your papa and my mother. It's not an easy thing to do, forgiving. I know I'm still having a hard time with it, too. But, we have to, Ant. We can't ever be really happy unless we do."

A puzzled expression came to Anthony's face. "Forgive them for what?"

"For dying and leaving us alone. You're mad at them for that. It doesn't have to make sense, kid. It just is."

"But, you have more to forgive, right?"

Johnny let his hands slide off Anthony's shoulders. He turned aside and stared into the growing dusk. He didn't trust himself to speak for a long time. Finally, he said, "I guess so." Sucking in a breath, he turned back and painted a smile on his face. "Think you can do that?"

"I thought I had but, then I think of somethin or, you say somethin and I get mad all over again. I ain't tryin to hate you, Johnny." He lowered his head. "I don't reckon I do hate you but, the mad just won't go away." Looking back up at his brother, he sighed. "I ain't so sure I can stay here." With that, he turned and walked back to the house.

******

Johnny walked over to the corral and leaned against the fence, dropping his head and closing his eyes. No one could get to him more than that boy. It had always been that way. As kids, when Anthony was hurt, Johnny would cry right along with him. If he got into trouble with their parents, Johnny would take the same punishment even if it hadn't been meted out to him. Of course, Antonio would never spank him for Anthony's mistakes but, Johnny wouldn't go outside to play if Ant wasn't allowed. He wouldn't have a dessert if his brother couldn't have any. If extra chores were given Ant, Johnny would help him with it.

He smiled a little. Of course, being younger and more selfish, Anthony never reciprocated when Johnny was the one in hot water. He'd go right along with his day while Johnny wasn't allowed. That is, until he got a little older. It seemed it was right before Antonio died when Anthony started standing at his brother's side. Once his stepfather passed away, his mother didn't dole out much punishment. Johnny knew she was grieving and, probably would come out of it in a year or so but, that never happened because she died, too.

He raised his head and looked out over the land. He felt some of his own anger toward his mother. If she'd only told him the truth ... a heavy sigh escaped his lips. He could have come home, brought Anthony along, taken the chance his father would accept them both, if only he'd known the truth. Of course, now he did know Murdoch would have taken the boy in, as well. If only, if only.

He shook his head and stood up straight then, grabbed the top rail and leaned back, swinging himself to and fro slightly. If only. If only Scott hadn't been taken away. He would've come home to a father and a brother. Boy, that would've been something. He smiled a little as he thought of how that would have worked out. Scott and Ant and him, all living together, almost growing up together. It was a nice idea. A nice dream.

He let go of the rail and wandered around the grounds. Johnny Madrid stopped dreaming a long time ago. When had he started again? Easy. Once he accepted his father was not the devil's right hand man. Once he accepted that his mother had lied to him. That one was still hard to deal with but, he did accept it as the truth. And, once he'd spent a little time Murdoch after the raids, that's when he'd known for sure. Murdoch Lancer wasn't the type of man to throw his son away. He had, in fact, been looking for a long time for his kid. His timing couldn't have been any better either.

He stopped walking and looked out over the land again, then closed his eyes as the memories of that firing squad assailed him. It was one of the worst days of his life and he'd been sure it was to be the last. His thoughts that day were on so many things but, mainly, on Anthony. What would become of him was his biggest worry and, his biggest fear. Johnny crossed his arms and held himself as physical pain assaulted him with the thoughts.

******

Murdoch stood in the shadows of the veranda and watched his son. He'd come out just as Anthony had walked off. He didn't look angry anymore but, the boy was certainly upset. Then, Johnny had gone to the corral - a favorite place it seemed. He wondered what his son was thinking. He wondered what he'd said to Anthony, too. Then, Johnny walked away, seemingly with no destination in mind. It was when he stopped and wrapped his arms around himself that Murdoch stepped off the veranda and walked toward him. Completely unsure of what he could say to help or, if he even could help, he closed in on Johnny hesitantly. Would he even welcome an offer of assistance?

He stood behind his son, knowing Johnny knew he was there yet, he said nothing. Didn't know what to say and maybe, he didn't need to.

Johnny heard someone walk up behind him, unsure at first who it was until he smelled pipe tobacco. A small smile crossed his face before he turned around. He had an almost overwhelming desire to hug his father and he was pretty sure he was going loco with that idea. He stood there, having no words.

Finally, Murdoch figured easy was best. "Are you alright?"

He lowered his head and shook it. "No, not really. I don't know what else to say to him. He's trying but, he said he can't stop being mad at me."

Murdoch inhaled deeply and looked past his son. "What did you say to him?"

Johnny glanced up then shrugged. "That he had to forgive me and my mother and his father. And he had to forgive himself. He said he didn't know how."

Murdoch's lips twitched and he nodded. "It's the hardest thing - to forgive. I'm not sure any of us really know how. We just let go of whatever is bothering us. I suppose that is forgiveness."

"Have you?" When Murdoch looked at him and shook his head, Johnny went on. "Have you forgiven her?" He watched his father's shoulders go up and wished he hadn't asked.

"I don't know, Johnny. It's all newer now that you're home. Fresh again, I guess."

"Have you forgiven me?"

Murdoch looked sharply at him. "Forgiven you for what?"

Johnny looked into his eyes as he answered. "Madrid."

Murdoch's eyes softened and his shoulders relaxed. "I never

******
blamed
******
you for that, son. I understand or, I think I understand why. It doesn't matter, you know."

Surprised wasn't the word for it. Johnny was speechless for a moment. "I ... I always got the feeling that maybe ... that you weren't real happy about that."

A smile came to the older man's face. "I'm not happy about it, son. I do understand it, though. No, Johnny. No, there's nothing for me to forgive you for."

Sighing out through his nose, Johnny let his shoulders relax. "Maybe, Anthony can get to that understanding, too."

Murdoch saw hope in his son's eyes along with pain. He didn't like seeing the pain but, it wasn't the first time it had been there. In the few months Johnny had been home, he'd seen way more hurt in his son than he ever wanted to. But, he knew Johnny needed to be practical, as well. "And if he never gets to that point?"

The hope died in the younger man's eyes, replaced with a deeper pain. "Then, I've lost him forever. I'm not so sure I can deal with that."

"I don't believe that. It will hurt, probably more than anything else has in your life. But, I believe you can live with it, son. It's amazing what we can endure."

Johnny looked closely at his father, saw the man's own demons in his eyes and knew Murdoch had had enough loss and heartache to last ten lifetimes. He nodded and turned back toward the house. "Well, time will tell, I reckon. Thanks, by the way, for being so understanding."

Murdoch laid a hand on his shoulder. "You're welcome, son."

******

Scott stood by the French doors and watched as Murdoch and Johnny talked. He'd seen Anthony come back in a while ago and, the boy looked miserable. Well, at least he wasn't angry anymore. Scott wasn't sure anger wasn't a better emotion than what he thought he saw on the boy's face, though. He couldn't see his brother's face but, he could see his posture and it was telling. In this short time, Scott had watched Johnny's movements. He could tell when the man was upset, angry or hurt a lot of the time simply by the way Johnny held himself.

Then again, sometimes, he was wrong about that. Like earlier today when he'd thought Johnny was upset about Murdoch's offer to further his education. Well, he was getting very tired of his brother being tormented over a decision made years ago. The right decision, in Scott's opinion. He thought Anthony was doing better, had come to understand Johnny's actions but, apparently, he'd been wrong about that, as well.

He turned away from the door and headed up the stairs, intent on seeing if he could get a handle on this kid. They'd been getting along much better lately so, maybe, an 'outsider' perspective is what Anthony needed. As he approached the boy's bedroom door, he hesitated. Part of him wondered if Johnny would resent him for trying to help. Quickly enough, a much bigger part decided he'd take that chance if it meant his brother could heal. He rapped sharply on the door.

Scott waited a moment without an answer to his knock so, he opened the door to find Anthony sitting by the window. "Anthony?"

"I don't want to talk to anyone."

Leaving the door ajar, Scott walked over and leaned against the wall beside him, crossing his arms over his chest. "I don't want my brother tormented anymore, either. Looks like one of us isn't going to get what he wants."

Anthony dropped his head into his hands and scrubbed at his face. "I'm not tryin to torment him. I don't want to feel like this, Scott. I just don't know how to make it stop!"

Scott felt a lump in his throat and he swallowed hard as he eased into the chair opposite the boy. He leaned forward and put a hand on Anthony's knee. "Can you tell me?"

Shaking his head, the boy replied. "I don't know. Sometimes, I get so damned mad. It's like I can't stop it from happenin. I just want to ..."

Scott tensed. "Kill him?"

Slowly, the boy looked up, tears in his eyes. "No, not him," he whispered.

Scott just stared at him for a long moment, unsure what to say to that. "What makes you so angry? That he left you? Tell me, Anthony. Was the orphanage that bad? Did they mistreat you? Did they hurt you?"

A tear rolled down the boy's cheek as he shook his head. "They ignored me most of the time."

Closing his eyes for a moment, Scott let out a soft breath. "You miss the love you felt with your family. You miss that connection. But, you can have that now, Anthony. You can have all of that with Johnny now."

"I know!" He stood up suddenly and moved across the room, near the door. "I know I can but I'm afraid! What if he doesn't like me anymore? What if I disappoint him? What if he sends me away again?"

******

Johnny had his hand on the door knob, about to push it open when he heard his brother's anguished questions. He stepped inside quickly and came up behind the boy. "I will never send you away again unless that's what you want."

Anthony turned quickly, eyes wide with surprise. He opened his mouth but, nothing came out.

Johnny took hold of his face, a hand on each side. "Do you hear me? It's like I told you before, I will

******
never
******
send you away again. If Murdoch told me right now he didn't want you here, we'd both leave. I'd walk away from all of this to keep you with me."

Scott stood up slowly, disbelieving his own ears.

Anthony shook his head. "No," he breathed.

"Yes! I would. Don't you get it? I love you, Ant. I've missed you every day since I left you in that place. I hated myself for a long time but, even with all that, I knew I didn't have any choice then. I didn't want you to hate me but, at least you were alive to feel that hate. You need to get that through your head. You need ..." he faltered, his voice cracking with emotion. Johnny swallowed hard and let go of the boy, turning his back.

Anthony stared at him for a long time, watching his shoulders shake until they stopped. He reached out and touched Johnny's back, saw his head come up. "I need you, hermano. That's what I need."

Johnny turned back around and took the boy in his arms, holding him tightly. "I need you, too. I always have. I never would've made it if not for you, Ant. I never would've cared enough to keep myself alive if I didn't have you to think about. You were my saving grace. Don't you know that?"

Scott turned away from them, staring out the window and trying to clear his mind. He knew he shouldn't be here with them but, there was no easy way to leave the room. Besides which, he was dealing with some very strange feelings he was having trouble identifying at the moment.

"I wouldn't let you leave here, Johnny. This is your home, your family. It ain't right for you to stay away. You were kept away too long, already."

Johnny smiled then pulled away, still holding onto the boy's arms. "I know that. The only reason you would ever leave here is if you wanted to go to that school or do something different. It would be hard but, at least I'd know it's what's best for you. That's all I ever wanted, kid."

Anthony looked in his eyes and smiled. "I still don't know about that but, I understand what you were sayin before about forgiving. I'm gonna try really hard."

Johnny tapped him lightly on the cheek. "How about trying really hard to get some sleep?"

A small laugh came from the boy as he nodded.

Johnny looked past him to Scott. He'd forgotten his brother was there and he knew Scott was probably not real happy with the things he'd said to Anthony. Hell! When was this ever going to get easy? He looked back at Ant and smiled then walked over to Scott. "Hey, you ready for a drink?"

Scott tensed a little then nodded sharply and left the room quickly.

"Is he alright?"

Johnny sighed. "Hell if I know, kid. Get some rest. I'll see you in the morning." As he reached the door, Anthony spoke out.

"Tell him the truth, hermano. That you only said that about leavin here with me to make me understand."

He turned back and gave the boy a dubious look. "I think that orphanage was right. You are pretty smart."

******

Johnny walked into the great room and scanned it quickly. No Murdoch. He didn't know if that was good or bad. Scott was at the sideboard emptying a glass of whiskey down his throat. He walked over and stood beside his brother, pouring himself a tequila then, lifting the whiskey decanter and filling Scott's glass again. He took a long drink of the liquid fire before speaking. "I don't think I ever want to be a father."

Scott said nothing as he sipped the second drink more slowly.

"Seems to me, parents have to do some lying to get through to their kids. Then again, sometimes, they just plain lie for no good reason." Damn! he thought. Here I go again.

Scott turned and looked at his profile. "Are you saying you didn't mean it when you told Anthony you'd leave here with him?"

Johnny turned to face him. "You really think I wouldn't lock that kid in his room rather than hit that trail again? Maybe it was wrong but, I just needed him to understand how important he is to me. I'm sorry, Scott. I didn't think."

Scott lowered his head for a moment and bit his lip, sucking in his cheeks to keep from smiling. This was too serious and, if Johnny felt he needed to apologize, Scott wasn't going to let him know he never had believed it. His brother had enough to deal with. He said nothing, wasn't sure if he should.

Johnny blew out a breath and set his glass down before pacing the room. "This is hard. It's been so long since I was part of a real family. I thought what I had back then was pretty good, ya know? Then, I come here and find out my mother lied to me all those years. I can't seem to wrap my mind around that one. Then, there's you and Murdoch and, now Ant. Guess I forgot what it was like. Seems to be a real fine line you have to walk sometimes."

"There are expectations, I suppose. None of us really know each other yet and that's a whole other problem. Still, we do expect things of one another."

Johnny looked over at him. "Like sticking around."

Scott smiled a little. "Yes, like sticking around and sticking up for each other, too. You've been doing that with Anthony the whole time. Maybe, I've been looking at this the wrong way. Maybe, I should be watching the two of you. I really don't know how to be a brother, you know. I didn't think you did, either. Maybe, that bothered me more than I realized."

"I guess I should've told you sooner. There's just been so much going on around here."

Scott walked over to stand nearer to him. "Is it too much, brother?"

A smile flew across Johnny's face. "Is there such a thing as too much of a good thing? I don't know. All I know for sure is that this is wearing me out."

Scott laughed a little at that then he grew solemn. "I think what he really needs is love. It's that simple. What you said to him tonight; I think that really helped him start to heal."

"I sure hope so," Johnny sighed out. "Are we okay?"

Scott tapped him in the gut. "We're fine, brother."

******

For the next month, Anthony settled in and worked alongside Johnny and Scott. He wasn't the best cowboy in the world but, he wasn't the worst, either. He was speaking Spanish constantly while out on the range and, had started helping Scott learn the language. Johnny wasn't too happy about that. He was hoping to teach his older brother in his own special way. Anthony was taking all the fun out of it.

The hands had accepted the boy after a wary week or so following his spectacularly unimpressive week with the crew at the line shacks. Anthony made a special effort to get along with Frank Jackson after giving the man such a hard time.

Johnny had noticed a few things happening to his little brother. He was filling out, no longer the skinny boy he'd been all his life and, he was starting to speak better; more like Scott. He knew the kid was smarter than he let on. The only real problem Johnny had noticed was the fact that Anthony still didn't seem comfortable in Murdoch's presence. He wasn't sure that would ever change. He didn't think Ant still had a problem with his father but, the boy was sure intimidated. Johnny understood that all too well. Murdoch was intimidating to him and that was a rare occurrence. There weren't many men he'd met in his life - in fact, precious few - who could garner his respect like his father had. None had ever made him feel like he was a kid himself aside from his old man.

But, the most important change in Anthony that Johnny had noticed was the boy's attitude toward him. There'd been a few angry moments but, in the past couple of weeks, nothing out of the way had happened. He felt like he was finally able to relax and enjoy his brother's company now.

As the three young men rode in this evening, Anthony started Scott's Spanish lesson. Only, this time, he decided to share some more colorful words and phrases. Johnny had been deep in thought and paying no attention until he heard Scott repeating the words before knowing what they meant. His head came up and his eyes narrowed as he glared at Anthony.

The boy ignored him, pretended he didn't see the murderous glare and continued as if he were telling Scott how to say 'hello'.

"Scott," Johnny said through gritted teeth.

Annoyed the older man turned to him. "What is it, Johnny? I've almost got this one."

"Yeah, I know you do. Care to know what exactly it is you're saying?"

Scott reined to a halt and looked over at Anthony then, back at Johnny. "I'm afraid to ask."

"Well, you just said something real unkind about somebody's mother and her, um, choice of partners."

Scott's mouth fell open then, slowly, he turned to Anthony while he tightened his lips firmly and set his jaw.

Anthony's grin fell away as he stared into the frosty blue eyes. Swallowing hard, he decided retreat was best and pressed his bay into a gallop.

"That boy ..." Scott let it go at that, he had no words. Then, he looked over at Johnny and as one, they burst out laughing.

******

Half an hour later, the Lancer brothers walked into the great room ready to teach a certain boy some manners. What they found surprised them both.

Anthony was sitting next to Murdoch at his desk, their heads together as they seemed to study something with great interest.

Scott gave his brother a shrug then stepped closer. "Anthony, have you confessed your sins to Murdoch, yet?"

The boy started, surprised to find them both standing there. He frowned, not understanding Scott at first then, he remembered. "Oh, uh, no, I forgot."

"What's so interesting?" Johnny asked as he perched on a corner of the desk.

"Anthony's school information came today. They sent some brochures along with admission information. We were just going through it. Now, what's this about confessing?" Murdoch's gaze turned to the boy as he eyed him critically.

Scott rounded the desk and stood between the two of them. "It's nothing really, Sir. Let's have a look at those brochures."

"Why don't we take them to the sofa so we can all see," Murdoch suggested even as he stood to do that very thing.

Johnny watched them all convene, their heads down as they shared the information. He sighed and swung his leg, completely uninterested. He'd hoped Anthony would be, too, but it looked like the kid was totally into all that paper.

Murdoch's head came up as he looked for his other son. "Johnny, come over here. This concerns you, too."

No, it doesn't, he wanted to say. "I'm gonna get cleaned up first. Wouldn't want to get dirt all over all that official lookin stuff." He managed a grin then headed for the stairs. It didn't escape his notice that his brother never even raised his head. He figured that meant Anthony really did want to go to school.

******

Once in his room, Johnny headed to the wash basin, wondering what the hell was wrong with him. He should want this for Ant. He should want his brother to do well. And he did. He just wished it was right here at Lancer. What's wrong with being a rancher? I like it. We used to like all the same things. He sighed as he dried his face. But, we're not kids anymore. People change. He knew that well enough.

He looked at his reflection in the mirror and made a face at himself. "You're an idiot, Lancer. Just be happy for the kid. It's a sight better than you ever had a chance at."

He dropped his head and shook it, figuring he was about loco talking to himself in the mirror. No matter how he really felt, he knew he had to act happy for Ant. The boy had to be able to make his own choice without worrying about anyone else's feelings about it. He was probably the only selfish bastard in the world who didn't want his kid brother to get an education.

No, that's not true. He just didn't want it to be so far away. Then again, he sighed loudly, could be worse. He could be going to Harvard or some other place thousands of miles away. San Francisco wasn't so bad. He could go there and visit the boy from time to time. And Ant could always come home on breaks. Sure, it's gonna be fine.

He squared his shoulders and nodded his head, making the decision to stop being so selfish and just be happy for Ant. He opened the door to find Anthony, hand in the air ready to knock, standing there.

The boy walked on in and plopped on the side of the bed. "You okay?"

"Sure, why wouldn't I be?"

He shrugged. "Don't know. Seemed like you didn't want to look at the school papers."

Johnny smiled at him then walked over and sat beside him. He put an arm around Anthony's shoulders. "Nah, I just wanted to get some of the dirt off first. How's it look?" The smile told him everything he needed to know.

"I wasn't sure what to expect but, it looks really interesting, Johnny. They have all these pictures of buildings their students designed. I'd really like to go up there and take a look. Mr. Lancer says you and Scott can take me, if you want."

Johnny smiled at him. "Of course I want! I can't wait to get a look at this place. You know, it's going to have to pass my inspection before I can let you stay there. I mean, we're not gonna settle for some two-bit school."

Anthony laughed and poked him lightly in the ribs. Then, the boy grew quiet. "I'd miss you bad if I went away."

"It's not that far, Ant. I can come see you and you can come home when school's out for holidays and summer. You'll be here more than you realize. You do want to go, don't you?"

The boy looked up, his eyes shining with excitement. "Yeah, I do."

Johnny nodded and patted his back. "Then, I guess we'd better go downstairs so I can get a look at all this great stuff!"

Anthony bolted off the bed and was out the door in one second. Johnny held back, watching him go and feeling a twitch of pain in his chest. He sighed and pulled himself up then followed.

******

Johnny was quiet during the evening meal. For that matter, so was everyone else except Anthony. No one could get a word in edgewise, it seemed. Johnny had never seen his brother so excited about anything before. He knew more than ever, this was the right decision.

Once the meal was over, Anthony seemed to run out of steam and he went to bed early. Johnny sat with his family in the great room, staring at his glass of tequila. He sighed out then looked over at his father. Softly, he said, "I didn't think it was going to cost that much."

Murdoch nodded. "Neither did I but, we'll manage, son."

Johnny shook his head and leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees and letting his glass dangle from his right hand. "No, Murdoch. I can't ask you to do that. Either one of you."

"How else can you do it, brother? We all want this for Anthony and we've both already volunteered to help with the finances."

"I don't want this hurting the ranch. I'll figure something out."

"Like what?" Murdoch asked. "Son, we want to help."

"I appreciate that, old man, but, I'm not gonna let you put this ranch in a pinch. I'll get the money."

"How?" Scott asked.

Johnny leaned back, a wicked grin on his face. "Oh, I could always find some part time work - for short money."

"That's not funny, young man," Murdoch growled.

Scott snorted then, laughed. "Actually, Sir, it is pretty funny."

Johnny laughed softly at that then grew serious. "I can get him started then, figure out the rest." He glanced at his father, knowing what he was about to say may loosen a few shingles on the roof. "If nothing else, I can sell you back my third."

Murdoch stared hard at him and watched his son drop his eyes. He relented in his anger but not his determination. "Son, that is never going to happen. Anything I have is yours and your brother's. WE will make this happen for Anthony and that's the end of it."

"Murdoch ..."

"I said that's the end of it, John. Now, I'm going to bed. Goodnight, boys."

Scott smiled at his father as he walked past him. "Goodnight, Sir."

******

It grew quiet once more when Murdoch left the room. Scott stared at the floor for a long moment. "I can crunch the numbers, Johnny. It's a lot of money but it doesn't have to be paid all at once. We can work out a system. Put a little back every two weeks or so. We just need to figure out how much, that's all." He leaned over and nudged his brother. "I do know a little something about accounting."

Johnny had his head down and wouldn't look at his brother. He slid off the sofa and walked to the hearth, his back to Scott. Finally, in a low voice he spoke. "You know, I never thought about education. Not ever. Not for myself and, not for Anthony, either. I guess I just didn't have any idea." He sighed heavily. "I never meant for this to be a burden to either one of you but, it has been since the start."

Scott got to his feet and went to stand behind his brother. "It isn't a burden, Johnny. Sometimes, there are things you have to do for your family. Like, going to a party when you don't feel like it or, doing a favor you don't really want to. And sometimes, you do things for your family for the simple joy of giving. Murdoch and I would like to share this joy with you and Anthony."

Johnny smiled at that. "He made it sound like an order."

"It was an order."

Johnny turned to find his brother smiling at him. "I just don't want either of you thinking you

******
have
******
to do this because of me."

Scott sighed and put a hand on Johnny's shoulder. "I like Anthony very much and, he's grown on Murdoch even though the boy is still afraid of him. We want to do this for

******
him
******
, Johnny. We'd both like to see him succeed with something he really loves doing. What I'm worried about is you and how you're going to handle his leaving."

Johnny lowered his head again. "I didn't want it to happen. I didn't want him to leave. I still don't but, I know it's what's best for him. It's what he wants, too, so, I can't be against that. Besides, I figured out it's not the end of the world and, he can always come home if he wants."

"You know, he's never going to leave you in heart. Even when he's married with kids of his own, he's still going to spend time with his big brother - the hot shot rancher." Scott grinned. "And his big brother's big brother - the entrepreneur."

Johnny laughed and looked up at his brother. "I just hope I'm as good a brother as you are, brother."

"Stop that." Scott laughed and tapped him on the cheek.

******

THREE MONTHS LATER

"Well, I think that's everything," Johnny said as he set the last bag by the door.

Anthony stood in the middle of the small room and sighed. "Yeah, guess so."

Murdoch stepped in from the hallway and pressed an envelope into Anthony's hand. "Don't miss any of your classes. Don't start hanging around a bad crowd. You're here to learn not play. If you need anything, send a wire. If you're having trouble with any of your classes, they have tutors available. Don't be afraid to ask for help." He stopped, unable to think of anymore words of wisdom then, nodded and patted the boy on the cheek. "Well, we'll wait for you downstairs, Johnny."

Once they could no longer hear his receding footsteps, the three young men starting laughing. Scott walked up to Anthony and put a hand on his shoulder. "It's funny but, he's right, you know. I can't think of anything else except one thing. As tempting as it will be, don't let a pretty girl keep you from your studies. You can still enjoy yourself without sacrificing grades."

Anthony nodded and smiled. "Thanks for everything, Scott. You've been really good to me and I won't forget it."

Scott smiled and patted his shoulder then looked at his brother. With a nod, he walked out of the room.

Johnny watched him go with a small smile on his face then turned to Anthony. "Well, this is it. You're starting the next part of your life. I know it's all exciting and, maybe, a little scary but, you're gonna be fine. Just ... watch your temper, Ant. Promise me that."

The boy made a face at him. "I will, Johnny."

He reached out and ran a hand down the side of Anthony's head. "Haircut looks good. Keep it that way. If you need any money or, anything at all, let me know. And, I mean anything, Ant. If there's

******
any
******
trouble..."

"Johnny, I'll be fine. I just ..." he hung his head and sucked in a breath. "I'll miss you."

Johnny pulled him into a hug. "I'll miss you, too, hermano. Keep up your Spanish even if it's just to yourself. Write to me in Spanish, okay? It'll drive Scott nuts." He laughed along with Anthony then pulled away, yet, held onto the boy's arms. "This is hard but sometimes, the right thing is the hardest thing to do. I'll see you at Thanksgiving, though." He could think of nothing else to say so, he turned and walked to the door.

"Johnny?"

He stopped and turned back.

"Nobody could teach me more than you have."

Johnny bit his lip and nodded. Managing a smile he turned and walked out before he made a fool of himself. In the hallway, he stopped and sighed then turned back. "I love you, kid."

"I love you, too, hermano."

******

On the sidewalk, Murdoch and Scott waited anxiously for their boy. Both knew how hard this was going to be for Johnny. Scott turned to regard his father.

"Need I ask what was in the envelope?"

Murdoch glanced at him and shrugged. "Just a little spending money. Every young man should have a few dollars in his pocket, Scott."

Smiling, Scott nodded, knowing it was probably more than 'a few dollars'. A thought occurred to him that Murdoch was somehow making up for Johnny with Anthony but, he really just didn't want to go there right now. "He'll be alright. Johnny, I mean."

"I know," Murdoch sighed out. "It's not easy letting go."

Johnny walked out of the building just then and glanced back up. He knew he couldn't see Ant's room from here as it was on the other side of the building. Still, he looked anyway. "Not a bad place. Small but not bad."

"I think it's plenty for a student," Scott assured him.

"Yeah, keep him from doing things he shouldn't be doin in there." Johnny turned to them and grinned.

Murdoch put an arm around him. "Are you alright, son?"

"Yeah, it's hard but, I'll see him in a couple of months. Now, I just have to worry about him fallin for some girl. Thanks a lot, Scott. I hadn't thought of that!"

The man in question walked over with a smile. "Always happy to help, brother. How about we grab some lunch before the train? I hear the seafood in this town is very good."

"It is. Come on, boys. I know just the place." Murdoch started down the street then paused. "Maybe, we should get Anthony."

Johnny thought about that for a minute. "No, we've said our goodbyes. It'd be too hard on him to do it again. Besides, I have a suspicion he's feelin his oats right about now." A wicked grin came to his face as he stepped into the outstretched arm of his father.

Scott laughed, knowing that was most likely true as he slipped under his father's other arm.

 

 

~end~
2009

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